Saturday, 27 September 2014

All Yesterdays: A Cognitive Shift In How We Look At Dinosaurs

All Yesterdays will make you love dinosaurs anew. The way we view dinosaurs, and the way that artists have depicted them, has changed greatly over the last century (and even over the last decade). Though a child of the 1980s, my love for dinosaurs started with hand-me-down dinosaur books from the 1960s and 1970s which depicted swamp-dwelling brachiosaurs and bulky, slow-moving biped hunters. At 10 years old my view of dinosaurs was changed forever by Jurassic Park (the book and movie, I was a bit of a JP junkie). Fast moving, sleek, powerful dinosaurs were now all the rage (thanks mainly to lots of paleontological research that my 10 year old self had no idea of!).

And now the shift begins again as, with newer evidence, we've begun to see feathered dinosaurs depicted. Yet... All Yesterdays points out what we are still missing... attempts, however speculative, to see dinosaurs as more than just bones, muscles and skin. Trapped by the near insurmountable lack of evidence of anything but bone and a few skin and feather impressions, scientists and artists have sometimes been guilty of failing to think about how dinosaurs would really have looked and behaved.

There is so much missing from the fossil record that this is quite unsurprising. The end of All Yesterdays presents us with how we might view modern day animals if all we had to go on was their fossilised bones. Darren Naish himself calls it "shrink wrapping" and gives a few examples on his blog here. Once you've let those imagines sink in you begin to see just how different dinosaurs probably actually looked compared to how we've been depicting them.

All Yesterdays presents fluffy dinosaurs, feathered dinosaurs that look like birds rather than feathered scaly dinosaurs, dinosaurs in extreme camouflage (their version of a plesiosaur [not a dinosaur I know!] lying silently on the sea floor disguised as coral is my favourite depiction of a marine reptile ever) and dinosaurs at play.

Almost everything in it is completely and utterly speculative. But it slams home just how inhibited and sterile our depictions have been up to now and how much more utterly beguiling the Mesozoic fauna probably was.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps: In Search of the World's Most Hideous Beasts by Dom Joly

A couple of years ago I read Joly's amazing "The Dark Tourist". It was at once informative and laugh out loud funny. Learning about the touristic "delights" of "taboo" destinations, such as discovering that you can ski in Iran, as an absolute joy. I guess Joly was hoping to recapture that perfect travel book balance again with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. Unfortunately he fails on one front.

This book is still laugh out loud funny. I was desperately containing snorts of laughter on the train to and from work. For that along it is worth the read, Joly has a way of seeing the world that makes his grumpy old man character seem endearing rather than tiring. However his "search" for some of cryptozoology's biggies (he calls them the "Big Six"), leaves a lot to be desired.

If you want to find out about the culture of foreign airports, basic infrastructure and how big a fool Joly sometimes felt as he gets himself into allsorts of scraps ("Are you looking for Ogopogo?" is all I'm saying!) then this is the book for you. If you want to know anything about the veracity of the tales about the "Big Six", look elsewhere.

He does take a video of a "sighting" of Ogopogo but he doesn't even take basic steps to try and work out what it really is. Here's a video that could, you never know, blow this case wide open. Or it could be some fish having a bit of a fight (which hey, might have been enlightening!). But he just moves on. He never makes it past the nearest village to Mokele Mbembe's purported location, he spends lots of time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki rather than actually looking for the Hibagon and he doesn't, understandably, get to the sort of altitudes in Nepal where the yeti is mostly reported from. And we hear more about his hot tub social encounters in Inverness than the Loch Ness monster.

It all felt very half-hearted and that just made it feel a little pointless. A shame really as it is still pretty hilarious.