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JournalistIAmA(n) American journalist who was sent to prison for two years. AMA

Mar 22nd 2018 by matthewkeys • 13 Questions • 76 Points

I am part of an international team that studies Archaeopteryx with microtomography using synchrotron light. Archaeopteryx is a feathered dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of Bavaria in Germany. We just found out that the cross cuts of its wing bones look remarkably like those of modern birds and interpreted this as evidence for active flight. However, we also recalled that the skeleton of Archaeopteryx was not equipped with the advanced flight adaptations that all present-day flying birds share. Furthermore, the recent years have uncovered evidence for various previously unrecognised aerial strategies that were adopted by early bird-like dinosaurs. This led us to the conclusion that Archaeopteryx, which remains among the oldest of them, must have represented one of many such evolutionary experiments of dinosaurian flight that ultimately went extinct, leaving only the flight of living birds today. Tomography in general - and synchrotron microtomography in particular - continues to unlock new possibilities for non-destructive and three-dimensional visualisation of important fossils. This promises much for the future of studying the past!

I said a few words on Science Friday and enjoyed a good talk with Dave from Palaeocast just now.

Proof

EDIT: Thank you all very much for having joined me here to talk about Archaeopteryx! I will have to return to finishing my preparations for my defence later this week but hope to have sufficiently addressed your interesting questions!

Q:

Been following your work since the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. Must say that my Twitter feed has been really quite for the last 2 years so I'm certainly glad you're back.

My question: What are your plans for the future? Will you continue with your freelance work in the social media world or do you see yourself working back at a big company like you did before with Reuters?

A:

Hi Dennis, I also like bones! I practice orthopedic surgery - many patients suffer degenerative conditions around their joints, but they differ in weight bearing and non-weight bearing joints (ie- knee vs. shoulder). Both get arthritis, but for different reasons. When deciding if a particular species could fly, do you look for degenerative bony sequela related to the stresses of attempted/achieved flight?


Q:

Thanks for the compliment! I’m glad to be back too.

You’ll probably remember how tenacious my social media activity was years ago. I plan on being present, but I don’t plan on throwing myself into it as much as I did before. Being online constantly was good for my audience, but bad for my health. I’m more interested in finding a balance between the two now, and that means unplugging when I can.

I’ve already made a personal policy of not going on social media during the weekends. Obviously, that policy comes with some degree of flexibility depending on what’s happening in the world, but it’s one I’m not going to break often if I can help it.

There’s a lot of people who move fast on social media these days, but instant reaction is not always good when it comes to really understanding what’s going on. Slowing down will be better for me and for my audience. It means delivering better coverage to followers by thinking critically about what’s going on and looking at stories with more depth.

A:

Hello fellow bone enthusiast! Limb bones evolve to cope with the stresses and demands they are subjected to and can even remodel themselves to a certain degree during life, depending on how they are used. We did not find signs of degeneration but really aimed at interpreting these evolutionary and adaptive modifications in comparison with understood archosaurs to explain what they signify.


Q:

What are your thoughts on Anonymous and how do you feel about being used as a scapegoat by the group?

A:

Based on a quick Google search it seems like this species was bipedal: given that the shoulder ortholog would be non weight bearing, I would imagine that the stresses would either be related to flight with the “wing” in full abduction, or lack of flight with the joint in adduction; did you find reciprocal changes in joint morphology suggestive of either?


Q:

Based solely on my own observations at the time (from November 2010 to early January 2011), there was a lot being reported on Anonymous that barely scratched the surface of what was going on. People were led to believe that the participants of the group causing the most mayhem were the dozens/hundreds who executed DDoS attacks on websites by downloading and using the LOIC. That was definitely disruptive, but the worst mayhem was caused by a small group of about 30 highly-skilled hackers who congregated in a secret chat room that was designed to be by invitation only and hidden from the public listing on the IRC server.

Using a source, I was able to observe some of what went on in this room. What I observed later became the basis for news stories written by Adrian Chen and Parmy Olson and others. I wrote a story about this for Reuters some years later, but the company has since deleted the story from their website with no apparent explanation why. Hector Monsegur and all of those he unmasked were in that room.

Basically, hundreds got credit for things that a very small handful of people actually did. Maybe there’s more to that story, but that was what I took away based on my observations at that time. I lost interest in the story after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and I moved on.

Can you elaborate on the scapegoat part?

A:

Because our parameters are expressed in the middle of the bone shaft, we have not considered the humeral articulation with the glenoid yet. As you know, the shoulder girdle does not articulate rigidly with the axial skeleton, and it was displaced in most specimens of Archaeopteryx. It is therefore quite difficult to reliably reconstruct its orientation with respect to the rest of the skeleton, which has important implications for the mobility of the shoulder joint itself. Furthermore, we know that Archaeopteryx descends from a group of non-flying dinosaurs with relatively large arms and hands, which were presumably used quite intensively as well. Considering this, untangling all these influences towards specifying the exact function(s) of the forelimbs is far from straightforward.


Q:

Hmmm 🧐 idr any anonymous hacks while you were locked up, AND you seem to know a lot of inside info 🤔 😂

A:

How do I become a bone enthusiasts like you? I wish to learn the way of the bone


Q:

This is how I respond, and then I move on.

A:

Bone enthusiast is not something that you become, it is something that becomes you ;)! Familiarising yourself with the varieties and all the interesting little details of bone is a good start. If it captures you then, there is no way back!


Q:

What do you plan on doing now?

A:

How on Earth did you manage to get a PhD on Archaeopteryx? Extremely high GPA?


Q:

Right now I’m living at a halfway house and will be until the end of April when my sentence is officially completed. After that, I’ll be going home and looking for work in the industry. I also plan on spending a lot of time with my family; we have two years worth of lost time to make up for.

A:

I was at the right place at the right time! I had started working on scans of Nothosaurus under the supervision of Paul Tafforeau. He was also conducting several quite successful tests on Archaeopteryx and he invited me on board!


Q:

I wonder what your agent will think of you using a computer device to access Reddit and do this AMA, because on your public offender list and rules related to your release it specifically states no unauthorized use of such devices. Are you breaking the rules of your supervision right now to do this AMA??

A:

So Lucky! I went straight to google for Nothosaur, I see you did both Nothosaur AND Archaeopteryx! http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0188509 Any advice for a future PhD student who would like to work in paleontology? Is it all just luck?


Q:

Technically, I’m not on supervised release right now. Can you link to my specific “public offender list and rules?” Because I’m not familiar with that document.

A:

In order to exploit luck, you have to be prepared to recognise it! My advice would be to start getting involved with research as soon as you can. This may seem intimidating at first, but it is actually very accessible if you start contributing to studies led by more experienced people. Along the line your own experience, knowledge, and confidence will grow, and you will start to see possibilities for new or underappreciated research. This is the moment you will feel comfortable putting your very own studies together in a team of supportive experts. This, my friend, is one of the most rewarding endeavors we fossil enthusiasts can pursue. Good luck with the voyage!


Q:

According to bop.gov that let's you search current people in the Federal Prison system you are still listed under Active Supervision at RRM Sacramento and boilerplate supervision rules for any computer related offense is restriction of computer related devices. I'd check with your agent, whoever there to make sure you aren't currently breaking any rules that would put you back in until your mandatory release date buddy.

A:

Hi Dennis, how large was the dinosaur sample you brought to the ESRF?


Q:

Thanks for the concern buddy.

A:

Assuming you are not asking me about the modern dinosaurs, birds, it was actually quite limited. Because we were able to get a lot of information from literature, we "only" needed to scan three specimens of Archaeopteryx, two bones from Compsognathus, and an ulna of a dromaeosaurid.


Q:

It's been quite a two years. How do you feel about current events? How much did you learn in prison?

A:

But was it a full Archaeopteryx, or only a part? Was it embedded in something?


Q:

Watching the world from the margins was an interesting experience. As a reporter, my first instinct was to react, but you can’t really do that there. So I took it all in, as much as I could stomach, and eventually learned to consume less of it. With all the craziness going on, you sort of have to or you’ll go crazy yourself.

There’s a lot going on in the criminal justice/criminal justice reform space that doesn’t even register with most people. That’s understandable — criminals are easy to forget about, and it is often hard to sympathize for them. With very few exceptions, nobody wants to be a criminal. For some, what they did was a knee jerk reaction, but for most it was simply a matter of survival. But they earned their spot with the choices they made.

Still, a lot is going on that will have a detrimental effect on the people we as a society choose to lock up. What people tend to forget is nearly all of those people we lock up will eventually be released. How they are treated while incarcerated will have a huge effect on the kind of person they are when they are released back into society. Most of those who are incarcerated are neglected in one way or another — they aren’t receiving the mental health or physical health treatments they need, or they’re not getting a good education. Almost nobody redesigned adequate transitional services to prepare them for reentry. If you neglect inmates, of course they’re going to relapse when they’re out.

This actually isn’t the fault of the prison system. Guards, wardens and even the BOP seem to agree that more needs to be done. It is on lawmakers and administration officials to make prison and criminal justice reform a priority. It is on voters to hold those with decision power accountable — citizens really do have a lot of influence on the recidivism rate.

A:

All fossils of Archaeopteryx are preserved in and on thin limestone plates. This was a particular challenge for tomography to overcome, but the expertise of the ESRF managed to circumvent this problem. We scanned particular parts of two nearly-complete Archaeopteryx specimens and one that is only represented by a right arm skeleton. This specimen is appropriately referred to as the "Chicken Wing" (especially the arm looks very bird-like on first glance!).


Q:

Outside of the things you can purchase, how was the food at your particular facility? Looking at images online, the food can vary from:
* children's cafeteria food
* I wouldn't feed that to my dog
* Not enough calories to survive

A:

Has there been similar work done on other similarly adapted dinosaurs (e.g. micro raptor) and what are the results and how are they patterned?


Q:

Prison food isn’t supposed to be gourmet cooking. The food is nutritionally fine. The prison orders enough of it to make sure nobody goes hungry. People complained about the food all the time, but that’s prison for you.

Inmates stealing food from the kitchens and warehouses are largely responsible for nutritional deficiencies as far as meals go. So people do wind up going hungry. There were nights when I did.

A:

Not yet, and unfortunately such material was not available to us during this study either. Nevertheless, I am also very curious to see what the addition of such taxa could tell us. One problem is that most of the relevant Chinese material is even more crushed than that of Archaeopteryx. This makes reliable retrodistortion a lot more challenging but I would definitely be happy to give it a try if I receive the opportunity.


Q:

What was prison like?

A:

I understand. I hope you'll get the opportunity to try.

To follow up, how many similarly adapted dinosaurs are currently known and how would you predict (based on skeletal morphology, or feather morphology in the case of micro raptor) that these would compare to your results concerning Archaeopteryx?


Q:

It sucked. The staff were pretty friendly towards me, as were the inmates (except for the constant harassment for being gay) but the institution is an arm of the government, which comes with a level of some inherent dysfunction.

A:

The most similar to Archaeopteryx is Jeholornis from the Cretaceous of China. This dinosaur resembles Archaeopteryx in more ways than one, including an inferred preference for running around, but had fewer teeth, more strongly fused hand bones, and a shoulder that allowed for more upward mobility of the wing. We therefore think it was a better flyer than Archaeopteryx although it was still not particularly well-equipped for the flight stroke of modern birds. Jixiangornis shows a slightly improved flight apparatus still but also retains the long "dinosaurian" tail. Virtually all other flying dinosaurs we know today, including birds, have a tail consisting exclusively of feathers.


Q:

How do you personally feel with the Trump administration's stance towards media?

How did your prison time change you and the way you think about your job?

A:

Being a person that professionally studies dinosaurs, what are the big pet peeves you have based on how dinosaurs are portrayed in pop culture/the media?


Q:

I want to answer your question first by introducing you to three people:

  • Jason Rezaian is a journalist with the Washington Post who was sentenced to prison by the Iranian government followed a sham trial in 2015 (his imprisonment began in 2014).

  • Nikolai Andrushchenko was a journalist who wrote pieces critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He died in a hospital following an attack that is believed to have been carried out by assailants with ties to the government there.

  • Leobardo Vazquez Atzin, a Mexican journalist who was killed earlier this week in an area known for drug violence. His death was the fourth involving a journalist in Mexico this year. Police and judges are often bribed in the country to look the other way when it comes to cases like this.

When you consider these cases — just three examples of the many that are out there — it’s a bit easier to shrug off the dumb things Trump tweets to distract and hijack the news cycle. I find it laughable when supposedly reputable journalists take it to heart and make out as if they are a victim who needs to be comforted when the president teases them. If you’re going to work in news, you need a thicker skin than that.

Having said that, it is troubling when Trump calls the press the “enemy of the people” and encourages his supporters to commit acts of violence against journalists. This is the rhetoric of a crazed dictator and it has no place in our democracy. Many good journalists have found their courage over the last two years and have committed to shining a light in the dark spaces of this administration.

A:

What an interesting question! Although I generally welcome any and all attention for extinct life that may invite people into the fascinating field of palaeontology, I must admit that I cringe whenever I hear somebody with authority and a hidden agenda say that dinosaurs really support whichever non-scientific doctrine he or she adheres to. This is especially dangerous when it comes to educating children, since they may not be able to start looking into fossils independently until it is too late for them to choose for a scholarly path that may have brought them where they wished to be.


Q:

If you could go back and do it over again would you still help Anonymous?

A:

Hi, Dennis! I work with museum collections and I'm finally taking paleontology and the professor I work with closely did a study on Deinonychus' (specifically Deinonychus antirrhopus) forelimb function and morphology and how it might be important for the development of avian flight.

Is there a laymens terms way you could explain the relationship between Archaeopteryx and Deinonychus? He uses Archaeopteryx as a comparative example often to support his research and it's a little over my head in hand morphologies of therapods

Edit: I would also like to know what museums or institutions you've researched at to study Archaeopteryx?


Q:

I’ve never helped anonymous.

A:

How very interesting! Archaeopteryx and Deinonychus are both members of the dinosaur group named "Paraves" or "near-birds". Within that group, Deinonychus falls within the dromaeosaurs (also called "raptors"), whereas Archaeopteryx is part of the other group, the "Avialiae".

Your professor's example is indeed very relevant, since it was exactly that line of reasoning that brought Prof. Ostrom in the 1970's to conclusion that a century-long old theory which had received little attention but is accepted today, namely that birds are dinosaurs, may actually be true!

If you look at the wrist of Deinonychus, you will find that the hand connects to the arm with a half-moon-shaped bone, which is also called exactly that (semi-lunate carpal). This bone allowed Deinonychus to sweep its hand to the side, which we ourselves cannot do. Archaeopteryx also had this bone, and in modern birds it is preserved as a similarly-shaped portion of a fused bone: the carpometacarpus. Exactly this anatomical aspect allows birds to fold their wings along their sides and over their back. Because it is present in both the raptors and the Avialiae, we suspect it was also present in the shared ancestor of those groups.

Edit: I would also like to know what museums or institutions you've researched at to study Archaeopteryx

My PhD project is officially accommodated within Palacký University in Olomouc (Czech Republic) but I have probably spend a little bit more time at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility because they have the best arrangements for studying these large data sets. Furthermore, my team has close relations with several museums and institutes in Germany that house Archaeopteryx specimens and/or are involved in Archaeopteryx research themselves.


Q:

At least two judges seem pretty convinced you did. Why did this misunderstand the evidence?

A:

Hi Dennis, how exactly does a synchrotron work in relation to your research?


Q:

We would like very much to believe that facts matter in our legal system (courtroom dramas tend to exacerbate this belief). But they don’t. Narratives do. The prosecution had the stronger, more-believable narrative. But they didn’t have the truth.

A:

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator in which electrons move around in a long circular tube, the storage ring, at high speeds. This produces synchrotron radiation that is released by electrons forced to circle its storage ring. Such so-called synchrotron light has certain properties that make it very suitable for a particular tomographical technique that rely on a phase shift created by differences in the rock rather than differential absorption by different materials in the rock and is capable of achieving much better contrast and detail in three-dimensional data sets than most conventional tomographical techniques. This is very important for palaeontology since the contrast between rock and fossil bone (which has essentially been converted to rock as well during fossilisation) is notoriously low in tomographical data. Using this technique was vital for non-destructively obtaining the reliable and high-quality imagery required for conducting the presented study.


Q:

What was their narrative vs the true narrative?

A:

What kind of costs are associated with a synchrotron scan of samples like this? How long does the scanning take?


Q:

Their narrative was pretty well documented. The truth will come out soon, but on the advice of my lawyers now is not the time to talk about it. (I know it probably sucks to be left hanging like this; I will follow up with you in a DM when the full account is published)

A:

The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility is based in France but shared by its member countries that all chip in to have a wide range of research opportunities available for their scientists. Research proposals from teams within these member countries are evaluated and the most promising studies will be granted beamtime to conduct the presented study. If a project is granted then the researchers themselves do not have to pay extra; such research is covered by the membership fees of their country. Besides proposed research there is also some in-house research being conducted, for example when a planned experiment is cancelled at the last moment. Although experimentation time is not cheap if you would have to pay for it straight up, the synchrotron is running 24/7, so using beamtime that would not be used otherwise does not amount to significant additional costs.

Scanning time depends strongly on the size and nature of the sample that you wish to scan. Making individual scans of small samples may only take about 10 minutes. However, obtaining good scans from larger samples (which is done by stitching numerous individual scans together) with a challenging composition can require acquisition times of 20 hours or more!


Q:

was prison like Orange Is The New Black?

ever hang with the Rolling Stones or throw a TV out a hotel window?

isn't it kind of uncool to share the password to your employer's computer in a hacker forum?

A:

Prison was not like Orange is the New Black. For one, there was a significant deficit of female inmates.

No, I did not hang out with The Rolling Stones (context to this question: my great uncle was the sax player for the band).

It is completely uncool, and that’s why I’ve never done it. As I said earlier, the full story hasn’t come out, but it will soon.


Q:

What was the worst experience you had whilst in prison?

A:

The worst single incident was when a prison guard kicked my partner out of visitation. A few days after the incident, I was told my partner could no longer visit me for the rest of the time I was there. We were finally reunited about two weeks ago after fourteen months of not seeing each other at all.

A few weeks after the incident, the prison froze access to my funds, which left me unable to contact my partner, my friends or my family. This went on for five months before the prison finally released access to my funds.

The worst sustained part about being in prison was the constant harassment for being gay. Just to be clear, I never felt physically threatened (except for one time, which was easy to blow off), but there were a lot of “jokes” at my expense and questions that were completely unreasonable. I was asked more than once if I had been raped and if that’s why I was gay. People asked me if I was worried about my partner being loyal (one person said he was “probably cheating” because “all gay men are promiscuous”). Often I was asked how I “knew” I was gay, and more than one person suggested I “try pussy” to see if it would “convert” me (I tried reversing this logic on them but it never seemed to work that way).

There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it except shrug it off. LGBT individuals are not protected citizens at the federal level and I was serving time at a federal prison. For that reason, I also could not challenge the visitation ban imposed on my partner because LGBT partners are not recognized as family members at the federal level. When you are gay in a federal prison you have no protection.


Q:

The dementors