Sunday, September 25, 2005

The House Project: I Can See The Light At The End Of The Tunnel!

Or is that a sewer pipe?

I went up there this afternoon to see how it was progressing. The septic tank guy was there on Saturday, and here you can see the excavation for the tank, about 150 feet down the hill from the house.

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Here's the drain pipe leading down the hill from the house.

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Here's where the drain pipe leaves the house.

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The fitting coming up to sidewalk level is there because lots of people up there own RVs, and it is convenient to have a fitting that lets them drain directly from the RV tank into the septic. We don't own an RV, and I can't imagine that we ever will, but it only added $25 to add this fitting, and perhaps a future owner will find it helpful. It also looks like it might make it simpler for a plumber to snake the line.

I'm not sure what this little piece of concrete is all about.

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It is either part of the septic tank system (based on its location), or it is a Cubist reinterpretation of R2D2. [UPDATE: I'm told that this is the distribution unit that directs output equally to the different leach field lines.]

Here's the backup generator, still waiting to be hooked up and located (probably out at the edge of hill, to reduce noise). It is rated at 7 kW (when running on LP gas), with automatic switchover in the event that we lose grid power, and it starts itself automatically every week to make sure everything is in good working order.

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The furnace seems to be completely installed.

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Again, the view out the front is about the worst view we have. (It will get better once the scrap is cleaned out and the grass goes in.)

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Unfortunately, the house now has temporary construction doors--and the locks are now actually operational, so I can't get into the house--reduced to peeking in the windows, like some sort of Construction Peeping Tom!

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This interesting effect was because the reflective surface of the glass acts as a mirror--and these were the parts that I wasn't able to shade.

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The construction crew seems to be clearing out some of the space on the west side of the garage, so that we can have a walkway over there.

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The roof shingles are on top, waiting to be hammered into place.

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Last house project entry.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

House Project: Whoops! Over Budget!

We are running about $40,000 over the initial budget. Using all tile instead of carpet added about $10,000. The appliance budget was about $4500 too low (because of the jetted tub). The concrete budget was $3000 too low (labor for the stampings). The garage door budget came in $1000 too low (we added a second garage door at the back). The original budget didn't include the backup generator ($1800). We hadn't originally planned a sprinkler system--which makes sense for fire suppression, so there's $2000. The extra $1400 I spent on more insulation I think was a good investment, but it is amazing how all these little things add up.

Time to make contributions through the PayPal button! And perhaps all the people who have given up on the Gulf Coast and moved to Boise (which is the second safest city for weather in the U.S.) will drive up housing prices enough here to increase the equity in our current house in Boise.

UPDATE: Here's the biggest cause of the overrun: just as they were starting to put up the framing, my wife and I suddenly realized that similar houses he had built felt cramped because they had eight foot ceilings, so we switched to nine foot ceilings, and 2x6 walls, instead of 2x4 walls (for improved insulation). This doesn't sound like much, but an extra foot of ceiling means taller studs, more sheet rock--and on a 2300 square foot house, it adds up quickly.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Speaking Of Alternative Oil Sources

Instapundit mentions that oil shale--a trillion barrel Plus source located in the United States--is looking quite promising with oil prices so high. (The Canadian oil sands, which I gather are a geologically similar format, are already being commercially exploited.) A couple of years back, I blogged about Changing World Technologies, a company that believed that it could turn sewage, garbage, turkey guts--in short, almost any organic material--into oil at the equivalent of $8 to $12 per barrel.

According to their web site, they are currently producing oil from turkey guts in Missouri--and the energy to run the plant is coming from the oil that they produce. Their description is a little weasel-worded, but makes it sound as though they get 100 BTUs of energy for every 15-20 BTUs consumed.

Now, a lot of magazines were hyping Changing World Technologies as the future two years ago, when oil was half the price it is now. I've asked a couple of times for an update--are they producing oil from turkey guts and sewage at a price that is competitive with current world oil prices? I've received no answer. If Changing World Technologies made enough sense for people like Warren Buffett to invest in it several years ago, when oil was cheap, I would think it would make even more sense today. So, what's the story?

UPDATE: I received a lot of feedback from readers. One pointed me to a story in Fortune that said that it is turning out to be a less of a bargain for energy production than first thought:
The key question is whether the end products are pure enough and cheap enough to compete with other biofuels and petroleum. Until recently it seemed that turkey fuel would score big on both counts. CWT saw opportunity in the mad cow scare of December 2003. Expecting U.S. authorities to ban the feeding of animal offal to livestock—a practice linked to mad cow disease—CWT and ConAgra formed a joint venture that built a $30 million plant in Carthage, Mo. The venture assumed that nearby turkey processors would provide lots of free turkey waste. Last year the Carthage plant began selling its output to a Midwestern manufacturer, which buys it for roughly $40 a barrel (25% less than conventional fuel) and uses it to run its plant. The Carthage factory now produces 400 barrels a day.

That's a drop in the ocean of U.S. oil consumption, currently running around 20 million barrels a day. But making more turkey fuel isn't as hard as nailing down its costs. It turns out that feeding animals to animals remains standard practice in the U.S., despite a modest tightening in the regulations last year. So instead of being free, turkey leftovers cost $30 to $40 a ton, a hefty expense considering that one ton of turkey yields just two barrels of oil.

And turkey fuel has so far been excluded from biofuel tax breaks. In October, Congress passed a bill that gave biodiesel, which is also derived from biological material, such as soybean oil and animal fat, but has a different chemical composition, a tax incentive that translates into a $1-a-gallon break on production costs. "The good news is that the government finally gave an incentive for producing fuel from waste," says CWT chairman and CEO Brian Appel. "The bad news is that it narrowly defined the kind of fuel receiving the incentive."

As a result of those two setbacks, CWT's production costs have doubled, to nearly $80 a barrel, a crippling blow given that conventional diesel sells for about $50 a barrel. CWT is staying afloat, thanks to a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. But the company's next operation is likely to be in Europe, where food processors will pay to have CWT dispose of animal offal and where most governments offer tax incentives to biofuel producers. Appel is negotiating to license CWT's technology to Irish Food Processors, one of Europe's largest, which plans to build a biofuel facility by the end of 2006.
Still, this might make sense as an alternative to filling garbage dumps with waste, but we still aren't quite at the point where it is cost-effective for producing oil.

Another reader pointed me to this article from some sort of environmental organization--who you would expect to be quite supportive of a method of disposing of waste. The author purports to have a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Yale--but some of his statements make me wonder about his degree, because it betrays a real ignorance of chemistry:
Now along comes one more scheme for playing on the gullibility of a public that is so dumb it actually believes that a complex technological society, such as ours, can rip and strip the earth of all its resources, use them transiently, then somehow destroy them all, and still continue to leave a thriving planet for future generations. As though the earth is some kind of a magic lamp we can rub and the genie will continue to bestow upon us any gift we request. This concept is idiotic, and any company that seeks to effectuate the "getting rid of" part of this scheme is selling a bill of goods leading to planetary suicide. But this may not be sufficiently specific to your article to satisfy you.

I will back up to the beginning and pick apart the very heading of the article that began this all in Discover. It began with the heading "Anything into Oil" and proceeded in the article to flesh this out so: "The process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores. " Now in your article, you, or the claimants, hoping no doubt to have a prayer of passing the giggle test, have backed off a bit by only saying this much: "The company says its process works on tires, various hazardous wastes, and plastic as well as heavy metals. " Most emphatically none of this can pass the giggle test but let me ask you, do you understand what is being said here? You are saying that this company has a process which can turn steel into oil (just to select one of the more obvious idiocies). Do you know that steel is almost a pure element, namely iron, which no chemical process can convert to carbon? Are you familiar with the alchemist's search for transmutation in which they tried to turn base metals into gold? At least they didn't turn base metals into carbon and hydrogen, which is pretty much what oil is. This conversion just happens to contravene the laws of physics as presently understood. Is that a good enough indictment of the frauds being perpetrated by these PR mavens?
Except that Changing World Technologies has never claimed to convert steel into oil. They've made the claim that organic waste (turkey guts, sewage, wood, paper, plastic)--all of which are made of largely of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, with a little bit of phosphorous, sulfur, and nitrogen--can be converted into oil (which is just about entirely carbon and hydrogen). CWT has always been clear that the various trace minerals that come out of garbage are essentially scrap, and play no part in the production of oil. It is possible--even likely--that the energy required to do this transformation from garbage to oil won't work. But there's no claim of transmutation in CWT's materials. Either "Dr." Palmer isn't reading carefully, or his rage that someone is trying to solve the garbage and oil problem is taking precedence over his education.

Now let's look a little further, to the subheading "Technological savvy could turn 600 million tons of turkey guts and other waste into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year ". Apply a bit of that skepticism that journalism once relied on. How many pounds is 600 million tons. Multiply 600,000,000 by 2000 to get 1200 billion pounds. Now lets look at the oil. Depending on your definition of barrel, one of them weighs 300 to 400 pounds. So multiply 4 billion by 300 and you get 1200 billion pounds. What a strange coincidence! These phoneys say they can turn every pound of mixed water, dirt, rocks, paper, steel, acetone, tars, polyethylene, concrete (and oh, yes, turkey scraps too) into one pound of - are you ready for this - not just oil, not just a grease derivative, but light Texas crude. The loaves and fishes story has now been left in the dust. Jesus must be biting his nails with regret that he didn't think of this.
Uh, no. They have never claimed that they were goin to turn "dirt, rocks,... steel,... concrete" into oil. But paper (made largely of cellulose--carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen), acetone (again, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen), tars (hydrocarbons), polyethylene (again, hydrocarbons), and turkey scraps (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, mostly): all of these things are convertible to oil. It might be too expensive to do so, but it isn't impossible. This Dr. Palmer is either a fanatic, or didn't learn enough chemistry to be expressing opinions as an expert.

Oh! I was wondering why this guy knows so little about a subject in which he supposedly has a Ph.D.:
As a member of the Sonoma County Local Waste Management Task Force and a former chairman of the Sonoma County Hazardous Materials Management Commission, he has been extensively involved in local garbage politics as well.
Sonoma County: where multimillionaires race Ferraris, when they aren't praising Noam Chomsky's critiques of the evils of capitalism.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

House Project: Electrical Roughed In; Much of the Sheetrock; Insulation

There's a lot more done on it--and with all the windows in, and construction doors in place, there's a pretty significant shield from the wind once you are inside.

Here you can see that the exterior security lighting wiring is in place. You can also see that someone cut a hole for the wiring and fixture--and then realized: whoops! Fortunately, the siding, once in place, will hide this hole.

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Ditto, by the rear door of the garage.

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We have security light fixtures on all sides--and depending on switches, we can turn them completely off (for astronomy), turn them completely on (in case something goes bump in the night--it's good to have your target fully illuminated), or leave them in motion detector mode, where they detect something moving, and turn on. Paranoid? No, no, we grew up in Los Angeles. We are....careful. Yeah, that's the word we're going to use!

Here you can see hose bibs and external outlet wiring. Our current house has insufficient hose bibs, and in very poor places.

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The back porch is well under way--providing shelter from the rain.

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Here you can see some of the platform and piping for furnace and hot water heater in the garage. To my surprise, the view out the front garage door came out a lot more artistic than I expected, with Idaho State Highway 55 curving in the background, slightly diffused by distance.

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And here we have the portal into the fifth dimension.

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Actually, this is the access panel into the garage rafters. I had requested a pull down staircase to get into the rafters for storage--it looks like Scott may have planned with this in mind.

Sticking up out of the kitchen floor is the gas pipe for the island range.

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This picture from the family room came out badly exposed, because of too little inside, and too much light outside. I've fiddled with contrast and brightness to equalize things a bit, but I doubt that the result will be that wonderful. (You have to be there!)

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Second bathroom. The tub/shower combo is in place; everything else is waiting for final sheetrock before they install the sink and the toilet.

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This was an astonishgly non-descript picture of the master bedroom closet. It needs something to give some idea of scale--in some parts of California, you could rent it for $500 a month.

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This isn't much of a picture of the master bedroom, but it gives you an idea what a room looks like after the electrical outlet and switch boxes are installed, and the sheet rock is up.

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A better picture of the master bedroom, looking through the slider down into Horseshoe Bend.

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We came by these two ladders tangled together, as though they had just fallen asleep. My wife's comment: "So that's where stepstools come from!"

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The front of the house gets better looking by the day.

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Last house entry.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

House Project: Electrical, Green Submarine, & Master Bathroom

I went up Saturday morning to confirm the positions and numbers of outlets, switches, telephone, television, and Ethernet cabling. (Yeah, there are a couple of items where I can't use wireless, so I am making sure that there are CAT-5 cables from my office to my son's bedroom.)

I had mentioned previously that the LP gas tank, which looks like a green submarine, was now in the ground. Here's a picture.

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If a device travels underground, is it a submarine or a subterrane? If you bail out of a subterrane, do you worry about land sharks?

Here's the trench from the tank to the house, where the LP gas line feeds the kitchen, the water heater, and the outdoor barbecue spigot. I'm not quite sure where the backup generator will get its connection yet.

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Here's the master bathroom--in case you ever wondered what a bathroom looks like before it is fully dressed.

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If it looks a bit crowded--yeah, we may be overreacting to our current master bathroom, which is just wasting space. You spend all of about 30 minutes a day in there, at best. It doesn't have to be spacious.

Here you can see the east end of the house, where the exterior outlets are going to go, and the east hose bib. Our current house has two hose bibs, both set in very useless locations, so I was a bit specific about number and location.

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The weather has definitely changed here. I put on a jacket for a walk last night. It was positively brisk up at the new house Saturday morning--a welcome change after this long hot summer.

Last house project entry.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

House Project: Electrical, Mechanical, Raptors

We went up Wednesday evening to go through the house with the electrician and tell him where to put light fixture, how many outlets (above and beyond what the code requires), light switches, etc. The electrician is also our neighbor down the hill, which is certainly convenient.

Driving up Sunburst Road, it looks more and more like a house.

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You can see heating and air conditioning vents beginning to appear.

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Getting ready for the furnace and water heater.

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The windows are in! Ansco is the maker; these are a low-E glass, with about 58% transmission, the rest is reflected back out to keep the house from overheating in summer.

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Roofers hard at work, apparently without fear of falling.

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Here you can see the vent for the kitchen.

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Yesterday, tubs and showers were in the right rooms, but they weren't permanently placed yet.

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Raptor overhead!

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The builder asked me if we want to spend an extra $1000 to insulate under the floor--apparently not required by code in our county (yet). Since we are going to have tile floors, and it gets cold in winter, I'm sure that it will pay for itself in several years of reduced gas bills.

I went up there today to resolve a question about shower stall placement in bathroom three, and I wish that I had brought my camera. There was a swarm of plumbers and roofers at work, and the LP tank was being dropped into the ground.

One guy was dressed too nicely to be construction, so I asked if he was a building inspector. It turns out that he works for the insulation contractor. I asked him about the building code requirements: R-38 for the roof, and R-19 for the walls. I asked him what it would cost to go to R-50 for the roof--and since it was only about $420 more, I told him to go for it. My guess is that it will pay for itself in reduced heating and air conditioning costs in five years--and she that was about right, in this climate.

The last house project entry.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Oh Dear! More Intolerance of Diversity

There's a university. There's a professor of astronomy. There's a professor of "religious studies." They don't agree about this intelligent design thing--and one of them claims that the other one is trying to create a hostile work environment because of his research. Want to guess which one is the intelligent design advocate, and which one is circulating petitions that supposedly cause the "hostile work environment"?
An astronomy professor at Iowa State University who is nationally known for his research on intelligent design says the school has a phony view of diversity when it comes to the subject of the origin of life.

More than 120 ISU faculty members -- about seven percent of the faculty -- have signed a petition opposing the teaching of intelligent design as a scientific fact. "Whether one believes in a creator or not," reads the petition, "views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and not within the scope or abilities of science." The petition continues, urging all faculty members to "uphold the integrity of our university of science and technology, and convey to students and the general public the importance of methodological naturalism in science and reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science."

The petition is being circulated by Hector Avalos, who is an associate professor of religious studies at the Ames, Iowa, school. Astronomy prof Guillermo Gonzalez says because he is the only intelligent design proponent on campus, the petition is a "thinly veiled attack" on him -- and he claims it has resulted in a hostile work environment for him.

Sunday, September 4, 2005

House Project: Second Round of Water Tests

I had mentioned that the first water tests indicated very high lead levels: according to the test results, .100 mg/L. Anyway, the second set of results, after draining the water tank and refilling from the well, gives .015 mg/L of lead (or 15 micrograms per liter)--the EPA action level for lead in public water supplies. This is still a bit higher than I would like to see, so I guess that I will be buying reverse osmosis units for the kitchen and bathroom sinks. (There is apparently no whole house filtering system for lead that produces enough water.)

I am tempted to install a whole house particulate matter filter first, and run the tests one more time. If this lead is in a fine particular form, I won't need the reverse osmosis filters.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Proof That Middle School Students Write Screenplays

And not even particularly bright middle school students.

I am going to rant and rave about how incredibly bad Sci-Fi Channel's original movies are. I'm ranting and raving because I am tremendously resentful that someone pays people to make movies that are not only this dumb--but don't even have the saving grace of appealing to a mass audience. I have no experience writing screenplays, but I know that I could do a better job than this.

Warning: spoilers for a very bad movie; some detailed descriptions of some gruesome scenes in this incredibly bad movie.

One of these days, the Sci-Fi Channel is going to have a movie made for it that will be worth watching. So far, I am absolutely astonished at how tremendously bad these efforts are. I was bored out of my wits this evening, so I watched Pterodactyl, which was made this year. Tragically, this is right up there with half a dozen other Sci-Fi originals in how bad it is--right down there with Plan Nine From Outer Space, but lacking the camp.

Look, I'm not a stickler for accurate science in a sci-fi movie. I'm not even demanding that Sci-Fi original movies be consistent in their bad science. I am not demanding that they have good special effects--the original Star Trek series had terrible special effects, but because the stories were often thought-provoking, and sometimes showed some real human drama, I could ignore that.

I would just like the screenplays to be written by someone with some knowledge of:

1. Adults.

2. Real people, instead of juvenilely written stereotypes.

3. A sufficient knowledge of geology to laugh at the stupid volcano matte.

Pterodactyl starts out with all these hopeless stereotypes. There is the Earnest Professor of Paleontology--just good looking enough to make you think of Sam Neill in Jurassic Park--but because he is a Serious Scientist, he is only interested in objects that are millions of years old. Serious Scientists have no romantic or erotic attraction to the opposite sex--and certainly not to the beautiful and smart woman who is....

The Pretty Female Grad Student--but not a bombshell, and unlike the other females, she doesn't dress sexy or even attractively because then she wouldn't be a "serious" scientist in training. After many years of working for Earnest Professor, she finally gets across to him at the start of their fossil hunting trip that she would like their relationship to be unprofessional--and of course, being an Earnest Professor, he could never think of such a thing (but of course, this changes by the end of the movie).

There is the Big Bosomed Blonde Bombshell Undergrad Airhead (think Clueless but without the humor). She is completely and utterly useless, and her knowledge of paleontology is down below the Special Ops soldiers we meet later in the film. And you ask yourself, why has Earnest Professor brought not only undergraduates from the United States to help on this dig in Turkey--but an undergraduate who knows effectively nothing about paleontology?

There is Nerdy Undergrad Guy--whose dress, glasses, and mannerisms bring to mind Revenge of the Nerds--but it isn't funny. He's what a middle schooler would stereotype the smart kids at his school as--when they grow up.

Big Bosomed Blonde Bombshell, of course, has to strip off her shirt and shorts to go for a swim--by herself, in a lake in a country that she doesn't even know. (A Muslim country at that, where her swimsuit would probably get her either arrested, or raped.)

Earnest Professor is carrying a revolver on this expedition. While I appreciate that at least the screenwriters didn't feel the need to throw in anti-gun propaganda, do they really think that Earnest Professor was able to fly into Turkey with a handgun, and not have it confiscated?

The Special Ops guys are just a bit too stereotyped as well--right down to the female member of the team (yeah, right!) who seems to have spent too much time modeling herself on the very macho female Colonial Marine in the movie Aliens. But of course, since the movie was made by middle schoolers, she has a body that would shame a Vegas showgirl, and even olive drab can't hide it.

The Special Ops guys get involved early on with killing pterodactyls (after Big Bosomed Blonde Bombshell gets picked up and dismembered). But unlike real Special Ops, they can't seem to call in air support or even helicopter evacuation because of the "sensitivity" of the mission. They are arresting what seems to be a thuggish terrorist leader at the request of the Turkish government--but they can't call in air support for fear of offending...who? The Turkish government?

Pterodactyls are definitely a bit big to bring down with .223 and handgun ammunition--although Earnest Professor is blazing away repeatedly with that revolver. I think we see him reload once--and even then, this guy must be carrying ten or fifteen speedloaders. His shooting is remarkably accurate for someone who isn't aiming the gun--not even slightly.

Of course, real soldiers would have at least a few rifle/grenade launcher combos, and a grenade would solve the pterodactyl problem quite well, and perhaps open the plot up to some more subtle or interesting problem. grenades. Instead, the soldiers have this bizarre rocket launcher that you aim by putting on the virtual reality helmet, look at the target, and then fire--and the tracking system makes the rocket fly in loops, go around mountains, etc. before finally reaching and hitting old Leatherlips. But of course, they don't have very many of these wondrous rockets. This way, our screenwriters can figure out how to create tension.

There's a lot of blood spurting, especially when the pterodactyls take someone's head, and leave either the body, or grab just the upper part of the body, leaving everything from the waist down. Now remember: the people are just standing there--and the swooping pterodacytl grabs the head or upper body, and the body just breaks apart. This can't happen. It is grossly unrealistic (along with very gross). Realism can be disgusting, but this isn't even realism.

Later we see one of the soldiers who has been grabbed and taken back to the pterodactyl's nest to feed the babies. He's been there, injured, and subject to baby pterodactyl ripping for at least 30 minutes, maybe more. They have ripped his abdomen and chest open, and they are pulling out organs to feed upon--and he is conscious, and expressing some discomfort. Not only was this an unnecessary scene, but it was utterly impossible.

At this point (or perhaps several paragraphs back), you are probably asking yourself, "Why does Clayton watch such bad movies, and why does he care so much?" For one simple reason: someone is actually being paid to write screenplays this bad, and someone else is actually being paid to make movies this bad. I know that I can do a better job.

I think that almost anyone who has spent more than a few months with adults could do a better job of creating real characters--not stereotypes. You don't have to know a great deal about our military to see the glaring holes in this film's weaponry. Anyone with any knowledge of guns would see the incredible flaws in Earnest Professor's handgun use--as well as his apparently unlimited supply of ammunition that he is carrying around.

Pterodactyl is, in my experience, pretty representative of Sci-Fi Channel's original movies. I would hope that films of this tremendously low caliber indicate nepotism at work. The alternative is that someone at Sci-Fi Channel just blows money for no particular reason.