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28 Mar 01:21

Dinosaur Whiskers?

by Brian Switek

Every day I’m home, I’m surrounded by cats. The clowder is rarely more than a few feet away while I tap away on the keyboard. One of them is lounging on the back of my chair as I write this, considering whether she wants to oust me from my seat or not. So you can believe me when I tell you that I’m very familiar with whiskers, and seeing feline faces all day got me wondering about whether one of my other favorite groups of animals sported stiffened structures on their faces, too.

Whiskers – technically called vibrissae in mammals – are an important part of my cats’ sensory arrays. When Margarita abruptly tears across the apartment for reasons I can only speculate about, her whiskers can tell her if she’s cutting to close to a wall so that she doesn’t run headlong into the doorway. And they’re certainly useful when she plays fetch. She fans her whiskers forward so that those hairs send vibrations back to the skin and she can orient her mouth just right to catch her “prey”, and the vibrissae on her arms help her triangulate the right angle of attack.

Such sensory structures aren’t unique to mammals, though. Some birds independently evolved feathers that act like whiskers.

While prominent feathers on birds’ faces might look showy, in many cases they actually carry alternate – or, at least, additional – functions. Simple, whisker-like feathers around the eye and nose can help keep out dust and dirt. And the motion of these bristle-like feathers can be felt in the skin, helping birds like the whiskered auklet navigate tight spaces. Now here’s where Velociraptor and company come in.

Non-avian dinosaurs keep getting fluffier and fluffier. Protofeathers and feather-like body coverings keep popping up all over the dinosaur family tree. While paleontologists have often focused on how these feathers may have been useful for insulation, display, and, in some cases, flight, the similarities between the ways my cats and whiskered auklets use their independently-evolved bristles made me wonder if predatory dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus might have had specialized, whisker-like feathers on their arms or faces to help them make precision movements of claw and jaw when taking down prey.

Bird facial feathers trap debris and can be touch-sensitive. Was the same true of non-avian dinosaurs? From Persons and Currie, 2015.

Bird facial feathers trap debris and can be touch-sensitive. Was the same true of non-avian dinosaurs? From Persons and Currie, 2015.

I wasn’t the only one entertaining such scenarios. In a new Evolution article, University of Alberta paleontologists W.  Scott Persons and Philip Currie speculate that some non-avian dinosaurs partially felt their way around the Mesozoic world with brushes of facial feathers. More than that, Persons and Currie suggest that the very first feather forerunners might have had more to do with touch than keeping warm.

Since the discovery of fluffy little Sinosauropteryx in 1996, paleontologists have centered on two different functions for the first feathers. A downy coat was probably useful for insulation, and, as reinforced by work on fossil feather colors as well as the anatomy of these structures, protofeathers could have been startling display feathers.

Each of these scenarios presents unresolved issues for feather origins. For protofeathers to be effective as insulation, Persons and Currie write, the fluff had to cover a significant part of the dinosaur. Perhaps fuzz really did start out this way, in swaths rather than as isolated wisps, but we need more exceptionally-preserved early dinosaurs to find out. And as for display, flashy dinosaur plumage is often said to be some sort of sexual or signaling structure without much further investigation. Given that paleontologists have been entertaining an ongoing debate about whether or not bizarre dinosaur structures can be considered signs of sexual selection, experts shouldn’t assume that what stands out to us was therefore the result of dinosaurian style preferences without more detailed investigation.

As an alternative, Persons and Currie suggest that feathers may have started as simple sensory structures. (They call them “bristles”, but paleontologists often use that as a general term for structures on dinosaurs like Psittacosaurus. Given the functional interpretation of the protofeathers, I’m going to keep calling the facial feathers whiskers here.) Cylindrical, whisker-like feathers on a non-avian dinosaur’s face may have had the dual benefits of trapping debris and providing another way to detect nearby prey or avoid smacking into a tree. From there, the researchers propose, additional fluff may have spread over dinosaurian bodies, eventually being co-opted to become warm coats, biological billboards, and structures useful for taking to the air.

While speculative, the idea that some dinosaurs had feathery whiskers isn’t outlandish. Today’s avian dinosaurs have feathers modified for this purpose, and perhaps some of their non-avian forerunners and relatives independently evolved the same structures. But the idea that whiskers were the original feathers is a little shakier.

No one, Persons and Currie point out, has found dinosaur whiskers yet. This might be because non-avian dinosaurs didn’t actually have them. But it may be that whiskers are only rarely preserved or haven’t been recognized just yet. For now, we can only hope that researchers stay on the lookout for possible dinosaur whiskers – and other odd plumage – as they continue to discover and study fossil dinosaurs.

The real test may be dinosaurs like Sinosauropteryx and Sciurumimus. These small dinosaurs had extensive coverings of simple protofeathers, but they haven’t yet shown any sign of whiskers on their arms or faces (where an enhanced sense of touch would be most advantageous). Either the structures haven’t been found or they were absent.

If the latter option is the case, it would be strange for carnivorous dinosaurs to evolve useful structures for detecting prey and then later lose those structures. Mammals offer a parallel case. The origins of hair are murky, too, but one hypothesis proposes that vibrissae were the first hairs. Rather than losing whiskers, though, mammals – particularly predatory beasts – retained them as fur covered the rest of their bodies. A lack of sensitive face feathers on archaic dinosaurs coated in fluff is a hurdle to the hypothesis that whiskers came first.

Whether dinosaurs had whiskers and what those plumes had to do with the origin of feathers are questions that may not be resolved for years to come. But there has never been a more wonderful and productive time for dinosaur paleontology. New finds and analyses are coming out at a rapid-fire rate, and Persons and Currie have formally articulated a hypothesis than can be checked against the fossil record. We’ve learned time and again that non-avian dinosaurs were stranger than we possibly could have imagined, and I wouldn’t be shocked if one day paleontologists came forward with whiskery, kitten-faced dinosaur.

[In a similar vein, I wrote about the possible acoustic properties of non-avian dinosaur feathers here.]


Persons, W., Currie, P. 2015. Bristles before down: a new perspective on the functional origin of feathers. Evolution. doi: 10.1111/evo.12634

28 Mar 04:00


by Jennie Breeden
01 Apr 17:28

Alana Dee Haynes

©Alana Dee Haynes

©Alana Dee Haynes

©Alana Dee Haynes

©Alana Dee Haynes

©Alana Dee Haynes

Alana Dee Haynes

01 Apr 13:33

Sad... Happy... Sad... Happy...

30 Mar 05:11



30 Mar 18:46

Paul Bowles

31 Mar 22:00

Upgrade Leftover Pizza to Gooey Mini-Calzones with a Waffle Iron

by Patrick Allan

A waffle iron can already help you create some tasty homemade pizza pockets with crescent roll dough, but now you can upgrade your existing leftovers too. In just a few steps, you can turn leftover slices of cold pizza into tasty mini-calzones.


29 Mar 17:39

MeFi: Giant Monster of Pancake Goodness

by storybored
31 Mar 15:54

Victor Hugo, painter?

by PZ Myers

I had no idea that he was skilled at more than writing novels, but apparently his drawings and paintings were quite good. This one is magnificent!

It’s titled “Pieuvre avec les initiales V.H.”, so I guess it’s a kind of self-portrait. Good looking fellow. It’s a good thing I have no talent, because if I did something similar, it would be something out of a nightmare, and you’d all go mad when I showed it.

31 Mar 16:12

Brain's 'gender' may be quite flexible: Mechanism that plays key role in sexual differentiation of brain described

During prenatal development, the brains of most animals, including humans, develop specifically male or female characteristics. But scientists have known little about the details of how this differentiation occurs. Now, a new study has illuminated details about this process. Researchers succeeded in transforming the brain of a female rat after an important developmental window had closed, giving it the characteristics of a male rat brain.
31 Mar 16:30


31 Mar 17:30

Eat the Mango (No, Not That One)

by Dan Nosowitz
by Dan Nosowitz


The end of March is still a dead zone for produce here in the Northeast, but in Mexico and further south to Peru, one of the world’s most diverse and most popular fruits, the mango, is beginning to enter one of its two seasons (the other is in early fall). Even though our neighbor to the south is one of the world’s biggest producers of mangoes—and Florida grows a pretty respectable number and hosts what looks like a delightful festival focused on the fruit—the mango is underappreciated and underused in the United States. This should be a crime! We should all be arrested!

If you live in a place without a substantial Indian or Mexican population, there’s a pretty fair chance the only mango you’ve ever seen is the Tommy Atkins: a large, red-green mango with a giant pit and a fibrous interior that gets stuck in your teeth. The Tommy Atkins is one of those accursed fruit varieties, like the Red Delicious apple, that is an insult to its brothers and should be banished from the planet. The Tommy Atkins is the worst possible example of the wonders of the mango: weak in flavor, egregious in texture, and popular exclusively because it is large, easy to grow, and tough enough to withstand transit.

The Tommy Atkins mango was created by Thomas Atkins in Broward County, Florida from a tree planted in 1922. Atkins was very pleased with his shit mango; he thought it would sell well because it is large and pretty and does not bruise easily. He was right, although it took awhile for the variety to catch on. Throughout the early nineteen fifties, Atkins kept trying to get the Florida Mango Forum to approve it; they did not, citing its subpar flavor and texture, but eventually the growers, rather than the tasters, won out. The Tommy Atkins today is by far the most common variety in the U.S., which is embarrassing as heck.

There are thousands of varieties of mangoes, ranging from giant grapefruit-sized mangoes to tiny plum-sized mangoes, dark purple mangoes to delicate golden mangoes, and flat oblong mangoes to nearly spherical mangoes. The textures range from so creamy you need to use a spoon to so crunchy you need to use a fork (or chopsticks), the flavors from crisp and vegetal to heavy and sweet. Most mango varieties do not travel well, unfortunately, and there’s not much of a market in shipping some of the weirder ones all the way from, say, the south of India, where mangoes are as beloved as apples in New York. That said, if you live in a city, or in a place with a healthy representation of certain immigrant groups, there’s a pretty good chance you can find a mango that’ll totally change the way you think about them.

Mexican and Indian markets are, I find, the best places to find good alternate types of mangoes. In New York City, Jackson Heights, in Queens, is a good bet, as is Sunset Park in Brooklyn. And one of the more common non-Tommy-Atkins varieties, the Ataulfo (or Champagne) mango, is just coming into season now. The Ataulfo mango is small, yellow, and kidney-shaped. Its pit is very thin, meaning it’s easy to remove by the only acceptable method, which I’ll get to in a second. The flavor is significantly stronger than a Tommy Atkins; it is much higher in both sugar content and acid, meaning that classic sweet-and-sour mango flavor is kind of supercharged. The flesh, a deep golden yellow, is not fibrous at all; instead it is smooth, creamy, and soft, closer to a ripe avocado than the pear-like stringy flesh of a Tommy Atkins. It is not the best mango in the world—I doubt it wins mango competitions, which totally do exist—but it is the mango that Americans should have been eating all along: an all-purpose mango, a pure expression of mango-ness.

Ataulfo mangoes do not travel as well as Tommy Atkins mangoes, so you have to be a bit more circumspect when shopping for them. When ripe, the Ataulfo is golden all the way around—no green, and no black speckling like on a ripe banana. But no wrinkling, either; if they’re wrinkled on the outside, they’ll be overripe and sort of gross on the inside (though not garbage necessarily!) If you give them a little squeeze with your thumb, they should give just a touch, like a ripe avocado.

So there are a bunch of ways to peel a mango (unlike the kiwi or peach, eating the skin adds nothing at all to the experience of eating a mango and it can sometimes causes an allergic reaction), but most of them are wrong and dumb. Do not use a vegetable peeler, as this will leave you with a slippery fruit that is hazardous to slice, like trying to dice a wet bar of soap. Do not use one of those mango pitters; they waste precious mango flesh and, as always, you should be good at using your knife. If you’re not good with a knife you should use your knife even MORE so you BECOME good with a knife. Stop buying tools that encourage you to not learn this very basic skill.

No, the proper way to slice a mango is, basically, this one, brought to you by a Supermarket That I Never Go To Because It’s Neither Cheap Like Key Foods Nor Charming Like Trader Joe’s. The last step there, where he cross-hatches the mango, I don’t do that one. Instead, I slice the “cheeks” of the mango into three strips. Then I place them skin side down on the cutting board and place my knife just above the skin and my non-knife hand on the cut side of the flesh to hold it in place before sliding the knife along the skin to remove it. I think it’s a little faster, and for whatever reason I like slices of mango rather than cubes, but do whatever you want. Also, Alton Brown has some insane peeling method that involves a magic marker, but that is ridiculous.

An odd thing about mango is that cooking it, generally, does not help it. The aromatics and flavor compounds tend to be destroyed rather than pleasantly altered with the addition of heat. Sometimes that’s fine; ambya sasam, a sort of mango curry, relies on that destruction to de-sweeten the mango so it can become a savory sauce. But mostly, heat tends to lessen the flavor of mango, which is why you don’t see many mango pies or mango crumbles. On the other hand, it has such a high sugar content and such a creamy texture that it does very well in a puree, which is why mango sorbet and mango lassi are so common. This is another way of saying, sorry, the recipes this week are not very elaborate, because really, the best way to eat mango is to just…eat the mango. Still! Here are some things to do with them.

Chili-Mango Popsicle

Shopping list: Ataulfo mangoes, ground cayenne, salt, lime juice, sugar, popsicle molds

The combination of mango and spice or salt is common pretty much anywhere mangoes grow (except Florida, boo Florida). In Mexico, mangoes are commonly sold on the street doused in vinegary hot sauce and salt, sometimes on sticks, sometimes in plastic ziplock bags, and sometimes as paletas, or popsicles. (Good LORD are Mexicans good at popsicles.) To make: Dice a couple of ripe Ataulfo mangoes and toss in a food processor. (Note: this is one place where an overripe mango will actually be okay! Overripe mangoes are sweeter, so you’ll need to go heavier on the lime and salt, but will work fine in a puree.) Blend thoroughly. This will result in a kind of syrupy sticky-looking substance. Add in a pinch of cayenne, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lime. Blend again to mix. Then add in a bit of water to thin it out, maybe a quarter cup per mango. Taste. It should be very sweet, pretty spicy, and a little salty. You may have to add more sugar; the secret to good popsicles is that the mix should always taste sweeter when it’s liquid than you think it should. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze overnight. These are, of course, better in the summertime, which in New York is roughly six months away.

Coconut Brown Rice Pudding With Mango

Shopping list: Ataulfo mangoes, medium-grain brown rice, can of coconut milk, whole milk, brown sugar, vanilla extract, ground cardamom, ground clove, unsweetened shaved coconut

This is a recipe basically stolen from Mark Bittman, who had the brilliant idea to blitz the rice in a food processor, which gives the final pudding a creamier texture more like Thai sticky rice, on which this is a riff. Pre-heat your oven to 300 degrees. Put about a half a cup of regular brown rice in the food processor and hit the “pulse” button maybe three times; you don’t want powder, you just want a little breakage. In a dutch oven, mix the broken rice, a can of coconut milk, one and a quarter cups of whole milk, half a cup of brown sugar, a few healthy pinches of salt, a pinch of cardamom, a pinch of clove, and a few drops of vanilla extract. Put in the oven for forty-five minutes, stir, another forty-five minutes, stir, and about another forty-five minutes should do it. It’s done when it’s still kind of soupy but the rice is cooked through. Let it cool for about half an hour at least and it’ll thicken right up.

While it cools, take a cast iron pan and put it on the stove over medium heat. When hot, toss in a handful of the shaved coconut and toast, tossing frequently, until golden brown. Remove and let cool. Then dice up a bunch of mangoes. You can serve warm but I like it better cold (it’ll take overnight to cool, probably). In a bowl, plop a big scoop of rice pudding. Top with diced mango, the toasted coconut, and, if you want, a pinch of cinnamon.

The Best Mango Recipe

Shopping list: Ataulfo mango

Remove pit and skin from mango by the previously stated approved method. Eat with fingers or, optionally, a fork.

I worry sometimes that the mango is unappreciated: It commits a few sins against the very American love of convenience, in that it is not a hand fruit and requires a knife to prepare, and also in that it is pretty delicate and perishable and you might have to go to an ethnic market to find it. And yet: mango is perhaps my favorite fruit of all; good ones are easier to find than good peaches, or pears, or apples, at least when you have an easily available supply of Ataulfo mangoes (and more and more supermarkets are starting to carry them!). Their flavor is so intense, a punch in the face of sugar and acid and creaminess and a flavor that we idiots who choose to live in New York still associate with tropical beaches and palm trees. God damn I love mangoes.

Photo by Danielle Scott

30 Mar 17:51

Ellen Jewett Sculptures

Cary Renquist

They remind me of the animals in Romantically Apocalyptic except hers don't have 3 eyes...
<a href="">Romantically Apocalyptic - 0</a>

Surreal animal sculptures by Ellen Jewett.
26 Mar 00:37

"Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths."

“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”

- Joseph Campbell 
26 Mar 02:30


25 Mar 13:42

Old dog tricking puppy, so cute.

23 Mar 22:44


24 Mar 03:17

A Rare Look At How Diego Rivera Turned Sketches Into His Iconic...

A Rare Look At How Diego Rivera Turned Sketches Into His Iconic Detroit Mural

A walk through the Detroit Institute of Arts’ first major exhibition since the city emerged from bankruptcy in December doesn’t just offer a closer look at the museum’s most famous piece; it gives visitors a chance to see the early stages of the artist’s masterpiece.
23 Mar 17:31

Tabu (2012)

Tabu (2012)

23 Mar 12:07

BIOS Hacking

by schneier

We've learned a lot about the NSA's abilities to hack a computer's BIOS so that the hack survives reinstalling the OS. Now we have a research presentation about it.

From Wired:

The BIOS boots a computer and helps load the operating system. By infecting this core software, which operates below antivirus and other security products and therefore is not usually scanned by them, spies can plant malware that remains live and undetected even if the computer's operating system were wiped and re-installed.


Although most BIOS have protections to prevent unauthorized modifications, the researchers were able to bypass these to reflash the BIOS and implant their malicious code.


Because many BIOS share some of the same code, they were able to uncover vulnerabilities in 80 percent of the PCs they examined, including ones from Dell, Lenovo and HP. The vulnerabilities, which they're calling incursion vulnerabilities, were so easy to find that they wrote a script to automate the process and eventually stopped counting the vulns it uncovered because there were too many.

From ThreatPost:

Kallenberg said an attacker would need to already have remote access to a compromised computer in order to execute the implant and elevate privileges on the machine through the hardware. Their exploit turns down existing protections in place to prevent re-flashing of the firmware, enabling the implant to be inserted and executed.

The devious part of their exploit is that they've found a way to insert their agent into System Management Mode, which is used by firmware and runs separately from the operating system, managing various hardware controls. System Management Mode also has access to memory, which puts supposedly secure operating systems such as Tails in the line of fire of the implant.

From the Register:

"Because almost no one patches their BIOSes, almost every BIOS in the wild is affected by at least one vulnerability, and can be infected," Kopvah says.

"The high amount of code reuse across UEFI BIOSes means that BIOS infection can be automatic and reliable.

"The point is less about how vendors don't fix the problems, and more how the vendors' fixes are going un-applied by users, corporations, and governments."

From Forbes:

Though such "voodoo" hacking will likely remain a tool in the arsenal of intelligence and military agencies, it's getting easier, Kallenberg and Kovah believe. This is in part due to the widespread adoption of UEFI, a framework that makes it easier for the vendors along the manufacturing chain to add modules and tinker with the code. That's proven useful for the good guys, but also made it simpler for researchers to inspect the BIOS, find holes and create tools that find problems, allowing Kallenberg and Kovah to show off exploits across different PCs. In the demo to FORBES, an HP PC was used to carry out an attack on an ASUS machine. Kovah claimed that in tests across different PCs, he was able to find and exploit BIOS vulnerabilities across 80 per cent of machines he had access to and he could find flaws in the remaining 10 per cent.

"There are protections in place that are supposed to prevent you from flashing the BIOS and we've essentially automated a way to find vulnerabilities in this process to allow us to bypass them. It turns out bypassing the protections is pretty easy as well," added Kallenberg.

The NSA has a term for vulnerabilities it think are exclusive to it: NOBUS, for "nobody but us." Turns out that NOBUS is a flawed concept. As I keep saying: "Today's top-secret programs become tomorrow's PhD theses and the next day's hacker tools." By continuing to exploit these vulnerabilities rather than fixing them, the NSA is keeping us all vulnerable.

Two Slashdot threads. Hacker News thread. Reddit thread.

EDITED TO ADD (3/31): Slides from the CanSecWest presentation. The bottom line is that there are some pretty huge BIOS insecurities out there. We as a community and industry need to figure out how to regularly patch our BIOSes.

20 Mar 21:30


21 Mar 02:57


Cary Renquist

Flying yeti baby???

21 Mar 20:49


22 Mar 16:45

Photographer captures ISS transiting the partially eclipsed sun

22 Mar 16:44


22 Mar 22:30

Sending his wife into space…

Cary Renquist

Priest: Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe take this Earthling, Dale Arden to be your Empress of the hour?

Ming: (pause) of the hour, Yes.

Priest: Do you promise to use her as you will?

Ming: (pause, then very slyly) Certainly!

Priest: Not to blast her into space?

Ming: (silence)

Priest: ....Until such time as you grow weary of her....?

Ming: I do.

Sending his wife into space…

22 Mar 23:00


by Kristian

And in the extra panel high above, the cartoonist looms ominously… with a trembling string attached to his drawing arm.

Cool, all my favorite religious characters in one comic! (Yes yes, I know. Some of these are more real than others.)

20 Mar 11:56

Cisco Shipping Equipment to Fake Addresses to Foil NSA Interception

by schneier

Last May, we learned that the NSA intercepts equipment being shipped around the world and installs eavesdropping implants. There were photos of NSA employees opening up a Cisco box. Cisco's CEO John Chambers personally complained to President Obama about this practice, which is not exactly a selling point for Cisco equipment abroad. Der Spiegel published the more complete document, along with a broader story, in January of this year:

In one recent case, after several months a beacon implanted through supply-chain interdiction called back to the NSA covert infrastructure. The call back provided us access to further exploit the device and survey the network. Upon initiating the survey, SIGINT analysis from TAO/Requirements & Targeting determined that the implanted device was providing even greater access than we had hoped: We knew the devices were bound for the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) to be used as part of their internet backbone, but what we did not know was that STE's GSM (cellular) network was also using this backbone. Since the STE GSM network had never before been exploited, this new access represented a real coup.

Now Cisco is taking matters into its own hands, offering to ship equipment to fake addresses in an effort to avoid NSA interception.

I don't think we have even begun to understand the long-term damage the NSA has done to the US tech industry.

Slashdot thread.

20 Mar 14:00

This Toasty Marshmallow Honey Panna Cotta Is Truly Impressive — Delicious Links

by Ariel Knutson
Pin it button big

Typically when I think about panna cotta, it's topped with some kind of citrus or berry curd. This dessert recipe, however, takes things in a new direction by adding a toasted marshmallow layer to the top of this classic dessert. Impressive, right?


20 Mar 14:19

Religious broadcaster warns Christians to ‘prepare for martyrdom’ if Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage

by Travis Gettys
Cary Renquist

American Taliban.

A religious conservative broadcaster warned Christians to “prepare for martyrdom” if the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned marriage equality. Sandy Rios, director of governmental affairs for the American Family Association and host of a daily radio program, did not specify what she meant by that – but h...