More Small Raptors From North America

Everybody loves T. rex—huge, fierce, the apex of all apex species on land.  In recent decades, we’ve learned that T. rex was related to a large and diverse family of animals, large and small.

This spring researchers report a new smaller raptor that lived in North America at the end of the Cretaceous, at the time of the T. rex [3].  Dubbed Dineobellator notohesperus (which is a hacked up reference to “Navajo Warrior of the Southwest” or something like that), this species fills a hole in the fossil record, and shows that there likely were dinosaurs of all sizes flourishing together at that time.

Small, fragile animals are not preserved often in the fossil record, so we know very little about whatever little guys were running around, which makes this find significant.

The new Dineobellator was about 1 meter long (not counting the tail), and probably had feathers.  The researchers suggest that the animals were scrappy hunters and fighters, very fast and flexible.

“These rare fossils have features that suggest raptors were still trying out new ways to compete even during the dinosaurs’ last stand” [2]

There probably were a lot of smaller dinosaurs for every big one that we see in the museum.

Reconstruction of Dineobellator notohesperus and other dinosaurs from the Ojo Alamo Formation at the end of the Cretaceous Period in New Mexico by Sergey Krasovskiy. This reconstruction shows three Dineobellator near a water source, with the ceratopsid Ojoceratops and sauropod Alamosaurus in the background. (Image Credit: Sergey Krasovskiy) (From [2])

  1. Becky Ferreira, Fossils Show Raptors Prowled North America Late in Dinosaurs’ Era, in New York Times. 2020: New York.
  2. Brian Handwerk, New Feathered Carnivorous Dinosaur Found in New Mexico, in Smithsonian Magazine, March 26, 2020.
  3. Steven E. Jasinski, Robert M. Sullivan, and Peter Dodson, New Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur (Theropoda, Dromaeosauridae) from New Mexico and Biodiversity of Dromaeosaurids at the end of the Cretaceous. Scientific Reports, 10 (1):5105, 2020/03/26 2020.

Book Review: “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I finally got around to reading this book, though not before it has been adapted for TV.  I haven’t seen the TV show.

Little Fires is set in Shaker Height, Ohio, Ng’s home town, in the late 90s, Ng’s own time. “Write what you know”, I guess.  This is a very affluent and super controlled environment, and its people privileged to be both content and ambitious.  But, as the author has commented, this time and place is similar to a lot of places in America at that time and since.

The story itself involves the entanglement of two families with significantly different histories and lifestyles.  The cast of characters is astonishingly diverse for suburban America, especially uber-planned Shaker Heights.  A bohemian artist?  Poor immigrants?  Upper middle class black professionals?  That’s not been my own experience out in suburbia.

Anyway, a lot of the action is the lives of the teen age kids, and kids are kids.  Passionate, horny, oblivious.  And that time and place was a pretty good time and place to be a teenager, especially with money.

The adults are interesting, too, and Ng is at pains to let us know what they were like when they were kids, and how that turned out.

The driving force of the story is motherhood, and the emotional mess of adoption.  Ng sprinkles in the biting issues of culture and privilege, which are as fresh today as then.  This isn’t a heavy political tract, so it is clear that the raw, basic issue is love and attachment.  And there is plenty of love all around, on all sides of the cultural chasms.

Motherhood!  Teen angst!  Teen lust!  Class! Race!   There are fires all around, and not so little.

In the end, with all the mess and trouble, I have to think that love will will out, and the kids will be OK.  As always.

Ng is a good writer, so this is a good story, even if I don’t identify with the situation or with most of the characters.

I’m guessing that the TV show is most popular amongst folks who were there then.  That’s fine, though many of us aren’t as gripped by this particular soap opera.

  1. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere, New York, Penguin, 2017


Sunday Book Reviews

Neanderthal Chow

If there is anything paleontological that is almost as interesting as a dinosaur, it is a Neanderthal!

Over the past two centuries, we have learned more and more about these people who lived alongside our ancestors and, evidently, interbred with us.  We can only hope that the breeding was mutually consensual, but with H. sap. sap. the odds are good that things were forced.

Anyway, we now know that H. sapiens neaderthalis were a lot like us, living in family groups, producing are and artifacts.  It seems likely that they had complex cultural practices, and I’d bet they talked (and made music [2]) just like us.

This spring, researchers from Portugal report yet another revealing finding [3, 4].  Caves in the hills at Figueira Brava were at the sea about 86 – 106 thousand years ago—ideal places to live.  These caves preserve the remains of the “food basket” of the people who lived here, which evidently included a lot of shellfish and fish as well as inland plants and animals.

These caves were inhabited by Neanderthals, so it is clear that they ate a lot of fish, shellfish, and everything else.  These people definitely must be related to us!

Apparently, the lack of such finds to date has led to theorizing that Neanderthals somehow didn’t or couldn’t harvest and eat fish. This would be a major advantage for modern humans, which could explain both the dominance of humans and some apparent patterns of dispersal (along coasts).

But the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, as the UFO folks like to say.  And now we have evidence that yet another supposed difference between us and our Neanderthal cousins never existed.

To me, this finding is hardly surprising. We only know of relatively trivial differences between them and us, and we don’t know why they died out.  But we know Neanderthals were people, and we still carry traces of their genes.

Have they even died out, or just been absorbed?

  1. Nicholas St. Fleur, Neanderthals Feasted on Seafood, Seabirds, Perhaps Even Dolphins, in New York Times. 2020: New York.
  2. Steven Mithen, Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.
  3. Manuel Will, Neanderthal surf and turf. Science, 367 (6485):1422, 2020.
  4. J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d’Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, and P. Souto, Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers. Science, 367 (6485):eaaz7943, 2020.

Pointy Pavilion Illustrates How Birds Build

Birds are cool in so many ways!

In addition to being living descendants of dinosaurs, and being able to fly (match that, you puny apes!), they build incredible nests.  There are a lot of different nests, some flimsy, some incredibly durable, all built quickly from available materials in a variety of locations, many accessible only via flight.

How do they do it?

This spring a team of researchers  at the University of Akron and the University of Illinois report on computational studies (at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, of course) of Mechanics of randomly packed filaments [2].

As they note, birds have evolved the ability to “mechanically synthesize multifunctional meta-materials to suit their needs” ([2], p. 2).  “[H]umans are only beginning to understand “ the physics of these brilliant disorderly structures.

The paper summarizes the phenomenon of “jamming”, which emerges “from a subtle interplay between geometry, elasticity, and friction between its slender, flexible elements.” (p. 3)  They are working to develop theories of how thin flexible materials interact, how aggregations work, and other aspects of this “birds nest” technology.

The study examines statistics of these assemblies.  They note that there have been studies of “particles” and of “fabrics”, which are not well integrated.  In fact, materials can be any shape, and there is no clear boundary between a particle and a fiber, a stick and a string.

The physics is very complicated, and there is little theory to describe the systems.  This is a job for computational simulations!  The researchers describe an array of simulations that can be used together to design and evaluate alternative “nest” structures.  Not only simulations, but and integration of many simulations.  This is a job for NCSA!

“This vast space can hardly be explored experimentally. Hence the need for predictive and efficient numerical models to complement and systematically integrate necessary experiments.” ([2], p. 7)

An illustration of what might be done is visible in the work of researchers at the University of Stuttgart were inspired by the apparently random assembly of some nests.  They developed the ICD Aggregate Pavilion, displayed in 2018 [1].


The Stuttgart structure is build of calthrop-like pieces, dropped into place in a mold.  They settle by gravity, forming a sort of solid material.  As the video shows, the human-sized pavilion stands up on its own.

I notice that the person scrupulously avoids contact with the rather dangerous looking walls.  How well would they stay solid if someone touches them?  Or if a breeze blows?  Inquiring minds want to know!

  1. K. Dierichs and A. Menges, ICD Aggregate Pavilion 2018, in Institute for Computational Design and Construction, 2018.
  2. N. Weiner, Y. Bhosale, M. Gazzola, and H. King, Mechanics of randomly packed filaments—The “bird nest” as meta-material. Journal of Applied Physics, 127 (5):050902, 2020/02/07 2020.

FoodFab – Food Perceptual Illusions

Every chef understands that presentation is an important part of the dish.

Some Silicon Valley folks have experimented with digitally augmenting food, jazzing up the presentation with Augmented Reality or other forms of digital sauce.  Some of the ideas are, well, bone headed.  Who wants to look at pictures or read text, while their food is sitting there, waiting to be consumed?  In my view, there is no experience less virtual than eating, so adding “virtual” aspects is irrelevant and/or counterproductive.

This spring, some MIT CSAIL folks report on a different approach: digitally manipulating the physical appearance of food [1].  With 3D printers, of course.  Because– MIT.

Their nominal research problem is to help people control calorie intake.  So they use perceptual cues, i.e., the physical appearance and design of the food, to manipulate the human experience, i.e., the perception and reception of the food.  They describe this as “perceptual illusions of food”, akin to visual and auditory illusions.

“In this paper, we demonstrated how to use personal fabrication devices to create food perception illusions. Rather than digitally augmenting food, we showed how to use food 3D printing to physically integrate perceptual cues.” ([1]. p. 1)



While “3D printing enables the creation of customized food structures” for individual eaters, the study is particularly interested in helping people feel satisfied while consuming a target amount of calories.  In short, making the same amount of food seem like more.  Neat.

Stripped of the fancy terminology and 3D printing, the specific parameters are not especially novel:  density and “infill” (texture).  The images show the food with different sized bubbles and other structure which, they report, influence chewing time and therefore feelings of satiety.  In short, make it chewier so it last longer, and you don’t feel a want to eat more.

The research builds some models and algorithms to control this intuitive process.  And with 3D printer it is possible to have a lot of control of this kind of texture, compared to fiddling ingredients, mixing time, and so on.  (I have never been able to really control just how bubbly and chewy my home made bread is with non-digital technology.)

Of course, this general idea could extend in a lot of directions.  Aside from making things chewier, what other manipulations can be made?  Surface appearance?  Aroma?  Decorative layout?  And if we can help people eat less, can we help people eat more when needed?  Can we make healthy foods more appetizing by manipulating presentations?

But these questions do remind me that one of the biggest targets for contemporary diets is to eat less processed food, and more raw vegs and fruit.  By definition, we can’t 3D print unprocessed food.

And these perceptual illusions seem irrelevant to, say, an apple.  I mean, sure, you could 3D print an artificial apple-thing, but I’m not sure that it would be particularly good to eat or good for you.  And it would defeat the critical “rawness” of an apple, no?

So, these perceptual illusions are certainly interesting.  But I’m not sure they will have a major impact on real life.

  1. Ying-Ju Lin, Parinya Punpongsanon, Xin Wen, Daisuke Iwai, Kosuke Sato, Marianna Obrist, and Stefanie Mueller, FoodFab: Creating Food Perception Illusions using Food 3D Printing (to appear), in ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing System. 2020: Honolulu.


Radar Signatures for Drones

UAVs are not specifically designed to be stealthy.  I mean, it’s not hard to hear one coming, is it?

But they are small, soft, and low flying.  So they don’t show up well on a lot of radars. With more and more drones in the air, it is becoming important to be able to detect and track them, if only to try to prevent disastrous collisions.

This spring researchers in Finland report systematic studies of the radar signatures of UAVs [2].  They characterize a number of drones, and have published a database of the results to help systems designers.

In particular, the researchers use millimeter band radar, which has high enough resolution to identify different types of drones.  They are also interested in this band because it is used in 5G wireless.  They suggest that 5G infrastructure currently being installed could be piggy backed for ubiquitous tracking of drones.

“Adopting this infrastructure for drone detection would result in a great cost savings, since the work of provisioning and deploying the equipment would already be handled by cellular operators.” ([2], p. 48959)

Now, I’m nearly totally ignorant about radar technology, so I can’t possibly critique the details of this work.  And I certainly don’t know how practical adding drone detection radar to 5G towers might be.

One intersting thing I see in the report. is that the battery is one of the most reflective components.  A small plastic drone might well look like a flying battery to some radar traces.   (This probably explains why some of there “control” data is radar signatures of a battery.)

I like the idea of a public database that helps identify different models.  This won’t solve the problem of too many drones, not to mention unregistered mystery drones, in our city skies.  But it could help create inexpensive warning systems that can quickly sort out the “known” traffic to alert to rogue drones.  “Unknown type of UAV approaching” is certainly an important warning.  Reputable manufacturers will want to publish their profiles in a database.

  1. Aalto University, Drones could, for all their promise, still be a threat to public safety – new research improves drone detection, in Aalto University – News, March 18, 2020.
  2. V. Semkin, J. Haarla, T. Pairon, C. Slezak, S. Rangan, V. Viikari, and C. Oestges, Analyzing Radar Cross Section Signatures of Diverse Drone Models at mmWave Frequencies. IEEE Access, 8:48958-48969, 2020.


Robot Wednesday

Blog Round Up, First Quarter 2020

This quarter has seen the whole world shelter in place.  This enforced isolation up ends decades of advocacy for more human contact.

In recent years,  I have written a lot (a whole book) about Coworking as “a respite from our isolation”  (Klaas, 2014) [1].

This is still true, but coworking is out for now–don’t do it.  Stay home, no matter how unpleasant, until it is safe to meet again.  Community will be back.

Lot’s of other people’s wisdom has to be put on hold for the duration as well.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (unknown, attr. to Edmund Burke)

must now be:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of COVID-19 is for good men and women to not do nothing.”

The Art of Gathering” (Parker, 2018)  must now be the art of NOT gathering.  We’re all still trying to figure how to be artful about it.

How to do Nothing”  (Odell, 2019)  All the more important, while we must all find the strength to do very little.

“Alone Together” (Turkle, 2011) [2]  We have to be alone.  Let’s try to be together about it.

The Usual Blog Fodder Interesting Topics

I seem to never get tired of some things.

Blockchain mania, the melting cryosphere, robots, dinosaurs, solar energy.

Some Ideas for Band Names

…torn from the pages of real scientific papers

Wing Heart
Scent Pads
Failed Squid Meal

Prey Seizure

Books Reviewed

As ususal, weekly book reviews.  12 fiction, 7 non-fiction.


Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Trace Elements by Donna Leon
Processed Cheese by Stephen Wright
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Highfire by Eoin Colfer
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Letham
Hi Five by Joe Ide
Agency by William Gibson
Zed by Joanna Kavenna
Naked Came The Florida Man by Tim Dorsey
A Small Town by Thomas Perry
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Non Fiction

The Shadow of Vesuvius by Daisy Dunn
Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
Imagined Life by James Trefil and Michael Summers
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
Island People by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
The Accursed Tower by Roger Crowley

  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.
  2. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, New York, BAsic Books, 2011.


A personal blog.

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