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10 Amazing Discoveries You Missed This Week

From hidden terrorist messages in porn, to smog-eating buildings, to dolphin coworkers, here are some incredible discoveries.

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6. Al Queda plans hidden in porn film

Oh now we remember who that musician was! It was Paul McCartney, in “Live and Let Die.” And if the following story isn’t worthy of James Bond we don’t know what is. 

Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher gave us a riveting tale this week of how German computer forensic experts have uncovered the contents of hidden files in a password-protected folder on the memory card of a suspected Al-Queda member arrested in Berlin ( more details here on CNN ). The contents: 141 text files “ containing what officials claim are documents detailing al-Qaeda operations and plans for future operations”  -- hidden inside a porn video.

Holy schnikes, right? We are amazed both by its content and the primer Gallagher offers on  steganography, the age-old technique of embedding information in plain view but in a way others can’t see it, the modern version being to hide it within computer files. One example is “least significant bit substitution,” in which very tiny changes are made to binary bits within a file. Gallagher shows a changed byte sequence and two images, one of which has a message (non-Al-Queda or porn) using this process, one of which is notably grainier.

You know, some people believe in parallel universesbut this story brings home the fact that alternate worlds, whether they exist or not, are hardly necessary when there are so many going on all around us. With the exception of hiding porn, all of the stuff in this story is so remarkably unlike our world, yet occurring in our world, it’s mind-blowing. Deciphering “needle-in-a-haystack” code of a terrorist network? We can’t even get the wrapper off a pack of gum half the time. The mind reels.

(Oh, the name of the porn film? KickAss.)

7. You’re my heroine

There are a lot of people who kick ass and never get the recognition for it. Thanks to Our Amazing Planet for giving us an inspiring picture of 8 Unsung Women Explorersa must-read for girls of all ages who might sometimes need to see that their hip-to-waist ratio is not as important as the size of their hearts, minds and guts. 

These women -- aviators, sailors, mountaineers, war correspondents and others -- braved some wild territory some during periods in history when women didn't get to do much of anything. Every story will make you feel a little braver. You’ll meet:

  • Helen Thayer, a 20th-century explorer who lived for a year with a wolf pack at the Arctic Circle;
  • Gertrude Bell, a 19th-century writer, archeologist and explorer of the Middle East who was “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”;
  • Alison Hargreaves, a British mountaineer who climbed Mount Everest in 1995 with no oxygen or Sherpas and who sent a message to her two children at the summit: " I’m on top of the world and I love you dearly."

Next time you feel like that, send that message to someone. The top of the world will get higher.

8. A little trouble with the Pygmy study

One of those explorers, Deilia Akely, was a Wisconsin girl who explored Africa with her husband and led her own expeditions “concentrating more on ethnography of the more reclusive tribes such as the Forest People pygmies of the 1930s.” She also lived with the pygmies of Zaire. Frankly if we get one more spam text we’ll be right behind her. 

“…it is not easy to collect DNA samples from Pygmies…” Boy, if we had a dollar for every time we’ve said that. Erika Check Hayden said it in her detailed story in Nature about a recent study on Pygmy genetics and the difficulty in researching whether the group’s unusually short stature has a genetic basis or is an environmental adaptation.  Jennifer Welsh at LiveScience reports the average Pygmy is about 4’11” compared to their Bantu neighbors at 5’6.

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