Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chimpanzee Who Knew Sign Language Dies

"Washoe, a female chimpanzee believed to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at the research institute where she was kept.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University's Ellensburg campus since 1980. She had a vocabulary of about 250 words.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

She was taken to the veterinary hospital at Washington State University on Wednesday for a necropsy. Her memorial will be Nov. 12.

"Washoe was an emissary, bringing us a message of respect for nature," Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, assistant director of the nonprofit institute, said Wednesday.

The Fouts went to Central Washington from Oklahoma in 1980 to create a home for Washoe and other chimps.

"The entire CWU community and the Ellensburg community are feeling the loss of our friend, Washoe, one of our daughters," said CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre.

Washoe also taught sign language to three younger chimps who remain at the institute, Central Washington spokeswoman Becky Watson said. They are Tatu, 31, Loulis, 29, and Dar, 31.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee at the institute born in Africa and was the matriarch of the chimpanzee family. She was named for Washoe County, Nev., where she lived with Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.

Primate researcher Jane Goodall, in Roger Fouts' book "Next of Kin," noted the importance of the work with Washoe.

"Roger, through his ongoing conversations with Washoe and her extended family, has opened a window into the cognitive workings of a chimpanzee's mind that adds new dimension to our understanding," Goodall was quoted as saying.

In 1967, the Gardners established Project Washoe to teach the chimp ASL. Previous attempts to teach chimpanzees to imitate vocal languages had failed. Roger Fouts was a graduate student of the Gardners.

For Washoe to be considered "reliable" on a sign, it had to be seen by three different observers in three separate instances. Then it had to be seen 15 days in a row to be added to her sign list.

But there was controversy over whether the chimp was really using ASL. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has contended the notion that Washoe was the first non-human to acquire a human language was without scientific support."

Friends of Washoe

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Dylan does Cadillac

Longer version, for his radio program

About to be Mugged? Turn into a Coke Machine

"It's easy to just write up some Japanese inventions as nonsense, but let's face it, even the most outlandish innovations coming out of the land of the rising sun will probably be common place on our side of the Pacific in a decade or so. It's with that in mind that I present Aya Tsukioka's urban camouflage.

Street crime, while still not as prevalent as it is here, is a growing crime in Japan. In the States, we've adopted various method for combating threats to our personal safety, like increased police presence, public cameras, and arming the public, all of which have been met with varying degrees of success.

Tsukioka, an "experimental clothing designer," has taken a decidedly more Looney Tunes-esque approach with her latest line. The New York Times took a trip to Tokyo to visit the designer, who lifted up a flap on her bright red skirt, transforming herself into a walking soda vending machine.

Tsukioka has produced a line of similarly-themed accessories, including a purse that looks like a manhole cover and a bag that turns into a Japanese fire hydrant. "These ideas might strike foreigners as far-fetched," she told The Times, "but in Japan, they can become reality."

For $800, you can bring the reality of a wearable vending machine home."

Friday, October 26, 2007

Shatner's Kirk Not Aboard for New 'Trek'

"The original Capt. Kirk is disheartened he won't get to boldly go anywhere with his old pal Spock in the new "Star Trek" movie. While Leonard Nimoy is reprising his role as the pointy-eared Vulcan in next year's science-fiction flick, William Shatner is not on board as Kirk.

"I couldn't believe it. I'm not in the movie at all. Leonard, God bless his heart, is in, but not me," Shatner, 76, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I thought, what a decision to make, since it obviously is a decision not to make use of the popularity I have to ensure the movie has good box office. It didn't seem to be a wise business decision."

Director J.J. Abrams announced last summer that Nimoy would reprise the role he originated opposite Shatner in the 1960s television show and played again in six big-screen adventures.

Abrams said Shatner probably would have a part in the film, which is due in theaters in December 2008. But while Shatner said he had a couple of meetings with Abrams, nothing came of it.

Abrams'"Trek" film, whose plot is being kept under wraps by distributor Paramount, recounts an early adventure for the crew of the starship Enterprise, with Chris Pines as the young Kirk and Zachary Quinto as the young Spock.

The cast includes Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Simon Pegg as engineer Scott, John Cho as helmsman Sulu, Zoe Saldana as communications officer Uhura and Anton Yelchin as navigator Chekov, roles respectively originated by DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig.

Past "Trek" films presented an obstacle to the revival of Shatner's Kirk, who died at the end of 1994's "Star Trek: Generations."

But in science fiction, you can never truly say die. Spock was killed off in 1982's "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" then resurrected in 1984's "Star Trek: The Search for Spock," with Nimoy's Vulcan living on to co-star in three more films, two episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and now Abrams' new movie.

"I've got a lot to do," said Shatner, whose current work includes the TV show "Boston Legal," narration for the Christmas spoof "Stalking Santa" due on DVD on Nov. 6, and the prequel "Star Trek: Academy - Collision Course," a novel chronicling Kirk and Spock's first meeting.

Shatner says of "Star Trek": "Having been in on the creation of it, I was hoping to be in on the re-creation.""

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What's it like to dive through space at 700mph?

"From where pilot Joseph Kittinger was standing at the limit of the earth's atmosphere, there was only the deep black of space above him merging into a vivid blue below.

Beneath his feet, the curvature of the Earth and the sands of New Mexico were clearly visible. The Sun burnt brightly, far more brilliantly than it appeared from the ground.

Looking up through the glass visor on his spacesuit, Kittinger could see only the huge, fragile, gossamer-thin silver balloon towering 200ft over his tiny gondola.

This helium-filled balloon, Excelsior, had taken him to the edge of space, bathed in solar ultraviolet radiation and in temperatures of -70C.

The air pressure was lower than that on the surface of Mars - essentially a vacuum.

At that height, there was no wind, no sound ... nothing.

And then Kittinger took a last look at the tiny gondola and did something unthinkable: he jumped.

From an altitude of 102,800ft, or 20 miles (more than three times the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner or the height of Mount Everest), Kittinger plunged into the void, attaining speeds of more than 700mph as he hurtled towards the earth.

Despite breaking a seal on his spacesuit, he survived, landing gently by parachute 13 minutes and 45 seconds later.

That extraordinary jump on August 16, 1960, broke the record for the highest parachute jump which stands to this day, a daredevil achievement that makes the antics of today's bungee-istes and base-jumpers look like nursery games.

But it may not be a record which stands for much longer.

In New Scientist magazine this week, a bizarre project has been revealed which, if it comes to fruition, will not only see Kittinger's extraordinary and little-known record smashed, but will open up near-space to a new breed of extreme sportsmen and women - people keen to get the ultimate kick by jumping not from 20, but from 30 or even 60 miles above the Earth.

Led by a consortium of extreme sports enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, the project envisages a small unmanned rocket delivering a human cargo to the edge of the earth's atmosphere - a living cargo which will then leap into the void equipped with nothing but a spacesuit and a parachute.

It sounds like dangerous lunacy, but there is method in this madness.

One of the driving forces behind the project is Jonathan Clark, a military parachutist and NASA medic whose wife Laurel was killed in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003.

For him, the project is less about creating a new extreme sport (although these ultimate high-dives will be open to anyone with the training and wallet necessary) than advancing the cause of astronaut safety.

For despite the Shuttle disasters, the belief persists that space travel is inherently safe, routine, little more dangerous than going aloft in an airliner.

It is not. Space travel remains an extraordinarily risky venture, nearly four decades after Yuri Gagarin's first flight.

So far, some 460 people have left the Earth's atmosphere, and of those, 22 have been killed either during the flight or in tests - a five per cent fatality rate, far higher than just about any other military or aviation pursuit.

In fact, being an astronaut is statistically about as dangerous as serving on the front line in the heat of battle. And this is something that Clark wishes to change. Developing the ultimate skydive will be, he says, 'a means of providing options for folks in these risky environments'.

The idea is that by developing space-diving as an extreme sport (funded by wealthy thrill-seekers who will pay perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to strap themselves to a giant firework and jump off it), a whole new technology will be developed - the space lifeboat.

This could involve a pod with parachutes, or just parachutes for individual astronauts.

Currently, the options available to an astronaut stranded in space aboard a defunct craft are limited.

It is possible in theory to be rescued by another spacecraft, and a lander-craft can dock with the International Space Station, but should problems arise rapidly on ascent, descent or in orbit, there is currently no way of bailing out.

Space entrepreneur Rick Tumlinson has started a company, Space Diver, with Jonathan Clark, to develop this ultimate fairground ride - one of a handful of enterprises in the space tourism business.

Unlike their competitors (including Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic), who will provide passengers with secure, warm and airtight transport for the ride up and down, Space Diver customers will be strapped to the outside of a rocket.

As the rocket reaches maximum altitude it will slow to a halt, before falling back to Earth. At this point its single passenger will jump off - perhaps assisted by a spring - and begin an extraordinary journey back to terra firma.

Thanks to Joseph Kittinger, we have a good idea of what he - or she - can expect.

As he climbed to the gondola step-off platform, Kittinger caught his hand on a piece of metal, breaking the pressure seal and allowing all the air to leak out.

Fortunately, only his hand was exposed to the vacuum of space (a rubber ring around his wrist prevented the rest of his suit from depressurising) but the effect was dramatic - and painful.

Blood pooled in his hand and it swelled to twice its normal size. He chose not to radio ground control, fearing they would order him to abort, and leapt anyway.

At first, apart from the sight of his balloon disappearing rapidly into the sky above him, there was no sense at all that he was moving. At 100,000ft the air is so thin it cannot be felt, or heard, and at this height the ground is coming closer only imperceptibly.

And because of the near-vacuum, there was no air resistance to slow Kittinger down; in a few seconds he reached an estimated speed of 714mph.

After a few minutes, however, the air around the plummeting astronaut thickened significantly, slowing him down dramatically.

It is at this point that the greatest danger occurs; in the 1950s, a secret U.S. project involved firing human-sized dummies into the upper atmosphere and letting them fall.

When they hit the thicker air, they began spinning at speeds of 200 revolutions per minute - easily enough to induce unconsciousness or even death.

Kittinger was able to avoid this fate by using a small stabiliser-chute; Space Diver hopes to use stabilising fins or simply find a way to use the natural body-shape of the space-diver to minimise turbulence.

One possibility is they will be instructed to adopt a head-first, streamlined posture, much like a high diver plunging into a pool.

Hopefully, the end result will be that experienced by Kittinger - a safe and soft landing. After four minutes and 36 seconds he opened his main chute at an altitude of 17,500ft and drifted gently down to the New Mexico desert.

Kittinger was remarkably sanguine about his achievement, and his hand, which he feared may have been permanently damaged, returned to normal after just a few hours.

The next space dive could take place as early as 2009, although the history of private space exploration suggests we can safely add a few years to this date.

Who will be first? Almost certainly Jonathan Clark himself, an experienced parachutist. 'I'm willing to put myself at that risk,' he says.

Just don't let the health and safety brigade hear about this."