They will always need maintenance

The Christian Science Monitor points out that staying in space will require complex and dangerous repairs from time to time. This time it was an array of solar panels. Scott Parazynski made the repairs farther from the airlock than any astronaut had ever been, his boots locked onto an extension at the end of a 50-foot boom. The boom was held by the station’s “Canadarm” or robotic arm. The article mentions that the astronaut chosen to do the repair, Scott Parazynski, is 6’2″ tall (190 cm) and that he stretched out to do the repair. Perhaps he was chosen for his height and length of reach. Col. Douglas Wheelock was tethered to the array to relay what he saw for the operators of the Canadarm and for Dr. Parazynski, Dr. Parazinski had to work without touching the solar cells of the array.

Whatever we might think of continuing to build a space station that is scheduled to fall to earth in a few years and of using scarce research funds to do trivial experiments, it was impressive.

Space walks!

The space shuttle Discovery is staying at the space station for one more day while the astronauts do extra space-walks to repair a tear in an array of solar panels. One of the astronauts, a medical doctor, is “stitching” between two folds of the panel to make sure that it’s strong enough to be fully extended. Right now, they are extending the panel to test the repairs.

This trip has added a new room to the space station.

Cryptozoölogists: “Darn!”

No doubt a shiver of disappointment was felt among cryptozoölogists, professional and amateur, as some folks at Texas State University identified some supposed chupacabra corpses were actually of the common coyote.

Washoe, the signing chimpanzee, dies

Washoe, the chimpanzee who broke the sign-language barrier has died of natural causes at age 42. She was raised with people who interacted with her as deaf parents with a child, and she was credited with knowing 250 signs. To be said to know a sign, she had to produce it spontaneously, be seen by three different observers on three different instances, and to use it on fifteen consecutive days. She was the only chimpanzee at the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute at Central Washington University who was born in Africa. Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner, of the University of Nevada, Reno, worked to teach her language starting in 1966, when she was about ten months old. In 1967, they switched to American Sign Language.

Washoe was the first chimpanzee to teach language to others. She taught sign language to three younger chimps without human help.

Some people, such as linguist Noam Chomsky, maintained that only humans can have true language and that Washoe was merely performing for a reward. What the scientific difference is between a chimpanzee asking for a drink and a child asking for a drink, I’m not sure. Washoe created descriptive phrases such as “water bird” for swan, “drink fruit” for watermelon, and “cork nut” for almond. Her greatest champion is perhaps Roger Fouts, who wrote Next of Kin about his interactions with Washoe and other chimpanzees.

Mutant starling?

Starlings are busy, noisy birds that like to flock together and don’t mind being aroud people. We see a lot of them in the city. They are dark with a speckled look.

The other day, I spied one that was partly white. I wasn’t sure what kind of bird it was, but it was the shape of a starling, acted like a starling, and kept with a flock of starlings and pigeons.

I managed to “zoom in” on it before it flew away. Looking at the picture, I’m more convinced that it was a starling: the feathers that do have pigment look like starling feathers.

If anyone wants to look for it, the bird was at Sherbourne and Shuter, one block up from Sherbourne and Queen.

Louisiana land loss

Coastal erosion is a fact of life in Louisiana, perhaps because of better flood control. The Mississipi is not carrying as much silt to its mouth. I attended a presentation this morning about coastal restoration. The speaker, Mr. Milling, kindly sent a copy of this map. It was prepared by the U.S. Geological Service, so it’s in the public domain. The red areas are land that has been eroded away from Louisiana since 1932–which was probably the first time the U.S. had an accurate map–and predicted up to 2050.

New Orleans giant crocodile hoax

There were e-mail rumours of a 21-foot (6.3-m) crocodile found swimming in the streets “post-Katrina.” However, reports that the photo in question was a Nile crocodile killed two years earlier in the Republic of the Congo. It was about 16 feet long (5 metres), which is adult size. Here it is draped in a truck bed.

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