Archive: Animal Intelligence and Language

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: Part 1 of talking to the animals.

Alex, Talking About Things

Part 1: Birds of a Feather

Ever heard of Alex the grey parrot? Alex could supposedly use language, though his owner, animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, quite cautiously claimed he could use a “two-way communications code.”

That, you know, involved Alex understanding more than a hundred words.

He could identify more than fifty different objects (and could even tell you what color it was or what material it was made of), could count to six, and even knew how to apologize and when it was appropriate.

Alex could invent names for things (he called apples “banerrys,” presumably a combination of banana and cherry, which he was more familiar with).

Every night, as Pepperberg left the lab Alex lived in, he'd tell her, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

They were the last words he ever spoke to her. He died in his sleep at age 31.

So why, exactly, did Pepperberg refuse to say Alex used language?

Well, it's because of linguists. Or, more precisely: the animal intelligence debate, and the role linguists and animal cognitive scientists play. The debate is a complicated, in-depth, challenging thing, and trying to summarize doesn't do it justice. But I’ll give it a shot.

Essentially: Animal cognitive scientists believe that animals might be capable of using language, while linguists don't. (There are, of course, dissidents on both sides, but those are roughly the camps.)

Alex the grey parrot is hardly alone as evidence for animals being able to speak language. Gorillas and other great apes, for example, have been taught to speak sign language. Dogs and many other domesticated animals can learn extensive commands in human languages, though how much is them actually understanding and how much is them just learning behavioral triggers is a point of massive contention.

All that being said, Alex is the only known animal to have been able to ask questions, so that somewhat leans things back toward the linguist side of the argument, outside of Alex himself.

Here's the tricky bit, though: all of the above are animals trying to speak human languages, not humans trying to understand animal languages.


Next time: Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 2: Groundhog Day

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Expert Insight

This week, the (real) Yard Ramp Guy honors the expertise of his manufacturers.

Read all about it HERE.

Archive: Egg Drop Reconsidered

Flooding you with Information

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: don't count your eggs before they've, uh, broken.

The egg drop competition has been a staple of elementary and middle school science classes since long before I was born. You create a container that will allow an egg to survive a drop of several stories, while still being able to put the egg in the container on-site. It’s a good exercise in creative thinking for kids, not to mention the fun factor.

An Egg

You’ve got a few basic strategies: the first—and simplest—is the “giant wad of padding” strategy, which usually works pretty well. The most common version of this is the big box filled with packing peanuts, but I’ve also seen bags made out of pillows and bubble wrap spheres. (Natch: I made all my kids and grandkids think more “outside the box” than this.)

The next most common is the parachute design—usually one of the more reliable ones, assuming your parachute works. Pretty self explanatory…and it’s the design I used myself as a kid. (A little extra padding didn’t hurt, of course.)

There are also a ton of weirder designs out there: flexible chopstick frameworks surrounding a bubble-wrap core, eggs padded in breakfast cereal or popcorn, containers filled with water (although that’s banned in many competitions), the panty hose box (suspend the egg in panty-hose in a box, and the stretchiness of the fabric will keep it from hitting the sides and breaking), and the small padded box covered in springs.

Then, of course, you have my cousin John’s approach. He always was too smart for his own good, so he decided to come up with something a bit more unusual. When he showed up for school that day, it was with a container shaped like a rocket; the thing even had landing struts. It was even weighted so that the container always fell bottom-first. What he didn’t tell anyone, of course, was that the rocket was weighted with an actual radio controlled model rocket engine and had a thin paper coating over it.

When the teacher dropped his off the roof (all us kids standing below), John, who’d been hiding his remote in his pants, pulls it out to activate it. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as anticipated and shot off sideways toward the kids. Guess who it hit?

And that’s the story about how I got a broken rib, minor burns, and a face covered in egg. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that hanging out with my cousin got me injured, either. At least that time I didn’t get in trouble for it.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Streamlined Steel

This week, the (real) Yard Ramp Guy highlights a very promising, cleaner future for the air we breathe.

Read all about it HERE.

Archive: Tokyo Gets Drained

Flooding you with Information

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: Japanese floods. And earthquakes. And Godzilla. Oh, my.

There's an enormous underground chamber just north of Tokyo. The Underground Temple—also known as the G-Cans Project, or the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel—is a flood water diversion facility.

“Enormous” might be an understatement. It’s more than 25 meters high and 177 meters long. The concrete room is held up by 59 immense, 500-ton concrete pillars. In addition to the main chamber, there are five huge underground silos, each 65 meters deep and 32 m­ in diameter. You could quite literally fit Godzilla in one of those.

Construction on it began in 1992 and didn't complete until 2009. The whole thing is essentially the world's largest drain. The silos and the Temple are linked by hundreds of miles of underground pipes. The entire complex is nearly four miles across.

Tokyo has suffered from frequent floods throughout its history—not just from heavy rain, but also from typhoons and tornadoes. G-Cans was built to withstand even the most massive, once-every-other-century floods. Its 14,000 hp turbines and 78 pumps are capable of pumping more than 200 tons of water per second into the nearby Edogawa River.

The architects and construction crew faced a number of major difficulties in the construction. Earthquake proofing was one of the biggest hurdles. Another: preventing buckling and sagging in the ground overhead as they dug out the complex; it is directly underneath a city, after all.

There was a little criticism about the steep price tag ($2 billion) and the fact that Tokyo already possessed significant flooding defenses. Still, given how prone to natural disasters the city is, I certainly think they made the right call.

So, they have the flood prevention thing covered. Of course, there are still earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, typhoons, Godzilla, and those horrifying giant Japanese hornets to worry about.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Streamline Through Turnkey

This week, the (real) Yard Ramp Guy is talkin' turnkey. And his customers are, apparently, gobbling it up.

Read all about it HERE.

Archive: Whipple Shielding

Preventing Satellite Debris

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: it's either space junk...or me, trying to make a pizza.

Space Junk

In 2013, director Alfonso Cuarón came out with Gravity, a movie about junk. Specifically, it's a movie about space junk.

In the film, a missile strike on a satellite results in a runaway chain reaction of collisions between space junk and satellites. This brings down space stations, satellites, and spacecraft left and right, rendering Earth's orbit useless to manned travel. 

Gravity is an excellent movie, and we’ll forgive a few scientific inaccuracies, since they're all in service of the plot. (Neil Degrasse Tyson, despite his multiple criticisms of the science, is a fan of the film.)

The threat in Gravity is a very real one. It's a scenario known as Kessler Syndrome, where space debris collides with space debris, generating more space debris, which collides with yet more space debris, until that specific orbit around Earth is so filled with debris that it is rendered nearly useless for human purposes. (Low Earth orbit is the most likely orbit to be lost to this process, though geosynchronous orbit is another possible victim.)

Being Geosynchronous

It's not astonishing that this is a serious concern for NASA and other space scientists. There are more than 2,000 satellites in orbit, about 1,500 of which are operational, along with nearly 18,000 trackable artificial objects.

Smaller objects are even more common—at least 29,000 chunks of debris in orbit that are more than 10cm in size, nearly 700,000 between 1-10cm in size, and 170 million chunks of debris below 1 cm in size.

Even with how spacious Earth's orbit is, there's a very high chance of impact, and at least one satellite is destroyed by debris every year. Space junk is a serious threat even if it doesn't trigger Kessler Syndrome.

Steps are being taken to combat the risk. We're tracking debris much more carefully than ever right now. The International Space Station and other spacecraft have special protective layers known as Whipple shield: instead of building hulls out of thicker material, engineers add an extra thin layer some distance over the regular hull. The layer isn't meant to stop the debris but to break it into smaller chunks. In essence, Whipple shield turns debris from a bullet into birdshot. It even makes the needed thickness for the inner hull much smaller, so overall spacecraft mass is actually reduced.

And this: we’re developing a technology known as a laser broom. Targeting a laser on debris will heat up one side of the debris. The resulting heat emissions will then alter and destabilize the debris' orbit, causing it to burn up in the atmosphere.

Like me, trying to make pizza.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: New & Noteworthy

The (real) Yard Ramp Guy has a grab-bag blog entry this week that involves a sales promotion, testimonials, turnkey services, and a way to get a better tax situation. I just love it when disparate tangents weave together.

Read all about it HERE.