Archives: Playing with Pareidolia

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: see something where nothing exists? It's okay: you're in good company.


Everyone plays the game as kids—the one where you look for objects in clouds, right? Even the least-imaginative kids could at least see sheep. Well, it turns out there's a name for it, and it's actually pretty important.

McCoy Fields Pareidolia

Whoa

It's called pareidolia. Broadly speaking, this is the brain's ability to perceive a familiar pattern in a stimulus where none actually exists. Other examples: mountainsides that resemble faces and trees that look like people.

People aren't the only entities that experience pareidolia. Computers do it, too. Google has a program called DeepDream that specifically sets out to exploit this, and it produces some really, really weird results. (DeepDream especially sees a lot of dogs.)

Pareidolia is fairly important in science, and it causes a lot of problems in archeology and paleontology. Amateurs are constantly picking up rocks they mistakenly think are arrowheads, dinosaur eggs, or bones. This happens so much that there's a specific name for rocks like this: mimetoliths. This also includes larger rocks, like the mountainsides that look like faces.

Yeah, well.

Yeah, well.

The most famous applied use of pareidolia is the Rorschach inkblot test, which is supposed to give insight into a person's mental state. A fairly successful tool, we’ve used the Rorschach continually since the early 20th century—fairly astonishing, since psychology has thrown away so much from that time period.

If you're familiar with the tabloid-fodder “Jesus appears on toast” articles, you've stumbled on another example of pareidolia. (And we know a woman who saves pieces of firewood because of, well, all those faces she sees in them. Apparently, they make for good company. We hope she has enough non-faced wood to keep warm this winter.)

It also sees extensive use in art, which is unsurprising. Many optical illusions (like the famous one that could either be a lamp or two faces) are good examples. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about pareidolia as a tool in art. Pareidolia is one of the main reasons cartoons work so well, making it easy for us to assign complex emotions to simple line drawings of people.

Pareidolia isn't good or bad—just reflects an aspect of how our brains interpret the world—but can also lead you astray. This phenomenon is also probably one of the coolest oddities involved in discovering how our brains work.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: National Ramp Coverage

And speaking of pareidolia, this week my friend The Yard Ramp Guy is seeing umbrellas and The Munsters in his ramp maps.

Click HERE to experience the ramp world through his eyes.

Archives: Beta Testing WolframAlpha

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: alternative search engines. WolframAlpha'ing, anyone?


Q: What is the average weight of a panda?

A: 170-290 lbs.

The Ramp Rules WolframAlpha

Searching for Engines

There are a lot of different search engines out there, but most people never feel the need to go past Google. For the most part, I'm with them. I have discovered a few specialty search engines that I visit on a regular basis. Most of these are simply engines that search inside a specific website, usually Wikipedia. There are a couple exceptions, though. The biggest one is called WolframAlpha.

Q: How many people have the given name McCoy?

A: 1649 estimated to still be alive in the United States.

Strictly speaking, WolframAlpha isn't a search engine at all. It's a computational knowledge engine. Its creator, Stephen Wolfram, designed the engine to answer factual questions by using its curated internal database of information. This is a very different function than search engines, which provide a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer.

Q: Motorcycle traffic in Germany?

A: 11.1 billion vehicle miles per year.

WolframAlpha can perform arithmetic, trigonometry, algebra, and numerous other mathematical functions. It contains population estimates from around the globe. It records weather data from the past in the database. And so this computational knowledge engine can use all of this information, along with its countless volumes of other information, to calculate the answers to a huge number of questions.

Q: Melting point of teflon?

A: 327 degrees Celsius. (620.6 degrees Fahrenheit)

Not to say that Wolfram Alpha is perfect. Its databases don't contain anywhere close to even a significant percentage of human knowledge. It doesn't know the average speed of a turtle, for instance, so you couldn't use it to figure out how long it would take one to cross the United States.

Thinking 'bout things.

My own computational knowledge engine.

A fun Twitter account I ran into the other day is dedicated entirely to sharing odd questions that Wolfram Alpha can't answer. My personal favorites:

  • “Hectares of cotton crops needed to make a superhero cape for every land mammal.”
  • “Total work done against gravity to make a cupcake rise while baking it, in calories?”
  • “Most common English misspelling that changes the word's Scrabble score by more than 4?”

And knowledge crawls onward…

Q: Anchorage, Alaska weather on 7/7/07?

A: Overcast, 54 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit, wind 0 to 7 mph.


Q: Most frequently erupting volcano?

A: Stromboli, in Italy.


Q: 20 gallons of gloss paint?

A: 14,000 square feet, assuming it has a spreading capacity of 690 square feet per gallon.


Q: How long did the Paleoproterozoic Era last?

A: 900 million years.


Q: x+y=10, x-y=4

A: x=7, y=3


Q: What's the temperature of the solar wind?

A: 31,000 Kelvin.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Inventory Management

Any time someone calls out the emperor's new clothes, I'm all in. This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy does just that, and then shows us how his business has been more efficient than a backordered cleaning cloth.

Click HERE to wipe the slate...cleaner.

Archives: Inclined Toward Ramps

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: what's the angle on ramps? It's a protracted conversation.


McCoy Fields, at rest

Me . . . Thinking About It

A gazillion people out there refuse to learn math after a certain age. Just absolutely refuse. In my experience, many of them frequently refuse math as much as possible. I can't say I get this, but enough people do it that, well, it's definitely a thing.

This causes a lot of problems for those of us who don't mind math—especially when we need to explain a concept that relies on that math.

As an example, let's look at describing ramp angles. Specifically, why do ramps have particular angles?

First off, we’ll choose the type of ramp. Wheelchair ramps, for instance, have an allowed ratio of 1:12. This means it's allowed to increase one inch in height for every 12 inches in length, which means about 3.58 degrees.

By comparison, the steepest road in the world has a 19-degree slope, a 35% grade (using the US system for determining road slopes). We figure this using a pretty simple equation called “rise over run.” (You just divide the rise, or the increase in height, by the run, or distance, then multiply it by 100. We're failing in our effort to avoid math, though.)

Why is the angle so much lower on wheelchair ramps? Well, we need to delve into some more math—in this case, the basic principle behind ramps:

Lifting an object always takes the same amount of work, no matter what method is used. An elevator works just as hard as you do to lift something; it's just capable of lifting more. A ramp lets you spread that work out over more time. You're still working hard, just not all at once.

Angled Access

So, the reason wheelchair ramps have such an angle is to minimize the work necessary for someone to get into a building. Many yard and loading ramps have steeper angles because we often have more limited room to fit the ramp, and we’re willing to make our workers do a bit more to earn their pay.

Take a look at how I described road grade and wheelchair ramps, and then see how I described the general principle behind ramps. One has more numbers than the other, but both contain essentially the exact same amount of math. I simply used words to describe it more heavily in the latter and provided examples in the former.

This really leads me to believe the problem isn't with math itself, but the way we learn it in schools. Using more real-world problems instead of pure math might really help make it more interesting. That, and actually providing the schools with enough support to do their jobs.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Forklift Ramps Across the Nation

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy just plain does me proud: Two simple maps pinpoint the company's reach and saturation throughout the country...

Click HERE to geolocate.

Archives: Traffic Flow

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: zippers for roads? You betcha.


All traffic isn't created equal.

Zippy Traffic...via Zipper

For example, you've likely noticed that the morning rush hour often has greater traffic coming into the city from the suburbs and that the evening rush hour traffic clogs up the outbound lanes.

So, we tend to have traffic moving much more slowly in one direction than the other.

Accidents and our tendency to rubberneck them also cause the traffic to bunch in one direction. (Yes, we can keep listing these reasons for a while.) Unfortunately, building new lanes for our roadways can be prohibitively expensive, and it often isn't even possible, especially where bridges are concerned.

There is a fascinating solution, though:

Road zippers are heavy vehicles that have the ability to move concrete lane dividers across a lane, widening the road for one direction of traffic, narrowing it for the other. This requires a special type of moveable barrier, with shorter segments linked together by flexible steel connectors.

The road zipper, plus new barriers, are far, far cheaper than an entirely new lane. They actually pick up the segment lines using a little conveyor system, essentially acting on the same principles as a screw or a ramp (though Jeff Mann, The Yard Ramp Guy, might think I'm stretching that definition a bit).

Road zippers can move the lane at up to a top speed of 10 mph, depending on traffic, and is much safer than trying to manage traffic with cones and lights. They're especially useful on bridges. Crews on the Golden Gate Bridge have been employing a road zipper since 2010 to manage rush hour traffic, to great effect.

Any road crew that's worked on a bridge isn't going to have particularly fond memories of dealing with bridge traffic, and the road zipper provides an effective solution. We can also use this method to speed up bridge re-decking projects, moving the barrier to protect the work zone.

Transportation authorities utilize road zippers all around the world, and they're especially popular in the United States and Australia. Many cities use them on a permanent basis, while others lease them temporarily during construction work.

Even if they weren't so useful logistically, I'd still like them: they're just plain cool.

_________

Quotable

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

— Lewis Carroll

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Ramps for Material Handling

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy shows us how yard ramps and strawberry Pop-Tarts are connected.

Click HERE to read about my new favorite connection.

Archives: Of a Certain Age

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: if it smelts fishy, it could be the remnants of the Stone Age. Or Bronze. Or Iron.


ape2-300x168We’ve heard of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. And yet, we aren't commonly taught why those ages occurred in that order. Which is just too bad, since it's pretty darn interesting.

The Stone Age has a simple explanation. Stone is easier to work than metal, and more common. We figured out how to use it first.

Ancient humans actually did master use of some metal during this time period — namely meteoric iron, a natural alloy of nickel and iron present in iron meteorites. We sometimes heated it but more often shaped it, by cold hammering, into tools and arrowheads; the stuff was quite difficult to work.

The ancient Inuit inhabitants of Greenland, though, used iron much more extensively than other Stone Age people. Greenland has the world's only major deposit of telluric iron, also called native iron, which is iron that occurs in its pure metal state.

Looking for the right tool to advance our evolution

Native copper, however, is found worldwide (as are native gold, silver, and platinum, all of which are of limited use for tools.) The hardest and strongest common native metal on Earth, copper proved one of the most useful.

Eventually we learned to smelt metals from ore and, around 2500 BC, learned to alloy the two together to make bronze, kicking off The Bronze Age. Tin was somewhat rare outside the British Isles, parts of China, and South Africa, so it actually ended up commanding prices higher than gold in many regions. We frequently used zinc, more common than tin, to produce brass.

Iron smelting first occurred circa 1800 BC but didn't become common until 1200 BC. Eventually, of course, iron became the metal of choice for civilization—it's just much stronger than most of the other options.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Bracing for the Elements

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy shows us how he's long been prepared for weather-related events.

Click HERE to discover a textbook-perfect example of being proactive.