Archives: The Kessler Cascade

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so, my From the Archives series. This week: proper waste disposal is important, even in space.


Or: In Space, No One Can Hear You Take Out the Trash

My family goes to a lot of movies. We're not film buffs, by any means. Usually, we're looking for snappy dialogue and explosions.

A couple years ago, we saw the film “Gravity.” For those who haven't seen it, a runaway debris cloud destroys satellites and space stations. Even though the science in that movie was pretty badly off, in a lot of ways, something like it does have the potential to occur.

Kessler Syndrome is a hypothetical scenario dreamed up by a NASA scientist named Donald Kessler in the 70s. Essentially, it proposes that if enough objects are in low Earth orbit, collisions between them will eventually result in an enormous cascade of debris.

It's a pretty simple process: one piece of space junk slams into another, which sends debris scattering about.

Some of that debris hits another piece of space junk, creating another burst of debris, which slams into more space junk, and then maybe into a satellite.

Eventually, you have an enormous cloud of debris traveling through orbit. Each piece would be widely spaced, but even tiny bits can have insanely destructive power when moving that quickly. The cloud wouldn't take out every satellite, of course; it would stay in the same orbit, and many satellites would be in a higher or lower orbit.

A Kessler cascade could potentially make space travel impossible for millennia, completely blocking off that orbit. The debris wouldn't orbit forever. The drag from the miniscule amount of air at that altitude, along with a few other factors, would eventually clear the orbit again, though the process could take thousands of years.

Governments take the threat quite seriously. Satellites aren't allowed to launch unless they can be safely disposed at the end of their lifespans. The two most common techniques for doing so: dropping it back into the atmosphere or raising it up into a higher graveyard orbit.

People also have proposed gadgets for clearing the debris, including a device called a laser broom, which is precisely as cool as it sounds.

It all really just goes to show: proper waste disposal is important, no matter where you are.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog / Eric Aguilera: Into The Mix

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy welcomes Eric Aguilera to the team. He worked on the space shuttle. And he spells his last name just like Christina Aguilera does. So, I'm confident with this new addition to the fine team.

Click HERE to read all about Eric.

Archives: The VHS Loop

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: ah, that VHS technology has me all holiday-nostalgic.


BetaandVHSThe End of the VHS Loop

Maggie had me cleaning out the attic the other day, and I found a cardboard box filled with old VHS tapes. We hadn't used the VCR in something like a decade, but I managed to find it (in the garage, under five or six cans of paint) and hooked it up.

I went through some of our old home videos, and found that some worked perfectly fine and others didn't work at all. There didn't seem to be any real link between their age and how well they worked, either, so I decided to do some research.

There are lots of stories bouncing around the internet about how VHS tapes are supposed to stop working after ten years, or 15, or 20, but there doesn't seem to be any real consensus. People have written their anecdotes about all sorts of lifespans for the dumb things.

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons for the wildly different stories. First off, there was a lot of advertising done when DVDs came out—trying to convince people to switch from VHS to DVD, with the claim that VHS tapes wouldn't last very long.

And the conditions that cause the tapes to wear out vary wildly. VCR malfunction is the quickest cause, of course, but other factors include: rapid temperature swings, frequent use, low humidity, proximity to magnets and electronics, and storage conditions.

theDVDWhat makes it even more confusing is that many of the factors aren't even consistent. Infrequent usage can sometimes cause the tapes to fail, and frequent use can do the same thing.

The last movie released on VHS was “A History of Violence,” in 2006. I doubt that a copy of this will be the last movie ever watched in the format, of course: by that time DVDs had pretty much taken over the whole scene, leaving very little of a VHS market remaining. The “last view” honor will most likely go to someone's home movie, and probably within the next 50 years.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Your Holiday Ramp Cheer

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy dusts off the power of the pen, much mightier than the sword, and scribbles a great poem in tribute to the much, much mightier yard ramp.

Click HERE to get yourself well-versed.

From the Archives: Kitchen Marvels

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: the marvels of technology can readily be found in your very own kitchen.


The Modern Kitchen

The history of technology we usually teach kids is a flashy one. They hear about atomic bombs, rocket ships, computers. If it's big, shiny, immensely expensive and difficult to create, oh, and explodes, we teach them about it. Occasionally, we might mention a really important, yet more boring one, like nitrogen fertilizers. But generally? It's shiny objects all the way down.

Modern nitrogen fertilizers, are, in my book, the most important invention of the 20th century. Forget computers, forget atom bombs: nitrogen fertilizers are what allow us to maintain our global population levels—and they might get a few sentences in your average grade school history book.

When you look at even less-flashy inventions, they get less and less in the way of attention paid to them. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you never think about one of the categories of devices you use most often. Kitchenware.

Seriously. Go in your kitchen right now, and pick up…let's say, a rubber spatula. We've had rubber for much, much longer than we've had rubber spatulas, so why did we invent them? Well, you probably have a non-stick pan, right? Try scraping it out with a metal spatula, and you're going to scrape off the non-stick coating. (Which, apparently, is really bad for your health.)

Or take a look at cast iron pans. They've got a bit of a reputation for being a little on the tough side to clean, right? Well, they used to be considerably easier to clean, but as they drifted a bit more out of popular use (though never went completely absent), a final step of the production process was dropped. They used to be sand casted, then given a strong polish, but this polishing step was dropped to save on costs, so antique cast iron is actually considerably more non-stick.

Every single pot, pan, knife, item of silverware, or bizarre back-of-the-drawer gizmo in your kitchen has an extensive history all its own. And even a cultural context: five centuries ago, a muffin pan would have been pretty much useless scrap, thanks to the lack of common closed range stoves. These are tools that you use constantly and are personally relevant every day. Atom bombs? They can, really, only be personally relevant once.

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Photo by Todd Ehlers from McGregor, Iowa, a Mississippi River town, U.S. of A. (1937 Kitchen--Not Bad!) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Ramping Toward 2021

My friend The Yard Ramp Guy puts a noble spin on the year that was, and he looks forward to putting it all behind us.

Click HERE to review the world with him.

From the Archives: The Tacoma Narrows

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: the Tacoma Narrows offers us an important cautionary tale on preventing disaster and respecting nature.


The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse is one of the best known architectural failures in modern history, and it is used as a lesson by everyone, from architects and civil engineers to insurance agents.

Built in 1940 across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington State, the suspension bridge lasted less than a year before collapsing. The only casualty was a dog stuck in a car.

Due to a very tight budget, the bridge was constructed with lightweight girders, as per the lowest bid design. (In my work, that Tacoma Narrows lesson is one of the many reasons I don't just go for the lowest bid). During construction, the bridge's thin design, low weight, and less-than-durable construction resulted in frequent vibrations and shaking whenever the wind picked up. It got so bad that the workers nicknamed it Galloping Gertie. Not exactly a trust-inspiring name.

The Bridge Collapses

The Bridge Collapses

The bridge began undergoing severe oscillations (or, to be a bit less technical about things: the bridge shook itself to bits) under heavy winds on November 7th, 1940.

I won’t go in depth on the science behind the collapse; you can find that easy enough. I'm more interested in what lessons it gives us about ignoring nature. For all the amazing things mankind has done, we still need to respect nature or it will come back to bite us. All of our technology and inventiveness allows us to stand up to nature, but push it around? Not a chance. We need to foster a design philosophy that promotes working with nature, not against it.

This sounds like hippy talk, I know, but it's nothing new. Heck, the idea goes back millennia. Look at any number of cultures that lived in hot climates—high ceilings, big windows, light colored paint. Cultures that live with heavy rain? You build your foundations strong, angle your roof, and pick your building site really carefully.

Why'd I decide to blog about Tacoma Narrows, when so many people already use it as a lesson? Well, I think some people missed that one ⏤ like my son-in-law, who decided to have his shed built by the cheapest contractor: at the edge of a hill, with no real foundation to speak of. He's going to be picking his tools out of the stream for weeks.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Smart Financing

When my friend The Yard Ramp Guy tells me I can save thousands of dollars, my ears perk up. And my bank account lofts skywards.

Click HERE to be uplifted.

From the Archives: The Hyperloop

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: the Hyperloop would get you from Point A to Point B in record time. Hands and legs in the compartment at all times, please.


The way I figure it, most billionaires are just investors: they're simply using money to make more money. It's not real exciting, but if you really want to be rich that bad, I guess it works.

A few billionaires are more interesting to me, though—guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who actually get involved in producing new things.

Elon Musk is especially noteworthy right now. He's started a private space corporation (SpaceX), co-founded Tesla Motors, and most recently is pushing for the Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop: All Aboard

The Hyperloop is a conceptual transportation system that would be able to move passengers at speeds twice, or more, of a passenger aircraft. Essentially, it's a high speed train in a sealed tunnel with most of the air pumped out, letting it speed unhindered by air resistance, track friction, weather, or any of the difficulties facing other modes of high-speed transportation.

This thing could potentially hit thousands of miles an hour (depending on how low they can keep the pressure in the tube; that's the big limiting factor). Rather than using maglev (magnetic levitation) or wheels, the train would float on air rails, very similarly to how an air hockey table works, and it would be accelerated by linear induction motors.

This concept isn't new. The idea of vacuum trains has been around for decades. This is one of the first attempts to really build one, though. While all of the initial design work was done by Musk's engineers, he then took the unusual step of releasing all of the designs and plans. All of them. He turned it into an open source project.

Most of the current work on the project is by a group of engineers called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. (The old saw about engineers getting to name companies holds true here).

That's not to say that it doesn't face plenty of troubles of its own. They've still got to figure out how to handle earthquakes, any number of technical issues, and even zoning issues. But I feel confident saying that we'll get to see this fly one day.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: The Forklift Ramp Secret

What on earth is my friend The Yard Ramp Guy doing, giving away trade secrets? It high time to find out. And the answer is rather timely.

Click HERE to spend a few rewarding minutes.