Things, Explained

A Roboticist-Cartoonist Version of Things

Even though I read a lot, I usually don't recommend books to others. My favorites usually aren't too interesting to most people—lots of books on obscure parts of history, old pulp westerns, and dry technical volumes.

While Christmas shopping, though, I found a book that I loved so much that I bought copies, not only for my grandkids but myself, too.

Ducks in a (vertical) row.

His ducks in a (vertical) row.

It's called Thing Explainer, written by a former NASA roboticist turned cartoonist named Randall Munroe. The premise is pretty straightforward: the book is filled with diagrams of various gadgets, natural phenomena, and scientific concepts, but all the actual explaining is done using only the thousand most commonly-used words in the English language.

In practice, it can get a little silly. Bridges are called “tall roads,” planes are called “sky boats,” and the Saturn Five Rocket is called “Up Goer Five.” All of which earned more than a few chuckles from me.

Added bonus: The actual diagrams and explanations are absolutely top notch. I like to think I'm decently well educated when it comes to science, and yet I still learned quite a bit from Thing Explainer, often in the form of completely new tidbits of knowledge, sure, but just as often knowledge presented in a way that is novel and better for comprehension.

Thing Explainer isn't the kind of book you read in one or two sittings. It's more of a coffee table book you thumb through here and there. Of course, I read it all in one sitting, but I'm just not very good at delayed gratification when it comes to books. (Or when it comes to dinner. Or dessert. Or vacations.)


Paying it Forward

Like book recommendations, I’m not too big on endorsements (unless it’s for ancient inventions that are perfectly great to help the 21st century keep on keeping on).

And then along comes that other Yard Ramp Guy, Jeff Mann, who just the other day introduced me to the Grasshopper Entrepreneur Scholarship. Since I don’t believe my School of Life credentials currently qualify me as an eligible entrant, I offer it up to all you legal young’uns—either in college or headed there.

Here’s the rub—and why I’m happy to present it to you: This year’s essay topic is, “What does market disruption mean to you as an entrepreneur? What would you do to create market disruption for your business?”

Me, I’m all about market disruption. (In my family, Maggie defines this as whatever I’ll do to get out of going to the grocery store.)

A $5,000 scholarship awaits the winner. Go get ‘em.

Earth Art

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

I am not a well educated man when it comes to art. Give me a ten-dollar painting of a sailing ship from a yard sale or thrift store and I'll be perfectly happy with it. Every once in a while, though, I find something that makes me take notice—in this case, it's a fella named Michael Heizer.

Heizer is known as what we call a land or earth artist—someone who builds immense outdoor pieces designed around and for their specific locations. These pieces are left out in the open to age and erode naturally. (Kinda like me.) Many of the earliest pieces from the 1960s don't exist anymore. If nothing else, Heizer's pieces are particularly notable for their sheer size.

dubnegOne of his best known pieces is a work called Double Negative, a pair of massive trenches cut into the edge of Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Each is 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep, and they have a combined length of 1,500 feet. The project involved moving 244,000 tons of rock.

Another project, Levitated Mass, involved the suspension of a massive, 21-foot tall, 340-ton boulder above a concrete trench that you can walk through. Moving the boulder itself was a massive feat of engineering. It only had 60 miles to travel, as the bird flies, but in order to get there they took it on a tangled 106-mile route through 22 cities in order to find bridges strong enough and streets wide enough.

The colossal custom transport could only move at seven miles an hour, and so they needed 11 days to get there, traveling only at night. Along the way, they had to cut down trees, temporarily remove traffic lights, and tow cars. The whole route turned into a series of parties at the transport's daytime resting places.

(The event was so cool that our other Yard Ramp Guy has blogged about it.)

Heizer’s current project, in the works for 20 years now, is by far his most impressive. Not yet open to the public, it is an enormous, mile-long monolithic structure known only as City, with two smaller complexes nearby.

To give you a comparison, it's about the size of the National Mall in DC. It's located in the brand new Basin and Range National Monument. As soon as it opens to the public, you can bet I'll be visiting.



Clf23 at English Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On Living Bridges

I've blogged a lot about bridges, I know (Sir Bridges Blog-a-Lot, eh?) but I haven't yet explored living bridges.

Meghalaya, a state in north-eastern India, is one of the wettest places in the world, getting close to 500 inches of rainfall a year. Almost three-quarters of the state is forested. One of the indigenous tribes living there, the War-Khasi, build living foot bridges from the roots of the Ficus elastica — a variety of rubber tree.

thebridgePhoto by Arshiya Urveeja Bose [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To grow the bridges, the Khasis create root guidance systems out of halved and hollowed betel nut trunks. The roots are channeled to the other side of the river, where they are allowed to bury themselves in the soil on that side.

The bridges take 10 to 15 years to grow strong enough for regular use; once they do, they last incredible amounts of time with no maintenance: since they're still growing, they actually continue to grow stronger and stronger over time. Some of the older bridges are five centuries old. Many of the older, stronger bridges can support 50 or more people at once.

mfthoughtThe most famous of the bridges, the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, is actually two of those bridges, with one stacked directly over the other. Local dedication to the art has kept the bridges alive and prevented them from being replaced with steel. (Steel, frankly—and with all respect to those dealing with, ahem, yard ramps—don't have anything near the lifespan of the root bridges and aren't nearly as sturdy.)

The root bridges aren't the only living bridges around. In the Iya Valley in Japan, there are bridges woven out of living wisteria vines. They're much less common, and only three remain. They're built by growing immense lengths of wisteria on each side of the river before weaving them together—a process that must be repeated once every three years.

These wisteria bridges are much less sturdy than the Khasi root bridges, with wooden planks spaced over seven inches apart, and they apparently shake wildly while you're on them. By all accounts, these things are terrifying to cross, which makes sense: they’re widely thought to have been designed originally for defense. The original bridges didn't even have railings.

I’m The Yard Ramp Guy®

2mfWell, I’m just pleased as punch to be officially presented as The Yard Ramp Guy. It’s not complicated, but those of you who know of and have been reading me understand that I’m gonna try explaining anyway.

Guy named Jeff Mann called me about a year ago. Said he’d started reading my blog and my Facebook page and my Twitter tweetings. Said he’s the original Yard Ramp Guy but enjoyed my musings and wanted to know if I’d be interested in becoming an official Yard Ramp Guy licensee.

And, yes, I must admit that it cracked me up. Now, I was there when Unser won at Indy (I’m not gonna say which Unser and which year, in order to keep you from thinking me full of formaldehyde). Just being there was like I won the darn race myself, even though I personally drive so below posted speed limits that my Chevy has probably attained consciousness in order to become offended by me.

So, when Jeff contacted me and floated the idea of my becoming a Yard Ramp Guy, it felt like the second thing I’ve ever won.

I said yes…with the following conditions:

1. I can write about whatever I want—yes, the ramp rules but I need to explore everything (just ask Maggie and the kids).

2. No editing or censoring (just ask Maggie and the kids).

mf1Jeff was game with the additional requirement that I put my face on his logo so I am using the licensed trademark correctly. I LOVE that part—which is about the only instance of vanity I’ve ever had (just ask Maggie and the kids).

Jeff and I have been friends ever since.

Why Mr. Mann likes me, I don’t know. I’m just a guy with a fascination for things that work (and a soft spot for things that don’t work). I like inventions and ideas that help advance civilization and culture. And I like to write about them.

Really, though: the ramp is central. It’s not for nothing that this site is called The Ramp Rules. I love the invention of it, the idea behind it, the things that have been constructed with its sheer and fairly simple brilliance. (Click HERE for my Top Five favorite inventions.)

Beyond that, I like the way Jeff and his team conduct business. I like what they call the weaving together of “old-school values with 21st-century technology.” I think The Yard Ramp Guy is proof positive that it’s still possible to conduct yourself as a gentleman and be successful in business.

World needs more of that.

The Lasting Architecture of Vastu Shastra

Indian architecture has one of the longest histories of any architectural school—or, at least, of any architectural philosophy. It's not like any society really ever stops building for a while, so they all have immensely long architectural histories.

Angkor WatIndia, however, has an architectural philosophy called Vastu Shastra. Rather than a rigid design philosophy telling you to do this and then do that, it's more a set of guidelines to help with maximizing space, sunlight, and movement within the space, while adding in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. This all is characterized by square mandalas, which are very distinctive grid-like shapes.

Many of the greatest architectural achievements in human history were designed according to Vastu Shastra. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was designed according to that plan. (Fun fact: the live action version of “The Jungle Book” from the 1960s was partially filmed at Angkor Wat. Great movie.)

One theory holds that they developed Vastu Shastra as far back as 8,000 years ago; many ancient Indian archaeological sites conform to its design principals. It’s been in continual practice ever since, though it was ignored by a lot of architects during the British rule of India. As soon as the British got the boot, though, Vastu Shastra quickly started regaining its popularity.

Part of the reason Vastu Shastra has remained in use for so long is its flexibility. The design matrix allows for adaptation: with new building materials, in more crowded areas, and in non-square spaces. We’ve seen a major resurgence of Vastu Shastra in modern times—among both architects and homeowners in India—and its concepts are spreading all around the world.

Too often, people look at architecture, comment about how exotic it looks, and then just dismiss it as a novelty. People don't build like that, though. There is a philosophy behind every piece of architecture in history.