The QWERTY Blues

Or: Was the Dvorak Like Betamax?

QWERTY keyboard

Just My Type

The first time I asked someone why the letters on a keyboard were positioned the way they were, I heard that it was organized in the QWERTY format to slow typists down in order to prevent the keys from jamming.

This was only a few years ago (so many topics and so much information to explore: for some reason, I'd just never wondered about it before then), and typewriters were long out of vogue. This, of course, led to the question of why the keyboard hasn’t really changed.

The standard explanation for QWERTY sticking around has to do with institutional inertia. Once an organization, company, or even nation is accustomed to using a specific system, switching over becomes much, much harder. There are retraining costs, equipment replacement costs, and plenty of people who just don't like change. (And yes, in all fairness: I'm one of them, half the time.) It's the same reason that the United States is one of the only countries to not have switched to the metric system.

There are alternatives to QWERTY, of course. Dvorak is the best known instance. Dvorak claims to gain greater accuracy and speed in typing by moving the vowels to home row and by making sure the most frequently used letters were on the right side of the keyboard, among other changes.

Well, it turns out that the whole QWERTY origin story was actually wrong. Typewriter design flaws weren't responsible for the QWERTY keyboard layout. In fact, it was actually designed to be more efficient for telegraph operators—the letter positions were arranged to work better for the particular quirks of Morse code, stretching back to the very first mass marketed typewriter.

What about Dvorak? Well, it does seem to provide a small typing speed advantage…but not a significant one. It turns out that most of the studies about Dvorak were pretty poorly run; Dr. August Dvorak, the Dvorak’s creator ran the most famous study—yes, it showed the Dvorak in an extremely positive light.

And the small typing speed advantage it offers certainly doesn't counterbalance the literal billions it would cost to retool the computers in America alone.

Anyway, if we were really that worried about faster typing speed, we'd just switch to stenography instead, which more than triples the speed of Dvorak or QWERTY.

No offense to Dvorak or stenography, but I'll stick to the keyboard that came with my computer.

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Quotable

Okay, (other) Yard Ramp GuyQuestion it all, my friend:

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.”

— John Ruskin

Free Software

Well, Kind Of…

open source

Lost in the (Free) Matrix

Many people don't realize it, but the most important software in the world is free.

Various open source programs (called such because their code is available for anyone to download, examine, or use) form the backbone of the Internet. Nearly all the programs that allow the internet to run are completely free, with volunteers maintaining many of them.

Open source software also has a wide array of other functions. You can find free open-source versions of most types of programs. Here are a few of the more useful ones I've stumbled across over the years:

Apache Open Office | A full open source office productivity suite, Open Office is fully capable of replacing the entire Microsoft Office Suite with ease.  You can still open, edit, and save files in Microsoft Office formats, as well as in a variety of others. Includes the obligatory word processor, spreadsheet program, and slideshow program. I've been using this one for years.

GIMP | GIMP is an excellent open source alternative to Photoshop. Though it used to have a reputation as clunky, cluttered, and hard to use, GIMP has since developed into a much more streamlined and user-friendly experience. It's widely considered an acceptable alternative, even by industry professionals.

QGIS | Also known as Quantum GIS, QGIS is the fastest and most powerful open source GIS (Geographic Information System) on the market. While ArcGIS, the dominant program on the market, is a bit more versatile, it also costs thousands of dollars and often runs a tad slower than QGIS. If you need to create, examine, or alter maps for free, QGIS is your best bet.

FreeCAD | FreeCAD isn't quite as polished as some of these other options yet remains a good choice for someone looking for an open source alternative to AutoCAD, or the like, for design work.

Oh, a big caveat here: yes, these are all free…though you’ll have to pay hundreds of dollars, along with monthly fees to your Internet service provider, in order to run the stuff.

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Quotable

Yes, Yard Ramp Guy. Quotations truly do R-esonate with me:

“Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”

— Jimmy Breslin

The Curious Coral Castle

Ed, the Latvian-American Eccentric

coral castle

28 Years in the Making

Eccentrics building bizarre monuments is somewhat old hat, but Edward Leedskalnin took it a little farther than most.

The Coral Castle, located in Southern Florida, is a bizarre complex of limestone megaliths. Each stone weighs several tons.

Leedskalnin spent more than 28 years building the coral castle, and he allowed no one to watch him work. He claimed that the only tool he used was a “perpetual motion holder,” whatever that is.

His eccentricities don't stop there. He claimed that magnets cured him of tuberculosis. When asked how he built the castle, he would only answer, “It's not difficult if you know how.”

The “castle” itself is constructed of a thousand tons of oolitic limestone, which comes from coral. The joints of the stones use no mortar; all of the structures are held together by their weight alone. The whole thing is surrounded by a wall of eight-foot tall standing stones, which Hurricane Andrew didn’t even shift in 1992.

Leedskalnin himself lived in a two-story tower near the center of the maze. Other structures on the site include a sundial, fountains, obelisks, and countless pieces of stone furniture. The largest stone weighs 27 tons, and the largest monoliths top 25 feet.

Coral Castle’s most famous structure is the revolving gate: an eight-ton structure that a child could push open with a finger. The gate had to be removed for repairs in the 80s, when it was discovered that Leedskalnin had drilled a hole through the middle and put a metal shaft connected to a truck bearing through it. The repaired gate, unfortunately, doesn't open quite as easily.

Edward Leedskalnin once claimed that he had discovered the secrets of the pyramids. This actually might not be too far off. Archaeologists and engineers have come to find that the Egyptians used incredibly clever engineering techniques to accomplish their constructions with relatively small workforces.

All the stories about the eccentric using strange powers have been debunked. Though he was highly secretive, a few people did witness his construction techniques, which were as mundane—though clever—as they come. Still, though, it's pretty cool stuff.

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Quotable

Yes Yard Ramp Guy: Onward and backward with our quote-off. Xcellent, I say.

“X marks the spot.”

— Lots of people, including pirates, Indiana Jones, and me.

The Forklift-Pallet Supremacy

Or: Hit the Road, Jack

Ramp Rules: The Forklift

Ground Your Lift

Forklifts weigh massively more than cars do. They are not toys. If you play with one, you're going to get hurt or die. Not that those people apt to play with them in the first place are going to listen, but at least I tried.

In all seriousness, they're one of the leading cause of serious workplace injuries in warehouses. (The leading cause of minor injuries—er, hands down—are cardboard cuts.)

An early ancestor of the forklift was a manually powered hoist that we employed to lift a load. Simple in design and easy to manipulate, it generated lift through basic mechanical advantage. Those stuck around for a while without changing much.

In 1906, though, the Pennsylvania railroad introduced battery powered trucks to move luggage at stations. These two developments quickly began converging in the years leading up to the first world war, when a labor shortage—brought on by the war and the Spanish Flu—spurred the development of early hauling tractors and trucks.

We continued to develop these over the years, and the introduction of hydraulics set the pace for modern usefulness.

McCoy Fields: Inspector

I'm Inclined to Inspect

The most important piece of the puzzle, though, is one that no one blinks twice at today: the standardized wooden pallet. Skids (essentially pallets with no boards on the bottom) had existed since Ancient Egypt.

Up until the 1930s, barrels and crates remained the preferred shipping options. Pallets, however, came together with forklifts in a perfect storm, and we rapidly standardized them, along with forklift sizes. Though there are many different pallet standards today, they largely remain homogenous in any given region.

We also standardized pallet jacks. (Interestingly enough, the pallet jack dates back to 1918, making the forklift actually older than the pallet jack.) The second world war only served to cement forklifts and pallets as preeminent in shipping.

This might all seem like idle trivia, but it's actually incredibly important. We design pretty much everything in that world—from truck widths and road widths to warehouse layouts and cardboard box sizes—with the different sizes of pallets in mind.

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Quotable

Cheers to you, Yard Ramp GuyMay 2017 bring greater reach to your business. In the meantime…

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”

— Bill Vaughn

Gorge-ous

Or: Hooked on Fishing

The one that didn't get away.

Fishing: It predates civilization…even the human race. (Birds fish, after all.)

There are plenty of ways people fish, ranging from fishing spears (which are really, really difficult to use) to nets. The best way, or at least most fun, is with a hook and a line. And it's a very old way.

The oldest fish hook in existence was carved out of shell. Fishing hook hunters (or stumble-uponers) found it in East Timor, and it dates back to as much as twenty-three THOUSAND years.

Shell was an extremely common material for ancient fish hooks. Our ancestors crafted hooks from bone, wood, horns, stone, bronze, and eventually iron. Each one of them, however, had problems of its own. Wood, for instance, floats, and that necessitates weights, or heavier bait. One common workaround was using multiple of these materials to leverage their strengths.

Fishing hooks became more common in the archaeological record around 7000 BC. Many of the early fishhooks lacked barbs, which would have made it much more difficult to fish with. In fact, one of the earliest types of fishing hook, known as a gorge hook, wasn't even curved.

The gorge hook is a small stick tapered to a point on each end. A small groove is cut around the middle, where a cord is tied. The cord is then wrapped along the length of the gorge hook, securing a piece of bait to it. When the fish grabs the bait, the cord comes unwound, which then results in the gorge hook turning sideways and lodging in the fish's throat.

This does require you to know the average length of fish in the area, though. The gorge hook has the distinction of being one of the few hooks that aren't prone to stabbing into your thumb.

Fishing with an antique-style hook is definitely a challenge. But the satisfaction you get makes it worthwhile.

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Quotable

Yes, Yard Ramp Guy: I believe I’ve got you this week—hook, line, and sinker:

“If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there'd be a shortage of fishing poles.

— Doug Larson