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.



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

Cross-Laminated Timber

Or: Wood You?

cross-laminated timber


Wooden buildings are making a comeback, and in a big way. Well, make that a sort-of wood. We create cross-laminated timber (CLT) by gluing layers of parallel beams atop one another perpendicularly, forming panels that are up to six inches thick.

The panels are as comparably strong as steel. Much of this strength comes from their ability to distribute loads across the entire panel, rather than the skeletal columns used in steel constructions.

It's essentially plywood on steroids. A lot of steroids.

This isn't just an experimental material. We developed CLT in the 1990s. We’ve already used it to build multiple nine- and ten-story buildings, and we have towers up to 34 stories in the works. (Old wooden buildings were lucky to reach five stories in height.)

Their internal architecture doesn't resemble old wooden buildings, though. The design is much more similar to concrete buildings.

And the process moves considerably faster than conventional steel and concrete construction—as much as 30 percent faster than comparable buildings, and 15 percent cheaper. Much of the savings in time come from the fact that panels are usually prefabbed, and just need to be screwed together.

Fire safety is one of the usual concerns regarding building with wood, but it's not one with CLT. Yes, the timber on the outside will char, but the inside will still remain structurally sound. Steel, on the other hand, melts all the way through when it gets hot enough.

Designers and builders are not leaving things to chance, though: they usually install gypsum paneling over the CLT to further shield it from fire.

CLT is also considerably more environmentally friendly. Wood is a carbon sink—which means it absorbs more carbon than it emits as carbon dioxide. So buildings that we construct from wood serve to offset carbon emissions to the point where the building is carbon negative.

Which means that treehouses and wooden skyscrapers are actually fighting global warming.



To The Yard Ramp Guy: Would you dare quote about wood this week?

“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood."

— Gabriel García Márquez

Enter the Octobot

Squishy Robotics


The Octobot

When someone talks about robots, the first thing you think of is metal. Metal limbs, gears, motors, etc. Maybe there’s a bit of plastic involved, but the basic nature of a robot is something solid, rigid, unyielding.

Even robots built to look human in fiction—androids—generally have rigid infrastructure underneath their fleshy bits. The thing is, though: none of those elements are actual requirements of robothood.

Enter the Octobot.

The Octobot is the first entirely soft-bodied robot in existence. This 3D-printed robot is constructed entirely without electronics or circuitry and instead relies on pneumatic logic gates. Tiny channels, grown into the material of the bot during printing, carry hydrogen peroxide throughout the body, passing through various gates and coming into contact with bits of platinum, which break down the hydrogen peroxide.

The released oxygen gas then expands and propels, moving the limbs. The current model can run for about eight minutes on a full tank.

McCoy Fields, at rest

Semi-autonomous behavior

Current designs can’t do much more than wiggle around, but future Octobot designs promise the ability to move around and interact with their environments more fully.

How are these soft-bodied robots going to be used, though? We need to look to the Octobot’s inspiration for that.

Like the octopus, soft-bodied robots would possess the ability to force themselves into much smaller spaces and conditions than a normal, rigid robot.

The lack of an absolute requirement for an electrical system or a chemical power source might also present an advantage in certain conditions, though I’m sure many—if not most—future soft robots will have electrical systems and computers.

Plus, soft robots would just be fun to play with.



Dear Yard Ramp Guy: Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

“The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots."

— Erich Fromm

Harrison’s Chronometer

Navigating the High Seas

Lat and long

Getting from here to there.

Until a couple hundred years ago, sailors never strayed far from the shipping lanes if they could help it. Many ships stuck to the coast whenever possible.

Not that the ships were of low quality, or that they were manned by poor sailors. It all came down to the fact that navigation was much more difficult then.

In order to navigate at sea, you need three things: location, speed, and heading.

Heading simply required a compass, or a clear view of the sun or stars. Speed could be arrived at in a variety of different ways.

Location, though, was the tricky one.

Everyone’s heard of latitude and longitude—the line grid on every world map. Latitude measures the distance North or South from the equator and is represented by the lines parallel to the equator that run East-West. Latitude is easy to calculate from star positions. Longitude measures the distance East or West, and is represented by the lines perpendicular to the equator that intersect at the poles.

Longitude was the difficult one to calculate—and the reason navigation was so difficult. Ships, convoys, and even entire fleets ran aground on a regular basis due to the longitude problem. The situation got so bad that the English government put up a massive fortune as a reward to anyone who could solve the problem.


A sextant

For years, we thought the answer was in astronomical observation. In fact, we solved the problem that way with the sextant. Unfortunately, the sextant was cumbersome and difficult to use, and the calculations involved could take hours.

Enter a man named John Harrison, who tried a different approach—a mechanical one. If you could keep track of the exact time of your starting point, comparing it to your current time, you could determine your longitude.

Harrison spent 31 years developing the marine chronometer, the first clock capable of keeping time at sea. He had to solve a bunch of problems to do so; heating and cooling of the metal parts could cause inaccuracies in timepieces. We couldn’t use a pendulum, due to the swaying of the ship. Grease would eventually wear off.

In the end, he managed to solve all of these problems, and with one little device he changed history. After that, oceanic trade and exploration became easy, reliable, and economical. Harrison’s marine chronometer helped fuel a multi-century economic boom.



Oh, Yard Ramp Guydo you know where you’re going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you?

“The rules of navigation never navigated a ship. The rules of architecture never built a house.”

— Thomas Reid

Conquering the Far Reaches of Space

Zoom Zoom

Rocket-powered McCoy

In space, nobody can hear you complain.

Regular readers of this blog know that I turn into a little kid when the subject of space comes up. I watch NASA TV all the time. And I've got a model of the space shuttle hanging in my workshop. Seems that I’m running out of space for my space.

Anyone who follows NASA launches knows that it takes years and years for probes to get to the outer planets. Chemical rockets simply aren't powerful enough and can't carry enough fuel.

But…we do have plans for ships that can go faster:

  • Closed system nuclear drive: They come in two varieties—nuclear electric rockets, which use nuclear power to power any number of different electrical thrusters, and nuclear thermal rockets, which merely heat a reactant and propel it out the back to create thrust.
  • Open system nuclear drive: Extremely straightforward. It's a big old nuclear powered rocket.
  • Bussard Ramjet: A variant on the nuclear rocket, with one main difference—it has a giant electromagnetic “scoop” projecting out of the front. The scoop funnels interstellar hydrogen into the ship, where it's then used for fuel. Hypothetically, this design could allow travel much farther than many of the other designs on the list.

McCoy Fields, astronaut

Me, practicing on my tractor for space flight.

  • Solar SailA bit of a Gordian knot-style solution to long-distance space propulsion. It's a sail in the literal sense yet doesn't actually propel itself. The sails are made out of lightweight, reflective materials like Mylar that harness the solar wind instead of sea winds. A ship with a solar sail would actually be capable of tacking and maneuvering quite effectively, but in three dimensions rather than the two of an Earthbound sailing ship. While the acceleration from this is quite low, it never stops…just keeps accelerating as long as the ship is in the solar wind. The solar sail could, potentially, even reach another solar system, then brake using that star's solar wind.
  • Laser Sail: This is where things get especially bizarre. The laser sail functions in a similar way to the solar sail but, rather than using the solar wind, this heavily armored ship instead gets its propulsion from a massive, artificial laser trained upon it.
  • Orion Ship: The most insane of our rocket ship ideas. We've been able to build this one since the 1960s but haven't…for what should be obvious reasons: it's propelled by nukes. Not a nuclear rocket. Actual nuclear bombs. The ship has a large, shielded pusher plate. A nuclear bomb is fired behind the ship and detonated. The resulting shock wave propels the ship forward. An Orion ship could reach Pluto in a matter of weeks.

With that last one, I’m imagining astronauts turning into the equivalent of bugs on a windshield on the highway. Thanks, but no. I’ll stick to creating more space in my earth-bound man cave.



Oh, Yard Ramp Guy: I’m boldly going where no man has gone before with these quotations. You?

“When you launch in a rocket, you’re not really flying that rocket. You’re just sort of hanging on."

— Astronaut Michael P. Anderson