The Monongahela-Duquesne Connection

Fun with Funiculars

Funicular

It's a Steep Slope, Sherlock

It's been a while since I've written about one of my favorite subjects. And since this started out as a blog all about ramps, it feels about time to ramp up once again.

First, a refresher course on the funicular. It’s a railway on a steep incline—often 45 degrees or more—that contain a pair of cars that are attached with a cable and that counterbalance one another. When one car moves up, the other moves down. I've written about them before (see HERE). I think they're fairly extraordinary.

End of refresher course.

The Monongahela Incline is America's oldest continually operating funicular. Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it stretches from the flood plain of the Monongahela River up to the top of Mount Washington, a neighborhood with one of the most beautiful views in any city in America. (When the funicular was built in 1870, however, the neighborhood was known as Coal Hill.)

Around 1860, Pittsburgh's expanding industrial base began drawing German immigrants (among others) to the area. Since the industrial districts already filled up most of the flood plain, the new workers began settling on the hillsides nearby.

With few good roads and little public transit, the trek to and from work was up and down the steep and frequently muddy hill. Germany, however, had employed funiculars for some time already, so residents quickly proposed the opening of their own funicular. 

A second funicular reaching the neighborhood, the Duquesne Incline, opened in 1877. Originally a cargo carrier, engineers later converted it for passenger use.

The Duquesne Incline remains open today, except for a one-year closure in the 1960s, when it was saved by a community fundraiser.

Other funiculars have been built, but only the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines made it out of the 1960s…along with some people I know.

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Quotable

Yes, Yard Ramp Guy: I’ve read your comment this week regarding our not meeting at the center of our alphabetical quote-off. According to my calculations (a 1986 Texas Instruments calculator), you and I had a 50 percent chance of landing on the same letter. The problem—and the beauty—here is that we’re both of us consistent. Alas, we’re like two ships that pass in the night. Not to quote Manilow, or anything.

“Management: An activity or art where those who have not yet succeeded and those who have proved unsuccessful are led by those who have not yet failed.”

— Paulson Frenckner

Norwegian Gratitude

Seeding the Svalbard Archipelago

Svalbard Vault Entrance

Entrance to the Svalbard Vault

These days, we’ve come to expect powerful governments and military forces building bunkers underneath mountains.

For example, China has an underground network of tunnels for ferrying nuclear weapons, and the United States has a vast operations center for NORAD under Cheyenne Mountain.

One of the most secure of all these underground facilities is somewhat surprising, though. The Norwegians built it, and they use it for plants.

They constructed the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to hold a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples of seeds held in gene banks from around the world.

Its intended purpose is to provide a form of insurance: as a backup should we lose other seed gene banks or if we experience large-scale crises on a regional or global scale.

By request of the Norwegian government, the vault holds no genetically modified seeds. Engineers built the structure 390 feet inside a sandstone mountain on the Svalbard archipelago, an Arctic island chain that is one of the coldest places on the planet.

Svalbard lacks tectonic activity, ensuring the vault is safe from earthquakes. The surrounding permafrost helps keep the vault cool; even if the refrigeration units failed, it would take several weeks for the facility to rise to the surrounding sandstone's temperature, which would remain below freezing. And the bunker is 430 feet above sea level, so even if the ice caps completely melt it won't be flooded.

The vault's primary purpose isn’t to provide new seeds to a region facing a major disaster (though it can do that in a pinch). Instead, Svalbard is there to restock smaller gene banks around the world in case they've been affected by a disaster or have lost seeds to mismanagement.

It's best to think of it as a bank to which other banks can make deposits (those being the world's 1,750 other seed banks).

In fact, they're often called to do so: in 2012, the Philippines lost its entire seedbank to flooding and fire and received assistance from the Norwegian initiative.

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Quotable

Oh, Yard Ramp GuyPlease regard my reverse-alphabetical entry this week...

“Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, Not because they never found it, But because they didn't stop to enjoy it.”

— William Faulkner

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.