Balancing History

Let’s Not Do the Time WARPF

In this space, I delve into history often. Aside from my grandkids, it’s pretty much my favorite thing to talk about. (And I do love to talk.)

On a few entries, I’ve mentioned my problems with the standard views on history taught in school. And I figure that now is as good a time as any to lay out my objections. McCoy’s Theory of History, if you will. I think I can largely sum it up in a single phrase:

History focuses too much on the flashy stuff.

History: The Unflashy Version

Wars, assassinations, revolutions, plagues, famines. Let’s call all that WARPF. I certainly don’t think we should ignore that stuff, but WARPF makes for an extremely incomplete view of history. Much of the time, WARPF fails to recognize the importance of the conditions around those events.

Even within the flashy stuff, history often gets its priorities wrong. We usually treat wars with greater importance than plagues, despite the fact that plagues are almost always more devastating.

In McCoy’s Theory of History, we need to focus more on history’s logistical issues. There’s an old saying that’s been rephrased a thousand times by military men: “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” Understanding how a society was able to accomplish something is as important as knowing what it accomplished.

While many would also consider the infrastructural questions—i.e., what civilizations built and how they built it—to be a part of the logistical category (and they wouldn't be wrong), I would put them into another category, simply for their disproportionate importance.

Food as Anthropology: Delicious

I’m not the only one who has noticed these problems. Many serious historians are taking steps to deal with them. Environmental History is a brand new field (well, about 20 years old now, but that’s pretty new for history). It deals with how civilizations affect and are affected by nature. Culinary History is another new one that deals with how humans eat. While not as momentous as environmental history, the culinary angle is far more fundamental to being human.

History needs to be seen not as a list of events but as an ongoing story, each part changing every other. With this approach, we get a better—more linear, more connected—picture that’s also considerably more interesting to students.

Of course, it’s entirely likely that all of this is just me getting a swelled head. I’ve never been short on ego. Maggie will confirm that one if you ask. Probably even if you don't ask.

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Quotable

Okay, Yard Ramp Guy — U decide who has the better quotation this week:

“Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.”

— Oscar Wilde

Inclined Toward Ramps

Working out the Angles

A gazillion people out there refuse to learn math after a certain age. Just absolutely refuse. In my experience, many of them frequently refuse math as much as possible. I can't say I get this, but enough people do it that, well, it's definitely a thing.

This causes a lot of problems for those of us who don't mind math—especially when we need to explain a concept that relies on that math.

As an example, let's look at describing ramp angles. Specifically, why do ramps have particular angles?

First off, we’ll choose the type of ramp. Wheelchair ramps, for instance, have an allowed ratio of 1:12. This means it's allowed to increase one inch in height for every 12 inches in length, which means about 3.58 degrees.

By comparison, the steepest road in the world has a 19-degree slope, a 35% grade (using the US system for determining road slopes). We figure this using a pretty simple equation called “rise over run.” (You just divide the rise, or the increase in height, by the run, or distance, then multiply it by 100. We're failing in our effort to avoid math, though.)

Why is the angle so much lower on wheelchair ramps? Well, we need to delve into some more math—in this case, the basic principle behind ramps:

Lifting an object always takes the same amount of work, no matter what method is used. An elevator works just as hard as you do to lift something; it's just capable of lifting more. A ramp lets you spread that work out over more time. You're still working hard, just not all at once.

So, the reason wheelchair ramps have such an angle is to minimize the work necessary for someone to get into a building. Many yard and loading ramps have steeper angles because we often have more limited room to fit the ramp, and we’re willing to make our workers do a bit more to earn their pay. (I understand that Jeff Mann, “The” Yard Ramp Guy, has chosen to explore his own ramp angle related to mine in his blog this week. Bully for you, Jeff, and don’t hurt yourself.)

Take a look at how I described road grade and wheelchair ramps, and then see how I described the general principle behind ramps. One has more numbers than the other, but both contain essentially the exact same amount of math. I simply used words to describe it more heavily in the latter and provided examples in the former.

This really leads me to believe the problem isn't with math itself, but the way we learn it in schools. Using more real-world problems instead of pure math might really help make it more interesting. That, and actually providing the schools with enough support to do their jobs.

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Quotable

Top this, other Yard Ramp Guy:

There has always been a tendency to classify children almost as a distinct species.

— Hugh Lofting

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.

Grading Kinds of Grating

Everyone knows what bridge grating looks like. It’s seemingly part of everything—from stairs to ladders to ramps to fire escapes to flooring. You know this: the stuff that comes in four-foot by eight-foot panels.

Grating is easy to clean (it doesn't get dirty, really), allows light to permeate a space easily, makes a fantastic drain cover, and weighs relatively little for its strength. It's a pretty basic and essential part of construction.

aluminum

What most people don't consider, though, is its composition. Not all gratings are made of the usual, default-mode steel. Like all matters involving construction, there are very specific trade-offs that need to be made in choosing your material.

Yes, steel gratings are easily the most common: strong, not too heavy, and not too expensive. There's a lot to be said for sticking to the old classics. You know what you're dealing with.

Aluminum is the next most-common material and is usually present in structures that need to minimize weight. These gratings tend to show up in ships and, on occasion, airplanes.

One of the less common materials for grating is fiberglass. (Actually, fiberglass is reinforced plastic, but let’s not get too picky.) Made through a pultrusion process, fiberglass-reinforced plastic grating (or FRP grating) is non-corrodible, unlike steel or aluminum gratings.

weldedThis makes the fiberglass type ideal for environments filled with corrosive chemicals or gases; chemical plants are one obvious setting for them, depending on the plant. Another is geothermal generating stations, which tend to have sulfur and other chemical deposits accumulating on everything.

Material isn't everything, either. You need to choose the joints in the grating with care. Welded joints, the most popular, provide both strength and lightness and are good enough for most projects.

Also to consider: the size of the gaps in the grating. If your inventory features lots of small objects, it might make sense to use a heavier grate with much closer meshing. Tends to keep things from falling through.

(I need to invent a personal, portable grating system that I can use whenever I take my house keys and car keys somewhere. Maggie, of course, would just hand me the colander she uses to drain pasta.)

Mapping the Oculus Rift

I’ve never really been a fan of videogames. I don’t hate them, by any means, or even think they’re a waste of time—I figure they’ve got to be about on par with TV there. I just never got into them. Played a couple arcade machines back in the day, just bought the grandkids a new system for Christmas, but never really got into them myself.

Over the past couple of years, though, a new gadget has popped up I find pretty interesting. It’s called the Oculus Rift, and it’s a virtual reality headset.

I’ve always been intrigued by virtual reality as an idea. It would be incredibly useful for 3D modeling, among other things, not just for videogames. In the real world, though, it has been plagued with problems for decades, ranging from disorienting motion blur to extremely poor graphics to nausea and even vomiting. Most of the problems were caused by technology simply not yet being there, of course, but many of them were also matters of design philosophy.

Here’s a good comparison: making a map isn’t as easy as you’d think. You can’t just cut the surface off of a globe and plaster it on a piece of paper. In order to get it to lay flat, you’d need to cut it or stretch it somehow. By laying flat, of course, I mean showing a halfway accurate image as well. If you cut it, you end up with one of those maps that looks like a sliced up orange peel. It’ll be accurate, but ugly and hard to read.

If you stretch it out, instead, you end up having a hundred different new problems to solve. Your continents are going to be seriously distorted For example, Africa and Greenland (yep, I know: Greenland isn’t technically a continent) usually get much of the brunt of this. Africa, notably, is usually presented about the size of South America, when it actually dwarfs South America.

I won’t go into too many technical details that I’d likely hash up. The Oculus Rift is, after all, a gaming device, which is not my subject of expertise. Still, the creators are essentially going about creating the Rift with a design philosophy that is very different than what’s come before. Instead of just putting a 3D view right in front of you and calling it a day, they’ve actually designed the screens inside the goggles to replicate actual human fields of view.

They’ve included motion sensors capable of allowing you to look around in a realistic way. So to finish the comparison, they’re not just trying to plaster the skin of the globe on a sheet of paper; they’re actually trying to make it fit. Actually, I guess it’s sorta the opposite of that, they’re trying to take a map and refit it around the globe again, and…

Well, never mind. You get the idea, right? It makes sense to me, at least.