From the Archives: Ramps, Allium & Google

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. Back now to ramps, one of my favorite inventions...

In the family of quality ramps.

Wild Leeks

You know the first thing I see when I Google "ramps"? (Ignoring those constant ads, of course). A Wikipedia article on ramps. It's a pretty well researched and detailed article, too, listing all sorts of uses for ramps, their discovery and history, even festivals dedicated to them!

The only problem, though, isn't about inclined planes. It's about a plant. Specifically: Allium tricoccum, also known as wild leeks.

So when you Google one of the most important inventions in human history—one of the basic simple machines that makes civilization work—you get a smelly weed that some people like to eat. Maybe it's just me: I think the invention that allowed us to build the pyramids is a little more important than a backyard pest that makes food smell like old socks.

At least if you search on Wikipedia itself, inclined planes are the first thing to pop up. Whoever runs that site seems to know what they're doing, unlike those culinary-minded dudes at Google. It's all that time inside, I'm telling you. It's not healthy. You need fresh air and sunlight every day, so you don't end up drooling over random greenery from your yard.

A refreshing beverage helps the thinking.

That's me, thinking about ramps.

And no, this rant wasn't inspired by the new diet Maggie is putting me on. It's a legitimate complaint. I mean, I don't mind cutting back on red meat even more. I like fish and poultry just fine. I hardly drink more than a beer or two anymore, and I've been watching my cholesterol since my bypass 15 years ago.

I really just think that it's not going to hurt me to eat proper vegetables you find in the grocery store, not expensive health food store stuff I could pull out of my neighbor's yard.

(The one without the dogs, at least. Nice dogs, but I'm not eating anything out of that yard.)

That's not the point, though. I just think that Google is doing inclined planes a real disservice.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Success in Yard Ramp Industrials

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy's big wheels keep on turning with a great riff on the importance of attention to detail.

Dig into the specifics HERE.

Go Jump in a Lake

Or: Good Luck Getting There

The most interesting lake in the world is completely inaccessible.

Well, maybe not completely, but close enough for government work. Which, come to think of it, usually isn't that close.

Lake Vostok is located in Antarctica. Bit of a strange place for a lake, I know, but this gets even weirder. Its surface is 500 feet below sea level. Lake Vostok is believed to have species of bacteria that are present nowhere else on the planet. It's also the largest lake in Antarctica, at more than 160 miles long and 30 miles wide.

lvAnd just to make all this interesting, there's a magnetic anomaly in one end of the lake.

Vostok Station, the nearby research facility, recorded the coldest known temperature ever on our planet. The lake has a single island, which no one has ever set foot on. It's also in complete darkness, even during the part of the year when Antarctica gets sunlight. That, of course, is because it's buried under 13,000 feet of ice.

As in: Lake Vostok is buried under a two and a half mile-high glacier.

Clearly impossible, right? Normally, yes, but in this case, the massive weight and compression created by the glacier caused its lowest layer to heat up, melting the ice and forming Lake Vostok. There are more than 500 of these subglacial lakes in Antarctic.

The hunt for life in Lake Vostok has become a major point of interest. Any creepy-crawly thing there would likely have been sealed off for the lake’s entire 15 million-year lifespan. The warm, oxygen rich, and pitch black waters would have created an ecosystem unlike anything else on the planet.

lv1Unfortunately, there are concerns that the antifreeze used to maintain the boreholes through the glacier might contaminate the lake, so scientists are proceeding with extreme caution. While the overwhelming majority of species they have found could quite likely just be contaminants from the surface, they have found at least one previously unknown species that might very well have come from the lake itself.

Mission to Mars? Sure. But Vacation in Vostok: now we’re talking…even though Maggie won’t hear of it.

Hutton’s Geology

James Hutton

James Hutton

Everyone knows about Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei. They're the closest thing to science rock stars. One battled the Catholic Church at the height of its power and performed experiments involving dropping objects off buildings. The other took a voyage around the world and developed a whole new science. They have fascinating, memorable, and dramatic life stories. They’ve earned rock star status.

Geology has its own Darwin, but he's hardly as well known.

James Hutton was far from an adventurous man. In fact, most of his discoveries came about from exploring the same small area close to where he lived.

Hutton was a Scottish gentleman farmer, commonly known as the Father of Modern Geology. By observing layers of dirt and stone, he was the first to consider that these layers might indicate great age.

Man of Rocks

Man of Rocks

In his day (the mid and late 1700s), most other geologists looked to various theories involving floods to explain the layers. Hutton, though, theorized that the Earth was incredibly hot inside, and that sediment swept into the ocean melted and was pushed upwards. Which wasn't too far from today’s consensus, at least compared to most of his contemporaries.

Part of the reason that Hutton isn't well remembered today is that he was a much worse writer than other prominent geologists of the time. Hutton's book Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was much less readable for the general public. Plus, the title is just less catchy than, say, On the Origin of Species. Much, much less catchy.

Another reason? Rocks just aren't that interesting to most people.

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.

The Stingless Bee

I'm not especially knowledgeable about farming. Irrigation? That I know a little bit about. Crops and animal husbandry? Much less. Every now and then, I do run across something really interesting. In this case: the Mayan stingless bee.

a beeThe stingless bees, also known as meliponines, are frequently kept in homes as pets. The Central American varieties bred by the Maya are kept in hollow logs with ceramic caps at either end that can be removed to gather honey. They are still kept this way today, in the same way they have been for countless centuries. The hives are often passed down between generations, and it’s common for hives to last 80 years.

They have more uses than just as pets or to make honey. They're also used for religious purposes. Beekeepers would place the hives near certain hallucinogenic flowers, so that the honey made from them kept some of those properties, which were then turned into a sort of honey wine used in ritual practices. I reckon that there's a lot less falling asleep in church there.

Metalworkers also frequently kept bees in Central America in order to use their wax for lost-wax casting. Lost wax casting involves the creation of a wax model, followed by the creation of a mould and then a hollow wax model, after which the model is covered in a more durable material and filled with molten metal. (Yep: I've got a slightly shaky grasp on it.)

Central America isn't the only center of stingless bee cultivation. Brazil and Australia are also involved.

Unfortunately, the cultivation of stingless bees in Central America has been dropping away in favor of Africanized bees (sometime called killer bees, which is actually inaccurate; you're more likely to be hit by lightning than killed by Africanized bees), who produce much larger amounts of honey. One of the major downsides of this is that Africanized bees neglect a number of local flowers, which results in many local plants not getting fertilized.