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.

The Mark of Civilization

When you think about the Roman Empire, one of the first things that pops into mind is their aqueduct system…unless you’ve been watching too much TV, in which case you’re likely thinking of their gladiators or legions.

Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Roman Aqueduct, c. 1st century, Spain

I feel pretty comfortable saying that the reason Rome was so stable for so long was due to their roads, aqueducts, sewer system, and other civil projects. It always grates me a little bit when people talk about the gladiatorial games being used to pacify the population—they certainly did that, but this was secondary to having clean water, plenty of food, and sanitation.

Thanks to the Roman Empire’s extensive civil improvements, Rome itself had a population of more than a MILLION people. That’s just nuts for a city in the ancient world. Athens maybe had 300K, and it was enormous for its time. There are only a few other ancient cities of comparable size at all.

That’s where Rome’s real success lay: not in conquest but in civil planning and construction. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record in this blog space, going on about how people focused on war as the key part of history bugs me. (Maggie jokes sometimes that she is worried I’ll start buying Grateful Dead shirts and growing a ponytail.) It’s not about hating war, though. It’s about acknowledging that what we build and how we build it is, ultimately, the most important legacy of a society.

Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment as President? The Interstate Highway System. What do we remember about the Egyptians? The pyramids. If you look at any society from more than a couple decades or so, what part of it lasts? Their construction.

The aqueducts have stood for millennia. I rest my case.


Photo: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

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.

A Technological Revival

During the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was an unlikely technological revival: airships.

The Hindenburg disaster sunk commercial airships for most of the twentieth century, leaving pretty much only the Goodyear blimps.

During the great economy of the ’90s, investors lined up to toss money at anything that popped up its head, which ended up turning out pretty badly for many of them. There were several airship startups among them.

The Aerium

The Aerium

Cargolifter AG, which opened its doors in ’96 was a German company with a plan to build truly colossal airship freight lifters. The initial plan was to build one with a 160 ton lifting capacity, but there was talk of constructing airships several times that large. The company spent a nutty amount of money constructing a hangar, called the Aerium, for the airships at an old airfield. The Aerium is, to this day, the fourth largest building in the world. You could fit an aircraft carrier inside with room to spare. (I don’t know why you’d want to, though).

Before Cargolifter AG couldn’t get anything other than a small test balloon built, though; they ran out of money and had to fold in 2002. The building was sold to a resort company, who turned it into a gargantuan indoor tropical park, featuring a swimming pool the size of a lake with waves and beaches, miles of jungle paths, spas, and so on and so forth. (Now there’s somewhere I can convince Maggie to go).

The Ukrainian company Aeros is a slightly more cheerful story. They already had a line of products to keep them in business, manufacturing hang-gliders and other ultra light craft. They’re sinking their budget into R&D for the Aeroscraft, a huge, sleek, rigid airship that looks like something out of Star Wars. It’s not a strictly lighter-than-air vehicle, and it also features huge vertical thrusters. They actually flew their prototype this year, after a decade of development.

Maggie and I love hot air balloons, so here’s keeping my fingers crossed we’ll get to start taking commercial airship flights soon enough.

Funiculars: A Slippery Slope

You normally want ramps to have a relatively low slope: it’s hardly going to cut back on the amount of work you need to do to get something to the top if it’s too steep.

Unfortunately, it sometimes isn’t possible to construct a shallow ramp, usually due to terrain. You’ve still got to be able to get up to the top, though, which is where funiculars come into the picture.

A funicular is essentially a pair of linked carts on rails going up and down a slope. Think elevator, but tilted to the side, and using each other as counterweights instead of having their own counterweights.

Funiculars take shockingly little power to operate, since you’re really only hauling up the weight of the load. In fact, some low-tech funiculars operate by filling water tanks at the top cart and draining them at the bottom, which pulls down the top cart and vice versa. They’re an extremely effective way to get around, and since they’re usually in the mountains, you usually get a great view as well, except when you go through a tunnel. You also get quite a few in mines.

Depending on the amount of space available, the carts might have separate tracks, or they may share tracks. When they share track, there’s generally a split rail in the middle of the run that diverts the carts around each other.

Unfortunately, a funicular was the site of the worst ramp-related disaster in history. (Yes, definitely worse than the countless groin injuries caused by ramps in sports.) The Kaprun disaster occurred on a large funicular leading up to a ski resort. One of the large trams used in the funicular caught fire while going up the tunnel. The resulting smoke billowed up through the tunnel, killing more than 150 people, largely through smoke inhalation.

The disaster turned out to be caused mostly by poor training and a fault in the tram car, but public confidence in funiculars remained shaken for some years. (Maggie wouldn’t let me ride the last one we saw, but I think I’ve finally got her convinced that they’re safe.)