Defies Categorization

Eclectic topics which don't easily fall into any neat category

It's Time to Admit We're Already Geoengineering

Geoengineering, or large-scale modification of the Earth's environment, is a contentious topic among people debating the right response to climate change.

On the one hand, some people believe that efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions are probably going to be too little and too late to prevent major changes to the Earth's climate with substantial impacts to human activities. This group thinks the only way to preserve the current climate is to begin large-scale projects to actively counteract human greenhouse gas emissions. These people are probably right.

Bitcoin and Flying Taxis and Hyperloop, Oh My!

We seem to be living in an age filled with wildly hyped technologies that have nearly zero chance of succeeding in any meaningful way.

I'll be the first to admit that my record of picking technology winners and losers is spotty at best. I've gotten some things right (solar power), and some things wrong (I was skeptical about WiFi for a long time). But the current crop of technology hype seems to have an unusually rich streak of fundamentally flawed ideas which, nevertheless, are attracting substantial amounts of money and attention.

This Annoys Me Every Time on Star Trek

There are two verbs which sound very similar but have very different meanings.

To damp means to diminish the activity of something, or to reduce the oscillations of something.

To dampen means to make something slightly wet.

So when Geordi LaForge uses a dampening field to counteract the alien probe's tractor beam (or whatever), he's actually getting it slightly wet. What LeForge really should use is a damping field.

(And yes, I know that the dictionary cross-lists both definitions for both words. To my great consternation, this misuse is now so common it has become acceptable usage.)

Apple, is this a good idea?

Apple refreshed its laptop line today, and the big new feature is the "Thunderbolt" port, aka The Mordor Plug (" plug to rule them all....").

Lots of people are really excited about this, but I noticed an odd design choice. Take a look at the symbol Apple is using for the Thunderbolt interface, the lightning bolt with an arrow.

Now take a look at this Google Image search. Striking resemblance, don't you think?

I don't know how eager I am to plug an expensive peripheral into a port marked with a prominent "DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE" symbol.

It seems that Apple is trying to rebrand a universally understood symbol meaning "Danger! Don't touch this or plug anything into it unless you really know what you're doing" to mean "You can plug anything into me and it will be really fast!"

What could possibly go wrong?

What happened to the attic?

Based on a purely random set of observations over my lifetime, I've noticed that houses more than about 100 years old (built before 1910 or so) usually have an attic which is fairly accessible for storage. Houses less than 60 years old (built after 1950 or so) usually have attics which are difficult to get into, or even completely sealed from the living spaces.

My own home, built in 1984, has at least three distinct attic spaces over different parts of the house, and only one of the three has any way to get in at all (without cutting through a wall or ceiling). Getting into the one accessible space requires carrying a large stepladder up to a closet on the top floor, lifting a drywall panel out of the way, and shimmying through a small hole--not at all practical for storage.

I find this a little mysterious. Attics are terribly useful things: they don't take up any living space but can provide an enormous amount of storage (think of all the billions spent on mini-storage); an accessible attic makes it much easier to inspect the condition of the insulation and look for roof leaks (and every roof, given enough time, will eventually leak); and attics are almost as handy as drop ceilings when trying to pull network cables.

So why doesn't the modern American house make it easy to get into the attic, the way our grandparents' houses did?  I have some theories:

  1. Beginning with the post-WWII housing boom, builders felt the need to put up lots of houses cheap, and eliminating the ladder to the attic was an easy way to save money.  Eventually people stopped expecting this amenity.
  2. Modern architectural styles, with their shallow roofs, don't give any usable attic space anyway, so builders stopped providing access. The trend carried over even in places (like Minnesota) where most houses are still built with a steep roof because of the snow and ice.
  3. Building codes stopped allowing a steep ladder into the attic, and people didn't want to take the floor space needed for a proper staircase.
  4. When people started heavily insulating their attics, it became more difficult to provide a hard floor suitable for walking and storage.
  5. Attic storage is, and always has been, an expensive amenity reserved for the fanciest houses. Cheaply built houses from 100 years ago have mostly been torn down, so it just seems like builders used to provide more attic access.
  6. Attic storage is just as common in new houses as in older ones, and my observation is just wrong.

My guess is that the answer is a combination of 1 and 2, with maybe a little of 3 and 4 thrown in. I really don't know, though, and my attempts to use Google-fu to find the reason came up blank.

So for now this is just a mystery.  But if I ever build my own home, I will insist that it come with a proper staircase to an attic where I can keep all my stuff.