Saturday, March 11, 2006

Toilets of Terror

My four year old is afraid of toilets with automatic flush valves - you know those little black cylindrical pieces of technology attached to toilets and urinals that are SUPPOSE to sense when you back away a certain distance and flush. In fact, sometimes it seems he's downright terrified of using public restrooms that have them (which tends to be most public restrooms).

Let's face it, four year olds can't remain still even when they're sitting on the toilet. And the smaller the individual, the greater the chance of moving enough of one's body outside of the sensor's field of view, causing a "premature" flush. So what happens when a small child wiggles most of his/her body just outside of the sensor's field of view - FLUSH!!! The sudden, unexpected splash of water along with the WHUSHING noise in the small enclosed stall sends most little ones into a sudden panic. Not to mention the unsanitary consequences of being splashed by toilet water.

It happened to my son again yesterday in a public restroom when he was trying to have a bowel movement. And so what happened (besides being terrified)? He refused to go and held it until he got somewhere he was comfortable with. Again, another unhealthy consequence.

And this isn't just a problem for pre-school aged children - it continues into elementary school. Surely not you say, as such facilities must use sensors specifically designed for children's smaller bodies and more constant motion. However this is apparently not the case. If such "children specific" sensors do exist, then they either are not being specified and/or installed correctly during the design/construction of schools, or if they are being installed then the sensors need to be redesigned themselves.

I know this because part of what I do for a living is conduct built environment ethnographies (sometimes labeled post occupancy evaluations). My partner and I are wrapping one up for an elementary school, and fear associated with unexpected flushing is a reality for many of the students. The younger and smaller the student the more likely it is be a problem, and on average it appears to be more of a problem for the elementary school-aged girls than the boys.

Fear of the restroom is associated with emotional distress, embarrassment, and ridicule from other students. This results in avoidance of using restrooms, general physical discomfort, and potentially serious health and hygiene consequences (for more information see and

All of this has a very REAL NEGATIVE impact on student learning. And this is compounded by the fact that adults have a tendency to ignore or downplay children's restroom concerns. The phrase "just hold it" is embedded in our adult cultural lingo. But these same concerns, if expressed by a fellow adult (or ourselves), would immediately be taken note of.

What's the solution? Well, I obviously can't lay out a detailed solution here. But in general adults, particularly those adults that deal with children on a daily basis (i.e., parents, teachers, etc.) must recognize that these fears are real and valid. My own four year old opened my eyes to this (as well as the research done by my partner, Bob Leonard, on this).

And the building construction industry must recognize this as well. Plumbing fixture manufacturers must re-examine these automatic flush sensors to see if they can be redesigned specifically for children - and they may have to design multiple models for different ages and physical sizes. Architects, consulting engineers, contractors, and facility managers must educate themselves on this topic, and building owners have to recognize the need for child friendly plumbing fixtures in those facilities frequented by children (from McDonalds to schools).

Life can be tough enough for kids. Do they really have to be terrified of toilets?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Aliens, Community Myth Building, and Our Evolutionary Past

A few days ago I posted a piece (Pancake Races and Community Myth Building) that discussed in part how small communities can make use of unique histories, legends, festivals, etc., to help bind the community together and promote it to the rest of the world (or at least along the closest interstate). The International UFO Museum and Research Center and associated annual UFO Festival of Roswell, NM is another great example of this.

The piece I wrote below, a version of which appeared in the August 19, 2004 issue of the Albuquerque Tribune under the title of "An Alien Concept" showcases the festival in part.


“It's life, Captain, but not life as we know it.”

This observation of Mr. Spock’s slowly rose from the depths of my subconscious as I stared at the sight before me. In the hands of my almost three-year-old son was the torso of an olive green alien mounted on the end of a pencil. As he gleefully twirled the pencil in his hands, the alien’s abnormally long arms whirled about, periodically sticking to its body.

My family and I were in the gift shop of the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, during the town’s annual UFO Festival (the first week of July). Though Carlsbad Caverns (Carlsbad, NM) was our final destination, curiosity compelled us to stop on our way through, and we were now in the famed museum, housed in a converted movie theater.

We ventured through a variety of exhibits – the renowned Roswell UFO Incident, actual archaeological excavations of UFO “crash sites,” and many more, all under the watchful “eye” of a saucer shaped UFO suspended from the ceiling, complete with flashing lights. And then we came upon an exhibit whose topic vexes all archaeologists – “Ancient Cultures and their Connections to Extraterrestrial Life Forms.” Sigh.

An immense wall hanging of a famous Mayan image dominates this exhibit, catching one’s eye from across the room. The original image, dating from A.D. 683, was beautifully carved onto a stone slab covering a Mayan king’s sarcophagus. Various ET enthusiasts have colorfully interpreted this image as depicting an early astronaut at the controls of a spaceship. But more, shall we say, conventional archaeological explanations interpret it as showing the king at the moment of his death descending into the Underworld[i], [ii].

Though I’m disappointed by the prominence such misguided interpretations have in popular culture, the museum still manages to reach the eleven-year old within me. That boy who use to love watching the documentary series “In Search Of…” narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and reading the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Maybe I was just feeling nostalgic; or was it more than that?

Modern society is fascinated by the potential for alien life. “Little green men” permeate the modern world, from literature (Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), television (“The X-Files,” The Star Trek franchise), and movies (“Men in Black,” “Signs”), to pseudo-science (Ancient Astronauts hypotheses, UFO abductions), to actual scientific searches for ET (SETI, NASA Astrobiology Institute). But why? Why do we care whether or not we’re alone in this vast Universe?

I suggest that this fascination has its roots in our species’ deep evolutionary past, most of which our ancestors spent roaming the landscape in small bands of hunter-gatherers. According to anthropologist Pascal Boyer[iii], during this time our brains’ mental systems became specialized in performing the different tasks required to survive and interact with others in social groups.

Such tasks would have included detecting the presence of animate agents (predators or prey), detecting what others are looking at, figuring out their goals, etc. In other words our brains incorporate a high degree of agency in how we perceive and process information.

Hearing the snapping of a branch, a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would have increased his chances for survival by immediately assigning the noise to the action of a potential predator, and then taking the appropriate precautions. Similarly, a modern office worker assigns the sound of typing keystrokes in the next cubicle to that of his office mate.

On one level gods, ghosts, and religions are by-products of how our brains are wired. This imperative need to assign agency to the world around us occurs in our “cerebral cellar,” below our conscious understanding. As a result, our actions and perceptions of the world often appear to be the result of intuitions. Religious and supernatural beliefs are a way to explain and justify our intuitions about events and human behaviors whose cause we can’t directly observe or understand.

Modern astronomy’s understanding of the cosmos (as well as science in general) is only a relatively recent addition to human thought. But, as astronomer E. C. Krupp[iv] has pointed out, the cosmos has been an important part of humanity’s past, helping our ancestors mark the changing seasons and orientate themselves on the landscape, critical for their survival.

As a result of our brain’s agency component, the cosmos became associated with the supernatural as a way to explain the actions of celestial bodies. Modern pseudo-scientific views of UFOs and ETs are the latest “by-products” of the way our brains are wired, melding elements of science and the supernatural to explain the cosmic unknown.

This coexistence of religion, science, and pseudo-science in our modern world may even represent a turning point in the evolution of our species. Because scientific thought tends to run counter to our natural intuitions, it is as foreign to our brains as religion is familiar. This in part explains why science is much more recent and has less of a foothold than religion does. But perhaps sometime in the distant future evolution will have rewired the human brain giving science the advantage, leaving pseudo-science and religion as sidebars of history.

A more romantic explanation for our ET fascination centers on our ancestor’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Whether traversing their local environments or moving to new areas as the human race enveloped the planet, they probably often wondered what or who was over the next rise. We became accustomed to exploring and encountering the unknown. Wondering whom or what lies beyond our planet is just another version of finding out what lies over the next ridge.

In fact, our ancestors were probably much closer to encountering an “alien” than any modern UFO abductee. And I’m not talking about ancient astronauts here. Prior to 30,000 years ago, there is evidence that anatomically modern humans lived near Neanderthals in parts of Europe and the Middle East. Staring face-to-face into the eyes of an intelligent, though not quite human life form, our ancestors experienced the next best thing to meeting those little green men, or large mauve hermaphrodites, or whatever ETs are.

Back in the gift shop my son opts for a toy space shuttle with operable wheels instead of the alien pencil. Later I smugly tell my wife that our son represents an important link in the evolutionary chain of our species, where science is gradually gaining on religion and pseudo-science in our grasp to understand that which we can’t explicitly perceive.

My wife slowly turns her head to me, rolls her eyes and says, “Don’t be such a dork. You know he has an obsession for anything with wheels.” Well, yes, I can be a dork, but that doesn’t mean we can’t both be right on this one.


[i] Michael D. Coe 1999. The Maya, Sixth Edition. Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 134-138.

[ii] Linda Schele and David Freidel 1990. A Forest of Kings. Quill William Morrow, New York, p. 220.

[iii] Pascal Boyer 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, New York.

[iv] E. C. Krupp 1983 Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Plume Book, New American Library, New York.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Yellow Cab - A Must Read

If you want a witty, thoughtful, and brilliantly written set of essays and poetry on the taxi cab industry and its cliental, then pick up a copy of the recently released book - Yellow Cab, by Robert D. Leonard. An anthropologist with an engaging writing style, Leonard began moonlighting as a cab driver in Albuquerque, NM to supplement his salary as a professor at UNM. Being an anthropologist, he couldn’t help but observe and engage the people around him, making notes along the way.

The end result was this wonderful book of funny, sad, and wickedly strange stories of New Mexico nights from the perspective of a cabbie. And yes, the author is my friend and business partner. So if you think this biases me too much, then follow the link to the review from one of my previous posts – “Prof moonlights as cabbie.” Also take a look at a profile/book review of Leonard by Jim Belshaw that appeared in the March 8th Albuquerque Journal -

Monday, March 06, 2006

Pancake Races and Community Myth Building

Early last week I was driving through southwest Kansas, and happened to roll through the town of Liberal on International Pancake Day. Unfortunately I was a few hours early for the American half of the pancake race, and couldn't stay and watch the throng of apron-clad women racing with frying pan in hand.

For those of you wondering how the heck one actually races with a pancake or why pancakes get their own special day (as opposed, to say, french toast), let me briefly bring you up to speed. Historically, women in England are said to have made pancakes on the last day before the start of Lent (Shrove Tuesday) as a means of consuming accumulated cooking fats before they began their own period of self-denial.

Legend has it that in 1445, a frazzled woman from Olney, England was so intent on frying up her pancakes that she lost track of time. Upon hearing the church bells calling everyone for service she rushed out the door, still clad in her apron, and ran to the church with frying pan in hand, thus becoming the first "pancake racer." And over the years it developed into a Olney tradition.

Jumping ahead to 1950, the Liberal Jaycees saw a picture of Olney's pancake race in a national magazine. They became intrigued with the Olney tradition - so much so that the Jaycees fired off a letter to the vicar of Olney challenging them to a race. As a result, Pancake Day and its associated race became an international event with Liberal and Olney competing against each other.

Since then Liberal has created a number of locally "flavored" celebrations and activities associated with the race, successfully weaving Pancake Day into its own history and intellectual traditions. Pancake Day is now part of the great story of Liberal, KS, gaining itself a significant amount of international attention as well as economic benefit. If you're interested in learning more, check out

Granted, if you're not from the general region you may very well have never heard of the event, but anyone growing up in Kansas, SE Colorado, NE New Mexico, or the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas is well aware of this seemingly strange, yet intriguing race. I certainly recall hearing about it every year growing up in southcentral Kansas.

The story of Liberal's adoption and incorporation of the Pancake Day tradition is something other rural communities should take note of. In a time when such communities are increasingly struggling to maintain their viability and vitality - to keep their young people from leaving (let alone attracting new people) and the community dying - they need to find an edge.

Building themes, events, celebrations, etc., around unique and interesting local traditions, stories, or myths, or adopting them from elsewhere as Liberal has done here can help provide such an edge. The key is to construct a community "myth" or "tradition" that the locals can feel proud of and functions to help bind the community together, and at the same time is fascinating enough to draw attention and visitors from outside the community. While such "myth building" isn't the answer in and of itself for a struggling rural community, it can be part of the solution.