Saturday, April 01, 2006

Filling a Need for Quick, Low-Cost Housing

"See a need. Fill a need."

This was a catch phrase from the hit animated movie Robots, referring to what inventors do at their most basic level. And this is precisely what Sanford Ponder, founder of Icosa Village Inc., has done with his invention of the Pod.

Ponder is quoted to have said "If we live in a world where people are forced to live in cardboard boxes, then someone should at least invent a better box." Ponder's "better box" solution, which he's termed the Pod, consists of interlocking triangular panels made from Coroplast (a hybrid polypropylene) that are strong, lightweight, water proof, recyclable, and usable in sub-zero environments.

The individual panels are easily transportable and can be assembled without specialized knowledge or tools. They've proven highly effective as temporary housing in recent disaster relief settings, such as the Kashmir region of Pakistan. And Ponder is also promoting their use in longer term, low-cost housing situations.

By coming up with simple technological solution, Ponder has made it possible to adapt his invention to a variety of social, cultural, environmental, and economic contexts. So I think I would revise the catch phrase of Robots to the following:

See a need. Fill a need, simply.


"I'm also not very analytical. You know, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things."

- George W. Bush aboard Air Force One; June 4, 2003

I received one of those George W. Bushisms daily calender for Christmas, and this was the quote that was listed for today. I tell you, most days I don't know whether to laugh or cry after reading the Bushism for the day.

I often wonder how the future will look back not just upon this administration, but how the social, cultural, economic, etc., etc. makeup of the US was such that this guy got elected twice. It may fuel many future dissertations.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Gulf Region's Demographic Shuffle

With only two months to go before a hurricane season that the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami has said will likely be stronger than average, the Bush administration is now saying there may not be enough money available to fully rebuild the Gulf region to meet new federal standards. This includes rebuilding/updating the New Orleans' levees, the cost of which is now estimated to be triple the value originally put forward.

This means that those areas unable to meet new federal regulations, and the requirements of the national flood insurance program, will have a tougher time attracting investors, developers, home buyers, federal/state/local infrastructure development/improvement/repair, etc. It's also true that many of these areas coincide with the areas populated by those with both lower incomes and less power and influence.

A potential travesty is in the making as disenfranchised groups may be pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods in New Orleans and across the gulf states. The demographics of the region may substantially change in the next few years - another symptom of the ever widening gap occurring between the "haves" and the continued increasing "have nots."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fighting Childhood Obesity With ... Fidgeting

Mayo clinic researcher Dr James Levine has come up with what I think is a brilliantly clever strategy for fighting childhood obesity - designing an experimental classroom in Rochester, MN to take advantage of a child's seemingly "natural state" of fidgeting. Standard desks and chairs have been replaced by adjustable podiums that allow kids to stand, kneel, or balance on big excercise balls. And instead of constantly being told by teachers to sit still, the students are encouraged to move around if they feel the urge.

The data still aren't all in, but the observations of teachers and administrators are very encouraging thus far. And there appears to be an added benefit - these "free-to-fidget" students appear to actually be more focused than their desk-bound peers.

While this might be surprising to some, it makes sense if you think about it in terms of human history. The reason being allowed to fidget helps a child's focus is probably similar to why daylighting and natural views are prefered by (and, as studies suggest, increase the performance of) students (and people in general) within the built environment.

Prior to and after the advent of modern humans, between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens and their ancestors learned by "doing" out on a landscape illuminated primarily by the sun (and not rigidly confined to a sitting position). This did not begin to change until after the advent of urbanization between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago, and it has only been since the late 19th century that the use of "desk learning" and electric lighting have become the norm.

As such, general human physiologies and psychologies require a certain degree of movement for fitness, and are well adapted for operating within view of the natural environment and making use of daylighting (and therefore less well adapted to long periods of confinement, artificial lighting [particularly electric lighting], and being visually disconnected from natural views). And therefore what we typically have are classroom settings (as well as office settings) that work against the evolutonary history of our species. Food for thought for all those associated with education and the built environment.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The "Built Environment" By Any Other Name?

A while back I got into a discussion with a few archaeologists as to what other general terms could be used in place of the phrase "built environment." These particular archaeologists (myself included) subscribe to one of the discipline's multitude of theoretical perspectives known as Darwinian Archaeology - the application of Darwinian theory to the study of the archaeological record.

The core of the discussion focused around the already excepted definitions of terms such as "environment" and "phenotype" in evolutionary theory, and how the use of the term "built environment" could create some confusion in evolutionary studies of the built environment. Personally, I really like this term - its very comprehensive and descriptive - but I do understand other scholars' concerns. What follows below is a summary of my short-lived quest for an alternative term(s), a quest I did not complete. However, I would be interested if anyone wants to comment and make their own suggestions.

The traditional evolutionary definition of phenotype is the manifestation of the genotype as a result of the interaction of the genotype with its surrounding environment (Dawkins 1989:235; Sober 1984:106). The phenotype includes bodily features such as hair and skin, behavior, and the results of behavior that include the manipulation and/or fabrication of individual objects, groups of objects, social systems, etc. (Dunnell 1989; 1995; Dawkins 1982; Leonard and Jones 1987; Michod 1999:139; O’Brien and Holland 1995; O’Brien and Lyman 2000:7; Sober 1984:119).

Phenotypic objects such as artifacts or individual attributes may persist over time differently from the individuals or lineages of individuals that use them. Leonard and Jones (1987) point this out in their discussion of the reproductive success of individuals versus the replicative success of items. Replicative success is simply the “differential persistence through time [of certain items]” (Leonard and Jones 1987:214) and does not say anything about the reproductive success of the individuals using those items. This difference is due in part to the fact that the rate of propagation of traits within a population is often more a result of frequency dependence and environmental conditions than individual reproductive success (Madsen et al. 1999:258; Neff 2001:32).

Phenotypic objects such as artifacts or individual attributes can also be classified as both interactors (“epicenter of effects that a collection of replicators has upon the world” – Neff 2001:26) and replicators (some unit of which copies can be made – Neff 2001:26) (Mitchell 1987; Turner et al. 1997:43), due to an issue of scale. For example, attributes of discrete objects may act as replicators, while classes of discrete objects may be classified as interactors (O’Brien and Lyman 2000:383).

The traditional evolutionary definition of environment is where an organism or group of organisms make its/their living; the environment allows access to resources needed by the organism(s) for survival and reproduction (Gould and Gould 1989:36). According to many researchers, this includes both the physical and social environments (Hejl et al. 1997:400-401; Kummer et al. 1997; Lekson 1990:124). However, I believe that Durham (1991) [and others] would argue that there is no social “environment”, only social systems which are phenotypic traits formed by the interaction of genes and culture with the physical environment (culture acting analogous to genes in that both provide a guide for behavior within a given environment).

It seems that the term “environment” is often used loosely in evolutionary studies. This is primarily due to two aspects of evolution. The first is that the phenotype itself, its fitness, and heritability are determined by the interaction of genes/culture with the environment and other phenotypic traits or artifacts (Madsen et al. 1999:257; Michod 1999). The other phenotypic traits (which may include tangible elements such as modified natural objects and constructed artificial objects as well as less tangible entities such as social systems) are often lumped together with the “natural” surroundings under the general term “environment”. The second aspect is that the nature of the environment can change depending on the scale of what is being looked at. For example, Hejl et al. (1997:424-425) states the following: “The environment of genes consists of organisms, that of organisms consists of social systems or the physical surroundings, and that of social systems consists of the genetic constraints of past evolutionary history.”

From the above distinction (and blurring) of phenotype and environment, it would seem that the “built environment" (consisting of both the physical form and the behavior associated with its design, construction, occupancy, remodel, and demolition/abandonment), is a potential problematic term. The physical forms of the built environment technically meet the above definition of environment in that they “provide a place where humans make their living by providing access to at least some of the resources needed for survival and reproduction”. However, the built environment should probably be viewed more as phenotypic traits that are the result interactions of genes/culture with the environment as well as players in the development, fitness, and heritability of other phenotypic traits through their interaction with genes/culture and the environment. Therefore, the use of an alternative term in place of “built environment” is perhaps warranted.

Most studies of the built environment, which are also non-evolutionary in nature, tend to either focus on the physical forms themselves, the behavior of the occupants, or the behavior of the designers/builders. Sometimes the studies focus primarily on these phenotypic elements alone, and sometimes they examine these elements in relation to the surrounding environment, and sometimes they examine these elements in relation to other phenotypic systems, such as religion (though obviously not from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective). In some ways, many of these studies could be thought of as providing potential specific historical trajectories or solutions in larger evolutionary questions.

Given the above specific description of the built environment as phenotype and the above characterization of non-evolutionary studies of the built environment, I believe that most non-evolutionary scholars of the built environment could at least understand why the built environment should be considered as part of the phenotype from and evolutionary perspective. In fact, John Fitchen, an important scholar of the built environment, wrote the following in his 1986 text on pre-industrial building construction: “Building construction is analogous to animals ‘constructing’ their ‘dwellings’, and in fact has historically drawn upon these examples to help solve various problems” (pp. 22-26).

Given the above background/justification, most non-evolutionary scholars (and certainly Darwinian evolutionary scholars) of the built environment should at least be open to the use of an alternative term. The question then becomes what term to use. I personally do not think that architecture or architectural phenotype are acceptable alternatives to “built environment” (why is the subject of another post, but the jist is that I don't think its as encompassing a term). I have a few terms that I leaning towards: 1) Built Forms per Lawrence and Low 1990; 2) Designed Space; or 3) Constructed Space. This new term would refer to both the physical form and the behavior associated with its design, construction, occupancy, remodel, and demolition/abandonment.

In a future post I may cover more specifically various definitions of the built environment.


Dawkins, R.
1982 The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection. W. H. Freeman, Oxford.

1989 [1976] The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Dunnell, R. C.
1989 Aspects of the Application of Evolutionary Theory in Archaeology. In Archaeological Thought in America, edited by C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, pp. 35-49. Cambridge University Press, New York.

1995 What is it that Actually Evolves? In Evolutionary Archaeology: Methodological Issues, edited by P. Teltser, pp. 33-51. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Durham, W. H.
1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Fitchen, J.
1986 Building Construction Before Mechanization. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gould, J. L. and C. G. Gould, editors
1989 Life at the Edge: Readings from Scientific American Magazine. W. H. Freeman and Company. New York.

Hejl, P. M., R. Falk, H. Hendrichs, and E. Jablonka
1987 Complex Systems: Multilevel and Multiprocess Approaches. In Human By Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences, edited by P. Weingart, P. J. Richerson, S. D. Mitchell, and S. Maasen, pp. 387-426. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey and London.

Kummer, H., G. Gigerenzer, L. Daston, and J. B. Silk
1987 The Social Intelligence Hypothesis. In Human By Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences, edited by P. Weingart, P. J. Richerson, S. D. Mitchell, and S. Maasen, pp. 157-180. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey and London.

Lawrence, D. L., and S. M. Low
1990 The built environment and spatial form. Annual Review of Anthropology 19:453-505.

Lekson, S. H.
1990 Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Community. In Vernacular Architecture: Paradigms of Environmental Response. Ethnoscapes Volume 4, edited by M. Turan, pp. 122-145. Avebury, Aldershot.

Leonard, R. D. and G. T. Jones
1987 Elements of an Inclusive Evolutionary Model for Archaeology. Journal of Anthropologicial Archaeology 54:491-503.

Madsen, M., C. Lipo, and M. Cannon
1999 Fitness and Reproductive Trade-Offs in Uncertain Environments: Explaining the Evolution of Cultural Elaboration. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 18:252-281.

Michod, R. E.
1999 Darwinian Dynamics: Evolutionary Transitions in Fitness and Individuality. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Mitchell, S. D.
1987 Competing Units of Selection? A Case of Symbiosis. Philosophy of Science 54: 351-364.

Neff, H.
2001 Differential Persistence of What? The Scale of Selection Issue in Evolutionary Archaeology. In Style and Function: Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Archaeology, edited by T. D. Hurt and G. F. M. Rakita, pp. 25-40. Bergin and Garvey, Westport, Connecticut and London.

O’Brien, M. J., and T. D. Holland
1995 Behavioral Archaeology and the Extended Phenotype. In Reconstruction Theory: A Behavioral Approach to the Archaeological Record, edited by A. E. Nielson, J. M. Skibo, and W. H. Walker. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

O’Brien, M. J. and R. L. Lyman
2000 Applying Evolutionary Archaeology: A Systematic Approach. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

Sober, E.
1984 The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Turner, J. H., L. Cosmides, G. Hodgson, S. J. Shennan, M. Borgerhoff Mulder, B. Giesen, A. M. Maryanski, J. Tooby, and B. M. Velichkovsky
1997 Looking Back: Historical and Theoretical Context of Present Practice. In Human By Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences, edited by P. Weingart, P. J. Richerson, S. D. Mitchell, and S. Maasen, pp. 17-64. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey and London.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The President's Simplistic Use of Faith

Kevin Phillips is making the media rounds promoting his book "American Theocracy" and you can hear one of his stops with Terry Gross here. I have yet to read it, but I've put this expose of "radical religion, oil, and borrowed money" high on my must read list. And from what I've heard it's definitely not a quaint little bed time story to put you at ease for a blissful night of slumber.

With regards to the President's seemingly over-reliance on his own personal evangelical Christian faith, I wrote a commentary piece on this that appeared in the June 16, 2004 Albuquerque Tribune. A version of it appears below.

Not by Faith Alone

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."[1] In other words, blind faith in some religious doctrine alone is woefully inadequate for framing one's worldview. Such a narrow perspective, formulated in the absence of other viewpoints, provides a limited understanding of the world. And yet this is precisely our president's perspective.

President Bush is an evangelical, born again Christian. By his own admission, he feels he was called by God to be president.[2] He sees the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. In his worldview, the United States is on a divine mission to shine the light of democracy on the rest of the world, freeing it from the grip of terrorism. And if you aren't with us, then you're with the terrorists.

This line of thinking solidified for our president after 9/11, and now forms the basis for much of our unilateralist foreign policy. Our president is confident in his stance, but this confidence stems from shutting out conflicting viewpoints and relying on his own interpretation of divine guidance.
When Bob Woodward asked the president if he sought his own father's advice on Iraq (a prudent course of action considering Bush senior's war with Iraq), the president responded, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."[3] He was so confident and comfortable that he didn't even ask most of his top advisors what they thought prior to making his final decision.[4]

Is it any wonder that much of the world - including atheists, agnostics, other Christian denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Native American religious practitioners, etc. - is troubled by our president's actions? The leader of the most powerful nation on earth is formulating his policies within the narrow framework of one religious doctrine - evangelical Christianity. I think we should all be a bit nervous.

I'm not trying to degrade religion here. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, religion has been adaptable for individuals and groups in a variety of ways.

Across cultures and stretching back through time, religion has aided people in cooperating together as cohesive units through the establishment of moral codes, social structures, and strong social bonds.[5] It often helps establish a sense of family and community, as well as providing ties to the past and a sense of continuity. But problems arise when competition with others turns destructive.

The leader of the most powerful nation on earth has the obligation to acknowledge this and account for the cultural and religious mix that is our world. Otherwise we cannot avoid these destructive interactions.

Any leader that makes decisions based largely on an appeal to his/her own perception of God is bound to make a general mess of things by offending or oppressing those who have different (or no) conceptions of a higher being; hence the Founding Father's wise implementation of the separation of church and state.

For example, we're now all familiar with the president's use of the term "crusade" in describing our war on terrorism and how it made the Muslim world nervous and distrustful of our actions. This was a first rate blunder that could easily have been avoided.

Equally bad was the following. Recounting a conversation with President Bush, former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas quoted the president in a June 24, 2003 article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying, "God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East."[6]

The world is not black and white, or at least the world's definitions of black and white are not the same. At a global scale then this dichotomy blends to many shades of gray with distinctly dark and light ends. A president who decides to send troops to war in a relative vacuum, based on an appeal to one religion's narrow interpretation of a higher father, is able to make that decision far too easy for my taste.

I'm not calling for the president to abandon his faith. Nor do I think that one can divorce himself/herself from his/her own spiritual beliefs when looking at the rest of the world. But instead of closing both "eyes of reason" to see by faith, perhaps the president would be wise to keep one eye open and examine the multiple perspectives of any issue before making a decision.


[1] Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanack," 1758; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1983, p. 259.

[2] PBS Frontline: The Jesus Factor. Written, Produced, and Directed by Raney Aronson.

[3] Fineman, H. and T. Lipper. 2004. The Gospel According to George. Newsweek, April 26, 2004, pp. 18-21.

[4] Thomas, E. 2004. "I Haven't Suffered Doubt." Newsweek, April 26, 2004, pp. 22-25.

[5] Wilson, D. S. 2002 Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

[6] Regular, A. 2003. `Road map is a life saver for us,' PM Abbas tells Hamas. Haaretz, June 24, 2003.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Using "The Force" to Investigate Structural Forces

As an anthropologist, engineer, and all around geek, it doesn't get a lot better than this:

Yoda Helps Unlock Cathedral Mysteries

Here we have the use of computer animation and structural analysis to 1) de-mystify certain design/construction secrets of 12th/13th century European Cathedrals, 2) shed additional light on the social systems surrounding cathedral construction, 3) provide an investigative tool for contemporary structures, and 4) a means to develop more innovative and efficient designs for the future. Very cool indeed - check it out.