Living in the past… literally

Paul Raven @ 12-06-2009

a tomb in New DelhiVia Geoff “BLDGBLOG” Manaugh we discover that people in India long ago found a solution to a shortage of affordable housing – they colonise ancient tombs and monuments, much to the chagrin of archaeologists and historians.

The city [New Delhi] is also home to tens of thousands of homeless people, and millions more who are desperately poor. Many of the otherwise homeless have made the reasonable assessment that the stout marble walls of the tombs and shrines and mausoleums that litter the city make a much nicer home, especially in monsoon season, than the sidewalk.

Some seek only temporary shelter. But others such as nine families living inside a federally protected monument called the Atgah Khan tomb, built in 1566, are so thoroughly ensconced that they can produce title deeds going back generations. They have plastered the walls, had the crypt wired to run the television and installed a fine kitchen, with wood cupboards built into the handy arched recesses.

It’s a tough call to make; history must be valued and protected, but people have to live somewhere. How can you tell a homeless family that they can’t live in an otherwise unoccupied building – you, with your job in archaeology and your apartment to go home to? You do it because it’s your job, of course, and because you believe that history must be preserved – but it can’t be much fun. [image by varunshiv]

And as the world becomes increasingly urbanised, perhaps we’ll see this sort of behaviour occuring in comparatively affluent Western cities as the less fortunate arrive in droves to seek employment and shelter. Imagine the Lincoln monument thronging with a small town of migrants from the former corn belt, or the huge family tombs of London’s great cemetaries repurposed into ersatz condominiums, always occupied by a few of the family’s oldest and youngest members to prevent claim-jumping newcomers…


Lamarckism reassessed – can acquired characteristics be inherited?

Paul Raven @ 17-02-2009

Lamarckian evolutionary theorythe notion that acquired characteristics can be passed on to offspring – was dismissed (and roundly mocked) in light of Darwin’s theories of natural genetic selection. But new research shows that, in rodents at least, the environment in which a creature is raised can affect its offspring quite profoundly:

In Feig’s study, mice genetically engineered to have memory problems were raised in an enriched environment–given toys, exercise, and social interaction–for two weeks during adolescence. The animals’ memory improved–an unsurprising finding, given that enrichment has been previously shown to boost brain function. The mice were then returned to normal conditions, where they grew up and had offspring. This next generation of mice also had better memory, despite having the genetic defect and never having been exposed to the enriched environment.

If the same applies to humans, the implication is that an enriched nurturing environment – or, conversely, childhood abuse – could have effects that reach beyond generations.

It’s pretty much accepted that childhood poverty will have a negative effect on someone’s prospects as an adult, but if Lamarckism turns out to be valid we have an even stronger argument for striving to improve the lot of the world’s least fortunate. [via SlashDot]


Shanty towns as architectural inspirations

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2009

Rio de Janeiro shantytownGOOD Magazine has a piece on architect Teddy Cruz, who plans to use the ad-hoc shanty towns of Tijuana, Mexico as the inspiration behind some new urban developments. The thinking is that what emerges out of necessity may actually have lessons to teach us about the efficient use of space and resources:

Behind the precariousness of low-income communities, says Cruz, there is a sophisticated social collaboration: People share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other.

[…]

Cruz’s plan aims to vault the income gap with developments on several lots that are integrated into the city. The developments will include 60 housing units, playgrounds, a market, urban agriculture, and job-training facilities, all managed by a coalition of nonprofit groups.

It’s certainly a nice idea, and I’d be the first to applaud any attempt to learn from emergent phenomena where human endeavour is concerned. But I can’t help but feel this might not work out quite as planned… possibly because the UK is littered with housing estates which were designed as self-contained communities, but which aren’t exactly examples of efficiency and harmony any more.

While there are surely lessons to be learned from shantytowns and other interstitial poor communities, I suspect the best lesson we can learn at present is that emergent systems are too complex to be copied easily. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. [story via BoingBoing; image by Crucsou Barus]


IQ and Poverty

Tom James @ 11-07-2008

One of the big taboo ideas in political discourse is the idea that some people are poverty-stricken not because of the way they are brought up but because they just are not very clever.

Deborah Orr has written a shocking and interesting article in The Independent about this:

fiveI think that you would be churlish indeed to assert that whoever set the ball rolling, and whoever dribbled it to the here and now, the 30 years we have just spent “managing the transition to a skills-based economy” have not resulted in happy and universal inclusivity. The bare fact is that not everybody is intellectually equipped to make for themselves a place in such an economy.

If they are not looked after by their family, then the less bright, it is surely safe to assume, are often excluded from society because of their inability to make intelligent choices. Our refusal to look sympathetically on lack of intelligence as a real encumbrance in the modern world – or sometimes even to admit that it exists – is unfair on those who labour under that disadvantage.

Yes – it is in itself very stupid to claim that stupidity is the only cause of social blights and it is seemingly impossible to write about intelligence without coming across as an arrogant twit – but lack of intelligence is something that is almost never mentioned, because discussing it inevitably comes across as patronising, rude, and pointless.

Orr includes all the usual hedges about the dangers of generalisation, but what she is saying is genuinely important. The big problem is that intellectual disadvantage, either through genes or upbringing, is supposedly an intractable problem. Some are smarter than others.

Transhumanism then, is the ultimate expression of freeing the individual from tyranny. Throughout the Enlightenment new ideas challenged old dogmas. Superstition gave way to rationalism and empircism. Tyranny gave way to democracy.

And now Ray Kurzweil is challenging the greatest of all the inequalities: the skills and propensities we are born with.

[story via The Independent][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]


Gaming to combat poverty?

Tobias Buckell @ 08-10-2007

Blogger White African talks about a new concept of gaming that’s oriented at solving issues in the third world. By playing to find solutions for problems facing real world villagers many ideas and approaches might filter out the best practices. A unique idea, as long as the game is open enough to let some really original thinking into it. As White African also points out.


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