The Architecture of Life: October 2007

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Friday, October 19, 2007

Forget the Planet - Seven: We Have the Power!

(Final post of seven related posts)

An environmental holocaust does not have to happen.

Changing how we think and live to face the reality of a global perspective is a big change, and a complex problem, but there is no reason we cannot do it. Human beings have proven over and over that their abilities are limitless.

The only things that have ever stopped us are our own self-imposed limitations.

Every great teacher in all the history of man has taught this. Tens of thousands of us prove this ever day. Millions have worked together to prove it many times down through history.

Individually we may not have the power to deal with global issues, but as communities we have all me need and more. We can change, and on the timescale of the planet, change quickly.

Just in this century, we have changed the face of the globe in a hundred ways.

People are more free and there is more justice. There is enough food to feed us all. We live lives beyond the imaginations of our great-grandparents.

We are great dreamers, and we have the power to make our dreams come true.


We do not have to do it all at once.

Imagine that you are traveling across the country at night. On the highway, your headlights only show the surface of the road two hundred feet in front of you.

That is a day in your life.

You cannot see your destination. It is far away. But you do not have to see it to know it is there.

We can dream, and from those dreams we have created every miracle that surrounds us.

All we have to do is keep our destination in mind, force our leaders to accept that same goal with our votes and voices, use the power of our purchases and our portfolios to turn the business sector towards responsible actions, and innovate like crazy.

And if there is one thing human beings have a genius for, it is innovation.

The answers are much more likely there than in slogans and T-shirts.

So if you want to survive, vote with your voice, vote with your money, vote with your ballot, but most of all, vote with your will and your imagination.

After a long journey on dark road we will arrive at a world where human beings understand their niche on this rare and blessed world.

We will be able to turn off our headlights because the sun will rise and a whole new day will come.

Forget the Planet - Six: But Seriously Folks

(Sixth of seven related posts)

If you have made it this far in this article without leaving to writing a flaming post (…sure, kill the messenger), then perhaps you are starting to get my little tongue and cheek point here.

It is politically correct in this day and age to profess an interest in “saving the planet.”

Almost everyone thinks that is a good idea as long as they don’t have to alter their choice of automobiles, pay higher prices for gasoline, sort their trash more effectively, give up on plastic bags at the supermarket or go to any extra trouble in their day to day lives.

There were concerts all over the planet in the last couple of months hosting millions of young people jumping up and down with righteous glee at the prospect of forcing the evil capitalists and blind governments of the world to take global warming seriously.

All of them were dressed in trendy clothes sold by those capitalists, drove to the event in cars sold by those capitalists, drank soft drinks and alcohol hawked by those capitalists, and counted on the policemen herding them into the stadiums to keep them safe while they watch capitalistic entertainers give a “free concert.” That is, free except for the global publicity.

Those same kids feed the greenhouse gas spewing machine that our over-packaged disposable culture has created - and so do their parents – who are better known as “those capitalists”.

The bottom line is that the way we talk about the environment is a lie.

The environment is not out there. The environment is you.

The environment is everyone you know. The environment is your house, what’s in your shopping cart and in your body. The environment is how you live and how those around you live.

You and everyone you love is 100% made up of the environment. There is nothing in you, nothing you eat, nothing you do, nothing you think, nothing you feel, nothing you ever will do or eat or think or feel that is not an aspect of the environment.

The environment is all there is. You and I are just tiny, insignificant, and not particularly intelligent parts of it.

So if the environment is in trouble, you are in trouble. In fact, you are more at risk than most of the animals on the planet because you belong to a highly complex interdependent society that is quite fragile…much more fragile than the vast majority of the organisms on earth.

Because the vast majority of organisms on this planet are micro-organisms who have existed here for eons.

All it would take to throw human civilization into a terminal downspin is a chain reaction of bad things happening all in a row. And there are plenty of smart people with good science saying that is exactly what we are doing right now.

That means you and everyone you love is in trouble. That means if you want to survive yourself, you will take it seriously yourself.

And that is not going to be easy. It is not about wearing the right kind of T-shirt with the right kind of message on it. It is not even about recycling. It is not about buying a Toyota Prius (though that might help).

It’s about deciding that your life matters and facing the fact that you are connected to, and dependent upon, everyone else.

It is about admitting that we do not really know what we are doing here on this planet. It is about recognizing that we are acting like selfish impulsive children playing with fire.

Ultimately, it is about taming our animal urges…those automatic impulsive behaviors that religious people call sin. It is about taking responsibility for the lives of our children and grandchildren… not just the ones we breed ourselves, but the children and grandchildren of all our sisters and brothers across this tiny, remote planet.

It is about adopting a spirit of humility and facing the grave limitations inherent in being human, our lack of awareness of our automatic behaviors, and our penchant for putting off serious problems until we have no other choice but to face them.

It is about finding some way we can act together to create profound change in how we live as individuals in societies before it is too late…because we are not very good at that.


Remember 9-11?

That sure launched us into action didn’t it?

Americans jumped into action right after Pearl Harbor.

We reacted to the needs of New Orleans…after Katrina.

We reacted with the flurry of bridge inspections across the nation…after the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

We reacted after the rise of Moslem fundamentalism.

We reacted after Rwanda and Cambodia and Darfur.

We reacted after the holocaust.

There were plenty of warnings before all those events and yet we did nothing until each horror became a reality.

Even today, we still do not act in Darfur, because they are not us. We do not see those folks as part of our environment. They are just strange looking black people on a parched continent far removed from our lives.

But what if America was Darfur?

What if 9-11 happened on a global scale?

What if the holocaust happened everywhere all at once?

I don’t mean to be a fatalist. I believe in being positive. There is still a chance people will begin to see how tiny and vulnerable we are here on this planet and cooperate for the common good.

But our automatic behaviors are driving us towards an environmental holocaust. Anyone who views the issue objectively can see that easily. Our overpopulation alone will lead to massive die offs, just as it does in any other species in every eco-system on the planet that overpopulates.

Either we will create our own destruction, or new predators – most likely micro-organisms – will arise, or we will simply out grow or poison the carrying capacity of our planet…and the system will collapse. That is what happens every time in nature, and always has down through the eons.

Are we really going to wait until that happens before we act?

Mother has her rules and we now know a lot about what they are. We just have to accept reality as reality.

But if the past is any indicator of what we will do in the future…then I am sorry to say we probably will keep going until we have used up all our chances.

Forget the Planet Seven is here:

Forget the Planet - Five: Moving Pictures

(Fifth of seven related posts)

The “me” we give so much attention to in our day to day lives is really just a secondary byproduct of the functioning of the brain.

“I” is a just a good story. Our identities are nothing but artifacts of the brain’s penchant for storytelling. There is not a person walking around on this planet that fully walks their talk.

As a species, we are incredibly talented at creating BS and selling it.

I’m not saying the brain is a liar. It is just trying to do its job. All your grey matter is trying to do is get a good meal, avoid being eaten and get lucky in the sack.

This is proven by how our eyes work, and how what we see impacts our perception of reality. Let me explain.

Each of us experiences a seamless interconnected high-resolution world as though our eyes are IMAX camera recording every detail around us. But in truth that is not what our eyes are seeing.

What our pupils do is jump from point to point in a reflexive way common to a wide variety of animals. It’s one of many techniques we picked up while trying to avoid being eaten. Our eyes really only see a small clear focal point surrounded by increasingly blurry outlying areas.

They dart here, then there, then to another place over there, and then to the left…and so on and so on.

Our eyes don’t actually see the world we perceive as a cinematic masterpiece. The movie we live in is fictionalized in the brain – and like a historical novel - strongly influenced by movies we have “seen” in the past.

The brain predicts the likely contours of reality from past experience, and is amazingly good at it when it comes to features of everyday life.

Quite a feat, really.

However, that brilliant suite of skills is not as good at dealing with complex issues it can’t see with its own eyes - like wars in Iraq, health care, immigration and hedge funds – which is aptly demonstrated by the performance of the President and the U. S. Congress.

Poor George W. Bush is constantly being criticized for “living in a dream world” and being unrealistic about foreign policy. Well duh! What do you expect?

Most of the people reading this article think Coca Cola is the “real thing.” Seventy per cent of Americans worship things they can’t see, and think Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie live in the “Real World”.

A big part of our economy is driven by the concept that fancy cars, tight blue jeans and beer are required for reproduction.

Like George W., our legislators, Paris and Nicole…most of us haven’t the slightest idea that we are living in made up worlds.

That is by design. The last thing our brain wants is for us to quit reacting like robots, so it keeps us high on hormones and neurotransmitters. If we realized we are drugged up puppets in a B movie produced by our noggins, we might lose our motivation and quit feeding ourselves.

That would be catastrophic for the brain as it is the biggest energy consumer in the body. So to protect us from the dangerous fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, it makes sure we haven’t got the slightest idea whose really in charge, and what is going on around us.

That’s the purpose of the unconscious. We are simply being protected from taking on more than we can handle. Lucky our brain patronizes us. Consider what happened to Adam and Eve. Who wants to go through that again?

If not for phenomena like teenage boys, the inability of middle-aged husbands to find things sitting right in front of them, and the results of national elections; we would probably never notice this dysfunctional part of the brain’s functioning.

So the brain makes up our worlds on a bet, and since every storyteller needs an audience, it creates our identities. So you and I are simply characters in the brain’s moving picture - and in an amazing feat of tail-biting efficiency - its audience.

We don’t need a Matrix to be trapped in a cybernetic world. We evolved in one.

No wonder we have such a hard time electing a capable President.

Forget the Planet Six is here:

Forget the Planet - Four: Who Am I?

(Fourth of seven related posts)

A more important question has been haunting me lately, a personal question.

After all, my world is all about me.

The question I have been asking myself is, “who am I.” Because when you really study it, you begin to realize that there is very little “you” in yourself.

A couple of psychologists named John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand were studying the brain almost a decade ago and determined that we are aware of only about five per cent of what our brains are doing each day. Most of our actions and decisions relative to the environment are unconsciously determined.

Don't believe me. Here a pdf of the study.

Five per cent. That’s less than the current prime rate.

That means the chance you "know what you’re doing" is pretty small. There is less risk to a lender in financing a three bedroom single family home in Phoenix than there is of you being fully aware of your decisions. Consider that for a moment.

What science is facing is the fact that previously clear divisions between what are called phenotypes - the bodies of different species - are not very distinct.

All higher life forms - like Paris Hilton and George W. Bush - are really just mobile neighborhoods for tiny gangs of homeboys who don’t like strangers on their turf.

So the distinction between the environment, and you and me, and Paris and George…has very fuzzy boundaries. Like one big happy family, my collie, my wife and I, the moths buzzing at the front porch light, the yellow jackets on the roof rafters, the mice in the basement and the chickadee at the bird feeder all exchange these microbiotic tourists constantly.

It’s sort of like time share.

It’s really very intimate when you think about it.

You and I have about the same amount of independence in the huge societal and cultural organisms in which we live as a white blood cell has in a five year old.

We play a role. We have some latitude, but we fill a function that is determined by our history and social position, just like the cells that constitute our liver…or a slime mold.

So you see, really what you think and say is just the environment talking to itself.

We are mutterings, not even the mutterer. And as such, we don’t really mutter all that much in the big picture.

Forget the Planet Five is here:

Forget the Planet - Three: Everything is Going Down Hill

(Third of seven related posts)

I am not being negative, just practical. I believe in respecting Mother Nature because Mom has rules that are immutable. What’s the point of beating your head against the brick wall of natural law?

One of these natural laws makes it clear why we can’t save the environment. The futility of having humans - with their mayfly existences - trying to manage the planet that is billions of years old, is determined by a well establish law of physics.

It is often called “entropy”. Entropy is more formally known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics and many physicists consider it the most general law of nature. When the energy in any system – a star or a living organism – runs down to the point that it becomes a dead, inert lump, it reaches a state a physicist calls thermodynamic equilibrium, or maximum entropy.

This can also be described as “greater order” as significant change in its form stops for all practical purposes. Basically, maximum entropy means the state in which things can’t possibly get any worse. You become an “absolute zero.”

One of the fathers of quantum physics, Erwin Schrodinger, suggested entropy might be the driving force behind all life. Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, credited as a source of his inspiration for his initial research.

Most substances degrade relatively rapidly from the relative disorder caused by heat to a more “stable order” as they cool to absolute zero, but the march of entropy exhibits itself in many other ways.

For instance, Americans degrade the complex organisms we refer to as cattle at a mind-boggling rate. Somewhere around forty million of those brilliantly functional organic systems, each capable of independently maintaining its energy level for a considerable number of years, are “degraded” to the more stable state we refer to as sewage by the process of our consumption.

That sewage is then consumed and degraded by specialized microorganisms even closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. We convert an average of 195 pounds of red meat, poultry and fish each year into simpler forms, converting it to energy and protein which we use to battle the relentless march of entropy.

Each individual organism on earth is an efficient processing plant that is remarkably effective at making other organisms in the world around them more “stable.”


Eating and finding food are so basic to the function of living things that in almost all organisms the brain is located near the entrance to the gut.

According to biologist, John Morgan Allman in his book Evolving Brains, “The consistent location of the brain near the entrance to the gut suggests that the brain arose as the gut’s way of controlling its intake by accepting nutritious foods, and rejecting toxins.”

Allman points out that there are several families of genes that govern both brain and gut development, which “may reflect the ancient relationship between gut and brain.”

It is humbling to consider while pushing our carts through the grocery store that we may be utilizing the first and foremost purpose of our minds. Especially since viruses, the simplest form of life, can do the same thing. And scientists aren’t even sure they are alive.

Like every other animal, our primary business in life is to find food that can be converted to energy to support the functioning of our bodies. What we do not use, we excrete as feces, urine, and perspiration.

Combined, the amount of waste generated by living things, both in life and in death, has altered a significant portion of the earth’s crust. Soil and limestone deposits, both results of millions of years of processing by living things, cover our planet.

All life is knee deep in birth and death, two extremes of this powerful entropic process. This universal contest is present not only in the grand scheme of nature, but also in the daily existence of everything in creation.

Our sun is a powerful generator of energy, but like all sources of energy, that energy is slowly suffering the attrition of entropy. The powerful heat and pressures within the core of our planet create complex mineral deposits, which emerge through volcanic activity and other geological phenomena to create mountains and other grand features, which are in turn worn down by wind, rain, glaciers and other natural forces, and turned into sand and soil.

Our bodies face entropy each day. Millions of years of evolution have built a grand engine in the human physique. Life has an incredible ability to persist in the face of entropy’s relentless march - but in the end - every living thing, every mountain, every energy source…wears down.

Given the facts, it seems likely we are going to wipe ourselves out with our own appetites, so my philosophy is just to enjoy the moment.

Let’s buy ice cream, Chips Ahoy, a six-pal of Blue Moon and party like its 1999!

Oh wait, we already did that.

Forget the Planet Four is here:

Forget the Planet - Two: You are the Environment!

(Second of seven related posts)

What we should be worrying about is the environment hurting us! The environment has an ugly history of killing off species a lot bigger and tougher than we are.

It is politically correct to protect our good-natured Disneyland style environment these days, but let’s be honest. The environment is not known for protecting us back.

It kills tens of thousands of us regularly. Heat stroke, skin cancer, and infectious disease are all gifts of our environment. So are tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes. We might as well start a movement to protect serial killers and suicide bombers. They do a lot less damage to innocent people than the environment.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ll take care of the environment as soon as it starts taking care of me.

But in the last few years, as I have come to this conclusion, I have realized there is a little problem with that position. I have come to understand that I AM the environment.

If you really look, it makes no sense to talk about the environment as though we are distinct from it, because we are not. We are born of it, made from it, built by it and utterly controlled by it.

The environment is like layers of an onion, worlds within worlds…and our bodies are a universe in their own right. You and I - every other member of the human race - and all the other “higher” organisms on this planet are really just small components of a writhing organic mass of tiny creatures who cover our planet, viruses, bacteria and single-celled forms of like that are impossible to see with the naked eye.

Our bodies are populated by uncountable micro-organisms. They treat our physiology like eighteenth century Europeans treated continents; as resources to be exploited.

In the big picture, the human body is just a minor variation of how single-celled organisms have learned to organize themselves. That is after all what a cell is, a single-celled organism that evolved to specialize and cooperate with others in order to survive.

We are merely cheap subdivisions built by the first, the tiniest, and most sucessful real estate developers in nature.

Human beings are funny. We think of ourselves as the dominate form of life on the planet. But every morning we get up and feed our pets, who lay around like aristocracy scarcely raising a paw to support themselves. We spend most of every day working our fingers to the bone so we can feed the micro-organisms in our guts that enslave us because we can’t digest without them.

We are like cows, chickens and pigs are to them…domesticated meat animals. We are slaves on the plantation. To bacteria and other micro-organisms, we are Whole Foods and Wild Oats. Except the merger occurred long before humans evolved.

Given the fact we don’t run the planet, but are stooges for germs, what’s the point of arrogant talk suggesting we are capable of damaging the environment and polluting the earth? It’s condescending to think the environment needs our stewardship.

It’s like asking my gall bladder to manage New York City.

Let’s just face it. The whole thing is over our heads. We should just get drunk, make fun of Paris Hilton, or watch the Simpsons. All we know how to do is eat, have sex and die anyway.

Forget the Planet Three is here:

Forget the Planet - One: Save Yourself!

(First of seven related posts)

I have come to a realization. We don’t need to worry about the environment.

It’s a waste of time. Despite what Al Gore says, we don’t have to do anything about global warming. Sure, we might be poisoning the oceans, mindlessly spewing out hydrocarbons at a rate sufficient to increase the average temperature of the oceans and atmosphere, destroying species all over the planet and generally creating a huge mess.

But why get in an uproar about it? Human beings are just like raccoons. What we don’t tear up, we **** on. It’s our true nature, and we learned it the old fashioned way – from our genes – so why change?

We should respect Mother Nature and leave well enough alone. Our self destructive behaviors are built into us by millions of years of evolution - or by God’s will - depending on your point of view.

Either way, isn’t it a little arrogant to think we know better?

We are going out of our way to make room for every little tree frog and salamander on the verge or going extinct, but what about us?

After all, we’re an endangered species too. We are overpopulating the planet at an incredible rate. We have dumped enough sewage, fertilizer and chemicals into the oceans to poison one of our main sources of food. If the way we eat, the air we breath, the stress we feel, and the way we get to work don’t kill us, then the booze and drugs will.

We keep spending the biggest part of our national budgets on ways to kill people while our children starve. There are enough nuclear weapons in the hands of the world’s power mad - and often moronic - politicians to reduce most of us to radioactive slag at any moment.

How can you get any more endangered?


And let’s be honest. What’s the point of trying to teach the human race to be good stewards of a whole planet? Most of us can’t even be good stewards of our own front yards. A significant percentage of us can’t remember to zip up our flies after urinating. At any given moment, millions of Americans are stumbling around trying to remember where they left their cell phones, wallets or car keys.

Are we a species that should really be given responsibility for the incredibly complex ecosystems of a whole world? I think not.

Why are all these environmentalists trying to teach us how to care about the planet? Can’t they see what’s going on in their own neighborhoods? Most people don’t care about neighbors half way down the block.

Millions of us can’t take care of our own children or aging parents. So I think all these tree huggers and doomsayers need to take a Xanax and relax. I’m not saying we aren’t bringing on our own doom, but talking about it is such a downer. I’m a positive thinker and believe we should look at the sunny side.

Maybe we are leaving a nasty mess for our children and grandchildren, but we have cleaned up after them our whole lives. It’s only fair they take a turn.

And face it. The environment will be just fine no matter what we do. After all, to our planet - which IS the environment as far as we are concerned – any fluctuations caused by arrogant overpopulating primates like us will likely cause nothing more than a global case of hiccups.

Life’s been around on this planet a very long time and such hiccups have happened many times before , some of them leading to the majority of species on earth becoming extinct. But after a few tens of thousands of years, things always turn out to be just fine on this planet.

So I am not worried about the environment at all. I think I’ll go buy a Hummer, toss my beer bottle in the river, and gobble down a double meat fast food cheeseburger injected with synthetic hormones.

Then just for fun, I’m going to Wal-Mart and buy a case of gallon size plastic baggies. I’ll fill them with Freon and methane, float them out my window, and see if I can create my own hole in the ozone layer.

I need a tan and those tanning salons are so pricey.

After that, I plan to pull all the plastic milk bottles out of our recycling bin, fill them with gasoline and start a fire in a rain forest.

Everything on earth, the entire vast complex of interdependent living systems we call the biosphere, is really just pond scum on the thin crust of a tiny planet orbiting an insignificant sun in the boonies of a remote galaxy amongst billions of others.

If you look at the big picture, a nuclear holocaust here on earth would be about as significant in the big picture as a flea burping in China.

So we can quit worrying, because there is no risk whatsoever that we are going to hurt the environment.

Forget the Planet - Two is here:

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Evolution and Intelligent Design of the Home

Welcome to the Architecture of Life Blog. This discussion is focused on a subject close to almost everyone’s heart…the home. But we aren’t going to talk about home as simply a building where you hang your clothes.

We'll discuss "home" in all its forms - as a potential project, as an investment, as an eco-system designed to fit its inhabitants, as a personal claim to territory, as an expression of self, and as adaptive evolutionary strategy that is used by many animals on this planet.

But mostly we’ll talk about “home” as an emotional experience. We discuss home as a complex suite of emotions...feelings like comfort, safety, warmth and the deep satisfaction of being with those we love.

For those who have an interest, I am also offering seminars based on the Truehome Workshop beginning in 2009 and take public speaking engagement. For details, look here.

Feel free to post any questions – or answers – you might have yourself. I plan to go on a little journey – a journey of discovery. And I would be honored to have you come along for the ride.

I must warn you, however, that I do post articles on this blog from a gonzo tabloid called the Round Top Register that is better known for satirical commentary and humor, than for a serious subject like the home. So not everything on this blog should be taken seriously.

But honestly, even when I am trying to be funny, there is often something serious behind it. So take your grain of salt...with a grain of salt.

I run an architecture firm and for over twenty-five years was also a historic restoration and remodeling general contractor and custom home builder. I have worked with hundreds of clients to buy, redecorate, remodel their houses, or to design and build a new living space.

One fact was constant in every case. Those clients were not really looking for a particular tile selection or cabinet style, a master bath upgrade or a home on the lake - though they often thought they were.

What they truly wanted was a living space that fit how they lived, who they were, what they loved, the things they owned and most of all, how they wanted to feel!

People want a living space the supports the normal patterns of their lives as they move through each day…and deep down - when they decide to change their living space - they want to change their lives, not just their physical surroundings.

They want the "emotional experience of home".

For most of us, that means we want comfort, relaxation, self-expression, safety and security, a sense of belonging, personal satisfaction, warmth, and rejuvenation.

Those are not criteria for designing a building. Those are emotional goals.

What inspires those feelings differ for each of us. They are nested in our brains and appear in the form of automatic and largely unconscious emotional reactions. Those emotions are caused by hormones and neurotransmitters that are released in response to features and circumstances in our day to day environment.

Identifying these "warm and fuzzy criteria" before changing your living space can save you lots of time and money. Being aware of your responses can protect you from headaches and heartaches. So looking at the nature of the "experience of home" is a discussion worth having.

Here are the questions we will ask in the Architecture of Life blog.

What is a home? How does one create a living space that fits? How can you predict how a new living space will make you feel?

How do professionals – architects, interior designers, builders, real estate professionals – help their clients achieve a home that fits their lifestyle, values, goals and emotional needs?

Where does the “experience of home” come from and how do we create it reliably? Is there a science to creating a home that meets your emotional needs? What is happening in your brain when you “feel at home”?

How do other living things create and use their homes? What can we learn from them? Are there general characteristics to how and why living organisms create homes?

What does it mean that we have a "home planet?" What habits have we developed inside our personal homes - what kind of "house keeping and homemaking" - could help us learn how to be better stewards of our global home?

So join the conversation. We're going home and you're invited to come along.