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   Darwinian paving stone engineering
Wednesday, May 30 2007
As a people, Americans are so vehemently anti-Darwinian that they fail to assimilate its radical but extremely useful core notion, one that does much to explain phenomena far removed from those covered with infantile brevity in Genesis. Survival of the fittest isn't just a theory concocted to permanently banish God to irrelevance; it also does much to explain the locations of peaks in mountain ranges, the mix of architectural styles in small town America, and the triumph of open societies in competition with closed ones. It even provides a means of solving difficult engineering problems.
At its heart, survival of the fittest is an affirmation of the idea that success can only grow out of lots of failure, coupled with the idea that failure always makes room for success. Today I applied Darwinian principles to the stone stairway leading down to the Stick Trail. Making a path by placing stones directly on soil is, admittedly, not the best way to go about doing it. Due to many factors (frost heave, plant and animal activity, rainfall, and rock shape), a rock placed on the ground will either stick solidly in the soil or it will stick loosely, causing it to move annoyingly when it is stepped on. Because the factors in a particular rock's behavior in a path are so complicated, it's best not to worry about them and just set the rocks, see which ones stand the test of time (in other words, survive) and then come back later and replace those individuals that don't. In the case of the four year old steps down to the Stick Trail, I'd replaced most of the loose rocks years ago. But there'd remained a few rebellious stones, ones that have taken years to fully prove their failings. Today I replaced one of these using a much bigger rock. It turns out that with stones not set in sand or concrete, one of the best ways to ensure good behavior is to use very large paving stones. Such rocks were scarce when I was building the path, but I've since built up a surplus of them, as well as an assortment of wheeled devices needed to gather more from the nearby forest.

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