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COVID-19 links

COVID-19 is taking the bulk of people’s mindshare right now, and I wanted to put some of the links I’m finding useful, interesting, or hopeful in one spot. I’ll be updating this as things progress and hopefully be getting it more organized.

Just to be clear, while emissions have fallen due to reduced travel during the crisis, we should be doing everything we can to help our fellow human beings right now. Some people are saying that the crisis is an opportunity to “thin the herd” or some other nonsense. Coronavirus is not the way to a brighter future for everyone.

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Last Updated: 3/28/2020 @ 5 pm

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What is Solarpunk, anyway?

photo of smiling woman in white dress and brown boots posing in multicolored glass house

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The first thing you need to acknowledge when looking at solarpunk is that the world is on fire. The last few centuries of human development have taken a growth-at-all-costs approach to building up human society, and unfortunately, the bill is due. Solarpunk began as an attempt to imagine a brighter future wherein humans managed to transcend our current predicament and come out better for it on the other side. What began as a smattering of neat drawings and inspirational ideals is slowly coalescing into a movement to take back the Earth from the powers that would see it smolder.

Where is the punk in solarpunk? It’s in direct action to oppose ICE and police violence. It’s in the community energy coop putting solar panels on their roofs to save money. It’s the guerrilla gardeners throwing seed bombs into fenced-off abandoned properties. It’s in the schools where transgender students are welcome in the bathroom of their choice. It’s in the makerspace where people are finding ways to repurpose waste into useful and beautiful items. It’s remaking society into that hopeful future. The punk of solarpunk is in the now. The solarpunk future won’t happen without a concerted effort by a lot of people to fight the status quo and the powers keeping things that way.

Solarpunk doesn’t have one encompassing political or aesthetic vision. I think the most cohesive elements though are equity, environment, and appropriate technology. Equity is more complicated than simple equality, as it requires us to make sure everyone has what they need, which may not be the same exact thing as demanded by equality. For example, living with disabilities is more expensive and results in most disabled individuals having poor economic outcomes. While the exact method of providing an equitable society is something that will need experimentation, that goal is one of the central tenets of solarpunk.

Keeping the environment in mind as a stakeholder in all decision-making processes is another important theme in solarpunk. From the name, you can tell that solarpunk prefers a renewably-powered future, but reducing plastic waste, air and noise pollution, and waste are also environmentally-motivated goals of the solarpunk community. We’ve only got the one planet, so let’s make sure to keep Mother Earth in good shape. She doesn’t need us, but we need her desperately.

Appropriate technology is the idea that we don’t necessarily need “smart” everything in our lives. While solarpunk doesn’t eschew technology like some primitivists, solarpunk is interested in only using the appropriate level of technology for the task at hand and not making technology for technology’s sake alone.

If you’re concerned about climate change or the growing march of fascism across the globe, you might already be a solarpunk and not know it. To learn more check out the Scuttlebutt social network or look for #solarpunk on Mastadon or Tumblr. If you have any questions feel free to use the contact form on this website or comment below.

Agile City Development

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An apartment building in Charlottesville

Last month, I talked about how seeing the city as an ecosystem is an important element of urban planning. Treating every project that happens in the city as an isolated event doesn’t take into account possible interactions with other existing or future work. We can’t reasonably account for every interaction, but we should try to maximize the number of synergistic interactions and minimize unintended consequences.

 

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The Horizon of Predictability from Agile Advice

As a project grows larger and its timescale increases, it grows more difficult to predict its interactions with the surrounding environment. One way to keep projects within a “horizon of predictability” is to take “small bets,” as advised by Strong Towns, instead of always pursuing that next multi-million dollar development project.

If we take an Agile Development approach, then we can start with what identifying issues within a particular area, ranking them in order of impact, and selecting the one or two that would have the biggest impact that we could accomplish in a short time frame.

A city’s sidewalk network is one place we could apply this technique. In 2015, Charlottesville published it’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan identified major corridors for walking and biking in the city and prioritized areas in need of improvement. Looking at the 2019 update of the Master Plan, however, it becomes clear that there hasn’t been a lot of progress on most of these projects.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the sidewalk ends

There are plenty of places where our sidewalks cut out for a few yards or even a few blocks. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the road or across someone’s lawn. This isn’t ideal, and it’s much worse if you need to find a route with a wheelchair or crutches. If we started by identifying areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, we might find places where a small investment in concrete could make great improvements to pedestrian safety.

The traditional approach to development in cities can result in incomplete buildings or infrastructure that are actually worse than if you hadn’t started the project at all. The obvious example of this for Charlottesville residents would be the Landmark/Dewberry Hotel on the downtown mall. Construction began shortly before the Great Recession hit, and ten years later, its partially completed skeleton still looms over the most expensive part of town.

I’d really like to see the city move toward small, incremental projects that slowly fix problems we see. This allows us to expend fewer resources at a given time toward solving a problem, as well as allowing us to test different approaches and course correct as we implement plans. One refrain I’ve heard several times since moving here is that the city has “analysis paralysis.” We expend millions of dollars toward study after study, but the citizens just don’t see anything come from it. People in city government then get frustrated when there’s a lack of engagement from the community. It’s hard to get buy-in when the past has shown that the city lacks follow through.

I think future work should include more small area plans that bring neighbors together to shape how their neighborhoods will look in the future. There should probably be some oversight to make sure that these small area plans are welcoming, not exclusionary, but people from the neighborhood will be closer to the ground truth of what small actions might create the biggest effects in people’s day-to-day life.

At the end of the day, we all want our communities to be a better place. By coming together and figuring out what small changes we can make, we can get started right away. We don’t need to wait on the next four year plan to make things better.

City Council held a work session on zoning, and city staff made recommendations on how to make it easier for residents to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or split existing homes into duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes. These small changes to the existing zoning code are happening independently of the larger zoning rewrite that is part of the Comprehensive Planning process. These changes aren’t going to solve our housing crisis, but they will make a dent. This small zoning change to allow small increases in density by allowing more small development is the perfect example of how many small steps can add up to a big one.

I hope that this new City Council will be open to more small bets in the future. If they are, I think we’ll make progress more quickly by taking a lot of small steps than taking big steps that might not always land on solid ground.

Are there people in your town working on small bets with or without your local government? Let us know below!

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Questioning capitalism

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Since the heyday of McCarthyism, any suggestion that capitalism is flawed has been met with overt hostility. In the United States, capitalism has become more a religion than an economic system.

There’s recently been much ado about millennials preferring socialism to capitalism, but what many commentators are overlooking is that people aren’t railing against markets, they’re sick of living with “cancer as the model of our social system.” You can wrangle definitions, but at the end of the day capitalism isn’t the only way to have a market.

Citizens from all over the political map see problems with increasing economic disparity but are laying the problems at the feet of different political scapegoats. The left blames the rich, and the right targets government as the source of their woes. If we take a step back and look at the situation, a clearer picture emerges. The collusion of big government and big business has formed one of the strongest corporatist government/economic hybrids the world has ever seen, excluding perhaps the Dutch East India Company.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

In the richest country the world has ever known, why are there people dying because they can’t afford their medicine while billionaires have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all? I don’t believe that taxing the rich is the answer. Rethinking our economic system is. As one person said, “If you’re talking about wealth redistribution, you’re already too late.”*

Capitalism as it’s currently practiced in the United States, where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is reaching a breaking point. Cutting back federal programs could allow subsidiarity to guide more tailor-made policies crafted at a local level. Even environmental protection can be carried out as compacts between states as has been done with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Our current reliance on the federal government for regulations has led to a regulatory monoculture that allows national and international megacorps to grow out of control. This would be a lot less likely if companies had to meet 50 different sets of business regulations or even more in state’s that don’t restrict municipal regulations through use of the Dillon Rule.

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In 1888, Benjamin Tucker defined two forms of socialism: state socialism, and what is today known as anarcho-socialism. His essay reads as a prophecy of the horrors committed by the USSR in it’s pursuit of “equality.” It also shows that even 130 years ago, socialism didn’t have one “correct” definition. A lot of the tension in US politics right now is from people using the same words to mean different things. In a living language such as English, this isn’t unexpected. If we spent a little more time listening before opening our own mouths, we might find we have more in common than we think.

As someone who grew up as a devotee of free market capitalism, I’ve grown more and more suspicious that any one economic ideology is really suited for something as complex as human society. Maybe capitalism can be reformed, but dismissing alternatives out of hand is not a responsible way forward when we’re discussing something that so greatly influences the outcomes of people’s lives. No one is suggesting Soviet-style socialism, so conservatives should stop using the USSR as a bogeyman to distract from good-faith conversations regarding postcapitalism. Capitalism served us well for a time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of economic evolution. As they say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Capitalism as it is has failed marginalized groups as it was designed for wealthy white people. This is evident in prison slavery and the continued existence of tipping for service work in the United States. I think we can do better for a solarpunk future.

Are you critical of capitalism? Do you still believe that markets are an effective tool for managing scarce resources, or have you seen something else that could help us manage those things that still can’t be produced in abundance? Let us know below!


* I heard this attributed to the CEO of Mondragon, but can’t seem to find it anywhere, so consider it apocryphal for the time being. It might originally be in Spanish or Basque, so if anyone out there has seen the original, let me know and I’ll update this article.

Credit Where It’s Due

Last year, I wrote a series of posts about mobile devices focused on repairability, decentralization, design, and user experience. One of my main complaints was how mobile devices had gone from a Cambrian explosion of form factors in the early 2000s to a monoculture of iPhone clones in the 2010s.

While I have plenty of issues with the business practices of tech giants, I would like to take a moment to give some credit to some companies actually experimenting again with form factor. A lot of this is likely due to the coming decline of smartphone and computer sales, but it’s nice to see some variety again.

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The Microsoft Surface Neo

Dual screen Windows machines can trace a lineage back to the Toshiba Libretto W100 of 2010 and the Microsoft Courier concept before it. Various other half-baked attempts at dual screen laptops have peppered computing history, but it seems like a concerted effort from Microsoft’s Windows 10X will attempt to alleviate all the previous kludgy issues of dual screen computing. As someone who was devastated when the Courier was cancelled, I’m intrigued to see how well they pull it off. The Surface Neo and Lenovo Fold are two of the upcoming folio-esque devices that will use Windows 10X for true “notebook” computing.

Android efforts in the dual screen space date back to the Kyocera Echo from 2011, but the device didn’t really live up to most expectations, much like the aforementioned Libretto. Folding screens are coming to market in devices like the Samsung Fold and new dual screen devices like the Microsoft Surface Duo are experimenting with the phone/tablet hybrid form factor again. As with the Windows 10X system, I’m interested to see what comes of these new devices, but it is hard not to see them as a modest evolution over previous efforts. I suspect a lot will come down to what software engineers are able to do with the new capabilities of the hardware. If we just get wider versions of existing apps, it won’t be much to write home about.

A more exciting development, in my opinion, was Amazon unveiling two devices last fall that hearken back to the visions of wearable computing first pioneered by the MIT Media Lab and Steve Mann among many others. I talked briefly about personal area networks (PANs) last year, but basically, they decentralize the parts of your computing experience into several different devices, instead of a single glass slate. The capabilities of mobile hardware have progressed so much in the last 20 years that newer PANs should be nothing if not exciting.

Echo Frames

The Amazon Echo Frames are a more subtle way to interact with technology

Echo Frames may look like a Google Glass copycat at first, but they eschew the creepy camera and bulky screen in favor of glasses with a built-in Alexa voice assistant. Voice computing is an exciting area of research right now, and is particularly beneficial for the blind. The Echo Loop is a ring that performs voice assistant functions while living on your finger. I’m glad to see some experimentation with computing devices that don’t rely on screens for data input and output. It seems like a less distracting way to interact with our computers, but only time will tell.

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The MojoVision XR contact lens prototype

If you were disappointed by the lack of a screen in the Echo Lens, then maybe the Mojo Lens will be more to your liking. It looks like this will be the first “smart” contact lens, giving you an augmented view of the world without requiring some bulky hardware affixed to your head. While it isn’t as close to production as the previous examples, it does offer an interesting interpretation of bringing the magic back to computing.

Are you excited about one of these form factors? Is there a type of device you haven’t seen represented in the real world that would make your life better? Let us know below!

 

 

New Year, New Spool

While 3D printing has the potential to decentralize product design and manufacturing, nothing is without it’s drawbacks. One of the biggest for 3D printing is the inherent waste of filament packaging. Filament typically comes vacuum-sealed on a plastic spool with a tiny silica gel packet. The plastic film and silica gel are there to prevent water uptake which can have a negative impact on filament performance, and the spool is there to provide the filament with structure and an easy way to keep the long strand of plastic from tangling.

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My 3D printer with one of its new Master Spools mounted on top

The problem comes when you reach the end of the spool. What are you supposed to do with an empty spool? People on Thingiverse and the other 3D printer file repositories have come up with an impressive number of solutions to reusing these empty spools, but at some point, enough is enough. Luckily, makers are an inventive bunch, and RichRap came up with a solution called the Master Spool.

By making the spool a reusable part of the 3D printing process, filament is cheaper to ship with a reduced weight and carbon footprint. Since it’s an open standard, any filament manufacturer can jump onboard and offer their filament as Maker Spool refills. Master Spool is still new enough that only a few manufacturers are supporting it so far, but the speed of adoptions makes me think this will become the new normal for 3D printer filaments.

I ordered my Master Spools from Filastruder, and so far, I’m really impressed by the quality of the filament and how simple it was to put the Master Spool together. Two bolts and cutting three zip ties is all it takes to free yourself from an unending pile of empty filament spools.

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The empty Master Spool

This system isn’t entirely without waste, but it’s a big improvement over what came before. The plastic film can probably be recycled with other plastic bags in your area (usually at grocery stores), but I’m not sure what to do with the zip ties other than throw them in the trash. I keep the silica gel and put it in with my filament to try keeping it dry, but if I were a manufacturer, I’d spend the little bit extra and spring for the reusable silica gel packets with color indicator to reduce waste even more.

I think this is still a win for making 3D printing more sustainable. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

Maintaining the Means of Production

As I reflect on 2019, I’m thinking of how everyone likes to talk about seizing the means of production being the path to freedom, but nobody ever really talks about maintaining it.

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For me, a solarpunk future is one where we can locally produce most of the things we need. Ideally, this would be from predominantly local materials, but some things would undoubtedly need to trade from one region to another. I envision a future with a much lighter international trade footprint than we have now, restricted to mostly raw materials exchange for digital manufacturing and handicrafts.

One of the things you quickly realize as you move away from the dominant throwaway culture is that maintaining the items you have takes work. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but people who work in maintenance are typically not well thought of in Western society. The plumbers, cleaning staff, and garbage haulers are somehow lesser in our culture’s eyes than a lawyer or engineer, resulting in depressed wages for many in these professions. This is pretty messed up since maintenance staff are the ones filling the most critical functions of our society. There’s an emphasis on the new and shiny, that is also exemplified by the poor state of infrastructure in the US while we continue to build new roads and highways.

Douglas Adams included an aside in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about how one civilization was destroyed when it decided it no longer needed it’s telephone sanitation workers. While it’s a bit of an absurd example, just think about who you’d rather have still working during some sort of crisis – the trash collector or a lawyer?

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There are so many jobs in the current economy that only exist because of capitalism’s insistence that everyone needs to work for a living even when there are plenty of resources for everyone to have the basics. We’ve designed a hedonic treadmill where we make up unnecessary jobs so people can buy things they don’t need and corporations can extract profits from our communities. I know I’ve personally had a lot of jobs that weren’t adding value to the world, and I would’ve dropped them in a second if I hadn’t needed to make rent. That said, I also definitely have a bunch of things that I’ve bought that seemed like a good idea at the time but are now just clutter in the apartment. It’s easy to say that better spending habits would make it easier to make ends meet, but making that a reality when you’re inundated with advertising every day makes it easier said than done.

I hope a solarpunk future will have a lot less waste and a lot more genuine activity. Maybe a popular activity for lunarpunks would be to clean solar arrays in the night so they’ll be operating at maximum efficiency in the morning, or tidalpunks working on corrosion mitigation in coastal communities would be highly regarded members of the town. In the past year, I’ve repaired a couple cellphones, numerous bikes, performed various software and hardware upgrades on computers, and have been nursing my 3D printer back to health after it caught fire in March. I also helped out with two Repair Cafés here in town, repairing all sorts of different things. I haven’t been disparaged for being a fixer, and most people seem surprised or impressed when a gadget or garment can be brought back from the brink with a simple repair. Repairing objects can bring communities together, and I’d really love if we could extend that wonder and respect to all the people that keep society humming. If you are one of these unsung heroes, you have my thanks and respect.

Do you have any ideas on how to generate more respect and appreciation for those who maintain our society? Please let us know below!


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