Category Archives: Science

Good news for tidalpunks

humpback whale in ocean

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The Guardian recently reported that according to scientists in Nature, if we take the right steps moving forward, we could have healthy, vibrant oceans again as early as the 2050s. Some bright points in ocean restoration that exhibit the resiliency of Mother Nature include humpback whale and sea otter populations that were once quite dire.

Some challenges that we still must overcome to find our tidalpunk future are overfishing, agricultural runoff, and ocean acidification due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. This year will be particularly challenging for life in the Gulf of Mexico given the increased rainfall expected once again in the Midwest United States which drives erosion and agricultural runoff. An increase in regenerative agriculture on the land, and sustainable fishing practices in the water would help greatly toward the goal of revitalizing our oceans.

A study from 2016 showed that protecting 30-40% of the world’s oceans from exploitation would provide a benefit not only for the creatures in the ocean, but also for the people who rely on fishing and tourism to make their living. By setting aside parts of the ocean for the wildlife that lives there, we ensure long-term viability of the ocean’s biodiversity. In 2018, the United Kingdom’s Environmental Minister became one of the first major political leaders to back the plan.

On a personal note, as a midwesterner, I’d never been to the ocean until I was twenty. Growing up in a place where the largest bodies of water were ponds and small streams, it was boggling to see the water stretch out beyond the horizon. All the different types of fish and birds that live along the shorelines here in Virginia are fascinating to watch, and the ocean waves themselves are mesmerizing. I feel a great respect for the ocean, and hope that we can help it recover from the damage caused by years of careless neglect.

Do you live near the ocean? Are there any programs in your area to help wildlife, aquatic or terrestrial? Let us know below!

Indistinguishable from magic

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CODY BLOCK Learning Toy

Last year, I wrote a little about how solarpunk design could lead to better gadgets. One of my personal design goals is that things should feel magical, not in the way marketing agencies apply the term to everything, but rather that a piece of technology should disappear in use. It should help you accomplish whatever it was that it was designed to do, and not steal the spotlight for itself. Algae-based path lighting in a lunarpunk community or a sailboat in a tidalpunk town come to mind.

I was on Kickstarter last night, and found the CODY Block project, and immediately felt like it was something that fulfilled this objective. The toy uses RFID and robotics technologies in a way that teaches simple algorithmic thinking skills while not requiring any screens or interaction other than playing with blocks (and presumably an occasional top off of the battery). I encourage you to watch the video over at their Kickstarter, as there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the blocks that I can’t adequately describe through text.

A wooden car navigates a series of directional blocks.

I’m not affiliated with them and would suggest caution since so many Kickstarters end up flaming out, but I think that the product design team at QUBS seems to really get how to make technology sufficiently advanced to become indistinguishable from magic.

Nintendo has also partnered with LEGO to create an interactive Mario set that elicits a similar feel. It feels a little less magical to me, but I think it’s another step in the right direction. I don’t think all toys should be sensorized, but having those that are more closely imitate the real instead of the digital seems heartening.

Mario time

The Nintendo and LEGO collaboration lets people play “levels” in the real world

Is there anything you’ve run across that feels truly magical? Am I just delusional from cabin fever and this isn’t that cool? Let us know in the comments!

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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MUTUAL AID

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Last Updated: 4/3/2020 @ 10 pm

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.

Various tools laid out on a piece of wood

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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!


Disclaimer: Affiliate links to books may result in a small kickback to me to help maintain the website. I only post links to books I think are relevant and worth your time. Feel free to check them out at your local library instead!

Glimpses of the future

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I didn’t get to ride on the Acela, but it was there when we got into the station.

On a recent trip up to D.C., my wife and I decided to leave the car at home. During our time here in Virginia, we’ve been to D.C. dozens of times for work or play, but we’ve always driven from our home to Alexandria or the District itself. Once there we would take the Metro or walk, but driving in NoVa and DC isn’t something I’d describe as fun. Now that we’re in an Amtrak town, however, it seemed like the perfect time to try traveling together without the car.

Walking a couple blocks to the bus station in Charlottesville, we were whisked away toward the Amtrak station. Minutes later, we got off the bus and walked over to the train station which included lugging our suitcase down a rather large staircase. This seems like one of the many places where Charlottesville’s non-motorized infrastructure could be improved, particularly for those with disabilities. I believe there is a way to get there without taking the staircase, but it requires going a much longer way from the bus stop.

As you may recall, I took my first Amtrak trip this spring, so I was surprised by the massive number of people at the station this go round. My wife suggested it was because of the holidays, which made sense with it being the Monday after Thanksgiving. In any case, the hundred or more people waiting on the train was a great difference from the twenty or so this spring.

Riding the train from Charlottesville to D.C. was uneventful, with only a short delay by Alexandria to wait on another Amtrak unloading their passengers at the station. I was able to doze while my wife worked on her laptop. The Northeast Regional seems to have slightly smaller seats than the Cardinal but is still vastly more comfortable than a plane ride.

After we got off the train at Union Station, we were able to hop the Red Line Metro to our hotel. After settling in, I walked down the street to get some food, and ran across oodles of bike and scooter sharing vehicles. In Charlottesville we have Lime and VeoRide scooters, but D.C. is a much bigger town, so while it’s no wonder they have more options, it was still staggering. I took a screenshot of my Transit app to show all the little dots by the Zoo Metro stop, but it doesn’t even show some of the options like the Revel moped rental.

A map is shown of the area around the Woodley Park/Zoo Metro stop in DC. There are a large number of dots indicating a high density of scooter, bike, and car shares available in the neighborhood.

Bike, scooter, and car shares available near Woodley Park

Having grown up in a relatively rural area of Missouri, I’m still amazed at all the different alternative modes of transit available. There, your transportation options were car, truck, or subsidized shuttle bus for certain subsets of the population. I’m really looking forward to a solarpunk future where it’s even easier to get around without a car. The group, Virginians for High Speed Rail, is currently working toward building out the rail network here in Virginia, and I know there are others calling for true investment in cross country high speed rail here in the United States. Since high-speed rail is less environmentally taxing than air travel, and generally faster for trips less than 430 miles, I think it’s a solid infrastructure investment the country should be seriously examining.

A map of VA showing current and future regional/long distance Amtrak routes. I believe this is aspirational, not planned.

Virginians For High-Speed Rail Map

Until then, I’ll have to be content with short haul rail service that is comparable to car travel times along the Eastern Seaboard and only do long distance rail when I can afford the time. That said, having access to D.C., New York City, and Boston without having to pay for parking in any of those cities or deal with the headaches of driving will give me a glimmer of the future we want.

Have you had any eye-opening experiences on public or shared transit? What changes would you make to build a better transportation network in your area? Let us know in the comments!

Bikes for a better tomorrow

gray commuter bike parked on road beside sea

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If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for the bicycle. I wasn’t really into biking as a kid since I grew up on a hilly farm without any safe paved areas nearby, but in college my roommate got me hooked when I joined him and a couple friends on a bike tour of the Katy Trail in Missouri.

I don’t tour anymore, but I do still use my bicycle for transportation, and it’s one of the reasons I moved close to downtown even though it required a bit of downsizing. Being able to run errands on foot or bike is a big plus for me, although I’ll admit that still having a car means I don’t bike or walk as much as I’d like.

For me, a solarpunk future is one where people have what they need a short walk or bike ride away. Biking, walking, and other forms of active transportation are a surefire way to reduce road congestion, clean the air, and reduce carbon emissions in our cities. There will likely be a place for the private automobile in rural areas for the foreseeable future, but the American Dream of suburbia is hopefully coming to a close. Don’t get me wrong, automobiles are a really impressive piece of technology, but as Peter Walker says in How Cycling Can Save the World, “they’re used far too often and frequently for the wrong sort of trips.”

This spring, I joined the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to see what could be done to improve “alternative” modes of transport in the city. This lets me use all the years of reading transportation and urban planning blogs in a place where it might actually have an effect. While some cities like NYC push for lower speed limits and more protected bike lanes, most cities in the United States are still deep in the throes of car culture, a modern day death cult. The first step is to remove parking minimums from zoning codes. Donald Shoup estimates free parking amounts to a $500 billion subsidy for car owners, or 50 cents of public money for every dollar spent by the individual car owner. While some local business owners say that removing parking will kill their business, in most cases, better bicycling and pedestrian facilities actually are better for local businesses. If the parking doesn’t go in to begin with, then you don’t have to worry about the inevitable battle to remove it later.

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

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

Solarpunk is about building a truly equitable and sustainable future. Much of the current environmental conversation is about what you can’t do to make a sustainable future – you can’t drive a personal vehicle, you can’t take long showers, etc. For me, solarpunk paints a picture of what we gain when we do the right thing. Being more connected to your community and taking time to enjoy the little nooks and crannies that make our cities so interesting may sound quaint, but it can bring real happiness. Being trapped in a metal box breathing the noxious fumes while at a standstill does not spark joy.

In addition, the design choices that making cycling and walking better also improve accessibility for disabled individuals when coupled with ADA guidelines. A well designed sidewalk is pleasant to walk down but is also a lot better for someone in a wheelchair to navigate than the side of the road with a gravel or grass shoulder. There’s no shortage of concern trolls who crop up when people start suggesting that the current dominance of cars on the streets isn’t the natural order of things. There are people with some disabilities for whom personal automobiles are a great blessing. Many disabled individuals do cycle or catch a ride on a bike, and organizations like Wheels for Wellbeing or Cycling Without Age help cycling reach groups that are often disenfranchised by current transportation options. Moving people out of their cars and onto bikes can only help those who are dependent on vehicles for mobility.

At first, I assumed that even if we eliminated the need for private automobiles in city centers, we’d surely still need delivery trucks for goods. Surely we need to buy things, and all those things must be moved by a big truck! With the realization that many of the fatal vehicle/cyclist crashes in the last year have involved supposedly-professional drivers, I’m a lot less convinced. While some people think drones will be the delivery service of the future, I’m betting on the e-cargo bike. There’s still the potential for crashes, yes, but when the cargo bike is 10x lighter than a box truck and going at a lower speed, physics dictates you’ll have a lot fewer injuries and deaths from a cargo bike wreck. As anyone who bikes knows, UPS and FedEx are already used to being in the bike lane, so it will be a small adjustment for their drivers anyway. There’s also the possibility that there will be less consumption in a solarpunk future which would reduce the overall amount of deliveries necessary.

FedEx in the Bike Lane

FedEx truck parked in bike lane in Philadelphia by Phila. Bikes via a CC BY-SA 2.0

So, in the end, how do we get more people on bikes and reduce the number of single occupancy vehicle trips in our cities? One idea is to pay people to bike. This might seem weird at first, but when you take into account the public health benefits and cuts to both road maintenance and congestion created by pulling people out of cars it starts making sense. For something with precedent in the US, the government could offer tax credits for ebikes instead of electric cars. Ebikes have all the benefits of a regular bike, and for that $7,500 tax credit electric car buyers are getting, you could buy several entire ebikes. I suspect a lot of car owners would opt to use an ebike for the 48% of trips that are less than 3 miles when they see how much more fun it is to bike than drive. Long term, denser multiuse zoning and land use would do a great deal to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable.

Active transportation isn’t just better for your health and for reducing congestion in the city, it also helps improve the social fabric. It’s a lot easier to stop and talk to a friend or check out a new coffee shop when you’re on a bike or walking. I can recommend reading Just Ride for tips on the essentials of cycling for transport (hint – it’s not spandex). The more people riding, the safer the streets get for those of us using “alternate” transportation.

For more on bikes and urbanism, I’d suggest the War on Cars podcast and the book, Bikenomics. Bikenomics a really good book for interfacing with local business and government officials since economics is a more important driver of policy than human safety or happiness.

Do you cycle or walk for transportation? How does your area handle bicycle, pedestrian, and micromobility users?


Disclaimer: I may receive a small commission from affiliate links to books on this site.

Digital Minimalism – A Review

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I picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport from my local library expecting to read more of the same information I’d seen before: social media companies use slot machine psychology to hook users; in-person communication is higher quality; spending so much time on our phones is hurting our relationships. This was all in there, but beyond the facts of the matter, Newport opened my mind to new ways of thinking about my relationship with technology and how it’s designed.

Minimalism at its core isn’t based on asceticism, where one denies earthly pleasures for the sake of austerity. I often find myself strongly trying to resist any emotional impulse to make purchases. I think this self-imposed austerity may have been causing undue stress by saying “you can’t have that,” instead of the healthier question of “is this something that could bring value to my life?”

In respect to technology, and apps in particular, Newport revisits calls by friends to join social media because it might be useful. He counters by saying that any tool should have a clear benefit to warrant your time. It’s not that any of these tools are bad per se, but since you only have so much time and attention, do you really want to spend it on something that might be useful, when there are so many other things that definitely would be?

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I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to balance my thirst for new information and time to be creative and thoughtful. It’s something I feel I still haven’t worked out, but Digital Minimalism helped me find some new tools to use in this quest.

Digital Minimalism also deals with some of the more sweeping issues resulting from the unique types of distraction available in the 21st Century. There have always been more things to do than time in the day, so distraction is nothing new. We have reached a point, however, with the introduction of the smartphone, where corporations vying for your attention via the “attention economy” have unfettered access to your eyeballs. Even our work is becoming more fractured and distracting with the advent of the gig economy.

Even after the advent of the internet, people were relatively alone in their own heads when they were mobile. Sure, you could listen to a personal soundtrack on your Walkman. With a computer in your pocket, you’re only a quick tap away from whatever information you seek. The end of the bar bet was also the end of pondering.

The book doesn’t preach throwing away your smartphone, although it does suggest methods of using digital tools so they help you achieve your aims instead of those of the advertising companies. For some people, that might mean going back to a phone that only supports calling and texting. For many others, removing social media apps from your phone will suffice. The key is knowing yourself and what you want to accomplish with theses tools.

Digital Minimalism wasn’t what I expected. While it did have some of the same information I had read before regarding the distracting nature of digital technologies, it was neither alarmist nor placating. It presented a well-reasoned and tested set of tools for using digital technologies in a reasonable way that can help you feel a little less discombobulated in this distracting world.

Do you have any thoughts on practices to keep technology from distracting you from what’s important? Do you find it ironic I wrote this post predominantly on my phone? Sound off below!


Disclaimer:  This review is my honest opinion of the book, but I may get financial reimbursement through the affiliate link in this article.

Recycling Rant – Mixed Materials

I know that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defense to handle our waste streams, but it is something that can help divert materials from the landfill once they already have been created. But you wanna know what really grinds my gears? Mixed material food packaging. Sure, China’s National Sword cut a great big hole through US recycling efforts, but we can still recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most municipalities, and #5 if there’s a Whole Foods somewhere in your area.

If we want to encourage recycling though, we need it to be easy. People are busy, making their waste stream pretty low on their priority list. So, why on Earth would you make a dairy container out of #5 plastic and put a #2 lid on it? You took the time to make sure the two plastics looked identical for cohesive branding, but the only visual difference to the consumer is if they look at the little recycle triangle on BOTH parts of the package. Is this easy? NO! Store bought icing is even worse with its #5 or #2 body and #4 lid. Where the heck am I supposed to recycle a #4 that isn’t a plastic film like a bread bag?

man wearing teal long sleeved shirt

Photo by Anas Jawed on Pexels.com

As engineers, I know we want to find the optimal solution for every component of a design, but for single-use containers, end-of-life needs to be high on that priority list. I’m not a food packaging engineer, but my hierarchy of design would go something like safety/preservation of food, taste impact, mechanical stability, and end-of-life. I’ll grant you that you can’t package in something that will impact taste or safety, but is that #2 lid really making enough of a difference in your product that it’s worth confusing people so you get #2 and #5 plastics mixed up in each other waste streams?

If you ARE a food packaging engineer, I’m begging you to please consider end of life when designing your products. We are on a finite planet, and because plastic is such a useful material, I would really love it if we could easily reclaim it for future use. Whether it’s particularly safe for contact with food or whether we really need so much of it is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. For today, please think through your material choices and try to find ways to make recycling easier.

Moving toward a zero waste, solarpunk, circular economy is high on my wish list for the world, and there’s plenty of research that shows that unless you make something easier than the alternative, people just don’t have the bandwidth. The onus is on the designer, not the consumer for this. We can do better – please do!

Is there anything you’ve run across that was packaged ridiculously? Let us know below!

A Better Way to Pay

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As Adam Flynn said back in 2014, solarpunk takes infrastructure as a form of resistance. One of the biggest pieces of infrastructure that people interact with on a daily basis is payment systems. Payments aren’t as visible roads, or as tangible as housing, but decentralized, democratic payments are an important part of ensuring a brighter future.

We’re at a turning point for money. Since the middle ages, money has been controlled by the nation-state through fiat currency. The first experiments with digital-first money started in the 1980s, and we have seen an explosion in the availability of cryptocurrencies since the Bitcoin whitepaper was released in 2009. While Bitcoin hasn’t lived up to its original goal of being a replacement for fiat currency, it did revolt against the idea that only the state can create money.

Nation-states are now looking into developing crypto-fiat hybrids, and large corporate actors like Facebook are developing their own cryptocurrencies as well. The additional pressure of countries considering bans on cryptocurrencies that shield user identities makes me feel that governments see the danger that a truly decentralized monetary system would pose to their monopoly on power.

Brett Scott at Roar wrote about gentrification of payments from centralized issuers, “Put bluntly, digital payment facilitates a vast new frontier of financial surveillance and control, while also exposing users to new risks not present in the cash infrastructure.” He points out that the current trend for countries to emphasize digital (fiat) money over cash puts people’s finances increasingly into the hands of a small number of banks and state actors.

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I’ve previously touched on the subject of designing appropriate incentives into a monetary system, but for now I’m going to focus on how true digital cash could work. Bitcoin is the opposite of private since every transaction ever made with Bitcoin is recorded to its public ledger. Privacy coins allow for transactions to remain private by being recorded to the blockchain with the details obfuscated to all but those who performed the transaction. This has major benefits, particularly for the fungibility of a currency, which is a fancy way of saying that every unit of the money is created equal. For completely public blockchains like Bitcoin, certain Bitcoins may become “stained” due to their use in criminal activities in the past, meaning they may become harder to trade or spend than a “clean” Bitcoin. There is no such distinction between the status of a specific unit of Monero, for instance, since its past is unknown. The MimbleWimble protocol is a new blockchain which greatly simplifies the privacy aspects of a blockchain resulting in less power and data consumption.

The problem with most cryptocurrencies right now, however, is that they typically use what is called Proof of Work to verify transactions on the chain. Proof of Work burns large amounts of energy in an effort to “prove” the validity of the blockchain. Various other schemes have been developed to secure blockchain networks including Proof of Stake, Delegated Proof of Stake, and Proof of Cooperation. Proof of Cooperation was developed for FairCoin to enable a less energy-intensive verification method for blockchains. I think that a Proof of Cooperation-based MimbleWimble coin could provide the privacy and lower energy consumption that would be desirable for digital cash.

business bank chip credit card

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This digital cash would restore the peer-to-peer nature of cash and avoid the data-mining perils of current digital payment companies like Visa or PayPal. It is still dependent on computing technology to work, which makes me feel like it would be less inclusive than actual cash. In an increasingly digital-first world, however, thoughtfully-designed cryptocurrencies will be more inclusive than the options designed by corporations or governments. For more on the subject of post-capitalist money, check out In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism by Jerome Roos.

Money is often considered a taboo subject, but feel free to let us know your thoughts below. How do you think a separation of money and state could be liberating?

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

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As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Wallflowers

bloom blooming blossom blur

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I’m an introvert. I work from home, so beside running errands, I rarely leave my apartment. I’m slowly coming to the realization, however, that I need to be around people to maintain my mental well-being. Humans evolved as social creatures, despite what social Darwinists think, so even introverts need some human interaction. Despite all the technology devoted to communication, we still experience loneliness which can have severe impacts on our quality of life.

Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet made me wonder about all the ways the extrovert ideal espoused by western society is what has driven a lot of the problems we currently see with society. Every person as a salesperson is an alliance of extroversion and capitalism that leaves the rest of us behind. If you want to get ahead, especially in America, you’re expected to extrovert up or fake it.

To be fair, in some ways it’s easier than ever to be an introverted, highly sensitive, or shy person. There are remote work opportunities, home delivery of practically anything you need, and a plethora of ways to contact other humans. The problem is that all of these new methods of communication and the high-productivity mindset of the world can just as readily cause us to be overstimulated.

Community is a theme that appears throughout solarpunk, but how do we balance the opposing needs of social interaction and “me” time? Can we build communities with strong social networks while still respecting the personal space of those most sensitive to overstimulation?

In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, there are vegetated nooks and crannies of the megalopolis, Palmares Tres, where the characters are able to take a respite from the book’s action. Some of these are private gardens of the more well-to-do, and others are more or less micro-parks scattered throughout the city’s multistory structure.

I think this approach of having personal space at home, and quiet zones scattered throughout a community seems to offer a chance for people to get away from overstimulating situations while still allowing us to interact with the world.

A poll of introversion/extroversion

A poll from solarpunks on Sunbeam City about their preferences for human interaction

I suspect that even true extroverts would benefit from a little “me time,” and most humans probably fall into the ambivert category anyway. A super-scientific poll of solarpunks on Sunbeam City shows a strong preference for being with other people, but only some of the time. One thing I see come up again and again in discussions of communities is the need for people to be free to interact with others (or not) on their own terms. While social isolation is a serious issue in western society today, we should seek a happy medium, not race toward another extreme of no personal time or space.

How might a society carve out both communal and personal spaces? Here are just a few ideas. Feel free to comment with your own after the article!

  • Co-housing
    • Baugruppe and other forms of co-housing allow people to come together to build residential communities where some of the infrastructure or social load is distributed to the group. There’s no one form of co-housing, but I like to think of it like fancy dorms for grown-ups (this is a gross over-simplification).
  • Superblocks
    • Barcelona is currently implementing a plan to bring streets back to the people. This will increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as help rebuild the social fabric of neighborhoods.
  • Secret gardens
    • Having small parks or gardens distributed throughout a city could help give people safe spaces to duck into when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

Riding the rails

Picture of an Amtrak train car; single deck; number 25051

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

I recently went on a trip to Missouri, and since flying or riding the train would cost the same amount, I decided to do the solarpunk thing and try train. I’d only ever gone on short, touristy train rides before, so this was my first time evaluating rail as a long-distance travel option. While the exact values will vary based on model, train travel is typically regarded as less carbon intensive than flying or taking a single-occupant passenger car.

Any readers from Europe will likely be appalled at the poor state of rail travel in the US, but I think that for anyone with the time, rail travel is much nicer than taking a plane. Sure it takes a lot longer, but the seats are much bigger, the luggage restrictions are very generous, and you avoid federal employees invading your personal space.

An abandoned train - An engine from the New York Central line and two passenger cars

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

I rode two different lines, The Cardinal and The Southwest Chief. The Cardinal was a lot smaller train, but the overhead bins were larger than those on The Southwest Chief. This was likely because the Southwest Chief’s double-decker cars had a large baggage area on the lower level of the train. There is a smaller baggage area at the back of the coach cars on The Cardinal.

The interior of an Amtrak observation car. Sideways seats face large floor-to-ceiling windows

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

There was a cafe car on both trains, and the Southwest Chief also had observation and dining cars. Since I’m cheap, I brought my own snacks and water, but the food is there if you don’t bring your own. The ride is sometimes bumpy, but you don’t have to worry about your drink or food flying up unexpectedly like you might with a flight.

There are some downsides, of course. Number one is that you still have small, airplane-style bathrooms and you’ll almost certainly have to visit them if you’re going any appreciable distance. There’s also a relative dearth of destinations when compared to air travel. As most people fly to get from place to place these days, Amtrak can only support so many routes. If I were writing this article fifty years ago, then I would likely have a different story to tell.

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car; windows dot the top deck of the car while the bottom features an entry hatch and ventillation grates

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

Another con is the occasional smoke breaks where people can get off the train and get their fix. The ventilation aboard the trains seems sufficient, but in the first few minutes following a smoke break I was wishing I could crack the window. Luckily, I wasn’t seated too closely to any smoking passengers, and the smell quickly dissipated.

Photo showing the large, open Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station including two golden, greco-roman statues guarding the entrance to the train departure area

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

I don’t know if traveling via rail rises to the level of luxurious (it might in the sleeping cars, which are available on both trains I took), but it is certainly more pleasurable than any of my previous travels by plane. For shorter trips (KC to Chicago for example) it can even be faster than driving since you avoid all that mucking about in city traffic. If you are planning a trip in the future, consider seeing if the train can get you there. It’s not an option we think of here in the States, but I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Have you traveled by rail in the US or abroad? What’s the train like in your area?

What is energy democracy?

At first glance, energy democracy is a funny term. Are we worried about a coalition of coal and natural gas blocking amendments to a bill from wind and solar? Is nuclear over in the corner putting forth reasonable proposals while everyone backs away slowly because of rumors regarding her volatile temper?

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Energy democracy is actually about bringing self-determination of communities back to energy generation, storage, and distribution. Not that long ago, most of society ran on locally-sourced energy. The bulk of this was in the form of windmills, water wheels, and wood-burning fires. As fossil fuels took the stage during the industrial revolution, energy supply and demand became estranged. Economies of scale for fossil fuel-based energy generation led to the creation of large power plants that supply power over an interconnected grid.

The 21st Century has seen the return of distributed energy sources. While solar and wind get the headlines, small modular reactors (SMRs), in-stream hydro, tidal, geothermal, and other distributed energy sources are showing promise as well. While the growth of these distributed generation technologies is good for decentralized solarpunk communities, it creates a point of friction with the existing centralized power grid. This is why when incumbent utilities do support renewables, they still want to build large, utility-scale projects. Nevada has had the most public battle over net metering in recent years, but many utilities have tried to suppress energy decentralization by pressuring legislators. In states like Virginia, where two companies have a monopoly on 80% of the energy market, it’s easy to see where problems might arise.

panoramic shot of sky

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There are some technical problems with energy decentralization which stem from the centralized past of the grid. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the grid was designed for one-way power flows from generation to distribution to end user. Solar, wind, and other distributed energy sources upend this model, sending power from the end-of-the-line back into the grid. There are several possible ways to overcome these difficulties ranging from going off-grid completely to piping every single generation source back into one giant grid managed by a central authority. For a solarpunk future, one possible option is the “decentralized, layered-decomposition optimization structure.” In this arrangement, the responsibilities of generation sources are held locally, but communities can still exchange power on an overarching, interconnected grid.

In some communities, such as Boulder, CO, the people have decided to municipalize their energy grid. Putting the grid into public hands makes it easier to align incentives between homeowners with rooftop solar, community-based generation projects, and the needs of all the users on the grid. Utility monopolies have to maximize profit and maintain the status quo. Energy democracy brings the power to the people, who can build a grid that uses distributed generation for a more robust, environmentally friendly, and healthy grid. The most extreme example of calls for energy democracy at the moment is the suggestion of a public takeover of PG&E. For more on areas that are flexing their energy democracy muscles, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Power Map.

Do you have any energy democracy projects in your area? Let us know how your communities are fighting monopoly power and bringing clean, distributed power to the people.

Tidalpunk: Come Home to the Sea

A picture of a green-blue bay against a blue sky with whispy clouds. Above the bay is a rocky cliff with houses of various colors ascending the hill above it.

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Many think life on Earth started in the oceans, and while there is scientific debate on that front, there’s no denying that humans have been drawn to the water since before we built the first city on the banks of the Euphrates. With an estimated 80% of the world’s population living within 100 km (~60 mi) of a coastline, it’s no surprise that solarpunk has a sibling that brings this love of the water front and center – tidalpunk.

Tidalpunk takes the environmental consciousness and appropriate technology of solarpunk to the high seas. Sailing ships, autonomous seasteads, and cities flooded by the rising waters of climate change populate visions of a tidalpunk future. I suspect that due to the Moon’s influence on the tides, tidalpunk and lunarpunk will find some interesting synergies.

Return of the Sail

boat classic clouds cruise

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The shipping industry currently accounts for 2.3% of carbon emissions, and the industry is targeting a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050. Most cargo ships run on diesel now, but we once sailed the seas using the renewable power of the wind. While having a backup propulsion method available would be prudent, when the wind is blowing, cargo could move without the use of fossil fuels. Low Tech Magazine has written several articles about the potential of bringing back sailing ships as cargo vessels. Our current cargo fleet could even be retrofitted with tethered, kite-like sails.

Seasteading

An artificial island in a rough c-shape. It is covered in grass and has several berths for boats.
Proposed artificial Island in French Polynesia by Blue Frontiers

Seasteading covers a variety of concepts for humans to make their home in the sea. Proponents of seasteading point to overcrowding and a lack of social innovation on land as reasons to move seaward. Some projects that could be considered under this umbrella are Sealand, various underwater habitats, and aircraft carriers.

delta_printer_1-8419da34982ad3af20046088872ca1c7cedbd1d9abd347586fdab267be6a52a1

A member of Project Entropy demonstrating a delta-style 3D printer

Project Entropy is a solarpunk makerspace flotilla with the aim to address plastic waste in the ocean and convert it into useful objects. The self-described micronation is also experimenting with distributed governance while it expands the frontiers of distributed manufacturing. While the Seasteading Institute and Blue Frontiers have interesting visions of the future, Project Entropy is making it real right now. Another project already on the water is the Flipiflopi, a boat built entirely from plastic recovered from the ocean and roadsides in Kenya.

A muli-colored sailboat sits in shallow water just off a white, sandy beach. Many people are on the boat and the shore. A Kenyan flag flies high above the solar panel on the boat.

The Flipiflopi recycled boat

The SeaOrbiter science vessel is one of the most exciting projects happening in the space. Planned as a full-time, ocean-going science vessel, the SeaOrbiter will have on-board laboratories and allow extended observation of the ocean. Parts of the ship will be kept at higher pressure to allow scientists to dive more often than would be possible from a surface vessel due to decompression issues like the bends.

A profile view of the SeaOrbiter science vessel. It has a large mast which pokes 27 m above the waterline. Another 31 m of the vessel are below the waterline. The vessel has various living quarters, laboratories, and is powered by wind and solar.

A profile view of the SeaOrbiter

Flooded Cities

boat near to dock

Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

Venice is the most well known flooded city in the world, but rising seas will soon give the world a number of similar locales. Even Venice is preparing for rising floodwaters with the MOSE Project, a giant flood gate designed to mitigate the worst tides from the Adriatic. NOAA has built an Interactive Sea Level Rise Map to show what areas will be most impacted by different sea level rise scenarios. In the US, Miami is particularly vulnerable since it’s geology precludes a flood gate or wall system like MOSE.

Where to Start

If tidalpunk sounds like something you’d like to investigate further, here are some resources to check out:

Do you have any experiences with tidalpunk? Let us know below or send us a comment on Sunbeam City. Thanks for coming aboard!

The Upcycle — A Review

UpcycleCoverSpiral1-2

The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!

Making it real…

As you may recall, I want to find ways to bring more practical solarpunk into my life and into the world. To that end, I purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ kit made by Canakit. I’m hoping to explore some of the ideas I discussed regarding solarpunk phones and communications during the last few weeks. I’m not an electronics savant by any means, so we’ll see if my hobbyist level skills can cobble anything interesting together out of the kit.

Box containing a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and breadboard for electronics experiments

On a related note, I also just ordered a new wifi-enabled wall switch to control the lights in our main living area. While that isn’t particularly solarpunk, I think reflashing the electronics to not be dependent on a third party service is. As sold, the switch requires downloading and using an app that sends data out to the web through servers owned by Samsung and then back to my apartment to control my lights. This is both creepy and seems silly since the lights are right above the voice assistant I’m using to control them. Why do I need servers hundreds of miles away involved in this conversation?

I’ve had good luck with the Sonoff-Tasmota firmware from GitHub for other smart home devices, and will be using the information from their wiki to attempt to reflash this new switch. Since it’s a totally different piece of equipment, I’m a little nervously optimistic about the results. If all goes well, the switch will only talk to my local network and the only connection to the outside world will be through Alexa.

Wifi-enabled smart switch with front cover removed. Green circuit board is exposed showing a TYWE3S wifi chip. Other components are hidden from view as they're on the back side of the board.

At some point, I’m hoping to switch to a more privacy-centric voice assistant like Mycroft or Snips, but getting all of my smart home devices other than my voice assistant to be local only should make the transition simpler once I do get that setup. The Raspberry Pi will be an important part of this transition as I’m hoping to begin testing Mycroft and/or Snips once I’ve gotten some of the basic input/output bits of the Pi figured out.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in transluscent plastic case

If all goes well, then I’ll try building a mobile voice assistant that can kick result data to a simple linked smartwatch like a Pebble. I sketched out a highly detailed schematic for your pleasure below.

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 3.19.46 PM

I’m not sure how hard the communication with a watch will be, but the first step will be getting the voice assistant going on the Raspberry Pi. After deciding which AI is better to work with then I’ll try adding battery power and watch communications.

What are some of the ways you are making solarpunk real? Let us know below!