Tag Archives: literature

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.

Why speculative fiction matters

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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!

The Upcycle — A Review

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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!

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Cradle to Cradle – A review

Book cover for Cradle to Cradle - blue top and green bottom with mirrored vehicle silhouettes

Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is about envisioning a better way to manage human interactions with the natural world. The authors ask,

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Starting from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, they analyze the design decisions that led capitalist society to the environmental crossroads it faces today. While things weren’t quite so dire in 2002 when the book was written, its analyses of the pitfalls of rampant industrialization are thorough and thought provoking.

The most refreshing part of this book though is it isn’t just a list of where capitalism went wrong and why we’re all doomed. Cradle to Cradle outlines ways in which designers, engineers, and scientists can work together to deconstruct the current way we make things and redesign our material lives to benefit the natural world. The main idea, which I find to be very solarpunk, is to look at how in nature there is no waste. Everything serves a purpose in the environment. The fruit of the cherry tree feeds birds and animals while those animals spread the seeds of the tree. The droppings of those birds and animals fertilize the ground where the cherry tree and its offspring grow so that they can offer more food. Everything has its place in the cycle.

In one project, a shampoo was redesigned from scratch to only have positive effects by carefully selecting every chemical going into it, including the bottle. Herman Miller had a new factory designed including natural lighting, more ventilation, and a “street” with plants inside to bring nature closer to the workers. As we saw with the Nature Fix, bringing humans and nature together has positive benefits for human health, and by bringing the outdoors in, Herman Miller was able to bring its new focus on environmental sustainability to the forefront.

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The book isn’t just anecdotes and feel-good aphorisms, it also includes a framework for how to approach design to ensure maximum good. One of the ongoing themes in the book is that so far, most industry has tried to do less bad to the environment when it cares at all, but it’s time to go a step further and see how we can take industry and make it improve the world around us.

A success story in this vein tells of a textile factory in Europe that worked to make a better upholstery fabric for office chairs. When the regulators came to check the factory’s wastewater (effluent), they were confused as the water coming out of the plant was cleaner than that going in.

The equipment was working fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufacturing process, this dividend is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.

One of the things I’m hoping to investigate further in 2019 is the circular economy, and I think the design strategies outlined in Cradle to Cradle are a good first step in this direction. I found there is a followup book called The Upcycle written in 2013 that I will be checking out from the library soon.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle or have thoughts on the circular economy? Let us know below!

2018 – A Retrospective

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When I started Solarpunk Station in January, I was hoping to address some of the more common criticisms of the movement. Namely, there’s not enough practical solarpunk, and that solarpunk is’t really punk, just a lot of pretty, utopic pictures without any substance.

In the upcoming year, I’m hoping to refocus and bring you more practical solarpunk projects. Writing a book review about the health benefits of nature is a lot easier than getting out in the woods to experience it. Writing about cryptocurrency is a lot simple than exploring the limits of distributed manufacturing technology.

Right now, I’m in the planning stages of two modest, but real projects that I hope to share in 2019. Do I hope to do more? Yes. But I need to start somewhere, and I’ve learned that when I try to start too big I might not be able to finish.

In the face of all that’s going on, I realize that trying to live more sustainability might seem pointless. I think finding a better way to live that is lighter on Mother Earth is something that I need to do for me. Trying to make more sustainable choices is something that helps me feel more in tune with the world around me. I’m no enviro-saint; I’m just trying to do the best I can and learning from my mistakes along the way.

Feel free to forgive yourself and learn. When you come across climate deniers or other people with belligerent world views, remember that ideals and ideas are mutable. I was once a climate skeptic, but after meeting with scientists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) I was able to see why the concern was real.

Encourage open-mindedness in your opponents through empathy and understanding. Shouting matches rarely breed thoughtful discourse. That said, it’s not your responsibility to convert the world. There are toxic, dangerous people out there, so if something feels off, disengage. Don’t feel obligated to get yourself hurt trying to convince people that climate change is real. If you’re a brave soul who can go out to protests and direct action, more power to you. If you can write your elected officials or sign a petition, that’s great too. There’s no one way to win the fight for a solarpunk future, so do what you can, when you can.

I’m a maker, so I’m going to try to use my skills to make this world a little better. If you can, see what skills you have and think of ways you can use your powers for good. Feel free to share any ideas or questions below.

Solarpunk winters

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As we observe the winter solstice, my thoughts have turned to how solarpunks approach winter. As the days turn dark and cold, how does a society dependent on the sun continue to prosper?

Finland

If anyone knows about how to approach long nights, it’s the people who live at the poles. Finland, which was recently rated the world’s happiest country, has no shortage of darkness given it’s proximity to the Earth’s North Pole. In the northernmost parts of the country, the sun doesn’t rise for 51 days in the winter. Why are they so happy then? A stable government with minimal corruption is probably a contributing factor, along with free healthcare and college programs. In the Nature Fix, author Florence Williams suggests it’s the access to nature. Provided you don’t cut down anyone’s trees or damage their property, there’s no such thing as trespassing in Finland. Unlike in the United States where fences and no trespassing signs prohibit free passage, you can hike from one end of Finland to another without running afoul of the law. Also, the combination of low population density and relatively late urbanization, most of Finland’s population is only minutes away from a Nordic walk in the woods or one of the many wintertime diversions available to residents such as ice skating or cross country skiing. For more, check out this Buzzfeed article that is a nice summary of how Fins stay happy, no matter the weather.

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Wool

While the vegans in the audience will groan, I feel wool is one of the best resources we have when it comes to staying warm in the wintertime. Since wool is a material that can be harvested without harming the sheep, it seems like a win-win to me. It’s important to look at how you’re sourcing the wool when you get it, but wool from a well-treated sheep will keep you warm at the expense of them getting a haircut. Is wool cheap? No. But, it mother nature has taken millions of years plus a few hundred of human intervention to develop a fabric that breathes well, is the bomb at temperature regulation, and like all natural fibers, is biodegradable. That last part is important since so much of the microplastics in the ocean are coming from washing our synthetic fabrics. REI has a great article about sustainable clothing and textile choices for more info on wool and other options to stay warm in the winter/

Geothermal heat pumps

One way to make sure things stay toasty is with geothermal, or ground source, heat pumps. Often overlooked as a source of clean power, geothermal electricity generation isn’t something that works in all areas. Geothermal heat pumps work just about anywhere though to help keep things nice and warm inside with a minimal investiture of electrical power. In short, geothermal heat pumps replace the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system of a building and use the Earth as a heat sink. Since the ground is roughly 18 Celsius in most places, you can cool in the summer and heat in the winter with little energy expenditure. According to Wikipedia, these systems offer a 44-75% increase in efficiency over more traditional heating systems. The US Department of Energy has a good overview of the technology.

Solar fluid

In an interesting development announced last month, scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have developed a fluid that can store solar energy for up to  18 years. So, excess capacity in the summer could be stored into the winter from your solar array and retrieved when needed. Since the system is heat storage, it can be converted to electricity, or could be used as a means of storing summer’s warmth to heat your home in the winter. The original paper can be found here in Energy and Environmental Science.

Person wearing a black, white, and crimson cape patterned like moth wings. Cape is wider than armspan in width, makeing the wearer appear to have moth wings.

Moth Wings Cape by CostureoReal on Etsy

Lunarpunks

I would be remiss to not mention our lunarpunk cousins here when talking about the darkest time of the year. Lunarpunks are the night dwellers of solarpunk society. They are a subculture within our subculture, favoring the night. Biomimmicry of bioluminescent creatures, moth-themed cloaks, and gossamer fabrics fluttering in the night breeze are some of the aesthetic influences here. Winter would be the lunarpunk’s time to be more active, hosting all kinds of events in the cooler nights from art displays to street festivals.


Do you have any thoughts on what solarpunk winters might be like? Let us know below, or consider submitting a story to World Weaver Press’s call for stories for their Solarpunk Winters anthology which opens in January!