Tag Archives: technology

Solarpunk News Roundup – October 2020

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

As we’re closing out October, I thought I’d try a new feature, a monthly news roundup of interesting articles I found on the internet. These might be actual news from the month or just articles that were new to me about environmental justice, energy, or other solarpunk themes.

This is an older article, and I’ve referenced in before, but it bears repeating here. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote in June about how “Racism derails our attempts to save the planet.” It’s an excellent explanation of how confronting racism is a necessary component of fighting climate change.

Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, was interviewed by euronews and discussed how “the global south is not on the front page, but it is on the front line” of climate change. It’s a good look at climate activism from a different lens than the US or eurocentric viewpoint.

Brand new research has resulted in the world’s first room temperature superconductor! Before you jump for joy though, it requires extremely high pressures to make and operate the material. It is a promising step forward toward lossless electrical transmission and storage, however.

A new fusion plant design has been announced by AL_A and General Fusion. It looks to use a hydraulic hammer to compress hydrogen plasma inside a sphere of molten metal to initiate the fusion process.

Vox’s David Robert’s continues his in-depth coverage of the energy sector with a deep dive on geothermal power and its potential as an always-on baseload for renewable power. While I think we should keep our current nuclear plants running as long as possible to keep carbon emissions down, transitioning baseload power to geothermal makes so much sense.

Grist has put together a list of no regrets changes the US could make to change it from a climate laggard to a climate leader. These include electrifying everything, building more robust public transit, and investing in climate resilience programs.

As a damper on clean energy progress, Investigate West and Grist have recently uncovered suppression of research from the US Department of Energy by the current administration. If we want to move forward on climate action, we can’t be ignoring or silencing researchers. I realize y’all already know this, but it’s still some impressive reporting and I thought you might find it interesting.

A new study shows that Just 10% of Covid Recovery Funds could be enough to meet the Paris Climate Accord goals. This is a promising rebuttal to the common refrain that climate action costs too much.

New research indicates the “Great Dying,” the biggest extinction event in Earth’s history, was caused by an increase in atmospheric CO2 from volcanic activity. Ocean acidification, the bane of tidalpunks, and global warming resulted in the death of most of the life on Earth at the time. It is of note that there was more CO2 generated by the volcanic activity, a Siberian supervolcano, than that from anthropogenic causes in our current time. It does provide a sobering reminder that our levels of CO2 must be carefully managed.

The Harvard Business Review has and article from 2018 discussing the advantages of a six hour workday vs the eight hour day that is now common in the United States.

Have you seen any interesting articles related to solarpunk lately? Let us know below!

Indistinguishable from magic

cody block

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.

fashion man people sign

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

MUTUAL AID

MAKER RESOURCES

RENT STRIKE RESOURCES

MICROMOBILITY

PUBLIC TRANSIT

FREE STUFF

OTHER

 

Last Updated: 4/3/2020 @ 10 pm

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?

13714826875_1c9fed839b_k

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!

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.

surface-neo-reveal

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.

MojoVision2

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.

IMG_20191214_0133240

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.

IMG_20191214_0125409

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

Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

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?

panoramic shot of sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

img_20191202_11464701476857317.jpg

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!

Digital Minimalism – A Review

digital-minimalism-3d

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?

three person holding smartphones

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Something you might not notice right away in the solarpunk future is the lack of noise pollution. One of the reasons for this is, of course, the electrification of transport, but the second will be the significantly reduced dependence on personal automobiles for mobility.

From http://bcnecologia.net/sites/default/files/annex_5_charter_for_designing_new_urban_developments.pdf

Road Hierarchy in the new Superblock Model by BCN Ecologia

When Salvador Rueda first started studying how to reduce noise levels in his home of Barcelona, he quickly found that high-speed automobile traffic was responsible for the bulk of the noise pollution in his city. When you take into account that cars are responsible for the majority of child deaths in the US it becomes clear that designing cities for automobiles hasn’t left a lot of room for the humans that live there. Barcelona’s “superblock” program aims to restrict through traffic to a limited number of arteries and keep neighborhood traffic to a human scale 10 kph (6 mph) in shared streetscapes.

Continued pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in cities committed to Vision Zero has resulted in a call to ban cars from city centers. When coupled with the climate impacts of personal automobiles, regardless of their power source, it seems logical to restrict the usage of automobiles to city edges and rural areas.

Better public transit with reasonable service levels and level boarding like that seen in some street car projects would be a boon for residents while micromobility options like scooters, bicycles, and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) could provide solutions for the “last mile.” Some NEVs have been designed specifically with wheelchair users in mind; however, it seems that they never quite made it to market. Introduction of these vehicles along with more prevalent accessible cycles can help us build a transportation system that is for people instead of cars.

To extend this human-scale vision of the city further, we may one day not need roads at all. Paolo Soleri felt roads separated people and designed his living laboratory in the Sonoran Desert to exclude them. Arcosanti is the world’s first arcology, or architecture designed around the idea that a city is it’s own ecological system. Passive energy management and high density mean that residents can spend more time living instead of working to cover mundane expenses like unnecessarily large heating or cooling bills. As a prototype, Arcosanti doesn’t seem particularly accessible, but I believe future arcologies or acology-minded developments should be able to incorporate the appropriate infrastructure without issue.

Despite decades of poor planning and squandered resources, I have hope that our public transit and transportation infrastructure are on the cusp of a renaissance. Even here in Charlottesville, we’re taking a serious look at building complete streets and revitalizing our public transit system. As we deal with rolling back the poor planning decisions of the 20th Century, we can build a more inclusive, healthier, and more pleasant transportation experience for our cities. One of the key components of this will be relegating the automobile to a support role in our society instead of the star of the show.

Is your locality implementing any changes to improve transportation for humans over personal vehicles? Do you have a shiny new streetcar or are you a resident of one of the few enclaves of car free life left in the world? Let us know below!

 

 

 

 

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

dollar-currency-money-us-dollar-47344.jpeg

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

Photo by Worldspectrum on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

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?

MapJam – Sharing in the city

adult book business cactus

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Shareable is a great resource for following advances in the “sharing economy,” with an emphasis on platform cooperatives and other community ownership models that you probably won’t see from the other outlets that focus on the space. One of the more interesting projects they’re working on is their Community Maps. Generated by local residents in a given region, these maps detail where you can find sharing services in the community.

The data for the maps is generated by MapJams, collaborative mapping parties where people can get together and map out as many sharing services as possible in their city. Charlottesville has a Shareable Community Map, but it is sparse and based on proprietary mapping software. I contacted Shareable about the mapping tools, and they said that new MapJams use the Open Street Map-based uMap system. uMap is an easy to use framework that allows anyone to make a custom Open Street Map and then embed it into any website.

I’m hoping to coordinate a new MapJam for Cville in the near future, so if you’re in the area, please reach out and let me know if you can help. Suggestions for places that should be on the map or help with coordinating the MapJam itself would be greatly appreciated!

Does your city have a Shareable Community Map? Are there any sharing services in your city that deserve a shout out? Let us know below!

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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!

Energy: A Human History – Review

jacket_1_rev-small

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!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 3: Rethinking Design

[This is Part 3 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here are links to Part 1: Repair and Part 2: Decentralize.]

There are essentially two extremes to technological design: the all-in-one device or the single-tasker. Take, for example, the knife. There are lots of single purpose knives – paring, cleaver, steak, etc. There are also several different types of multi-function knives, the best known being the Swiss Army knife. Depending on what task you have at hand, you would select the best knife for the job. Out and about, sometimes the best way to go is to carry the Swiss Army knife, but since it’s a multi-function device, it isn’t usually the best tool for the job, even though a lot of the time it is pretty decent at several different things. Unfortunately, the more functions you cram into a Swiss Army knife, the less useful it becomes at any single task. There’s a certain break-even point where it just gets ridiculous.

Image shows 8 Swiss Army knives from left to right with an increasinly large number of functions.

Victorinox pocket knives by quattroman76 under a CC BY-ND 2.0

While smartphones can do a great many things, since they aren’t really designed to do one specific task, they end up sacrificing the ability to do any one thing really well. I wonder if we’ve lost something by trying to unify all of our devices. Our mobile technology has become a monoculture compared to the wide variety of form factors of phones before a single slate of glass became the norm.

Before the consolidation of iPhone-esque design hit the scene, some people thought the future would be a cloud of wearable devices, the Personal Area Network (PAN). While carrying a number of single-focus gadgets on a common network may not be the best solution for everyone, it could be game changing for some. Also, broader acceptance of PANs might lead to more innovation in the smartphone space with regards to form factor. While there are rumblings of foldable phones, I can’t help but think those are merely an evolution of the current iPhone-centric design school.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Random sketches I made of different hubs/accessories for a PAN-based device

Modular, open source electronics architectures would be a step in the right direction, allowing designers to select off-the-shelf components for inclusion in many different types of devices. The closest things I’ve seen on the market would be the Fairphone, which we’ve mentioned before, and the RePhone Kit, which is an Arduino-compatible phone kit from Seeed Studio. It’s a neat little phone hacking platform that lets people build their own phones. Unfortunately, Rephone is only 2G data capable, meaning no data connection in the US. Motorola gets an honorable mention for the Moto-mods system that lets you add different features to your phone through a special port on the back of their Z-series phones.

Of course it isn’t solarpunk if we aren’t designing with the impact of the device in mind from the beginning. Dominic Muren’s  Skin, Skeleton, and Guts model for product design is one approach to this design problem. When coupled with the Cradle to Cradle idea of separate biological and technical nutrient cycles, I can imagine future devices where the skin of the device is a compostable fabric that can be changed to suit the style of the user, while the metal skeleton and modular, electronic “guts” could be reused in further technical cycles.

TL;DR

In short, when approaching the design of a solarpunk phone, I would want modular components to be at the core to allow for more diversity of form factors like there once was in the mobile space. Also, devices should be designed for the circular economy using safe and reusable/recyclable materials.

Do you have any ideas for what should go into a solarpunk smarphone? Would a PAN be too cumbersome, or do you find that the “Jack of all trades, master of none” nature of the smartphone isn’t worth the trade-offs? Let us know below!