Tag Archives: tools

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.

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!

 

 

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?

three person holding smartphones

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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!

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!

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

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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.

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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!

Solarpunk Phones Part 2: Decentralize

antique broken cell phone communication

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[This is Part 2 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 1: Repair and Part 3: Design.]

Humans have an amazing capacity for cognitive dissonance. Even though we may know something is bad for us or has significant negative consequences, we’ll still trudge ahead, even if the benefit to an action is small. As Steven Szpajda from This Week in Law is fond of saying, people will give up large amounts of privacy and security for a very small perceived benefit.

Solarpunk Druid had a recent post to this effect, “It’s the events stupid: Why FB is the hardest media to quit” discussing the titular quandary. As we have with fossil fuels, we’ve become reliant on systems whose existence is at cross-purposes with our own.

For this second part of my exploration of what a solarpunk communication device might look like, I want you to consider your relationship with your carrier and web service providers — Verizon, Facebook, etc.

antenna clouds equipment frequency

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Most of us have become comfortable, complacent even, with the idea that the companies that control our communications know everything about our habits. What might be surprising though, is that the information they collect isn’t just available to other multi-national megacorporations, but that private citizens can easily get access to the location of customers of at least AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the US.

Solarpunk, as a subgenre of speculative fiction is all about “what-if,” so what if we weren’t beholding to megacorps for our communications? What if we decentralized our cellphone and internet access? With the increasing presence of AI subservient to known bad actors, it’s time we start examining how to wean ourselves off of the corporations that feed our information addictions. While taking a break from technology can be beneficial for our mental well-being, I don’t think it’s practical to completely give it up either.

Solarpunk is also about making the “what-if” into a concrete reality, so what technologies exist to help us break free and decentralize our digital lives?

Mesh Networks

Mesh networking, which we’ve mentioned before, allows various parts of a network to communicate without a single central node, like a cellphone tower, controlling all of the traffic. If everyone in a given geographic area had a smartphone that worked on a mesh network, they wouldn’t need a carrier to contact their friends in that area. This has been touted as a potentially life-saving measure for natural disasters, and is also a powerful tool for people protesting authoritarian regimes. Mesh networks are still in the early stages of development, but they point toward a possibile future of decentralized communication where the users themselves are the network, not some centralized authority that could leave users in the dark either intentionally or because of a cyber attack. Some current implementations include the mesh network going up in Detroit, the Serval Project, GoTenna, and the Althea Mesh.

three person holding smartphones

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Leaving for greener social pastures

Between the shuttering of GeoCities a decade ago and recent major changes to Tumblr and Flikr, denizens of the internet have witnessed great swaths of the web be deleted at the whim of a single entity. At the same time, data breaches like Equifax and direct manipulation of users by Facebook and their partners has made it more clear than ever that you’re the product for these companies.

The Open Source Community has been experimenting with alternative social networks for some time, and with the W3C ActivityPub standard, we’re seeing the emergence of an interconnected, social media Fediverse. What’s really cool about the Fediverse is that people on different platforms can follow each other without having to sign up for a different network. If the current behemoths had started this way, then you could follow your friend on Twitter from your Facebook account without having a Twitter account yourself. Since these platforms are Open Source, anyone can start their own instance, so there are communities built up around common interests (like solarpunk) but you can still hang out online with your friends from a different instance. There are a number of different platforms modeled off existing networks like FB and Twitter, but I’m sure we’ll see new concepts emerge as well. There are even some beta plugins to allow WordPress websites to be federated with ActivityPub, so maybe you’ll see Solarpunk Station in the Fediverse soon!

The Fediverse isn’t the only decentralized social networking solution out there either. Other clients like Scuttlebutt and Steemit have also cropped up in recent years. Scuttlebutt has a large solarpunk contingent already as seen in the partial graph of the network below, while Steemit skews heavily toward the cryptocurrency crowd as it is itself based on the blockchain. Scuttlebutt has some really cool features like being designed around intermittent connections. There’s a lot more information and a fun intro video on their website.

Have you tried any of these new social media sites or built a mesh network? Let us know how it went below!

 

Solarpunk Phones Part 1 : Repair

A cardboard box with a stylized art deco hand holding a wrench. Inside the box is a replacement screen kit for an iPhone 5.

My repair kit from iFixit

[This is Part 1 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 2: Decentralize, Part 3: Design, and Part 4: Magic.]

Smartphones are a major source of e-waste when disposed, and they have been one of the worst offenders when it comes to planned obsolescence, particularly after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 propelled the smartphone to widespread popularity. It seems that we may be entering a new phase of ennui in regards to new phone features, however, with 11 million iPhone users opting for battery replacements instead of new phones in 2018. Is it finally time for the Fixer Movement to takeover cellphones?

Why repair?

combination wrench screw bolt and pointed top hammer

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

I grew up in a fixer household. My dad is a biomed tech who fixes the medical equipment at a hospital, and my mom has furniture repair and sewing skills. Up until recently, all of our cars were bought as salvage and a lot of the furniture and home electronics came to us in various states of disrepair. This was just how we did things because we could fix things and didn’t see the point in paying full price if we could get it a lot cheaper because of a minor problem.

When you start looking at the exploitation taking place both in the raw materials needed for smartphones as well as in their disposal, it quickly becomes clear that the true cost of electronics is not being taken into account when you can buy a cell phone for $25. The hidden costs of goods, or externalities as economists would say, are one of the main arguments for a carbon tax, as well as many other measures industry would call “over-regulation.”

Between the environmental, moral, and economic downsides of not repairing a mobile device, keeping the phone you have for as long as possible starts to look a lot more palatable. This is especially true as the most important functions of the smartphone have reached a point of technological maturity.

This week I’m embarking on my fourth smartphone repair. All of these have been screen replacements, as it is easily the most fragile part of the phone. Of the three phones I’ve repaired, I only had one where I successfully replaced just the glass and was able to reuse the screen underneath. Some of that might be my relative inexperience, and some of that is because the phones aren’t designed to be repaired. If you are planning on repair a phone, I would suggest checking out iFixit as they have a lot of different parts available as well as the most extensive repair database around. Youtube also has a lot of repair videos for things that aren’t in iFixit yet.

If you aren’t comfortable doing a repair yourself, there are a lot of smartphone repair places that have popped up around the country in response to the commonality of shattered screens. In some locales, there may still be repair shops for other goods as well, particularly sewing machines, vacuums, and shoes.

Many towns have Repair Cafes or Fix It Clinics that are run by volunteers on a varying basis. Boulder, CO has a very active repair community, and there is a periodic Repair Cafe run by the Time Bank here in Charlottesville, VA.

The future

While many current smartphones require a lot of time and “the knack” to repair, there is some hope that this won’t always be the case. The easiest way to make sure that smartphones are easy to repair is to design them that way to begin with.

One area where there has been a lot of interest, but not a lot of development is in the modular smartphone space. Google’s Project Ara, the Phonebloks project, and many others have shown concepts of LEGO-like modular phones with parts that the end user can swap out to customize or repair their phone. The only true contender in this space is the Fairphone. Designed with repairability and transparency in mind, the Fairphone was designed to do for electronics what Fair Trade has done for food and clothing. By evaluating every part of their supply chain and making the phone easily repairable by the end user with modular components, the Fairphone is the most ethically-sourced and repairable mobile device on the planet.

While the Fairphone is an impressive achievement, the fact that it is the only phone built to what should be basic-human-decency standards is telling of the state of the mobile device industry. As smartphones peak and differentiation wanes between vendors, hopefully we’ll see an emergence of a modular standard with many vendors making parts that are interoperable on a similar mobile platform. This was the original vision of Project Ara before its cancellation in 2016. The only ecosystems that approach this ideal in my mind are the desktop PC market and Raspberry Pi.

The Runcible, a round smartphone concept is shown with its circular wooden back removed exposing the circular circuit board and camera module.

The Runcible with its wooden back removed (from their Indiegogo campaign page)

One other interesting, but also unreleased, concept of a repairable phone was Runcible. Envisioned as an anti-smartphone, Runcible was designed to be a repairable, digital heirloom that would be a piece of tech you would want to grow old with. While its Indiegogo campaign was successful, as with many crowdfunded projects, the creators have gone dark without any backers getting their hardware. Some people might cry foul, but I think the problem with crowdfunded hardware is that making hardware devices is a lot harder than it looks.

In any case, I think that electronic devices built for a solarpunk future will need to be modular, repairable, and ethically-sourced as a first step. This is the first post in a series prompted by Solarpunk Druid’s “The Solarpunk Phone,” so I will be linking subsequent parts as they’re added.

Do you have any thoughts on what’s important for solarpunk electronics? Are there any features that current phones don’t have that would make your life easier? 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.

photo of pile of ripped carton

Photo by Luka Siemionov on Pexels.com

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

fireworks photo

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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.

white sheep on farm

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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!

What is Solarpunk, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bicycle Innovations

red cruiser bike parked on metal bike stand

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While cars have continued to iterate convenient features like cup holders and hill holding assist, bicycles haven’t really changed much since the safety bicycle was introduced in 1876. While some of that is because the diamond frame bike is actually a pretty cool design, it feels like unless it’s something to make a racer on the Tour de France go faster, the bicycle industry has ignored it.

As a solarpunk, I feel that bikes are a really great option for low carbon transportation for the able-bodied. What about people who need adaptive solutions? Luckily, one of the areas that there has been innovation in the bicycle industry is in adaptive bicycles. I didn’t really know much about them, but I stopped by a bike shop in Vienna, VA where they told me about some of the models they stock.

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Hase TRETS trike (image from Hase’s website)

Accessible bikes are available with electric assist and other adaptive technologies to make riding fun for people who might not be able to ride a more traditional bicycle. Handcycles are available for people who can’t use their legs to pedal, and Hase makes a popular recumbent/upright tandem that can accommodate a wide level of abilities. I was able to test ride the tandem, and while I think the handling would take some getting used to, it’s a very well-built machine.

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Hase Pino tandem (image from Hase’s website)

The rise of cargo and urban bikes will hopefully help with adoption of bicycles as a transportation method. This article at Bike Shop Girl, “What If Bicycles Were Designed Like Cars?” discusses how most cars are designed around the normal user, but bikes have been designed around racers for a long time. Ron George over at the Cozy Beehive has an article titled “Brainstorming Bicycle Design Ideas with an Example” further discussing the lack of innovation in the bicycle space.

When looking for practical bicycles, my wishlist would be:

  • Internally geared hub
    • Internal hubs are available from 3 to 14 speeds and pretty much eliminate all that mucking about with drive-train maintenance required with a regular set of gears (bonus points if it has a belt drive!)
  • Step through design
    • Nobody wants to have to swing their leg over the back of their bike or the center bar to get onto their ride.
  • Electric assist
    • While I don’t yet have electric assist for my bike, I’ve heard it makes a great difference in your ability to carry heavy loads (including other humans) or ride up hills. Being sweaty on arrival is a big turn off for many aspiring riders, so I think this is a good piece of tech to get more butts on bikes.
  • Racks and fenders
    • You should be able to carry stuff and not get splashed if it’s wet out.
  • Lights
    • Ideally charged via a dynamo or connected to your electric assist battery. They don’t sell cars without headlights, so why are they extra on a bike?

Granted, I’m a privileged person who doesn’t have any major physical problems. I really think tooling around town on a bike is super fun, so hopefully accessible bikes (and trikes) will be easier to find with time. I don’t think we should be forcing people to ride bikes to get around in a solarpunk society, but I think we should make it a lot better option. Investing in biking infrastructure and making bikes easier to adopt for newbies are the two main barriers to adoption here in the US. I’ve been riding for over a decade now, and I still find bike shops intimidating, so I think there’s a lot of room to grow. If you want to know more about making bicycling more inviting, be sure to check out Bike Shop Girl’s Shift Up Podcast.

Do you ride a bike? If not, what would make you feel more comfortable doing so?

 

The Nature Fix – A Book Review

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Do you feel more relaxed after going for a walk in the woods? Does the scent of conifers make you think of happy times? The Nature Fix by Florence Williams investigates the connection between nature and human well-being, physical and mental.

As a scientist, I’m always excited to bury myself nose-deep in a new area of investigation, and I’ve found that popular science books are one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with something you’ve never studied before. Instead of getting bogged down in equations and minutia, you can dive right in and see what the science has to do with your life. Williams has done a brilliant job in The Nature Fix connecting the dots between how you feel during your day and how much exposure to nature you get.

silhouette of mountain hill with pine trees under white cloud blue sky

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While skimming photos of mountains and trees on Instagram might help you relax, it turns out that your other senses play an important role in your well-being. For instance, researchers in Korea have found that the smell of cypress trees have health benefits and some of the compounds the trees produce may even deter cancer.

Other researchers Williams talked to have found that sound plays an important role in our health. Bird song can have a positive effect, while many human-made noises such as jet aircraft can overstimulate the fight-or-flight aspects of our brains. One example from the book is that the “World Health Organization attributes thousands of deaths per year in Europe to heart attack and stroke caused by high levels of background noise.”

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Williams goes into biology, evolution, neuroscience, and sociology to really see what it is about nature that is so compelling. To really improve your mood and health, some Finnish researchers interviewed suggested a minimum of five hours of nature per month. As this can be difficult for the increasingly large proportion of people who live in cities, she points to examples like Singapore that endeavor to be a city in a garden. This really appeals to my solarpunk tendencies as cities that are full of lush, native plant life and provide physical and mental stimulation to their residents are my ideal.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Nature Fix to anyone who is interested in nature, even the tiniest amount. I would also suggest that all health professionals should read it regardless of their interest in the outdoors. I got my copy from my local library, but you can also find it through IndieBound here.

Have you read The Nature Fix? What did you think of it?

LEGO Human-powered tool station

LEGO Modular Tool Station

Technic Man pedaling his tool platform

I had some time to make a crude LEGO prototype of the human-powered tool station.  I made do with meshed gears instead of pulleys since I didn’t have any rubber bands to use as a belt. Given some of the constraints of spacing with LEGO, our brave Technic Man can’t actually pedal the machine, but I think it does get the idea across more or less.

LEGO Modular Tool Station Internal Workings

Some of the internal workings of the LEGO prototype

Do you have any thoughts about the system? Are there LEGO parts that you like to use for prototyping purposes? Let us know below!

GoSun Fusion oven on Kickstarter

Want to cook with the sun?

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GoSun has been making solar ovens for awhile and is now Kickstarting the GoSun Fusion which can use either solar power or electricity to cook a meal for up to five people. I don’t have any affiliation with GoSun, but their ovens have pretty good reviews, and I really like the idea of being able to cook with the sun both day and night.

I think this oven looks like it would be really awesome if you have an off-grid house or do a lot of campground camping where you have a base camp. It’s probably too big to use for backpacking, although it does look like GoSun has a smaller model that might work for that, the GoSun Go.

Do you have a solar cooker? Do you know of any good DIY plans that we should try out here at Solarpunk Station? Let us know below!