Rest

A trail in Pen Park (Charlottesville, VA)

So, it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. With everything going on in the world, I really needed to give my brain some space to stretch. So, if you were looking for a sign to take a break yourself, this is it.

Even if it’s only for ten minutes, let your mind unwind and take a breather. Whatever work or troubles you have will still be there when you get back, but giving yourself a break can help put things in a new light. Maybe you’ll see a solution you didn’t before.

The world wants us to be going full throttle all the time, but humans didn’t evolve that way. Give yourself some space and time; have some compassion for yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in self-deprecation and thinking you’re not good enough, particularly if you suffer from depression like me.

I want you to know that it’s OK to take a little break to catch your breath. When you’re done, you’ll be able to tackle whatever your troubles are with renewed energy. There’s no denying that there’s a lot going wrong in the world right now, but we’ll get through it together.

I was fortunate enough to go on a walk on some nature trails here in town recently. What are some of the best ways for you to take a mental break? Do you like to hike or meditate? Let us know in the comments!

More on malls

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Bellevue Square Mall courtesy of Debs (ò‿ó)♪

I’ve written previously about how malls could provide the bones of solarpunk co-housing, and Grist recently produced a video about how some communities, most notably Seattle, are re-purposing their old malls as community hubs, as they were originally intended. Ellen Dunham-Jones from the Georgia Institute of Technology gave a more in-depth look at retrofitting malls in her 2010 TED Talk and in this interview with WIRED. As malls everywhere experience hard times due to the “retail apocalypse,” is this our chance to reorient these monuments to capitalism into something more community-minded?

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An old map of Fashion Square Mall

Here in Charlottesville, Fashion Square Mall has been emptying out like so many others. Sears left in March 2019 and nothing has come to replace it. Instead of letting it sit vacant, you could retrofit apartments in the main store and put a makerspace in the old auto shop. I couldn’t find a square footage estimate of the store, but if we assume it’s around 50,000 square feet (~4600 square meters) and 10,000 square feet are set aside for the makerspace and community areas, it seems reasonable that you could still fit 50 to 60 apartments in the 40,000 square feet remaining.  With a mix of sizes from micro-apartments to three bedrooms, you could make some decently affordable housing for single people, families, and elders.

With the old store now affordably housing 100 or more people, people could start new businesses in empty store fronts like a food co-op or local restaurant. As the actual people in the mall slowly take over from the fleeing corporate interests, perhaps enough capital could be raised to purchase the mall from its current owners and turn it into a collectively-owned property.

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Further development could include depaving some of the parking lots, adding rooftop solar panels, and building more housing in the former parking areas. Since a solarpunk future has a reduced dependence on personal automobiles, an improved frequency of bus service to the mall as well as improving connections to the local Rivanna Trail system would be critical. A car sharing station could round out the transportation options for our little collective.

None of these changes are particularly earth-shattering on their own, but each little adjustment to bad zoning and land use decisions inherited from the last century gets us a step further on the road to a sustainable future.

Is there a property in your area that could be turned to more positive uses? Let us know below!

 

Good news for tidalpunks

humpback whale in ocean

Photo by Andre Estevez on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

Indistinguishable from magic

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CODY BLOCK Learning Toy

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

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

A wooden car navigates a series of directional blocks.

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

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

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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

Agile City Development

IMG_20200305_1234234 An apartment building in Charlottesville

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

agile-work-horizon-of-predictability The Horizon of Predictability from Agile Advice

As a project grows larger and its timescale increases, it grows more difficult to predict its interactions with the surrounding environment. One way to keep projects within a “horizon of predictability” is to take “small bets,” as advised by Strong Towns, instead of always pursuing that next multi-million dollar development project.If we take an Agile Development approach, then we can start with what identifying issues within a particular area, ranking them in order of impact, and selecting the one or two that would have the biggest impact that we could accomplish in a short time frame.A city’s sidewalk network is one place we could apply this technique. In 2015, Charlottesville published it’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan identified major corridors for walking and biking in the city and prioritized areas in need of improvement. Looking at the 2019 update of the Master Plan, however, it becomes clear that there hasn’t been a lot of progress on most of these projects.

Where the sidewalk ends Where the sidewalk ends

There are plenty of places where our sidewalks cut out for a few yards or even a few blocks. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the road or across someone’s lawn. This isn’t ideal, and it’s much worse if you need to find a route with a wheelchair or crutches. If we started by identifying areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, we might find places where a small investment in concrete could make great improvements to pedestrian safety.The traditional approach to development in cities can result in incomplete buildings or infrastructure that are actually worse than if you hadn’t started the project at all. The obvious example of this for Charlottesville residents would be the Landmark/Dewberry Hotel on the downtown mall. Construction began shortly before the Great Recession hit, and ten years later, its partially completed skeleton still looms over the most expensive part of town.

Dewberry

The Landmark Hotel by Sean Tubbs via a CC BY 3.0

I’d really like to see the city move toward small, incremental projects that slowly fix problems we see. This allows us to expend fewer resources at a given time toward solving a problem, as well as allowing us to test different approaches and course correct as we implement plans. One refrain I’ve heard several times since moving here is that the city has “analysis paralysis.” We expend millions of dollars toward study after study, but the citizens just don’t see anything come from it. People in city government then get frustrated when there’s a lack of engagement from the community. It’s hard to get buy-in when the past has shown that the city lacks follow through.I think future work should include more small area plans that bring neighbors together to shape how their neighborhoods will look in the future. There should probably be some oversight to make sure that these small area plans are welcoming, not exclusionary, but people from the neighborhood will be closer to the ground truth of what small actions might create the biggest effects in people’s day-to-day life.At the end of the day, we all want our communities to be a better place. By coming together and figuring out what small changes we can make, we can get started right away. We don’t need to wait on the next four year plan to make things better.City Council held a work session on zoning, and city staff made recommendations on how to make it easier for residents to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or split existing homes into duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes. These small changes to the existing zoning code are happening independently of the larger zoning rewrite that is part of the Comprehensive Planning process. These changes aren’t going to solve our housing crisis, but they will make a dent. This small zoning change to allow small increases in density by allowing more small development is the perfect example of how many small steps can add up to a big one.I hope that this new City Council will be open to more small bets in the future. If they are, I think we’ll make progress more quickly by taking a lot of small steps than taking big steps that might not always land on solid ground.

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

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

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

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

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

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

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

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

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

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

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

Questioning capitalism

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

group of people near wall

Photo by Jopwell on Pexels.com

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

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

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


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

Credit Where It’s Due

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

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

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The Microsoft Surface Neo

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

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

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

Echo Frames

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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The empty Master Spool

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

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