Tag Archives: technology

Institutions Are the AIs Your Mother Warned You About

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If you pick up a book or movie about Artificial Intelligence (AI), there’s a good chance you’ll find a story where robots or AI have subjugated humanity. The Terminator, the robots in The Matrix, and the Borg all strike fear into our hearts because they lack humanity. The cold, calculating logic by which they see the universe makes them alien and incapable of the things that define human experience like compassion or love. The thing is, the AIs your mother warned you about are already here. We call them institutions. 

In Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel Oathbringer, Nale, the Herald of Justice, says, “The purpose of the law is so we do not have to choose. So our native sentimentality will not harm us.” In modern times, we say the law is blind, but recent protests over racially-motivated violence committed in the name of the law show that removing human choice from the equation just creates an algorithm for oppression. We’ve given the appearance of impartiality to a process that is biased because of who wrote the laws and when they were written.

For example, computer AIs developed to help with criminal sentencing calculate recidivism probabilities based on historical policing data. The “impartial” AI looks benevolent, but when the data it is fed derives from hundreds of years of racist policing practices, it’s not hard to see why the AI is more likely to suggest a light sentence for a white defendant than a person of color. In January 2020, the increasing reliance of law enforcement on AI-driven facial recognition systems led to the first known wrongful arrest based on the inability of facial recognition systems to distinguish between people who aren’t white men. Modern law enforcement has been investing in tools that entrench racism behind a steel and plastic veneer of impartiality. The subjugation of parts of humanity is already in progress, and it’s grounded in the biases of programmers—who are all too human. One of the most basic thought experiments of AI gone wrong is Nick Bostrom’s proposed paperclip maximizer. Because it only has one goal, it will execute that function without taking other consequences into account. As the AI ramps up its production of paperclips, the planet it’s on is consumed by iron mines and paperclip factories until those who originally programmed the AI are consumed for their raw materials. While this example may seem ridiculous, it’s the logical conclusion to business models that are designed to maximize financial growth.

Corporations are single-minded AIs programmed to make a profit. Since corporations exist in large part to separate legal liability for the corporation’s actions from its members, there are few truly effective checks on a company’s behavior. With these inputs, it should come as no surprise that the corporations of the world have done irreparable harm to our biosphere. The board of directors and shareholders are still human, but as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

While the AIs in The Matrix at least leave humans the illusion that they are not slaves, the Belters who work in the outposts of the solar system in the The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey are at risk of losing their very air and water if they do not comply with the demands of interplanetary corporations. Even when a discovery is made that would change the very nature of human existence, the Protogen company seeks to profit by starting a war between Earth and its former colony, Mars. The corporation’s pursuit of profit manages to oppress humankind without a single sentient computer. 

We don’t need to look to a dystopian future to find artificial intelligences bent on human domination. They’re already here. The first step to creating a world with AIs we can work with is disarming the dangerous ones. Congress has started the process of fighting corporations with its recent Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets Report coming after years of effort from groups like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, small businesses, and cooperatives. At the same time, The Movement for Black Lives has been steadily growing to point out the flaws in the current legal system. Overcoming systemic racism and corporate power are the major battles we have against malicious AIs right here and now. We should be developing better ways to make humans part of the AI feedback loop, as Douglas Rushkoff suggests, so that when the computer-based generalized AIs come, we’ll be able to work alongside someone like Data instead of under the gaze of Skynet.

This article originally appeared on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) blog in March of 2021.

Why Solarpunk Matters

A flag with split diagonally between green on the upper left and black on the lower right. An 8-rayed sun symbol is overlayed at the center with a black upper left and green lower right.
One of many solarpunk flags

As we enter a new decade, it can be hard to remain upbeat about the future. While I previously addressed some of the things I think define solarpunk, I think the most crucial piece is hope. I won’t get into the distinctions between hopepunk, solarpunk, and their related subgenres (tidalpunk, lunarpunk, etc.), but suffice it to say, in the face of the acceleration of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and decades of dystopian stories in fiction, it’s time for some positive possible futures.

Dystopias have their place in fiction warning against the perils of certain trends in society or potentially dangerous technologies. They can be great foils to techno-optimism, but when all you get are dystopias, it can become difficult to imagine your way out of a crisis. This is no more apparent than what is happening with the current climate crisis.

After decades of dismissal or denial, people are waking up to the fact that the carbon has hit the fan and we don’t have a lot of time left to act if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming. We’re at a decision point, and after only hearing depressing news from the media and watching movies based on dystopian futures like the Hunger Games or Handmaid’s Tale, it’s no wonder that many are ready to just give up trying to fight what feels like an inexorable foe.

Now, more than ever, we need stories that paint a positive future. People have been bludgeoned to numbness by threats of rising sea levels, increasingly unpredictable weather, and the extinction of many of the other species on the planet. We need to show people that there is hope for the future and that we can still beat this thing. Is it too late for some species? Yes. We’re not going to come out of this unscathed, but if we don’t start acting now we might not come out of the other side at all.

Positive news about efforts in various parts of the world that are actually moving the needle on carbon emissions and other environmental issues is critical. Stories that show how the future could be so much better with clean energy and equitable distribution of materials is a much easier sell than saying certain behaviors or items should be banned. “Theft of Enjoyment” featured as the boogeyman when Republicans incorrectly claimed that the Green New Deal would make hamburgers illegal. As icky as advertising can be, only fitness companies make money by telling people what they shouldn’t have. Showing how much better our possible futures could be will have people running toward something instead of fighting tooth and nail to preserve what they already have, even if it isn’t good for them.

Cover of the Sunvault solarpunk anthology. The full title says SUNVAULT: Stories of solarpunk and eco-speculation and it is set on a colorful picture of a city with a river and lots of vegetation.
Sunvault – A solarpunk anthology

As the near future foil to cyberpunk, solarpunk is here to show us the world we want to have, not the one we’re afraid is coming. Does that mean that solarpunk is free of conflict or struggle? No. Solarpunk isn’t a perfect world, but it is a better, more equitable one. Solarpunk is giving people something worth fighting for which is much more powerful than asking for people to fight against something. In the face of the climate emergency, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but solarpunk is what keeps me from giving up in the face of imposing odds. As Miguel de Cervantes said, “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

How do you maintain your mental health in the face of climate catastrophe? Has solarpunk helped you weather the storm to your psyche as it has me? Let us know below.


Theseus’ Laptop

A 15" MacBook Pro Laptop. It is aluminum with black keys on the keyboard. It is sitting on a floral print bench near a window.
My 2010 MacBook Pro

At the risk of jinxing things like the failure of my Pebble shortly after extolling its retro-tech virtues, I thought I’d write a bit about my laptop after reading this piece in Low Tech Magazine about why Kris De Decker won’t buy another new laptop. While we have several computers in the household, my daily driver is a 2010 Macbook Pro.

At this point, I have replaced many of the parts of this notebook, and I’m starting to have questions along the line of Theseus’ Ship. After replacing the logic board, keyboard, trackpad cable, battery, hard drive, RAM, power supply, and soon a speaker, is this the same laptop I bought secondhand in 2013 off of Craigslist? It doesn’t really matter as long as it still runs, I suppose, but it is a curious thought.

When I bought the laptop, I had finished my university studies and wanted to switch away from a Windows tablet to something that could handle CAD and video work. When a wine-damaged MBP showed up on Craigslist that would still work plugged into an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor, I decided to take a chance. After a failed attempt to repair the video issue on the logic board and replacing the keyboard via a laborious process involving lots of teeny-tiny screws, I had a functioning laptop.

One of the last Macbooks before Apple started soldering everything onto the logic board, this machine has served me well for writing, running our Etsy shops, doing simple CAD and vector drawings, answering emails, and connecting via video chat with folks. I can’t operate very long away from a power outlet, but otherwise this computer does everything I need it to.

A screenshot of my current desktop and device info. The laptop is a Core i7 620 with 4 cores at 2.67GHz. I apparently need to get the drivers squared away for the video card still.
My Debian Desktop and Computer Info

Every so often, I see a new, shiny computer and am tempted to retire this one, but it’s hard to beat the economic and environmental advantages of using a computer you already have. I switched over to Debian for my daily OS since I suspect we’ll be running out of updates for OSX High Sierra very soon and OSX has been mysteriously crashing since late last year when doing simple tasks.

I’ve tried switching this computer to Linux a few different times over the years I’ve had it, but it’s always been an unsatisfying experience for one reason or another. Imagine my surprise when this time Debian worked so well! Like any Linux install, there’s a bit of minor configuration to get everything working properly, but at least it will work properly instead of some of the very strange issues I’ve had in the past.

Do you have an older computer that suits your workload too? Tell us about it below!

Smart(er) switch

A white touch switch mounted next to a traditional white toggle switch.
My new(ish) living room smart switch

I bought a smart switch to help with the somewhat weird layout of our living room at the time. I had intended to reflash it with Open Source Software so I wasn’t sending data to some nameless company with remote servers that would render my switch useless if I lost connection to them. I had used the Tasmota firmware on another cord-based switch before and it proved simple and reliable.

There are a handful of different chips in these inexpensive smart wall switches. Some use the maker-favorite ESP chip, and others use a chip from a company called Tuya. The ESPs are usually easy enough to reflash after adding a programming header, but the Tuya chips require connecting directly to the pins on the chip. Someone designed a 3d printed jig to help with this, but I wasn’t able to print one that was usable which led to the long break between purchase and use.

In December, I found the switch again and decided to give it another go. I found that there was now a tool called Tuya Convert that allows you to change the firmware over your home WiFi network. With things approximately 1000x simpler, I was able to get the switch working with the Tasmota firmware in just an evening.

A screenshot of the “timers” part of the Tasmota firmware

The firmware includes an option to turn the light on or off at a particular time, including a set number of minutes before or after sunrise/sunset. The device does need a little extra configuration to know its time and location, but it has been working reliably since the initial setup.

One of the reasons I prefer switches to smart bulbs is that everyone already knows how to use a wall switch. When I first installed the firmware, the physical switch function didn’t work, so I had to ask Alexa to turn it on or off instead of being able to do it myself. After some digging around on the Tasmota list of supported devices, I got it working by modifying a profile from a switch that was actually supported. I strongly support going with a supported switch to save yourself the headache. I saw they even had some options now with Tasmota from the factory, which is probably the best option. As the project is Open Source, I was able to suggest an update to the database with the settings I found working for this particular switch in case anyone comes across it again in the future.

I’m happy with the switch since I can turn it on or off from other parts of the house or turn the light on or off while I’ve got my hands full. Our kitchen and living room are attached, so it’s especially helpful when I’m cooking or doing dishes.

Do you have any smart appliances or lighting in your home? Do you find it helpful, or are smart IOT gadgets just something that’s unnecessary to solarpunk life? Let us know below!

Rocking a Pebble in 2020

My beausage-rich Pebble smartwatch

I’ve mentioned before how my Pebble smartwatch is one of my favorite devices, but I thought I’d detail how the device is helping my sanity in 2020, four years after Pebble company shut down.

Pebble was one of the first successful smartwatches, and raised $10M on Kickstarter, making it the most successful crowdfunding campaign to date when it closed in 2012. Watches started shipping in 2013, and even seven years later, the Pebble is one of the best smartwatches available.

In 2017, I joined the smartwatch crowd with a used, original Pebble. Smartwatches aren’t a required part of modern society, but my Pebble lets me triage incoming smartphone notifications and send simple replies. I set my phone to silent and receive a gentle vibration on my wrist whenever a notification comes in for one of the apps I’ve allowed to notify me. When I unlock my phone later, I can see any low priority notifications, but I really enjoy not having the mental clutter of seeing or hearing every single notification as it comes in. My Pebble makes my smartphone experience significantly more pleasant and offers me a small bit of mental clarity I wouldn’t get otherwise.

Earlier this year, my Pebble had started dropping it’s connection to my phone and experiencing some strange issues. Afraid it was dying, I put it in airplane mode and used it as a regular watch for a couple months. After digging around online, I decided the most likely culprit was the battery, so I ordered a replacement. Then, I kept using the Pebble as a regular watch for another month since I was so intimidated about cracking it open to replace the battery.

Internals of a first generation Pebble smartwatch

I eventually worked up the courage to do the battery replacement, and I am so glad I did. I’d forgotten how much calmer my mind feels without the incessant chimes and dings of my phone’s notification system. The new battery is slightly bigger so the watch back isn’t flush anymore which hampers its water resistance, and I cracked the backlight guide which gives a slight line down the middle of the display, but I’m just going to call that beausage and move on. It’s only visible when the backlight is on anyway, so it’s exceedingly minor.

One downside of having a watch from a defunct company is that not all of the watch apps work anymore. Luckily, the back end for many services is now maintained by the Rebble community, so if you have a fancy newer Pebble Time, you can still use voice dictation, and the app store is still there even if not all the apps work 100% anymore.

The Pebble isn’t perfect by any means, but a smartwatch that still works seven years after its debut seems pretty solarpunk to me. When Android Wear and Apple watches get relegated to obsolescence by Google and Apple, Pebbles will still be telling time and making life subtly better. Like any electronic device, I can see where the watch may eventually break down, but I’ll probably try to find another Pebble unless someone comes out with a similarly simple smartwatch. I would suggest upgrading to the Pebble Steel though since the plastic casing seems to be the most fragile part of the whole watch.

Do you think smartwatches are an unnecessary extravagance, or something that can help deal with information overload? Let us know in the comments!

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?

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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!

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.

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The empty Master Spool

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

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

Maintaining the Means of Production

As I reflect on 2019, I’m thinking of how everyone likes to talk about seizing the means of production being the path to freedom, but nobody ever really talks about maintaining it.

Various tools laid out on a piece of wood

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

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There are so many jobs in the current economy that only exist because of capitalism’s insistence that everyone needs to work for a living even when there are plenty of resources for everyone to have the basics. We’ve designed a hedonic treadmill where we make up unnecessary jobs so people can buy things they don’t need and corporations can extract profits from our communities. I know I’ve personally had a lot of jobs that weren’t adding value to the world, and I would’ve dropped them in a second if I hadn’t needed to make rent. That said, I also definitely have a bunch of things that I’ve bought that seemed like a good idea at the time but are now just clutter in the apartment. It’s easy to say that better spending habits would make it easier to make ends meet, but making that a reality when you’re inundated with advertising every day makes it easier said than done.

I hope a solarpunk future will have a lot less waste and a lot more genuine activity. Maybe a popular activity for lunarpunks would be to clean solar arrays in the night so they’ll be operating at maximum efficiency in the morning, or tidalpunks working on corrosion mitigation in coastal communities would be highly regarded members of the town. In the past year, I’ve repaired a couple cellphones, numerous bikes, performed various software and hardware upgrades on computers, and have been nursing my 3D printer back to health after it caught fire in March. I also helped out with two Repair Cafés here in town, repairing all sorts of different things. I haven’t been disparaged for being a fixer, and most people seem surprised or impressed when a gadget or garment can be brought back from the brink with a simple repair. Repairing objects can bring communities together, and I’d really love if we could extend that wonder and respect to all the people that keep society humming. If you are one of these unsung heroes, you have my thanks and respect.

Do you have any ideas on how to generate more respect and appreciation for those who maintain our society? Please let us know below!


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

Glimpses of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike, scooter, and car shares available near Woodley Park

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

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

Virginians For High-Speed Rail Map

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Way to Pay

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

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

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

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

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

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

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

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

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

MapJam – Sharing in the city

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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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the rails

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

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

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

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

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

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

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

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

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

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

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

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

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

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

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

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

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

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