Tag Archives: technology

Solarpunk Creator Opportunities – October 2021

Solarpunk creators, listen up! There are several projects that warrant your attention coming up: Solarpunk Magazine, Solarpunk Sunscapes, a Solarpunk Art Contest, and the XR Wordsmiths Solarpunk Story Contest.

First, if you want something to read right now, Grist’s Fix just announced the winners of their Imagine 2200 contest. If you want to read the stories, you can do so on the Grist website for free.

Solarpunk Magazine is launching their Kickstarter campaign October 2, 2021 to launch a speculative fiction magazine based on solarpunk. Once they’re going they’ll be accepting “short stories, flash fiction, and poetry that imagines a better and more harmonious world through.” For the Kickstarter, they have announced some pretty neat rewards from authors including Starhawk, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alaya Dawn Johnson. Solarpunk Magazine will be launching in January 2022, and their podcast has already released its first two episodes.

Solarpunk Sunscapes is accepting submissions between 500 and 7,500 words until November 1, 2021. Editor Justine Norton-Kertson says they’re “always looking for stories with great character development, and stories with compelling conflict and tension even amidst a better and more utopian world.” If you think you have something that would be a great fit, check out the submission guidelines on their page.

Also accepting submissions until November 1, 2021 is the Solarpunk Art Contest by Yishan Wong. From Wong: “To bring about this [solarpunk] future we require not only science and technology and better politics, but a new aesthetic. We need art and music and film and even advertising that paints the picture for us of what our future can be, if only we are willing to work together and build it. That’s what this contest is about. If you believe as I do, I invite you to join me.”

Extinction Rebellion’s Wordsmiths (XR Wordsmiths) are running a Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase competition with entries closing October 11, 2021. There will be three different age categories for the contest (11 and under, 12-18, and 19+), so this could be a great opportunity for younger authors. For submissions: “With your vision for the planetary future in mind, please write a short story of up to 2,500 words and send it as an email (or email attachment) to XR Wordsmiths (xr-writers@protonmail.com) with the subject line ‘XR Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase Submission’.”

Are you an author, poet, or artist? What other opportunities are out there for solarpunk creators right now?

A Better Way to Tell Time – Solarpunk Chronometry

A photo of several vintage clocks lined up in rows.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Our modern methods of timekeeping have changed our relationship with the world around us, giving us more precise measurements for science, but also abstracting us further from the natural world. I think it’s time we looked at how a solarpunk future can incorporate a saner method of chronometry.

Our neolithic ancestors lived and moved according to the cycle of seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. Before the widespread adoption of the clock, we slept in segments, instead of all the way through the night. With the rise of the train, time zones and kept people on track to their destinations. Now, some people have suggested returning to local time based on solar noon and setting any meeting times based on Universal Coordinated Time (UTC). After a year of online meetings that were held in various time zones around the world, I really see the appeal of UTC so I wouldn’t have had to run calculations to figure out when the meetings were in my own time zone. Don’t even get me started on my feelings toward Daylight Savings Time.

An image of Stonehenge. Clouds hang over the monumental stones and the grass is green.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On the calendar front, there have been several attempts at calendar reform to oust the Gregorian Calendar, including the French Revolutionary Calendar, the World Season Calendar, and the International Fixed Calendar (IFC). The IFC has 13 months of 28 days resulting in a weekly layout that is the same each month. This leaves one or two extra days depending on if it’s a leap year that go into Year Day and Leap Day. I really like the IFC, and one of the oft-cited drawbacks, constant Friday the 13ths, is easily remedied by changing the first day of the month to Monday according to ISO standards. Kodak even used the IFC for more than 60 years since George Eastman thought it was so elegant.


My version of the International Fixed Calendar (all months are the same)

What do you think? Would changing the calendar and time zones be more trouble than it’s worth? Let us know below!

Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist

A plastic bottle and some other detritus are very close to the camera and litter the shore. There are sticks mixed with the litter, and the ocean and some mountains are in the background, but out of focus.
Photo by Catherine Sheila on Pexels.com

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to ocean life. While images of chairs and tires on the seafloor can get a visceral reaction, it’s the small stuff that will cause the biggest problems. Plastics don’t truly degrade, but break into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microplastics or microfibers. The chemical additives in these plastics negatively impact ocean life and human health as they’re eaten and move through the food chain. A tidalpunk future will have to deal with this legacy of waste.

Microfibers are fibers smaller than human hair shed when cloth wears down. While all microfibers can have potential hazards, plastic microfibers like polyester have the added threats of never breaking down and leaching chemicals like endocrine disruptors. At the Mid-Atlantic Marine Debris Summit in July scientists presented work on microplastics and and other sources of human trash in the ocean. I was surprised to learn that dryers, and not just washing machines can be a source of microfibers. There are now some microfiber filters available like the Cora Ball, Guppyfriend bag, or Lint LUV-R for catching microfibers from the wash.

Microplastics come from many sources, but single-use plastic packaging is especially prolific. Some scientists have called for a global ban on virgin plastic since plastic is an inexpensive byproduct of fossil fuel extraction and there is no incentive for the material to return to the technical nutrient cycle. Moving forward, we need to drastically reduce the use of plastic to prevent further proliferation of microplastics. Holly Grounds’s dissolving ramen packet is a great example of rethinking packaging design. Another promising development is plastics that can actually biodegrade outside of a high temperature composting operation.

Hands reach into a bin full of soda bottle caps.
Photo by Krizjohn Rosales on Pexels.com

Plastic wasn’t always a throwaway material, and Precious Plastic designs open source machines for processing and reforming waste plastics into durable goods. Communities in the developing world are finding ways to repurpose the waste dumped on their countries by the rest of the world. You can check out organizations like Surfrider or Plastic Oceans for other ways to help.

YES! did their entire summer issue on the plastic crisis, so I’d encourage you to check out their coverage. If you want to learn more about the current lifecycle and impacts of plastic, I’d suggest The Story of Plastic as an introduction and the longer and NSFW This Week Tonight piece on plastics as a good follow up.

While you can reduce your own use of plastic to some extent, unless you are dedicated to going zero waste, plastic is almost unavoidable in everyday western life. This is a big issue, and I feel that it’s something we’ll be dealing with for generations, even if we stopped using all plastics now.

How can we build a plastic-free future? Share your ideas below!


This is Part 4 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, and Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US.

Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US

Greater Gabbard Wind Farm in the UK – photo by SSE via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license

Offshore wind is gearing up in the United States. The federal government has announced a goal of 30GW of offshore wind generation by 2030 and 110GW by 2050. For reference, the current largest wind turbine available generates 15MW, so it would take 2,000 of these turbines to reach the 2030 goal if that were the only turbine type used.

One bottleneck for getting these projects started is Wind Turbine Installation Vessels (WTIVs). The first European offshore wind installations started in the 90s, but existing European ships can’t be used because of the Jones Act which stipulates that vessels operating in US seas must be built, owned, and operated by US citizens or corporations. Dominion Energy’s Charybdis WTIV is under construction in New Orleans and should be operational in 2023.

Charybdis will first get to work here in Virginia building the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project. Hampton Roads, Virginia has been billing itself as a hub for the offshore wind turbine industry. There’s a long history of maritime industry on the Virginia coast, so it’s great to see these communities able to transition with the winds of change.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project isn’t the only offshore wind farm to be in development here in the US. After the failure of the Cape Wind Project in Massachussetts, offshore wind’s future was murky in the US. However, Maine appears to be the only state explicitly rejecting offshore wind, with new projects being planned on both coasts including New Jersey and California.

A pile of one dollar bills spread across the frame.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As mentioned previously, one problem I see with a lot of developments in tidalpunk-related tech is that so much of it is big money, high technology equipment that is difficult to build and procure without large governments and corporations. For instance, Dominion Energy has had a stranglehold on the state legislature in Virginia for decades due to their shady business and political practices. Offshore wind offers a big opportunity for cutting carbon emissions in the grid, but I’m wary of the lack of community control over these generation resources.

As I live in the US, this blog tends toward developments here. Do you have offshore wind in your area? Let us know about it in the comments!


This is Part 3 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?

A cargo ship sails down a channel next to a tug boat. A series of cranes dot the sides and background.
Photo by Martin Damboldt on Pexels.com

Since summertime is beach time here in Virginia, this month we’ll be taking a look at some developments toward our tidalpunk future. Today, we’ll be looking at how the maritime shipping industry is working to clean up its act.

While at sea, the majority of cargo ships use high sulfur fuel oil, the most polluting fuel in use today. With a global target to reduce maritime shipping emissions by half by 2050, however, the shipping industry is looking at its biggest change since switching from coal to diesel 100 years ago. While diesel won’t be going away soon, a mix of new and old technologies are receiving interest to replace fossil fuels in shipping.

The most exciting development in my mind, is the interest in bringing back sailing vessels for cargo transport. While a handful of clippers are still operating as cargo vessels, new ships in development like the EcoClipper500 could pave the way for a retro-futuristic tidalpunk future. As we’ve discussed before, the best way to clean up shipping emissions would be to exercise the first R and reduce the amount of stuff being shipped around the world in the first place. A combination of sailing vessels and distributed manufacturing of goods could make a big difference in carbon emissions and material waste.

A sailing ship with a white hull sails along a mountainous background. It has three large masts that are only partially rigged, presumably to keep speeds low for maneuverability.
Photo by Inge Wallumru00f8d on Pexels.com

In port, those diesel fumes can add up to some gnarly local air pollution for these communities. Oslo, Norway intends to be the world’s first zero emission port by investing in electrification of ferries and installing shore power so visiting boats can cut their engines while docked. Cleaning up the air is good for humans and wildlife that live near these industrial hubs, so cleaning up ports is an important piece of environmental justice work. Other ports are cleaning up their acts around the world including Los Angeles, Auckland, and Valencia showing this trend isn’t isolated to Scandinavia.

Despite their questionable environmental cred, cargo ships can still be a less carbon intensive option for long passenger journeys when compared to flying. According to Will Vibert, a cargo ship passenger, they can also feel surprisingly luxurious. “As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself – the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure – is the true luxury.” Later in the article they relate a similar luxury in the time-consuming, but languid process of North American train travel as I have experienced myself.

Do you have any thoughts regarding the maritime shipping industry and tidalpunk? Have you seen any cool initiatives at a port near you? Let us know in the comments below!


This is Part 1 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Institutions Are the AIs Your Mother Warned You About

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Pexels.com

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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!