Just a geek who lives in Olympia, WA with my wife, son, and animals, writing fiction that he hopes will make the world a better place someday.
207 stories

Cute looking games to teach your kids math

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We’re Ian and Lisa and back in 2008, our 2 children were in the early years of school starting to learn maths and basic numeracy. Every so often they’d come home with a puzzle or maths game designed to help them learn and we’d sit and play it with them. Unfortunately, it was normally a [.....]
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Stepping Back from the Brink

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An astonishing new field of enquiry explores the deep changes that could avert a planetary disaster

By George Monbiot, published on monbiot.com, 31st January 2018


We know where we’re going. For many years, scientists have warned that we are crashing through the Earth’s ecological limits. We know we are in the midst of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Yet we seem constitutionally incapable of acting on this knowledge.

The United States has elected a man who promised to unleash a gigantic ecological tantrum, and has, unfortunately, delivered. The UK government has produced 150 pages of greenwash it calls the 25 Year Environment Plan: the same gutless twaddle governments have been publishing for the past 25 years. As always, it was described in some quarters as “a good start”. No policy, anywhere, is commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face.

So what stops us from responding? For years, I’ve suspected that the cause runs even deeper than the power of big business and the official obsession with economic growth, potent as these forces are. Now, thanks to the most profound and far-reaching book I have ever read, I feel I’m beginning to understand what it might be.

Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct was published a few months ago, but it has taken me this long to process, as almost every page caused me to rethink what I held to be true. Bringing together cultural history with neuroscience, Lent develops a new discipline he calls cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge.

There are many points at which we could begin, but perhaps a crucial one is to understand the influence of Plato’s thought on early Christian theology. He proposed an ideal world perceived by the soul, existing in a separate sphere from the material world experienced by the body. To arrive at pure knowledge, which exists above the material world, the soul must be detached from the body’s senses and desires. He helped to establish a deep frame in Western cognition, associating the capacity for abstract thought with the soul, the soul with truth, and truth with immortality.

Some early Christian thinkers, in particular Augustine, took these metaphors further, until not only the human body but the entire natural world came to be seen as anathema, distracting and corrupting the soul. We should hate our life in this world, to secure life in the next.

Christianity, in turn, exerted a powerful influence over modern scientific cognition. Far from breaking with previous patterns of thought, Rene Descartes’s famous belief that he consisted of “a substance whose whole essence or nature is to think and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing” was an extension of Platonic and Christian cosmologies, with a crucial difference: he substituted mind for soul.

If our identity is established only in the mind, then, as the Christians insisted, our body and the rest of nature, being incapable of reason, has no intrinsic value. Descartes was explicit about this: he insisted that there is no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The mind or soul was sacred, while the natural world possessed neither innate worth nor meaning. It existed to be remorselessly dissected and exploited.

This worldview underpinned the scientific revolution, which brought us the astonishing marvels and benefits that have transformed our lives. But it also embedded in our minds some catastrophic root metaphors, that help to explain our current relationship to the living world. Among them are the notions of human detachment from nature, our dominion over nature, nature as a machine and, more recently, the mind as software and the body as hardware.

These root metaphors continue to inform public discourse. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that “a bat is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects”. If a machine with the complexity, self-organisation and self-perpetuation of a bat has been developed, Professor Dawkins should tell us where to find it.

In a world that is supposed to lack inherent value, but in which many of us have lost our belief in either the immortal soul or the sanctity of pure reason, we face a void of meaning. We seek to fill it with a frenzy of consumerism. To change our behaviour, Lent contends, we need to change our root metaphors.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon science: far from it. The study of complex systems reveals nature as a series of self-organised, self-regenerating systems whose components are connected to each other in ways that were, until recently, scarcely imaginable. It shows that, as the great conservationist John Muir proposed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.


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Folding Bookstand Made with Rivets

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For the June 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, I’ve built a folding and adjustable bookstand that is assembled with copper rivets and folds up to a neat package about the size of smartphone. It’s a quick and fun project that uses shop scraps and regular shop equipment. The result is great for reading, cookbooks or even holding your iPad while watching movies. It can be scaled up or down […]

The post Folding Bookstand Made with Rivets appeared first on Popular Woodworking Magazine.

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As neighborhoods go, downtown Olympia is pretty valuable

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One of the most incredible things happened last week. The Thurston County GeoData Center released a huge swath of datasets that had previously been prohibitively expensive to access.

All the datasets are available to download, and if you have your own GIS application, you can play with them there. But with a few of the datasets, you can access and play with directly. One of them is this dataset in particular that puts together a lot of information about parcels in Thurston County. Including total acreage and the total value of the parcel.

By comparing value and acreage, you can really see where the most value is in terms of Thurston County neighborhoods. Downtown Olympia, seen here in mostly deep blue, is generally pretty valuable to the county's bottom line. These tightly developed blocks are fairly consistently assessed at a high value.

When you get out to the Capital Mall area, the colors become less pronounced. There are still a few deep blue parcels, but the mall itself is a lighter shade of blue and its surrounding commercial developments are getting yellow.

When you get out on Martin Way, really the only highly valued property is one brand new commercial building.

The same is in Southeast Olympia, where the highly valued properties are newer, nicer homes or actual newer "missing middle" townhomes.

You see the same pattern in interior Lacey, where parking lot developments like the South Sound Mall and Fred Meyer are less highly valued than smaller parcels in Lacey's adjacent "downtown."

I made a similar point earlier using anecdotal evidence comparing a downtown block with a similarly sized parcel on the Westside.  When you make the same analysis using businesses next door to each other (but only in Tacoma, not Olympia), the result is the same. 

Traditional development is more productive than development that prioritizes car infrastructure. 

When you compare traditional, non-car centric, blocks to parking lot dominant commercial development, the traditional blocks are always more valuable. They provide more to the community. The video below points out that the blocks in downtown Olympia are a lot like the blocks that we've built in cities for thousands of years. These are the dense, easily walkable blocks that have only become rare in communities that were built in the last 60 years. Only newer cities like Lacey lack them at all.

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Changes in Password Best Practices

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NIST recently published their four-volume SP800-63-3 Digital Identity Guidelines. Among other things, they make three important suggestions when it comes to passwords:

  1. Stop it with the annoying password complexity rules. They make passwords harder to remember. They increase errors because artificially complex passwords are harder to type in. And they don't help that much. It's better to allow people to use pass phrases.

  2. Stop it with password expiration. That was an old idea for an old way we used computers. Today, don't make people change their passwords unless there's indication of compromise.

  3. Let people use password managers. This is how we deal with all the passwords we need.

These password rules were failed attempts to fix the user. Better we fix the security systems.

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162 days ago
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2 public comments
162 days ago
A meeting recently:
Developer Team: Our passwords require special characters, and max out at 30 characters.
Me: Why on EARTH did you do any of that? Why do you have a max?
Devs: Because ... it's hard to remember something long? How long do you want it to be?
Me: ... Get rid of the max. Get rid of the special characters.
CIO: Wait. Why do we have passwords at all? Can we link to google/linkedin/facebook and make it their problem? We are not in the security business.
Devs: Yes!
162 days ago
I’ve been happy watching such sensible guidelines make it through the review process
Washington, DC

Cover for my next book ‘The Tangled Lands’ released

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TangledLands crop2

Last week Saga released the cover and art for my and Paolo Bacigalupi’s next book project, The Tangled Lands, with a big cover reveal at Tor.com.

Krzysztof Domaradzki is the artist, who created some very evocative and cool art for this book.

TangledLands final

Here’s the official book description:

Khaim, the last great city of a decaying empire, clings to life. The living memory of the empire’s great city of Jhandpara is told in the hovels of the refugee camps across the river in Lesser Khaim; the other cities are buried under cloying, poisonous bramble.

It is a world where magic destroys. Every time a spell is cast, a bit of bramble sprouts, sending up tangling vines, bloody thorns, and a poisonous sleep. It sprouts in tilled fields and in neighbors’ roof beams, thrusts up from between cobblestones and bursts forth from sacks of powdered spice. A bit of magic, and bramble follows. A little at first, and then more—until whole cities are dragged down under tangling vines, monuments to people who loved magic too much. Teams of workers fight a losing battle to preserve the environment against the growing bramble. To practice magic is to tempt death at the hands of the mob, yet the city of Khaim is ruled by a tyrant and the most powerful of defilers, the last great Majister of the world.

Award-winning authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell explore a shared world, told in four parts, where magic is forbidden and its use is rewarded with the headman’s axe—a world of glittering memories and a desperate present, where everyone uses a little magic, and someone else always pays the price.

The Tangled Lands will be released in February.

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186 days ago
I hadn't realized that there were any plans to follow up There Alchemist and The Executioness. Can't wait.
Olympia, WA
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