Thinking Out Loud

all of my ideas are works in progress

2015 in Review

Lots of big changes. Got out of debt, applied to library science programs, got rejected by library science programs, planned a move to China, cancelled move to China when we found out we're pregnant, met my savings goal, quit my retail job, started my engineering program, bought a minivan, bought a house in the suburbs, did a lot of renovation, diagnosed myself with some variety of seasonal depression, and started self-medicating with St. John's wort and phototherapy.

It has not been a good year for movies. The best:

  • My Girlfriend is an Agent 3.5/5
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron 3/5
  • Big Hero 6 3/5
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens 3/5
No real honorable mentions.

Anime's been okay.

  • Magi: The Kingdom of Magic 4/5
  • Yona of the Dawn 4/5
  • Fate/stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works 3.5/5
  • Chaika: The Coffin Princess 3/5

Pretty good year for books:

  • Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman, 5/5
  • Proofiness by Charles Seife, 4.5/5
  • The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher, 4/5
  • Phoebe and her Unicorn by Dana Simpson, 4/5
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, 4/5
Though it doesn't really meet most of my criteria for being a great book (e.g. would voluntarily read again), I was surprised how much I enjoyed and got out of The Odyssey.

It is my intention to reread more books in the new year. Books like 1984 which I read in high school but may be more relevant and meaningful to me now, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I thought was so hilarious and so subversive when I was a teenager but I'm not even sure I would find funny now, and Feist's Riftwar Saga, which may have played an important role in forming my tastes in fantasy fiction and I want to know why.

My primary goal is to continue kicking ass in my engineering classes. I also intend to be more vigilant about recycling. And somehow or other, I will get a real-time RPG group going now that I'm not working nights (it will probably still have to be online).


The Force Awakens (Relax; No Spoilers)
PrefaceCollapse ) The Original TrilogyCollapse )

What I'm getting at is, I think my objections to the Special Editions and prequels are fairly objective and not a factor of my inability to be critical of the original trilogy. I'm pointing this out because:

  1. I don't think I've really said this before except to those closest to me
  2. Some of these insights and articulations are new as of this week
  3. I want to establish my credibility as an objective reviewer of the new movie

It is not my intent to spoil anything for anyone. But here I will talk about some things in the movie, which could be construed by some to be 'spoilers'. Obviously, I'm not giving away any big reveals about who killed whom or who is whose father, but if you want to go to the theater knowing nothing at all, stop reading here.

The Force AwakensCollapse )

Overall, I give it a 3/5. Good but not great. I enjoyed it, and will want to see it again, but there were also several things that bugged me. I find it acceptable, which is better than expected and also better than average for all Star Wars movies.



Okay, now this is eerie. Last night, an idea for a new way of playing Pathfinder and other d20 games came to me, fully-formed. A year earlier to the day, I was writing 321 System.

Dumb20 is 'dumbed-down' d20. It's based on Pathfinder, but is general enough that it can be tailored to any other OGL content with ease, and sufficiently compatible you could have half of your players playing Pathfinder and the other half playing Dumb20 without really being able to tell the difference. This makes it a great way to involve younger or more casual players.

The Dumb20 Core Mechanic

Every ability can be expressed as a bonus x1, x3/4, x1/2, or x1/4* of a character's level, and every action can be resolved by 1d20 + ability bonus + an attribute bonus. Since all fractions are rounded down, any bonus less than x1 won't be available until higher levels. This is how attack bonuses already work in Pathfinder. In Dumb20, saves and skills work the same way.

Each class has 'strong saves' and 'weak saves'. In Dumb20, the strong save is 3/4 the character's level, and weak saves are 1/2. This makes strong saves slightly weaker at low levels, and weak saves quite a bit stronger at high levels, but is unlikely to make much difference to Dumb20 players or mixed groups. A wise GM might fudge save DCs for Dumb20 players by -2 for levels 1-4 and -1 for levels 5-8 if PCs are dying too quickly.

Each class has a number of skill ranks per level. A Dumb20 player just picks that number of skills from the skill list (plus a number of additional skills equal to their Intelligence modifier) as 'their' skills, which will not change much as the character levels up. If they're class skills, their bonus is equal to the character's level, and 3/4 if they're not class skills, or a player can choose to sacrifice a skill at one fraction for two skills at one fraction lower. This makes class skills somewhat weaker at low levels that a similarly specialized Pathfinder character, so a GM might similarly fudge down some skill DCs.

All other racial and class abilities work pretty much as written. For any ability that scales with character level, assign it a fraction of character level that best fits. *x1/4 abilities are mostly class features.

Character Creation

So, right now, this might sound like just different math, not less, and more things for the GM to keep track of. Let me show you how an in-progress character sheet might look so you can see how this makes all the numbers very easy for an inexperienced player:

elf fighter 4
+4 (x1) +3 (x3/4) +2 (x1/2) +1 (x1/4)
+0 Attacks
Handle animal (Cha)
Survival (Wis)
Fort save Ref save
Will save
Armor training
+2 Perception (Wis)
Str 13 (+1)
Dex 19 (+4)
Con 13 (+1)
Int 12 (+1)
Wis 12 (+1)
Cha 9 (-1)

The core of the sheet is a 4x4 grid. Every relevant ability or skill is placed in a box representing its fraction bonus (column), and fixed bonus, if any (row). This basic fighter isn't too bright, and only has three skills, two class skills in the (4,0) box, and a cross-class skill with a racial bonus (3,2). Fort save is strong, the others are weak, full BAB, a few class abilities (I'll explain feats later). The attributes and their bonuses are listed below the main grid for a reason.

Want to make an attack? Attacks are in box (4,0), BAB is +4, if it's ranged, add Dex, it's 1d20+8. (I'm sure there will ultimately be a few more boxes, for hp and other commonly-used combat numbers.)

Survival? +4, +0, +1, 1d20+5. Perception? +3, +2, +1, 1d20+6. Appraise? It's not on the grid, so just the attribute, 1d20+1.

The beauty is, when this PC levels up, the player just erases the numbers in the top row, and recalculates them as fractions of the new level. Heck, this could have been the player's character sheet from level 1 without any alteration, it's just taken until they reached level 4 for the 1/4 ability column to become available, and you've never needed to open a rulebook since then.

A lot of feats can be used as-is, often by just moving an ability down a row (or, if appropriate, a column to the left). A GM and player can easily work out before hand that this PC is going to be a killer archer and get all the weapon focus and weapon specialization feats, the GM crosses off half of the fighter bonus feats and puts 'archery specialist' in the 1/4 column, treating it as a linear class feature instead of tracking individual feats.

Alterations to spells and equipment are not necessary for Dumb20, but a player that would benefit from Dumb20 would probably also benefit from a constrained/streamlined equipment list and spell list.

Multiclass characters would probably have a separate grid for each class. You get the bonus from each grid, and sum them. I'm an advocate of summing fractional bonuses, and looking at your classes this way makes it more obvious that a rogue 1/wizard 1 has 1.25 total BAB from their classes, which is better represented by a +1 than +0+0.


Dumb20 is not a complete game system, and it's not meant to do everything that Pathfinder can do. In some ways, it's a hybrid of 321 System and Pathfinder - identifying the 'main things' that make a character work and assigning streamlined bonuses. In some ways, it's just a different kind of character sheet and a shoehorn.

It looks like a great way to make quick and dirty characters, such as at a con, when you just want to get playing instead of combing through sourcebooks for a few hours to create the perfect character, or for medium-importance mid-level NPCs that the GM isn't sure are going to recur yet. Or it could be used for the long haul by a group or a player that likes the idea of Pathfinder, but struggles with hunting for the right number of the classic character sheet or other bookkeeping aspects. It might also be a useful tool for comparing different builds or archetypes of a class, since all the class abilities are available at a glance, or prototyping ideas for new classes.

I'm not exactly sure if or how this work interacts with the Open Gaming License, but I'm pretty sure it's okay for me to use the parts of d20 that I have, and for others to share and distribute them under the same terms. Everything that I created and contributed in this post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons License


Scale of Evil

Rate in order from most to least evil and explain your reasoning:

  • Straight up murdering someone to their face because of something bad they have personally done to you or to someone you know.
  • Straight up murdering someone to their face to make a point because they belong to a category that is connected to the point you are trying to make.
  • You owe a lot of money to a crime lord, and you're given the choice to kill a stranger of the crime lord's choosing or be killed yourself, and you choose to kill someone else to clear your debt.
  • Working as a hitman or assassin.
  • Killing in war.
  • Taking an action for personal benefit/convenience that almost definitely results in killing (e.g. buying conflict diamonds, voting for a hawk politician, etc.)

Home Ownership

Backstory: The goal has always been for me to get a job that pays enough to support the family on one income so that we can switch back to Stephanie being the full-time parent. That is evidently never going to happen on this continent until I can do something else, so back to school I go. The whole point of working at Walmart for two years was to save up tuition money. Once that was done, I could quit Walmart and focus on school.

Having tuition saved up and quitting Walmart was also the moment we reexamined what we wanted out of life, whether we wanted to be global nomads or anchored with all the nice stuff living in one spot gets you. And if you're going to stay in one spot, you might as well buy a house so that you can be earning equity instead of lining someone else's pockets. So the choice was always pretty much go back to Asia or buy a house.

We didn't go back to Asia.

We started house-hunting in early August, looking mostly outside the Lynchburg city limits but within commuting distance to the library. The USDA has a program where you can buy a house with no down payment if it's in the county, which I realized too late is taxpayer-subsidized encouragement of suburban sprawl and commuter traffic, but it got us what we needed when we needed it. We could have managed a down payment by blowing my college savings, but then we ended up blowing my college savings on a minivan after the Honda was totalled by an uninsured motorist. Yeah, it's been a fun couple months. We'll find a way to make school work out.

We found a place in Madison Heights, an unincorporated community in Amherst County, just across the river from Lynchburg. The 'neighborhood' is kind of white trashy, but there's no traffic on our street, we're a 10 minute drive from the library, it has three bedrooms, a dishwasher, a microwave, an established vegetable garden, and it doesn't have lead paint. And our monthly house payment is less than our rent in Lynchburg.

USDA loans always take longer than normal to close on, and buying a car in the middle of the process forced them to reevaluate our credit, and we were told over and over that we wouldn't be closing until mid-to-late-October, and I kept pushing back the date of our move-out with our old apartment. Then we got a call saying we could close at the end of September, so we did. This gave us a nice, long overlap. For a week I came over at night to clean, paint, and repair stuff before moving any big furniture in, and I brought over a trunkload of boxes each time, so by the time we actually moved in on the 10th, it was pretty much just the table and beds, some shelves and some lamps. Then I spent the following week going back to the old apartment every night to clean and touch up paint so we can get our deposit back.

The place was on the border of being a fixer-upper, with holes in the drywall, broken doors, a a population of stray cats bringing poop to the yard and flies to the house. The previous occupants seemed to be enthusiastic about home improvement, but not particularly competent. I painted houses for a summer during college, but working alone at night after an exhausting day of parenting, with limited tools and budget, but it still looks a ton better. Fortunately, most of the yard/exterior work can wait until spring. This place could have sold for a lot more if the owners had bothered to clean and do basic maintenance, so unless there's an unforeseen market collapse, we could make a tidy profit with some cheap blinds, a coat of paint, a washcloth, and a little elbow grease.

We've got about five boxes left to unpack before we're done moving in, and a list of more home improvement projects to last us as long as we expect to be here. It turns out I've pretty much forgotten why a microwave is supposed to be desirable and have barely used it for anything.

Pictures and video tour to follow.

Hanging with the Baptists

On Monday the 24th, shortly after midnight, we got a knock on our door. (Aside: for nearly a month since I quit working at Walmart, I've been getting to bed at 10:30pm. It's awesome.) It was a police officer, asking if we wanted our car towed.

"What?! Why?"

"You're disoriented, sir. Just take a moment and tell me what you want to do."

I'm not disoriented, I just haven't been given enough information to understand my situation. I'm generally pro-police, but every interaction I have with LCPD lowers my opinion of them.

A girl from Winchester somehow collided with three parked cars on our street over a good 30 meter span, possibly after being involved in another collision out on the cross street. This is the third time our car has been smashed into while parked in front of our house and the fourth major collision in Lynchburg. (For those of you who haven't been following us closely, our trusty Honda Civic was totalled last month by an uninsured motorist, but we'd been meaning to upgrade to something that could handle three carseats anyway, so we took the opportunity to trade up to a Chrysler Town & Country.)

So at least this time the other person was still at the scene and actually had insurance. That should make things better, right? Of course not. When it's a hit and run, our uninsured motorist coverage kicks in, we get it in the shop and have a rental the same day. With someone else's insurance, we have to wait for them to 'complete their investigation'. It's been a week, and they still haven't been able to get a statement from the other driver. I can get a statement from the Dalai Lama faster than State Farm can get in touch with their own customer. She was driving a car, so we know she's not Amish.

We couldn't make it to our church and we missed the annual children's program, so, you know, blessings in disguise. We did want to go to some church, so we wound up going to a Baptist church down the road. This is Lynchburg; if we still don't have a car next week, there are like five other churches within walking distance.

It was okay. I'd never been to a Baptist worship service before. The sermon was fairly pedestrian, Mark 2:13-17, nothing you wouldn't hear in a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting. Much higher singing:sermon ratio than our meetings, and their hymnbook is twice as thick, which is neat, but all their music sounds like it's been arranged for an off-Broadway musical. The way they pray catches me completely off guard - somebody will just be in the middle of saying something and suddenly, 'Oh, they're praying now.' They do do that thing like Catholics do where they just stop in the middle of the meeting and everyone greets all of the other nearby congregants, which is something we could be better at doing (we Johnstons, not we Mormons, generally). I also liked the more relaxed dress code. Unfamiliarity aside, it felt safe and inoffensive, maybe to excess.

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In Defense of Science, Part 17

High fructose corn syrup isn't a dietary problem. It's an economics problem.

On a biological level, all fructose molecules are the same. It doesn't matter if it comes from corn syrup or honey or agave nectar or recaptured fairy farts, fructose is fructose is fructose. It has 4 calories per gram, same as any other carbohydrate. It does have a slightly different metabolic pathway than glucose, but I can guarantee that if you took two groups of people and the only change you made was replacing all of the fructose in their diet with sucrose or glucose, there would be no significant difference in their health.

Freaking out about high fructose corn syrup is like running around the deck of the sinking Titanic, flinging pitchers of ice water over the rail, because you have been told that our current crisis is being caused by ice.

Marketing a food as "Contains no High Fructose Corn Syrup!" conveys as much useful information as "Contains no Ranch Dressing!" Yeah, it's an ingredient I probably shouldn't eat a lot of, but some isn't going to hurt me and its absence tells me nothing about whether the product is healthy.

Americans are sentimental about agriculture, especially corn (cf. Oklahoma!). For nearly a century, the US government has paid corn farmers to grow corn, but only sell it as corn in limited quantities to artificially keep the price of corn high and defend against foreign competition, but they can sell corn derivatives, like corn syrup (made scalable in the late 1960's). This scheme is worth billions to the corn industry but only costs pennies to each individual taxpayer and consumer, so there's little motivation to change it, and any politician that threatens to trim corn subsidies from the budget is hit with "This politician want to take away the amber waves from hardworking American farmers!" scare ads from the corn lobby. This is why high fructose corn syrup is one of the cheapest sweeteners on the market.Corn Syrup

High fructose corn syrup is like a cheat code for infinite profit for food manufacturers. It's cheap, and it lets them use other cheap, low-nutrient ingredients with long shelf lives. Because the fructose lights up the brain centers for pleasure and desire, food manufacturers can get people to pay for compressed sawdust if they add enough corn syrup. People eat more of this cheap junk food because it's cheap and because it's stripped of fiber and protein that makes a person feel full.

High fructose corn syrup isn't what's making people fat. Eating too much added sugar and not enough real food in combination with a sedentary lifestyle is what makes people fat. (Fats and oils are also a problem, but not as much as we've been told and probably not the root of epidemic obesity.) Replacing high fructose corn syrup with more expensive 'natural' sweeteners is not a solution. Being afraid of whatever ingredient daytime TV hosts tell you to be afraid of this week is not a solution. High fructose corn syrup makes it cheaper and easier to add too much sugar to your diet, but it doesn't change the basic laws of metabolism, and harping on it won't fix anything.

So, China is NOT Happening

We're pregnant.

We...were not keeping good track of things. We're still a little vague on the due date but probably late January/early February 2016.

We discovered this after making the decision to go to China. For a while we explored the possibility of proceeding with the China plan. People in China have babies every day, surely they can handle one more, right? But after both of us had a series of panic attacks about it (fortunately, never both of us at the same time) we decided that we are just not brave enough to do this. It did not help that Stephanie's only exposure to non-martial arts Chinese cinema was To Live.

So, onward.

I'm still going back to school, though probably Old Dominion Online instead of Arizona State Online. Probably still electrical engineering because I still need a program that can be completed 100% online and because it's both interesting to me and likely to pay well.

We're still moving; we're not all going to fit where we are. We're still selling the car; we're not all going to fit in the one we have. I'm still leaving Walmart, because I've reached the financial benchmarks I planned and I value my mental health.

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So...China is Happening

Several weeks ago, we got this free sample in a container that reminded me of a Japanese ice cream novelty, and I said, wistfully, out loud, "I miss Japanese ice cream novelties," to which Stephanie replied, "Well, why don't we just go back to Japan?" and I'm like, woah, the ice cream wasn't that good, but the idea was planted like a virus in my registry, spinning an infinite loop and eating up all of my RAM while I was at work that night.

So, we ended up talking about it in depth, and really examining what we wanted out of life; when, whether, and how we would swap parenting roles. The endgame is still, and always has been, one parent working (preferably me), occasional world travel, a sustainable and socially-responsible lifestyle, and a home with actual countertops, a microwave, and a garbage disposal in a town with an active gaming community. The house is going to be a while yet, no matter what, but we can meet a lot of our goals at once, right now, by me going back to teaching overseas and pursuing more education online at the same time.

I don't usually actively seek spiritual guidance, but we both fasted and prayed about this quite seriously, and we both got solid confirmation that this is the right thing for us to do. And also China is not my idea; I've been actively saying no to China for ten years.

So, after identifying a few cities with tolerable climates, pollution levels, and population densities, I started throwing out applications. I've been doing late-night interviews the past couple of days, and I just signed a contract for a job at a public high school in Guiyang, Guizhou province, south-central China. We're going end of August.

Maybe I'm rusty, but Chinese is hard - it feels harder to pick up than Japanese or Korean. Fortunately, I've got Emma hooked on Ni hao, Kai-lan - maybe she can interpret for us.


Emma Says
Emma, 4

"Babies are small people, but those tall girls are tall girls."

(describing the result of her first attempt paining: a big blue smear)
Emma: I love this picture.
Me: What is it a picture of?
Emma: Paint.
Me: What does it look like?
Emma: Blue.

"My finger is full of junk."

"Our bathtub is just like a baño."

"How many times do I have to tell you?! Don't. Die." (admonishing us on how to play video games)

"Hey, Mom, my head is missing!" (she couldn't see her head in the car rear-view mirror)

Emma turns four today. In the past year she's grown articulate and is full of the imagination and wacky non-sequiturs common to her age, even making up her own stories and songs. She can set the table, wash dishes, clean up clothes and toys, do buttons and zippers. She counts by 2's, 5's, and 10's, does simple addition, can read and write simple words, and now sometimes uses the foreign words and expressions she knows. She can write her name, take turns, match, and assemble a puzzle of the United States.


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