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Thinking Out Loud

all of my ideas are works in progress

Reflecting on 2018: The Big Switch

2018 was not a great year. A lot of work and not much to show for it.

Upper-division engineering courses are no joke. I lowered my expectations for non-academic achievements and still failed my goals. And it turns out all my work is probably for nothing.

The whole tale starts with the Old Dominion University-Virginia Community College System pitch: you can get your BS in engineering 100% online by first getting your AS through the community college, which will cover all your lower-division courses and guarantee you admission into the ODU engineering program. Except, just kidding, there are a couple classes you have to take in-person (you're not a stay-at-home parent, are you?). And, just kidding, your AS program doesn't actually cover all of the prerequisites, or even offer all of the prerequisites (you're willing to travel across the state to take one class, right?). But you won't be told this until you're two and a half semesters into your upper-division classes in a course that you shouldn't even have been allowed to enroll in and are now failing because you don't have the prerequisites.

So if I ever want to finish the engineering program that I'm in, I'll need to take another year off to commute over the mountains to a different community college. Fortunately, Stephanie's new work situation can accommodate this. But if I'm going to be taking classes in-person anyway, I might as well see what the other options are: options I couldn't even consider when I started this journey because of Stephanie's work schedule.

At the local campus, there's a 12-week CompTIA A+ certification program. And I'm going to go for it. Because at this point I would rather have a $40k career this year than a $80k career that's been 'three years from now' for the past six years. (Not that $80k was really the goal, but it was a nice light to have at the end of a very dark tunnel.)

Things I'm Glad I Watched/Read

  • The Ancient Magus' Bride: Those Awaiting a Star 3.5/5 - significantly better than the main series
  • Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine 4/5
  • Arabella and the Battle of Venus 4/5
  • Avengers: Infinity War 3/5
  • Cells at Work! 3.5/5
  • The Court Jester 3/5
  • Ferdinand 3.5/5
  • Game Night 3/5
  • GJ-bu 3/5
  • The Incredibles 2 3.5/5
  • Kino's Journey - The Beautiful World 3/5
  • The Man Who Invented Christmas 4.5/5
  • My Hero Academia 4.5/5
  • Recovery of an MMO Junkie 4/5
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story 3/5
  • Thor: Ragnarok 3/5
  • Upgrade 3/5 in the "good, but I never want to see it again" category
  • Your Name (Kimi no Wa) 4.5/5 - Saw in in January and it remained the best movie I'd seen all year until The Man Who Invented Christmas a few weeks ago

My Most Socialist Position, Probably

Imagine a coal-mining town in West Virginia.

All the land as far as the eye can see is owned by the mining company.

It's not an evil mining company, so it builds houses and leases them to employees at reasonable rates. It builds stores and parks and roads and a good private school so that the residents don't have to send their kids to the public school over the mountain and a hospital and runs a private security force that keeps things calm, peaceful and orderly. Happy employees are a good investment.

But at the end of the day, it is a corporate town and they own everything.

So if your environmental group wants to protest the mining company's practices, they can just say you're trespassing and throw you out, and there isn't much the state can do about it. And if you want to convince the miners to strike, good luck getting close enough for them to get your message. It's all private property; freedom of speech doesn't really apply. As a general rule, the company doesn't shut down disagreeable discourse, but they could, any time they care to.

This is where we're at with social media today.

Most governments are legally disallowed from banning or censoring most forms of speech. In most of the world, you can go down the street or stand in a park and try to persuade people of whatever you want, and you will very rarely be stopped from doing so by government agents.

But as more of our interactions move to private, for-profit online platforms, we surrender that freedom to the corporate town. Per the Terms & Conditions you never read, your favorite corporation can kick you out, shut you down, remove 'your' content for any speech they find objectionable, not just speech that is actually illegal.

  1. Whereas the Internet has become a major—and in some cases, primary—medium for citizens to participate in political activity, commerce, education, and socialization, the duty for governments to provide their citizens with free, open, and unrestricted access to the Internet is analogous to the duty for governments to provide their citizens with free, open, and unrestricted access to roads and public spaces.
  2. Maybe it's time to talk about some kind of publicly-run social media platform where basic free speech rights cannot legally be interrupted.

As a guy who's been leaning increasingly libertarian, this feels really weird to say. Of course, I'm pessimistic and cynical about the ability of any government to do that responsibly, transparently, honestly, and without putting even more people on secret watchlists. But I'm also at least as suspicious of leaving the job to corporations.

Brinner Pizza
  • 2 exploding tubes of crescent roll dough
  • 1 lb. ground breakfast sausage
  • 5-6 eggs
  • 2.5 oz pack of pre-cooked bacon pieces (in the salad toppings aisle)
  • 0.5-1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • maple syrup

Preheat oven per crescent roll directions. Pop both tubes and arrange dough triangles with slight overlap on pizza pan to form a circle.

In a frying pan, cook sausage thoroughly. Add eggs and scramble, adding salt and pepper to taste. Add bacon pieces when fully-cooked. Spread egg-sausage mixture on croissant crust, then top with cheese and bake as directed (11-13 minutes at 375F, typically). Slice as a pizza and serve with maple syrup.

Sevings: too damn many

Note: this is not a finger food, as it lacks the structural strength of traditional pizza. Use a fork.

Variations: use chorizo, tomato, pepper and onion for a huevos rancheros-style pizza. Omit sausage and add spinach for a quiche-style pizza. Cook the crust separately, let cool, then top with fresh berries and whipped cream. The possibilities are endless!


On The Air

I participated in my first radio net today.

Some backstory to understand why that's a big deal to me:

I started studying ham radio almost a year ago in a lull between semesters to do something with my electronics training. I got my first radio, a handheld transceiver - basically a walkie-talkie on steroids for local connections, not for worldwide communication. I could listen to other hams in the area talking to each other in the area, but I couldn't legally transmit until I got my licence, which I did in June.

I fired up my radio and...nothing. Nobody could hear me.

I kept prodding at things off and on for the past nine months. Having a license let me use Echolink, which lets me use my computer to transmit from other people's radios via the Internet, but it's not the same thing.

I am surrounded by hills, and the frequencies I can use are basically line-of-sight only and the repeaters are on the other side of the metropolitan area, so I came to believe that I was just topographically unlucky.

Many local amateur radio clubs operate a repeater, which rebroadcasts weak signals, so even with a little handheld radio you can communicate with a much larger area. But you have to have your radio set up to work with a repeater, which uses different input and output frequencies to avoid creating feedback and often a subaudible input tone to keep it from rebroadcasting random noise. Every day at specific times, all the local hams check in to the network ('net') to practice emergency communication protocols and just chat.

Last week I went to my first radio club meeting since getting my license and got some advice. Little handheld radios don't have the most intuitive or user-friendly interface, and I hadn't configured it correctly to use the repeater.

Today our morning schedule was a little messed up with Stephanie going to an out-of-town library training and Emma's school closed due to half an inch of slush, but I was able to configure my radio and make a repeater contact from my own neighborhood, and check into the net later in the morning. Now I'm not just licensed, I'm operational.


Abbott Needs Costello, Costello Needs Abbot

My players are too nice to each other.

It's a good problem to have, to be sure, but it is a problem. I have this one player whose character's M.O. is say whatever she's thinking, especially if it's something everybody thinks but everyone else is too polite to say out loud. She's counting on another player coming in and cutting her off, but no player does because that would be rude, so they're letting the comic relief character become increasingly blunt and insulting with ambassadors and intelligence assets at the point when the campaign needs more diplomacy and discretion than ever before.

I'm also reading Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell, and there are two characters that remind me of my problem. Kest is the brooding, humourless badass that some players love to play. Brasti is the flirtatious, devil-may-care jokester that some players love to play. They work because this is fiction, not an RPG, and the author has total control of what all the characters say and do.

They work because they have each other.

Fiction is replete with characters that work when paired with a foil, but would be really abrasive and annoying if they're alone. Players grow their character ideas from characters they've seen fiction, but don't always understand what group dynamics cause that character to be tolerable.

I can solve my problem. I need to take the player aside and say this is becoming more annoying than funny, and then follow up with in-game consequences if she doesn't change. But I wouldn't have had the problem in the first place if I had said to the player, "That sounds great, but I think we can both see how it could become annoying if not handled properly. For this to work, I need you to get another player to explicitly buy in to being the Abbott to your Costello."


2017 Scores

What can I really say about this year? School, school, and more school - it all blurs together. Calculus, physics, electronics, logic, circuits, programming. I completed my associates degree and I'm slogging right on into the bachelors without a break, so it doesn't seem like I've accomplished anything. Got my ham radio licence, but don't have the money or time to pursue it. Ran some decent D&D but then my players all went off to college.


  • My Hero Academia 5/5
  • Restaurant to Another World 4/5
  • Twin Star Exorcists 4/5
  • Arslan Senki 3/5
  • Bungou Stray Dogs 3/5
  • Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid 3/5


  • Bradbury, Ray Fahrenheit 451 4/5
  • Brosgol, Vera Anya's Ghost 3/5
  • Foer, Joshua Moonwalking with Einstein 3/5
  • Gaiman, Neil & Terry Pratchet Good Omens 3/5
  • Gidwitz, Adam The Inquisitor's Tale 3/5 A little didactic for me, but I'd recommend it for middle-graders.
  • Hatke, Ben Julia's House for Lost Creatures 5/5
  • Jenkins, Emily Brave Red, Smart Frog 5/5
  • Kushner, David Rise of the Dungeon Master 3/5
  • Levine, Gail Carson The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre 3/5
  • Lieber, Ron The Opposite of Spoiled 3/5
  • Novik, Naomi Blood of Tyrants 4/5
  • " Crucible of Gold 4/5
  • " Empire of Ivory 3/5
  • " League of Dragons</em> 4/5
  • " Tongues of Serpents</em> 4/5
  • " Victory of Eagles</em> 4/5
  • Sanderson, Brandon The Rithmatist 5/5
  • Simpson, Dana Razzle Dazzle Unicorn 3/5
  • " Unicorn Crossing 3/5
  • " Unicorn on a Roll 3/5
  • " Unicorn vs. Goblins 3/5
  • Willems, Mo The Story of Diva and Flea 3/5

I made a point of not recording every random children's book I read to/for my kids unless it made an impression on me. I chewed through quite a few audiobooks when I was forced to commute to an in-person class three hours away.


  • Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion 4+/5, metal AF
  • Song of the Sea 4/5
  • Gods of Egypt 3+/5
  • Moana 3+/5
  • Passengers 3+/5
  • Sing 3+/5
  • The Dark Tower 3/5
  • The LEGO Batman Movie 3/5
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 3/5
  • Spider-man: Homecoming 3/5
  • Split 3/5

This was a surprisingly good year for movies after we cancelled our subscription to Netflix. The second-run theater is a big help.

No-Sugar September

With very little forethought and hardly any goal, I decided to cut sugar (specifically, fructose and sucrose) out of my diet for the 30 days of September. It was more just an exercise in self-discipline than any dietary plan.


My rules were: if it had an ingredient list, and sugar, syrup, honey, or any other plausible pseudonym was on it, I didn't eat it. I also did a soft avoid on fruit and fruit juice. I did well on my project. There were a couple occasions when it was socially impractical to verify ingredients, but that was basically just two meals, so I was probably only 93% successful.

It turns out, I don't eat that much sugar to begin with. I cook and don't eat a lot of pre-made foods. Homemade bread with 0TB sugar per loaf is indistinguishable from homemade bread with 1TB sugar per loaf. I don't usually eat breakfast cereal or salad dressing or store-bought bread, so discovering that those were loaded with added sugar didn't hamper my lifestyle. I bought a big bag of stevia and a big bag of sucralose thinking I would use them through the month as a substitute. Still haven't made it halfway through one bag.

Some things did catch me by surprise. I thought, oh, we'll have hot dogs for dinner and I'll just make my own buns. No. Hot dogs have sugar added unless you're willing to pay $6/lb. Obviously, ketchup and barbeque sauce are off the menu, but soy sauce? Worcestershire sauce?! Meanwhile, Cheetos are perfectly sugar-free.

For the past three weeks I've been specifically craving jelly donuts. I'm not in withdrawal from a chronic jelly donut addiction, it's just the psychology of 'I can't have it, therefore I want it.'

The thing that actually bugged me the most was peanut butter because I could actually get sugar-free peanut butter and it was a massive disappointment. Though, also, it really sucks when you're the only one doing this project and everyone says, 'oh, that's a good thing, I'll support you in that', and then they make a giant bowl of pudding or leave a big bag of Skittles on the counter and I'm like, 'thank you for your 'support', now I'll eat all your salad out of revenge.'

Emma was really getting into it on my behalf toward the end. She'd see me eating something, "Dad, does that have sugar in it?" You see how I'm eating it? You know how I'm not eating sugar this month? That means, if I'm eating it, I already checked that it doesn't have sugar. I'm doing this because I want to do this, nobody's making me do this, I'm not posting my progress to impress anyone. I'm not cheating because I'd only be cheating myself. So, yeah, now I have a six-year-old who has a baseline understanding of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and is slightly obsessed with food labels.

I didn't lose any weight. I didn't feel consistently any different. I did have some intense bursts of fatigue and lethargy, which could have been restored insulin sensitization, but that could be attributed to seasonal depression or bad sleep habits.

The more interesting experiment might be to observe changes after going back on sugar, but our General Conference festivities will skew any results. I had a bite of fudge right after midnight and woke up with an upset stomach, but I'm 99% certain that is a result of noshing on mixed nuts and wasabi peas all day yesterday, not suddenly reintroducing sugar into my diet.

But thanks to research I've been doing this month, I'm more convinced now than ever that added sugars in processed foods is a major factor in epidemic obesity, it's just not a major factor in my obesity. So I'm allowing myself today and tomorrow to kind of go nuts on sugar, but then going forward as for me and my family, we're going to be eating even less sugar than we were before. But combing every food label to hunt down and cut out the remaining 3g/week just isn't worth it to me.

They "Joy" of Joy School

Because of our geographic and economic circumstances, it's difficult for our kids to get a lot of mid-week social interaction with other kids their age. It's not stunting their development, but it would be nice to have a playdate or something. So when a group of stay-at-home moms from a different congregation that shares our church building made overtures to Stephanie about running a Joy School (for the uninitiated, a sort of low-key home-school preschool where parents take turns teaching so the other parents get a break of a few hours), we were interested in participating.

The thing is, Stephanie works and I'm a stay-at-home dad. A few weeks ago, I brought Kaylee to the 'intro' class and everything seemed to go fine.

Then the other moms had a secret meeting wherein they decided that a father taking a preschooler to the bathroom was the scariest thing ever, and that I would need to be chaperoned in my own home. They sent the alpha hen to convey this decision to me, and I said, yeah, I understand, I wouldn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. But then as the real start date approached, I realized that, I'm actually not okay with being treated like a sex offender when I'm not, in fact, a sex offender.

So I got back with alpha hen and said, no, you can either treat me equally with everyone else, or you can kick me out. So they had another round of meetings behind my back, because heaven forbid I should be allowed to present my point of view, or hear anyone else's point of view first hand, or in general be treated like a grown-up.

I tried to find out what the heck was going on. I kept getting told, "It's because they don't know you well," which is BS because Stephanie is as much a stranger to them as I am and I'm absolutely sure she wouldn't have been subjected to the same scrutiny. Not that any of them made any effort at all to get to know me before passing judgement.

So, frustrated with both being treated like a second-class parent and being kept in the dark, I dropped an explanation of my position in the group message on Facebook. I was expressive, but I wasn't burning any bridges. I even suggested that, hey, everyone could use a co-teacher for general preschooler-wrangling. But if something is mandatory for me and optional for everyone else, I'm out.

I was told that's just the world we live in and that we should all just accept double standards.

Alpha hen called me up tonight in a last ditch attempt to manipulate me into accepting my parole.

"You want Kaylee to be able to participate, don't you?"

It won't cost much, just your sense of justice.

"I see from your Facebook that you like to cook. What if you just brought snacks?"

Would that be treating me as an equal with the other parents?

"How about if you let Kaylee come and you don't have to teach at all?"

That addresses my concern how?

"Well, if you want to be a part of the group, you have to compromise something."

"You know, last year they considered inviting your family but decided not to. I'm the only one that's reaching out to you."

"That's just how things are in our culture."

And I ran out of different ways to say, 'no, thank you, I'd like to be treated as an equal' and being deflected with reasons why I should accept the terms and be grateful that they would even stoop to include me, so I accused her of being more concerned with what her friends think than what is right, and she countered that the real wrong here is that I was sarcastic in the group chat and that I was being stubborn.

And that's how I got disinvited from Joy School.

Now there's a flurry of chatter on Facebook, alternately trying to smooth things over and accusing Stephanie and I of being oversensitive.

Alternate Casting Attributes

Since time immemorial (or, you know, at least the early 1980's), Dungeons & Dragons and its successors have handed down a framework for spellcasting that has remained largely unchanged.

The core casting classes are:

  • Wizards, who learn magic by studying books or other magical writings, run off of Intelligence.
  • Clerics, who get magic from the god(s) they worship, and Druids and Rangers, who get magic from their relationship with nature, all run off of Wisdom.
  • Bards, who get magic from their music, Paladins, who get magic from a Lawful and/or Good god, and Sorcerers, who get magic from having weird ancestors, all run off of Charisma.

To boil down the mechanics:

  • Intelligence correlates to more book learning, more languages, and more skill points (in the editions that use them). This offsets a wizard's low skill-points-per-level (all the pure casters have poor skill points) and tends to make them well-read on all subjects, not just magic.
  • Wisdom covers a grab bag of abilities like animal handling, wilderness survival, non-magical healing, and interpersonal and situational awareness. It also feeds into Will saves, which let you resist all sorts of mental attacks. Most pure casters have strong Will saves regardless, but clerics and druids get a double dose of incorruptibility.
  • Charisma covers the social skills, meaning that sorcerers often wind up as the face of the party, even though there's nothing else mechanical about the class that would suggest it otherwise. (Bards are stylistically a natural fit for 'face' role, and paladins can go either way.)

Okay, so what? Well, each of those attributes ties in with other game features and even character personality. This has led to baked-in stereotypes that don't necessarily make sense, and a lot of mechanical weirdness:

  • The wizard is probably better at boat-building, beer-brewing, and blacksmithing than anyone else in the party, even though she's spent most of her life in a library.
  • The sorcerer whose undead nature is so strong that even zombies think she's a zombie is probably more pleasant to be around than a cleric of sunshine and daisies.
  • An amoral druid is more resistant to temptation than a consecrated paladin.

The three mental attributes aren't equal in value, but there's nothing particularly game-breaking if we decided that a class' spellcasting ran off a different attribute. Let's explore a few alternatives:

  • The Intelligence Bard Bards already get Bardic Knowledge and ample skill points. Boosting it with high Intelligence makes them almost all-knowing, enough skill points to actually put them in all of their class skills, and languages get them in as ambassadors and translators. This is a bard more interested in memorizing all the lore than being at the center of a crowd, really a living library. Possibly OP, but perhaps less annoying than the bard that needs to be the center of attention all the time.
  • The Intelligence Cleric Clerics of more legalistic faiths might as well get their spells through Intelligence, exercising their faith in theological argument. They'd be slightly more prone to temptation and corruption because they're better able to see both sides of an issue. This is an urban and urbane cleric, cosmopolitan and erudite.
  • The Intelligence Ranger This is a little odd, but this ranger is less 'Lord of the Wilderness' and instead focuses on knowledge of favored enemies. This dovetails nicely with urban ranger archetypes, this is a guy who knows all his enemies' weaknesses, speaks their language, and uses their own nature against them.
  • The Wisdom Paladin This is a quieter, more introspective paladin. Not always out in front as the shining knight, a wisdom paladin manifests simple devotion and as a result is even more resistant to temptation. This paladin is more equipped to care for mounts, tend to the sick and needy, and live self-sufficiently, while still able to smite for righteousness.
  • The Wisdom Sorcerer A sorcerer's power comes from her bloodline - her magic comes from within. What if accessing that magic required a lot of meditation and introspection. This sorcerer has iron will and an eclectic set of knacks, and can be a wallflower if she wants to.
  • The Wisdom Wizard Obvious cognates aside, there's no particular reason a wizard would have a lot of skill points and be good at foreign languages. Maybe knowing magic is like knowing RPG rules: a whole lot of study to understand something with an internal logic but no cross-disciplinary application.
  • The Charisma Cleric This is the firebrand preacher with the silver tongue. This cleric can preach a sermon and unify a congregation. May be a little more vulnerable to temptation.

Other than the casting stat (and the assumption that the player will invest their highest stat roll into the casting stat), nothing has changed mechanically about these classes. I'm tempted to just let players pick a mental attribute to be their casting attribute for a given class (within reason - as Sporelord1079 put it, "I mean, a wizard can't charm more spells out of his book.".)

I'm also experimenting with swapping spell lists - though I'd be even more cautious with this than swapping casting attributes.

  • Cleric and druid spells are mostly comparable. Swap them, and you get a cleric that can transform into animals, or a druid that can channel energy.
  • Ranger and paladin spells are pretty comparable. I don't see a great advantage for the paladin, but a ranger with paladin spells becomes the ultimate demon hunter.


What Ham Radio Could Learn From RPGs

Ever since I was a kid, I was peripherally interested in amateur radio. I think it was the idea of being able to talk to people from all over the world in the days before the Internet. But back in the day, Morse code was a requirement for even the most basic license, and I didn't have the focus to self-teach it, so that interest went on the shelf.

As an electrical engineering student who's interested in power grid stability, infrastructure resilience, and is a little paranoid about solar flares, I've circled back to ham radio from an emergency preparedness point of view, and lo, there is no longer a Morse section to obtaining a license. Because of logistics, I won't be able to take the exam for a few more months, but when I do, I'll be sitting for both the introductory Technician class license and the more robust General class license all in one go. (Heck, if I get bored, I may as well go for the ultimate Amateur Extra ticket—I have the time.)

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