Fate Solo RPG Thoughts

~ 900 words, ~ 5 min reading time

After my last entry, I decided to try out Fate, since I had recently bought the book, and kind of wanted a break from Starforged. Here are my thoughts:

(1) Tools I used: Fate Core and Fate Condensed for the base system. Fate is designed to be a “hackable” system, so the publisher has published a couple of their own hacks to show how one might do that. Fate Condensed is one of those, and I like the tweaks they made. For an Oracle, I used Kenny Norris’s Fate Solo. Fate Solo is a pretty standard yes/no oracle, but using Fate dice. However, it’s missing what Debra at geek gamers would call a “suggestive” or “generative” resource to answer more complex questions. For that, I asked my wife for some help. One technique I’d seen Debra use was to grab a novel and roll for a random page, and use that page as inspiration. So, I asked my wife for a suggestion – something either fantasy or sci-fi with quite a bit of action. She gave me a few possibilities, and after flipping through I decided Larklight looked promising. It’s a middle-grade book with lots of action in a spacefaring alternative Victorian setting. Every random page I turned to had something interesting on it. I also used the Fate Scenario Worksheet to help with the adventure planning, and UNE for NPC inspiration.

(2) Thoughts on the Fate system for solo: Fate is a pretty good system for a solo RPG. It’s quite simple, and I could have made it simpler as I think about it. The point that gets awkward is the GM use of Fate points for Compels. (Same problem I had with Threat in Star Trek Adventures – since Modiphius’s 2d20 system has a momentum/threat system that feels a *lot* like Fate Points in Fate.) But, this isn’t really too bad.

(3) Thoughts on Fate Solo as a GM emulator/Solo Guide for Fate: Fate Solo is really just 3 modules: a yes/no oracle using Fate dice – which works well, ideas for character creation – which I used about half of since I thought the other half would overpower the character for my taste, and a “surprise factor” – designed to trigger “surprises” of various magnitudes. This is incomplete, as mentioned above. But, that deficiency can be made up for in two ways – and I used both – Kenny Norris, in his other resources, suggests writing lists whenever possible, and then choosing from lists. So, if a surprise happens, you should write out a list of possible surprises and pick the one that seems like it would make for the best story – or you could use the classic “make a list and roll on it”. I did this at a significant surprise point, and it provided a pretty fun twist. I came up with 3 options, assigned them to the 3 unique sides of the Fate dice, and rolled. The other way I filled the gap was rolling for pages in Larklight. So, the lack of a complex oracle wasn’t a big deal. However, I didn’t think the surprise factor mechanic worked very well. In the 6 scenes I played, I only every encountered ONE surprise – and it was labeled as a “minor” surprise. I feel like there should have been more, especially since I managed to finish the entire scenario in 6 scenes – not insanely few for Fate (Fate Core suggests something like 2-9 scenes per scenario) – but I felt like I faced too few complications. Next time I play Fate, I might try using TOFU (The Tiny Oracle with FUnny dice) instead. It has a more Mythic-like “Mess factor” (like the Chaos Factor in Mythic), which will tend to create altered scenes and random events, though it is also lacking a generative/suggestive resource.

(4) Other thoughts: Fate Core has some really good tools for scenario planning. I particularly like the idea of building scenes around “story questions”. It provides for pretty good pacing without letting scenes drag on. “The purpose of this scene is to answer the question: Is Ronnie going to be able to infiltrate the lab and gather information about the experiments being done to increase the aggressiveness of dogs of war?” Once the question is answered, the scene is over. I also appreciate the idea of keeping scenarios fairly short – they suggest that having 8-9 story questions is probably going to end up overlapping into another scenario. With 1-3 story questions expected to be answered per session, they’re basically saying that you should be able to complete significant plot points in no more than 7 sessions or so, and probably 2-3 being average. One other nice thing about Fate: you can get the electronic version on a “pay what you want” basis – so you can try it for free to see if you like it. So, it’s easy to try out. Just remember that you’ll need to provide a setting. But, if you don’t mind doing that, Fate provides a really nice, quick, flexible system, and the ability to choose between Core, Condensed, and Accelerated allows for you to choose the level of detail you want.

People are natural Bayesians – just bad at math (Or “The value of ‘I Don’t Know'”)

~1000 words, ~5 min reading time

Those who have heard me talk about statistics have probably heard me talk about how great the overall Bayesian approach is when compared to the more commonly used frequentist approach. I’m not going to give a full defense here. Rather, I’m going to focus on an adjacent topic: my impression that people are what I’m going to call “natural” Bayesians when faced with arguments where there is uncertainty. It turns out that this idea has the possibility of explaining a few observations about how people interpret statements about evidence – specifically in ways that are traditionally considered fallacious, but which can easily be explained using Bayesian reasoning. So, let’s get to the examples!

Example 1: There’s no evidence that…

One point that scientists sometimes say is “There’s no evidence that A”. Typically when this is said, what the scientist *means* is that there haven’t been good enough studies yet – or that the studies we have were inconclusive at this point. So, A may or may not be true. “There’s no evidence that A” is just a stand-in for saying “We don’t actually know about A.”

However, that doesn’t seem to be how a lot of people interpret the phrase. Instead, people take “There’s no evidence that A” as evidence AGAINST A. Why do this?

Because people are natural Bayesians. Let me lay out Bayes’s theorem, as it would be applied in this case.

P(A| there is no evidence for A) = P(there is no evidence for A|A)P(A)/ [ P(there is no evidence for A|A)P(A) + P(there is no evidence for A|not A)P(not A)]

[English: the probability of A given that there is no evidence for A is equal to the probability there is no evidence of A given that A is true times the prior probability that A is true divided by that same thing plus the probability there is no evidence that A is true given that it’s not true times the prior probability that A is not true.]

With a little bit of algebra, you’ll end up with this result:

P(A| there is no evidence for A) < P(A) iff P(there is no evidence for A|not-A) > P(there is no evidence for A|A)

Translating into plain English: As long as I think the probability of not finding evidence for A is higher if A is not true than if A is true, then I will interpret the absence of evidence in favor of A as evidence AGAINST A. Basically, if A is true, I expect it to leave evidence. If I can’t find evidence, then that makes me realize it is more likely that A is just not true.

Example 2: Bad arguments for are arguments against

Classical logic tells us that just because someone makes a bad argument for A, that doesn’t mean A isn’t true. However, by Bayesian probabilistic reasoning, it almost certainly increases the *probability* that A isn’t true. Here’s why, modifying the previous formula:

P(A| someone used a bad argument for A) < P(A) iff P(someone used a bad argument for A|not-A) > P(someone used a bad argument for A|A)

Put another way: as long as we think people making bad arguments supporting A is more likely if A is not true, then bad arguments in favor of A actually provide evidence (though inconclusive evidence!) that A is not true. Put another way: if people can’t make a good argument for A, then that means it’s pretty likely that A isn’t true.

But… people are bad at math

Now, let’s get specific with some math. Let’s say that I’m totally unsure about A being true. I think it’s a 50/50 chance that A is true. However, if A is true, I think there’s only a 20% chance that we wouldn’t find evidence for A. Meanwhile, if A is not true, I think there’s a 95% chance that we won’t find evidence for A. (I mean, sometimes we find evidence that seems to support something even if that thing isn’t true.)

Turns out there’s no evidence for A. So, what is the probability that A is true once I learn that?

My guess is that very few people are going to get this right, even though the math isn’t that hard. A lot of people will say “There’s a 95% chance that we won’t find evidence for A if A isn’t true. Since we didn’t find evidence for A, there’s a 95% chance A isn’t true.”

The math shows this is wrong. The true probability is about 82-83%.

In brief: people apply Bayesian reasoning in informing their beliefs, but do so imprecisely.

Practical Implications

The reality that people are natural Bayesians (but bad at math) suggests we need to be careful how we communicate. For example, if we don’t know one way or the other about “A”, then “I don’t know” is a *better* statement than “There is no evidence for A” (even if the latter is technically true – perhaps because we’ve not done the study yet). Or, tell people your priors. If you think A is likely based on your intuition, but you’ve not yet gathered data, say so. “I suspect A is true, but we’re still gathering data that might change that.” Save “There is no evidence for A” for cases where you want to suggest that “A” isn’t true.

Similarly, if you think A is true but only have a bad argument supporting it (maybe you’ve just not thought about it much), then, rather than make the bad argument, just say what your impression is and that you’re still thinking about it. You are, in fact, allowed to not know things.

Why do I write this? Because I’ve come to realize that we live in a world that asks us to take stands on things that we can’t possibly know with any kind of certainty. In the absence of certainty, Bayesian reasoning (however bad we may be at the details of it!) comes in. It’s a good idea for us to be aware of this fact, and to communicate in a way consistent with it.

COVID Thoughts: Is 50 cases/100,000 over 28 days reasonable?

~675 words, ~4 min reading time

Disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist. However, economists are pretty good with mathematical models, and I’m sticking to some of the simplest epidemiology models here.

As I write this, cases in Ohio are tanking. Our 7 day average for cases is literally 80% below its high. Hospitalizations are also tumbling. Things are getting better.

But, the CDC says we should continue to be cautious? Why? Because we’ve not gotten below 50 cases/100,000 population over a 28 day period. This got me thinking: where did this standard come from? Is it actually reasonable?

The reality is this: since COVID is going to be endemic, it’s not going away. Immunity isn’t perfect (whether from previous infection or from vaccination), and it doesn’t last forever (again, whether from previous infection or from vaccination). So, there is always going to be some underlying number of people that will be infected with COVID. So, is that number less than 50 per 100,000?

We can try to answer this question with a simple SIR model with a few tweaks. I set the model up with a population of 100,000. I started with 1 infected person, and R0 of 8 – which is on the low end of what I’ve heard estimated for the Omicron variant. I set a 14 day average recovery time (so, 1/14 infected people get over their infection each day), and a 180 day average immunity time (so, 1/180 previously immune people become susceptible each day). To keep things simple, I assumed the virus didn’t kill anyone. (Since I was looking for a “per 100K” number, having people die would make the math too hard.) Then, I had the thing simulate 2 years.

At the end of 2 years, the virus had basically stabilized. We’ll call this the “steady-state”.

And 6,314 people were infected. So, each day, 1/14 of those recovered and the same number of people took their place – that’s 451 new infections each day, which adds up to that 6,314/100,000 in a 2 week period – or 12,628/100,000 in a 28 day period.

So, how are we going to hit 50 cases/100K population?

Let’s think about this a bit more. Naturally, we could just stop testing. Since cases are based on positive tests, not actual infections, if we just test < 0.5% of cases, we can hit 50/100K cases over a 28 day period.

What about vaccination? Here, I assumed natural infection and natural immunity. Can vaccination get us to 50 infections/100k as a stable endemic equilibrium?

Handling this was a bit tricky. My first inclination was to assume some kind of vaccination rate and level of vaccine efficacy and booster schedule. Then, I realized that was adding a lot of parameters when there was a simpler path forward.

Let’s just look at the ideal case. Suppose that there’s a segment of the population that keeps up on their boosters and that the vaccine is 100% perfect. (Obviously not realistic! But, I’m just setting a benchmark here!) In that case, the R0 of 8 applies if the population is all unvaccinated. However, the presence of people with immunity drives down the actual ability of the virus to spread.

Fairly simple math shows that an immunity rate of 87.5%+ results in the virus being slowly eradicated. So, if we had 87.5% of the population vaccinated with a perfect vaccine, then the virus would go away completely. Anything less, and it will linger, but be rare. So, let’s try some vaccination rates.

In the US, our vaccination rate is about 65% for “fully vaccinated” – that would result in a stable number of cases around 1,623/100k – with a two week recovery period, that means 3,246/100k new cases every 28 days. About 60 x the CDC target. What vaccination rate would be need to stabilize with peak infections around 50/100k over a 28 day period? A vaccination rate of 87.16% – if the vaccine is perfect. So, LESS THAN 0.5% away from the rate needed for eradication.

Of course, if the vaccine isn’t totally effective then the proportion of the population vaccinated would need to be higher to allow for the reality that the vaccine won’t be effective for everyone – and if the vaccine isn’t at least 87.16% effective, then 50 infections/100k over a 28 day period is literally impossible. (A quick Google search found an NEJM article claiming that one vaccine they tested was ~70% effective against omicron.)

All to say: I’d really like to see how the CDC got this 50/100K case number as a target, as it doesn’t even seem possible to me, unless we just give up on testing a large proportion of symptomatic cases.

Writing Introductions

~350 words, 2 min read time

This semester, I’m trying to do a better job doing research, so I’ve adopted a “1 hour writing per working day” goal, with the guidelines to (1) Finish a rough draft within 1 month of starting it, and (2) Spend no more than 1 month polishing before I send the paper to a journal. This is a MUCH faster pace that I normally work on research. Hey, I’m a teacher at heart, so it’s easy for me to focus on that.

Anyway, I’m writing this blog entry to remind myself some important guidance that I’ve gotten about writing introductions. It’s really just two points:

(1) Write the introduction last – Okay, maybe not literally “last” – you might write it before the abstract – but, definitely after the core and conclusion of the paper are written.

(2) The introduction should include 5 elements: (a) it should answer the question “What?” – that is, what is the question you’re answering? (b) it should answer the question “Why?” – why does this research matter? (c) it should show “deficiencies” in the previous literature – that is, why aren’t the previous answers good enough? (d) it should state the exact “gap” that it fills – this should be connected with the deficiencies in c. (e) it should summarize the results. – You’re not writing a mystery novel. Most people will just read the abstract of your paper. Most of those that continue will just read the introduction and, maybe the conclusion. Use that fact. Yes, it can be personally upsetting that people don’t read every word you write. But, playing hard to get in the intro is more likely to lose you citations than to convince people to read the entire paper.

Based on #2, any paper is actually 5 papers in one, because people will read the papers in five different ways. The paper should be written so that all of these make sense and they are all consistent.

Reader #1: Just the Abstract

Reader #2: Abstract, Introduction

Reader #3: Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion.

Reader #4: Abstract, Introduction, Body, Conclusion

Reader #5: Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion, Body, Conclusion

Write the Abstract, Intro, and Conclusion with these five readers in mind.

Thoughts on JS Mill and Social Media Bans

~200 words, ~1 min reading time

I’ve been reading Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”. In part, I wanted to figure out what Mill would think about things like social media outlets banning or restricting the speech of people like President Trump.

A couple observations:

  1. JS Mill does not draw a sharp distinction between legal consequences and social ones. As far as he’s concerned, if there are penalties that arise from simply expressing a thought – even if those penalties are just social stigma – then it is a violation of the liberty of discussion. In this way, Mill would disagree with a position that I’ve seen many Hoppe/Rothbard libertarians suggesting that “these are private companies, so they can do what they want”.
  2. On the question of instigation to riot, JS Mill’s most informative passage in this chapter is in a footnote. In this footnote, he talks about how discussion of Tyrannicide should be allowed. In brief, his view is that the discussion of tyrannicide should be allowed – it is a totally valid moral question to consider – but that instigation to tyrannicide could be punishable IF there is an actual act and “at least a probable connexion can be established between the act and the instigation.”

Given all this, I suspect that Mill would be opposed to a Twitter ban for Pres. Trump, though he seems be in favor of treating incitement to riot as a crime. But, dishing out punishments for a crime before there’s a trial would probably be an issue.

Commencement Address – Fall 2019

~1800 words, ~9 min reading time

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. However, I am hopeful that what I say may have some positive impact on you today, even if you don’t remember a word a decade and a half from now. Reflecting on this sense of hopefulness, it felt appropriate to make the theme of my talk the value of hope.

To explore the idea of hope, consider this story from ancient Greece, recorded by Hesiod …

After Zeus ascended to claim kingship over the gods and men, the Titan Prometheus – who had sided with Zeus against his fellow titans – was convinced that Zeus was a tyrant – Zeus probably deserved this reputation, as he decided to deny humanity access to fire. In response, Prometheus snuck to Mount Olympus – home of the gods – and stole fire, which he brought back down to earth to be shared with humanity.

Zeus, naturally, was not too happy about Prometheus’s rebelliousness, and set the Olympians about crafting revenge. Working together, they created the woman Pandora, who was gifted with a sealed jar – often mistranslated “box”. Inside that jar lay burdensome toil, sickness that brings death, diseases, and a myriad of other pains.  Pandora was offered to Prometheus’s foolish brother Epimetheus as a wife – despite Prometheus’s warnings to never accept a gift from Zeus, Epimetheus accepted her.

On being accepted, Pandora opened the jar, scattering the evils contained within across land and sea. Only one thing remained in the jar: Hope.

Now, there are a number of interpretations of this myth, especially centered on this question – what is the significance of hope remaining in Pandora’s jar?

Here’s my suggestion: Hope is at hand, ever near, and hope is in our control. While we have little choice but to face a number of troubles in this world, we can choose to face them with hope in hand.

When I graduated from high school and from college, I received cards containing a passage from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are going to be opening cards with the same passage sometime soon, if you haven’t already. The passage goes like this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And this passage sounds very nice, but I fear that, taken out of its historical context, it loses a great deal of its meaning. When considered in context, Jeremiah has a lot to tell us about what hope means.

The situation was this: Jeremiah watched as his home was invaded by Babylon, and he watched as the Babylonians carried many of the nobility and skilled workers off into exile – leaving only a remnant in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

In short, things weren’t looking good. But, things were even worse than it first seemed, as there were two emotional forces fighting against Jeremiah, and his message of hope. It turns out that this “graduation card” passage is part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to the exiles in Babylon. The beginning of that letter encouraged the exiles first, to settle in their new home in Babylon, and, second, to seek to prosper there.

This two-fold encouragement suggests that there were two temptations that the exiles were falling to.

The first temptation was one of denial. One set of exiles, driven by wishful thinking, was just waiting to be sent back home. Thus wishful thinking was paralyzing. A second set of exiles were tempted to despair. That is, they accepted the reality that they were in exile in Babylon and would continue to be, but they felt no drive to prosper under these circumstances. Thus, we see two enemies of hope: denial and despair. And both of these prevent us from taking action.

Hope – true, active, invigorating hope, hope that drives us to courage, requires that we first recognize our circumstances, and then choose to act out of a belief that our actions will improve things. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways–either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Psychologist Charles Snyder suggests that hope consists of two elements – which Scott Kaufman has dubbed the “will” and the “ways” of hope. That is, hope contains, first, the will – the determination – to achieve goals. Second, hope includes the “ways” that the goal will be achieved.

A number of studies have shown that those with hope – that is with a sense of determination and a belief that they have multiple ways of achieving their goals – are more successful, even when you control for other factors influencing success. Students who have a sense of hope when they start college are much more likely to perform well and to graduate, despite what their high school GPA, IQ, or ACT scores might suggest. Interestingly, Kevin Rand found that performance in law school is better predicted by a measure of hope than by your LSAT scores.

Now, you may be thinking that this all sounds great, but that you’re just not a very hopeful person by nature. After all, not everyone can walk around with a smile on their face all the time, feeling totally in control of the world around them.

To you I say: choose hope!

Now, this may seem silly to just tell you to be hopeful. But, it turns out that doing exactly that can make a difference. Psychologist Rebecca Goerres found that simply telling people to be hopeful led them to perform better at divergent thinking – the kind of thinking that includes brainstorming – that is, thinking up multiple ways to tackle a problem or handle a situation. And remember: one of the key elements of hope is believing that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. What better way to do that than to actually discover those multiple ways!

This suggests that hope feeds on itself. Simply telling people to be hopeful results in them doing those things that justify that hopefulness.

Now, I know that many of you are facing challenges of which you’re painfully aware. I also know that all of us will face challenges of which, like Jon Snow, we know nothing. But, in hope, we can say not just that things will get better, but that we can make them better. This sentiment is beautifully captured in this poem, author unknown. It reads:

Look to this day,

For it is life,

The very life of life.

In its brief course lie all the truths

And realities of your existence;

The bliss of growth

The glory of action, and

The splendor of beauty;

For yesterday is but a dream

And tomorrow is only a vision,

But today well lived makes

Every yesterday a dream of happiness

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

In this passage, we are reminded that, each day, we are given the opportunity to act anew. The opportunity to live that day well, and in so doing move us forward toward the vision of hope that is tomorrow. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence – Where there’s life, there’s hope.

Now, let me share some statistical reasons for hope about the world in which we live. Within your lifetimes, you have seen tremendous improvements – though we are often unaware of them.

According to the World Bank, in 1999, 28.6% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty – living on just $1.90 per day or less. The most recent data suggests that percentage has fallen to just 10%, even after adjusting for inflation.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of homeless in the US has fallen by about 15% over the past 20 years.

According to FBI data, the number of reported violent crimes in the US has fallen by 20% in the past 20 years – which, given the increase in population, means that violent crime rates have fallen by about 35% over that same time. Property crimes have fallen even more than that.

According to the UN, life expectancy in the US has increased by about 2 years since 1999.

According to the US Census Bureau, median household income in the US, after accounting for inflation, has increased by about 3% since 1999, despite the fact that we faced a serious financial crisis halfway between 1999 and today. If you measure from the depths of the financial crisis about 10 years ago, median household income has increased about 13% in that time, again after accounting for inflation.

In brief, in the past 20 years, we have gotten safer, healthier, and wealthier – and this increase in wealth has extended to the homeless in the US and the extremely poor around the world. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that everything is getting better. But, in the time you have been alive – or even less than that – we have made some significant strides toward solving some of the serious problems that we have faced. Problems remain, yes. And some problems are getting worse. But, we should keep in mind that we have a great track record – and that should give us reasons for hope.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I am going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you hopeful about the future? Do you consider each new day as an opportunity to build toward the vision of a better tomorrow? Do you recognize that there are multiple ways to bring about that tomorrow?

Do you cultivate hope in yourself? When you see problems, do you resist the twin temptations of despair and denial, and instead choose to imagine solutions?

Do you cultivate hope in others? Do you remind those who surround you of their own successes, of their abilities to overcome the obstacles they have faced?

As you go through life, you will face uncertainty. You will face troubles. You will face obstacles. In those times, think back on the things that you have accomplished. Think back on this day, and look to the future with a renewed faith, and a hope that, together, we have and will build a brighter tomorrow.

Thank you.

Did Disney Really Underestimate Day 1 Demand for Disney+?

~400 words, ~2 reading time

It’s a common refrain. Before release: “New service/game/etc. coming out!” “Lots of pre-orders!” Day 1: “Site is slow and crashing!” “Underestimated demand”, etc.

The question: is it really reasonable for us to conclude that these companies, which are SO GOOD at estimating demand most of the time suddenly suck at it – ON A REGULAR BASIS, even when they have great data about what demand is going to be?

I submit that the best answer is “no”.

A few assumptions that I’m making here: (1) Day 1 demand is unusually high. (2) Setting up temporary servers that you won’t need in the long term is costly. (3) Companies believe that very few customers are going to punish them for poor performance on Day 1.

Put these all together, and you have an obvious interpretation of the situation. Disney+ estimated how many servers they’d need on an ongoing basis, and has that much capacity ready to go. (This follows from #2 above.) Now, they know this isn’t enough for Day 1 (#1 is something they can predict), so that there will be server problems – poor performance, crashing, etc. – on Day 1. But, that’s okay. The company isn’t really going to be worse off (#3). Yeah, there’s some PR that they’ll have to deal with, but that’s okay. They can always pull an EA, and offer people some free stuff (that’s how I got SimCity 4) – maybe put some movies they “didn’t plan to” on the platform, or offer people a free download of a specific movie through Google Play/Amazon Prime/iTunes, as long as they redeem in the next week. The point is that these are manageable, fairly cheap options compared to preventing the problem in the first place.

Now, there’s another possibility as well: it might be that Disney DOESN’T know how much long-term demand they’ll have. BUT, if it is costly to set servers up and then take them down, it might make sense for them to deliberately work UNDER the needed long-term capacity for the first couple days, so that they can get a better idea of what they should do.

Traditionally, manufacturers overproduce a bit – after all, if you run out of your good, customers will often just buy from a competitor that DIDN’T. (So, assumption #3 wasn’t true.) However, in a world of strong intellectual property protections and strong brand loyalty, that concern fades.

Fall Commencement Address 2018

~2400 words, ~12 min read time

What follows is the text of the Commencement Address that I gave today, December 16, 2018, to the graduates of Kent State University’s Stark Campus.

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. So, it is with a certain sense of what I will call “humble realism” that I approach this talk today. It seemed appropriate, then, to talk about the value of humility.

To demonstrate the value of humility, I hope to make three points – first, arrogance is destructive. Second, humility leads us to a realistic view of ourselves. Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

Before we get too far, let us consider what humility is and, first, what it isn’t.

The following list clarifying what humility is not comes from Dr Larry Osborne.

Humility is not low self-esteem. We have another name for that. Low self-esteem. In the words of the Dalai Lama “there is clearly a distinction to be made between valid confidence or self-esteem, and conceit – which we can describe as an inflated sense of importance, grounded in a false image of self.” So, humility does ask us not to have an unrealistically high opinion of ourselves. But, it certainly does not require that we have an unrealistically low opinion of ourselves, either.

Humility is also not a lack of ambition. One can seek to accomplish great things – and still do so with a sense of humility. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as saying “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.”

Humility is, thirdly, not downplaying our own accomplishments. There is nothing humble in claiming to be bad at something that you actually do well. There are only two possibilities here. Either you are delusional, and don’t realize your own strengths. Or you are dishonest, and simply want to cover them up. Neither delusion nor dishonesty are part of humility.

So, humility is not low self-esteem, a lack of ambition, or downplaying our own accomplishments. But, what is it?

The best definition I could find comes from a very scholarly source. Urbandictionary.com. No, I’m serious. Urbandictionary.com offers this definition: True humility is to recognize your value and others value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourself into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be. To be humble is to serve others and be for their good as well as your own. To be humble is to have a realistic appreciation of your great strengths, but also of your weaknesses. We’ll come back to these – but let’s first look at the opposite of humility: arrogance.

How easy it is for confidence – which is not a bad thing – to be twisted into arrogance. The arrogant, then, demand credit for all the wonderful things they do – and somehow find a way to shift blame away from themselves whenever their plans go awry. Once arrogance takes this turn, it, in turn has morphed into something else – fear. As the wise Jedi Master Yoda reminds us – Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. And this is true – the arrogant person becomes afraid that, if people don’t know their accomplishments – or if people discover their failings – then their value as people will be diminished. Then, all it takes is not receiving credit for something, and the arrogant person lashes out in anger – is overcome by resentment, and begins plotting revenge.

Imagine with me, if you will, a hypothetical city filled with arrogant people – people who are continuously seeking credit for themselves, and seeking to shift blame to others. Let’s call this hypothetical city… say, Washington. What can we expect Washington to accomplish? I suggest that the best answer is “little to nothing”. So, why is that?

I’m an economist – and my wife can assure you that I’m an economist 24 hours a day, whether she likes it or not – so I can’t help but fit a little of that into this address. One of the most basic principles of economics is the division of labor. That is, we can accomplish more if we divide up tasks according to people’s relative abilities to do them. But, when each person is consumed with a desire for credit and fear of blame, cooperation – which is really just the common word for the division of labor – becomes impossible. And, without that cooperation – that division of labor – it is remarkably difficult to accomplish any complicated task – even the making of something as simple as a pencil cannot be done without an astounding amount of cooperation. I dare say that a society filled with such arrogant people will find itself paralyzed by continuous conflict and a lack of productivity. Such a society will destroy itself – unless it can live parasitically off of another group of people – a group of people that is more interested in accomplishing a goal than in receiving recognition for doing it – and, as such, is willing to cooperate to get the job done.

Arrogance – and the dangers that accompany it – is nothing new. There’s a reason that so many religious and philosophical systems – spanning time and civilizations – warn of the dangers of arrogance.

Solomon – one of the Kings of ancient Israel – is reported to have said that “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.”

Jesus warned his disciples that those who exalt themselves would be humbled.

Aesop shares a number of fables about the dangers of arrogance. I’ll share three:

Roaming by the mountainside at sundown, a Wolf saw his own shadow become greatly extended and magnified, and he said to himself, “Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the Lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as King of all the collected beasts?’ While he was indulging in these proud thoughts, a Lion fell upon him and killed him. He exclaimed with a too late repentance, “Wretched me! this overestimation of myself is the cause of my destruction.”

A gnat settled on the horn of a Bull, and sat there a long time. Just as he was about to fly off, he made a buzzing noise, and inquired of the Bull if he would like him to go. The Bull replied, “I did not know you had come, and I shall not miss you when you go away.”

A deer was drinking from a river and began to admire his antlers. He then began to think about his hooves, and he wished his hooves were as big and majestic as his antlers were. To the deer’s surprise, a hunter appeared and fired an arrow, barely missing him. The deer took off into the trees and realized that he was able to get away only because of his small, nimble hooves. He realized how truly great they were, but as he was looking at his hooves, his antlers got caught in some tree branches. The hunter caught up to the deer and just before he met his fate, he lamented his love for his antlers and wished he should have realized how great his hooves were sooner.

Having seen that arrogance is personally and socially destructive, let’s turn then to consider humility. First, the fact that humility requires that we have a realistic sense of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The philosopher Socrates showed the virtue of humble realism in this story, which I paraphrase from Plato: The story goes that Socrates went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask who was wisest – as, knowing his own ignorance, Socrates wanted to learn. The Oracle declares that Socrates was the wisest person in Greece. Not believing this – after all, Socrates knew that he knew nothing – Socrates visited people of various occupations – politicians, poets, craftsmen – but he found that everyone else lived under a pretense of knowledge – that is, they believed they knew things that they did not actually know. Socrates – and he alone – recognized what he did NOT know. And, so Socrates was forced to conclude that the Oracle was right. For, while Socrates knew nothing, he was at least aware of that fact.

True humility requires that we recognize both our strengths and our weaknesses. In this facet, humility is a form of clarity of perception reflected in the Delphic maxim “gnothi sauton” – “know thyself”. If we truly know ourselves, we will recognize that we have often been wrong – or at least I have. This should lead us to a more tolerant view of those we disagree with. This does not mean that I have no confidence in my beliefs – if that were the case, I would change them. Rather, it simply means that we recognize that we may not be 100% right on all of them – and we’re not quite sure which ones we got wrong.

True humility requires a recognition that – regardless how good we are, we can always be better. One of my college friends recently told me that he had come to two realizations in life. First, he would never be good enough. Second, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t better than everyone else. I think if we reverse the order, we discover humility. Humility asks us to recognize that, even when we are better than everyone else, there is still room to be better still.

Can you look at yourself and your accomplishments objectively? Can you see the things you have done the way that other people would see them – with all of their flaws and glories? If so, you are on the path to a humble realism.

Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

True humility requires that we take on the role of a servant. I’m guessing this story is fictional, but it, none-the-less, is a good illustration. In the early days after the United States was born, a rider came across a group of soldiers trying to remove a tree that had fallen across the country road that the rider was traveling. The rider noticed that one soldier was standing aside, doing nothing, and asked the man about this. This person clarified that he was the corporal – so it was his job to give the orders. The rider accepted this fact, got down off of his horse, and helped the soldiers. With his help, the tree could be removed and the road cleared. After this, the rider walked up to the corporal and said to him “The next time this happens, just ask the Commander-in-Chief for help” – for the rider was none other than President Washington, himself. True humility asks us to serve others – regardless our relative positions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being a leader is a bad thing. On the contrary, leadership often places you into a position where you are able to serve more broadly – as long as you have the strength of character not to let the position go to your head.

Many of the ancients – from Laozi to Jesus to Muhammad – suggest that humility is rewarded with exaltation – and often leadership.

Humility is so central to Islam that even the term “Islam” can be translated approximately as “humility” or “submission”. And the Qu’Ran declared that “Success comes to believers who humble themselves.”

Jesus tells his disciples not only that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but that the reverse is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Laozi says “I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be generous; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.”

Why do so many – across time and civilizations – see a connection between humility and being exalted to a position of leadership? For the answer to that, I turn to a more modern source.

This past October, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses”. Why is that? Because humble leaders are more successful at inspiring teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people are more aware of their own weaknesses – sound familiar? – are more eager to improve themselves, and – here is a key – are appreciative of others’ strengths.

Putting these pieces together, a leader that displays humility recognizes the value of working as a team – so that each person can show their own strengths, and that each person – including the leader – can minimize the effects of their own weaknesses. It is no wonder then, that those who are humble would find themselves lifted up into positions of leadership.

I am convinced that each of us can change our own little corner of the world – and for the better – if we follow three rules. Let us do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I’m going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you overly sure of yourself? Do you find it difficult to admit when you are wrong or make a mistake? Do you find it difficult to respect people who disagree with you? Are you upset when you don’t get credit for things you do? Do you look for others to blame when things don’t go as they should?

Are you realistically aware of your own strengths and weaknesses? Can you look at your accomplishments objectively – as if they were accomplished by someone else? Do you recognize when others are better than you are in certain tasks or traits, and try to learn from them?

How do you serve those around you? Do you seek to build teams, helping each person you come into contact with discover their own strengths?

Do you do justly? Do you love mercy? Do you walk humbly?

Again, congratulations, and all the best as you walk the path that lies before you.

Thank you.

Lessons from Bullet Journaling

~500 words, ~3 min read time

I started using a bullet journal back in early April in an attempt to have some kind of organizational system that would actually match what I wanted. I made some mistakes along the way, but on the whole I like the bullet journal method. So, here are some lessons I’ve learned in the past couple months.

(1) Choose your size wisely – My first attempt at using a BuJo failed because I tried to use a standard sized composition book. This was too big to fit in my pocket, so I could only carry it if I was bringing my briefcase, or if I specifically decided to carry a notebook with me. This was inconvenient, so I stopped using it. This time around, I chose a small notebook – about 3.5″x5.5″ (like this), so roughly cell phone sized. This fits in my pocket with my phone, and is FAR more convenient. At the same time, I’m sure many would find the thing cramped.

(2) Dedicate enough space for your index – My notebook has 131 pages in it. But, I only dedicated 34 lines to an index at first. Surprise! I ran out of lines in the index, so now I have a secondary index around page 80. Dedicate a line per page, just to be safe.

(3) It’s okay to be simply functional – I’ll be honest. I am not artistic. So, my BuJo is not pretty. Mostly, it’s a dated task list with a few pages of checklists. That’s it. But, it works for me.

(4) Don’t dedicate a page to each day ahead of time – I should have known better. The BuJo guidelines on Bulletjournal.com say this. I had used a Franklin Covey page a day planner for years. I should have known that with a dedicated page per day, many pages would be basically empty while others would be full. Poor planning.

(5) Don’t rewrite your to-do list every day. It’s easy to flip through the Daily Log and find what you need to do. Just migrate at the beginning of the month and you’ll be fine.

(6) A BuJo is not a productivity strategy. It is simply a tracking system that is beautifully flexible. But, you still need a separate strategy for how to deal with the information you store in it. But, in my experience, a BuJo can pair extremely well with Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow. I suspect it would also work well with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but I always found GTD too undirected to motivate me. Now, not everyone needs a system for dealing with tasks. I find it very useful, as it removes the mental load of having to figure out what to do. But, as always, it’s up to you and what works for you.

(7) Use checklists for routine tasks. I have 3 checklists: a yearly, a monthly, and a daily. I prioritize in that order, making exceptions in the evening’s  for particularly pressing tasks.

Welcome to Prof E’s Blog! – Expectation Formation

Welcome to my new blog! I’m going to include a smattering of whatever I happen to be thinking about. So, no promise of any unified theme – but, you’ll probably see a few common topics:

  • Economics (especially in the Austrian tradition)
  • My kids
  • Quakerism (mostly of the evangelical variety)
  • College Teaching
  • Eurovision

Enjoy!