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.

The Death of Zeke Dionne (Cepheus Solo Playthrough)

~665 words, ~3 min reading time

Prologue

Zeke wasn’t much of a success. His application to the Science academy had been rejected, and he was drafted by the Marines. He was honorably discharged from the Marines after attaining he rank of Captain – though his honorable discharge was the result of a long legal battle that left him with significant debts. He spend several years as a drifter… ended up in prison a couple times. Finally, he was a failed Belter – mining in the asteroid belt, but he didn’t last long at that either. Yes, Zeke was not a success, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one. The Mulantis Joint Space Agency was seeking a sole explorer to travel the cosmos, so Zeke jumped at the chance.

Shortly after he applied, he was accepted. The Agency provided him with a ship – the first interstellar ship that Mulantis had built, and even financed it for him. He set off to find a supplier that could fill the cargo hold with goods for him to offer whomever he might meet on his travels. It took about a month (fortunately, the Agency was willing to lend him enough to cover his first mortgage payment and to buy goods to sell) – Zeke wasn’t exactly a business man – but he loaded up his ship with ores, petrochemicals, and precious metals and took off – only 700,000 credits in debts (well, plus the mortgage…)

Exploring and Trading

Thanks to the ship’s onboard jump computer, Zeke managed to explore 6 inhabited star systems not far from Mulantis. He engaged in some trade, but, sadly – he was no businessman. On Day 121 – a mere 90 days after he had left Mulantis, his ship was repossessed – along with all the cargo on it, and he was left stranded on Xipham – a world with no atmosphere in which the human colonists lived in biodomes to protect them from the vacuum of space. The only bright side was that he was left with about 60,000 credits in cash and his debts were forgiven. But, what would Zeke do next?

Exploring Venebe

Zeke used 10,000 credits for high passage to Venebe – a lush garden planet filled with life. He decided it was time to explore nature and rethink his life – maybe he should see if he could find an Interstellar Navy ship that needed a gunner or something like that.

He went into the forests around the space port and hiked camped for a couple of days before he ran across a pack of 11 animals – looking a bit like cat-sized praying mantises – eating leaves on the trees. The animals noticed him and turned to attack. He managed to kill a couple of them before he was overwhelmed by their attack, and dying from his injuries.

Closing Thoughts

This playthrough was mostly to get me familiar with some of the systems in Cepheus – lots of roll-playing, little role-playing. And it did that. I’ve now experienced character creation, the trading system, personal combat, and ship, world, and animal design. Didn’t get to do space combat, yet.

After this playthrough I am convinced that death during character creation is a better rule than treating that as just getting fired. It’s a good way of weeding out weak characters, and Zeke was definitely that. The best thing he had going for him was 2 levels of “Jack of All Trades” which let him decrease the penalty on using untrained skills to -1 instead of -3.

Things I’m doing for my next playthrough:

(1) I’ll put in more roleplaying, and incorporate using the One-Page Solo Engine to handle some of the GM emulation, along with a plot line/NPC list styled after something from Adventure Crafter.

(2) I’ll definitely let the character die during character creation if that’s what happens.

(3) I’ll pay closer attention to the character’s abilities when I choose their career – want to maximize their chance of qualification + survival.

(4) I think I’ll use a random subsector generator to generate the star map. I like the map generation process, but it’s pretty time-consuming.

Cepheus Character Creation, Ship Design, World Creation, and Trading

~1500 words, ~8 min reading time

So, I’ve started playing around with playing Cepheus solo.

A few notes before I get into the main topics for this post.

(1) There are several different versions of Cepheus out there. I’m playing using the Cepheus Engine System Reference document. The different versions have various differences. (Example: Cepheus Light adds cybernetics, and changes some of the available careers and the simplifies the character creation process.)

(2) Cepheus SRD has some ideas for how to “play” Cepheus doing GM prep. (Create a character, try personal and space combat, design various encounters, make a star system, design a ship, etc.) These seem like a pretty good way to learn the system. So, I’m trying to integrate these step-wise into my solo game. It will make for kind of a strange “story”, but seems like a good way to learn the system.

Character Creation

Cepheus character creation in Cepheus is almost a game in itself. First you roll for stats (roll 2d6 for each of 6 stats). You then pick a homeworld, and the traits of the homeworld give you a couple more stats. (From a water world? Then you have a basic level of watercraft knowledge.)

The next step is to pick a career. Your character starts at age 18 and can serve up to 7 “terms” in careers (each term is 4 years long). When you pick a career you have to roll a relevant stat to qualify for it. If you succeed, good job! You found a job! If you fail… that’s less good. You either get drafted (once in your life) or you end up as a drifter for a few years.

Next, you roll for “survival” on a stat – usually a different stat than the qualification stat. This has two interpretations if you fail: either your character dies (yes, you can die during character creation), or you get kicked out of that career. Your choice. (Note: getting kicked out of the career typically entails some negative consequence – an injury that lowers a physical stat, loss of retirement benefits, a medical or legal debt you have to pay.)

Next, you roll for advancement and skills. Each term in a career gives you a couple of skill points in a couple of randomly chosen skills that are related to the career. (You choose which of 3 lists to roll on, but the dice choose which item on that list you get.)

Finally, you roll for reenlistment. If you don’t reenlist, then you retire, get some retirement benefits, and have to pick a new career in the next term.

Age up you character 4 years, check to see if you suffer negative effects from aging if you’re over the age of 34 (seems about right…), and either reenlist in your old career or roll to join a new one.

The character creation process is interesting because it establishes your character’s backstory. My character (Zeke) tried to become a scientist, but failed to qualify because he’s not that smart. So, he was drafted by the marines. He served 2 terms before he was honorably discharged after a long legal battle which left him with retirement benefits, but a 10,000 credit debt to pay. The next 4 terms of his life, he was a drifter – trying to get into other careers, but failing. He was in prison a bit. Finally, he managed to get a job as a Belter – mining in the asteroid belt – but didn’t survive even one term in that job before he was imprisoned again.

So, from Zeke’s stats and character creation, I could tell that Zeke wasn’t particularly powerful or heroic. He was actually kind of pathetic, I decided.

I had already decided that the game was going to be an Earth-like planet having just developed jump drive technology so that interstellar travel was possible. Zeke is being sent as a solo pilot on this trip. So, why would his home send him on this trip? I decided the ship was highly experimental – built on the cheap in many ways – and the planet didn’t want to risk a particularly valuable person on what they suspected might be a one-way trip. (After all, they had only identified one star system within jump range, and had no idea if there was civilization there, or if there was a way to get fuel and come home.)

Starship Creation

In Cepheus, there are a handful of common starships with reasonable designs, but I wanted to make my own. This involved picking a hull size and design (100 ton, streamlined – just big enough to travel interstellar, but handles well in atmo), maneuver, jump drive, and power plant (all the weakest available), computer system and programs (simple, but could handle jumps for Zeke), crew and passenger quarters (1 stateroom for Zeke to live in), weapons (none), and any other features (none), plus calculating remaining cargo space (about 60 tons).

The process here was pretty straightforward, though I wonder if I may have missed something…

World Creation

Zeke jumped to a nearby system, which I created using the world creation rules.

World creation as written involves rolling on tables and adding modifiers to determine how big the planet is, what the atmosphere is like (if there is any), what the water coverage is, the human/intelligent alien population, type of government, intrusiveness of law enforcement, technology level, quality of starport and other bases, commonly found and commonly demanded goods, and other traits of the star system (presence of asteroid belts, and, very importantly, gas giants – which can be “scooped” for fuel).

This is kind of a fun process, and the results of the creation process provide lots of inspiration for stories, if I were to do that. (“Oh, this planet has an autocratic religious regime that is super strict. They have a reasonable space port, but the local tech level is pretty low – so any tech they have must come from somewhere else. Interesting!”)

But, if you don’t want to do this Cepheus Journal has a good random subsector generator that will generate an 8 x 10 star map with about 40 star systems. If you don’t want to handle this process manually, this is a good way to kick-start your campaign.

Trading

One of the big things I wanted to try was the business part of the game. You can buy and sell various commodities between systems, carry freight, or carry passengers. I decided to do speculative trading, as it seemed reasonable that the planet would load up the ship with materials that were common at home in hopes they could sell them to get whatever money is being used on other planets.

I was attracted to this because I think I like the idea that you see with, for example, Han Solo in Star Wars, the crew of the Bebop or the Serenity that spacefarers, ultimately, have to make ends meet. I made things simple by having Zeke do everything himself – but he still has a ship mortgage that costs him over 100,000 credits a month, regular maintenance that costs about 2,000 credits a month, and life support supplies (rations, for example) that cost another 2,000 credits a month. The trading system allows me to see if it’s plausible in this universe for Zeke to actually get by.

The answer so far seems to be yes. You have to roll to find someone to buy from, and then roll to find out what goods they’re selling and what their prices are. (Rolls are modified based on local traits – so, for example, high tech goods are cheap on planets with high tech levels, but expensive on planets with low tech levels.) Then, you can buy whichever goods make sense for you in whatever quantities you want, up to as much as is available.

When you sell the process is similar, except you don’t check for goods. You’re the one with the goods. You just check the local prices and decide what and how much to sell.

The pricing system is interesting. All goods have a base price, but the roll modifies it. There’s also a broker system, but I can’t get it to make sense. It says that you pay a certain percentage to the broker whether you buy/sell or not. The problem is it’s not clear what you’re paying a percentage OF if you’re not buying or selling anything. Do I need to pay the broker 5% of the value of the entire inventory that the seller has, even if I buy none of it? That feels like a bit much. Or is it a fixed fee based on the value of a single ton? That’s a possible read of the rule (since it literally says “% of the price”), but runs against it being called “commission”, which normally is a percentage of the total value of sale, not a percentage of the price of a single unit.

Anyway, so far, Zeke has had no trouble paying the bills. I’m going to keep running this as an exploration/trading game for a bit before I add in combat/patron encounters/etc.

As I get more familiar with the system, I think I’ll try to turn it into a more RPG-like experience by using the One-Page Solo Engine as a GM Emulator (similar to Mythic GM Emulator) to generate some stories. But I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done so far even if (or is it “because”?) it is mostly a trading game the way I’m playing 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.

The Tale of Torrens (Ironsworn Solo RPG Playthrough)

~ 4600 words, ~ 20 min reading time

Prologue

The village of Newriver sits on the coast in the harsh Shattered Wastes. Few Ironlanders have ventured this far North, but Torrens’s clan was determined to establish a village here. Torrens was the only son of his parents – the village’s healers, and he trained with his parents in this discipline.

Everyone knew that the Shattered Wastes were uninhabitable. And it turns out the cold was not the worst thing that the community faced. Horrors would wander out of the frozen wastes surrounding the village – mostly attacking the village’s herds, but sometimes attacking people. To protect themselves, the villagers had brought a warrior with them who fought off these creatures whenever they would appear.

However, that warrior was now dead. A chimera has come out of the wastes and attacked him, and he was mortally wounded. Torrens ran to give care, but the wounds were too severe, as the warrior died in his arms, Torrens swore an iron vow – he would travel across the Ironlands and find a new warrior to protect his home.

Before he could leave, however, a dark secret was exposed. One of the village priests had a vision – the creature that killed the warrior did not happen upon the village at random. Instead, one of the member of the village was summoning these creatures for some nefarious purpose. Before he can leave, Torrens swears to the village of Newriver – his village – that he will root out the traitor.

Chapter 1 – Newriver

Alban was an old adventurer who came as one of the founders of Newriver for one last, great adventure. Torrens had always liked the old man, and thought he might have some insight on who would betray their town, or how to track them down. Torrens brought Alban’s favorite mead, and the two shared a drink. Alban pointed out that this particular creature seemed to be composed of dead animals which had been invested with unnatural life. So, it seemed likely that the person who raised this creature has some strong connection to animals perhaps one of the village’s ranchers, or the village’s veterinarian.

Torrens decided to check one of the ranchers first. Under the cover of night, Torrens overhears a discussion – a couple of the village ranchers are talking about how the weather here is so harsh that it is unlikely their flocks and herds will be able to survive – a tougher breed of animal is needed. This suggests to Torrens that there is a broader conspiracy than he thought.

The next evening, Torrens investigated Cadigan, another one of the ranchers in town – only to see a chimera like the creature that had killed the village warrior attacking the sheep at this farm. Torrens manages to scare the creature off, and offers to help the rancher by treating the sheep that had been attacked. Unfortunately, it is too late, and, as Torrens is realizing the sheep is too far gone, the chimera returns. Torrens manages to scare it off again. Cadigan thanks Torrens for his help, and the two of them follow the chimera to Haleema’s hut – Haleema is the village vet.

Torrens and Cadigan then hatched a plan – Cadigan would invite Haleema to check out some of the dead sheep on his farm, and Torrens would question her there.

The next day, they carry the plan out. When Haleema arrivees, Torrens – who is an imposing figure – intimidates her into answering some of their questions. She reveals that there is a broader faction in the town which wants to relocate to more hospitable lands. Unfortunately for them, there aren’t enough of them to make for a viable settlement themselves. So, they hope to convince the town as a whole to come with them. They didn’t expect the town warrior to die – his bravery and the chimera’s viciousness simply made for a bad combination. Haleema agrees to try to dispel the chimera, but suggests that she may be able to make a more docile version which would be able to survive the harsh climate of Newriver.

Haleema organizes a meeting between her faction and Torrens, where Torrens makes the case that everyone should stay. The faction is won over by Torrens’s impassioned speech, but they want him to use his charisma to convince the town of something else. A priest – a relative newcomer to the town – came under the pretense of hunting the Wastes for artifacts that may prove useful. However, this priest seems to be far more interested in winning favor with the town leaders – the mayor in particular – than with searching the Wastes for anything.

Seeing his town divided into two hidden factions (those who wish to leave, and the priest and mayor who seek only to maintain the status quo), Torrens decides that his best bet is to reveal both of these to the rest of the town – but realized that an important step would be getting the mayor to step down from his position.

Torrens tried to win support among the people of Newriver to convince the mayor to resign, but people were not interested. Finally, Torrens took it upon himself to try to compel the mayor to step down. The mayr agreed, on the condition that Torrens undermines the relationship between Haleema and the ranchers – the mayor thinks since he sacrificed something, she has to sacrifice something too.

To this end, Torrens begins spreading rumors among some of the town ranchers that Haleema’s true motives for summoning the chimera was simply to make money off of the injured livestock, knowing that convincing the town to relocate was unlikely to happen. However, this doesn’t work out as hoped. Haleema simply decides to leave town entirely – leaving the town with one less person to help care for sick and injured livestock, which are all too common in this harsh weather.

Torrens decided that now is the time for a town meeting so that he can fulfill his vow to the town. He reveals the conspiracies – both Haleema’s and the mayor’s. Now, however, there is a power vacuum in town.

Rather than being thankful to Torrens for what he had done, they are upset at the instability that he has created in their little village. He vows to help them find a new mayor, but the town meeting erupts into shouting. Torrens immediately forsakes this vow, and decides to take his owl Errol and his horse Dash and leave town so that he can find a capable warrior that can protect the village from any other creatures that may come out of the icy wilderness.

Chapter 2 – The Fleet of Highriver

Torrens traveled along the coast until he happened upon a fleet that was preparing to depart to the South. The Fleet of Highriver – which is located on the coast in the Tempest Hills – was on a scientific expedition to the Scattered Wastes, but the crew mutinied against the head scholar that was leading the expedition since supplies were running low. Torrens agrees to serve on the Fleet in exchange for passage to Highriver.

After a few days of travel, they came to a cover where they could do some fishing and some resource gathering. It took a great deal of work, but they built up their supplies. After a few days journey, they were getting close to Highriver when a storm blew them off course. The next day, they made progress and came upon a strange light – and a creature bathed in light appeared on the deck of the ship, and promised them help for the remainder of the journey. The creature vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The next day, they came to Highriver.

Chapter 3 – Arriving at Highriver

On arriving at Highriver, the crew expressed their concern about being punished for mutiny, and asked Torrens to help them avoid any negative consequences from that decision. He swore to help, only to learn that the scholar they had mutinied against was a personal friend of several members of the Council.

After asking around town, Torrens learns that the strong tradition of dueling is alive and well in Highriver, and that duels are well-respected among these people. While naturally strong, Torrens isn’t a trained fighter and has no weapon. But, he is willing to enter a duel unarmed.

Torrens meets the head of the ruling Council – a warrior named Mila, and challenges her to a duel. Torrens secures an early advantage in the fight, and manages to knock Mila to the ground where she yields, and agrees to Torrens’s demand to forgive the crew, given the circumstances they faced.

Torrens then appeared before the Council – reminding them how soundly he beat Mila, and they agree to let it go, but ask Torrens to help the city overcome their cursed past. He makes an iron vow to help them.

Chapter 3 – The Curse of Highriver

The mouth of the river running through Highriver has been heavily eroded, and is in need of strengthening. Apparently, the early founders had done a poor job shoring up the river banks. Torrens learns that a woman named Muna outside the town may be able to help.

He arrives at her home, and finds that she is very distrusting. Torrens manages to charm his way into her home. She reveals that her late husband was involved in shoring up the riverbank around the mouth, but that he died in the process – leaving less skilled engineers to complete the work.

Torrens then revisits Mila to see if she has more information. She tells him that this area was originally held by the giants, but they were driven away by the arrival of the Ironlanders. The giants had removed the supports they had placed at the mouth of the river which greatly weakened the banks.

It turns out the giants have resettled not too far away, and Torrens travels to meet them. He meets their tribal leader – a man named Otaan – and tries to convince him to shore up the bank of the river, noting that the giants and Highriver, despite their history, have established peaceful trading relations since then. Otaan refuses – the Ironlanders may be trade partners, but he feels no obligation to help those who have displaced his people.

Torrens realizes that Mila, as a warrior and head of the ruling Council, is much more likely to win Otaan’s trust. She agrees to come with him.

The two of them visit the giants again, and the giants reluctantly agree to help, but want to have a place within Highriver in exchange for their hep. Torrens speaks to the Council when they return to Highriver, and the Council agrees, thanking Torrens for his help in this matter.

Torrens resupplies in Highriver and asks around to see if anyone knows of a warrior that could protect Newriver. He learns that there is a town called Lost Bridge far to the South, in the Flooded Lands which is the home of Lio the Warrior.

Chapter 4 – Traveling

Torrens takes Dash and Errol, and they travel three days in the direction of Lost Bridge before they arrive at Fort Frostmark

Chapter 5 – Fort Frostmark

From its perch at the top of the hill, Fort Frostmark watches the forests around it. Torrens enters the fort seeking solace on his journey. He learns that the signs of the Varou have been marked near the Fort, and the inhabitants of the Fort expect that the Varou will strike any time. Torrens swears an iron vow to gather information about the Varou for the Fort, but the people of the Fort were not interested in an outsider’s help. Torrens foresakes the vow, and leaves the Fort behind him.

Chapter 6 – Traveling

Torrens and his animal companions journey three days until they come across the Mine of Lowmount

Chapter 7 – The Mine at Lowmount

Torrens entered the small mining village of Lowmount, and secured some provisions. He learned that there was a mysterious phenomenon occurring the town. Homes were being vandalized with the word “Revenge,” but no one knew why. Torrens swore an iron vow to discover the culprit. As he was questioning people around the town – learning nothing – some supplies were stolen

That night Torrens stayed up to watch who was responsible. He watched as a shadowy figure emerged from the woods around the town and scrawled the word “Revenge” on one of the villagers’ doors. Following the figure back into the woods, Torrens found a small tribe of Ironlanders camping in the woods near the mine. He returned to the town, and revealed what he found the next morning. The villagers simply refused to accept what he said as true, and kicked him out of town

Chapter 8 – More Traveling

Torrens traveled southward for 5 more days, when he was attacked by Varou!

Chapter 9 – Battling the Varou

After several blows, Torrens managed to kill the Varou, and took its knife.

Chapter 10 – Traveling to Camp Axewood

Another 12 days of traveling. In this time, Torrens got attacked by a Harrow Spider, and killed it. Torrens also lost his knife in the wilderness. After 12 days, Torrens arrived at Camp Axewood.

Chapter 11 – Camp Axewood

Torrens didn’t get very involved with the happenings here – he simply got more provisions and left.

Chapter 12 – Traveling to Lost Bridge

Two more days of traveling, and Torrens arrives at Lost Bridge, home of Lio the Warrior.

Chapter 13 – Lost Bridge

Torrens arrived at Lost Bridge to find that Lio – the great warrior – had been captured by a neighboring settlement, and was being held for ransom. Torrens swore and iron vow to free Lio from his captors. Torrens sought to learn more from the townspeople, but they were too distraught by their loss to be much help Torrens them simply headed in the direction of the settlement in question in hope that he can help when he gets there. He scopes out the settlement to identify where Lio is, and then sneaks in at night.

Except Torrens isn’t very sneaky, so he gets captured as well. He challenges his captors to a formal duel to secure his and Lio’s freedom. Torrens wins the duel, but is left badly hurt and scarred.

The tribe agrees to let ONE of them go, and Torrens chooses Lio, who leaves Torrens then tries to convince his captors that there is little point in keeping him. They’re unconvinced, and injure Dash in response. That night, Torrens managed to sneak out, taking Dash and going back to Lost Bridge.

At Lost Bridge, the town thanks Torrens for his work, and considers his vow fulfilled.

Now Torrens has to convince Lio to come with him to Newriver. Much to his surprise, it doesn’t take much convincing. Now, Torrens has to see if Lio really is a good enough warrior to protect Newriver – someone who is capable and trustworthy. He learns that the village of Wolfwick is in need of help, so Lio, Torrens, and Torrens’s animal companions head in that direction.

Chapter 14 – A Near Ending

The party travels five days through the marshes of the Flooded Lands, and are attacked by a sodden (a drowned person who returns as undead). They manage to fight it off. The next day, they are attacked by two more sodden. They fight them off, too. Two days later, they are attacked by another one – and fight it off.

On the 10th day of the journey, Lio wanders off, and Torrens spends the next day finding him. Two days later, Lio tells Torrens that he is no longer interested in helping Newriver, and leaves.

The next day, Torrens is attacked by another sodden. Still in bad shape from the previous fights, Torrens succumbs to the blows of the sodden, and loses consciousness, sure that he will die.

But he is wrong. In a vision, he sees the Keeper of Death, who says that he has a task left for Torrens to complete, if he will swear an iron vow to do so. Torrens swears the vow to help a fisherman in the village of Mournwatch – a man named Morell – to fulfill his destiny.

Chapter 15 – A New Life

Having sworn a vow to the Keeper of Death, Torrens awakens to find Dash and Errol with him. The sodden that attacked him is dead on the ground next to him. Torrens is still in bad shape, but death is not an immediate threat.

Torrens arrives at Wolfwick, though the people there do not seem willing to trust him. They give him basic hospitality – a time and place to heal and advice about a safe path forward – but are not interested in him helping them with any troubles.

Chapter 16 – Travel to Fort Thornford

The journey to Mournwatch is long. Torrens and his animal companions travel for 46 days, facing off against many wild animals – and running from others – on the way. Torrens is wounded and emotionally broken. Outside of Fort Thornford, Torrens adopts a new companion – a mammoth which he names Harry.

Chapter 17 – Fort Thornford

Torrens found the gates of Fort Thornford closed to him. They’re simply not interested in taking in such a scarred broken man. He turns away from the gates, saddened at their lack of hospitality.

Chapter 18 – Travel to Mournwatch

12 more days of traveling which were pretty uneventful. Torrens then arrives at Mournwatch.

Chapter 19 – Mournwatch

Torrens arrives at Mournwatch to help Morell achieve whatever his destiny is. However, here in this humble fishing village, he finds that Morell is not particularly respected. Rather, other people regularly take advantage of him, leaving him and his wife in poverty.

Torrens asked around town to find out if there was a ringleader of this bullying, but, while he was doing that, his horse, Dash, was stolen. Torrens swears an iron vow to recover his horse.

At this point, Torrens doesn’t have much patience, so he threatens a townsperson to get information out of him about who stole the horse, and the townsperson agrees, as long as Torrens agrees not to say who shared the information. Torrens agrees, and follows the person who was identified as the thief back to his home. He finds that this person doesn’t have the horse at all. The person who gave him the information was lying.

Torrens has had it. He hunts down the information and challenges him to a duel… and it turns out the duelist was trained as a warrior.

Despite this, Torrens does well in the fight – and kills the liar.

However, one of the man’s friends then challenged Torrens to a duel (the dishonor!) After a long duel, Torrens kills this man as well, and takes is sword.

Torrens intimidates another townsperson into revealing that the two people Torrens just killed were the thieves, and reveals where the horse can be found.

Torrens rests for a few days, recovering his health and his mind after the harrowing journey and awful duels. He can then turn his attention to helping Morell. He visits Morell and his wife. He has to convince them he’s not there to kill them, but, instead, to help them. He’s on a mission from Death. While they may be a bit weirded out by this, and have no idea what destiny would await Morell, they are happy for some help. In exchange for a place to stay, Torrens agrees to help Morrell with fishing until the path forward becomes clearer.

Torrens decides that a priest may be able to divine the destiny that Morell has. He visits the local priestess, and tries to persuade her. The priestess Brynn, it turns out, is an ambitious person and wants a position on the Council. After this is achieved, she will help Torrens divine Morell’s destiny. Torrens swears an iron vow to do this.

Torrens learns that the Council names their own members – not a great design, but one that is firmly entrenched in Mournwatch’s culture. So, Torrens must first persuade the Council to adopt Brynn as a member. Torrens first meets with the Council Chief, who agrees to let Torrens speak to the Council.

At the Council, Torrens spoke persuasively to convince them to allow Brynn to join. They agreed, but first Torrens must help the village reestablish the trade route between Mournwatch and Fort Frostmark, which has been blocked by Varou attacks. He swears an iron vow to do so.

Torrens learned that that the trade route lies on the border between two Varou tribes. If Torrens can encourage the tribes to attack each other, they may be so weakened by the battle that the trade route would be safe again – at least temporarily.

To accomplish this, Torrens began leaving each tribe’s mark in the other’s territory – but he was caught in the act by one of the Varou tribes. Torrens runs off, but was hurt in the process.

Back in Mournwatch, Torrens drummed up support among the villagers to attack the Varou. They agree, as long as Torrens leads the charge.

He does and a battle ensues. The Varou tribes are weakened enough by the battle that the trade route is reestablished. Torrens has now fulfilled two vows at once: the trade route is reestablished, and the Council has accepted Brynn.

Having achieved her seat on the Council, Brynn seeks to divine Morell’s purpose. She learns that Morell is destined to create a magical talisman that will create a mystical barrier that will protect Mournwatch from many horrific creatures. Brynn suggests that Torrens should talk to an Artificer who lives not too far from Mournwatch who may know how to make this talisman, or at least tell us what ingredients are needed.

Chapter 20 – Travel to Artificer

After a 6 day journey – which involved fighting a madman (one of what Ironlanders call The Broken), Torrens arrived at the Artificer’s home. Masias, the artificer, says that such a talisman is possible – but must be made from a whale bone, and blessed by a priest at one of the iron pillars that one can find spread throughout the Ironlands. Even then, it is not guaranteed to work.

Chapter 21 – Getting the Whale Bone

Morell and Torrens convinced a ship captain to take them whaling, on the condition that the captain gets to keep most of the whale while Morell and Torrens get only the bone. All agreed to this arrangement.

The expedition was quite short, as they found a whale on the first day. Morell harpoons the whale. Unfortunately, Torrens loses his sword off the edge of the ship.

Torrens and Morell took the bone to Masias, who carved into the necessary shape.

Torrens and Morell return to Mournwatch and ask Brynn to accompany them to one of the pillars to bless the talisman. She agreed to come, but wants Torrens to speak to the Council on her behalf to advance her position with the Council. He agreed to do so when they return.

Chapter 22 – The Road to the Pillar

The three of them traveled toward the pillar, but Brynn started to act nervous. Then, she ran off, just as two men come out of the woods. These men are brothers of one of the men that Torrens killed in a duel when he arrived in Mournwatch, and they want revenge. They attack, and break the whale bone. The battle is not going well, so Torrens and Morell run. They managed to escape, but now they need a new whale bone and a new priest. Torrens swore an iron vow to kill Brynn for her betrayal.

Chapter 23 – Dueling Brynn

They got back to town – badly wounded, but standing. Torrens took a couple of days to heal before he found Brynn and challenged her to a duel to the death.

The two of them fought, and Torrens was overcome by his wounds. While Brynn should not have been a difficult foe, Torrens’s old injuries kept him from being able to fight very well. Brynn managed to get the upper hand early in the fight, and though Torrens got several good hits in, he eventually passed out from his wounds, and Brynn put him to an end.

And, this time, the Keeper of Death did not come to his rescue.

Closing Thoughts

I enjoyed this playthrough of Ironsworn. The system is very story-driven. The progress track system is interesting, but takes a bit to get used to. Let me explain:

Extended actions (quests, journeys, combat) are tracked on a progress track, which is ten boxes which you fill in as you progress. The goal is to get the progress track pretty full, and then you roll against the progress track to see if you successfully complete the quest/journey/combat.

Each extended action is given a rating – Troublesome, Dangerous, Formidable, Extreme, or Epic. These determine how quickly the track fills. Troublesome tasks fill 3 boxes at a time (so, to fully fill the track takes 4), Dangerous 2 at a time (5 to fill), Formidable 1 (10 to fill), Extreme 1/2 (20 to fill), and Epic 1/4 (40 to fill). Now, technically, you don’t have to fill the track completely to finish – you roll a d10 against the number of completely filled boxes, and each die that comes up less than the number of filled boxes is a success. 2 successes are a “strong hit” (really good outcome with no downside), 1 success a “weak hit” (success, but at a cost), and 0 successes a “miss” (failure, usually an expensive one).

There’s one thing you have to get used to with this system. It *feels* like the rating should be “difficulty”, but that’s not quite correct.

For battles, the foe’s rating determines both how many hits you have to get in AND how much harm the enemy does. So, “difficulty” is a good interpretation.

For journeys, the rating is much more a LENGTH thing than a difficulty.

Similarly, for quests/vows, the rating is about COMPLEXITY – that is, how many steps (in game terms, “milestones”) it will take to fulfill the vow – than necessarily “difficulty”. As I was playing, I found that I preferred to give vows a low rating – usually Troublesome – because most of the things I promised could be accomplished in 3-4 steps. Even the big “find a warrior for Newriver” quest, which I labeled as Extreme, should have had a lesser rating. To have a great chance of success, this would have to take 20 milestones. But, I didn’t get anywhere close to that. (I crossed off 1 1/2 boxes – 3 steps.) This makes me think that the big vows are supposed to be *much* bigger. Like, world-altering stuff. My problem is that I’m a very “small” RPGer – I tend to think in low power levels and local terms. So, I think of small goals for my characters (“I want a horse!”) rather than big ones (“I want to integrate the elves with human society!”).

Another thing I’ve learned about myself from this experience is that, when I’m soloing, I prefer to spend very little time making *decisions* in the gamemaster role, and want to stay in player mode as much as possible. So, I want to automate as much as possible, and not have to do too much interpretation.

Anyway, I enjoyed this experience, and there’s definitely a lot of potential here for an RPG soloist. And, hey, you can get PDFs of everything you need to play for free from DriveThruRPG and the Ironsworn website. That’s pretty awesome.

Originally, I planned to try Star Trek Adventures next, but that game seems to be impossible to play as a single character – in fact, the rules suggest that players will play multiple characters even if you have a bigger group. So, not a good match for soloing I suspect. But, I really want to do something scifi, so I found Cepheus, which seems much better suited to this purpose. (In fact, a recent issue of Cepheus Journal included rules for how to solo the game. I don’t know that I’ll use those right away, but it’s good to know they’re there!)

Some Solo RPG Thoughts

~750 words, ~3 min reading tim

I’ve been doing a bit more solo RPGing recently. (For those who have no clue what I’m talking about, think playing Dungeons and Dragons, but by yourself.) My first recent attempt was the adventure of Bilbo (not THAT Bilbo, but I randomly rolled a Halfling Thief, so the name was obvious…) that was generated using Scarlet Heroes.

After that, I decided to try my hand at some Ironsworn. I’m not finished with this character yet (he is SOMEHOW still alive, and hasn’t fulfilled all his vows yet), so I’m not going to share his story right now, but I do have some general thoughts.

Scarlet Heroes and Ironsworn provide drastically different solo RPG experiences. Generally speaking, solo RPGs end up on a spectrum. On one end, you have solo RPGs that are basically creative writing exercises. The goal is to write a story (though it might be just a series of scenes), and the systems provide random events/outcomes/etc. that incorporate into the story. One game on the extreme end here is Across the Stars, which is a journaling “game” where you draw cards from a standard deck, interpret those cards as sci-fi locations based on tables, and write it up.

On the other end are what I’ll call crawls (wilderness crawls, dungeon crawls, etc). Here, the system generates encounters for you to navigate (often combat, but not always).

Most games exist somewhere in-between, with elements of each.
The way I played – doing Wilderness and Dungeon adventures – Scarlet Heroes was primarily a crawler. Now, I could easily have put in more story elements if that was what I wanted. But, I decided not to.

My experience so far in Ironsworn is that Ironsworn is MUCH more story-driven. For one, the basic Ironsworn rules don’t have dungeon rules (though they do have traveling rules that you can pretty easily turn into wilderness adventures, and the system is flexible enough that you can do a dungeon crawl – but the systems designed with this in mind are in the Delve supplement that I don’t have). This means that soloing Ironsworn is closer to a creative writing exercise, though definitely more gamish than Across the Stars.

A few things I’ve learned with this experience:

(1) I strongly prefer the tactile experience of rolling dice and working with character sheets and rule books and tokens and writing results in a composition book and all that to doing everything on my computer.

(2) When I’m tired, I prefer crawling over creative writing. “Here are some trolls, hit with sword or run away” is way easier, mentally, than “Here’s a couple random words that you have to interpret into a meaningful situation that flows logically from what came before.” Since I generally can’t play until after 9, I’m often tired when I’m playing. So, if I hit an issue in interpreting an Ironsworn prompt, it breaks the flow *real fast*.

(3) In virtually every solo game, strategic retreat and taking time to heal is an important strategy. Not doing that killed Bilbo in Scarlet Heroes, and not doing that almost killed my Ironsworn character. (He had to Face Death, but the Keeper of Death decided to spare him, if he took on a mission, which he did.)

(4) I really like soloing as a way of trying out new systems. I generally enjoy trying new systems, and this is a nice way to do that more or less on a whim. Really debating soloing Star Trek Adventures after Ironsworn, since I bought the PDFs of the books from Humble Bundle a while ago. This would be an interesting experience since STA is not *at all* designed for solo play. So, I’d probably want to supplement with some GM Emulator tools (Mythic, Adventure Crafter, Location Crafter, etc.), or make my own that are system-specific (which could be a fun exercise in itself).

(5) I don’t want to have to divide my brain while I’m playing – so having knowledge that is outside what my character knows is something I want to avoid. I want information to be discovered by me as a player and my character at the same time.

Anyway, it’s been fun, so I’ll probably keep (occasionally) doing solo RPGs in some form for a while.

Pandemic Wage Observations

~300 words, ~1 min reading time

Labor shortage “fun” fact:Inflation-adjusted weekly median earnings JUMPED in the 2nd quarter of 2020 (probably because so many low-wage workers got laid off), but have been steadily falling since then, and are now at the same level they were in the 4th quarter of 2019.

Meanwhile if we don’t adjust for inflation, we see the same jump in the 2nd quarter of 2020, followed by a gradual decline up to the end of 2020 – then a gradual increase.

In short: median wages were “falling” in the back half of 2020 because of low-wage workers being laid off in large numbers in early 2020 and then hired back. Now, wages are “rising”, but failing to keep up with inflation.

Also interesting:

When comparing the weekly earnings for the 1st decile (that is the line that separates the bottom 10% of earners from the top 90%) and the median weekly earnings (the line that separates the top and bottom half), one can see the roller coaster ride from the pandemic specifically hit those with lower incomes harder than average. The bottom 10% went from 50% of median weekly earnings down to about 49% by 3rd quarter of 2020, and is now up to 51.5% – the highest level in the past 10 years. (The lowest was 46.3% back in 2012.) The bottom 10% are also at the best ratio when compared to the top 10% over the past 10 years. (The lowest earning about 21.2% what the top 10% do, while 20%ish has been more typical.)

Note: remember – these are all comparisons of the lines separating, not total or average earnings for these groups. So, properly speaking, the is comparing the highest earner in the bottom 10% with the lowest earner in the top 10%. Or, alternatively, the middle of the bottom 20% with the middle of the top 20%.

Site to get this data and more: https://data.bls.gov/PDQWeb/le

Thinking about Late Policy

~1200 words, ~6 min reading time

I’m thinking of revising my late policy. For philosophical reasons, I don’t penalize grades simply because assignments are late. Instead of grade penalties, I require students to email me a late form which explains why the assignment was late, and has them say what they could have done to prevent it from being late. The idea is: (1) to make it a teaching moment, so students are more prepared when they face real, serious deadlines(“Hey, maybe I shouldn’t have waited until 11:55PM to submit something due at 11:59PM, because sometimes the internet goes down.”), and (2) to let the punishment fit the crime. Grading a late assignment is mildly inconvenient for me, so the punishment should be similarly mildly inconvenient.
However, this semester I noticed something: there are two different types of late assignment doers.

Type I (the most common): people who hand things in a little bit late, usually because of poor foresight. (Took longer than expected, computer problems, forgot about the assignment but had to work that night, etc.) Generally speaking, these students hand in very few assignments late. They intend to hand things in on time, and have reasonable (but imperfect) systems for getting things done on time.

Type II (the less common): people who hand in a bunch of stuff at (or near) the very end of the semester. This seems to happen for two reasons: (1) a strategic decision to prioritize work in classes with less forgiving late policies, and/or (2) some significant life event which then leads to poor mental health which creates a more severe interference with executive function. (The life event might just be poor mental health itself.)

It makes little sense to treat these two the same, as they are very different problems. The Type I case isn’t really a “problem” in any significant sense. These students just need to learn to give themselves more of a buffer than they think they need. Also, the work created for me from these students is pretty minimal, both individually and collectively. If you turn in an assignment before I even grade those handed in on time, then it’s really no less convenient for it to be late than for it to be on time. The late form method was designed with this type of case in mind, and I think it works well for this purpose.

The Type II case is a bigger problem from a learning perspective, as the “do everything at the end of the semester” method has been shown to be bad for academic performance and bad for students’ mental health. (So, this is especially bad if students are doing it because their mental health is already poor!) Plus, more selfishly, I find this kind of behavior extremely annoying, as it *does* increase my workload at a peak time in the semester, and the wide variety of assessments I’m being asked to grade (going all the way back to week 1!) requires a lot of mental switching which reduces grading efficiency. I don’t think late forms are the right intervention here. Instead, I think a heavier-handed approach is appropriate. Specifically, I think it would be good to meet with these students individually to talk about their situation. (This also has the added benefit that I am much nicer in person than via email, as it reminds me that I’m dealing with actual people.)

A simple method I’m thinking about using:

(1) If an assignment is < 1 week late, only the late form is required.

(2) If an assignment is > 1 week late, you have to meet with me to chat before I’ll accept it.

The problem I foresee with this is that I’d be increasing my end-of-semester workload significantly, as I’m adding meeting with students in addition to grading all the late work, giving finals, etc. However, there are two factors offsetting this concern: (1) the pattern seems to be a few students (<5%) turning in a large volume of end-of-semester late work, so I really wouldn’t be meeting with very many students, and (2) meeting with me is a bigger hassle for students, so that would encourage students to turn things in closer to on time.

But, to further offset this concern, what I really need is an *early identification* system so that I can intervene before things pile up too much. With my grading system, this is tricky. The system is designed so that students can choose their goal grade, and then have some choice about how to achieve this grade. So, when Student X doesn’t do Assignment A, it doesn’t necessarily mean much. They might just not need it for whatever their goal grade is.

I tried to provide some guidance this semester by giving students occasional “Grade Updates”, where I told them what work I had received and graded and what work they still needed to do for various grades. However, a few students still fell through the cracks here. (Some of whom just weren’t in class to get the Grade Updates, and some of whom either misunderstood the grade updates or just ignored them.) I spent quite a bit of time saying to myself “This small group of students isn’t going to pass the class. They come to class, but don’t do the work (which is almost all on Blackboard), and I can’t figure out WHY.” (Of course, I didn’t directly ask them. Apparently, I prefer just being baffled by this kind of nonsensical student behavior to gathering data. That’s the theorist in me, I suppose.)

Now, I could try to intuit my way to a system that identifies students that need more active intervention – but that seems likely to be unbalanced and open to my own biases. (For example, I have a preference for students that sit close to the front and participate in discussions. Students that hide in the back or don’t come to class are much less likely to catch my attention.)

A couple of options:

(1) Use statistics to figure out which of the early assignments are most strongly correlated to failing the course. This would allow me to flag those students that don’t do these assignments. This also saves me having to check in with students continuously – just focus on a few key assignments to figure out who to intervene with. Downside: correlations aren’t perfect, so still plenty of cracks for people to slip through.

(2) Have some progress standard triggers at various points in the semester. This minimizes the number of students that would fall through the cracks. Downside: I might end up triggering lots of meetings, which could be very time-consuming.

It’s a tricky thing figuring out how to strike the balance between giving students their independence (which is the side I tend to err on) and providing sufficient guidance for those students that need more extrinsic motivation in order to succeed. But, I suspect that, as our society is still going through and then beginning recovery from the pandemic, a more active role may be useful.

December Inflation Update

~600 words, ~3 min reading time

On Friday, the latest CPI numbers came out. We’re looking at a 6.8% increase in prices from November 2020 to November 2021, and a 0.8% increase from October 2021 to November 2021 alone. (In annualized terms, that’s nearly 10%.)

By Usonian standards, this is quite high – literally the highest rate we’ve seen in my lifetime. (Last time we saw an inflation rate this high was about 9 months before I was born. Coincidence? Almost certainly!)

As before, this rate is largely reflecting rising gasoline and fuel oil prices and rising prices for vehicles (both new and – even moreso – used). However, core inflation (which excludes energy and food, since those prices tend to be very volatile) is up 4.9%, which is a bit disturbing.

Also a bit disturbing is that the U of Michigan survey is showing inflation expectations of about 5% over the next 12 months. The 5 year TIPS breakeven inflation rate shows an expectation of averaging about 3% inflation over the next 5 years – about 0.5% higher than a month ago. Now, the Fed says they’re looking to target “average” inflation of 2% – though are *very* vague about over what time frame.

If we’re being forward looking, then literally every TIPS breakeven inflation rate is showing expected inflation over 2% – whether you’re looking at a 5, 7, 10, 20, or 30 year span. (This has been the case since early 2021.)

Looking backward, the ONLY time frame where average annual CPI inflation has been under 2%, ending in November 2021, is if we choose 2008 as our starting point.

All to say, it would be very hard for the Fed to justify *not* tightening up its policy at this point.

UPDATE in response to a question on Facebook. The question:
We were worried about a lack of inflation over the previous 12 years or so right? I remember headlines ” Why us inflation so low?” Is this partially an adjustment combined with supply chain problems and a pandemic?

My response:

I think it depends who you mean by “we”. But, there were some concerns for a while, though from October 2016-January 2020, CPI inflation was hovering consistently between 1.5% and 3%. So, it feels to me like that problem had faded.

Lots of things are going on that could explain this. Nominal GDP is basically back on trend now. Real GDP is a little higher than where it was pre-pandemic, but definitely not back on trend. Put another way: spending has recovered, but production hasn’t yet (running some quick stats, I estimate we’re about 2-3% below trend) – so we’re spending that money by paying higher prices rather than on (much) more stuff. This is consistent with there being some lingering supply-side issues.

On the monetary side, we saw a big increase in M2 money supply in early 2020, but M2 velocity tanked at the same time – people were basically just holding the new money rather than spending it (not surprising given the combination of virus fear and lockdowns). Since then, the money supply has continued to increase (though at a somewhat slower pace), but velocity has held constant – the new money is actually being spent basically at the pace that it’s being created.

Now, there is something of a philosophical debate here in terms of what monetary policy should do. NGDP targeters are, I suspect, fairly content with things at the moment. (Though Scott Sumner did recently suggest inflation rates are too high, and that the Fed should focus on fighting inflation – but his estimates for ideal inflation aren’t way off of current levels.) Meanwhile, those that are more concerned about money growth, price levels, or inflation rates are more disturbed. (In July, John Taylor compared the Fed’s current stance to that of the Arthur Burns Fed of the 1970s.)

No Time to Lift? A Quick Summary & Exercise Routines

~ 1250 words, ~6 min. reading time

I ran across this recent paper by Iversen et al. Basically, they were trying to figure out how to make a time-optimized lifting routine for people who don’t have much time to get to the gym. They have pretty good summaries of their findings, so I’m going to offer a couple quick routines for people with little to no equipment.

Routine 1: “I have dumbbells in a variety of weights (or adjustable dumbbells)” 2x per week to progress, 1x per week to maintain

This is the kind of routine I would do if I was more pressed for time than I am.

Set 1: 10 dumbbell squats (Deload rule: if the weight you choose makes it so you can’t do these, decrease the weight before the next set)

Rest 2+ minutes

Set 2: dumbbell squats, as many reps as possible, up to 20. (Deload/Progression rule: <10, decrease weight 5 lb per side for next work out. 10-11, keep weight the same for next workout, 12+, increase weight 5 lb per side for next work out, 15+, make that 10lb.)

Set 3: 20 reps of dumbbell floor press using a “rest-pause” technique. Do as many reps as possible (track reps for the first set), then pause for 20 seconds. Then, do as many as possible, pause 20 seconds, and so on, until you have a total of at least 20 reps. (Deload/Progression rule: <10 reps in first set, decrease weight 2.5 lb per side for next work out. 10-11, keep weight the same for next workout, 12+, increase weight 2.5 lb per side for next work out, 15+, make that 5lb.)

Set 4: 20 reps of one-arm dumbbell rows using rest-pause, as above (do each side separately, and start and count first set with non-dominant side).

I suspect this would take about 15 minutes to complete, maybe less. And, if it’s more convenient for you, you can break this up over 3 days – so instead of working out 2 days a week, you work out 6 days a week, but the “workout” is a single exercise that can be completed in under 5 minutes.

What if you have more time? In that case, increase the number of sets of squats (2+ min rest between), always progressing/deloading based on the last set, and increase the number of reps of the other two exercises, progressing/deloading based on the first set of those.

Reasoning: evidence is that people can generally progress with as little as 4 sets per muscle group per week. Iversen et al suggest using 3 exercises: a leg exercise (like squat), a push (like floor press), and a pull (like rows). Now, technically this looks like 4 sets of legs and 2 sets of push and 2 of pull per week. HOWEVER, Iversen et al. also cite research that using rest-pause for 20 total reps is similar to doing 5 sets of 4 (and actually might be better by some measures). Also, training TO failure instead of just “close to” failure is way easier for those of us without as much bodily awareness. If you ask me “How many more reps could you do?” I literally don’t know. It’s just something I can’t feel easily. But, I *can* feel when my body just doesn’t want to do any more – like if I can get a partial rep done but no more. Why not use rest-pause for squats? Rest-pause can be pretty intense, so it is generally not advised for “big” exercises. I’m pushing it here with the floor presses because, in my opinion, dumbbell floor presses are much safer than barbell bench presses. The reason is simple: if you fail a dumbbell press, you can drop the dumbbells on the floor. But, if you fail on a barbell press, you can end up dropping the bar on your neck, causing serious problems – maybe even killing you. So, DON’T do rest-pause for barbell bench presses. Always be aware of what happens if things go wrong. In terms of rep choices – I recommend 10 because that’s enough that warm up sets are not necessary.

Routine 2: “I have me!” 2x per week to progress, 1x per week to maintain

Suppose you have no actual equipment. Perhaps you’re just starting or you’re on vacation. Now what? I highly recommend looking at Start Bodyweight. It turns out that your body doesn’t *care* where resistance comes from. Here, I’m just boiling down based on Iversen et al’s principles.

Exercise 1: 20 bodyweight squats using a rest-pause technique – do as many as you can (pick a variation where you can do 10-20 in the first set), rest 20 sec, then do as many as you can again, etc. until you get up to 20+ total.

Exercise 2: 20 pushups using a rest-pause technique – do as many as you can (pick a variation where you can do 10-20 in the first set), rest 20 sec, then do as many as you can again, etc. until you get up to 20+ total.

Exercise 3: 20 horizontal pulls using a rest-pause technique – do as many as you can (pick a variation where you can do 10-20 in the first set), rest 20 sec, then do as many as you can again, etc. until you get up to 20+ total.

Progression: try to add a rep to the 1st set each workout. Once you get up to 20 in a single set, move up to the next variation

What if you have more time? Increase the the number of reps, or add additional exercises from Start Bodyweight.

Routine 3: “I have bands!” 2 x per week to make progress, 1 x per week for maintenance.

One of the first pieces of equipment I bought was resistance bands. They’re super cheap – you can usually get a set for $20-$30. I bought them because I wasn’t sure that I was actually going to stick with it enough to make it worthwhile to buy weights, which tend to be much pricier. (Note: I don’t have a *lot* of weights, and what I have are the least expensive I could find, but I’ve still spent about $200-$250 on them over time.) So, they’re a good first step while you’re trying to build momentum. They’re also very portable, so good for traveling.

Routine is simple: follow routine 2’s structure, doing resistance band squats, chest presses, and rows, progress using the same rules as in Routine #2.

Various Notes

(1) These routines are designed to provide SOME results with a minimal time commitment. They are NOT optimized for results.

(2) For better results: (A) add in two more types of exercises – a vertical pull (pull up for example) and a vertical push (like a shoulder press), (B) increase the number of sets. There seems to be some evidence that 4-6 sets per muscle group per workout is good, with the goal of getting 10+ sets per week. While there is some debate about this, there is some evidence that “overtraining”, at least in terms of number of sets per week, is not a real thing, as improving results have been documented all the way up to 45 sets of an exercise each week. There are, however, diminishing returns for most exercises it seems. So, while 10 sets is better than 9, the benefit of bumping from 4 to 5 is greater than bumping from 9 to 10. There is also *some* evidence that there may even be negative returns in sets per WORKOUT past a certain point. But, that’s unclear. In brief: it seems fairly clear that the best way to add sets is to spread them out over time in any case.

(3) I know there were a couple comments related to this paper that the paper published. Unfortunately, it’s the weekend and I don’t have access to the journal from home, and those comments are locked. I’ll want to check those at some point.