Blank dice are a new favorite thing.

Playlist of music in this post: Spotify

Risk, Dice, and SARS-CoV-2

In the age of SARS-CoV-2, one of my personal disappointments is that individual citizens have been put in charge of analyzing both their own behavior, and also that of others, and deciding the epidemiological risk therein. Individual citizens will always have to choose which risks they're willing to take, but certainly the job of assigning risk factors to behaviors is best left to professionals.

That said, risk has been on my mind lately and I thought I'd share how I contemplate risk and chance in my own life: the simple, useful die.

A blank, ten-sided die

Let's choose something bad: losing half your money. If there's a 10% chance of that bad thing happening, will you lose any cash?

Just how likely is 10%?
The literal answer to that question is "10% is 10% likely", but I think a practical answer could use additional considerations.

Rolling 1 die, once
In most cases, I think of risk as a somewhat literal roll of the dice. If something has a 40% chance of happening, take a blank ten-sided die, paint 4 sides orange, roll it, and see what happens.

The top and bottom of a ten-sided die with 4 orange sides, and the results of a single roll

Similarly, if something has a 10% chance of happening, take a ten-sided die, paint 1 side orange, roll it, and see what happens.

A look at all ten sides, and the results of a single roll

We generally understand something with a 10% chance of happening probably won't happen. Most of us interpret a 10% chance of rain as "it's not going to rain".

A look at all sides, and a single roll

Rolling 1 die, once a lot of times
We can apply this idea to our 10% chance of losing some cash: Take a blank die, tag one side with orange marker, give it a roll, see what happens.

A look at all sides of the die, and single roll -- womp womp :(

If you, right now, were to grab our "lose half your money" die and give it a roll, that single orange side probably wouldn't come up. However, you would understand the orange side could come up.

What if you roll the die twice?

The results of two rolls

What if you roll it twenty times?

The results of twenty rolls

What about one hundred times? One thousand?? Three hundred million?

The missing results of one hundred, one thousand, and three hundred million die rolls

After three hundred million rolls, the 10% something that "probably won't happen" is all-but-guaranteed to happen, frequently.[1]

So... just how likely is 10%?
The literal answer is "10% is 10% likely". I think the practical answer needs additional consideration: it depends on how often you take the chance.

Our "lose half your money" die only has a 10% chance of losing any money. So does taking the risk mean the bad thing happens?

The results of one final die roll

The results of one thousand simulated die rolls

It partially depends on how many times you roll the die.

Can the chances be influenced?
Let's go back to our 10% rain forecast for a moment... something like the weather is beyond our day-to-day control: there's nothing we can do today to increase or decrease the chances it will rain tomorrow.

Baking is more in our control... What are the chances I'll burn these cookies?

Cookie dough

These are chances that can be influenced:

  • Did I set a timer?

    • No, I didn't... (50% chance they burn)

    A die representing burnt cookie risk, without timer usage

    • Yes, I did! (10% chance they burn)

    A die representing burnt cookie risk, with timer usage

Some chances can be meaningfully shifted into your favor, without too much cost or too many negative consequences. Finding those opportunities is generally a good thing.[2]

Pulling it all together
For bad things like losing money, or SARS-CoV-2, I generally consider those two areas of risk mitigation:

  • Can I reduce the number of die rolls?
  • Can I change the chances? (Can I reduce the number of orange sides?)

Can I reduce the number of die rolls?

I spend much less time around people than I did in the Before Times. As a natural-born introvert, the isolation hasn't been driving me insane and I'm fortunate to have a job I can do from home.

Personally, I view each instance that I'm around another person as a roll of the die; my daily commute would put me in the presence of 100 different people, all by itself. That alone is a lot of die rolling day-after-day, week-after-week. Since I can reduce the number of times I'm around another person, I can reduce the number of die rolls.

Can I change the chances?

Wearing a mask, keeping 6 feet from people, and meeting outside are all things I can personally do, and they will all do wonders to remove those orange sides and shift SARS-CoV-2 risk in my favor.

Additional Reading
The Signal and the Noise

Tracking daily tasks
I recently made a list of 8 things I'd love to do daily:

  • Dance
  • Exercise
  • Journal
  • Play guitar
  • Play piano
  • Produce some sort of creative output
  • Read
  • Stretch

Ideally, I'd do all 8 things every day; realistically, I'd be thrilled with 4 things every day.

When considering ways to keep these items front of mind, I turned to the tools I already use: Google Keep, Microsoft To Do, Microsoft Planner.

I immediately ran into some important philosophical dissonance: most software expressly keeps track of whether you did or did not complete tasks; I was looking for a clean slate, each day, no matter what... none of the guilt of yesterday's undone tasks.

Next, naturally, I considered creating my own solution... perhaps something with Power Automate in Microsoft 365? Or a quick Android app? After a bit of noodling and Googling, I quickly realized my best solution would be something very low-tech.

8 cards and 2 bowls... like my current pencil-and-paper Events App, this is a win for analog technology.

This solution makes it easy to keep track of what I've done on any given day, and re-spawning the tasks is a breeze. As an added bonus, there's something grounding about touching actual wooden bowls and paper cards... a good reminder that it's nice to occasionally live in the real world.

Five Albums

  • Change the Whole Thing, Maggie Rose
  • Cut to Impress, Maggie Rose
  • folklore, Taylor Swift
  • RTJ4, Run The Jewels
  • Unfollow The Rules, Rufus Wainwright

Spotify playlist

  1. It will happen about thirty million times, give-or-take. ↩︎

  2. For the record, I did not burn those cookies. I did, however, use too much flour when making the dough. ↩︎