Prediction Special: 2017 NHL Playoffs

The West:

(1) Chicago / (8) Nashville Nashville is a fun team to watch now? It’s weird even saying that, and, yes, you still have to get past the excruciatingly ugly home uniforms. But Forsberg, Arvidsson and Jarnkrok are exciting, skilled and hard-working. Also fun: saying Jarnkrok’s name over and over in your mind until you can’t stop and it no longer has any semblance of meaning. OK, I lied, that only seems fun before it actually happens to you. Still, I kind of expect Chicago will be able to pull out the series in the end. But I am not actually bound to give my true opinion here, so why not predict the upset? Maybe Pekka Rinne stands on his head for old time’s sake and it’s Preds in 7.

Conference III Grudgematch: Minnesota / St. Louis Charlie Coyle is a forward who wears number 3. For that alone, Minnesota is cursed and will lose. Do not toy with nature, Charlie Coyle. Also, have you seen how the teams’ goaltenders have been performing lately? The Wild’s Devan Dubnyk has fallen apart worse than things, while The Blues’ Jake Allen has been better at stopping pucks than this one guy Jake Allen who was in my welding blueprint reading class is at reading welding blueprints. Does that matter? Some people think that the playoffs are like a magical concussion that wipes away any unpleasant memories of the end of the regular season, and gives everyone a fresh start. But (hey, are you listening, NHL?) it’s not good to engage in magical thinking about concussions. St. Louis in 5

(2) Anaheim / (7) Calgary Of what I’ve seen, which is admittedly very very little, Anaheim has not impressed me much this year. Meanwhile, Calgary has not impressed me much during the entirety of my hockey-watching life (and also in any other way, to be honest). So, a tough series to call. Give it to the Ducks just for having Hampus Lindholm, who, in the words of Tyler Dellow, must surely be one of the greatest Hampuses of all time. Anaheim in 7

California Grudgematch: Edmonton / San Jose How sad is the Western conference is this year? So sad that this will be the only series I’ll be actually interested in. Sad! Still, this series should be very entertaining. My theory is that with Burns and Thornton’s enormous beards, everyone in San Jose assumed they’re still playing the 2016 playoffs, and they’re bound to get playoff fatigue. Whereas playoff fatigue is not an issue for the Oilers. They’re what they called “tanned, rested and ready” on that front. Plus, I bet McLellan knows just what to do to discombobulate his former team. Oilers in 6

The East:

(1) Washington / (8) Toronto It is with great sadness that I must admit Toronto will be a scary good team soon. Luckily, that time is not yet now. Meanwhile, Alex “Silver Fox” Ovechkin and the Capitals are scary good currently. Who controls the present, controls the (very near) future. Both teams rely heavily on the power play, which will hurt them in the coming season of “olde-timeye playoffe hockeye,” but since the disadvantage will be almost symmetrical, that won’t be enough to generate an upset. Sorry, Toronto. Caps in 5

(2) Montreal / (7) NYR There’s been a lot of ups and downs in cheering for Montreal lately. For instance, they hired the only available coach who manages to look more idiotic than Michel Therrien. (On the other hand, he is a lot better as a coach). And you can’t help thinking of what might have been had they kept Subban and acquired some goalscoring at the deadline instead of getting rid of it. Still, the sound goaltending fundamentals of Carey “Jesus” Price should be enough to see them through the first round. Montreal in 7

The Metro Still Sucks, Though Not By Any Objective Metric, Grudgematch: P-burgh / ‘Lumbus John Tortorella must die. Or if not die, at least lose in the first round of the playoffs. Comme-ci, comme-ça. Whatever. I’m vengeful, but easy to please. And I think I will be pleased here. Because, have you heard? Sidney Crosby is still really good. I don’t have anything else, so here’s a factoid: the two towns are only 185 miles by interstate away from each other. In between lies the true Heart of America, which it’s recommended to traverse at top speed, yelling “Truuuump!” as loudly as possible. Anyway. Pens in 6

Flortheast Grudgematch: Ottawa / Boston I’ve never understood it a single time that Ottawa made the playoffs. This year, it’s perhaps less weird than that time everyone on the team got injured, and the playoff Sens were led by Wercioch, Silfverberg and Zibanejad and the Ham-burglar was a thing. But it’s still weird. Ottawa is not a good team. True, they have Karlsson, but come on. Boston, on the other hand is a good possession team that’s been plagued by weird streaks. Maybe they should go to a doctor and have that checked out. For now, though, Boston in 5
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Top 10 Businesses in Bellingham, WA

It’s my last day (for the time being) in Bellingham, and what better way to celebrate than with commerce! Here are some business establishments in the town that come with the Rated Zed seal of approval:

  1. Vital (Bouldering Gym) — The problems are interestingly set, which is really the only

    Some climbers

    thing that matters. But also, the gym is rarely crowded, there is exercise equipment and a tread-wall, and membership is cheap and comes with 24 hour access. If you’ve never gone bouldering at 2 in the morning, well, here’s your chance!

  2. Pelmeni (Restaurant) — Pelmeni’s got everything you need, and nothing you don’t. There are two items on the menu — pelmeni (a type of russian dumpling) with potatoes, and pelmeni with meat. They are both delicious, and they both come with caraway rye bread and lots of sour cream. Also, there’s a record player for the music, it’s open late for your after-drinking food needs, and the owner looks like Danny DeVito, only possibly even older, even shorter, and even rounder.


    Some pel’meni

  3. Wander Brewing (Brewery) — Bellingham is an exceptional place in terms of the quantity of breweries. Unfortunately not that many of them have beer I like. Happily, the one with the best beer also is the one closest to my house. Coincidence? Yes, actually, but it’s a happy coincidence indeed.
  4. The co-op bakery (Bakery) — The co-op is way too expensive to get produce at (Youngstock is the place to get produce). But the co-op bakeshop makes (I think) three kinds of green smoothies, the green shade of each is slightly different (one is a very pleasant almost-ultramarine) and the deliciousness of each is high.
  5. Pizza Time (Restaurant) — I’ve never had their pizza, so I don’t know if it’s any good. The reason they’re on here is their slogan, which I think is absolutely genius. Here it is: “When it’s time for pizza, it’s Pizza Time”. I mean, how can you argue with that?
  6. Henderson’s (Bookstore) — Lots of used books, with an excellent selection, and an arrangement system (by topic) that I really like. I found so many good books that I wasn’t expecting here.
  7. The Black Drop (Coffeeshop) — Bellingham’s best coffeeshop may not be the most “authentic” or “artisanal” or whatever. But it’s got a robot sculpture, teas you can smell, specialty drinks, and by far the best people. So it’s the best.


    Some beer

  8. Village Books (Bookstore) — an institution. Employee-owned, with three floors of new books and old, and a nice reading space with beautiful views of the bay, and a cafe with good soup.
  9. Rolling Donuts (Bakery) — The second establishment on this list that I’ve never actually visited. But shortly after I first moved to North America, I remember reading my friends’ dictionary of English-language slang for Russian speakers, and one thing stuck with me: the suggested idiom for not caring at all was “not giving a fuck”, which makes sense. The suggested intensifier of this phrase was “not giving a flying fuck”. And the suggested intensifier of that phrase was “not giving a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut”. When I learned that people didn’t actually use this phrase, I was appalled (rightly, I think). Don’t think that’s enough of a reason to put Rolling Donuts into the top 10 business establishments in Bellingham? Well, I don’t give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut what you think.
  10. Hardware Sales (Hardware Store) — Hardware Sales was there for me when I needed a new shower fitting. It was there for me when I needed welding gloves. It was there for me when I needed solder. Point is, it’s always there for you. Considering the store is like a block and a half in size, it would be kind of a disgrace if that wasn’t true, but still.


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Schrödinger’s Cat of State News

Looking at the news out of Russia today required a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics.  It appears that either protests involving 100’s of arrests took place in Moscow and a host of other cities, as Moscow Times or Dozhd’ would have you believe:

Or, no such thing happened, at all, as per the state owned and most widely watched TV news outlet Perviy Kanal:perviy_kanal

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Gorsuch, TransAm dissent

Attention Deficit Warning: you’re about to read a long boring text with no pictures.

In Neil Gorsuch nomination hearings, two of his opinions were seized on by his detractors. One is “TRANSAM TRUCKING, INC. v. ADMINISTRATIVE REVIEW BOARD, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR“, where it was alleged that Gorsuch, feeling an instinctive sympathy for large corporations and disdain for the common man, arrived at an absurd conclusion that a driver could be rightfully fired for trying to avoid freezing to death, and in doing so disobeying instructions.

The following is an attempt to ascertain if this criticism has merit.


Alphonse Maddin, an employee of TransAm, was stuck on I-88 in Illinois, with frozen breaks on his trailer, and a non-working auxiliary power unit, which was supposed to provide heating.  He reported his situation to TransAm, which sent a repair-person to aid him.  He eventually, feeling numbness in his extremities and difficulty breathing because of the cold, became concerned about continuing to sit in an unheated vehicle, and advised his supervisor that he was leaving to seek help.  His supervisor told him not to leave the trailer and to either drag the trailer with the frozen breaks, or to continue waiting for the repair-person.  Maddin disobeyed these instructions and instead, drove the truck without the trailer in an attempt to find help.  He was fired for leaving the trailer.

Opinion and Dissent

At issue here was a decision made by an administrative law judge (ALJ) and Department of Labor Administrative Review Board (ARB), which found that the driver’s termination was wrongful, because it’s chief cause was a “protected action” (an action which could not result in termination) under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA).  The statute which was deemed to have been violated makes it “unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because . . . the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.” “.

The majority opinion found that the termination did indeed violate this statute.  To do so, it interpreted the wording “refusing to operate a vehicle” broadly, to include “refusing to operate in the prescribed manner, instead operating it in a manner that would alleviate the safety hazard”. To support this reading, the opinion cited the case “BEVERIDGE V. WASTE STREAM ENVIRONMENTAL INC.” as precedent.  This case discusses a nearly identical situation, and indeed supports the broad (and in a way counter-intuitive) reading.  From the cited opinion:

Under the ALJ’s reasoning, a refusal to drive an overweight vehicle would not be covered if the load was reduced by the employee to a legally acceptable level and then delivered. We do not agree. An employee who refuses to drive illegally does not lose his STAA protection by correcting the illegality and then proceeding to drive.

Gorsuch, in his dissent, disagrees with this broad reading. Instead, he reads the text narrowly, relying on the dictionary definition of the word “operate”. It’s hard to claim that this in itself is objectionable, given Gorsuch’s originalist/textualist philosophy, however several other aspects of his opinion seemed disconcerting.

First, the tone of his opinion is brash, condescending and irritated.  It is full of insinuations to the effect that Maddin’s claims are frivolous, and that the fact that the case bubbled up all the way up to his court, without having been resolved in favor of TransAm, is in itself a malfeasance.  From his dissent:

 “…there’s simply no law … giving employees the right to operate their vehicles in ways their employers forbid. Maybe the Department would like such a law, maybe someday Congress will adorn our federal statute books with such a law. But it isn’t there yet.”

The word “adorn” is telling.

Second, there is no mention in his dissent of the precedent cited in the majority opinion.  Nor is there an explanation of this omission.  During his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch stated that if the wording of a statute is clear, the work of a judge stops there, and he needs to look no further.  However, “clear” in this sense would suggest “clear to the judge hearing the case”, not “clear to any reasonable person”.  The fact that there is an opinion which interprets the wording in a different fashion would suggest that it is not universally clear.  This “clear to me” standard seems to allow for ignoring precedents in a whole variety of cases at the whim of the judge.  For example “‘Freedom of speech’ is clear, thus there is no need to rely on precedents establishing exemptions for hate speech, libel, obscenity…”.

Third, the opinion goes out of it’s way to insinuate that the temperature experienced by Maddin, while being below comfort level, was not life threatening, without explicitly stating so, or providing justification for this.  For instance, he describes Maddin’s option of staying in the truck as “unpleasant”.  While the supposition that the temperature wasn’t life threatening isn’t strictly necessary to support his reasoning, the fact that Gorsuch chooses to insinuate this in several instances, suggests that he thought that his reasoning would not be sufficiently convincing without it.  But in fact, Gorsuch contradicts himself.  In the following passage, criticizing the majority opinion, he at the end, grants them that Maddin’s actions were indeed prompted by safety concerns, and it would stand to reason that if remaining in the vehicle was a safety hazard, it would be because the temperature was indeed so cold as to be life (or disfigurement) threatening.

To be sure, my colleagues invoke the statute’s purposes — employee “health” and “safety” — and suggest the result they reach is consistent with them. After all, they note, the employee here who chose to defy his employer’s instructions and drive his truck as he thought best didn’t do so to write a novel or with some other esoteric end in mind, but because he bore safety concerns. Just the sort of employee safety concerns, my colleagues indicate, Congress intended to protect. 

Even supposing all this is true, though, when the statute is plain it simply isn’t our business to appeal to legislative intentions.

I assume that “Even supposing all this is true”, is shorthand for “All of this is true, as there is no evidence to the contrary”, because in the text of the case I did not see any such evidence.

In short, I found this opinion of Gorsuch really poor, and inconsistent with the majority of the praise he received at the nomination hearing. It’s possible that he wrote it on a bad day, but he stood behind it without any qualms at the nomination hearing.

Posted in law, politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How people think about scientific concepts

A couple of times a year, I taught a class in introductory physics for non-science majors. Once for this class, I was discussing a problem in Newtonian mechanics with some students.

I think maybe we were looking at a moving cart that suddenly had an unbalanced force applied to it. Maybe I asked what the effect of having this unbalanced force be large rather than small would be. Jason* said “the cart would move faster”

And I said something along the lines of “I see where you’re going here, but in this case we want to be very precise in that what we’re talking about isn’t the speed, it’s the acceleration

At which point Brock* turned to his neighbour, and said in mock outrage: “Dammit, Jason*, words have meanings!”

I hope you can see that this was really funny.

But it also underscores the way most people think about scientific concepts. Whether because I’ve been studying physics for long enough that I don’t notice it any more, or because English is not my native language — I don’t know why — but it doesn’t bother me that velocity and acceleration mean totally different things and you can’t use one when you mean the other. It sure does bother a lot of other people, though.

I thought about the episode the other day when I overheard two administrators talking in the campus coffeeshop. They were (I think) discussing an administration effectiveness seminar that they had just been at. Janet* said “what are we supposed to do about learning objectives*?” To which Cindy* replied “no, we shouldn’t use learning objectives at all, we need to use learning outcomes*!”. To me this conversation sounded funny. Not only was it funny, but it made me want to turn to them and say “Dammit, Janet*, words have meanings!”

The precise meanings of scientific terms seem just as arbitrary to people. “Force” and “power” are both strength words. Trying to say that they are different things entirely, and to say that you are wrong when you say power when you mean force comes off as ridiculous pedantry.

*Names changed to protect the innocent. Terms changed cause I forgot the original ones.

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Grades are a bad system. Before I began teaching, and even for a while after, I considered being against grades to be the philosophical realm of kumbaya-singing hippies (by the way, why is that song such a strong cliché associated with a particular mindset?). Something like “why can’t we all get along” and “minds are like parachutes”. But I’ve only taught for a couple of years, and now I’m somewhat against grades as well. The problem isn’t that evaluation of students is a bad idea. Evaluation of students is a great idea. It’s that the current system of grades is not a very good way of doing it.

The goal of a grade system as I see it from the student’s perspective is to allow the student to signal their ability to others. And that’s fine if someone gets a really high grade, like 100%. We have a good idea of what 100% means. I find that basically everyone who gets 100% in my classes is hard working, has a good grasp of the material, and is engaged.

But say someone gets 83% in my class. That’s a pretty good grade. But it actually doesn’t let the student signal usefully. Here is a profile of several students who got 83% in my classes.

Student A was very bright and engaged, but decided to skip one of the exams. She didn’t have any excuse for this, and also didn’t come and retake the exam even though I offered her this possibility.

Student B was really excited about the subject and worked hard but didn’t come into the class prepared, and so had a lot of trouble understanding the material, especially at first

Student C basically understood the material and did well on exams, but was so sloppy with homework that even when he did it, he got most things wrong

Student D was very hard working and able to remember a lot of information, but had trouble with  some very basic concepts.

What do I do with this if I’m someone the student wants to signal to? If I’m an employer? There may be situations where I would, say, strongly prefer to hire student A over student D. Or, there may be situations where I would instead strongly prefer student D. But the point is, they are very different students, and would make very different employees. What information is that 83% giving? My contention is that it gives nothing at all beyond “it’s a pass, and it’s not 100%”

So from the point of view of a student or an employer, these grades are close to useless.

And yet the difference between, say, 83% and 85% drives students to immense amounts of stress and unfortunate behaviour. This week in class, for example, a student gave an angry tirade during class time in which he said that “people’s lives hang in the balance” because he got an 18/20 instead of 20/20 on an evaluation. I’m pretty sure people’s lives don’t actually hang in the balance over two points, and if they did, that would be terrible. But even the fact that students can convince themselves that they do shows how out of whack and stressful the whole arrangement is.

Are grades at least good for me, the instructor?

From my point of view, grades are supposed to be like karma: a system that motivates the students to learn despite themselves. It’s true that the primary motivation for most students in most courses is getting a good grade, so it’s somewhat useful. However, I think the current grading system manages the allocation of that motivation poorly, in that it diverts all motivation into doing make-work projects. Students always want to do things for extra credit rather than do the assigned work. The problem with extra credit is that while it is easy to demonstrate conscientiousness by doing a bunch of extra work, it’s much harder to demonstrate understanding. As a result, students are basically not necessarily motivated to take the time to understand things. Whereas the stress they experience is pretty real

The current grades system also leads to problems like grade inflation and using student grades as teacher evaluation as I’ve talked about recently. Not to mention how frustrating grading itself can be. So it would be ideal if there was some alternative.

I think in a small class setting like I have, written evaluations can make sense. But even something like a three-axis system where I could write “extraordinary / much better than typical student in class / better than typical student in class / typical / worse than typical / much worse than typical / unclear” for conscientiousness, understanding and engagement. Like yeah, I see the problem with this system. It might end up being extremely biased against minorities. So maybe this is also a bad system. But that doesn’t mean the current grading system is a good one.

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Teacher Evaluation

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, controversy in education in the US is about standardized testing. And specifically, using standardized testing to evaluate K-12 teachers. Intelligent people, whether supporters or detractors, generally agree that good teaching can be much more than just getting a student to pass a certain standardized test. At the same time, there needs to be a method of evaluating whether teachers are doing a good job.

Where does my teaching experience put me? My students, being post-secondary, don’t generally have to take mandated standardized tests. So I don’t have direct experience with this form of evaluation. But I do have experience with some aspects of “automated” teacher evaluation, which may be generalizable.

I am someone who, temperamentally, can easily fall prey to a kind of wishywashy appeal of stuff like “inspiring” teachers. I’m inclined to romanticize non-quantifiable things, and I know this about myself. I am also a scientist by training. Therefore, I try to be doubly wary of any argument against using quantifiable data.

At the same time, my experience in seeing some evaluation metrics for teachers gives me pause. Of course, you evaluate what’s quantifiable. You evaluate what’s quantifiable because that’s what you can evaluate. But being quantifiable in itself doesn’t guarantee that something is meaningful. And a meaningless number, if it is used to justify important decisions, can be worse than no number at all.

And often, when evaluating teachers, administration uses metrics that don’t seem meaningful to me.

For instance, it is generally agreed that an important principle of good teaching practice is to match your evaluations, what you teach, and what you want the students to learn. This seems to me obviously a good idea.

Part of what is necessary for this matching to happen is to make sure the things you want the students to learn are tangible skills and actions. Because it’s only tangible skills and actions that can be well evaluated. You can’t test the students on whether they “understand Gauss’ Law” for example, but you can test whether they can “apply Gauss’ Law to determine the electric field inside an insulating sphere”. So it’s important that the learning outcomes (what you want students to get out of taking a course) are things you can test.

My school wants to make sure that this is the case for our classes. The idea behind it is sensible. But the method for ensuring this is not, in my opinion. They look to the syllabus for what the listed learning outcomes are for the course. And they count what proportion of learning outcomes have “action” verbs. And if it’s not 100%, they write you an e-mail, telling you to change the syllabus so that it’s 100%.

(And then another e-mail. And then there are several meetings. etc…)

But judging how well your teaching matches your evaluation by the proportion of action verbs in your syllabus is worse than useless. It’s actively bad. I don’t know how much of standardized teacher evaluation is doing something of this kind. But I worry that at least some is.

At the same time, what is clear to me is that teacher evaluation is necessary. My suggestion is that it be done by peers sitting in and giving feedback on each others’ classes. This is of course imperfect, imprecise, and prone to gaming of the system. But I think it’s the least bad method we’ve got.

Posted in INMJTEY, shit we have no idea about | 1 Comment