Elections are the cornerstone of democracy.  The right to vote is a privilege enjoyed by too few in this world, and exercising one’s voice in society is a duty of which too few who have the right take advantage.

I voted for the first time in November 2008, for Barack Obama as president.  I don’t recall for whom else I voted; hell, I’m not even sure if I was registered at my parent’s home in Western New York, or at one of my college addresses Upstate.  Given that I clearly recall filling out my absentee ballot in a thrilling statistics lecture, I’m going to go with the former.

In November 2010, I was a few months into my senior year of college.  I did not vote.  Midterms were simply not on my radar, and I had college senior… stuff to do.  But midterms aren’t on most people’s radars, and those of us on the more liberal side of the political spectrum are these days paying dearly for our abstention that year.  Two long long years later, having moved to and registered to vote in California, I stood in a short line on a chilly Tuesday morning at an apartment complex just up the road from mine.  I again voted for Barack Obama, as well as for Dianne Feinstein as my senator.  (I am appreciating the hell out of both of them these days…)

Looking back, I’m amazed at how much my life changed from 2010 to 2014.  I was graduated from college, gained a job, moved across the country, lost a job, gained another, and finally settled into an illusory stability.  What didn’t change, though, was my habit of not voting in midterm elections.  2014 came and went: California (re)elected a Democratic governor, the House of Representatives stayed Republican, the Senate swung extremely far to the right, and again, we on the left are paying for our abstention.

2016 was hell.  Politically, things felt different for the worse, and the events of that excruciatingly long year marked a major change in my own perspectives.  I voted not only in the general election for President (as was typical), but also in the primaries in June.  It felt good.  I felt powerful.

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Making history. #Vote #ImWithHer

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Then the results rolled in that night.

Now we’re in the sunken place.

From now until forever, I’m voting in the midterm elections, as well as state and local elections in odd years.  I cannot afford to abandon my civic duty any longer.  As a Californian, my vote doesn’t matter much on the national stage — my senator is guaranteed to be a Democrat (and likely to remain Dianne Feinstein), and my representative here in San Francisco will no doubt continue to be Nancy Pelosi.  What I can do is run up the margins on national Democratic candidates, as well as keep the state governorship and legislature in the blue, not to mention support ballot initiatives and elect local representatives to continually improve California and the Bay Area.

If there are a few thousand more people like me, people who’ve never voted in midterms before but are so shaken now that they’re 100% permanently done being on the sidelines of democracy, then come one month from now we’ll be saying hello to a Democratic House, and, maybe if we get a miracle, a Democratic Senate.  That’s the only way we can hope to begin to get out of this every day existential nightmare.

Staying home is not an option.  The deck is stacked against progressives, liberals, minorities, women — basically anyone who isn’t a white man.  As a white man myself, this is completely unacceptable.  Fortunately, the best way to unrig the system is to overwhelm it with progressive turnout.

I’ll be doing my part on November 6th; I hope you will too.


Shots in the Dark

A new day is upon us.  Again.  Hope springs eternal in Buffalo (at least until the seasons begin), but this year feels different.  I don’t know if it’s the luck of the lottery balls, or the shedding of a few old pieces, or the rise of the kids — something is going to break in favor of the Sabres this year.  It’s about time, dontcha think?

Then again, I feel like I say this every year, so my expectations are low.  Indeed, the point of this post is to make another set of wildly inaccurate predictions for the final standings of the 2018-19 NHL season.  I wasn’t particularly close last year, but that never stops me from trying again.  At least this year, I waited until the preseason was finished — many a game-changing performance or injury is “accounted for” here, so these should be closer to right, right?  Without further ado or opining, here they are:

Like last year, I reset the teams to normal by inverting their PDO number, and a rough estimate of the point effects of man-games lost to injury.  From there, I added a coefficient based on my impression of their offseason moves, and finally a gut fudge factor, wherein I basically ignored everything that came before it and set the team’s points based on how close or far off I thought the previous output point total was.  It’s an extremely effective method, and is sure to be fool proof.

Obviously, hockey is just about entirely random.  Injuries can affect the same team twice in a row; PDO can also remain sky high for just about no reason.  And of course, unproven players can have a massive effect on a team’s fortunes.  When you’ve got a whole roster of unproven guys, you just might go to the Stanley Cup Final against literally all odds.


Now, how to justify this?  Let’s go down the list, starting in the East.

I don’t know that the Maple Leafs are truly the best team in the Eastern Conference, but that offensive firepower is scary.  The Lightning follow up closely, and it’s sure to be these two fighting for tops in the Atlantic all year.  The Panthers are a team on the rise, and the efforts of last year’s second half showed they can compete when needed; I have them surpassing an aging Bruins team that didn’t do much this offseason.  Also I want that intra-Florida first round series so bad.  In the Metro, I am going with a dark horse Philadelphia team to win the division.  Praise be to our lord Gritty.  The Capitals’ Stanley Cup hangover will follow them a bit, but they’ll finish second ahead of a Pittsburgh team that, like Boston, seemed to get worse this offseason.  Finally, I’ve heard (and seen) nothing but good things about the Hurricanes’ youngsters this year.  With a new coach and a new outlook, they might just make it into the playoffs after a nine season absence.  I know, I said that last year too…

The non-playoff teams in the East weren’t so tough.  Columbus squeaks out of the picture as UFA troubles cause too much distraction.  The Sabres take a giant leap forward (you know, like I predicted last season), but it’s still not quite enough to get into the wild card.  The Devils don’t have much depth outside of Taylor Hall, so they don’t quite pull off the miracle run again.  The Islanders are a shock to be this high, to be honest, given what they’ve lost, but they’ve also gained a rock solid coach and have the reigning Calder Trophy winner.  The Habs, Rangers, and Red Wings are all rebuilding and have shed some serious talent this summer, so into the basement you go.

And then there’s Ottawa, in a relegation league of their own.  Yikes.

In the West, we’ve got old favorites the Winnipeg Jets taking the conference and the Presidents’ Trophy, followed closely in the race for the latter by the aging but dynamic San Jose Sharks, now featuring Erik Karlsson.  Nashville continues to stay near the top of the league with a wide open Cup window, as does Vegas.  The Golden Knights’ luck wears off a little and they slip a healthy amount, but it’s still enough to finish second in a relatively weak Pacific.  St. Louis roars back into the playoffs after an offseason overhaul, while the Ducks trend backwards due to age and injuries already sustained this preseason.  In the wildcards are two possible surprises: Dallas, whom I’d incorrectly picked to win the west last season, sneaks in on the backs of a new coach and returning Russian talent, and the strengthened Arizona Coyotes break a six year playoff drought by continuing the scoring pace they finished with last year.

By default, the Los Angeles Kings barely miss out, as do the resurgent Avalanche.  Last year was pretty much a miracle for Colorado, and they didn’t do a ton this offseason to make me believe that they’re built to stay.  The Wild never impress me much, so I think their streak is over, out-competed by the Central juggernauts.  Calgary and Edmonton are hard to pin down — they could make it easily in this division, but I just don’t have faith.  Even with Connor McDavid, something is amiss in Oil Country.  Chicago doesn’t look any better on paper than they did during last year’s disastrous season, and Vancouver is missing so many key pieces now with the Sedins retired that it’s not hard to see them finishing last in the West this year.

From a numbers perspective, the average points remain exactly the same (91.548) and the median decreases due to lack of outliers — I don’t think there will be so many <70 and >110 point teams this year, but who knows.  I’ve kept the playoff turnover low this time, with only five new teams making it.  Last year was weird; it should be much more normal this time around.  Maybe.

No matter what happens, it’s sure to be exciting.  Here’s hoping my predictions are once again wrong!  Let’s go Buffalo!

The Elephant Does Not Fly (or, हिंदी सीखना)

As a prelude to (perhaps finally) writing about my pair of not-so-recent experiences in India, I want to share a relatively new development in my life.

I’ve started learning Hindi.

For real.

In July, after years of anticipation, Duolingo launched their Hindi Beta, and being the ravenous amateur linguist that I am, I blew through the initial beta tree in a couple weeks.  Granted, I was only skimming through to understand the extent of the course’s coverage, but since then I’ve slowly, dutifully restarted, practicing my fundamentals until solid.

Hindi isn’t exactly a new endeavor for me though.  My relationship to the language goes back several years; in a way, it’s been longer if you consider the five words of Bengali I learned in college, but they’re long gone and that’s a story better fallen into myth.  At my previous company, my North Indian coworkers would often speak Hindi, which actually isn’t all that unusual in the Bay Area.  What actually piqued my interest in the first place was seeing its script.

Devanagari is gorgeous.  It’s curvy, yet angular.  It’s bound together through its characteristic horizontal line, presenting a picture of order and unity.  Of course, when I first took a closer look at the script, I was utterly befuddled.  It’s on its face more alien than any foreign character sets I’d come across and studied, be them alphabets barely different than English such as the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets, or the dueling syllabaries of Japan, Hiragana and Katakana.

However, Devanagari and its constructs, as I’d come to learn, are far more straightforward and logical than they appear to an uneducated observer.  But more on that later.

At the time, I had no reference for associating sounds with graphs, and the effort required to pick up yet another alphabet (in addition to the extra four mentioned above jammed in my brain) didn’t feel like it would be of much benefit.  Most Indians, especially those in the States, speak English, so it didn’t affect our communication at all.

This all changed when I met a girl.  She opened the world to me.  Her fluent trilinguality inspired me.  Already fairly advanced in German, as well as having dabbled in Russian, I was finally open to the idea of learning another new language, especially one so exotic.  Of course, things didn’t quite go the way I’d dreamed — over a few years, I’d picked up only a few phrases and words.  I still couldn’t even begin to read; I wrote Hindi through Google Translate.  Sometimes I’d stumble recalling my phrases, and say something entirely different by accident.  As much as I’d ask her to speak Hindi with me, her indulgence never really lasted — my practicing never took off.

I went to India twice.  As I mentioned, many people speak English, so that was my default method of communication.  If the situation called for a local tongue, I had a guide to help.  Also, the majority of my Indian travels ended up being in the south, where they not only prefer not to speak Hindi, but each state seems to actively resist its use in favor of their native tongues.  (Kannada in Karnataka and Tamil in Tamil Nadu were the other major languages that I personally encountered with some ubiquity.  Various other languages such as Telugu and Urdu were also seen written in certain places just about everywhere I went.)

Flash forward to this year: I guess to impress my North Indian girlfriend, I actually decided to learn Devanagari script, mostly so I could text with it.  Now here’s where the awesomeness of Hindi finally broke through to me: it, like Japanese, is actually just another syllabary… sort of.  It’s an abugida, which is basically a syllabic alphabet where vowel sounds are modifiers appended to a root consonant.  Let me show off my expansive knowledge for a second:

In Japanese Hiragana, you would write ひらがな (hiragana), which broken into characters goes simply like this:

  • ひ (hi)
  • ら (ra)
  • が (ga)
  • な (na)

Similarly, Japanese Katakana (カタカナ, katakana) is the same way.

  • カ (ka)
  • タ (ta)
  • カ (ka)
  • ナ (na)

Very straightforward.  It’s just a matter of remembering each of the individual shapes.  I crammed these on my flight when I visited Japan a couple years ago — after only a couple hours, I’d gotten 92 characters into memory.

Hindi is just bit more complicated.  In Hindi, the basic word हिंदी (hindī) is formed like this:

  • ह (ha) + ि (i) + ं (n) =  हिं (hin)
  • द (da) + ी (ī) = दी (dī)

Devanagari has roughly 33 base consonants and 14 standalone vowel characters.  As noted above, the vowel sounds also have diacritic forms that are appended to the root consonant.  (i.e., I used ि and ी above with the consonants, but those two sounds have their own standalone letters too: इ and ई, respectively)

Often Hindi uses a special trick to combine two consonants into one, called a conjunct.  For example, an alternate spelling of “Hindi” is हिन्दी, which constructs the second syllable like this:

  • न (na) + द (da) + ी (ī) = न्दी (ndī)

There is a conjunct for every combination of consonants for a total of 1296 additional characters.  Most of them are simply formed by (generally and simplistically speaking) adding half of the leading consonant’s glyph in front of the full glyph of the second, like above.  However, there are a bunch that are irregular, and some of those get pretty weird.  I think it’s so cool.

Now, there are certainly troubles we English speakers will encounter in Hindi.  Learning the written language is certainly a stumbling block, as few if any of the characters have a clear visual analog in English, and the intricacy and density of the written word requires extensive practice to understand at a glance.  My memorization of these has been far more difficult than it was for Japanese.  Several diacritics look very similar to others, so often I will use the wrong vowel sound.  Some accent marks appear as single dots or slightly extended line curls, so you really need to look closely if you want to get it right.

There are also a handful of sounds that simply don’t exist in English, including some of the thirteen plus vowel sounds.  Additionally, aspirated and retroflex consonants pose a particular problem for an untrained mouth and tongue.  Put a few of them in sequence and you can go ahead and give up any possibility of a correct pronunciation.

But it’s still fun.

At this point in my real learning, which has been nearly every day since the launch of the Duolingo Hindi beta in July, I can recognize and translate a handful of words without truly knowing how to pronounce them.  My reading is extremely slow.  Grammatically, it’s not super complicated (yet), but I still trip over the few rules I’ve been taught.  However, I am actually able to produce perfectly grammatical sentences and phrases, to the delight of many Hindi-speaker in my midst.  They’re always so basic and/or childish, it’s kind of funny.  One day I’ll hit some level of competency, but for now, I’ll keep repeating phrases like चूहे छोटे होते हैं and हाथी नहीं उड़ते. 🙂

I should also mention that I absolutely have not stopped learning German.  On Duolingo, I have gilded my complete German tree with a maximum (at the moment) of 608 fancy Crowns.  My streak exceeds 1850 days and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.