January 19, 2019

Untapped Potential

An incredible special report from the Boston Globe:

Over the past year, the Globe has tracked down 93 of the 113 valedictorians who appeared in the paper’s first three “Faces of Excellence” features from 2005 to 2007. We wanted to know, more than a decade later, how the stories of Boston’s best and brightest were turning out.

The entire collection of articles, graphics, and data paints a challenging and inspiring picture of the obstacles facing the “best and brightest” students in Boston’s public schools. Many of the students faced financial and/or social struggles when they first entered college, but some also found themselves academically unprepared for college work.

Some of the valedictorians - notably, the ones from selective “exam schools” - fared better than other public school graduates. That there could be such a wide variation in the quality of academic preparation among schools’ highest-performing students is extremely disappointing, but not surprising.

Much work remains to be done to help students navigate the transition from high school to college, both financially and socially, but K-12 leaders and policymakers should at a bare minimum ensure that high school coursework can prepare students academically for their next step. That may mean entering the workforce or military, attending a community college, or enrolling in a highly selective university, but no student should have their potential limited by policymakers’ lowered expectations and/or unchallenging curricular options.

January 12, 2019

Packing for a Cold Weather GORUCK HTL

One of the few things you can control when attempting a GORUCK HTL is your gear. Some of the items you’ll want are obvious and will be listed on the official event packing lists GORUCK provides, but if an HTL is one of your first GORUCK experiences1 and/or you haven’t done cold-weather events, this list might help you figure out what additional gear you’ll need.

In November 2018, I successfully completed my first HTL during Veterans Day weekend in Indianapolis. At the start of the event, the temperature was in the low 30s and dropped to 19F in the wee morning hours of the Heavy. For most of the weekend, the temperature mostly stayed in the 30s, with a few hours of low 40s. Precipitation-wise, there were a few mild flurries the first night, but nothing too serious.

The following is a description of my gear, both worn and carried, during the weekend I earned my bolts.


The ruck

First things first: the ruck. I’ve used both a standard 26L GR1 and a 21L GR1 for events.2 I’m 5’11” and the 26L is just slightly too long on my torso and I’ve found that the 21L is just more comfortable for me.

I’ve added a GORUCK sternum strap and hip belt, which for me are non-negotiable items for an HTL. Not only will it help re-distribute the weight in your ruck, the hip belt will prevent your ruck from sliding into the back of your head/neck during the inevitable bear crawl.

On the front MOLLE of my ruck, I’ve got a Black Diamond Quickdraw that acts as another handle. It comes in handy while doing presses and overhead holds. This addition isn’t needed if you have a Rucker 2.0 with the second handle already sewn into the bottom of the ruck.

Also, a reflective band. It’s required.

And a morale patch. Because of Rule #1.3

Inside the ruck: laptop compartment

I have a 28 pound steel plate from the now-defunct SH Plates for the Heavy/Tough and a 20 pound plate from GORUCK for the Light. If you’re using a GR1 or a Rucker, make sure you purchase the correct plate to fit your ruck.

Inside the ruck: slant pocket

This is where I like to keep quick-access items. Per the recommendation of Mark Webb’s Heavy packing list, a couple of climbing runners are really helpful to store here. They come in handy when carrying awkwardly-shaped items like logs or rocks or whatever else the Cadre come up with. I keep two in the slant pocket.

I also carry two lifting straps. If your Cadre like to use Jerry Cans, this will help give you significantly more grip endurance.

Inside the ruck: hydration

I use a low-profile 3L Source bladder for all of my GORUCK events, which is clipped to the internal webbing of my GR1 and secured to one of the shoulder straps with an ITW web dominator.

During the HTL, I learned something about cold-weather events: your water hose can and probably will freeze. Around 1:00am during the Heavy, my hose froze and I was only able to thaw it by disconnecting it and wrapping it around my torso under my shirt.

Some will advocate for forcing air into your hose after each drink to combat freezing, but as I discoverd, it’s not going to work all of the time - particularly if it drops below 20 degrees.

You may want to consider just carrying a Nalgene as a backup hydration source and/or insulating your hose during a cold-weather HTL.

Inside the ruck: dry bags

I like to use two dry bags inside the main compartment of my ruck. The Sea to Summit 13L Dry Sack is big enough to fit most of the stuff I wanted to carry and will keep these items dry. Additionally, if/when the Cadre make you do a gear dump, it helps speed up the re-packing process.

The dry bags also keep you organized. Loose items can easily lead to a gypsy camp - a clear violation of Rule #1.

In dry bag #1, I stored extra clothing items. Extra wool socks, an extra-warm pair of gloves each came in very handy during this event. It’s also where I initially stored my half-zip thermal layer, a merino wool neck gaiter, a merino wool beanie, and my windbreaker. However, it was so damn cold and windy at the start point, all of this gear made it on my person before the event started.

In retrospect, I would have liked to add a light, packable down jacket to this dry bag. Lesson learned.

All of my food, medical items, extra carabiner, extra climbing runners, and phone went into dry bag #2. I kept my phone in a small Pelican case with my wallet. For future HTLs, I’ll probably leave that stuff in my duffel bag with my between-event gear.

My food was mostly a little leftover Halloween candy, a few protein bars, and some packets of almond butter. It was on the light side of what I needed, but I got through the event without crashing. Might add some beef jerky to the mix next time.

I also keep a bottle of electrolytes to add to my water during events. I’ve used LyteShow for the past few events and haven’t had cramping issues.

My medical items are pretty standard: a few band-aids, Advil, some KT tape, alcohol wipes, and a needle for draining blisters. I also pack a small container of Trail Toes. Whenever I had a chance to change my socks, I made sure to re-lube my feet, which helped me to finish the HTL with no blisters.

I also pack an extra set of AAA batteries for my headlamp and a shoelace in my med kit. I’ve never had an issue with the laces on my shoes or batteries during an event, but I feel it’s wise to anticipate where Mr. Murphy might strike.

Inside the ruck: top zipper pocket

This is where I keep a snack-sized Ziploc bag with my drivers license and quitter’s cash. The Cadre will want to see these during the admin phase, so I like to keep it very handy.

I’ll also stash my headlamp and some chapstick in this pocket.

Inside the ruck: mesh pocket

I have a spare 3L Source bladder, hose, and mouthpiece in this pocket. Hydration is key during an HTL and two is one and one is none.

Having a second hydration option saved me during the Heavy. My original water hose broke when my ruck was tossed onto some pavement only a few hours into the event. I was able to switch it out for my backup and was fine.

I also kept an emergency blanket in this pocket. Thankfully, we did not need it during the event.

What I wore

It all starts with your feet. SmartWool socks are great for cold-weather events, and when paired with my Solomon Xa Pro 3D shoes, ensure that my feet stayed warm enough without taking on too much blister-causing moisture.

Moving up from my feet, I wore an Under Armour Heat Gear 2.0 base layer, which was just right for my HTL in terms of heat retention and sweat wicking. On top of that base layer, I had some Patagonia pants, an elastic belt, dry fit long sleeve shirt, Mechanix gloves, and my GORUCK Tac Hat.

As I noted earlier, this was not warm enough and I ended up wearing the extra layers I had intended to keep in my dry bag for most of the event. During the course of the event, some of these layers found their way back into my ruck, but I’m glad that I had them with me.

An underrated piece of clothing was my neck gaiter. I can’t begin to describe the difference this makes in staying warm and protected from the wind during a cold weather GORUCK event. If you learn one thing from my packing list, it should be to get a wool gaiter for any cold weather GORUCK event.

Between events

You want to have a clear plan of priorities between events. My list went something like this:

  1. Get some calories
  2. Stretch and foam roll
  3. Foot care
  4. Prep gear for next event
  5. Shower/brush teeth
  6. Nap

It’s critical to get the first 5 in before you get any sleep. The last thing you want to do is scramble for food/gear with 30 minutes to get to the start point for the Tough/Light.

Your gear will only get you so far

The odds that a gear malfunction or oversight will make or break your HTL experience are extremely small. You will still have to cover a few dozen miles, grind out a lot of PT, and carry some heavy shit. Smart gear choices can make that stuff a little better, but it’s still going to suck, but that’s what an HTL is about. Some shoe/sock combinations may be marginally more comfortable/durable, but it won’t make up for a lack of logging some serious miles under weight pre-HTL.

If I had to boil down my advice heading into your first cold-weather HTL, I’d recommend the following:

  • Pack high-quality gear, but not too much.
  • Wear a merino wool neck gaiter.
  • Have a plan, place, and gear/food for your between-event time.
  • Ruck as many miles as you can pre-event with a heavy ruck.
  • Get your mind ready with some overnight rucks and workouts on an empty stomach.

And as with any GORUCK event, embrace the suck.

  1. If attempting an HTL is your first GORUCK experience, you’re crazy. [return]
  2. As a pedant I must point out that technically, it’s a GR0. [return]
  3. Rule #1 = Always look cool. [return]

January 11, 2019

Picking the PLL Cities

The Premiere Lacrosse League (PLL) is attempting a new model for a professional team sport: a tour-based schedule with the entire six-team league playing in a different city each weekend. Paired with their NBC partnership, more people will get to see high-quality lacrosse than a city-based league like the MLL could attain.

This week, the PLL announced a list of 30 cities that are in the running to be one of the 12 final sites for PLL games this summer. The map includes cities from coast-to-coast, as well as a pair of Canadian cities. Having grown up playing lacrosse in Minnesota and doing some coaching in Kentucky, I’m excited to see a lot of non-traditional lacrosse areas on the map. It seems clear that the PLL is serious about expanding interest in the game beyond the Acela corridor.

The big question - how should the PLL decide which cities to host game weekends during their inaugural season?

My proposal would be to divide the map into four regions, then to select three cities from each region. The four regions would be: Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. It would allow for representation in traditional hotbeds, but the bulk of the cities (75%) would be in areas where youth lacrosse has the highest rates of growth.

Here’s my breakdown of each region:


Cities: Albany, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Toronto, Washington DC

This region is rich with lacrosse tradition, which makes it difficult to cut any of these cities. I think right off the bat, New York has to be on the final list. Ignoring the media opportunities/exposure of the Big Apple, it would also give the league a chance to show the great work and impact of organizations working to expand access to the sport, such as Harlem Lacrosse.

With NYC off the table, that leaves us with two cities to select from three pretty distinct sub-regions:

  • Mid-Atlantic: Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington DC
  • New England: Boston, Hartford, Providence
  • Upstate: Albany, Buffalo, Toronto

With all due respect to the Upstate cities, I think the remaining two cities should come from the other sub-regions. Baltimore is an easy pick here - it’s where PLL partner STX is headquartered and is home to some of the best lacrosse programs at every age level.

Out of the New England sub-region, I’d go with a smaller city: Hartford. As a Trinity alum and former Hartford resident, I’m a little biased. HOWEVER - the UConn football stadium will be the site of a men’s lacrosse NCAA quarterfinal game this spring as well as the 2021 and 2022 Men’s NCAA lacrosse championship games. Seems like a natural fit for the PLL!

Final cities: Hartford, New York, Baltimore

South Region

Cities: Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Orlando, Raleigh, Richmond

Let’s break these down into sub-regions again:

  • Old South: Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Richmond
  • Florida: Miami, Orlando
  • Texas: Dallas, Houston

I think both the Florida and Texas regions are a coin-flip, but the PLL really should have one city in each of these states. In the Old South, I’d lean towards Atlanta. If it’s good enough for the SEC football championship game, it ought to be good enough for the PLL.

Final Cities: Atlanta, Houston, Orlando


Cities: Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Minneapolis, St. Louis

Minnesota and Ohio are the only states in this region with more than 10,000 youth lacrosse participants, so they each get a weekend. In Ohio, I’ll give Cincinnati the nod solely because it’s a shorter drive from where I’m typing in Louisville.

That leaves us with a choice between Chicago and St. Louis - the Second City makes sense here.

Final Cities: Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis


The PLL headquarters are in Los Angeles, so it’s fairly obvious that it’ll be on the final list. Since I also think there ought to be a maximum of only one city per state, that rules out San Francisco.

This leaves two distinct areas:

  • Pacific Northwest: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver
  • Mountains: Denver, Salt Lake City

I’m not super-familiar with the lacrosse scene in the Pacific Northwest, so let’s give it to the lone Canadian city. In the Mountains, I could see this going either way, but I’ll go with the home of the nation’s newest DI men’s lacrosse program, Utah.

Final Cities: Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Vancouver

Closing Thoughts

My choices are certainly not as thougthful as what the PLL will eventually decide, but it was a fun exercise. It will be interesting to see how the final sites are balanced between the four regions that I identified. It would be shocking if there were not three cities in both the West and the South, but I would not be shocked if there were only two in the Midwest and five in the Northeast.

Regardless of the final outcome, I’m looking forward to the announcements of the final schedule, the teams, and most importantly, the first games in June.


January 11, 2018

Meta-cognition and data analysis

Learning how to perform various parts of a data analysis project - import, cleaning, visualizing, modeling - is hard. Learning how to bring those parts together in your day-to-day work is even more challenging. It’s hard because most analysis work is performed in isolation. We often see the results of great analysis work in blogs, articles, or presentations, sometimes even with source code, but seeing a final analysis product and it’s source code can obscure a lot of technique and thinking that went into the final product. It’s like seeing a beautiful cake with a recipe card next to it - seeing the final product and the instructions to produce it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to replicate it.

Understanding the meta-cognition that occurs during data analysis work might be the most opaque part of an analyst’s job. Allowing more people to see and understand the thinking that goes into crafting an analysis will in turn help more people to execute their own analyses.

Hadley Wickham provided a great example of this by posting a video showing the “whole game” of a data analysis using R, RStudio, and R Markdown. We get to see how Hadley organizes his R Markdown document and the types of comments and questions he types outside of the code chinks. We also get to see him make a few typos and deal with some error messages. Most importantly, he narrates his thought process.

There’s a lot to learn from watching this video, particularly for those new to R and/or data analysis work. It helps clarify the process of executing an analysis project and brings transparency to the thinking that occurs during that work. The more we can highlight the meta-cognition of data science work, the more accessible the field will be to new entrants.

January 9, 2018

The Marble Game in R

The college football playoff selection process is broken.

The current College Football Playoff (CFP) was created to address the shortcomings of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Under the BCS system, a combination of polls and computer rankings were used to select two teams to play for the national championship. It seemed like a good idea, but controversial the results of the BCS system are well-documented. One of the most obvious flaws: several teams finished with an undefeated season and did not have a chance to play for a championship.

In the hope of mitigating BCS-like contoversy, the CFP relies on a selection committee to create a four-team playoff each year to determine the national champion. The selection committee’s ability to apply more subjective criteria was intended to prevent BCS-style controversy, but the past two seasons (2016-2017 and 2017-2018) led to a decent amount of controversy surrounding the selection of playoff teams. In a throwback to the BCS days, the 2017-2018 college football season ended with an undefeated team (Central Florida) that was not allowed to compete in the CFP.

Something needs to change

In response to the flaws of the CFP system, David Burge proposed an easy-to-comprehend alternative approach to determine which NCAA football teams would be invited to the four-team playoff called the “Marble Game.” The motivation behind the Marble Game is clear:

The rules of the Marble Game are simple:

  • Each team starts with a pre-determined amount of marbles.
  • If a team wins a home game, they take 20% of the loser’s marbles.
  • If a team wins a road game, they take 25% of the loser’s marbles.
  • Neutral site games are treated as home wins for the victor (20% marble transfer).
  • At the end of the season, the four teams with the most marbles are invited to participate in the CFP.

Using these rules, I created an R package, marblr, to simulate the results of the Marble Game. The marblr package uses game data scraped from Massey Ratings to simulate the Marble Game using Burge’s rules. Additionally, the marblr package allows for simulations that grant extra weight to teams from the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, plus Notre Dame). As a default, teams from the Power Five start with 120 marbles, while all other teams start with 100.

Simulating the 2017-2018 Marble Game

The plot above illustrates the outcome of the Marble Game for each NCAA Division I FBS football team1. The first ten weeks of the season are very noisy - it’s hard to discern a clear top tier of teams - but a distinct cohort of competitive teams begins to separate from the pack between weeks 10 and 15. At the end of week 15, conference championships have been played and final bowl and CFP selections are made.

We know that Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, and Oklahoma were selected to play in the CFP for the 2017-2018 season, but which teams would have been invited to the CFP via the Marble Game?

Table 1: Marble Rankings after Week 15
Rank Team Marbles
1 Clemson 425
2 Ohio St 405
3 Oklahoma 405
4 UCF 385
5 Georgia 378
6 USC 353
7 Alabama 327
8 Wisconsin 310
9 Auburn 274
10 Miami FL 256

According to the Marble Game, Ohio State and Central Florida (the lone undefeated team) would have received CFP invites over Georgia and Alabama - teams that both won their first-round CFP games and made the national championship game in 2017-2018. At the same time, both Ohio State and Central Florida won their bowl games. It’s hard to make a definitive case for the groups of four produced by the CFP or the Marble Game.

Ideally, the Marble Game would be used to determine an 8-team playoff. Under this system, each Power Five conference has a strong chance for their champion to make the playoff and undefeated teams from non-Power Five conferences would have a chance too. Conferences with multiple championship-caliber teams could send more than one team to the playoff. Such a playoff would have created the following first-round games in 2017-2018:

  • Clemson (1 seed, ACC) vs. Wisconsin (8 seed, Big Ten)
  • Ohio State (2 seed, Big Ten) vs. Alabama (7 seed, SEC)
  • Oklahoma (3 seed, Big 12) vs. USC (6 seed, Pac-12)
  • UCF (4 seed, AAC) vs. Georgia (5 seed, SEC)

This bracket would resolve the controversy following this year’s selections. Each major conference is represented, stronger conferences (Big Ten and SEC) have multiple contenders, and a non-Power Five team (Central Florida) was able to enter based on the marbles they accumulated through an undefeated regular season.

I’d like to see the first round of the tournament hosted at the higher seed’s home field, with the semifinal and final rounds following the same process the CFP currently uses2.

Moving forward

College football deserves a better process for determining a national champion. There are simply too many seasons with more than four teams with a solid case to compete in a playoff. While the calendar and physical constraints prevent the development of a March Madness-style bracket in college football, expanding the CFP to an 8-team format could mitigate most of the controversy generated under past systems.

The CFP could continue their process of a selection committee, but the Marble Game is an attractive substitute. It places more weight and importance on winning late-season games - games that are either conference championships or rivalry games. It also would discourage programs from scheduling “cupcake” games; scheduling strong opponents would translate to better opportunities to increase a team’s marble count. Most importantly, the criteria for advancing to the playoff would be transparent, consistent, and fair to all teams.

It’ll never happen, but it’s a fun idea to consider.

  1. The only games that count for the purposes of the Marble Game are games between FBS teams - Alabama’s 56-0 drubbing of Mercer provides no useful information about Alabama’s potential to contend for a national title.

  2. The current semifinal games rotate between the following bowl game pairings each year: Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl; Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl; and the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl. The site of the championship game is determined through a bidding process.