Monday, May 30, 2011

Stanley Cup playoff update, the Finals

First off, to review my picks for the Conference Finals:
Boston over Tampa in 6: RIGHT winner, wrong number of games (7). Tampa put up more of a fight than I thought they would. Game 6 was especially impressive on Tampa's part, and they demonstrated that this is not a once-off playoff run. St. Louis and Lecavalier stepped up as leaders, young players like Stamkos, Hedman, and Purcell played well above their pedigree, and the team fought through adversity to get to where they did. The only question mark for the Lightning right now is in goal, as they need someone to replace Roloson as early as this upcoming season. Despite their heart, the better team won. The Bruins have been playing very well when they've needed to, and their success has centred around Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara. They've had some sloppy games, but they're a formidable force to face in the Finals.

Vancouver over San Jose in 6: RIGHT winner, wrong number of games (5). It looked like the Sharks were exhausted from their series against Detroit. They reminded me a lot of the last team the Canucks beat to get into the Finals: the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994. The Leafs had gone deep the year before, almost making the Finals, and they had played two tough series before bowing to the Canucks in 5. Although they played hard, they were undisciplined and exhausted, and they just couldn't do it. That's the story of the Sharks this year - and the past six. The question is what it will take San Jose to finally break through, and whether this team can do it as it is. They've changed coaches and goalies, added high-profile players like Heatley and Boyle, brought in young talented players, and done everything but make it through to the Finals. It may just take the right breaks, like the Dallas Stars of 1997-2001, or they may not push through, like the Leafs of 1999-2004. It's hard to tell.
The other story was what happened to the Canucks in this round. After rebuilding their confidence against Nashville, San Jose played perfectly into the Canucks' hands. Anytime the Sharks got some momentum, they gave Vancouver opportunities on the PP and let the Canucks take the series. It allowed most of the key players on Vancouver - especially Luongo and the Sedins - to gain some much-needed momentum and rest. The Canucks dominated the play and took advantage of their opportunities, and that's why they're in the Finals. Also, I'd like to point out that I was right with my pick for the West from the beginning of the playoffs! Which brings us to...

The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals: Vancouver and Boston, two franchises with long Cup droughts (40 and 38 years, respectively) and long stretches since their last appearance in the Finals (17 and 21 years, respectively). They both have had high expectations in recent years, and they had similarly disappointing playoff runs last year. I think the best way to do this is to break down the match-ups and see what comes out.

Goaltending: Luongo and Thomas are two of the best goalies in the game right now, and they both can play in big games. Luongo still has a nasty habit of letting in some soft goals, but he still makes saves no one else can make. Thomas is freakishly consistent, and he's had some great performances this year already. Slight advantage: Boston.

Defense: Vancouver's defense is deep, but so is Boston's. And Boston has Zdeno Chara. The Bruins have an incredibly strong defensive philosophy, while the Canucks play a bit more loose most of the time. Vancouver's defense keeps them in the game, but Boston's defense wins them games. Advantage: Boston.

Offense: While the Bruins have been getting contributions from most of their roster in a balanced attack, so have the Canucks. And they have the two reigning Hart trophy winners and Kesler and Burrows. Advantage: Vancouver.

Special teams: With players like Chara, Bergeron, Kesler, and Bieksa playing, special teams are bound to play into the final result. Despite the slight weakness of the Canucks' PK, their PP more than makes up for it. The only trick is that Boston has to get penalties. Slight advantage: Vancouver.

Coaching: Both Alain Vignault and Claude Julien have a long history of coaching in the NHL, including coach of the year honours. They both have well-established philosophies and systems. Advantage: Even.

Intangibles: Both teams have players who have struggled through adversity and who desperately want to win. Both teams have players who can carry the team (though Kesler is playing more urgently than any Bruin). But while Boston struggled to finish off Tampa, Vancouver rolled over San Jose. Boston can regroup, but the first game or two will be huge. Advantage: Vancouver

So, that makes one category even, with the remainder sitting at 3-2 for Vancouver, which is close to my thoughts anyway. I'm picking Vancouver in 6 in a tight series. At least two games will be decided in overtime, and I suspect that at least two other games will be decided by one goal. It's going to be an exciting Finals!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Online middleman

I have never been an early adopter of new technological advances; if anything, I've been an unseasonably late bloomer. I was behind on every video game console as a kid, and I've lagged behind on pretty much any innovation you can imagine. I never bought an iPod (which seems weird, until I remember how much disdain I have for iTunes as a service and a music player), I just only recently got an HDTV, and I was several years behind on the smartphone thing. Even in my online work, I've always been behind the curve. Blogger, Facebook, RSS feeds, Twitter: I waited for them all. I think that perhaps I'm overly cautious with these innovations, and I want to give time to see how they develop and to see how they work. Or maybe I'm just slow to pick up on them. Whatever the reason, I often seem to end up in these endeavours just as they are beginning to peak, rather than far before; it seems to be after most of the technophiles, but still before the general population. I've struggled with whether I'm okay with this reality, and I think I've realized that I am okay with it. Once I invest my time and energy in something, I'm all in; early adopters sometimes have difficulty with that, since they move onto the next new thing. I do have areas in which I keep current, primarily in the spheres of pop culture, so I am still an early adopter in some respects. But what I've been working through lately is the whole idea of pioneering online: do I want to be one of those people that others retweet and who supplies cool articles and memes and videos to their online (and offline) community? And since that requires a more extensive and obsessive searching of the net, am I willing to do that? I spend at most an hour on the computer a day, of which at least half of that time is managing e-mails and personal communications. I'm not sure that I have the time to be an online early adopter, and I think I'm okay with it. It would be cool to have a job or vocation that allowed or even required me to spend more time online, but I'm satisfied with putting my time and energy into other endeavours in the meantime. Perhaps sometime soon I will have the wherewithal to invest more deliberately in being an online presence, but for now I'm content with where I'm at: significant awareness of the online world with limited input of time. I'm not at the centre of everything, but neither am I on the outskirts. I have some areas of expertise, and I'm learning how to make the whole process of gathering information online even more efficient all the time. Life is different when we're more connected, and that's why I'm glad that I do have some early adopters around me to help me be the middleman. They gather the information and I process it and help distribute it to my network. I'm realizing how much I am the "connector" type, rather than the "maven" type, as classified in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, and how I'm much happier with who I am than stressing out about what I'm not. So that's me, helping manage the early adopters and the general hordes. I suppose in that way it makes sense that I'm a high school teacher, since that's pretty much my job anyway: the middleman. And it's a good thing that me and my kind are integral to the success of the whole enterprise.

Friday, May 20, 2011

According to gym

I did something this week that I haven't done in thirteen years, to the best of my recollection: I went to a gym on consecutive days. My wife and I recently signed up for year-long gym memberships; I figured that I wouldn't get around to it if there were not a measurable consequence to not going, and that financial output might be enough to get me to use the facility regularly. Anyone who knows me knows how big of a step this is for me; the last time I had regular physical activity for an extended period of time was when I was in Grade 10 as a mandated part of the high school experience. Since then, I have had times of heightened activity, like summer camp or the summer that I played Ultimate, but it has never been something that I have valued or incorporated as part of my life. Part of it is that physical activity was never that important to me, partially due to opportunity. I grew up with a physically disabled father in a house with little money, so I was not able to pursue sports outside of school time and funding. I was also always terrible at most team sports, thanks to poor hand-eye coordination. When I was younger, I was an excellent sprinter - I won at the local track meet two years in a row - but I lost that desire once I got into the later years of high school and I started getting busy with all of the other activities in my life. But I think the biggest deterrent to me actually overcoming this sedentary phase were my fears: of failure; of hurting myself; of doing something wrong on a machine; of not knowing what to do. Even though I have taught PE, I really do not know what I'm doing in a gym, and most of my fears revolve around me not wanting to try things that I probably will not be good at. The idea of physical activity has been so daunting that I have not been able to rouse myself to do it for over a decade, and it's even hard to admit that now. I don't like being vulnerable or admitting my failures, and starting on this journey consistently forces me to do that, even as my muscles ache after a workout. I'm learning how to set reachable goals for myself: for now, it's getting over the fear of even going to the gym and just getting there and doing something that's the hurdle. Since I don't know myself, my needs, or how the machines work, I'm just trying different machines to figure out how they operate and how I react to them. I'm taking a slow approach and not expecting to see results for a while; instead, I'm just taking the summer to learn who I am and how I work in a new context. It's unnerving, uncomfortable, invigorating and energizing all at the same time, and I'm excited for what I'm learning through this experience. And if I can become a healthier and better person in the process, I'm okay with that.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stanley Cup playoff update, Round 3

I know I'm late on these picks again. But I do promise you that my picks are still valid. First off, a review of my picks from Round 2.

Eastern Conference:
(1)Washington over (5)Tampa Bay in 6: WRONG winner, wrong number of games (4). And with that, I'm learning that Washington is the San Jose of the East - great in the regular season, but fold in the playoffs. That, and they have the poor luck to meet teams on improbable playoff runs.

(3) Boston over (2)Philadelphia in 7: RIGHT winner, wrong number of games (4). I was surprised that Philly folded so quickly in this series. Maybe their series against Buffalo took more out of them than we thought; maybe their players were really hurt; or maybe Boston just wanted this one more.

Western Conference:
(1)Vancouver over (5)Nashville in 6: RIGHT! This series held no surprises at all. The Canucks were just too strong for the Predators, and they were able to build some confidence for the last half of their run.

(2)San Jose over (3)Detroit in 6: RIGHT winner, wrong number of games (7). I was really surprised at how the Sharks almost lost this series, and I think it will haunt them in Round 3.

Overall: 3-1 (2nd round), 7-4 (both rounds). I did a lot better in the second round, probably in part to having seen how the teams were playing in Round 1. That means my Conference Final picks should be the best yet...I hope.

Eastern Conference: I've been trying to figure out which past playoff year is most like this one, and I've settled on the 1993 Eastern Conference. An unexpected upstart team - the New York Islanders - with a young core, a veteran centre, and a veteran goalie with something to prove upset the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins to make the Conference Finals. Meanwhile, an Original Six team (the Canadiens) survived a heated first round match-up with a divisional rival (the Nordiques) before sweeping the Sabres in Round 2. It's eerily similar to the storylines of Tampa Bay and Boston, respectively. If history continues to repeat itself, the Bruins would win this series; I think it will. The Bolts have had a great run, but I think the Bruins want it more and have more to prove. I think Tampa will win a game or two, so I'm picking Boston in 6.

Western Conference: The best comparison year I can think of is the 1996 Western Conference Final. The Colorado Avalanche, a team that had had success in previous regular seasons but not in the playoffs, made it to the Conference Final for the first time against the Detroit Red Wings, who had made it deep the previous year without success. The Avalanche had a high-octane offense including a dangerous Swedish sniper, a mobile defense corps, and a French goaltender considered one of the best in the game; the Red Wings were a balanced team with a deep corps of forwards and a goalie who had won the Cup. More than passing similarities to this year's Canucks-Sharks Conference Final. The Avs won a hard-fought series in 6, although it was marred by Claude Lemieux's hit on Kris Draper. I think history might again repeat itself, as I think the Canucks will make it through in 6 games (though after watching how the Canucks dominated Game 2, I'm dubious that the Sharks will actually take that long to fold) and appear in their first Finals since 1994.

So I'm now picking Boston and Vancouver in the Finals. Either way, it would stop a four-decade Cup drought. No matter what happens, it has already been a historic playoffs, and it promises to continue in the last two rounds.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Election Hangover

I'm still stunned a day later. When I made my predictions a month ago, I had no idea that this election would become the most significant election since 1993 and possibly in the history of Canadian politics. I'm not too surprised by the Conservative majority, since it follows Canada's pattern of governance over the past 140-odd years: long stretches of Liberal government interspersed with short bursts of Conservatives in power, sometimes with minority governments as transitions (examples include Bennett, Diefenbaker, Clark, even Mulroney). But what is very surprising is the shifting in the rest of the House (more on that in a bit).
First, I need to evaluate my predictions: The Conservatives won a majority, so my first two predictions were wrong, though the third (that the contempt issues wouldn't factor into this election) was right. There wasn't much talk about electoral reforms or proportional representation until after the vote, and neither were historical figures often invoked by the media. 0-for-3 there. The Green did win a seat, unlike my prediction, but I was right that at least one leader would change (both Duceppe and Ignatieff stepped down). Voter turnout was slightly higher than the last election, so I ended up with 2 of 9 predictions right. Now, with that out of the way, here are some of my thoughts on the election:

1. I don't think there was any way to predict that this would be the most meaningful election in almost two decades. (An aside about that 1993 election: one of my favourite reflections is that in our school's election simulation, "Joe Carter" got more votes than the Progressive Conservatives 2-1. Ah, the days of the Blue Jays fielding a competitive team. But I digress.) The first half of the campaign was memorable mainly for its blandness, but the shift in the last half made it one for the ages. The NDP's "Orange Wave" (or "Orange Crush") may go down in electoral history along with the rise of the Reform and Bloc in 1993, NAFTA in 1988, Mulroney and the rise of the young Conservatives in 1984, Trudeaumania in 1968, Diefenbaker's Conservative majority in 1958, and the Unionist win in 1917 as a signpost of Canadian history.

2. The Conservatives and NDP were aided by the polarization of the political spectrum. Unlike 2008, in which the Conservatives pulled right and the other four pulled left, the Liberals chose to place themselves in a more centrist position; unfortunately for them, that was not the best place to be. I do not think this polarization will last, as traditionally Canadians have come back to the centre after swinging to the (Conservative) extreme. I also think that the two sides of the House will balance each other well, and it is possible that there will be less vitriol between the two than there was between the Liberals and Conservatives.

3. Although this is by far the worst showing that the Liberal party has ever had, it does not signify the end of centrist politics in Canada. It merely shows that Canadians are not ready to hand opportunities over to the least offensive option; they are more interested in having a viable governing party. The Liberals under Martin were viable, but suffered due to the sponsorship scandal; the Liberals under Dion and Ignatieff were never viable governing parties, partially due to their leadership. It's the same reason that the Reform/Alliance did not break through under Manning/Day and the CPC has under Harper: he has the reputation. The Liberals will show better in 2015, and they will elect a leader who can help them improve. The biggest shift for the LPC will be not playing the Conservatives' political games and establishing their own platform and agenda, not just responding to or attacking the other parties'. I know that Iggy tried, but he was not able to make it stick with the voters. But the Liberals will be back.

4. I do not necessarily agree with the doom and gloom spoken by many critics who believe that a Conservative majority is horrible for the country. There is room for Harper to make some good changes and positive progression in Parliament, including in riding distribution and Senate reform. He has stated his intent to balance the budget, to amend the justice system, and to continue to work on the economic state of the nation. He may make some poor choices, but I think that there is a possibility of some positives. At best, Harper ends up like WWI prime minister Robert Borden, a controversial PM who made some mistakes but mostly moved the country in a positive direction; at worst, he ends up like Diefenbaker, with a few positive social changes but enough economic and international relations blunders to obscure his victories. (Don't get me wrong: I love Dief, just not everything he did as PM.)

5. Despite whatever reforms Harper initiates, there are still significant issues to be addressed in the first-past-the-post system. The Conservatives earned 40% of votes cast when only 60% of eligible voters cast votes, or just under a quarter of all possible votes. Almost as many Canadians chose not to vote rather than vote for any party, representing two of every five voters. The popular vote under-represents the Liberals, overrepresents the Conservatives, and almost perfectly represents the NDP. I still don't know whether big changes can be made to the FPTP system, but it seems like small tweaks won't fix the big problems.

6. The NDP have a term to prove themselves, particularly in La Belle Province. If Layton and company can demonstrate that they are ready to govern, then other Canadians may turn to them as an option. As it stands now, it seems that their boost came from Quebec while their support in the rest of Canada remained somewhat static. All it would take is a galvanizing BQ leader to take those seats back, so the NDP need to push past Jack Layton's "positive message" and make a difference in this parliament.

7. This election may have sounded the death knoll for the Bloc after two decades of disrupting Canadian politics. I know they still have four MPs, but with separatism feeling more and more distant for many Quebeckers, I can only hope that the party will dissipate and its members will join other parties that match their politics. I think it's important to have Quebec's issues represented in all parties, not as a one-party tirade.

8. Elizabeth May's win was historic, but the Green Party still has a long way to go. Their challenge will be building their support base and adding high-profile candidates to their numbers over the next few years. She may not be able to do much in Ottawa as one MP, but I think her presence will go far beyond her seat in the House. And we've learned never to underestimate the power of hippies in concentrated areas.

9. I really liked some of the "grassroots" momentum generated by the NDP and Green Party. It hearkens back to the days when politics wasn't just for rich white men. Speaking of that, I truly hope that at least one of the parties with freshly-deposed leaders bring in a woman or minority as a leader. Give us some variety!

10. Despite what people think about the governing party who received the majority, I am relieved that there is a majority, and that there are a few years to sort through things before we go through this all again. It has been a tumultuous time since 2003 (four elections, three minority governments, three Liberal leaders, two right parties united, two Prime Ministers, and a failed coalition), so there is some comfort in knowing that there is some stability over the next few years. And really, what's the worst that the Conservatives can do? I hope we don't have to answer that question in 2015.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Why I read the book first

I recently read through Anthony Burgess' 1962 sci-fi novel A Clockwork Orange, which is appropriately acknowledged as one of the best novels not only of its genre, but of the twentieth century. Burgess' fictionalized world of droogs, korova bars, nadsats, and ultra-violence is as satirically sharp and pointed as it was fifty years ago, and his philosophical perspectives on youth, maturity, independent choice, free will, the penal system, and society as a whole are as pertinent today as when it was written. The book is not an easy read due somewhat to the content but more to narrator Alex's use of nadsat slang, which is an amalgam of English, cockney rhyming slang, onomatopoeia, American slang, and Russian, but it has a lyricism and a poetry to it that makes it worth working through even without acknowledging Burgess' satirical and philosophical points. But what I found really interesting was how much my reading of the text was influenced by Stanley Kubrick's 1971 X-rated film version of the (American edit of the) novel. Kubrick took the book and adapted it well, but his perspective does change from what Burgess initially intended (although that is mainly due to the omission of the final chapter in the American edition, which significantly changes the point of the novel). They both exist as linked, yet independent, artistic evaluations of the same work, but Kubrick's imagery has become so iconic as to almost be inescapable in reading the text. It reminded me of why I endeavour to read the book before viewing the movie based on the book; I would far rather compare someone else's cinematic vision to the vision I've already composed through reading than have one particular interpretation of the material be superimposed on the material. It's the same reason I will not let my children (someday) watch Lord of the Rings before they have read it themselves. My reading may not predate my viewing by much time, but I still think it's an important process to continue. To wit, I'm looking forward in the next week or two to watching Tarkovsky's and Soderbergh's interpretations of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, which I just finished last week (I'm on a bit of an SF kick lately). Of course, I don't necessarily feel the need to go through this process in every case - most often I don't with movies based on true stories or biographies - but I think it makes me not only more literate, but more cinematically aware. [An aside: does anyone know who reads novelizations? I don't mean books that use characters or settings established in film or television; I mean books that are written versions of a pre-existing visual entity. The only market I could understand for such a product would be for blind people who couldn't actually watch the original piece; but novelizations are not written only in braille. I just do not get it. But I digress.] Reading Burgess' novel also made me consider how some books and the movies based on them can exist as separate artistic entities; the most prominent examples I can think of are Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and two examples from Kubrick's collection: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke) and The Shining (Stephen King). Sometimes it can be an uneasy peace between the two, but I thoroughly enjoy being able to appreciate how one artist can interpret another's material. It's largely why I appreciate seeing new artistic visions of existing works. Baz Luhrmann working on The Great Gatsby? Could be great. Who's going to finally dramatize The Catcher In The Rye? Good question. Even Peter Jackson might do okay with The Hobbit. But could someone else ever remake A Clockwork Orange as a film? I'm really not too sure if they could escape Kubrick's vision and visuals, but it might be worth a shot...as long as they read the book first.

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