Got them ol’ algorithm blues

Published in The Sault Star April 27, 2020

There’s a handsome young guy on a TV ad who stretches his well-muscled frame, jogs up some stairs, then takes a disturbing amount of pride in his ability to spin a basketball on one finger.

Meanwhile, in a related ad, a generously endowed young woman bops vigorously across a room while extolling the virtues of having a great vibe and finding her rhythm.

These are commercials for the online dating site eHarmony. 

eHarmony tells us these attractive young people aren’t looking for a) a pickup game or b) someone to dance with but c) Real Love on eHarmony.

This begs the question: Why haven’t they found each other on eHarmony?

They seem perfect for each other. And if it turns out they aren’t perfect for each other, they’d be too self-absorbed to notice.

Surely if eHarmony works as it should, these two would now be buying matching floor-to-ceiling mirrors, not still looking for Real Love.

Or has the eHunk been led down the garden path by the attractive young plant-fancier featured in yet another of eHarmony’s ads?

I’m inclined to blame the failure of this obviously compatible duo to find each other (and the Real Love that would inevitably follow) on eHarmony’s reliance on its algorithm.

A few minutes of very haphazard research on the internet informs me that the dating site has put almost as much work into its algorithm as their young man has put into his glutes and quads.

As you might expect, this algorithm incorporates information people provide by answering a humongous questionnaire (Sample question: Which is more important: a great vibe or finding a rhythm). 

But it also tracks who they like or dislike, who they message, how they interact with members and lots of other stuff deduced from online activity.

As algorithms go, eHarmony’s should be top-notch. 

And probably it would be, if algorithms accomplished much more than annoying the crap out of people who use social media.

But forgive me. I’ve assumed you know about algorithms. Maybe you’re wondering what a musical group you think you recall hearing at Rotaryfest has to do with eHarmony.

So here’s the scoop: Algorithms are essentially sets of rules or guidelines to be followed by a computer to solve the problem of how to extract more money from human beings (or Bitcoin from Pierre Poilievre).

They were invented by Irish-American con artist Allan G. O’Rhythm, who was later convicted of crossing state lines to convince businesses that he could sell them a way to read the minds of consumers.

OK, I made that up. But if you believe in algorithms you might have fallen for it.

Algorithms show up in your online lives as advertisements, suggestions and puzzling intrusions. They decide what you find on social media when you’re really looking for something else.

When it comes to targeting ads, they’re about as accurate as a cluster bomb. 

You’re over 25 and you breathe so of course you’re interested in having collagen implanted in your lips.

You “liked” a friend’s post about her tulips so you must want to see ads for fertilizer, garden implements and seed for a week or two.

Leafs’ fan? Aha, hockey, so you’ll love this Brendan Gallagher bobblehead.

About the only thing algorithms really excel at is showing you an endless selection of products after you’ve purchased the item you want.

For example, more than a month ago I did some online research and then bought a Fitbit smartwatch. (Oddly, mine doesn’t calculate how many calories I would burn by spinning a basketball on my finger.)

Since then I’ve seen probably thousands of ads for various brands of watches. I’m waiting for one to pop up during what Fitbit tells me is REM sleep.

Does the algorithm think that having bought one, naturally I will want a whole drawerful of watches? Clearly it has no access to my credit card statements.

Or perhaps the algorithm is like one of those irritating “friends” who delights in telling you he got a much better deal on the same thing you just purchased.

Algorithms can be more than annoying to a columnist. Often I research or read into subjects that I might find odious and detestable. Right on cue I’m subjected to a parade of ads and posts tailored to an appalling “me” that I’d probably wouldn’t want to know.

I can only imagine what’s going to interrupt my scrolling for the next few weeks, now that I’ve expressed an interest in eHarmony.

Probably some algorithm thinks I can run up a bunch of stairs without first booking a physical therapy appointment or later going to emerg.

Let’s settle this on the ice, Putin

Published in The Sault Star March 8, 2022

We all know who’s to blame for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, don’t we?

Goalies. Yeah, goalies.

I say that not just because goalies always get the blame for everything. If the rest of the team allows 25 breakaways and the goalie stops 24, his teammates talk about the one their backstopper would “like to have back.”

(To be fair, so would the goalie. Tony Esposito didn’t go by the nickname “Tony 1,” after all.)

 

No, I blame members of the goaltending fraternity because they’ve helped convince Putin he’s a hockey god. Or, at least, they’ve encouraged his belief that he can score on every shot.

That sort of ego-stoking is bound to carry over into off-ice activities, such as invading neighbouring countries.

Just take a look at any of several videos of the Russian president-for-life playing hockey and you’ll see what I mean.

A scant 15 or so years ago, Vlad the Impaler was using a chair to learn to skate. He still skates like he’s leaning on an invisible support.

Now he plays hockey, wearing a national team jersey with the number 11. And when he plays, usually in charity games featuring former pros, he’s always the leading scorer. Always. By a ton.

Eat your heart out, famed No. 11s such as Mark Messier. Putin’s the shining red army star.

In a game last May the dictator of the duma scored nine goals before doing a major face-plant during the victory celebration (a sign of things to come, we hope). In a 2019 match he scored 10.

In December, playing on the same team with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, a passionate hockey fan, Putin potted seven goals to Lukashenko’s deuce.

Smell a Russian rat, anyone?

Yet as a goalscorer, Vlad sucks. Or he would, if everyone on the ice wasn’t letting and/or abetting him to dent the twine.

It helps that he centres a line between former NHL greats Pavel Bure and Valeri Kamensky. My mother, aged 99, might pot a few goals with those ringer wingers setting her up.

But it’s pathetically obvious that all of the opposing forwards skate as far as possible away from Putin, in the arena lobby if they can.

Defensemen turn the wrong way, catch a rut and lose their footing, allow themselves to be blocked out or give Putin the most halfhearted of hooks.

That leaves the goalies. We’ll get to their tactics soon.

Why would someone who was a champion wrestler in his youth tacitly allow so many people to go to such great lengths to make him a scoring machine? Would a serious athlete seriously want opponents to take it so easy on him?

Leonid Bershidsky, addressing this question in a Bloomberg News article last year, puts it down to noblesse oblige in reverse.

“He knows he’s a terrible hockey player. . . . (but) in Russia, letting no harm come to the leader is taken for granted. . . .

“Putin appears to enjoy this layer of protection as a kind of superpower that puts him on an equal footing with much better players. He doesn’t appear to see it as obsequiousness but rather as recognition of his value off the ice.”

As well, the opposing team is “packed with recipients of government contracts.”

So if every player on both teams is conspiring to inflate the Putin ego to Hindenburgian heights, why do I think it’s the goalies’ fault?

Because after Putin stumbles his way through the entire team and unleashes his Tom-Thumb-calibre wrist shot, it’s the goalie who decides if he scores or not.

Unlike their teammates, goalies can’t just get out of the way and let that pretender to the Mister Macho throne have his way, as if they were Belarus or China.

If they make giving up on a shot too obvious they might find themselves playing for the Gulag All-Stars or the Siberian Tortured Hockey Veterans or the Formerly Living Soviets.

There’s an art to letting someone score while leaving at least some doubt in everyone’s mind that you did it on purpose. Most pickup hockey goalies have cultivated it. 

Some friend’s kid or grandkid or new girlfriend is in the stands and the goalie’s five-hole becomes a seven-and-a-half, or he flashes the leather dramatically but with a half-second delay, or he bites on a deke like it’s a slice of pizza.

That’s the sort of thing I see from goalies in those videos celebrating Putin’s prowess on the frozen pond.

And I wonder, as he bombs Ukrainian civilians because attacking that country’s army proved too difficult, what might have happened if every goalie Putin has faced played him honestly.

I don’t buy Bershidsky’s belief that Putin knows how bad he is. 

A megalomaniacal narcissist like him probably believes that his superiority to the rest of us allows him to excel and succeed in anything he tries.

If some self-sacrificing goalies had shown him that’s not how things work in hockey, or in the real world, would it have shake Putin’s confidence as he set out to restore the Soviet Union?

Perhaps not. 

But at least those goalies could have tried a little harder. 

Jeez, now I sound like a forward.

What kind of winter wimps are we?

Published in The Sault Star Dec. 22, 2021

Hey, Algoma, let’s turn this sled around.

Because it seems to me we’re in danger of becoming winter wimps.

Ever since the first flakes fell this season too many of us have been quaking, and not from the cold.

Are we really that afraid of a little snow and wind? Or even of a whole bunch of snow and gusty winds and prolonged whiteouts?

Say it ain’t so.

But I’m afraid it might be.

Recently the City of Sault Ste. Marie declared a “Significant Weather Event,” which remained in effect from Dec. 3 to 7.

The reason? Environment Canada had issued weather advisories about the possibility of heavy snowfall, freezing rain, strong winds and reduced visibility.

The city said works crews would try to clear roads, sidewalks and bus stops but it “may take longer than normal.”

In other words, business as usual in typical early-December weather.

Since then the Sault has issued similar warnings a couple of times. Yet from what I’ve seen when venturing into the metropolis, city works has ridden every storm wave like a veteran snowboarder on a hill of moguls. 

They even found time to dump frozen slush or ice chunks in front of the driveways of older or infirm citizens, fulfilling what seems to be their mandate.

Meanwhile, for lack of plows, Environment Canada has been dumping warnings and watches on the citizenry.

During that early-December event, by my reckoning it predicted total snowfall of 55 to 95 centimetres (22 to 37 inches). Other forecasters on both sides of the border were in the same ballpark.

What actually fell on the Sault? Less than 34 centimetres (about 13 inches) according to, yes, Environment Canada.

So even if you hadn’t shovelled your driveway during those four days you could still wade out to your half-ton in your snowmobile boots without getting a single flake on your pant legs. Or bare knees, if you’re one of those who sports shorts in all seasons.

Big flaking deal, in other words.

And suppose those projected 95 centimetres (about 37 inches) actually had fallen over three or four days: would it be a climate catastrophe? Most of us have lived through that amount in just a single day and have the tall tales to prove it.

I’m not sure what sounding such alarms is supposed to accomplish. But if officialdom is going to treat every occurrence of typical winter weather as a potential natural disaster, it’s going to be a long and traumatic season for Saultites.

And is Environment Canada going to issue intense sunlight warnings every time we go a couple of days without rain this summer? Will the city urge us to avoid unnecessary travel because it’s pothole or line-painting season?

I had hoped this winter’s chionophobia (intense fear of snow) wouldn’t extend any farther north than the plow turnaround at city limits.

But social media tells me a contagion of cowardice has spilled into the unorganized townships that I call home.

Lately a Goulais River page on Facebook has featured an avalanche of whining about a smattering of snowflakes on too-slowly-plowed rural roads and warnings about treacherous highway conditions.

Don’t drive into the Sault, for god’s sake, because there’s a whiteout and the roads are glare ice! The highway is closed (even if it’s really open)!

A few posters call bull, saying they cruised home in the usual time with no traction or visibility issues, even posting photos of clear pavement. I suspect they are viewed as delusional. 

But seriously, even if it had been snowmaggedon out there, you guys are Goulaigans.

Don’t Goulaigans dismiss the worst nature can throw at them with a contemptuous laugh, declaring like the knight in a Monty Python movie that it’s only a flesh wound?

Someone once told me you’re not really from Sault North until you’ve slid down Mile Hill, unable to see past your wipers, hoping to come to rest against a moose or jackknifed transport so you won’t disappear into the blueberry flats.

But it seems a great many in the Sault and environs are obsessed with and afraid of winter weather and determined to avoid it.

When I came to the Sault a scant 41 years ago — yes, I still can’t call myself a local — I was impressed with how people either ignored or embraced winter storms.

They would pack up the wife and tiny tots on sleds held together with duct tape and optimism, travelling way back into the bush to frozen camps with styrofoam toilet seats in the outhouses.

At weekend’s end they’d use a pan of hot coals to thaw out the engine, maybe pour some gas in the pistons and dislocate a shoulder starting up the 250 ccs that was their only hope of getting home, perhaps after freezing their fingers replacing a broken belt.

How many of us have followed a pair of taillights from Parry Sound to Echo Bay, hoping the transport driver has a better view through the whiteout than you do?

Or snuck around a road-closure barricade to get home?

Or pushed and towed and shovelled and come-alonged hundreds of cars and trucks to disinter them from snowy graves.

Or taken a shovel to the top of snowbanks so you’d have somewhere to put what you needed to clear off the driveway.

Even I, who grew up in the south, have waded through waist-high snow a kilometre or so to my camp, weighed down by enough beer to make it worth the effort. Once I had to carry a dying dog through freezing drizzle out to where my truck had bogged down on the slushy camp road.

I’ve plowed my way to work (drivers on Great Northern Road thanked me), then plowed my way out of the Sault Star parking lot through a couple of feet of new snow at the end of my night shift.

A few more years of those sorts of adventures and I might be deemed worthy to call myself a northerner, albeit a very old one.

So, Algoma, put the city’s significant weather events where the sun don’t shine.

White out the weather services’ forecasts of imminent disaster. 

Stop whimpering on social media.

Enjoy winter while you can. Because it’ll be here for only about eight months.