Tesla’s Stone of Triumph

Tesla’s stock price rose sevenfold in 2020, a year many people stopped driving. It is now the fifth highest valued American company and by far the world’s highest valued car company.  

Whether or not this market valuation is warranted, Tesla’s cars have a snag: their battery packs weigh ~1200 pounds. That’s a lot of weight that each Tesla Model S has to carry around. By way of comparison, an entire Renault Twizy electric car weighs 1000 pounds, including a 200-pound battery.  

                                                                Renault Twizy  

All this extra weight may not limit Tesla’s business success, any more than the waste associated with other sellers of convenience and speed, like Amazon, have limited theirs. But it will guarantee that cars like Tesla’s do not come anywhere close to maximizing economic or environmental efficiency. 

The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV recently overtook the Tesla Model 3 to become the best-selling electric car in China at the end of 2020. It weighs about 1500 lbs., compared to about 3500-4000 lbs. for the Tesla 3. It has a top speed of about 100 km/h and an estimated range of 170 km, seats 4 passengers, and costs about $4500.

Tesla vs. Economy class
Electrifying transportation in an economic way is not rocketX science. There are a few simple ways to go about it:

These options all share the advantage of not having to lug heavy batteries around. Not only does this make them a lot more energy-efficient (particularly in trucking; the battery pack of a Tesla Semi weighs an estimated 26,000 pounds), but it also saves large amounts of energy and other resources needed to produce large batteries, and avoids the later challenge of battery disposal. (A similar, less frequently discussed problem exists with regard to the energy needed to produce the many computer chips that semi-autonomous cars like Tesla’s require). In the case of electric railways or trolleybuses, not requiring battery-charging stations can also help to save money, time, and avoid the environmental problems associated with “fast”-charging. Plus, railways are simply more energy-efficient than automobiles. And for e-bike batteries, which tend to weigh only 5-10 pounds, or for the smallest electric car batteries, battery-swapping stations might become viable, something unlikely to happen on a significant scale for car batteries that weigh over a thousand pounds.  

Much of the confusion here comes from pursuing only electrification, rather than electrification and economization. While it is often pointed out that most electricity in the US is still generated from fossil fuels, or that even renewable sources of electricity can be problematic in various ways, what is almost never discussed is that even were 100% of US electricity to be renewable and non-problematic, driving electric cars like Tesla’s would still carry significant environmental opportunity costs simply because the rest of the world still generates most of its electricity from coal. America is not an island*: building and charging tens of millions of bulky car batteries means less power available for use elsewhere in the economy, and therefore possibly a greater reliance on imports of goods or services from other fossilier countries, or fewer fossil-free exports of goods or services to other countries. Ditto for social justice: spending needless trillions on cars means less money for investment in people.    

*A Canadian digression: actually, the US economy is like an island to a certain degree, at least compared to most other, smaller countries. But what is especially annoying is that the same arguments used to promote Tesla-style cars are also found in countries like Canada. Since Canada’s electricity already is almost all non-fossil-fuel based (hydroelectric and nuclear) and cheap (especially in hydro-rich Quebec, BC, and Manitoba), the argument heard in Canadian media is that all we have to do is get that last little bit up to 100% “renewable”, and then we can enjoy buying EVs. This, of course, ignores the massive opportunity cost coming from the fact that the rest of the North American economy still gets most its power from coal and gas. We may have a responsibility to economize the use of our clean and cheap power in order to help other parts of the continent wean themselves off coal – especially as some of the pollution from that coal directly reaches our air and water. Maybe I have not been paying close enough attention, but I have never once heard or read this Econ-101 line of thinking in Canadian media. At best it is only implied, for example in the newly popular argument that we need to pivot from exporting oil to exporting more electricity to the US following the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Biden.

Battle of the Sedan
Similar challenges exist for conventional electric cars with regard to concerns like traffic jams, passenger and pedestrian safety, and ease of use for elderly people, people with disabilities, etc. Many Tesla supporters claim that autonomous driving will eventually solve each of these issues. That may or may not be true (or, to put it another way, it’s very probably not true) but even if it were true, it still ignores the pesky reality of opportunity costs, which force one to ask not merely “how might this improve things?” but also “how far from perfect would this still be?”

A future built around autonomous electric cars would still create more road traffic (even if they were able to travel in Musk’s underground tunnels) and require far more resources than would a future built around electric rail, lightweight electric vehicles, or wired electric buses and trucks. And that is without even counting the biggest opportunity cost of all: delay. Even if we get to a future of safe and fast electric autonomous driving by, say, 2030 or 2040, that still leaves a decade or two of lost life-years and injuries from car accidents, wasted time and stress in traffic jams, and other forms of loss, which could all be reduced much sooner than 2030 if we act intelligently.

This vision of the future also begs a further question: if cars are going to be driving themselves while we relax, then why do we even need them to have the top speed of a sports car? Where exactly are we rushing to in that automated world? And if we really are still in such a rush, why not simply have them drop us off at the nearest train station? Trains, unlike cars, can travel at high speeds without wasting too much energy.

Of course, a counter-argument to all this it that people actually want the type of cars that Tesla makes. And Tesla’s cars are still better than the internal combustion engine status quo, so why make the perfect the enemy of the good? Well, sure, that is an argument that can plausibly be made. But it’s not exactly the Tesla ethos, is it? I’ve never heard anybody say “hey, have you seen my new Tesla? It’s relatively decent. That Elon Musk is a real evolutionary”.

Many Tesla supporters still believe the company will change the world. With a market capitalization of 794 billion dollars, it could actually do so now. A good place to start would be no longer making cars with batteries as heavy as full-grown cattle.  

His Dark Adaptations

Like any YA-novel heroine worth the name, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has repeatedly been tasked with filling the shoes of bigger heroes in order to save the world – scratch that: worlds – from peril. First came the world of bookselling, as Pullman’s novels were used to fill the lulls between releases of the Harry Potter books and, eventually, help bookstores in their attempts to stave off Amazon.com, which entered the book-selling business the same week The Golden Compass was published in July 1995. Then came the world of film, when New Line was looking for its next big hit after The Lord of the Rings wrapped in 2003, and so gave The Golden Compass the biggest budget in its history (which was still ≈70 million less than what Amazon later paid for just the rights to LOTR’s backstory). Finally, in 2019, began the finale of this trilogy: the Great Streaming Wars. HBO, in trying to ward off spectres like Amazon, partnered with the BBC to adapt Pullman for TV, part of its search for new materials to follow up Game of Thrones.

Matching the success of the Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings films, and Game of Thrones show would have been daunting enough even if His Dark Materials was a comparable product. But, although perhaps equivalent in terms of quality, it does not possess the immense quantity of those other series. The full His Dark Materials series clocks in at 390,000 words, compared to more than half a million for Lord of the Rings, over a million for Harry Potter, and soon-to-be two million for Thrones. Pullman’s first two books combined are shorter than the shortest of George RR Martin’s – the book off of which GOT’s Season 1 was based. In trying to create a similar hit, HBO had to stretch the material in His Dark Materials dangerously, even hobbitishly thin:

*The stats for the Harry Potter films and for the Peter Jackson Middle Earth movies were taken from the blog Overthinking It.  For the GOT show, only the first 2 seasons are shown here – after season 2 the book/tv timelines no longer overlap neatly at all.

Pullman’s brevity might have actually been an advantage in terms of making a film adaptation without having to cut key scenes or characters, as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies and later seasons of Game of Thrones all had to do. The Golden Compass movie, however, was forced to carry out this same type of cinematic intercision anyway, only for completely different reasons.

Fearing that advocacy groups like the Catholic League, and also the Vatican, would suppress the film’s ticket sales, New Line decided to cut any scenes that might broadly offend the Catholic Church. This was way back in the 2000s, a time when even the inoffensive and pro-Christian Harry Potter was still criticized from certain religious corners as being too pro-witchcraft, Baruch and Balthamos couldn’t yet have legally married even in Los Angeles, and New Line itself had just produced a prequel of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ the year before releasing Compass. So, it was no surprise that there would be serious pushback against a series of children’s books in which (spoiler alert) sexual awakening between young teenagers is the fruit of original sin and can save the world, and the heroine of the entire story is, in effect, the antichrist.

But New Line’s decision meant bungling the adaptation, despite an excellent casting job that included Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot, and Derek Jacobi. The movie was forced to remove the entirety of the book’s final chapters, including the book’s devastating climax which mingles and twists a number of Genesis myths (the tempting of Eve, binding of Isaac, and ladder of Jacob). The result was akin to ending Empire Strikes Back before the Luke, I am Your Father scene.

An essay in The Atlantic in 2007, How Hollywood Saved God, describes how this came to pass:

…[Director Chris] Weitz told me he tried to keep in a line where Asriel says, “Dust is sin,” but “that didn’t make it. What can I say?” Hollywood “is just terrified that anything that brings up religion or anything controversial will be disastrous.” But after three years of working on the movie, he’d come up with a solid explanation for why he’s not selling out: In the ’80s and ’90s, Hollywood was “scornful in a very intellectually unsound way about religion. Any priest or nun was a dogmatic idiot. So I think there’s something valid in the way the Christian community has responded.” There will be some religious imagery in the movie, Weitz said, but it will be blended so unobtrusively into the production design that it will take a “DVD player and working knowledge of Latin to decipher the symbols.”

SPECTRE: Lord Asriel Will Return in “Quantum of Soulless”

That was then. Thirteen impressively sacrilegious years later, the idea that entertainment should have to bend the knee to the likes of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League seems quaint. And so, HBO, in partnership with the BBC, had the chance to adapt things faithfully – that is, without faith getting in the way – this time. Yet the pressure to replicate Game of Thrones’ success may have been too strong, forcing producers towards the opposite extreme instead. Whereas the 2007 adaptation had a runtime of 1 hr 45 minutes, for a book that probably needed 2 or 3 hours to do justice to – maybe 4, at a stretch – the 2019 version expanded the story into 7 and a half hours of TV.

The result of this was a too-drawn-out storytelling pace, and so much new material being written for side characters that Lyra, whose point of view dominates the book, is off-screen for much of the show. The show also had to move key parts of the story forward from the second book into the first season, and then from the third book to the second, in the process diluting the power of both books’ revelatory final chapters. (This book-shuffling also spoiled perhaps the best minor twist in the books, but in that case there was the silver lining of getting to watch more of Ariyon Bakare). The need to fill the extended runtime also led to quite a lot of thematic exposition, with characters discussing philosophical aspects of the narrative which might otherwise have unfolded gradually. All of this undermined what, in the books, is one of the series’ most coveted qualities: subtlety.

There is another even deeper danger lurking, which could be glimpsed in the very first scene of Materials’ first season: spinoff creep. Rather than begin with the books’ iconic decanter of tokay opening scene, the show instead starts with events pulled from Pullman’s The Book of Dust, the prequel/sequel trilogy Pullman began publishing in 2017 and is currently still writing the finale of. Obviously — as can also be seen in HBO’s move to set a handful of new shows in Westeros — there is pressure on producers to engage in extended world-building in order to compete with the megadeals that have landed Amazon Middle Earth, Netflix Narnia, and Disney galaxies near and far.

Killing Eve: the sinister Magisterium seeks to pre-empt original sin in the second season of His Dark Materials

(As an example of just how crowded this competition is, His Dark Materials was not even the only beloved ‘90s fantasy book with the antichrist as its hero to debut on streaming services in 2019. There was also Amazon Studio’s adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens. Like Materials, it too was co-produced with the BBC and featured a star-studded cast. It too may return for a second and third season, despite having been adapted from a single book).

In the end, the attempts to adapt and market Pullman’s fantasy series may serve to illustrate how, like a teenager’s daemon, the more things change the more they stay the same. Books become movies, which later beget television shows. Standalones become trilogies and then grow into cinematic multiverses. Popes and Catholic Leagues wax and wane; Hollywood’s religious mores can swing like the needle of a compass. But throughout all of these transformations, film and television studios can always be relied upon to try to duplicate their past hits. They worship a different God, and fear different devils, than the ones who will do battle at the end of His Dark Materials.

Anduin Prime: Middle Earth in the Second Age of Amazon

Amazon has entered its Second Age. Jeff Bezos is about to step down as CEO a generation after founding the company in 1994. Amazon’s market value has become second only to Apple and Microsoft, its revenues and number of employees are both second only to Walmart, and its profitability – after being famously unprofitable or profit-neutral until about 2017 – now ranks near the world’s highest.

Middle Earth, meanwhile, is entering its Third Age. Christopher Tolkien, the good steward and workhorse of his father JRR’s writings, passed away in 2020 at 95 years old. His editing and publishing occupied a forty-year period, beginning five years after his father’s death with The Silmarillion in 1978 (itself forty years after The Hobbit was published) and ending with The Fall of Gondolin in 2018. This same generation saw a trilogy of Middle Earth film trilogies produced, starting in 1977 with The Hobbit, the first of three animated movies (by two different directors) in the 1970s, later continuing with the live-action LOTRs directed by Peter Jackson in the 2000s, and finally coming full circle to end in a live-action/CGI hybrid Hobbit trilogy by Peter Jackson, which wrapped in 2014. (Jackson’s newest project, a Beatles-footage documentary, even has a bit of a tie-in here: the Beatles tried to get Stanley Kubrick to direct them in a Lord of the Rings musical in the 1960s, in which Paul would have played Frodo, George Gandalf, John Gollum and Ringo Sam!). The last deal Christopher Tolkien made, following the last of these movies, was to reach terms with Warner Bros. in 2017, to shop the rights to a Middle Earth TV show to …Jeff Bezos.

The move to Middle Earth TV is in some ways a continuation of the trend, shown in the chart above, of Tolkien adaptations becoming less and less rushed. The early animated trilogy had to cram a four-book epic into roughly five hours of film. Then in the 2000s trilogy, each successive film got longer (even as each book gets shorter) on its path towards Mt. Doom and Best Picture. And in the recent, butter-spread-over-too-much-bread Hobbit trilogy, it took eight hours to cover the material within a single children’s book. The last, and draggiest, of these, The Battle of Five Armies, covered only a few chapters. As one reviewer wrote, quoting from the book, “So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called The Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible.

Many reviewers, indeed, pointed out the absurd hypocrisy of dragon-sick Hollywood in making two extraneous Hobbit movies both of which centered around the theme of not lusting after gold. It was additionally irritating, to fans of the book, that despite making three long movies when one would have been more than sufficient, the films still cut many of the book’s scenes out of the story.

Ultimately, maybe the best that can be said about the Tolkien film era is that old cliche about a .300 batting average being Hall of Fame worthy. 6 of 9 of the movies were strikeouts. Even the three live-action LOTR films, which were excellent in their own, Hollywoodized way, still did not have the runtime or the subtlety to include or do justice to characters and scenes that many fans of the books wanted to see. One might hope TV could provide the time needed to amend this. But that is not going to happen, as a Lord of the Rings show is not what is being planned. Whether because Warner Bros. wanted to protect the films, or the Tolkiens did not want to see the books simplified again, the new show will not be covering anyof The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or even The Silmarillion. Instead, Amazon will more or less have to build a world from scratch.

A lot of scratch. At an estimated 250 million dollars just to buy the rights to the books’ title and backstory, and then a first-season production budget reported to be 465 million dollars, Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings will be far and away (and back again) the most expensive show ever made.

What has it got in its pocketses?
But what precisely is that story that Amazon bought? It will not be allowed to cover the long, mythic First Age of Tolkien’s invented universe, which is detailed in The Silmarillion and features a cast of demi-gods, fallen devils, prideful elves, early humans and earthy dwarves. Nor can it cover the heroic Third Age in which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are set, with its hobbits and wizards and fellowships and rings.

Instead, it will be left with the mostly missing middle of Middle Earth, the antediluvian Second Age, centering on a Platonic Atlantis – Numenor, the numinous isle – peopled by a Methuselean race of humans who, corrupted by power and pride and fear of death, decide to assail the gods in a petition for immortality. In response, the God sinks the island (a Flood dream Tolkien himself claimed to have had recurringly in his life), removes the immortal god-lands to beyond the reach of men, and sends a surviving remnant of worthy Atlanteans back to the mainland. There, they found the besieged, dwindling kingdom that, centuries later, Viggo Mortensen will redeem and rule.

So… there are certainly some big ideas here as fodder for new canon. But there is also little in the way of specifics. The show’s era will predate established settings like the Shire, so Amazon will likely have to situate its HQ2 on Numenor instead, then try to fill it with new compelling characters and dialogue. (This may prove especially difficult to achieve as, unlike in previous fantasy hits, Sean Bean is not going to be in it. Nor will any other stars). According to the show’s official synopsis:

“Amazon Studios’ upcoming series brings the heroic legends of the legendary Second Age in Middle-earth history to screens for the very first time. This epic drama takes place thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and will take viewers back to a time when great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and crumbled, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hangs on the thinnest of strings, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien’s pen threatened to cover everyone in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows a set of characters, both familiar and new, as they face the dreaded re-emergence of evil in Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elven capital of Lindon [not to be confused with Lindon, Ontario], to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the far reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that will endure long after they left. ”

You might, perhaps, want to set this against an earlier quote by Tolkien, made in 1963:  

I am doubtful myself about the undertaking [of publishing Hobbit-LOTR prequels]. Part of the attraction of the Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. Also many of the older legends are purely ‘mythological’, and nearly all are grim and tragic: a long account of the disasters that destroyed the beauty of the Ancient World, from the darkening of Valinor to the Downfall of Numenor and the flight of Elendil.

As with the three Hobbit movies’ warning against greed, the irony may abound yet again in this adaptation. The world’s most famous chaser of both the heavens and immortality, Jeff Bezos, is behind this show that will likely have as one of its main plots the Numenorean folly of sailing upon the heavens in an attempt to seize immortality. (Well, Bezos is at least one of the most famous of these chasers. The other, Elon Musk, has Tolkien ties too. One of the major investors in Musk’s company SpaceX is his old PayPal Peter Thiel, whose software company Palantir, which just went public earlier this year, is named for the sight-seeing orbs in the Lord of the Rings. Thiel is also, along with Bezos, an investor in the anti-aging company Unity Biotechnologies). Between Mars and Middle Earth, the world’s richest men seem to want to influence the sci fi and fantasy shelves of our imagination… 

I am going to make a prediction here, though it may be much too cynical. I predict that this television show will be received so poorly that Amazon Studios will not make anywhere near the five seasons it has said it is planning – and maybe willnot even make it to the second season that it has already preordered. It will become, like the isle of Numenor, a legendary, cataclysmic sunk cost.

If I’m wrong about this, there will at least be plenty of time to glimpse all of those unattainable Second Age vistas. If Amazon’s five-season plan is carried out, that would presumably end up being 30-50+ hours of TV. (Season 1 is expected to have 20 episodes). 50 hours would be more than twice the combined length of all 9 Tolkien movies that currently exist! Fans wanted more Middle Earth. Amazon, as always, can deliver you what you want…it just comes with a lot of junk.

——————

Appendix I: Concerning Hobbits

Any prancing pony can be a neigh-sayer (forgive me). But it’s harder to say exactly what you do want. If you could take the trillion-dollar reigns from Amazon, and manage to secure the rights for the LOTR books and The Hobbit, what would you want a new adaptation to look like?

I would certainly be interested to see a LOTR tv show. Having had my memory of the books jogged by this incredible, one-of-a-kind-audiobook made by Phil Dragash, I have a rough idea of my favorite scenes and characters that did not really make it into the Peter Jackson movies:  Gandalf debating with his articulate foils Saruman and Denethor, the Boromir-Faramir-Denethor family dialectic, hobbit and hobbit-adjacent characters like the Sackville Bagginses, Barliman Butterbur, Farmer Maggot, Ted Sandyman and “Sharky”, gaffers Gloin and Hamfast Gamgee, the Gandalf-and-Aragorn playing at Merlin-and-Arthur denouement (one of the Return of the King’s many denouements…), and even major characters like Bilbo and Gimli (both of whom get many of the books’ best lines, which the movies do not have enough time for) and a closer view of hobbits, dwarves and elves in general. Even the awkward Faramir-Eowyn denouement, and that talking eagle who third-wheels them, I’m into it.  

Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, these books are not at all easy to adapt well, especially not for mainstream audiences to enjoy. The Hobbit, in contrast, is a very easy book to adapt well, for kids and adults alike, in addition to being the introduction to LOTR. That’s why it’s a particular shame that both of the past attempts at Hobbit adaptations have been so disastrous. But, as they say, third time pays for all. A new Hobbit movie could be a good place to start, before considering – just like Tolkien did, ages ago – whether or not to go on to do a longer-form Lord of the Rings afterwards.  

If a new Hobbit adaptation were made, to distinguish it from the iconic Hobbiton created by Peter Jackson and the amazing Ians Mackellan and Holm (as well as Andy Serkis’ infamous Gollum), I think it might be best to animate it. Maybe even in a style based on Tolkien’s own hand-drawn Hobbit artwork. For example:

The Whole Winter Rental Car

It seemed a few years ago that car-sharing services like Zipcar or Car2Go might catch on. But it turns out people don’t really like driving cars that strangers have used before them. Plus, it’s expensive for car-sharing companies to ensure that cars are kept clean and accessible. In cold, suburban areas especially – in other words, in much of Canada, much of the time – people also don’t like having to walk to get to or from the nearest car-sharing car.

The Winter Car is a compromise between car ownership and car-sharing, aimed at solving these challenges. It’s sort of like winter tires, except it’s not tires, it’s a car. The idea is simple: you rent a car for the entire winter. Then, in summer, the car becomes a car-sharing or car-rental car, and you instead get around by walking, biking, taking transit, or using a car-sharing or car-rental car.

The winter car benefits its customers by giving them a car to avoid winter weather. The company renting out the winter car benefits by having cars available for customers in summer, when good weather makes it easier for customers to get to and from the rental area, and when there are more tourists and visitors in town to rent the cars to. And society benefits from having fewer people driving and parking their own cars in the summer, thereby reducing traffic jams and freeing up more road space or parking lot space for other summertime activities.

As with car-sharing generally, the winter car can also benefit drivers and society by allowing people to more often drive small cars than they otherwise would. While car buyers almost always opt for a large car, so that they can drive it comfortably on the highway or fill it comfortably with family or friends or mountain bikes or whatever, car renters can sometimes pick a smaller car, if they know they are only going to be using it for city driving. In some cases, a small winter car might be especially useful, as it would be easier to fit inside home garages so that its drivers would not have to clean the snow and ice off of their cars every morning, and it would fit in small parking spots so that its drivers can park near their destinations and so avoid having to walk further outside in winter conditions.

Of course, long-term car rentals do already exist. You can rent a car for several months from a company like Enterprise, for example. But I don’t know anybody who has ever done this, and I’ve never seen a company like Enterprise market its services in this way. I wonder if, one day, renting a car for the winter in a country like Canada will become something that becomes common.

On Big Z

Even in the most congenial divorce, the division of assets can hurt. When the Czechoslovakian men’s hockey team split after the country’s Velvet divorce in 1993, it was the Czech who ended up with most of the family fortune. With stars like Jaromir Jagr (second only to Gretzky in NHL career scoring) and Dominik Hasek (arguably the best goalie ever), the Czech would go on to win the gold at the 1998 Olympics, something that even the unified Czechoslovakian team had never been able to accomplish. 

Slovakia, however, still managed to keep the house: Zdeno Chara. 

Chara was already 16 years old when the country split. He was just about to begin his hockey career playing for his hometown team in Trenčín, a small city five miles from the newly established Czech border. Unlike his father, Zdenek Chara, who had been an Olympic champion in Graeco-Roman wrestling, Zdeno Chara never got to represent Czechoslovakia in international competition. He did, however, inherit his father’s Olympian physique: At 6”9 (7 ft. on skates), weighing 250 pounds, Chara has long been the largest player in the NHL, dominating defensive zones for 21 seasons since 1998. Though he has only won one James Norris award for Best Defenseman—Nik Lindstrom often stood in his way, winning seven, leaving Chara with five runner-ups—he remains the perpetual winner of the Chuck Norris award for deadliest man with a blade.  

As of today, Chara is the only European player, other than that same Nik Lindstrom, to captain a Stanley Cup-winning team, having led the Boston Bruins to end a nearly four-decades-long Cup drought in 2011. Chara has been the Bruins captain for 14 years, during which time they have made it to the playoffs 11 times, and to the Cup finals three times. He would easily be the franchise’s greatest defenseman, except that, this being the Bruins, Chara will always rank far behind Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr. Nor is Chara even the greatest 43-year-old athlete in recent Boston memory — that honor goes to Tom Brady of course, six months Chara’s junior. Like Brady, Chara is finally leaving New England this season, but not yet retiring. He signed with the Washington Capitals last week, where he will join Alexander Ovechkin as both seek to drink from a second Cup. 

Much attention has gone to Chara’s flashier records, such as the speed of his slap shot (108.8 miles per hour, the NHL’s fastest), his size (the league average is 6”1, 199 lbs), his career plus-minus (the highest plus of any current player), or the fact that he played one of the longest ever shifts (4 min and 18 seconds) when he was already 40 years old. It is easier though to overlook the most impressive record Chara is building, because the NHL has not historically kept track of ice time played over the course of a career. The league keeps track of average ice time per game, a stat Chara has led the league in during past years, and even led the Bruins in last year at 42 years old. But look a bit deeper and you can see Chara is racking up an almost Lebron-esque resume for total minutes played, across regular seasons and playoffs. 

With 21 full seasons thus far, 15 playoff runs, 3 finals runs, and almost no time lost to injuries, Chara is the leader in both regular season and playoff minutes played, and shows little sign of slowing down just yet. He has racked up far more ice time than the player with the second most career minutes, iron man Patrick Marleau (who, at age 41, takes ice baths to reenergize himself during every intermission between second and third periods). By the end of this season Chara will become the fourth oldest skater ever to play in the NHL, passing hockey legends Teemu Selanne, Tim Horton, and Doug Harvey. That will leave Chara chasing only Jagr (who retired last year at 46 years old, and still plays pro hockey back in the Czech league), Chris Chelios (48 years old, retired in 2010), and the great Gordie Howe (52 years old!). Howe actually pulled off what Lebron hopes to do one day, ending his career playing alongside his son

This brings us to Chara’s other Lebron-ish attribute: making his teammates, and specifically his goaltenders, look amazing. Admittedly some of this may be coincidence; trying to measure an individual player’s impact in a sport like hockey can be a somewhat fuzzy pursuit.  But it is probably not a complete coincidence that Chara’s teammates in Boston have won the Vezina award for Best Goalie three times — Tim Thomas twice and Tukka Rask (who was also Vezina runner-up this past season) once. Both goalies have had exceptional seasons with the Bruins: Thomas had a season with the 2nd best save percentage in modern NHL history, and Rask a season with the 8th best. (Dominik Hasek, who had the 3rd best save percentage season, also played with Chara for a year in Ottawa, and played well, but he had already won 6 Vezinas and 2 MVPs by that point in his career, without Chara). Chara’s long reach and ability to remove opponents from the front of the net have made him particularly useful at limiting goals during penalty kills, at which the Bruins have usually excelled.  

I say all of this with a respect that is truly grudging. Chara’s shadow has loomed over my hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, for two decades now. The Leafs have faced Chara in 6 out of their past 7 playoff berths, going back all the way to 2001 when Chara was still playing for Toronto’s provincial rival the Ottawa Senators. On the Bruins, the Leafs have faced Chara in three Game 7s — and are 0-3 against him. That record includes this Bruins comeback in 2013, one of the more devastating losses in Leaf history. Watch as Chara helps Boston score consecutive goals with the Bruins’ own net empty with about a minute left in the game, first with his slap shot and then by using his giant body to screen the Leafs goalie. 

It is easy, of course, to overlook hockey stars in America, especially in Boston where all three of the other big sports teams have been so great at the same time. Most sports fans probably have not caught on to what Chara has done in his career, or, even more impressively, what Connor McDavid, barely more than half Chara’s age, is now doing (McDavid has been sparking hockey’s own GOAT debate — if you haven’t watched any Oilers hockey since Gretzky, try watching a period this year and you will immediately see why). It’s good, then, that Chara is going to a team where another physically imposing hockey great, Alex Ovechkin, has helped put hockey on the map. Going into this season, which starts next week, both Washington and Boston are near the top of the betting odds to win the Cup. 

Chara may also have one more run left in him on the international stage, with the 2022 Beijing Olympics now a year away. Thus far Chara has won two silvers with Slovakia at the World Championships (a tournament held annually), but has not yet won a medal at the Olympics, where the best that the Slovaks have finished is fourth place. 

This, of course, begs the question that often follows divorce: what if they had just stayed together? A post-Cold War Czechoslovakian team would have paired Chara — and other Slovak stars, such as Marian Hossa — with the Czech greats like Jagr and Hasek. This is one of the big “what if’s” of Eastern European sports, along with the much uglier breakup that put an end to Yugoslavia’s basketball teams. (Somewhere, in a more peaceful alternate reality, Doncic and Jokic are building an Olympic juggernaut together…). With no Czechoslovakia in play, the road to gold has been much easier for the likes of Canada (which, unlike Czechoslovakia, is actually a country divided by language), or for Olympic Athletes From Russia, than would otherwise have been the case. 

Indeed, all this is not just a eulogizer’s praise – Chara’s career’s not done yet.  Boston, it seems, wanted Chara to transition into becoming a penalty-kill specialist, but Chara still wants a bigger role than that, and Washington is prepared to give him one.  And if he can help his new team to one more Cup run, Chara will leave behind a hockey legacy that is nearly as unassailable as he is himself. 

Three NHL Overtime Ideas


  1. Add a ‘Backcourt Violation’

Teams have started killing time and hogging puck possession in overtime, using the open ice that 3 on 3 hockey provides to skate around playing keep-away with the puck. The league should consider making it illegal to retreat back behind your defensive-zone blue line with the puck in OT – or perhaps even to retreat out of the offensive zone, which players are now doing frequently, on purpose, in OT. (There’s a great clip of Mathew Barzal doing this several times in a row, while single-handedly holding on to the puck for his entire shift). Doing so should result in a defensive-zone faceoff.

2. Add a 2nd OT with players who didn’t play in the 1st OT

Third- and fourth-line players don’t usually get ice time during OT. Star players, meanwhile, tend to prefer a shootout to a second OT period, because it’s less exhausting for them. The league should therefore consider introducing a second OT period in which only players who did not touch the ice in the first OT are allowed to play.

3. Make the Shootout ‘1 on 1’, instead of giving each team a 3-attempt minimum   

The shootout currently gives each team a minimum of 3 attempts. It should reduce this to 1 (or, better yet, give both teams 0 attempts..). This would make the shootout faster, more suspenseful, and would highlight the star players or shootout specialists chosen to take that crucial first attempt.  

A New Baseline for the NBA: Staying In Bounds Behind the Net

The NBA has to decide if it wants to put its baseline courtside seats and cameramen as close to the net as they used to be before Covid. Having more open space this season may be allowing players to drive at the net with more speed and less risk of injury. But, of course, keeping that space open next year would mean that some high-paying fans will be further from the action.

I’d like to propose a compromise of sorts: not only should the NBA keep the baseline space open, it should also push the baseline out-of-bounds line back by about 3 feet. In other words, players should be able to stand behind the net without being out of bounds, sort of like how they do in hockey.

Consider the potential consequences of doing this:

  • there would be even more room for players to drive at the net
  • baseline courtside seats would still be close to the action, despite being further from the net than they were pre-covid
  • there would be fewer baseline out of bounds plays, and therefore fewer stoppages of play and end-of-game out-of-bounds video reviews
  • there could be more passing opportunities for ball handlers: just imagine what Steve Nash could have done with this space…or what a Jokic or Lebron or Doncic could do
  • there could be more opportunities for inside scoring, perhaps helping to combat the league’s 3-point-shooting frenzy a little bit
  • there could be defensive opportunities: deflecting or rejecting a ball and then grabbing it before it goes out of bounds..
  • there would be the occasional awesome high-arching shot over the backboard, presumably taken at the end of a shot-clock in most cases (at least, until Curry masters it and reinvents basketball again)

You Can’t Yada Yada Yada Over Labour Force Participation Growth

I don’t know what the right amount for a government to spend on childcare is, and I don’t know how much of that spending should go to the middle class rather than to lower-income families. What I do know is that the argument being used to support the Canadian government’s new childcare-oriented budget, namely that by following the lead of Quebec’s 1997 childcare plan we can all benefit from a significant rise in labour force participation as mothers return to work, may be missing the point. When it comes to the labour force, we’re a long way from 1997:

(Or, to put it another way):

On the ground in the kingdom of the Guerreros - Sportsnet.ca
Quebec in 1997, Canada in 2021

The biggest age cohort in Quebec in 1997 was 30-40 year olds, whereas in Canada today it is 60 year olds, roughly speaking. This means that where the labour force is concerned, the main issue is no longer working mothers. It’s senior citizens. In particular, it may be working-class seniors and elderly women who will determine Canada’s labour force size; the former being the most likely to work in jobs that are physically strenuous, the latter being (for example) twice as likely as men to reach 85 years old. (Indeed, the labour force participation rate among working-class men may have already fallen below that of professional-class women before Covid if you ignore the segment of the population aged 15-25, within which professional-class labour force participation is relatively low because of university attendance). Obviously, only by helping to keep seniors employed will Canada’s labour force remain active. The official labour force participation rate, meanwhile, is becoming antiquated: it only counts people between the ages of 15-64 as being in the labour force.

Chart 1: Labour force participation rates of men and women aged 25 to 54, 1953 to 2014

Chart 1: Labour force participation rates of men and women aged 25 to 54, 1953 to 2014
https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-630-x/11-630-x2015009-eng.htm

Figure 2 – Participation rate of older individuals (55-64 and 65-69), by gender and age group

In 2016 at least, labour force participation for 65-69 years old was quite low, despite having more than doubled since 2000. The 55-64 year old participation rate, meanwhile, reached its lowest point in 1996, but has risen a lot since then, particularly for women, perhaps because the oldest Baby Boomers began to reach 55 years old around 2000 (and the youngest, around 2018). The 55-64 year old labour force participation rate in Japan and Sweden – the leaders in this field (that is, if you consider this to be a field worth leading in) – is about 7% and 14% higher than in Canada.

Notice also, for Quebec in 1997 and, to a lesser extent, for Canada today, that there is a drop-off in population below the age of about 30-35. This means that the childcare programs were introduced just in time to assist mothers in their 30s, whereas many younger, working-class mothers already had kids too old for childcare.

(According to journalist Andrew Coyne, economists tend to say that government should simply send lower-income parents money earmarked for childcare, rather than adopt the Quebec plan in which childcare spots tend to be taken disproportionately by affluent parents, and least of all by lower-income parents who work jobs that don’t sync up with the 9-to-5 hours the childcare system provides). 

[As a mostly irrelevant aside, the oldest of this Baby Boom generation came of age during the 1970 October Crisis and Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in Quebec, the youngest of this generation came of age just in time to vote in the secession referendum in 1980, and the generation as a whole reached its prime – 30-50 years old, say – around the time of the far closer (50.58% to 49.42%!), confusingly-worded, high-voter-turnout Quebec secession referendum in 1995. The narrow loss in this referendum led to Lucien Bouchard – who in 1995 had said “We’re one of the white races that has the fewest children” – to become Premier in 1996 and implement universal childcare in 1997. In the 1997 Canadian election, meanwhile, 3 of 4 most voted-for party leaders were Qubecois – Chretien for the Liberals, Duceppe for the Bloc Quebecois, and Charest for the Progressive Conservatives]

As it happens, Canada already had among the highest labour force participation in the world before Covid. According to the World Bank, only New Zealand, Switzerland, and Singapore had higher labour participation among developed economies in 2019. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for further growth of course, but it should raise the possibility that Canada may have some more pressing concerns to address than labour force participation.

Where caring for children is concerned, I can think of at least one more pressing concern: road traffic, which is the leading cause of death for children out of infancy and a leading cause of wasted time and stress for working parents (especially for parents who have to find parking spots twice a day outside of their toddlers’ childcare centre, in winter). Road traffic is also a major barrier against senior citizen labour force participation, and senior citizen quality of life in general. Yet rather than try to reduce the size or number of vehicles on the road during rush hour (three-quarters of Canada’s new car sales are SUVs!), the budget instead contains vast amounts of money to build and buy new, oversized e-sedans. …As usual, all roads lead back to cars.



Gunslinger

In the previous post we discussed the rules of Canadian baseball, which are still not well known beyond Canada’s borders. But, while most people may not have heard of Canadian baseball, they have at least heard of baseball. In contrast, when it comes to that other great sport played in Canadian summers, gunslinger, I’m always a little bit surprised, when I speak to people outside of Canada, that they have almost never even heard of the sport before.

I guess this does make some sense, since it’s not played all that much these days..especially not since we started having indoors skating rinks everywhere that allow hockey to be played year-round. Back in the old days though, gunslinger was the number one way that Canadian athletes kept their skating skills sharp during the warm half of the year. It was, in some ways at least, the quintessentially Canadian sport, mixing hockey and tennis (which the British-era colonials were obsessed with)with the gunslinger ethos of the old (North) American West.

The rules of gunslinger are simple enough:

  • Players can use a tennis racket or a hockey stick, and can switch back and forth between the two at will, either by going to their bench to swap utensils or by going to their bench to sub players.
  • Each team is allowed one Lone Gunslinger in the game at any given time. The Gunslinger, uniquely, carries both a hockey stick and a tennis racket. The racket the Gunslinger keeps sheathed in a holster slung over his (or increasingly, her) shoulder, to draw and re-holster at will
  • on a football-field-sized, tennis-court-surfaced rink, on roller skates, players score a goal by hitting a tennis ball through an upright goal. (In most gunslinger facilities, the uprights are the same as those used in American football for field goals).
  • When the ball goes out of bounds, a player on the opposite team gets to tennis-serve it back into play from the sidelines
  • Like hockey, games are usually played 5 on 5, with three 20 minute periods, 2 minute penalties, and sudden death overtime

That’s about it, for the core rules of the game. Much of the fun of the sport comes from its strategic stick/racket/gunslinger mixing – the great Canadian dialectic – with sticklers at an advantage whenever the ball is close to the ground, racketeers at an advantage playing the ball in the air and scoring, and the Lone Gunslingers cooly ready for any situation, as any gunslinger worth the name must be.

At the height of the sport a century ago, games usually resembled something between an orderly war-game and (especially given the quality of 19th century roller skates) a violent mess. In the modern game, knowing what we now know about head injuries, a few adjustments have made, some for the sake of safety and others for the sake of fun:

  • the ‘Wimbledon border’: rather than have the big gunslinger rink be directly surrounded by hockey-style boards, instead there is now about 10 feet of grass between the rink and the boards. The ball is still in-bounds when on the grass; the grass mainly serves to slow down skaters so that they cannot hit opponents into the boards at high speeds. (Players do hit opponents into the grass at high speeds sometimes, but those who try for a big hit of this kind and miss will often fall into the grass themselves, so high-speed dangerous hits are relatively rare, and players’ heads do not crash into boards or hard surfaces even when big hits do occur).

  • the ‘Flip on the fly’: because teams’ benches are situated behind the rink’s 10-ft-wide grassy border (though there is a narrow path through the grass to reach the bench), any player who wants to rapidly swap his stick for a racket or vice versa has the option of doing so ‘on the fly’: by tossing his or her stick/racket across the grassy border to a teammate on the bench, and then another teammate further along on the bench throwing a new stick/racket across the grass back to him or her. This is not mandatory, but when executed properly it is fast and damn cool.

  • the trampoline goalie. This is probably my favourite modern gunslinger innovation. It seems to have been inspired by slamball in the 1990s….or perhaps quididitch in the 1990s. In gunslinger facilities equipped to handle trampoline goalies, the goalie creases are large, circular trampolines on which only goalies are allowed to stand. The trampoline goalie-only creases are then surrounded by a circle of grass. The goalies wear shoes, not skates, and carry no stick or racket. If they catch the tennis ball in the air, they can only bounce once on the trampoline before throwing the ball back into play; failure to do so results in the opposing team getting to serve the ball inbounds from the corner sidelines. In some trampoline goalie gunslinger rinks, the upright goals have been replaced by quidditch-style upright hoops, sometimes quite high off the ground. Of course, the higher off the ground the upright goal is, the more gymnastic and well-timed the goalie must be, and the harder it is to score a goal with a stick rather than a racket. (Just don’t tell that to Pavel Birkenov, who is currently leading the Kelowna Dancing Bears in scoring despite having more stick goals than racket goals!)

Just like bandy in Scandinavia and Russia, gunslinger is a skating sport that has mostly been forgotten about in the world at large – despite having everything a sports fan could want: speed, skill, strategy, simplicity, sharpshooting, soccer-sized stadiums, and lots of opportunities for fans to snag balls hit into the stands during the game. This is a real shame; superstar Condor Macphearson, the starting lone gunslinger for the Edmonton Tar Heels and the league’s top scorer, is well worth the price of admission on his own. (Forgive me for saying this, but Macphearson may be the fastest-draw the ole’ Western conference has ever seen). With fans finally starting to fill stadiums again, it’s time we finally, finally bring the sport back out of the wilderness. It’s time for gunslinger to go global.

Canadian Baseball Rules

Baseball is the most North American, and North Pacific, sport. It’s little played in Europe, mainland Asia, or south of the equator, but is loved by Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Central Americans, Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, and Canadians alike.

Well, not quite alike. Just as Canada has fiddled around with American football – dropping a down here, adding a rouge there, widening the field – so too baseball is played a little bit differently on the Canadian side of the border.

The Blue Jays notwithstanding (and the Expos, sadly, no longer standing), Canadian baseball is played in almost exactly the same way as Yankee baseball. It has only a few tweaks that better suit it to the colder Canadian climate. As it happens, one of those tweaks also makes the game much more interesting, by significantly increasing the number of highlight-reel plays that occur each game.

So, it’s long past time that we introduced to the world these little-known rules of Canadian baseball, our glorious ice-free pastime:

  • The outfield walls are further back than in the MLB, but instead of having Designated Hitters there is a fourth outfielder, so the overall fielder-to-field space ratio is about the same  

Outfields were originally expanded in order to give spectators and players less shade and more sunlight, but it was quickly realized that, with a larger field and an extra fielder (unofficially called a Mountie), there are more diving catches, throw outs, doubles, triples, and even inside-the-park-home-runs. There are also, of course, fewer home runs in general, but the ones that do get hit are deeper and more exciting.

  • Spring and Fall Lunch Games

In the summertime, Canadian baseball games are played MLB-style; that is, on weekday evenings or during the daytime on weekends. In spring and fall, however, games are instead split into 3 periods of 3 innings each and played across 3 days during lunchtime, in order to avoid colder, darker evenings. Each 3-inning lunch period usually takes about an hour or so to play. If it is raining at lunch time, the period is instead played that evening or, if the evening weather is too cold, 6 innings are played the following day (and so on.. ) This includes the later rounds of the playoffs, which are played in the fall, but not the earlier rounds, as the playoffs begin in late summer. ..Canadian ballparks also tend to have sections of stationary workout bikes and ellipticals in the spring and fall, for fans to stay warm and get a midday workout in. Winter Training is played in Cuba.

  • The Mercy Rule

If the weather drops below zero degrees Celsius before the start of the game – this usually happens a handful of times a year (more, in some cities) – outfielders will be forced to stand in the same spot at the beginning of every play during that day, and these fixed spots are kept heated from below.  

That’s about it. Eight teams make the playoffs every year and vie to win the Roy Halladay Cup, with the finals traditionally being played over several days around Yom Kippur. For now, Canadian baseball only has a National League. One wonders, though, if it will ever be joined by an American League (or even, one day, a Russian League). States like Minnesota, after all, can be really, really cold too. And let’s face it, without Canadian baseball rules, MLB regular seasons can feel as long as a northern winter.