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PEACE & QUIET

I had no porkpie hat. It was a baseball cap. There were no Piracucu boots. I was wearing skateboarding shoes. They were limited-edition, paying homage to A Tribe Called Quest. The shoelaces were emblazoned with the phrase “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Path of Rhythm.”

I started longboarding a few months ago. Usually, I’m weaving erratically down a side street, wearing a Montréal Canadiens shirt or hat, with an overcurious beagle racing behind me, off-leash in full violation of local ordinances. The blend manages to rub several different subsets of people the wrong way. It drives certain types batshit crazy.

Fractal

 

I was in Finland with no clear purpose. I knew I didn’t want to drive anyone batshit crazy. People told me other countries sometimes get rubbed the wrong way by American tourists. My countermeasure was to play it incognito. Therefore, I left the hat and boots at home and brought a few pairs of skateboard shoes. They pack easier anyway.

During the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel in downtown Helsinki, I tried engaging the driver in conversation. I asked him the typical questions that usually provoke his kind. How’s the traffic here? What’s public transportation like? The traffic question elicited a mere sentence fragment about the holiday that was approaching. The public transportation inquiry returned an almost imperceptible ripple in his facial expression.

Stymied, I caught myself concluding that the city was much cleaner and more modern than North American cities. I had no basis for concluding this. I realized my mind was playing tricks on me. It was the traffic. There was none of it.

I wasn’t sure if that was because I got super-lucky and caught a rare lull in what was otherwise a typical urban logjam or if the Finns had some new and innovative approach to handling congestion issues. Possibly they had an elite light rail system, lines spreading throughout the hinterlands like capillaries. It was also summertime with the Midsummer Holiday approaching. The briefest of internet queries had revealed that the Finns barely work in the summer because it’s the only time the sun shines on their realm. I was unsure of the magnitude of the holiday which the taxi driver had made the most fleeting of allusions to.

The lack of congestion and its settling effect on me had compounded the bias I already had about Finland. This was buttressed by the tour de construction detours which had become my life in Nashville, PK Subban getting traded to Tennessee and that individual’s refusal to talk to me, identity politics interfering with my favorite hockey team’s chances of ever winning another Stanley Cup, and the unfillable void that was soon to be left by Uncle Bob riding off into the sunset. I was desperate for a utopia and Finland was supposed to be it. I was viewing everything with the assumption that this was what utopia was supposed to be like.

The closest I have to a tangible reason for being in Finland is Red Gendron. He’s the head coach of the University of Maine at Orono men’s hockey team. He began his coaching career at my high school. It’s safe to say he’s responsible for turning Bellows Free Academy at St. Albans into the Montréal Canadiens of Vermont high school hockey.

I just missed him. Before my freshman year, he left to become an assistant coach under the late great Shawn Walsh at Maine. He was on the staff in 1993, when they assembled one of the greatest teams in NCAA hockey history. Lou Lamoriello brought him into the New Jersey Devils organization as a technological specialist. His primary responsibility was implementing video-based instruction. He would serve several roles within the organization, including head coach of their minor league affiliate in Albany. His name is engraved on the Stanley Cup twice, 1995 and 2000. In 2013 he returned to the University of Maine as head coach.

I don’t know Red well but based on a couple phone calls and reams of email messages, he feels a lot like Walt. He never has a straight answer for anything and his criticism is vast and diverse. I used to feel that I had missed out by not getting to be coached by Red in high school. After getting to know him, I thank the hockey Gods every day for not allowing me to be pulled into his sphere of influence at an impressionable age.

I found his email address listed on the university web site. I honestly don’t even know why he replied to me. I think it might have been a case of mistaken identity at first. He thought I was one of his former players or something. He probably only carried on after learning I was a complete stranger in order to save face. All I know is that I sent him an email asking a couple innocent questions about data science in hockey and how to conduct yearly evaluations for NHL amateur scouts. We talked on the phone a couple times [Red speaks AT you with a high degree of intensity (that goes for me and the lady giving him coffee at the drive thru window)]. We also emailed each other’s faces off about family, the Montréal Canadiens, primary objectives, service leadership, the practical effects of mission statements within their organizations, and many more subjects. He elaborated about everything voluminously, everything but how to actually evaluate an NHL amateur scout. He only gave me a single direct response about data science, “SOME OF THE ANALYTICS ARE VERY USEFUL!!! OTHERS ARE TOTAL BS!!! DID YOU PUT SUGAR IN THIS?!?!” In the end he told me to go to Finland.

Whenever I would press him on the scouting questions or the topic of data science, he would give me the title of a book to read. He has a funny way of giving advice. It feels a lot more like marching orders than a friendly reading suggestion. All the books were really interesting, but it was frustrating. I would make a counter-instruction for a book I thought he might like (Strategy: Pure & Simple). Not only would he pile on a couple more reading assignments, he wouldn’t even dignify the book I mentioned. I let my frustration leak out a couple times. At one point I told him he might be better suited for a career in politics than hockey. Another time, I told him his primary objective in life was making money and attracting publicity for the university. I also may have insinuated that he was the soft floating winger of the coaching profession. Upon further review, in the context it was mentioned, ‘Finland’ could probably be substituted with the name of any country where Red Gendron wasn’t located. Certain parts of the human anatomy would work well in that spot too.

I made travel arrangements before I realized there was a subtext. I loved Finland. Actually, I knew nothing about Finland whatsoever. My love was for their primary export: great hockey.

I cheered for Finland in the Olympics, the World Junior Hockey Championships, and all the other international ice hockey tournaments. At open hockey, where all the other washed-up hockey players wear nondescript white or dark jerseys, I proudly wear a blue replica jersey of the Finnish National Team with the lionized coat of arms and Suomi on the front {Saku Koivu! [#11!! (with the captain’s patch!!!)]}.

I can’t remember why I first started following their national team, but it was probably because of Koivu. He’s been one of my heroes ever since his brave and defiant battle against cancer. The more I learned about their underdog story, the harder it was to resist being one of their biggest fans. They are a proud country, smaller in size and population than the Province of Quebec. Sometime around the 1970’s, they got sick and tired of getting beaten at every international tournament by the bully next door, the Soviet Union. The Soviets, an irresistible superpower, boasting the second biggest land mass and third largest population in the world, dominated international hockey. From 1956 until 1992, they won 8 of a possible 11 gold medals (This includes the gold they won in ’92 as the Unified Team after their collapse). The two years they didn’t win gold 1956 (USA!) and 1980 {USA! [Do you believe in miracles? (Yes!)]}, they claimed silver. From 1963 to 1990, they won 19 of 24 IIHF World Championships (the tournament was cancelled 3 years due to political considerations). They won 7 straight IIHF World Junior Championships from 1974 – 1980. From 1980 until their collapse, they medaled in 9 of the 11 tournaments.

Finland was heavily outmanned by the Russians. Population was a stark weakness compared to all the other major hockey countries in the world. They had to find ways to adapt.

They began coaching the coaches. This had several benefits which paid dividends in the coming generations. The most obvious was that their players received better instruction. Recreational hockey programs in most countries are loosely run affairs coordinated by parents. Players don’t receive true coaching until they are older and demonstrate skill worthy of being selected by an elite team, Olympic development program, or some other dynamic which exposes them to proper instruction. Instead of selecting which diamonds in the rough to bring to their best coaches, the Finns had their best coaches go to all the other coaches, maximizing their hockey population’s exposure to the best possible atmosphere for learning and development.

This approach to coaching turned Finnish hockey into a Henry Ford operation. Best practices were established. One of those was to convince the best athlete in each community to play goalie. If this isn’t a commitment to excellence, nothing is. The next time you see a group of kids playing street hockey, try walking over and making one play goalie, just for that one afternoon. Guaranteed temper tantrum. It takes the onset of serious neuroses, at a very early age, for a child to decide they prefer getting a hard, vulcanized piece of rubber fired at them rather than doing the firing. The Finns fought this battle, not just for a day, but in perpetuity. They fought it in every single community in the land.

Their national teams tend to play a defensive-minded style which exploits an opponent’s weakness in transition. Through their Henry Ford operation, the Finns were able to acclimate not just their older amateurs who were selected for development programs – but every single hockey player in the country – to their systems and style of play. This provided their national teams with a shorthand and cohesiveness often lacking in rival countries who draw their teams from massive populations and far flung locations along their vast lands. The Finns had essentially taken their most glaring weakness, population, and flipped it into a definitive advantage, one that could not be replicated by the bigger and more cumbersome rival countries.

The payoff started around the 90’s. Since the 1988 games in Calgary, Finland has medaled in 6 of 9 Olympic tournaments. At the World Championships, they have medaled 13 of the last 26 years. They have medaled at 8 of the last 18 World Junior Championships. As of this writing, there are 32 Finns on NHL rosters. Of the 62 available goaltender slots in the NHL, 6 are currently held by Finns. The Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender, has been won by a Finn 3 times (Miika Kiprusoff, Tuuka Rask, and Pekka Rinne). The legendary Soviet hockey coach, Viktor Tikhonov, once fumed “Playing the Finns is like trying to break into a locked iron box.”

My hotel was next to Helsinki’s version of Newberry Street, Pohjoisesplanadi. With the exception of ‘Suomi’ (and one other word I wouldn’t learn until the very end of my trip), there isn’t a single word in the Finnish language with less than 18 syllables. This rendered asking for directions virtually useless. Combined with my refusal to use a smartphone, it had bizarre and unpredictable effects on my travel experience. This hotel was far nicer than both the Eskimo Hostel and the Chelsea Hotel in Toronto. I had spent the weeks leading up to the trip criticizing my Uncle Jan about his hotel chain’s inability to land a footprint in Scandinavia. I had forwarded him reams of market research I didn’t bother to read myself. I advised him on the damning effects this could have on his organization’s market share in general and his personal legacy in particular. I instructed him on the need to send an individual out on a fact-finding mission, pointed out my own availability, and speculated on the fallout if he didn’t comply with my demands and I made my findings known to his superiors.

The hotel didn’t provide bottled water. The room was outfitted with a glass carafe and tumblers. A note advised that Finland boasted the cleanest water in the world, that it could be drank straight from the faucet. I recalled the outrageously priced imported Scandinavian water Uncle Jan stocked in all of his hotels. Evidently, the business model of these companies consisted of sitting around a faucet all day filling bottles. These Finns must wake up laughing.

After a day spent contending with airport bureaucracy and the oppression of economy class, I didn’t have much energy. I walked in concentric circles from my hotel just to get a sense of the surrounding area. I came across an athletic shoe store. Remembering I had forgotten to pack running shoes, I went inside.

The Finn working the register greeted me stone-faced with an announcement that he was closing the store in 10 minutes. At the very least, he delivered the shot across the bow in fluent English. I scrambled toward the running section. I didn’t want Nike. I didn’t want Reebok. I wanted something Finnish, both running shoes and a souvenir at the same time. Two birds with one stone. I found a pair with an ‘E’ logo turned on its side. I had never seen a logo like that in the United States. “Are these ones comfortable?” I asked the surly Finn.

“Extremely so. Yes.” He deadpanned.

I hustled through the formality of trying them on and paying out the nose before his 10-minute window elapsed. I walked out of the store with the door closing and locking just millimeters behind me. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel that I realized that the sideways ‘E’ was really just 3 stripes intersecting with some trim. Adidas. My rush to locate something authentically Finnish had made my mind play tricks on me again.

In Finland during the summer, turndown service consists of an elaborate process of pulling the shades. In my hotel room, there were a half-dozen layers of shades in front of the window. The sun never sets at this time of year. I slept in my sarcophagus of a room for 12 straight hours.

At breakfast, while indulging in smoked salmon, I asked the server about good places to visit during my stay. She told me about a ferry ride to an island which housed a fortress of some kind. The monotony of her delivery made it impossible to determine whether it was truly bad-ass or an ingenious tourist trap. I had to walk through Helsinki’s Newberry Street (I am making no further attempts to replicate the spelling of that street or any others in Finland) in order to reach the ferry launch. That walk, along with the previous night’s concentric circles, confirmed that the passive-aggressive cellphone-inspired jaywalking is, in fact, a global epidemic.

Sea Fortress Suomenlinna reminded me of childhood visits to Fort Ticonderoga, the Revolutionary War-era fort on the shores of Lake Champlain which was liberated by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. The key differences are that the Finnish fort is much more expansive and it also houses their version of the Smithsonian Museum of Military History. Throughout the exhibition halls there were permanent placards with Finnish explanations accompanied by English translations on paper tacked to the wall. It was possible the diminutive representation of the English was a form of passive contempt for the King’s language. However, that was incongruent with the ease and willingness most Finns shifted into English when they realized I was a unilingual. I considered that this might be an indication of an uptick of American tourists.

 

Sea Fortress

 

The exhibits demonstrated how Russia hadn’t been a thorn in Finland’s side just in terms of hockey. The Finns had lived with them being a daily existential threat for over 200 years. In 1809, Alexander I conquered the Finns. The Russians reigned over them for a hundred years. WW1 and the Bolshevik Revolution provided the Finns with an excuse to launch a revolution of their own. This led to a civil war: one faction supported by Germany and another by the Soviet Union. Tensions from these outside forces would persist, even as Finland coalesced into a monarchy then quickly transitioned into a republic. One of the buildings is a restored prison camp where 18,000 Finns were locked up for their associations with the “Reds”.

The Soviet Union continued to undermine them. This meddling sparked both the Winter War and Continuation War. Both were conducted parallel to World War 2. Using enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend and desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures protocols they found themselves allied with the Nazis. After D-Day they flipped, conducted yet another side war in order to now drive the Nazis out of Finland. I wouldn’t trade places with a Finnish diplomat of that era for all the whiskey in Ireland. In the peace treaty with the Soviets, they ceded massive amounts of land, paid reparations through the nose, and were left with basically a box of slingshots for an army. That was actually a blessing in disguise.

With the neutering of their armed forces mandated, they had nothing to spend their money on but social welfare programs and education. These factors are what have their country consistently ranked at the top in quality of life metrics. They are also what has inoculated them against the Russian propaganda and disinformation which has run amok in countries throughout the world.

Experts are beginning to realize that while correcting erroneous stories may be necessary, countries often take it too far. They attempt to stifle fake news by banning the news outlets or muzzling the free press. This only inflames the situation. Believers in fake news become provoked by government censorship. This plays on a population’s cynicism for their own government. In the United States, cynicism in government institutions has grown steadily since approximately the Kennedy Assassination. US Government officials have demonstrated the power of lies to their citizens – not lies that seek to deceive – lies for the sake of lying that know that they’re lying and don’t care. Lies that say “I will not dignify your truth. I will impose my truth on you.”

Now the citizens are doing it to each other.

It is critical for a country to have their own narrative. A strong education system is crucial in establishing a strong narrative. It also happens to build strong critical thinking skills which is nice. Strong social welfare programs help to instill trust in the government. Finland ranks as the third least corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International. This is political capital they spend on promoting their narrative.

The Finns seem to have learned the power of telling a very good story about themselves. The museum seems to paint a picture that living right next door to the threat of Russia is why they learned to use this tool. I’m not so sure. Being the arrogant American I am, I spent a few minutes reviewing the entire history of their country and jumped immediately to my own conclusions. It was that sequence arising from their independence. They went from being under the Russian yoke to under the Soviet Union’s Yoke to declaring a revolution to a Civil War to a monarchy to republic to war with the Russians and friends with Nazis to war with Nazis and friends with Russians all in the span of 30 years.

They couldn’t get their stories straight. People had to go to great pains to buy into all these legends propping up a monarchy only to have to twist themselves immediately into a whole new pretzel about the egalitarian merits of a republic. I can only imagine the plot twists that had to fabricated in order to execute the hairpin turn from Russian-killing Nazi sympathizers to Red-loving Nazi killers.

That sequence in Finnish history is extreme but it happens all over the world at every level. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves lose their continuity. For Native Americans (First Nations), the arrival of Europeans thrust them into a completely different story from a previously unknown genre. Revolution, emancipation, and immigration patterns are all developments that can impact a society and break the continuity of its story. It seems obvious people should find that frustrating.

On personal levels it breaks the continuities of the stories we tell about ourselves. In Vermont, we have been a historically agriculture-based economy. My mother’s family is a long line of dairy farmers and we take pride in that. It is a story we tell about ourselves. We believe it demonstrates our work ethic, honesty, and resourcefulness. Vermont as a society perpetuates this. It’s often said that Vermont has more cows than people. I have no idea if that has any basis in fact. We all repeat it endlessly. It reinforces the story we tell about ourselves. This reinforces our character traits and hopefully – if and when we are challenged – we will draw strength from our story.

But dairy farming is growing obsolete. Studies are emerging that suggest dairy products aren’t as healthy as we once thought. Other studies reveal the negative impact of dairy farming on the environment. More and more people are moving toward plant-based and/or dairy-free diets. Soon, our stories will be obsolete. We won’t be able to use it to demonstrate our character to other people and to ourselves. Coal miners and factory workers seem to already be going through this process.

I even see this in hockey. Legal exposure and trends in societal taste have sparked rule changes which minimize fighting and physical play. If a player committed a cheap or dirty offense, he used to get punched in the mouth. Now, he gets a conference call from the league office in New York and is subjected to a monetary fine or suspension. The story of hockey has changed. We used to use the story to demonstrate – to others and to ourselves – our qualities of honor and respect. We can’t tell that story anymore. This frustrates hockey fans. The game may be faster and more refined than it has ever been before. The players are oozing with talent. Many fans still wish for the return of ‘Old Time Hockey’. I’m not so sure if it’s all the fights and injuries they miss so badly. I think they miss the story it told.

There’s a new story emerging. It might be a good story. We don’t know yet. We’ve never heard this story before. People like familiar stories. The characters might be different. The setting may be changed, but they prefer the formula of the story to remain familiar. People find comfort in the well-etched groove of RomComs and endlessly rebooted Spider Man blockbusters. They can’t stand artsy foreign films.

One day at breakfast, I was waiting in line for my smoked salmon omelet. These people will put salmon on anything. One night I went to a pizza place for dinner and a few beers. They featured a smoked salmon pizza. It was their best seller. This wasn’t some loosely defined version of a pizza. It had red sauce, garlic, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese. They just tossed smoked salmon on the top like it needed garnish but they were all out of oregano. Anyway, I was waiting for my smoked salmon omelet and this old Hispanic guy comes up next to me. He’s wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a condor, sequined loafers, a cowboy hat, and sunglasses – at 7 in the morning. The omelet cook starts clearly disregarding my omelet, asking this guy what he wants. He tells him he could go for an omelet with hamburger. The cook starts explaining he doesn’t have any hamburger when another cook comes barreling out from the back, slaps his colleague out of the way, apologizing for his insolence, and tells this Hispanic guy he’ll retrieve some hamburger straightaway. The Hispanic guy went to stop them, but both were already gone, off ransacking the kitchen for hamburger while my omelet sat in the frying pan, starting to smoke.

He turned to me and said, “It was just a thought.”

“Yeah, I don’t see why both of them had to go hunt down your hamburger.”

“Me neither…sorry about that bro.”

Then he asked me about what I was doing in Finland. I was vague about the market research I was conducting for Uncle Jan. I didn’t want it to get around this establishment that I was looking to help a rival cut in on their action. I told him about the fort. I told him about a few restaurants I had tried. I mentioned a vague idea about crossing into Russia to visit St. Petersburg. I asked him about what he was up to. He mentioned something about a concert and heading over to Sweden in a couple days. The omelet cook returned and slid my half-burned eggs onto a plate, handing it to me with a dead-eyed expression before groveling in front of the Hispanic dude, explaining that his colleague was hastily grinding the hamburger as he spoke. I wished the guy safe travels and left to choke down my eggs.

A couple days later, I decided to check out a complimentary bike from the hotel. I was killing time in the lobby, waiting for them to retrieve it from storage so I flipped through the local paper on the coffee table. I couldn’t understand a word. I could see the pictures. One was of that Hispanic dude who had inadvertently sent the restaurant into the hospitality version of Defcon 5. He was at that concert he’d mentioned. He was onstage. He was slamming on a guitar. He was Carlos Santana.

Those pictures in the newspaper made me reconsider the few days I had spent in Helsinki to that point. I had crossed paths with scores of Finns. They all had baselines of sunburns (due to the combination of the fair complexions and the sun never setting) and surliness. They would tend to avert their eyes and avoid any gesture which approached friendliness or warmth. I wasn’t sure what was causing this phenomenon but I was considering several possibilities including: 1) Surliness is ingrained in the Finnish national character; 2) It was a function of being in the snootiest sector of the snootiest city in the country; 3) Being a tourist had me exuding a subliminal level of hesitancy which they were absorbing and mirroring 4) I had been wearing a lot of Montréal Canadiens apparel and they were reacting to this stimulus {Habs apparel triggers contempt just about anywhere in the world outside of Quebec or Asia [so far (!!!)]}.

In order to further evaluate this surliness, I was considering journeying outside of Helsinki. I had managed to tease some conversation out of bartenders, servers, and baristas at establishments I patronized which yielded travel suggestions. Porvoo, and Fiskars were all within reach of the commuter rail network and worth investigation.

Porvoo is a medieval town known for its well-preserved 18thand 19thcentury buildings displaying traditional Finnish wooden architecture. Fiskars is a village known for being Finland’s interlocking directorate of artists and craftspeople. I hoped these areas, away from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Helsinki, would offer me a glimpse of some more laidback country Finns. As Socrates was known to say, “A hamlet breeds heroes. A city breeds eunuchs.”

I also added Turku to my list of potential destinations. Saku Koivu was born and raised there. During his time with the Montréal Canadiens, he always seemed pleasant and engaging. I was sure the Finns in Saku’s homeland had more agreeable dispositions.

I was hoping this would prove to be the case. Up to that point, the only person I had successfully engaged in conversation outside the context of a monetary transaction was Santana.

I located two train stations. The first was right around the corner from my hotel. It was buzzing with people, all determined not to make eye contact with me. I was starting to wonder if eye contact was considered a character flaw in Helsinki. I didn’t feel like contending with the lines and heavy concentration of surliness at that station. I found the second station after getting lost trying to get back to my hotel from the rock church.

Temppeliaukio Church is carved out of a solid mass of rock. It’s a major tourist attraction in downtown Helsinki. When I went, I was the only white person. Walking among a throng of Asians, I felt like Shaquille O’Neal. I sat in one of the pews, listening to the piano player bathed in natural sunlight from the skylight carved in the rock.

 

Rock Church

 

In that church, sitting among scores of little Asians in silence, I was supposed to be meditating on matters associated with spirituality. I caught myself breaking down hockey. It was those stories we tell ourselves, how breaks in continuity manifest wedge issues. Legal considerations and society’s enlightenment hadn’t been the only factors curbing fighting and hard-nosed hockey. There was another factor. It might have been the primary factor.

Data Science.

Moore’s Law has made computing power and accessibility evolve exponentially. This has precipitated data science’s disruption of all industries and areas of human endeavor. Hockey has not gone unscathed. In hockey, data science has upended narratives promoted by grizzled hockey insiders for generations. It has poked holes in the plotlines of the stories we’ve been telling about ourselves. The most obvious example is the role of the enforcer in hockey.

Until data science came looking down its Roman nose at hockey, most NHL teams would carry an enforcer on the roster, sheltering him on the fourth line or bottom defensive pairing. His role was to park his ass on the bench and stay there until the opposition committed some real or perceived offense. At that point, he would be deployed on the ensuing face-off, typically dropping the gloves and beating the bag out of someone 10 – 15 seconds after puck drop. After serving the 5-minute major, he was to proceed directly back to the bench.

Data scientists used metrics like Corsi to demonstrate that this was a misallocation of resources. Corsi uses attempted shots for and attempted shots against in order to approximate a team’s possession time. The underlying reasoning is that a team must first possess the puck in order to shoot it. The raw numbers can be sliced and diced in different ways to isolate a line’s contribution to possession, the whole team’s, or an individual player’s. It can be further refined to measure possession against specific deployments by the opposition. Arising technology is already beginning to make Corsi obsolete. Soon Internet of Things will allow for player-tracking which will reveal exact and real-time possession. Some of this is already in play. Until it becomes more refined, less proprietary, and available to the public domain, Corsi offers citizen data scientists the best glimpse into possession-based hockey analysis.

The analysis is definitive on the matter of enforcers. They are a wasted roster spot. If they do find themselves on the ice in actual game situations, most are anchors causing their team’s possession numbers to crater. It leads to a pick-your-poison scenario where coaches must either shorten their bench or cross their fingers when they send the 4th line over the boards, turning the defensive third into a shooting gallery and putting the goalie at risk for PTSD. Other research, employing fighting majors and man games lost, suggest that enforcers do not really seem to deter cheap or violent acts by the opposition.

Data scientists suggest teams would be better served filling the final roster slot with an actual hockey player. This has met with resistance. It flew in the face of conventional logic from hockey insiders, buttressed by story after story which promoted the intangible benefits of having an enforcer on the team to serve as Linus’ blanket. Data science has slowly gained traction. Most NHL teams now have their own analytics department, albeit funded to varying degrees. Still, it has led to the dawn of a wedge issue in its infancy between those who identify with FancyStats versus those that ascribe to Face-Punching.

I haven’t been able to determine which side of the fence I want to be on. I’m not well-versed in statistical thinking. I do like what it concludes about PK Subban. In Montréal, narratives which disparaged him gained momentum: he wasn’t a good teammate; he was unreliable in the defensive aspects of the game; he was a turnover machine; he had off-ice issues. Data science has dispelled some of these.

No data set or algorithm yet devised can reveal the truth about whether PK is a good teammate or if he has personal problems. Being a good teammate remains a subjective value. Whether whatever personal challenges PK may face rise from the facts of life to something more alarming which impacts his job performance remains elusive. To some degree, all people, regardless of celebrity, should be afforded some modicum of privacy.

Conversely, his execution in the defensive third of an ice hockey surface as well as his turnover rate can be analyzed and sifted granularly. There are several metrics which now indicate that, judged through the prism of defensive execution alone, he is one of the finest defensemen in the world. Some of these illustrate that opposing forwards have exceedingly high failure rates when attempting a controlled zone entry against PK. This means he’s very hard to beat 1 on 1. Not only do these metrics show the high failure rate, they show that he has very few opportunities to deny a controlled zone entry compared to other NHL defenseman. This means that when a soft winger gets the puck in the neutral zone, looks up and sees PK, he says, “Fuck that! I’m gonna skate to the other side of the ice…try my luck against the other defenseman!”

The aforementioned Corsi demonstrates that PK is a possession monster. Whatever team he plays on, their possession spikes the moment he steps on the ice. If he is cast in a shutdown role, an opposing team’s star player normally sees their Corsi scores plummet for the duration of the evening.

Corsi and other possession-based metrics offer insights to the narrative about him being a turnover machine. It’s kind of true. He is often among the league leaders in turnovers. This is what the eye test picks up on. Slightly more nuanced is that he almost always has the puck. If he’s not carrying it, he’s attempting to pass it or find a shooting lane. His actual rate of turnovers is minimal. In fact, a quick check of the league leaders in turnovers is essentially a who’s who of the best defenseman in the NHL. We don’t remember all the mundane but successfully executed zone exits and zone entries. We do remember the costly neutral zone turnover in a high-leverage moment that sealed a loss. We forget that our best players tend to want the puck in the most critical moments. I’m reminded of Michael Jordan’s quote, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.”

I like data science because it fits my own personal narrative about PK Subban. I dislike it for some of the other conclusions it jumps to. It’s conclusion about fighting seems to be airtight because numbers never lie but it’s based on the premise that enforcers are out there to enforce, to protect their teammates. This is more or less true but it’s also somewhat of a cover story. Hockey’s dirty little secret is that fighting is as much about shit-disturbing as it is about policing. It makes for a more R-rated hardboiled story, so it’s not trumpeted quite like the enforcer story but it’s true. A fight or bench-clearing brawl is a device for introducing extreme emotions into a game. It puts people under duress. Under duress, people behave unpredictably.

NHL hockey consists of the best hockey players in the world being indoctrinated into highly refined systems which account for any contingency that can occur on a sheet of ice. This leads to stalemates. For every method of attack, the opposing team has a countermeasure. Play stalls out in the neutral zone and along the periphery. Neither side has an answer. Fighting breaks that stalemate. If a highly trained player can evaluate the play in front of him in the context of hockey alone, they will adhere to their system and execute. If, all of the sudden, he has to incorporate the possibility of being punched in the mouth into this paradigm, deviations occur.

My best guess at statistical evidence asserting these claims are the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970’s. The Broad Street Bullies fought their way to two Stanley Cups, devolving hockey into a bloodsport of line brawls and mayhem for the better part of that decade.

Nobody has developed an algorithm which measures duress. When data scientists run up against a factor that appears intangible, some have a nasty habit of claiming it doesn’t really exist. Many data scientists studying baseball claim that clutch hitting doesn’t exist. Clutch hitting is difficult to define and therefore hard to measure. That would relegate its analysis to the grizzled baseball insiders. Rather than acknowledge a need for their expertise, many data scientists in that sport suggest there is no variable to be measured. I don’t know much about baseball, but I know clutch exists. Anyone who thinks clutch doesn’t exist has never asked their dream girl out. It sounds bad-ass standing in front of the mirror. Without clutch, it will come out like gibberish when she’s right there in front of you.

Duress may not be measurable in hockey, but it exists just like clutch. Anybody who doesn’t believe that has never asked out the aforementioned dream girl, executed with grace under pressure in that clutch situation, only to receive some vague inconclusive response.

Upon leaving the rock church, I found it hard to orient myself due to a couple of factors. Primarily, civil engineers, even ones from Boston, would take one look at a Helsinki city map and say, “Damn…you fellas should consider building a straight road or two!”

The roads not only curve and double-back. They meander. Their aimlessness is compounded by the topography. I knew exactly where my hotel was in relation to the Baltic Sea. Instinctively, I assumed going downhill was bringing me closer to the sea. That may be true anywhere else in the world – not in Finland. Helsinki goes up and down while the roads curve and switchback. These factors got me hopelessly lost whenever I went two blocks away from the hotel.

Getting lost is how I found the second train station. Getting lost is how I learned about most of the city. I would leave, get a coffee, and start walking. The first couple days, I had an actual destination in mind – a restaurant or tourist attraction. I would never make it to the particular location I had planned. I would finish my coffee, realize I was lost, and eventually need to use a restroom. This need would grow into desperation. That desperation would usher me into an alternative destination. Sometimes it was another coffee shop where I would use the restroom and, out of etiquette, purchase another coffee, creating a nasty negative feedback loop. If it wasn’t a coffee shop or a restaurant, it was a museum restroom. Kiasma, right next to the second train station, seems to be their MoMa. Attempting to navigate to the Helsinki City Museum deposited me at the Helsinki Art Museum. That’s a totally different museum featuring some of the country’s most revered collections and sharing a building with a movie theatre. It’s not some hipster movie theatre either. It’s a mass-market theatre showing all the latest blockbusters and RomComs. The museum’s slogan is “popcorn for the mind”.

I tried taking the train the next day. I was going to depart to either Turku, Poorvo, or Fiskars. It didn’t matter which. It didn’t work out. The train station next to my hotel was crowded with sunburnt Finns looking straight through me. I went to the second station. I knew there must have been a shorter route, but I knew attempting to navigate via map would only get me hopelessly lost. I was unsure of how draconian Scandinavian public urination laws were, so I took a circuitous yet known route across to the rock church and down to the second train station. That station was also bustling but I had already invested time. Following the gambler’s fallacy, I waited in line only to discover I needed a passport to purchase a ticket – a passport I had left in the hotel room.

I left the train station, determined to reclaim the day. I hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the fish market. That was where the ferry launch was located. It was close to the first train station. I wasn’t going back to the sea fort. I was going to a neighboring island which boasted one of the best saunas in Helsinki. I had no clue if a sauna was my thing or not but When-in-Rome protocols dictated I go at least once. The taxi driver shot me a look of confusion. I assured him I had cash. Taxi drivers are old school. They hate processing credit cards. It doesn’t matter what country.

I spent the afternoon at the sauna. I have a hunch tolerance may be an ingredient of the sauna experience. I was a rookie amongst a group of grizzled sauna veterans. The heat was cranked up to a level which seemed unsustainable. Fearful for my hydration level, I was pounding water. There were 10 other guys in the sauna, all naked. They were all drinking beers, conversing naturally. It seemed like there were two disparate groups. One was comprised of coworkers in an architecture firm. They were in Helsinki to place bids on building designs in Kalasatama, Helsinki’s smart city region. The other group seemed far less educated. I postulated they were kicking off a bachelor’s weekend. One of their ilk said, “Smart cities? That means robot cars! There’s gonna be robot cars coming?!”

“No…that’s not exactly what it means. Well…it might be that. It’s hard to tell.”

“Sounds like you gotta get better at your bullshitting or you’re gonna cost your firm all those bids!”

The heat and steam opened my pores until they were so dilated, I didn’t know where I stopped and Finland began. My heart rate felt unsustainably rapid. I tried to take a deep breath. It was all hot steam. The Finns appeared to thrive in this environment. They all exhibited relaxed postures as the idle chatter and playful banter about smart cities bubbled out of them. One of the architects explained that Kalasatama uses Big Data and Information & Communication Technology in order to manage growth. Traditionally, a small cadre of specialists were responsible for developing a city’s master plan. The residents’ input was limited to giving the plan, and/or the specialists, a vote of yes or no. Smart Cities used citizen science to crowdsource ideas and gauge acceptance or resistance to the proposals. This informed all areas of the city plan: where a road should run, placement and design of greenspaces, zoning issues, even the permitting and prioritization of construction projects.

I learned that the process is to stay in the steam of the sauna as long as you can bare it. Then you go outside and sit on the rocks at the edge of the Baltic until your body temperature regulates and the breeze coming off the water starts to make you feel cold again.

When I came back in, another one of the architects was walking a bachelor through citizen science. I didn’t understand how those guys could pound beers in the sauna. They seemed to enjoy it. The architect was explaining that citizen science had been around since the 19thcentury. It was used in ornithology and meteorology back then. Citizens of all ages and backgrounds would participate in scientific research in these fields by tracking migratory patterns of birds or recording their local temperature and precipitation data.

The practice has been refined by the internet and smartphones. The internet’s ability to connect people lowered the barrier for entry. Everyone having access to a supercomputer in their pocket introduced a flood of new possibilities for citizen science. Another architect mentioned GalaxyZoo. It had evolved out of a research project aimed at categorizing galaxies based on their shape. It didn’t actually require advanced training to categorize a galaxy but there were over a hundred thousand of them. The required man hours to complete the task was beyond the scope of the scientists working on the project. Their solution was to create an app for that, making it available for free on their web site. Not only did citizen scientists jump at the opportunity to do their work for them, they realized other ways they could contribute. In non-English speaking countries, people translated the web site and app into the native language, making it accessible to that country’s entire population.

 

Lonnan Sauna

 

After a few repetitions out to the Baltic, my tolerance started to increase. I was able to start thinking more clearly. I was amazed at what I was hearing. These Finns were talking. They weren’t just exchanging stripped-down communications in order to execute a monetary transaction or other necessary exchange. This was downright small-talk. I considered the possibility that a sauna’s effect on their body’s internal temperature triggered a release of some endorphin which regulated surliness.

One of the bachelors was playfully calling bullshit on the whole concept of citizen science, especially in the context of smart cities. He claimed it was all a sophisticated ruse, an end-run to paying an actual consulting firm to develop city planning recommendations, ones that were grounded in actual training. The architects stuck to their story. They claimed that a large group of untrained people can come to a similar or better conclusion than a small cabal of specialists. The group just needed to be large enough to be representative – and they had to be stakeholders.

One of them described the Quick Urban Analysis Kit (QUA–Kit) developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Zurich. It’s a program that facilitates citizen science in urban planning. It sets the parameters for a specific need of a given city and allows scores of people to take a stab at solving the problem. If more housing is needed, individuals can use the app to build their own distribution of housing units based on the available space, amount of units required, and other factors. As proposal are uploaded, they are evaluated by citizens. QUA-Kit has citizens score proposals based on several different criteria including walkability, visibility, connectivity, accessibility, even simple personal preference. The architect compared the evaluation phase to an eye doctor appointment where lenses are tried in several different combinations and compared against several different rivals. The redundancies weed out the possibility of random guess-work influencing the results.

He argued that crowdsourcing, engaging a city’s population in the decision-making in a bottom-up approach, informs a city plan with a long-term vision. It avoids the specter of arbitrary growth. Since citizens are stakeholders, crowdsourcing a plan from them often leads to the most efficient use of taxpayer money. He called it Nima Washi.

I took another rotation out to the Baltic. When I came back in, I was feeling fully acclimated and sick of technobabble about smart cities. I decided to take control of the conversation. I asked them about the tourists. I had noticed the Asians at the rock church and the recent English placards at the sea fort. They said that tourism from the United States had picked up recently, but Asians had always come in droves. Russia supplied their most consistent tourism. I asked them about Russia. I had considered a quick hit-and-run mission into St. Petersburg. They didn’t know much. Despite the influx of Russians into Finland, Finns rarely ventured into their land. I tried to get them to elaborate but this triggered some precursor to surliness which changed the subject to languages.

I had noticed that everybody seemed to speak fluent English. It wasn’t just people working in customer service. Neither class nor education level were barriers to English fluency. Janitors in both train stations spoke fluent English. They confirmed this. Most Finns spoke 3 languages: Finnish, Swedish, and English. Although Swedish was one of the country’s official languages, there were some minor identity politics issues which created resistance to its utilization. English was taught in schools, but it was reinforced by television. American programming wasn’t overdubbed in the native language the way it was in South America or other parts of the world. It was left in English but sub-titled in Finnish. It salvaged lazy mindless TV-watching into some semblance of a learning experience. It allowed English to be a connective thread throughout Scandinavia which had become a Gordian Knot of commerce, culture, and bloodlines. I asked them if that English subtitle policy was mandated by federal law. It wasn’t. It was just a social norm. I wondered aloud if one of the broadcasters could increase their market share by offering overdubbed programming. I thought it was an interesting question that might open up discussion in the sauna. It didn’t. It spiked that surliness precursor. I don’t know why.

I told them about Montréal, how it was bilingual but there was constant bitching and moaning about which language gets used the most and in what situation. I asked them if that was a problem here since they had 3 languages to allocate. They all said it wasn’t. The surliness was coming back. I threw some water on the hot stones to release some more of those regulating endorphins and continued my line of questioning. I didn’t care if they were Finns or not. I wasn’t going to let them turtle on this conversation. They were looking at each other confused. Finally, one of them spoke for the group. “I don’t understand. We just use the language that works best.”

“How do you know what works best?”

“You just know.”

“Yeah…but how motherfucker?!”

“Look…Do you remember when you came in here?”

“Yeah…I guess.”

“You remember you were sitting in the corner, looking like you were going to puke?”

“Whatever man…yeah I remember…get to your point!”

“My point?! My point is we were all talking English!”

“Um…ok?”

“We…are all Finnish!”

“I’m still not following.”

“What in the…we we’re speaking Finnish until you came in. We knew you were American and we knew you weren’t going to participate in the conversation because you were new to the steam and being…how do your people put it? A little bitch? Yes…I believe this is correct. But we spoke in English anyway because we knew this is what you understand.”

“Okay…so it’s like…it’s about…respect?”

“I…I don’t know. It’s just the way we do it…we don’t think about it until you come asking all these questions. Now I wish I never learned your language.”

After a couple more rotations out to the Baltic Sea and into the sauna, my system had been pushed to its limit by the rapid fluctuations of internal body temperature. I offered the very best of warm parting salutations. Just as I had anticipated, the Finns inside the sauna, bathing in steam and endorphins, mirrored my magnanimity. The ones on the rocks of the Baltic turtled, barely registering my presence.

Back at the hotel, I wasn’t sure which direction the sauna was going to take me in. It had opened me up and cleared me out. I could envision a metamorphosis into feeling ecstatic. I also wasn’t going to be surprised if I lawn-darted into a full-blown flu. Either way, it wasn’t going to reveal itself until the next morning. Before going to bed, I barely had enough energy to email Uncle Jan with an update on the results of the fact-finding expedition he had financed.

I was able to cobble together a few semi-coherent thoughts and run-on sentences about how his vision of a hospitality version of a Sherman’s March across Scandinavia was a good news-bad news proposition. I explained to him how there was no true luxury service market in this realm. I explained to him that, if he could replicate some semblance of his company’s service standards in Helsinki, he would be virtually printing his own money. He would corner the market. Then I explained to him the underlying reasons for this, how the Finnish national character was incapable of delivering friendly gestures, how they never smiled, swore off eye contact, and small talk was unheard of. I described how he would have to import 100% of his frontline service staff and probably need to rotate them out at tight intervals in order to avoid them being sucked into the ecosystem of surliness. I told him how I had dined at the so-called finest restaurant in Helsinki, how my interactions with the server felt like being on the receiving end of a police interrogation in a country with a vague understanding of basic human rights. I also relayed my fascinating discovery about how a native Finn’s disposition may be regulated via heat, humidity, and other atmospheric conditions, hypothesizing that he may not need to import his entire staff if the hotel he constructed included a complex network of saunas throughout the service corridors. I was able to make a rudimentary cost comparison between the importing of staff with its associated entry visa acquisition fees and the complex sauna network which would necessitate some form of moisture repelling uniforms.

After firing off the missive to Uncle Jan, I collapsed on my bed. I had a feverish vision of imposing Finnish goalies blotting out entire nets like eclipses. These segued into fractured memories of a one-eyed goalie that frequented beer leagues around the Greater Boston Area. He never joins a team permanently. He prefers to sub in. I don’t know him personally. I’ve never heard him explain his reasoning. In my post-sauna state, I attempted to reverse engineer it.

To skaters who aren’t aware that he only has one functioning eye, he has all the appearances of an above-average goalie. He has an excellent glove hand. He’s also one of the few goalies in the region, at that age group, who can drop into a butterfly then pop right back up without needing to use the goalpost or crossbar as a handrail. This is a significant competitive advantage.

However, it’s only a matter of time before skaters start to realize that there’s something rotten in Dorchester. Sometimes, it only takes a couple periods. A dribbler from the point gets by him. Then it happens again. Sooner or later, everyone’s aiming stick side. Once there’s a book on him, the jig is up. Even a weak backhand muffin will beat the guy clean.

There was one season he played for a team full-time. It was an utter disaster through the first half. They were winless, brandishing a goals-against metric which was wreaking havoc on locker room chemistry. In the second half of the season, they employed a shining example of adaptation. They completely abandoned any defensive support on his glove side, moving the left defenseman to the right. By clogging that area, they forced the opposition to challenge their goaltender on the side where his functional eye was located. They were able to salvage some of their pride with a handful of gutsy victories down the stretch.

The goalie learned his lesson. He had to remain anonymous. He had to keep moving. For obvious reasons, I will not state that individual’s name or provide any physical description. In fact, I’m going to attempt to contact him with a further refinement on his strategy. He needs a rotation of different colored helmets and goalie pads to cloak his identity.

My fugue state slipped toward full-on sleep with fleeting thoughts about smart cities. Those architects discussed arbitrary growth. Cities are the most complex organism ever made by man. They are too complex and diverse to be totally comprehended by a single group of experts, no matter how savvy or experienced. City dwellers run up against the symptoms of arbitrary growth every day of their lives. It’s the rival construction projects that are inexplicably granted building permits allowing them to commence at the same time. Not only is the usual flow of traffic diverted, the most sensible alternative route is blocked-off as well. It’s the subway system built to appease some politician’s mandate. It haphazardly winds through the urban network, hitting and missing key locations along the way. It’s the commuter rail which doesn’t serve enough points in the hinterland or operate late enough in the day because of bureaucracy or budget turf battles. Would-be light rail patrons are relegated to automobiles. Highways are converted to parking lots. There are a million other examples of arbitrary growth decimating the life of a city dweller in a death by a thousand cuts. Usually, complaints are the only form of recourse. We can complain to our city council representative. We can complain to the mayor’s office. Typically, it’s wall-to-wall bitching and moaning to our friends and coworkers.

Crowdsourcing a city offers an alternative solution. Most city dwellers are like hotel guests. They come and go. They are satisfied or they are not. Crowdsourcing turns the hotel guest into a stakeholder, a member of the community. Crowdsourcing is brainstorming. It is full spectrum brainstorming. Usually, the only voices we hear are the loudest or most provocative. Data Science regulates the volume of all the voices and allows everyone along the spectrum to be heard. The mechanisms that generate the ideas also weed out the most unrealistic, impractical, and cost prohibitive. They reveal the most ideal applications of a city’s time and resources. Instead of arbitrary growth, smart cities promote participatory growth for strategic development.

Arbitrary growth is like flinging the puck. City planners are surrendering to a reality that urban growth must be loosely managed chaos from one era to the next. Participatory growth for strategic development is a puck possession game. A judicious management of the city’s evolution. Using its own citizens as stakeholders with the most skin in the game, a smart responsive city draws in every shred of information in order to refine calculated and deliberate expenditures of all resources.

Not only are resources better spent, isolation is neutralized. As our economy has evolved from agriculture-based to the information age, our mobility has hastened. People don’t remain in the same area for generations anymore. Now, most people move to several different areas over the course of their lives precipitated by career opportunities, romance, and bitter ends to said romance. There are countless benefits to deciding where we live. One unavoidable downside is isolation. Tightknit communities are rare today. Most of us live in bedroom communities or an anonymous metropolis. There isn’t a Friday night football game, county fair, or other galvanizing force that promotes a sense of community.

Isolation is a precursor to extremism. People who lack a sense of community, who don’t have a voice, fill that void with the internet and its online trolls, conspiracy theories, and fake news.

Full-spectrum brainstorming would allow these voices to become unmuted and participate in something real. If they have an outlet for these opinions, and they see their input manifested in reality from time to time, they will have a sense that they matter and that they have a modicum of control over their future and their children’s future. Engaging voices at local levels of city planning, providing them with a constructive outlet for their opinions may alleviate the need for bombastic keyboard warfare alone at night in their living rooms.

I was relieved to wake up without the flu the next morning. The next couple days I embarked with grand visions, trains to St. Petersburg or speedboats to Estonia. Navigational considerations kept me pinballing around Helsinki. I did a lot of walking between the two train stations. I had grown apprehensive about taking the train to Turku, Poorvo, or Fiskars. Although every Finn spoke English, all the signs were in incomprehensible Finnish. This combined with the nation’s surliness left me doubting I could successfully execute a roundtrip. I had etched the groove linking the two train stations deep, growing comfortable with its tangential routes. I frequented restaurants, bars, and coffee shops along the way.

One evening, there was a soccer game being broadcast which created a terrific buzz in the air. Following When-in-Rome protocol, I went out looking for a viewing spot. I came across a place, looked in the window, and spotted a bunch of bearded men drinking beer and watching the game. Figuring it for the newest trendy hipster spot, I went inside. It wasn’t hipsters. It was grizzled locals. In fact, it might have been a full-on biker bar. I stood at the bar, waiting to order a beer for twenty straight minutes. There was an odd culture where the bartenders could smoke behind the bar while mixing drinks, but the patrons were relegated outside for their smokes. At one point, I made eye contact with one of the bartenders. In a rare display, she held my gaze. She held my gaze and waved her hand dismissively right at me. Then she walked away and approached another customer. Normally, this level of surliness in a bartender and a room full of bikers would have me walking out and finding some other place to waste my money. But this was Finland. Applying a curve that appropriately accounted for these people’s disposition had her level of service just a whisker below some of the most exclusive establishments in the city proper. In fact, her willingness to engage in eye contact might have made her the greatest hospitality professional the region had ever produced had it not been for the demerits suffered due to the smoking behind the bar.

I didn’t care if she was a Finn or not. I wasn’t going to let some bartender with an attitude outlast me in a test of stubbornness. I waited. I watched the game on the television mounted on the wall opposite me. I was aware of two bikers looking in my direction. I assumed there was another television on the wall behind me. If I realized earlier that there was actually no screen behind me, that they were just eyeballing me (a gesture rendered only more fierce when considered within the context of Finland) I would have cut my losses and gotten the hell out of there. Finally, the bartender relented and took my order. I got a beer hermetically sealed in a can. I drank it with a balance of restraint and efficiency. Then I left, point proven, whatever that was.

I also stumbled across Kampens Kapell while deviating ever so slightly from the route between the two train stations. Kampens Kapell is a chapel. It exudes an aura similar to the rock church. Whereas the rock church is carved out of rock, this chapel is fashioned from wood planks curved like the hull of a boat so that there isn’t a single right angle in the building. It’s a slowly widening cylinder. Known as “The Chapel of Silence”, it doesn’t hold actual religious services. People from any religion or none at all are welcome to come, sit, and be quiet.

 

Chapel of SIlence

 

Sitting in the almost absolute silence freed my mind. I found myself reflecting on full-spectrum brainstorming. I wasn’t thinking about it in the context of smart cities anymore. I was wondering what it could do for gun control.

I had a coworker back in my Boston days. Whenever there was a massacre, he would point to it as evidence for why guns needed to be banned outright. I have another acquaintance in Florida. He would hear about the exact same massacre and argue that’s why every last American needed to be outfitted with their own private arsenal of guns. Both of them would think the other was an absolute idiot. If they were together in a crowd and a gun control debate broke out, they would get in a shouting match. Quickly, everybody else would break off into other conversations. Their thoughts on the matter couldn’t match the intensity or clarity of those two’s viewpoints. Either that or they had showed up eager for an invigorating exchange of ideas only to walk headlong into a zero-sum shouting match.

Data science seemed to be able to create an outlet for all voices in the context of something like city planning. I couldn’t see it having the same effect on a deeply entrenched wedge issue like gun rights or abortion. I wondered if something could. Full spectrum brainstorming seems to be required to address these issues. So many people feel so passionately about them. It would seem important to achieve an actual resolution. The obvious first step seems to be a period of full-spectrum brainstorming where all ideas are on the table.

In the gun debate, the central problem is that people keep getting shot. People need to stop getting shot. We need to chart a course toward this primary objective. We need a forum where all ideas, no matter how provocative or random, are accepted. Some options will run counter to our deeply held beliefs. They need to stay on the board of possibilities. There’s no upside to censoring ourselves in the brainstorming phase of problem-solving. We need to suspend our disbelief. We need to do it when we perceive an idea to be racist, immoral, or heretical. Those ideas need to remain within the realm of possible solutions.

All those ideas need to persist through a second phase, when we articulate and question their implementation. We don’t cut down the ideas yet. We seek out more information. We maintain that suspension of disbelief. We do it while we listen to some knucklehead’s pretzel logic about how to implement their racist, sexist, amoral, or heretical solution. We expect the same courtesies to be extended to our stupid ideas. Without the resistance that brings on the shouting match, by being forced to talk through our plans, would we all discover some degree of refinement and nuance in our views that we didn’t know was there?

Maybe not. Maybe they would stay entrenched. At the very least, the extreme provocative views wouldn’t clog up all the bandwidth. Those ideas would be heard and noted. Those people would be thanked, genuinely, for their input. Then we could finally move along to listen to some of the more sensible and nuanced voices who have been sitting on the sidelines for generations, waiting for the bench-clearing brawl to peter out.

In hockey, the role of the enforcer is celebrated. He is a romantic figure. The role of the rat is not discussed nearly as often, even though every team has one. Enforcers are quickly becoming a relic of a past age. I’m afraid rats will live on forever. After nuclear winter, all that will remain are cockroaches and Brad Marchand. The rat’s job is to go around antagonizing opponents. He slew-foots them. He spears them in the ribs. Marchand has even been known to lick his rivals on the face. It’s happened more than once. Their main goal and thrust in life is to provoke their opponent into retaliation. Referees never see the initial act. They always whistle the retaliatory offence for a penalty. The only known countermeasure to a rat is restraint. Don’t take the cheese. Don’t be thrown off your game. Stay focused on your primary objective. If the rat can’t successfully provoke, all he knows how to do is escalate. Eventually, they lose their mind in the form of a misconduct penalty or multi-game suspension. With the rat out of the picture, everybody else is free to get on with the playing of hockey.

We shouldn’t dismiss our fiercest rivals; we should cherish them. They are not meant to antagonize us. They are supposed to bring out the best in us.

My trip was nearing an end. I hadn’t been to Turku, Porvoo, or Fiskars and it was the beginning of the Midsummer Holiday. I had assumed it was Finland’s best guess at replicating July 4thweekend. I followed up on this assumption while paying for a few more coffees and lunches. It turns out that it’s a lot more like Christmas. I was advised that virtually all of Helsinki would be closed for business. My options were to stay at the hotel or take the ferry to the islands where there were fireworks and apparently general carrying on. Being isolated in the hotel didn’t seem like much fun. Being stranded on an island, surrounded by surly Finns now drunk, seemed potentially worse.

Instead, I rented a car. I calculated that this most sacred of Finnish holidays would lead to open roads and as open as the Finnish heart could ever become. I would travel to Poorvo. If there was a halfway hospitable soul anywhere on this peninsula, my instincts suggested it would be there. I succumbed to the upsale of a GPS, not wanting to resort to my map-reading capacity which would no doubt lead to a fruitless quest for directions from a surely elusive Good Samaritan.

The car rental agency was next door to the train station close to my hotel. I had inquired about a Volvo S60. I was stoically redirected to a Volkswagen Jetta. It was my first experience with keyless entry and I couldn’t seem to get the transmission to engage. I attempted to seek assistance from the employee who had guided me to the vehicle but the Finn had immediately withdrawn and returned inside the storefront. Some fiddling and button smashing randomly made the transmission engage. I was off. Fortunately, the GPS was calibrated in English. This was either a rare anticipation of my preferences by the customer service agent or random luck. Based on my brief history with these people, I assumed the latter. Unfortunately, the device didn’t immediately acquire satellite reception. I drove concentric circles around the train station, awaiting guidance. I had achieved a radius 5 city blocks wide of the train station when the satellite was finally acquired. The device charted a course toward Poorvo, doubling me back past the station.

The route brought me to the back side of the station, an opposite approach from my typical bearing coming from my hotel. It was revealing. The rear of the train station by the hotel looked just like the front of the second train station, the one down past the rock church. In fact, not only did the rear of the first look like the front of the second, the rear of the first featured an arrangement of shops, eateries, and greenspaces which matched the front of the second identically. I remembered the past few days, all those walks between the two stations, lumbering up and down over the rolling random topography.

Whatever. I was on the highway, out on the open road, free of Helsinki’s recursive labyrinth. Poorvo was a 45-minute drive. When I arrived there, the Midsummer Holiday had rendered it nearly a ghost town. I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt the sparse population density would suit the purposes of my enquiry well. It’s a picturesque neighborhood, clusters of well-maintained wooden buildings with fresh coats of paint in primary colors, all set along rustic cobblestone streets.

 

Poorvo

 

After parking the car, my first requirement was a restroom. There was a public facility manned by a receptionist who gruffly demanded two euros for passage. I didn’t despair. This lady was stuck on restroom detail on the biggest holiday of the year. Such a lot in life could eclipse even the sunniest of dispositions.

But as I walked about the town, I was meant by the same sunburnt faces, averting their eyes or staring right through me. It was just like the city except there weren’t that many of them. There were several gift shops and restaurants. Most of them were closed for the holiday. I went into a few shops. The clerks, anticipating that I might buy something, engaged me with something suggesting cheerfulness. My fellow shoppers ignored me. I ducked into a café to reconnoiter with a green tea. Even though Uncle Jan had failed to provide me with a slush fund which would accommodate hotel expenditures for reconnaissance outside of Helsinki, my sense of ownership over the mission had me considering dipping into my own expenses for a room. But that had been based on the presumption that I would encounter a degree of civility in this hamlet. This place was a microcosm of Helsinki. I wondered if the holiday was spoiling the data. Maybe all the locals were off celebrating. That could definitely be it. They probably had it up to here with tourists. They weren’t going to waste the holiday walking among them. In fact, these tourists were probably from Helsinki. For my purposes, the big city attitudes were just being exported to this small town and soiling her reputation.

I needed a control. Fiskars was a two-hour drive. I would waste midday in travel and arrive there in the late afternoon. I was fine with that. I had to know. I had to know if this attitude was pervasive throughout the entire country. Fiskars would offer me a third sample. Surely that had to be enough.

There had to be better attitudes there. The whole of Finland couldn’t be immersed in surliness. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Special K!) and Arturri Lehkonen were both cheerful guys. Was that just a mask of sanity for their North American tours of duty?

Fiskars is even smaller than Poorvo. When I first rolled into town, I found nothing but a scattering of cottages. I drove down cul-de-sacs and doubled back. There was nobody out. There didn’t appear to be a village center. Meandering led onto meandering until I finally came across a row of gift shops set along a river. There was a scattering of people, no more than a dozen in total, wandering around. This would have to do. Just for someplace to go I entered one gift shop where I was promptly advised that the store would be closing within fifteen minutes. I asked if any of the other shops were open.

“They are all closing soon as well. It’s Midsummer Holiday.”

“Right on. Is there any place to eat that’s open?”

“It’s Midsummer Holiday.”

Right on. I needed to buy something for justification, proof that renting this car and driving halfway across Finland hadn’t all been in vain. This shop featured kitchen goods and blown glass. Fiskars had been developed around ironworks. The region was known for producing knives. A friend of mine was a chef. I would buy her a knife. I just wasn’t sure if these were good knives or mediocre knives trading on Fiskars’ name. Therefore, I chose for her a bread knife. Having salvaged my journey, I walked to the cash register where the clerk was waiting for me impatiently. On the way, there was a display case of blown glass items. One of them was an owl. It might have been a paperweight. It might have served no purpose at all. It did remind me of my Korean friend I hadn’t seen in so long. It also achieved a redundancy to establishing purpose to my trip. “Can I have the owl?”

She didn’t scowl. She remained resolute in her stoicism to a degree that would suggest a scowl in any non-Finn. She made a show of fishing around in the compartments behind the register for the key that would unlock the display.

Fiskars

I was beat from a day of driving when I returned to the hotel. The turndown service arrived the moment I was prepared to lie down. I sent her away, confident I could manage the closing of curtains on my own. I didn’t realize that could be such a technical process in a land where the sun never sets. I had missed 3 or 4 layers. The sun blared through all night. This led to bizarre and unpredictable effects on my circadian rhythm. In the morning I was forcing myself to stay in bed, knowing that breakfast didn’t open until 7. When I finally checked the clock to see how much longer I had to wait, I was shocked to discover it was 10 am. Breakfast would have to wait until Iceland. I barely had enough time to make the airport.

When I rented the car, I thought I was employing a brilliant strategy by electing to drop it at the airport. That way I would avoid the closing ceremony of getting screwed by the taxi driver. In retrospect I should have just taken my screwing and been on my way. Helsinki Airport is laid out with meticulous signage. Unfortunately, it is all in Finnish. Navigating the series of terminals and parking garages in order to find the single square meter where it was acceptable to deposit a rental car without incurring excessive monetary penalties was akin to reconstructing a piece of IKEA furniture with no directions and a strict time limit. I was sweating. I was panicking. I was pleading. I was cursing. I think I might have even screamed something derisive about Barack Obama. Somehow, I found the place. That’s when I remembered I hadn’t topped off the gas tank. I knew the excessive monetary penalty that trespass invoked far outweighed any violation a taxi driver would have administered. Still, I knew the chances of driving to a gas station, navigating some convoluted Finnish petrol-filling procedure, then backtracking my steps precisely to these coordinates were exactly nil. I grabbed my bags and cut my losses.

After all the lines and checkpoints, I arrived in my terminal on time, anticipating the flight delay. I was pleasantly relieved to find it would only be an extra hour wait this time. I thought I might kill time reading one of the various books Red had assigned. I had downloaded several to my iPad. When I pulled it out, I realized an alternative pastime. I began typing several different phrases:

“Why are people from Finland so mean”

“What’s wrong with Finns”

“Finland attitude problem”

“Finns moody”

I tried several other phrases. I can’t remember which, but one of them made a hit. I came across the term, sisu. The first line of the Wikipedia entry for the term sisu is: “a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness, and is held by the Finns themselves to express their national character. It is generally considered not to have a literal equivalent in English.”

Further down the entry, I came across another line which seemed apropos: “Sisu is not always an entirely positive quality. In Finnish, pahansisuinen literally translated means ‘one possessing bad sisu’, a description of a hostile or malignant person…sisu should be informed by reason and cultivated by self-compassion.”

I snickered. Some surly Finn in the terminal glanced up from his paper and gave me a look. Among the other returns from the search was a New York Times article with a dateline of January 14th 1940, written by Hudson Strode:

“The Finns have a favorite word. They will tell you it is the most wonderful of all their words. It is not easily translated, because no other language has its precise equivalent. Even the Finns have difficulty defining it, for, like so much of Finland which eludes definition, it is a thing felt, like religion or love. The word is sisu, pronounced see-su, with the accent on the first syllable. To understand sisu is to understand how a little country not much bigger than California, with no more than half the population of New York City, has so gallantly withstood the onslaught of a nation that covers one-seventh of the world’s land area and outnumbers them in man power almost 50 to 1.

I first heard the word at Ilomantsi, the last town in its district of Eastern Karelia before one reaches the Russian border. I was having coffee with the Sheriff of the district; we were listening to the radio report of Hitler’s army poised, ready to descend on Danzig. The Sheriff drew a knife from his pocket and handed it to me. It was sturdy, executive-looking, not long, not short. Its black bone handle fitted snugly, companionably, in the grasp of the fist. The six-inch blade ending in a curving point like the sharp tip of a new moon was razor edged. The Sheriff had carried it for fifteen years for sentimental as well as protective reasons.

“’The young fellow who owned this knife,’ my host said, ‘had more sisu than anyone I’ve ever known. Six older men attacked him and tried to kill him. He was in the right, but he had only this one blade between him and death. They fought for an hour. He cut the six to pieces. I saw the finish of the fight – it was a glorious display of sisu.’ The Sheriff took the knife from me and held it lovingly in the embrace of his fist for a moment. Then he slipped it into its embroidered leather holster.

“’We shall have need of sisu,’ he said gravely, ‘to face what may come shortly.’”

I found myself reminded of my grandmother when she used to quote Winston Churchill, “Never give up; never give in.” She wouldn’t say it in reference to some grand ambition. Usually it was an admonishment to my execution or lack thereof in lawn mowing or some other mundane household chore. In the terminal I caught myself wondering if I remembered that properly. Was that Churchill? Or someone else? I googled that quote, too. I found it revealing that she evidently found it necessary to revise the man. I also found the full context of the line rather instructive. It was given at the Harrow School in October 1941, when Britain was just beginning to rally from the darkest hours of WW2 but well before they had gained true momentum. It was still a couple month before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor would precipitate the United States joining the Allies:

“Almost a year has passed since I came down here at your Head Master’s kind invitation in order to cheer myself and cheer the hearts of a few of my friends by singing some of our own songs. The ten months that have passed have seen very terrible catastrophic events in the world – ups and downs, misfortunes – but can anyone sitting here this afternoon, this October afternoon, not feel deeply thankful for what has happened in the time that has passed and for the very great improvement in the position of our country and of our home? Why, when I was here last time we were quite alone, desperately alone, and we had been so for five or six months. We were poorly armed. We are not so poorly armed today; but then we were very poorly armed. We had the unmeasured menace of the enemy and their air attack still beating upon us, and you yourselves had had experience of this attack; and I expect you are beginning to feel impatient that there has been this long lull with nothing particular turning up!

“But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months – if it takes years – they do it.

“Another lesson I think we may take, just throwing our minds back to our meeting here ten months ago and now, is that appearances are often very deceptive, and as Kipling well says, we must ‘…meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.’

“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period – I am addressing myself to the School – surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.

“Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere and conquer.

“You sang here a verse of a School Song: you sang that extra verse written in my honour, which I was very greatly complimented by and which you have repeated today. But there is one word in it I want to alter – I wanted to do so last year, but I did not venture to. It is the line: ‘Not less we praise in darker days.’

“I have obtained the Head Master’s permission to alter darker to sterner. ‘Not less we praise in sterner days.’

“Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”

Wondering how Churchill would chuckle at our current anxieties, fears, and pessimism about the state of the world today, I found myself thinking about B0undless. I was remembering the Brett Hull quote he laid into his 2014 playoff opening montage set to For Whom the Bell Tolls, “The pressure. You think you can’t handle it then – all of the sudden – you thrive on it.”

We shall have need of sisu.

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