Monday, 31 March 2014

L'Heure D'Ete

Another Year of Blue Jays' Baseball Starts Today

Here in Paris, we turned our clocks forward Sunday morning, starting the "heure(s) d'été" (summer hours - AKA daylight saving).  Perfect timing, as back home in the US (and yes, Canada as well), Major League Baseball begins its 2014 season.

To be precise, it's worth noting that the season actually began over a week ago; in Sydney, Australia.  By way of a couple of games between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Red Hot Riders.  Go figure?

Anyhow, "my" team - the Toronto Blue Jays - kicks off its season tonight (it will be VERY late for us in France) in a game in Tampa Bay against the Devil Rays.

Unlike last year, when I began the season with guarded optimism about the Jays' chances, I am decidedly pessimistic about 2014.  

Recall that, in 2013, the team had added a number of high profile free agents - among them the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and at least one All-Star quality field player.  The two big-spending franchises in the division looked vulnerable - the Yankees due to age and the Red Sox due to just poor play in the previous season and a half.

It didn't really work out.  2013 turned out to be a truly dismal season, perhaps the most depressing in the nearly 40 of the team's history.  A couple of guys got hurt, a couple of guys were just awful, Brett Lawrie was both hurt and then spectacularly mediocre.  JP Arrencibia had a historically bad season as the catcher.

So what for this summer?  It's becoming a sort of routine watching the Blue Jays, who have now not contended for 21 consecutive seasons following back to back World Series titles.  With their flameout in 2013, 74-88, essentially out of contention in mid-May, Toronto has now not finished within 10 games of the playoffs since 1993.

2014 does not look to be a big improvement.  More or less the same team is returning, sans JP Arrencibia and Josh Johnson.  Their absences will of course represent addition by subtraction.  It's hard to imagine their replacements being any worse, assuming they are able-bodied and have full vision.

Of course, the replacements are not likely to be exactly Bill Dickey and Walter Johnson.  For example, Josh Tholes, who at .175 just barely hit my weight last year, is going to be the starter behind the plate.  And Dustin McGowan, the fan favourite for Médecins sans Frontières is on the roster to open the season, though I'm guessing the operating theatre is being prepped as of this moment.

I'm guessing the team, with a few breaks, will win 78-82 games, a modest improvement over 2013.  It's really hard to imagine how they could play worse, though they could surprise.

It will be another more or less lost season in Toronto.

I'll still check their doings in the news, and cheer for them as much as I can from thousands of miles away, in one of the world's great cities with many alternatives to attract my attention.

Play Ball.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

March Madness

Gus Macker, Intellivision Style (circa 1982)

Today, the sun crossed the equator, marking the spring equinox.  In Paris, it's a beautiful, sunny day, about 20 degrees, light breeze.  It's like many of its predecessors in that respect, with the added bonus that the air circulation patterns have changed, and we are no longer under "regles des pics de pollution," like automobile number-plate restrictions.

It's also mid-March, which means that back in the States, the annual NCAA basketball tournament kicks off.  

As I get older, I am less and less interested in sports.  For example, I once followed professional baseball as almost a second religion, worshiping in the Toronto Blue Jays sect.  Over time, with the revelations of the personal indescritions of the players, the movement of them from team to team as more or less athletic versions of the Seven Samurai, and the generally dismal annual fortunes of the Blue Jays, I have to say I am now a bit a lapsed believer.

I still, however, find the NCAA championships compelling; it's a sporting event - a series of them in reality - that really is unique.  68 teams play a single-elimination bracket, each "round" more or less halving the field until a single team is left.

One of the drawbacks to living in Europe is that, due to time differences, the games will be played late into the night.  In my younger days living in California, it was always nice (if detrimental to productivity) that the opening round games tipped off back East at noon, which meant nine AM for us.  Just as I was settling in to work, the first games were starting.  This was at the dawn of the internet, but one could follow the action in more or less real time on ESPN's web page.  (at that time, CBS had not yet shelled out a billion dollars to control content).  Central European Time is nine hours ahead of Pacific time, so the first jump ball will be at five PM here.

Oh well.

Anyhow, it's always a lot of fun to speculate who is going to move on, and who will be bounced early.  

Uber-analyst Nate Silver on his five-thirty-eight blog has created an algorithm to estimate the chances for each team to advance at each level.  His formulae are not revealed, but as a top-line, he indicates what the factors are.

Silver has become famous for his political predictions (I think he got all of the states "right" in the 2012 presidential election), but it's forgotten by many that his start was in sports.

I won't reveal all of Silver's estimations - one really ought to go to the site and look over the content, for, in addition to being a damned good modeller, Silver is an entertaining writer as well), but suffice it to say, he is projecting that defending champs Louisville have the best odds to cut down the final nets.  

The Cards' chances are not terrific (at 15 per cent), but that still puts them at the top, edging out Florida (the top overall seed, 14%) and Arizona (13%).  It's a bit odd that Louisville, a number four seed in their own region, would come out on top.  In fact, Florida have a better chance according to Silver's model, of reaching the Final Four (41%) and national title game (26%)

The team with the highest likelihood of reaching the Final Four is actually Arizona (42%) but the Wildcats fall back a bit at that level, presumably due to travel and/or opposition (they apparently do not match up well against Wisconsin?).

It's all very strange in that the one undefeated team - Wichita State - have apparently the toughest road for all the top seeds.  The Shockers, seeded one in their region, are estimated to have only a 14% chance to reach the final four, behind Louisville (4), Duke (3), and Michigan (2) in their own region.  WS is hurt by the presence of Kentucky as an eight, the team WS will face in the second round.  The model puts them at only slightly better than 50/50 to advance to the round of 16, easily the lowest chances of any top seed.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Paris in the Spring

Le trafic sera fortement RALENTI dans tout le réseau...

or..what's old is new.

We returned late Saturday from a week in Prague - me for a business meeting and my wife and son to see the city (OK; I spent some of the time seeing it as well).  The Czech capital is like a sort of living museum, with much of its olla podrida of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque buildings spared the destruction of the bombings of World War 2 (much of Germany, London) or massive urban renewal (Haussmann's Paris, the Soviet binges of the 1950s and 1960s).  

Having returned to Paris, the first thing we noted was how warm it is - indeed, it seems that Spring has come to France much earlier than usual.  Sunday, the temperatures rose to 20 degrees (nearly 70F), and the flowering trees have started to do their thing.  One can almost imagine Maurice Chevalier
Think of Paris in the spring,
When each solitary thing
Is more beautiful than ever before.
You can see every tree
  almost saying, "Look at me!"
Then again, unlike friends back in the US who have suffered one of the worst winters in decades in terms of snow and cold (and apparently, it will snow again tomorrow, the 18th of March), we never really got "winter" in France - I cannot recall a single night when the temperature reached freezing, and we did not have even a flake of snow.

All that is very nice, of course, save for the air pollution that has visited the capital.

The local news has reported that - due to "temperature inversions and lack of wind" - fine particles in the air have reached dangerous levels, and that drastic measures are to be put in place.  As a first measure, speeds on the périphérique (the freeway that circles Paris) were to be reduced as a curb on exhaust.  

Subsequently, to encourage the use of public transit, the RATP and RER in Ile de France have opened their trains and buses free of charge.  This made the morning commute today a bit cozy.  

That was not enough, and the government have taken a most severe step of imposing restrictions on cars.  

Today, private vehicles with a plaque d'immatriculation (licence plate) ending with an even number are banned from the roads.  Tomorrow, it will be the odds who are proscribed
Ce matin, seuls les véhicules dont la plaque d'immatriculation se terminent par un chiffre impair peuvent circuler à Paris et dans la petite couronne. 700 policiers sont mobilisés pour s'assurer que les automobilistes respectent la mesure. 
700 police have been deployed to try to ensure compliance; the result has been mixed to say the least - I observed several even plates pass me on my way to work.  Oh well.

This all reminds me of 35 years ago, when the oil embargo resulted in "odd/even" days at the gas stations.  Jerry Brown was our governor in those days in California, and he is installed again in Sacramento.


On the plus side, I did not see a single leisure suit on the Metro...