October 30, 2006

Shopping your ideas

Earlier this week the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that there was no governmental purpose in denying same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, and that the state had six months to remedy this. Gay marriage, per se, did not have to be one of the remedies, civil unions would also do.

In passing I'll note that this ruling has attracted much less public attention than previous rulings in Massachusetts and Vermont, which might suggest that American politics is heading towards some kind of compromise on this.

While there has been less debate about the decision you don't have to look hard to find [mostly Republican and right-leaning] people criticizing the courts for making this decision. It's telling that the conservative response is to criticize the venue of the decision—the courts— and not (entirely) the decision itself. It's fair to say that until very recently conservative parties in Anglo-American democracies saw the courts as the bulwark of tradition and order against populist change.

It's striking that in America there is a populist right that sees the judiciary and the common law as anti-democratic and revolutionary. Historically conservatives saw the courts as a bulwark against populist democratic change. There are traces of this attitude in Australasia, Canada and Britain, but it's less pronounced because social movements have not used the courts to try and achieve social change quite as much. Perhaps that is for the better, since changes are achieved with democratic support, but I suspect that it reflects rationally different choices in political strategy contingent on legislative and judicial structure.

Now, I'm no lawyer, but one of the defining characteristics of Anglo-American government is that laws are made both by the legislative/executive branches (statue law), and by judges interpreting the law in cases (common law). In almost every setting groups seeking social change use both mechanisms to try and affect change. This is such an established, bipartisan part of our broad political heritage that current critiques of it by people opposed to gay marriage are, I suspect, largely disengenuous.

For the sake of argument, wandering away from the issue at hand, look at the movement for the 8 hour day. Unions campaigned for this at three levels

  • Trying to achieve it through contracts with individual employers
  • Multi-employer contract negotiations (particularly the Australian and New Zealand arbitration systems
  • Legislative restrictions on working hours.

The 8 hour day was not achieved in any country in one go; it was achieved incrementally through success in different legal venues. Same with most other social changes one cares to look at.

Venue shopping by political and social movements is an inherent part of the Anglo-American political and legal structure. If some groups really do feel those rules of the "game" are unfair and should be changed, that's a problem, but I'm inclined to guess that for now they're being disengenuous and will happily shop their own ideas round whatever sympathetic legislature or court they feel will take them.

Posted by eroberts at 3:45 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2006


Chicago marathon, 2:59:03. 1:25:11 through the half, which makes a shade under 1:34 coming home. A little disappointed, but reasonably satisfied. Calves really tightened up from 31km, which has never happened to me, and which I'm attributing to wearing flats. Better to learn that lesson in this race than when I'm in better shape. Longer self-indulgent report follows.

As it happened, some of the things I predicted could happen did happen. Specifically, these things happened:

Put it on the line for sub 3:10, 3:00, 2:48:47, 2:37:20, 2:30:00, 2:22:00 or whatever you're going for, and you'll come a cropper one of these days. Just the way it is. Just the law of averages ....
if you get to this point of searching for a reasonable goal to keep going you'll probably be changing them mile by mile ... That's been my experience.

So, I put it on the line for low 2:50s. This implied trying to ease through the first half in 1:25 and then bring it home. 1:25:11 through the half was pretty much where I hoped to be, and it felt good. Not much to say really about the first half, other than that I missed the first mile marker, saw mile 2 was 10 seconds too quick and successfully eased off just the right amount. And that when there are huge bunches of people the wind is not really an issue. If you're Brian Sell, however, and you're marooned between people doing 1:03 and people doing 1:06 for the first half, the wind was probably more of an issue.

Things continued feeling pretty good through about 29km. I can't see intermediate place information on the results site, but my impression is that 24-29 was a good stretch where I passed quite a few people (it was nice to have the kilometre markers, and the chip mats every 5km provide useful information, so useful I didn't bother taking my mile splits). I took a Gu at 13.5 miles/22km, and that probably kicked in a little later. Some of the people I passed were the women who took a tilt at 2:46:59 and were now fated to shuffling home in well over 2:50. "Nothing venture, nothing win," I thought as I noticed them.

Aside on Gu: A couple of years ago I got in the habit of taking Gu on nearly every long run, even the easy ones. What I noticed was that once I was used to the Gu, the effect of it was more immediate but less sustained. Now that I'm back in the habit of only taking Gu on some long runs where I'm doing marathon pace or faster (enough to practice taking it, and to know that I won't have "GI" issues with it) I notice that the effect doesn't noticably kick in for at least 5, and sometimes 10 minutes, but that it is then sustained for longer. This, to me, is consistent with the idea that by training with less calories than you'll race with you do teach the body to be sparing with glycogen. Conversely, when you get used to taking calories in training your body becomes greedy and inefficient with the available glycogen. Just my slow-poke 2c worth.

Although most things felt good from 24 to 29, including the important things like breathing, perceived exertion, mental attitude etc ... I did begin to wonder if I'd made the wrong shoe choice. By 31km it was quite clear that I had. My calves were tightening up a lot, and it wasn't getting better. Since I was slowing for reasons unrelated to fuel I felt quite alert, alive and energetic—it was just getting more and more painful on the calves to run. What had been 5km splits just a touch over 20 minutes became 22 minutes from 30 to 35, and then 24 from 35 to 40.

Now, if you define "hitting the wall" as a quite sudden thing in which you finally exhaust your muscle glycogen, your quads get really heavy, and your brain (which runs on carbohydrates) gets really discouraged, then I didn't hit the wall. If you define hitting the wall more broadly as anything [unrelated to elevation and wind factors] that causes your second half to be more than a minute or so slower than your first half, then I hit the wall. This was a very gradual wall, however, in which my alertness and enthusiasm held up quite well even as my pace slowed and the effort to shuffle 7:40s with rapid turnover got higher than it "should have."

So, it was the shoes, or more responsibly, my decision to wear the shoes. I've never had a problem with sore calves in a marathon, and tight calves are totally consistent with wearing flats that are too thin. Two days later my calves are still sore, and my quads feel like I ran a downhill race. It's a subtly different feeling than when you race all the way to the end. Lesson learned. Was it foolish to wear flats (even relatively heavy ones: Adidas Response Comps) in the marathon? Yes, in hindsight. However, I'd done two 22 milers with 15 miles at [goal] marathon pace in my second pair of the shoes (which I picked up cheaply precisely for marathon training) and a bunch of 16-18 milers. In none of those workouts did I feel more beat up than doing the same workout in more cushioned shoes, and I didn't have any issues with my calves. That is, I'd done about as much, if not more, research on the shoe choice than is conventionally recommended and it still didn't work out. Obviously (obviously!) 30km, let alone 42.2km at marathon pace was too much.

So, in sum, I think I prepared as well as I could given my "pre-cuses" of the iron depletion and glute strain in spring and summer, excecuted pretty well on the day through to about 30km, and through my own mistaken choice of footwear never gave myself the chance to put it on the line in the last 10km where you really find out what you've got.

From here, it's a week completely off running, though I'll probably hit the pool for some aqua-jogging, then a slow climb back up to 100km/week by Thanksgiving. It's been two years since I took some sustained downtime after a marathon, and now is the time to refresh and regroup. I then hope to put in a good month through to Christmas, after which I'll think about a winter marathon, a spring one, or concentrating on shorter distances for the spring, and a marathon again next fall. Who knows? Without overstating the difficulties there are some complications of trying to do a winter or early spring marathon coming out of the long Minnesota winter. There's also the issue that spring marathons in North America have much more variable weather (it's not for nothing that all the major competitive spring marathons, except Boston, are in Europe and Japan). But variation is variation, you could get the freak 80° day, or you could get the ideal 45° day. If I'm serious about chasing the PR substantially down from where it is I may have to take some chances with the variable North American spring ...

Posted by eroberts at 1:37 PM | Comments (3)

October 20, 2006

Tip o' the day

Microfilm scanners are a wonderful invention, and I'm so enamored with them that in writing this post I browsed the web to see what they cost. At least as much as the top of the line Apple Powerbook and maybe as much as a VW Passat to put it in terms of other desirable items. Of course, the relative prices may change. Not buying any of those things for myself any time soon ...

Anyway, here's my tip for your microfilm scanning. As best I can tell what the scanner does is similar to what an automatic focus camera does—sensing the relative amounts of white and black in the viewfinder and then capturing the image. Now if you've ever taken photos on an automatic camera you'll know they are easy to fool by composing a shot that is a mix of both dark and light areas. Same goes, it seems, for the microfilm scanners.

If you have significant amounts of the black film between the pages in your images, the digital image will not be as well exposed for the part of the image you want. Previously my preference when using the microfilm scanner was to have the black space on the side of the page, rather than cropped parts of another page. This works OK for pages that are quite dark anyway (whole pages of text). It works poorly when you are trying to capture an image of a page that has a lot of white space in it—tabular data, for example—because then the automatic exposure settings can't cope very well, and will wash out the detail you are interested in.

Bottom line advice is this: For the best exposure on microfilm scanners try capturing an image without any of the black film space between pages.

Posted by eroberts at 2:21 PM | Comments (1)

October 19, 2006

Party politics

I got this email today:

Dear <redacted> member,
Do you ever wish you could quit your day job and work to take back Congress? Well, on Election Day, you can come close: Take the day off work on Tuesday, November 7th and be part of something big.

Skip your annoying commute. Skip those endless meetings. This election is the best chance we've had in years to change the direction of our country. And we have a plan to put dozens of races over the top by making hundreds of thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls on Election Day—but we can't do it without your help.

Can you take the day off work on Tuesday, November 7th to help win this historic election?

It made me think again why making an election day a holiday is a good idea. It's fair to assume that being able to take a solitary day off for the election is not something everyone can do. It's probably easier if you are a professional worker not serving other people. Hard to say how that affects Democrats and Republicans. Teachers can't take a day off, and they tend to vote Democratic. Soldiers probably can't take the day off, and they tend to vote Republican. Now, it's clearly not the case that election day being a work day is the reason that turnout in American elections is low, since many other countries have their elections on a weekday and manage significantly higher turnout than in the United States. Moreover, the wide variation between the different American states in turnout, none of which have holidays for election day, must indicate that other factors are at work.

All those caveats aside making election day a public holiday is still the right thing to do. Everyone is legally entitled to take time off to vote, but to help turnout the vote and participate in other aspects of an election requires you to take your holidays off. In a country that celebrates and proclaims its democratic traditions, wouldn't one day off in the year to take part in democracy be small but symblic. America does its nationalistic public holidays very well (Memorial Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving specifically) but what could be more American than to participate in the nation's democratic events?

If you look at the history of American election days it's quite clear that election days used to be opportunities for boisterous public displays, and not a lot of working. Making election day a non-work day again would return to a grand American tradition. In the 19th century Minnesota made election day a public holiday by legislation. It's been done before.

The other good reason for making election day a public holiday (or a weekend) is that then you can have an election night party. The election night party is, I think, a small but important part of Australasian culture that derives from the convenience of having elections on Saturdays, and being able to sleep in the next morning with nothing to do (for most people).

Having elections on a Tuesday when you have to work makes voting like running to the store after work. You do it. You go home. You make sure you have everything ready for Wednesday at work. There is a better way. Make election day a holiday.

Posted by eroberts at 1:08 PM | Comments (3)

October 12, 2006

These are those people: Pawlenty-Klobuchar voters

Here in Minnesota we have the interesting dynamic of a Senate race where the Democratic party is leading by 10 percentage points (on average), and the Governor's race is all tied up between the major parties at 40-something apiece. This has led to the totally predictable dynamic neither Amy Klobuchar and Mike Hatch (Democratic nominees for Senate and Governor) nor Mark Kennedy and Tim Pawlenty (Republican nominees for same) are doing joint campaign appearances.

Finally the Star Tribune interviews some of these people. Pragmatic and results focused would be one way of describing their political views. Less substantively they all seem to find Klobuchar and Pawlenty more attractive and articulate. If you go into politics it helps not to have a funny voice. In fact, it helps both men and women in [western] politics to have a deep voice. Whatever their other differences Kennedy and Hatch might both lose because they speak squeaky.

Posted by eroberts at 7:27 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2006

That 70s show

This sentence in the New York Times:

And in a month in which Republicans have sought to discredit Democratic challengers as advocates of big spending and high taxes, 52 percent of respondents said that Democrats would make the right decisions on how to spend taxpayers' money, while 29 percent said Republicans would.

prompt another round of my perennial thought that if only ordinary voters knew enough history they'd know that cliche of Democrats as deficit-spending wastrels is not historically accurate in the long run. I'd say, and this is a hypothesis, that this perception of Democrats really only dates from the 1970s.

The emphasis here is on deficit spending. Like the various Labo[u]r parties around the world, it's a fair characterization that liberal, social democratic, populist leaning parties spend a little more than right-leaning parties do. But deficit spending? Not so much. Go back to the 1930s and you see Labour and Democratic parties spending more to get out of the Depression, but given the circumstances, perhaps not deficit spending enough. It took the deficit financed World War II to get most of the western countries out of the depression and back to full employment. War, of course, is a perennial historical justification for deficits. If you win. If you're borrowing good money to fund a war gone wrong, that becomes unpopular.

Like Vietnam. This, I would guess, was the beginning of the perception that Democrats were weak on national security, and couldn't control the budget. The two are related -- I'm not sure that that gets enough attention. Then you have the oil crises of the 1970s, and the Australasian and British Labour parties, the Canadian Liberals, and the Democrats were all in power during at least one of the oil shocks of the 1970s. That was when government deficits became a problem for western countries, and the Labour/Liberal/Democratic parties were all, unfortunately, for them left standing when the music oil stopped. Would conservative parties have done any better at adjusting government spending in the midst of the oil crisis? I don't know.

Going back to the Great Depression suggests an answer. In Britain and Australia where the Labour parties held the finance ministry at the start of the Depression "responsible" balanced budgeting was the order of the day, and it saddled both parties with responsibility for the Depression that the Republicans, and the New Zealand Reform (conservative) party also experienced. The somewhat unfair perception that left voters with, was that the conservative governments were responsible for most of the misery of the Depression. Somewhat unfair, because it reinforced stereotypes that were already out there that conservative governments were less likely to spend on the poor.

Conservative governments would probably also have run up large deficits during the oil shocks (and did, later in the 1970s in Australia and New Zealand). But conservatives running budget deficits doesn't reinforce stereotypes already out there, while it does for liberals.

Posted by eroberts at 1:11 PM | Comments (0)

October 6, 2006

Strong on national security?

Matthew Yglesias links to this good article in the Washington Post that points out something totally non-surprising to historians, but possibly newsworthy to other people:

There is a little noticed tendency about the character of national political parties, that is, they tend to trade places or invert positions on critical issues over time ... These profound intergenerational shifts in partisan philosophy and issue identification should serve as a cautionary note to those who would argue that the Republican advantages on war and national security issues are permanent and immutable.

Indeed. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, until World War II changed many of their minds it was the Republican Party that housed the non-serious isolationalist and pacifist tendency in American politics. Not surprisingly it was the Democratic party that had a significant advantage on foreign policy during World War II; an advantage somewhat maintained by Truman in the post-war period.

Being in office, and exercising the foreign policy prerogatives of office, tends to make parties look better able to do what they're doing. Unless you really screw up.

(Source: "The Quarter's Polls." The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Winter, 1944-1945), p.570.)

(Source: Mildred Strunk. "The Quarter's Polls." The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Spring, 1948), p.166.)

Posted by eroberts at 8:50 AM | Comments (0)

October 5, 2006

Twin Cities Marathon 2006 photos

Photos from the Twin Cities Marathon 2006.

Posted by eroberts at 8:55 AM | Comments (1)

October 4, 2006

What is marathon pace?

Zeke has a nice post up on marathon pacing. I was going to leave a comment there, but why not get a post up for myself? Like a lot of things in life, it's all so simple in theory, but difficult to get right in practice. Perusing any marathon results will pretty quickly show you that if you slow down by less than a minute in the second half you're keeping rare company and should be relatively pleased with your execution of the race. Even splits and negative splits are special, special things.

As I say, all so simple in theory. The first step in theory and practice is to know that the marathon is a cruel thing, that relatively minor mistakes you can recover from in shorter races (even up to 30km races) can have really big effects on your marathon; that if you run race enough marathons, some of them will be bad. If you are well trained and "just" run a marathon it's a long training run, you'll get "pleasantly tired" (to quote Arthur Lydiard) and you'll be out doing speedwork soon there after. Put it on the line for sub 3:10, 3:00, 2:48:47, 2:37:20, 2:30:00, 2:22:00 or whatever you're going for, and you'll come a cropper one of these days. Just the way it is. Just the law of averages. Though I know that is no consolation on the day it happens.

Hitting the wall is absolutely no fun, but most of the time you should finish. That would be my rule two for setting a goal. "Always finish" is a solid rule for any length of racing, since once you've pulled out once it becomes so much easier to do it again the next time it gets hard (a DNF for acute injuries is totally acceptable, but how often does that happen?). But I have a sneaking suspicion that the effect is worse for marathoning, simply because there's just so many more moments in the race when you might want to drop out.

At this point, there's a huge gap between what you'll end up with and what your ultimate goal was, so my rule three is to have a succession of intermediate goals in between the "dream day when I find I'm fitter than I knew" and the death shuffle from 18 miles. Personally, I now set that first goal beyond just finishing as a Boston qualifier, since a Boston qualifier is still 5 minutes over my personal worst, but avoiding a personal worst time is probably a good part of any cascade of marathon time goals. Your specific aims will vary, obviously and if you get to this point of searching for a reasonable goal to keep going you'll probably be changing them mile by mile ... That's been my experience.

In between finishing, avoiding personal worsts, and the actual realistic goal for a race there may be many minutes, so rule three point five is to find other intermediate goals, so if you went for 2:45 and ended up with 2:50:05 you can still find something to appreciate in your performance.

This all gets us to the pointy end of establishing a realistic goal. I go with three rules of thumb here

  • Your marathon will probably be 2 x a recent half marathon race + 6-10 minutes
  • Each minute too fast in the first half will cost you four minutes in the second half.
  • What you can actually run on the day is somewhat random. The best statistics and science in the world cannot predict the error term (to get a little technical on you).

On the last point, I think it's pretty well established that lactate threshold and aerobic threshold, and pretty much every other relevant physiological variable, will do just that, vary, from day to day. You can do a lot to reduce this variability, and increase the predictability of what you can do with appropriate time trials and other workouts, tapering, etc, etc ... But you can't predict the inevitable random variation. If you go in assuming you can run 6 minutes over 2 x 1/2 marathon pace, and that day the best you could have done if you'd paced perfectly was 8 minutes over ... there's four minutes you're giving up in the second half. There's your 1:24/1:29 splits.

Of course, the disaster that's going to occur is not necessarily obvious at half-way. It will still feel easy, because running 2 minutes over half-marathon race pace (for a half) feels surprisingly easy, 3-5 minutes over, that takes real, real restraint when you're feeling good.

Until this year I never quite understood how people might go into a marathon really uncertain of what they might end up running. Now I do. Back in April and May this year I was confident I was going to take a decent shot at the low 2:40s in Chicago. Running 62 for 10 miles in early April feeling like "this is marathon pace," does that for you, especially when you back it up a few weeks later with a 41 minute 7 mile tempo run. Going rapidly backwards for five weeks as your iron levels fall erases that confidence. Getting on the iron supplements, and doing a good month of base influenced by the Speed with Endurance schedules gave me some of that confidence back. Two weeks into the 12 week specific build for Chicago I was metaphorically patting myself on the back for getting over the iron problem, and doing two weeks of workouts that I think indicated 2:46-2:48 could be realistic. Then I strained my glute tripping over a rock and lost several workouts in the next month. I can't speak highly enough of active release therapy that with 2 weeks to go I think 2:50 is a realistic goal. This implies trying to hit the half-way at Chicago in 1:25.

If I really am in shape to run quicker then I'll be able to negative split. That's the part of me that believes the great spring and mid-summer training must still be there in some way. Negative splits still hurt, but they hurt a lot better than running 1:22/1:35 ever will. And if, after this up-and-down six months I'm really in 2:53 shape, 1:25/1:28 is not a huge explosion. 18 days to go.

Posted by eroberts at 3:14 PM | Comments (4)