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Best DNF ever

April 15, 2014

About 46 miles into Saturday’s Mad City 100K, I slowed to a walk.

For a minute or two, walking felt AWESOME! But then even that became difficult, and my race was over. I got a ride from the arboretum aid station to the start/finish area, reported my status to the race director, and took shelter in a friend’s vehicle.

It was a disappointing outcome, to be sure, but it felt different than my past racing failures (e.g., Mad City 2008). This time I was more ready to accept the result, less worried about whether it was “fair” or avoidable. I began the race aware that it would be hard to reach my very specific goal of breaking 7:20; I took my shot; and I came up short. It’s a shame, but it’s no Greek tragedy.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get to this point. And congratulations to the Mad City finishers, especially women’s winner Pam Smith and the five (!) men (Zach Bitter, Joe Binder, Nick Accardo, Jim Sweeney, Kevin Grabowski) who did go under 7:20.

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Mad City 100K preview: I’m running it. So are some other people. Any questions?

April 9, 2014

On April 12th I will run the Mad City 100K — my 27th ultramarathon, but my first since 2010.

Much has changed over the last four years. Here’s one telling example.

Before my 2010 ultras (Rocky Raccoon 100, Mad City 100K, White River 50), I researched the competition and wrote detailed race previews.

Right now, all I have to say is that I’m glad to have gotten in some decent (though unorthodox) training, and I hope to break 7:20. If I succeed, I’ll probably place in the top 5, though probably not in the top 2.

… And it will be nice to see race director Timo and his wife Ann, my Williams College classmate Pam, and my uncle Scott and aunt Katrien.

… And I hope that the thunderstorms predicted to hit Madison on the 12th hold off until mid-afternoon.

OK, I’m done. Really.

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Prof Don’t Preach

March 24, 2014

The song below is dedicated to the hordes of students in PhD programs at the University of Washington and elsewhere — especially those who remember the 1980s. It’s not my best or most polished parody … but the idea came to me in a dream, and when I woke up humming, “Ohhhh, I’m keeping my thesis,” I was tickled enough to spend an hour fleshing out the lyrics. So here you go!

Prof Don’t Preach
(a parody of “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and recorded by Madonna; new lyrics by Greg Crowther)

Professor, I know you’re going to be upset
‘Cause I was always your protege,
But you should know by now (that)
I need to finish.
You’ve been my adviser for seven years;
I need your help, professor — let’s be clear:
If we can’t work this out,
I’ll convene my committee….

CHORUS:
Prof don’t preach!
I’m in trouble deep.
Prof don’t preach!
I’ve been losing sleep.
But I made up my mind:
Oh, I’m keeping my thesis!
Oh, I’m gonna keep my thesis!

The firm says that it’s going to hire me
As soon as I receive my PhD.
Maybe I’ll be all right; it’s a sacrifice.
But my friends keep telling me to give it up,
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up.
What I need right now is to schedule my prelims….

CHORUS

Professor Gray, if you could be in my place,
With three full square feet of office space,
You’d give me your blessing right now,
‘Cause I’m not in love
With this life any more….

CHORUS

madonna-wearing-eyeglasses
Doctoral candidate Madonna L. Ciccone. Photo from celebie.com.

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A bridge too far

March 20, 2014

A Matter Of Trust – The Bridge To Russia, a CD and video set based on Billy Joel’s 1987 concerts in the Soviet Union, is available for pre-order.

An “Editorial Review” at amazon.com says the following:

Billy has always considered that going to Russia was the most important thing he’d ever done. The freedom and excitement of his presence permanently affected the country and played no small role in the ultimate dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

I fear that this “Piano Man Diplomacy” hypothesis has not yet had a fair hearing among 20th century historians. Aren’t many of them still naively attributing the Soviet Union’s collapse to economic problems and the like?

the music that toppled an empire

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Reminder: correlation is not causality

February 27, 2014

A research study by Martin Hoffman and Eswar Krishnan concludes, “Compared with the general population, ultramarathon runners appear healthier and report fewer missed work or school days due to illness or injury.”

The March 2014 issue of my local running magazine summarizes this study as follows: “Keep logging those miles, ultrarunners! Your body will thank you for it in the long run.”

See the difference?

The study itself simply notes that ultramarathoners are, by most measures, healthier than normal. The running magazine leaps (or perhaps sprints) to the conclusion that these runners’ training is what keeps them so healthy. But we can’t rule out the opposite: maybe these people’s good health is what allows them to run so much; maybe their impressive mileage tallies are an effect, rather than a cause, of their good health. Or maybe the ultrarunners surveyed differ from the general population in other ways, unrelated to running, that account for their superior health.

Numerous studies have provided strong evidence that running promotes good health, but this study isn’t one of them.

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When the ridiculous becomes the routine

February 26, 2014

Yesterday I went for a total of 8 runs. Today I did 7 more.

This isn’t intended as bragging. Some of the runs were only half a mile, and none exceeded 3.5 miles. But they do add up.

My new several-short-runs-a-day schedule sort of emulates that of Pam Reed. As reported by 60 Minutes in 2005,

Reed, from Tucson, Ariz., has an unorthodox approach. With no coach, no nutritionist and no training schedule, she simply runs as much as she can – up to five times a day. For a mother of three, that means in the middle of the night, in between errands, or during her son’s soccer practice.

When I first heard about this, I thought, “That’s ridiculous. Can’t she just carve out the time to do one or two ‘proper’ runs per day?”

It doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore.

Before my left Achilles tendon gave out in 2010, I had adopted a Reed-like approach to commuting. But that was just a single 6-mile run on an easy day, or two of them on a harder day.

Fast-forward to today. I’ve moved to a different home, my Achilles is healthy again, I’m splitting my work time between UW’s main campus and a lab at the south end of Lake Union, and I have child drop-off/pick-up duties. All of this leads to itineraries like yesterday’s:

7:20 AM: B.F. Day (my son’s school) to South Lake Union (SLU), 2.5 miles

8:30 AM: SLU to Padelford Hall, 3.5 miles

11:25 AM: Padelford to Guggenheim Hall, 0.5 miles

12:20 PM: Guggenheim to Padelford, 0.5 miles

12:40 PM: Padelford to SLU, 3.5 miles

1:55 PM: SLU to Hitchcock Hall, 3 miles

3:45 PM: Hitchcock to Padelford, 1 mile

6:00 PM: Padelford to B.F. Day, 3 miles

You may ask whether I’m getting in any speedwork. Yes, I am. A couple of times per week, I’ll find myself late for an appointment across town, so that leg becomes a hard “tempo run.”

It remains to be seen whether I can translate this routine into decent race results. Pam Reed managed to win Badwater twice and set American records for distance covered over 24 and 48 hours, so I suppose there’s hope for me as well.

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Greatest hits?

February 15, 2014

For what it’s worth, I just added a “Favorite posts” page to this blog.

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The wisdom of crowds?

February 9, 2014

From the Seattle Times: 700,000 at Seahawks parade? Doesn’t add up, experts say.

It’s a lighthearted article, but it touches on the methodology of crowd estimation and uses some basic math to show that the number of parade attendees was less than the official estimate of 700,000.

How did readers respond to this dollop of evidence-based analysis? There were several themes, as exemplified by the following online quotes. (My interpretations are in brackets.)

(1) Semians: “Quit trying to overanalyze everything and simply live in the moment.” [We shouldn't care about this information.]

(2) picklesp: “It sure as heck felt like 700,000 from ground level.” [This information doesn't match my personal experience.]

(3) Peterkirk: “These guys are just trying to rain on our parade for whatever reason, and well tough, it didn’t rain on the parade on Wednesday and your diatribe (reporting?) isn’t going to make it rain today.” [This information doesn't make me feel good, so I'll ignore it.]

(4) Mr. Mytzlplk: “The ‘experts’ vary by 200,000 in their ‘real analysis.’ The fact that they’re so far off from each other tells me that they don’t know what they’re doing.” [Experts disagree about the details, so their analyses are worthless.]

(5) picklesp: “Experts get paid to pontificate.” [Experts have their own biases and agendas -- which is true.]

(6) gloryhound: “I’m also skeptical of these two ‘experts” qualifications.” [The "experts" aren't really experts.]

The above excerpts are from some of readers’ HIGHEST-rated comments. Here are two of the LOWEST-rated ones:

[from dawgsage:]

Actually 2.5 sq. ft /person is a square of almost 19 inches per side. Measuring the width of my body without a coat shows approximately 19 inches shoulder to shoulder, with a coat let’s add an inch making it 20 inches. A 2.5 square foot rectangle, with one side 20 inches would then require the other side to be 16.2 inches, from front to back. Conservatively, my measurement is 10 inches front to back. This means there would be 6.2 inches forward from my front to the back of the body of the person in front, and 6.2 inches in the back of me to the body of the next person, while laterally I am shoulder to shoulder to the adjacent people. So no I do not think it is not like standing in line, you really can’t get more crowded than that unless you were in an Iraqi prison under Saddam. So I believe the basis of the low estimates are credible.

[from CO Dawg:]

Rather than just say “well I don’t believe you!” to the experts, just do this simple experiment: put on a winter jacket (remember, it was cold that day) and stand against the wall with your arms against your side, then have someone mark the wall with chalk at your elbows. Measure that width. Then turn sideways and mark again the two widest points (belly and bottom for me, your points may vary). Measure that width.

Now, grab a calculator and multiply your personal width by personal depth. That is the square footage of space you occupy if you were standing in a crowd elbow to elbow belly to back and back to belly, like at a rock concert, and represents a good indication of the maximum crowd density at the parade.

When i did this with a sweatshirt on i came up with 2.1 feet wide and 1.25 feet deep, for 2.65 square feet, a little above the minimum cited. However, if i put on a winter jacket it adds an inch to all four sides so the measurements jump up to 2.25 by 1.42 feet, or 3.2 square feet. Adding just one more inch to each measurement increases my footprint to 3.8 square feet, and adding 3 inches increases it to 4.7 square feet. I wont presume anything about your personal space requirements, but when someone is 3 inches away from me, i still feel pretty crowded. I can thus conclude that the experts have presented a reasonable range for each person’s footprint

I have no means to measure the overall footprint of the crowd along the route, but had they asked me to do crowd estimates i would have employed the same methodology they use (measurements from an aerial photo), and probably would have come up with numbers similar to their’s. I would have multiplied the overall crowd foot print by an average space per person of 3.5 square feet (generally splitting the difference between my numbers), added 15% to account for people standing outside the footprint or watching from offices, and likely come up with a forecast of somewhere between 350-400k. Which is still a heck of a crowd.

And for those of you dismissing my opinion because of my location, we’re not immune to overly enthusiastic crowd estimates in Denver, too. I was at a presidential campaign speech in Civic Park that supposedly was attended by 100,000 people, and didnt even need to do the math to know that estimate was comically high.

So, to summarize: dismissal of the information for any old reason? Thumbs up! Attempts to check the math and verify its reasonableness? Thumbs down!

While no legislation hinges on this particular estimate, I’m troubled by the attitudes displayed here, i.e., limited interest in the nuances of data and relevant expertise. I submit that, in other arenas, this limited interest has led to the popularity of positions like “evolution is just a theory,” “vaccines cause autism,” “global warming is a hoax,” and “animal testing is unnecessary.”

In response, we scientists can grumpily bemoan an incurious public … or we can recognize that facts alone don’t always move the needle of public opinion, and we can get better at appealing to people’s emotions and imaginations.

comments from a data denialist

do the math!

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The “13th Man” speaks his mind

February 2, 2014

When I began running marathons in 1999, my parents had very different reactions. My dad seemed interested in my competitive success; at the least, he understood my drive to achieve a certain time or ranking. My mom thought that such events were pointless and mainly wanted to know that I got home safely.

As I think about today’s Super Bowl, I find myself feeling a lot like my mother.

Here’s my three-point stance on tackle football:
1. Football puts participants’ brains and bodies at great risk (as discussed previously on this blog and in the excellent Frontline news documentary League of Denial).
2. My interest in people’s long-term health should trump my interest in their feats of athleticism.
3. Watching football is a tacit endorsement of the sport in its current, dangerous form. Therefore, I do not watch football.

I haven’t always been this way. As a child, I was a rabid supporter of the New York Jets. Some might speculate that THIS is the problem — how could a Jets fan experience football at its finest, or avoid disillusionment?

On the contrary, I was thrilled by the tackle-evading halfback Freeman McNeil and the quarterback-hunting linemen Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko (the “New York Sack Exchange”). Watching athletes like these has always been exciting and fun. But how much should they have to sacrifice for the sake of entertaining me? Am I just another Roman spectator enjoying the spectacle of bludgeoned, bloodied gladiators?

Not anymore. When the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos take the field in a few hours, I won’t be watching.

As my mom might say, I just want everyone to make it home safe and sound.

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Roger Ebert and the art of grading

January 30, 2014

I didn’t know Roger Ebert, but I miss him.

From about 2003 until his death last April, I faithfully read his reviews of every movie I saw, plus many more.

Why was I so interested in Roger’s opinions? He was smart and funny, but there was more to it than that.

Last month I belatedly recognized another aspect of Roger’s appeal while reading The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj of Cornell University.

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj advise against grading students’ essays right away. Instead, they counsel, “First sit back and read through each paper receptively, letting it communicate whatever it is trying to say.”

This is how Roger treated movies: as works to be experienced first and critiqued second. In his memoir, Life Itself, he says that he learned this from Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”

To be this open-minded is admirable. To stay this open-minded after having literally viewed thousands of films would be almost miraculous.

Roger became the Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967. Here he is in 2007, reviewing Alvin and the Chipmunks:

The most astonishing sight in “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is not three singing chipmunks. No, it’s a surprise saved for the closing titles, where we see the covers of all the Alvin & company albums and CDs. I lost track after 10. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would want to listen to one whole album of those squeaky little voices, let alone 10.

Sure, the chipmunks are an easy target. But my point is that Roger stayed through the closing credits, still curious about what might come next and still capable of being surprised.

His review continues:

…Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, who accidentally brings them home in a basket of muffins, discovers they can talk and is soon shouting “Alvin!” at the top of his lungs, as Chipmunk lore requires that he must.

David Cross plays Ian, the hustling tour promoter who signs them up and takes them on the road, where they burn out and he suggests they start syncing with dubbed voices. Now we’re getting into Alice in Wonderland territory, because of course they are dubbed voices in the first place. Indeed the metaphysics of dubbing dubbed chipmunks who exist in the real world as animated representations of real chipmunks is … how did this sentence begin?

That said, whatever it was, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is about as good as a movie with these characters can probably be, and I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this movie. I am even sure some readers will throw it up to me like I liked the “Garfield” movie better. Yes, but Garfield didn’t sing, and he was dubbed by Bill Murray. My duty as a reporter is to inform you that the chipmunks are sorta cute, that Jason Lee and David Cross manfully play roles that require them, as actors, to relate with empty space that would later be filled with CGI, and that at some level, the movie may even be doing something satirical about rock stars and the hype machine.

Does he sound annoyed that he had to sit through this two-star kids’ flick? Not really. He came, he saw, and he noticed some things that amused him and some things that he could grudgingly admire. It’s a privilege to get paid to watch and judge movies, good and bad, and Roger enjoyed it until the very end.

Getting paid to read and evaluate student writing is also a privilege of sorts. If decades pass and I become an old man and I’m still doing it, I hope to be doing it with the patience and good humor of Roger Ebert.

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