January 30, 2007

Modern Times

Bob Dylan's Modern Times album has been a delight to listen to in the last five months. A friend asked me what I thought of it, so I'll self-plagiarize in the service of getting a semi-interesting post up.

There's a level of knowing irony and historical sense throughout the album. It's called Modern Times, but most of the cultural references (other than to Alicia Keys) are to events quite distant to most people, certainly a lot of them before Bob's time. The other irony, in the day of iTunes and the move away from the album, is that it's an album, not a CD-length collection of songs. This is interesting, as Dylan has been quite deliberate in adapting to new media over the years (XM radio, now iTunes), in a way that makes me think he keeps up with what's happening and thinks about it. This is not to say he's taken on board every musical innovation in the last 45 years, ever seen a good Dylan music video? Not so much, other than "Series of Dreams," and even that is a great song without the video. Perhaps the video is over-rated because expectations for Dylan videos are so low.

Anyway, back to this being an album. More than Time out of Mind and Love and Theft, Modern Times really does benefit from being being listened to in the order on the CD. But if the move away from albums is post-modern, then perhaps the album format is modern. In any case, I think that by making an album qua album, Dylan has done something to stop the slide towards popular music sliding into a 3-7 minute commercial radio/download format. While I think digital distribution of music will probably lead towards some artists doing longer songs (since there's now a semi-viable way to make money off songs that don't fit into commercial radio time slots), the inevitable tendency of selling music in single songs will be that fewer artists will do albums that make coherent sense as albums. On the other hand, we may well be spared some of the dreaded marginal songs that are not of the same quality as the other pieces, but have to be put on the CD to meet audience or marketing expectations of what constitutes an album. The bottom line is that the album form of inter-related songs is a distinct form in popular music. Done well it's great. It would be a shame to lose it from the culture. Modern Times is a good advertisement for the genre.

The other aspect that's knowingly ironic is that a lot of the songs have a very direct lineage to other older material. Is that modern? I've always thought that one of the defining characteristics of modernity (everything changed in December 1910) was at least the cultivated appearance of rejecting the past, and making everything out to be New and Exciting. Emphasize Modernity by writing in Somewhat Random Capital Letters because type setting bold is more expensive etc etc ... Modern Times doesn't do that. It's very consciously historical.

I do think that there is something new and distinctive in what Dylan's doing with the old blues influence on his work. There's a richness to the sound, due to his good backing band, that some blues lacks. For a man whose contribution to musical history will primarily be the poetry of his lyrics, his re-acquisition of a good band at this late stage of his career adds something to his legacy. Between Blood and the Tracks and Time Out of Mind the backing music for Dylan's work was pretty poor (though Under the Red Sky, note the influence of Daniel Lanois, is a noteworthy exception).

All in all, an album well worth an historian's time.

Posted by eroberts at 1:43 PM

January 28, 2007

Death of a downtown department store

Filene's Basement flagship store in Boston is closing, if apparently only temporarily. Though it is now no longer part of the Filene's chain, it began as a way to sell discounted items from Edward Filene's department store. In the historiography of department stores, Filene's is significant because Susan Porter Benson used the store's archives (particularly its staff magazine) for her Counter Cultures book, where modern department store historiography really begins.

While I still believe the death of the department store has been exaggerated, this is sad news.

Posted by eroberts at 2:54 PM

January 23, 2007

Swedish-Australasian relations

This pairing on a cookie box of Swedish and Australasian cookies touched my little Antipodean-born, Swedophilic heart.

Posted by eroberts at 9:25 AM

January 19, 2007

Waiting for the other shoe to drop

Posted by eroberts at 2:30 PM

January 17, 2007

Don't be greedy

and eat all the marzipan pig. A serving is half a pig.

Posted by eroberts at 4:50 PM

January 13, 2007

Marathon recovery

Marathons leave you fit but f***ed up. How do you take advantage of that?

All the usual caveats apply. Your mileage will [literally] vary. Not only from mine, but over time from your own previous efforts, and not necessarily predictably. You might be fitter going into (and coming out of) one marathon than another, but you still might need more recovery from the one you approached with more fitness.

So, marathons leave you fit but f***ed up. How do you take advantage of that? There's no question that if you prepare right, you come off a marathon tremendously aerobically fit. Now, I think it's very much the case that the specific fitness required to run your best marathon will not put you in the shape to run the best 5000m you're ever capable of. If you prepare for a marathon right you'll be tremendously economical, great at sparing glycogen, but perhaps not as sharp as you need to run a great 5000m (this relates to the Greg McMillan article in Running Times Mike discussed a while back. One day I may discuss this. That day could be many days away).

Nevertheless many people do run shorter distance PRs pretty soon after a marathon. I happen to think that this is because their overall aerobic fitness has been raised so much that it compensates for non-specific preparation. (Lets put it this way. If you successfully bump up your mileage to 80 mpw and train for a marathon, you'll probably beat the 5km times you ran on 50mpw but doing 5km focused workouts. The aerobic benefits from the increased mileage and threshold work would more than compensate for the dimunition, even absence, of VO2 max workouts.)

Now, if you live in the upper Midwest and do a late fall marathon you're not going to get much opportunity to do a PR at anything several weeks after your marathon. So I happen to have lost touch with the idea of seguing from a marathon into shorter distance racing. But what I know from earlier marathons and other people's experience is this: it is possible to do a good race a week or two or three after a marathon, but you need to let your muscles recover somehow (aqua jogging, running on grass very easily) before the next race, and you're just going to set your recovery back again. But hey, if you're fit, there's a good race on, and you feel mentally up to the challenge, why not? My best racing soon after a marathon has always been 5-8 weeks afterwards. That time frame gives me time to recover, time to get in a week or two of easy distance, strides and then at least one workout before the race. After my first marathon I didn't race for 8 weeks, but that gave me 4 weeks without workouts, 4 weeks with workouts, and then a very good day at the races (albeit in a relay at the totally non-standard distances of 4.78km and 3.89km. My absence from racing meant I got stuck in a relay team below my ability that was one person short. Beating both the people from the team I would normally have been in was the most valuable index of how good I felt). To sum up, my limited experience with transitioning from the marathon back into shorter races suggests that the best races come a few weeks after the marathon when you're both recovered and fit.

Transitioning back into another build-up, however, is something I have experimented with over the last 18 months, and my conclusion is this: an extra week of recovery makes for an even better build-up.

Here's a graph of my mileage after my last three competitive marathons

After Grandma's and Philadelphia I followed Pfitzinger's recommendations: "[Shuffle for a week] Then run 50% of your usual weekly mileage the 2nd week, and 75% the 3rd week." I interpreted "usual weekly mileage" to be what I'd averaged over the marathon buildup which came out to about 85 miles per week (mpw). In both cases I felt pretty good by week 3. After Grandma's the jump from 62 mpw to 75 mpw with a tempo run left me feeling a little tired (though perhaps it was just the July doldrums) so after Philadelphia once I'd got to 63 mpw in week 3 I then added 7-8 mpw until I hit 100. This worked out pretty well and while my mileage was a little lower than after Grandma's it was slightly higher quality. If the footing wasn't always great, the effort was higher after Philadelphia than after Grandma's. The 5 week sequence of 88, 90, 100, 100, 100 mpw post-Grandma's was done mostly at an easy effort because it was July and August, and I couldn't be bothered making my head spin by running harder in heat and humidity. But it wasn't until the last two weeks of that five week stretch that I felt really fresh most days.

If you have the time to freshen up, why go into your next training cycle mentally and physically fatigued? With this in mind I decided that after Chicago I would have a week completely off running, and then take a very easy month. Now, I won't pretend that the obsessive-compulsive mileage addict that lurks in me didn't have some doubts about this, and didn't say "Why don't you jog a couple more miles each day?" But I mostly banished these thoughts from my mind. The 30 and 40 mile week were quite enjoyable, mostly ambling around at an easy pace. There was a mild sensation of the legs and lungs not quite feeling in sync -- the legs felt fresh after the week off to recover, so I'd pick it up gradually and wonder why 7:15/mile effort yielded 7:55/mile. But mostly I just jogged around.

The 50 mile week was a challenge. 3 weeks post-marathon there shouldn't be much fatigue left. I struggled through the easy 13 mile run I'd normally do 2 weeks after a marathon, and wondered how I'd ever get back to the point where 13 miles was a pretty typical day out on the roads. But a couple of days later I felt slightly better on an 11 mile run, and realized that perhaps I was not fatigued, I was just a little unfit (relatively speaking). If you're used to running at least 300 miles a month, a month where you run a marathon and mostly jog another 100 miles will not maintain your fitness. Another couple of days later, and I felt slightly better again on another 11 mile run. But on the days in between I felt much more tired than 11 miles usually leaves me. So, the week was a struggle between the days I felt fatigued from runs that normally wouldn't tire me too much, and the gradual realization that each of the longer runs was better than the one before, and perhaps I was regaining fitness.

So I started the 60 mile week mostly expecting to continue feeling better. And I did. When I checked my pace on various runs I was hitting the times I expected for the effort I was putting out. Things were on the upswing. Yet the pay-off for the longer recovery was not the 60 mile week, it was the month from Thanksgiving to Christmas where I ran 80, 90, 100 and then 113 miles in each week. Aided by a dry, warm start to winter I was able to make those good quality weeks with at least one long tempo run in each week, a leg speed workout, one day of reps on hills, and good long runs. I felt the best I've ever felt starting a winter buildup, both physically and mentally. The price of a good month's training was an extra week's recovery, and really it was a bargain. It wasn't much fun feeling unfit and slow for 2-3 weeks, but it all came back together much quicker than I'd expected.

Better to struggle through the 50 mile recovery week and then feel fresh when you are running 100 miles, than to keep the miles up and feel fit but tired when you're doing 100 miles.

Posted by eroberts at 9:09 PM

January 12, 2007

It didn't [really] happen there, either

Seymour Martin Lipset has died (see here and here for commentary and round-up), and hopefully taken to his grave the mis-specified question of why there is no socialist party in the United States.

I say that with a great deal of admiration for Lipset's career, research interests, and writing. His writing was provocative in the best way, his research comparing Canada and the United States illuminated our understanding of both those countries (and others), and proved the basis for a long career. As one long interested in at least dabbling in comparative history you have to admire and engage Lipset's work. You do have to wonder a little how someone can make a career out of the logical trap of seeing the United States as "exceptional," yet also open to understanding by comparison.

Lipset was scarcely responsible for originating the question, since Werner Sombart got in well before him with his 1906 book, Why is there no socialism in the United States? (Google books link in German only!) Yet there was socialism in the United States. Not as a governing party anywhere, not as a winning political movement (unless you count wins against other left-wingers, which socialists have more often specialized in achieving), but certainly as an animating idea in the heads of many laborers and intellectuals. Lipset re-specified this already badly specified question a little by asking why there wasn't really even a social democratic party in the United States.

The changing question gives some of its own answer: the supposedly socialist Labo[u]r parties of Australasia and Britain had become social democratic to actually gain and maintain governments. As a swag of recent literature shows the actual policy differences between social democratic governments in Canada and Australasia, and American Democratic administrations were smaller than the difference in rhetoric would imply. Moreover, it's quite clear that the parties saw themselves as representing the same elements and ideas in their respective polities. The Australasian Labour parties saw the Democratic party as their American counterpart. While population differences meant the relationship was asymmetric, Democrats who did look abroad for inspiration saw the Labo[u]r parties.

The substantive difference to be explained is how socialist and social democratic ideas were incorporated into national governments in different ways in different places. As Lipset noted, socialists did win office in the United States. At the local and state level. But national office was something else. To win and maintain office, the Labour parties had to abandon much of what made them truly socialist.

The largest difference in policy between the Democratic party and the Labour parties would appear to be over national government ownership of companies. Specifically, in Australasia and Britain socialism became watered down to the national government owning the "commanding heights" of the economy: airlines, banks, energy and much else besides. Yet even here, the socialism was thin, and the contrasts with the United States overdrawn. For example, the federal government owns substantial amounts of land, particularly in the western states, that have been leased cheaply to private farmers. Fannie Mae was and continues to be a massive intervention in the residential property market by the federal government.

The arguments social democratic parties made for nationalizing businesses veered away from socialism, and towards market failures (often monopoly) and ensuring social opportunity for individuals and families—arguments similar to those made for United States federal government interventions in the economy. It remains broadly true also that the federal government is somewhat less important in the United States than the national governments in Australasia and Canada. A true accounting of the success of social democratic ideas would have to trace them across the states and provinces as well. United States governments (state and federal) have, broadly speaking, relied more on regulation and subsidy than outright ownership of private business. Placing some sort of value on these regulatory interventions, subsidies and tax breaks, and evaluating the rhetoric surrounding them would probably show smaller differences in the success of socialism or social democracy than Lipset allows.

Lipset's point that the Democratic party has never been a true social democratic party is mostly well made. If (if!) the Democratic party had evolved in the North only, perhaps it might have become a social democratic party. But for a century after the Civil War it remained the political vehicle for segregationist southern whites. If anything is allowed to stand for a single explanation of why social democracy did not flourish in the United States, that would be it.

Posted by eroberts at 2:06 PM

January 2, 2007

Width specified for format X is invalid

File this under entries I write for other people googling for the same problem I had ... and of no interest to most readers.

In SAS when writing out a file when you are PUTting the character variables you do it like this:
<variable-name> <begin-column> - <end-column>

If you happen to spell a variable's name incorrectly, say you put "ANMN" instead of "ANM" (for semi-obvious reasons I often type "N" after "M") the error message returned will be something like this
"Width specified for format F is invalid"
rather than something like
"ERROR: <variable-name> does not exist."
which would be more informative.

Spelling errors corrected the file wrote out correctly, but not after spending 10 minutes wondering which basically unformatted variable was formatted incorrectly.

Posted by eroberts at 3:48 PM

Follow the money

In an otherwise good article on why the United States does not have a single payer health care system, and why it might be a good thing there is this paragraph:

There’s only one catch. Most Americans just don’t believe it can be done. The health care crisis may turn out to be more of a problem of ideology than economics.

and then this one:
Much of the resistance to a single-payer system appears to stem from a lack of confidence in the nation’s ability to make positive change ... Changing the minds of so many millions of people isn’t done overnight. But sooner or later, persuading people to do something that’s in their own economic interest ought to succeed.

which manages to make it sound like the major stumbling block to health care reform is a lack of public support for the idea. This is just not the case. Amongst the general public there is relatively high support for the idea of a single payer health care system, though support naturally fluctuates with the details and the way the question is phrased.

The major stumbling block to reforming health care in the United States is that there are two large groups with a huge vested interest in aspects of the current system: insurance companies and physicians. For better or worse there are a lot of people employed by insurance companies in administrative, management, marketing etc ... roles who quite understandably like their current job, are well paid for it, and don't want the government and the public to combine to up end their life.

Another reason health care costs and expenditures are high in the United States is that, relative to other professional groups, physicians are very well paid. Now, some of my best friends are doctors ... so it is impolitic of me to suggest too strongly that they are earning too much, but on average they are. No doubt most of them do a fine job for the money, but it does contribute to how much Americans pay to live, on average, shorter lives than in most Western countries. Perhaps Americans live well enough in their slightly shorter lives that they still come out ahead all things considered. Perhaps.

In any case, the point remains, there are people who do very well by the current system. They would be silly to want to change it too much. Not unreasonably they use the American political system and media to sow enough confusion about the benefits of a big change in health care funding that the public appears to lack confidence in the change, at the same time as they lack confidence in the current system. Hence the continued piecemeal reforms to American health care. The people who know that, in the long term, a single payer health care system would be better (on average) for Americans are economists and academics, and have neither a large financial incentive to change the system, nor the organized politics and media resources to counter the voices of insurance companies and physicians.

Posted by eroberts at 12:16 PM