August 31, 2007

Reality is better than fiction

You couldn't make up a story as good as this from today's StarTribune. We were at the Fair shortly after this happened, and the commotion had all died down.

Posted by eroberts at 4:29 PM

August 23, 2007

The AHA's muddled approach to classifying research

The American Historical Association (AHA) has a confused way of classifying its members' research interests. That confusion causes members some consternation when the AHA then proposes to eliminate certain categories.

The root of the confusion is that the AHA's taxonomy attempts to fit several dimensions of historical research into a one-dimensional list. The AHA claims that since members "can select up to three categories that interest them," a category that lacks support from at least five members must "lack a significant constituency" in the membership. Last year the AHA tried to eliminate "psychohistory," this year they propose to potentially eliminate various periods of Japanese history, New Zealand history, Sudanese history, and British Columbia because fewer than five members listed these categories as a research interest. In response I've gone and changed my membership profile to now include New Zealand history, perhaps to save it from the chopping block.

Apparently, some of the reasoning behind eliminating categories is to save space on the printed form that members fill out to indicate their research interests. In the age of the Internet it scarcely seems necessary to have printing technology dictate intellectual decisions about classifying the areas of historical research. A favorite rhetorical trick of historians is to say "What if your students said that?" Well, what if your students used similar logic? This is the AHA saying that it is revising intellectual distinctions because it ran out of notepaper. What if your students said that?

The AHA is at pains to point out that categories can be added back into the taxonomy of research interests, if enough members request it. This is hardly the way to organize a classification system. To be meaningful a classification system should be stable over time, not subject to the whims of membership votes. If a category is significant as a field of study it should be left in the taxonomy, so that if and when it re-emerges with more support that change can be accurately tracked.

The biggest confusion in the AHA's research taxonomy is its approach to combining geographical, chronological and topical classificiations into one dimension. A basic principle of classification is that you should not combine separate aspects into one. Take my own research, for example. A compact description of what I do is economic and business history of New Zealand and the United States between [about] 1860 and 1960. I think I have a relatively coherent research agenda, but the AHA's muddled research taxonomy doesn't allow me to adequately describe it in the three categories I'm allowed to choose.

How the AHA comes up with its categories I don't know. Under United States history you're allowed to choose various time periods, including in the modern era "1877-1920," and "since 1920." Every time I see this it mystifies me. I understand that 1877 is significant as the end of Reconstruction, but that surely privileges a particular master narrative of American history over any alternatives. And "since 1920"? You can make any sort of argument you like for the significance of 1920, but 1930 is pretty significant too, as well as 1932, and 1912, and well, you get the idea ...

The AHA should revise its research taxonomy entirely. It should allow members to separately

  • Select several countries they are interested in. If countries have important sub-national divisions, either historic or contemporary, they can be selected too. At present the AHA's categories for Canadian research are a mystery as well. You can select British Columbia or Qu├ębec as separate subjects, but Ontario must fall under the generic "Prairie Provinces." I know only a little about Canadian history (it's glorious!) but Ontario is a little different than Manitoba, principally on account of the city of Toronto and its environs.
  • Select the time period they are interested in. This could be specified as a starting year and ending year. It would then be trivial for analysis to combine similar years into categories and centuries for tabulation. More interesting information on the overlap in research time would result from this approach rather than the rigidly specified "1877-1920" approach taken at the moment.
  • Select several topical approaches they are interested in. The present list of topics is an alphabetically ordered soup of themes and methods. Comparative, economic and psychohistory are arguably methods, mixed in with themes or topics like labor, immigration, and the mysterious "General Studies". The latter is about three times more popular than New Zealand history, for what it's worth.

The AHA might reasonably respond that this would lead to an explosion of information. It is not clear whether the AHA's membership taxonomy is meant to be a survey of the core topics its members are prioritizing in their research right now, or a broad survey of the wider field members set their research in. The way it's set up at present you have to choose between different levels of specification. For example, say you're a Canadian historian and you're presently working on a topic in British Columbia. Which do you choose? The obvious answer would be both, with the choice being presented as the hierarchy of precision that it is. The current system forces a trade-off between narrow and broad visions of research without indicating what the system is designed to elicit.

The geographic and chronological categories reflect this confusion. Take those U.S. history time periods again. Why the 43 years between 1877 and 1920 deserve their own category while the modern era (87 years and counting) and the colonial period (about 200 years) are implicitly all of the same is not clear. Within these eras, few people are likely to be doing research on the whole period specified by the AHA. It can't possibly be a fair representation of what people are doing. If your research spans several of these artificial eras, what are you meant to do? My dissertation dealt with the period from 1850 to 1940. I could use all three of my apparently generous allocation of category choices to describe only my time period. If you do American Indian history your chronological divisions are Pre-contact, Colonial, 19th century, and 20th century. Perhaps there's a long 19th century concept in here that covers the 1776-1800 period, but that's not stated. And why does American Indian history work in neat centuries while the rest of American history pivots on wars and presidential elections?

Similar absurdities in chronological specificity are apparently present in the Asian history section. In the Chinese history section if you study Taiwan you're explicitly constrained to doing it after 1949, but if you study Hong Kong and Macao there's no time period. I can sort of divine the reasoning here, but it's not really clear. Moreover, "and"? What if you only studied one of Hong Kong or Macao?

The same error appears where "Australasia and Oceania" are specified as options. I appreciate the AHA specifying New Zealand as a separate option, but in case they don't know Australasia implies Australia and New Zealand. As it stands, it's the Australian historians who could complain they're not fairly represented. Moreover, while many historians of the Pacific islands (Oceania) have to consider Australasia, the converse is not true. Most Australian and New Zealand historians work in blissful ignorance of the Pacific islands, the islands being merely convenient transit points on the way to San Francisco or Vancouver by boat or telegraph. You could also be an historian of Oceania's interaction with the United States or other Pacific Rim countries without studying Australasia much, if at all. Lumping Oceania in with Australia and New Zealand misrepresents that field too.

In short, the taxonomy is a mess. It would be better to start over than keep building on the existing foundations.

Posted by eroberts at 4:44 PM

August 16, 2007

A short history of hill repeats

Arthur Lydiard is indelibly associated with the history of long distance running in New Zealand. It's a history of great achievements in the 1960s, lack of official recognition in the 1970s, and growing appreciation for Lydiard's achievements in the last two decades. It has been interesting for me to watch a talented guy in Arizona work through Lydiard's schedules, including hill repeats, faithful to the schedules Lydiard drew up in Auckland and beyond.

Although Lydiard is associated with New Zealand, within the country he is associated with Auckland running. Hill repeats are a good example of the association with Auckland. Around the country, the influence of Lydiard on New Zealand running is clear, though "the schedules" have been modified by succeeding generations of coaches who have been dissatisfied with the periodization or other aspects. I could not claim that no one in Wellington does hill repeats, or that no one ever has, but I will claim that there's a strong tradition in Wellington running that disregards hill repeats for the long or hard run "over the hills".

Lydiard's hill repeats are not a general theory of the best way to train, but a specific adaptation to the local environment. Compared to Wellington, Auckland has lower, fewer, and flatter hills. You really have to work hard to avoid the hills in Wellington, and you can design a relatively long run with regular steep climbs and steps that gives you all the benefits of the hill repeats with none of the structure. You come to a hill, you run up it hard. You come to a set of 200-500 steps. You run up them. As my high school coach used to say, "you can shuffle uphill, but if you shuffle up steps you'll break your legs." If you think hills are good for your leg strength, steps are even better. Taking them one at a time teaches quick movement, while bounding up two or more at a time builds power in your push off. If you have a flat stretch you might stride out a bit, but save something for the hills to come. You could plausibly do 20 miles or more in this fashion in Wellington. This is much less possible in Auckland. The hill repeats were the way to get in lots of hills in that environment.

The Wellingtonian attitude to hills is in no way a disdain for the idea that hills are really good for you. The disdain is for the idea that you need a formal structure to running on hills. When you live in a place where 300m of vertical gain in an hour's recovery run is normal you really don't to run hill repeats.

Posted by eroberts at 7:27 PM

August 13, 2007

University challenge

When it's a cold southerly my office gets cold enough that I need to wear fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm. My question for readers is, can I ask my employer to reimburse me for this expenditure? Or, are the many other perquisites of academic employment such that I should just accept the $25 capital cost for my merino and possum fur gloves that should last a few years? (=suck it up ...)

Posted by eroberts at 2:41 PM

August 6, 2007

Avoiding disaster

Public photo from flickr user MosesImages

What can you say? On 9/11 I was in England, not America. When the bridge fell, I was in Wellington, not Minneapolis. I shouldn't voice the thought that I've avoided being on location for these disasters because the next disaster will now follow me.

One of the oddities of life is that I feel like I have two homes. Home is all about feeling, not fixed criteria like location. Hearing about the 35-W bridge collapse made this very clear to me. It felt so intensely local, yet to many of the people round me in Wellington it was all rather abstract. Perhaps if I'd been there I would have been one of the thousands that tried to see the remains of the bridge from up close, or at least a proximate bridge. As it was, I probably had a better view obsessively scouring the internet for photos.

Although the bridge was quite close to our place, I quite rarely drove over it. For me, the 35W bridge will always be one I associate with winter hill repeats. In the Minnesota winter with the prevailing wind being a northwesterly I found the West River Road parkway under 35W to be one of the better hills around. I'd run up the hill into the wind, and then amble slowly back down with the wind behind me. This way I would never get too cold on the downward jog. It was an interesting and unique looking bridge from underneath, and ambling down I always looked up at it. Earlier this year I had one memorable session of 10 repeats up the hill in sub-zero (farenheit) weather. With only the slightest breeze and the sun out, it was quite comfortable and the amazing light of a clear Minnesota winter morning made the scene quite pretty. The muted rush of the Mississippi in winter gurgled downstream as the cars rushed past above on their way to work. It was a good workout, on a good day.

Even without the connection to the now-fallen bridge it would be one of those training runs I'd remember for a while anyway. Returning to Wellington and its hills made me reflective of the hill repeats anyway. And that session on the cold day stood out amongst a winter of hill repeats. An hour's recovery run in Wellington involves more elevation change than a hill session in Minneapolis. Hill repeats are a necessary evil for many runners, but to me they seem even worse mentally because I know that elsewhere in the world--my other home--there's a more scenic path to fitness up the hills.

There's another hill on the West River Road, under the I-94 bridge. That bridge looks more solid. I'll have to trust it stays up this winter.

Posted by eroberts at 6:24 AM