Sunday, 22 March 2015

Snowfall in Halifax

Halifax has been getting an unusual amount of snow this year. It will certainly be interesting to see the 2015/16 HRM budget plan, which is still be tabulated. Hundreds of centimetres of snow, estimates are that the city will be minimum $10 million over budget. But how does that compare with previous years?

A hint of something deeper going on: a report from the Metro Halifax newspaper noticed that snow removal has been over budget for the past six years. Weirder yet, another story headlines "Halifax councillors not seeking an increase to snow removal budget despite clearing woes". What gives? What's the long-term budget pattern here?

Since budget reports are available from 2000 forward, I can go back more than six years of costs.

But let us also consider total snowfall, as it matters if over-budget years were due to large dumps of snow, bad planning, or both. Oddly enough the Halifax peninsula has no good data on snowfall. The Shearwater Environment Canada (EC) station has been moved several times and does not always collect total snowfall data. I had to use the Halifax Airport data instead, which is unfortunate considering their climate is substantially different than downtown (25 km inland, away from city. Worst. Airport. Ever)

Without further ado, here are the HRM budget/EC snowfall annual data overlaid:

Environment Canada Airport data from hereHRM budget information from here
I adjusted for inflation using the Bank of Canada converter.
You can almost see a correlation between actual snow costs and total snow, but it's weaker than first appears (R-squared of 0.15, to be exact). Then again that's in part because snow costs are a mix of on-call and prepaid crews, and probably due to using airport data, which as I hinted before, sucks for this sort of comparison. I am especially suspicious of the low total accumulation for 2015 (245 cm), logic demands a larger number (at least over 300 cm). Then again, the maximum snow on ground sits at 93 cm, more than any year since 1999, as intuited. Maybe the snowfall numbers are reasonable first-order approximations after all.

More importantly, between 2000 and 2015 the city has been over-budget with snow removal 13 times! On average they get it wrong by 4.9 million dollars. I know that budgets can be complicated beasts, but I looked at other budget/cost parings for the city and they were all very closely predicted. Except for snow removal. Perhaps there is a special animosity between snow crews and city councillors. I noticed for most years this accounts for nearly all discrepancies of budget and actual HRM Public Works Operations costs, as shown below:

Snow vs total public works deficit (2009-2015). There is a pretty darn close correlation here,
and accounts for almost all the city's public works discrepancy.  

My conclusion: Halifax, as with the maritimes in general, lives in a perpetual state of winter denial. Most other cities plan their budgets and outdoor activities as if winter might actually come. No so with Halifax, who each year crosses its fingers hoping this will be the last one.



Meanwhile for runners the frustration is mounting, as most spring marathons are at most 8 weeks away. Another good reason not to register for races mid-winter.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Stealing from the University

A young person looking go to university generally has the idea of getting an education and perhaps get involved in a few activities along the way. Goodness knows, most of your memories will be from outside the classroom.

As a university, you want a balance between two kinds of students: those which perform well academically, and those who are as outgoing as possible. In the most extreme cases, you are looking for everything from a studious bookworm to Rushmore's Max Fischer.

 The idea behind having this mis is that bookworms succeed later in life. To be quiet and hard working means the student's downpayment is immediate (tuition and/or long study hours), while the payoff in the form of a good job, counts delayed gratification. Certainly they will feature prominently in alumni magazines and salary stats, but you also need someone promote your institution brand RIGHT. NOW.

Let us focus on american universities, who offer some of the most lucrative scholarships for those willing to promote their brand name. Further, because clubs, fringe societies, school newspapers are usually self-organized hence weakly controlled by the institution, let us focus on the most reliable tool american schools have: sports.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Food, training and psychology

I am not a food expert, nor a psychologist. Nor a psychiatrist for that matter. Nevertheless, here I am crossing into their territories.

There's a well-known psychological phenomenon called the "Hawthorne Effect" (full disclosure: I had to look up the name. I remembered the effect, not its title!). In a nutshell, a Chicago-based electric company, Hawthorne Works, which employed 45,000 people, wanted to increase productivity. With so many employees, even a minute improvement would vastly improve profits. They hired an outside group to monitor what changes in worker's environments would lead to increases in manufacturing output. To quote the wiki article:
The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made, and slumped when the study ended. It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred as a result of the motivational effect on the workers of the interest being shown in them.
The changes could be arbitrary. Re-arranging workers, dimming lights (or increasing wattage), cleaning work stations. Whatever didn't directly interfere with the actual work done seems to improve overall productivity by up to 30%. But the effects were short-lived, of course, lasting a few weeks at most.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

10 kilometer cycles: track and road

There are two kinds of 10 kilometer races: those on the road, and those on the track. From the early 2000s until now, is there a pattern? One intuitive reality is that track surfaces are faster than roads.
We would expect the fastest runners on the rubberized track surface to outdo the fastest on pavement. But perhaps there's more.

I plotted the top 20 person-times for the years 2004 to 2014 (this is a opposed to the top 20 times overall, which can include duplicate performances. Hopefully this better represents overall trends rather than a single person having a very good racing year). The data was pulled from IAAF's database here.There are no top 20 lists before 2004, though possibly one can obtain these from other sources. Nevertheless, we have ten years of good data.

The first thing you might notice, unsurprisingly, is the top mean running times are always better for track than for road. The mean difference from 2004 to 2014 is 32 seconds.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Useless knowledge, or trivia for people who hate trivia

Not that I'm against knowing facts and names, but I hesitate to celebrate the idea too much. When a stray piece of information sticks with me, the better for us both, I suppose. Yet perhaps least celebrated abilities of the human mind is its capacity to sometimes forget. How else can one decide between what is important, and what is trivial.

Spurred on by a recent streak of attending trivia nights at the local pubs, here is a truly random sampling of human knowledge. Created through random wiki articles, it is a representation of what the English-speaking knows, unbiased in actual important (though clearly biased in article density per topic). Maybe not surprisingly a lot of tiny cities pop up in these searches. The only rule besides clicking "Random Article" was to phrase the questions based entirely on information gleaned from the wiki page. I don't expect anyone to know more than one of these. It'd be one more than me!


  1. What language is spoken in the in the provinces of Lamas in the Peruvian region of San Martin and in some villages on the river Huallaga in the region of Ucayali?
  2. In 2012, he became the leader of the oppositional Democratic Front formed by the Movement for Changes (PZP) and the New Serb Democracy (NOVA).
  3. Zeytinli is a village in which country?
  4. Name at least one player in the Eintracht Frankfurt football team, 2006–07 season
  5. Who was the Superior Court judge for the district of Trois-Rivières, Quebec from 1905-21?
  6. Agnam Lidoubé is a village in which country?
  7. This Californian terrace separates Humboldt Bay to the north from the Eel River to the south and is also home to the Wiyot tribe reservation.
  8. This historic property is located at 7 Albert Street in Worcester, Massachusetts.
  9. Cobwebs to Catch flies is a 1783 children's book by this author.
  10. The Keshavarz District is located in which country?
  11. Karel Píč and Josef Kořenský were born in this Czech city
  12. Who directed the 1985 Australian film Wrong World?
  13. What country does the city Qomrud reside?
  14. Born  1936, he is currently in the French Senate representing the department of Corse-du-Sud.
  15. Together with Wojciech Słomczyński, he developed a voting system for the Council of the European Union called the Jagiellonian Compromise.
  16. He authored the thesis titled "The development of U.S. protection of libraries and archives in Europe during World War II".
  17. This process is named for when a quark of one hadron and an antiquark of another hadron annihilate, creating a virtual photon or Z boson, which then decays into a pair of oppositely-charged leptons.
  18. Who won the 1st Czech Republic Hockey League championship game of the 2010-11 season?
  19. Hermann Göring was arrested by US troops in this village.
  20. This city was fourth runner-up in for the bid to host the 2012 Olympic summer games.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Age-category dominance by continent

It is well-known the most competitive runners are between the ages of 18 and 39, and equally understood African runners dominate within this age bracket. But runners outside this age bracket also compete (either as masters, youth, or other specific age category records). I wondered where might one find the best runners at any given age? Depending on how old you are, where can you train with the fastest peers?

Since age data is so plentiful, naturally people have already compiled world records sorted for every age 9 to 99. This can also come in handy when when creating an Age-Graded Calculator, or available as raw excel data here. However the best, original source of many such records can be found at the ARRS website, where world-best times are also tagged by the runner's country of origin. Although sorting runners by about 50 individual countries could lead to over-separating the data, it seemed natural enough to group countries by continent, of which there are only five: North and South America (grouped as one), Asia, Oceania, Europe, and Africa).

Without further ado, here are the best 5 km, 10 km, 16 km (10 mile), half marathon, and Marathon road race performances by single age record, color-coated by the continent said runner originated.

And here are the relevant countries that represent each continent (country codes here):

North and South America: CAN, MEX, USA, BRA, and COL
Europe: AND, AUT, BEL, BIH, BLR, CRO, CZE, DEN, ENG, ESP, FIN, FRA, GBR, GER, IRL, ITA, LAT, MAR, NED, NOR, POR, ROM, SCO, SUI, SVK, SWE, UKR, and WAL
Africa: ALG, ERI, ETH, KEN, NAM, RSA, and TAN
Oceania: AUS and NZL
Asia: CHN, ISR, JPN, KAZ, KOR, and RUS

NB: I have shown only the even numbered-aged runners to keep the plot length manageable.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Train like a Kenyan in North America?

Last week I read More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way. Reading it feels like having a long one-sided stream-of-consciousness conversation. The book is very anecdotal. Certainly not a book for everyone, but full of quality tidbits about high-level training. Given how rare it is to find training grounded in observations of genuine elites players, this makes it worth a look (too many, myself included, claim knowledge based on nothing more than amateur, college-level running).

Reading it, I was noting some of the similarities and differences between Kenyans and Americans in their daily habits. The most obvious similarity is mileage: both groups tend to run between 100 km and 250 km a week. A big difference, however, is in the treatment of those kilometres. Americans prefer to keep rigorous track of their distances, whereas Kenyans tend to guesstimate based on rough periods of time. Americans also prefer to 'chunk' their mileage into larger pieces. This explains why Kenyans cope so well with two or three runs a day: none of these runs are particularly long.

Typical Kenyan day:

6AM - Easy 40 min jog

10 AM - Slightly faster 60 min, or a hard workout

4 PM (optional) - 40 min easy jog, and/or plyometrics

 While most would think of running three times a day as more tiring than two, another perspective is that three runs make for three rest periods. Analogously, would moving from three meals a day to two make a difference? Very possibly it could.

The 'typical' american runner is more likely to group runs into two sessions, perhaps running long warmups before workouts, grouping plyometrics with the morning sessions, or extending the evening run. Americans also love measuring their total miles, despite that values necessarily fluctuate for an unlimited number of legitimate reasons.

Typical American day:

9 AM - 60-75 min easy run (probably too fast), 6 - 10 miles

5 PM - 30 min warmup, stretches, 30-45 min workout, 20 min cool-down, 8-12 miles