Saturday, 23 February 2013

Swimming vs running: men vs women

In a older post, I took a ratio between men and women's world records in running for various distances. Top women run slower than top men, that much is clear, but taking this ratio I was looking for a pattern if we merge all the distances from 100 meters to 217 kilometres, obtained here, here, and here. Then I plotted the result as a log-graph. The x-axis isn't pretty, but I have an aversion to base-10 notation (I can't explain why).

Regardless of how I plotted the numbers, three orders of magnitude of data ought to reveal something. What you can see below is, with the single exception of the 100 km road race record is that as distances get longer the ratios increase. In other words women, compared to men, get slower for ultra-long races. Starting at the 60m dash Maurice Greene ran a 6.39 versus Irina Privalova's 6.92 for a ratio of 6.92/6.39 = 1.08, and ending with the 217 km Badwater Ultra that Valmir Nunes ran in 22h 51 min compared with Jamie Donaldson's 26:16 effort for a ratio of 1.15. Averaging the ratios for all the distances leads to an "expected" value of 1.12. To put that in perspective for middle distance people, we could say an 8:54-minute male 3000 meter runner is equivalent to a 10-minute female (which is why I'm annoyed at the women when 10 guys are running that fast and no girls, i.e. here). Consider that a male 4 minute miler is the same as a 4:30 female.

I imagine not many realize women are closer to men's performances for the shorter distances than for longer. Most semi-knowledgable runners will point out how close Paula Radcliffe's time is to top men in the marathon, but fail to realize the difference is even less in shorter distances (and the gap widens as you go farther). On explanation could be that short-distance women are more prone to drug enhancements.  Another is that men are more attracted to ultras leaving the women with a comparatively weaker field. Consider the field of the 2012 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler with 167 men vs 27 women. I find similar trends in other ultras. Very fast ultra women like Ann Trason don't change this general trend.

UPDATE: Curious, I decided to take male/female ratios of the CIS standards for indoor track and field. (If any non-Canadians are reading this, a university student running a "CIS standard time" at some point in the indoor season qualifies them automatically for the Canadian championships. Otherwise you must medal at the provincials). CIS standards are, sort of by definition, a time expected to be achievable by half a dozen or so Canadians. It is a good yard stick for the overall talent of each distance. Distances span 60m to 3000m (And I included the 4x800m relay to create a pseudo-3200m race). Here are the women/men ratios:

For all distances the ratios are well above the world-class averages. And it gets much worse with longer distances; the 3k ratio is 1.18. The average for all seven distances is 1.16. Keep in also mind that Canadian men are not themselves running incredibly fast times; the National men's 3000m can be won in the low 8 minute range, and the CIS record of 7:54 has stood for 30 years. This is not yet world competitive. The implications are clear: University Canadian women show a comparatively poor performance. I do not mean to pick on anyone, only point out an objective fact: Canadian university women are not running well. This is a fair statement as I'm comparing apples to apples. I also wrote about this earlier regarding the Canadian Olympic standards for men and women. These latter cutoffs hover around the 1.14 ratio mark, still lower than the CIS (i.e. so require the women to run faster).

The explanation for the slow women's CIS standards is not obvious. Female university enrolment is higher than the men's (most universities are at least 60% women), and women's track & field participation is at least as large as the men's (at McGill it was much larger). Also women's sports scholarships are not in short supply. Why are *specifically canadian* females falling short? At least several Canadian women should, for instance, be able to run 9:17 for the 3k or 4:16 for the 1500m (instead of 9:47 and 4:28). Megan Brown is the only Canadian who's close to these two marks.

Random shout-out to all: I would enjoy a coach's perspective on the issue.


Now I wanted to compare this log-plot of running times with swimming. I've noticed a recent growth in longer distance swimming events growing in popularity. Consider for instance the 10km "marathon" swim introduced to the Olympics in 2008. Like running, swimming has distances ranging from 50 meters to many miles. I took a ratio of the men and women's records for pool races here (freestyle only). For longer distances I used records from the one and two crossing swims across the English Channel. The Channel is about 35 kilometres wide and a double crossing (there and back) took 16 hours 10 minutes for Philip Rush and Susie Maroney in 17:14 (both Australian). For a medium-long swim distance  (3.86 km), I chose the fastest exit swim times of the 2012 Hawaiian Ironman.

The opposite trend results in distance swim events as the running. In this case the fastest women are begin to match the best men. The ratios dip under 1.10 very quickly, i.e. all racing distance longer than 100m show less than a 10% difference between genders.

At more than 70 km/16 hours of swimming, however, the number of participants dwindle fast due to the dangers of drowning, so I didn't search for longer swims than this. That makes the women's times even more impressive, as there are so few competing. One hypothesis why women begin to catch men is that women have naturally high body fat percentages. But I wonder about this, as how difficult can it be for a man to gain body fat weight while still maintaining muscle. Not to mention men are taller swimmers which may add a possible advantage (certainly in a pool, anyway). The answer must be more complex.

Let me stop over-speculate. If anyone has a good explanation I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


I'm not especially aware of what style I use to type but it's sometimes nice to stop and ponder.

Last year I was reading a "grammar" book by Lynn Truss, Eats Shoots and Leaves. In it she humorously explains a brief history of english typography including the apostrophe, comma, period, colon, and semicolon. Consider that once upon a time none of these notations existed. Early tellings of the bible had not even spaces between words. Hard to imagine, but there you have it.

I remembered reading the following passage, to which I scan on this here blog directly:

An entire book without a single semicolon? A mundane factoid at best. Who cares, right? Now it just so happens I'm reading Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.

While enjoying the story and not even thinking about the above quote, on page 202 I stumbled across this paragraph:

What's that thing there on the fifth line? Oh my god, a SEMICOLON!

Come on Lynn, were you just joking around or did you not a) check your "academic" source or b) read the book? Is being apocryphal the same as plain false? I dunno...

Here's the best part: Googling this gaffe has led me to others quoting Lynn's claim. See here and here, for instance.

Moral of the story: when you do some homework it's funnier for everyone. When you don't, it's just funny for me, I guess.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Literal Internet

A few weeks ago when the Golden Globes were on, I admit to watching them and Jodie Foster's speech. The next day everyone pretty much reacted the same way, saying she wasn't being "clear" enough in her "confession" to being gay. But of course anyone watching should not have had any trouble figuring that out.  I was just reading a blog post by Jim Emerson about the speech, which goes into more than enough detail about what she said exactly. I realized something curious: in the current age internet, everyone seems to assume that everyone else has to be as literal as possible. 

Facebook is a good example. I was experimenting with posting some pseudo random, i.e. made-up, thoughts and fake conversations. This attempt confirmed that if one posts anything that isn't literally true, you tend to confuse people. Moreover people just don't tend to do that. In the age of Facebook and blogs, most online activity is based on sincere opinions or photo-based vacation/work/food (ugh)/baby updates. A third possible use of Facebook is to share a link of someone doing something "funny" (but real), or someone else's sincere opinion. Consider that video from a few months back of a child being almost snatched by a giant bird in Mount Royal park: it made the news because *gasp* it was fake!  

I remembered Ebert pointing this out back in 2009 in his article The Age of Credulity. To quote:
These days, there is no room for ambiguity, and few rewards for critical thinking. Now every word of a politician is pumped dry by his opponent, looking for sinister meanings. Many political ads are an insult to the intelligence. Here I am not discussing politics. I am discussing credulity. If you were to see a TV ad charging that a politician supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarten children, would you (1) believe it, or (2) very much doubt it? The authors of the ad spent big money in a bet on the credulity and unquestioning thinking of the viewership. Ask yourself what such an ad believes about us.
What I see is that thank to there being less anonymity online now, people have translated that into meaning you have to say only what you see, and conversely (and more unnervingly), understand things to mean exactly as people say. The flood of real-time media in addition to friend's photos and shallow blogs means you can't find many willing to make stuff up. I bet Swift would not believe how gullible we are. Conversely, The Onion is some kind of last bastion of hope, though even here sometimes straight-up report actual news (with a twist) or being counterfactual. 

My brother quizzed me with three articles, asking which one is real. Here they are:

Reality is crazier than imagination. Maybe the reason we need people to make stuff up now and then is for a mental check. If you just accept things as always being crazy, when do you know if things have gone too far? The absolute craziest thing to happen in 2012 was the Stop Kony movement. It was perfect: the harsh reality of how the world really works and the online credulity of current internet users met like an unstoppable force meeting an impenetrable object. The outcome was more insane than anything I could have imagined. 

Back to Foster's speech. Analysts reflecting back seem to agree there was some sort of, perhaps unintended, brilliance achieve merely by not being strictly clear. The best way to anger the "online" community is to be ambiguous. Great works of literature and film meant to be symbolic are being ignored precisely for that reason. High res video is going to make abstract art hard to produce. Think of how old-school video games had much more character. Watching Wreck-it-Ralph you see how true this is. Music is always abstract, but then people aren't upgrading their audio equipment the same way as they are adding more lines of resolution to their TV: the MP3 format has been around how long now? 

Popular shows are based on how "real" they look. I think this is what makes The Wire so famous right now. Reality TV is weird since it purports to be true yet is more heavily edited than any piece of fiction. Both seem more "real" despite everyone knowing there is a "fake" element to any story. That much never goes away. What's going away is the ability to interpret what you see. To know you are facing a Rashomon-type event and it's up to you to choose an ending. That's why Fantasy novels are still popular: utter fiction, but completely unambiguous. Bilbo goes to the mountain and slays a dragon and goes home, no two ways about it. What's disappearing is story-telling that leaves you deliberately to write your own endings. 

I was browsing the 2012 Sight and Sound poll and found some movies that might not be "understood" anymore: Man with a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, 2001, Breathless, Au Hazard Balthazar, and Persona. Those last two will really annoy a modern audience. Naturally Rashomon is in there too. This is why I think Les Mis told as a straight story, i.e. about the characters, is so silly. The book is really about what going on around them and they are just serving as coat racks for more interesting descriptions of the Paris sewers, Waterloo, the church, the textile industry, prostitution, etc. Take that all away and you are left with a handful of characters and a plot that makes no sense. Only a modern audience would eat that up. Think of how the newest incarnation was sold: Come see a "live" musical. That's right, an abstract outburst of singing made to look more realistic!  

I guess the tragic part is when themes are lost in a story because no-one is left to see them. Groundhog Day is still a celebrated movie, but I wonder how many first-time viewers understand its thematic elements? Even Ebert missed this the first time around before later adding it to his Great Movies collection. Or another example: Yogi Berra quotes taken literally mean nothing. Then you realize it's a brilliant mocking of 99% of real-world sports analysis. How many get that kind of humour anymore?

Abstract, credulous-challenging stuff is more important than ever to act as a teaching tool for reality. No, not just for reading the news, but even doing science and math, which are abstract to their very core. Even, and perhaps especially in rigorous disciplines, non-practicioners tend forget that a symbol will always remain a symbol until you can interpret it. This skill is only becoming more important to have, but fewer and fewer seem to possess it.

Can we introduce a new word for this phenomenon? Is this the age of the "liternet"?