Friday, June 29, 2012

Book #4 and Book #5: The Circuit, Breaking Through

I haven't been reading or writing as much on account of having started a master's degree and these two books are short novels that were actually required reading for my courses, but I found them worthy of a post, so I'll include them in the list. The Circuit and Breaking Through are both novels by Francisco Jimenez, a professor of language and literature at Santa Clara University in California.

They are both autobiographical novels, The Circuit being about Jimenez' early childhood and Breaking Through about his adolescence and early adulthood. They chronicle his family's illegal entry into the United States, their gut-wrenching struggle for survival that was like a post-war re-enactment of The Grapes of Wrath (which I have also read this year, though I missed the parallel until Jimenez himself pointed it out), and their gradual entry into the mainstream of American society.

Jimenez's family intially followed work picking fruit before finally settling in a house, where he and his brother worked as janitors and his father continued picking fruit. Jimenez, who never considered himself a good student, gradually discovers that he is good at it and even does well enough to receive a scholarship to attend university. Where the story stops is when he starts university, and what is left unsaid is that he went on to receive his doctorate from Columbia University.

The story is certainly inspirational when you consider Jimenez's humble origins, though somewhat sad considering that there are many in Jimenez's position who would not be able to either attend or graduate university because they are not living in the United States legally. Having moved across the world twice, I don't condone entering a country illegally, but the inescapable reality is that America will never be able to deport the roughly ten million illegal immigrants currently in its borders. The barriers in place simply ensure the existence of a group of people who live in America, and always will, but will be consigned to a lifetime of living on the margins of society and all that entails.

There are three obvious truths about illegal immigration, and I think that they conflict with each other, four if you count my disdain for any term that seeks to hide the fact that it is illegal. The first, as I've already mentioned, is that those who are already living in America illegally are unlikely to leave, so what is needed is a solution other than making illegal immigration dominate virtually every interaction between the state and the citizen. The only reasonable solution to avoid creating a generation of millions who live outside the reach of the state, hardly a desirable outcome for a number of reasons, is to offer amnesty with certain conditions.

Second, while illegal immigrants inside America should be put on a path towards amnesty, I don't see anything wrong with enforcing America's borders as they exist. It is possible for states to exert more resources in solving this problem than they lose from this problem, and I suspect that many states are doing just so. Efforts to secure the border per se are not in and of themselves problematic or racist, though I think it often comes from nativist or racist motivations. Despite the best efforts to keep illegal immigrants out, the only thing that has shrunk their numbers in the United States has been a downturn in the American economy, which has meant less work and, therefore, less incentive for illegal immigrants.

Finally, illegal immigrants perform an obviously function in American society, one that Americans are simply incapable of performing. It's so plain as day that it shouldn't be debated, but the manual labour on farms and construction sites that many illegal immigrants perform simply could not be done by American workers, and certainly not as well or for the same price. A solution, therefore, would be to offer a larger number of guest worker permits along with an amnesty, but combating illegal immigration is not exactly the job-creation program it's considered by some politicians, such as in Alabama. To the extent that it is a job-creation program, it's maybe the worst job-creation program imaginable.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are marathons getting too soft? Yes, they are

The Canton Marathon this weekend was the latest race in America to either cancel or offer refunds to runners as a result of expected hot weather. Canton follows Boston, Madison, and Green Bay in doing so, while the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota was in danger of being cancelled due to the weather. The reasoning in Boston, Madison and Green Bay, at least, was that runners in the northeast simply had not had enough chances by April or May to run in weather approaching or exceeding 30 degrees Celsius.

I can't speak for Canton or what the weather there is normally like, and it's hard to blame race directors for what becomes a public health issue or a potentially indefensible lawsuit should a runner fall ill or die during the race. I realize the LetsRun message boards are not a trusted source of legal advice, but the argument presented on the board, that juries would dismiss the idea of an adult running in hot weather having no one to blame but themselves, seems scary enough to scare race directors into the safest alternative.

On the surface, there is simply nothing wrong with running in hot weather. Billions of people around the world live without air conditioning and a good portion of them do physical work that would roughly approximate the effort of somebody running a 4-hour marathon, over a whole day or if not over four hours. Races in Hawaii, Florida, Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere proceed without so much as a blink, in weather that's often far hotter.

Those runners are acclimated to the heat, but years of heat advisories and gobbledygook heat indices have turned people as a whole, and runners especially, already a whiny bunch when it comes to the weather, into wimps. Ask any group of typical runners, fast or slow, about the weather they had for races, and you'll get responses like "too cold", "too hot", "too windy", "no breeze at all" and, my personal favourite even though it's not related to the weather, "too flat".

Simply put, temperatures that are ideal for running a marathon, from zero to fifteen degrees, are said to be too cold, while any temperature over 15 degrees is going to be too hot. Running in a temperature of 15-20 degrees probably makes no difference when running a race up a half marathon, unless you live in Antarctica, and runners generally vastly overestimate how much heat or wind cause them to slow down (hint: it's usually the difference between how fast they wanted to run and how fast they ran).

I generally don't run well in the heat myself, but what do people expect when signing up for a race where the average temperature is about 25 degrees? Many of those who struggle in the heat simply lack the fitness to run in anything other than cool weather, while others lack the ability, for whatever reason, to adjust their effort, perhaps because they only ever run in perfect weather to begin with.

I remember how, on summer days when the high reaches 26 or 28 degrees in Toronto, many runners start their long runs at absurdly early times so as to ever avoid running in temperatures over 20 degrees. There's nothing wrong with that, and you probably have nothing to worry about if you only ever run races in cool fall or spring weather, but these same people founder when Chicago unexpectedly sees 30-degree weather in October. Runners with a wide range of experiences, having done long runs in hot weather, in snow and over hills, will fare much better in unexpected conditions or courses.

We have known for a long time that the sport was getting softer, and there's really nothing wrong with it, except for the decline of competition at the sub-elite level. As races in North America and Europe gradually start to cancel mass participation races because they have tens of thousands of entrants who aren't able to complete a marathon in hot weather that wouldn't be a problem in other parts of the world, this is one problem that is emerging and the trends being set now are likely to either eliminate many May and June marathons, or worse, result in unpredictable cancellations.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Can Kenenisa Bekele win a third straight Olympic title?

It has been nine years since Kenenisa Bekele became the world's best distance runner on the track, beating the man who just might be the greatest runner ever to do it at the 2003 World Championships. In a way, Bekele's accomplishments on the track are almost the equal of Haile Gebrselassie: both have four world titles at 10,000-metre along with two Olympic gold medals. Bekele has five consecutive World Cross Country titles, along with his consecutive Olympic and World Championship doubles, while Gebrselassie has a world indoor title at 1,500 metres to go with multiple world records in the marathon.

If I had to guess, I would guess that Bekele's career on the track will end much like Gebrselassie's, with Bekele remaining good enough to contend but lacking the finishing speed that made him invincible at 10,000 metres for nearly a decade. In Gebrselassie's case, age was the culprit, while Bekele appears to have been undone by injuries. Both, however, have come up against younger rivals who are just faster on the last lap.

Bekele played a big role in getting Gebrselassie off the track, since Gebrselassie simply couldn't compete with his kick. Bekele ran a clumsily-paced 13:00 last week in Oslo, finishing fifth in 13:00. While it's a sign of improvement over his previous 5,000 in that he closed faster, Bekele also finished behind four Ethiopians, including Imane Merga, Tariku Bekele and last year's 5,000 m bronze medallist Dejen Gebremeskel. If Gebremeskel needed to make it clear that his medal from Daegu wasn't a fluke, he did it by beating about a dozen of his countrymen by running a 53-second last lap.

Bekele is no doubt racing himself into shape after a very slow 3,000 to open the year in Doha, and he also ran world-leading time in the 10,000 a week after last year's world championships, but Olympic titles are given out for strength and untouchable finishing speed. The past twenty years of track have given us runners like Paul Tergat, Zersenay Tadese, Sileshi Sihine and even Haile Gebrselassie, who were strong enough to challenge for the win but came up short on the last lap or the last half-lap.

It's possible that Bekele will find the fitness he needs to dominate at what might well be his last Olympics, at least on the track, just as Hicham El Guerrouj managed in 2004. However, his best performance since the 2009 World Championships has been his 26:46 10,000 last year, when he struggled just to win the race. That race was not a substitute for a world title; if the World Championships had been run on that day in Brussels, there's no guarantee that Jeilan, Farah and Merga wouldn't have beaten him anyway.

I will be rooting for Bekele to win a third-straight Olympic title and while his fitness isn't great, I don't think his competition is all that great in the 10,000 outside of Mo Farah. Farah been stellar so far this year, handily beating Bekele in Oregon. However, outside of Farah, the competition isn't so intimidating for Bekele. His brother Tariku will likely be on the team, but Tariku only narrowly beat his brother in Oslo, and I wouldn't count on that result to hold at 10,000 metres in the Olympics. Assuming that the world champion Ibrahim Jeilan is injured and not running, the other Olympic spot appears to be filled by Lelisa Benti.

Kenya held its Olympic trials at the Prefontaine meet in Eugene this month, and the winner was Wilson Kiprop in an unpaced 27:01, though runner-up Moses Masai will probably be a bigger factor. Masai has a personal best of 26:49, a bronze at Berlin and narrowly missed a bronze in Beijing as well. Zersenay Tadese is a perennial threat, and has run a 59:34 half marathon so far this year, along with a fourth-place finish last year. I would be shocked if he won, but he might play the important role of pushing the pace. Galen Rupp, along with Tadese, would be candidates for making the race fast over the final kilometres, which would presumably suit Bekele, since he's unlikely to win in a kick at the bell. 

It appears that while Bekele wouldn't have made the Ethiopian team had they run a no-exceptions, American-style trial at Hengelo or even today, but he might come up with enough fitness to beat Farah, Masai, Kiprop, Rupp and anyone else who might be a factor. I just wouldn't count on it, and I would consider it a mild surprise.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Koreans are people too, middle school student edition

One of the most common charges levied against students from East Asia, both here and in North America, is that they excel at memorization, regurgitation and reproduction, lacking creativity or originality. For the most part, those who say these sort of things likely don't speak an East Asian language and likely can't express their own creativity or originality when speaking an East Asian language with peers and superiors who are native speakers.

That's not to say that the charge is without truth. A great deal of the East Asian education system, to make a broad generalization when I can really only speak about Korea, relies on vast stores of memorization, perhaps too much. While memorization is important (you can't really bake a fabulous cake if you don't remember how to use the oven), there is a great deal of time wasted in the Korean education system on impressive feats of memorization, such as memorizing 20 words far above grade-level for students who might benefit from, say, reading and constructing sentences using words below grade-level.

Over the last three months at my middle school (student ages 13-15) I've been impressed by the amount of personality and originality my students squeeze into 45-minute periods of 40 students in one room, all wearing the same uniform while abstaining from things like dyed hair, earrings, or even speaking (in English, anyway). My personal favourite is each student's desk, which is really something of a personal manifesto-slash-whiteboard-slash-diary made with dry-erase black marker.

Some students write nothing but their schedule of classes along with homework and upcoming tests, others make notes from classes, but more common are tributes to musicians, lyrics from songs, and quotes from movies. The more unusual things I've seen are intense slogans ("rock will never die"), murals that cover the entire desk, and what looked like a weight-loss diary. These admittedly are students who, not really by choice, often study more in middle school than I did in university, but they're certainly not without personalities and they're certainly not identical.

I was most impressed by the results of my school's essay contest, where each student had one hour to answer the question, "why is Korea so unhappy and how can this be changed?" I read through about 60 entries from all grades, ranging from the tersely-written ones that simply suggested studying less to ones that were very thought-provoking. Keeping in mind that these are ordinary students from an ordinary neighbourhood who have, with maybe one or two exceptions, never lived or studied overseas, what they said and how they said it was quite impressive, often from students who had never so much as said a word in class that wasn't forced out of them.

The winner of the essay contest wrote:

"I can feel why Koreans including me are so unhappy. First reason is that people force others to live a certain kind of life. There are numerous ways to succeed and people's ways to live are all different. But the problem is that people force someone to live in a same way as they do. For example, many want to go to socalled 'SKY', which are well known universities."

She concluded by saying:

"Many Koreans tend to live a life in a same way as others live and are obsessed with success and money. I think that is the reason why we are so unhappy even though Korea's economy has grown. Therefore, we should do what we love to do, and accept that everyone is different and a standard of success doesn't exist."

Another student wrote:

"I think a class shouldn't be held in a classroom only. Various types of activities should take place in various places. Next, I think test-taking should change. I think grades should depend on how students do in class time, how actively they participate, how well they handled the task given, rather than sitting down and taking tests."

She added:

"I know that this can't be done overnight. It will take a long time before good education takes place. But, as you know, drops of water make the mighty ocean. We should start changing, little by little, for the greater good."

A boy writes:

"According to many surveys, North Europeans' achivement of studies are higher than Korea students, also the happiness too. Can you believe them? They mean the competition can make people tired or disfunctional. How can we solve these problems?

I think we have to act like North Europe countries, but not all same, just some.
"

Another boy writes:

"'109th happiest country in the world'. This is not the title of such undeveloped nations like Ethiopia or Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, this ithe title of Republic of Korea, one of the richest countries in the world and the members of G20. Then, why Koreans that unhappy? To answer this question, it is needed to overview the society, especially the economic and educational conditions of Korea. In addition, after the overview on these aspects, the answer to the previous question could be summarized in one statement: Koreans are one of the unhappiest people in the world because of the unequal distribution of wealth after the economic recession and the burden of high grades for teenagers and children.