söndag 18 mars 2012

Sportification of cross country skiing & competitive programming

I went to a seminar at the Department of Science, History and Environment ten days ago. Daniel Svensson, who has apparently been a Ph.D. student only since the beginning of this year presented his Ph.D. project at the seminar. The title of the seminar (which is also the preliminary title for his thesis) was " 'Rationell träning': Vetenskapliggörandet av träning för längdskidåkning" ['Rational training': The Making of a science of training cross country skiing]

Why would I want to go to a seminar about cross country skiing? What's the connection to computers and ICT? Actually, there is no connection, but what caught my interest was the fact that Daniel is writing about the sportification (and the "scientification") of a specific sport. Framed that way, there are obvious overlaps with the sportification of competitive computer gaming (e-sports) and the sportification of competitive computer programming - topics that I have previously written about (here, here and here). Despite having collected great material this Christmas (10 interviews that are upwards to 90 minutes each), I've this far only just had time to start to listen to and transcribe these interviews. The main reason for this delay is that work on writing research grant applications (here, here, here and more on that topic later) has taken precedence & has taken a lot of my "free" time lately.

I'm on the mailing list and got an invitation to the seminar a week i advance. As it turned out, I was the only "external" participant at the seminar. That's not a problem, but I wasn't too happy to find out - when I got there - that everyone else had a copy of a text that I had not received, nor knew about. Everyone (else) was very impressed by Daniel's text/research proposal and only now, one week later have I finally read Daniel's 20+ pages long Ph.D. proposal. I don't know what Daniel's background is, but even though he has (officially) been a Ph.D. student for only a few months, it is obvious that he has a previous interest and previous knowledge about the proposed topic of his Ph.D. thesis. Could it be that he wrote his master's thesis on a related topic?

The topic of this remainder of this blog post consists of some thoughts that his manuscript awoke when I read it. It is fascinating to find out that I can be utterly uninterested in cross country skiing, and still be intensely interested in Daniel's topic - because of the similarities and the implications for my own study about competitive programming... We had a chat after the seminar and decided to meet up later. Daniel unfortunately lives in Gothenburg and only makes it to Stockholm now and then. When he's at KTH, he is pretty much booked up by meetings, so despite realizing that we might have several interests in common, we didn't manage to book at time to meet up until the end of April... I very much look forward to that though. On to his manuscript and the thoughts that it awoke:

- Cross country skiing has a long tradition in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries, but has been an activity of practical utility for the longest of time. This changed with the rise of competitions and the sportification of skiing. The same thing can be said about programming, i.e. it has been an activity of practical utility in industry and the rise of competitions is a more recent add-on. Even though the "world championship for students" has existed for over 30 years, it was naturally a marginal activity for a long time (and might still be, despite thousands of students participating in the competitions each year).

- Daniel will study the initial period when science-based training was introduced in Sweden and the role of research and sports in cross country skiing (in Sweden). This initial period happened roughly between 1940 and 1970 and with the establishment of physiological measurements, laboratories, experiments and "rational" methods for training. The closes thing I can think of in terms of computer games is the blog "Mind Games: Exploring the mental edge in eSports".

- The introduction of "rational" (scientific) methods in the training is part of the sportification process. One of Daniel's co-advisors, Leif Yttergren, at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Science (GIH) and Leif has apparently has written about sportification - a topic that I am interested in.

- The whole discourse about using rational/scientific methods for training cross country skiing is interesting, but what would be the equivalent in computer programming? In competitive computer programming, practice and training is haphazard in Sweden, but does it work differently in other places (Russia, China etc.)? As far as I know, there are no national organizations for competitive programming and there is no money involved in competitive programming to talk about, so what would be the reason for expanding programming as a competition format as apart from a practical skill of utility in industry and elsewhere, and perhaps also as a hobby-of-sorts? On the other hand, there might exist training camps for promising students in, say, China. If that is so, the fact that none of my informants know about it is interesting in itself.

- Skiing (and competing in skiing) has been justified in several different ways; building a national identity, military utility and patriotically slanted arguments, darwinism, public health etc. Interesting parallels can be drawn to programming, and some informants have argued for the value of competitions and for the nurturing of talents by referring to successful entrepreneurship, to Swedish success stories (for example Spotify), economic growth in general and so on. This drift in the choice of supporting arguments can in itself be analyzed, i.e. from public health and national strength (skiing) to economic growth and national strength (programming). I can see how "strong enduring uncomplaining persevering bodies" might have been a forceful argument at some point in the past, but I have a hard time imagining anyone suggesting that programming in any kind of way is good for your (physical) health (?). But I can imagine arguments about programming being the new latin, or math; that programming is formative and "good for you" and should be taught in schools, for young pupils (instead of "wasting time" on sports or computer games?). Is it not the case that a "tough bodies-" discourse been replaced by a "smarter brains-" discource?

- It is interesting to think about the pre-sportified origins of cross country skiiing. Daniel refers to skiers of former times (before the 1940s) as predominantly working-class men living in thinly populated areas and where training had to combined with outdoors physical work (often in forestry). The practical utility of skiing, partly based on work practices, can be compared and contrasted to the tension between the practical utility of programming vs. competing in it.

- "Old school" cross country skiers expressed skepticism about scientific tests, scientific results and scientific methods. I presume the situation would be the opposite in the case of programming (high confidence in science)? Or is there a distance and perhaps skepticism about "the scientific study of programming" on behalf of "real programmers" (c.f. "real men")? Are there scientific studies of programming. Weinberg's "The psychology of computer programming" comes to mind, but there must be other work in that area since Weinberg wrote his book in 1971!?

- There is also an argument that the fact that skiing became less economically interesting in forestry and for military application (with the mechanization of society) paved the way for a sportification and rationalization of cross country skiing. This is an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive argument, but only when you did not have "real use" of skiing any longer could it be embellished and polished as a goal in its own right (rather than as a means to other goals). The corollary is that competitive programming will have problems becoming a sport as long as there is a large and competing market for programming skills in industry and elsewhere. Only when programming becomes irrelevant (perhaps through "mechanized programming" by computers themselves?), can it bloom and become a sport? Everyone who could become a competitive programming sports star is just too busy today working in industry or doing a Ph.D...?

- Until the 1940s, "athletes" just didn't have the time, the money or the infrastructure (tracks, tools, methods etc.) to train systematically. Skiers had to work (hard) and didn't have the luxury to spend all (or a substantial part) of their days training. Except for the fact that we are more affluent, there are obvious parallels to programming here. Today there are few professions that require you to ski, but many where you program. There are no "scientific" or even "tried and tested" methods for growing successful competitive programmers "for their own sake" (e.g. only for competing). There are ski high schools and math high schools - what would a programming high school look like? Would it be conceivable to have a programming high school that is geared (also, or partly) towards competitive programming instead of "useful" programming? I realize that what I'm looking for is an education where (competitive) programming is a goal in itself rather than a means for some other (economic growth- or human endeavor-promoting) activity. Is learning how to become a hacker in its purest form a variety of this kind of education?

- Daniel pinpoints the emergence of (personal) trainers in cross country skiing as an important stage in the professionalization of skiing. This can be compared to the support that exists in Sweden and elsewhere for training and practicing programming. There is a coach at KTH how (officially) works 20% with tasks that can be classified as training. This is a far cry from having personal trainers though. What is it like in other countries?

- There is also a debated about the role of the trainer. Is the trainer someone who was himself an active sportsman and who falls back on own experiences, or someone with specialized (scientific?) training? Who trains competitive programmer today?

- On of Daniel's studies will focus on female skiers and their experiences against a backdrop of cross country skiing (and other sports requiring fitness, strength, endurance) having traditionally been perceived as a "male" domain. Many of Daniel's questions could perhaps be reused in programming which is another traditionally male domain.

- In connecting his work to suitable theories, Daniel refers to Foucault and his writings about disciplining the body. What is the equivalent in programming? Exactly what do (competitive) programmers discipline - if anything? Do they "discipline" their minds and thought patterns of different kinds? If so, which thought patters (Levy's hacker ethic? Entrepreneurship and 21st century liberal capitalism?) lives in symbiosis with thoughts (if any) that "come naturally" when you program competitively?

- Daniel refers to the role of nature (and beauty) in skiing. What would the equivalent be in competitive programming - if any? Where do programmers get aesthetic pleasure? There are less sensory input in programming, but can you get pleasurable experiences ("flow") by writing, talking about or looking at "beautiful" computer code? Can you be filled with awe for... yes, exactly what would you be filled with awe for as a high-calibre programmer...? There is also a debate in skiing about long low-intensive training session vs shorter high-intensive training session. Is there an equivalent in competitive programming? What is the best way to practice and to program if the goal is to practice programming and solving difficult problems? Is there a physical component (food you should eat, regular exercise and other habits of the body)? What is the (perceived) status of programming until you drop in front of the keyboard from exhaustion vs programming for just as long - or as short - as you think it is fun?

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