Archive for June, 2008

The Peter Principle

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

By David

In some part of the United States, evolution is not a word to be used in polite company. These souls cling to the idea that we are all the result of a week of celestial work a few thousand years ago. It is all nonsense, of course. We are in fact the partially completed product of a process first observed by Robert Darwin in the 1850 and called the Theory of Evolution. He did not use my words, but he did provide the foundation for the idea that in evolution, systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence.

Had Darwin lived to 1960 he would have approved the light-hearted extensions of his idea proposed by Dr. Laurence Peter and Dr. William Corcoran and called the Peter Principle. This principle holds that in a hierarchy, competent individuals are promoted. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent and there they remain; fixed by the system at their “level of incompetence”. Peter’s Corollary says that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties”.

In his work on Corrective Action Programs in nuclear power plants, Dr. Corcoran noted the Peter Principle at work. He observed that “anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”. He used as examples vacuum cleaners used as aspirators and administrative devises such as “Safety Evaluations” used for managing change. Human beings have the bad habit, he said, of using what has worked before, even when it has exceeded its effective scope.

I guess if it is possible to observe all this in a Nuclear Power Plant, it would be unusual not to find examples of the Peter Principle at swim meets. This past weekend I attended the Speedo International Age Group Meet in Fort Lauderdale. This meet has reached its level of incompetence. It shows many signs of being something that has worked and is now being “used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”.

However before listing examples of what I mean, it is important to point out that there is still much to admire. Two years ago, Swimwatch praised the meet’s organization, its size, the officials, the helpful office staff, the use of two pools, the Coach’s hospitality, the display of results, the announcer and the organization of time-trials and scratching. We called the meet a “bloody beauty” and the label was well earned.

Much of that, in fact, probably all of it is still true: even to the extent that we received a reminder email after the closing date when our team’s entries had gone missing. Some things are done very well. There are however some additional features that are spoiling a good thing. Let me give you some examples.

The meet information said the entry procedure was being altered. Instead of paying entry fees in the normal way we would all pay a “deposit” of $40 and the outstanding balance of the fees would be settled at the meet. What this meant was that if the entry fees came to more than $40 you would pay the extra but no refund would be paid if the entry fees were less than $40. In our case this meant that four of our swimmers spent $170 to enter six races and one time-trial; an average of $28.33 per race and that is usury. That price does not include the $5 for each parent to get into the pool or the $5 for a programme. In entry fees and these other direct pool related costs each race cost our guys $43.33. That probably doesn’t satisfy the test of encouraging wide participation in the sport. I know of a hundred people that could not afford that sort of elite pricing. It almost certainly qualifies the meet as the planet’s most expensive as well as one of its biggest.

The pool deck was badly policed. The place was a zoo. I understand the emergency services were called to a sick spectator and were not at all pleased about their access being blocked by a sardine tin of spectators. I don’t blame the police for being upset. In a meet this size access to the pool deck needs to be restricted and enforced. Failure to do so on this occasion made proper coaching difficult and enjoyment impossible.

The provision of warm up space on Friday was inadequate. There is a perfectly good diving well that could have been used for warming up. Instead it was occupied by a dozen or so divers while 1000 swimmers struggled to warm up and down in one side lane in each pool. It must have been possible to take the diving somewhere else for a morning. Imagine the scene, five warm up swimmers per meter at a cost of $43.33 per race. Someone was doing all right and it wasn’t the swimmers.

It could be that this meets organizers need to heed Dr. Corcoran – “anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”. On this occasion too many failures spoilt one of the country’s best swim meets.

Monaco, Barcelona and Canet

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

By David

Aqua Crest has spent the past week in Europe at the Mare Nostrum series of swim meets. There is something about Mare Nostrum and European World Cup meets you just do not get anywhere else. Oh sure, there is just as good competition in any one of a thousand meets in America or Australia. America often has better swimming. The standard of national and Grand Prix swimming in the United States is exceptional. This coming week, the annual Speedo international swim meet is being held at Fort Lauderdale. I do not know what the entry list is yet but there is going to be a staggering 1100 swimmers there and some will be as good as any in the world.

Sunset at the Canet pool, by guyomedw on Flickr

What Fort Lauderdale, or anyone else for that matter, will not be able to do is the internationalism of Mare Nostrum swimming. Buses and dining rooms, changing rooms and airplanes filled with the chatter of swimmers from a score of countries. The pool deck a maze of national track suits. And it is a very good thing. As the tour progresses, you can see a thousand stereotypes being broken. The French are actually a friendly lot and their food is a step up from anything you’d find at Applebys. Other countries can put on a decent swim meet in a well run pool. Monaco has more Ferraris per square mile than even the best streets in Boca Raton. The world is a huge, interesting and vibrant place.

The arrogance that is characteristic of a George Bush wanting to impose with force his preferred way of life on every other nation on earth has no place in the happy scene called Mare Nostrum swimming. For that alone the experience is worthwhile.

It’s also worthwhile for all the reasons other good swim meets are of value. It is educational to see Sophie Edington from Australia go under a minute for 100m LC backstroke and Meeuw from Germany whose best time in the same event is 53.10. I was particularly interested to see, for the first time, Eamon Sullivan, the new 50 LC freestyle world record holder. It was intriguing to note the increased popularity of straight arms freestyle; with Sullivan as its most expert practitioner. In Barcelona, his meet record 100 LC freestyle was swum in a 32/34 stroke count; and that’s impressive.

The woman’s events that surprised me most were the 400 freestyle and 200 breaststroke. In the 400 you have to be under 4.08 these days to get back for a night time swim. In the 200 breaststroke 2.30 will soon not be good enough to make the top eight. Standards are on the way up and it’s a good thing. Progressive promoters are paying better prize money and meeting the travel costs of more swimmers. Their generosity is having a beneficial effect on swim times. United States promoters should take a leaf out of the European race book and do a bit more of that sort of thing.

Is a trip like this beneficial? Time will ll. It gives swimmers a chance to see the best touring this sport has to offer. The effect can be inspiring; encouraging the athlete to move on, training harder in an effort to go back next year for some more of the same. I hope our guys enjoyed themselves. I hope they will be in the group that’ll be back again next year.

The tour’s only cloud came at Miami Airport. My new Green Card meant I had to be processed by immigration separately. It took two hours of waiting in a disgustingly dirty room to complete a process that took less than a minute once my name came to the top of the pile. After two weeks of wandering from country to country with no one even looking at my passport it was difficult to avoid muttering a sarcastic, “Welcome home.”

As Long As It’s Green

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

By David

This week has been pretty special. The United States Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo prisoners must be allowed to appeal their detention through the US legal system. I am sure the nation’s founding fathers would approve. Granted, there are some very dangerous men in the Cuban prison. That is no excuse to deny them access to justice. They are brutes. There is no need to join them. We are a better society for affording them their day in court. Deny them this and we brutilise ourselves. Fortunately, the founding fathers and the Supreme Court recognised that and wrote and ruled accordingly.

It is important for a nation’s leaders to observe the rule of law. A society will reflect good leadership and bad. I’ve known a few swimming officials who would happily deny the rule of law to an errant coach or swimmer. The worst offender used to be Swimming New Zealand, who would think nothing of handing down punishments without a hearing. I’ve never heard of them water-boarding anyone, but beware, they do have access to the raw materials.
There may be some who think all things Swimwatch should be relagated to Cuba. Fortunately, Homeland Security do no agree with you. You see, this week I became the proud owner of a Green Card. Previously, I lived here on an 01 Visa. The visa had to be renewed every three years. The Green Card is more or less permanent.

Its arrival was however tinged with a degree of sadness and concern for America’s democratic institutions. It has taken me six months of forms, photographs and finger prints to secure this American icon. I tried to follow the instructions on the Government’s web site on “How to get a Green Card” but gave up and went to a good lawyer. No wonder the Mexican fellows I see working their hearts out to keep the nice houses in Delray Beach and Boca Ratton neat and tidy find it difficult to become legal residents. It’s hard enough when you do have the resources and support. For them it must be all but impossible.

Ever since I can remember I’ve heard about the American Green Card. It is as traditional, as filled with history, as Dave Crocket and apple pie. I suppose Henry Kissenger and Arnold Shwartzaneger must, at some stage, have owned Green Cards. They could not have been any more proud than I was when my Green Card envelope arrived. In unseemly haste I tore it open, and do you know what I discovered?
The American Green Card is not bloody green. It’s a dull beige color. There must be some advertising authority that can look into this. A million immigrants pay thousands of dollars to secure Green Cards and get delivered beige ones. Imagine if that happened with motor cars or underwear!

“Could I have a pair of green knickers?”
“Sorry Madam, all our green underwear is beige.”

You’d be out of buisness in a heartbeat. Whoever is the next President after Bush must fix this travesty of justice. In the meantime I’m off to Staples to see if they sell green crayons. I’m not walking around with a beige Green Card.