A Christmas Ballad

In anguish unaccountable
the steady ship that burns at dark,
the small shy streetlamp of the night,
floats out of Alexander Park
in the exhaustion of dull bricks.
Like a pale-yellow, tiny rose,
it drifts along, past lovers’ heads
and walkers’ feet.

In anguish unaccountable
sleep-walkers, drunkards, float like bees.
A stranger sadly snaps a shot
of the metropolis by night;
a cab with squeamish passengers
jolts loudly to Ordynka Street,
and dead men stand in close embrace
with private homes.

In anguish unaccountable
a melancholy poet swims
along the town. Beside a shop
for kerosene, a porter stands,
round-faced and sad. A ladies’ man,
now old, lopes down a dingy street.
A midnight wedding party sways
in anguish unaccountable.

On Moscow’s murky south-side streets
a random swimmer sadly floats.
A Jewish accent wanders down
a yellowed melancholy stair.
A fragile beauty swims alone
from New Year’s Eve to Saturday,
exchanging love for bitterness,
unable to explain her grief.

The chilly evening floats above
our eyes; two trembling snowflakes strike
the bus. A pale and numbing wind
slaps reddened hands. The honey-gold
of evening-lamps flows out; a scent
of halvah fills the air. The Eve
of Christmas holds the pie of heaven
above its head.

Your New Year’s Day floats on a wave,
within the city’s purple sea,
in anguish unaccountable—
as though life will begin anew,
and we will live in fame and light
with sure success and bread to spare;
as though, from lurching to the left,
life will swing right.

–Joseph Brodsky

Committees and nonsense

So once again, an NFL topic committee has caused havoc in debate, presenting us this gem for January 2008:

Resolved: That, by 2040, the federal government should mandate that all new passenger vehicles and light trucks sold in the United States be powered by alternative fuels.

This topic has….problems.  That 2040 date, while factually significant, distorts the debates.  Kids will argue “Too soon!  Not soon enough!” and there will be little way to weight the evidence on either side.  Additionally, that phrase, “alternative fuels” is just begging for counterplans and whatnot.  It’s also uncomfortably close to the October topic, which was interesting at first, but tended to devolve into boring harms-wars with little interesting, original thought and creative debate.

There’s finally no honest way to predict the pace of scientific discovery, which this topic implicitly requires.  I work in the sciences, and I have a hard time budgeting from year to year; if I knew exactly what we’re going to do next year, we wouldn’t have to do it.  If my company can’t see six months ahead, how the hell are we supposed to forecast 32 years from now?  Eegads, 32 years from now I’ll be older than Admiral Menick.  Or we’ll all be consciousnesses floating on the grid by then.

So it stinks.

But what I’m more interested in is how the stinker was born.  What has six or more legs and no brain?  A committee.  Committee creation of things like debate topics can be dangerous for a number of reasons.  The topic passes a lot of the tests that a committee can institute; they hold internal debates, conduct research, give broad consideration.  So presumably this topic passed those tests.  But it, like the social networks topic, fails the “Ugh!” test.  The Ugh! test is simple: does someone who wasn’t part of the decision process first react by saying “Ugh!”  The reaction of my team — and me — to this topic was overwhelmingly in favor of Ugh!.  It appears the Admiral and other interwebs agree.

Committees have a hard time figuring out the Ugh! test.  First, committees are bad at creative endeavors to begin with; once social dynamics set in, good expression and daring ideas are dampened out, even if the committee is striving not to allow that to happen.  I always prefer extemp topics written by one person I trust over those written en masse by a committee.  Committee internal decisions also depend on a lot of extraneous factors; the length of their meetings, schedules, difficulties of remote communications.

But most of all, committee members grow too familiar with the topics and the research behind them to have an accurate “Ugh!” reaction.  They work too hard, simply put.  I’m sure they start with a list of topics, and give each one a fair shake, researching it out and producing cases.  They then debate the sides against each other, and after finishing all that, pick the topic that seems to lead to the best debate.

It feels unfair and irresponsible to just reject topics as losers at an early stage.  Topics often have more meat to them than is first apparent. However, once a committee has dug into a topic with research and testing, the “Ugh!” reaction is lost.  They’re committed; they’ve spent effort now.  The shouldn’t develop “Ugh!” topics at all in the first place, but instead the workflow actually ensures that Ugh! happens a lot.

Why not work past Ugh! though?  Why not dig under the surface for that hidden lesson behind an apparently repellent topic?  Well, PF is an “ugh!” driven activity.  With lay judging, and students who are encouraged to develop broad knowledge rather than the depth that Policy encourages, “ugh!” is enough to taint an entire round, or an entire month.  Ugh also proves prophetic.

See, the committee members are adults, and worse than that, they’re debate coaches.  They are experts in how to argue things.  Students are not.  Teenagers can be breathtaking in their ability to come up with bad arguments; usually it’s the combination of a sharp, creative brain that possesses mature processing ability but an immature data set to compare ideas against.  Adults may automatically understand a bad idea to be unmitigated BS, but teenagers lack that prior knowledge, and will often confuse bad ideas with creativity.  They all think they’ve invented the square wheel for the first time, and that it’s a terrific idea.

The PF committee can have a good debate on just about any topic, but the point isn’t whether they can have good debates on it, but whether the average kids will have good debates on it.  An “Ugh!” topic encourages debaters to find novel ways around perceived difficulties in the resolution.  Some will succeed and find the ground that the adults on the committee found.  However, many others will not.  Generally speaking, when debaters strike out on their own, novel territory, all hell breaks loose.  Sooner or later you have 16 year olds sagely advising me that every time I fill my gas tank, ten kittens die in Tibet.  Or some crackpot running Mr Fusion.

A good debate topic will shepherd these young minds into good debates by presenting solid, top-shelf, interesting, and yes, sometimes obvious arguments that will appeal to them and teach them new things at the same time.  A topic that lacks first-pass obvious arguments, like this one, will fail to teach a lot of students.  The judges won’t understand the ground on the debate without having to have it be laboriously explained — the phrase “Why 2040?” will be appearing on ballots coast to coast.  And the kids will hare off in wrong directions, and talk past each other all the time.  And many many kids will never understand it at all.

There’s an easy way to avoid “Ugh!” topics; show the final topics around to people not on the committee, and see if they recoil in horror.  However, often times such committees in forensics are more informed by a passionate effort to make a process best for competition instead of education.  Many coaches believe the worst thing a process can do is give one team an “unfair” advantage, such as knowing a topic a week ahead of time, and releasing a topic earlier to wider audience makes a leak more likely.  I doubt it’d be much of an advantage, and I’d prefer that to this nonsense.  Even better, a completely open process is guaranteed to be fair.  And I know many PF people are trying hard to prevent the event from going the way of LD and Policy, but too many of their attempts to prevent LDish behavior frustrate PF from reaching its full potential, and this certainly is one of them.

So now what do I do?  I’ve seen what bad topics do; we’ve had plenty of them this year.  The PF September topic was OK but not especially current; the October topic was this Jan topic done better, and it still was a harmswar; the November topic did succeed in teaching the kids a lot about the French health system, which was good, but then in the end they realized that the French health system is actually pretty good and Con got very difficult to argue, which was bad.

Then came December.

Social networks failed the “ugh!” test and the research test both; social network problems are anecdotal, not statistical, and never can be separated from preexisting social problems, which would probably have manifested themselves another way absent Facebook.  And even though nervous, jittery school administrators block them the world over, social networks are also utterly uncontroversial among teenagers themselves; they’re part of the world they live in.  Can a fish argue against water?

As a coach this is frustrating.  I’ve enjoyed teaching only 2 of the 5 topics so far this year, and beyond that, neither of those 2 lead to particularly good debates.  Without a really good topic these kids can sink their teeth into, I’m going to start losing kids to the math team.  The math team is lovely, but that’s a shame, if this is the reason.  I’m really irritated too that the NFL doesn’t even make a show of asking my preferences, and that of my fellow coaches; in typical NFL fashion, the topic committee is appointed in secret from on high (as far as I know) and it picks the topics without a open vote of the members.

Now, open voting can lead to stinker topics too, like the LD Sept/Oct topic.  Yale’s LD numbers were down, especially in JV, and I feel that was probably related to the poor topic; Yale’s numbers in every other event were stable or up from the previous year.

However, I have little say at the table to make any of that heard.  There’s no open way to gain a voice at the PF table.  I’m sure there is a way, but good luck finding it on that atrocity of a website.  Even if there were, in my experience the NFL views you solely by how many points & degrees you control.  Assistant coaches like myself simply don’t get much traction with them, no matter what I’m in charge of.  A lot of coaching is done by non-head coaches, so that’s one of the big reasons the NFL is consistently out of touch.  But I’m also not just a coach.  I’m a tournament director, and run lots of tournaments.  That may not gain me any traction with the NFL, but that in turn means they don’t have much traction with me and my tournaments.

Kids on the pfdebate.org forums are bitching and talking about not bothering to debate in January, and I have a hard time blaming them.  I was seriously tempted then to just abandon the stinker topic that was Sept/Oct for Yale, and run a tournament topic, and decided not to; it was in the middle of the topic’s lifespan, and then I’d have to come up with my own.  Given the numbers Yale got, I partially regret that — though there’s no way to know if a tournament-specific topic would have lowered them more.

PF topics are more ephemeral, and so can be messed with more.  I wonder if the time has come to just say “screw it” and run a tournament topic for Columbia outside the NFL.  Or say that Columbia will run the February topic, which will be out by then.  I like the subversiveness; I feel the NFL needs some tweaking, since there’s no visible effort to address, never mind fix, the endemic and consistent problems with its newest event.  Maybe I could trigger a review if I start just screwing with the event on my own.  After all, illegitimate systems deserved to be worked around, as we’re doing with the LD Modest Novice topic, all outside the NFL’s auspices.

And I can just up and do it, with no one else to answer to, the wellspring of creativity itself.

I think I’m going to head on over to pfdebate.org and see what happens.