The Frozen North

This weekend, I traveled to Maine, specifically Maranacook Community School, a little west of Augusta.  At Cat Nats last year, John B from Maine told me they’d talked about computerizing their tournaments this year for the first time on tabroom.com, and being the sucker nice guy that I am, I volunteered to come up and step them through an early tournament.   What we found in the MFL as we started using the program is that there’s more to computer tab than simply using a computer; you have to re-examine a lot of assumptions to find the best approach.  It took us a couple years in the MFL to nail it down; the Maine folk could therefore draw on our experience and learn things the easy way.

Now let me start by saying that I just love Maine.  I associate it with entirely good things.  We went there just about every summer when I was a kid, after Martha’s Vineyard grew too expensive for the likes of us.  We often stayed to just the southern tip — Old Orchard, York, etc — but I also greatly like the Real Maine, the part north of Portland.  It has several small cities very like the one I grew up in, without the overwhelming shadow of a Boston to domainate them.  It has a marvelous share of nature, and dark skies full of stars, and enough ocean to go around ten times over.  I’m truly a country boy at heart, and Maine satisifies all.  If a few million dollars were to fall from the heavens and land in my checking account, there’s little doubt I’d try to spend as much time in Maine as possible.  To whatever extent my family’s genetic memory survives in me, places like Maine resonate with “home”, the original homes of Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick, that go back several hundred years to a dimly remembered past in Normandy, Anjou and Lorraine.  I also have a odd like of being a guest at tournaments.  I’ve always had a good time as the guest of the NYSFL at their state tournament, and my trips to the Sunvitational and Ridge were quite nice, too.  Being an outsider makes the tournament experience somehow less stressful and more pure.  I merely have to advise, not decide; help, not be responsible.  I can also do what I do well without worrying about interpersonal rivalries and politics, which I generally find distasteful and which reduce my desire to be involved in forensics as a whole a great deal.  As a stranger, I am touched by no politics.  It’s a role I relish.

In Maine, they appear to have very few politics to go around.  It’s possible that after I leave, the long knives will come out, but they were to my eyes a truly warm and friendly group of people.  They made me feel right at home, from the kind hospitality of the tournament director to the absolute fun time we had in the tab room.  And the tournament director’s husband very subtly quizzed me as to my favorite scotches, pretending an interest, in order to go out and get me a fine bottle in thanks.  They sure know how to treat a guy.

As forensics go, they clearly get it.  They’d been doing their tournaments for a long time in their way, just as we’d done ours in our way for a long time when we computerized.  But they took suggestions left and right, saw the value immediately, implemented most of them on the spot, and by the end of the afternoon I had the feeling that their tournaments will be zooming right along in a matter of weeks.  Brave new world indeed.

There were some differences.  They had a judge’s lounge with a mighty food spread; it was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had at a tournament outside of a restaurant, despite it being merely ordinary by their own standards.  But as with most forensics, the language, the feel of the day, everything was pretty much the same world, just a different place.

Maine has fewer kids at their tournaments than Massachusetts does, though not fewer schools really, it’s just those schools are smaller. A huge percentage of the kids were double entered.  As a result their capacity for overhead is less — but they do run finals, just with only one judge.

By the time finals rolled around, things were well in hand in tab, so I offered to judge the extemp final, which was only four kids.  Now there are a number of stereotypes that would suggest themselves at this moment; only four backwoods hicks from some part of the country that no one has heard of forensically.   Well, far from it.  The kids didn’t speak a clear structure, that’s for sure, so much of what came through was a little muddled and confused.  But they also were clearly four bright kids, and pretty good speakers too.  There were no Painful Novice Moments, that’s for sure.  I think any of them would have a chance to be nationally competitive if they focused their analysis and cleaned up their style.  I could probably coach them into it in months.  They’d get slaughtered in a Massachusetts tournament as they are now, but only with a little fixing, they could certainly hold their own.

So what are you saying, Palmer, that the Maine coaches are the dumb and clueless hicks?  No, anything but; it was a great, intelligent, and dedicated group of coaches sitting in that tab room.  But the round did demonstrate to me the value of regional travel.  Maine schools don’t get the chance to travel out of region very often, through challenges of distance and budgets, though I suspect I may be able to coax them southwards a little more if I try and help a little.  But for now, it’s pretty much locals and Nationals — at the end, when kids can’t apply lessons learned — and that’s it.  That means they’re limited to the approaches and ideas that they come up with.  In Massachusetts, it’s different. Half of us go to Yale, and see the ideas that 20 different states have come up with, early in the season when we can make use of them.  We bring them back to the other half of us, and the standard in general is raised.  We have good coaches too, but we’re far richer for the access to the national community we enjoy.  In extemp, that makes us able to get our kids into finals on a regular basis; a knowledge dissemination trick, not a talent gap.

That smacks of injustice to me, that they have basically no chance at nationals and wherever because of where they were born, not because of anything they’re doing wrong.  I should never had access to a great number of things because of where I was born, after all, and only through chance and coincidence, combined with others’ generosity, did I find my way into them.  So I feel sometimes that I owe something.  I can risk hubris in saying that I’m pretty good at coaching extemp, using a lot of my own ideas, but a lot of others’ too.   I feel it would take very little teaching and explanation to bring these kids, and probably their coaches, up to speed.

I feel the doom of a new project coming on.  Maybe I’ll resist.  But I’d actually like an excuse to go up there again.

Two Mayors

So now I’m off the Yale IV, in more ways than one. Yesterday was Election day locally, and I do mean locally — there were no national races or even statewide races affecting my corner of the universe. We had a remarkably uncontentious set of races for various local offices, punctuated only by the removal of the local town hothead, who was resigning her spot on the Town Council, and the subsequent dethronement of the long serving council President, whose tenure was no doubt tarnished by having to deal with, and be associated with, aforementioned hothead. Life’s unfair like that sometimes.

Last night the mayor of Boston was re-elected for the fourth time. Menino’s been a fair mayor, but not an amazing one, and is given credit for redevelopment but blame for terrible schools. They talk down here of big challenges, but when I consider the issues facing Boston and its immediate suburbs, the problems are those of managing growth, channeling it productively, deciding what to build, and dealing with the nationwide trend of schools segregated by wealth.  Boston has a solid economy, its housing crisis is relatively mild, crime is low if rising in the past year, and the city is clean and boasts a wealth of cultural attractions. So people are reasonably content with the mayor. Menino’s challenger, if anything, was too like him genetically — his outlook and approach is rather different, at least so he claims.  But in Boston many things are still seen first through the lens of background and race and ethnicity.  An Irishman from Southie named Michael Flaherty cannot convincingly run as anything but a machine politican. We already have a highly effective machine politician in office, so Mumbles Menino — even his staunchest allies would never claim he’s a gifted orator — skated in, 57-42.

Back home, in Fitchburg, MA, my home town, the incumbent mayor was likewise re-elected last night, on a wider margin, but only after two years of serving in office. She replaced a complete debacle of a leader, a clothing salesman turned grandstander who was so obviously an incompetent the city didn’t even care to elect a native to replace him.  Thus the incumbent mayor is the very face of a Change Candidate; Lisa Wong, 30 summers of age, Asian-American, not native to the city, a BU grad who studied urban planning if I’m not mistaken. She unfortunately came to office at the very beginning of the economic crisis, and has but unable to do little more than manage it for the last two years.  However, she also had no real challenger — the challenger listed on the ballot was an acknowledged crackpot, while her more credible 2007 opponent decided to launch a sticker campaign only last week. The finally tally was Wong 60, crackpot 14, sticker guy 26 (assuming all the write in and sticker votes actually voted for him, which is probably close enough to true).

Fitchburg is a city without a margin for crisis. It’s been neglected by the state for a long time now; Boston and environs suck up most of the oxygen, and therefore resources, in Massachusetts.  It’s was left behind when the country and the economy shifted in directions it could not follow.  It is blue collar in an economy that rewards connections and brainpower, not arm power. It lacks the money for reinvestment and redirection; everything it has goes to a bare level of survival. It’s geographically a bit isolated, which is a blessing in terms of quality of life, but a curse in terms of economics.  It’s very poor, run down, and lacks hope for the future. It might bounce back when gas hits ten bucks a gallon and small dense urban centers come back in fashion, but until then, it’s hard to see where it’ll go. It’s a place where kids like me, who do manage to succeed by some definition or another, are urged by civic leaders explicitly and implicitly to leave, for our own good.  Which robs it of it’s so-called Best and Brightest, and pushes it further back.

Fitchburg would be fortunate to have only the problems Boston or Watertown faces. The mayor has put the library on a part time basis, which means it lost accreditation, closing it off from interlibrary loans with other libraries.  She shut off most of the city’s streetlights, which has proven deeply unpopular, despite having little real effect — research shows pretty convincingly that streetlights mostly produce light pollution, not crime reduction; the city is much better off living darker than laying off a police officer. However, streetlights make people feel safe, and that matters politically. Americans are bad at seeing second order consequences; they react instinctively in the political sphere. It’s not just debaters who don’t know how to weigh arguments properly — nobody does in our political arena where everything is black or white.   However, despite Mayor Wong’s resultant unpopularity, no one serious ran against her.  No one wants the job.  She mostly chooses which thing to cut today, knowing that the thing she decided to keep is simply the thing she’ll have cut tomorrow instead.

People don’t pay taxes anymore, they don’t want to. In Massachusetts, a town or city cannot take in more than 2.5% above their total property tax income from the year before, unless there’s new construction or growth.   Any increase in total tax income over 2.5% must be approved in a override referendum, which never happens in larger towns and cities, and only rarely passes in posh suburbs.  This “Proposition 2 1/2” was passed in a ballot referendum in 1980 and took effect in 1982. As as side note, my uncle, recently inducted into the Fitchburg High Hall of Fame, thereby lost his chance to be a state champion, as the state championships were not held in 1983 due to budget cuts that Prop 2 1/2 required. Since then, inflation has been above 2.5% in 22 of the 27 years that followed.  Real estate values have shot skyward but revenues have not followed.  The tax based spending power of every local government in Massachusetts has declined.  The state makes up for it a bit with state aid, but it doesn’t meet the gap.  And state aid puts revenue and spending out of the control of the local governments — the state has cut state aid several times the past two years to balance its own books.  This situation is unsustainable in the long run, of course. Schools services get a little worse, and a little fewer, every year. Yet a repeal of Prop 2 1/2 is nowhere on the political radar. People think we still live in “Taxachusetts” despite our overall tax burden ranking 23rd out of the 50 states.

It’s an act of ultimate anti-patriotism, wanting to keep your money for yourself, so you starve your community of taxes. Clearly the United States is better served by your second flat screen TV than it is by a better school. In New England, there’s no regional authority below the state level; county government no longer exists.  So mayors are straightjacketed in places like Fitchburg, forever cutting, never adding new. Mayor Wong can’t encourage or spur growth; she has no money to do it with. None of the money in the comparatively wealthy towns surrounding Fitchburg — Townsend, Lunenburg, Westminster — is available for reinvestment in the city center, even though most of their economic power comes from it.  They’d be much better off if Fitchburg would bounce back.  But they won’t pay for it either.

So a city dies slowly.  The surrounding areas enjoy a brief prosperity that too will fade once the center is completely hollowed out. Fitchburg is a canary in the coal mine of Prop 2 1/2, one of the places which was already weak and in trouble in 1982, and which has been gradually devastated ever since.  And it likely will be allowed to die by uncaring neighbors and an uncaring state.  Little will be done about the imbalance in taxes, where wealth grows ever concentrated and unstable, until places like Boston and Watertown and Belmont and Newton are truly hurt by it.  When Weston has to turn out their streetlights, then maybe voters will notice.  By then, it’ll be too late for Fitchburg.

I hope Mayor Wong has tricks up her sleeves to turn it around. The only real hope is new growth that somehow springs up, through favorable zoning laws, or effective marketing, or securing some federal program or something.  But ultimately it’s impossible to get around the reality of ever declining common wealth. Maybe Fitchburg will have a flash of innovation and pull itself out of its doldrums.  But if it does, that will just shunt the problem elsewhere — some other town or city would be the first to wither then, and be that dying canary; by saving Fitchburg you may simply doom Springfield, or Pittsfield, or New Bedford.  And no one will talk about it.

So I’ve started.

Yale IV: Impacts & Podcasts

So what triggered me to think of intervention’s two levels in the first place was the thus-far entertaining podcast that Bietz, Cruz and the Admiral have been doing for the last couple of weeks.   So far their thoughts and conversations have been great fodder for my daily commute, and they haven’t engaged in that annoying podcast habit of their first three episodes being all about podcasting; how to set it up, what microphones they’ve bought, etc.   They’ve even managed to avoid awkward dead air and talking over one another (too much, anyway).  So that’s to the good.

They committed one minor sin that I find is common, in that they don’t know how Dropbox works — Admiral advised that you keep a copy of your data somewhere other than Dropbox, since the cloud could disappear at any minute.  That’s actually not necessary at all.  The data in your Dropbox is on your hard drive.  It synchronizes changes upstream to a repository when it sees them, but if the Dropbox service were to go under, or Amazon S3 (which it uses) were to explode in a ball of flames tomorrow, your data would still be on your hard drive; you’d simply lose your ability to share and sync changes all of a sudden.  That’s why the Dropbox files are there even if you don’t have an active Internet connection.  And, if someone changes something you don’t like, you can always revert back to an earlier copy.  The only time you’d be screwed is if someone made a change you don’t like, and immediately afterward, Dropbox disappeared forever.  Unlikely.  So no, don’t bother keeping multiple copies of files, one outside of Dropbox and one inside — that defeats half the point, which is to avoid having to think about which computer or which copy of something you’re working on.

But that aside, I was interested when they were talking about their analysis of the November-December LD topic, which is about whether the government should compel individuals to get immunizations for harmful, potentially pandemic diseases, or thereabouts.  At one point, Cruz said that the impacts for the affirmative side were quite huge, but the negative impacts are minor: namely, on the affirmative side you can argue that big sweeping pandemics could threaten the livelihood of millions and the survival of the species, while on the negative side you only have the individual rights of a very few religions’ followers and other various conscientious objectors, who fairly or not are usually lumped in with tin-foil hat paranoids in our society.  The general consensus on the podcast was that there was little negative ground to match the affirmative’s harms of sweeping pandemics.  In the context of debate rounds, that’s absolutely true.

However, in this real world of ours, those sweeping impacts don’t exist.  The number of people who refuse vaccinations for pandemic diseases is tiny.  Despite the H1N1 vaccine’s very shallowly testing, the real worry is making enough to meet demand, not people refusing it.  Mandatory vaccinations to attend school are likely more to defeat laziness than refusals.  There hasn’t be a serious vaccine yet which hasn’t had nearly universal adoption among those who can afford it.  And, after a vaccination is made essentially universal, even if some few Christian Scientists opt out, the threat of a civilization-threatening pandemic is removed — any contagious disease will likely eventually die out if only a small percentage of the population is susceptible to it.  Smallpox exists only a test tube these days, and measles continues on only because vaccinations administered before the mid 70s turned out to have a shelf life.  Many other diseases continue unchecked only for want of money; in no case do diseases rage because huge populations refuse vaccinations except perhaps in some areas through a deeply harmful lack of education.

So, in the real world, the policy of allowing religious exemptions has worked just fine.  Pandemics are prevented where populations can be immunized, and we’re more in danger from diseases and conditions we cannot vaccinate against.  There are spotty threats to religious communes; in 1985 three Christian Scientists died of the measles.  But no one else did, because everyone else is immunized.  The threat on the affirmative is not to society, but to the objecting individuals themselves.  The impacts on affirmative are really not that vast, in this world we actually inhabit.  The question then boils down to one of individual choice.  Should the government force a private citizen to betray their own biological choices in order to immunize them against a disease they are unlikely to get because everyone else is immunized against it?  And does it change when you’re not talking about an adult, but that adult’s children, whose choices are made for them?

I think, perhaps, in much of the country and the NFL voting public, this is the debate that will occur, and this is the debate that was voted for.  The Circuit, as it were, will debate these huge impacts of some hypothetical world in which a large denomination decides that H1N1 vaccines are the path of Satan, and that therefore a sweeping pandemic comes out of nowhere and kills us all because that denomination refused to get immunized.  That’s lovely and all, but it leaves that central question unexplored in the noise, the question that really confronts our society and ourselves — do you force people to immunize themselves, and their children, therefore exposing them to a very minor chance of developing a preventable deadly disease?  How much right do we have to threaten our own survival?  How much does that right, if it exists, extend to our children?

Fascinating debate.  I wish we could have it.  But there are ballots to be won, alas.