Making room for beauty

I have long concealed a dark scandalous secret.  I’m not a true computer nerd.

Don’t protest.  It’s true.

Yes, I have a lot of the skills of nerdosity.  I can and do program for a living.  I can and do fix computers all the time.  I can and do understand them at a level that almost everyone else cannot.   But I know the difference between me and the True Nerds; I don’t design and implement operating systems, or cryptography schemes, or new programming languages or frameworks, and ultimately it’s because I lack the passion for it.  For me, technology is operational, and interesting only insofar as it is useful. I only occasionally tinker; once the Thing Is Working, I am satisfied and leave it alone in favor of things that are not.  So I don’t tend to dig in and reach that next level of true understanding that a True Nerd finds so satisfying.

And yet, I spend almost all my life mashing a keyboard and churning out computer code.  I travel across the country on a regular basis to do onsite training, tech support and more coding even from cheap hotels, high schools or colleges as I can find the time.  My family is never quite sure what time zone I inhabit at any given time.  I don’t own pets for fear they’d surely die, and my plants tend to be the type that can sustain minor droughts.  I sure don’t do it for the money; I could probably triple my annual income by focusing on my geekery alone and going to work for Google or some such masterpiece of the Nerd Kingdom.   I do not get to travel in the fun sense much more than the average person; for all that I’m constantly in different places, I mostly inhabit classrooms and airport hotel ballrooms, and such things look the same in Miami and San Diego and Philadelphia and wherever else I find myself.

But I’m not complaining.

I work as a software consultant to the world of speech and debate.  I work with the National Speech and Debate Association for most of my time, and have side work with the Boston Debate League serving inner city debate in Boston, and consult with numerous individual tournaments as well; I’m writing now from an airplane headed towards the Pi Kappa Delta Nationals, a collegiate debate and speech competition, after tabbing the American Debate Association nationals last weekend; last few months saw me at Cal Berkeley for a high school tournament attended by over 3,000 people, and before that the University of Texas at Austin, Charlestown High in Boston, Emory University, Lexington High in MA, and before that UC Berkeley again.

I have an awful lot of Delta miles.

Such tournaments are amazing experiences that we who live with the world don’t always step back to appreciate.  On the weekend of the Cal Berkeley tournament I helped run that event where 3,000 high school students got up in front of judges and spoke.  Some spoke of high philosophy and the morality of handgun ownership, some spoke pre-prepared dramatic presentations, some spoke of the US surveillance state and its limits and benefits, some gave speeches they wrote themselves on a topic of their own choice, and still others overrode the set topics they were assigned to debate and instead injected their own culture, identity and viewpoints into their debate rounds.  But all of them spoke, multiple times, in front of audiences large and small, about topics whose depth and emotional impact often belied the age of the speakers; high school and college students, almost all between 14 and 22 years of age.

Middle schoolers compete to0, some as early as fifth grade; I just didn’t happen to go to any tournaments with them.  Not yet, anyway.

While I was at Cal, an equally large number of students were doing the same thing across the country at Harvard, with smaller but still large events happening elsewhere, at UPenn, at Pinecrest in Florida, and in countless other high schools across the country.  President’s Day is a remarkable weekend in the world of speech and debate; during it, well over ten thousand young people across the country stand and speak anywhere between three and twenty times apiece.

There are intense controversies within the debate and speech world.  Some competitors play fast and loose with the rules of the material presented in the dramatic events, or address uncomfortable and controversial material in their speeches, and not everyone approves.  Some debaters object to the idea that others can and do ignore the official topic in a lot of rounds to promote their own agendas, or can engage in sometimes quite personal ad-hominem attacks or tactics to win a round.  Others still dislike how arcane and rapid-paced many debates have become, freezing out communication and persuasion in favor of a baroque form of logic, and arguments in quantity instead of quality.  The edifice of speech and debate is undeniably imperfect, and often unsatisfying.

But it is never static; it is a living work, a collective action by a cast of thousands who make it what it is at any given moment.   Our current controversies do not get in the way of the ultimate mission: to encourage young people to speak, and stand and be listened to; to overcome the huge fear most people have of standing up and being heard.  The core of speech and debate, the core of being heard and believed, is knowing what to say; speech and debate encourages critical thinking and breaking boundaries, rewarding people for finding a different way of expressing an idea that nobody else thought of.  Those mavericks are the ones who get the biggest trophies.   Small wonder, then, that our rules are fluid and flexible and often abandoned; they’re under constant attack, along with every other idea in speech and debate.  But even in the resulting chaos, there is no better crucible for young minds.

And the effect is clear.  The parents of my team can never get over what happens to their children when they join speech and debate.  One confessed she started having to look up words her 15 year old casually used at the dinner table.  The students share their insights with their families and other friends.  Donald Rumsfeld, during testimony before the National Commission for Terrorist Attacks in 2004 , called the person who sets the annual debate topic the most powerful person in the country.  Debaters can instantly speak with authority about hegemonic foreign policies, afro-pessimism and social justice, or meta-ethical frameworks behind moral decisions.  Speech kids might start talking about the economy or the election at the drop of the hat, or be able to convince you in their performance that a full cast play is happening in front of you, while just one person performs it.

We hope that getting the young of the country to be unafraid to think and speak on what matters will create a habit that sticks.  And stick, it has.  I have former students running for public office right now, directing Hollywood shows, clerking for Supreme Court justices — and teaching, learning and doing new things that don’t fit easy categories.  Debate is home to counter intuitive ideas that later become mainstream, as we work them out.  A lot of debate ideas sound patently ridiculous when they’re first advanced in the round, but the students capable of creating those ridiculous ideas go on to learn how to create breathtaking ones, and do so with the same skills we encourage: questioning everything, not allowing boundaries to stand in their way, and then thinking nothing of standing up and delivering their ideas to audiences large or small.

And we don’t talk over each other, at least not as much as you’d think.

At tournaments, two things happen.  One of them is this activity that I can only call pure beauty in its engagement and intricacy and energy.   The other is, unfortunately, practical: we do an awful lot of waiting around.  Schedules must be produced, judges assigned to rounds, rooms opened and closed, ballots entered and results tabulated before the next schedule goes out.  The logistic elements of a tournament are staggering, and often confusing and daunting to the newcomer.  Parents who ask what time things will end are sometimes laughed at; tournament schedules are more often aspiration than promise.   These delays are not intended and never desired, but often can’t be avoided; we have an awful lot of moving pieces at tournaments and even one that goes awry can sometimes throw the whole affair off.

My primary claim to fame is creating and maintaining Tabroom.com, a site that tries to make the whole thing as automatic as possible.  Tabroom does scheduling, online ballots, registration intake and confirmation, communications and whatever else I can think of that makes things easier on tournament directors.  Tabroom.com has grown by leaps and bounds in popularity, which imposes its costs and stresses in terms of support requests and cries for help.   Thanks to the NSDA, I do have assistance in manning the support lines, but also a new challenge: while I’m keeping the wheels spinning on Tabroom, I’ve also been feverishly working on Tabroom’s successor site, which will be called Treo.  The core technologies at the heart of Tabroom.com are aging and due for replacement; Treo will take advantage of new advances in frameworks, languages and methods.

Tournaments, for me, are not fun.  They run me ragged.  Running a tournament is a 5AM to midnight type of job.  Most people run tournaments only once or twice a year, leaving time to recover.  I do it every weekend.  I would collapse if I were truly in the trenches every moment, so I have to fight very hard against my own impulses to carve out more time for sleep.  Even as I do it, and try purposefully to be selfish, I still never get enough real rest while I’m at speech and debate tournaments.  I work almost every day, rarely taking a full 24 hours off of tabbing or coding or whatever else I do.  But all the while, I’m seeking ways to make one more button to shave off ten minutes here, fifteen there — and sooner or later, those minutes become hours and hours become days.

And I do it all not because I’m a nerd.  I do it because the better Tabroom and later Treo get, then tournaments will have more beauty and less filler.  I aim to make the task of running speech and debate contests ever easier, ever more automatic.  The better the software, the more time we spend on debate and speech itself.  It will then be easier for others to coach new programs and bring new students to tournaments.  It will be easier to host tournaments and run them, and provide the opportunity to more kids.

That’s why I do what I do.  That’s why I play a professional nerd even though my heart isn’t truly in it. I could do work that brought me more direct happiness, but I doubt I could find something to do with more meaning.

Today, March 15th, is National Speech & Debate Education Day, by Senate proclamation no less.  It’s the USA’s participation in World Speech Day.  The day is intended to promote the collective work of intellect and beauty that I struggle each day to make a little better around the edges.  I’m not a true nerd, but I play one in the speech & debate world, to support and make ever more room for that beauty, and bring it to ever more kids.

And that, to me, is more than enough motivation.