Where am I?

I fell into the world of forensics and debate through the narrowest of chances.  My hometown has never heard of forensics, nor have any adjoining towns, nor have any towns that adjoin them.  Debate and forensics is not a high priority for the curriculum in Massachusetts; and so, with some exceptions, only a few wealthy high schools have programs.  My hometown is one of the poorest in the state, and my family was typical of it; working class in a town where working class jobs don’t pay well, or often.

However, I slid through the cracks, upwards.  I was the token scholarship kid, first in middle school, and then thereon to prep school, and then to the Ivy League.   My prep school, lacking the traditional Saturday classes, is the only one in New England that competes in forensics and debate as we know it.  So I had an opening into our world.  Even still, I attended no invitational tournaments, and camp was entirely out of the question.  There’s only a rough sort of equality when you’re among the casual rich; scholarships to private school will cover the tuition, but the full incidental costs — which nobody there thinks much about — were too crushing for my family to bear; scholarship types thus get, at best, a partial experience.

In the end I had a good run.  I did debate in the non-rigorous prep school league for a couple years, and then extemp in my senior year.  I qualified for NCFL and NFL, though I didn’t break at either.  I did all right at NFL in supplementals.  That’s my claim to fame as a competitor.

So I took a look at lddebate.org last night, after Cruz’s characteristically unsubtle pleading that some discussion be conducted there.  What I found (which has nothing to do with Cruz’s un-subtlety, an endearing trait) is rather disturbing.  One debater suggested that LD move to two topics year; a bunch of people registered agreement for reasons that can be charitably described as serving narrow interests at the pinnacle of debate.   Ernie, bless him, called them on it, but got hurt feelings and confusion in reply.  One of the troubles of being an elite, and being surrounded with your peers, is that you don’t notice the effects of it; a fish cannot see the water.

Debate perfection, which many strive for, is exclusionary by nature.  Debate perfection, increasing the quality of the rounds, is behind the drive for case disclosure, different topics, longer terms for each topic, and so on.  If your aim in running debates is to produce masterful, elegant, well researched and well thought out debate rounds, then you’re going to be an exclusive activity.  You’ll exclude first students who aren’t hard enough workers, or whose talents are in different areas.  Debate is hard, and that’s fair enough; you do have to have some interest and talent in it.

But the harder you make it, the more likely you’ll also exclude kids who can’t be excellent debaters because of what they are, not who they are.  Students who can’t afford camp.  Students who have to work a job to support themselves or their families, and don’t have time to cut cards all day.  Students who won’t travel and see the circuit.

Debate, as a competitive activity, tends to consume all available space and time.  Students who engage in the preparation arms war do so because of their dedication to the activity, which is good; but they do so as the result of the luxury of time, a commodity they don’t appreciate.  Poorer students, even if they find themselves in a school with an active and well funded debate team, have more demands on their time.  Wealthy students tend to have busy lives that are aimed at enriching them and their college chances; poorer students have busy lives aimed at survival.  They have to work.  They have to watch younger siblings.  They clean their own houses and do their own laundry.  Cook their own meals.  Save for college.  And they do it without a car, without a computer (in my day) and without much help.

I had only a few of those demands, but even still, at prep school, I had to keep my grades up, to continue to justify the “diversity” I was supposed to bring to the school for their money.  I felt I had to work harder and achieve more to go to the same colleges as my peers.  I couldn’t sacrifice grades to debate, like a lot of debaters do.  I worked during school, at the snack bar — just for spending money, luckily for me.  But there sure weren’t any rich kids working the snack bar just for spending money alongside me.  Summertime was for mowing the lawn, wandering through woods, swimming and watching reruns on TV, not traveling through France and attending high powered academic camps.

OK, maybe I had better summers than most, come to think of it.  But the rest remains.

Making debate better means making debate harder.  If the amount of time and research required to simply be competitive is more than anyone with those kinds of life pressures can put in, then a lot of people who might benefit from debate are classed out from the start.  A poorer kid might be natively intelligent, might have a decent amount of general knowledge, and may be able to come up with great persuasive arguments in little time, perhaps better than anyone else.  An LD with case lists, fewer topics, exhaustive literature searches, and large prep-outs doesn’t have room for that kid to succeed.

It doesn’t have room, in other words, for Chris Palmer.  Not me, individually; I don’t  speak off the cuff all that well.  I mean the next Chris Palmer; the kid who’s now 14 in Fitchburg or a place like it, who might just get a shot to compete because he goes to school in a place not much like Fitchburg.  The one who stays in Fitchburg already has no entry.  If time and money required spiral upwards, the private school Chris Palmer isn’t going to be able to play, either.

Perhaps limits are in order.  My high school’s athletic conference restricted practice time; you can’t run practices for your team outside of that sport’s season; you can’t practice more than a certain number of hours in a day.  Students who want to go pro someday — there were a few — must do so outside of the leagues.   These rules undoubtedly reduce the quality of the game play.  However, they push students into other sports, and keep players from dedicating their whole lives to a sport.  They allow more casual players access to the educational opportunity provided by being on a sports team, by preventing them from being crushed.  The purpose of a school sports program isn’t — or shouldn’t be — to produce the next crop of players for MLB or the NFL, it’s to educate.  Limits on season time and practice time enforced that goal.

If  school sports programs can put limits on their programs to achieve educational goals, why not debate?  In debate the case for accessibility over perfection is even more clear cut; no one is going to get a $20 million contract to go debate professionally, even if they develop the perfect 1AR.  Debate develops a lot of generally helpful skills, but is not an end in itself; it’s not clear to me that you learn much more by winning the TOC than by simply being decent.  So why narrow the appeal of debate in pursuit of perfection, by ratcheting up the evidence arms war?  Shouldn’t we be attempting to limit the scale, controlling even the best participants with healthy limits?

But again, we’re an aristocracy.  In sports, adults are in charge, and — most of the time — govern their activity to preserve students’ health, and the educational value of their programs.  In debate, we don’t have grown-ups in charge.   The distinction between a coach and a competitor is more fuzzy in debate than in sports: coaches don’t run for soccer players, but they do think and write for debaters.  That skews incentives.  A lot of the adults think like competitors.

Beyond that, we don’t, arguably, have anyone in charge. It’s also hard to legislate limits on the sort of academic activity that happens alone, at home, which is debate’s hallmark.  The community’s power to limit behavior that even a large majority finds abhorrent, such as evidence falsification, has proven woefully inadequate.  As long as judges will vote for something — judges who are not much past competing themselves, mostly — it’s all fair game.  Our aristocracy is loose and lawless; no formal governance exists, just the power of pull and influence.  Thus Poland once was doomed.  We’re not well set up to act collectively for the students’ good, especially over the better students’ short term desires and selfish objections.

But at the very least, we can try to avoid making it worse.  Right now, we have various proposals, put forward by those at the pinnacle of the activity, which would make that pinnacle just a little steeper and harder to climb.  If they succeed, LD will lose programs, and students who could learn a lot from the activity will be shut out.  Eventually, this event will be narrowed down to a solid core of those willing to learn all kinds of skills that are not useful outside of the narrow confines of rarefied debate — when do you think you’re going to have to spread after graduation? — simply to pay the price of admission to the confines of circuit debate.

And they’ll leave behind the Chris Palmers.

PF is not the answer.  PF’s other flaws make it a dubious event at best.  The rules and format of PF were consciously dumbed down.  Accessibility didn’t have to mean shortening an event to pointlessness, and including shouting matches, but we’re stuck with it now.   But even if PF were perfect for what it is, educational equality is not served by telling people on the outs “Here you go, we made a special playground for People Like You to play in; just please don’t bother us in the big kids’ area too much.”  PF gets treated by LD tournaments the way LDers complain they get treated by Policy tournaments: poorly, without respect or dignity.  It’s classic segregation.  Plus, PF will likely go in the same direction.  As long as our governance structure is the way it is, the foxes rule the henhouse and any debate event will become a speed and evidence arms war, no matter its starting point.

We also have the kritik, and oh how I love the K sometimes.  It does introduce the kind of batshit insane creativity I enjoy, and does give the little guy a way around a massive evidence dump.  Hell, I’m the guy who put together a K in PF last year — PF rules ban Ks, but also unwisely define the K as something that is not quite the K, a crack through which our cases slipped.  But running the K over and over doesn’t sustain one much.  You learn a body of critical literature that is of limited life utility compared to the direct literature on an LD topic.  Furthermore, there’s only so far a K focused program could go in LD, given that the K is viewed, correctly, as not really being what debate is about.  Once you start talking about natural limits to how far a program could go, defined by resources and time and not by talent and intelligence; well, you’ve hit the elitism barrier again.

Everyone believes in equality, until achieving equality starts negatively affecting one’s own life.   When you talk about racial equality, who doesn’t go along with it and nod?  But when you talk about taxing white communities heavily enough to bring educational services in black communities up to parity — well, hold on there Marx, let’s not be extreme here.  How else could racism and vast gaps in equality of opportunity exist in a country so apparently dedicated to ending both?

Ultimately I find innovations that aim to improve the quality of debate to be uncompelling.  Today’s debates are not more deep, rich and interesting than those of ten years ago, despite a decade of such innovation.  They’re simply faster; they have more evidence, but they’re not smarter.  The limiting factor behind debate quality is not structure, it’s the competence of  bright 18 year olds.  Structure can limit accessibility, but in a debate, quality boils down to the debater.

Furthermore, high school isn’t about elegance, and perfection; not in football, not in debate.  I’d argue that once you’ve gotten really good at something in high school, it’s time to quit.  The purpose of school is to improve students, not given them a forum for showing off; educational programs are perfectly planned when you master the skills taught just as you graduate.  If you get there early, that’s great; but realize you’re wasting your time if you keep at it — unless you’re doing so to help others learn faster than they would without you around.   Schools aiming for demonstrated perfection aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Little wonder then that circuit debate gets little traction with school systems.  Its value is not accessible, not just to administrators, but a lot of other forensics kids and coaches too.   Educators aren’t interested in seeing one kid who can whip up a sublime counterplan; they judge an activity by what it offers the bulk of their students.  Modern circuit LD, sadly, offers very little.  And I feel like most of the changes under discussion would make it even less relevant to the many students who live within boundaries of time and money.

An LD topic lasting six months gives an advantage to those who have access to deep research: journals and resources not readily available to the general public, such as Lexis and JStor, and specialized avenues for knowledge, like the dad who knows an economics professor at MIT.   It helps to have a coach or two who can use an adult mind to come up with twists and angles on the topic most high schoolers wouldn’t see right away.  A diversity of cases will win out in a long haul debate; the kid who can’t generate them will lose.  A debate topic that lasts only one round, on the other extreme, wouldn’t make for debates with as much deep understanding, perhaps — but it would help students with a breadth of general knowledge, which can be garnered freely by using Google, paying attention and reading a lot.  There’s not much that money can do to give you that advantage.  And that’s why I was an extemper, not a debater; that’s extemp in a nutshell, a ground where Chris Palmers thrive.

I don’t think LD topics should cycle round by round. But I do think that movement towards longer topic periods would exclude folks. The Jan/Feb topic already lasts half the year, to the detriment of locals and the betterment of the TOC. I tend to believe that case lists would do the same, but the jury is still out; but I do fear that the decision on them will be made without really considering the damage to equality that case lists do. If case lists do indeed increase the research burden, and raise the barrier to entry for LD, I don’t think that’ll be weighed on whether to use them. We don’t have a mature decision making body that would be the gatekeeper on it.

I’ve been on the edge of getting back into LD, but this dynamic makes me flinch.  Why give up time and energy to benefit a community that would exclude the high school me?  Why should I volunteer and run good bid tournaments for an event that won’t accept my cousins or nephews and nieces when they’re in high school?  If there’s no room in this world for the next Chris Palmer, why does this Chris Palmer do so much work for it?

And is Ernie asking himself that same question?  Is anyone else from the same background?

Someday, they may all answer “No, it’s not worth it anymore.”

And LD will be poorer and thinner still.

Net Neutrality

I’m intrigued that Menick believes that the proposed LD topic about net neutrality is interesting, but lacks depth, and doesn’t entail any broad implications about society. I disagree, and since when we disagree and bicker people apparently love to watch, I figured I’d do the world the favor (?) of writing it up and airing it in public.  That’s the genteel thing to do, isn’t it?

Granted, this topic may be exactly in my wheelhouse, and would let me pull all kinds of awful stunts like writing cases based on obscure internet routing protocols that I know in my dayjob and precious few other debatefolk have even heard of.  (I wouldn’t.)  It’s also badly worded; it talks of internet neutrality, which is a phrase that means nothing, instead of the actual term of art which is net neutrality. If the topic is selected, I fear that phrase will become the ship that launched a thousand Ks. I gather the shift to internet from net is because the folks in the committee hadn’t heard of the term net neutrality, and felt it needed explaining.  Of course, I don’t feel a resolution should explain itself; that’s what research is for.  Half second with Google would have done the trick.  Worded like it is, the selfsame Google search still yields results, but not as good — and I’m sure some kid somewhere will be confused when those results all refer to Net Neutrality and not this “internet neutrality” thing in the topic, and go off the deep end.

What is net neutrality?  Well, a network, generally speaking, is composed of two elements.  You need nodes or endpoints by which humans interface with it.  And you need connectors between the nodes, which make sure the right node is connected to the right other node.   To do so, a network has to have intelligence somewhere within it; that is, either the nodes or the connectors (or both) need to know what’s being sent out over the network and what’s being listened to, and how it’s supposed to get between node A and node B.

A critical question of network design is where the intelligence to run the network lives.  The phone system in this country is a network where all the intelligence lives in the connectors.  In the old days, a human operator actually physically connected your wire to the phone you wanted to call; eventually that was automated so that your phone sent a request to an automated operator by means of the phone number you dialed.  However, the phone network permits only one type of traffic, sound.  Furthermore, the information about how to link two phones is entirely in the connectors; your phone itself didn’t know how to do anything except make the request.  So it’s a smart network with dumb, single-purpose nodes.

The internet is organized on the opposite principle.  The connectors in computer networks are called routers — and yes, your home wireless connector is a router.   Routers are very stupid; they only know how to do one thing, which is to take data of any kind that gets sent to them and push that data closer to its intended destination.  The data hops from router to router, until it finally lands on the computer it’s destined for.  The content of the data doesn’t matter; the router never looks inside the data to see what it is; it only cares about the address the data is intended for.   The computers on either end are wholly responsible for encoding and decoding the data into a form — email, website, etc — which you can use.  Thus, the Internet is a dumb, single purpose network with smart, multi-purpose nodes

The telephone network is a controlled network; it can only be put to uses approved in advance by the phone company — who usually charge for the privilege: note the humble text message, which costs an absurd amount of money for a very small amount of data.  The phone company can control phones in yet more sinister ways, such as listening to your calls or forbidding you to call certain people, both of which are illegal — or permit governments to do so, which is legal under ever widening circumstances.

However, a dumb network doesn’t know what traffic you’re sending over it.  The data type doesn’t matter to the dumb network.  It’s the computers’ job to send, receive and interpret the data, not the router’s.  So as long as two computers can understand a given type of data, it’s fair game.  Furthermore, a given type of data doesn’t cost anything more than any other type to send — unlike text messages, which cost a lot more per bit than voice calls do.

The phone network has been around for a century; while the mainstream Internet is barely a decade old.  However, far more innovations and applications are based on the Internet than phones.  To build a new phone application, you have to convince a small set of highly conservative monopolists to let you onto Their network.  If you want to create an Internet protocol for a new and novel use, you simply buy a commodity internet connection; your provider doesn’t know or care what you’re sending across it; only your audience’s computers need to know.  Thus, the barriers to entry for new applications are minimal on a dumb network, so new applications we have aplenty: email, the Web, instant messaging, filesharing, and finally VOIP, which threatens to replace the phone network itself.

A dumb network is a neutral network, which is our current status quo.  A non-neutral network would be aware of the type of data being sent across it, not simply its origin and destination.  Some kinds of traffic would be prioritized over others, usually because the purveyors of that content paid for that priority.   Other kinds of traffic might be banned altogether.   In general, the Internet would become more like the phone network; you might need prior approval from a small band of monopolists to get a new application or data type through to your end users.  The days of the small disruptive application that destroys an existing, powerful industry might well be over; the phone networks could pay ISPs to cut off Skype; filesharing would be cut off by payments from Hollywood.

The Internet today is not totally neutral.  China regulates the flow of traffic in and out of the country, in ways that are easily circumvented but nonetheless are effective in dampening the free flow of information there.  Within the US, DSL providers are regulated like phone networks, and must not regulate the free flow of traffic, but cable and fiber internet providers are not regulated the same way, and are free to shape network traffic as they please.  Verizon DSL must allow you to go to Comcast’s website, but Comcast can legally make visits to Verizon’s website very slow, or fail altogether.  Cable companies therefore could shape traffic at any time, and some propose to do so; but as yet they haven’t begun, at least not publicly.   So our network is functionally, at least, neutral.

An open network is a freewheeling world, where innovation mixes with danger.  Net neutrality enshrines the rights of small disruptive companies to threaten established monopolies.  Skype may destroy landline phone companies.  Google Voice sends free text messages over my existing data plan, which shaved $15 off my monthly phone bill.   It can come with what are arguably harms, at least to some people.  For instance, file sharing removes the teeth from a government granted monopoly on content, which means the market for content is now competitive; in a competitive market, the cost of an item is driven towards to the marginal cost; which in the case of digital information is zero.  Thus, the death of newspapers and music recording stores.  A neutral network encourages creativity, which is economically efficient, but with that creativity comes creative destruction, which may or may not be socially useful.

A neutral network, however, is a difficult to maintain.  Netflix cannot pay for the privilege of streaming its movies to you in a priority manner, making interruptions less frequent and the quality better.  A few highly active users can swamp a neutral network segment to the detriment of others.  Without some form of traffic shaping, costs and therefore prices may rise faster than otherwise.  Therefore, if a neutral network and a non-neutral one were in an open market competition, it’s likely the non-neutral one would win out; it’d be cheaper, feature higher quality video streaming, and at the end of the day, the average citizen isn’t that subversive, and likely wouldn’t care about the lost potential for future disruptive technologies.  Therefore, a net neutrality regime is necessarily coercive to all ISPs; whose right to regulate and manage their networks as they see fit is curtailed.

Socially, the presence of network neutrality ensures a vibrant and subversive public sphere.  The Admiral wonders who the Thoreau of network neutrality is; my nomination at the moment is Al Gore, whose book The Assault on Reason (Amazon) should be the first stop of anyone thinking about the Internet’s influence on society.  Gore’s thesis is that the internet is valuable to society because it furthers multi-party communication.  The previous dominant media for public discussion were television and major print publications.  Both are one-way; a very few people, all belonging to a certain class, are anointed to spread their view of what is true and important to the masses.  Those unwashed masses are unable to communicate so easily, either with each other or upwards.  The result is a discourse that resembles feudalism, where the Lords and Ladies tell the people what said Lords and Ladies feel the people should know — and exclude knowledge that would harm said Lords and Ladies as a whole.

Power tends to minimize and ridicule positions they find dangerous; note how much Dennis Kucinich is mocked for “crazy ideas” that actually find vast public support in polling.   The point is to make folks being exploited or controlled feel alone: if someone is angry about an issue, but thinks they’re alone in their anger, they’re less likely to take action than if they knew that millions of others are angry, too.  Marx calls this “class consciousness” specifically within the economic sphere; Habermas — upon whom Gore relies a great deal — calls it “the public sphere”.

Since the advent of the neutral Internet, governments and regimes are having a much harder time keeping their shenanigans out of public view.  Companies and governments have had to grow responsible and accountable to storms of rage on the internet, where before quick coverups would do.  The Consumerist produces a prodigious amount of content out of publicly shaming companies with poor customer service into doing right by their customers.  Airlines feel it when people hit Twitter when they’re being held on the tarmac; Oprah felt it when she tried, to her fans’ ire, to brush aside the fact that she’d selected a faked memoir for her Book Club.  And, of course, Wikileaks‘s recent Afghanistan disclosures tore the covers off an often neglected war in a way that parallels the Pentagon Papers.   Gore believes that as the salary, station in life, and therefore viewpoint of most national media journalists has grown to more closely match those in power than an average citizen, the traditional top-down media have lost their teeth and watchdog role.  Thus it’s Wikileaks, not the Washington Post, that has delivered the Afghan War’s Pentagon Papers.  In a very short time, the internet itself has become the public sphere.  Net neutrality threatens to bring all that under central control, and thus squash it out.  Elites are very effective at quashing dissent and openness when given proper tools and a quiet room to work in.

However, extremist and terrorists of various stripes have laptops, too.  Their information can waft through the Internet’s flotsam undetected and alone.  Far flung extremist groups can connect up and find common cause on the unprotected internet.  Net neutrality means you must accept all traffic as it comes, and route it as it wishes.  Even if net neutrality legislation explicitly calls out exceptions for the purposes of law enforcement and security, the fundamental design of a neutral network would probably make such enforcement impossible.  So Al Qaeda can use a neutral network more easily to send encrypted communications and instructions worldwide; neo-Nazi groups can use it to find each other and share data on how to organize and further their agendas.  Thus far, these groups have proven to be rather un-savvy with computer technology and encryption, but surely that won’t last forever.  Also, the assumption that an active public sphere with wide public participation necessarily will lead to good outcomes isn’t necessarily true.  The neutral network is surely a necessarily ingredient to the Tea Party movement, after all.

So the question of net neutrality is a choice, between a more top-down, controlled, stable and safer world where a small group of people can shape and limit the public sphere to their liking, or a more turbulent, subversive and open world, where anyone can transfer data anywhere, be it information that brings down an oppressive or corrupt government, or information that brings down two very large buildings in the middle of Manhattan.

And you’re saying that topic lacks depth?

Living for it

So I spilled over a little in frustration the other day.  I stand by that; I for one don’t believe that the Internet is Different and a little spilled-over truth and honestly is a bad thing.  Some flinch from it instinctively but I don’t see demons behind every byte online.  Well, demons any different than the real life ones.   But tonight is a good night for wandering around verbally.  Wander, I shall.

Part 1. Vacation.

But I was thinking a little bit as to why I might be in a bad mood forensics wise; I’m ever the (over-) analyst that way.  Certainly part of it is my own strong need for a vacation from both the day job and the coaching gig at the same time; I tend to swap time off from one into time on the other.  This project would, by necessity, involve me leaving the area code of the Bellevue Sapphire (My home on the hill, here), for as idyllic as the Saph truly is — I’m sitting right now on the deck, overlooking a few other hills, and moon and stars on the horizon — it’s also the nerve center of all the various Things I Do.  I have a headquarters up on the third floor that’s clearly a work room — a chair surrounded on three sides by desks, one I made myself for the Computer with Two Heads, one table for Various and Sundry facing the windows with the same view as the deck, and one a roll top antique my grandmother gave me.  There are bookcases full of programming books and speech memorabilia.  There’s a plaque or two from the unexpected juggernaut we had at last year’s NFLs.  The two coaching awards I was given this year, I’ll sheepishly admit, are still down in the living room, on the fireplace mantle.  Everyone has a little showoff in them, and as Menick said, of all the things he’s had in forensics, that’s the one he’s particularly proud of.

So a week off at home, presumably to rest, would inevitably see me upstairs doing something or other on the Computer with Two Heads.  Such as coding a way to sneeze out an exact report on housing with the margins two tenths of an inch wider to accommodate some Bronx Science kid with eighty four letters in his last name, who may or may not be going to the HenHud tournament, but well, we’d better be sure.  So I have to leave the area.  Leaving the state would be better still.  And the country — well, gosh howdy.  I’ve still never been to Europe, though I’m more of a country boy than a city vacationer.

Part 2.  Obsession ain’t just a cologne.

However, that brief jaunt through my immediate geography aside, there’s another division of the speech & debate world.  It’d be easy to say it divides between the tolerable and the intolerable, but that’s not true; there are plenty of people on the “other side” from me that I know, like, and respect.  However, there are certain attitudes towards this activity that I find harmful, not just to my own happiness and contentedness in this project of forensics education, but also to the activity as a whole.  Few folks share them all, but the fallout has converged on me more than usual of late.

Some people just live for this.  We had, as mentioned above, a hell of a tournament last year in Vegas.  Three national champs, never been done, yada yada.  I can’t say as I prepared any differently for this one than the others I’ve sent kids to.  We’re certainly not a giant factory program that aims all our year’s efforts and strategy behind winning big at the NFL tournament.  Our Storyteller, in one case, spectacularly failed to make friends when she chatted up the other finalists by telling the tale of how she and the extemp coach — yours truly — tossed together her piece on Wednesday at the last minute.  “When did you guys toss yours together?”  Uncomfortable silence.  Turns out everyone else had been practicing theirs for months.  Man, some people take this stuff seriously.

She then beat them.  Bitterness ensued.

To hear some people talk about it, winning three national championships in one sitting should have launched me into a new plane of awareness.  The NFL makes a very big deal of its champions and coaches, and I had my picture taken a few dozen times.  But we mostly cracked up during the whole thing.  Then we had dinner, got a drink, slept for a long time thereafter.  I stayed in Vegas for a few days, got sick on the last day though.  And life afterward has been much the same as life before.

But some — many? — can think nothing more of just getting that next trophy, the next award and round of applause — sometimes a single clap.  I can’t stand that ambition; it distorts everything.  At the two tournaments we decide to call Nationals it leads to a sparkling tension in the air which certainly doesn’t help make for better decisions or better management or judging.  Tension never does. When I tell folks to calm down and just work through it, I’ll sometimes get shocked stares and “But it’s NATIONALS!”  As if that somehow devalues calm rational decision making and the rules of polite interaction among adults.

I don’t get that attitude.  I understand it intellectually, but I don’t get it.  It always takes me by surprise.  It seems self-evident that folks in this activity shouldn’t have so little independent seat for their egos that they get into actual screaming matches with other coaches or volunteers for the sake of winning something.  Folks definitely shouldn’t have so little that they’re willing to cheat to do the same.  And yet, I see it, all the time.

Interlude I: Group Discussion

People commit all sorts of distortions, because they live for this.  Some coaches advocate for “easier” events so their teams can get sweepstakes awards without having to work at the “hard” events.  That particular phenomenon explains much in the MFL; people elsewhere often wonder why we have such bizarre events that sound stupid.  They are stupid.  That’s the point.  If they weren’t stupid, good, dedicated kids would do them, and the students who don’t want to put much effort in wouldn’t get trophies.  It especially upsets me when this issue gets wrapped into a class struggle — poor kids need dumb events!  My humble roots certainly didn’t stop me from learning Extemp, and the Urban Debate Leagues have committed wholesale to Policy Debate.  But the real reasons always do need a cloak, and that serves well enough.

Interlude II: Source Material

Coaches will cheat on source material to find a small edge,  despite the fact that interp uses such a small sliver of the legal material out there — but much of that material is skipped, because it’s too hard.  For years there have been Rules about Extemp which are nowhere listed and do nothing to make speeches clearer, smarter and more entertaining — but they’re easy to teach, and kids do a bit better when they follow them, so taught they are.   At the same time, extempers cheat all the time, by the letter of the rules, and not many folks do anything about it for fear of “stirring things up.”  Evidence standards in PF are a laughable mess, and that’s made all the worse by folks thinking that an avalanche of evidence without much actual realistic analysis is the way to go in PF.  Hey, it wins rounds, right?  We did — bravo, MFL — pass a rule mandating that you have, and you share, evidence in debate rounds.  We shouldn’t have needed to.

Interlude III: Circuit debate

Sometimes winning means restricting the field to include only yourself.  Circuit debate springs to mind.  I found myself meditating on speed while I was at the TOC.  In the two rounds I judged, the four students definitely slowed down — or rated me highly because they don’t generally speed in any rounds, I don’t know which.  They were enjoyable debates.  I’ll admit my RFD for the second one was incoherent at best — but then, so was the round.  What I wasn’t able to articulate at the time was that the neg debater had argued that upholding democracy is essential, and subjecting oneself to a court system with appointed judges was anti-democratic; but he was never able to explain why this was a unique harm — democracies have appointed judges too, notably ours — and that punched a big ol’ hole in his case.  Aff could have made it much easier by pointing that out more stridently; I had a tough time deciding whether Aff’s defense of this point was enough to warrant me voting on the round, but then I had a hard time finding anything else to vote on, so I held my nose and affirmed.  I say this now because I want to point out to debaters that far more decisions than they think are arrived at in such a manner — “you confused me, you didn’t emphasize the right things for me to break your way, and I had to vote for SOMEONE, so sheesh, here we go.”  My only difference is that I’m honest about it.  Some judges, indeed, live for this too; I’m sure the negative I voted against will strike the hell out of me if ever I grace a judging pool he’s subjected to again.  My honestly saying “I’m unable to explain this well right now, I’m sorry, but I do strongly believe Aff won” isn’t a good way to maintain a judge rep, and some people live for that, too.

I was, however, perfectly fine following along in the much more brisk rounds where I was only watching, not judging, and thus no one bothered to adapt to me.  However, as I said in my paradigm, the quality of the argumentation and the density of ink on my flows has not changed much in ten years of judging LD, despite the speedup in the same.  Roughly the same number of arguments were made in both the slower rounds I judged, and the faster rounds I watched.  In the round 7 I watched, one debater was a terrible speaker, clearly struggling to keep her thoughts and her arguments organized, despite maintaining a very fast clip; it was absolutely clear to me that the speed was working against her, even though she ended up winning that round.  So I started thinking; why speed then?  Why invest such time and effort into developing a difficult skill, which has no value whatsoever outside of this specific form of debate, and which doesn’t seem to really help much in winning rounds?

I think speed is “in” because it has no value whatsoever outside debate.  Speed to circuit debate is like Latin to the Catholic Church; it serves to keep all but the truly devoted out of the priesthood.  If you’re not willing to pay the price of learning this otherwise useless skill, then you’re not worthy of admission to the Holy of Holies, or the TOC, depending on your terminology. So speed effectively limits the TOC to the people obsessed with the TOC.  That creates a closed-off ecosystem, which opens more chances for those on the inside of it.  If there are fewer programs at the TOC, the ones that do come can win it more often.

The educational value of speed is suspect; you’ll never need to talk that way again.  The competitive value is also suspect; I’m not sure it’s actually helping anyone win rounds, though I’m much less certain of that.  But even if it were winning ballots, is that enough to justify it?  To a lot of people, the consideration ends at “it wins ballots.”  Some people live for this.

Back to it: Conservatism

Folks want to win things.  They’ve grown comfortable with a certain level of success.  As a result, many folks don’t want to upset the existing order much.  Making a radical change might also change their winning formulas, and force folks to be creative and adapt — and they may not be able to keep up.  Coaches like this instinctively don’t want to create the new and destroy the old.  They’re scared they’ll end up at the bottom of the pile in a new order.

We combined DI and HI into DP at the MFL going into next year, which I think resolves one of the sillier distinctions in forensics.  Drama can be funny; humor can be serious; there’s no actual line to be drawn between them.  The DI/HI split encouraged bad practices and lazy approaches to interp: slapstick in the one, death, disease and rape in the other.  Pushing them together opens up the vast middle ground between them, together with a lot of fresh new material; few authors write literature that is exclusively funny or only serious.  Most of those that do aren’t very good writers.  Most traditional interp material is crap.  So the more I think about this change, the more I like it.

Predictably, the student protests began immediately.  The arguments on the obligatory protest Facebook group boil down to “we’ve always had this split” and “all the other states and the NFL have divided HI and DI for a reason.”  Alas, they have yet to specify what that reason is.  I think the real pain point here is competitive.  I hear a lot of “judges might be confused” which is code for “I’m confused as to how to win the judges’ ballots.”  Old formulas are gone; kids know how to win an HI, and know how to win a DI, and now they have to learn how to win a DP.  Gosh, learning.  What a pain in the ass.  More directly, that’s also six fewer trophies we’ll be handing out.  Now there’s a real problem, though no one will say it out loud.  So they argue without giving reasons.  Even though so many people live for the winning, everyone knows no one’s allowed to admit it.

What’s strangest about the Facebook group is that most of the names I recognize are recent graduates or graduating seniors, or students who compete in non interp events.  There’s not a lot of people on there who are actually affected by this change.

Why the traveling tabulating circus is different

I talked briefly in the last post about how the Northeast circuit seems to be pushing ahead better, faster and further than most others.  I think it’s because we have a fairly good quorum of people who don’t live for this.  For the most part, we don’t notice when we, or others, win.  Some of us are more competitive than others, but it’s not a huge deal, and it doesn’t influence how we decide how to run tournaments, even unspoken.  Most of us are not coaches as our primary job, even those of us who are teachers.  We have a critical mass of a bunch of people who are willing to run tournaments and change our approach without having to avoid 800 lb gorillas in the room.

There’s none of that “Well, so and so wants to win, and this shady practice is one of the ways he does so, so we can’t end it or he’ll throw a fit.”  It’s the only arena where I don’t get poorly articulated push back to new ideas.  Everywhere else, I’ll expect a certain amount of “Well, I just don’t like it” which nearly always either boils down to “that’s not the way we’ve done it before!” — which is no reason at all —  or “My particular formula for acquiring hardware is incompatible with this educational change.”

Here’s $30.  Go buy yourself a trophy.

So I’ve resolved on something.  I’m not going to ignore it and let politeness cover up the “Well I want to win!” instinct.  I’m calling it out when I see it.  I have to hear a rationale for keeping things, or changing things, that goes beyond the gut, or I’m calling it what it is: a blatant hardware grab.  Surely one of the reasons the MFL continues to require 16 events is the 96 trophies that implies.  I’m told again and again that kids won’t come back to the activity if they don’t win something.  I don’t buy it.  Even in the extravagant MFL, we’re only handing out hardware to 1/3 of the students present.  I think the coaches like winning a lot, and like it when there’s more to win.  There are debate leagues that survive and prosper quite well while handing out very few awards.  But, some people live for this, and it’s not yet the novices.  It’s usually the coaches, or the kids who’ve already been in the activity a long time; note the composition of the Facebook group.

I don’t live for this.  And I’m not going to pretend I approve of those who do any longer.

Why I do what I do

So I’m no longer the MFL president, hallelujah hallelujah.  After NCFLs, I was totally wiped; the week prior work — largely, me — had organized a two day workshop and symposium that required my full attention, and then immediately afterward (during, in fact) I ran off to Albany, for another five days requiring my full attention and energy, where I was seriously dragging ass by the end.  We had a raucous if orderly MFL meeting thereafter, wherein the torch was passed.

Everything since has felt like a quiet denouement; days spend quietly restoring chaos to order at work among the systems, and nights spent doing things like reading and writing out on the porch deck, where the breeze never stops.  It’s been a bit lonely, but also a bit lovely.  This little window is my chance to think and contemplate for the past year.  I’ll be headed down to NFLs again soon, and EXL is soon thereafter, and then the cycle begins again at Yale and beyond.

This spring I’ve been forced to question where my efforts are being spent.  The flat out sprint that was the week leading into Albany has brought into sharp relief the fact that I do too much.  The NFL will be my 23rd tournament this year, and only my third not manning the tab room, together with TOC and Harvard.  I’ve spent a entire month, 30 days, in tabulation rooms since Yale last September.

Most of them have been fun events with fun people, but that’s no longer enough to keep me running like this.  The damage to my professional life (yes, I have one) has been nonzero, and the damage to my personal life (no, don’t really have one of those) has been complete.  This spring and my tour of the MFL also both ended on a sour note; the folks who said so don’t know I know, but apparently I’m anti-educational and an elitist, and my leadership in the MFL has pushed the league to the edge of collapse.  Mother would be proud, that a Fitchburg boy could grow up to be an elitist.  It matters little that the venom was spread in context of an unrelated political dispute, and that the aims of that dispute were, I strongly suspect, self-serving and competitional, not educational; if you fight dirty, there are consequences.  If the dirt works, which it did, the consequences become universal.

I’m going through a period of asking myself where my limited efforts can do the most good.  On the broader Northeast circuit, the reward for effort is immediate: as JV said at dinner last week, we’re in the middle of a interesting period, where technology, openness, and mutual trust throughout the Northeast has lead to rapid and healthy change in the way we run our activity. We’re no longer content to run the same tournament year after year; we’re questioning every assumption and keeping only the truly necessary ones.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is never a good enough answer.  As a result, we’ve created a flexible and cohesive tournament staff where new ideas are vetted, tested, and if they succeed, made universal in the course of a few weekends.  And we don’t sacrifice much in doing so; each individual tournament has run fine, even as new things are tried in them.

That Northeast circuit involves, for me, going to six tournaments a year.   Yale, Princeton, Columbia, UPenn, and the two Lexington tournaments.  I won’t give those up.  I might chance a couple more this year; there are rumblings out of northeastern Pennsylvania to be considered, and I’d be curious to see one or more of Scarsdale, Bronx Science or Hen Hud in action.  I’ve already dropped Harvard, to much relief, and I’m sadly dropping Florida’s University School too, since they’re up against the tournament at my own school this year — Chavez will go instead.  And of course I’ll be there for Newton South’s tournament.  Despite having friends on both sides of no-man’s-land, I won’t skip the NYSFL tournament, where I’m always made to feel welcome and appreciated, and which is a lovely time of year for a drive across Massachusetts.  If JV wants me back — I had a genuine blast this year with Scarsdale, modulo the exciting logistics of the last day — or my own kids qualify & want to go, there’s the TOC.

That’s 8 guaranteed, with a few options.  This year, I did 23.

For the rest, well, I simply can’t do this without strong motivation, and these little whispering voices, or the times I’ve had vast responsibility coupled with zero authority, sap that motivation.  This world of forensics is not my career, job, or obligation; I derive no benefit aside from the psychic, and so the time has come to eliminate everything that’s become a mental net negative.  My team has suffered for my service.  I’ve also had several long term ideas and projects stall out doing all this operational stuff, anyway; some of it forensics related, some of it not.  And from home, I can debug and control most of what happens on Tabroom anyway, better from many schools in fact.

So everything else is on the table, and most of it’s going to land on the floor.

Talking about talking

So the debate coach blogosphere (all four of us) has been atwitter about increasing the size of said blogosphere, or at least the capacity of online communication among forensics coaches in general.  Admiral Menick’s latest idea is a common RSS feed which aggregates all the various debaterly content out there into a coherent, one-stop-shopping location for all things forensics.  It’s not a bad idea, I’d certainly subscribe.

But is it enough?  I’m not sure the issue here is entirely platform, honestly.  I think at least partly there’s an community standard that people don’t talk to one another, be it online or at tournaments, about these matters.  Fix that, and the forum may build itself; fail to, and nothing you do in forum building will work.

Policyland talks a lot about itself.  They have various channels to do so, but they’ve also built their community and their activity around ideals of openness and disclosure, which encourages a lot of inter-squad talking.  Policy debaters also travel a lot, and it’s a small, possibly shrinking — some say dying — activity, which means at any given tournament, one finds a fairly substantial quorum of the whole activity.  These factors combine into a world where everyone knows everyone else — a community in a real sense, that actively discusses the issues facing it.  Word gets around.

However, policy may not be an especially good model for the rest of forensics.  Policy debate has grown remote from the rest of forensics; in many ways they least resemble the rest of us.  They’re similar to LD in that LD has a national circuit of competitors and coaches who mostly go to each others’ tournaments and the TOC, and little else; but LD also has maintained an active and vibrant local scene in many areas of the country, which Policy has failed to do.  So to the extent that the Policy community’s intercommunication succeeds because of the tight, small nature of the community, the same lessons do not apply to all of LD, and certainly would not apply to Speech and PF events as well.

So that’s the trick; to start a dialog between the Circuit Snob and the Local Yokel, and get a critical mass on board.  I tend to think real person communication should come first, and then the online resources should be an outgrowth of that.  If there’s a real-world at-tournaments component to matters, then the online part will mean more, and have more respect and substance to it.  At least, so I hope.

I suppose I should put my money, or at least my tournaments, where my mouth is on this front.  Off to email Bietz.