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.

Judging Bronx

A one time story.

This past weekend was the New York City Invitational at the Bronx High School of Science.  I wish I knew where Cruz gets his energy; after all, I’m exhausted enough at tournaments I run, and I call them things like “Yale.” I’d never been to Big Bronx before, and was hoping to see it first hand, so up I signed and found myself on the Lexington bus.

Energy indeed is required at Bronx.  The rounds begin at 3 AM and end about 23.75 hours later at 2:45AM the following day, to being again at 3 AM.  That makes housing a breeze; competitors spend about five minutes waiting for the subway together with a Bronx debater, before turning around and going back to debate.  There’s a bustle and energy to the whole event, beginning to end.  I escaped the weekend without being handed a trophy.

At the same time, the tournament was not nearly as daunting as running or even attending a college tournament; we had but one building, with one set of keys, and only four events to occupy our minds and schematics.  The friction and confusion was substantially reduced.  I even got to regularly see the policy debaters, which  is practically unheard of.

I was also, deliciously, just a normal shlub judge.  I do like tabbing tournaments but I had missed being in the mainstream of the activity too.  I’m going to be judging more this year, since I’ve reconfigured my forensics involvement to better fit the world I’m in, so I’m going to plenty of tournaments that don’t (yet anyway) have me auto-slotted to tab.   However, at Bronx I figured I’d be eased into it.  Because of the national circuit nature of the event, and its use of Mutually Preferred Judging, I had not expected to be judging terribly many rounds.  So I intended to use my time to do some research, help the Lexington LD and PFers with their strategy, and maybe do a little tabroom programming on the side.  I was going to watch a couple of rounds and get up to speed, literally and figuratively.  The best laid plans…

Evidently I am neither as forgotten or reviled a judge as I thought.  I certainly wasn’t the most preferred judge in the pool, but neither was I an obvious strike.  Strangers rated me 3, having bigger fish to fry with their 4-6s, while friends rated me 2, being assured of my somewhat average intelligence if not yet sold on my renewed fluency in LD.  A few brave souls even gave me 1s.  So I did judge a fair number of rounds.  I fulfilled the usual judgerly duty of bitching and moaning every time I saw my name on the table, but I have to say I enjoyed it, though I would have enjoyed it more given more sleep.

The rounds themselves were the usual clash of civilizations.  I voted evenly aff/neg and evenly on styles; traditional sometimes beat policy, theory sometimes beat tradition, and round and round it went.  I could sense some confusion sometimes, not from the decisions themselves but how I explained them, which leads me to suspect that I’m not entirely up on the lingo.  I do have a bad habit of giving general strategy advice in the midst of my RFD in ways that lead the audience to suspect I’m intervening — But she never extended that!  I know, but you shouldn’t have left it open anyway… — so I tried to be extra careful to separate advice from reasoning.  I failed sometimes, but there you go.

For the most part I judged students at the lower end of the brackets, which is appropriate to someone who hasn’t judged terribly much in the last year.   But the last prelim I judged, flight 6B, was a terrific round between two down-3 debaters who had intellectually interesting things to say and clashed exceedingly well.  It speaks volumes for the tournament that these two weren’t in the hunt for the break.

Sunday morning I ended up judging the bid round, which tells me more than anything that you really shouldn’t try to single flight double-octos, even with a judging pool as large and deep as Bronx’s.   Cruz has already decided that doubles will be flighted next year.

Here I ran into issues.  Judging high level LD does require some technical skills, and I freely and fairly admit in both my paradigm and before rounds that I’m only about 85-90% of the way there on speed and lingo.  And the double was therefore easily the worst round I judged all weekend.  The two debaters could have hardly done less to adapt to me.  Normally that’d tick me off, but I was a last minute sub, and an unfamiliar judge to most debaters.  Neither student had had time to read my paradigm and neither could have been expected to adapt.  Besides that, on a 3 judge panel sometimes the debaters will sense the other two judges have more in common with each other and adapt to them and utterly ignore your preferences; that’s part of the game, too.   While these two debaters didn’t do a particularly good job of adapting to the other two judges either, I bear no ill will.    And so, after some further madcap hilarity whose details I shall conceal to protect the innocent and the youthful, I was promptly was on bottom of a 2-1 decision.

But that said, one of the most responsible people I know this in activity (and a judge we rated 1 with room to spare) was on bottom of a 6-1 in the TOC final not long ago.  Life goes on.

And the bus returned.  I’m still tired.  But Cruz definitely puts on a good show, with trophies and food by the truckload — though unfortunately the Saturday dinner was evidently calculated to assassinate me, with mushrooms in every dish.   Next year will be radically different, as Cruz is going to start up an IE division, with me at the helm.  I’m thrilled by this, given that colleges for the most part have a lock on high quality IE invitationals, and there’s strong value in the activity being kept within our community instead of exclusively outsourcing the largest and best tournaments.  Cruz’s energy remains astonishing, as he’s already emailing me a ton about it.  I go comatose for several days after a major tournament; I’m in awe of his drive.  Hell, I still have post-Yale mail to reply to —which to those listening has much more to do with non forensics related disasters and worries than Yale fatigue.

But I have to say, I did enjoy this my foray into the judging pool.  Let’s just hope the kids I judged did too, lest I be banished further down the pref sheets of the world before I’ve gotten fairly started.

The Last Harvard: Oratory Final

So I said I’d post about the extemp final, but that’s been taking work and source-checks and the like, so it’s slow going.  Also, I’m sick; I have this cold thing happening, which knocked me into bed all day yesterday.  Today, not much better.  It’s a strange cold; the congestion and coughing are present but not awful; the sore throat was minor and short-lived; however that sick feeling of sleepy, woozy delirium has just as soundly debilitated me.

Instead, check out the NCFL Extemp Topic Areas , which I can honestly say I’m thrilled about.  These are not the topic areas I suggested, but the council definitely took the spirit of what I had to say to heart, if not the letter.  I don’t know if this was done because of, or despite, my intolerable nagging, but at any rate, it’s an excellent step in the right direction and I’m very very happy.

So the extemp final notes require research and checking; the oratory final round notes, however, merely requires ranting and pontificating; and as Menick proves daily , that requires much less brainpower.

I walked into the Oratory final a few minutes after having been asked to judge it, saying “OK, here we go.”  The first thing to note about the oratory final is they put it in a room which was twice the size of the extemp final room, but it contained only about 2/3rds as many people.  I’m unsure if this diminished crowd size because it was competing against interp finals happening over in Sanders Theater, or if  the event itself simply doesn’t draw as much anymore.  It has been about 4 years since I’ve even seen an Oratory final at Harvard, so trends may have passed me by.

This round was also my chance to try writing Speech RFDs for the first time.  I’ve had this idea for exactly a year, after Policy Mike gave it to me, but this was a good venue to try it out, as I haven’t actually judged a speech round in the intervening time.  The idea is that most judges in speech use the ballot for coaching advice, whether or not they’re qualified to offer it.  Instead, an RFD encourages you to think and write as a judge should, and explain why you gave the rank you gave.  So, at the bottom of each ballot, I wrote out my reasoning. “You were 2nd because the 1st place person did this part better, and your blah wasn’t as developed…..”  “You were 6th because everyone else did this thing better….”  etc etc.  I feel this approach is much more direct, maybe even harsh — but helpful in the extreme, as it prioritizes the feedback and tells the kids what mattered most to your ranking.  Debaters get this kind of direct feedback all the time; speechies can handle it.  And, I have to say, writing the RFDs came very easily, and helped clarify for me why I’d ranked the round the way I had; having to write out your reasoning may well improve the experience, and quality, of the judging itself.

As for the round, we had the usual pop-philosophy smorgasbord.  The first thing that always annoys the hell out of me in Oratory is the vapidity of most of the topics; and the second is how the conventions of oratory mean the kids claim that their stated topic problem is wholly universal.  The orator does not claim that a majority of people feel a certain way, or that even a too-large minority engage in a particular harmful behavior.  No, “we all” are part of the problem.  “We” don’t seize every moment, “we” care too much what others think of us.  It’s a gimmick to draw the speaker closer to the audience, but given that the speakers are 17 year old nitwit extroverts and I’m a quiet solitary type who’s nearly twice their age, it usually serves to make many of their statements into lies.

To wit: the first speaker told me I splash too much personal information up on the internet; the second told me that I hold in my emotions too much and don’t express my feelings, the third complained about something I can’t even recall.  The fourth said I obsess too much about leaving a legacy, the fifth claimed that violent video games desensitize us to violence. The sixth speaker managed to avoid the trap for the most part and instead talked about how our society is hesitant to talk maturely about sex, so bravo to her.  By far the worst was the 2nd speaker’s emotion-hiding thesis; at one point she asked rhetorically “when is the last time you talked about emotional issues with your best friend?”  To which I mentally replied “Uh, last Thursday?”  I doubt that was the answer she wanted to inspire.  It killed the speech for me.

So a typical oratory will fling a preponderance of claims around, which are meant to relate to the audience, to inspire us, and hit at our emotions — but without benefit of substance, facts and research.  After very little time, I just stop caring.  I’m not alone, unfortunately; we’ve had a hard time getting kids to compete in oratory on our team, since they don’t want to sit through all the dreck that the event attracts.  It’s a shame, really; the event has infinite potential — write anything you want about anything you want!  The kids are limited by nothing but their own imagination.  And yet, all we get are these boring set pieces about problems that at best fail to look at all beyond the typical upper-class teenager’s life.

Teenagers want to think they’re highly individualistic, but they’re really very conservative and herd-like.  The trends in new progressive LD debate happened because college students inspired them; high schoolers just followed the judges, not wanting to break with the general flow.  Extempers will resist trying out techniques they agree are rational and logical because they’re afraid of what other extempers will say about them.  Usually they’ll say “I don’t think The Judges will go for it” but they actually are thinking about their peers; there is hardly a uniform group of Judges out there who think very strongly about their expectations in extemp to the point that they’d vote down kids for doing logical things that were nonetheless outside the Conventions of the Event.  Most judges don’t know enough, or care enough, about the event.

Therefore, I bet orators are afraid to put too much seriousness and research into a speech, simply because no one else does it, and if there’s anything a teenager doesn’t want to be, it’s the only person doing something.  If you’re the only person doing something, you’re a failure in the adolescent worldview; after all, if a practice was a good idea, others would be doing it too, right?  The herd instinct is why, in extemp, so many kids mimic the bad habits of good competitors.  They don’t think first about the relative value of the habits; they simply see a rock star displaying the habit and getting applause, and aim to mimic it.  So thus, in Oratory, we get round upon round of bland, boring speeches that nobody cares about and nobody wants to watch.  And there I was, ranking the best of them.  Writing an oratory on a serious social issue talking in terms of social forces would be so far beyond the pale, the average 17 year old wouldn’t know where to begin.  Anyone who did so would have easily gained my 1 in any round.  Oratory as an event is in a holding pattern, waiting for the first bold soul to actually make that leap; until then, I’ll continue to avoid it.

As for the round, they all spoke very well, and were very smooth.  Some of them were a little too forced, and others spoke more naturally and sincerely, but in general, I was left to rate them purely on where I felt they landed on the seriousness scale.  I took points off for the rhetorical assumption that “we all do this bad thing” and gave credit for risks, since that correlated exactly with how interested in the speeches I found myself, and how much I believed the speaker.  Strangely enough, even though I didn’t think this standard would be a universal one, my ballot ended up calling the final round results.   My ranks & the results:

6th place:  Girl talking about holding in our emotions.  Delivery was the most forced, and the topic both the most hand wavy and unresearched, and the most not true to my experience; there are a heck of a lot of people out there who won’t shut up about their emotions if you give them a chance to start.

5th place:  The girl from Desert Vista, AZ.  I remember she too was a little forced in her delivery.  I also have suddenly no idea what she talked about.  Zero.  I remember it being one of those interpersonal topics without much wider social impact, but it wasn’t untrue the way 6th place was, so that’s what got her 6th.  But, man, what an indictment; I have no clue what her topic was.

4th place:  Take it Personally.  This speaker talked about internet privacy.  You know, there was real potential here to talk about the widespread nature of a problem I’m well familiar with in my daily work and life, but really it just ended up being an anecdote fest about morons writing stupid things on the internet, like “we all” do.  I generally follow the rule that I’d never post anything on the internet I wouldn’t want my grandmother to read.  This standard does give me a lot of leeway, given that my grandmother is chews nails & spits out tacks, and can swear well enough to make a Marine blush.  However, that’s the rule, and I stick by it.  I gave her 4th because her topic and speech at least stabbed in the direction of something with more lasting impact than 6th or 5th place did.

3rd place: Boy talking about leaving a legacy. This speech actually intrigued me a lot, since what the kid was really talking about was not so much leaving a legacy and stressing out about it, but actually the fear of death.  Talk about your primal emotions.  I gave him 3rd because it was deeper than anything else in the round by far, as such, but I didn’t credit him too much because he didn’t address it directly — in fact, I think he was probably afraid to take that much of a risk.  So I wanted to like this speech a lot, but ended up not liking it as much.  If he had taken the topic on squarely, he’d probably have gotten my 1.

2nd place: Sensitizing.  Boy, from Loyola Blakefield, talking about video games and entertainment violence and its effects on real life violence.  I have to say, as someone who’s read into this topic a fair amount, I simply don’t buy that there’s a psychological link between playing grisly video games or watching violent movies and being more able to perpetrate such acts oneself; the worst thing violent media images does in my opinion is give ideas on how to execute violent acts to already-disturbed individuals.  However, I didn’t mark him 2nd because I disagreed with his thesis; he was 2nd because he had a thesis that went beyond the trials and tribulations of a high schooler, and talked about a social problem as a whole.  He took 2nd to the champion in my book because he didn’t really prove his case; he relied on too many anecdotes, not enough proof and research; but at least he did tackle something Real.

1st place:  Sex talk.  A bold choice for a topic, right off the bat.  She talked about how repression of honest, mature sexual communication — not media sex images, but actual adult-style talk — leads directly to social ills of unwanted pregnancies, bad hangups about sex among adults, and broken families.  Heady stuff indeed; she linked to the problem, talked about something that mattered, and most of all managed to get through an entire speech about sex without any resort to sophomoric humor.  I do think she fell a bit flat in talking about the causes; if she’d been really bold she would have mentioned that the root cause is clearly religion’s influence in the public sphere.  However, she still had the most serious topic — and most serious approach to it.  She was my clear 1.

Now what’s funny about it, is she just barely made it through at every stage of the game; she went a mediocre 3 3 1 3 in prelims, and then  2 4 1 in octos,  3 1 4 in quarters,  6 2 1  in semis.  In finals she was 5 3 1 1 2.  So at every stage people saw this content and the strong stand she took on a controversy, and said “No thanks”.  Hrmph.    I hate people sometimes.

Tomorrow, you’ll have either my completed post on Extemp finals, or my pontification on the PFD final.

Software Mayhem

The process of releasing changes to a piece of software got a lot easier with the advent of the web-driven application.  Time was, you had to build a new version of an application, and then go through a tortured rigamarole process of releasing a new version and watching as lots of old dinosaurs ignored the release and continued to bitch about the bugs you fixed in it.  Or worse, they instead downloaded and installed the upgrade, but some pecularity of their computing setup that you didn’t test for got in the way, and it explodes, taking all the user’s data with it.

And the answer to “Did you take a backup?” in such situations is always “Uh, no, was I supposed to?”

Sadly, you can’t test for everything, no matter how much you try.  The smoothest upgrades for software usually happen when the authors have found a way to reduce the number of tests needed, rather than conducting more of them; Mac OS X’s applications these days are largely self contained bundles, where you toss the old one and copy the new one into place.  So it’s not really an upgrade so much as a brand new install that shares a few settings.

Web applications follow a different logic.  It’s one of the reasons I designed tabroom.com to run off the web; I can change a single code file on the server, and it changes everywhere for everyone.  This model has a lot of advantages; I don’t have to worry about installers, about operating systems, about anything on your computer; as long as you have a browser (preferably not Internet Explorer, by the way), you have full access to all its features.

However, that leads to fun and games whenever I roll out a new feature or new toys or something.  This summer one of the big changes I made was a significantly revamped housing interface; I threw it together two years ago for the Lexington tournament, and I hadn’t really had a lot of time to put it together at the time.  So I cobbled together barely-good-enough and left it at that.  This August, instead, I ripped the whole thing out and built it mostly the right way, and it’s been working pretty well since then.

However, there are two bits of any piece of software that can be…exciting.  First is the software itself; it has to play it’s own game the right way.  The second, and more dangerous, is how well it plays well with others.  The interface between one part of software and another is the danger zone; the housing system could work perfectly, but it might screw up the calculation of judging obligations (another part of the software I overhauled over the summer), or the waitlist mechanism, or lord knows what else.   Some baroque combination of settings and tribulations might break something at any minute.  It’s very difficult to test for every such combination; and since I’m flying solo on this effort and have limited time to dedicate to it, it’s impossible for me to do so.

Over time, a software develops “maturity”.  The edge cases are found, the weirder bugs are teased out, and the complexity of the software settles into a known working state where the expected happens more and more often the more it is used.  That takes a few times and a few trials, and large portions of the software have resolved into exactly that role.  I launched the system in Kentucky this year, after MA and Jersey and various others have used it for years — they used the simple expediency of “asking.”  So far it’s going well; a few bumps, but nothing huge.  What’s great is that I know a few different ideas and ways of running tournaments now, which is helpful knowledge indeed for a local league leader like myself.

Housing and the stuff Menick is using hasn’t 100% yet, but we’re getting there.  I think next year during Bump I’ll hear from him maybe a quarter as often.  It may be sooner, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to turn off the “Break Randomly” setting that I’ve set on his user account.  I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he tries to export the divisions into TRPC.

The next tasks are speeding things up a little bit; I substantially cut down the disaster checking time last week.  I also made the printouts a little better.  But most of all, the advent of the “just do everything the way I want it done” button is just f’n wonderful.  It took me a while to get all the ducks in a row where that could work, but now it does and it’s lovely.

The next two big projects are at the behest of competing communities; first is programming in support for NFL Districts, which would please the Joyless crowd including the Reverend B.A. and my local folks.  I’ve never used Joy so I can’t comment on it too much, but the price tag is daunting if nothing else, and I strongly believe that participation in forensics should not be extractive.  A lot of adults go into forensics looking for something; for most it’s the ego boost of winning something, however vicariously, which depending on how far its taken can be healthy or not; extracting money from a largely impoverished activity distorts the world in a way my socialist soul dislikes.  I don’t accept money for tabroom.com, both because of that belief, and because if people paid me then I’d have obligations towards them, and that would make for a much worse dynamic.

Second is Debate support.  TRPC is a very handy program, and I can make it do most of what I need, but it does have quite a few warts, and the largest is that it’s not very easily learned; I have a very hard time training people up into using it.  It also resists certain things, and makes putting things together manually difficult, which is a shame, since it requires manual intervention so frequently.  I also don’t like it how only one set of data entry can be happening at once; tabroom lets you enter indiscrimiately from multple stations.  Mostly, though, Microsoft has entered into an era of rapidly changing APIs and programmatic requirements, and TRPC is programmed in an archaic runtime language that might not be supported for very much longer; I worry for the day when it no longer runs on anything but the “ol’ bessie” Windows XP computer in the corner; inevitably some future Yalie will try to check his email on it and spill a can of coke in it, and then we’ll be back to tabbing on cards before we know what happened.

And I’m sure when I do either one, something will break.  Hopefully not much though.  I am getting better at this.  Even I flinch when I find some early code of mine embedded in the system.

UPenn

This year I ran the UPenn Liberty Bell Classic for the third time, and the tournament has really turned the corner.   First, it’s just a nice campus, and a nice place to be in October.  The weather was stunningly perfect, and we eat very well; we have Barb G’s amazing french-toast bagels, we eat in Center City with Tony F, and during the day on Saturday they even stick a freshman into a cab at one point with orders for hundreds of Pats and Geno’s cheesesteaks for lunch.  I can’t remember which of the cheesesteak places is the racist one, but they’re both delicious.

The tournament also, after the typical rough Saturday morning start endemic to tournaments on college campuses, proceeded without a hitch.  On time, well attended, well judged.   The one part of the tournament that did get short shrift was policy, and it was all my fault; at several points I forgot which rooms we were supposed to use at which times and sent the poor tub-luggers scurrying all over creation.  And after seeing what remained of the powermatching in the 5th round, the 6th round quickly was revealed to be hopeless, if they wanted judging or opponents.  That’s the trouble with a small division, though.  Policy is slowly extracting itself from any relationship with the rest of forensics; there aren’t many tournaments left that have both the full slate of events, and an active and healthy Policy division.   That said, this year’s Yale draw was up around the 25 team mark, which while not exactly a huge deal, is also a perfectly viable tournament, especially given that those 25 teams came from about 10 different schools from various different states.

Ali H also did stupendous work with the judge wrangling.  Apparently she convinced the UPenn Law school that judging a high school debate tournament is a perfectly good way to earn pro bono service hours required to graduate.  At one level this sounds like a shenanigan to those of us who know what kind of specie and cajoling goes into finding hired judges, but on another level, it is actually a very good way to serve the community, especially given that the profits of the tournament go directly back into the high school community in the hands of Penn for Youth Debate, the on-campus wing of Perspectives, that’s working hard to bring LD Debate into the public school system of Philadelphia.

I started calling the Penn law school The Magic Judge Tree:  you just shake it and all the judges you’d ever want fall to the ground.  At one point, I looked at my TRPC instance with Public Forum loaded into it, and saw things like “Judges needed for round 3: 14.  Judges available:  32.”  They made excellent judges; several had longstanding LD and Policy experience and judged that; the rest made very sharp and very helpful Congress, Extemp, and PFD judges.   What a complete joy to tab; we had trouble with rooms that occupied a lot of my time and made the tabbing interesting, but judges simply were not an issue.  If we’d had the rooms, we could have single-flighted the entire thing; next year, we’re working on doing exactly that.  Imagine the platonic ideal of a tournament with five single-flighted rounds of debate on Saturday; we can kick the thing off at 11:00 and still end in time for a reasonable dinner.   Sleep in, get some breakfast, and then debate!  It’s almost civilized, and especially so compared to the usual bleary eyed death march that our tournaments become.

The one area that Penn suffers is their date.  We conflicted with St Marks’ this year, which isn’t a big deal, and also the MHL’s first year event and PSATs, which was a big deal.  Penn still drew a strong field of 70 or so VLDers, 57 PFD teams, and hit 80+ in both OI and DP, but the other events were rather smaller.  The trouble is this particular clear space in the northeast calendar doesn’t always exist; there are years where Manchester is earlier and Bronx is therefore back to back with Monticello with no room left for Penn.

So we need a more permanent solution and home.  I’ve been talking to them about the idea of taking on the biggest monopoly in forensics, the biggest bleariest-eyed death march, the overgrown debacle that happens at my glorious ancient alma mater every February.

OOooooOOoooooh.  David and Goliath there, eh?

Of course, they’d lose schools and interest from some of the people who go to the tournament each year.  But I think they’d also pick up a lot of interest from the large number of schools who do not enjoy and in many cases do not go to Harvard.  But more to the point, they could compliment each other well enough.  Penn’s tournament is not aiming to make money but to provide a service, and visibility for Perspectives.  Harvard’s tournament is no place for learners and novices; it’s competition in the purest sense.  So a UPenn tournament not too far away that charged a small fraction of the price that one pays for Harvard could be very valuable and viable.  The Philly local schools that attend Harvard could send their B squads, and the rest would have a tournament to go to at all.  It’s somewhat warmer, I’m sure; I live less than three miles from Harvard’s campus and yet that tournment weekend always seems unusually bitterly cold even to me.

On the other side, the Harvard tournament is not a pleasant experience in a lot of (fixable!) ways, and this is coming from someone who both gets to sleep in his own bed that weekend, and who knows the comfy hiding spots on campus so as to avoid Cambridge Ringe and Latin.  I’m sure the Penn round-robin could attract quite a number of the LDers who have fully qualled for the TOC already and see little point to subject themselves to the roundabout random-results-generator that is Harvard’s LD judging pool.  We could have educational talks and other perks that the single-flighted schedule of loveliness might permit.

Hell, if we’re feeling really generous, we could even have someone running the ballot table who won’t fine people for not picking up their ballot on time, when said people were waiting in the line that the understaffed ballot table itself was causing to move too slowly.  This actually happened to one of my judges two years ago at Harvard.  Minh scrubbed it away, which is fine if you know Minh, but if I was turned off enough in the first place that the ballot table person didn’t recognize what she was doing was wrong.  Of course, this is the same ballot table person who told Sarah that “obviously you don’t understand what it takes to put on a tournament of this scale” in the same year Boston was hosting Nationals.

There’s customer service and awareness of the forensics community for you.

It’d be ballsy, and would probably tick a few people off, but I don’t like sacred cows much and think there’s also value in challenging them.  It’s indicative that of the 40-50 or so active MFL speech programs maybe 5-6 make the effort to even go to Harvard, despite it being a huge national draw right in our backyard.  I don’t know if the Penn students are going to bite at the idea; granted, they have more to lose than I do if this flops and fails.  But I still like the idea, and if they don’t bite, I think I’m going to try to find another venue for the Harvard Alternative.

Until then, there are other battles to be fought.