The other side of Columbia

I’m gradually emerging from the intensity and focus of the Columbia Invitational.

This year’s version went very well; Matty Skillz put forth a fine showing together with his agile assistants David Yin and Caitlin Halprin. They all fundamentally got it. I like it when I can run tournaments where the folks I’m helping understand the purpose and the aim of a tournament, and I don’t have to have arguments about priorities and investment in the future and showing the kids a good time versus profit. Some college teams, like Columbia, want to really put on a good time and if they make a little money on the side, then that’s terrific. Others are driven solely by profit. I have little interest in the long term in the latter sort of tournament; they’re impossible to improve over the long term.

If I’m not arguing that point with college hosts, I can spend more time refining the actual tournament. My role in these things is to remember last year’s mistakes and victories, and attempt to repeat the latter while avoiding the former. If we all agree on the ideal — showing a good time to the kids who attend — then the details are all we need worry about. When priorities conflict, I get gravely unhappy, not least because then last year’s problems aren’t fixable because the host schools do not care about them much. I also tend to start spending ridiculous amounts of money on meals and other frills.

This year’s college crop was 2 out of 3 on the attitude front, which is a good sign for the college tournament world. The odd ones out, those Yalies, I think are coming around as well. I hope they’re not just doing it out of fear that I’ll abandon them (which I would), but because they recognize the genuine value of their tournament.

Our big problem at Columbia was a lack of competent people for tabbing who didn’t need to be told how to do things. Usually we have a raucous party of folks in the tab room there, enough so that everyone gets a break. This year, Emory and Ridge intervened due to a disappearing January weekend. It may not have sucked away our oxygen for quality competitors or judges, both of which we had in spades. But it sure kicked us in the tab staff, as Vaughan and several others were off missing in Atlanta. As far as I knew, the only folks at the tournament who’d run TRPC before were myself, Jonathan (who hates it), Jim Menick, and Anthony Berryhill, whom we hated to lose as a judge. So we ran on a tight, tense shoestring tabwise. C’est la vie, a point of improvement for the next year, when we won’t conflict with anything.

If the online chatter is to be believed, the tournament has passed from a “doubtful finals” bid to a “probably could use a semis” bid in just a few short years. That said, the tournament was tightly fitted to a small campus, so who knows how much growth it can handle. But I think we’ll end up shrinking instead, in a directed way.

We could use an excuse to slice out the schools that seem unable to observe the proper tournament etiquettes of listening to announcements, making their students appear for rounds, reading the invitation, and picking up ballots. I’d love a tournament with the 80% of folks who understood that the whole onus of managing a tournament does not fall on the tab staff and tournament hosts; a smoothly run tournament is as much a function of the attendees as anything we do. I just release schedules and pairings, and hope for the best; no tournament can run around and accompany debaters and judges to each round. Releasing a pairing is a moment of trust; and invariably it’s broken. Often by repeat offenders.

However, you can do wait lists and caps all you like, but unless you go to an Emory system of applications, there’s no perfect filter. After Columbia, where dozens of people complained about having to judge after having signed up to be a judge, simply because the schedule was inconvenient to them, I’m contemplating just playing blatant favorites with the wait lists and being done with it. Playing fair with people who do not is a fool’s game. Perhaps I can make position on the waitlist track how many fees and fines you paid the previous year. That might nip things in the bud nicely.

That’s one of the luxuries of a tournament like Columbia, which was about 15% too large this year. You can tell anyone you like to piss off, so everyone has to play by the rules. Sometimes in the early stages of a tournament pissing off the wrong person might collapse the whole thing; they don’t come back, and nobody else does either. After this year, I don’t think that’s true of the Powder Blue Classic anymore; Yale crossed that threshold about four years ago. And certainly of the three huge schools that do attend, only one is a less than exemplary citizen.

There were a lot more thoughts that came out of Columbia this weekend. The combination of a tight schedule, long hours, and college tournament hosts who cared a lot about the tournament as a tournament, not a concessions opportunity, has stirred up a lot of thoughts about the process and place of tournaments. More to come.


Work took me to Ithaca, NY, where I spent most of today struggling against the network setup there.  I want a relatively simple thing; a network that joins up with Cambridge’s.  But I don’t have quite the right mix of what I need.  I have a server that should be able to operate with only sporadic contact with the home base in Cambridge, but apparently doesn’t.  Ticks me off, it does, and leads me to spend one of those days rolling a sisyphean rock up the hill.  Nothing is more frustrating and terrible than that, in this line of work: the thing that doesn’t work, and you don’t know how to make it work given the tools you have.

But last night I drove from Syracuse, where my flight landed, to Ithaca.  Along the way, I drove through Syracuse, a middling sized city of lit, empty streets.  I passed through Cortland, which looked like any other collection of neon and red plastic signs drawing attention to the inevitable chain stores.  The strip malls blend in with the next; town boundaries blur, and identities blur.  What separates Cortland really from Syracuse, or Syracuse from Utica, or Schenectady, or Pittsfield, or Fitchburg?  Their city centers are distinct, but barren; their outskirts lively, but so much the same; bright red and blue overlit signs, parking lots, and commercial monotony.

Ithaca has a sunburst of character, but it’s unsustainable without the weight of Cornell to draw that critical mass here.  That’s how Ann Arbor works, and Madison.  Large cities manage it too, through sheer numbers; though we have Detroit to offset Boston, and Newark looks over New York’s shoulder.  San Francisco is lovely, but Phoenix is just depressing, and in exactly the same way that Syracuse is depressing.  Places with such august names should live up to them; Syracuse should be a city of hills and Greek columns and libraries, while Phoenix should spread oranges and reds and yellows so the very ground seems to burn with it.

Not so much.  Instead corporate branding ply their psychological games.  Supposedly, whenever I see the blue and yellow sign I immediately think Best Buy and am seized with the urge to buy a $4,000 television.

Talent flows from places like Syracuse to places like Ithaca.  It flows from places like Fitchburg to places like Boston.  And that’s sad, since there’s nothing saying that a place like Fitchburg couldn’t be the center and source of civic pride that once it was, where someone with talent could stay and build and make it a little bit better, except that we’ve had choices made for us in the country and economy that say it’s efficient for our entire country to be the same strip mall, repeated over and over.  I immediately know where I can buy a certain thing, but I never know quite where I am.

Iowa Addendum

It’s elections like that that make me wonder why people make political predictions.  I suppose predicting the future and having others listen makes people feel smart.  I never make predictions, even as extempers always ask me for them.  This year is an especially good example; I can make a really compelling argument why no one will win the Republican nomination, but it’s not like the GOP is going to sit this one out or anything like that.  But anyway, no predictions from me.   I am, however, probably going to vote for Hillary.


So I had an utterly useless vacation between Christmas and New Year’s.  It was useful in the sense that I avoided the psychic despair that comes upon everyone sitting around faking it in a non-retail job that week.  Retail folks, of course, are in the middle of hell on earth, but that brand of hell is at least engaging, the way a tournament about to come off its rails is; that mix of fear together with the lack of time to contemplate it sure gets the blood pumping.

My company knows better.  That, or the management team all wanted to take the week off themselves, and were insufficiently pointy-haired to make us grunts come in anyway.  I work for good people, actually, which is a refreshing change from Harvard; I come up with an idea, instinctively try to remember the ways landmines might be placed in the way of that idea, shake myself, and then just go talk to Bruce.  I haven’t yet not returned ten minutes later with a “yeah, do it.”   Of course, it’s always good when your boss comes in and says things like “Uh, could you spend about $15,000 on a pair of new servers sometime today?”

Anyhoo, I digress.  My winter vacation, such as it was, was spent on various couches, reading, futzing around with the computer, buying presents for people I knew I wasn’t going to see before Christmas, cleaning the house, and whatnot.  It sounds nice, but honestly it wasn’t.  Being around the house means being around all the things I had to do, and that list is too epic for anyone’s good.  However, I also managed not to get very many of them done; I emphasizing the “futzing” part of “futzing around on the computer.”  “Futzing” does include “playing Civ4 until the Russians bled!” but does not include “starting in on the big list of changes I need to make to before NCFL Nationals. ”

There was also this general malaise thing going on; lots of folks were out of town and busy and I wasn’t particularly able to relax the whole time.  I’m happy to be back to the day job now (and back working full time actually; my schedule weeps, though my checkbook rejoices.)  That at least has a nice sense of balance and order, and gets me out of the cavernous house.

I also think that I need to learn how to go away for vacations.  I went to Florida for two weeks two years ago, missed a couple of tournaments, and nothing tragic happened at all.  Sitting around the house just isn’t the same.  I’ve always been bad at travel; I love New England, dislike uncertainty, don’t mind the winter cold that much, and have no one to go with by default.   Plus I travel so damn much for forensics that the few times I do find myself in an airport alone I get nervous because there’s no one to count or herd through security except myself.

Ah well.  I guess I should just plan a random trip.  I have a free round trip domestic flight coming my way because I took a bump on flight to Philly last August.   I wonder where I should go….