Yale IV: BP, PF and Intervention

So now that I’ve talked about the rescued debacle that was the Yale IV tabbing experience this weekend, what’s up with the actual debating style?   What happened in the rooms?

Well that’s another story altogether.

Bear in mind that due to aforementioned tab hell, I only saw two rounds; an up bracket round 2 (yes, they power match their second rounds) and the final.

The format sounds very broken to American ears.  A BP round features four teams of two students all competing against each other.  The motion being debated is set tournament wide and announced fifteen minutes prior to the start of the round — teams then all run off and prep in hallways or other odd corners and then begin.   The teams are divided into quadrants on four axes — government/prop (for the motion) and opposition (against); and each of those are divided into a front half and a back half.

The front half team members will each give alternating 7:30 minute speeches for or against the motion in the front half.  Then they sit down and shut up, and the back half teams pick up from where the front half teams left off.  That’s it; 8 students, 8 speeches, no rebuttals or anything like that.  You can rise to ask a question when a debater is speaking (Points of Information, or POIs) but the debater more often than not will not entertain them — a typical debater, it seems, accepts about 2 of these each speech.

The four teams are all competing against each other for the judges’ affections.  They will be ranked in the round based on their placement on a point scale, determined by the quality of their contributions to the round, 1st through 4th.  So you’re competing against the people arguing on your side just as much as the ones on the other end.  Each position has a certain role and strategy to play; if you’re the 1st speaker on the 2nd opponent, you’re supposed to fill a different role than the 1st speaker on the government (called, of course, the Prime Minister).

So it’s roughly speaking a collection of 8 extemp speeches which interrelate and react to each other more so than most extemp rounds do.  And you can do interesting things with it sometimes; in the prelim I judged, the first opposition made a rather awful argument which the second opposition cleverly turned into a health-care politics disad.  The single-speech thing was jarring to me too, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

But at the end of the round, I had heard eight more or less interesting speeches about the topic, which contained a fair amount of clash, interesting arguments on a theoretical and pragmatic level, and most of the other things that good debates are supposed to have.  I think the quality might have more to do with the people participating,  than the format itself, but screw it, a good round is a good round.

Then came the judging.  There is a chair judge, and a panel of some number of judges as “wings”.  The chair sort of controls things but if there is more than one wing judge, the wings can vote to overrule the chair.  I winged for a very experienced former YDA debater who now coaches for them, which was a good assignment for one new to the activity.

Judging BP is dramatically different than high school debate for two key areas.  The first is that the panel reaches a decision through consensus.  The judges actively confer with each other after the round, and the chair attempts to guide the round to a consensus.  If there is no consensus, there’s a straight up vote like we do in high school land, but only after the judges have argued a little and discussed it with each other; the downside is that a persuasive judge could sway the rest of the panel, but these are debate judges so I don’t think there’s much fear of that.  And if there’s something that only one judge happened to catch, then all the judges can understand it before moving on.

It worked pretty well — better than I thought it would.

It works all the better because of the other key difference in judging BP.  Judging it is explicitly interventionist.  it’s not interventionist on the level of “I don’t agree with you and therefore you’re not getting my vote ever.”  But the convention of “you assume it’s true unless another debater says it’s false” doesn’t hold in BP.  Since the round is simply a series of single speeches, there’s no distinction between rebuttal and constructive; that more or less requires the judges be able to step in and weigh on their own knowledge, if only to fairly evaluate the very last speaker’s new material.  There was no sense that we had to wait for another debater to tell us what we knew already.   If they said something false, and I knew it to be false, they got dinged.  They were therefore trying to convince me, Chris Palmer, not my flow.   The first opp team in our round that didn’t understand how Roe v Wade works, and therefore lost — the motion was “Medicaid should pay for all currently legal abortions”.  The two teams that had the most clever arguments that were most responsive and true were the ones that competed closely for the first rank.  And they were able to mostly ignore what the first opp team had done with a light and appropriate dismissal, rather than drag half the round through it, since they were correctly confident we didn’t find it persuasive either.

High school coaches would recoil in horror, and when I heard about it I did a little myself.  In our debates, the ideal judge is the one who doesn’t inject any of him/herself into the round, and drives the flowpad and takes it wherever it leads.  Of course, nobody actually judges that way — least of all the people who most vigorously claim they do.  We all have preferences and things we resonate to the most to us, and try to express that in our paradigms.  But we don’t — and won’t — express our preferences on the level of gross factual mistakes, or gross logical mistakes.  We’ll vote on flavors but not errors.  It’s kind of weird, when you think about it.

So in the actual event when judging BP, the freedom to intervene was actually refreshing & remarkably liberating.  And what was better, since I was judging with others and we could talk before deciding, just about any factual or logic errors could be combed out and discussed.  I was genuinely torn between the two teams in the back half of my round; Rory made me realize that even though I wanted to vote for the 2nd opp for various good reasons, we really had to vote for the 2nd gov team — and he was right.  Otherwise, he and I agreed very quickly as to the ranks in our round.

I’ve been thinking lately a lot about why it is that debate events keep “going the way of Policy” in high school debate.  College parli has most of the features that people “blame” for speed and weird and/or dumb arguments in high school debate: students mostly judge each other; the oldest alumni “dino” judges are 2-3 years out; there’s zero adult coaching to speak of in APDA.  But APDA and BP has stayed relatively free of spreading, and is definitely free of dubious arguments based on long chains of barely connecting evidence that bring you from increased kitten birthrates to nuke war.   There has to be some difference between the two worlds, something that all high school events have in common which Parli does not.

I’m starting to think it’s the strict high school ban on intervention, both the “I disagree with you” kind, which should be banned, and the “I know you are wrong” kind, which I’m starting to reconsider.  In Policy, LD and PF, no intervention is the taught ideal.  A debater in a PF round once claimed to JJB that the US military cannot stop using outside contractors, since our soldiers are forbidden from being used on US soil, so without outside contractors nuclear weapons would go completely unguarded and that’s a reason to vote for them.  The other side conceded the point, incredibly enough, and tried to weigh out the ensuing nuclear disasters with soft power of all things.  I’m not sure who was more deluded there, and neither of them deserved a win truly, but the point is in that debate round, you have to swallow that ridiculous assertion as true because their numbskull opponents did.  You’d still have to swallow it if the opponents had said nothing at all, which is less defensible.  If the other debater doesn’t contest it, it’s true on your flow.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.

And it won’t persuade anyone.  Most people know instinctively, without need for any direct evidence at all, that if you try to break into a US Army nuclear facility you will not be stopped by rent-a-cops, but by some of the meanest, largest, most utterly humorless bona fide US soldiers you’ve ever seen.

There’s educational value to the logic puzzles that LD and CX rounds have become, and thus there is room for LD and CX debate.  Plenty of it.  But in high school debateland, there’s a hunger for something else, something we don’t have: an event were “kittens lead to nuke war” doesn’t win you rounds.  They tried to create it in PF, but PF is slipping inexorably in that direction already, speeding up and getting weirder.  I have a personal team rule: we run what we believe.  We don’t run things we don’t actually think are true.  It’s costing us rounds, and it’s hard on the kids — and it shouldn’t do either.

But debaters will do what judges vote for, and we tell PF judges not to intervene even if the debaters say patently ridiculous things.  If we truly want a persuasive debate event, we have to punish non-persuasive debaters in that event.  Judges who cannot intervene cannot punish non-persuasive debaters.  Persuasion is an important skill, clearly helpful but tangential to what LD and CX teach.  LD and CX are fine, but persuasiveness should be the niche that PF takes on, instead of just trying to be shorter Policy rounds.

So maybe we need to kill a sacred cow here, at least in one debate event.  Tell the judges to intervene and be honest when they’re not persuaded.  Persuasive debaters cannot assume their audience knows nothing, or what they do know is even correct, so they’re going to have to be responsible for knowing what the judges know, and what an average educated adult knows.  So they have to learn.   If you’re going to persuade, you have to deal with the audience you’re dealt, no matter how ignorant they may be.  You have to be sure to argue such that if they have incorrect factual information, they trust your information more — so no, that environmental study done by a assistant professor the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople doens’t outweigh the study done jointly between the entire Cal Tech and MIT environmental engineering departments, even if it is ten minutes more recently published.

Debaters would tell you that if you allow judges to let their knowledge guide them in deciding the round, that the very fabric of the universe would be torn, altered, and forever changed for the worse.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.   But I sat and watched the BP rounds, and persuasive argumentation was the norm.  The final was goofy and unpersuasive, but it was late and people were goofy so it wasn’t supposed to be on some level.  But the prelim definitely was.

Some say you can’t expect high school level students to have the background knowledge needed.  For a 15 minute prepped round, you may be right.  But you know, high schoolers do this sort of thing all the time.  Extemp does exactly this; it’s a speech which must be persuasive to a general audience, and if you’re wrong about something and the judges know it, you’re sunk; there’s no problem intervening on content and logic there.  And extemp is doing just fine.  It certainly doesn’t go nearly as fast and doesn’t involve lots of nakedly false assumptions as in debate.

Extempers pull that off in 30 minutes.  PFers have 30 days to do it.  I don’t think it’s beyond them.

So yeah, that’s what BP gave me.  It was fun to watch and I hope I can see it again sometime.  But it was also an insight into something that had been bothering me about the low quality of the arguments and persuasions even in a good high school round.

And I suppose by airing these thoughts, I’m going to get the daylights struck out of me forevermore.  Ah well.  I would abide by the rules of the event until they change, of course.  And I didn’t want to judge you anyway.

Yale IV II: The Saturday Slog

In high school land, we’ve been using TRPC for well over a decade to run tournaments, and tabroom.com for nearly as long to run speech tournaments.  However, there are plenty of us who still know how to do things the Old Fashioned Way.  High school coaches have a relatively long tenure in the activity, so most of us still remember the Good Old Days with distaste and bile, when tab rooms required twice as many people and involved a lot of bending over large table filled with rows of index cards.

Occasionally we still use the old card method. When a tournament has very small divisions — fewer than 12 or so students — or your entry is lopsided, with a few large teams making up most of the field, TRPC tends to fail in mild to spectacular ways.   Your pairings are never going to follow all the rules and constraints, and TRPC’s response to that is not to degrade gracefully, but to just give up and leave teams off the schematic.  You can put the teams that were left out back in manually, but at the point when you’re manually re-entering half the field each round, cards are just easier. Manual methods also let you choose which constraints you want to break first, and to be creative in paneling; sometimes it makes sense to panel round 2 in a suboptimal way to pre-empt an even larger problem in round 3.

However, disaster sometimes forces us to break out the index cards, too.  Once at Yale, about 9 or so years ago, an early version of TRPC completely scrambled its own brain between rounds 2 and 3.  The whole thing was irrecoverably lost.  We had printouts of round 1 and 2 results though, and so Tim A and the LDish Yalies created cards, and handled the rest of the tournament on them.  It took a lot of work, but we kept it only an hour behind schedule.  So all in all, it turned into a good war story and a good tournament.

TRPC has grown much more stable since, and the fear of tragedies like that has diminished.  TRPC also gives you tools to manually fix minor corner cases.  However, those tools are mostly useful to people who understand debate tournaments. Understanding tournaments comes from running a few manually, so you know how the computer does what it does, and why.  Otherwise, you’re just entering data and hoping, you’re not actually directing your tournament.   So I’m comfortable using TRPC because I know what it’s doing and that I could do it myself if I had to; and I have nothing on JM:  the good Admiral can practically make TRPC dance jigs and sing opera, because he both understands the software very well, and he understands tournaments themselves just as well.

And of course tabroom.com does whatever I want it to; pairs speech, follows my rules, annoys the Admiral.  That’s the benefit of rolling your own software.  When you get annoyed at something it does, you change it.

However, I’ve been worried about the day when a tournament is run by a staff entirely unfamiliar with manual methods, and which trusts the computer to do all and know all.  That approach will work nearly all of the time.  But it won’t work always, and if it ever doesn’t work, there’s no way to recover from it.

That’s where international debate appears to be stuck.  On Saturday night at the lovely hour of midnight, when we started making cards at the Yale IV, the Worlds folks were astonished by this “crazy, messy system”.  They had no idea how it was done.  It became clear they wouldn’t be able to help much, so we tossed them back into the judging pool; having them judge and me tab was probably the best division of labor for the tournament anyway.  But the card system is actually neither crazy, nor new — and it was very neat and tidy, thank you.  There’s a certain satisfaction having your whole tournament layed out on two tables in neat rows, there for all to see and check.  But our international guests were totally unfamiliar with even the possibility of card tabbing, and didn’t understand what was going on, so to them it was novel.

Making cards in the old days, of course, meant starting days before, and in the later days, printing out labels from Excel.  The local Staples was closed at 11 PM on Friday, amazingly.   Having to do all that manual work after Round 2 was much less fun.  We ended up staying up until 4 AM getting cards and judge cards written, rounds 1 and 2 recorded, and round 3 paired and written up.  I took excuse of advanced age and insomnia, and slept until the end of Round 3 the next morning, which got me about 4 hours of sleep — AC and DD had to wake up for the start of Round 3 at 8:30, which got them a 2 hour nap.  They’re law students, which makes them both more used to it, but also less rested to begin with.

Saturday was a bit foggy for all — exhausted, going through the motions.  The rounds progressed steadily, with longer than usual but not unacceptable delays between them, and we got them all in.  We broke to quarters, and then semis, and finally got the chance to leave and have some pizza and beer and a break from the tab room.  There was a driving rainstorm, but none of us cared much.  My phone was off with a dead battery, my internet largely ignored — it was just one task after the next and get us to the end.  In the end, we kicked finals off at about 10:30 PM.  Such a late start time would have been monstrous to high school debaters and coaches, who would have broken out the pitchforks and torches long ago, but the collegians took it in stride.  I think they regularly have rounds late.

The final of a single-event tournament is a Big Deal.  The four teams in it were the four top seeds, which I gather is about as rare at BP tournaments as it is for us.  Three teams were Canadian: McGill, Hart House (University of Toronto) and Queens.  The Americans were from the University of Alaska, which I gather usually competes in Canada and thus is Canadian by proxy.  I’ll talk about the final itself in the next post about British Parliamentary debate.  But I did watch, and it was entertaining and funny, if not really that serious.

After the final (Hart House won), they had an actual party which actual debaters go to, unlike high school tournaments which sometimes ill-advisedly offer parties and no debaters go to them unless forced.  The important difference is that colleges can offer more interesting beverages than high school tournaments would.  The Yalies then gave me a round of applause and a bottle of a very interesting beverage indeed in thanks for saving the day.  I was a bit spotlighted — AC and DD were at least as critical, probably more, though they did get similar bottles.  But DD and AC are known to that community; I was a total mystery, and had never introduced myself or been introduced.  I got asked by a couple of Canadians who exactly I was — “You seemed to just be there fixing things and carried a lot of authority at the tournament but no one knew who you were.”  Crap, is it that obvious?  Am I permanently unable to just blend in at a tournament setting, even one where I know nearly no one?  Am I going to always be asked when round 3 is going to be posted, even if I’m among complete strangers?  Not a good sign.  They can smell the tab room on me.

I stayed until it was socially acceptable not to, trudged to the hotel room, and fell dead asleep for the next nine hours.  My train was supposed to leave at 6:15 PM on Saturday.  Ha.  So I hitched a ride home Sunday with a very kind MIT debater who is friend to many Yalies.    I sank into my sofa and nearly cried for the joy of it, and watched England host New England in shellacking the Bucs on the tifaux.

Tomorrow:  on the debates themselves.  I did get to see two rounds, a pretty good Round 2, and the final itself.

Yale IV Part I: The Meltdown

This weekend, instead of my usual jaunt to a high school or high school venue, I went down to Yale for a second time this month for the Yale Intervarsity, a tournament in the Worlds Debating Championships’ British Parliamentary style.  I was going to satisfy curiosity — JJB is a huge fan of British Parliamentary debating styles, and was very successful at it.

However, the format has always sounded terribly broken to my ears.  I’m going to talk about the format and the style in a later post, because it coincides with some things I’ve been thinking lately about Public Forum and high school debate in general.  However, there are first Tales to be Told.  Suffice it to say that I was looking forward to a gentle weekend at Yale where I could simply go where I was told and listen for a change, and maybe learn and pick up something new.

The best laid plans…

They use a software program called Tabbie to run BP tournaments, which in a lot of respects is like tabroom.com.  It runs on a webhost, with a database backend and a series of scripts that manipulate the data.

But it has a few serious drawbacks.  For instance, there’s no security whatsoever; if you know the URL of a tournament, you can access it fully.  Second, it inexplicably doesn’t accept half speaker points.  BP uses half point scores extensively — the point scale basically runs between 23 and 27, with the half steps in between — so this flaw requires you to double all scores when you enter them to avoid non-integers.

However, most fatally for us, Tabbie requires each step be done in sequence.  You must explicitly finalize each step before moving onto the next.  So, you can pair that round and adjust assignments manually if you so desire, but before you can enter results, you have to make that round permanent.  When you enter results, the same thing; once you finalize your data entry, you cannot go back and change it again.

Now that’s all fine if tournaments and debaters never had anything odd happen during them.  On planet Earth, however, we’re constantly having to adjust the theory represented by the schematic to the realities presented to us by the tournament.  People drop out mid round, urinate their pants, puke all over the floor — in one case a few years back, a poor student fainted dead away in the middle of round.   More often, we discover a minor tab mistake or mis-entry — or even the cases where the judge discloses one way and mistakenly writes the ballot the other — and go back and fix it retroactively.  I think if using Tabbie you’d have a tendency to delay — don’t finalize the pairing until you get all the ballots in and they match reality, don’t finalize the ranks and pair the next round until you’ve done a real tight double check.  That might explain their casual approach to schedules.

So at Yale we learned that if one were to, say, panel and finalize round 1, and then later delete out a team because it had been entered incorrectly in the wrong school to add it into the right school, that team will disappear from the database.  That means in the round 1 pairing, you have this little pointer to nowhere in the middle of a round.  It doesn’t go through and remove them from the finalized pairing, at least not as far as I can tell.  It just leaves the indicator to that team in place, and it goes nowhere.

And, since the pairing has been finalized, you now have absolutely no way to go back and change it to reflect the new reality.

So there’s this funny ghost team in that round.  No results can be entered into it; the database lacks a field to save them into now.  The correct team cannot be subbed in.  Attempts to save and move on produced complaints that not all rounds have been entered yet.  Thus, the next round could not be paired.  Apparently they’ve never heard of lag pairing either.

The stories I’ve heard about Parli tab rooms are making much more sense to me now.

So that’s what happened at Yale, or something like it; I was only able to inspect the database after the fact, so it’s possible there were intermediate steps of brokenness, and the final state of broken as I observed it was simply the result of trying to fix a different root cause.  Tabbie does permit you to export an actual database dump and then re-import it, which would have been nice for me to know on Friday night, since once I did get in there on Sunday I fixed the problem in about twenty minutes.

So my story.  My train arrived too late to judge round 1.  Then, the Yalies took me to dinner and said they had enough judges for round 2, so we didn’t return until time for round 3.  I thought that was a bit callous, but then I’m not used to being just a civilian judge and taking it so easy during the actual tournament, so I went along.

Meanwhile, the hell described above was breaking loose.  I returned and asked if round 3 pairings were out yet, and was told Round 2 hadn’t happened.  Ouch.  The poor tabbers had worked at this for about four hours between rounds 1 and 2.  Trouble was, there wasn’t much in the way of executive difficult-decision making going on.  They were well past the time of just giving up and doing it manually, but the tabbers had wider concerns.  They’re both higher-ups in the upcoming Worlds Debate tournament, and somewhat understandably felt they needed to recover from this disaster and get it right, to be sure they knew how to handle any similar situation at Worlds.

But at a certain point a future tournament has to take a back seat to the current tournament.  You have to go with something you know will work, not something you hope will work.  But the Yalies had no pull over the tabbers, and the tabbers were tunnel visioned.   I then realized something — I was the only person over 30 in the area.  None of these folks — with the exception of DD, whose Regis roots meant he’d seen tournament schematics written in Latin on parchment — had so much as seen a tournament hand tabbed before.  Turns out the mere possibility was a surprise to them.  “This system works?”  “We used it for decades.”

So that gives me pause.  A painful arresting moment ensued and I saw what my weekend was to be.  I tried to think of other options, and sighed to the inevitable when I failed.  I went into tab, walked up to DD who was struggling to pair a round in Excel alone, and said the fatal words.

“Do you need help?”

The die was cast.


This year’s Yale Invitational was an exercise to answer the question, “Can Palmer run a major invitational tournament while mostly walking around in a relative fog and running at a rather low level of motivation?”  The answer, it appears, is yes.  The tournament ran fine, and the crack tab staff did their usual crack thing.  We had gloriously deep and quality judging pools, and a model for the tournament that has mostly fit and worked really well over the last decade.  The ballot scanning effort worked decently well despite a bug in the software which was my fault entirely — and the nice thing about a scanning system is when you screw up ballot sorting, you get to redo it, unlike with paper when the mistakes are eternal.  So even though I’ve been tremendously off my game — culminating in this awful cold this week that won’t go away, though it turns out it’s not swine flu — Yale went along just fine.

However, this year’s Yale was the one that has me seriously reconsidering my generosity towards allowing independent entries into the tournament.  I feel for independents, because it’s only by a very twisted and coincidental path of fate that I ever participated in forensics myself, and there’s more than a little “There but for the Grace of God go I” when I look at struggling programs that often are on the outside looking in.   Public channels in the forensics world will periodically express ineffective concern that the activity is only truly accessible in the fullness of its opportunity to a select few students, mostly white, suburban and wealthy ones.  Not even all suburban wealthy and white students have access, even.  The penetration of this form of education in the Northeast is very uneven.

But nothing seems to come of those conversations, because ultimately it points to a wider problem in society that we have very little influence or control over: education as a whole is underfunded.  It’s sad that only one high school out of ten has a debate or speech program, but it’s ultimately because high schools are kept permanently cash strapped and resource starved by a tax-averse society that tries to believe, often through the best efforts of our elected officials interested in staying our elected officials, that there’s some Magic Formula of Education out there by which we can get great schools on the cheap and not have to pay more into the common good to get more common good out.  Schools are expensive, and good schools more expensive still — but we’re democratically hiding behind these notions that evil teacher’s unions and bureaucrats and various other obstacles are what make schools perform badly, not simple lack of funding, because to believe otherwise would mean paying more taxes, and nobody seems to want to do that.

So only a few schools have programs and that won’t change until the shape of society itself changes.  What that does mean, however, is that some programs have folks who can contribute to the maintenance of the activity as a whole, and some don’t.  The latter serve as a hidden tax on the former — I run a lot of tournaments, and that’s a tax on my own students and teams.  I have finite hours, and they’re growing smaller — and so Newton South itself pays a bit to make Yale happen.  As does Scarsdale, and HenHud, and NFA, and University, and Ridge, and St Joseph’s, and Trinity…

So here’s the thing about independent entries.  They’re a pain in the ass.   They don’t read instructions, they don’t read the invite, nd they constantly are screwing things up.  I don’t mind when, say, a new coach screws things up, honestly, because I know the time I take to explain how things work to a new coach won’t be wasted — they won’t, unless they’re a blithering idiot, screw things up the next time.  Independents carry no such promise.  Easily 75% of the registration screwups and questions whose answers were in the invite this year were from independent entries — and we had less than 10 of 124 schools consist of independents.  And independent entry schools will never pay it forward.  They won’t be tab staff at Yale some year, as a new coach might.  They won’t ever do their part to make the community run.  Often they view tournaments as a transaction — I pay you money, you provide me service.  But that’s not really how tournaments work.  I’m not paid to run Yale, I run it because it’s worth doing — and the money itself goes forward to other tournaments and more debate, on the college level or the New Haven Urban Debate League.

So the more hassle and the more nonsense I have to put up with when I run tournaments means less time for my own students.  There’s a reason my debate teams never clear at Yale, though the extempers have had good success.  And the more I consider whether it’s worth it to give those 5-10 kids each year who have no team at their own school the chance to come to Yale.  It’s all good to claim that we should do everything and anything to provide students with fair opportunity, but that’s not exactly true — coach time and adminstrative time is a finite resource, and it may be best to conserve it where the payoff is small to spend it later where the impact on the community is better.

For now, I’m considering levying some ridiculous fine on anyone who asks a question whose answer is in the invite.  Good luck enforcing that one, I know.  But it’s tempting.