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.