the loneliest moment

A paradox of debate is that an activity where thousands of people argue with each other at once can still leave us lonely.

I don’t buy into personality type tests, but I am certainly an introvert. Constant exposure to people wipes me out, but when I go to tournaments, my place is usually at the center of the storm. That costs energy. So, after all is done and I fly or drive home, I’m ready for a break from all you screaming performers. But I live alone. Before this year, I’d return home to an empty and cold house and it would be too quiet, too fast. The stampede of debaters and judges who all rely on me for assignments and results were gone, and I’m just left with an echo. It’s strange to be lonely at the same moments you most want to be alone, but on those Tuesdays After, I was.

But that was the Before Times. The age of lockdown has been unkind. I’m a loner, sure, but also a nomad: I used to travel constantly, and even when I was home, I’d leave the house every day, if only to go work in a coffee shop or the library. The buzz of people around helps me focus, and the journey forms a boundary between work and not-work. In other words, I need people around that I can ignore. And it’s a rare introvert who can make do without human contact at all. I’ve found myself talking back to podcasts, or pacing around the living room for an hour at a time, or wasting gas just to change the scenery.

It feels like the worst year of our lives, even for those of us who’ve so far avoided direct harm from the greater wounds 2020 offers: the virus itself, the poverty it has sparked, the smoke and flames of an entire coast ablaze, or the constant reality that police can end black lives and stay free. Against that balance of misery, my own debts seem minor. But the lesson of a lonely time is that sometimes, no one is there to look out for you. Right now, no one can be, even if they wish to. You have to be careful of your own troubles, even if others have it worse. Being lonely and down might be the baseline right now, normal by majority vote. But it is no less healthy or easy to shoulder.

I bear the dubious honor of being Debate Famous. There are several ways to become Debate Famous — you can win a lot of tournaments, serve on a lot of tab staffs, national boards or committees, or just be obnoxious for long enough. Some manage all three! But I took perhaps the easiest route, and joined a tiny band with few entrance requirements and even fewer members. I am one of the Techies.

I cheat in calling us a band, for one of the defining features of a debate techie is that we all drift on separate islands. Each debate techie is tied to a Project. These projects are usually the residue of a hobby idea that got out of control. Tabroom is certainly that: it now runs 3,000ish tournaments a year and serves millions of hits per weekend. It’s a luxury beyond telling that the NSDA can make it my full time job and dedicate others to helping with the tsunami of emails that results from its popularity.

But at the end of the day, even with that support behind me, I’m still alone. Nobody understands Tabroom and its internal workings half so well as I do. If something major breaks, I can fix in minutes what might take anyone else several days. Speech & debate is never so lucrative that our scant resources can hire me a co-programmer; they’ve had to stretch to underpay me enough to do this full time. And that’s the root of my Debate Fame, because I am Tabroom, and it is me, as far as the debate world sees it. Every user of Tabroom therefore is one who relies on Palmer.

Such “fame” comes with a price, for technology is brittle. From time to time, some hidden capacity limit is reached, or a buried mistake in code I wrote six years ago decides TODAY IS THE DAY! My machines start to stagger, and disconnect, and lock up. My phone starts dancing with messages, half of which start “You probably already know about this, but… .” People have no choice, because only I can type the keys that get your tournament started again. Sometimes I fix it immediately, and people barely notice the trouble. Sometimes it takes me an hour, or two —or four ­— to find the illness and its cure. And those times are the loneliest moments I know.

If you were in a tab room with me, you’d just see me beating the crap out of my laptop keyboard. You’d hear me mutter incomprehensible nonsense to myself, as if I were chanting spells to appease furious eldritch demons of silicon and resin. I’d be zeroed in, focused on the screen, phone definitely muted. But I’m still utterly aware of you all. I can feel your eyes, the eyes of each and every one of the tens of thousands of you who rely on me to continue your tournament day. You might not know where I am, or even what I look like, but I can feel your eyes all the same, in the place where my neck meets my shoulders that tighten and coil with the strain of it. And I can’t step away, I can’t delay, because there’s no one to hand the problem to, and thousands are waiting.

It’s a pretty steep personal cost, this consequence of the realities of our activity, and the ever insufficient resources we have to stretch to meet our problems. Software is delicate, with so many layers and complexities that are impossible to fully predict or understand. Imagine an engineer designing a bridge: they carefully calculate known stress factors, material strengths, expected weights and the like to arrive at a construction whose weakest point is much stronger than the load it will bear. Now make the engineer do it without knowing what material half the bridge is made out of. Throw three hundred hollow rivets into their supply. Then build sixteen more bridges stacked atop the first one, all with unknown materials and different designers. Would you drive across those bridges? But that’s software development for you. Thankfully, unlike our hypothetical stack of bridges, nobody dies when speech & debate tech collapses, though you wouldn’t know it listening to people sometimes.

Because of this constant ticking disaster we call software, companies can spend billions on people like me. Vast teams of techies find and fix expensive problems, but those billions can only make outages happen less often, not never. Google had serious downtime just two days ago, and Tabroom’s entire annual budget is a rounding error in their departmental catering bill. But Google’s wizards are not underpaid, or alone. Their problems are greater in size, but not much different in kind.

When Debate Techies get together, that’s what we talk about, those lonely moments. You may imagine great rivalry between Speechwire and Tabroom and TRPC. There is none; I can think of no greater personal nightmare than Speechwire disappearing and having to fill even a portion of the gap it’d leave behind. But even if we did view each other as the Enemy, you would never see me laugh at Ben when Speechwire goes haywire, and he would never do the reverse. The price of admission to the little club of Debate Techies is understanding what that moment feels like. You cannot see another suffer it without sympathy and remembering your own terror.

The era of covid has affected debate like everything else. Online debate was always a side hobby project of a few visionaries, but never got much real traction — until suddenly in April it was everything. Every member of the little band of debate techies had to drop all plans and change our entire world overnight. 2020 Nationals was going to be the first all-online balloted Nationals anyway, but overnight that was no longer a Project but an Assumption. Priten suddenly joined our ranks with his terrific Classroom.cloud project, and therefore saved the TOC and Nationals both. He got his very own baptism, with a slowdown and lockup the first day of Nationals; I spent those moments in the Des Moines office preventing people from calling him. I know.

But Classrooms is based on Zoom and therefore can be pricey. Large expensive tournaments can swing it, but in the world as it existed in April, the type of small local tournaments I grew up in — the Massachusetts local that charges about seven bucks an entry — could not begin to afford it. Circuit kids may mock those types of tournaments, but speech & debate wouldn’t exist without them. And so, we set about trying to find a way to keep them alive, and the result is NSDA Campus. I’ve helped with Campus at the edges, but again all speech & debate tech must be lonely, and this burden belongs to Hardy.

It turns out spinning up a custom private video conferencing on-demand service given about 3 person-months of work and a shoestring budget isn’t simple. So we’ve had our problems. The first couple of weeks went fine, but then we hit a threshold of usage that triggered an odd undocumented condition in our proxy service — the traffic cop that keeps all the traffic for your particular PF round going to the same server so you can see your opponents and judge. The proxies went nuts and started sending people anywhere and nowhere. It was not because we didn’t have enough server capacity — we’re running our servers on Amazon’s cloud, which also hosts services you might have heard of, like “Netflix.” As I write this 128 machines are serving Campus rooms just fine. The flaw was a condition buried deep in someone else’s code that would only manifest when we had more than 400 rooms going at once. It’s fixed and behind us.

Today we hit another, tripped by a new threshold of 3,000 users. Hardy found these new issues, and fixed them too. Because that’s what we do in the little club of Debate Techies.

It’s hard to test these things. We don’t employ a couple thousand people who can be drafted to all join online rooms at once, just so we can see what breaks. There are ways to simulate that type of load in testing environments, but setting such things up is time consuming too, and each of us lonely techies has an enormous list of problems to deal with right now. It’s hard to find time for the future’s problems when when we have so many already on fire in the present. And of course, only one of us can solve most of them. Hardy is the person who understands my tech province best, and vice-versa — but if we traded to-do lists, our productivity would nearly vanish. The difference is like translating text into a language you’re fluent in, versus one where you have to look up every 5th word.

And so was Hardy was condemned to another pair of lonely moments for each of those bugs. He knew they’d come. We all do.

Because today the demons came for him and not me, I feel more free to speak, to point out the underlying realities of our activity, and to shed light on the effort we’re making to keep our speech & debate circus going despite a global pandemic. The type of tech required to do debate online is only barely ready for what we’re asking it to do. If covid-19 hit 10 or even 5 years ago, speech & debate would simply have shut down. As it is, we haven’t caught our breath. Everyone in the debate tech world has been running full tilt for months now, trying to get this all to work — and sometimes, we fail. We can promise you effort. We can never promise perfection. Neither can Google and its billions.

But perhaps, on behalf of the other members of my little tribe, I can ask for more clemency, at least in public. It is unkind at best to churn out memes about a service that someone just spent three days not sleeping to fix for you. It’s unwise to hit Facebook to air grievances or unfounded theories as to what the issues are. And most of all, it’s bad form to suggest we give up on the whole project, and give up affordable speech & debate tournaments with it, because of a few software kinks that made you wait around a couple hours — at home, no less — in the early days of an immensely complicated project that did not exist and was not planned for six months ago.

When you do so, you underestimate the realities and the economics that go into the projects that us lonely techies are keeping alive so that debaters can debate and speechies can speak. But more than anything, what you do most of all is take our loneliest moment, and make it lonelier. In the era of covid, when the gaps between us in real life are so huge and enforced by a deadly and invisible enemy, we should be careful before adding to another’s isolation.

And do remember, none of us in debate tech are in it for the fabulous wealth and prizes. We do this because we’re tied to the activity, and find it worthwhile to make your competition work better and faster in normal times — or to work at all, now in the age of pandemic. We do it because I too once paced in prep rooms before giving extemp speeches, while Priten and Hardy blitzed through policy debate rounds and Ben prepped his IEs.

Any of us could expand our wealth and free time by leaving speech & debate, and the lonely moments it causes us. We stay because of the satisfaction and our connection to this community. So consider please the living, breathing, lockdown-trapped & lonely person at the other end of that link before you decide to trample on us because the fragile tech we’re trying to build snapped today. Even if the meme is funny.