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.

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.

A theory of theory

A is the interpretation.

Most theory is terrible, and never should be run.  Theory as a strategy is harmful to debate.

B, the violation, is self-evident.

C is the ground.

Judges are routinely voting for things they hate, because the debaters present them little choice.   Theory is everyone’s villain: nobody refers to a theory heavy debate as a classic. We speak of rounds “devolving” to theory battles, designating them for a lower plane of evolution. It leads to unhappy judges, lowered speaker points, and unsatisfying rounds – all assertions that need little warrant.

Theory doesn’t win. Sure, it wins rounds – a lot of them. But it doesn’t tend to win tournaments.   Debaters who resort to theory a lot are the under performers – the debaters who never seem to reach the level of success their skill would suggest for them. The big championships tend to be won by the debaters who engage in it least.   Theory can win when both debaters do it, as the judge wishes to be elsewhere while signing the ballot. Theory can win when the debater using it is much better versed in it than their opponent – a round which the theory debater would have won anyway.   It can also win in the cheap shot round – throwing a trick out there, a snake hidden in the weeds, to snatch a victory from a better debater. The last approach is seductive to sophomores, struggling in their first varsity rounds. It also only works for sophomores – once a debater does it enough, they cease to catch anyone unawares, as their opponents grow alert to the threat.

Theory doesn’t help LD. The more theory has grown in the last four years, the more LD participation numbers have dropped. Theory is not useful beyond debate. What little it does teach – logic, extemping arguments – substantive discussion teaches better. Theory could easily drive students away – it’s boring. It’s a skill that will give them nothing past LD.   We’re left with the debaters who would have stuck around anyway – debaters who are glad to win theory because they’re in it to win, and don’t especially care about how they get there.   Debaters run it as a time sink, which crowds out actual substantive debate by definition.

Theory encourages more abusive affirmatives in the first place. If every debate is just going to devolve to theory anyway, there’s little penalty to breaking realistic norms with intent. Why not run an abusive, shifting and non-topical plan, when you’re going to have to win a theory debate anyway? May as well start off with a lead on substance.   This year, I hear a lot of angst at the rise of critical race theory arguments or other non-topical cases based on identity, which some LDers have imported from policy. I wonder how an LD debater who runs mutually exclusive theory interpretations can possibly object to abandoning topical debate in favor of identity arguments, when what it’s really replacing is theory games involving invented rules.

Theory blocks access to LD.   It’s totally opaque in most cases, as ground arguments speed on by incomprehensibly; I rarely even bother trying to flow it, given I can’t understand and don’t pretend to care. The local debater or debater trying out LD for the first time is just blown out of the round, and then figures they should look at PF or mock trial. There’s nothing wrong with PF or mock trial, but there’s something wrong when someone who really loves philosophy and would be happiest in LD settles for them because they can’t make headway against theory.

Theory is the preserve of those who can afford camp. Research about topical literature is available to all. Research about identity and performance is likewise available to all.   Camp makes arguing these things easier, but it’s not necessary.   Theory, however, can be learned nowhere else.   It rose in part so camps could justify their cost – it’s the only way, short of rigging the topic votes, that a camp can provide arguments guaranteed to be useful in the coming school year.   But their utility comes at a cost; since there’s no external way to learn about theory or practice it, beyond the bounds of a large coaching staff or affording camp, it becomes a gateway issue, a hurdle to those who have neither. It’s hard to teach oneself substantive debate and philosophy, but the internet and the library do afford the chance. It’s impossible to teach oneself theory, since it’s all about technique, and most of that technique is about freezing your opponent out of rounds in the first place.

Theory prevents the formation of actual norms in the community. If we had the occasional theory everyone asserts is necessary – some viable limits on the topic, and the approaches that affirmatives and negatives take with it – then the argument would hold. But in a world where debaters are constantly inventing rules mid-round and accusing their opponents of violating them – when the violation comes ahead of the interpretation – it’s impossible to settle on actual norms. It’s further impossible when the educators are removed from the question. Judges are admonished not to intervene, which means we’re unable to use the debate round as a platform to help establish those norms and get past most of the frivolous theory out there.   Theory can never reach an actual answer in the round; if we did, the debaters who rely on it would just move the goalposts.

Theory has no impact debate. Education and fairness are rarely sketched out arguments, but instead are watchwords, talismans invoked but not explained. Rarely are LD theory impacts actually tailored to the violation; instead they are rote incantations with little value beyond their ritualistic necessity.

Theory is impossible to judge, and to train judges in.   Without a reference to the rest of the world, there’s no way a judge can gauge theory arguments on anything other than crosshatched tallies of argument quantity. I can tell you whether an economic argument or a moral one has internal sense; I cannot do the same of theory arguments. Debaters complain about random outcomes to theory debates, and then those same debaters become judges and understand – now only too late to run something else as a debater.

D, of course, is the impacts.

Theory hurts fairness, freezing the debater without money or resources even further by pinning debates on esoteric nonsense that give automatic wins to those who invoke it. It makes preparation infinite, as you can never prepare for the invented rules of your opponent. It excludes people without the time or the inclination to learn material that never will be useful again.

Theory hurts education. It displaces topical debate, a lot of it. It displaces substantive non-topical debate, too. It lets negatives who haven’t prepared enough get away with using it as a filler. It prevents both sides from having to think about responding to novel arguments, to engage in the crucial skill of applying evidence and reasoning in a way they hadn’t thought of to answer a new position.   It encourages frivolous affs who know full well nothing will be extended.   And it reduces the numbers of debaters, and even programs in LD in the first place.

The last impact is a personal one. If theory keeps being a dominant part of LD, then LD will cease being a dominant presence in my life. Among the many major impacts is a minor one – it’s boring me to tears. I’ll coach something else, if at all, and even recommend that Lexington stop doing it. It’s a waste, of time, effort and money, to play in this self-referential sandbox. I’m not sure why I do it even now. If it lasts much longer, I won’t, and I’ll steer others away it as well.   It doesn’t help matters that next year’s policy topic is one I am really interested in and have technical expertise in.   This minor impact becomes major because I’m not alone in feeling that way.

E is the alternative. OK, so this just became a K.   You’re going to have to cope.

Without some theory, we go back to the land of eighty three NIBS, of floating advocacy, of made up evidence, or whatever else got us started down the path.  But the status quo means the solution has become worse than the illness. So we require means to keep the limits without the excess.

So I propose we add one rule to theory that can sweep aside many others: every interpretation should be warranted with a card.   Before a debater may run theory in a round, they should first justify the interpretation and standard on real grounds in public writing, or have a coach do the same.

That solves many of the harms above. It allows for rules to be fleshed out in an open arena, devoid of the competitive pressures, time limits and necessity to vote a round entails. It could be two competing theory interpretations are both wrong – a judge still must vote for one of them, but in an open forum, the audience may easily reject both.   Therefore, bad rules or norms can be winnowed out. A good proposed norm will stand the scrutiny of many voices, while a harmful or spurious rule will quickly grow a list of arguments against it.

It allows for adult participation in the argument. Adults have no voice in the course of a debate, which is proper – but adults should have a voice in the formation of norms, which itself is the curriculum of debate in a real way.   If theory must be cited, then a coach can generate those citations, or argue against them as easily as a debater.

Publication is no bar to anyone; there’s essentially infinite space on the debate web, and few of the sites aren’t looking for content. Getting a coherent theory article published should be possible for anyone. And once online, they become a resource to those who can’t afford the tuition and travel of camp; a debater can self-educate on theory, and prepare for a circuit tournament from a local league. Theory cards would have to carry the same citations as any other, and the ground and impact level debate would be already developed within those cards.

About the only harm is that it would limit what you could do in a round when something truly bizarre and objectionable emerges. In that case, you might lose a round – a somewhat less serious harm than debate practices eating at the very fabric of the event.   Or, you’d have to think about the arguments raised and the parallels to evidence and theory already established – which would, incidentally, be a critical educational goal of debate in the first place.   Independent thinking isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.

Semiotics

I actually wouldn’t mind ordinals; the idea you’d spend hours figuring out distinctions between your 75th and 76th judge is spurious.  If you can’t distinguish between a couple judges, then it doesn’t matter what order you put them in: just put one as 75 and one as 76 and move on with life.  It’s easier in practice than you’d think.  Plus, Tabroom actually has rather nice features built around ordinals; it can auto-generate a pref sheet for you based on your past ratings of a judge as a starting point.

And you’ll pardon me if I casually shrug off the conservative objections to Something New from the group of tabbers whose original schedule for switching over to online tabbing & balloting would have had us trying it out for the first time in early 2016.

But to see the point I’m trying to make about narrower band categories, you start with an ordinal sheet; the “true” sheet of how a given debater prefers judging.  A true ranking of preferences won’t necessarily be a smooth linear progression; it’ll have little clumps.  There’ll be a nest of three judges in the topmost spot, and then maybe a clear 4th, then maybe 3-4 judges tied for 5th, and so on.  But the size and location of those clumps will be random enough that the pref sheet is essentially a gradient.

A tiered system necessarily imposes arbitrary boundaries on that gradient, turning them into bands.  The fewer (and wider) the bands, the more information is lost.  Menick says that when you rate a judge a 2, they’re a 2, and thus are magically mutual with every other 2.  But plonking a label on a judge doesn’t make it so.  The judge could be my favorite 2 and your least favorite 2, in which case the judge isn’t very mutual at all; there’s a lot of slope between our opinions.  The most mutual judge, in fact, may be my favorite 2 and your least favorite 1, being separated only by one notch made more significant by the random chance of the tournament policy.

Look at tournaments that require you to rate 25% of the field a 1 and 25% a 2.  You’ve now rated half your judges in the top two tiers; and you’re going to get all kinds of judge matchups where the gap in preferences may differ by as much 24% of the field.  A 1-2 matchup in that case could be killer.  It’s not uncommon — and not difficult — for such tournaments to put out pairings with all 1-1 matchups, maybe a few 2-2s.  These matchups sometimes really stink; you end up with your opponent’s favoritest judge in the world when it’s the person you held your nose and plunked a 1 because you really needed just one more.  I’ve been on the wrong end of those pairings.

Now take Lex, where 11% were 1, and 11% were 2.  Lex’s 1-2 pairings are a little more precise; they all fall within the top 22% of your pref sheet.  Further, by drawing a line in the middle of that pool of judges, you can minimize their number.  There’s nothing a tournament requiring 25% of the field to rank 1 can do to minimize judge pairings that may be 24% of the field off on people’s actual preferences; it doesn’t have the data, and so doesn’t know that another 1-1 might actually be far more mutual in the debaters’ actual preferences.  Lex didn’t have any matchups 25% of the field off, and minimized the number of pairings that are 11-22% of the field off.   It’s more mutual, by which I mean more reflective of the actual preferences underlying the numbers on the pref sheet, not the fake mutuality of categories, which conflate the signifier and the signified.

I don’t buy the argument that new schools are going to be screwed by not figuring this out; that’s an argument to abandon prefs, not an argument to make them blunt versus narrow.  It’s also non-unique harm; new schools have to figure out theory, framework, impacts, cards, and spreading too.  It’s not the pref sheet keeping rookies out of the bid round.  A new school could get a judge that really favors their style and disfavors mine, and chances are my kid will beat them anyway, if only because I will know the judges’ preferences and the new coach won’t.   “You have to be smart to do that!” is true of nearly everything in debate, and should rather remain so.   Plus, LD is way more open to new schools and disruption than policy is; new schools are competitive on the national circuit all the time.   The answer to this is helping and teaching new schools how debate operates, not changing how debate should operate.  I put my money where my mouth is there, too: I’ve filled out pref sheets for lots of other schools.

In the end the debate is immaterial, I believe.  Whatever the merits, I think the trendline towards greater precision is inevitable.  TRPC limited LD to 6 while Policy could choose 6 or 9; 6 remained the norm in LD but in Policy most tournaments use 9 — in other words, both ended up using the largest number of tiers they could.  College policy, thanks to the good professors Larson and Bruschke, had software that did ordinal prefs years ago, ordinals they have used, with few exceptions.  Now that Tabroom has lifted the arbitrary 6/9 limits, I think high school debate, for high stakes tournaments anyway, will move towards ordinals, no matter what we say or do.  I embrace it, but even if I didn’t, I would think it’s going there anyway.   It’s a natural progression outwards from strikes to prefs, when you think about it; strikes are simply a really inaccurate pref sheet.  So I’d say, practice your ordinals…

…and just wait until I explain the percentile system to you.

Answering innumeracy with data

He still doesn’t understand my point about increased mutuality, but I’ll write that up when it’s not  12:30 AM on a Tuesday.

For now:

  • Percentage of 1-off judges at Lexington:   8.46%
  • Percentage of 1-offs at Columbia:  8.33%

Man, really blew mutuality to shreds with those 9 tiers at Lex, didn’t we?

At Columbia, 12.5% of the VLD pool did not pref; at Lexington it was only 9%, thus making the job harder at Lexington to boot.   As we say in the business, “No Link.”