And they’re off

So the Bump tournament begins tonight, which means unless he really wants to mess with my head, I won’t be hearing from Jim Menick again until Sunday at the earliest.   Not that I mind hearing from Jim, but he has a specific talent for finding the oddest damn bugs in tabroom, so it’s just as well I have a year to prepare new and greater nasty surprises for him for the next edition.

This weekend is the Gracia Burkill tournament at Natick, which is going to be a big affair, on the backs of 50 Novice Readers, 30 some-odd in Children’s Literature, and a whopping 42 Public Forum debate teams.   Jim asserts that it gets no traction in the Northeast?   Not in my corner of it; especially given that we’re also a good third of the Bump PF field too.

LD Debate also returns to Natick High School for the first time in a long time, with six debaters, but that’s fine; we’ll give them a shot at each other and see what happens.   I’m trying to rescue some sense of local debate; most of our LD programs have to travel far to get rounds, and that just reinforces the anti-communicative aspect of a lot of LD; so to prevent it from going the way of policy I’m trying to open up the opportunity at a few locals that can handle it.

Coming soon, though, ballsy news from Philadelphia.

Software Mayhem

The process of releasing changes to a piece of software got a lot easier with the advent of the web-driven application.   Time was, you had to build a new version of an application, and then go through a tortured rigamarole process of releasing a new version and watching as lots of old dinosaurs ignored the release and continued to bitch about the bugs you fixed in it.   Or worse, they instead downloaded and installed the upgrade, but some pecularity of their computing setup that you didn’t test for got in the way, and it explodes, taking all the user’s data with it.

And the answer to “Did you take a backup?” in such situations is always “Uh, no, was I supposed to?”

Sadly, you can’t test for everything, no matter how much you try.   The smoothest upgrades for software usually happen when the authors have found a way to reduce the number of tests needed, rather than conducting more of them; Mac OS X’s applications these days are largely self contained bundles, where you toss the old one and copy the new one into place.   So it’s not really an upgrade so much as a brand new install that shares a few settings.

Web applications follow a different logic.   It’s one of the reasons I designed to run off the web; I can change a single code file on the server, and it changes everywhere for everyone.   This model has a lot of advantages; I don’t have to worry about installers, about operating systems, about anything on your computer; as long as you have a browser (preferably not Internet Explorer, by the way), you have full access to all its features.

However, that leads to fun and games whenever I roll out a new feature or new toys or something.   This summer one of the big changes I made was a significantly revamped housing interface; I threw it together two years ago for the Lexington tournament, and I hadn’t really had a lot of time to put it together at the time.   So I cobbled together barely-good-enough and left it at that.   This August, instead, I ripped the whole thing out and built it mostly the right way, and it’s been working pretty well since then.

However, there are two bits of any piece of software that can be…exciting.   First is the software itself; it has to play it’s own game the right way.   The second, and more dangerous, is how well it plays well with others.   The interface between one part of software and another is the danger zone; the housing system could work perfectly, but it might screw up the calculation of judging obligations (another part of the software I overhauled over the summer), or the waitlist mechanism, or lord knows what else.     Some baroque combination of settings and tribulations might break something at any minute.   It’s very difficult to test for every such combination; and since I’m flying solo on this effort and have limited time to dedicate to it, it’s impossible for me to do so.

Over time, a software develops “maturity”.   The edge cases are found, the weirder bugs are teased out, and the complexity of the software settles into a known working state where the expected happens more and more often the more it is used.   That takes a few times and a few trials, and large portions of the software have resolved into exactly that role.   I launched the system in Kentucky this year, after MA and Jersey and various others have used it for years — they used the simple expediency of “asking.”   So far it’s going well; a few bumps, but nothing huge.   What’s great is that I know a few different ideas and ways of running tournaments now, which is helpful knowledge indeed for a local league leader like myself.

Housing and the stuff Menick is using hasn’t 100% yet, but we’re getting there.   I think next year during Bump I’ll hear from him maybe a quarter as often.   It may be sooner, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to turn off the “Break Randomly” setting that I’ve set on his user account.   I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he tries to export the divisions into TRPC.

The next tasks are speeding things up a little bit; I substantially cut down the disaster checking time last week.   I also made the printouts a little better.   But most of all, the advent of the “just do everything the way I want it done” button is just f’n wonderful.   It took me a while to get all the ducks in a row where that could work, but now it does and it’s lovely.

The next two big projects are at the behest of competing communities; first is programming in support for NFL Districts, which would please the Joyless crowd including the Reverend B.A. and my local folks.   I’ve never used Joy so I can’t comment on it too much, but the price tag is daunting if nothing else, and I strongly believe that participation in forensics should not be extractive.   A lot of adults go into forensics looking for something; for most it’s the ego boost of winning something, however vicariously, which depending on how far its taken can be healthy or not; extracting money from a largely impoverished activity distorts the world in a way my socialist soul dislikes.   I don’t accept money for, both because of that belief, and because if people paid me then I’d have obligations towards them, and that would make for a much worse dynamic.

Second is Debate support.   TRPC is a very handy program, and I can make it do most of what I need, but it does have quite a few warts, and the largest is that it’s not very easily learned; I have a very hard time training people up into using it.   It also resists certain things, and makes putting things together manually difficult, which is a shame, since it requires manual intervention so frequently.   I also don’t like it how only one set of data entry can be happening at once; tabroom lets you enter indiscrimiately from multple stations.   Mostly, though, Microsoft has entered into an era of rapidly changing APIs and programmatic requirements, and TRPC is programmed in an archaic runtime language that might not be supported for very much longer; I worry for the day when it no longer runs on anything but the “ol’ bessie” Windows XP computer in the corner; inevitably some future Yalie will try to check his email on it and spill a can of coke in it, and then we’ll be back to tabbing on cards before we know what happened.

And I’m sure when I do either one, something will break.   Hopefully not much though.   I am getting better at this.   Even I flinch when I find some early code of mine embedded in the system.

Communication and communication

As an activity, forensics is supposedly all about communication. That makes me wonder how we can be so surpassingly bad at it sometimes. We’re good at talking, but really rather bad at other forms as a community. There are pockets of active offline communication, but pockets they remain.

This past weekend was the NCFL National Tournament, where the LD and the PFD resolutions met a mixed reception at best. The tournament featured some pretty classic arguments on both topics; on the question of fine arts education versus athletics, we’re told that the fine arts should be defunded, since that will help reduce the homosexual population. Ah, how cunning: musical theater doesn’t attract the gays, it creates them.

That aside, people seemed more unhappy than not with the topics. So, unlike most folks who just bitched in quiet voices to each other, I asked Greg, our local moderator who’s also on the executive council about it. He said they didn’t have much to choose from, just three submissions. Submissions, you say? Yes, it appears for years now, a call goes out in September for anyone and everyone to suggest potential topics for Nationals.

Well, I’ll be damned. That’s the first I knew of that.

The fault lines here are several. One is that the NCFL is structured in such a way to permit a lot of things like this to pass through the cracks. The league itself only communicates directly to the diocesan moderators, who do a variable job at best of pushing it onwards to their diocese’s members. I think the NCFL, like the NFL, operates under the false presumption that the diocesan moderators run their local league. This is untrue in Massachusetts, where the state league runs the show; it’s untrue in a lot of other places as well.

So where you have a structure like ours, the local CFL moderator runs the show two weekends out of the year; once when the qualifier is run, and once when Nationals itself happens. I can imagine there’s a natural tendency to pay attention only then. Or, a tendency among the moderators to worry mostly about the really important logistic details, and leave everything else aside.

The second issue is that league leaders are not uniformly drawn from all forensics persuasions. Some areas might have great debate coaches with lots to contribute, but if their league leader is mostly an interp coach, the communications channel may be inadequate to the task. Relying on the diocesan moderator to be an everyman who knows all the events well enough to express concerns is going to fail sooner or later.

So the NCFL loses touch of its local coaches, since it doesn’t really try to talk to the coaches directly; it talks to the moderators, who serve as inefficient choke-points for a lot of this information. I have a good moderator who also sits on the executive council, and yet the open submission of LD topics was news to me. That’s a problem, certainly, on the NCFL’s part.

But it’s a problem on the part of the LD coaches bitching about the topic too. It didn’t take me a heck of a lot of effort to just walk up to Greg and ask what the process was, and I don’t even coach LD anymore. There’s a strong assumption on the part of a lot of coaches that Things Are The Way They Are, and the only reason they haven’t changed is because some pinhead somewhere has managed to accrue a lot of power and privilege and refuses to budge. That’s sometimes true, but it’s not true a lot, too. Not all nuns are conservative, and not all traditions are hallowed; sometimes they’re traditions because no one bothered to try and change them.

So I’m going to short-circuit the whole thing next year, and do what perhaps the NCFL should have done in the first place, and bridge what the LD coaches should have bridged long ago. When the call for topics goes out, I’ll just post the friggin thing on Victory Briefs. Doing my part…


So I decided I don’t like debating economics, for the same reason I don’t like extemp speeches about science and technology. You need a master’s degree at least to talk about these issues directly in a way that can be debated.

In an ordinary comfortable LD debate, at issue are ethical issues which have voices of authority behind them, but at root there are no correct or incorrect answers once one has passed a relatively low bar of understanding the resolution at hand. Once you understand, say, that a question about security in a terrorist-threatened society is about protection versus liberty, you’re off to the races.

But what we faced this weekend in PF at the Just Another Tournament was a debate over economic issues; will Bush’s little checks and their related goodies actually dig us out of this economic hole? The trouble with this topic is that your average high school student, and average person, can argue effectively in terms of ethics and philosophy, but in the world of the economic, there are clear cut correct and incorrect answers in some fields. What do you do as a judge when a team flings a case of unmitigated falsity up there, and you know it? You can wait for the other team to tear it down, if they can, but it still leaves one unsatisfied. In extempland, I’d just write a ballot explaining the errors and move on, but that’s intervention in debate, and not fair ground.

Furthermore, what should a team do when their opponent starts flinging out (warranted!) things that are flatly untrue, based on misunderstandings of basic economic principles? Stuff becomes a push in debater terminology when really one team was absolutely correct and the other was not, and sometimes the judges know it and sometimes they don’t, depending on their own background.

Result? Lots of really awful debates. The resolution ultimately wasn’t about a question of thought and ambiguity. It’s a technical prediction. The question of whether Bush’s economic package will work does have an answer. It’s ambiguous not by nature, but by complexity; the model is too vast to know, but if we did comprehend it, we could have a clean cut binary answer. At root then, the only debates on this topic are debates as to interpretations of known facts trying to fill in unknown facts. That got messy, to say the least, especially given that the high schoolers in question somehow are not fluent in a field where PhDs still can’t make accurate predictions. Go figure.

This is not true of ethical questions that make the usual stuff of debate. We’ll never have an answer as to whether hate crimes are just or not; exploring that issue is exploring thought, not fact. That’s better ground for debate, and I hope the mysterious back room topic writers stay there in the future. There is room for economic debate of course, but it should redirect towards the social questions of economics; how much assistance should a society grant its poor? How should goods be allocated? Stick to that and we’re OK; but for now, watching high school kids trying to do the work of dissertation writers is nobody’s idea of fun.


So Mr Menick is jealous of the CFL PF topic, and I’m jealous of the LD topic.   I think the solution is clear; let’s trade!   His major objection to the LD topic is the lack of a conflict; there’s nothing inherently oppositional about arts education and athletic education; and in the realm of LD that may be true.   However, there’s a little thing called a budget; I’d say that pragmatically, arts education and athletics are in constant competition for the same extra-curricular pot of money.   Neither is part of various state testing procedures, so neither is required per se; but both need resources and therefore are head to head with each other when it comes to building a school district budget.

That’s all very detailed based and pragmatic for your average LDer, but in PF it would make plenty of ground for debate.   Massachusetts in the age of Prop 2 1/2 has felt this acutely, and usually to the detriment of the arts.

Meanwhile the Native Americans question has all sorts of fascinating angles that stem to sovereignty, the responsibilities of an occupying government towards a technically subject people, how much aboriginal Americans are in fact members of our society and how much they’re something else entirely, what is owed, and to whom.   It’s also a milder and less emotional way of attacking those issues, due to the fact that most Native Americans tend to be a step outside of mainstream and therefore their affairs aren’t as hot button as say, talking about slavery reparations to African Americans, or the Palestine/Israel crisis.     LDers can get away with far more with an LD style negative than PF teams will be able to on the aboriginal question.

So the solution is clear:   trade you!   Hell, I’ll even throw my next Scrabulous game to sweeten the deal.