Civility

You know, there’s nothing like a summer night in New England.  We don’t get too many scorching ones, and at night it’s even more rare to feel the heat.  Tonight I’m just sitting on the deck of the Sapphire, writing the EXL camp book by the light of a citronella torch.  There aren’t many bugs, but I like the torch anyway, for the pagan sort of light it casts.  It’s one of those nights where the blue and the sounds and the just-enough wind are such perfect conspirators in making one stop and think.  The deck right now only wants for one more torch, a bottle of fine scotch, and a few people to talk of weird things.

Reading Menick’s blog lately in full torrent mode has been difficult.  One because I go for my daily dose of bile and get all this other crap instead, that I used to skim over elsewhere.  I get what he’s trying to do, but I can’t say as I like it.  Content of different types should be easily separable; the paradigm of the web involves being able to slice off what’s of most use to me without having to wade through the rest.  That’s why I get my news from RSS these days, not television.

Plus, the policy posts bug me, if only because when they start talking about counterplans, namely CP, I automatically assume that Menick’s talking smack about me again.  I expect Vaughan has this same problem with JV LD.

This weekend is camp move in weekend.  The first year I was excited for camp; last year I was stressed for it, mostly because I was juggling too many other things to really dedicate my full attention to any one of them.  That last year’s camp succeeded so well is probably a testimony to my own relative uselessness.  However, this year I’m feeling calm.  We’ve made a great schedule — it gets better every year — and I’m teaching fun things.  Better yet, I have outlines of most of my classes already written, either from having taught them before, or from having time this past month to sit and craft them.  Some are even fully written, for the long elusive camp book that I’ve finally given some serious attention to this month.   Writing English is much more restful than writing code, which either works or doesn’t, with a hard edge.

I’m liking this new balance of life, and much looking forward to this sort of pace in the coming season.  A big event, then a few weeks to a month off to make the next event happen the way it ought.  Quality, not quantity.  It has reinforced my thinking on a number of fronts, especially regarding to some of the tournaments I was on the edge of continuing with or not.  I want to be able to sit on the shores of Lake Shirley in a thick pile carpet and taste the relaxation that to this day I still only know when I’m back home in Fitchburg.  The weather smells better there, and the rain is cooler and more real.  I miss the fireflies I’d see right now, and the Milky Way, and the birch trees.  So I should see them more this fall.

But for now, sitting in my favorite spot outside above, during my favorite time of year for it, some more writing.

Living for it

So I spilled over a little in frustration the other day.  I stand by that; I for one don’t believe that the Internet is Different and a little spilled-over truth and honestly is a bad thing.  Some flinch from it instinctively but I don’t see demons behind every byte online.  Well, demons any different than the real life ones.   But tonight is a good night for wandering around verbally.  Wander, I shall.

Part 1. Vacation.

But I was thinking a little bit as to why I might be in a bad mood forensics wise; I’m ever the (over-) analyst that way.  Certainly part of it is my own strong need for a vacation from both the day job and the coaching gig at the same time; I tend to swap time off from one into time on the other.  This project would, by necessity, involve me leaving the area code of the Bellevue Sapphire (My home on the hill, here), for as idyllic as the Saph truly is — I’m sitting right now on the deck, overlooking a few other hills, and moon and stars on the horizon — it’s also the nerve center of all the various Things I Do.  I have a headquarters up on the third floor that’s clearly a work room — a chair surrounded on three sides by desks, one I made myself for the Computer with Two Heads, one table for Various and Sundry facing the windows with the same view as the deck, and one a roll top antique my grandmother gave me.  There are bookcases full of programming books and speech memorabilia.  There’s a plaque or two from the unexpected juggernaut we had at last year’s NFLs.  The two coaching awards I was given this year, I’ll sheepishly admit, are still down in the living room, on the fireplace mantle.  Everyone has a little showoff in them, and as Menick said, of all the things he’s had in forensics, that’s the one he’s particularly proud of.

So a week off at home, presumably to rest, would inevitably see me upstairs doing something or other on the Computer with Two Heads.  Such as coding a way to sneeze out an exact report on housing with the margins two tenths of an inch wider to accommodate some Bronx Science kid with eighty four letters in his last name, who may or may not be going to the HenHud tournament, but well, we’d better be sure.  So I have to leave the area.  Leaving the state would be better still.  And the country — well, gosh howdy.  I’ve still never been to Europe, though I’m more of a country boy than a city vacationer.

Part 2.  Obsession ain’t just a cologne.

However, that brief jaunt through my immediate geography aside, there’s another division of the speech & debate world.  It’d be easy to say it divides between the tolerable and the intolerable, but that’s not true; there are plenty of people on the “other side” from me that I know, like, and respect.  However, there are certain attitudes towards this activity that I find harmful, not just to my own happiness and contentedness in this project of forensics education, but also to the activity as a whole.  Few folks share them all, but the fallout has converged on me more than usual of late.

Some people just live for this.  We had, as mentioned above, a hell of a tournament last year in Vegas.  Three national champs, never been done, yada yada.  I can’t say as I prepared any differently for this one than the others I’ve sent kids to.  We’re certainly not a giant factory program that aims all our year’s efforts and strategy behind winning big at the NFL tournament.  Our Storyteller, in one case, spectacularly failed to make friends when she chatted up the other finalists by telling the tale of how she and the extemp coach — yours truly — tossed together her piece on Wednesday at the last minute.  “When did you guys toss yours together?”  Uncomfortable silence.  Turns out everyone else had been practicing theirs for months.  Man, some people take this stuff seriously.

She then beat them.  Bitterness ensued.

To hear some people talk about it, winning three national championships in one sitting should have launched me into a new plane of awareness.  The NFL makes a very big deal of its champions and coaches, and I had my picture taken a few dozen times.  But we mostly cracked up during the whole thing.  Then we had dinner, got a drink, slept for a long time thereafter.  I stayed in Vegas for a few days, got sick on the last day though.  And life afterward has been much the same as life before.

But some — many? — can think nothing more of just getting that next trophy, the next award and round of applause — sometimes a single clap.  I can’t stand that ambition; it distorts everything.  At the two tournaments we decide to call Nationals it leads to a sparkling tension in the air which certainly doesn’t help make for better decisions or better management or judging.  Tension never does. When I tell folks to calm down and just work through it, I’ll sometimes get shocked stares and “But it’s NATIONALS!”  As if that somehow devalues calm rational decision making and the rules of polite interaction among adults.

I don’t get that attitude.  I understand it intellectually, but I don’t get it.  It always takes me by surprise.  It seems self-evident that folks in this activity shouldn’t have so little independent seat for their egos that they get into actual screaming matches with other coaches or volunteers for the sake of winning something.  Folks definitely shouldn’t have so little that they’re willing to cheat to do the same.  And yet, I see it, all the time.

Interlude I: Group Discussion

People commit all sorts of distortions, because they live for this.  Some coaches advocate for “easier” events so their teams can get sweepstakes awards without having to work at the “hard” events.  That particular phenomenon explains much in the MFL; people elsewhere often wonder why we have such bizarre events that sound stupid.  They are stupid.  That’s the point.  If they weren’t stupid, good, dedicated kids would do them, and the students who don’t want to put much effort in wouldn’t get trophies.  It especially upsets me when this issue gets wrapped into a class struggle — poor kids need dumb events!  My humble roots certainly didn’t stop me from learning Extemp, and the Urban Debate Leagues have committed wholesale to Policy Debate.  But the real reasons always do need a cloak, and that serves well enough.

Interlude II: Source Material

Coaches will cheat on source material to find a small edge,  despite the fact that interp uses such a small sliver of the legal material out there — but much of that material is skipped, because it’s too hard.  For years there have been Rules about Extemp which are nowhere listed and do nothing to make speeches clearer, smarter and more entertaining — but they’re easy to teach, and kids do a bit better when they follow them, so taught they are.   At the same time, extempers cheat all the time, by the letter of the rules, and not many folks do anything about it for fear of “stirring things up.”  Evidence standards in PF are a laughable mess, and that’s made all the worse by folks thinking that an avalanche of evidence without much actual realistic analysis is the way to go in PF.  Hey, it wins rounds, right?  We did — bravo, MFL — pass a rule mandating that you have, and you share, evidence in debate rounds.  We shouldn’t have needed to.

Interlude III: Circuit debate

Sometimes winning means restricting the field to include only yourself.  Circuit debate springs to mind.  I found myself meditating on speed while I was at the TOC.  In the two rounds I judged, the four students definitely slowed down — or rated me highly because they don’t generally speed in any rounds, I don’t know which.  They were enjoyable debates.  I’ll admit my RFD for the second one was incoherent at best — but then, so was the round.  What I wasn’t able to articulate at the time was that the neg debater had argued that upholding democracy is essential, and subjecting oneself to a court system with appointed judges was anti-democratic; but he was never able to explain why this was a unique harm — democracies have appointed judges too, notably ours — and that punched a big ol’ hole in his case.  Aff could have made it much easier by pointing that out more stridently; I had a tough time deciding whether Aff’s defense of this point was enough to warrant me voting on the round, but then I had a hard time finding anything else to vote on, so I held my nose and affirmed.  I say this now because I want to point out to debaters that far more decisions than they think are arrived at in such a manner — “you confused me, you didn’t emphasize the right things for me to break your way, and I had to vote for SOMEONE, so sheesh, here we go.”  My only difference is that I’m honest about it.  Some judges, indeed, live for this too; I’m sure the negative I voted against will strike the hell out of me if ever I grace a judging pool he’s subjected to again.  My honestly saying “I’m unable to explain this well right now, I’m sorry, but I do strongly believe Aff won” isn’t a good way to maintain a judge rep, and some people live for that, too.

I was, however, perfectly fine following along in the much more brisk rounds where I was only watching, not judging, and thus no one bothered to adapt to me.  However, as I said in my paradigm, the quality of the argumentation and the density of ink on my flows has not changed much in ten years of judging LD, despite the speedup in the same.  Roughly the same number of arguments were made in both the slower rounds I judged, and the faster rounds I watched.  In the round 7 I watched, one debater was a terrible speaker, clearly struggling to keep her thoughts and her arguments organized, despite maintaining a very fast clip; it was absolutely clear to me that the speed was working against her, even though she ended up winning that round.  So I started thinking; why speed then?  Why invest such time and effort into developing a difficult skill, which has no value whatsoever outside of this specific form of debate, and which doesn’t seem to really help much in winning rounds?

I think speed is “in” because it has no value whatsoever outside debate.  Speed to circuit debate is like Latin to the Catholic Church; it serves to keep all but the truly devoted out of the priesthood.  If you’re not willing to pay the price of learning this otherwise useless skill, then you’re not worthy of admission to the Holy of Holies, or the TOC, depending on your terminology. So speed effectively limits the TOC to the people obsessed with the TOC.  That creates a closed-off ecosystem, which opens more chances for those on the inside of it.  If there are fewer programs at the TOC, the ones that do come can win it more often.

The educational value of speed is suspect; you’ll never need to talk that way again.  The competitive value is also suspect; I’m not sure it’s actually helping anyone win rounds, though I’m much less certain of that.  But even if it were winning ballots, is that enough to justify it?  To a lot of people, the consideration ends at “it wins ballots.”  Some people live for this.

Back to it: Conservatism

Folks want to win things.  They’ve grown comfortable with a certain level of success.  As a result, many folks don’t want to upset the existing order much.  Making a radical change might also change their winning formulas, and force folks to be creative and adapt — and they may not be able to keep up.  Coaches like this instinctively don’t want to create the new and destroy the old.  They’re scared they’ll end up at the bottom of the pile in a new order.

We combined DI and HI into DP at the MFL going into next year, which I think resolves one of the sillier distinctions in forensics.  Drama can be funny; humor can be serious; there’s no actual line to be drawn between them.  The DI/HI split encouraged bad practices and lazy approaches to interp: slapstick in the one, death, disease and rape in the other.  Pushing them together opens up the vast middle ground between them, together with a lot of fresh new material; few authors write literature that is exclusively funny or only serious.  Most of those that do aren’t very good writers.  Most traditional interp material is crap.  So the more I think about this change, the more I like it.

Predictably, the student protests began immediately.  The arguments on the obligatory protest Facebook group boil down to “we’ve always had this split” and “all the other states and the NFL have divided HI and DI for a reason.”  Alas, they have yet to specify what that reason is.  I think the real pain point here is competitive.  I hear a lot of “judges might be confused” which is code for “I’m confused as to how to win the judges’ ballots.”  Old formulas are gone; kids know how to win an HI, and know how to win a DI, and now they have to learn how to win a DP.  Gosh, learning.  What a pain in the ass.  More directly, that’s also six fewer trophies we’ll be handing out.  Now there’s a real problem, though no one will say it out loud.  So they argue without giving reasons.  Even though so many people live for the winning, everyone knows no one’s allowed to admit it.

What’s strangest about the Facebook group is that most of the names I recognize are recent graduates or graduating seniors, or students who compete in non interp events.  There’s not a lot of people on there who are actually affected by this change.

Why the traveling tabulating circus is different

I talked briefly in the last post about how the Northeast circuit seems to be pushing ahead better, faster and further than most others.  I think it’s because we have a fairly good quorum of people who don’t live for this.  For the most part, we don’t notice when we, or others, win.  Some of us are more competitive than others, but it’s not a huge deal, and it doesn’t influence how we decide how to run tournaments, even unspoken.  Most of us are not coaches as our primary job, even those of us who are teachers.  We have a critical mass of a bunch of people who are willing to run tournaments and change our approach without having to avoid 800 lb gorillas in the room.

There’s none of that “Well, so and so wants to win, and this shady practice is one of the ways he does so, so we can’t end it or he’ll throw a fit.”  It’s the only arena where I don’t get poorly articulated push back to new ideas.  Everywhere else, I’ll expect a certain amount of “Well, I just don’t like it” which nearly always either boils down to “that’s not the way we’ve done it before!” — which is no reason at all —  or “My particular formula for acquiring hardware is incompatible with this educational change.”

Here’s $30.  Go buy yourself a trophy.

So I’ve resolved on something.  I’m not going to ignore it and let politeness cover up the “Well I want to win!” instinct.  I’m calling it out when I see it.  I have to hear a rationale for keeping things, or changing things, that goes beyond the gut, or I’m calling it what it is: a blatant hardware grab.  Surely one of the reasons the MFL continues to require 16 events is the 96 trophies that implies.  I’m told again and again that kids won’t come back to the activity if they don’t win something.  I don’t buy it.  Even in the extravagant MFL, we’re only handing out hardware to 1/3 of the students present.  I think the coaches like winning a lot, and like it when there’s more to win.  There are debate leagues that survive and prosper quite well while handing out very few awards.  But, some people live for this, and it’s not yet the novices.  It’s usually the coaches, or the kids who’ve already been in the activity a long time; note the composition of the Facebook group.

I don’t live for this.  And I’m not going to pretend I approve of those who do any longer.

Why I do what I do

So I’m no longer the MFL president, hallelujah hallelujah.  After NCFLs, I was totally wiped; the week prior work — largely, me — had organized a two day workshop and symposium that required my full attention, and then immediately afterward (during, in fact) I ran off to Albany, for another five days requiring my full attention and energy, where I was seriously dragging ass by the end.  We had a raucous if orderly MFL meeting thereafter, wherein the torch was passed.

Everything since has felt like a quiet denouement; days spend quietly restoring chaos to order at work among the systems, and nights spent doing things like reading and writing out on the porch deck, where the breeze never stops.  It’s been a bit lonely, but also a bit lovely.  This little window is my chance to think and contemplate for the past year.  I’ll be headed down to NFLs again soon, and EXL is soon thereafter, and then the cycle begins again at Yale and beyond.

This spring I’ve been forced to question where my efforts are being spent.  The flat out sprint that was the week leading into Albany has brought into sharp relief the fact that I do too much.  The NFL will be my 23rd tournament this year, and only my third not manning the tab room, together with TOC and Harvard.  I’ve spent a entire month, 30 days, in tabulation rooms since Yale last September.

Most of them have been fun events with fun people, but that’s no longer enough to keep me running like this.  The damage to my professional life (yes, I have one) has been nonzero, and the damage to my personal life (no, don’t really have one of those) has been complete.  This spring and my tour of the MFL also both ended on a sour note; the folks who said so don’t know I know, but apparently I’m anti-educational and an elitist, and my leadership in the MFL has pushed the league to the edge of collapse.  Mother would be proud, that a Fitchburg boy could grow up to be an elitist.  It matters little that the venom was spread in context of an unrelated political dispute, and that the aims of that dispute were, I strongly suspect, self-serving and competitional, not educational; if you fight dirty, there are consequences.  If the dirt works, which it did, the consequences become universal.

I’m going through a period of asking myself where my limited efforts can do the most good.  On the broader Northeast circuit, the reward for effort is immediate: as JV said at dinner last week, we’re in the middle of a interesting period, where technology, openness, and mutual trust throughout the Northeast has lead to rapid and healthy change in the way we run our activity. We’re no longer content to run the same tournament year after year; we’re questioning every assumption and keeping only the truly necessary ones.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is never a good enough answer.  As a result, we’ve created a flexible and cohesive tournament staff where new ideas are vetted, tested, and if they succeed, made universal in the course of a few weekends.  And we don’t sacrifice much in doing so; each individual tournament has run fine, even as new things are tried in them.

That Northeast circuit involves, for me, going to six tournaments a year.   Yale, Princeton, Columbia, UPenn, and the two Lexington tournaments.  I won’t give those up.  I might chance a couple more this year; there are rumblings out of northeastern Pennsylvania to be considered, and I’d be curious to see one or more of Scarsdale, Bronx Science or Hen Hud in action.  I’ve already dropped Harvard, to much relief, and I’m sadly dropping Florida’s University School too, since they’re up against the tournament at my own school this year — Chavez will go instead.  And of course I’ll be there for Newton South’s tournament.  Despite having friends on both sides of no-man’s-land, I won’t skip the NYSFL tournament, where I’m always made to feel welcome and appreciated, and which is a lovely time of year for a drive across Massachusetts.  If JV wants me back — I had a genuine blast this year with Scarsdale, modulo the exciting logistics of the last day — or my own kids qualify & want to go, there’s the TOC.

That’s 8 guaranteed, with a few options.  This year, I did 23.

For the rest, well, I simply can’t do this without strong motivation, and these little whispering voices, or the times I’ve had vast responsibility coupled with zero authority, sap that motivation.  This world of forensics is not my career, job, or obligation; I derive no benefit aside from the psychic, and so the time has come to eliminate everything that’s become a mental net negative.  My team has suffered for my service.  I’ve also had several long term ideas and projects stall out doing all this operational stuff, anyway; some of it forensics related, some of it not.  And from home, I can debug and control most of what happens on Tabroom anyway, better from many schools in fact.

So everything else is on the table, and most of it’s going to land on the floor.

If you tried to contact me…

…for the past two weeks, I’m sorry.  I was taking something of a sabbatical from everything except the most pressing things in my email inbox.  I used a very very conservative definition of “most pressing.”  I’m catching up to the backlog now.

What’s amazing is how much just having to do my day job every day feels so much like a vacation.  Forensics tends to expand to fill every available space, if you let it, to say nothing of the other varied interests and problems that I’m juggling all at once.

I’ll be putting some of those balls down later today, however.

Cluster

So I intended grand things in home improvement this weekend.  Saturday I had to go to work, because when you have to shut down major computer clusters, you do it on the weekend in order to not disturb folks.  So I went in, and started to copy a terabyte of data from a storage array I was reconfiguring; this takes a couple of hours so I went to lunch.  And then on the steps in the lobby, I slipped and fell, spraining my right ankle and badly bruising my left calf.

Way to go, swifto.

I hobbled my way to the foodcourt for lunch anyway, and went back to finish the downtime work.  That was fine, but then I realized that my swelling ankle meant that I was not going to drive myself home.  I thought cab at first but then realized my car would be towed by the time I managed to retrieve it, so I started calling around for a driver volunteer.  Pete was around, but had a lot of work.  So I called around more, and it turns out my friends actually have plans on Saturday nights, so Pete it was.

One of the stranger aspects of Pete is that he really likes country music.  The only other country music fan I know is my mother.  But anyway, he was close to saying I was SOL at one point since he had a pressing deadline, but right about then he was listening to a song that was all about how you know who your friends are when you’re in need and so forth.

Long story short, he came, and drafted Bergman, who I’d met once before, to follow us in his car.  So he’s my hero of the weekend, and I owe the both of them dinner.  And it enforce immobility for the weekend, which is funny.  I finished two books: American Trade Politics, and the Golden Compass, which I’ve read about in theological contexts enough to interest me.  The next two books are on their way now.

The ankle is swelling is down now, and I spent a lazy day away from the keyboard.  That’s all very healthy.  Then i responded to league email.  Less healthy, but necessary sometimes.  Tomorrow, Monday.  We’ll see how that works.