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When you’re under that kind of pressure and strain, you start mercilessly prioritizing and looking at your life.   At least, I did. It’s a refreshing exercise, to be recommended when you have far lesser reasons to do it.

In the last year I looked around my life and realize I do a lot of unrewarding crap entirely out of a sense of tradition and obligation.

Speech has been my major diversion and my major activity for most of my adult life.   I’ve been involved at the highest and the lowest levels, which are remarkably similar.   I’ve run Nationals, I’ve coached champions, I’ve coached teams that bombed and failed, and I’ve cleaned up the cafeteria after the tournament is done.   I’ve built up and run several of the best tournaments in the Northeast, perhaps even the country.     I’ve changed extemp, and changed what students learn in extemp; hopefully I’ve made it much more rigorous and interesting.   I’ve done a lot, for a part-timer.

What the last year has brought into sharp focus, however, is that I’m tired of it, bored of it.   I’ve been identified as a rare commodity: someone in speech who has my organizational act together.   I have the temperance to run big events: organized enough to keep them running, but free enough to not allow obsessions over minor problems derail tournaments.     You need an apathetic brand of OCD to be a good tournament director.     But I’ve been around long enough that my responsibilities piled up; since I’m someone who can get things done, lately I’ve been doing little else.

Running the state league was Not Much Fun.   I did it for two terms in a row, which is twice as many terms as anyone else has done in a while.   It’s essentially an ocean of expectations offset by a puddle of resources.   Change is difficult there, especially changes that would have made the league easier to run.   Instead, the Board is dominated by the same tired agendas that boil down to who gets which trophies and why.   Several of the people were willing to go to any length to achieve those agendas.   It became depressingly constant, and I don’t need it.   There’s a lot of good in the state league, but the people running it don’t get to experience a lot of it.   And I’ve realized, there’s not much good I can do with it anymore.

Running invitational tournaments is better, as you get to do whatever you want to.   But attending coaches also treat you as if you owe them something, when I decidedly do not.   To some degree, the speech world doesn’t deserve well run tournaments, because t0o many of its members do their utmost to make them impossible to pull off.   In debate we talk about how the same 2% of schools cause 98% of the problems; in IEs there are far far more trouble-making programs.     The tournaments were worthwhile and the work I did do was more immediately realized.   So I’m going to cut back, not leave altogether.   I found an eminently able successor to handle Columbia in Joe A.   I’m also skipping Princeton this year, having already formed a committee to take over.   A permanent solution for Princeton still awaits, but we’ll do right by it.

Penn remains a good weekend for a great cause, and Yale is my premier tournament, so I’ll keep those for now.

And finally and hardest, speech coaching had lost a lot of its appeal.   The kids were great and fun like they’d always been, but I began to dread speech itself.   I spent a whole year not really wanting to go to practice, even though I usually had a good time once I got there.   I’d mastered extemp, the speech event I do best; but it’s been years since I’ve seen a new idea out there that wasn’t mine first.   I have an image in my head of what extemp should be, and coaching at this point is not creation, but teaching each student to approximate that Platonic ideal to the limit of their ability.   There’s not much joy in that, once you’ve done it a dozen or so times.

Once a coach has really mastered an event, often they’ll stay in it to rack up a ton of hardware and feel good about themselves through their students.   If we expanded and aggressively recruited and had 20 extempers on our squad, we’d almost certainly have at least a few students who could be nationally competitive every year.   We could have an empire.   But I’m not that kind of person.   Trophies are cheap in more ways than one; they’re not worth the effort.   To some degree in speech, most of the education is realized in making a bad freshman into a good sophomore.   After that level, the rest is just ever more precious refinement; the educational differences between a national champion and a kid who breaks their senior year aren’t that great.   At that level, it’s more of a talent difference.

I coached and did this to learn myself, create, and grow.   And I’d stopped doing that.

So I was ready to stop coaching speech.   I wrote a note over the summer, strangely so far not replied to, asking for a quiet end.   It was too quiet — some of my old students don’t seem to know the score.     I left behind a solid group of extempers and a dizzying array of senior PF debaters.   And now at last I’ve come public.   I’m an ex speech coach.

I didn’t want this to be a Big Shocking Announcement with a bunch of tearful goodbyes, because I haven’t ever viewed myself as institutional.   Every year I asked the question “do I want to do this again?” and had to make the choice to continue, rather than it being automatic.     I’ve never had great loyalty to any particular school or program, not even my own alma mater — because I feel that excessive school loyalty is corrosive to education.   If coaching and help from me could make a difference to a kid who happened to be born in another school district, it’s not in my nature to withhold them.   Ultimately being part of an institution isn’t what I want out of forensics, and being a part of an institution is the only thing that would be left for me in speech.   So I bade it goodbye.

But this is not, as it happens, a complete goodbye.

My, what large tournaments you have, Grandma…

You know, every year when I start putting together the Yale tournament, I go through a few irrational moods. The week before Yale, I totally dread it; that’s the moment where the tournament’s size, scope and complexity are most clear, but the details on how it’s going to work exactly are most unsettled.   It always passes as I get into the week before.

Two months before Yale, I always worry about registration. The worries are twofold; what if everyone suddenly secretly hates me and the tournament will be 50% smaller than last year. At the very same time, totally without cognitive dissonance, I worry that the opposite will happen, and the tournament will suddenly expand by 50% and I’ll have no idea how to manage it all.

Well, guess what:

  • Congress 111
  • Dramatic 150
  • Duo 56
  • Extemp 101
  • Humorous 123
  • JV LD 124, 16 WL
  • Oral Interp 132
  • Oratory 118
  • Parliamentary Debate 21
  • Policy Debate 35
  • Public Forum 121, 60 WL
  • Varsity LD 161, 43 WL
  • Totals 1276, 96 WL

That would be 1470 total students. Dear God.

Now, that’s not what the final numbers will end up. We’re working on a different venue for PF so we can hopefully at least clear off at least some of that waitlist. VLD and JVLD will stay stable; going beyond 160 leads to badness with breaks/competition. And Speech and Congress (which had waitlists until today but we found more on-campus rooms for them) will likely shrink through the usual last minute attrition.   Depending on how much they shrink, we’ll have to expand the initial break a bit, especially in DI; breaking 150 to 24 is brutal, especially so early in the season.

Unfortunately, with Yale being as large as it is, it’s grown to inhabit multiple venues.   That means that the attrition in speech can’t go towards admitting more students in PF.   These numbers still represent easily 30-50% higher registration numbers than we’ve ever seen at any point during Yale registration.   Furthermore, many events (VLD and PF in particular) hit their caps and in PF’s case blew past the previous tournament registration record on the second day of registration.

I moved registration up to August 1st this year in the hope that I could spread out the registration at least over a week and people didn’t have to pull the Midnight Vigil to get their spots in.   It didn’t work.   It’s doubly irritating that I’m sure that some of those registered debaters aren’t actually firmly committed to coming, and many on the wait list would be 100% committed to come if given the chance now, but won’t be able to if I admit them off the list the Tuesday before the tournament.   I wish there were some way of running registration such that the people who were totally committed to coming had priority over those who haven’t figured it out yet but want to grab a slot just in case.   Right now the first-come first-served system rewards first those teams whose coaches are on the ball, which isn’t the worst approximation, but isn’t good by any means either.

But as it stands, there’s no way for me to know who is who.   Some tournaments (VBI, Glenbrooks) solve that problem by requiring advance payment before registration; that’s a good way to know that someone is more than casually committed to attending.   But with Yale happening early in the year — it’s the kickoff tournament for many of its attendees — I doubt that requiring advance payment is feasible.

So that’s the story for now.   It’s going to be a fun tournament; despite the growth, we’re going to offer 5 prelims in speech instead of 4, and will probably (depending on the final numbers) be able to finish it in 7 time slots instead of the former 8.     We’ll have the much sought for 7th prelim in LD (and possibly, no promises here, but if it grows enough and we get the rooms we may hold a 7th in PF as well).   Plus there’s the atmosphere of Yale in late September; it’s the perfect time of year to be outdoors in New England.   It’s the start of the year and the first time you see many of your fellow forensicians, at the point in time when you’re least sick of them.   The kids are getting back into the groove too: it’s the first major tournament for most of them, so the strive for it — success at Yale may be a barometer for a good year; but doing poorly is more of a kick-in-the-pants incentive to get to work than an individual tragedy; it’s early, and some very good kids just aren’t ready yet.   So you can gain, but you can’t really lose; it’s no one’s last chance to get to the TOC or whatever.   That means you rarely have a competitive Cloud of Doom hanging over the tournament.

Maybe this year I won’t dread it the week before.   But maybe not.

Battle School

If you are or were a smart kid, or are someone who deals with smart kids, and haven’t read Ender’s Game, your education is incomplete.  It’s a science fiction book, but don’t let that scare you; I’m not a scifi person either.  The book centers around a kid named Ender, who’s 6-12 years old in the span of the book.   Ender has been selected based on his precocious brilliance to train to be one of the elite future commanders for the defense of Earth and humanity against the obligatory Evil Alien Race.   He’s is sent off to Battle School, an elite program located up in the asteroid belt, for training.   Battle School has classes and books and the like, but the center of the school is The Game.

The Game is where 11 and 12 year old generals lead armies of 40 of their younger peers in laser-tag like mock battles against the other armies in a zero gravity environment.   Its purpose is to produce leaders, and the Game does just that.  It’s real, applied learning, unlike books and lectures.  It’s a competition, which kids understand; it’s about pride, status.   Rank and standings are tracked and known by all.  If you’re good at The Game, you’re good at life.   These results are immediate, unlike “you’ll get into college someday.”

However, the main purpose of the Battle School shifts during the course of the novel.   The Game used to train officers; but now, the fleet needs its commander.  And that’s Ender.  So the teachers of the school start messing with the Game; they throw him unfair challenges; they ruin the balance and fairness in order to make sure Ender turns out to be the singular commander they need.  Everything and everyone else is sacrificed to that end.

Some of the teachers protest.  They dislike that the sanctity of the competition is being ruined; that the unfairness of it is going to destroy the order of the known universe.  They defend the Game for its own sake, and forget the purpose of it.  They, too, live for the competition, the standings, and want to know exactly who is the biggest badass among the 11 year olds under their watch.  And when you read it, you completely believe it, that adults could also be caught up in the Game itself enough that they forget the ultimate purpose the Game is meant to serve, even when that purpose is a matter of humanity’s very survival.  It’s utterly believable that the Game’s trappings could obscure its purpose among otherwise intelligent adults.

You believe it even more if you’re a debate coach.

Messing around

Some quick thoughts:

  • Today is the platonic ideal of a summer day.   High 70s, clear and breeze, the perfect temperature if you’re wearing shorts or if you’re wearing pants, scattered puffy clouds by day and none at night.   Right now I’m sitting on the deck watching the sunset and Venus shine in the west.     The weather can suck a lot in New England, but there’s nothing like these jewels of perfect days anywhere else.
  • Evidently there exists a band whose entire repertoire consists of songs about the lead singer’s breakup with my sister.   It’s knowledge like that that gives big brothers insomnia.
  • In the spirit of not letting anyone get too complacent, I’ve decided to start screwing around with Public Forum at the college tournaments more.   We’ll start with giving 4 minutes of prep time at Yale this year.   It was suggested by email and the reasons made a lot of sense to me, so here we go.   It’s clearly spelled out in the invitation and on the website, so I’m waiting to see how many people will react like it’s a Great Big Surprise.
  • Speaking of the sister, she’s in Vietnam at the moment.   If there’s a coup, chances are we can blame her.
  • I need to be better about staying in touch with friends.

The Whole World is Broken

In my dayjob, I’m a sysadmin.     That’s a catch-all term that means I make computers work, but in reality, I make things work.   By things, I mean everything.   I’m the contact to the facilities manager, I paint walls sometimes, hang whiteboards from walls and TVs from ceilings, monitor and manage the cooling and power systems, and figure out office layouts.   Oh, and I keep our network and computers running, which is actually in my job description, unlike all that other stuff.

I’m the only one in our small company who keeps those computers running, and the only one in our office with my particular skills and knowledge.   You see, not all “computer people” are the same; I can write software, certainly, but not with the efficiency of those who do it full time; software developers can usually diagnose and fix problems with computers, but not as well as I can.   There are subfields, and specialities; while a brain surgeon certainly knows a lot more about the heart than your average joe, if you’re having a heart attack, you’re better off with a cardiologist instead.

My field in particular, to great pain and displeasure, sometimes involves The Whole World Breaking.   The causes of The Whole World Breaking are many, but the effect is the same: the entire company grinds to a halt, and everyone is unable to work or use the Internet or get email or print or do any of a thousand other things that makes a day productive.

And it’s on me to fix it.

When that does happen, I’m the only one in the company working. I’m the only one able to work.   Everyone else is idle.   As no one else has the specialized knowledge I do, and no one else is likely to be of help.   No one else understands the whole system in its full complexity.     But that doesn’t stop them from trying.   People tend to discount the complexity of systems they don’t understand.   They’ll therefore ask questions like “Have you tried unplugging the router and plug it back in!” as if a company network was just like a Linksys cable modem router in your living room.

Managers are the worst.   They need to appear to be in control; that’s their title and rationale for existing, after all.   They will crowd around, ask for continual “status updates” — which are always the same, to wit: “The Whole World is Broken.”   Managers ask questions that have no answer: “What do you think caused it?”   If I knew that I’d have fixed it.   They don’t help, they just get in the damn way, and slow down the fix, which may be complex and intricate and require my full attention to address.   A ten minute fix can therefore take an hour; and hour fix can take all afternoon.   I spend a lot of time telling people that things are broken, trying to calm them down, nodding sagely that I understand they have deadlines and Important Business to take care of, and making completely bogus estimates as to how long it’ll take to fix the issue.   And so I don’t end up with much time to actually, you know, fix the issue.

This pattern of behavior makes people feel more effective and more useful than what they should do, which is ordering me pizza and getting the hell out of the way.     When I do Fix the Whole World, they’ll congratulate themselves for having Managed the Crisis.   They feel involved, and feel of aid.   It’s not a personality thing, either; I’ve never had a manager and co-workers who didn’t do this sort of thing, and my set of co-workers and managers have precious little else in common.   It’s human nature to want to be useful in a crisis, so if they can’t be helpful, they try to appear to be helpful.   Even when it’s harmful.

Now, I imagine, somewhere around the Gulf of Mexico, there is a small team of engineers who actually understand the Deepwater Horizon problem.   There might even be that One Guy, the one that the other engineers and managers are looking to to Fix The Whole World.   I don’t mean to be sexist, by the way: chances are very strong that it’s guy.   That Guy intimately understands the risks, the complexities, and the difficulties of plugging the well.   He lives in a world of uncertainties and probabilities, because complete understanding of complex systems is always a matter of uncertainty and probability.   He understands that even when a certain thing should work, it sometimes doesn’t, and is left with choosing between a menu of potentially dangerous options to fix a damn well that’s been headline news for two months now.

And instead of dealing with just one manager and sixteen co-workers, he has to listen to journalists, the CEO of BP, a hundred million Americans, and Kevin frigging Costner standing over his shoulder and calling out suggestions.   Because he’s The Guy, he’s the one called on for status updates, predictions and Congressional hearings, and is thus pulled away from actually fixing the well.   Everyone else thinks the problem must have an easy fix, and   that the engineer’s job is simple.   The Joe the Plumbers of the world, with their down home common sense, think it should be simple — it’s just a big hole that needs to be plugged, isn’t it?   How hard could it be — why not just blow the whole thing up?   It’s a big issue, it’s in the news, and so after seeing one USA Today infographic, everyone’s suddenly an expert.

And if it’s easy to cap it, then clearly the trouble is that The Guy at the center of the storm is just lazy and stupid.   So the correct response to flood BP and the engineering team with as many asinine suggestions and urgent demands as possible.     That’ll light a fire under them.

Trust me when I tell you, there’s no one more motivated to plug that damn hole than those engineers.   I’m sure they haven’t slept well since it started.   Vacations have been canceled, childrens’ graduations have been missed.   They’ve probably gotten a fair number of threatening letters sent to their homes.     I’ll bet the CEO and VPs breathing down the engineer’s necks are the same ones who denied funding to safety measures the engineers recommended in order to prevent such a blowout, too.   That’s how it works, in the world where professional management means that people with actual technical knowledge and a deep and personal appreciation of uncertainty and risk do not rise to decision making positions.   Only people who understand so little that they do speak in absolutes and certainties rise to leadership.

Until they’re proven wrong, by a geyser of oil on the ocean floor.   Or, for that matter, a flood of subprime housing losses.   We’ve been here before.

And now the journalistic world thinks this is somehow Obama’s fault.   I suppose they go with what they know, usually.   Clearly these engineers will work faster if the President of the United States adds his voice to the jackasses already trying to micromanage a problem they don’t begin to understand.   I’m not a huge Obama fan but I do give him credit for steering clear of the problem.   It was probably actually helpful.