A Tale of Two States

A fast and furious weekend in forensics usually involves at least six nervous breakdowns; I’m happy to have gotten away with two.

The weekend began, in the way of many long weekends, on Thursday. I pulled myself into a bus at South Station after seeing a Hasidic man walking through the terminal carrying a bright yellow Easter basket. I spent three hours on the bus to Albany answering frantic emails about the new company’s website, and programming together a viable room master that I’ve been wanting for ages. It’s not quite ready for prime time, since it only shows the first day of a tournament, which worked OK for both New York and Massachusetts states, but won’t work for Nationals or Yale or further along.

Then I arrived in lovely Albany, caught up on the latest Catholic gossip from Catherine, and fended off the Mary Louis girls’ hopefully joking requests for a glass of wine. Kieran had done most of the gruntwork of paneling and selecting Congress judges, which was marvelous. I adjusted and tweaked and showed him a few more features. I got a good night’s sleep, listened as the New York regional directors bitched about room abuse by Policy Debaters, ran registration, and got everything running.

The New York states is a funny beast. The leadership of the organization has totally signed onto the idea of computerization; Kieran constantly thanks me, often on behalf of his wife and family, for all the time the software saves him. The tournament does seem to run faster even when things go wrong. However, the tab operation has only adapted somewhat; it reminds me of the early days of the MFL’s computer effort, when we were essentially trying to hand tab using computers. Things go easier on the computer if you do things like the computer wants you to, but it takes time to adjust folks’ comfort levels around that.

We adapted pretty easily in the MFL, but we run tournaments together all the time. The NYSFL does so once a year, and so I’m a little worried that it’s going to be like this for a while; a six tournament adjustment period takes us three months, but it takes them six years. And with all due respect to the New Yorkers of the Roman persuasion, their computer competence is somewhat….lesser than ours, collectively. I think the average age of the tab staff is cut in half whenever I walk in the room. We in MA have at this point about a dozen folks who can run a tournament OK on the computer system, while really only Charlie Sloat and some of the Brooklyn folks are adept among the NYSFL tab.

Back home after a delayed trip home on the Greyhound, I ran our own tournament. It went easily, even though it was difficult to panel, due to the small size. I terrified a kid from one school with fire and brimstone because they were going to drop a judge.

But the day was smooth; the panels were small, the school very well set up, and everything got off without a hitch. I also came up with the method of speeding the day by just starting things. We tend to not begin things until everything is perfect and ready. But you really don’t need the ballots to start the judge briefing; chances are you’ll finish them during it, and even if you don’t, they can wait just as well after the breifing. So just standing there and saying “Start!” helps a lot.

Meanwhile, back in New York, I kept getting messages from Charlie that said things like “Very Screwed!!! Please call!!!”. He somehow decided that the semifinal of DI had to happen about sixteen times, because he kept on breaking it, in more than one sense. There was a tiebreaker doing funny things, that I fixed on the fly, promptly disabling their sweepstakes, but then I fixed that too. No one has bitched yet about the results being wrong, and so it all worked out in the end.

So New York’s Rome is done, and State Speech is done. Next week all the problems belong to Rich Edwards, as we do our State Debate tournament, and the New Yorkers of the Avignon persuasion run their inaugural event.

Consensus and Legitimacy

I teach the kids a lot about the concept of governmental legitimacy. Basically speaking, if a people governed believe that the government has the right to lay down laws, for whatever justification, then they are more easily governed. The belief of the governed is what matters most, though; for thousands of years hereditary monarchy was a perfectly legitimate way to run a country, and people didn’t have much problem with it. But beliefs changed, and now it’s no longer viable; while kings in 1200 had paltry armies and no police, modern dictators have to create vast mechanisms of control and fear to hang on. Even still, many are forced to have democratic trappings to keep it together. The Roman emperors never did get around to eliminating the Senate, for much the same reason.

Legitimacy is a complex thing. It requires trust. You need to assume the government is at least trying to think through issues the way you do. Nationalism ties into that a lot these days; people don’t trust other peoples to look out for them. Serbia lost its legitimacy among the Kosovars, since the government of Serbia suddenly decided that it mattered that the Kosovars were ethnic Albanians. Once it mattered to Belgrade, it suddenly mattered to the Kosovars as well, and they would not trust the central government again. Belgrade had declared that the Kosovars were not Serbians in their regard, and the natural response was to leave Serbia. The alternative would have been unrest and bloodshed, or repression, which is the only tool an illegitimate government has to survive.

I’ve recently been pondering this in the context of the various boards and groups I’m embroiled with. Right now the LOPSA board enjoys a good amount of legitimacy, since one of the lynchpins of legitimacy and nationalism is defining yourself as not being another group; you’re not so much “us” as “not them.” We have a very convenient if rather sleepy them to not be at the moment; SAGE is controlled by an outside group of people with interests entirely different than those of sysadmins, and therefore the governance thereof is illegitimate. I feel just about everyone knows it, too, since SAGE has pretty much done nothing over the last year. It will die on its own, and then we’re going to have to make our way without a convenient foil.

Forensics is another beast. Right now the MFL is trying to achieve some fairly sweeping change; eliminating one event (Radio), adding another (Impromptu), and substantially changing a third (Group Discussion). I myself believe all three changes would be positive, though I’m only hugely passionate about the last. Change is always tough for a collective organization, since those who have a stake in the way things are — a concrete reality — are always more passionate about it than those who have a stake in the way things could be — an ephemeral guess. Change is even harder given that the underlying purpose of the activity is competitive. However, right now we’re a little hamstrung in that our state league board does not include some of the most respected folks in it, for various and sundry reasons. It’s difficult to make a change stick when too many trusted folks are outside of the decision process; so even though these changes were hashed out to death and considered from dozens of angles by the Board, people suspect we missed something. So the debate drags on, nothing new is said, and nothing changes.   The “us” versus “them” divide is within the league, and while it’s not so pronounced as previous internal divides, it is nonetheless there.
Over in New Yorkland, there’s an ongoing dispute about the nature of their state tournament, which as far as I can tell is the natural byproduct of the fact that New York is not One Big League the way we do in Massachusetts. We evolve and change slowly in the MFL, but we do so together, so the state tournament is no different than any other. New York has a number of local leagues, who then have to decide how to do things when they come together. So the local conflicts get delegated up into the statewide conflicts, and the waters grow ever muddier. Brooklyn comes to one conclusion through a wrenching process, and then Rochester reaches a different one, and the Mid-Hudson leaguers a third; but then they have to hash out the whole thing all over again at the state level. Apparently that hashing doesn’t happen well, or often; one faction prevailed, and the other stays out of the game as a result. Not good.

That can be somewhat awkward for me at times, because I get along with almost all of the coaches I knew from New York, and I can never keep track of who hates whom. “Let’s have dinner with so-and-so!” turns so readily into an awkward and uncomfortable silence in that kind of situation.

I tend to think that the real problem in New York is a lack of a venue for bitching. Bitching will always happen, but without a time and a place set aside for official bitching, it has to happen under the radar, where it takes the guise of hurtful gossip instead of constructive feedback. Some folks have a hard time with that concept, since it’s always better to get along.   When you bitch at someone and they take you seriously, they’re no longer an evil strange Serbian in your eyes, but part of the “us” again.   We had our MFL coaches’ meeting, and boy did they bitch, and while that was rather unkind since a lot of the bitching seemed to assume that the Board had taken action willy-nilly without thinking of the consequences, at least it tied everyone back into the League.

In a setup like New York’s, there’s bound to be even more dissension. However, they seem to close it all up and off, and so the dissenters, frustrated and voiceless, quite literally gather up their kids and found their own damn tournament. A sad situation that it had to happen. But that’s not my battle, just an example of what to avoid. I’ll go to NY States this year and get them running (because I’m a glutton for punishment), and I’ll probably attend the NE Championships next year with some kids in tow, unless Menick again decides to schedule it against a calendar that was quite clearly published on my league’s website for anyone to see months and months ago.

But if they add a 17th required event, they’re going to have to find a new damn president.

The Uber-ballot

Some good things did come from Harvard, and one is an idea that you’ll likely see at a Yale tournament near you in the fall.   Policy Mike was staying with me for the weekend so he could judge the Harvard policy tournament, and at one point he mentioned how judging speech left him feeling very ambiguous afterwards, since he didn’t have the opportunity to explain why he ranked the round in a comparative way, the way that debate ballots demand.   He suggested having a speech RFD ballot, a sheet that gets copied to all the people in the round, where the judge is asked to not just give individual feedback but comment overall on why they ranked the round the way they did.

That thought process would be valuable to know; one of the problems in speech judging is always figuring out what mattered most to the judge.   I’ll get a kid’s ballot where the kid ranked fourth, perhaps, and it’ll have (hopefully!) a few comments on areas for improvement.   But in the judge’s mind only one of them might have earned the student the 4, and rarely will that be thought through.   We ask debate judges to make their decision, and then justify it.   Speech judges are asked to justify their decision, and then make it.   Small wonder, then, that a useful ballot is rare.

Few judges are qualified to be coaches; there are many coaches in our judging pool, but there are also many more parents.   Speech ballots, however, are set up to make the judges into coaches; they basically ask the judge to say what worked in the performance, and what didn’t.   But judges aren’t coaches; figuring out how to identify strong and weak points is the coaches’ job.   A judge’s job is to adjudicate, and I think ultimately it’s much more fair to ask of them to explain their decisions of adjudication, than to ask them to provide advice and feedback in a vacuum to each student individually.

Debaters are rarely left wondering why a judge decided a round the way they did – though they are sometimes very baffled as to how.   I think it might be time to ask the same of speech judges; tell me who you believed and why.   Ask speech judges to think about it more than just perfunctorily and provide a justification.   It’s worth a shot, at least; we’ll be trying it out at Yale, most likely, and seeing how it goes.

Snow Globe

For the last two days the weather has been somewhat like a snowglobe; we’ve had gentle falling snow that never seems to accumulate.   The snow powders the earth, and then the temperature just edges above freezing, so it melts; and then it drops another two degrees, we slip below the edge of freezing, and the earth is frosted again.

It’s magnificent.

This morning on Storrow Drive,   the world disappeared.   It was snowing thick, and the grey ground was covered with it.   A fog rose above the Charles.   The world shrank to the trees on either side of the Esplanade, the outline of Kendall Square’s across the river, and the bricks of Back Bay to my right.   And the line of cars with suicidal drivers zipping down Storrow going sixty, of course.

It was a great moment, when the world and nature intrudes on the city, and lets us know where we stand.   The weather can make the world dull brown, or it can make it shine silver in the morning, and we can only drive by and watch.

Iowa Addendum

It’s elections like that that make me wonder why people make political predictions.   I suppose predicting the future and having others listen makes people feel smart.   I never make predictions, even as extempers always ask me for them.   This year is an especially good example; I can make a really compelling argument why no one will win the Republican nomination, but it’s not like the GOP is going to sit this one out or anything like that.   But anyway, no predictions from me.     I am, however, probably going to vote for Hillary.