The limiting factor

So on Saturday we had the annual Hall of Fame tournament, a lovely time when we can pat one of ourselves on the back. That’s rare enough in our activity except when done for the wrong reasons. It’s easy enough for coach recognition to spin out of hand and before you know it, you’re running the Emory tournament. However, we recognized two people who served and coached well. Joyce in particular is a singularly quiet and non self promoting individual. So I don’t feel bad for that.

What is interesting about this weekend’s tournament is that we tried a new format. Instead of the usual 3 rounds plus a final and leave by 6 that we aim for, we did 4 rounds, no final, and left by 4. It was a blessedly short day, we arrived home when the sunlight still shone, and I didn’t have that feeling of raw discomfort that comes of spending too much time in a high school.

Of course, the kids hated it. They didn’t have terribly good justifications for hating it, besides “I want finals!!!!” but hate it they did, so it’s unlikely to survive this brief experiment of two tournaments. That’s a shame. I’ve come to realize, through the context of late league discussions, that we’re really running on a tripod here. The essential goal of the activity is student’s education. But two essential ingredients, money and adult time, are sometimes overlooked.

When we have a league discussion about various issues, inevitably it turns into a contest of whose position benefits the students best. I don’t agree with that calculus; for the activity to survive the burden of fund raising cannot be crushing, nor can the time spent on the part of coaches and tournament staff (who are virtually always volunteers) cannot be overwhelming.

In the MFL, that threshold is being reached. Our tournaments are within striking distance of being as quick as we can run them; we can save probably another 45 minutes, but for the most part they’re as efficient as they can be. However, they still run very long, meaning I cannot feasibly do much else from Friday night when I go to bed early, until Saturday noontime when I wake in recovery. They’re also at the edge of viability, with a whopping 120 trophies required at minimum to even hold an event. Some would suggest we determine the educational merit first and then do whatever it takes in the realms of money and time to make the educationally optimal path happen. I don’t agree; I think if you wait to talk about reality, you’re going to shove yourself out of business rather quickly.

What’s ironic was someone suggested we raise tournament fees in order to hold events that accommodate working class students.

At any rate, I may be reaching an endpoint. I cannot continue to put this level of dedication into a single activity; my friendships out of forensics are suffering, I haven’t had a prospect of a relationship in a year, and so on: and this tale of a personal life in tatters is not terribly unusual in the world of forensics coaches. With such a significant personal tax, and without the kind of expected support of speech programs in Massachusetts that say, Texas enjoys, all this extra effort comes out of the coaches. Little surprise then, that despite interest among kids and interest among parents, willing coaches are the limiting factor of growth of the MFL.

So we’ll keep having tournaments, and we’ll have finals, and we’ll leave at 6 instead of 4. And a few more people will be unwilling to coach, unwilling to enter this activity, unwilling or unable to run for the state Board. It will remain an activity among the few obsessed, who are willing to pull out all stops if it will help an extra ten or twenty students compete and learn. I understand the impulse, but it more than anything has lead me to search for a better balance. If I can’t find a way to jigsaw personal life with league life, league life will go.

Is this all there is?

So yeah, I started a site here. I’m not really intending it to be a blog, because I know I am not reliable enough to post new original things here every day. I’ll forget and be sporadic, or I’ll fall into a pattern where I post unoriginal things here every day. I’m going to aim for the former pattern. In the age of RSS feeds, that’s useful enough.

I’ve managed to dump all the random poetry that I had up on the old drupal powered site. I have to say, I rather like WordPress; hacking it around was pleasantly simple, everything codewise is laid out in a very sensible manner. The best programs and systems don’t need documentation; you simply start using them and find you understand them already. Bad systems rebuff efforts to easily understand them; in good systems you’re encouraged to learn and tinker more.

As for the point of this whole thing, I don’t truly know. I’m going to naturally talk some about forensics, though I cannot hope to take Jim Menick’s august mantle of Dean of the Coach Bloggers. All two of them. Or us, I suppose.

But I also do other things, and need to find time for them more. I will probably talk LOPSA some here and there, the family certain is always worth a trip, and then the wide world of politics never lacks for bloggers, but one more can’t really harm anything?

I suppose one more can, with a loon like me behind it.

But more than anything, I don’t truly believe anything until I write it down. Putting it out here like this, makes it more real for me. It brings clarity, just as debate should. It hopefully will force me to organize the stupid ideas that come to me at odd moments, usually when I’m driving and can’t write anything down. Sometimes you write ideas down and they fall together clear; other times you take a look and say “eeugh. No.”

Expect that last one a lot.


One last day, and I am tired. I reflect on dinners with Chris, who alternates between being completely outraged by the things that are bothering me as well, and completely fed up. I admire his passion for it; I can’t really get that worked up about especially since I know I’m of limited means to do anything. I like a lot of things, and am having a great time even though I see troubles. Chris is a bit of a perfectionist, which both gives him the inability to enjoy things for what they are, but also much stronger ambition to change them.

Today is the game show, one of the highlights of LISA. I’m not of a mind to laugh at the moment, so I skip it, go back and pack my clothes for return on Saturday. The day is beautiful and the rest is welcome. I have a chance to re-charge, read a book a little while, play a game on the computer, watch the NBA preview for the weekend. The Patriots are playing Denver on Monday Night Football the next week.

I went to one last dinner with Chris, who had been somewhat abruptly ditched by people who probably didn’t notice what they were doing to him — and should have — and Skaar, who I hadn’t met until now. Skaar proved to be externally a gruff reserved Scandinavian and below that a man of sparking intelligence and humor with the most devastating one-liners of the conference, such as “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s on drugs.”

The rack of lamb was marvelous, and we returned and hesitantly ended up in the party suite again. The crowd was subdued; everyone is over-LISAd. People drifted around and finished some alcohol; what is left could have still half filled the hottub. Whenever people started talking computers Patrick and I waved down the world. We piled on the couches, and I felt more secure and warm than I have all week. Patrick threatened to educate me using Beyoncé. I forgave him his Motown inclinations. Michigan does that to people.

It was a marvelous finish. I realized I was on vacation even though I did everything I set out to for Harvard’s sake and my job. I had a fantastic time, but only because I met LISA on my own terms, and not its own. It has problems, and I am more sad at them than angry; the sadness of personal helplessness — I don’t have time to run for the exec, nor would I be likely to win election if I did. But where I am helpless others may not be so.

I got to know Chris in particular a good deal better, and met and got to know new people in JD, Mark, Patrick, and others. I saw Peg, and had more fun with Lois than I have in months. I got to have a great conversation at the booth with Toni and then failed to recognize her with her fake teeth and Halloween costume the next night. There were many people I knew going in that I didn’t talk to much, and that was all right, because there were many I did.

Perhaps I’m used to dealing with much more stressful travel and much more intense interpersonal dances — when people are aware of issues they tend to get talked about more. Perhaps suffering through years of badly run tournaments meant that I could approach LISA and not have to worry about the vortex of towering self-made significance that many others are overwhelmed by. I knew when to take a break and when I should give things up, like staying up late Thursday or the Game Show.

The last night, Friday, I didn’t sleep. We stayed up the night, and then Chris suggested as we were drifting off that we clean up the room a little, which I found admirable. I hope Geoff woke up pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a disaster; he suffered much to provide us that space. Chris and Patrick and I wandered to an all night restaurant and ate a vague meal at 5 AM until we had to go back and prepare for our respective flights.

As we left the parking lot of the other motel with the family restaurant, a line of fire trucks six football fields long were lining up and leaving the parking lot in a sort of formation. The flag at the motels and hotels were flying at half mast, and all the lit signs were thanking the firefighters and police officers, more than 5,000 last I heard, who had fought the fire’s spread. They hadn’t quite won, but they had outlasted.

And as the dawn broke and we began to split our ways for our flights home, I saw a parade of names on the doors of the fire trucks. Las Vegas Fire Department. Flagstaff Fire Department. Grand Canyon National Park Service. Los Angeles Fire Department, despite having fires of their own. Phoenix Fire Department. Mesa, AZ. Bullhead Creek, NV. Many others I didn’t recognize.

A parade of names, little banners of pride in cities and states that had answered the call of a desperate city burning. They merged onto the interstate as a smoke-seeded rain at last pelted down, the first light of dawn bleeding through the clouds, and went home.

The horror of good ideas

By Thursday the wind finally had finished its shift, relieving San Diego of the smoke if not the fire. The technical sessions were interesting in their own right, though many were ill suited to my own job and my own domain. Many people grew hostile when I told them this simple truth; everyone things their solution is right for everyone and their assumptions are right for everyone. I’m amazed how many sysadmins can have the intellectual audacity to hold deeply seated opinions about infrastructure and especially security in the absence of any supporting data whatsoever.

We as a profession have a skewed sense of risk management; I suspect the world is not quite as hostile as we think. Most others design their systems so as to minimize failure and breakins; my systems, given our requirements, are designed instead to minimize the cost and effects of failure and breakins. It comes down to the same results, and I am both happy and well regarded in my choices by my small band of users engaged in their various unspeakable acts of computing. However, a horde of sysadmins is absolutely convinced that I will pay dearly for my approach, despite our computing being structured this way for eight years how, despite our empirical evidence accumulated over that time, and despite the fact that they can’t really point to anyone else or any other data that supports their conclusion.

The gap between potential and actual is very strong at these conferences. I listen to talks and think “Oh, good idea!” a thousand times, but I know of them only a handful will actually turn into good ideas. But that is enough. It’s good to think in the abstract, to plot ahead a little. Ironically, I do that most in the Hallway Track; outside of the talks, at lunch or in lounges talking with others about the world. I get more ideas, thing about more things.

That night, I go to sleep while it’s still Thursday. The parties apparently grew in intensity when I left. I’m happy to be unaware of it.

What Extravagantly Extroverted Teenagers Can Teach

Wednesday began the technical sessions, and my life became considerably more social. I had met a guy named Mark who worked less than a block away from me at Harvard; amusing how travel of 3,000 miles is sometimes needed to make up for institutional divisions at home. The crew of new folks from the parties and sessions was slowly expanding around me, and I was feeling much less disconnected from the conference. When you sit in the hallways and watch, the great middle passes by barely noticed, while the more extreme examples of weird stick out.

I began to think more of the last day, the social maelstrom, in a constructive manner less hazed by gin and tonic. The SAGE exec board had reportedly suffered through a 10 hour meeting over two days this past weekend. I thought about the callousness combined with joviality that marked the parties and the presiding Mafia.

No meeting of 10 hours is going to be productive or necessary. So that is the first thing my students can teach SAGE; of time limits and restraints in debate. I get the feeling that a single exec member can hold up an entire idea simply by disagreeing with it; that while officially a 6-1 vote should pass a motion, the 1 can filibuster simply by never shutting up. I wonder if they’d like a moderator, or at least someone to write some standard rules of procedure for them to use.

After thinking so, I keep slipping and referring to the conference as “the tournament”. The feel is very similar, with less rushing around and fewer surprises. However, after a year and change on the MFL board, I have renewed respect for what the we do in contrast to SAGE.

SAGE appears to spend quite some time talking about talking about things and deciding to decide and other such meta-activity. There is a lot of talk of reaching out to a large but apathetic membership, but only tentative efforts that fail — perhaps through their tentativeness, not their intrinsic value. Maybe it’s time to start a dozen subcommittees or projects and be unafraid to let ten of them fail.

At any rate, the MFL in all its hideous glory manages to directly run three tournaments a year, advise eight or so others, implement rules changes, interface with a national league, encourage new members and growth, and its members still have time to coach, prepare, and manage our own individual chapters and speech leagues.

Many of my ideas came together at the SAGE community meaning that night. Community meeting is a misnomer; it was a presentation by the exec and a chance for questions afterwards. It’s sink or swim time, now; SAGE is a little more separate from the mothership, and has to make itself real.

Then, just as we should have started the sidestroke, a semantic discussion about lobbying from people who wouldn’t know US political realities if they walked in wearing a name badge and four ribbons broke out. Sysadmins sometimes thrive on breadth of knowledge, but I have serious doubts anyone who claimed to know how to approach Congressmen actually did. A fair amount of the trouble was format — free for alls without end are never a good idea. The meeting was run like a paper talk.

However, they’re not papers, they are political functions. Political is a dirty word in this community. But my teenaged students gather every weekend to debate the merits of programs and legislation. They are given three minutes to speak their piece, which encourages them to come up with substantive, structured remarks and not free-for-alls with little to back them. When the crowd doesn’t want to hear it anymore, they can vote it done and move on.

When the SAGE crowd didn’t want to hear it anymore, they filtered out the back or opened their laptops to check their email or stock quotes. I looked up to see if the Celtics were playing; they were, and Vin Baker’s probably soon to fail renaissance continued into the regular season. That was the highlight of the night. I have never seen a group that large attempt a meeting without any form or structure. I have also never seen a meeting that produced more quiet grumbling.

I hesitated to say anything on the microphone; my interesting history makes me pause, and I don’t quite know how to be a more public figure without stirring up old stories best left behind. But not only did I know that I could have fixed half the troubles with the meeting with a stopwatch, a gavel, and a bad attitude, I knew that at least a dozen high schoolers I teach or judge could have done the same.

A Chinese literary school in the early 1920s revived ancient forms of verse and poetry that had been abandoned after the forms stagnated in the previous century under the repressive culture of the Manchu Dynasty. They revived the forms and put creative ideas into them, which the Manchu poets had failed to do, as a way of sparking creativity, which did indeed follow. Direction and restrictions made them innovate to pack meaning into small spaces. Their elegant term for it was “dancing in fetters.”

I wonder if the difference isn’t a realization that sysadmins are predisposed to ignore. I see good personalities, interesting folks, people who are great to talk to and listen to among the Established Crowd and beyond. However, I didn’t see much attention for group dynamics. I haven’t ever seen bigger tensions go blithely ignored like that before. Hints, subtext, posture, emotions — all sort of flew around looking desperately to be noticed.

CFL nationals last spring was one of the hardest weekends of my life. But when Josh needed to talk alone, everyone cleared out of the room, more or less. When Jared needed a moment to chill out, people left us in the corner and didn’t butt in. When Meredith and Alyssa needed turns on the temporary couch, Jonathan instantly grabbed the Washington Post and sat out in the hallway, uncomfortable and tired.

On Wednesday of SAGE, a great conversation I was having with Mark was cut short when drunken Scandinavians suddenly invaded the area of the pool patio we were sitting in. I asked Geoff, who seemed haggard and tired and not just because of a lack of sleep, if he was doing all right. I made sure to pitch it in that serious, “I don’t want a polite answer, I want a real one” voice. I hope it did good. Later, I realized Trey had been doing the same thing. So I was not alone.