Friday, January 30, 2009

A serious note

The last few days have been murder. The recession has hit the DJ as it has hit everything else, and we had to lay people off, and nobody emerges from that particularly happy about it. One is thankful to remain employed, but nonetheless feeling guilty about those who had no choice but to leave. It's a difficult time. And there's not much anyone can do about it.

This weekend is Newark. Let's hope that a swell time is had by all as we get back to all the things that we normally do. I have 3 Sailors and one stowaway from NFA going on the trip, and I have loaded my iPod with the worst music I could find in preparation, plus I saved "Wait Wait" from the weekend, so we should at least enjoy the journey. Or maybe I'll just tell them the stories my mother always tells about the Depression. "Breathing? We didn't have breathing during the Depression! You were lucky if you were able to inhale once at year at Christmas, and even then only if the nuns weren't looking." Yeah, tough times repeat themselves. What can I say?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Modnov, Chumps, Stealth gaps, Rokus, free mp3s, and Johnny Scarsdale we hardly knew ye'

Some things need to be done, and for some reason I’m not doing them.

First, there’s the Modest Novice. We agreed at Lexington to a civil disobedience topic, and now we need to agree on the wording. CP has set up a website, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. Theoretically we should be on there arguing the exact wording, posting support materials, etc. Soon.

Then there’s The Northeast Chumps. I’ll do this tonight at the latest. We did charge O’C with finding cheap trophies, which is like sending a blind person to pick only the purple petunias. The strong thought that Massachusetts participation, expecially PF, relies on low entry fees far outweighs the need to give everyone who enters the room a diamond-studded tiara. I’ll do some math tonight and, with luck, disseminate an invitation by this weekend.

I cancelled last night’s Sailorfest. First of all, they kept saying it was going to snow, and second of all, it’s midterms season, which means no chairs in the classrooms because they take the test in the panopticon section of the building, plus the intended audience for this meeting (mostly plebes) would be feverishly studying rather than watching the legendary matchup of Stealth v Gap. Understandable, but that meant that I goofed off last night, it being suddenly an extra one in my life. Which is why I haven’t been doing the things in my life that need doing. Not that I would have done them anyhow, but you get my drift.

(One thing I did do is post the recent exegesis of the LD rules, and the rules themselves, over on the right in the greatest hits section. So I haven't been totally sleeping on the job.)

I don’t think that I mentioned that I obtained a Roku so that I have yet another way not to watch movies in addition to my enormous albeit seldom exercised Netflix habit. In a better economy I’d also be obtaining either a new Little Elvis (I was thinking of the Aloha From Hawaii Elvis) or maybe a little Asus EEE, but having seen my vast fortune eroded away lately by the winds of the recession, I’m beginning to accept that any computer that works is good enough for the time being. This is far from true, of course, when you’re not merely an operating system behind but also a hardware system (i.e., Intel-based) behind. But, still, with Little Elvis I can keep my iTunes jumping, I can organize photos, I can run tournaments, I can see on Facebook who just got dumped or who’s on “The Amazing Race” (which I still think will suffer by not having the twin brother team of Bietz and O’C, but what do I know). Speaking of Facebook, I am now friends with my DJ corporate VP, which is like being befriended there by your mother. Not that I exactly have anything to hide, but there is a vast disconnect between what I do all day and what I do all the other time, and I can’t imagine what one side might look like to the other side if someone got lost in the vortex.

I enjoyed the picture of JV with the statue of John Scarsdale on WTF, by the way. I didn’t know there was a statue of John Scarsdale on the campus. I didn’t even know there was a John Scarsdale. You learn something new every day.

And, reason number one to give away music: I get all the free mp3 notifications from Amazon, and last night I fell in love with Renee Olstead, which translates into laying out the bucks to download two of her albums. In other words, free music works just like heroin. Once they suck you in, you’re hooked. (You won’t like her, by the way, unless you’re of the Krall-Peyroux persuasion, which I doubt. You look more like a head banger to me. You always have, for that matter, but you knew that.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The inside poop on the Gem

What happened at Columbia? I’m glad you asked.

Like most college tournaments, the Gem of Harlem is a long event. LD goes Friday through Sunday, plus along the way Congress and IEs are tossed into the mix. Also like most college tournaments, rooms are at a premium. College administrations do not willingly grant their debate teams free access to all their classrooms. Far from it. Each room added to the pool is usually fought for to the death, and often the event limits set by the tournament reflect nothing more than the hoped-for maximum amount of space available in which to hold all of them. Of course, best laid plans all gang aglay when some yabbo teacher decides to come in on Saturday and tutor some slackers on remedial brain surgery or whatever. Keeping on top of all of this is, one may be surprised to hear, just about a fulltime job. Rooms have to be acquired and then allotted, and often there’s an LD round followed by some IE rounds followed by a Chinese New Year drummer reunion followed by a Chautauqua complete with gospel music followed by PF semis. If, at any point, that yabbo teacher manages to slide in with his brain surgeons manqué, all hell can break loose with domino-effect ramifications. Our man on the room scene was CP, a master of this art, if we go by results, which was exactly one debate round slightly bumping into a handful of IEers one day, which was resolved almost immediately. On the LD side, given that we snuck in an extra novice partial doubles on Sunday and still that division ended before awards, we were real happy. (We managed to have VLD end during awards; we knew before the tournament started that they would occur simultaneously, so that was okay.) Occasionally CP would hand one of us the spreadsheet he uses to organize things, which is sort of like the map of M. C. Escher’s summer house only upside down, and we would look at it and remark that it set new standards for incomprehensibility, and he would reply that it was clear to him, and that it was a perfect representation of how his mind works. Q.E.D., eh?

Given that we were up against Emory, where O’C was pressing his hands and feet into the Georgia cement in his bid for debate immorality immortality, we nonetheless had what seemed to me a decent event. A strong concentration of talent in the field, certainly worthy of the semis bid, and enough A judges in the pool to cover every single bubble and then some. Scarola was wearing shoes the entire weekend, which is a good sign in and of itself. Caitlin was on top of everything in running the tournament, and her tab and ballot and running staffs were getting the job done. We tried texting results again, and aside from a couple of blips (all of which were corrected, usually by the strong double-checking by the Gems), it worked well. It was good to see that Mr. Bietz was there with all his electronic toys and his usual strong young California folk. Bietz’s fame precedes him, of course, so let me use him as exemplar of a certain mindset. He was not obligated to judge this weekend, but told us that if we ever needed him, he’d be happy to help out. We asked him only once, to adjudicate a novice break round. Novice. Little kids. He said he’d love to do it, that he loved judging novices, and then he took his ballot and went off and helped out. Consider this my plea for more people like MB in the world. (Although the rumors that he and O’C are miffed because they failed to gain entry as a twin brother duo in “The Amazing Race” are entirely unfounded.)

But where’s the dirt? I can see you tapping your foot. You’re asking me, Who did we throw out the window for being unworthy of existing? Who did JV hit over the head with a sledge hammer? Whose picture was used for dart tossing? Since my practice is, generally, if I don’t have anything good to say about somebody, put it in the blog, I will oblige.

First of all, there were the usual culprits, the no-show judges. As always, some teams hedge their overall judging obligation. This one can’t do this round, that one can’t do that round. One school sends a high school student to judge varsity. Yet, somehow, everyone expects their teams to be judged every round, even if they’re not judging every round themselves. Hmmmm. How does that work? Am I missing something in the math here? CP showed me a way in tabroom to track, and fine, every missed round. You know we’re going for that everywhere I have control in the future. At the point where you haven’t covered your entry, you get fined. At the point where you haven’t covered it so much I can’t cover it for you, you get dropped from the tournament. The cost of coming to a tournament is the requirement to cover your judging. Can’t do it? Find some activity where there’s no obligations, and do that instead. (Especially, find some activity that doesn’t revolve around the concept of fulfilling obligations, come to think of it.) Of course, no-show judges also include those who have “judged every round” and don’t want to judge the next one. Often these judges are being paid by the tournament. Often these judges have already asked for, and gotten, a round or two off. Often these judges think we’re listening to their whining. I assure you, we’re not.

Then there was the judge who, after numerous unanswered phone calls and texts, finally gave us the results of the last Saturday round an hour after the round ended. There is a special place in hell for this sort of stupidity, but, unfortunately, no place in debate tournaments. Pulling a bonehead stunt like this is probably the number one way never to get hired again. At the very least, you’ll be watching a lot of down five rounds.

And then, can you see that sign on the door that says we’re not going to give you your ballots? Do you really think that, while we’re pairing the final rounds, we’re going to stop what we’re doing and pretend that the sign wasn’t there? Do you think we care that much about you? Do you think we believe the story you concocted the second time we threw you out? How dumb are you? Rule number one: if you have not been specifically invited to join us in tab, then you have not been invited to join us in tab—tell your tales of woe to the ballot table, because that’s what they are there for: they are the concierges at a tournament. It is their job, not our job, to ignore you. The tab room got there in the morning long before you did, and will leave at night long after you are gone. We would like to take our ballots and go home early too, but we have the good etiquette to stay for the whole tournament. Don’t make our day any longer than it already is by imposing your bad manners on us. If you must slink out like a thief in the night, please do so making the least amount of hoo-ha possible.

By the way, have you ever noticed that if there’s one idiot on a team, usually the whole team is crawling with them? And vice versa. One nice person, and they’re all nice people. Note: if you want us to love you, act lovably. Judge all your rounds, don’t whine, don’t ask for special treatment, and don’t bug us when we’re working. (One school, by the way, had a very large entry, and a gatekeeper for all its judges. Throughout the weekend, that gatekeeper made sure that every round had its judge from that school, or if there was an issue, that there was a competent sub to take over. Professionalism to the core. A tip of the hat to Grandma J!)

One nice thing about the Gem of Harlem was ubiquitous wireless. I hear that people were online during rounds, so this may be too much of a temptation for some people who are sort of rules-adverse, but mostly it meant that every single person I saw all weekend was, when sitting around, poking away at their keyboards. We are getting very close to the future. It may be scary.

And I know that this is important to you: your happy, smiling tab staff discovered this really nice bistro a block or two down the road, and ate about every meal there over the weekend. A well-fed tab staff is a happy tab staff (absent all the issues above). Keep that in mind, sports fans.

Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 8 (conclusion)

We have made the case that, first, that rules are needed for LD rounds, and second, that the rules provided by the NFL are the rules we should abide by. Then we have presented those rules and analyzed what they are saying.

Are these the best possible rules for the activity? Not necessarily, although my opinion is that they are pretty good, and if I were asked to come up with something, it wouldn’t be much different from this. In our analysis, we have decidedly not been evaluating the rules, however, but simply enumerating them and discussing their meaning. The thing is, once you accept the need for rules, and the provenance of the NFL, you are sort of stuck with accepting the NFL’s rules. Who wants to play a game with someone who keeps complaining that the rules are unfair? As we’ve said often in the past, an LD round is not the place where one should debate the rules of LD. Once you decide to debate LD, well, following the rules already in place is what you have to do. If you think the rules should be changed, then come up with a way to do so that does not include your implicit acceptance of those rules in a debate round operating under those rules. Taking a “conscientious objector” approach and flouting the rules in a round is not quite the way to do it; as any conscientious objection scholar will tell you, when you break the law you should expect to pay the consequences, which in this case would be to lose the round. The point of conscientious objection is to publicize injustice, not evade consequences.

I have heard an argument that because the NFL is irredeemably flawed, their rules cannot stand. I don’t buy this logic, because this would mean that in a region where murder is illegal but the local police are corrupt, the law against murder is no longer valid. For that matter, I don’t buy the underlying premise that the NFL is irredeemably flawed. Their website may be just slightly more complex than your average Hieronymus Bosch triptych, and the VCA is well aware that I am no longer the world’s worst district chair (much to the acclaim of Rippin’, it would seem), but I have never believed, and I certainly doubt if I have ever claimed, that they are in any way, shape or form not looking out for what they think are the best interests of students, nor that they are in any way, shape or form not the people I want as the underlying organization behind what we do.

So what if you happen to disagree with their rules? Are your stuck with them? Of course not. You have avenues of change you may pursue within the organization. You pay your dues: communicate with Rippin’ and the LD folks and see how that works out. Or, if you run a tournament, post different rules for that tournament. As long as the rules are clear, people will follow them. Nothing stops anyone from doing that. CFL certainly does it. TOC does it (by not running the topic of the moment), and the northeast will be doing the same with The Northeast Championships. Next year the Modest Novice will have its unique, non-NFL topic. I have heard of tournaments that experiment with different speech timings and the like. I see nothing in the NFL rules that say, if you don’t follow these rules you will be expelled from forensics. But if you’re not going to follow these rules, some other clear rules are required; a game with no rules is no game at all. As I say, the issue of what the best rules might be is vastly different from the issue of the inherent need for rules. And until such point as clear and specific rules are in place substituting for the NFL’s rules at a tournament, the NFL’s rules must stand. You don’t have to love ‘em, you just have to obey them. If you don’t like it, and you’re not willing to offer change in a productive, practical fashion, either within the system or through your own ostensive and academically sound alternate system, then do all of us a favor and take up competitive cucumber growing. LD rounds (and cucumbering) will both profit from your secession from the activity.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Interlude: The sin wave

In a recent comment former mathematician and present-day bon vivant Alex ("The") Weaver claims that he is numerically reducible to a sin wave. I am not quite sure what this might be, but it certainly sounds more interesting than a sine wave, so whatever it is, sign me up for it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 7

3. Argumentation – Because Lincoln Douglas debate is an educational debate activity, debaters are obligated to construct logical chains of reasoning which lead to the conclusion of the affirmative or negative position. The nature of proof may take a variety of forms (e.g., a student’s original analysis, application of philosophy, examples, analogies, statistics, expert opinion, etc.). Arguments should be presented in a cohesive manner that shows a clear relationship to the value structure. Any research should be conducted and presented ethically from academically sound and appropriately cited sources.

I can’t imagine anything less controversial than the above paragraph. “Don’t make up the research,” would seem to sum it up. I have nothing to add, except that I have only occasionally felt the need to examine a piece of evidence, and have always been rather amused that LDers think that handing you their case with the quote typed up in it somehow suffices, especially when my problem is not that I didn’t hear or understand the quote so much as I didn’t quite believe it. If you’re going to have evidence, would it kill you to photocopy it directly from the source? If you want to be a Policy debater, act like one.

4. Cross-Examination - Cross-examination should be used by the debater to clarify, challenge, and/or advance arguments in the round.

I guess one can extrapolate from this that CX should not be used as another three minutes of prep time. Certainly it is no great leap to accept that the timings for the speeches in LD have been set by the NFL (it’s on their ballots). The acceptance of flex prep seems about as reasonable as the acceptance of a debater deciding in a round that he’ll take his thirteen minutes of debate as 4, 4 and 5 rather than 6, 4 and 3. Whatever. Cases that are so unintelligible that they have to be read during prep is the culprit here, mixed in with a little fashion-following. Anyhow, aside from this, the explanation of CX here is definitely the starting point to training any debater what to do while standing there for three minutes of free air time. Good CX skills are hard to acquire, in that they require a mix of careful analysis of what’s been heard so far, respectful yet firm questioning, plus laying strategic groundwork for your own case. Maybe that’s why people like flex prep instead: They get to bypass one of the hardest jobs in a round.

5. Effective delivery: Lincoln Douglas debate is an oral communication activity that requires clarity of thought and expression. Arguments should be worded and delivered in a manner accessible to an educated non-specialist audience. This encompasses:
- Written communication: Cases and arguments should be constructed in a manner that is organized, accessible, and informative to the listener. The debater should employ clear logic and analysis supported by topical research.
-Verbal communication: The debater has the obligation to be clear, audible and comprehensible, and to speak persuasively to the listeners. Additionally, debaters should strive for fluency, expressiveness, effective word choice, and eloquence.
- Non-verbal communication: The debater should demonstrate an effective use of gestures, eye-contact, and posture. Throughout the debate, the debaters should demonstrate civility as well as a professional demeanor and style of delivery.

“An educated non-specialist audience”? Come on, now. Those are strikin’ words, pardner. The number of “top” debaters today who can win a ballot from, say, the average Supreme Court justice is pretty small. Our theoretically hottest debaters are capable only of picking up ballots from a select (and often pre-selected) group of professional LD judges. I’ve talked about this many times in the past.

That effective speaking is only marginally valued these days in LD is hardly a shocker. There is even a subset of people who don’t even bother to stand up to present their cases. Again, debaters who imitate what they think is Policy are sort of missing the point of their idolatry. The value of Policy debate, aside from the classic rhetorical benefits, is the manipulation of research. Go to court some day; you might see lawyers with as many tubs as your average Policy team. LD, with none of the need to get tons of evidence across in a short period of time, goes fast presumably simply to fit more stuff into less time. I wonder why announcers on TV don’t do this. After all, if K Couric talked twice as fast, she’d cover twice as much news. John Stewart, at twice the speed, would be twice as funny. If Obama’s inauguration speech were twice as fast, he could have included all kinds of other stuff as well. Beats me. Anyhow, the battle to get debaters to speak well in a classic sense is a losing one, and I have no intention of fighting it at any length here now. Given that there is no realistic use for extreme speaking speed outside of debate, the logic of using it inside debate must stand or fall on its own merits. The only thing I can say is that, if your judge says go slowly, it behooves you to go slowly. From my own experience, in my heyday I could flow just about anything, but since nowadays I judge only a few times a year, I’m rusty. I admit as much to anyone I judge. If they choose to ignore this warning, they will not deliver effectively. They may, if they wish, blame me for not receiving effectively, and they may be perfectly justified in doing so, but that won’t help them earn any speaker points on my particular ballot. Come to think of it, the number one complaint I hear from judges, regardless of paradigm or experience, is that when debaters ask for preferences before a round, the debaters then proceed to ignore those preferences. How about a new slogan: “Don’t Care? Don’t Ask!”

Anyhow, we’ll sum up next time out.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 6

2. Value Structure -The value structure (or framework) is established by the debater to serve two functions: a) to provide an interpretation of the central focus of the resolution, and b) to provide a method for the judge to evaluate the central questions of the resolution. The value structure often consists of a statement of the resolution (if affirming), definitions (dictionary or contextual), the value premise (or core value), and the value criterion (or standard). This structure is commonly but not always employed.

Definitions: The affirmative should offer definitions, be they dictionary or contextual, that provides a reasonable ground for debate. The negative has the option to challenge these definitions and to offer counter-definitions.

Value Premise/Core Value: A value is an ideal held by individuals, societies, governments, etc. that serves as the highest goal to be protected, respected, maximized, advanced, or achieved. In general, the debater will establish a value which focuses the central questions of the resolution and will serve as a foundation for argumentation.

Value Criterion/Standard: In general, each debater will present a value criterion (a standard) which the debater will use to:
- explain how the value should be protected, respected, maximized, advanced, or achieved.
- measure whether a given side or argument protects, respects, maximizes, advances, or achieves the value.
- evaluate the relevance and importance of an argument in the context of the round.
The relationship between the value premise and the criterion should be clearly articulated. During the debate, the debaters may argue the validity or priority of the two value structures. They may accept their opponent’s value structure, prove the superiority of their own value structure, or synthesize the two.

There’s not much here of any real controversy. The only important questions that arise are two. First, do cases absolutely have to contain explicit values and criteria? The answer is, mostly yes. There’s some hedging language in here that suggests that either the committee writing this up was acting very much like a committee, or else they simply didn’t want to clamp down 100% on something that is not naturally inherent. That is, one can conceive of a perfectly acceptable, values-oriented LD round without values and criteria—although in practice values and criteria have become very, very helpful—so excluding them is not totally disallowed. Realistically, the rules are saying, this is what you ought to do, but if you don’t do it, it’s not necessarily wrong. (Which is in keeping with their own burdens of generally proving something to be true!) The strong suggestion that V and C are good and recommended is clear as day, but you couldn’t drop someone just because of their exclusion.

The second big question, and this one is answered definitively, is whether debaters need to uphold the same value. For some reason, certain debaters and judges, usually more inexperienced, come into a round believing that it is somehow against the rules to have different values, or at the very least that both values will stand at the end of the round. But the rules clearly explain that anything goes, that values and criteria and be the same or different or synthesized. It is up to the judge to evaluate where the better job was done on the basis of the job itself and not some predetermined way the job ought to be done. Hardest thing of all, if you ask me, is judging a really good round where debaters stand for different values achieved through different critera. But, that’s why we earn the big bucks. And why there’s panels, and squirrels.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 5

1. Parallel Burdens - No question of values can be determined entirely true or false. This is why the resolution is debatable. Therefore neither debater should be held to a standard of absolute proof. No debater can realistically be expected to prove complete validity or invalidity of the resolution. The better debater is the one who, on the whole, proves his/her side of the resolution more valid as a general principle.
- Burden of proof: Each debater has the equal burden to prove the validity of his/her side of the resolution as a general principle. As an LD resolution is a statement of value, there is no presumption for either side.
- Burden of clash: Each debater has an equal burden to clash with his/her opponent’s position. After a case is presented, neither debater should be rewarded for presenting a speech completely unrelated to the arguments of his/her opponent.
- Resolutional burden: The debaters are equally obligated to focus the debate on the central questions of the resolution, not whether the resolution itself is worthy of debate. Because the affirmative must uphold the resolution, the negative must also argue the resolution as presented.

I know. You just read that twice. You don’t believe it. You certainly won’t act as if it’s true, and the next time someone posits the absolute fact that there is a presumption for the negative in LD, you will agree with them. [Sigh…]

There is, of course, a presumption for the negative in Policy. This may be where the idea that there is a presumption for the negative in LD comes from, but that has never been true. In Policy, the affirmative must argue a change the status quo; that is the affirmative’s burden. And that is also the source of the presumption. Since we cannot have a tie in a zero sum game of debate, we need to set some parameter for adjudicating when, in fact, there appears to be a tie. Because we ask that the aff change the status quo, we set the standard at that point; i.e., our starting point is that the status quo is okay, and the aff must prove that it isn’t. If they don’t prove this, then the neg, if the neg upholds the status quo, wins. I doubt that many debates devolve in this way (at least they don’t in the literature I consulted on this question), but there you are. In the case of a tie, the negative wins if there’s a presumption for the negative. That’s what a presumption means.

There has never been a negative presumption in LD, and the rules explicitly state that “there is no presumption for either side.” So, if an affirmative makes various claims in a round, the idea that all the negative has to do is prove these claims false equals a negative win is not true. At best, this would mean an unresolvable tie. Personally, I would also maintain that this would be a remarkably weak position on the part of the neg, rules, presumptions and burdens notwithstanding. The cliché that the best offense is a good defense stands up in a debate: the negative with a strong advocacy is a much better case than a negative with no advocacy other than the falseness of the other side. That kind of case is pure defense with no offense. That is weak argumentation.

There are other obvious issues in this Part 1 of the rules that conflict with much popular belief. “Neither debater should be held to a standard of absolute proof” would undermine a lot of theory arguments. A realistic argument between conflicting sides should indeed be in conflict, but the idea that one side has to prove everything and the other side only has to prove that everything can’t be proven is, well, silly. And, as with the no-advocacy neg, is another attempt to run an argument with no advocacy. It’s weak debating. Calling it “theory” merely dresses it up in its Sunday clothes in an attempt to hide its internal vacuity. That it often works is, as I say, rather remarkable. A lot of people are suckers for a lot of things if they think it’s smart and progressive. Given that, if it were true that one side must argue absolutes and the other need not the side that need not ought to win exactly all the time, it’s not surprising that the rules preclude this approach.

“Each debater has the equal burden to prove the validity of his/her side of the resolution as a general principle.” That’s clear enough. You’ve got to have an advocacy that is cut from the LD mold of upholding a value. “Neither debater should be rewarded for presenting a speech completely unrelated to the arguments of his/her opponent” would toss a lot of negs right out the window for obvious reasons, not to mention the clear statement that both sides must “focus the debate on the central questions of the resolution, not whether the resolution itself is worthy of debate. Because the affirmative must uphold the resolution, the negative must also argue the resolution as presented.” Off-case? Pre-standards? Bias makes it unarguable? Suck it up. If the resolution is not arguable, your best strategy is to do Extemp for a couple of months until the next resolution rolls around. Or PF. Or, heaven forbid, Dec. But if you’re going to walk into an LD round to debate either side, you must have an argument for your side, it must be in aid of a value, and it must be relevant to and accepting of the resolution.

I don’t make this stuff up. It’s the people who disagree with me who need to put their cards on the table and demonstrate first, there should be no rules, or failing this, that the source of the rules should be someone other than NFL. Until that point, well….

You’ll probably to continue to enjoy the next 4 sections if you’ve made it this far. AY, in an earlier comment, asked for a link to these rules. I’ll put up a pdf at some point, but till then, it’s all in the District Manual.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 4

Lincoln Douglas Debate Event Description

Event description – Lincoln Douglas debate is designed to center on a proposition of value. A proposition of value concerns itself with what ought to be instead of what is. A value is an ideal held by individuals, societies, governments, etc. Debaters are encouraged to develop argumentation based upon a values perspective. To that end, no plan (or counterplan) will be offered by the debaters. In Lincoln Douglas Debate, a plan is defined by the NFL as a formalized, comprehensive proposal for implementation. The debate should focus on reasoning to support a general principle instead of particular plans and counterplans. Debaters may offer generalized, practical examples or solutions to illustrate how the general principle could guide decisions.

This is the top of the description in the district manual. It tells you, briefly, what LD is about. Since the activity did evolve from Policy, it is not surprising that, to some extent, although implicitly, it describes the activity in terms that separate it from Policy.

The activity is described as revolving around a question of what we ought to do as a “proposition of value.” This is a way of saying that we are dealing with ethics and/or morality. In the traditional study of ethics, we are very much discussing what we ought to do, against a background of some overarching rationale for doing it. That is, you can’t determine right actions in a vacuum. You need to see them as they relate to a notion of rightness actually held by some people and/or achieving benefit for some people. The specific idea of value, “an ideal held by individuals, societies, governments, etc.” takes in a lot of territory, but it is inclusive of the broad ideas of morality and justice and any other big concept we might have of right and wrong action. So we will say that we are going to argue what we ought to do to achieve some specific ideals-based end. We are going to achieve justice or morality or whatever by doing these things. We are arguing that something is right or wrong, and using capital V Values as our guiding principles.

There is no assumption that we are or are not already doing that thing that we are being asked to consider—“what ought to be instead of what is.” We might be doing it, or we might not be doing it. “What ought to be instead of what is” does not necessarily allude to logically fallacious arguments that what we are doing is right because we’re doing it (although that is nonetheless true). Nor does it mean that resolutions should not be interpreted as being about whether a situation is extant because the word “is” is in the resolution (although this is also nonetheless true). This is more to separate it, albeit implicitly, from Policy. In Policy debate, the resolution is a proposition of change. This year, for instance, the resolution is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.” The burden of the affirmative is to demonstrate that we should do this thing. The affirmative can’t say no, let’s not do it. On the other hand, the burden of the negative can be a number of things, including that we should not do this thing, or that we’re better off with the status quo, that what ought to be is what is. (Or, at least logically the negative can take that position. I gather they usually do other things altogether.) Most importantly, in Policy, there is a stated, rules-based, presumption for the negative, that the status quo is ok. This phraseology in the event description of LD is the first to indicate that there is no identical presumption that the status quo is ok, much less a presumption for the negative (which we’ll get into later).

Given that we are looking to “develop argumentation based upon a values perspective,” i.e., argue what we ought to do based on broad principles of social right and wrong, “no plan (or counterplan) will be offered by the debaters.” We are arguing the underlying correctness of an action, not its “implementation.” Implementation, or plans and counterplans (some other way of implementation), is the bread and butter of Policy. Plans are what they’re carrying around in all those tubs. That’s why there’s these sentences here that make it pretty clear that LD is something else. How something would or could be done doesn’t matter. That it should, or shouldn’t, be done, is the issue at hand.

Which brings up two side points. First, there are often arguments in LD about how, because something can’t be implemented, we shouldn’t do it. These are not my favorite arguments for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that they are just not the strongest arguments that people can come up with. They presume too many preclusions for my taste, and they aren’t really addressing the core rightness or wrongness of an action; they’re tricky arguments, and because of the nature of LD (no plans/counterplans), fairly loosey goosey. These are the kinds of arguments that appeal to, well, mostly lazy debaters who don’t want to dig too deeply into the literature surrounding a topic. Secondly, a counterplan, if I’m not mistaken, is a different way to achieve the same goal. Which means that, in Policy, if someone wins with a counterplan, they’ve out affirmed the affirmative, so to speak. But in LD, isn’t it analogous that running a counterplan means that you are inherently accepting the affirmative position of what we should do, and simply saying that we should do it some other way? I’m no theorist, but if you ask me, if you accept your opponent’s position of what we should do or not do, I’m not left with much reason to vote for you, since you’ve already conceded the core argument. So while this language in the event description is relevant as much to LD’s Policy roots (and differences) as anything else, there’s other perfectly good reasons to consider it relevant.

From here the rules go on to state:

The hallmarks of Lincoln Douglas debate include:
1) Parallel Burdens
2) Value Structure
3) Argumentation
4) Cross Examination
5) Effective Delivery

We’ll look at parallel burdens next.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Interlude from the snowy reaches of New England

I realize that the VCA waits with bated breath for some idea what, exactly, the rules of LD might be, but we need to take a short break and look at last week’s Bigle X. I have no great narrative to relate, but there were some magical moments worth reporting.

Weaver was formerly known as “The Weave.” If this is not bait for the usual tab room suspects, I don’t know what is.

Speaking of “The Weave,” he and O’C were participating in their own private Ridiculous Character contest by wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes to the RR. Then again, it was Sunday. Apparently the 87 inches of snow should not be taken into consideration, although the look on “The Weave’s” face when he had to choose between the drift and the schmutz was priceless.

In a game of bean trivia, if the question is so simple that everybody knows the answer, the reality is that everybody knows the answer except the person who was asked the question. Following this realization, there is much guffawing and comradely ribbing. (The answer, by the way, regardless of the question, is FDR.)

Panivores do not like being prepped out against, and will complain to anyone, including biting the hand that feeds them, except that they never eat.

Menick is always right. (Apply this as necessary.)

I was not absolutely stark raving mad when O’C took my picture with CP. The look of frenzied evil is a delayed reaction to learning about the online octos pairings posted overnight at Princeton, for which CP must be held accountable.

When people ask me for the elims pdf, and I tell them I already gave them the prelims pdf, the fact that the P and the R eluded me does not negate the point made two paragraphs above.

Strikes disappear from TRPC like crazy even crazier in a round robin. Subnote to this: if strikes have disappeared, nine will get you ten that O’C has wandered off. In his suit.

The Beauty Queen PF judge panel may return for The Northeast Championships.

Modnov will go with civil disobedience.

It is never too cold to eat really good ice cream, provided you’re wearing gloves.

It turns out that there is a bowling alley somewhere in the vicinity of the Notorious B.I.G. Lex.

Monti Matt favors the women’s small to the men’s extra large.

Certain people can’t possibly be that dumb, but, then again, they probably are.

Tomorrow we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 3

We’ve argued that there should be rules for LD, and that the rules should be set by the NFL. Curiously enough, until recently, even if you subscribed to these ideas, there wasn’t much you could do about it. Material explaining the rules of the activity, if any, were not disseminated by the folks at Rippin’ aside from the broadest outline. Whether this was from a lack of certitude, a sense of non-necessity or a failure of organization is unclear, but my guess is that the league, in providing what little guidance it did, felt that this guidance was clear and sufficient. Further, an initial orthodoxy reflective of the league’s notions of what the activity ought to be took hold at the start in actual competition and at the leading camps, so probably people felt that the ship was launched, it wasn’t leaking and it was headed for the correct ports of call. All was well in Wisconsin, and they went back to their day jobs, which for most of them is shoveling snow off their cars.

Without going into an analysis of “what’s wrong with LD,” it was certainly clear to everyone in the last few years that whatever the initial conception of LD was, the practice of LD had become something different. So the NFL got together an assortment of coaches and sat them down and charged them with clarifying the activity in writing. In effect, it asked them to write up the rules. In a way, waiting twenty-five years to getting around to formulating what LD was all about was rather clever, because the assembled minds could look at that quarter of a century of history and analyze what they liked and what they didn’t like, and cherry-pick the best material. At the same time, anyone who reads the resulting rules will feel that, while many things are clearly set out, many others are open enough to interpretation that the activity isn’t completely put into a straightjacket. (And, of course, there are some that argue that total rule control has its benefits too. In Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, for instance, the detective—who weighs a quarter of a ton—has extremely strict rules of what he will and will not do. He will not be interrupted twice a day when he is tending to the orchids on the roof of his brownstone. He will not discuss business at meals, which are as sacred as teachers’ desks. He will not shake anyone’s hand. And he definitely will never, under any circumstances, leave the brownstone. Much of the fun of the series is watching how Stout gets around the rules he has set for his character without actually breaking them, or else how he breaks them and gets away with it. And I don’t intend this as a pure digression simply to illustrate a minor point. There are people who can eloquently explain how the movies of the thirties and forties, which were produced under a strict code of “decency,” were sexier than movies where everyone is naked as a jay bird. A marvelous rhyme in poetry fulfills a particular rule of that form and provides a special joy not inherent to non-rhyming poetry; if you think that rhymes in poetry are a silly, old-fashioned idea, go through your iPod and figure out how many songs in there with really great lyrics are the ones that don’t rhyme. It is a classic thought, even a truism, that some of the best artistic work done in almost any field is done best with rules, which the best artists use to their own advantage.)

The rules that the committee laid down for LD after much conferring and hobnobbing are in the NFL’s district manual. There are those that argue that, because these rules are in the district manual that they should only apply to district tournaments, but this is analogous to claiming that the rules of baseball should only apply to the world series, or the major leagues, or some other part of the whole. I don’t question the mild logic of this claim, but it’s pretty silly. If the rules only apply to district or NFL tournaments, then logically they don’t apply to any other contests, which means that there are literally no rules whatsoever except at NFL events, which is just goofy. Still, one wishes that there were some other place that the rules were posted as overall strictures so that those among us who are genetically inclined to argue about everything under the sun (which is, I estimate, roughly 93% of the debate universe) wouldn’t be able to pick them apart with this sort of argument. But, they are where they are.

Let’s take a look at them. (Finally!)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 2

I guess we could ask if LD needs rules. We made that assumption a priori, and maybe that was mistake.

There are a number of possibilities. First, that there should be clearly defined rules of engagement. Second, there should be no rules of engagement. Third, a middle position, there should be some rules, or the rules need not be clearly defined, or some combination of the two.

Given that LD is an academic competition between strangers, conducted under the auspices of a national league implicitly charged with creating academic standards (NFL is strongly involved in scholarship programs, merit acknowledgments, etc.), the first possibility, that there be clearly defined rules, would seem to fit into this understanding of the activity. Education, while often free form, is a goals-based business. We want students to learn stuff. How they learn is subject to different approaches, but that they should learn is inarguable. In addition to classroom work, secondary education offers a variety of extracurricular pursuits, some of which are competitive. One can certainly do athletic things that are non-competitive, for instance run daily on the track for 3 or 4 miles to stay in shape, and this is a perfectly wonderful thing, and it may make you smarter by making your body stronger and your brain more receptive, and a school might even reward this activity, or support it with trainers so that students learning to run don’t hurt themselves by, say, not stretching first. Similarly, you can argue with people all you want to, from morning to night if you’re a disagreeable enough human being. You can argue with your parents, you can argue with your teachers, you can argue with your friends (a quickly diminishing number, no doubt, if all you ever do is argue with them). You don’t need rules for this, although a little helpful advice might not hurt (e.g., lay off when the person you’re arguing with is holding a meat cleaver). However, once you begin to run competitively, or argue competitively, rules seem to make sense. By definition, competition means that you are pitting people against one another for the purpose of rewarding some measure of success. Rules clarify what that measure of success is. In running a mile, for instance, the rules are pretty straightforward. We all start at the same time, we don’t take any shortcuts, we don’t bop the runner in the aisle next to us with a rolling pin, we don’t hop on a motorcycle halfway through. As I say, pretty straightforward, but rules nonetheless. Because of these rules, we get a clear winner at the mile mark.

In arguing competitively, we have a harder time measuring the winner because we don’t have anything as simple as a mile marker with a tape that one person breaks first. (I wish we did.) But we do have the aim of making the competition fair for the competitors, in running and in debating. In debate, the more one knows about what is expected in order to win, the more one can direct one’s efforts toward that win. A set of rules outlining what needs to be done, and the format in which it should be done, provides that information of what one has to do to succeed. Academic debate has a special burden, because of its academic nature, of providing not merely competition but education as well, much as sports activities in an academic environment are more than strictly competitive (they create healthier students and a more engaged student body, both very valuable in the management of young scholars). When the New York Giants play, it’s strictly for money and entertainment. When the Hen Hud Sailors play, it’s for something else altogether.

The benefits of clearly defined rules in the scenario presented above is obvious. If there are no rules of engagement at all, there is no way not only of determining a winner but of preparing yourself to become a winner. The academic goals of the activity are more in that latter bit—preparing yourself—than in simply winning. Preparing to debate means learning all about a subject area, studying different lines of thought on a particular problem, perhaps studying philosophers and theorists who have written on that subject in the past and applying their thoughts to the issue, etc. If debate were merely about winning, we’d still need to do all that, but we would traffic even more in the specifics of rhetoric perhaps to the detriment of content (e.g., critiques of resolutions, where once a student has grasped enough of, say, Nietzsche to run amorality off-case, that student can run that same amorality off-case against virtually everything and never learn much except that Nietzsche was a self-contradicting albeit fascinating and literate fruitcake, plus enough of a particular resolution to apply fruitcake analysis to it). Rhetoric, insofar as logic is concerned (not to mention presentation) is important, of course, but not to the exclusion of content if we accept that the point of high school LD is to learn about the content and not the container.

As for the third overall possibility about rules, the idea that rules should be vague or few is much closer to no rules whatsoever than to a better way of handling rules. The fuzzier we are in establishing goals, the fuzzier our approach to reaching them. Simply apply what I’ve been saying above, but in a fuzzier way.

So why, then, do people suggest that rules are problematic? The chief reason seems to be that rules somehow limit the activity. That is, they tie their claim down to the existence of a (mis)conception of what the activity ought to be that can never change, and that therefore harms the activity by not allowing its natural evolution. There is certainly truth to this supposition, that the activity won’t change much, and probably some truth in its underlying concern, that the activity could be improved. But the suspension of or dispensation with rules isn’t the solution to this possible tendency for the activity to, for lack of a better word, stagnate. Rules can be changed. Once upon a time baseball didn’t have a designated hitter. Good change, bad change? Beats me, but I can’t imagine a sport more bound by rules than baseball, but even there those rules aren’t static. (Speaking of which, those rules seem to help the umpires decide if a player is safe or out, or if a pitch is a ball or a strike, in a uniform way, rather than allowing each umpire to publish his or her strike-out paradigm before each game.)

So, we argue that there should be rules, because they will enhance the academic aspect of the activity as well as clarify the competitive aspect of the activity. As we said yesterday, those rules should come from the NFL.

What rules, exactly? I’m pretty sure we’ll start examining them tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On the Nature of Lincoln-Douglas, Part 1

The question arises, often within rounds, as to what, exactly, are the rules of LD. In fact, sometimes the question is raised whether there are any rules at all. There is occasionally even a hint of the idea that there shouldn’t be any rules, as this somehow limits the reach of the activity. The VCA knows where I stand on these questions, but it may not be a bad idea to review things as we begin debating the topic that will be haunting some of us up all the way up through TOC. (And by the way, those who still haven’t bought into the Modest Novice must at least admit that the idea of a longer term resolution is already walking amongst us thanks to TOC and Jan-Feb…)

First of all, we need to establish not the rules, but the source of rules, if any. That is, if we can locate an oracle, we don’t have to do our own divination. I would suggest that the National Forensic League is the de facto source of the rules of the activity. I am not being coy, here, because once we accept that the NFL has ruling authority over the activity, then we must accept their rules; that’s what ruling authority means. So the first question is, does the NFL have ruling authority over the activity? From any perspective, the starting point has to be that they invented the activity. LD was designed by and disseminated by the NFL as an official activity of their organization. Certainly individuals argued one-on-one prior to the creation of LD, and perhaps even participated in ad hoc academic debating sessions, but LD, with its timings, ballots and the like, came from the NFL. They can claim paternity.

Secondly, NFL provides the ongoing resolutions for the activity. Although occasionally we veer from their specifics, running cases slightly out of sync with their designated monthly timings (TOC and Jan-Feb, for instance), we generally accept their resolutions throughout the year. Even when we don’t like the wording, tournaments don’t to my knowledge announce that they will run the resolution but worded differently. The resolution is what the resolution is. Nothing stops tournaments from posting their own resolutions (Big Bronx used to, as did NY State Finals, as does CatNats still), but in general, we accede to the NFL’s authority in this area.

Thirdly, most students who debate in an official academic capacity do so as members of the NFL. While certainly there are debates out there in the odd class or even extramural situation that are not NFL, which by their nature they are not concerned with NFL resolutions, the vast majority of academic debate is, indeed, conducted by NFL members.

If I am a dues-paying member of a group, debating an activity designed by that group, and specifically arguing a resolution posted by that group, I have to believe that I have demonstrated a de facto submission to the authority of that group regarding that activity. This does not say that I have to agree that all the exercise of that authority is good or correct; I am entitled to my opinions, which I don’t sign away when I receive that certificate from Wisconsin with my name on it. I don’t have to agree that all the laws of the US are good or correct either, but nonetheless I have to obey them, or suffer the consequences. That’s the way it is with ruling authorities.

So the next question is, what rules, exactly, has NFL established?

Monday, January 12, 2009

They call their sports teams the Eukaryotes

I’m still trying to figure out this whole Crossroads of the Revolution thing. That seems to be what Clark, NJ, home of Arthur L. Johnson HS, likes to call itself. Maybe there was some really big battle here in 1777. Maybe Clark used to originally be Trenton, or Yorktown, or whatever, but then they moved it. God knows that just about every city in the northeast was the site of some battle or other, with the appropriate caps: The Battle of White Plains. The Battle of Long Island. The Battle of Greenwich. The trouble is, every town can’t be Lexington or Concord or Trenton, and the others don’t want to be left out. The Battle of the Middle of Nowhere. The Battle of the Sticks. The Battle of Resume Speed. I’m pretty good on the Revolution in general, but I will admit being stymied by Clark and ALJ. Maybe one of the ALJies (Algae?) who are members of the VCA could enlighten me.

The distinguishing characteristic of the 2008-9 season seems to be serious weather, and ALJ was no exception. The process begins with the withdrawal of the Montwegians from the field, which has become the inaugural for every tournament so far this year. A tournament cannot officially begin until the arrival of the email from Monticello announcing that they will not be coming. The Montwegians had even at one point considered not attending the Monticello tournament, but this was too much even for them. I will admit that they do have their own weather systems up there (for those of you without a map, Monticello is slightly north of Juneau; on a clear day, and with her best binoculars, Sarah Palin can see it from her attic window). And there was, indeed, snow predicted for one and all this last weekend. Going into it, I had arranged with the Sailors’ bus folk that, if worse came to worse, we’d take a train, which has to be the most idiotic idea I’ve had in some time, but I really didn’t want to abandon ALJ in its inaugural year, starting friction always being greater than moving friction (which is true, unlike my previous scientific remark about pi R squared, when everyone knows that, as Gracie Allen once pointed out, pie are round). At least the traveling down on Friday was fine. Our driver, who managed to take the wrong parkway (not that it matters all that much), had a GPS that corrected our error, and to tell you the truth, the back roads were so much nicer than the Garden State Parkway, and didn’t take all that much longer. It’s about an hour and a half from Sailordom, not a bad trip at all. About the same distance from us as Brigadoon Monticello, come to think of it.

The tournament was set up a la Scarsdale, with varsity in one flight and novices in the other, with some of the members of the former field judging some of the members of the latter. To work, this requires a 2 to 1 judge ratio, but Cooper managed to dig up plenty of judges, and work it did. There were some glitches in the operation of the tournament, which were understandable given that it was the team’s first attempt, and a lot of the Algae were Speecho-Americans not used to the idea of pulling the ballots out of the judges’ hands, even if it means cutting off those hands with a machete, but mostly it ran quite well. In answer to the question, doesn’t judging and debating both make things a bit burdensome for the varsity, one answer might be that the top 8 in the field after elims had all judged prelims, so probably not.

Needless to say, we spent much of our tab time watching the weather forecasts, which kept changing from minute to minute. It was impossible to predict what Saturday might be like as the collected adults gathered at the motel for some uncharacteristic conviviality (not that we are not characteristically convivial, but rather that we are seldom together in a place where we can express that conviviality). Even on Saturday morning, it was hard to get a fix on things, but as soon as the sun was up I buzzed the Sailor bus folks and worked out that our bus would come at noon. Byram Hills did likewise. Leaving after prelims seemed to be the thing to do, and as the weather panned out, it was exactly right. As we pulled up the last stretch of HenHudLand the roads were getting definitely treacherous; we had made the right decision. Given the weather, and the need to bail out, there was one elimination round—quarters—to sort out the honors, although octonians were acknowledged and trophied (which is the opposite of being atrophied), as they would otherwise have debated. The Sailors had a pretty good weekend—LPW did not HPL and thus had his best tournament of the year, for instance, and the Panivore got home before she ran out of bagels, and ForWhomTheBen, who is allergic to all the things the Panivore could eat but won’t, went home with enough victuals left over to supply the family until the 2010 off-year elections—and from my perspective, ALJ got off to a good start despite the frightful weather. I like the idea of a tournament right after the break to try out the new topic, and I’m happy to pass the torch from the MHL to this invitational, which services roughly the same market.

This coming weekend, Bigle X. Or, it’s one damned thing after the other!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Musings from a wall

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.”

That’s the germane part for today’s sermon, but the whole Humpty Dumpty chapter is an exercise in logic and linguistics that all debaters should know by heart. (“MUST a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully. “Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. And there’s plenty more where that came from.)

I am taken by a number of issues that attract debaters to the Dark Side for one reason or another. One issue is the “unique” argument.

The largest number of debaters, by definition, deal in stock arguments on a resolution. This is not because a small number of issues are stocked and sold by some virtual WalMart of debate ideas, but because most people facing a batch of words tend to interpret them the same way, and to respond to them the same way, and those responses, which are the vastest in number, become the stock arguments. That is why I say most debaters traffic in stock arguments by definition, because “stock arguments” is defined as whatever most debaters are running. Stock arguments are not intrinsically bad, dull, banal, or any other pejorative you wish to apply, any more than the impulse to stop at a red light, which is a rather stock response to seeing a red light when you’re driving your Edsel down the Lincoln Highway, is somehow bad or dull or banal. It’s just the most common reaction.

One could say that, because resolutions repeat, if not literally but at least in essence, there are arguments tucked away on certain topics that are always pulled out of the drawer again, and that these too are stock but in a different definition of the word. That is, we’ve argued about sovereignty in the past, and Jan-Feb will no doubt have many arguments about sovereignty again, and many times we will be arguing the same material albeit to a different end. I won’t disagree with that, but I will point out that every argument perceived of as stock today was at some point an original argument. That we remember the last time we had that same argument and pull out our trusty and true responses from the last time does not negate the idea that stock arguments are the general response because they are what people generally do respond.

Still, not everyone responds to topics the same way, and not everyone runs stock arguments. Some topics are rich in potential arguments, and some debaters go deep, finding unusual approaches that nevertheless are squarely within the bounds of the resolution. By this I do not mean that they torture some paragraph they’ve lifted out of Derrida or the like into something that apparently applies to the subject at hand, but that they’ve studied the material of the resolution, they’ve read books and articles on the subject, and gone beyond just a simple understanding of the topic to a more expert understanding, generating a more expert case as a result. The rounds I’ve seen at TOC over the years, where there is a lot at stake, and where debaters have had plenty of time to analyze the resolution, are where you are most likely to see this sort of case. Curiously, TOC is also where you are most likely to see fairly straightforward, traditional—stock if you will—arguments. Orthodoxy has its place. Come to think of it, though, doing a lot of research and learning a lot and expounding what you have learned is as orthodox as the application of simple solutions to the Gordian knot. Sometimes doing a lot of research and learning brings one back to the beginning. It depends on the person, and it depends on the subject.

Anyhow, so far, so good. But there is another breed of case altogether that is problematic. In an effort to create a unique case, presumably on the misguided belief that orthodoxy and stock cases are anathema, one goes off on a tangent that is, in a word, nuts. I know I could come up with a better word than that, but you get my point. And this particular tangent (and there are other tangents, i.e., other ways of creating cases that are equal parts unique and bad) requires the redefinition of common words. And that is never a good idea.

In language, there are all sorts of words that are arbitrary. Most nouns, for instance. If I call the thing I drink my coffee out of a cup or a tasse, it doesn’t really matter much, although I’ll be more likely understood with the latter in Quebec than in Edmonton. The word cup is entirely an arbitrary sound (or, when written, collection of letters) that we agree will refer to things that are cup-like. If I were to refer to my cat as my cup, or my cup as my cat, I would not make a lot of sense to a lot of people, because we associate catness with one group of objects and cupness with another group of objects. My clarity as a communicator depends on my ability to use words in such a way that my auditors understand what I want them to understand. I need to select my words carefully, based on a shared understanding of meaning. I cannot, as Humpty Dumpty asserts, have a word mean what I want it to mean, if it already has a pre-existing meaning. I am not the master of the meanings of words. The meanings of the words are already set. I am a master of words only if I am a master of their already inherent meanings, which, as I say, are initially arbitrary. It is usage that removes the arbitrariness from the equation.

(Semioticians should feel comfortable with the above analysis. One could point out that usage is not static, of course. The word momentarily used to mean “for a moment” and now, because of what copyeditors might have called misusage, it means “in a moment.” Language is a fluid business, but not with every single word. Some words are more fluid than others. But that is not our main issue here.)

So, getting back to the nut case I was talking about, run perhaps by a nutcase (and how’s that for clever manipulation of language?), the uniqueness here depends on taking a common word or phrase that is normally used in debate such-and-such a way, and using it in some other way altogether. Sometimes this includes using a word or phrase that has centuries of accepted philosophic meaning in some way that is counter to that accepted meaning. It is a postmodern critical trick to turn words upside down, although not a particularly good trick, but at least the professional critics who do this are aware of what they are attempting to do. But how am I to respond to a definition of, say, morality, that specifically states that morality is not an attempt to determine what we ought to do, or of justice, stating that it is not the attempt to adjudicate conflicting claims in a manner accepted by all? Values are slippery enough concepts already, but they do come with almost instinctive understandings on our part (or perhaps real instinctive understandings, if some of the experimental philosophy these days is to be believed). Any educated adult, never having heard of LD debate, still has an intuitive understanding of morality and justice and all the other big-ticket value items. So if we set out to redefine these values right off the top, don’t we immediately confuse the people we are attempting to communicate with?

And, trust me, debaters do argue these counterintuitive definitions. They take what we all agree are meanings, throw out those meanings, put in new meanings, and ask us to forget the old meanings. But the problem is more than just substituting one word for another. Or, actually, it’s the opposite problem. They’re keeping the word and changing the meaning. If I start calling circles magubus, they are still round objects where the circumference is pi*r*squared 2 * pi * r. But if I start saying that circles are not round, then I’m getting into some seriously muddled linguistic if not metaphysical territory. Circles are defined by their roundness, no matter what we call them. At the point where we deny their roundness, they are no longer circles. The claim that they are circles despite their lack of roundness has little traction in the mind of the auditor. It goes beyond wordplay into nonsense. Nuttiness. And yet, there are nut cases out there. Morality, justice and other values, stripped of their meanings, are their non-round circles.

Why are these cases being run? My guess is that the debaters are simply too clever by half. As was Humpty-D. They really do believe that they are the masters of words, and they are encouraged in this by some modern critical writing (in theory), not to mention judges who are willing to accept any damned nonsense in a round (in practice). And there is no question that these nut cases are being run by superior debaters, who can sell the proverbial matches to the devil, and their skill as arguers overcomes their misguided belief in their skill at cognitive creation.

Is this any way to win a debate round? Probably not. It may succeed based on the natural skills of the debater (lots of nonsense will), but wouldn’t that debater be better off with the starting point of meanings everyone already agreed to? I’m not saying that you should run stock arguments, only that you should run normative language. Anything else is just too confusing.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In which, if you make it to the end, you'll see something snide about debate, but mostly you'll realize that this is an off week forsensics-wise

I’ve been enjoying The Long Tail quite a bit. Listening to the audiobook, actually, although I don’t maintain there’s much of a difference between reading and listening in the long run. It’s like watching a movie with subtitles. You forget pretty quickly that you don’t speak Italian or whatever, and a week after you’ve seen the film, you can’t even remember that there were any subtitles at all. Prego! Anyhow, it’s a pretty good read/listen. I had thought I wouldn’t go far with it, that I got the idea and that all the book would be was various examples, and before long I’d try the next book in the queue (I acquire a bunch of this sort of thing at random from the DJ, as anyone who has ever received a crappy prize can attest), but in fact, it’s as much an up-to-date history of the web as anything else, and right up my alley. Rather thought provoking, and highly recommended.

Anyone wondering about #44, speaking of the web, is advised to listen to last Sunday’s year-end wrap-up edition of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, in which, in a blast from the past, a newly seated senator answers questions that are not his job. We voted for the right guy!

Also speaking of the web, I seem to acquire half of the music I own through free downloads from Amazon. (There’s a weekly subscription letter regarding MP3s that I’ve signed up for.) I am probably the perfect target audience for such marketing, because I don’t spend much time trawling for music otherwise, but I do love finding and listening to new music, a not unusual trait in a Baby Boomer, but one that atrophies as senescence settles on the brain. Amazon sends me free tracks and lists of stuff, and before the night is over, I’ve bought some stuff just from clicking around, plus I’ve added a couple of albums of free stuff (I still think in terms of albums, again, a not unusual trait in a Baby Boomer). As for more adventurous trawling, I do live in fear and trembling of the ride back from Lexington next week, on which Matt R will unleash his top 40 of 2008 for me. Then again, he did remind me that last year on the same trip I was playing the soundtracks of Disneyland rides, so turnabout is fair play and all that. And while we’re on the subject of music, I picked myself up some of them thar’ Bose speakers and plugged them into an Airport in the kitchen so that, with the aid of the Remote app on the Touch, I can control my complete iTunes library on the computer in the family room. Ah, technology! And I love nothing better than running through my collection of the latest Gangsta stuff while cooking up the night’s gruel. (Actually, come to think of it, if there is one song even remotely hippity-hoppity-ish in my library it would come as quite a surprise, but you knew that.)

And, of course, last night’s Sailor meeting was cancelled, and today the Sailors have no school which means no meeting tonight, and I myself am dubious about my availability tomorrow… Oh, well. They do better without me. What do I know? Thank God they don’t send me their cases or anything! Then again, come to think of it, they’ve only had a month and a half or so to write them, including the long break, so what am I thinking? No doubt they’ll get started on them some time tonight, if they happen to be going to ALJ. If not, there’s always the bus ride up to Lexington on which to catch up, as long as they remember to bring the crayons and the construction paper, that is. Of such is greatness made, eh?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Maybe Monticello is really Brigadoon...

Arthur L. Johnson is this coming weekend. I’ve got a small group of Sailors lined up. Given that ALJ shows up everywhere else, I feel it sort of behooves us all to show up there. The alternative—washing my socks—comes in a poor second. They’ve got decent numbers of LDers and Pffffters (ALJ, not my socks), but couldn’t get any policy traction for some reason. Oh, well. I may not have clean socks, but I’ll be able to add Clark, NJ, to the list of places I have been in for more than eleven minutes. The big question is, will Monticello get there? They’ve been snowed, iced and generally inclemented out of every tournament so far this year. I’m beginning to wonder if there really is a Monticello. Is it time to take T&T and co off the invitation list? Is this somehow related to Favre and the Jets? We’ll know this weekend.

Meanwhile, Bigle X is kicking around issues like community rankings and strikes. O’C wants 119 strikes, which strikes me as a few over the line, whereas I was pushing for -9, per school, whether they come or not. I imagine we’ll sort it out by the end of the day; I’ve asked CP to give me access to the data so I can see just how many people we’re actually talking about. Community rankings are no big deal, since you just toss them into a spreadsheet and take ‘em as they come, but strikes always open the possibility of screwing up. If a judge is added late, if a team is added late, if the moon is in Pisces, things won’t necessary work right, although lately I have to admit that, since I’ve been keeping hard copies of who wanted to strike whom, and when they’ve come to tab to complain that they didn’t get their strikes I’m able to show them that, in fact, they were the only team in the tournament NOT to strike O’C, well, maybe this part of TRPC isn’t working as badly as I once thought. Big Jake was the high point of people complaining that they didn’t get the strikes they hadn’t made, by the way. Curiously enough, even there, O’C was the number one strike, and he wasn’t even on the list of judges. For that matter, he wasn’t even on the list of non-judges. People had to go really out of their way, but, well, debate is serious business in these here parts.

I’ve got all sorts of interesting stuff lined up for the Sailors’ meeting this week, but the weather seems to be conspiring against us. As for next week, we’ve scheduled a Jan-Feb-topic demo round between Stealth and the Hardware Engineer, both of whom will be getting the kinks out this weekend at ALJ. Word is that the early betting out in Vegas is both heavy and fairly equally split, even though there are never any winners or losers in these demos. But that doesn’t stop the whales, as they say out in the desert. If you’ve got the money, you’ll bet on anything. Any side bets on whether the HE will pull a reverse theory argument on the off-case pre-standard spike? For that matter, any side bets on whether there is such a thing as a reverse theory argument or an off-case pre-standard spike? It’s going to be one exciting evening, I can tell you that. Standing Room Only. Woo hoo!

Monday, January 05, 2009

We return to our regularly scheduled programming

All right. Vacation’s over. Back to business.

I’ve put the Modest Novice stuff onto a web page, CP has promised to work up the odd wiki for things like lessons and the like. The plan is to select the topic at Bigle X and then refine the wording and then go for it. Simple as that, once you make your mind up. It was curious, the question brought up in the comment to the previous post, that somehow coaches and upperclassmen might unscrupulously overdo the training and case-writing for the newbies. Curious, I say, because that’s almost the point. Case-writing is a long-term skill, and not the first thing one needs to learn. Fewer people have a fear of the white page than a fear of public speaking, and much less adrenaline is expended in typing than in actually debating. The most important things one learns early on is how to listen, how to take notes, how to respond in a meaningful way, things like that. And, of course, one of the points of the plan is to have a topic that is relevant to the agreed-to early training of novices, so even if a case were handed to the poor newbie, he or she would be learning to draw from the reserve of information underlying it that has been gleaned from early team meetings and readings. Plus that information would inform many other topics in the future. It all connects. (The commentator also assumes that novices aren’t already given cases by their upperclassmen or coaches, which is far from true in my experience. And as I said in my response, something like this is rather standard in the policy world.) Anyhow, the Modest Novice is on track. Toot toot, as they say in railroad circles.

I spent a lot of time over the break doing things like cleaning up my hard drive and polishing my websites, boring stuff that nonetheless needs to be done on occasion. While Little Elvis seems to have, at least as far as the Mac’s Disk Utility is concerned, disk errors beyond one’s wildest imagination and/or repair (I guess I’ll seek out some third-party software), my expedition into the bowels of my stuff did uncover a copy of V2 of Safari, which I immediately installed in place of the latest version, Safari DITW (Dead in the Water). I just seem to need two browsers, logged in as different users, especially with the Feed going. What can I say? Anyhow, things have been perked up a little, in preparation for what I imagine will be a hardware upgrade sometime this year. My Dell is falling apart, and Little E is getting creaky, so what else is there to do? I hate spending the money, but if the Day Job keeps those paychecks coming, I won’t have much choice.

Saturday night we had the annual alumni dinner. It looked somewhat like the judges’ lounge at Bump: quite a fine assortment of former Sailors, if I do say so myself, representing both debaters and Speecho-Americans. As one might expect, the usual subjects were discussed, among them film and music and the like, but at some point we got around to Famous Former Sailors. One story was told that pretty much was untoppable, about someone we will call Sailor X. Sailor X had been, to put it mildly, somewhat problematic as a team member, but somehow he had made it into the ethereal realms of upperclassmanness without really putting in much serious time as either a novice or a JV. He did show up at occasional meetings, however, and at the odd tournament when the spirit moved him. Newcomer McLean, in this particular instance, was a young newbie, fresh as a peach on a Georgia summer morning. McLean had just written his very first cases, and announced this at a meeting. Sailor X, hearing this, told McLean to send them along to him for review, and McLean obliged, hoping to get the wisdom of the ages from experience forged in hard debate labor. But as time passed, no reply was forthcoming from the old veteran to the young Turk. Sailor X has essentially disappeared, until finally showing up on the bus to head to the next tournament. Somehow emboldening himself to the task, McLean asked Sailor X for his opinion of his cases. “Oh, they were fine,” Sailor X replied. “I’ll be running them this weekend.”

Of such are debate legends made.