Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2011-12 is just around the corner. Then again, so's Eddie Krueger.

So CatNats is holy water under the bridge, but I didn’t get much from it. I saw that a lot of numbers had broken into elims, but having no idea whose number was which, I maintained a less than a dance-in-the-streets sense of enthusiasm. Go New York, says I, whoever you are. My personal investment just wasn’t there. After this, all that’s left is NatNats, where I do have the investment of the Panivore, so I will watch that avidly. Still, I’ve mostly started thinking about next year.

We’ve had a lot of discussion at TVFT of ways of improving tournaments. Some things have stuck in my mind. One is to establish the purpose of the tournament, which is usually to have the person debating the best at the tournament win it. Makes sense, at least with a varsity invitational. So you design the tournament to achieve that goal. But the goal of a novice event may not be the same. At Bump, for instance, it is the very first two-day tournament novices go to. It’s early November, and they are still wet behind the ears. What they need is a lot of rounds of debating. The idea of having five prelims and then having most of the field stop debating is, when you think about it, not quite the best thing for that division at that time. Having the most rounds for the most people is what you’re looking for with the young ’uns. So next year at Bump the novice divisions will have a lot of rounds and, probably, just acknowledge the top whatever. This is judge- and room-intensive, but it does make sense. Later in the season, it wouldn’t make sense anymore. At Bigle X, for instance, the novices have been debating for three or four months: they don’t just “need rounds.” They’re ready for the normal invitational/elimination process.

The key thing here is, the right setup for the people attending. If you’re running a $ircuit tournament, you run it a a $ircuit level. For instance, you hire 20 extra A+ judges. If you’re running a regional event for freshmen and sophomores and you hire 20 extra A+ judges, you need to have your head examined. And so forth and so on.

I do feel that MJP makes sense at most varsity venues, though, as I’ve been saying, since nothing better has come along. You probably can’t match straight up 1s every time unless you have a zillion judges and those 20 extra A+ hireds, but you can satisfy the customers with the best judging they can expect from the pool you have, without anyone arbitrarily imposing their opinion on what exactly defines “best.”

It’s going to be an interesting year.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evolution at the DJ

Yes, I haven’t been posting much. I have been extremely busy at the DJ. Essentially what I’ve been doing is prepping this for primetime. This started years ago as a promotion for our product, but didn’t go far as such. Then I turned it into a proof of concept, a demonstration that we could do interesting aggregated book content over a long term. When I finally convinced the DJ folks that this was a good thing—a process that has literally taken years—they wanted music and movies and kids’ stuff in there in addition to books, so I expanded it. Over the last few months it has been deliberately evolving into a site that we could port over to the main DJ site, a books and entertainment friendly aggregation page from a company whose brand is renowned for its aggregation abilities. I’ve been getting back-end mechanisms into place, learning the pre-existing formats of the extant site, you name it. At the moment I am personally RSSing about 1000 pages a day, which is fun, but time-consuming. So, I haven’t been posting much. Thank God this last month or two has been the cusp of the debate season!

We are going live next week at the latest. If it turns out to be popular, it will redefine a lot of how I spend my workday (although it will have no effect on my NJ, i.e., the Night Job of debate). This is pretty exciting to me. I love new stuff, and I love obsessing over new stuff.

I've been streaming a feed of the present blog to my various pages, and I'll figure out a way to continue it when it moves. You might want to keep an occasional eye on it. You might find it entertaining.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I wonder if Jar Jar is in the latest version of It's a Small World...

We were going to TVFT last Wednesday, but O’C had other fish to fry at Japonica or something, so we didn’t. It seems that just as we get a thought going, it goes. I really do want to talk more about bracketing. We’re going to try again this week, but the coachean breath is not being held.

Not much else going on debatewise, at least for me. I’m not CatNatting, although the Panivore’s brother is doing his Speecho-American thing. I wouldn’t mind going down to Washington for a weekend, even with a tournament happening around it, but this year it was not to be. There will be ample ops in the future, I’m sure. I’ll be using the time to get my golf game up to crappy from its present position at appalling, but it won’t be easy. The weather this spring has not been conducive to such activities. It’s hard to play golf in a snowsuit during a monsoon. Jeesh.

So I’ve been pursuing other pastimes. I’ve begun the Lego Harry Potter, for instance, which is so up my alley skill-set wise. It’s not terribly hard, it’s pretty funny, and when you play it you make real progress. I loved the Star Wars Lego game too, for the same reasons. I don’t have the patience for learning to press A and Z while standing on my head with my thumb up the cat’s nose while whistling “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” I’m a plain, simple kind of gamer. The relatively button-free Wii is right up my alley.

I’ve also been catching up on the movies I haven’t seen over the last year. Social Network and The King’s Speech were very enjoyable. Tron: Legacy was totally incomprehensible, but I sort of liked it anyhow, except for the Jeff Bridges scary Polar Express face. Spooky. Humans don’t look like that.

Our DiDeAd/DisAd listserver has been filling up with moaning and groaning from O’C who wants to ride Star Tours 74 times. No appreciation of antici

pation. All these kids want nowadays is instant gratification. Bah! Of course, not only will there be a new Star Tours the next time, but also a new Tiki Room: they’ve booted the “new management.” Strike a blow for the traditionalists.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

High-high, low-low, high-low, queens are wild, best spade in the hole

Sophie and I are on the same wavelength here (see the comments).

We talked a lot about things like changing the speaking times on TVFT, but that scares me. Even when I hear a proposal that makes sense, I don’t trust myself. I’m not so sure my instincts are necessarily correct. It’s not that I believe that the present system is perfect, but I don’t believe that the bias that exists for neg is necessarily linked to the timing of the speeches, or more to the point, that changing the timing is the entirety of the problem, or that changing the timing will actually fix the problem. The thing is, changing speech times is a deep sea change, a change of monumental proportions. Taking such a step would be, at the very least, slow and plodding. Enormous work would have to go into making it happen, and if it did happen, even more enormous work would have to go into any subsequent changes. Such a step must be taken in total confidence. I lack that confidence. Changes in the tab room, on the other hand, don’t have the gravity of changing a speech. We can experiment and measure the results. The damage is minimal, if any. Look at how we approached MJP. We tried it at a small event, and everyone was pleased. We eased into it. Now we do it more often. We continue to study it in detail and to keep an eye on it, but it has proven a pretty good change in the way we do things. As I’ve said many times, short of totally random judging (which we do at MHLs, for instance, so I have nothing against it per se, I just think it needs to be applied to the appropriate situations), someone has to rank the judges. It might as well be the paying customers.

Anyhow, the next question I have, which I don’t know about, is the whole high-low high-high pairing thing. As a rule, we pair every bracketed round high-low, meaning that the top of the bracket meets the bottom of the bracket, then second from the top meets the second from the bottom, and so forth, meeting in the middle. But I’m not entirely sure of the philosophy behind that in prelims, or why we should never pair high-high. When I first started going to Big Bronx, the 4th and 6th rounds, if I remember correctly, we paired high-high. I think the point was to cut out any riffraff that might have snuck through. High-low seems intuitively to support the better debater. Why do we do that? High-high seems intuitively seems to pit the best debaters against one another. Why don’t we do that? As I say, I really don’t know.

We expect to TVFT tomorrow. We should address these questions.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Doubling the brackets

This is the theory. The bracket should not be set every round, but every two rounds. That’s what we discussed on TVFT last week. Let’s look at it.

First, there’s the neg bias. Let’s not worry about the cause of the neg bias; there’s differing opinions on that. But the evidence points to it clearly. In random rounds, or at tournaments of relatively inexperienced debaters, the better debater usually wins. It doesn’t matter if the better debater goes aff, neg or a little bit of both. Class will out. Side doesn’t matter much, except that perhaps less experienced debaters have trouble with ARs. But less experienced debaters aren’t so hot with negatives, either. It all irons out.

As we start hitting brackets, however, we start, by design, evening out the skills of the two debaters. The evidence says that if two evenly matched debaters hit, the neg is more likely to win. No matter how you interpret the evidence, there is little question that the neg does show a statistical advantage.

Bietz’s thought was that the third and fourth rounds should be paired together, based on results of rounds one and two, rather than sequentially. In other words, after the first two rounds, we have brackets of 2-0, 1-1 and 0-2. These brackets should now debate within their bracket on both sides, not just their next due side. If we don’t do this, it means that round 4 is more closely bracketed than round 3, and the neg in round 4 has a bigger advantage because of being more evenly matched. Pairing 3 and 4 together minimizes that potential advantage. It’s not perfect, but it does make intuitive sense.

How you determine the bracket then comes into question. Normally we go by speaker points, but if it’s just two rounds, that’s a pretty dicey construct, because there’s not much to go on and it can be skewed. Opposition wins? That is, if you won two, but your opponents lost their two, you had an easier draw than, theoretically, the person who won two whose opponents both won their other round. You should hit someone with a roughly equivalent previous draw. And while speaker points are arbitrary, until at least there’s mathematically enough of them to drop a couple, winning and losing is clear-cut.

As Bietz says, this is the stuff that keeps us up nights. I mean, while you’re out there eating Cheetos and shooting craps and, occasionally, debating, we’re trying to keep things honest and tab the best possible way we can. Granted, sometimes what we do is also a crapshoot, and we like Cheetos as much as the next person, but it is a different business. Too inside-baseball for the room?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Hmmm... yousa point is well seen." Or, hence the meh.

[The "lost" episode from when blogger went down.]

Blogging becomes less debate relevant starting at this time of year. There isn’t a tournament every week, so the gossip is light, and there’s not much to say about the remaining finals (which, I know, allows you to breathe a sigh of relief, because the last thing the VCA wants is another multiple-part rant like the one about TOC). I only track the debate camps from afar, since I don’t participate in any of them. I won’t be personally concerned about much of anything debatish until the Sept-Oct topic is released in mid-August, at which point whatever Sailors are left standing will pop over to the chez for a hour or so of gossip followed by five minutes of topic analysis. Such is the Way of the Sailor.

But the lack of active debate to write about doesn’t deter me all that much. There’s a big world out there. During the summer I do things I don’t do during the winter. I go to the movies, for instance. I roam Manhattan. I plan DiDeAds. I have plenty to keep me busy.

Speaking of the DiDeAd, the next trip is the DisAd 13. O’C keeps finding himself losing his concentration, drifting off into reveries of why he should go to WDW now! This very instant! He misses it and he wants to experience it again.

I maintain that that is wrong thinking, unless you live next door to the joint and have an annual pass. The wise traveler does not go to the same place every year, no matter how much the same place is liked. There are other places out there, and the wise traveler would like them too. I consider this the travel dilemma, the choice between the known and safe and the unknown and risky. I mean, if you’ve been somewhere and loved it and want to go back, you’ll probably love it again and, as a result, safely invest your travel dollars. Going somewhere new risks those travel dollars. But nevertheless it opens the opportunity to find a new place to love. Let’s face it. Unless you start considering travel to Abbottabad or somewhere else with less than state-of-the-art EconoLodges, you’ll probably have a good time. Never been to Paris? London? Barcelona? Santa Fe? Oslo? Well, none of these is exactly a risky bet. Expand the old horizons, I say. Try something new. The old will always be there.

I think this is especially true of WDW. I love Disney and have written about my experience of the parks going back to when Disneyland opened. But I love not going too, because I love thinking about it and keeping up with the fan blogs and podcasts and whatnot, and then planning it when the time comes. As it is, a three-year gap for me is practically moving down to live permanently in Orlando. O’C wants desperately to see the new Star Tours, but it will still be there for the DisAd. Savoring the anticipation can be quite enjoyable. Every time you think about it, it’s great. It’s like knowing the Star Wars prequels were coming before The Phantom Menace actually opened. The Phantom Menace, anticipatory, was ecstasy. The Phantom Menace, reality, was…meh. The anticipatory ecstasy lasted for months. The reality lasted a couple of hours, followed by the enduring meh in its wake. Not that I think Star Tours will be a bust. But it’s so great in the imagination that I’m fine not threatening that imaginary version until I’m ready for the whole WDW experience.

Of course, meanwhile, I’ve got no vacation plans yet, having put aside our European trip to settle the Aged P. Once that settlement is really settled, then we’ll start thinking about it.

And see. I told you I could write about something other than debate.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Blogger down

Blogger went down yesterday, and havoc was wreaked in the blogosphere. On my end, I seem to have lost an entry yesterday that would have been a real paradigm-shifter, exposing the truth about O'C.

Damn. I guess I'll have to go back to not exposing the truth about O'C. It's a cruel, cruel world...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More than one strip of bacon!

The Breakfast of Champions. That's what JW calls it. And I guess that's what it is. The final day of TOC is kicked off with an expensive gala where everyone sits down and eats for an hour, and then the festivities begin and there's various talks and whatnot, and finally awards, and then it's off to more rounds or home, depending on how one has spent the previous couple of days.

Maybe I’m just getting sour sourer in my old age, but I felt, as I explained when I started the TOC series, that the sentiments of the breakfast were out of whack with the reality of the place. Everyone celebrated the values of debate, but TOC is really not about those values. I think I’ve talked enough about how I feel about that. Not that the speakers weren’t genuine in their sentiments; in fact, the keynote speaker, a former debater, was one of the best I’ve ever heard. But one didn’t arrive at this particular TOC in LD and not know that the bad feeling surrounding it was deep and scarring. Dave Huston admirably tried to address this as preface to announcing the LD awards, but there wasn’t much that could be done in that venue. For a lot of us, it was the elephant in the room. It still is. Not that it was TOC’s fault, beyond the problem of the closed committee, which was merely a footnote to the issue. The fault lies not in our tournament but within ourselves.

The dais at the breakfast comprises the cream of the TOC crop. You can mix in a lot of the cream of the NFL crop in there too while you’re at it, because there’s a bunch of overlap. Like I said, Big Debate. But they’re all very nice people, I would imagine. I don’t know many of them all that well. I certainly don’t believe that they’re some sort of evil-doers presiding over an evil event. There’s nothing wrong with a debate competition for competition’s sake; that’s not what I’ve been contending. I’ve maintained that it’s gone off or going off the tracks because it’s been injected with too many metaphorical steroids. But, again, I’ve said all that. Enough is enough.

(Maybe I was just in a crappy mood that weekend. I had a terrible cold, my Aged P had been driving me crazy, and my cat died in the middle of it. Let's see how much you love TOC under the weight of all that. Then again, I'm not saying anything all that revolutionary here. TOC is too concerned about the competition. Big revelation.)

I spent most of the breakfast sort of taking in the sights. As our keynote speaker explained at one point, in debate nobody cares how you dress, they only care how you argue, but jeesh—could name deleted send that poor, battered t-shirt to the laundry just this once? I mean, when I start noticing that people are poorly dressed, you know we’re in trouble. As with any event like this, I spent my share of time texting snide comments. I should point out that over the weekend there were all sorts of people to be noted in the coming and going column, who were apparently working the gig in aid of a new job: lots of changes next year, some moving around of the schedule, that sort of thing. I never did see Bietz, but I’ll bet he was there somewhere, unless maybe there was a new Apple product being released that weekend that he had to buy two of in every color. I did manage to break bread with CP at one point over the weekend; when I had the Big Ho, I think he ordered the Cheap Ho, if I remember correctly. (The name of the restaurant is Tolley-Ho. I’m not totally making this stuff up.)

After the breakfast we tabbed the late elim PF rounds sitting in a corner of the mezzanine, where people came by to chat or to see if I was really as evil as I had been portrayed in the press or to tell us that if a certain judge were put into a given round it would be the end of life on the planet as we know it. Meanwhile I tracked the Panivore on her triumphant march to Quarters, the best the Sailors have ever done on my watch. O’C took a great picture of us at my demand, which is almost as shocking as my complaining about the couture, but it was a moment to memorialize. I wasn’t all that negative about the weekend not to celebrate her great success. In a tournament that is all about the competition, to actually succeed at the competition is pretty remarkable.

We’ll talk more about the whole shebang on the next TFVT. I would guess that some demurrals to my positions will be offered. But other than that, I think I’m done with the subject. You probably are too.

Time to move on.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The lighter side of TOC

You may have figured this out by now, but TOC was, as weekends go, all business. I prefer my debate weekends to include a little more fun.

Arriving late on Friday meant that I couldn’t hook up with anyone. The only advantage to sitting around LaGuardia for those extra years was that I threw all the PF pool into Excel and randomized the teams and then manually plugged in the random pairings back into TRPC. I’ve never believed that TRPC is all that random, which normally doesn’t matter, but at TOC, I figured I might was well be holier than the pope. This hearkens back to the old Bietz effect, which I’ve talked about before, where singletons hit singletons. TRPC also used to put big school with lots versus other big school with lots. I like best what we did at NDCA, breaking the field into 4 groups that you could only hit any two of (other than your own) in the presets. In any case, at the very least, my pairings were damned random, as random as I could possibly make them. My time had not gone to bad use.

Our hotel was about ten minutes away from downtown, and about half the cost of the downtown hotels. It was lacking in, shall we say, the amenities, but the soap entertained me no end because no matter how much you rubbed it against yourself, nothing happened. It was like washing with a brick. But if you let it sit overnight, in the morning it was a little pool of ick. It made you immediately want to wash your hands but, uh, that was the soap… Devin and CC complained about all manner of lack of housekeeping, although Kaz and the P didn’t seem put out. My room was marginally tidied up every day, which was good enough for me. As I say, at half the price, who complains? There were no varmints, and that was good enough for me.

Tabbing was pretty straightforward, especially with the three of us. I commanded the computer, and both Kaz and Aves are good readers, plus we doublechecked up the wazoo (again, because it was TOC, and there is a pretty high premium on accuracy). In the beginning we were shunted around a bit as there weren’t enough rooms for both us and the tournament. At one point we were tabbing in the main lobby, giving new meaning to the term open tab. Finally we had our spot for Sunday, which wasn’t so bad. We had a big jar of mixed nuts in among the tabroom supplies, plus some UK yabbo running the table who was quite smart, although he did wander off now and again on tournament business, and we kept thinking that we were tournament business and that wandering off was, shall we say, counterproductive. Mostly we worried about whether or not our cars would be towed, but they were always there where we left them. We harbored some thoughts about meeting up with the traveling tab folk on Saturday, but everyone was buried in a war room or something, so we just moseyed back to the hotel and ate at a local chain restaurant where Kaz kept throwing glasses of wine at CC for some reason. (Okay, only one glass, and she didn’t exactly throw it, but who am I to let a good line go by?) Sunday night we tried again, and this time we ended up at some local burger joint, the best we could come up with. I had something I think was called the Big Ho burger, which was not as hilarious as it sounds. While I ate it I watched Desperate Housewives on one TV and some sports thing on the other TV, thus getting my cultural allowance for the day. This was during the notorious eighth LD round which, when all was said and done, was absolutely pointless. By now the cold I had been attempting to fight off was winning, and I drove myself home, leaving Kaz to handle the chilluns who were all set to go to a Korean restaurant (the Panivore’s favorite cuisine) until it turned out there wasn’t an open restaurant within a hundred miles unless one wanted a big ho or something comparable. They settled for something comparable back near the hotel. They didn’t miss anything. I didn’t mind the Ho, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for one.

Sunday was the breakfast and the break rounds, and they deserve an entry of their own.

Monday, May 09, 2011

TOC 2011 Part 6

By the time we get to TOC, this is the situation. Big Debate, having established TOC as its ultimate goal, has invested many, many thousands of dollars in getting there. Students have virtually given up their lives to become what is uniquely a TOC debater. Any residual ideas that debate is about the content—that debate is about instilling ideals into students, that it is a special educational opportunity—are suspended as debate becomes about one thing and one thing only, the competition.

There is nothing inherently wrong with competition for competition’s sake, but it is rather hollow. Think of game playing. I love game playing, and when I play a game, I give it a lot of effort. I want to win, because that’s the point of most games. But of course games also have motivating factors like socialization or brain stretching or that sort of thing, and I think we would look askance at someone who did nothing but play games all day, or who had started to confuse games with reality. This is a reasonable analogy to what has happened to debate at TOC. Because of all the money and time invested, the TOC has been drained of its lifeblood. It is a debate zombie.

At TOC, when people are not debating they are in their war room working on debating. Teams regularly travel with entourages beyond the coach and the debaters, so much so that the TOC has rules about the entourages: to wit, you can’t keep them secret like Ahab’s unearthly special harpooners on the Pequod, although apparently some people tried to. All this applies to Policy and LD both, although I don’t think PF is there yet. Scouting is common, and (theoretical) grownups are doing research and establishing positions and writing cases for debaters. When I have my first meeting with parents of novices, I tell them that their kids will learn to research, write cases and speak in public. At TOC, they will have entourages to do their research for them and to write their cases for them. As for public speaking, well, they will learn to speak in public but how well is a matter of opinion. What do the Big Debate schools tell their novice parents the first year? That their kids will become…what? I do not doubt that the lead debaters of Big Debate are smart and clever and capable of manipulating all the data that is thrown their way, but I’m unsure of the value of this as compared to the value of, well, doing your own research and writing your own cases and adapting to a variety of audiences beyond the speed-capable and argument-adept preferred $ircuit judge.

You can take or leave all of what I’ve said, if you’re a firm believer that this level of debate is valuable on a personal level. But the underlying atmosphere—of distrust, of cutthroat competition, of a tournament that is absolutely no fun whatsoever, where some of the best coaches in the country are relegated to the boondocks because of prefs, where the cost of not simply getting there but competing on the level of everyone else as Big Debate unleashes its minions is prohibitive to most programs—is not so easy to dismiss. I spent the weekend tabbing PF, and Tim and Kaz and I had a perfectly fine time among ourselves, but even there, by the time brackets had sorted themselves out and then into the elimination rounds, we never simply placed the judges without someone coming in complaining that so-and-so had it in for whosits, or shouldn’t be allowed to judge whatshisname because their camp has declared war on the other camp, etc., etc., etc. My recommendation to TOC was that next year they put strikes into PF and divide the pool by geography to bypass some of the inherent bad feeling that seems to underlie much of the activity. This is PF, remember. It’s just starting to wear long pants. There is little question in my mind that five years from now it will have prefs, scouts and assistants and be indistinguishable from its cousins across the UK campus.

What can be done about all of this? I don’t really know. I mean, relieving the operation of its veil of secrecy is a step in the right direction, but that won’t make the fact that this is an unhappy and rather spirit-crushing event any less true. At the point where anyone puts this many eggs in a single basket, that basket becomes rather problematic. Let’s face it: as I said earlier, it’s the same schools there year after year for the most part, so Big Debate has already bought into this paradigm, and they’ve gotten what they’ve paid for. I doubt if they’re going to change that. I doubt that the Big Debate schools went into TOC thinking that it was antithetical to the goals of the activity, and maybe it really isn’t. But it certainly doesn’t celebrate those goals. It celebrates a certain brand of competitive success that is, quite honestly, not within the reach of most schools. Short of schools running kritiks that would demonstrate this fact, and having those kritiks win, and then gaining admittance to an event that they’ve spent their entire careers vilifying, it is a closed arena. And as such, it is not so much going to affect the Big Debate operations if the tournament remains closed as it will those of us not a part of Big Debate. In the past, I’ve looked on TOC as a nice goal for some of my students. After this year, I’m obviously having serious second thoughts about that. I am unlikely to encourage students to aim for TOC because, unless they’re a superstar like the Panivore who has the personal resources, both intellectual and financial, to become a private Big Debate concern all on her own, the result of pursuing a TOC path for a Sailor will result in, at best, admission to the TOC and a seriously disappointing, unenjoyable, resource-deficient weekend. While everyone else is in their war room, my Sailor will be hanging out with me trying to find a decent restaurant open on a Sunday night, which we will attend alone because everyone else is in their war rooms.

As usual, I’m not really looking to discuss this here beyond what I’ve already said. That is, I have neither the time nor the inclination to argue specific points in the comments or anything like that. You can agree with me, or not, as you like. The thing is, it’s not as if I’m particularly perturbed by any of this. The TOC is entirely an optional event in the debate universe, and one can ignore its existence completely and still do great things in the activity. Unlike the NFL which institutionally demands inclusion while inherently throwing up obstacles to participation to certain regions, there is no internal contradiction to TOC. Like it or lump it, it will happily go on without you. So be it. For all I know, I’ll be back there tabbing again next year because I like tabbing. Who knows? I’m neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. As for you, you’ll have to make up your mind for yourself. If you are going to consider TOC the goal of debate, then you will have to account for its problems, or overcome them. If you are not going to consider TOC the goal of debate, then you can ignore those problems completely and spend the first weekend of May at home planting your tomato seeds. The choice is up to you.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

TOC 2011 Part 5

Don’t forget to add some costs to maintaining a debate school beyond just debaters and their coach traveling far and wide. There are also assistant coaches, or whatever you wish to call them. For the most part college students with high school debate roots, these folks do not participate in debate out of the goodness of their hearts. And they also have travel expenses in addition to their fees. Debate schools do not travel light.

It has been suggested that I don’t value so-called high level debate, and this is not true. I have no difficulties recognizing the sophistication of thinking that goes into the endeavor. But it is rather limited in scope. What is the number of serious participants in this sort of debate across the country? A few hundred? Not many, no matter what the number. Most students in high school simply don’t have the time for it, nor, as I’ve said, the resources. If I could take all the money that goes into high level debate and spread it around to provide debate to more people who have none, I would do it in an instant. I would also like to feed three square meals a day to everyone in developing nations and, while I’m at it, establish world peace. In other words, I would make a great beauty contest contestant, at least when it comes to the Q&A part of the event. (Not so good, maybe, in the swim suit event.) As I said earlier, if schools have the resources, there’s nothing wrong in them expending them. That is the way the world is.

Debate schools and their debate students point themselves toward the TOC. One curious aspect of the TOC is that admission is controlled by those very debate schools, or at the very least by an oligarchy comparable to the debate schools. I have in my day sat on the LD advisory committee, and I would love to report that it was a fine, altruistic experience, where knowledgeable coaches pooled their resources to determine what the best tests of debate were around the country in aid of setting up entry points to the TOC. But that would only be partially true. There was also brazen self-interest, mind-boggling politics and out-and-out mendacity. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before, but damn it, it was true. It wasn’t universal, but I saw people point blank defend the tournaments they had some reason to defend and attack the tournaments they had some reason to attack without the least bit of rationale other than self-interest and politics, and the main tool was mendacity. (If you don’t like hearing that, I can live with it. You wouldn’t be the first person/organization to consider me the devil incarnate. It hasn’t stopped me yet.)

My first-hand knowledge of the committee was a long time ago, and I would expect that the mendacity is not there anymore. In this day and age, with easy access to data, I doubt if anyone is able to pull off inflation of a tournament’s numbers (or deflation) by fifty percent, because anyone can simply call up the numbers from a results page. But the system, even if it’s been cleaned up, can’t claim neutrality because too many people who are cogs in the system have a vested interest in their own part of it. There is the simple idea that more bids should be in my region than in your region because yadda yadda yadda [I will cite ten reasons why your region doesn’t deserve bids but in reality I don’t know your region from a hole in the ground and I just want bids in my region so my kids will have easier access to them]. If bids are determined by committee, and that committee comprises the people with the greatest vested interest in bids, at best the distribution of bids will be to the advantage of those with the greatest vested interest in bids, neutralized by the regional representation of the committee; at worst, it will devolve into politics and self-interest. It is a system without checks and balances, except that perhaps some of the committee is more pure of heart than others. I don’t think they do a bad job, to tell you the truth, considering their position as debate schools. But they don’t do a great job. There is no set of criteria explaining why a school has a certain bid that I’m aware of; we spend a lot of time on TVFT arguing the meaning of bids, their usefulness and their distribution, and if criteria were set somewhere, that would be a discussion about changing things, but instead it’s a discussion about defining things, a different business altogether.

The recent brouhaha in LD brought out the worst in an awful lot of people, and one thing was clear: the LD debate community has little or no real understanding of the committee (or, in general, the operations of TOC), and given perceived provocation, immediately and thoroughly ascribed to the TOC and the committee the worst of intentions. A closed committee with no particular explanation of how one becomes a member, that meets without publishing its minutes, that determines its decisions according to unknown criteria—any wonder that the community is, at best, ill at ease with such a group?

I have some of my best friends sitting on that committee. Let me underline this: I do not believe that the committee is evil and mendacious (although it was undoubtedly the latter in my day). I don’t even know who most of the committee is these days, aside from my buddies and one or two others. That is not my point. My point is that a committee that is a virtual secret society of the powerful is almost inevitably going to be perceived as being up to no good. It’s human nature. And at the point where all those committee members do represent Big Debate, when every week of their lives is pointed in the direction set by Big Debate, when their very careers are measured by their success in the realm of Big Debate, it is not a great leap for me to assume that their decisions will, if nothing else, further the cause of Big Debate. TOC is the expressed goal of Big Debate. The committee stands as gatekeepers to that goal. They determine which schools get which bids, and they evaluate the at-large applications. They are the Captains of Big Debate, if you will.

And that phrase, Big Debate, does sum up the universe I’m talking about, maybe even better than the $ircuit. Big Debate. I like that. Anyhow, everything I’ve said about the committee here is fixable almost entirely by publicizing every single aspect of it. There’s no reason why it needs to be even semi-secret. This is a high school extracurricular activity. It should be open to the same scrutiny as every other high school extracurricular activity. Any argument that says otherwise is suspect. You could say that if I don’t like it, I shouldn’t bother with it, but that doesn’t warrant its secrecy, that just reevaluates the importance of Big Debate to people who are not a part of it.

This year’s TOC, in LD, was arrived at in a storm of bitterness, accusations, bad behavior, abuse of speech, abusive speech—you name it. An activity that ostensibly teaches justice and ethics and morality, that is informed by the principles of open discourse, proved that it knew no more of those things than your average bunch of dropout thugs on the local street corner. Why? I don’t really know. But I would suggest that the stress of Big Debate, the endless struggle for bids and victories, the money invested, the time students put in on debate that equals or even surpasses the time they put in on the entire rest of their lives, the pressure to succeed that is only measured by admittance to (and later, success at) the TOC, has created a world that is fragile and perhaps unhealthy. If I were writing this about high school football, you would probably agree that students spending half their entire lives on nothing but football is not a great thing. Why is it great if it’s debate? Because it’s their brains and not their bodies? I don’t think so.

I’ll try to wrap this up next time, but I don’t know if I can.

Friday, May 06, 2011

TOC 2011 Part 4

You may or may not agree with my opinions about TOC-style LD. I don’t claim that they are all that well-founded, insofar as I have, for all practical purposes, found myself having fallen out of the realm of that style. I admittedly can’t follow it, so I base my opinions on study of cases and what little I can glean from this and that. I have already conceded that speed doesn’t inherently bother me, provided it’s not directed at me. Go forth and do what you want, I say. If the Panivore had relied on me for her coaching, she’d have been very promising. By using the skills of CC, she fulfilled her promise. When the two of them talked in my presence they might as well have been conversing in Turkish. Still, I have my opinions. A few years ago X was very popular. Today Y is very popular. Tomorrow Z will be very popular. So be it. Honestly, I prefer today’s Y to yesterday’s (modernist/pomo) X. But keep in mind that I was raised in the early 90s. Some things have changed a lot; others haven’t. I consider it my job to recognize which is which, and not try to impose my opinions on my team where it is detrimental to them if I do so. Which is why I maintain that I am fine with debaters in their first year or two. After that, if they want to go to TOC, they’ll have to go beyond me for help. Doesn’t bother me in the least, and it’s not all that unusual, even with those debate schools I talked about last time. The coach becomes a manager; the business of winning rounds with its cutting of cards and scouting and laying out positions is not usually what they do because, if they’re any good at managing, they don’t really have the time for it on a regular basis.

Anyhow, as I said yesterday, we have what I call the $ircuit, where money is literally the price of admission. And, yes, some teams do not get their money directly from their schools, but most do, and the ones that don’t nonetheless have a good machine behind them or well-to-do parents who can easily afford it. Mostly it’s a class system based not on wealth per se but on access to wealth for this purpose. For instance, I would suggest that Newark is not a wealthy school district, but the commitment of the New Jersey government to debate and the Jersey UDL (and now the contributions of Mark Zuckerberg) raises them up into players on the $ircuit. So it doesn’t matter where the money comes from, but it does have to come. Without it, as I said, you’re not going to fly to Emory this year, or any year. And if you don’t participate in debates at Emory or Glenbrooks or Greenhill or Bronx, or at Round Robins at some of these and at other venues, you’re not really going to be exposed to, experienced in and, ultimately, successful at $ircuit debate. Whether what $ircuit debaters do is better or worse than non-$ircuit is arguable, but it is different. There’s little argument about that.

Over the space of a year, the debate schools invest a lot of money and effort into $ircuit events. The thing is, $ircuit events have a goal, to wit, acceptance into the TOC. $ircuit events provide bids, and while it is nice to win a tournament, a lot of people are happy just to get their bids. If they’ve gotten a bid, if they’ve made it to the bid level wherever that is, they’ve succeeded. Tournaments do not exist as an end in themselves but as a step toward entrance to another tournament. Yes, it’s nice to make it to octos at Big Bronx. But is the achievement the doing well at Big Bronx or the getting of the bid? Pretty often, it’s the latter, and it has been since my first day off the cabbage truck, when Soddy complained from the Jake stage that he did not run his tournament as an opener for some other tournament. If there were no TOC, every tournament would stand alone, measured by its own merits. When Bronx had little or no bid, O’C nonetheless put it on steroids with one of the strongest judge pools imaginable. Did he want a higher TOC level bid? Sure. But his primary motive as far as I can tell was building the best damn tournament he could to represent Bronx Science, and doing it the best way he knew how. That was his primary goal (at which he succeeded). I don’t think he’d do it if it were only for the TOC. He’s doing it for his team and his school and his alums. That is how it should be. Still, people who attend that tournament are spending a lot of money to get to NYC, to stay over for a number of days, etc. Those people want their money’s worth, and their money’s worth is more than just a nice lunch. Their money needs to buy them access to bids. Monticello has some of the best food in the region. It’s cheaper to stay in Monti than in NYC. They’ve got a nice building and great kids. But they do not exist on the $ircuit because they don’t have the bids. From the $ircuit perspective, they might as well not exist at all.

So throughout the year, thousands and thousands of dollars are invested by debate schools in an activity that has a clear goal: TOC. This is true, of course, for PF and Policy as well, although I can’t speak out of my own experience to the effects of TOC on content with them as I can with LD. But they share the goal, or more specifically, there are debate schools doing PF and Policy that share the goal, and doing the investing in that goal. And it is an investment. When one invests, one expects a return on one’s investment. And let’s face it, with these debate schools, there are people whose careers are riding on their debate success. I can coach a fairly ordinary team at Sailorville for eons because we are not one of these debate schools, and our express goals are inclusion on the team and the most benefits we can get for the greatest number. My principal doesn’t know TOC from Shinola. He’s like me. He loves it when Sailors win, but he doesn’t care if they don’t. The VCA knows my motivations by now. At debate schools, though, a coach is expected to deliver the goods. If thousands and thousands of dollars are expended week after week and no trophies are brought home in the process, eyebrows are going to be raised. This isn’t some horrible, evil thing. It’s quite normal. If a school invests in a program, it expects results from that program, regardless of what the program is. Schools are in the business of education, direct and indirect, and the achievement of goals that support education are required. Even high level elite athletics support education when those athletics draw paying customers and revenues that can ultimately be put into new computers in the middle school.

$ircuit debate schools’ goal is the TOC. Their success or failure is measured in TOC terms. Unfortunately, this does not bring out the best in people.

(As a side note, I have seen what I’m talking about at high-level speech contests as well. This is not a debate-only issue.)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

TOC 2011 Part 3

So in LD, a brand of debate has been created especially for the TOC. Those debaters who prefer this brand habituate certain tournaments throughout the year at which the brand dominates, or is at the very least accepted. You cannot access this brand locally in any quantity. Because this brand is, if nothing else, limited in its preferred judge pool, most regional tournaments can, at best, come up with only a couple of judges truly brand aware. These judges are for the most part actively engaged in promoting the brand, either as full-fledged or part-time coaches, meaning they are attached to the debaters who debate the brand. When a preponderance of these debaters and these judges get together at a particular event, then you have what we call a national circuit tournament.

One chooses for oneself, as a coach or a debater, what path to take. Obviously, a coach selecting a path brings a team along for the ride, although there are occasionally students who blaze their own path separately. The determination to do circuit LD debate, where the TOC brand is applied, has some prerequisites. Chief among these is serious mazuma. First of all, you need money to get the training to be a TOC debater (camp). Then you need money to get to TOC debate venues (the national circuit). And to have success, you need personal coaching. The circuit, being small, is finite, and it is not terribly hard to track what all the members of the circuit are running, and figure out how to deal with it, and to come up with comparable positions of your own, but if you’re also going to high school once in a while (and at most circuit debaters go to high school only once in a while at best), you need someone to do this for you. As a general rule, you or your coach hire associates. As I say, mazuma. Big piles of it.

Because of the expensive buy-in, pretty much all the same organizations attend all the circuit events year after year, because only a small handful of organizations can afford it. My school certainly can’t, although individuals in my school can—and have—on their own dime. Of course, to some extent organizations come and go, but for the most part, there are debate schools, and those debate schools go to the debates, wherever they are. How often does your high school ping pong team get on a plane? How often does the average circuit debater? The reason the same schools show up year after year is that they have the resources. They usually also have fine, professional coaches capable of handling those resources, but the resources are a must. Sure, a couple of schools sell enough pencils to the blind to cover all their expenses, but most don’t. Schools are paying the bills, or parents are paying the bills, but somebody is paying the bills, because the bills are there. Airlines don’t let you fly because they like your aff.

So it’s debate schools, the same debate schools again and again, that comprise the national circuit. On the fringes some individuals come and go, but those same debate schools are there all the time. And when the TOC rolls around, they’re definitely there too. Take a look at the names of the schools over time, the ones with the students who have won, if you don’t believe me. You could say, well, they just happen to be good, and maybe they are, but that’s not my point. They are also, first, blessed with financial resources and second, using those resources on a very specific, very small universe of debate. An analogy might be a big school that has a great football team year after year. In that situation, no doubt the school provides great coaching, great practice, great prep rooms and equipment, benefits of time out of class not granted to the hoi polloi, and maybe even a nifty stadium. Once you provide the environment for greatness, and if you have the resources (in football a big enough population so that you can find athletes, in debate a smart enough population), you can probably do it over and over. Can you be the top team every year? Probably not. But can you be among the top teams? Probably yes.

Again, there is nothing wrong with any of this. Some schools have more resources, and some schools have lots of smart kids, for whatever reasons. I don’t begrudge them this. But not having these resources means that schools won’t participate as these schools do. The good news is that in many cases these resource-poor schools can still provide plenty of great benefits, academic or athletic, without having to be on the so-called top circuit. From an educational point of view, the benefits of debating at a hotly contested regional event with no bids is probably indistinguishable from the benefits of debating at an octos tournament, much as the benefits of debating LD or Policy or PF are relatively indistinguishable from one another: although each might accent different aspects of the art of debate, they are all still debate when practiced seriously.

No matter how you slice it, the national circuit really is the $ircuit, statistical deviations notwithstanding. Again, nothing wrong with that, if you’ve got the money. And if you don’t, all the benefits ought to be available for debaters for whom the $ircuit is a mere chimera. The $ircuit is a tiny percentage of overall debate. Because the buy-in is so great, overall debate doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the $ircuit, and vice versa. There may be stylistic influences from the $ircuit to the real world, but that is to be expected in any active pursuit, where new ideas are always bouncing in. They’re going to bounce in from somewhere, and the forge of camps and $ircuit is a natural source, considering that these also inform much of what we might call the debate media. I mean, even this blog is way more than merely cognizant of the $ircuit: I tab week after week, often at tournaments with serious bids (and just as often at novice tournaments). I’ve been on the LD advisory committee. I just tabbed PF at the TOC and LD and PF at the NDCA.

The question is, then, given that we’ve demonstrated that the $ircuit exists with the dollar sign, how does that affect TOC?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

TOC 2011 Part 2

On the last day of TOC there is a breakfast where a number of people speak about the value and values of debate. Not much of what they say applies to the event that we are at that point concluding. Put another way, we do debate (and all forensics) as a means to an end. We do it for the educational and social benefits. We do it to make a better world. We do it to teach ethics and justice and morality.

At the TOC, none of that matters. TOC is all about the competition. That might not be so bad if all those educational/social/ethical/just/moral thingummies were implicitly upheld within the competition. They’re not.

TOC is about itself. For one thing, most people in the general debate population don’t debate the way TOC debaters debate, at least in LD (and, I understand, in Policy). JWP, the founder of the tournament, clearly pointed out that one of its goals was to allow people to debate at a tournament the way they’d been taught at institutes, which was not their weekly norm. There’s nothing wrong with that, but keep in mind that the percentage of debaters who go to summer camps is fairly small. I don’t impugn debate camps. There’s all sorts of specialized summer camps out there for high school kids, and debate camp is no better or worse, no more or less elite. Lots of people can’t afford the things I can afford, which doesn’t stop me from doing them, although the knowledge of this does, presumably, establish within me a social conscience and a moral drive to do what I can to improve the situations of those whose situations need improvement. I’m lucky, and other people are not so lucky. It’s the old birth lottery. I strongly believe that it should be a goal of society to ameliorate the situations of those who are the least privileged. But that’s beside the point. The thing is, only a small number of debaters get camp training, which by and large is TOC-focused. All the camps are run by folks with TOC experience as coaches, staffed by instructors with TOC experience as debaters. If I’m going to hire for my camp, what other criterion do I have other than competitive record? Visibility on the TOC circuit means better staff; how else are high school seniors recruited? Their manifest teaching skills?

So, the camps are run by TOC folks, united by their TOCness. Logically, therefore, they teach to the TOC, that being the only test there is to teach to. Parents spend the camp money on the promise that the students will become more competitive. Doing well at bid tournaments should be the result of being more competitive. Camps whose attendees go forth and get bids, run by staff who have already bidded up, are the ones that succeed. I have no doubt that VBI, for instance, does a great job, and I recommend it to my own students. They come back home the better for it. They make a lot of new friends and learn a lot about a certain kind of debate. So far, so good.

TOC-style debating is a number of things. One of these things is that it is fast. It can be riddled with jargon. It often includes theory. It is seldom strictly about the resolution. It is all of those things that work to make it obscure and “special.” Some people suppose that being obscure and special is somehow better than being clear and simple, perhaps because they’ve worked so hard to acquire the obscure material. If they are talking about a complicated idea, according to this logic, they need to sound complicated. To which I reply, e=mc2. I read a lot, and I read a lot about complicated things. The best writers are the ones who make complicated things simple, not the ones who make simple things complicated. What has happened to LD, in the TOC arena, has happened. So be it. My point is that it hasn’t happened in the LD world in general, or at least not so much. It’s really hard to run any sort of critical argument if you’ve barely been exposed to critical arguments. Theory has some great uses, but it’s not in the everyday debate vocabulary. The inclination of the average unschooled debater/coach is to look at the resolution, figure out some reasons to affirm it and some other reasons to negate it, and try to sort them out. To figure out some reason why the aff is more topical than the neg to run an RVI, for instance? Not so great an inclination.

Although I have my opinions, I don’t contend that TOC-style debating is any better or worse than any other style. I merely contend that it is a style, and is unique to the TOC. That is the first premise of my position.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

TOC 2011

The TOC experience has gotten crazy. Simple as that.

We were held up for hours in LaGuardia on Friday, waiting for our flight. It being the one direct NY to Lex flight of the day, it had been seriously attractive, especially compared with some of the other possible routings, like all those flights from JFK with a four hour layover in Beirut, the kinds of flight O’C specializes in. Hunter, Stuyvesant and Regis were traveling with us. We hung out at the food court, and every time Eric DiMichele checked the schedule, the flight was delayed another half hour. We begged him to stop checking the schedule and slowing us down, but you know how those Catholics are. He actually claimed it wasn’t his fault. (For the return trip, we tied him up at the airport and locked him in a custodian’s closet where he couldn’t do any damage until the flight actually started boarding.)

By the time we arrived in Lexington and got to the tournament hotel for registration it was around 9:00. I found Andrea, the tournament director, who pointed me to my printer for the weekend. After borrowing Dave Huston’s USB cable (like they should sell you a printer that comes with all the cordage—aaargh) for a minute, I proved that I could print like a house afire by pumping out schematics for round 1 and all the ballots, then ran across the street for dinner. Panivores notwithstanding, the Sailor army (that doesn’t sound right) marches on its stomach. (I had hoped that this open evening would mean a nice dinner with the traveling tab room. My late arrival meant otherwise.) The minute the pasta arrived, Andrea called to announce that they were shutting down, so Charles and I ran across the street to collect the printer and whatever crap was lying around, and got back before the steam had begun to rise. Charles was impressed with how fast I could walk. Charles has never seen a hungry Sailor before.

Our hotel, the Blue Grass Extended Stay Clean It Up Yourself and Don’t Bother Complaining Express, was about ten minutes down the road, no big deal in Lexington time and a lot cheaper than the tournament hotel. Kaz and Devin were also in residence. For Kaz, this was a repeat visit. I admire her loyalty. We sent Charles off to Devin’s room, the P went to hers and I went to mine, and a minute later, the logs were being sawed.

We were on the precipice of the craziness. We would fall off first thing on the morrow.