Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Various musings

I have to admit that one of my favorite award shows is the Tonys. Actually, since the only other one I watch is the Oscars, which gets progressively worse every year and for the life of me I don’t know why I bother, that does seem to be setting the bar pretty low, but I always enjoy seeing stagings of the shows which, if I had money to burn, I would go see. I can’t believe how expensive NY theater is these days, for what nine times out of ten is just a tourist attraction. I mean, how many people who own multiple versions of everything Sondheim actually go to see Wicked out of anything but morbid curiosity? Anyhow, I was poring over this year’s nominees and, with a couple of exceptions, I really don’t want to see any of these. So I probably won’t even watch the show. Then again, I’ll be in Paris that night, so I guess I’ll survive.

TOC is over and done with, meaning it’s safe to go back onto Twitter. Of course, like everyone else, I succumbed and watched my local horses do their bit in the race over the weekend. I hated to see two local boys duke it out in the run-off round. Sigh. Danny D, who I keep thinking is graduating this year, just as I kept thinking last year that he was graduating last year, apparently started debating in kindergarten, as he will be back again in ’14, the year in which, perhaps, he’ll graduate. Maybe he just keeps getting kept back. This, needless to say, jumps to the conclusion that he is real and not just an incredibly startling figment of Chetan’s imagination. Meanwhile Facebook has been filled with valedictory notices from a lot of folks, and congratulations to one and all, which is nice to see, and preferable I guess to the usual fare of non-events noted at great length for no reason. (I think I’ve said in the past that my visits to Fb are fairly rare.) It’s all over now but the shouting, in other words, as my father used to say.

On a personal note, this morning was the annual meeting with my mother’s caregivers. She’s in good shape for 88, and as it turns out, she is at the top of her peer group in terms of mental acuity, meaning that aside from normal senior absentmindedness, she is in full possession of all of her faculties. This bodes well for the coachean gene set. If I do happen to go on relatively indefinitely, I would like to think that I’ll be going on knowing, well, what’s going on, as she does. Her mother’s side of the family all lived forever, as compared to my father’s side of the family, a bunch of hotheads who all went apoplectic one time too many and hence died during heart attacks. Since I hardly ever go apoplectic, making me less of a Menick and more of a Bowen (my grandmother’s people), I can now start knocking wood and wondering if all of you young 'uns will still be supporting my social security payments thirty years from now. I certainly hope so.

This being the last day of April, I have about three months or so to pretend to do something useful with the debate break. Obviously there’s vacation in June, already mentioned. And Summer Street, which I haven’t been working on as I should. And one or two other things I may or may not do. Going by past performances, I’ll talk a good game but won’t accomplish terribly much. I have started going at things like the MHL website to get them ready for battle. To be honest, I really do need a vacation from everything, especially the DJ. Paris and London seem like the perfect antidote to sitting around reading and editing, and then reading and reading and writing and reading and reading and editing and reading and then, for a break, reading. Oh, well. They pay me handsomely for it. Why be churlish?

Monday, April 29, 2013

A new debate regime?

I think we probably are at some sort of changing of the guard in debate. Obviously, there’s always change, people coming and going, joining the activity, leaving the activity, that sort of thing. But following the TOC from afar, especially this morning’s award ceremony, there was definitely a sense that the movers and the shakers who have made debate what it is today have been or are being replaced by people who are roughly the age of my favorite green corduroy shirt. (This is a comment that cuts both ways: yes, the new people are young, but on the other hand, that shirt is really old. Still holding up, however. What more could you ask of utility clothing?)

Here’s the way I’m seeing it. High school debaters all have one thing in common: they’re all in high school. So they’re all teenagers. And they’re engaged in a high-pressure activity that, honestly, sucks the life out of most older people. It’s tough enough that it’s all weekends, meaning that right off the bat there are inherent limitations to who will sign up and continually show up. This is not to say that the people who do it long term have nothing else in their lives; far from it, for the most part. They just have the ability to fit in debate as well, and as a result, have lives of incredible busyness that are quite striking when compared to the average adult’s life of work, television, sleep, repeat. Of course, most debate adults are fulltime educators, and with many, they are taking an already exhausting life choice and extending it as far as they can. Admirable. I would say as a general rule that the energy expended by a group of long-term debate coaches is the match of any other group you can think of.

Add to this limitation—the need to find people with an awful lot of energy—the self-limiting nature of some of the activities themselves, which I’ve been talking about recently. That is, the ever increasing arcaneness creating a small coterie of priests and alcolytes and a vast set of the unenlightened and uninitiated that are also essentially unenlightenable and uninitiatable. That is, you need people both of great energy and a willingness, at some point, to devote that energy to a narrow interest. Of course, a lot of coaches outsource their coaching, at least at the highest levels. When you see the announcement of who won what, followed by a list of a hundred names (“Joey McDoakes is coached by X, Y, Z, A, B, C, Pi, Phi, Theta, Curly Joe and Shemp”), usually X is the coach of record and all the rest are college students of one stripe or another. This is not a new practice, by the way, although I think now it is much more the norm. Twenty years ago when I first started, I recall a well-honored policy coach with an ocean of active winning teams telling me that he was no longer able to judge policy rounds. Whoa, thought I. Not any longer.

As I say, I think we are in the midst of a notable turnover of coaches who have been around for a long time, who were already established and in place when I started lo those many years ago, replacing them with a truly distinct next generation. TOC is a good example, under enlightened new management in so many ways (which is not to put down the old management, but simply to point out that the new regime has brought a lot of new ideas and new ways of doing things that I would say are commensurate with the times and the nature of the TOC beast). Still, much of the audience, and certainly much of that dais, have been around longer than my green corduroy shirt. And throughout the audience are their replacements, not complete newcomers but folks who have shown that they intend to be around for a while. Life goes on.

Which raises the question, if new leaders are emerging, what is the role of debate leadership? Needless to say, I personally don’t feel that it is best evidenced in the preservation of high-level ultra-competitive debate, although I see no reason why this can’t be maintained in the future, and most likely the leaders in debate overall will have a hand in this as well. No, it is the day-to-day, week-to-week world where the real leadership will be needed. I think the two most important areas of concern are, first, ensuring that there is forensics for as many people as possible. That’s a no-brainer, obviously, but it requires respect for all the activities under the forensics umbrella and a maintenance of activities for people who may benefit but don’t want to dedicate themselves completely to speech or debate. It also requires money, at all levels, i.e., a commitment on the part of school administrations. The second concern is making the forensics universe safe and welcoming to everyone. High school activities cannot be removed from the high schools of which they are a part, and these high school environments may or may not be enlightened in terms of sexual identity, class, race, gender, etc., but forensics needs to be the City on the Hill for this. If not us, dedicated as we are to ideas and ethics and self-fulfillment, then who?

Going into whatever brave new world is ahead of us, one of the good things I see is that, despite occasional skirmishes on the sidelines, in general this is a group that is willing to engage itself on virtually anything. This is probably a result of the nature of the activity in the first place. When you have as an avocation the art of convincing people of your point of view, you are going to freely present and defend that point of view and, with any luck, change it when a better argument comes along. (How else could you teach Mill with a straight face?) I obviously write my opinions here with little or no hesitation, for instance. We’ve aired all sorts of conflicting ideas on TVFT. This is not unusual behavior for debate people. For the most part we are happy to confront issues without being confrontational, if you know what I mean.

There are exceptions, though. I have managed once or twice to get caught in controversies where I feel I have been maligned, and where the folks involved have not bothered to address me directly. I have seen other controversies not including me where others have been in that position. A lot of this is enabled by the social media, and fuelled by the intrinsic immaturity of our young constituents. As a rule, it is probably best for the graybeards to ignore this sort of thing. Actions speak louder than words, in other words, and if someone is really the lout they are accused of being, we’ll all know sooner or later. Otherwise, would it kill us to assume good intentions? We must, if we wish to engage in meaningful dialog over important issues of change. Otherwise we might as well spend our time in an empty-headed standards debate arguing about our arguing. At the same time, maturity demands that we take the high road in not responding to immaturity; otherwise, we simply get immersed in the immaturity ourselves.

I’m quite sanguine about this whole business overall. I look at the people who I assume will be the graybeards twenty years from now, and I have a good feeling. As long as we remember that bottom line, making the activity as available and welcoming to as many as possible, we’ll be fine.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Musical interlude: The Hollies

I'm rather fond of the Bedazzled website; they're always digging up interesting old rock tracks. I'll link to their post, rather than just posting the video here. Stay on board for this one till the end, with the last little insert: On a Carousel.

And meanwhile, humph. I just checked my library. I have absolutely zero Hollies music, none, nary a note, ixnay on the ollishay. This needs to be remedied immediately. Who says that providing free music doesn't lead to people going out and buying stuff?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The sun shines bright...

I think—and this is a major Deanna Troi/Counselor Obvious revelation—that the biggest reason that TOC gets the attention that it does is its unwavering focus on just one thing: putting the (theoretically) best teams against one another in front of the (theoretically) best judging for a big national blowout. Putting aside whatever silliness might take place in the advisory committees (and there are other words I could use other than silliness, at least to describe my own experiences on the LD committee), with occasional exceptions, whatever tournaments are designated as qualifiers will attract competitive people and qualify quality debaters. Each tournament is unique, of course, but there are generalities that can be presumed. Octos bid tournaments will draw from the whole country, while semis and finals bids will draw more locally. Finals bids may be the hardest to get—stiffer odds, that is, because there’s only two of them and usually ten or so likely contenders, as compared to octos bid events, where there’s 16 of them and maybe 30 or 40 likely contenders. And as often as not at finals bidders, one schmegeggie will show up who already has 10 other bids and who just wants to get an extra dessert that weekend. Honestly, I would guess that most finals bids are won by debaters who already have other bids, though, no matter how you slice it. Semis are obviously more open, and they’re probably how most regional debaters make their initial moves. Quarters bids, as a general rule, are tough, leaning toward octos caliber. And octos can be bloodbaths, but as I say, proportionately maybe not so much.

As an aside, some schools will pour big money into travel for teams that haven’t a prayer of doing well at a big octos tournament and everyone on the team knows it; the logic of that escapes me, especially when there are more appropriate tournaments that same weekend for that team at a local venue. Go figure. And then there’s some folks who go after bids with virtually no likelihood of achieving them and they have no idea how outclassed they are, regardless of how often they get byes in round 6. While it’s nice to dream, at some point one needs to face reality.

Anyhow, the point is that there are few if any people at TOC who shouldn’t be at TOC, and who aren’t of the same competitive mindset that weekend (if not the entire year). Achieving TOC caliber debate is a marathon, as compared to the sprints for CatNats and NatNats which have, for the most part (some dioceses do things a little more parochially, shall we say), a single event at which a limited number might qualify. It’s hard to think that winning within a system that goes all year, with no artificial limits, is not a better determinant than winning one weekend.

So far, you could say that I’m all in favor of it, and mostly I am. Don’t get me wrong. Although there is a side issue of the growing NDCA and a coach-sourced approach versus the Kentucky fiat approach, the next time I qualify teams for the TOC I will take them to Kentucky and more power to them. Still, as I’ve always said, if the TOC didn’t exist, I wouldn’t invent it. We in the activity seem to have created what one might call a professional debate league among high schoolers, with the goal of winning (or at least attending) TOC. In so doing, we have created very specialized versions of the activities involved (at least LD and Policy) that are limited mostly to this league because few outside of it understand it. A lot of money is poured into it, and a lot of students are laser-beam focused on it for a couple of years of their high school lives. I wonder about all of this. It’s not as if I think that the money spent on the elite $ircuit would otherwise somehow trickle down to the masses; I’m not a Pollyanna. It’s not as if I think the students involved would opt instead for a less narrow focus for their adolescent years; given the nature of those students, if they didn’t have debate, they would probably just spend more time on the Xbox. I don’t know if at least LD would be any, for lack of a more precise word, better, without the influence of the $ircuit; we could argue till the cows come home about whether any particular content in a debate is good or bad, and as a whole, there are so many possible high school forensic activities available that, if you happen not to like this one, go do that one.

We are stuck, in the end, with one hard reality about what we do: we do it competitively. And while most of the values I hope for my students to derive from the activity are not directly competition-related, some of them are. And when we do set up competitions, certain competitive behaviors will inevitably follow. If we set up a competition that is intended to be the most elite of competitions, then certain elite behaviors will develop. Again, I don’t want to offer a lot of value judgments because I honestly fall on so many different sides I have no idea what I really believe. But this I think is important to remember: when all is said and done, it really is not about winning or losing, it is about playing the game. (Uh-oh; Deanna Troi alert!) No one outside of our universe, if you tell them you once won TOC, will be terribly impressed. But if everything you learned in your years of debate made you a better person somehow, then they will take notice. Coaches who spend their careers training new coaches, who open their world to others who may do nothing more than schlep novices around week after week, who work hardest with the members of their own teams who don’t take all the tin, should be the valued the highest, not the ones who were the most ferocious competitively (although they can be all of those things; few are).

I find it amazing how important this activity is to me. I’m not even really sure why, to tell you the truth. It’s not rational. Oh, well…

Tying it up

From Ryan:

1. It's certainly true that *my* aesthetic preference is for NDT over parli/PF, but I also recognize that many people have a different aesthetic preference, which doesn't go away, and hence keep creating these events when their former events turn into NDT-style debate.

2. Ever-shrinking-policy: part of this is the high-overhead environment, and part of it is presumably resultant from the splintering of events. If your aesthetic preference is policy, policy may accommodate that best, but LD can do it without the hassle of a partner and until recently the necessity to fly tubs. That becomes self-reinforcing as smaller communities have to fly more. Also, the sortof kids and schools who now do PF used to do local-traditional policy, and thus be counted in the policy numbers and sometimes developed their own pathways to the circuit. In other words, think of creating new lower-overhead debate events as a kind of redistribution, with some efficiency cost.

3. So what does that look like? First, I want to be clear about my rhetoric: some redistribution is worth doing, if it keeps the peace and increases overall engagement. Second, while my comments about parli may have been somewhat disparaging, I don't think it's value-less, and PF with adults doing the judging and tamping down the drinking may be rather more so. The trick is how to avoid bifurcation, with the kids who want to put in more effort going to camp, then pushing the bounds of high-overhead debate and pushing for judges who let them do that. If those kids don't get those judges, they're cranky. If they do, their opponents are cranky. PF is already seeing these tensions.

Well, the high school debate event that has totally avoided the NDT-track is congress. Why? Well, topics change constantly, so camps focus more on general speaking and research ability than 'winning' debates, judge intervention is institutionalized and expected (your speech will rate lower if you say dumb things, even if no later speech addresses this) and perhaps most fundamentally it's ranked rather than win/lose, which makes the intervention more appropriate and less galling. The trouble with congress is that (like college parli) the students write the topics which are often poor and long chains of unaffiliated debaters have little incentive to engage the topics deeply, so debates are terminally boring.

Proposal: British parli, with extemp topics, and no limits on outside resources (like extemp). Debaters and teams are ranked, like congress, with similar judging norms. Topics change by the round, so camps are out of the picture. Eight speeches per debate, rather than 38, make debates more tractable, focused, and interesting, with defined speaker responsibilities. Also, if congress and PF can both be folded in, and extempers feel free to join occasionally, we get some of that natural strength in numbers, with real local/regional circuits. The educational value of an extemp-debate hybrid should be clear.

I know proposing a whole new/consolidated event seems like a difficult/expensive solution to an event's internal problems, but I really think PFD is headed right down the same rails as LD and Policy before it. Even those who share that aesthetic preference, like me, should resist that because it further segments those who want to do NDT-style debate and locks out those who don't.

There's not much more to say on this, I think. The real issue at the end, following Ryan's thinking, is Parli in HS forensics (an event about which I know virtually nothing). They offer it at Yale, and I've looked at getting it into Princeton, but at almost any existing venue, space limitations rule the roost, and short of dropping an existing activity, there's nowhere to put a new one. And that's just the beginning of the problems with seriously supporting a new activity.

I wonder if it could ever really happen.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ryan again

I just want to bring his comment up to the fore, where it belongs.

1. PFD/lay judges: you're right that some simple training measures could do wonders for ballots in novice or lopsided rounds. But in more complicated rounds, there's no way to fairly adjudicate (and communicate that adjudication) without a rigorous flow, and that's not something that can easily be self-taught or learned in a few minutes. There are a lot of speeches in a PF round, which makes keeping track of arguments harder, and being able to make new args/responses later in the round actually makes that task harder, not easier. Nobody thinks figure skating or gymnastics would be equally well judged by people who didn't see many performances; why claim the same about debate? At the high level of any activity, discriminating performances is hard.

2. Traditional judges. Of course there are 'traditional' judges who are highly experienced and write good ballots, but the correlation between circuity judges and better ballots is not thereby merely accidental or extrinsic. "Traditional" is one way of saying "interventionary" and it's a pretty broad-brush and unclear kind of intervention at that. I don't think it's any worse that circuity judges whose paradigms say they "disregard theory," but both are really aesthetic preferences driving intervention. The latter is just more recent (and if I had to guess, will die sooner) and so less clarified as a block of judges. The more that you signal your willingness to intervene, and the broader-brush your criteria for intervention are, the harder it is to know how to win the ballot.

For the no-theory judge, does that mean if your opponent runs an abusive case, you should too, to highlight the absurdity? If the judge intervenes against abusive cases, how abusive is abusive?

For the "go slow" judge, how slow is slow? If they're not flowing and penalizing dropped arguments, then we're back to lay adjudication. If they are, then what's the threshold at which they intervene against speed? And it can't be just "when they yell clear, that's the limit" because case structures and rebuttal structures depend on time allocation in advance.

So sure, some people who prefer slower debate or debate sans-theory have an absolute advantage in front of such judges (or even just an aesthetic preference for those debates) and so will or should pref such judges. And some judges, because of school affiliation, competitive success, or other factors manage to have fairly interventionist paradigms for a while and still be broadly preffed. But fundamentally, signaling "I intervene" and especially "I intervene on broad and loosely defined criteria" is a way of saying "it's hard to know how to win in front of me, and the ballot I write probably won't clarify that."

3. Camps: camps are driven by the literature and by trying to help debaters improve. Evidence and practice is what they get paid for. Insofar as the real-world discussion on many topics is often quite meta (critical legal studies, etc) and clear tips for improvement rely on non-intervention, which thereby allows meta-argumentation, you get meta-argumentation. So it's not just that camps happened to teach a certain style of argumentation, and people then wanted judges who appreciated that style: it's that there's a deep cultural link between those practices and clear ballots.

4. Aesthetics. This is a real conundrum for people who want some kind of educational or aesthetic norm for debate other than the one they're getting. If you don't intervene, you get the NDT. If you intervene, you get something like parli, where investment is low (no hotels, no coaches, no camps--travel is at least as much about friends and destination tourism as debate), drinking is high, and winning is based on natural talent and a bit of luck. It's just not clear how to incentivize work without tying that work to the ballot, which is where the tin comes from.

On facts, agree pretty much. And I have no argument against the nature of what Ryan explains is good debate judging. But I disagree on the desirability of all of this in PF. Not that I don't suggest PF judges shouldn't flow, but we've already seen two debate events, LD and Policy, set participation limits based on running material at high speed that untrained listeners wouldn't be able to understand even if they knew what was being said. The train has left the proverbial station on these two events. Whether or not LD is shrinking or will shrink in participation as a result, my assumption is that that is the case, but I do not have specific facts, but there is no question that policy has shrunk dramatically, and that there are demonstrable links between that shrinkage and the activity's evolving arcaneness and speed. Further, when debate is about debate, while it may be a fine intellectual exercise in many ways, it is jejune in many others, another aspect of that arcaneness I was talking about. Again, I do not challenge the educational value of any of this, but I see no reason why all debate activities ought to be allowed to evolve the same way, if that way ultimately limits participation by students or judges. Why shouldn't there be a debate activity judged by reasonably intelligent people prepared to judge that debate? I mean, by all expectations, the moment we remove parent judging from PF, it turns into Policy with a revolving door on topics (and then before you know it, we start using the January topic in February and March and April leading up to TOC, similar to what we do in LD. If the March-April LD topic were paid on a per-use basis, it wouldn't be able to put food on the table!) And, of course, speed restraints will immediately go out the window. PF was an event born in the idea of its accessibility; is that idea now wrong? The big thing lay judging does is pretty much keep PF where it is today. Benefits: high school debate accessible to more students, parents (the good will of whom is important) can become useful assets to a team, administrations watching a debate can actually understand it and see where their money is going, entry level costs are minimal and, because of parent judging, remain lower than other debate formats. Negatives: PF doesn't get, in a classic rhetoric sense, as good as it can get. So the question becomes, is our goal to develop ideal debate formats, or good ways of getting kids in high school to debate? Given that, with LD and Policy, we seem to be on that dialectic path to ideal debate formats, I like keeping an activity for the rest of us. I like keeping all the activities, for that matter. Life is a banquet, as Auntie Mame would say.

Still, as I have said, I certainly agree that PF judges need to do a good job within the boundaries of not giving up their day jobs. They should flow. By the same token, PF debaters should recognize who's judging them and debate accordingly. Is a public speaking activity geared to the listeners of that activity is somehow a wrongheaded idea? As much as I appreciate that the skills involved in high level LD and Policy are useful and for life, they must first be translated into the rest of a person's existence, given that as far as I know there are few forums for discussion exactly like a fast LD or Policy round. On the other hand, there are plenty of forums for uses of speaking skills exactly the same as in a PF round. I have spent my entire career convincing people of one thing or another, or not, and watching others do likewise. Those are direct PF skills.

You know what I think the biggest problem with PF is? Maintaining a "mass market" debate event in the present environment we've created of high maintenance debate.

It's heating up. Sigh.

Good grief: Countdown to Doom!

On the other hand, nothing is ever wasted. Look over at the right-hand column, second item down. It would seem as if there is a widget for everything, and I, for one, am not above stooping to borrow it.

The Twitterverse is beginning to pop now, with all sorts of people announcing how they're about to swoop down on poor, innocent Kentucky. Then the TOC is offering advice like, get some sleep when you're here (presumably not during rounds, unless you're judging).

I have more to say about TOC, but I've got a comment from Ryan that I'll respond to first tonight, as it's probably much more interesting (at least to me and Ryan).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Batten down the debate hatches: It's TOC time.

This is the point, of course, when TOC takes over the conversation, seeing as the festivities commence this Saturday. Some people will arrive way early and stake out war rooms from which they will seldom emerge. Some teams will have young assistant coaches assigned to nothing but research, cutting cards virtually 24/7. Some teams will have scouts above and beyond their judging obligations, doing nothing but scoping out the most likely competition. Some teams will break case after case during the event to attempt to bar these machines from breaking down and destroying their cases. Some confident folks will publish their cases on the interwebs and thumb their noses at any attempts to shake them from their commitment to what they have developed over the last few months (or in the case of policy, the whole last year).

Winning any tournament is a big deal. Winning a national tournament is a much bigger deal, and at this point, the measure of the deal boils down to the nature of one’s forensic religion. TOC, of course, is the orthodoxy of the $ircuit debaters. Most people who are there have heavily invested in their debate experiences in both work and time and money, especially the latter. Anyone can work hard and often, but it takes a bankroll to travel to bid tournaments. I wonder if occasionally people get a little too wrapped up in the whole seeking of bids business, but in general I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, in moderation. So a high school kid flies off to Timbuktu a couple of times a year for an intense tournament and misses a few days of school? Why not? (Every weekend, and you miss more school than you attend? In that case, why?) Nice work if you can get it, I say. Of course, there’s many reasons why, for the most part, it’s the same schools traveling to Kentucky year after year, and funding, however it is achieved (and this might be endowments and it might also be vigorous fundraising), is only one of them. Solid coaching committed to the TOC goal is another one. Smart kids is another one; one wonders about the socio-economic makeup of a lot of the regular schools (especially if one is me, who sees classism as a real and occasionally problematic aspect of American society). There’s exceptions to all of this, of course, but let’s face it: TOC is a club with a fairly regular membership, and like any club, there are reasons some people are members and other people are not. Don’t get me wrong; I was actively there year after year for a decade or so, so I’m not condemning it. I’m just pointing out that it is what it is.

We will now start seeing endless reports of people prepping for, traveling to, arriving at, debating/judging/coaching at, winning or losing at, politicking at, eating grits and ribs at, congratulating themselves or others at, traveling home from, getting stranded at at least one airport and perhaps suffering through a severe epidemic of ribose-5-phosphate isomerase deficiency. The social networks will bore you to tears with it, even if you happen to care about it. The perennial whiners will complain in their perennially whiny way, explaining to us the horror of having kids at TOC forcing them to—gasp—do their jobs and coach, while the cockeyed optimists will glow from the internal radiation of being close to debate ground zero, forgetting to repeat to themselves, It's only a debate tournament, It's only a debate tournament. Unfortunately we will not hear too much about the vicious internal politics of the advisory committees, the tribal conflicts practically leading to fisticuffs among the loving and gentle PF coaches, the total abandonment of civilized life of the policians who will stop sleeping today until their elimination Monday. (Presumably the Congressfolk have their issues too, but, being Congressfolk, they don’t really make it into the headlines much.) So you might want to turn off Facebook and Twitter for a while. Definitely you don’t want to see which grits and ribs your Foursquare contacts are slobbering over. Mark those debate sites in your RSS feed as read without looking at them.

This would be a good weekend to do Bioshock: Infinity. It’s not like there’s anything else to grab your attention.

More articles we [did not] [had to] finish reading

These headlines are all real, directly copied from our RSS feed without editing.

First, the did-nots.
  • Gene Simmons producing Kiss and Hello Kitty mashup for 'My Little Pony' network
  • Why I Study Duck Genitalia
  • Slavoj Žižek Discusses Philosophy, Topless in Bed (And So On and So On)
  • Bizarre Portraits Of Man Holding Dead Animals In His Mouth
  • Half A Million's Worth Of Rhino Heads Stolen From Ireland's National Museum
On the other hand, a couple of articles that had to read:
  • ‘Kim Jong-un's Less Responsible, Disney-Obsessed Older Brother
  • Durex Unveils New iPhone-Controlled Vibrating Underwear For Couples
  • Super Horrific Brazilian Thing: Tattooing Your Eyeballs Black

Monday, April 22, 2013

More meditation

Ryan Miller responded to my thoughts from last week:

As a late 90's LDer, I don't buy your story. I hated pomo, hated theory, didn't enjoy more than middling speed...but I slowly began to go to tournaments where opponents used (and judges accepted) such tools *because I wanted intelligible ballots.*

Lay judges may be fine at deciding who won the round, and you're right that the whole architecture around them is much lower-overhead, but they basically don't ever give you specific, concrete advice about what to do differently in order to win. The PF ballots my kids get never tell us anything we didn't already know.

So, I guess I've argued this before, but what you get out of the high-overhead system is clear RFDs without intervention, and almost all of its costs are a direct result of that benefit.

Which is not really to disagree with much of anything you've said--there's a place for both kinds of debate, to be sure, and always will be. But I think it does give a clearer picture of why, as debaters and coaches get serious about trying to win, and want to see returns on expensive investments like camp, they gravitate toward the high-overhead environment. Then the community bifurcates and hates itself, and the NFL introduces a new debate event.

Ryan raises a lot of issues I could argue with, but I think more importantly he is pointing to something that I didn’t think of when I was writing that post, and I think he’s right about it. The last time I went to TOC, with the Panivore, JWP spoke during the Breakfast of Champions (which was also called the “Oh, That’s What Grits Are Do I Have to Eat Them?” gala, and which I gather has been toned down a bit under new management), and he mentioned that one of the guiding ideas behind creation of the TOC was that people would go to camps and learn how to debate a certain way, and the TOC (and by association, the tournaments leading up to it) would allow them to do that style of debate in the real world. By the same token, they would get adjudication that matched their style. They could debate the way they wanted to, and get judged on their merits in those debates. Needless to say, the influence of the TOC has been transcendent over the years. As Ryan says, people want to see a return on their expensive investments; God knows that people pay plenty for what he calls the high-overhead environment and what I’ve always called the $ircuit. Same animal, no matter what you call it.

Ryan and I have in the past had disagreements of the value of esoteric criticism (applied to films, in a fun exchange a while ago), but not a lot of disagreement on what it is and how it works. This coincides with my proselytizing for MJP. What I see in LD at most big tournaments, with include a range of styles and interests, is a dichotomy in preference between experienced circuit judges and local old-fashioned judges, with a bunch of folks no one knows who they are, plus the odd parent, tossed down toward the bottom. That is, people rank their favorites, circuit or traditional, as 1s and 2s—excluding those folks who claim to have figured out some way to game the system, which I don’t necessarily disbelieve but I certainly wouldn’t have the patience to try it, and given that almost inevitably people get their 1s and occasionally their 2s, I can’t imagine what the value of some other bizarre schema might be—their unfavorites 4s and 5s, and they cross off the wild cards or true stinkers as strikes. Most of the time, as I say, this means that you’re getting your 1s or occasionally your 2s, but there are pairings that are just murder, when a school hell-bent on circuit prefs hits a school hell-bent on traditional prefs. I know who these schools are and dread finding good fits for their judging. Maybe these are the ones “gaming” us. There’s no question that they’re the ones getting 3s and 4s on a fairly regular basis. Their outround panels look like higher math: most panels go out with prefs totaling 3 or 4, and then these awkward pairings get 10s. Hey, it’s your prefs. All I can vouch for is their mutuality.

Anyhow, in keeping with Ryan’s thoughts, MJP does allow people to seek out, find and pref the judges who provide what they are looking for, in his case, useful ballots with RFDs that can be directed toward winning future rounds. My brief has always been that, if schools disinclined to pref actually did pref more often, they would pull up the level of the traditional judges in the pool, and thus maintain some of the old-fashioned debate styles that are perhaps disappearing in the increasingly isolated circuit environment. There’s nothing that says that a traditional judge can’t write a solid RFD.

But that’s not really the issue, and Ryan does point out a real problem that we have, the relative uselessness of a lot of PF ballots. To some extent this is endemic to the activity, and deliberate, but still, it’s not desirable and it’s not necessary. There are a handful of instructions I like to give the PF pool when I have the opportunity, but I don’t always have that opportunity and certainly at most tournaments there is no attempt made whatsoever to train the judges. Frankly, I have always maintained that the teams should train their own damned judges, but there are plenty of teams out there who wrangle a parent or two for chaperones and give them no help whatsoever in the activity that they know perfectly well and in which they could easily instruct these parents. I know, for instance, that the NFL has a handout for how to judge PF, and it’s quite good. Would it kill people to give it to the PF judges in advance?

Here’s the thing. In tab, I don’t see a lot of hoo-ha over LD. Issues might arise, but for the most part they are technical and non-activity related. And, as I say, they’re rare. In PF, on the other hand, it’s still the Wild West, and it wouldn’t be a tournament if there wasn’t at least one serious complaint about something derived from the event itself, not to mention a slew of complaints about the behavior of teams/coaches/judges. Get a grip, people!

The issue going forward is not where LD is or where it is headed; I think that’s already been determined by all the factors involved in its evolution until now. PF, on the other hand, needs to settle down a tad. It needn’t go the same route as its debate predecessors, but it does need to serious itself up a bit. It’s up to all of us to do something about this. I’m not quite sure what, at the moment.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Musings on debate

I was reading some LD cases on the good old case wiki, which demonstrates beyond any measure how I don’t have enough hours in the day to do all the things I shouldn’t be doing. (It was either that or buy an Xbox, and I figure I can wait for the 720 at this point, having slept entirely through the 360. It’s that damned Bioshock game. It’s almost enough to get me to gear up, but with a new generation coming down the pike, I just can’t justify it.)

Anyhow, reading the cases, and meanwhile following this and that on the old interwebs, got me to thinking about one of the great conundrums of debate. At some point, if we allow it to happen, debate moves away from the content of resolutions into the meta world of debate itself, at which point it becomes a wholly separate entity from anything other than itself. (CP has discussed this phenomenon as a universal one beyond just the debate community.) For us this is not a simple progression of content per se, and in fact, it would seem that some of the drivers have nothing to do with what’s written in a case but instead things like how it’s researched or how it’s delivered or how it’s judged.

If we were to look at some theoretical state of educational nature before the invention of high school forensics, we would have to assume that the introduction of debate into curricula was intended to serve some specific and obvious purpose or purposes. If high schools exist to prepare one either for employment or higher education, than those purposes should be commensurate with one or both of these. If we assume (and frankly, I can vouch for this from personal recollection) that early debate required general research skills at the local library that essentially led to copying information from magazine articles onto index cards, and straightforward far-from-fast presentation skills, and logic and arguing skills, and adjusting to partnerships, and intellectual competition as compared to (or in addition to) athletic competition, then we can see how debate allowed high schools to fulfill their goals of preparation for the future. The skills learned from debate might be more obviously useful in a college environment than in employment not requiring a college education, but even if, say, one were heading off after high school to be a chef or racecar driver or a florist, there are probably situations where having learned to research a little and speak a little and deal with others and compete with grace would not be a bad thing.

We all know the saga of policy debate, an activity in which, as I parenthetically alluded above, I was a participant back in the day when there were still mastodons roaming the earth. We slowly and carefully created cases from the research available, then presented them with vigor and efficiency, and my partner Brian and I did pretty well, and the way I remember it, anybody’s great-grandparent would have been perfectly capable of adjudicating the rounds we were in. There was nothing about them that required special knowledge. The debaters needed to learn about the subject area, and then they needed to present logically and to rebut and refute carefully and clearly. We would be judged on our merits, and that would be the end of that.

The theory is that it was the Xerox machine that marked the first step on the road to today’s policy. The ability to quickly collect great masses of evidence led from those great masses of evidence to a need to get that evidence into cases, thus evolving the need for speed. If anything, computer resources allow us to collect even greater masses of evidence, as we are no longer limited to the number of Rubbermaid tubs we can fit on the bus. The increase in speed limited the number of people capable of adjudicating the rounds, meaning that the judge pool was technically circumscribed to folks who themselves were capable of generating that speed, i.e., debaters or former debaters. At the point where the only people in the room were heavily invested in debate at the most basic level, meaning that they had mastered not only the material but the methods, the participants were enabled not only to develop incredibly deep lines of research analysis, but also complicated lines of logic and argumentation, as well as proposing philosophical, ethical and political theories far beyond the core of the standard content of the days pre-speed. Simply put, the average person of high IQ and vast knowledge stumbling for the first time into a high-level policy round today wouldn’t have a clue what was happening; on top of that, if it were slowed down to average speed, that person still wouldn’t have a clue what was happening.

One must keep in mind that, despite is arcaneness, this policy debate fulfills all the educational goals originally imagined in the state of educational nature, unless one were to include persuasive oratory as one of those goals. (Public speaking and learning to do it comfortably can, I think, be presumed as a lesson learned, even if it is at great speed. Overcoming nerves of being on stage is mostly removed from the content of what one is doing on that stage.) Research, logic, intelligent competition—they’re all there. To suggest that this version of policy does not prepare one for the real world, or does so less effectively than the original slow versions of policy, would be wrong. It’s pretty much doing the exact same thing, only via different methodology. The effects are the same, short of, as I say, general public speaking skills.

But there is one very steep price that policy pays for its arcaneness: the mastery of its arcane arts becomes progressively more difficult and, more to the point, limited. As a result, while there is still plenty of policy in high school, one doesn’t have to look far to see that there’s a lot less than there used to be. And it’s no great stretch to suggest that a school wanting to start up a debate program, if it wants to do policy, will have to find someone already versed in all the arcaneness of policy, whereas if that school does PF, it can rope in just about any social studies teacher with a little ambition. I’m not suggesting that I think policy is going away any time soon, because there is, I think (and hope) a good solid core, especially around my region where the Urban Debate Leagues are very active. But it’s not in any sort of growth cycle, and it’s never again going to be. We have few invitationals in the region that even offer policy anymore; schools that want to debate policy must of necessity travel vast distances and incur higher expenses than schools around here that want to debate PF. This is not to suggest that we should make a value judgment that PF is therefore somehow better than policy, but it is unquestionable that it is more accessible and more available. These are matters of fact, and I think they’re indisputable.

Obviously, LD has gone down a similar path to policy, although I think the order of things isn’t quite the same. I’m just thinking out loud here, but I wonder if the creation of a cadre of the arcane preceded the speed in LD. One thing that is clear is that, in the 90s, it was not terribly unusual to see lay judges in important LD rounds. Like me, for instance. I had a fairly long apprenticeship in the activity before I seriously began coaching, and during those years I judged a lot, I would claim that my first learning was from all that judging. My presence was not unusual (although the fact that I wouldn’t go away was not the norm, as most lay judges disappear when their kids do). Parents were not the vast majority of judges, as they seem to be in PF, but they were not unusual, and more to the point, they were not balkanized to the extent that they are today. At the time, there was no reason to vilify them, because if they had the proverbial brain in the head, they could adequately judge a round. You didn’t have to know anything special to do it (which is one of the things I say now to PF judges in their training). Although the debaters might talk quickly, that was their problem and not yours, and if they had any sense, they would recognize you as a lay judge and would slow down. I’m not quite sure what the mechanics of change were precisely, but I suspect it was the introduction of pomo into LD about a decade ago. College students were being introduced to this material for the first time and found it intriguing (even though, apparently, it had pretty much run its course in academia). The old ethicists and Enlightenment folk were pretty straightforward thinkers, and even if you had never heard of Locke or Mill, you could get the gist of their thinking easily enough into a round and proceed accordingly. One could divide actions in deontological and consequential, and that was good enough and simple enough. But once you started seriously proposing Nietzsche as providing ethical structure for argumentation, you were a long way from something that could fit easily into a round, and a short way from bringing in everybody up to and including Derrida. Needless to say, this material was never really worth much in a short constructive case, because even if you accept the thinking and assume that it has argumentative value, it was too complex to do much more than assert a few things and hope that your audience already had some sense of the Lacans and Lyotards and Peirces and the like so that you could drop a few hints in “evidence” and then proceed from there. In other words, your audience already had to be initiated into your underlying assumptions for those assumptions to make any sense. (I never could buy into that myself. The fact that I probably knew a lot more about these folks than any debater I ever heard spouting them didn’t mean I was going to give them a free ride, that by uttering the shibboleth “Derrida,” say, I would grant you textual deconstruction without your having to explain it. Debaters, of course, when they lost on this stuff, blamed their judges’ ignorance.)

At around about the same time, framework became more important in LD. Your judging audience who knew the people you were citing were also drawn from serious debate circles and like their policy predecessors were interested in the heuristics of debate. Even the NFL finally came out and said that LDers needed to have values in their cases (and that there was no presumption for either side, which may be the number one most ignored “rule” in all of LD, other than the need for both sides to have advocacies, which at least most people have the good grace to argue against rather than to presume against). The use of theory in debate is an example of this interest in exactly how a debate is being conducted. On the one hand, many theory arguments are useful in handling silly or abusive material, against which in the past one was sort of beholden to the wit and wisdom of a judge agreeing that something was silly or abusive. Theory could provide a real method of addressing that material. But on the other hand, theory does not of necessity have to address a true foul. When it simply addresses procedure, it is merely another argument, another tool in the proverbial rhetoric toolbox.

At this point, LD debate moves away from being about the resolution, and one is as likely as not to have a round where the resolution never seriously plays into the decision-making calculus or in much of the argumentation. A side can argue prima facie why they ought to win on face and spend the rest of their time explaining it in detail. More to the point, reasonable people adjudicating the round will accept this as valid LD. Meanwhile, of course, for whatever reason (perhaps because even back in the 90s resolutions were moving away from philosophical to real-world issues, and following that the need to condense On The Genealogy of Morals into a two minute card) speed has also taken over the rounds, almost at the same rate as policy rounds. In a word, LD’s evolution has emulated policy’s. They remain different beasts, but insofar as they are arcane and impenetrable to outsiders, as much about themselves as about their ostensible content, and as far as possible from the original intention of any proverbial founders, they are one and the same.

The question is, so what? Am I suggesting some error here, that the path is somehow wrong, that a different direction be taken? After all, I’ve conceded that the skills of present-day policy are unquestionably useful, and one could infer a similar concession on my part with LD. So what’s the problem?

There isn’t one, really. I’m not suggesting that we are in some sort of dire straits with LD and that we must fight our way out of it. Honestly, I’m perfectly content not to be able to walk into a high-level round and be able to make heads nor tails of it. I’m obviously amused by the fact, but I’m not terribly torn apart by it. My role in debate these days in not in the back of the room in LD rounds, and I’ve redirected my team in general into PF. I don’t really have a horse in the race, so to speak.

My guess is that we will see a similar balkanization of LD as we have with policy, with less general interest in the high school community, but that it will continue to have its place and to be quite popular with schools seriously pursuing a certain level of debate participation. But I would imagine that PF will become (if it isn’t already) the main debate high school activity. The event has plenty of flaws, but at the moment, the fact that it is judged more often than not by lay judges or coaches of a decidedly non-“progressive” state of mind, and that the topic changes so frequently that even before you’ve debated the last one the next one has come out, it’s probably got a good chance of not going down the same path any time soon. This will require some effort on the back end as well, though. We probably shouldn’t introduce all kinds of restrictions into the judging pool, for one thing. While I’m the world’s greatest advocate of MJP in LD, I think it would be the kiss of death in PF because it would be a tool to isolate and promote arcane judges, and I’ve already shown where that leads. I don’t mind a couple of strikes, but that’s it. The PF community also has to get its act together in some of the rules and instructions to judges. I may be wrong on this, but I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling about PF coaches playing nice with one another all the time. Maybe it’s because it’s still a relatively new event. I don’t know. Or maybe I’m wrong. There’s also the questions of evidentiary honesty and procedures, and the general nastiness of a lot of rounds, the latter not being something coaches seem to work against. (When I give PF training, I tell the parents point blank that if a team acts like a couple of sons of bitches, they should pay the price for it.)

Granted all these issues in the last paragraph about PF are more asserted than proven, but this is just a think piece. My thinking can easily be wrong. But it is what it is.

I'm enjoying watching all of this play out.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fresh from the recording booth

I guess yesterday threw all of us for a loop. I mean, in our forensics universe, Boston looms way large, so immediate fears were for people we might know, quickly giving way to fears for people we don't know. And then anger. Life is tough enough without this sort of thing going on. Damn.

Still, something like this happens and then we get back to business. What else can we do?

I was going to post this yesterday, but I thought I'd give it a rest for a day. But now, as I say, back to business. It's from the annals of things that, if I had thought about it a little more, I would have expected exactly this outcome:

I motivated myself to get that first chapter of The House on Summer Street recorded over the weekend. It’s been a while, let me tell you. But the old microphone wasn’t far away, and after a little poking about in Audacity, I was ready to go. Then I opened the book, and read through the first chapter to reorient myself, and, good grief, I really enjoyed it. I like Ben, the narrator, and his voice is fun. And then I did the recording, and this is where, if I had thought about it, I would have expected the outcome. First, there are still the tiniest of textual errors, despite having combed through this thing like crazy innumerable times, and you catch them when you’re reading it aloud because they’re not misspellings but real words albeit the wrong words, like Dan for Dad, or there’s a comma where there should be a period. Easy stuff to miss when you’re proofing because the mind tricks you into seeing what should be there. Second, I really enjoyed myself as I was recording, and despite the amount of work involved, now I really want to do an audio of the whole book.

That’ll kill a few hours.

I had second thoughts when I went back to edit it. Do I really want to devote this much time to a recording? I have no idea what to do with the audio after I record it. As I said, I’ll use the first chapter as a teaser. But the whole thing? I just don’t know. I really can't sell it, and I don't mind giving it away, but I’m not exactly sure how. I don’t want to make it too easy for people, because I’d rather they read it that listen to it, but I don’t want to make it too hard, either. Oh, well. I’ll figure out something, if I do the whole thing.

On the forensic front, it was a rather successful weekend for the Sailors, winning not one but two divisions at the NYSFL championships. And both the winners made it to finals in their other event. Jeesh. I’m going to start taking coaching credit for our Speecho-Americans, rather than letting Spons, the speech coach, take it all for herself, even if I have nothing much to do with it. I mean, I do all the hard stuff. I entered them into the tournament on tabroom.com, for instance; that alone is worth something. And I ordered the bus! And I stayed out of their way with great efficiency the rest of the time; isn’t there a reward for that?

Of course, that pretty much puts paid to the Sailor year, except that both these guys are going to CatNats next month. And it’s still only April. I guess I will have plenty of time to do all the recording I want to do of Summer Street.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Back to Summer Street.

After you actually have everything finished as far as the work itself is concerned, there’s the problem of getting it where people can read it. You’ve got to sell it. Which raises the first question, sell it for how much?

I’ve been conflicted here, because the bottom line is that I don’t expect to sell a bazillion copies, nor do I expect to make a bazillion dollars. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” is what Dr. Johnson said, and he’s probably right, but when push comes to shove, I think I’d rather side with the blockheads of life. At the same time, I already give away a bunch of writing, and I want to differentiate this from the freebies. People tend to assign values to items commensurate with their costs, which is unfortunate but something that must be considered. If I were to give the book away, it would not be valued particularly highly. If I were to sell it, people would think that it's worth more than if it were free.

So what should an ebook book cost? More specifically, an ebook by me? Well, I think it should be reasonable enough to qualify as a non-thought purchase. That is, I want people to buy it but not have to think twice about the price. If it were $15, say, that puts it into the category of the average big book by a big name. I don’t want to compete with that, and at the same time, when an ebook costs that much, I have second thoughts myself (even though I have nothing against paying $20 for the same book as a hardcover: the math of personal buying is an elusive beast). For Summer Street, I’m thinking somewhere ranging between $3 and $5, leaning toward the lower figure. Given that a third of any revenue goes to Amazon, I’ll never get rich at that rate. But as I already suggested, I didn’t write it to get rich. For that matter, I don’t think I have it in me to write to get rich. I write to write. What can I say?

After that, there’s the matter of publicizing it. Just making a book available does nothing to sell it, unless you are so sought after that people have been panting heavily since your last book for this one to come out. There are mere handfuls of writers in that category. For everyone else, you’ve got to let readers know its there. Honestly, I’m not looking forward to this part. I guess I’ll have to honk it on Facebook and Twitter, to the people to whom I’m already connected, a handful of whom might be moved to actually purchase it. I’ll sort of have to become the book for a while, with the image of the cover all over everything I do. Which is why the cover is so important. It is your core selling tool.

I’ve also figured I’ll record a little bit of it and give that away. Maybe the first chapter or so. I may not be the world’s greatest reader, but I’m not the world’s worst, and I certainly have a lot of experience performing Nostrum episodes. If I can handle the less than timeless prose of Jules and the Nostrumite, I ought to be able to handle my own. That, in fact, is my next step in the process, and I hope to get it done in the next week or two. I just need an afternoon alone at the Chez; the microphone is already set up to go. All I have to do is turn it on.

I may or may not be much of a writer; that’s for others to decide. But I know that I’m not an entrepreneur. Some people are born salesmen. I am anything but. But I’ve got to sell Summer Street, and I’ll do what I can.

Bear with me.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The tournaments duke it out

The other big event this weekend, aside from the NYSFL finals, is the NDCA tournament. I have to admit that this is an animal on which I do not yet have a good fix.

I attended a couple of times, first with the People’s Champion and the Panivore in Scranton, and then just with me (but that one was in Las Vegas, so it was hard to turn down). I’ve been a member of the organization for a few years now, but I can’t say I get a terrible lot out of it. News does come down the pike about tournaments and the like on their listserver, and occasionally there’s some obscure discussion on some policy issue in which some yabbo says something controversial and then the usual suspects who were born not to shut up say everything they possibly can about it and then it goes away. I find it doesn’t hold my interest much, but then again, I’m not doing anything to make it better, as I tend to keep my own counsel (or, more to the point, I vent my spleen on my own turf, i.e., here). They maintain some general resources on their site, but again, that’s mostly policy. Come to think of it, having attended the tournament now a few times, it does seem like a mostly policy organization.

(Not to change the subject, but does the expression “vent one’s spleen” have any medical context aside from the obvious metaphorical context? Can you go to the doctor’s office and have your spleen vented, the same way you can have them, say, clean out your ears? I should ask next time I’m there. I once had a friend, by the way, who used to have his ears cleaned out every six months. I went to the ear doctor last year to complain that everyone in the world seems to be talking softer all of a sudden, and he used that ear-cleaner on me, and I have to admit, it was sort of cool. Made it feel like there was a leaf-blower cleaing out your brain. I’d like to feel what it’s like if they did that to my spleen.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do get the sense that the NDCA tournament is primarily a policy affair, much as the organization as a whole is primarily polician, and it is essentially a reaction to TOC. The TOC went on for years (and years, and years) rather unchanged, an apparent monarchy but probably more of an oligarchy, where if you didn’t like the way things were done, you were out of luck. (Things have opened up quite a bit lately under new management, I gather, but I can’t speak to this much from personal observation.) If nothing else, the great expense of TOC had to be a burden, especially if you added in the occasional at-large application. The policy side of NDCA, although to my eyes it looks a lot like the policy side of TOC in terms of attendees, is thriving. The LD and PF sides, on the other hand, are, while far from competitively easy, not terribly large. The LD community seems to be sticking with the TOC, and I do think at some point a lot of programs must make a choice; the events are weeks apart and require great planning and travel and expense no matter how you slice them. How many schools can reasonably and regularly attend both without an enormous financial machine and lots of available personnel? Why the LD community has stuck and why the policy community has drifted, I don’t know and can’t venture a guess. As for the PF community, well, they’re still new, and there’s a logic in their throwing their support to the older more established organization as they try to get themselves more established (although I would imagine that at this point there are few people left who disparage PF as a worthless newcomer, given its great popularity around the country).

This is one of those dramas that continues to be played out, that might be terminal. I don’t know if these head-on competing annual final tournaments of presumably the best debaters can both continue over the long term. If I had to choose between them, I don’t know which I would pick. With the Panivore, we just attended both, but the NDCA was close enough that we could drive, which meant it really didn’t hit the bottom line that much. If I could only attend one, assuming that, as is most likely in the future, it would be in PF? Tough question. A really, really tough question. At the moment, I’m glad I don’t have to answer it.

Coachean Feed: The economics of males, gay scouting, cosmopolitanism, politically correct language and fallacious logic applied to same sex marriage

More links of interest to the debate community.

Annette mysteries

We have had a triple play of recently deceased iconic celebrities: Ebert, Thatcher and Funicello. The usual suspects have written up the appropriate eulogies at great length, and there's not much crossover among them, and I certainly have nothing in particular to add to what's already out there. I was in the great unwashed of Siskel & Ebert watchers and a follower of Ebert ever after, I lived in wide-eyed fear that some day I might come across Margaret Thatcher in the flesh and she would cut my head off with just a look, and I sat in front of our little black&white TV in the '50s and watched as many episodes as I could of "The Mickey Mouse Club." I'm just like everyone else in all of this, and I will miss each of these people accordingly.

One thing that I did see that is unusual is this: Annette Funicello on your Kindle – and more . One does occasionally see these old star-oriented mysteries in antiques shops or even used bookstores. I have to believe that they're absolutely dreadful, but at the same time, I do get kick out of seeing them. Who knew that Annette had her share of them?

Oh, for simpler times...

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Forensics never sleeps (Forensics never sleep? Forensicians never sleep? Whatever.)

I made a note to myself over the weekend while I was doing nothing remotely forensical to get in touch with RJT about the Montwegian tournament. Members of the VCA are well aware that I see this as a real possibility for Academy Debate. It’s almost the perfect weekend for something exclusively for Sophomores and Juniors, following on the heels of the Pup and right before the horror awesomeness of Big Jake. Sophomores at least get their own division in LD at Yale, but for everyone else, it’s a bloodbath. Unless you’re God or His second cousin, you’re not going to break at the Bronx as a sophomore, and more likely than not you’ll hit talent from across the country in the presets who made it to semis at last year’s TOC and has flown in at great expense supported by a dozen private coaches. You have a little bit of a better chance at Yale because of a marginally less strong national draw, but not much. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something you might be able to win on the September-October topic? Throw in a little bit of academic training, maybe units on Nov-Dec in LD, Nov in PF and just the topic in general in Policy, plus a nice welcoming tournament at a reasonable price with good food, and I think you’ve got a winner. I’ve been rather saddened by the abandonment of Monticello by a lot of schools over the years. The tournament itself hasn’t changed much; it’s been a relatively regional event since the beginning, even when it had bids. If we keep pushing that Academy concept, maybe the region will wake up and remember to support itself, especially a school like Monti that supports everyone else week after week after week. If there is an award for Debate Citizenship, Monticello has earned it. I want this tournament back where it used to be, with nice big fields in every division. Anyhow, we’re working on it.

Last night a couple of freshman Speecho-Americans strutted their pre-States stuff over at the Chez. I was impressed. Granted, one of them was doing Dec, which normally would have had me jumping out the window (which isn’t all that big a deal, being that we were on the ground floor), but in this case, it was eye opening. We were already starting to work on moves and see direction for interp events in the future. The other S-A was doing OI, so that meant both prose and poetry, with some real drama in the former that rather blew me away. We are looking good for the future! Plus, of course, I provide a bit of a fresh eye on the pieces, like the judges they’ll perform for this weekend, and that doesn’t hurt. And I got to explain how we vague things at the DJ. That is, I do a lot of cutting of novels, which is like cutting a piece only way longer and they pay me to do it. One big issue in what we do is not to leave clues to what is gone, especially in the passage of time. Perhaps in the original text, five days pass very clearly. In my text, I have all the important action, but the passage of time is now inherent rather than clearly marked (things like, “the next morning”). I have to make sure to eliminate all the markers, so that the reader will know that time has passed, but won’t get hung up on the number of days, which means that things won’t seem to be going by too quickly. It’s a subtle business, and you’ve got to keep an eye on it. Similarly, anything complicated that has been eliminated or that is explained in eliminated text needs to be handled delicately. “He took the third match from the box” makes you wonder about the other two; “He took a match from the box” lets you wonder what he’s going to do with the match. Never give your audience anything that can distract them. It’s a good lesson for freshmen.

We’ve got a strong contingent going to the States tournament, which I have come to see as our local Speech finals. The whole birth of the NYSDCA, chronicled here over the years in excruciating detail, resulted from what some of us feel was an out-of-touch approach to Debate in the existing state league, as compared to their strong in-touch work with Speech. Go figure, but then again, lots of people are Speech and lots of people are Debate, but how many are truly bilingual? Around here, as often as not entire schools only speak one language or the other. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at some point, people who don’t speak Debate should not be legislating Debatism, and people who don’t speak Speech should not be legislating Speechism, and they should know better than to try. There are a few of us who harbor a vision of some grand reunion of the state constituents where everyone is happy, but that will require a little give and take on both sides. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. Maybe we need a whole new generation of regional leadership to affect real change. At the moment, I don’t see that generation rising up, but they’ve got to be there somewhere. As we used to say at an old job I had, you want to feel their hot little footprints on your back. (Actually, back then we didn’t want to feel their hot little footprints on our back, but that was business and this is debate, and they should not be quite the same thing.) Personally, when it comes to the next generation, I’m looking for people who want to tab more than they want to judge, who are actually capable of learning to tab. (There is no dearth of people who simply want to get out of judging.) Of course, the developing system at tabroom.com may eventually remove some of the tedium, but at some point you still need an underlying understanding of pairing and judge assignment beyond just staring at what a program does (especially when the program fails).

Oh, well. As I say, they’re out there somewhere. The reason I want time travel is mostly just to skip ahead a bit and see how everything works out.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Bells ring

If you go on Facebook you’ll see a lot of people eulogizing Billy Tate, who passed away this weekend. I met him a couple of times but did not really know him, but from what I’ve been reading, there is no question that he was a good man with a lot of positive influence over our activity, and that he will be missed. I will admit that for years I had a Goo Goo Cluster in my office at the DJ, direct from his hands, which apparently he gave away like, well, candy. I have to say that it looked sort of dreadful, which is why I never ate it; maybe it was a Southern thing. Come to think of it, Billy did have one gorgeously rich Southern accent. You would never mistake him for a Manhattanite. I also still have in my office (the Goo Goo Cluster is long gone) a little bell with what looks like Aladdin’s lamp on top of it. I just gave it a little ring. Sigh. In our school trophy case there is a Montgomery bell the size of Cleveland from before my time, back in our policy days; it is one of the school’s proudest accomplishments and will probably always remain in that case. This year’s NDCA, coming at the end of this week, is at Tate’s own school, which means that the community will be there in force to give him a fitting sendoff. That is as it should be.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Excel at the DJ

We’ll get back to Summer Street next week. Meanwhile, I’ve been up to my ears in Excel at the DJ. As a general rule, my history in systems remains lost in the Primatene mists, but through a commodius vicus of recirculation I have gotten involved in a music project that has required me to export a very sloppy old db out of Lotus Notes into Excel, which, in non-technical terms, is roughly analogous to translating voice recordings of Prakit into written street slang. Notes is moribund, and those who understand its wiles are all six feet under, at least metaphorically. Excel, on the other hand, can do almost anything, if you’re willing to ignore the various international treaties against torture.

You’ve got this list of 35,000 records out of Notes, once you uncover the fields that had formulas where simple data ought to have been, with a small but annoying number of repeat records with one slight differing field, although all records do have a correct unique identifying number. There’s about 30 fields in each record, including rights information; there’s also attachments. You’ve got this independently generated list of royalties that shows annual income on a daily basis, by id number. You need to figure out how much money can be made by the songs earning income in iTunes that do not have rights restrictions. This means that you have to create a lot of moving targets (i.e., lookups) in a very big sheet that, if you don’t save it every five minutes, will probably crash or at the very least go out of memory on you. As it is, it likes to forget itself on occasion while pretending to be working by turning off the filtering or burying the odd overarching calculation. Cleaning it up means lots of calculating then special pasting as values and then sorting and filtering some more and some more lookups and more pasting. I woke up screaming =IF( a couple of times in the night, thanks to Excel’s tendency, if it doesn’t like the way you’re nesting things (and when it comes to Excel I’m a nesting fool), to switch your formula to =(IF for no apparent reason other than to remind you that some day you will die but Excel is forever.

This has, in other words, kept me busy.

In other news, I updated the Nostrum material on my website. Again. I was looking at it, planning for Series 3, which Jules insists is coming down the pike shortly, and I realized that the layout didn’t make that much sense. The thing is, if you’re going to dive into Nostrum, there’s probably an optimal way to do it, and the way I had it didn’t quite highlight that optimal way. I think it’s better now. I’m not quite sure when the new stuff is coming, so there is maybe a missing piece or two on the site, but assuming that Jules and the Nostrumite are marginally reliable, it’ll be there sooner or later.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The cover takes shape

The House on Summer Street is the story of a boy moving into a new house with his newly remade family. He is on the brink of middle school, and not terribly thrilled by his father’s new wife and her young son. The good news (?) is that the house seems to be haunted.

The house is very clearly described in the book as an old Victorian with a dead willow tree in the front. The title of the book being what it is, one would be hard pressed not to use an image of the house on the cover. Granted that the words and the image would apparently be the same, the words are straightforward and the image can add the necessary air of intrigue to them. A house is a house is a house. A spooky house is something else altogether. So, I had to get myself a spooky old Victorian. I headed over to your friendly neighborhood interwebs.

I looked long and hard for an image that included both the house and the tree, but came up with nothing. Of course, I knew I’d have to Photoshop whatever I came up with, so I separately found, first, a house, and secondly, a tree.

I love that house; I could move in tomorrow. The tree is obviously far from dead, but a little manipulation and I could probably make something of it. I eventually decided, however, that the two together just weren’t going to work. It wasn’t that my ‘shop skills weren’t up to it (although they probably weren’t) so much as my desire for white space as mentioned yesterday, and for keeping the design a rough cousin of Lingo.

So I went to work on the house. I decided I wanted it to look like an old photograph, and before long I realized that I had better tools for that on my iPhone than on my Mac. I dug into Camera+ and iPhoto and Instagram and started playing around. Eventually I came up with this:

This seemed suitably spooky and I put it on the cover like this:

The font looked a little light to me, so I went to this:

I was starting to be bothered that the underlying house image was not one that I owned. Granted, it was virtually unrecognizable, but the VCA knows my feelings about intellectual property, and just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean you can have it for free. So I looked through my own pictures and found this one.

At this point, I was thinking that I needed to experiment with a fuller treatment. So I manipulated the photo:

And then I went whole hog:

Then I tried it with the other image.

I wasn’t satisfied with these visually, but more to the point, they were going too far in a wrong direction. To warrant a cover like these, the book ought to scare you to death and scar you for life, and it’s not that kind of book.

So I went back to my original idea, but this time I manipulated my own photograph:

And went back to, roughly, the original design:

And that’s about it. I may tinker some more, but it does capture the sense of the book well enough, and I doubt if my ‘shop skills could do much more than this sort of approach. I didn’t want it to look too juvenile, because although the hero is young and it probably was directed originally at a young audience, it’s not exclusively YA, and I think this fits the bill. In the end, should I have hired a designer? Probably. Can I live with this? Sure. It’s better than that crappy Lingo cover that replaced the gorgeous original illustration. And it’s always going to be postage-stamp size on a page here or on Amazon.

It’ll do.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Creating a cover

According to Kindle, the next step after writing your book is to get a cover. Not surprisingly, this is also the next step in general publishing. After a book goes into production and is scheduled for launch, one meets with the art director to decide what it ought to look like. A good art director manages to understand what the editor of the book is talking about, and to translate those words into the sense of some sort of image. Once they agree, an artist is found to whom the art director can now speak directly in images. The art director is the translator, in other words, of the editors’ words into the artists’ images. The art director also has a sense of marketing, of knowing not only what will look good but what will catch the eye of the prospective buyer. We used to say that the cover image was the poster, so to speak, for the book, the only real selling tool most books ever have. It needs to work like a poster, grandly presenting the contents of the book, but it also needs to work like a book cover, i.e., this visual business which will be forever linked to the content (until subsequent editions come along, if any).

Not very many authors are drawn into this process, unless their commercial weight is so great that they can’t be avoided. Authors are, by definition, word people, and what they like or don’t like visually may or may not the right thing for a cover. Certainly major authors will be shown cover designs, and may even have veto power, but they seldom get too involved if they know what’s good for them. There’s a reason we don’t read the novels of Claude Monet or go to museums to see the paintings of Mark Twain. Some would say that the circuits of the brain that make one good at words are laid in such a way that one simply cannot also be good at images, and vice versa. I wouldn’t go that far, but in my experience, words are words and images are images, and it’s best to leave each to their appropriate craftsmen.

Kindle tells the aspiring self-publisher to acquire the services of a professional to create the cover. This, like their telling the self-publisher to acquire the services of a professional to help edit the text, is good advice. The only thing anyone will see when they look for your book is that cover image. Unless your name is so important that the image doesn’t matter (and if you look at the images on bestsellers written by the authors of former bestsellers, you’ll usually see the author’s name taking up a lion’s share of the cover geography), then the image matters. Something totally amateurish will simply make people assume that the text is also amateurish. Something unattractive will make people think the text is unattractive. Et cetera, et cetera.

I have not taken Kindle’s good advice on this.

First of all, I don’t want to pay the money. I’m not going into this thinking that I’m potentially making some great fortune, and I don’t want to lose money on the deal. Second of all, I’m not terrible at recognizing decent enough cover imagery. I’m not all particularly skilled at creating it, but I know stinky when I see it. My assumption was that I could put something together that would be okay. And then there was this:

I wanted something that would be what you might call a companion to Lingo’s original cover. As you can see, it’s mostly empty space. I like empty space, and I figured I could probably design empty space as well as the next person. (I like this cover, although I have to admit that, when I first saw it, I was a little taken aback, because my image of Lingo was nothing like this image. But I got over that. It was a pretty nice cover, and it wasn't misleading. And to be honest, nobody ever asked my opinion in the first place. I was just the author.)

This, on the other hand, is the rather generic cover that is floating around now. If I remember correctly, it came about when the book was Print-on-Demand. (I didn't bother stripping out the Amazon stuff when I copied the image over.)

Not quite the same. When I saw this I was a lot taken aback, but realistically, the book had run its course and, well, once again, nobody ever asked my opinion. Say what you will, I was sure that I could do better; I only wish someone had asked.

And so, with an idea to come up with at least something congenial to the original Lingo cover, and using the tools at my disposal, I dug in.

Monday, April 01, 2013

"Burglekutt, you're troll dung!"

Bereft as I am of debate for the next few months, I simply could not keep myself away from O’C’s screening of Willow at the new Cruz Cantina.


Saturday was one beautiful day. Everybody’s been so put off by bad weather lately that any excuse for a nice day would suffice, but Saturday genuinely was nice, which made it all the better. I started up at the Met, checking out some small exhibits and roaming into nooks and crannies that I don’t normally visit, discovering all sorts of works I had never seen, or else completely forgotten. Then I strolled my way down to O’C’s downtown, stopping hither and yon, weaving through the tourists, generally just enjoying the elements, much like everyone else.

I can’t compare the new Cruz Cantina to the old one, having never visited the previous digs, but the new one is quite respectable, if you’re not afraid of tripping over the odd AT-AT scale model. I brought some apparently non-kosher prosciutto down from Eataly, JV supplied a bottle of wine, O’C spread out various cheeses, and Kate supplied the drunken brownies, in honor of the afternoon’s screening. We established that, since he bought this particular Blu-ray disc a fortnight ago, O’C had already watched it three times. He also admitted that he had been in Prequel Denial (except for Jar-Jar Binks, who even O’C never liked), and that, as Tchaikovsky only wrote 3 symphonies, the 4th, the 5th and the 6th, Lucas only made 3 Star Wars films, episodes 4, 5 and 6, although O’C didn’t exactly use the Tchaikovsky reference, which would have been apt, considering how most of the soundtrack of the movie we were about to see was themes drawn from said Russian and twisted around just enough so that Lucas & Co. wouldn’t be sued for international property theft at The Hague.

Eventually the movie began. I vaguely remembered it from when it came out as being rather so-so, but I must have been generous at the time. The acting made you wonder why they couldn’t have just grabbed up some freshman Dec speakers, who would have sounded a hell of a lot better. The plot was often scene for scene borrowed from some other Lucas movie (he produced this; Ron Howard bears the blame for actual direction, or as I guess it should be called, re-direction). The dialog was classic Lucas, as in, Oh, I guess Tom Stoppard was busy yet again when the call came in. “The bones have spoken.” Yeah, right. The best thing of all is the unexplained change of allegiance by the daughter of the villainess, presumably herself a villainess-in-training. For that you have to watch the extras for some footage stolen from the Camelot cutting room floor. The extras (great googly-moogly, I can’t believe we actually watched extras, but O’C wouldn’t turn the damned thing off) also included the unforgettable Fish Boy sequence, which started great amounts of discussion on our parts of Chekhov, guns on the wall and the use of all of one’s acorns.

I guess I should be happy that Howard the Duck isn’t on Blu-ray yet.

Afterwards, those of us who didn’t have yet other social engagements to pursue, or those of us who weren’t scarred for life and had to run home screaming, had a nice meal at the old Cuban restaurant we all like, and a splendid time was had by all.

When does debate start up again?

Best thing I've seen today