Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In which we wonder at the shape of things to come

There does seem to be unrest among the natives.

Usually each school year goes on just like the previous school year. Debate tournaments appear when they’re supposed to appear, and everyone who is supposed to go goes, and everyone who works them works them again. For better or worse, not much changes.

2016-17 looks to be different, at least from my perspective. It will start off like last year with plucky little Byram Hills, but then I’ll go into hibernation for a while (or more like estivation, or even more specifically, like Indian estivation), given that I won’t be a part of the Pups anymore. While I think I’ve already commented that I’m perfectly happy to get most of September back into my private sphere, it’s still an adjustment. If nothing else, it’s the only time I ever eat at Shake Shack. And there is something about working a huge mother of a tournament at the beginning of the year, to shake the cobwebs out. And culling the Pups waitlist has always been a fun summer hobby. Oh, well. I mean, let’s face it. Realistically, once you no longer have a team, you are sort of a third wheel. And your perspective changes. I like the unattached perspective, but I would imagine that eventually all the schools I work will wonder why there’s this ancient mariner sitting in the tab room aiming his crossbow at the albatrosses circling the building.


Then Vassar reared its Poughkeepsian little head and said it wants to run a tournament. We agreed that the first weekend in November was about the best chance, but when I disabused them of the idea that there was a boiling cauldron of local high school parli teams just looking for rounds, they sort of receded whence they came. Whatever. I was trying to make the point to them that early notification was of the utmost importance. Their ut and my ut are obviously different mosts. We’ll see what happens there.

Of course, the biggest cauldron of turming oil is Penn, with its change to the weekend before Prez. They seem to want to make all sorts of other changes as well. They really don’t seem to realize that the high school debating mindset is made of granite, and that any attempt to mold it is almost inevitably doomed to grueling frustration. I gather from hither and yon that there may, in fact, be a competing tournament pulling up their slack. This would be ruinous. I don’t think anyone the Ben Fs work with supported the change of weekend, but I have to admit that I said I’d work with them either way. I mean, what’s it to me, all shriveled and shooting at albatrosses? Now I'm starting to get the feeling that I’ll be the only one in the tab room, unless I go down to Camden and shanghai a few sailors. I hope they like ukulele music.



Friday, May 27, 2016

Advice from a life coach: Titling Your Book

As a lifelong publisher, I have seen endless letters and blurbs touting a given book as the next and latest some other book. Practically all of the second half of the twentieth century was one "the next To Kill a Mockingbird" after another. Needless to say, this was never true in the literary sense, and was simply wishful commercial thinking on the part of the publishers involved. If there had been a success in the past even marginally similar to the book at hand, the temptation to link that past success to the present contender was irresistible. Hope sprang eternal, in other words.

Fast forward a bit. The thing that is different nowadays is that not only publishers but authors are starting to imagine that their book is the next whatever. They not only slavishly reprocess the content of those books in their own work, but they even go so far as to title their books after those other successes. Which brings us to the important advice I wish to impart. 

If you are writing a book, do not put the word "girl" in the title. It's too late. The ship has sailed. It started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The literal translation of the Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women. While, granted, Men Who Hate Women is about as mellifluous The 1947 Complete Guide to Real Estate Deals in Boise, Idaho, Part One: Laundromats, and immediately brings to mind the subtitle And The Women Who Love Them, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an immediate grabber, that doesn't mean that every other book by every other author should be titled similarly. The Girl With the Potato Tattoo or The Girl With the Lawn Mower Tattoo just aren't the same. There are, in fact, some very real parodies, including The Dragon With the Girl Tattoo and The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut, so you can see that following Stieg Larrson's lead is a mug's game, plus he died young, and you don't want to do that either. 

Unfortunately, before all the authors in the world could get Lisbeth Salander out of their minds, Gone Girl came along and sold a megabazillion copies. Great. You want to emulate that one? Going Girl? Going Going Girl? Girl Where You At? Okay I Know I Had a Girl Here a Minute Ago? And then, of course, The Girl on a Train pulled into the station. Fine. Call your book The Girl on a Bus. The Girl on a Jitney. The Girl on a Hoverboard. Make it a flaming hoverboard. 


The thing is, these books, or at least books very close to them, arrive on my desk almost every day. I simply categorize them all as The Girl in the Unimaginative Book Title. DON'T MAKE THAT MISTAKE YOURSELF. You have the potential of being a great writer for the ages. You can win the National Book Award, the odd Pulitzer, the Nobel prize. But not if you follow trends and fashions. This is a recent thing, of course. Back in the day one did not see the Book of the Month Club offering To Maim a Mockingbird, Moby-Pete, Atlas Sneezed, The Pretty Good Gatsby or Dan Quixote. No one would have thought of doing it for a second. But nowadays? Just by writing this I suspect someone is going to grab the idea and Moby-Pete will be on the bookstands when I wake up tomorrow morning. Please: don't do it. No one wants to read Moby-Pete. Really. They don't. 

I once worked for a man who, when asked to help title a book, would ask, "Are there any drums in this book?" When you said no, he would ask, "Are there any trumpets?" When you said no again, he would announce, "There's your title. No Drums, No Trumpets."

Brilliant! Okay, maybe not. But funny, at least the first few dozen times. 

(And now I see you closing your eyes and thinking, There's no girl in my book. There's no hookah. Aha! No Girl, No Hookah. Sigh. Please don't send me a review copy. Please. Don't.)

I realize that I am fighting a lost battle here. Please stay tuned for my next posting, "The Girl in The Coachean Blog." It's going to be my biggest hit yet.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

In which, I think, we finish up the toolkit

Pretty much summing up the Tournament Director’s Toolkit is my presentation from the NDCA conference, a pdf of which is here (and, of course, on the NDCA website). I managed to get through almost all of it in the allotted time. There was, as expected, discussion about prefs. There does seem to be unapologetic acceptance that prefs are limiting a team’s exposure to about 50% of the pool, and that the ship has sailed on this. Some folks felt that simply making 25% 1s and 25% 2s in acknowledgment of this is a better practice than even tiers, but honestly I think that only works at smaller tournaments, where even I have limited the number of tiers. At the biggies, when you’ve got the big pool, good preffing with even tiers works fine, and I see no reason to act otherwise. No one commented much on limiting obligations. The arithmetic there is obvious. If you have 100 judges with a full obligation, you’ve got 100 judges to choose from in doing a pairing, and if you have 100 judges with a half obligation, you’ve got 50 judges to choose from in doing a pairing. Pairings will inevitably be worse. It’s another sailing ship, but some tournaments haven’t gone there yet, and they do so at their peril. Either they want to play with the big kids, or as judges themselves don’t want to judge much, if they support this practice. I think I’ve made it clear where I stand. I still haven’t asked my boss at the DJ if it was okay with him if I were only obligated to do half my work.  I think I know what he would say.

One person did push for ordinals, which do have the theoretical arithmetic beauty of being the most mutual approach. I was even tempted to try it myself at Bump, before I bumped myself out of coaching in Hudville. But I think my argument still holds, that tournaments doing things differently from other tournaments have whatever benefits from what they’re doing lost in the disadvantage of making customers do things differently. I’ve been involved in serious change management over the years at the DJ, and no one ever likes change unless they clearly and definitively benefit from it. I don’t think anyone would see that benefit from ordinals if, indeed, it really even exists. It seems to me that with ordinals you’re more mutual but less preferred. But that’s just a guess on my part. Never having done it and only observed from afar, I can’t speak too authoritatively on it.

And that’s the end of that. To all of you Nats Cats, enjoy California. To the rest of you, enjoy the Memorial Day weekend without having to schlep to Sacramento. Try to remember what the point of Memorial Day is. Salute accordingly.  



Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In which it takes us nearly 25 years to find the obvious name for the the attendees at CatNats

Twas the Wednesday before CatNats, and all through the social media, all the Nats Cats were packing their bags and their cases and saying Californie is the place they oughta be… Sigh. I’ve often said that I’m especially fond of CatNats, even though on some levels it’s a bit of a Cloud Cuckoo Land. But then again, that’s part of its charm. Enjoy Sacramento, my Nats Cats. I’m going to be at a barbecue in New Jersey. Same church, different pew.

Today or tomorrow I’m going to post a draft of a document for judges at tournaments. This is something the NDCA board has been discussing for a while: what are the obligations, and requirements, of a judge? There are certain behavior issues, but realistically, that is not a terrible problem. If a debater commits an illegal action in a round, the judge must respond in an appropriate fashion. Sure. But it’s not as if every round is filled to the brim with felonious activity. At least I hope not. More important is the idea that the judge is, first and foremost, an educator, and should act accordingly. Secondly, the judge is the (often brevet) adult in the room, and should act accordingly as far as that is concerned as well. The point of the exercise will be to create a document that can be distributed before a tournament, outlining what is expected of judges. Possibly the most important thing, in a quantitative sense, is that judges start rounds on time and end them efficiently with reasonably terse critiques. The usual, if not inevitable, reason for tournaments to go off schedule is that rounds are not starting and ending when they’re supposed to, based entirely on what is going on in the debate room. I can blast assignments with a note that a round is supposed to start in 20 minutes or whatever, but it’s up to the judges and the debaters to be there and start those rounds in 20 minutes. By the time the tab room learns that a round hasn’t started on time and, if necessary, fixed the problem, the clock has already been ticking for a while. Don’t credit me with on-time or off-time performance. That’s all in the hands of participants at the tournament.

I guess I’ll post this on the NDCA Facebook page, as it has members up the wazoo and it’s easy to follow threads, if any. I mean, it’s not as if I’m going to post anything terribly controversial. The only real problem is the distinction between safety and discomfort, that is, when something happens in a round that is especially heated or problematic. The examples that have been discussed are so specific that they really can’t serve very well as prescriptive, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Honestly, the problematic situations all seemed to go beyond the immediate area of the debate room, needing to be handled by the tournament staff, with all the coaches involved participating in the conversation. But, I hope, at least we can alert judges to the need to be thoughtful about such situations.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

In which we announce that we have returned from Texas without agreeing with all the people in the hotel breakfast room that we need Trump to solve all the problems facing our woebegotten nation

The NDCA Coach Development Conference was quite successful. Many subjects were covered, and there was lots of discussion and enthusiasm and action points. I’m in the process of putting it all up on the NDCA website. Bietz videoed the presentations, and I’ll get them up there too. He was using Facebook to livestream, although that had the odd glitch, stopping for no reason every now and then and needing a kick in the chest to restart. But mostly it worked. We actually did have a decent number of stream viewers; it must have been a slow weekend for the folks back home. For me, it was my first time in Dallas, aside from changing planes at the airport. Strange city. Lots of driving, not much to look at architecturally along the way. But the flights and the hotel were cheap, and we had good eats (then again, Kaz and I always manage to have good eats), so I’m not complaining. But as I was watching the tornado warnings on Monday morning, I can’t say that I was thinking of relocating out there any time soon.

I’ll tell you, education has changed since I was a lad. I never had to choose between debate and water polo in sixth grade. (I’m not making this up, and I don’t think the person who mentioned it at the conference was making it up either.) I never had to choose anything. Sister Whoever simply gave you that look and you shut up and pretended to pay attention. That, in a nutshell, was my primary school education. Our Lady of Mercy ran through eighth grade, so there was no junior high (as it was called back then) for the Catholic contingent. Public school always seemed sort of scary to those of us who were cloistered (so to speak). I followed up my Catholic grammar school with an all-boy Catholic high school. Not surprisingly, I’m still in recovery.

Anyhow, I’ll let you know when everything is up on the website. You might at least want to look at the Powerpoints.