Trapped in the Khetto

An excellent post by Scotty P reminded me of something that I'd been meaning to rant about for a while.

A phrase that I've been using quite a bit recently to describe my coaching is "giving you a box, which you can later think outside of." It's a little clumsy, but the point is that a lot of the "rules" that we set up for young debaters need to eventually be broken. For starters, we give kids the 4-stock-issues box and let them live there for a little while, get used to things, and have some fun. When the strategic limitations of that box start to show themselves, we introduce disads and T and kritiks and counterplans and the list goes on. Each presents a new tool, a new "thinking outside the box" way of attacking the plan.

This also applies to strategic decisions. You should put perms on every counterplan, except when you shouldn't. Link-turning is a more strategic way of answering disads, except when it isn't. Every position needs to be answered with offense, except when it doesn't.

Eventually the exceptions become more important than the rules, as the rules become more internalized. Those exceptions have rules to follow themselves, which in turn have their own exceptions. Eventually it starts to look like water. It's infinite regression, except in a good way. I'm far from the expert on the debate world, but the more debate I watch the more I see a correlation between high-level debating and formlessness. You put the debater in a cup, and it becomes the cup.

Except if that debater is a "K debater" and the cup is a "disad cup," apparently. That seems to be the major division in the debate world that people still attach themselves to. Either you are a "K debater" or a "policy debater" (or "straight up debater," or whatever). According to the conventional wisdom, you can't be good at both. Normally I'd pass this off as another piece of bad advice that gets repeated student-to-student, but a large number of coaches/judges seem to have bought into this notion as well. Camps even have "Kritik labs" nowadays.

I've never been part of a "K lab," but based on the stories I've heard from a few students who have, they sound like a terrible idea. The idea of paying thousands of dollars for a camp and learning only kritiks is as ludicrous as paying thousands of dollars and only learning disads. Teaching kids debate without exposing them to a variety of strategies is teaching them to be rigid, strict, "inside the box."

The cliched objection to this is the "judge adaptation" problem. Eventually you are going to run into a judge who doesn't like kritiks (or who only likes kritiks). You are going to lose that round. This argument is over-done, but like most truisms, it's actually true. There is a certain group of people who react to these situations by complaining about the judge, maybe going so far as to use words like "illegit." I call these people "bad debaters.'

The more important problem, though, is that even if you run into K-friendly judges all year, you are still not thinking. You still aren't thinking a step ahead of your opponents (or forcing them to think a step ahead of you). You still aren't using all the available tools to win a round. You're being rigid. You're sticking to form. You're going through the motions. You're being lazy.

And if there's one thing that this game is good at, it's opening up ways for the strategic and the hard working to punish the lazy.

The pit of doom

I can't believe I've already been at this long enough to complain about memory loss, but alas, things are getting a little fuzzy. I'm pretty sure that this is built roughly around something a lab leader told me once at a debate camp, and I'm pretty sure that lab leader was Justin Greene. So, credit where it's due, as long as I'm remembering correctly.

Anyway, Cross Ex. The most under-utilized three minutes of the average debater's speech time. One of the wonderful innovations of our little game we call debate. During these three minutes you can ask whatever questions you wish, and your opponent is expected to answer them. So simple, yet so utterly lacking in much of the discourse one would find out there in the "real world."

So what the hell do you do with your 3 minutes? You do a lot of things: make yourself look smarter than your opponent, poke holes in their arguments, expose contradictions, and you set up your arguments. And by "set up your arguments" I mean you go fishing for links. Here's where the real meat and potatoes is, at least in terms of the arguments on the flow. At its best, link fishing can turn into a high-level battle of wits. At its worst, link fishing is ugly and boring and cringe-inducing from the listener's perspective (example question: "your plan's a mandate, right, not an incentive?")

So in attempt to improve the quality of our discourse, allow me to present the following theory:

How to get someone to admit something in cross examination:

Most of the time that you are attempting to set up a link to an argument in Cross Ex, you are attempting to get your opponents to make an admission about their plan or the arguments supporting it. Something that is not necessarily obvious, but must be explicitly stated by your opponent in order to guarantee that the link "sticks." But the problem is, people tend not to admit things just because we want them to. Your opponents will know that you are link fishing and will attempt to be as slippery as possible. To pin them down, you've got two options. Neither of these two options will guarantee an admission, but both of them make the examined make trade-offs. You might not get the answer that you were looking for, but you'll generally get something in return.

Option 1: The pit of doom

This is the strategy that most people use, but they don't realize that they are using it. It's straightforward: push them closer and closer to the "pit of doom" until they crack and admit that you were right all along. Let's say we doubt the plan's solvency contention, that companies would take up an incentive to build windmills on native lands

Q: Where's the evidence that companies would actually build any windmills given this incentive?
A: Our Smith card says that the incentive would work
Q: Your Smith card calls on the government to provide the incentive, but it never says that it would work, which card says that the incentive would work?
A: No, the Smith card says that the incentive would work
Q: Please point to the line in the card that says the incentive would lead to more windmills on native lands

And here's where one of three things happens:
1. The Aff cannot find such a line, usually this is combined with "We don't need to prove that"
2. The Aff points to a line, and it's good
3. The Aff points to a line, and it's terrible.

So in 2 of 3 cases we have our admission. If the Aff doesn't want to show their cards and let the judge hear the line(s) nice and slow, they've gotta give some reason that they don't need that evidence. Trade-offs.

I think that part of the reason that the pit of doom is such a popular strategy is that it is embued in our cultural memory by Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson

A bit more theatrics than your average debate round, but it's the same tactic. Cruise asks Nicholson the question, Nicholson dodges. Cruise ups the intensity, Nicholson pontificates. Cruise asks the question again, and he get's his answer. Yes, Nicholson ordered the code red (whatever that means). Notice that Cruise had already set up the trade-off. If Nicholson didn't want to admit to giving the order, he'd have to admit that his men don't follow him.

The only other thing I'll say about the pit of doom is this, taken from another coach of mine. If you ask the same question three times, and get a little more intense each time, the third answer will always be different. Not necessarily different in a way that's useful to you, but it will always be different.

Option 2: The Reverse Pit of Doom

This is the part, when explaining this theory in person, that I usually use a bit of pantomime, so bear with me as I try to type it all out.

You show the team the pit of doom there (I point in front of me)
So then they back away from the pit of doom... (I slowly walk backwards)
Until they fall into the real pit of doom over there (I point behind me. If I'm feeling saucy I'll make a falling pantomime)

Fans of the Law and Order franchise will recognize this strategy immediately, since it is a common tactic used by the Cops and ADAs (Goren is especially handy at it). I looked around for a video demonstration, but unfortunately NBC is rather zealous at getting that stuff off the tubes. Anyway, in the show it usually works like this:

Goren: Don't you care about the victim?
Perp: Of course I do, she's my sister!
Goren: She was there dying because she was losing so much blood, the doctors asked if anyone had B negative blood
Perp: But I don't have B negative, I have A positive blood.

And we already know that the killer had A positive blood. Or something. Whatever, I'd be a lousy Law and Order writer, but you get the point.

The reverse pit of doom is viable because there are many cases where the aff can choose to link into argument A or argument B depending on how they spin their arguments. For example, take the UN topic we had a few years back. The topic required the USFG to support UN peacekeeping operations. This was a tough year to be affirmative, because you had two different actors to defend. Two popular strategies that emerged were (1) have some other country support UN PKOs or (2) have the US do whatever the UN PKO is doing by itself.

Say I want to run the unilateral CP (have the US do it by itself).
Q: So, 1AC, great plan you got here
A: Yeah, it's pretty sweet
Q: So, uh, why can't Europe do it.
A: (feeling ever so smart) Well, you see our Smith evidence gives amazing warrants why the US is the key actor in the region. They've got the most technical experience, the best troops, and are the only group seen as an honest broker in this country.

See what I did there? Those are the exact warrants I'm about to give for the Unilateral counterplan. I've got my opponent giving my own argument for me.

The fun part about the Reverse pit of doom is its So Easy. It's not like the example above is an amazingly nuanced mind game. But even at that level of simplicity, I'd say about 85% of the teams out there will jump right into the links. People aren't used to their opponents using any amount of strategy in cross ex. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed (hu)man is king (or queen).

Great Politics Internals

If you're the kinda politics debater who likes to get all tricky and talk about individual senators, this article at 538 will have your mouth watering by the end of it.

Premature Optimization is the root of all evil

Those who know me know that I have fingers in a couple of very different pies. By day I'm a mild-mannered software developer, toiling away in a cubicle. At night I bust out my cape and timer and coach debate. I play and design video games. And on a good day I'll have the chance to play a little guitar.

This post isn't about how great a guy I am (well, not only about how great a guy I am), the point of this is that I've always been the "jack of all trades" type. One of the reasons that this appeals to me is I like to see the interrelationships between these different worlds. Sometimes a particular concept or aphorism from one of my "lives" ends up providing insight into some aspect of the other. I've already mused about how debate made (makes?) me a better coder, but there is plenty of wisdom in the software world that carries over to debate.

Which brings me to this post's title, which is a quotation popularized by Don Knuth (who, coincidentally, is a genius):

We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil

"Optimization" here is a term of art, so let me do my best to explain this quote to the non-nerd types out there.

"Software Development," "Programming," "Software Engineering," "Coding," etc. What I do has a lot of names. All of them involve the same fundamental task: Giving a computer at list of commands. These commands are written in "code" that the computer can understand, since computers can't understand commands like "Sort this list of names alphabetically, please".

Anyway, say I want to use a computer to add up all the numbers between 1 and 100. Forget why I'd want to do this for the time being, just assume that that's my goal. Let's look at two different ways I could tell the computer to do this, in code (well, not really in code, but close enough so you get the idea):

First approach, I can add up the numbers one at a time

Declare a new variable "Sum"
For each number i between 1 and 100:
Sum = sum + i;
print Sum

But it turns out there's a faster way to do this. In fact, there's a formula

Print (100 * (100+1)) / 2

If I use the formula, the computer can finish the calculation a lot faster, since it takes it a lot less time to do a one "multiply", one "add", and one "divide" than 100 "adds."

This is a very simple optimization. I could go even further: do a right-shift instead of a divide-by-two, re-code this section in machine language, blah blah blah. But look at the first optimiztion... sure it goes faster, but it conveys less information. Look at the first sample and it's patently obvious that the value I'm interested in is the sum of all numbers between 1 and 100. The second sample though just "looks like a formula." It's not clear from a glance whether I want the sum of 100 numbers or something else entirely.

My code has become less readable, which is one of the main trade-offs involved in optimization. That's (part of) Knuth's point. You don't take every last opportunity to make your program faster, because soon your code turns into an unreadable mess. First make your code clear and readable (and working), then optimize the bottlenecks that make it run slowly. The "premature" in premature optimization means going after "small efficiencies" blindly, without attempt to determine where a program is most inefficient.

Today's topic, if you haven't guessed, is delivery. And if you haven't yet caught on to my metaphor, let me give you a few hypothetical examples of "premature optimization" I've seen:

-The debater who flies through cards (on the edge of clarity) only to stutter and stammer and "umm" their way through anything not pre-written.
-The debater who uses all kinds of annoying abbreviations like "Tix" and "Condo" because they are "more effficient," but will fill up their speech with meaningless "at the point at which"-es
-The debater who has all the annoying artifacts of "speed reading" (double breathing, monotone, too loud/too soft) without actually, you know, being fast
-Not naming new pieces of paper as they are introduced. "Next off!" instead of "Next off is India Deal Good!"

All of these are premature optimizations. They are actions that
technically increase speed or efficiency, but either are incredibly annoying, make it harder to flow, and/or ignore a huge inefficeincy somewhere else.

Allow me now to say something that is obvious, totally boring, completely uncontroversial. The point of speed reading is to convey the maximum information per unit of time. That's it. If you focus on the "small efficiencies" so far as to reduce the amount of information you convey, you fail. Plain and simple.

So before you get in the habit of saying "Idso 8" instead of "Idso in Oh Eight" (two syllables!), focus on the big efficiencies. Where are you reading redundant cards? How can you remove that 3-4 seconds of "Ummmm." in between analytical arguments? If you aren't actively analyzing your delivery to see where your bottlenecks are (triage, once again), you are reduced to randomly picking up habits from other debaters/coaches in a blind attempt at "fast." And you end up sounding like a tool.

Root of all evil indeed.

This is goddamn huge

If you are cutting cards right now, stop.

Right now.

Go download Zotero.

You can thank me later.

Seriously though, having cut exactly one card with this, I think that zotero has the ability to save a lot of people a lot of time. It's a citation manager, so it keeps all your citations neat and tidy. Think of how much valuable information you'd have if you'd been using this since day one.

And apparently their next version will auto-sync between computers.

Oh, and hot tip, when you want to copy the cite out to word, use "Chicago Manual of Style (author-date format). It's just about right for debate.

Hot damn, they even have an openoffice plugin. This day just keeps getting better.

Fixing Debate

I don't know if this happens in other parts of the debate world, but around here in Minnesota we tend to have quite a few conversations about how to improve the debate community. I occasionally snipe at this or that and add my two cents, but frankly I don't really have anything productive to add, so I stay out of it. I still follow the conversation(s) closely, though, because I care about this activity and I really want to see it succeed, so I'm interested in how people think we ought to make it succeed.

This ongoing conversation is really starting to irritate me.

I usually try to refrain from describing real-world things in terms of debate lingo, because it's cutesy and shallow and irritating, but I can't think of a better way to put this, so here's my analysis of the "save debate" flow.

There are only two possible impacts here. More Debate or Better Debate. I don't think that anyone is currently advocating that we change our rules/norms in order to make debate a better, more educational game, so let's focus on More Debate. More Debate either means "vertical" growth (existing schools grow their programs) or "horizontal" growth (attracting more schools to the activity). There's a bit of a balancing act between vertical and horizontal growth, but both are good and we want to encourage both.

Let me take a brief digression here to address the question of debate formats. Right now we have 4 debate formats in Minnesota that I would describe as "varying degrees of good." I have my preferences, but I honestly think that they are all good, and at the very least much better than no debate. I also think that the growth of 3 of those 4 are mutually beneficial, IE that growth in one does not need to come at the expense of the others. They serve different needs, and having all of them available is a good way to give students/coaches choices that meet their needs. I say 3 of the 4 because frankly Classic and Public Forum cater to the same niche.

So anyway, I think that we, as a community, should focus on growing all of the various forms of debate available to us. So how do we do that? What's the link? I don't think what I'm about to say is a controversial statement, but it's an important point that I think gets lost in the chaos of these discussions.

The only link is more coaches

That's it. There will always be kids to cajole into joining, schools to have debates in, and administrators to convince into coughing up funding. The only limit is the number of coaches. Give me 100 reasonably smart, motivated individuals who want to coach and I'll give you 100 debate teams (or 50 debate teams, or 33 debate teams, whatever). Especially with the institutional support of orgs like the MDTA and NDCA, the only thing between "debate as it is" and "debate as it should be" are "Boots on the ground," so to speak.

Here is where the current debates over how to change/save/modify debate have irritated me. Nobody tells me how it'll attract more coaches. Without trying to indict anyone in particular, here's how a lot of these arguments start: someone makes a public declaration of the following.

"Minnesota debate currently does X. X is inconvenient for me. We should change X to Y"

Sometimes they add on a claim-without-warrant that Y would be more convenient for everyone, and sometimes there's an implicit threat of "I will quit coaching if we don't do Y."

This is seriously weak sauce. We don't accept this type of arguments from our students, do we? If you wanna win this debate, you gotta win the link. Tell me how your great idea will give us more coaches. Give me data. Give me warrants.

The argument has been made about "inertia." That we are all so set in our self-destructive ways that we won't make necessary change even if a good idea comes around. There's probably some weight to this argument, but I think that the onus is still on the reformer to tell me how his reform will improve debate. Here's my personal argument to inertia.

Convince me that a change in my behavior will increase the number of coaches, and I'll change. You want me to take Greenhill off the calendar? fine. You want me to stay within the borders of the North Star State? great. You want me to share every card I cut with everyone in Minnesota? fantastic. There's probably some degree of dynamic tension between "more debate" and "better debate," but I think we are far from the breaking point. Make the argument and I'm there, inertia be damned.

There's probably a fair criticism of me in all this, blathering on my blog and shooting people down without advancing any propositions of my own. I've got a few half-baked ideas that aren't quite ready yet and a room full of novices, so you probably won't hear anything productive from me anytime soon. But hey, I'm a new debate coach to Minnesota, I'm one of the good guys ;)

Ballots 2.0

Following the example of nick groenke's excellent ballot website at
I'm venturing into the arena of high-tech ballots. Between DropBox (an idiot-easy way to publish files) and TiddlyWiki (an idiot-easy way to make a website) I think I'm pretty much set. The best part is, if this works right I should be able to edit offline and have my ballots auto-magically sent over the tubes when I get a connection. 

Right now there's a sample ballot on there and an explanation of how I set it up. 


This is an idea that's been slowly developing in my head for a while now, and I'm not sure if it's "fully baked" yet, but I think it's worth taking it out and poking a toothpick in it, so to speak.

Anyway, I'm beginning to see more of what I do as a debate coach and judge as a matter of triage. To become a better debater, or in my case to coach people to become better debaters, you've got a lot of different things you can do, and it's pretty tough to choose which one to do at any given moment. Should I run a practice round? Should I cut more cards? Should I practice reading? Should I go to the small tournament or spend the weekend getting ready for the big tournament?

Imagine that you are in a field hospital surrounded by patients with various injuries. You've got severe head traumas, you've got scrapes and bruises, you've got everything in between. Time is of the esscence. Who do you treat first? Triage is the act of classifying patients according to their injuries and prioritizing people you can help the most.

I'm not a doctor, but according to Wikipedia, here are the categories used to classify patients:

Those who are beyond help: These are the patients who, sadly, cannot be helped. Their injuries are too severe. Basically all we can do for them is give them some pain medication and a comfortable bed. In debate these are the mistakes that, for lack of a better term, I will classify as "major f*** ups." You dropped an RVI in the block, you lost your flow before the 2NR, you set your timer for 8:00 and dropped a disad in the 1AR. No point in dwelling on these. You've gotta learn your lesson (don't drop RVIs, flow on colored paper, both partners should be timing) and move on. Any time you spend here is wasted time that you could be treating the patients who can still be saved.

The injured who need immediate attention: Here we have patients whose injuries are urgent, but treatable. If we get to them soon enough they can be saved. For a given team this might be lack of 2AC blocks, lack of basic topic knowledge, understanding the necessity of offense, etc. Obviously this level will be different team to team and division to division. Some of the less urgent issues become important when making the jump from JV to Varsity, for instnace.

The injured whose treatment can be delayed: These patients need to be treated, but they are not facing imminent death/dismemberment. This might be revising your 2NC Counterplan overview, learning a new kritik, working on that annoying verbal tick you get during your rebuttals. Classifying between this and the "immediate attention" category is (in my experience) the hardest part of being a debate coach. During this week's practice you want to do the things that will help your team win on Saturday, and it's no simple task knowing what patient to treat, especially if you have a large group of debaters to think about.

Those with minor injuries, who need help less urgently: These are the patients who you can send home for now, or have them wait around for a while until they get treated. If a novice's only answer to a "hege bad" disad is to read the Khalilzad card, you could inform her that Khalilzad is getting pretty old now and there are better hege good impact cards out there, but a more responsible move as a judge/coach is to set that aside for now, because the fact that she only has one 2AC answer on a disad is much more severe.

We've got lots of constraints on the amount of coaching we can do: our time, our money, our kids' time, energy, and ability to focus. I think that the best debate coaches have done so much triage that it comes naturally. They usually find themselves working on the things that will best help their students succeed. Coincidentally, I think that this is the primary utility of debate camp. By removing some of those constraints and allowing kids/coaches to focus on debate, you finally have a chance to work on those wounds that are not severe, but still ought be treated.

More Defending Debate

Dallas Perkins hits back at the Journal piece discussed here previously.

Mark Oppenheimer ("For Argument's Sake," Taste, Oct. 17) reports on a single academic debate round and leaps to a series of totally unwarranted conclusions about the state of intercollegiate debate in America.

Mr. Oppenheimer's fears are greatly exaggerated. It is a good thing -- not a bad thing -- that today's collegiate debaters are prepared to discuss everything from the nuts and bolts of U.S. farm policy (the current topic) to the philosophy of Heidegger.

Mr. Oppenheimer's primary complaint is that the debaters speak very quickly, even accusing Laurence Tribe of "ruining" debate in this regard, on his way to winning the national collegiate championship for Harvard in 1961. But Mr. Tribe, with his world-renowned body of scholarship and three dozen oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, shows the power of debate to enhance exactly what Mr. Oppenheimer seeks: "participation in civic discourse." If Mr. Tribe is Mr. Oppenheimer's poster child for the impact of debate on seeking style and eloquence, then we rest our case.

Competitive debate rewards rhetoric and humor as well as analysis and research. It continues to be one of the most educationally valuable activities around. And it provides a proven method for high-schoolers everywhere, even in failing schools, to develop the skills necessary to become successful college students and professionals.

We are surprised that Mr. Oppenehimer apparently has so little faith in the marketplace of ideas that he is unwilling to tolerate the kind of free-wheeling, unencumbered, and enthusiastic discourse that competitive debate has always embraced.

Dallas Perkins
Coach of Debate
Harvard College

Well put, although I would have thrown the word "douchebag" in there for good measure.

Debate Authors: Where are they now?

It's been quite a while since I've seen Mr. Steven Calabresi's name in print.

And it turns out he's still writing over-claimed impact cards. Although this time the disad will only be around for another week instead of "until the end of time"

Terrible Arguments, now with data

One of my favorite terrible arguments is the whining about "side bias." It used to be that this argument was constrained to the topicality flow, but I've heard it rear its ugly head more often on Counterplans and other theory debates as of late.

It usually goes something like this:

"Aff wins more rounds than the neg, so you should give us conditional counterplans. Whaaaaaaaah"

Besides the really whiny tone, the funny thing about this argument is that it is presented on both sides of the topic, with absolutely no data.

Come on people. It's the 21st century here. Quit making statistical claims without statistics.

In an attempt to lay half of these arguments to rest, I knocked up a little python script that counts rounds in results packets and determines affirmative win percentage. As an arbitrary data set, we'll use "the tournaments lucy has been to so far this year." Here's the output of my analysis (rearranged chronologically):

============ valley.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 108
Negative Wins 126
Aff win percentage 0.461538461538

============ bj.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 25
Negative Wins 17
Aff win percentage 0.595238095238

============ u-of-m.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 52
Negative Wins 57
Aff win percentage 0.477064220183

============ hopkins.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 38
Negative Wins 42
Aff win percentage 0.475

============ sibley.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 28
Negative Wins 44
Aff win percentage 0.388888888889

============== TOTAL ==================
Affirmative Wins 251
Negative Wins 286
Aff win percentage 0.467411545624

I included only varsity policy divisions, since if a side bias exists in JV or Novice I'm sure I'd care even less. This is far from scientific, since we've got a mix of "national" and "local" tournaments and one of the tournaments was challenge format, but its a start. Looks like we've got a slight "bias" towards the negative so far on the Energy topic. So if you make the "side bias" argument on the aff it's a bad argument, and if you make the "side bias" argument on the neg it's bad argument that's factually inaccurate.

So there.

Defending debate

So I normally try to keep my "curse like a sailor" tendencies to a minimum up here. I'm not sure anyone actually reads this thing anyway, but it is nominally a blog about a activity undertaken by high schoolers, so I try to show some restraint.

However, to introduce today's topic I have no other choice but to employ a relative vulgarity:

Mark Oppenheimer is a Douchebag.

In case you are in too much a hurry to read Mr. Oppenheimer's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, this seems to be the endpoint of the notoriety gained by the Shannahan/Towson mooning incident. This, combined with the fact that presidential debates have happened recently, has given Mr Oppenheimer a good reason to trash on my activity for a few pages. Frankly his insults reek of being poorly researched and unashamedly inflammatory, so in a perfect world I'd prefer to ignore them.

But I'm a debater. Micheal Jordan shoots baskets. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. We all have a talent.

Like many games, competitive debate has its share of complications, jargon, strategic maneuvers, and community norms. But unlike, say chess or football, the average Wall Street Journal reader is unfamiliar with the intricacies (or really even the basics) of our game. To an honest journalist, this presents a responsibility to faithfully describe some of these rules so that readers might better understand her point. But to Mr. Oppenheimer, the lack of experience in his readership allows him an opportunity to build up vacuous straw men to knock down. Here's his first:

As the Chronicle of Higher Education and others have reported, some college debaters now practice "postmodern debate," in which they argue theoretical questions about the process of debate rather than the topic at hand.

Note that nobody in debate calls anything "postmodern debate," save for maybe a debate that actually occurs over the subject of postmodernism. "Postmodern debate" is a construction of the Chronicle of Higher Education author, which is something that Mr. Oppenheimer should know and should point out, given that he himself makes the appeal to authority by claiming that he used to coach debate at Yale. But being a weasel and a douchebag, Oppenheimer decides to give postmodern debate the meaning of "things I don't like," which is apparently arguments that don't involve "the topic at hand."

My astute readers will note that this definition includes Topicality, the question of whether or not an affirmative's plan fits under the resolution. This is one of the "Stock Issues", or basic tenets of competitive policy debate. It's one of the 4 things I teach my freshman novice debaters in their first lecture. If Oppenheimer's problem is with progressivism in debate, he sure has quite a few years of history to undo.

But we all know that Oppenheimer's problem isn't with T. It's with performance, maybe. Or kritiks. Wait, what is his problem with debate again? Oh yeah:

Predictably, debate traditionalists (like me) are upset about this postmodern turn. A commentator on the National Review academic blog said that the trend toward postmodern debate "shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the increasing politicization of college campuses these days."

Oh, there it is. Listen, Mark. You want to trash on "ivory tower academics" or whatever, you do it on your own time. But equating competitive debate with whatever boogeyman you see lurking in college campuses is just silly. Sure, over the last few years debaters have sought out arguments from the extreme left. But we've also sought out plenty of arguments from the extreme right (if for no other reason than to answer those on the exreme left). To take the most obvious example, in my last year of competition you could root through my tubs and find Krauthammer, Kagan, Khalilzad, Murray, and plenty of articles from your own National Review in addition to advocates of nonviolence and, yes, "postmodernism." I teach students to argue the power of the market, the importance of democracy promotion, the benefits of American primacy, and the list goes on.

But the fact that I have apparently sold out to the left isn't Oppenheimer's only problem with debate:

Rather than try to win points with wit, allusion or elegant turns of phrase, debaters began loading down their speeches with multiple arguments; the expectation arose that one had to meet all of an opponent's arguments and that to "drop" an argument meant losing the debate. Thus debaters began skipping pleasantries, speaking fast and using ugly shorthand ("D.A." for disadvantage, for example).

Interestingly enough, Oppenheimer hints at the real reason that debaters decide to speak fast. Part of what makes debate different from other forms of communication is the expectation that my arguments be answered by my interlocutor. This focus on the content of argument, on logic, and on actually answering one's opponent is the basic foundation of debate. I could go on about how fast debate teaches strategy, attention to detail, and critical thinking skills, but apparently Mr. Oppenheimer is the final authority on the subject of the skills debate teaches (or doesn't teach).

Policy debate is no longer training young men and women for participation in civic discourse.

I know lawyers, activists, politicians, teachers, judges, and other outstanding members of society who might take issue with that. And then they would call you a douchebag.

But I digress. Mr. Oppenheimer wasn't done describing the reason that speed came into policy debate.

When debate was about majestic oratory, the naturally charming golden boys, or those polished by prep schools, had a distinct advantage; but when debate rounds could be won with technicalities and sheer quantity of argumentation, then industry could carry the day.

Frankly, this is offensive. The notion that us classless cretins would have the nerve to attempt to join the discourse of the elite is just appalling to Oppenheimer. How dare we invade an activity that purports to be about debate and argument and actually make it value debate and argument? Clearly it would be much better if we had an activity that was kinda about argument, but really about rewarding who spoke the prettiest and provided the most witty affectations and had their tie the straightest. Mark, we've only got one activity for argument. Just one little sandbox in the world where skills in logic and "industry" (apparently doing research to prepare for a debate is a lowly pursuit) are actually valued. You've got plenty of games that value Oratory. Please leave the debating to the debaters.


That was going to be my dramatic ending, but I've got one more loose end to tie up, involving the origin of this sudden interest in competitive debate. Shannahan mooned another coach and he got fired. If we condemned every game that occasionally inspired the worst out of its participants, I think all we'd have left is pinochle.

Alright, this is it

I've been involved in debate for going on 8 years now, and those that know me know that I've been complaining about my pen for about as long. Name a pen. I've tried it and hated it.

G2s are OK, but they start to leak over your hands if you spin 'em. Also, I've never actually been able to get all the ink out of a G2 tube before it gums up, which is just maddening.

Using a Uni-Ball is a quick train to ink-all-over-your-handsville.

Ball Points are right out because they get lost in the photocopier, and they tend to make my hands hurt on account of the greater pressure required.

Expensive pens are expensive, and they usually are really heavy too.

I've even tried taking drastic measures to hack together a pen that meets my needs, but it turns out that the $6 refill for the $200 pen dries out if it's not in a capped pen. Shoot.

But no more. I'm here to announce that my long search is over.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the one pen to rule them all:

-It manages to write smoothly without getting ink all over my hands
-Ink is good to the last drop.
-Not too heavy, not too light
-Handles being photocopied
-Retractable, so no cap to lose
-Stainless steel body, which is not as prone to damage and looks pretty classy.
-A pack comes with two pens and two refills, and can be had for a reasonable price at just about anywhere.
-No third-grader cushy grip.

I can't tell you how happy this makes me. The life of a debater or coach is filled with little victories and little annoyances. Judges lounge out of food? irritating. Somebody lost the T file? Irritating. Got through one more card in 1AC? victory. Keep a neat flow or write a good ballot? victory.

These little things all add up, and it's nice to have one less thing to "deal with" over the weekend.

Disorganized thoughts from the weekend

Big ol' shout out to the U for letting us host the round robin there. And while I'm at it...

Minnesota Policy Debate is awesome
This probably deserves a little background. While I was moving through high school, there were more than a few public and private declarations that MN policy debate would die in the near future. There were many causes for alarm, some systemic, some temporary. It's nice to come back after a nice hiatus and see a very strong Round Robin field. It's even nicer to see that not only was the "old guard" well represented in the RR and the main tournament, but no less than 5 round robin programs either did not exist or were in various stages of "starting up" during my senior year in high school.

I wish I had some data to say that this has corresponded with a vertical and horizontal growth in MN policy debate, but I don't think that there is even a coordinated attempt to collect that data. And there is probably a big caveat to this "good news" to note that there is still a worrying trend towards concentration in the metro area at the expense of outstate debate circuits. But good news is scare around this topic, and I'll take it where I can get it.

My other observation is more substantive:

Affirmatives are all answering Cap Bad wrong:
The way I see it, there's three things you can say to generate offense against cap bad:
1. We reform capitalism, reform good
2. We break down capitalism (crash the economy, cause the revolution, etc)
3. Cap is good.

In the debates I've seen, 1 and 2 are the most popular, sometimes in combination. The wording of the resolution makes it rather hard for topical cases to cleanly claim 2. Incentives are pretty darn capitalist, after all. And 1 is just a suicide march against a strong 2NC. It's the most predictable debate there is on capitalism. It's got mountains of literature written for it. And you run into some complex structural biases in the debate process that can best be described as "Any risk of a link..."

So that leaves us with cap good. What's so bad about cap good? It's not like there's a lack of strong cards on this point. Sure, the neg is going to be prepared with a lot of cards, but at least the 2NC won't start with "group the 2ac 1-6, and I am going to read my perm block."

I'd also like to bring up a pretty great point that doobs made while we were chatting about this over the weekend. Most affs on this topic are 8-minute answers to the "capitalism is unsustainable" argument. New tech, alternative energy, solving warming, all of these are answers to the most powerful argument the neg has in this debate. You've gone this far, why not dig in and win it?

The things you take for granted

overheard at Ro'mont practice last night

Lucy: "No Matt, you only have to read the underlined parts"


This topic is freaking sweet

Affirmative:We should put satellites into orbit that beam power from space using microwaves

Negative:Screw the microwaves, lets use freaking laser beams.

It appears we have opened a space from which only good things can emerge.

EDIT: Turns out this debate ended with Heidegger and PICs theory. What a bait and switch. Ah well, as pete used to tell me, Que sedilla sedilla.

seems like such a good idea until...

I'm generally OK with politics disads, but it gets a little annoying when congress is in the middle of landmark legislation during the gosh darned tournament. Apparently our fearless leaders have put a deal together, all that remains is to vote on it. Does that mean you can't use it as a disad? Does that mean you can (sort of the logical conclusion of the agenda crowd out scenario)? What if the deal passes in the middle of the day... do we all need to take a break between rounds and cut cards? What if we don't have a printer or a laptop?

I mean, the general rule of "Debaters should be prepared with up-to-date evidence" is good, and most of the time congress doesn't do much over the weekend, so it's not a big deal. This weekend is particularly bad, since we also had a presidential debate friday night. This might not be a big enough problem to "do something about," but it is pretty annoying. We should call the "Ev deadline" for the tournament at like Friday 5 PM or something. Nobody should have to decide between updated evidence and sleep.

The return of the disad.

It's pretty tough to be unpredictable if you wanna run disads. Time was that you could come up with some kinda funky politics scenario and you could come outta left field, but with so many teams cutting so many disads and so many websites selling evidence, somebody somewhere is gonna be running the same thing. However, I see a pattern this year that seems like a lot of fun.

Uniqueness: Elbonia's economy is doing great
Link Elbonia's economy is dependent on high oil prices, plan lowers prices
Impact: Elbonia's economic growth is key to prevent like a 100 wars, i swear.

replace elbonia with your country of choice, and you've got yourself a disad. This year is going to be a lot of fun.

I hate the entire travel industry

How the hell does a hotel get off telling you you have one type of room (the type with two real beds) and end up giving you another one. They've got a mother loving computer sitting right there in front of them when they make your reservation. I just don't understand how hotels can be so irritating to a group of people that throw them (what I imagine is) a substantial, dependable chunk of change every year.

Every time I get excited

I thought I'd finally found a pen that I like. It was made by Zebra.

then today the ink tube started leaking. Luckily I caught the leak before it turned to disaster status, but still pisses me off.

They came in a two pack, so we'll see if his brother is any more reliable. I'm not very optimistic.

schnew media

We've all heard talk about how the "new media" will revolutionize journalism, but we in the competitive debate world just haven't seen it. In the heat of a round, the answer "their card is just some guys blog, ours is the new york times" tends to be pretty convincing. More seriously, the niche best filled by blogs and the like seems to be either in hey-stuff-is-happening-now-omg-and-I'm-blogging-about-it stories or in providing thoughts and opinions that relate to the "average joe," neither of which is particularly useful for debaters.

This is why some guy's home grown election tracker website normally wouldn't be a very good debate source.

But what if some guy gets written up in newsweek after he "had outperformed every established pollster?"

As we say in the biz, that's one hell of a pro-dict

mmm that new season smell

I'm all excited about my entrance into novice coaching (and re-entrance into minnesota debate) so I figure I'll maek post.

Quick little observance carried over from Tuesday. I like the novice case limits a lot this year which are:

-Renewable Portfolio Standards
-Domestic Biofuel
-Integral Fast Reactors
-Cap and Trade

I think that these do a good job of introducing novices to the various important debates on this topic as well as preserving some good ground for both sides. But having actually paid a little bit of attention to the topic itself over the past week or so, I'm left with an unease in my stomach. Let's say we'll take what I'll argue is the strictest definition of this year's resolution: (a) that incentives must be positive incentives - "carrots" as opposed to "sticks" and (b) that alternative energy does not include nuclear.

Three of the four cases aren't topical

Now I haven't dived into the debate well enough to know how these debates will shake out, especially among novices, and this definitely wouldn't be the first time that I've claimed "OMG T will be huge on this resolution" and been proven wrong, so grain of salt. But this would definitely be the least topical set of case limits that I've ever seen.

What up

decided to start doing a bit of reading on the novice case areas.

Gonna start with this little piece on RPS by the pew climate foundation.

EDIT: might as well add a neg article as well

My overall goal here is to have something to read on the bus that is vaguely useful for debate purposes.

having my doubts

So after reading some documentation on LyX and LaTeX, I'm having my doubts. Basically the split between "user" and "designer" is bigger than I had expected. To do debate ev with Latex I'd need to jump the gap immediately. Maybe I'll find someone who knows LaTex and cajole them into writing a debate template for me, but as it stands I'd basically need to learn an entirely new (and seemingly incomprehensible) programming language before I even get to cut my first card.

So I'm back to square one, how the hell should I cut cards? Since nobody's written a software package specifically tailored to the process yet (maybe I will someday...), I'm stuck with adapting a multi-purpose tool to the specific needs of card cutting.

My goals are as follows:
-Pretty evidence. I hate it when evidence looks like crap.
-Minimize work. I shouldn't have to re- re- re- format everything. Table of contents and such should be automatic.
-Working with others. Ideally, I'd like to be able to work with my students/other coaches on files. In the current mileu, this only works if we are all running the same word processor. This means I need to be able to convince people to convert.

My need to cooperate with others and my philosophical proclivities necessitate that this tool be (a) gratis, (b) libre, (c) cross-platform, and (d) collaboration-friendly. I'm maybe willing to cede b if it performs better at a, c, and d but otherwise my conditions are absolute.

Here's my options:

Pros: Very nice looking output, separation between content and presentation, probably extremely easy to use once I have it set up the way I want it
Cons: Large install size (>100MB), incomprehensible, I doubt I could convince anyone else to learn a new content authoring paradigm to collaborate with

Pros: Small install size, runs on a toaster, UI style follows versions of Word that people are familiar with. Works OK with word documents.
Cons: Not sure if it has some of the more "Advanced" features I need - table of contents, clear delineation of sections, etc.

Open Office
Pros: Like abiword but more features
Cons: bigger install size, can't get standalone (need the presnetation/spreadsheet goo), UI is farther from the de facto standard.

Google Docs
Pros: Runs in a web browser, built with collaboration in mind from the ground up
Cons: Probably doesn't have the features needed to make large files, especially table of contents and handling images.

Right now I am debating between OO and Abiword. Unfortunately, the time I spend learning the quirks and features of one is wasted if I decide that I need to move to another. Since abiword would probably be easiest to convert people from, I am going to start there and see if it gets the job done.

Offseason is the time for learning

Now that my super huge project for the semester is over, I have the time to start thinking about debate just a little bit more, as well as a little more time to do some experiments relating to debate that I had been meaning to try out for a while.

The first of these will be testing out whether or not LyX is a good word processor for making some debate documents. It has some features (quality print output, separation of content and presentation) that intrigue me as far as producing debate evidence goes, so I want to give it a shot. I'll be posting my experiences as I go along.

The first hurdle I have to get across is the need to define a "style" for debate evidence. Apparently this is a semi-advanced topic in the world of LyX, but the entire point of LyX is that I only have to do it once and then never ever have to worry about it ever again.

Other endeavors

So I try to limit myself to things that are at least tangentially related to debate here, so please forgive me this little bit of shameless self promotion. If any of you watch Lost, and thought to yourself "gee, I like watching this episode, but I'd really like it if I could re-watch it later with a humorous commentary track," Then consider this your official hook up

On the subject of the pound

Just read yesterdays Penny Arcade, and it is intensely relevant to anyone who has been a Ro'mont debater in recent history:

Though I might add that murdering hundreds and hundreds of people with words is an entirely appropriate fist-pounding occasion. unghh.

been a while

So I watched Rocket Science the other day. It gets big points for (a) being a pretty darned respectable movie, even if it wasn't about debate, and (b) actually doing an accurate portrayal of high school debate. Obviously there were plenty of nits to pick (some of which are probably regional anyway), but they got all the important stuff right and captured a good deal of the "spirit" of the activity as well. And at least nobody was "on the debating team." Definitely worth your five bucks and two hours for a rental.

Then I watched the making of thingy. Bad idea (those things are always just a stupid circle jerk anyway). First of all, we got to here about the director's experience on the "public speaking team" in high school. What the deuce does that mean? Were you in debate? say you were in debate? were you in speech? then say you were in speech? What the hell is a "public speaking team" and why do you think that calling it that makes it sound more important. Arsehole.

And the director and a bunch of the actors also hit on one of my favorite pet peeve: referring to the practice of talking fast as "Spreading." Now, I've heard a bunch of debaters do this too, so let me deal with this right here. Spreading != talking fast (that's geek for is not, for you luddites out there). First of all, calling it "spreading" makes it seem like it's this magical thing that you can only learn after a pilgrimage to tibet or something. It's just like talking, only faster. All the same things that you learn to talk well at a conversational rate, you do that. only faster.

Also, "spreading" is an outcome, not a process. Spreading (which is a transitional verb, by the way. Dasher spread me out. Dasher does not spread.) is creating a situation where one's opponent has a hard time covering all of your arguments. One can spread by talking at a conversational rate. One can talk very fast and still be very bad at spreading. Talking fast is a tool to help spread someone out, true, but without strategy and research it's just talking fast. When people refer to the practice of talking fast as "spreading," a little voice in my head goes "you just don't get it, do you?"

On playing games

So I filled out my philosophy sheet for TFA state today, and it reminded me of something that has always irked me a little: paradigms.

Whenever I'm asked to pick my paradigm out of the usual list I cringe just a little bit. My first instinct is to put down "none/other," but that contradicts my usual imperative to give as much information in these philosophy packets as possible. Do unto others and such. But then I read down the list and all the choices carry some philosophical baggage that I'm not comfortable with:

Stock Issues: I am 100 years old and disads scare me.
Hypothesis Tester: I am 75 years old and topical counterplans scare me more than counterwarrants do.
Policy Maker I am 50 years old and kritiks scare me.
Tabula Rasa: I have a well-defined set of predispositions and thoughts about how debate should be, I just don't want to tell you about them. Neener.

...and then we get to Games Player. First of all, it's factually inaccurate. I'm not a games player I'm a games judge, stupid. It also has a sort of sneaky connotation: "games" in a "quit playing games with my heart" sort of way. Games-playing is dishonorable, especially compared to making policy and testing hypotheses.

But the biggest problem with the "Games player" paradigm is that it's totally vacuous. Debate is a game. People play it. Really?

Of course debate is a game. Policy makers and hypothesis testers agree with that too! What makes the games player different? And here's where I start to like the game's playing paradigm - no need for a silly analogy to make debate seem more important. And I really do mean a silly analogy. Hypothesis testers agree that a decision ought be rendered even in the case of inconclusive evidence, and policy makers would agree that we shouldn't vote for the best looking or best-funded team, even though these would be more "real world" in terms of actual policymaking. The other paradigms agree that debate is a game most of the time, except when it needs to be molded to fit some arbitrary analogy. Games players just don't have any such restrictions.

Debate is the greatest game I've ever had the privilege to play, and I'm proud to say that yes, debate is a game.

I just wish we could come up with a better term than "games player." How about "debate judge?"