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.