Beating Roger Federer

I don't know if you follow tennis (debate folks seem to have a love it or hate it relation to the sports wold), but Andy Roddick is, by any standard, an excellent tennis player. The guy won the US Open, made it to the finals of Wimbledon twice, and could serve a tennis ball through bulletproof glass. He kicks a large amount of ass on a regular basis.

Except, of course, the ass of Roger Federer. Federer and Roddick have met 18 times in competition, and Federer has lost 16 of those matches. Since both players are perpetually high in the rankings, many of these losses have come in the late elimination rounds at tournaments, leading to a lot of press photos like this:

Can you tell which one of these guys just got his butt kicked? Hint: it's not the one with the smug grin and big-ass cup.

I think if you live in an area where there is still some semblance of a local debate circuit, you know at least one Andy Roddick. Excellent debater, but after they steamroll through prelims they just keep running into their Federer and exiting the tournament.

Having been there (As Roddick, in case anyone wondered), it's a pretty frustrating position to be in. Obviously Semifinals or Finals is something to be proud about, but nobody likes to think that there is a team out there that they just can't beat. And even if you put in a massive amount of work to try to "one up" them with a new aff or some crazy kritik, there's no guarantee that when you see them again you'll be on the right side or have the right judges, so it could end up all going to waste.

We were never able to best our arch nemeses at Edina, so I suppose I don't have much strategic guidance to offer, but I will say that looking back I probably had more fun preparing for those rounds than for any others that year. There's something uniquely satisfying about the intensity of that "and then if they say this we'll read that card and then they'll be finished!" discussion. One thing that I think big tournaments miss out on is that grudge match level of competition. Of course, if the Glenbrooks is next weekend you can always have the satisfaction of watching your Federer fall to a Nadal of his own.

Search Engines 101

I think that the biggest "generation gap" thing that I've noticed between myself and my students is that I am old enough to remember a world without google. This is not as big as remembering a world without the web, but there are still some important implications of google that change how people do research

(It might be best for you to read the next paragraph aloud in your best "cranky old man" voice)

Back in my day, you see, search engines were bad! Nowadays you can just type words into google all willy-nilly and 9 times out of 10 you get exactly what you're looking for. Back in my day, searching the web took finesse. Queries had to be crafted. You needed to be able to know how a search engine worked to be able to get anything meaningful out of it. The kids these days, they wouldn't know a boolean operator from a hole in the ground.

I don't think people realize just how good google is. It'd be like GM making a car that you just step in and say "take me to Bob's house" and you end up there, without even having to tell the car whether you wanted to see Bob Groven or Bob Ciborowski. You don't need to know about street names or steering wheels or braking distances. The thing about google, though, is that if you do take the time to learn just a little bit about it, your results get even better

Alright, everyone stand back, I'm going to attempt a metaphor. Imagine a fisherman. He catches fish for a living. His daily routine consists of three basic activities. He picks a lake to fish at; let's say he's got his own private lake that he stocks himself. When he's there he casts out a net and pulls in fish. From each cast, he's got to sort the results. He'll save the biggest, tastiest fish for his family, the next-biggest-and-tastiest he'll sell to fancy restaurants, the pretty-good fish he'll bring to the market, and the smallest fish he'll throw back in so that they can one day grow up to become big and tasty.

These three activities roughly corresponds to what Google does. Google stocks the lake, Google casts the net, and google sorts the fish. The fact that people don't even think of these three things separately anymore is a testament to just how good google is.

Stocking the lake, as far as google is concerned, is a process of Crawling and Indexing. Google has a computer program called Googlebot (no kidding) that runs 24/7 "crawling the web," grabbing web pages from the internet and keeping track of what words occur in those pages to build an "index". If you search for "Tilapia" on google, you will find all the page that the Googlebot has visited and found the word "Tilapia." If I write a new web page about Tilapia, but Googlebot has not found it yet, it won't be in the search results. You can't catch it, because it's not in the lake.

Casting the net is the first thing google does when you do a search. If you type [Tilapia blackened recipe] into google, google will find all the pages in it's index that contain the words "Tilapia," "blackened," and "recipe." If you type in ["Blackened Tilapia Recipe"] google will find all the pages that contain the phrase "Blackened Tilapia Recipe" together. The phrase is different from the separate words. This is the first big distinction in google searches that some people don't know about.

Remember, google can only see the words on a page, not the ideas. If I write an article about Oreochromis niloticus niloticus and you search for "Tilapia," you won't find it. Same fish, different words. You'll need to use a different net to catch my article.

The last thing google does for you when you click "search" is sort the fish, and google does it very well. The reason that google has become so successful, I'd argue, is that it was the first web search engine to do a good job of separating the tasty fish from the mediocre fish (or even of separating the fish from the old hubcaps). I once remember being taught by a middle-school librarian of how to narrow down a search result to only the 100 most important pages, because paging through a pile of fish bigger that that was just unwieldy. Google has made this process totally irrelevant for most people. If it's not in the first 3 pages of results, it might as well not exist.

So how does google sort the fish? Since this is their secret sauce that has made them billions, they don't just share around the exact recipe. But we do know that it considers how recent a page is, What and how many pages link to that page, and where your search terms appear in the article, among other factors. These factors may or may not correlate to the articles that are the most useful to debaters, though, so knowing how to massage the results can really save you some time cutting cards.

So far I've focused only on google, but the point of this article is that every search engine does these three things: stocking the lake, casting the net, sorting the fish. The important thing, though, is that they all do them differently. Lexis' lake has totally different fish swimming in it than google's, for instance. Knowing the difference between how JSTOR builds its nets and how Lexis does is pretty critical if you want to maximise your research potential.

This is getting pretty long, so I think I'll leave the introduction at that. Hopefully I'll have some more time to play with this metaphor so I can teach (and learn) more about the search engines we're always wasting time on.

The Public Debate Manifesto

So I've probably typed out this argument a dozen times in email messages or forum posts, and it always comes off half-assed and rushed, so I'm going to use this space to play with this a little and hopefully develop something a little more robust.

Anyway, here's my claim: competitive debates ought to be considered public.

By public, I mean all of the following

-Open to anyone to attend, view, comment upon, in the sense of a "public park"
-Part of our collective knowledge base, in the sense of the "public domain."
-Not "belonging" to any person or group of people, as an antonym of "private property."

Before I rush into the nuts-and-bolts of my justification for that claim, allow me to clarify some of my assumptions.

My first assumption is that debate is malleable. The rules of the game are few, which means that much of what goes on during a debate round is dictated by norms and community standards. I believe that by directing those norms and standards, the community at large can influence what debate is and what it does.

There are lots of ways in which the community influences the game, but I think that the most important one is in determining "what wins." People play games to win, and what people do in pursuit of victory will influence how they act and ultimately what education and fulfillment they take away from debate. If, in pursuit of victory, competitors are having fun, developing worthwhile skills, and engaging in constructive behaviors, then I think that we have designed a good game.

So two debaters (or teams) enter a room... who should win? Here's my answer.

The debater who is most well prepared.
The debater who displays the best technical skills.
The debater who has the greater mastery of strategy and tactics.

That's probably not an exhaustive list, but I think it covers a great deal of the kinds of things I'd like to promote in debate. So I think that we, as a community, should promote norms of debate that reward preparedness, technical skill, strategy, and tactics.

Now, I could probably write entire articles on the trade-offs between these three principles, but for the sake of argument I'll leave it that these three things are good and a good game promotes all three.

And, simply put, considering debate rounds public does the best job of encouraging good debate.

Allow me to return to the idea of preparation, or "Doing work", as I like to put it to my students. I should have been more specific, because all work is not created equal. Cutting cards, writing blocks, discussing strategy with coaches and other debaters, this is all good work. It makes us smarter in numbers of ways. But before you can do all that work, you need to do pre-work of "scouting." You need to know what work to do before you do it, or more specifically you need to know what arguments to prepare against before you go about preparing.

Unfortunately, scouting sucks. It's a huge waste of time trying to figure out what Zumbrota QZ is running when you could be doing real work. This information tends to naturally filter down social channels, too, so debaters who attended the right camps or went to the right tournaments or have the right coaches get access to more scouting info than the "have-nots." This also privileges big teams who can scout by brute force.

Until you embrace the fact that Information wants to be free, and set up a central scouting repository. Now if someone knows something, the public knows it too. And teams opt-in to the system via a sort of reverse prisoner's dilemma. An individual team gives up the secrecy of their own arguments, but in return gets information about every team they will hit. This asymmetrically helps the have-nots, who would have less information "naturally" and therefore stand more to gain.

The alternative, from an individual's perspective, is to attempt to keep their own scouting information secret. Besides the fact that I think this strategy is bad for the community at large, I think this strategy is also bad for the individual. Anecdotally speaking, the information always gets out somehow (The Kevin Bacon effect will kill you here), and you lose a lot of ethos when you act as if your arguments rely on the "surprise! factor" alone.

I think one of the popular objections to my argument is that there can be "too much of a good thing" as far as preparation is concerned. This argument comes in two different flavors, which I'd like to address separately.

First of all, the "preparation arms race" is all well and good until it starts to interfere with school, family life, work, etc. Unfortunately, the answer to this one is pretty much "tough shit." The will to succeed is strong, and someone will always make a decision to do more work than you. I think that there is a meaningful discussion to have (outside the scope of this post) about how to make debate a more manageable activity, but the incentive to do work will always be there, and there will always be a bigger fish.

There's also the concern that the person doing the work isn't always the person getting the reward. The hypothetical scenario for this is a mediocre debater from a big team hits a good debater from a small team. In a "fair fight" the small team debater would win, but the big debater gets "prepped out" to the extent that they can skate through the round on nothing but the strength of their blocks. So we end up encouraging an army of thoughtless block-reading drones or something.

Frankly, I just don't see this happening. My personal observation doesn't make this argument true, but in my experience the cream that rises in policy and LD consists of smart, strategic, motivated kids who are writing blocks and rocking socks. And I've seen plenty of block-reliant teams get one-upped by a less prepared debater who was being more strategic. There's more than one way to win a round.

And I think that public debates help people become better at strategy and tactics, too.

This has been put in a bunch of different ways by a bunch of different people, but the phrasing I like is "You don't learn from the rounds you win." It's not technically true, I suppose, but it makes my point. You get more education in debate (as in everything) from watching and competing against people who are better than you. Now, most students' chances to compete against teams that are better than them is out of their control. It's a function of what tournaments they attend and what a computer spits out, so there's not much we can do about it. What we can do is give people as many chances as possible to watch debaters who are better than them.

And watching a debate does not just involve meat in chair. They need to be given the opportunity to flow, to talk about the round, to show their flow to their coaches, to have idle conversations in the lunchroom with other students about the strategic decisions made in round. This is the cauldron of strategy; it's the reason that chess grandmasters will stay up at night studying old games.

And in a perfect world, aspiring young minds would be able to go online to get the cites for the cards read in that round, read the original articles, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

If we are going to spend our weekends to drag students to (a) school, we might as well allow them to do something worth their time.

Let me close with a hypothetical example. You are a debater, you enter a round, they were well prepared against your case, and you've got bagel against their arguments. You get creamed.


-They've run this before, and you could have known about it via a caselist. They prepared for this debate better than you.


-They've never run this before, they came up with a great new strategy and caught you with your pants down.

It's a bitter pill to take, until you realize that in a world of public debates, There is nothing stopping you from being that team next time.