Thursday, December 15, 2011

Young fabians blog post

I wrote a post for the Young Fabians' blog about Labour's credibility deficit on the economy, you can read it here if you want.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book review - Ask Not

As a lecturer in Communications and a history graduate, Ask Not has all the right ingredients to appeal to me in a book. In a fascinating account, rich with historical details and primary research, Thurston Clarke traces JFK's inaugural address from conception to delivery. One of the most celebrated speeches of the 21st Century, its themes of service to community still resonate today.

Rumors (and truths) that Ted Sorenson had written much of JFK's Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage meant that JFK was particularly eager to establish his own authentic ownership of the inaugural. While the true picture emerges as a more complex interaction between Sorenson and Kennedy, who like all good speech writing teams had taken on aspects of each others writing, Clarke argues compellingly that the most memorable passages of the speech came from Kennedy.

Clarke is clearly enamored with JFK and anyone who has read the similarly excellent The Last Campaign, the first chapter of which is available free as a Vanity Fair extract, would be well aware of his political leanings. However, this no mere hagiography. Clarke gives time over to many of the issues which plagued JFK's, such as his affairs, conceited connections with celebrity and impatience with others whom he did not feel worthy of his respect. Its all the richer and more compelling for these details. One of the most amusing moment finds Frank Sinatra smashing his 'presidential helipad' as JFK seeks to create distance from him by electing not to stay at his house in the months following the inauguration.

One of the most interesting things in the book is an explanation of how it marked the transition from print to video as the primary means of presidential communication. The carefully stage managed spectacle and the close relationships which Kennedy fostered with television executives presaged a broader shift in political culture. I'd highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the history of the period, or exploring the intricacies involved in crafting a speech for the ages.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ten lessons from USU

While things are fresh in my mind, I wanted to just write down a few quick thoughts about how we ran the tournament from the adjudication core side, and what lessons for good or bad can be taken from it. CA-ing a large tournament is something that most people only do once, or at the most twice, so I thought it might be useful for people to have some ideas from someone who has done it. Some of the ideas here are specific to the US circuit, but I think a lot of them would be relevant to anyone hosting a competition, particularly a large-scale one.

1. Judges’ test

We opted for a judge test that was not a great debate and in fact one that was difficult to call. What we considered most important was to find judges who identified important arguments for each of the teams and problems than the result itself. Everyone can judge one debate badly, and particularly so with a lack of others to discuss things with. As such, I think the focus should be much more on reasoning than decisions, with other questions about debating serving to determine who had the requisite level of knowledge to judge important rooms.

2. Judge feedback

We had limited time at the competition and given a lack of personnel chose to prioritise ballot running over someone to specifically tabulate judge feedback. As a CA team we took a triage approach, picking out the best and worst forms and seeing if others correlated with them. Based on the limited number of outliers, our feeling is that we were fairly accurate with our initial allocation of judges. However, I think for other tournaments having someone tab feedback, which I know has been the norm elsewhere, would preferable if the personnel are available.

3. Judge allocation

We trusted the tab to do its job. There were only a couple of very rare instances where we changed people about, and that was only for clashes or where equal ranked judges were randomly selected to chair and we moved the more experienced to the chair of the panel. Too often CA teams allocate panels to teams that they’re friends with. Tournamon does a great job of ranking panels and allocating the strongest judges to where they’re needed (bubble rooms). Having this approach and altering judge rankings based on feedback rather than changing panels after the draw sped up the turnover of the rounds hugely. Along with the Herculean efforts of our tab team, this was one of the main reasons that we were able to turn rounds around so quickly and stayed tightly to schedule throughout.

4. Open adjudication

We opted to have open adjudication in all rounds. It is the norm at competitions on both coasts in the US.

There is a tension between “debating as competition” and “debating as education” that clearly exists on the US circuit. I belong strongly in the former camp. However, I see the merit to the arguments for open adjudication. A long time is often present between debates and announcement and I think that can lead to people to alter their views of debates and convince themselves more strongly that they have broken. Having them in room shortly afterwards means that people get immediate (and not forgetful/ drunken) reasons for why they did not break. If competitions are to have open adjudication throughout, then there needs to be a strong norm against ‘throwing’ rooms. Personally I am still in favour of one closed round at the end of a tournament as I think it the excitement of not knowing who has broken (both for teams that are in contention and for those who are on the same teams/ friends with them) outweighs those benefits.

5. Warm room

Based on our tab team’s advice we instituted a ‘warm room’ policy of posting results from previous rounds in the debaters’ rooms and asking speakers to check to ensure that their results matched what they were orally told by judges. I think this is a really good idea, and am thankful to the team for suggesting it. Combining it with the acetate system that has been used at Worlds would be even better.

However, based on the arguments of some of the people present, the results went up with speaker points present. This was decided in the moment. Although it adds some interest for people to see how they’ve done as they’ve gone along and for others to see who is speaking well, I wouldn’t recommend it to others. Round 6’s results weren’t posted until after the break announcement, so people still had some of the nice tension of not knowing who the last teams in the break were. However, I think leaving speaks over as a surprise until the end of the tournament is more fun for everyone involved.

6. Wing judge questions

We asked wing judges to ask two specific questions of chairs, and put them on their feedback forms. One was ‘have we allocated speaker points to the right speaker’ the other was to double-check the math on the ballot to ensure no low point wins were given. Judge errors happen, but judges do not want to think that they are the ones responsible. Based on the experiences of pilots, doctors and others, we decided that these two formal questions were useful. We had a lower level of ballot math errors than usual. In cases where it did occur, it is highly unlikely that people actually followed our request to double-check the scores. I would recommend that other tournaments follow this policy. If it became the norm it would hugely reduce the number of errors that can often lead to large time delays as an errant chair is tracked down and asked to re-do the scores.

7. Communication lines

Something will always go wrong. Competitions with over six hundred people will always have incidents. One of the most important things is letting people know what’s going on when that does happen. There were two moments like that during the tournament that had that heart-stopping effect. One was that the team allocation for one of the schools was entered with their original rather than new list, that required a delay to round one while we made sure all teams knew where they were going. The other was that due to a room number error, four of the teams were dropped from the tab in the last round.

Thankfully all four teams were from the same debate and all that was needed was to let them know positions and assign judges to that room. That took about a 15 minute delay, but we tried to make sure people waiting in all three rooms around campus knew what was happening. My experience, from Dublin Worlds forward, is that people are far more forgiving of delays and errors when they know the reason why, rather than seeing the CA team running around worrying but without that information.

The other major area of communications was responding to questions raised about various tournament policies such as the inclusion of international teams and the issuance of judge and debater guidance that went beyond the mere WUDC rules and also discussed accepted norms. In both instances, legitimate differences of opinion were present. Based on the experience of similar questions in the lead up to other major international competitions, I decided to respond quickly to such threads and to explain our position. I think in other cases things have got a bit out of hand because of an absence of prompt official response.

8. Written documents need to be orally explained

We gave out maps and phone numbers to everyone involved in the competition, and thought that would be sufficient to get people to rooms and to phone in case anything went wrong. We were wrong on that one. Things would have been eased if we had both given them maps and numbers, but also let them know where the buildings were and told them specifically in the briefings to refer to their maps. You cannot trust people to read what you give them!

9. Motion setting

We brain-stormed motions before the competition and finalised them over a nice lunch on the Friday that the competition started. We had some really interesting motions that were perhaps more novel that we didn’t run. We took a deliberate philosophy of erring towards debates that we knew ‘worked’ than taking a gamble on an entirely new, and perhaps very good debate. I’m not sure if that is better or not, but our view was that for a title championships we would favour motions that we knew from experience, or close approximation in other areas to be fair. On purely logistical sense, googledocs were wonderful and I would recommend them to every other CA team. You can all collaboratively edit motions and leave comments in real time. They made the process of creating and critiquing motions much easier before the DCAs arrived.

As a CA team, we were really happy that we managed to provide a fair and balanced set of motions for debate. The lowest percentage of any round was 1st prop for round 6 where only 8.6% of teams won. However, given that 23.9% of 2nd prop teams won, I think it was probably more of an issue of teams taking a while to figure out the motion than it being un-propable. Anyone interested can take a look at the statistics for every round here. I think it would be a good idea for as many tournament as possible to post this kind of data afterwards. Over time, they would help us to set fairer motions.

10. Thank You

Finally, and most important I would like to thank all those who made the tournament possible, be they judges, debaters, volunteers or colleagues.

As many of you know, I am shortly leaving Vermont after two very happy years to return to Europe. It has been wonderful to be part of the US BP circuit that is rapidly maturing into a force to be reckoned with. I owe a huge debt to all those on the US circuit and particularly those in the North East who have made me so welcome. Thank you.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Women's participation in debating

There was a discussion on a friend's facebook account about women's participation in debating. I posted a comment there, but thought I'd copy it over here as well for anyone that's interested.

My thoughts are that there isn't much bias at play against women, just a major problem of retention. Kylie Lane, Beth O'Connor, Jess Prince and Naomi Oreb have all topped the tab at worlds since 2005. In our region (the North East) women have regularly done well too. Just from our Vermont team, Jess & John have won three tournaments this year, Sarah & Sam broke at Worlds and won a tournament, and Alli & Tom got to the Yale final. We don't seem to have as much of a problem retaining female debaters, and, as it happens, nor have UCD (my Alma Mater) lately. While not much research has been done on bias, Steven Kryger did write an interesting article for the Monash debating review in 2009 which indicated that there is no appreciable gender effect on results amongst experienced judges.

My gut feeling (and it's just that) is that people, as a whole, find it a little easier to get along with others of the same gender as them. The more women participate in a squad or on the circuit, the more people that others get to interact with, and form friendships with. The first year or two for any debater, no matter how good, is a tough slog where it's incredibly hard to reach knock-out rounds. What keeps people coming back is as much the friendships as it is the competition.

Why is it was a problem that women don't stay involved? At a simplistic level, I'd say it's extremely bad for teams competitively to lose 1/3rd of their (potentially) best speakers because they don't stay on after first or second year. For the circuit its bad because we get less diversity of views and opinions and have poorer debates as a result. (don't get me wrong, there are many other reasons to view it as a positive outcome, but these two, I would imagine, ought to appeal to all but the most insecure male speakers!)

So how to go about encouraging retention? Some things that have been implemented on other circuits range from a mixed-doubles competition (fun and ensuring 50/50 divide) in the UK, women's tournaments there, in Canada and Australia, and quotas for teams at major tournaments in Australia. Perhaps it's time to have a discussion about implementing similar measures in the North East. In the meantime, extra coaching and encouragement is always a good way to keep people coming back.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

How history shapes people

We know that our history shapes our lives to some extent. What a new field of economics is finding is to just how large an extent that is.

Tim Harford
author of the excellent Undercover Economist wrote earlier on this year about the phenomenon:

The largest silver mines in the Spanish empire were the Potosí mines, discovered in 1545 in what is now Bolivia. Exploiting the mines was dangerous, and in the late 16th century, the Spanish introduced the mita system of forced labour. Villages near Potosí were obliged to provide one-seventh of their adult male population to work the mines, and the mita system continued until its abolition in 1812.

That is history. This is not: the former mita districts are 25 per cent poorer than apparently identical districts on the other side of a boundary that ceased to mean anything 198 years ago. A long-abolished colonial system has somehow shaped the modern world.

While the field is a relatively new one, it has profound implications for public policy. Circumstances determine much of people's lives, even where those circumstances linger in the mists of collective memory. Policies such as those being implemented in Brazil to create conditional cash transfers are perhaps one way of addressing these inherited inequalities, but more ways must be found. It is considered a classic example of injustice that a child ought not inherit the sins of their parent (or their parent's owner); we ought do more to make that a reality.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Cape Town Harbour

I thought it was about time I got this blog going again. I've got a few posts half-written in the drafts that I'll post in the next few days. In the meantime here's a picture from my recent trip to the beautiful Cape Town in South Africa

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some reflections from China

As many of you know, I was just in China for 10 days at the FLTRP Cup, a national debating competition in English, sponsored by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. While this was the 14th year that the competition has been run, it was the first time that it took place in the BP format. I decided to jot down a few thoughts on the competition and some of the wider issues surrounding it while they were still fresh in my mind.

The debates

One of the questions that was in my mind before going to the competition was ‘how free will people be to make arguments’. Not knowing much about domestic Chinese policy, this was a bit of a mystery to me. One of the most surprising and rewarding parts of the whole experience for me was the argumentative freedom that the students expressed. Sometimes this was to my own political leanings; I saw the top room in a round about immediate elections in Thailand, where the prop teams made some excellent arguments about the mandate that a government requires from the people in order to be legitimate. In another round, while not to my political liking, I heard another fantastic argument. In a debate about banning online groups from publishing the personal information of those who have transgressed morally, the speaker explained how law was a reflection of people’s desires, and sometimes the law took a while to catch up with the views of the people, so there must be room for a certain level of extra-judicial space. So far, so seemingly liberal. However, she rounded out the argument with the example that ‘most people in China think adulterers should be put to death, but the law doesn’t respect that yet’. While it’s not an outcome I’m personally in any way comfortable with, it did make me realise that it was the exact same argument as one that I would have found incredibly persuasive with a liberal example, and it still received good reward in the debate!

Overall the quality of the competition was a pleasant surprise. In judging a semi and watching the final, I, and those around me, felt that the standard was similar to that which would be present at any international competition, with clever, sophisticated argumentation. (There was one really interning argument in favour of banning child athletes which drew an analogy to child soldiers, for example). At the lower levels of the competition, there was an over-reliance on is/ ought fallacies (‘China has a Confucian ethic, therefore it should), but that was no different from what you often see in similar debates elsewhere with new debaters. The training the teams had done in March had clearly paid off, and given that it was the first competition in BP for many of the debaters, it really was remarkable how good they were.

One of the other really noticeable things about the competition was the level and quality of female participation. A recent leader in The Economist discussed the idea of gendercice and presented the frightening face of a preference for male children in China and other developing countries. However, at this competition, however unrepresentative it may be, a different picture emerged. Talented female students were clearly given every opportunity to shine, and took it with aplomb. For many of the foreign adjudicators the women were seen to consistently outshine the men, and it forced us to ask questions about the level of participation and success of women in our own circuits. While I have no intention of rehashing the debate that recently raged in the IONA circuit, I think it is worth nothing that the success and participation of women in China shows what most believe to be the case anyway: there is no innate reason why women either participate less or are less successful in debating.

Scale & impact

One of the most striking things about the competition was its scale, both in terms of the number of participants, and the ambition of the organisers. Universities were limited to one team each, and there were 128 teams taking part. That means that there were teams from 128 different universities at the competition from all over China. The organisers had clearly put a huge amount of effort into the competition, with all team’s transportation and accommodation covered in order to facilitate their participation. While BP debating in China is still relatively new, this competition switching over to the format was already making waves. The work of people like Steve Johnson (CA of this competition) Lok Wing Fat (who has run countless workshops in the country) and many others are creating a national impetus towards BP.

I chatted with several coaches from Chinese universities about their desire to set up regional competitions in order to help them prepare more for the national championships. When it comes to international debating, China have already started to make an impact, for example, Tsinghua University winning the inaugural EFL section at Vancouver Worlds in 2007. However, their full impact is yet to be felt. For me, this shows the enormous success that the BP format has had in creating an international debating format. However, it also highlights the Worlds community’s enormous challenge in figuring out how Worlds should function with an ever-increasing number of people wishing to take part. As Gregg O’Neill noted recently, the failure of the Future of Worlds subcommittee was an enormous disappointment. With so many of these debaters clearly harbouring ambitions of partaking in the championships, and a natural limit to the size the competition can be run at annually and sustainably, questions must be asked about how these problems can be overcome while still having a representative worlds that achieves its stated purpose – finding the best debating team in the world.


The competition had a large number of subsidised foreign adjudicators. While I was a little worried initially that this could come across as ‘foreigners come to teach the Chinese how to do things’, this really wasn’t the way in panned out at all. This was due to two things. Firstly, the students and coaches were very receptive to the experience and opinions of people who were experienced with the format and looked to learn as much as possible from them. The second thing was the approach taken by the CA team to promote and involve as many of the quality local judges as possible which saw a gradual shift towards more locally based judging as the competition progressed. If the level of funding for the competition is around the same again next year, then I’d imagine there will be travel opportunities for many of the people who would be reading this.

I would not hesitate to recommend the competition for a moment. It was an incredibly rewarding experience that really reminded me of why I enjoy judging and coaching students. People were eager to learn, there was a freshness to many of the arguments and the standard was genuinely impressive. Add into the mix a wonderful group of international judges, tasty, cheap local cuisine, and two days touring Beijing after the competition and you really can’t go wrong!