Nov 29, 2010

the day the backlight died

Friday evening, November 26th. Comatose from turkey, football, and jigsaw puzzles, the family decides to watch How to Train Your Dragon for our annual Family Movie. (Review: surprisingly decent, if you like Scottish Vikings.)

Five minutes before the film starts, I'm sitting in the living room, watching the end of a meaningless game while updating my Netflix queue. Suddenly, my school-provided laptop goes dark. It's been doing this for a few months, at random, usually when the power cord is removed, and the short-term solution is to hit the brightness button until sanity is restored.

Only this time, it doesn't work.

I start to panic, thinking that the hard drive has crashed (Again? That's unpossible!), until I notice that I can barely see the faintest image of the desktop. Whew. It's just the monitor. Or, more precisely, the backlight.

Over the course of the weekend, I learn several things.

1. If you shine a flashlight on the screen, you can see everything, albeit a little awkwardly.
2. If I had tried this same technique with a torch, essentially, I would have been behaving as a 21st-century caveman.
3. I can live without the internet, for a few hours at least, until overcome by the urge to check email and update comments on a Google Doc or tweet on Twitter or post cryptically on Facebook or check college football scores on ESPN or... blog. (If I was a little slow answering your question about LD this past weekend, that's part of the reason.)
4. Mooching is one of the top five life skills. Maybe number one.
5. If you are an introvert or a germ-phobe, do not shop at Best Buy on Black Friday.
6. Life without a laptop is a life free of nagging responsibility.
7. I am not sure that I want a life free of nagging responsibility.

Nov 24, 2010

when it's icy in Seattle, stay home

Video of a street in Capitol Hill, where determined drivers vastly overestimate their skills on black ice. Steering out of a skid is not intuitive, even for a professional bus driver.

(About the videographer... usually I'm the kind of person who gets out and helps. But I guess they're performing a public service of sorts. And hey, no one was hurt.)

[via Cory Doctorow]

Nov 22, 2010

civil commitment and the illegal drugs resolution

Is it possible for a public health approach to the abuse of illegal drugs to be coercive? In a previous post, citing quarantine as an analogue, I argued that it is. Thanks to a conversation with Mr. Cushman, an attorney friend, I'll explore a second potential analogue for a non-criminal yet coercive public health approach: civil commitment.

Civil commitment is
... process in which a judge decides whether a person who is alleged to be mentally ill should be required to go to a psychiatric hospital or accept other mental health treatment.... A civil commitment is not a criminal conviction and will not go on a criminal record.
On what grounds can someone be civilly committed?
A person can be committed if after hearing from witnesses a judge finds by clear and convincing evidence that the person has a mental disorder and, because of that mental disorder, is:
  • Dangerous to self or others, or
  • Unable to provide for basic personal needs like health and safety.
Why shouldn't similar criteria justify civil commitment for drug abusers, under the supervision of medical personnel?

And, on the other side, what's the difference between this and a criminal penalty, other than the lack of a criminal record? Is it a distinction without a difference? (And does that point flow Negative?)

It's important to point out that civil commitment is a procedure that exists in free societies, although not without controversy, especially since it clearly violates Mill's harm principle.

Nov 21, 2010

countering The Spread

Some debaters can talk really, really fast. Beyond auctioneer fast. Beyond reasonable human being fast. Beyond propriety and decency fast. When you run into a verbal avalanche, an opponent trying to bury you with 20 contentions, what should you do?

Here's my advice for countering The Spread, as an expansion of a previous comment.

Before the Tournament

Learn to talk and listen faster.

  • Practice reading your case as fast as you can, while still enunciating. Have someone else listen to you so you're sure you're making sense.
  • Use the "pen trick." Hold a pen between your teeth, as far back as it'll go, flat on the top of your tongue so both ends of the pen stick out the sides of your cheeks. Then read your case, quickly.
  • Watch Policy Debate rounds on YouTube. Even if you don't understand the argument, practice flowing it. If you can keep up with Policy, you can probably keep up with an LD spread.

Learn to write faster.

  • Develop abbreviations.
  • Learn a form of shorthand.

Study up.

  • Have blocks, ideally 2-3 responses, prepared for all common framework choices, so you don't have to waste time thinking of refutations.
  • Keep your responses to bullet points--as clear and concise as you can manage.
  • Cards as blocks are okay, but they may take too much time.
  • Predict the weaseliest Resolutional Analysis and definitions you can imagine, and prepare blocks for them.

In Round
When flowing...

  • Focus on taglines; if nothing else, you'll at least be able to respond to the logic of their case.
  • Use arrows and symbols.
  • Use the abbreviations you've developed.

In CX...

  • Get clarity. It's not the best thing to do with your CX time, but it's better than going into your rebuttal without a clue.
  • As your opponent to provide the overarching thesis of their case. If they can't, you can go after them on grounds of consistency and coherence.

In your prep time...

  • Breathe. You're going to be fine.
  • Ask to see your opponent's case. If they're not just spreading because they're a jerk, they'll probably let you examine it.
  • Use most, if not all, of your time preparing for your first rebuttal.
  • Look for the overarching theme or thesis of your opponent's case. If you can, attack your opponent's case at the root: show how its framework is so flawed that the rest of the advocacy is immaterial, or how it's all predicated on a baseless assumption about human nature, the law, morality, etc. Note: if you're going to take this tack, you probably should just go with it and not do a "line by line" to hedge your bets. Otherwise, it'll seem that you lack confidence in your strategy.
  • Especially watch out for a priori arguments and burdens. Your opponent will argue that a drop in these circumstances is an automatic ballot for them.

In your rebuttal...

  • Go fast. Do not repeat yourself--there's no time.
  • Focus your efforts. Remember that a spreading debater is going to have to drop some points, too, so make sure any drops on your part are minor.
  • Group contentions like mad. Take out whole contentions (or more) at the same time.
  • If going for a wholesale attack on the case, or undercutting a key assumption, use the metaphor of sawing down a tree at the trunk to ensure that your judge "gets" your strategy.

Upon Reflection
Note that much of my advice is judge-dependent. If your judge says "Speed kills" and glares at your opponent during their constructive, feel free to employ arguments about fairness, education, and human decency.

Suggest tips or ask questions in the comments. What are your preferred strategies for countering The Spread?

Nov 17, 2010

Vlatko Vedral and the demon machine

I've blogged about demons from time to time, and I've blogged about physicist Vlatko Vedral from time to time, too.

And now, two of my favorite topics are together at last, in an article about a demon-powered bead.

Masaki Sano, a physicist at the University of Tokyo, and his colleagues have demonstrated that a bead can be coaxed up a 'spiral staircase' without any energy being directly transferred to the bead to push it upwards. Instead, it is persuaded along its route by a series of judiciously timed decisions to change the height of the 'steps' around it, based on information about the bead's position. In this sense, "information is being converted to energy", says Sano....

Vlatko Vedral, a quantum physicist at the University of Oxford, UK, says that it will be interesting to see whether the technique can be used to drive nanomotors and artificial molecular machines. "I would also be excited to see whether something like this is already at work in nature," he says. "After all, you could say that all living systems are 'Maxwell's demons', trying to defy the tendency for order to turn back into randomness."
If you're a living system--and let's hope you are--as Cake would put it, Satan is your motor.

Nov 16, 2010

legalization and time: another LD Mailbag

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion regarding the role of legalization in the illegal drugs resolution of November / December 2010.
Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.
For instance, via email:
One of my opponents kept arguing (when I was Aff) that legalization had nothing to do with the debate. This confused me, but I thought it was just something with her. Then I get a judge who, upon being asked her paradigm, said that legalization is nonresolutional. What is all this about? I thought that was what the debate was about. What grounds, then, does the Aff have? And I mentioned what you said about manufacture and distribution could be illegal, but apparently that's still nonresolutional....

In my Aff case I talked about how drug abusers aren't guilty of a crime as they do not harm others; if they do then the law can interfere. However, my opponents said that since the resolution says "illegal drugs," drug abusers are clearly guilty of a crime, and apparently I don't have the power to change the drugs' legality.
In one sense, full legalization could nonresolutional--after all, if there exists no such substance as an "illegal drug," then there's nothing to debate. Flawless victory, Negative.

However, some form of decriminalization seems necessary, thanks to the word "not." I've argued many times before that making abuse (shooting up, smoking, inhaling, sniffing, ingesting) a matter of public health still gives the Negative ground to pursue manufacturers and distributors of illegal drugs.

Now I'm starting to think there may be another way. Let's look at the temporal aspect--how affirming and negating play out in time.

If we talk in terms of "possible worlds," we don't concern ourselves with time. The resolution is or is not true, always and forever. Thus, illegal drugs are always illegal, and full legalization (as opposed to partial decriminalization) is completely nonresolutional.

However, if we talk in terms of the status quo, with an eye toward the future (thus with time as part of the equation), then the Aff can argue the resolution can be true now--we "ought to" legalize drugs at some point in the future, in order to stop treating them as a matter of criminal justice--and that once legalization occurs, the resolution isn't false, but unnecessary.

In this line of thinking, legalization--complete and utter--is a valid Affirmative option.

What do you think?

Nov 14, 2010

a few good books

Let me take a little breather from debate-blogging to suggest some good reads.

See What I'm Saying, Lawrence D. Rosenblum
If you trained yourself, you could echolocate like a bat. Not as well as a bat, of course, but pretty darn well, considering. Rosenblum's first chapter explains how, while the rest of the book illuminates other surprising features of the senses. The upshot: it's actually misleading to think of a discrete batch of five senses; we all, to varying degrees, have what Rosenblum calls "multisensory perception." At least, that's how I smell it.

The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb; Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz
Of course, if our powers of perception are much better than we imagine, our cognition is much worse. These books aren't intended to be therapeutic, but, at least from this wrongster's perspective, they are, in the best possible way.

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, Clifford Nass and Corina Yen
What can we learn about human nature by studying our interactions with machines? Hopefully, a great deal. This book provoked me to reconfigure the way I give feedback--and how I teach students to give each other feedback.

Here's Looking at Euclid, Alex Bellos
Love the title, and, even more, the explanations of mathematical concepts, which are entertaining and accessible in equal measures. Because the best math teachers always have the corniest jokes, right?

Nov 10, 2010

"Swung on and belted!"

Dave Niehaus, the soul of Mariner baseball, has passed away at seventy-five. In his honor, 710 ESPN has compiled some of his most memorable calls, late summer sunshine for a cold November night.

More audio at

Nov 9, 2010

definitional tricks; carrots and sticks: the LD mailbag

Regarding the illegal drugs resolution, a reader writes:
Would it be possible to argue on the affirmative that we use a joint system. As the resolution states, "The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be TREATED as a matter of public health not of criminal justice," wouldn't the debate settle on which means we need to treat with. Looking at the resolution with treating as the key point allows the affirmative to say we need to treat with public health but punish and mandate with criminal justice. Do you think this could flow in a debate and if so do you have any ideas on how to run it in a case?
Definitional tricks in LD have to pass the "eye-roll" test. If they make the judge roll her eyes and think, hoo boy, chances are your opponent--if at least minimally qualified--will have an easy way to defeat your definition.

I think this one barely passes, because the word "treat" does have a medical definition that works, somewhat, in the context of the resolution. The problem, as I see it, is that it's too easily defeated by a broader definition--"to deal with / handle"--and by the complete phrase "treated as a matter." Conditions are treated by (doctors, nurses, public health officials), or treated with (medicine, surgery, bed rest, kissing a boo-boo), not treated as.

A tricksy definition may not last beyond CX. For instance, today in practice, one of my debaters was trying to define the "abuse" of illegal drugs to include the manufacture and distribution of drugs. After all, he said, to "abuse" a drug is to "use it wrongly." So what does "use" mean? "Well... to inhale, or inject, or snort, or..." Or manufacture or distribute? "Uh... sure." To paraphrase the old song, "Two of these things are not like the other things."

Another reader writes:
I just debated the current topic last weekend, and a lot of negatives went for a permutation of criminal justice and a public health approach. They claimed that the only way to require people to go to rehab or to use another public health approach is through a court sentence or another criminal justice approach. Would you be able to post anything that can help the Aff maintain uniqueness? Thanks!
Lots of responses for that line of thinking.

1. Why require rehab? If we have a society in which government forces people to rehabilitate themselves, then we not only clear a path to authoritarianism, but we lose a sense of personal responsibility and moral agency. We fall prey to a mindset that drugs have incredible powers over us, and that addiction is a disease. (This line of reasoning is rebutted and rebuked in the excellent Pain Control and Drug Policy.)

2. On the other hand, maybe addiction is a disease--giving public health officials quarantine powers.

3. There are plenty of noncoercive public health approaches: education, needle sharing, community outreach, treatment centers, and, someday, quite possibly, anti-drug vaccination. Or why not offer economic incentives to help abusers clean up?

4. In a rights-based or retributivist framework, questions of efficacy are the wrong questions. Inviolable rights are inviolable, no matter how well intentioned, or how good the potential outcome. If drug abuse (the act of getting high on illegal drugs) is itself not a crime, then a criminal justice approach is not only morally wrong, but a category error.

Nov 7, 2010

cross-examining the illegal drugs resolution

Readers have been asking about potential CX questions for the illegal drugs resolution. I've been a little leery about posting them, since no general set of questions is going to apply in most circumstances; cases vary in so many ways. My own approach to CX is more situational and impromptu--but then, I usually have a general strategy heading in.

So, here are a few things to ask about, for both sides, whenever your opponent assumes or glides over them. Note: these are not the questions themselves. Frame your questions for strategic advantage; see the example below, and this note.

1. What justifies criminal punishment? Who determines what proper punishment should be?
2. What limits punishment, if anything?
3. What is the nature of the society in the resolution? Will the outcome change if the society is democratic, authoritarian, or a constitutional monarchy, among many other options?
4. Why are illegal drugs illegal?
5. What does abuse mean? Is it mere misuse, or a pattern of sustained, debilitating misuse?
6. What are some of the potentially distasteful options for public health treatment?
7. What are some empirical examples of nations or governments that have tried a public health approach?
8. Does the phrase "illegal drugs" include legal drugs used off-label or without a prescription?
9. Is there an agreed-upon approach in the international / medical community?

One of the primary goals of CX is to expose the flaw or weakness in the opposing advocacy, which is why one of the best CX techniques is a species of reductio called the reductio ad ridiculum or reductio ad incommodum. Here's an example.
AFF: Your criterion is utilitarianism, correct?
NEG: Right.
AFF: Under that criterion, how do we justify criminal punishment?
NEG: By measuring its effect.
AFF: And how do we do that?
NEG: By looking at whether society is overall improved.
AFF: But that's hard to do, isn't it, when you have an essentially harmful response to a harm? For instance, how does it improve society to imprison drug abusers?
NEG: I guess I mean that it reduces crime. It keeps criminals from committing more crimes while imprisoned [incapacitation], and also warns others away from committing crimes, or from spreading their drug habit to friends or family [deterrence].
AFF: But what if the most effective way to incapacitate drug offenders (and to frighten away future abusers) is to shoot stoners on sight?
NEG: But that's ridiculous.
AFF: Why?
At this point, the Affirmative has given the Neg several awkward choices.

The Neg could argue for some kind of "side constraint" on a utilitarian approach to punishment--that some punishments are just too awful--which might help the Aff show why a deontological approach is superior, because it rules out such punishments on principle, rather than ad hoc.

The Neg could also try to argue that society won't flourish with the population living in fear of summary execution--but will likely have no evidence, and, more important, no bright line for distinguishing more or less draconian punishments (and how they might affect society more broadly).

It's also quite possible that the Neg will swallow the bitter pill of consistency and try to defend a draconian approach as legitimate.

Regardless, the Affirmative has the Neg on the defensive, which is the point of CX.

That's all I have for now. In the comments, suggest questions (or lines of questions) that might work--or have worked for you.

yours, mine, and ours

Thoughts, we imagine, belong to us. Even when we share them (speaking, writing, smiling, Facebook-liking) or when others can divine them (ESP, brain scans, Spock-like mind-melding), the origin of our thoughts, geographically speaking, is local. In the other direction, we resist efforts to implant unwanted thoughts in our minds (indoctrination, propaganda, brainwashing, manipulative sales tactics) and get uncomfortable at the prospect of Inception-esque thought implantation.

In the physicalist account of consciousness, nothing would theoretically prohibit the direct transmission of thoughts from one brain to another, given the right wiring--perhaps complicating the notion of my thoughts versus your thoughts.

Nature, of course, has the proof of concept.
They are the rarest of the rarest of the rare. Tatiana and Krista are not just conjoined, but they are craniopagus, sharing a skull and also a bridge between each girl’s thalamus, a part of the brain that processes and relays sensory information to other parts of the brain. Or perhaps in this case, to both brains. There is evidence that they can see through each other’s eyes and perhaps share each other’s unspoken thoughts. And if that proves true, it will be the rarest thing of all. They will be unique in the world.

They have been drawing international attention, both public and scientific, since before their birth. Dr. Douglas Cochrane, a neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital, is part of the team that has been watching over them since they were in the womb. Last year he conducted tests in which one twin looked at an object while he measured the brain activity in the other. “Their brains are recording signals from the other twin’s visual field,” he cautiously concluded. “One might be seeing what the other one is seeing.”
It's not just a neurologist's theory:
The family regularly sees evidence of it. The way their heads are joined, they have markedly different fields of view. One child will look at a toy or a cup. The other can reach across and grab it, even though her own eyes couldn’t possibly see its location. “They share thoughts, too,” says Louise. “Nobody will be saying anything,” adds Simms, “and Tati will just pipe up and say, ‘Stop that!’ And she’ll smack her sister.” While their verbal development is delayed, it continues to get better. Their sentences are two or three words at most so far, and their enunciation is at first difficult to understand. Both the family, and researchers, anxiously await the children’s explanation for what they are experiencing.
As do the rest of us amateur philosopher-types.

[via Cory Doctorow]

Nov 4, 2010

when elections don't matter

I was going to blog extensively about Glenn Greenwald's recent visit to South Puget Sound Community College, but I see that Berd beat me to it.

Instead, the abridged version.

1. At this point, in the Obama presidency, at least as it relates to civil liberties, you're either naive or cynical. Consider his track record, as summarized by Greenwald:
Civil liberties were at the forefront of the critique of the Bush-Cheney administration. Yet virtually all of these powers are still in place, or have been strengthened.

Obama symbolically ended...
* Authorization for torture. (It was no longer in use by the time he was inaugurated.)
* The use of CIA black sites. (They were already empty.)

Obama continued Bush-era practices for...
* State secrets
* Guantanamo Bay detention
* Drone attacks
* Covert activities / "interference" (that fuels terrorism, in Greenwald's view)

Obama invented...
* The right to order the CIA to target American citizens for assassination

Greenwald's summing-up: "The idea that Barack Obama would do more to institutionalize and entrench and strengthen Bush-era policies... was something that not even the most cynical Democrat would have foreseen."

2. Greenwald seemed much more upbeat about the Tea Party and the Republican "shellacking" than many in his liberal audience. Partisanship, if nothing else, deflates the president's ego.

3. New Mexico Republican Gary Johnson: savior of civil liberties? From an unidentified woman in the Question and Answer session: "I had drinks with Gary Johnson, and got a little bit drunk. He's really awesome.... He's a Republican and he's completely awesome."

Nov 1, 2010

how to earn more speaker points: from the LD mailbag

Recently, a reader wrote:
Dear Jim,

I am a novice in LD but I have attended a debate camp over the previous summer and competed in my first tournament last Saturday. I went 4-0 but only placed 3rd in the novice division due to speaker points. Unfortunately, many of the tournaments we have around here do not have elimination rounds. I was wondering how I could possibly increase my speaker points. Maybe you could give me a top 10 things to do or something similar. The debate camp I went to was more focused on JV and V levels and thus were focused on argumentation and higher level debate skills, many of which I picked up quickly. I really enjoy your blog and it has helped me.

Thanks in advance,
Ten seems like a good number. Here are a few things you can do to increase your speaker points. (Have other ideas? Suggest 'em in the comments.)

1. Work on your prose.
Write your cases so they're elegant, not just functional. Learn some rhetorical devices and employ them (judiciously, of course). I particularly like anaphora and epistrophe, especially when allied with asyndeton and polysyndeton. Your case, at least on the Affirmative, is your first chance to shine. Don't waste it.

2. Work on your prosody.
The best speech is like music, with discernible rhythm and melody. Bust out of monotone, slow down a little, and emphasize the words that really count.

3. Introduce and conclude.
I know it's the fashion for some debaters to skip the "fluff" because, in their view, it wastes precious time, time that could be spent warranting or analyzing the resolution or dropping a second underview (yeah, I've seen it). However, don't underestimate the power of a snappy quote, or, heaven forfend, a poignant anecdote.

4. Be charming.
Simple things: eye contact, a smile. Don't ask your judge, "What's your paradigm?" Instead, ask what school they're from, or "What do you look for in a round?" or "Anything we should know before the round starts?" Sound like a human being, not Debate Robot 3000.

5. Be forceful, but not irritable.
Don't sound, or look, like a jerk.

6. Be gracious in defeat--and moreso in victory.
Say "Good round" when it was. On the other hand, don't say "Good round" if you thoroughly trashed your opponent. You will sound insincere and condescending. Thank the judge for judging instead, and don't speak unless your opponent wants to talk with you.

7. Have an organized approach.
Have a roadmap: "First I'll address my opponent's points, then rebuild my own." Line-by-line is safe for starters.

8. Be witty.
Pepper your thoughts with pithy quotes by folks like Mark Twain or Mae West. If you're good at telling jokes, use one as an analogy. (If you're not good at telling jokes, please, don't.)

9. Don't suck up to the judge.
Seriously. Don't compliment them (it'll ring hollow). Don't shake hands (it's awkward for some of us, and it spreads disease). Don't over-apologize for being late (it happens to everyone; it's usually extemp's fault).

10. Videotape yourself, and learn from the experience.
You'll be glad you did.