Killing Putin softly with our song

Wednesday, 9 January 2008 — 4:58am | Debate

Before I speak of items that are of a more general appeal (Thailand, its wise and noble King, the late Oscar Peterson, the even later Air Canada), a few words about the World Universities Debating Championship: the knockout results and motions from Assumption Worlds are up, but more interestingly, so is the complete tab of the preliminary rounds, for the express perusal of those who like detailed statistical quantifications of their favourite sporting events.

As you’ll immediately observe, the online component of the Tabbie software is really something. It tells me that Wallis and I finished in the top quarter of the 396-team tournament with 16 points, a tremendous improvement for us both (at Vancouver Worlds, her team and mine finished on 11 and 13 points, respectively), and goes on to offer a round-by-round breakdown of our performance that illustrates our place in the standings before and after every debate, identifies our opposition and adjudicators, and retells the story of our tournament by the numbers—from our Round 1 skirmish with the eventual semifinalists from Yale A, to the inexcusable and outrageous decision that knocked us off the warpath in Round 6, to our mathematical elimination in Round 7 when we unsuccessfully advocated for the assassination of Vladimir Putin, to the Alberta-versus-Alberta front-half faceoff in Round 9.

With a combined 62 points spread over four teams (not to mention Sharon’s second place in the Public Speaking competition, which she achieved in spite of being cut off a minute early), the Alberta contingent as a whole submitted its best performance since Toronto Worlds in 2002, when Stephanie Wanke and Alex Ragan finished in 12th place with 19 points and advanced to the quarterfinals.

Since I’m putting off posting my 900-some holiday photographs on Facebook, I thought I’d compile a summary of Alberta’s track record at Worlds. This will probably be of strictly local significance, but you could always skip it and scroll down for some general remarks on the statistical analysis of debates.

First, a quick nota bene on what the point totals mean, for the benefit of readers from the outside (if any exist): in the British Parliamentary style of debating used at Worlds, each round consists of four teams—an Opening and Closing Government in support of the given motion, and an Opening and Closing Opposition against the motion. Teams are ranked in any combination from first to fourth place. Achieving a First nets 3 points; a Second, 2 points; a Third, 3 points; and a Fourth, 0 points. Ties in the standings are broken by speaker scores. Distributions vary according to the size and competitiveness of a tournament, but as a rule of thumb, advancing to the knockout stage requires an average of 2 points/round. (At Worlds, a nine-round event with a four-round knockout stage, the top 32 teams that advance to octo-finals tend to have at least 18 points apiece, and many of the 18-point teams don’t make it.)

My source is Colm Flynn’s World Debating Website. I’ve managed to go as far back as Athens.

Athens 1998 (292 teams)
15: Leslie Church & Aly Kanji (86th)
13: Alan Skelley & Jennifer Wanke (165th)

Manila 1999 (171 teams)
13: Ranjan Agarwal & Talib Rajwani (90th)

Sydney 2000 (204 teams)
Did not attend.

Glasgow 2001 (284 teams)
14: Rahool Agarwal & Kirsten Odynski (86th)
13: Lisa Lemieux & Candace Rypien (104th)
[Note: Glasgow’s break was at 16 points due to the cancellation of Round 9.]

Toronto 2002 (228 teams)
19: Alex Ragan & Stephanie Wanke (12th, quarterfinals)
17: Rahool Agarwal & Kirsten Odynski (36th)
16: Helen McGraw & Roman Kotovych (61st)

Stellenbosch 2003 (193 teams)
15: Sharon Ohayon & Ajit Singh (60th)
15: James Crossman & Helen McGraw (65th)
15: Kyle Kawanami & Arthur Tse (74th)

Singapore 2004 (307 teams)
15: James Crossman & Arthur Tse (114th)
14: Greg Fingas & Mathew Johnson (146th)
14: Kyle Kawanami & Roman Kotovych (147th)
12: Sharon Ohayon & Chris Samuel (207th)

Malaysia 2005 (312 teams)
18: Alex Ragan & Stephanie Wanke (30th, octo-finals)

Dublin 2006 (324 teams)
14: James Crossman & Kyle Kawanami (131st)
13: Sharon Ohayon & Roman Kotovych (172nd)
11: Chris Jones & Julia Lisztwan (230th)

Vancouver 2007 (338 teams)
17: Alan Cliff & Sharon Ohayon (60th)
13: Maria Chen & Nicholas Tam (181st)
12: Sean Lee & Erin Reddekopp (212th)
11: Guillaume Laroche & Wallis Rudnick (247th)
[Note: Five Alberta adjudicators were assigned to debate at the last minute due to a registration error. Noah Dolgoy and Aaron Rankin scored 11 points, and some combination of Dylan Handy, Kiosh Iselin and Anno Laarman scored 12.]

Thailand 2008 (396 teams)
18: Alan Cliff & Julia Lisztwan (38th)
16: Wallis Rudnick & Nicholas Tam (95th)
15: Noah Dolgoy & Erin Reddekopp (136th)
13: Emily Cliff & Sean Lee (212th)
[Note: Alberta adjudicator Michael Thorpe was assigned to the swing team Composite B with Alice Easton from Princeton; they scored 11 points.]

Even in purely qualitative terms, there’s a lot of evidence for the broad sentiment that Alberta teams are steadily improving in the British Parliamentary format. What is not so clear is the effect of larger tournament sizes on the overall level of competition and the difficulty of reaching a certain point mark, and how that might be reflected in the point distribution of the tournament. We lack a method for assessing the level of competition at one WUDC relative to other ones, and I’m not sure a rigorous method could exist. We can’t just use speaker scores, for instance, because they are a relative metric within a tournament (or even within a single round), and not pegged to some absolute scale.

That said, it’s quite possible to establish a statistical model that normalizes a team’s performance to account for some of the factors that affect their rankings.

One of the stats I like to look at, when it’s feasible to do so, is whether or not a given motion favours a certain position. For example, in a given round, is there a significant disparity between the performance of Government and Opposition teams, or the opening half and the closing half? Of course, good teams are quite capable of capitalizing on apparently difficult positions, and bad teams are more than talented at squandering apparently easy ones—but a major aberration is still worth a look.

Another possibility: adjust a team’s performance to reflect the quality of the competition it faced (where said quality is based on the final standings). Taking a 2nd or 3rd to Oxford Union A, the record-setting world champions who took the top seed with 7 Firsts and 2 Seconds and never finished in the bottom half of any debate in their 13-round run, means a lot more than finishing behind a middling and inconsistent team that finished in the middle of the pack. Similarly, taking a First over a team like Oxford A is a substantially larger achievement than stomping all over bad teams in a lucky random draw in Round 1.

These metrics still don’t account for the year-to-year change in the quality of a speaker, team or institution, but they do allow us to distinguish between underachieving high-quality teams that are fighting their way past other struggling teams on the way up the ladder, on one hand, and teams that score all of their points in low-ranked rooms but stall when they encounter underrated and recovering opponents, on the other.

As for Assumption Worlds itself: I will probably have more to say at some point, as there are plenty of other matters to discuss—the Round 6 fiasco that effectively knocked us out of contention, the Triwizard Cup-like trophy dedicated to the King, the Convenor’s elephant ride onto the stage of the Grand Final—but for now, this seems like a logical place to stop.


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2 rejoinders to “Killing Putin softly with our song”

  1. Amar

    I’m looking forward to hearing about your rounds. Worlds sounds alternately so exciting and so dreary.

    Monday, 14 January 2008 at 11:06am

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, the Tabbie was really something! If only they could do something about standardizing the adjudicators as well. lol.

    My team faced one of your teams. And I believe that was my best round of the tournament relative to the abilities of the other people in the same round (despite getting a zero).

    *looks at Tabbie*

    Hey wait a minute…. WE WERE IN THE SAME ROUND, man. LOLOLOLOLOL. I honestly felt great that I was still facing teams of your caliber at that point of the tournament. For some reason, I felt it was a gross injustice that two of the teams in that round no longer had the chance to break (you guys and Auckland). I honestly thought that your teams were much better than a lot of the breaking teams *cough* Oxford B*cough*.

    Congratulations and good luck on your debates in the future.

    Monday, 14 January 2008 at 9:53pm

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