From the archives: Debate

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Absence makes the Nick go ponder

Thursday, 29 September 2005 — 1:51am | Animation, Debate, Film, Literature

At this precise moment I don’t have time to expound on why contrary to what you might have gleaned from Jessica Warren’s review in The Gateway, but well in line with the mainstream press, Corpse Bride is certain to be the most lighthearted fun you’ll have at the cinema this year – at least, until we see hide or hare of The Curse of the Wererabbit. Whatever I said a few months ago about “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish” being a shoo-in for the Original Song Oscar is now seriously in doubt in the face of new and viable competition that almost makes the award seem like something other than an antiquated joke.

I will be investing in repeat viewings. You should too. Come for the exorcising voice of Christopher Lee and classic Mexican calavera cabaret in the same tradition as the epitome of interactive literature. Stay for the first and second best scenes involving pianos since that Polanski war film from a few years back, and stop to notice the Harryhausen nameplate.

So UADS alumnus Alim Merali, who has already taken his place in CUSID history by serving up the textbook example of a low-burden case, has self-published the introductory book on competitive debate that he’s bandied about for the past three years or so. Talk the Talk: Speech and Debate Made Easy has a strong pedigree of blurbs behind it already; a free PDF version of the whole text is available for online perusal. I can’t say I’ve dug into it myself, as the 152-page CUSID Central Debating Guide compounds a backlog of incredible girth.

As an aside, I normally entertain mail from my readers, but any and all instances of “So where’s your book, Nicholas Tam?” will be ignored with extreme prejudice.

You really can get anything published nowadays, though. Just ask Stephen Lanzalotta, author of The Da Vinci Diet: Weight-Loss Secrets from Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio. Picture me as suffused with ennui as I am once again forced to point out for those fetuses joining us after the commercial break that first of all, his name was Leonardo, and secondly, Dan Brown wouldn’t know the Golden Ratio if the plus-minus sign ripped the square root off the unsuspecting five and shoved it up his sacred feminine. Never you mind the inherent ridicule of this unwanted circumstance.

All-nighters, asymptotic complexity proofs and three-day Scrabble marathons don’t admix.

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The more things stay the same

Thursday, 11 August 2005 — 10:41pm | Debate, Journalism

As a leisurely passe-temps I pore over the search queries that lead the weary journeyman to this homepage, nay, cabinpage of mine in the digital woodlands that shroud the alleged superhighway. I follow them as a ranger would track the dungheaps of a bear that had made off with some unhappy camper’s trail mix of dried apricots and extended metaphors. The webmaster is a territorial specimen, master of his subdomain.

The polluted realms of the Internet, dumped on what was virgin soil not a decade ago, bear witness to little history; so it is not often that the hunter stumbles on the relics of the ancients. Yet today’s sojourn saw better fortune, for I discovered one such relic. Come, children, and let us share this great treasure of antiquity by the afterglow of the starlit bonfire. Tillikum, how-how.

I bring forth, from the online archives of the University of British Columbia Library, a PDF scan of an issue of the student newspaper The Ubyssey dated 17 January, 1936. This may be the classiest thing you see today, and a lot of the readers who regularly traverse this place will know why from the top story, “U.B.C. and Manitoba Meet In McGoun Debate Today.”

“The number of cars on your campus gives us an impression of latent wealth. We think it would be a great place for Aberhart,” stated William Palk, visiting debater from Manitoba who, along with Cecil Sheps will meet Peter Disney and Dorwin Baird today in the McGoun Cup debate.

Mr. Sheps also wished to know whether U.B.C. stood for “University of Beautiful Coeds.”

The debate, admission to which was a whopping ten cents, was on the resolution “That Canada’s Foreign Policy should be one of Isolation,” with “isolation” agreed upon beforehand as withdrawal from the British Empire and the League of Nations. Read on, you crazy diamond.

But wait! There’s more! And astonished as I am already to see a second-page report on fiercely competitive auditions for a student production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, turn to page 3 for this very model of a modern major headline:

Alberta News – Dance Interferes With McGoun Debate – Dates Clash

University of Alberta, Edmonton, Jan. 14 – “It appears that all the king’s horses, not to mention his men, will not be able to get the debating and Engineering societies together on the matter of which should have the sole rights to the evening of Jan. 17 for the Inter-Varsity debates and the “Undergrad” respectively. Last year’s Council argued for 1 hour and 17 minutes last Wednesday evening before peace was restored by appointing a committee with full power to look into the matter.”

It’s not quite Function Room ’36, but I see our student legislators were once as efficient as ever.

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However, I should have delivered a real speech

Tuesday, 22 February 2005 — 11:51am | Debate, Literature

On the subject of a rather unimpressive 3-2 finish at UBC’s Pacific Cup by Nick Fowler and myself, I will say little. On the subject of the associated public speaking competition, I said little and will say more now.

I earned my way to my first public speech final by way of such pseudo-quotable platitudes as “People don’t kill people; Dan Brown novels kill people” and a mini-thesis on why grammar is the new exorcism. In the latter, I spoke of false prophets and the erroneous prescriptions on the part of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, particularly the prohibition on using “however” at the beginning of a sentence. Immediately after the speech, Lindsay Eberhardt from Alaska gave me a look of utter shock as if I’d just pronounced something totally wacko, like “There’s no such thing as Silicon Heaven” or “Mustafa Hirji is running for Students’ Union President.” “You can use however at the beginning of a sentence?” she exclaimed. “My grade school teacher would kill me!”

Immediately after the tournament, Language Log came to the rescue. Timely of them, really. The criticism of the fallacy of the “however” prejudice should be nothing new to people who are already well informed about how syntax actually works, but here’s an eye-opener from the second post cited above:

But what I am suggesting is that if you look at works published around the time of White’s birth and in the early years of his lifetime, works published when Strunk was in college and early in his teaching career, you find good statistical evidence that literary English really did favor however in second position but not first position in sentences.

Strunk, then, was simply insisting that the use of English by others ought to conform to the statistical patterns prevalent in the literature he knew. And fifty years later White was sticking to the same dogma. The grammar of however is not so simple, though: the word did sometimes occur sentence-initially in the 19th and early 20th century, as Mark’s investigations showed; it just wasn’t so frequent, and Strunk and White missed the subtlety of a word with two competing positional tendencies showing different frequencies.

With that said, to those of you who were present at the speech final, do excuse me for the three minutes of verbal haemorrhaging. To those of you who were absent: you don’t want to know.

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The self-regulation of professional hecklers

Sunday, 6 February 2005 — 8:40pm | Debate

I am aware that at least some of my readership first arrived here by way of some involvement or interest in the campaign to oust Rob Anders in the federal election last June. If you fall into that category, it may interest you to know that earlier today, the University of Calgary Speech and Debate Society alumnus, Diplomacy player and current sitting Member of Parliament delivered a keynote as a guest speaker and adjudicator at the McGoun Cup (Western Canadian Debating Championships), this year hosted by his alma mater.

Some brief observations are in order, as Mr. Anders said a number of things that were, to say the least, intruiging. Mind you, it was neither as amusing as Gary Mar doing impressions of Belinda Stronach at last year’s McGoun, nor unorthodox as Dr. Juris Lejnieks delivering a crash-course analysis of A Canticle for Leibowitz at Hugill ’02, but it provided some valuable insight into Anders’ approach to political discourse.

The speech began with the standard recognition of the tendency for debaters to be Leaders of the Future involved in all manner of political muckraking; nobody ever pays much attention to those of us who do it not as a stepping stone towards enacting any tangible change, but for the inherent thrill of what is fundamentally a logic-driven word game. The utilitarian approach to debating naturally favours politics and law, and I would posit the conjecture that the predominance of those fields in the game’s culture follows as a direct corollary. I get the feeling that lot of seasoned competitors find that elusive love of the game and stay for precisely that reason, but even then, applicability prevails as an excursive justification.

Anders cited varsity debating as being an experience more valuable to him than his degree, which is probably very true. He then proceeded to criticize the House of Commons as not really being a forum for debate so much as it is a facility for the procedural exchange of reports – “going through the motions,” as it were – again, probably true. He went on to explain that he felt most at home whenever he was heckled, as he found it a rare moment of genuine interaction that reminded him of his debating days.

The question is this: which was it that induced his reminisces of rhetorical competition – the interaction, or the heckling?

It may, in part, be the latter. Anyone who has done a half-hour’s reading on Rob Anders knows that he has a reputation of being, in many ways pertaining to extroversion and tact, the Mike Hudema of the federal right. In other words, he is for all intents and purposes a heckler, though sometimes in a non-verbal way; and as we should all know by now, acts of discourse – especially heckles, which are really just performatives of dissenting interruption – are never limited to the realm of the verbal.

But how does this relate to debating? After all, are heckles not frowned upon at the upper echelons of competition?

Well, yes and no. If my understanding of Western Canadian debating history is correct, while heckling is now all but non-existent except for its occasional acknowledgment as a discouraged annoyance, it was once a far more prevalent factor. Over the years, and I believe for the better, Western Canada has been borrowing more from the inertia of an evolved Canadian Parliamentary convention and exposure to Worlds Style, and less from the high school environment. This was not always the case.

Observe the occasional Alberta high school tournament that is conducted in impromptu parliamentary style. Unless expressly instructed to do so, inexperienced debaters will heckle simply on the grounds that the rules say they won’t be penalized (and layperson judges may even be inclined to reward them for wrangling a provision of the format). Without a dominant inertial format, or better yet, a strong emphasis on substantive analytical matter, high school style spills over into university.

You can still see this happen today with something that feels uncomfortably different at first, but is at the end of the day hardly that big a deal: at the University of Saskatchewan, which is hosting the McGoun Cup next year, Points of Information are directed through the chairperson. As something that has been phased out of the rest of Western Canada, this procedural difference has actually become the distinguishing mark of what is a unique Saskatchewanian style. My understanding is that this is actually something carried over from the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association, which governs all secondary school debate in the province – hence its usefulness as an illustrative example.

It could very well be the case that heckling was a commonplace tactic, albeit perhaps heavily abused, in the early 1990s when western integration into the CUSID environment was in its infancy at best. According to Alberta alumnus Martin Kennedy, who by my reckoning was around when Rob Anders was active at the UCSDS, western involvement in national-level intervarsity debating was practically limited to occasional appearances at Winter Carnival and Nationals.

At the tail end of the Anders speech when the floor was opened to questions, and afterwards, several of my peers commented that he perhaps put a disproportionate emphasis on the system of political parties. It is true that most of his speech was a case for political parties as the best, and indeed the only, medium by which one could ever hope to have a political voice. (In other words, if you ever get Rob Anders and Steve Smith together in the same room, bring popcorn.) A lot of people seemed to find these admittedly pragmatic remarks terribly interesting, and not just because Louman-Gardiner/Pauls had just defeated Kawanami/Kotovych in a quarterfinal on public funding of elections that covered exactly those issues of partisan imbalance. In the meantime, his aforementioned statements on the subject of heckling seemed to go largely unnoticed, but this here observer found them to be just as notable, if not more so.

But the great irony of all this ballyhoo about partisanship lies elsewhere. Of a panel of seven, Anders was one of four adjudicators in the final round who awarded the victory to Teddy Harrison and his partner, Spencer “Slate-Killer” Keys.

As for my own performance at the tournament, let it be known that it was less than spectacular. I credit the failure of Guillaume Laroche and myself to break to quarterfinals to a disastrous misjudgment of the depth to which Chris Jones had studied Alberta private investigation licenses in somewhat more rigour than yours truly. “I’m sorry to tell you, Nick,” he said, “but life is not a Philip Marlowe novel.” Lies, I tell you, all lies.

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A much-needed dose of qualified snobbery

Thursday, 13 January 2005 — 6:08pm | Debate, Film, Scrabble

Some advice to my regular readers: if I don’t post for a week, it’s usually because of something I call “deadlock”. In other words, there are multiple topics at hand that deserve a lot of attention, and the act of completing a post on any of them becomes an arduous task – especially when the urgency and topicality demanded by some of these end up negating each other. Nash equilibria, kids, Nash equilibria.

First of all, there really isn’t much I can say about my rather disappointing performance at the 12-round New Year’s Marathon, where I went 5-7 (-84). I could harp on such trivialities as how, revealingly, the last word I played at the end of a bitterly long day was CUNT; or how it took until Round 9 for me to get my act together and score a tournament victory in the 500 range (a four-bingo 533-243 wipeout over a decided unlucky Jeff Smith) after a very long drought of not doing so – but neither of them make up for the fact that for the first three rounds, I missed bingos like crazy, and played way too safely for my own good.

A tip for players who want to move up the ranks – and I say this as someone who has learned this both the hard and the easy way: play with confidence. Nothing teaches you what the phoneys are like taking a risk and playing one; nothing is so rewarding as the feeling of playing a word you are uncertain about out of desperation, drawing a challenge and unexpectedly winning it. It’s like what Indiana Jones discovers as he faces the test of the Path of God on his way to the final resting place of the Holy Grail: it takes a leap of faith.

Then again, your stupid words may get challenged off in a jiffy, whereupon you lose.

Regarding my earlier post on Martin Kennedy – I’ve had it verified by numerous sources, including Mr. Kennedy himself, that he was a former World Schools Champion, having claimed victory at the inaugural event in 1988, the same event that Calgary is set to host in February. That year, like the WUDC, the WSDC was also held in Australia. This is also why CUSID history is not the place to look if you want to fill in the gaps in the UADS chronology, because ten to fifteen years ago, there really was no CUSID West – at least, none that counted. Back then, what we now know as British Parliamentary (Worlds Style) was not even hard-coded into the Worlds format, let alone accepted in any capacity by Canada.

Now that we have multiple BP tournaments a year attended by those who aren’t even on their way to Worlds, I’d say intervarsity debating has come a long way since those forlorn days.

Speaking of which, if at this point you still haven’t read the Globe and Mail story on Jamie Furniss, read it.

And now for something completely different. Those of you who are in the Gateway distribution area will have noticed a letter published today in response to Production Editor Dan Kaszor’s picks for 2004’s five worst feature films in Tuesday’s year-in-review issue:

In regards to the Gateway‘s bottom five movies of the year list by Daniel Kaszor (11 January), I was shocked and dismayed to see the list dominated by “urban comedies”.

Mr Kaszor – who I assume is white – puts down these films that were clearly created for an audience that he does not understand. Just because the movies aren’t made for you doesn’t mean you have free license to pan them in the press.

Maybe next time you want to unleash your cultural imperialism on the world, Mr. Kaszor, you should decide against it instead.

Now, being an unapologetic cultural imperialist myself, maybe I’m not the most unbiased person to write in Kaszor’s defence – but there’s a reason why I commonly point to him as one of the very, very few people I have encountered on this campus who not only knows how film works, but knows it damn well. If you read what he’s written on movies in the past, you should know that he is exactly the kind of filmgoer who should be writing about what he sees – in that he appears to value good filmmaking most of all above any trivial genre-bias that you often find proliferated amongst casual audience.

Now, this isn’t to say that I agree with him on every occasion. For instance, I don’t think Alexander is nearly as total a disaster as he describes. But like all the critics for whom I have some respect – that is, people who know what they are talking about – the skill of presenting a value judgment about movies lies not in what that judgment is, but how it is reasoned.

In other words, maybe people who are so quick to defend “movies” such as White Chicks and Soul Plane should realize that the cultural sympathies of an individual audience member do not excuse the narrative failings of a woefully inadequate stinkbomb.

(I rarely use boldface for emphasis in this manner, but I thought that mantra was sufficiently deserving of special treatment.)

There is a reason why “urban comedies”, loath as I am to dignify them as such, generally suck. They are patterned after one another on the momentum of commercial appeal, oblivious to the valid criticisms of those of us who care about the filmmaking art form. Being made by black people for black people, should one be so clueless as to resort to such crass self-applied stereotypes, isn’t enough to justify stupid storytelling by stupid storytellers.

I happen to think that cross-dressing and rap “music” are pretty yucky (especially the latter, though I do admire some of the technical production work that goes uncredited), but I enjoyed 8 Mile and absolutely loved Some Like It Hot. Why? Because they are good films.

And until there’s a good “urban comedy” – and one would think it would need to be a) urban, and b) comedic – films of the genre deserve to be spat upon. The same goes for the mercifully dying fad of the “teen comedy”, which has only ever given us one film worth mentioning, that being American Graffiti (advantaged by a pre-Star Wars Lucas at the helm, fast cars, Ronny Howard, doo-wop music and not being gross). But as long as these “movies” keep imitating each other, they can go ahead and assert their place in the cinematic wastebasket.

I could go into further detail about why critic-bashers are by and large fundamentally ignorant about what good criticism actually entails (but with an admission that bad criticism is certainly out there in droves), but that’s one of those hot-button issues that I am keeping at bay until I can present my philosophy in a way definitive enough that I can just copy and paste from it in the future.

The frankest way to put what I’m saying here is this: qualified judgments of films are not simply matters of personal taste, and those who leap to the defence of works that are so devoid of merit as to be critically indefensible neither understand movies or know how to watch them.

Oh, is it ever bothersome to deal with the proponents of the bottom of the barrel. At this rate, I’ll never get around to finishing my comments on A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Aviator and A Very Long Engagement – not to mention all the other actual movies coming down the pipes.

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