A format for better debates, please?

Hey, we all like actual debates, right? That is, the format that’s very much not what we saw the last two nights, where people talk to each other and don’t struggle for airtime. For intellectual folks, people directly addressing each other can be stimulating and interesting. For everyone else (and, well, us too), as we saw when two candidates go went it, that’s the part of the event that’s entertaining—and possibly tells you more about the people.

So… why the hell do we have moderators insisting they can’t talk to each other, and taking up minutes with their questions? It only ensures that only the rudest and loudest will get into a back and forth—and as we’ve seen, it allows for the rules to be applied haphazardly. I have a proposal for better debates:

  1. Before the debate, every candidate is given the same long list of topics, all brief and general: e.g., climate change, nuclear weapons, North Korea, election security. They return these lists is ranked order.

  2. The top choices are set as the topics for the debate. The number chosen is the same as the number of candidates onstage, or an integral multiple thereof. The rest go back into the pool for the next debate. New topics can be added to the pool between debates, so news events can be referenced but only briefly. “Iran response” is fine; “did Iran attach mines to those ships?” is not.

  3. Each topic is given (length of debate / (number of topics – 2)) minutes. For a 100 minute debate and eight topics, that’s ten minutes each, broken down as follows: 2 minute opening, 2 minute response, 1 minute each of followups by the same speakers, and four 1-minute followups by everyone else. Vary lengths as necessary to match available time, but not more than 25%; if they have to be shorter than 90 and 45 seconds, pick fewer topics.

  4. Everyone gets one turn in each slot. Which slot they get for which topic is assigned first by how they ranked the topics, with ties broken by the same rankings by which they qualified for the debate. Someone polling at 12% beats the other at 10%, for example. The guy who only barely squeaked in shouldn’t expect to get what they want unless no one wants it. The same ranking is used to pick the topics and assign the slots, so no gaming the system by ranking your actual first choice tenth—it likely won’t be used at all, then.

    No one knows which slots they have until the debate, when each lectern has the entire schedule on a display a few minutes before it starts.

    Example: Candidate 1, who made this their most important topic, talks for two minutes; candidate 2 ranked this first or second and responds. 1 then speaks again for a minute, followed by 2 again for a minute. 3 and 4, who ranked this topic higher than others, each have an assigned minute. The next minute is randomly assigned. The last minute is left open until the debate: candidates can press a button on their lectern to take it, but can only do this once for the entire debate. First-come, first-served, except that the first person who hasn’t spoken on the topic takes precedence over the first person who has. Anyone who never presses their button gets that minute extra for closing.

  5. There are no moderators, but there is an M.C. who normally keeps their mouth shut after introducing everyone, to do things like shush the audience. The first speaker frames the topic, the next speakers can follow their lead or not as they choose. The topic of the period is always on a chyron at the bottom of the screen. Each candidate can say whatever they like.

  6. When it’s someone’s turn to speak, their mic turns on. When they have 15 seconds left, an audible tone chimes that everyone (audience included) can hear. The volume on their mic gradually declines and turns off at the end—final words will be at low volume, hence they don’t close with a zinger that causes audience reaction to eat the next person’s time. (Get your prepared soundbites in when you start, and eat your own time, folks.) Finishing 15 seconds early, not a bad idea.

    If a speaker stops early, they can press a button and bank that time for another reply. Timers and time bank displays are on the lectern; the candidate presses a button to activate their bank for fifteen seconds, which restores the volume to the mic if they’re in the last 15 seconds—but it’ll start dropping again immediately unless they press the button twice.

  7. The cameras are pre-set and will go to the person with a live mic, but will usually split screen with the prior speaker. A second 4K video feed is provided that shows all candidates at all times, high enough resolution to see reactions not on the main broadcast (which most people won’t see until after the debate, but it could be simultaneously broadcast).

  8. The remaining two 10-minute periods are open sessions at the middle and the end, each speaker has 10/N minutes to say whatever they like. (Or three 7-minute sessions for opening, midpoint, and closing.) Mics are live the entire time for the last open session, their entire time bank is automatically added, and the next speaker’s time doesn’t start until the audience is quiet. (And maybe cap the maximum time a person can bank, so no one can shut up for two hours and talk for 10 minutes straight at the end.)

  9. A transcript of the debate is posted as soon as possible. Each minute or two’s transcript is posted on its own page in addition to the full trascript. Candidates have 24 hours to post a short reply to what anyone said (e.g., limited to 200 words, no links allowed but “see my website for details” is fine—you just can’t post a keyword to a 2,000 word reply). After 24 hours, the speaker has 24 hours to post a reply of the same length.

That leaves 20 minutes in a two-hour broadcast, which I assume will be used to make the entire thing humane. Put in a three-second break when one mic turns off and the next turns on, or a short break between topics. Two five-minute breaks for everyone to be off camera. Whatever works. Networks will probably want a buffer zone so the rules don’t make the debate run overtime.

I don’t have any illusions that this will bring Oxford-style debate to our politics, but it’s fair, it gives everyone the chance to talk on what they most care about, and I think it balances actual discussion and debate with the need to keep everyone to very short amounts of time.

Already tired of the Game of Moans

Did we all watch the same show?

I’ve been just completely amazed at most of the commentary I’ve been reading about the final two episodes of GoT, and while I don’t quite want to wade into every argument—that would lead to a post roughly as long as one of GRRM’s books—there are a few worth addressing.

Mad Queen Dany—Where the hell are people getting this from? It’s not on the screen. (It is in the execrable “inside the episode” trailers that HBO produced, which involves the two showrunners saying such idiotic things about the show which they’ve spent 4,000 hours a year analyzing since Mitt Romney was in multiway primaries, that I presume Milk of the Poppy is involved.)

Yes, absolutely, it would be utterly maddening if we felt that Dany committed a savage war crime out of a fit of pique, or because she didn’t get laid, or because the Red Keep set her off (make that two doses of poppymilk if you buy that story). But that’s not what we saw: we saw Dany having what was probably the easiest major victory in the entire series—we see maybe five casualties on Team Targaryen—and having some kind of painful epiphany. It’s not in dialog, and it’s only somewhat backfilled in the final episode. So what we take from the scene is what we read into it.

People who want to get infuriated seem to think that the writers are saying, “the bitch snapped,” with exactly that level of dismissal of the character. What I saw: after eight seasons of Dany balancing ruthlessness with compassion, she has a realization that an easy win is a temporary one. It doesn’t break the wheel, it doesn’t prevent future contenders for the throne, and it doesn’t cement her victory. Burning King’s Landing, on the other hand, ends the war much as an atomic bomb did—with her as sole superpower.

For those who object that “just having the dragon is enough,” get real. If you live in the 21st century it’s 98% likely you have no conception of what a single modern nuclear bomb’s effects are, and the inhabitants of the only country to ever use much smaller versions in anger are in utter denial about what our nation did 70 years ago. Stopping when the bells rang meant stopping before a deterrence was created. (And not original to me, I read someone’s else’s essay saying, “If you can fire scorpions at Drogon and then surrender scot-free, it’s only a matter of time before repeating the same strategy neutralizes her advantage.” Which, let’s recall, she regards as her child.)

You don’t have to agree with me—the point is, it’s not on the page in episode 5. You can read Emilia Clarke’s face in multiple ways; you can’t definitively establish Dany’s intent from it.

Dany the Megalomaniac—Second, folks are already royally pissed about Dany’s inability to comprehend that “we destroyed the village in order to save it” doesn’t quite fly. At least, not for the audience behind the Fourth Wall, and not for our surrogates on the show.

You know whom it does fly for? That same damned audience when considering an actual war with real casualties. How long has it been since America supported an invasion of choice by four or five to one, with most people buying into “greeted as liberators?” I’ve been hearing people say “nuke ’em until the rubble glows” since the Iranian hostage crisis forty years ago. I’ve heard just about everyone retroactively justify Afghanistan and Iraq because we deposed a dictator and shot bin Laden in the head. (Even antiwar folks have tended to soften some criticisms since those war objectives occurred.)

The words you are looking for are “cognitive dissonance.” Americans want to believe that our country and our population are basically decent, ergo by definition everything we do is basically decent. Oh, maybe we screw up a few things, but our intentions are good. Surely that creates allowances, yes? At least, it creates sufficient allowance that nearly all Americans completely forget about our military actions so long as American casualties stay in single digits.

This is Nora al-Awlaki. She died at the age of eight in a 2017 US attack on an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen. She was an American citizen. If you just found yourself thinking, “well, her al-Qaeda father shouldn’t have had her at the camp,” or “it’s horrible but these things happen,” congratulations, you just engaged in the same retroactive justification that distances Americans from horrors like Hiroshima and Dresden—and Dany from King’s Landing.

This is an American child whom my country killed. Discuss and debate that all you like—just don’t minimize it.

If you think it’s unrealistic that someone in a position of power would tell themselves a story that makes them a good person in contradiction of all evidence, you’re holding your fiction to a higher standard than your reality.

Dany the Monster—Many folks are also sputtering mad about Dany’s brand seemingly changing from “liberator of the common people” to their exterminator. This is too much of a switch for them to take.

I’m not going to repeat the dozens of articles that point-for-point demonstrate every plot beat showing her inhumanity against her enemies, ever since she didn’t much mind Drogo offing Viserys. If you think she did an unearned eighth-season heel turn, you’ve already read these and rejected them.

What I will point out, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, is that Dany has spent eight seasons dividing the world into “my people” and “everyone else.” People who are othered don’t count—whether that’s because they own slaves, have gotten wealthy from a slave society, or were the poor schmucks who took up arms at minimum wage on the wrong side of Drogon.

She didn’t merely kill these people, she burned these people. The two lead slavers of Meereen get quick deaths from Grey Worm—who presumably keeps that dagger sharp enough to be painless—but everyone from Lannister soldiers to Euron’s sailors to King’s Landing’s civilians to the Tarlys to Varys burns.

Are there any criminals you consider so awful that you’d be in favor of burning them at the stake as punishment? How about terrorists? Or actual Nazis from World War II? I’m guessing you have a sliding spectrum from “I’d vociferously oppose that” to “it’s not ideal but I’m not exactly going to argue in favor of that bastard.” Congratulations, you just demonstrated how you have a sliding scale of humanization. So does Dany.

Dany the Tyrant—Cognitive dissonance can also explain why Dany is certain that Cersei is a tyrant and she is not—but there are better explanations.

There’s been this weird rush of people saying that they wanted GoT to end on some kind of kumbayah democratic note. Or that Dany was inherently democratic in intent. Look, she freed her slave army and now they fight for her willingly!

Did any of them leave the day she did that? How much does she pay them? Do any of them have skills, interests, or socializations that would allow them to do anything but fight in an army as a profession? Do you suppose that peer pressure in a military organization and the complete absence of any other community might prevent some people from leaving? Did anyone have second thoughts when she told them she was uprooting them all to fight in a foreign land, or when the objective switched from fighting evenly matched humans to a quarter-million undead?

We see the Dothraki deciding—although how much of that is individual choice, and how much is cultural socialization to do whatever the Khal says, might be a worthwhile intellectual exercise. What we do know is that she’s breaking Dothraki cultural taboos; crossing the sea is pretty much the equivalent of holding pork rib and Chippendales night at a Saudi airbase. Surely everyone is acting free of coercion after she barbecued all the Khals they arrived with, walked out of an inferno, and asked for everyone’s support while sitting on a goddamn dragon. (After which, she’s unconcerned about her plan to take Westeros with the equivalent of a Mongol horde, which was the 13th-century equivalent of saturation bombing.)

Dany allows the freedoms she is willing to bestow, none of which seem to cost her anything. Missandei sticks around. Grey Worm never takes a vacation. Jorah keeps coming back even when she threatens his execution.

The premise that Dany was some kind of political liberation proponent is dealt with in the spot-on scene where Samwell suggests universal suffrage. We’re supposed to laugh at the comparisons to allowing horses and dogs to vote—but that’s pretty much historically accurate. The idea that a people should elect their leader was ludicrous for most of human history. It was just as ludicrous to the people who would have formed an electorate—when your monarch is the will of God, suffrage is blasphemy. What you might occasionally get is the tribalism of the Iron Islands—acclamations of minor chieftains, who go on to form the councils that acclaim higher officers. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the community gets to show up to chant Yara or Euron.

The idea that everyone should be able to vote is just a completely foreign concept until 1776. No, wait, that was male landowners. 1820? Nope, still male and white. 1865? Not after Jim Crow. 1920? 1965? How about we note the Georgia Senate election and just say “not yet” in terms of American consensus on this issue. Thinking of medieval, monarchical Dany as a proto-chapter of the League of Women Voters was wish-fulfillment of the highest order long before season eight.

Dany the Subverted Feminist Icon—Nope, not touching this with a ten-foot pole. It’s my role to mostly shut up and listen to what people say on this topic, and I don’t think I have much to contribute because I’m not emotionally invested in the messaging that some people thought was brutally undermined. I will say that just in the last hour I’ve seen feminist criticisms along the lines that Brienne, Sansa, and Anya don’t count as gender representation in the Game’s outcome, because they all establish power in the show with masculine tropes—which makes me wonder if any of these people took a moment to think about how this point of view would sound if they applied the same language to real people who might not be straight or cis.

Look, folks, yes—the last two seasons were just really fucking rushed and a lot of corners got cut. There are all sorts of pacing dynamics we grew to expect from the show during the first five seasons that were jettisoned—and in that change many things that would have been spelled out three times in the past had to be head canon. What I don’t get is why people don’t accept “HBO can’t spend $300 million on another 50 episodes” as a perfectly valid explanation for this. It may not be as satisfying as wizardly writing that leaves no plot holes unfilled and no coffee cups on the great table.

But I’ve already shown you how your standards are likely a lot lower for the world you live in than for Westeros. And that’s where the show gets made.

Update, one day later: I read today on Vox that HBO actually wanted more episodes in the final two seasons, and it was Weiss and Benioff that brought the total down to 13 in a compromise. This completely shifts the blame from one of real-world restrictions to a complete failure to manage creative limitations. I can understand the difficulties of bringing this home in less time; I fail to understand setting those limits on yourself in the first place.

About Jeff Porten

I’m Jeff Porten, and I wear several hats.

I’m a Macintosh, IT, and business development consultant, and all-around Mac guru. I do consulting on all of the above, primarily for small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits.

I’m a freelance writer, with most of my work centered around the above. I write regularly for TidBITS, and I used to write for Macworld and other IDG publications. With the publication of Take Control of Your Productivity, I’m branching out as a productivity consultant and speaker. Same focus as my Mac and IT consulting: small businesses, nonprofits, teams at larger companies, and self-employed jacks of all trades. My first book, The Twentysomething Guide to Creative Self-Employment, was published back when I actually was twentysomething.

My home territory is roughly anywhere between New York and Washington, DC. I’m on the road elsewhere frequently.

I am usually involved with various nonprofits and progressive activism. I am the Chair of the Board of Student Pugwash USA, with prior stints as an officer or advisor at the World Federalist Movement, ISODARCO, the Kappa Alpha Society, and “Noodle Club” (a networking group for nonprofits in Washington, DC).

Finally, I play a hell of a lot of poker, and I appear to be reasonably good at it.

Feel free to reach me by email.

Laughed out loud when I realized how this headline would sound to anyone who doesn’t know either name.

(And to those who do: he hasn’t, the premise of the story is ridiculous.) Has Brian Bendis Made Tim Drake a Virgin Again?

Friends in the UK, this just came to my attention. We’re not involved, so I don’t have more details than this.

Student/Young Pugwash UK is collaborating with British Pugwash to host a major, one-day conference exploring the prospects for arms control and disarmament over the coming years. London, 23 Feb

Pugwash Peace & Disarmament Conference – SYP UK Annual Conference. | Network for Peace

Deirdre O’Leary I’ll assume this is someone you know from the Deirdre O’conference. Apple names Deirdre O’Brien senior vice president of Retail and People

Holy *fuck*, this is Not The Onion. Unbelievable. I’m certain this is illegal (and will never be pursued by the FEC or whomever is in charge of that). Trump campaign: Send us $1 and we’ll scroll your name during State of the Union live stream

Story broken by the same guy who released the governor’s yearbook picture, so let’s call this what it is: a test to see how far Democrats can be pushed to eat their own. I suspect the answer is “much more than we should.” Justin Fairfax, second in line for governor of Virginia, faces sexual assault allegation

Well, now I know how Joel Avery will be spending his retirement. An 80,000-Piece, 9-Foot Diorama Of The Death Star Trench Run From Star Wars: A New Hope

Part of a new NatGeo series, including: Why the Earth Isn’t Flat Even Though It’s Not Curvy Where You Are; Why What Your Cousin Heard on Oprah Doesn’t Replace Modern Medicine; and Even If You’re Full After a Big Dinner, Plan to Eat Tomorrow. Why cold weather doesn’t mean climate change is fake

Anne Hathaway is my new favorite celebrity. Anne Hathaway tricked Ellen’s audience into a fake ‘citrus healing’ ritual before telling them never to put something in their mouths just because a celebrity tells them to

My last story from CES includes tech for diabetics and the blind, STEM education for girls, a mention of the Spanish Inquisition no one expected, and giant relaxing egg furniture.

CES 2019: Startup Gadgets at Eureka Park – TidBITS

Heads up, in theaters in September. Megan, let’s make this a tradition, every 34 years.

Fathom Events | Lawrence of Arabia

2nd-to-last story from CES, in which I tell you about a pen. That uses chocolate for ink. In 3D.

CES 2019: Somewhere Between Star Trek and Harry Potter – TidBITS

Dear every friend in or visiting Philly: let’s go let’s go let’s go! I may need to buy a membership. Marvel superheroes exhibit coming to Franklin Institute