Loose Nukes Because every debate can be improved with a little highly-enriched uranium.


A quick way to speed up your browser

An easy trick you can use to make your web browser more quick and responsive.

The man with the stopwatch: process priorities

Your computer can only do one thing at a time. To run multiple programs at once, the operating system essentially switches back and forth between them hundreds of times each second: the CPU does a little bit for Program A, and then a little bit for Program B, and then a little bit for Program A again. This gives the illusion that the programs are running simultaneously. (Multi-core processors make this a little trickier, but the general idea is still the same.)

Every program (or technically, process) in Windows has a "priority", which Windows uses to decide how much CPU time to give to it. There are a lot of nuances to this, but basically, Windows will try to share CPU time equally between processes of the same priority level. If your web browser is running at "Normal" priority, and another program at "Normal" priority is busy doing something, your web browser will have to share - making it run slower.

So how do we use this to our advantage? Easy: increase the priority of your web browser. Your computer will run as usual when the web browser is idle, but when you click a button, it will process your request immediately - instead of waiting around for everything else.

This won't increase your download speeds, and you won't notice much on faster computers, but if you're using a slower computer it can make navigating around feel significantly snappier.

Adjusting process priority

First, open the Task Manager. The fastest way is to press Ctrl+Shift+Esc - although you can also press Ctrl+Alt+Del and open it from the lock screen, or it may be on the Start menu.

Second, click on the Processes tab and locate the process for your web browser. If you're using Firefox, it should be firefox.exe; if you're using Opera, it should be opera.exe; and if you're using Safari, it should be Safari.exe. You may want to click "Image Name" to sort the processes by name so it's easier to find.

  • If you're using Chrome or Internet Explorer, this is trickier and less useful. Both create a separate process for every tab you have open, so setting the priority of a specific process won't help much. However, if you're using Chrome you probably don't need this trick, and you really shouldn't be using Internet Explorer anyway.

Third, right-click on the process, click the Set Priority submenu, and click Above Normal.

Setting process priority from the task manager

That was easy! You'll probably get a warning popup, which you can just click through - this shouldn't actually cause any stability issues, so don't worry.

The only problem...

...is that Windows doesn't save this setting, so you have to go through the process above every time you start your web browser.

There's a fairly popular free tool called Prio that is supposed to let you set priorities permanently, but I've never actually used it, so try it at your own risk. 🙂


Schema Shifting: Breaking judge bias

Schema shifting is, hands down, the single most consistently effective technique for modifying the judge's emotional impression of an argument. It's also something that I've never seen systematically explained - anywhere. So yeah. Blog post.

Before we start...

A "schema" (pronounced "SKEE-muh", if you care) is, loosely defined, a set of preconceived ideas about something. For example, when I say "watermelon", you think of a large green fruit; when I say "housefire", you think of flames and firetrucks; and when I say "economic depression", you think of falling stock markets, pay cuts, and unemployment.

Schemas (or schemata, if you're being technical) allow your brain to easily absorb new information. Instead of building your vision of something from scratch, you can start with the nearest schema and just focus on the ways in which it is different. The classic example (taken from the fantastic book Made to Stick) is the word "pomelo". Here's a technical explanation from Wikipedia:

The pomelo (Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis) is a crisp citrus fruit native to South and Southeast Asia. It is usually pale green to yellow when ripe, with sweet white (or, more rarely, pink or red) flesh and very thick albedo (rind pith). It is the largest citrus fruit, 15–25 centimetres (5.9–9.8 in) in diameter, and usually weighing 1–2 kilograms (2.2–4.4 lb).

...and here's a simple explanation from Made to Stick:

A pomelo is basically an oversized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.

Which explanation gave you the fastest mental image of a pomelo? The second, obviously. You already know what a grapefruit is; you just had to modify your mental image with "oversized" and "thick and soft rind." That's a schema at work. (Actually, the first explanation also made use of schemas - "citrus fruit" and "rind" - but in a less direct way.)

A world of magnets

Explaining an idea to the judge is a little like throwing a paper clip into a maze full of magnets - it will stick to whatever compatible schema it hits first. If a case's harms are about pollution, the judge will instinctively activate their "toxic chemicals" schema. If your someone reads a scientific study to back up their point, the judge will instinctively activate their "scientists say so" schema. And so forth.

Like magnets, schemas have a powerful attractive force. Our brains try very hard to fit new information into an existing schema, because it minimizes the amount of new information we have to learn. We have a very difficult time with concepts that don't fit into any existing schema (like, say, polynomial division). Similarly, once an idea is attached to a schema, it's very difficult to detach. In fact, studies have found that people will often outright ignore evidence that doesn't fit their preconceived schema. Uncertainty is uncomfortable - rather than letting new evidence introduce uncertainty into our way of thinking, we often just choose to ignore it.

Schema Shifting: The easy way to break bias

Here's the thing: all judge bias is a result of schemas. When we say that a judge is "biased" against plans that raise taxes, it really just means that their schema for "higher taxes" has a lot of negative emotions attached to it: lower income, government overspending, regulations interfering with personal liberty, etc. In order to overcome the bias, we have to break the schema - either reprogram their idea of what "higher taxes" means, or keep them from thinking of the plan as "higher taxes" in the first place.

Reprogramming a schema is hard. Detaching an idea from a schema is also hard. Shifting from one schema to another similar schema, however, is quite easy. When you think of it this way, breaking bias is easy:

First, look at how the judge will perceive the argument. Then, find
another schema that's really similar (but positive), and shift to it.

In other words, don't try to convince someone that their schema is wrong; convince them that they're using the wrong schema.

  • The plan benefits large corporations. The judge has latched onto the "corporations creating jobs" schema. Shift it to the "greedy executives get a bailout" schema. (Both involve companies getting money, but it's much more helpful.)
  • The plan lowers taxes. The judge has latched onto the "plan lowers wasteful government spending" schema. Shift it to the "plan cuts vital services for protecting the innocent" schema. (Both involve less spending, but it's much more helpful.)
  • Most of the experts dislike your plan. The judge has latched onto the "expert opinion" schema. Shift it to the "brainwashed masses engaging in groupthink" schema. (Both involve experts believing something, but it's much more helpful.)

But how do you shift a schema? Easy: rhetoric. Just reference lots of terminology and ideas from the ideal schema. For example, if you're trying to get the judge to shift into the "brainwashed masses" schema, use lots of words like "propaganda", "misinformed", and "ignorance". Focus on examples where the "experts" were clearly mislead. If the schemas are similar enough, the shift will happen automatically.

Filed under: Speaking 1 Comment

New resource, and a semi-return

No, I'm not dead. 😛

The purpose of this post is two-fold. First, there's a new resource in town: the HomeSchoolDebate.com wiki. It's an extensive collection of articles on NCFCA/Stoa speech and debate that anyone with an account on the HomeSchoolDebate.com forums can edit and improve. It's still pretty new, so it's missing a lot of content, but over the next few months we hope to grow it into a large and useful resource.

If you like what you see, why not help out? You'll need an HSD account to contribute, but if you're a serious debater, it's worth creating one anyway; even if you're not interested in the case discussion, brief-trading, and intensive theory debates, you'll want to show up for the annual love-letter contest. 😛

Second, I'll be posting a new series of theory and strategy posts at irregular intervals - starting Wednesday morning with a powerful technique for overcoming judge bias. Stay tuned!

Filed under: Resources No Comments

Why I like states counterplans

States counterplans - having the 50 states enact the plan instead of the Federal Government - have been a staple for decades. In the last few years, however, I've run across an increasing number of people who think that the states counterplan is abusive or a cop-out. This year's NCFCA resolution has plenty of room for states arguments, so it's worth a quick discussion.

In this post I'll discuss several of the most common objections to states counterplans, and why states arguments make sense as a legitimate Negative strategy.

The "multiple actors" complaint

"The states counterplan fiats all 50 states at once. If they're allowed to control multiple different agents, what's to prevent them from fiating peace between Israel and Palestine?"

The problem of multiple agencies is not unique to the Negative: The Affirmative is fiating multiple agencies too (the President, the 535 members of Congress, various enforcement agencies, etc.) Granted, they're all part of the same government - but the 50 states are still part of the same country.

There's a better example, however. In 2005, the NCFCA Team Policy resolution was Resolved: That medical malpractice law should be significantly reformed in the United States. Experienced debaters may notice something unusual: The resolution doesn't specify an actor. Since they weren't restricted to "the United States Federal Government", most teams just ran state-level plans that passed the same law in all 50 states. Under the "multiple agencies is bad" mindset, this should have been a recipe for chaos - but it wasn't.

On the other hand, it's perfectly possible to have an abusive counterplan with only one actor (for example, "North Korea will unilaterally disarm.") The point here is not that multiple-agent plans can't be abusive, it's just that the number of actors is not the determining factor. We shouldn't automatically reject a plan just because it uses multiple agencies.

The "not real world" complaint

Here's another related counterargument: "50-state counterplans aren't real-world. The 50 states never get together and decide to implement the same laws - that just doesn't happen. If the Negative is allowed to propose solutions that are theoretically possible but wildly unrealistic, what's to prevent them from fiating world peace?"

This would be a good argument - except that it's completely incorrect.

The Uniform Law Commission, also known as the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL), is a multi-state organization dating back to 1892. It has one purpose: Propose uniform laws for adoption by all 50 states. To date, the NCCUSL has drafted over 100 act proposals, on topics ranging from adoption to student credit.

Ever wonder why checks work the same in every state? Most people just assume that there's a federal law standardizing check formats, but in fact, it's a state law - the Uniform Commercial Code, a joint project of the NCCUSL and the American Law Institute.

Think about that. That's amazing. The Federal government could easily have done it - they'd have no problem justifying it under the Commerce Clause - but, instead, the states all got together and did it. Real-life counterplan!

Testing the resolution: Why states arguments make sense

Let's look at the NCFCA resolution this year:

Resolved: The United States Federal Government should significantly reform its criminal justice system.

Debaters are expected to make all sorts of arguments about the resolution:

  • We shouldn't significantly reform the criminal justice system; the problems are small.
  • We shouldn't reform the criminal justice system; it's fine the way it is.
  • We shouldn't reform the criminal justice system; the problems are with the laws, not their enforcement.

We're expected to argue about "should", "significantly", "reform", "its", and "criminal justice system". So why aren't we expected to argue about "The United States Federal Government"?

A states counterplan is just like a significance argument: it tries to prove that part of the resolution is false (in this case, "The United States Federal Government should".) If you're OK with counterplans theoretically, it makes no sense to allow arguments about the second half of the resolution while shunning arguments about the first half.

Federalism: Why states arguments are important

States counterplans are not a cop-out, "we-like-this-plan-but-we-have-to-argue-against-it" strategy. Simply put, there are lots of things that should be done on a state level, not the federal level. The 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

In other words, many federal solutions are unconstitutional (by overstepping the authority granted to the Federal Government.) Besides the constitution, local control has many other potential advantages, such as easier adaption to regional diversity.

All this is merely to say that when you run a states counterplan you're raising a really important issue - not just grasping at straws so you have something to argue.

Extend-o-tron 5000: Competing with the Affirmative

States counterplans are in an interesting position, because they don't compete with the Affirmative in a direct, conventional way. Let me quickly recap the idea of competition.

In order for a counterplan to be a voting issue, it needs to "compete" with the Affirmative - that is, provide a reason to reject the resolution. It can't just be "another nice idea." In practice, this means that the counterplan alone must be better than both the counterplan and the Affirmative plan (otherwise, you could just implement them both, and there's no reason to reject the resolution.) Conventionally, there are two ways to achieve competition: 1) make the plans mutually exclusive (so you can't have them both at the same time), or 2) run disadvantages against the Affirmative plan. In many cases, states counterplans can go with #2 - if it's clear that the Affirmative plan is unconstitutional, you can just argue that the Federal solution is bad and the states solution is good.

There's another type of competition, however, which is rarely discussed: "competition through irrelevancy". A vast body of legal cases (see, i.e., Prigg v. Pennsylvania) have held that federal laws override state laws under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. If the judge enacts both the Affirmative plan and the counterplan, the Affirmative (Federal) plan will take precedence.

In other words, if the judge decides to implement both plans, he/she is really deciding to implement only the Affirmative plan. The counterplan just disappears from the picture.

Filed under: Arguments, Theory 12 Comments

5 insane arguments that actually have evidence

Sometimes, you want to win. Other times, you just want to make the other team go "...wah?"

In honor of it not being April Fool's Day (hey, why not?), here are five of the weirdest arguments that there's actually legitimate evidence for. Have fun and debate responsibly.

Creating laws that can't be repealed is totally OK

"Legislative entrenchment" refers to creating a law with special provisions that prevent future legislatures from modifying it. In other words, legislative entrenchment bypasses democracy to create a law that can never be repealed. Everyone agrees that this is unconstitutional, undemocratic, and generally a Bad Thing.

Everyone, apparently, except Posner and Vermeule, two law professors at the University of Chicago. In 2002, the pair wrote a somewhat inexplicable article arguing that legislative entrenchment was totally OK:

Prof. Eric A. Posner (professor of law at the University of Chicago) and Prof. Adrian Vermeule (professor of law at the University of Chicago), April 10, 2002, Yale Law Journal, "Legislative Entrenchment: A Reappraisal", Vol. 111, http://www. yalelawjournal.org/images/pdfs/192.pdf (page 1666)

"Our claim is that the rule barring legislative entrenchment should be discarded; legislatures should be allowed to bind their successors, subject to any independent constitutional limits in force. The rule has no deep justification in constitutional text and structure, political norms of representation and deliberation, efficiency, or any other source. There just is no rationale to be found; the academics have been on a fruitless quest. Entrenchment is no more objectionable in terms of constitutional, political, or economic theory than are sunset clauses, conditional legislation and delegation, the creation, modification, and abolition of administrative agencies, or any of the myriad of other policy instruments that legislatures use to shape the legal and institutional environment of future legislation."

Pictured: Nietzche's philosophy. (Fun game: Go through Nietzche's works and replace every occurence of the word "suffering" with the words "the flying spaghetti monster". It actually makes a lot more sense than the original.)

Suffering is not an impact

If you think that's nuts, you apparently haven't read enough 19th-century German philosophers yet. This particular argument comes from Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's works are extremely dense, to the point where there is an entire peer-reviewed journal dedicated to trying to figure out what the Heidegger he's actually trying to say. This, combined with the fact that he's dead and therefore has no lawyers, makes his works fertile ground for kritiks - you can pretty much claim he meant anything you want. For instance, that "suffering" was actually a codeword for the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

One of Nietzche's oft-quoted ideas was that suffering is an essential part of human existence, and that the only way to find meaning in life is to accept fate and recognize pain for what it is. The correct reaction to this is to blink slowly and say "well, that's stupid." The debater's reaction is to this is to jump up and down and gleefully shout "OOH OOH CUT A CARD ON THAT!"

Friedrich Nietzsche (19th century German philosopher), 1886, "Beyond Good and Evil: prelude to a philosophy of the future", No. 225, http://books.google.com/books?id=lPHqR0kAQnsC

"You want, if possible--and there is not a more foolish "if possible" --TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?--it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it--is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible--and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering--know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto? The tension of soul in misfortune which communicates to it its energy, its shuddering in view of rack and ruin, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, and exploiting misfortune, and whatever depth, mystery, disguise, spirit, artifice, or greatness has been bestowed upon the soul--has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?"

Nuclear war won't happen - aliens will intervene

You know nuclear war impacts, where every disadvantage eventually results in nuclear war? Right. Well, that won't happen, because aliens will intervene to stop it.

This is actually a very serious issue among the "UFOlogy" community, who claim they have witness testimony from over 120 former military personnel regarding alien intervention at nuclear weapons sites. UFOs have reportedly conducted surveillance, shut down nuclear launch systems, and even met with key military commanders.

One theory claims that the use of nuclear weapons interferes with the extraterrestrial's navigational abilities. Another is that the aliens are simply trying to prevent us from blowing ourselves up. At any rate, don't worry about nuclear war - the aliens won't stand for it!

Michael E. Salla (PhD in government from the University of Queensland, founder of the Exopolitics Institute), August 12, 2006, Exopolitics Research Study #11, "'Divine Strake' vs. 'Divine Strike' - Did Extraterrestrials Deter the Pentagon from a Preemptive Nuclear War Against Iran?", http://www.exopolitics.org/Study-Paper-11.htm

"Historical evidence supporting a possible extraterrestrial divine strike to prevent a preemptive nuclear war can be found in the publicly verified relationship between nuclear weapons testing and UFO sightings, extraterrestrial interference in the storage of nuclear weapons, and the alleged destruction of nuclear weapons by extraterrestrials. If extraterrestrials have acted in the past to interfere with or destroy nuclear weapons, it can be assumed that they would not have remained idle if a nuclear preemptive war against Iran affected their vital interests on Earth, and/or their ability to navigate in the Earth's vicinity."

'Experts' are worse than dart-throwing monkeys - just shut up

Popularly known in NFL circles as the "monkeys throwing darts" argument. Believe it or not, this is actually a legitimate and useful point; a number of interesting studies have been done on the accuracy of expert forecasters, with generally dismal results.

This particular quote comes from a fascinating summary of Philip Tetlock's equally fascinating book, "Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?" The whole article is worth a read if you've got time.

Prof. Louis Menand (PhD in English, professor of English and American Literature and language at Harvard, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for History for his book "The Metaphysical Club"), December 5, 2005, The New Yorker, "Everybody’s An Expert", http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1?currentPage=1

"Tetlock is a psychologist-he teaches at Berkeley-and his conclusions are based on a long-term study that he began twenty years ago. He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends," and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert.

[later, in the same context:]

The results were unimpressive. On the first scale, the experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned an equal probability to all three outcomes-if they had given each possible future a thirty-three-per-cent chance of occurring. Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices."

Delaying space colonization costs 100 trillion lives per second

Math. Just in case you ever needed a reason not to delay space colonization.

Prof. Nick Bostrom (PhD, professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, director of the Future of Humanity Institute), 2003, Utilitas, "Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development", Vol. 15, No. 3, http://www. nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html

"Suppose that about 10^10 biological humans could be sustained around an average star. Then the Virgo Supercluster could contain 10^23 biological humans. This corresponds to a loss of potential equal to about 10^14 potential human lives per second of delayed colonization. What matters for present purposes is not the exact numbers but the fact that they are huge. Even with the most conservative estimate, assuming a biological implementation of all persons, the potential for one hundred trillion potential human beings is lost for every second of postponement of colonization of our supercluster."

Note: Due to my very busy schedule right now, I probably won't be able to post every week. In the meantime, check out The COGblog, where the COG 2011 editorial team is posting a free throw-together 1AC and backup every Saturday leading up to release. Enjoy!

Filed under: Arguments, Humor 3 Comments

Getting the most out of your browser

Have a look at your computer...

...and notice that the keyboard and mouse are not in the same place.

How you use your keyboard and mouse can have a big effect on how efficient your research is. During an average research session, you'll switch back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse literally hundreds of times. If it takes about a second for each transition, you're probably spending five to ten minutes of each session just moving your hands around. This effect is particularly noticeable when compiling citations. The delay caused by copying and pasting many small bits of text can be frustrating when you just want to get back to researching.

This post is basically a compilation of shortcuts and techniques to minimize unnecessary clicks, keypresses, and hand movements while researching - faster ways to do ordinary things.

I wrote this with Firefox in mind, but most of the tips will work with other browsers as well. (See my previous post, "Browser battle to the death", to see why I recommend Firefox.)

The Keyboard

Believe it or not, you can perform most common actions entirely from the keyboard, without ever touching the mouse. This can be handy when an operation requires a mixture of keyboard and mouse actions; if you can do it all from the keyboard, it will probably be faster than switching to the mouse and back several times.

Many common keyboard commands can be done with one hand without taking the other off the mouse. For example, to copy text, just use the Copy and Paste keyboard shortcuts with one hand, while selecting the text with the mouse. This is much faster than clicking through menus with the mouse alone.

Keyboard navigation

Navigating forms - Pressing the Tab key will select the next link or text field. This is especially useful for site logins. Just type your username, press Tab, and type your password; no need to switch to the mouse to click the next field. (You can also do this backwards by pressing Shift+Tab.)

Selecting text - Firefox includes a feature called "caret browsing", which puts a text cursor on the webpage so you can select text with the keyboard (just hold down Shift and move the cursor over the text.) Caret browsing can be turned on and off by pressing the F7 key; usually, selecting with the mouse is faster, so you'll probably want it off most of the time.

Scrolling - the Page Up and Page Down keys, as well as the Up and Down arrows, are often the fastest way to navigate a large webpage. This will work much better if caret browsing is turned off.

Menus - You can access the menus by pressing Alt. (Note that in Firefox 4 and above, the old menus are hidden; pressing Alt will show them again.) When the menus are active, you'll see little underlines; this indicates that you can type that letter to activate the menu option. For example, pressing Alt, F, E opens the Send Link menu option.

Useful keyboard shortcuts

Copy and paste - If you're right-handed, use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, respectively. (You can do this with your left hand without taking your right hand off the mouse.) If you're left-handed, consider using Ctrl+Insert and Shift+Insert instead - if you use the Ctrl and Shift keys on the right side of the keyboard, you can do this with just your right hand without taking your left hand off the mouse. It's closer than reaching over to the left hand side of the keyboard.

New tab - Ctrl+T. Opening a new tab will automatically put your cursor in the URL bar, so you can hit Ctrl+T and type in a Google search without ever touching the mouse.

Close the current tab - Ctrl+W.

Re-open the last tab you closed - Ctrl+Shift+T. This doesn't work in Safari.

Open the Find box - Ctrl+F. Since this puts your cursor in the Find box, you can start typing right away. Tip: Using the Find box is often much faster than scanning through the entire document to find the bit you want - just Ctrl+F and type in a related word. Pressing Enter will cycle through all occurrences of it (you don't have to click the Next button.)

Undo and Redo - Ctrl+Z and Ctrl+Y, respectively.

Reload and stop loading - F5 and Escape, respectively.

Back and Forward - Alt+Left and Alt+Right, respectively.

Focus the search bar - Ctrl+K.

URL autocomplete - Firefox and Chrome do this. When typing a URL, you can press Ctrl+Enter, Ctrl+Shift+Enter, or Shift+Enter to add .com, .org, and .net domains, respectively. For example, you can type google and press Ctrl+Enter, and it will autocomplete to http://www.google.com. This even works with subdomains and folders - for example, typing google/maps and pressing Ctrl+Enter will autocomplete to http://www.google.com/maps.

Add evidence in Factsmith - Ctrl+Alt+A. (Not a browser feature, but important to know.) This will bring up the floating Evidence Editor window on top of whatever application you're currently using. No need to switch to the Factsmith window before each new card.

The Mouse

Physical presence

If you're using a laptop, get a physical mouse to plug into it. Period. You can get them for a few bucks, and once you get up to speed, it's significantly faster than using a trackpad.

Things to look for:

  • A scroll wheel is essential.
  • Get an optical mouse, not a ball mouse; it's much better. Laser probably isn't necessary.
  • Wireless vs. direct-connection is entirely a personal preference; wireless mice don't really have any everyday speed advantage over regular mice.
  • Avoid trackballs like the plague. Some people prefer them just because they're used to them, but a good surface-mouse user will always be faster than a good trackball user.

Obviously, if you have a scroll wheel, it's the fastest way to navigate a page. What you may not know is that the scroll wheel can also be used as a "middle" mouse button. If you middle-click a link, it will open in a new tab; if you middle-click an existing tab, it will close. (This is, by far, the fastest way to handle tabs. If you have a scroll wheel and you aren't using it, there is something wrong with you. ;-)) If you only have a laptop trackpad, you can get a similar effect by holding down Ctrl while you click.

Holding down Ctrl while rolling the wheel will zoom the current page in and out.

Mouse settings

There are a couple of mouse settings that can influence ease-of-use; play with them a bit until you get something you like:

Pointer speed: Set it as fast as you're comfortable with; you want to be able to travel all the way across the screen without sliding your wrist.

Enhance Pointer Precision: This is a Windows option that "ramps" the pointer speed, so slow movements are more precise and fast movements go further. This makes it dramatically easier to quickly flick to a button and click it. If it isn't already on, turn it on right now like seriously.

Double-click speed: If the double-click speed is set too slow, clicking on things twice can activate double-click when you don't want it to. Set it only as slow as you need it to be.

Snap to default button: Windows can automatically move the mouse to the default button in a window. I recommend keeping this off, because it makes keeping track of the mouse pointer more confusing, but it's a personal preference.

Mouse cursor theme: It does no good to have a cool animated horse for a mouse pointer if you can't see where you're clicking. Keep it simple.

Become ambimousetrous

If you're working on a laptop, learn how to use the trackpad and the mouse interchangeably.

The trackpad isn't usually faster than the physical mouse. It is, however, a lot closer than the mouse. If you're typing on the keyboard and need to perform a quick mouse action, just drop down two inches to the trackpad and do it there.

This can save a lot of time, so it's worthwhile getting good with both.

Mouse gestures

I talked about this in my previous post. This is primarily a feature in Opera, but you can also get it in Firefox by installing the FireGestures addon.

Mouse gestures are quick, easy mouse movements that you can perform instead of switching to the keyboard or moving the mouse across the screen to click a button. Generally, you hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse in a specific pattern:Once you get used to it, it's much faster than conventional shortcuts.

This actually exists

Button remapping

Most mice have two buttons (not counting the scroll wheel), but you can also get ones with more. You probably don't want quite as many buttons as the OpenOffice mouse on the right (understatement of the year), but a few extra buttons can be handy.

Programming extra buttons to perform common actions like Copy, Paste, Clear Formatting, New Tab, etc. can save a lot of time and keypresses. How this is done will vary by the mouse.

The Browser

Firefox includes a great time-saving feature called "smart keywords", which deserves its own section. Chrome and other browsers include similar features, but the operation is different and they sometimes require plugins, so I'll only cover the Firefox version here. See here for partial Chrome instructions.

Bookmark keywords

If you right-click a bookmark and click Properties, you'll get a box with a number of options. One of these is "Keyword". This defines a shortcut to the bookmark that you can type in the URL bar; for example, I can open a new tab and type in hsd, and it will take me to HomeSchoolDebate.com.

Search keywords

There's a slightly more advanced version of this that's even more useful: if you right-click any search box on a webpage and select "Add a Keyword for this Search...", you can create keywords for search engines. For example, to search Wikipedia for "mushrooms", I could simply open a new tab and type in wiki mushrooms.

This can be used for very advanced searches; for example, by setting various options before I saved the bookmark, I was able to set up a keyword that searches all Google News articles since 2004.

To install the Google News archive search on your own browser, drag this link to your bookmark toolbar and give it a keyword like "gnews" from Properties: Google News Search | Archives. (You may want to move it off the toolbar to the menus afterwards.)


Browser battle to the death

Which browser is the best for debate research?

It's like an ancient ritual: every few months, debaters are obligated to drop what they're doing and try to convince complete strangers that Firefox is better than Chrome, or Opera is better than Firefox, or Safari is better than them all. After a few futile volleys, everyone realizes they have no idea what they're talking about, and the conversation ends.

I decided to get some hard data. Over the last few weeks, I did a few days of intensive research in each of the top five browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. My goal? Determine which was the most efficient research platform.

These are the results.

A few disclaimers

First, objectivity. This is an inherently subjective subject, so if you really, really love Internet Explorer - that's totally fine. I'm just telling you what conclusion I came to. Which happens to be that Internet Explorer is really, really terrible. 😉

Second, background. Prior to this test, I used mostly Firefox, but I didn't have any particular "attachment" to it - I've used a number of different browsers, so being acclimated to Firefox wasn't a particularly big deal.

Third, purpose. Throughout this, I'm only going to be looking at suitability for research. Thus, I mostly won't be considering features that don't really affect the research process - like how nicely a browser renders Flash games.

Fourth, scope. This breakdown is not comprehensive - I may point out a feature or a problem that applies to multiple browsers, but only mention it once. In general, I'm only going after the most noticeable issues with each browser.

Fifth, platform. This article covers Windows browsers. In some cases, the browsing experience may be very different under Mac OS or Linux. In particular, Safari is much easier to use without a right-click button than other browsers; your mileage may vary.

Onward to the results!

#5: Internet Explorer 9

First, some (maybe) redeeming features

Accelerators: When you select text, IE pops up a little blue arrow with some fancy buttons to email, translate, etc. This could be useful, but I never really needed it, so it mostly just got in the way. By default, it's very heavily tied into Microsoft services like Bing and Live Mail.

Color-coded tabs: Internet Explorer tries to color-code tabs by their contents - for example, when I had two different biographies of the same person open, it recognized them and colored them both yellow. It's nice, but nothing to kill for.

Tab management: Internet Explorer attempts to open new tabs at intuitive locations on the tab bar, instead of just always sticking them at the end. It's a nice thought, but the execution is rather clumsy, so it's sometimes just confusing.

Taskbar: If you're using Windows 7, open tabs will display as separate images in the application-preview panel. You may or may not like this.

An inferior renderer

I'll be brief. Internet Explorer's page renderer is... not very good. Pages don't always look right, and those that do are often "rough around the edges" (literally - corners and edges are often fuzzy or disconnected.) The anti-aliasing routines also tend to make text look blurry. On the whole, it works fine, but there are better options available.

The interaction with the webpage is not always smooth, either. On more than one occasion, Explorer simply locked up and refused to let me edit a text field.

Internet Explorer is also visibly slower and clunkier than other browsers. The difference is most noticeable when scrolling - large pages tend to jump around and lag instead of scrolling smoothly, especially when other tabs are loading in the background. Scrolling also causes the graphics on some pages to glitch.

Interface problems

Internet Explorer's interface is generally OK, but there are plenty of problems. A sample:

Text select: Wow, this is frustrating. In every other browser I tried, when you select text, it selects the text. In Internet Explorer, when you select text, it selects... something, that may or not be the text. This isn't a problem for most articles, but when the page layout gets complicated, boy does it get annoying. Here's a video demonstrating the problem:

Copying text: When copying text, Internet Explorer doesn't put blank space between the paragraphs, so everything tends to run together. Sometimes it doesn't even put a single break in, so several carefully-formatted paragraphs are smashed together into a single block.

There are a few problems with tabbed browsing:

  • IE doesn't scroll tabs until they get so small you can't read them anymore. Since the tab bar is very narrow, this makes it extremely difficult to work with more than a dozen tabs or so.
  • The tab bar is down a little ways, instead of at the top of the window. There's no reason for this, since there's nothing else at the top of the window - just a blank space. This means that you can't quickly flick your mouse to the top of the screen - you have to aim carefully, which takes more time.
  • The "New Tab" button is all the way on the other side of the window from the URL box. This isn't a big problem, since you can do everything from the keyboard, but it would be nice if they were closer.

Password memory: Like most modern browsers, Internet Explorer can save the passwords to sites you log into frequently, but it's somewhat inconsistent. For sites that redirect (read "most sites"), the "Remember password?" field tended to disappear before I could click it.

Javascript alerts: You can't copy text out of a popup alert. This is a problem for me, because I use a system of popup alerts to store login information for certain academic databases. I can see the text, but I can't copy it.

Bookmark separators: Folders of bookmarks can't have separator lines - everything appears together. This is a cosmetic issue, but it bugs me.

A thermonuclear game-killer (for some people, anyway)

Internet Explorer has no drag-and-drop. At all.

At this point, you are either a) re-reading the previous sentence with a mildly puzzled look on your face, or b) passed out on the floor. While we wait for the second group to wake up, let me explain what the problem is.

Factsmith, the quintessential awesome research software you should all have (hint hint), is built around drag-and-drop. Instead of selecting text, hitting a key combination on the keyboard, clicking where you want it to go, and hitting another key combination on the keyboard, you can just select the text and drag it to the appropriate location - much faster. Virtually every Windows application supports this - except Internet Explorer.

Those who have never used Factsmith won't understand why this is such a big deal, but a few minutes of it made me want to bang my head against the keyboard (and I'm someone who uses keyboard shortcuts a lot.) Does it make Internet Explorer unusable? No, but it does make it annoying. There are better options available; use them.

Did I mention security?

Internet Explorer is famous for being really bad with security. Partly because of its popularity, partly because of the slow, proprietary development cycle (IE vulnerabilities typically take much longer to be patched than other browser's), and partly because IE is built directly into the operating system (giving attacks a shortcut), the majority of malicious websites on the Internet target Internet Explorer.

Also, no adblock

One major problem with Internet Explorer is the lack of a good ad-blocker. Banner ads are unsightly and distracting, and slow down page loading. For most other browsers, you can get free plugins like Adblock Plus that do an excellent job of filtering them out before they even load. With Internet Explorer, you can't.

Really, though, these concerns are minor, and not a good reason to avoid Internet Explorer. Honestly, it's not that annoying to be reading through an article on Greek financial investors and have to occasionally skip past an unobtrusive


Seriously, if you're doing any serious research, get Adblock. And a different browser.

The bottom line: Version 9 is marginally better than previous incarnations, but a clunky renderer, missing or broken features, and rampant security holes drop Internet Explorer to the bottom of the list.

#4: Safari 5

A badly-designed interface

I'll cut to the chase. Safari's user interface is really badly designed. Let's take bookmarks for an example - it took me about five minutes to figure out how to create a bookmark, because it is not obvious at all.

Hmmm... there's a bookmark bar. Is there a button there to create a bookmark? No. What if I right-click? No. How about right-clicking the page? Nope. What about the tab bar? Oh, you can create multiple bookmarks at a time that way - but not one. (Why not?) Oh, there's a bookmark manager, it must be there - nope. (By this time I've figured out how to do pretty much everything else with bookmarks except create them.) Oh, there it is - the button with a plus sign to the left of the URL bar. (Why a plus sign, by the way? Literally every other major browser uses a star, which has been the accepted "bookmark" icon since Windows 98.)

The problem is simple: Safari is really bad at predictability - similar tasks are often accomplished in very different ways. I was looking in places related to bookmarks, while the actual button was in a place that had nothing to do with bookmarks. This is a common problem in Safari:This is a minor example, but the same wind blows across most of the application. The list of problems with the interface goes on and on:

  • You can't drag a bookmark into a bookmark folder on the toolbar, but you can do this from the bookmark manager. In fact, dragging is the only way to do this in the bookmark manager - so it's definitely the correct way to do it, but you can't do it in the most obvious place to do it. Why not?
  • Favicons show in bookmark folders, but not on the bookmark toolbar. Why not?
  • The "New Tab" button is way off to the right. You invariably have to move the mouse a long way to get to it, and it's very small, so it's hard to click.
  • etc.

You can defend all this, arguing that it makes more sense to Mac users, you get used to it quickly, etc, etc, but the fact remains that there are much better ways to do the interface.

A plethora of problems

It didn't take me too long to get used to the quirky interface, but Safari had a lot of other problems that made research more difficult. Here are some things that bugged me:

Remembering tabs: This is, in my opinion, the biggest killer flaw of Safari. There is no way to make it remember your tabs when you close it. I have no idea why not - you can remember windows, just not tabs. If you want to save your session, you have to create bookmarks for your current tabs, or hunt through your history when you open it again.

Reopening tabs: There's apparently no way to reopen a tab you closed by accident. Supposedly, there's a keyboard shortcut, but it didn't work for me and it only works with one tab anyway.

Tab overflow: Good heavens, the tab overflow. Safari will only show a limited number of tabs at any given time (on my case, 13.) After this, you can only access the rest of the tabs by opening a menu to change which of the hidden tabs the final tab displays. The only way to show the hidden tabs side-by-side is to rearrange them on the bar - but oh, wait, you can't drag them off the menu, you have to repeatedly set the final tab's identity and then drag it. Also, every time you open a new tab, it gets dumped at the VERY END of the whole list - so if you want it to be usable, you have to set it as the final tab and drag it around. If this sounds bad, it is.

Text search: Every time you switch tabs, the Find box disappears. If you want to search for the same text in several different tabs, you have to re-enter it for each one. (Also, the Find box has no option for matching case.)

URL bar: You can't search Google from the URL bar. This wouldn't be a problem (there's a separate search box, after all), except that Safari automatically puts your cursor in the URL bar whenever you open a new tab - so you're forced to switch to the search box manually, wasting time.

Javascript alerts: Like IE, you can't copy text out of a popup alert.

Creating bookmarks: Aside from the issues listed above, you can't create a bookmark without actually going to the page - which makes it difficult to bookmark a script or a page that redirects. You have to create a dummy bookmark and then edit the address.

Bookmark separators: Folders of bookmarks can't have separator lines - everything appears together. Again, this is a cosmetic issue, but it bugs me.

Visual distinction: Page icons aren't displayed on tabs. In addition, the tabs seem to pick relatively random parts of the title to display - usually the beginning, sometimes the end, occasionally the middle. This means that if you want the tab with the Wikipedia page, you can't just click on the one with the Wikipedia icon; you have to look for the tab that reads "th Australia - Wik...", or whatever it says at the moment, and click on it.

Speed: Safari on Mac OS X is very fast, but on Windows, it's noticeably slower than most of the other browsers I tested.

Other concerns

One potential concern is security. Internet Explorer typically gets a bad rap, but Safari may be even worse, at least in theory. At the 2011 Pwn2Own cracking competition, it was fully compromised in less than five seconds. Safari on Windows is generally considered safer, however (partly because it's a smaller target.)

Another possible concern is stability. Safari was the only browser that crashed during my testing - several times. (This was made particularly annoying by the fact that I couldn't easily restore my lost tabs.) Another time, it decided to delete all my bookmarks for no reason.

Some redeeming qualities

If you ignore the bad interface, Safari is actually a decent browser. The rendering engine (WebKit, the same one Chrome uses) produces nicely-polished pages, and basic browsing functionality works more or less as expected. There are also some nice features for everyday browsing, like a very pretty most-frequent-bookmarks view when you open a new tab.

One feature to highlight is the slick Reader view, which strips away the page fluff so you can just view the article. It's pleasantly easy on the eyes, but probably won't make or break anyone's research experience.

Another thing to remember is that Safari is really designed around the Mac operating system. It gets a big speed hike on Mac OS X, and it's much more usable without right-click than most other browsers. As a result, Apple fans may feel more comfortable with it than with other browsers.

The bottom line: If you can stand the badly-designed interface, Safari is a decent browser - but it's a Mac machine at heart, and most PC researchers will find it incredibly annoying.

#3: Chrome 10

You may be surprised that Google's brainchild only makes #3. Make no mistake: Chrome is an excellent browser. It's fast, it's powerful, and it's secure, but it's beset by a variety of minor irritations that keep it from being an ideal research platform. I'd happily recommend it as a day-to-day browser, and as a web development platform, but there are better options for research.

First: Features I really liked

Chrome is fast. Other browsers have caught up in page-rendering and script-execution speed, so you won't notice much difference during ordinary browsing, but it starts up a lot faster than Firefox.

Excellent security. Chrome is widely recognized as the industry standard in browser security, mostly due to a "sandboxing" technique that isolates web pages from each other and the rest of the system. (Chrome is the only major browser to consistently remain unscathed at Pwn2Own.) In reality, completely ironclad security is unnecessary for causal research (the New York Times website is not going to give you a virus), but it's nice to have.

Automatic page translation. If you visit a page in a foreign language, Chrome will offer to translate it for you automatically. (You can get a similar ease-of-use in other browsers with the Translate bookmarklet I supply in this post - but it's nice that Chrome's automatic.)

The ability to re-open a closed tab by right-clicking the tab bar. I'm not sure why I liked this so much, but I did. In most other web browsers, you have to use a keyboard shortcut (usually Ctrl+Shift+T) to reopen a recently-closed tab, or hunt around on the menus; Chrome supports the keyboard shortcut, but it also gives you the option if you right-click the tab bar. It's just nice not to have to switch to the keyboard.

Integrated developer tools. I've been using Chrome as my primary web-development platform for some time now, mostly because of the fantastic developer tools. You definitely don't need them for debate research, though.

A variety of minor irritants...

Tab management: When you have a lot of tabs open, Chrome just compresses them until they get so small you can't tell what any of them are. Combine this with the fact that the Close buttons are always visible, blocking out the text, and it becomes difficult to handle more than 20 tabs. (Supposedly, this will be fixed in a future version.)Search bar: Chrome combines the URL and Google search bar into one. I found this to be occasionally annoying when it would try to do something "smart" with my text that I didn't want. I got used to it pretty quickly, but a separate search box is more predictable.

Downloads: For URLs that directly download, if you open them in a new tab, Chrome will remove the URL when the download finishes. This is a problem if you want to get the URL for a PDF you downloaded with Google Scholar, since you can't copy the URL directly from Google (it will have a lot of redirect mumbo-jumbo in it.)

Javascript alerts: Like Safari and IE, you can't copy text out of a popup alert.

Bookmark separators: Folders of bookmarks can't have separator lines - everything appears together. Again, this is a cosmetic issue, but it bugs me.

Bookmark toolbar: By default, Chrome's bookmark toolbar only appears when you open a new tab, meaning it takes two clicks to open a new tab with a bookmark. This can be changed in the options, however.

Print preview: Inexplicably, Chrome has no print preview option, so if you want to see what a webpage will look like on paper, you're out of luck. (This can be annoying while printing extemp articles.)

RSS: There's no integrated RSS button, so you have to hunt around and try to find the feed URL manually if you want to subscribe to a page.

...and one deal-breaker

One major problem immediately dropped Chrome out of consideration for my top browser. Unlike all the other browsers tested, Chrome uses a custom, slimmed-down PDF plugin. It's slick and fast, but it has one debilitating flaw: You can't drag-and-drop text out of it - you have to copy and paste. Like IE, this makes Chrome annoying to use with Factsmith.

The bottom line: While all-around a solid browser, a few major deficiencies and a variety of minor irritants make Chrome less than ideal for a research platform (but not necessarily for other uses.)

#2: Opera 11

This was a bit unexpected. To my surprise, Opera was one of only two browsers I really enjoyed researching with (Chrome came close, but the PDF drag-and-drop issue kept coming back to haunt me.) Opera isn't perfect by any means, but it worked well, and it wasn't afraid to try out new ideas.

Bold new frontiers

Opera is a bit of a maverick, trying out new features before they become mainstream. For the most part, it operates (pun intended) just like any other browser, but a few features stand out:

Excellent performance on low-speed connections. The most interesting feature is Opera Turbo, a compression-proxy service that can make large pages load significantly faster. You can also use various other bandwidth-saving features like not loading images. If you have a decent connection, these features probably won't help much, but it's something to remember the next time you're trying to do late-night research on an overloaded hotel network.

Mouse gestures. This is really cool. Opera allows you to perform many common actions with "mouse gestures" - quick, easy mouse movements - instead of forcing you to switch to the keyboard or move the mouse across the screen to click a button.

Generally, you hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse in a specific pattern:Once you get used to it, it's much faster than conventional shortcuts (although you can still use them if you wish.) Mouse gestures are completely customizable; for example, I added one for copying text (see below.) (If you like mouse gestures, but want to use Firefox instead of Opera, there are addons like FireGestures that emulate this functionality.)

Comprehensive caching. Opera features much more sophisticated cache management than most other browsers; going forward and back and visiting pages repeatedly is often much faster, since it doesn't try to reload everything. You can even search the contents of all the pages you've visited in a session.

Full MDI tabs. Most browsers will let you have multiple windows. Opera goes a step further: it combines windows and tabs, so you can turn specific tabs into popup windows, while still managing them from tab bar. For example, you could put Google Docs side-by-side with a website for fast copying, without having two entirely separate windows.

Built-in bittorrent client. BitTorrent is a file-sharing transfer protocol; normally, to download torrents, you have to use special software. In Opera, you can download torrents just like any other file. I've never needed to use bittorrents while researching (honestly, they're mostly used for pirating software), but it's cool nonetheless.

Voice control. If you feel like commanding your browser to do things out loud (for whatever reason), you can do that. I promise not to look at you funny. 😉

A well-done interface

For the most part, Opera is very intuitive - everything works about how you would expect. A few features in particular stand out:

Speed Dial: Opera has (in my opinion) the nicest "frequently used sites" display when you open a new tab. The tiles are large and clean, with crisp page previews. The URL bar is also well-done, with a powerful but not overly intrusive advanced-search dropdown.

Customizable: Almost everything about Opera can be customized, from the mouse gestures to the location of the tab bar. Compared to other browsers, Opera just plain has a lot of options.

Tab pinning and grouping: Tabs you use frequently can be "pinned" as icons, and several tabs can be grouped together. In practice, you probably won't use it much, but it's a nice touch.

Tab bubbles: I'm not sure what they're called, but they're nice. Tabs you open in the background will have a little bubble to let you know you haven't looked at them yet - useful when managing lots of different articles.

Tab preview: When you hover your mouse over a tab, it will display a preview of the page. (This sometimes makes it difficult to see the full title for a page, but that's a minor concern.)

Recently-closed-tab trashbin: All recently closed tabs are available by clicking a small trashbin icon. Other browsers have similar features, but it's nice that it's so easy to manage.  The bin also stores blocked popups, which is a great way to handle them.

Javascript alerts: For once, Opera does allow me to copy text out of a popup alert.

Speed: Not really an "interface" issue, but Opera is fast, no question about it.

A few design missteps

Tabs: While tab management is generally excellent, there are three minor deficiencies:

  • First, new tabs always open at the very end of the list, which can get annoying if you have a lot of tabs open. (Browsers like Firefox or Chrome will usually put them next to the current tab.)
  • Second, the tab bar isn't quite at the top of the window - it's close, but there's a little gap. This means you can't just flick your mouse to the top of the screen - you have to aim carefully.
  • Third, and most problematic, tabs don't scroll - they just compress until you can't read them. The problem isn't quite as severe as Chrome, however, and there are ways to compensate - you can pin tabs together, or have multiple rows of tabs. Still, it's a bit annoying.

Tabs will also sometimes behave in rather unexpected ways; for example, tabs sometimes randomly resized when I moused over them, making me miss the Close button. On the whole, it works well, but it it's not as polished as Firefox or Chrome.

Bookmarks: This is one major exception to Opera's general intuitiveness. Managing the bookmark toolbar is really, really awkward. You can sometimes drag things, and sometimes can't, and folders are really random. I was extremely confused at first, because I successfully created a folder, but did it in the wrong way somehow so nothing worked. Actually, managing bookmarks in general is a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

There are also no bookmark separators (well, you can do them in the sidebar, but not on the toolbar), and you apparently can't reorganize bookmark folders in anything except alphabetical order.

Trackpads: Like most browsers, you can open a link a new tab by middle-clicking. Unfortunately, if you're using a laptop trackpad without a middle-click button, you're out of luck: you can't use Ctrl+Click like you can with most other browsers. You can use a mouse gesture instead (right-click and flick down), but it's not quite as fast or comfortable.

PDFs: You can't view large PDFs until they're fully downloaded - most other browsers will let you view them as they download. This is only really a problem on slow connections.

Text search: Opera has the same problem as Safari - every time you switch tabs, the Find box disappears. If you want to search for the same text in several different tabs, you have to re-enter it for each one. (It does, however, have a Match Case option for once.)

Back button: You can't middle-click the Back button to open the previous page in a new tab. (Apparently I do this a lot more than I realized!)

Alas, poor Factsmith!: Drag and drop woes

Like IE and Chrome, Opera has problems with drag-and-drop. While you can drag text out of PDFs, you can't drag text out of ordinary webpages.

This is disappointing, since everything else works so well. I managed to compensate partially by creating a mouse gesture for Copy, which made it less frustrating than Internet Explorer, but I really missed the easy of drag-and-drop. Oh well, at least PDFs work.

The bottom line: Bold and under-appreciated, Opera features a wide range of innovative features, but falls a bit short on usability.

#1: Firefox 4

Even before reviewing my notes, Firefox was the obvious choice. Internet Explorer and Safari were merely frustrating; Chrome was solid but imperfect; and Opera was cool, but lacked a few key features. Coming back to Firefox felt like coming home after a long trip.

Firefox is simply very polished. This is a web browser that's been around a long time, has been used by a ton of people, and knows exactly what it's doing. Everything just... works. Bookmarks, tabs, windows, text selection, drag-and-drop, printing, options...

Here's a few things I like about Firefox.

Ridiculously extensible

Mozilla's official archive contains over 60,000 add-ons that have, collectively, been downloaded over 2.5 billion times. Firefox is built on an extremely extensible framework that allows add-ons to do almost anything; a small sample:

Adblock Plus - Ad-blocker.

DownloadThemAll! - Download accelerator and bulk downloader; lets you download entire batches of links at once, with advanced filtering and naming patterns.

Debate Copy - Adds a variety of functions for debate research, like autocopy, keyboard shortcuts, formatting tools, and site extenders.

FireGestures - Adds Opera-style mouse gestures to Firefox.

FoxReplace - Find & replace text on a webpage.

Zotero - An elaborate tool for organizing and tracking academic research.

Other browsers have add-ons, but for sheer number and quality, Firefox wins hands down.

Lots of features: a sampling

Download manager: Firefox's internal download manager is very nice. You can easily start, stop, and pause multiple downloads, track progress, and search past files. If your computer unexpectedly crashes mid-download, you probably won't even have to restart it - the download will pick up right where it left off.

Excellent session restore: Firefox's session restore is one of the most polished. You can close Firefox, go away, come back, and open it again, and all your tabs, windows, downloads, and half-completed sentences will be right where you left them.

Synchronization: Chrome and Opera can synchronize your bookmarks across multiple devices. Firefox goes further: It can synchronize everything, even your open tabs. You can seamlessly jump between computers mid-research and have all your tabs, bookmarks, and add-ons waiting for you.

Security: Firefox includes a variety of interesting security features. For example, it shows you site-verification credentials, automatically virus-scans downloads, warns about malware and phishing sites, prevents information tracking by advertisers, and allows you to easily erase cookies and other data by time or specific sites. While most of these features can be found in other browsers as well, some are unique to Firefox.

Built-in RSS reader: Firefox has very good RSS integration. You can easily subscribe to a site with Google Reader, a desktop reader, or even the built-in feed reader in Firefox.

A polished interface

I could list all the nice things about the Firefox interface here, but instead I'll just point to all my complaints about the other browsers above and say "it doesn't do that." 😛 A few points are worth mentioning, though:

Stuff just works: The Firefox team spent a good deal of time looking at how people tried to do things, and designed the interface to accommodate them. There are often multiple ways to do common tasks, so you don't have to hunt around for the "right" way - you just do it. I have a few gripes with the default placement of some buttons, but it's easy to change things if you don't like them.

Bookmarks done right: Firefox's bookmark handling was my clear favorite. Everything behaves in a natural, obvious way: You can create bookmarks and bookmark folders several different ways, and drag and drop bookmarks wherever you want. Bookmark folders are powerful but not cluttered, and you can add separator lines to keep everything looking nice (yay!)

Tabs done right:

  • The tab bar is nice and wide, and tabs scroll before they get too small to read. You can easily scan through the tabs with the mouse wheel, search them from the Awesome Bar, or even see them all on a dropdown menu.
  • The tab bar is right up against the top of the screen, so you can easily flick your mouse up and find it without having to aim carefully. The tabs are also large enough to click easily, without taking up too much space.
  • Tab placement is intelligent (like Chrome, but better.) New links open right next to the current tab, so you don't have to search around for them; bookmarks open at the end of the list. The tab bar automatically scrolls around to keep recently-opened tabs in view.

The only tab feature I miss from Chrome is constant-sizing. Chrome won't change the size of the tabs until you move your mouse away from them, so you can close a lot of tabs in a row without having to re-orient your mouse as they change size. Nice, but not essential. UPDATE: The new Firefox 5 now includes this feature. Yay!

Awesome Bar and context-sensitive options: The URL bar (aka the Awesome Bar) does a lot more than just store URLs: it also searches Google, bookmarks, history, and open tabs, and you can assign special tags and shortcuts for additional options. Similarly, the search box can automatically show Google's search suggestions. Other browsers include similar features, but Firefox is one of the most polished.

The bottom line: A few eccentricities aside, Firefox is an excellent research platform, with solid features and an efficient, refined interface.


2AR Bingo! cards

Have fun at Nationals. (printable version)

Note: Obviously, the instructions to shout "BINGO!" in the middle of the speech should not be taken literally, at least at actual tournaments. Doing the wave, however, is recommended.

Filed under: Humor 6 Comments

A realistic view of kritiks

First off, apologies for this post being late - I've been too busy butchering Spanish verb tenses and making Factsmith awesome to finish it on time. Anyhow, here it is.

Conventionally, discussions about kritiks revolve around two main areas:

  1. The theoretical legitimacy of kritiks.
  2. Whether kritiks are good for the educational quality of debate.

This post is not about either. This post is about how to win with a kritik - specifically, what kinds of kritiks work with what kinds of judges.

These aren't hard and fast rules, of course; every judge is different. But hopefully, they'll help you think about what the judge is looking for in a new light. 🙂

For those unfamiliar with the concept of a kritik: "Kritiks" are basically arguments about the mindsets and attitudes of the other team's case; a kritik argues that voting for the case would endorse its bad mindset. For example, if a case is based on the idea that women are unfit to serve in the military, the Negative might hypothetically kritik it for promoting gender bias. Etc.

Three types of kritiks

Principles kritiks. These are kritiks based on core, common principles - like justice, democracy, etc. For example, if the Affirmative's plan would deny heath insurance to minorities, the Negative could quite justifiably run a racism kritik. Generally speaking, if most people agree that the mindset in question is bad, it's a principles kritik.

Fluffy kritiks. These are kritiks based on fluffy ideas that most people don't care about. A good example would be "deep ecology", which argues against treating nature as a separate "thing" that can be "solved" with human ingenuity.

The only real difference between principles kritiks and fluffy kritiks is in how generally the subject is believed to be bad. If most people only care about it in an abstract, philosophical way, it's a fluffy kritik.

Plan-world kritiks. These are "kritiks" based on the type of decisionmaking the plan will supposedly endorse in the real world. For example, the Negative might argue that passing a hypocritical plan will make the government more likely to be hypocritical in the future.

(To be clear, so theory nuts don't kill me: plan-world kritiks aren't actually kritiks, they're just disadvantages with funky links. However, in practice, most judges will handle them the same way in-round, so I figured I should discuss them here.)

Three types of judges

Community. Community judges don't generally vote on theoretical arguments. Kritiks are a theoretical argument. Therefore, community judges don't generally vote on kritiks. Right?

Not exactly. Think of the last time you got a ballot like...

"I was convinced of the benefits of the plan, but I just don't think we should be spending more money in a recession."

"Judge bias"? That's basically the judge voting on a kritik that they made up themselves. Community judges vote on mindsets all the time - but only if they agree with them. Principles kritiks like racism are fair game. Fluffy ecological kritiks, not so much.

Parent/alumni. One might expect parent and alumni judges to be more receptive to kritiks than community judges, but that's actually a bit misleading. Parents have a fairly good understanding of what is and isn't a valid argument, so they'll often disregard mindset arguments as "not a real argument" or subject to personal bias ("well, I think the plan is racist, but that's my personal opinion, which I shouldn't bring into the round.")

Generally, however, principles kritiks will go down well if make a point to emphasize "this is an actual argument". Fluffy kritiks don't tend to get much traction - unless the judge understands and accepts the theory behind kritiks, in which case they are...

Übernerdflowjudge9000. You know the type. Former-NFL debaters; coaches; fifth-year alumni; the ones who come in with a dedicated flowpad and four different colored pens. You get about what you'd expect: kritik away!

Interestingly, I've noticed that theory-savvy judges don't tend to do as well with plan-world kritiks, because they treat them as true disadvantages. True disadvantages require solid links and impacts, which aren't usually present in plan-world kritiks.

A similar effect holds true for principles kritiks. A theory-savvy judge may expect you to have specific impacts, instead of just saying "racism is bad" and moving on.

Putting it all together

Here's a simple chart that summarizes all the discussion above:This can be boiled down to three basic rules:

  1. Legitimate principles kritiks are fair game.
  2. Don't run "fluffy" kritiks unless you have a nerd judge.
  3. Keep plan-world "kritiks" realistic.

Extend-o-tron 5000: An extremely unrelated side note

A random strategy tip that came to mind as I was writing this post; take it or leave it:

One "fluffy" kritik that occasionally comes up is the Cap K - or, basically, a kritik of capitalism. A fairly effective way to beat this (at least with non-theory-savvy judges) is to rhapsodize about the market forces behind the building you're debating in, contrasted to the alternatives (socialism, etc.) Highlight the massive number of "moving parts" that the markets automatically handle:

"Let's take the hinges on the door. Someone had to design it; someone had to run the mining machinery, and the transportation machinery, and the smelting machinery, and the hinge-putting together machinery, and someone had to design all that machinery. That's not including the design and manufacture of the millions of other parts involved in the manufacturing and selling process. All the people involved did that for money - because of capitalism. All the services and goods are part of a complex web of supply and demand that automatically sets the ideal prices for everything, based on what people are willing to pay. Imagine how difficult and inefficient the whole process would be if we had to design it from the top down, without the profit incentive." (Et cetera.)

Is this a legitimate response? Not really. Does it work? Yes.

Filed under: Kritiks, Theory 1 Comment

Clarity-In-A-Box: One easy trick to better delivery

When I first started debating, my view of delivering a good argument was pretty minimalistic. Everybody just makes it up as they go; good speakers are just a whole lot better at making it up as they go. The only way to get good at delivering arguments is to practice a lot. Right?

Not exactly. Here's the trick: You don't have to make it up as you go. "Good arguments" have a very recognizable form and content; if you can discover and emulate that form, much of the delivery will take care of itself. This post is about how to do that.

The Apocalypse Structure

The Apocalypse Structure is a basic four-point sequence of the key elements of an argument:

  1. Link - What argument you're responding to, in a few words.
  2. Response - What your argument is, in a few words.
  3. Warrants - Why the judge should believe this.
  4. Impact - Why the judge should vote on this.

Whenever you don't know in advance exactly how to deliver your point, use this structure.

Defaulting to this structure has huge advantages over just making it up on the fly. First, by having a set pattern, you won't have to worry about what to say next - once you've finished one point, move on to the next. This makes the flow of your speech a lot smoother. Second, by thinking of each component as a distinct element, you're less likely to accidentally leave out key parts like the response tag or impact.

Third, everything comes in the order judges expect. Instead of struggling to flow a disconnected series of facts, they get the core message up front, followed by the exposition - the way that's easiest to follow. The end result sounds a lot clearer and more organized than just jumbling everything together on the fly.

But won't using the same structure for every argument sound repetitive? Not really. Everyday language is filled with specific patterns and protocols, but we don't notice them because information is being conveyed. Unless you're using the exact same set of words for every argument, it won't sound awkward - just clear. Remember, you don't have to say "Point 1 is the link..." - just say the content and move on.

The necessary information: The link & response

These two points are key, so don't shortchange them.

The first is the link, which is straightforward. This is basically a short summary of what you're responding to. They key word here is short. You don't want to waste time or make your opponent's argument for them, so keep your summary very brief, bland, and factual. "Under Solvency 2, they claimed that our plan requires the abolition of the Federal Reserve." Etc.

Now, the response. Key thing to remember: the response is not your whole argument. It's just a short summary of your argument. You'll explain the specifics in the next point - for now, you just want to give the judge something to write down. For example:

"This is false, because illegal immigrants pay sales taxes." (rebuttal)

"If you pass this plan, it will be harder to win the war in Afghanistan." (disadvantage)

"This won't work because it requires technology that doesn't exist yet." (solvency point)

This point shouldn't take more than a sentence - the shorter, the better. Remember, you're trying to give the judge something to write down and remember, so an epic masterpiece the length of War and Peace is counterproductive.

Because I said so! The warrants

The "warrants" are the logic and evidence that back up your claim. For example, if your response is "historical precedent disproves this", you might have an evidence card describing comparable past events. You know what to do.

On occasion, you may be able to skip the warrants if they're self-contained in the response tag (like "we never said that", "this evidence is out of date", etc.)

Leave a crater: The impact

This is Barringer Crater in Arizona:This is what happens when a 50-meter hunk of metal has an unexpected encounter with Planet Earth while traveling at 30,000 miles per hour.

Before it hit the ground, the Barringer object was just another meteoroid - one of thousands of random objects floating around in the middle of a whole lot of nothing. Throwing an argument at the other team is like creating a meteoroid. By itself, it's interesting, but it's not immediately important. Your job is to show the judge a picture of the crater.

That's the impact: Tell the judge exactly why your argument matters. Do not forget to do this. It's easy to stop after the warrants, assuming that you've made your point. That might be enough for pure flow judges, but the average judge votes on what points they "get", not just what points you "made". So impact. 🙂

What makes a good impact? Let me quickly digress and talk about the ladder of abstraction.

The ladder of abstraction is a term that describes the range from general (encompassing a lot of subparts) to very specific. For example, "farm assets" is very high on the ladder of abstraction. "The tractor engine" is very low. To use the example to the left, "economy hurt" is a very general, abstract concept; "the judge can't fix their broken car" is a very specific, low-level concept.

A typical "impact" I hear is usually something like: "Judge! If you don't vote for this plan, people will die from pollution!" That's powerful, but not as powerful as it could be. "People dying" is a fairly abstract idea; it has punch, but no more than a news announcer casually reading a death toll for a tornado in Iowa. The best impacts are lower on the ladder of abstraction. Vague death tolls suddenly become much more relevant when you point out that one of the victims could be the judge's kid.

Be specific, be powerful.

(I expect this will be covered in more detail in a future post, but if you want some additional reading in the meantime, check out Thomas Umstattd's fantastic presentation on this subject here.)


Making everything up as you go is like reinventing the wheel every time you want to design a car - it just makes everything harder than it needs to be. Why start from scratch when you already know what works?

Structure isn't everything, but it's a good part of everything. If you use the standard four-point layout above, the other parts will be a lot easier.