For the political:

And for the sciencey:


  1. John Vidale wrote:

    I’ve the urge to be a contrarian again on two of the subjects –

    1. A 3-day exam may not be so different from asking what one can do in a half a week of work, which seems to me a fair question. If one has lots of distractions on the home front, less is accomplished, and the score is lower. Does the blogger really want the question to be what can one do in an hour, as though a science career is done as a set of widely spaced one-hour projects? I suspect skill in answering the question will still factor into the score.

    2. The complaint about the sentence for the student being suspended may be truly unfair, but I can’t tell from the cited article. A possible sentence up to 18 months is not the same as an average sentence of 18 months.

    The Times wrote this up as follows:

    In an eminently sensible decision, Judge Jeremy Roberts has not jailed Prashant Modi, an Indian man, after he admitted sexual assault.

    Modi picked up three Swedish girls at a London nightclub who cheerfully accompanied him for supperĀ at his hotel at five o clock in the morning. Two of them then, equally cheerily, climbed into his bed (the third crashed out on the sofa). Modi snuggled up and tried to take off their clothes.

    Call it a clash of cultures. It is only in the West that women drink themselves senseless, accompany the man who had paid for their drinks to his hotel in the early hours, climb into bed with him and then be shocked that he could possibly think they might be in the mood for love.

  2. yami wrote:

    In the long run, someone who puts in consistent 8-10 hour days and then goes home to take care of family duties (or whatever) in the evening is likely to be more effective than someone who procrastinates but can really buckle down and swill coffee when deadlines approach. The alternative assessment to a 72-hour marathon isn’t of what one can do in an hour, it’s of what one can do over the course of many months – or maybe a series of 8-hour exams, if the field really requires such encyclopedic background knowledge.

    Shockingly, I think the Daily Mail actually has the best writeup of the assault – including the information that the perp spent 4 years at school in the US, and that the usual sentence for such a case would be 12-18 months.

    The last paragraph of that Times article is ridiculous and offensive victim-blaming. Crimes do not suddenly become less criminal if the victim is naive or imprudent, and ignorance of the law is no excuse. Besides, I’m sure the women would not have been surprised had he put some moves on while they were awake, but in what culture is falling asleep considered an indication of amorousness?

  3. John Vidale wrote:

    On reading more details, you’re right about the British case, although I find it hard to be sympathetic to a trio of woman behaving in such an unwise way.

    The guy’s company seems to be exploring something about methane recovery from coal beds, an experimental way to augment India’s energy production, which will soon be sorely needed. He is listed second on some rosters. For what that’s worth.

    The bottom line should have the local laws enforced, much like is done for illegal drug laws in Turkey, or the religious laws in Saudi Arabia, so the judge blew it. I’m not a believer in making exceptions for rich foreigners for misinterpreting local culture, nor in telling other countries how they should change their laws and morality.

    Many details are still not clear, such as which half of Modi was undressed and the women’s specific views of what should be the penalty, but it does sound like he got off because of his connections.

    Regarding the 3-day exam, it is not at all clear to me that having family duties “is likely to be more effective in the long run”, although that is the course I follow. Many top-rate scientists are not dedicated family people, and maintain the habit for decades.

    I’d agree a term paper is a better test of sustained research productivity, but still maintain that a 3-day test is a more thorough exam than a 1-hour one. I’d guess that all can be an effective measure of skill.

  4. yami wrote:

    Huh, I never would’ve expected you to be such a cultural relativist. I’m happy to tell other countries how they should change their morality, especially Saudi Arabia.

    My suggestion was more that family duties coupled with decent time management skills are likely to be more effective than insane dedication yet no time management; needing to pull 72-hour marathons on a regular basis seems to me to be a sign of a chronic procrastinator. It is certainly possible to be both a top-rate scienist and have family duties.

    A 3-day exam is a thorough test of skill and a test of one’s ability to set aside other obligations. It’s easy to formulate policy with the “typical” footloose and fancy-free 20something grad student in mind, not thinking of how it will affect those who don’t fall into that model. If a department really feels that it’s important for students to be a 72-hour-marathon amount of dedicated, that’s one thing, but most people also seem to think that grad school should be accessible (within the limits imposed by the rigors of the work, natch) to nontraditional students. My guess is that if this conflict were made explicit, passionate faculty politics would ensue.

  5. John Vidale wrote:

    Color me timid, but I’m hesitant to advice other countries on where their morality should change because it differs with mine, even extending to England.

    On the flip side of the argument, following precedent rather than making absolute judgment, you’re the one who made the argument that this suspended sentence should be found inadequate at least partly because it is less than the norm for other such cases in the same jurisdiction, which is the argument that pursuaded me. The argument applies equally well to the Saudis and Turks.

    Despite the invocation of “nontraditional” and “not falling into the model” caveats, I still interpret the 3-day test in a more straightforward way – What can the student say about the problem after a couple of days? It is actually quite similar to the way science works, as anyone who has written proposals or wanted notable results for AGU knows. In regular collaborations, as well, many chores are done in a several-day time span.

    Non-traditional life-styles are fine, but at some level life as a scientist means solving problems on human time scales, and the several-day time-scale is far from irrelevant.

    I certainly didn’t say top scientists can’t have families, you’ve changed the argument. I said it is not a disadvantage to a scientist to lack a family life, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to me if it is actually an advantage to have fewer outside obligations.

  6. yami wrote:

    OK, so colored ;) Underlying my feeling that the sentence is inappropriate is my opinion that this particular law and the usual punishment are both morally acceptable – not the case for many Saudi laws.

    My original argument was poorly stated, but I really didn’t mean to imply that a lack of family life is a disadvantage, just that: 1. caretaking obligations don’t necessarily prevent someone from having a productive career and 2. lots of academics (myself included) have bad time management skills and might overestimate the importance of take-home-exam-style work-bursts. You’re starting to convince me on the 2nd point, though.

    I still think, though, that this style of exam is probably one of many small factors contributing to a lack of diversity in science. To the extent that we care about this, it makes sense to reduce whatever hardships we can. Grad students also write proposals, collaborate, and do last-minute work for AGU, so if their outside obligations really prevent them from doing science it will be apparent soon enough.

  7. John Vidale wrote:

    OK, sounds good. A couple more points:

    1. The trade-off between accommodating diverse life-styles and striving to have the most capable scientists can be difficult. Some physical and social handicaps really are a permanent impediment to achievement, and should count against the people who have them in hiring and tenure decisions. Other alternate lifestyles are disciminated against for no good reason, and should be protected by affirmative action.

    2. More controversially, when one is on the pedestal of an academic at a recognized institution, it is tempting to offer opinions on matters such as politics. We can express our opinion on the current adminstration, for example, and I have, but it should be as a citizen, not from our titled position as a scientific expert, nor implying the consensus of our organizations behind our point of view.

  8. yami wrote:

    I don’t think your #2 is controversial at all, for most political questions (global warming, etc., offers occasional exceptions), though it’s sometimes hard to be clear about the hat-switching. Do you think I’ve been muddling my roles, or are you just offering this as a general opinion?

  9. John Vidale wrote:

    No. Not directed at you at all.

    If my aging memory is correct, it came to my mind because of the annoying tendency of the sillier liberal faculty to occasionally make inappropriate political comments in class. Then the campus conservatives argue that most faculty are imposing their liberal biases on the innocent students, and should be muzzled.

    So faculty should do the right thing, namely only claim expertise where we are truly experts.

    Maybe I was subconsciously nervous about posting on non-seismological topics at all, given a lack of anonymity and claim to several titles.

  10. yami wrote:

    Didn’t think it was to me, but just in case…

  11. Brian (Jay) wrote:

    Eh. Beyond the accumulation of enough subject background in a given field to not be embarrassed in hallway chitchat at conferences, the vocational function of graduate school is IMO to give the student the tools necessary to teach, write proposals, organize one’s research and publish. While actual proposals and papers are submitted facing deadlines, the actual work is generally done over weeks to months prior… and in real life, there’s usually a point of diminishing returns. Yes, one *could* revise that paper again, and tweak the changes one made yesterday, and the day before… but at some point, one is just trying to outguess the reviewers, and making other projects fall behind. So a test in which there’s no reasonable breakpoint in the 72 hours given is not a realistic career test, it is just another form of academic ritual hazing ;-).

  12. friend of modi's wrote:

    Prashant Modi is a spoilt brat and has no sense whatsoever. He is a shame to his father and disgrace to the nation. In india too, he is rude, mannerless, shameless and is overproud of his fathers wealth. Pls ask him what he has contibuted to the name and famme his father YK has ammased during thre years.

    Prashant – u r a shame.

  13. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Does the professor giving the 72 hour test instead of the 3.5 hour test also spend 20 times longer grading it? Or does he just use a mass-based grading approach (e.g. the staircase test)?

    As a technician, of course, the short and dirty exam is entirely appropriate. After all, when the Hauptprofessor walks into lab, peers down his nose at the jumble of electronics that used to be a mass spectrometer, and asks, in his most withering voice, “So, should I come back before lunch, or after?”, he isn’t interested in a three-day project. It is no surprise that my best-ever result on a takehome was a C-.

  14. Mel wrote:

    Has anyone not seen this by now? What right-wingers see when they read the New York Times

    I hadn’t! Heh.

    Long tests…I’ve had day-long exams (both take-home, open book, and in-class, closed book) before, and they were brain-expanding learning experiences. I do think they were better tests of my thinking than simpler problems on a shorter test would have been. But I was privileged enough to be able to attend a private college, majoring in science with a course schedule that made regular work impossible, and fortunate enough to have parental support and an insanely flexible job.

    I also had a chem professor who always did 4-question problems sets and exams (very similar), with multi-part questions. We usually got an hour and a half for tests and 3 for finals, which was normal, and it was tough to finish in that time, but they were definitely the fairest, most thought-provoking short tests I’ve ever taken. So you can give students that experience in a normal timespan, I think.

    I suspect school, no matter how it’s structured, will always be hardest for those with least money and smallest support systems. I don’t know what we can do about it, though.

  15. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Gotta disagree with Mel- I knew kids of squillionaires who did terribly in college.

    The ability to do well in school is a function of ability, usable time*, and drive. obviously changing the exact grading system will change the relative importance of these factors, but money only really effects the second variable.

    * Usable time excludes theoretically available time that is lost to disorganization, procrastination, social, fiscal, and biological needs, and the internet.

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