August interlude: Upon our return from Maine!


Bogus grades, fraudulent wine: On our Amtrak-enabled sojourn to Maine, we learned an array of valuable lessons. Among them:

You can’t convince a 2-year-old that fireworks are actually fun.

Also, a bit more complicatedly:

If an 8-year-old is actually funny, and if she can do an array of voices, she’ll hear your laughter as a request that her program continue for hours.

The next day, she’ll be doing her impression of a blues singer from a raft in a swimming pool! As her Uncle Brendan asked at one point, “Where do they get this stuff?”

He was live and direct from Dublin. Though we had the very same question!

For these and other reasons, we won't resume our normal perusals until tomorrow. This morning, though, we were struck by a pair of reports in the New York Times.

One concerned the grading system at Princeton, a top university. At the start of her report, Ariel Kaminer outlined the nagging problem which has bedeviled the Old Nassau crowd:
KAMINER (8/8/14): Princeton Considers End to Limit on Number of A’s

Princeton University may soon end the policy that limited the number of students who received A’s for their course marks, an approach designed to thwart grade inflation but one that many students cited as the worst part of their Princeton experience.

The current guidelines seek to limit A-range grades to at most 35 percent of the students in each course. The new approach, which the university president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, endorsed in a memorandum on Thursday, would instead encourage individual academic departments to set their own grading standards.

If adopted by the faculty in the fall term, the approach would represent a major shift for the university, which drew widespread attention in 2004 when it first sought to cap grades. At the time, close to 50 percent of Princeton students were getting A-range grades in their classes.
In short, Princeton adopted a policy designed to “thwart grade inflation.” At the time, the university didn’t seem to realize that its program might also thwart accurate grading.

We were struck by Princeton’s original problem. At Princeton, it was believed that too many students were getting credit for doing A-level work! This contrasted with the problem in our public schools, where it’s believed that too few students are doing “proficient” work.

In each case, the standards applied are highly subjective. At Princeton, though, action was taken, in the form of a “35 percent solution.”

This produced many complaints, and turmoil among the students.

Last year, President Eisgruber decided to tackle the problem head-on. Kaminer reports the outcome:
KAMINER: The proposal to abandon the policy came from a committee convened by Mr. Eisgruber last fall, during his first year on the job. Its report, also released on Thursday, says that numerical targets “are too often misinterpreted as quotas.”

“They add a large element of stress to students’ lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of grades,” it said, adding that a better approach would be “grading standards developed and articulated by each department.”
If the new proposals are accepted, students will no longer feel “that they are competing for a limited resource of grades.”

After graduation, of course, they’ll find themselves competing for a limited number of hedge fund jobs. Whatever!

Kaminer’s report includes many points of interest, including one (rejected) proposal that Princeton should deliberately inflate its students’ grades. One professor is quoted making a sound mathematical point—it’s hard to apply a 35 percent rule to a seminar with only five students.

As we often note, the professors have tended to sit out our public debates over the past twenty years. If they’re tied up on campus with problems like this, their silence can be understood.

On the same page of this morning's Times, we found a news report about Rudy Kurniawan, a rare wine dealer who has been “defrauding” his high-end clients. We were puzzled by the treatment of this great non-American, who was in the country without authorization as he provided this service.

Kurniawan would mix a batch of swill, then tell his billionaire clients that it was a rare wine. Technically, this claim was almost certainly true. And a Koch brother was involved!

In fairness to his billionaire clients, someone apparently figured out that he was paying big money for rotgut. Here’s the puzzling part of the story:

Rather than treat him as a national treasure, federal prosecutors have convicted this saintly man of a crime!

Tomorrow: Back to the vineyards

All next week: Some cable issues

Starting August 18: Our long-awaited, award-winning series, The Houses of Journalist County


  1. Thanks for the heads up on the home tour. Tah-tah for now.

  2. I will reread this before bed, then again first thing in the morning.

    1. I have done my rereading. Perhaps the "Back to the vineyards" comment indicates more to come on the Kurniawan
      matter. Otherwise I find neither article in this post worthy of discussion as it relates to the contribution of media to our current predicament.

    2. Please do bed yourself again, and wake, too. Read, reread and retire. Perhaps your future comments will indicate that you've found something worthy of discussion as it relates to the contribution of trolls to our present dilemmas. We wouldn't bet on it.

  3. The Howler must comment on Maureen Dowd's latest masterpiece, in which she speculates about the impeachment of President Obama. It's one of her all time worst, or best.

    1. Isn't it better to ask than insist? It is, after all, the blogger's choice about what he chooses to comment upon, not yours.
      Otherwise the blog itself, not just the comment box, becomes the captive toy of the trollitariat and the hidden puppeteers who pay them.

  4. Steven Salaita is a professor who got involved in politics by tweeting opinions. As a direct consequence of his tweets, he lost a job he had been offered because the chancellor decided not to submit his name for approval to the trustees. His tweets happened to be fairly ugly comments about Israel that caused the hiring university to question whether he would be a good professor, but they do illustrate the jeopardy a professor can find himself in if he decides to enter a controversial public discussion unrelated to his job.

    Somerby thinks professors should participate in such discussions routinely. He doesn't explain why professors should uniquely place themselves at risk of losing their jobs over their comments when other people do not have this same vulnerability because they are not expected to play a public advocacy role, presumably.

    1. Are you sure about that? "Other people" may have the same vulnerability, just not the same sacred responsibility that professors have as professors.

    2. If someone were a CPA and they tweeted ugly stuff about Israel in their spare time, would their employer feel that compromised their ability to be a good CPA?

    3. It would depend on who the employer and client are I suppose.

      Either might conclude the CPA was not the kind of person they or their clients wanted to do business with and therefore, regardless of the CPA's talents, they would be useless due to no clients on whose behalf those talents could be employed.

    4. Well, regardless, Somerby is right. He often notes it.

    5. According to Somerby, professors have three jobs: (1) whatever they do at their university, (2) whatever they do in their private lives, (3) weighing in on issues in public debate. If you can show me that every citizen has these same three jobs, then I will agree that professors do, but otherwise, weighing in is not in their job description any more than it is in yours or Somerby's. People can do it by choice but it isn't the job of professors to do it.

  5. Bob has no idea what's going on. It's sort of sad.

  6. I am just happy that after a break of nearly a full week with new crises happening daily all over the globe, Bob has come back rested and ready to take on the Princeton grading system and finally get around to his long-awaited series on the real estate that journalists own.

    It's such a welcome respite from all the bad news.