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Short Studies On Excuses (lesswrong.com)
156 points by rms on Apr 21, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments



I don't think removing the "8" from the title in this case was warranted. This is not a list post, and the items are not quickly read, content-empty mini-articles, but short essays that all fit together.

Calling it "Eight Short Studies on Excuses" is as reasonable as calling this Mozart set of studies (http://www.classiccat.net/mozart_wa/265.htm) "Twelve variations".

On the topic - interesting and well written. What are the advantages of the normal mode of excuse-evaluation compared to this?


...but then every article with an excuse will want its leading number back!


Sorry, I down-voted this but meant to up-vote it. These arrows are a bit small..


I imagine I was more likely to read this thanks to the non-list-evocative title


1) When evaluating excuses (or other "low-probability" events), it's important not merely to evaluate the likelihood of this exact pattern, but of all patterns that are of the same level of impressiveness or more impressive. For example, if you're evaluating whether to accept "my cousin died", you really have to evaluate the whole class of excuses "my relative who is at least as close as a cousin had a significant occurence". This is one of the best observations in this essay.

2) Taking a game-theoretic approach to excuses, rather than merely accepting "true" or "believeable" excuses, has the advantage of allowing you to reject excuses without calling into question anyone's character. Nobody wants to be the jerk who said "I don't believe your grandmother really died" to the kid whose grandma actually DID just die; it's much easier to be the guy with the "late work is not accepted even if your grandma dies" policy.

3) The excuse evaluator can add a cost to making excuses. A teacher might require an essay explaining the excuse in detail, thereby wiping out the added utility the student derives from procrastinating, but not wiping out the utility the student derives from attending his grandmother's funeral. This creates a threshold that prevents people with no real excuse from gaming the system.


In reality, most teachers accept late work from students they like. Still, I suppose the example was specifically for economics professors. ;)


Pure anecdote, but there was one class where I turned almost every assignment late in for. That class required work to be done in the computer lab on campus and my work schedule limited when I could get there, so virtually every assignment was late.

I worked it out with the professor and I got docked 10% on every assignment, but he also added a bonus question for everyone and that let me stay in the A range regardless.

At least in my admittedly anecodtal experience, most professors are willing to work with you if you are making an effort in the class and have a genuine reason besides laziness.


Because grading a work by student you like gives you positive utility :).


Yes; generally, quality of work and how much a professor likes a student are positively correlated. So, if a professor likes grading good papers, ey will accept papers from late students ey likes.


Excellent use of Spivak pronouns


You are probably also more inclined to believe excuses from people you like, which also plays a fairly sized role in the article.


So true. I remember that girl who had a nice smile and were pretty cute. Every teacher loved her and she always could give her homeworks late. More than that, she were always copying homework from her older-sister which had saved all papers. When it didn't work out, she started to cry a little bit and it always finally worked.


To be honest, crying would very likely work for an ugly dude too. With a few exceptions, nobody wants to have to sit and watch anybody cry.


This seems to vary a lot by college. Professors at elite colleges tend to cut breaks, under the belief that it's better to grade a couple of papers late than to risk messing up a student's future. So Ivy League schools tend to be pretty tolerant of late work. I've heard of professors accepting work as much as a year late.

The lower you go on the academic totem pole, the less tolerance there is. Extensions are hard to get at state schools-- even the really good ones-- and practically nonexistent at community colleges.

It may be unfair, but it makes sense. Teacher:student ratios are lower at elite colleges, and late work is rarer, so it's not really a burden. Also, professors at elite colleges are generally happier and have cushier lives, whereas teachers at CCs are usually underpaid and overworked already, so late work is an intolerable addition. Finally, many of the students in middling schools shouldn't be in college at all, while the assumption at an elite college is that the person who's late is a good student with a good reason. That assumption's not always true, of course, but elite colleges would rather make one type of error.


The Ivy League/State distinction is a little more subtle than professors' regard for students' futures.

At private schools, tuition is much higher, parents are wealthier, and alumni contributions are important. So the utility function of the professor is actually linked to the grade of the student (also why you see more grade inflation at the more expensive schools, se, e.g., - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_inflation#Princeton_Unive...).

In state schools, class sizes run much larger; granting an exception with a 200 person class is not likely to remain a secret for long. This means the penalty to professors for not following tit-for-tat is much greater.

Also, professors at state schools just don't have the time available to even consider the excuses - it's easier to consider 4 unique cases (out of 20 students) at a private school vs. 40 unique cases (out of 200) at a public school.


Professors at elite colleges tend to cut breaks under the belief that if they don't, parents will complain to the dean who will order them to cut a break.

They hold that belief because it is true.


Reminds me of a great talk i attended by Karl Kruszelnicki analyzing the increasing number of 'my grandmother died' excuses he sees each year at exam time. He ended up with an exponential-looking graph for the last few years which showed that in 10 or 20 years the average student will have 3 dead grandmothers each.


I'll give you an upvote if you give me an upvote and reply to this post.


but you're at 1 now...

retreat, retreat!


Crap, now we need 3rd party review.


I upvoted all of the comments in this subthread. Does anyone else want to join me in the -4 karma party?


Yeah, this took me by surprise that my little meta game theory comment was rejected so much. I know it wasn't that clever, but still. With down-votes like that, you would think my username was jasoncalcacanis or that I had insulted pg's mother. I'm guessing that people here are looking out at the Redditors like the Romans looking out at the Visigoths. Meta comments are the gateway drug to memes, and nobody wants that!

I now resign myself to an additional -4 comment. Karma comes, karma goes. I guess it all evens out in the end. Funny that.


I didn't reject the game theory comment; I merely played the game according to my values.

By adding my downvote to each and every comment in this subthread, I have imposed a cost upon the average user for attempting to game the karma system with uninteresting comments.

My downvotes signal that I would like to see fewer comments of this type. This comment does so more explicitly; I believe the utility I derive from discouraging karma-gaming comments (even those meant as a joke) is worth the risk of up to 10 of my own karma.


I think it's more that people are insulted or offended by the possibility of generating karma with such a meta karma comment because it's "cheating".


I gave you an upvote, let the tit for tat commence!

(for the record your post had 0 karma when I upvoted it)


Nicely played sir.


"Alternatively, you could try writing awful science fiction novels and hiring a ton of lawyers. I hear that also works these days."

Off-topic but I disagree : Battlefield Earth was a good book. And terrible movie.


No. It was just as terrible a book.


I remember really liking the book as well, but I read it in 7th grade, and didn't know anything about ol' L. Ron at the time. Revisiting it might be interesting, but I'd rather keep the fond memories.




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