December 4th, 2006


don't drive over any bridges for the next ten years

Today, in the final class for MSCI/GEOL 580, the graduate students presented their projects. The undergrads were there to bear witness, and to ask questions at the end (lest we incur the wrath of mighty Subra).

Three of the presenters were absolutely excellent. Intelligent, knowledgeable, and clearly interested in the subject they did their research project on. A pleasure to witness.

Two more were clearly knowledgeable, clearly intelligent, and probably genuinely interested, but it was hard to tell because their presentation skills were so lacking. (One was actually so terrified of speaking that he couldn't manage to point at things with the laser pointer because his hands were shaking too badly.) However, they are supposed to be scientists, not marketers, so I was easily inclined to forgive the lack. Magnanimity, thy name be Jimbo.

The last one, however... jesus fucking CHRIST. Her presentation was ... really short, and really bad, and left the viewer wondering what the fuck she'd been talking about and why. In marked contrast to all the others, which had an obvious goal and obvious conclusions, hers was pretty apparently the result of flipping through random data looking for something, anything, that appeared anomalous enough to sort of dig at and sort of write some things about in the hope of getting through it. Painful. Even though she finished with a full 5 minutes to spare (out of a 10 minute window), none of the other students present were coming up with anything to ask her... and Mighty Subra was clearly becoming annoyed.

Her paper was based on investigating hypoxia (an unusual level of dissolved oxygen in water - more later) in a particular area of interest. She opened it up by briefly defining hypoxia, which is a term we had not discussed in class (and I was therefore unfamiliar with), as "levels of oxygen less than 2mg/L", while pointing at text on her slide stating "levels of oxygen > 2mg/L". Given that, bizarrely enough, she never actually referred to oxygen levels again in her entire presentation, I was left a bit confused as to which was the correct definition - the one she said, or the one she wrote. The term sounded to me more like a lack than a surfeit, but given that she told us the hypoxic condition in the area of interest was discovered due to "a record flounder catch", I was more confused than ever.

So, given that Mighty Subra's wrath was clearly going to break over us poor souls like the incoming tide of a minute but angry Indian god with four of its six arms snapped off, and given that nobody else had anything to offer, I piped up and asked her which was the correct definition, since she said "greater than" but wrote "lesser than". I figured it was just a typo, but hell, somebody had to ask something, right?

The dude behind me - a fellow squid - sotto voced "oh man, you just had to pick on her about the typo." I shrugged apologetically and said "well hell man, I don't know which one was right," and felt a little guilty nonetheless... until chickadee quick-flashed to the slide in question, aimed her laser pointer directly at the > in question, and informed me that clearly that was a lesser than sign.

The same squid who had just given me hell for "picking on the typo" said, slowly, "uh... no... that's a greater-than." She re-asserted, peevishly, the mysterious translation of "> 2mg/L" as "lesser than 2 mg/L". Silence descended.

Now, although true, the most horrifying thing about this is not that a science or engineering student could not properly differentiate one inequality symbol from another. Indeed, the most horrifying thing isn't even that a graduate student with a bachelor's of science could not tell her <'s from her >'s.

No, the truly horrifying thing is, the young lady in question holds a full fledged Bachelor's of Science in Civil Engineering. And can't tell which way the pointy end of the inequality is supposed to go. (Is this truss rated to handle < 5 tons, or > 5 tons...? Is the acceptable distance between supports < 5 meters, or > 5 meters...? Is the acceptable carbon level of the stainless steel for that support girder < 0.15%, or > 0.15%...?)

The only saving grace to the whole thing I could find is that her accent is pretty clearly - and strongly - Midwestern. I'm pretty much positive she's an out-of-state student. So the bridges here, hopefully, ought to be safe. But if I gotta cross anything bigger than a shallow creek in between Ohio and Iowa anytime in the next ten years, I think I'm gonna park the fucking car and swim.