Kevin Dorrell, CCIE #20765

12 Mar 2008

[OT] Car keys, multiple-choice exams, SLAs, and censorship

Filed under: General — dorreke @ 12:39

A man comes out of a pub late one evening, and on his way to his car, he drops his keys.  Two minutes later, his friend comes out of the pub and sees him scrabbling about under a street lamp.

“What are you doing crawling around like that?”

“Oh, I’ve dropped my car keys and I can’t find them anywhere.”

“OK, I’ll help you find them”

Five minutes later, the pair have still not found the car keys.

“I give up.  Are you sure this is where you dropped them?”

“No, I dropped them over there on the other side of the road, but the light is so much better here.”

That story sums up what I think is wrong with multiple-choice exams.  We have multiple choice exams because they generate a metric that is easy to measure.  What we rarely think about is whether that metric measures anything useful.  Multiple-choice exams are great for finding out if you can recognise the right answer when it is put in front of you.  Sometimes, they only measure whether you can recognise wrong answers as wrong.  How useful is that in real life?

For that reason I applaud the move towards simulations in the CCNA and CCNP exams, and the lab format of the CCIE exam.  Whatever their shortcomings, these exam formats measure something much more useful than multiple-choice does.

The story about the car keys has much wider implications than just multiple-choice exams.  So often, we make meaningless measurements just because the real measurement is too difficult.   It applies to SLAs at all levels.  Recently, I saw one of those cleaning rotas in a restroom (or “toilet”, if you happen to be European).  The idea was evidently to assure that they had been cleaned and inspected to a sufficiently high standard.  Some enterprising cleaners must have been very keen to show their enthusiasm for the quality of their service, because they had signed off the whole week in advance.  You see, what was being measured was not the cleanliness of the bathroom, but the signatures on the docket.

From my European perspective, this phenomenon sticks out like a sore thumb when I watch clips from some US TV shows.  You know, where they bleep out certain words.  Often they are right to do so.  I presume the censors have a list of banned words, and those words must not appear in the show under any circumstances.  But in my view, there are certain circumstances where the words are not gratuitous, but are appropriate in the context.  But they get bleeped out anyway, because they are that particular word.  It is easier to test whether the word appears than it is to decide whether the use of the word is appropriate.

There is an example in the Avril Lavigne song “My Happy Ending”.  There is a relatively mild word, used in a metaphorical sense, that has been bleeped or blanked out of the YouTube clips.  In my view, that word is entirely appropriate to the context of the song.  I’m not arguing that the word should be allowed because it is mild.  I am arguing that the word is entirely appropriate in the context, and therefore should be allowed.  Its removal diminishes the content of the song.

We sometimes forget that a word has no power in itself, but only in the idea that it communicates.  If the word communicates nothing, then it is gratuitous.  If it communicates something, then it is significant, and may even be appropriate.  Censoring on the basis of a word list, you give power to the word when it is used gratuitously.

Before anyone points it out, I am aware that we have to sensitive to cultural context.  Having lived in UK for many years, and Italy for many years, I know that there are certain subjects and phrases that are taboo in Italian but not in English, and vice versa.  Most offense is caused when innocent phrases are translated (or mistranslated) literally.  (I must tell the story about “eventually”, or the one about the “preservative-free food” some time.)

This evening I shall blog about CCIE labs!


1 Comment »

  1. […] found myself thinking about one of Kevin Dorrell’s recent posts while encountering some of the questions.  There were a couple of questions that the wrong answers […]

    Pingback by CCIE Written Exam Passed « CCIE Pursuit — 13 Mar 2008 @ 22:35

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