Re: Damn-damn-da-damn-dee-damning with faint praise

1

Smells a bit, but a heart of gold.


Posted by: Turgid jacobian | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:43 PM
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Mr X has excellent handwriting and is always very punctual.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:44 PM
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$candidate hardly steals at all.


Posted by: turgid jacobian | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:49 PM
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Mr X has excellent handwriting and is always very punctual.

A few years ago I read a letter that was very nearly no more than this. The high point was something along the lines of "Mr X was an excellent research assistant and his English has improved a great deal." The same year a letter for a different candidate said "Mr Y had a little difficulty adjusting to norms of academic civility in graduate school but has now overcome this issue, mostly".


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:50 PM
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I don't like being asked to write my own letter of recommendation. I don't mind giving someone a few bullet points, but when I did it, the person signed off on it without changing anything, and I think it didn't come across in her voice.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:53 PM
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I forgot to update everyone that after my request the other day, and after I drafted the darn thing, it turns out that the school had a predetermined format.

Sample question: "How long have you known the applicant and describe the circumstances under which you have worked with them." Uh, that's two topics, and only one of them phrased as a question.

Oh well. At least I only say yes to people when I actually know them well enough to write a good one, and that's almost everyone who asks. My scaring-off vibes must be working.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:56 PM
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J/ill Le/pore, of New Yorker fame, writes letters of recommendation that are masterpieces: strong narrative arc, long on details, very witty. The disjuncture between the paper and corporeal candidate, then, can be rather jarring.


Posted by: ari | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:58 PM
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'I think every institution should have the experience of working with a student of Ms. X's caliber and character.'


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:58 PM
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Mr X has excellent handwriting and is nearly always punctual.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:59 PM
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Other students worked harder than her, but she is a snappy dresser.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 6:59 PM
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I wrote a draft of a recommendation letter for my housemate's advisor -- a recommendation regarding my housemate's work -- for the advisor to review, edit and sign, and the damned guy changed not one word but the sign-off. He changed my "Respectfully yours" to "Respectively yours."

Well, I guess it was realistic, then.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:00 PM
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I must say that there is really nothing like the merry snowfall of job-search-related Internet chit chat to make me want to shoot myself in the face.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:00 PM
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She is an exceptional student, but tends to shoot herself in the face.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:02 PM
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12: I'm right there with you.


Posted by: ari | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:04 PM
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9: google let me down.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:05 PM
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You're searching for a job, ari?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:06 PM
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No no, that was exactly Gricean -- I was just suggesting an up/downgrade.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:07 PM
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16: I wouldn't say that, neb.


Posted by: ari | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:13 PM
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Why not?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:16 PM
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--So, SB, what are some of your strengths?
--Since you ask, I am very bad at a specific task you have not even mentioned in passing.

*faceshoot*


Posted by: Standpipe Bridgeplate | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:21 PM
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Some friends and I spoke to a Navy SEAL officer on a hiking trip once, and the subject of Richard Marcinko came up. The officer said, without prompting, that Marcinko was "the kind of man who ought to be kept in a cage during peacetime."

I would give at least 0.33% of my soul for a recommendation like that.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:28 PM
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That not really very much of your soul, Flippanter. Maybe you just don't want it enough.


Posted by: ari | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:32 PM
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I once wrote a draft letter of recommendation for myself. The nominal recommender sent it off without significant changes, and sent me a copy. I got the job.

Some time later, I was screening applications for the same job I'd gotten. I came across one from a person who had worked in the same office, for the same recommender. It was, with minor changes, the same letter.

They may still be using it, for all I know.


Posted by: widget | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:33 PM
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Mr. X is clean and articulate.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:33 PM
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22: I'm not going to bid against myself, ari.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:35 PM
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I didn't mean to make anyone want to shoot themselves in the face.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:37 PM
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25: Look, assuming that portions of your soul aren't previously encumbered, I think the threshold for discussion would have to begin at 50.1% of the total. Otherwise, your soul could be subject to hostile takeover by other, unnamed, parties. And my client can't risk that kind of exposure in uncertain times like these.


Posted by: ari | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:41 PM
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||

Someone tell me that Labour really is better than the Conservatives. David Willets always seems so decent that I get complacent abouty how bad the Tories might be. Mandelson new university funding policy sounds pretty awful to me. I guess that research places won't be so badly hurt, because this primarily affects teaching places. Still, 3 years of study is too much, and academic courses should be dropped in favor of things that teach the skills desired by employers.

I would be so tempted to vote Conservative.

|>


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:41 PM
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Candidate has never, to the recommended's knowledge, killed a man.


Posted by: Turgid Jacobian | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:50 PM
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I did agonize once trying to write a recommendation for an international student with a very noticeably Muslim name. At first I planned to treat it just like any other student, but it was just after one of those horrible shooting on-campus crimes and I worried that the admissions people would be subconsciously looking for trigger words. I scrubbed the recommendation of words like "fierce" or "sharp" and was at pains to describe the student's (genuinely) easygoing, laid-back personality.

I still don't know if it was the right way to handle it.


Posted by: Martha Washington | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:55 PM
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At least, not simply to watch him die.


Posted by: mcmc | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:55 PM
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31 to 30.


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 7:56 PM
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23 - I am quite proud of the fact that everyone I've written a personal statement for has gotten into the program s/he applied for. (Five people, including me.)


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 8:09 PM
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I didn't mean to make anyone want to shoot themselves in the face.

Aw, don't worry. I did it to myself!


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 8:11 PM
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I was less pleased that I wrote the personal statement for my former best friend's application to grad school the week before she started dating my ex. But a few months later when they moved away to go to her grad school, I thought it was worth it to get them out of my town.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 8:12 PM
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I write letters all the time and I would really like a clue as to whether my intended message is clear. I want all my students to get accepted to programs which are a good fit and for the people on the other end not to have any rude surprises.

Like, currently I have a student who is an incredibly hard worker, who will work her tail and whiskers off and close the gap between herself and people with more innate firepower. Will she have the creativity needed to spark in new directions in grad school? I personally believe that creativity is the product of hard, tedious, work. So I think she will be successful, but I think people might raise eyebrows at the type of questions she asks, until they see exactly how persistent she is.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 8:29 PM
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I don't know how academic letters of recommendation work, but I would think that phrases like "those with more innate firepower" would be a kiss of death -- not that you were suggesting actually writing that, necessarily.

I think you convey the sentiment you're talking about with relative degrees of superlatives: "Ms. X is intelligent and creative, but what really sets her apart from her class is her extraordinary dedication and thoroughness"; "she undertook an grueling research project far more in which she did Y and Z, far outstripping her peers in the amount of time she devoted and her attention to detail"; "I have never seen her give up on or become discouraged about anything she starts"; and so forth.


Posted by: widget | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 8:53 PM
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"Mr. X is a highly respected commenter on several internet blogs"


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 9:08 PM
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"The candidate is both jowly and physically attractive. You don't see that often in someone under thirty."


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 9:16 PM
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Anyway, it got me an interview just so they could see.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 9:18 PM
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41

Candidate has an uncanny ability to locate free food.


Posted by: Turgid Jacobian | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 9:21 PM
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Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I would like to be a successful entrepreneur, a managing partner at an investment bank, or a legal aid lawyer working on behalf of indigent clients. Even though I have no use for material things, I would like to have the option of retiring by the time I'm 45. I believe that law school is a tool to help me realize my goals, as well as an acceptable way to wait out the recession without having to work in retail.

Full essay on the url below.


Posted by: Econolicious | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 9:30 PM
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41 applies to all grad students, though.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 9:45 PM
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It wouldn't be uncanny then, would it?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 10:11 PM
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I've never had to write a letter of recommendation, but I'm kind of terrified by the thought of being asked to do so some day. Apparently it's common to make comparisons like "X is as creative as Y was at a similar stage of their career, and nearly as hard-working as Z". So most of the entertaining letter-writing options that come to mind involve making comparisons to people whose reputation is a little suspect. Wouldn't translate well to an audience that doesn't know the people. (You know, something like "With the profound moral clarity of Ayn Rand and writing in a clear, easy-to-follow fashion in the manner of Heidegger," adjusted appropriately.)


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 10:15 PM
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"As tastefully understated as Lady Gaga and with the consummate professionalism of Mary Kay Letourneau."


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 10:18 PM
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Candidate has an uncanny ability to locate free food.

Nuh-uh, y'all.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 10:42 PM
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Apparently it's common to make comparisons

X is able to keep the mouse alive for longer than Lennie could do so.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 10:48 PM
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Anybody who wants to practice by writing me a letter of rec. is encouraged to e-mail.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 11:50 PM
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Actually, this thread, particularly 38, depresses me.

You idiots know me much better than any particular college instructor who might be asked to write a letter for any future opportunity.

And you idiots don't know me!

I should really get better at building tables from wood.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 12-22-09 11:57 PM
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Pro Tip: Don't refer to your potential future recommenders as "idiots". At least, not to their faces.


Posted by: Otto von Bisquick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 12:03 AM
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Several times I've been asked to write my own letters, by the person I asked for a reference. I've no idea how much they changed them [not much, I think, based on their own draft which they cc'd to me] but I'm obviously not effusive enough in my own praise because I didn't get shortlisted for any of the jobs ...


Posted by: George Mc Washington | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 12:05 AM
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Mr Y had a little difficulty adjusting to norms of academic civility in graduate school but has now overcome this issue, mostly".

I wonder if that was the same student whose intellectual maturity was described as exceeding the student's social maturity as an undergrad.


Posted by: Fake Accent | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 1:12 AM
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Also, relevant.


Posted by: Fake Accent | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 1:26 AM
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||
Someone tell me that Labour really is better than the Conservatives.

Labour have not yet formally associated themselves in the European Parliament with a motley bunch of openly racist and homophobic nutjobs who have been known to celebrate the achievements of the SS. The Tories have. AFAICS that is how far you can trust Cameron's cuddly image - always remember he was in marketing before he was in politics.
|>

A friend once sent a reference (not academic) saying, inter alia, "since giving up herion, X's personal hygeine has improved a good deal". But the person receiving the reference knew the candidate well and was just going through the motions before offering her the job.


Posted by: OFE | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 1:44 AM
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In Germany, where an employer is obliged to give departing employees a letter documenting their service (the "Zeugnis"), which letter may not contain any derogatory statements, an elaborate code has grown up to communicate who was a good employee and who wasn't.

The subtle gradations are an open secret. For example, if your Zeugnis says "Mr. X fulfilled his duties to our full satisfaction", ├Żou might think that's an endorsement. But no! It should say "Mr. X *always* fulfilled his duties to our *fullest* satisfaction."

Then there are some stock phrases that I'm not sure anyone actually uses anymore, but are said to have been commonplace in earlier times:

"Always strived within the limits of his abilities" = dullard

"Contributed to a jovial work environment" = goof-off and/or drunk

"Was attentive to interpersonal relationships" = office Lothario and/or gay

"Freely contributed his opinions" = truculent

"His comportment with respect to superiors / subordinates was for the most part unobjectionable" = tempermental bastard (this is another case where the absence of the word "always" is the giveaway)


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 5:39 AM
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Once, when I had been asked to write a business school recommendation for a team member who was also a good friend, I sent him a purported first draft for his review. It was one of those recommendations where you have to respond to a standard set of questions. Under the rubric "In what areas would you most like to see the candidate improve?", I had written something like "X is a total horndog. He can't keep his hands off women. Whether it's a client, a colleague, or the waitress at the local restaurant, if that person is female and halfway attractive, X is scheming to get her into bed.". (All this was, to a first approximation, true.)

He emailed me in response, "I don't really take issue with the substance of what you wrote under 'areas for improvement', but I'm wondering if you could try to spin it as a strength."


Posted by: knecht ruprecht | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 6:02 AM
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"Candidate will be best remembered for his exemplary work putting together the annual Faculty vs. Alumni Donkey Basketball Game."


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 6:09 AM
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56: Well huh. I got a Zeugnis from the school I taught at during my time in Germany. I will have to see if I can find it so you can tell me what it *really* says.


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 6:54 AM
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I always ask students to write a draft of their own letter of recommendation, esp. those applying to PHD programs
--gives me information to use write I write my letter, to personalize it beyond the usual generics
--asks the student to invest some of her/his own time: if they aren't willing to do that then why should I, and what in any case does it say about their prospects for graduate work
--most of all, gives me a clue where the student's self-evaluation lies on the continuum ranging from too modest through well-founded or within shouting distance of reality and ending with from another universe. I tend to put much more effort into recommendations on the left side of that scale


Posted by: Middle Aged Man | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:01 AM
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I frequently worry that there is a very well defined code for academic letters of recommendation of the sort Ruprecht talks about in 56 and that I'm going to torpedo someone's chances by forgetting to include both the words "always" and "fullest."

In general, I despise this whole game. I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I hate worrying about the contents of the letters that were written about me.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:01 AM
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||

Look ma, it's my Christmas mix again: mediafire download.

|>


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:01 AM
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57.last: Candidate is eager, but not in a "Photocopy his penis and send it to the intern" kind of way.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:03 AM
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62: Oh yay! I was going to ask you for that!


Posted by: oudemia | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:04 AM
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My understanding is that the Navy evals are an exercise where damning with faint praise prevails such that saying someone "frequently" does exemplary thing is a black mark (this got some airtime when folks were parsing Kerry's record with a fine-toothed comb in 2004). Not sure how true it was, but I did find some entertainment on this Navy EVAL page. On the positive side you have:

"truly a combat multiplier" (how about "integral to the differentiation of this unit's performance, a welcome addition!")

"articulate in ability to..." (Racist!)

"inexhaustible source of... "

On the negative liked:

"...when reminded, can be a very motivated individual "

"...demonstrated a lack of skill or knowledge in most of his duties. He does not comply with instructions and is a threat to the safety of this ship. Recommend discharge at earliest opportunity. "


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:05 AM
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Also, I had a totally awesome teaching dream last night, in which I designed brilliant assignments that led students through the perfect trajectory, where first they all did the exercises and found them pointless, and then through discussion came to realize that they were in fact incredibly useful, and lo, they were enlightened. (Oddly, it was a CS class, which I certainly could not teach in reality at all, but the rough outlines of the assignments and their usefulness were at least vaguely plausible in this role.) I woke up in a fantastic mood.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:06 AM
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I woke up in a fantastic mood and my pillow was missing.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:10 AM
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I woke up this morning with an extra pillow.


Posted by: Standpipe Bridgeplate | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:11 AM
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"truly a combat multiplier"

This reminds me of a Colin Powell quotation from some cow-orker's e-mail signature: "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier."

My in-head response was always, "What does that even mean?"


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:13 AM
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And a missing marshmallow?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:13 AM
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Shit. I was saving that marshmallow for … things.


Posted by: Standpipe Bridgeplate | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:15 AM
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I ate all of the marshmallows in the house last night in a failed attempt to get the energy to address Christmas cards. They go very poorly with beer.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:19 AM
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64 to 63.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:23 AM
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||

No more masturbating to Robin Wood

|>


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:41 AM
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That should be Robin Wood


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:42 AM
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I am surprised that no one has been inspired by the several write-your-own-recommendation anecdotes to cross this thread with some of our past discussions of online dating profiles.

E.g.: "Candidate is looking for a partner in crime who edits a mean Festschrift. In Candidate's bedroom you will find Carlyle on the French Revolution, a cat named 'M. Hulot' and a 1977-vintage Easy-Bake Oven. Les Mandarins is sexy; Le Samourai is sexier."


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 7:54 AM
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69: I think it means you get to invade Iraq and go all the way to Baghdad with only 100,000 troops.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:05 AM
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59: the key phrases you are looking for are "Frau Kotimy erledigte ihre Aufgaben stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit" and "Ihr Verhalten gegenueber Vorgesetzten und Kollegen war stets tadellos / einwandfrei."

Any qualifications to that ("die ihr uebertragenen Aufgaben", "war in der Regel einwandfrei", "ueberwiegend zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit") can be interpreted as a less-than-perfect (though not necessarily bad) Zeugnis.


Posted by: knecht ruprecht | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:07 AM
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"I don't really take issue with the substance of what you wrote under 'areas for improvement', but I'm wondering if you could try to spin it as a strength."

"candidate is creative and energetic in pursuing interpersonal synergies."


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:08 AM
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"Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier."

As in, it leads you to believe you can occupy hostile countries with a fraction of the necessary forces.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:12 AM
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Just "Frau Kotimy"? doesn't she get to use her titles as Lawyer and Blog Commenter?


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:13 AM
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81: If I understand correctly, nowadays I would get to use "Frau Doktor Kotimy" or perhaps "Frau Doktor Jura Kotimy." But my source on that is UNG, who might also suggest still other titles at this point...


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:21 AM
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When I stop and think about it, it is still hilarious that you call him UNG, speaking of titles.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:23 AM
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82: What's the point of getting German titles if they don't do the "Von" anymore?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:24 AM
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It's short for UNGLAUBLICH.


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:26 AM
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84: Go away, commoner.


Posted by: Moby Von Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:26 AM
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candidate is creative and energetic in pursuing interpersonal synergies

I was much more straightforward in the strengths I cited in the "draft" recommendation. IIRC it was something along the lines of "Mr. X can roll with one hand a joint that is functionally and aesthetically superior to what most people can produce with both hands, even be they stoners of decades longer experience than he. Mr. X never resorts to double-wide rolling papers, yet his work product is perfectly smooth and straight, and engineered for optimum combustion."

I don't think the admissions committee at Harvard would have been much amused.


Posted by: KR | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:35 AM
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I personally believe that creativity is the product of hard, tedious, work.

Obligatory.


Posted by: Not Prince Hamlet | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:49 AM
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81: If I understand correctly, nowadays I would get to use "Frau Doktor Kotimy" or perhaps "Frau Doktor Jura Kotimy."

I thought people obtaining doctorates outside of Germany who tried to use the title "Doktor" in Germany could be fined or jailed?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:52 AM
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Wait, what's the substantive difference between "ihre Aufgaben" and "die ihr ├╝bertragenen Aufgaben"? Isn't it just "her duties" and "the duties given to her"? That seems extremely arbitrary.

Additionally, anyone with a cat named M. Hulot would ipso facto be endeared to me.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 8:58 AM
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90: I might be wrong about the difference being meaningful. Both formulations are common. I had a recollection that the shorter formulation implied a greater abundance of personal initiative, but I could be mistaken.


Posted by: KR | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 9:11 AM
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89: That is true. You have to get a bureaucratic recognition of the foreign degree in order to legally call yourself by the title. And AFAIK an American J.D. would not be recognized by the responsible authorities (no dissertation involved).


Posted by: KR | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 9:14 AM
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92: So, could calling your kid "Pilot Inspecktor" get you in trouble in Germany?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 9:15 AM
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Additionally, anyone with a cat named M. Hulot would ipso facto be endeared to me.

It was a satirical choice. That or "Talleyrand."


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 9:16 AM
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89: So you're saying UNG was trying to get me thrown in jail? Figures!


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 12-23-09 9:57 AM
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