WitCH 41: Zero Understanding

This is way unimportant in comparison to the current idiocy of the neoliberal nutjobs. But, as they say in the theatre, the shitshow must go on.*

We had thought of taking this further whack at Bambi a while back, but had decided against it. Over the week-end, however we were discussing related mathematics with Simon the Likeable, and that has made us reconsider:

Get to work.

*) Mostly Andrew Lloyd Webber productions.

UPDATE (9/8)

We were working on an update to polish off this one, when Simon the Likeable pointed out to us the video below. It could easily be its own WitCH, but it fits in naturally here (and also with this WitCH).

We’ll give people a chance to digest (?) this second video, and then we’ll round things off.

UPDATE (12/08/20)

OK, time to round this one off, although our rounding off may inspire objection and further comment. We will comment on four aspects of the videos, the third of which we regard the most important, and the fourth of which is mostly likely to cause objection.

The first thing to say about these videos is that, as examples of teaching, they are appalling; they are slow and boring and confusing, simultaneously vague and muddyingly detailed. In particular, the “repeated addition” nonsense is excruciating, and entirely unnecessary. You want us to think of division as “how many”, then fine, but don’t deliver a kindergarten-level speech on it.

Eddie Woo’s video has the added charm that at times no one seems to give a damn what anyone else is saying; particularly notable is the 6:00 mark, where the girl suggests “Therefore it’s [i.e. 1/0 is] undefined?”, the very point Eddie wants to make, and Eddie pointedly ignores her so he can get on with his self-aggrandizing I’m-So-Wonderful performance. Dick.

The second thing to say is that the Numberphile video is littered with errors and non sequiturs, the highlights being their dismissing infinity as an “idea” (as if 3 isn’t), and their insane graph of \boldsymbol{x^x}. We’ll go through this in detail when we update this WitCH (scheduled for sometime in 2023).

The third thing to say is that the videos’ discussion of the impossibility of defining 1/0 gives a fundamentally flawed view of mathematical thought. The entire history of mathematics is of mathematicians breaking the rules, of doing the impossible. (John Stillwell has written a beautiful book, in fact two beautiful books, on the history of mathematics from this perspective.) As such, one should be very careful in declaring mathematical ideas to be impossible. So, 1/0 may generally not be defined (at school), but is it, as Eddie declares, “undefinable”?

Of course taken literally, Eddie’s claim is silly; as we suggested in the comments, we can define 1/0 to be 37. The real question is, can one define 1/0 in a meaningful manner? There are reasonable arguments that the answer is “no”, but these arguments should be laid out with significantly more care than was done in the videos.

The first argument for the (practical) undefinability of 1/0 is that we’ll end up with 1/0 = 2/0, leading to 1 = 2. What is really being claimed here? Why is 1/0 = 2/0, and why should it lead to 1 = 2?

The heart of this approach is asking whether 0 can have a multiplicative inverse. That is, is there a number, let’s call it V, with 0 x V = 1? Of course V couldn’t be an everyday real number (not that real numbers are remotely everyday), but that’s neither here nor there. It took a hugely long time, for example, for mathematicians to leave the safety of the world of everyday (?) integers and to discover/create an inverse for 3.

Well, what goes wrong? If we have such a number V then 1/0 stands for 1 x V. Similarly 2/0 stands for 2 x V. So, does it follow that 1 x V = 2 x V? No, it does not. V only has the properties we declare it to have, and all we have declared so far is that V x 0 = 1.

Of course this is cheating a little. After all, we want V to be an infinityish thing, so let’s concede that 1 x V and 2 x V will be equal. Then, if we assume that the normal (field) rules of algebra apply to V, it is not hard to prove that 1 = 2. That assumption is not necessarily unreasonable but it is, nonetheless, an assumption, the consequences of that assumption require proof, and all of this should be clearly spelled out. The videos do bugger all.

The second argument for the undefinability of 1/0, at least as an infinity thing, is the limit argument, that since tiny numbers may be either positive or negative, we end up with 1/0 being both \boldsymbol{+\infty} and \boldsymbol{-\infty}, which seems a strange and undesirable thing for infinity to do. But, can we avoid this problem and/or is there some value, in a school setting, of considering the two infinities and having them equal? The videos do not even consider the possibilities.

The fourth and final thing to note is that, as we will now argue, we can indeed make sense of 1/0 as an infinity thing. Moreover, we believe this sense is relevant and valuable in the school context. Now, to be clear, even if teachers can introduce infinity and 1/0, that doesn’t imply they necessarily should. Perhaps they should, but it would require further argument; just because something is relevant and useful does not imply it’s wise to give kids access to it. If you’re collecting wood, for example, chain saws are very handy, however …

First, let’s leave 1/0 alone and head straight to infinity. As most readers will know, and as has been raised in the comments, mathematicians make sense of infinity in various ways: there is the notion of cardinality (and ordinality), of countable and uncountable sets; there is the Riemann sphere, adding a point at infinity to the complex plane; there is the real projective line, effectively the set of slopes of lines. Cardinality is not relevant here, but the Riemann sphere and projective line definitely are; they are both capturing 1/0 as an infinity thing, in contexts very close to standard school mathematics. And, in both cases there is a single infinity, without plusses or minuses or whatever. Is this sufficient to argue for introducing these infinities into the classroom? Perhaps not, but not obviously not; infinite slopes for vertical lines, for example, and with no need for a plus or minus, is very natural.

What about the two-pronged infinity, the version that kids naturally try to imagine, with a monster thing at the plus end and another monster thing at the minus end? Can we make sense of that?

Yes, we can. This world is called the Extended Real Line. You can watch a significantly younger, and significantly hairier, Marty discussing the notions here.

The Extended Real Line may be less well known but it is very natural. What is \boldsymbol{\infty + \infty} in this world? Take a guess. Or, \boldsymbol{\infty +3}? It all works just how one wishes.

But what about when it doesn’t work? You want to throw \boldsymbol{\infty  - \infty} or \boldsymbol{0\times  \infty} or \boldsymbol{\frac{\infty}{\infty}} at us? No problem: we simply don’t take the bait, and any such “indeterminate form” we leave undefined. In particular, we make no attempt to have \boldsymbol{\infty} be the multiplicative inverse of 0. And, then, modulo these no-go zones, the algebra of the Extended Real Line works exactly as one would wish.

Can these ideas be introduced in school, and for some purpose? No question. Again, whether one should is a trickier question. But as soon as the teacher, perhaps in hushed and secretive tones, is suggesting \boldsymbol{\infty + \infty =\infty} or \boldsymbol{\frac1{\infty} =0}, then maybe they should also think about this in a less Commandments From God manner, and let \boldsymbol{\infty} come properly out of the closet.

Finally, what about 1/0 in the Extended Real Line? Well, the positive or negative thing is definitely an issue. Unless it isn’t.

There are many contexts where we naturally restrict our attention to the nonnegative real numbers. And, in any such context 1/0 is not at all conflicted or ambiguous, and we can happily declare \boldsymbol{\frac10 =\infty}. The exact trig values from 0 to 90 is just such a context: in this context we think it is correct and distinctly helpful to write \boldsymbol{\tan(90) = \infty}, rather than resorting to a what-the-hell-does-that-mean “undefined”.

That’s it. That’s a glimpse of the huge world of possibilities for thinking about infinity that Numberphile and Woo dismiss with an arrogant, too-clever-by-half hand. Their videos are not just bad, they are poisonously misleading for their millions of adoring, gullible fans.

WitCH 27: Uncomposed

Ah, so much crap …

Tons of nonsense to post on, and the Evil Mathologer is breathing down our neck. We’ll have (at least) three posts on last week’s Mathematical Methods exams. This one is by no means the worst to come, but it fits in with our previous WitCH, so let’s quickly get it going. It is from Exam 1. (No link yet, but the Study Design is here.)

Update (15/06/20)

The examination report (and exam) is out, so it’s time to wade into this swamp. Before doing so, we’ll note the number of students who sank; according to the examination report, the average score on this question was 0.14 + 0.09 + 0.14 ≈ 0.4 marks out of 4. Justified or not, students had absolutely no clue what to do. Now, into the swamp.

The main wrongness is in Part (b), but we’ll begin at the beginning: the very first sentence of Part (a) is a mess. Who on Earth writes

“The function f: R \to R, f(x)  is a polynomial function …”?

It’s like writing

“The Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Scott Morrison is a crap Prime Minister”.

Yes, you may properly want to emphasise that Scott Morrison is the Prime Minister of Australia, and he is crap, but that’s not the way to do it. This is nitpicking, of course, but there are two reasons to do so. The first reason is there is no reason not to: why forgive the gratuitously muddled wording of the very first sentence of an exam question? From these guys? Forget it. The second reason is that the only possible excuse for this ridiculous wording is to emphasise that the domain of f is all of R, which turns out to be entirely pointless.

Now, to Part (a) proper. This may come as a surprise to the VCAA overlords, but functions do not have “rules”, at least not unique ones.  The functions f(x) = -4x^2\left(x^2 - 1\right) and h(x) = 4x^2-4x^4, for example, are the exact same function. Yes, this is annoying, but we’re sorry, that’s the, um, rule. Again this is nitpicking and, again, we have no sympathy for the overlords. If they insist that a function should be regarded as a suitable set of ordered pairs then they have to live with that choice. Yes, eventually ordered pairs are the precise and useful way to define functions, but in school it’s pretty much just a pedantic pain in the ass.

To be fair, we’re not convinced that the clumsiness in the wording of Part (a) contributed significantly to students doing poorly. That is presumably much more do to with the corruption of students’ arithmetic and algebraic skills, the inevitable consequence of VCAA and ACARA calculatoring the curriculum to death.

On to Part (b), where, having found f(x) = -4x^2\left(x^2 - 1\right) or whatever, we’re told that g is “a function with the same rule as f”. This is ridiculous and meaningless. It is ridiculous because we never did anything with f in the first place, and so it would have been a hell of lot clearer to have simply begun the damn question with g on some unknown domain E. It is meaningless because we cannot determine anything about the domain E from the information provided. The point is, in VCE the composition \log(g(x)) is either defined (if the range g(E) is wholly contained in the positive reals), or it isn’t (otherwise). End of story.  Which means that in VCE the concept of “maximal domain” makes no sense for a composition. Which means Part (b) makes no sense whatsoever. Yes, this is annoying, but we’re sorry, that’s the, um, rule.

Finally, to Part (c). Taking (b) as intended rather than written, Part (c) is ok, just some who-really-cares domain trickery.

In summary, the question is attempting and failing to test little more than a pedantic attention to boring detail, a test that the examiners themselves are demonstrably incapable of passing.

WitCH 26: Imminent Domain

The following WitCH is pretty old, but it came up in a tutorial yesterday, so what the Hell. (It’s also a good warm-up for another WitCH, to appear in the next day or so.) It comes from the 2011 Mathematical Methods Exam 1:

For part (a), the Examination Report indicates that f(g)(x) =([x+2][x+8]), leading to c = 2 and d = 8, or vice versa. The Report indicates that three quarters of students scored 2/2, “However, many [students] did not state a value for c and d”.

For Part (b), the Report indicates that 84% of students scored 0/2. After indicating the intended answer, (-∞,-8) U (-2,∞) (-∞,-8] U [-2,∞) or R\backslash(-8,-2), the Report goes on to comment:

“This question was very poorly done. Common incorrect responses included [-3,3] (the domain of  f(x); x ≥ -2 (as the ‘intersection’ of  x ≥ -8 with x ≥ -2); or x ≥ -8 (as the ‘union’ of x ≥ -8 with x ≥ -2). Those who attempted to use the properties of composite functions tended to get confused. Students needed to look for a domain that would make the square root function work.”

The Report does not indicate how students got “confused”, although the composition of functions is briefly discussed in the Study Design (page 72).

WitCH 14: Stretching the Truth

The easy WitCH below comes courtesy of the Evil Mathologer. It is a worked example from Cambridge’s Essential Mathematics Year 9 (2019), in a section introducing parabolic graphs.


The problem, as commenters have indicated below, is that there is no parabola with the indicated turning point and intercepts. Normally, we’d write this off as a funny but meaningless error. But, coming at the very beginning of the introduction to the parabola, it most definitely qualifies as crap.

WitCH 11: Impartial

The following WitCH comes from (CAS permitted) 2018 Specialist Mathematics Exam 2:

The Examiners’ Report indicates that about half of the students gave the intended answer of D, with about a third giving the incorrect answer B. The Report notes:

Option B did not account for common factors and its last term is not irreducible, so should not have Dx in the numerator.

Update (11/08/19)

The worst kind of exam question is one that rewards mindless button-pushing and actively punishes intelligent consideration. The above question is of the worst kind. It is also pointless, nasty and self-trippingly overcute.

As John points out in the comments, the question can simply be done by pressing CAS buttons. But, alternatively, the question also just appears to require, and to invite, a simple understanding of partial fraction form. Which brings us to the nastiness: the expected partial fraction form is not a listed option.

So, what to make of it? Not surprisingly, many students opted for B, the superficially most plausible answer. A silly mistake, you silly, silly student! You shoulda just listened to your teacher and pushed the fucking buttons.

The trick, of course, is that the numerator factorises, cancelling with the denominator and leading to the intended answer, D. The problem with the trick is that it is antimathematical and wrong:

  • As Damo notes, the original rational function is undefined at x = -1, which is lost in the intended answer.
  • As Damo also points out, there is no transparent, non-computational way to check that the coefficients in answer D would, as demanded by the question, be non-zero. 
  • It is not standard or particularly natural to hunt for common factors before breaking into partial fractions. Any such factors will anyway become apparent in the partial fractions.
  • To refer to the partial fraction form is actively misleading. Though partial fraction decomposition can be defined so as to be unique, in practice it is usually not helpful to do so, and the VCE Study Design never does so. In particular, if answer B had contained a final numerator of Dx + E then this answer would be valid and, in certain contexts, natural and useful.
  • The examiners’ comment on answer B is partly wrong and partly incomprehensible. One can pedantically object to the reducible denominator but if that is the objection then why whine about the Dx in the numerator? And yes, answer B is missing the constant E, which in general is required, and happens to be required for the given rational function. For a specific rational function, however, one might have E = 0. Which brings us back to Damo’s point, that without actually computing the partial fractions there is no way of determining whether answer B is valid.

But of course all that is way, way too much to think about in a speed-test exam. Much better to just listen to your teacher and push the fucking buttons.


Yesterday, I received an email from Stacey, a teacher and good friend and former student. Stacey was asking for my opinion of “order of operations”, having been encouraged to contact me by Dave, also a teacher and good friend and former student. Apparently, Dave had suggested that I had “strong opinions” on the matter. I dashed off a response which, in slightly tidied and toned form, follows. 

Strong opinions? Me? No, just gentle suggestions. I assume they’re the same as Dave’s, but this is it:

1) The general principle is that if mathematicians don’t worry about something then there is good reason to doubt that students or teachers should. It’s not an axiom, but it’s a very good principle.

2) Specifically, if I see something like
3 x 5 + 2 x -3
my response is

a) No mathematician would ever, ever write that.

b) I don’t know what the Hell the expression means. Honestly.

c) If I don’t know what it means, why should I expect anybody else to know?

3) The goal in writing mathematics is not to follow God-given rules, but to be clear. Of course clarity can require rules, but it also requires common sense. And in this case common sense dictates





For Christ’s sake, why is this so hard for people to understand? Just write (3 x 5) + 2 or 3 x (5 + 2), or whatever. It is almost always trivial to deambiguousize something, so do so.

The fact that schools don’t instruct this first and foremost, that demonstrates that BODMAS or whatever has almost nothing to do with learning or understanding. It is overwhelmingly a meaningless ritual to see which students best follow mindless rules and instruction. It is not in any sense mathematics. In fact, I think this all suggests a very worthwhile and catchy reform: don’t teach BODMAS, teach USBB.

[Note: the original acronym, which is to be preferred, was USFB]

4) It is a little more complicated than that, because mathematicians also write arguably ambiguous expressions, such ab + c and ab2 and a/bc. BUT, the concatenation/proximity and fractioning is much, much less ambiguous in practice. (a/bc is not great, and I would always look to write that with a horizontal fraction line or as a/(bc).)

5) Extending that, brackets can also be overdone, if people jump to overinterpret every real or imagined ambiguousness. The notation sin(x), for example, is truly idiotic; in this case there is no ambiguity that requires clarification, and so the brackets do nothing but make the mathematics ugly and more difficult to read.

6) The issue is also more complicated because mathematicians seldom if ever use the signs ÷ or x. That’s partially because they’re dealing with algebra rather than arithmetic, and partially because “division” is eventually not its own thing, having been replaced by making the fraction directly, by dealing directly with the result of the division rather than the division.

So, this is a case where it is perfectly reasonable for schools to worry about something that mathematicians don’t. Arithmetic obviously requires a multiplication sign. And, primary students must learn what division means well before fractions, so of course it makes sense to have a sign for division.  I doubt, however, that one needs a division sign in secondary school.

7) So, it’s not that the order of operations issues don’t exist. But they don’t exist nearly as much as way too many prissy teachers imagine. It’s not enough of a thing to be a tested thing.

Signs of the Times

Our second sabbatical post concerns, well, the reader can decide what it concerns.

Last year, diagnostic quizzes were given to a large class of first year mathematics students at a Victorian tertiary institution. The majority of these students had completed Specialist Mathematics or an equivalent. On average, these would not have been the top Specialist students, nor would they have been the weakest. The results of these quizzes were, let’s say, interesting.

It was notable, for example, that around 2/5 of these students failed to simplify the likes of 81-3/4. And, around 2/3 of the students failed to solve an inequality such as 2 + 4x ≥ x2 + 5. And, around 3/5 of the students failed to correctly evaluate \boldsymbol {\int_0^{\pi} \sin 5x \,{\rm d}x}\, or similar. There were many such notable outcomes.

Most striking for us, however, were questions concerning lists of numbers, such as those displayed above. Students were asked to write the listed numbers in ascending order. And, though a majority of the students answered correctly, about 1/4 of the students did not.

What, then, does it tell us if a quarter of post-Specialist students cannot order a list of common numbers? Is this acceptable? If not, what or whom are we to blame? Will the outcome of the current VCAA review improve things, or will it make matters worse?

Tricky, tricky questions.

PoSWW 5: Intelligence is not a Factor

The following PoSWW comes courtesy of Franz, who states that “when it comes to ‘stupid curricula, stupid texts and really monumentally stupid exams’ no Western country, with the possible exception of the US, is worse than Germany.” We take that as a challenge, and we’re waiting for Franz to back up his crazy-brave claim.

Franz’s PoSWW, however, has nothing to do with Germany. This PoSSW follows on from two of our previous posts, on idiotic questions appearing in New Zealand exams. Franz wrote to us, noting that the same style of question appears in the Oxford Year 8 text My Maths. Indeed, a number of versions of this ludicrous question appear in My Maths, all inventively awful in their own way. The two examples below are enough to give the flavour: