RatS 11: Taibbi and The Miserableness of Documenting Censorship

We link a lot to Matt Taibbi. He is smart, he cares (mostly) about  the right things, and he is beholden to no one. Which means that, with the polarising idiocy of our times, Taibbi is hated by pretty much everyone. It’s always a good bet to judge a man by his enemies.

Taibbi has an on-going series, Meet the Censored, to which we link whenever he has a new post. Now, Taibbi has written about that series, and the difficulty bringing people on with what the series is really about. If for example, you were cheering when Trump was kicked off Twitter, you might want to think again. Having thought again, you’re probably still fine to cheer Trump being kicked off Twitter, and maybe that’s ok, but it is not a gimme.

Here is Taibbi’s post on the issue:

On the Miserable Necessity of Doing Censorship Stories in Pairs



RatS 8: Donald McNeil Has His Say

Last month, science writer Donald McNeil got shoved out of the New York Times. McNeil has waited until he was formally out of the Times to have his say. Now, he has done so. The whole thing is insane.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: What Happened January 28?

Part Three: What Happened in the 2019 Investigation?

Part Four: What Happened in Peru?

RatS 7: Taibbi on Dr. Seuss and eBay

It was big news that the estate of Theodor Geisel – aka Dr. Seuss – had decided to cease publication of six Seuss titles, because of their portrayal of people “in ways that are hurtful and wrong”. Seuss is huge, of course, but in the scheme of it the news shouldn’t have been that huge. Geisel-Seuss wrote plenty of mediocre stuff, and some grotesquely racist stuff. It’s complicated. Books – good and bad – go out of print for all sorts of reasons – good and bad. We were a bit surprised by the discontinuance of Circus and Mulberry Street, but they aren’t great, and it’s not like they’ll be hard to find.

But then, eBay decides it will no longer list the Bad Seusses. And, as Matt Taibbi points out, that is batshit insane. Read it and Scream.


RatS 2: Matt Taibbi Meets the Censored

We had intended to make RatS a regular thing but, like many plans of mice and Marty, it fell by the wayside. Maybe we’ll try again.

Matt Taibbi is the nerdish heir to Hunter S. Thompson. He is simultaneously unleashed and meticulous. He also has a habit of pissing off Democrats, and plenty on the left, by suggesting that there is much more wrong with America than Trump and Republicans. Taibbi had the temerity to argue, early and strongly, that Trump’s win over Hillary wasn’t because of Russian hackers, but because of the general ineptness and meaninglessness of the Democratic Party, and the specific awfulness of Clinton. Taibbi is also a careful and incisive critic of the news media; Hate Inc. is a must.

Recently, Taibbi has been pissing off his one-would-think allies, and pretty much everyone, by arguing that seeking to throw assholes off Twitter and Facebook and the like is dooming us to doom. Somehow he’s just not comfortable with Zuck and Jack and their fellow titans acting as our guardian angel censors. Taibbi is now reporting on the early stages of this corporatised censorship, interviewing some of people who have been whacked around. His interviews, and pretty much everything by Taibbi, are well worth reading.

Meet the Censored: The U.S. Right to Know (added 15/04/2021)

Meet the (Unsuccessfully) Censored: Jesse Singal And Katie Herzog (added 22/03/2021)

Meet the Censored: Myanmar writer, Zaw Moe Shinn (added 06/03/2021)

Meet the Censored: Live Streamers (added 03/02/2021)

Meet the Censored: Mark Crispin Miller (added 06/01/2021)

Meet the Censored: Olivia Katbi-Smith (added 02/01/2021)

Meet the Censored: Abigail Shrier (paywalled, and you should pay)

Meet the Censored: Ford Fischer

Meet the Censored: Andre Damon

How to Cancel Culture

Yes, of course we’ve read on this nonsense, as have probably most readers of this blog; it’s either that or reruns of Bachelor Chef Island. For those divorced from virtual reality, however, here is:

There are plenty of left-wing thugs pretending that “cancel culture” is a fraud, and there are plenty of right-wing thugs pretending that they and their thuggish cronies don’t play the same nasty sport. For us, the smartest takes are:

But, really, “cancel culture” is what we gotta solve right now? One would think that being inundated with plague, and having the World heating to the point of no return, and with the three superpowers being led by homicidal maniacs, that would be plenty enough on our to-do list. But, if taking hair-trigger offense and being a Blockleiter is your thing then, sure, go ahead and have fun.

UPDATE (21/07)

A new article:

Read it. Yeah, you’re busy but, trust me, read it.

MAV’s Mathematica Games

I’ve already posted Sai kumar Murali krishan’s Mathematica-VCE article, and fleshed it out a little. Here, I’ll give some of the back story, including a statement from Vinculum‘s editor, Roger Walter, and ending with a summary and a list of questions I sent to the MAV regarding the reviewing of Sai’s article, and to which I never expect to receive an answer. Throughout, I was curious whether the MAV would, once again, act in a gratuitously censorious manner, or whether they would now be wiser and publish Sai’s article; impressively, they accomplished both.

Last year, Sai was a student in my Monash Extension class. (It is irrelevant but ironic that Mathematica was used in this class in a limited but intelligent manner, for computing powers of large matrices, row reduction and the like.) The class was small and friendly, and fun, at least for me. I knew Sai well, and it’ll come as no surprise that he did very well in my class, but I had no sense of Sai’s Mathematica superpowers until the year had ended. Then John Kermond, Sai’s Specialist teacher, suggested I talk to Sai about Mathematica in VCE. Sai and I emailed back and forth a bit, and it became clear Sai had a very interesting story to tell.

I encouraged Sai to write up his gaming of VCE with Mathematica, with the goal of publishing in MAV’s journal Vinculum. Given the MAV’s previous conduct and general obsequiousness towards VCAA, some may suspect that goal was foolish or deliberate possum-stirring. With hindsight, it may have been the former but it was in no sense the latter.

There were a number of strong reasons to aim for Sai to write for Vinculum. First and foremost, Vinculum is the main senior school mathematics journal read by Victorian teachers, and was thus the natural home for an article such as Sai’s. Secondly, although Sai will clearly go far and needs absolutely no assistance from me, I thought it would be very good for Sai to have such a publication on his CV. Thirdly, I respected and continue to respect Vinculum‘s editor, Roger Walter, and I trusted he would see the importance of Sai’s article and would work hard to publish it. Finally, given the MAV had acted censoriously in the past and had been publicly called on it, I expected the MAV to be more circumspect in considering Sai’s article. On this last point, I was very wrong. Which is why we’re here now.

Sai quickly put together a very good draft, which I helped Sai tighten and polish. And, amusingly, I got Sai to tone down his language; Sai’s contempt for VCAA’s Mathematica crusade is significantly stronger than is indicated by the published article. Unfortunately, giving a clearer focus to Sai’s article also meant cutting out some very good material, on other clumsy and silly aspects of Mathematica in VCE. In particular, Sai put a lot of work into critiquing the sample Mathematica solutions provided by the VCAA, aspects of which Sai variously described, with supporting argument, as “contrived”, “incomplete”, “silly”, “bloated”, “obnoxious”, “abysmal” and “ludicrous”. (If he didn’t have better things to do, I’d retire and let Sai take over the blog.) I’m hoping to have Sai write a guest post on these solutions, and on other aspects of the Mathematica trial, in the near future.

In February, with a solid draft in hand, Sai submitted his article to Roger Walter, Vinculum‘s editor; I stayed in the loop, for the obvious reasons. The back and forth with Roger was sensible, efficient and amicable. Then, however, the MAV Publications Committee kicked in. What follows is a statement from Roger Walter, followed by my letter to the MAV (Publications Committee and CEO and President); that letter, as well as asking a number of questions, outlines the reviewing process and the frustration that it entailed.

And, failing any response from the MAV, that will end the story. I have heard nothing to indicate that the MAV is anything but satisfied with the manner in which Sai’s article was reviewed, which, if true, I find astonishing.


Statement from the Editor of Vinculum, Roger Walter (13/7)

I was very insistent that Sai’s article be published in Vinculum. This was partly my desire to publish, as far as is possible, all material that contributors have spent time and effort to put together, and partly because I was pleased to see a contribution from a student resourced from his experiences at secondary school. However, the main reason I pushed for publication was that the article itself had merit. This was for two reasons. Firstly, it was true, i.e. it clearly and accurately described the situation. Secondly, it was, at least in my mind, relevant – to both secondary teachers and to those who are responsible for planning our curriculum.

To me, two important statements were made (among others). One was that Mathematica was extremely powerful: too powerful for VCE, in fact, as it meant that students could answer questions without understanding the mathematics involved – an understanding which would be important for their future studies. The other is that Mathematica, being so much more powerful than the CAS calculators used by the majority of students, has the potential to create a non-level playing field. It is important that both teachers and those responsible for our curriculum are aware of this, if they aren’t already.

One of the things I try to do as editor, particularly in the editorials I write, and the material that is published, is to make educators think about what they are doing in their classes. I hope that if nothing else, this article achieves that. Also, as editor, I need to be impartial, and publish according to relevance and reality, regardless of my personal opinions, and the opinions and policies of other organisations. This impartiality is not always easy, but is relevant in the case of this article, and many others.


Letter From Marty to the MAV (13/7)

Dear Publications Committee, I am writing to you in regard to the article Mathematica and the Potential Gaming of VCE, by Sai kumar Murali krishnan (cc-ed) and just now published in the Term 3 issue of Vinculum

By way of background, it was at my suggestion that Sai wrote his article and submitted it to Vinculum. I also consulted with Sai during what turned out to be the lengthy and erratic reviewing process. Now, with Sai’s interest and agreement, there are a number of questions I wish to ask about that reviewing process. I am willing to publish any response by the Publications Committee or the MAV on my blog. I will interpret a lack of reply by Friday, 17 July as a decision to not comment.

Kind Regards, Marty Ross


Sai initially submitted his article to Roger Walter, the editor of Vinculum, in mid-February of this year. After some back and forth, by early March Roger and Sai considered the article polished and ready for the Term 2 issue of Vinculum. The Publications Committee, however, objected. In late March the Publications Committee demanded that the following two paragraphs, the final paragraphs of Sai’s article, be cut:

To the extent VCAA is aware of these issues, there is reason to doubt that they are sufficiently aware, or at least sufficiently concerned. VCAA, after all, has created and continues to maintain this strange and uneven playing field. As further evidence, VCAA provides sample Mathematica solutions, and it is telling that these solutions are clumsy, uninventive and calculator-mimicking, suggesting a limited understanding of Mathematica’s capabilities. 

Whatever naivety may exist, I believe it is unlikely to last. Nothing precludes the marketing of Mathematica packages designed specifically for VCE testing and, if Mathematica becomes widely available in VCE, I believe this commercialisation is inevitable. Such a development would turn VCAA’s implementation of Mathematica, which is already very problematic, into an obvious farce. 

Q1. Was there any reason for these cuts, beyond members of the Publications Committee being “not happy with comments about the VCAA”? Does the Publications Committee generally regard such unhappiness as sufficient reason to censor an author? 

Q2. Given that the criticism of VCAA was objectively valid and directly relevant, and given the potential commercialisation of Mathematica in VCE is an obvious and significant concern, will the Publications Committee now acknowledge there was no editorial or policy reason for demanding these paragraphs be cut? If not, will the Publications Committee now, finally, state any such reason?

Reluctantly, Sai then accepted these unjustified cuts, together with a new conclusion, with the understanding that publication could go ahead in Term 2, and with no further requests for substantial changes. Almost immediately, however, the Publications Committee demanded this second version of Sai’s article be held over until the Term 3 issue of Vinculum. The reason given to Sai for this delay was the Publications Committee “wanted time to consider the rest of the article and the conclusion”.

Q3. Will the Publications Committee now acknowledge that demanding a substantial and unjustified cut, and then subsequently demanding further time for review was a flawed and unfair process? Will the Publications Committee now acknowledge that in these circumstances, and in any circumstances, such a demand for further time should be accompanied by clear and substantive reasons, reasons that were entirely absent in this instance? Will the Publications Committee now indicate what specific parts of the article needed to be considered further, and why?

In mid-April the Publications Committee contacted Sai about further revising the second version of his article. The Publication Committee failed to indicate, much less argue for, a single flaw in this version. Rather, the Publications Committee requested that Sai add to his article, that the article also indicate what teachers could do in “using calculators and technology to support rather than bypass technology [sic]”. To this end, the Publications Committee also indicated they had contacted an MAV consultant familiar with Mathematica “to help [Sai] complete the article”. 

Q4. Was the intent of the Publication Committee at that stage simply to dilute the clear content and message of Sai’s article? Will the Publications Committee now acknowledge that the suggested expansion of Sai’s article was unnecessary and unhelpful, at best orthogonal to the clear content and message of his article? Given this orthogonality and the absence of any claim of error in Sai’s article, will the Publications committee now acknowledge that at that stage they simply should have apologised to Sai for the needless delay and have accepted the second version of Sai’s article?

Q5. Does the Publication Committee understand the distinction between offering “help” and attempting to impose it, and will the Publications Committee now acknowledge the extraordinary presumptuousness of initiating “help” before having even canvassed the idea with Sai? Sai quickly replied to the Publications Committee, rejecting this proposal, and making it clear that his article should be accepted or rejected as is. Sai also clearly and carefully detailed the flaws and frustrations of the review process to that stage.

Q6. Why did the Publications Committee not respond to the concerns raised in Sai’s email? Why did the Publications Committee still decline to publish Sai’s article, still without providing a single reason beyond a vague and unjustified “too negative”?

Over Roger’s objections, the Publications Committee continued to refuse to publish the second version of Sai’s article. In an attempt to placate a member of the Publications Committee, Roger suggested “a possible insertion which … doesn’t need to be at the end”:

Technology, including Mathematica, calculators, spreadsheets and the many online programs, have tremendous potential to assist students with learning, understanding and applying mathematics. What is important for educators is to be careful that students are not using this technology to bypass learning and understanding mathematics.

Although Roger’s proposal was clearly well-intentioned, Sai considered, and considers, Roger’s paragraph to be clumsy, unnecessary and forced, particularly as a concluding paragraph. He also didn’t believe for a minute the inclusion of this paragraph would placate the objecting member.  Nonetheless, Sai was willing to consider it, and asked Roger: IF Sai agreed to this third version, with the original conclusion cut and this new conclusion properly incorporated, would that THEN be acceptable to the Publications Committee? Sai never received an answer.

Q7. Why did Sai never receive an answer to this question, on a proposal originating from discussion within the Publications Committee? Does the Publications Committee now acknowledge that this failure to respond was rude and unprofessional? In early May, Sai received the following communication from the Publications Committee:

The MAV are continuing internal discussions regarding the publication of the Mathematica article in alignment with MAV’s publication policy. It is expected that a decision may be provided by the end of Term 3.

Q8. Why, after months of failing to indicate a single flaw in Sai’s article, did the Publications Committee consciously and pointedly fail to tell Sai anything about any further “internal discussions”? What, precisely, in the “publication policy” necessitated that Sai was given no opportunity to comment on these “internal discussions” and, in particular, why was Sai given no opportunity to confirm or correct the version of his article then being considered? 

Sai responded, indicating his frustration with the further delay and lack of communication. The Publication Committee responded:

1. Mathematica article is not to be included in Term 3. Pending subcommittee decision, it will be published in Term 4.

2. MAV are ‘continuing internal discussions regarding the publication of the Mathematica article in alignment with MAV’s publication policy. It is expected that a decision may be provided by the end of Term 3”.

Q9. Why was there a loud and definitive, and subsequently false, statement that Sai’s article would be further delayed until Term 4? Why was this further delay left unexplained? 

Q10. Why did the Publications Committee not inform Sai of this “subcommittee” directly and immediately upon its formation? Who were the members on the subcommittee, what was the role of the subcommittee, and who determined this membership and role? On what formal basis and with what justification did the Publications Committee deprive Sai of this information?

Q11. Was the subcommittee properly informed that Sai had never agreed to Roger’s inserted paragraph being the conclusion to Sai’s article, and if not then why not? If, as appears to be the case, the subcommittee was not informed of this, will the Publication Committee now acknowledge that this lapse was a very serious error, and will the Publication Committee now apologise to Sai for this error?

Q12. What summary and/or advice and/or opinion did the Publications Committee provide to the subcommittee, and why did Sai not also receive any such material?  In particular, if the Publications Committee indicated substantive objections, after having failed for months to do so to Sai directly, why did the Publications Committee not then inform Sai of these objections? 

Finally, in early June, the Publications Committee presented Sai with a fourth version of his article, presumably the work of the “subcommittee”.  The Publications Committee indicated they had agreed to publish this fourth version in Vinculum. It was made clear that this version of the article, which still included Roger’s inserted paragraph as conclusion, was not open to any further discussion, and that Sai had to either accept or decline. It was also indicated that the “aim” was still to publish in Term 4. Given the changes from the third to the fourth version were few and very minor, and swallowing his annoyance with the demand to conclude with Roger’s paragraph, Sai quickly agreed to this fourth version of his article. 

Sai was relieved when, presumably due to the wise counsel of the subcommittee, the reviewing ordeal finally ended with an agreement to publish. He is also very pleased to see his article appear in the Term 3 issue of Vinculum. The article as published is identical to the fourth version, except for a new title and the inclusion of a clarifying footnote, both agreed upon without dispute. Which raises the final questions.

Q13. Given that the changes from the third version of Sai’s article to the fourth version were very few in number and were all very minor, does the Publications Committee accept that the decision of the “subcommittee” repudiates the months of secretive stonewalling of the Publications Committee?

Q14. Given there are only minor differences between the second, March, version of Sai’s article and the final, July, published version of Sai’s article, and given Sai was never presented with a single substantive criticism of his article, will the Publications Committee now acknowledge that this whole review process could have been handled in a significantly more efficient, more thoughtful, more open and more respectful manner

Q15. Will the Publications Committee now extend a formal apology to Sai?

How to Play VCE with Mathematica

An article titled Mathematica and the Potential Gaming of VCE has just appeared in the MAV’s journal Vinculum (and we have posted it here). By Sai kumar Murali krishnan, who completed VCE last year and who we previously mentioned in this post, the article delivers what the title promises (noting the “Potential” is redundant): Sai demonstrates how Mathematica’s huge library of functions and extremely powerful programming can be used, and has been used, to trivialise VCE maths exams. We believe Sai’s article is very interesting and very important. (For anyone interested to do so, Sai can be contacted by email here.)

Also likely to be of interest, at least to readers of this blog, is the story of the long and weird battle to have Sai’s article appear. Roger Walter, Vinculum’s editor, deserves a hell of a lot of credit for seeing that battle through and ensuring Sai’s article survived, largely unscathed. And a disclaimer: we played a role in Sai choosing to write the article, and we were also involved in the subsequent battle. We intend to write on all of this in the near future.

With Sai’s permission, we’ve posted his article here. In this post we’ll give a few more examples and we’ll provide some concluding paragraphs, which didn’t make it into Sai’s published article. By way of background, Mathematica memory need not be cleared before taking an exam or SAC. Secondly, in computer-based (CBE) Methods, a student enters their answers directly into the Mathematica notebook; this means that Mathematica code and output in and of itself constitutes acceptable working, and is very close to sufficient as answer. 

First, here is a multiple choice question from the 2019 Mathematical Methods exam, which we also discussed here:

The problem is to determine Pr(X > 0). Here is Sai’s solution, utilising standard Mathematica functions:

The point is, of course, that the application of functions such as Area and Polygon requires very little sense of the mathematics involved. For an example requiring no mathematical sense whatsoever, consider the following multiple choice question, which appeared on the 2017 Mathematical Methods exam:

The question is of a standard type, and for these questions Sai created the Mathematica function FTest. The following is Sai’s complete Mathematica working to solve the question above:

A final example, again from the 2019 Mathematical Methods exam:

Here is Sai’s Mathematica working for this question, using two functions he created, FInfo and TangentLine:

Sai’s Vinculum paper contains a number of other examples, and Sai has created a huge library of incredibly sophisticated functions to tackle VCE questions, a library which he shared with his fellow VCE students. Sai’s work raises obvious issues, not least of which is the grossly unfair competition between the majority handheld-CAS students and the few Mathematica-powered students. The original version of Sai’s article ended with two paragraphs, which the MAV Publications Committee demanded be cut:

To the extent VCAA is aware of these issues, there is reason to doubt that they are sufficiently aware, or at least sufficiently concerned. VCAA, after all, has created and continues to maintain this strange and uneven playing field. As further evidence, VCAA provides sample Mathematica solutions, and it is telling that these solutions are clumsy, uninventive and calculator-mimicking, suggesting a limited understanding of Mathematica’s capabilities.

Whatever naivete may exist, I believe it is unlikely to last. Nothing precludes the marketing of Mathematica packages designed specifically for VCE testing and, if Mathematica becomes widely available in VCE, I believe this commercialisation is inevitable. Such a development would turn VCAA’s implementation of Mathematica, which is already very problematic, into an obvious farce. 

Of course the MAV having cut these paragraphs, along with every single reference to the VCAA, doesn’t make their content any less true, any less obvious or any less important.

We intend to write more later in the week.

MAV’s Sense and Censor Ability

We’ve written about MAV’s censorship previously. It seems, unfortunately, that we may have another such incident to write about in the near future. We’ll see.

There is also a third incident that we’ve long planned to write about, but have never gotten around to. It is rather involved, and we won’t give the full story here, but one specific aspect is perhaps worth telling now.

In 2016, we accepted an invitation from the MAV to give a keynote address at their Annual Conference. We chose as our keynote title Same Sermon, New Jokes. We also submitted a “bio pic” – the graphic above – and an abstract. The abstract indicated our contempt for twenty or so organisations and facets of Australian mathematics education.

A couple months later, the Conference organisers emailed to indicate their objection to our abstract. One can argue the merits of and the propriety of this objection, and we will write generally on this at a later date, but one aspect of the objection was particularly notable. The email included the following:

“While we welcome all points of view, we do need to be respectful of the organisations we work with, and with whom we need to maintain good relations … We would like you to re visit the text … without the criticism of formal organisations.”

We pushed back against the criticism, and ended our reply with what we intended as a rhetorical question:

“You wrote that you (plural) welcome all points of view, which I was very reassured to read. Given that, which formal organisations do you consider to be above criticism?”

The email reply from the organisers included a response:

“In regards to the formal organisations with which the MAV has relations, you have stated some of them, e.g. ACARA, VCAA.”

No one at the MAV, including the then President, indicated to us any problem with this request or its clarification.

For now, we’ll leave it there.

MoP 2 : A One-Way Conversation

We’re not particularly looking to blog about censorship. In general, we think the problem (in, e.g., Australia and the US) is overhyped. The much greater problem is self-censorship, where the media and the society at large can’t think or write about what they fail to see; so, for example, a major country can have a military coup, but no one seems to notice. Sometimes, however, the issue is close enough to home and the censorship is sufficiently blatant, that it seems worth noting.

Greg Ashman, who we had cause to mention recently, has been censored in a needless and heavy-handed manner by Sasha Petrova, the education editor of The Conversation. The details are discussed by Ashman here, but it is easy to give the story in brief.

Kate Noble of the Mitchell Institute wrote an article for The Conversation, titled Children learn through play – it shouldn’t stop at pre-school. As the title suggests, Noble was arguing for more play-based learning in the early years of primary school. Ashman then added a (polite and referenced and carefully worded) comment, noting Noble’s failure to distinguish between knowledge that is more susceptible or less susceptible to play-based learning, and directly querying one of Noble’s examples, the possible learning benefits (or lack thereof) of playing with water. Ashman’s comment, along with the replies to his comment, was then deleted. When Ashman emailed Petrova, querying this, Petrova replied:

“Sure. I deleted [Ashman’s comment] as it is off topic. The article doesn’t call for less explicit instruction, nor is there any mention of it. It calls for more integration of play-based learning in early years of school to ease the transition to formal instruction – not that formal instruction (and even here it doesn’t specify that formal means “explicit”) must be abolished.”

Subsequently, it appears that Petrova has also deleted the puzzled commentary on the original deletion. And, who knows what else she has deleted? Such is the nature of censorship.

In general we have a lot of sympathy for editors, such as Petrova, of public fora. It is very easy to err one way or the other, and then to be hammered by Team A or Team B.  Indeed, and somewhat ironically, Ashman had a post just a week ago that was in part critical of The Conversation’s new policy towards climate denialist loons; in that instance we thought Ashman was being a little tendentious and our sympathies were much more with The Conversation’s editors.

But, here, Petrova has unquestionably screwed up. Ashman was adding important, directly relevant and explicitly linked qualification to Noble’s article, and in a properly thoughtful and collegial manner. Ashman wasn’t grandstanding, he was contributing in good faith. He was conversing.  Moreover, Petrova’s stated reason for censoring Ashman is premised on a ludicrously narrow definition of “topic”, which even on its own terms fails here, and in any case has no place in academic discourse or public discourse.

Petrova, and The Conversation, owes Ashman an apology.

The MAV and a Matter of Opinion

This post is tricky. It is not about us, but there is context, and that context should be kept in mind.

Many readers of this blog will be aware of the long relationship we have had with the Mathematical Association of Victoria. It dates back to 2001, when we first came up with the weird idea that mathematics teachers may be interested in learning some maths beyond the thin gruel they were typically served while at university. That idea morphed into 15+ years of teaming up with the Evil Mathologer, of presenting under the banner of and as a consequence of the MAV, of spreading ideas and rousing the rabble. It was quixotically stupid and exhausting and incredibly rewarding. The prehistory of this blog is an interesting story, which is probably of interest to no one.

Fewer readers of this blog will be aware that our association with the MAV ended a few years ago, when the MAV threatened to (and arguably did) censor the abstract of our (invited) keynote. That story may be of more interest, and we hope to write on it in the near future.

In summary, and notwithstanding our long association with and our gratitude to the MAV, we have no love for the MAV in its current form. That is the context. Now for the post.


A few months ago we heard that an article was rejected for publication in the MAV’s teachers’ journal Vinculum. The manner of and the reason for that rejection sounded very strange, and so we began to ask questions. As indicated below, the MAV has not been particularly forthcoming, but this is our current understanding of the story:

1) An opinion piece was submitted to Vinculum. In the piece, the author argued that all VCE mathematics exams in Year 12 should be calculator-free.

2) Roger Walter, the editor of Vinculum, accepted the piece for publication and included it to be published in the next issue.

3) Peter Saffin, the CEO of the MAV, overruled the editor, instructing Walter to retroactively reject the piece.

4) Saffin’s stated reason for the rejection was that the author’s position was in conflict with the VCAA’s strong advocacy of calculator use.

That is the bare bones of the story. Here is a little flesh (once again, as we understand it):

a) The author of the article is a long-standing member of the MAV, a respected gentleman who has devoted decades to Australian mathematics education generally and to the MAV specifically.

b) The author’s piece was topical, well-written and not flame-throwing.

c) In early September we contacted Michael O’Connor, the President of the MAV, seeking information and clarification. After a back and forth, the President declined to confirm or deny point 3, declaring that as a member of the public we had “no need to know”, and that “even MAV members would have to show sufficient reason”. O’Connor citied his “duty of care towards MAV staff and volunteers”.  Similarly, O’Connor declined to confirm or deny point 4.

d) To our knowledge, no MAV editor has ever previously been overruled in such a manner, by anyone.

e) The author has not contested the rejection.

f) Notwithstanding (d), O’Connor indicated that “proper processes have been followed”.

g) O’Connor indicated that he is “expecting there to be a policy discussion at the next publications meeting”.

h) At this stage, the rejection of the article has not been rescinded.

i) At this stage, no one at the MAV, nor the MAV as a body, has apologised to the author for the rejection of the article or the manner of that rejection,

j) In late September we replied to O’Connor, critiquing various aspects of this incident and his characterisation of it. O’Connor indicated his intention to respond.


That then is the post. O’Connor and Saffin were invited to comment on a close version of the above. O’Connor reiterated his intention to reply and suggested out our posting now was “premature”, arguing that the MAV had not had “sufficient time to perform due diligence”. Saffin did not reply as of the time of posting.

We will update the post if and when any new information comes to hand.

UPDATE (05/12/19):  In response to a query in the comments of another post, here is a brief and empty update:

  • Michael O’Connor has not replied further, and, written indication notwithstanding, presumably has no intention of doing so.
  • We do not know of any officer of the MAV having expressed, formally or publicly, the view that unilateral censorship of the type above is inappropriate.
  • We are not aware of any formal or informal steps the MAV may have taken to preclude such censorship in the future.
  • We are not aware of any officer of the MAV, nor the MAV as a body, having apologised to the author of the Vinculum article.