Critical Issues: Spot the Error

This one could be a WitCH or a PoSWW, except we’re withholding some information. So, consider it an analysis puzzle.

The following was posted to an Australia-NZ statistics list. The email was from an American statistician, referring to and quoting from this article (Update: link fixed), on a Texas hospital adopting critical care guidelines. See if you can identify the problem.

UPDATE (30/7)

A weird hint: we are not playing fair. (And, boy are people gonna be pissed.)

As we wrote in reply to a comment “There is the post, and the links to which the post refers. You can consider what ever issues you see.” So maybe list quickly, without elaboration, anything you see as an issue.

UPDATE (31/7)

OK, time to end this, and so a final hint. As indicated in the comments, the “problem” is with the poster’s line “Statistics is a bitch”. We’re very, very pleased that no one has hit upon the “problem” with this line.


Well, wasn’t that fun? Thanks to everyone for playing along.

As indicated above, the “problem” is with the line “Statistics is a bitch”. And what’s wrong with that line? Not a whole lot. It’s not a great line, since it can be read as treating the “statistics” as a from-nowhere reality, rather than the disastrous consequences of Republican screw-up. But no big deal.

So, why post on this as a problem? Because the stats email list to which the comment was posted thought it was a problem. A number of commenters took very serious issue with the poster’s use of the word “bitch”.

This began with an off-post email to the poster, indicating “the language used is not at all appropriate for [such] an email list” and a request: “I’d appreciate it if you could apologise for this choice of words.” (To whom?) The poster replied to the email list, with a long and unhelpful, but fundamentally reasonable, non-apology apology. In brief, the poster, who is in Texas, suggested that they had much, much bigger things to worry about. And then the bashing kicked in.

There were calls for the poster to “grow up”, to “stop using hurtful, offensive language”, suggestions that “the problem is the use of a term that is all too often directed at women in a derogatory way” (ignoring that this was not the case here), whining about “gendered name-calling”, and all manner of nitpicky and gratuitous complaint.

It was crazy and it was revolting, and all of it coming from proud and proper academics. Eventually there was some tepid defence of the poster, but way too little and way too late. No one stood up properly to these ridiculous, self-important language nazis.

Which is why we posted about it here. Of course this is the type of blog where those offended by strong language are unlikely to hang around. And, maybe some shyer types here agree with the poster’s critics. But, it was still very, very pleasing that no one who engaged here had a clue what we could have been on about.

Another Message to Fellow Melburnians

1) Stay home.

2) If you don’t stay home, wear a fucking mask.

3) Forget that, just stay home.

UPDATE (22/07)

Some gentle observations, after our first shopping trip in a month, and with Uncle Dan on the car radio:

4) If you’re sick and you don’t isolate before your test, you’re a fucking moron.

5) If you’re tested and you don’t isolate before your results, you’re a fucking moron. 

6) Just because it is not yet mandatory to wear a mask, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, you fucking morons. 

7) Bunnings is lying through their fucking teeth. 

SACs of Shit

SACs may not be the greatest problem with VCE mathematics, but they’re right up there. SACs are torture for teachers and torture for students. They teach nothing. As assessment, they are unnecessary, unreliable and phenomenally inefficient. They are a license for VCAA’s unaswerable auditors applying Kafkaesque rules to act either as favour-givers or as little Hitlers, as the mood takes them. These problems are currently amplified to eleven by VCAA’s “We’ll give you some kind of guidance in, oh, a little while” plan for the plague year.

For all of the awfulness of the above, that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that the majority of SACs are monumentally stupid. Literally. A SAC has the imposing presence of a monument, its towering stupidity casting a shadow over everything.

How are SACs so bad? Many contain errors, often subtle although too often not, but, as irritating as that is, that is not the main problem. The main problem is that they are mathematical nonsense. Typically they will present the student with a ridiculous model of a contrived problem, which is then all redone in greater, brain-bludgeoning generality by throwing in a needless parameter in a randomly chosen location. All of this is undertaken, of course, in the nihilistic world of CAS. Finally, somewhere near the end, the poor beleaguered student, who by this stage just wants to escape with their life, will be required to “comment on the model”, to which the usual response is “It’s really nice, please let me go” and to which the only reasonable response is “It’s fucking insane”.

How do we know SACs are this bad? Because we see them. We see the commercial SACs, and the sample SACs, and the past SACs, and the current SACs. Are they all as bad as we suggest? No, of course not. Specialist SACs are typically nowhere near as bad as Methods SACs, and even many Methods SACs will fall short of truly idiotic torture, rising only to the level of being dumb and painful. Then there are the rare few SACs we see that are good, resulting in an exchange:

“This actually makes sense. Who’s your teacher?”

“Oh, it’s Mr. ….”

“Ah. Yes.”

So, yes, the quality and worth of SACs varies widely, but the average is squarely in the neighbourhood of monumental, tortuous stupidity. Which bring us to the “why”. Why are SACs in general so awful? There are two reasons.

The first and fundamental reason is the VCAA and their view of what they imagine is a curriculum. VCE mathematics subjects are so shallow and so lacking in a foundation of solid reason, that almost any attempt at depth and substance in a SAC is destined to be farce. The VCAA has replaced foundation and depth with CAS, which reaches peak awfulness in SACs. The VCAA promotes the fantasy that CAS magically transforms students into mathematical explorers, clever little Lewises and Clarks skilfully navigating the conceptual wilderness. The reality, of course, is much less Lewis and Clark than it is Burke and Wills. To top it off, SACs must follow guidelines that Terry Gilliam would be proud of, giving us Burke and Wills’ Bogus Brazilian Journey. Or, just Eraserhead. Something like that.

The second reason is the teachers. Sort of. Even if the subjects were coherent, even if they were unpoisoned by CAS and were unconstrained by vague and ridiculous conditions, even then writing a good SAC would be a very difficult and massively time-consuming task. Most teachers just don’t have the mathematical background, or the literary skill, to write a coherent, correct and mathematically rich SAC; many cannot even recognise one. And, that’s writing a good SAC for this imaginary good subject; writing a good SAC for these fundamentally flawed subjects with their ridiculous constraints is close to impossible, even for a strong teacher. And which teachers, particularly weaker teachers, have the time to compose such a good SAC? Why bother trying? And so, with the greatest common sense, most teachers do not. Most teachers stick to the audit-proof and meaningless formulaic SAC bullshit that the VCAA expects and effectively demands.

The VCAA’s SAC system is a crime against mathematical humanity.

UPDATE (15/5)

We received the following from a student acquaintance (who hadn’t read this post):

Hi Marty, given the upcoming math SACs approaching soon, the pressure is on to practice and practice. Attached below is last year’s Methods SAC1 (Unit 3/4) for [the student’s school]. I remember many talented friends of mine who were stumped, and didn’t do very well on this SAC. Personally, I thought this SAC was horrifying. In contrast to Specialist, (I actually quite enjoy Specialist!), Methods seems to be a huge prick because of frustrating, ambiguous SACs containing questions seemingly cooked from the pits of hell itself. Are these sort of SACs common across the state?

The student is, of course, correct. The SAC, which comes from a highly respected school, is a nightmare in all of the ways canvassed above. From start to end it is idiotic CAS-driven pseudo-modelling, complete with Magritte nonsense and a pointlessly prissy grading scheme. And, yes, the SAC contains an error.

Of course we won’t reveal the school, much less any teachers involved, which means that we are also unable to critique the SAC in detail. But that is one of the insidious aspects of the SAC system; an entirely proper concern for privacy means that SAC nonsense, although endemic, fails to be exposed to the public critique that is so very much needed.

UPDATE (26/7)

Once again, this time in response to this post, a student from a “good” school has contacted us in regard to their SAC. This was a Specialist SAC, and the student had contacted us because the teachers/writers had screwed up: some tech aspects of the SAC were a mess, and the subsequent clean-up of the mess was clearly disingenuous and clearly insufficient. But, as always, the situation was much worse that the student suggested.

The student’s SAC was ridiculous. From beginning to end it was pointless, CAS-driven pseudo-modelling. It had the idiotic parameters thrown in. It was poorly written. It displayed poor mathematical understanding, leading to ridiculous own goals. It. Was. Not. Mathematics.

And, we can’t write the details of any of this.

Should Schools Now Be Opening?

Just for a change, we’re asking a non-rhetorical question. So, ignoring the fact that ScoMoFo is a thug, and ignoring the fact that “Dumbo” Dan Tehan is a thug, is it time for schools to reopen?

Our suspicion is that, at least in Victoria, the answer is “no”. We haven’t thought hard about it, however. So, while we (try to find time to) think some more, we’d be interested in what others have to say.

Very quickly, here are the arguments we see for opening schools in Victoria:

  • Federal health officials suggest schools are safe.
  • The NSW study (not yet peer-reviewed) suggests schools are safe.
  • Childminding.
  • Year 12 students are getting seriously dicked around.

Here are the arguments we see for keeping schools in Victoria closed:

  • ScoMoFo is an idiot.
  • Dumbo Dan makes ScoMoFo look smart.
  • Daniel Andrews and his Chief Medical Officer are not idiots.
  • No one has a real sense of what will happen when restrictions ease.
  • The kids (P-11) miss a term of school? Big deal.

Vanessa’s Appt Concerns

Today, the Australian government released COVIDSafe, the Government’s coronavirus tracking app, based on Singapore’s TraceTogether version. The release comes complete with the Government’s predictable reassuring and cajoling and guilt-tripping. Should Australians trust them and use the app? Really? For us, there is a very simple answer: when and only when Vanessa Teague gives the all clear.

Vanessa is an expert on cryptography and, as it happens, is an ex-student and a good friend. She is very smart and is as principled a person as we have ever met. Along with many of her colleagues, Vanessa has been critical of the Government’s needless (and entirely predictable) secrecy over COVIDSafe. She has written a series of blogposts about their underlying concerns, and in particular the Government’s failure to follow up on promises and release COVIDSafe’s source code. This is Vanessa’s current stance on using the app (as of 23/04):

“In its TraceTogether form, I would be happy to run it on the train but refuse to run it in my home or office. I need to see the details of Australia’s version before I decide.”  

And, if that’s what Vanessa suggests then that’s what we’ll do, right up until Vanessa and her colleagues suggest otherwise. We’ll regularly be checking on Vanessa’s blog and twitter account.


Postscript: We had planned on writing about Vanessa a month or so ago, when she made the news. That story is highly relevant, since it involves privacy concerns, government screw-up, an arrogant and inept minister, a limp lettuce watchdog, a thuggish department secretary being matey matey with a vice chancellor, and a spineless university. Yep, same old, same old. But, given the speed of the times, we’ll probably have to leave that story be.


UPDATE (27/4)

The Minister for Health has today made an undertaking to release the source code “within two weeks”. We’ll see. (The formal agency response on privacy (26/4) states that such release will be “subject to consultation with the Australian Signals Directorate’s Australian Cyber Security Centre”.)

Vanessa and her colleagues have a new blog post (27/4). The post has been written “on a best-effort basis using decompiled code from the app, without access to server-side code or technical documentation.” Their conclusion:

Like TraceTogether, there are still serious privacy problems if we consider the central authority to be an adversary. That authority, whether Amazon, the Australian government or whoever accesses the server, can

    • recognise all your encryptedIDs if they are heard on Bluetooth devices as you go,
    • recognise them on your phone if it acquires it, and
    • learn your contacts if you test positive.

UPDATE (01/05)

We’re not going to bother with the nasty guilt-tripping on the COVIDSafe app, including from numerous media nitwits who should know better. This from Bernard Keane suffices.

Vanessa now has a very good twitter thread on the seemingly contradictory safe/not-safe messages from IT folk.

UPDATE (11/5) Vanessa has a twitter thread (08/05) on ScoMoFo’s latest round of silly buggers.

UPDATE (13/5) This will come as a great surprise, but it turns out that Greg Hunt is a dishonest piece of shit.

UPDATE (15/5) Vanessa and her colleagues have a new blog post (14/5): The missing server code, and why it matters.

UPDATE (20/5) Vanessa and her colleague Chris Culnane have a new blog post (19/5), on flaws in and corrections to the UK covid app (and why this was possible). Vanessa also has an accompanying twitter thread.