Today is the first day of my statistics classes, so it seemed appropriate to engage in a statistically-themed deception. The classes are for graduate students, and consist of twelve, three hour long lessons, with the last hour or so intended to be practical. Unfortunately, Tokyo University doesn’t have a shared computer room (at least not in my faculty) so we have to use a normal lecture theatre, and all the students have to bring their own computers. This has been troubling me for some time, because it’s really obvious that someone is going to trip over and die when there are 22 cables lying around. Now, you may laugh at my occupational health and safety instincts, but anyone who has ever seen someone trip over at work due to a cable and lose their front teeth, as I have, is aware that not all OH&S concerns constitute meddling madness. As if it’s not enough that I have to learn the correct procedure for handling serious earthquakes during class time, I may have to revisit basic first aid.

So, I was having lunch with a colleague today – let’s call him “Dr. Liverpool” –  and he asked me if I was going to use computers in my class. I started complaining about the lack of a proper computer-equipped facility, and he said to me, “so how are you going to do the practical work – hand calculations?”

The chance was too good to be true, and I took it. “No,” I said, “We’ll be using abacuses[1].” I expected him to see through this straightaway, but he didn’t, so I gave him a few more chances. First I embellished my lie by telling him about the OH&S concerns – I even claimed a student had tripped over last year, in opposition to his objections that last year everyone was doing it – but then to make my lie more obvious, I told him that not only had I spent all of last week teaching myself how to use an abacus[2], but many of my students had been going to “soroban school” (soroban is Japanese for abacus) to prepare for my class. Now, soroban schools exist, but they are mainly for primary school students (and weirdos). I even told him this, to try and evoke the image of my students learning soroban with 10 year olds, but he still couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

Then we had a long conversation about lack of communication between the departments who wanted the course to be run, and how you can do anything on an abacus. Finally I disabused him of the notion, rather than leave him thinking that the Tokyo University Medical School graduate stats course was being conducted on abacusciscci.

So, shall we grade my work? If you were the Professor of Cunning at Oxford University and I were your student, how would you rate me?

Degree of Difficulty: This was an academic I was talking to, an educated man skilled in seeing through the fog of misinformation to find the truth at the heart of any problem, no matter how complex. A grown man, to boot, who has traveled the world. Furthermore, a man who does statistical analysis in his own research. So, you’d think that fooling him would be a little challenging. Especially on something as basic as modern teaching procedure. So I rate this a 5 [depending on your view of academics, you might want to rate it a 1, or less, of course…]

Degree of Preposterousness: Anyone who doubts this task is preposterous should go away and try to do a generalized linear model on anything that isn’t an advanced computer. In the days of yore, the original statisticians had whole teams of young women (called “calculators”) whose job was to do the calculations required for basic multiple analysis of variance. The idea of constructing anything beyond a mean on an abacus is madness. So I give this a 4.5.

Degree of Success: Pretty close to perfect, so I give it a 4. I relented at the last though, and revealed the truth.

Overall rating: 21.25

fn1: is the plural of abacus abacuds? abaci? abacudipods?

fn2: This is a blatant lie too – abacudipods are hard to learn by oneself.

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