Easy Difficulty (Alternative version)

“I think that’s enough Peak Stupid for now.”

I am about to lead my students down the mountain, but Ninja Monkey does a quick head-count and confirms one is missing. Through my peripheral vision I spot one of the Bad Idea Bears standing in front of a magic mirror (which nobody has noticed before). Wait a minute, he seems to be poking his finger through the glass. This would violate the laws of physics, even by Peak Stupid standards – unless Peak Stupid was stupider than I had previously thought.

“Don’t do it!” I yell. “Don’t –“


Not even Ninja Monkey’s extremely fast metabolism is enough to stop BIB1 from walking through the magic mirror. He is gone forever, unless I have the courage to walk through the same mirror myself. But with BIB2 reduced to tears it seems we have no choice. I hope it’s not like that stupid veil thing from the Harry Potter movies.

There’s only one way to find out if you pardon the terrible cliché – I tell the rest of the gang we’re not descending Peak Stupid after all.

“Okay Bad Idea Bear Two, I want you to stand approximately nine and three quarters metres from the mirror. On the count of nine and three quarters I want you to run at full speed towards the mirror and then jump into it. Don’t be scared, you can do it.”

BIB2 reluctantly agrees.

“One two three four five six seven eight nine NINEANDTHREEQUARTERS!!!!”


I am the next person to go through the mirror.


BIB1 is looking at some more board games, unaware of the gravity of the situation.

“It’s safe!” I shout. “You can come – ”

Hang on, I’m not sure if my fellow students can hear me.


BIB2 materialises in front of the other side of the Magic Mirror.

Dweet … dweet …. dweet dweet dweet … dweet (etc).

Several of my other students appear one by one, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

“Head count,” I tell Ninja Monkey.

“No need for that,” he responds. I counted exactly 50 dweets.”

Despite the Ninja Monkey having Asperger syndrome, the Animal Kingdom still values his contributions to society. I’m more concerned about the Bad Idea Bears. Uh oh, something is weird. We seem to be in exactly the same place (or pretty close to it) after passing through the magic mirror. There are board and card games galore, and BIB1 is studying Snakes and Ladders. Of course, it takes me less than 3 nanoseconds to spot my favourite card game in the centre of the hall. The cards are already dealt.

“This is strange,” says BIB1.  –“It’s the same layout as before except every snake and ladder has been swapped. Once you get past square 88 it’s all ladders to the top”

“This is also strange,” says the Stockfish. “Black has the 16 chess pieces and White has the 12 checkers.”

“But White has the first move,” says the Dumb Bunny. “Does that give him enough compensation?”

A rare lapse of character sees the Eagle accidentally knock a brown die (with numbers 2,2,3,4,5,6) onto the floor. He quickly replaces it on the Backgammon table.

Connect Four is even weirder,” says the sloth as he hangs upside-down from a chair. “For some reason the pieces float upwards instead of down.”

Minnie Mouse soon discoveres Texas Holdem is again rigged – except the Magic Eye trick only works on cards 5 or lower. If you hold any other cards then you’re good – unless of course the flop comes something like 2-4-4 rainbow.


“Monkey, did you count correctly?”

“Actually, that dweet was a semitone lower than all previous dweets,” replies Ninja Monkey. “My best guess is somebody passed the magic mirror in the other direction”

And sure enough, BIB2 is missing.


Before I literally know it, BIB2 is standing in front of the magic mirror again.

“Bad Idea Bear Two,” I say. “We need to talk.”

The Eagle is seated in front of the Spider Solitaire table.

“Before you play, I should warn you Spider Solitaire is rigged – but in a good way.”

“87,72,65,84,84,72,69,70,85,67,75?” says the Eagle.

“I expect the game would be significantly easier than usual – for instance the probability of three cards of the same rank appearing in any row of 10 cards will be significantly less than usual.”

“There’s a better way to test your hypothesis,” says the Eagle. “Can I win this hand without any supervision from you? If I win, then there’s a good chance your hunch is correct.”

I give my best student the thumbs up.

The Eagle proceeds wins, but not without a struggle (I would have beaten the 67,82,65,60 out of that hand much faster, but at least his play is fundamentally sound). The cards magically arrange themselves into a new starting layout. The Eagle proceeds to win four games in a row. Only on the fifth hand does he finally lose a game, perhaps due to a lapse in concentration.

All my other students take turns experimenting with the Spider Solitaire cards, and I am happy to let the eagle supervise events. Meanwhile I rest myself on the floor in front of the Magic Mirror, to prevent any more shenanigans from the Bad Idea bears.



The World’s Worst Math Teacher (another short story)

“Another one of life’s disappointments.”

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Marking assignments, the bane of every teacher,” growls Ms. Spider, as she angrily scrawls the word “DREADFUL” on a sheet of paper. “This goose just divided by zero.”

I’ve always enjoyed math, but I am all too aware that it represents a bugaboo for many ordinary folk. Not everybody can have higher than average IQ and not everybody can play piano and solve Rubik’s Cube at the same time. I agree we have to Make Math Great Again.

“I s’pose I could improve my presentations skills or learn Statistics 101,” admits Ms. Spider.

“I confess I never studied stats at uni,” I respond. “I had to pick it up all by myself.”

“Learning stats 101 sounds too much like work. Surely there must be a better way.”

“You could make the exams and homework easier,” I suggest.

“We can’t make it too easy,” responds Ms. Spider. “I’m sure the good students wouldn’t mind an extra challenge or two,”

I steal a glance at the goose’s assignment. Yes the goose is below average, but one of the assignment questions are badly worded. Another question has kilometres as a typo for metres, and I have to suppress a chuckle. I can see why some of Ms. Spider’s students call her the WWMT.

“Actually,” says Ms. Spider, “I was toying with a more radical solution”

“Which is?”

“We could give different exams to different students”

“What a revolutionary idea!” I exclaim. “Nobody has ever thought of this before!”

“From each according to his abilities … “

“From each according to his needs,” we chant in unison.

I am impressed: this Spider is clearly well-educated, not just in mathematics. She knows her clichés and sayings.

“Does that mean,” I ask, “if an awesome student correctly answers 40 assignment questions in a row then he will get a very difficult exam?”


“Hang on, what if an awesome student deliberately flunks the assignments …”

“Well … we could give the exam less weight than assignments,” the Spider responds somewhat nervously. “Then there is no advantage to tanking the assignments.”

“That’s Dandy!”

“For this to work,” continues Ms. Spider, “we have to come up with some way of measuring the difficulty of certain questions.”

“I understand,”

I mull over this for a while. We all know that students can be graded according to some chosen system. For instance, a math student can be Outstanding, Exceeds Expectations, Acceptable, Poor, Dreadful or Troll. But how can we grade certain questions?

The Spider writes two math questions on a sheet of paper:


“Which of these problems is harder?” asks Ms. Spider.

“I think both are equally easy. After all, I participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad many years ago.”

Somehow, I think that was not the answer Ms. Spider expected.

Behind us, a monkey, eagle, mouse, elephant, lion and jackal are enjoying some Texas Holdem. As usual, the monkey has squandered away all his chips early, and the Eagle is schooling the rest of the field, having accumulated more than half the chips in play. The Spider eyes them warily: clearly they should not be privy to our discussion.

“You see,” says Ms. Spider. “Sometimes I find it hard to judge the difficulty of a single question. For instance, I expect problem X to be easier than Y, but for some reason the reverse holds when I mark the assignments.”

I mull over Ms Spider’s words. I am not really in a position to judge, given I have never marked any student assignments.

“I have an idea,” says Ms. Spider. “Let’s draw a table”


“For simplicity,” says Ms. Spider. “Let’s assume each question is either marked correct or not correct, hence there are no partial marks. I use blank instead of 0 for ease of reading. Sam is an awesome student since she answered most questions correctly. Owen is a Stupid student because he only scored 2 out of 9. Each individual is represented by a single row.”


“But there is no reason we can’t do the same with columns if you pardon the double negative. For instance, only six people solved problem 8 but nine solved problem 9. Therefore problem 9 is harder than  problem 8 …”

“So even if you don’t understand the questions themselves you can still say things like Debbie is better than Anna”

“Exactly,” replies Ms. Spider.

“With 18 students and 9 problems, you don’t have a lot of data”

It’s a stupid observation, I know – but I am only trying to buy time as I try to digest her ideas.

“Well, the same logic applies if we had 1800 students and 900 problems.”

“I think I understand,” I say. “It’s like some kind of Mechanical Turk. Previous students have tried these questions (and of course you don’t have to pay them to do these exams!), so you can work out which questions are easy or hard.”

“Wasn’t the Mechanical Turk some kind of fake chess-playing machine by Wolfgang von Kempelen? What a disgraceful idea! I would never try to cheat chess players like that”.

Okay, didn’t see that one coming. We need to agree on a definition of Mechanical Turk.

“Do you think your students will eventually find out their exam papers are different?”

“That shouldn’t be an issue,” says Ms. Spider, as she squirms in her seat. “If a poor student finds out, he has no reason to complain. If a good student finds out then deep down in his heart he already knows he is better than the poor student, so the exam result doesn’t matter.”

Somehow I think her logic is very, very, unsatisfactory. But I do know that many of the greatest insights precisely come from those who are willing to suggest ideas that sound utterly outrageous. For instance Rivest, Shamir and Adleman are your average computer scientists, but with a bit of luck they might one day become famous, known to every student of cryptography. So I should cut her some slack.

In fact, I am more than looking forward to the results of her revolutionary teaching methods. After all, I’m not the teacher and I don’t set the exams. I was especially careful not to suggest any drastic ideas of my own. If the radioactive 83,72,73,84 hits the fan and grows to fill the size of the entire house then I am more than happy to watch, knowing my 65,82,83,69 is fully covered.

Bring. It. On.