Monthly Archives: December 2020

The Biggest Math Story of 2020

Welcome to the long anticipated end of 2020, or at least as close to it as we're willing to get this year! This is the seventh annual edition of our year-ending tradition of celebrating the biggest stories in math from the twelve preceding months, at the end of which, we'll identify the biggest math story of the year.

The criteria we use in selecting the stories that make our year-end list is that the maths they involve must either resolve long-standing questions, have real practical applications, or otherwise have real world impact. If you want more, deeper information about the topics covered in our summary of math stories for 2020, be sure to follow the links to additional background material.

We've found three main themes around which to organize this year's edition. Let's get straight to it!

Cracking Old Problems

2020 saw a lot of progress toward solving problems that have been challenging mathematicians for 50, 90, 100, and 270 years. The youngest problem in this category was the deciphering of the "340 Cipher", which California's Zodiac Killer taunted police with a half century ago.

The cipher was finally cracked in 2020 by a team of amateur codebreakers, David Oranchak, Sam Blake, and Jarl Van Eycke, who combined their skills in encryption, applied maths, and computer programming along with some basic intuitions to break the killer's code. The featured video in this section is the fifth installment in their series describing how they tested over 650,000 variations of the cipher to work out how to successfully read it.

The 90-year old problem that was finally solved in 2020 dealt with Keller's Conjecture, which predicts that if you cover a space with identical tiles, at least two of the tiles would have to share an edge. That proposition seems straightforward, but Keller really took it to the next level, and then some, by conjecturing that it would also apply in higher dimensions. Previous generations of mathematicians proved Keller's conjecture would work up through at least six dimensions and also proved it wouldn't hold in eight-or-higher dimensional spaces, leaving an open question of whether it would or would not hold in seven dimensions.

In 2020, professional mathematicians Joshua Brakensiek, Marijn Heule, John Mackey, and David Narváez used a cluster of 40 computers to finally prove, once and for all, that the Keller Conjecture is true in seven dimensions. The practical accomplishment here was the application of discrete graph theory to search for nonlinear codes called "cliques", which in addition to being useful for determining whether the Keller Conjecture might hold for a given dimensional space, can also be applied to speed data transmission.

The 100 year old problem that was solved during 2020 relates to how fluids diffuse within a closed space, which has been an highly relevant issue during 2020 given the airborne transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Previously, solving problems involving diffusion processes could only be done approximately, requiring extensive computing resources. Mathematician Luca Giuggioli worked out how to more easily frame these kinds of problems for direct solution, which offers great promise for solving problems across a wide number of practical applications much more efficiently. In an ordinary year, this story would be a leading contender for the biggest math story of the year, but this is 2020.

At 270 years, the oldest problem is also a geometry problem, but involves a hungry goat, which makes it perhaps the most fun math story of the year. Quanta Magazine describes the scenario:

Here’s a simple-sounding problem: Imagine a circular fence that encloses one acre of grass. If you tie a goat to the inside of the fence, how long a rope do you need to allow the animal access to exactly half an acre?

Believe it or not, it wasn't until Ingo Ullisch applied techiques from the mathematical field of complex analysis that a mathematical formula was developed to precisely determine the length of the goat's rope to solve the problem!

Finding the Limits

2020 was a year in which more mathematicians gained direct experience in confronting Gödel's incompleteness theorems, which sets limits on what problems can be solved.

In 2020, some mathematical laws that have previously been advanced to describe real world observations have been found wanting. For example, Zipf's Law, a relatively simple relationship that has long been used to model population growth in cities, has turned out to not be complex enough to capture dynamic changes in populations over time.

Meanwhile, Benford's Law, which describes how often the digits 1 through 9 appear as the first digit of values within a dataset that has been successfully used to detect accounting fraud, turned out to be the wrong tool to use to detect potential election fraud in the U.S.

Those previous examples represent the narrowing of the boundaries where the mathematical principles involved may be successfully used. But 2020 also saw a major expansion of the boundaries of problems that can be solved with the introduction of a new proof that establishes that quantum computers may be used to solve problems conventional computers cannot. Quanta Magazine explains how the proof developed by Henry Yuen, Zhengfeng Ji, Anand Natarajan, Thomas Vidick, and John Wright expands the boundaries for what problems can be solved with the new computational technology:

The new proof establishes that quantum computers that calculate with entangled quantum bits or qubits, rather than classical 1s and 0s, can theoretically be used to verify answers to an incredibly vast set of problems. The correspondence between entanglement and computing came as a jolt to many researchers.

“It was a complete surprise,” said Miguel Navascués, who studies quantum physics at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna.

The proof’s co-authors set out to determine the limits of an approach to verifying answers to computational problems. That approach involves entanglement. By finding that limit the researchers ended up settling two other questions almost as a byproduct: Tsirelson’s problem in physics, about how to mathematically model entanglement, and a related problem in pure mathematics called the Connes embedding conjecture.

This accomplishment is a very big deal, which will drive a lot of development for quantum computing technology. Again, in an ordinary year, this story would be a leading contender for the title of the biggest math story of the year, but it came in 2020.

A Year Defined by Mistakes

The featured video in this section is about the world's first documented math mistake, which dates back several thousand years to the days of ancient Sumeria. The video is relevant because two significant math mistakes that took place in 2020 have affected the lives of billions of people, which makes 2020's math mistakes the biggest math story of the year.

Both mistakes, perhaps unsurprisingly at this point of the year, are related to the coronavirus pandemic. Both mistakes came early in the pandemic and drove public policy responses to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infections, and in turn, are directly responsible for the year's economic recessions in many regions of the world.

The first math mistake that helped define 2020 came from an epidemiological model developed by Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London (ICL). In March 2020, Ferguson and public health officials heavily promoted the projected outcome of the ICL model's "do nothing" scenario, which projected 2.2 million deaths in just the U.S. and another 500,000 deaths in the U.K. to justify the early policy response of imposing lockdowns, the government mandated closure of businesses and orders for residents to stay at home.

But the assumptions encoded within the ICL model were providing results that proved to be off by several orders of magnitude from reality. Worse, the mistakes evaded detection by the ICL model's promoters because the code itself was virtually impenetrable, filled with excessively complex patches, kludges and other band-aid type programming and no connection to "ground truth" data for its 450 parameters. These issues did not become known until Ferguson finally made the code available for public review, with the outcome that trillions of dollars of economic losses around the world occurred because of the unstable projections that emerged from the ICL model's "black box".

Ultimately, not even Neil Ferguson believed his model's results. After it was discovered he had repeatedly violated the stay-at-home orders he promoted, he was forced to resign in disgrace from his role as a government adviser in the U.K.

The second math mistake that helped define 2020 appears to have resulted from the misplacement of a decimal point by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The error was such that it amplified the NIH's estimates of projected deaths from novel coronavirus infections in a way that seemed to provide confirmation of the ICL model's flawed projections. A post-mortem of the math error describes its impact:

Sampling bias in coronavirus mortality calculations led to a 10-fold increased mortality overestimation in March 11, 2020, US Congressional testimony. This bias most likely followed from information bias due to misclassifying a seasonal influenza IFR as a CFR, evident in a editorial. Evidence from the WHO confirmed that the approximate CFR of the coronavirus is generally no higher than that of seasonal influenza. By early May 2020, mortality levels from COVID-19 were considerably below predicted overestimations, a result that the public attributed to successful mitigating measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Because of these mistakes, 2020 was all too often defined by the wrong policies being put into place at great harm and cost to society in fear of a projected massive death toll from the coronavirus. No wonder then that one of the more important math-related headlines for the year was "Modeling COVID-19 data must be done with extreme care, scientists say".

To be fair, maths done properly have greatly aided the development of vaccines and more appropriate public policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Never-the-less, these two mistakes together represent the biggest math story of 2020, helping to make the year what it was: a truly "Kushim"-ed up affair (watch the video to catch the reference!)

Update 29 December 2020: Just published peer-reviewed research highlights the ICL model's deficiencies. For a nontechnical summary of findings, see the press release via MedicalXpress: Model used to evaluate lockdowns was flawed.

Previously on Political Calculations

The Biggest Math Story of the Year is how we've traditionally marked the end of our posting year since 2014. Here are links to our previous editions, along with our coverage of other math stories during 2020:

We've now officially reached the end of our year, since this is Political Calculations final post for 2020. Thank you for passing time with us this year and have a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season. We'll see you again in the New Year, which we'll kick off with another annual tradition by presenting a tool to help you find out what your paycheck will look like in 2020 after the U.S. government takes its cut from it....

But before we go, we have one last video, from the invaluable Quanta Magazine, featuring their take on the biggest breakthroughs in math and computer science in 2020:

See you in the new year!

Australian Politics 2020-12-23 06:05:00


Australia tackling online bullies

If American media companies think that they can ignore Australian law, they should reflect on the humbling of Dow Jones a few years back.

They uttered a serious defamation of Australian miner Joe Gutnick in one of their publications and thought they were protected by America's permissive libel laws

But since the libel was of an Australian, Australian law had jurisdiction and Dow Jones eventually settled, costing them a heap

Harmful online abuse would be stripped from websites under a new government proposal to squash adult cyber bullying.

The eSafety Commissioner would be given the power to direct platforms to take down abuse, when they have failed to respond to complaints.

The online watchdog’s capacity to unmask the identities behind anonymous or fake accounts used to conduct abuse or share illegal content will also be beefed up.

Cyber Safety Minister Paul Fletcher said the new scheme was a world-leading online safety framework for seriously harmful content.

“Overwhelmingly what victims of serious cyber abuse tell us is they want the material taken down but that can be very hard to achieve,” Mr Fletcher told the ABC.

“The eSafety Commissioner has done that effectively with cyber-bullying against children and we’re now going to extend that to cyber-abuse directed against adults.”

Under the new Online Safety Bill, out for consultation on Wednesday, services will be required to remove image-based abuse and cyber bullying content within 24 hours of receiving a notice from the commissioner.

Companies that don’t comply will face maximum civil penalties of $550,000, while individuals will be subject to fines of up to $111,000.

Websites streaming online crisis events such as the Christchurch terrorist attacks and extreme violent content will also be able to be blocked for a limited time, under the commissioner’s request to internet service providers.

Protections for children will also be strengthened to enable bullying material to be removed from online services frequented by children.

Mr Fletcher said the measures recognised adults had greater resilience than children when it came to abusive content, and appropriately balanced the importance of freedom of speech.

The bill will also include legislated “basic online safety expectations” for digital platforms to establish a new benchmark for industry to keep Australians safe.

Under these, the eSafety Commissioner will be able to seek an explanation from the platforms about how they will respond to online harms under new transparency reporting requirements.

The industry will also be required to do more to keep users safe under updated codes.

“The internet has brought great social, educational and economic benefits,” Mr Fletcher said. “But just as a small proportion of human interactions go wrong offline, so too are there risks online.”

Virtue signalling and the hatred of coal

There has been more than one virus attacking the fibre of our society over the past 12 months as virtue signalling has leapt from business to business and executives have scrambled to join the race to be “woke.”

We are all now expected to conform to whatever shallow, vacuous position is currently in vogue and embrace every demand made by the chattering class lest we be condemned on social media.

Mackay small business man David Hartigan is the latest casualty of this crusade by the corporate world to beat its collective chest and show the world it has a social conscience.

His company provides engineering advice to mining companies. “Good on you, mate,” you might say, for creating jobs and doing your bit to help grow the national economy.

Not so in the world of the woke with his insurance company telling him that he cannot make more than 40 per cent of his income from thermal coal mining clients if he wants coverage.

This, of course, is so the insurance company can proclaim to the world that it cares about climate change

The large number of financial institutions now too frightened to cover mining businesses has lessened competition and allowed those still in the business to ramp up their premiums, Mr Hartigan’s increasing by 300 per cent over the past four years.

Can someone please explain to me how screwing a small businessman in regional Queensland is going to save the planet.

It is stupidity writ large and goes hand-in-hand with the insistence by the woke warriors that no one is building coal fired power plants anymore, thus ignoring the inconvenient truth that Germany commissioned one this year, Japan will build 20 over the next five years and the Chinese are building them faster than you can count.

The truth? They can’t handle the truth, preferring to project an image of heartfelt care confected by a marketing consultant while damaging the economy.

Whatever happened to that once treasured Australian trait of declaring in a loud voice that if it looks like bull…t and smells like bull…t, the chances are it’s bull…t? Have we lost the ability to mock poseurs and impostors who wear their false virtue like a robe?

Farmers launch climate change court challenge against natural gas project

The challenge, filed on Tuesday, also argued the approval for the gas extraction part of the project — which involves the drilling of 850 gas wells — should have also assessed the impacts of the transmission pipeline, which would be needed to transport the gas.

"Our client will therefore ask the court to find that the approval for the Narrabri Gas Project is invalid," said Elaine Johnson, EDO director of legal strategy.

One of the farmers involved in the challenge, Scott McCalman, said "farmers in our region are already being forced to live with worsening droughts, devastating heatwaves and extreme weather".

"The approval of damaging projects like this that will fuel global warming even further just means more hardship for rural communities," he said.

The project gained new momentum in January 2020 when an agreement was signed between NSW and the Federal Government, setting a target of injecting 70 petajoules of gas each year into the market in NSW.

That was exactly the amount the Narrabri Gas Project was likely to produce.

Then in June, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes backed the project, arguing it was "critical for energy security and reliability in NSW".

In September, the state's Independent Planning Commission gave the project the green light with 134 conditions to protect the environment, and in November, the Federal Government approved the project, again with conditions.

Thousands of submissions

The Independent Planning Commission received about 23,000 submissions to its environmental impact assessment process, with 98 per cent of them opposed.

About 80 per cent of those submissions were organised by conservation groups, but in addition to those, there were thousands of submissions opposing the project.

Among the main concerns expressed by those opposed to the project were potential impacts on water resources in the area.

The gas drilling will be near important aquifers relied on by farmers and towns, and some experts said it wasn't clear whether the project could avoid damaging them.

A spokesman for the NSW Independent Planning Commission said in a statement: "The Independent Planning Commission has been served papers filed in the Land and Environment Court for a judicial review of the Commission's determination of the Narrabri Gas Project.

"The matter is listed before the Court on 12 March 2021. No further comment will be made at this stage."

A conservative ministerial appointmen

Scott Morrison’s pre-Christmas ministerial shuffle has passed without much notice — unsurprising given that almost nobody in the country would be able to name any of the affected MPs

For the afficionados, however, there was one minor elevation on which a marker should be placed. Queensland LNP Senator Amanda Stoker, who was given George Brandis’ Senate seat when he retired in 2018, has risen from the backbench to the role of assistant minister to the attorney-general.

Stoker is what the media like to call a “firebrand”, and she has noisily established herself as an up-and-coming member of the religious right wing of the Coalition. She is anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-transgender and considers sexuality to be a “choice”. You get the idea.

In her new junior role, Stoker will not have any material power, but she will have a platform for pushing her ideological agenda.

Part of that agenda was revealed in a speech Stoker gave in June to the ultra-conservative Samuel Griffith Society in which she gave clear voice to a cherished desire of the far right: to overtly stack the High Court with conservative appointees.

The US religious right has been assiduous for many years in its plan to take control of America’s social fabric by filling the Supreme Court with judges who share its convictions. By the chance that Donald Trump got to appoint three judges in four years, they’ve achieved a 6-3 split between conservatives and “liberals”.

Stoker is a big admirer of Trump’s achievement, and is explicit about her wish to replicate it here. She has selected her target — a High Court decision that is anathema to the conservative mind — as the catalyst for her call to arms.

The case is that of Daniel Love and Brendan Thoms, two men of Aboriginal descent who were not Australian citizens. The High Court by a 4:3 majority earlier this year determined that Aboriginal Australians in their position cannot be “aliens” under Australian law and therefore cannot be deported.

The majority’s reasoning was based on an extension of the logic of Mabo — that Aboriginal people’s connection to Australia predates and transcends English colonisation and all that has followed, such that it is a nonsense to suggest that they could ever be alien to this land.

That made Stoker cross-eyed with anger, as it did the whole conservative right. She considers it “judicial activism”, the putting of words into the constitution that the founding fathers did not contemplate.

That identifies the battle ground for bench-stacking — the contest between “activist” and “originalist” judges, the same as in the US. The conservative argument, promoted by Stoker, is that what we want are judges who won’t rule according to their personal moral codes, politics or preferences, but who will just do as the express language of the constitution says. If the constitution gives bad law, then it can be changed by referendum. In the meantime, judges should apply it as it was written.

Accordingly, Stoker said in her speech, conservatives need to get their act together and find judges for the High Court who can be relied upon to be strictly black letter. It’d be a quicker process here than in America, because our judges must retire at 70 (and there are only seven of them).




Reworking Overworked Christmas Carols

Once again, for the second year in a row, Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You is the top song on the charts this week in the U.S. And just so we're clear, that's Mariah Carey's version of All I Want For Christmas Is You that was originally released in 1994.

We're not quite as tired of it as we are of the dreaded 12 Days of Christmas song, but we're getting there given how overplayed it becomes this time of year. Overplayed enough where we are finding a mashup of it with Radiohead's Creep to be more worthy of a listen, though it takes a while for the lyrics to break through the uptempo introduction.

All in all, it is surprising how well the Radiohead-Mariah Carey mashup works. Now, if someone could deal with the standalone dread that is The Little Drummer Boy, which not even the talents of Bing Crosby and David Bowie or Pentatonix could rescue, we would declare a Christmas miracle!

Australian Politics 2020-12-22 07:42:00


Windfarm operators blamed for the big blackouts of 2016

Allegedly, the operators should have had in place cut-out switches etc that would have prevented the disaster, even though the storm was an exceptional event.

The real problem was the state's heavy reliance on wind after scrapping its coal-fired generators. It was the Greenie government that had no backup against rare events

A South Australian wind farm operator has been fined $1 million for contravening national electricity rules in the three years leading up to the 2016 statewide blackout.

The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) launched legal action against Snowtown Wind Farms last year and was accused of supplying power to the grid when the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) had not approved it to do so.

The Federal Court today ordered the company — which has 90 wind turbines in the SA's mid north — to implement a compliance program and provide a written report to the court after six months, to ensure there is not a repeat.

Justice Richard White also ordered Snowtown Wind Farms to pay the regulator's court costs of $100,000.

Elite racism in Australia: Do as I say not as I do

The media was caned for its un-wokeness this year with university academics conducting a survey which found that 75 per cent of presenters, commentators and reporters were Anglo-Celtic with only six per cent of Indigenous or non-European backgrounds.

Most Australians have an Anglo-Celtic or European background so you might expect this predominance to be reflected in any survey but accusations of racism by the networks were not long in coming along with demands for quotas to be out in place to force them to hire Indigenous and non-Europeans presenters.

None of these accusations were directed at SBS where 76.6 per cent of reporters are non-European and only 0.7 per cent Anglo-Celtic.

Put another way, if you are a blue-eyed, pale-skinned lad by the name of O’Connor, you’ve got Buckley’s chance of getting a job at SBS.

The broadcaster, to no one’s surprise, did not see this statistic as evidence of reverse racism, proclaiming instead that it demonstrated “SBS’s leading role in including and representing the diversity of Australia across our news and current affairs”. Go figure.

SBS also employs two Indigenous Elders in residence to “provide support and cultural empowerment,” has created a voluntary register of staff with what is calls a range of lived experiences to sit in on job interviews to minimise unconscious bias and now gives employees who are promoted $10,000 to spend on “professional development.” How nice for them.

If they need ten grand’s worth of professional development you might wonder how they got promoted in the first place.

When I first set foot in a newsroom all those years ago, I was shown where the toilet and the cafeteria were located and told to find a desk and a typewriter. That was full extent of my employer’s contribution to my cultural empowerment and professional development and while others might differ, I’d like to think things haven’t turned out too badly in spite of an abysmal lack of hand holding, cosseting and empowering.

I get heartily sick of people who claim they deserve special treatment because of their colour, race or sexual preference. Stop whining and get on with the job.

The great tragedy of all this virtue signalling, diversity, empowerment and inclusion is that the young people who will provide our next generation of leaders exist in a cotton wool environment in which they are fearful of expressing an opinion that is not trumpeted by the mob.

If it looks like bull…t and smells like bull…t, the chances are it’s bull…t. Merry Christmas.

Open slather on foreign students has gone too far

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s pretty clear the last COVID-related restriction that will be lifted is the international movement of people in and out of the country.

The exact timing of international borders becoming fully open is unclear. The second half of 2021 is probably the best guess at this stage, but you wouldn’t bet your house on this. The take-up and effectiveness of the vaccine will be important in determining the outcome.

For an open economy such as Australia’s, the impact of the ­restrictions on the international movement of people is potentially substantial, with reduced international tourism as well as fewer international students and temporary workers.

Having said that, it’s not all doom and gloom, particularly on the tourism front. The fall-off in the international student population also provides a useful opportunity for a mature discussion about the appropriate role of international students in Australia’s education systems.

Consider tourism. Last year, 9.4 million tourists visited Australia from overseas. This was an ­increase of 2.4 per cent from the previous year. Those from China were the most likely to visit, followed by New Zealanders.

The number of visitor arrivals to Australia has fallen off a cliff. In October this year, for instance, there were only 6000 visitor ­arrivals, which was a 99.2 per cent decline relative to the same month last year.

The economic impact of the loss of international tourists is being offset, at least partly, by internal tourism, particularly given the restrictions on the departure of Australians to overseas destinations. Indeed, data indicates that Australians typically spend more going overseas than international tourists spend visiting this country — a gap known as the tourism deficit.

Needless to say, the border restrictions have not helped and the size and type of spending by domestic tourists are significantly different from international tourists. But the effective ban on outbound tourism does provide the opportunity for tourism-related operators to make up some ground for the loss of business because of the absence of international tourists.

When it comes to international students, the immediate effect of the restrictions on international arrivals was not as great as expected as the majority of students were in Australia at the start of March. (There had been a scramble to get Chinese students, in particular, back into the country in February by letting them transition through third countries.)

A reasonable proportion of international students who have not been able to return to the country have continued their studies online.

However, the mid-year intakes have pointed to bigger effects, with the Reserve Bank noting: “Australia’s education ­exports have fallen further in the second half of the year. The number of international student enrolments has declined.”

It is also mentioned that “the size of the fall in new enrolments has varied across different types of programs”. The largest decline has been in English-language and foundation programs that serve as pathways to higher education or vocational courses. This has implications down the track.

The universities, in particular, have reacted with angst, with a number of leaders pointing to the negative consequences for higher education and the economy.

What is less often mentioned is the fact that international student numbers had been growing at an extraordinary pace prior to the onset of COVID-19. In 2019, there were 11 per cent more international students in the country than in 2018. And in the five years ending in 2019, the number of international students had nearly doubled, with China being the biggest single source country.

That there have been negatives as well as positives associated with this rapid growth is a point too rarely conceded by senior managers in the education sector. In particular, the lack of language proficiency on the part of too many overseas students needs to recognised. The potential for domestic students to lose out due to large numbers of international students — contrived group assignments and lower standards being two examples — should also be acknowledged.

There is also the dubious figure of about $40bn of “exports” associated with international students, a figure often quoted by education lobbyists. In fine mercantilist style — exports good, imports bad — they bemoan the loss of export earnings associated with fewer international students.

Now most people understand the term export to mean the sale of domestically produced goods and services to overseas buyers — think iron ore, wheat, LNG. But because international students studying in Australia will use foreign currencies, at least in part, to pay for their education, the Australian Bureau of Statistics counts all spending by international students as export income.

The reality is quite different. About $17bn of the total figure are tuition fees, with the remaining being international students’ living expenses while living in Australia. But, given that many international students work while in Australia, particularly to cover living expenses, and are paid in Australian dollars, it is a conceptual mistake to equate the $40bn as being export income.

We know the majority of students from India and Nepal — there has been strong growth in their numbers in recent years — work while in Australia. We also know international student workers are more likely to be exploited than young Australian citizens, in part because of their strong need to work as well as the restrictions on their work patterns arising from visa conditions.

The lobbyists continue to press the case for establishing facilitated paths of entry for international students in early 2021. This push has seemingly been met with some sympathy by state governments. They also point to the increasing attractiveness of other destinations for international students, such as Canada and the UK, because of the ease of entry and the option of students becoming permanent residents in these countries. This latter point is unlikely to generate much sympathy here if international students are seen to be more interested in securing permanent residence than being educated.

It’s time federal and state governments came clean about the role international students should play in our education systems. Most people accept there are benefits of having a small proportion of language-proficient students from a range of countries at our schools, colleges and universities. But the open slather of the years prior to COVID-19 should not be repeated.

The insane bureaucracy that runs the government hospitals of NSW

In one day, Stephen Crerar's 33-year career was destroyed and he's still shocked by the reason his employer NSW Health gave him. Mr Crerar, a former human resources manager in the Mid-North Coast Local Health District (MNCLHD), was told to hand his pass in and leave the building immediately on February 4, 2019.

Six months later he found out why he was suspended — for communicating with his union.

"I was beside myself in disbelief," he said. "What kind of fool would suspend a HR manager for consulting with their union, it's just laughable, it's not a sane reason to give."

Mr Crerar contacted the Health Services Union in 2018 to suggest that the MNCLHD could be in breach of the health employees industrial award as there was a lack of consultation during a staff restructure.

He suggested the union initiate action in the Industrial Relations Commission.

NSW Health alleged this was "corrupt conduct" and accused Mr Crerar of failing to act with honesty and integrity, according to an official letter from the MNCLHD.

"The whole thing was devastating and a terrible ordeal," he said. "I tried to improve communication and consultation and look how they treated me."

Mr Crerar was also put on a staff blacklist, known as a service check register, which deemed him high risk and effectively made him unemployable elsewhere in NSW Health.

Six months after he was suspended, NSW Health was forced to admit Mr Crerar had been wronged.

"The MNCLHD decision to suspend you from the workplace was not in accordance with relevant NSW Health policy," Deputy Secretary of Health, Phil Minns, wrote in a letter to Mr Crerar.

Mr Minns went on to acknowledge Mr Crerar should have never been subject to a misconduct investigation and was denied procedural fairness. "The decision to commence the investigation was flawed, particularly in that Mr Crerar was not informed of the alleged behaviour for which he was being suspended and investigated," a summary of findings said.

Although MNCLHD told Mr Crerar he had been referred to ICAC at the time of his suspension, NSW Health later admitted that never happened.

Yesterday the ABC revealed two other employees are taking legal action against the MNCLHD for psychological distress relating to their alleged treatment in the workplace.

'I stood up and said the right thing'

Mr Crerar later received an apology from the chief executive of the MNCLHD for the suspension. "I acknowledge and sincerely apologise for the distress and anxiety these events have caused. I am sorry for the wider impact this has had on you and your family," chief executive Stewart Dowrick wrote in an official letter. "You remain a valued employee of MNCLHD."

But Mr Crerar said this was too little, too late. "It's been devastating for me personally ... I had a successful career that was smeared inappropriately, as was my reputation," he said. "My mental health, physical health has deteriorated rapidly and I'm still on medication for mental health issues."

Mr Crerar also feels he was targeted for something completely unrelated to his union involvement.

In a 2018 inquiry commissioned by NSW Health Mr Crerar was highly critical of employment practices within the MNCLHD. He told the inquiry that staff were being inappropriately disciplined and victimised for the most minor of issues. "I didn't shine a very good light on them," he said.

"I'm sure that's why I was targeted. Because I stood up and said the right thing and gave honest evidence with a view to improving practices ... and look at how I've been treated."

However, NSW Health strongly refutes Mr Crerar's suspension had anything to with his involvement in the inquiry.

An external investigation into the matter was also commissioned by the Ministry and found his suspension was unrelated to the evidence he gave.

Mr Crerar subsequently lodged a claim for workers compensation for bullying which has now settled.

Health says things have changed

The Health Services Union (HSU) says what happened to Mr Crerar "beggars belief" and warrants an inquiry. "This is clearly just yet another situation of bureaucracy gone mad," HSU NSW secretary Gerard Hayes said.

Under the NSW Industrial Arbitration Act, workers are afforded freedom of association, which means an employer must not victimise an employee for their involvement in a union.

However, Mr Hayes says the HSU is witness to a lot of union member intimidation and bullying inside NSW Health. "Senior managers get targeted, cleaners get targeted," he said.

"We would like to see an inquiry into NSW Health and the bad culture that everyone recognises and acknowledges. "It seems absolutely remarkable that in a situation like this it's just 'here's an apology, let's move on'."

SafeWork NSW investigated Mr Crerar's matter, and others raised by fellow colleagues in the MNCLHD, and decided to put the MNCLHD on a 12-month monitoring schedule.

NSW Health admitted Mr Crerar "experienced distress through what has been a lengthy process", a spokesperson said.

But MNCLHD chief executive Stewart Dowrick said many changes have since been made within the district to improve workforce culture and staff wellbeing, including a dedicated Director of People and Culture. "Improvements have also been made to how staff complaints are managed, including use of the service check register," he said.

Mr Crerar says he doesn't have any confidence he will find employment again, but wants the public to know what is happening within NSW Health. "I've seen a number of employees who were disciplined for minor matters whose careers are now ruined.

"I've seen a seriously toxic culture. There needs to be change at the top."

The 2019 People Matter employee survey found only 27 per cent of staff in the MNCLHD feel senior managers listen to employees.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard declined to be interviewed for this story.




The S&P 500 In December 2020’s Week of Four Witches

Friday, 18 December 2020 was a quadruple witching day on Wall Street, as stock index futures, stock index options, stock options, and single stock futures for 2020-Q4 all expired simultaneously. It may not feel like it quite yet, but for all practical purposes, where the markets are concerned, we are now in the first quarter of 2021!

That change of financial calendar also applies for dividend futures, which saw quite a lot of noisy activity before the quad witching day's trading ended. We've learned from experience that it takes several days for the end-of-quarter noise to subside and a clear signal for the future of dividends to emerge, which is where we're at today. That signal however won't have emerged before we sign off for 2020 ourselves and go on holiday, as our annual tradition of celebrating the biggest math story of 2020 will go live sometime late on Wednesday, 23 December 2020.

Until we return in 2021, we can confirm that investors have remained focused on the future quarter of 2021-Q2 during December 2020's week of four witches, following their having shifted their forward-looking focus to that distant future quarter on 11 December 2020. The latest update for the alternative futures chart for 2020-Q4 shows the dividend futures-based model's projections for the S&P 500 (Index: SPX) through the rest of the 2020 calendar year.

Alternative Futures - S&P 500 - 2020Q4 - Standard Model (m=+1.5 from 22 September 2020) - Snapshot on 18 Dec 2020

The market-moving news headlines we've pulled from the newsflow of the week that was is deceptively light, where perhaps the biggest news of the week was the announcement of the Fed's plans to provide quantitative easing-like monetary support for the indefinite future. Meanwhile, the Fed's minions appear to be working hard to convince the markets that the Fed won't be doing much more to boost the economy anytime soon.

Monday, 14 December 2020
Tuesday, 15 December 2020
Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Thursday, 17 December 2020
Friday, 18 December 2020

If you're looking for a bigger picture of the news of the week, Barry Ritholtz has you covered with his weekly review of the positives and negatives he found in the week's economics and markets news over at The Big Picture.

The week ahead should see a fiscal spending deal come out of the U.S. Congress, which we don't think will do much to reset the forward time horizon of investors.

The next edition of our S&P 500 chaos series will arrive early on Monday, 4 January 2020, when we'll also recap the more significant news headlines from the two previous, holiday-shortened trading weeks. Thank you for joining us for our analysis in 2020, we look forward to continuing to project the future for the S&P 500 in 2021.