Friday, 12 September 2014

The last fox on the Speewah

Somebody asked me the other day about Crooked Mick using two axes at once when he was cutting fence posts.  Not possible, they alleged.  That just goes to show some people don't know very much about the way Australians look after their axes.  The standard timber-getter's demonstration involves putting spit on the forearm, and shaving all the hairs off, that's how sharp they keep their axes.

Crooked Mick did this trick once, for an admiring audience of city people who happened to be out visiting the Speewah.  (Taking them city folk out there in the first place was a mistake, but that's another story, one I'd rather not get involved in.)

Anyhow, after Mick had performed the trick for them, one woman gushes to him, "Do you always shave yourself on the face that way, Mr. Mick?"

Well, Mick looks her up and down, wondering why she called him that, because he was always just plain "Mick" when you talked to him, but she was obviously an ignorant city type, so he answered her patiently.

"No," he says.  "I use the back of the axe to shave meself."

She looks at that part of the axe, and says "But it's flat and blunt.  How could you possibly shave yourself with that?"

"Yersss," he drawls.  "Too right, it's flat, and just as well, or I'd cut meself.  I use the back so's I can drive the whiskers in and then I bite them off inside."  So saying, he performed this delicate operation.

First he drove the whiskers in, and then there was this awful grinding and crunching sound as the whiskers were mashed and mangled under Mick's molars.  Then he stepped to the edge of the verandah of the shearers' quarters, and spat at a nearby fence, just as a fox jumped over the top of the fence.

Well this surprised everybody, because this was the first fox ever seen on the Speewah, but the fox was even more surprised, as it instantly became the last fox on the Speewah.  Some of Mick's whiskers had been crushed to razor-sharp slivers, and these flew faster than the others.  Reaching the fox first, these slivers passed under the skin, and neatly separated the hide from the body.

As you might expect, the fox jumped into the air and then took off, leaving the hide standing in the air for just a moment, until the less crushed and heavier whisker fragments reached the hide.  Because these were so much heavier, the force of their impact drove the hide back into the fence, where they impaled it, perfectly stretched, against the fence.

Now I've seen the hide: it's still there, so you'll realise that when I say Mick's axes were sharp, I mean what I say.

The fox slunk away and hid in a swamp, but they say a mosquito came down in the night and swallowed it whole.  Maybe the mossies developed a taste for fox meat after that, but there never were any other foxes seen on the Speewah.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Speewah pumpkins

Then there was the time that Crooked Mick had been persuaded to work as cook once again.  I should point out that Mick didn't really enjoy cooking all that much, but it helped to keep the peace, and besides, it was bad for morale when Mick was shearing because he was so much faster than anybody else.  So when they could, the boys would try to talk him into cooking.

I was glad, because I was working that shed, and I wouldn't have got a look-in, me that twice out-shore Jacky Howe when he was in his prime, even when I gave Jacky first choice of sheep.  That was how sharp the competition was on the Speewah in them days.

Anyhow, Flash Jack from Gundagai was there as well, and he was helping Mick out.  I think he wanted to learn a few tricks of the culinary art, because by that time Jack was a reasonably good bloke with the pots himself, when he tried.  The day I have in mind, Mick gets Jack to take an axe down "to cut a dray-load off the pumpkin, and bring it back for soup".

I was there when he said this, just passing by the cook house, and I commented that it must have been a pretty good pumpkin if you could cut a dray-load off it.  Mind you, I didn't know then about Smiling Annie's special pumpkins, or I would have known that it was a pretty average sort of pumpkin.  Anyhow, like I say, I didn't know about those things then, but Mick let me down gentle.

"Yes," he says, "but there's a few problems with a pumpkin that size.  Why, just yesterday, I took a ladder down there to cut a load off the top where it's really tender, and I dropped me best axe in there."

"Annoying!", I says.

"Completely vexatious, in fact", he says.  I think I mentioned that Mick was a bit rough in some of his ways, but he had a way with the words.  "But when I climbed down inside", he continued, "it was nowhere to be seen.  There was another bloke that I found in there, and he hadn't seen it either."

"What was he doing in there?"

"Looking for a bullock team that strayed.  Anyhow, neither of us found my axe, and we never even saw a trace of the bullocks, all day."

"What will you do now?"

"I'll lower me dog down there in a basket tomorrow, and let him find them both, and bring 'em out."

Now that, I knew, would work, because a Speewah dog can do just about anything: remind me to tell you all about them some time.  But before I go, I should tell you about how Flash Jack got his start as a cook.

There wasn't any jobs going on Lignum Downs one year, except as a cook, and Flash Jack needed work, as his pants were beginning to go.  So he took the job, but one or two of the older hands know when to smell a rat, and so one of them asked him a trick question.  "What would you use an axe-head for when yer cookin' a galah?" he asks Jack.

"Easy," says Jack.  "You put an axe-head in with the galah, and when the axe-head's soft, you throw away the galah, and eat the axe-head, right?"

"No," says the bloke, looking around at the others.  "You eat the galah, don't you, mates?"

They nodded in agreement, but Flash Jack was ready for them.  "Not on the Speewah, you don't," he explains.  "If I'd known you meant sissified city galahs, of course I would've said that.  But as a professional cook, I work on the material I know best, whenever I can."

"Garn," says one of them.  "You can't cook.  Why, I could cook better than you.  Except sheep dip, and I reckon that soup we had last night'd kill even them Speewah sheep ticks you was talking about."

"So would I," says another, adding that he's not a bad cook himself, and then a whole lot of them chime in with the same claim, and one of them reckons he used to be a baker, and asks why hasn't Jack baked any bread for them, but Jack isn't fazed for a moment.

"I'll tell you what, then," says Flash Jack.  "We'll have a baking competition, and see who can bake the best bread."

Well they all agree to this, and then Jack pulls his trick.  "Seeing as I'm a professional cook, I'll be the judge and oversee what people are doing.  Then at the end, I'll take on the winner, and the runners-up can judge between us."

It's just as well for us that Flash Jack never took up politics, or who knows where we'd be now.  Of course, what he did was to watch the competitors, feed everybody on the winning entries, and then at night, he'd try out the recipes, and dropped his disasters in a hole.  He threw the first failure into a billabong, but all the fish in there died, so after that he buried the ones that didn't work.

By the time he had to take on the winners, Flash Jack knew all about baking, and he never looked back after that.  Except occasionally, when he felt a pang of guilt about all those dead fish, and the fish pie he'd made out of them, and the damage it could've done.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

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Monday, 8 September 2014

The art of the acerbic review

I have elected to stop posting acerbic reviews.

This decision is subject to recall at any time, but after reading this review in The Observer, I just don't think I can match it.

Mind you, TripAdvisor did think long and hard before they posted the follwoing review of the 'Elephant and Castle' in Chicago.

The background:
We were there in April 2011, it was bitterly cold and raining, and this place was just around the corner from the hotel.  Chicago has some marvellous nosheries, so we thought the standard would be OK.

How wrong we were:

The review:

Avoid this place like the plague if you have any experience of Britain. This is British for the Disneyland set.

The chips (they called them "fries", even while trying to exude Britishness) were soggy, the 'Union jack burger' was dry, they wanted to supersize my salad, the Guinness tasted as though it was watered, and while sold as a pint, felt quite small and light--and the worst was the muppet cashier who stood, less than a pace away, regaling a friend with tales of her uncle's sleep disorders, her dreams, and other delights, right through our meal. these details were all delivered in tones and at a volume that caused GBH to my left earhole.

The waiter was offended when I explained the paucity of the tip. I hope he had the gumption to pass on my complaints.

Run away! Find greasy spoon caff! Little Chef, come back--all is forgiven!

* * * * *

This meal did not get slammed!
I realised later that these people were so authentic that the Guinness was pre-poured, and served in a US pint glass, 16 ounces instead of 20.

I also got snarky with one Fish and Chip place at Port Stephens, but my comments weren't in the same class as the Quattro Passi review.

I also say nice things about deserving places, and you can see all my reviews here.

Among others, I liked these eateries and said so: Fez   RomeZagreb, Manly.

All things considered, I think I will keep saying nice things about good places while I finish the remedial classes in vitriol quaffing.

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Friday, 5 September 2014

More falling standards

Some time ago, I posted a selection of newspaper fulminations about falling standards, some of them almost a hundred years old. I mentioned that in my last post, and that reminded me of something I had seen.

Here is another carry-on, in this case, taken from Scientific American, March 8, 1862, page 146. The introduction tells us that the piece was lifted from some other journal, and the context makes it clear the journal was British.

The Barbarism of Steel Pens.

I am aware, says a recent writer, that it may be very fairly said that if a man is green enough to be induced by any representations of seller or advertiser, to make his coffee with a windlass, and shave himself with a stone, the only verdict he can expect from an intelligent jury is "served him right;" but look at another invention, under the tyranny of which we all groan more or less, but which very few have the strength of mind to resist. 

Has not the curse of steel pens swept over the land until decent handwriting (sic!) is almost unknown? Do not ninety-nine persons in a hundred use steel pens, and has more than one out of the ninety-nine the effrontery to say he can write with them? Lord Palmerston was quite right—the handwriting of this generation is abominable; and as new improvements in steel pens go on, that of the next will be worse. 

The fine Roman hand of the last century has died out; the steel can’t do it. There is neither grace nor legibility in the angular scrawl that prevails now. Open any parish register of fifty years back, and see in what a fine legible hand, and scholar-like too in most cases, the parson of that day made his entries. Our present young parson, though he took a first-class at Oxford, and wears a most correct waistcoat, doesn’t do it, and couldn’t do it if his benefit of clergy depended on it.
The dropping of standards seems to be a perennial complaint! Yet all I can say is that when I meet young people, I find standards often higher than mine. Consider this case study from lunch last Wednesday:

I was talking with some bright 11-year-olds over lunch on Wednesday. In passing, I mentioned, in an off-the-cuff provocative line, the pleasure in eating deep-fried small fluffy animals.

As children of that age do, they loved the idea of being naughty like that but challenged me to explain why the fluffy animals needed to be deep-fried. This sort of challenge gets the creative juices going, because I had no back story, but I found one.

My first attempt was to say that the batter stopped the fluffy animals from tickling my throat when I swallowed them.

On mature reflection, I have now added a second line: that I enjoy battering small fluffy animals, and given that, I will now work on finding a third. If and when I do, it will find a place in the book I am doing at the moment.

But I wouldn't have hot there without provoking a challenge from bright young minds. Life on the edge is SO rewarding — unless you are a small fluffy animal.

Hmmm. I'm short and bearded.

Catch you later, because I feel a sudden but overpowering urge to shave.

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Thursday, 4 September 2014

Favourite books

Today, I responded to one of those chain-letter things on Facebook.  I had to name ten books that had knocked my socks off. I started reading when I was about four, and books were my constant friend and refuge as a lonely only child with parents who were really not cut out for the job of raising a child.

It worked doubly, because in my constant campaign to win their approval for anything I did, the only thing that they ever approved of was my reading, probably because it kept me quiet and out of the way.

They would order me to attend Sunday school at a church they never went near, just to get me out of the house. That was fine: for many years, I always took a book with me "to read on the bus".  If I had been at home, I would have been ordered to "do homework" or "study", but on my own, I could pursue interests and gain an education.

You see, I would go out the door at the right time, but most Sundays I went to a suitable bus shelter away from where I might be seen. I sat there, read and came home again at the appointed time.  My parents never knew that unless the weather was bad, I went nowhere near the terminal boredom they thought I was getting.

In my teens, I was kept supplied with books even though my local library charged sixpence a book for fiction, when I had a ten books a week habit, by a kind librarian who explained about the books with LF on the spine, meaning literary fiction. Those, she told me, were free, as were non-fiction.

Parents, and I guess librarians, have no idea what effects their actions will have.

I noted many more than ten books that knocked my socks off, but these ones made the most lasting impressions, at various times:

1.  Gödel Escher Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter;
2.  The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas;
3.  Finnegans Wake, James Joyce;
4.  The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins;
5.  On being the Right Size, J. B. S. Haldane;
6.  The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow;
7.  Freedom on the Wallaby, Poems of the Australian People;
8.  Beetles Ahoy! Ada Jackson;
9.  Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens;
10. While the Billy Boils, Henry Lawson.

There is a thread of radical social responsibility there, and also a deep interest in science, neither of which would have pleased my parents who were both conservative in politics and ignorant of science.

I wonder now if my choices were made as a way of kicking over the traces,

Those books made me a human who cares about science, justice and truth, but number 11, 'On the Shoulders of Giants' by Robert K. Merton made me care about communicating those ideals, even if four sociologists, who should have known better, once cited it as 'On the Shoulders of Grants'.

 I guess the authors needed a better proof roader. No, I'm sorry, I mean a better prof reader.

I know one thing: a smell checker wouldn't have picked that one up!

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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A pleasant lunch

Just back from 'Lunch with the Stars', an annual get-together arranged by the northern branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia.

I shared a table with students from Manly Vale Public School, who produced the most marvellous cake (highly unsuitable for men with white beards to eat!), based on two of my books.

Thanks, Mrs Poole and kids.

I met a large number of delightful young people there, and to those to whom I recommended looking for Julius Caesar, you are the ones I judged most likely to "get it". That is in the next entry, so scroll down a bit.

One of the themes I keep plugging here is the foolishness of prattling by older people about falling standards. There were none of those visible here, though admittedly, these were picked kids.  One question that I was asked and failed to adequately answer in the hubbub was a perennial: advice to young writers.

1. Write about stuff that you find interesting.

2. The 11 Rs: Read, Reflect, Research, (Ar)range, (W)Rite, Revise, Revise again, Read (aloud), Revise (once more) and Revise again, then Repeat. If you get more or less than 11, Remedial 'Rithmetic.

Two pages from my own notbook
3. Always carry a notebook. Leave the front four pages blank to add an index later, number each page, and leave a trail of breadcrumbs though the pages, so you can trace backwards or forwards.

Make your notes detailed enough so you can retrieve the thought years later. Make sure each page has a date and some sort of indication of what it's about.

Include full details of the source : title, author, page number and if it is a library book, which library it came from and the Dewey number.

This sort of detail takes time, but when you need it, it saves a huge amount of time.

4.  Write everything down.

5.  If, like me, you use spreadsheets to store ideas and quotes and notes, always use the same format, in case you want to merge data files later.

6.  Use the WC principle. That stands for Who Cares? If nobody cares, drop that bit, the fact, that sentence, that paragraph, that article, down the WC.

7.  Never be afraid to toss out the entire draft and start again, but always archive a few earlier drafts, just in case you lose everything.  I also keep key content files and a few drafts in a number of places:

* on the hard disc of my desktop (Windows/Intel) machine;

* on a USB thumbstick;

* on a stand-alone external hard-drive;

* in Dropbox, which immediately adds it to the three device below, but I also store it in the main files areas, independently of Dropbox;

* on my travelling Netbook, with a different build of Word and a different version of Windows;

* on my Macbook, on the principle that any Wintel-based nasty that gets the Netbook and the dektop will probably not clobber this; and finally

* on my Android tablet.

Yes, a waste of time — until the day you need it!

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Monday, 1 September 2014

A very cross Caesarean section

This is a set of fables which I originally planned to go in Sheep May Safely Craze, one of the three books I am working on right now, but they are a bit too serious for that. The other two books are fairly serious, but that cannot be said of the work being developed under Project Mad Sheep.


There was an Italian explorer in an area where, he was warned, the cannibals liked to eat Italians. Not relishing the prospect of a hot bath with relish, he took a beret with him, and wore it, passing himself off as Antoine, the French chef.

He told them the beret was what Frenchmen wore, so they would be protected from all afflictions.

The cannibals made him welcome, but one night, they produced a mummy in a toga, and when they unwrapped it, he saw that it was wearing a laurel wreath.

"Antoine", they said, "this is a very old Italian called Julius Caesar, and we were wondering if you could help us cook him.

Antoine (or Antonio, as he really was) found himself in a quandary. How could he cook a fellow-Italian?

Then he saw a way out. He took off his headgear and swapped it with Caesar's wreath.

The cannibals were curious. "What does this mean?" they asked.

"I come to beret Caesar, not to braise him."


In his early days, Julius Caesar was captured by pirates who held him to ransom. He was offended by the low hovel he was cooped up in, but he was even angrier about the low price they put on him. He swore he would come back and hang them all, which he did, all except for a few of them who had fled to Egypt, then across to the Arabian Gulf, where they stole a boat and sailed for the Pacific.

When Caesar found out that there were survivors, he set off in pursuit. Thanks to a navigation error and bad winds, he was once again captured by pirates near what is now Vanuatu.

They took him to a small atoll where they had settled, but they remembered the earlier encounter and its upshot. They told him he would have pleasant accommodation and they would set the ransom high enough to meet his approval.

"You'd better," he snarled. "And I want one of those little houses over the water, not this nasty little hut on the land."

They explained that there were no burés free, but asked him to wait in the hut, while they worked out the ransom and saw what they could do about his sleeping arrangements.

When a man came in, looking like an accountant, Julius said "Well? What ransom have you set for me?"

The man shook his head. "I come to buré Caesar, not to price him."


More news on Julius Caesar: he had a lot of eye trouble in Gaul, and called in a Druid to ask if they were using magic against him.

"We can't," the Druid answered. "It's against the Geneva Convention."

"What's that?"

"Something that hasn't happened yet," the Druid replied. "We do time travel, you know, but that could be handy. Now what's the problem with your eyes?"

"Double vision. One eye has an image higher than the other."

"Ah, there's a lot of it about at the moment. Has anybody punched you lately?

"Yes, Asterix got me with an upper cut."

"Yes, he does that. In that case, I think we might be able to help there, at a price. You'll have to leave Asterix alone..."

"Handy to have the excuse to stay away from him. Please do it."

The Druid explained that he would need to do some time travelling first, but he was back the next day, and Caesar had him ushered straight in, and the Druid wasted no time on ceremony.

"Well, Caesar, there are two solutions we can try. We can fit you with eye-glasses that bend the light like a prism and line your eyes up, or there were some quick dances that they will do in the Auvergne in the Auvergne in about 1700 years, and the jumping around could realign your eyes."

"I need a quick fix for this."

"Right, we'll do the two treatments in parallel. I'll send some chaps to see you."

An hour later, six serious Gauls arrived with black bags that looked more or less medical..

"Are you here to do the eye-glasses?"

They opened their bags and took out musical instruments, and the one that looked like Andre Rieu said:

"We come to bourrée, Caesar, not to prism."


Apparently, when Julius Caesar was in Britain, he tried a Druidical remedy for baldness. The druids were as surprised as he was delighted when their secret mixture (worm ash, ground millipedes, dog droppings, boar's urine and scorpion oil in honey, drunk, followed by decorating the pate with a fried egg with onions) actually worked.

"We should have left out the boar's urine," said the Chief Druid. "It's a nice tipple, and that was a good year."

"Naah," said his scribe, "he doesn't like anybody else taking the piss."

"Right then," said the Chief Druid, who was all for a quiet life, but just then, Caesar arrived unannounced at the temple. For a moment, it looked as though the quiet life was over, but the Roman was quite affable.

"With all this hair, now I need some tonsorial gear."

"You what?"

"Shears, clippers, scissors, razor, comb—something to cut my hair."

The Chief Druid saw a chance to win favour. "I have something rather interesting, if Caesar would care to step into what we call our sanctum sanctorum..."

"We use the same term."

"Fascinating! Right, well we may have just the thing--come on through." With that, the Chief Druid led him through the curtains and showed him a large meteorite with a pair of shears embedded in them. "This could be a very good day for you, Caesar. These shears are called Excalibur, and we believe that whoever can withdraw them from the rock will be the rightful ruler of Britain."

"Naah." Julius answered. "I come to borrow scissors, not to prise them."


Later on, Julius Caesar waged all-out cultural war on the Britons, with the aim of turning them all into Romans.

He called a meeting of his planning council to see what their progress was.

Music had been in the hands of a German auxiliary called Stockhausen, who explained that by introducing the Britons to the idea of using their lyres for percussion, he had reduced their number of workable instruments to almost zero. His new music had done the rest.

"Good," said Caesar. "What about poetry?"

A Scottish auxiliary called McGonagall raised his hand. "They were bringing in Irish mercenaries across in coracles to write nasty limericks. We sold them a load of used Delphic oracles and soaked up all of their boat-buying budget, then the oracles killed a lot of them because the oracles didn't like being put in the water. Just in time, too, given the themes they were exploring in the limericks, but poetry's under control."

Three other councillors broke in to talk about the themes in essays, pamphlets and plays, but Caesar waved them aside. "We'll deal with the prose stuff later. What about their cemeteries? We need to take control of those."

A Greek auxiliary named Charon chirped up. "They don't have cemeteries, Caesar, just barrows."

"What, you mean they wheel their dead around?"

"No, they call their burial mounds barrows."

"Right, we'll get to that in a minute, but think while we're talking about taking them over as sites for theme parks and public conveniences. Have we turned all the Druids' groves into temples?"

Crisis Graylingus (Chris Grayling to his friends, if ha had any), a sleek and nasty book burner, could stand it no more. "We need to talk about the prose and a couple of dangerous themes running through all the bodies or work, Caesar!"

"Later, Graylingus, later—I'll manage the agenda. Now, are the groves all converted?"

Graylingus subsided as an anonymous man at the end of the table replied. "All the groves have been opened up, burned, and covered with temples, Caesar."

"Good. That leaves just two items on the agenda." He gave Crisis Graylingus a stern look. "Now I come to barrow seizures, not two prose themes."


After he killed Julius Caesar, Brutus was beside himself with remorse.

"How could I have done it?" he said the centurion who took him in. "I must have lost my wits completely."

"It'll be all right," the centurion said. "We'll put you in a witless protection program, and send you forward in time, so you can forget."

The centurion consulted his notes. "There's just one slot available, and that's as a music arranger for a chap called André Rieu. It's a severe drop in status, but you should have thought of that before you went stabbing people."

Brutus accepted the move, but it wasn't a complete success, as he explained to his case officer at his one-year review.

"It's not easy, this arranging gig" he said. "I thought they were onto me when they called my work Brutal Music. I mean, what's a guy to do? They asked me to do Verdi, and it's all about stabbing, and it showed in my music. Then they gave me Wagner, and there was that sword Gram, then there was a sword called Nothung and Wotan's spear—it was hell."

"You should have tried something lighter."

"I did. I worked up some of Sullivan's music, but they used it for a ballet called 'Pineapple Paul', about a grenade-throwing pope…"

"Never heard of it…"

"That's a relief, but enough people did. Anyhow I moved on to Strauss, which ought to have been safe, but the first piece they asked me to work on was…"

"I think I can see what's coming. 'Wiener Blut', right?"

"Yeah, Viennese Blood. It was like they knew about me, see?"

"Look," said the case officer, "you need a break. We'll send you to America and you can work on Sousa marches in Illinois. Just choose the titles carefully."

So Brutus went to Champaign, Illinois, to the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, where he asked for full access to their holdings.

"We usually just provide a couple of scores at a time," the librarian told him. "Can you work with that?"

"Not really," he said. "You see, I have delved into Verdi, I have excavated Wagner, I have sifted through Sullivan and I have mined the works of Strauss. Now I come to burrow Sousa, not to peruse him."


That's all, folks — for now.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

The selling of PLATO

Caution: the following is quite long, and it is posted as an historic resource of interest to a small minority. It is here for evaluators, educators and number-crunchers who find fraud, forensic accounting and other dry stuff to be quite riveting.

This completes the fraud series that began with Keeping Savages in a Cage, and continued with Fraudo the Frog?.


In 1981, I was handed a proposal from the Control Data Corporation, and because of my known funny head for making numbers sing, I was asked to give it a once-over. The whole operation proved to be a fraud which I foiled by writing what was referred to as "the acid drops" in 1981. Basically, CDC tried to con four government departments into buying an outdated  computer-based education system called PLATO.  They delivered a thick wad of "evidence" which was a complete load of garbage, as I showed, and as they say in assassins' circles, I did so with extreme prejudice (hence "acid drops").

What I found is known in general terms in fraud circles, but it has never been fully documented: that is the reason why this is now posted.

My "acid drops" paper was marked for no further distribution, but a slime-bag of my acquaintance loudly praised PLATO in 1985 at the Australian Association for Research in Education.  I knew this bloke for a complete shonk who had harmed a friend of mine by stealing her credit (and to a lesser extent, my credit).

He needed to learn that this was not the best way to build your career.  So the following year I delivered my clinical demolition of PLATO to AARE, hoping he would be there, but he had skulked off back to England. My paper was delivered to a small circle of cognoscenti who basically nodded, and said "we thought as much".  The offer had been spurned, and nobody cared much any more,

I recently found the printed paper. The events happened more than 30 years ago, and I am applying the 30-year rule. I ran the paper through OCR the other night, and recovered it. Delightfully, in the same folder, I found the original "acid drops" paper, which I am sitting on, along with a large volume of evidence. If anybody is silly enough to even hint at legal action, they need to be aware that I can prove that some CDC people knew the claims were fraudulent but still made them. If you try to be a nuisance, I will escalate.  I can do that, you can't, and if you try, expect to pay for it.

In fairness, the known crooks were in America. I am quite certain the Australian CDC people were blissfully unaware that the evaluation studies they handed us were bogus. Even an idiot would not have handed over the data they gave me, because the proof that I predicted would be there was easy to find.

I have appended one (and one only) of the smoking guns at the end.

* * * * *

The paper begins:

This is the story of a meta-evaluation that was completed in 1981. The object of the evaluation was PLATO, a computer-based education system, as it was used to teach basic skills to adults, the object of this report is to show where the simplest enquiries can sometimes lead. The evaluation relied heavily on gain scores derived from standardised tests: we ought really to start with these, so that we are all talking the same language.

In the first place, we need to be sure that the standardised test used is appropriate. Preparing a standardised test is both difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. It also takes a considerable amount of time to do. Researchers commonly look around for a test which appears to ask the right sorts of questions, and which has been tried out on the same sorts of people as those under study in the research. If such a test can be found, then the researcher may report results such as "9% of the students performed at or above the 9th grade level" (most standardised test are developed in the USA.

But is a standardised test the best way of assessing the performance of an adult basic education student? Galen (1980) quotes Otto Ford (Teaching Adults to Read, 1967) as saying "Everyone agrees that an adult can be frightened away from a basic education program by testing. The informal inventory in the hands of a sensitive teacher has none of the formidability of standardised tests." The main thing to be said for a standardised test is that it is a convenient and quick method of gathering the data required for a study or evaluation.

A proper measure of reading ability would involve sitting down one subject with an experienced teacher who would watch the subject read, listen to the subject reading, and ask questions of the subject, all before making an informed decision. A standardised test simply poses a set of (usually) multiple choice questions aimed at objectives which reflect reading ability. These indicators of reading ability are then used to allow us to make the (usually safe) jump to the (usually correct) conclusion that we have direct information on the reading ability of the subject.

But this can come unstuck if the subject has been coached in those skills and those skills only which are tested in the test. In this case, the assessed reading ability (i.e., the score on the test) would be too high. Again, if we are studying "slow learners", the subject's testable skills may be exactly the ones in which he or she is having difficulty. If the subject has learned to compensate in some way for these difficulties in some roundabout way, then his or her scores will be too low: the deficiencies are still there, but they do not affect actual reading performance any more.

A gain score is calculated when a standardised test has been given twice, once before, and once after some form of instruction. To assist this, most standardised tests are available in two or more equivalent forms. The difference in grade equivalent score (or raw score, for that matter) is then calculated, and attributed to the intervention of some forms of instruction. In logicians' circles, this is known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, and held in low esteem as a form of proof. Stake goes further in his criticism:

"The testing specialist sees not one but at least four hazards attendant to the analysis and interpretation of learning scores: grade-equivalent scores, the “learning calendar", the unreliability of gain scores, and regression effects. All show how measures of achievement gain may be spurious. Ignoring any one of them is an invitation to gross " misjudgement of the worth of the instruction." (p 210)

Much of the evidence which we will consider later depends on the interpretation of gain scores. It will thus be instructive for us to consider each of Stake's objections individually.

The grade-equivalent scores objection

It often happens that a difference of one, two or three marks in raw score is equivalent to the gain typically found between one grade and the next. If this is the case, then we must be wary of gains which are due merely to chance effects, or to the acquisition of one minor skill.

The standardised test most frequently used in PLATO studies is ABLE: the Adult Basic Learning Examination. While I have not been able to obtain copies of the test itself, I have located reviews, and those are most revealing.

Hieronymus (1972?) comments in general terms about the shortcomings of Levels 1 and 2 of ABLE, detailing problem areas, and concluding "This general criticism applies to a somewhat lesser degree to all of the tests in the battery with the possible exception of reading.“

He then goes on to criticise the reading test:

“The reading tests consist of short passages, in which the last word in most sentences is missing and must be selected from three alternatives. For this reviewer, this type of reading test has some serious shortcomings. Most of the passages consist of two or three sentences interrupted by missing words. The examinee must use the context of the remainder of each sentence to select the word which best fits the context. This type of item does not recognize the multi-faceted nature of reading comprehension. No emphasis is given to such skills as generalization, discerning the main idea, evaluating the purposes, attitudes, or intentions of the writer, etc "

Fry (1969) also finds fault with the test on these grounds:

"…there are only four items which cover the grade range 5.0-5.8, while three items cover the eighth grade. Hence, I believe that the man who wrote the front page and probably the advertising copy for this test should state that Level I is most suitable for testing groups with first- and second-grade ability and Level II is suitable for students with third- eighth grade ability with much greater discrimination at the lower end.

But Fry is also critical of the Level II arithmetic test:

"…Test 4, Arithmetic Problem Solving for Level II of the ABLE has a total of twelve items which give a grade level range of 3-9. This means that the student can gain or lose 1/2 year by simply getting one more item right or wrong."

Hall (1968) has a further criticism:

"Although the examiner is told that guessing is to be encouraged and no "correction formula" is to be used, the instructions to examinees are not sufficiently explicit on this point.“ (p271)

An even more serious problem is implied by the data disclosed by Nafziger et al: (1975):

"Reliability: split-half (odd-even) reliability coefficients adjusted by the Spearman-Brown formula are reported for grade 3 of the school group (.87 for vocabulary, .93 for reading, .95 for spelling), grade 4 of the school group (.89 for vocabulary, .93 for reading, .95 for spelling), the Job Corps group (.85 for vocabulary, .96 for reading, .96 for spelling) and a group of adult basic education students (.91 for vocabulary, .98 for reading, .94 for spelling)."*

[Footnote interpolated here, it having appeared at the foot of the page: * The context of Nafziger et al. is ambiguous: coefficients quoted are probably only those for Level 1. If this is so, the problem mentioned is a problem no more. Only a study of the test can tell for sure.]

These results are outstandingly high, and may well have been obtained by having tests made up of paired items: in the absence of a copy of the test, this must remain as the most probable explanation. If this proves to be a correct surmise, then students would tend to advance by two-mark steps, giving even more rapid gains on the vocabulary, reading and spelling test than for Arithmetic Problem Solving.

A specific objection to the ABLE grade—equivalents must also be raised: they are second-hand. The grade—equivalents on the Stanford Achievement Test of an elementary school sample have been used as the basis for the ABLE grade—equivalents. Hall (1968) reports that the correlation between the Stanford Paragraph Meaning subtest and the ABLE editing Level 2 subject is .58. In the following paragraph, he comments that “the authors wisely urge that local norms be developed by ABLE users.“ (p.273)

The “learning calendar" objections

When standardised tests are administered to a norming population, this is done at one time of the year. It is then taken for granted that 0.1 grades are gained in each of the nine USA school months, with a further 0.1 grade gain over the three month summer vacation.

Unfortunately for this assumption, as far back as 1968, Beggs and Hieronymus showed that there is a distinct loss of performance on many tests of skills over the summer vacation. Losses of two grades were quite common, and the trend was rather more marked in students of lower ability. ‘This loss is obviously retrieved in the early part the new school year, and augmented by the year's growth. Any teacher who tests students at the start and end of the year should be able to show a gain of about three grades during the year.

It is instructive to ponder the possible results of this effect operating on adults who have been absent from school for some years.

The unreliability of gain scores

Stake demonstrates that when two tests have reliabilities of 0.84, and correlation of 0.81, these being typical good values (but compare them with the figures for ABLE on page 61), the reliability of the gain scores will be 0.16.

The regression objections

The phenomenon of regression to the mean has been known for a century or so, but never sufficiently widely. when things vary, there are usually two main sources of variation. There are systematic causes, such as heredity, treatment, intelligence and so on, and there are chance factors such as assignment of teachers, diet, "luck of the draw“ and so on.

Now in any test, some individuals will be at the high end of the distribution: this is because both the chance and the systematic factors have favoured them. Similarly, those at the "bottom of the pile" are there because both chance and systematic factors operated against them. If we take the "top" group and test them again, the chance factors (which are completely independent of the systematic factors) will, on average, neither advantage nor disadvantage the group.

Some will be favoured, some will suffer. But on the first test, most of them were favoured: that is how they ended in the top group. So the end result is that the "star" performers have given clear evidence of falling standards of exactly the sort that demagogues love to write. Or have they? Down at the bottom, the low group have shown an equivalent improvement. This is just the sort of growth that educational do-gooders love to clasp to their bosom and claim for their own.

We have now reached (I hope) that happy point where we may consider the claims and offers about PLATO that were laid before the educational community, confident that we have some the necessary gains of salt ready at our sides.

* * * * *

The marketing of PLATO passed in the late 70s to Control Data Corporation, and rather than just marketing the idea, CDC wished to sell programs as well as terminals and processing. The content area chosen matched a perceived need: basic skills, mostly for disadvantaged students of one sort or another.

Most of the studies seem to have involved one or more Control Data personnel, as do most of the available public documents. Through the good offices of Ms Lane Blume, Control Data Australia, I have been able to obtain a bound set of photocopies of what appear to be the papers collected by Dr Peter J Rizza, educational consultant to the Control Data Education Company at Minneapolis.

Some of these papers have authors, some do not. One is even labelled ‘NOT FOR PUBLICATION OR ATTRIBUTION" (Study 3).

The papers total more than 300 pages, are incomplete, and quite possibly out of chronological order. I can only attempt to draw selections from these and the matching public documents, in the hope that a pattern will emerge. These papers deal with the PLATO system, as it was used to present the Basic Skills Learning System, or BSLS. These are supposed to be adult materials, but are they?

In January 1979, David F. Fry, Supervisor of Instructional Systems, wrote to Rizza and commented:

“Looking at the total BSLS package from the viewpoint of an instructional developer who has been shown the advertising claims and statements, I was a little disappointed. You should tell the brochure writers not to claim "multi-media package“ when the only other media provided is [sic] at best secondary and motivational. The texts were never "prescribed" nor were the video tapes, except for the first one. In my opinion the video tapes should not be used for adults. My students were embarrassed and uneasy when viewing the tapes. I had to use them in groups because the program never referred to them. The workbooks provided practice in working the problems, but were not adequate as alternate methods of instruction. They should be rewritten.“ (p.201)

This appears to imply that the materials were originally written for children: could it be that Control Data learned to hanker after a more lucrative market? Rizza and Caldwell are quite specific about the target, but while their paper is undated (other than a non-committal “1979"), the evidence of the ERIC Clearinghouse number implies a date late in 1979 (a point which will be reintroduced later in this paper).

Rizza and Walker-Hunter, dated January 1979, and so writing before Fry's letter, say the target population may be found “in a variety of settings: adult basic education centres, correctional institutes, and unemployment lines". Here we see less emphasis on an adult-centred system. Two of the major evaluation projects which were carried out in 1978 were centred on the use of BSLS in schools in Baltimore City and Florida. The claim that BSLS was written for adults does not appear to be wholly proven.

Study 1 in the CDC papers is actually a report on two studies carried out with adult learners in Baltimore City. Most, but not all, of the students showed gains in both reading and maths. 0f the 11 students who had completed the PLATO reading course, all had gained, with a mean gain of 0.8 grades. This is a depressed estimate, as two students in the post-test had reached the Grade 9 ceiling of the Level 2 ABLE test. The 13 students who had not completed also had a gain score of 0.8 grades, also a depressed estimate, for the same reason. On average, the non-completers had completed less than two of the five units on reading. If linear growth were predicated, this would imply an overall growth of 2.2 grades. The alternative possibility is that a Beggs and Hieronymus effect is working.

In mathematics, the completers performed better than the non-completers, and the relationship was roughly linear. The completers had gained 1.8 grades, the non-completers had gained 1.2 grades with two-thirds of the work completed. As the mean entry score of the completers was 6.3, and the mean entry score of the non-completers was 4.8 (grades), this result is surprising. Caldwell and Rizza (1979) state that the approach adopted by BSLS is a mastery one. If this is so, then all performers should come out at the same level, and so the lower group should show a greater gain. Of the 27 non-completers, 5* showed losses, one showed no gain, and four showed gains of less than 0.2.

[* The numeral 5 was missing in the presented paper in the previous line, but was found in the "acid drops".]

A summary of attrition levels is fairly impressive: of 135 enrollees, 8 are described as "dropped", while another 23 left under "extenuating circumstances“ (which are not defined). This is good, although possibly attributable in part to the novelty value of computer learning. Rizza and Walker-Hunter (1979) clearly see this as a strong point: "Attendance was good; the drop-out rate was only 6 percent…".

Study 3 (there is no study 2) also looks at the Baltimore Adult Learning Centre, and was received by Peter J Rizza (according to a stamp on the title page) on ' March 23, 1979. This is after the publication of Rizza and walker—Hunter (1979), and so it is not quoted there. The main interesting feature of this study is that some of the post-test scores exceed 9.0. A footnote on each page of the results tells us that

“Post-test scores of 9.0+ were estimated at the rate of 0.15 grade-level increase for each raw point above 53“. This did not need to be done with pre-test scores, since all students over 8.5 grades have been deleted from the study, and thus probably boosting the regression effect. The gain-scores are swelled by about 10% by this approach.

Study 4 is also on the use of PLATO in Baltimore, but this time, the users were school pupils in 7th grade. On page 90—a, we read "For 107 seventh graders, who averaged only thirteen hours each on PLATO, a mean gain score of 5.7 was found. (This was a raw score gain in terms of number of correct problems out of forty.)"

The test used was the Baltimore City Proficiency Test, and it was administered to all of the city's 6th and 8th graders, who showed gains of 4.5 and 3 respectively. (“The seventh grade test was not given system wide, so seventh grade comparison figures were not available ") If this means what it says, a separate test was used on each grade, so that gain scores cannot in any way be compared. And even if the same test is used, we do not have the norms to tell us what to expect of 7th grade. The author(s) use a t-test to show that the 7th grade result is significantly different from the 6th and 8th grade.

Page 95 shows us that students who had completed more of the PLATO course had higher gain scores. The possibility that both are influenced by some other factor (mathematical ability?) is not discussed.

One thing that can be said for this study is that there is probably not a Beggs and Hieronymus effect operating: the pre-test was in November, two months into the school year. In this context, it is curious to note that

“…almost all math students spent the majority of their time working to improve whole number skills. The forty-problem proficiency test used as the measure of achievement contained only four problems that required straight-forward whole number computational skills.“

A second paper appears to refer to the same study, but there are minor differences in the numbers. There are now 96 7th graders using PLATO, and their gain score is 6.13. There is also a control group of 47 with a gain score of 7.73 (in statistical terms, this is not significant: p = .14).

Results are also available for a senior high school group. The gain score for the control group was 3.11, while for the PLATO group it was 1.67. The PLATO gain appears to have come from the improvements for a few poor individuals:

The table, taken from the AARE paper.
Neither of these negative results is quoted by Rizza and Walker-Hunter (1979) or Caldwell and Rizza (1979). It should be stressed that these results are negative in that they do not show that PLATO instruction is significantly better; although they tend in that direction, these results do not show that PLATO instruction is significantly worse.

Study 5, on the other hand, is quoted (in part at least) by both Rizza and walker-Hunter and Caldwell and Rizza:

"Students at Stillwater gained an average of 1.6 grade levels in reading achievement and 2.16 grade levels in mathematics as measured by ABLE. Statistical analysis showed that gains in reading were significant even with small number of cases. (p .06)." (Rizza and Walker-Hunter, p.23).

Caldwell and Rizza supply this table:

The table, taken from the AARE paper.
These results refer to reading only, and several things need to be said. In the first place, the Stillwater control group consisted of three individuals, while the experimental group consisted of 5. Secondly, the PLATO group contains two individuals with post-test scores in excess of 9.0. Park's bibliography lists the Adult Basic Learning Examination as the only test used, and the date is given as 1967. This precludes the possibility that the more recent ABLE Level 3 was used as a post-test, so there appears to be no justification for scores greater than 9.0. Interestingly, 2 of the 3 members of the control group reached 9.0, but did not progress beyond, while the third member lost ground in both reading and mathematics. The gain must be reduced to a more conservative 0.7+.

The mathematics gain of 2.16 must also be reduced, since post-test grades of 12.4 and 10.1 appear. The best estimate becomes 1.26+.

Before leaving Caldwell and Rizza's table, it is worth quoting Park. Perhaps this explains the zero gain score for the "Fair Break" group:

“The Fair Break group all had access to terminals and the teachers were unable to provide facilities for a control group." (p.147) and “There were no controls in the Fair Break Learning Center..." (p.148).

[Interpolated comment: at this point in my presentation, I raised my eyebrows and said, very slowly, "There was no control group."  My audience got it, and I guess if you have read this far, you will have got it as well.]

* * * * *

In Rizza and Walker—Hunter (dated January 1979, hence written in late 1978) we read: "At the Adult Learning Centre and the Fair Break Learning Centre, adults referred by city training programs were able to achieve measurable progress in both reading and math. Due to the lack of a control group, it was difficult to show the gains to be statistically significant." (emphasis added)

Park also undertook a similar small study at willow River, with 7 in the PLATO group and 3 controls. This produced anomalous results, and this may be why neither Rizza and Walker-Hunter or Caldwell and Rizza reported it. The PLATO students lost 0.3 grades in reading while the controls gained 0.2. The PLATO students gained 0.5 grades in mathematics while the control group gained 0.36. The total time given over to study for all students appears to have been only about six hours. One PLATO group pre-test score is stated as 9.2, but this not explained.

The Fair Break study has already been mentioned in the context of the control group that never was. The raw data make interesting reading, especially in the context of an internal Control Data memo from Peggy Walker-Hunter to Peter Rizza which is attached. A copy of Park's Table 4 is also attached.

The second paragraph tells us that Level 3 of ABLE was in fact used in the Fair Break project as a post—test, but not as a pre-test: " is still impossible to establish a grade level gain when the pre test is inaccurate." Again, in paragraph 3 we find that times were not recorded for the St Paul students: "...staff had to look at group records and guess at the amount of time spent in each curriculum. In some cases, it was just too difficult to determine,". No blanks appear in Park's Table 4, and the same figure (11 hours) is quoted by both Rizza and Walker-Hunter (published January 1979) and Caldwell and Rizza (1979, no month, but submitted to ERIC in late 1979, on the basis of clearinghouse accession numbers). Walker—Hunter's memo is dated 7th March, 1979.

[Interpolated comment: I was also submitting material to ERIC in 1979, and I kept meticulous records of my submissions, and as I had my (and Caldwell and Rizza's) accession numbers, I had a very good idea of submission dates. One of my submissions went off by air mail from Australia in late 1979, and their paper had a higher accession number, so it arrived later. These are the trivia that catch shonky operators out.]

In paragraph 4, Walker-Hunter writes "...there emerge only eight students with accurate pre- and post-test scores and time data in reading." (This was from a starting total of 38.) Then in paragraph 5, we read

"In view of this situation, I simply determined the average entry and exit level of the students (eliminating those with “9+" scores either pre or post) and computed the average grade level gain, ignoring time on task altogether.

The table, taken from the AARE paper.

There are several notable things in this quotation. The eight become fourteen, probably because time data have been ignored. And the post-test reading mean is 9.15, when all individuals over 9.0 have been deleted. "

It appears impossible to reconcile Walker-Hunter's quoted calculations with the results which are appended to her memo, or to Park's Table Four. Park's eight students would not, one would expect, have time data which are valid. There are seven students so noted in Walker-Hunter's data. Park's participant 3 appears to be Walker-Hunter's 022, and Park's 6 appears to be Walker-Hunter's 001. If this is so, then why are Park's pre-test scores given as 9.0 instead of 9.0+? Park's 8 looks a bit like 005, Park's 1 is like 009, her 5 could be 013, possibly her 7 is 002. But there are discrepancies, and the match gets worse as we proceed.

Rizza and Walker-Hunter had claimed

"Students gained an average of 1.8 grade levels in reading and 2.6 grade levels in mathematics. Both gains were statistically significant." (p.23)

This is much better than Walker-Hunter's 0.62 and 1.9, figures which do not seem to have been made available in any scholarly or promotional publication.

Interestingly, Caldwell and Rizza comment on the Stillwater and Fairbreak projects: "Each site utilized approximately twenty (20) students. .". Park's Table 2 (p.157) and Table 4 (p.159) shows that there are results for only eight (8) students in each case.

The most important point, though, is the discrepancy between the "experimental" and "control" groups in the Stillwater project. The "control" group had a significantly poorer performance on the mathematics pre-test (p = .008) than did the "experimental" group, even though the numbers were so small.

Study 7 was the work of Fairweather, which we encountered briefly. His most biting criticism was over hardware issues, but he also had doubts about the suitability of the material:

"Repeatedly, certain inmates needed convincing that the Basic Skills materials were designed for adults and that they were part of a continuum that led to the high school equivalency certificate. Although the inmates responded well to the animations the benefits of the graphics were offset by the perception that the materials were inappropriate for study by adults." (p.179)

This is one study which recognises the "...problems involved in using gain scores to evaluate a project of this sort..." (p181) but pleads that "...he did not have time to design a mancova program." (p.181).

One of the most unusual aspects of this study is that the researcher calculated a series of regression equations to fit PLATO study time to learning gains. The clear implication of these equations on page 183 (copy attached) is that one gains about one and one half grades on each of reading vocabulary and spelling before even touching the keyboard! In the case of spelling, a loss is incurred which increases with exposure to PLATO. If we ignore bizarre temporal theories, we are left with two possibilities. Geof Hawke (pers. comm.) argues that the linear regression model is probably wrong, and if it were correct, it ought to be forced through the origin. My own view is that the y-intercept indicates the operation of the Beggs and Hieronymus effect in adult learners. In view of the short term involved, natural maturation may be rejected.

Study 9 relates to remedial mathematics for college students unable to meet college requirements. An existing program, using hand-held calculators. The challenge to PLATO here was to match the results of a well-thought—out program designed to meet certain objectives which might not be found in the BSLS system. The result was that PLATO came off second-best, except in the area of ABLE word problems in arithmetic. (It has not previously been mentioned that there are two separate ABLE arithmetic scales.)

This was curious, in that the "Calculator Basic" students were drilled in word problems, while the PLATO students were drilled in computation.

This report does not offer sufficient data for any real analysis, but it appears that when pre-determined objectives are to be taught, PLATO may prove relatively inefficient.

Studies 10 and 11 relate to schools use, and have no data of note.

In conclusion, at the time of my study, there was not one study which compared PLATO with an equally expensive traditional system. There was not one study in which a properly controlled comparison took place. There was not one study which was written up, complete with data, in the professional literature. And there was not one valid study showing PLATO to be better than traditional approaches. The potential is there, but I do not believe that it has yet been realised.


Beggs, Donald L., and Hieronymus, Albert N., Uniformity of growth in the basic skills throughout the school year and during the summer. Journal of Educational Measurement 5(2), 1968, 91-97.

Caldwell, Robert M and Rizza, Peter J. A Computer Based System of Reading Instruction for Adult Non-readers. ED 184 554, 1979.

Control Data Corporation: Basic Skills Learning System: Evaluation Report: May 1979. (No other details supplied.)

Fairweather, Peter (1978): See Control Data Corporation.

Fry, Edward 8., untitled review, excerpted in Buros, O.K., The Seventh Mental Measurements Year book. New Jersey: The Gryphon Press, 1972.

Fry, David F. (1979); See Control Data Corporation.

Galen, Nancy: Informal Reading Inventories for Adults: An Analysis, Lifelong Learning: the adult years, 3(7), 1980, 10-14.

Hall, James N., The Adult Basic Learning Examination. Journal of Educational Measurement, 5(3), 1968, 271-274

Hieronymus, A. N. Review of Levels 1 and 2, Adult Basic Learning Examination in Buros, O.K., The Seventh Mental Measurement Yearbook. New Jersey: The Gryphon Press, 1972.

Nafziger et al. Tests of Functional Adult Literacy: an Evaluation of Currently Available Instruments. Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, 1975.

Park, Rosemarie ( ): See Control Data Corporation.

Rizza Peter J. and walker-Hunter, Peggy, New Technology Solves an Old Problem: Functional Illiteracy. Audiovisual Instruction 24(1), 1979, 22-23, 63.

Stake, Robert E. Measuring What Students Learn, in House, Ernest R. (ed.) School Evaluation: The Politics and Process, Berkeley: McCutchen Publishing Corporation, 1973, pp. 193-223.

Walker-Hunter, Peggy (1979): See Control Data Corporation.

The above material is a lightly-edited and annotated version of a paper delivered to AARE in 1986 in Melbourne. Tables are taken from original material in my possession.


This text was converted from the paper read to AARE using OCR, and in a late stage of checking, the phrase "post hog ergo propter hog"  was detected. After a struggle with my conscience (I decline to say who won), I amended this.  I remain uncertain that the initial version was not more apposite, and I suspect this may well be the view of the majority of those who have read my account of such an inept and fraudulent evaluation.

Not convinced?

By the way, if you were involved and you are thinking of taking legal action, this is just a small sample of what you will have to justify. I have left your name out, for now, but that doesn't mean I don't know it. If you take action in any way whatsoever, to annoy me, I will mount a truth and public benefit defence and name you.
The choice is yours, the pleasure will be mine.

Here is a table that will show you what went down, and as a sample of what I hold. If you know your numbers, this shrieks. If you don't, look at the average of the reading pre-test scores, look at the alleged gain scores of participants 1, 2 and 4. This was either incompetent or fraudulent, and letting the raw data out shows gross stupidity.

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Fraudo the Frog?

This was the very first Ockham's Razor talk that I ever did, back in 1985, as near as I can recall — I wrote it on my trusty Commodore PET, with 32k of RAM. I found something odd, rang Robyn Williams, expecting that he would do an interview with me, and instead he asked me to write a script. "If it goes 13 minutes and 20 seconds, we'll use it in Ockham's," he said. "If it;s longer or shorter, we'll use it in the Science Show."

It seems that with intro and outro and other bits, the ideal time for a 15-minute talk is 13 minutes and twenty seconds: for a fast talker like myself, that is about 2300 words: enough to develop a reasonable thesis, and so I have been drawn, over the years, to return to the format, over and over again. But this one has always been a favourite: it appeared in the second collection of Ockham's talks that was printed, in 1987. I have slowed down my delivery rate a bit over the years, so I now aim for 2150 words,

This is the second of a short series on fraud that I am posting to close out August. The first was on a hoax that I pulled — there is a family relationship between hoaxes and frauds, the difference being the intent of the perpetrator. The third is an account of a major fraud that I uncovered in 1981, which I am publishing under the 30-year rule, later this week. A fourth case study covers my use of hoaxing to counter a fraud in 1985, not long after this piece went to air. That one will not be released until next year, again under the 30-year rule. There was one other case. That one involved criminal actions and some violence (not to me). It will never appear in print, but I can occasionally be coaxed to expound on it over a beer, if only to explain why I went into a safer line of business.
  * * * * *

All tribes have their myths. The young are brought up on these myths, and they are expected to live by these myths. The strongest of all the myths of the Science Tribe is the one about the Scientific Method. The elders say that a scientist starts out with a particular idea or rule about how things work, variously called a Theory, a Law, a Principle, an Hypothesis, or even a Conjecture.

By careful consideration, the scientist is then able to make certain predictions about what will happen if the idea is right, given some new assumption. Then all that is needed is a couple of quick experiments to see how the scientist's predictions stand up. Before long the rule, along with its assumptions, can be judged, and given either the All-Clear, or the Order of the Boot.

Not that the All-Clear necessarily means that the rule is correct, they explain. All we can really say is that such-and-such seems a bit more likely, or seems to be an acceptable approximation. Newton's Laws are still Laws, Einstein notwithstanding, because Newton lets us send rockets to the Moon, Mars, Halley's Comet, and beyond, without needing to say, "left hand down a bit to allow for relatively".

In the real world, the myths don't work. Laws don't spring, fully-formed, from the sweaty brows of scientists. Laws start out with somebody doing a bit of data-snooping.

Data-snooping involves making lists of measurements, and poring over them to see if there is any mathematical relationship or pattern or trend that might give us a hint about the rule that lies beneath the measurements. We assume that there is some rule, but in the absence of any real knowledge, we must try all the tricks.

Measured values, their squares and cubes, square roots and cube roots, their products, progressions, logarithms, sines, tangents, and other exotic mathematical functions are all thrown in, even fractions involving combinations of functions. Heavy stuff, but well worth it, if only we can make a breakthrough.

If there is a pattern, the next step is to explore the relationship further. Are there any missing values in the range of values studied? Can we extrapolate beyond the range? If we can, we must predict some values, and then go looking for them.

Johann Balmer did this when he found a relationship linking four of the hydrogen lines in the visible spectrum. It seemed that there should be another line, right on the edge of the ultraviolet, a line of which he had no prior knowledge. When he checked, the predicted line was there, just where he said it would be, and Balmer's rather odd little equation was confirmed. Score one point to data snooping.

Sometimes, though, the confirmation can be misleading, as happened in the case of Bode's Law. Now before we start, Bode's Law isn't a Law, and it wasn't even Bode's: other people had said it before him. Those problems apart, it isn't a bad sort of Bode's Law: in fact, it is the best Bode's Law that we'll ever have.

Start with the numbers zero, one, two, four, eight, and so on, triple each number, add four, and then divide by ten. This recipe gave Bode a series of numbers that closely matched the orbits of the known planets, measured in astronomic units. One astronomic unit, of course, is the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Bode's values had no logical cause, there was one value with no matching planet, and there were slight discrepancies, but this was basic data-snooping, and the fit was quite impressive. Mercury is at 0.39, while Bode predicted 0.4, Venus is at 0.72, Bode predicted 0.7, and Earth is exactly at Bode's 1.0 position.

Mars is at 1.52, while Bode's Law says 1.6, there was nothing found at Bode's next point, 2.8, but Jupiter is spot on at 5.2, and Saturn is at 9.54, not far off Bode's value of 10 astronomic units. It seemed a terrible pity about that gap at 2.8. Maybe that was why most people ignored Bode's Law at first.

Then Herschel found Uranus 19.2 A.U. from the sun, close to Bode's next value, 19.6. So people looked at the gap between Mars and Jupiter again, and found the asteroid Ceres, at 2.77 A.U. Later, other asteroids were found, leading people to believe for a while that the asteroids were the remains of a broken-up planet.

Bode's Law, as I said before, is not a Law of Science. Even though it's an elegant pattern, and even though it predicted unknown events, both inside and outside the range of observations, Bode's Law was of no great use, and the pattern could not be tied in with any theory of Why Things Are.

Maybe we could ignore Neptune which fails to fit the pattern, squeeze Pluto into the next value, and look for Planet X at the value after that, but we don't. There seems to be no future in doing it, and it's hard to fiddle with figures which are accurately and publicly known.

That's the problem with data-snooping, though: there will always be a temptation to bend the facts. The data are often derived from experiments under the investigator's control, and if it helps to make the data fit better, well why not? We can even give it a more likeable name: let's call it fudging.

Now fudging can vary from unconsciously biased observation through massaging the data to outright fraud. Sometimes the fudging is legitimate, as when R.A. Millikan, of Oil-Drop Experiment fame, practised and practised until he got his technique right, and his results consistent. Millikan ignored his early results, and said so. You couldn't really say he cheated.

Mendel rejected one set of results, repeated the experiment, accepted the second set of figures, and said so. Mendel also fiddled mildly with a few other things and said nothing. However charitably you look at it, Mendel came perilously close to cheating.

Pierre Dulong
Dulong and Petit massaged their data, and faked some more. They said nothing about this: there can be no doubt at all that they cheated. This is a serious charge, so I shall devote the rest of this talk to proving my case.

Dulong and Petit came on the chemical scene in 1819 with a law that linked atomic weights and specific heats. All elements, they said in effect, had the same heat capacity, about 25 joules per mole per Kelvin. This was a useful approximation at the time, but it hasn't been needed much since about 1830. Maybe that's why their skulduggery has gone unremarked till now.

Their Law was useful in the 1820s because proper chemical theories needed the accurate atomic weights, or at least accurate comparative atomic weights. Structures, formulae, valency, the Periodic Table were all impossible until these basic values were worked out.

In the early days, the atomic weights of metals were determined by a variety of methods, including electrolysis of soluble salts, and the reduction of metal oxides to metals. The problem of multiple valencies meant that there were conflicting values available for a number of metals. Nobody knew which values to take: was copper twice as heavy as oxygen, or was it four times as heavy? There seemed to be no solution.

Up bobbed Dulong and Petit with a law that made the measurement of atomic weight a simple matter. The Gallic duo noted that specific heats were easy to determine, and advised that the product of atomic weight and specific heat was a constant for all elements. They even presented a table of values to show how this worked out.

Now their claim was better made for metallic elements: the only non-metal in their table was sulfur. On their data, it sort of fits, but with modern data, it sticks out like a sore thumb on the butcher's scales.

Their data are not immediately examinable: for one thing, the atomic weights are all given in terms of oxygen, which is taken to have a value of one. So when I started to examine Dulong and Petit's figures, I suspected nothing more than a bit of minor fudging, and I certainly found that quickly enough.

Putting it simply, where the product of atomic weight and specific heat is too low on modern data, Dulong and Petit's specific heat value is too high. Where the product is higher than the average, their specific heat value is too low.

This could be excused by saying that the measured values for specific heat in 1819 weren't fixed: even at the end of the nineteenth century, published values varied quite a lot. There are just two give-aways in the table, two uncontestable whistle-blowings that tell us what was really going on.

The first of these is the information on cobalt. This, we are assured, has a relative weight of 2.46, and a specific heat of 0.1498. Translating the relative weight, we get an atomic weight of about 39.36. That wasn't right, I thought, reaching for the CRC Handbook. Sure enough, it gives an atomic weight for cobalt of 58.93, almost 50% higher.

When I found this, I looked again at the specific heats quoted by Dulong and Petit and blow me down! the modern figure was only two-thirds the one they used. How fortunate they were, two cancelling errors like that! Curious, too, seeing that cobalt has valencies of 2 and 3, so that the error in the relative weight is almost, well, totally predictable. What a shame that the same can't be said for the error in the specific heat.

In 1981, I had the pleasure of unravelling a fraudulent set of evaluations of a computer-based education system, just at the time when I was first reading Eugene Kamin's marvellous expos‚ of Cyril Burt's work.

I came to the part where Kamin suggests that "a benign Providence appears to have smiled on Professor Burt's labours". I fell in love with the expression, and I had used several variations on it. Now seemed to be the time to revive that phrase. I started to look more carefully at the rest of the data.

I am not, I must confess, familiar with the chemistry of tellurium, and I wasn't really expecting another find. But there it was: the relative weight of tellurium, 4.03, gives us an atomic weight of 64.5, about half the accepted modern value of 127.6. And would you believe it? The specific heat had gone from today's .048 to .0912, almost double. Funny, that, especially as tellurium has valencies of 2 and 4.

I still can't explain why they had problems with cobalt: measuring its specific heat should be quite straightforward. But I think I can shed a bit of light on the tellurium problem. You see, tellurium is unpleasant stuff, and it gets absorbed through the skin, ever so easily. So do its compounds. And once you've absorbed the tellurium, you exhibit something that the CRC Handbook calls "tellurium breath". You smell of old garlic, and it lasts for months. So I wouldn't really blame any experimenter who chose to avoid tellurium in the lab, and no bad jokes about French food either, thanks.

So there we have it. Just to nail it home, I calculated the correlation coefficient of the specific heat fudge factors against the shift needed to get a perfect fit, and got a correlation coefficient of -.71, which is significant at the 1% level, and consistent with the other evidence.

I concluded that the two scientists massaged their data. They made two errors in atomic weights, each consistent with a wrong guess at the valency of a metal, and in each case, the specific heat was grossly wrong, and just happened to cancel out the errors. This was even less likely than the convenient little errors elsewhere. And if they guessed wrongly on cobalt and tellurium, how many of the other figures were just luckier guesses?

Overall, I think that their practices stink worse than tellurium breath, but does it matter? Their "Law" helped the early chemists to bypass with confidence a sticky problem, so even if they did cheat, it served a useful purpose. I can't help wondering, though: how many of our cherished and established facts of science were born of similar fraud?

Additional data, not in the talk, for obvious reasons

The things to look out for here, the tell-tale signs of cheating are in bold:

* the 'fudging' of the specific heats of lead and sulfur, to make them fit better, and

* the serious errors in the figures for tellurium and cobalt, matched by errors the other way in the specific heats.

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