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Monday, 20 October 2014

Crooked Mick and the drop bears

I've been busy, finishing a book that I will talk about here later, though my facebook friends know all about it, and are probably getting heartily sick of it.  Anyhow, here's something I prepared earlier...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There was one serious problem, back before the big flood, and that was the drop bears in the Speewah Ironbarks.  Now if you want to be really fussy, of course, they aren't bears at all, but a form of koala with a carnivorous habit.

Like the koalas, the drop bears are marsupials, with the same sort of pouch.  Funny thing is that the koalas and the drop bears both have a pouch that faces backwards.  The scientists say this is because they evolved from a sort of burrowing animal just like the wombat, which also has a backward-facing pouch.

I reckon Mick would've got the Sydney Harbour tunnel done easier if he'd used a couple of drop bears, if they can burrow, because their claws can rip into a Speewah Ironbark and slice through steel, but there's no reasoning with one of them—and even less chance of reasoning with two of them.

Back to the pouches though, a pouch like that makes sense in a wombat, because it digs burrows in the ground, but it seems just a bit odd in an animal that mostly lives in trees.  Anyhow, that's how the koala and the drop bear are, though the scientists at the museum are still arguing about whether the drop bear is more like a koala or a wombat.  Still, just goes to show that nature is sometimes a bit dumb.

The drop-bears are even dumber, when you come to it, and that was how Crooked Mick managed to get the problem under control, around the Speewah homestead area.  You see, ordinary drop-bears are usually only able to prey on small marsupials, things up to the size of an ordinary rabbit, but everything on the Speewah is big, including the rabbits and the drop-bears.

Some of them, from time to time, have been known to attack humans, using the same method that they use on small animals, even in the suburbs of the towns and cities along the east coast.  That is, they drop from a great height, and sink their razor-sharp canine teeth into the victim's throat, slashing the jugular vein, then they leap to one side, and wait for the victim to fall over.  As a matter of fact, I saw one try it in the Sydney Domain, round the back of Parliament House, one time, but it attacked a politician, and they're all bloodless anyhow.

Usually, the bears drink the victim's blood, but some of the more daring drop-bears on the Speewah had developed a taste for human flesh.  There are no two ways about it. They were man-eaters, though they seemed to prefer being woman-eaters and child-eaters, so people were pretty cranky about that.  We didn't mind too much when they just knocked off an overseer or two, but when they had a go at one of the shearers, we got good and cranky, I can tell you.

Anyhow, Crooked Mick knew a thing or two, and he knew how the original inhabitants of the area had solved the problem of drop-bears.  Walk through the area with two spears held vertically, one against each ear, and going well above the head, and make a sort of drop-bear kebab: that was how the Koori people used to deal with the problem.  In good times, Mick had been told, one stroll through a drop-bear grove, and you had a feast for the whole tribe, all neatly skewered on two spears.

Mick's first attempt was with a couple of crowbars, sharpened with a good stone, and that nearly did for him.  You see, he hadn't scaled up to a proper Speewah size.  The first two drop-bears on each side filled the crowbars up, and the ones that rained down after that bounced off their cousins on the crowbar, landed softly, and came in at Mick, spitting and snarling.

Luckily, Crooked Mick doesn't panic.  Nobody on the Speewah panics, but if anybody was ever going to, this would be the time.  There must have been a hundred of the things coming at him from all sides, crazed for blood: we were half a mile away, watching from out in the open, and we could hear the noise from there.

Anyhow, Mick stayed calm, and waving the two crowbars around, he flung off the four impaled drop-bears, which flew over our heads and off into the distance, and then ran straight at the live drop-bears, roaring and using the crowbars as two clubs.

Instead of stabbing, with the risk of getting the crowbars caught in the tough hides of the animals, he went through methodically, smashing the canines of each animal as it came within reach, rendering them harmless.  A few of them, disarmed in this way, retreated to the trees, but they were soon replaced by more drop-bears, drawn in by the noise and the smell.

Meanwhile, the boss and three of his mates had ridden up with rifles, and they opened up on the injured drop-bears on the ground.  They were good shots, so every now and then they dropped a bullet down the throat of a snarling animal and killed it, but most of the bullets just bounced off their hides.

That made it hard shooting for them, because they had to make sure a stray ricochet didn't get Crooked Mick.  Still, Mick was wearing a Speewah kangaroo skin vest and trousers, so he was about as safe as a knight in armour, from all but a really unlucky shot.

Anyhow, in the end, the drop-bears withdrew, still snarling.  There must have been four hundred dead ones, littered across the ground as we moved in with carbide-tipped chainsaws to skin them, and twice as many again, up in the trees.  We kept a good eye on them as we skinned the dead ones, I can tell you, but they seemed to have had enough for one day.

That night, Crooked Mick was busy in the smithy, clanging and banging away.  The Professor, who knew about these things, said it reminded him of Siegfried, who was a German bloke who killed drop-bears and things in some opera.  At least, I think that's what he said.  Anyhow, by daybreak, Mick had these two wicked-looking skewers, at least ten times his height, opening out into a broad sort of sword blade, which was as sharp as his axe, then flaring into a shield below that.

The boss came down about then, so Mick explained that the idea was to have the drop-bears impale themselves, slide down and be slice open on the sword part, and then be thrown to one side by the shield part.  The boss reckoned a few of the drop-bears would only be lightly wounded, but Mick pointed out that the wounds would make good targets for the riflemen, and give the bullets a way in.

Well, it worked a dream.  Mick went into the drop-bear groves, one by one, got nearly all of them with his bear-sticker, and the boss and his mates did for the wounded ones.  There were a few drop-bears left, the young ones which had not acquired a taste for human blood.  As Mick pointed out, it was only the ones which attacked him that died that day.

We were able to leave the groves further out alone, where the drop-bears weren't killers, and later, Mick even trapped a few adults and brought them in to ensure the survival of the species in the area, by providing a balanced population.  Like I say, he's a real softy, at heart.  Smart, but.

* * * * *

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.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Curtiosity about animal behaviour

And anatomy...

There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock . . .
— Holy Bible, Proverbs, 30:18-19

Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically, with an incredible display of bustle and pep, and at last achieve the desired result by chance. Animals studied by Germans sit still and think, and at last evolve the solution out of their inner consciousness.
— Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970

A curious case has been given by Prof. Möbius, of a pike, separated by a plate of glass from an adjoining aquarium stocked with fish, and who often dashed himself with such violence against the glass in trying to catch the other fishes, that he was sometimes completely stunned. The pike went on thus for three months, but at last learned caution, and ceased to do so. The plate of glass was then removed, but the pike would not attack these particular fishes, though he would devour others which were afterwards introduced; so strongly was the idea of a violent shock associated in his feeble mind with the attempt on his former neighbours.
— Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, John Murray, 1885.

The writer found that certain freshwater crustaceans, namely Californian species of Daphnia, copepods, and Gammarus when indifferent to light can be made intensely positively heliotropic by adding some acid to the fresh water, especially the weak acid CO2. When carbonated water (or beer) to the extent of about 5 c.c. or 10 c.c. is slowly and carefully added to 50 c.c. of fresh water containing these Daphnia, the animals will become intensely positive and will collect in a dense cluster on the window side of the dish. Stronger acids act in the same way but the animals are likely to die quickly. . . Alcohols act in the same way. In the case of Gammarus the positive heliotropism lasts only a few seconds, while in Daphnia it lasts from 10 to 50 minutes and can be renewed by the further careful addition of some CO2.
— Jacques Loeb (1859 - 1924), Forced Movements, Tropisms, & Animal Conduct, Dover edition of 1973, pp. 113 - 114.

Every family has a skeleton in the cupboard.
— Proverb

If I were a Queensland giant
With great big smelly feet,
I'd stomp on a Queensland cane-toad
And make my feet smell sweet.
— Duncan Bain (pseud.) (1944 - ) 'Cane toed', from Tad to Telegraph: a history of the Poles, Anura Books, 1983.

Social chaos is hell for the family and for those who have destroyed the family as well.
Bhagavad Gita, 1:43, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

Rembrandt van Rijn The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp
If anyone wishes to observe the works of Nature, he should put his trust not in books on anatomy but in his own eyes and either come to me, or consult one of my associates, or alone by himself, industriously practise exercises in dissection; but so long as he only reads, he will be more likely to believe all the earlier anatomists, because there are so many of them.
— Galen, quoted in Boorstin, The Discoverers, 346

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.
— Samuel Pepys (1633 - 1703), Diary (13 Oct, 1660),

Many right skilful masters in chirurgery, and the best learned anatomists, are of the opinion that the veins of the eyes reach to the brain. For mine own part, I would rather think that they pass into the stomach. This is certain, I never knew a man's eye plucked out of his head, but he fell to vomiting upon it, and the stomach cast up all within it.
— Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79) The Natural History, translated by Philemon Holland, page 132.

The animal machine is governed by three main regulators: respiration, which consumes oxygen and carbon and provides heating power; perspiration, which increases or decreases according to whether a great deal of heat has to be transported or not; and finally digestion, which restores to the blood what it loses in breathing and perspiration.
— Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743 - 1794), Traité de Chimie (1793).

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous form of things;
We murder to dissect.
— William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850), 'The Tables Turned'.
If we view a Porpess on the outside, there is nothing more than a Fish, but if we look within, there is nothing less.
— Anatomist Edward Tyson, 1680

The Bat and the Weasels 

A Bat who fell upon the ground and was caught by a Weasel pleaded to be spared his life. The Weasel refused, saying that he was by nature the enemy of all birds. The Bat assured him that he was not a bird, but a mouse, and thus was set free. Shortly afterwards the Bat again fell to the ground and was caught by another Weasel, whom he likewise entreated not to eat him. The Weasel said that he had a special hostility to mice. The Bat assured him that he was not a mouse, but a bird, and thus a second time escaped.
It is wise to turn circumstances to good account.
— Aesop, Fables.

To such a person my hope has been that my treatise would prove of the very greatest assistance. Still, such people may be expected to be quite few in number, while, as for the others, this book will be as superfluous to them as a tale told to an ass.
— Galen, On the natural faculties.

Legend also says that while he is supposed to have learned anatomy in Paris under the great master of his age, Sylvius, an apocryphal tale has it that Vesalius was heard to remark that the only time he ever saw Sylvius use a knife was to eat his peas. But that remains legend: what we know for a fact is that after Vesalius was done with his work, anatomy had to be a science of observation.

Philosophy, astronomy, and politics were marked at zero, I remember. Botany variable, geology profound as regards the mud stains from any region within fifty miles of town, chemistry eccentric, anatomy unsystematic, sensational literature and crime records unique, violin player, boxer, swordsman, lawyer, and self-poisoner by cocaine and tobacco.
— Dr Watson describes Holmes in The Five Orange Pips.

Geology is related to almost all the physical sciences, as history is to the moral. A historian should, if possible, be at once profoundly acquainted with ethics, politics, jurisprudence, the military art, theology; in a word with all branches of knowledge by which any insight into human affairs, or into the moral and intellectual nature of man, can be obtained. It would be no less desirable that a geologist should be well-versed in chemistry, natural philosophy, mineralogy, zoology, comparative anatomy, botany; in short, in every science relating to organic and inorganic nature.
— Sir Charles Lyell (1797 - 1875), quoted in A Thousand and One Gems of English Prose, selected by Charles Mackay, (19th century?).

Friday, 10 October 2014

Curtiosity about (scientific) education

Another collection if unused epigraphs and pithy comments from past times.

My schoolmaster had been a little too crude in his instructions. He had not been a scientific man, but only a teacher of science.
— H. G. (Herbert George) Wells (1866 - 1946), The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind, Heinemann, 1932.

As a schoolboy in London I learnt how sulphuric acid is manufactured, how time is measured at Greenwich, how soap is made, and how glass is blown — entirely from the teacher or the book, although all of these could have been seen at first hand within half an hour of the school. Adam saw the animals in the garden before he named them, but we (as Whitehead has said) named them before we saw them.
— Professor Eric Ashby, The Place of Biology in Australian Education, inaugural lecture, Sydney, 1939.

The true aim of the teacher must be to impart an appreciation of method and not a knowledge of facts. This is far more readily achieved by concentrating the student's attention on a small range of phenomena, than by leading him in a rapid and superficial survey over wide fields of knowledge. Personally, I have no recollection of at least 90 per cent of the facts that were taught to me at school, but the notions of method which I derived from my instructor in Greek grammar (the contents of which I have long since forgotten) remain in my mind as the really valuable part of my school equipment for life.
— Karl Pearson (1857 - 1936), The Grammar of Science, Everyman edition, p. 12n.

I find not any science that doth fitly or properly pertain to the imagination.
— Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626), Of the Advancement of Learning, second book, XI, 3, 1605..

In the circle where I was raised, I knew of no one knowledgeable in the visual arts, no one who regularly attended musical performances, and only two adults other than my teachers who spoke without embarrassment of poetry and literature — both of these being women. As far as I can recall, I never heard a man refer to a good or a great book. I knew no one who had mastered, or even studied, another language from choice. And our articulate, conscious life proceeded without acknowledgement of the preceding civilisations which had produced it.
— Shirley Hazzard, Coming of Age in Australia, Boyer Lectures, 1984, ABC Books, 1985.

In every respect but one, in fact, the old Mathematical Tripos seemed perfect. The one exception, however, appeared to some to be rather important. It was simply — so the young creative mathematicians, such as Hardy and Littlewood kept saying — that the training had no intellectual merit at all. They went a little further, and said that the Tripos had killed serious mathematics in England stone dead for a hundred years. Well, even in academic controversy, that took some skirting around, and they got their way.
— C. P. Snow (1905 - 1980), The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Rede Lecture, 1959.

T H Huxley, British Museum of
Natural History

Again, there is a fallacy about Examiners. It is commonly supposed that any one who knows a subject is competent to teach it; and no one seems to doubt that any one who knows a subject is competent to examine in it. I believe both these opinions to be serious mistakes . . . Examination is an Art, and a difficult one, which has to be learned like all other arts.
— Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895), 'Universities: Actual and Ideal', 1874, quoted in Cyril Bibby (ed.) The Essence of T. H. Huxley, Macmillan, 1967, p. 225.

Its so-called equipment is dirty and disorderly beyond description. Its outfit in anatomy consists of a small box of bones and the dried-up, filthy fragments of a single cadaver. A cold and rusty incubator, a single microscope, . . . and no access to the County Hospital. The school is a disgrace to the state whose laws permit it to exist.
— Abraham Flexner (1866 - ??), Medical Education in the United States and Canada (1910), page 190, quoted in Blaine Worthen and James Sanders, 'Educational Evaluation', New York: Longman, 1987, page 101.

My friend Tom Smith and I made it a rule - and in this we were encouraged by his father - that, so far as was possible, we ourselves should actually make the acids and other substances used in our experiments. We were not to buy them ready made, as this would have taken the zest out of our enjoyment. We should have lost the pleasure and instruction of producing them by aid of our own wits and energies. To encounter and overcome a difficulty is the most interesting of all things. Hence, though often baffled, we eventually produced perfect specimens of nitrous, nitric, and muriatic acids. We distilled alcohol from duly fermented sugar and water, and rectified the resultant spirit from fusel oil by passing the alcoholic vapour through animal charcoal before it entered the worm of the still. We converted part of the alcohol into sulphuric ether. We produced phosphorus from bones, and elaborated many of the mysteries of chemistry.

The amount of practical information which we obtained by this system of making our own chemical agents was such as to reward us, in many respects, for the labour we underwent. To outsiders it might appear a very troublesome and roundabout way of getting at the finally desired result. But I feel certain that there is no better method of rooting chemical or any other instruction, deeply in our minds. Indeed, I regret that the same system is not pursued by young men of the present day. They are seldom, if ever, called upon to exert their own wits and industry to obtain the requisites for their instruction. A great deal is now said about "technical education"; but how little there is of technical handiness or head work! Everything is bought ready made to their hands; and hence there is no call for individual ingenuity.

— James Nasmyth, James Nasmyth: Engineer, An Autobiography, 1883.

 The true aim of the teacher must be to impart an appreciation of method and not a knowledge of facts. This is far more readily achieved by concentrating the student's attention on a small range of phenomena, than by leading him in a rapid and superficial survey over wide fields of knowledge. Personally, I have no recollection of at least 90 per cent of the facts that were taught to me at school, but the notions of method which I derived from my instructor in Greek grammar (the contents of which I have long since forgotten) remain in my mind as the really valuable part of my school equipment for life.

— Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science.

Mrs. Sanger's pamphlet on birth control, which is addressed to working women, was declared obscene on the ground that working women could understand it. Dr. Marie Stopes' books, on the other hand, are not illegal, because their language can only be understood by persons with a certain amount of education. The consequence is that, while it is permissible to teach birth control to the well-to do, it is criminate to teach it to wage-earners and their wives. I commend this fact to the notice of the Eugenic Society, which is perpetually bewailing the fact that wage-earners breed faster than middle-class people, while carefully abstaining from any attempt to change the state of the law which is the cause of this fact.

— Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Can you trust statistics?

This was a set of two talks, recorded somewhere around 1991 -- it ended up gaining a 'highly commended' in the Michael Daley awards.

As this speaks of health matters, John Snow's pump in Broad Street gains a few mentions in my talks, because it is my favourite example for lots of reasons.

I found where Broad Street used to be when I was in London -- though the Soho people I asked, mentioning a cholera outbreak were horrified, stating vehemently but in a low and urgent voice that there had never been cholera there, while looking around furtively, to make sure no tourists were in earshot.

Just around the corner, I found a replica of the pump, a plaque on which the name of a parochial politician was in larger print than Snow's, and also the John Snow pub. I went in and drank a beer to the great man (Snow, NOT the Councillor) , and bought a souvenir t-shirt. Now read on . . .

* * * * *

I'm a reformed smoker. I gave up many years ago, but I did it for political reasons. I just wasn't prepared to support the government of the day by paying tax on both liquor and tobacco, so I gave up the demon weed. Soon after that, the government changed, but I didn't like the other mob very much either, so I kept on not smoking.

Now it goes without saying that reformed smokers are tiresome people. At least if you're a smoker they are. They will keep on at you, trying to get you to stop as well, so they can hang another scalp on their thoroughly smug and sanctimonious belts.

To all non-smokers, those who still puff smoke are tiresome people, who can't see the carcinoma for the smoke clouds. Stupid fools who deny any possibility of any link between smoking and anything.

Like the tobacco pushers, the smokers dismiss the figures contemptuously as "only statistics". The really tiresome smoker will even say a few unkind things about the statisticians who stand behind the figures. Or about the statisticians who lie behind the figures.

But the smokers don't just settle for simple attacks, like alleging the statisticians are secret non-smokers. It's all very much nastier than that. So much nastier, there must be a deeply ingrained cultural hatred of statisticians in our society, and probably an equal contempt or detestation for statistics as well.

At one stage in my infamous career, I freely confess to having quite a lot to do with gathering statistics, and messing about with numbers, an honourable and harmless activity, I would have thought. But it was then I discovered that such people, while sometimes accused gently of being "mathematicians", more often suffer the far heavier opprobrium of being called "statisticians".

I certainly encountered this all-too-human tendency, and all too often at that. The things people used to say about statistics and the users of statistics offended me greatly.

If you've never suffered from being called a statistician, you may think it's a minor inconvenience to suffer. That's only because you've never heard the jokes which go with the label: there are more jokes about statistics than I know about the dismal science of economics, even if you let me throw in all of the many jokes I know about the economists as well.

Take, for example, the definition of a statistician as "somebody who's rather good around figures, but who lacks the personality to be an accountant". Or the story about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of six inches.

These days of course, we really ought to say fifteen centimetres, rather than six inches, but I'd like to stress the hoary agedness of so many of these witticisms about statistics: my reasons will become clear soon enough.

Then there are other clever-clogses who earnestly assure and advise us that a statistician collects data and draws confusions. We are also told statisticians are people who draw mathematically precise lines from an unwarranted assumption to a foregone conclusion.

With this sort of bias floating around, it's little wonder the great physicist, Lord Rutherford, once harumphed, "If your experiment needs statistics, then you ought to have done a better experiment".

Then there was the cruel and cutting comment, attributed to various witty people, and said to be about various people, that "X uses statistics much as a drunkard uses a lamp-post: rather more for support than for illumination".

On a slightly different tack, but still a debunking one, people will sometimes assert that statistics show how the vast majority of people have more than the average number of legs. Which is a bit like the common discovery, popular with conservatives, that tests reveal half our nation's school leavers to be below average.

Or the mildly sexist one-liner that statistics are like bikinis: what they reveal is interesting, but what they conceal is vital. And politicians like to get into the act as well, so we find Fiorello La Guardia, one-time mayor of New York saying statistics are like psychiatrists -- alienists he calls them -- statistics are like psychiatrists because they'll testify for either side.

Finally, there's the grand-daddy of them all, the famous line about "Lies, damned lies, and statistics". Now quickly answer out loud, so there's no cheating: who was it who first said that?

The odds are if there are two or three know-alls in your house, you'll now be locked in bitter dispute. At least, I hope you are. It may be hard on you, but it will help me prove my point.

The official version is that this line was first voiced by Mr. Disraeli, the well-known politician, but many quite reputable and reliable reference books attribute it to no less a personage than the author Mark Twain.

Now you can see why I expect to have started a few arguments by asking you to say your answers out loud. Even the experts can't agree on who it was said it! So if the authorities can't answer with one clear voice, how could you and your neighbours?

Well, the true facts of the case are fairly simple. That catchy snippet about "Lies, Damned Lies" et cetera was first published by Mark Twain all right, this can be proven to anybody's satisfaction, but Twain attributed the line to Disraeli.

The only problem is this: search as hard as you like, you won't find the story in any earlier publication than Twain's "Autobiography". In short, Mark Twain made the whole thing up! Disraeli never spoke those words: Twain invented them all, but he wanted the joke to have a greater force, and so gave the credit to an English politician.

Twain wasn't only well-known for his admiration of a good "Stretcher" (of the truth, that is), he even lied when he was talking about lies, and his name wasn't even Mark Twain, but Samuel Clemens! Now would you buy a used statistic from this man?

Come to think of it, the yarn's pedigree should have been enough in itself to cast doubt on the its veracity, with an arch-liar like Twain quoting, of all things, a politician! Yes, sad but true, there are more jokes about politicians than there are about statisticians, but only by a short head. It must be because so many politicians are trained originally as economists.

When you look to the background of the "Damned Lies" story as I did recently, there's an even stronger link between statistics and politics. Last century, when Disraeli is supposed to have made the remark, statistics were just numbers about the State. The state of the State, all summed up in a few simple numbers, as it were.

Now governments being what they are, or were, there was more than a slight tendency in the nineteenth century to twist things just a little, to bend the figures a bit, to bump up the birth rate, or smooth out the death rate, to fudge here, to massage there, to adjust for the number you first thought of, to add a small conjecture or maybe to slip in the odd hypothetical inference.

It was all too easy to tell a few small extravagances about one's armaments capacity, or to spread the occasional minor numerical inexactitude about whatever it was rival nations wanted to know about, and people did just that.

By the end of the last century, though, statistics were no longer the mere playthings of statesmen, and we find Francis Galton explaining that the object of statistics " to discover methods of condensing information concerning large groups of allied facts into brief and compendious expressions suitable for discussion".

So while you can go on sniping or objecting about being reduced to a mere statistic, those poor old statistics are still doing a fine job.

It's a pity, though, they've such a bad image problem, especially if you're trying to convert a diehard smoker from his or her evil ways.

As somebody once observed, or should have done if they didn't, figures don't lie, it's just that liars can figure. Presumably we don't set out to deceive ourselves deliberately: but could we use statistical information in such a way as to be unintentionally misled? I think it's very possible. Like fire, statistics make a good servant, but a bad master.

From Galton's time on, his meaning of statistics as some sort of numerical summary has become generally accepted, and the addition of "tests of significance" has added hugely to the number of statistics we can use.

So if the word "statistics" no longer means what it did when Mr. Disraeli didn't really make his comment, then it hardly seems fair to keep on giving statistics such a cruel and unusual treatment.

But as I implied before, I won't rush to the defence of your average number-abuser. If somebody does a Little Jack Horner with a pie that's absolutely bristling with statistical thingummies and they produce just one statistical plum, I won't be impressed at all: the plum's rather more likely to be a lemon, anyhow.

There are several handy little tests I apply to any figures and statistics which come my way: either the figures pass or they fail. These tests let me decide whether I'll take any notice of the figures or not. Statistical tests are very useful, especially if somebody is trying to prove by statistics that X causes Y.

In the first place, I want to know if there is a plausible reason why X might cause Y. If there isn't, then it's all very interesting, and I'll keep a look-out, just in case a plausible reason pops up later, but I won't rush to any conclusion. Not just yet, I won't.

Secondly, I want to know how likely it is that the result could have been obtained by chance. After all, if somebody claims to be able to tell butter from margarine, you wouldn't be too convinced by a single successful demonstration, would you?

Well, perhaps you would: certain advertising agencies think so, anyway. So let's take another tack: if you tossed a coin five times, you wouldn't think it very significant if you got three heads and two tails. Not unless you were using a double-headed coin, maybe.

If somebody guessed right three, or even four, times out of five, on a fifty-fifty bet, you might still want more proof. You should, you know, for there's a fair probability it was still just a fluke, a higher probability than most people realise. There's just about one chance in six of correctly guessing four out of five fifty-fifty events.

Now back to the butter/margarine dichotomy. Getting one right out of one is a fifty-fifty chance, while getting two right out of two is a twenty five per cent chance, still a bit too easy, maybe. So you ought to say "No, that's still not enough. I want to see you do it again!".

Statistical tests work in much the same way. They keep on asking for more proof until there's less than one chance in twenty of any result being just a chance fluctuation. The thing to remember is this: if you toss a coin often enough, sooner or later you'll get a run of five of a kind, and much more often than you'll fill an inside straight at poker.

As a group, scientists have agreed to be impressed by anything rarer than a one in twenty chance, quite impressed by something better than one in a hundred, and generally they're over the moon about anything which gets up to the one in a thousand level. That's really strong medicine when you get something that significant.

There. Did you spot the wool being pulled down over your eyes, did you notice how the speed of the word deceives the eye, the ear, the brain and various other senses? Did you feel the deceptive stiletto, slipping between your ribs? We test statistics to see how "significant" they are, and now, hey presto, I'm asserting that they really are significant. A bit of semantic jiggery-pokery, in fact.

And that's almost as bad as the sort of skullduggery people get up to when they're bad-mouthing statistics. Even though something may be statistically significant, it's a long way away from the thing really being scientifically significant, or significant as a cause, or significant as anything else, for that matter.

As I said earlier, statistics make good servants but bad masters. We need to keep them in their places. But we oughtn't to refuse to use statistics, for they can serve us well.

Some little time ago, I talked about Dr. John Snow, the man who solved a cholera epidemic in London in 1853. He did it by having the handle taken off a pump in Broad Street which was supplying polluted water. The story interested me, and I ended up researching it rather more deeply than I needed to, and I learned about some interesting side issues. Let me share one of them with you now.

During that same cholera epidemic in 1853, not ten minutes' walk from the Broad Street pump, in London's Middlesex Hospital, an unknown woman of thirty-three was helping to look after some of Snow's patients, and many other victims of the epidemic as well. It offered her some relief from the tedium of middle-class Victorian era spinster life, but her decision was a world-shaking one, nonetheless.

To us, she's no mere unknown, for that quiet spinster was Florence Nightingale. And while most people know her as the woman who founded the modern profession of nursing, there are just a few of us who know of her other claim to fame: as a founder of the art and science of statistics.

I'll come back to her in my next talk, and to whether the ABC is secretly driving you insane, and why all the podiatrists in New South Wales seem to be turning into public telephone boxes in South Australia. Or why I think that's what is happening.

My grandmother was one Florence Evans. Not an unusual name, they told me, lots of Evanses in Wales they said, so when I visited her native village of Manorbier, there was some doubt as to just which of several Florence Evanses I was talking about.

Still, after old Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard had eliminated the one who died at seventeen, and the one who died an old maid, she recalled the one who emigrated to wild colonial parts, and that was my Flo Evans.  From there, we found surviving relatives and said g'day.

Anyhow, Florence is a common enough name these days, but in 1820, it wasn't at all common. Only Florence Nightingale carried the name back then, and that was because she was born in the city of Florence, in a room with, by the sounds of it, a truly marvellous view.

It was only later, when Miss Nightingale became world-famous as the founder of modern nursing, that other young girls were also named Florence, in honour of the Lady with the Lamp. Aside, that is, from Percy Florence Shelley, the son of the poet, who was also born in Firenze. But for Ms Nightingale, the name might have remained non-gender-specific.

And yet, Florence the First, Florence Nightingale, could quite easily have turned into a fairly good mathematician: anybody with the steely resolve to break into nursing as it was in those days, when it was peopled by drunks and retired prostitutes, anybody game enough to take on all of that, could have done just about anything at all.

And certainly Florence had the interest in mathematics, and she had the ability. Unfortunately, she bowed to her father's wishes, and abandoned her interests. Or did she? After her name was made famous in the Crimea, Florence Nightingale returned to London in 1857, and started to look at statistics, and the way they were used.

First, she prepared a pamphlet, based on the report of a Royal Commission, studying the Crimean campaign. This little work, named "Mortality in the British Army", is generally believed to feature the first-ever use of pictorial charts to present statistical facts. Graphs, in fact, the origin of all those rinky-dinky little diagrams, beloved of geography teachers, you know the ones, with wheat bags, or oil barrels or human figures lined up like little paper dolls, or skittles, or whatever.

In the following year, 1858, Miss Nightingale was elected to the newly formed Statistical Society, just as she turned her attention to hospital statistics on disease and mortality.

In essence, she said, you could never discover trends in the data if everybody went happily around, concocting their own special data in their own sweet ways. You had to make everybody keep their figures in the same way. And so she prepared her scheme, published in 1859, for uniform hospital statistics. Her aim? No less than to compare the mortality figures for each disease in different hospitals, a thing which just could not be done under the old methods.

As in other spheres, Florence Nightingale was a success here, too, so the Statistical Congress of 1860 had, as its principal topic, her scheme for uniform hospital statistics.

These days, we use rather more sophisticated methods. It won't be sufficient just to say Hospital X loses more patients than Hospital Y does, so therefore Hospital X is doing the wrong thing. We need to look at the patients at the two hospitals, and make allowances for other possible causes. We have to study the things, the variables, which change together.

Earlier, I suggested that statistics are best regarded as convenient ways of wrapping a large amount of information up into a small volume. A sort of short-hand condensation of an unwieldy mess of bits and pieces.

And one of the handiest of these short-hand describers is the correlation coefficient, a measure of how two variables change at the same time, the one with the other.

Now here I'll have to get technical for a moment. You can calculate a correlation coefficient for any two variables, things like number of cigarettes smoked, and probability of getting cancer. The correlation coefficient is a simple number which can suggest how closely related two sets of measurements really are.

It works like this: if the variables match perfectly, rising and falling in perfect step, the correlation coefficient comes in with a value of one. But if there's a perfect mismatch, where the more you smoke, the smaller your chance of surviving, then you get a value of minus one.

With no match at all, no relationship, you get a value somewhere around zero. But consider this: if you have a whole lot of tennis balls bouncing around together, quite randomly, some of them will move together, just by chance. No cause, nothing in it at all, just a chance matching up. And random variables can match up in the same way, just by chance. And sometimes, that matching-up may have no meaning at all.

So this is why we have tests of significance. We calculate the probability of getting a given correlation by chance, and we only accept the fairly improbable values, the ones that are unlikely to be caused by mere chance.

The trouble is, all sorts of improbable things do happen by chance. Winning the lottery is improbable, although the lotteries people won't like me saying that. But though it's highly improbable, it happens every day, to somebody. With enough tries, even the most improbable things happen.

So here's why you should look around for some plausible link between the variables, some reason why one of the variables might cause the other. But even then, the lack of a link proves very little either way. There may be an independent linking variable.

Suppose smoking was a habit which most beer drinkers had, suppose most beer drinkers ate beer nuts, and just suppose that some beer nuts were infected with a fungus which produces aflatoxins that cause slow cancers which can, some time later, cause secondary lung cancers.

In this case, we'd get a correlation between smoking and lung cancer which still didn't mean smoking actually caused lung cancer. And that's the sort of grim hope which keeps those drug pushers, the tobacco czars going, anyhow. It also keeps the smokers puffing away at their cancer sticks.

It shouldn't, of course, for people have thrown huge stacks of variables into computers before this. The only answer which keeps coming out is a direct and incontrovertible link between smoking and cancer. The logic is there, when you consider what the cigarettes contain, and how the amount of smoking correlates with the incidence of cancer. It's an open and shut case.

I'm convinced, and I hope you are too. Still, just to tantalise the smokers, I'd like to tell you about some of the improbable things I've been getting out of the computer lately. They aren't really what you might call damned lies, and they are only marginally describable as statistics, but they show you what can happen if you let the computer out for a run without a tight lead.

Now anybody who's been around statistics for any time at all knows the folk-lore of the trade, the old faithful standbys, like the price of rum in Havana being highly correlated with the salaries of Presbyterian ministers in Massachusetts, and the Dutch (or sometimes it's Danish) family size which correlates very well with the number of storks' nests on the roof.

More kids in the house, more storks on the roof. Funny, isn't it? Not really. We just haven't sorted through all of the factors yet.

The Presbyterian rum example is the result of correlating two variables which have increased with inflation over many years. You could probably do the same with the cost of meat and the average salary of a vegetarian, but that wouldn't prove anything much either.

In the case of the storks on the roof, large families have larger houses, and larger houses in cold climates usually have more chimneys, and chimneys are what storks nest on. So naturally enough, larger families have more storks on the roof. With this information, the observed effect is easy to explain, isn't it?

There are others, though, where the explanation is less easy. Did you know, for example, that Hungarian coal gas production correlates very highly with Albanian phosphate usage? Or that South African paperboard production matches the value of Chilean exports, almost exactly?

Or did you know the number of iron ingots shipped annually from Pennsylvania to California between 1900 and 1970 correlates almost perfectly with the number of registered prostitutes in Buenos Aires in the same period? No, I thought you mightn't.

These examples are probably just a few more cases of two items with similar natural growth, linked in some way to the world economy, or else they must be simple coincidences. There are some cases, though, where, no matter how you try to explain it, there doesn't seem to be any conceivable causal link. Not a direct one, anyhow.

There might be indirect causes linking two things, like my hypothetical beer nuts. These cases are worth exploring, if only as sources of ideas for further investigation, or as cures for insomnia. It beats the hell out of calculating the cube root of 17 to three decimal places in the wee small hours, my own favourite soporific.

Now let's see if I can frighten you off listening to the radio, that insomniac's stand-by. Many years ago, in a now-forgotten source, I read there was a very high correlation between the number of wireless receiver licences in Britain, and the number of admissions to British mental institutions.

At the time, I noted this with a wan smile, and turned to the next taxing calculation exercise, for in those far-off days, all correlation coefficients had to be laboriously hand-calculated. It really was a long time ago when I read about this effect.

It struck me, just recently, that radio stations pump a lot of energy into the atmosphere. In America, the average five-year-old lives in a house which, over the child's life to the age of five, has received enough radio energy to lift the family car a kilometre into the air. That's a lot of energy.

Suppose, just suppose, that all this radiation caused some kind of brain damage in some people. Not all of them necessarily, just a susceptible few. Then, as you get more licences for wireless receivers in Britain, so the BBC builds more transmitters and more powerful transmitters, and more people will be affected. And so it is my sad duty to ask you all: are the electronic media really out to rot your brains? Will cable TV save us all?

Presented in this form, it's a contrived and, I hope, unconvincing argument. Not that it matters much, even switching off right now won't stop the radiation coming into your home, so lie back and enjoy it while you can! My purpose in citing these examples is to show you how statistics can be misused to spread alarm and despondency. But why bother?

Well, just a few years ago, problems like this were rare. As I mentioned, calculating just one correlation coefficient was hard yakka in the bad old days. Calculating the several hundred correlation coefficients you would need to get one really improbable lulu was virtually impossible, so fear and alarm seldom arose.

That was before the day of the personal computer and the hand calculator. Now you can churn out the correlation coefficients faster than you can cram the figures in, with absolutely no cerebral process being involved.

As never before, we need to be warned to approach statistics with, not a grain, but a shovelful, of salt. The statistic which can be generated without cerebration is likely also to be considered without cerebration. Which brings me, slowly but inexorably to the strange matter of the podiatrists, the public telephones, and the births.

Seated one night at the keyboard, I was weary and ill at ease. I had lost one of those essential connectors which link the parts of one's computer. Then I found the lost cord, connected up my computer, and fed it a huge dose of random data.

Well, not completely random, just deliberately different. I told it about the rattiest things I could dredge up, all sorts of odds and sods from a statistical year-book that just happened to be lying around. In all, I found twenty ridiculously and obviously unrelated things, so there were one hundred and ninety correlation coefficients to sift through. That seemed about right for what I was trying to do.

When I was done, I pressed button B, switched on the printer, and sat back to wait for the computer to churn out the results of its labours. The first few lines of print-out gave me no comfort, then I got a good'n, then nothing again, then a real beauty, and so it went.

At the end, I scanned the results.

I saw that NSW podiatrists' registrations showed a correlation of minus point nine eight with the number of South Australian public telephones, and minus point nine six with the Tasmanian birth rate. The Tasmanian birth rate in turn correlated plus point nine four with the South Australian public phones.

Well of course the podiatrists and phones part is easy. Quite clearly, New South Wales podiatrists are moving to South Australia and metamorphosing into public phone boxes. Or maybe they're going to Tasmania to have their babies, or maybe Tasmanians can only fall pregnant in South Australian public phone booths.

Or maybe codswallop grows in computers which are treated unkindly. As I said, figures can't lie, but liars can figure. I would trust statistics any day, so long as I can find out where they came from, and I'd even trust statisticians, so long as I knew they knew their own limitations. Most of the professional ones do know their limitations: it's the amateurs who are dangerous.

I'd even use statistics to choose the safest hospital to go to, if I had to go. But I'd still rather not go to hospital in the first place. After all, statistics show clearly that more people die in the average hospital than in the average home.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Making a sieve

Better late than never: I promised this post almost three years ago, but it slipped my mind. It will definitely help people who read Hunting the Elusive Tardigrade.  That said, the method is one which has lots of uses, including making a seed shaker.  The sky is the limit!

 You need a hammer, a chisel, a board to work on, a jar or bottle with a soft  (non-brittle) plastic lid and some mesh. Later, you will need scissors.

Put the lid on the board. and use the hammer to drive the chisel through the lid, with the cuts overlapping.
Keep going, and it begins to look like this. By the way, notice the damage done to the board by the chisel. That might have been the table!

 Now the hard work is done.
 Get the mesh.
 Cut a piece: make it a bit oversize.
 Put the lid-ring back on.
And if you must, trim the corners off.

This is the sort of idea which is widely adaptable. If you wanted, you could even use a jar like this to culture mosquitoes.  I'll get onto that one, some time soon.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Black Mac Rides Again!

I thought it was too harsh to ask for one of these.
I was asked to outline my needs for a gig, talking to children. Knowing how megastars are expected to behave, I replied:

Please have the following placed in my dressing-room. There will be no need to provide a butler, as my own will be in attendance.

He is trained in the arcane rites required to perform transgressive fibrillation, and will accompany me on the pandemonium.

I will, however, need the following items:

            Protective wear for low-hanging fruit;

            A pogo stick that goes on water;

            A transmodal interlineator;

            A bellwether predictor;

            A combined hat and flea trap;

            A Tortellini-to-English translator;

            An automated cabbage fulminator;

            A reliable hypotenuse trimmer;

            A recipe for dandelion gin;

            Transparent socks for obsessive nelipots;

            A robotic pomposity defenestrator;

            A robust dephlogisticator;

            A post-ballistic camel;

            A pre-ordained vicar;

            A rigged thimble;

            A horse-drawn bicycle;

            A horse-drawn bicycle pump;

            A granularity-chunking device;

            A teabag anemometer;

            A ketchup bombilator;

            A less lewd-sounding term for futtocks;

            A clockwork spooneriser;

            A fire-proof umbrella;

            A portable bridge with troll gates;

            A working anapest filter;

            A spatterdash for spiders;

            A list of words stressed on the preantepenultimate;

            A tool for culminating beans;

            Clear copyright to the title 'Of Meissen Men';

            An aeolian pantechnicon;

            A one-dimensional tesseract;

            A landing ground for flying tortoises;

            A spandrel inculcating box;

            A tested recipe for ice cream soup;

            A device for straining at gnats;

            A transcript of the verdict in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce;

            A reliable beater for paths in woods;

            A brown paper bag infatuator;

            A jar for storing potentiated rosewater; and

            A less cruel substitute for newt's eyes in the 'Pharmacopoeia Maleficarum'.

As an afterthought, the pandemonium is probably too heavy for easy manual delivery. Please have a large hole (23 metres by 4 metres) opened in the ceiling so the instrument can be lowered into position.

Alternatively, a cup of tea would be nice.

We had fun at the gig.  Here's Toni Brisland wowing them.

 And here are the assembled megastars

Me, Tony Flowers, Toni Brisland, Felicity Pulman.
They gave us all chocolates.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Is Gaia there?

This is one of the first four or five I did -- but I still don't know if I believe in Gaia.

We're very complicated animals, we humans. Lots and lots of busy little cells all busily and mindlessly doing what they have to, just to keep us humans going. Our cells don't know about us: we know all about our cells, but our cells can never know about us.

Some animals aren't made of cells. School-kids are usually taught to refer to the bacteria and the blue-green algae as unicellular animals. After all, says orthodoxy, these things have a membrane round the outside, and lots of works inside, rather like one of our cells, so why not regard each animal as a single cell?

These days, some biologists prefer to call them acellular, without cells, for while the things aren't divided up inside by membranes, they're still divided. And as there are no cells, they must be acellular. But whether the parts are properly separated or not, they all do their own thing, keep the whole organism alive, and they never know about the organism that they make up.

Higher up the evolutionary ladder, we find the eucaryotes, things with their cells divided up, with membranes neatly wrapping up organelles such as the chloroplasts, mitochondria, and ribosomes, and so on. These parts all work mindlessly to maintain a larger organism of which they're part, but which they'll never know about.

These eucaryotes are interesting because some people think that the organelles inside them are really other cells that have been taken on board, given a home, and put to work. A sort of cellular All Nations Club, which might be just a bit too strong on cellular miscegenation for some people.

It seems that these cells nestling up together aren't just different species, they're probably even from different phyla. But these mixed foreigners don't know much about each other, and they certainly aren't aware of the higher order cell that they make, so we can at least hope that it's all right for them to mix.
Just in case, though, we'd better not tell that man from the Immigration Department. You see, our cells are all eucaryotic, so our cells are all these peculiar mixed-up things too. Your favourite shock-jock would flip if he thought his innards were all made up of cohabiting foreigners. Yuchhh!

I'm delighted with the idea that my multicultural cells are all independently doing their thing, unconsciously controlling each other in some way so that I can type these words, waddle off to the ABC, and blow air up my throat while contorting my face so as to make odd noises that other people will then understand. If Old Alf is listening, I'll bet he's contorting his face and making odd noises right now, too.

One of my favourite animals, unless they're plants, or are they fungi, I never can remember, is the slime mould. A slime mould is made up of eucaryotic cells, full of organelles, but these cells wander off, like so many ants at a picnic, to gather food, commune with nature or whatever, quite independently.

There they are, these cells, generally at peace with the world, when suddenly they all start secreting a chemical, a messenger chemical that says: "Let's get together!". So suddenly, they all gather, form an organism, and generally behave like any other multicellular organism. They form what we call a fruiting body.

And yet I'm almost sure that the slime mould cells are quite unconscious of what they're doing, and quite unconscious of the fruiting body that they become.

Just now, I compared the slime mould cells with ants, but I could also have compared them with bees, or some other social insect. Have you ever stopped to wonder if the ant's nest has some degree of self-consciousness, in the way that the larger vertebrates do?

Think about those ants that form nests and bridges by linking their bodies together: aren't they just like the cells of the slime mould? Could there be something about a colony of ants that makes it more than just the sum of its parts? In the fashionable parlance of the New Biology, should we look beyond Reductionism to Holism? Douglas Hofstadter certainly thinks so.

In his remarkable book, "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid", published somewhere around 1979, Hofstadter introduces a character called Ant Hillary, a decidedly self-conscious ant-hill, and explores this question at far more length than I have time for here today. You'll have to read the book.
By the time he's finished, though, you'll be convinced that an ant-nest can be an organism, just like a slime mould, but one step higher. Think about it: the nest is made up of ants, unconscious of the higher organism that they make, but that's not all.

Each ant is made of cells, all unconscious of the higher organism that they make, and each cell is made up of organelles, all unconscious of the higher organism that they make.

You could keep on going, down through the molecules, the atoms, the particles, the quarks, the sub-quarks, and so on, but let's agree on the organelle as the base-order organism. The acellular organism would also be a first-order organism: after all, we think that some of them became the organelles.

The eucaryotic cell is a second-order organism, ants, slime mould fruiting bodies and humans are all third-order, and a nest of ants, or bees, or termites, is about as close as we get to a fourth-order organism.
Maybe such things are still evolving.

The interesting thing is that each of these organisms, no matter what its order, behaves much like any other organism. So there's no logical or biological reason why there shouldn't be even higher-order organisms. The components would never be aware that they were part of a greater whole, but I suspect that if there were a fourth-order organism, of which we were not part, we would be aware of it, just as we know about the social insects.

And that, long-windedly, brings me to Gaia. James Lovelock proposed this idea about twenty years ago, in an article that I recall reading in "New Scientist". In its essence, this suggested that all living things form a self-sustaining and self-regulating system: the whole biosphere of the planet Earth is a single entity, said Lovelock.

As any good self-confident reductionist would, I told myself that he was nuts, and turned to the next article in that week's issue. Now, I'm not quite so sure about that: maybe there was something in it, after all.

The real problem with the Gaia hypothesis is that the loony green fringe has adopted Gaia as a sort of God-away-from-God, who'll one day come crashing down from that Great Ecology in the Sky, smiting the unecological, and tormenting the environmental sinners with plagues of nameless abominations, genetically designed to scald and viper through them, munching on their entrails, and generally leaving them as socially undesirable messes that you wouldn't want to invite round for a few drinks and a pleasant dinner.

Well, Lovelock did go asking for it a bit, what with giving his putative super-organism the name of a Greek Earth Goddess. That really got the neo-pseudo-theologists going. Gave them all a field day, you might say.

Yet whether he went asking for it or not, Lovelock didn't deserve dear old Isaac Asimov, who introduced his version of Gaia in the fifth volume of the Foundation trilogy or thereabouts. In my callow youth, I thought Isaac was a pretty hot writer, but in my callow middle age, I wish he'd stopped at the third part of the trilogy.

The good doctor's Gaia is a planet-full of people in telepathic contact with each other, where even the rocks get into the act and send small gritty thoughts to each other...and everybody else!

The bits of Asimov's Gaia might function as some kind of super-organism, but they'll never pass my test for super-organisms: the different elements of this Gaia all know about each other, and so Asimov's Gaia is a false one. While the elements of a super-system might be convinced of their own free will, I think it would destroy the system to have them aware of their own parts in that system.

Can you imagine what would happen if your cells all knew about each other, and about you? How long would it be before your Red Cells led a revolution? How long would it take for your Islets of Langerhans to secede? Or until your aqueous humour developed a sense of humour, and fed false images to the optic system?

Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis originally was based on the assumption that there had to be a willful, deliberate Gaia maintaining the status quo on the Earth, keeping conditions right for living things.
It was, he said, unlikely that the conditions necessary for life would have obtained long enough to let life flourish all this time. So something had to be doing something about our environment, or we wouldn't be here to talk about it. There had to be a Causal Agent.

Looking at it the other way, unless the improbable happened somewhere, there wouldn't be any place at all in the Universe where life could develop to intelligence at the third order level, or any other level, for that matter. Possibly we just drew the long straw, so that our system survived long enough for us to evolve.

We're here, so whatever unlikely things were needed to bring that about, they happened. End of theological argument. But even if you don't have to assume that there's some kind of fourth, or even fifth-order being, it's fun to contemplate what that being is like.

I mean, if we were all part of a fourth-order organism, would it be aware that we were self-aware? Or would we just be specialised sub-units in Gaia's view, a bit like nerves in a human? Not really self-aware, not as Gaia understands the term, but carrying definite elements of information.

Again, how would we let Gaia know that we're here and starting to suss out that Gaia is there? And how could we prove for ourselves that Gaia really exists? Would we disappear into a chronosynclastic infundibulum if we got into contact or dialogue with Gaia?

To get some idea of what Gaia might be like, let's look at the only fourth-order organisms that we can find, the termites, the ants, and the bees. They may be poor examples of the full potential of a fourth-order organism, but they're the best that we've got.

They're all quite ruthless about individual organisms, killing off the sick, just as we destroy cells in our body that are diseased. So if Gaia does exist, and we're part of it, then we should find our population under some similar kind of control. We shouldn't be able to have a population explosion.

Or would we? Don't we suffer from cancers, where, all of a sudden, one group of cells or another starts to multiply furiously? Could humans be a cancerous growth in Gaia's terms, rocketing out of control, threatening to destroy the whole intricate web that is Gaia? We seem to have overcome all of the natural controls that keep any given population of sub-units in check.

Well maybe not quite all of the controls: AIDS might have sprung up as a control factor, aiming to bring the cancerous human growth back under control. How's that for a wild theory? We get rid of smallpox, and Gaia substitutes AIDS to keep us in check?

Hmmmm, I seem to be getting onto the same wave-length as those who see AIDS as the wrath of God. Still, at least my speculation is based on the idea that maybe there's some useful purpose for it all, other than the chastisement of those somebody calls wicked.

Of course, all of this assumes some sort of rather deliberate and self-willed Gaia, directing its attention to curing imbalances, the sort of Gaia that the greenies look for, the one that will suddenly produce black flowers to warm up the earth, or whatever. And not even Lovelock argues for that sort of Gaia any more, so we'll have to explain AIDS some other way.

And I can't say that I really believe that there's any such thing as a Gaia that incorporates us and every other living thing: all of the other fourth-order examples that we can identify seem to be made up of genetically similar individuals of one species, so a multi-species Gaia seems just that little bit improbable.

Still, whether an all-human Gaia exists or not, it's an amusing and instructive thing to ponder over and speculate about. Are the electronic media, for example, the Gaian equivalent of hormones in the human body? If the signals reach other inhabited planets, would that make them the equivalent of pheromones? You can go on forever.

The beautiful part, though, is that, speculate as you will, we can never know if we're part of some higher-order grouping. With due respect to Dr. Asimov, it seems to be against the rules. But who wrote the rules, that's what I'd like to know.

Maybe, just maybe, it was Gaia.

Footnote, added 2014

Here's an example of a multi-species interdependence that might be a Gaia precursor in the future:  I knew about this when I wrote the talk, but there was a size limit.

Open forest grows on poor quality land in the Myall Lakes National Park on the east coast of Australia. Macrozamia plants in the forest are more often found associated with the Sydney Red Gum (Angophora costata) than with the more common Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis). The reason for this association has been shown to be at once both complex and delightfully simple.

Angophora trees are often very gnarled, with holes or hollows where branches have broken off, and termites live in these trees, where they hollow out the insides. Brushtail possums live in the hollows made by the termites. The possums eat the orange outside of Macrozamia seeds, and drop the partly eaten seeds around the base of their home trees.

The seeds germinate where they fall, and this explains the distribution of Macrozamia plants. The roots of the Macrozamia are able to 'fix' nitrogen, and so improve the sandy soil the trees grow in. The trees then grow better, providing more heartwood for the termites, who in turn make more hollows for the possums.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Significant figures

This was one of my early radio talks, broadcast in about 1990, I think. 
High precision wombats ahead!
I have a peeve. It's been my pet for many years, and it doesn't look like going away. That being so, I don't see why I shouldn't try to share it around.

I got my peeve when I was quite young, about twelve or so. I used to wonder why newspaper reports of fires in America always seemed to mention damage that came to such odd amounts. Why were there so many fires costing four hundred and forty six thousand pounds, I used to ask myself. Then I found a table for converting foreign currencies, and the penny dropped.

Somewhere in America, a soot-stained and water-damaged Fire Chief had rasped out, through a smoke-filled larynx, his estimate that the cost was "a million dollars". Or maybe it was the jubilant and over-insured proprietor, secretly rubbing his hands at a successful outcome. Let's just say that it was the Fire Chief. I don't really want a defamation suit on my hands.

Eager reporters had seized on this figure of a million dollars, and scribbled it in their note-books, then rushed back to wherever they go to put things "on the wire". In distant Australia, a hack sub-editor sat, blue pencil in hand, eagerly waiting for a chance to earn his pittance by making the story seem more local.

In those far-off days, when my peeve was just a pup, we had pounds, not dollars, and one million merican dollars was four hundred and forty six thousand of our pounds. Plus a few odd shillings and pence, but even sub-editors could see that would be a bit silly. So four hundred and forty six thousand pounds it became.

The Fire Chief's "million" really meant something like "closer to one million than to half a million or one and a half million". So it would not have been an undue liberty to say that the fire damage had cost half a million pounds. That estimate would at least have been consistent with the level of accuracy that the Fire Chief had claimed.

So that was when I got my peeve. I just couldn't see how people could justify the spurious claims to accuracy that they made with their naive conversions. Not of course that it stopped when we went to decimal currency. The penny couldn't drop any more, and all over the nation, people had to settle for heaven sending zero point eight three repeaters of a cent down. That silliness eventually fell away, just in time for us to go metric.

How often have you driven along a country road, and seen a sign that indicated how far it was to the next petrol station? In the good old days, these signs usually said something like "One mile to the next Oilygas station". Stuck to a convenient tree, about a mile from the next Oilygas station, what do you think happened when we went metric?

You guessed it, the sign now tells us that the petrol station is located just one point six zero nine kilometres away!

I for one don't blame electronic calculators for all this. If those aids to laziness were behind these spurious claims to accuracy, we would have had one point six zero nine three four seven two at least.
That brings the accuracy level down to the nearest tenth of a millimetre, and with the sign needing to be changed every time the tree sways in the breeze! No, I don't blame the calculators.

Because if I did, that would not explain a recent iron man race, near my home, which was publicised as forty two point one nine five metres long. Funny, I thought: how do they stop the marker buoys from drifting around by at least a metre when the wind changes? I looked further, to see where the figure came from.

I didn't have to look far. The first leg of the race was a sprint of 195 metres. Everything else fell into place from that, because the next smallest unit was three point five kilometres. By now, I hope that you, the listener, will be adding, sotto voce, "to the nearest half kilometre". Or, if you are really sophisticated, you might even go so far as to say" plus or minus two hundred and fifty metres".

You see the fallacy, I hope. There were half a dozen legs to the race, all but one being guesstimated to the nearest half kilometres. Forty two point one nine five be blowed!

If the competitors had been blown out to sea by a strong wind, they would probably have been rescued 160 kilometres away from the coast. Why? The answer ought to be obvious by now: just ask yourself what is 100 miles in kilometres?

Maybe the real cause is a mistrust of rounded figures. They say that when Mount Everest was first measured, the surveyors came up with a height of exactly twenty nine thousand feet. "Nobody will believe that!" they said, and so they reported it as twenty nine thousand and two feet. That's the story, anyhow.

I suppose that the ability to see the wrongness of the false claims to accuracy comes partly from training. A friend who studied physics at University mentioned recently how frustrating it was to do ordinary practical work. She had calculated Joule's Equivalent, which was a nice traditional thing to do, and she had enjoyed messing around with the equipment.

What she didn't like was that she had to make allowance for all of the possible errors that might have crept in during the experiment. The end result of her measurements was something like seven plus or minus seventeen. Not very satisfying to somebody whose aim in life was to unravel the mysteries of space-time.

Nor could it have been very satisfying to Joule, when he first carried out his exercise. Joule's original apparatus is to be seen in the Science Museum in London, and it's much more complex than anything that young physics students use. Obviously, Joule spent a lot of time improving his level of accuracy, and he would have understood a thing or two about significant figures.

Still, when she is older, I expect my young student to have a peeve about the next petrol station being one point six zero nine kilometres away. Just like Joule would have done.

Sometimes, the temptation to pretend about accuracy leads to delightful silliness. My favourite example comes from a study that I did some years ago of readability formulae.

Readability is one of those things that people like to talk about, but not act on. It's far easier to say that something lacks readability than to write something readable. Writing readable material is an art, not a science, but it is an art which has been cluttered up with a whole load of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.
The mumbo-jumbo of the readability formula comes down to this: short sentences are good, long sentences are bad. Short words are good, long words are bad.

Sounds a bit like the chant of the sheep in "Animal Farm", doesn't it, but there it is. As the readability witch-doctors see it, reading passages have no intrinsic interest. The only things that determine readability are a few simple items like word length and sentence length.

The mumbo-jumbo workers have come up with various ways of combining word length and sentences length to calculate the age (or school grade) for which a piece of text is suitable.

One of the more popular examples of a readability formula was actually developed for use with Ugandans whose English was a second language, but it has been widely used on native English speakers around the world for years. The measure also has other faults that I shan't go into here. The method is dead easy to use, so who cares that it's probably invalid?

But that's a formula that fails because it was badly developed. The accuracy claimed is spurious, but it doesn't reflect a wrong use of significant figures. So my favourite failure among the readability formulae is one that falls short because it offends that peeve of mine.

Remember that each readability formula is supposed to find an age year or a school grade for which a piece of text is most suited. So what would you do with a formula for school grade which asked you to multiply the word length by four point five five, and add that to zero point zero seven eight times the sentence length, and then to take away two point two point two zero two nine of a grade?

I would have thought that four and a half times the word length, plus point oh eight times the sentence length, minus two point two, would have been fair enough. Accurate to the nearest nine ten-thousandths of a grade? They've got to be kidding!

Why did somebody engage in this silliness? I suspect that it was somebody after a Paper-Hanger's Delight, also known as a Ph.D.

Now a thesis can be a real slog. If it requires somebody to go and study things, to think about things, and create things, it can be extremely hard work. The alternative is to measure things, which is at once both scientific and easy.

It may not be accurate, but that's not the point. If it feels scientific, do it! The researcher has only to feed enough figures into a computer, and then press the button labelled "factor analysis", and out comes a dinky little formula. just raring to go. Or maybe the button labelled "Multiple Regression", or some other related button.

These methods have a common effect of producing multi-number factors which can be thrown into an argument (or the bin, for that matter, but they usually aren't), multi-number factors which can be thrown into an argument to produce the best available prediction of some other value. The problem is that they are only as good as the data that spawned them. If the data are even a bit wonky, then the last couple of digits in the magic numbers become something of a joke.

And speaking of jokes, I recall a Goon Show sequence which relied on the spurious accuracy principle. An expert gravely announces that a skull is, as I recall it, "one hundred thousand years old". There is a pause, while the audience absorbs this statement, and then Milligan and Sellers break into the least mellifluous version of the birthday song ever to be regularly re-played over the ABC. The ridiculous becomes apparent to all, each time it is played.

Even so, guides in caves around the world will state, in all seriousness, that "these caves are two hundred and twenty five million and thirty years old". If one dares to ask how they know this, they will explain that the caves were dated thirty years ago at two hundred and twenty five million years. It happened to me: nobody guffawed, nobody laughed, there was not even a hint of a snigger.

Without the Goons to point it up, the sense of ridiculous was lacking. Politicians know this, and they rely on it. Next time you see that a new bridge is going to cost one billion and fifty three thousand dollars, be a bit suspicious. The billion is a ball-park figure, that probably won't be within a Zurich gnome's cooee of the final cost.

The fifty thousand will be for bill-boards with politicians' names on them. The three thousand may well be there to cover the cost of free beer for the workers at the end of the job. More probably, it is there to make it look as though the whole lot has been carefully costed in incredible detail: the Everest measurement principle in living colour, as it were.

So who or what do we blame? I know that there are conservative critics of education who take delight in blaming the educational system. We find the Americans among them blaring forth things like "First we had old Math, then we had New Math, now we have aftermath!".

I don't believe the conservatives, nor do I sympathise with them. The conservatives' crime is as hideous as using unjustified significant figures. They are extrapolating from a biased perception, in a moving frame of reference, from too short a base-line.

I think the answer is a whole lot simpler. I think people have just taken far too literally the old sheepish adage that there is safety in numbers.