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Saturday, 27 April 2013

About those convicts

My time, at the moment, is mainly given over to Australian history, but because the convict topic is done to death, I have had little to say about it. I have, however, been thinking about transportation, the convict system, and its effects.
Four fastidious Britons emoting over the convict stain and the
Australian lack of human genetic diversity.

Britons of a certain appalling sort, usually lower-middle-class oiks or the toffy-nosed inbred offspring of the degenerate aristocracy, find it amusing to taunt Australians on their first encounter about their "convict taint".

I blame the English education system for letting them out in such a state of ignorance, because, as you will see, the story is far more nuanced than the simplistic notion of wicked felons and good "free" people.

Today, Australians are proud of their convict ancestors especially when the ancestors are clearly not wicked villains, and one of the convicts I want to look at was no villain.

There have always been two views about the convicts. One side agreed with "Major" James Mudie who wrote The Felonry of New South Wales and was horsewhipped for it.   Mudie said all convicts were evil and would never improve. Today, people often claim that the convicts, especially their own ancestors, were "transported for stealing a loaf of bread". Mudie was neither an officer nor a gentleman, and he richly deserved his come-uppance.

(For details, see 'New Publication', Australasian Chronicle, November 21, 1840, p.2, : for a commentary (which farewells Mudie in an unfriendly way), see 'The Breakfast Table', Australasian Chronicle, January 12, 1841, p.2,  There appear to have been no newspaper articles that supported him.)

The truth about the convicts is somewhere in the middle: some convicts were total villains, some were complete victims. In other words, there were good convicts and bad ones. There were also good and bad "free" people. Out of 245 marines (soldiers) who reached Australia, Judge-Advocate David Collins mentions four marines who received 200 lashes for manslaughter in 1788   and six marines who were hanged for robbing the colony's food stores in 1789.   And those were the ones supposed to enforce the law!

(For details of these bad good guys:  David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, pages 75 and 83 in the online edition.  In the print edition, the pages are 38 and 49.)

On January 10, 1787, two Elizabeths were tried at the Old Bailey. Elizabeth Hayward was 13 or 14 when she left England. She was the youngest female convict on the first fleet, sentenced to be transported for seven years. The charge was stealing a gown worth 4 shillings, a bonnet worth 2 shillings and a cloak worth 1 shilling. Hayward was an apprentice, accused of taking the items from her master, Thomas Crofts, and pawning them.

(Elizabeth Hayward's case: Old Bailey Online. Use your search function or look for case 219 or Reference Number: t17870110-60. Her sentence is listed separately, almost at the end.)

At some time between June 1 and June 10, 1787, Arthur Bowes Smyth, the assistant surgeon on the convict transport Lady Penrhyn, wrote a list of the convicts in his journal. He wrote that "Elizabeth Haward" was 13. Three pages earlier, he had listed Elizabeth Beckford was 70, but a month or so later, he gave her age as 82.

(Beckford's age: see Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 1787 March 22-1789 August 8, page 17.)

Elizabeth Beckford was charged with stealing twelve pounds weight of Gloucester cheese, value 4 shillings (40 cents in today's money, but worth a great deal more in 1787). The cheese belonged to Henry Austen, and she was sentenced to be transported for seven years. The report says "The prisoner was taken instantly with the cheese", meaning she was caught on the spot.

Elizabeth Beckford's case: see Old Bailey Online. Use your browser's search function or look for case 226 or Reference Number: t17870110-67. Her sentence is listed separately, almost at the end.

The two women were thieves, but before we judge them harshly, young people used to be apprenticed at about the age of 12. They got almost no pay, and usually, their families had to pay the master a fee called a premium. An apprenticeship usually lasted five years or more, and for the first couple of years, the apprentice was often made to do servant work like sweeping and cleaning, work that had little to do with the trade they were supposed to be learning. Apprentices lived in the master's house, and were fed by the master, but there was little joy in the life of an apprentice.

There was no joy at all for older people. There was no aged pension, and an old man or woman with no family and no savings had little choice but to steal, or to go into the workhouse. There, the inmates would be fed horribly, treated worse, and exposed to all sorts of diseases.

Workhouses still existed in 1904, when an Australian poet named Jennings Carmichael died after her husband deserted her. Her three sons were placed in an English workhouse until Australians found out about them in 1909, and took up a collection to pay the boys' fares back to Australia.

(See Jennings Carmichael: Her Children in a Workhouse, The Argus, April 16, 1910, p. 4,  and see other articles in Trove which are tagged 'Jennings Carmichael'. You will see the tag when you go to the link above: click on the tag, and at last count, 103 other articles will be listed: it seems we volunteers who do the tagging have been busy).

So perhaps we should not blame the two Elizabeths too much for stealing. They may have had their reasons. The gaols of Britain were filled with deadly diseases like tuberculosis, spread by coughing and "gaol fever" (we call it typhus today) which was spread by lice. Whatever their reason, the two Elizabeths gratefully accepted their fates and both were shipped out in the Lady Penrhyn, which carried women convicts and a few of the children of women convicts.

On January 10, 1787, 15 women appeared at the Old Bailey and were sentenced to be transported. One year later, on January 10, 1788, the women in Lady Penrhyn were cowering under the fury of a storm off the NSW coast, having been at sea since the previous May. Perhaps they began to regret their decision, but they reached Botany Bay about ten days later.

Elizabeth Beckford wasn't there by then. On the night of July 11–12 1787, she died, and it was then that Smyth wrote in his journal that she was 82.

(Beckford's death: Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 1787 March 22-1789 August 8, page 30. )

Elizabeth Hayward was not the youngest on board. The convicts' children listed by Smyth as being on board Lady Penrhyn were William Tilley (6 weeks), Mary Mullins (3), Mary Fowles (4), Jane Jones (8) and John Harrison, aged 15.

Elizabeth Hayward was flogged in Sydney for insolence, soon after arriving. She later went to Norfolk Island, and she received another flogging there. (Norfolk Island later became a terrible place, where only the worst convicts were sent, but it was used to grow food for the main colony and it was more pleasant when she was there.)

She may have died in 1830, but she left Norfolk Island in 1813 as the wife of Joseph Lowe along with two of her children. An Elizabeth Lowe died at Launceston, and was buried at St John's, Launceston 29 October 1836, "aged 66", which is about six years too young—but that may be our last trace of the youngest woman convict. If so, she got a good life in the end.

Most of the people sentenced to become First Fleeters on January 10, 1787 accepted their sentences, and so gave their later descendants something to boast about, but one did not. Samuel Burt had been found guilty of forgery, and in those days, forgery was a hanging offence, a capital crime, as the lawyers called it.

Mysteriously (until you know the background), the government wanted him to accept a pardon and serve seven years "to the Eastern coast of New South Wales, or some one or other of the islands adjacent" (or as ordinary folk understood it, to Botany Bay).

Equally mysteriously (until you know the background), the prisoner preferred to be hanged, and here is how the discussion went in court, at the end of the day's proceedings. Notice how politely but firmly, Samuel Burt told the Court (that means the judge) that he wanted to die.

Prisoner:        My Lord, I thank your Lordship; but in the present case, I have an unquestionable right to my own opinion, and as death would be preferable to me, I am determined to persevere in applying for the execution of my sentence.

Court:              You should be aware that if the King's mercy is rejected and abused, when you come to a better temper of mind, which the fear of death will certainly produce, you may have then no opportunity of applying for that mercy which you now refuse.

Prisoner:        I am still determined to persevere in the same opinion.

Court:             I shall remand you to prison, and give you till the first day of next session to consider of it, and if you then refuse his Majesty's pardon, you may expect immediate execution.

Prisoner.        Very well my Lord. 

The background explains all the peculiarity. The young lady Samuel loved did not love him, and refused to marry him. Maybe this was because Samuel was an apprentice gold-beater, and apprentices were not allowed to marry until they had "served their time" and completed their apprenticeship. Samuel decided that he would sooner die, but he must have felt it wrong to commit suicide. From the way he spoke, he was a clever young man, and he found another way to become dead.

He forged a bank draft for 100 pounds, which was a great deal of money back then, and went to a bank where he was well-known, and cashed it. The bank suspected that the draft was forged, but gave him the money as they knew him. He then sent his master the following letter:

"Sir, I take this opportunity of informing you, that I have this morning forged on your banker, for the sum of an hundred pounds; I am ready and willing to resign myself into the hands of justice, life is a burden to me, and as I have forfeited it to the laws of my country, I am ready and willing to resign into the hands of him that gave it me." S. Burt, July 17th, 1786.  

Later, the full story came out.   After that day, Samuel went back to gaol to think. It seems that the young lady had a change of heart, and agreed to marry him, but after he had agreed to accept transportation in the Second Fleet, she visited him in gaol, where she caught gaol fever and died, but by then, Samuel's case had been sorted out, and he had to go to New South Wales.

The Scarborough had transported convicts as part of the First Fleet, and now it was ready to go again, with Burt among the inmates. During the voyage, a plot was hatched among the convicts to over-power the guards, take over the ship and escape. Burt gathered the details and reported to the ship's officers who squashed the plan.

Arriving safely in Sydney, Burt was made a storeman, and was so reliable that on January 31, 1794, he won an unconditional pardon, When the colony's Judge-Advocate, David Collins noted this, he mentioned that Burt's actions on the Scarborough were "at the risk of his own life".  

I wonder if perhaps Burt took that risk deliberately, hoping once again, that he might die? Still, he got here, he lived, he worked hard, and he was pardoned. He received a grant of 16 acres of land at Bulanaming (near Newtown in Sydney's inner western suburbs today) on January 8, 1794, but after that, this interesting Second Fleeter seems to disappear. If he has descendants today, they probably regret not being able to claim descent from a "First Fleeter".

Burt References

Samuel Burt's case: Old Bailey Online, , or you can find an easier-to-read version by going to the search page  then searching for Samuel Burt by name and choosing the supplementary material for January 10, 1787.

Burt's aftermath: The article is headed 'Samuel Burt' and appears in The Times (of London), 19 October, 1790, p. 4, column 1. The same story was reprinted in The Caledonian Mercury, No. 10787, October 25, 1790, p. 2.

Collins on Burt: David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, p. 294. (286 in the printed edition)

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language is covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Water dragons and sundews

Tuesdays, all going well, I am out and about at the sanctuary at North Head. Sometimes I do Fridays, and one week I did both, but it's good to get out and potter.  Right at the moment, work is a bit stressful as we bring home a giant book project in half the normal time, but when I can, I go out to play.

I have taken on a project, trying to get spores of a fern called Gleichenia to "germinate".  I will say more on this later, if and when I get some success, but I will be trying two methods: one is a traditional method using a piece of brick in water in a covered ice-cream container.

The other is a method I developed about 40 years ago, using what I call mud agar.  I get some mud, put it in water, boil it thoroughly to get the life forms out of it, decant, boil again and add 1.5% agar-agar, then plate this out into Petri dishes.  The plates are then scattered with spores and left in light, misted with water every day or two—but I will come back to that.

The main thing is to get spores, and as I don't know much about this fern and when it forms spores, I am dabbling around, taking samples and trying things out.  I am very much a dabbler at heart, so that's fine by me.

The fern grows mainly in swampy places, so we have three main sites where I can sample.  Yesterday, I set out to sample the two nearest sites, one near a drain and one near a swamp.

The drain paid off, but as I was leaving, I saw a large and apparently very dead water dragon. I reached down and moved its tail. The body was desiccated, dark, smeared with mud, but it seemed to be otherwise intact.  I decided to rescue the corpse, just in case one of the volunteers was looking at stomach contents, but mainly so I could attempt to rescue the skeleton.

As I grasped the tail, the dragon came to and ran about half a metre, fetching up in the long grass and glaring at me.

It then remained there peacefully enough, and allowed me to take several shots. Then we nodded to each other, and I went on my way, heading for the swamp.

Bu the way, the shot at the top is a juvenile water dragon that had taken up a sunny wall in one of the nursery houses.

As you can gather from these shots, the water dragons are remarkably patient with pesky human beings.

Off, though, to the swamp. Most of the walking tracks are on steel mesh, which allows things to grow without being trodden on.

The mesh also allows people to penetrate the swamp without getting muddy, seeing things that would otherwise be hidden, but as I noticed, and as you can see on the left, you need to keep your eyes peeled! Those plants are about 30mm (a bit over an inch) across.

These little plants are sundews, Drosera sp., and almost certainly Drosera spatulata, which, when I were a lad, was always mis-spelled as Drosera spathulata. Apparently D. spatulata is correct.

The members of the Drosera genus are all carnivorous plants, or to be precise, they are insectivorous plants which catch insects in the sticky "dew" on their hairs. The "dew" is sticky, so it traps insects, but more to the point, it contains proteolytic enzymes, and the leaves respond to the taste of "soup" by curling over, as you can see in the 3 o'clock position in the close-up shot.

This curling brings more enzymes in contact with the victim, breaking it down faster.  Bits of meat and even cheese will bring the same response.

Some years ago, I taught in a school quite close to North Head, and one day, I told some of my students that as a special treat, I would take them out to see some carnivorous plants that I had found near the cricket nets.

One kid who was usually completely out of it in class got all excited, but it turned out later that he thought I had said "cannabis plants". All the same, he fed some of them with scraps of meat and went back to visit them later. All sorts of people can get interested, if somebody takes the time to show and share!

I was under the impression that the sundews were confined to the eastern states, but when I was out at Wave Rock a year or two back, doing some desultory research, I found this specimen at the base of the granite. The coin is 2 cm (0.8 inch) across.

So for my friend Woofie Wotsit, here's proof that I do indeed acknowledge Westralian plants.

This is the natural result of being the son and husband of two Cottesloe girls!

And if you haven't heard of Wave Rock, here it is: that's one of the said Cottesloe girls in the shot. Chris wasn't pretending to surf, just seeing how easy the slope was to walk up backwards, but it was too good a shot to miss. The rock is granite, the streaking is from algae, and it's about 400 km east (ish) of Perth.  Just Google Wave Rock!


It seems  that I visited sundews once before. I had forgotten that!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The opening of a Hakea

There are two Hakea species in this 1917 line drawing. They are identified as Hakea acicularis (now Hakea sericea) and Hakea dactyloides.  The source is Florence Sulman's The Wildflowers of New South Wales, though the drawings are the work of "Miss D. Watkins". I have nothing on Miss Watkins yet, though a lady of that name taught at the Sydney Teachers' College when I did my teacher training.  I don't think there's a link, though.

Hakea sericea is known as needlebush, but a few of the species merit the name just as much, including H. teretifolia and H. gibbosa, which is the species I have used in the pictures below, because it came to hand on a bushwalk.

Hakea is a genus well-adapted to fire, with its woody fruits that open, right after a fire, or after a branch dies. To simulate this, I took two fruits from a tree in a dense patch and left them in an open Petri dish on my desk.

The time series speaks for itself:

Notice how the seeds have come loose, here. In the open air, they would probably blow away about now.

And finally, here are the loose seeds, and on the left, the empty fruit:

These seeds would lend themselves to all sorts of science projects: testing how far the winged seeds fall from a tree, whether they blow along the ground, how well the seeds germinate and more.

The unrelated she-oaks (Allocasuarina) also have woody fruits that protect the seeds from fire, and to do most kinds of Banksia, which are in the same family as the Hakea. The "gumnut" of the Eucalyptus is also woody and protects the seeds, buy I have never seen if they are winged or not.  That's fine as far as I am concerned: I always like to leave a few open ends.

Sunday, 21 April 2013


Duodenum: Wikimedia Commons image
When we count in English, there are two peculiar numbers, following the number 10, numbers which fail to follow the standard '-teen' naming system that follows after that. But while we have our irregular and inconsistent 'eleven' and 'twelve', Latin offers no such illogical nonsense, giving us a regular undecim, duodecim, tredecim . . . for 11 and 12 and 13.

The Latin form of 12 turns up in some unexpected places. For example, in music, a duodene is a group of twelve notes, though even the specialist musical references are unlikely to reveal this, for it is a forgotten idea, yet even people who have no idea where the duodenum is, will know that a duodenal ulcer is no fun at all. Luckily, though, we have just one duodenum, not twelve of them, to ulcerate.

In fact, the duodenum is a short section of the small intestine, immediately after the stomach, having a length of about twelve fingers' breadth, or in medical Latin, duodenum digitorum. The duodenum becomes the jejunum which takes its name from the Latin word for 'fasting', which seems a strange name to give any part of the gut, but there you have it.

After the jejunum comes the ileum, which opens into the caecum, at which point we have reached the large intestine, and strayed back into English body bits for a moment.

The Greek word for 12 was dodeka, so we also run into terms like 'dodecagon', and 'dodecahedron'. The dodecagon is in the same series as the more familiar pentagon and hexagon, but having 12 sides, while a dodecahedron is in the same grouping as a tetrahedron, a solid with 12 faces and 12 angles.

The dodecahedron may be a regular figure, composed of 12 identical regular pentagons, or it may be a figure of great interest to the crystallographer, the rhombic dodecahedron.

This was first commented on by the astronomer and mathematician Johann Kepler in a moment when he left the planets alone, and it is the form that squashable spheres take up when they are packed closely together. This has twelve faces, each of which is a 'squashed square', or rhombus, each rhombus having two angles of 109.5 degrees, and two of 70.5 degrees.

The regular dodecahedron makes a reasonable approximation of a sphere, when it is made of stretching material like leather or felt and stuffed with rags or inflated with air under pressure, but it is hardly good enough for making a soccer ball. A neatly made regular dodecahedron can be used in games of chance where you need to roll a value between 1 and 12 with equal probabilities (with two cubical dice, the middle numbers, 6, 7 and 8, turn up far more often than extreme values like 2 and 12, and there is no way at all to throw a 1).

We are all familiar with decimal number systems, based on the powers of 10, and most people know about binary numbers, based on 2, because they are widely used in computers, and some people will know about hexadecimal numbers, also used in computing, and based on the value 16. A few historians of computing may be familiar with octal numbers, based on 8, because computer output in the early days was sometimes given by three lights, counting from 0 to 7.

Those of us who know our number systems really well are probably the only ones familiar with duodecimal numbers based on 12. In this sort of system, the numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, 10, where '10' means one complete set of twelve and no units. This system has sometimes been urged by the technically competent, because a 12-piece set can be divided in more ways.

That may make sense to technicians today, but why would the Romans bother? In part, it seems, for the same reason. The Romans found it convenient to divide things into twelfths, because then you could share evenly between 2, 3, 4 or 6 people.

And as we have seen, the Romans even had a special word for a twelfth part, uncia, which gave us our words for both inch and ounce. And don't laugh — the fact that our numbers don't really start a new cycle till 13 indicates that our own ancestors must have had a similar view.

A note to myself: somewhere, I have a "net" for making rhombic dodecahedra out of paper. This is a set of 12 rhombi with the correct angles, and small tabs to glue the bits together.  When I find it, I will scan it and put it on the web with a link here.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Trusting statistics, part 3

Remember this one? Now it's about to become relevant!

In part 2, 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.  In the example above, you will see r=0.9971 (p<0.0001), where r is the correlation coefficient, and p is the probability of getting such a result by chance.  This result was highly improbable, so I guess that proves the case, huh?


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 once got out of the computer.  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.

Rabat, Morocco: just one stork per tower or chimney.
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 [that's a hint that this was once a radio script].  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, while wearing my scientist hat, 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, well, 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 looked over 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. All highly improbable!

And proving nothing: I had done enough tests to get at least a few unlikely results, and I was choosing things that were all likely to vary over the years. so I looked at the figures with a sober eye (no, don't ask about the other one, it was having the night off).

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 in the first part, 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.

This would have made more sense if you started with Part 1 and Part 2.  You did?  Well done!

Friday, 12 April 2013

One of these things, not like the other echidnas

I have taken on a new interest, having joined the Nursery Group at the Sydney Harbour Trust's North Head Sanctuary.  These people are volunteers from the Manly area, and they are experimenting with raising seeds and cuttings of local plants to do bush regeneration.

I used to teach at a school not far from there, but while I had taken a census of more than 50 birds passing over, and while I knew there were bandicoots (a small marsupial) which were somewhat endangered, I was unaware of some of the other life that was around.

I went to a lecture at the old Quarantine Station, where Geoff Lambert told a crowded hall about the plants of North Head.  I would have guessed there were about a hundred, perhaps 200 species on the headland, but in fact there are more than 400, and the Nursery Group is working to maintain the rarer and more at-risk plants.

It seemed like fun, and getting the hands dirty would offer a good sorbet from writing, so Chris and I joined up.

One of the main tasks is planting suitable habitat on large open areas like an old oval that the Army had there: in all, there are something like 80 sites that they are working on.  Others have other pursuits, and I discovered, after seeing an echidna there, that there is a known population, and Geoff Lambert is collecting photos of the different animals, to try to assess the population size.

Today, I saw this one, which is a juvenile, Geoff knows it well, because it is very tame. He says it is about 800 grams and he guesses about 8-10 months old.  He has lots of shots, so he had no need of the thirty or so that I had taken.

When I got home, I decided to compare it with shots I have taken at other times.

Two echidnas: left, from the Hume Highway, just north of Albury in NSW, 
right, from north-western Tasmania, which is colder.
Echidnas are, like the platypus, generally referred to in the text-books as egg-laying mammals, though you can make almost as good a case for them being warm-blooded reptiles.  Proving that hinges on some desperately fine technical points about the coracoid, the embryology of the egg, locomotion and the venom of the male platypus, so just take my word for it.

One of the more reptilian characteristics is that they are not as homoiothermic as mammals like us or marsupials.  So it is significant that the Tasmanian echidnas, coming from a colder climate have more fur and fewer needles (those needles, by the way, are modified hairs).

Anyhow, I thought that was interesting enough to share.  I'm sure there is, or has been, a research project on that at some stage.

Here are some more shots that are of that same young echidna, and then, from the morning tea table a few minutes later, something that may bear a small resemblance to the echidna, but a leg count will rule it out of contention for a place at the next Monotreme Family Reunion.

The beastie on the right is, in fact, a beetle, or to be more precise, an adult weevil.

And in case you are wondering, neither the weevil nor the echidna is related in any way to the elephant.


My good friend Jan Pittman has just shared with me an echidna from their garden in the outer parts of Perth in Western Australia, and kindly given me permission to share it here.  Now I need to get examples from Queensland and South Australia—and probably from Kangaroo Island as well. There would definitely seem to be the makings of a science project here!

Mind you, I am beginning to wonder if the Tasmanian specimen may have been a juvenile whose spines were still growing. A sample of one is too small to hang a theory on!

Trusting statistics, part 2

You will (I hope) recall that I said in Part 1 that statistics were once state figures. 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 skulduggery 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.
A replica of the Broad Street Pump, located in about the right place.
The plaque at the base of the replica pump.

And naturally, for research purposes only, I had to have several
pints at the John Snow pub, just down the road from the replica
pump. Inside, one meets locals and retired epidemiologists and
anaesthetists: Snow was also a pioneer at using anaesthetics.
One of my household heroes is 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 there was my Flo Evans.

As I say, 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.

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.

This series started with Part 1 and it is completed in Part 3.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Trusting statistics, part 1

I have, I must confess, fallen somewhat silent, the reason being pressure of work as I check page-proofs of a new book (it's a massive Australian history for younger readers, and there's a bit of information here).  Once, at this stage in the book-cycle, I would have a mountain of expensive colour photocopies, but now, it's just PDFs that are placed in a secure location for me to download.  I attach comments, place my file on the cloud, and back it goes,

Still, I would like to maintain a sort of presence here, and I was inspired by this hilarious piece of false statistics that came my way yesterday.

But rather than write something fresh (my brain is too clogged, right now), I pulled out a radio talk that I presented some years ago, which is basically about putting your trust in statistics.

Remember what they say: figures don't lie, but liars can figure, though often they don'y bother: they just say "statistics prove my point" and assume that there is no need to do or say any more.

* * * * * *

I'm a reformed smoker.  I gave up multiple decades 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 are 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".

An example of the blogger's illustrative imperative?
No, rather it serves as a reminder that statistics and
wooden horses have something in common. This
one is real enough, located just outside the site
where Troy once flourished. All right, it really
was the imperative working.  So what? Do you
want pretty pictures, or don't you?
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 called 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, something that 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.

That's enough for a bit.  This continues in Part 2 and Part 3.