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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.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Crooked Mick and the MCC

I probably never told you about the time that Mick put together a team that beat the English at cricket.  You won't find it mentioned in Wisden, either, because the MCC paid a lot of money to get the whole thing hushed up.  Too embarrassing, you see.

What happened was that the Poms were taking a few days off on one of their tours of Australia, and some joker decides to take them out to the Speewah.  He gets them on a train to Bandywallop (the town was still there then), and loads them into the back of a truck, and hauls them out to the Speewah, where they go around, looking at things and generally expressing surprise.

Not as much surprise at first, though, until Flash Jack explains that what they thought was kangaroos in the home paddock was really rabbit fleas, being got ready for being set on the Speewah rabbits.  This was just after the myxomatosis was introduced out there, and so we was breeding these special fleas.  We didn't get in soon enough, though, and that was what finished Bandywallop, but that's another story.

"Haw," says one of the English players, looking at the fleas, "I suppose everything you do out here is that much larger than life!".  The rest of the Poms joined in making honking sounds that we sort of recognised as laughter.  Anyhow, the thing is, Lazy Harry was sitting over on a fence, and he says to them how we played a pretty larger than life game of cricket, too.

Well one thing led to another, and the upshot was that we agreed to have a quick limited overs match, Speewah vs the MCC.  We explained the special local rules, like what you do if a skied ball gets lodged in a mosquito, and how we used the dogs to fetch any ball hit for a six.  They thought that was a bit odd till we pointed out that the cricket field we used was the home paddock, and they saw how far across the paddock was.

"Haw, you don't get many sixes, then, do you?" says the first Pom, the one that started it all.  "No more than two an over, and that's only when Mick's batting," explains Lazy Harry.  By now the Poms reckon their legs are being pulled, and so they start needling us, trying to organise a side bet, just like Lazy Harry had hoped.  He might've been lazy, but Harry used to love easy money, rest his soul.

So Harry made all sorts of to and fro noises, and the Poms kept on raising the bet, and then they even gave us odds of five to one.  That was when I bought in.  "We'll take the bet," says I, "so long as you give us ten runs start."

"Haw," says the chief Pom again, "we'll give you ten runs start a piece, my man."  So I says nicely that no, thanks, ten runs for the team is all we ask, and I can see one or two of them starting to wonder if they might be in over their heads, all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Mick was out in the paddock, rolling a ten thousand gallon water tank back and forwards to even out the pitch, being careful not to spill any water out of it, because the Poms had two really good spin bowlers that tour.  Then he puts on his oldest pair of boots, and bunny-hops down the pitch, flattening out the corrugations, and there's a pitch as good as any they ever prepared at the SCG.

One of the Poms was watching him through binoculars, and I could see he was impressed with Mick's size.  And that was before I gently pointed out that he was looking through the wrong end of the binoculars.  Funny, when those Poms get a shock, they go whiter than those flannels they wear.

Well they turned out like a proper All-England team, and we turned out in whatever we had on.  We looked like something the cat dragged in, but so long as we had Crooked Mick in the team, we couldn't miss, especially with Flash Jack officiating over the toss.  Which we won, let me add.

Then we made our first mistake: Flash Jack and Crooked Mick were the openers, but they mixed up ends, and so it was Flash Jack that got the strike.  He was out first ball, clean bowled.  In that over, we lost seven players from eight balls, and Mick never got a look-in.

Then they changed ends, and Mick was at the crease.  The first ball that comes at him, he slams for all he's worth, but with us seven wickets for no runs, he can't risk getting caught, so he slams it into the ground, where it goes underground, bounces round a rabbit burrow, and pops out at the keeper's feet, right behind him.

Now I should mention that the batsman at the other end was Lazy Harry, so Mick knew better than to start running, or one of them would've got run out.  Next ball, he puts all his force into it, same thing happens, only this time, he broke the bat.

In all that over, he broke five bats, but he still managed to hit a six on each of the sixth and seventh balls, then he decided to take a risk with the last ball of the over.  So he hit it straight up into the sky, so high that he and Lazy Harry have time to shuffle through for twenty three runs.  They were safe though, because when the ball came down again, it was hot from re-entering the atmosphere, so the keeper got a hand to the ball, but screamed and dropped it, and retired hurt.

Still, there were only two bats left now, and the Poms protested that they wanted to have two bats to use in their innings, so Mick sent for a crow bar, and used that in the next over to score four fours, a six, and a single that kept him at the crease for the next over, and that set the pattern.  We declared at lunch with 473 runs on the board, all scored by Mick.

The first two Poms padded up, and Lazy Harry suggests that it would save time if the next five or so padded up as well.  The Poms were really looking worried by now, especially as they had twigged that Mick was going to bowl.  And worry they might.

Mick's first ball was slow and curly, and completely beat the England captain, who adjusted his cap and nodded to himself as though he knew what to expect now.  He didn't.  As Mick came in for the second delivery, the England captain danced down the pitch, just as Mick let fly with one of his fastest.

The ball reached the ground, burrowed beneath the batsman's feet, deflected off the claypan two feet down, and came out of the ground just in time to snap the middle stump.  I was keeping wicket, so I saw it all, but from square leg, which is where I always went for Mick's second delivery.  He got two more that over.

Well I would have to say that they were quite good batsmen, and Flash Jack bowled from the other end, looking for revenge, but he didn't find any.  In fact, one of the Poms came very close to a six, so they were clearly world-class batsmen.  Anyhow, he came close, as I say, but Mick was there, and took a superb catch, just inside the boundary.

Then Mick came back on again, and got three more, which put Flash Jack back in, and among the tail-enders, so he got his revenge then.  And that was how we beat one of the best England teams ever sent to Australia by the MCC.  Lucky for them that there were no journalists present, and the Speewah boys kept quiet about it, because they didn't like too much fuss and bother.

Mick could've played for Australia, you know, and I asked him once why he didn't.  He said that if he did, he would've had to go to England, and that didn't attract him, because his grandmother said it was a terrible place where all the convicts came from.  So he just played for the Speewah, now and then.

* * * * *

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.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The last fox on the Speewah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Speewah pumpkins

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

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

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

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

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

"Annoying!", I says.

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

"What was he doing in there?"

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

"What will you do now?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Monday, 8 September 2014

The art of the acerbic review

I have elected to stop posting acerbic reviews.

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

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

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

How wrong we were:

The review:

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 September 2014

More falling standards

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

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

The Barbarism of Steel Pens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm. I'm short and bearded.

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

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Favourite books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A pleasant lunch

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

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

Thanks, Mrs Poole and kids.

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

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

1. Write about stuff that you find interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Write everything down.

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

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

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

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

* on a USB thumbstick;

* on a stand-alone external hard-drive;

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

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

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

* on my Android tablet.

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

Monday, 1 September 2014

A very cross Caesarean section

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"What's that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I need a quick fix for this."

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"You what?"

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

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

"We use the same term."

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, they call their burial mounds barrows."

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

"You should have tried something lighter."

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

"Never heard of it…"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


That's all, folks — for now.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The selling of PLATO

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

The paper begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grade-equivalent scores objection

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

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

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

He then goes on to criticise the reading test:

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

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

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

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

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

Hall (1968) has a further criticism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “learning calendar" objections

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

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

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

The unreliability of gain scores

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

The regression objections

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caldwell and Rizza supply this table:

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The table, taken from the AARE paper.

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

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

Rizza and Walker-Hunter had claimed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Park, Rosemarie ( ): See Control Data Corporation.

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

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

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

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


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

Not convinced?

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

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