Deviations & The Chrysalids

If people remember the British writer John Wyndham (1903-1969) at all it will be because of the Day of The Triffids a wonderful low-key science fiction novel about what happens when certain very large plants (Triffids) are developed, grown and harvested….Wyndham also wrote other great novels such as The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as The Village of The Damned) amd The Kraken Wakes (about interstellar entities that take to The Deep causing maelstroms and tidal waves / tsunami’s , putting up the price of air travel because everyone ‘s scared to travel by sea, and then They or their Allies begin to invade coastal regions….)

But the Wyndham book most applicable to Statisticians, is The Chrysalids (Michael Joseph 1955, Penguin 1958). A post apocalyptic society scared of mutations, any mutations, in plants, in animals, and particularly in humans, known as Deviations.

‘Blessed is the Norm’,  ‘Watch thou for the Mutant’. So when young David befriends Sophie, who turns out to be a Deviation, because she has six toes (“éach foot five toes, and each toe shall end with a flat nail”);…well you’ll just have to read it. A very thoughtful book indeed.

Hobart and Randomicity

Mona, lower case, is a great 50’s song by Bo Diddely, covered a few years later by the Rolling Stones on their first album.

MONA, upper case, standing for Museum of Old and New Art, is an amazing underground (literally) art gallery in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, the island state of Australia.

Hobart is the second oldest state capital in Australia (after Sydney), was liked by both Mark Twain and Agatha Christie, and is the birthplace of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn (1909-1959), as well as the final resting place of the last thylacine or ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ a carnivorous mammal, the last of which died in captivity in 1936. Hobart is also the setting for the development, in the mid 1930’s,  of Edward James George Pitman’s (1897-1993) development of randomization or permutation tests, which Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher had also worked on. Permutation tests rely (these days) on computers, and don’t require reference to statistical arcana such as the Normal and Student’s T distributions, etc.

As shown by the late Julian Simon and more recently in that wonderful stats book that sounds like a law firm (Lock, Frazer Lock, Lock Morgan, Lock and Lock, 2012), permutation tests can also be easier to understand by students than the parametric alternatives.

MONA itself is currently showing the movie ‘David Bowie Is’, a segment of which talks about the London singer’s use of the William Burroughs / Brion Gysin cut-up technique and later a computer program called Verbasizer, to randomly suggest combinations of particular words to aid in the creative song-writing process.

While you may or may not be interested in randomicity, and the David Bowie movie may no longer be showing, but whether it’s out of the desire for adventure, curiosity, necessity or for purely random reasons, visit MONA and Hobart!!

Further reading:

Lock EH, Frazer Lock P, Lock Morgan K, Lock EF, Lock DF (2012). Statistics: unlocking the power of data. Wiley.

McKenzie D (2013). Chapter 14: Statistics and the Computer. In McKenzie S: Vital Statistics: an introduction for health science students. Elsevier.

Robinson ES (2011). Shift linguals: cut-up narratives from William S. Burroughs to the present. Rodopi.

Timms P (2012). Hobart. (revised edition). University of New South Wales Press.

Who gives a toss: the statistics of coins

Spring is here in Melbourne, and a time for fashionable horse racing, including The Melbourne Cup in November., once attended by Mark Twain. Australia is also home of the “two-up” coin tossing game (descended from the British pitch and toss), played in outback pubs, hidden city lanes and now Australian casino’s, described in great old Australian novels such as Come In Spinner, and the eerie book and 1971 movie Wake in Fright (aka Outback).

In the 18th century, the Comte de Buffon obtained 2048 heads from 4040 tosses, while more recently and not to be outdone the statistician Karl Pearson obtained 12,012 heads out of 24,000 tosses (The Jungles of Randomness by Ivars Peterson, 1998). Of course a misunderstanding of the law of large numbers or so-called law of averages, makes the uninitiated think that if there’s say seven heads in a row, a cosmic force will decide “hang on that coin is coming up heads more than 50%, better make the next one a tail”).

While it doesn’t look at two-up, “Digital Dice” by the always entertaining Paul Nahin (2008) examines a tricky coin-tossing problem posed in 1941 and not solved until 1966. Prof Paul shows how to solve it using a computer-based Monte Carlo method, itself named after that famous casino in Monaco, where James Bond correctly observed that “the cards have no memory”.

And who says stats isn’t relevant?!