Oguntede, The Dialectic Interpretation of Cybernetics, 4/1/1989

Science of regulation in real life

What then is the contribution of cybernetic thinking to science or philosophy?

The most obvious characteristic of all cybernetic writing, be it Wiener or Beer, or any of their acolytes and successors, is its inherent struggle: a self conscious disciplining of highly abstract powerful symbolics into a heavy encompassing psuedo-worldview. Very little is elegant, very little is indeed readable.The struggle is to tie down those elusively fecund concepts, which exist only in cybernetics and are otherwise without weight, to the turbulent ‘real world’.

The message of cybernetics is still, as it was for its originators: if you are going to sensibly understand the totality of controllable existence – not just the controlled microsystems of categorical science, nor even the harmonised synthesis of general science, but the waring totality of all that goes on, and of which we are part, then you need to investigate the phenomena and laws of complexity and of control; in and of themselves. You need to believe that these are worthy objects; and as fully real as their physical [manifestations] components

A corollary is that attempting to understand by [the medium of ] extension of particulate knowledge is [ineffective] inappropriate, inefficient if not classically false.

Cybernetics must then be understood outside the pervasive, scientific ideography assigning a gross social value to the accumulation of scientific knowledge, and the externally-to-that-knowledge dominance of instrumental human control.

It is a thin strand surviving from the march of the more reserved discrete scientific philosophies flowering in the afterglow of the Encyclopediasts and the Naturalists of the Enlightenment .

Nature was not a (romantic) object of wonder, still less was it a subject for control. Rather there exists a necessary incompleteness to any Natural subjectivism; which is the key to a relativistic principle in all knowledge. Furthermore this [is] a discovered principle, the product of a non-categoric phenomenalistic study.

Knowing that knowledge is relative – relative to the engendering process – we avoid the drift into closed systems of thought; we may observe the subjectivism of the observer, and the subjective quality to the universe of observation.

It is this frightening specificity to experience [that] science has been retreating from, controlling the enclosed spaces of particulate systems, but not taking responsibility for general understanding: in short instrumentalism.

Why cybernetic writing is so struggle prone is through the containing influence of instrumentalism, a science of control – [  ] never emerged, but it was certainly attempted; systems theory applied for [totalising] military purposes – leading to grotesque misrepresentations of some political situations: artificial intelligence, aimless model building.
The absurdity of instrumentalism has been recognised by more persipient contributors who have refused to indulge it; and by those who have taken it with irony to its whimsical conclusions {Stafford Beer comes to mind]. 

Science as an instrument of humanity

It is fashionable to see science thus, in these days where we are lead by ‘the science’ to accept constraints never dreamt of in more ordinary times. As we edge to the realisation that the constraints of experts reach beyond the circumstances of a natural disaster, or catastrophic accident, into constraint on freedom of action in the world – by individuals affecting the material economy of everyday life, we are challenged as to our primitive beliefs. The core of our religious faith is stripped or exposed or reinterpreted by a universality in scientifically anchored knowledge ‘about everything’. Only science in this broad sense can give us the cohesion to face existential crises crossing all systems of belief.

Saving (our) Private Ryan

A book of this title is to appear next year. Its author professor Douglas Newton of Newcastle University gave a talk on the underlying story to the Canberra branch of ISAA last month; the story is worth marking in this blog, or – as it happens – by a statue in Ryan’s hometown of Broken Hill.

In short Ted Ryan, brought up in the strenuous trade unionism of that town in its first phase of mining expansion, went to war following his two younger brothers’ enlistment in 1916. His experience was in many ways no different to many of Australian volunteers – physically injured (within days of joining the front line in France), a short recovery in England then rejoining his regiment (51st);  again back to England with shell shock; time in camps there sufficient to reflect and be informed; then unusually commencement of a concerted campaign to draw attention to the failure of politicians to honour the ‘defence of empire call’ and perhaps more importantly the army terms of employment.

Opportunities to end hostilities from 1916 onwards were blocked by Westminster to allow new imperial ambitions time to be put in place – notably in the Middle East – Palestine, Persia and Mesopotamia – in Africa and the Pacific. Ryan in the course of serial desertions appealed to Ramsay Macdonald to take up the openings for a negotiated settlement that would have saved millions of casualties from the industrial carnage being experienced in the trenches of northern France, and avoid the consequences of the swingeing terms imposed on Germany at Versailles.

His appeal, as indeed his other actions that lead to him being among the small number of deserters receiving a  death sentence (commuted in the case of Australians – the condition the Australian Government extracted from the British at commencement to guarantee volunteer numbers from this ex-colony) were a reflection of Ryan’s early immersion in the militant politics of the Broken Hill miners. He viewed the direction of the war as outside the terms in which he had enlisted; and he insisted on his pay and conditions entitlements, to the point of refusing to embark until these had been restored*.

In consequence of his actions he received the full force of military retribution, was repeatedly returned to his regiment in France, and was not discharged until one year after hostilities had finished. 

This unusual story however highlights the preoccupied courts martial, with cases (of the order of 200,000) rivaling all army casualties for the War. The end of hostilities did not end desertions; certainly in Ryan’s case it is not easy to reconcile the easy association of desertion with cowardice.

One can reasonably conclude from the bare chronology of Ryan’s war record, circulated at the talk, that Ryan used desertion as a platform for a full-throated – and informed – attack on bad faith in the British Government’s prosecution of the war, as seen by one of those tasked to carry it out. The extract below is from Ryan’s statement to his Court Martial, 12 September 1917 [where he received the capital sentence]: 

“Previous to enlisting as a soldier in the Australian Army [I believed] that Germany intended to crush her European enemies and by so doing had accepted the policy of might-is-right which is opposed to the ideals of Humanity and Civilisation.

“About eleven months ago, England to my mind adopted the same policy [these words underlined in blue by his prosecutors] towards Germany. England’s policy at that time consist[ed] of no peace conferences until Germany was crushed so as to teach them a lesson of virtue. When the war had reached this stage, it was no longer a war of resistance….

“I enlisted to fight for a Peace without conquerors or conquered, as a Peace under those conditions as [does?] nothing to justify another war, either as a war of revenge by the Conquered, or a war of Glory and Patriotic land-grabbing by Conquerors.”

Private E. J. Ryan’s Statement to his Court Martial, 12 September 1917, as circulated to those attending Professor Newton’s talk,  National Library of Australia, 14 November 2018. The original document is held by National Archives of Australia.

I trust this gives enough encouragement to read the full account to appear in 2019. For further in depth reading I can recommend John Moses’ related scholarly account on the events in the ruling circles in Germany leading up to the war that has just appeared, bringing together a lifetime of scholarly attention.

For the final isaa talk of the year one of John’s eminent German colleagues Helmut Bley spoke about August Bebel,  who lead the Social Democrats through 40 years  the democratic revival that marked Wilhelmine Germany of the second half of the 19th century, up to the War. The possibility of  Social Democracy emerging as dominant German power in the aftermath of an early conclusion to the war may well have been as much on the mind of Lloyd George as crushing the Hohen Zollerns. 

Who knows what isaa will dish up in Canberra in 2019? 

*Ned Twynam, career Major in the Australian Army, in a short note to his brother before embarking for France from Egypt in 1916, instructs Henry, in the event of his being killed, to insist on full pay entitlements from the Army. The other things on his mind was disposal of his horse (to be shot, rather than left in less scrupulous hands), and his mother’s carved chair, sharing space in the cow shed.

** More specific context is in another blog post referencing work by Newton:

*** For a more complete coverage of the implications in marking this centenary see

Post Script – 100 years of remembrance

Remembrance Day 2018 coincided with the tenth Richlands Open Day, when we throw open the historic Richlands homestead to the public.

Lately the Day has been popular with people tracing their roots to the early days of European Settlement, who have found a reference to the Macarthurs’ Richlands estate in their researches. This Parramatta and Camden-based family were prominent in official and business circles of the new colony; the most successful of the early entrepreneurial class.

Their lowland Scottish, and Devon farming, origins are reflected in the estates they established – firstly at Camden, named for John Macarthur’s patron Lord Camden, then at Richlands on the central tablelands; taking advantage of early discovery of good pastoral lands beyond the confines of Sydney, but after the first rush to take up land on the Bathurst plain following the crossing of the Blue Mountains.

In both cases they built up small communities of tenant farmers, inducing them to take up land around the main holding (Camden) or accumulated land holdings (Richlands). They employed assigned servants with required skills chosen from the arriving convict transports, or leased farm land on generous terms to young village families displaced by widespread rural poverty in England at the time. In time these groups blended as fair treatment by the landowning family induced long term loyalty to the places they settled.

Through their assiduous descendants we have been gratefully accumulating the stories of individual migrants who passed through – typically placed initially in Camden, then moved across the range to Richlands. These add to a progressive documentation of the estate history – otherwise overlooked in the official accounts of John Macarthur and his family and their pivotal role in the life of the colony from its first days (1791 onwards).

The homestead itself dates from the early 1840s – constructed in two stages 1841-44, and 1845-47 using respectively convict and paid labour. It retains most of the features of its original construction (as a residence and defensive headquarters for estate workers) notwithstanding the hundred years of Twynam possession, and shows no signs of disappearing.

This year was no different, with several parties intent on placing their forebear within the estate chronology, but with a wealth of genealogical information besides. However what people see, apart from the fabric of the house, and the vestiges of original plantings in the drive and orchard, is its adaptation as a family home and livelihood on the land over several generations; and the occupations, culture and background of the inhabitants and their relatives.

We were conscious of the date and this year we wanted to mark the centenary commemoration of Armistice Day in some way. Ned and Joan Twynam in the first war and Ted and Dorcas Twynam in the second had served in different capacities. Between them they echoed the motives, experiences and sacrifices of a large part of the rural population whose natural loyalty was towards the British home country.

Ned acquired a commission in the nascent Australian army some years prior to the start of the war. At outbreak he, Conrad style, sailed up the Fly in a schooner to take the surrender of German planters in New Guinea, later serving in the Middle East and France.

Joan had already spent several intrepid years as a pioneer bush nurse; and transferred to the first drafts of the Army Nursing Service in 1914 as an ‘efficient’. She was to spend 5 years abroad, mostly close to the battles, earning the highest award available. She could take no advantage in later life, however, never comfortably off and disappointed in career openings, finally supporting her ailing elder sisters, and assorted maimed veterans on modest rental income.

Both Joan and Ned witnessed Gallipoli – Joan from hospital ships and the Lemnos beach evacuation camps; Ned in training soldiers in the desert, before playing a short but significant role in the peninsular evacuation. Their nephew Andrew Cunningham narrowly survived the ANZAC campaign to distinguish himself later in the drive through Gaza to Damascas.

His mother Mary Cunningham was a socially prominent conscription referendum ‘Yes’ campaigner, reflecting her anxiety of the over reliance of imperial commanders on early volunteers from the colonies, and the brunt they bore in casualty lists. Nevertheless three of her daughters married officers graduating from the neighbouring, and recently open Duntroon, Commonwealth army staff training college.

The social consequences for this appetite for the military life have been played out within the family in a number of ways; perhaps best marked by the omnipresence of images in uniform on mantlepieces, frozen as if this were the family’s peak collective achievement, outstripping diverse personal and occupational incidents and accomplishments attached to their divergent personalities.

The shadows – Ned’s probable suicide on his scrabble soldier settler block after being turned away from enlisting in 1943; Ted KIA; Joan’s stoic dedication to picking up the pieces of smashed lives – seemed to us more important to remember than pride in their service – although there is that, privately, too.  

Any way at 11am visitors assembled in front of the house for 2 minutes silence, reflecting or not as they chose.  

In case you felt alone in querying the motives of boosters of this centenary, you may find some consolation in a posting from the London Review of Books and generated comments. After all our 62,000 ‘dead on the battlefield’ pales compared to the millions of victims – military and civil, on all sides at home, and among those over whose land the wars were fought – in this unnecessary but inevitable war:

If you are curious about the Twynams (my mother’s family), my notes, put together ahead of this event, will go up soon. My own raw thoughts, on attending the Australian premiere of Chris Latham’s  AWM-sponsored ‘Diggers Requiem’, are in a letter to the editor draft. A somewhat cut (and watered) down version did appear in the Canberra Times.

srth nov 2018

Remembrance 2018

In preparing Richlands for its 10th open day I am mindful of it happening to fall on the centenary of Armistice Day now tricked up as Remembrance Day, remembering the sacrifices in war etc. celebrated officially with much patriotic effusiveness, in marked contrast with the neglect of R Days in the immediate past.

It has been appropriated, reconfigured, re-burnished, or turned inside out by each of the belligerants to the original conflagration. In Australia we have transferred allegiance to such marks of collective reflection entirely to our own day – the One Day of the Year – in April.

But never let an opportunity pass us by. The guns fall silent and the commemorations recommence. Blasted into our living rooms, mystifying yet again our young population, whose experience of war is much fresher, much less to be celebrated, more a lurid perpetual image on screen, the line of endless doco-esque dramas or a ghastly gap in parents accounts of their former lives, instrumental in some unspoken way in bringing them to this country, whose primary quality was that here there was no war to speak of.

Now guns falling silent is an anachronism, for the Western World for ever looking for somewhere to deploy more of them, and another excuse for their exercise.

We had our freshly former prime minister yesterday on live television saying in a bunch of different tones and ways, that the only explanation for why his colleagues sacked him was that they had gone mad. I feel that this apothegm is equally appropriate for nations whose only way of acting normally is to build and promote ever more sophisticated methods of subduing others to their idea of civilisation, bringing ultimately all civilisations down.

With that off my chest, I will return to thinking about the part our family played in the War, what that did to them; and what they sacrificed on behalf of an impulse to empire. The soldiering profession was an outlet for people like my forebears where they had a chance of achieving status in a changing modernising world; of exercising the opportunities of new freedoms – of education, for men and women, of movement, and from early death.

There are studio photos of men in uniform – typically career officers; in the case of one branch combining civilian professions with military – as engineers, or medicos. Wars came and went, yet these people served wherever they happened to be sent – for the nineteenth century this meant mostly the subcontinent, but towards the end it also meant South Africa and the West Indies.

This is the opposite of madness. It was a natural duty of provincials not locked into political careers, but otherwise contained within a caste system that required connections and standing. Assortative mating was unheard of – you married who best served in the game of title inheritance. Yes, for our vigorous, adventurous, sober, level headed, quietly proud, forbears, a uniform counted as currency, as much as a plate on the door or rooms in Lincoln Inns Fields; or title to parcels of land in the centuries preceding.

They played honourable but not very colourful roles in wars; mostly they came back, and resumed peaceful lives in the counties, with whatever the army or navy could afford in the way of pension. If they had not already chosen marriage partners from the cultural or economic circles of their familiars, if not by preference suitably distant cousins, then from what passed as such in the outposts to which they were sent.

Their military exploits seem incidental. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that wherever they were in the world, their task was to cruel the chances of rival empire building states, notably the French, the Dutch and then the Germans. At one stage the Russians loomed, and before them the Americans; notwithstanding that the ruling circles in each of these aspirant imperial powers were hopelessly interwoven themselves, by marriage or interest, or tradition and history.

This insight came to me in a remarkable way on Monday, reading a self published memoir of the field diary of Captain Robert Parker that is a family relic in my care. Parker at 14 years forewent his further education to join a regiment of foot – swayed as he said by their smart dress while marching through town, and encouraged by the officer in charge. The army in Ireland had not a lot of fighting to do, although Louis 14th’ flowering autocracy, and increasing religious intolerance, was a source of rising anxiety in the Kingdom, acutely so in Ireland with the ascension of James II in 1680.

Married to an Italian, James was to all intents a papist, and his intentions became clear as he purged all high army and church posts of people loyal to the established church. Command of the army In Ireland was James proxy, a single minded man loyal to the one true religion who could rely on imperial French reinforcements.

Robert was inspired by the defiance to Louis’ designs on Europe by William of  Orange, and decided to join him in Holland to find if there was not a more congenial career fighting under his flag.

Events however took charge; by the time he reached London, the Revolution was already in train. William arrived as James, his brother-in-law, fled. Young Robert found his way to his old regiment, and commander who was in process of loudly pledging allegiance to the new protestant King. The Irish army however as reconstituted under James held out against William.  James was by then living under the protection of Louis in Paris.

So Robert Parker’s first active duty was fighting for William against the army of James in his own country, events now ossified in the rituals of the Orange order. Robert’s account though is clear eyed, noting the details of action, the long periods of ennuie endured by soldiers everywhere; the brief moments of high drama and chaos, and the adventitious nature of outcomes.

In the course of these battles both the great Huguenot General Schomberg, and the Irish Army commander were killed; William, only months from seizing power,  leading his army into battle was hit in the shoulder by musket ball but treated in the field. That French soldiers were fighting on each side, allowed for infiltration and treachery. The Irish in James army scattered with the loss of their commander. Evidently they had little appetite for the raging battles between Protestant and Catholic Europe fought over their country.

Robert’s first hand accounts were published some 50 years or more after the events they describe by his son somewhat apologetically on account of Robert’s English lacking the flourish regarded as a mark of a properly educated man of the time.

In generations that followed Parkers and D’Esterres intermarried; the latter arriving in the south of Ireland in the 17th century fleeing religious persecution. Their status as minor aristocracy meant it was an easy fit into the protestant landholder class of southern Ireland.

A hundred years on another Parker commanding a naval vessel, in a squadron stationed off Irish waters chasing French ships, drowned with the rest of the crew as a result of a storm, perhaps Louis’ revenge. A cousin, John Parker, a General in one of the armies of the British East India Company, in a footnote to this thesis, had lost his life a few years earlier in the 2nd Rohinya war being fought between rival princes in the northwest of India.

Add a further hundred years or so and more descendants were answering the call to the flag: of my grandmother’s three brothers one was a professional soldier serving in Africa; a second a Medico trained in England joining the Australian Ambulance Corps on the Gallipoli peninsular, a third served as Surgeon Commander in the Royal Navy. The very flag to which they were called has turned up among family things in a suitcase.

Military life was likewise not foreign on the other, English county, side of my mother’s family, although in their case at more obvious cost in time of war. One branch lost five sons on the western Front; another who had over generations been in colonial service in the subcontinent, conspicuously in the army. In our time a great uncle, Edward (Ned) Twynam started life as a  professional soldier in the nascent Australian army before the war broke out, served as a major in mounted infantry in Egypt, Gallipoli and France. Ned’s younger sister Joan was among the first group of army nurses to reach the Middle East, and nursed with distinction there and over four of what must have been gruelling years in the 2nd Australian General Hospital in the north of France.

The family of their elder sister Mary grew up in the shadow of Duntroon; furnishing brides for three officers in training (two marrying in haste in Egypt), a son, Andy, who was shot narrowly escaping death on Gallipoli, received the military medal for exploits in the Palestine campaign and was court martialled for reckless behaviour while on leave in Cairo.

The youngest son of this large family was called Alexander, but universally known as Pax  as born at the cessation of the Boer Wars. Mary herself, conscious of the increasing likelihood that her eldest son, and heir to her father-in-law’s pastoral empire, whose appetite for fighting seemed to know no bounds, would not survive the war unless overstretched volunteers were relieved, campaigned publicly, and conspicuously for the introduction of conscription. Her sister Phoebe, married to the chief executive of the P&O line in Australia, threw her grand society self into the tasks of organising civilian support – the VAD in Sydney and later working with Red Cross in London.

The shadow of the war did not leave the family at the Armistice: Andy drove trucks in highly risky and adventurous circumstances between Burma and China in the second war. Ned reapplied for service, after commanding the 7th Light Horse militia through the interim peace, was knocked back on age, and died soon after on his rough scrabble soldier settler block, and by his own hand (although his intention was not clear). Joan applied for matronships in veteran rehab hospitals, was unsuccessful and left to work in hospitals in the Northern Territory, before returning to genteel poverty, taking in shell shocked veterans in a boarding arrangement for which she may have received some income (or not).

And then it all started again a generation later. My uncle Ted Twynam and his cousin Jim Nimmo both joined the airforce after the outbreak of war but at different times, and both were killed in action: shot down, Jim over Denmark early in the war; Ted towards its end in a mass raid on the Ruhr.

Jim’s sister Anne was contacted by a representative of a small country museum near the crash site that housed relics from the young allied servicemen who had defended their country. In a moving gesture Jim’s watch, recovered from the wreckage 50 years before, was returned to Anne in person by one of its local guardians. Their father, however pursued a military career in a new direction, arguably away from war: as General Nimmo he was the longest serving chief of UN Peacekeeping forces, serving for 17 years in Kashmir, and dying ‘in harness’ respected by all sides.

Ted’s sister, Dorcas, like other cousins inspired by their aunt Joan, had trained as a nurse, and enlisted early in the second war; serving in the Middle East before being recalled, along with Australian army units that had been sent to support the British in North Africa, but now left Australia’s defence dangerously exposed, in a dash to bolster thin defence of New Guinea against the rapidly advancing the Japanese imperial army. For this Curtin brought down the wrath of Churchill, and established for the first time a clear break from past subservience to the empirial interest. An attitude incidentally that was shared by the Japanese themselves. Dorcas was to spend the rest of the war in field stations in New Guinea, demobbed only in 1946.

Ted and Dorcas were to meet, in uniform, by hazard in transit in Brisbane – we have a photo of this occasion. Ted was heading for the Empire Air Training School in Canada and thence to Kestern in Lincolnshire and Bomber Command; Dorcas entrained to Port Moresby, and later forward hospitals. Ted was piloting a Lancaster heavy bomber in a mass bombing raid on the Ruhr in the German industrial heartland, at the nd of his tour, 5 months before German surrender, and well after the end of land hostilities in Europe, when the plane was destroyed by defending fighter aircraft.

My mother called on her brother’s grave in the imperial, now Commonwealth war cemetery at Kleve, close to the border with Holland  while visiting Europe in 1953 to meet my father’s family for the first time. My father grew up in Cologne in a villa by the Rhine that had been sequestered as quarters for British officers after the first war, and was completely destroyed by British bombs early in the next war.

The family however were forced out of Germany by the race laws just prior to its commencement, My father, Robert Victor Horn, born on the 1st of August 1914. the day the war commenced, christened with the expressed desire by his parents in an (early) German victory – on completing university studies made his way in Australia, at first as ‘stateless’ gaining citizenship and joining the Australian army at the first opportunity.

RVs call up for overseas posting came a week after his marriage to my mother – in fact via telegram at the Streampacket Hotel on the Clyde during their bicycle honeymoon trip down the highway from Goulburn to Nowra, and a month after her brother had been notified as missing in action. Robert (RV) was to spend 12 months on Bougainville in a back water of the war; my mother’s family receiving confirmation through the Red Cross of Ted’s death in the meantime.

In this time and across this war torn space my two grandmothers exchanged cordial greetings, and homely parcels; my mother was received warmly from the beginning; as was my father despite the family having lost their only son in hostilities.

My father would brush off the everyday hostility he, and other ‘new citizens’, experienced. He like most migrants, not from ‘home’ could hardly attach themselves to empire and race loyalties; but he did have an immediate identification with Australia as a new country, building new traditions and capable of thinking for itself.

In his career interest in the denominators of wellbeing in his various roles as banker, economist, statistician, he explored the everyday dignities and diversities of people, not only in our world but all over the world where we can exchange fellow feeling.

His insights are not unusual, in fact are those of ordinary soldiers in war although in that case in heightened form, able to sense and mock absurdities of the powerful. A good general is one who cares that that his decisions are biased to the fighting performance, and survival, of his troups. His loyalties lie there.

My father’s start in the army, in an employment company mixing with a motley of aliens and refugees, left him with permanent disc injury, and empathy for assimilation efforts of others into Australian life and aspiration.

We treasure the issues of Tropic Spread, he edited while passing the time in an army barracks in Rabaul, and in particular the remarkably identifiable ink caricature of  ‘the Ed’ by the resident cartoonist in the unit. Not being trusted with a gun, he could nevertheless wield a pen, or rather the keys of a hard worked remington portable, that continued to see service well into our growing up years.

Of the few souvenirs he brought back from New Britain, the most important, apart from an anguished samurai print, were artefacts of village life, a core of his subsequent collecting. In this is an echo of Ned’s first experience of action in the First War, sailing on a schooner up the Fly River to take surrender of the small German planter colony. His prize souvenir was a horn German drinking cup.

The courage to fight on, so apotheosised in our representation of wars, comes with the reserve that war is in itself an anathema. We need the courage to stop wars, to build peace. The two minutes on the 11th of the 11th will be (for me) dedicated to this thought and these people. You will have your own thoughts.


I will be using this site for posting progress in making Horn and Twynam family documents accessible to the extended family in a durable, reliable and balanced form. I invite all with interests intersecting to contribute their own perspectives, results, and corrections.

Where the family stories can be of wider public significance the site can serve to launch well grounded publication in what ever format serves this interest.

The project has been motivated by finding myself in custody of papers, objects, correspondence bundles assembled and carefully stowed by  far sighted relatives who wished that their story and that of their origins be passed on to new generations.

A little night music

I saw seven girls in saris
Move up our street; How sweet

Ignore the four islander boys
outdoor arm chair guffaws, to-all.

On the hill crest clouds
Explode in rose and mauve

Pass by squinting through glass
ordinary folk engulfed

In their shadowy flickering,
Made to fit, capsules for living

We walk out into the night,
Dogs in tow, follow that same path

Up and down not seeing,
Not good at seeing, trite.

Do Australians care about science?

Well Canadians do (apparently); and they do more than just about anyone else. See the release today posted on; reporting on a study commissioned by the Council of Canadian Academies.

The Council  – ” an independent, not-for-profit organization that began operation in 2005. [it] supports evidence-based, expert assessments to inform public policy development in Canada. Assessments are conducted by independent, multidisciplinary panels of experts from across Canada and abroad. [its] blue-ribbon panels serve free of charge and many are Fellows of the Council’s Member Academies: the Royal Society of Canada; the Canadian Academy of Engineering; and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. The Council’s vision is to be a trusted voice for science in the public interest.

The manner of summarising bears some examination, but that aside, the message it conveys is worthy of reflection, given that its Australian counterpart has this month embarked on a new exercise to measure the dollar contribution of the core sciences to the Australian economy.

The Australian Chief Scientist has asked the Australian Academy of Sciences to devise an Australian version of recently released report into contribution of the Mathematical Sciences to the UK economy (conducted for the Royal Society by the accounting firm Deloites). AAS has in turn commissioned the Centre of International Economics to undertake this assignment for the core Australian science disciplines – interpreted as mathematics, physics, chemistry and earth sciences.

It is the inverse question to that posed in Canada: not whether people rank science as important in their world view and whether they are equipped to understand the scientific ramifications in public policy, but rather how much of our present propserity do we owe to ‘new’ science, and so the value of science as an activity or infrastructure in the policy field.

In other words why it is perhaps dangerous for the public to be unconcerned about science done in its name, or to support activities impinging on social cohesion and the ordinary enjoyment of life; why a disinvestment in science as a nationally recognised activity – in secondary and tertiary education; in public and private research – may be more than a little dangerous. 

The most direct way to make this argument is to map current economic activity in relation to reliance on a science base. The absence of that base can then be seen to come at a measurable cost, that can be weighed against other calls on government.

It could well be that Australians unknowingly have been enjoying the benefits of past investment in science, but have been excluded from or left behind in scientific literacy to secure the investment, leaving us exposed and languishing – as the Canadian report by extension indicates.

And what about statistics?

Should not our national agencies be monitoring not only the financial and material investment in science – the knowledge economy – but as well the human investment? The value – moral as much as ethical or monetary of knowing about the world and our place in it. How can people and their representatives be aware of the role of science in their lives, and the role of scientific evidence in decisions without an objective official statistical frame?

The Office of the Chief Scientist may stand in for a “Council of Academies” that can supply briefs to the political process on implications of foundational research (and why this is critical to the future – industrial and social). Certainly the present initiative could be said to concord with the role that the CCA has mapped for itself in Canada. Neither however will be effective without expert guidance in the planning, collection, extraction, accumulation, interpretation, presentation and use of official statistics.

But official statistics is here to be interpreted more broadly than usual: clearly agency collections are hostage to a conservative interpretation: as set out in legislation and circumscribed by a heirarchy of users and a diminishing budget.

What is needed is official statistics as embraced as an area of expertise, of objective and constructive advice, working with public interest organisations in parallel with the portfolio responsibility of government, but not limited to priorities set from government; instead addressing the domain of public policy, in the sense used by the CCA.

Furthermore representatives of the discipline of official statistics can act as (and be seen as) a ‘disinterested party’ alongside the core professions; the institutions of organised science; the enthusiastic advocacy of citizens for policy enlightened by good research, whether local or global, and not coloured by wishful thinking or distorted lenses applied to partial data, typical in the constraints of public advocacy.

Your ideas?

Stephen Horn       

The omics of Official Statistics

Professor Terry Speed’s AMSI-SSAI Lecture today at the Knibbs theatre provokes the following reflection.

Nuisances crowd out the signal – this is as true in genomics (or any of the bioinformatical omics spawned therefrom – proteomics; metabolomics; transferomics) as it is in modern official statistics, hand maiden to policy and socio-econometric modelling.

Nuisance however deserves attention. In an ideal world all data provided in statistical returns is simultaneously correct and perfectly recorded and transmitted. Furthermore the design of this ideal collection is itself perfect: the data collected is sufficient to answer the questions posed by users in their collectivity, without altering the inclination of respondents to cooperate, nor altering their behaviour in so doing. That is, the measurement process is dimensionless.

No one pretends that these conditions hold, or even approximately hold.

Instead the data resulting from the collection effort is conditioned by a quality framework that allows it to recede to the background. Official releases thus come with two crutches: formal rules of population inference – what can be inferred; its accuracy – centring on a true value, and precision – the width of the interval around an estimate containng the true value with certain confidence; and adherence to the nuisance-containing practices embodied in the collection operation.

These practices comprise the design. And this explains why official statistics is stubbornly design-based, even as statistics proper has struck out into the protean world of model building and model-based inference.

Both model-based and design-based approaches have been compromised by nuisance effects despite the loud and redundant appeals to ‘scientific method’ or ‘quality assurance’ respectively. In the one case data richness (and sample size) and spurious replicability obscured the real limitation of data acquisition; the other the drag induced by quality assurance required a stability in underlying processes which has patently been compromised in an external context of open data borders.

Can the negative control method elegantly applied to bioinformatics save official statistics too? Or rather if we take nuisance more seriously may we be inspired to find a more solid platform for the presentation of statistics used in public discourse?

If we restate the issue slightly differently – how to extract a consistent, reliable and useful signal of bearing to social governance from a multiplicity of data frames, where the criterion for signal quality (analogous to the deeper scientific truths underpinning bioinformatics or statistical investigation of physical or chemical phenomena) is encoded in the legislative ethos of government itself.

This not only allows nuisance but assumes it: the act of reducing an uncontrolled flow to a signal under metastatistical protocols (such as pre-existant or circumstantially imposed indicator series; or standards) is the badge of official statistics, best expressed by appeal to design. Certainly it is possible to improve on theory; most transparently by reviewing how deviations from design (for instance dealing with overlapping discordant collections) build a core assurance mechanism.

It happens that the methods put forward by Professor Speed in bioinformatics; and the discordancy accepting extension results that can be built from the geometric basis to sampling theory of Paul Knottnerus’ text play similar roles in the respective contexts. In both cases a fresh appraisal of the context in which statistics is applied has lead to results with immediate application as well as great generality.

Knottnerus, P., Samnple Surveys – a Euclidean view, Springer 2003

Aesthetics and topology

This remains a title looking for an argument, at the moment. Those doing mathematics don’t need the garnish of an extra category to place what they do or what its intended reception is, as would be the case for instance in the realisation of a building project, or the creation of a film, or a work of art. But the practice of mathematics is governed by a severe aesthetic – from setting or defining the problem within a theory, to searching through heuristics for some way to advance it, to achieving and then refining a solution. The nature of this aesthetic is perhaps best revealed in some of the spectacular failures: the failure to secure a logical foundation for analysis; the ultimate failure of euclidean geometry to satisfactorily encompass the world of experience; the failure of the program to formalise mathematics logically. In each case the elusive aesthetic drove mathematics into new territory; an unsatisfactory state demanded resolution.

Rather than closing off however the result was an opening out to new terrains of abstraction, but as well a striking modernisation of mathematics as a tool for advance into new fields of knowledge or practice. The modern world needed the apparatus made available by nonstandard analysis; by noneuclidean geometry (a precursor of quantum physics); of infiinite recursions in which meadow programming flourished. Russell and Whitehead’s program failure lead to spectacular advances in set theory, algebra and number theory. Something similar could be said of the other road blocks listed.

What is this aesthetic then? A striving but never arriving; a fecundity in what is not yet accomplished, viz a viz what is known, what can be demonstrated, what can be mastered. Is it worth spending time on this meta-mathematical whimsy? Can we indeed apply the discipline of meta mathematics to better understand what motivates a proof in the first place; what drives discovery in a practice that eschews speculation, that demands an extreme deductibility, that seems to call out of the air new limits new rules.

Part 2

Let us for a moment step back from the aesthetics of doing mathematics – of creating mathematics, seeing mathematics as a performance – and reorient the question towards a mathematical interpretation of sense experience. There is after all a mathematics of space relations (geometry), a mathematics of sound (Fourier series and derived functional analysis), a mathematics of taste itself? It seems unlikely, or unproductive. Yet this drive to some resolution of experience reaches into mathematics: the music of the spheres; the golden mean; the magic of conic sections  – a theory elucidated by Pascal; the intriguing fixity of regular polygons and how somehow they influence the distribution of the planets (Kepler).

This search for regularity beyond human agency as a reassurance that we make sense in some wider narrative, be it one of numbers or shapes or laws not conditioned on the physicality of things and how they come to occupy the forms they do. In some sense the shape, the number or the law was there first. Behind superficially simple things are profoundly simple things. This is the realm of mathematics as an aesthetic medium, a precursor to experience.

Perhaps it is indeed a universal this search for perfection, be it in form or in time

Further Reading

Tom McCarthy (2014) ‘Ulysses and Its Wake’ London Review of Books pp39-41, 19 June 2014

Philip J. Davis & Reuben Hersh, (1980) The Mathematical Experience, Pelican Books

Jason Socrates Bardi (2006) The Calculus Wars – Newton, Leibniz and the Greatest Mathematical Clash of All Time, Thunder’s Mouth Press

GH Hardy (1940) A Mathematician’s Apology, Cambridge University Press.

R. Thom (1970) Topologie et Linguistique, Essays on Topology, Volume dedie a G. de Rham, Springer

 Hermann Weyl (1952) Symetrie et mathematique moderne, flammarion