Sunday, 4 December 2016

Glimpses of a Far Off Country












Dennis Potter’s last interview, which he gave to Melvin Bragg, was perhaps one of the most moving I have ever read. He knew, at that time, that he was living on borrowed time. On 14 February 1994, he had learned that he had terminal pancreatic cancer which had metastasised to his liver. It was thought that this was a side effect of the medication he was taking to control his psoriasis.

Everyone is going to die, but Potter lays out this paradox in stark terms, and points out how we ignore this for the most part, and just carry on with life. We do not stop all the time and think about our own mortality, which is probably a good thing, because were we to do so, we would not do anything, and could be paralysed by the knowledge, and the futility of existence. Instead, we are “locked into” our lives, playing them out as if this was a never ending story, as if we were immortals. This is the strange difference between us and other animals, who are sentient, yet do not have a sense of their own future extinction.

“We all, we're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into ... “

But Potter remarks that every so often, events conspire to shake us out of this illusion, and there is an unpredictable element to life. Knowing he had a little time to live, he spoke of how the present became so much more vivid for him, of how he appreciated every passing second rather than giving it not a second glass as time moved inexorably onwards.

“Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable, of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.”

And this the passage which most describes his experience, which shows how this impending sense of mortality is impinging on his existence:

“Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. “

“Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know...”

It reminded me of passages in Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful book “The Farthest Shore”:

“They went on in silence. But Arren saw the world now with his companion’s eyes and saw the living splendour that was revealed about them in the silent, desolate land, as if by a power of enchantment surpassing any other, in every blade of the wind-bowed grass, every shadow, every stone. So when one stands in a cherished place for the last time before a voyage without return, he sees it all whole, and real, and dear, as he has never seen it before and never will see it again.”

This is when Arran and the Mage Ged stand in the dry land of shadows, the land where there are only the shades of self, unknowing, uncaring and lost. Le Guin too, by Ged, has a comment on the gift of knowing death, of our limitations, of the fragility of existence:

“…But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea.”

But while we exist, we can celebrate existence. This is born out again in “The Farthest Shore”:

“As Lookfar approached the islands, Arren saw the dragons soaring and circling on the morning wind, and his heart leapt up with them with a joy, a joy of fulfillment, that was like pain. All the glory of mortality was in that light. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of their flight there was a fierce, willed concord. Arren did not speak, but he thought: I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”

And the Mage Ged has a similar experience of the present:

“And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet would I remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”

There are experiences which give life richness despite its finitude. They are perhaps what C.S. Lewis called joy:

“In a sense, the central story of my life is about nothing else ..... it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.”

“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic; and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally be called unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then, joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”

In more concrete terms, he called it “a desire for our own far-off country”:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things--the beauty, the memory of our own past--are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Candles at Advent













This is a Kyrielle - a French form of rhyming poetry written in quatrains (a stanza consisting of 4 lines), and each quatrain contains a repeating line or phrase as a refrain (usually appearing as the last line of each stanza). This poem was written in November 2005.

Candles at Advent
(A Kyrielle)

We walk in dark, our candles bright
This our procession into light
We walk on far, and chant and pray
Walk on, walk on, the pilgrim way. 

Around the gravestones, by the oak
We halt and hear the prophet spoke
Then walk on far, not here to stay
Walk on, walk on, the pilgrim way. 

We come now to the church entrance
We sing once more, our candles dance
Light on the darkness, shades of gray
Walk on, walk on, the pilgrim way. 

Around to church, at the font we wait
Water of life, sing and celebrate
After darkest night, comes newest day
Walk on, walk on, the pilgrim way. 

At the altar, we feast on bread and wine
We kneel in joy at sacramental sign
Here we are bound with agape
Walk on, walk on, the pilgrim way. 

Now blessing be of the Three in One
Renewed, once more, we have begun
To follow again, in prayer this day
Walk on, walk on, the pilgrim way.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Snippets from the Archive: 1977


















Snippets from the Archive: 1977

JEP: Broadsheet to Tabloid

On 24th February 1977, the Jersey Evening Post announced that it would begin a new era in printing from its new purpose built complex at Five Oaks. The 87 year old history as a broadsheet would come to an end, and it would change to a tabloid size.

They were very careful to put some distance between themselves and the tabloids: “Examine the ‘Daily Mail’ or the newly designed ‘Daily Express’. That is the size we are going to be, but that does not mean we are going to look like them or be like them”.

The 20 page broadsheet edition would become a 40 page tabloid in the new format. Despite the way the paper size varies from day to day, Monday this week was 68 pages, so the increase in page count is still there.

But in 1977, the price was 7p, and it is now 65p! Measuring worth says that “In 2015, the relative value of £0.07 from 1977 ranges from £0.37 to £0.87”. So it is within the range we might expect given inflation.

Before making the change, the JEP commissioned an Island wide survey and undertook extensive research both in Jersey and the UK (which they insist on calling “the mainland”).

“Local research has shown a preference of 7 to 2 in favour of the new format and that not only is it more attractive to younger readers, but also equally acceptable to the more mature reader, who finds difficulty handling and turning the current size of page”

Editor Mike Rumfitt said:

“A change of face for the ‘JEP’ in no way reflects a change of heart, mind or beliefs. Real efforts will be therefore be made to ensure that even though it is more convenient to handle, the new ‘JEP’ will still reflect the thoughts and concerns, the weaknesses and strengths, the success and failures of Jersey as an Island and Jersey as a people.”

Hardbencher, alias Betty Brooke was writing in the JEP at the time. She did the political commentary, often quite barbed but fun. Later, of course, she became a Senator in the States and stopped and I suspect found the frustrations which come from being a pundit offering criticisms and solutions from outside, and trying to get the States to do anything.

I always think of the States rather like a large ship – the Ship of States – which because of its huge bulk and weight, takes a long time to turn to a different direction. The Titanic had those problems, and it is ok, as long as there are no icebergs up ahead. The nautical theme came through in her piece which was entitled “Hardbencher in the HMS Jersey ‘Jollity’”.

Whatcha Mate!

Colomberie “Mates” win Court action against UK chain is another story. “Mates” was a retail supplier of men and women’s clothes with 40 outlets, and when they decided to set up shop in Jersey, they discovered another outlet in Colomberie with the same name, “and a similar trading format of selling men and women’s clothing in the same shop”. The joint chairman of the UK “Mates”, Alan Grieve, thought they had a legitimate grievance.

They brought a court action to restrain the local shop from using the name, but it was dismissed by the Deputy Bailiff, Mr Peter Crill, who said that the UK Mates had to prove that their businesses was distinctive and recognised in Jersey, and that there was a possibility of confusion between their business and that of the defendant company. He said there was insufficient evidence to show that the UK “Mates” was well known in Jersey.

Today, of course, they might well have an internet presence which they could use to be more well known locally, and the argument might be harder to sustain.


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Why Jersey Needs Estonia and Digital IDs













I’m in two minds about this flight to the UK for the Estonian Ambassador, Lauri Bambus, and his colleagues. On the one hand, it looks like a cavalier decision without forward consultation with his Ministerial colleagues by Senator Ozouf, but on the other, there is some justification for such a decision in this case.

That is because what is said about Estonia is correct. They are streets ahead of the UK, France – and Jersey – and a world leader in digital services. The benefits could be enormous if we want to develop our own digital economy, and use digital services to streamline government. 

Previously, over the last ten years, the Digital Jersey project (and to be fair, this was before Tony Moretta came on board) has been an abject failure. Let us not forget it has seen the resignation of one CEO in 2013 and a number of criticisms at its failure to move forward. Three years ago, there were lots of sound-bites but little substance.

CEO of Digital Jersey, Tony Moretta pointed out that Estonia has been instrumental in helping develop Jersey's digital infrastructure - including the new Digital ID system.

“Given the huge amount of guidance and assistance we are being given by Estonia, this is the least we could do as a good host. It is behaviour like this that forges strong relationship, and it is in Jersey’s interests that we have that with Estonia.”

But what we need is more transparency about the benefits. Senator Ozouf did not, in any of the reported sound-bites, mention the new Digital ID system. It is said as an aside by Tony Moretta. This I think is a mistake – if this was one of the core reasons for coming to Jersey, can we have some more detailed information on how Estonia is helping us, some flesh on the bones, so to speak.

At the moment, all we have is vague mention of lots of meetings with important people and sectors of the economy such as Digital Jersey, IT companies, Telecoms companies etc. This is not helping Senator Ozouf’s case. We need better communications, preferably by someone who can report in layman’s terms, and not in smooth vacuous sound-bites. I’m sure the detail is there: we just need someone who can write good English to do it.

So what is a digital ID solution? And what is happening with it? One document gives some details:

A digital ID solution is one of the foundational building blocks for government online services. Until now within Jersey, each online service that has required an authentication facility has built its own, leading to a proliferation of similar but incompatible systems of user names and passwords. A corporate digital ID system will provide a standard platform that the majority of Jersey’s government online services will use.

A recommended approach1 was reviewed by key stakeholders who concluded: The proposal: ‘to establish an Alpha project which, using the GOV.UK Verify hub as the model architecture, will build a prototype identity assurance hub for Jersey and establish high level requirements for the data integration approach.’ was accepted with the following requirements:

  • Success criteria and critical questions should be agreed by stakeholders ahead of initiating the Alpha project.
  • The project is anticipated to last four months at a total estimated cost of £50k
  • In addition, a parallel, short life, work stream should be established to identify whether a product exists that, in contrast to the GOV.UK Verify model tested in the Alpha project: 
  • Relies exclusively on SOJ data for the provision of a digital ID 
  • Represents an alternative commercial model, specifically based on product purchase as opposed to third party service provision.

It is this second part where we are looking to Estonia, as the UK has only just introduced its own model, and we do not want to go that way and have "buyers remorse" at taking the wrong option. As Estonia has the best alternative model, that is clearly why we have been in contact with them. Why reinvent the wheel?

The States of Jersey has a number of online services that are being introduced in 2017 and 2018 which are dependent on a digital identity solution. The cost savings that those initiatives will bring are key to Jersey achieving a balanced budget so they cannot be delayed. The strategic digital identity solution therefore must be available for integration, testing and public beta by March 2017 and must be fully live by September 2017.

And from the Minutes of the Committee des Connétables, we can see how this filters through to all parts of our government services:

The Comité received the Programme Director - eGov, Chief Minister’s Department, and considered a paper seeking in principle approval for the interfacing of LICAR (the Jersey driving licence system) to the United Kingdom Cabinet Office to facilitate the provision of a digital ID for an individual.

A common digital ID system was a core component of the eGov strategy and would remove the need for multiple, service specific logons, reducing the number of passwords a user must remember and providing a faster, more efficient way to engage with the parishes or States.

An important privacy principle was that the hub did not store any data about a person’s identity but data provided by a person to the Identity Provider would be checked against that held by authoritative data sources and a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer would be returned on whether the data provided by the applicant was valid. Important privacy principles had been designed into the system in order to ensure compliance with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) which would become law across Europe and the U.K. in May 2018; equivalent legislation was expected to be enacted in Jersey











And what has Estonia got to offer:

Estonia is a pioneer in public sector digitisation. Every citizen has a digital ID card, which means inter alia that they can use their computers or smart phones to vote in election

Every Estonian has two PIN codes, one for authentication – enabling the owner to prove his/her identity – and the other to give agreement or approval, e.g. to sign a document or make a payment. An authentication service uses a central database to check that the card and code correspond. The system has already been up and running for ten years and to date no security breach has been reported.

The administration offers citizens a total of no less than 600 e-services and 2,400 services are available online to businesses. In addition, by enabling Estonians to cast a vote remotely in just a few minutes, the digital identity approach is helping to strengthen the democratic process and reduce voter abstentions. Authentication software allows people to cast their ballot online. Votes are then encrypted to maintain anonymity and forwarded to the relevant polling office. Estonians can also use a special SIM card, which identifies the user, to vote from their mobile devices.

In conclusion...

So in conclusion.... compared with the South African flights, and the travel and accomodation costs incurred which have already been controversial, I think this may well be a good use of taxpayers money. 

My suggstion: could we please have this "emergency reserve" incorporated in the budget, so it can be allowed for in advance in future.That way, there are no nasty surprises. If not used, it can be carried forward to next year.

And please can we have some details, even if not technically specific, about what the meetings that took place here were all about, in language that is not composed of smooth sounding sound-bites. Senator Ozouf needs to work on improving his skills there, and still manages to sound more like an estate agent sound-bite generating machine.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth















The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth

“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
― William Bradford

There was a fascinating drama documentary on BBC2 last night, “The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth” which looked at the foundation story of Thanksgiving Day, the settlement at Plymouth plantation.

It began with William Bradford who born in 1590 in Austerfield, Yorkshire. This was a small farming community, and the young William was orphaned by the time he was seven, and raised thereafter by his uncle Robert Bradford. A sickly boy, he spent much time reading the Bible, and then as he became older, found the ministry of Richard Clyfton and John Smith.

Separatist churches were not popular, but under Elizabeth I, the penalties began with fines, and were permitted a certain latitude. This meagre toleration vanished under James I, who wanted a unified kingdom, in which there would be no dissent. As titular head of the Church of England, as well as King of England, any dissent would not just be considered religious but political, so that by 1607 the Anglican Church was applying far more pressure to stamp out dissent.

Ages 18, William Bradford and his fellow separatists looked to find toleration in the Netherlands, and they arrived in 1608 and settled in Amsterdam. A year later the small religious community moved to the town of Leiden, Holland, where they remained for eleven years. There, he took up the trade of a silk weaver. As immigrants, they found work not on farms and small holdings but had to turn to factory work, which left little spare time, but they did enjoy freedom from persecution.

He describes this in his journal:

"For these & some other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweete situation, but made more famous by ye universitie wherwith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned man. But wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes, it was not so beneficiall for their outward means of living & estats. But being now hear pitchet they fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at lenght they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor”

It should be noted that in this predictionary world, the spellings of words were very fluid, and in part more phonetical than became the case later. An individual might spell the same word several different ways.

Despite freedom from persecution, the 30 years war broke out across Europe, and they looked for a place more secure and safe . The Thirty Years' War was a series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history. It was the deadliest European religious war, resulting in eight million casualties.

With the help of a London trading consortium, looking for the chance to establish a trading colony, they secured a ship, the Mayflower, and decided to emigrate to the “New World” of America.

The Pilgrims decide to emigrate to America despite the perils and dangers:

Bradford describes these decisions in his history:

"all great & honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted ye dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible. For though their were many of them likely, yet they were not cartaine; it might be sundrie of ye things feared might never befale; others by providente care & ye use of good means, might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through ye help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne, or overcome.” “

“True it was, that such attempts were not to be made and undertaken without good ground & reason; not rashly or lightly as many have done for curiositie or hope of gaine.  But their condition was not ordinarie; their ends were good & honourable; their calling lawfull, & urgente; and therfore they might expecte ye blessing of god in their proceding. Yea, though they should loose their lives in this action, yet might they have comforte in the same, and their endeavors would be honourable. They lived hear but as men in exile, & in a poore condition; and as great miseries might possibly befale them in this place, for ye 12. Years of truce [the truce between Holland and Spain] were now out, & ther was nothing but beating of drumes, and preparing for warr, the events wherof are allway uncertaine.”

Bradford (30 years old) and his wife left on the Mayflower to get to America, but it was journey fraught with hazards. The departure was the wrong time of the year, in September, so they would face the worst of the winter seas, and arrive in winter, a poor time for planting.

Aboard the Mayflower were many stores that supplied the pilgrims with the essentials needed for their journey and future lives. It is assumed that they carried tools and weapons, including cannon, shot, and gunpowder, as well as some live animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, and poultry. Horses and cattle came later

The passage was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship's topside deck until a key structural support timber fractured. The passengers had already suffered agonizing delays, shortages of food, and other shortages, and were now called upon to provide assistance to the ship's carpenter in repairing the fractured main support beam

On November 9, 1620, they sighted present-day Cape Cod. They spent several days trying to sail south to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia, where they had obtained permission to settle from the Company of Merchant Adventurers. However, strong winter seas forced them to return to the harbour at Cape Cod hook, well north of the intended area, where they anchored on November 11.

The passengers were both Bradford’s religious community, and others who were seeking an opportunity as economic migrants, and who did not share the original communities values. While they were anchored the future settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact in order to winter establish legal order and to quell increasing strife within the ranks

While the Mayflower was anchored off Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod, and while many of the Pilgrim men were out exploring and looking for a place to settle, Dorothy Bradford accidentally fell overboard and drowned. This appears as a marginal note in Bradford’s history, because his history is not plain history: it is also a record of God’s providential goodness.

Because of its size, the ship had to anchor out at sea, and it took time to ferry passengers and supplies to the land. Inclement winter weather led to numbers dying of disease on what had become in some ways a ship of death.

"In these hard & difficulte beginings they found some discontents & murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches & carriags in other; but they were soone quelled & overcome by ye wisdome, patience, and just & equall carrage of things by ye Govr and better part, wch clave faithfully together in ye maine. But that which was most sadd & lamentable was, that in 2. or 3. moneths time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: & February, being ye depth of winter, and wanting houses & other comforts; being infected with ye scurvie & other diseases, which this long vioage & their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as ther dyed some times 2. or 3. of a day, in ye foresaid time; that of 100. & odd persons, scarce 50. remained.”

But they did manage to survive, and to build a settlement, strike a political agreement with an Indian tribe that each would come to the others aid, and gradually prosper, but not fast enough for the London merchants, who complained that they were not getting any return for their investment.

John Carver was elected governor of Plymouth, and remained governor until his death a year later in April 1621. Bradford was then elected governor, and was re-elected nearly every year thereafter.

In 1623, he married to the newly arrived widow Alice Southworth, and had a marriage feast very reminiscent of the "First Thanksgiving," with Massasoit and a large number of Indians joining, and bringing turkeys and deer.

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports."

Bradford was the head of the government of Plymouth, oversaw the courts, the colony's finances, corresponded with investors and neighbors, formulated policy with regards to foreigners, Indians, and law, and so had a very active role in the running of the entire Colony. With his second wife, he had three more children, all of whom survived to adulthood and married.

The colony was on the verge of bankruptcy when the war in Europe pushed up the price of beaver fur which was in great demand in London. The war had meant that fur from Europe was costly, and the plentiful supply from the colony led to the merchants founding other larger colonies.

Bradford mourned the passing of the small close knit community in his history:

And thus was this poore church left, like an anciente mother, growne olde, and forsaken of her children, (though not in their affections), yett in regarde of their bodily presence and personall helpfullnes. Her anciente members being most of them worne away by death; and these of later time being like children translated into other families, and she like a widow left only to trust in God. Thus she that had made many rich became her selfe poore.”

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

What Breed is that Doggie in the Window?










Deputy Tracy Valois is quizzing the Home Affairs minister in the States on Tuesday to find out if Customs officers have the skills and resources to identify and detain certain breeds of dogs." This comes after the dog – named Mr Bronx -was impounded at the animal shelter after the family returned from a holiday France with the pet (who had already been in Jersey since last year). Customs said it was a “pit bull”, a dangerous breed. And yet they had allowed its importation in the first place!

Mr Bronx













One site has some interesting facts.

DNA tests of pit bull-looking dogs often come up with some surprising results. One dog, which looked to all intents and purposes like a pit bull, turned out to be 40 percent poodle! That's a funny thought, but for the dogs it's a real problem. Many cities and counties – even whole countries – have laws that ban pit bulls. Law enforcement officers can go into people's homes and take away any dog who has "the appearance of a pit bull." Even if they're 40 percent poodle. They can be taken to the pound and then killed. (1)

How can this be? Another site gives me details, and shows how hard it is, given experimental conditions for identifications of the type to be made on physical aspects of the dig themselves:

“Pit bull” is not a breed but a type that describes several breeds. The American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American pit bull terrier are all pit bulls

An experiment showed how poor even experts are at identification:

At each shelter, the researchers picked out 30 dogs of all different sizes, shapes, and colours, and noted how each dog had been identified. They brought shelter workers from cage to cage and asked them to name each dog’s breed based on its appearance. If the assessor felt strongly that the dog had a secondary breed, they could note that. “Mixed breed” was also an option when they had no idea.

A vet on the research team examined all of the dogs, noting their height, weight, age, colour, and other characteristics. The vet also drew a small amount of blood from the dogs and sent it to a lab that could test their DNA.

The researchers’ hypothesis was correct. “We found that different shelter staffers who evaluated the same dogs at the same time had only a moderate level of agreement among themselves,” Levy said in the press release. And they fared even worse against the DNA analysis.

Shelter workers were able to spot real pit bulls and pit bull mixes 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the worker. But they labelled non-pit-bull dogs as pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time. That’s almost a 1 in 2 chance that a dog with no pit bull DNA could be lumped in with the unfortunate pit bulls. (2)

This is very worrying, In the case of Mr Bronx, as there is no indicator that DNA testing has been used at all and it is clear that visual and physical assessments are highly suspect when it comes to false negatives – that is, incorrectly assessing that a dog is a pit bull when it is not.

In February Customs contacted the family again and told them Mr Bronx was being impounded and would have to stay at the Animals’ Shelter until he could be assessed. Although an independent expert, paid for by the family determined the dog was not a pit bull, a Customs’ expert disagreed, a decision that was recently upheld in court.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the dangers of misidentification mean that there is a tendency to label a dog as a pit bull purely on superficial characteristics and behaviour. A report notes:

A dog that bit a woman in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and was labelled a pit bull is not actually a pit bull, a DNA test by the SPCA shows.

As more municipalities mull bans on pit bulls and other dogs considered dangerous, the animal welfare group wants to show that identifying breeds is trickier than it looks. "It is virtually impossible — every expert, every report you will read, every peer review study explains that you cannot visually identify a dog's breed simply by looking at them," says Alanna Devine, director of animal advocacy for the Montreal SPCA.

In June, a man in NDG was charged with assault for ordering his dog to attack his wife. At the time the dog was identified by police as a pit bull, but the DNA test showed it was a mix of Rottweiler, mastiff and golden retriever. The SPCA says less than one percent of a dog's genes determines its appearance, and that there's no link between specific breeds and aggressiveness. (3)

But in America, DNA testing was used in a similar case to that of Mr Bronx

“Mindy is a canine victim of profiling. She was labelled a pitbull and that made it hard to find someone to adopt her, so shelter volunteers turned to science.”

After being abandoned, Mindy spent 6 months at the Trumbull, Connecticut Shelter. Because she looked like a pitbull, no one wanted to adopt her, so shelter workers looking for a way to help the sweet-natured dog find a home decided to solicit donations to test Mindy’s DNA to find out what she really was.

“Mindy is about 70-percent boxer and also bull terrier. She has some bulldog further down the line and a little bit of English cocker. So much for pit bull. What Mindy also has is a great personality and a bouncing, prancing way of getting around.”

Chalk up another victory for DNA in Kansas City where a man recently won an eight month legal battle with the city to keep his dog after a DNA test showed the dog wasn’t a pit bull.

Niko spent eight months at KCK Animal Control Kennels during his owners fight with the city. Animal Control Staff said the dog was a pitbull (a breed banned in the city), despite his owner’s assertion that Niko is a boxer mix. (4)

The American pit bull terrier is a term which can apply to any of the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and a newer breed called the American bully. But there are no exact defining characteristics, because they share a lot of common characteristics with at least 25 other breeds of dogs, such as smooth coats or blocky heads.

In fact, a 2010 research article entitled “A Simple Genetic Architecture Underlies Morphological Variation in Dogs” demonstrated that “the dog, in contrast to some other species studied to date, appears to have a simple genetic basis dominated by genes of major effect”

Where there are genes of modest or small effect, most of the phenotypes – or traits - including body size, body mass index (BMI), etc appear to be under the control of hundreds of genes, each contributing a very modest amount to the overall heritability of the trait.

“The alternative model is that mutations of large phenotypic effect underlie most of these traits in dogs and that the same variants have been transferred to a wide diversity of dog breeds leading to phenotypic diversity from a narrow genetic base” (5)

This means that domestic dogs exhibit tremendous phenotypic diversity, including a greater variation in body size than any other terrestrial mammal, and moreover, much of the range comes from human intervention in the breeding process.

But this also means that...

“visual dog breed identification is accurate less than 25% of the time—even by professionals. According to Dr. Angela Hughes, a Canine Geneticist for Mars Veterinary, there’s a good explanation for that. “There are about 20,000 genes that go into making up a dog,” she explains. “For example, yellow colour is one gene; short legs is one gene. Of those 20,000 genes, only a couple hundred of them have anything to do with what your dog looks like.”

Dr. Hughes stresses that this is why a dog’s behaviour cannot be predicted by how he looks. “The genes that create a dog’s appearance are not the same genes that are influencing his behaviour,” she says. “That’s why it is important that we don’t pigeon-hole a dog based on how he looks.”

This can be particularly important in cases of breed-specific legislation (BSL), such as when any dogs that appear to be “pit bull type dogs” are banned from cities or automatically euthanized at shelters. Says Dr. Hughes, “It is incredibly difficult to say with any certainty that ‘this is a pit bull’ based on the fact that a dog has a blocky head shape, wide jaw and muscular build. Those same physical characteristics can be achieved from a variety of breeds, such as Boxers, Mastiffs, Bulldogs and many others. What’s more, those physical traits do not influence how that individual dog will behave, as his behaviour may be coming from genes of breeds that he looks nothing like.”(6)

Let us hope that more robust means of identification like DNA are used. Estimating breed on characteristics seems to be more akin to determining human personalities by phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull; it is not scientific, and a Magistrate's Court should not be allowed to determine a breed on that when science is available to provide far more certainty.

References
(1) http://www.pickthepit.com/
(2) http://mentalfloss.com/article/75759/dna-tests-show-many-shelter-dogs-are-mislabeled-pit-bulls
(3) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/pitbull-attack-ndg-1.3710598
(4) https://smartdogs.wordpress.com/2008/04/15/dogs-saved-by-dna-testing/
(5) http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000451
(6) http://www.omagdigital.com/article/doggie+DNA/2010262/0/article.html

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Wisdom of Crowds















The Wisdom of Crowds

“In these democratic days, any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments is of interest.” (Francis Galton)

65,78,84,85,89,89,90,96,100,113,125,130,145,171,173,215,230,250

Above are the guesses for the number of sweets in the jar for our office Children in Need fund raising competition.

The winning entry to 127 – the correct number – was 125, which was just 2 out.

But the rounded average was 129, also just 2 out.

This is a good illustration of “The Wisdom of Crowds”, a phenomena described in the book of that name by James Surowiecki.

The notion that a group’s judgement can be surprisingly good was most compellingly justified in James Surowiecki’s 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds, and is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907.

“A weight-judging competition was carried on at the annual show of the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition recently held at Plymouth, A fat ox having been selected, competitors bought stamped and numbered cards, for 6d. each, on which to inscribe their respective names, addresses, and estimates of what the ox would weigh after it had been slaughtered and " dressed." Those who guessed most successfully received prizes. About 8oo tickets were issued, which were kindly lent me for examination after they had fulfilled their immediate purpose. These afforded excellent material.”

“The judgments were unbiased by passion and uninfluenced by oratory and the like. The sixpenny fee deterred practical joking, and the hope of a prize and the joy of competition prompted each competitor to do his best. The competitors included butchers and farmers, some of whom were highly expert in judging the weight of cattle; others were probably guided by such information as they might pick up, and by their own fancies.”

“The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case. After weeding thirteen cards out of the collection, as being defective or illegible, there remained 787 for discussion. I arrayed them in order of the magnitudes of the estimates, and converted the cwt., quarters, and lbs, in which they were made, into lbs., under which form they will be treated.”

Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. The arithmetic mean of the 787 guesses came to 1,197lb. The true dressed weight of the ox was 1,197lb!

This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.

James Surowiecki takes this up, and argues, with examples, that a diverse collection of independently deciding individuals is likely to make certain types of decisions and predictions better than individuals or even experts.

It is important that the individuals are diverse and independent. In our office, there is quite a diversity in people’s likes and dislikes, hobbies, families or being single, etc. And the slips were placed in an box so no one could be influenced by them. Both are important.

If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position.

Diversity is also important. A study in 2011 by a team led by Joseph Simmons of the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut found that group predictions about American football results were skewed away from the real outcomes by the over-confidence of the fans’ decisions, which biased them towards alleged 'favourites' in the outcomes of games.