Two different approaches to Statistics from about the same time in history came across my desk today. Ron Dirkse sent me the following clip from Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi":

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

And on the "statpics" blog, Robert W. Jernigan, Professor of Statistics at American University, posted some notes on the First Published Random Walk. Turns out it was by John Venn in 1888, only fourteen years after the first copyrite date of "Life on the Mississippi." And the randomizing device??? The digits of Pi... Here is the image from Venn's classic "The Logic of Chance" :

"As it may interest the reader to see an actual specimen of such a path I append one representing the arrangement of the eight digits from 0 to 7 in the value of π. The data are taken from Mr Shanks' astonishing performance in the calculation of this constant to 707 places of figures (

The science of Probability occupies at present a somewhat anomalous position. It is impossible, I think, not to observe in it some of the marks and consequent disadvantages of a sectional study. By a small body of ardent students it has been cultivated with great assiduity, and the results they have obtained will always be reckoned among the most extraordinary products of mathematical genius. But by the general body of thinking men its principles seem to be regarded with indifference or suspicion. Such persons may admire the ingenuity displayed, and be struck with the profundity of many of the calculations, but there seems to them, if I may so express it, an unreality about the whole treatment of the subject. To many persons the mention of Probability suggests little else than the notion of a set of rules, very ingenious and profound rules no doubt, with which mathematicians amuse themselves by setting and solving puzzles."

*Proc. of R. S.*, XXI. p. 319). Of these, after omitting 8 and 9, there remain 568; the diagram represents the course traced out by following the direction of these as the clue to our path. Many of the steps have of course been taken in opposite directions twice or oftener. The result seems to me to furnish a very fair graphical indication of randomness. I have compared it with corresponding paths furnished by rows of figures taken from logarithmic tables, and in other ways, and find the results to be much the same.I especially love the preface to Venn's book.

"Any work on Probability by a Cambridge man will be so likely to have its scope and its general treatment of the subject prejudged, that it may be well to state at the outset that the following Essay is in no sense mathematical. Not only, to quote a common but often delusive assurance, will "no knowledge of mathematics beyond the simple rules of Arithmetic" be required to understand these pages, but it is not intended that any such knowledge should be acquired by the process of reading them. Of the two or three occasions on which algebraical formulæ occur they will not be found to form any essential part of the text.

The science of Probability occupies at present a somewhat anomalous position. It is impossible, I think, not to observe in it some of the marks and consequent disadvantages of a sectional study. By a small body of ardent students it has been cultivated with great assiduity, and the results they have obtained will always be reckoned among the most extraordinary products of mathematical genius. But by the general body of thinking men its principles seem to be regarded with indifference or suspicion. Such persons may admire the ingenuity displayed, and be struck with the profundity of many of the calculations, but there seems to them, if I may so express it, an unreality about the whole treatment of the subject. To many persons the mention of Probability suggests little else than the notion of a set of rules, very ingenious and profound rules no doubt, with which mathematicians amuse themselves by setting and solving puzzles."

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