Book Review: Polanyi’s Great Transformation

Since this is a very long review – Short and sweet: Polanyi knows the answer. It doesn’t really matter much what the question is, as the answer he knows is the answer to everything. All the great erudition on display is just that – a display. He happens to know a great deal about English history over the 18th and 19th centuries, and a bit about an obscure set of pacific islanders, but by the end of the book, it’s obvious that this expertise is irrelevant to his thesis. He could start from basket weaving and wheat as a theme in Art Deco, and he’d end up at the same place: what the world needs now, what it has always needed, what History has been striving for, is Communism, sweet Communism.

In the Great Transformation, Polanyi describes the mechanism by which the commoditization of land, labor and currency and the implementation of the Gold Standard reveal the contradictory and self destructive nature of Capitalism and the impossibility of any free market being long maintained. He asserts that not only are free markets not natural in any sense, but they can only come into existence and continue by means of constant political and social intervention.

Using England’s industrialization as the case study, Polanyi argues that there’s nothing natural about free markets, that the very idea of free markets is a mythology used to justify the reduction of land, currency and people to commodities. A market in labor reduces people to mere human resources, something to be managed like any other resource and a cost to be controlled. Land will simply be consumed, not husbanded across generations. And currency, with which the book is mostly concerned, will be standardized across the world in order that international trade can take place. This standardization, under the rubric of the Gold Standard, is the engine driving political and social change, almost entirely for the worse.

The idea that people might take advantage of a market for labor by decommoditizing themselves – learning skills or moving someplace where their skills are in demand in order to better their prospects – is not considered. That people did not in fact stay illiterate laborers for very long once the market provided opportunities unavailable for rural laborers is not discussed. That the workers of the world today are vastly better off than the rural laborers prior to the industrial revolution is barely mentioned. Rather, Polanyi dwells on all the evil effects of the social displacement caused by industrialization and the political steps meant to mitigate them, and well as the steps taken to facilitate market creation and trade. He sees, not individual decisions both good and bad being made in an uncertain environment (i.e., the real world), but the forces of History working themselves out according to inevitable laws.

Similar filters are applied to the commoditization of land and currency. In 1944, when Polanyi published this tome, it was perhaps reasonable to believe that land was being recklessly consumed by industry – FDR did promise that the skies would soon again be ‘blackened by industry’ once the New Deal kicked in. (Of course, his cousin Teddy had begun the process of setting aside land from too much human use a generation earlier.) Subsequent small ‘h’ history has shown that free people with a little material security tend very much to want to keep the world tidy and clean – nobody wants to live in a dump. A continually better cared for world is not what theory predicts, even if it is what history seems to be showing.

Currency, by which Polanyi means international banking and the trade it facilitates, does tend strongly toward standardization, because international trade, like all trade, is built on trust. You pay me in standard Spanish pieces of eight or silver U.S. trade dollars, and I’m good, because everybody agrees on the value of such currency. We trust each other, at least that far. Once transactions become too large and too frequent for physical silver or gold to change hands, I need some other mechanism I can trust – the Bank of England, for example. Their notes are as good as gold! My trust is built on stability: the claim that our notes are worth X amount of gold or silver, which you can trade your note in for if you want, is good as long as you back it up. Floating fiat currencies require a level of trust that people who knew their history were not able to muster, in past eras.

This view, which is based on the logical and historical playing out of personal trust between trading partners and banks, is built on the observation that our world is uncertain and involves many discrete and often unpredictable human decisions. Polanyi wants vast forces to push History to an end already known, and so must reject what people actually do as a basis for reality.

Continue reading “Book Review: Polanyi’s Great Transformation”

Is There an Aristotelian in the House?

Or a Thomist, certainly. Somebody who could help me out with some basic philosophy.

Woke up thinking about a certain epistemological issue, thought the readers of this blog might find this entertaining.

The guy on the right.

Background: a few months ago, at our Chesterton Society Reading group meeting, there was a fun discussion with two people who had dropped in to visit, (incidentally, the son and grandson of a famous economist) about the importance of Aristotle.

My boy Aristotle was being dissed. The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.

I was stunned into silence (doesn’t happen often, but it did this once.) I felt a little like the man Chesterton described, asked to explain why he prefers civilization – where do you even start, if it’s not obvious already?

Now, upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. That these gentlemen knew enough Aristotle to even know what he says about inertia shows a very much higher degree of knowledge of Aristotle than is typical. They knew enough modern science to draw the obvious conclusion that Aristotle was ‘wrong’. Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern sense, or that philosophy depends for its validation upon such science (the position of the Analytic philosophy taught in universities today), or both.

Background 2: I am a pathetic poser when it comes to Aristotle. I only really studied the Physics, dabbled in everything else. One can’t just read Aristotle – one would be lost within a page or even paragraph. Dense doesn’t do it justice, not bafflegab dense like Hegel (1), but dense because each phrase has been formulated down to its rock-hard minimum, and builds carefully on the last. Each sentence and phrase needs to be understood before moving on, or it quickly becomes a mish-mash.

I breezed through a bunch of Aristotle, which has left me muddleheaded. More muddleheaded, I mean. There may well be people – Thomas, I suppose – who could just read Aristotle like a novel and get the gist. I am not one of those people. Which is why I’m pondering here.

So, on to the issue. Richard Feynman tells this story:

He (Feynman’s father) had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it—I remember this—it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding—he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.

Having a name by which to discuss a thing is a powerful aid and channel for thought. (This issue of how having names reflects and influences thought has been laid out very ably by Mike Flynn on his blog, most recently here – check it out.) It’s tempting to say that one cannot even think about something without first naming it, but, as a musician – I have musical ideas – I know that’s not quite right. There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in a Bach fuge, but the words come well after the thought has been completed.

But I digress.

Aristotle didn’t have a name for inertia, and we do. Aristotle had a name for horses, and we do, too. I will now fumble around trying to spell out the differences between the class of things such as inertia, and the class of things such as horses.

Aristotle has the concept of a thing that, by its nature, separates itself out from the background, a thing that presents itself to our understanding, a ‘this’ as in the case of ‘this horse’. A horse is full of life and meaning, and is not at all blurry around the edges. (2) Any individual horse will yield a whole bunch of information to the senses and understanding without us having to do much of anything except observe and think. Studying several horses quickly yield an understanding of horseyness in general. Horses have a nature, in other words, and we bring our understanding to that nature, which will always be greater than our understanding – there will always be things about horses which any horse embodies yet remain outside or even beyond our understanding.

Natural objects are like that. They have natures, intelligible forms, to which our minds are suited and directed, but which are not necessarily things our minds can completely grasp. We don’t really directly study Nature in any sense beyond studying natures. It’s definitional – a ‘this’ is something with a nature that can be understood at least to some extent, otherwise it would lack that ineffable something that makes it a ‘this’.

Inertia is not a ‘this’. We never say except in jest ‘See that inertia over there?’ Feynman’s dad was indeed a deep thinker, recognizing that having named inertia was not the same as knowing what it is. In some sense, inertia does not leap out of the background like a prancing horse, presenting itself to our senses and understanding. Instead, we see, if we are paying very close attention, some things which happen consistently over a wide range of experiences: the ball keeps rolling, the stone block doesn’t want to move, I am thrown from the horse if it pulls up too sharply.

It is indeed an act of human brilliance to find the common thread, and to name that thread ‘inertia’ and then to come up with rules and math that describes how inertia ‘behaves’ in useful ways. Newton is the man! But he is a man standing on the shoulders of very many more men all the way back to Aristotle, who laid the groundwork.

So, do I have that right? Epistemologically speaking, I guess I’m claiming that inertia is not knowable in the same way as horses, to stick with the example. One might argue that, as a mental abstraction best described by math, inertia is *more* completely knowable than horses, which, because their nature is not a mental abstraction, will never be understood as completely as inertia. Or it might be argued that inertia is not real, that it is only the name we give to a bunch observations, a handy receptacle for all our useful math. (I’m not arguing that, because that seems a path to insanity. Hasn’t stopped others from going there.) I’m a moderate realist (I think), so there’s *something* to the notion that inertia is real insofar as it is a characteristic of real things – of ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing – and thus as real as they are. It’s just not a ‘this’ in itself…

Image result for a man for all seasons norfolk
“I trust I make myself obscure.”
“Perfectly.”

Getting over (well, more over) my head. What bugs me is that I’m certain Aristotle talks this issue through somewhere in great detail, and I’m not remembering where.

Anyway, back to that Chesterton meeting. I tried to point out that it’s Aristotle’s logic and method that have never been superseded, that all science today (excluding, of course, Science!) is built upon them. Didn’t remember the Feynman story fast enough. Left it in an unsatisfactory state.

  1. Aristotle’s examples are of the essence of his philosophy and method. They are simple and direct. Hegel’s examples, when he deigns to give them, are complex and generally fail to make his point, rather, they assume his point. Thus, Aristotle will talk about how ‘white’ is always in another thing and never present by itself, and give the example of a white horse; Hegel will give Art History (as understood by Hegel) as an example of the Spirit unfolding through History. If you don’t already believe that the Spirit unfolds itself through History, the supposed upward progress of art through stages of spiritual enlightenment will, alas, not be visible to you.
  2. The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.

AI, AI, Oh.

Old MacBezos Had a Server Farm…

Free-associating there, a little. Pardon me.

Seems AI is on a lot of people’s minds these days. I, along with many, have my doubts:

My opinion: there are a lot of physical processes well suited to the very fancy automation that today is called AI. Such AI could put most underwriters, investment analysts, and hardware designers out of a job, like telegraph agents and buggy whip makers before them. I also think there’s an awful lot of the ‘we’re almost there!’ noise surrounding AI that has surrounded commercial nuclear fusion for my entire life – it’s always just around the corner, it’s always just a few technical details that need working out.

But it’s still not here. Both commercial nuclear fusion and AI, in the manner I am talking about, may come, and may even come soon. But I’m not holding my breath.

And this is not the sort of strong AI – you know, the Commander Data kind of AI – that gets human rights for robots discussions going. For philosophical reasons, I have my doubts human beings can create intellect (other than in the old fashioned baby-making way), no matter how much emergent properties handwavium is applied. Onward:

Here is the esteemed William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, taking a shot at the “burgeoning digital afterlife industry”. Some geniuses have decided to one-up the standard Las Vegas psychic lounge routine, where by a combination of research (“hot readings”) and clever dialogue (“cold readings”), a performer can give the gullible the impression he is a mind reader, by training computers to do it.

Hot readings are cheating. Cons peek in wallets, purses, and now on the Internet, and note relevant facts, such as addresses, birthdays, and various other bits of personal information. Cold readings are when the con probes the mark, trying many different lines of inquiry—“I see the letter ‘M’”—which rely on the mark providing relevant feedback. “I had a pet duck when I was four named Missy?” “That’s it! Missy misses you from Duck Heaven.” “You can see!”

You might not believe it, but cold reading is shockingly effective. I have used it many times in practicing mentalism (mental magic), all under the guise of “scientific psychological theory.” People want to believe in psychics, and they want to believe in science maybe even more.

Briggs notes that this is a form of the Turing Test, and points to a wonderful 1990 interview of Mortimer Adler by William F. Buckley, wherein they discuss the notions of intellect,. brain, and human thought. Well worth the 10 minutes to watch.

In Machine Learning Disability, esteemed writer and theologian Brian Niemeier recounts, first, a story much like I reference in my tweet pasted in above: how a algorithm trained to do one thing – identify hit songs across many media in near real time – generates an hilarious false positive when an old pirated and memed clip goes viral.

Then it gets all serious. All this Big Data science you’ve been hearing of, and upon which the Google, Facebook and Amazon fortunes are built, is very, very iffy, no better than the Billboard algorithms that generated the false positive. Less obvious are people now using Big Data science to prove all sorts of things. In my gimlet-eyed take, doing research on giant datasets is a great way to bury your assumptions and biases so that they’re very hard to find. This, on top of the errors built in to the sampling, the methodology and algorithms themselves – errors upon errors upon errors.

As Niemeier points out, just having huge amounts of data is no guarantee you are doing good science, in in fact multiplies to opportunity to get it wrong. Briggs points out in his essay how easily people are fooled, and how doggedly they’ll stick to their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. You put these things together, and it’s pretty scary out there.

I’m always amazed that people who have worked around computers fall for any of this. Every geek with a shred of self-awareness (not a given by any means) has multiple stories about programs and hardware doing stupid things, how no one could have possibly imagined a user doing X, and so (best case) X crashes the system or (worse case) X propagates and goes unnoticed for years until the error is subtle, ingrained and permanent. Depending on the error, this could be bad. Big Data is a perfect environment for this latter result.

John C. Wright also gets in on the AI kerfuffle, referencing the Briggs post and adding his own inimitable comments.

Finally, Dust, a Youtube channel featuring science fiction short films, recently had an “AI Week” where the shorts were all based on AI themes. One film took a machine learning tool, fed it a bunch of Sci Fi classics and not so classics, and had it write a script, following the procedure used by short film competitions. And then shot the film. The results are always painful, but occasionally painfully funny. The actors should get Oscar nominations in the new Lucas Memorial Best Straight Faces When Saying Really Stupid Dialogue category:

Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure III

LECTURE III. January 21st, 1893. OPPOSITION BETWEEN PESTALOZZI AND HERBART AS EDUCATIONAL LEADERS. (found here. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here.)

This lecture is one run-on paragraph. I will break it up for convenience of discussion:

Pestalozzi laid great stress on sense-perception as the foundation of all school education. Herbart lays stress on the elaboration of sense-perception or rather upon the mental reaction against the impressions made on our senses. Thought goes back of the object to understand and explain its origin, how it became to be what it is, what purpose it is to serve. Thought sees objects in the perspective of their history. It studies causes and purposes.

The Herbart Harris refers to here is one Johann Friedrich Herbart,
(1776 – 1841) a German philosopher, psychologist and founder of the academic field of pedagogy. His principles of education are roughly Platonic, as he sees the fulfillment of the individual as only possible as a member of a civilization. Man is a political animal, after all, so no argument there on a general level. The trick here is implied in the phrase ‘productive citizen’ which Wikipedia uses to describe Herbart’s meaningful relationship between a man and his civilization. Does man derive his meaning and value from being a productive citizen? Or does the whole idea of a productive citizen depend on people having value and meaning prior to any production? In the first case, it might be logical and even merciful to cull any people – can’t really call them members of society in this context – who are not productive, since they cannot have meaningful lives without such production. Not that such an idea would occur to any Germans of that time…

Herbart is also said to be a follower of Pestalozzi, which supports my suspicion that Pestalozzi is more a Rorschach test than an actual teacher. My forays into Pestalozzi’s writings left me thinking he is nearly completely incoherent; when Fichte, a proto-Nazi, and Einstein, who was a student at a Pestalozzian school, both praise his methods, one has got to wonder if they are talking about the same thing. Herbart is said to differ from Pestalozzi in that Pestalozzi believed everything is built on sense perceptions, while Herbart believes cogitation on sense perceptions is the source of understanding and knowledge.

If that sounds a bit gobbly-goopy, it may be because it is. You get these men who want desperately to control how children learn – Fichte, Mann, Dewey, heck, Plato and on and on – and they start fighting over stuff that normal people, eve normal philosophers, would roll their eyes at. Watch a kid, especially a really small kid, and you’ll see someone obsessed with sense perception to the point where they’ll stick crap they pick up off the ground into their mouths (this is a big learning experience, btw. We don’t stop doing this because we’re told to, but because we insisted on doing it). AND one will see little minds working overtime to figure out how stuff works. It’s not that sense perception or cogitation is more or less important, but rather that it’s absurd upon inspection to imagine that adults need to do anything to promote either. Adults just need to refrain from screwing it up, which seems beyond the reach of these gentlemen.

I’m not going any deeper into Herbart, who I first heard of from these lectures, for now – this is all from a skim of Wikipedia, for which I promise to feel bad about later. Onward:

Thus thought is not as the disciples of Pestalozzi hold, a continued and elevated sort of sense-perception, but rather a reaction against it. It is a discovery of the subordinate place held by objects in the world ; they are seen to be mere steps in a process of manifestation, the manifestation of causal energies. A new perception is received into the mind by adjusting it to our previous knowledge ; we explain it in terms of the old ; we classify it, identify it ; reconcile what is strange and unfamiliar in it with previous experience; we interpret the object and comprehend it ; we translate the unknown into the known.

People learn by experiencing the world, thinking about what they experienced and trying as best they can to fit it in with everything else they know. Got it.

Does Harris suppose we can do anything about it? Does Harris imagine the process he (following Kant, more or less) describes ought to be somehow promoted or encouraged, let alone managed? That would be hubris-ridden nonsense, like believing the sun will not rise unless the shaman performs the correct rituals. You might as well try to teach kids hearts how to beat. But maybe that’s not where he’s going.

This process of adjusting, explaining, classifying, identifying, reconciling, interpreting and translating, is called apperception.

Yep, Kant. Apperception is one of those terms of art in Philosophy, pretty much meaning what Harris described above.

We must not only perceive, but we must apperceive ; not only see and hear, but digest or assimilate what we hear and see. Herbart’s “apperception ” is far more important for education than Pestalozzi’s “perception.” At first the memory was the chief faculty cultivated in education; then Pestalozzi reformed it by making the culture of sense- perception the chief aim; now with Herbart the chief aim would be apperception or the mental digestion of what is received by perception or memory.

Hmmm. How far back is the phrase “at first” meant to go? Certainly not all the way back to the Greeks, who before Socrates’s time had come to understand education as a function of friendship. They didn’t even write about how kids learned reading, writing and basic math, any more than they wrote about how you went to the market or walked down the street. Instead, the wrote about ephebia – schools for young men entering adulthood, where they spent 2 or 3 years training to be fit soldiers and learning how to be good citizens – why they should love their city-state and Greek culture in general. Then, the most promising and noble youths were taken under the wings of men of achievement, who acted as mentors, as described peripherally in Plato’s Symposium. (The occasional sexual aspects of these relationships, while real, are generally overstated and misunderstood.) An educated Greek would memorize Homer, but even that feat had the primary goal of immersion into Greek culture, especially understanding arete, the excellence toward which every Greek aspired and the measure by which they would be judged.

Or there’s St. Jerome’s 5th century advice to the noblewoman Laeta how she should teach her daughter Paula to read. This is not memorization training, at least not essentially. The essential part is the sharpening of Paula’s wit.

More Enlightenment (sic) nonsense: Harris and his crowd thought they were the smart people, first people to understand these things, and had a right and duty to guide lesser individuals. They started with memorization, therefore, the whole project starts with memorization. That people have successfully educated their children for as long as there have been people if acknowledged at all is pooh-poohed: maybe, but not educating them correctly!

Illustrations of the power of apperception to strengthen perception: Cuvier could reconstruct the entire skeleton from a single bone ; Agassiz the entire fish from one of its scales ; Winckelman the entire statue from a fragment of the face; Lyell could see its history in a pebble; Asa Gray the history of a tree by a glance.

OK, I suppose, although I’d want a serious look at those reconstructions of Cuvier, Agassiz and Winckelman before conceding the point to quite that level. Be that as it may, I’m not sure such levels of expertise are the product of a particular kind of schooling. Not to give him too much credit, but Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a similar if not identical result, except that the process by which an expert reaches his conclusion is mostly not conscious or even strictly rational. That level of expertise seems to be learned, but not taught, and to require some innate talent. Herbart, at least, is a blank slater – he doesn’t believe in innate talents. It the turtles of nurture all the way down.

Apperception adds to the perceived object its process of becoming. Noire has illustrated apperception by showing the two series of ideas called up by the perception of a piece of bread. First the regressive series dough, flour, rye ; and the processes baking, kneading, grinding, threshing, harvesting, planting, &c. Each one of these has collateral series, as for example, planting has plowing, plow, oxen, yoke, furrow, harrowing, sowing seeds, covering it, etc. The second series is progressive bread suggests its uses and functions; food, eating, digesting, organic tissue, life, nourishing strength, supply of heat, bodily labor, &c.

Ok, again. Yes, understanding something does mean putting it into a larger, more coherent, context.

The course of study in schools must be arranged so as to prepare the mind for quick apperception of what is studied. The Pestalozzian makes form, number, and language the elements of all knowledge. He unfortunately omits causal ideas, which are the chief factors of apperception ; we build our series on causally. Accidental association satisfies only the simpleminded and empty-headed.

Sure. Perhaps the course of study could be comparatively brief encounters with a mentor, who guides and reviews, and comparatively large amounts of time to experience and process the world?

I suspect that’s not where Harris is going with this.

Next up: Lecture IV.

42

With a growing backlog of books to review (Polanyi: what a fraud! Oops, sorry, should have spoilered that!) and about 120 draft posts to clean up/finish/toss/whatever, I digress:

If you already know the answer to life, the universe and everything, such that your dearest, most heartfelt belief is that everything is explained and all ends known with certainty, all discussions either support the conclusion, or are irrelevant noise. The very idea that something, something real or even some line of thought, might not fit in with the already known and sacred conclusion is anathema. Those who insist on bringing up challenges to The Answer are to be silenced with extreme prejudice.

The only worthy intellectual exercise is explaining and expanding on just exactly how 42 is the answer. An intellectual exercises his mind and creativity in coming up with ever more ingenious and detailed ways of getting to 42. The new ways 42 is demonstrated to be the one and only answer is a great comfort to the true believer, and a shield and bulwark against any line of thinking that might cause unease.

This much should be obvious. A little more subtle: Since 42 is the answer beyond challenge, any way of getting to 42 is valid regardless of the method used. 42 is beyond logic, beyond criticism of any kind. It explains – it must explain! It explains everything! – all attempts to unseat it. While it might be possible to have esthetic arguments about how one way to get to 42 is more elegant or thorough or technically accurate, it would be bad form to criticize the logic or structure or heaven forbid, the truth of any explication, so long as it gets to 42 in the end.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it might be helpful if some of the observations upon which the presentation (it won’t do to call it an argument) are true, or that some of the connections proposed (again, can’t invoke logic) are obvious and reasonably granted. When Polanyi and Marx point to the suffering of the urban poor when industry replaced rural life with slum life, they are pointing to something real. The emotional appeal is also real – what sort of heartless monster would be indifferent to the suffering of the children?

File:Child Labor in United States, coal mines Pennsylvania.jpg
Breaker Boys

Suffering, especially suffering that primarily benefits somebody else, is nothing to be laughed at. Ignoring the suffering of others is a bad thing (under a moral code that recognizes right and wrong, of course). Yet identifying suffering is not the same thing as understanding what causes suffering. Even less is it an argument for whatever solution one might want to propose.

Ultimately, the truth of the observations, references and connections made as part of the presentation meant to demonstrate the truth of 42 do not reflect – are not allowed to reflect! – on whether 42 is in fact the answer. Quite the contrary: 42 becomes the filter used to determine what lines will be pursued and which will be ignored, and what tidbits of reality will be allowed to intrude. Marx and Polanyi have their defenders, rabid defenders, even, despite reality and history (you know, what happened, as opposed to mythical History, which make things happen in the future). The Soviet Union didn’t quite pan out? Well, Polanyi was right about the Asian Financial Crisis! (Except for the part where it was a hiccup in the now 75 year long planet-wide rise in economic productivity and subsequent drop in poverty and violence. Places where the likes of Polanyi are taken seriously being the exceptions, of course). Workers of the world are still not revolting (they have, increasingly, nothing to lose but there vacation packages, hi-def flat screens, second automobiles and iPhones).

The existence of injustice in the world – and there’s plenty to go around, don’t get me wrong – does not in fact prove anything about whether 42 is the answer or not. Describing problems is cheap; solutions are not, and may not even be possible.

Your math proving 42 not add up to 42? No problem! You got the right answer, that’s what counts.

Wet Enough for You? Philip Marlowe Edition

From the L.A. Times: Why L.A. is having such a wet winter after years of drought conditions. (Warning: they’ll let you look at their site for a while, then cut you off like a barkeep when closing time approaches.) Haven’t looked at the article yet, but I’ll fall off my chair if the answer doesn’t contain global warming/climate change.

But I have some ideas of my own. Historical data on seasonal rainfall totals for Los Angeles over the last 140+ year is readily available on the web. I took that data, and did a little light analysis.

Average seasonal rainfall in L.A. is 14.07″. 60% of the time, rainfall is below average; 40% above. Percentage of seasons with:

  • less than 75% of average rain: 32.62
  • between 75% and 125%: 39.01
  • over 75%: 28.37

“Normal” rainfall covers a pretty wide range, one would reasonably suppose. Getting a lot or a little seems somewhat more likely than getting somewhere around average. This fits with my experience growing up in L.A. (18 year sample size, use with caution.)

The last 20 years look like:

Season (July 1-June 30)Total Rainfall, InchesVariance from Avg
2017-20184.79-9.91
2016-201719.004.3
2015-20169.65-5.05
2014-20158.52-6.18
2013-20146.08-8.62
2012-20135.85-8.85
2011-20128.69-6.01
2010-201120.205.5
2009-201016.361.66
2008-20099.08-5.62
2007-200813.53-1.17
2006-20073.21-11.49
2005-200613.19-1.51
2004-200537.2522.55
2003-20049.24-5.46
2002-200316.491.79
2001-20024.42-10.28
2000-200117.943.24
1999-200011.57-3.13
1998-19999.09-5.61

14 years out of 20 (70%) are under average; 6 above. Those 5 years in a row stand out, as does the 9 out of 11 years under from 2005-2006 to 2015-2016. (That 22.55 inches in 2004-2005 also stands out – very wet year by L.A. standards.)

Wow, that does look bad. So does this stretch, with 7 out of 8 under:

1924-19257.38-7.32
1923-19246.67-8.03
1922-19239.59-5.11
1921-192219.664.96
1920-192113.71-0.99
1919-192012.52-2.18
1918-19198.58-6.12
1917-191813.86-0.84

And this one, with 10 out of 11:

1954-195511.94-2.76
1953-195411.99-2.71
1952-19539.46-5.24
1951-195226.2111.51
1950-19518.21-6.49
1949-195010.60-4.1
1948-19497.99-6.71
1947-19487.22-7.48
1946-194712.61-2.09
1945-194612.13-2.57
1944-194511.58-3.12

Or this, with 6 out of 7:

1964-196513.69-1.01
1963-19647.93-6.77
1962-19638.38-6.32
1961-196218.794.09
1960-19614.85-9.85
1959-19608.18-6.52
1958-19595.58-9.12

This last cherry-picked selection is also like the most recent years in that annual rainfall is not just under, but way under. This last sample shows more than 6″ under, in 5 out of 6 years. In the recent sample, 5 out of the last 7 years prior to this year were more than 6″ under, and one over 5″ under.

How often does L.A. get rainfall 6″ or more under average? About 22% of the time. So, hardly unusual, and, given a big enough sample (evidently not very big), you would expect to find the sorts of patterns we see here, even if, as it would be foolish to assume, every year’s rainfall is a completely independent event from the preceding year or years. It would make at least as much sense to think there are big, multi-year, multi-decade, multi-century and so on cycles – cycles that would take much larger samples of seasonal rainfall to detect. And those cycles could very well interact – cycles within cycles.

Problem is, I’ve got 141 years of data, so I can’t say. I suspect nobody can. Given the poorly understood cycles in the oceans and sun, and the effect of the moon on the oceans and atmosphere, which it would be reasonable to assume affect weather and rainfall, we’re far from discovering the causes of the little patterns cherry picking the data might present to us. They only tell us that rainfall seems to fall into patterns, where one dry year is often followed by one or two or even four or five more dry years. And sometimes not.

L.A. also gets stretches such as this:

1943-194419.214.51
1942-194319.174.47
1941-194211.18-3.52
1940-194132.7618.06
1939-194018.964.26
1938-193913.06-1.64
1937-193823.438.73
1936-193722.417.71
1935-193612.07-2.63
1934-193521.666.96

Not only are 7 out of 10 years wetter than average, the 3 years under average are only a little short. This would help explain why it is so often raining in Raymond Chandler stories set in L.A. – this sample of years overlaps most of his masterpieces.

Image result for philip marlowe
It could be raining outside – hard to tell, and I don’t remember. Just work with me here, OK?

The L.A. Times sees something in this data-based Rorschach test; I see nothing much. Let’s see what the article says:

Nothing. The headline writer, editor and writer evidently don’t talk to each other, as the article as published makes no attempt to answer or even address the question implied in the headline. It’s just a glorified weather report cobbled together from interviews from over the last several months. Conclusion: things seem OK, water system wise, for now, but keep some panic on slow simmer, just in case. Something like that.

Oh, well. You win some, you lose some. That *thunk* you hear is me falling out of my chair.

A Cultivated Mind

Just kidding! I think!

Here I wrote about how I’m trying to help this admirably curious young man for whom I am RCIA sponsor on his intellectual journey. I’m no Socrates, but I do know a thing or two that this young man is not going to pick up at school, that would be helpful to him and, frankly, to the world. Any efforts to get a little educated and shine a little light into the surrounding darkness seems a good thing to me.

I figure I’ll give him a single page every week or so when I see him, with the offer to talk it over whenever he’s available. Below is the content of the second page; you can see the first in the post linked above. We started off with a description of Truth and Knowledge. I figure the idea of a cultivated mind might be good next. We’ll wrap it up with a page on the Good and one on the Beautiful, and see where it goes from there.

Any thoughts/corrections appreciated.

A Cultivated Mind

A cultivated mind can consider an idea without accepting it.

What is meant by a “cultivated mind”?

Like a cultivated field:

  • Meant for things to be planted and grown in it
  • Weeded of bad habits and bad ideas
  • Is cared for daily

A cultivated mind

  • is what a civilized and educated man strives to have.
  • is not snobby or elitist.
  • Is what is required to honestly face the world.
  • Is open to new ideas, but considers them rationally before accepting them.

How do you cultivate your mind?

Reexamine the ideas you find most attractive:

  • Have you accepted them because you like them, or because you examined them and believe them true?

Carefully review all popular ideas:

  • Have you accepted them because to reject them might make you unpopular?
  • Have you really examined them before accepting them?

Double your efforts to be fair when considering ideas you do not like:

  • Can you restate the idea in terms that people who accept it would recognize and agree with? If not, you are not able to truly consider the idea.

NOTE 1: To engage ideas, listen to and read what people who hold those ideas say, especially when you don’t like them or already disagree. Hear and understand what the idea really is before you can consider it.This takes discipline and time.

NOTE 2: This is a life-long project, always subject to revision. Guard against over certainty, avoid exaggeration. Do not pretend to know what you do not know. Acknowledge that some things are difficult, and can only be known partially.

Follow the Dominican maxim: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.”

Image result for monsters vs aliens B.O.B totally overrated

“Forgive him, but as you can see, he has no brain.” “Turns out you don’t need one. Totally overrated!”