Heath Robinson Machine

Seem the British, who, while generally charming, talk funny, have renamed Rube Goldberg ‘Heath Robinson‘ and did it a decade before anybody had heard of Goldberg. Sneaky, that.

Just ran across a Twitter thread where Katya, English woman with a background in economics and finance – kind of like me! – looked at Neil Ferguson’s model in excruciating detail:

…hence dead.”

When this whole panic started, I looked a model linked to a petition to the White House to lock us down for 2 weeks to ‘flatten the curve’ and then ease back to normal, or else 11 million Americans would die! Ah, those days of innocence. I didn’t get into the actual math of the model, I just played with the 4 most immediate inputs and observed how the model reacted. Conclusion: Garbage in, garbage out. Simply assume a death rate of 2.5, and R0 of 2.5, a population of 330 million, and nobody washing their hands or staying away from grandma if he is felling ill., and – Boom! 200M infections and 11 million dead! I saw no place to put in ‘died out in the spring’ or ‘maybe a bunch of people are already immune’ or ‘maybe it doesn’t spread the same in Montana as it does in Greenwich Village’ – nope. Buried in the math, I suppose.

To top it off, there was a magic mitigation slider: just decide how effective your mitigation efforts are, and watch the numbers change! Toward the end of the article, after the panic porn where you are told, effectively, that failing to sign the petition made you personally responsible for all the inevitable deaths, was the admission that nobody actually knows how effective any of the mitigation efforts are (or how they amplify or defeat each other, like how a lockdown in a nursing home or hospital very possibly raises the chances of the people in those places getting it. But I quibble).

Even I, with my feeble math chops, could see that no amount of fancy calculations was going to smooth over the insane unstated assumptions of this model and the weird lacunas.

The Ferguson model I never checked out, although it seems clearly the spiritual sibling of the one I did check out. There’s this little thing called ‘reality’ that models, if they are to be useful, are measured against. I don’t trust the Communist Chinese any farther than I can throw a pagoda, but: if Fergy’s models is remotely correct, the Chinese government is hiding millions of dead and hundreds of millions of sick people and perfectly suppressing the subsequent unrest – and that strains credulity. They’re every bit that evil, but nowhere near that competent.

And the Diamond Princess. And Japan, Singapore, and now Sweden.

So I’m grateful to Katya for her analysis, but I think the model fails the sniff test before you even get into the 450(!) variables and poor code.

Meanwhile, another guest post on William Brigg’s fine blog attacks some of the other issues I’ve covered here, essentially, the inescapable messiness of the data. Poorly defined or undefined terms, different standards of data gathering and reporting, different reporting schedules, lots of room for judgement calls such as: 99 yr old nursing home prisoner dies, not of old age, but of COVID 19, as does a 37 yr old drug overdoes victim.

Adding up causes of death is not going to tell you much beyond 1) how deaths are reported in aggregate; and 2) lots of people die, like pretty much all of them sooner or later. Since most people now days die when, by historical standards, they are very old and subject to the many afflictions of advanced age, it makes assigning a cause of death other than ‘the decedent was very old’ a reach.

But we do.

Two COVID Tidbits:

Background: 80% of nursing home patients die within a year.

Old People Die Alarmingly Quickly in Nursing Homes, Study Finds

Posted By Joe Eskenazi @EskSF on Thu, Aug 26, 2010 at 6:30 AM

If you’re going to put Grandma or Grandpa in a nursing home — don’t put off making a visit. That’s the upshot of a U.C. San Francisco study published this week, which reveals elders often don’t last very long in care facilities.

Of its sample of nursing home patients who died between 1992 and 2006, a full 80 percent were dead within one year, claims the study, which appears in the current edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society

(UPDATE: Looked around for more data on nursing home mortality – it is made somewhat confusing, in that the definitions are not clear. What, exactly, is a nursing home versus Long Term Care? What kind of patient is in what kind of home? The most favorable study showed an expected annual mortality rate of 31.8% and an average stay of 2.2 years. Others were in between. Perhaps the 80% annual death rate is for a particular kind of nursing home? Alzheimer’s and dementias seem to take 5 or more years to kill their victims once they’ve been put in a home – perhaps the homes in the first study excluded such patients? Yet, even the low end annual mortality rate of 31.8% requires that nursing homes are home to a lot of people who are very near death.)

In France and Canada, most COVID 19 deaths are in nursing homes.

h/t to Clarissa’s Blog

In the body of the report, it explains that numbers are not available for the US, Italy, Spain and some other places. Too bad. In the US, with only 35 states reporting, the report notes that there have been at least 10,000 nursing home deaths.

If we assume, not much of a reach, that the US is most likely more like the western European countries (+ Canada) on the right than the mostly smaller countries on the left of this chart, then the US rate might be 50% or more. We’ll have to wait and see if those numbers ever get reported. (I’m not holding my breath.) Also note that these numbers presumably do not include those cared for at home who might otherwise be in a nursing home, or hospital patients – also likely very sick people with a very short life expectancy.

(Aside: we also should not assume homogeneity: some people in nursing homes are a lot closer to the end than others – no reason to suppose COVID 19 isn’t killing proportionately more of the very ill. In other words, it would be simple-minded to assume 20% of the nursing home deaths attributed to COVID 19 were of people who otherwise would have survived the year. I bet close to 100% would have died this year– something like 95%.)

The bottom line here: my confidence that the total US deaths this year will not be much higher than the UN pre-COVID projection of about 2.903M is solidified by just about all the data that comes out. If 200K deaths are assigned to COVID 19 – unlikely, if they’re playing fair (Ha! I slay me!), then the total would go up by maybe 100K (a bad flu season)- IF it’s only the nursing home deaths that are padding the totals. I’m thinking, based on the ongoing collapse of US death counts (6 straight days of declining daily totals – Spring is here!), 200K is well out of reach.

When it is said, as it has been, that 95% of the COVID deaths in the US are of people with one or more “comorbidity”, that is identifying a population that is already a lot nearer to dying than the typical healthy person. To put it another way, 5% of the people who die of COVID 19 were otherwise healthy – for 70K deaths, that 3,500 otherwise healthy people who died of COVID 19. Not to be gruesome, but some percentage, probably a very large percentage, of the remaining 66.5K dead were going to die this year anyway, and thus were presumably included in the original death projections, and will thus not add to the number of overall deaths.

Update: April – the Month That Was (bricks, flowers, a certain minor disease)

A: A happy, holy and blessed Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. True story: When I went to Italy as part of an art program in the 1980s, we we visited a number of smaller towns around Florence. Can’t remember exactly which one we visited on May Day (Lucca? Somewhere…), but we found ourselves in the middle of a somber little parade in the medieval town plaza. We watched mostly middle-aged men in their Sunday finest go by, each wearing a red carnation.

Duomo di Lucca, Cattedrale di San Martino. Maybe here?

Communists. It was a little, um, odd. Then we went into the duomo, in front of which this parade had taken place. As I looked around and prayed a little, one after another of the men from the parade came in, took off their red carnation, and laid it at the foot of a statue of Our Lady. A nice pile of carnations was formed over the next half hour.

Someone, it seemed to me, was very unclear on the concept: Communism, the Catholic Church – pick one? They don’t really go together. But it seems Italians – and I love Italians – are not as troubled by niceties of consistency as I am. Or perhaps they see some consistency on a level that escapes me. Or – one can never rule this out – they’re basically crazy?

As a 20-something punk, this little moment has stuck with me ever since, and helped form my take on the world . People – hard to figure, sometimes.

B. Due to Sarah Hoyt linking to this post on Instapundit, I saw basically a year’s worth of blog traffic and a couple year’s worth of visitors over the course of a couple days. (Not saying all that much – my beloved regular readers are treasured, but few). Perhaps this kicked me up a little in Google’s algorithms, or maybe – I flatter myself – the blog picked up some more readers – In April, most days got over 100 views, even after the 5-figure spike was well past.

So, if you are a new reader, welcome! If the skewering of bad Science!, the history of schooling, curmudgeonly commentary on current events, reviews of SF&F and other books, and the occasional home improvement project and Catholic shout-out are your cup of tea, you belong to a very, um, select group – and this here’s a blog for you!

C: Bricks. We left it here:

That tub up top I use when I want to soak bricks in water so that I have longer to move them around before they suck enough water out of the mortar to make it stiff. This morning, I noticed what looked like a stick floating in it – a lizard had fallen in! poor thing! I dumped him out – he was alive, seemed OK.

Today, I’m hoping to finish this little piece up. Here’s how it stands now:

Once I cap the little towers in the corners, we will put potted plants on top of them, and long wooden planters in between. Something from this selection:

Nasturtiums, self-seeded from last year, on the back patio.
Those two wooden boxes in the middle are sized to fit atop the sides of the project. Wildflowers have been planted in them.

Should look nice. I wanted pots and wooden planters so that, come Christmas, I can move them and set up the Nativity scene there. Then on to the south wall/planter.

D: Planted a little herb garden in a wine barrel half. It’s sitting off the patio a couple steps from the pizza oven and the back door out from the kitchen. Previously grew herbs on the south side of the house, not handy if you’re in the middle of cooking. (Huge batch of oregano is still there. Will see if I can transplant some closer.)

Basil in the back. The skewers are to remind me of the divisions until the plants come up: Thyme, sage, chives, cilantro, green onions.

E: Big stress here at the casa: our older daughter is to be married on May 30. Our unctuous, reptilian governor has continued the lockdown in the face of all objective evidence. This means the church and the venue for the reception are closed. On the off chance we do get to hold something (the marriage is going to take place on the 30th no matter what, even if it’s just bride, groom, priest and witnesses) have cleaned up the back yard, trying to make it look spiffy-ish:

Have a lot to do in the front yard, where my brick obsession has made quite the mess, but at least the plants are coming in strong:

Rosemary, nasturtiums, honeysuckle along the street. Fruit trees in the background.
Tomatoes, between the fig to the right and the cherry behind.
Apricots.
Figs.

In a month, maybe we’ll have some flowers or at least plants in all those pots and planters, to be distributed around. If we can do anything.

If you are the praying kind, prayers for our poor, stressed daughter would be appreciated. Thanks.

F: Don’t think I’ve ever posted on food per se – too much of that out there already – but this is maybe odd enough to be interesting. Somebody gave us a turkey months ago, don’t remember why, and it sat there tying up freezer space. Saw this guy on Youtube do something interesting, and thought – I should try that, get rid of that turkey:

Deboned and stuffed turkey:

Yes, it is time-consuming and not all that pleasant to debone a turkey, but, then again, carving a regular turkey can be some work as well. I did a poor job: the trick is to not cut the skin, which, when you roll it, is what keeps it all together. I tried to use a very cheap filleting knife that we’ve had forever, but it wasn’t up to the task, you need a very sharp tip to the knife, and this one just wouldn’t keep an edge. Got my eye on a Victorinox boning knife, if I ever do this again.

And I just might. However much trouble I had up front, it was very nice to simply cut slices without having to worry about bones and with a nice dollop of sausage stuffing right there in the middle. And it cooks a lot faster, too. FWIW.

G: Something proposed in a com box discussion here with Darwin Catholic, a man whose analytic abilities I respect: will COVID 19 result in more deaths in 2020 than would have otherwise occurred? I say: no. He says: yes, at least 75K. Now, even 75K is a tiny number on a population of 330M, but it should be noticable: the UN predicted around 2,930,400 deaths in the US from all causes before the current kefluffle. So: an additional 75K puts us a little over 3M. (Darwin wants to do a lot more math, with weighted average mortality over 5 years – OK by me, although I’m not sure what the gain in accuracy would be).

More important, and more obvious: the minimum number of dead with a continued lockdown was estimated at 100-240K just weeks ago. As the lockdown is eased or eliminated in more sane states, they theory goes, those numbers should get higher. So, anything short of about 3.03M lillion dead should be seen as an obvious fail, as far as any predictions go, and, realistically, anything less than 3.2M or so should lay a thick coat of egg on the face of the panic mongers. Not that they don’t already have lies in place to cover this.

The trouble here, as Dr. Briggs discusses here, is that the mitigation steps themselves have begun to kill people. First off, if biopsies and follow-ups for serious diseases, and the usual rounds of check-ups and screenings during which problems are routinely uncovered, are delayed, and thus problems are not discovered and treated promptly, prospects for those people are worsened. Some people will die. Same goes for some elective or non-critical treatments – something that looks non-critical today can get critical if pushed off enough.

But, by far, the major risk of death from COVID 19 is quickly becoming the psychological stress of lockdown and subsequent job losses. Suicide, taking stupid risks, drug abuse, domestic violence – these are real, and really kill people.

Is it enough to offset the ‘savings’ we might get from retarding the spread of *ALL* communicable diseases for a few months (insofar as that works. Not always and everywhere, that’s for sure, but some)? The longer the insanity of the lockdown drags on, affecting 330M people, not just the 1M cases of COVID 19, even a slight uptick in lockdown-related deaths could offset all gains. What a disaster, in terms of lives and morals. We want to believe we are not killing people with the lockdown, and so we do believe it. But we are, and it means nothing to us.

Someone somewhere should be putting together very targeted lawsuits against the people responsible for the government’s suspension of of our constitutionally guaranteed right to free assembly and, effectively, unlawful seizure of our wealth without any due process or review whatsoever. I’m saddened so many people accept this without a hiccup. Does it not occur to them that the patriotic need to be brave and face our enemies and risk death to defend our freedoms is still required, even if the enemy is a *&^% virus?

Let’s look at Some More Graphs, and Make Some Predictions

Been a week or so, so let’s look at some graphs, from Worldometers, as usual. Again, I focus on deaths, because however iffy the classification of deaths as caused by COVID 19, at least – sorry to be morbid here – somebody died and so there’s a body to count. Infections are unknown, and cases are a function of testing and changing definitions and instructions, and so can and do fluctuate unpredictably. I don’t know what to make of total case numbers, and I suspect neither does anyone else.

Here’s Italy:

That’s not exponential growth, or growth of any kind. As the Philosopher pointed out 2300 years ago, what is not growing is dying. The curious thing: one would expect a decline at roughly the same rate as the rise. This seems to be falling more slowly than it rose. One reason might be that, with widespread infection and more broad testing, the listing of every death where COVID 19 appears on the death cert as a COVID 19 death would, over time, tend to cause the COVID 19 case death rate to converge with the overall death rate from all causes. In the hypothetical extreme, where everyone has been infected, every death will be attributed to COVID 19. This extreme is not going to happen in reality, but the principle applies: if, say, 30% of the population is determined to have or have had COVID 19 (so that they test positive), and that 30% dies at something like the normal rate, then 30% of all deaths for whatever reason would, under current practice, be classified as COVID 19 deaths.

The call for universal testing is a call, intentional or not, to inflate the number of COVID 19 deaths. If someone, say an older, weaker person, gets the flu, can’t fight it off, and it progresses to pneumonia and kills him – a very common way old people die – but tests positive for COVID 19, that is gong to be classified as a COVID 19 death just about everywhere in the West, certainly in the US, Italy and England. But – here’s the point – however classified, such a tragic death won’t push the annual numbers up. That death would have taken place anyway, so it doesn’t add to the annual total.

A plague worthy of the name adds to the total number of dead over its duration. So far , COVID 19 isn’t doing that, and there’s no reason to imagine it will going forward.

The UN projected that about 1.0658% of Italians would die this year, very slightly more than last year and in line with a decade long graduale climb as the population ages. Italy is home to about 60.5M people, so about 645K Italians were projected to die this year in the normal course of things.

So: will more than 645K Italians die this year? If a plague is killing a bunch of people, one might suspect so. But if people who, sadly, were going to shuffle off this mortal coil this year anyway, as people in nursing homes and hospitals frequently do, then COVID 19 will have little or no effect on overall deaths.

I bet there’s no increase, that right around 645K Italians die this year from all causes, just as if a no plague had taken place. Because (whisper) no plague took place. But because of the reporting requirements, virtually all deaths where COVID 19 can plausibly be claimed to be present in the deceased will be counted as COVID 19 deaths. Thus, unless they go with double counting, deaths otherwise attributable to heart failure and cancer and the afflictions of old age will drop, as will deaths from the flu, pneumonia, and any respirtory problems.

This switcheroo will only show up in the totals, or rather, will not show up in the totals.

Another thing – here’s the weather in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, over the last couple of months:

A bit cold and nasty-looking (to a Californian) until the second week of April – at least, cold nights and quite a few cooler days. Now, the weather is getting pretty nice, that lovely Mediterranean climate Italians and Californians love – and in which air-borne viruses quickly die out.

Here’s Spain:

Same story. Here’s France:

French reporting has been very inconsistent, as this graph shows, but the trend, if any, seems downward. I’m reminded of a story I heard about the song April in Paris: Yip Harburg, the lyricist, was asked how he could write

April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
April in Paris, this is a feeling
No one can ever reprise

…when every Frenchman knew April in Paris is cold, wet and nasty. He replied: May didn’t fit the rhythm. So the positive effects of Spring sunshine won’t likely be seen for another couple weeks.

Now, on to America:

What is happening here? We get repeated lesser daily counts for a day or two, followed by new highs – three or maybe four times so far.

Following new CDC guidelines: “As of April 14, 2020, CDC case counts and death counts include both confirmed and probable cases and deaths. This change was made to reflect an interim COVID-19 position statement issued by the Council for State and Territorial Epidemiologists on April 5, 2020. The position statement included a case definition and made COVID-19 a nationally notifiable disease.

A confirmed case or death is defined by meeting confirmatory laboratory evidence for COVID-19. A probable case or death is defined by i) meeting clinical criteria AND epidemiologic evidence with no confirmatory laboratory testing performed for COVID-19; or ii) meeting presumptive laboratory evidence AND either clinical criteria OR epidemiologic evidence; or iii) meeting vital records criteria with no confirmatory laboratory testing performed for COVID19″ [source]

Worldometers again

Since over half the deaths have taken place in the NYC metro area, one would look first there.

From Woldometers

And, on that same page, are updates on how, over time, other states have changed their reporting practices to be more generous and inclusive – in other words, to include more deaths under the COVID 19 heading, following revised CDC guidelines. Whether these changes are warranted or not, they skew the results in one way only: more deaths reported as due to COVID 19.

So, are we in the same situation as Italy, where I predict no significant uptick in total annual deaths? I say yes.

I had hoped to be able to say that the numbers clearly show the US is well past its peak; but at face value, that’s not quite possible, given the upward spikes in deaths. On a local basis, the New York City/Newark area, unlike the rest of the country, has seen overall ‘excess’ deaths over what historical trends would find reasonable. This is real, and cause for concern. On the other hand, I have seen no reports to suggest the profile of the people dying has changed – it is still 80% people over 65, and 95% people who are sick, elderly, or both. In other words, at most 5% of the victims are younger and healthy. I say at most, because the prudent thing to wonder is if those younger, healthy victims did not, in fact, have underlying health issues that were undetected – maybe, maybe not, but the thought all but suggests itself.

Finally, one more set of pictures: Weather in New York City

Again, from a Californian’s perspective (I’m sitting out on the patio typing this, 80F, light breeze, beautiful) that’s some nasty weather, mostly cold and damp, and erratic. Maybe if Spring finally arrives in the northeast, we can put a stake in this thing.

Links & Weather & SciFi (oh my!)

Yep, no school or economics today. instead:

Item 1: William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, has built an interesting model of viral outbreaks over time, and mapped the coronavirus outbreak against it. Here’s his Update III. Bottom line: recognizing that all statistical analysis is conditional on the quality of the data (among other things) and that some parties (China) might not be telling the exact truth, it looks like this is pretty much a typical viral outbreak, worse than some, not as bad as others.

This analysis is worth the read merely to see how a philosopher/statistician evaluates data. I’m am grateful to another statistician, Mike Flynn, for having made the point that ‘fact’ comes from ‘factorum’ (or whatever the correct Latin form is) and means: a thing made. Facts most definitely do not speak for themselves; rather, they speak for the assumptions and mechanisms used to create them. Trivial example: it is a fact that water boils at 100C – +/- the accuracy of the thermometer and skill of the observer, measured in a traditionally sanctioned manner (at sea level, under normal atmospheric pressure, etc.) PROVIDED the water is sufficiently pure (as determined by conventional measurements of purity) and so on a so forth.

Dr. Briggs brings out some of the less obvious factors forming the facts, here. I’ll belabor one: diagnoses do not equal incidents. Incidents proceed according to their own logic; diagnoses depend on how and how much testing is being done, and on whom, and on the quality (false positive and negatives abound in many tests). Turns out that, until the first diagnosis, the ratio of infections to diagnoses is infinite; then, the ratio, which can never be known (there will always be undiagnosed cases, usually lots of them!) will be thought to be falling – more and more cases are diagnosed, while the number of infections is – who knows? Eventually, unless we’re all going to die of this, the rate new cases are diagnosed will fall, eventually hitting near zero. Of necessity trailing diagnosis, the number of dead will rise and fall as well. Eventually, everyone with the disease will either die or get better. We can then make a guess as to the mortality rate – but will never know it, because the number of people infected will never be known.

Slightly less obvious: a similar pattern will happen every time the infection spreads to a new area: initially, as tests are administered, the number of diagnoses will rocket upward, only to level off and fall over time. This kind of spreading can mask what’s really going on, as falling numbers of cases and deaths in one area are offset by growing numbers of cases in newer outbreak areas.

IF – and no one, least of all me, will know this until this is all over – the coronavirus acts like any other typical flu-type virus, once the weather gets nice, this outbreak will quickly disappear. Sunlight will kill it, people will get out more and thus provide less opportunity for infection in crowded places, and, in general ‘flu season’ will be over.

IF – again, always conditional on assumptions and information – this coronavirus is nothing unique, the whole outbreak should be over in a few months. Caution is always prudent; panic is always an invitation to the unscrupulous to seize more power.

Item 2: The Great Storm of 1605. Turns out climatologists have coined a name for the once every 100-200 year storms that drown California and the West: ARkStorms. (The ‘AR’ stands for Atmospheric River). Cute, huh? I’ve mentioned this here. Thanks again to Mike Flynn, who first mentioned the Great Storm of ’62 and got me interested.

The last ARkstorm was over the winter of 1861-1862, where it rained for 43 straight days, turned the entire Central Valley into a lake, put Sacramento under 10′ of water for months, turned the entire L.A. basin into a big swampy lake, and otherwise wreaked havoc all across the West and down on into Mexico.

Climatologists and geologists have taken ocean bed cores off the California coast, and found these 100-200 year events that laid down far, far more sediment that is typical. The scary part: back in 1605, it seems there was an ARkStorm that put the 1861-62 one to shame – at least 50% larger.

Wow. That would be bad. And we’re due. This year, however, we’re back to drought gloom and doom after 3 years of near-normal to excellent rain and snow, as we’ve only gotten about 30% of season average so far, when we average about 75% by now. Still need around another 10″ of rain to get to average – unlikely. That this kind of weather – a near completely dry February – happens maybe 30% of the time doesn’t seem to register with some people.

Item 3: There was this excellent sci fi story I read once years ago, where a colony on an earth-like planet named Cygnus (I think) experienced an unprecedented storm, which caused havoc in all sorts of interesting and tragic ways. Of course I can’t find it now, I thought the title was something like After the Storm, but that’s a Hemingway story… Anyway, wonder if the author was thinking of the Great Storm of 1862?

Item 4: If I ever get around to writing more fiction, I’ve got to name a character Hacksilver Smith.

Education Reading Roundup, etc.

Old guy advise to whippersnappers who may one day want to do something scholarly: when you get the chance to learn German, French, Latin, and Greek – DO IT!

Image result for old man grumpy

I’m you’re Cautionary Tale right here: turns out that there’s tons of critiques and descriptions of Pestalozzi – in German. Hecker loomed large in France. Latin and Greek are kind of essential, too.

I used to be able to read a little French, but that atrophied away decades ago; German I took when I was 15, didn’t take at all; Greek I took for a couple years, but guess what? One must work at Greek like training to be a marathon runner – can’t let very many days go by without putting in some serious time and effort. And Latin I know only through singing a ton of church Latin – the Nicene Creed contains about 90% of any Latin vocabulary I might pretend to know.

Being at the mercy of translators isn’t so bad, usually, but here I worry a little. Example: I’m reading The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi by a J. A. Green, B.A., Professor of Education at the University College of North Wales. Green’s preface begins:

In this attempt to expound the fundamental doctrines of Pestalozzi, I have been chiefly indebted to two admirable articles by Wegel in the XXIII and XXIV JahrbĂĽcher dee Vereins filr wissenschaftliche Padagogik,
entitled “Pestalozzi und Herbart.” In the vast extent of German Pestalozzian literature, these articles are generally acknowledged to be the most satisfactory critical account of Pestalozzi’s doctrines.

“In the vast extent of German Pestalozzian literature” I’m thinking there are going to be a wide variety of takes on what Pestalozzi was up to, and that, given the Sahara-like dryness of the topic, few have been clawed into a civilized tongue translated into English. When I reviewed How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, which seems to be considered his clearest declaration of his philosophy and methods, I noted how Pestalozzi’s writings seem little more than a Rorschach test wherein anyone, from Einstein’s kindly teachers to Fichte in his proto-Nazi ravings, could see what they needed for their purposes. Indeed, the translators of that volume mention Pestalozzi’s peculiar use of words:

These terms are difficult, for apparently we do not grasp Pestalozzi’s thought. We neither read nor follow him. If we walk in his ways, we may see what he saw; if we repeat his experiments, we may in some measure share his thought. Doing leads to knowing. He has been blamed for not defining his terms. He gives instead the history of this conception, the circumstances which led to it, its development, and his schemes founded on it. ” There are two ways of instructing,” he said ; ” either we go from words to things, or from things to words. Mine is the second method.”

Why does it need to be either/or? Perhaps there is a third way, one that uses things-to-words and words-to-things as appropriate? Does not any child old enough for formal education already possess enough awareness of the world gained through ‘sense impressions’ to skip the picture-book phase? The key recurring element of the Pestalozzian approach, the one that all his followers, in their disparate routes, from Einstein’s teachers cutting him some slack to Fichte’s legions of state-certified teachers micromanaging every spoon-fed moment, is the primacy of the *teacher*. It is How Gertrude Teaches, not How Gertrude’s Children Learn, after all.

Even more basic, Pestalozzi does not inspire confidence in his ability to move from things to words when he, himself, cannot seem to put into words the methods he employed for many decades. Seeing is believing, I suppose, but then everything, especially becoming a teacher after the manner of Pestalozzi, can only be learned as a sort of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is not the kind of schooling the state has settled upon.

Keep uncovering more books that I have to read, or at least think I do. I knew this was a vast field; I did not think so much of it would be relevant to my purposes. Generally, I plan to eschew sources more recent than the 1950s at the very latest; my quarry is the story of the complete surrender of the Catholic schools to the state’s idea of education, after almost a century of fighting hard against it. Looks like the end came with more of a whimper than a bang, and was completely over by the 1930s. What strikes me now, and struck Archbishops Ireland’s and Gibbon’s opponents at the time, was the relatively swift and total shift from an adversarial relationship with the state schools to a slavish imitation of them. Bishops like Hughes in NY had waged war to keep as many kids as possible out of state schools; Ireland thought Catholic schools were a stopgap, and wanted to hand education over to the state, or at least to its surrogates and mirror images in the form of diocesan school school superintendents and certified teachers under the supervision of the state. These new ‘professional’ ‘educators’ would ensure that Catholic education conformed to the state’s wishes, that classes were taught in a state approved manner from state approved curricula. The Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters codified what Ireland had proposed: that the state has a coequal and independent interest in the education of children, and can rightly oversee and, where it deems necessary, overrule the educational decisions of parents. As Legaldictionary.net puts it in their summary of the ruling:

Nothing stops the State of Oregon, or any state, from regulating private schools to ensure quality.  However, a state government cannot use its power to arbitrarily and unreasonably destroy the existence of private schools.

And who gets to regulate private schools to ensure quality, I wonder? Chief Justice Hugo Black, a former KKK member and bitter anti-Catholic, maybe? Who in 1947 started the tradition of applying the anti-establishment* clause of the 1st Amendment to any state *tolerance* of Catholic expression in public?

Pierce v. Society of Sisters was proclaimed a victory for the Catholic schools, because the court did in fact strike down an Oregon law banning them. Lost in the celebration was enshrining into law the state’s right to oversee *all* education. The old idea, championed by the Church and, indeed, virtually all American Protestants up until the end of the 19th century, was that parents and their churches had the primary rights and duties towards education of the young, and that the state had only subordinate and derivative rights, if, indeed, any. Nope, here is enshrined in law the idea Ireland promoted, that the state’s has rights to meddle in, and, indeed, manage, the education of your kids, and that these rights are neither derived from nor subordinate to parental and religious rights.

We are to simply trust that the Hugo Blacks of the world won’t overdo it, that the overwhelming force wielded by those at the reins of the state are not going to be brought to bear on a few uppity citizens here and there. They wouldn’t dream, for example, of mandating sex ed completely at odds with Catholic religious beliefs. As Woody Allen put it: the lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.

All this has lead me to the frankly wild Americanism of American Catholics, complete validation of the accusation that they (we!) are Americans first, and Catholics second. This ceases to be a mere truism once its clear that it is the decision-making paradigm: “American” is the solid thing; Catholic must be flexible and conform.

*It’s like people have no idea ideas have any context, as if we must struggle to understand what establishment of a religion means, instead of looking at the English history in which that term arose, or in the colonies where it where it was implemented here, or in the way it was (not) applied to all the Bible reading and religious education that was considered essential to public education well into the 1930s. Nope, it means something else entirely, new and mysterious.

Education – Some Tuesday Links

The late, great John Taylor Gatto wrote many things good to read. Here’s one. A sample:

What if there is no “problem” with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because they are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would “leave no child behind”? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them ever really grows up?

John Taylor Gatto, How public education cripples our kids, and why

The shift from thinking (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary!) that the schools are basically a good thing, they just need (endless) reform to get back to doing what they used to do well and/or finally become the tools of Progress they were always meant to be, to realizing that, from their foundation, our schools were intended as instruments of control, and learning is only permitted to take place if it supports that control, was for me the critical, life-altering change.

Gatto, especially in his Underground History of American Education, pointed me to Fichte and the chain of Americans, many with with Prussian PhDs, who founded and headed up state education departments and education schools. Then you go read these guy, and the people they influenced and who influenced them, and – wow. It’s not about the 3 Rs, boys and girls. Note: this is not a blanket endorsement of everything Gatto said – I haven’t read 10% of what he said! Yet.

Here’s his site, with much more to read. (It does not seem to have been thoroughly updated to reflect his death in 2018.)

A whoa moment: at the very end of his life, when, due to a stroke he had to type things out with one finger, he wrote a series of letters to Trump, and stated his strong support, because “You are already on record as denouncing Common Core Curriculum as the anti-American, Marxist project it is.  Its author, David Coleman, from Frankfurt School roots on his father’s side and sex-driven feminism on his mother’s (former president of America’s most radical women’s college, Bennington, which mocked virgins openly during the 50s and 60s, and was nationally famous for doing so)…” I had no idea; Gatto had struck me as having some almost hippy leanings, sometimes, what with his anti-establishment takes on schooling, although he did become a solid anti-Marxist as he dug through education history (the same thing happened to me!). He also had careers in advertising and script writing, so he’s more circumspect and calculated in what he says and the way he says it than us laymen would be…

Leonora Ruffo in 2+5: Missione Hydra (1966)
Off-topic interlude: Here’s 1950-60s Italian film star Leonora Ruffo holding a space rifle thing, from a cheesy Italian sci fi flick from 1960. It’s funny how some pretty women can get that cast of face that makes ‘I’m a space alien’ completely believable. E.g., that alien queen lady from ‘V’ (although the haircut certainly helped in her case) .

I’ve mentioned the Underground Grammarian before; it was recently brought back into my attention by a comment from regular reader Andrew Brew, who knew, as I didn’t, the Mr. Grammarian was Professor Richard Mitchell. I first ran across him through Mike Flynn’s blog many years ago (under “interesting sites” in the left-hand column), but never gave him the reading he deserves. So, here – let me recommend him again:

Aha! How about this? What would be the correct form after a singular antecedent? He, of course. Everybody knows that. But wait! That’s a rank sexist slur. How about he or she or he/she? Still sexist–he comes first. Maybe she or he or she/he? Sexist again, but the other way around. What to do? The hell with it! Stick in they. After all, who’s going to read the thing? Just a bunch of graduate advisors (Advisors?), and what do they know?

THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN, Volume Two, Number One…………January 1978

Professor Mitchell fought the good fight against nonsensical, incoherent, and just plain bad English, and the colleges that enabled and encouraged it. It’s gotten much, much worse than when he started in the late 1970s. That said, I will sheepishly admit my writing would not withstand the broadside of his criticism which it more than occasionally would deserve. On the plus side, reading his little newsletter is not only amusing, but can actually help one improve one’s grammar and usage.