Re: [xmca] On a lighter notr: Railroad gauge (A very cultural-historical example)

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Sun Jul 16 2006 - 19:39:35 PDT

It is always interesting, the particular and powerful cast that the US
military-industrial complex puts on these issues, the particularly sharp
and pragmatic relief into which things are thrown, but these questions have
very ancient provenance. Hegel puts his tuppence worth in on the old
question of the Spartan Constitution:

"To make, for example, the manners of the Spartans the cause of their
constitution and their constitution conversely the cause of their manners,
may no doubt be in a way correct. But, as we have comprehended neither the
manners nor the constitution of the nation, the result of such reflections
can never be final or satisfactory. The satisfactory point will be reached
only when these two, as well as all other, special aspects of Spartan life
and Spartan history are seen to be founded in this notion."

And Ilyenkov, following Marx, had a lot to say on the "double movement" of
course ("Abstract and Concrete, etc."). According to Hegel, the outcome of
the *reciprocal* movement is the development of the notion (unit of
analysis) as the unity of Necessity and Freedom.

What interests me is the bringing together of the two aspects here: (a) the
understanding of the "real possibility" (sufficient cause? causal
condition?) and (b) the pragmatic solution which enables intervention.

I think "causal analysis" has to have these two components.

At 09:31 PM 16/07/2006 -0400, you wrote:
>This could send us into a discussion of the 'branching-universe model'
>versus the relativity of simultaneity, but I sense that we're not heading
>into any questioning of the existence of the past and future (Rudolf
>Rucker does a nice job on this, with lots of pictures of flatland to
>explain 4-D space-time, in "Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth
>Dimension"). Nor do I see the profit in engaging in backwards causation,
>that is, where the future changes the past... it gets caught up in
>dimensionality. Unless we are talking from a hermeneutic standpoint.
>However what did strike me is the 'root cause' idea. I've been reading
>Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and one of the sections is on the
>clean-up of NYC and the basis for the approach that was taken: Broken
>Windows theory. This theory (Wilson and Kelling), linked to the Power of
>Context view, suggest that it is relatively 'minor' things that effect our
>environment which are the 'tipping points' for change. In this regard,
>behavior is a function of social context, but change behavior can be
>attributed to what appear to be relatively small things (in NYC graffiti
>covering the subway cars and also trainstile hopping). Yet, it seems to me
>that what was not discussed was how they arrived at the particularly small
>things, or root causes, of the behavior - small things that turned out to
>be intricately connected to large things.
>Ana Marjanovic-Shane wrote:
>>This is a very interesting way to find causes -- I did not know that it
>>had a formal name, too. Sometimes, narratives are also set in a reverse
>>time order -- at least partially. Many films start with the "end" and
>>than they flash back to tell the story from the "beginning". IN that
>>process they may go back and forth in time, "filling in" missing details
>>in each pass. One of the first to do so was "Citizen Cane" with his
>>famous last words: "rosebud".
>>Many other modern narratives go back and forth in time, often searching
>>for root causes in the similar manner as the Apollo method. And very
>>often they actually play with this notion of a "root cause" creating
>>strange loops ("After the Rain" a Macedonian film is a great example of a
>>kind of *moebius* strip).
>>I think that the railroad example is a little different kind of "cause"
>>than the mostly physical causes you quoted in your example. I mean -- the
>>reason for railroad gouge being 4 feet 8 1/2" -- is not the same as a
>>cause of an explosion. This particular RR gouge was not an inevitable
>>effect when that width was set for the first time (whenever it might have
>>happened) in the same sense as when you have all the conditions for an
>>explosion to take place. At any point of time, this gouge might have been
>>changed and it wasn't because it was: costly, impractical, not
>>considered, a coincidence, etc. It still might change in the future... So
>>in a way -- it is "caused" by the Roman (or earlier) chariots/wagon
>>makers and corresponding road fitting, but in a way -- there are many
>>more branches of causes than in physical causality that it becomes
>>difficult to call it a "cause". It was certainly "enabled" by all the
>>different decisions along the historical path, and these decisions were
>>made in many ways we don't know from the shorthand example.
>>If we compare this with the "cause" for the QWERTY keyboard -- both were
>>products of a certain kind of thinking and reasoning to solve a
>>particular practical issue at hand. But they were not the ONLY
>>possibilities at that time. So if Apollo reasoning defined branching
>>going backwards in time, I think that this kind of "causality" has
>>branches in both directions in time...
>>Maybe I am wrong...
>>Steve Gabosch wrote:
>>>This marvelous informal article Ana copied about how ancient chariot
>>>wheel widths eventually became transformed into modern US, British and
>>>Canadian railroad track widths is a perfect illustration of a "root
>>>cause analysis," a process followed in many industries to try to
>>>understand and find solutions for accidents, waste, and other
>>>undesirable things. I recently took a class series at work in this,
>>>which spurred me to stir up that little discussion about causality the
>>>other week. It had got me wondering how causality figures into CHAT analysis.
>>>There are actually a number of different root cause analysis
>>>methods. The one Boeing uses, the "Apollo" method, developed by Texas
>>>engineer and accident investigator Dean Gano in the 1980's, has an
>>>interesting philosophical premise: we live in an infinite continuum of
>>>causes. There is no single "root" cause, just causes that are more
>>>available to influence or eliminate. According to Gano, effects always
>>>have at least two causes: some causal condition, and some causal
>>>action. The effect combustion typically has two causal conditions,
>>>oxygen and fuel, and an action, ignition. The solution to preventing a
>>>fire might be to remove the possibility of ignition. Removing the fuel
>>>and perhaps the oxygen could also be solutions. A causal analysis of a
>>>fire might include asking why the fuel was there (flammable liquid fell
>>>from a truck) why did it fall (not secured properly) why wasn't it
>>>secured properly (latch was broken) why was the latch broken
>>>(maintenance didn't have the replacement part) - and so forth and so on.
>>>An especially notable aspect of this causal analysis approach is the way
>>>it sharply distinguishes itself from storytelling. As Gano explains it,
>>>storytelling begins at some point in the past and works its way to the
>>>present. Causal analysis begins in the present and works its way to the
>>>past. Stories or narratives are linear. Causal analyses are branched,
>>>not linear. In a causal analysis, every effect branches into multiple
>>>causes. In the narrative, beginning at some point in the past, this
>>>happened, and then that happened, and then the next thing happened,
>>>moving in a linear direction toward the present. In causal analysis,
>>>beginning in the present, this happened, which was caused by that and
>>>that happening, which was caused by this, that and the other thing
>>>happening, moving in an ever-branching pattern toward the past. A large
>>>part of the "Apollo" method (this term was chosen because it had both a
>>>space age and an ancient ring to it) consists in teaching ways to
>>>facilitate a group to develop a causal analysis chart that lines up the
>>>causes and effects logically while also keeping track of the complex
>>>The point is to (1) identify the upstream causes that can change or
>>>eliminate the undesirable downstream effects, and thereby (2)
>>>choose/suggest solutions that management will like (cost, ease of
>>>implementation, etc.). Other features of this method include an
>>>emphasis on avoiding blaming, stopping asking why too soon, getting
>>>evidence for all causal actions and causal conditions, and thinking in
>>>terms of events, not categories. Gano calls this a "new way of
>>>thinking" and it does break through numerous paradigms that reinforce
>>>business as usual. Philosophically, it applies a number of materialist ideas.
>>>The analysis of the origins of the standard 4 foot 8-1/2 inch US
>>>railroad gauge Ana copied for us (do visit the site as Ana and Mike
>>>suggest) proceeds not as a story, but as a causal analysis. It keeps
>>>asking "why" and "what caused that to happen?" and proceeds farther and
>>>farther back into British and then Roman past. The process used was
>>>from the present toward the past. Perfect example of an "Apollo" causal
>>>- Steve
>>>PS On the site Ana provided, what did the Canadian National Railroad
>>>system engineer Worth mean by "parallel evolution" when he said:
>>>"None of this is to suggest that messrs. Trevithick, Stephenson, etc.,
>>>used design manuals from the Sumerian and Akkadian empires in deciding
>>>upon the 4'-8 1/2" gauge. It only illustrates the principle of parallel
>>>evolution, i.e., that 'everything that rises must converge'.
>>>At 09:22 PM 7/15/2006 -0400, you wrote:
>>>>This is very amusing, but after you have read and enjoyed this, try
>>>>this site:?
>>>>Begin forwarded message:
>>>>>*The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4
>>>>>feet, 8.5 inches.
>>>>>That's an exceedingly odd number. ???Why was that gauge used?*
>>>>>*Because that's the way they built them in England , and English
>>>>>expatriates built the US Railroads.
>>>>>*Why did the English build them like that?
>>>>>Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the
>>>>>pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
>>>>>Why did "they" use that gauge then?
>>>>>Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools
>>>>>that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
>>>>>*Okay! ??Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?
>>>>>Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would
>>>>>break on some of the old, long distance roads in England , because
>>>>>that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.
>>>>>So who built those old rutted roads?
>>>>>*Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and
>>>>>England )
>>>>>for their legions. ??The roads have been used ever since.
>>>>>And the ruts in the roads?
>>>>>*Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had
>>>>>to match for fear of
>>>>>destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for
>>>>>Imperial Rome , they
>>>>>were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
>>>>>The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is
>>>>>derived from the
>>>>>original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. And
>>>>>bureaucracies live forever.
>>>>>So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what
>>>>>horse's ass came up with it, you may
>>>>>be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman army*
>>>>>*chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of
>>>>>two war horses!*
>>>>>Now, the twist to the story
>>>>>*When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two
>>>>>big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These
>>>>>are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.
>>>>>The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory at Utah . The engineers
>>>>>who designed the ?SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter,
>>>>>but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.
>>>>>The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in
>>>>>the mountains.
>>>>>The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.
>>>>>*The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the
>>>>>railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.
>>>>>*So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the
>>>>>world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two
>>>>>thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.** And you thought
>>>>>being a horse's ass wasn't important!*
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Andy Blunden, for Victorian Peace Network, phone +61 3 9380 9435
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