by Ingenier Livio Dante Porta
“Know that what isn’t written down doesn’t exist.” (L D Porta, August, 1999)
[To the engineering world, Livio Dante Porta (pbuh) was the controversial apostle of reciprocating steam locomotive final perfection; to dervish students of wisdom, he is a subtle thinker who revivified our comprehension of the molecular and mechanical level of physical reality with unrivalled clarity of precision. He is sometimes called by dervishes “The Perfector Of The Limits On Human Understanding” for his work in defining the automatic, and thus often erroneous, limited nature of much of collective thought. The following lecture transcription is taken from the February-March 2000 issue of the Argentine Tren Rodante magazine, on-line at http://www.tren-rodante.com.ar and it is translated by Robin Fox; it previously was posted on-line notably at Martyn Bane’s web site http://www.martynbane.co.uk/modernsteam/ldp/articlesbyldp/misdif.htm and, now, Porta’s remarks are re-posted here as an excellent example of how the Sufi influence may be seen at work in parallel, simultaneously and yet to all appearances in widely-separated fields. All rights revert to the original holders. s/Nejmi Mohammed]
Transcript of a lecture given by the Argentine railway engineer Livio Dante Porta at a conference organised by the Argentine Railway Museum Foundation, at 7.00 p.m., 25th August 1999, at Sarmiento 329, Province of Buenos Aires.
Today’s lecture has the title “My Difficulties”. Many people have asked me, by way of a foretaste, if these difficulties that I had in mind were related to my mechanical work, to do with materials, engines, or whatever. Nothing of the kind. My difficulties in the course of sixty years’ activity have been of a different nature, as I am going to set out here.
I had once thought of doing a talk entitled “ME”. It’s possible to be a pedant, I confess, but not too much. The idea, now taken up by the Foundation, was to describe a life-long personal experience full of occasions when technical creativity comes a cropper, in such a way that it could be a cause for reflection so that, were it possible, that experience would be incorporated into one’s habitual thoughts and actions. That is to say, what I’m trying to do is pass on my experience to others.
The subject of steam traction touches on a multitude of aspects that go from the purest romanticism to the purest commercialism, with its legitimate and illegitimate vested interests. It might be thought that the difficulties that give rise to the title of this lecture have more to do with technical aspects or with the supposed perversity of business. But that’s not how it is.
I could make long list, in which a good dose of perversity is not lacking, the first and most important place is occupied by those difficulties of a philosophical nature. These are determining factors and, given that they are seldom considered, I want to focus on them today.
In general I’m going to talk about the period from 1946 to 1980. Perón turned Argentina into a socialist country but was astute enough not to say so. I realized this after working in Cuba for a few years.
With the nationalization of the railways, which cemented the political and social unity of the country, the Argentine people suddenly came up against the need to start thinking about the underlying problem, a subject which we weren’t ready to deal with. However, foreign administrations were, since they were already acting as a result of a process that had been going on for many years. The actors changed, the English or the French, but there was always a well thought out continuity in everything they did, including in the State railways and also, for example in the Buenos Aires Provincial Railway. A policy was maintained which progressed in terms of the growing needs that required attention.
At nationalization, those men of well-earned qualifications, who had to be evaluated with reference to London, were substituted at the first opportunity for authentic, patriotic Perónists, but the willingness to volunteer for duty that was made so much of was no substitute for the know-how of those replaced
Many examples could be recalled of how eminent engineers I knew were substituted by honest, willing men of those times, whose effort did not make up for their lack of in-depth knowledge.
It need not surprise us, since we are still doing it, convinced of its being the best way and that the lack of depth in that knowledge can be made up for with a patriotic effort of will.
This was the setting in which I had to work, which explains the difficulties I am going to describe now.
For example, all argument is set at the level of the least informed (I repeat that what I am saying is the result of my experience and not what I have read in some book or other).
The English made sure that their people were well informed. In the Central Argentine Railway’s traction department they received at least ten technical magazines which circulated with date and signature amongst the twenty Englishmen who managed the railway. Every three months they had a technical meeting for each speciality, at which presentations were made and discussed on the published material. All this disappeared.
The first transport minister after nationalization ordered the burning of all the collections of technical magazines written in a foreign language, with which a tradition was started which continues to this day.
You can all imagine my desperation at having discussions with people who were not even informed regarding the problem which had to be talked about.
This is why, in order to understand what was being done in other parts of the world, I familiarized myself with English, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and even a little Romanian. The lack of information was a severe obstacle which even today I find it difficult to make up for. But the thing is that those who are uninformed do not realize that they are.
As analyzed in what I will say further on, lack of information affects those at decision making levels and, as an example I can say that the mediocrity of the discussions that I have heard in the directorship of the Argentine Railways still horrifies me.
A second difficulty: Nobody knows what they don’t know until they know it. A child of eight doesn’t know about logarithms but in addition he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. It’s not until he’s sixteen, when he studies them, that he realizes that when he was eight he didn’t know about them. I think that this is perhaps the keenest problem with the theory of knowledge, a subject in which I am only a dilettante. Cicero, whose intelligence has penetrated the centuries, not only didn’t know about electricity, but he didn’t know that he didn’t know about electricity.
As Wardale says in his book about the “Red Devil”, those who criticize and who criticized compound engines didn’t know what a compound was or they half knew, like Nordmann (Prof. H.Nordmann of German Railways), but neither did they know that they didn’t know. This is what is called insuperable ignorance; what is more, the less that is known about something, the more emphasis is put on the least defendable arguments. It is already known that there’s nothing worse than he who knows only a little about things. My experience is that this difficulty is an insurmountable obstacle for any development. Generally speaking, people (and I include myself) believe they know more than what they do know. When one looks back with today’s eyes to one’s own past, one sees that in many respects one shouldn’t have done the things one did.
Another difficulty: preconceived ideas. The human mind is made in such a way that when a new message wants to get through, it’s necessary to clear the stage of all preconceived ideas, which is not the same as teaching in virgin territory, as happens when one goes to school; that is to say, “the holes in the socket must be cleaned so that the plug will go in and the electricity can then flow without resistance.”
Very few people have the capacity for dialog (something that became fashionable with the Second Vatican Council), which consists of making the genuine and honest effort to momentarily abandon one’s own convictions in order to comprehend the other person. Naturally, that is opposed not only by a more or less rational mentality, always based on imperfect information, but also by pride, which we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have or have had regarding a position we have maintained for many years.
Not infrequently the new judgements can only be made by a new generation that is not committed to the previous one. That was the greatest difficulty that I found in Cuba. It must be noted that things become more difficult when the position held by the person who has to be convinced is supported by a more or less rational mentality, above all if this is propped up by years of successful experience.
One of the areas in which this has happened for me is, for example, is the extension to stationary boilers of the water treatment I developed for locomotives. So, what was the reaction to my message? Surely it can’t be that everything that is proposed is contrary to what we hold as sacrosanct truth. Clearly, if tubes are changed after three years usage, that has to be taken as something inherent in the nature of things or, as it’s said in English, “an Act of God”.
Another difficulty is what I have taken to calling the Withuhn Principle (William Withuhn, curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, awarded the DFC when serving in US Air Force in Vietnam): No question can have a correct answer if it is wrongly posed. This is a subject that has constantly vexed me throughout sixty years of work. History is full of questions wrongly posed, for example, the religious wars that there have been. That’s what they were.
Intelligence could be defined as the ability to describe things in their essence, which is not easy. It is already known that one can’t see the wood for the trees. Generally, and this is my experience, those who have a problem define it badly. For example, if a sugar refining plant cannot maintain steam pressure, it is concluded that more boilers must be installed, not that combustion should be improved.
The problem of the steam locomotive has always suffered these ups and downs. Really, it is such a simple machine and so badly understood! Its development has been entirely empirical, especially in English-speaking countries and, when there was any progress, it was not necessarily the fruit of an intellectual process such as we are accustomed to with other technical developments. There was always a bad definition of the problem and therefore the responses only went half way towards answering it. As far as I’m concerned it has always been a difficulty, defining the problem of steam in such a way that it was understood by the other person in order to give convincing answers.
Another difficulty: A frequent mistake is that if it can’t be shown that something is wrong then it must necessarily be all right. This logic is correlated with another similar one, for example, if it can’t be shown that something is all right then it is necessarily wrong or its opposite is certain. Then there is what in Brazil is called The Office Theory: What I don’t understand is necessarily wrong.
And likewise there are other conclusions that can be drawn in this respect. This is the world of false dilemmas, which is, of course, well exploited by advertising. Advertising is not about making information about things more widely available but rather it’s about creating new needs and convincing people of them in order to do new business.
These ways of thinking have caused me quite a few difficulties with regard to my projects. Also, if a mathematical model cannot be found to express, for example, the forces at work on a given mechanical component, its dimensions are worse than useless. The development of the mechanical components of all machinery is the result of a semi-empirical process that has taken over 100 years. Today’s boiler thicknesses are the fruit of many explosions.
But one must not fall into the trap of a paralyzing conservatism. If it had been thus, planes could never have flown let alone have been designed. The errors that I am commenting on here are the result of a schooling in which the power of reason is exaggerated, but the limits of that power are fixed by what I referred to earlier: no–one knows that he doesn’t know something until he knows it. And also, that a great deal of knowledge is a must. This is what is called experience. But the problem is that if one hasn’t got it one doesn’t feel the lack of it.
To sum up, the list of difficulties that have prevented my technological advances from being better is much longer still than what I’ve have just sketched here.
Anyone might think that they would be based on lack of resources, means, special materials or machinery. None of that. They have been in the thinking of the people with whom I have had to deal, in particular the Argentines. That is why circumstances have led me to work abroad, in England, Switzerland, USA, Cuba and shortly in France and Poland.
Throughout many years of constant effort, I have always come up against the same lack of comprehension…it has been my bad luck to be wise after the event.
I ask myself this dramatic question that I take from men such as Félix Luna (a famous contemporary Argentine nationalist writer, poet and lyricist) and Mariano Grondona (a well-known Argentine TV current affairs commentator and political critic): “Why do we Argentines have this intellectual blindness?” We could define ourselves in three categories:
a) creative geniuses;
b) those who aren’t geniuses but who are sufficiently intelligent to take advantage of what the creative geniuses work out; and
c) those who not only do not take advantage, but rather they actually do the exact opposite and can be summed up by using a vulgar word, or simply calling them stupid fools.
We have to admit, painful though it is, that Argentines from the 1930s on, have to be enrolled in this last category.
This has nothing to do with the problem of corruption, but rather it’s a problem of intelligence. According to what philosophy teaches, it is philosophy that governs the will. The decision to be frogs, before being an act of will is an act of intelligence. The root of our ills isn’t moral but intellectual. We are frogs because we think that being so is the answer to the problems that human existence presents. Before we say it we have thought it. We want to be mediocre because we’ve been dazzled by the shortcut of believing that it’s possible to live without making any effort. This was not the attitude of my father’s generation, who held fast intellectually to the tenet that things have to be done well.
On a previous occasion, someone who is present today was telling me about their father, saying that he had taught his sons, who are now young men, that things have to be done well. But in this panorama of acid criticism that all of you have just had to put up with from me, for the sake of what I said about a problem not having a solution unless it is correctly posed, I want to salvage the fact that it is summed up in a profound recognition of all those who, with their teachings and accompaniment, have made it possible for me to get to where I am, and secondly that I perceive in today’s youth, personified in my grandchildren, that they no longer swallow whole everything we try to sell them, preaching to them that we have to buy more cars and make a deafening din substituting beat for music.
I do believe in a Potential Argentina which is implicit in Don Orione (a Roman Catholic order known in Britain as the “Sons of Divine Providence”, devoted to providing shelter, work and a dignified life for the poor and disabled, deprived, abandoned, abused and afflicted, especially children; the founder of the order, Don Luigi Orione [1872-1940], an Italian priest, made two missionary visits to Argentina, setting up his homes and institutions, canonised in 2003) but not one based on a supposedly inexhaustible mineral or cereal wealth, but rather on work-worn hands scarred from the efforts of daily life, like my father’s, who in 1914 had to lay 2000 bricks per day in order to have bread for his family. That is the Argentina which is to come. Thank you. That’s all.
The Art of Thinking
Thoughts deduced by Ing. Porta from his professional experience:
No problem badly defined can have a solution (no ill person can be cured if badly diagnosed.)
The level of any discussion is given by the least informed party or the one whose intelligence has been least trained.
To understand is to become equal.
If I, at this moment, am unable to demonstrate that you are mistaken, that does not mean you are right.
The art of the lawyer is to pass the burden of proof to the other.
No-one realizes that they don’t know something until they know it. The prehistoric stone-cutter died without knowing that logarithms exist. Cicero didn’t know that electricity existed; he was not even able to suspect that it might. This is the fundamental problem with the theory of knowledge. (It seems that Ing. Porta has discovered this.)
The Office Theory (Brazil): what I don’t understand is necessarily wrong.
Whether the scholars and followers of St. Thomas Aquinas like it or not, evidence is not a sufficient criteria for truth. Galileo was condemned because it was evident that the sun circled round the earth, iron ships could not float, etc.
The best level is achieved by the written not the spoken word.
The accuracy of all judgement depends on the accuracy of the information on which it is based.
In all discussion which is always dominated by reasoning that elucidates the truth, there is no deaf person worse than one who does not want to hear.
Only great spirits have broad enough shoulders to bear the brunt of back-tracking on a subject they have defended all their lives.
Each person is a prisoner of his own history. That is why great changes can only be made by the next generation.
When someone writes an article and for some reason wishes to avoid saying something (“hiding the milk”; an Argentine saying that captures both the intention to conceal something quite innocuous and the fact that in time the smell will give disclose what is no longer innocuous!), the subconscious always betrays them and they end up saying more than they meant to. At the fifth reading what was concealed is revealed.
When an article is written containing emphatic assertions (because they are evident), after a few years it becomes clear that they ought not to have been asserted quite so firmly.
It is important to read a lot of old, apparently outdated, things. The information they give is susceptible to reinterpretation thanks to the progress of knowledge. Moreover, they force open new mental processes of a creative nature. This is especially valuable for patents.
Functionaries never let it be known or felt that they represent the community. This is seen, for example, in the discussions that are held between the employment minister and the trades union leaders (it was even worse before!)
There are subtle concepts that are, nevertheless, important.
Oh! the false dilemmas!
No chain is stronger than its weakest link.
A failure does not prove anything, but one single success does prove that something is possible.
One failure might have any explanation; two failures and things become very ugly, but three, and the gods are against you.
Computers are no substitute for talent.
The law cannot go against the nature of things.
Three women cannot be set to produce a baby in three months.
Laws are made for man not man for laws. If something doesn’t work the law (norms) must be changed.
There are some norms that are so for historical reasons and others because they are essential affirmations. The former may be violated but the latter no.
Never take anything for granted.
Know that what isn’t written down doesn’t exist.
[all rights revert to holders
[31 July 2010]