Damned If You Do

Interesting headline / byline on this story … the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster … the more information is made available the less people are happy with what they “know”. Less is more. It’s complicated and scary techno-environmental problem BP are dealing with and they need to be allowed, encouraged to focus on that, rather than a complex PR & education problem. There will be blood, already

Dreadful self-destructive meme to assume maximum openness is demanded whereas maximum trust is in fact needed. Add to the “too-much open communication is bad for us” stack.

[Post Note … interesting NYT piece on our faith in technology fixing problems of the day. Hat tip to Matt, in philosophical mood – again.]


Reminded by Marsha reading Hofstadter’s “I Am A Strange Loop“, that I never did record the Tabletop (or Theatre of Operations) metaphor for creative analogy … that is analogies that actually create things, things as interesting as humans and minds.

I mentioned it twice here and here referring to Hofstadter’s “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies“, and I know I’ve demonstrated the Tabletop exercise in real life, but I’ve never recorded a description of it.

Scenario : Now is a point in time … everything you know up to that point. You have a decision to make – now. Your available options are laid out in front of you (on the Tabletop). Your decision is in reponse to the last action of the party you are in debate / dialogue / negotiation with. What next ?

The original point of the exercise was in fact to do with how humans created concepts as part of thought processes. However, it’s pretty much a model of any life decision, for any individual or organization … the question being, what next action is the best choice. The core point is that the “available options” laid out on the Tabletop in front of you are NOT all you will consider, even if they are the only available options in a purely practical – pre-defined rules of the game – sense. Your thinking process will invent relationships and analogies that exist in conceptual levels removed from the Tabletop itself, before making your choice. Your real theatre of operations is much greater than the Tabletop and most of it is invented in your head – created.

The example starts, as befits a Tabletop, with random cutlery and crockery, eating utensils chosen in turn by two people sitting across the table from each other. You choose a knife, I choose a knife / the same knife /  a fork / what ? Same object, same kind, same relation, same what ? Same by some created analogy, and you’re off … infinite levels of creativity. (In Fluid Analogies, these series of what-nexts start with simple number, letter, symbol, word, quine-series ad-infinitum.) The creative question concerns which next choice is “best“.

People vs the System

Much debate (here Thinking Allowed) since the recent financial crisis on the future of capitalism and global industrialisation, and the failure of economists to keep their eye on the underlying “systemic risks” in the trading of ever more convoluted financial derivatives. (Watched that excellent dramatisation of the Lehman Brothers demise just a couple of evenings ago too. Quality stuff.)

Anyway, talking of systems, I was reminded by David Gurteen that in 1923 F W Taylor wrote

“In the past Man has been first.
In future the system must be first.”

Scary ? Like shooting fish in a barrell to ridicule Taylorism nearly a century on for the excesses of scientific management and it is of course where my agenda started.  As David points out, context matters and no surprise, Taylor’s next sentence starts:

“… however
… the first object of any good system, must be
… first class [people] “

The reason David’s quote caught my eye was a (cover to cover) re-read in the last few days of  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig is often cited as being against “social programs” – in polarizing Capitalist vs Marxist slanging matches – a meme which usually takes about three dialectical exchanges to sink to the level of Hitler & Nazism or Stalin / Mao & Totalitarianism. Bad people. Of course Pirsig too was careful to qualify what he meant:

” … [No] enthusiasm for big programs
full of social planning for big masses of people,
that leave individual Quality out.”

Oh, and how could I forget, the subject of the Denning piece that David Gurteen quotes is Dilbert or maybe Dilbertism. How often Dilbert mirrors real organizational life … now that is scary.

Blues & Twos

It’s a standard joke or maybe urban legend that people in emergency vehicles switch on their sirens and lights to beat the traffic and get home in time for dinner; a perk of the job.

I recall this impression vividly from a very exciting trip to Moscow earlier in the year, that there were an inordinate number of “emergency” vehicles demanding high-speed passage and even jumping the lights at will – traffic was already scary enough and gridlocked with both sheer volume and the number of accidents – at junctions.

 More than an impression apparently.

William James on the Beeb

This was an excellent In Our Time … a discussion on William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience”. Elevating James to the position of the only philosopher that Wittgenstein looked up to.

Telling I feel, how Melvyn struggles when asking the god question, questions within questions, in this religious context.

Loved the caricature at the end in discussing Wittgenstein’s love of James, of seeing the 20th century struggle between the dominance of logic (Russell) winning out over something more than logic (James), yet being signs of a revival of the latter. And earlier the idea of scientists being in the grip of scientistic dogma.

I often wonder if Russell ever got Wittgenstein, but I digress. Time for James and the US pragmatists.

Dave Buchanan over on MoQ-Discuss:

I’m gonna listen to it again. Damn! I thought I was an enthusiast but the guests really have me pumped up now. Did I hear that right? The greatest American philosopher ever? Is that what he said?

I’d like the future of philosophy to revolve around one crucial question for the next few centuries: Who was the greatest, Pirsig or James?

James said something like, “the most important thing about a philosopher is his vision”. He was talking about one’s whole way of seeing, of taking life rather than positions on this or that particular thing. In that sense, I think Pirsig and James offer the same vision.

Something more than logic. James knew his way of doing things would mean of loss of rigor and exactitude, and that’s not the price we pay for what he wanted so much as part of what he wanted. He and Pirsig both think rationality is hollow and brittle without some soul in it, some feeling. Not pasted on but in the roots of our conceptions. Pirsig is making his case against the backdrop of a technological society but James was living in the age of Darwin and positivism. They both began in the sciences and then turned to philosophy.

Cameron Egoistic Start

Yeah, great Mr Cameron, man of the people, dispense with outriders – brilliant – be the hero yourself, tighten “your” belt.

It’s not about you, you bloody dipstick, it’s about the Prime Minister, the institution of the head of the UK government, we’ d like it to get where we need it when we need it and not lose it (and innocent bystanders as collateral damage) before the next election.

Bloody ego. What a start. What do they teach people at Eton ? I thought these people were groomed to lead ? Still chinless wonders after all.

Pirsig Connection

I don’t read any more than coincidence into this, but spooky none-the-less,

I’ve been in Oslo, around 20 months so far, and have been aware, from mentions by colleagues, of a bar on the other side of town, Grønland on the east side, we live in Majorstua on the west side. The place is Olympen (or Lompa to its friends) … originally a traditional Oslo Brun Cafe, but famous for keeping a great selection of Norwegian and imported beers – hundreds of them, though only a handful on draft. I’ve even walked past the place a handful of times, visting the ethnic shops in Grønland for spices, teas, etc, but visited the place only very recently, 3 times the last week or ten days. (Does great food too.)

Anyway, I was talking to an(other) engineer / project manager at the bar, discussing the engineering / ingenuity / quality angle – she was bemoaning male prejudice and the irony of the classical objectivity impression that engineering has. And the (Brit / brewer) barman having worked out what I liked – by trial and error, you understand – brought up a bottled beer and said, “Here, try this one.”

It was Red Seal Ale from the North Coast Brewery in Mendocino Co, CA (!) Of course I said instantly, that’s weird, do you guys know Pirsig ? (They didn’t as it happens, so I had to explain the significance of the climactic scenes on the Mendocino bluff / cliff-tops. In fact that particular brewery is about as close to the scene as it’s possible for a brewery to be, alongside Fort Bragg, just north of Caspar, now that is spooky.)

Anyway probably because of that I picked-up my first-edition / first-impression copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) on Sunday and started an umpteenth re-read from the beginning – never actually “read” this particular copy – I have several.

Monday morning Christof sends me a link to his design/engineering and quality lecture video (never even been aware of it before now) – I post the link below.  This morning, Tuesday, on the way to work I’m reading towards the end of Part One of ZMM, about the never ending possibility of subdividing the classes of things in the world we perceive – Pirsig using his physical / functional / systematic breakdown of the eponymous motorcycle and Aristotle’s analytic knife to illustrate the dangerous illusion that creates.

This same morning a US colleague sends me a link overnight to a database of (tens of thousands of) distinct piping material components – as if to prove the point, part of our day job – and Bob (Pirsig) responds to yesterday’s post – a very rare event. My colleague here in Oslo, who overheard my exclamation (something less polite than “Good Heavens”), now wants to borrow the book. He’d not heard of it either. Dilemma – to loan the prized first edition … or bring in another copy tomorrow ? … but he’s on holiday after today for almost two weeks ….. aaagghh!

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Post Note : And ….

the brand of beer the travellers refresh themselves with early in Part 2 … Olympia