True to ZMM

Good to hear James Purefoy in the role of Bob / Phaedrus in Peter Flannery’s dramatisation of Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on BBC Radio4’s Saturday Drama. It’s there to listen again in BBC Radio4 iPlayer’s “Most Popular” . [Only available until next Saturday 30th June 2012.]

The characterizations, tone and atmosphere were dead right, and despite the need for selective editing to fit the 90 minute format, all the main aspects of the narrative, the back-stories and the underlying chautauqua on quality and mental illness came through. Many original scenes re-ordered and combined, and some dialogue recalled in the mouths of others, to get all the ideas and the marquee quotes in, without losing the context or intent, and still maintaining the overall sequence of the journey. An excellent production.

ZMM Dramatization on the Beeb

Robert Pirsig’s 1974 “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a special interest of Psybertron, and is the favourite book of Peter Flannery. So, he’s created a dramatization to be be broadcast next Saturday 23rd June at 2:30pm as BBC R4 Saturday Drama. (Mentioned earlier.)

The Buddha in the Machine

Noticed a few weeks ago that Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft” had been published in the UK under the title “The Case for Working with your Hands“.

Noticed yesterday he was on Andrew Marr’s “Start the Week” on BBC Radio 4 with Martin Rees … billed as the philosopher Matthew Crawford. The listen again link (31st May 2010) is live, and looks like it stays up for a while, even if there is no podcast archive. So much motorcycle maintenance without a single mention of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art … who is duly acknowledged in the book itself. (Wendell Berry is mentioned by Marr.)

Interestingly, The Buddha was the subject of the immediate following program “A History of the World“.


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.

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.

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