Quality of Engineering

Very interesting talk from Christof Bartneck at TU/e (Technical University of Eindhoven) explaining Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) in simple design and engineering terms.

As an engineer I might have used the word engineering as much as he used the word design, (and he says in the Q&A session he doesn’t make a real distinction here) but I like the simplified common terminology (in parenthesis) and the venn diagram showing design in the same space as quality overlapping people and artefacts. Love the defence of engineers at the end … creativity in solving problems is the essence … in the root of the word “ingenious”, and the ingenuity means that the creativity is not necessarily visibly obvious to the naked eye.

Like the use of the word “explore” too … really brings out the qualitative / direct participation aspect so much better than generalizing the word research beyond specific scientific methodologies.

Also like the focus on the qualitative choices ahead of scientific methods … wonder if Nick Maxwell, philosopher of science, is on his radar ?

Working With Your Hands

Interesting to see Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” published in Europe as “The Case for Working with your Hands”, and reviewed here in The Irish Times.

It was the working with your hands lyric from Lamb Lies Down on Broadway that came to mind when I reviewed the US edition just about a year ago. (And followed-up on later reading.)

Thanks to Henry for forwarding the link.

On the Road with Robert Pirsig

Today at last, I had a chance to watch Ant McWatt’s second documentary on the life and work of Robert Pirsig, “On the Road with Robert Pirsig“. (The first installment “Arrive Without Travelling” I reviewed when it came out around a  year ago, and it was a little difficult to disguise my disappointment, though relatively easy to blame that on the ordeal of watching my own excruciating contribution as well as the distracting psychedelic overlays in a rookie production effort.)

This second chapter is a great improvement over the first. It stands on its own as a documentary of Pirsig’s “project” in writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. There is less “on the road” than the title might suggest, and there is still that theme of 60’s Beatles & Beach Boys psychedelia in the links, but the production and editing is an order of magnitude higher quality than the first effort. The majority of the film is in fact a previously unpublished 2005 interview by Karen Whiteside, ranging from the relaxed and jovial to the intense and emotional, interspersed with contributions from John Sutherland and Ron DiSanto and clips from the Pirsig family archive.

One of several highlights for me personally is seeing Bob recall with much affection the contribution of “Sarah”, the seed crystal that worked its effect on Bob over several months beyond the single remark in the book. Bob should as he does receive the plaudits as the inspired writer of an inspiring rhetorical novel, but his feet are firmly on the ground when it comes to acknowledging the evolution of ideas through the minds of others.

I suspect the first documentary may remain a collectors item for hardcore “MoQ Fans” wishing to remember the first conference on the “Metaphysics of Quality” in Liverpool in 2005. This second On the Road with Robert Pirsig is however an eminently watchable documentary that should be considered a must for anyone with either an existing interest in Pirsig’s highly original Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or simply looking for a brief introduction – from the horse’s mouth – what all the fuss was about back in 1974.

[Post Note : Previous comment on this film. Updated the news on the Pirsig Page.]

Pirsig Memorabilia

Being sold on e-Bay, Nancy Pirsig’s motorcycle jacket.

This leather jacket belongs to the ex-wife of author Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), whose married name was Nancy Pirsig. She is selling it because she doesn’t need it, since she now lives in a warm climate and no longer rides a motorcycle.

It was purchased around the late sixties or early seventies, and worn on many motorcycle trips ” day or weekend trips in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In the photo, taken in the Pirsigs’ St. Paul driveway in the early seventies, you can see Bob Pirsig in the background.

Proceeds from this sale will go into a college fund for Nancy and Bob’s grandson.

The e-Bay seller on Nancy’s behalf is Ted Pirsig, son of Bob & Nancy, father of said grandson.

Hoops of Fire

As I near the end of a period of living & working in the US, in the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama, I notice a few of my blog posts recently closing circles, mainly in musical connections. One obvious circle for Sylvia and I is that, purely coincidentally, the move from the US, is not a return to the UK but to Oslo, Norway where we were married 27 years ago.

Three years ago we were “the parents who left home“, that UK home, when our two boys reached maturity, to go on an adventure of our own. A parallel I find myself drawing in recent days with Bob and Nancy Pirsig, who are described exactly that way in Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now”, by their younger son Ted, then still at high-school in 1975 with brother Chris just recently off to college. That was when Bob and Nancy had set off on their Great Lakes and trans-Atlantic sailing adventure, part of which provides the narrative backbone to Bob’s second book Lila.

Mark used the word “resolution” several times in launching his book last Tuesday night in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Resolution in Pirsig closing his own circle in the original Zen motorcycle road-trip, a journey designed to loop his philosophical “chautauqua” writing project in time and place around his own troubled biography. And resolution for Mark too, not only in ostensibly closing the chapter in his life he freely refers to as his “mid-life crisis“, but in joining the dots between his own teenage motorcycle travels across the US mid-west and north-west, and those of Pirsig and elder son Chris, retraced in Zen and Now.

Without getting deeply philosophical in any academic sense, Mark also succeeds in summing up the Pirsigian message that whatever “quality” is, evolving a net increase in quality in the world has something to do with the idea that “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well”, and that doing something well is about total involvement; individual participation in the world of here and now, and engagement with both fellow humans and technolgy. Listen to Mark’s recent public radio interview, also involving Ron DiSanto (author of the “Guide to ZMM”) and Jim Landis (original editor of ZMM) to get a good sense of this.

So why did I make a 2000-plus miles round-trip flying-visit to a friends-of-a-Minnesotan public library branch meeting, to witness the launch of a book by a hitherto unknown author ? That closes a loop or two for me too. Mark kindly acknowledges that his biographical research into the Pirsigs, included in Zen and Now, had originally spun out of research I had collected in a biographical timeline I published as part of the Psybertron blogging project. That timeline had been gathered from public sources and from clarifying correspondence with Bob. Mark took up the baton, to ensure that the Pirsig story was not just the one told “for rhetorical purposes” by Bob in ZMM and Lila, but a more complete view corroborated, and indeed extensively filled-out, by close family and friends.

That baton passing is paralleled in Bob’s story too, when on his second writing project that ultimately created Lila, he had to concede that whilst he had his own creative ideas; and very creative his genius proved to be, one thing he didn’t have was “the knack of eliciting stories from other people“. That, he recgnized, was the skill his friend Verne Dusenberry had in spades. There was a very clear point when my biographical research became Mark’s own. It was when we both realized that I had tracked down points of contact to further information, including for example younger son Ted, and that the biography had changed from analyzing, corroborating and synthesizing from the public record, to one of personal stories from private individuals. Originally I had intended simply to get my own readings of ZMM and Lila on a footing of “where was Pirsig coming from” when he wrote this stuff ? I had to decide where I wanted to take this; Poking into private lives was never my objective, and I was already uncomfortable.

It was a no-brainer. Mark’s journalism skills were essential to finish the job, and if a job’s worth doing …. Well, Mark’s done a great job.

As Mark says, there was, still is, an interesting Pirsig story to be told beyond the pages of Bob’s books, and Mark tells that story with the compassion of a fellow traveler; There but for grace go we all. The circles of lives of the Pirsig family and friends, were fiery hoops, and meeting some of them … ex-wife Nancy and friends, John Sutherland and daughter(s) as well as other friends of the Pirsig sons Chris and Ted … one can feel nothing but respect for those who come through strong, happy and well-adjusted. Chris Pirsig, the boy in the original book, of course did not make it. As Eddie Dean says in his review of Zen and Now in The Wall Street Journal, (and Mark quotes in the recent interview) …

“[The Pirsig story] is a reminder
of how much pain it can take
to make so many people feel better.”

So for me the launch of Mark’s book, closed the loop on a chapter in my own life, a little biographical research project of my own. But like any new human experience, so many new avenues open. Speaking to people at the book launch, as well as at the after-launch party at “the Pirsig house” hosted by current occupants Susan Nemitz and John Curry, so many new conversations, new subjects and letters to write … The White Album, Ivan Denisovich, Dostoevsky, the US-Pragmatists and so much more.