It's an important concept to understand in many aspects of life. In social and economic policy, it's important to remember resources are allocated per marginal utility, not by what they're worth. I.E. water is worth more to me than music, but I spend more money on music than water, and the music industry makes more than public water utilities. Seems obvious when stated like that, but it's often forgotten I find.
To stick with the motorcycle analogy, suppose I am designing a motorcycle as a manufacturer and I find that it takes 6 bolts to securely fix the engine to the frame. If I use fewer, accidents are very likely to occur, I will get sued, sales will collapse. As it is, accidents will still occur once a year - but that's the industry average (let's say) so I can pay out compensation for that one accident without seeing any real impact on sales. (I have magic litigation insurance so my liability costs are totally predictable for this example.)
Suppose each bolt costs me $10. If I add 8 bolts, the risk of failure drops to zero. I calculate the cost of accident involving my bike, divide it by the number of bikes I expect to sell, and I find it's about $25 per bike; installing those two extra bolts creates $5 of marginal utility or 2.50 each so I go ahead and do it.
Should I not go ahead and add 1 more bolts? No, because it will cost an additional $10 for no noticeable increase in safety, so the marginal utility is -$10.
That's a meaningless statement, because you can't compare/subtract marginal utility and marginal cost. The latter is measured in some currency (e.g. USD) but the former is not.
You can compare the marginal utility of X with the marginal utility of the cost of X, but then what you're really doing is comparing the marginal utility of X with the marginal utility of Y, where Y is the highest-utility alternative use for the marginal cost of X.
Anyway, back to my actual point: the comment to which you responded was talking about marginal utility. I'll attempt to elaborate on the example (music vs. water). Water is more valuable than music. That sounds right intuitively, but what do we mean? What we mean is that if we had to give up 100% of something, we'd choose to give up 100% of music instead of 100% of water. But all that says is that there's some finite amount of water that has higher marginal utility than all the music in the world. And that's right. If I need a minimum of 300ml of water to live per day, then I'd give anything for that 300ml. Maybe I'd give a lot for the an extra 300ml per day also, but it's not as important. And by the time I'm drinking 5 litres per day, I'd probably rather spend money on CDs than buy more water, as the marginal utility is zero.
No. That's marginal cost.
> In economics, utility is the satisfaction or benefit derived by consuming a product; thus the marginal utility of a good or service is the change in the utility from an increase in the consumption of that good or service.
By contrast, marginal cost is about change in a producer's cost function with changes in quantity,
> marginal cost is the change in the opportunity cost that arises when the quantity produced is incremented by one unit, that is, it is the cost of producing one more unit of a good.
The commenter starts out using the word "cost" along with the rest of his example which is elaborated upon to describe the MC=MR profit maximizing function.
Marginal utility, would be the increasing/decreasing value at the margins, for each additional screw.
Here I believe the point is in process engineering that more or less, something big may be disguised as something small. That you must thoroughly know your process to understand the problem(s) at hand.
It seems more analogous to "the straw that broke the camels back."
I was taught the concept using the water example in undergradudate, and find the analogy is spot on. Other comments are considering more complicated marginal effects or the intersection/equilibrium of multiple marginal effects and confusing the point.
I didn't claim anything such as this and I'm having trouble understanding what you are responding to in my post.
A utility function is just a value of utility received at different quantities and costs. They are just basic models for helping to simplify our understanding the world. There's no need to begin comparing expertise with utility functions. The author is talking about the utility he receives at the margin of one additional widget in his decision making process, and what that this type of scenario (when a commonly cheap item can, in our decision making process, can have a high marginal utility--ie quantity is only 1 and 1 is necessary for a finished product) means to us in our human experience.
"Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the whole motorcycle ..."
This is not marginal utility as somehow the value of this screw is equal to the entire amount of the motorcycle. There is no marginal utility to be had because decreasing it or increasing it has no effect. This would not be a continuous function. You could talk about the marginal utility of one having a motorcycle or no motorcycle. It's not related to the increase in screws.
Additionally, to say that expertise in a subject is not needed is perplexing to me. So much so I literally can't begin to understand how you'd surmise such a claim honestly.
How much economics did you take? I ask because it sounds like your understanding is that from a class or two, and not the bulk of your education. I think if it was we would not be having this discussion or you'd somehow prove it instead of reiterating the same points.
I don't see it as productive to respond on the internet to the posturing and credentialing about who has seen more utility functions or taken more econ classes, as you wrote above.
I can assure you that Robert Pirsig garners utility at different costs and quantities in the scenario he described. That is all that a utility function is: a function of utility at varying quantities. This is an elementary topic and there's nothing more to be argued here. I'm sorry that explaining it again rubbed you the wrong way and encouraged you to write a condescending response towards me.
If I read the situation correctly, the motorcycle with this screw is certainly not valueless. It can be turned into a working motorcycle far more easily than most other things can be turned into a working motorcycle. If it would take a competent technician an hour to remove the screw, then the screw shouldn't affect the selling price of the motorcycle by more than a couple of hundred dollars.
It's important to remember that small, trivial-seeming things can actually be important, which I think is what he's pointing at. But it's also important to remember that a thing's potential has value beyond its current abilities.
That is to say, without the screw, there is no motorcycle; without the motorcycle, there is no screw. In this concept, things cannot exist without being connected, dependent, and intertwined with one another. There is nothing that exists independently.
I won't defend the book vigorously, but your reading of this part seems both superficial and easily dismissed with a moments thought. Pirsig is obviously driving at something deeper, even if you don't think he completely gets there.
It's a book about thinking and changing how you do it, after all. You can't expect to get much out of something like that if you can't or won't examine your own cognitive bias as you do.
One of the major themes of the book is defining "quality" and "value".
Perhaps a bit with Chris, though, and maybe that is what you meant.
Back to the 'whole selling point' I think he was being overly dramatic, it's a novel after all. I think his point comes across better when he goes through the value traps part of the book, and interpret his point the following way:
Sometimes you are working on some machine (physical, like his motorcycle, or abstract, like software), and you get stuck on a problem due to a seemingly very meaningless part of said machine. I think his 'whole selling point' message is: when this happens, you need to reassess the value you give this part, as, until you get to resolve what it is causing it to get you stuck, its value to you is pretty much the value of the whole machine. Like how a crashing bug means that specific software is useless, in the specific use case that triggers the bug, until that is fixed. If it's some weird edge case, the software may be perfectly usable for most people, but if you are one of the few affected by it, the most likely few lines of code causing the defect render the whole thing useless, they're the selling point of the software to you individually.
Now, obviously, speaking of the actual physical motorcycle, it's not that he can't sell it without resolving the problem that particular screw is causing him. There are probably skilled mechanics with the right training and tools for which the screw would cause little to no problem. But to him: he can't ride it until that is resolved, so the screw is as important as the entire machine until he gets that resolved.
I faced this specific problem just a couple of days ago and remembering the book (which I read years ago) helped me step away from the problem and come back to it with a fresh angle. But the reality was the same: it's not that I would have lost my physical entity (a window, in this case). Surely, I could have called a professional carpenter to help me with it. But to me, without getting someone else involved, that little piece (it was also a screw, a rusty one) was worth the whole window.
If it can't fulfill this core function without the screw, it is valueless.
Of course, you can pawn the motorcycle for thousands of dollars, but for that, you would have to have a marketplace and buyers. You can also turn some parts into tools and probably repurpose the tyres into something useful.
But again, to do that, you would have to have the knowhow and the necessary tools and time for repurposing.
If you were in an isolated environment with no other people around and no additional tools, a motorcycle that doesn't function is as good as "valueless".
With that said, the motorcycle is clearly not value-less without the screw the same way it is not value-less without a rider.
The instant you dismount the motorcycle it is no longer physically capable of performing its function. Yet it of course still has value.
I don't think your comparison makes sense. A motorcycle is not broken without a rider; it is not being used to move from point A to point B, but it is capable of being used to move from point A to point B.
A broken motorcycle is not being used to move from point A to point B, however it is not capable of being used for that purpose. The broken motorcycle is clearly at a lower state than a functional motorcycle.
Perhaps a comparison that works would be (a broken motorcycle + a rider) is as worthless as (a working motorcycle + a broken/ignorant rider).
Neither can be used to move from point A to point B without the addition of their missing component.
If we assume I have the appropriate skills/training to successfully operate the motorcycle that is missing a rider can we not just as easily assume that I have the appropriate knowledge/materials to add the missing screw?
E: The point I'm trying to make is that it is the same scenario. We could argue over which assumption is more practical (how hard is to to find and install the screw vs ride a motorcycle) but that is a separate point.
The screw seems most important when it is the 'weak link'.
But the same is still true of all other components.
I guess Pirsig was making a point about value and not about potential value, which is leading to a larger point. In the moment, value is all you have. Potential value is a future value that requires time to realize.
I have two separate reactions to your suggestion that it's important to remember potential value, the Zen reaction and the Writer's reaction.
Even though Pirsig wasn't going for Buddhism, it's fairly consistent with Zen thinking to make observations about the momentary values of things. My Zen point is that the purpose of meditation and much of Buddhist practice is to see only value and to eliminate potential. When you learn about how to meditate, you learn how to stop your mind from thinking about the future and concentrate completely on the here and now. Remembering something's potential value is antithetical to this way of thinking. Not because it's untrue, but because it's un-now.
My writer's reaction is that while it will always be important to remember things other than the point the author was making. Is adding your point to the author's words helping us to understand his? If Pirsig reminded us about potential value in this sentence, would it improve this particular narrative? Does it open a path that gets to his larger point either more efficiently or more effectively? It might, that might be part of Pirsig's thesis. Or it might be taking a narrative path that doesn't lead to the same place.
It's important to see not just the value of the quote itself - the truth or completeness of an individual passage - but to also remember the potential value of the words as being the destination of the story -- where they lead and where it ends is as important as where it was at any given moment.
Thankfully, I had an option at he didn't have, which was punt to the bike shop and pay them 12 bucks to get the thing out and chase the threads.
Interestingly, Prof Mukherjee had no idea that Mr Pirsig has written this cult book or that he was a famous author/philosopher. To him, he was just an odd student (because of his age).
I wrote about this in our campus newspaper - but no one cared. I thought that I was the only fan of Mr Pirsig in this small town in India. Once I found the internet I discovered that I wasn't alone. It was a great feeling.
Anyway, i was very proud that he went to the same university that i went to. It was exciting to learn that in 1998! Also, while i didn't fully get the philosophy-the father and son journey in Zen really meant a lot to me while growing up.
Edit: by the way, Prof Mukherjee is mentioned in his book "Lila", and that is how I found him.
Edit2: "Lila", the name of Mr Pirsig's second book, seems to have been inspired by his stay in Varanasi (India). In Sanskrit, the word Lila is "a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine". Someone on Wikipedia also seems to have made this connection: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lila:_An_Inquiry_into_Morals
Edit3: I spent the last hour digging into a 15-year-old hard drive (oh, what painful fun). I found a folder with my notes on Robert Pirsig! Most interestingly, my meeting notes with Dr. Mukherjee. I gave him the book and he flipped through the chapter for 20 minutes reading the sections I had underlined (where his name was mentioned). This frail man of seventy, said with a smile on his face: "He must not have been an attentive student. I never taught him this way". Most of the notes are about him reminiscing about the "golden years" of the philosophy department when according to him many great philosophers came to visit and study at the philosophy department at Banaras Hindu University.
We weren't allowed to read or do anything but sit in boredom during suspension (school rules) but he made an exception for me if I wanted to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (at his recommendation).
I bought a copy and brought it to suspension the next day, read the whole thing that week. Good memories thanks to the room monitor dude and an excellent book.
However I read it several times and I think that interpretation is very uncharitable.
It is a touching big hearted story about a fractured person struggling to put himself back together while trying to connect with his son and while trying to figure out what it means to live 'the good life.'
If what he had was metal illness, I think that he might be an example of someone putting it to the best use possible.
I'm honestly not sure if the MOQ holds up as philosophy or not, or even as a coherent mystical system. But I can say that I wish there were more books like it, that is to say: written by authors way on the fringe of mainstream thought.
 My critique about the Zen aspect is that Buddhism is not something you theorize about, it is something you practice. To theorize about Buddhism would be like a guy who reads a lot about golf trivia, golf training, golf biographies, but does not play golf. Golf is a thing you do, an aspiration to get the ball into the little hole. It is something you have to embody and realize in yourself. Buddhism more resembles learning a sport or a craft than a philosophy.
 Many of us should be so lucky to achieve even one of those things in a lifetime.
"..it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles either."
Not sure if that was in the original?
the fact that he pointed it out himself makes me respect the author even more.
yes, in principle, but there is a 2500 year old tradition of Buddhist monks theorizing about it at length. whether or not this is a good or true way to practice Buddhism is subject to debate (and they do, at length), but it's just a ground truth here that there is a long-winded scholarly tradition associated with the subject.
Yes but presumably those monks are theorizing about it while practicing it daily.
I was referring to western audiences thinking they get something out of reading about Buddhism without any practice whatsoever.
I suppose you get something out of it, but the bulk of the benefits Buddhism can offer come from the practice, not the theorizing.
 Mental exercises meant to train the mind to achieve a balanced state (balancing and strengthening attention and awareness) and then using that trained mind to investigate the nature of one's own mind and personality. It is a type of embodied, introspective psychology.
This is a good point. Buddhism is something I had an intellectual interest in, but it became a lot of meaningless nonsense at a certain point, especially once you enter the more woo areas outside Theravada like the Tibetan traditions.
It wasn't until I took meditation seriously that a lot of this stuff clicked. I'm no Buddhist, just a humble meditator, but I find a great deal of value in this practice and not in a Western 'its just stress reduction, like deep breathing' kind of way, but as a way to explore and control my consciousness and to have the practice change me in ways I certainly was not expecting. All within a mostly Buddhist framework.
That said, this is true of all traditions on some level. You can't just read the Gospels and learn about Christ and expect any benefits. Living as Christ and following his teachings is more important, but unlike Buddhism, Christianity is not often just intellectualized away as theory like Buddhism is in the West. Why Buddhism gets treated this way is beyond me, I suspect it attracts people with intellectual interests but those types of people are also resistant to following a spiritual path and the tools used on that path like daily meditation or making efforts to be less materialistic or 'attached' to the dramas of the day.
If anything, those things are counter to Western life in significant ways and takes you well out of the mainstream, which can have cultural or economic consequences for you. I already was a standard deviation away from the norm before taking up these practices and now I feel like I'm two or three away. Ultimately, I think its a good thing and put on a path going to places I can't predict.
why? it's quite straight-forward actually, and just a historical accident basically. the people that popularized Buddhism in the West were academics. it arrived in America by way of scholars of East Asia. the East Asian folk practices are absolutely nothing like what is practiced in the west, and arguably are not particularly Buddhist, but more like folk religions with Buddhist vestments.
the monastic tradition didn't quite make it to the West though because it was subsumed by the academy instead. however, the academy is no monastery and they really do favor theory to the detriment of practice.
"Zen was published in 1974, after being rejected by 121 publishing houses...then Pirsig lived reclusively and worked on his second book Lila for 17 years before its publication in 1991."
"Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist."
EDIT: (And, yeesh, it was forty years ago. What "spoiler"? BTW, Vader is Luke's father.)
Chris may have been murdered long after the events of the book itself, but in the reading timeline, it's mere moments after finishing the main text.
Personally, I wish no one had mentioned it here.
And for those thinking a 900lb. Honda Goldwing is required for cross-country travel, Pirsig's bike was Honda Hawk 305, as in 305cc. It put out 28 horsepower. I'll bet there are scooters today that put out more power. And Pirsig loaded it with two people and camping gear and rode it cross-country.
Chris said something which the witnesses could not hear. His assailant became angrier. Chris then said something that made him even more furious. He jammed the knife into Chris's chest.
There's "evil," and then there's turning a mugging into getting knifed in the chest. Unless you're saying that this was the norm for SF muggings in the 80's. It's pretty likely that 22 year-old guy acted smart. That doesn't make it right, all I said was that I'd be interested in what exactly he said to provoke the response.
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance was one of the first books on philosophy that I read outside of my philosophy curriculum at university and it stayed with me.
It's a great book discussing the metaphysics of quality, but not just that. It's written in a captivating way, mixing both the 'food for thought' as well as a pleasant narative about a father and a son on a motorcycle trip.
It's one of the philosophy books that I can recommend to people who are not directly interested in philosophy as well, which gave me some quite fun discussions with my friends about the topics in the book without being too deep into the philosophy itself.
May he rest in peace.
He said he wasn't sure, but the thesis on Quality appeared to turn into an anti-Aristotelian thesis. If this was true he had chosen an appropriate place to present it. Great Universities proceeded in a Hegelian fashion and any school which could not accept a thesis contradicting its fundamental tenets was in a rut. This, Phædrus claimed, was the thesis the University of Chicago was waiting for.
He admitted the claim was grandiose and that value judgments were actually impossible for him to make since no person could be an impartial judge of his own cause. But if someone else were to produce a thesis which purported to be a major breakthrough between Eastern and Western philosophy, between religious mysticism and scientific positivism, he would think it of major historic importance, a thesis which would place the University miles ahead. In any event, he said, no one was really accepted in Chicago until he'd rubbed someone out. It was time Aristotle got his."
Anybody with some education in philosophy figures out that utter, logical-proof certainty can't be had. So what does one do for epistemology instead? There are two main alternatives:
-- Religious-style faith. This is not my preferred choice.
-- An aesthetically-tinged approach to epistemology.
What I mean by the latter is, for example, generalizing Occam's Razor into usability. The problem with Occam's Razor is that it says, in effect, "In case of doubt go with the simpler answer", without giving a general way to judge what's simpler. Any solution to that problem winds up being an aesthetic kind of judgment.
If we're in a situation where we get good data about what's right, we can just do science and it doesn't really matter what authorities or dogs think.
The place where you need non-scientific epistemologies is when you don't have good feedback data.
And sometimes even when there is data, bad predictors can mutually self reinforce. Racist cops arrest more black kids, more black kids get convicted, that proves racist cops are good predictors of criminality. It's not true, but the data says it's true.
It's equivalent to a scientist doing many studies and only publishing the ones that are positive. The stats only work for independent measures but nothing is independent especially when you are using predictions to make policy.
Or, "how to live" isn't an epistemological question. So demanding that an epistemology accept aesthetic standards to accommodate concerns about how to live is confused.
And the judgment as to whether a particular fuzzy match is good enough is, in essence, an aesthetic one.
It's hard to communicate the "essential meaning" of Occam's Razor in simple language, because the only good analogies for it involve things like compression algorithms, quantum physics or topology.
If you know what the word "axiom" really means, and can picture an address of a thing in a set taking up space (e.g. bytes of a URL) as your query gets more specific, then Occam's Razor is a very "obvious" statement about the probability of reification of mathematical objects in our universe given their size. If you don't have that context, someone can talk for an hour and it won't communicate the point.
It's really not. Here's a few that don't make the same mistake.
- Plurality must never be posited without necessity.
- Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
- Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.
- Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.
- favor hypotheses that make the fewest unwarranted assumptions about the data from which they are derived.
All of these are more correct and communicate the principles better than the "simplest" formulation which is just flat-out wrong without extremely heavy clarification of what "simplest" means (at which point you may as well use one of the above).
Doesn't violate the minimum message length one, though. I've not heard that one before & I like it.
This is a common objection to which supporters would say means you're not reviewing the data in enough depth. It's a fair argument tho.
Given Occam is supposed to only be a guideline and not some kind of universal law it wouldn't actually matter if QMW did violate it though (even though that's debatable anyhow).
kolmogorov complexity? But then there is no universal measure, so it's relative.
It would be a narrower, less generally applicable, version... but a completely valid formulation.
Most versions that actually work can be lightheartedly equated to a "Principle of Least Foofarah".
It was a common statement of a generally justifiable philosophical tool that happened to be commonly used by theologians like Occam (who wasn't that first to use the idea - Aristotle stated something similar).
The intertwining of philosophy and theology makes it related but I'd say your characterization was simplistic and quite incorrect overall.
But I wish to make the case that the book is worth reading for its literary value alone. The narrative parts are a gentle, beautiful telling of this father/son trip across the northwest, and reading it will leave you with enjoying nature (or, more generally, reality) with something like a calm optimism.
I don't share these views, personally. But knowing a fair few philosophers myself, I think the Analytic school is powerful in the US. Dominated by figures like Bertrand Russell, who rely on a formal grammar and logical syntax. Philosophy is a science in this view and there's no room for narrative.
ZatAoMM falls into the Continental school and has more in common in its approach with figures like Nietzsche and Marx, relying on a narrative or historical approach. Neither of those particular figures, nor the Continental school in general, are much in vogue and thus I think Zen gets rejected for being both Continental and popular.
EDIT: It's also frequently observed that Pirsig offers nothing new to philosophy. This is probably correct. I think the narrative aspect is what really separates the work. I found this while searching around a bit looking for further information, and it really sums up what I feel is ZatAoMM's greatest contribution:
'hat makes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance superlative (and unique, to my knowledge) is that Pirsig successfully blended the history of philosophy with the history of his psyche, allegorizing each into the other." 
These things happen :)
Around the same time I read Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman , and Illusions by Richard Bach , and felt they were both better than Zen. At the end of the day I think the real value of any of those texts is the introduction to philosophy/self-discovery in general, in a really accessible form.
"A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed, it feels an impulsion... this is the place to go now.
But the sky knows the reason and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons." - Illusions
I also dislike Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I can see that many other people found value in it.
"In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this
particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect."
Anyone else remember that bit? I now ride a big BMW R1200RT. I wonder if this book influenced me to do that? RIP Mr Pirsig
Owner of a '14 R1200GSA
RIP Robert M. Pirsig :-(
At the time, I thought it was one of the most significant things I'd read. Of course, I was young, and it was a long time ago. (And then, life and injury and illness and... well, a distinct lack of quality happened, and I never got back to it.)
I've been meaning, intending, lately, to reread it. Last year, I was invited into a book club. I've considered suggesting it -- I think I will.
Quality. Eloquence, in a word.
P.S. I've been thinking about getting a bike and riding for a summer. Adequate, but not overdone -- and quiet.
Piece by piece, this rough idea has been sketching itself in.
Don't know why I'm telling HN, this, or why you should care. Except that we all should care about quality. And about a man who thought and felt hard on the topic and in turn gave us much to think about. Reflected much of ourselves, to ourselves -- giving us eyes and ears into ourselves and our choices.
Amazing when things like that are foretold. (Yes I know, survivorship bias blah blah)
I think this applies to a lot of the great writing I have loved, and perhaps Pirsig's ZAAMM falls into this bucket. After all, for all of its classical philosophical underpinnings and serious intent, it does not seem to have achieved much status as as work of philosophy. You won't find Pirsig's name (except in passing) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example. The book is also over a generation old. I suppose there's a question, therefore, of whether it will endure as a book that future generations will draw inspiration and ideas from.
Nevertheless, I think it stands admirably as a iconoclastic, genre-bashing, cross-pollinating, fascinating exploration of philosophical ideas, and, as Pirsig himself observed, as a "culture-bearer" of the time and place it was written. This makes it a classic of American writing as far as I am concerned, if not a classic treatise in philosophy.
RIP, Mr. Pirsig.
I have read ZMM many times, it is on the short list of books that have had a profound influence on me. But in college I read a different set of philosophers.
I've always told me friends that it's about Western philosophy and mental illness. Those two subjects are covered just as much as Zen and Motorcycle maintenance.
The parts about your relationship to the machine will definitely resonate with engineers, but that's not all it's about. I guess that is why it is a great book -- there's something for everyone and it can be read in multiple ways.
An interview with someone who interviewed Pirsig. With clips from that original interview.
Very, very good radio.
From personal relation to the book. When I was young I went on a motorcycle trip on the back of my father's motorcycle, with his friend and son.
We pulled into a small rural gas station, and there was a younger guy filling up a small foreign car. And he just started laughing upon talking to us. He had just taken time off his undergrad after reading a book about man and his son on a motorcycle trip. And wrote the name down on the back of our map.
While I was far to young to understand the book at first, reading it over again and again as I got older it was a different learning experience each time as I grew.
"...author Matthew B. Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a "knowledge worker," based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing. Using his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford presents a wonderfully articulated call for self-reliance and a moving reflection on how we can live concretely in an ever more abstract world."
In contrast, John Jerome's "Truck" was a light-hearted but engaging foray into the rebuilding of a 1950 era pickup truck. It lacked the philosophical ambition of ZAMM or impact, but it was an agreeable read that left me wondering what kind of renovation project I might choose, toward gaining insights from dirty fingernails.
Pirsig's concept of "quality" sticks with me in every decision I make as a parent, engineer, and product manager.
Like composition v. inheritance, you don't always want to become the thing, you just want to use it. It's dangerous to become a thing, especially one without any Quality.
Maybe I resonate more strongly now with the BMW driver. I don't know. Maybe I didn't really understand the book.
That's the bicycle.
And if you are spending your time working on it or towards it, then that means it is something you value.
And if it is something you value, then "becoming one with it" as you put it, will allow you to both do better at the task/goal, as well as reap a more rewarding experience from pursuing that task/goal.
You could take the opposite approach, and not truly value any thing that you do, but I a) am not sure that could be rewarding and b) am not sure that is possible. As DFW said, everybody worships something, whether they know it or not. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI)
So the book takes the opposite perspective. It says, well, whatever you are working on is what you value. Whatever you spend your time on is what you value. And if you can remember to truly embrace the things you value, or conversely, ensure you spend your time pursuing the things you truly value, then your experiences towards those topics/goals/tasks will be more rewarding and as a result, your life can be more enriching as well.
Highly recommended to anyone who likes reading. It's not just the philosophy and it's not just the story, it's the way they are part of the same whole, with deep roots in the American landscape, that makes this book so special. Now I want to revisit it and see if I can pick up his later work as well.
If you still haven't read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.
I borrowed the book from the public library just last week.
He gives a break down of a certain style of thinking about things where you break the subject down into parts and the relationships between the parts. He gives examples in technical writing that this process has a degree of arbitrariness to it. His circumscribing the general process of conceptualizing things suggests that the process itself has limits, and while valuable, is not everything (despite the tendency of certain mentalities to see things that way. He has an ongoing contrast between himself who is inclined to think that way and others who aren't.) I see this as a bridge to understanding Eastern philosophy's low opinion of language and penchant for indirect explanations.
[edited to remove spoiler I shouldn't have mentioned -- my apologies]
My second: Oh.
Pirsig's book was there for me during a challenging time of my life. I never finished it, but I'm not so confident that I really needed to. Just starting the book in many ways can be enough.
Read again when I was a bit more ready to hear it and wow, profound book. The church of reason lecture is awesome. And timeless.
I hope this guy found some peace in his life, I did get the sense that he was struggling but that's just a guess.
I loved it and will always remember it when I have forgotten many other books. It is not a 'philosophy' book but it is quite philosophical.
It's worth a read but it's slow in parts. Push yourself through or skip a few chapters.
Like many other readers my favourite part is the drink can as shim.
Whilst possibly a gross over-simplification, I do find this perspective a really practical philosophy for personal growth as well as a good basecamp for approaching other philosophical viewpoints.
For those who are interested, a little more info to contribute...
RP, apparently though I can't substantiate, was tested as having a "Genius level IQ" as an early child.
After reading both ZMM and LILA carefully, I believe he has gotten as close as anyone to a philosophy that explains humanity and blends successfully eastern and western history and perspective on such.
LILA is the serious effort and a far more important book, though it has gone largely ignored.
Some interesting info for fans to dig into here:
121 publishing houses...
Keep in mind that detention was introduced after corporal punishment became socially unacceptable.
Actually, learning how to code and learning Japanese changed my life in this regard.
I didn't know how to teach myself things until those two things happened, once I did, pretty much everything else opened up to me.
A friend with an affluent upbringing was telling me about how his school would filter out anyone they wanted, and give them the option to either transfer out or be expelled. Usually this was done for kids who had hit other kids. I couldn't help but think "You were way luckier than you probably appreciate." I thought it was just a fact of life that when you go to school as a kid, you have to worry about being attacked. Not so, apparently.
I think I recall someone from the administration estimating that at least 10% of students were expelled before graduation. (At least I think it was 10% over the course of four years, not 10% every year.)
I never truly "got" the trigonometry and geometry until I started going graphics programming. High school is too much theory and not enough application of the theory and experimentation.
Demonstrate it and you'll not only be rich but revered.
When I was in college, I finally had the chance to study it well and they had a great program. What I learned there taught me how to learn in general, which I then used to learn Computer Science, which opened up a bunch more for me.
I think it was the program (Ohio State has an excellent program) that provided me with the tools for this.
It came down to imitating successful patterns of speech and behavior (they called them core conversations), the heavy focus on proper intonation (more imitation, if your intonation is off, you're never going to make Japanese speakers comfortable listening to your speech) and the practice of spaced repetition (through flashcards, for learning kanji), which I had never been exposed to growing up.
For that last one, I'm actually in debt of my buddy who got me into the kanji flashcards.
1. Monday in Dutch is maandag, which means 'moonday'
2. Friday in Dutch is vrijdag, which means 'free day' (and is pronouced 'freydag')
Obviously the French is lundi, but I never made the connection with lunar.
So for 28 years (4 year's worth of Moondays) of my life I never considered the connection between Sunday, Monday and Moonday.
Perhaps it's not scientific fact but actually learning another language fluently and seeing the differences was pretty freaking awesome to me.
There's other fascinating differences like the difference between 'Icing sugar' in English and 'Flour suger' in Dutch, one explains what you do with it vs the other explains what it resembles.
Perhaps it only challenges simple brains like mine.
It's also interesting to see how different languages give you different options. For example, Latin has infinitives that can inflect for tense and voice, so you can say "to have written" or "to be written" in single words, not just "to write". Portuguese lacks these, but has infinitives that can inflect for person and number, so you can say "for us to write" in a single word. English has neither! This is just scratching the surface of grammatical variation within closely related languages.
I think the controversy alluded to in this thread is that there is an old, fascinating theory that people think qualitatively differently when using different languages, or else that some languages are more effective at or conducive to thinking certain thoughts. (One form of this idea is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though it's not clear that Sapir and Whorf understood it in exactly the same way.) There are many suggestive examples in support of this idea, but the strongest forms of the claim are in disrepute in the academic linguistics community.
The Sapir-Whorf sorts of issues are potentially rather different from saying that you'll understand language better by learning more languages, since they suggest even that you may understand the world as a whole differently.
“In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
(HN being one of the few places I can not only admit this, but get good-natured grief for using the 'new' models. :D)
I also have another saved up, ready to give my younger brother-in-law as he prepares for engineering classes. I plan on getting him as addicted to RPN as the rest of us.
I do agree they are related, but though the use of the word "quality" in both contexts probably confuses issues rather than illuminates them.
I agree with Paul Graham when he says that most philosophical discussions reduce to disagreements over the meaning of words: http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html
It's also true that both Pirsig and Alexander are reluctant to define their respective "quality". I think there are profound core truths in both of their ideas, but I think they're also too ambitious.
They're both trying to apply one concept to a multitude of things. It's almost religious -- there is one answer to all problems.
Where I think he goes wrong is his conflation of quality with desire, as summed up in the phrase 'quality is what you like.' Something about this gnawed at me because from an early age I noticed that that aesthetic quality and taste were poorly correlated for me; there are things I like that are objectively crap and conversely there are art objects of high quality that I don't like or were even hostile towards at first.
My go-to example for this sort of thing is Francis Bacon, the English painter. I hate almost everything of his I've seen. It repulses me on a visceral level, such that I find his work almost physically painful to look at. But his painting is of very very high quality. Bacon was a true master of composition and other measurable factors of aesthetic quality. It is his mastery of those painterly techniques that make the unpleasantness of his work so impactful.
I have my doubts about Pirsig's relationship to art. You'll recall the tale of when he was on the faculty at Boise, and his friend (an art professor) came around one evening for a social purpose, to find Pirsig wrapping a table in string for the eminently practical purpose of holding it under tension so that the glue he had just applied could set properly. The art professor is surprised and Pirsig decides to have a little fun with him by saying it's an art project, which naturally intrigues the art professor who begins evaluating it without any awareness of its more quotidian nature.
this bothered me; Pirsig aimed to point out the arbitrary and unfalsifiable nature of art so as to disqualify it as a vehicle for truth, and indeed he is not alone; many people have such a reaction to modern art because abstraction or the fetishization of expression (in the MArxist rather than the Freudian sense) devalues the representational aspect, even though the latter is the easiest for people to evaluate by simply observing the degree of convergence between the quality of representation in the art work and their experience of the physical world.
But Pirsig was writing from the perspective of a technician or engineer, in which qualia can be ranked objectively in terms of their contribution to some truth-seeking function, qua his masterful exegesis of the scientific method for solving ordinary problems like undesirable behavior of a motorcycle. Valuable though this is, it falls apart in three ways when Pirsig sails too close to the rocks of aesthetics: function, scope and intentionality.
First, Pirsig has a poor understanding of artistic function; he doesn't seem to understand art in contexts other than pictorial. Art consists of implicit assertions about proportion and harmony which are more or less successful depending on the degree to which those assumptions reflect our understanding of nature.
To an artist, the pictorial content of a work is often the least interesting aspect - it's not uncommon to evaluate a picture upside down or through squinted eyes so as to be able to see less of the distracting subject matter. We are often much more interested in the claims that are being made about proportionality or symmetry - spatial, chromatic, luminous, or other types. These things are what abstract art is about, and the clarity with which such assertions are made are what cause some people to rave about the quality of what may seem like random splotches or clumsy daubings to the unseeing eye. Education helps but I'm not sure you can teach taste; I knew what I admired from a very young age, decades before accumulating enough knowledge to be able to objectively explain why I liked it.
By scope I mean the degree of universality in the cumulative assertions of the work, the specificity or generality of the truth it is asserting. This is very hard to put into words -
and arguably the better the art, the less the degree to which the underlying concept can be expressed by other means, or it wouldn't have been necessary to go to all the bother of rendering it in paint in the first place. It is perhaps the degree to which the different elements of the work support and reinforce its central thesis, which extends to the semantic and symbolic levels.
The last question, of intent, is an especially thorny one. For Pirsig, the professor's enthusiasm over the string table was foolish because Pirsig's intention was aesthetic rather than practical, and he assumes that aesthetic value stems from authority, that is the economic decision to create something at a cost in time and effort. But is it? This is a very tricky question and one that modernism has failed to answer.
The most famous art example of this is Foundtain, which consists of a urinal which has been laid upon its back and declared an art object and duly signed 'R. Mutt', a pseudonym of the Dadaist artist Marcel duchamp. Or was it? There's evidence to suggest that both the submission and the signature were actually the product of his friend, the enigmatic Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and that Duchamp simply took the credit when the rest of the art world came around to his view that found objects could be art.
Anyway, let us imagine a situation in which Pirsig, overwhelmed by amusement, suffered a heart attack and died immediately after conning the art professor into evaluating his String Table as art rather than furniture repair. Let us assume that the professor saw some or other formal quality about the work that made it attractive to his experienced eye, regardless of whether this aesthetic quality was the product of accident or some subconscious aesthetic impulse on Pirsig's part. Let us further imagine that Pirsig's tragic death by laughter following on the completion of his first and only artwork was sufficiently interesting to hook the attention of the art world, which then fell in love with the piece on its own merits, and that it now occupies pride of place in a great museum, viewed and loved by millions who know nothing of its provenance. Are they all idiots?
I argue that art inheres in the work, regardless of the intention with which it was created. It is sufficient that it was wrought (natural objects are merely pretty), but Pirsig's artistic intention or lack thereof is irrelevant to the question of whether it embodies aesthetic truth. To see why, let us consider a parallel paradox of monkeys with typewriters. We are all familiar with the idea that infinite typewriting monkeys might reproduce the work of Shakespeare, but also with the extreme remoteness of such a possibility. But once you've persuaded monkeys to take up typing, it's not so hard to imagine that one might crank out 'E=mc^2' in a reasonable timeframe, say by Wednesday of next week. Would that be a valid theorem?
Obviously the monkeys know nothing of physics and can only be persuaded to bang on the typewriter because I keep supplying them with bananas. Indeed we could dispense with the monkeys altogether and instead draw Scrabble tiles out of a bag or something to underscore the random nature of the process. But now here comes that bum Einstein, with his inchoate intuitions about the nature of space and time, perplexedly pondering the relationships between energy, matter, and the speed of light. The monkeys flee the scene in terror, crying 'Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!' and the commotion distracts Einstein enough to look at their output, which equation results in his illumination and subsequent adulation.
Chance favors the prepared mind, of course, and it is only because Einstein was obsessed with such topics that the random keystrokes on the page were imbued with meaning for him, and him alone - but thanks to your familiarity with relativity, that same page would be imbued with meaning for you too if you were to see, regardless of whether you knew about the monkeys. It happens to be true (assuming you believe in relativity), notwithstanding the fact that it was produced by a system that produced a mixture of both false and true theorems through a random process. Following Godel, we can not prove the truth of the assertion within the system that produced it due to its lack of a truth-selection rule, but this is no barrier to be it being recognized as true from within the confines of a more rigorous system where its truth could be rigorously asserted.
I argue that it is this recognition of truth, however inchoate or hard to articulate, on the part of viewer that invests a constructed object with art value independently of the intention with which it was created. I do not meant hat truth shines out from art like a lamp, only that it is independent of the intent with which it was created. In this sense a piece of 'accidental art' would be a discovery rather than invention, but science and to some extent mathematics is full of such accidental discoveries, and we don't hold those discoveries to be any less valuable even if we sometimes suspect the discoverers of having been lucky rather than clever.
I do think that ultimately Pirsig's argument is indeed religious, in that he equates successful function with mastery of Plato's ideal forms and the subsequent realization of the imaginary hypothesis - a conclusion that might reasonably be extended to the material world as a whole. In his follow-up book, Lila, he attempted to derive a moral philosophy from first principles and I feel his narrow determinism limited the scope of his exploration, though perhaps I'm associating his philosophical argument too closely with the bounds of the rover on which his houseboat was situated for that story, not unlike the freewheeling motorcycle journey that was nevertheless constricted by the necessity of staying on the road.
Death can jump off a cliff.
What kind of fucking school discourages people from reading even if they're in detention. Stories like this make me glad I didn't grow up in the USA.
Whoa, come on, taking a turn into national flamewar is the last thing we need here.
We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14190274 and marked it off-topic.
Without further context, I hope you recognize your hypocrisy when you plead with someone asking them not to treat "entertainment" as "Hollywood".
The person above gives an anecdote from an unknown decade, and an unknown city of an unknown part of one of the most diverse countries in the world. And you cast aside the entire American experience because of it. Your comment had no purpose.
I did not. Try again.
(I realize that your broader point is that learning the language made you able to learn, but it's still situationally ironic. Also, from the parent comment, I suspect that you believe that "schools in the US" are somehow inherently worse than other places.)
As far as growing up in a Japanese school, I totally agree. I'd take the American school over that system any day of the week.
Now realize the disciplinarian isn't a teacher but a member of mgmt paid by beancounters to get the lowest measurement of skipping classes. He's not paid to make sure the kid learns calculus or becomes self actualized.
Under that criteria the logical response is "OK if you think school is boring, try sitting and doing nothing for a week".
Now if the kid had told the vice principal the problem was his dad beats him too much to walk, or he's too poor to afford bus fare, an entirely different response would likely occur. But you tell someone paid to punish you that you don't like being bored, well take one wild guess what your punishment will be?
Its kind of culturally insensitive BTW to go around saying something like a Zen experience is a useless waste of time or as others have claimed, is a form of torture. A second issue is you can go thru life the hard way or the easy way, and there's nothing inherently wrong with a kid willfully choosing the hard way to try it out and see how he likes it for awhile; someone having defined the ethical and moral right choices and wrong choices and a kid willfully tries the wrong to see how it feels, the judgment should end at the point of definition not be continued into implementation; nobody did anything "wrong"; its like talking about the morals and ethics of a physical nerve reflex response from a doctor hitting a knee with a hammer or touching a hot stove with a finger-tip and reflexively snapping back.
Before this book I couldnt understand why Apple existed, it exerted so much control over its users, it abstracted away the intimate details etc. Apple appeals to users because so many of them are afraid of being intimate with their tools, they just want it to work.
I say i was a total robot because to me it was all about the facts. The fact was i could get a "higher spec" machine for less money and have more control over it. But I couldnt empathize with the Apple users. Now i get it.
your thoughts probably also stand on their own and could be interesting for people who have read the book.