Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I recently read a book by Robert M. Pirsig, called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". It was a nice read, which is surprising, since the subject is philosophy. The presentation is in the form of a story - the narrator is taking a long motorcycle ride in the northern US, from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean, on a motorcycle, with his troubled 12 year old son.

The book is ambitious. The author attempts to free those ancient grounds occupied by such heavy questions as the role of technology versus art, the struggle of the rational over the emotional, and the limits of religion and science.

There is some commentary in the book about "failure in technology". A couple of paragraphs really reached into my mind and lit a candle.I thought I'd share it with you.

Let's say you were repairing a motorcycle and you were fairly experienced at it. All you have left to do is replace a rusty screw on a cover plate (it's not important what that is). After you do this, you have a whole day planned where you are going to ride your motorbike on a beautiful, scenic road in great weather.

But let's say the screw is stuck. You have some skills, but none of them get the screw out. You try twisting the screwdriver hard, but you only tear the screw slot.

Excerpt: "Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance isn't just irritating and minor. You're stuck...This isn't a rare scene in science and technology. This is the commonest scene of all...Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. You're losing time. You're incompetent. You don't know what you are doing..What you're up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought."

Pirsig continues by saying the only way to get out of this stuckness is to embrace it; to care about this little, inconsequential screw the way you would care about something important.

"Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now as your awareness becomes stronger, you realize that this one screw is neither small nor unimportant. Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the motorcycle."

This happens so often in my life! When you are doing research, you have a conversation with your team or your boss, about the ultimate goal, and it's always sexy. Later, at your desk, it's the little things that kill you. Installing some compiler that give you errors. Drivers, drivers, drivers. You don't have the right version of something. Batteries are dead. The software license is expired. 

The stress one gets from being stuck on these things, day after day, is difficult to communicate. People who have done similar work in science and technology can understand the pain. It is truly crushing. I found the words in this book say what I feel during those times. The rest of the book is as good. If you get a chance, read it. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quercus virginiana


One of the trees that I really like in Texas is the southern live oak. Its a lovely tree, even though it is usually quite small and fairly short. The acorns are like aerodynamic darts. The best thing about live oaks is that they are evergreen. I've been to some pretty campuses in Texas that have rows of these great trees.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lincoln

I reviewed the movie Lincoln here. Happy new year!