Posted by: Adam Deane | 26/11/2010

BPM and Piet Hein

Problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by hitting back. – Piet Hein

I would like to share a fantastic comment that I received from one of the members of the BP Group on LinkedIn this week.

I received an email alert telling me that someone had submitted a comment.
The comment read: “Problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by hitting back. – Piet Hein”

Dreaded at the thought of being misunderstood, I immediately answered “Geoffrey, no attack here, just questions raised.”
The answer I received was fascinating. I found myself pondering over it for the last couple of days.
I’ll let you read it and draw your own conclusions.

Enjoy your weekend

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Sorry Adam, I didn’t mean to imply there was an attack. It is just a wonderfully paradoxical little poem, very worthy of Lewis Caroll.

This is from Wikipedia.

Piet Hein (December 16, 1905–April 17, 1996) was a Danish scientist, mathematician, inventor, designer, author, and poet. Piet Hein, who, in his own words, “played mental ping-pong” with Niels Bohr in the inter-War period, found himself confronted with a dilemma when the Germans occupied Denmark. He felt that he had three choices: Do nothing, flee to “neutral” Sweden or join the Danish resistance movement. As he explained in 1968, “Sweden was out because I am not Swedish, but Danish. I could not remain at home because, if I had, every knock at the door would have sent shivers up my spine. So, I joined the Resistance.”

Taking as his first weapon the instrument with which he was most familiar, the pen, he wrote and had published his first “grook” [gruk in Danish]. It passed the censors who did not grasp its real meaning.


Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
but nothing
compared to the pain,
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
and finding
the first one again.

The Danes, however, understood its importance and soon it was found as graffiti all around the country. The deeper meaning of the grook was that even if you lose your freedom (“losing one glove”), do not lose your patriotism and self-respect by collaborating with the Nazis (“throwing away the other”), because that sense of having betrayed your country will be more painful when freedom has been found again someday. Denmark got the message.

Of course, the glory of the opaqueness of poetry is that we can all find our own meaning in it.

The resonance – for me – of the poem I quoted lies in the reminder it contains that complex adaptive systems (i.e. human systems not mechanical ones) can’t be coerced, they have to be seduced. As (originally) an engineer and mathematician, I have wasted far too much of my life trying to beat rationality into animate things. There was a relevant piece in the RSA blog recently about The Perils of Obsessive measurement, here:

Piet Hein says that for me in just 10 words

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