TITLE: Feats of Association AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 05, 2007 8:57 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

An idea is a feat of association.
-- Robert Frost

Yesterday I went to a talk by Roy Behrens, an earlier talk of whose I enjoyed very much and blogged about. That time he talked about teaching as a "subversive inactivity", and this time he spoke more on the topic of his scholarly interest, in creativity and design, ideas and metaphors, similarities and differences, even camouflage! Given that these are his scholarly interests, I wasn't surprised that this talk touched on some of the same concepts as his teaching talk. There are natural connection between how ideas are formed at the nexus os similarity and difference and how one can best help people to learn. I found this talk energizing and challenging in a different sort of way. In the preceding paragraph, I first wrote that Roy "spoke directly on the topic of his scholarly interest", but there was little direct about this talk. Instead, Roy gave us parallel streams of written passages and images from a variety of sources. This talk felt much like an issue of his commonplace book/journal Ballast Quarterly Review, which I have blogged about before. The effect was mesmerizing, and it had its intended effect in illustrating his point: that the human mind is a connection-making machine, an almost unwilling creator of ideas that grow out of the stimuli it encounters. We all left the talk with new ideas forming. I don't have a coherent, focused essay on this talk yet, but I do have a collection of thoughts that are in various stages of forming. I'll share what I have now, as much for my own benefit as for what value that may have to you. Similarity and difference, the keys to metaphor, matter in the creation of software. James Coplien has written an important book that explicates the roles of commonality analysis and variability analysis in the design of software that can separate domain concerns into appropriate modules and evolve gracefully as domain requirements change. Commonality and variability; similarity and difference. As one of Roy's texts pointed out, the ability to recognize similarity and difference is common to all practical arts -- and to scientists, creators, and inventors. The idea of metaphor in software isn't entirely metaphorical. See this paper by Noble, Biddle, and Tempero that considers how metaphor and metonymy relate to object-oriented design patterns. These creative fellows have explored the application of several ideas from the creative arts to computing, including deconstruction and postmodernism. To close, Roy showed us the 1952 short film Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard. And that's the story it told, "with beautiful slow camera strides, the washing of a blacktop with water and soap as it moves across the asphalt's painted lines". This film is an example of how to make something fabulous out of... nothing. I think the more usual term he used was "making the familiar strange". Earlier in his talk he had read the last sentence of this passage from Maslow (emphasis added):
For instance, one woman, uneducated, poor, a full-time housewife and mother, did none of these conventionally creative things and yet was a marvelous cook, mother, wife, and home-maker. With little money, her home was somehow always beautiful. She was a perfect hostess. Her meals were banquets, her taste in linens, silver, glass crockery and furniture was impeccable. She was in all these areas original, novel, ingenious, unexpected, inventive. I learned from her and others like her that a first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting, and that, generally, (un)cooking or parenthood or making a home could be creative while poetry need not be; it cold be uncreative.
Humble acts and humble materials can give birth to unimagined creativity. This is something of a theme for me in the design patterns world, where I tell people that even novices engage in creative design when they write the simplest of programs and where so-called elementary patterns are just as likely to give rise to creative programs as Factory or Decorator. Behrens's talk touched on two other themes that run through my daily thoughts about software, design, and teaching. One dealt with tool-making, and the other with craft and limitations. At one point during the Q-n-A after the talk, he reminisced about Let's Pretend, a radio show from his youth which told stories. The value to him as a young listener lay in forcing -- no, allowing -- him to create the world of the story in his own mind. Most of us these days are conditioned to approach an entertainment venue looking for something that has already been assembled for us, for the express purpose of entertaining ourselves. Creativity is lost when our minds never have the opportunity to create, and when our minds' ability to create atrophies from disuse. One of Roy's goals in teaching graphic design students is to help students see that they have the tools they need to create, to entertain. This is true for artists, but in a very important sense it is true for computer science students, too. We can create. We can build our own tools--our own compilers, our own IDEs, our own applications, our own languages... anything we need! That is one of the great powers of learning computer science. We are in a new and powerful way masters of our own universe. That's one of the reasons I so enjoy teaching Programming Languages and compilers: because they confront CS students directly with the notion that their tools are programs just like any other. You never have to settle for less. Finally, may favorite passage from Roy's talk plays right into my weakness for the relationship between writing and programming, and for the indispensable role of limitation in creativity and in learning how to create. From Anthony Burgess:
Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered. You can't create until you're willing to subordinate the creative impulses to the constriction of a form. But the learning of craft takes a long time, and we all think we're entitled to shortcuts.... Art is rare and sacred and hard work, and there ought to be a wall of fire around it.
One of my favorite of my blog posts is from March 2005, when I wrote a piece called Patterns as a Source of Freedom. Only in looking back now do I realize that I quoted Burgess there, too -- but only the sentence about willing subordination! I'm glad that Roy gave the context around that sentence yesterday, because it takes the quote beyond constriction of form to the notion of art growing out of craft. It then closes with that soaring allusion. Anyone who has felt even the slightest sense of creating something knows what Burgess means. We computer scientists may not like to admit that what we do is sometimes art, and that said art is rare and sacred, but that doesn't change reality. Good talk -- worth much more in associations and ideas than the lunch hour it cost. My university is lucky to have Roy Behrens, and other thinkers like him, on our faculty. -----