TITLE: An Unexpected Connection AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 01, 2008 8:57 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I wasn't expecting to hear John Maeda's name during the What is a Tree? talk, because I didn't know that researchers in Maeda's lab had created the language Processing. But hearing his name brought to mind something that has been in the back of my mind for a couple of months, since the close of my first theater experience. I had blogged about a few observations my mind had made about the processes of acting in and directing a play. The former were mostly introspective, and the latter were mostly external, as I watched our director coalesce what seemed like a mess into a half-way decent show. Some of these connections involved similarities I noticed between producing a play and creating software. I made notes of a few more ideas that I hadn't mentioned yet, including: I'm still wondering if those last two have any useful analogue in software development... Since the show ended, I have occasionally tried to discern the value in the analogy between producing a play and creating software -- indeed, if there is any. That's where the connection to Maeda comes in. Last summer, I read the slender Laws of Simplicity, a collection of essays from Maeda's blog of the same name. The book suggest ten ways that we can design simpler systems and products. I must not have been in the right place to read the book just then, because I didn't get as much out of it as I had hoped. But one part of the book stuck with me. For a metaphor to engage us deeply, Maeda wrote, it is essential that it relate, translate, and surprise. As I recall now, this means that the metaphor must relate the elements of the two things, that it must translate foreign elements from one of the things to the other, and that the result of this translation should surprise -- it should make us see or understand the other thing in a new way, give us insight. There is a danger in finding analogies everywhere we look by making superficial connections. I am perhaps more prone to this risk than many other folks. That may be why I liked Maeda's relate/translate/surprise triad so much. Since reading it, I have used it as an external checkpoint for any new analogy that I want to make. If I can explain how the metaphor relates the two things, translates disparate elements, and surprises me, then I have some reason to think that the metaphor offers value -- at least more reason than just saying, "Hey, look at this cool new thing I noticed!" To this point, I have not found the "surprise" in the theater experience that teaches me something new about how to think about making software. This doesn't mean that there is no value in the analogy, only that I haven't found it yet. By remaining skeptical a little while longer, I decrease the probability that I try to draw an inappropriate conclusion from the relationship. Of course, just because I haven't yet found the surprise in the analogy doesn't mean that I did not find value in the experience that led me to it. A rich web of experiences is valuable in its own right, and enjoyable. It also provides the source material for learning. -----