TITLE: Getting Lost AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 24, 2008 12:48 PM DESC: ----- BODY: While catching up on some work at the office yesterday -- a rare Saturday indeed -- I listened to Peter Turchi's OOPSLA 2007 keynote address, available from the conference podcast page. Turchi is a writer with whom conference chair Richard Gabriel studied while pursuing his MFA at Warren Wilson College. I would not put this talk in the same class as Robert Hass's OOPSLA 2005 keynote, but perhaps that has more to do with my listening to an audio recording of it and not being there in the moment. Still, I found it to be worth listening as Turchi encouraged us to "get lost" when we want to create. We usually think of getting lost as something that happens to us when we are trying to get somewhere else. That makes getting lost something we wish wouldn't happen at all. But when we get lost in a new land inside our minds, we discover something new that we could not have seen before, at least not in the same way. As I listened, I heard three ideas that captured much of the essence of Turchi's keynote. First was that we should strive to avoid preconception. This can be tough to do, because ultimately it means that we must work without knowing what is good or bad! The notions of good and bad are themselves preconceptions. They are valuable to scientists and engineers as they polish up a solution, but they often are impediments to discovering or creating a solution in the first place. Second was the warning that a failure to get lost is a failure of imagination. Often, when we work deeply in an area for a while, we sometimes feel as if we can't see anything new and creative because we know and understand the landscape so well. We have become "experts", which isn't always as dandy a status as it may seem. It limits what we see. In such times, we need to step off the easy path and exercise our imaginations in a new way. What must I do in order to see something new? This leads to the third theme I pulled from Turchi's talk: getting lost takes work and preparation. When we get stuck, we have to work to imagine our way out of the rut. For the creative person, though, it's about more about getting out of a rut. The creative person needs to get lost in a new place all the time, in order to see something new. For many of us, getting lost may seem like as something that just happens, but the person who wants to be lost has to prepare to start. Turchi mentioned Robert Louis Stevenson as someone with a particular appreciation for "the happy accident that planning can produce". But artists are not the only folks who benefit from these happy accidents or who should work to produce the conditions in which they can occur. Scientific research operates on a similar plane. I am reminded again of Robert Root-Bernstein's ideas for actively engaging the unexpected. Writers can't leave getting lost to chance, and neither can scientists. Turchi comes from the world of writing, not the world of science. Do his ideas apply to the computer scientist's form of writing, programming? I think so. A couple of years ago, I described a structured form of getting lost called air-drop programming, which adventurous programmers use to learn a legacy code base. One can use the same idea to learn a new framework or API, or even to learn a new programming language. Cut all ties to the familiar, jump right in, and see what you learn! What about teaching? Yes. A colleague stopped by my office late last week to describe a great day of class in which he had covered almost none of what he had planned. A student had asked a question whose answer led to another, and then another, and pretty soon the class was deep in a discussion that was as valuable, or more, than the planned activities. My colleague couldn't have planned this unexpectedly good discussion, but his and the class's work put them in a position where it could happen. Of course, unexpected exploration takes time... When will they cover all the material of the course? I suspect the students will be just fine as they make adjustments downstream this semester. What about running? Well, of course. The topic of air-drop programming came up during a conversation about a general tourist pattern for learning a new town. Running in a new town is a great way to learn the lay of the land. Sometimes I have to work not to remember landmarks along the way, so that I can see new things on my way back to the hotel. As I wrote after a glorious morning run at ChiliPLoP three years ago, sometimes you run to get from Point A to Point B; sometimes, you should just run. That applies to your hometown, too. I once read about an elite women's runner who recommended being dropped off far from your usual running routes and working your way back home through unfamiliar streets and terrain. I've done something like this myself, though not often enough, and it is a great way to revitalize my running whenever the trails start look like the same old same old. It seems that getting lost is a universal pattern, which made it a perfect topic for an OOPSLA keynote talk. -----