TITLE: Getting Lost
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: February 24, 2008 12:48 PM
While catching up on some work at the office yesterday --
a rare Saturday indeed -- I listened to
OOPSLA 2007 keynote address, available from the conference
Turchi is a writer with whom conference chair
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
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
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
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.