May 25, 2001

structure


Iíve been thinking a lot lately about structure and creativity, because of my job. Iím fairly sure Iíve written about it here, but couldnít find the entry.

Basically, one problem with putting processes in software development is that most software developers like to think of themselves as creative people, and are afraid that formal processes will stifle that creativity. Itís true that formal processes do make each project less of a unique experience; on the other hand, if you were designing a car, youíd probably be glad to to have to recreate the tires from scratch every time. Youíd want to save your creativity for the interesting parts of the job. And itís true that even while working on a NASA project, coding for the Space Station Simulator, when I had to follow what I considered way too convoluted a process (I had to write 3 documents before I typed my first line of code) I had enormous freedom to figure out how to model a heat exchanger, say, or cavitation in a pump.

In fact, I probably should have published that pump model, because Iím not sure anyone else had ever studied the problem from that angle. Cavitation in a pump is basically banging and fluctuations caused by air bubbles. All the studies I could find were on how to avoid it, or at most, how to recognize its incipient stages. I donít know if anyone had ever had reason to design a math model of its ongoing behavior before -- one difference between building a simulator vs the real thing. (End digression. So much for structure.)

Anyway, back to structure: my two favorite analogies for its advantages are piloting and poetry. Pilots rehearse landings over and over, so normal landings are as automated as possible. They also simulate emergencies, to ingrain proper reactions in those situations. This is meant, not to make flying boring but to free a pilot to think about how to handle unpredictable facets of the situation (combat, engine fire, whatever) instead of the mundane tasks.

In poetry, the classic example of structure is the sonnet. If I had my LíEngle books on hand, Iíd quote what she wrote. I think itís in A Wrinkle in Time; the gist is that the structure is extremely rigid, but within it, the poet is free to say anything. A poet may even choose to break the rules, but does so most effectively when he or she knows what they are and breaks them knowingly.

Yesterday, rereading Anne Fadimanís Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, I found that Wordsworth had said the same thing. This would have been in one of his less verbose periods; he took 113 words to say what I did in 454 here:

NUNS fret not at their conventís narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, unto which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, Ďtwas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnetís scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Posted by dichroic at May 25, 2001 08:31 AM
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