ACCU2016: Talk on Software Architecture Design 7: Perceiving Organising Principles

Perceiving Organising Principles requires us to develop a living and mobile thinking perception.

Unfortunately, as programmers, we are at a disadvantage.

We work in a domain where a lot of our thinking needs to be fixed into a rule-based structure in order to imagine how a computer program will function. This can have unwanted side effects of making it difficult to think in a mobile, living way. Multi-threaded programming demands this mobile thinking and is why it is so difficult.

At a personal level if we want to develop this other way of seeing we need to engage in some activities that foster that mobile mode of cognition. Perceiving livingness, almost by definition, requires that we need to handle ambiguity. This is what is required when we are working in the ‘gap’, or whenever we are dealing with human situations.

Logical thinking can cope with known and static issues, but as programmers we need to be very aware of the boundaries of our knowledge, more so than the lay person due to the inherent fixity of the domain of computer programming.

Alexander Revisited
At this point it is useful to look at some of Christopher Alexander’s ideas about the perception of beauty and links to what I have been saying about the idea of Cognitive Feeling.

Alexander started with defining a Pattern Language to help foster good architectural design – what he called Living Structure. This metamorphosed into his masterwork, The Nature of Order where he tried to get a better understanding of why we find certain structures beautiful.

In the Nature of Order, Volume 1 Chapter 5, he identified the following 15 properties of Living Structure:

  • Levels Of Scale
  • Strong Centres
  • Boundaries
  • Alternating Repetitions
  • Positive Space
  • Good Shape
  • Local Symmetries
  • Deep Interlock And Ambiguity
  • Contrast
  • Gradients
  • Roughness
  • Echoes
  • The Void
  • Simplicity And Inner Calm
  • Not-Separateness

If you just look at this as a list of items, it can be difficult to understand how these may be useful in design, apart from as heuristic guidelines. Although useful, if we look at them in the light of the dynamic concept of the Organising Principle, they make a lot more sense.

A major point is Alexander’s use of the word: Living. As I point out, this implies ambiguity. Therefore these 15 Properties can be seen instead as Organising Principles and when we try and ‘bring them down’ into a more fixed understanding we will only be seeing one way of looking at each one.

Perceiving the Organising Principle as a Disciplined Artistic Process.
In order to develop a mobile dynamic cognition that can better perceive Organising Principles, my thesis is that we need to take up some artistic pursuit in a disciplined and self-aware way. Do whatever appeals to you. For me I find painting and dance work well.

Lets look at how the practice of these pursuits parallels software development, or indeed any technical effort.

The following image is a watercolour painting of my daughter.


Freehand painting based on photo of my daughter.

This was one of my first forays into the world of painting and like the good novice artist I was, I decided to draw the picture first, using a photograph as a reference.

It took me 3 hours!

The first effort took 2 hours. The next took 1 hour and the last two each took half an hour, with the final result intended as the basis for the final painting. Being the worried novice that I was I decided to perform a ‘colour check’ painting freehand before doing the final version. In the end this became the final painting I have included here as I found that when I tried to paint into the final drawing it did not have the same life as the freehand painting.

This is an example of the difference between the ‘master’ freehand approach as compared to the ‘journeyman’ drawn approach. Of course I do not consider myself to be a master painter, but this example illustrates the self-developmental dynamic inherent in the artistic process.

We can also see here the need to do the foundational, ‘analytic’ work, in this case the drawing; followed by the ‘gap’ of putting the drawing away and using the freehand skill to come up with the ‘solution idea’.

The following is a painting by Jim Spencer and is for me an example of how less is more and illustrates how such minimalism is an essential aspect of any mastery. In this case Jim began learning art just after the second world war. (Also see my post Minimalist Mastery)


The third example of and artistic pursuit is that of dance, in this case Argentine Tango. This particular dance is a form strongly founded on being far more conscious about what is a primary human activity: walking. (See my post on Dance as True Movement)

Here there is a need for structure, and a mobile process of interpretation and improvisation, both founded on a disciplined form of the dance. It can take years to learn how to ‘walk’ again but if followed in a disciplined manner can lead to sublime experiences of ‘Living Structure’ as the ‘team’ of two people dance from a common centre of balance.

In conclusion I hope you have been able to see the implicit link between Art and Technology and the value of balancing ourselves up as human beings.

Thank you for your attention.

In response to my statement about dancing John Lakos (author of Large Scale C++ Software Design) asked for some tango teaching at the end of the talk! The picture was taken by Mogens Hansen.


ACCU2016: Talk on Software Architecture Design 6: Organising Principles

STUDY DIARIES: Dances with Cars

Since 1970 I, along with an old university friend, have wondered just why some people love speed.

In my younger years I used to race karts and until recently my conclusion had been that it was the experience of mastery – the wonderful feeling when you managed to power drift through a corner on just the right line, or that oh so elusive relaxed attention when a lap came out just right at a faster time than before.

But now I think I have found the answer, and surprisingly it has links to dance.

In a previous post I talked about how dancing, at its best, uses conscious movement to express our ‘true’ movement of thinking. Notice the use of the use of the word thinkING instead of thought, which could be construed as a fixed item rather than the mobile and dynamic activity that I am describing.

This ‘true’ movement is something some people want to express and dance is one form.

The other can also be driving or flying well.

In line with the previous post, to me it makes sense that we have an inner experience of our thinking being able to move instantaneously, and we feel good when we can manage to express it physically, whether it be with our bodies, or through a technological construct such as a car – or an aircraft. Indeed Ayrton Senna has been described as someone who could dance with the car.

So now I have a far better explanation of why I am such a petrol head, dancer and lover of flying!

But why is this post in the section of the study diaries?

If you read Scaligero or Steiner, their wisdom is predicated on developing a true experience of such a living, mobile, dynamic thinking. It is not something you can really put into words, which are fixed entities.

However it IS something we can experience.

The difficulty is that any characterization of it in fixed form, whether it be in words, pictures, or a materialistic science, will always – always – miss the point. Such expressions can dimly point to the living idea but the listener or spectator will always need to be active. They will have to re-enliven such fixed and dead forms with their own thinking in order to reproduce the living experience.

As I have said before, this is why Steiner and such authors are so hard to understand. In their writing they are purposely trying to short-circuit your analytical brain, which likes fixed constructs,  in order to try and help you move into the living experience of the idea.


My thoughts recently have turned to teaching beginners Argentine Tango at TLC in Southampton.

Afternoon Milonga

Afternoon Milonga by Pat Murray

In preparing for this I experienced an interesting case of synchronicity as I was reading a book by Massimo Scaligero called ‘The Secrets of Space and Time’. In this book Scaligero talks about ‘true’ movement, an idea that smacked me right in the forehead as I saw its relation to the essence of dance!

Most of the time we move normally without much thought. We think functionally: I want to pick this object up; I want to move my hand to here etc, and our bodies do this for us.

If you wish to truly understand just how much is automatic go and talk to someone with Parkinsons, a disease which afflicted by father. Even now I remember his tears as this once amazing dancer tried to will his body to do the simplest tasks.

During this unconscious movement our bodies move us. But there is a different form of movement where we can learn to be more conscious as WE move our bodies. The former is something we cannot take responsibility for, and cannot truly individually own. The latter is where we can truly express ourselves.

This second form of movement is not purely a physical phenomenon – it has its source in our thinking. True conscious movement is the physical expression of our Thinking – capital T.

Try the following exercise and you might just be able to experience how different this movement is from our normal unconscious mode:

1: Stand up in a space where you have room to stretch your arms straight above you without hitting any ceiling. Stand with you arms down your sides.

2: Raise your arms to the horizontal position as you would normally do – unconsciously, without giving it much thought. You might experience this as a pushing feeling. You should be able to feel that you do not own the movement, just its result.

3: Now return your hands to your sides and imagine that there are infinitely long threads (and I mean infinite!) extending straight out from the ends of your fingertips. Imagine that these threads are raising your hands as they pull outwards and upwards. With your thinking imagine how, as those strings traverse space, you are cutting the universe in half out from your centre to infinity. You may need to do this quite slowly and might experience it as more of a pulling feeling.

This takes conscious practice and requires a disciplined – yet relaxed – imagination. Properly done it will feel totally different to step 2. It will be as if your Thought is moving you, as if the body need do nothing but attend to the Thinking movement you are trying to realize.

This is the essence of the movement of a good dancer

They will be centred in themselves.
They will be poised in space.
They will seem to move with a graceful lack of effort.

They are doing nothing less than touching the infinite with their own Thinking movement as it expresses their individuality into their bodily movement.

They will be collapsing that infinitude to a singularity in their thought and thus, given the relationship between time and space, they can bring us to a timeless point of awareness. According to Scaligero this is the true awareness of space and time and it will take some practice.

Tango Sketch 2

Tango dancers sketch by Pat Murray

Bringing this back to dance, and Argentine Tango in particular where we learn to consciously walk with a partner, it is noticeable how difficult it is to re-learn something we normally unconsciously do. In this case something we learnt in our formative toddler years before our ‘I’ became present (usually around 3 years old).

If we can individually achieve this consciousness and attention it can be very enlightening and life enhancing.

If we can do this with our dance partner then it becomes a truly creative, artistic and sublime experience.

Happy dancing!

PAINTING: Observation and Painting Dancers

I recently discovered a lovely painting of Tango dancers by Pat Murray which prompted me to get in touch with her for some tips about painting dancers. The things she said – see below – reminded me why I love painting so much – when I get the time – and how it all hooks into a phenomenological observation process. I love how she notes that it does not matter about the accuracy of fast sketches because so much still goes into your subconscious. I have definitely experienced this with my ‘Rose’ painting and the one of my daughter, ‘Princess’.

Fascinating – a true life’s work.

Unfortunately the original of this watercolour has been sold but you can get hold of prints from her website.

Watercolour by Pat Murray

‘Afternoon Milonga’ : Watercolour by Pat Murray

She was very helpful and provided these thoughts about the above painting:

“I also provide the portrait version of ‘Afternoon Milonga’ as a print now as a friend who dances Tango said that British Tango dancers would relate to the church hall image as so much Tango is danced in places like that in this country.

This painting was inspired by watching a friend dance at an afternoon Milonga in a church hall in Sneinton, Nottingham. Try as I might, I could not locate the exact place but tried to recreate the atmosphere that I’d remembered. Late afternoon light was filtering down from a high window and the music was beautiful and melancholic. I’m sure you know what I mean.

I actually did some lightning sketches, a bit ropey but that act of observation is crucial as so much goes into your subconscious mind. Also it helped me to identify the exact moves that float my boat. In my case they are the more subtle ones.

I did three quick tonal sketches from freeze framing youtube footage. You will see these provide me with reference for where the light and shade fall. I think watching carefully and really fast drawing is the trick. Even if what you do is wildly innacurate, you will capture some of the movement.”

I suspect that the hall in question in Sneinton is the Hermitage Community Centre because I think I can see the big window from the painting in the header photo from their site.

Pat very kindly sent me the following digital copies of her sketches.

Tango Sketch 1

Tango Sketch 2

Tango Sketch 3

Many thanks Pat!

Some new poems

For those who enjoy poetry – and possibly some of the ones I write – I have updated my Poetry page.

Looking back through them though many are from the darker side of life, I think the one I currently feel best about is A Woman in my Arms which I dedicate to the lovely ladies with whom I have had some wonderful tango dances. If you ever make it to this part of the internet, you will know who you are – Thank You.

Other posts are still in the pipeline – till later…

Tango Acceptance

I recently attended a weekend tango workshop given at Tango UK in Bramshaw by the wonderful husband and wife team, Daniela Pucci and Luis Bianchi. I do believe it was the best workshop I have attended in the 4 years of tango training I have been doing, concentrating as it did on the internal aspects of the dance – making explicit the actual muscles that were doing the work – thanks to Luis’ background as a massage therapist.

However the reason for this missive is that I am going to reblog a posting by Daniela that is so very much in line with my own feelings about dance. [Many thanks to Daniela for giving me permission to do so] I believe this alignment of feelings is no accident as Daniela also has a technical background and is one of those few perceptive enough to see its flaws.

Daniela’s story is very interesting and relevant to my interests in issues related to science and art. She was a Mechanical Engineering professor at MIT and gave it up to teach tango full-time! In this post she talks about technique and aesthetics and how such an improvisational dance as tango relates all these as well as including the acceptance of the flawed human beings that we are – something that our culture has tried to forget with its pursuit of certainty and the ‘perfect’.

But I shall let her own words speak for her:

“Connection is one of the wonders of Argentine tango, perhaps its reason for existence. Daily life often presents us with situations where the limitations of verbal language lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings; where we are confronted with suffering that makes us feel completely lonely; where our individual paths at times seem so impossibly narrow that we are forced to go through certain stretches completely alone. In the midst of it all there comes Argentine tango, offering relief from the chasm that separates “me” from “you.” It’s intoxicating, really: unexpectedly, we happen upon an instance when the shared experience of dancing seems to take us as a whole, all problems and existential angst be dammed: all of a sudden the movement of one body seamlessly fits with the movement of another, the musical intuitions and emotions of both dancers so attuned that for the duration of at least that one tango, we seem to become a blissful single entity. I’d venture to say that, for a lot of us, the possibility of stepping into such perfect communion is what keeps bringing us back for another milonga, another festival, another trip to Buenos Aires.

Some seem to equate connection with a certain external form, or aesthetics. A few months ago a relatively new dancer told me he danced exclusively salon because of the connection he found there. In a class once, a student asked me how he could do a certain turn without breaking the connection — I soon realized that, for him, connection meant maintaining his partner’s and his stomachs in permanent contact. Most recently, someone else told me he had objected to the hiring of my partner and me to a certain festival because in past performances we often opened the embrace, and that he had thoroughly enjoyed the connection displayed in our close-embrace performance during that event.

I will not deny that, observed from the outside, different aesthetics definitely inspire different feelings in the spectator. However, my experience is that aesthetics have very little to do with the actual experience of the dancers.

I have danced with milongueros who dug his fingers into my ribs and twisted my right hand. I have danced with milongueros who led me with such gentleness that I could not pinpoint exactly where the lead was coming from other than that it was a pleasurable wave, sending me into tango bliss.

I have danced with salon dancers who had so little sense of timing that they often sent me bouncing against the edges of their stiff embrace. I have danced with salon dancers whose complete control of their body, subtle musicality and yielding, sensitive embrace filled me with awe, sending me into tango bliss.

And probably for the most maligned style of all, I have danced with nuevo dancers who fit all of the bad stereotypes, throwing me around into steps that seemed randomly selected with no relationship to the music and no regard to the constraints of the space, putting me in a permanent alert mode to avoid hitting other dancers. But I have also danced with nuevo dancers who adjusted the amplitude of their movements as dictated by the crowdedness of the milonga so that I never for a moment had to worry, and used the elasticity inherent to that style in open or close embrace to create delightful, dynamic musical interpretations… sending me into tango bliss.

The common point among these delightful dancers across all styles is that they had good technique: good control of their own movement and good understanding of their partner’s movement, so that the lead was gentle and yet clear and precise, consistent with the music and with the space available around us.

Aesthetics is not the same as technique. Good aesthetics will make a dance pleasant to watch. Good technique will make a dance pleasant to dance.

Technique is a wonderful thing: it frees us from concerns of how to do something so that we can fully immerse ourselves in the experience of doing, effortlessly.

And yet, technique is not the same as connection.

I want to elaborate on this but decided to give the sentence above its very own paragraph, hoping to drive this point home: technique is no substitute for connection. Technique is a servant to connection, a means to an end. Technique is a supporting actor, connection is the main actor. I could go on paraphrasing myself and I am sure in some way what I am saying is nothing new, we know this to some degree, but do we — myself included — really know it? And do we act consistently with this knowledge?

Where is our focus as we try to improve as dancers, as we think of a dancing ideal, as we select dancing partners in the milonga, as we go through each tanda?

Several years ago a well-known, top couple was visiting New York. To my surprise, at one of the milongas the leader invited me to dance. It was a fun tanda: he was obviously highly skilled and had a vibrant musicality. But what I remember the most is his dismissive attitude when the tanda ended: he did not even look at me as we thanked each other and parted ways.

Not too long ago I danced with a gentleman who was not as skilled or as musical. He held me with incredible gentleness and made me feel like a treasure. I was overcome by great emotion as we danced in the simplest of ways. That we were dancers dancing Argentine tango was completely irrelevant during those ten minutes: we were two human beings, reaching out from the isolation of our individual paths but for a brief moment, filled with appreciation for the privilege of holding one another.

What do you wish for in your path as a dancer, social or otherwise?

What I wish for is that in each dance — performances included — I may have the courage to present myself with complete authenticity, a flawed human being before another flawed human being, feeling safe in the certainty that I will be fully accepted for who I am. I wish that my partner will allow me to see him in his emotional nakedness, reassured that I will embrace him in his totality. In that moment of exquisite vulnerability when we take each other in the arms, we will make a pact to share our emotions for the next ten minutes. All sincere expression that arises from our encounter will be not only acceptable but, in fact, perfect. We may giggle lightheartedly, inspired by a silly melody and because we are feeling so good to be here right now, all problems left at the entrance of the milonga; we may join each other in a focused physical experience, delighting in the sensory feast of movement and music; we may just be still together, nursing a raw pain that feels too heavy to carry it alone and that doesn’t lend itself to expansive movement, but that feels a bit lighter in the sacred space of the embrace.

This is what I ask from each dance: that you come to me in a spirit of openness and acceptance, and I come to you in the same spirit, and we agree to make the most of our time together. As we share of ourselves generously, we will connect. I won’t require anything more, but won’t accept anything less.”

By Daniela Pucci Original date: 13-Sep-2012
Original found at the Tango Secrets website.

Thank you Daniela – I could not have said it better myself.

I would suggest looking at her interview on youtube:

Dancing Just For Fun

Keeping the promise I made in the last post to tell you about a dancing experience in Liverpool – here we go:

I recently attended a stag-night weekend of a nephew of mine in Liverpool. This consisted of a visit to a karting track on the Saturday, followed by a night out on the town in Liverpool. I along with my brother, brother-in-law and father of the bride were some of the old farts in the group and I confess to thinking – what am I doing here? Surely this should be an event for the younger members? I am not that great at holding my drink! In the end it was a great family time out and worked well.

The karting was a blast as ever with the Tolman family team fielding 10 drivers out of 40 and getting 1st and 2nd place along with having 4 out of the top 6 (and 6 out of the top 10) drivers from the family team! Hmmmm. There must be something in the genes?

But I digress.

In the early evening sunlight ‘da lads’ all congregated outside the hotel ready to hit the town, with eating being a first priority. Now, you may or may not know that I truly love dancing, especially Argentinian Tango.

I made it abundantly clear to the younger members of the group that I was NOT planning to go out and get rip roaring drunk, BUT I DID intend to go dancing and that they were under orders to accommodate the wishes of this particular old uncle. They happily agreed to this and so we set off. After having eaten we began to tour the pubs of Liverpool ending up in a road called Wood Street which seemed to be a centre of activity.

I have not been out to clubs for many a decade and found it a highly surreal experience. There were many young ladies skimpily dressed with dangerously high heels – presumably in order to be accepted into the clubs. [I suspect business will be booming for chiropractors in future]

As I was still intending to go dancing, I stayed with the group through the evening although the other older members had decided to return to the hotel. At around 1am we arrived at the Ruby Sky nightclub. By this time I was itching to get on the dance floor and duly started doing some dancing with my son and another nephew joining me. As my son said, he had not expected to be out clubbing with his Dad!

I am not a raver, preferring at least some modicum of melody to dance to, however I just wanted to get dancing because in order to stay with the family group, I had given up the possibility of going to a tango milonga further north in Preston and the feet were itching to move.

Sometimes any beat will do.

I was surprised when by 1.30am the younger members had also returned to base leaving me on my own – but I was enjoying myself too much dancing to leave so early!

When I free dance like this I tend to mix in bits of tango, tai-chi and anything else I can think off that might feel and look ok. I will also close my eyes when solo dancing as I try and concentrate on freeing up the body to move.

I am a fairly good dancer but nothing special – so imagine my surprise when I did eventually open my eyes. I had an audience of youngsters just watching the old guy, including taking vids on their phone cameras! No doubt I am out there somewhere in the social netsphere. Thankfully some others joined in to ease my embarassment and it was all very good natured and friendly.

In the end I decided to make my way back to the hotel at around 3pm, having enjoyed the social contact with the younger generation as well as having kept a clear head.

I couldn’t help notice that there is a very real demand for some good styles of social dancing, perhaps older ones brought up to date and not necessarily involving choreographed ‘Strictly’ routines.

You know: Dancing Just For Fun.