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

Minimalist Mastery


The Yacht Club

Once again I have succumbed to buying another watercolour (above) by Jim Spencer,
while my own painting efforts are still “in progress”.

I just can’t help it with this artist.

He is a master of minimal technique, producing paintings that grow on me over time.

Paintings I can breathe into.


Red Sky at Night

This mastery of minimalism to maximum effect is something close to my heart as you might know if you have read any of my thoughts about software development.
It is always something I aspire to, to the extent that I even use “Red Sky At Night”
in my talks to demonstrate the idea.

All I have to do now is get to that place with my painting!

Also for those who are still waiting for my ACCU talk transcripts.
I am still working on the next one.
Its amazing how long it takes to transcribe a 75 minute talk!

PAINTING: Holiday Time in Wales

Just had a lovely holiday in one of my favourite spots – the Elan Valley in mid-Wales. No mobile coverage. No internet. Just walking, painting and reading. Wonderful!

I had tried to do some painting the last time I went but did not get far. This time however was a different story. So here are some pics of me trying to get a bit of a looser style. (had a recent workshop with Jean Haines which really helped) These are just photos and I have adjusted the colours to try and match the original paintings, but since they are not proper scans they are not as good as they could be.

Hope you like them anyway.

A painting starting out as a playing wash. I love watercolour!

Star Gazing
A painting starting out as a play wash. I love watercolour!

Just an abstract wash looked at in a different way can make a picture.

Cliff Castle
Just an abstract wash looked at in a different way
can make a picture.

First go at trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

First Dam
First go at trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

Still trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

Still trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

Had  great fun playing around with some colour wash ideas. Yay!

Four Colour Play
Had great fun playing around with some colour wash ideas. Yay!

Decided to limit the colour wash components to just 6 here. The blooming seems to work I think. I like this one. Can you see the green man?

Three Colour Play
Decided to limit the colour wash components to just 6 here. The blooming seems to work I think.
I like this one. Can you see the green man?

Not sure about this one. Just trying some ideas from a book by Kees van Aalst.

Not sure about this one. Just trying some ideas from a book by Kees van Aalst.

This was an extract from a painting I was about to throw away! But then I got my frame cropping guides out and find I liked it.

This was an extract from a painting I was about to throw away!
But then I got my frame cropping guides out and found
I quite liked it.

Since I liked the first abstract box, this was a try at reproducing it. Hmmm. Not quite sure.

Since I liked the first abstract box, this was a try at reproducing it. Hmmm. Not quite sure.

Thanks for viewing.
All paintings are of course copyright © Charles Tolman.

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!

Time to own up to my Arty side – Darling!

So given the recent posts I have been producing I thought it only proper that I own up to some of the other activities in which I indulge.

You will already know about the gliding, but there is a more ‘closet’ side to my nature. 3 to 4 years ago I started learning to dance Argentinian Tango and have to say it is one of the most wonderful dances I have ever come across. It is so totally engrossing that you will rarely see the dancing couple having a chat!

I have added a page of VIDEOS where I have put links to some of my favourites. Here is one I love for the colours!

More recently, like in only the last few months, I have also taken up watercolour painting to balance out the techie side of my nature. So I have taken my heart in my hands and published a page of my fledgling ART. Please be gentle!

Painting from a sculpture.

Painting from a sculpture.

There now. I feel a lot better getting that of my chest.
But now back to the Phenomenal Software.
Or is it the Software Phenomenon?
Thanks for listening.