Archive for September 2008

Important (Fun) Facts

September 19, 2008

The trick with Test Driven development is to get a decent test and the product code to an ugly but working state quickly. Then the code design improvements you make are done from a position of strength. The worst thing that can happen after that is working code that is sub optimal. Outside of TDD I’ve observed a dichotomy. Either the code is a dirty hack which results in big trouble later, or the working state of the code consistently arrives later than planned.

I’ve also agree with the XP zealots that designs that result from improving working code are frequently superior to what I would have dreamed up ahead of time. While I don’t agree with the zealots on many points, they nailed that one. I and my employers and clients have been well served by this principle for several years now.

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Story Ideas

September 18, 2008

So partway though the book Story I’m thinking about ideas I care about. What would I say to the world if I could really express it?

First thing on my mind is “enterprise software wastes time and money.” I know, really high minded philosophy at play here. Maybe that’s too specific. It’s a variation on “The world has changed. The old way is wasteful.” And maybe that’s the idea here. There was an old way of doing things, but the world turned under our protagonists and now they are getting things done but slowly. So what happens next?

Before we go there, we need a setting. From Story we learn that the setting is more than a backdrop for acting and dialog. It defines the limits of what we can do as well as the limits of where we have to go. The protagonist has to be tested to their very limit within the confines of the setting. If this were an action setting then the protagonist would be facing death at least once and nearly lose the entire city, nation, planet, universe, multiverse, love interest, museum, school, deed to the vacant lot, mother’s wedding ring. Anyway, the setting defines the limits of where we can go without spoiling the story, and where we must go to make the story satisfying.

So back to my story. Our protagonists are doing things an old way, and it’s going to cause them some trouble. In the setting of an office we can vary the scope narrower or wider and affect our limits. If it’s a whole company then at least the company has to be at stake right? I can’t really write a story like that. It’s going to involve a lot of executive drama and I’ve had mercifully little experience with that.

We could narrow the scope down to an individual. Obviously the individual must face the treat of firing. I don’t think that’s the right setting either. Also mercifully, I only know a little about getting fired. And a quick note, we could make the individual face death. Death! That would completely contradict our setting. The story would have this “stupid part” that makes no sense, or a stupid ending. (That does remind me a compelling office story, completely true, where the unexpected death of a key employee was the inciting incident for some real drama, but I digress.)

If I were to actually write this I’d like the setting of a team. A team has a nice set of calamities to choose from. Their exciting project could fail and get cancelled and they get disbanded. They could all get fired, but that would be hard for me to sell. Project failure, I get that. I’ve been there. There’s a lot of nuance to project failure. The project could get rolled out in a desperate stop loss, a paper success but achieving none of it’s potential.

Ok. Setting picked. It’s a team.

We need an inciting incident and a climax. And that’s the end of my attention span. For now.

I’ve got some other ideas. I hate internet political advocates. Oh I hate them so much. I’m a McCain supporter. I’ve liked him since March of 2008, which was way before it was cool. I look at places like politics.reddit.com and you’d think Barack Obama was the savior of the world and my guy was the devil incarnate, except now Palin is the new she-devil. All these Obama supporters get together and fire each other up with their stories of the downtrodden true believers, trampled by the evil Republicans and a vast media conspiracy. Invert the party and keep the media evil and you’ve got a perfect picture the conservative community, downtrodden by the evil liberal villains, also by the vast blind complicit media. The two groups immerse themselves in these outrageous caricatures of the other, oblivious to any pesky contradictory facts. The story that needs to be told is that they are rotting their brains and we are all a lot worse off because of it.

The only thing I find less appealing than hanging out in the opposition camp is hanging out in my own camp.

There is a fabulous story to be told in there. That one is probably too big for me to handle given my skill level which is best described as newly informed amoeba.

Anyway, back to the story of the enterprise software. It needs an inciting incident, maybe a second act deepening of the situation, a good climax, and a satisfying resolution. The climax is reportedly the toughest part, and probably what I want to think about the most for now.

And one more thing. It sounds like I’m moralizing. The key to preaching a point without coming across preachy is to fully develop the opposing idea. So for me the idea is that new stuff, which needs to displace the old stuff, has costs of it’s own, especially at first. Things that used to work well won’t work well anymore. That’s going to be tricky for me.

I hate the old. I hate it a lot. The story can’t. The story has to present enterprise software honestly. And thinking about it the opposing idea might be different. I need to think that over too.

If you read all this, well, I’m so sorry. Stream-of-consciousness out.

The Parable of the Story

September 12, 2008

I tell you a story.

There was a boy who liked to write music. He conned his friends into singing the songs with him. That was joy. This he did many times.

Some of his songs came out well. But the boy couldn’t tell why. Time passed.

Then he found a composing class. This would have the answer. He quickly completed a rigorous set of prerequisites and dove into the class with fervor. He left the class enriched. He left the class with the answers. He knew why his good songs sounded good.

After that he rarely wrote anything at all.

The End.

Not only is that a true story, it’s happening to me again.

When I write here I try to write as well as I can. I try to write stuff that people who don’t know me at all will enjoy. Occasionally it works.

But it’s happening again.

I’ve had this problem. The problem is, nobody but me cares about anything really important. Surely you know what I’m talking about. You are absolutely right about something really important and no other party can even fathom where you are coming from, then disaster strikes again.

The problem is that I can’t communicate. I mean the hard kind. Any boob can use a spellchecker and jump on a running meme. I’m talking about sowing a good idea in a field of indifference.

The only way people change their minds about anything truly important is with a good story well told. There are those who can tell a good story, and those who can’t. I have lived squarely in category B, learning a lot, but never able to effect much positive change outside of my own domain.

Then there are people in category A, like this blogger talking to the TV producer. The TV producer couldn’t imagine why the next generation of kids will want to work on Wikipedia when they could watch TV. How would you explain it? I, for one, would not have a story like this ready:

… But I’m not sure she believed me, in part because she didn’t want to believe me, but also in part because I didn’t have the right story yet. And now I do.

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

I was so impressed when I first read that. Why can’t I communicate like that? I knew why not. I can’t tell a story to save my life. At least I knew that much.

So then I found this book: “Story” by Robert McKee. I think things are going to change.

“Story” a book for screenwriters. Screenwriting is not one of my aspirations. Fortunately for the world, McKee wrote his book to focus on the timeless stuff.

A good story makes you shudder, or get angry, or laugh, and in the end say: “That’s so true.” As the storyteller, you get to pick what’s true. “Story” is about putting in and leaving out and arranging stuff to tell stories that ring true. The tricks of the trade are thousands of years old and he’s captured them in a way that even the densest of us can understand. Even I’m starting to get it.

I mostly highly recommend “Story,” but it’s really edgy in places. I couldn’t recommend it to a 12 year old.

The bad thing is that, at least for me, the burden of a little knowledge sometimes overwhelms my motivation to make. It’s a lot like what happened to my music writing.

It’s happening again. I’m already feeling the burden. But this time I have a plan. I’m going to keep writing with what I’ve learned from “Story” in mind. I’m figuring it will take a year. One year from now, with practice, I’ll be a formidable writer and two things around me are going to change.

1. There will be less enterprise software in my life. Because when that next enterprise software pollution wants in it will meet a poignant story which exposes it for the naked smoldering tragedy of loss and waste that it is. My memes will engulf my workplace in a wildfire of derision until the even the idea of paying for enterprise poo withers in shame. I will wield… I can dream. You keep yourself motivated your way, I’ll do it my way.

2. Somebody besides me will want to learn math. I’ll get to compare notes with some like minded learners over lunch. Maybe somebody will convince me to study something I never would have considered.

Wouldn’t that be a happy ending?