Exemplary Thoughts

So, I was asked to write up the "lighting talk" on examples and exemplars I gave at Agile 2007. That was a short and largely impromptu talk, so there is some extra material here.


It used to be that botanists thought that the Sugar Maple, the Sycamore and the Plane trees were closely related. These days they are of the opinion that the Sycamore and Sugar Maple are closely related to one another, but the Plane is not to either. This is one example of the way that our idea of how we organise the world can change.

As it happens, this confusion is encoded in the binomial names of these species: the Sugar Maple is Acer saccarum, the (London) Plane tree is Platanus x acerifolia, while the (European) Sycamore is Acer pseudoplatanus. Oh, and if you are a North American then you call your Plane trees "Sycamores" anyway. And further more, not one of these trees is the true Sycamore: that's a fig, Ficus sycomorus.

Botanists and zo├Âlogists are the masters of classification, but as we see they have to modify their ideas from time to time (and these days the rise of cladistics is turning the whole enterprise inside out)


A well-known dead Greek laid the foundations of our study of classification about two and a half thousand years ago, in terms of what can be predicated of a thing. It all seemed perfectly reasonable, and was the basis of ontological and taxonomic thinking for many centuries. This is interesting to us who build systems, because the predicates that are (jointly) sufficient and (individually) necessary for an thing to be a member of a category in Aristotle's scheme can be nicely reinterpreted as, say, the properties of a class in an OO language, or the attributes of an entity in an E-R model, and so forth. All very tidy. One small problem arises, however: this isn't actually how people put things into categories! It also has a terrible failure mode: as we can see from all this "acerifolia" and "pseudoplatanus" stuff in the tree's names, the shape of the leaves was not a good choice of shared characteristic to use to classify them. It is of this mistake (amongst other reasons) that the unspeakable pain of schema evolution arises.

The Greeks, by the way, already knew that there were difficulties with definitions. After much straining between the ears, an almost certainly apocryphal story goes, the school of Plato decided that the category of "man" (in the broadest sense, perhaps even including women and slaves) was composed of all those featherless bipeds. Diogenes of Sinope ("the cynic") promptly presented the Academicians with a plucked chicken. At which they refined their definition of Man to be featherless bipeds with flat nails and not claws.

In 1973 Eleanor Rosch published the results of some actual experiments into how people really categorise things, which seem to show that the members of a category are not equal (as they are in the Aristotle's scheme), a small number of them are dominant: Rosch calls these the "prototypes" of the category. And what these prototypes are (and therefore what categories you recognise in the world) is intimately tied in with your experience of being in the world. And these ideas have been developed in various directions since.

One implication of the non-uniformness of of categories is that they are fuzzy, and that they overlap. The import for us in building systems is that maybe the reason that people have difficulty in writing down all these hard-and-fast rules about hard-edged, homogeneous categories of thing as many requirements elicitation techniques want is because that's just not a good fit for how they think about the world, really.


But perhaps examples do. Examples can be extracted from a person's usual existential setting which means that they can be more ready-at-hand than present-at-hand. This is probably good for requirements and specifications (it's not universally good: retrospectives force a process in which one if usually immersed to be present-at-hand, and this is good too). Also, people can construct bags of examples that have a family resemblance without necessarily having to be able to systematize exactly why they think of them as having that resemblance. This can usefully help delay the tendency of us system builders to prematurely kill off options and strangle flexibility by wanting to know the nethermost implication and/or abstraction of a thing before working with it.

And maybe that's why example-based "testing", which is really requirements engineering, which is really a communication mode, does so much better than the other.

I'm proposing a session on this very topic for Agile 2008. I encourage you to think about proposing a session there, too.

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