Goodness of fit

March 19, 2008

So I never made it to Dallas. About thirty minutes out, we got held up because of some bad weather, and some time after that, were diverted to Little Rock. We sat on the ground (in the plane) for a little while, then they pulled us off the plane so that we could sit in the terminal. The terminal, at least, had food and walking-around space. Most of the space was filled by people from the several other flights that had also been diverted, along with all the folks who were trying to leave. Several hours after that, the flight was officially canceled and sent back to the city of origin, which was good news for me, but not so much for the people who were trying to get home. During the waiting, I:

  • paid – ahem – $15 for a bagel sandwich and a few other odds and ends,
  • considered renting a car and just driving home only to have my hopes dashed when I learned that there were no cars available, and
  • a lot of pacing.

On the lighter side, I ended up getting home earlier than I would have if I’d actually made it to Dallas. Appropriately enough, I finally went into one of the bookstores and picked up a copy of The Cloudspotter’s Guide, a publication of the Cloud Appreciation Society. No, really. Got about halfway through it, too. I even consulted it this morning to determine that we were getting dumped on by nimbostratus clouds. This is a book that should be on every weather nut’s shelf.

I’d been working through a re-read of Christopher Alexander’s book Notes on the Synthesis of Form and was surprised to find out that by reading carefully instead of skimming, much of it made complete sense. I’m notorious for reading too quickly and missing things, and Alexander’s book on the design process benefits from careful scrutiny. Originally written to be applied to architecture, the observations gave rise to the idea of design patterns for building and urban planning, which in turn made their way into computer science. Another one of his books, A Pattern Language, has been on my to-buy list for some time.

I’ve read some excerpts and it’s surprising to find out the reasons why we tend to like certain places – rooms in a house, for example. You run into this when you’re house-hunting. It can be easy to point out the things that are disagreeable about a place, but giving a name to the qualities of a place that is well-designed for a human being can be elusive. Most of the time, all we can offer is an emotional response – “I just like this place…it’s bright, open, etc.” .

There are real reasons why certain spaces work better for human beings than others. Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by so much bad design that the really good stuff breaks through like sunlight when we find it. The suitability of a form to its particular (and usually arbitrary) context is the central concern of Notes. There’s not much in the way of jargon, and chewed slowly, it can form a rich stew indeed.


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