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On Symbols, Metaphors and Understanding (Rhythm of Testing)

On December 24, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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I had an interesting conversation today. We were talking about testing, a group of us at coffee this morning, talking about how to get messages over to people. How do you explain things that people are not understanding in a way they can “get” it.

We talked about how visual representations can help some folks and how some people need more, well, linear representations.  I talked a bit on how I have used mind-maps in the past – to track requirements and look at impact and risk and, well, stuff.

Then we talked about how we can present ideas to other people and get some core ideas an questions around them can be explained, sometimes in other ways.

For example? Well, Christmas for example.

So, for a long, long time, Christmas has been celebrated in December. Now, the stories around the “Nativity Event” all point to Jesus, you know, the guy whose birth is commemorated by the celebration/Holiday of Christmas, was born in the Spring. Likely around April. How is this clear? Well, consider that in Judea in the 1st Century (BC/AD – whatever) shepherds did not watch their flocks at night in the dead of winter – they did that when they were sent to pasture – in the Spring – April likely.

Yet, somehow people got the idea of celebrating the birth of this fellow in December seemed a reasonable idea. Of course, that has naught to do with reality. So, because there were large celebrations and festivals in Rome in the 1st Century AD and well into the 2nd and 3rd – this time of year honoring Saturn – the Saturnalia. Now, Saturn was an interesting character in the world of Roman mythology.

He was a complex figure thanks to his multiple associations, history, and stuff. He was the first god of the Capitol, known since the most ancient times as Saturnius Mons, and was seen as a god of generation, dissolution, plenty, wealth, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation. At some point, he also became a god of time (not a Time Lord, significant difference there.)  The Temple of Saturn in the Forum (the “city center” of Rome) housed the state treasury.  Cool, eh?

Well, the big celebration of Saturn was, as I mentioned, the Saturnalia.  Good party, that, I expect (my grandson’s questions to the contrary – I wasn’t there to actually participate, mind.)

Included in the celebration, was gift giving.  Sometimes they were quite extravagant – other times, simple and fun. And children got games and toys and fun stuff.

And somehow, the idea of visiting people and sharing meals and gifts seemed to fit.

And, according to a couple of versions of the story, followers of this, Jesus fellow, joined in – about the same time, in December, around the Solstice, they began sharing meals and gifts. Instead of honoring Saturn, they honored Jesus’ birth.

Then there is the word Christmas, derived from “Christ’s Mass” – the religious commemoration of the “Nativity Event.” There we have it – a celebration commemorating a thing that happened no where near the actual date of the events commemorated, but was similar to other celebrations happening at a given time of year.

And you know what? I don’t think it matters.

Much like how we explain things – like, how we get people to look at other symbols – this is a symbol that people use to teach loads of things. Like, peace and charity and love.

Look at the things used as symbols to teach these lessons. The hammer of Mithras (who was born about this time, according to ‘myth’, grew to adulthood quickly and died to save his people, his followers – to rise from the dead and lead them to victory) the sun of Saturn (who brought wealth, prosperity and health to the people) St Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Clause who brings gifts/rewards to the worthy.  All are symbols associated with this time of year.

All taught lessons at different times to people, who passed them on and taught lessons to live by.

Explaining fundamental ideas to people is a challenge, particularly when those people are young children. Sometimes the ideas around testing are things that are hard to explain any other way without symbols and metaphors, particularly with those who have no real connection with good testing.

We use terms that encompass what we mean – but then we don’t always know how they relate to other people or their experience. So we need to try and explain, somehow – and we find ourselves looking at the idea of bags full of gifts and magical mutant caribou.

These symbols are representations of aspects that are important (or were important in some respect at some time) to the holiday or festival being celebrated.  We use symbols and representations for what we do as well – mind maps, requirements documents, test plans, design documents, process flow diagrams, state diagrams, transition diagrams, and (dare I say it?) bug reports.  These are not the thing they are explanations and representations of the thing.

So, while I consider the testing equivalent of  magic bags and reindeer, let me wish you the greetings of the season –

Io Saturnalia – Happy Solstice – Happy Hanakkuh – Happy Kwanzaa – Merry Christmas.

 

 

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