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Never Underestimate the Power of Fun

Playfulwork_1

There's been a very active discussion among Sun's "Java Champions" (Sun's program for external Java developer/evangelists, of which I'm a member) talking about why the Java programming language has lost some luster and Ruby is getting all the coder love.

I commented to the group, "Never underestimate the power of fun." We can talk all day about how much more powerful Java is (true), how it has orders of magnitude more resources, APIs, frameworks, etc. (true), and how it's been used to solve some of the most complex, highly-scaled systems imaginable (true, think Orbitz). But in the end, even programmers are still human.

And human (mammal) brains are tuned for play. Evolution favored those with a high play drive, because play=learning, play=practice, and learning/practice=survival. Play--and laughter--sends a signal to the brain that "this is good, and it matters", which is why we're often more likely to remember especially funny things than neutral or annoying things.

But this isn't a post about programming--it's a follow-on to my previous post on brainstorming with EQ sliders. It's about adding a slider for humor or fun, where it isn't necessarily expected.

Funslider

One innovative city government did just that, and they're earning a reputation as a city that does things governments "just don't DO." If you can imagine a city government trying to help its citizens "kick ass", well, that's what Bryan, Texas appears to be doing.

Jay G. Socol, the city's Public Information Officer, explained it to me:

"All cities with populations of 3,000 or more are required by law to publish and distribute (yawn) drinking water quality reports. Cities hate doing them, and residents throw them away, often without a glance. Bo-ring.

This year, we developed a mid-year calendar (who sends out a calendar in July???) that featured fun photos of out Water Services employees -- guys who never, ever get the spotlight or recognition. Yet they perform a mega-essential service. So imagine what people thought when they opened their mailboxes and found a calendar that has a cover photo of water guys synchronized swimming in a pool?

Water

You have to open something like that and see what's inside. And that's exactly what people did. They loved the concept, the fun photos and...they even read the boring legal information. I move around town and quite often see the calendars hanging in businesses or in homes. We've had tons of requests for this thing -- even from other cities. And I believe it will change the way cities approach publications like this because they never knew that they could show a sense of humor."

(You can see some sample pages of the calendar on the Bryan government page.)

Seeing this made me think about ways to add a "fun" slider to places where fun has diminished over time (like with Java), or into places it's never been (city government). (I recommend the A Smile in the Mind book for inspiration.)

Way to go Jay Socol! I hope the next city I live in has a government with this much spirit.

Posted by Kathy on December 1, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Fun is essential, so let's set the "fun" slider to 400. Pat Kane (author of The Play Ethic) put it like this:

Welcome to the play ethic. First of all, don't take 'play' to mean anything idle, wasteful or frivolous. The trivialisation of play was the work ethic's most lasting, and most regrettable achievement. This is 'play' as the great philosophers understood it: the experience of being an active, creative and fully autonomous person.
...
So to call yourself a 'player', rather than a 'worker', is to immediately widen your conception of who you are and what you might be capable of doing. It is to dedicate yourself to realising your full human potential; to be active, not passive.

The quote is from this excellent article: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/life/story/0,6903,386013,00.html

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Dec 2, 2005 2:51:08 AM

And yet every aspect of your work wants you to *work*. Everytime someone in the group starts playing, having fun and is on a high. s/he is in for all kinds of surprises like hatred, jealousy, sloppy managers getting surrounded by the big black cloud of FUD and wanting to stop you from playing.

I ask, WHY? And I have never been able to get an answer. Most of my energy/drive I derive from the time that I DON'T work. Which is good (for me) and so very bad for the employer.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Dec 2, 2005 4:07:19 AM

BTW, good to have you back, Kathy!

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Dec 2, 2005 4:08:02 AM

"I think that it's extraordinarily important that we in computer science keep fun in computing. When it started out, it was an awful lot of fun. Of course, the paying customers got shafted every now and then, and after a while we began to take their complaints seriously. We began to feel as if we really were responsible for the successful, error-free perfect use of these machines. I don't think we are. I think we're responsible for stretching them, setting them off in new directions, and keeping fun in the house. I hope the field of computer science never loses its sense of fun. Above all, I hope we don't become missionaries. Don't feel as if you're Bible salesmen. The world has too many of those already. What you know about computing other people will learn. Don't feel as if the key to successful computing is only in your hands. What's in your hands, I think and hope, is intelligence: the ability to see the machine as more than when you were first led up to it, that you can make it more." -- Alan Perlis

I know your post isn't about programming but, I was under the impression that Orbitz use LISP (see http://www.paulgraham.com/carl.html) for their heavy algorithms and Java (see http://lemonodor.com/archives/000071.html) for their website.

Speaking of Java vs LISP, ..., hmm, ..., lets see, ...

Oh nevermind. :)

Posted by: Hoan Ton-That | Dec 2, 2005 4:47:27 AM

I really couldn't believe how much more fun Ruby was than Java. I think it all stem's from Matz's decision to focus Ruby around how a he feels when programming. The goal was to design a language that he would have fun programming, and it just so happens other people do to. Many languages have pretty similar "fun" settings to each other. If they don't vary noticeably, you don't realize that they can. Putting "fun" into an already established language is probably quite hard though.

Posted by: LB | Dec 2, 2005 7:49:49 AM

Tarry: "Most of my energy/drive I derive from the time that I DON'T work. Which is good (for me) and so very bad for the employer."
It is amazing how many employers fail to *get* that...

Alexander: thanks for the great link!

LB: " Matz's decision to focus Ruby around how a he feels when programming."
Such a simple, powerful strategy.

Hoan: You lisp folks just won't let it go ; ) Maybe the rest of us could learn something from understanding why that is...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 2, 2005 10:19:05 AM

Kathy: Just a thought from my lisp-programming days - we all used to compare hacking lisp with making music. Programming was like jamming; improvisation grounded in a tremendous amount of practice. Is there something intrinsic to music that brings the work and play of music so close together, or is it something about our cultural expectations of musicians? And, if it's the latter, how can we foster a culture of "jam-band coders?"

Posted by: Jason Wodicka | Dec 2, 2005 11:21:02 AM

Let me just say that there aren't enough venn diagrams in the world. +10 points for kicking off the post with a venn diagram.

Posted by: Dick Costolo | Dec 2, 2005 9:21:27 PM

The Water Quality Report reminds me of the award-winning ad campaign that the Berlin City Cleaning corporation has been doing for years now.
http://www.heymann-schnell.de/html/kampagnen/kamp_4_3.html

Same principle: take boring, oft-ignored services and use humor to catch attention. They mainly do it with ads featuring great puns, and it has definitely worked. Now you can't help but smile whenever you see some guy wearing orange cleaning the sidewalk.

Posted by: Clark P. | Dec 3, 2005 4:18:39 AM

Indeed Kathy,

Look at this example about having fun and EVERYONE is happy.

I was approached by a leading site (well, it's the best DBA support site on the planet) to write some articles.

What were my options?
--I had the liberty to choose what articles I could write.
-- I follow the tech trends keenly so I knew what I SHOULD pick.

I've just done 4 articles and it's getting raving reviews (It's about Oracle RAC Clustering on VMwareVMware) and all the revednorsvednorsicles.

Well it's not ALL about recognition (we all need recognition and acceptance)but about plain good old fun.

Computing should be fun.
Doing business should MAKE sense.
Warm blood needs to flow in your veins (for you to survive).
People should keep talking.


BTW: Anyone interested in those articles/technology can easily find it on google.


Posted by: Tarry SinghSingh | Dec 3, 2005 4:57:33 AM

Grrr.. Google toolbar's spell checker made my day!

Read

"I've just done 4 articles and it's getting raving reviews (It's about Oracle RAC Clustering on VMwareVMware) and all the revednorsvednorsicles."

As

I've just done 4 articles and it's getting raving reviews (It's about Oracle RAC Clustering on VMware) and all the related vendors are keenly watching he series).

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Dec 3, 2005 5:05:16 AM

My fun dial is preset to 9.

(I don't think going all the way up to 10 is legal.)

Posted by: olivier blanchard | Dec 4, 2005 1:46:57 AM

Care to comment on what you mean by "how much more powerful Java is (true)"? In what ways is Java "more powerful" than Ruby?

I'll acknowledge that Java probably does have "orders of magnitude more resources, APIs, frameworks", but I'm a bit more skeptical about it necessarily being a compelling reason for chosing Java over Ruby for any given problem. I'd pick a language in which it was easy to build things over a million frameworks that did stuff I don't need any day.

Also the fact that Java has "been used to solve some of the most complex, highly-scaled systems imaginable" is only (anecdotal) proof of Java's suitability for solving such problems, not proof against Ruby's suitability for them. Scalability is easy to mention to scare people off unfamiliar technology, but I've seen dynamic languages scale massively too.

I think your point about Ruby becoming popular because it's fun is true, but Logo is fun too, and it's not causing the kind of excitement that Ruby is. Ruby is attracting programmers away from Java because it's fun *in addition* to being powerful and suitable for solving many of the same problems, not in spite of it.

Posted by: Michael Granger | Dec 15, 2005 2:00:45 PM

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