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Up Front

The Bright Light of Metaphor

by Michael Swaine

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  Welcome to PragPub for May, 2011. Pull up a chair. We’re polishing metaphors today.  

Mark Twain generally gets the credit for that line about the difference between the almost right word and the right word being the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. But Twain acknowledged that he got the comparison from Josh Billings. Twain made it his own, though, repeating it often. It’s a figure of speech that bears repeating.

And it’s when we are using figures of speech, particularly metaphor, that the exact right word really shines. I’d like to think that I selected the right word just then, the word “shine.” Because that’s what we use metaphor for: to shine light on some aspect of the subject. Anywhere there is complexity, metaphors are a powerful tool for shining light into the darkness. As people who write or talk about software, we need precise metaphors.

As it happens, several of this month’s writers employed vivid metaphors in their contributions to the issue. So I thought it might be worthwhile to focus a little extra light on their illuminating figures of speech.

Jared Richardson uses the metaphor of WWI trench warfare to shine some light on certain problems in software shops that lead to stagnation. Brian Tarbox uses a very different metaphor involving a pig to offer some enlightening advice on what to do when everything is falling down around your ears. Jeff Langr and Tim Ottinger reflect on over a decade of agile experience, and along the way have some bright things to say about the use of metaphor in XP and BDD (among other things).

John Shade’s essay this month is all about cloud computing, and you can’t talk about cloud computing without getting up to your eyebrows in metaphors. John doesn’t even try to avoid the metaphors. You can decide for yourself whether or not that’s a good thing.

Because metaphors can get you in trouble. “Done badly,” Tim says, “it turns the system into a series of odd puns and confusing turns of phrase.” And as Andy Hunt points out in this month’s “Guru Meditation,” “A model is not reality.”

Also in this issue, Trevor Burnham shows how CoffeeScript, the hot new language that he calls “JavaScript done right,” saves you from some of JavaScript’s nastiest traps.

Plus we have another computer history article by Dan Wohlbruck, Choice Bits, and the events calendar. There’s some nice feedback in Choice Bits on last month’s Arduino issue, and below you’ll find the solution to last month’s Arduino-themed quiz.

I hope you enjoy the issue.

Solution to Last Month’s Quiz

Last month we presented another Sudoku puzzle that used letters instead of digits. In keeping with the theme of that issue, the nine letters were MYARDUINO. Here’s the solution: