Pattern Language

    Keywords: Culture & History

First of all, some disclaimers. I'm personally somewhat suspicious of New Age stuff, though of a generation that bought into it. I don't see that the old wine of Eastern thought does very well in new bottles made of distressed denim. The resemblance between a Zen monastery and Rabelais' Thelema eludes me: if it's just 'what you will' why the intense discipline? Inarticulacy isn't the only approach to the non-verbal. Go players ought to acquire a better sense of what is going on than to try hard to search out traces of Daoism while simply ignoring the omnipresent Confucian strain in institutional go.

That being said and relevant, it seems that the 'Pattern Language' jargon and mindset going back to the architecture book The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander (more at [ext] may have something to offer to students of go. The sequel book by Alexander and others is the one actually entitled A Pattern Language. It consists of several hundred templates in the service of said 'way of building'.

Brief sample from 'Thick Walls' (no, don't get excited yet).

Houses with smooth, hard walls ... stay impersonal and dead


...the walls of your building ... can occupy a substantial volume - even usable space ... Decide where these thick walls ought to be.

Then onto details (shelves, built-in seats ...). Which make constructed places come alive.

The ur-wiki [ext] was supposed to be all about such 'pattern languages' (in programming, indeed, but define me something that escapes the clutches of recursion theory - see, you can't ...). So that's wiki-history dealt with in a nutshell, then.

Point, as applied to go. It frequently seems to Western players that go is harder to assimilate than it should be (it's as hard as most things, face it), for two linked reasons. It's explained in a certain way that seems designed to avoid meeting the points an intelligent person would naturally bring up; and when you think you've got to grips with a part of it, you not only haven't, you are probably abusing the terminology too.

So, that's what being weak at go feels like: the common possesion of nearly everyone reading this site. But we know, in a sense, what pros have at their command. It's the ability to produce 'lines' (possible variations or lines of play) essentially in unlimited quantities, and evaluate them properly. That's the material of go, however one explains it away.

The proposition is that pinning down how that hangs together is effectively the same as saying 'go is a pattern-language' and then investing time in unpacking what that means. By means of general vocabulary (suji, haengma and the rest). To try to circumscribe the game, not to isolate it, naturally.

So, go might be somewhat generic when looked at in terms of pattern languages. You might not be able to explain how go 'ticks' any more than traditional architecture. Whether this is inspiring or depressing ... well, I did start with downbeat assessments. The hope is always that one might get more out of the game than one puts in; and that might turn out to be a heightened recognition that there's a general concept out there which is rooted only in specifics and instances with their own value.

Charles Matthews

The basic principle behind A Timeless Way of Building is to describe Quality without a Name [ext] (what makes a building good) which I see as try to get close to the HandOfGod (or at least try to describe it).

Peter Mielke

Well, that would be a nod in the direction of Daoism. I think in go terms you can say this: try understanding 'strong' in a negative way, like not treading clumsily on all the interesting and lively features of the particular game.


Also see the immensely popular Not So Big House series by Sarah Susanka ([ext], which applies Pattern Language ideas to the concrete realities of residential architecture. This gets kind of far away from applications to go, however.


Pattern Language last edited by CharlesMatthews on March 27, 2003 - 16:44
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