Pattern Recognition

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

It has been said that the true sign of intelligence lies in ones ability to recognize patterns – and there is a lot to be said of that statement as patterns can be found everywhere, in everything, in everyday life.

One of the greatest strengths of human intelligence is in our ability to recognize patterns and abstract symbolic representations even when they occur in contexts different from that in which we originally learned them. It’s why hard to grasp concepts which are foreign or new to us become very clear when explained through metaphor.

This ability to recognize patterns is essential to our survival, always has been. For example, practically all ancient civilizations had a very, very good understanding of the recurring patterns in their environment; something we like to call seasons. This understanding of patterns in time and climate was crucial to the survival of these early civilizations. Our ability to recognize patterns is essential to our learning and understanding of the world around us. Pattern recognition is a cognitive process much like intuition. Arguably they are inter-related or possibly one and the same.

Suppose you you want to lose a few pounds, or save a little extra money, or learn a new programming language etc. but you are not seeing the results you would like. By recognizing patterns in your behavior you will begin to notice areas which need to be adjusted and from that determine an appropriate solution and the necessary adjustments to be made in order to achieve your goal. For example, maybe you’ve been trying to save some extra money and after a few months realize you are getting nowhere. You then analyze your behavior for recurring patterns and realize your spending half your pay every weekend on beer, just kidding, but you get my point.

Pattern Recognition in Software Development

In the world of software development patterns apply in pretty much just the same way – our ability to recognize them is essential to ensuring the success of a software application. When we discover patterns of recurring problems in software we are then able to consider various potential patterns from a catalog of named solutions, i.e. Design Patterns. Once an appropriate solution is found we can apply it to resolve the problem regardless of the domain.

When designing software, patterns are something that should reveal themselves, never forced into a design. This is how patterns should always be applied; you have a problem, and based on that problem you begin to recognize common patterns, or maybe new ones, which can be applied as a solution to resolve the problem. It should never be the other way around, that is, a solution (Pattern) looking for a problem. However this happens quite often and is pretty evident in many software applications. Many refer to this as “pattern fever“, personally I like to call it “patterns for patterns sake“, or simply “for patterns sake“. Because that’s really what it is.

For example, have you ever found a Singleton implementation where an all static class would have sufficed (e.g. utilities). Or a code behind implementation class which masquerades as an abstract class. Or an Interface where there is clearly only a need for a single concrete implementation (e.g. data centric implementations), or a marker Interface which serves no purpose at all. The list goes on and on.

In some cases it very well may just be an innocent flaw in the design, however the majority of the time it’s a tell tale sign of someone learning a new pattern and knowingly, albeit, mistakenly, attempting to implement the pattern into production code. This is clearly the wrong way of learning a new pattern. Learning new design patterns is great and a lot of fun but remember, there is a time and place for everything, and production code isn’t it.

Learning Patterns

One of the best ways to learn a new pattern (or anything new for that matter) is to explore it. Begin by reading enough about it to get some of the basic concepts to sink in a bit. Put it into context, think of it in terms of metaphor – in ways that make sense to you, remember you are learning this. Question it. Then experiment with it. See how it works, see how it doesn’t work, break it, figure out how to put it back together, and so on, but whatever works best for you. Most importantly always do it as a separate effort such as a POC, but never in production code.

Once you get this down and understand the various patterns you’ll find you never need to look for them, for if they are needed they will reveal themselves sure enough.

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