Cope reflects on a recent trip to Serbia and Montenegro where he found a cornucopia of insight.
He relates what academics might do to engage the greatly untapped intellectual resources that have become isolated by Western politics.
Last week (19 - 25 September) I had the pleasure of a soujorn to
the University of Belgrade in Serbia and Montenegro.
I had been invited to a short-term visiting professorship there
by Vladan Devedi? and Sinia Vlaji?.
Though I have visiting positions in the UK and in Brussels,
it was my first time to that corner of Europe.
I was the one who was supposed to teach them,
but I was the one who learned as much as they did.
The University of Belgrade's Faculty of
Organizational Sciences (FOS) is an institution of thousands of students housed
in a single building that was built as an extension of the old Queen Maria
The building is alivehi-fidelity pop music fills the hallways at a warm
volume, and the corridors are brimming with students.
There are about 30 faculties at the University, ranging from the Faculty
of Organizational Sciences (where Vladan is) to
I worked with the Faculty of Organizational Sciences
which has "chairs," or divisions, of Information Systems,
Management and Organization, Industrial Engineering,
Quality Management, Statistics and Operations Research,
and Social and Economic Studies.
The school hosts thousands of students (remember, all of this is
a building that would be an average-sized building on any
other university campus).
Students first started having access to computers
three or four years ago.
Up until that time, students learned their Cobol,
FORTRAN, C, Pascal, Lisp, and Prolog (and eventually
C++ starting in 1991, and C# and Java in 2001)
by filling out coding forms.
The culture has a pleasantly distinctive overtone of
Delphi as well.
People there know that Smalltalk exists, but have never seen it.
Generative programming is a foreign concept.
They have heard of aspect-oriented programming and a
few people know about it.
The Cultural and Economic Context
Parts of this world struggled under 500 years of Turkish
Other parts of it were under years of domination
by the Austro-Hungarian empire.
It is a world which, in the pre-Communist era, enjoyed
a culture of unification of church and state.
Under Tito, the country was an anomalya harbor of
relative peace across a diverse population of Croatians,
Albanians, Bosnians, Montenegrans, and Serbs, bound
in large part by a common Serbian identity.
It is a world West of East and East of West:
a crossroads, a bifurcation point in world stability.
That means turmoil, and turmoil there has been.
The Turkish invasion, the 1941 bombing by the Nazis
of the Serbs in Belgrade, the 1944 bombing by the Americans
of the Nazis in Belgrade, the wars of separation of
Croatia and Slovenia, and then of Bosnia-Herzogovina,
all took their toll.
But it was the UN embargo of the 1990s that took its
greatest toll on the everyday citizen.
The war and its politics brought economic devastation to the
common person here.
I found this on the web:
Zorica Mrevic, observed how
her life changed from 1990 to 1994.
I have been a witness to how easily what has
been socially constructed can be destroyed.
Within a few months practically
everything was changed.
All the rules of the game are now different. Institutions for which we
believed would exist forever don't exist anymore.
All that I had invested myself in
is worth nothing.
We became miserable.
In the previous time, we lived an easy lifenot on
a high standard, but
somehow, everything was easyto go on holiday, to get a flat
from the institution where you worked, to buy new clothes,
to eat whatever you wanted, to have fun,
to visit restaurants, to travel abroad, to have free medical care.
Now we spend practically all our
earned money only for food.
Our clothes and shoes, as well as our
health and good moods,
come from the previous time.
The winter of 1993/1994 was the hardest in my life.
We lived by eating only potatoes and beans and we had to spend our life
savings to buy that.
Our salaries were between 10 and 20 DM per month.
(Feminist Resistance to War and Violence in Serbia, by
Lepa Mladjenovic and Donna M. Hughes, 1999,
Five years ago I would not have been welcome there as
Americans had been their friends and inspiration through history.
Americans had helped liberate Belgradereduced to dust
by bombing in World War IIin the 1940s.
They view 1960s America as the source of some of the great
ideas of world progress.
The U.S. bombings brought fear in their minds, but more
importantly, they brought confusion: why are our friends bombing
And every U.S. bomb shattered another foundation of their
quality of life; each explosion shattered the economy;
the embargo shut off all paths to reparation and rebirth.
One Serb likened it to receiving the first beating from a father
who had started the slide into a world of alcoholism and despair.
But Serbs seem to forgive and forget, and the pre-war fascination
with all things American seems to have returned to the hearts
We are not too far from Kosovo where Madeleine Albright supposedly
stands to profit handsomely from a telecommunications infrastructure
deal that ostensibly relates to post-war construction following the U.S.
bombing of the area in the 1990s (so the Cheney-Iraq phenomenon
is indeed a pattern with precedent).
The downtown, once perhaps as great as Vienna or Budapest, is littered
with the shells of collapsed, bombed-out buildings, the fallout of the
One building still cuddles an unexploded NATO bomb which is
impossible to extricate, and it stands as a menacing memory
of the days of horror.
However, the city is alive.
The University building is alive in the sense that Alexander
talks about the life of buildings.
Its interior decor reflects an extremely tasteful
facelifting in the past decade; its walls blossoming
with impressionist and modern art works, its
high ceilings reflecting the spacious comfort of its
early twentieth century roots, and its grand windows
illuminating its students minds with the light filtered
by the trees in the park outside.
There are young people everywhere, but Old People
Everywhere as well.
The night bars are alivenot with rowdiness, but
with the camaraderie of a national family.
It reminded me of the kind of ethnic brotherhood one finds
in the Middle East.
And the people are full of hope. The economy is starting
to grow, shops are opening again, and peace has taken a
tenuous root in the region.
I certainly do not claim that all is rosy.
Their academic world is certainly riddled with politics.
Their tenure disease is stronger than at most
U.S. institutions, and it is particularly sinister in the
way it pushes students outside of the circle of
relevance for some members of the tenured establishment
(at least thats how the students see it).
Computer studies are still scattered
across the FOS faculty, engineering school, and mathematics,
rather than being unified in a single curriculum.
The academic culture still bears many trappings of the
Communist era: strong authoritarian structures, the
Animal Farm syndrome (a perfect metaphor for tenure,
in my opinion, and the double metaphor applies particularly
well here), and the preference for cooperative egalitarianism
Yet the egalitarianism has value.
These students receive an unbelievably broad education,
each one receiving non-trivial exposure to art, history, religion,
economics, music, science, social science, law, politics, history,
math, biology, language (most students learn Russian as well
as English or Frenchnot as electives, but as required
courses), history, and everything else in their curricula.
I believe that is critically important to a deep understanding of
design, and believe it is an area where U.S. curricula can improve.
In this article I will not resolve, nor even properly address,
the moral issues behind the politics of the region.
In most circumstances, academic camaraderie transcends
It is most certainly so in this instance: in my encounters, I
found no academics whose heart was in the agendas of
the war or in the repression of other people.
These academics meet one stereotype of academics that
we sometimes hold in contempt but which in this case
helps shelve some concerns: as academics, they are
a bit above day-to-day politics and the things of the world.
What had most attracted me to the university in the first place
was Sinia Vlaji?'s works. His Ph.D. thesis, completed in July 2003,
presents an interesting formalization of patterns based on symmetry
and symmetry breaking
(Formalizacija jedinstvenog procesa razvoja softvera
pomocu uzora, doctorska disertacija, Beograd, 2003).
It is a topic near and dear to my heart, one I have been
researching with Dr. Liping Zhao at the University of Manchester
for the past decade.
It is not the first time I had seen a Ph.D. student attempt
formalization of patterns.
I had tired of seeing so many inept attempts at doing so
in the past that it was difficult to get excited about a new
Sinia had first approached me in March 2003 asking
to correspond about the ideas.
The correspondence was difficult, exacerbated in large part
because of the language barrier.
Sinia speaks halting English, but I know only three
words in Serbian.
Though I never came to understand the core issues of
Sinia's work through our Email correspondence, the very
fact that he was using symmetry groups greatly intrigued
me and I wanted more fully to understand his thesis.
Our correspondence nonetheless paved the way to deeper
interactions. Prof. Devedzi? invited me to write an article for
the ComSIS journal, and that article will appear in October 2004
(The Culture of Patterns,
Computer Science and Information Systems Journal 1(2),
Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, October 2004).
And Sinia invited me for a two-week lecturing visit
to the school.
They could not afford to support my travel fees, but could
afford to pay me a professor's salaryabout 500 Euro per month.
My desire to further understand Sinia's work, combined
with the prospects of seeing a new place and experiencing
a new culture, helped precipitate the decision.
I was able to create an itinerary that included Belgrade
in a European tour that I had planned, nestled (perhaps
symbolically) between VikingPLoP and the Net.ObjectDays
Conference in Erfurt, Germany.
A Kernel of Truth in the Formalism Myth
I have always held the stereotype that Eastern Europeans are
well-skilled in the formal sciences, and especially in mathematicsespecially
relative to Americans.
At North Central College where I last taught, I was probably the
only one in the history of the institution ever to have taught any
group theory, and the constraints of the curriculum limited me
to about twenty minutes of lecture on the topic.
Not only were the students ignorant of type theory, but
I couldn't persuade the faculty that it was important:
none of them had even heard of it.
And the experience there wasn't unique.
In Scienceworld, the United States has the highest
indigenous incidence of third-world culture.
While the U.S. academic experience has higher
prospects of integrating the much-at-hand experiences
of leading edge industry (though, apart from internship
programs, that didn't seem to be happening at my
last institution), the European academic experience
seems a much more complete, well-grounded, and well-rounded
I have often claimedprovocativelythat Bachelors of
Science graduate students at many U.S. institutions couldn't
pass the first-year courses at most European institutions.
I have always been confident of the truth of that statement
as applied to Vrije Universiteit Brussel relative to North Central
I feel it is also true of the University of Belgrade relative to
North Central College, their disparate endowments to the
And I now feel that the claim isn't provocative at all,
but a sad fact of American life.
In Belgrade, I found that just about every student had studied
group theory (for you Yanks, group theory is pretty much
necessary to the formal study of symmetry and of structure).
But as I should have known, and contrary to my stereotype,
they were not expert in it.
It was still a struggle conveying moderately complex formal
notions to the Belgrade audience, much as it would have been
in a U.S. graduate school.
The difference was that I was able to fully engage two or three
key people in the Belgrade audience.
(In retrospect, this would most likely have been due
to the language difference.)
Those who took an active interest in this focus
were probably the brightest in the class (or maybe
just those who had the best English language vocabulary).
But in Belgrade, the brightest in the class have a broad
grounding that can take them into many topics, and such
grounding is largely missing in the United States.
So a combination of factors led me to believe there
are diamonds in the rough here.
The raw material of broad grounding, combined with deep
foundations in formalism, are a breeding ground for greatness.
Sinia had bootstrapped himself into some of the most
advanced thinking about pattern theory that I have seen anywhere
in the world.
About a Decade Behind
For all this academic depth, the computer science culture is
about a decade behind the United States.
The fads there are dominated by decade-old thinking:
that object orientation will solve architecture and reuse
problems, and that methodology is king.
They seem to just be coming out of their CASE tool era
and are just now discovering patterns.
I'll talk more about this in the following section.
Beyond Technical Excellence
One of the highlights of the trip came at dinner one night
when Sinia and I were talking about his work.
He remarked that behind the issues of symmetry and
broken symmetry lie deeper issues of laws of nature
and of greatness.
He is interested in this approach to design because
he feels it is only through this level of understanding
that his country can return to prosperity.
His words carried more than a glint of the pattern
community vision of human dignity and quality of life.
The experience would be repeated the following night
when a postgrad student, Valentina, told me,
"I knew this material would be important and right when you
started telling us that this was about the quality of human
life and not just about technology."
That's why these folks are doing software; it's a future
for their children and their people.
Why are you doing software?
A Shrinking WorldNot!
O.K., so I have led you to the point where you understand
that Belgrade is quite a ways East of West.
You might retort that the Internet has made this a shrinking
world, particularly in Academia.
Why should Serbians be about a decade behind the rest of
I think the differences can be explained by three primary
factors: economic isolation, geographic isolation, and cultural
difference. The region had started to recover from Communist
egalitarianism in the late 1980s, fueled in part by the reshaping
of Soviet-dominated Communist culture.
That same reshaping, which the U.S. often views as a victory
for freedom, also led to increase in regional identity and nationalism.
The folks in many parts of Europesuch as Belgium, where
I took my Ph.D.will tell you that nationalism isn't always a
(My metric of nationalism is the ease with which a tourist can
purchase a national flag; it is trivial in tourist spots in England
and is almost impossible in Brussels. Then there are singularities
such as Bavaria where you can't find a German flag to save your
soulbut regional Bavarian flags are common. That's identity
to the extreme. Another extreme is Christiania in Scandanavia,
where it is very easy to buy the national flag for this "nation" of
about 300 families. I did not succeed in procuring a flag in Serbia.)
I suspect that this is the upper bit in the separation
between U.S. computer science and Serbian computer
It comes down to web access.
It's probably true that most students at the University of Belgrade
have at least occasional access to the web.
All students have at least an indirect connection to the web
through their fellow students, who are eager to pass on papers
and ideas they find in their web searches.
I found that the University culture is a paper-intensive culture;
paper is of high quality; there are good facilities for quickly creating
spiral-bound books; there is a lot of paper around.
There is a culture of copying any work of value and
making it broadly available.
The word "copyright" is a joke, in a literal sense: they interpret
it as "take the right to copy."
However, this indirect access doesn't afford the average student
the time and resources to truly surf the web and to make connections.
Big pictures emerge slowly if at all.
Worse yet, the reverse path is almost non-existant.
Servers are scarce as hens' teeth, and the prospects for
publishing one's works on the web are almost nil.
The chances that a reader in "the West" would see a
work from a Serbian author are extremely small.
That owes to the scarcity of computing resources, which
in turn owes directly to the UN embargo, the NATO bombs,
and the overall economic isolation of the region.
That means that the chances that I would ever run
across Sinia's work are extremely small.
That means that it's extremely unlikely that I would
send him comments on his work.
It is also unlikely that he would send me comments
on my work, as he (were he a typical Serb) would have
much less access to a computer and to the Internet
than a web surfer in the West.
Luckily, Sinia had enough web surfing access
to be able first to track down my works, and second to
be able to have Email access to participate in dialogue.
Serbia is a long way away from me in the United States.
But it is also a long way from Western Europe.
Airplane flights there require creative connections.
Train technology is old, and trains are slow (it is
twelve hours by train from Vienna, which would be
substantially shorter on an ICE on suitable rails.)
Even for someone accustomed to travel, it is difficult.
United Airlines advised me against flying there.
The U.S. State department warns its citizens about
Yet I never felt unsafe or threatened or even out of
place or unwelcome.
The locals chalk up the difference to the myths created
This distancing creates a kind of locality that feeds
Isolated from the rest of Europe and the West, the
culture depends largely on its own customs and language.
Sinia's Ph.D thesis is written in Serbian.
St. Exupery's Le Petit Prince shaped me strongly in my
One of its stories tells of the discovery of the asteroid B612 by a
Turkish astronomer, who reported the discovery at a conference
He gave his address dressed in Turkish fez and garb.
Real Scientists didn't find him credible.
Giving the same address later, robed in an official business
suit, he was warmly and enthusiastically received for the
delivery of the same address.
We (for any we) are xenophobic: we feel comfortable
with what we feel comfortable with.
We are suspicious of ideas that come from outside our cultural
It's hard to measure.
Maybe there's some of that going on here.
Serbia is, after all, not that far from Turkey, as things go,
and was under Turkish rule for half a millenium.
Fruits of Isolation
There is good news and there is bad news here.
We usually think of the bad news in terms of its
repercussions for the Serbs: they are out of the loop,
at arm's length, and that keeps them out of the world
market and limits prosperity.
But it is also our loss.
Isolationism is symmetric with purity, and purity
guards against contamination.
I suspect that computer science is riddled with groupthink
and with a mindlock that adheres to outdated or dysfunctional
That requires "thinking out of the box," and I'm skeptical of
just how much those goofy management exercises can do
to transport us to another world of thinking.
That world already exists in other places on our planet.
I have found such thinking in the past at many institutions
in Australia, whose geographic isolation has caused ideas
to evolve along curiously different lines of development.
(Continuing the metaphor, evolutionary processes lead
to a balance of ideas that are profound and others that are
just plain goofy.)
And now, I have found another part of that different world
in Serbia: a world much more highly differentiated from the
Western academic world than Oz Down Under.
It is a world far East of West, a world worth visitingif not
in the body, then in the mind.
The area around Belgrade is known for its fascination with
Perhaps that fascination owes to the scarcity of computers;
it's a way to do interesting work without having to program.
I am generally skeptical of methodologists who avoid programming,
but many of them use the avoidance of programming as a way also
to avoid thinking and any ties to theoretical foundations.
That's where the Serbs are different.
They have the formal grounding.
This leads to a culture where much of the methodology work
strikes me as "strange." For now, I'm chalking that up to my
inability to make the cultural shift.
Oh, yes, there is the usual smattering of ill-grounded hopes
for automation and the triumph of technology with little
concern for the central issues of human dignity and quality
That may owe in part to their socialist roots, and in part
to the same thinking that dominated software as it transitioned
into object-oriented thinking in the West just prior to the
beginning of the preceding decade.
But if you brush away that dust, there are rough gems waiting
to be refined.
Refinement requires friction; as iron sharpens iron, so one man
Friction comes from interaction.
Cultural interaction is the engine of progress, and it's
difficult to find another culture with which to have the
interaction of friction if you are
in a poor, beleaguered society plagued by a UN embargo.
But not all the method work is "strange."
One remarkable student of the engineering school
in Belgrade would go on to method work, and now is
one of the lead people in IBM's Rose product and is
probably the key person behind UML 2.0.
He's a friend of mine and his name is Bran Selic.
He has arguably done as much to bring reasonable
and useful ideas of method to the "Western" world of
software development as have Ed Yourdon, Larry
Constantine, and Grady Booch.
His work certainly has ties back to this cauldron
of method, and one wonders how much more of
such wisdom lies latent there.
The design and pattern work, in my opinion, are in the same
league. There is great thinking here. The combination of
isolation and deep intellectual tradition have combined to
give us something we desperately need.
It is frustrating that such ideas have difficulty making it
out of the box.
What Academics Can Do
I'd like to suggest things we can do in our own academic
cultures to engage the "third world" (how I hate to use
This isn't a call for charity.
This is first a call to community.
It is not a call for academic solidarity, either, but a call to
community for programmers everywhere.
Such engagement builds diversity that is crucial to
progress. In my view, Eastern thinkingand,
for that matter, the Southern thinking of the Aussies
and Northern thinking of the Nordic folksare crucial
ingredients in the mixing pot of intellectual human endeavor.
And there are practical things that you can do back home.
Some of these things requires means and resources:
see if they are available through your institution.
But some of these things are free.
They require only your time.
I know time is scarce, but trust me: the investment is
worth it, even if it is even for your own personal edification.
Academic visits are the cross-pollination of the world of knowledge.
Spend some time at a local university.
Get a local sponsor to fund a one-month visit to an
Or just visit one of these schools, even for a day, if you
happen to be in the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia
or whereever for vacation.
It will be a highlight of your trip.
Visit and give them a lecture.
They will go to great lengths to engage you.
There were about 50 students at my lectures.
Almost all of them attended for the entire week.
They receive no academic credit for attending.
They had to leave already busy lives, their endless
striving to scrape out an existence, to come to my talks.
They were faithful.
It is worth it to them.
As an extreme example, consider the joint program
that Industrial Engineering has with the University of Paris.
When they told me this, I got to thinking about it.
Most students don't know French, and it's unlikely that
the French would lecture in English...
Sure enough, the Serbs had enrolled in a crash three-month
course to learn French so they could understand their
For every ounce of work you invest, they bring a pound
of work to the table.
Seek out these people at conferences.
These people don't get to conferences much;
the embargo has depressed the economy to the
point that they can't afford it.
But seek them out at conferences.
Think of it as cultural enrichment for yourself.
Unfortunately, a conference encounter is probably
not long enough to develop the subtle insights
of culture that come with longer engagements.
But such meetings can lay the groundwork for
further interaction in the future.
Publish in their journals.
I mentioned above that I was invited to submit a paper to
the ComSIS journal.
Alistair Cockburn was already way ahead of me, and had the
honor of publishing an article in the first issue of the first
volume of ComSIS.
I'll make it into Volume 1, Issue 2.
Maybe these publications don't yet have the stature of
an ACM journal.
On the other hand, I've seen pretty silly stuff in ACM
journals once in a while.
I can also imagine that there are stronger foundations
in Eastern European culture for a stronger refereeing process
behind formal works than one finds in U.S. publications.
Include such folks on conference committees.
It gives you a chance to meet them, and them a chance to get
out and meet you.
It might be a springboard for them to meet many other people
in your conference community, which spreads the knowledge
Learn and teach languages.
Not just French and German, or other languages that you think
will make you look cultured, but the languages of the great
thinking people of the world.
That includes Slavik languages, Arabic languages and, well,
ultimately all human languages.
Maybe French thinking and German thinking have been pretty
To me, Serbian thinking was a refreshing difference;
a different paradigm of thought than I have found in
no other culture.
As their Saint Sava said in the past,
they are East of West, and West of East.
It doesn't serve the community well to keep re-mining the
same cultures that tradition has indicated have good
standings in the sciences.
Let's explore further.
Let's get these languages into our curricula.
Our Computer Science degree at North Central College
had no language requirement.
I had to urge my advisees to take a second language,
and this is at an institution that prides itself on its
liberal arts heritage.
We should just be ashamed.
It's time to break out of English language thinking and to
embrace some of the rest of the world.
Engage international institutions in your programs.
Not just the stereotypically great institutions of Europe,
and not just English-speaking institutions.
Create some joint programs; swap visiting faculty, and
institute a student exchange program.
My graduate school, the VUB, has long been doing this with
South American countries through its EMOOSE program.
Convene conferences in new and interesting places.
This is a great way to bring international visitors to out-of-the-way places.
Yes, it makes it less convenient for everyone to get to the conference.
But the good news is that you can run such a conference on a shoestring;
costs of goods and services are low, and the locals will roll out the
red carpet for you.
They did for me: the local Best Western hotel was amazing in its
level of service.
Its amenities weren't bad, its restaurant superb, and its
people friendly and helpful beyond compare.
I hope that I planted some seeds of new ideas in Belgrade
that will grow quickly in the rich soil of their diverse cultural
background, deeply watered by their formal foundations.
Patterns are much more about Eastern thinking than about
Western reductionism, and that gives me hope that great
work could happen here.
Sinia already has a good start.
I believe the same thing for the Japanese, for the same reason.
My fantasy is that those cultures can work together to sort out
the ideas that can bring a foundation for new paradigms of design.
I don't mean "paradigm of design" here in the software sense, but
in the true Kuhnian sense of a worldmodel, a Weltanschauung.
I need to run: I'm off to work on a paper for submission to
the Journal of Information and Organizational Sciences.
It's published in Croatia.
Keep your eye out for it.
I've just started teaching an "advanced programming" (C) course in the university of Brasilia. I've been trying to think what things I can do to shake the course up a bit, but your article is a good reminder that I should really be open to what I can learn here. I'm looking forward to the engagement.
Oh, and if you're ever in the area, I'd like to invite you to come and talk. :-) (Actually, I don't know if I have the authority to do that, but what the hell.)
I am envious of your experience and erudition, I congratulate you on how far you have come from when you joined the Engineering Computing Lab at UWis as a teenager so many years ago. I always admired your enthusiasm as a young man and now I admire your contributions to our field as a thinker and author as well!
I'm still a 'grunt' after 30+ years as a hardware/firmware designer of everything from electrocardiographs to beer dispensers(!). My vision seldom rises to the heights you work at since my career has been cranking out 'boxes' as fast as possible for corporate profit.
I see one similarity, however, in my career and the experience of your Serbian friends, that working in industry keeps designers (at my level?) as isolated as they are!
Once in my career was I able to visit a customer during the design of a new product (oscilloscope) and from one comment immediately altered an aspect of the design that made its use cumbersome for them - an aspect you will never see on a spec sheet - how the calibration signal is physically made available on the front of the 'scope. It wasn't an electrical or firmware issue but I brought it back and saw to it that it was 'fixed'. How sad that the users of products have such little impact on their design, that their interests are given such little weight and that poor design choices remain semi-permanent 'features' of so many of our products.
Continuing education, at most companies (in my experience), is nonexistent. Since employees are replacable units there is little (direct financial) incentive to the company when they can simply bring in another designer, or more likely now, export the design work to Serbia where designers receive a better education! The Serbs have every reason to hope for a better life!