Stone Soup

In the folk story StoneSoup, some hungry soldiers, returning from a war, encounter a village where the villagers claim to have no food to share, and to be starving themselves (they've actually hidden away such food as they have, to protect it from just such soldiers). The wily soldiers offer to share their own fare with the villagers, for although they have no food themselves, they claim the knowledge of making soup from nothing but a stone.

The villagers, astonished, provide a pot of water and a fire, and the soldiers put in a stone and bring it to a simmer. They announce that in just a short while it will be fine nourishing soup. Seemingly as an afterthought, one soldier adds that while the stone soup alone would be nourishing, the flavor would be much improved by the addition of an onion or two - but beggars can't be choosers. One or two of the villagers allow that they might be able to find such a thing, and indeed soon return with a few onions and a head of garlic. These the soldiers add to the pot. A little later a soldier comments that as nourishing and aromatic as stone soup with a little onion would be, some roots would certainly round out the flavor even more - but if wishes were horses... Again, some villagers go off and soon return with some carrots and a couple of beets.

In this way, item by item, little additions are made to the simmering pot - a shank bone, some barley, potatoes, assorted vegetables and greens, a bit of sausage, salt, herbs... And in the end all sit down to a marvelous meal, as delicious and nourishing as any there have eaten in quite a while, and all agree that it is truly a wonder that such a meal could be made from nothing but a stone.

-- JimPerry

And, at the end of the meal, having thanked the villagers for helping them to make some of the finest stone soup they've ever eaten, one of the soldiers reaches into the pot, takes out the stone and they carry on along their way.

(at least, that's how I finish the story when I'm doing a StoryTelling? session)

-- PiersCawley

Most Open Source projects have a StoneSoup aspect to them. Linus started with a wanky little UNIX-like kernel. "Of course, it'd be better if it had a shell." "Of course it'd be better if there was some sort of text editor." "Of course, it'd be better if somebody added multiprocessor support." "Of course, it'd be better if somebody added a GUI." Pretty soon, LinuxWorld? took over the San Jose Convention Center.

While the connection between Open Source and StoneSoup may be obvious (anagram: Open Souts?), I must point out that all those "Linux add-ons" you mention had already been written by the GNU project long before Linus wrote his first kernel. Except maybe the multiprocessor support. And the X Window System wasn't GNU, but still... Linus was more of a villager. Richard Stallman was the ultimate soldier. Not to judge either role - it's all important; just clarifying the historical record. -- AndrewLundin?

One of the interesting things about the StoneSoup story is that it raises issues about the nature of deception. The villagers deceive the soldiers (OK - they lie to them), and that's bad. The soldiers deceive the villagers (tricking them to bring out the hidden food) and everyone benefits - the soldiers get to eat, but so do the villagers (in the version I know, the villagers hide their food not just from the soldiers but also from themselves). So, at a deeper level, the story raises questions of morality. When is deception acceptable? What gives anyone the authority to claim to have 'the big picture?'

There's also an interesting perspective if you turn this around. The villagers got tricked by a GradualDeception?. It's easily done, as small assumptions lead you further and further away from where you want to be. How could the villagers have avoided becoming BoiledFrogs? -- DavidThomas

When is deception acceptable? What gives anyone the authority to claim to have 'the big picture?

I'd argue there is only one deception here: that of the hidden food. Like all deception its based on a fear: The fear that if I am forthright, I will get less than I will if I keep my intentions hidden. The second 'deception' (that of the soldiers) is IMO not a deception at all - its the moral key that fits the situation's lock. They claim to be able to make a soup from a stone - which they do in fact do. It would have been a deception if someone had asked them to explain how they were going to do so, and they had lied, but they do not; they simply made a promise, and the villagers went along with it. Thus the moral question is less in the claim but in the goals of the participants - The soldier's were acting morally because their intention was to reduce the suffering of everyone concerned by reducing their fear enough that they would share (they were also successful, but that is not relevant on the moral question). Contrast with the con artist who uses a similar appeal to trust but leaves the follower with nothing but an unfulfilled promise (and had no intention of producing anything else). In both cases, the follower was being greedy (its motivated by fear in both cases, but its easier to see and feel compassion for in the villagers). This makes the soldiers truly enlightened as they were shown a greedy deception, but were able to avoid simply reflecting that greed (e.g. by looting and burning the village), and instead transformed it into generosity and happiness for many.

This type of influence is very common (although not always so morally executed) and answers the question about authority - authority can only be given by the follower, and it is granted at the exact moment that the person chooses to follow. The villagers gave the authority by agreeing to the soup making. The soldiers understood the gift of followership they were given, and did not abuse it. -- BillCaputo

I got this story in kindergarden and it never even occurred to me to think of it as a moral story. Maybe I missed out on the bit about the villagers hiding their food, but it was more a pooling of resources. A villager has some garlic, but nothing else, so what's the point of eating it? Another has a couple potatoes, but nothing else, so he might as well save them for a rainy(er) day. Everyone has a bit or a piece that, alone, isn't that edible. But when you put them all together, you get a feast. -- SimonHeath

The story exists in multiple versions. In the version that you have heard, the accent is put on the morale that small contributions by all may create the greater good. In other versions, the soldier(s) come to one woman (for some reason always a woman) who tells them she has no food, then she agrees to help them make the stone soup, out of curiosity, stupidity or greed, and it is obvious that the soldiers have tricked her, but that is OK since the woman lied about not having food in the first place. --NikolaSmolenski?


LarryWall is even more upfront about this. He publicly claims to be the "irritant at the center of the Perl."

See also: ThePragmaticProgrammer


Moved here from CanAnArchitectureEmerge:

Were the soldiers in the StoneSoup story the architects of the soup?
It seems to me you are missing the beauty of the StoneSoup story. This is a story about motivation, team-work, and faith - not about architecture. While it has a lot to teach engineers they are not lessons about architecture but rather the lessons are about collaboration. If you had to pick an architect, it would be the person(s) that came up with the strategy and not the StoneSoup itself. In other words, the StoneSoup story shows more of a process architecture than a soup recipe. A software system is not soup. However, most good soups do'' have an original designer and the most successful renditions of that soup are ones that take it beyond the initial architects recipe while still maintaining the ConceptualIntegrity of the original. Look at a dessert like Creme Brule. If you get too crazy it just becomes custard. -- RobertDiFalco

The soldiers had a vision (to eat), they then worked with the villagers to implement their vision (making the soup). The choice of soup was important, stone pot roast would not have worked. So why not architects?

Because those were the implementers. I don't know if there were multiple architects of the strategy, but there is no reason why there couldn't be. The design of the soup wasn't important, that it give sustenance was. This is not a very good analogy and I don't think it is appropriate for either of our positions. However, this is a great analogy for team work and collaboration. --Robert

The big pot, the large quantity of water, and perhaps the fire are the architecture.

I have to strongly disagree with this. If we must cram the soup story into an analogy for architecture, than it is the strategy for creation that was the architecture. The StoneSoup story is a process architecture much like ExtremeProgramming is a process architecture. A way for people to be productive very quickly and very successfully. -- RobertDiFalco


What, no reference to fractint yet? Here's more about the group that brought us this wonderful program (well, not really wonderful when you get down and dirty with the source, but still...) http://spanky.triumf.ca/www/fractint/stone_soup.html


Funny I read this from a different point of view where the Soldiers were the Users (just provide me with a little water and a fire and we can get some delicious soup from this stone - nice and easy) and the Developers are Villagers (adding more and more to the soup until the cost was more than could be borne). I suppose it depends on your perception of what the common good should be. From a development manager point of view this smacks of ScopeCreep! From a User perspective the final result justified the trickery. Am I just being cynical?


This is the same story as the feeding of the five thousand. No-one would have followed Iesu into the countryside without taking a little food and probably a skin of wine with them. They all had it hidden in their robes, but all denied they had anything for fear of having to share it. Of course Iesu knew this and asked his disciples to share out the little that they had. Just as in Stone Soup, that encouraged some, then many, then everyone to bring out their own food. And, as we know, everyone was fed. If the usual interpretation is to be believed, Iesu is nothing but a conjurer. Who would follow such a man? If He is someone who can teach men to love their neighbours and share with them in time of need, then He is someone we can all learn from, love and very likely worship. This for me is the true miracle - the miracle that we can do ourselves when the time is right.

Amazing!!! In all of my 50 years, I have never heard anyone else interpret this story correctly (except myself), not ever. And, yes, you have got it right, all but the name: "Jesus" is the correct term from the bible (which I do not believe in). Note: Iesu is correct, and us King James Version Bible owners do not know that, I had to google it to find this out: http://www.google.com/search?q=iesu

John's claiming something different about the feeding of the 5000 - that it's Jesus who is providing the food. You may believe that he is incorrect in his understanding of what he witnessed, that in fact the people were fed because everyone brought something with them, but that's not what John is saying. StoneSoup is perhaps about the value of collaboration, or about the morality of withholding from those in need. John says the feeding of the 5000 is about a God who does for men what they cannot do for themselves when he calls it "the sign He performed." -- DonBranson

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