By Thinking!

Still on the theme of mastery, and further exploring attention and perception, here is another story I like to tell alongside the Master Butcher and the Agassiz fish tales. It is one of Richard Feynman’s stories from his childhood:

One job was really sensational. I was working at the time for a printer, and a man who knew that printer knew I was trying to get jobs fixing radios, so he sent a fellow around to the print shop to pick me up. The guy is obviously poor — his car is a complete wreck — and we go to his house which is in a cheap part of town. On the way, I say, “What’s the trouble with the radio?”

He says, “When I turn it on it makes a noise, and after a while the noise stops and everything’s all right, but I don’t like the noise a the beginning.”

I think to myself: “What the hell! If he hasn’t got any money, you’d think he could stand a little noise for a while.”

And all the time, on the way to his house, he’s saying things like, “Do you know anything about radios? How do you know about radios — you’re just a little boy!”

He’s putting me down the whole way, and I’m thinking, “So what’s the matter with him? So it makes a little noise.”

But when we got there I went to the radio and turned it on. Little noise? My God! No wonder the poor guy couldn’t stand it. The thing began to roar and wobble — WUH BUH BUH BUH BUH — A tremendous amount of noise. Then it quieted down and played correctly. So I started to think: “How can that happen?”

I started walking back and forth, thinking, and I realize that one way it can happen is that the tubes are heating up in the wrong order — that is, the amplifier’s all hot, the tubes are ready to go, and there’s nothing feeding in, or there’s some back circuit feeding in, or something wrong in the beginning part — the RF part — and therefore it’s making a lot of noise, picking up something. And when the RF circuit’s finally going, and the grid voltages are adjusted, everything’s all right.

So the guy says, “What are you doing? You come to fix the radio, but you’re only walking back and forth!”

I say, “I’m thinking!” The I said to myself, “All right, take the tubes out, and reverse the order completely in the set.” (Many radio sets in those days used the same tubes in different places — 2 1 2′s, I think they were, or 2 1 2-A’s.) So I changed the tubes around, stepped to the front of the radio, turned the thing on, and it’s as quiet as a lamb; it wait until it heats up, and the plays perfectly — no noise.

When a person has been negative to you, and then you do something like that, they’re usually a hundred percent the other way, kind of to compensate. He got me other jobs, and kept telling everybody what a tremendous genius I was, saying, “He fixes radios by thinking!”

– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, pg 19-20

Once again I have quoted rather more of the text, making for a longer read, though hopefully staying within the bounds of “fair use.” (To compensate, please rush off and buy Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! It is full of such delightful stories, giving insight into one of history’s great — and endearingly playful  — minds!)

Discussion: I would like to invite you to join the discussion, using the comments to share how this story strikes you and what insights about architects, architecting or architecture it prompts.

Follow-up Discussion

Is this is relevant to architecting — and architecting software-intensive systems at that? How do we create software? By thinking. And if something isn’t working as we expect, or is doing something our users can’t tolerate, how do we “fix” software? By thinking.  Ok. So maybe it is somewhat relevant… But we covered that in the comments. Indeed. That was a wonderful discussion (thank you Peter, Gene and Stuart), and it illuminated new insights for me. So we’re done?

First, it would be very useful if you could spend a couple of minutes watching this video and following the instructions, before you continue reading here. I know it is tempting to read ahead, to decide if it is worth watching the brief video, but you will miss the point if you don’t watch it first, before reading on.

Alright, so now that you have watched the video — you did, didn’t you? Can you find the “gorilla” in our “by thinking” story?  The gorilla I saw? It may not be the same one you saw (and if so, please do share what you perceived, when you considered the story again, in the comments). But it went like this: I titled the post “By Thinking” and all the discussion went straight to the heart of the piece, and focused on fixing systems, and thinking. Stuart Boardman mentioned stories in the comments, and that hints at but doesn’t quite identify this particular gorilla. Remember, when I quoted the piece, I thought perhaps I should just quote the core story, but decided also to include the encompassing story? Why? What do we learn from that story? Which? About the stakeholder — hello? the customer! — and the important lesson Feynman learned about people who resist an idea becoming its strongest champions, once they “get it.” It’s not just about the system and troubleshooting and being the fix-it-by-thinking hero who saves the day. So we get back to Stuart’s mention of stories. But also this point about personality. How many times have you worked with someone who has that interaction pattern? They resist and devil’s advocate but when they get it, they become loyal advocates for the system (or mechanism/design fragment/design approach/etc.)

Ok, so that “gorilla” was really two gorillas. The point about the stakeholder/customer and the interpersonal aspect to the story, not just the system failure/resilience/system thinking dimension at its core. And a point about us — about our cognitive frailty. That “what we are paying attention to shapes what we perceive and pay attention to.” Does that make sense? Led by the title and the core of the story, we focused all our discussion there, and didn’t notice, or didn’t think it worthwhile to point out — even when prompted with strong hints — how our discussion canalized around the topic suggested by the post title and the repeated phrase in Feynman’s story. Anyway, that introduces the whole body of work on cognitive biases and biases in decision making and judgment.

We will come back to all of these topics — “by thinking” and complexity, resilience and failure, stakeholders and their concerns, stories, persuasion and influence, cognitive biases, and more. Not to mention topics raised in the Master Butcher story around mastery, including system decomposition and finding the natural interstitial lines within the system.

But let me return just for a moment to the stakeholder versus our tendency to focus on the problem our brains seize on. I can’t tell you how many times executives have voiced frustration to us because their architects have just ignored concerns they articulate, and focused on some facet of the problem they have ideas about. This story, and what happened to us, happens over and over, in many different forms. It’s not that we don’t have good intentions, it is that we just canalize. And we have to develop levers to get ourselves to shift! Levers? Questions, for example. Like “what else?” and “why don’t?”

And more. That future posts and discussion will address. Please do join us! Your active engagement makes the learning experience richer for all of us.

9 thoughts on “By Thinking!

  1. Even if you’re not a doctor (nor do you play one on TV), “first, do no harm” is good advice. Changes to a complex system can have cascading effects and sometimes even inspecting the system involves a change to the system.

    Mentally stepping through the process allows you to diagnose without introducing a complicating factor. The key is knowing when to move from analysis to action (and what range of outcomes can result from that action).

  2. The real crux of the stories told by Feynman was that he was able to solve this problem because he had learned by doing (good and wrong) what you could/should do with tubes, speakers and radios.

    So I think the title of this article should be “By prototyping!” :-)

  3. What strikes me is:
    – a good architect needs to combine/balance theory and practice
    - think first but don’t think forever (in the end Feynman took a chance)
    - a good architect needs to be able to tell a good story/ be good at telling stories

    none of which are in any way original thoughts but they seem to need to be restated from time to time

  4. Indeed!

    Among the many thoughts that occur to me, loosed by this story:

    a. the boy in the story became the Feynman of this famously compelling demonstration: Challenger Crash O’Ring. To fix radios by thinking, Richard Feynman has a mental model of the physical system and how it works. He credits his father with teaching him to relate abstract ideas to the physical:

    ‘We had the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home and even when I was a small boy he used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something, or the tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, “This thing is twentyfive feet high and the head is six feet across,” you see, and so he’d stop all this and say, “Let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.”

    Everything we’d read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that”
    – from Dino in the window 1:26, in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a BBC Interview with Feynman

    b. if we view system architects as being (ultimately) accountable for system integrity (or at least structural integrity), resilience falls squarely within the charter, and is an area in which we need to develop mastery. This is a classic in system failure/resilience case studies: Feynman’s Appendix to the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

    • re: a – It’s funny, although I mentioned mentally stepping through an issue, I completely ignored the aspect of being able to visualize the problem space and mentally manipulate it (brought to mind by your mentioning a mental model). The former is somewhat two-dimensional and linear while the ability to do the latter is more useful (assuming it’s coupled with the ability to get the design out of your head and into a communicable format).

      re: b – I absolutely agree that resilience (and systems integrity in general) falls within the architectural remit. However I’d qualify it that knowledge and communication of the state of those qualities is the architect’s responsibility rather than determining what those qualities should be (which would be the product owner/customer/what have you).

      • re b. Smiles. Yes, lots of wiggle room in my “if” and “(ultimately)” — in recognition of the diversity of stances and realities for architects in various organizational contexts. Of course I have an actively considered position on the matter of architect charter/responsibilities, but it needs contextualizing. Interesting discussion points in their own right, worth elevating to prominence with a dedicated post/discussion stream.

  5. Years ago when Dana Bredemeyer read Surely You’re Joking, he enjoyed it so much, he retold the stories to me as he went. As he told this story, I was struck by the thought “that’s how we create software — by thinking!” Later, when I read the book myself, this story again captured my excitement. Now, in the context of the Agassiz story (in the previous post), it occurs to me that this Feynman story is an example of applying the lesson(s) from the Agassiz story. In the discussion above this connection is implicit, but perhaps it is worth drawing out — Feynman stilled any urge to just start trying things. David Peet might say he practiced (a moment — not too long, but long enough — of) creative suspension, observing the system behavior and asking himself the key, orienting question: “How can that happen?” And using that question to explore in his mind’s eye the relationships and dynamics. How much more important is it to cultivate observation and creative suspension, when the systems we’re dealing with are socio-technical and organizational systems? Themselves complex and messy. And ourselves full of cognitive flaws.

    What else strikes you? Sometimes, as Stuart observed, our observations don’t have to be original to be useful. At least, originality could be an inhibiting meter, for how much is entirely new under the sun? Yet new combinations, set to new contexts, is a way to be original too.

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