1. Ordinary Genius
Dr. Brooks is by many regarded as what may be called an "ordinary
"There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and
the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I
would be just as good as, if we were only many times better.
There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand
what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done
it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand
what they have done it is completely dark. Richard
Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre." - Mark Kac.
are sometimes given as an example of a product of
magician genius, a graphical guide to writing complex formulas.
Returning to the ordinary genius as described, "There is no
mystery as to how his mind works." In some cases
perhaps. Mystery is in surplus in the case of Dr.
Brooks. Dr. Brooks's ordinary genius of insight and decision
making seem to be simple, common sense, the essence, something
that any one of us could have thought of. But we didn't, and
figuring out why is vexatious. The ordinary genius is no
less worthy of study than the magician genius, perhaps more so.
Of all the geniuses that live among us, none fascinate more than
the ordinary geniuses, because they transform unexpectedly from
the familiar into the wise. For those, one seeks nuggets of
insight that can magically lay the mystery to rest. The
familiar difficult decision, at least as seen by those unschooled
in righteous judgment, has something of this character; the
question is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable
of becoming a monster of alternatives missed or of uncertain
value, as to yield only to exceptional insight. Yes, I
adapted this paragraph from that other one ....
"Of all the monsters that fill the nightmares of our
folklore, none terrify more than werewolves, because they
transform unexpectedly from the familiar into horrors. For
these, one seeks bullets of silver that can magically lay them
to rest. The familiar software project, at least as seen
by the nontechnical manager, has something of this character; it
is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of
becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and
flawed products." [Brooks1987]
Some have tried to lay this mystery to rest. On two
occasions a graduate student walked up and announced something
like, "I want to be like Dr. Brooks. I'm going to try to be
like Dr. Brooks.", and then walked away without me saying
anything. Why did they say this and why to me? Freaks
me out. But I did watch them, and, over time, no
change. Lets us try now.
2. Heavy Cross, Times Two
Presented before the faculty was a matter for decision. It
went back and forth, but alternatives seemed equal. Then,
one faculty member spoke (approximate quote): "Let's wait
for Dr. Brooks to get back in town. When he hears this, he
will say something. We don't know what he will say, but it
will make the correct choice clear and obvious to all of
us." Nods all around. Grown men looking up to Dr.
Brooks as if as children.
Know then, lest one imagine that being the smartest person around
might be a comfortable place, that one's genius may be called
upon, expected, demanded to be performed on command.
Know too that one may be lonely, surrounded by all who do not get
it and must seem to have little common sense.
Each must be a heavy cross to bear, even if cheerfully.
3. Fred Brooks Think-alike Contest
Dr. Steve Weiss was up for his tenure decision. He had asked
not teach numerical analysis, because he did not know it and
intensely hated it. Other than that, he was, some say, the
best teacher (besides Dr. Brooks) in the department. Some
students chose their electives only by his teaching
schedule. The tenure rules were that a candidate must score
"medium" or "high" on both teaching and on research. The man
scored "high" on teaching but "low" on research. The rules
are not flexible.
Please pause to think of what you might do.
A lesser man might have denied tenure. But Dr. Brooks
considered the purpose, the essence, of the rule, that the rule
existed to weed out the great teacher of today, who in a few years
would still be a great teacher, but teaching things that nobody
cared about anymore. Good research can prevent this.
But Dr. Brooks hewed to the essence of the rule and assigned the
candidate the task of teaching the hated numerical analysis, and
by all accounts, with struggle and anguish, the candidate did a
good job. He could learn anything. Tenure
approved. And righteously so.
Dr. Brooks did not give the candidate any special breaks
really. He had to meet at its essence the same requirement
as did anyone else, and in so doing not a single person from any
point of view could be dissatisfied.
A terminal Master's student, who was terminal because he had
flunked not just out of the degree program but out of graduate
school itself and then re-admitted as terminal, nevertheless wrote
a Master's thesis that read to Dr. Brooks, and to at least one
other member of the Master's committee, more like a dissertation,
and the student even called it so.
Please pause to think of what you might do.
A lesser man might have just signed-off the student and closed the
book on him, as it were. Dr. Brooks called a meeting with
the student acknowledging to the student that the purpose of the
Ph.D. course work additional beyond the Masters, of the Ph.D.
Written, and of the Ph.D. Oral was to prepare the student to
pursue a dissertation, and that the student having written a
dissertation it made no sense to require them on that basis.
Nevertheless, then, Dr, Brooks proposed to go forward on two
principles (approximate quote): (A) "I don't want anyone to say
that Jim Lipscomb got away with something, so you are going to
have to pass the extra courses, the Written, and the Oral just
like everyone else, and (B) if you don't, then we shall not have
another conversation." Times being what they were, I
accepted the job. And I was righteously tasked.
A lesser man might have been cowed by considerations of personal
or professional risk in sticking one's neck out for a student
whose subsequent failure, should that happen, might raise
questions as to the professional way to move students along.
But for Dr. Brooks such thinking is what to set aside on the way
to the essence, and then at the essence such issues are
moot. Questions could be answered.
Dr. Brooks did not give me any special breaks really. I had
to meet at its essence the same requirement as did anyone else,
and in so doing not a single person from any point of view could
4. No Way as a Way of Rational Thinking
Fred Brooks's thinking appears to be driven rationally in a
specific, technical sense. I suppose that we all think
ourselves rational enough, at least at work. But there is a
discipline of Rational Thinking whose proponents go beyond the
usual. They seek the essence, following no set plan.
I regret that I cannot locate either the video I saw about
Rational Thinking or the few books about it. So, for an
example I shall call upon the highest available authority, if one
may excuse the topic, Bruce Lee
system of fighting.
Bruce Lee, besides being a star of martial arts movies, was also a
serious student of the martial arts. He came from a tough
neighborhood, in contests where to determine the winner a referee
was not necessary. In the martial arts there are different
Arts and Ways, the Way of the Crane for example. Each is a
complete, consistent system. Bruce Lee studied these Ways with an
eye towards which might be best. He saw that none would win
a street fight, because there the one who delivered the first blow
was usually the winner. He therefore created his own Way,
the "Way of the Intercepting Fist", featuring the most rapid,
direct attack. An example of the opposite of the Way of the
Intercepting Fist may be found in the Judo Punch, in which the
fist is first cocked at the waist before attempting to launch the
punch - after the fight is over.
But then Bruce Lee realized that his Way of the Intercepting Fist,
the shortest, most direct attack, could not always be best.
Two steps sometimes really are better, as exemplified by go no sen
karate, which employs dodging and faking to sucker the opponent
out of position, opening a vulnerability.
Bruce Lee's conclusion was that the best Way is "No Way", that
rather than following a set plan or set teaching one must flow
like water, not in the meek sense, but rapidly, vigorously, and
forcefully to instantly take the shape of the container (the
situation). No Way is showcased in his unfinished movie,
Game of Death (Wikipedia
in which he climbs the stairs of a pagoda, defeating at each level
a master of a particular Way by exploiting in weaknesses in their
Ways, arriving at the top to battle in No Way a master at the
highest level who also fights in No Way.
It takes a double dose of rational thinking in which one follows
no set plan or set teaching but rather the imperative essence of
the moment, first to come up with the idea of No Way, and then to
fight using it. Still though, learning set plans and
teachings of the Ways may be important so that in the moment
one may select bits and pieces from these practiced Ways to act
quickly and more appropriately, rather than pausing to make
everything up from nothing on the spot.
In waters seemingly calmer Dr. Brooks nevertheless flows rapidly,
vigorously, and forcefully to fill the container (the imperative,
the essence) of each situation, apparently following no set
plan. Indeed, recall from the Heavy Cross section above, "We
don't know what he will say, ....", meaning that the speaker saw
no predictable pattern to Dr. Brooks's decisions. Decisions
come from somewhere else, not from a pattern. Dr. Brooks
also dismisses distractions (previous section) that can dominate
the thinking of the average. Dr. Brooks seems to solve
problems in No Way, his solutions sometimes novel, always fitting
the situation. But perhaps we may discern a little of a
system from examples.
5. No Extraneous Agenda
In shaping decisions to fit the container, not any container will
do. Willpower as well as reason are required to find and to
fill the one container of the essence of the problem.
It is often considered wise to take everything into account when
making a decision. Wrong, as least to the point that some
items must be identified as personal or professional agendas or
considerations, and then brushed off the table. To think
rationally is to leave nothing left to consider but the essence of
the thing. But ignoring the distractions is hard. They
Starting late, finishing first
Perhaps a dozen chemistry labs around the world had already
started on building interactive molecular graphics systems to
enable crystallographers to manually assemble bits of large
protein structure models into views of experimental
electron-density data and thereby build a model of the protein
with full atomic detail. Dr. Brooks decided, with the
coaxing of a university Provost (or Dean?), that he too would
assemble a team to build such a molecular graphics system, GRIP-75
According to the crystallographers who used it, it was the first
to succeed, documented
in their published paper at the time. There is also a recent
of priority made for Stan Swanson's FIT program.
At the other labs the thinking, I was told, was as follows, with
extraneous agendas at every point:
- The electron density data, although large, was uniform and
could be broken down into smaller cubes to work with
sequentially. The fitting of the molecular structures to
this data could be done only in a series of small scale
manipulations anyway, so the whole process could be fit into a
12-bit or 16-bit minicomputer of the day, the DEC PDP-11 or
equivalent. One tiny computer could do much of what was
needed, in the convenience of the laboratory setting.
- The labs hated spending money at the large university
computing centers, money they saw leaving the lab for
elsewhere, which also onerously forced researchers to budget
how computing on a project-by-project and run-by-run
basis. Such money is hard to find in the
compartmentalized structure of grants, hardly matching the
natural, veering course of research. If the lab had its
own minicomputer, it could compute, at min-computer speed and
size of course, for the project needs of the moment.
Building a protein structure fitting system was seen as a way
to get funding for a lab minicomputer, to be used principally
for other computation.
- The slow displays at the time made it debatable that enough
of a scene to allow for work could be drawn, but by zooming in
tightly on the data the researchers hoped that the fewer lines
to display might possibly do. There was one exception:
At Washington University at St. Louis a team did recognize
that displays of the day were insufficient, and so they
undertook to build one good enough, but they failed to
recognize first, that industry would quickly outpace them and
second, that molecular-specific functions they thought were
necessary (analog adjustment the level of electron density
contouring) were unnecessary. They filled the wrong
container and so were years late in their success.
- Only a graduate student or two was assigned to write code,
the graphics system being secondary to the primary purpose of
obtaining a minicomputer for lab computations. To
succeed this student need only be proficient in all skills.
Extraneous agendas have the seductive power of a siren song,
drawing the ship up on the rocks, solving problems additional to
the problem at hand, and thereby solving the problem at hand
badly, which is to say that some of these efforts did succeed, but
By contrast Dr. Brooks's mind travels light, without the baggage
of extraneous agendas, shaping decisions to fit the containers of
the essences of the problem at hand:
- He evaluated that the large electron density data was
inherently a 24-bit size issue, which would be best addressed
by a 24-bit computer, which would have to be the one at the
computer center. He likens the attempts of the other
labs to try to squeeze this 24-bit problem onto a 16-bit
computer to a hurdle on a circular racetrack. One can be
off to a quick start and be almost up to speed when the hurdle
appears and one must stop to clamber over it, and then quickly
be off again. But as this racetrack is circular, before
one is back up to speed what soon appears in front yet again
is the very same hurdle, which one must stop to climb over
again, and again, the racer forever slow. So, Dr. Brooks
made arrangements with the computer center for the 24-bit part
of the problem and for them to link to a lab minicomputer for
the 16-bit part of the problem, the user joystick interaction.
- He solved the problem of cost per hour at the university
computer center by buying a bank of memory dedicated to this
project for the university computer, but also partly available
for the computer center's use, in exchange for no hourly
- He evaluated the drawing speed required for the display and
held to that spec, even at one point returning to the
manufacturer a display that did not meet the spec. To
fit a graphics rendering problem of a certain size onto a
slower display would have put the project on a circular
racetrack similar to the one above.
- He set up a software development structure staffed to
critical mass and based on three best practices:
team: Building on a graphics system built by one
student (W. Wright), three "surgeons" (E. Britton, J.
Lipscomb, M. Pique) wrote the new application program and
only that, each responsible for a specialty. The small
number of surgeons, still larger than the entire team at
other labs, maximized conceptual integrity and minimized
training and communications. Working in the days of
punched cards, development at its peak was done around the
clock with each surgeon doing an 8-hour shift with the card
deck. Overnight shift for me.
Surrounding the surgeons was the surgical support
team, which built application program add-ons (W. Siddall, D.
Tolle, J. Hermans, J. McQueen, S. Wei) a machine-to-machine
communications system (P.J. Kilpatrick, W. Kerr), an
extended-memory driver (S. Bellovin, D. Tolle, R. Motely), a
graphics language (G. Hamlin, R. Hogan, P. Mullen), a joystick
analog-to-digital driver (R. Hogan), command line interface to
the mainframe (D. Kehs), hardware support (P. Nichols, J.
Ross, P. Reintjes), and even a compiler (D. Kehs, T. Dunnigan)
for a subset of PL/I that focused the surgeon's work by
letting them program in the same language on the two
computers. There was also a software library and data
library management team (R. Motley, T. Dineen, W. Siddall, J.
Crawford, L. Brown, G. Kennedy, L. Nackman, T.
Williams). At any given time the support team was about
1/5 this large, its members being brought on temporarily for
development: Cycles of plan-implement-test-evaluate
with collaborative users (S. Kim, J. Sussman, J. Richardson,
D. Richardson, J Hermans).
programming: Well, a form of it anyway. Each of
the three surgeons co-piloted the other two, even to the
extent that there was an informal majority-rules discipline
that was invoked when the lead surgeon was sure that the
wrong plan was right. In one case two surgeons waited
for when the third was out of town and changed his
code. Obvious that it was better there was no going
back. In the other case the lead surgeon was convinced
to at least try the alternative he did not like. Users
loved it, so no going back then either. The
co-piloting part of this comes from Dr. Brooks's surgical
team plan combined with his pressure-cooker plan (throw them
together, clamp down the lid, and turn up the heat).
The majority rule part is something that the surgeons worked
Such focus is not easy or cheap. Willpower is in abundance
in each of the four main decisions above. Those decisions
greatly increased the effort, expense, and social challenges, as
well as delaying the project start by extra years beyond the
original years-late start. In no other lab was there the
willpower to do even one of them, except for the troubled effort
at Washington University at St. Louis as described above.
Given the willpower to make these four decisions, they sped the
date of accomplishment with Dr. Brooks's team finishing first, as
6. Best Among Alternatives
Dr. Brooks reliably chooses the best among alternatives. An
We help our friends, but do we really? In my time in the
department one professor was noted for getting his Masters
students through in good time. He helped them. He
ensured that there was a schedule, had regular meetings,
milestones, and shepparded the students through hands-on.
But there is the echo here of the helicopter parent who props up
the child into overachievement. Our friends too, if they see
that we have chosen a path into trouble, will rush to help.
But when we help someone to be better than they are, then they are
someone that they are not. Oversimplifying for easy
reference: We are their greatest friends, and by being so are not
By way of contrast, I heard Dr. Brooks say that if a student is
sinking and is too stupid to call out for a line, then he does
not deserve to graduate from this university. Dr. Brooks
will help one down the path one has chosen, and if that is to
silently sink out of sight, then he will help one to so
do. But if one does cry for help Dr. Brooks will give
righteous help. Dr. Brooks does not make asking
hard. Help is the default. Anyone who has walked
into Dr. Brooks's office knows that he speaks first, "How can
(may?) I help you?" For that you need only walk yourself
there, which you must do. Oversimplifying for easy
reference: Dr. Brooks is not your friend, and by being so is
your greatest friend.
Neither choice above is very bad, but Dr. Brooks's treatment
may give benefit more long-term. I got similar tough-love
from my father, who helped me when I asked but otherwise left me
to to define my own projects and to figure them out
myself. A result in the long term? This web page.
Enough tough surface with love below. Let's flip that
over to the same effect with love at the surface and tough
below, in a song, Dar Williams's The One Who
Knows (second verse):
All the things you treasure most
Will be the hardest won
I will watch you struggle long
Before the answers come
But I won't make it harder
I'll be there to cheer you on
I'll shine the light that guides you down
The road you're walking on
You'll fly away but take my hand until that day
So when they ask how far love goes
When my job's done you'll be the one who knows
In summary Dr. Brooks seems to dive down into a problem to find
an essence in the abstract for the kind of problem to be solved,
somehow finding the best of alternative candidates for what
might be the essence. Then he surfaces back up to the
specifics, somehow finding an innovative way to apply that
essence to them.
Powering all from underneath is righteous judgment (morally
right, justifiable, virtuous, excellent) as exemplified in The
Bible, which Dr, Brooks has studied as a lay preacher.
When those who are wrong he challenges with inconvenient
questions, the force of them recalls the rhetoric of
Jesus. In righteous judgment there is an undertone of an
impersonal essence, what is inherently right without any special
consideration for the specific problem. What emerges from
that starting point is then something seen as right by all and
from every point of view. Absent from the list above in
parentheses are good enough, cuddly, soothing. What is
righteous may seem harsh, perhaps in a good way.
Take directly opposing points of view simultaneously into
account to ensure the important but uncomfortable is not omitted
when assembling all pertinent points of view to take into
account. This can be a first step towards finding an
answer with which not a single person starting from any point of
view could be dissatisfied.
The solving of problems in human relations through the
impersonal side of the essence and of righteous judgment at the
foundation may be akin to the solving in science and engineering
problems through the impersonal, logical analysis of the
practitioner, and indeed Dr. Brooks is both a scientist and an
engineer. Perhaps the solving of problems in these two
domains by these two means is similar enough that similar
thinking is involved, and that developed skills in one domain
might help in the other. Mixing in learnings from the
Bible of righteous decisions and selecting for long-term benefit
as one does for teaching children, all mentioned above, plus
experience in formal debating, shall we go further to suppose
that all these Ways of judgment can involve thinking to draw
upon to reach decisions in No Way?
This search for answers starting from a surplus of mystery ends
with a surplus of questions.
An analysis of a simpler case of structured problem solving
applied to the everyday is the subject of my essay, Scientific
Aggression as a Way of Life
[Brooks1987] Brooks, F. P. , J. (1987). "No
Silver Bullet—Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering".
Computer 20 (4): 10. doi:10.1109/MC.1987.1663532
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Silver_Bullet