The least expected

The third intention in Patterns 132 reads: Select initiative (or response) that is least expected. The standard explanation is that the least expected response will produce surprise which we can then exploit. Seems obvious, but if you think about how most organizations pick their actions, it’s by some formula or just what they’re comfortable doing (“If sales are down, lower prices.”)

In war or the martial arts, surprise often produces disorientation and a moment of confusion and hesitation. This leads people to assume that time is of the essence, that we need to operate at a faster tempo than opponents to keep them off balance. This can be a powerful tactic, as Boyd explains in an “illuminating example” in Strategic Game, pp. 39-44.

But operating at a faster tempo isn’t strictly necessary, especially in forms of conflict other than war. But the “unexpected” effect can still work when, for example, you can let the opponent’s imagination do your dirty work for you. A great example of this is the chess match between then-reigning word champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997. The computer made an unexpected move:

“It was an incredibly refined move, of defending while ahead to cut out any hint of countermoves,” grandmaster Yasser Seirawan told Wired in 2001, “and it sent Garry into a tizzy.”

Turns out that the unexpected move was the result of a bug in the software, but the effect on Kasparov was decisive:

The irony is that the move had messed with Kasparov’s mind, and there was no one to fix this bug. (emphasis added)

“Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence,” Campbell told Silver. “He had never considered that it was simply a bug.”

If we are able to operate at a faster tempo, we can decrease the time opponents have to figure things out, to operate inside their OODA loops, and pump up ambiguity, but the effect works even when this isn’t possible.

Note that the unexpected move was the result of an error in the software, which was corrected between games. Errors have produced similar effects on the battlefield — Boyd would often cite the Union attack on the center of the Confederate lines at Missionary Ridge that launched Sherman on the road to Atlanta.

Did a Computer Bug Help Deep Blue Beat Kasparov?  Klint Finley, Wired, September 28, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling’s new book just came. I ordered it last week from Amazon, the hard copy because it was only a couple more bucks than the Kindle edition. I feel bad, greenwise, but I can loan this to spouse, kids, friends, etc. Would it be too strong to say that publishers are stupid?

Vacancy was just released yesterday. Amazon had promised it by Monday via 2-day shipping — I signed up for Amazon Prime — but it was in today’s mail. A great example of zheng / qi: meet expectations and then some. Amazon is VERY good at this.

This will be my first book by Rowling, although I’ve seen several of the Harry Potter movies. Let you know.

A little busy

Working on my paper for the Boyd and Beyond Conference in Quantico mid-October. Will post after the event. The characterizations are strong but the plot still needs a little work.

I see De Niro as Boyd and Brad Pitt or Daniel Craig as me.


The pivot point

If you browse through the John Boyd Compendium on DNIPOGO, down near the bottom you’ll come across something called “Fast Transients.” If you open this briefing, you’ll soon find yourself immersed in Energy-Maneuverability charts and other technical fighter pilot stuff. If you stick with it, though, all of a sudden, with no prior warning, up pop Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. One can only wonder what Boyd’s audiences, enured to years of talk about turn rates, negative energy states, and out-of-plane maneuvering, must have thought.

Although all three of Boyd’s biographers mention this briefing, whose correct title is New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, it remains an oddity to most people, probably because Boyd didn’t include it in the Discourse on Winning and Losing. For students of Boyd’s development, however, it occupies a special place:

  1. New Conception is the first work by Boyd that mentions Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law. While it is true that Boyd had been polishing “Destruction and Creation” for several years, Boyd actually released that paper to the world a month after New Conception.
  2. It forms an obvious bridge between the ideas of “Destruction and Creation” and Boyd’s work on land warfare that took form in Patterns of Conflict.
  3. More important, the fault line is clearly visible, in Chart 16.
  4. Most important, New Conception is the starkest example of the “dialectical engine” that Boyd proposed in “Destruction and Creation.” You don’t have to understand anything about energy-maneuverability to realize from charts 9-12 that Boyd was driving that methodology into greater and greater levels of complexity.
  5. Exactly as he predicted in “Destruction and Creation,” anomalies began to appear that required even more complexity to explain. Finally, Boyd realizes a new synthesis and proclaims it on the final chart: He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives. As Tom Christie notes, this is not a conclusion that one can derive from energy-maneuverability.
  6. Boyd makes expansive claims for his new insight — not only is this a “new conception for air-to-air combat” but also for waging war (chart 21). At this stage, of course, all he has to back this up is his intuition that he’s on to something new, elegant, and big.

So Boyd begins with geeky charts of fighter aircraft performance, has an epiphany, and is launched on the road to Patterns of Conflict. In fact, several charts from New Conception make an appearance, with various degrees of modification, at the beginning of Patterns.

It’s worth comparing New Conception carefully with Patterns. For example, the wording in chart 19 is similar to, but not exactly the same as that of Patterns 5.  Note that at this stage, Boyd still sees a fast transient as something an aircraft could generate (“natural hook”), but he also knows that in order to make good on his claim that he’s found a key to war, he has to get people into the loop. The OODA “loop” itself still lies in the future, but Boyd is already claiming that fast transients can produce mental and moral effects involving time scales, uncertainty, ambiguity, chaos, and these will prove decisive in war.

A PDF of New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, from a new Apple Keynote rendering, is now available on our Articles page, from the menu above.