The magic of the OODA loop

Observe, orient, decide, act: words to live or die by. Right now, Persephone is disoriented — on the run, cut off. It’s time to go on the offensive, work out where she is and what’s going on, then get the hell out of this trap.

I found myself reading this on page 160 of Charles Stross’s sci-fi novel, The Apocalypse Codex. Stross had mentioned the OODA loop in an earlier book in this series, so I wasn’t exactly shocked when I read it. But it was such a graphic illustration of how Boyd actually used the loop, as opposed to the usual “she observed, then oriented …” that I just had to send it to Chuck Spinney.

He reminded me that Boyd used to say that we had succeeded when the OODA loop began appearing — without attribution — in Superman comics. This being 30 years later, and the Man of Steel not perhaps enjoying the popularity he once did, I’m going to declare victory.

One nitpick: Boyd would have preferred “seize the initiative” to “go on the offensive,” but I think Stross’s formulation works better rhetorically and in this case means about the same thing. Thus, “go on the offensive” would be another way of saying “get inside their OODA loops,” and, as Persephone understands, the key is orientation.*

I ran across Stross’s work in a tweet by Paul Krugman announcing the seventh book in the Laundry Files series (The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth). The premise is that we live in a multiverse, and the creatures known as demons, devils, and spirits are actually inhabitants of other universes. What gives them entree to our space is mathematics, particularly complex and clever proofs. In other words, real magic, as contrasted with stage illusions, is applied mathematics. As computer science has evolved, more people are creating more intricate codings, which can be considered types of proofs, and so are opening up more gateways for these entities to move across.

As a reformed mathematician (Ph.D. 1971), I recall many times when, working alone late at night on some complex and convoluted proof, the appearance of a demon would not have been at all surprising. So his novels do have a nice basis in reality, and like all good storytellers, he just carries it that one little extra step. With OODA loops.


*Generally “go on the offensive” would not be synonymous with “get inside their OODA loops.” More on this and other OODA loop lore in my paper, “Boyd’s real OODA loop,” available along with all of Boyd’s works on our Articles page.

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2 thoughts on “The magic of the OODA loop

  1. I find the phrase, “…on the run, cut off.” very interesting, within the context of “disoriented”. To me, “on the run” mean a decision has been made and acted on, whereas “disorientation” usually means that one can’t make a decision.
    Likewise, “cut off” is the position you find yourself in, after all the decisions have been made and, after thinking about it, it is the posture you observe yourself to be in.
    In other words, on the run and cut off is not really a disorientation, but a reality.
    So, while you may not survive, you have made a decision to run or you are about to make a decision and join the otherside.
    I suppose it just depends on where those words show up in the narrative, as to if you made the decision or your competitor made the decision for you.

    • Hi Larry,

      Thanks. I think what Boyd had in mind was something like this, from Strategic Game:

      Strategic Game 44

      The trick is to recognize that you’re getting yourself into this situation and take action — regain the initiative — while there’s still time. Unfortunately, as Boyd suggests on Patterns 132 and Strategic Game 47, the more likely result is “mental isolation,” that is, to become captured by “uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and … collapse.”

      So what makes this interesting is that Persephone, through her training and experience, recognizes the symptoms — spiraling uncertainty, confusion and panic — and knows what to do to get out of this situation. Orientation is the Schwerpunkt (to coin a phrase.)

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