Masters of the Snowmobile: Musashi, Boyd, Musk

In 1645, as he was looking back at his long and successful career as a samurai, where a single loss often meant death, Miyamoto Musashi concluded that although rigorous sword practice was essential, it wasn’t enough. At the end of the first chapter of A Book of Five Rings, he also admonishes aspiring warriors to “Cultivate a wide variety of interests in the arts” and “Be knowledgable in a wide variety of occupations.”

Similarly, Boyd, who was was a keen student of Musashi, described his method as looking across a wide variety of fields — “domains” he called them — searching for underlying principles, “invariants.” He would then experiment with syntheses involving these principles until he evolved a solution to the problem he was working on. Because they involved bits and pieces from a variety of domains, he called these syntheses “snowmobiles” (skis, handlebar from a bicycle, etc.)

One of his early snowmobiles appeared in New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, his first product after retiring from the Air Force:


and the domains included air-to-air combat, wars and raids, mathematical logic, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics.

He made his methodology explicit at the beginning of Strategic Game, where he laid out the source domains:


Drawing on the sources listed at the end of Patterns of Conflict, the accession list of his material at the Marine Corps Library, and my own recollection, I expanded Chart 12 to include all his briefings:


Now, writing on, author Michael Simmons concludes that a similar methodology underpins the success of serial entrepreneur Elon Musk:

At first, Musk’s reading spanned science fiction, philosophy, religion, programming, and biographies of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. As he got older, his reading and career interests spread to physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and energy. This thirst for knowledge allowed him to get exposed to a variety of subjects he had never necessarily learned about in school.

Musk’s snowmobiles include PayPal, Tesla (the car and the solar power company), the Hyperloop, and SpaceX.  Note that although Boyd’s and Musk’s domain sets overlap (no surprise — both technologists), Musk’s included religion and science fiction, two areas that didn’t interest Boyd.  In that sense, perhaps, Musk carried the process even further than did Boyd.

An important point is that both Boyd and Musk developed a level of expertise in these fields, enough to recognize the fundamentals, the invariants, among them. You can’t do this simply by reading about them. You actually have to roll up your sleeves and try them. Build a little Fingerspitzengefühl.  Eventually, as Boyd observed later in Strategic Game, you build a little of this intuitive feeling for the domains and a whole lot for the process itself:


The trick to all this seems to be to develop in yourself an attitude where this cross-specialty mining and refining becomes fun. Otherwise you won’t stick with it long enough to do you any good.  Anybody who saw Boyd at the Wednesday evening happy hours at Ft. Myer could appreciate that he had certainly accomplished this.

15 thoughts on “Masters of the Snowmobile: Musashi, Boyd, Musk

  1. It’s not so much that, “He who can handle the quickest rate of change survives”, that is true. Survival also depends on the domain that the change is happening in.
    The environment that the OODA loop exists in is made up of 3 domains. The domain of physics, which is a part of structure; logic, which is a part of both culture and structure; and ethics, which are the forces that make up both structure and culture and gives the loop both its position and posture. So are we talking change in structure, culture or ethics? If your rate of change in ethics is quicker than your competitor: are you actually winning?

    Posture in the real world is the image of the loop as it distributes–position is the center of gravity or center of mass that the image comes from, in the terms of a network.
    Position represent a part of the advantage an orientation has, within the context of its network, while the posture is an explicit image that represents the distribution of energy, within the context of distance and direction.
    If you have a point, a distance, and direction you pretty much have an image of your Orientation.
    It then comes down to: do you share that image, of a quickly changing ethics, or not?
    The same can be said of structure and culture.
    Which is a pretty complex problem with an exponent.

    • Boyd used to remind people that you can have physical agility and you can have mental agility, but “moral agility” would mean no morals at all.

      • And I think that is the difference between moral and ethics.
        Ethics are the forces that position an orientation and structures its posture in an image to the world.
        Morals closes its OODA loop.
        So an orientation needs to build on its ethics, while holding on to its morals.
        Not an easy proposition.

      • a little topic drift, from facebook boyd group

        OODA Loop 2.0: Information, Not Agility, Is Life

        The F-35 is a high bandwidth, networked, highly capable sensor/weapon, low observable platform that is superior in the information domain over all other types of aircraft. It will continue to win the “information dog fight” against all other adversaries if it maintains its IM advantage. This is information dominance. This same principle is also true for the Third Offset warfare areas of Electromagnetic Maneuver (EMW) and Cyber Warfare.

        … snip …

        or more cyberdumb??? Raytheon awarded 3DELRR radar contract. Again.

        Although Lockheed did not win, they appear to have a fan of their offering — in 2014, a Chinese radar bearing heavy similarity to the Lockheed design appeared at a trade show. The company was famously hacked in 2009, with consensus that the Chinese government was behind it.

        and more “cyberdumb”, most major classified weapon systems

        Report: China gained U.S. weapons secrets using cyberespionage
        Confidential report lists U.S. weapons system designs compromised by Chinese cyberspies
        REPORT: Chinese Hackers Stole Plans For Dozens Of Critical US Weapons Systems
        A list of the U.S. weapons designs and technologies compromised by hackers

      • Might be more accurate to say “understanding” instead of “information.” But then, effective actions still have to flow from this understanding / orientation.

      • “Might be more accurate to say “understanding” instead of “information.” But then, effective actions still have to flow from this understanding / orientation.”
        True enough, but understanding is still a judgement call.
        When understanding reaches a certain level then the scale, created out of the ethical forces within the loop,tips.
        I believe this “tipping” happens between Decision and Action, and not between Orientation and Decision. In fact, a decision represent a “tip”, whereas “understanding” is a “smoothing” or damping of the scales, from one end to the other, which can only happen, as an example, if there is collateral damage. Collateral damage is transparency.
        This “damage” happens after the Decision has been made, but during the Act .
        Like “knowledge”, “understanding” is a destructive force that is just as destructive to the structure of the scales (loop) as it is to the culture of the objects sitting on the scales (and inside the loop).
        These “objects” are “seen” in observation, and changed by the feedback and feedforward coming from the future and historic Action of the past, verses what is being observed at the moment.
        If the collateral damage represents a zero sum force, then there is no change within the OODA loop. If the collateral damage represents a non-zero sum force, then there is change.
        That moment, in the tip between Decision and Action, represents a judgement, but the change of that judgement, at times, is hard to observe, considering its location, i.e. between Decision and Action and how it is postured within the OODA loop.
        Just saying… you have to be agile in posturing in life, but you also have to understand what position being and doing “agile” means and represents.

      • there was old hierarchy in various Boyd discussion from decade or so ago


  2. I’m surprised Boyd never covered music, for example improvisational jazz, and
    elements of progressive rock, that employed innovation and adaptation.

  3. Interesting, that could be possible.
    Pierre certainly makes up for that though.
    Improvisational jazz, and rock music like King Crimson, for example
    is very dynamic. Conflict and combat should be conducted like
    improvisational live music, I believe that Bruce lee, and Boyd
    might agree.
    Perhaps ?

  4. “An important point is that both Boyd and Musk developed a level of expertise in these fields, ”
    I’m not so much of a fan of Musk, and I read Eric Peters criticism of his automotive endeavors, with great interest. There is no denying that the man is talented mind you, and has worked
    the system in his favor and to indulge his aspirations.

    I like the graphical presentation on this thread, and was stuck by the similarity
    to an artists palette. Another metaphor could be a tool kit.
    And whereby and for example, a screw drive is called for, but in combination
    with a pair of channel lock plyers, can exert more leverage, when called for.



    • Perpendicularly grasping the handle of a screwdriver with Channel Lock pliers and applying torque does mean an increase in leverage, but the screwdriver (and the tip specifically) is not built to handle the increase in force, at a relevant safety factor.
      The only way to assure years of continued service is to not mess with a tool’s safety factor.
      Likewise, grasping the narrow head of a hard fastener, directly with Channel Lock pliers, can adversely affect the structural integrity of the teeth, of the jaws, of the pliers, through non-harmonic cultural relationships.
      Culture and structural integrity are two things to watch out for.
      Pliers and screwdrivers are of different orientations, and care, by the Actor, must be taken into consideration, when exchanging one orientation for another.
      A snowmobile and a bicycle are of similar orientations and ethics, but different structures and cultures, which (in the context of change) is a much better way to go.
      An orientation represents some type of an advantage in an environment, and the change, between a snowmobile and a bicycle, doesn’t represent a change in the advantage of the orientation, only a changing environment.
      Channel Locks on screw driver doesn’t represent a changing environment, only a change of forces (ethics).
      In a way, the safety factor represent the ethics of both the screwdriver and Channel Lock pliers.

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