Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Boyd by Robert Coram

I've heard a lot about Boyd in various FLUX-adjacent circles. His ideas seem to have reached a critical mass, in which they are widely known in the business world, having matriculated there from their origin in the military. I enjoyed this account of Boyd's larger than life legacy. Boyd is vividly depicted as a complex, brilliant, funny, and flawed character. He made great contributions to organizational dynamics, but was abrasive and broadly disliked. He was a great mentor to his followers, but an uncaring and absent father.

Boyd seemed to combine two incongruous personas. On one hand, he was a "big jock", a boastful fighter pilot who was constantly in your face. In retrospect, Top Gun does a good job of conveying some of this fighter pilot machismo. On the other, he was a history nerd, and read widely on war and philosophy.

There's a lot to digest in this book, and I've tried to categorize the things I've learned (TIL!) into a few categories:

Organizational analogies to Google

Military performance reviews parallel my experience at Google. Except, their performance reviews are called ERs and peer reviews are called "indorsements". Similar to Google, positive indorsements from Generals (I guess L8+ Directors) are weighted heavily and are reason for promotion.

I was most interested in the author's insights on the dynamics of the military.

Boyd had an interesting pattern of ERs:

As had happened again and again in Boyd’s career, his immediate supervisor gave him a poor or mediocre rating, one that signaled it was time to get out of the Air Force, and again and again a general officer rescued him.

Politics between branches of the Military. Just like at Google, where different "orgs" are often less than friendly towards one another, the military has significant rivalries between branches:

THE Air Force has never made a serious study of warfare because every historically based effort to do so has come to the inescapable conclusion that the use of air power should be consistent with or—better yet— subordinate to the ground commander’s battle plans, a conclusion that argues against the existence of an independent Air Force.


Nothing galvanized an Air Force general more than being told the Navy was on his six.

Boyd's impact on the Air Force peaked with E-M theory, and his intellectual contributions did not really stick. They had a much warmer reception with the Army and especially with the Marine Corps, a warrior culture with utter contempt for the Air Force technocrats.

Military briefs seem to be a very specific kind of medium. This is a fascinating digression in itself:

The briefer has a pointer, which he should not use too often. He stands on a stage but should not move about too much. He has a lectern upon which he should not lean. He has slides or charts but is expected to know the material far beyond what is displayed.

It's also interesting how some of the culture parallels some aspects of culture at Google, perhaps analogous to pitching a project to a director or senior PM:

It is obvious that most people can read and assimilate information faster than they can learn something by listening to a dog and pony show. But the U.S. military culture is an oral culture and the bedrock of that culture is the briefing.

Franklin Roosevelt theory of management, bypassing sycophantic generals and seeking out from among relatively junior officers a few men who would tell him the truth. (See Franklin Roosevelt theory of management).

Corruption in the Pentagon. The real business of the Pentagon is buying weapons, which is a very idiosyncratic process. One big problem Spinney (one of Boyd's acolytes) identified was that defense contractors routinely underestimate costs so that Congress funds their programs. This is called front-loading.

Another issue has to do with the "revolving door" that shuffles former military officers into high-level jobs as defense contractors, just as the door pulls former hired guns into government careers.

Leaders are opposed to free play. To hone skills around OODA, Boyd set up exercises which were "immensely popular with most junior officers and just as unpopular with most senior officers." because

Free play means winners and losers; it means postexercise critiques by enlisted men as well as junior officers. No battalion commander enjoys being contradicted by a sergeant, especially if the sergeant is correct. And if a battalion commander loses a free-play exercise, he might lose his chance at promotion.

This is exactly the problem with prediction markets (see Prediction markets do not align with what leaders want).

Fighter pilot culture

A shocking number of pilots died training at Nellis, training to be fighter pilots. Incoming F-86 students were told, “If you see the flag at full staff, take a picture.” Boyd says that in one year, more than seventy pilots were killed. A historian at Nellis says he probably was conservative—that wing commanders sometimes doctored statistics if too many pilots died.

When a pilot augered in, screwed the pooch, fucked the duck, and bought the farm, then the base siren wailed and the blue car drove slowly and wives stood in the windows and the chaplain consoled and the flag hung at half staff.

This was a temporary trend, and safety was becoming paramount in the Air Force.

Dogfighting was becoming an arcane and almost lost art in the Air Force.

Cool fighter pilot slang - To "get on someone's six" is to be directly behind them. - To "have someone in your pipper" means to be missile-locked onto another fighter plane. - To "pull high G's" means to climb or bank abruptly, creating a lot of acceleration. - "Guns. Guns. Guns." is what you say when you have someone in your pipper as if shooting them in a training exercise. - A variable-geometry wing, commonly called the “swing wing.”

Fast transients are fighter pilot maneuvers like "flat-plating the bird." and the "buttonhook turn" and "energy dumping" were strongly preferred by the Fighter Mafia, describing planes like the YF-16 that could perform them as "shit hot".

He would be in the defensive position with a challenger tight on his tail, both pulling heavy Gs, when he would suddenly pull the stick full aft, brace his elbows on either side of the cockpit, so the stick would not move laterally, and stomp the rudder. It was as if a manhole cover were sailing through the air and then suddenly flipped 90 degrees. The underside of the fuselage, wings, and horizontal stabilizer became a speed brake that slowed the Hun from 400 knots to 150 knots in seconds. The pursuing pilot was thrown forward and now Boyd was on his tail radioing "Guns. Guns. Guns."

This "energy dumping" or Cobra maneuver used to be prohibitively expensive, but became common for lightweight fighters.

More complicated maneuvers like the button-hook turn also became possible. Even crazier, Kvochur's Bell or "tail sliding" became possible.

TIL there's a whole diagramming language of aerial maneuvers:

Many fighter pilots are short to fit into a tight cockpit of the plane. Tom Cruise comes to mind... :)

IDF Cameo involving Mordecai Hod, head of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), who reified the idea that aircraft guns make a lot of sense. In the Six Day War of June, the Israeli Air Force shot down sixty Arab jets while losing only ten fighters—an exchange ratio of six to one. Every Israeli kill was a gun kill. At the end of Hod's briefing,

a fighter pilot stood up and asked how the IAF got sixty gun kills. Hod paused, shrugged, and said, “Why waste a missile on an Arab?”

Fighters vs. bombers vs. test pilot culture. Bombers were in favor, with the military retooling for nuclear bombs because they believed that the next war would be nuclear.

Meanwhile, fighter pilots were the obsolete cowboys, but they had the fun job.

SAC’s bomber pilots might be the glamour boys. But to a fighter pilot, flying a B-47 or a B-52 was the aviation equivalent of being a bus driver.

Test pilots were another breed,

detached from the airplane they flew. Fighter pilots fell in love with their airplane. Test pilots talked of going into space. Space? And in a capsule? You don’t fly a fucking capsule, you sit in it and watch the instruments. You’re a passenger. To hell with space. Fighter pilots wanted to get on an enemy’s six and hose the sonofabitch.

Fighter pilot design

Energy–maneuverability theory is one of Boyd's first intellectual contributions. Fundamentally, it's a tool for fighter pilots to intuit the rate of change of energy available to the aircraft. For example, If I am at 30,000 feet and 450 knots and pull six Gs, how fast am I gaining or losing energy? Can my adversary gain or lose energy faster than I can?

The theory eventually became accepted in the Air Force and was instrumental in designing the F-16.

Guns or missiles? The Air Force was inherently technology obsessed, and rushed to embrace any new technology. This led to over eager adoption of missiles before they could lock very well. It also led to fighter planes that were crippled by having too many features in them (feature creep!)

The Air Force was only seven years old, but it was fast becoming not only a bureaucracy, but a technocracy that worshiped equipment and gadgets more than any other branch of the military. It was becoming hardware oriented and the goals for its hardware were simple: Bigger-Faster-Higher-Farther.

In particular, many generals mistakenly thought that "if an American pilot saw a blip on his radar, he pressed a button, launched a missile, and the blip disappeared. Poof! It was that simple.", but E-M data and computer simulations proved that reality was far different. And pilots knew it too:

Sparrow missiles performed so poorly they were considered little more than extra weight; more than one pilot punched them off his aircraft as soon as he was away from his home base.

Signs began showing up on the walls in the Pentagon: “It takes a fighter with a gun to kill a MiG-21.”

Swing-wing were too heavy and did not justify the benefits that they purported to provide. A straight wing is most efficient for low-speed flight, but swept wings are superior for supersonic speeds. However, this design became obsolete by the 1970s, and Boyd foresaw it.

During the summer of 1967, the Soviets introduced two new fighters: the swing-wing MiG-23 and the MiG-25. American fighter pilots laughed at the MiG-23 and said the only good thing about the F-111 was that the Soviets had copied it and thereby lost at least one generation of aircraft to bad technology.

F-111 design had too many miracles

When Boyd was coming up in his career, he predicted that the F-111 would be a failure.

Prudent designers usually make significant technological advances in only one of the three categories when they plan a new aircraft. But the F-111 was a high-tech wonder with two bold innovations, both of which were later to cause enormous problems.

Boyd knew that, left to its own devices, the bureaucracy always came up with an aircraft such as the F-111.

Startups should have exactly one miracle

Ultimately, Boyd was proven right when the disastrous results of Vietnam became well known. During the Korean War, the US boasted a 10-to-1 kill ratio, but in Vietnam, the ratio sank close to parity, at one point favoring the North Vietnamese.

When the war finally ended, one Air Force pilot would be an ace. North Vietnam would have sixteen.

F-X was designed with maneuvering specifications, the first plane in the US Air Force designed with dogfighting in mind.

The closest Boyd came to defining a specific technical solution was when he said the aircraft should pull enough Gs at 30,000 feet to “roll down your goddamn socks.”

Design by committee sucks. The design process of all projects Boyd was involved in was a huge struggle since it was designed by committee, and the plane became a huge kitchen sink.

...Boyd worked daily to remove things from the F-X, seemingly everyone else in the Air Force—the fire-control people, missile people, electronic-warfare people—wanted to add something. Maintenance people even insisted the aircraft carry a built-in maintenance ladder

Ultimately, Boyd lost many design battles:

The Air Force insisted on a speed greater than Mach 2. The Air Force insisted on a radar with a thirty-six-inch dome—a requirement that dictated a much larger fuselage than Boyd wanted.

This scope creep is a massive problem for products at Google too. Boyd was part of a ragtag team that tried to develop an alternative prototype:

Night after night they labored at the Pentagon, drawing plans for an airplane they called the “Red Bird,” a 33,000-pound stripped-down version of the F-X.

But it was never brought into production, since

all the three-stars who worked for [the Chief of Staff] wanted the bigger and heavier version of the F-X

Which was a huge blow to Boyd's ego:

He had cut some weight, and yes, he had killed the variable-sweep wing. But it had taken just about everything out of him to fight and fight and fight for so much that was so obvious.

Perhaps this disempowerment is just a feature of working for a large bureaucratic organization.

Tropospheric discontinuity is an interesting phenomenon (see wikipedia), explaining why it is meaningful to talk about discrete parts of the atmosphere. The speed of sound at sea level is ~340 m/s, and decreases as the temperature decreases until reaching ~10 km altitude, where it drops to 300 m/s. This part of the atmosphere is called the tropopause, the boundary that marks the troposphere from the stratosphere. Higher than that, temperature and the speed of sound decrease at a much slower rate than in the troposphere.

Boyd the person

Coram spends quite a bit of time pontificating on Boyd's personal life, which was often in a state of disrepair.

Boyd sayings - “Stroking the bishop. You’re just stroking the bishop.” - “I have found the dripping cock.” Secretaries wept at Boyd’s language. (Instead of "smoking gun") - It is said that Air Force careerists—“Blue Suiters”—would put on track shoes and climb up the backs of their mothers for [appealing] assignments. - “It’s too goddamn big, too goddamn expensive, too goddamn underpowered. It’s just not worth a good goddamn.” - “We don’t care what the Russians are doing. We only care about what the Navy is doing.” - Boyd asked “How did you get this data on the wing design?” The vice president charged off the cliff. “Wind-tunnel tests,” he said. “Fuck a wind tunnel,” Boyd roared. He pointed up. “The biggest wind tunnel in the world is up there. It’s called reality. This is not reality.” - “Goddamn airplane is made out of balonium.” - Boyd's “air-to-rug maneuver,” happened once, where his phone call with a Blue Suiter caused him to fall out of his chair. - “If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty.” - “There are only so many ulcers in the world and it is your job to see that other people get them.” - “Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.” - “People, ideas, hardware—in that order.” - “They still believe in high diddle diddle, straight up the middle.” - “So you got your reward; you got kicked in the teeth. That means you were doing good work. Getting kicked in the teeth is the reward for good work.”

Boyd's "Acolytes" all subscribed to the "do something" idea, were not career oriented. They were "extraordinarily bright, all have an almost messianic desire to make a contribution to the world in which they live, all are men of probity and rectitude, and all—while independent in the extreme"

Many of these people were long-term collaborators from all over the military. Notably Thomas Christie, Pierre Sprey, Everest Riccioni, and others also formed a controversial ad-hoc group jokingly called the Fighter Mafia (a rejoinder to the Bomber Mafia) and strongly advocated for a lightweight fighter pilot.

Christie the Finagler, Sprey the Intelligent, Leopold the First, Spinney the Brash, and Burton the Unbending.

Boyd the Legend Separating legend from truth was an ongoing challenge for me while reading the book, especially considering that

deep in the bone marrow of a fighter pilot—exaggeration and the belief that a good story is more important than sticking with the bare facts.

Incapable of compromise. The author speculates that had Boyd been promoted, he would have been a terrible general because of his inability to compromise, and lack of patience for those that disagreed with him. Compromise is often a strength for Very Senior Leadership

Extreme frugality. Boyd's Stoic approach to life led him astray. He thought that if

if a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him (если у вас нену тети...)

He refused to ever purchase a home to raise his five children, and they despised him for it. He was so cheap that he carried his glasses in an old sock.

Big Ideas

To Be or To Do refers to a famous speech delivered by Boyd, which came out of his realization that he would never make general:

But hard work and success do not always go together in the military, where success is defined by rank, and reaching higher rank requires conforming to the military’s value system.

Boyd made powerful enemies due to his outspoken nature, his lack of reluctance to criticize his superiors, and his love of conflict with others.

Study after study shows that the higher in rank a military officer ascends, the less likely he is to make change.

Boyd's speech summarized succinctly:

If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into Leopold’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

How to comply without really complying, Boyd was a master of this, for example when a general gave him a direct order to write a paper Boyd disagreed with, he complied, but then wrote a follow-up paper explaining in detail why he disagreed with his own paper.

And he told the general he considered the two papers a package; if the first one were released, he would release the second.

Boyd did not succeed in Disagree without being disagreeable, but still an interesting path.

Snowmobiling, John Boyd’s term, is how creativity really happens. It is destructive deduction combined with creative synthesis. Boyd used a thought experiment to show how destruction and creation lead to creativity. Unlike Schumpeter's gale, Boyd emphasized creative synthesis. (see Snowmobiling - creativity is deduction followed by synthesis).

Sun Tzu > von Clausewitz. Here I am really unmoored, not having read von Clausewitz. Boyd was opposed to a WWI-era idea of bringing the enemy to a gigantic decisive battle, instead favoring Sun Tzu's approach of unraveling the enemy before the battle occurs, perhaps avoiding the battle entirely!

  • Von Clausewitz believes wars are decided by set piece battles more than by strategy, deception, and guerrilla-like tactics. This means that even if he wins, there is a bloodbath.
  • Sun Tzu believes in generating confusion, disorder, panic, and chaos. It's analogous to clipping the nerves, muscles, and tendons of an enemy, thus reducing him to jelly.

Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Boyd is probably most famous for formulating the OODA loop, the process by which military strategists make decisions. By understanding it, one can develop an understanding of how to unravel one's enemy (see OODA Loops).

A key idea is that speed is of the essence. A successful commander must operate at a faster OODA Loop than does his opponent. This is why Boyd was so opposed to the idea of synchronization. This evening up the front line meant an army moves at the speed of its slowest unit.

One must truly understand how the enemy thinks to get under their skin (see Theory of Mind and unpredictability). Boyd's rejoinder to the machine-obsessed Air Force mindset was that

“Machines don’t fight wars,” he responded. “Terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where the battles are won.”

I love this human-centricity, and it's what got me into HCI in the first place. Without a good interface, the best software is garbage.

Next - Watch El Cid, one of Boyd's favorite movies - Is there some high level overview of military history? I feel a large gap, and Coram has done some good name-dropping:

But some had never heard of Sun Tzu and could not spell “von Clausewitz.” They might have known the names of Douhet or Jomini or von Schlieffen or Fuller or Guderian or Lawrence or Balck, but few knew the theories espoused by these men.

(I know none of these men)

He told them of Sun Tzu and the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. and of Arbela in 331 B.C. and of Cannae in 216 B.C. He told them of Genghis Khan and Belisarius and Napoléon, of Heinz Guderian and of what made great commanders.

(I know few of these battles)

  • Look into General Patton because this quote is amazing. Perhaps time to watch "Patton".

A simplistic explanation of cheng and ch’i comes from General George Patton, who in World War II said his plan for attacking the Germans was to “hold them by the ~~nose~~ balls and kick them in the ass.” Holding them by the nose is the cheng. Kicking them in the ass is the ch’i.

  • Probably worth reading Thomas Cleary's translation of Art of War. Lots of interesting aikido style ideas: "swordlessness", etc.
  • What’s the story with Dick Cheney? In my mind he is forever tainted by the Iraq war, but honestly don't know much beyond that. He seems to have been quite respected in Boyd's acolyte circles.
  • Check out the Marine Corps Gazette, which published a translation of Mao on guerrilla warfare in 1941, wrote extensively about Sun Tzu.
  • Maybe read "Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business" for a more pre-digested take.
  • Maybe watch "Legends of the Fall", a movie that seems to have affected Boyd emotionally (a rare thing).