Welcome readers old and new. This is one of Thomas Hollands’ notes in his search for ideas which are surprisingly general, or generally surprising. The first issue explains the project, and you can find all past issues here.
OODA: A very short introduction
One of the goals of this newsletter is to explore peoples’ “personal theories of everything” which can be applied in lots of different circumstances. Many thinkers have their own such theories, but few are as interesting and as useful as Colonel John Boyd’s.
Boyd was a truly larger-than-life figure, and deserves recognition for many things: being the best fighter pilot in the US airforce, developing the first physical theory of air-to-air combat, and extending upon Sun Tzu’s work to develop new ground warfare tactics, which allowed the US to win the Gulf War in 5 days. Central to his thinking is the concept he is best-known for: the OODA loop.
An OODA loop is a model for how humans act within a certain environment. OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. First we must gather basic data about our environment by observing it. Then, we orient ourselves within this environment — we work out how we relate to other entities in our vicinity. Once we have oriented ourselves, a suite of decisions occur naturally. We then choose the best one and carry it out. Rinse, repeat.
For example: when I wake up in the morning I first observe my surroundings. How bright is it outside? How tired do I feel? Is my alarm going off? Am I bursting for the toilet? From testing these hypotheses I can orient myself — I have woken up in the middle of the night. Next, I can decide what to do: Roll back over and try to sleep, check the time on my phone, go to the toilet, grab a glass of water, and so on. Finally I act — I go to the toilet, before climbing back into bed. Wake, sleep, OODA loop, repeat.
We are inside an OODA loop for all our waking hours, but most of the time we don’t realise it. That is because most of our actions are not deliberate, instead they are unconscious, carrying out habits and patterns formed over hours of repetition. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I don’t actually test each hypothesis in turn. Instead, I integrate all the sensory data I’m receiving almost instantaneously, before acting straightaway. An internal model, which I don’t have explicit access to, does most of the orienting and deciding for me, and my action occurs naturally as a result.
You can see this difference between implicit and explicit models when watching a chess match between a novice and an expert. Each time a player makes a move, the board position, the environment they’re operating in, changes. The novice requires lots of time to work out the consequences of his board position, and lots of time deliberating between moves. Conversely, the expert can glance at the board and instantly know the “right” move to take. This pace of action is important.
Becoming a Timelord
Thinking in OODA loops is most powerful when time is concerned. In the example of chess, if there is no clock, time is not a factor. It doesn’t matter if I, a novice, take 10 times as long to choose a move than my expert opponent, as long as I eventually choose a good move. It is only when we consider games that are real-time instead of turn-based that the power of thinking in OODA loops is fully realised.
In adversarial sports like boxing or fencing, the environment is constantly changing. Instead of jumping between discrete board positions like in chess, the state of the game flows continuously as each opponent jostles for position, feints, strikes, blocks, dodges. Each opponent is acting and reacting to the other; they are changing each other’s environment in real-time.
In situations like this, you have an advantage if you can react faster than your opponent. Thanks to your superior mental model — your ability to “see” — you actually experience the passage of time slower than your opponent. This means you can go through the OODA loop faster. If you can feedforward from observing-to-acting faster than your opponent, you can alter your opponent's environment faster than he can orient himself within it. You change his environment faster than his awareness of the change. What to you might seem like a well-timed strike will to him seem like being hit out of nowhere. In the lingo, you are operating inside his OODA loop.
When this is the case, you can set the tempo of the fight. You can throw in moves which deceive your opponent — making him think the environment is different to how it truly is. Baiting him. When he takes the bait, you can throw the switch — disorienting him and leading to confusion.
This is a superpower, and it is all thanks to having a tighter feedback loop than your opponent.
Who are we denouncing today that we will be revering in 40 years?
Ned Davies asked this question on Twitter a few weeks ago and I haven’t been able to get it out my mind since. He was referring to George Orwell, who was criticised in his time, but is revered today for being on the right side of history on almost every major issue.
I present three guesses below, one conservative, one controversial, and a wildcard.
Conservative guess — Margaret Atwood
This woman can mf write.
Atwood is a Canadian national treasure, probably best known for writing The Handmaid’s Tale, and loads of other great books. She’s a liberal feminist but still managed to get on the wrong end of the #metoo backlash, and has been consistently criticised by the woke left ever since.
I think she’ll be remembered in 40 years time for her speculative fiction: Oryx and Crake (my favourite of her novels) warns of a vastly unequal world ruled by biotechnology mega-corporations, where the rich take expensive life extension therapies and live on compounds occasionally attacked by environmental terrorists, while the poor are fed highly genetically modified animal protein and live in slums.
We might be heading in this direction.
Controversial guess — Jordan Peterson
This guy can mf talk. And eat a lot of steak.
Peterson is another Canadian writer, best known for getting really annoyed with Ontario legislation on gender pronouns, writing a fairly banal self-help book that sold millions of copies, and for OWNING reporters with FACTS and LOGIC.
Notoriety aside, he is also a careful thinker: he spent 20 years working on a book about “the architecture of belief” (haven’t read it, lmk if it’s any good). He also embraced the internet early and has uploaded all of his lectures online. He covers a serious diversity of topics, from personality psychology to the meaning of the Bible. I highly recommend some of his lectures on relationships (once you get past the clickbait titles).
But I think he’ll be remembered for something that most of his detractors don’t currently acknowledge: he has pinpointed a problem with modern masculinity — namely that many men don’t have a belief system that allows them to become valued, well-adjusted members of society — and is providing constructive solutions. His lectures sell out stadiums around the world, where he encourages old-fashioned ideas like taking responsibility for your actions, and “picking up your suffering and bearing it”, to a crowd of mostly young men who would otherwise be drinking beer and playing video games. He talks these disenfranchised young men down from their alt-right ledge. And in 40 years time we’ll thank him for it.
Wildcard — Mitt Romney
When/if you think of Mitt Romney you probably think of this Mitt Romney:
*Slaps SPV* This bad boy can fit so many Leveraged Buyouts in it
A successful businessman born into a wealthy religious family who became so masterful at navigating the corridors of power that he almost took his big-business friendly, religious-conservatism to the White House.
But there is another Mitt Romney:
Mask pinched correctly over the nose.
The Mitt Romney who early-on, advocated wearing masks to stop the spread of Covid. The Mitt Romney who marched with Black Lives Matter Protestors. The Mitt Romney who organised the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and made 100 million dollars for his hometown (!). The Mitt Romney who, though he leans religiously conservative on some social issues, models the acts of inclusion and productive disagreement that democracies are built on.
40 years from now I think we’ll hold ol’ Mitt up as one of the good guys.
What do you think?
I’d love to know who you think we’re denouncing today that we’ll revere in 40 years’ time.