John Boyd

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Boyd_(military_strategist)#/media/File:JohnBoyd_Pilot.jpg, Public Domain

Occasionally, you find out about someone who has toiled in obscurity, and has passed away, but in retrospect has had an enormous impact on the world.  The late Colonel John Boyd (USAF) is one of those folks.  The biography by Coram is a good start; there’s another discussion of his work by the Marine Corps University.  He was a no-nonsense sort of guy, and told a lot of people (including his superiors) that they were doing stuff wrong, and were going to get a lot of people killed if things continued the way they were going.  He was instrumental in the design of the F-15, F-16, and his philosophy was part of the success of the A-10, and of the ‘left hook’ strategy that was used in the first Gulf War.   He was responsible for the E-M theory used to compare aircraft for combat, and was the person behind the deceptively simple (but actually quite complex) OODA loop.   His commentary on the Pentagon way of doing things has been talked about by many.

Given our current landscape of future probabilities and predicaments, one wonders what a John Boyd would say about things.  Reading his biography, there was no mention of climate change, financial catastrophe, or the possibility of near-term human extinction, but what would a mind like his have thought, if he had been tasked with the mission of figuring out what to do, or how to handle these conundrums?

Boyd was an always prepared sort of person – he always said you have to “do your homework,” and many who have a different take on the future hawked by the techno-elite know that combating these fantasies requires a good grounding in engineering, science, finance, and mathematics.  Boyd seems like the person who would have easily mastered these topics, given his drive and success in becoming an expert on a wide variety of specialties.

Boyd was part of the ‘Fighter Mafia‘, a group of thinkers who thought differently, and (according to a few footnotes, not immune to criticism), were probably a good counter to the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Pentagon, all told.   There are criticisms of every person on the blog roll to the right, in every corner of the Bates collapsnik chart, but the questioning of the status quo is certainly desperately needed.

Boyd has a lot of great quotes; most telling perhaps, which relates to more than warfare:

“Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.” He also preached, “People, ideas, hardware – in that order.” Thus, machines and technology must serve the larger purpose.

Questions:

  • Boiling down the performance of a fighter aircraft to a single number is more likely easier than trying to distill a single number for an economy or ecosystem.   Could a reasonably understood metric be used to help sway public opinion on our various predicatments?  Or are things just too complex?   In the financial world, P/E ratios, and other metrics tell a compelling story that things are quite overvalued, but for many “it’s different this time,” and those things don’t matter.
  • Boyd passed away in 1997; what do you think his acolytes might say about our current situation?
  • Who in the collapsnik world is most like Boyd?  There are lots of smart and well read people in this sphere; who makes some of the best compelling arguments?
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