Monday, April 20, 2009

Homer's Take on OODA Loops

"Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon hos mala polla"

So begins the first line of Homer's Odyssey. Translated, this line goes somewhat as follows. "Tell me, Muse, about the man of many ways, who very many"

Studying what Homer meant by "polutropon" many help us learn what John Boyd meant by OODA loops.

Placing the Odyssey's first line in its broader context, Samuel Butler translates as follows:

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.
Follow this link to get a translation for each word in the Odyssey's opening. Warning: Greek does not follow English word order.

Note that Butler translates "polutropon" as "ingenious;" while I translated it "of many ways." Do not be surprised by this. Homer has been around for more than 2500 years; so scholars have been picking his bones over and over again. Every single word of every major text, such as the Odyssey, is drilled into. You can spend hours with a classicist haggling over what "polutropon" might mean.

Basically, "polutropon" is a compound word, composed of "polu" and "tropon." "Polu" is Greek for "many;" root for such English words as polyglot, polymer, polymath, polyphony, and so forth. "Tropon" means "turns." So literally, "pollutropon" means "many turned." But what's that?

There are all sorts of meanings we might give it, in addition to Butler's and mine. Such meanings as "twisted," "facile," or "shifty" might apply. Yet such meanings as "widely traveled" and "experienced" also might apply. What meaning we may give to "polutropon" affects how we view both Odysseus the man and the Odyssey, the poem.

In recent years, military theory has been influenced by John Boyd's OODA loops. Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot, sought to understand how and why during the Korean War the American F-85 so completely outfought the Russian MIG-15 despite the apparent equality of these two airplanes. Looking deeply into the matter, Boyd discovered subtle but vital advantages the F-85 had which enabled American fighters better to observe the situation and more effectively to respond. Boyd theorized that these advantages would apply not only to dogfights in particular but to warfare in general. He formalized his theory of the OODA ( Observe; Orient; Decide; Act):

According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain the advantage. Frans Osinga argues that Boyd's own views on the OODA loop are much deeper, richer, and more comprehensive than the common interpretation of the 'rapid OODA loop' idea.[2]

Boyd developed the concept to explain how to direct one's energies to defeat an adversary and survive. Boyd emphasized that "the loop" is actually a set of interacting loops that are to be kept in continuous operation during combat. He also indicated that the phase of the battle has an important bearing on the ideal allocation of one's energies.

Boyd’s diagram shows that all decisions are based on observations of the evolving situation tempered with implicit filtering of the problem being addressed. These observations are the raw information on which decisions and actions are based. The observed information must be processed to orient it for further making a decision. In notes from his talk “Organic Design for Command and Control”, Boyd said,

This suggests that that OODA loops give "polutropon" a new meaning. A man who is "polutropon" gets inside others' OODA loops. And, indeed, Odysseus apparently often did just that, whether it was devising the Tojan Horse, getting out of Polyphemus' cave, or surprising the suitors. If this is correct, then the Odyssey illustrates Boyd theory in action while Odysseus serves as a model for the modern warrior.

Update: For another translation of "polutropon," See Robert Fitzgerald's:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,

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