Skiing the Ruts

When I began writing this blog entry, it was still winter in Idaho. Then (if I may be forgiven), I got into a writer’s rut out of which I have only recently hauled my slightly frostbitten muse. E kala mai ia’u (please excuse me).

At any rate, global warming is nowhere in evidence in Idaho. It was a record cold winter and an above average snow pack; we were still getting snow flurries as late as May 20th. The rivers are so full from runoff that the outfitters (river raft guides) are having their best season in years. Technically, you can still ski in the backcountry if you are willing to climb for the thrill of doing so. Needless to say, spring has also been late: my lilacs have only just popped, though here we are in late June.

It may seem strange to be talking about Nordic skiing instead of, say, a summer sport like mountain biking but a) I don’t know anybody who has ended up in the emergency room from Nordic skiing (whereas I know a lot of post-traction mountain bikers) and b) if you aren’t doing your sport, and you are serious about it, you are always training or thinking about what you can do to improve.

I switched from “traditional” Nordic skiing to “skate skiing” a few years ago, mostly to keep up with my Siberian husky. For those who are not Nordic (aka cross-country) skiing fiends, if you go out on a Nordic trail, they are often groomed so that both skate skiers and traditional Nordic skiers can use the same trail. Special snow cats cut grooves in the snow so that the traditional (aka “kick and glide”) Nordic skiers can move easily. The snow cats also flatten the trail so that we skate skiers can glide merrily along (passing the generally slower traditional Nordic skiers). I like skate skiing because it is fast and more aerobic than traditional Nordic skiing and because on a good day, it is like surfing a long board. (Glide: it’s all about the glide.)

Nordic skiing, especially skate skiing, is not about being the strongest or the even the fastest skier – it’s about technique. Most particularly, it is about efficiency. The more distance you can travel with the least effort, the longer you can go. Endurance is important, of course, but endurance is facilitated by good technique. For example, an extra 2 inches in your glide per step adds up over the 5K, 10K, or 15K you are out there. If you cover the same territory with 500 fewer “steps” than your equally fit competitor, you win. It’s the skiing equivalent of “do more with less.” (Only in Nordic skiing, you actually can do more with less; in fact, it is preferable.)

If you love to ski, as I do, you get good at learning not only ways to be more efficient as you ski (lengthen that glide!) but ways to “cheat” and rest (instead of powering through every step). The more efficient you are, the longer you can stay out on a beautiful day when the sky is slate gray, the snow covers all the hills, and the only spot of color is the burnt orange of dormant Arctic willows awaiting spring.

One of the ways I cheat is to use the traditional Nordic ruts when I am skate skiing. That is, when my legs get tired and I don’t feel like skating, I get in the ruts and push myself along, especially when going downhill – it is easier than skating. More control, less effort, your upper body does all the work and your legs just – rest. To be honest, my regular “workout run” in winter is between the 7K and 11K markers on the Harriman Trail. On the way back, it is almost all downhill so I get in the ruts and pole myself along. Whee!

In short, ruts are good. Ruts are your friends. Ruts help you go farther and faster if you use them properly: to rest, glide and do the distance the easy way instead of the hard way.

Now, the idea of ruts being good goes against received wisdom. Most people use ruts in the pejorative sense. For example, “I’m in a rut.” My is in a rut. If you think about it, “in a rut” in some cases is just a negative spin on “in the groove.” Surfers would say, “I got it wired.” “Got it wired” is surf lingo for knowing a surf spot really well: whether the waves breaks best on a high or low tide (and on what swell direction), and where the strike zone is: where, exactly the wave is going to break, so you know where to sit. The surfer who has it wired can (all things being equal) catch the most waves with the least amount of work.

Even though “ruts” can make things easy, even a generally useful rut can in some cases hold you back (hence, the expression “being in a rut”). For example, I can do the same 8K loop (from the 7K to the 11K marker on the Harriman Trail and back) and I did it often this winter. However, even if the terrain is the same, it is sometimes useful to ski from the 11K marker to the 7K marker and back. Why? Because I am skiing downhill on the way out and uphill on the way back. Which means I am pushing myself when I am tired, instead of coasting when I am tired. And I build endurance by “getting out of the ruts” literally, since I can’t use them going uphill. Getting out of your ruts from time to time is very useful. Even a good rut can hold you back.

One of the personal rut-breaking moments I have experienced lately came courtesy of a good friend who – like me – shares a deep love for nā mea ‘apau Hawai’i (all things Hawaiian). We like to get together and “talk story.” On one recent such occasions, Palani gave me an eye-opening rut buster. He noticed that, at a conference we had both attended, I was besieged by people wanting “just a minute of my time to talk about X.” Palani told me he thought I had an ‘opihi problem. I laughed because I knew what ‘opihi are. They are mollusks: limpets, actually. More specifically, ‘opihi are opportunistic mollusks – they wait until a moving object goes by in the water, they latch onto it, and can only be removed with a crowbar. (They are actually considered a delicacy by Hawaiians and nice lū’au food.)

After I was done laughing myself sick, I realized that Palani had highlighted A Truth. The world is full of people who want to “network” (which actually is a noun, but ‘opihi use it as a verb) where the specific definition of “network” means “asking for a favor that will be a lot of work for the askee, not taking no for an answer and then sucking all the oxygen out of the room, leaving the askee gasping for air.”

The Truth is that one’s reward for being helpful is too often a big ‘opihi infestation. I note emphatically that helping a friend through a bad period (e.g., dissolving marriage, health crisis) does not fall into the categorization of “‘opihi infestation.” One of the blessings of friendship includes “bearing one another’s burdens.” You do that gladly for people you love. Neither does being helpful and kind when you can (also known as “living aloha”) count toward becoming a future member of ‘Opihi Anonymous.

That said, after my discussion with Palani, I started thinking about how my tendency to be helpful had allowed a lot of ‘opihi to barnacle my ride, to the point that things I want to do get pushed aside to make room for more ‘opihi. I found myself becoming quite cranky, and whose fault was it, really? I should have painted myself with ‘opihi repellant and sailed on by those opportunistic mollusks.

For example, recently, an acquaintance asked me for a favor that was not in my professional area of expertise. I said I’d pass his interest in FOO along to someone I know (BAR) who might be able to help him (and I was at a meeting with BAR a few weeks ago so it was a convenient discussion to have). What was a favor – and a stretch for me – turned into “I really need you to do this because it is my PhD dissertation and I need people to fill out my questionnaire.” (“Gee, maybe you should have picked a research topic that was not so difficult to get people to work with you on. And did I mention for the 15th time that This is Not My Area of Expertise?”) I got emails, I got phone calls, I not nagged on weekends, until (fairly quickly) I said, “I will do one thing for you, then you are on your own.”

Most of us (me included) are willing to be helpful to others if we can. There is a big difference between doing a favor as you can, and allowing ‘opihi to attach to your ship as you sail by, thereby reducing your aerodynamics, clogging your intake valves and requiring expensive ‘opihi removal services. It crowds out other things you could be doing that would be more productive, bring you more pleasure or that would lengthen your stride, so to speak. To quote my buddy Palani, “Eh Sistah, No Mo’ ‘Opihi.” * I am getting out of the ‘opihi rut and not feeling guilty about it one li’ili’i (eensy) bit.

My second example is a “rut breaker” who changed not only his sphere of influence but whose ideas percolated into other arenas. In fact, he is one of the most influential people you’ve probably never heard of. His name was John Boyd and he changed the art of war.

Major John Boyd was an Air Force fighter pilot, whose energy maneuverability (E-M) theory encapsulated how and why fighter pilots win in aerial combat. His street creds came from his days as “40 second Boyd,” whose bet that he could defeat any opponent in aerial combat in 40 seconds or less went uncollected by any and all challengers. He was also - and infamously - a pain in the ‘ōkole of the United States Air Force, who thought they could banish Boyd to the basement of the Pentagon, only to have him become an insistent gadfly in the procurement arena. In part, Boyd’s intransigence resulted from his desire to have his E-M knowledge manifested in actual aircraft designs (e.g., the F-15).

What Boyd came up with (to simplify his legacy) is called the OODA loop. His idea was that what makes one warrior prevail over another in a dogfight – or, by extension – one group of warriors prevail over another – is agility. He categorized agility via the acronym by which his work is recognized: OODA – observe, orient, decide and act. His theory, briefly, is that one of the ways you can prevail against an enemy is to get within his decision-making and response capability. Getting inside the enemy’s OODA loop disrupts his ability to react and gives you the advantage. (His work on quantifying and describing qualities of agility were also embedded within the design for the F-15 which he fought for relentlessly.)

Boyd’s theories have been tremendously influential and not just within the Air Force (to whom he – unfortunately – remained a problem child and who therefore did not really accord Boyd the recognition he deserved). Marines love him, to the point that when he died and was buried in Arlington Cemetery, the story goes that nobody from the Air Force showed up, but the Marines did. One of them took the globe-and-anchor device off his uniform and placed it on Boyd’s grave (probably the highest tribute a Marine can pay to another individual). Boyd’s theories were applied to battlefield maneuvers in the first Gulf War with spectacular results. They’ve also been applied to the business world.

John Boyd’s work was and is a rut-breaker – some of the most innovative and influential ideas to change the art of war. If and as applied to security, it could also be a rut breaker in ways I leave it to better minds than mine to contemplate. For example, suppose system components were clever enough to dynamically reconfigure themselves under attack? More specifically, what if networks could self defend by “observing” what was happening on the network, “orienting” themselves in the larger network battle space “deciding” on a defensive posture, and “adapting” to a different configuration (that is, get “inside” an attackers’ OODA loop)? Static defenses are hard-pressed to prevail over dynamic ones, and as we know, many attacks are already automated and dynamic. Attackers often win because they are inside the enterprise’s OODA loop so that – it stands to reason - static defenses (and for that matter, passive defenses) will never prevail. If it is not already obvious, cyberspace is a battlefield, and no battle is ever won on the defensive.

I recently did a couple of talks at a university, one of which focused on the idea of synthesis: looking for templates or knowledge that can be applied to cybersecurity in other disciplines (economics, history, biology and military strategy were several areas I mentioned). Looking for answers in other disciplines is, paradoxically, both embracing a rut, because you realize there are very few truly “new” problems (“There is nothing new under the sun” – Ecclesiastes) and busting the security rut, by expanding the venues in which we look for answers.

My last rut example is more personal. I went to Hawai’i for two weeks to surf and recharge. My ruts included surfing my favorite surf break (“Pops”) every day but one, to listening to my new favorite Hawaiian music group (Maunalua - who just won another Nā Hōkū (Hawaiian music) award for best group) no less than six times when I was there. Bless their hearts, they played "Koke’e" for me every evening, too. I could go someplace else, but no place else relaxes or recharges me quite the way Hawai’i does. Just like gliding downhill on those winter ski ruts, I am in the groove, joyful and renewed.

*This is pidgin, not Hawaiian. You will hear both in Hawai’i and both are da kine.

For more information:

More on ‘opihi:

There’s a Hawaiian music group called the ‘Opihi Pickers:

More on Maunalua (support Hawaiian music!):

You can find "Koke’e" recorded at:

A great book on John Boyd by Robert Coram:

More on Boyd:

More on OODA loops:

Robert Coram has also written another book on Col. Bud Day, the most decorated living veteran and whose story ought to be required reading for every American:

The incredibly expensive but probably worth it (I have not read it) book about Boyd’s theories:


Hi Mary Ann Interesting to see that you are fan of Boyd's theories I am looking into applying this body of knowledge to Project Management in Oracle. Chet Richards' book Certain to Win is also worth a look as are his websites and (the latter has a compendium of Boyd material)

2 other topics. 1. Do you post direct into MT or use a client? 2. Agree on Idaho - spent a great winter skiing the Tetons from Driggs many years ago. Andrew

Posted by Andrew Sparks on December 07, 2008 at 06:09 PM PST #

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