Blind Man’s Bluff (book notes)

Blind Man’s Bluff by Sherry Sontag is the story of the United States submarine efforts from the 1950’s, through the cold war with the Soviet Union, and into the mild  1990’s. The book was good, but only partially because of the submarines.


The real payoff was that some ideas like, deep understanding, red teaming, the butterfly effect and others were important 30 years ago on a submarine just like they are today.

If something works over time in over domains, it really works. Let’s see what some of those things are, but first, my favorite quote from the book.

“Intelligence officers invited other Navy men to train alongside them, noting in one invitation that they were engaging in the world’s ‘second-oldest profession,’ one with ‘even fewer morals than the first.'”

Okay, ready?

1/ The Butterfly Effect. “The Soviets had always used their subs, most of them small and antiquated, for coastal defense. But in dividing up Nazi war booty, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had each come into a few experimental German U-boats.”

Small initial causes can have large effects.

German U-Boats were the best in the water. Those hunter-killer packs tortured US ships. In Shadow Divers Robert Kurson wrote that the submarines could get close enough to the United States coast, that they tuned into the radio stations and peered at the cars that went to park on the dock.

What we can remember is that small changes can have big effects. Wesley Gray compared model creep to the children’s game of telephone. “The little girl says ‘the princess kissed the frog’ and by the end of the circle it’s ‘Spider Man beat up He-Man.’ It’s a totally different stories because you have small little changes.”

Another example is when an alumnus gave the University of Oregon Track program a $1M donation to resurface the track. There was extra polyurethane after the job was done, so the coach took it home.

This coach was a tinkerer, and he thought maybe the same surface that the track was made of could be the sole of a shoe. He tried to mold the polyurethane using his wife’s waffle iron. It didn’t work. It locked the appliance up.

He took the idea to a manufacturing facility and thanks to some industrial releasing agents the mold worked and Bill Bowerman created the first best-selling shoe for a company called Nike.

The Butterfly Effect is a non-predictive model. That’s helpful too, said, Tren Griffin. Knowing what we don’t know can create limits on what we try to explain.

2/ Navy first movers and surfersJohn Craven was the chief scientist of the Navy Special Projects Office. When he was appointed to that position his first priority was to explore the depths of the ocean. For the Navy it was tenth. Out of ten.

Eventually Craven got his hands on an old sub the Navy didn’t have any other use for, the USS Halibut. The boat was retrofitted for deep water exploration and got “space-age equipment.” All the updates meant that the crew had to work around regular malfunctions. That was okay, because there was no one around them.

Charlie Munger compared this to surfing. “There are huge advantages for the early birds,” he said. But, he and Warren Buffett don’t “invest in these people who are ‘surfing’ on complicated technology.”

If you are first and unnoticed, you get to make mistakes and learn along the way. That’s what happened to Milton Hershey with chocolate and Tony Hawk with skateboards. It’s also what happened to the Halibut. It was the only submarine doing deep water exploration.

You can’t just be first. You have to also be good. As Mungers says, “you get mired in the shallows.”

Steve Blank warns about first movers. Blank wrote that too many companies worry about being first over worrying about being right. “What startups lose sight of is there are very few cases where a second, third, or even tenth entrant cannot become a profitable or even dominant player.”

The important thing is to stay on the wave, not to be the first at the beach.

3/ It’s about more than money. “They (the spooks) could have ridden Navy spy planes and been home every night in time for dinner, sleeping with their wives instead of dozing cheek to toe with a half-dozen men and a torpedo or two.”

People work for more than money. The sailors and spooks on these Navy spy subs worked for the thrill. They loved it.

Money is usually only part of what someone wants. Artists like Nicholas Megalis and Walt Disney wanted money for their next project.

Phil Knight compared it to blood in the body. Robert Kurson found that treasure hunters wanted to find treasure to fund their next treasure hunt which would fund the next one and so on.

Money is a means, for something else. Josh Kopelman said that when the team came to him, it wasn’t money they needed.  It was a solution. Mint had won the TechCrunch40 award and got hammered with traffic. They didn’t know what to do. Kopelman helped them. They needed his experience and connections more than his money.

No one needs money. We need and want the things money can buy.  We want kayaks or safe homes or vacations or respect. There often other ways to get that. For the submariner, they chose to be on a submarine for three-month stretches because it offered them that something else.

4/ Deep understanding at charm school. To command a submarine you had to attend Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover’s “charm school.”

Besides courses in leadership, “the men were grilled on the workings of nuclear reactors.” It wasn’t easy.

“The reactor courses were exercises in depression and frustration, one where candidates were hammered mercilessly. Rickover himself took delight in warning the PCOs that at least a third would fail. He and his men relentlessly interrogated candidates about the details of circuit breaker theory, physics, anything in the thick stack of reactor manuals, testing to see which third it would be.”

Submarine commanders had a deep understanding.

At Skunk Works they brought in pilots to help them built airplanes because that deepened the understanding.

Charlie Munger says to understand the other side of a trade better than yours.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard wrote “the more you know the less you need.”

Jason Calacanis said he doesn’t consider an investment unless someone knows their product front to back, the competitor inside out, and the market from top to bottom.

Ben Horowitz said:

“It’s a real common characteristic in great founders that they want to know absolutely everything about the company and how it works. They want to know every knob and every button. They have a strong desire to do every job in the company themselves.”

Tony Hawk said his “best advice” is to “learn every aspect of what you’re getting into.”

Louis C.K. thinks of learning new things as merit badges.

The more you know about what you’re involved in, the better.

5/ Red teaming. It’s 1969 and commander Whitey Mack is trailing a Yankee class sub. This is the latest Soviet model. This is a sub that’s never been tracked before. This is big.

Why? Submarines were tracked by their sound signatures. Imagine Shazam. Sonar men would listen for tells when a sub was turning left or right. If they could detect a din, they may figure out a pattern. Yankee class ships were so new no recorded patterns existed. Mack wanted to get them.

There was just one problem. He had lost the sub. To find it again the crew red teamed it.

“Mack was going to try to guess where the Yankee was headed next, and he wanted to try to beat her to her destination. Now Mack, His XO Charles H. Brickell Jr., the engineer officer Ralph L. Tindal and others bent over charts and began an intense game of ‘what if,’ putting themselves in the place of the Yankee’s commander.

They tried to think like their enemy, and it worked. They found the submarine as it was headed to deeper water and where they could follow it more easily. Mack and his crew were able to build a sound profile that hundreds of other missions would use.

Neville Isdell red teamed as Pepsi when he was running Coke. Marc Andreessen red teamed his partner Ben Horowitz. Bethany McLean red teamed stock salesman by talking to shorters.

Red teaming is a way to get out of your head, past your deep understanding (#4), and think like the enemy.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

If you liked this post get my podcast for your commute, dog walk, run, chores, or errands.

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