Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2 Unrelated Thoughts


I was asked to do some decorative painting for my friends' new community acupuncture clinic, something to soften the hard edges of the space with a Chinese type theme. I had done some bamboo for them in their old space and so this was suggested again.

Paintings of bamboo are found throughout the history of Chinese art, as are birds, mountains, various blossoms and pine trees. These classic motifs appear with such frequency because the Chinese like to see the 'spirit' behind the technique of a particular painter, and comparing the techniques of various people paintings the same imagery makes noticing the differences in personality, in spirit, much easier.

It's been a while since I have painted bamboo, but it's pretty straightforward ... as far as I remembered at least .... so once I placed the elements on the wall, I started right in to paint.

It looked awful. The leaves I thought I was painting in a natural, bamboo-y manner looked like spiders, or badly drawn hands. Not good.

OK ..... Step away. Find the book (I could have looked at real bamboo, but there was nothing close by and I had brought a book on the history of Chinese art with me).

Look. Really look. Study the paintings.

OK, back to it - Paint what is actually in front of you ... not what you think bamboo looks like .... And lo and behold, painting what WAS real, exactly - size, shape, angles, overlap, each piece distinct, careful and precise  ..... LOOKED real.

Funny how that works ......

Mild cross over to martial arts .... DO the thing for real, and it will LOOK real. Do what you THINK the real thing looks like, and it will not.


I've been watching an older BBC TV series - Inspector Morse - on the internet. I've always liked him as a character, but never really watched a whole slew of episodes before .. And there are quite a few - I think I'm at episode 20 at this point.

What I have started to notice having watched so many are the recurring themes that seem to run through them .... Biases and viewpoints of the author and the era. I would not have noticed them through 8 or even 10 episodes, but now I can't watch an episode without seeing them reappear.

I won't bore you with what these themes are, but I reminded me of a conversation on the radio recently about how the music world has changed.

Nowadays it's all MP3s, shuffle mode and playlists .... Nothing wrong with that - I spent hours and hours back in the day making compilation tapes of my favorite songs ... But always listening to your favorites means your music is all about YOU, and rarely about the artist and who THEY are.

Having spent my youth listening to albums, without the ability to easily skip over the tracks I found a bit dull, I think I gained a greater understanding of the artists and their vision than perhaps people who live in shuffle mode or Pandora land today.

Some things really only comes out in a body of work ... and really do not manifest in snippets mixed together with other artists.

It's why retrospectives are so interesting, it tells you about how someone else thinks, sees the world. How their thoughts have changed and evolved over time, matured or fizzled out.

Someone who designs something 'whole', complete, whether it's their perfect one hit wonder album, a series of paintings, a lifetime of film making ... or perhaps even a martial system ... is worth spending some time with to understand WHY they think an album is complete when it is, or a painting finished, an ambition attained.

Where is it that they see the balance as correct, that nothing is left out that needs to be in? That to me is fascinating ....

Though as a down side, I would also say that familiarity can also breed contempt ... like me for the dated values in 80s television ....

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Do You Want?

I'd like to think that anyone who learned swordplay from me would have a better chance of defending themselves if they ever had to fight for real with swords, than someone who had not.

It seems ethical, despite the lack of necessity in our modern age, to give as worthy advice as possible that would hold true if tested 'for real'.

It's the point of martial arts after all, isn't it? It's meant to have some basis in stuff that really happened, and is meant to be something that folks who had experience back then wanted to pass on to those that might need it in the future.

Obviously, this 'reality' is bounded by historical context, geographical context, and cultural context. Most martial arts were created to solve specific problems, whether they were designed for the individual, the group, the battlefield, the deserted alley, for entertainment and gambling, for particular terrain, sometimes for limited access to weaponry, and often as ways to bolster group identity and loyalty.

But still, the 'what' to do of most systems seems pretty easy to grasp - In a duel, for instance, the ways to draw blood remain as constant today as they did a 1000 years ago - Our anatomy has not really changed, and neither have the laws of physics

So if the 'what' is relatively straightforward, why is there so much controversy and debate regarding 'the truth'? I suspect it is because of the HOW to do the 'what', and also the WHEN to do the 'what'.

Turns out that how to make stuff actually work is a complex field full of individuals, their motivations, the immediate environment, and the emotional moments they live in. It is not that easy to navigate, and because of this most systems of knowledge fall short - Just too many variables to calculate, and too many innate human glitches, like our love of patterns for instance, that can create misunderstanding.

And really, how would you know if you could actually 'make stuff work'? ... Unless you actually had to make it work!?

I guess you could challenge someone to a duel ......

And then, how do you know if you were just lucky/unlucky in your single sampling?

Answer of course is that you don't .. and can't.

SO how do you choose how to learn something arcane that grabs your fancy? How do you pick a teacher to teach you things there is no real formula for, and no 'real' way of testing how you and 'it' work together? Can you be happy just learning the 'whats'?

If so, there is no need to test anything ... But a couple criteria come to mind if you do want more:

- After training with your teacher, when you test out their ideas in friendly, or not so friendly swordplay, you 'die' less often than you did before.

- You can't beat your teacher.

These parameters also give the relationship meaning (I want what you do), and it keeps true to the idea that the knowledge is FOR something (prevailing against your opponent).

Any other ideas?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Nice People

Jake wrote a post on his blog about the hate wars that flame up with some regularity* targeting anyone with a known opinion, in this case, about self protection.

He makes the point that trolls are basically assholes, not interested in a debate, in 'truth', or in resolving any issues, and that they just troll for self aggrandizing purposes.
He also wishes for respect and politeness as a given. Reason even .... as the arbiter in adult conversation. Shocking ..... ;-)

His point is well made, and his wish for respect and polite behaviour cannot be faulted ... 'Do as you would have done unto you' ... and all that.

But ..... I think there is another angle to this, something that does not occur very often, and caused by an actor much rarer than the common or garden variety troll out in the interwebs, that is actually of benefit to us all.

As much as the common troll, looking to gain status from posturing, and with arguable no skin in the game (trolling as they do far from the reach of any repercussions), is a pointless waste of oxygen. The chaos monger, the angry, vitriolic, hater that comes from a place of fearlessness and purely a wish to 'see the world burn', should not be denied their game. Sometimes one needs an enemy, an advocate of the devil, an abyss, to stare into ....

Locking horns with these folks is rarely useful and best avoided, because, of course, they are not there to debate, or to come to an understanding, or be convinced they are wrong, BUT ...... being occasionally reminded of the walls of opposition that can be thrown across one's identity, one's ideas, one's work, is not a bad thing.

True, unselfconscious, not-for-the-benefit-of-others, push back, can sometimes be far more invigorating (like jumping into an icy lake) than a bunch of polite people, respectful, yet maybe thinking the worst behind curtained eyes.

At least with these crazy people you get to practice believing in your material, your self, your words, and your actions, perhaps even reevaluating if necessary, or testing where the robustness fails .... Not something that comes up as an issue if you are surrounded by decorum all the time. Trick is not to care about changing the mind of the person doing the hating. There really is no need or purpose to that.

Anger and rage focused in one's direction can be a gift ..... All true motivators are.

* - Perhaps the interval is predictable ...? 
See Catastrophe Theory: As an aside, I first heard about this watching a wonderful BBC TV programme called Open University, which was usually on at weird times of the day, late at night, or early on a Sunday morning, for those that wanted to study and get a degree at home. That particular morning's programme featured 2 guys with afros and heavy framed glasses, plaid flares and nylon shirts standing in front of a blackboard ... because it was the 70s and they were talking about mathematics. 
I was absolutely fascinated, and seeing as I remember it to this day, 40 or so years on, well I guess it left an impression.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Square Root of Minus One

This is a book review of Edward De Bono's book 'Po'. It is written by a guy called James Crisp who I know nothing about, but it serves as a good precis of the concepts within the book about lateral thinking, including my favorite, the 'Intermediate Impossible'.

There is part of me that thinks that we have become so obsessed with truth vs fiction nowadays, and reality vs fantasy, that we have forgotten how our brains work, and our innate ability to hold paradoxes and dichotomies quite happily in the same space at the same time. I believe our need for certainty has perhaps stifled our ability to create, to think laterally, and to see things as they really are.

Edward De Bono's ideas are therefore worth airing out so we can all start problem solving more creatively .... again ....

This book was written over 40 years ago. How do we forget so quickly ...?

 Po: Beyond Yes and No by Edward de Bono (Book Review) (James Crisp)

" ..... De Bono is not a big fan of the yes/no system or argument. He proposes that yes/no mindset that people usually use means that somebody has to be right and somebody wrong. With this mindset, an old theory cannot be replaced by a better one until it can be proven wrong by argument. For subjective subjects, this is not often possible. He proposes that when people have a "right" answer, they are happy and stop looking for a better answer, curbing creativity. Similarly, a "wrong" answer stops that train of thought - and perhaps if it had continued, then a good answer might have been found with ideas triggered from the "wrong" answer.
De Bono sets up PO as an alternative to the Yes / No system and talks about it as a way to break down established patterns and introduce discontinuity in thinking to come up with new ideas. He sees it as an alternative to the "clash" of argument and the "arrogance of logic" in the "closed and highly artificial world" of education, that in later life leads to a "need to be right". He says that this "need to be right" then leads to people "defending not the idea, but your self-esteem" and having high resistance to new ideas and change.
De Bono disputes a common idea that by choosing the best answer in a series of questions or steps leads to the optimal solution at the end. He shows several examples where choosing the most optimal answer for each step leads to a solution which is not optimal.
Arguably the most interesting part of the book describes a number of tools for lateral thinking.
PO-1: Intermediate Impossible
Rather than immediately rejecting an impossible idea, look at it longer for good points. Reconsider your framework of judgment and concept package - maybe idea is right if you consider the situation in a different way. The idea can be a stepping stone to a better idea. When other people come up with a "wrong idea" listen longer and see where it can take you. This approach can be used as a tool - turn the "idea upside down, inside out, back to front" and "say the most unlikely and outrageous thing you can about the situation - and see where it gets you".
PO-2: Random Juxtaposition
"When you have exhausted the different ways of looking at the problem from within, you bring in" a random word "in order to generate a fresh approach" through juxtaposition and connecting the words. The random word can be from opening a dictionary at random or from a list of "idea provoking" words.
PO-3: Change without rejection, by-passing old concepts to generate alternatives
"That idea is fine, but let us put it on one side and find a new way of looking at things", "this is one way of looking at things and it is perfectly valid but it does not exclude other ways, so let us try to find some" or "I wonder if there are other ways of looking at this". "Why do we have to look at things that way", lets reconsider our starting point and understanding.
The last part I want to mention is the discussion of retardant doubt. De Bono suggests that with a Yes/No, boolean mindset, you require certainty of being right before acting. If you don't have this certainty, your doubt holds you back. You may even create false certainty so that you can act (leading to problems later since you'll then defend this false certainty). However, in the Po system, there is no certainty. The premise is only that the "current way of looking at things is the best one at the moment, but may need changing very soon". This means you can act without certainty - your action might not be right in the absolute sense, but you are ready to "change it as soon as circumstances demand". With the Po approach you explore a wide range of alternatives, choose the most effective idea for now, but be ready to change it for something even better ....."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Stack of Boxes

In my other life as a painter, one occasionally gets called out on 'emergency missions', last minute gigs where the phone call goes something like
"Hey, how are you doing? Er .... Can you fly to Vegas tomorrow? Week, maybe 2 of work painting the VIP lounge and some other stuff"

Suffice to say that it was an offer I could not refuse, and off I went - hence the total lack of blog or thoughts about swordplay of late.

Picture a nightclub/music venue/restaurant/bar/bowling alley all decked out in old style carney paraphenalia - freak show banners, gambling signs, a shooting alley bar back, etc etc ..... BUT ...... a week before the soft opening, 2 weeks before the big gala opening, the electricians are still wiring lights, and the carpenters have not even started on building the interior of this VIP room, let alone have areas ready for paint or set dressing.

Add to that the design guy who has been recently brought in because the owners are not happy with the product, but who worked on a previous project with them so they trust him over the first designer, and you have a hierarchy with the owners at the top, then a group of designers who don't really like each other, their assistants, crews of union electricians, carpenters, and plumbers, with their various superintendents, sound crews, LED monitor crews, elevator technicians, all with their various bosses, and then the scenic artists, 3 different crews of us, all working on different projects, hired at different points in the whole, most with limited work days, and you can imagine the chaos, the communications tangle and the fight to prioritize the whole.

We were called in by designer number 2, late in the game to 'fix' all the things the owners did not like, so yeah, we were really popular .....

Anyway, it was a fascinating 2 weeks of watching teams and individuals, all competent but with different needs and more importantly different vocabularies (not languages), and all under stress, work out how to get on with each other, work together 'efficiently' (and I use that term loosely) in the limited time available, to make the place come together.

All the crews working were actually really competent, the lead carpenter for instance was a 40 year journeyman, they were well led and all worked their asses off ... BUT .... they spent most of the time solving problems, because of bad planning, or not being given enough information, or having no contact with the other trades as to their needs, leading to things getting done, then torn out, redone, etc etc

The biggest take home for me was the time wasted through inability to communicate, between the guys with the design ideas and the people making them concrete.

Both sides inability to get across what was important and why, in both the aesthetics of the final result, and the functionality of the space created a chasm where the designers saw the construction guys as obstructive and stupid, and the construction guys saw the designers as not comprehending how things need to be done to function.

Case in point, the designers had sourced out an antique safe door handle and lock that they wanted put on one of the entry doors which was to be painted as though it was a real safe. Sadly, what they had failed to notice when they purchased it, was that it could not be just screwed on the face of the door as the lock was deeper in cross section than the door itself and the handle had no screw holes .... And this came up 4 hours before the grand opening.

Had the designers understood how door handles work, how they are affixed so they don't just tear off in some drunk person's hand as they yank on it, or had they noticed the size of the lock in comparison to the door, everyone could have got what they wanted ... But no.

From the other side, had the construction crew noticed that the mirrors that needed putting up in the paneling had been 'antiqued' by chemically removing some of the mirrored backing to make them look old, they would have realized that any glue used to affix them to the wall would show through these 'wear' spots in the blobs in which it was applied .... And on.

Like Rory wrote in his last post Out of the Box we all pigeon hole people into unrelated skill sets, assuming that those that 'think', can't 'do', and those that 'do', can't 'think'. And there seems to be no common language that runs between them, or many that really 'groks' both sides of the process.

I am curious where this separation of skill sets and assumed limitations to ability started? After all the artisans of old and the guild members of the various trades were considered to be both thinkers and doers.

The first scientists were thought of as 'natural philosophers', builders were mathematicians and skilled artists and plan makers, sculptors understood about structural integrity and materials science, cabinet makers designed and made their products ....

Nowadays it seems that the linking pieces have lost their importance in favor of a more industrialized approach - Your job is to put the widget in the slot, yours is to clamp it down, yours is to place it in a box. No understanding of concept or function is required. (Don't get me started on modern window design again ...)

It's a loss in my opinion.

I reckon designers should be required to make things with their hands, and people in the trades should be required to expand their creativity.

Understand the whole and you exponentially improve your value ... We just need to change the current assumption that thinking is what 'smart' people do and working with your hands is for those that couldn't make the grade.

For further reading may I recommend: "Shop Class as Soul Craft" by Matthew B Crawford

Monday, February 17, 2014

Head Movement

So the title of this video is 'How to win a street fight with head movement" ..... Aaaand ... I am not going to comment on that.

The reason why I'm posting it is because I think it illustrates quite well how 'defensive' play is not the same as 'waiting'.

What I notice is how our man is setting up the rhythm, giving opportunities or openings for the hitter to take, and thus controlling the timing and giving himself a far better chance of evading the punches that if he just kinda hung out and tried to read his opponent's intent.

He's an active participant in creating his opponent's choices, and he does this by footwork, the occasional shove, and then with head movement. This means the guy who is trying to hit him is behind in the timing and forced to react to him as opposed to the other way around.

The subtlety is that he is not moving around in a predictable rhythm, he KNOWS from obvious previous experience where the probable next shots are going to come from if he moves in certain ways, and he calibrates the rhythm to his opponent so he himself is less readable.

It's the same with swordplay, though perhaps even more important when evasion is so crucial to one's wellbeing.

Perhaps 'creating' and 'waiting' might be better terms than 'offense' and 'defense' ..?