Friday, December 28, 2012

Form Follows Function

A bit of construction know how first ....

Back in the day there was a thing called a window sill. The window sill was the part that you could lean your elbows on and stare out into the wide blue yonder on a lovely summer's day with the window open.
The sill spanned the depth of the wall, from the inside to the outside, sloping down and out at a slight angle, and overhanging the wall a small amount, often with a groove cut along it's length on the underside.
It was designed so that when wind blown rain struck the window panes and ran down onto whatever was below, the sill was there to catch it all, preventing water from running down into the wall, and because it sloped outwards, diverting the rain away from the house. The groove on the underside of the sill, also known as a drip edge, prevented the wind from blowing the water back up the underside of the sill towards the wall again. The groove forced the water to drip off.

Pretty smart really. Form follows function.

Fast forward to the modern day and the 'ready to install', single unit windows which come in a pack that inserts straight into a framed opening in a wall, they have weather strips and flashings to prevent water from seeping in, and sealant is inserted into any gaps to keep water out. They also usually have some kind of dam or plastic strip to keep water from getting in under the window.
No more need for a traditional window sill any more.
Thing is, we are used to seeing window sills on a house, and I guess people think walls look weird without them ..... so rather than leave them off, we now add them, purely as decoration.

I could rant a great deal about the decline of window design, the cheapness of the materials used and their short life span ..... but .... the point of this whole, long, story is that now instead of window sills we not only have this new method of sealants, dams and flashings to keep the water out of the building (which inevitably fail), we also have the ridiculous addition of fake, stick on, 'window sills' which are really just a piece of wood stuck on to the face of the building where the old style window sill used to be, so it will LOOK the same.

What's wrong with that? Well, now, not only does the piece have no real meaning any more, it in fact adds yet another weak joint on to the face of the wall where it is stuck on, and it will in all probability cause rot, trap damp and mold behind it and create all kinds of maintenance problems the window sill in it's earlier incarnation never did.

So, to Deer Horn Knives ....

Over the years I heard many explanations for what they are for and how they are used, but I could not agree with any of them. I came up with some ideas of my own, but it was only last year when I finally got confirmation. Now I'll admit, it's hard to truly understand historical stuff when you do not have the full picture ... but for the life of me I could not invent a reason to carry around blades shaped like this.
Surely, if there is any tool in the world that should be as practical as it can be, where form really does need to follow function ... it is a weapon that is meant to save your life? And these are hugely impractical.
If you don't believe me, try them - They are unstable to hold, don't take contact well, and none of the cut angles possible with the blades make any sense.
My initial thought was that they were just training weapons to accentuate a certain important parts of the Bagua forms .... and in some respects this is correct, but it turns out, they are actually based on a real weapon .. well actually 2 or 3, and are not just fantasy.

The original, real, weapon was just a dagger with brass knuckles, with a second, smaller, dagger also held in the hand held with the tip pointed backwards (also possibly a single, double ended blade).

Now that makes sense to me.

Why did they evolve into what they are today? Best guess - Aesthetic reasons (though one can never rule out the political, or the theatrical).
But look at what strange rationalizations about usage and method have resulted! I suggest it is much easier to understand form if you truly understand function ..... but perhaps not the other way around.

Who knows what future generations will make of fake, stick on, window sills ....

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Asymmetric Play

 There is nothing like narrowing the parameters of the game, or adding a layer of asymmetry to force you to be more mindful and creative. We did it dueling by flowing short against long, or 2 against one, and all kinds of combinations and handicaps we could think of.

Here is a great clip of a grappling version, hopping vs one leg planted.

Taken from:

Thursday, December 20, 2012


As neither the strongest nor the fiercest animals on the planet, our ability to share and pass on information that makes us smarter, quicker, is what has (in large part) paved our way to the top of the food chain. We have brains and opposable thumbs, we are adaptable, can communicate complex ideas, and work well in groups.

For many 1000s of years this communication was done orally, through story telling, theatre and song, alongside learning necessary physical skills directly from family and tribe.
Then, we discovered writing .....
For a long time, of course, reading and writing were the exclusive province of the highest echelons of society - the priests and kings - and access to this powerful medium and the knowledge it held was strictly guarded, through caste and taboo. Only after the invention of the printing press in relatively recent history, along with translations of texts into the vernacular, did it really become the province of the masses.

Now, in the day and age, through blogs, tweets, and almost universal access to media, we are all sharing our insights, our opinions, and our critiques to anyone who will listen ... and it has become a vast flatland of information, way too much for one person to ever assimilate.
On the one hand this is great, so many connections to knowledge and skills from around the globe, coupled with the ability to comment and refute, improve and disseminate ideas. On the other .... a morass of half truths, unsubstantiated rumor, and a vast amount of wasted breath.
It's a noisy world out there.

So, I have been working on a book, a tactical thinking book, based on dueling and deception. It's what I know, am interested in, and feel I have something to say about .... but I have come to realize I hate martial art books, and whichever way I try to present the knowledge, it turns into one of the books I hate. Not the cool historical stuff, or the cultural stuff, or the stories and myths of the characters that populate this world, the 'how to' books, with the awful descriptions and the bad still photography ......
Don't get me wrong, I truly believe there is worth in the written word, after all, those folks researching old Renaissance and Medieval fighting technique are able to read about them and see drawings from 500/600 years ago, because someone back then decided it was a good idea to preserve them in a book. Had he not done so, the knowledge could have been lost for good once firearms changed what fighting was, (and some say that would have been OK) but the knowledge survived because of books.

My question is really this - Are the books I dislike so much the best way to communicate ideas? After all this format has held it's ground for a long time now (Yes, yes, I know there is video too but they often irritate me too). Or is the reader actually unimportant ...... ? Should the writer just put down what they have in their heads with no thought for the reader and leave it at that? Or do they bear a responsibility to try to actually communicate in a way that someone else will understand?
The same question could be asked this way - Does an artist make art purely for themselves? Or does it only become 'Art' when someone else looks at it? (I mean, why write it down unless you want to share it ....?)

Over the centuries writers on martial practice developed many devices and voices to talk through, some purely catalogued techniques, others wrote poems or songs that retained only the important principles, others held conversations with Tengu (mountain demons) or debated over cigars and brandy at a country house. Some were more oblique than others - Musashi's "Practice this well until you understand" comes to mind for instance, others liked to break things down into practical detail, yet others got so complex that the instructions and diagrams became closer to an esoteric book of magic than a practical guide .... but which is most useful ...?
Is any of it useful at all ....?

The more I read, the more I have come to realize that probably everything has been thought and said before - it really has! What we think of as innovations and insights, someone probably already had, and the proof can pretty certainly be found in some old book, painting or story, if we care to look.

But ....... I am not talking myself out of the exercise altogether despite my dislike, because the other side of the coin is that much has also been forgotten, and that is why those that feel the compulsion to share really should do it, should give it their best shot and let their point of view out into the universe.
I'm not as yet sure what 'device' I myself will attempt to communicate through ... and it may still be misunderstood or misinterpreted, misquoted or just plain ignored, but who knows, one day in the far distant future, someone might even find it useful .... and if not useful ... at least a worthwhile diversion.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Space is Time ... And Other News ...

I guess I was going to post this earlier ... then forgot ...

I'm teaching tomorrow, at Soja Martial Arts in Oakland, 3pm to 6pm ... and a bit over if folks want to keep flowing.

Not sure exactly which direction we will go in, though I do know we will start with the 'pendulum' practice as it is the foundation upon which everything else mounts. Sonny emphasized it's importance from the beginning, and I have known it in an intuitive sense for a long time, yet it was brought home to me very clearly yesterday how it makes sense of material much faster that drills done with no movement .... which makes little sense at all.

I'm in process of writing this work book on dueling, and how to learn all the elements you need to put together for successful faking, baiting and freezing your opponent. It turns out you have to know many things before you can be successful at it, one of which is understanding timing.
This week in class I was running through a series of drills I've put together to teach timing, starting with some blade manipulation and cuts on a static target, then moving on to a swinging target and then partner practice.
As it turns out, the manipulations don't make sense standing still, and are in fact harder to do with a non moving target - they are there because of the movement, not separate from it, and it was only when I watched other people doing the drills that I realized this. When I had been doing them by my self, I had always instinctively moved a little, weight shifted and moved off line, to make the range correct ..... nothing I noticed I was doing, yet obvious when watching someone else try and fail to do the drill as I had pictured it.
A static target gives you no sense of targets appearing and disappearing, of the range changing, or of the idea of being on or off line. Add movement to the target, and much of this becomes clear.

And of course, the swing of the pendulum creates a natural metronome to practice half and third beats, cutting time, and hanging time, whether it be in the form of a swinging target or a moving partner .... something a static object just cannot do.

Time is space.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pattern Interrupt

You don't have to be faster .... Just be unexpected ...

(Thanks Richie for the find)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More Rhythm

 It is much easier to teach timing to those that have done some hard physical labour and have worked with their hands .......

There is no movement without rhythm:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Doors Open ... Doors Close .....

Talking with R the other day about various types of opponents - and discussing solutions. Every one of them presented a different problem to solve, but perhaps a coherent underlying concept that linked them together.

The purpose of the exercise was 2 fold -
1) As a potential direction for personal development, and
2) To see what was important in our understanding of our 'Art', what was useful to us as individuals, and thus worthy to pass on.

All these hypothetical opponents presented difficult problems, generally of the 'he's talented and fast, strong and skilled', or 'he's got fantastic spine control, once he touches you it's really hard to escape'. That kind of thing.

OK, so, nightmare opponents - powerful, skilled, technically gifted, or superior in some way.
First question - why are you engaging at all?

This may seem like an odd question, but it's an important one and worth thinking about, because it sets up context and thus your options for what happens next.

Remember, in any system, all the pieces should fit somewhere in the whole .... should. I can say that every piece that I teach I can justify, and give an example of WHEN and WHY it is a useful thing to do, along with when and why it is not. There is a chain, a 'kadena' if you like, of events that create moments where certain things become good ideas, and knowing these things opens up your options.

So back to the difficult opponents .... For the grappler who waits - the biggest question is why are you entering when they can see you coming and know that you will?
If they are more skilled and are relying on you to choose the time when you close, then you have to surprise them, and I mean do something, or a string of things, that they can't follow or predict. You can certainly play psychology to create an error, and you can use the fact that they think of themselves as skilled to trap them. Or, perhaps, just walk away 

With the fast, big, strong guy ... same thing - why? Say engagement is inevitable, then here at least you have the advantage of knowing they are coming for you (if you have no escape option), but again, if they are fast and skilled, and stronger than you, it is very dangerous to let them choose when and how.

Barring environmental props, helpful friends, projectiles, luck, natural disaster, you are left with only certain areas that you can play with, and certain laws of physics that are unavoidable.
For instance, if they have more power, you can still play with timing, use weak angles to your advantage, use psychology to force errors, play with range to put power into the system that you can use to your advantage, and use the knowledge that there will always be a target open as soon as they commit to an attack.

In the mean time .... you have to avoid damage .... physical and psychological.

These places are where most of the important pieces of a system live - the physical deception, the traps, the psychological entrapment, the evasive skills, the range stealing, the short power, the freezes and surprises .... all of it to buy you time and help you set up your moment. And when that moment comes, you must be ready to take full advantage of it, it may be the only one you get.

... And here, finally, you get to use all the technical material you have been taught.