Thursday, May 31, 2012

What's My Motivation?

I have this habit drilled in from the years I've spent Filipino style dueling, of getting the hell out of range after a strike. The 'out' is absolutely built into the entry ... otherwise there is no time. I think I may have mentioned how training in a 15ft by 15ft living room which contained 2 couches, a TV, a work table, and walls slung with weapons, meant that there were really only a few 'safe' places to be in the space, i.e. out of range, and those were dynamic concepts more than actual places, as standing still for any length of time might bring you back into range if your opponent moved.
I have plenty of video footage of me, my teacher, or anyone else I was working with, walking round the floor. It's very funny speeded up - walk round, walk, walk ... ENGAGE ... break apart, walk, circle circle, walk ... ENGAGE .... break, stand, walk, circle, walk ... ENGAGE ... for hours.
Anyway, I was at my foil fencing class this week and my teacher tried to get me to hold position once I had the hit, not retreat out of range straight away ..... Wow ... Not easy to undo so many years of conditioning ... and thinking about it, did I really want to?
So we talked about it, and of course I asked why in hell would you want to stay put? I have no idea how many times I have been tagged or impaled in my (supposed) moment of glory playing Eskrima ... If I can reach them ... they can probably reach me, right?
Well ... of course, this is not Eskrima, this is foil fencing, a sport, so a good hit is all that counts, no need to back away, the ref has called a point.
BUT, there are other factors too. Fencing limits movement to a narrow field, which means you are moving pretty much straight back and forward, and as most will know ... moving straight back, i.e. on the line, is rather treacherous. Someone going forwards will always beat someone going backwards ... so, if you miss, or if your hit was weak, it becomes less of a smart option as they might close on you so fast you cannot react in time.
Also, it's often safer to be behind the tip of a weapon that is designed for piercing only, as the tip is the most dangerous part which is obviously not so for edged weapons.
So maybe there is some logic to this, and maybe it needs exploring further?
Perhaps, instead of seeing it as counter to conditioning I do not want to throw out, perhaps it's just another skill set, particular to the weapon shape and appropriate for fighting in a narrow space where moving off line is not an option?
I think it will be pretty easy to integrate if it turns out it's a good idea  - If I keep getting nailed  by doing what I've been doing, that will be all the motivation I need to change it to something that works better. I think my body is smart enough to connect the appropriate reaction to the appropriate context .. we will see .....

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Teaching is so interesting, especially the part where you remember back to how you learned.
Certain concepts take a while to 'see'. In Visayan Style Eskrima, you have to flow a great deal, with a variety of different personalities and skill levels, and get to the stage where you relax enough to let the interaction almost take care of itself, let parts of the puzzle become unimportant and second nature, so you can focus on the next ones.
I'm not sure how long the whole process takes, or how long each phase takes, but it seems that it does need to 'get' over time. The hours you put in add up until, almost without noticing it, a light bulb goes off, and there it is, the piece, as plain as day in front of you.
Sonny said we all had his 'curriculum' within the VHS tapes of our own training sessions, and if we watched, we would understand when those light bulbs went off and what led to it happening.
That's good, and prompts me to go watch those tapes again, as there is a strange amnesia that occurs when you have had enough light bulbs go off - You forget how it happened, you forget the pieces that fell into place to create that moment, and you even forget how long it took to get there.
Learning to teach a thing, it seems, may be harder than learning the thing in the first place ...... who knew?

And before you say 'That's why systems were invented', I need to ask - What happens when a system takes away the most important parts of the whole thing? One's freedom, individuality, and ability to adapt on the fly?
I can almost hear the traditionalists comment that this 'freedom' thing is the part that come later ... AFTER you have remembered the contents of the curriculum, the preset patterns, the forms, the drills, the applications. That you have to learn them before you can forget them ... but is that really true?
What if you could teach in a way that involved nothing to be forgotten? No patterns to un learn, no alien context to be added later? Form following function in it's truest sense. Conditioning smart responses to as varied a selection of stimuli as possible, to constitute as complete a picture of the whole, as possible?

From my personal experience of learning the way I did, I think it is possible, but what's funny to me now, is that when I was a student, for years I had no idea if my skills were improving, or whether I was going in the direction I was supposed to ... or even what the end picture looked like. I figured my teacher knew, had a picture in his head about what he was looking for ... but now I'm on the other end of the equation, I only know if what I'm doing is working when the student takes a step .... I have a picture in my head of course, but the knowledge that anything that I have done has worked ... comes from them.

I'm guessing this is how it must be when you are teaching individuals to be ... individuals, but sometimes it feels like being a one eyed king in the kingdom of the blind :-)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

More Boyd

John Boyd's papers written in his own words are sometimes rather dry, and certainly very dense, reading. However, he has many commentators, and they tend to be more concise and easier to digest.
Here is a passage from one such commentator that certainly resonates with me.
Apologies for completely misplacing where I got it from.

"Boyd postulated that all engagements of opposing forces can be divided into four essential elements: (1) observe and interpret the situation, (2) become oriented to the condition and intensity of the situation, (3) make a decision as to what response to make, and (4) put that response into action. The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a "hodge-podge" of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under-react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible.
"Put more succinctly, deny your opponent the use of his maneuvering advantages against you while you convert your strengths into an advantage over him and cause him to make a wrong move, one that can be easily defeated. Time is the dominant parameter: the pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent responds to actions that have already changed. In very simple terms, be unpredictable; operate at a pace and pattern that allows you to get him before he gets you."

"This approach favors a fighter that is superior in its ability to gain or lose energy while out-turning an opponent; a fighter that can initiate and control any engagement opportunity; and a fighter that has a fast transient capability to stay inside a hard-turning opponent when you're on the offensive (you are attacking him) or to force an overshoot of an opponent when you're on the defensive (he is attacking you). The F-16 Fighting Falcon has just that kind of agility, plus the situation awareness to capitalize on that agility.
John Boyd photoBoyd's theories didn't make him too popular within the Air Force. Many couldn't accept his premise that speed was not as important as agility.."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Which Way

I get asked as a matter of course to review sets of exercises by students trying to remember how certain forms look, and what goes in what set.
Of course there are formal sets, and 'right' ways to perform forms, but even over my years of training, differences have manifested from year to year. It drives some folks crazy ... "but when he showed it a couple years ago, it didn't look like that ... which one is right"?
Well of course there are many 'rights' which makes it very hard to say - 'The form is done this way, and only this way'.... which I guess is what people want to hear.
However, it's the principles behind the forms that are the important part, and in sets, that a spectrum of attributes are trained that create a whole.
It makes giving simple answers more difficult, and often my response is ... "Well it looks like this, but I've seen it done like this, and this too, by people I respect, and who knows, next year, we may learn it differently. This is what it is trying to teach you, and these are the principles to keep in mind .."
Hopefully by this point, the student's eyes have not glazed over ..... 

In my own training, I have learned differences between ancient, pre WWII and post WWII Japanese sword, changes in Tai Ji forms and other arts that parallel political and cultural eras, Bagua as it manifests in as many different ways as there are people that learned it (due to background, body type and personality), and am part of a Filipino lineage where change, down to the very NAME of the system, is close to mandatory from generation to generation.
WHY something is, is way more important than WHAT it is, as the 'what' is hugely dependent on the individual, the zeitgeist, and the audience.
Remember, get too fixated on the finger that is pointing at the moon instead of looking up, and you might miss all the heavenly glory .... :-)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Scenics are the people that come in and paint the sets for photo shoots, commercials, theatre, movies, whatever.
One of the talents most sought after in a scenic, is the ability to create randomness. Though it is a skill that can be acquired to some level, there is an innate ability that some people have more than others, to understand how to make stuff look real, natural. In fact how to make plywood and plastic look so natural that you don't even notice it's there.
THAT's the real talent ... to create something that is so appropriate, it disappears.

This ability is directly related to how much you pay attention to the way stuff in nature behaves, because even though nature seems random, there is still order to it. If you know how things move (and everything does move), you can recreate it.
There's unidirectional stuff like sunlight/shadows and water leaks. Multidirectional stuff like soot, dirt, fungus, and spatter, and stuff even more random like moss, broken glass, water stains and oxidation.
Know how each behaves, moves and grows, and it will look more natural when you create it.
There's other stuff you have to know too, like the difference between how stuff looks when it is put on vs what it looks like when it is broken off.
Also, if you are 'aging' something brand new, knowing how the object might be damaged or worn through use will decide whether it really does look old, or just like an artists impression of 'old'.
Inexperienced scenics will often overdo or over-fuss a project, or else randomize in such a regular pattern that it ends up looking fake.
Random does not mean homogeneous, nor does it mean chaotic. Patterns must have movement and there must be 'silences' in the shape, to achieve the true asymmetry necessary to create 'reality'.

All this has parallels to teaching funnily enough. After all, a teacher's job is to recreate 'reality', or as close an approximation to it as possible, in a fake setting. And for that it seems you need 2 main attributes -
A grasp of what reality looks like from experience and close observation, and
The ability to create a believable approximation that another can play in.
 ..... And the better the teacher, the more natural their grasp of motion and the randomness that equates with nature as it really is. Not an artists impression, but as close as possible so it essentially disappears.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Common comments from students during flow:
"I'd take that cut"
"That was a lucky shot"
"I got you TOO"
"You cheated"
"Well, if I was really trying ..."
"If you really came at me, I'd ... "
"You didn't really get me"
"But what if I did this?"

My common replies:
"Let's see".

I honestly don't mind resistance. Questions are good. A nice dose of skepticism does not hurt one bit. But there's a big sticking point it seems in training ... right at about the level where they can hit you ...... but can't get away without getting nailed .... A resistance to the idea that anything past this is even necessary.

ME: "So...  the whole dying part of the interaction was OK with you ...?"
THEM: "Er ....."
ME: "See, if you take that shot, you die because these things we are playing with are pointy and sharp".
THEM: "But I got you too"
ME: "Yes, but I don't care in the role I'm taking (as in teaching you) ... and you are still dead"
ME: "OK .. Again"

ME: "CAN'T do that ... you're still dead. Remember, it's a sword"
THEM: "I'd have taken that cut"
ME: "Really?"
ME: "Let's try again. Try not to get hit ..."

This is a hard stage to be at, and there are people that get stuck here, that can't progress past this point.
And it's really hard to teach those that can't.

I wonder what separates those that can, from those that can't?
Frustration? Lack of imagination? Lack of .... what? Or perhaps it's something as simple as aiming for the wrong goal. Believing the goal is solely to womp the 'enemy' .... as opposed to doing what you must to survive.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pebbles and String

Japanese sword teaches you the extension that is necessary to cut efficiently. The tip of the sword extends out to the furthest point in it's arc, before it connects with the target.
The same principle applies to flexible weapons such as the Latigo, or whip, found in some FMA systems.
I've mentioned before that Sonny used different weapons and their characteristics, to teach different applications for other weapons - for instance, he used the Latigo concept to help folks with their Largo (cane) skills.
The biggest key, true for all weapons in fact, is learning how to use the weapon as an extension of the body, the whole working as one unit, rather than thinking of the weapon as a thing, attached to the hand. You don't even need a real Latigo to work the concept.

Please do not attempt the following if you are an idiot, have no proprioception, or practice around small children or animals.

A cheap, but interesting training tool is to tie a small, I repeat, small, pebble to the end of a cord that's about the length of a cane. It is important that the pebble end drags on the ground, and with your arm at your side, there should be quite some slack.
Game is to try to throw overhand and underhand strikes, keeping the string taut at all times, dragging the string and moving the body as you recycle the hits.
There is no skill in just twirling it with your wrist, repeating the same strike over and over again, or going real fast. Skill comes from moving around, choosing your moment, then throwing 1, 2, or 3 different angles, at different ranges with power and efficient recycle .... whilst stepping. Gotta move around between strikes or it makes no sense. The key is to keep the extension in the string, through your body, before you strike
The reasons why the pebble is small? .... If you are aiming for someone/thing you may hit them by accident, so small pebbles are safer. If your extension and footwork are bad you may also hit yourself. And last but not least, less weight makes it harder to keep the momentum going, which means you have to use your whole body to create meaningful strikes.