Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thought Experiments


You and another person are in a courtyard. At the far end is a prize. What this prize is, is up to your imagination, but it's important enough to fight over.
The first one to reach the prize, wins. The other pays a forfeit.

Imagine that you are faster than your opponent - Your ability gives you the edge, as long as you can get to the prize before they can reach you.
If you are bigger and stronger, perhaps you would choose to run at the opponent first, take them out of the game, and then go for the prize.
If you are equal, or lesser, to your opponent in all these ways, what would you do?
Distract them? Psyche them out? What?

Now imagine that both of you are armed with swords ...........

What if the prize is your life?

The prize is the goal, not the defeat of the opponent.

The opponent is an obstruction that must be overcome, but need not necessarily be engaged if you are much superior, either in speed or guile. If so, they are inconsequential.
If however they are superior to you, in any, or all of the ways they can be, and you are the inconsequential one ….. then what?


Same scenario

- If you are much faster you may not need to engage at all. If they are faster, you will need to stop them. How?

- If you are bigger and more powerful, it probably does not matter if they can catch you, but if they are more powerful than you, how do you engage?

- If you are faster, but they are more powerful, you should avoid them, or choose how/when to engage. How?

- If all things are more or less equal, how do you gain an advantage without taking damage ....?

Everything is relative, and your tactics must match with the opponent's strengths and weaknesses for you to be able to prevail.
It's not all about you .... it's about the "you-and-them-situation".

Monday, September 24, 2012

Losing the Plot

 There is a big difference between reading how to do something, being told how to do something by someone that knows, and finding it out for yourself through a 3 dimensional, real time, experience.

There are few places in the world where actual dueling with swords still takes place, and where learning how to do this is still regarded as a valuable skill set.
This means that we are all pretty much learning from books or from 'someone that knows', where 'someone that knows' tends to be someone that just knows the training experience, not the actual experience, of dueling with live blades. Some of us have been luckier, but the older generation will soon be gone, and what do we have moving forward from here?
Students that have no idea what they are doing, learning from people that have been told what to do from those that, perhaps, maybe, really knew, but were also perhaps fighters with no concept in their own minds of what it was like NOT to know ....

The risk of misunderstanding through just a few generations cannot be underestimated ....

However .... when you really look at it, dueling is not a great mystery, there are no big secrets or magic techniques, and the abilities one needs to prevail are purely a consequence of necessity. All the answers are there to see ... IF you can learn how to look.

So where to start?

By understanding the basic premis of what is going on - 2 people with lethal, pointy, sharp, metal objects are trying to prevent each other from leaving the field.
Why this is so is another question, but let us assume that engagement has become a necessity and one must defend their life against the other.

Given this scenario, what else do we know, and what can we assume?

- We can assume that at least one of the two wants to live, or at least get away as unscathed as possible (I know if it was me, I certainly would).

- We cannot assume that the opponent cares whether they live or not, but we can assume that they would like to prevent the other from leaving the field, and if we are lucky, that they too would prefer to live.

- We know that edged weapons cause severe damage with little power, so we can assume that at least one of the two does not want to be touched by the point or the edge if at all possible (That would be me).


Then there are some geometrical, physiological and psychological factors that are also useful to know.

- There is a safe space called 'out of range' the parameters of which can be practiced and understood.

- There is also a concept called 'Being off the line (of the attack)' which has the same effect.

- Each sword has a way of moving and cutting that can be predicted, and there is a certain time that cutting and recycling the blade takes. Each sword will be different, but each does have parameters to it's possibilities depending on length, weight, blade design, handle design, and these can be understood.

- Movement changes the range - time and space are interchangeable.

- The fact that humans have only 2 arms and 2 legs limits movement options, and these can be predicted over time with practice.

- The sword is held in the hand(s) and as such any cut that can reach a target will always expose the hand/arm to danger. A cut to the hand/arm, because it holds the sword, is to be avoided.

- Human are fairly predictable as we are social animals. We are not all the SAME, but we have general parameters to our interactive behavior that can be understood. The fact that an opponent wants something, in this case the defeat of the other, means that there is a point of contact that can be played with.


I will say that pretty much everything that I learned about dueling, and everything that I do when I practice is because of this list of parameters, possibly coming down to an even more basic overarching concept -

"Hit them but don't get hit yourself" or even better "Get away alive".
That's it.

That's the whole plot.

And how you do that is what a system is.

Now, how you teach that, the method that you use, is the tricky part. And in my opinion the method has to follow the plot to understand the system. Lose the plot, and it all becomes just disconnected objects. Keep the plot in mind however, and it all falls into place.

Of course, the only way to keep the plot the least bit realistic is to have the protagonist interact with the antagonist, with both playing their roles to the completion of the story arc. But ..... and this is a big BUT ....
REMEMBER ..... your opponent ALSO thinks they are the protagonist, and thus should win. 

Forgetting that is the downfall of many methods, regardless of the quality of the system.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Guy was on the radio talking about how to throw a knuckleball .....
Apparently there is a documentary coming out about this strange baseball pitch, and it has this great byline:

"To gain power you must first give up control"

 Check it out -

I have NO interest in baseball, never have, but listening to this guy talk about what he does, and watching the trailer, makes me want to see this documentary! There seem to be many similarities between the weirdness of the pitch, how it manifests in the pitcher, it's undoubted efficacy, and the public's reaction to it, that connect this rare ability with that of very high level sword players ...

Here's a quote from the radio interview :
"I really didn't have a need for a knuckleball because I threw the ball pretty hard and was going to be a first-round draft pick because I had the ability to throw the ball 94, 95 miles an hour, which usually puts you in as a top-round pick. And so I really didn't have a need for it. I could get guys out with the weapons that I already had. ...
"[Then, after] I had been a conventional pitcher for some time professionally and, you know, I had to come to terms with my own mediocrity. And that's a hard thing to do for an athlete. And thankfully I had shown the knuckleball enough in my practice sessions and occasionally when I threw it in a game where Orel Hershiser, the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, said I think you can do this the full time, because what you're doing now as a conventional pitcher just wasn't going to cut it anymore. And so I had to take that next step and I did that in 2005." R A Dickey

So ... unpredictability trumps speed and power eh ....?

Sounds like my kind of thing :-)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Luo Lessons

Reviewing physical events is hard to do in words - One can wax lyrical about an 'eye opening session' or the 'mind blowing week', but it never really means much to those that were not there.
This is particularly true of seminar reviews, and this is a pity, because it would be fabulous to understand a little more about others' methods, and the participants' interaction with them. But how to communicate 'experience'?

That said, here is my version - A review of this year's seminar series with Luo DeXiu:

"Lessons for 2012" :-

The best way to really 'get' something, is to attach as many adjectives in front of the movement, and play with it - Do it soft, hard, fast, slow, smooth, chewy, heavy, careless, backwards.
Then do it twice.
Then add people ..... and then go back.

There are as many differences between the Internal Arts as there are similarities.

How the hell did anyone learn any of this without being able to ask questions?

It's hard to be unpredictable if you don't know what is predictable.

You can develop 'sticky hands' to such an extent that they feel like a cat's tongue licking your arm.

The thing you do BEFORE the thing that issues power is hugely important. Without it, stuff does not work as well.

Patience and watching/listening, sometimes confused with 'waiting', is hugely important in taking advantage of a set up. It gives you the timing.

The thing before the thing before, may be the key to a successful set up .... that's 3 beats you need to keep hold of.

Always keep your teeth together and your neck open and your feet alive when teacher says "This one a bit hurt" and grabs you to demo on. (Actually I learned this a long time ago ... but it's still funny - And no there is never damage, just momentary disorientation and shock)

It seems impossible to get out of the first 'O' of the OODA loop once you are stuck there.

I don't think you can gain Luo's level of skill unless you find it fun. The relaxed and fluid quality of his movement, and the power that this generates, only seems possible if you can smile.

We all need feedback as to how hard/soft we hit/grab/yank. You can't tell on your own.

Tai Ji is by far the nastiest of the 3 'Internals' - Favorite Tai Ji quote: "Outside, so nice, so smiling, so peaceful ... but inside, my heart is dirty! It's truth!!"

Bagua uses movement and psychology to set up the opponent before contact in the same way as Visayan Eskrima does with swords.

Oh, and a small reminder to teachers that feel like they are repeating material, and saying the same things over and over - this is not true. The space connecting your thoughts, words, and actions to the student is long, and filled with black holes. The message may take years to get through undistorted even if you speak the same language, use everyday words and are adept at physical theater. You are basically teaching the blind about 'blue'. It'll take some time .....

Monday, September 10, 2012

One Hit Wonder

This is a clip, from a movie called Ame Agaru (After the Rain) that I came upon randomly. I have not seen the whole movie, but it won all kinds of prizes so it seems like it might be worth a watch.

What follows is a seemingly pointless exercise - a critique of a movie duel, so to get a couple things out of the way first ....
Yes, I know it's a movie duel, thus choreographed to look cool to an audience, and not much more.
And, yes, I know movies are not real.

But ..... in the same way that movies create fantasy expectations that are damaging to skill building, they can also point out more interesting things, perhaps about dueling or human behavior, that lie underneath the overt message ......

In this clip for instance, we have the common Samurai hero architype - cool, calm, collected, focused, efficient and spare.
We also have his opponents - portraying their lesser skill by emoting strongly, trying to unsettle our hero by using their intent (which can work on the weak), yet ultimately not knowing how to create a successful entry.

We have come to understand this contrast as a perfect paradigm for; one who knows, versus one who does not. And it's not too far from truth, highly sanitized and stylized for sure, but still containing some grain of authenticity.

Overtly, the movie seems to indicate that at the highest level you can stand in front of an opponent undisturbed, wait for them to make their move, evade, and counter perfectly. But what it really shows is something completely different that looks the same from the outside, yet is totally different from the inside.

Our hero is not waiting for something to happen, and blithely countering. He gets to look cool, calm and collected, because he actually DOES know what's going to happen next. He set it up even before he draws his bokken.
He knows, for instance, that one of the highest valued skills in the context of Japanese sword play is the clean, single, finishing blow, and that this pervades all levels of training. He has also noticed, I'm sure, that his opponents are all fresh faced and probably never fought outside the training hall.

I have to say that I kept willing his opponents to fake, either in timing or in doubling the cut angle ... but no, these tactics are apparently not taught in their system .... something that our hero takes full advantage of.
A risky assumption you say? Sure .... but not an outlandish one, faking is a higher level skill, and even in systems that value it highly, hard to pull off well ......

So, is there anything of use to take away?

I'd say yes - If you are facing someone who is very good ... DO NOT play a game they can predict, and DO NOT mimic what they do without first understanding how it works.

Here's a quote about predictability from John Boyd:  
“Understanding the OODA loop enables a commander to compress time - that is, the time between observing a situation and taking an action. A commander can use the temporal discrepancy .. to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, wonder, to question.” Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

It is a good lesson indeed to remember that those tied to a way of thinking because of the system that they practice will be predictable to those who can see it, and thus doomed to lose.

So, again, what makes these guys so predictable?
Single entries with predictable timing.
Our hero knows he will be facing single entries, even if done in combination -
'One', 'One', 'One', 'One'. As opposed to
'Onenoit'snot'! or 
'O - ne', or even
'Onenoit'snot - yesitis'!
He also knows the cultural peer pressure to try to do well in front of an audience and impress the teacher and tribe. This means the opponent will want to enter, and be compelled to do so even if this means making a mistake ... and that when they do, they will be aiming for this simple, single, clean strike - because that is what will get the most 'points'.
Therefore all he has to do is - Seem open, invite them in, set them up for a particular strike by presenting a suitable target ... and there you have it. All he needs to know is when they are coming, and that should be easy to read because of the emotional tension caused by performance anxiety.

If you know all this stuff, it's easy to take advantage of it, you are already at 'A', whilst they are busy at O, O, and D.

So yeah, it's a movie duel, but still plenty to have fun with :-)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Burton Considers 'The Retreat'

 Following on from the previous extract from the book 'Sentiment of the Sword', some more wise words about the how to avoid taking hits from Sir Richard.

It's gratifying to note that way back from George Silver in 1599, through these words of Sir Richard, probably spoken in the late 1800s, and Sonny in the early 21st century, there is a continuity of thought in regard to the importance of evasion.

What I find most interesting, however, is how these swordsmen have found such resistance to their ideas, to the point that they all feel they have a fight to put their views across.
I think Sir Richard comes closest to understanding the reason for this - Basic assumptions on how one on one fighting is done 'right', tapping into all the unspoken rules of tribal culture we take for granted, and the deeply ingrained brain circuits that make it so.
As I have mentioned before in this blog, the problem with dueling with swords is that it is a lethal undertaking ... something that hierarchy fights (Monkey Dances) in nature rarely are .... and this causes the perennial problem of double deaths, or deaths from pride ... rather then the more attractive option of living through skill that seem to make way more sense ......
It's hard to train people past this tendency, but I guess this is not a new problem .....

Anyway, back to Sir Richard:

"To advance upon the sword is always the most dangerous action and the most difficult part of the Art of Arms.
"It loses time; it uncovers one side by covering the other, and it cannot be effected without somewhat shaking the play. It is only comparatively safe for a very short man against men much taller than himself.
"Nor must you think the retreat, as some do, injurious to the ripost; on the contrary, it makes the latter at once surer and easier.
"It often happens that after a lunge freely made the lunger remains for a time without recovering himself, attempting second thrusts, or remise de main, straight thrusts on one side where the parry took place. The two adversaries are now at quarters so close that the ripost can hardly be made without shortening the arm and exposing the breast. A step backwards saves all this.
"Nothing prettier, nothing more artistic, I freely own, than the parry and ripost, delivered with the feet motionless as a statue's. That tic! tac! movement is the height of art. But against fencers of different styles, perhaps dangerous withal, you must not often attempt such tours de force; otherwise, like the man who hunts for tigers on foot, your discomfiture is only a matter of time. You may do it, as you may not bet, only when you are certain of your 'coup'. To make it the systematic base of your play is, I believe, unreasonable as it is dangerous.

"And if" said Charles, laughing, "the adversary do the same, you'll soon find yourself not only out of sword reach, but out of pistol shot."

"The result will be three advantages to you, a thing certainly not to be despised.
"Firstly, if your opponent has had the same thought, or has received the same advice, it is testimony in favour of the maneuver.
"Secondly, his rapid retreat clearly shows you that he also dreads surprises and 'closing-in' movements, that his chances of success will not be sought in this order of ideas, and that his attacks will be prudent and reasoned.
"Thirdly, and especially when preparing for actual combat, these few seconds of preamble allow you to settle your equilibrium to draw upon your self confidence, to face without emotion that sword point which threatens you, and to allay the first involuntary movement of anxiety which, in such cases, the strongest nature must endure for a moment. Moreover you have been able to trap your adversary in a comprehensive glance of observation, and to draw your own conclusions from his position, from his handling of the sword, and from the general way in which he offers battle.
This renders it worth your while to stand for a few minutes even out of pistol shot.
"A low murmur received these remarks, so I continued them.
"My mind has long been made up to this point, and my pupils must perforce do the same. It is the more necessary for me to impress it upon them, because the masters are against me almost to a man.
The highest honour is justly given by them, as by myself, to the parry without retreat. The retiring parry, on the other hand, is unjustly regarded by them a a resource in extremis, as a last refuge, a confession that the action wants quickness, or the judgement maturity. And many professors would, I am certain, rather see their pupils "buttoned" than escape by a pace backwards.
"Perhaps there is a deeper cause for this prejudice than is usually suspected. In old duels men have been tied by the left foot, and even in parts of Europe, Heidelberg, for instance, a line of chalk marks the ne plus ultra of retreat. The idea of "falling back" is always distasteful, and the single step to the rear in the rude and instinctive judgement of men represents the premier pas of flight. I once made a man an enemy for life by simply saying during hand to hand "scrimmage", "Don't fall back".
Let me thus state my rule to the contrary:
"In general and on principle, accompany the parry with a retreat of either a full pace or a half pace, according to action of your adversary. Parry with firm foot only when, like a conjuror forcing a card, you have led the adversary to make the attack for which you are prepared.
"If you see in the opponent a disposition to attack with firm foot within middle measure, without either advancing or retreating by sudden and irregular movements, never attempting to surprise nor deceive by unforseen combinations, then a tic! tac! or two may be allowed. But beware of the man - especially if there is what hair cutters call a "thinness" upon the upper part of his head, or of his beard show a slight powdering of pepper and salt - who tries to shorten distance between himself and you by stealthily gaining ground under the mask of some well-devised feint.
Faenum habet in cornu.
"Finally, I am strict with my pupils upon the manner of their retreat. Some shuffle the left foot, others take a succession of steps, or rather back stumble, which seem really to be the beginning of flight. But, above all things, I warn the learner never to stand within measure - a position of endless and useless danger to himself or the adversary: perhaps I should say to himself and the adversary."

- Sir Richard Burton (Sentiment of the Sword)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Sentiment of the Sword

"The adversary attacks you; you parry; he doubles himself up, as it were, and your riposte touches his mask, his back or his arm. "The mask! the back! the arm!" says your antagonist, recovering guard indifferently, and airily denotes with his sinister finger tips the place of dishonour. And there are many who go on lunging as if nothing has occured.
"The mask, sir! But do you reflect that this thrust might have passed through your brain, which would have been quite as effectual as passing through your lungs? That other would have itroduced six inches of cold steel into your back. The third would have pinned your arm to your breast. You place your face, your back, your arm where your breast should be. I touch what is before me, and feel, you may be certain, amply satisfied with the result.
"Do you really believe that were the button removed from the foils you would consider it equivalent to parrying or to escaping a thrust, this substitution of one part for the another? That you are out of danger because you only expose your head, your back, or your neck to be drilled through?
"Certes, it is the height of desperation to risk blow for blow when both you and your adversary suffer equally. To use such means as those shows that you have no others at your disposal; yet it must always be borne in mind that you must use what you have ..."

From: The Sentiment of the Sword - Sir Richard Francis Burton for more on this fascinating gentleman, and his intrepid wife. Also for download options for the book