Friday, May 29, 2009
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Note well- I am not talking about Martial systems right now.
Which has more value? Which is the better use of time and resources? Training individuals? Or creating a system (environment, standards, processes, expectation) under which those individuals work?
To an extent a good system can function despite bad people. That's one of the real purposes to creating a system or a set of policies. On the other side good people can do great things with a bad system. (And that piece does apply to martial arts, FWIW).
Extraordinary people, good or bad, can exploit a system, good or bad, for their own purposes.
An absolute monarchy is a totalitarian dictatorship, but sometimes the power is used to create school systems and hospitals. Some use that power (and, here's a mindtwist for you, does a dictator have more power than another type of ruler or only fewer constraints on the same power?) for the good of their people. Others use it to gratify their egos or satisfy personal (or very public) desires. Good people can do great things with systems that are not inherently great themselves.
And well intentioned systems, like the Americans with Disabilities Act or FMLA or Medicair are often and easily exploited by bad people.
I've always been a training person working within well-established systems. The few times I've been in at the start of something new and radical (CERT, the Mental Health Team) we did fantastic, earth-shaking stuff, but we still had to work within a system, and sometimes the system had automatic checks to prevent any part from outshining the rest too obviously.
This last little bit, though, I've been working with systems in what seems like fairly virgin soil. There will always be issues with implementation and institutional inertia and all that, but I am still pleased and surprised. A good system makes everything easier,( even training) because you are training to a standard that makes sense from the ground up and serves a specific, tangible purpose. Some of these systems, like the After Action Debriefing, have huge continuing payoffs with very little effort. You can create a system that is self-improving.
The strange part is that it is so easy. If you really know the problem and know your resources and keep a few simple rules of information management in mind (like "what's the goal" and "who is the end user") you can hammer out a system, sometimes to a problem that seems complex, very, very quickly. How quickly? Depends on the problem and the process, but it frequently takes me longer to write down the proposal than to outline the process. I type slow, though.
Both are important, but good systems makes it easier for people to be good workers. Good people compensate for glitches and bugs in the system, and good workers can move between different systems and adapt quickly.
So add this to the list of very cool things from my time here: systems design was one of those secret things jealously guarded by the wizards in the black tower. Turns out it was easy and I never, ever would have been suffered to find that out back home.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The nature/nurture question.
I sometimes doubt how relevant it is. For self-defense, in the moment of assault the reason the person is assaulting you, what led to his life of crime, is one of the least important pieces of information. When it comes to changing lives or preventing the problem it is important.
Maybe. It's popular to say that nature/nurture is a mix, that neither is definitive, that they interact. It's undeniably true, but also a cop-out. One of my favorite anthropology teachers unabashadly would say, "Nurture. You give a Masai newborn to Inuit parents and in twenty years you get a tall, skinny, black eskimo." It's very important, culture and upbringing. But there is a base, too.
I don't want to talk about just nature and nurture. There are a lot of things in human behavior that can have similar effects but completely different causes and, thus, different solutions. Almost every diagnosed Axis I mental illness has a personality disorder (axis II) that mimics it. Schizophrenia and schizotypal PD; OCD and OCPD. In the Axis I stuff, chemicals are out of balance. Something is broken. The Personality Disorders, by contrast, are pervasive patterns of behavior.
Which is more manageable? Changeable? The organic problems may be inborn, more a real part of the self than any behavior, yet someone with schizophrenia will do almost anything to be 'normal' and 'healthy' and an Anti-Social Personality Disorder will pervert almost any attempt to help him change, feeling perfect the way he is despite the wreckage of broken lives trailing behind him.
Essentially, you can have (almost) the same problem from two different directions. Where it comes from, nature or nurture; chemical imbalances or choices, might have little bearing on the effects, on how it damages lives. But it can have profound effects on how the individual perceives it and how, or if it can be treated.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
It’s hard to tell how deep bullshit goes. Really. You hear someone say, “Twelve pounds of pressure will break a knee.” He believes it because someone he trusts said it. A little thought (or experimentation- put a 12 pound dumbbell on your locked knee) and it is pretty clearly bullshit. People who believe it, believe it. People who know better think the people who believe it are stupid.
“A palm heel can drive the nose bone into the brain.” Same dynamic…except how do you know it doesn’t? How many times have you tried? Logic might work. I’ve heard people say that there is no nose bone, the nose is all cartilage. Did they never feel their own nose? Ever use the little ridge of bone at the base of the septum as a leverage point? "There is no place to drive the bone, if it exists, through the skull…" but I have heard that there is an opening for one of the facial nerves…
Again, and understand this here- I’m not saying which is right or wrong. I haven’t done it myself and I haven’t examined enough real skulls to make a guess. What I am saying is that in many cases not only belief, but denial of belief, are eqully based on hearsay. Not on facts, not on experience. For some reason denying a belief automatically has more credibility than perpetuating one.
We hear things and we believe them, but sometimes we see things and ignore them, things that could have some really deep implications.
Here are some things that make me go “hmmmm” in martial arts training. They may be nothing, but I suspect some of them have some pretty powerful effects. I want to thank Bobbe for getting me thinking about this, or at least pushing it in this direction. Here are a few:
You are more likely to be injured by a beginner than by a blackbelt. This fits my experience and I’ve heard it stated by instructors in many different styles. So, hmmmmm. What does it mean? If someone training to break people becomes less likely to break people the longer he trains, what is the training really instilling? Here's a scary, bizarro world thought- is it possible that MA training is specifically designed to pull teeth? To make the students safer and easier to control?
The obvious counter argument is that the advanced student, the 'expert' merely has more control. Possible. Safety habits are still habits, you fight the way you train… blah, blah, blah. If this is true, that you fight the way you train, then the hours of practicing NOT hurting people will make that your default when you need the skills. The habit of control in the dojo is still a habit. You practice pulling punches and you will pull punches. You simulate using pepper spray by pressing on top of the safety and saying, “SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” you will do it in real life and the crook will give you a very strange look (right, Sean S.?) And, from the other side, I can't recall ever hearing a boxer say that you are more likely to be hurt by a beginner than a pro.
The utility of skill at all. Take this one with a huge grain of salt because it comes from someone who has spent decades honing skills: Attitude is far more important. No skill will help you if you freeze for too long. Sanford Strong’s research in some of the worst-case scenarios (abduction rape/murders and home invasion torture killings) indicated that attitude, specifically the decision to make the bastard pay no matter what it cost, was the single biggest factor in survival. Not skill, not size. Ask anyone who knows what they are talking about this question- “Which would be more dangerous to fight, a 200 pound blackbelt who was afraid of getting hurt or a ninety pound housewife who didn’t give a damn if she was killed as long as she took you with her?” Even Jeff, (the guy who trains unbelievably hard to do some very dangerous things and demanded an extreme level of precision under stress)- well, he’s the guy who said, “Violence of action trumps technique.”
So it’s not just me, Jeff is another training junkie who thinks attitude and ferocity are more important than precision or skill (are precision and skill the same thing? Measurements of each other?). This is where people with agendas get their panties in a twist: Neither Jeff nor I have ever said or ever will say that training is unimportant. Ferocity and skill are in no way mutually exclusive. It’s just that a timid technician will reliably lose to an untrained lion.
Training to maintain calm in the face of violence. Maaayyyybeee. I can do it, but it is nothing like the peaceful calm I feel when I am luxuriating in bed in the morning. And it's something that came from experience after the oh, 20th or 50th Use of Force. The ten years of training before that did absolutely nothing for adrenaline control in my first few fights.
So what kind of calm are they training for? Do they even know? How many different mindsets have they experienced in others and in themselves and which mindsets have they felt when someone was trying to kill them? Blind panic works sometimes and a ‘flight’ response in the right direction can sometimes do more damage than a ‘fight’ response.
So, tying back to the last point, why isn’t more emphasis placed on training ruthlessness and ferocity? Not the imaginary ruthlessness of visualizing what your knife could do to flesh but instilling the habits of driving it home and ripping it out and moving on. Not the flowy, peaceful harmony of an imaginary Shaolin but the beautiful, cold, precision of a hunter. Is it taught so rarely because it is a complete unknown? Could the natural mindsets of battle be a complete mystery to people teaching fighting and self-defense? Does that bother anyone else?
Or is it because they don’t know how to teach it? Or is it because the magical thinking of, “We train to stay calm in the face of violence” is enough of a talisman and the real thing might upset the magic? Or, most damning, is it a fear of creating a student that they can't dominate?
What are they training for anyway? Often, in a MA class, I get a ‘when would I use this?’ moment. Sometimes because of legal justification, but sometimes just because the situations where it would come up seem so very unlikely. Weapon defense techniques are a big one for these moments, but I have spent hours practicing technique from seiza. I even know how to bow in armor.
I try to be pretty specific when I teach. I know lots of ways to take someone down without hurting them because that was my job, but really, unless it’s your job, there’s not a lot of use for that. Outside of that, when I talk about self-defense, physical self defense, that is a whole different animal. That is pure survival in situations where one or more humans has worked hard to make sure that you have the minimum possible chance of survival.
Afraid and overwhelmed and in a bad position are kind of the basic starting positions for self-defense. (aside: real self defense is all about avoiding this. Physical self defense is what you use when that has failed).
The techniques need to be based on gross motor skills, have to be married from the get-go with accessing the appropriate mindsets, and must be based on flexible principles or you will be overwhelmed in the chaos. Lots of it has to be taught from the body out instead of from the brain down.
So what are they (or you) training for? I’m all for fitness and preserving culture. I like fun, and there is very little more fun than clanging steel in a safe environment. But when it goes to where I am going (and most of the people that seek me out for training want this piece) it is about violence. Hard, scary, personal, dangerous, messy.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Right now, Turkish air is my favorite to fly. Nice staff, decent meals, free drinks. Unfortunately, the Istanbul airport is my current least favorite. So far every trip through has involved long, long waits in line for unnecessary things that take too long. I thought different this time, got here early, quick through the first checkpoint and then… sorry. We’re fully staffed and everything but your boarding pass can’t be issued until that desk opens in two hours. Should make my plane, if the line isn’t too long. Still, it rankles to be waiting around to stand in line.
Rules for travel (some stuff I didn’t do this time):
1) Either plan or don’t. I’ve visited places after doing extensive research and gone to places completely blind. Both have been great. The types of fun are a little different. And don’t be afraid of getting lost. That’s where the cool stuff is.
2) Be nice to people. How hard is that? Just like at home, listen more than you talk. Fortunately, I saw no ugly Americans on this trip… but did watch a nice Turkish businessman try to defuse an Australian temper-tantrum and heard a very nice English gentleman say, “You people are ignorant and you worship evil, but that’s your right and it works for you. Don’t change.” I really hope his interlocutor didn’t understand.
3) Stay a while. This is one that we always screw up. Sometimes my darling wife and I confuse distance with experience and traveling with relaxing. Traveling isn’t relaxing. Stopping is. Next time, instead of driving every day to spend a night in a new place, long single-day drives that end in a place we want to wander for a while. Like Cong.
4) Sarcasm requires an excellent translator. Otherwise, it’s not worth explaining.
If you are in a museum and start to hear a rumble that reminds you of an avalanche approaching or a medieval battle re-enactment, they just let in the grade school tour group.
This is how to get a free translator and tour guide for a day in Istanbul: go to any of the major exhibits in the early morning. Someone will step up and say that he wants to practice his English. He will say that he doesn’t want to be paid and has his own museum card and he’s not selling anything so he hopes you don’t mind if he tags along. The hair will stand up on the back of your neck because it screams, “scam.”
It is… sort of. After the (for me) Haya Sophia and/or the Grand Mosque he will ask if you would like to step into his family shop for tea. You will have a nice tea and a nice conversation with a ‘relative’ who speaks even better English as other relatives spread out rugs and explain the history, manufacture… It’s a great class in rug making and there are no hard feelings when you say “No.” If it works, the family sells a rug or more (at some incredible prices) and if not, you may remember them when you are older and richer and visiting Turkey again and decide to stop in and see how Hakim is doing.
Customer service was extraordinary. I wasn’t just remembered by waiters the next day, but remembered by people at places I passed by. Hand in hand with that, the salesman are very aggressive (see above, with the tour guide) and it got kind of wearing when I wanted to be alone or just explore.
A still picture can’t project how huge the domes of the Haya Sophia and the Blue Mosque are from the inside.
When you see a street of goldsmiths and silversmiths and a bowl (talking party punch bowl) full of emeralds… Smaug’s treasure wasn’t all that impressive.
Very screwed up that the two areas at Topkapi Palace where photography was forbidden were the weapons and the treasury.
It probably means something- when I said ‘the weapons’ above, the displays included a bunch of religious relics, like Moses’ walking stick and John the Baptist’s jewel-encrusted skull and Mohammed’s beard… but I really only paid attention to the weapons.
You can get sunburned in Ireland.
Castles make for better sex than B&Bs for some reason.
Untapped tourist market- why can’t you shoot longbows at straw invaders from some of the towers? Or practice throwing Viking axes at some of the famous battle sites. Seriously folks, I’d pay just to say I did it.
The Pacific NorthWest needs some castles. Seriously, the castles, ruins and graveyards were the biggest differences between Ireland and the Willamette Valley. Oregon even has better beer. A nice fortress would look very natural on the Columbia River Gorge and some of the islands could use a ruined abbey.