Apr 27

The feel for weapons

I read Scientists Have Recreated Ancient Battles to Solve Debate Over Ancient Bronze Swords and was annoyed.

Not because the study wasn’t worth doing for its own sake – I applaud archeologists with the good sense to use historical reenactors to learn more about how combat in bygone times must have worked. But it seems to have been done to refute a theory that shouldn’t have been entertained seriously for three seconds – namely that Bronze Age swords were mainly ceremonial items with little use in actual combat.

I am, as Charles Babbage might have said, not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a theory.

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Jan 13

A martial artist looks at swordfighting in the movies

I was reminded, earlier today, that one of the interesting side effects of knowing something about hand-to-hand and contact-weapons-based martial arts makes a big difference in how you see movies.

Most people don’t have that knowledge. So today I’m going to write about the quality of sword choreography in movies, and how that has changed over time, from the point of view of someone who is an experienced multi-style martial artist in both sword and empty hand. I think this illuminates a larger story about the place of martial arts in popular Western culture.

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Jun 23

Respect can be hard

I had a good sword class today. There was much sparring with many different weapons.

At one point, Sensei Varady and I faced off, him with paired shortsword simulants, me with a longsword simulant. It went pretty well for me; sensei is bigger, faster, at least 20 years younger, and more skilled than I am (he runs the school), but he kept letting his guard fall just a _little_ bit too low and I got in three or four good clean kill shots on his left neck-and-shoulder pocket – a favorite target of mine at any blade length.

Understandably this adrenalizes him some and the next time my block is not quite fast enough he fetches me a whack on the ribs that he immediately realizes was way overpowered. Starts apologizing, grins, and says something like “You’re a good, tough fighter, I tend to power up automatically to deal with it.” (Sense exact, words not.)

I said “I am very happy that you treat me with that respect.”

And absolutely meant it. Given a choice between taking a bruise occasionally because the instructor has to play hard to beat me and being ineffectual enough that he always has control of the fight…I’ll take the bruises, thanks. And enjoy how I got them. A lot.

Apr 03

Hacker Archetypes

There’s a book about martial arts called On the Warrior’s Path that tries to understand the differing psychologies of martial artists through the lens of half a dozen archetypes – Seeker, Ronin, Tribal Warrior, and others.

I have not yet read the book, but my friend and regular A&D commenter Susan Sons reports having found it very effective for motivating young and newbie martial artists. “It gave them their first glimpse of what they were trying to become,” she reports, “They both knuckled down not just in the obvious physical parts of training, but in the mental aspects, far more than they had before and far more than their age/experience peers.”

So, Susan had the idea that it might be a good idea to develop a parallel gallery of hacker archetypes to help motivate newbies. We brainstormed this on IRC for a while. One thing that had been blocking Susan is that, by her own report, she sucks at naming things. I, on the other hand, am pretty good at that; I was able to come up with names that helped the archetypes develop more definition.

We don’t think this is a complete set, and some of the names might change. But it’s enough of a start for some public brainstorming.

Also note: no hacker is only one of these, but in talking about a number of mutual friends we found it was always pretty easy to agree on both the friend’s dominant archetype and the secondary one that they display most after it. I think this is an indication that we are, even if imperfectly, zeroing in on real traits.

Here they are. Descriptions mostly Susan, names mostly me.

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Jul 22

Big fish, small pond?

As of tonight, I have a new challenge in my life.

Sifu Dale announced tonight that next year he plans to send a team to next year’s Quoshu, a national-level martial-arts competition held every year in northern Maryland in late summer.

I told Sifu I want to go and compete in weapons, at least. He was like, “Well, of course,” as though he’d been expecting it. Which is maybe a little surprising and flattering considering I’ll be pushing 60 then.

It’ll mean serious training for the next year, and maybe a pretty humiliating experience if it turns out I’m too old and slow. But I want to try, because it’s national-level competition against fighters from dozens of different styles, and…frankly, I’m tired of not having any clear idea how good I am. Winning would be nice, but what I really want is to measure myself against a bigger talent pool.children tracker

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Aug 21

On having good form

Sometimes, the best encouragement you can get in a martial-arts class is silence.

Once a month my school, which normally teaches a combination of wing chun kung fu and Philippine blade/stick fighting, gets a visit from Sifu Jerry Devone, who teaches pure traditional Wing Chun at a level a bit higher than our Sifu Dale Yeager.

Sifu Jerry is a nice guy, but it’s not difficult to find videos of him almost casually destroying other kung fu players in ring fights. He shows the same soft/hard combination as an instructor – never yells at anyone, but demands precision and perfection and often gets it, even from unpromising students.

Tonight he told the four senior students (including Cathy and myself) to line up facing him and do the Siu Nim Tao form with him watching for defects. From some instructors this would be a terrifying prospect, with anticipation of a humiliating ass-chewing to follow. While Sifu Dale wouldn’t exactly humiliate someone who screwed up, he might make snarky theatrical jokes about bad performance in a half-laughing-with, half-laughing-at manner. Neither of these is Sifu Jerry’s style – he’d just quietly correct in a way that would make you grimly determined to get it right next time.

Still, I felt rather stressed. I know the motions of Siu Nim Tao – it’s not a complex form, and it doesn’t require anything I’m bad at like high kicking – but it’s subtle. There are fine details in it, and the devil is in those details, and in getting the overall flow and timing right.

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Dec 12

Another step on the martial path

Cathy and I passed our Level 6 test in kuntao last night.

That’s the hybrid martial art we study, part traditional wing chun and part Philippine kali. The empty hand stuff is mostly wing chun, a South Chinese close-fighting style which … OK, if you don’t know much about martial arts just imagine the fights in The Matrix without the high kicks. The weapons stuff is mostly kali, knife and stick and (relatively short) sword.

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Sep 26

Halfway up the mountain

Last night, my wife Cathy and I passed our level 5 test in kuntao. That’s a halfway point to level 10, which is the first “guro” level, roughly equivalent to black belt in a Japanese or Korean art. Ranks aren’t the big deal in kuntao that they are in most Americanized martial arts, but this is still a good point to pause for reflection.

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Sep 03

Reality is viciously sexist

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

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Feb 17

Come train with me

This is a shout-out to all martial artists and would-be martial artists in the western Philadelphia exurbs, especially: Phoenixville, Spring City, Collegeville, Mont Clare, Upper Providence, Lower Schuylkill, Valley Forge, Charlestown/Malvern, Kimberton, Audubon, and Lower Perkiomen.

I train under Sifu Dale Yeager at the Kuntao Martial Arts Club in Phoenxville, and my school has a weird problem. It’s having trouble keeping students, and near as I can figure the trouble is that the school is too good!

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Aug 14

Summer vacation 2013

The last couple of weeks have been my vacation, and full of incident.This explains the absence of blogging.

First, World Boardgaming Championships. I did respectably, making quarter- and semi-finals in a couple of events, but failed in my goal to make the Power Grid finals again this year and place higher than fifth.

I did very well in Conflict of Heroes, though; my final game – with the tournament organizer – was a an epic slugfest that attracted the attention of Uwe Eickert (the game’s designer) who watched the last half enthralled. I lost by only 1 point and was told I’d be put on the Wall of Honor. I like my chances at the finals next year.

Then Summer Weapons Retreat. Huge fun as usual; I spent most of the week working on Florentine (two-sword) technique. with some excursions into polearm and hand-and-a-half sword. I’ve posted a few pictures on my G+ feed.

First full day I was home, a thunderstorm blew out the router in my basement. Yes I had it on a UPS, but ground surges (though rare) do happen; this one toasted the Ethernet switch. Diagnosing, replacing, and dealing with the second-order effects of that ate most of yesterday.

Now life is back to relatively normal, though it will take a few days for the muscle aches from a week of hard training to entirely subside. Blogging will resume.

Dec 11

Heavy weapons

I should have known it. I really should have expected what happened.

So it’s about week 7 at kuntao training, the tasty exotic mix of south Chinese kung fu and Philippine weapons techniques my wife and I are now studying, and we’re doing fine. The drills are challenging, but we’re up to the challenge. Our one episode of sparring so far went very well, with Cathy and I both defeating our opponents decisively in knife duels. The other students and the instructors have accepted us and show a gratifying degree of confidence in our abilities. Our first test approaches and we are confident of passing.

The only fly in the ointment, the one silly damn thing I’ve had persistent trouble with, is spinning my escrima sticks. Last night I found out why…

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Oct 07

Adventures in kuntao

My regulars will be aware that, since the Mixed Martial Arts program we were in folded up, my wife Cathy and I have been having an interesting learning adventure checking out various schools in our area as possibilities for our next style. We’ve had some more adventures since.

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Aug 21

How To Choose A Martial-Arts School

The responses to my progress report on searching for a new martial-arts school made it clear that many people are interested in advice on this topic. The problem is especially difficult for new students choosing a first school, as they have yet to develop the kind of trained eye that can evaluate technique.

I have been training in empty-hand combat and contact weapons since 1982; more or less continuously since 1990. I have studied shotokan, tae kwon do, aikido, wing chun kung fu, and Mixed Martial Arts at five different schools and trained in sword-centered Western Martial Arts at two more. Along the way I’ve picked up bits and pieces of iaido, kenjutsu, escrima stick fighting, penjak silat, shaolin kung fu, Greco-Roman wrestling, Okinawan karate, naginata-do, and lua. I hold a black belt in tae kwon do and have been an instructor in multiple styles. I report these things to establish that my experience of styles and schools is very broad, equipping me to give useful advice on how to choose one.

This how-to will be aimed mainly at people new to the martial arts trying to choose a first school, but the questions I suggest can usefully be asked even if you are a much more experienced student.

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Aug 17

A martial-arts trilemma

So, nine days ago the Mixed Martial Arts program my wife and I had been training in was canceled, and we’ve been shopping for a new school in our area. We’re serious students, twenty years deep in empty-hand and weapons, so the general run of strip-mall karate and TKD joints just isn’t going to do it for us. We require a school with high-quality instruction that can teach us stuff we haven’t seen before.

Fortunately, the area where we live (Chester County in southeastern Pennsylvania) an affluent section of the Boswash metroplex and thus probably nearly as good as it gets in the U.S. for choice. Internet searches turned up two strong possibilities, in addition to the third which is to stick with our current dojo and switch to Tang Soo Do.

We’ve now been to do evaluation classes at both. This is an after-action report likely to be of interest to martial artists of any description, and I’m hoping that the process of writing will help me clarify my thoughts about an interesting trilemma.

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Aug 08

Shopping for a new martial-arts school

For some months now my wife Cathy and myself had been the only regulars showing up for the MMA classes at our local dojo, Iron Circle. While this meant we got a lot of quality instructor time, I did wonder how the school could afford to run classes fotr two students.

Well, it turns out they can’t. Two days ago, Master Maybroda emailed us to tell us the MMA program was being canceled. Too many people, it seems, show up expecting it to be like what they see on UFC and bail when it isn’t. “You two outlasted all the wannabes” he wrote.

This leaves us with a problem. Where and how shall we train? We wouldn’t even consider just stopping. We’re martial artists – and, though my wife denies that this has become part of her self-identification in the way it is for me, she is no readier to give it up than I am.

Looking over the local Yelp listings for martial arts, and discarding schools we’ve trained at before but left for various reasons, we seem to be down to three alternatives…

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Jul 27

What I did on my 2011 summer vacation (part one)

It’s always one of the high points of my year when I get to go to Michigan and play with the sword geeks. This year my wife and I went out for Summer Weapons Retreat 3, run by our friends at the Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study, with an unstructured several days afterwards for extra hang time. Some of you may have seen my Google+ microbursts about this trip, but I only posted them to circles distribution; here’s the rest of the story, or as much of it as I think is interesting anyway.

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Mar 05

Facing your inner alpha

There’s been some discussion in response to my post on A natural contemplates game on the meaning of the term “alpha male” as it applies to humans. In comments, I had this to say as a definition:

As I use “alpha”, it simply means someone who is equipped for leadership roles by psychology and temperament. You can tell you are one if your experience of life frequently includes being sucked into leadership vacuums. It’s not about having some sort of dark desire to dominate people, though of course there’s a subset of alphas that has that.

In the PUA context, “alpha” has the additional overlapping meaning of someone who has high hypergamic value to women. These two traits tend to be correlated and to reinforce each other.

I also noted this:

I don’t really know what makes alphas; I wasn’t always one myself, formerly having been what another commenter describes as a sigma [strong loner type, resistant to being in hierarchies]. In fact, for personal values reasons I denied to myself that I was an alpha until long after a third-party observer would have said so, facing the reality only when my pattern of constantly being sucked into leadership vacuums became undeniable.

I will further note that alphaness is not altogether a happy trait to have. The getting more sex part is nice, but the constant “somebody has to do it” presented by the leadership vacuums around you can be a serious pain in the ass. Especially if, like me, you have values conflicts about being an authority figure.


..there was never a lot of “reaching out” involved on my part. The damn leadership roles reached out and grabbed me. Once I realized I was stuck with them, I just tried to handle the job as competently as I could.

I’m not sure what else to tell you, except that I still think people who crave leadership roles are not to be trusted. The reason I denied I was an alpha for a long time is that I had some confusion in my head between the sort of person who wants to run things and the kind of person who can’t help doing it.

Now I will tell a story about one of the incidents that forced me to face my inner alpha.

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