Aikido, RPG, and Utena ALL IN THE SAME POST
A friend (who has requested to remain anonymous) sent me a very interesting email. I'm posting it here along with my response because I think it touches on interesting points in RPG design as well as Aikido philosophy.
Hi Jono! I have an aikido question that doubles as an RPG philosophy question. Naturally, you were the first person I thought of coming to.
I'm involved in a Narrativist-style message-board RPG set at Utena's Ohtori Academy's sister school in the Netherlands. There's a dueling game here too, though it's organized more informally, and run according to rules that haven't quite been revealed yet, if indeed they exist. The problem is that my character -- Taro Ichino, an exchange student from Ohtori -- knows a lot more about martial arts than I do; he's a good aikidoka and a fair karateka. As in Utena, you lose if your rose falls from your chest; you can also lose by drawing blood. Taro's opponent, a fop named Helms, has a combat knife and knows how to use it (though of course he can't draw blood with it). Helms knows about pressure points and has already used the hilt of his knife to strike the point near Taro's ankle to neutralize a kick. Helms has also shown a hesitance to attack; he probably knows that an uke who knows aikido has an advantage. The duel is taking place outdoors at night, and visibility is poor. There are bushes and a mansion nearby, but terrain has not otherwise been established. There are two spectators who aren't supposed to interfere. Helms is controlled by the GM, but apart from controlling the NPCs, the GM has no special rule-setting power; anyone can make something happen by narrating it.
So I have two questions.
First, if you were in this predicament, what would you do? My understanding of aikido indicates that it can't do much against an opponent who won't attack, and I imagine it's hard to use karate when your opponent has a longer reach than you, though I don't actually know anything practical about either of those martial arts.
Second, how should a friendly, narrativist, diceless RPG deal with this situation? Winning the duel is easy in theory -- all I have to do is narrate my victory -- but given that there are no dice or conflict resolution rules, it would feel like cheating to win without proving that Taro has "the moves" to deserve it. Does that mean that someone who knows nothing about martial arts shouldn't play a narrativist RPG that involves dueling? How do you solve this problem?
Here's my response.
> First, if you were in this predicament, what would you do? My understanding
> of aikido indicates that it can't do much against an opponent who won't
The Aikido response to an opponent who won't attack is,
"Good. You have already won. Walk away."
O-sensei was Not A Fan of dueling, or any activity whose purpose was
to assert dominance over or diminish another human being, and
intentionally made Aikido useless for that purpose. Yeah, he was a
great big hippie. That doesn't help your situation, though, does it?
So, I can think of three ways of handling this in-game.
One is actually to walk away. Just try to leave the arena and see
what happens. That's quite possibly what someone would do who was
really devoted to the aikido philosophy, (although it raises the
question of why he agreed to join the duel in the first place). That
might completely screw up the story and make everyone think you're a
jerk, though. On the other hand, it's an important part of the Utena
story-arc that at some point she starts questioning the purpose of the
duels and whether they can be stopped; an action like this might bring
down the wrath of End Of The World or his Norwegian equivalent, which
might be bad for your character but good for the story. Probably
discuss this out-of-character with the GM before you try it.
> As in Utena, you lose if your rose falls from your chest; you can also lose
> by drawing blood.
This suggests a second path: intentionally cut yourself on his knife.
Blood would be drawn, so that would be a loss for your opponent,
right? It's a cheap trick, but it's also a very "anime drama" kind of
thing to sacrifice yourself in order to win. It would have the fun
side-effect of convincing everyone you're a little bit crazy. The
word "kamikaze" might come up.
In practical terms, do you know how hard it is to attack someone with
a knife without drawing blood? Think about it -- what can he actually
do to you? He has to try to cut for the rose and that's it. Leave
the rose open for a moment to lure him in and then brush the knife
aside with your bare hand as it comes in. The visibility is poor so
the judges may not get a good look at exactly what happened; this
could work for you or against you.
The third possibility is to actually fight the duel using martial
arts, like you're supposed to do, which I would consider the most
boring option, but if you must... you're going to have to lure him
into attacking, by presenting a false opening. Maybe some taunting is
called for as well, if you think you know him well enough to say
something that will get under his skin. Suspecting a trick he will of
course try to feint once or twice with the knife before making a real
strike; remember he can't actually cut you anywhere except the rose,
so supress your instinct to react until he cuts at the real target.
You know how you grab a snake just behind the head? Dance to the
inside of his knife hand, moving in as close to him as you can, grab
his right wrist with your left hand (assuming he's right-handed) and
twist it out and up. Uppercut to the jaw with your right, get your
right leg behind his and hip-check him (this all has to happen at
once) so he trips over you and starts falling backwards. Snatch the
rose with your right hand as he falls, never letting go of the knife
Depending on what Helms does, that might have a 50% chance of working,
or it might not. Who knows?
> Second, how should a friendly, narrativist, diceless RPG deal with this
> situation? Winning the duel is easy in theory -- all I have to do is
> narrate my victory -- but given that there are no dice or conflict
> resolution rules, it would feel like cheating to win without proving that
> Taro has "the moves" to deserve it. Does that mean that someone who knows
> nothing about martial arts shouldn't play a narrativist RPG that involves
> dueling? How do you solve this problem?
This is why I wouldn't play an RPG that doesn't have rules. Even
something as simple as "you and the GM secretly flip a coin to see
who's going to win, then play it out through narration" is a perfectly
functional rule which would solve this problem. If you can't
introduce something like that, then I recommend talking
out-of-character to the GM in a separate channel and discussing what
the consequences to the story would be of Taro winning vs. Helms
winning, and reach a consensus about which would be a more interesting
direction for the story long-term, and then publicly narrate out the
fight to reach that conclusion.
I had an interesting discussion once with Rachel from UCJAS, where she told me about the diceless
message-board role-player culture and I told her about the diceful
tabletop role-player culture. Both of us were honestly trying our
best to understand an unfamiliar way of doing things, so it was quite
educational. From what she said, it sounds like diceless
message-board RPGs work great right up until the point where two
players have a head-to-head competition that they both want to win;
there simply isn't any way to negotiate an outcome for that within the
system. Rachel said it sometimes leads to either endless dueling
scenes or else drama spilling out of the game and turning into an
internet flame war.
The other possibility would be to get an impartial observer to listen
to the narration of both sides and declare a victor. Normally this
would be the GM, but the GM is already in the duel, so you'd have to
find a third party whose opinion in this matter you'd both respect
enough to bide by the decision. "impartial third party decides the
outcome" is also a perfectly functional rule.
Just keep in mind that it's basically impossible for anyone -- even a
martial arts expert -- to decide "who would really win" just by
reading a description of one side's tactics and the other side's
tactics. You might imagine that there's some kind of martial arts
"paper rock scissors" where one move defeats another but gets defeated
by a third, but it doesn't work that way. Fights are decided by
strength, speed, stamina, agility, and above all by psychology --
who's more confident? who's more determind to win? who's more
afraid? who gets distracted? who gets blinded by rage? etc.
Compared to those factors, fancy moves are meaningless. So even if
you have an impartial observer, you'll have to accept that the
decision is basically arbitrary and cannot in any way reflect "what
would really happen".
Bottom line is, you can't "prove that Taro has the moves" to deserve
victory. It's the wrong game for that. If you were playing Street
Fighter II you could prove that you have the moves because the game
programming is an impartial arbiter, and victory goes to whoever's
better at exploiting the game mechanics. Your RPG has no game
mechanics as such, so the system cannot arbitrate any real
disagreement between players. Which means that even though the
*characters* are at odds, the *players* must already be in agreement.
If everyone is really following narrativism as the creative agenda for
this game, then they should all see victory or loss in a duel as
simply being two different but equally useful opportunities for
character development. Therefore you should be able to reach a
friendly out-of-character agreement about story goals and work from
there. (Wheras simulationism would frown on out-of-character
discussion about outcomes, and gamism would demand mechanics that
could support a contest of tactics.)
I have resumed training
I had a horrible dream that I had killed two guys and hidden their festering corpses underneath the tatami in my apartment. It was an accident or in self defense or something -- it wasn't a dream about being a murderer, it was a dream about having incriminating evidence that I couldn't get rid of. I couldn't think of what to do with the corpses that wouldn't immediately get me found out and arrested, I didn't know who I could trust enough to talk to about the problem, and meanwhile the corpses just kept smelling worse and worse so that sooner or later my neighbors were going to investigate and get me arrested. I felt trapped. It sucked.
Usually I don't think my dreams mean anything, but this one felt like the festering corpses were a metaphor for some similarly festering problem in real life. Of course -- I hadn't been back to the aikido dojo in a month, but I hadn't called them to say I was revoking my membership either because I was dreading that conversation. It was a festering problem that I couldn't talk about. My subconscious was telling me it was way past time to do something.
It just so happened that the next day, I got an email from Chris at the Hyde Park Peace Dojo asking me if I could come down and teach a class on Monday, since Don-sensei was traveling and Chris couldn't teach it either. I said yes, since this was a good chance to do some Aikido at a different dojo.
But I hadn't practiced in a month. No way could I teach a class cold like that -- I would just embarrass myself and waste everyone's time. So I had to get in some practice somewhere first.
On Monday, I just so happened to find myself awake at 5:30 AM out of some old habit, so I decided to go into the 6:30 morning class at the Aikikai. I figured that I would get my practice in, then face up to Sensei and tell him that I was dropping out of the class. I just had to think of a plausible reason for dropping out that wasn't "I don't like you".
But the class went really well. The only weird thing that Sensei did was that while we were all practicing, he went off in the corner and practiced slumping down against the wall like a discarded rag-doll over and over again. He didn't say anything about what he was doing and he didn't ask us to do it, so I still don't know what that was about. This is an example of why I keep saying that he is a weirdo. But hey! It didn't get in the way of having a great practice session. So what the heck, maybe I was overreacting before and I should just start practicing again. I didn't tell sensei anything about dropping out.
It felt a little like I had broken up with a girlfriend and then found myself bck in her arms a month later. (Not that I've ever done that, mind you.) I was confused.
After work that same day, I biked the 13 miles down Lake Shore Drive to Hyde Park. A sudden cloudburst hit around 47th street and I sheltered under a bridge until it passed. Still got to the neighborhood club soaking wet.
I was the only one there. I waited until 7:40 (bow-in was supposed to be 7:45) and I was still the only one there. Great, the day I go to all this trouble to be the substitute teacher is the day nobody comes. I was about to give up and go home when one other student showed up. But he said he'd rather not train if he was going to be the only one there (he'd rather go do homework instead). I thought that was pretty lame.
I told him that I was at his disposal, so he could pick any technique he was having trouble with, and I'd just help him practice that for half an hour and then he could go. We got through a couple iterations of katate-dori-sankyo, and then about 8pm one more student showed up. This was enough to convince the first guy to stay for a aproper class, so everybody got suited up and we rolled out the mats and got started.
It was a great time! The other two students were studying for 6-kyu and 5-kyu, so they were very much beginners, i.e. they were in the range of ability where I can usefully teach them. I was able to help them out with a lot of stuff. It helped me regain some self-confidence. (I think my sensei would be horrified if he knew I was teaching anybody, because I'm pretty sure he thinks that I completely suck and would only lead newbies astray.) For the first time in a while, I was able to relax and practice in a "vibrant and joyful manner".
This is not to say that I let myself or anybody else slack off; we did some intense practice, I was strict about their technique, and even stricter about my own. I told them all the story about getting mugged in Lithuania, and the lessons I learned from that experience: he who hesitates is lost. Once you start a technique on somebody you can't change your mind. You gotta act immediately and decisively and follow through all the way, without doubt or fear. As several different people said in several different ways at the summer camp, you do not start doing the technique first and then try to "win": you have to win first, at the moment of first contact, and only then can you do the technique. This is how you avoid getting into a contest of strength or other useless forms of struggling. There's a certain feeling of leaping straight into the lion's mouth. I can't quite explain it, but I can sure feel the difference. I tried to impart this to the two students and get them to practice in that spirit.
I'm starting to understand that the hardest thing about teaching is making sure that people are doing uke correctly: that they are not merely going through the motions nor resisting excessively. The "honest attack" that is done without anticipation of the coming response. I think the reason my sensei was frustrated with me so often is because I wasn't doing uke nearly as well as he thought I should be able to. I need to focus on that.
Two days later, this Wednesday, was the day that Aza and I finally went to a Judo fundamentals class at the Tohkon dojo (the one two blocks from my apartment). "We gotta try out a class at that Judo dojo real soon now!" "Yeah!" That's what we'd been telling each other ever since January. Well, we finally did it.
(Man, Aza's chest is really hairy. I can't get over how hairy he is. He's like a rug. "My skin can't contain my manliness" is what he said.)
So, Judo! It's a relief to be back in a white belt again and not be expected to know anything. Also, it's a relief to not wear a hakama. Hakamas look cool, but they take forever to put on and take off and they do nothing but trip you up. The biggest difference in Judo is that it's fundamentally and explicitly competitive. They train people for competition at this dojo. Some of the instructors there have competed in the Olypics. (Dude!) In this respect it's quite the opposite of Aikido, which is emphatically anti-competitive. I have a hunch that this kind of competitive training might help me improve my ukemi for Aikido -- at least, it will help me to eliminate the bad habit of falling just because it's my turn to fall.
At the same time, because Judo is practiced for competition, it's a more controlled environment. There are rules. Nobody's ever going to stab me with a knife or kick me in the groin in Judo practice. In Aikido we need to be constantly aware of the possibility of these and countless other forms of possible attacks.
The practice itself was very genki! Bright cheerful dojo, great big class, friendly teacher, lots of energy. A solid half-hour first of strenuous and continuous "warm-up" exercises nearly had me winded -- I was able to handle them, but I was getting close to my limit. Doing that on a regular basis will surely help build up my endurance. Basic leg-sweeping practice, first alone, then in pairs. Ground-fighting techniques: arm-bars, pins and how to wriggle out of them. Finally, some randoori (free practice) which is the part that I really don't know how to do yet, since I have yet to learn Judo techniques per se.
I think I did pretty OK. The sensei said that I was picking it up very quickly. He made some comments like "Are you sure you've never done Judo before?". Heh heh heh. A lot of things are either similar to Aikido or are universal across martial arts: Keep your back straight and your knees bent, keep your balance in your hips, relax, and breathe. Most of the terminology is also identical, which makes things easy to pick up, and of course I already know how to take falls. People kept wanting to not throw me since I'm a newbie. I had to reassure them that they can go ahead, since I've been taking falls in Aikido for seven years now.
I'm feeling very good about these recent developments. This last month of not training gave me more free time, sure, but it made me feel lazy and unmotivated and uncomfortably comfortable (if that makes sense). I think the cross-training will be good for me. I'm going to try to do one Judo class and two Aikido classes a week for a couple of weeks and see how that goes, then maybe try to step it up from there.
Thinking about changing dojos
Lately I've been having an existential crisis. It's like this: I'm thinking of dropping out of Aikido or else changing to a different dojo.
Well, actually, due to illness, houseguests, overtime work, and general unenthusiasm, I haven't been to aikido for like three weeks now. So maybe it's more like I've already dropped out and just have to make it official.
I still want to do Aikido, and I like the other students at my dojo, and I love the location; it's just the sensei who makes me want a change.
I've been attending this dojo since I came to the North Side, which was about a year ago. The sensei gave me bad vibes since the very first time I saw him. He has a very unfriendly attitude and perpetual scowl, and when he talks to the class he's very hard to hear, kind of mumbly like he's talking to himself. He is obviously extremely skilled and highly knowledgeable and well-respected in the Aikido community. But just because someone is good at doing something doesn't mean they're good at teaching something, which is a lesson I learned from experience in my Kamaishi days. This sensei's teaching style might work for some people, but it hasn't been working for me.
I figured I would just give it time. Every sensei I've had before in approximately seven years of aikido (and a couple years of kempo) had their own quirks but after a few months of training with a sensei and getting to know him or her I've always been able to establish a rapport and from then on training became much more enjoyable and productive.
But after a year of training under this guy, I've got no rapport at all and I'm still getting bad vibes. I don't even have any normal conversations with him outside of class because he seems so unapproachable. He has this way of glaring at me contemptuously whenever I'm doing something wrong (which is, of course, all the time; I have a clear enough idea of my own abilities to know which techniques I need help with, which is all of them). Sometimes he'll glare a little bit and then shake his head or sigh and then he'll walk away, as if to say that I'm obviously doing something wrong but it's not worth his trouble to correct it. Other times he'll snap at me for messing something up, or for not doing what he said (which is sometimes because I heard him wrong because he mumbles so bad). He always seems disappointed or disgusted with me.
I'm not sure if he actually is disgusted with me or if that's just how he acts towards everyone. But either way, I get very nervous whenever sensei is looking at me. And one can only do Aikido properly in a relaxed state. Alert and focused, but relaxed. Fear causes tension in the body which causes tangible changes to the balance and the working of the muscles, which makes techniques not work. This is one of the basic principles. Sometimes I'll be doing fine until sensei comes along and starts glaring at me, and then I get nervous and screw up, so he says something sarcastic, which just reinforces the anxiety next time he comes around. It's a vicious cycle.
Besides his weird personality, sensei's teaching style is also not working to well for me. It seems like since I've started here he's been moving into weirder and more esoteric forms of practice (the taking punches, the egg push-ups, the chains, the blindfolds and knives...). He's bored with basic technique (he's said as much). But I'm not bored with basic technique. I need a lot more practice with basic technique and weapon katas and randoori and reversals and suwariwaza and all that stuff. I'm not advanced enough yet to get much of value out of these weird lessons.
My attendance at this dojo has been very sporadic throughout this whole year. Sometimes I go 3 or 4 times a week for a couple weeks, then not at all for another couple of weeks. I think it would average out to 1-2 times per week for the year, which is pretty low. Part of this is just because of a hectic software-startup schedule: I'm often traveling and when I'm not traveling I'm often working late. My schedule is unpredictable so I haven't been able to settle into a groove of always going to Aikido on certain days; instead I find myself struggling to squeeze it in when I can. But my spotty attendance is not entirely to blame on work and travel; it's also because I haven't been enthusiastic about going. I tell people that I want to attend practice more often, but in reality I've been taking almost any excuse not to go. When I examine my motivations I find that I'm reluctant to go to the dojo because it means I have to face sensei and his glare of disgust. The only time this isn't the case is Wednesday evenings, when a different sensei is teaching.
So my ability level has been stagnating, both because of sporadic attendance, and because I'm when I am at the dojo I'm often not in a good mental state for practicing. I know more stuff in my mind than I did a year ago, but my ability to integrate any of that into my physical performance hasn't been improving, only fluctuating. It's been very frustrating.
So, for all of these reasons, I'm thinking of changing dojos. This is not an easy decision for me to make. It feels like breaking up with someone or quitting a job. I'm going to miss a lot of the other students at the dojo, who I really do like. (I'm going to keep running into these people at Trader Joe's and they'll ask me why they haven't seen me at the dojo lately. Gahhh!)
The obvious counterargument is that I shouldn't quit a dojo just because the sensei is giving me a hard time: facing that kind of challenge is the kind of thing that makes us improve, right? And martial arts are not just physical training, they are all about how to overcome your fear and handle yourself in difficult situations. So maybe the troubles I'm having with this sensei are just the kind of thing that I need to work through. If I can remain calm and focused under sensei's disgusted glare, I can remain calm and focused in any situation, right? Conquer my fears, that sort of thing?
But the counterargument to the counterargument is that life is too short to stay in a bad relationship hoping it will improve. O-sensei said "Aikido should always be practiced in a vibrant and joyful manner", and that ain't happening at my current dojo.
In many other towns there is only one dojo and if I did't like it I'd be stuck with it. But I'm very lucky: I know of two other aikido dojos in my immediate area. In fact I chose my current dojo over those two only because of familiarity, which is not a very good reason. I know the sensei from one of those other places and he's a totally awesome guy who I would love to train with. There's also the Tohkon Judo dojo, which is supposedly the biggest judo dojo east of the Mississippi, and boasts several internationally famous teachers. This dojo just randomly happens to be two blocks from my apartment. Why don't I try judo out for a while and see what that's like?
Beyond those possibilities, I have to think about how aikido, or any martial art, fits into my overall life goals and plans and so on. Some people dedicate their lives to it, and I respect that a lot. That's really the only way to do it properly, dedicating your life to it. But I'm probably never going to be one of those people. I have too many other goals in life: software, and science, and art, and writing. I want to put more time into working on my comic. I've felt frustrated this whole year about lack of time to make progress on my personal goals, such as the comic, and I've come to the conclusion that I really need to drop some hobbies in order to make room for others. Heck, there's other things I want to try out too: I want to learn to play the drums, I want to contribute to open-source software projects. Lately I've felt the urge to start doing some social volunteer work. Look up some group in Chicago that helps out poor people or fights to protect the environment, go to a meeting, see what I could do for them. Maybe I ought to spend some time away from the martial arts entirely, focus on these other goals, and see how that goes.
I'll write more when I make a more concrete decision. In the meantime I'd be interested to hear what anybody thinks about the issue.
I'm leaving today for a 9-day Aikido training seminar in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado. I will be AFK until July 30. I might not even have any email access at all! ZOMG! So, that's why I'm not responding to anything you send me.
Jono's Adventures in Eastern Europe part 2
I really hope I didn't offend anybody with my previous post! I was just making fun of my own inexcusable ignorance about Polish language and culture; I don't really have anything against Poland or Polish people (hello Tomasz! Welcome to my site.)
Anyway, this trip turned into a pretty big adventure. The conference was awesome; other aspects of being in Lithuania were, um, anti-awesome.
Here's the propellor plane that took me on the last leg of the journey, from Warsaw to Vilnius:
I got to the conference center and found a bunch of hacker-looking people with iBooks and Ubuntu laptops milling around, but I didn't know where to go for registration or who to talk to about getting set up for my talk, so I just picked a random person walking by and said "Excuse me..."
And this person turned out to be Laura Creighton. Laura Creighton is cool! She's one of the organizers of the Euro Python conference (second from the left in the above photo), and also in charge of a Swedish company that Humanized is (probably) going to be doing business with. The rest of Humanized had met Laura when they were all visiting Sweden, and apparently they had all told her about me, so this was the first time I met her but we sort of knew about each other already. Laura is one of those extremely energetic and enthusiastic and humorous people (and one of maybe four females at the Python conference) and she told everybody who would listen about how great Enso is and how they needed to try it out. She was a better spokesperson than I could have been!
When Laura heard that I was staying at the Holiday Inn (or rather, judging by the state of the sign, the "t_liday Inn":)
Laura told me why it's never a good idea to stay at the Holiday Inn when abroad. It's a hotel chain frequented only by clueless American travelers, so any locals who are looking for someone to scam, beg money from, or pick on will hang around near Holiday Inns.
This advice turned out to be prophetic, but I'll get to that later...
Zappa, Guido, Python, and Enso
There is a statue (or rather, a bust on a pole) of Frank Zappa in Vilnius. As soon as I heard that I knew I had to find it and get a picture.
Why is it there? The way I've heard the story told is that when Lithuania gained independence from Russia, they were running around pulling down all the statues of Lenin and Stalin and generally having a great big country-wide party. Eventually the question came up of "what should we replace these statues with?". There was a Frank Zappa fan club at a local art school who decided that they were going to try to get a statue put up of their favorite American rock star, partly out of fanboyishness and partly to test the limits of their newfound freedom. The only problem was, what does Frank Zappa have to do with Lithuania? Nothing, actually, but the art students came up with some bogus story about Zappa's heritage and sold it to the authorities, and they got the statue. That's pretty cool.
I'm guessing that all of the graffiti-encrusted remains of crumbling concrete-block architecture which I saw all over town were probably part of the same turning point in history. I imagine that people finally free to express what they really thought of communism did so by gleefully defacing communism's most tangible manifestation: hideously ugly grey-cube architecture.
I saw this vaguely Bomberman-esque character repeated in graffiti over and over again around the neighborhood. I have no idea what it means.
I went to lots of talks on the first day of the conference. I'm not going to go into details since most of them were pretty arcane, but I'll hilight the talk about the Python-controlled talking robotic Tux the Penguin that some people created (and are selling for just 79 Euros).
Guido was wearing a nametag that just said "BDFL" -- that's "Benevolent Dictator for Life". He doesn't need his name on there because everybody at a Python conference knows who Guido is. (That's Guido von Rossum, the creator of Python, now working for Google, and focusing mainly on the Python 3000 project.)
At the end of the conference day, Guido stood up and addressed the assembled crowd, inviting us all to a certain bar/restaurant, and adding: "One more thing: DRINKS AH ON GEWGLE!". And the crowd goes wild!
This restaurant was in Vilnius' Old Town, and it was practically a real-life version of an inn from Lord of the Rings. We were on the bottom floor, underground, with no windows. One room was all rough-hewn wood with spiked clubs and animal skins on the walls, and a great big indoor tree. Another room was was like a brick dungeon with swords and axes and sheilds and crossbows and flails all over the walls. It was pretty bad-ass.
Lithuanian food is... well... I had these things called "zeppelins", at the recommendation of a Lithuanian hacker I was having dinner with. Apparently this is the epitome of traditional Lithuanian food. (And they were calling them 'zepplins' long before the Zepplin airship was invented.) Imagine the thickest, densest, chewiest, blandest mass of dumpling, surrounding the thickest, densest, chewiest, blandest meatball, and covered with the thickest, richest, gooiest, creamiest, blandest cream sauce. I think I'm still digesting mine. They are quite the opposite of the blimp kind of Zeppelin, which is made to be light.
(The food is so heavy you might say they're like lead Zeppelins, a ha ha ha.)
At this dinner, I got to chat a little bit with Guido up-close. This was very, very exciting for me. I'm not sure which was more exciting, Guido or Scott McCloud ( but I definitely managed to come off less like a rabid fanboy this time around, so I guess I'm learning ). I passed on Stephen's message to Guido: "Thanks for keeping Lambda in Python 3000!". I got into a discussion with Guido about a topic that's been on my mind lately, how open-source projects can have better user interfaces, and the role of a Benevolent Dictator of a project in making the interface consistent, and so on.
Guido is way cool. During his talk about Python 3000 the next day, I was impressed by the depth and clarity of his thought about language issues, and his willingness to hear criticism from the audience: "yes, I agree that's a bad design" or "no, I don't think there's enough use cases". It's an example of the kind of meritocratic culture that hackers value -- Guido gets to be benevolent dictator because he has good ideas and listens to his users. As Joel-on-software put it, hackers want to be in a culture where you can win any argument simply by being right.
The second day of the conference, I ended up giving three different talks about Enso. First was the talk that I signed up to do, my talk about the Enso autocomplete project. There is a feature going into an upcoming version of Enso which turned out to be so difficult that I think I can actually write an interesting computer-science paper about the problem and its solution. So this talk was sort of practice for that.
After this, due to popular demand, I gave two more talks. The conference schedule had some flexible space where you could just write in ideas for discussion topics, and interested people would come and participate. This was called an Open Space talk, so I did one of those about Enso in general, mostly Q-and-A style. Finally, Tuesday evening I gave a Lightning Talk where I briefly demonstrated Enso to the whole assembled conference. (In retrospect, it would have been a lot more logical to give these three talks in exactly the opposite order, but too late for that.)
Lightning talks are lots and lots of fun -- anybody can sign up, and they get exactly 5 minutes to present their idea in front of the whole conference. After 5 minutes they get pulled off the stage and the next person gets a turn. It's fun to watch because when they have only 5 minutes, people get right to the point and give the most interesting stuff up front. One guy demonstrated how he was running a webserver on his cell phone. But my favorite talk was LOLPython, a programming language that some crazy guy made based on the grammar of the captions on LOLCats.
All of my talks were quite well received. Lots of people came up to me afterwards with good questions about UI design issues and about our business, and gave me lots of cool ideas and suggestions to think about. I'm very happy with how it went.
(And I just realized I never actually said during the lightning talk that Enso is in Python. I hope nobody thought it was a random bit of shameless self promotion that we had snuck in. Well, it was, but it really was Python related. There's a reason I wasn't at Euro Ruby or something.)
Here's some more pictures of Vilnius:
Here's what all the toilet affordances looked like in Lithuania. There are two buttons labeled "+" and "-" which do a big flush and a small flush, respectively.
And here's a randomly hilarious street sign. Utena indeed!
There was a dinner after that, where I talked to lots more interesting people. (Including a Norweigan guy named Rune Henson. That's a cool name!!) Saw a retro arcade-style game that one guy was working on. Good feelings all around.
The conference was to continue on Wednesday, but I couldn't attend as I had to get up at 4 AM and rush in order to be in time to spend all day waiting in airports. Blah! So I about 11 pm I was on my way back to the t_liday Inn.
Spectacularly Bad Robbers
...And I was coming around the corner, right across the street from my hotel, and ran into three young Lithuanian men in black jacket coming up from the blind side of the corner. "This could be it", I thought.
The scene of the crime.
I've been replaying the whole thing over and over again in my head ever since, thinking of the ways I could have avoided the situation in the first place, ways that I could have dealt with it better, and the many ways in which it could have gone much, much worse. The first thing, of course, is that I shouldn't have stayed at the Holiday Inn, and the second thing was that I shouldn't have been walking alone at night. I should have at least found someone going the same direction to walk along with me.
But anyway, here's how it actually happened:
I tried to step past onto the crosswalk, but one of the three dudes (he was extremly ugly -- think blonde Eurotrash with a face halfway between Neanderthal and gargoyle) stepped in front of me and started saying "Money, money!" (probably the only English word he knew). The other two guys were kinda hanging back; their body language said that they didn't really want to be part of this.
I was not sure yet whether this was going to be a mugging attempt or just a particularly agressive panhandler. I was not sure how seriously to take this guy -- he was about my size, and his friends seemed to be hesitating to back him up. He didn't seem much like a hardened criminal or a professional mugger at all. If he was a professional mugger, he and his two guys would have been surrounding me right away and the switchblade would have been out already and I would have just immediately said "OK OK here's my money". But instead, I think that he was just some guy who had just spotted me and made the decision on the spot to try to hassle me for money. Just not that threatening. So at first I was thinking that I should just brush him off, cross the street, and go inside, so I just glared at him and said "No.", emphatically, and kept walking.
Then he grabbed my wrist.
He grabbed my wrist! Really! That is like how every basic technique starts in Aikido practice, but I always thought that was just a way of simplifying things to make practice easier. I didn't think that anybody would actually try to start a fight that way in real life! Or if it did, that the attacker would grab my wrist and immediately punch or kick or do something else. But here this Lithuanian guy was actually grabbing my wrist and just standing there saying "Money, money!". It was the perfect setup for any number of techniques.
So, think quick. Should I do it, or not? Do I pin this guy to the pavement right now, or do I say OK and give him my money, or do I just break free and run? If you had a split-second to make that choice, what would you have done?
What I actually did was I started working a kosadori-ikkyo-ura. And it was working, too -- Mr. Eurotrash was my size, and didn't really have good strength or balance. If I had committed to the technique and kept going, I'm pretty sure I could have put his face in the pavement.
But I had sudden doubts. Was I overreacting? Was this more force than the situation required? Or on the other hand, was I just going to get myself into worse trouble -- would I end up with him pinned on the ground and his two friends pulling guns on me? Or would I end up having to talk to the Lithuanian police and, if so, is it just going to be my word against his for who attacked who? I didn't want to be in any of those situations. Maybe the safest course of action would be to give him my wallet, and figure out later how to deal with being penniless in a foreign country.
So I just kind of let go of the technique halfway through. All this happened in just a second or two. We were out into the middle of the crosswalk by this point, and I had one eye on the color of the light. I hesitated, not knowing what to do.
Then he pulled a knife on me.
Well, sort of. Like I said before, he wasn't a very good mugger. He didn't even have a switchblade, more like a leatherman, and he was keeping it in a fanny pack. So when I say "pulled a knife" it was more like he made the internationally recognized sign language gesture for "I'ma stab you!" and then "Hold on while I reach around and unzip my fanny pack and get out this leatherman and fold it up into knife configuration."
I have no idea why I let him get that far. I was just standing there like an idiot in the middle of the street watching this scumbag get his knife ready. If I had decided to fight, the time that it took him to reach for the zipper on his pack would have been a perfect opening to start kicking the crap out of him in any of a dozen ways. If I had decided to run, same thing. If I had decided to give up, I should have gotten my wallet out already. But I just watched him, sort of fascinated by how stupid and pointless the whole situation was. Again, all this happened in just a couple of seconds, and his friends were still hanging back on the sidewalk, saying something in Lithuanian which from their voices and body language seemed like they were telling Mr. Fannypack not to be such a dumbass.
Anyway, he had the knife out and was making stabby gestures with it to get his point across in sign language, and I was reaching for my wallet, when he got distracted by something (might have been his friends yelling at him, might have been the light changing) so I just broke and ran. The hotel was right there, so I just ran into the lobby and up the stairs, and when I looked around none of the goons had bothered following me in.
The only casualty was that my favorite shirt got ripped up at some point in the scuffle. (This was that "disco overlord" shirt, and it was never really made for doing any sort of fighting in.)
I was never really scared. I stayed strangely calm the whole time. I was just indecisive, and if things had gone a little differently my indecision could have gotten me stabbed or run over or something. Ever since that night, I've been going over and over and over the whole scenario in my head, picking out all the things I did wrong and what I should have done instead, and picking out all the things that the would-be Eurotrash mugger did wrong too. The fact that I got away unscathed and with my wallet had very little to do with any crisis-handling skills of mine, and a lot to do with pure dumb luck and the fact that this guy was, really, an amazingly incompetent mugger.
So, what lessons can I gain from this (aside from don't stay at the Holiday Inn, and don't walk around Eastern Europe alone at night)?
I'm sure my Aikido training is going to be different from now on. I have a data point. It is my first hard data point related to an actual fight. Well, vaguely fight-like situation.
There are three ways in which the actual situation on the street differed from my imagining of it during dojo training. First, encumbrance. I was wearing a backpack containing clothes, laptop, etc., as I usually do when traveling anywhere. It restricts movement somewhat. Second, terrain: the confrontation started on the edge of, and moved into the middle of, a crosswalk across a busy intersection, which meant a timing element from the changing status of the light. I would seriously like to start doing some Aikido training when wearing a backpack and sneakers on the sidewalk, because if I'm ever in a situation again, that's how it's likely to happen.n
The third difference, and this is big, is that a real situation requires snap judgement. It must be determined immediately whether or not the situation calls for striking a guy in self-defense. If one is going to strike, it's better to do so immediately, withtout warning, and with full intent to incapacitate, as a half-assed attempt is going to make the situation much worse than no attempt at all. But even a perfectly executed maneuver has the potential to make things worse for me -- what if I beat the guy up, but he was just a panhandler? What if I beat the guy up, and then his friends come back with guns? What if I beat the guy up, and then the police appear and believe his version of the story instead of mine? -- So it's much better to get away without anybody getting beaten up. I have always been a believer in the superiority of Aikido teachings for precisely the reason that they enable defense without inflicting any serious harm on the other person, but that night in Vilnius really drove home the practical importance of this point.
Even so, one should never attempt an Aikido technique half-assedly. They require focus and commitment, or they're not going to work. Even if the technique does somehow work in a narrow sense, if my mind is full of hesitation and doubt, it's not going to get me safely out of the situation. Getting out safely requires more than just pinning or throwing one guy -- it calls for instantly sizing up the situation, forming an escape plan, and executing it within the space of a few seconds, before the advantage of surprise is lost.
So whether I run, fight, or hand over the money, it would have been better to make a decision instantly and then to act on that decision without doubt or hesitation. This is hard. I'm wondering if there's a way to practice this kind of snap judgement as part of regular Aikido training.
Anyway, I am safely back in Chicago now, shaken up but luckily no worse off then when I left.
Who's teaching? Me?!?
Ahoy! A non-gaming-related post! This one is about Aikido!
Last Friday Sensei was out sick. "So who's teaching the class?" I asked. "You are!" said Marcin. Now, I think that Marcin is slightly better than me at Aikido, but I'm higher ranked. This is because the dojo I'm currently at has very high standards for rank. I'm officially shodan because that's the rank I earned in Kamaishi, but Japan's idea of shodan is lower than Chicago's idea of shodan (oddly enough). So sometimes at this class I feel like a fake shodan. Nevertheless, when sensei is out, it's the senior student's duty to lead class, and that's officially me, so here we go! I was sweating with nervousness, and that's never a good state to practice Aikido in. But despite my misgivings the class went fine and was actually fun. I just picked some random basic techniques and helped the newbies with them, leaving the advanced students to practice on their own since they already know it as least as well as I do.
P.S. despite what Stephen said in his comment on the last post, in all the years I have been doing martial arts and watching people get punched, kicked, and thrown to the ground, I have never once seen a number appear above anyone's head to indicate lost hit points.
I've been going to Aikido in the mornings pretty consistently. I've adjusted my schedule so I go to sleep at 9:45 on weeknights and wake up at 5:45 am. The morning class is mostly the basics, or maybe that's because there are a couple of newbies (including Andrew, who complains of soreness in "muscles [he] didn't know [he] had" but is giving it the ol' college try) in the class. I never really understood Kevin Choate-sensei's teaching method before. But after being in his classes regularly for a while, now that he's giving me personal attention (i.e. well-deserved ridicule for not being as good as I know I should be), I appreciate his style a lot more.
I've realized that when he corrects people, he's not just correcting our technique, he's looking right into our souls and correcting what's wrong with our whole attitude towards training. One time he came over, watched what I was doing, and said to me, "Aikido is not an abstract activity". And walked away. And I was like "Whooooooaaaaa duuuuuude, he's right" and then I suddenly got a little bit better. He's been picking a lot on the way I take uke*. I've never paid all that much attention before to the way I take uke, but there's a lot of emphasis on it at this dojo, and I think that's a very good thing. I always knew that uke was important, but most of my teachers have focused on correcting my technique, and so I wrongly assumed that I was doing uke correctly.
*("Uke" means "receiving"; in Aikido practice it's the role where you attack somebody, and they do the aikido technique to defend themselves, and the uke ends up getting thrown or pinned. The tricky part is that uke is not supposed to give up and lose too easily, nor is he supposed to fight so much that the other guy can't do anything. The uke is supposed to adjust his attack to his partner's level of ability. You learn as much about the technique from doing uke as from actually doing the technique.)
So here's a puzzle: If I'm doing uke, and the guy doing the technique screws it up, what should I do? Should I stop and correct him? Should I just pretend to fall over anyway? Should I hit him? Should I stop right there until he figures out how to do it right? Choate-sensei has been giving me excellent reasons why all of these are wrong. When I can deal with surprises like these and absorb them fluidly into my uke style, then my Aikido will improve.
Exciting stuff: I got into the summer Aikido camp in Boulder, Colorado. It's a full week in July where hundreds of Aikido students train all day long and sleep in the dojo and it's basically a full-immersion thing like some crazy martial arts movie. I've been wanting for several years to do this, but I never got my application in in time: the thing fills up really, really fast. This time I applied in February (for an event in July!) and finally got in.
Early to Rise and Early to Bed Makes a man Healthy but Socially Dead
I haven't been going to Aikido for a long while -- not since the new year, in fact. It's partly because I get there by biking and the cold and snow has made biking nigh impossible. And it's partly because I've been working late most nights, usually well past 6pm which is when I would have to leave to make it to the 7pm class. Lack of exercise has made me feel lazy and depressed, and lack of contact with anybody outside of Humanized on most days has made me feel lonely and depressed. So it's been bad news all around.
Yesterday, Andrew surprised me by proposing a solution: what about going together to the morning Aikido classes, before work? He was curious about trying out this Aikido thing, and he was willing to pick me up and bring me there. Sweet! Only problem was that the morning class is at 6:30am. Which means leaving about 6am to get there, which means getting up at 5:45am at the latest. Well, it's worth a try, right?
So, today I was up before the crack of dawn, and we drove over and got to the dojo while the door was still locked. There were six people at the morning class, a decent size, and we had a nice not-so-strenuous lesson (Choate-sensei was in "yoga" mode instead of "Blindfold you and stab you with knives" mode). Good because I'm pretty rusty after that hiatus.
(I've never seen so many bloodstains on the mat! That makes it sound pretty scary, but I heard the story and it was actually all from this one guy who had a cut on his toe the night before and didn't realize it, so every time he moved his feet he left another drop of blood. Me and Andrew both spent some time after class spraying peroxide on the blood specks.)
It was still really early so we had time to go grocery shopping before work and get some bacon, eggs, toast, fruit, and sardines for a healthy old-fashioned breakfast (instead of our usual working breakfast of cereal and Starbuck's dessert-in-a-cup).
Also, the weather has finally turned warm -- as in, above freezing, but that seems balmy compared to all the subzero-farenheit nights we've been having. (I taped bubble wrap over the edges of all my windows and slept in a sleeping bag with three layers of blankets on top while my heater ran almost constantly just to keep the place above 50 degrees.)
So, between getting up early, exercise, restarting Aikido, healthy breakfast, and good weather, I'm feeling extremely cheerful today. Feels like the bleak days of February (the most depressing month, usually tied with April) are finally at an end.
Wait, it gets better. Aza has been inspired by the example of me and Andrew to look up Judo dojos in Chicago and get started with that again. AND I happened to do a search for Taiko drumming lessons in Chicago and guess what? The place that gives them is freakin' three blocks west of my apartment. I walked past it every day and didn't even know I was there. So I am totally going to take taiko lessons and beat drums with sticks for an extra dose of Japanese culture and musical excitement! Just what I need, another hobby, right? But I can do this because Aikido is going to be in the morning every day. Nothing will interfere with that, as long as I can keep getting up at quarter-to-six. So if I can manage to start leaving work at a reasonable hour, my evenings are wide open! ...until 10pm when I'll have to go to sleep.
A Mellow Good Time. Also Saotome seminar.
I decided to cut off the topknot. (Gasp! Shock! Yes, I'm afraid so.) I was constantly being annoyed by stray hairs, it got in the way when I put my bike helmet on, it made showering take longer, and if I got knocked around enough in Aikido it would sometimes get loose and I would have to time-out to fix it. Ironically, for something samurai-inspired, that topknot was an obstacle to my training; therefore, it had to go. I decided on Wednesday night that with the seminar coming up this wekeend, it was a good time to give myself a haircut. So I got out the electric razor with the head-shaving attatchment and went all over my skull like a lawnmower.
(This means that my commenter picture on this site is now inaccurate! So is my bio on Humanized.)
When I went home for Thanksgiving, Mom's keen eye zeroed in on one patch which I had missed and another patch where I had cut too close. "It looks like you've got mange", she said. So she made me sit down and fixed it herself.
Speaking of parents fixing things: when I got home the living room looked like this. It seems that the previous occupants of our house must have hated space or something, because they moved the ceilings down and moved the walls inward in most rooms. Al has been smashing stuff up and making cool discoveries. He's been gaining whole feet of living space by going back to the original walls and ceiling, and also modernizing the insulation and stuff. The coolest discovery is that the living room used to have three windows on the south wall. The middle one was walled over and hidden for some reason. But the frame is still there so it'll be easy to put a window in again.
I helped Al with a few things, like cleaning leaves out of the gutters, sawing up lath for firewood, and vacuuming up the thick nasty plaster dust from every object in the room. We actually had Thanksgiving dinner in there, next to the bare studs. It was kind of a log-cabin look.
Thanksgiving is nice because there's not a lot of pressure on it like there is on Christmas. I'm very anti-Christmas these days because there's so much of it. It would be nice if it lasted for maybe one week, instead of a month and a half as it does. Already it's christmas songs on every radio station. I do not need to be hearing those same old lame obnoxious songs over and over again for a full month out of the year. That's 1/12 of the time that Christmas is attacking your senses in every public space. But with Thanksgiving there's no buildup, there's no shopping, there's no pressure to buy stuff, no forced cheerfulness. You just hang out with family you haven't seen in a while, cook stuff, eat it, talk, and have lots of leftovers. It's just a mellow good time.
I don't allow myself to overeat because I know I'm in for three days of solid Aikido practice starting the day after Thanksgiving. This is the Saotome seminar, when Mitsugi Saotome (head of the ASU, disciple of the founder of Aikido, guy who brought the art to the continental US, etc) visits the Chicago Aikikai. About a hundred people cram themselves into the dojo, coming from as far away as Colorado and Ohio, to take part in these classes. So, it's usually too crowded to actually throw anybody, sadly.
Saotome is a riot, though. He wears weird homemade clothing when he's not in a dogi, he smokes like three packs a day, and his English is so bad he sounds exactly like a bad movie stereotype of a Japanese man.
Here's a couple of choice quotes as I remember them from his speeches this weekend. I'm not trying to make fun of anybody here; I realize English is hard, and he's getting his point across, and his ideas are good, and that's what's important, but dang, the way he talks is really funny so I'm trying to reproduce it here for you:
Now there so many Aikido style in America, this style, that style. No! Style is limitation youa mind! Undaastand? In sengokujidai, war time in Japan history, there no martial arts style! Only one style! Is surbibal! Edojidai, peace time, style grow up like mushroom after rain, you undaastand mushroom?
Too many time you practicing, you only think about technique, you forget defense youaself! Leave opening! Bam, you die!
If you thinking only youa own technique, no thinking about partonar, you are only -- how you say -- mastaabation! You undaastand, mastaabation? Why train with partonar if you thinking only youaself?
Why you have five sense if only you looking? Use other sense like Zatoichi! Especially touching is sense bery important infomation! In English you have good saying, "keep touch", you say "good-bye, I keep touch you" [note: he means "keep in touch"]. You not say "I keep look you", no! Keep touch! You practice Aikido you keep touch partonar!
You no undaastand my joke? You no undaastand my English? FUCK YOU! Ha! Now you undaastand! Now you undaastanding me!
The other thing that happens at this seminar is testing for advanced ranks, which can only happen in the presence of very high-ranking senseis. So there were 6 tests for shodan and 5 for nidan. I watched Dwight test for nidan; he did great -- he was really nervous beforehand but he looked flawless as far as I can tell.
I've decided I want to go for my own nidan test Thanksgiving 2007. I have a long way to go but I think I can do it if I practice five times a week between now and then. I still feel like a beginner with weapons techniques, and I have no confidence in my suwariwaza, so I have to improve those areas a lot. My core bare-handed techniques are inconsistently good. By that I mean that when I'm at my best I feel like I might be nidan-worthy with those techniques, but I can't perform consistently at that level -- I lose my concentration and get sloppy.
OK, there's my goals for the next year: achieve nidan, and update my comic every week. This is on top of hacking Enso for Humanized, so I'm probably not going to have much time left over. Might have to sacrifice things like anime and warhammer. We shall see.
Blind knife-fight three against one GO!
Now that I'm not working insane hours anymore, I'm getting back into doing Aikido more often. I'm trying to work up to doing it five days a week on a regular basis. I have to make it a priority in my life in order to improve.
Some evenings when I leave work I am tired out and I really don't feel like going to the dojo when I could go home straight away, to eat dinner and read web pages about the worst episodes of Star Trek.
It's always better to go. I figured this out a long time ago. I never regret going to the dojo and I always regret not going. I read somewhere that the reason it's so easy for people to be lazy and procrastinate and so hard to stop bad habits is because during the long process of human evolution, we figured out that life is short and uncertain. If there's food there now, better eat it now because it might be gone tomorrow. Something might require sacrifice now but bring benefits in the future; but if you make the sacrifices and then get eaten by a lion before reaping the benefits, well, sucks to be you. I'm not saying our behavior is hard-wired by instinct; we do have conscious minds for choosing between alternatives; but what I'm saying is that there's some deep instinctual programming that automatically inflates any costs you pay now while discounting any benefits you receive later, and inflates benefits you receive now while discounting costs you pay later. It does all this processing before passing the alternatives on to your conscious mind for decision.
So this is reason it seems so much better to play video games now than later, and so much better to do your homework later instead of now. Problem is that it's always now when you're making a decision, so you're always going to think it's better to put things off. So we have to recognize this tendency and fight it! It's an instinct that's no longer appropriate for the developed world in the 21st century, when we hvae a pretty good idea where our next meal is coming from, we can hope to live to at least 70, and accomplishing anything good in life takes lots of planning and foresight and hard work. The way to fight the instinct, I've found, is to always pose questions to myself not in the form of "what do I want to do now?" but rather "When it gets to be the future, what do I want to already have done in the future's past?". This short-circuits the instinct and makes it give me a more objective evaluation of the alternatives.
The point of this digression was to explain how I talk myself into going to Aikido when I don't feel like it. And it always turns out to be the right thing. In fact, the days when I don't feel like it often turn often turn out to be the coolest Aikido lessons!
Like a couple months ago, there was this huge rainstorm right when I was biking home, and I was drenched to the skin -- I would not have been more wet if I had jumped in the lake (but my Aiki-gear was still dry; I guess my backpack's water-resistance is pretty good). I got to Montrose & Lincoln, which is the intersection where I either turn right to go to aikido or go straight to go home, and I really just wanted to go home and dry off, but after a long mental battle I went to Aikido anyway. And it turned out to be awesome, because Marsha-sensei had us do jo (staff-fighting) techniques with the lights off and the windows open, in a thunderstorm. It was wicked cool.
And Tuesday night last, when I didn't feel like going, I went, and it was the most hard-core class ever. Three of us and Choate-sensei, and Choate-sensei skipped all the warm-up and the easy techniques we usually start with, and instead went straight to passing out knives. Other than being blunt they were big, serious, metal combat knives. So the first practice we did was the one where you're bare-handed and three guys attack you with knives at once. And then it got more intense from there: Three guys attacking you with knives and your back is against the wall, and then a slow-motion knife fight with our eyes closed. Then Sensei turned of all the lights in the dojo, and had us spread out, close our eyes and spin around until we were completely disoriented, and then said "OK, now kill somebody." So we were all hunting each other in the dark by the sound of footsteps. It was scary as hell.
In the last exercise, one person was "blind", another was his bodyguard, and two others were asassins. The blind guy is walking across the still-dark dojo with his eyes closed, the asassins are trying to stab him before he gets there, and the bodyguard is trying to protect him by any means neccessary. We took turns switching up the roles. Lots of fun but, man, I'm going to be looking over my shoulder for the next couple of days if you know what I mean.
Last Sunday, went down for training in Hyde Park; Don was like "Jono! You're still alive!" because he hasn't seen me in a few months due to work. Chris Taw-sensei visited again and brought some of his students, so the room was fairly crowded, but at least the HPPD has enough mats to fully cover the floor now! They repainted the place last week so it's looking like a real dojo.
After that Taw-sensei invited us back to his "secret lair" for BBQ. The lair is a floor of an abandoned industrial warehouse out near like 35th & Halsted, i.e. the middle of nowhere, that he rents from these two Chinese artist brothers who own the building. He has an artist studio and a woodworking shop in one corner, and a couple of other hippie types have made another couple of rooms into an apartment, and the rest of the floor is just a vast concrete cavern full of pillars. Sometimes they train by setting up mats there.
To grill the meat, we set up two charcoal grills out on the fire escape. Yes. The 2nd floor fire escape. It had one of those hinged staircases that swings down towards ground level if you walk out on it. I got a good look at the mechanism for the first time and found out there is this hinge-lock at the top to prevent people on the ground from grabbing the staircase with some kind of grappling hook and pulling it down to them. ( So much for that plan. )
I talked shop with this older guy who fixed the Y2K bug in a certain major commercial network which operates in airports around the world. He told me the story that he and the other IT guys were tensely gathered around a global status display on New Year's Eve, and they watched as midnight came to New Zealand and the first spot on earth crossed over to 2000, and everybody was holding their breath, and then they got a message from Paris saying "We lost Auckland!" and they got a call from California saying "We lost Auckland!" and sure enough the light for Aukland went out on their display. So now everybody was terrified. But a few minutes later Aukland came back online and they called up and said "Auckland, what happened!" and the guys in Aukland said "Sorry, somebody accidentally pulled out the power cord."
I forgot this guy's name but he had lots of cool stories. He lost that job after 9/11 when the airports were shut down and his company suddenly had no income. Nobody wanted to hire a 65 year old IT guy. They were probably thinking he only knows COBOL or something. Stupid prejudice. So he switched careers again. While we were eating and talking I dropped my fork and yelled "NOOOOOOOO" as it fell between the metal bars of the fire escape staircase I was sitting on and landed in the parking lot below.
We all hung around for a while swapping Aikido stories, and talking about how to stay safe in bad neighborhoods of Chicago (the most important technique of any martial art: how not to get in a fight) and wondering why it is that Aikido attracts nerdier people on average than other arts ( the now-defunct U of C club was almost entirely people from math, physics, chemistry, and comp sci. We were always wondering how to attract members from other departments ). We took turns riding around on a bicycle inside the warehouse, weaving between columns. One guy found a praying mantis on the outside of the window. I checked out Taw-sensei's record collection; turns out he likes Frank Zappa nd Mahavishnu Orchestra too, so we got talking about that and he recommended me all these other obscure fusiony artists.
So, in summary: Aikido means doing cool stuff and meeting cool people! And getting stabbed a lot. And getting sarcastic comments from Choate-sensei when you screw something up. That kind of grates on my nerves, because when one of us is trying our hardest to do some very difficult technique we've never done before, and we screw up, sometimes he'll say something derisive, or just glare at us, and it just seems mean and discouraging. But whatever. It's been my experience that the people who annoy me to train with at first are the people I should train with the most, because I will learn the most from them, because usually the root of my annoyance is that I'm annoyed at myself for not doing better, and training with that person will force me to improve more than training with someone who lets me feel comfortable.
Aikido Love-Fest Weekend!
So this past Sunday was a big event at Hyde Park Peace Dojo, the one I described putting up flyers for in that previous post ( the one which turned into an argument about homeopathy). It was really called the Peace Dojo Summer Festival, but privately I started referring to it as Aikido Love-In Weekend.
I had my doubts, and doing all the prep-work was annoying, but it turned out to be a big success. For my friends who worked on UchiCon, imagine that but for Aikido and you have the basic idea.
I'll just hit some of the highlights in this post.
First of all, there is a wicked cool Aikido sensei with a bald head and with a dojo on the north side, who was named Keith Moore until he became an actual factual Buddhist monk and changed his name to Meido. He came down and taught a weapons class.
The class was, as always, WAY COOL. This guy is HARDCORE. He talked about the idea that Aikido bare-hand techniques are derived from sword techniques; this is true, but unless we actually get good at the basics of swordsmanship, we're just fooling ourselves if we claim a connection, says Meido-sensei. He talked about the deadly speed of an actual samurai swordfight and stressed that if your body gives away any clue of how you are about to move, then you are dead if your opponent has any skill at all. He showed how your body normally telegraphs, to anyone paying attention, how you are about to move, and taught us exercises we can do to try to erase this telegraphing, which is as much mental as physical. So we spent the whole class practicing how to change hanmi, the most basic movement, at high speed and without telegraphing.
At one point sensei picked me out of the group to attack me with a bokken. We had already had many demonstrations proving that it's nearly impossible to dodge Meido-sensei's sword, because he can see where you're going to move before you can see the sword coming. "Don't try to dodge", he said. "Change hanmi forward like I showed you". Changing hanmi forward means stepping forward into the blade and pivoting your body at the last split-second to avoid it. I did it, and the sword whiffed like half a centimeter away from me. It was hell of intimidating, also really cool.
He told us the story of a guy who demonstrated this technique for the first Tokugawa shogun, avoiding the sword of one of the shogun's men and disarming him. Afterwards somebody asked him how often he can succeed with that technique; he said that he, at the highest level of mastery, at the top of his game, could make it work four times out of ten at the most. It's a desperation technique.
One more story about Meido sensei: once before, when he came to U of C aikido club, he happened into the locker room when Michael and I were having an argument about Rush ( Michael is even a bigger fan than I am; I had called them, on this very website, "the whitest, unfunkiest band ever" -- I was contrasting them with Parliament/Funkadelic -- and Michael took issue with that description.) Anyway Meido came in and heard us and said "If you want to have a really mystical experience, try listening to the live version of Xanadu while you train. That's what I do.". So, there you have it: Rush is Buddhist-monk approved.
The second really cool thing was I got invited to go to Awassa, Ethiopia to teach for a couple weeks at the Awassa Peace Dojo, which is sub-saharan Africa's first Aikido dojo; it's part of an organization there that supports orphans and does AIDS education. Mark and Krishna have both taught there before, and I heard a lot about it from them, and it sounds like an incredibly awesome adventure. Once Enso is released we're all of us at Humanized going to take some time off, and I have decided that going to Ethiopia is exactly what I want to do with my time off. I will report further developments on this site as my plans become more concrete.
During the last session of the day, I got to meet the Israeli national women's Judo champion. She's really cool. We hung out talking for about an hour after that about the situation in Jerusalem (she's an Israeli Arab, and has lived in both East and West Jerusalem) and the situation with Lebanon. She said it's so terrifying that she doesn't even want to look at the news, but her family is outside the range of missiles so they're more or less safe. She's planning to move to San Diego and become an elementary school teacher. Also, she wants to quit professional Judo because she's fed up with the overly-competitive spirit of it. She said she wants to start studying Aikido instead -- which is funny since I have been saying that I want to study some Judo in addition to Aikido. She was one of those people who has a fascinating backstory and is just really interesting to talk to; too bad I'll probably never get a chance to see her again.
So, this coming weekend the Hyde Park Peace Dojo is having this crazy festival. We're inviting Aikido students and teachers from all over, of course, but that's just the first step; there's also going to be food and African music and some other crazy stuff. You can see the flyer for it here. ( That guy with the sun for a head on the flyer gives me the creeps. I would not have put it there if I was designing this. But if I complain too much about graphic design, I know I WILL be the one desiging it next time -- so I'll keep my mouth shut. )
Anyway, I asked what I could do to help organize, now that I'm on the North Side a good 13 miles away from the HPPD and I don't have a lot of free time or a car. Don-sensei suggested a list of places on the North Side where I could put up the flyer to attract more people. The list included the Whole Foods on North and Clybourn, and the Transitions Bookstore next door to it.
Oh my GAWD what is WRONG with people???
First of all, Whole Foods. It fulfills all the worst hippie stereotypes with its in-your-face hippie self-righteousness. They're all like "we don't sell processed foods!" (what do you call bread and cheese if not processed? Is there a bush somewhere that grows wheels of smoked Gouda?) and "we don't sell food with chemicals in it" (I'm not sure what you guys think the word chemical means, but anything edible is organic and therefore contains quite a variety of chemicals.)
Whole Foods had a book for sale on one of the displays at the end of the aisles, so it looks like they were promoting it prety heavily, which was just one of those rants, in book form, about the eeeevils of genetically-modified crops. Also they have an aisle of homeopathic medicine.
I don't think I've ranted lately about genetically-modified crops, have I? Well, here's the short version: Humans have been genetically modifying crops since the dawn of civilization. You think corn evolved naturally into its current form? No, the wild ancestor of corn had tiny inch-long cobs and very little flavor or nutritional value. Humans improved it with cross-breeding and artificial selection. The only difference between that and modern day genetic modification is that the modern version works much faster and can make bigger changes. Bigger changes like adding more vitamins to staple crops in order to give poor third-world people a more nutritious diet and end the many diseases caused by vitamin deficiency. Like making crops pest-resistant so we can cut down on pesticides, reducing agricultural pollution. Like making crops higher-yield so that we can produce the same amount of food on less land, making it easier to set aside land for wilderness preserves. These are all things which the hippies, who claim to care so much about poverty and conservation, ought to be in favor of!
But they have this weird technophobic, or maybe just anti-corporate, paranoia, which makes them freak out over "frankenfoods". There are lots of nasty rumors going around the Net about companies like Monsanto, and how evil they are for expecting to make money off of the hard work their scientists have been doing. And many of these rumors are provably untrue. For instance, the supposed "terminator" gene, which makes crops sterile after one generation, so that the farmers have to keep going back and buying more seeds. Sounds pretty evil, doesn't it? (Never mind that most hybrid seed varieties in common use for years and years are sterile after one generation) The truth is that the terminator gene has never been included in any seeds that any company has ever offered for sale. But I bet that little details like that are probably left out of the anti-GM rant book that I saw for sale at Whole Foods.
And homeopathics? For a long time, I thought that word just meant some kind of natural herbal-supplement type medicine, but as I learned recently it in fact means something very specific and very stupid. Like, Astrology-level stupid. Homeopathic "medicine" is based on the idea that if a disease causes symptom X, then you can cure the disease by using a very small dosage of a chemical which causes symptom X. This is the theory of "like cures like" which explains the origin of the word "homeopathic". Of course, there is absolutely no evidence, or even medical theory, claimed or provided in support this supposed principle. Some guy named Samuel Hahnemann just made it up one day in the 1800s. But wait, it gets better! The chemical which produces disease-like symptom X (chosen off a list of chemicals compiled by dubious methods back in the 1800s) is most likely something poisonous and bad for you (duh, if it causes those symptoms). Homeopaths get around this problem by extreme dilution. They will dilute one part of the original chemical with 9 or a 99 parts of water ( or lactose for the pill types ) and repeat the dilution process anywhere between 6 and 30 times. Do the math: at the very minimum dilution you would still have one part in a million, but most homeopathic substances sold are actually diluted beyond Avagadro's Number, which means that there is not a single molecule of the original substance left in the bottle that you are buying, which is good because the original substance was bad for you anyway! If you take homeopathic drugs you are taking elaborately processed and overpriced water or lactose pills.
"But wait, no, you're missing something!" say the supporters of homeopathy. "After each dilution, we vigorously shake the mixture, which cases the base ingredient to impart its spiritual essence into the dilution medium, so that it remains in the water's memory even after all the molecules are gone!" I am not making this up. That is what they claim. Are you convinced yet that we are in la-la land? Homeopathic drugs have failed every scientific test that has ever been performed on them; they are statistically no better than the placebos. This is not surprising, since they are placebos. But the wishful thinking of hippies is so powerful that this stuff still sells.
Any place that sells homeopathic drugs is, as far as I'm concerned, engaged in an unfortunately-legal form of medical fraud.
Maybe you think I shouldn't complain about Whole Foods, since I am known to shop at Trader Joe's. But having been to both recently I think there are significant differences between the two.
First of all, Trader Joe's is a lot cheaper. It's cheaper than a mainstream corporate grocery store for a lot of things. Like Trader Joe's cereal is between $2 and $3 a box, whereas Jewel-Osco cereal is between $4 and $5 for boxes unless it's on sale. (I am a cereal junkie. I care about this.) And when Trader Joe's promotes something, on their in-store ads and their food packaging, they use cornball humor and they emphasize price and flavor and health benefits and what kind of meal you could make out of something. You know, like they're in the business of selling food. Whereas it seems to me that what Whole Foods is really selling is like absolution or penance or something. Penance for the liberal eco-guilt that their customers feel as a result of having been born in a resource-hungry first-world country, and the food is just a by-product. Whole Foods projects this holier-than-thou "OMG if you don't buy this $12-a-pound organic Quinoa imported from Peru then you are DESTROYING THE EARTH" kind of attitude. Which seems to me kind of like a cynical ploy to take advantage of people's good intentions.
But as bad as Whole Foods was, I was unprepared for the horror that was waiting for me inside "Transitions" bookstore.
Oh, you think I'm kidding? This bookstore had a section -- and not a small section, mind you -- a section labeled "quantum spirituality". Yes. And another section labeled "conscious living" (as opposed to what, comatose living?) How do you even decide whether a particular given book of pseudoscientific mystical nonsense goes in one section or the other? Every single book in this place would go in the "New Age" section of Borders. Oh wait, there was a "fiction" section -- at least that section was labeled honestly, know what I mean?
The store was also full of horrible twinkly new-age music, and quietly bubbling fountains, and statues of various Hindu gods.
What the heck is "quantum spirituality" supposed to mean? Do people take this seriously or is the whole store some kind of practical joke? I didn't realize that spirituality was a quantized number. There must be some particle which carries the smallest indivisible quantum of spirituality. We can call it the "spiriton". Unfortunately, I think I know what they're talking about, and they are taking it seriously. There's a whole genre which is based on the following chain of deduction:
- Quantum mechanics says lots of weird stuff I don't understand about uncertainty and observers
- Therefore reality is subjective!
- Therefore any ridiculous idea I choose to put forward must be taken seriously!
This dubious genre is exemplified by the recent movie What the Bleep Do We Know, which was of course featured prominently in the quantum spirituality section. I have not seen What the Bleep, but I have read reviews, and apparently the movie is a pseudodocumentary which goes something like this:
- Quantum mechanics!
- Therefore we create reality with our thoughts!
- Therefore I am channeling the spirit of a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis named Ramtha!
- If you think that's silly it's because you're not open-minded enough! Now give Ramtha lots of money and he will teach you how to become a god!
Oh, another really funny thing was when I asked about putting up the aikido flyer (which, if you remember way back to the beginning of this rant, was the reason I started out on this quest). I asked the guy working there whether they had a billboard for flyers about community events. "What kind of event?" the guy asked me. I got the feeling he had to make sure that whatever I was going to promote was sufficiently hippiefied for their store. I guess "my martial arts dojo is having a benefit for african kids and stuff" was hippie enough to satisfy him. "Oh, that sounds cool, sure, it's back there" he said.
And the other flyers that were there... ohhhhhhh man. Lots of stuff about yoga and meditation and all that, but some of them were hilariously out there. Like there was an advertisement for some (low-budget indie) film about how America is an evil fascist empire, with a review quote that said "Makes Fahrenheit 9/11 look like Bambi!". Oh great. That's not even the hilarious part, though. The hilarious part is that the ad had a great big picture of a baby on it with the caption "WOULD YOU PUT A CHIP INTO THIS?". As if that were something that anybody, anywhere, had ever actually proposed. Come to think of it, I suppose my answer to the question would depend on:
- Is it my baby?
- What does this chip do, exactly?
- How much does the chip cost?
I found only one book in that horrible den of hippiedom which I would consider buying, which is In Search of the Warrior Spirit, written by a guy who taught Aikido to the U.S. Marines. I've been wanting to read that for a while, but I decided I would rather buy it from Amazon.com, because I want my money to go to support a giant high-tech global corporation and not to the chowderheads behind the hippie bookstore.
Man. Between Whole Foods and Transitions, I am starting to understand why so many people hate liberals so much. The reputation of dopey, self-righteous hippies contaminates all liberals by association. I must admit, just being in that place made me want to go buy a gun and join the NRA.
People have the right to be as stupid as they want to be, and fill their head with fluffy nonsense if they want, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
My new Aikido dojo is HARD CORE!
So, I've finally started going to the Chicago Aikikai regularly, like I've been promising to for a while. It's a big step up in the challenge level of training, which is a good thing.
The Hyde Park Peace Dojo, where I've been going for the last few months, is really starting to take off. It's kind of cool to be one of the founding members of a dojo and to watch it grow. But, well, Don-sensei is the only teacher there (unless you count me when I substitute for him); not that his Aikido is bad, but I've gotten very used to his training style, which is rather sedate and philosophical. It's too comfortable, which means it's not pushing me to improve.
But Choate-sensei's class at the Aikikai -- wow, what a difference. He expects you to be already warmed up and stretched out when you get on the mat, to save time, for one thing. And he says not a word for the whole class. He just nods at one of the students to come attack him, he does a series of moves, and then he nods at everybody and we pair up and repeat them. It's rather like being back in Japan with the Iwate-dialect-speaking old men: I can't rely on verbal communication and so I have to learn by watching. Watching very closely, because Choate-sensei's teaching points are very subtle.
What's more, I am used to doing one technique at a time, with maybe some randoori (freestyle training; I remember the first time I heard the word, I thought it was katakana english for "laundry") at the end of class. But yesterday was pretty much freestyle from the get-go (unless there was some pattern I wasn't picking up on); the way the attack was initiated was fixed, but nage's response to the attack was not; I was confused at first but soon gathered that the idea is to run through all the techniques you know for that attack. It's an environment where improvisation is encouraged, which is something I really like. You're in a position that you never learned a technique for? Tough! Make something up! O-sensei famously said that there are no techniques in Aikido; the whole idea of practicing set patterns is to get the principles ingrained in your body until you can improvise an appropriate defense to anything. I'm excited that I'm getting to the point in my training where I can start to jam out instead of playing scales.
And the students at this dojo are very good; suddenly I've gone from being the top of the class to being in the bottom third, it feels like. These guys will come at you fast and hard and they do not "stick to the script" -- that is, if you leave an opening, they are not shy about hitting you, even if it's not their "turn". It's still Aikido, so it's not like they are beating me up or anything; it's just a friendly punch to let me know that I had left an opening. I soon learned that if one technique isn't working, the recommended thing to do is to switch to another technique and keep going without hesitation; of course, this is what you would want to do in real life, but in a lot of places I've trained, when people can't do a technique, their reaction is to stop and analyze it.
Putting all of this together, we have a training environment where I can take nothing for granted and must constantly think on my feet and watch out for attacks coming from anywhere. In a word, it's realistic, in that it feels more like being in a real fight. It's also rather intimidating! But this is exactly what I need in order to improve. They have classes every day of the week, so I'm going to ramp up the frequency of my training and see how many I can do.
Last night I ripped a big chunk of skin off the bottom of my big toe -- not because I hit anything with it, but just from friction with the floor, that's how fast and hard we were training. I duct-taped it back together to get back into the action. Duct tape really does fix everything!
Anyway, one of my goals is to be able to throw Aza. This is because Aza is a Judo expert and therefore very, very hard to throw. When we're play-fighting, which is almost every day at work, I'll try to do some Aikido throw on him, and he'll just freeze in place in his Immovable Stance.. I can't overcome his strength with mine, and he's not making any attack so he's not giving me any momentum I can use to unbalance him, so once he's set it's like trying to throw an iron statue. One that's nailed to the floor. Then he will mock me and say that this proves Judo is better than Aikido.
Of course, one excuse is that throwing somebody who is just standing there resisting the throw, and not making any attack, is outside the realm of what Aikido is supposed to accomplish (if he's standing still and not attacking, why not just walk away?, Don-sensei would probably say). But I don't want to have to make excuses. I've heard that the really top-level Aikido people can throw a dude even if he's specifically set up to resist it. I want to find out whether my inability to throw Aza is really because of a weakness in Aikido or whether it's just because I'm personally not good enough yet. Because if it's the former, maybe I ought to start studying a little Judo (or better yet Jujutsu) on the side!
Awassa Peace Dojo
A year ago, summer 2005, I was training in Aikido almost every day with Don-sensei and Mark Walsh, a visiting British student. I mentioned some of our adventures in my weblog posts of the time. (Pity it's so hard to find older posts to link back to... hmmm, I ought to add a search feature to this site.) Anyway, as I may have mentioned then, Don-sensei and Mark Walsh are both involved heavily in the Awassa Peace Dojo project, which established the first Aikido dojo in Ethiopia -- in fact, the first in sub-Saharan Africa. Really pioneering stuff. Anyway, today I got sent this pdf file of a letter that Mark wrote about his adventures in Awassa. Read it, it's very cool.
Exercise and hair!
Now is that fleeting season when it's actually pleasant to be outside in Chicago! The brief few weeks between DEADLY FRIGID BITING WIND SCOURING THE FLESH OFF YOUR BONES and GIANT DOG BREATHING HOT WET SUFFOCATING DOG BREATH ALL OVER YOUR BODY DAY AND NIGHT which together make up the vast majority of the year. Pleasant to be outside! Trees and flowers and chirping birds, ha-ha! Except for Tuesday, when the temperature suddenly plunged 30 degrees overnight. It was like a parting bitch-slap from Old Man Winter. Like, "Here's something to remember me by, suckers!".
Since the sun has been coming up earlier, and it's been sunny and warm in the mornings, I've been going out and getting exercise before work. Most days I jog, sometimes with Satomi ( who has way more endurance than me! ). Saturday and Sunday we jogged all the way down to the lake shore and around The Point. It was exhausting but lots of fun. I gotta get into good enough shape that I can do that without getting winded. Satomi sometimes jogs all the way to the Loop and back. Now that's endurance!
At the point, I noticed this really good climbing tree, so Satomi and I climbed up there and talked about the geological factors that determine the salinity of a body of water. Which led to talking about the Great Salt Lake, which led to talking about Mormons. In a knot in the tree I noticed a wadded-up piece of paper. I unfolded it and discovered a child's drawing of a tree and, scrawled underneath, "THANK YOU TREE YOU ARE A NICE TREE!" or something to that effect. I put it back in the knot and smiled the rest of the day.
On Sunday, another friend of Satomi's joined us. He took a look at my hairstyle and asked me if I do Sumo. Ha! I was amused. Oh, for you readers who haven't seen me in person for a while: I finally grew my hair long enough to make into a proper samurai topknot, chopped off the rest, and regrew my terrifying Wolverine sideburns to go with it. I should post a recent picture here. I think it's a style that works for me. I get lots of compliments on it. Like in Walgreens on Sunday, when I was shopping for a lightbulb (now I need to get a stepladder to install it, for I am too short to reach the lamp) this guy who worked there stopped me and he was all like "Check it ou! You're totally like a samurai man!" and I said "Yeah thanks, that's what I'm going for" but this guy wouldn't let me go. He wanted to keep talking about it and talk about how he himself was aiming for the Jim Kelley from Enter the Dragon look. His afro was indeed mighty. He had the afro pick and everything.
Today I took my samurai hairdo to an early-morning Aikido class. Did lots of sword practice. We were supposed to have an early-morning Aikido class last Thursday but Don-sensei had to fly off to Ethiopia suddenly to "prevent a civil war". I don't know what exactly Don does over there but he obviously has Powers Beyond Mortal Ken.
I don't think I ever adequately explained on this site the story of the dissolution of the U of C Aikido club. The club has had ups and downs for thirty years. Last year, our attendance fell, our senior students (including me) graduated, some of our teachers moved on to other things, the school sports club beaurocracy kept putting unneccessary obstacles in our way, and we had trouble recruiting new members due to the presence (for arcane political reasons) of two other Aikido clubs on campus. It's partly that the campus community wasn't large enough for three clubs, and it's also that newcomers confronted with a choice of three clubs would often decide that the whole thing was too confusing to bother dealing with, and choose some other martial art instead.
Over the summer, I signed up for a special "shugyo" intensive training program. I was training six times a week or more, which was really cool, but there was usually only one other student, and we were shuffled between locations every day; we had to constantly struggle with the sports club administration to get a place to meet at all. In the fall, I became the teaching assistant for Don's sociology course in "Conflict Theory and Aikido" which was pretty cool (well, I wasn't so keen on the sociology part). The students from the course gave the club an artificial infusion of new members, but it was clear that we were in trouble.
Over the summer and fall I put a ton of my personal time into maintaining the club. But I knew that I wasn't going to be able to train there indefinitely, since I'm no longer a student and it would cost me over $200 per quarter just for access to the gym facilities, not including club dues or anything else. We talked about trying to merge the clubs, allowing each sensei to continue teaching classes in his own way while sharing information and resources and members, but nothing ever came of it. The sports club administration demanded that we turn all of our dues over to them and then request purchases from them, instead of doing our own finances. However, they never responded to any of our requests, even for simple things like new mop heads. As a result, we had to mop our dojo with increasingly disgusting and dilapidated mops while the beaurocracy sat on the money that we had raised ourselves in order to buy new ones. Meanwhile, our class sizes kept shrinking until some days there were only one or two or three students.
So, those of us who were left had a meeting before the winter quarter started, and we decided to put the club on indefinite hiatus. Our equipment, and theoretically our money, are still there in case some enterprising students decide to come along and start the club up again. We agreed that none of us would stop training; we would just find training elsewhere.
Well, that was about three months ago, and although I had the best of intentions, I hadn't trained since then. The Chicago Aikikai is a wonderful place on the north side, and when I heard I was working on the north side I thought maybe I would be nearby, but no dice -- from I would have to ride the blue line half an hour south to downtown, then the brown line half an hour north again to get there by CTA. Getting home again would be a logistical nightmare -- an hour train ride and then waiting twenty minutes at the bus stop in a bad part of town, late at night, in the winter, while wet with sweat and carrying tons of gear? No thanks. If I had a car I could do it. Or if I lived downtown.
So, I didn't train, and an important part of my life was missing. Until Tuesday!
Don has returned from one of his mysterious month-long missions to Africa and the Middle East. I'm not entirely clear on what he does over there but it seems to involve meeting with high-level diplomats and negotiating the release of political prisoners, or something similarly lofty. Well, he's back, and his latest project is the Hyde Park Peace Dojo, which at the moment is him, me, and three other people meeting in the ballet room at the neighborhood club, with nine-and-a-half tatami units of borrowed mats. So it's kind of ghetto, but the important thing is I'm training again!
Wednesday night was a night out on the town. First Aza and I met up with Sushu and JoAnne at "Brazazz". ( With a name like that it could be either a Brazillian resturaunt or a lingerie shop. ) It's an insanely posh Brazillian steakhouse which operates on the "never-ending stream of meat" principle. You have this little button next to your plate, and on one side it's orange and says "Yes, Please", and the other side is black and says "No, thanks". Waiters prowl around the place carrying huge skewers with chunks of delicious meat on them, looking for orange buttons. If your button is orange they descend on you like reverse vultures, and slice hunks off of their meat skewers for you. All you can eat meat, seafood, and fried bananas. So expensive that I'll probably never go there again, but it was worth paying for the experience once.
Sushu and JoAnne were getting ready to go for a week-long visit to Japan. They're there now, visiting with Stephen and Helena in Kansai.
Before leaving, Sushu was struggling to finish a final paper for a class, and to finish correcting (for money) a stack of papers from high school students in California. (I agreed to mail the papers to Cali for her the next morning, but she ended up not finishing them in time.) I'm a little worried about Sushu: she took on so many extra responsibilities this quarter that she was exhausted and constantly in last-minute mode. I respect her work ethic and her willingness to take on leadership roles, but man, I hope she doesn't kill herself with work next quarter.
After the Brazillian steakhouse, Aza and I went to a George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic concert at the House of Blues (my second time, his first). Aza mostly listens to classical music and girly J-pop, so he was in dire need of some Funkstification. The staff frisked me and wouldn't let me go in with my swiss army knife, nor would they let me leave it with them or otherwise check it somewhere. They were kinda rude about it too. I guess I need to remember to leave Knifey at home next time I go to a concert. Lacking any other recourse, I hid Knifey behind a drainage pipe on the sidewalk outside the building, figuring there was at least a chance it would still be there. Inside the House of Blues, it was as crowded as a rush-hour subway train. Standing room? more like squeezing room. And the opening act was a really bad rap group that went on for way too long. I was rapidly getting annoyed by this point. House of Blues tickets are expensive, man.
But then the Mothership landed, and the audience started in to chanting WE! WANT! THE FUNK!, and allllll the bad feelings were gone. Ohhhhh yeahhhh. I want the boooooomb, I want the P-Funk, I likes my funk uncut. They funked for like four hours. In fact, it was more funk than we could handle. After a solid three hours, not counting the one-hour opening act, it was 1 AM and they showed no signs of slowing down, but we were getting really tired and our feet and ears were hurting so we decided to sneak out.
I slept on the couch at Aza's new north-side apartment, because I didn't fancy the idea of waiting for the 55 bus at the red-line stop at 1 AM by myself. Aza's apartment is 10 minutes from work. Mine is like 1:15. That was nice. The funny thing was in the morning, when I was on the couch eating Korean nori pieces and reading a National Geographic article about Sir Edmund Hillary, Aza's roommate (who I don't know at all) came out and said good morning. We talked for about five minutes about the concert, etc., and then he said "By the way, I tried to put the blinds up in your room, but the drill bit broke, sorry.". Wait, what? Does he think I'm Aza? "Um, my name is Jono, I'm Aza's co-worker, I slept on your couch last night, hello, nice to meet you.", I said. "OH WOW SORRY, I didn't have my glasses on!" he said.
On Saturday, I went to work, to finish up some stuff. It was just me and Andrew. We took a break around lunchtime to create his character for the upcoming Humanized D&D campaign. He's never done pencil-and-paper RPing before, but he's played lots of computer RPGs and read lots of fantasy novels, and he came up with an idea for his character's background which I think is pretty cool. Oh, the adventure ideas in my evil DM brain are a-spinning. After that I spent several hours battling with this horrible bug involving unresolved DLL dependencies and abnormal exit conditions that arose in one of the previously-working unit test files when I added the zthread library to the build. It was massively frustrating and I finally gave up and went home. On the train I took another look at the problem and solved it almost immediately. Moral: Get away from the problem for a while and look at it from another angle. Better moral: if you have multiple exit points from a synchronized function, make damn sure there is absolutely no way to return from the function without releasing the mutex.
Saturday night I went to Calypso with Cat and Jeremy and Satomi. When we were paying for our dinner, a discussion about the funny colors on the new $20 bill led Satomi to ask why we have "In God We Trust" on our money, whether that refers to the Christian god specifically, and whether that violates separation of church and state. Ahh, Satomi is new to the many stupid and never-ending arguments that make up the American public discourse, but she learns quickly.
This turned into a discussion of "intelligent design". She had heard her biology teacher ridiculing this concept but wasn't clear on the details. I am actually pretty knowledgable about intelligent design and its spokesmen, William Dembski and Kent Hovind and Michael Behe. I read all I can about them because I hate those guys. I hate their willful ignorance and their logical fallacies and their attempts to corrupt public science education, and I hate the fact that large portions of the American public lack the most basic ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.
So then I had to explain to Satomi what "red states" and "blue states" are, which meant explaining the Electoral College, and so on. And she told me about the unique ways in which Japanese politics is messed up. Since I couldn't vote in Japan I didn't pay much attention, and so about the only thing I knew about Japanese poltiics before was that they think a good way to campiagn is to drive trucks around the neighborhood near election time blaring slogans out of loudspeakers at ear-shattering volume.
It was a good discussion. I like Satomi a lot but she's really shy, so it's only now, after we've been sharing an apartment for six months, that I'm finally getting to know her.
On Monday, me and the three other Humanized programmers brought Atul's beaten-up car into the neighbor's garage in order to replace the brake pads. Andrew's done this before, so he provided the guidance while each of us took a turn jacking one corner of the car up onto a block and removing the wheel. The old brake pads were worn down to almost nothing in places, which explains the horrible screeching and the general inability to stop. Replacing them is easy; the hard part is getting the caliper closed over the new brake pads. There's this hydraulic piston that pushes the pads onto the hub when you brake, and to close the caliper you have to push the piston out of the way. The piston is much stronger than you are, so you basically have to release the brake fluid valve and then set up a lever to squeeze on the piston, making the brake fluid squirt out. It's disturbingly biological.
So we got greasy up to our elbows, and put everything back together, and now the car is drivable again. To any real mechanic, replacing brake pads is child's play, but this was the first time I've done anything like it. So for me it was sort of a rite of passage. It was deeply satisfying. I'm trying to explain why, and it would be easy to get into cliches about Manhood and killing mammoths and stuff, but for me it's not about masculinity. It's about authenticity and trying to be a complete human being in the modern world. I'm a firm believer in the power of technology to improve the human condition, and I'm an optimist about the future, and I have come to realize that this attitude is very rare today. Too many people think technology is "dehumanizing". It's not the technology per se that's the problem, it's the feeling of being dependent on machines you can't understand or control. The solution is not to reduce the tech level, the solution is to learn about your machines, master them, make them your own. When you succeed at this it's intensely empowering, plus good clean fun. Teaching yourself auto mechanics, or electronics, or computer programming, is therefore not just a hobby or a career path, it's a personal spiritual quest. And that is why I enjoyed changing the brake pads. I hope somebody else's car breaks down soon so I can work on it!
So, this week was full of good food, friends, old video games, Aikido training, funky music, hard work, bug-fixing, role-playing, and taking machines apart. That right there includes most of my favorite things in life! It doesn't get much better than this.
The main thing I'm missing right now is getting out into nature. I've been in the city way too long. And it's been winter way too long. Aaand I've been missing old friends who I haven't seen in a long time. I feel it may be time soon to go on an adventure.
Swing dancing is not a martial art
On to a more cheerful subject: Sushu and I went to a swing dancing class last night, first of seven in the course we signed up for. It was at an American Legion meeting hall in Los Altos, and it was full of old people and corny music.
I got over any awkwardness pretty fast and enjoyed it immensely. I can't wait to go again. Thanks for suggesting it, Sushu!
There was one move which kept tripping me up, which was the rock-step, where you rock back and up onto the toes of your back foot. This goes against every habit that's ever been ingrained in me by aikido training, or any other martial art for that matter. I kept screwing it up because whenever I moved back my body wanted to drop back into a stance, i.e. knees bent, back straight, weight low and evenly distributed between feet. Going back and up felt so unnatural.
At least I suppressed the urge to say "Hai, sensei!" when the dance teacher corrected me.
Also I kept wondering when we were going to swap uke and nage. Turns out the answer is "never". What do you mean we never switch places? You mean I just do the man part of the dance the whole time, every time? That's so weird!
To do list for 2010
Not so much resolutions as a to-do list.
When I was in Seattle, Alexis teased me mercilessly about my abandoned comic. She teased me so much that I actually started drawing again. It's something that has been back-burnered for much too long (I only wrote two strips in 2009) and I've been wanting to get back to it anyway; I just needed a kick in the pants. So doing my comic is going to be my top personal goal for this year. To have a measurable goal, I'm going to aim to finish the first story arc by the next Hackers conference.
My other goals are to...
Finish the five presents I promised to make. Two are done, one is mostly done, one is like half done, and the last is barely started. Hmm.
Then there's my programming projects...
Produce a playable demo of Beneath An Alien Sky.
Make the music program usable. (That thing needs a name, too.)
Then there's the skills I'm trying to learn...
Get good at the accordion! My plan is to practice playing some anime theme songs, then bring the accordion to ACen and play a show for my friends there.
Become conversationally fluent in Chinese, enough to participate properly in a dinner table conversation with Sushu's family.
Get back in shape. I joined a group from Moz that's been doing exercise classes. I went to one Wednesday and another one Friday. My whole body aches now, especially my abs and my lateral muscles. They were even more out of shape than I realized. Well, the first couple classes are the worst. It should get better from here. These exercise classes will make it easier to...
Start Aikido again, which I haven't done since summer 2008 when the Obama campaign took over all my free time. After that I got married, went to china, moved... my life turned upside down and hasn't gone back to normal since. But things should be calmer in 2010.
In order to have any chance of doing all this stuff, I'm going to have to fundamentally reorganize how I spend my free time. I'm going to have to make some sacrifices and cut out some stuff.
So, sadly, no painting miniatures or making terrain for me in 2010. (Or reading about them on the internet). You would be shocked at how much time and creative energy I spend on tiny army men for a game that I don't even play. There's just something about painting miniatures and painting terrain that I find very addictive and I can easily blow hours of free time a week on it. If I put all my miniature painting time since 2004 into comics instead, I would have a lot of comics done now, and I would be much prouder of the end product.
Even more sadly, I'm quitting my saturday role-playing group. It's been fun, but it's going to have to end so I can have my saturday afternoons back for creative projects. (Dave sent me an email with six sad-faces in it when I told him this news.)
Not sure how much I'm going to travel this year, but traveling is really time consuming (especially when it means flying between California and anywhere back East) so I want to keep it to a minimum. I got a webcam for my family so I'm going to try to do video chat or something with Aleksa so I can keep in touch with my family more without traveling so much.
Am I going to care about politics in 2010? It is an election year. But on the other hand, caring about politics is a time-consuming hobby, and mostly it makes me angry and depressed. Is it really worth it to me personally to spend energy reading, thinking, or arguing about?
Finally, I have to try to cut way back on internet stuff too. As for this blog, I think I'm going to try writing MUCH shorter posts. Like, one sentence posts. Both to practice brevity in writing, and to burn through the backlog of post topics I have built up while spending less total time on blogging.
Taiko is very serious business!
Sushu and I went up to Emeryville (it's between Oakland and Berkley) for our first Taiko drumming lesson on Saturday.
The Emeryville Taiko Dojo is run like a martial arts dojo: it's VRY SRS BSNS. We take our shoes off, sit seiza, bow to the sensei, yell ONEGAI SHIMASU!, and so on. There are warm-up stretches and exercises. We have to do all these hand exercises and sit-ups and planks before we even pick up the bachi (drumsticks). That's right, sit-ups! For a drumming class! I think the idea is to have strong core muscles because the movements when playing the O-daiko (the biggest drums) are supposed to originate from the core muscles, much like throwing strong punches.
So, yeah, I pretty much felt right at home. It was so similar to Aikido that the fact that we were hitting drums rather than throwing people seemed like a minor, incidental difference.
One thing that threw me off was the fact that the greeting when entering the dojo is OHAYOU GOZAIMASU! and when leaving the dojo is OYASUMI NASAI! Which is a little weird because that means "good morning" and "good night". I don't think I'm going to get used to saying "Good night!" in the middle of the afternoon. Our sempai said that these are the traditional greetings in Japanese Taiko practice; I guess I'll take her word for it.