Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a nonfiction book, a memoir of sorts in which Murakami talks about his hobby/obsession with long-distance running, also lightly mentioning other events in his life, starting with his sudden decision to quit running a jazz bar in Tokyo and take up writing. It’s interesting stuff; even though I’m no runner – I have absolutely zero experience with that, something I guess I should fix – it’s always interesting to read about people’s major interests. For Murakami, running is clearly a major component in his life, something he gets strength from even though (or maybe because) it’s sometimes quite a painful exercise.

He’s quite honest about the difficulties he’s faced over the years, and talks about how he must run pretty much every day, otherwise he’d be giving himself permission to skip another day, then another. I can relate; even though my sports are only on the one-or-two-times-a-week level, the inertia thing is a familiar beast. It’s just so easy to skip training when you’re feeling a bit tired… and then skip some more, until suddenly you haven’t done anything for many weeks.

The main focus in this book is running marathons. The writer tries to run a marathon each year, which (to me) is quite in the crazy zone… but sure, if you’re in shape for it, why not.

I found the book an interesting read, even though (as I noted) I’m no runner. I’ve read a couple of Murakami’s fiction books and he’s a good writer. The tone here is conversational and informal, and the book is actually a collection of essays (on running), written over the span of many years. This results in some duplication, but also gives insight into someone dealing with becoming older and still wanting to stay in good shape. He’s aware that he won’t be able to keep up the pace forever, but intends to do it as long as possible.

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Minireview: Meditations on Violence, by Rory Miller

Meditations On Violence is a fascinating book. Written by professional correctional officer, tactical team leader and martial artist Sgt. Rory Miller, it takes a long look at real world violence and compares it to martial arts training. Not surprisingly, the conclusion is that trained martial arts have little if anything to do with real-world incidents of violence, and that sparring in a dojo and actually being attacked by someone are vastly different things.

Now, I’ve dabbled in various martial arts over the decades; first with Jiu-Jitsu, Aikido and a few related others, later (and still nowadays) various bladed weapons – mainly in a historical combat context, but also with some modern knife fighting thrown in. I enjoy it and find it fascinating for a variety of reasons in addition to being excellent exercise. But here’s the thing: I’ve never been in a actual fight. Oh, there have been some close calls, and some shoving around etc. But a real fight, where people are going flat-out trying to damage each other? Nope. Never want to, either. The more I train with knives, for instance, the less I ever want to be involved in a real knife fight. It’s messy, bloody and brutal, and faster than you think. You also usually don’t even see it coming.

… which leads up to the next point: you rarely see real-world violence coming. Oh, sometimes you do, but oftentimes not. By the time you realize you’re being attacked, you’ve already taken a blow or two and possibly have a knife stab wound (or three) in you. You are also often attacked by many people at once. Very few people are trained to deal with that (understandably). They freeze up – and that freeze kills them more efficiently than anything else. You have to react to the unexpected in a decisive fashion… but nobody trains for that (understandably, of course). They train in controlled circumstances, if they train at all. When attacked with serious intent, they don’t do the smart thing: scream, run, or fight back. They freeze. It’s the natural human reflex when encountering something unexpected and scary.

Miller doesn’t claim that martial arts are useless in the self-defense context, far from it. They put you in good physical condition which is always a bonus. They give you some tiny bit of conditioning for the context of being attacked, if only in a “safe” environment. Many people don’t even have that little bit. But imagining that dojo/salle time is going to significantly help you in a real situation? Mostly a delusion.

The book goes on to ways of training yourself to respond to real violence; deciding at what trigger point you need to act (and go all-out) even if someone is threatening you, your loved ones or an innocent bystander. Trying to react when you’re attacked, preferably with a full-blown counter-attack. Dealing with the “monkey dances” of male groups. That sort of thing.

As I said, it’s a fascinating book. Being the target of real-world violence is scary, and thankfully most people won’t have to deal with it. People are conditioned to not hurt each other, so the concept of going full-tilt with the express purpose of doing serious damage to another person is difficult for most people. And that’s a good thing… except that the potential attacker won’t usually have those problems.

This book busts a lot of myths about martial arts vs violence, and is written based on lots of personal on-the-job experience. It’s a quick read (I read it in one evening, I just could not put it down). Warmly recommended for any and all martial artists, no matter what style or weapons you train. This book will make you think… and that’s never a bad thing.

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Should probably add a few words here about last weekend, it was tons of fun (though exhausting). We had Dr. John Lennox over at the school, teaching a weekend “Pirates!” seminar on historical naval boarding actions (with a side excursion into stage fighting). Ten hours in all, five each day.

Saturday we first took a look at the combat theory of that time, which included drawing a grid on the floor with masking tape, and visualizing cubes in the air. This was followed by unarmed basics, then knife use, then tomahawk use, and then double weapons (tomahawk + knife). The tomahawk is a quite impressive close-quarter weapon, and paired with a knife it’s pretty devastating.

Sunday we shifted into playing around with the cutlass, then combined that with the other weapons (so we’d do cutlass + knife, cutlass + axe, and other fun combos). Around the midpoint we played around with stage fighting for a while; how to stage combat scenes so that it looks real, is not actually dangerous, and is at least somewhat martially sound. Fun, if a bit tricky. At the end of the day, we did a full ship boarding simulation (with the class split in half), and went for each other at reasonable speed. The “mortality” rate was…. high. The weekend ended with a debrief, where we went over impressions of the stuff and gave some feedback.

I really liked the seminar, and Dr. Lennox proved to be a very good teacher. The style he used here was very different from Guy’s usual one; where Guy tends to go into technical detail and set drills (in the beginning at least), John was more about finding the flow of the weapon, figuring out “what it wants to do”. This difference is much due to the styles and weapons being taught, of course: John was teaching semi-military close-quarter techniques with varied weapons and combos, whereas Guy usually teaches dueling weapons. Vast difference in how those are typically taught. You can easily spend years honing dueling technique, but military combat needs to be straightforward and something you can teach to relative newbies quickly. John’s organic teaching style suited this seminar very well.

The seminar had a group of theatrical stage fighters attending, people I hadn’t met before. Some were actors, one guy was a professional stuntman… they were from all over. Fun guys, and they were very competent and quick learners. At times I felt they did better at some stuff than us “real” sword students did. Of course, most of these guys had a lot of background in various types of acrobatics, martial arts and whatever, so it’s not all that surprising…. but still.

John’s t-shirt was amusing. On the front it had some text about “Naval Historical” stuff with a logo, and the text “Boarding Party” (in large letters). The back had the text “The only party with a 50% mortality rate!”… and then the “50%” was crossed out and 90% written underneath, with a side note in Latin that had something to do with rum…

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Looks like summer is here, if only for a while. The weekend was quite the scorcher. Saturday we went shopping for plants and spent most of the rest of the day doing gardening and related stuff (yes, it’s fun, when the weather is good). Sunday was sports day; first 2,5 hours of rapier basics, then another 2,5 hours of smallsword basics. Very fun seminar, but of course the weather was hot and the salle was a bit on the warm side too. We survived. Smallsword was weird… intuitive in some ways due to rapier background, totally bizarre in others (possibly due to same rapier background). There are things you can do with the smallsword that you just can’t with the rapier (well, not without breaking your wrist in the process, anyway).

Feeling mostly ok now. The “flu” bug turned out to be streptococcus strain “G” (whatever that means). More or less gone now, anyway, though now I know what medication I’ll ask for if it decides to make a comeback. Didn’t medicate this bout away, since medication helps against this strain only when taken while “sick”, and by the time I got the lab results I was already ok. My throat is still a bit raw, so it’s possible the thing is still lurking in the background. Die, bug, die.

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Though I hadn’t planned it as such, the last few weeks have been quite a get-into-better-shape workout. First a week out on the tundra, and then this week I’ve done a whopping 13 hours of swords practice. “Normal” rapier on Wednesday, then Ilkka’s limited-run Bolognese sidesword course on Friday, then 5 hours of Bolognese sidesword + buckler yesterday and lastly 5 hours of Bolognese/Fiore pollax techniques today. I’m pretty bushed, though in a good way. Oh, and it was fun, lots of fun.

Now I need to keep my head clear (and awake) long enough to go through the Burning Wheel rules one more time, and to do some game planning for tomorrow. We’ll see… it’s a fun game system, but damn is it complex. It’s not every day that a system feels actually more complicated then Exalted. Not sure if it actually is or not, but since we’re used to Exalted and now trying out Burning Wheel, it feels extremely complicated.

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Life wins, slowly

Spent Sunday at the salle, Ilkka held a seminar on Bolognese sidesword and dagger techniques. Was a lot of fun, once again, and it’s really nice to be back to normal health (if not good shape, yet). I had a really long-term flu / throat infection thingy, and since that carries a small but non-zero danger of heart injury it you exert yourself too much, that meant a month+ of no exercise for me. Which was doubly nasty because the flu wore me down and the lack of exercise did the same. Finally felt well enough to come to the salle last Monday, but a month’s pause in training shows. Oh well. It’ll come back, it always does.

The training, I mean. The flu can stay away, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m also slowly waking up to the fact that Christmas will soon be here. I’ve only begun to think about presents, and only have a few taken care of so far. So… some shopping this week.

Work has been really interesting (if very busy) during the last month or so, since I’ve managed to convince my bos(ses) that doing a certain new app with Rails, with a REST datasource in our Java/JBoss main server end, is a good idea (and I honestly do think it is a good idea). This means that I’ve been coding Ruby/Rails a lot, and also tinkering with some lesser-known aspects of it like ActiveResource. It took a while to puzzle out the HTTP/XML format Rails expects and to duplicate that on the Java side, but once it’s in place it’s pretty impressive: the Rails app can now get a data feed from our server with just a few lines of code, and that feed behaves in many respects like a normal ActiveRecord database object. Cool stuff. I’ve also dived into testing with rSpec, with heavy use of mock objects and dynamic fixtures (since I want to keep the tests independent of server data). Figuring out HttpMock took a while, but now that also works.

Rails rocks, it’s by far my favorite wep app framework nowadays. Nothing else comes even close.

Added later: …though I do have to say that some of the lesser-used facets of Rails (like ActiveResource, especially with nested resources) can be pretty poorly documented, or not at all. I’ve quite often had to resort to hacking the Rails core code to figure out what the hell is going on. Today has mostly been spent in figuring out how the hell I can actually create nested REST resources. Finally figured it out, but it wasn’t exactly documented anywhere I could find. Today’s headaches also include puzzling out the exact XML format for server-side validation errors (no, it’s not what the docs claim it is) and in working around the fact that the XML formatter wants to turn all underscores into dashes in element names. Sigh.

Rails still rocks. But prepare to enter “Here There By Tygers” territory if you use some of the more bleeding-edge facets of it.

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Bolognese sidesword 101

Well, since Ilkka asked people to write something about last weekend’s Bolognese sidesword seminar, I’ll try to do that (though others have already done so much better than I can).

The seminar had the usual length of our one-day seminars, running from 10am to 5pm with an hour of lunch break in between. The difference to a usual weekend seminar this time was the fact that it was the first assistant instructor test we’ve had. As noted before and elsewhere, Ilkka did very well despite Guy throwing various curve balls in his direction, and passed easily. When he didn’t know the answer to something he didn’t get flustered and just said he didn’t know (with the implication of a “yet” in there). His teaching was straightforward and effective… he talked a lot, but that’s normal and required when teaching the basics of a new weapon system. The pace was pretty good; while it seemed fast in the beginning, in actuality it turned out to be just right, I never felt we were really going too fast. I would assume the pace would be lighter when teaching a room full of beginners, instead of the semi-intermediates the class mostly consisted of this time.

The system he was teaching was based on the teachings of some-random-Italian-dude (sorry, my memory for names is as lousy as ever), with some examples from other-random-Italian-dudes. The style emphasised a natural posture, and for once “natural” here actually meant something close to actually natural. I love the rapier as a weapon, but that stance in that (well, at least in Capo Ferro) is a leg-killer. None of that here, the guards were quite relaxed ones. The way the sword moved was a mixture of the natural and the unnatural (for me, that is). Some basic techniques felt easy and fluid, while others felt very, very hard to do correctly – one specific false-edge blade deflection in particular. One technique was extremely close to a rapier technique, and it was no surprise that it felt easy and natural – I guess rapier training has had some impact, since it wasn’t easy and natural to a lot of my training partners. So it goes.

I really like the sidesword as a weapon and this style of using it seems to suit me pretty well; the techniques either feel kinda sorta natural or feel like something that I can get to feel natural, with practice. Of course, the same could be said of any style, but some are easier than others. I get the feeling that the real difficult part is yet to come with this weapon, here we just focused on the basic moves – tactics are a different kettle of fish entirely. This feels like a weapon and style I’d like to learn better, here’s hoping we’ll see some more seminars etc on it in the future. Many of the moves still felt very clumsy and… well, unpolished, when I did them. Can’t find the proper word to use here… there’s a very specific feeling I get when I do a physical tehcnique and what I do is sort of right but not quite right, my body and muscle memory are still working on the details. It’s like rapier in the beginning, you do things but they don’t feel natural, your body doesn’t snap into them on autopilot. That’s what you aim for, of course, in the long run. It’s a nice feeling when you get there, even part of the way.

Ilkka has matured as a teacher. I remember when I first met him he was a nice guy (as he is still) but very gung-ho and pretty extreme in the physical training department; his warmups got a semi-legendary reputation of being killers. That has shifted into an emphasis on smart use of excercise, on doing warmups that are useful for the specific thing you’re training instead of going for raw power all the time. He has also gotten a lot better at explaining concepts and in figuring out why something isn’t working out for someone else – an essential martial arts instructor skill.

The day was made a slight bit more difficult for me because I had a pretty serious ache in my lower back (started some days back), which hurt my concentration and technique at times. I ate some painkillers to handle that but it was still a bit of a bitch. It’s mostly gone now; no idea what I did (wrong) to cause it, but I think I’ll go to swords training next week. Maybe (or actually: more than likely) I just need more/better muscles in my lower back and abdomen regions. That’s a nicer thought than “I’m getting old” :)

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Nice weekend. Leonard Cohen was fantastic, managing to be even better than expected. Somehow he made the huge Hartwall Arena seem intimate, which is quite a feat. The backing band was also superb. Janka writes some more on the subject.

Sunday was mostly spent at the salle, we did six hours of Bolognese sidesword. Fun, and a weird mix of easy and quite difficult; some moves felt quite natural, while some were a total bitch to get even remotely right. Normal thing when learning a new weapon, or course. The seminar was also Ilkka’s Assistant Instructor exam, so we did some things (as told to by Guy) to make his life more difficult. He did splendidly and gave us an excellent day of learning the fundamentals of a new(ish) weapon… and easily passed the exam too. Over the years Ilkka has become a good martial arts teacher, it’s been interesting watching him develop both as a swordsman and as a teacher. I do like the sidesword, it’s a fun weapon which combines techniques from various other sword styles I’m familiar with; I’d like to learn more.

Only negative for the day was the fact that my back was killing me, I had picked up a nasty pain in my lower back from somewhere and had to eat some tabs to keep it in check. Those mostly helped, though some parts of the day were painful, literally. Good thing is that the pain is a lot less now, on Monday. Exercise helps (except when it doesn’t, of course).

Swords in the newspaper

Two weeks ago we had reporters from Helsingin Sanomat (the biggest Finnish newspaper) at our swords salle, and this Saturday’s paper featured the resulting story (in Finnish, naturally). There’s also a short but pretty good video available, in which Guy explains some basic background while the camera shows us doing drills; me and another guy were doing rapier that day, the others were doing longsword.

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Incoming fire has right of way

Giving rest and relaxation a wide pass, we spent last weekend at a paintball wargame weekend, organized by a friend. Around 25 people, most pretty experienced… and then us and a couple of other semi-newbies as designated cannonfodder. I’ve tried paintball before now and then, but only with shortish sessions at rental game fields. This was a bit more intense, we spent about 8 hours crawling around the forest on Saturday and a few more on Sunday. Hot, sweaty, exhausting and quite fun. I died a lot (no surprise), but did manage to get some kills in. I think Janka did a bit better, but who knows – this was an informal “for fun” event, with no scorekeeping or anything like that. Just normal capture-the-flag and some extra scenarios thrown in for spice.

Since this was the anniversary of the Normandy D-Day invasion, we ended off Sunday with a simulated invasion scenario: six people with either full-auto markers or good semi-autos defending a small bridge, and everyone else trying to storm over it to capture the flag. Fun, even though I managed to run out of ammo in the end and only noticed this while hunkering down in a bed of nettles with paint whizzing over my head.

Good exercise in any case, I can still feel some complaints from my leg muscles… and it was nice to spend a few nights sleeping in a tent, the last time we used our tent was at Burning Man (and it showed, the amount of playa dust in the tent bag was ridiculous).

Anyway, it was good fun, good food and good weather. No complaints.

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