A sense of perspective: why (and how) I write this blog

Okay, so I talk a lot. I mean a lot. All my family, friends and students know this. Reading this blog, you would also know this because I write as I speak.

So we (my friends and I) laugh about it. That's the way I am, and I cannot change, any more than a leopard can change its spots. Nor do I believe I should try. As John Fowles' character "Conchis" said in "The Magus":
    "Be true to yourself".
I used to wonder what that expression meant, but in recent years I've come to understand what Fowles (speaking though his character) was trying to say: you can't be somebody you aren't. Not only would this be futile (because, logically, you can't be someone else), but it would also constitute an attempt to lie to yourself (which is also, ultimately, impossible).

That's not to say that you shouldn't try to improve yourself, the quality of your work and/or your general behaviour; we should all strive to do this. But you shouldn't bother trying to change your very nature (especially if your nature is benign).

So I'm garrulous. By contrast some people are quiet (whether shy or the strong silent type). Some people are cynical. Some are jovial, others depressive. Some have strong opinions on everything, others don't know what to think. Some people don't think too deeply, others think too much. And so it goes. In my case, I love to talk: anecdotes, jokes, philosophy, history, linguistics, astronomy, music and, of course, martial arts. In company I try not to "hog the conversation" but I will certainly fill all the "empty spaces". That's just the way I am.

So when someone recently described me on an online forum as "incredibly verbose" I had to laugh. It is true. I am. My blog posts can also seem somewhat circuitous; a bit like this one. You might well be wondering where I am heading with this essay: Is it worth reading or not? If you have the patience you will find out. If not, you'll stop reading about now. Whatever your inclination, I can promise you this: I always have a point. And I generally think it is a point worth making, otherwise I wouldn't bother writing it. I don't do things (like writing this essay) for nothing. Generally I write things that I wish I'd read somewhere years ago; that might have saved me the effort of finding these things out the hard way.

It is gratifying that, for the most part, people seem to find my blog useful in this way. The internet is truly a strange and wonderful beast. Who would have thought, even a decade ago, that a private citizen could expect to receive, each day, dozens of email messages from perfect strangers from all over the globe, providing feedback on his work? This is not to mention other messages in the form of Youtube and blog comments as well as Twitter, Facebook and online forum exchanges. I also get referred to frequently in articles and other blogs, which always surprises me. That the latter data (ie. site referrals etc.) is available, in great detail and scope, as a standard feature of Blogger and Youtube is truly astounding.

The overwhelming majority of people who contact me are polite and decent. Most are encouraging and kind, even flattering, in their remarks. Many ask questions on technical matters. Some are neutral or indifferent, seeking to clarify or correct some detail. And a very small minority are derogatory. (More about the derogatory comments in a moment.)

If I were ever at risk of getting a swollen head, these derogatory comments would be sure to prevent it. Because even if I get 10 flattering emails in a day, one nasty one is enough to make me question everything I do and consider giving it all away. I suppose that is human nature. We listen to criticism far more than praise; the former bites deep and hard while the latter can seem a bit hard to accept as even approaching the truth. That is human nature (or at least, mostly human nature – including my own). And a good thing it is too; people with swollen heads are hard to live with. And those who have them are probably suffering the negative side of the "Dunning-Kruger effect" (I know at least one such idiot, who shall go nameless but who is to poetry what Cacofonix was to music).

Generally I come back to the same "neutral" position. I am neither "hero" nor "weak as piss". Like nearly everyone on the planet, I'm somewhere in between. As a martial artist and teacher I'm just trying to do what I do – sincerely and honestly. I write about the martial arts because I'm passionate about it. I write:
  1. what I believe to be true; and
  2. what I hope to be useful – at least to somebody.
Which brings me back to "verbosity": why do I write (at least occasionally) in such a "circuitous" way? Why do I go into such exhaustive detail in relation to things others might consider "minutia"? I do so for the following reasons:

First, in my articles I will often try to present an argument that I feel hasn't been presented before. For example, my theories on civilian defence, the "melee range", the role of "blocks", the "flinch reflex", the "situational reflex", "dynamic context", "standing start drills", "string attacks", the "friction grip", why traditional martial arts feature stopping techniques at a pre-determined point etc. have all been generally "novel" – ie. I haven't seen them discussed before, at least in the way that I have wanted them to be.

And some of these issues go to the core of traditional martial arts technique. As I said to a correspondent recently, we traditional martial artists want answers to why we should do things in a particular way. If there is no good reason for, say, chambering or "corkscrewing" punches, or otherwise doing a karate punch rather than a boxer's punch, then why should we bother? I've tried to answer these questions; questions that are common to most traditional martial artists. In so doing, I feel I've come up with some interesting, perhaps novel, analyses.

So in order to explain these novel analyses I simply must to go into detail – otherwise they will be easily dismissed with a few offhand remarks. It takes a while to describe a new concept. It might even require the use of "new terms", which I have done from time to time. An example is my use of the term "melee range" (which I note has been part of video game programmers' language for a long time, indicating that there is probably a need for the expression anyway!). I have however used "new terms" sparingly because, like many people, I dislike jargon for its own sake. (On this issue, I do not agree that expressions like "dynamic context" are jargonistic - I use such terms to mean what they already mean. I note also that criticism of me in this regard comes from those whose arts are chock-full of jargon.)

Put simply, I don't want my sincere and considered arguments, formed after decades of diligent study, "lumped" with some other flawed reasoning.

It doesn't matter if people disagree with me; I just don't want to be dismissed lightly as this has the potential to void my considerable effort almost entirely. To circumvent this as much as possible I have to differentiate my arguments from similar-sounding, yet different, statements that others have made in the past. This requires detail.

Second, the internet is an interesting place; you typically get put to proof on every single point you make. It's not like writing a book, where the interval between writing the book and reading a review about it can be in the order of years. Online writing is capable of almost immediate response – and challenge.

I try to address any challenges in advance. If I didn't, the articles would be shorter, but I'd have my comments section full to the brim with demands for supporting evidence and, more worryingly, arguments that misapprehend my thesis and raise fallacious objections.

As galling as it might be to see my careful, considered and hard-wrought arguments casually (and spuriously) dismissed in online debate, at least I know that I've done all that I could to make my case. I can't help the fact that some people will disagree anyway, as is their prerogative (they might also be right!). I can't help that others might misunderstand my argument, take offence at something I haven't actually said, or otherwise fail to read what I've written (at least properly or completely).

And if I haven't addressed an issue or evidence a point, or if I'm just plain wrong about something, I can always come back and fix it (which I frequently do). I'm not averse to changing my opinion or admitting I was wrong. If you look up my forum exchanges online, you'll find many examples of this.

Third, I think that details and "minutia" count. And understanding the physics , philosophy and morality underpinning what we do is, I believe, a necessary part of the process of our own progress and empowerment.

Last, but not least, there is the question of how I choose (and am, in some respects, forced!) to write:

I don't sit down and plan each essay meticulously. Rather, I write in one, continuous stream of consciousness – from start to finish (or, if I'm interrupted, separate sittings where I take up the stream of this "one-sided conversation" where it left off). Mostly, I don't go back. I don't rewrite. I don't edit. I write exactly what I'm thinking as I'm thinking it. This essay is a prime example. I'm making it up as I go along. Right at the end I'll read through the whole thing and see if it makes sense. I might re-arrange some paragraphs or put in some headings. But mostly I don't do much other than correct typographical errors.

This is the way I've written every single essay/article in this blog. Any appearance of "structural planning" is illusory. If the essay is tightly written it is because my thoughts were especially well-ordered before I put my fingers on the keyboard. If I ramble a bit with anecdotes (eg. "Attack, attack, attack" and "My unlikely relationship with the jian"), get too philosophical or obtuse (eg. "Memories of Taiwan: Third Eye Blind" or "Mathematical dimensions and martial arts analysis") or otherwise introduce too many topics in one essay (eg. when I had to split "Forms: their core purpose" and "Sine wave vs. the core purpose of forms" into two different essays), then my thoughts were, obviously, less well-ordered.

However, at no stage do I concede that my essays aren't "thought out" in the broader sense of having a cogent argument/statement to make. I have a good idea of the basis of each essay before I begin. I just don't plan the writing part of it. I do that bit spontaneously.

In some cases, the result has been less than ideal. On the other hand, some of the best compliments I have ever received have been in relation to "less-structured" essays (eg. "Memories of Taiwan: the calligraphy master". That is the beauty of the "stream of consciousness" writing method. It can produce duds, but it can also produce gems (albeit "rough" ones that could do with some polishing).

I could write another whole essay (see – I'm tempted to get side-tracked!) on how "stream of consciousness writing" taps into your lateral or thinking or "right brain" – the creative side. I could refer you to Dorothea Brand (see "Becoming a Writer") and the work of Jack Kerouac , both who have influenced me greatly in this regard. Creativity isn't logical. It arises laterally, intuitively. Editing (the logical "left brain") is necessary, but it just tidies things up. The real genesis of creating something unique arises from the creative "right brain".

Frankly, I have enough "left brain", logical editing in my "day job". As a legislative writer, up to 10 hours of my day is made up of double-checking, pruning lines, rewriting and more rewriting; agonising over every single word and punctuation mark. So when night falls, work and training are done, the family is tucked into bed and I creep to the computer to write another blog post, I don't feel like doing the same "logic thing" all over again. You could call it "laziness", but I call it "a need to explore my creative side". In my personal writing I like to have a freer rein. I'm tired of cold, hard logic and its editorial intrusion.

But the main reason I write in the way that I do is really quite simple: it comes down to the small matter of time.

As Blaise Pascal famously put it:
    "I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter."
I have always taken this phrase to make perfect sense, but I am amazed by the number of people who "just don't get" what Pascal was talking about. Let me explain:

In my "day job", I know only too well how hard it is to get something to be both (a) accurate and complete; and (b) concise – never mind elegant – at the same time. It is relatively easy for someone to write 8,000 words on a topic. But to say the same thing in 4,000 words is much, much harder. To do so in 2,000 words constitutes art. To do so in a couple of lines requires genius. This is why I admire the writing of my (now good friend) Jorge Morales-Santo Domingo. If you haven't read his blog "Memories of a Nidan" and other writings, then do yourself a favour and start today. His is the epitome of succinct, elegant, meaningful writing; the essence of poetry.

Sadly, I am not Jorge. And while it is possible for me to write shorter, terser and "to-the-point" essays (that would still fall short of Jorge's brilliance), I typically choose not to do so here. Why? First, as I have stated, I don't have the inclination to do so. But more importantly, I don't have the time.

As I've previously stated, I don't do this martial writing for a living. It isn't even my "main hobby". I don't have the luxury of hours upon hours to "plan" anything. Instead, my time for writing these entries is "stolen" – usually from sleep, but sometimes from time with my family. This "stolen time" is comparatively little: too little for me to make the essays and articles any "shorter" than they are.

I approach my videos in the same way: most are filmed during ordinary class time. Some are filmed afterwards when I'm already late for dinner. They aren't scripted and they aren't choreographed.

The net effect is a compromise. Of course it is. The articles and videos aren't what I would ideally want to produce. But it is a compromise I can live with. Why? Because the material still serves its purpose: to record information and knowledge that I have acquired in over 3 decades of continuous training so that it might be used by:
  1. my students; and
  2. possibly, someone else.
If I didn't feel the material served that purpose, I wouldn't produce it. And of course I can also live with the compromise simply because I know that this is the only way I could realistically produce anything – on the run, with no planning and little editing. This is our "modern life"; we have marvellous technology and hardly any time to explore its full use.

Unfortunately we also live in an "Information Age", when attention spans are short and a sense of entitlement to free information is very high. I certainly provide my information for free (not that I have anything against selling information anyway – I just haven't "got my shit together" to make a living out of martial writing/filming, and maybe I never will!). But from the negative comments that I get, it seems I often fail to fulfil the second part of the modern expectation: instant accessibility.

So we come back to my "verbosity" again. As I've acknowledged, I allow myself a little self-indulgence in writing and filming; it would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise. But on the whole I think my blog and videos fulfil their primary brief.

What they don't do is make it easy. As much as it is true to say that I could write shorter, terser, more disciplined essays, it is equally true to say that many who find me "verbose", "too complicated" or "too theoretical" are very likely "irritated" by the simple fact that I haven't provided my (free) information in bite-sized Twitter chunks. They are annoyed that they might actually have to read something a bit longer and more detailed; that they might, for a change, actually have to think for themselves.

Well I'm not going to give them that. As Robert A Heinlein put it: "Tanstaafl." There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. I might be willing to give what I know freely. But I'm not spoon-feeding people.

Those of my generation and older can easily remember the days when seeing a particular kata or technique meant going to the public library and browsing the shelves, or going to your sensei, or another sensei, or paying a lot of money to fly to a distant part of the world to train with someone who might, or might not, show it to you. The accessibility of information today makes many people think they born with an entitlement to it; that the someone, somewhere "owes" it to them to make the information available now and for free and in a form that they would ideally prefer.

In other words, the internet has spawned a new phenomenon that I would never have imagined even a decade ago: the psychology of "entitlement to knowledge" – including knowledge paid for by others over decades – not just monetarily, but with blood, sweat and tears. This is the height of arrogance.

I once had someone write in about one of my videos – the one concerning "internal" karate movement. The particular video (embedded below) features the "xingyi drop step" of which I've written so much lately, but done in karate's sanchin stance. The fellow wrote in the comments for that video, asking:
    "Could you please make a video explaining how to master that footwork step by step."
This is precisely the sort of "you owe me a better free video – now!" mentality to which I'm referring.

Nor have I been immune from this phenomenon:

In around 2005 I pestered a senior martial arts practitioner (who I'd only just met but who is now my good friend and Chen Pan Ling brother) to show me a particular, rare, white crane form. He said: "You do realise that it cost me over $2,000 to learn this form?" (he'd had to travel to Japan to study it). I said I only wanted to see it performed - not to learn it.

Despite obvious reservations, he proceeded to demonstrate it. And I began to realise the point of his reservations. Actually, as I watched I felt ashamed. What right had I to any of his hard-sought and expensive knowledge? Did I even have the right to ask for a "demonstration"? I had fallen into the same "entitlement mentality" which I've just discussed.

I've lost count of the number of people who haven't justed asked but demanded things of me – for example that I "reshoot" a particular Youtube video from a "better angle" or "in better lighting" etc. It's as if they had paid for a video and weren't happy with the product.

I'm also reminded of the "Dunning-Kruger" idiot "poet" who I mentioned previously; he recently asked me the same (basic) technical question for the hundredth time. And I patiently re-explained it to him. He abruptly stood up, pointed his index finger at me and declared angrily: "You know, that's the first time you've ever explained it in a way that made sense to me!" I see. So it was my fault that this (commonly available) knowledge hadn't gotten into his head? What cheek!

The arrogance climbs to new heights when it takes the form of accusations of "unnecessary complexity", "apolgoism" or "obessions with trivia".

Naturally, I don't agree that I make concepts about which I write "difficult". They just are. I might not fit someone else's paradigm of "making it all simple", but I really don't care. Martial science isn't simple - at least not in the way some would wish. Those who would accuse me of being "unnecessarily complex" are people who I accuse of being simplistic.

What irks me the most is when one of these people goes on to accuse me of "poor technique". My most recent video is a case in point:

I filmed the video with the intention of writing an article about the function of "basic" kata - in particular the "hard" and "linear" kata known as heian shodan or pinan nidan (in our school "fukyugata ichi"). I wanted to show why they are important repositories of knowledge, even if they don't appear to be, in almost any sense, "practical" at first glance. The idea came to me during "kitchen training":

I had just read an article on stem cells and their ability to develop into any specialised cell. Doing the opening movements of heian shodan / fukyugata ichi very slowly made me realise the potential for these movements to be adapted to practically any context.

Of course, much of this would not have been apparent from the video I posted. The video wasn't planned, as I've previously discussed. It was shot from the sidelines that night during my lesson.

Rather than wonder whether I had some sort of point to make, one young martial artist, Marius, had this to say:
    "I was fascinated at first with all your articles. But it seems to me that all your theory and talking, has gotten in the way of effecient good techniques. You can debate back and forth for eterntiy. But at one point you have to chose to dedicate yourself to a way of training, and perfect that. You dont even execute gedan barai correctly."
Now I think I understand Marius' "beef":

First, he was annoyed at my "verbosity" and "complexity". And I get that. As I've said, I know that I can get bogged down in detail that interests me (but might not interest others). Maybe this was one such circumstance. Had Marius expressed his statement in this sort of way I would have accepted it as valid constructive criticism, however he didn't.

Instead he went on to note his second objection: He felt that I had demonstrated poor technique - that I didn't even know how to "execute a gedan barai correctly"; that this was attributable to my lack of "dedication".

It is at this point that I lost any patience with this fellow. In his arrogance and ignorance he had assumed something about me which was totally unfounded and deeply insulting:

First, I know only too well what a gedan barai is. I wasn't purporting to demonstrate gedan barai (a circular downward movement found in goju ryu and other Naha te systems) but the more basic gedan uke - a linear block found in shotokan and shorin ryu generally. Of course, this subtlety was totally lost on him. He leapt to a conclusion about my "poor technique", basing it entirely on his own lack of knowledge of the basics of different karate styles. This has all the hallmarks of the "Information Age" psychology of which I spoke previously; Marius is so caught up in his own "sense of entitlement" to information that he has forgotten the basic courtesy one should extend to perfect strangers who are not impinging on one's rights in any way.

In case Marius ever reads this, my discussions concerning gedan barai are well documented. I have even covered it in a specific "back to basics" article. I have made at least 4 videos specifically addressing gedan barai. I include a couple below:

My gedan barai, gedan uke, or any other technique is far from perfect. But it isn't "weak as piss" either (to quote another infamous troll). But mostly, I take grave umbrage at the suggestion that I haven't dedicated myself to my study; that I haven't paid my dues over 30 years of blood, sweat and tears; that I'm not paying those dues even now as I work through pain to do ordinary movements.

However in the end I accept Marius' point. I do have room for improvement. I could be less obtuse, less philosophical, less self-indulgent. I should do so even though it is my blog, written as a kind of "running note" to myself. Why should I do this? Because I do care about my readers and I do care about producing something that is useful to them, in particular those who are my students.

So I will take on board Marius' criticism. However that does not mean I will let Marius off the hook; he is blocked from my Youtube and Twitter accounts. If I could block him from this blog, I would. I would do this for one simple reason: I will not abide rudeness.

What Marius and others like him don't seem to realise is that the internet does not give you licence to "talk" to people in a way that that you wouldn't talk to them if you met them face to face. This is very easy to forget when you're just another Youtube user who hides under the veil of (at least partial) anonymity. In human discourse, rudeness is rudeness - there is no "separate standard" for the internet. I have no reason to tolerate someone who would abuse me, albeit across the internet all the way from Norway. But I can still take something positive from his remarks: the need to make my material accessible.

So I will continue to write this blog, and prepare the videos, as I presently do. Some articles/videos will be more useful than others. Some of my arguments and conclusions will certainly be flawed, at least in some respects. But I will try to avoid this, just as I will try to make them a little less self-indulgent and a little more relevant. In other words, I will try to improve my "product".

Has this essay been worth reading? If you were expecting some martial information, almost certainly not. But if you were at all curious how this blog is written and why, I hope it has filled you in. And if you are the type who thinks that the internet gives you some special entitlement to:
  1. get information for free; and
  2. stop thinking for yourself; and
  3. be rude to others,
then maybe it will give you pause to consider. I certainly wished I had read something like this before I so arrogantly demanded the demonstration of that kata back in 2005. It might have given me the sense of perspective I now enjoy having written this blog for more than 4 years. (There - I've finally justified the heading to this essay!)

If, on the other hand, you see this essay as just another annoying self-indulgent rant on my part, then remember: I said I'd try to improve. I didn't say I'd get there straight away. And it's still my blog. ;)

Stream of conscousness over.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic