Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Philosophy of Sparring

I wasn't happy about donning the head guard and gloves again.  The last time I had worn them, I was partnered with someone who insisted on delivering punches at something approaching full force.  As I'm currently studying for some qualifications which will help me in my quest to find paid employment, it's important that I keep as many brain cells as possible.

To my relief, this time I was partnered with someone who used more control when connecting with the head.  To my despair, I didn't give a good account of myself in the exchange.  I could use many excuses, of course - I'm disabled; it's been at least three years since I have done any freestyle sparring; the head guard was so restrictive that I had barely any peripheral vision, so it was like fighting from inside a postbox.  The reality is that I didn't keep the pressure on my opponent, I waited for the fight to come to me and I was so focused on practising particular defences that my counters rarely hit their mark.  I don't agree with much of Bruce Lee's philosophy, but his assertion that the hands should be allowed to act in the way your training has conditioned them to act is accurate.  Don't think.  Act.  Unfortunately, when I started to react instinctively, the session was halted by the instructor, who noticed I had just thrown a finger strike which narrowly missed my opponent's eyes.

If there is anything positive about the experience, it confirmed some of my beliefs about training.  It's a shame that it took me so long to start using my own theory, though, and I have no excuse for that.  Freestyle sparring is exactly what the name implies, not a place to be rigid.  What about the head guard?  Doesn't the head guard restrict and force a fighter to use techniques under circumstances that are unfamiliar?  I'm sorry, but I can't see that as a bad thing.  Wearing a head guard, being up against a wall in an alley, having to cope with an opponent who has already grabbed you - these are all difficulties, and we must learn to act decisively when facing adversity.

There is also the question of distancing, or range.  It is in sparring that you realise how difficult Wing Chun is to counter, because it is a very close range fighting system.  Once you see an attack coming, it is already too late, especially when the emphasis is put on speed and delivering numerous blows in quick succession.  I would suggest that there are two ways to deal with this: either you study something like a long fist system of kung fu, so that you can stop a fighter closing the distance, or you learn another art which works at a similar range, like Filipino pangamut/panantukan/suntukan, to improve your close range game.

Interestingly, we went back to training without head guards or gloves in the latter part of the lesson.  My training partner, being more experienced in Wing Chun than I, insisted that he should throw attacks, so that I could practice my defences and counters.  I must give credit to the instructor, for saying that we should throw both hands out, and that they will automatically adjust to what they meet.  Without thinking, I threw out both hands to meet the straight punches, blows to the midsection and round punches that came towards me.  Taan sau, bil sau, gaan sau, bong sau, jum sau and pak sau all went out without conscious thought, combined with either a punch or a palm strike.

During this exchange, the instructor came to stand beside us and watch.  Thinking he was about to speak, I momentarily lost concentration as my training partner came at me with a right hook punch.  The left bil sau and right side palm I threw were as perfectly timed and executed as anything I have ever thrown, though they were thrown at speed because I had been momentarily distracted.  When the palm connected a little too heavily with my opponent's cheekbone, the instructor, still watching, let out an involuntary "he he he".  Fearing anger and retaliation, I quickly apologised to my partner, who waved my apology away, explaining that it was a perfect demonstration of how it should be used.  The instructor agreed, adding that he would rather his students are forced to apologise to each other in the class than to freeze or throw an attack which barely makes contact in a live situation.  At that point, I understood his involuntary glee: I am usually very careful to avoid hurting a training partner, and he had seen the first evidence that his student can effectively connect a technique under pressure.

What did I take from it?  The hook punch is undoubtedly the most common attack I have come across on the street.  The untrained street fighter will always go for a quick knock down.  The hook has the power and, aimed at the right target, is the easiest way to produce a knock out with a single punch.  Given that the bil sau/side palm counter came as an automatic, or panic, reaction to a hook punch and worked effectively under those circumstances, I will be training that combination fervently.  An alternative, possibly more effective, is to combine the bil sau with a straight palm to the underside of the chin, pushing the head of the assailant backwards.  However, it makes more sense to me that I train what comes most naturally.

To sum up, the following principles of my self defence theory were confirmed:
1. Defences (blocks, parries, evasions, footwork, etc.) should be trained to the point where they are automatic, so the focus can be on delivering an effective counter and maintaining that attack.
2. Whatever you train, it should be done in a way that is as relaxed as possible.  The effects of adrenaline will add the necessary power, but will also potentially make movements tense and slow.  Learning with as little muscular tension as possible will reduce this unfortunate side effect of adrenaline.
3. Palm strikes rock!  I have always preferred operating open handed to using a clenched fist to punch.  An open hand can more easily be changed in structure to check, or control, movement of an opponent's arm.  I am also wary of packing the bones of my hand so tightly together before subjecting them to a hard impact.

I haven't had much time to train recently.  If I get the time to train more, that will make a huge difference.  I have made the decision to add Arnis to my training regime, should I have the time to do so.  Improving my close range game is what it is all about.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Be a good listener

There are times in our lives when we come into contact with people whose company we don't enjoy.  If we are really unfortunate, these are people we see on a regular basis and are unable to avoid.

If you ever meet me in person, you may discover that small talk is not my forte.  An English teacher, during my school days, summed up this part of my character perfectly - "He doesn't say much but, when he does, you know it's something worth listening to."  I'm a lot more outgoing than I was back then, but it is still true that I find it hard to talk just for the sake of keeping a conversation going.  That quote of Mark Twain's, where he says it is better to let them think you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, rings true with me.

So, I've spent a large part of my life watching how other people communicate and noticing that some are much worse than I am at the art of conversation.  To come back to my original point about people whose company we don't enjoy, some people are naturally aggressive in conversation.  If you have ever been in conversation with someone who leans towards you when talking, leans back when you talk, fixes you with a stare, doesn't let you finish sentences, leaves no gap for you to contribute to the conversation and maybe dismisses anything you say, then you have come up against an aggressive communicator.

It worries me that the aforementioned aggressive style of conversation seems to be the method employed by a growing number of people.  Everyone is so intent on being heard that they forget the other, more important part of a conversation: listening.  Unfortunately, the aggressive style has the drawback of having the opposite effect of that which was intended.  Most people, confronted with a monologue, will reach a point where they are no longer really listening.  Yes, they nod politely, and maybe they pick up a word or sentence here and there, but you can't fail to see that they are fidgeting or their eyes have that far away look.

I come across the aggressive conversational style on a daily basis.  Actually, I was unfortunate enough to have spent my childhood being ignored, talked over and made to feel like nothing I had to say would make anyone want to listen.  I'm not going to name the culprits, but I will say that it leaves a lasting impression.  Consequently, I am rubbish at small talk at the time of writing (I may work on it), but an excellent listener.

If you don't know how to be a good listener, I will use an example.  When out for the evening, I have often seen men on dates with women.  I can usually tell if it is a first date, and I can also tell if it will be the last.  If I hear a man talking about his job, the things he likes and doesn't like, with his date as a passive listener, I'm pretty sure there will not be another date.  On the other hand, if he asks his date about herself, genuinely takes an interest in her, and the conversation changes focus between them, there may just be another date.  It is the same with any conversation.  If you are not interested in the other person, how can you expect them to be interested in you?  If, however, you ask them about themselves, you will get to know that person a bit better, and they are more likely to want to know about you.

The best conversations are those when we listen to the other person.  We may learn things about that person, their interests or knowledge they possess, that we would not hear otherwise.  If we are so impatient to get our own point across that we dominate the conversation, we are less likely to hear those things and that person may even try to avoid us in the future.

Listen.  You might learn something.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Grief and loss

Today, I visited the grave of my grandfather.  Yes, I know that today is Halloween but, honestly, that means little to me.  I was near the cemetery, so I would have felt guilty if I'd not visited his grave, at least for a short time.

I had to use another entrance and walk a longer distance than usual from the car, and it was raining hard.  On my way, I noticed there's a little garden within the grounds of the cemetery - a very calm, very beautiful place.

When I reached my grandfather's grave, I thought about how we lost him so close to Christmas, and everything I felt at the time came flooding back.  It's twenty years since my grandfather died.  Although he's gone, and all that's visible in the cemetery is a carved stone that bears his name, I felt a great deal of guilt about leaving.  I didn't visit him when he was sick, and it's something about which I've had mixed feelings ever since.  I'd always known him as a man of tremendous strength: maybe not so much physical strength as he aged, but certainly strength of character.  Seeing him weak and helpless, knowing that we would soon lose him, was not something with which I could have coped at the time.  I didn't want the memory of him suffering.

On the drive home from the cemetery, I questioned whether he would be proud of his grandson, of the way I live my life, of the man I have become.  If there is one thing I learned from him, and try to emulate myself, it is his way of making everyone feel important.  He wanted to listen to you and be in your company.  It was genuine.

When we meet with someone who's recently suffered the loss of someone they love, we find ourselves at a loss for words.  We're aware that this is something which can never be put right.  We have no answers and we can't bring back the person who's been lost.  Adding to our sense of powerlessness is the fact that grief is an experience where our differences are particularly apparent - we all grieve in our own way.  Really, nothing needs to be said, because the best thing we can do is listen.  They might want to share their memories of the departed, or they may just want to sit silently, but not alone.  Often, the mere presence of another human being is enough to bring us comfort when we are facing our darkest moments, and words are not necessary.

If you're reading this, having recently lost someone you love, there's no set way of coping with that loss.  There's also no set time for grieving.  If anyone ever tells you that you should be over the death of a loved one, when a certain amount of time has passed, they're setting a time on something that has no set time.  If people don't know what to say to you, maybe you could let them know that they don't have to say anything.  If you need to do so, however, talk about how you feel.  I can bring you no comfort, and I can't tell you that it will get better with time.  You must deal with the loss in your own way, and not how others think you should deal with your loss.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Third form doesn't go out the door

I've often heard, and seen online, that Ip Man had a habit of saying the third empty hand form of Wing Chun "doesn't go out the door".  There seem to be many interpretations of this, and a lot of people have wondered what it was that he meant, exactly.

The class involved me coming face to face with my weakness, which is never easy to do.  I had spent too much time in a right stance, with my balance over my left leg; the resulting pain was a rather unwelcome reminder of my illness, and it was hard to remain standing.  Thankfully, there was an uneven number of students in the class, so I got to take a break as the other members in the trio of which I formed a part took turns alternating between holding the pads and hitting them.

The illness affects one side of the body, but it affects both the arm and leg on that side.  My left punch, if not practised diligently, feels pathetic, and so it proved during the lesson.  My leg was about to give way under me, and my left punch was weak and inaccurate (I almost clipped my training partner's face a few times, instead of hitting the pad).  So, at least part of tonight's lesson was that I need to work on strengthening my left side further: I have made steady progress since the disorder was diagnosed by MRI scan, but I must continue to work on the affected side and not allow the deterioration to escalate.

In the latter part of the class, some of the secrets of third form were revealed, particularly the purpose of the double lap sau within the form.  When I asked about how the technique was applicable to knife defence, it prompted the instructor to show variations of follow ups to the initial double lap sau.  It was at this point that he repeated Ip Man's famous quote.

As we are soon to be officially recognised as an organisation within the Ving Tsun Athletic Association, Hong Kong, under the leadership of Ip Ching (the younger son of Ip Man), I would trust my instructor's interpretation over any I have seen online: it is likely to have been passed from Ip Man to Ip Ching, who was certainly within the top tier of Ip Man's students.

Third form doesn't go out the door, because it should not be used outside of the classroom.  It is the most misunderstood form, to the point that it is where you can spot the authenticity of a particular branch of Wing Chun through their understanding of third form - this is because Ip Man took teaching it as a serious responsibility.  The techniques within third form, especially when combined with the power development obtained through practice at that level, can kill.  The techniques in first and second form can also kill, but more likely in the "keep hitting until they don't get up again" kind of way.  What we are talking about in third form are strikes that can kill in a second.

Ip Man was aware that many of his students were hot headed kids, and that a lot of them liked to go out onto the streets of Hong Kong to test their Wing Chun against other styles of Kung Fu, like Choy Li Fut, for example.  There is a story that some of his most promising students threatened to leave his class if he did not teach third form and, Ip Man having the character he did, told them that they knew where the door was, or words to that effect.

Unfortunately, Master Ip never appointed a successor.  There is some debate over whether he actually accepted the title of Grandmaster himself, so maybe he thought the title of Grandmaster was not his to pass on.  Unfortunately, we now have many individuals claiming they are the rightful Grandmaster of Ip family Wing Chun, so they will necessarily claim that they have learned the full system from Master Ip.  I'm not going to question the validity of specific lineages, but we should question the level of maturity which Ip Man judged those students to have.

Another rumour going around is that Ip Man taught Bruce Lee (by far the most famous of his students) the third form in the last months of his life.  When Bruce left Hong Kong for America, Master Ip regarded him as a trouble causer, an impudent and quick tempered young man who was too eager to prove himself through fighting.  Would he have given Bruce, who he had not seen for some time, a greater ability to use lethal force against an opponent?  I will leave the reader to ponder that one.

It's not satisfying, maybe, but the explanation is simply that third form represents a step up in the possible consequences of using the attacks.  Ip Man had to tell those few students who had knowledge of the form that it was not to be used outside of the class, however much it had been trained within the class.  In reality, faced with an armed opponent, a student of Wing Chun must use whatever allows him or her to survive the encounter, and the use of techniques introduced in the third empty hand form may well be justified.  Ip Man's point may have been that these techniques should be reserved for situations where a student's life is endangered, and not used in challenge matches or scuffles.

You may learn the techniques, but hopefully you will never need to use them.  Third form doesn't go out the door.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

I worry for this country

In the few short steps between my car and where I live, I happened to see a man urinating against a wall - in view of CCTV cameras, and anyone driving past him.  He happened to stop urinating before I passed him and walked - sorry, swayed and staggered - in front of me.  A youth decided to shout obscenities at him from the passenger window of the car he was travelling in.

So, in a few short steps, I was reminded of things about modern Britain that I thoroughly despise.  At the moment, the only night on which I will consume alcohol is New Year's Eve; recent experiences have made me question whether I should also make that an alcohol-free evening.  There is no way to argue against it any more: Britain has a problem with alcohol.

Every time I go to the supermarket, I will see at least one person who buys nothing but alcoholic drinks, in large quantities.  Seriously, I am not trying to spoil anyone's fun, but we have to examine our relationship with alcohol.

As I write, a car is idling outside, with an exhaust which is unlikely to have been supplied as standard.  Certainly, I would expect it to fall foul of noise limits (though it wouldn't surprise me if they have it switched for a standard exhaust at testing time).  In the car are people who visit the young man next door, but they wouldn't want to park outside his place with such a noisy exhaust, even though the space is free, would they?  Actually, they have to sit there with the engine idling, because outside these flats is a bus stop.

What we have is a country where alcohol is a problem, and a lack of consideration for others (sometimes a worryingly gleeful deliberate irritation of others) is also a problem.

Sometimes I think to myself that a violent attack is something which is very rare, so why do I spend my time learning a combat art like Wing Chun?  On nights like tonight, I remember my reasons.  This country troubles me now.

October 20th, 2012 - a demonstration which will achieve nothing

I write this, as someone who barely ever watches the TV news or reads the newspapers, having just learned of the anti-austerity protest in the capital.  Do I think it will achieve anything positive?  No.

Let's be clear on one thing: the government of the UK is a right-wing, Conservative government, slightly tempered by the centrist principles of the Liberal Democrats, and they did not vote themselves into power.  Protesting against the government and their policies is frankly laughable in this context, because I seriously doubt whether a large number of those protesting actually turned out to vote at election time, and probably never will.  In fact, voter apathy is the problem here, and no amount of protest will change that.

For some years now, UK governments have been highly aware of falling attendance at polling stations, and therefore able to act in the knowledge that it is not the will of the people that gave them their power; no, it was the will of the few who did vote - largely those whose interests are served by allegiance to a particular political ideology.  The majority of those eligible to vote stay away, complaining that "my vote does not make a difference".  Well, it does.  If you, the ordinary people, do not vote, the interests of the few will be put ahead of the interests of the many.

Yes, the government implements policies that affect us all, but they implement policies which give them a chance of winning the next election, being aware only of the needs of the few who will vote.  The best thing we can all do is to actually turn out and vote, sending the clear message that they must represent a whole country, not just the privileged few.  Maybe then, the government we elect will start acting in our interests.

The protest?  It will be far too easy for the government to dismiss it as a minority of trouble causers.  The likelihood is that it could, as many similar protests have done in recent years, descend into chaos at the hands of a few with no other motive than a propensity for violence, vandalism and disorder.  Ultimately, it will achieve little or nothing and will probably work against the cause it claims to support.  For the record, I hope I am wrong.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

My week (and a political rant)

To be honest, I should really be studying.  The Cisco IT Essentials course that I am taking has an exam for every chapter, so I will be taking another exam on Wednesday.  It would certainly be nice to repeat the 97.6 percent score I achieved on the last one (I dropped just one question: damn you, Firewire!)

After the Cisco IT Essentials is complete, I will be studying Microsoft Networking Fundamentals, which will enable me to call myself a Microsoft Technology Associate.  Obviously, as an advocate for open source and free software, Linux in particular, taking a Microsoft qualification doesn't sit well with me.  However, I must be realistic about the current state of the computer industry and accept that we live in a Microsoft world.  Somewhere within all of this, I will be taking the vendor-neutral CompTIA A+ exams, which are an essential, internationally-recognised, entry-level IT qualification.

I'm also learning to speak Welsh right now.  The likelihood is that I will have to relocate to England at some point, though I have not given up hope on remaining in North Wales.  If I take an admin or receptionist job to fund my studies, the ability to communicate in Welsh is a major advantage, if not a basic requirement.  Certainly, I have noticed that the more well paid positions demand the ability to communicate in Welsh.  Money has never been the motivating factor in the work that I do, but the recent changes to UK immigration policy have made it necessary for me to seek jobs with high salaries.  In order to bring my fiancée to the UK from the Philippines, I must earn at least £18,600 before tax: this is largely because we have a Conservative government, but I will come back to that.

So, if we add in the fact that I will continue to study Wing Chun (a southern Chinese style of kung fu, for those who don't know), because I value my ability to defend myself from attack, factor in my voluntary work at Samaritans and with Victim Support, my week is very quickly becoming full.  It would be nice to have time to visit friends, but it is not easy.  On the plus side, where my social life is suffering, I am building a growing body of evidence regarding my work-based skills: the trick is in conveying my many assets to a potential employer in a way that makes him or her want to employ me.

What has got me writing about politics is a piece by BBC News (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19860672).  I try not to give my own political opinions here, but I feel myself becoming more politically active internally.  I think it's ever since I studied social sciences, which gave me a deeper understanding of politics than I would have otherwise.  Through my voluntary work, I have also come face to face with many of society's ills, maybe not personally, though certainly I have an awareness of the problems facing many people.

If you don't want to read a political rant, you might want to skip the rest of this article.  If you are going to read further, I must lay my cards on the table and tell you that, politically, I am a centrist.  Actually, I may stray a little to the left of centre with my opposition to the death penalty and other core beliefs, but I am, broadly speaking, in the political centre.

I will give a brief explanation of the difference between left-wing, right-wing and centrist policy, while trying to remain neutral.  Certainly, I believe that, if the majority of the UK's population understood these differences, things would be different.

Left-wing politics and political parties aim for a much more egalitarian, or equal, society; those on the right will often accuse the left of being communists, and they are correct in that communism is an extreme version of a left-wing political system, but it is unfair to label the more moderate left-wing parties in such a way.  Policies of the left will usually include measures to improve the living standards of those on lower incomes, and this can involve making life harder for the more affluent members of society.  In the UK, the major left-wing party is Labour, who have a lot of support from trade unions.  Traditionally, Labour could count on support from parts of the UK where household income was relatively poor.

Right-wing politics and political parties are largely focused on maintaining a hierarchical society, with the super rich at the top, the very poor at the bottom, and many layers in between; they will usually explain this as protecting the traditional values of their country, and will often take a tough stance against immigration.  Under a right-wing government, assistance for the poorer members of the population may be cut, while those at the top of the income scale could be subject to low rates of tax, supposedly to encourage entrepreneurs and industry.  In the UK, the major right-wing party is the Conservative party, who have a lot of support from big business, and traditionally could count on support from parts of the country where household income is proportionately high.

Centrist policy, as the name would suggest, comes somewhere between left-wing and right-wing.  There is a belief that societal hierarchy is necessary to a degree, that hard work should be rewarded, but also that a large degree of inequality is undesirable.  Under a centrist government, there is likely to be assistance for poorer members of the population, though there will be less of a tendency to penalise those who have higher incomes.  The emphasis will usually be on creating an environment where everyone, regardless of social class, is able to improve their lot in life.  In the UK, the centre is represented by the Liberal Democrats, whose support comes from a mixture of different sources, though they do not have the same level of support as either of the main left-wing or right-wing parties.

The situation we have in the UK, right now, is a coalition government in power.  The nature of a coalition government is compromise, because two political parties in government, with different aims, will naturally want to pull the country in different directions.  The UK is being governed by a right-wing (Conservative) and a centre (Liberal Democrat) government: the parties running the country differ in their core beliefs.  The story I saw this morning is the latest example of one party in government blocking the policies of the other.

It all started with Lords reform.  It has been a long-standing aim of the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Party before them, to reform the House of Lords.  If you are unaware of the function of the Lords, they are there to either approve, modify or block (in reality, delay) bills proposed by the government and passed in the House of Commons.  The Liberal Democrats argue that the current system is open to abuse and influence from those with vested interests, so a large proportion of the Lords should be elected by the public, just as members of parliament are elected by the public.  The Conservatives, being a right-wing party (and therefore in favour of social hierarchy, of which the House of Lords is a prime example) voted against the policy.

In turn, the Liberal Democrats blocked a Conservative policy which would have seen changes to the boundaries of electoral constituencies - changes which would have benefited Conservative Party candidates standing for election.  The link I posted within this piece shows the Conservative Party blocking the Liberal Democrat "mansion tax".  We seem to have reached a point where each party is now blocking the policies of the other, where before they would have compromised.  It is a condition of stalemate, where no contentious policy will come into law, and I think it's a good thing.

I have no doubt that a large number of those who voted Conservative in the last election were guided by the media's campaign against illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.  To be fair, the outgoing Prime Minister did seem incompetent and, through an incident which was damaging to our status as a democracy, we had a Prime Minister no one had actually elected, but we can not escape the fact that people voted for a right-wing government.  Now that I think about it, though, is that what people actually voted for?

If you look at the recent history of Great Britain, you will see a swing from left-wing Labour governments to right-wing Conservative governments.  Unfortunately, it means successive administrations which are fundamentally opposed in their policies and seems to show a population which is increasingly polarised to each extreme in its political beliefs.  Actually, the problem is voter apathy: less people are taking the time to vote, because there is a widespread view that politicians are generally untrustworthy (true) and that the system is somehow broken (again, I can't argue).

In the last election, even with an incompetent Prime Minister, neither of the two largest parties secured enough seats in parliament to form an effective government, so both parties made attempts to form a government with the third largest party - the Liberal Democrats.  The media expected that the Liberal Democrats, being further away from right-wing Conservative policy than the now centre-left position of Labour, would form a government with Gordon Brown; to their credit, the Liberal Democrats reasoned that the Conservatives had secured a greater proportion of the public vote, so they bowed to the will of the people.  In hindsight, it is questionable whether this was in the best interests of the country, though it shows an understanding of, and a commitment to, the principles of democracy.  It would have been strange for a party called the Liberal Democrats to act any other way, right?

Many supporters of the party are now saying that they should leave government, because they are losing support through their association with the Conservatives.  While it is true that the nature of coalition government has seen the party having to compromise, and seemingly break promises made during the election campaign, my belief is that they should not abandon this country by stepping down.  From a personal point of view, my heart sank when the immigration criteria were changed, as did the hearts of many with loved ones who are not currently British citizens.  The only comforting thing is that the Liberal Democrats forced a compromise on immigration policy, which the Conservatives were planning to make even tougher.  How many times has something like this happened?  I guess we'll never know, but I am certain of one thing: I am glad that they are there.

If you take nothing else from this, realise that I am not trying to shape your political allegiance.  You must, however, decide whether you are left-wing, right-wing or centrist.  I apologise if any of my descriptions are biased, but I did tell you that I am a centrist, and therefore Liberal Democrat in a UK context.  What I don't want is for the UK to continue swinging from one extreme to the other: that is known as political instability, and is bad for a country.  Maybe the close result of the last election reflects a generally centrist population who believe there are only two ways to vote?  I know which way I will be voting from this moment forward, and I would like to think that, whatever your beliefs, you have the courage to stand for what you believe in and form a lifelong allegiance to your chosen party.  Let's stop voting for electoral promises, which are usually broken, and vote instead for a long-term vision of how we would like things to be.  While we are at it, could we stop this idiotic trend towards Prime Ministers getting younger?

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Immigration levels and xenophobia

I've wanted to write a piece about immigration for the longest time, and it has been much delayed.  Immigration, you see, is a sensitive subject.  As a citizen of the UK, with a Filipino fiancée, it could also be said that my views are hardly without bias.  In truth, my thoughts about racism, religious intolerance and other forms of bigotry were set a long time ago, and my attitude towards newspaper and online articles seen recently is just an extension of that.  I will tell you about my own experience, and then why it is impossible for me to separate that experience from worrying trends I see developing in the UK.  This may be a long piece, so please bear with me.

With apologies to the remaining decent folk in Northern Ireland, I must say that my time there taught me more about bigotry and intolerance than I would otherwise have learned in a lifetime.  I have no realistic way of ascertaining the prevalence of xenophobia and religious intolerance in Northern Ireland - living in a town on the border with the Republic of Ireland undoubtedly gave me a distorted view, but I believe those attitudes will be a part of life there for a long time.  There are religious, political and societal influences in Ireland as a whole which serve to fuel the hatred and keep it burning.  I lived there for twelve years.

The first thing to understand about the problem in Ireland is the nature of the paramilitary organisations, whether they identify themselves as republican or loyalist.  I have no idea about what preceded my time in County Fermanagh but, during my time there, I saw that paramilitary groups, in the main, are little more than criminal gangs.  Unfortunately, they have the power to identify themselves with a tradition, with their community, and find themselves protected by a "you don't inform on your own kind" mentality.  I lived within a predominantly Roman Catholic, nationalist, republican community, and found that the attitude was one of not having contact with the police, for any reason.  The belief was that having contact with the police - seen as agents of the British government by many - was to be seen as a traitor to the republican cause, and was dangerous.  Over the years, many people in Northern Ireland have been threatened, beaten or killed for having contact with the police.  You don't need to be a genius to work out the implications for the nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.  For a long time, those areas have been practically lawless.  It's a perfect environment for anyone wanting to take part in criminal activity.

In the interests of balance, the same happens on the other side of the fence.  Loyalist criminal gangs are also a problem.  Actually, there have been accusations (look up the evidence yourself) of links between loyalist paramilitaries, the police and other government institutions.  As a former psychology student, I understand the mechanisms at work perfectly.  The idea of a common enemy prompts stronger community adhesion, a sense of camaraderie with everyone in your community, even to the point of protecting criminals from the law, and suspicion of those outside your community.  From the loyalist point of view, they are a minority, so the threat from republicans is even greater.

I don't know how it was before my time there, or in the time since.  I can only pass on what I observed during my time there.  What effect did it have on me?  First of all, I was clearly asked to interviews for jobs because I had a "good catholic name".  The look of horror on the interviewer's face when they heard an English accent was quite amusing, when I think of it now, but was also a sure sign that I was not going to get the job.  With a few notable exceptions, my "good catholic name" meant that I would not be interviewed for jobs in protestant communities, or businesses owned by protestants.  I eventually managed to find work, but only temporary contracts were offered.  In my daily life, having an English accent in a nationalist community meant that I was a target for hate filled looks initially, verbal abuse and vandalism to my property later on, and eventually threats of violence and death.  If I dared to comment on my situation, I was told to "pass no comment" (that's a not too polite way of being told to shut up by the locals).

I fought back.  The verbal abuse forced me to defend my heritage within my own mind, giving me a sense of pride in my nationality that had been much weaker previously.  The threat of violence renewed my faded interest in martial arts, though I'm going to remain silent on whether I needed to use those combat skills in that environment.  I became more vocal, to the visible discomfort of the local community, about the inherent problems of Ireland as a whole, and Northern Ireland in particular.  However, it was all for nothing.  I am only one man, and the community closed ranks on me.  By this time, all my reasons for staying in Northern Ireland had vanished into the ether, and I eventually moved back to be with my family in North Wales, suffering from severe clinical depression and carrying an unfortunate hatred of all things Irish.  The intolerance I faced created a prejudice within me - one that, in all honesty, I am still struggling to remove from my psyche.  My father is Irish, and my mother also has Irish ancestry, so bad feeling towards the people of Ireland is clearly not a good thing for me.

More recently, I have seen a change in the attitudes of many people in Britain.  A day does not pass without one of the tabloid newspapers, TV news, radio or one of the many internet news sites talking about immigration in negative terms.  From a personal point of view, seeing the Conservative Party become the main party in government filled me with a justifiable sense of dread.  Over the years, I have heard of many Conservative voters defecting to UKIP or, worse, the BNP - it is quite clear that the Conservatives attract those with extreme reactions to immigration, and possibly foreigners in general.  Worryingly, the choice of the Conservatives as the preferred party of government seems to reflect a wider problem of growing intolerance.  It could be that my relationship with a Filipino woman makes me sensitive to xenophobia, but I have seen views expressed openly on social networking sites and other internet forums which make me feel sick.

Immigration has become a hot political topic in the UK, and the two main political parties seem to be interested in maintaining that focus.  After all, if immigration is seen to be something we are all fighting, politicians and public alike, we are all on the same side, right?  For me, it is frighteningly similar to the way the political parties at each extreme in Northern Ireland manipulated their supporters using the threat of a common enemy.  You want to go further back in history?  How about the Nazi party of Germany pointing the finger at the Jewish community for all of Germany's problems?  If you think these are unnecessarily extreme examples, then I would tell you that you know nothing of human nature, and you have no idea of how destructive hatred can be when left unchecked.  The British government is faced with a housing crisis, a stalled economy and mass unemployment.  Of course, a multitude of policy errors over the years can't be to blame, can they?  It must all be the fault of the immigrants.  The media are all too happy to stir things up too, for reasons I can't quite understand.

We're overcrowded already, they say.  Nonsense!  What you mean is that our cities are overcrowded, because rural communities are losing the younger generation, due to a lack of employment opportunities.  Why the lack of employment opportunities?  Well, it might be something to do with the rise in VAT, which made consumers question every purchase, and buried a lot of small local businesses.  If ministers were to wander outside the big cities, they would find, in towns like Colwyn Bay, streets that are eerily empty every evening.  Part of that is due to a falling population in rural areas, and part of it is due to the rising cost of living, meaning that people must entertain themselves in their own homes.  Our cities, and cities all over the world, have a long history of being overpopulated.  It is nothing new.

Oh, let's not forget that immigrants are responsible for the housing shortage, though.  Actually, that might have been brought on by the banks giving too much credit to people who could not pay them back, the inevitable happening and the construction industry taking a massive knock as a result.  Again, the politicians are keen to point out that it is not their fault, but the fault of immigrants.  If you look around where you live, assuming you are in Britain, you will see properties lying empty or even newly built homes that remain unfinished.

Since the beginning of time, it seems, immigrants have been blamed for taking jobs from the indigenous population.  Well, our government brings large numbers of nurses from India and the Philippines every year, because it is a largely thankless job, with long hours and the constant threat of assault by one of the many violent drunks brought in over the weekend or, increasingly, any day of the week.  If you want to blame something for the state of our country, our alcohol consumption is a prime suspect, but politicians are not likely to blame one of their largest sources of tax revenue, are they?  Nursing is just one example of how a foreign workforce is employed to do the jobs the majority of the indigenous population won't.

A large number of immigrants can still enter the UK freely, under the terms of our membership of the European Union.  Our government knows this, so it unfairly punishes potential immigrants from outside the EU, particularly those coming here to join a husband, wife or family.  Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and there are sham marriages, but the new immigration rules do not really make either of those things more difficult.  No, they contravene the European Bill of Human Rights - specifically the right to family life - by making it impossible for almost half of those aiming to bring loved ones to the UK.  Maybe the government does not want to stop illegal immigrants or sham marriages, because the public may start to suspect our country's ills were a product of government policy after all, if there are no illegal immigrants or asylum seekers to blame.  Instead, a large number of British citizens, myself included, must now earn at least £18,600 per year, to prove we can support the one we love on their arrival in the UK.  The only positive in the new rules is that the Conservatives wanted to set the bar even higher, at around £25,000, but were forced to compromise with their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

Some people are blatantly against Muslims in particular.  Their problem should be with extremist or fundamentalist Muslims, not Islam in general.  The UK government, under Tony Blair, was advised on Islamic issues by The Muslim Council of Great Britain: moderate Muslims complained that this is an organisation of extremists and a large number of young Muslims are turning to the more extreme views of Islam, in order to make themselves heard.  Well, I will bring you back to my experience in Northern Ireland.  The hatred and bigotry I experienced created the same feelings within me, towards those I felt were oppressing me.  Intolerance breeds intolerance.  Before anyone says I am an apologist for those committing atrocities, I must be clear that I am not saying those feelings are right, or condoning violent action against any organisation or group - these things are wrong.  Religious intolerance?  Does that not remind anyone of the history of Northern Ireland?

The latest cause for panic is that our population might hit 70 million.  Again, we are not overcrowded.  Moreover, if you consider the great economic powers of the world, those are countries with relatively large populations.  A large population, it stands to reason, is a large potential economy.  Are multinationals likely to invest in a country with a relatively small workforce and customer base?  No.  So what you are left with is the fear of losing our traditions, our culture and our identity, of us becoming less "pure" racially.  Give me a break!  If you consider yourself to be "pure" English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, you are kidding yourself.  Your family may have been resident in one of the nations of the UK for generations, but it is impossible that no one in your family tree had DNA which could be traced to another nation.  It is the same in every country on this planet.  If you know an expert in genetics or anthropology, ask them for an accepted scientific definition of race, and watch them shrug their shoulders.

If you have read this and still believe immigration is a bad thing for the UK, regardless of the circumstances, I applaud you for getting through this with such little intelligence.  To those of you who have read this with an open mind, thank you.

UPDATE: According to a good friend, I may have misunderstood the issues surrounding the employment of nurses from overseas within the NHS.  My opinions are those of someone viewing developments in the nursing profession as an outsider, so I apologise for any error.  What I can say, without doubt, is that nurses within the NHS work long hours and are often on the receiving end of abuse that is wholly unwarranted.  They provide an essential service.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Thoughts on the nature of art

A friend of mine has prompted me to think about the nature of art.  Interestingly, he is a street artist, or what certain sections of the media would call a graffiti artist.  There's a profile of him on YouTube, and the author deserves kudos for a great, if short, piece of documentary film making.

I've seen many criticise my friend, quite wrongly, for being no better than a vandal.  The fact that he never paints anything without permission has either not got through to them, or is not the issue for them.  It could be that they don't like what he does, or are actively offended by it.

You have probably heard of Claude Oscar Monet.  He was one of the founding fathers of an art movement called impressionism.  To Monet, and the other impressionists, the fine details of an image were not important: their focus was on using light, shade and colour to leave an impression of what was being depicted.  Prints of Monet's paintings, particularly his series of paintings of water lilies, have graced many walls in recent years, and continue to sell and be produced in large numbers.  In the early years of impressionism, however, the art establishment considered his work worthless.

When Damien Hirst pickled a shark in a large fish tank, I found it repulsive.  I still find it repulsive.  That's the nature of art: not everyone will like it.  If it doesn't provoke a reaction, either positive or negative, can it really be called art?  My own preference is for monochrome line art, or maybe duotone comic art; actually, I love duotone.  If I could find some duotone art to hang on my walls, I would be a very happy man.

The above image can be found at http://valiantonov.deviantart.com/art/white-queen-Duotone-289579745 and, once again, kudos to the artist.  The subject matter is not to my taste, but it gives you some idea of what I consider to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement.  You will disagree with me, maybe, and that is the whole point.  Art is subjective - I like duotone art, whereas you may like full colour paintings, and you may argue that watercolours are superior to oils, and others may take the contrary view, or say they prefer sculpture as an art form.

I know that I went off on a tangent there, but I did not stray from the point I am trying to make.  My friend may use spray cans and concrete (and other surfaces), rather than oils and canvas, and that means some can not accept it as art.  It challenges them, just as every art movement in history has challenged critics.

Do I consider graffiti to be art?  I could be accused of bias here, so I will define what art means to me.  Wherever you are when you experience a piece of art, it takes you somewhere else.  It may be a piece of poetry or a book you read; it may be a piece of music; you may find it in a painting or sculpture.  The very best art takes you to a place, within your imagination, that is outside of your everyday experience.  Would I spend my time looking at a bare concrete wall?  No.  What about the random acts of vandalism committed through the medium of the spray can?  No, they are very much an unwelcome part of the environment I live in.

If you consider a bare concrete wall to be attractive, I won't argue with you, because it is your right to have a preference, but maybe you should seek some form of therapy.  If you don't like street art, that is also your right, but no one asked you to hang it in your home.  Some of us see a blank space filled with something that brings a smile to our face, or makes us feel admiration for the work that has gone into the piece.  To each their own, I guess, but there is a long history of controversy generating fame, so maybe my friend should not be offended by those who don't agree with what he does, but should welcome the fact that his work is being discussed.  His work pushes the boundaries and challenges the popular conception of art: that it should hang in a gallery for the privileged few to view.

Now, please excuse me while I search for a supplier of framed duotone comic art...

Update: An article on the ship which my friend, Andy "Dime One" Birch was involved in painting -  http://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/115872/mystery-of-llanerch-y-mor-funship-graffiti-solved.aspx

Thursday, 30 August 2012


I hesitated writing this, because the subject of Linux distributions is a sensitive one.  When writing about Ubuntu, the fact that this is a system beloved by a large number of people is on my mind.  Let us not forget that Ubuntu is also the first experience of Linux for many, some of whom will move on to other Linux distributions, some of whom will stick with Ubuntu.  For many, and certainly in sections of the media, Ubuntu is not a Linux distribution: for them, Ubuntu is Linux and Linux is Ubuntu.

I should set out my stall by detailing my own experience with Ubuntu.  After starting out with Mandrake (before it became Mandriva), moving through SuSE, Fedora and CentOS, I came to Ubuntu.  I didn't want to like it.  It had become, by that time, so popular that large sections of the Linux community had come to despise it.  However, it stayed on my hard drive for a long time.  I liked having a system that practically looked after itself, and was configured for usability upon installation.

Then, it all started to go wrong.  Like many, I resented Canonical's insistence on changing the location of the minimise, maximise and close buttons to the left of the window title bar.  I quickly discovered how to change back to the traditional way of doing things (I changed GNOME theme), but it worried me that the default would be so unfamiliar to new users, who may never have explored Linux again.  Ubuntu 11.04, given the codename Natty Narwhal, is where Ubuntu and my hard drive parted company.  I moved to Linux Mint, through Linux Mint Debian Edition (still, in my view, rather excellent) and finally, on to Debian.

The change of button location was forgiveable.  To varying degrees, Linux distributors create custom themes for their distributions, and Ubuntu is no different.  If you don't like it, you can always change it.  Mark Shuttleworth's comments about users just having to put up with it, because Ubuntu is not a democracy, however, set many free software advocates against him.  For me, and many others, the last straw was Unity.  It is still the default in version 12.04.

Linux is all about choice.  In all fairness, I can choose to use something other than Ubuntu, and that is exactly what I did.  I resented Canonical imposing their vision of how I should interact with my computer: that is something for which the Linux community have criticised Apple and Microsoft.  To be honest, it didn't help that Ubuntu 11.04 was released with what seemed like a multitude of bugs, and I assumed that Unity had been released half-finished, to be patched later (another Linux community criticism of Microsoft).

The instability of 11.04 is what led me to explore distributions based on more stable implementations of Debian.  For those of you who don't know, Debian forms the basis of Ubuntu and many other Linux distributions, though Ubuntu seems to be moving further away from the distribution it is based on.

Anyway, I was looking at jobs within the computer industry recently, and I saw that a local company was looking for a server administrator.  To my surprise, the advertisement mentioned that the server is running on Ubuntu.  It seems like a strange choice to me.  I know there is a specific server version of Ubuntu, but I still found it strange.  I question the wisdom of running a company server on an operating system that is so popular (and therefore a known quantity and viable target for hackers) and is not, to my mind, as stable or secure as some other Linux distributions.  In short, it would not have been my choice for a company server.  Still, it prompted me to take another look at Ubuntu.  It's lucky that I have some CD-RW discs or, with my propensity for testing Linux distributions, I would have used up my stock of CD-R long ago.

On a positive note, the Ubuntu Software Centre will be relatively easy to use for new users.

There was a time when the concept of software repositories caused problems for new Linux users: the Microsoft Windows method of downloading installers from a website or physical medium was the accepted norm.  Now, the arrival of Android devices with Google Play/Market, and the apps store of Apple devices, have made the concept of the software repository familiar.

If there was a problem, it was with Skype.  As a Debian user, I am probably on shaky ground here.  Debian don't support Skype, even in their non-free repository, so it is necessary to download a package from the Skype website and install it manually.  Ubuntu does support Skype, indirectly, so upgrades to the software will be installed automatically.  In the Ubuntu Software Centre, I browsed the internet section, and looked at chat clients - no Skype.  Searching for Skype gave the message that the package was not available in the current section.  I can imagine a new user giving up here.  What I had to do was go back to "All Software" and search from there.

Bingo!  I clicked through to Skype and Ubuntu Software Centre informed me that a repository with software from Canonical partners (Skype are one of these) would be added.  After agreeing to this, I was given the option to install Skype.

To be honest, I didn't explore much more.  I tried to correct the annoying placement of the window controls, but I could find no way of doing this in the default install.  I know at least one friend who is an Ubuntu fan, so it seems this is not an issue for some people.  Maybe the ease with which everything else works is more of a factor for those who don't wish to explore beneath the surface.

I'm glad that Ubuntu exists.  For many, it has brought the benefits of open source without the steep learning curve (despite the odd decision regarding window controls).  One of the main benefits of open source is the ability to choose Ubuntu or an alternative.  As I use GNOME 3 on my Debian Wheezy install, I can give you my opinion on the ongoing GNOME Shell vs Unity debate.  There is no clear winner.  The window controls, specific to Ubuntu as far as I know, are a little disconcerting.  However, both interfaces have their good points as well as their fair share of annoyances, which will hopefully be ironed out in time.  For me, the known stability of Debian (even in testing form) is the deciding factor, but I also prefer GNOME for its wider community acceptance: it is something of a standard across many distributions.  Ideally, I would use something like XFCE or even LXDE, as they are closer to the classic desktop paradigm, but I must accept that the way we interact with technology is changing.  If I decide to pursue a career in Linux system administration, familiarity with standard ways of doing things would be a definite advantage.

So, Ubuntu is no longer my distribution of choice.  I favour stability over having the latest software, as I assumed most businesses would.  I can't condemn Ubuntu, however.  It is probably still the best distribution for beginners.  Linux Mint arguably has a better "out of box" experience, but it seems that a complete reinstall is the recommended upgrade method for each new release, so Ubuntu is probably still the ultimate beginner's choice.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Fighting Against Nature

Last night, I played a CD which is part of a home study course in counselling.

Listening to the CD, I heard the presenter talk about why potential counsellors should enter a course of therapy themselves: something which has always intrigued me.  The main reason, as I suspected, is that a potential counsellor should understand themselves and their own issues before they are able to empathise with, and support, their clients.  A point which came across very clearly was that most of us are at least a little unhappy with our lives, because we have gone against what we want for ourselves, in an effort to please others.

Recently, I have accepted that a career in counselling will not happen for me in the near future.  For practical reasons which I won't go into here, I must build the existing skills I have gained through working with computers.  By aiming for a career in counselling, I was, perhaps, fighting against my own nature.

As a child, I was something of a maths prodigy.  To be honest, my basic arithmetic was, and still is, no better than the arithmetic capability of anyone else.  For some reason, however, I was more at ease with abstract concepts such as algebra than my classmates.  I can't remember if I discovered my talent for advanced maths or computer programming first, but I will tell you that the thought processes involved are so similar that they could be said to be the same.  Binary notation was almost second nature to me.

My first personal experience of a computer was when a friend of a friend bought a Commodore VIC-20 (yes, I'm showing my age here - it was the early 1980s).  I can't overstate the importance of that event.  This machine before me was not a television - though it needed a TV as a display device - or a washing machine; it was not a video recorder (remember them?) or a microwave oven.  No, this machine could be programmed and expanded to be whatever you wanted it to be, or that's how I interpreted it as a child.  When I later discovered that the computers of the early 1980s were inherently limited, you would expect it to have discouraged me.  On the contrary, I was now hooked.  Overcoming and working within the limitations of the machine through the abstract processes of computer programming became a childhood obsession - one which probably did nothing to correct my inherent shyness and fear of social interaction, unless you count the computer club I attended weekly as social interaction.

One of the defining characteristics of childhood, and one which is lost in the journey to adulthood, is that we just go along with who we are, and we don't resist it.  Ask someone close to you what they wanted to be as a child, and you may catch a glimpse of a dream which has since been extinguished by having to conform with the expectations of parents, peers or society at large.  You might suspect that there is a side to this person you knew nothing about, and that assumption is probably more correct than you know.  There are various clichés about being all things to all people and wearing various masks in different situations, but they have become clichés because they are a true reflection of how we are in reality.

When I was studying Social Sciences, I came across a very powerful concept, social construction.  One of the longest running arguments in philosophy is the nature versus nurture debate.  If you are not familiar with the debate, it concerns whether a child is essentially a "blank slate" at birth, ready to be shaped by the experience of life, or whether that child's potential and personality are already deeply ingrained.  Most social scientists now hold the view that the truth is somewhere between the two extremes: from birth, we have a distinct character, but this is later modified to varying degrees by our environment and experience.  Anything which is determined by our culture, environment, relationships or social constraints is said to be "socially constructed".

There is a point in our early lives where our dependence on our parents and our attachment to the family home are gradually reduced.  We have to deal with the outside world and, according to our character, it is either exciting, an adventure or frightening.  It is also the point where we start to make adjustments to "fit in" with those around us.  As a shy, socially awkward child, I found it difficult.  Naturally, my apparent unease made me an obvious target for bullying from an early age.  From the start, however, I never saw anything wrong in fighting back, or actively striking pre-emptively, because I judged that an attack was imminent and wanted to prevent it.  I never became a bully myself, but I certainly didn't stand for being bullied.  The most important point, however, is that I was assessing the level of threat posed by anyone I was meeting for the first time.  I had started to analyse people.

You can probably see how I developed a talent for counselling.  My shy, quiet nature made me a naturally good listener and, as a matter of necessity, I developed the ability to "read" people very quickly.  Much to my surprise, I found a lack of ease and confidence in people who had at one time appeared strong and confident to me; most importantly, I discovered that I was certainly not alone in what I was feeling, and that others were just hiding their discomfort with varying degrees of success.  Some people, I learned, had even become experts at hiding their anxiety from themselves - something which, I discovered later, always backfires eventually.

Within time, I became interested in what made people the way they were and getting them to be better, rather than working out how to get the best out of a computer.  I even started to study for a degree in psychology, though a series of personal setbacks postponed that achievement.  As luck would have it, my circumstances now dictate that I should return to working with computers, and I am more comfortable with that than I believed I would be.  I have skills as a counsellor, and I continue to use them in voluntary work I am currently doing, but that ability is clearly a social construction, rather than innate.  I can not say, and probably never will be able to say, that it is a role in which I feel completely comfortable.

For the record, my earliest recollections are of wanting to be an astronaut or a palaeontologist.  At the time, space and dinosaurs were things I could not place into context within my life, and it was their mystery and status as things which were unattainable (dinosaurs no longer exist, and space is unreachable by most of us) which made them attractive.  They were, to me, abstract concepts.  The part of my nature which led me through algebra, to computer programming, to Information and Communications Technology in general, has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  I am what society unkindly labels as a nerd, a geek, a boffin.  I fought against it, partly because of that label and also because I am living in a society which finds non-conformity threatening, but continuing to fight against our own nature only brings us unhappiness in the long term.

I know this has been a very personal post, but I hope it has inspired you.  If you want a snappy sound bite to sum up, I'll oblige.  Sometimes we wear a mask because we fear being recognised for who we truly are, and that others will not like what is beneath the mask; the danger is that we ourselves forget we are wearing one.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Paths Up The Same Mountain

There are countless discussions on various internet forums about which martial art is the best for defence against armed or unarmed attack.  I often read these exchanges, not to discover which art is considered best for the situation being envisaged, but to keep a watchful eye on an attitude that I find rather worrying.

I have often been tempted to join these discussions, and reiterate an old saying: the martial arts are all paths up the same mountain.  The problem with that particular idiom being used in the context of the discussion is that it is missing the point.  At the top of that mountain, you have reached the pinnacle of martial arts training, and the ability to fight is only one aspect of that.

I have known people who've trained in martial arts for decades, and their level of technical excellence is clear to see; some of them have clearly reached the peak of understanding.  Unfortunately, I have seen others who will never reach that level regardless of how long they train, or their technique is exemplary and yet they come across as a macho psychopath who only wants to fight.  The difference is that they have not been exposed to, or have taken little interest in, the philosophical aspects of their training.  To be honest, that is not always the fault of the practitioner: it may be that they were trained under the wrong teacher.

On the flip side, there are people whose fighting ability is not the best, and maybe their time in martial arts is limited compared to others, but they have the right attitude, or spirit, if you like.  So, why do some people reach the top of their game and only learn physical techniques?  Why do we have instructors of many years' experience who only see martial arts as a commodity or a way to develop fighting ability?  Remember that martial arts are paths up the same mountain, but each of those paths will be different.  The journey to the top has equal importance to the destination itself.  If you do not take note of what you see on your way to the peak, or you forget what you have seen, the view from the top loses some of its meaning.  Some will never understand the things they have seen on their journey, because they don't realise that the journey was the important part: without that experience, the view from the top loses much of its meaning.

There are instructors who neglect to teach the moral code or philosophy of their art; this is akin to leading their students up the mountain wearing a blindfold.  Worse still, there are a growing number of modern arts which have completely discarded the moral philosophy of the ancient arts.  I must give credit here to Krav Maga, in the form I have had contact with, for daring to have a moral code and philosophy in times when such things have become unfashionable.

I think that MMA/UFC/Cage Fighting is something other than martial arts.  If we take the analogy of the martial arts being paths up the same mountain, and there being something special at the top, I would regard MMA as the process of building a new mountain and stealing some of the foliage from the original.  Will you see the same thing when you reach the peak?  I'll leave that for the MMA fighters to debate. What I know is that, since the UFC and similar contests have been televised, the attitude towards violence, particularly amongst the younger generation, is particularly disturbing.

As evidence, I offer exhibit 1...

I'm pretty sure the video shows a situation that was set up for the sake of entertainment.  At the very least, the guy presenting the video has some part in creating this unfortunate spectacle.  When I consider that this "entertainment" is being watched by large numbers of young men, I worry for the future.  I also question the nature of the contest itself, which consists of two fighters brawling and beating each other to a pulp as a bloodthirsty crowd cheers them on.

I would be foolish to say that MMA, or any branch of combat arts, is technically inferior to another art: I am not qualified to do so.  What I will say is that it has lost something important.  Those involved may have studied classical arts, though I'm pretty sure they did not reach the top of their mountain, to return to the metaphor.  Maybe some never will.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Is Linus Torvalds a danger to free software?

I saw an article today about Linus Torvalds' opinion of GNOME 3.4, given upon upgrading his computer to the latest version of Fedora.  I've seen many people saying negative things about GNOME 3, and he's entitled to his opinion, but I would say that he should consider the possible effects of his opinion.

There are many precedents for this.  The lead developer, or maintainer, of the KDE DVD copying program, K9Copy, abandoned the project with a message which was very damaging.  He was abandoning the project, his message said, because he no longer had faith in Linux and Open Source.  Again, he is entitled to his opinion, but should have thought about how his comments could affect the faith of others in Linux and Open Source.

To be honest, Linus' comments are not a shock to me.  I remember that, shortly after the launch of GNOME 2, he made similar comments about problems he perceived with the desktop environment.  Actually, he attacked the user friendliness of GNOME, saying that the developers were treating users like idiots.  It's a provocative statement, given more weight by his position as the original author of the Linux kernel and the respect this has bestowed upon him from the wider open source community.  He followed his attack on GNOME with the revelation that he was switching to KDE: GNOME's rival for user interface presence.  It carried a heavy whiff of bias, and a possible hidden agenda to shape the future of the desktop experience on Linux.

Now, we are faced with another attack on GNOME.  I would question the wisdom of attacking the user interface that is used as a default in so many Linux distributions.  Bear in mind that GNOME 3 is something of a departure from the GNOME 2, and is also fairly new; as open source software, it will improve with the passage of time, as did GNOME 2, not to mention the previously heavily criticised KDE 4.  The problem is that Linus attacks subjects like this with heavily charged, emotive statements.  If they are attempts to drive users away from what is now something of a standard (to Debian and Fedora users, at any rate), then he should remember that telling users how they must interact with their computer and their data is a criticism levelled at the likes of Apple and Microsoft; free and open source software is all about choice.  If it is meant with the intention of provoking the GNOME developers, so that they improve their game, then it is also misguided.

The nature of open source means that software goes through a process of gradual improvement.  If you want to criticise GNOME 3, it should be for changing so suddenly, requiring users to adjust suddenly to a new desktop layout which was incomplete - criticisms which could also be aimed at the launch of KDE 4.  My own take on this is that such massive and rapid changes to the user interface ignore the requirements of users, and that is the same problem I have with the change from Mac OS 9 to OS X and the upcoming change from Windows 7 to Windows 8.  As a reaction to this issue, I use XFCE on Debian, but I would never suggest that this is the environment everyone should use.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Free Fighting

Dave, the instructor (or sifu, if you want to be traditional), said that we should all partner with someone we do not usually train with; it isn't a problem for me, because I don't have a regular training partner.  Some people in the class were affected by this, because they seem to have a preference for training with the same person every Thursday.  The problem with learning a martial art using the same training partner regularly is that you learn that person's responses and mould your own accordingly - it's not a good idea, unless there is no one else to train with.

I was placed with a young South African man.  I have trained with him before, but that was Chi Sau, and I'm pretty rubbish at Chi Sau (actually, I attended a seminar on Chi Sau at the weekend, so I should be a bit better now).  Tonight, we had a drill where I threw a punch, which he deflected with a pak sau (slapping hand, of which there are a few variations), throwing a punch back at me, which I deflected with my own pak sau, and it would go back and forth.

I've spoken to this guy at the end of a class, and it seems he studied Wing Chun in South Africa, though he did not specify a lineage (it's debatable whether it really matters, especially after a number of years practising), and he is now studying Aikido in North Wales.  I remembered the Chi Sau session with him, because he pretty much dominated that exchange.  I have no problem with admitting my Chi Sau is not the best, but it was still pretty embarrassing for me.  I'm guessing that he studied for many years in South Africa.

The Chi Sau seminar at the weekend was hosted by Billy Davidson - the head of Ching Mo, our organisation.  I learned a few things at the seminar; one of them was that Chi Sau is a skill which develops over time and with many years of practice.  It took away my shame at being relatively poor at Chi Sau, because I have been a member of the class for less than two years and I don't get to practise Chi Sau outside of the class or seminars, because I have no one to train with.

Now, I was faced with the South African again, but it was not Chi Sau this time.  I still expected his obvious experience in Wing Chun to mean I would find myself in trouble as the drill became more complicated, as I knew it would.  Sure enough, we had to change the punch and pak sau hands without warning each other, so that we could learn to react to the change, and then we had to change our stance, also without warning.  The end result is more like free fighting than Chi Sau, though free fighting limited to one specific attack and one specific defence.

Dave, the instructor, came to me twice, asking me to slow down the changes.  I kept speeding up, quite unintentionally.  My training partner had originally insisted that we train at a range where it was possible that we might hit each other in a real fight, because it would be training more realistic responses.  I had no problem with his suggestion, but was surprised to find him gradually opening the distance up.  I was also catching him very early - his punch was barely able to move out from his chest.  I had dreaded the prospect of training with him again, if I am honest, and I actually found myself outclassing him.  He looked as puzzled as I felt.

I'm pretty sure that Chi Sau improves fighting skill.  I'm also sure, however, that fighting improves fighting skill.  I have experience of free fighting within Judo, Karate and Jujitsu classes.  I also have, I am sorry to say, experience of street fights.  When I am shown a Wing Chun deflection, attack or counter attack, I can tell you that my immediate thought is not how to apply it in Chi Sau; my mind is focused on how it would be used in combat.

One thing I had noticed during the seminar was a tendency to use techniques I picked up from other arts I had studied, regardless of how little time I spent studying them.  It was quite clear that I was compensating for my weaknesses in Chi Sau by automatically playing to my strengths.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we eventually move on to free sparring with the pads and gloves.  So far, my theories regarding how to develop fighting skill have been correct.  Bruce Lee, developing Jeet Kune Do, said that we should not learn forms (kata, taolu, hyung, jurus, anyo or whatever your style calls them), and equated them to learning to swim on dry land.  Some classical arts put an emphasis on forms and maybe don't train fighting skill so much.  Personally, I think both approaches are necessary.

I practise the first two forms of Wing Chun on an almost daily basis.  The forms train the neuromuscular system to develop certain responses through repetition.  If you want to know how your trained responses are actually implemented during a fight, however, you can only do it through fighting, whether that is free sparring or out of necessity.  I would stop short of advising people on how to train for optimum performance in a situation where they need to defend themselves, but my own method is to go through the forms again and again until the movements become instinctual.  If I have to fight to save myself from injury or death, I will forget that I even learned a martial art.

Sticking to predefined techniques is lunacy on the street.  If you have to remember a specific sequence, you will be slowed down by it.  It is better to train responses until they become programmed into you, and then forget they are there - just let them operate by themselves and allow for other responses to make themselves useful to you.  I'm not a purist.  I don't care if I stop someone plunging a knife between my ribs using a technique from Arnis or Wing Chun, for example - only that the knife was made to miss its intended target.

I have picked up many automated responses to various attacks over the years.

When training, respond in the way your training specifies; when fighting, respond in the way that comes to you without conscious thought.  It's that simple.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Filipino stick fighting

I've been thinking a lot about Filipino stick fighting recently.  To save confusion, I will be referring to it as Arnis throughout this post, though it is also known as Arnis De Mano, Escrima, Eskrima or Kali.  In the Philippines, where it is taught as part of the Physical Education system, it is referred to mostly as Arnis - at least it is in the areas of Manila I visited.

I haven't been able to train in Arnis recently.  I created some makeshift training sticks some time ago, and trained as much as I was able to.  I have ordered some genuine sticks now, and will be resuming my training.  Some might ask my reason for training Arnis, when I am already a Wing Chun practitioner.  Wing Chun is a great system, and it works, but there are reasons for specifically training in Arnis.

The UK is increasingly becoming a society in which armed attacks are a reality, especially attacks with knives.  To understand the range of motion and characteristics of a weapon, experience of fighting with weapons is necessary.  As much as I love Wing Chun, and I trust that it can be used against knife attacks, the weapons of Wing Chun (if, for a moment, we discount our own limbs as weapons) are the last thing to be introduced to a student.  Anecdotal evidence would suggest that Ip Man only taught three people the knives form, for example.  I learn martial arts for self protection.  I want to close any gaps in my defensive repertoire as quickly as possible.

Another consideration is improving coordination.  This is something which I have been looking into a lot recently.  It is probably an overlooked aspect of fighting fitness.  Strength, endurance and even flexibility are all emphasised in our training to be martial artists, just as it is with sports, but coordination is seemingly neglected in our training.  Yes, there is an argument that the training itself improves coordination, and I will go along with that.  Practising the Wing Chun forms has led to a marked improvement in the precision of my movements, but I still struggle with Chi Sau.  Some members of the class get to practice Chi Sau away from the class, and I, unfortunately, have no one to do this with, so my coordination is below the level of some members of the class. The only way I could feasibly reach, and surpass, their fine motor skills is to do something other than Wing Chun to improve matters - something which trains similar movements.

The funny thing is that, here in the UK, we are more likely to refer to Filipino stick fighting as Escrima.  The use of Remy Presas' Modern Arnis as the system which is taught in the Philippine education system has led to the name Arnis being used widely in the Philippines.  In some areas, however, Escrima or Eskrima is still used.  Here, Modern Arnis is not so well known, so we tend to train in more traditional Filipino stick fighting systems, and use the name Escrima (or Eskrima) as a result.

It's easy to see how the difference in the systems which are most prevalent could lead to differences in how Arnis is performed in the UK and its native Philippines.  If we look at what has happened to jujitsu in the UK over the time it has been here, it is clear that there is the potential for any introduced art to assume the character of its new host nation.  Ip Ching apparently said something along those lines when members of the class I attend visited his training centre in Hong Kong - the way we do Wing Chun is different.  There is also the example of Lau Gar Kung Fu, which some would argue has completely deviated, in its UK form, away from the original Chinese art.  Recently, I heard that Bob Breen, here in the UK, teaches Jeet Kune Do in a very different way to how Dan Inosanto teaches it in America.  I'm not surprised, even though Bob is technically Dan's student.

As long as it is effective, I really don't care.

Friday, 30 March 2012


GNOME 3.4 has been released - http://www.muktware.com/articles/3469/gnome-34-review-impressive-elegant-fast.  At one time, a new release of GNOME would have been something to interest me, though not so much now.

The problem with user interfaces now, and GNOME is no exception, is that they consume a lot of resources.  I started as a KDE user, on Mandrake Linux, as it was then.  Later, via Red Hat, SuSE, Ubuntu and Linux Mint Debian, I became a GNOME user.  Over the past year, I have switched to XFCE on a Debian Squeeze base and, finally, to LXDE on a Debian Wheezy base.

You will notice that I have gradually moved towards more minimal and resource friendly environments, and it's not because I have an old computer, or one that is lacking in specification.  Even on my dual core machine with 3GB of RAM (enough for almost any Linux environment), the difference in responsiveness can be felt.

My problem with the increasing hardware demands of operating systems is that computers are being replaced while they are still usable, because they are no longer powerful enough to run the latest user environment.  The unfortunate by product of this is that many people, not being financially able to keep up with perpetual upgrades, are being priced out of the information age.  If my suspicion that GNOME 3, Unity and the upcoming Windows 8 are optimised towards touch screen computing is true, then the problem will get even worse.

Clearly, the old model of how a computer works is in the process of being made obsolete, and the internet tablet/smartphone interface is replacing the traditional desktop experience.  I hope it doesn't happen.  While the decision to develop an ARM version of Windows 8 is obviously good for the British economy, it suggests an intention to move computing towards being increasingly mobile.

What is worrying is that these devices have a built in obsolescence - they are not upgradeable, and consumers are encouraged to purchase the latest iteration of their chosen device when the old one is no longer supported.  In contrast, I could buy an old Pentium 4 PC for less cost than an internet tablet, install Debian with LXDE and have the same work environment I currently use.  In short, there is no need to replace a computer until it breaks!  The businesses which throw their computers into skips, for transportation to landfill sites, should consider donating them to charities, who may keep that old version of Windows or install a light Linux variant.

I'm glad that GNOME is out there as a choice.  For those who want to follow the current trend, it will at least provide an easy transition into Linux and open source.  My worry is that we are heading towards the path of inbuilt obsolescence and a two-tier society, from a technological standpoint.

News from the Philippines

As stated previously, I don't read my newsfeeds often.  I have an interest in what's going on in the Philippines, however, because I know quite a few people there.

Some news stories from the Philippines which caught my eye...

The Russian foreign minister wants his country and the Philippines to work together more - http://www.itar-tass.com/c154/365297.html

A Filipino producer of educational materials is working with Microsoft to bring classrooms in the Philippines into the digital age - http://www.asianewsnet.net/home/news.php?id=28664.  As an advocate of open source solutions, I take this as largely good news which could have been better.  There are a few Filipino Linux distributions, and the Philippines is still a relatively poor country, with its own language and culture.  My concern is that Microsoft has an agenda of creating a dependence on Microsoft technologies, which is clearly not in the interests of a country like the Philippines, or any country on Earth, to be honest.  There are better solutions, but Microsoft has the power to implement this scheme and maybe it will not close the door to other solutions being investigated later.

A Japanese firm has been contracted to finish the third terminal at NAIA airport - http://www.chinapost.com.tw/business/asia/philippines/2012/03/15/334652/Philippine-airport.htm.  There is a touch of irony to this, as KLM (one of the largest European airways) has recently withdrawn its flights to Manila.

There is ongoing debate about the RH (Reproductive Health) Bill.  Supporters of the bill point to the high rate of teenage pregnancy in the Philippines - http://www.irinnews.org/Report/95076/PHILIPPINES-Lack-of-services-fuels-teen-pregnancy and say that it does not go against the teachings of the Catholic church or the state constitution - http://www.philnews.com/2012/17a.htm.  As I am not native to the Philippines, I shouldn't really step into this particular battle, but I will say that the RH Bill, as I understand it, has the sole intention of educating young people about their sexual health.

By blocking the bill, the church is effectively saying that its congregation can not be trusted with their own free will, so any information which contradicts the teachings of the church must be withheld from them.  Whether knowledge of, and access to, contraception will create an environment within which promiscuity is the norm is clearly not the point.  The high rate of teen pregnancy shows that teenagers are already sexually active, and the population of the Philippines continues to grow at an exponential rate.  While sexually transmitted infections are still comparatively rare, they are on the rise.  Is the Catholic church being irresponsible in its opposition to the RH Bill?  I'll leave that question open.

On a more positive note, it has been suggested that the country's economy is poised to improve immensely - http://www.asianewsnet.net/home/news.php?id=29109 and that it may become a popular destination for those facing retirement - http://globalnation.inquirer.net/30927/dot-it%E2%80%99s-more-fun-to-be-a-senior-in-philippines.

So, those are the stories about the Philippines that caught my eye.  I'm not sure if this will be a regular feature, but I do love the country.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The news

I don't often have the time to read my collection of RSS and Atom feeds, but today was one of those days when I had the time.

The first story that caught my eye was Linus Torvalds having rejected a job at Apple (http://www.tomshardware.com/news/apple-linux-linus-tovalds-steve-jobs,15082.html#xtor=RSS-181).  This was about ten years ago, so we are told.  I can certainly understand why Apple would do this - Linux was, and still is, on its way to being a major threat in the market for operating systems.  Apple was also in the process of rebuilding Mac OS on top of a Unix foundation, and clearly didn't want to build a Unix environment from scratch.  As it turned out, OS-X was eventually built on top of a Mach microkernel/FreeBSD foundation.

At the risk of upsetting a few people, if they were to offer Linus the same opportunity right now, I would urge him to jump at it.  I fully understand that Apple wanted him to relinquish his interest in Linux, but let's consider what difference that would make right now.  The kernel development team has grown to a point where Linus' job as maintainer could feasibly be done by a lot of people.  We can't underestimate his importance in creating the Linux kernel in the first place, but it has now developed a life of its own.

While I can understand his reluctance to give up his creation to someone else, it will always be his creation.  My argument is that a new figurehead might not be a bad thing.  Over the years, I have seen Linus express certain opinions which have alienated large numbers of Linux users.  His views on which desktop environment or Linux distribution are the best are interesting, but he has sometimes come over as something of a control freak, wanting us all to fall in line with how he wants things done.  Linux is all about choice, and dictating how users should use their computers is a bit too far down the Microsoft or Apple road for me.  I am sure that many would disagree with my views, and I am in no way trying to lessen his contribution, but I'm saying it would not be the end of the world if he jumped ship at this point.

Someone who HAS fallen on his sword is Charlie Kravetz, project leader of the Xubuntu project (http://www.muktware.com/articles/3423/xubuntu-project-lead-charlie-kravetz-resigns?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+muktware%2Ffeeds+%28Muktware.com%29).  Some may question why this is important.  Well, many were dismayed, and still are, by Ubuntu's choice of Unity as a desktop environment.  I would say that many switched to Kubuntu as an alternative but, to be honest, KDE's huge memory footprint is a drawback.  For those wanting a more traditional desktop environment, XFCE is becoming increasingly important.  Xubuntu has XFCE as its desktop environment, but also has the entire Ubuntu software repository at its disposal.  At the time of writing, it could still be considered a minority distribution (though as someone running LXDE on Debian Wheezy, I realise the irony in that assertion).  It will get bigger, though, I am guessing.  Those who still find it a resource hog can check out Lubuntu (http://lubuntu.net/), which runs particularly well on old hardware.

As noted above, I think that sometimes a change of leadership can breathe new life into a project, and unquestionably a change of perspective.

It was a surprise to discover that five Far Eastern stock exchanges run on Red Hat Linux (http://www.muktware.com/news/3449/red-hat-powers-more-50-global-trading-volume?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+muktware%2Ffeeds+%28Muktware.com%29) but, thinking about it, I don't know why I was surprised.  Here in the West, our governments don't seem to have realised the benefits of open source but, elsewhere in the world, the advantages it brings to government institutions in terms of cost savings a reliability are well known.  If our leaders would stop dragging their feet on this, maybe we would recover from our current financial slump more quickly and move towards a more sustainable model of governance.  It would be a start, anyway.

After years of singing the praises of traditional headphones and avoiding in-ear devices, I finally gave in to temptation and ordered some AKG in-ear phones.  Then, I saw this - http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2012/03/when-earbuds-attack-a-cautionary-tale-nsfw/ - so I will be using the AKGs as a spare pair, I think, and going back to traditional headband phones.