Sunday, 28 December 2014

Fixing sound problems in Windows 7

One of the most common problems I've had to deal with, on Windows PCs, are issues with device drivers.

I'm going to concentrate on sound issues here, because it is a problem I have come across a number of times, and removing sound drivers is relatively safe.  If you happen to lose any work by removing sound drivers, I take no responsibility for that, nor can I see any reason why it might happen.  Make sure that your computer is connected to the internet throughout this procedure.

We'll go through the process first, and then I'll explain why drivers might fail.

1.  First of all, we have to open the management console by clicking the "Computer" button from our Start menu with the right mouse/trackpad button and selecting "Manage" from the menu that appears.

2.  When the management console appears, we want to select "Device Manager" from the pane on the left.  In the central pane, you will see the hardware that Windows recognises in your PC.  Your sound controller will be under "Sound, video and game controllers".

3.  Click on your sound controller with the right mouse/trackpad button.  From the menu which appears, select "Properties".

4.  Along the top of the properties window, you will see tabs.  Select the one which says "Driver" and then press the button which says "Uninstall".

5.  You will receive a warning that you are about to remove the device from your system.  In this case, we also want to remove the driver software.  In some cases, just removing the device and restarting the computer will work but, in this case, we're going to remove the driver software as well.

6.  When you click the OK button, the process of removing the driver will start.  Windows will then ask if you want to restart the computer.  When restarted, Windows will search for device drivers for your sound controller.  The process may take a long time.

7.  Windows is likely to have installed a standard driver for your sound controller at this point.  You have sound, but the driver may not be making full use of your sound controller's capabilities.  So how do we get the latest driver for our sound controller?  Well, the easiest way is probably by using Driver Booster (available free from  If we start this program, it will check that all the drivers on our system are up to date, so it will potentially improve much more than our sound performance.

When you select "Update All", the program will download updated drivers from the internet, create a restore point and install the drivers.  All of this might take some time.  If you are happy with the way your computer is performing, you may say this is an unnecessary waste of time.  If, however, you want to get the most from your hardware, having the latest drivers installed is highly recommended.

Why is all of this necessary?

I may need to get technical here.  Most PCs, and the hardware in them, ship with vendor-specific device drivers.  These drivers will be updated as long as the manufacturer can make a business case for the updates.  In short, you're covered until the manufacturer wants to sell new hardware.

Now, a number of vendors will ship hardware which is based on roughly the same internal components, and the manufacturer of those components will provide reference drivers for those components.  Those reference drivers are usually updated for longer than vendor-specific drivers.  Windows, with vendor-specific drivers installed, will only look for updates to the vendor-specific drivers.

Why do drivers need to be updated?  Well, to be honest, problems may be found with older versions of these drivers, or manufacturers may find new ways of getting more performance from their hardware.  Sometimes, the problems only become apparent when updates to Windows replace system files which are being used by device drivers.  The upshot is that keeping device drivers up to date may improve the performance and stability of Windows.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Thought for Christmas Day: finding a way through the darkness

It's Christmas, and the day started with me waking from a nightmare.  I'm not going to share the nightmare in such a public sphere, but the meaning of it is important.  We are all subject to negative influences, demons, an inner darkness, or whatever you want to call it.  It can come from within, or it can be external.

The new year will soon be here so, here in the UK at least, we're thinking about new year's resolutions: promises we make in the belief that keeping those promises will lead to a better year.  For me, it's the banishing of the aforementioned inner/outer darkness which is important.  First of all, we must locate the sources of the negative things in our life, whether we have created them ourselves, or had them created for us.  We may notice a pattern of self-sabotage, where our own beliefs and values are holding us back, or we may see that our situation, or the company we keep, is less than ideal.  Letting go of these things may not be easy, but it is essential for our happiness.

Often, it is only when we suffer that we see how things should be different.  Over the last week, I've suffered with back pain, and it has forced me to evaluate my lifestyle.  Knowing what changes should be made is just a start, however: making the changes is potentially more difficult, at least in our minds.

In his book, Instant Calm, Paul Wilson states that we are easily able to walk a plank that is placed on the ground, and will do so repeatedly with equal success.  If we suspend the plank between two tall buildings, however, he suggests that the task suddenly becomes impossible, and the source of this is our imagination.  So it is with making the necessary changes to our lives.  We may make negative predictions about things which could go wrong, and maybe talk ourselves out of making any changes.  Well, maybe the tendency to make negative predictions is the first thing we should tackle.

One of my favourite phrases, as I'm sure I must have said before, is "I'll deal with it."  It's a powerful tool.  The reason it is so powerful is that it calls on past evidence of our ability to deal with things.  It is likely that we have suffered many calamities in our lives, and all the evidence points to us having dealt with the aftermath of what appeared to be a great catastrophe at the time.

Ultimately, we can choose to have this dark cloud hanging over us, or we can take action to remove the cloud.  Staying where we are may be the easy option, but is it the right one?  If you could see what is wrong, it would be foolhardy not to put things right, wouldn't it?

If you're reading this, I hope you're having a good Christmas, if you celebrate the occasion.  If you have plans for the new year which scare you, I salute your plans, because they are likely to bring great changes to your life.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Thought for the day: modern music is terrible

I always thought that, as I aged, I'd hear current music and react by complaining how extreme it is or that it lacks any kind of melody.  The reality is that modern music, with few exceptions, bores me.  The contestants on X Factor, technically competent, though not exciting or especially talented performers, are guilty of this.  Actually, some of them enter with a spark of individuality, which is then extinguished by the production team.  I see the music industry collapsing into a mass of mediocrity and banality.

I grew up in a time when, every so often, the major record labels would get a wake up call, because some musical genre emerged right under their noses and shook everything up.  Now, the majors have bought most of the small independent labels, so what we have is music that is safe, commercial, sanitised.

I don't expect everyone to share my musical taste, but it amazes me that I can download sample tracks from 3hive or Fingertips for free, and they blow away what I hear on the radio.  Thankfully, I also know artists like Jennie Vee, Catherine AD and Paul Draper who are still producing music that is anything but boring.

Paul Draper illustrates the point perfectly.  In the late 1990's and into the new millennium, he fronted a band called Mansun.  As is always the case with great bands, it didn't last.  I can still listen to them today, though, and I love their music just as much now as I did when it was first released, if not more.  It doesn't bore me.  Rather tellingly, the Mansun album which most successfully splits opinion amongst fans, Little Kix, is largely the result of unwanted interference from the record label.

The industry needs to be shaken up again; it needs another seismic shift; it needs to stop playing it safe.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Mindfulness: practising kung fu to practise kung fu

I levelled up today, as they say in the modern vernacular: I got to the next grade in wing chun.  Of course, I'm pleased about it, and pleased that other students also got to level up, but for me it was harder than I would have wanted.

A few seconds into demonstrating chum kiu, I was struggling for air.  To explain, for the last few days, I have been affected by a cold or flu virus (I never can tell the difference).  Now I'm not looking for sympathy, nor am I one of those men for whom the world stops moving when I'm ill.  As usual, I'm using today's experience to prove a point, to paint the bigger picture.

Recently, I've been studying mindfulness, and talking to others about mindfulness.  I feel a little uneasy about the term, because it has become something of a marketing gimmick, and what we are talking about could just as easily be described as focus.  Still, mindfulness is how it is currently being described, and I see no good reason to deviate from the trend.

I initially struggled with Thich Nhat Hanh's advice to wash the dishes, just to wash the dishes.  Surely, I thought, we wash the dishes to have clean dishes, but that is not what I read in his book.  Clean dishes are what we have when we have washed the dishes, but not when we are washing them.  His point, as I realised after further reading, was that washing the dishes to have clean dishes is concentrating on some point in the future and missing the experience of the present.

If I had concentrated on making the grade today, I would have put an enormous amount of pressure on myself, and the fact that I did not feel one hundred percent healthy would have shaken my confidence.  On my drive there, however, the venue for the grading may have been my destination, but I was driving somewhere to drive somewhere.  Importantly, when I got there, I was not practising wing chun to pass a grade: I was practising wing chun to practise wing chun.

I often think back to when I started practising kung fu, or even further back to when I wanted to practise kung fu, but had yet to have a lesson.  Why did I want to learn wing chun?  Why do I still want to learn wing chun?  I could tell you that I want to be able to protect myself from harm, if the need ever arises.  I could tell you that I want the sense of accomplishment which comes from progress in a martial art.  I could tell you many things for which I am aiming when I practise wing chun, but those are things towards which I will probably always be striving.

What about now?  How does wing chun affect my life right now?  The answer, again, is that I am practising wing chun to practise wing chun.  If I am not enjoying the present moment, the process of learning, concentrating instead on what may come, I am not making the most of the present moment.  This applies not just to the practice of martial arts, but to everything that we do in the present.  Let concerns about the past or the future invade the present moment, and you are not present in the moment.

Today, I was fully present in the moment.  I wasn't trying to pass a test.  I was simply doing what I was doing, to the best of my ability on the day.  As it happens, that is also the way to pass the test.  Literally translated, kung fu means an achievement gained through hard work.  I passed a test of my kung fu by doing kung fu.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Science vs Spirituality

In modern times, we are accustomed to seeing science and spirituality as fundamentally opposed.  Our thoughts in this direction are possibly guided by the discoveries of Charles Darwin, and the efforts of cosmologists to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  Driven purely by reason and logic, we have largely come to view spiritual matters as misleading superstitions which are counter to rational thought.  Certainly, empty seats in churches show the direction in which we are heading.  Our society has become more secular, more atheistic.

If it is true that science has all the answers, could it be that we are asking the wrong questions?  For what it's worth, I'm in support of a separation of church and state, and my reason is purely that those who govern must be objective, whereas faith and spirituality are essentially subjective.  I would argue, however, that this very objectivity is why scientific research can not provide the answers to all of our questions.

If you were to ask a scientist who you are, they might respond that you are an organic life form, a creature of a species whose superior intellect and adaptability has shaped the world in which we live and, in terms of evolutionary theory, has enabled us to survive far longer than we would otherwise.  They may provide answers beyond the obvious physical description, from the fields of psychology and other social sciences.  Maybe your political allegiance or educational background would contribute towards their answer.  You grew up in a certain environment, a particular culture.  They will tell you facts about yourself.  All of this has value, but is an incomplete picture of you as a human being.

Abraham Maslow, whose work I admire a great deal, developed a hierarchy of needs, which is probably as close as scientific research has come to developing a theory of what makes us happy.  In recent years, a focus on positive psychology, where people are studied for their capacity for happiness, rather than underlying mental health issues.  Of course, the self help industry is still growing, so it would seem we are as far from answers to some questions as we ever were, and possibly more so.

I see my country, and indeed the wider world, falling prey to the cynicism of Neoliberalism.  As we become less focused on the spiritual, our defence against this cynicism weakens.  In the models of capitalism and communism, there is little room for spiritual thought, as they are purely economic models.  Neoliberalism is based on the expectation that people only ever act in their own interests, and science seems to reinforce this view.  What of the human spirit?  Well, here in the UK, there is a small but growing interest in Buddhism, as one example.  Our traditional churches are slowly becoming empty, often closing or being sold for conversion into places of residence, and yet it seems we are still searching for those answers which can not be provided by science.

Maybe I am subject to bias, but it seems that the assumptions of Neoliberalism have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Could we say that people are now more self-centred?  Are people increasingly egocentric?  Like I said, I may be subject to bias, and it could be that I now see people with little care for the implications of their actions for others due to some expectation to see such an outcome.  It is interesting, however, that we have seen a rise in Buddhism, a system of belief founded on the principle that our own self-interest is the root of our suffering.

As I said earlier, spirituality is a deeply subjective and personal matter.  Unfortunately, this sometimes manifests as fundamentalism, and you need only read the news to see the more frightening conclusions of such beliefs.  I'm not sure how the search for our identity, sense of worth, or place can lead to the atrocities committed presently, or in the past, but I'm sure that science is equally unable to determine why this happens.  It is certainly strange that, in a world that is increasingly moving away from spiritual matters, such destructive interpretations of the ancient texts have become so prevalent or, maybe, when we consider that the more moderate interpretations of these spiritual beliefs and traditions are largely derided by the modern world, we should not be surprised by the rise in religious fundamentalism.

My aim is not to answer questions for you, but hopefully to ensure that you are asking those questions in the first place.  It could be that wealth, technological advances, your work, greater health and other benefits of the modern world have made you happy.  If we can use the growth of the self help industry, or the interest in alternative spiritual traditions as scientific evidence, it would seem that we remain unsatisfied by the answers held by science.  I don't believe that either science or spirituality holds all the answers.  I would contend, despite the title I gave to this piece, that both are necessary, and it should not be a choice between one or the other.  When we shut ourselves off in such a way, our ability to learn from others is effectively closed down.

You may have heard of Carl Gustav Jung.  His analytical psychology was based on a combination of science and spiritual enquiry.  Maybe he had a point.

Keep questioning.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

DivX Plus HD for Handbrake

All trademarks acknowledged in this post.

Some time ago, I bought a TV that will play video files from a USB drive, as long as they comply with the DivX+ HD standard.  My preferred tool for transcoding videos is Handbrake, and this has built in profiles for many devices, but I searched in vain for a profile for DivX+ HD.

Finding specifications for the standard, I entered them into Handbrake, saved the profile and started transcoding.  It works.  If you enter the below text into your favourite text editor, save it as DivX_HD.plist and import it as a profile into Handbrake, you should have similar success.

Note: only use Handbrake to make back up copies of media that you already own, if your local laws permit this.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <string>AC3 (ffmpeg)</string>
                <string>MP3 (lame)</string>
                <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <string>MKV file</string>
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <string>The best compromise of high quality video and compatibility with the Divx Plus HD standard.</string>
        <string>Divx HD</string>
        <string>H.264 (x264)</string>
        <string>Same as source</string>
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <true />

Monday, 18 August 2014

Four Years of Wing Chun

Today marks four years that I have been learning wing chun.  I still consider it to be the most effective street defence method available locally, but any of these arts are only as good as the student.  When I was learning jujitsu, I overcame the limitations imposed by my illness by studying ancient forms of the art and related arts, when everyone else was goofing over Brazilian jiu jitsu and the UFC.

Did it work?  Well, one of my reasons for leaving the class was that no one wanted to train with me any more; I'll leave their reasons for avoiding me to your imagination.  Incidentally, when some Lithuanian sombo practitioners joined up, no one wanted to train with them either.

I don't know how to achieve the same thing in wing chun.  Sometimes I think that a long fist style would add something to the close quarters nature of wing chun; at other times, I think that practising arnis is the perfect way to overcome my inherent deficiencies in strength, speed, coordination and mobility.

Edit: There are good reasons for wing chun and Filipino martial arts often being taught as a combination.

Recently, I suffered badly in a sparring encounter.  Initially, I felt terrible about it.  The instructor pointed out that I had taken too many hits, because my footwork was practically non-existent.  After the class, he said that this form of panic was common amongst those who were not used to wearing head guards, and suggested that I do my solo practice at home wearing my head guard.

To be honest, I found myself outclassed.  My opponent was someone with whom I train regularly, and his interest in other forms of Chinese martial arts has made him a well-rounded fighter.  His time spent learning wing chun alone is about double my own.  He trains outside of the class regularly, with one of the other well-rounded fighters in the class, who came to wing chun initially because his Muay Thai instructor recommended the art as a way to learn good defensive techniques.

I can accept all of the above excuses internally, because they make sense.  What is harder to accept is that illness may mean I never reach the same proficiency in wing chun as my classmates.  I have had more of a challenge dealing with my fellow wing chun students than I have with the students of any other art I have practised.  The difference I have noticed is that most of them are not just good martial artists, but also competent fighters.  If you ask me whether wing chun attracts good fighters or creates them, I really don't know.  Maybe someone else could answer that.

Is my wing chun useless, given my physical limitations?  Far from it!  My time at a local eskrima club strengthened my faith in what I have learned, and surprised me.  It is said that we are our own worst judge, and that was certainly true in my case.  When they handed a padded stick to me, and told me to spar, I thought that their student, with years of experience in stick fighting, would make short work of me as an opponent.  After a few minutes, they stopped the exchange.

I was told that I should stop thrusting the stick into the body of my opponent.  Such a tactic, I was told, would cause serious injury, might constitute a foul in competition, and was generally a nasty thing to do.  It was also noted that the short, hacking movements I favoured were indicative of a bladed style, rather than a stick-based art.  I was puzzled by this, until I realised I had been applying the principles of wing chun to stick fighting, under pressure, without even thinking about it.

When the eskrima instructor went on holiday, he left his assistant in charge of the class.  An uneven number of students had attended, so he decided that he would be my training partner and ended the class with a free sparring session, to "test" my wing chun.  His history as a competitive taekwondo practitioner and student of Brazilian jiu jitsu meant that I had to maintain focus, because he was more than comfortable at sparring range.  His intention to use me for target practice came unstuck, however, when he realised that every attempt to come forward and push an attack led to the attack being neutralised and a simultaneous shot being landed by his opponent.  The exchange ended with him receiving a kick to the midsection, which winded him enough to put him on his knees.

Towards the end of my eskrima training, I put on some 16 ounce gloves, as did one of the other eskrima students.  This was an attempt to teach the techniques of Filipino boxing, with which my training partner was already very familiar.  It started well, and continued in such a way, until the instructor decided to ramp up the pressure by telling us to speed up.  I honestly tried to stick rigidly to Filipino boxing.  An upper cut came towards my midsection, or ribs.  A jum sau and punch with the same arm proved effective against this attack.  Again, he tried his attack.  Again, a jum sau and punch checked the attack.  Various combinations were met mostly with variations of pak sau and jum sau with a counter punch, much to my surprise.  The "seed" hands of taan sau, bong sau and fook sau were nowhere to be seen.

Edit: As noted in the comments below, not seeing the seed hands was a momentary blindness to them, rather than their absence.  They are called the seed hands because all other hand techniques in wing chun find their origins in those three shapes.  These, in turn, are simply different ways of guarding ourselves by having a hand in front of us, but that's a whole other story.

In desperation, he ducked and rose again to aim a hook at the side of my head.  The gap in his defence created by this made it easy for me to close the distance to one more comfortable for a wing chun fighter.  Unfortunately, my trained reactions, in wing chun and other non-competition arts, led me to simultaneously aim a well-timed elbow at the biceps of the attacking arm.  The fight was stopped, leaving me stunned by the speed of my entry to the range where I could execute an elbow strike.  By this time, I had become somewhat disillusioned by the style of eskrima they taught, though I still have great respect for Filipino martial arts in general.  When I found out that the club did not have insurance, my time there came to an end.

Everyone will have their own interpretation of what they learn: a pre-existing frame of reference through which each new piece of knowledge is filtered.  For me, reading Tao of Jeet Kune Do many times over, and doing the same with books on the ancient principles of tai chi, permanently affected how I see combat.  I subconsciously relate everything I have learned before or since in the martial arts to the underlying principles I learned through those books.  I dare say my fellow wing chun students do a similar thing with their previous experience, whether they realise it or not.  Maybe that is why everyone's way is so different.

Fighters with more experience, and perhaps similar experience, will probably get the better of me.  I'm ill.  I have to come to terms with that.  So, what about the times I have been a worthy opponent, as in the eskrima class for example?  The Japanese Zen masters call it "mushin" - the mind of having no mind.  I would personally say it as the mind of unconscious action.  Bruce Lee, in the aforementioned Tao of Jeet Kune Do, said that we should simply let our arms and legs work themselves, in accordance with the discipline in which they have been trained.  Could it be that, in a wing chun class, I am trying to stick too rigidly to wing chun?  Maybe the fighters of YouTube, trying to give a good impression of their art, are doing the same.

Yip Man is reported to have said that we should be masters of our kung fu, not slaves to it.  I've heard wing chun instructors - most of them very highly respected - say that the principles of the art are far more important than any set movement.  As usual, I think writing this stuff down has allowed me to see a way forward.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Wing Chun for self defence? Learn Biu Jee!

Yesterday, I posted a short krav maga video on a social media site.  I like what I see in the video, and I will take concepts or techniques from wherever I find them, if they work.

A fellow wing chun student said that he was impressed by the block.  Fair enough.  My instructor's reply set me thinking, however, as his replies often do.  "Biu Gee, end section", he said.  A lot of Bil/Biu Jee/Gee/Tze (however you want to romanise it) looks abstract and esoteric to us, and often we wonder how it can be put to use in actual combat.  Many people who criticise wing chun do so because the forms look strange to them, they don't necessarily understand them, or they watch wing chun fighters who don't necessarily understand them.

It makes sense that a krav maga movement corresponds to our third form.  The essence of third form is that we have made a mistake, from which we need to recover.  Krav maga, so I have been told, assumes we are starting from a position of disadvantage.  During my short time learning Filipino boxing, I've also seen techniques which correspond to our third form, including the elbow block featured in the video.  When you consider that Filipino boxing is mainly a system of self protection, rather than a sport as such, you can see a pattern emerging.

How does any of this relate to self defence?  No matter how good you think you are, you will often find yourself at a disadvantage in an encounter.  It is said that Bruce Lee developed jeet kune do because he found himself facing larger opponents in the US.  It is also said that Bruce never learned the third form of wing chun (accounts differ - one has him learning the third form in the last months of his life; if that is true, we will still never know how it would have affected his wing chun).  Jeet kune do, and the arts Bruce learned to create his personal style, seem to be Bruce's way of substituting that missing knowledge.  As it happens, this took him in another direction entirely, but one which still drew on the wing chun that he knew.

Watch a true master at work.  Notice how those movements which were once large, wild movements have become more condensed and seemingly effortless.  Wing chun starts at this level, and yet some of the movements of biu jee are suspiciously large by comparison.  Why is this?  Is it closer to the Shaolin roots of wing chun?  Again, biu jee is about recovering from a vulnerable position, and such recklessness, by wing chun standards, may be justified.  Some say biu jee further develops the power which we gain through practising the earlier forms.  This would make sense too.  Other arts going in the opposite direction does not mean there is a right or wrong: the focus is different, owing to the environment in which the art developed.  Take the example of Filipino martial arts, which train weapons techniques first.

The embarrassment of videos posted on the internet haunts wing chun practitioners.  In forums hosted all over the world, the art is parodied and ridiculed.  Shouldn't we first question what we are watching?  If you show me a professional fighter, to whom combat is a daily concern, pummelling someone who has not learned the full system, don't even talk to me about the wing chun you think you see in that exchange.  The wing chun people who comment on the structure or footwork being wrong also miss the point.  Does it look like wing chun?  Are they using wing chun principles, no matter how shaky their practical skill?  If so, they are doing wing chun, but have not reached a level where they are a challenge to the other fighter.  Eventually, they may match, or even surpass, the skill of their opponent.

Geoff Thompson, who gets a lot of respect for injecting some realism into martial arts, mirrors my view that most encounters will be something akin to an ambush attack.  He talks of training techniques until they are second nature.  Again, we are singing from the same hymn sheet, as it were.  I don't subscribe to the belief that traditional martial arts, as we call them, have no relevance to the modern world.  You must learn them, though.  Learn as much as you can, and practise, practise, practise!

If someone is going out to test their art against others, they deserve respect for that.  Those who post videos of this with art versus art titles are deliberately misleading the greater martial arts community, however, because it may be an individual taking their first steps in testing their art against someone who has tested theirs many times over.  Always question.  Always.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

What have we learned from MMA?

In the beginning, mixed martial arts contests like Pride and UFC were created with the aim of testing different arts against each other.  The question being asked was which, if any, martial art would dominate in the ring or octagon.

It is tempting for a practitioner of a classical art, like myself, to say we have learned nothing from mixed martial arts contests.  The steady torrent of abuse from those who insist that classical martial arts are dead causes unnecessary animosity between traditionalists and those who practise the more modern arts.  There is a similar line from Krav Maga practitioners, for example.  Such animosity is, as I have often said, unnecessary.

MMA, Krav Maga, Jeet Kune Do and various modern arts were not plucked out of the air.  What they did was to survey the arsenal of classical arts, absorb them and adapt them to a particular environment.  Jeet Kune Do, in particular, continues to survey the spectrum of traditional martial arts and "absorb what is useful."

So, what have we learned?  Muay Thai, which was once a minority art in the western world, when compared to the more established arts of Karate, Judo, Kung Fu and others, came to dominate as a striking art.  In the early years, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu of the Gracie family similarly dominated.  So, these must be the most effective arts, right?  Wrong!  All we know is that a vast majority of mixed martial artist are able to make this combination work for them.  Before practitioners of both arts start lambasting me, allow me to explain.

I have great respect for Muay Thai - in the hands of a master, it is a devastatingly effective weapon.  Similarly, I grew up on Judo, from which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu claims its ancestry, so it would be foolhardy to write it off.  Have both these arts had success in UFC and other contests?  Yes!  Have other arts been successful?  Yes!

My chosen art of Wing Chun has had limited success in the octagon.  We claim this is, quite rightly, because Wing Chun is basically for life and death situations, not winning prizes.  However, Karate practitioners have had successes in the octagon, and Karate was most definitely a combat art when first developed.  What's going on?

If you look closely at Muay Thai and BJJ, one thing becomes clear: sparring is an important part of training.  Karate, Judo, Wrestling, and other arts that have been successful in the ring or octagon, also emphasize the importance of actually fighting to obtain the skill of fighting.  Wing Chun?  Not so much.  My own experience of this came when sparring with a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do, BJJ and Eskrima.  It's true that the moves I had repeatedly conditioned into muscle memory allowed me to give a good account of myself in that exchange, but I initially found it difficult to make the transition from my training to having a live opponent trying to get the better of me.

I see a similar thing when Wing Chun practitioners, and those of other traditional arts, enter the arena.  I take the resulting videos with a large pinch of salt, however.  Is the art useless?  Have centuries of development been wasted?  Is it true that what once worked on the battlefield can not adapt to the modern age?  No, no and thrice no.  What has changed is the way we train.  Mixed martial arts is nothing new.  The people who developed the traditional arts did so from their own experience of combat, and even stole what worked from others.

Furthermore, if you believe the art you study is the same as when it was first developed, you are fooling yourself.  Some have been subject to "cultural considerations": the more deadly aspects of the art were deemed unacceptable, and so were removed.  Others may have escaped such a fate, depending largely on where they developed.  People ask why some arts were practised in secrecy, or only handed down within families.  Well, I have just answered that particular question.

We are not immune to this in the modern age either.  If we gouge eyes, strike to the throat or break bones, our laws may judge that the force we used to defend ourselves was unreasonable.  Similarly, arts where throws are a mainstay of the arsenal become impractical when we are faced with throwing an attacker onto tarmac or concrete.  Serious injury, or death, may be the result.  Then again, punching someone could also lead to them falling awkwardly and the result may be the same.

Despite what some MMA enthusiasts insist, the traditional arts are not useless.  When I see someone lose in the ring or octagon, whatever their background, my conclusion is the same.  Whether it is lack of experience, fear, choosing the wrong technique or simple incompetence, they have failed to make their art work for them.  We must also ask, if one martial art was useful to everyone, why are there so many of them?  If we are unable to make our art work for us, it may not be the art which is at fault, and we may also say we are not at fault.  Maybe choosing the correct art is also a part of making it work for us.  If karateka, wrestlers and boxers can do well in octagon, maybe it is because they learned how to make their art work for them.

So, what have we learned from MMA?  First and foremost, we must be able to make our art work for us.  This may mean stepping outside of the boundaries of our art and making it our own.  If we are unable to do this, we must reconsider how we train and, possibly, what we train.  Second, and linked to the first point, we must spar.  Ideally, we should spar against martial artists of other styles.

MMA's contribution to the continuing development of traditional arts?  We must make that which we have learned work for us, in whatever situation we will need it to work for us.  Many of us already knew this; MMA just might have awoken those who were ignorant to the reality of training for combat.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Miss Smith

I just found out that someone I know has died, and I had to find out via Facebook.  She's one of those people who don't fit neatly into a "friend", "acquaintance" or other category.  Mostly, she would ask me about my cousin, because her and my cousin were best friends.  The last time I saw her was outside the hospital, where I had an appointment.  I can't even remember why I was there; it was a few years ago now.  I remember her telling me that something was wrong, and that she was scared.  To be honest, she wasn't someone I spoke to a lot, but that last conversation was something like a call I would have taken as a Samaritan.  I don't know whether she was just scared, or she wanted to confide in someone and felt more comfortable with someone she didn't know so well, but I got to know her better in those few minutes than I had before.  I feel guilty now that I didn't wait around for longer, because she made it clear that no one was there with her.

Back in the days when I drank more than was healthy, I saw her with some friends.  She looked miserable. "Nobody loves me," she said.  "I do.", I replied, heavily under the influence of alcohol.  Her friends left us alone, not realising I had meant it in a platonic way, and she sat staring at me, neither of us knowing what to say.  After a few minutes, she left too.  For a while, whenever I saw her, she would criticise everything I said and did.  In truth, she was quite mean to me.  I asked a mutual friend what I had done.  "You didn't make a move," he said.  I didn't understand.  "You had a chance to make a move, and you didn't."

I don't know what else to say.  People I know would probably think I'm not affected by things like this, or that I didn't know her well enough to be upset.  What I heard from other people was how tough she was, but what I saw in my few interactions with her was her vulnerability; her humanity, I guess.  That last time she spoke to me, she said that people had her all wrong, that they thought she was something she wasn't.  I don't know about that, but I wish I had known her better.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Thought for the day: tolerance

Each of us have people in our lives who are a source of irritation.  They may seem to take pleasure in annoying us, or it may apparently be something they do with little conscious thought.  Imagine, however, that their behaviour were a symptom of some great internal turmoil or mental anguish.  What then?

Monday, 21 April 2014

Thought for the day: Easter Monday

Life has often been a disappointing or, worse, downright frustrating experience for me.  A possible reaction to such an experience would have been to travel the path of darkness, to strike back at a society which has metaphorically struck me down many times.  Were it not for the moral framework provided by my faith in God, I believe this would have happened many times over.

Our beliefs, whatever they may be, guide us and shape the person we are, have been and are yet to become.  When others question these beliefs, they are effectively saying a part of who we are is wrong.

We are all different and, in our own ways, believe different things: these are pieces of the puzzle that makes us unique.  Never give in to the pressure to conform.  Be yourself, always.

Strontium Dog

I recently bought a collection of Strontium Dog stories.
As a child, I would rush to the newsagent every week to buy 2000AD: my favourite comic, or comic book, as the Americans would have it.  The main character in that publication, and the most popular, has always been Judge Dredd.  It wasn't that I didn't like Judge Dredd, but I found the stories of Nemesis the Warlock, and especially Strontium Dog, more compelling.  Looking back, I can see that the stories of Johnny Alpha had quite an effect on my young and impressionable mind.

In the 1980's, the area in which I lived had become a hotbed of racial tension.  I'm going to remain silent on the reasons for this, but the divisions were there, and those divisions were strong.  From some quarters, there was pressure to conform, and displaying anything other than hatred for those from another cultural, and often religious, background made you a traitor against your own people.  This attitude was by no means universal, but it was more widespread than I had imagined.

It is questionable whether I would have eventually been pulled into the aforementioned school of thought.  In many ways, I was the typical nerd, isolated by the time I spent learning to program a computer or obsessing about Star Wars.  A good point to make about science fiction fans is that we spend a lot of our time reading about alien civilizations, so our fellow humans seem somewhat less threatening to us.  However, like a lot of science fiction geeks, there was a feeling of exclusion, of being on the fringes of society: that, I believe, is where the interest in the tales of Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog, originally came from.

If you have never read Strontium Dog, it is set in a future where a radioactive shower has caused mutations in a section of the population.  Rather than sympathy, the mutants face hatred from the humans who were not affected by the radiation.  A recurring theme is that of exclusion, most importantly from employment, leaving the job of bounty hunter as the only viable option for a mutant.  Johnny Alpha is one such mutant.  For anyone who feels like they don't fit in, it's powerful stuff.

My young mind made the obvious connection between the intolerance shown to Johnny Alpha and the intolerance shown to ethnic and religious minorities.  Clearly, they are not mutants, but the hatred displayed towards them was just as incomprehensible to me.  I couldn't help but notice that the behaviour displayed by the bigoted humans in the comic was mirrored by the bigots I encountered on a daily basis.  In one story, a little girl says she does not understand why her mother doesn't like Johnny, only for her mother to scold her and hurriedly remove her from his presence.

It's arguable that Marvel did much the same thing with X-Men, but that was somewhat less appealing to me.  Reading the stories again, what strikes me is that they were incredibly violent, but the message about intolerance is incredibly clear.  People talk about books changing their lives.  Well, every week I would go and buy 2000AD, and it made a lasting impression on my young mind.

Saturday, 12 April 2014


For what I think was my 10th birthday, my mother bought me a model of an F-104 Starfighter.  It was one of the self-assembly types popular at the time.  The effect this had on me is ably demonstrated by the fact that I remember the name of the plane.  I've probably got the year wrong, but I remember the circumstances.

The thing I remember, and it's an important point, is that my father had recently left home.  Something about life in Britain, during Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, caused the divorce rate to sky-rocket.  We were always at the lower end of the income scale as a family, so Conservative policies affected us more than most.  It was a time of great hardship for us and, looking back, I realise how hard my parents tried to shield us from the reality of our situation. In no way does that excuse my father's behaviour: even with two young sons at home, he decided that the questionable charms of another woman were too much to resist.

I had told my mother that a birthday present would not be necessary, because I saw how much harder things had become for her, and I was as aware as a child could be that she was suffering from episodes of depression.  Such things were not talked about in those days, but I was dimly aware that she was not the same.

I didn't understand why I had a model aeroplane as a birthday present.  I had always been bookish and aloof: quite the opposite of the other members of the family.  My father had once made some money, and bought a second-hand motorbike for my brother.  Mine came the following year and, much to my father's bemusement, was rarely used.  My mother worried that, with my studious nature and small frame, I would be a target for bullies.  As things turned out, I was a target, as my mother feared but, thanks to the Judo lessons her and my father had insisted my brother and I attend, rarely a victim.

Though I didn't understand the reasons behind the gift, I spent what probably seems longer than it actually was gluing the tiny pieces of grey and clear plastic together.  The picture on the front of the box was a painting of an F-104 in action, which made me eager to complete the model.  Most importantly, my mother saw that I was happy with the gift.  I don't know when I realised that I would never have the optional pots of paint to make my Starfighter look like the one on the box, because I didn't dare to mention it to my mother, but it didn't matter.  This was something I would never have asked for, and that made it a more thoughtful gift.

I can't remember what happened to that model aeroplane.  The difficult teenage years have been and gone since then, including the time my voice broke, and the small-framed son she had worried would become a victim of bullying came home from school one day with the voice of a man.  I know this amused her, because she often laughed about me being so small and having a voice "in my boots", as she put it.  At the same time, I could see a sadness in her, because the little boy who relied on her was slowly disappearing before her eyes.

Ultimately, the model plane doesn't matter.  It sat on a second-hand school desk in the room I shared with my brother, waiting for the coat of paint it would never receive, but that doesn't matter either.  The memories attached to it are what matter: my mother seeing me patiently glue the pieces together, the thought behind the gift and, perhaps most importantly, the gratitude I showed for the gift and the thought behind it.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Concentrating on what is wrong

I don't often meditate.  When I do, I remember why it is such a useful activity.  Focusing on the present, strange as it may sound, puts the past and the future into context.  In that state, being fully present in the present, as it were, it is possible to have moments of great insight.  One such moment of insight was the realisation that we spend so much time focusing on what is wrong with our lives, or how to improve our situation, that we miss all the things that are right.

Maybe the self help industry has taught us to never be satisfied, to always strive for better, and to correct every perceivable problem we judge ourselves to have.  It's certainly a good way to sell books.

When I was a child, my brother and I attended a judo class at the community centre down the road from where we lived.  Actually, we attended TWO judo classes at the community centre down the road from where we lived.

Staying on the mat for the period between the children's class and the adults' class, we somehow managed to stay and get two classes for the price of one.  That time between classes gave us an empty mat, on which to practise breaking our fall, groundwork and generally rolling around.  All that space to run around indoors, to two kids who had spent most of their lives living in the Victorian terraced houses of Chadderton, was heaven.

For many reasons, it was a time of great change for our family, and most of it was not good.  I won't go into the reasons here, but we had to adapt quickly to everything changing around us.  Looking back, I sometimes wonder how we got through those challenging times.  It's fashionable to call it "mindfulness" nowadays, but it is ably demonstrated by my brother and I rolling around that mat as children.

If you are always carrying your worries around with you, you may be depriving yourself of peak experiences, as Abraham Maslow would call them.  There will always be something to worry about.  Always.  It may be a tiny worry or one so big that it overwhelms you.  Having that worry cast its shadow over you twenty four hours a day is tiring and, if you let it, will affect other areas of your life.

Sometimes, you just have to roll around the mat.  You have to be fully absorbed in actively enjoying yourself.  Whatever challenges you face in your life, the ability to put them on hold and just enjoy those peak experiences, or appreciate that there is so much good in your life as well, is likely to determine how well you are able to cope.  If you feel that your life is all work and no play, yet you do nothing about it, maybe it is time you did.