Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Martial Arts - Predicting the Future

This notion came up, and it's still sloshing around in my mental seas, so bear with me as I try to get it on an even keel ...

And enough of the storm-tossed boat allusions ...

It occurred to me, while doing some research in my collection of woo-woo mindscience books, that a good martial artist is working to do short-term looks into the future.

Before I get too far, the books of which I speak:

Gut Feelings, by Gerd Gigerenzer
blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin
The Body has a Mind of Its Own, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee
Emotions Revealed, by Paul Ekman
Chaos, by James Gleick.

There are a couple of others, but they have been lent out, and these are enough to get started.

These books deal with the brain and how it works and how it functions with the body in which it is housed. One of the topics that arises in more than one place is that sometimes, you know what is going to happen before it does. You can actually become conscious of an event at some level before it reaches your rational brain. Sounds weird, but it's been fiddled with enough so that it seems valid. Like watching PBS News Hour, where sometimes the lips are a quarter second ahead of the sound.

If you could harness this, along with the innate ability of the human mind to do major rapid-fire calculations of geometry and physics without knowing a single formula, coupled with efficient movements designed to deal with an incoming attack, you would have a most useful construct.

If you could add bullet-time? Even better.

You could seriously kick ass and take names.

One example they use in one of the books is how a baseball player in left field knows where to intercept a fly ball. If you set a computer to figure out trajectories -- the angle, speed, and parabola of the baseball, the effects of gravity, and where a stationary receiver is, how fast he can run, whether he starts motionless or already moving when the batter hits the ball, and where the fielder must be in order to intercept the ball before it hits the ground, it would burn a lot of processing power to get there. Just to set it up properly. Yet, a good baseball player has rules of thumb he doesn't even have to think about, and can do it unconsciously. He sees where the ball is going, and knows where he has to be to catch it. If he can get to the right spot before the ball arrives, he can snag it.

Picture a man who can throw a washer the size of a quarter up into the air, then fire a pistol at it and thread the hole with the bullet. The margin of error there is exceedingly tiny, yet there are men who can do it, but who couldn't tell you geometry from Jello.

They practice, they see what works, they leave out the stuff that doesn't work, and their brains do the moves needed automatically. If they had to think consciously about it, they'd never be able to pull it off.

Like the old saying about sculpting a horse -- you just carve away everything that doesn't look like a horse ...

So. Somebody paying attention can figure out how people move. We all live in the gravity well, we all have the same basic equipment, vis a vis arms and legs and torsos and such, and there are only so many ways to get from point A to point B efficiently. If you can learn how to deal with somebody coming at you efficiently, you can also learn how to deal with somebody not so good. (The old, What-if-I-just-go-beserker-on-your-ass-and-windmill-right-over-
you? argument. Or, to put it simply, if you can dodge somebody doing it right, you can dodge somebody doing it wrong. If your art is designed to do that.)

That is, it's okay for somebody to attack "wrong." If I'm trying to show you how to deal with a right punch and you throw a left, I should still be able to stop it, which is also a lesson, if a different one.

If an attack comes from somebody with the normal numbers of arms and legs, you work up what-if formulas based on size and distance and experience. There are some rules of thumb you can use so that your heuristic view will be more useful, and where you will find them is in your practice. You have to learn how fast you can move, your own reach, how far away somebody is and how many steps it will take to cover that distance, and how to trust your tools once you develop them.

We believe that position is key. Where you are matters more than how fast or strong you are. If you are ten feet away and come in, I should be able to get to a sweet spot to intercept you before you can. It'll take you a couple steps to cover the distance, while I can do it just by changing stances. I get to my place first.

Example: A big guy comes at you with a punch. It sounds goofy to say it, but in order to hit you, he has to get within his punching distance, which is based on his arm's length, the kind of punch he's offering, plus how he's holding his body, the angle of his torso, his extension and all. You need to get all that in a blink's time, and you can learn to do so.

If you block or slip or parry this punch, are you done? Most martial arts go with the notion that you aren't; that yon thug isn't going to go, "Oh, wow, that was cool! I quit!" So you have to figure that something else is incoming, and given the tools, angles, proximity, what that might be: Punch, kick, elbow, knee, grapple -- and what you can do about it.

If you have the skill, you can intuit what the next attack might be, based on his body set and balance, and again, it's a blink response. But you don't have to wait for him to throw it.

The philosophy of your art dictates the kind of responses. In ours, we believe that waiting for attacks puts you behind in time and space, and it is better to preƫmpt the attack as soon as possible. Ideally before the first punch; failing that, before the next, which we believe is surely coming, albeit it might be a different tool. So a block that is also an attack -- cutting the incoming line with a punch that crosses it, for example -- helps you play catch-up. If you go to half-beats -- instead of one ... and ... two, but one-two! then you can not only catch up, but get ahead, which we believe is a better place to be. You turn the attacker into a defender, and by doing so, you control the fight -- he has to react to you or get slugged.

Not every art looks at it this way, and that doesn't make them wrong, just different.

If you have enough people coming at you, enough times, in various and unplanned ways, then you can develop an eye, and your wetware can calculate incoming and figure out a way to deal with it on the fly. If you learn efficient and effective patterns of simple moves than can be mixed and matched, then you can offer a useful response.

If you have to stop and think, Oops, punching coming, how am I gonna deal with that? you get smacked, it is just too slow. If your body has the moves and you don't get in its way, then the theory is that it will step up and do what needs to be done. You might not have a clue what that will be, and you might not recall exactly what it was you did afterward, but if, like the baseball player fielding the pop-up fly, or the shooter center-punching the washer, it works, then it doesn't really matter. Being able to deconstruct it might be useful, of course, especially if you want to pass it along, but being the guy who gets to go home under his own power, teeth intact, not needing major stitchery would seem to be reward enough ...


Master Plan said...

Well that all certainly seems quite reasonable.

Simple exposure should lead to predictive ability, even if you can't quite say why.

Structured exposure then, and personal experience should increase that ability.

Are there really arts that don't boil down to "position"?

I read something in a Helio Gracie obit about how he'd taken Japanese Jujitsu and made it so it would work for a small person against a larger opponent using leverage and stuff. Yes....as opposed to...? The martial art for really big guys to squash kids or something?
The martial art with no leverage?
I suppose some striking arts might be considered to be lever-less, if you wanted to look at it that way, but positionless?

There might be more to it as well, if you get to see them doing stuff, then you can make a prediction (pre-consciously) about their likely paths and positions, but, do you think, this is a different thing than making that prediction without using your eyes?

Body sensitivity type stuff?

The more interesting question to me these days is...how do you get this across to students as rapidly as possible?

I figure any jerk can learn to beat people up effectively, but what of it? It seems to me that the mark of a real martial artist is the ability to impart a particular style of movement to a student as rapidly as possible such that *they* (not their teacher) can be effective with it.

Of course then we can debate what effective might mean and how rapid is "rapid" and what "style of movement" means and so forth.

Steve Perry said...

I think doing and teaching are related, but not the same skills. Bruce Lee was good, but I don't think he was a particularly good teacher. Look at some of his old videos -- if you didn't have his speed and flexibility, you simply couldn't do some of what he was showing and make it work.

If he'd lived long enough, he'd probably have gotten there as a teacher.

If you understand a thing properly, you can break it down, but teaching is a skill, and it takes practice to get it. I use a (true) story in one of the Matador books to point this out, and it still holds true:

"I watched a class being taught to a group of small
children. The subject was aikido, an ancient martial art which utilizes much inner energy, or ki. The instructor used an analogy to show internal versus
external strength. 'Ki,' he said, 'is much like an iceberg. There is the tip, which is visible, much as external strength which uses muscles; then, there is the internal strength, which is at once much greater and yet hidden.'

"At this point, the instructor drew a diagram of an iceberg, showing that nine-tenths of its mass was beneath a curly line, which stood for the surface
of a sea. He went back over his analogy again, altering it slightly, gesturing as he spoke.

The man was full of energy and enthusiasm, most eloquent, and I was quite impressed with his presentation of the concept of ki. When he had completed his explanation the second time, he said, 'Are there any questions?'

"A small boy, of perhaps four or five years T.S., raised his hand.

The instructor smiled. 'Yes, Cos?'

'"What's an iceberg?'"

Worg said...

This was a very interesting post.

You would like Complexity, by Mitchell Waldrop. Also Godel, Escher Bach and Metamagical Themas if you haven't already read them.

What a martial artist, or any fighter, really does is much more akin to chess than to any sort of woo-woo practice.

There are a large number of possible solution spaces for the tree of movements that are humanly possible: Both fighters go into "Weather Vane" techniques facing opposite directions. Both fighters lie face down on the floor. Etc.

The number of these solutions that are good solutions for either fighter is far, far smaller.

The number of those solutions that are beneficial to one fighter are roughly half of the previous.

Then there is an increasingly sparse subtree of movements as they become more and more beneficial to that fighter.

The two fighters, whether they know it or not, are fighting over the strategic solution space and trying to guide the fight into areas of the tree that are beneficial to them, both in the short term and in the final culmination of the fight.

I do think that if you add in chaos and complexity you are far, FAR overthinking it to the point where it becomes meaningless: the tree becomes an amorphous mass of fuzzy shades of grey.

For what it's worth, there seems to be a consciousness in the lore of silat regarding the branching nature of the art. They talk a lot about the flower and the fruit, and of technique branching. These metaphors are constant.

Worg said...

Also, you should really become familiar with the concept of "yomi layers" if you aren't already. Another similar concept is sicilian reasoning, but yomi systematizes the idea more thoroughly.

Steve Perry said...

Scissors, paper, rock ...

I think yomi makes it more complex than is necessary, too.

Most of what we know about the world comes in through our eyes. When somebody is too close to see effectively, then the body sensitivity comes into play, and those push-hands, sticky-hands, body shift things can be most useful. We do a fair amount of this sensitivity work, looking to control an opponent's center. You can always tell when you have it and when you don't, both players know. We train it slowly -- it's harder to do at speed -- but it's a nice toy when you get it working.

Master Plan said...

What is the desired range for the Sera?

I've heard various arts (well, two versions of Silat (including a Serak (with the K, a Pak Vic student who now learns from Plinck, remotely))) espouse the "hands breadth" idea, that you "want" to be the distance of an outstretched hand (pinky tip to thumb tip when the hand is spread as far as possible)from your opponent.

I assume this is the infighting or trapping distance tho it's not entirely clear to me.

This seems, to me, and I've been at this for a far shorter time than ya'll, so I'm asking not asserting (tho it won't be stated as a question...), that this range is thus much more conducive to that body-sensitivity stuff. Rory in his blog and book seems to work towards this as well, no eyes elbow control, etc.

I don't mean this as being the ONLY option, just that if you are going to be deflecting\redirecting\evading their attack and closing with them then isn't the very close proximity going to favor a sensitivity approach over a visual approach?

I would think as well that in terms of reaction gaps and such you have to work this way as you're going to be behind the curve if you "wait" (not actually waiting, but...) to see what they are doing instead of just always feeling what they are doing due to body contact.

Certainly in push hands I've found this to be true, not only are you too close to really see what they are doing, but it's also too slow to work very effectively compared to always being aware of their center, position, movement, etc.

Also, in retrospect, a lot of Judo seemed to work this way as well. Which I find interesting because it was never really directly addressed (in classes I took) but it seems much more effective and "essential" than a lot of things I was taught.

What do you think?

Steve Perry said...

I've been doing our version of Sera for fourteen years, and I've never heard the hands-breadth thing before.

Of course, our version and Pak Vic's version are sort of like second cousins once removed ...

We work all the classic ranges, kick, punch, elbow, grapple, and try to get comfortable in all of them.

Knife range is slightly longer than punching, for obvious reasons. Machete is closer to kicking range.

I came into silat from long-range arts, where kicking was the preference and punching acceptable, but closer was rare. It took me a while to get used to going in, but I'm more comfortable with elbow and grappling range now.

Generally -- generally -- we like to close, smother attacks, and be close enough for elbows and takedowns for a finish. Sera looks more at home in your face -- to me -- than Tjimande (Cimande), which seems happier in the mid-range. Not that they can't work there, but most of what I've seen is short-punch, long-elbow. Our elbow is very tight. We like to imagine that you have a marble in the crook of your elbow, and you have to keep it there when you strike.

Against outfighters, elbow range is good, and while most of our grappling is looser than tight judo, we don't mind getting nose-to-nose, where head-butts work pretty well.

We have four basic kicks we like, but they are for targets of opportunity, we don't try to set up kicks.

We feel your balance is better with both feet on the ground, so you don't kick unless you are pretty sure you can connect and not leave yourself hopping around on one leg.

Same with trapping. If somebody gives it to you, take it, but we don't reach out for those, either. We feel that trapping is tricky at best and easy to screw up. A trap against a full-power and full-speed punch is iffy.

We do train for sensitivity in close, feel, rather than eyes, and try for control at the root -- above the elbow, or at the shoulder, rather than the wrist, like that. If you can take the other fighter's center, you have the advantage, and a lot of what we do is to disrupt and go for that control.