Subscribe to Ron Goin's Blog feed
The thoughts and viewpoints on this blog are my own and represent my skeptical, critical-thinking approach to martial arts, combative training, film, the field of cognitive science, and random subjects.
Updated: 5 hours 4 min ago


Sat, 2015-03-07 16:23
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days"
from the musical Cats

A friend of mine recently called, and it wasn't long before we started reminiscing about some of our training days back when the world was much younger.

On most Saturday mornings for a several years in the 70s my friends and I would get together and fight.  When it was warm we would go to Shelby Park in East Nashville, and if the weather was bad we would train at the gym at Two Rivers Baptist Church just across the river in Donelson.

Everybody fought, mostly full contact.

Some days we would box.  Other days we would kickbox.  The rules would change from week to week, or even during the same training session.  We might allow clinching and grappling, or we might include leg kicks.  Sometimes we would just wrestle or do a form of sloppy judo.  We might limit the techniques that could be used, so that one guy could only use his hands, while other could only kick.  Most of the time our rounds lasted 3 minutes.  But we sometimes went long, maybe 5 minutes or so.  Other times we would do 1 minute rounds or even 30 second rounds.  Breaks might last a minute, but usually we only rested for 15 to 30 seconds between rounds.  Occasionally we would add rules that made us do active resting, so it was not uncommon to do jumping jacks or push ups or crunches between rounds.

We made up scenario training that we thought was fun, but was actually fairly cutting edge and ahead of its time.  For example "Freshman" fighting was where one guy stayed in the middle and fought fresh, rested opponents every minute or so.  We also would put one guy in a corner and have him fight his way out against two or three others who were intent on keeping him wedged in.

We did "Ring of Fire" where one guy was in the middle of a circle and attackers would move in one by one at a signal unbeknownst to the victim.  We also did "You and Whose Army" where a guy would have to face a line of attackers who came in like the bull on the old Schlitz Malt Liquor ads.

In all of the rounds, hundreds of rounds, countless rounds that we fought we had one special rule:  If someone trips, slips and falls, the fight did not stop.  In fact, the fighting merely intensified.  This, to us, simulated a real street fight where there were no rules and no refs.

Near the end of every training session we would usually do some weapons work.  This might be stick fighting, knife fighting with knives made from wood, staff fighting or sword fighting using bokken we bought from an import shop at 100 Oaks Mall.  Sometimes we would go stick versus knife, or staff versus stick. 

We always finished with specific self-defense scenario training that focused on realistic attacks.  We hated prearranged, choreographed training, but we did design certain standard attack/response scenarios that we believed were likely to occur.  We figured we needed to sear these techniques into our brains and bodies so that they became automatic responses.  We did not really know the term "muscle memory," but we understood the concept and capitalized on the process.

Our training gear was limited.  This was due to two factors:  We were poor, and we were stupid.  We usually had boxing gloves, and most of us were able to get shin guards from a local sporting goods store that was located in downtown Nashville near the high school where I had attended, Hume Fogg Technical.

We bought lacrosse gloves which we used for weapons training, and some of us had football padding.  We usually had at least two sets of head gear, wiping out the other guys sweat, but even without the safety gear we fought anyway.

What I loved was the fact that although we trained hard we rarely got mad at each other.  We shook hands before and after each match up.  We respected each other and gave good, objective feedback at the end of each training session.  In fact, we might even interrupt a match if we saw something particular noteworthy.  If someone brought in something new that they stole from a book, or if someone stumbled on a cool, effective technique, we would all work on that skill and troubleshoot how to incorporate it into various scenarios.

Training indoors was good, but what we really dug was fighting outside.  At Shelby Park there were flat areas, uneven woodsy areas, and plenty of hills.  I remember one session where we fought on the side of a particularly steep hill.  It was exhausting but really a ton of fun.  There was a Cedar log clubhouse in the park back in those days, and if there was no church or family picnic going on, we would go inside and fight on the stairs or in the tight confines of the corners of the rooms. 

We were lucky.  We rarely got hurt.  Sure, we had bloody noses and busted lips.  Sometimes a jammed finger or badly bruised thighs or sharp, painful shin impact.  But we would just follow standard coaching procedure and "walk it off."  It was not uncommon to see somebody with a cone of tissue stuffed into a bleeding nostril.

Of all the training I've done over almost five decades of martial arts and combatives training, I must say these were my favorite training experiences.  

I miss getting up and driving to go over and get my buddies. 
I miss warming up and stretching and doing a little roadwork to loosen the muscles.  

I miss the camaraderie and the joking and the playful teasing when we screwed up.  I miss touching gloves before the violence started.

I miss stealing ice from the church kitchen to make a compress for a sprained elbow.  I miss insisting on two guys shaking hands when things were starting to get heated up and tempers were starting to get out of control.  

I miss coming home with a nice mouse on my cheek or the beginnings of a black eye.  

I do not really miss getting kicked in the nuts or getting hit on the knuckle with stick. 

If doing is learning, then I learned a LOT.  Of all of the great seminars I've participated in, with some of the world's leading instructors, I must say that I probably learned more from just fighting with my pals.


Mon, 2015-01-19 17:28
"Don't stop believing."Journey
"People are crazier than anybody."Ron Goin
I was chatting online not to long ago with a guy who believes in Reiki.  And not just any old Reiki mind you.  No, this guy believes in "remote" Reiki.  

Just to catch you up, Reiki is this type of new age-y "therapy" in which a Reiki practitioner (often called a "master") moves his or her hands near the client's body to manipulate "energy fields".  No physical contact is made.   It's all done in the air, inches away from the skin.  Reiki practitioners claim to be able to help with all kinds of health problems from basic relaxation all the way up to treating disease and injury.  

But in "remote" Reiki, they go the extra mile, literally--they claim that they can send energy manipulation across time and space.  

Let's say, for example, that you have a torn rotator cuff, but you live in, oh I dunno, let's say Siberia.  Well, a remote Reiki master could wave his hands in his rumpus room in Des Moines, and soon these vibrations will travel miles and miles, cross different time zones, and suddenly you'll have full range of motion.  

So, in my online chat I said something like, "Surely you must be joking, you don't really believe that, do you?" half expecting the guy to say "Yes I do, and don't call me Shirley."  

Instead the guy said he didn't just believe it, he KNEW it.  He even put "KNEW" in upper case.

He knows it works.  No evidence is needed, at least no evidence that would meet the modern definition of the word.  No double blind testing.  No statistics.  No peer-reviewed analysis.  He just knows.  Excuse me, he KNOWS.

In another conversation I had with a religious person, a guy told me something similar.  "Prayer works; prayer actually changes things," he said with absolute conviction.  "I KNOW it works.  I've personally experienced the benefits of prayer."  

(Note:  He didn't put "know" in upper case, 'cause he was talking, but he said it more emphatically than the rest of the conversation, so that counts).  

He told me that he no longer craved alcohol and cigarettes, and that he now goes to church regularly and reads scripture daily. I said something like, "But that doesn't really prove anything.  Lots of people just go cold turkey and give up stuff  all the time, and tons of people make conscious decisions to change their lives--and stop doing terrible things.  They head to the gym.  They go on diets.  They stop smoking.  They quit wearing those hideous hipster hats."

He was not swayed.  He had dropped anchor, and it was holding fast.  He sincerely believed the bumper sticker that reads, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!"

This "knowledge", this faith, this act of believing with no evidence whatsoever, is an odd thing.  

David Schneider of Rice University said, "Huge numbers of our beliefs seem so grounded in reality or so much a part of our culture that it seems silly to question them and an empty academic exercise to seek their sources. On the other hand, most of us, at least when we are being thoughtful, recognize that other of our beliefs may have fragile contact indeed with any known larger reality. Furthermore people hold anomalous beliefs with as much conviction as we hold our unproblematic beliefs, and they often turn the tables on us by suggesting that we are the people who are out of touch with reality."

So, somebody believes some weird thing like ghosts, or alien abductions, or Sasquatch, or mind control via chemtrails, but when we question it, WE end up being the weird ones.

As readers of my blog know, I have said one or two (or 17) critical things about the martial arts; i.e., pressure point knockouts and chi manipulation.  I routinely suggest to my nuttier friends to IX-NAY on the I-CHAY.  

Most turn a deaf ear to my suggestions.  It's like they have a hearing problem that even a Reiki master couldn't heal.

So here's the deal.  We, you and me, us, all have weird beliefs.  Mark Twain knew this.  He wrote, "When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition.  I doubt if I could do it myself."

Fortunately, training in critical thinking and the rational process of inquiry can have an impact and begin to overcome some of the mental obstacles of superstition,
belief in the paranormal, and a whole host of personal biases. 

My own journey from faith-based acceptance to factual-based thinking took many years.  After years of ignorance I made a commitment to familiarize myself with the science I should have learned in school, and I read hundreds of books and articles.  Slowly the dimmer switch brought light to my cob-web covered, dusty attic of a brain.  I now no longer recognize the person I once was, and I find that the style of thinking about the world that I used to have is foreign and laughably embarrassing.

In his contribution to Edge's 2012 Annual Question, Nathan Myhrvold wrote about what he thinks of his favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation--the scientific method:  "Stories about different aspects of the world can be questioned skeptically, and tested with observations and experiments. If a story survives the tests then provisionally at least one can accept it as something more than a mere story; it is a theory that has real explanatory power. It will never be more than a provisional explanation—we can never let down our skeptical guard—but these provisional explanations can be very useful. We call this process of making and vetting stories the scientific method."

As Carl Sagan once said, "You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don't see things as clearly as you do.  We have to guard carefully against it."


Sat, 2014-12-13 03:54
COMPLEX, DYNAMIC AND CHAOTIC“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.”Henry Adams

“I accept chaos, I'm not sure whether it accepts me.”Bob Dylan
Visit some dojos and you might come away believing that combat is a disciplined, controlled and orderly activity.  Students move in unison, cooperate almost completely with one another, and they champion the concept that martial arts is all about self-discovery and self-development.  Watch a self-defense demonstration and you might see sequences of movements that, like dominoes arranged in a pattern, fall into place perfectly.

I have a much different view.  I have witnessed real violence, and I have on a few occasions witnessed violence up close and personal.  It is most certainly not controlled or orderly.  It is messy, and nasty, and fast, and ugly.

Complex and Dynamic

I have often said that fighting is chaotic, and it logically follows that we should prepare to deal with this chaos by introducing more chaotic elements into our training.

But in the world of science, and particularly in the field of mathematics, the term chaos has a very specific and precise definition.  I think it is important to understand this and other concepts so that we may better design our system of personal protection.

First, let's talk about the concept of a system.  In science and mathematics--the language of science--a system is some concrete or abstract area or field of study.  

We as martial artists and personal protection specialists focus our attention on the very concrete area of physical aggression, and the movements one takes to evade, neutralize and counterattack aggressive actions.  Thus we could say that we study, analyze and try to better understand the system of violent aggressive behavior, and we work towards developing a comprehensive system of personal protection tactics that allows us to survive a violent encounter.

We study observable behaviors, actions and responses, and we also trouble-shoot variables that might occur as these violent interactions take place.

At any point in time during a violent interaction, that is at a specific state, there are certain conditions and variables at play.  I have often referred to what I call the six phases of a physical attack, and these may be valuable in illustrating this concept:  (1)  Preparation; (2) Approach; (3) Delivery; (4) Execution; (5) Follow Thru; and (6) Recovery.  

A stop-action photograph for example could help us detect slightly different actions that subtly distinguish one phase from another.  Take a boxer's jab for example.  A jab normally begins from a boxer's on guard position (the preparation), then it requires a step (the approach), a forward movement of the hand and arm (the delivery), the full extension and snap of the fist (the execution and the follow thru), and the quick return to an on guard position (the recovery).  Obviously in real-time the steps or phases are seamless, and they flow together in continuous action.

One could look closely at any number of physical actions--from a golf swing, to a tennis forehand, to a double leg take-down in wrestling--and observe most if not all of these same six phases in action.

 If we are to study a system of hostile aggression in order to develop a system of self defense, a thorough understanding of the concept of a system is key.  

A simple system has a limited number of parts or steps, and there a few variables at play.  For example one could argue that throwing a frisbee or spinning a hula hoop--let's call these simple systems--are relatively simple actions with few variables and a small number of steps.  

A system of dealing with violent aggressive behavior however is most definitely not in this category.  It is, in contrast, a complex and dynamic system that is made up of a large number of simple steps, parts or actions with specific functional roles and which interact with each other to accomplish some greater functionality.

A complex system has built-in redundancy so that it can survive the removal of one or a small number of parts.  But it is, at the same time, efficient so that adding more and more parts does not necessarily add value or improve the functionality of the system.  

A complex system is generally represented as being impacted by time (phase space).  A chess game for example has a beginning or opening phase, a middle phase, and an end game.  Different tactics are at play, and different strategies may be utilized, at each of the various phases.  This may be referred to as a trajectory--the way the system unfolds or evolves over time.  In fact it is this fact of change-over-time that defines a system as dynamic.

The Value of Prediction

Let's take a quick side trip, shall we?  

I previously mentioned chess not by accident.  Chess, at first glance, may seem like a simple game with a specific number of pieces with a limited number of rules, but it is truly complex.  As Andrew Latham says "chess is actually very much a game of prediction..."   although a human player can memorize openings and endgame patterns, ultimately chess is not about determining the perfect moves so much as predicting which moves will lead to better positions.  This is the fundamental difference between tactics and strategy - tactics involve rote calculation with perfect information, while strategy is almost entirely predictive, making guesses based on foundational principles, human experience, and intuition as to which plans will yield the most promising positions, that is, those positions that have the best chance of yielding a win."  

Uber statistician Nate Silver, whose approach to collecting and analyzing data, what is known as 'probabilistic thinking,' says in his book The Signal and the Noise--Why So Many Predictions Fail-But Some Don't, that chess is a perfect analogy about complex, dynamic systems and predictive analysis.

At the beginning of a chess game, he says, there are 20 potential movements with white's opening, and 20 potential movements with black's responses.  This means there are 4,000 possible sequences after the first turn.  After the second turn there are 71,852 possible sequences, and after the third an amazing 9,132,484 possibilities.  If that blows your mind, consider this:  The number of possibilities in an entire game of chess, says Diego Rasskin-Gutman, is greater than the number of atoms in the universe.

Let that sink in for a moment.

If we compare the game of chess to a physical altercation and personal protection encounter, as many people have done, just imagine the number of possibilities in that there are significantly more options than a chess game.  Trying to make an accurate prediction of an outcome would be almost impossible since there is simply so much uncertainty.

Nate Silver says that there is an on-going tension between risk and uncertainty when trying to flawlessly predict outcomes.  In such areas as the long-range forecasting of weather patterns, trying to figure out the stock market, and making accurate and actionable earthquake predictions, there is always lots and lots and lots of data--some of which, says Silver, is nothing but noise.

A Today excerpt of Silver's book tells us that "stone-age strengths have become information-age weaknesses.  Human beings do not have very many natural defenses.  We are not all that fast, and we are not all that strong.  We do not have claws or fangs or body armor.  We cannot spit venom.  We cannot camouflage ourselves.  And we cannot fly.  Instead, we survive by means of our wits.  Our minds are quick.  We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without much hesitation." 

What all this means is that we're very good at generalizing--"finding patterns in random noise."  Maybe that's why we see the face of Christ in a grilled cheese sandwich or why we see a structure in the shape of a human face in pictures of Mars.  

Silver says that the signal is the truth, the nugget of important information that we're looking for, but all the rest, the noise, is what distracts us from the signal.

Back to Chaos

A dynamic system has specific initial conditions.  That chess board we imagined for example begins with the pieces set up in a very specific order.  A dynamic system will change over time, and we can better predict the outcome, or generate a solution, if we clearly understand this initial state and the rules of the game.  But if we feed "solutions back into the rule as a new initial condition" (Rickles, Hawe and Shiell), we generate chaos.  

Chaotic systems are non-linear in that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Small changes, or interventions during the process, can have large outcomes (or vice versa) down the road.  

Another feature of any system is the presence (or absence)  of predictability.  A deterministic system or process is one in which the trajectories of the past and the future can be concluded from its present state.  If we drop the plate that we purchased at the crafts fair we can generally predict that it will break into dozens of pieces.  We also know that before it was a plate it was made up of raw materials in the potter's hands.  We can accurately predict both trajectories.

A semi-deterministic system on the other hand is one in which the future trajectory can be predicted, but not the past.  However in an indeterministic system one cannot even predict the future trajectory, because the change or evolution is random.

Cannon balls, clocks and the movement of the planets in our solar system are said to be deterministic systems.  "We ought to regard the present state of the universe," said Laplace, "as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow."  There is a sense of inevitability in a deterministic system.  Put on a DVD of "Enter The Dragon", for example, and the movie plays out the same way each time.

I was recently reading about Joe De Sena, creator of the Spartan obstacle-course races and a direct competitor of the Tough Mudder events.  Because of his philosophy that "we all need adversity to grow," racers are subject to his whims.  He just might arbitrarily extend a race as competitors get close to the finish line.  How indeterministic is that!     

"Chaos is the generation of complicated...seemingly random behaviour from the iteration of a simple rule.  This complicatedness is not complex in the sense of complex systems science, but rather it is chaotic in a very precise mathematical sense.  Complexity is the generation of rich, collective dynamical behaviour from simple interactions between large numbers of subunits.  Chaotic systems are not necessarily complex, and complex systems are not necessarily chaotic," (Rickles, Hawe and Shiell).

Both complex and chaotic systems are sensitive to initial conditions; however, they follow different trajectories over time, thus impacting one's ability to make predictions.

So What Does All This Mean?

Predictability and probability are important factors in a system of personal protection.  There are elements of chaos in the system of physical aggression that we study, and equally in any system we develop to defend against potential violence, and trying to predict what an attacker may do may be impossible.  Working towards determining and planning for each step of the action seems like an exercise in futility (just remember what Diego Rasskin-Gutman said about the number of possibilities in an entire game of chess being greater than the number of atoms in the universe).

It is this which seems out of place in the nice, orderly martial arts academies where carefully rehearsed, thoroughly choreographed routines of sequential movements are practiced and memorized by rote.

(1); (2); (3)