Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thoughts on growing up, on the occasion of the marriage of an old and dear friend

I tend to only see my own aging as a matter of hindsight. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. Every day you get one day older, but many years might pass by before you properly appreciate how far down the stream you have come. By the time I was willing to countenance thinking of myself as a 'young man', I knew that already the 'young' qualifier was not really appropriate - in terms of age, I was just a 'man'. When I truly was a young man, I just thought of myself as a teenager, including until well into my 20s. When you are confronted with evidence of how your life is progressing past you, you feel foolish for not noting it earlier, and feel embarrassed at the way you laughed at all those before you for whom aging caught them by surprise. Papa Holmes told me the other day that although he is much older, in many ways he still thinks of himself as he did at 18. I suspect he too is not alone in this respect. I remember a Reddit post where doctors were talking about the last words that some of their patients uttered. One of the ones that stuck with me was a guy whose last utterance was 'When did this happen? When did I get old?'

To take joy in returning to the pleasures and ways of the past is not necessarily nostalgia. Sometimes one will be clinging sentimentally to the idea of some golden age, and as a way of not letting go of one's youth, which is what I think of as being nostalgia in the true sense. But other times, enjoying the company of good people really is just a great experience worth trying to preserve. It was excellent in the past when you got to do it all the time, and it is still excellent when you get to do it now, albeit less frequently. Unlike getting old, I can proudly say that I did reflect at the time on what a rare pleasure it was to spend one's time with excellent companions.

Congratulations on getting married, old friend.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

La Dolce Vita

If there is a more reliable way to produce contentment than to graze under a large mulberry tree for 20 minutes and slowly eat one's way around, I'm not sure what it is.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A feature I wish they still had on phones

I was heading back to Australia recently, and true to my disorganised form, hadn't actually figured out the address of the place I was going. I could email my friend to find out, but I was getting on the plane in 15 minutes time, and probably wouldn't receive his reply before then. Once I got to Australia, of course, I wouldn't have free internet on my phone to check the reply. I checked through my phone, but didn't have his number written down anywhere. Bother.

Then I thought about it more, and I realised that I still remembered his mobile phone number from the better part of a decade ago. By contrast, I don't think I remember just about any US phone numbers whatsoever. It's not like I'm Rain Man or anything. (The fact that I'd forgotten to ask about the address in the first place kind of confirms this).

The reason I still remembered his number is that I used to call my friend back in the day when mobile phones would display the following when you call someone:

'Calling Michael Mobile
0412 345 678'

And the simple repetition of seeing the person's number in front of you over and over meant that eventually you remembered it.

I'm not saying I'd trade the modern version of syncing and backing up contacts for the previous one. But given you're going to be looking at the screen anyway over and over before you put it up to your ear, it would be incredibly handy to have the option to display the number. That way I could remember my US friends' numbers for the cases when I don't have my phone on me, or when it's dead.

Apparently I'm the only one who cares about this, since it would be trivially easy to implement, but nobody's doing it. Ah well.

Anyway, as this post implies, my holidaying around creates a lower than normal volume of written hilarity. Part time posting to continue for the next few weeks, and full time posting to resume in the New Year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thought of the Day

You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your f***ing khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
-Fight Club
Or if you prefer the book:
This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.
-Chuck Palahniuk

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Things you can infer about 'Songs of Love'

I always enjoy when someone's choice of words reveal things about them that they almost certainly didn't intend to convey.

A great example of this can be found in the wonderful Ben Folds song, 'Songs of Love'.

Let me pose the challenge in advance to you. Where was Ben Folds when he was inspired to write the song?

I've put a copy of the video below. To make sure you focus on the important part of the lyrics, I've written down the first two verses. Read through them, and see if you can infer what I inferred.
Pale pubescent beasts,
Roam through the streets,
And coffee shops.
Their prey gather in herds,
Of stiff knee-length skirts,
And white ankle socks.
But while they search for a mate
My type hibernate,
In bedrooms above,
Composing their songs of love.
Young, uniform minds
In uniform lives,
And uniform ties,
Run round, with trousers on fire
and signs of desire they cannot disguise,
While I try to find words,
As light as the birds,
That circle above,
To put in my songs of love.
The song is here:

In case you want to guess, the answer is below the fold (no pun intended):

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One and a Half Cheers for MMA

I find myself somewhat conflicted on the subject of mixed martial arts, like the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Far and away the best thing about them is that they've proven incredibly useful as a vast experiment in the most effective hand-to-hand combat techniques. Previously, all you had was a bunch of different martial arts - boxing, karate, jiu jitsu, what have you - and you'd just pick whatever one seemed cool to you. You'd spend ages developing techniques in that style, and learn how to counter the attacks of someone else coming at you with the same set of moves.

But this left almost completely unanswered the far more important question of what the inherent weaknesses of the style were. In other words, suppose you perfected the techniques of that particular style. What weaknesses would that leave you open to if you were attacked by someone who wasn't limiting themselves to attacking you in the same way that you were planning to attack them?

Hand-to-hand combat instructors, including places like the military, have been interested in this question for ages, and indeed had developed training that was a synthesis of a number of different styles. But UFC really caused this exploration process to explode. By providing a television spectacle and large cash prizes, it gave big incentives for the best fighters in the world to actually explore and come up with different combinations of techniques. The range of styles currently used covers a bunch of principal components (if you will) of martial arts space: ground-and-pound, submission grappling, sprawl-and-brawl (apparently rhyming names have proved popular), etc. These may not have a rich pedigree of historical tradition, but is there really any doubt that learning any one of these would prove vastly more effective than just perfecting a single traditional style?

One of the big lessons that came out of the early UFC rounds is that a lot of traditional martial arts (boxing, karate, muay thai) work great when you're both standing on your feet, but are virtually useless if the guy takes you to the ground. Which, if he's doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he will. And then your training will have very little to say about what you should do. MMA has injected a lot of life into the intellectual question of fighting styles, and forced a bunch of fossilised martial arts to consider honestly what their strengths and weaknesses are.

So that's cheer #1.

Cheer #2, which is really half a cheer, is related to cheer #1. As MMA has become more popular, people have started to learn MMA directly, rather than studying other fighting styles. To the extent that I think that these MMA synthesis styles are better for self-defense, this is a good thing. If you're going to have to defend yourself in a bar, you want to have the most effective way possible. And giving people knowledge that they think will help them defend themselves can actually make them worse, if it causes them to get in more fights because they think (incorrectly) that they'll win.

Did you ever notice that Bruce Lee isn't often seen fighting his way up from the ground in movies, or dealing with guys holding him in grappling moves? Do you wonder why that is? It's not that it's not possible to keep standing up. It's that you're in a lot of trouble if your fighting style relies on both people standing up and being at a distance from each other, and you don't know how to stop the other guy taking you to the ground or getting you in a clinch hold. You're in even more trouble if you're a guy who's learned karate and gets in a fight without having given this some thought in advance. MMA thus ensures that you know better what you'll actually be up against.

The only slight hitch here is that I think that MMA practitioners don't think fully about the implicit restrictions that MMA places on fights which a bar fight does not. To a lesser extent, this is particular moves like eye gouging, small joint manipulation, groin attacks etc. But the much bigger one is the ability to deal with multiple attackers at once. Skills like taking the other guy to ground in a choke hold are immensely useful in a one-on-one fight. They are disastrous if the guy has three friends around who will kick you in the head as you perform the choke hold on the ground. The more people are attacking you, the more 'stay on your feet at all costs' becomes a crucial principle.

That's okay though. People can figure that out. Overall, I'm a pretty big fan of MMA in the abstract, and am interested in what it reveals about fighting styles. So what's the issue?

The problem is that I just find it rather gross and distasteful to actually watch. Just to check, I went over to the UFC website. The current headline was "Free fight - Shogun stomps his way to a pride title", where the photo showed the guy in question stomping on his opponent, who was on the ground. The bout ended, as it usually does, with one guy on the ground being punched in the face over and over until the referee calls it off. And I just can't help but find this barbarous and unpleasant to look at. Every now and again, one of those guys on the ground is actually being beaten to death. Sure, it's rare, but it's still troubling that during every one of those deaths, the crowd was cheering the guy on doing the beating.

In other words, what I find the most gross about these events is the crowd. I personally don't like watching guys beat the hell out of each other. But lots of other people apparently do. You can dress it up in fancy terms like watching the skill and the spectacle, but at its heart, the appeal is the same as that of the circus maximus, nature documentaries where one animal hunts and kills another, and every other kind of blood porn. People find it exhilarating to watch one creature attack and kill another.

The guys in the ring are professional athletes. They know the risks, and they're paid handsomely for what they do. That's fine. It's their job.

The guys in the audience, on the other hand, are there because they like watching people hurt each other. And try as I might, I can see nothing at all to celebrate in their behaviour. People are of course free to exercise their liberty however they want. But it takes a particularly obtuse sort of libertarian to not consider the possibility that a society where more people exercise their freedom to watch the ballet might have more to recommend than one where people exercise their freedom to watch a boxing match.

This may be human nature, but it's a particularly dark side of human nature, and not one I think ought to be celebrated.