We arrived at Tombo Dojo (the cabin) to find the electricity off. Brand new system, 16 grand or more, and it’s broke. A bunch of electronics in a box I’m afraid, not the old transformers and wires that you could trace out yourself and say “ah, the mouse chewed the wire, give me the electrical tape” so we wait on the pleasure of the electrician.
Sort of like cars, you plug them in to computers rather than open the hood with a hammer in your hand.
Computers are a higher order of complexity, requiring massive amounts of energy to create them and the same amount to replace them because low-energy fixes just aren’t possible.
When I finish my coffee this morning I’m out to the sauna to fix the stove while waiting on the electrician. The sauna stovepipes have rusted out and people want to have saunas. They have told me a couple of times “oh, the sauna is broken” (not so subtle code for “I want a sauna and I want you to fix it because it’s yours and that means it’s your job, and then I’ll use it….thanks”) which means I am about to spend a lot of energy installing new pipes. The pipes? No I didn’t smelt them, I bought them with that symbol of energy, money.
Money represents the energy of others. I exert energy making bokuto in my shop. People pay me for that energy when they buy the bokuto. I spend that money (my energy-my customer’s energy) on pipe which is the result of someone else’s energy.
The energy of those who tell me stuff is broken? Wisely low. I don’t charge family and friends money to fix stuff, nor do I charge them money to put wear and tear into this stuff. Which is exactly why those who believe in “homo economicus” get it wrong. It’s not about money, it’s about the energy behind the money and how people ex-spend that. The equations of energy expenditure go far beyond shopping for sales. I buy coffee in a shop where I like the service (With the Grain), not where it’s cheapest (Timmy’s). I don’t buy expensive coffee at WTG because I think it’s fashionably full of sugar (Sun-dollars), but because they have a nice window seat where I can look out at all the energy being spent just to move people around inefficiently, using dinosaur guts and millions of years of pressure to create massively expensive concentrated liquid energy which we extract and burn to move our arses around from home to the gym where we expend energy in an attempt to keep ourselves from getting fat.
It’s all about entropy, the constant tendency to lose organization, or as you might say, information. The study of archaeology is the examination of traces of organization to infer the shape of the original organization. The bones of dinosaurs give us, with the energy of our imaginations, the shapes of dinosaurs. It takes energy to dig out the bones, put them together and create an idea of the original.
Information is organization. If we can recover the DNA of a Mastadon we can perhaps grow a Mastadon. In the meantime we can read the DNA and say to ourselves “this gene, therefore perhaps this function”. DNA is better information than rocks in the shape of bones.
Which brings us to our recent considerations of old fighting books. They are information about a way of moving that once existed but no longer does. The books are more like DNA for actions than they are stones for bones. They are information of a high order, invested with a lot of energy spent on writing and illustrating them. With more energy we can recreate something that is close to the original movements of the fighting system. Yes we fill in with what we know, just as we filled in dinosaurs with what we knew of lizards at first, now with what we know of birds, including warm bloodedness and feathers.
Some thoughts inspired by “Limits of understanding in the study of lost martial arts” by Eric Burkart, Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Hema studies at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds July 2016.
There are only so many ways to twist a wrist. Only so many angles to remove a head from a body with a sword. In his section on interpreting records of technique, Burkart worries about bad translations or bad transcriptions, about misunderstanding the difference between the original culture and ours, about using modern equipment vs period armour, about misunderstanding of the uses of the original techniques.
He is concerned with the difference between experiencing a technique and experimenting it. All these considerations are a result of entropy, of the loss of information from then to now.
I have mentioned a couple of times how there are only so many ways to twist a wrist, but Burkart makes the very valid point that biomechanics can’t explain everything. A good example is Uke Nagashi from the kendo federation iai set. I am a biomechanics guy. I look at this technique and say “does it work”? Does it make sense? It starts in seiza, one steps forward with the left foot, raises the sword overhead to block a cut from a standing opponent, then replies with a cut of one’s own.
Experimentation with the biomechanics tells me that one can’t do this without being off both knees and driving the block into the cut as one rises. Some folks state that this is not the way it should be done, that the block should be shown to be there. I won’t argue the merits of these views at the moment, but will simply say that I agree that there are considerations beyond biomechanical efficiency.
Having said that, I also believe that there is a danger of idealizing the past, of assuming there is more to the fighting systems than is present in the manuals. We have the complete manuscripts, perhaps the lack of concept discussion means there are no concepts, rather than that they were left out. There is a possibility that the masters of the past may not be as clever as we make them.
I mean, one of the students is cooking and just stated “we’re out of propane” because the flame went out. I suggested that he try lighting the stove again and hey, it wasn’t out of energy. Sometimes entropy is just turning the knob the wrong way.
Sometimes we haven’t lost as much as we thought, perhaps, maybe we just assume more complexity than there was, we imagine information that we would like to have, has been forgotten.
But even the masters of the golden age had staircases to their upper floor. We maybe haven’t lost the knowledge of how to jump up through the outside window, maybe it was never there.
July 29, 2017