Jiujitsu Drilling as Dancing – The Dao of Danaher pt. 2

This post is part of a series inspired by John Danaher. You can read Part 1 here.

As a student of jiujitsu, one of the most common things you’ll hear from professors is something like: “Posture!” or “You need better posture!” or “Posture up!”

As a beginner coming to jiujitsu from a dance background, I found this terribly confusing. You see, I was used to being reminded to maintain “good posture” by my dance teachers. But “good posture” means something entirely different in the context of dance.

House – The Beat
Maestra Yismari. I can still hear her correcting my posture.

And so, for my first few months of jiujitsu, whenever one of my coaches would say, “Steve, posture!,” I would straighten my spine, roll back my shoulders, and––promptly and predictably––be swept.*

It took time for me to grok what my jiujitsu instructors meant. But I suppose I could have just studied Connor McGregor, who is a master posturer––in oh so many ways.

Connor nails the dancer’s posture during his weigh-in:

Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone hit 170-pounds limit as stars weigh in  ahead of Las Vegas showdown | Daily Mail Online

But he would never actually fight in that ridiculous stance. His fighting stance looks more like this:

Or instead of studying Connor, I could have studied the peacock, which possesses nature’s best dance posture.

Peacock: Would you like to dance? Other peacock: No, I’d rather eat bugs.

And an impressive fighting posture, too:

This essay isn’t about posture. But posture is a neat illustration of the often inverted relationship between dance and jiujitsu.

Ukes and Leads

Before moving on, a quick vocabulary lesson for the uninitiated: Uke. Uke is a romanization of a Japanese word for a specific training partner. In particular, if one student is practicing a triangle choke, his uke is the unfortunate red-faced soul being triangled over and over again.

I’ve been trying to write about my experiences dancing and fighting since I began training jiujitsu nearly four years ago. (My dance career started in high school musicals and I have been a diligent student of Latin dance for close to a decade). But I’ve never been able to put my finger on just what it is I had to say about the relationship between dance and jiujitsu––at least until I heard Lex Fridman’s interview with John Danaher.

Danaher, whom I hope has taken up salsa dancing during his stay in Puerto Rico, explains that jiujitsu drilling––as opposed to jiujitsu sparring––is like dancing: In sparring, your goal is to make your partner look bad; in drilling (and dancing), your goal is to make your partner look good.

Now is a good time to remind readers that I am not very good at jiujitsu. After just over three and a half years of training, I have a reasonable handle on a single position––and that position is, frankly, not very important to the art. But something I think I am pretty good at is being a uke. I attribute this to dance.

Being an effective uke in Brazilian Jiujitsu is like being a good partner dance lead. This might seem counterintuitive. You might think that the person executing the technique is the lead and the uke is the follow. But for effective drilling, it’s the opposite.

If you’d like to effectively drill a technique, your uke must first create the circumstances in which the drilled technique is appropriate. Here’s a simple illustration using attacks from the half guard position, which is where John Danaher likes to start new students.

The very first attack a student learns from the half guard is a “back take” using an underhook. This means that the student starts underneath his uke, but ends up with control of his uke’s back. To execute it, a student first attains an underhook. His head and body follow his underhooking arm to his uke’s back. The beginning of the technique looks something like this:

Stupid and simple as it seems, in my experience knowing to attain this underhook will allow a new jiujitsu practitioner to dominate an untrained sparring partner most of the time.

Things get more interesting with a knowledgeable uke. The in-the-know uke will not simply let his opponent sneak out to the back. Instead, he may insert an overhook, known in this context for who-knows-what-reason as “a whizzer.”

Should your uke “lead” with a whizzer, you must then adapt! That often means executing a “Plan B” sweep, which involves rolling under your uke, taking advantage of the fact that he cannot stop the roll with his hand, which is too busy whizzering.

You may be thinking, “Wow, the uke has to know a lot of stuff.” And this is exactly my point. But first…

Dance Break!

Dancers have their own strange vocabulary. In particular, I’ve always found it awkward that dancers will say something like, “I went social dancing on Friday night.” What this means is that they went to a club or event and danced with strangers. I think we could just say, “I went dancing,” but I digress.

Odd as it is, leading dances with strangers is kind of like being a uke over and over again––but to a fun dance beat!** With each new song, a lead must gauge a new follow’s ability. If his follow is a beginner, he will perhaps lead only right turns––the salsa equivalent of a sequence of half guard underhook sequences. Or maybe she’s that special someone, and he gets to break out the dance equivalent of a berimbolo.

This is to say that by learning to lead a partner dance, one gets very good at assessing and adapting to the physical capabilities of follows. I believe this translates to being a good jiujitsu uke. I’ve heard that jiujitsu black belts can tell how long someone has been training just by the initial grips they take. Dance is the same way.

Bored Black Belts

If you read my post The Dao of Danaher – Part 1, you’ll remember that Danaher recommends spending most of your sparring time training with partners who are worse than you are. I offer the dancer’s corollary: Most of your drilling time should ideally be spent with ukes who are better than you. A uke who is worse than you will not be able to create appropriate circumstances for practicing an advanced technique.

With that, I must qualify my above statement that I am a “pretty good uke.” I do not mean that I am a good uke for a black belt who is looking to improve his skills. I am a good uke for people my skill level and below.

For advanced jiujitsu students, it can be a frustrating or boring experience to drill with an untrained uke. Untrained or lesser-trained people are simply unable to provide an interesting learning environment for a more advanced training partner. They do not know how to create the proper physical circumstances and resistance.

And this, by the way, is part of why learning to dance salsa is such a challenge for men. In salsa dancing, men lead––always. Or: men only get to be uke. This means that a man who learns to lead salsa will inevitably have the experience of boring a woman follow. I write from abundant experience: There are few more painful experiences for a man than doing your best to lead a brilliant dance and seeing a visibly bored woman across from you.

I would go so far as to say that I would rather spend five minutes on the bottom of Marcus Almeida’s north-south control than dance a five minute song with a visibly bored woman.

International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation - Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida VS  João Gabriel Rocha / World Championship 2016 | Facebook

Actually, maybe not. But it’s close.

In conclusion:

-Learning to lead a partner dance is an excellent way to improve your skills as a uke.

-As much as possible, spend time drilling with people who are better than you.

-If you’re a woman, feigning interest in a man who is doing his best really goes a long way. But you already knew that, didn’t you.

*As you progress in jiujitsu, you come to understand that “good posture” is completely dependent on circumstances. “Good posture” means one thing while in someone’s closed guard, another when shooting a single leg takedown, and still another when “deadlifting” to combat a collar grip.

**Actually, I’ve daydreamed about a jiujitsu class instructed in-sync with a beat. I think this is a bad idea, but it could be interesting? Maybe?

How to Overcome Risk Aversion and Develop Skills in BJJ, Baduk,* and Business (The Dao of Danaher pt. 1)

This post is the first of at least two posts inspired by John Danaher.

If you find yourself in an alleyway confronted by a limping bald man wearing a skin-tight rash guard and a fanny pack… run. That man is dangerous. That man is John Danaher.

The greatest mind in martial arts?

In addition to being the jiujitsu community’s best meme, Danaher is also the leading coach of modern sport jiujitsu. He has coached many of the top names in mixed martial arts and grappling, including Georges St-Pierre, Garry Tonon, and jiujitsu’s most dominant athlete, Gordon Ryan.

Danaher is known as a great systematizer of jiujitsu. He provides his disciples with an “If This, Then That” roadmap for any given grappling position. Over the last couple years he has published that system chunk-by-chunk in a series of instructional videos called “Enter the System,” available in a bundle for the immodest price of $1,000.**

But Danaher is not just a (now wealthy) jiujitsu savant. He is a polymath. He recently appeared on Lex Fridman’s podcast. Fridman, best known as an artificial intelligence researcher, is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt. Fridman and Danaher spoke for three and a half hours––mostly about martial arts––but also about life’s meaning, death, psychology, A.I., chess, and baduk.

With that, you should no longer be surprised to be reading about John Danaher here.

Two ideas from the podcast made strong impressions on me:

1. Danaher describes encouragement of risk-taking as a neglected but critical aspect of jiujitsu skill development.

2. Danaher compares drilling in jiujitsu to partner dancing. (This topic I feel unusually qualified to speak to. It will be part two of this series.)

Interlude: The Moment Before Sparring

That’s me on the left during open mat.

For anyone who has never trained jiujitsu before, I want you to understand that––at least in my experience––students feel anxiety every single class. There’s actually a certain comedy to it.

A typical jiujitsu class includes a warm up, instruction, drilling, and ends with an open mat. Open mat means sparring. And sparring means “really fighting”––a simulated one-on-one fight to the death between classmates that ends with a “tap” or an expiring timer.

Sparring rounds are initiated when a pair of classmates make eye contact with one another. One of them will then typically say a variant of, “Wanna roll?” And they’re off.

The comedy is that it is completely natural to avoid making eye contact with certain people. I am thinking of a certain brown belt at my gym who weighs well over 200 pounds and wrestled at the Division 1 collegiate level.

Even though I know the guy and trust him not to kill me, I still find myself averting my eyes from his gaze during open mat. Nothing makes me feel so primal. This brings me back to John Danaher.

Risk-Taking in Jiujitsu

One central tenet of Danaher’s jiujitsu pedagogy is his emphasis on encouragement of risk-taking to facilitate skill development. Now, this is almost a tautology: It is of course necessary to try new things (take risks) in order to learn new things. But things become interesting, Danaher points out, when you consider the findings of behavioral and evolutionary science. It is not so simple to take risks.

Danaher cites the work of Amos Tversky in particular. Tversky’s work on “loss aversion” shows that someone who loses $100 will lose more satisfaction than the same person will gain in satisfaction from a gain of $100. This loss aversion is rooted in evolutionary biology: Humans are “survival machines.” If death (extreme loss) is a possible outcome of an action, we don’t like to take it. Applied to jiujitsu, this is precisely why we don’t make eye contact with giant wrestling brown belts during open mat.

And so we arrive at Danaher’s pedagogy with loss aversion in mind.

First, Danaher teaches beginner jiujitsu students to defend themselves and escape from bad positions before teaching them to attack. The idea here is that the more confident a jiujitsu fighter is in his ability to escape from a bad position, the more likely he is to try a new technique.

Coincidentally, I wrote about this exact concept as an afterthought in my essay on learning to play jiujitsu’s turtle position:

“One nice thing about having a good turtle is that it takes away some of the risk of experimenting with new moves. I want to go for that triangle? Maybe they stack me and I have to turtle. I want to shoot a single leg? Go ahead, sprawl on me––see what happens! Make my day.”

I should really give myself more credit.

Second, Danaher encourages students to spend most of their sparring time training with people who are worse than they are. Again, if you are confident that you can beat someone, you will be more inclined to to take risks and try new techniques.

Risk-Taking in Baduk

Perhaps because Danaher and Fridman discuss baduk in their interview, I was inspired to consider how loss aversion bias might be affecting my learning in baduk. I have two hypotheses here:

1. Loss aversion is stifling my progress in baduk in the same way it affects my jiujitsu learning.

2. I suspect that players in general put an inordinate amount of emphasis on saving threatened stones.

Unlike in Brazilian jiujitsu, there is no risk of injury or death in baduk––barring, perhaps, accidentally inhaling a stone or slapping oneself in the face. That said, I still accept the first hypothesis as true. This leaves the question: “So what?”

I’ve actually already implemented Danaher’s second suggestion: I am doing most of my sparring (game-playing) with people who are worse than I am. The Online Go Server allows players to select a specific rank range for opponents (see below). I allow a broader range of weaker opponents than I do stronger opponents, assuring that most of my games will be against weaker ones.

I also play regular 9×9 games against a small group of baduk-newbies. Playing against brand new players means experimenting comes with close to no risk.

The second hypothesis is less obvious and more interesting. In my experience it is also almost certainly true. As a kyu-level player observing A.I. and dan-level play, I am often struck by players’ willingness to sacrifice stones and territory. For me, the sacrifices and trades in high-level play are often impossible to understand.

One ironclad and legible example of this comes in a joseki continuation favored by modern high-level players, but scorned by kyu players. The variation involves the sacrifice of the corner territory in exchange for outside influence. It is seen here:

Compare this to a recent game of mine versus a 7-kyu opponent. My opponent spurned the variation not once but twice, leading to a board position greatly favoring white due to tremendous outside influence. My opponent just could not bring himself give up the corner territory. (Warning: The colors are inverted from the above example.)

A common theme of kyu-level play, conversely, is an overzealousness to defend weak stones. Weak kyu players will jump and jump and jump to protect a single weak stone, ignoring an opponent’s simultaneous territorial gains.

Each game of baduk, therefore, is an opportunity to recognize and combat your own cognitive bias: Recognize that you are biologically predisposed to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on not losing your stones. How should that impact your play?

Risk-Taking in Business (and Life)

If you’ve stayed with me thus far, you’ve earned the punchline: One of the main tasks of the personal, life, or executive coach is to help clients combat the exact same cognitive bias.

Prospective clients come to coaches with the same symptoms of stuckness and stagnation––only it’s not that they’ve been stuck at blue belt or double-digit kyu for years. Instead, they are facing frustration of personal, relational, career, or business development. This is without exception. 100%. Absolutely universal.

The personal or business coach therefore faces the same situation that John Danaher faces: How do you get a human “survival machine” to take risks in the face of tremendous cognitive bias? In business and life, solutions do not appear to be as elegant as “beat up white belts and double-digit kyu players.”

Right about now is when an expert marketing copywriter would write, “contact me to find out more!” So let’s pretend I’m an expert copywriter and leave it at that.

*From now on I am referring to the game of go by its Korean name, baduk. “Go” is just about the world’s worst search engine keyword. Forgive me if I slip up and write “Go” instead of baduk.

**The bizarre behavior of the instructional video economy is a different story that I may visit someday.

Learning to Draw pt. 3: The Pencil as Brush.

Note: This post is part of a series about learning to draw. Click here for Part I if you’d like to start from the beginning. Context might make this more interesting.

You’ve probably heard a variation of the Law of the Instrument before. It goes something like this: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But what happens if the man with the hammer thinks that his hammer is actually a screwdriver?

That might sound absurd to you. Or it might sound like a “one hand clapping” zen koan. Or it could be the title of Oliver Sacks’s next book. But I use it here to describe my recent drawing experience. For the past few weeks I have been “the man with the hammer who thinks it’s a screwdriver.”

Three-ish weeks ago my art teacher instructed me to buy a set of charcoal pencils, a kneaded eraser, and some toned paper.

A personal aside: To give you a sense of how green I am when it comes to making art, I didn’t even realize there were such things as charcoal pencils. I always assumed that when a museum piece said “Charcoal,” the artist had used a leftover chunk from a barbecue. Yep––I’m that green.

Anyway, my teacher’s instructions came with a bonus tip: “Charcoal is a brush.” This idea––that my pencil is actually a brush––led to an immediate qualitative change in my drawing. If it was not an axis break, it was at least an inflection point.

Here are a few of my graphite drawings from just weeks ago:

Compare to my charcoal drawings over the past two weeks:

This post is not about the quality of my charcoal drawings. I don’t mean to say that they’re museum ready or even that they’re “good.” This post is about the qualitative axis break resulting from the paradigm shift of “the pencil as brush.”

I don’t know if I can adequately see or describe the aesthetic consequences of the paradigm shift, but here’s what I notice when comparing my above drawings:

1. Lines and outlines are less important.
2. Lighting is more important.

“Pencil as brush” has not only had aesthetic consequences, though. It also changed the experience of doing drawing. In particular, it feels different to make brush strokes instead of lines––even if you’re using the same pencil to do both.

Besides the tactile pleasure that comes from putting charcoal on paper, I find “brushing with charcoal” to be more relaxed than drawing. “Mistakes” are somehow of less consequence: I feel far less pressure to make a brush stroke look “good” or “real” than I do to make a line adequately straight or curved.

I suppose in short I’m starting to understand just how Bob Ross is so damn chill when he paints.

Confounding Variables

It would be disingenuous to say that the pencil-brush paradigm shift is all that changed in the last month. For one, the shift coincided with a medium switch from graphite to charcoal. There’s a reasonable McCluhanesque argument that the new medium is just as responsible for the qualitative changes in my artwork.

And then there’s the fact that I’m just getting more technically skilled. I’m drawing for 30-60 minutes per day. It could be that my newfound attention to lighting, for example, is just a consequence of getting better at seeing the effects of light.

But ultimately I think there’s something valuable in the pencil-brush paradigm shift as part of the educational process. Because it’s not just the pencil that’s not-actually-just-a-pencil: The eraser, too, is not-actually-just-an-eraser.

Soon after starting to use a kneaded eraser, I realized that I could use the eraser to create an interesting smearing effect. The eraser is not just a subtractive tool that lets an artist rid his work of imperfections. The eraser can be an additive, creative tool.

To summarize:

The pencil is not a pencil.

The eraser is not an eraser.

The pipe is not a pipe.

Writing on the Go: Sente, Shoulder Hits, and the Road to Dan

After a couple months of infrequent play and stagnation, my Go skill has begun to improve. A single explicit conceptual breakthrough I’ve had has led to better play. Beginner-intermediate Go players might find my ideas useful.

Disclaimer: When it comes to Go, my ideas are those of a rank amateur. Take what’s useful; toss the rest.

Thanks for the direction, r/baduk!

My Brand New to Single Digit Kyu post gained significant traction on the r/baduk subreddit and received a number of comments. I paid particular attention to one of the them, which came from 7-dan player u/back_cow, who had a precipitous climb through the Go rankings:

“Invest time in shoulder hits as potentially light invasions. You don’t have to do deep, complicated invasions so long as your stones impede the enemy’s growth.”

When I posted Brand New to SDK, I knew what a shoulder hit was, of course. But I didn’t grok the why of the shoulder hit. Today I understand the shoulder hit as an (possibly the) essential tactic of Go’s mid-game.

Readers of Brand New to Single Digit Kyu know that my play style is one of strong fuseki and ducking fights. I climbed through double-digit kyu rankings basically just by opening games better than my opponents did. I built such strong “scaffolding” that I couldn’t lose! Or else, that was the plan.

I still lost a lot, of course. Often I’d reach the mid-game with an advantage but then I’d have no idea what to do. As of the publishing date of Brand New to SDK, I’d say my mid-game assets were the below general concepts and tactics:

Concepts:

-Reduce my opponent’s territory or invade

-Expand my territory

-Strengthen my weak groups

-Attack my opponent’s weak groups

Tactics:

-Common continuations of joseki

-Common invasions (such as the 2-5 invasion)

Missing, of course, was the concept of maintaining sente and the tactic of the shoulder hit. And sente and shoulder hits go together like a dance and a tumbao, as they might say in the Cuban Go Federation, which, by the way, is run by an expert Judoka!

Shoulder Hits and Sente

There is a Go proverb that says something like “sente is worth 30 points.” Whether it’s true or not seems to be a matter of debate. Nevertheless, go players will all agree that sente is worth something.

At the end of last year I didn’t understand just how sente could be worth so much. How could a single move be worth 30 points? The answer is that each sente move is an opportunity to maintain sente. A single sente move may not be worth any points at all, but a string of sente moves may be worth the whole board.

When I reach the mid-game, one critical question I ask myself with each move is, “Will this move allow me to maintain sente?” If my opponent doesn’t have to respond, I may try to find another move.

Herein lies the beauty of the shoulder hit.

Shoulder hit at Sensei's Library
From Sensei’s Library.

“Never ignore a shoulder hit,” says a lecture by Cho Hun-hyeon, one of the great players of all time. The mantra is so widely held that it can be exploited for advantage.

Let’s look at an example of a shoulder hit I made during a game I recently won. I am playing white. (Move 20 of this game.)

Black has just played K3, expanding his territory in the bottom right and squeezing the white stones into the corner. It feels like a good idea for white to respond locally. (AI disagrees, by the way, and suggests R12.)

I decide to respond with the shoulder hit at J4 (see image below).

I know that it’s going to:

1. Likely trigger a black local response at J3 or K4. (He ends up playing the latter.)

2. Help my bottom left stones get out of the corner.

In other words: It is helping me expand my territory and maintain sente. After continuing to run with J5, triggering a black response at L6, I am able to play C11 in sente, expanding my top left corner, and putting real pressure on the black stones in the bottom left.

And, jumping to the end of the game, you’ll see that it is the kill in the bottom left corner that sparks black’s concession.

Here’s a second sente-maintaining shoulder hit in a fierce game against a 5-kyu. Again I am playing white. Black has just played C12, making a base on the left side of the board.

I respond with the shoulder hit from below at C9, threatening to undercut black’s base while expanding my bottom left hand corner territory. I am hoping, maybe, that black responds with C10, but I am also pleased if he responds with D9, which he does. I play D8 and expand and strengthen my territory in the bottom left.

It was a coin-toss of a game, but you’ll notice a nice chunk of white territory in the bottom left, courtesy of the shoulder hit.

What comes next?

I’ve grown accustomed to doing brief reviews of my games. I pay particular attention to things that go wrong in my losses. I’ve noticed a few trends.

Life and Death Tactics

Far and away, my greatest and most obvious opportunity for growth is to improve my life and death tactics. I’ve lost three recent games after egregious life-and-death blunders.

The path to dan-level play is paved with tsumego. If I were aiming to reach dan in 2021 (I am not.), I would prescribe an hour per day––at least––of tsumego.

But who wants to do that when you can play blitz?

Messing up the same old continuation (4-4 point diagonal attachment joseki, 3-3 invasion)

One particular joseki continuation has been causing me headaches. I could only dig up this specific instance of it, which came in a very narrow loss (.5 points!) against a stronger player. That said, the continuation troubles me every time I face it, even in victories!

I should really bookmark the continuation’s page over at Sensei’s Library.

For any software engineers who read this: I think that a really neat app could be developed to allow Go players to do “positional sparring.” This is an idea from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training.

In BJJ classes, training partners often begin sparring rounds in a specific position: one player in the bottom half-guard position with an underhook, his opponent in the top position with a “whizzer,” for example. Each player then tries to improve his position. Once a player has improved a better position––if the bottom player sweeps his opponent, for instance––the players reset in the original half-guard position, and they try again. In my experience, “positional sparring” is the best way to improve quickly in BJJ.

Difference between a whizzer and an overhook? : bjj
The Underhook versus the “Whizzer”

I’d love to be able to practice attacking with and defending against the “4-4 point diagonal attachment joseki, 3-3 invasion” in the same fashion.

Endgame Impatience

I played chess regularly for a few months before switching my focus to Go. And in chess, endgames are of manifest importance. Good chess games often come down to a difference of a single glaring imbalance: a pawn, a knight, and a king versus a king and his knight, for example.

Chess players cannot hide from the importance of endgames. If you don’t understand how to win endgames, you just can’t win.

Go endgames are more subtle. One of the strange things about Go is that even as the game draws to a close, it’s not always clear who’s winning to beginner and even intermediate players. All Go players at some point have the befuddling experience of thinking that they are ahead, only to find out that they have lost the game when it is finally scored.

An aside: I cannot think of another scored game where this is the case. It’s a common occurrence in judged sports, such as MMA. But is there another scored game where point leads are so ambiguous?

And so, in my opinion, Go endgames require unusual patience and discipline. A monkey jump here, a minor ko fight there, or even just a small sente move… All of these present opportunities to score a few points. I have lost one or two games by passing too early and many more by being too impatient to search for ticky-tack, one-point endgame moves.

Go endgames may not be as obviously important as they are in chess, but subtle endgame moves swing close games all the time.

That’s it for now. See you on OGS!

Learning to Draw pt. 2: Just Doodle It!

It’s been a month since the last update on my drawing education. Since I’m on the exciting, steep part of the learning curve, I’m well overdue for an update.

As you can see above, by early March my academic drawing had shown tremendous improvement. I attribute the progression to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and my own diligence. For a few weeks making things look “real” was terrifically exciting. I drew everything in my apartment, copied photos, and made some attempts at self-portraiture.

The rub is that making things look “real” is technically difficult and demanding. While my academic drawing skill has improved, the practice can be trying. Critical scrutiny is an essential part of academic drawing, and it isn’t always fun. In contrast, lack of critical scrutiny is the essence of “just doodling.”

I bought an artist’s mannequin to practice figures.

And so my drawing for the past few weeks has focused on a balance of academic drawing and “just doodling,” with a substantial bias toward the latter.

If you read my first post in this series, you’ll recall that “just doodle without judgement” was starting guidance from one of my drawing teachers. For the most part, that guidance hasn’t evolved, except with encouragement to play with different creative elements: different kinds of lines, shapes, shadings, etc. My teacher noted, for example, that I kept repeating the “vesica piscis” in my drawings. Rebellious as I am, I resolved to avoid it.

No vesica piscis here!

Which brings me to some recent tips I got from my other drawing teacher. (How nice it is to have not just one but two people who want to help me!) Here are the most recent pieces of guidance I have received:

1. “Your lines are short and quick. You’re drawing with your wrist and tight fingers. Experiment with long lines and loose fingers.”

2. “Try drawing four dots on a page and connecting them to make square. Or a circle. Rectangles… ellipses…”

Regarding the first point, I find it astounding how much my teachers can tell about me from a glance at my work: The age at which I gave up drawing as a child; the looseness of my fingers; the stiffness of my forearm… I’ve heard that master Chinese calligraphers can tell the mood a writer was in while writing by the look and flow of his characters. Dubious as it once sounded, I’m finding it more and more believable as my artistic education progresses.

Experimenting with longer lines.

The second point is less scrutable. I feel a bit Karate Kid-like as I’ve gone through the simple exercise of connecting four dots: Dots become lines which become squares which become ellipses which become heads which become abstractions. “Four dots” have an impressive number of potentialities.

I’ve been reminded of the Steve Jobs quote from his famous Stanford speech: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward.” How ironic it sounds to the creative in me. Isn’t connecting the dots looking forward precisely what Jobs built his career on? Isn’t connecting the dots looking forward the explicit function of the creative person?

One final drawing. This started as an ellipse, morphed into a set of elliptical blobs, congealed, and ultimately revealed itself as a kneeling woman. Poor thing seems to have lost her head.

The Emergence of an Industry: The Business of Coaching

As you might know from following this blog or just poking around, I work part-time with a coaching business. In that role I have thought hard not only about the craft of coaching, but also about the business of coaching. In other words, I am thinking deeply about two questions:

1. “What is coaching?”

2. “Why are people buying coaching?”

History of the Nine Dot Problem - Art of Play
The 9-Dot Problem from Paul Watzlawick’s Change

I have tried to write about question #1 n times and failed n times. Someday, perhaps, I’ll publish a magnum opus. My answer, for now, is that coaching can mean many things to many people. If that sounds like a cop out, that’s because it is. And, for better and worse, it’s also true.

#2 is turning out to be the easier question to answer.

Earlier this year I turned through the book The Sovereign Individual. I did not finish it––I stopped in the middle. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it was published in 1997.

If you were lucky enough to read The Sovereign Individual in 1997, it would have been an exciting and provocative look into the future––something like a non-fiction version of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. As for me, in 1997 I was more concerned with Legos than futurism. And reading The Sovereign Individual as history in 2020 was more sobering than exciting, despite a new forward from Peter Thiel.

Nevertheless, I was pleased that The Sovereign Individual added a word to my vocabulary: macropolitics. For the purpose of this essay, you can think of the relationship of politics to macropolitics* like this:

Politics: The election of Donald Trump.

Macropolitics: The economic, social, technological, and environmental conditions that led to the election of Donald Trump.

If you are familiar with Paul Watzlawick’s Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, one of my favorite books, then you’ll recognize “macropolitical change” as change of a “higher order” than “political change.” This means that political change will not change macropolitics, but macropolitical change will likely change politics.

My argument in this essay is that the rise of the coaching industry is a consequence of macropolitics. Joe Biden? Donald Trump? It doesn’t matter, coaching is coming.

A Good Business Idea

“Want a good business idea? Simply find something––anything––that people do for themselves or each other. Then convince them that it is too difficult, tedious, demeaning, or dangerous to do themselves. (If necessary, make it inconvenient or illegal.) Finally, sell it to them. ––Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

I love this elegant––if cynically worded––idea from Charles Eisenstein.** I particularly enjoy the mental exercise of starting with a product or service, and then working backward to fit it into Eisenstein’s framework. Try it with your own corner of capitalism.

Because of my work, I tried to fit personal and executive coaching into the framework. And, of course, it works: It used to be that people didn’t need coaching. Today they do.

This is in part because they have been, in Eisenstein’s words, “convinced” that they need it. But also in part because people are unable to get coaching and mentorship where it used to be available for free.

I’ll just briefly address the “convincing” that’s happening before moving on to the––much more interesting––latter point.

Some part of the growth of the coaching industry is linked to the insatiability of capitalism. Buried deep in the hearts and bellies of men and women today there is a desire for “more.” “More what?,” you ask. And how reasonable it is that you ask it.

The answer to the question “More what?” has been planted there by the spades of advertisers and fertilized by generations. (Think: “Whiter Teeth” or “More Savings on Car Insurance.”) By now, the persistent capitalist longing for “more” is embedded firmly into our culture. It’s an essential part of the socialization and enculturation of our children.

And, of course, just like toothpaste, coaches can use the same method to lure clients: offering “more.” Only, because of the vagueness of coaching (Remember: “Many things to many people…”), the deal can look especially Faustian. This is why coaches sometimes come across as charlatans––and certainly, some are. Something about a man’s teeth being too white makes him seem untrustworthy, after all.

Tony Robbins' top book recommendations
“Just look at these bad boys. I bet you wish you could have teeth this white. Buy my fucking book. I coach Bill Clinton.”

But like I said, the capitalist Slings and Arrows (Selling and Advertising) are the least interesting part of the macropolitical picture. I believe the below trends are responsible for the growth of the coaching industry. To be sure, there’s more happening than just these four trends.

  • Corruption and failure of institutions and the resulting popular anti-establishment attitudes
  • Erosion of human relationships, Gen Z will not “Bowl Alone”––they don’t even bowl
  • An unpredictable, illegible future and the rise of the gig economy
  • Fragmentation of consensus reality rising from social media including “fake news”

I suspect that you are finding yourself mostly nodding along in agreement with me that each of these phenomena is, in fact, happening. And so below I do not try to prove them. Instead, I accept them as my premises. If you don’t accept my premises, I’d be interested to hear why––let me direct you to my contact page.

The rest of this essay merely tries, point-by-point, to explain how the premises will impact the emergence of the coaching industry. I’ve done my best to subdue my own bias and to present the phenomena without sentiment.

Corruption and failure of institutions and the resulting popular anti-establishment attitudes

The same anti-establishment attitudes that led to a Donald Trump presidency are changing the world of “getting help.” For measure, this isn’t a left-and-right thing: Bear in mind that the real leadership of the American left is a bartender-turned-congresswoman.

There is a growing skepticism toward PhD and M.D. as the symbols of a qualified helper. In part it’s an economic phenomenon: The modern economy has proven that the B.A. to be mostly worthless. It’s not a tremendous leap to assume the PhD and M.D. to be worthless, too.

But the skepticism comes also from the schism between the credentialed and uncredentialed classes. The former is arrogant, the latter suspicious. Coaches capitalize on the gap.

And attitudes of “helpers” are changing, too: I have heard a story of a Harvard-educated therapist who thought of pivoting her practice to life coaching. She has been frustrated by the muck of highly regulated work. The American Psychiatric Association cannot move at the speed of capitalism and technology. Coaches can.

Erosion of human relationships, Gen Z will not “Bowl Alone”––they don’t even bowl

In some sense, hiring a coach is hiring a friend. The idea of paying for friendship hurts the heart, of course, but refer to the Eisenstein quote above and shake your first at capitalism.

As people grow lonelier and lonelier and the idea of paying for human companionship grows more and more tenable. (And let’s not pretend that the idea of paying for companionship hasn’t been around for a while.)

I know of people who hire multiple coaches: for life, for business, for tennis lessons, for investing. One can have an impressive network of friends––for a price.

An unpredictable, illegible future and the rise of the gig economy

To a 20 year-old, career and life advice from people who work at General Electric is laughably antiquated. I had a conversation with a teenager recently in which I asked him what he wished older people knew about being young. The essence of his answer was, “I wish people knew how scary it is to be a kid today.” Perhaps you and I, too, were scared of the world at 20, but I believe it would be scarier still to be 20 today.

One interesting aspect of the coach is that he is in some sense the vanguard of the gig economy. There are a few established coaching organizations––those stodgy white shoes with names like Korn Ferry––but often coaches are proprietors who must understand “the gig economy” in order to earn their livings. People understand that.

Fragmentation of consensus reality rising from social media including “fake news”

OK, I lied. I’m actually going to argue this premise a little bit. (I still won’t prove it.)

I suspect this will be the most controversial part of this essay. And, to be sure, I am writing it on the least stable intellectual footing. The words of Christopher Alexander come time mind: “I… confess to a squeamishness which must be at least as great, perhaps even greater, than that of the most skeptical reader.” But what-the-hey, it’s my blog and I can do what I want with it––even if that means rambling incoherence.

I recently learned of a condition called dissociation. I never took a college-level psychology class, so it may be the case that it is covered in 101. But to me it was news at 32: Dissociation is “disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” In my words, someone who is suffering from dissociation is having trouble distinguishing what is real.

I think in some sense we’re going through a period of mass dissociation.*** Fake news is part of it, but only part of it. At least as large a part of it is due to an absence of community leadership, a void that was filled by Donald Trump with apparent self-satisfaction.

You know from reading this blog that I believe that one of the responsibilities (maybe the responsibility) of leadership is to define reality. Historically, trusted American community leaders were the editor-in-chief of the Local Tribune, the small-town pastor, and the GE executive. Those are people a man might have turned to in the past for a dose of reality; those leaders helped to big-O Orient the newsreader, the true-believing churchgoer, and the Organization Man. But again, those institutions are corrupt and failing: How many Facebook employees believe in Mark Zuckerberg’s public promises and grand vision?

And the problem is getting worse as institutions are becoming less participatory. How many young people do you know who are journalists? It is against-the-odds to get a meaningful job at a corporation. COVID 19 made it impossible to even join a religious congregation––temporarily, I hope.

The easiest place to look for reality, then, is online––to look to virtual reality for reality. Looking at something that you know isn’t real because there is nothing else to look at. It’s Orwellian. it’s Stephensonian. It’s happening right now.

And so, “What the **** does any of this have to do with coaching?”

This is all to say that it may be beneficial to borrow someone else’s reality. People hire coaches to get some perspective: On their careers, on their tennis games, on their lives. And as reality continues to blur, a good set of lenses will grow ever more valuable.

Which leads me back to question #1…

*I am aware that I may not be using this word correctly for an academic setting. I don’t care––my blog, my definition!

**It’s notable that Eistenstein gives his book away for free, which gives you some insight into his cynicism.

***At my most fearful moments, I worry about the onset of a Western or even global Cultural Revolution in the footsteps of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Someday I will have the requisite courage and inspiration to write about it.

Learning to Draw (Since You’ve Forgotten)

“When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forgot?’” —Howard Ikemoto

My foot and a sailboat in the distance. Two weeks into drawing.

I’ve drawn more in the past three weeks than I had in 25 years. The 25-year hiatus was the consequence of my own variation of a popular identity claim: I was “unable to draw,” “untalented,” or “unartistic.” As it turns out, I am none of these––and neither are you.

My most popular posts on this blog––those that have reached dozens upon dozens––have all been learning retrospectives. This post about drawing is not retrospective. I am in the thick of learning to draw, at the base of the mountain.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d share some observations from these early weeks of learning. I suspect that experienced artists and draw-ers might roll their eyes at my banal freshman observations. But if you’re someone who holds the identity claims referenced in my first paragraph, this post may speak to you.

In fact, this post was inspired by a weekend conversation I had with two friends who “can’t draw.” During our conversation, I showed them a drawing I did of my foot (pictured above) after only two weeks of learning. My friends were impressed––even awed––by my foot and interested to hear what else I was learning.

My observations so far:

1. I lifted this first observation from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: Your ability to draw is not representative of talent or potential. It is representative only of the age at which you quit drawing. I found this idea both insightful and motivating. Below you’ll see my drawings from Day 1. I think I quit drawing at around age 7.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is photo_2021-03-02_12-04-44.jpg
Doodling on Day 1.

2. Drawing and surfing have similar learning curves. Once I put in around 10 hours on a surfboard I was getting up on the board and having fun. Likewise, after 10 hours of drawing I was having fun.

My teacher had me do two hours of drawing each day during my first week of learning––baptism by fire. I suggest this method to any new learners.

3. Those first ten hours, however, were not fun. They felt like the withdrawal scene in Trainspotting.

4. I am a self-critical writer: I cannot write two sentences without going back and rewriting the first. Surprisingly, it has been fairly easy for me to sketch and doodle without being critical of my drawings. One consequence of my 25-year hiatus, I guess, is blissfully low expectations.

5. Another instruction my teacher gave for those first weeks of drawing was to “just doodle.” That meant avoiding drawing things. But as it turns out, it’s difficult to let a squiggle be a squiggle.

My ego wants to turn every curved line into a banana. And if I resist turning it into a banana, my ego will want to turn it into a boat. And so on and so on. The risk of a beginner drawing a banana or a boat is that he becomes discouraged when the sketch falls short of perfection.

While natural, it’s an absurd reaction to imperfection: A sketched representation of a thing will never be perfect. Even bananas and boats drawn by the Old Masters are not bananas and boats.

The Treachery of Images - Wikipedia
Case in pipe.

6. I’m doodling everywhere. It’s as though I’ve been saving up doodles for 25 years and they are pouring out. I drafted this essay with pen and paper and there are doodles in the margins of my page. As of three weeks ago, my notebook was doodleless. Now it is full of doodle.

7. Rocks are interesting. A personal story: My stepfather is an artist and collector of rocks. Not flashy “minerals,” by the way. Just plain old grey rocks. I’ve always humored the interest, but after a few weeks of drawing, I better understand his geologic interest:

-Rocks have interesting, natural edges.

-Light interacts with natural edges in provocative ways.

-Rocks don’t move. (Unlike other things you might try to draw!)

This description of what makes rocks interesting is a pitifully inadequate reconciliation of the left- and right-brain––You’re right to be underwhelmed. But if you disregard my description and instead go outside to draw rocks, you’ll know what I mean.

8. Drawing can be learned by anyone. (Of course, there is drawing and then there is drawing.)

So you can draw a foot––now what?

I was convinced to learn to draw because my mentor told me it was important. There wasn’t any impetus beyond nebulous “importance.” That said, now that I’m learning to draw I’m starting to think of some possibilities of what to do with drawing.

For one, I’m keenly interested in cartoons. Over the last year I’ve written two cartoons. The first was Roger and Rufus, which I did with a partner. It ran out of steam when my partner ceased to do the illustrations after the first. I had written a full 15 strips:

The stillborn Roger and Rufus

The second is MAN-UP Man, which I am writing for the coaching business I work with. It launched this week. For MAN-UP Man, I’ve been collaborating with a terrific freelance artist. But again, I’ve been unable to contribute much to aesthetic direction:

Besides cartooning, I see drawing becoming a part of my social life. Growing up my stepfather attended a weekly drawing group. Like rocks, it is kind of hard to understand the appeal of a drawing group without being a draw-er yourself.

But now I’m getting it: You just chill out, maybe put some music on, and draw stress-free. And maybe if you’re feeling it, you investigate your peers’ techniques and learn something. And also there’s a model provided for you. Again: Things that don’t move are cool when you’re a draw-er.

Finally, I have an inkling that I will be able to use the representational skill I’m learning in my work as a consultant, blogger, and operator. Candidly, I have no idea what form that will take. But I now have confidence in my ability to “make things look nice,” so I think there’s a there there.

Reading Page Updates

I made some changes to my “Reading” page yesterday. Most prominently, I added an explanation of what I appreciate about each title listed. But I also removed a few titles: Walden, Boyd, Paths of Change, and Musashi.

Taking Walden off my list of favorite books feels like a sign of either maturity (I’m no longer in my 20s), acceptance (I’m no longer in my 20s), or embrace of my inner immaturity (I’m no longer in my 20s). It feels like growth no matter which!

Boyd I removed because I tried to reread it but failed. I couldn’t make it through the first few pages. It’s still the kind of book I’d recommend to any man interested to know what it takes to Do Something or (Be Something)––perhaps that means men in their 20s.

Paths of Change is the rare book to which I’ve dedicated a blog post. That said, I don’t see it as seminal to my intellectual trajectory as I did when I first read it.

I removed Musashi because I tried rereading it but couldn’t. It’s a hero’s journey tale set in in samurai Japan based on the life of Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings. But as with Boyd, I couldn’t get through the first few pages.

18 Months of Turtling: A Jiujitsu Retrospective

Turtle - Wikipedia

I came to the turtle position systematically. As a white belt, one year into training, I had a grand vision for learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: I would break the gentle art down into six-month chunks, and spend each chunk focused on a single position.

I started with the half guard position back in early 2019. I picked half guard in part because it is perhaps the most common position in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sparring. Like it or not, BJJ players find themselves in some half guard variation in nearly every roll.

I was also attracted to learning to play half guard because it was suggested by Reddit for old, inflexible guys. I have always been inflexible and am older every day––a perfect match! To advance my studies I purchased Lachlan Giles’s Half Guard Anthology.

Before I go on to the meat of this post, let me just say that I highly recommend the concentrated six-month method of learning half guard to new white belts. I cannot without reservation say the same about the turtle. Let me explain.

The Most Controversial Position in BJJ

The turtle is the most controversial position in BJJ. I thought about qualifying that statement with a “might be,” but no, it’s the most controversial.

“To begin with, formal IBJJF scoring punishes the turtle: If––starting from a turtle position––you maneuver and end up on top in a dominant side control position, you are awarded 0 points. Moreover, a turtle player allows his opponent to easily accrue “advantages.” From the IBJJF rules (courtesy of ATB):

An advantage is scored when a fundamental move is initiated but not fully completed, this could be a submission, sweep, take down or passing attempt.”

According to my understanding, a loose referee may give an advantage each time a turtler turtles.

IBJJF scoring, however, is just one aspect of controversy. There is also the “MMA guy” perspective: “If you turtle in MMA, I’m just going to hammer fist you in the back of the head.”

Good point.

Or the “in the streets guy” perspective: “If you turtle in the streets, I’m just going to soccer kick your face.”

Another good point.

And OK, bros, you’ve got a point: During my 1-week free trial training at a well-known MMA-focused gym in San Diego, I was unkindly kneed in the nose while turtled by an MMA guy. Needless to say, I do not train there.

Still more controversy: When you are turtled, you often cannot see your opponent and you cannot use your hands in any meaningful way. Again, reasonable points.

And perhaps above all else there’s the fact that the turtle just looks kind of silly. In the pithy words of Theo Von describing the turtle: “One of them sometimes will be on the other one’s kinda rear. Like one of them tryna protect a little raspberry and the other one tryna get that berry.” This is to say, I don’t recommend having a partner watch you train while you are practicing turtle. Unless, of course, you are trying to get him or her to leave you for a pressure passer.

Bernardo Faria Shows The Worst Position To Get Stuck In | WATCH BJJ
It is a huge honor for me to steal your girl.

Maybe because of my ignorance of the controversy surrounding the turtle position, I decided to learn it immediately after those six months in half guard. In retrospect, I don’t really remember why I chose to focus on the turtle except that A) I hated getting my guard passed and B) I was paying attention to r/BJJ when Lachlan Giles wrote in an AMA:

“What Priit Mikhelson (spelling?) has been showing is really interesting, and funnily enough. At our gym the hardest person to take the back of from turtle is an Olympic wrestler.”

And so, with Giles’s blessing, I bought Priit’s instructional “Protecting & Generating Dynamic Offense From The Turtle.”

Priit

Spring Camp 2019: Panda with Priit Mihkelson - YouTube
Everyone Else is Wrong

Giles’s Half Guard Anthology is organized like a decision tree: “If your opponent does this, then you do that.” Priit’s Turtle, on the other hand, is a set of principles.

The principles basically declare that Everyone Else is Wrong about the turtle. According to Priit there are fundamental problems with how the turtle is taught, even by masters. He begins his instructional by demonstrating what a proper turtle posture should look like. And, indeed, it is profoundly different from anything I’d seen taught in an in-person class.

The new turtle posture changed my game instantly. This is not to say that I was immediately good from the turtle. But I recall that within weeks I went from having my turtle easily broken down to being at least stubborn.

Despite my newfound stubbornness, those first six months of turtling were, honestly, painful. One of the downsides to playing turtle is that it is easy for your opponent to get a collar grip near your neck. This means that technical opponents are able to attack clock chokes, bow-and-arrow chokes, something called an “old man choke,” and many more. Priit’s instructs mostly sans gi.

The pain of learning turtle goes far beyond collar chokes. Pain also comes when sparring partners have the unfortunate idea that it is good technique to throw a rear naked choke grip over your face. More pain comes with incidental eye, ear, nose, and mouth pokes while opponents hunt for front headlocks. More pain comes from being kneed in the nose by MMA guys. And finally, a turtler’s face is often buried in the mat.

Through all of this, if you’re adhering to Priit’s principles, you should be able counter these nasty attacks. But in practice, while you’re learning to play turtle, you will be choked. A lot. I would guess that there are only a few BJJ players who were choked more than I was during those first six months when I was learning turtle.

More embarrassing is that I sometimes choked myself while learning turtle. In order to counter the bow-and-arrow collar grip as seen in the video above, the turtle player needs to turn into his opponent. It takes time, however, to learn which way to turn. Turning the wrong way makes for a tight and fast choke. I’ve done it a half-dozen times at least.

But I also progressed. One thing Priit talks about in his instructional is that one of the goals turtlers have to look forward to is being known at his gym as annoying. After six months of practicing turtle, I had moved from being stubborn to being annoying.

The downside of being annoying is that it means a lot of stalled rounds. Whereas the latter half of 2019 was characterized by me being choked a lot from turtle, nobody stalled more rounds than I did in 2020.

This, by the way, is why I don’t necessarily suggest that new white belts focus on the turtle. While you are stalling rounds in turtle, you get really good at turtling, but the rest of your jiujitsu does not necessarily progress. I have joked with my training partners that all this time I have been developing a surprise berimbolo from turtle. (I am not.)

Priit’s instructional falls short, I think, when it comes to “Generating Dynamic Offense.” To be fair, I think it’s fine: His principled turtle posture is valuable enough. But the turtle student must look elsewhere for offense.

Telles

Telles being Telles

At some point during my turtle learning I started to be more active from the position. Priit’s turtle posture is so sturdy that against many training partners I can spend a full five-minute round in the turtle. But the novelty of being an immovable object wears off. The stubbornness gets old, and your face gets tired of being buried in the mat.

To Make Turtle Fun Again, I looked to Eduardo Telles.

Over on The Fight Site, they published a long and just marvelous article about Eduardo Telles and his style. I’m not going to go deep there, except as it relates to my own development as a turtler. But read the article if you want to turtle.

Since I discovered him, I’ve loved watching Telles’s rounds. Contrary to the style I developed playing Priit’s defensive style, Telles isn’t stubborn at all.* Watching opponents try to pass Telles’s guard is like watching someone wrestle a waterbed. Telles transitions from half guard, to turtle, to seated, to sprawled face down, and all the way back in an unorthodox but effective flow.

And just as important to me, Telles’s game looks fun. Even in his high-level competitive rounds he looks like he’s enjoying himself. And so I’ve tried to cultivate that same fluid stubbornness. (An oxymoron?)

I suppose now I can prescribe learning turtle with appropriate qualification: If you watch Eduardo Telles’s rounds and say “this guy is awesome,” take some time to turtle. If not, that’s cool––you do you. But I’m also going to assume that your game looks like this.

Priit does, by the way, credit Telles in his instructional. Priit introduces a guard recovery technique in which the turtle player sits back or “folds” over one of his legs in order to square up to his opponent. Telles does it all the time. Priit calls the movement “The Telles.”

I’ve found “The Telles” to be so fundamental to the turtle position that I incorporate it into my warm up before class. It’s a movement I’ve never seen taught, but for turtlers, I think it is as critical as the hip escape. There are a lot of ways to recover guard and attack from turtle, but I’ve found that the most effective for me––by far––has been Telles-ing.

The Future

My plan was to leave the turtle behind in early 2020 in favor of practicing the closed guard. But a global pandemic threw off my plan. I remain shelled and my learning is less focused than it was when I was a white belt with a grand vision.

One nice thing about having a good turtle is that it takes away some of the risk of experimenting with new moves. I want to go for that triangle? Maybe they stack me and I have to turtle. I want to shoot a single leg? Go ahead, sprawl on me––see what happens! Make my day.

Now three years into jiujitsu I’m having fun developing this stubborn fluidity and I feel safe to experiment with new stuff. Worst comes to worst, find me turtled. To me it’s a pretty good place to be.

*I don’t mean to represent Priit’s style as stubborn. This is simply the style I personally developed as a white/blue belt while implementing Priit’s material. YMMV. Interesting, while writing this I learned that Priit has uploaded a bunch of narrated rolling videos on his YouTube channel. Not stubborn at all.

Christopher Alexander and Go: The Phenomenon of Life (and Death)

Photograph and caption from Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life

Christopher Alexander is an author I’ve seen included several times on lists of interesting thinkers. His The Nature of Order series is made up of “big” books. I don’t mean only that they are oversize (they are). I mean that they are trying to explain nothing smaller than the nature of the universe.

Alexander is an architect; his books are full of pictures and illustrations. Since I couldn’t read them on Kindle, I went down to the public library for the first time in months to borrow a copy of The Phenomenon of Life.

You want some Bukowski with that?

These being the days of COVID-19, a uniformed guard was stationed outside the library taking temperatures and maybe, too, preventing book theft, that ever-present scourge. Once inside the building, one of three masked librarians greeted me flatly. Piles of books lay on folding tables in a spacious, otherwise-empty multipurpose room. Another of the librarians was playing with a yo-yo quite severely.

“A yo-yo!” I said to him with enthusiasm. He didn’t respond.

Standing in the entryway, yet another folding table separated me from them. An impotent plastic divider covered a portion of the barricade, to prevent me from breathing on the librarians and vice-versa. Our germs, I guess, cannot overcome folding tables and plastic dividers. They slid my book underneath the divider, and I was gone.

I digress. This post is actually about the game of Go and Christopher Alexander. But I felt it appropriate to include this rather lifeless vignette before getting to The Phenomenon of Life.

Strong Centers and Good Shape

If I try to summarize Alexander, I will fail. There is a reason his The Nature of Order series contains four books, each several hundred razor-thin pages. (And as of this post I have only read half of the first.)

But one thing Alexander does in The Phenomenon of Life is try to define things that contain life or liveliness. For something to have a lot of life––a building, lets say, or a pastoral scene––it has to demonstrate at least a few of a specific set of properties. Alexander contrasts the doors below to demonstrate one of those properties: Levels of Scale.

Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 1: Levels of Scale
You should have no trouble identifying which door is livelier.

To Alexander, there are fifteen of these life-giving properties. The rest of this post is about three of them: Strong Centers, Good Shape, and Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.

In one of my previous posts I wrote about identification of Good Shape as one of the challenges facing beginning Go players. I wrote that the only way to learn to identify and make Good Shape is to play (see: lose) a lot of games with stronger players.

But even as a ~10-kyu player, though I can recognize Good Shape, I might still struggle to describe Good Shape. So I was struck by Alexander’s definition of Good Shape as a life-granting property:

“What is a ‘good shape’? What is it made of? It is easiest to understand good shape as a recursive rule. The recursive rule says that the elements of any good shape are always good shapes themselves. Or, we may say this once again in terms of centers. A good shape is a center which is made up of powerful intense centers, which have good shape themselves.”

Elegant, right? If you’ve done any computer programming, your hair is probably standing on end reading such titillating use of recursion. So the next question is: Does it work for Go?

Let’s take a look at a fuseki example through Alexander’s recursive lens. (I’ve taken this image from an excellent article on Go Wizardry). 10th Annual Kisei Title Match 1986:

clip_image042

Is black’s opening good shape per Alexander’s recursive rule of good centers made up of good centers? I count three centers. The top right, the bottom right, and the bottom middle.

Now, are those centers made up of strong centers? I think so.

The top right corner enclosure is made up of two stones that are well placed as centers: a star point (Black 1) and a low knights move (Black 11) attack White 10’s base.

The bottom right is made up of two strong centers: the 3-4 komoku point is one of the default strong opening moves. (Black 9, to my knowledge, is a smaller-than-desirable corner enclosure by modern standards. But a fine response to White 8 and still good shape!)

And the bottom middle is also made up of three strong centers: The Black 5 low approach of White 2, Black 7 star point, and the Black 3 komoku.

This is just one example, but my hypothesis is that Alexander’s recursive rule of Good Shape can be applied to Go: Good Shape in Go is Strong Centers made up of Strong Centers.

Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

The meat of this post is now swallowed, but I have one more note about Alexander and Go. The picture at the top of this post is taken from The Phenomenon of Life, but it is not used in the discussion of Good Shape. It instead comes from his subchapter on the property of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity. Here is Alexander’s definition of that property:

“Living structures contain some form of interlock: situations where centers are ‘hooked’ into their surroundings. This has the effect of making it difficult to disentangle the center from its surroundings.”

I don’t know if Alexander was a Go player, so I don’t know if he recognized whether the photograph was of a competitive Go game. His point in using the picture was aesthetic: the photographed Go board illustrates Deeply Interlocked white and black stones––which didn’t necessarily require a competitive game. But unlike at least one example of Go in other media, the photograph of a Go game that Alexander selected appears to be played by capable players.

My hypothesis is that better players play games with more Deep Interlock and Ambiguity––more lively games! Below I’ve included two screenshots of finished Go games I’ve played. The first is a 13×13 game I played in my first months of playing. The latter is from last week. Perhaps you will notice the same trend in your own playing.

Relatively lifeless 13×13 Game from months ago.
More complex and lively game between ~10-kyu players.