04 October 2018

An open letter to the US Senate: Why you should vote no on Judge Brett Kavanagh

Dear Senators, 

I’m writing you to urge you to vote no on the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. He has, almost since the moment of his nomination by President Trump, betrayed a troubling tendency to bend the truth or lie when is suits his purposes.

Judge Kavanaugh faces some serious and credible accusations about his past behavior. Leave those allegations to one side. We may never know, to our satisfaction what the truth is in those allegations and good, honest people can be agnostic on the question of did he, or didn’t he. However, while we may not ever be fully satisfied we know the facts of his past, we are confronted with his present behavior. This present Brett Kavanaugh should not inspire confidence in any one that he has the right intellectual commitments or temperament for a position on the bench of the highest court in our land. 

I will give only a brief over view of the lies and dishonesty that we have seen from Judge Kavanaugh.  The list won’t be exhaustive.

1.    When he accepted the nomination to the court he praised President Trump in the following way. “No President has ever consulted more widely or talked with more people from more backgrounds to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” For any other position this kind of dishonest flattery might not matter. In a future Supreme Court Judge whose judgments and pronouncements must be measured, logically sound and evidence based, such a statement is ill fitting, and indicative of a comfort with disregarding the truth. It seems unlikely that a President who detests reading, spends most of his time watching television news, according to credible reporting, did a great deal of research or talked very widely. In any event there is no way Kavanaugh could possibly presume to know such a thing, and yet before the nation, and directly in front of the president and his own family he made such a statement.  
2.    He appears to have lied under oath several times. He stated he had no connections to Yale and got in by “busting his tail.” However, he did have connections to Yale. His grandfather attended and Judge Kavanaugh would have been a Legacy student. That isn’t a crime, or even indicative of a lack of qualifications.  However it was a demonstrable falsehood, under oath no less. How can we trust the integrity of someone who lies about something so verifiably false?  He said, “I have no connections there [Yale].” While in fact he did. He may have worked hard, and been qualified, but he definitely had a connection to Yale. He lied about this. In addition to this, he was referring to his getting into Yale Law School. He went to Yale as an undergrad and that definitely would have had an effect on his ability to network and get into the Yale law school. None of this is bad, or illegal or unsettling. What is bad about all of this is his lying about having no connections to Yale while under oath. The job to which he is being appointed is not as a short order cook, but to the highest court in the land.
3.   Kavanaugh has tried to paint himself as a kind of choirboy. Why he has elected to portray himself this way I couldn’t guess. However his friends from both high school and college along with many of his own accounts flatly contradict this image he originally tried to paint of himself. When questioned about this past he has not been forthright, only grudgingly conceding the truth if he had been caught out. Under oath though he would not admit to what “Devils’ Triangle,” or “boofing” was (instead he offered definitions his classmates at the time quickly shot down), what he and his friends meant by “Renate Alumnus.” Judge Kavanaugh’s attempt to suggest that it was a kind of affection for a friend is belied by the other entries he and his friends had about Renate. They seem to specifically be referring to sexual conquest. Again, it isn’t a crime to like sex, or drinking beer (the underage drinking Kavanaugh engaged in would have been a crime-but one for which most of us would be found guilty). It isn’t even a crime to date a person who is known to have sex pretty early in a relationship. That is not what is troubling about Kavanaugh’s youthful errors. What is troubling is his inability to tell the truth about his past. 
4.    “Beach Week Ralph Club- biggest contributor. Judge Kavanagh seems to contradict his own words when he told the Senate Judiciary committee that entry in his high school yearbook that was a reference to his “weak” stomach. He is certainly in conflict with the recollections of his friends at the time, who say he wasn’t know for having a weak stomach, but rather for being a sloppy drunk. Again, Kavanaugh wouldn’t be the only person in Washington DC to have been a sloppy, belligerent drunk in their youth. He does seem to be unwilling to tell the truth about that past though, whether under oath, or not. 
5.    He as a history of being a partisan player, and has worked most consistently as a person whose raison d’etre is to see Republicans triumph over Democrats, to see a very specific brand of conservatism win at all costs over any liberal ideas. This isn’t a crime either. His angry ranting display, the disrespect, and hostility he showed Democratic Senators, his refusal to answer their questions must cast doubt on his ability to objectively perform the duties that are supposed to be above mere party affiliation. Judge Kavanaugh is a person who, according to David Brock, mouthed the word “Bitch” whenever he saw a picture of Hillary Clinton. Such partisan commitments are also no crime, but they can’t be part of a Supreme Court Justice’s deliberations. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a non-partisan place where our best and brightest examine the law, and let that knowledge of the law guide them. After Kavanaugh’s angry ranting, and his history as a partisan player, do you think he can set his party affiliation aside and objectively parse the law?

At the end of the day, we will probably never know, to our satisfaction, whether or not Ford or Kavanaugh are telling the truth, or if they both are, or if the truth is more complicated. The events in question are now decades in the past. What we can assess, and what you Senator must honestly assess, is whether Judge Kavanaugh’s behavior in the here and the now reveals a person brimming with personal integrity, and deep personal commitments to honesty and truth, or if his behavior reveals a character deeply unfit to the highest court in our land. We live in a deeply partisan world, but don’t let the specter of losing an election, or being criticized by the President or members of your party stop you from making the right choice. History is watching, as is the nation. Do the right thing and vote no on Kavanaugh. 

06 August 2018

Sarah Jeong: A New York Times Own Goal.

Imagine you read the following hashtag, #cancelbrownpeople. Would you have any trouble categorizing such a phrase, or the sentiments behind it as racist? Imagine the following tweet, was issued by a white person, “Black people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” Classical racism no? No one would have any trouble identifying that sentence for what was. Or, try this: “Oh man, its kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old jewish men.” Imagine our tweeting racist let loose a barrage of this kind of thing. Further examples may not be necessary, but here we go:

“Black men are such bullshit."
“...it must be so boring to be black.”
"Are Jews genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.”
“Fuck black women, lol”  

If these kinds of tweets came steaming off the phones of the Richard Spencers of US (and of the world) we would hardly be surprised, and we would all call them, without apology, racist. However when such sentiments are uttered by people of color, the left has a serious problem of consistency. The examples above are all real by the way. I’ve only swapped out the races, and people in the examples to highlight the double standards at play on the left when it comes to speaking honestly about racism. The target of the tweet's racial anger was actually white people, and the tweeter in question is new tech writer for the New York Times, Sarah Jeong. Liberals, thanks broadly to a suite of bad ideas in modern sociology that have moved from academia into too many minds on the left, has convinced itself that people of color cannot be racist because, the argument goes, only the socially dominant race can be racist. There is a long argument here, not well supported by anything like evidence that is used to excuse the racist attitudes exhibited by some people of color against other races. Racism, many on the left will say, is about systems of power, that benefit the socially dominant group. I’m generously generalizing their framing here. The sweeping statements made by the left on matters of race are almost comically parochial. They are also, sadly, condescending. People of color, in this view are permanently relegated the status of victims, they have little to no autonomy and they are denied even the ability to behave as normal humans.  They aren’t even capable of the basic, and ugly tribalism exhibited by the rest of the human race in this liberal view of race. They don’t even get to be racist. Increasingly in the liberal world view, only white people (whatever that might mean) can be racist. But look at the following sentence. 

“Act your age, not your skin color.” I heard that said to a little girl, who was white, by my Wing Chun instructor, who was black. he wasn’t joking. What is that if not racism?

I think I would not be as bothered by this argument of my fellow liberals were they bit more consistent in the deployment of their ideas about racism. They are not. And this is something our political opponents do pick up on, and with which they then go on to make political hay. Intellectually, I’m also bothered by inconsistency. 

The word racism, according to Wolfram Alpha seems to have been coined sometime in second half of the twentieth century, and its usage rises sharply there after. For most of that time, we have all operated under a fairly simple definition of racism. 

1. noun the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races.
2. noun discriminatory, or abusive behavior towards members of another race. 

For probably more than fifty years, we have understood racism, and racist in this way. This definition has been incredibly robust, and useful. There were racists. Racist groups, racist ideologies, racist policies.  Racism, and racist was simple and by attaching it to another concept, or person you could enable everyone to know exactly what was wrong with that concept or person. Jeong’s tweets certainly seem to fit within the definitional umbrella described above. 

Academics on the left have, probably with the good intentions, sought to definitionally exempt minorities in the US from the charge of racism by trying to suggest that racism, despite the historic use of the term, is about structures of power that systematically and negatively affect minorities. In so doing these academics could exempt minorities, and probably some prominent leaders of various identity movements from charges of racism. By the definitional manipulations of the sociologists it seems that, if applied consistently, individual people actually can’t be racist, only systems can. There are those who benefit from these systems and those who don’t. Donald Trump can’t be racist. because racism is a system of power. It isn’t about individual behavior or attitudes. We have to abandon the word racism, and the label racist for individual people, and resort to bigotry and prejudice. That seems to be the broad implication of modern sociology’s ideas about race. Again, if left leaning race theorists were consistent in the manner in which they used these labels it would be okay. They don’t and okay it isn’t. The left deploys the classical definition of racism and racist all the time. And why not, its quite useful. However in continuing to do so, the left confuses issues by special pleading on behalf of minorities when they display obviously, classically racist attitudes, as occasionally they do. 

When Roseanne Barr tweeted of Valerie Jarret, “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes had a baby= vj,” no one on the left had any problem identifying the racism, or calling Roseanne a racist. When ever Richard Spencer speaks, his race based generalizations and attitudes are quickly identified as racism, and he is regularly called a racist. Mel Gibson’s drunken rant about Jews, or his famously unpleasant prediction for his soon to be ex-wife, that she would be “raped by a pack of niggers,” clearly was, and was clearly labeled, racist by everyone. The left deploys the historical usage of racist and racism regularly. There is no logical reason people of color should be hand waved out of being able to be racist in that classical sense of racism. Doing so looks both like special pleading and condescension. If we on the left are going to use the historic well understood definition of racism as often as we do, we should be consistent, and admit that non-white people are as capable of such attitudes as anyone else, and not dehumanize people of color by condescendingly exempting them from being assholes. 

Sarah Jeong’s tweets are obviously racist. Her deflections about her trolls and the massive harassment she received can’t really excuse her from that fact. I certainly do sympathize with her and would happily make common cause with her in limiting on-line harassment. However, she doesn’t attack her trolls specifically, she attacks a group and in sometimes awful terms. 

“have you ever tried to figure out all the things that white people are allowed to do that aren’t cultural appropriation. there’s literally nothing. like skiing, maybe, and also golf. white people aren’t even allowed to have polo. did you know that. like don’t you just feel bad? why can’t we give white people a break. lacrosse isn’t for white people either. it must be so boring to be white.” 
"basically i’m just imagining waking up white every morning with a terrible existential dread that i have no culture.”
"White people have stopped breeding. you’ll all go extinct soon. that was my plan all along.”
"Are white people genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.”

Sarah Jeong could have gone after her trolls directly. She could have deconstructed the idea of race generally, and pointed out that idea of "white people” as a unified block is sort of preposterous. She could have clearly pointed out that “whiteness” didn’t equal culture. Instead her tweets demonstrated the exact same kind of lazy generalizing characteristic of all racist ideas, while at the same time exhibiting a lot of contempt for those unfortunate enough to be carrying the qualifying marker she decided to denigrate. There is nothing particularly difficult to parse out in “fuck white women, lol.” It implies a dislike, or hatred of, and utter disregard for “white women.” The Washington post allows Nolan L Cabrera to excuse Jeong’s tweets by putting them in context. He assumes that the outrage at Jeong’s tweets was created by the fact that Jeaong’s tweets were, “decontextualized, and ahistorified." This is giving her tweets more intellectual cover, by the way, than even Jeong did. How does the awfulness of US history, and it is indeed awful, justify, ‘fuck white women, lol.” What political power did they have for most of US, or even world history? Also which white women in particular were responsible for US immigration policy during the periods in which it was most hard on East Asian immigrants? Is Jeong referring primarily to white women of British decent? Were the white women in her mind’s eye, simply generalized Western European? Jeong’s not-pology specifically states she was primarily lashing out her trolls and harassers. She was not, according to her own reasoning, dwelling on historical grievances, or trying to draw attention to US history. She was counter trolling. Even if we did contextualize Jeong’s tweets, how does that justify her current racism? 

A lot of ink is being spilt on the left, and indeed by the generally laudable New York Times trying to explain away the racism of Jeong’s tweets. As noted above, Jeong herself has blamed her tweets on her trolls in her not-pology. Her defenders have said she was trying to use humor to combat the racism of her trolls. The NYT seems to be blaming conservatives for the controversy because they pointed out Sarah Jeaong’s racist tweets and because they noted the double standard on racism the Times, and more broadly the left, seems to have on matters of racism. It is (sad) funny that conservative media pundtrity is up in arms about Jeong’s racism given the current climate within the GOP itself. But the liberal double standard on racism does allow some intellectual cover behind which the right can hide and point an accusatory finger and say, “ you libs are racist too, just in a different way.” 

As a counter point to their behavior with Jeong, consider the following. The NYT, had absolutely no problem identifying the bigotry and potential racism of Quinn Norton, and let her go once the news of her offensive speech surfaced. She had made some homophobic tweets and insisted she was friends with white supremacist. She hadn’t even tweeted anything so bad as “ group X is logically only fit to live underground like goblins.” Why the double standard? If you are an organization with aspirations to be “the paper of record” the appearance of a double standard should be anathema. Double standards are intellectually lazy things to have (in addition to being impossible to justify), and damage credibility. 

I don’t know if the Times should let Sarah Jeong go. I dislike catering to a mob, and she is probably a deft tech writer. I’m not particularly offended by her. Her ideas on race are clearly daffy and racist, but they don’t really affect me. If her apology had been more honest, less self-serving, and blame shifting, I would be a lot more comfortable with her presence at a paper I quite enjoy (and will continue to subscribe to). A more honest apology would imply some more intellectual honesty and integrity on her part.  I’m much more bothered by my fellow liberals' attempt to defend Sarah Jeong’s racism. We liberals need to become a lot more consistent in the ways we use terms like racism. Obvious double standards weaken arguments, and they make it possible for people to dismiss even good points. Having sound arguments that avoid special pleading, and obvious double standards will never win over ideologically committed people. But why hurt your chances with honest intellectual opponents though? The New York Times has hurt its credibility by hiring and defending Sarah Jeong in the way it has. People in the middle, or on the fence may now be a little (or a lot) more inclined to dismiss reporting by the New York Times that is injurious to their issues, or to people they admire. “Well,” a center-right conservative might say, “they probably don’t report on the dems when they do the same thing.” A paper lives or dies by its credibility.  Special pleading, and blame shifting apologies weaken credibility.  Hiring Jeong was an own goal by the Times in favor of its ideological critics.  Tucker Carlson, intellectual huckster, GOP double standard bearer now gets to make a good point about leftist double standards on race.  He gets to deflect from the GOP’s appeal to serious racists by pretending the left is as bad, or nearly as bad on questions of race. Judging by the response of the right, and alt-right, he isn’t alone. 

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17 May 2018

A Brunch Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a very liberal adaptation of a lot of great Marvel source material, spanning two titles, The Incredible Hulk, and, of course, Thor, and probably decades worth of story. The film doesn’t exactly draw a lot of story elements from this source material so much as it grabs evocative images, and some loose ideas from them. It then knits these together, rather brilliantly, to continue the story of Thor, Loki, Odin, Hulk and the other Asgardians that began in 2011’s Thor.  If you are a comic book fan who read Walt Simonson’s epic and character defining run on Thor, you will be happy to see his designs still rule the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of Asgard. And if you recognize Simonson’s hand, you also recognize the ghost of Jack Kirby. I think the Simonson dominates the art direction and story design of all the Thor films. Thor:Ragnarok is no different. If you read Planet Hulk, you may have thought from Hulk’s out fit and gladiatorial digs that a great deal from that story would be on the screen. It isn’t the case. There are some elements of the story here, and some characters (written in wholly different ways) but the long sweep of Planet Hulk and its sadness are not really in evidence here. Someone might say that Thor: Ragnarok is the cliffs notes version of stories featured in the comics. That someone would not be me. It is just different from that source material even as it draws a lot of inspiration from it. That is okay. The MCU isn’t its print antecedents. If I want the Simonson material, I can look no further than my comic book boxes.

Thor: Ragnarok is a delightful blaze of color, action and adventure. It has a large cast of characters but manages its ensemble well. Watching the trailers one might come away thinking that it was going to be a simple buddy picture that sent Thor, Hulk and Valkyrie on a grand cosmic adventure, and the other characters being minimally developed, and holding places as mere window dressing. Taika Waititi does something much different. His film is interested in the greater Asgardian drama and he gave us a film that evolved the family dynamics. He didn’t have to do this. Waititi could have been content with the well worn sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki, but he and his script writers decided that would not do. The family dynamics evolved. For me, the film’s treatment of Loki and Thor’s relationship is one of its many triumphs.

What is the film about? Ultimately it is about family, the occasional failures of family, and history, and homeland. It is packaged in a rather glorious action adventure film. Thor is tracking rumors of Surtur’s rising and growing power (this is bad news for anyone familiar with Ragnarok), and looking for his father. The MCU gives us a Thor that isn’t necessarily mentally one of quickest heroes in the galaxy, but nor is he stupid. Thor is dogged and that tenacity is largely how he solves a lot our galaxy’s mysteries. The search for Surtur leads to Loki, and ultimately his father, and from his brother and father to greater troubles still.That trouble comes first in the form of an angry heretofore unknown sister, which then leads to unexpected exile on the world of a sadistic if superficially charming being known as the Grandmaster. His world is, in the comics, called BattleWorld. For people like Thor that means gladiatorial arenas and fights to the death. For the rest it means being as subservient as possible to Grandmaster, as pleasing him seems to be the only way to move up in the world if you aren’t a successful gladiator.

This is a grand movie. It begins in the Asgardian realms, travels through many other place and ends in space, on an unknown but hopeful future.

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Books: What I am reading now.

Reading list.

I have to drive a bit too and from the Jiu Jitsu gym, so Audible is a must. On deck for me at present is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I tried to read this as a first year in high school and it was a complete nonstarter for me. This full cast recording of the novel with the voices of some of Audible’s best readers, as well as big names like Tim Curry and Alan Cummings, is splendid. And the book is much better than I remember it.

When I am not driving I am currently reading, and enjoying quite a lot, James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. I’m about half way through it. This is a thoughtful book written by a man who seems to have been a very dedicated, if imperfect civil servant. It is an insider’s look at  the life and leadership decisions of district attorney’s, Attorney Generals, and FBI Directors. The author seems honest, Comey is often highly critical of himself, self-deprecating and a thoroughly enjoyable writer. It is a revealing and insightful book.

On the comic book front:
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai has a new seven issue story for his constant heroic samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo. The subject mater is fairly daring. It concerns the rather ill received Kirishitans (Christians) of feudal Japan. I don’t think Stan is tackling the history very broadly, so far (two issues in for me) it looks like Stan is crafting another feudal murder mystery. This story sees Usagi paired with one of my favorite characters in the series, Inspector Ishida.

Probably best to find on Comixology. Usagi has smaller print runs than you find for characters like Spider-Man, The Avengers etc, so if you aren’t having it put in your file at your local comic book dealer, you will discover that the print versions are hard to find. The trades are a lot easier. 

Tom King’s run on DC Comics Mr Miracle is absolutely must read comic art. Mr Miracle is a citizen of New Genesis. It is a place of gods and beauty, but there may be some rot at the heart of it. That world has long been in hot and cold wars with the world and machinations of Darkseid. Our hero would rather say, subtly and with love, “a pox on both your houses.” He wants to be left out it, and enjoy his life with a former gladiator slave named Big Barda. 
I really can’t say enough good things about this title. GO FORTH AND READ IT!

Brief ass reviews of books I’ve recently finished.

Circe by Madeline Miller
This book is a must for fans of The Illiad, The Odyssey and greek mythology generally. I say this as someone who didn’t expect to like it. I had not been a fan of Miller’s previous effort in re-myth making, Song of Achilles. Circe tells the story of many greek myths through the eyes of The Odyssey’s key characters, Circe, a witch and nymph goddess. It is the best kind of revision. 

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum 
Frum, life long conservative as well as a writer and editor at The Atlantic has written one of the most damning and well researched works on the Trump administration, and of the president himself. Frum is a careful critic, he never goes beyond the evidence, he supports his assertions with verified facts. When he is speculating he says so explicitly. His work is certainly worth your time. He is more useful than most on twitter, where he can be found at @davidfrum. You can also find him at his website.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump Whitehouse by Michael Wolff
6.5 or maybe even 7/10
Wolff’s book about his year hanging out in the White House is a lot of fun. Its a bit repetitive, Its funny and fits with much of what we know about what was going on inside and outside the White House. I think Wolff is probably a shrewd observer, but he is not a careful reporter. Very often he would suggest things a personality in the White House was thinking, and it always provoked a “How can you possibly know that Michael” response in me. His hypothesis that Trump never intended or wanted to win seems wholly plausible. He doesn’t offer much evidence to support it. I suspect he has a bit of evidence in the form of tapes, notes, statements and the careless way he wrote was actually to provoke a lawsuit that would allow him to win big and force the admin to reveal a lot more than they want the world to know. That is all speculation on my part, but given that the Trump Admin has been burned by evidence and forced to back peddle and admit to actions several times already my surmise seems reasonable. 

Gone by Michael Grant 8/10
Is it sci-fi? YA? Horror? Superhero story? It may be all of those things. Whatever it is, it is compelling. The book begins with an incident that leaves the world people only with kids under the age of fourteen. Some of these kids have strange abilities. What happens when the world of rules and adults vanishes and only a bunch of kids exist to maintain the bonds and promises of the social contract. What happens when kids who are fourteen turn fifteen? To say that trouble ensues would be an understatement. The first in a series of books Gone delivers the thrills. It didn’t score higher for me, because the author falls back on the trope of having smart characters occasionally do stupid things to maintain tension. However the characters are all well drawn, and it manages not to be Lord of the Flies, or The Hunger Games. 

20 March 2018

Improving in Jiu Jitsu as a Beginning Student.

What follows is aimed specifically at white through blue belt, but I hope there are useful tips for all belt and skill levels.

It is pretty rare that anyone comes to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu without the intention of getting better at it. There are the occasional people who just want to have something to do, who just enjoy the camaraderie of a good academy and don’t put undue pressure on themselves to get better at an accelerated rate (perhaps, counter intuitively, I have noticed that sometimes these folks improve the quickest). For the most part, it seems like people come to the Jiu Jitsu academy with some goal of being very good at the art. The reasons are myriad, but the end point for most is the same. Jiu-jitsu people want to achieve extreme proficiency. Whatever kind of student you are, casual or ambitious, here are some pieces of advice I have to improve your game.

Private Lessons

This will seem self-serving. I’m a black belt and I can make a decent buck giving private lessons. “He’s just advertising now,” you might think, or even say.  Here is the thing though, I still take private lessons. I suppose I am an expert on BJJ, but I am not an authority. I am pretty good at my game, but my game isn’t the totality of BJJ. I go to other experts to help me make my game more robust. I’ve always tried to supplement class instruction with private lessons from people better than me. Private lessons have the benefit of giving a student one on one time, with and the focused attention of the coach.

Fundamentals Class.

Does your academy have a fundamentals class? It does? Go to it as often as you can. The keys to the success of almost everything in Jiu Jitsu lie in that class. That is to say, success lay in the basics. There, you will be introduced to the most reliable techniques, key principles of body mechanics, and have the opportunity to practice them over and over again.

I’ve seen advanced belts stuck in headlocks, and kesa gatame, not only unable to escape, but not even knowing where to begin. I’m only guilty of minor hyperbole when I say most of the core mechanics of all escapes can be found in your fundamental headlock escapes. These often don’t get much coverage in your advanced classes, but you get to practice these basics over and over again in Fundamentals. Mastery begins with sound fundamentals.

The following clip is pretty MMA related, but what you will see, over and over, and over, is very basic jiu jitsu honed to perfection. Almost every BJJ related thing you see, you will learn in your Fundamentals class. 

How to Learn and Functionalize a New Technique.

1.     Pay attention to the coach’s details. She or he, isn’t giving them for no reason. Nothing is more frustrating for a coach than the moment immediately following “Got it? Need to see it again” getting head shakes and verbal negatives only to see that, in fact, folks didn’t get it, and needed to see it again. Coaches are often more than willing to accept the problem of not  “getting it” is often theirs, but please don’t say you get if you don’t.  I have not met a coach who was loath to demonstrate Jiu Jitsu to a student.  I haven’t heard “Are you fucking stupid,” seriously posed, since I was a Wing Chun student.

2.     The Steps. Coaches are often building road maps for muscle memory and the formation of sound structures for their students.  They will break a move down into steps. The steps become an order of operations that will become ingrained, and form good habits. Observe the steps, and follow them. If you are a white, or blue belt, or even a purple belt, don’t try to improve on the steps, don’t think, “I can skip this and get straight to X.” Chances are you actually can’t. The steps often anticipate obstacles and common opponent reactions. That is not to say you can’t improve on the technique in the future, but when you are first learning it, its always good to remember that your coach comes from a line of people who taught them, and is also the product of their own experience with the material. The steps, or order of operations, are a refuge in rough spots. They reduce decision time but limiting choices. All you have to think about is achieving the next step. Once that is achieved, you move on to the next step, and so on. As you build a smooth technique, it will seem as if the steps have disappeared (in the same way concrete positions disappear), but their mechanics and basic structures will be there still.

Here is an example of how focusing on the steps your coach lays out can help you perform under pressure.  A lot of my approach to Jiu Jitsu and skills mastery can be attributed to the Steps mindset I learned and cultivated under Marcelo Monteiro. Marcelo was a De la Riva guy, and there were always a lot of steps and rules. What I found was that by following the steps laid out for establishing a position, half-guard say, I was reducing the size of the decision tree I had to deal with, and establishing small goals that are much easier to focus on while under the pressure of a live roll or competition.  For instance, Marcelo had a several steps to regaining the advantage from bottom half. If my opponent was on top, and had head and under-hook control they had the advantage. Marcelo’s steps to get out of that situation were:
1. Get, as much as possible, on your side
2. Build a frame to regain control of your neck and head
3. Gain the under-hook, or
4. Build a frame with your leg and formerly under-hooked arm, and with your bottom-side hand establish sleeve or inside bicep control.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what that terminology means, what I want to highlight is the refuge the steps became in live rolls. Being in a terrible place is rough, and the end goal (being out of said terrible place) can seem enormously daunting. Little steps toward the ultimate goal however are much easier to focus on, and often starting the process, step one, can help you build to the next small goal, until eventually you have completed the chain of steps. The order of operations is your refuge; the steps your coaches are giving you are the order of operations. Pay attention. I have taken that step conscious approach to every academy I’ve trained at since.

As a final point in this section, if you find a particular movement too troublesome, try breaking that movement in to steps. If you can’t do it, ask your coach to help you.

Slow down. 
Read that again, I mean it. Or as I think I have heard Jay Jack put it, “Slow the fuck down.”

Your coach has just given you the steps, demonstrated the technique and sent you off to practice. How do you remember the steps? How do you ingrain that technique properly into your muscle memory?

Don’t start with speed. Slow Down. Trying to do a new thing with speed is a great way to start missing steps, losing the body mechanics, and generally building bad habits or no habits. That is building failure into the new move.

While you learn and practice a new technique you should focus on performing each component perfectly and acquiring the quality of smooth movement (be sure to ask questions if you are having trouble). Speed will come with internalization of the steps and the increasing smoothness of your movement. Do not worry if your training partner is faster or smoother than you. Maybe they have trained the move before, or have been training longer, and have some idea of their own body’s capacity for movement.

Progressive Resistance

You have been practicing a new technique, you are mastering the steps, you are getting smooth, now how do you apply that technique in live rolling? Do you try your new flying triangle on a brown belt? You can, but don’t expect to build on the timing and intuitions of the attack there, your new flying triangle is bound to get stuffed in that context. You build your attacks with progressively harder people, but you don’t start building mastery with the toughest, and most technical training partners in your gym. You try new techniques on people your skill level and lower. The higher your rank the more you should be able to make this kind of focused training really work. A purple, brown, or black belt can direct the roll to the same situation again, and again against white and blue belt.  However anyone can use the principle of progressive training. You begin building the technique in a situation of alive rolling, where resistance is present and will keep you honest, but where you can concentrate on doing the technique. Once you are confident in the technique in that that setting, you begin to try to apply it at the next skill level.  This kind of progression is often its own trouble shooting. Timing improves, the mechanics tighten, you see the common obstacles, and you either figure out the answers to those obstacles, or you ask a coach who has. Eventually you are applying the technique to equally skilled peers and even people who are generally better than you. Progressive resistance doesn’t just build muscle.

Trust the Jiu Jitsu

This is something that comes up a lot. People get shown a technique, they practice it in class, and then, in live rolls, do a lot of other things that aren’t really sound Jiu Jitsu. They do everything but the technique. They panic at resistance or the initial failure of the technique and go to things that may occasionally work, or that give an illusion of progression toward some end goal, passing the guard, escaping the mount, achieving side control, whatever, but will get them no where against opponents possessing superior skills or attributes.  Rejecting Jiu Jitsu is not the path to improved Jiu Jitsu. 

If you think you are at a good school (a topic of another essay perhaps) then you should trust what your coaches are telling you. As a blue belt, or a white belt, you aren’t yet an expert in Jiu Jitsu, or even in what works for your body. Your coaches have the benefit of thousands of hours of learning, rolling, thinking about Jiu Jitsu and teaching. You should definitely ask a lot of questions. Ask for help. “Can you help me figure out X?” Coaches are pretty generous with their time, and want you to get better.  If they have time, they will help you figure it out. If they don’t have time, consider that private lesson!

Here are two further ideas suggested by friends who reviewed this piece that I thought were great ideas.

Dan Neumann, a Jay Jack Academy teammate, suggested the use of emulation as an aid in technical development. You like Jiu Jitsu, you probably watch a lot of competition, you probably have players, in MMA, no-gi, or gi competition that you admire and whose game you are amazed by. It actually isn’t a bad idea to try to play like someone you know to be an exemplar of the art. Is there a rule that says this exemplar can’t be your own coach or someone in your academy? No, not at all. However, I have found that people often utilize models outside their academy for this emulative experimentation.  I think the reason for this is that we actually don’t get to watch our teammates or coaches roll in practice. We are too busy training ourselves. I won’t tell you who Dan said his models were, but one of my early models was Minotauro Noguiera. At the time he had probably the best heavy weight BJJ for MMA around. We were built similarly, small-framed heavyweights (230-240 lbs, which can be small in modern heavyweight divisions). His style of play was pretty similar to stuff I was doing at Marcelo Monteiro’s academy in Indianapolis. The similarity made some sense, they were friends and trained together in and under the Carlson Gracie umbrella. I tried to do what he did. I got my ass kicked a lot, but in so doing, I learned a lot about escaping bad positions, and I also rolled with people, upper ranks and people who had trained longer, who understood what I was trying to do and helped me tweek this or that position, or sweep. You probably have someone whose game you like, even if you don’t understand it fully. Try it out.

Alex Trafton, a friend who does high-end security and trains grappling for a robust set of applications, suggested, cross training. This is a great idea. How much you can do is probably time, finance and location dependent but it is worth your time to do however much you can do. Not everyone can be as thorough as Alex is with his cross-training (he shoots, he boxes, he grapples in a variety of systems, he has trained extensively in Muay Thai, and probably a bunch of stuff I am missing). Not everyone has the time or money to do as much as they would like, or train at a location that can provide many different arts to explore. You can always do a bit of cross training though. So, try other grappling arts out if you can, and definitely drop into to other BJJ academies, as that experience can often be as different as training in another art. Across BJJ schools you will see a lot of similarities, but there are different styles of play, different games that, whether you adopt them into your own game, are good to be exposed to. Call ahead, see if it is okay to drop in for a class or open mat (it almost always is, there is often a reasonable drop-in fee) and explore!

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03 October 2017

Brunch Movie Review: It

Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Adapted by Chase Palmer
                    Cary Fukunaga
                    Gary Dauberman
To see the full cast and crew go here.

It is a story of Derry a haunted town, and a town that is a haunt. It is also the story of the seven brave kids who decide to confront the evil that stalks through Derry’s Norman Rockwellian facade.
It is an undeniably well made and mostly well written movie. The acting is all very good the production values are all very high. The film is filled with disturbing images and, sometimes, very often in fact, dense brooding atmosphere. There are even some very worthy jump scares.1 Most of the characters from King’s novel are on screen. They come very close to feeling right. It is appropriate that Stephen King’s name isn’t on the poster though. The film feels like only a dim recollection of his novel. The experience of watching it, reminded me of seeing a high school student crash and burn on a book report they had only skimmed the night before in a desperate attempt to eke out at least a C-. The general outline is there, but the film as adaptation, like my imaginary book report,  feels deflated, and skeletal.

If you are a fan of the novel, I suspect this adaptation won’t work for you. It didn’t for me, a fact that made me incredibly sad, because this is a film I really wanted to like. I first read Stephen King’s It in the eighth grade, in the year 1987 (i had to wait for it to come out in paperback). In the intervening thirty years, I’ve read the novel through at least five times and have re-read bits and pieces here and there, to probably, if we are being generous, add up to a sixth reading. In some way or another, since that long ago year of 1987, It feels like it has been with me. To this day if I see a sewer drain,2 or see clown, or see kids, obvious friends, riding bikes to parts unknown, It sends some signal to my frontal cortex for reflection. The geography, and dark character of Derry, its villains and its heroes form easy recollections. After 1987  Bill, Ben Stan, Bev, Richie, Mike, Eddie, (seven is a strong number the turtle would have noted) even Henry Bowers and dread Pennywise itself have traveled with me.

When I could make myself forget about the source material I could appreciate the craftsmanship (generally quite good) of the film. Sadly the source material kept reasserting itself and ruining my ability to immerse myself in the film. The source material wasn’t alone. It was joined by the impossibly good and much better adapted 1990 tv mini-series starring Tim Curry. The book and that mini-series crowded in, over and over again demanding that my mind make comparisons, always to the detriment of the new film. Netflix’s masterpiece Stranger Things often joined in when it really shouldn’t have. However Muschietti and his writers elected to set part one of It 1983. Thus the kids and the feel constantly evoke Stranger Things. This is too bad, given that the latter, owes so much to King’s dark novel. I think the decision could have worked in the absence of Stranger Things, but in that series' afterglow it looks too much like copying. This comparison is not helped by the presence of Finn Wolfhard who played Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things. Finn’s Richie Tozier is on the mark, and remarkably different from Mike Wheeler, never the less, comparisons, for me at least became unavoidable.

I’m not necessarily a purist about adaptations. I thought Phillipa Boyens, with Fran and Peter Jackson, gave viewers a wonderful adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in their film trilogy. I didn’t always agree with their choices, but I thought, for the most part they captured the essences of both story and the characters.The goal in that adaptation was to attempt, as often as was possible, one to one correspondence with the book. It works. Or consider the adaptations faced by the comic book movie adapters. The kind of one to one correspondence Jackson et al did isn’t nearly as possible. Writers have narrative history spanning decades, and fans across generations. Here what is important are writing true to the characters and being true to the essences of the stories you want to adapt. Bryan Singer understood this when he tackled Marvel’s X-Men. The story had to be both new and old, but the characters had to be true. Wolverine couldn’t be suave and sophisticated and Charles Xavier couldn’t be a tap dancing kung fu master. So I get it. Movies aren’t the books they sometimes adapt and viewers should be able to set the two in different places. The two media do different kinds story telling. The adaptation has to be true though, and for inexplicable reason, the writer’s of this iteration of It, fail that the trueness test, thus as an adaptation worthy of the source material It also fails.

That is a long preface to the following conclusion. If you aren’t as attached to the novel, love scary movies and don’t mind a few horror movie tropes (these tropes were not present in the novel) you will probably really like It. 4 If you are attached to the novel, my guess is that the movie won’t work for you, and it won’t work in a big way. I could be wrong on either count, so you should definitely see the movie and decide for yourself. Tell me your thoughts in the comment box below.

Verdict 1: It as straight horror film: 8/10 or if you prefer the old, and very forgiving Ebert method 3/4 stars.
Verdict 2: It as adaptation 6/10 or 2/4 stars Ebert scale.

SPOILERS BELOW do not continue unless you don’t mind spoiling spoilers. 
Okay, you were freakin’ warned.

As a straight horror film, It works fairly well. There is a lot of brooding atmosphere. In an early scene, one of our heroes Bill asks his younger brother Georgie to go down into the basement to get some paraffin to finish a paper boat. Its a pretty fine example of what the film does well in the first two acts. It builds its dread, with admirable patience. Its on old basement, dirt floors, not well lit, the lights don’t work, and the rain that has caused record flooding is backed by a dark gray sky and the basement’s tiny ground level windows don’t provide a strong light against the dark basement. Its stellar stuff. The film manages to keep it smart like this throughout. At the beginning of the turn toward the film’s conclusion though, the writers start introducing some stock horror movie contrivances, and the contrivances of bad or rushed writers everywhere.

If the film is weak anywhere in its first two acts it is in the very underwhelming way in which it brings its protagonists together. Its also not terribly effective at demonstrating the deep almost mystical rapport of childhood friendships, which is the very heart of King’s novel. It brings the kids together I suppose, but it is all pretty perfunctory. Our heroes are Stuttering Bill Denebrough, Eddie Kapsbrak, Richie Tozier (who were friends before Georgie died), Ben “Haystack” Hanscom (he is the fat kid), Beverly Marsh (a working class girl with no real friends), and Mike Hanlon (in this film a black farm kid who lives with his weirdly dickish granddad). They call themselves the Loser’s Club. With exception of Richie Tozier, and Beverly Marsh, none of them feel terribly well fleshed out. I’m not even sure Richie and Beverly are all that well fleshed out, but they have some good lines, delivered by good actors. They are flat in a way they were not in the novel. They don’t have any real interests, so its hard to buy into their connections with each other, when we don’t feel connected to them. The Loser’s Club is opposed directly by Henry Bowers and his gang of knuckle dragging trouble makers, Victor “Vic” Criss, Belch Huggins. In the novel Henry attracted a couple of other high school psychos and kids who would rather hang with the bully than be one of his victims. The Loser’s Club is also opposed by It or its alter ego Pennywise the dancing clown. The town of Derry seems against them in many ways too. I hope I am not boring you with this summary, but its important ground work, and the film gets a C at establishing these players. It isn’t terrible for a standard horror film but it doesn’t work as an adaptation of It. 

Bowers and his friends terrorize the Losers here and there in mostly convincing ways. The Losers score a big victory when they defend Mike Hanlon from Bowers, who is increasingly demonstrating a willingness, even an eagerness to take his bullying too far.  At the edge of a creek in Derry’s pine barrens he seems ready and willing to empty Mike’s skull of brains with a large rock. The Losers have numbers and lay waste to Henry and his friends, driving them away and picking up another friend.

The film establishes that our heroes are fairly smart kids (that it seems to want to be both high school age and middle school aged). It doesn’t explore their interests, or explore their motivations very much at all, but more about that later. What we can conclude is that are not dumb kids. For some reason though, they start doing a great many dumb, dumb, dumb things. In their first confrontation with Pennywise, they march into its lair with no clue how to fight it, no clue whether they can fight it, despite the fact that they know it has been around for a very, very long time. But no, they just walk into monster’s house. Characters in dumb horror films are allowed to do dumb things. Characters in films that spend a lot of time setting a higher bar don’t later get to go under it with out commentary from the likes of me. Our heroes stupidly allow themselves to get separated. They get their asses kicked pretty good, which at least makes some sense. Then what follows is the trope of the sundering friendship. After getting a thorough drubbing from Pennywise, Richie Tozier does a riff on Private Hudson from Aliens. 

Bill concedes that Richie indeed grasps what just happened and suggests they try again. He suggests weapons next time, that they really-really not get separated next time. To which Richie, says, and I paraphrase, “whoa, whoa, fuck that noise.” Richie follows this reasonable stance up with some unreasonable and incendiary things, an insensitive reference to Bill’s missing, and likely dead brother Georgie being among them. Fight ensues. Bill and Bev plead, but the others are like, “nah, I’m out” and only two remain, Beverly Marsh and Bill Denebrough. What they decide we don’t know because the scene cuts away. Its all uncomfortably remeinsceint of the fight in Stranger Things and all uncomfortably foreign to the source material.

Not to worry the fellowship of The Loser’s Club reassembles about 15-20 minutes later. Pennywise kidnaps Bev (Bev, prior to her kidnapping, killed her dad..i think?). Stuttering Bill happens upon the scene of a big fight in Bev’s house, sees her dead prone on the floor, the tile below his head a growing pool of dark red. Pennywise has left Bill a message on the ceiling of Bev’s bathroom. “You’ll die if you try!” Bill is unimpressed and immediately Bill calls his friends (not paramedics I noticed) and with out any question they join in on the Beverly saving quest. The Losers coming back together is supposed to be a triumphant moment in the film. It almost was for me, but I also didn’t like the useless manipulation of the friendship fight trope.

It is at this point that the film hits cruise control all the way to the finish. The Losers Club goes back to the lair, this time with a sheep puncher gun and some spikes from a wrot-iron fence. They vow not to get separated. They get separated. Pennywise has recruited Henry Bowers to help. Henry almost ruins the Losers ill conceived plans but takes a fall down a well at the hands of Mike that has to function like a kind of eraser for Bowers himself. The Losers get confronted with their fears, they save Bev, and then beat the shit out of It with impact weapons. The Loser’s Club drives It away with bats, rebar,  and other improvised clubs. I’m not sure how that could work, given that earlier one of them drove a three foot make-shift spear through Pennywise’s skull, but, yeah, sure. Together they went medieval on its ass. There are some nice lines, and the action is pretty good. as I’ve said elsewhere, I probably wouldn’t have minded except...

....except for the depth and wonder of Stephen King’s epic novel.

The film lacks all of the depth of the novel. In the book the first fight the Losers have with it took place between 1957-1958.  Why set it in the 1980s? Why high school(wish)? Why ignore the racial animus the Bowers feel toward the Hanlons? Why aren’t the Bowers also farmers, with a lesser farm than the one run by the Hanlons? King wanted to say some thing about the false world of the fifties  with It, but by setting it in the 80s, the writers lose a lot of depth. Why do the kids have no real personalities? Why do they have no interests? Ben has an aptitude for engineering, Bill is a great story teller, Tozier is funny, imaginative and talented at making people laugh. Stan is logical and sharp, and Eddie is a great friend, Mike was an outsider even among outsiders in Maine in 1957. He knows a lot about Maine, so does his dad. Why the kill off Mike’s parents? Why make Richie fear clown instead of werewolves?

The movie completely ignores the kids process of figuring out how you fight a creature like It. It becomes what you fear. In the book the kids find that It is afraid of them, in a daring sweatlodge, they sort of find out why. They go to the library and learn about Chimera, they surmise that by becoming what they fear, It also is makes itself vulnerable to their beliefs about those feared monsters. It was powerful but it played by rules. They embark on a sweatlodge, they...they do things to be able to beat the monster. They don’t just pick up improvised impact weapons and beat the shit out of Pennywise.  They use Richie’s powerful fear werewolves to attack Pennywise, with the weakness of werewolves, silver. Its wonderful, insightful and sometimes sad novel from which writers could have plumbed deeply. With It as their starting point they could have given us a piece of art that did more than was merely an adequate and often good genre piece. They could have given us a film like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film that left genre behind. They could have given us just a great film.

I say this a lot in my blog reviews, and I thought the past twenty years of movie history had finally driven the message home. Apparently my message hasn’t gotten to everyone. Source material is key and king. When it is ignored, or not honored a film adaptation is likely to go sideways. Adapting a big book, or even a small one (I’m looking at you Hobbit) is a tough task. The source material will often be a tragedy, for the adapter at any rate, of wealth. Adapting a good book must be a process or trimming. What gets cut and why? Can the writer’s combine events and characters? Do you cut and give a fan service reference? These are all tough spots for the writers adapting material, but the process should be one of what is absolutely necessary to tell this story, what events are too important to ignore? Pick the format, write a script that fits that format, and then rewrite until you have a movie that both fans of the novel will enjoy and that honors the material while grabbing new viewers unfamiliar with the source material . Also, when writing, have some faith in and respect for your audience. Marvel Studios, Peter Jackson and others have shown that if you write a good script, the audience will follow even if your hero is a talking raccoon spaceship pilot, or an Amazon warrior fighting Germany in World War I. We also see what happens over and over again, when filmmakers think they know better than the source material. Fox Studios abysmal Fantastic Four film is a wonderful example and by wonderful I mean awful. Michael Bay continues to produce fresh outrages  of this sort with his direction or producing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers “films." The same happened in both G.I. Joe movies. The filmmakers essentially gave a giant middle finger to the source material and thought they knew better. Audiences, or critics and sometimes both gave the films their own middle fingers critique.

Andy Muschietti’s It, doesn’t quite get as bad as the above unmentionables, it is a well made film after all.  However, it is hard to deny that he and his team of writers have failed the audience by electing to ignore the novel far too often and do their own thing. This is too bad. They had a great plan. Break the book into two films. That should have given them (had they aimed for longer films, say 2 1/2 or even 3 hours) all the room they need to make not only a decent piece of horror film making, but also produce two great films, filled with nuance, and depth. They settled, and it seems we have to as well.

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