Swordsman & Geek

A Midsummer Night’s Blog

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The Sleeping Giant Awakens…

The ground is shaking.

  • Confederate Flags being pulled down everywhere?
  • ObamaCare upheld 6-3
  • Same-sex marriage wins 5-4

What is going on?

This could have ended differently.

Back in 2008 I made the argument that the election was primarily about the Supreme Court. Barack Obama has done some things I didn’t like but there is no reasonable counterargument that a Republican president would have done better and Obama nominated two progressive justices to the highest court. If a Republican had won, we wouldn’t have healthcare reform and we certainly would have lost the same-sex marriage decision.

Sometimes change takes time and sometimes it happens quickly. This week seems like a seismic shift as shock-waves ripple outward. If you look at the balance of power in our heavily gerrymandered system you’ll find that we’re poised for rapid shifts as the people outpace the politics.

It may not look like it but the Millennials won big today because they put Obama in the white house over the objections of the older whiter voters. The Millennials are the largest generation in history and the most liberal in their politics. The oldest of these voters are in their mid-30s and the cohort won’t reach full fighting strength until 2018 when  the youngest will be eligible to vote.

Millennials are the largest generation numbering at  95 million, compared to 78 million for the Baby Boomers.

Millennials are the largest generation numbering at 95 million, compared to 78 million for the Baby Boomers.

2016 will be an election to watch but it will be nothing compared to 2020. After the 2020 census the United States will redraw the maps of political power. Look for more major quakes when the gerrymanders start collapsing.

That shaking that you feel in the ground is the stirring of a giant awakening to take the reins of power and her name is ‘Millennial’.

A Medio between Incompetence and Perfection


There is no point in dreams

There is no point in dreams if they lack some measure of audacity.

It was January of 2000 and the world had survived the millennium bug.  The place was Breckenridge, Colorado and a member of my wife’s family had a cabin near the ski resorts.  There at the top of the mountain I got my first bit of instruction in the ancient art of skiing.


The first and last thing I heard was, “Lean forward,” and so I did.  I began to slide down the mountain gaining speed. I had no way to steer and no idea what I should be doing.  I found myself completely out of control and was headed towards the trees at increasing velocity.  Before I painfully crashed I orchestrated a controlled wipe-out into the snow with poles, skis, and limbs all flying in different directions.  The remainder of the day was a repeat of the same series of leanings forward with various wipe-outs.  I got better instruction and learned how to stop by “snow-plowing”.  By the end of the day I had learned how to turn and stop with the skis parallel.


Sometime ago I became interested in the study of incompetence and how incompetent people generally behave.  Specifically I was interested in the meta-cognition of incompetence as studied by Justin Kruger and David Dunning who found that incompetent people were unable effectively to evaluate their own competence.  This lack of ability to understand personal competence has been called the Dunning–Kruger effect and restated basically it means that incompetent people tend to overestimate their own level of skill.


Link to the study:


(For an academic study, this is riveting material to read especially as a researcher, teacher, or student of martial arts.)


Compare that to Carranza’s statement, “He who knows most doubts most.”  Carranza adds the perfect corollary to the DK effect and uniting the two ideas has given me a basis for moving forward during difficult tasks.  (As an example, when a prairie-born Okie is rolling down a mountain with skis tied to his feet.)


The point isn’t to belittle or slander incompetence; we’re all incompetent in some subjects.  Instead, my goal was to develop strategies to understand and mitigate my own incompetence by reserving a healthy dose of doubt about my own ability and creating a series of tests to validate my own performance.


I am going to add my own rule which I learned in Breckenridge, “Lean forward.”  We can paraphrase Voltaire to arrive at a similar statement, “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  If I had become paralyzed with the fear of the many stumbles, spectacular wipe-outs, and public laughter at my misbegotten antics I might never have learned to ski that day.


We might best understand this as a Medio (or a virtuous mean or balance point as Aristotle and the Destreza authors might describe it).  There is absolute perfection at one extreme.  At the other extreme is complete incompetence.  Between the two extremes is the good work we might do if we just lean forward and accept our imperfection.


We need to teach and practice La Verdadera Destreza to build our skill and to foster a community.  But, we also know not all the work has been translated which should be a warning to us to preserve our doubts.  Previous attempts have stumbled and fallen quite publicly.  Worse, our mistakes may be mocked and picked apart and ridiculed by our peers.


1. Know that your ability to self-evaluate is shaky while you are learning.

2. Preserve a healthy doubt and create meaningful checks to ensure your work is good.

3. Lean forward and be ambitious unto audacity.  Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from producing work.

Fencing Criticism and Feedback for Dummies…

Fencers?  Cocky?  Never!

William provides Italian sabre feedback at WMAW 2009

I recently witnessed an Internet discussion on fencing that rapidly degenerated into bad blood.  Using my best sarcastic voice, I hereby state, “It may surprise the world to learn that fencers are notoriously cocky and prone to confrontation.

Any fencing teacher can watch a fencing match and provide valid criticism and feedback. Regardless of the quality of the fencing in question, how your criticism is delivered tells the world what kind of person you are.  More specifically, they get a window into how you might treat your own student.

If your goal is to humiliate and punish the student you are certainly welcome to say whatever you like, but I have a three-point system for delivering feedback based on my experiences training for the fencing master’s program.

Puck’s 3 Rules for Corrective Feedback

  • Precise – Feedback should not be vague.  “Fix your arm” is not an acceptable correction from a fencing teacher.  That could mean anything.  You do not want the student trying to guess what they should correct. “Extend your weapon arm first during the lunge;” “In the guard create a straight line from elbow to weapon tip;” “Close the line when striking.”  These are all specific corrections tightly focused on the problem.
  • Concise – Nothing breaks up the tempo of a fencing lesson like veering off into an extended discussion of tangential theory.  There is a place for extended discussion, but on the floor a short and precise explanation preserves the flow of the lesson.  Don’t let your fencer’s legs cool off while you wax poetic about the joys of striking in countertime.  Importantly, don’t lecture while the student is on guard.  If you are going to provide anything more than short feedback, put them into a resting posture like first position.  Don’t spend sweat and energy having your student hold a guard as you prattle when you could spend that energy on fencing actions.
  • Nice – This seems obvious, but it bears repeating.  Don’t be a jerk when you deliver your correction.  As a fencing teacher, you are engaged in the process of creating a skilled fencer.  Like any person responsible for creation there will be challenges in the process.  It is a poor artist that wrecks his own canvas.  There is often a natural and friendly antagonism between the fencing master and the student, but the goal of the teacher should always be to build the student and not to destroy them.

Both fencing and teaching are very rewarding.  Nothing worth doing is easy all the time, but if we can take a bit of time to treat each other with respect and focus on building better fencers we will all benefit.


Italian Rapier Flowchart


After WMAW 2007 I prepared this Italian rapier flowchart to explain some of the possible actions when executing tactical drills with a student.

Italian Rapier Flowchart

Italian Rapier Flowchart (Click for High Resolution)

There are things I would change about this chart today.  This flowchart does not include actions like attacks to the leg, the use of the off hand, and it doesn’t get into detail about execution, but as a basic learning aid I still like it provided the instructor does not limit the instruction solely to this decision tree.


Swetnam’s Postulate


Image from Swetnams Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617)

Image from Swetnam

“…yet regard chiefly the words rather than the Picture.” ~ Joseph Swetnam

First, a postulate is to maintain or assert that something is self-evident.  It is part of the fundamental element or basic principle of a logical argument.

Second, a primary source is an original text (like a fencing manual) or an object (like a sword).  We will use a primary source to draw conclusions about a topic.  A fencer might study the book of Salvator Fabris to understand Italian rapier.  Darkwood Armory might study a rapier from the original time period to understand how to create a training weapon for fencers today.

In our case, a primary source is important in identifying the origin of the information we want to interpret.  Primary sources are given greater value than secondary sources.  A secondary source is information or discussion of the primary source that is not originated from the primary source.  For example, you could argue that our recreation of Destreza based on an English translation is a tertiary source because it is based on a secondary source (the English translation).

This becomes tricky in a fencing manual when we consider the images.  For example, Ridolfo Capoferro’s work has been subjected to some intense scrutiny in this regard and I have been involved in some heated discussions about the position of the feet, the nature of offline steps, and the gaining of the weapon.  While the plates in the text are very important we need to remember Joseph Swetnam’s advice.

…yet regard chiefly the words rather than the Picture.

I call this Swetnam’s Postulate.  Unless the fencing master himself is listed as the artist, the images are not a primary source of information but rather a secondary source.

Interpreting a Text

When interpreting a fencing text, I use a hierarchy of sources in which item 1 is given the highest priority and item 7 the lowest.

  1. The text in the original language is a primary source.
  2. Swetnam’s Postulate – Unless we can prove the master created the images, the artwork is a secondary source.
  3. The translated text is a secondary source.
  4. Masters in the same tradition, weapon, and time period can provide insight to technique.
  5. Masters in the same tradition, weapon, and a different time period, can also provide insight.
  6. Masters in the same tradition with similar weapons (for example classical Italian fencing) can provide insight.
  7. My own experience or experimentation.

For example… If Capoferro indicates that I should travel directly forward on the line of direction, I should obey the text even when it contradicts (or seems to contradict) the images rather than reinterpret the author’s instructions based on my understanding of pictures created by an artist.  If other sources within the tradition also seem to confirm Capoferro’s text, rather than a picture that could arguably be on the line or off it, this provides us additional incentive to trust the author’s voice.

Likewise, as an interpreter, I need to be aware of my fencing biases and try to avoid item 7 as much as possible.  When I change ‘canonical‘ technique or add technique of my own this needs to be clearly stated in my interpretation.  (In this sense, I use the term ‘canonical‘ to indicate a deviation from the original text or texts.)

For example, at WMAW 2009 I applied principles from Ettenhard’s book in order to create new techniques appropriate for left-handed fencers.  When I demonstrated these variations to the class, I made certain to explain that these were my variations and not Ettenhard’s original work.

By expressing some dissatisfaction with the images in his book and asking the reader to give his words precedence over the plates, Swetnam reminds us that the author’s voice is the first and primary source of information an interpreter should consider.