May 17, 2008


Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: this is it
That makes the wappen'd widow wed again;

She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put'st odds
Among the route of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature....

O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
‘Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen’s purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,

Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian’s lap! Thou visible God!
That solder’st close impossibilities,
And makest them kiss! That speak’st with every tongue,

To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire!

Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

May 16, 2008


Dojo practice in Japan, circa 1920, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is about applying principles from the martial arts to working and writing to achieve social change or social conservation. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

In yesterday's post, I talked a little about ju jitsu, moral, political and Brazilian. Today's will pick up on the latter. I urge non-martial artists to bear with me since I honestly believe these strategies represent the last best hope of making things a little less bad.

In the 1990s, a revolution occurred in the martial arts world as a result of full contact matches with very few rules that pitted people from different fighting styles against each other. Overwhelmingly, the winners were grapplers trained in or influenced by Brazilian ju jitsu, a style widely associated with the Gracie family.

For an old karate dinosaur like El Cabrero, this was sooo not cool. It really wasn't fair. People who were really formidable in arts based on striking but knew nothing else were helpless against ju jitsu fighters. And the weird thing is, the ju jitsu guys would win in a way that left no room for doubt but which didn't hurt their opponents at all, aside from wounded pride.

How bad was it? Let's just say that if you pitted a real good boxer or striker with years of experience and no knowledge of grappling against a rookie who's been practicing ju jitsu for six months, the smart money is on the rookie.

Part of the reason for that is Darwinian. When critters are exposed to a threat for which they have not evolved defenses, they're toast unless and until they adapt. But part of the reason is a refined strategy which is really a development of the ideas of classical martial arts. Like all styles, ju jitsu uses the force of the opponent and attacks weak spots. But it does something more.

Brazilian ju jitsu is based on the idea that a struggle has different phases (some would say ranges or levels) and positions. Each phase or level requires a different set of skills. Brazilian stylists will try to take the fight to a phase or level where their opponent's strengths are useless. Once there, they position themselves in a such a way that the opponent is rendered harmless and can be persuaded to give up (often by the application of a submission technique).

Here's an illustration. A boxer can be dangerous--standing up. On the ground, not so much. As Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, put it,

Even the most powerful human being has a limited sphere of strength. Draw him outside of that sphere and into your own, and his strength will dissipate.

Summary: when engaged in a struggle with powerful opponents to make things less bad, don't engage them where and when they are strongest--change the level. Take the game to a place where the odds are better.

Here's a specific example. Several years ago, there was an incident of police brutality with racial overtones in a small rural community. The local paper and Powers That Were ignored it and tried to cover it up. We changed the level and took the story to statewide media outlets and notified people all over the country. After that, they couldn't ignore it any more and there was a pretty decent outcome.

A general example. Often in a democracy, when a bureaucracy of whatever kind does something that is tacky and/or harms people with less power, it usually likes to do so quietly. You can change the level by making it public. Sometimes you can change the level by questioning the legality of a policy, sometimes by building coalitions, sometimes by raising the noise level, or some combination thereof.

In a word, don't play their game. Make them play yours. Every situation is unique, but the principles, like the Dude, abide.

"PLASTICS." In the classic film The Graduate, that sage advice was given to Dustin Hoffman's character. I'm not sure how much that would help now. As the Economic Policy Institute's latest snapshot reveals, this month's new college graduates will face a challenging job market.

HOT TIMES. The latest issue of Nature summarizes the evidence on climate change. Here are the opening lines:

A comprehensive analysis of trends in tens of thousands of biological and physical systems has provided more evidence to bolster the near-universal view that man-made climate change is altering the behaviour of plants, animals, rivers and more.

HUNGRY PLANET. Several experts on the world food crisis weigh in on the problem in Newsweek. Some of them make sense.

UNION PREMIUM. A new report from the WV Center on Budget and Policy and the Center for Economic and Policy Research highlights the benefits of union membership.

CALMER THAN YOU ARE. On a positive note, research indicates that happiness can be learned if we chill out a little.


May 15, 2008


Brazilian ju jitsu in action, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been applying ideas from the martial arts to working and writing for social change and social preservation. There are also news items and comments about current events.

Today's "lesson" comes from ju jitsu, an art that's so old it's new. It began as an art practiced by the Japanese samurai for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the source of both judo and aikido. Judo, in turn, influenced the development of a particularly effective variation known as Brazilian ju jitsu.

The ju in both means something like gentle, pliable or flexible (jitsu means technique or art and do means way as in something practiced as an end in itself). But don't make the mistake of confusing gentleness with weakness. It is rather the opposite of relying on strength alone.

I found one of the best summaries of strategy, broadly conceived, in the book Mastering JuJitsu by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher. This approach applies socially as well as physically:

The guiding principle behind ju is the idea of a weaker (gentler) force overcoming a stronger force through the application of technique, or jitsu, rather than strength and aggression. Reduced to its core, jujitsu is the employment of intelligence and skill to overcome brute strength and aggression...This should not be misunderstood as a notion of gentleness or softness. Strength is used in jujitsu. It can definitely help to be strong, but strength is used in an intelligent, rational manner as part of a strategy guided by efficient technique. Rather than confront strength with strength, jujutsu confronts strength with efficient technique and strategy so that the weaker fighter can attain victory. In practice, this means applying a high percentage of your total strength to a low percentage of your opponent's strength.

A simple illustration can illustrate this principle...if a weaker fighter can attack a vulnerable part of his opponent's body (such as the neck or joints) with a greater strength than his opponent can defend it with, he is effectively stronger than his opponent, even if his overall strength is less. This is the theoretical basis of jujitsu conveyed by ju. Technically skilled fighters can then efficiently apply what strength they have in a way that can cause sufficient damage to end the fight.

A way to understand the meaning that lies behind ju comes from an analysis of the phrase ju yoku sei go, which translates as softness controls hardness. This phrase conveys the idea of a smaller force initially giving way or yielding to a stronger force to eventually overcome it. Thus, it amounts to the use of strategy, one that resists strength with technique, and not additional strength.

By the way, Gandhi once described the method of nonviolent action as "moral ju jitsu," as have a number of other theorists and practitioners of nonviolent action. Similarly, the term "political ju jitsu" has become pretty popular as well, as any internet keyword search will reveal.

So how do you do it? There are probably almost as many ways as there are situations. More about that tomorrow, but in the meantime, here's a perfect example:

LOSING A SEAT. Here's AP on Tuesday's WV Supreme Court primary election outcome. Photographs of justice Spike Maynard vacationing in Monaco with Massey CEO Don Blankenship (after the court agreed to hear a Massey appeal they were later to win and after Blankenship spent millions to buy another seat on the court in 2004) created an opportunity for people who at least want to pretend we have a legal system to express their disapproval.

MYANMAR. For those interested in trying to help the Burmese people after catastrophic flooding, here's info on the American Friends Service Committee's response.

FOOD. This item argues that responding to the world food crisis will require sustainable agriculture rather than another green revolution.

CHEW ON THIS. On a similar note, here's an interview with Raj Patel, author of Starved and Stuffed: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System on how messed up current arrangements are.

SPEAKING OF FOOD, a new study with monkeys shows that stress leads to over-eating.

HOLD THE BAPTISM ON THE ALIENS. The Vatican's chief astronomer says life could exist in outer space and that some aliens may not have our original sin thing going on.


May 14, 2008


Caption: Judo throw (osoto-gari), courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is applying some ideas from the martial arts to working and writing for social change or social conservation. You'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

One of the most central concepts in many martial arts is that of balance. It's also an important thing to keep in mind when working to change or preserve things.

In martial arts, at the very least it's hard to deliver effective techniques when you're off balance. More to the point, any time you are off balance--whether you do it yourself or someone or some thing does it to you--you can fall or be thrown. Hard.

To lose balance is to lose self control. To lose self control in a serious situation is to risk losing everything.

(Have you ever noticed that a lot of folks who want to change things have serious self control issues? This is probably going to sound really bad, but when I'm deciding which individuals and groups I'm going to work with, I tend to divide them into those with and without self control and avoid the latter.)

You don't need to be grappling with a physical opponent to lose your balance. You can lose it under the influence of anger, fear, ideology,or even a conviction of being right. Those things impede a person from responding adequately to cues from others or the environment. In writing, people lose balance by venting inappropriately, exaggerating, inflating rhetoric, twisting facts and logic, and using hyperbole.

I knew the US was going to be in really BIG trouble post 9/11 when then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said US military policy was going to be "forward leaning." To be forward leaning is to be off balance; to be off balance is to be vulnerable to over-reaching. Over reaching means there's a good chance of being thrown, falling--or in this case, leaping--into a quagmire.

In judo, the art of breaking the opponent's balance is called kuzushi, which can be the first step to victory. But, as with all this, your opponents can do all this to you.

I also remember being involved in some serious labor struggles several years back. We used to have some pretty big ones in WV. It often happened that during a strike or lockout, companies would import "goon guards," as they were sometimes unaffectionately called, from out of state. It wasn't unusual for them to try to provoke union members or their families into losing their "balance" and doing things that could discredit their cause.

That's a classical example of kuzushi in action. The trick is not to take the bait.

I'll close for today with a couple of suggestions straight from judo:

*Any time one's opponent overreaches and loses balance, an opportunity exists. I've spent a lot of time waiting for such moments. As Tom Petty sang, the waiting IS the hardest part. It can take years.

*It's always a good idea to figure out what your opponent would like you to do--and then not do it.

HOW DOES YOUR LIST COMPARE? Here's a good collection of Bush administration disasters. Which ones were left out?

INVISIBLE HAND VS. GREEN THUMB. This item from Scientific American shows the flaws in neo-classical economic theory which are particularly telling in dealing with things like climate change.

SPEAKING OF CLIMATE CHANGE, I hope these guys are wrong. They probably do too.

JUST ONE COMMENT about the WV primary. It looks like Massey Energy just lost a friend on the state Supreme Court with the defeat of justice Spike Maynard. (Note any similarity between this story and the theme of today's post is purely coincidental. But that's what I'm talking about).


May 13, 2008


Old Chinese image of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope this week is how to apply some peaceful lessons from the martial arts to writing and working to make things better or a little less bad. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

Yesterday's post was about thinking defensively, as in talking, acting and writing as much as possible in a way that doesn't leave an opening for one's opponents to exploit.

Today's lesson comes from karate and can be summed up in two Japanese words: kime or focus and kyusho or targeting vital points.

Here are two liberating insights. Even though the forces we're up against may be more powerful than we are, if we can focus our energy at the right time and place we can improve our chances for success. And no matter how powerful they are, every person and every system has weak points. Putting one and one together, if you focus your energy at the right point when an opportunity occurs, you can be successful even if the odds are against you.

Kime or focus is like sunlight concentrated in a magnifying glass as opposed to ordinary sunlight. It's the difference between being hit with 5 pounds of force by a basketball or by a needle. Kyusho is the difference between being poked in the shoulder or in some tender spot that I will leave to the Gentle Reader's imagination.

Now here's a caveat. Usually one can only target a vital point when an opening exists. One's opponents aren't usually nice enough to leave themselves totally open--if they're any good that is--, although sometimes they do. That means you have to pay attention to a constantly changing reality and take advantage of openings as they occur.

So how do you apply that outside the dojo? First, don't waste energy. A good karateka is completely relaxed until the instant of action. Second, have a clear vision of what you're trying to accomplish (hint: it helps if it's realistically possible). Third, when you write or act, aim at a specific target. That means in part being accurate and timely. Fourth, pay attention!

All periods of time are not created equal. Sometimes, windows of opportunity or openings occur. When they're gone, they're gone. Examples may be a vote that's about to take place, an event that raises public awareness about an issue, a scandal, an anniversary of a significant date, etc. You can't always know in advance when such an opportunity will occur but you can practice paying attention and developing your capacity to act when the time is right.

The goal is to be able to respond to events in the manner expressed by the late great Bruce Lee:

When the opponent expands, I contract, When he contracts, I expand, And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit--it hits all by itself.

HERE'S A SHOCK. Some states are trying new ways to help low income working families. I won't hold my breath for anything new like that in my beloved state of West Virginia.

SAD PROJECTIONS. Bloomberg reports that some experts are predicting that the number of suicides by US Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over time may exceed combat deaths.

THE BIG SQUEEZE. This item talks about the economic squeeze millions of Americans are feeling.

THEY OBVIOUSLY WEREN'T TALKING ABOUT GOATS. Here's yet another article on the health benefits of pet ownership.


May 12, 2008


Caption: Illustration from the Bubishi, an anonymous Chinese martial arts text of the 18th or 19th century sometimes referred to as "the bible of karate."

For the last two weeks, the theme here has been about writing to change things that should be changed or preserve things that should be preserved. There's also a daily dose of links and comments about current events.

I'd like to close off the series by taking some lessons from the martial arts and applying them to the subject of writing and working for social change or preservation. Why martial arts? Because unlike many things, they actually work and have proven themselves over the centuries in many difficult situations.

In trying to make things better, we are often faced with more powerful opponents. But the strategies developed by these arts can be great equalizers, provided people focus the energy they have at the right time and place.

Here's the first thing: think, write and act defensively.

Most martial artists spend a good bit of time sparring with highly skilled opponents. Sometimes it can get rough. But one invaluable lesson you get from that kind of practice fighting is immediate feedback. You learn "If I do this, they can do that" and vice versa.

Even if your sparring partner is your best friend, it is their sacred duty to nail you if you leave yourself open. It's your sacred duty to do the same, preferably before they nail you. After a while, you should start automatically acting in ways that create the smallest possible opening or opportunity for an opponent to attack (not to mention take advantage of any opening that occurs).

I remember when I first joined my current karate club over 30 years ago. It's a fighting dojo. While we're easy on kids and beginners, consenting experienced adults sometimes ramp it up. I was an intermediate student fighting a female black belt. I decided to dazzle her with my high kicking ability. She responded by kicking me in the groin while my foot was sailing around at head level.

I told you it could get rough. I wasn't expecting a move like that and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. (Most dojos don't allow groin kicks in sparring, but ours did at the time. It was a great way of keeping kickers honest.)

That was one of the best lessons I ever had, although it didn't feel like it at the time. I've kicked a lot of people since then (recreationally and gently, for the most part) but I've been pretty careful about leaving myself open in that particular way. Thanks O., wherever you are! Sort of.

Similarly, when I was trying to learn the grappling arts of judo and jiu jitsu, I learned pretty quickly that if I let the opponent get behind me, I could expect to choked; if my balance was broken, I could expect to be thrown; and if my arm or leg was extended, it would be joint-locked.

This is something that people interested in trying to change things should always keep in mind and ask themselves at all times: if I say, do, or write this, what could an unsympathetic opponent do?

The idea is to present as small a target as possible--even better no target at all. If you don't, then don't be surprised if they respond in a way that can discredit and dismiss you and the change you are hoping to achieve.

That's just the way it works.

I've seen several groups adopt some ill-advised course of action, get clobbered for it, and then say "No fair!" Whoever said it was?

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE. Could contemporary economic and environmental ills push us in a more sustainable direction?

SPEAKING OF WHICH, Bill McKibben argues here that it's getting pretty close to now or never to get there. The alternative is unacceptable.

MOTHER'S DAY came and went, but pro-family policies haven't got here yet.

TRAUMA ON THE BRAIN. New research sheds light on the strenght and persistence of traumatic memories.

SPEAKING OF THE BRAIN, this article blames its engineering on some of our shortcomings.