Keep it to common terms of abuse

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Small-scale violence most frequently aborts, Randall Collins notes:

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a UCLA researcher, followed a loosely-organized gang in Tucson, Arizona, as they went looking for fights. It consisted of a couple of dozen young white men, all of them bored with middle-class life style, who went to parties hoping to find someone to fight with. They were looking for opponents who would give them some action and boost their prestige, at least in their own eyes: black guys, tough guys, Hispanic gangs, bikers, athletes. But although there were plenty of over-crowded house parties in this desert city, with plenty of loud music and drinking going on, the surprise is how difficult it was for them to find a fight. They took a belligerent attitude, bumped into people, gave people the eye, but most of the time fights didn’t happen. Fights were rare enough that when one happened, the group would spend weeks thereafter talking about it, going over the details, bragging about what they did and even about taking a beating if they lost.

Why did this action-seeking group have so much trouble finding fights? Jackson-Jacobs spelled out the subtle details that had to happen if two sides were going to fight. These little details were only semi-conscious, but they boiled down to the fact that both sides had to decide that a fight was coming up, and this had to be a mutual feeling of emotion and timing. Like a demo only turning into a riot a couple of hours in, no one walks into a party and starts a fight from the very first minute. And if the minutes go by long enough, there is a feeling that this isn’t the time and place, so the action-seekers go somewhere else.

[Another hypothesis is that fights were also inhibited because typically rival groups fight within the same identity or demographic: as we know from gang murders in Chicago (Andrew Papachristos’ research) and gang fights generally, most such violence is segregated: black gangs fight with black gangs, Hispanic gangs with Hispanic, Irish gangs with Irish, Italian Mafias with each other. Jackson-Jacobs’ white middle-class guys were an anomaly on the tough-guy scene; they didn’t identify as skinheads, so they had no counterpart group to fight with them. J-J’s crew were looking for the prestige of fighting somebody tough; maybe they didn’t perceive that the same goes for the other side, and real fighting gangs didn’t think they were a worthy opponent.]

The pattern holds generally across different kinds of small-scale fights: most encounters where people threaten each other with violence do not actually end in violence. Most stay at the level of angry insults — the human bark is worse than our bite. Even if it gets physical, most fights do not go beyond pushing and shoving. Videos of fights (posted from cell phones) generally show that after a few wild swings, fighters tend to spin away from each other, leaving themselves at a distance just out of reach while the fight winds down. Showing your willingness to fight is on the whole more important than what damage you do. Researchers in England, using CCTV from pubs and the streets outside, found that angry disputes were broken up, in the great majority of cases, by friends separating the fighters.


A key feature that keeps quarrels from escalating is when they are balanced. Two guys quarrel with each other. They push out their chests, get their hands into fighting position. They yell insults at each other, each getting louder, trying to shout the other down. A lot here depends on what the audience will do — whether other people take sides or encourage them to fight; or do the opposite, ignoring the quarrel, which tends to take the energy out of it. Left to themselves, the belligerents usually find themselves repeating the same insults, over and over; they are both talking at the same time, which means they aren’t listening to each other, and it just becomes a contest of keeping up the noise. (How long do dogs go on barking at each other? Check it out.) After a short period of time — usually less than 60 seconds — this gets boring. They get tired of a quarrel that is going nowhere. Typically they will break it off, with a gesture of disgust, or slamming the door on the way out.

This suggests some practical advice. If you get into a threatening face-contest with someone, keep it in equilibrium. Just mimic what the other person does; don’t escalate it. After a while it becomes boring — and boredom is your friend. (Sir Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, wrote that if you are in an angry dispute, keep it to common terms of abuse; don’t try to score a cutting remark with a personal insult that your opponent will never forgive.)

Eric Garner’s daughter has heart attack without being “choked” or tackled

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

How should the police handle a large man who won’t comply? That’s what I asked when Eric Garner, a large man indeed, refused to comply with NYPD officers, got taken down with a headlock, and ended up under a dogpile — where he had a heart attack and died. This was described as an unarmed black man being choked to death.

Now his daughter, Erica Garner, has suffered her own second heart attack, severe enough to cause brain damage, without being “choked” or tackled. It’s pretty clear that there’s a family history of heart disease.

I still don’t know how the police should handle a large man who won’t comply, especially if he’s at risk of a heart attack.

John Danaher on Mayweather–McGregor

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

John Danaher discusses Mayweather–McGregor:

Tonight is the biggest fight show of the year — a fight that has been dismissed by many knowledgeable pundits as farcical but which has nonetheless garnered more viewer interest than any boxing event in a very long time. On the face of it, this is a huge mismatch. Mr Mayweather is unquestionably the finest boxer of his generation and arguably of all time. He is both a master technician and a master tactician in the ring who has made the best boxers of his time look ordinary when matched with him. Mr McGregor is an an outstanding MMA fighter with an amazing penchant for proving doubters wrong. In truth however, this project would be the equivalent of having Mr McGregor compete in an IBJJF jiu jitsu tournament in a gi against say, Rafa Mendes — do you really think he would prevail against Mr Mendes under these conditions?

My experience of watching very good MMA athletes spar against elite boxers in the gym is always the same — they are quite competitive for the first 3–4 rounds and do surprisingly well. Then around the 5th round the elite boxer begins to figure out the unorthodox or awkward movement and begins to employ ring craft tactics to tire the MMA athlete by making him work harder than he is, making him miss punches etc etc. around the 8th round a very noticeable shift occurs where the elite boxer takes over.

I expect a similar pattern tonight — though probably taking less time, given the incredible skill level of Mr Mayweather. Mr McGregors only advantages are youth and size, but heavier punches are not much use if they are thrown at a target that can’t be hit, and Mr Mayweather is as always, in fine shape and has never tired in a fight. I would consider it a fine victory for Mr McGregor if he survived 12 rounds and had some competitive rounds among them. Like most people, I love to see an underdog take on impossible odds and win, so my heart is with Mr McGregor, but my mind knows this is exceedingly unlikely.

In a world of uncertainty I will offer you one certainty that I truly believe — however well Mr Mcgregor does in tonight’s boxing match, I ASSURE YOU IT WILL BE MUCH BETTER THAN MR MAYWEATHER WOULD DO IN A REAL FIGHT AGAINST MR MCGREGOR.

Researchers have quantified Muhammad Ali’s mental decline

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Researchers have quantified Muhammad Ali’s mental decline as he took more punches throughout his career:

In 1968, Ali spoke at a rate of 4.1 syllables per second, which is close to average for healthy adults. By 1971, his rate of speech had fallen to 3.8 syllables per second, and it continued sliding steadily, year by year, fight by fight. An ordinary adult would see little or no decline in his speaking rate between the ages of 25 and 40, but Ali experienced a drop of more than 26% in that same period. Slowing his speaking rate couldn’t indefinitely compensate for the deterioration of signals between his brain and his speech muscles. The paper suggests that by 1978, six years before his Parkinson’s syndrome diagnosis and three years before his retirement from boxing, Ali was slurring his words.

In addition to this overall decline in speech, researchers found a strong relationship between Ali’s activity in the ring and his verbal skills. The more punches he took, the more steeply his speaking abilities declined. (Listen to a sample of Ali’s speech changes.)

In 1977, the 35-year-old Ali fought a brutal, 15-round bout with Earnie Shavers. One of the strongest punchers in boxing history, Shavers hit Ali with 266 punches, including 209 power punches, according to the new CompuBox data. Before his fight with Shavers, Ali spoke at a rate of 3.7 syllables per sec. After the fight, his speaking rate fell 16% to 3.1 syllables per sec. His voice also became less animated in the immediate aftermath of fights.

Martial-Arts Move May Lessen Impact of a Fall on Hip

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

A meta-analysis suggests that learning how to break falls may — wait for it! — lesson the impact of falls:

The analysis, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, looked at 13 studies, with a combined 219 participants, conducted in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and Taiwan from 1996 to 2012. The majority included younger adults in their late 20s. About 60% were women.

The studies examined falling techniques known as squatting, muscle relaxation, forward rotation, elbow bending with outstretched arms, stepping, and martial-arts rolling and slapping. Impact force was compared with falling while not doing the technique.

All the techniques, other than slapping, reduced fall impact. But only rolling lessened the impact on the hip, by 25%.

Breakfall Diagram from WSJ

Caveat: The underlying studies were small, and only one involved older participants. Reduced strength and impaired reaction time may limit elderly people’s ability to perform fall techniques, the researchers said.

You may want to learn proper judo breakfalls long before you need them.

Ancient and Modern Olympics

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

With the summer games approaching David Stuttard contrasts the ancient and modern Olympics:

While today’s Games stress inclusivity, their ancient counterparts were rigidly exclusive. To compete in this celebration of not just Greek (and, later, Greco-Roman) identity but of proud god-fearing masculinity, you had to speak Greek, be free from the pollution of murder — and be male. Women couldn’t even be spectators. Only the priestess of Demeter could attend.

The chief reason for these restrictions is that the original Games were not really about sport at all. Rather, they were one part of a major male religious festival in honor of the great god Zeus. Indeed, Olympia, site of the Games, was named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus was considered to have had his throne.

I’m not sure sure that the modern games aren’t religious — depending on your definition.

Olympic Vase by Pep Montserrat

The first Games, in 776 B.C., were small-scale and local:

Apart from sacrifices and other religious rites, it included only one sporting event, a footrace of 200 yards, a distance which the Greeks called a stade (hence our “stadium”), and which took well under a minute to run.


The stade race, run at the midpoint of the Games, remained the centerpiece — so much so that in the fifth-century B.C., when it became desirable to introduce an internationally recognized dating system, the polymath philosopher Hippias hit on the formula, “in the xth year of the yth Olympiad, when z was victor in the footrace.”

The formula caught on, not only promoting the importance of the Games still further but becoming the means whereby a triumphant runner could win everlasting fame.

The words gymnasium and gymnastics come from a time before lycra:

Like other athletes at the Games, runners competed naked. Again, the origins of this tradition were debated, but the most well-known involved Orisippus, a young man from Megara near Athens. Until 720 B.C., loincloths were de rigueur, but that year Orisippus raced so vigorously that his fell off. When he crossed the line to victory, it was seen as a sign from the gods and henceforth any kind of clothing was banned.

But the athletes probably didn’t look exactly naked. By Roman times, if not before, it was common first to anoint the bodies of competitors in oil, then to sprinkle them with dust or powder. One treatise recommended the dust of terra-cotta for helping to open pores, asphalt dust for heating the chilled and yellow earth for softening the skin, commenting that: “Yellow dust also adds glisten, and is a delight to see on a body which is in good shape.” Athletes may well have looked like moving statues.

It was also a time before sunscreen.

There were no team events in the ancient Olympics, by the way.

I find the tone of this passage almost quaint, like something from the pre-UFC 1980s:

The only contact sport forbidden to boys was the pancration, an almost-no-holds-barred free-for-all, in which only biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. A Roman commentator reflected that the competitor must “endure black eyes…and learn holds by which the fallen can still win, and they must be skillful in the various arts of strangulation.”

One pancratist’s win was particularly unconventional. Arrhachion came from Phigalia, a city in mountainous Arcadia. In 564 B.C. the two-time winner came to Olympia where “his opponent, whoever he was, got a grip first and held Arrhachion with his legs squeezed around his neck at the same time. Meanwhile, Arrhachion dislocated a toe on his opponent’s foot but was strangled and expired. At the same time, however, Arrhachion’s opponent gave up because of the pain in his toe. The judges proclaimed Arrhachion the winner and crowned his corpse.”

The ethos has changed most of all:

When Baron de Coubertin revived — or reimagined — the Olympics in 1896, drawing on the ethos of both the ancient Games and English public schools for inspiration, he averred: “What is important in life is not to triumph, but to take part; what is essential is not to have won, but to have fought well.” This may have been a fine late-Victorian ideal, but it was far from the ancient view. At Olympia there were no prizes for coming second, and, fueled by the Homeric exhortation “always to be best,” the desire to win kudos at almost any cost motivated every competitor.

For the aristocratic elite, it was in that most dangerous and exciting of all events, the chariot race, that the most kudos could be earned. Since its introduction in 680 B.C., leading Greek families from Sicily to Libya to the mainland and beyond coveted this prize above all others, because to win it was a sign of immense wealth and good judgment — and, since they hired charioteers to race for them, they ran no physical risks themselves.

Now I’m wondering why there’s no gilded Trump NASCAR car.

Harlem Knight Fight

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

I have trouble taking the Harlem Knight Fight seriously:

It does give some idea what a medieval tourney would’ve been like though, with armored knights fighting in a rough contact sport.

Jocko and Tim Kennedy

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Jocko (@JockoWillink) recently had Tim Kennedy (@TimKennedyMMA) on his podcast, and they answered a few of my questions — or, at least, they talked about them:

0:25:30 – Bayonet Training thoughts.

0:35:46 – Green Beret VS Navy SEALS?

1:19:33 – Combatives with Full Kit on / multiple attackers.

Is Shooting a Martial Art?

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

“Do you consider shooting a martial art?” I asked Jocko (@jockowillink). “How has your firearms training been like or unlike martial arts training?” He answered, and it went something like this:

Shooting is absolutely a martial art, maybe not the way people picture martial arts nowadays, because we picture a guy in a gi doing karate, that’s the generic picture. But for me that’s not martial arts actually. For me martial art is the art of war, the individual warrior skills which it takes, and firearms are absolutely a martial art. Because it’s something that you train, something that you get good at, something you need to maintain your skill at. To me it’s another piece of the puzzle, another thing that you need to know how to do, just like tactics that go along with shooting are an important part of being a warrior, you need to know how to shoot.

The training is very similar in my mind to martial arts training, in that it takes repetition, you have to know what the basics are, you have to repeat those basics, then you get more advanced.

It’s about movement and getting efficient with your movement, you want to train very similar to the way you train mixed martial arts. And once you get all those mechanical skills down, then you want to train your mind around this skill, so that your mind knows how to utilize it when things are unexpected and when there’s chaos and mayhem going on.

(Thanks to our Slovenian guest for transcribing that.)

From there, Jocko tells a fun story about Nerf “lazer” tag and the importance of good tactical training.

Edward Byers’ Medal of Honor Story

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

The door-kickers of SEAL Team 6 actually use grappling skills in combat, as Edward Byers‘ experience attests:

As the team got within 25 meters of the compound, a sentry at the door was alerted to their presence. The first member of the team, Petty Officer First Class Nicolas Checque, shot at the guard and ran towards the door of the compound. He fell wounded by an AK-47 round to the head as he charged into the building.

Byers was the second man inside the building, sprinting in on Checque’s heels.

“There were some blankets hanging up; it wasn’t like a typical door, so you couldn’t just open the door and walk in,” Byers recalled. “When I finally [made my way through the blankets], down my area of responsibility there was an enemy that I engaged with and then I saw another person that was moving across the floor. I didn’t know whether or not that person was [the hostage] or if it was just an enemy coming to and trying to get some weapons, so by the time I got to him, I was able to get on top of him, straddle him, pin him down with my legs.”

Locked in hand-to-hand combat with the unknown man underneath him, Byers managed to subdue him with one hand and use the other to adjust the focus of his night-vision goggles. Having done so, he saw that the man was one of the captors and engaged him with his weapon.

“At the same time, we’re calling out, trying to find the location of the American hostage,” Byers said.

Joseph called out, alerting the SEALs to his presence, three to five feet away from where Byers had grappled with the guard. Byers immediately tackled the captive American, using his own body and body armor to shield him from the fighting.

From this position, Byers noticed another man close by.

“It ended up being an enemy who had grenades and a weapon on him within arms’ reach,” Byers said. “And I was able to pin him to the wall by his throat until our team was able to come in and take care of that threat.”

The entire raid was over in a matter of minutes.

Byers is the first living sailor to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.

Two other SEALs have received the medal posthumously since Sept. 11, 2001: Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, for heroic actions in Iraq in 2006; and Lt. Michael Murphy, for valor during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005.

A Martial Art Is Born in Belém

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Over 100 years ago, a martial art was born in Belém:

The story of how the Gracies created the most potent martial art the world has ever seen began in the heart of the Amazon in 1913, in a city called Belém, or Bethlehem, which is the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. The Gracies were a prominent upper-class family from Rio de Janeiro, the descendants of a Scotsman named George Gracie, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, on August 14, 1801. George arrived in Rio at the age of 25 with four friends, one of whom died of yellow fever, according to Reila’s biography of her father, Carlos. “A man of Calvinist upbringing,” she wrote of George, “he was handsome and poised, with a shapely face, straight nose, very light skin, blond hair and blue eyes.”

Adventurous and gifted, the Gracies were eager to seek out new worlds. George’s brother Archibald had already emigrated from Scotland to Manhattan, where he became a shipping magnate and a friend to Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. He advertised his wealth by buying a piece of prime property overlooking the East River, where he built a grand house that bore his name. In 1896, the house was sold to the city of New York, which made it the statutory residence of the city’s mayor. In tribute to the tasteful opulence of its builder’s conception, the house retained the name Gracie Mansion, by which it is still known today.

Meanwhile, George Gracie prospered in Rio, becoming a partner in the trading company of Stockmayer, Gracie, Hobkirk & Co., and later a director of the Bank of Brazil. He married Mariana Antônia de Malheiros, the daughter of an elite Brazilian family, and had a son, Pedro Gracie, who also became a successful banker.

Pedro’s son Gastão was an aspiring diplomat who lived in Germany for 10 years. He spoke fluent German, Latin, Greek, and five other languages — none of which seemed to aid his career, which suffered because of his sharp temper, impulsive behavior, and lack of any appreciable aptitude for diplomacy. After missing out on a diplomatic post he badly wanted, Gastão returned to Brazil and embarked on a series of failed business ventures and tempestuous love affairs, in the course of which he fathered nine children, the oldest and wildest of whom he named Carlos. “I honestly did not have a moment of peace,” Carlos later remembered of his disorderly childhood. “My devilry got to a point that, even in my own neighborhood, I only felt safe when I ran through the streets along the streetcar rails. It was the only way of avoiding surprises from possible enemies.” During Carlos’s upbringing, the Gracies lived in nine different houses, and no two of his siblings were born at the same address.

Drawn to the jungle city of Belém by the Amazonian rubber craze, Gastão failed to get rich. He turned next to the manufacture of dynamite, which he stored in the house where his children slept. He also managed entertainers and ran the American Circus, which toured widely in southern Brazil.

On November 5, 1916, Gastão’s circus arrived in the port city of Manaus, where a member of the troupe, an Italian boxer named Alfredi Leconti, challenged a Japanese martial artist named Satake to a fight. As it happened, Satake was not the most distinguished Japanese martial artist in Manaus that day: He had arrived in town a year earlier with Count Koma, a Japanese judo master whose real name was Mitsuyo Maeda. Koma had fought more than 1,000 professional matches on four continents while suffering only two recorded defeats. As Satake fought Leconti, Koma watched from ringside, where he struck up a friendship with Gastão that would alter the history of combat sports.

Count Koma wound up in the Amazon after a chain of unlikely contingencies that parallels the emergence of Gracie jiu-jitsu as a global sport. The determined westernization of Japan by Emperor Meiji in the late 19th century led to the collapse of many aspects of traditional Japanese society, including the ancient art of jiujitsu, whose masters were forced to seek other forms of employment. Sekiguti Jiushin, founder of the Sekiguti style, wound up pulling a rickshaw in the street, while Kawanishi Iikubo of the Kito-Ryu style became a postal worker. “I am profoundly saddened by the agony that jiujitsu finds itself in,” lamented the jiujitsu master Tojuro Takeuchi, in a letter that is widely quoted by historians of judo. “A five-hundred-year-old tradition will likely disappear in my generation. Today, what we see in demonstrations is that the richness of the past is no more, they’ve reduced themselves to technicians and the poverty of those that remain is the general rule.”

In 1882, an idealistic young graduate of the Imperial University in Tokyo named Jigoro Kano conceived of a new fighting style based on traditional jiujitsu that he hoped might serve as a comprehensive source of physical education, intellectual training, and moral instruction for modern Japan. His interpretation of jiujitsu forbade traditional ground-fighting techniques like the ashi garami, a crippling joint lock that targets the leg of one’s opponent. Instead, Kano emphasized throws from a standing position. “When we talk about jiujitsu today, people often think of a technique in which one does only dangerous things, such as choking an opponent and bending his joints, or even, in extreme cases, killing him,” Kano later wrote, explaining what motivated him to create the ju-do, or “gentle way.” He was also determined to separate his new art from jiujitsu’s role as popular entertainment, which he saw as inherently debased. “There are also those who make jiujitsu into a sort of show,” he wrote. “They charge admission and have competitions at venues where sumo and acrobatics are held, so that people have become even more inclined to believe that jiujitsu is something uncultivated.”

Starting in a rented room at the Eishoji temple, Kano and his students founded the Kodokan, where hundreds of disciples would learn the high-toned art of judo, which they spread across Japan and then to the major European capitals and eventually around the rest of the world, where local variants soon emerged. In Russia, judo was transformed into the fighting style known as sambo, whose most famous student is Vladimir Putin.

Maeda, one of Kano’s finest students, made his way to Washington, D.C., where he and his companions arranged to put on a demonstration for President Theodore Roosevelt. The oldest fighter in the group, Tomita, insisted on personally representing judo in front of the American president, whose daughter Alice was wild about fighting and handpicked his opponent — a tall, powerfully built Afro-Cuban boxer named Bill Owens. The ensuing fight set back the cause of judo in America for decades. “Quick like a leopard,” one reporter wrote, “the black fighter completely dominated Tomita, who was literally flattened and unable to make any movement whatsoever, leading to his humiliating defeat in front of the President, his wife and daughter, members of the government, assembled athletes, reporters and members of the Japanese Embassy and expatriate community.”

In the hope of salvaging judo’s North American reputation, Maeda and Satake spent two years traveling across the United States, taking on more than 100 challengers and winning every recorded fight. They then traveled to Russia and continued west across Europe. In 1908, they reached Spain, where Maeda appears to have been given the title of Count Koma. As Maeda later told a European reporter, “An influential Spanish citizen, impressed with my victories, by my posture and my way of being, perhaps to be nice or without meaning to, gave me that title that later spread everywhere.” In 1909, Count Koma and his companions boarded a ship to Mexico City and then fought their way south, until they arrived in the Amazonian port of Manaus on December 18, 1915. The ensuing spectacle was recorded by a local newspaperman, who wrote: “Arriving today, aboard the yacht Pará, is the troupe of Japanese ju-jitsu fighters who come to delight the audience of the popular Politheama Theater. This troupe, led by Count Koma, world champion of ju-jitsu, will disembark wearing Oriental robes and be paraded through the streets in an automobile.”

The Count was eager to demonstrate his judo for the locals; he also appears to have coveted the fertile river basin as a future Japanese settlement. Gastão Gracie helped the Japanese fighter settle in Belém, a nearby city of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants. There, Maeda opened a martial arts school in a wooden hut on the grounds of the town’s rowing academy. (The successor to Maeda’s school in Belém is directed by the judoka’s great-grandson, Professor Alfredo Mendes Coimbra.) Grateful for Gastão’s help, the judoka taught a version of his centuries-old fighting style to four of the Brazilian’s sons — Carlos, George, Oswaldo, and Gastãozinho.

Hélio, the fifth and youngest Gracie brother, was judged too frail to receive active instruction, so he learned judo by watching his brothers practice. Abandoning judo’s showy throws, he modified Count Koma’s teachings to suit his lighter frame, creating a Brazilian variation that reemphasized wrestling techniques and elevated the mastery of mechanics over physical strength and agility. And so Gracie jiu-jitsu was born.


Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Eric Weinstein presents Kayfabrication for addition to our cognitive toolkit:

The sophisticated “scientific concept” with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity’s future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling’s insiders as “Kayfabe”.

Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called “a promotion”) sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which “breaks Kayfabe” is called “shooting” to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called “working”.

Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts. Perhaps confusing battles between “freshwater” Chicago macro economists and Ivy league “Saltwater” theorists could be best understood as happening within a single “orthodox promotion” given that both groups suffered no injury from failing (equally) to predict the recent financial crisis. The decades old battle in theoretical physics over bragging rights between the “string” and “loop” camps would seem to be an even more significant example within the hard sciences of a collaborative intra-promotion rivalry given the apparent failure of both groups to produce a quantum theory of gravity.

What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery. While most modern sports enthusiasts are aware of wrestling’s status as a pseudo sport, what few alive today remember is that it evolved out of a failed real sport (known as “catch” wrestling) which held its last honest title match early in the 20th century. Typical matches could last hours with no satisfying action, or end suddenly with crippling injuries to a promising athlete in whom much had been invested. This highlighted the close relationship between two paradoxical risks which define the category of activity which wrestling shares with other human spheres:

  • Occasional but Extreme Peril for the participants.
  • General Monotony for both audience and participants.

Kayfabrication (the process of transition from reality towards Kayfabe) arises out of attempts to deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants. As such Kayfabrication is a dependable feature of many of our most important systems which share the above two characteristics such as war, finance, love, politics and science.

A Highly Subversive, Deep, and Subtle Film

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Eric Weinstein — mathematician, economist, and managing director of Thiel Capital — answers an important question for our time. In Kung Fu Panda, how does Po end up developing the capability to be an awesome Kung Fu fighter? How does he shift from being a total fat slob to becoming capable of defeating Tai Lung?

First one must challenge the assumptions of the questioner. Po is not a slob. He is a panda with an appetite and lack of athleticism to match, and principally fat because of this.

From a defensive perspective, we find out early that Po’s rolls of fat insulate his nerves from being easily accessed by Mantis’ acupuncture needles. We also learn that Tai Lung’s most impressive power is his perfection of various nerve attacks in the style that Master Oogway used against Tai Lung to keep him from the dragon scroll. Thus we see at the climax of the film that it is Po’s very fat that keeps Tai Lung’s nerve attacks from having any effect on Po beyond a tickling sensation.

Next, Tai Lung underestimates Po as an opponent. The snow leopard is so contemptuous of Po that he never focuses on defeating him until it is too late. Instead, Tai Lung is focused exclusively on gaining the dragon scroll as he sees it as his rightful entitlement. This gives Po plenty of opportunity to understand Tai Lung as an opponent while Tai Lung chases the scroll and Po chases them both.

Lastly, and most importantly, Po is not a classic ‘student’ of Kung Fu. There is no ‘bear style’ and Shifu, mindful of his failure with Tai Lung, teaches no one techniques like the WuXi finger hold. Thus Po is left to find the secrets of his own power as a self teacher. And this, in my opinion, is the real secret to the whole film.

Oogway is a self-teacher. As a turtle, he is even less appropriate than a Panda as a Kung Fu archetype. But we learn that it is Oogway who, in apparent solitude at the pool of sacred tears, unravels the ‘secrets of harmony and focus’. Thus Oogway is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers.

Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come.

This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.

Boys with Sticks

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Simcha Fisher tells a tale of boys with sticks:

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

There’s a larger point:

It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.


Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness.


Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules.


Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.

Dictator at the Basics

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

John Danaher, jiu-jitsu coach to UFC champions Georges St Pierre and Chris Weidman, discusses how jiu-jitsu has evolved and how he teaches:

In that regard, I have a very set idea about what I should be doing as a coach, when I’m working a room. At the level of fundamentals and basics, I’m a dictator. I won’t let anything go, at the basic level. You’ve got to have good escapes. The fundamental movements of the sport — elbow escaping. The fundamental body movements — bridging, shrimping. I won’t let you go with your own individual initiative on these things. These are fundamentals that everyone, regardless of body type, regardless of age, regardless of belt level, everyone has to have them. If you don’t have them, you’re never going to amount to anything. So, at the level of fundamentals, I’m a dictator. No one gets through that.

At the advanced level, I’m a libertarian. I’ll let you do whatever your personality and your body type make you favor. I’ve always said with students that ultimately, in the long run, the game that you favor will be determined by your body type and your personality. Some people are more aggressive, some people are more risk-takers, some people are introspective, some people are short, tall, fat, etc., etc. I never try to enforce what kind of game you develop at the advanced level. So, yes, I’m a dictator at the basics, but at the advanced level I’m very much a libertarian.