Taking the blows

There’s nothing like having your own punchbag. I’ve just bought a “man-shaped” one, “man-shaped” here having the expanded definition of men with no arms, legs, or head and whose bodies resemble an upturned skittle. (And who are capable of levitation.)

The fundamental skills common to most boxing-derived fighting styles – stances, striking, and keeping your guard up – can be practiced with any weighty object. You can even have a go on a wall if you think you’re ‘ard enough. But the one I’ve just installed in my garage is the best kind for Krav, because it swings around: it’s a moving target.

Set it swinging, and you’ve got something marginally resembling the kind of big drunken bloke you’re most likely to be randomly attacked by, allowing you to practice all the basic blows against its marked targets.

The jab. The uppercut. The roundhouse. The hammer. The sucker. The open fist. The closed fist. You can headbutt it, elbow it, block it with your forearm; this guy just hangs there and takes it.

But because it’s suspended, you can practice kicks too. (My weak point; I’m so inflexible at the moment I can’t form a right angle with my legs.) The forward kick. The back kick. The roundhouse kick. The kick and spin. Even blocks. You can set it spinning and fight around it, a basic Krav technique. You can even go down on the floor, spinning on the small of your back, fighting upwards.

It’s been a long six months of injuring ankle then shoulder; this thing will help me get back to a strength and speed that approach something respectable before I return to Krav class.

There are only two things you can’t practice with it: escaping from locks and holds, and taking on multiple attackers. Wonder if I should install two?

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

I’m now a third of the way through Neal Stephenson’s grand cycle of Europe (and America too if you include Cryptonomicon as the fourth book after the trilogy) and enjoying it.

I don’t read much fiction these days, sci-fi even more rarely. But Stephenson’s moved on from his Snow Crash and Diamond Age phase of pure sci-fi – and anyway, he always transcended the author (wrongly) credited with kicking off cyberpunk*, William Gibson, in the same way Gibson was eclipsed by Bruce Sterling. Stephenson is roughly the same height above Sterling as Sterling was above Gibson.

For Gibson was, ultimately, a bullshitter. Brilliant with language, fantastic with storytelling (his short stories, written when he was a young man in his 30s, remain terrific twenty years later) but he was making stuff up: knock it, and it didn’t sound solid. Gibson never used the Internet, had no mathematical smarts or engineering training. His work, while poetic and artistic, never had technological rigour. You could feel the electrodes on your forehead, smell the ozone burning off the batteries, but you’d never learn how any of it worked.

Stephenson, by contrast, is a true Geek. An expert Linux user before it was cool, you can finish a Stephenson feeling confident that, if sucked through a wormhole to WWII-era Philippines or the court of Louis XIV, you’d actually know what to do and how to behave. Anyone who publishes an entire book about booting up a Unix desktop (OK, so it was a Wired article first) knows a thing or two about technology.

Stephenson’s got faults – as he slyly admits, calling his eight-book sequence “The Baroque Cycle”. This is not minimalist writing. Vast chapters are devoted to exchanges of letters, diarist musings, extended descriptions of places and people, while nothing much happens as narrative: this is literature for the pleasure of reading, rather than the excitement of storytelling. You’re not experiencing a narrative, you’re experiencing a world. It’s less reading a novel, more playing Second Life.

But that world he creates – by meandering around in a vast forest of verbiage, never quite getting to the point – is absorbing. You don’t just smell the shit in 17-century London streets; it flies off the page and hits you in the eye. Unexpected outcomes, like a heroic figure spending years as a galley slave, happen with regularity, constantly keeping you off guard; events you thought had happened turn out to have been cyphers for the events that really happened. And so on. In short, it’s a lot like real life.

The fourth book, Cryptonomicon, was published years before the trilogy (and I read it around ’99 I think) but Stephenson keeps the nods to the future non-obvious most of the time, maintaining a distinct non-McGuffin-ness that most Hollywood producers could learn from. There is a lack of depth to characters, their personae being defined by their circumstances of birth and world events they get caught up in, rather than innate characteristics. But perhaps that’s how it really happens. Most great events happen to other people. Few Englishmen even noticed the French annexation of Britain, or the Norsemen some centuries prior, or … in the same way, the Great Fire of London and the Revolution of 1688 are presented as canvas, not oils. London, after all, was then just a sizeable village; there was nothing in Britain to match Venice, or even Madrid, still less Versailles.

And Stephenson makes it real. I think I’ll plunge into Book II (Confusion), but I warn you Neal: I expect a bit more narrative this time, or I won’t make it to System of the World.

* Gibson the founder of cyberpunk? Yeah? Ever readJohn Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider”? That was where it started.

Whatever you do, don’t feed starving Africans

Excellent article on why giving food aid to Africa simply distorts the incentives that’d let them help themselves. It’s rare today to see journalists actually saying the difficult things – thanks to Britain’s newfound culture of yob speak and mob rule – but perhaps this represents a turning point.

Spirit of ’79

It’s deja vu all over again! I can’t help but feel heartened by the tsunami of strike action about to hit the UK. Because just like the Winter of Discontent of my childhood, a Labour government – nominally Socialist and in support of a unionised workforce – is getting the crap kicked out of it by unions. Strikes, strikes, ballots, and more strikes, every place you look.

And once again – as if anyone seriously needed further proof – the myth of New Labour, and the lies of Socialism in general, are in steaming bloody chunks on the beaches. Strike, you trumped-up over-indulged public sector posturers, and together let’s make Brown’s defeat next year a truly crushing one.