Sunday, November 23, 2014


My body can't yet handle aikido: the constant impacts drain my energy and still take several days to recover. (Recall that since we take turns, everyone spends roughly half of every aikido class falling down and getting back up.) I need to do a martial art, though. Nothing else transforms anger and aggression in quite the same way, and I've been noticing I'm more irritable this past few months.

But! I just watched Reclaiming the Blade, a very high-quality documentary about European martial arts, which are so far fallen into obscurity that most of us didn't know they existed. Of course they did: the human body is always the same, and swords around the world are still long, sharp pieces of metal, so there's no reason Europeans wouldn't have developed systems of killing each other every bit as sophisticated as (and having much in common with) the systems of Asia. There are philosophical and maybe moral differences, to be sure: there are distinct sets of ideas about how training can or should change you, and into what. Though, even that isn't as far out as you'd think, and the main element absent in Europeans systems seems to be the connections to attentional training like Zen.

The Bay Area is practically the nation's Nerd Capital, so of course there are multiple ongoing groups here. There's a place in Santa Clara which even has the no-nonsense URL, and then there's a chapter of Schola Saint George. The latter meets on Sunday afternoons for 2 hours, in a park in Mountain View, so I went there today.

It's fun, and not exhausting! My years of aikido are a big help, because (a) I already know how to use a sword much better than your average human, and (b) I can also fight without a sword, which is where a lot of European techniques end up (grabbing one sword or the other, or moving in close for a non-sword attack, just like aikido).

I used a very heavy two-handed steel practice sword, which was fun, and heavy. My steel Japanese katana weighs about 2.25 pounds; I'm guessing today's monster was 3.5-4 pounds, which is on the heavy side for swords.

[The group website actually has links to equipment, and it's this thing. As I thought, 3 lbs. 10 ounces.]

It was fun! 4 of the other 5 people were more or less exactly the kind of college-age geeks you'd expect to be doing this, plus one very strong-looking barrel-gutted guy with a t-shirt from a jujitsu club. The text they work from is Fiore dei Liberi, who wrote a pretty complete arms manual. We started with "the sword with two hands," then moved on to "the sword in armor." The latter is a little unsettling because the standard attack is to grab your sword blade--called "half-swording"--and try to jam the point into one of the less-protected spots in your opponent's armor. (This makes sense if you think about it, since cutting attacks with a steel sword are useless against steel armor.)

In aikido, we spend a lot of attention specifically not touching the blade, and in general that seems like the way to go. Half-swording, though, can be done not only with armored gauntlets, but also with leather, and also...bare-handed. I'm still a little fuzzy on how this is accomplished, but this gentleman does some demos:

When I talk to people who are skittish about knives, and worry when I run my thumb perpendicular to the blade to check the edge, I try to get them to understand that knives don't cut anything in that direction. You can put a blade right on your thumb, and as long as you don't move along the blade, you're not going to get cut. You can take a super-sharp knife, and press it into a tomato, and if you're only pressing down, you'll just squish the tomato. So in theory, you can half-sword without cutting yourself, and the guy in the video goes into that. I think I'll pass, though.

Half-sword techniques are more or less like the aikido short staff (jo), and regular techniques have a lot of positions and movements in common with Japanese sword.

And most importantly, I wasn't a complete husk afterwards. So hopefully this can be a thing that I do.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

north of the border

We spent the weekend in Vancouver! I'd never been to Canada, and we had some airline miles about to expire, so we thought it'd be a fine anniversary weekend. Thanks to airline delays, we had a day less there than we'd hoped, in that we landed at 6pm instead of 1pm.

Hoooooly shit. I liked it a lot.
  • All the Canadians we encountered were in fact conspicuously nice.
  • On the phone we told J "Can you believe we're in a big city, and it doesn't smell bad?". He could only summon a disbelieving "Whaaaaat?!".
  • The major policy disagreement between the mayoral candidates is about which form of mass transit to invest in.
Vancouver may be even more diverse than the Bay Area. The food is great, public transit seems to work really well. It is not, that I could tell, overrun with Silicon Valley douchebags and the kind of people that enjoy or tolerate them.

I finally had a flat white, and am happy to crown it the king of coffee beverages. Not every cafe knows what it is though: we were at the particularly sophisticated Milano Coffee. I still don't know exactly how to describe it, and neither does anybody else (on paper it's like a proper microfoamed cappuccino), but it's really good.

Based on a recommendation from my good friend Some Canadian Guy Who Follows Me On Twitter, we had dinner at Tuc Craft Kitchen, which was absolutely amazing and I cannot recommend highly enough. I had their (quite ornate, it seems) version of a Negroni, which was a lovely drink if you can appreciate a little bitterness. (If you've never had Campari, I recommend against trying it straight or with soda, as it is thoroughly disgusting by itself.) Also, it's a nice red-orange.

Mostly, as is our way, we alternated going out to eat and read books with staying in the hotel room and reading books. We talked once or twice, but as we all know, I do not advocate speaking to one's spouse if it's avoidable, so we kept it to things like "I'll have the pork" and "I'm not sure what's going on, but your shoe is on fire."

I'm still really struck by the contrasts with the United States.

The overall feeling is that Canada is an "us." There, the debate seems to be about "how do we make this a better society for people to live in?"; here, the debate is "should we bother trying?". It got me thinking a lot about what kind of national project I want to be a part of, and highlighted my disappointment in my fellow citizens over the past 15 years, who have been voting--with their votes, not in any indirect or cryptic way--to be a nation of violence, afraid of our shadow and dedicated to relentlessly bombing brown people in the name of principles more honored in the breach than the observance.

Not that it bothers me.

On the way in, everyone in Canadian Customs was, of course, ranging from polite to friendly. On the way out, there's a whole section of the airport just for U.S. departures, and you do your whole customs entry before you get on the plane, and pass under a big sign saying "WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES". Directed by one unhappy-looking Customs and Border Patrol staffer, we handed our passports to an even more unhappy-looking CBP staffer, who veered well past "unhappy" and into "thoroughly crabby."

Anna said, "Aaah, surly airport security people. It feels like we're home already."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

new job continues

We are all really enjoying that I work from home. I quickly realized something I'd never bothered to examine before, which is that I really hate offices. I love talking to people; I hate the soul-sucking fluorescent lights, the noise, the constant interruption, the ugly furniture, and pretty much everything else. Because most of Engineering works remotely, the communication friction is very low: if we spend more than a couple minutes not making progress on HipChat, we switch over to Zoom immediately and figure it out on a video call.

In an office, when you've got your head down and completely absorbed in a programming task, inevitably someone comes up and says "I hope I'm not interrupting...". I usually say, "Too late!", which not everyone has a ready sense of humor about. Working remotely achieves the Holy Grail: it is more work to interrupt you than not.

When the boy gets home from school, there are snuggles! And I can go annoy him almost whenever I want. And I get to spend more time in Redwood City, which is one of my favorite places in the Bay Area (good thing, since I own a house here now). We got a killer Vietnamese restaurant some months back. What's not to love?

(Okay, the bank owns most of the house. I get to act like it's mine, which is pretty close.)

The job itself is quirky, in that my primary skillset is distributed Unix/Linux systems--think 500 computers all trying to coordinate and talk to each other--and I am working on a Windows client program. We'll have to see how it unfolds with my desire to get back into leadership. My co-workers are super nice, though, and it's a joy to be back working at a place with a more adult attitude.

And I have a really nice chair...


One of many nice things about our house is that we have a proper compost bin. At our previous place, a very nice but yard-less rental condo, we would put our compost stuff into special plasticky bags for the city compost, which reduced our trash by a whole bunch, but was still pretty annoying. Thanks to my parents, though--who not only bought us the bin but assembled it while they were visiting--we have this magical thing where I take what turns out to be 50% of our trash, throw it casually into a bin, and then it smells like dirt.

(All of our parents, when visiting, seem energized to do house or yard projects for some reason. One year on my younger brother's farm, my father and older brother had the urge to build a very nice outdoor shower.)

I periodically (once a month, maybe) turn the compost over, and as much insect life as you can see on the top, there is so much more underneath! Once I went so far as to try and extract some dirt from the bottom (not really worth the trouble, at the moment), and I unsettled a vast quantity of the only beetles I ever see around here, these 1.5cm grooved black thingers with small heads. The compost heap is apparently where all the tiny ants live, and I'm thrilled they have a place to be that's not in the house. More recently, millipedes appeared.

Maybe I wouldn't find this so magical if I grew up in the country. Really substantial amounts of food trash turns into a really very small amount of dirt. And it never smells like rotting food, only like dirt.

Between the compost and recycling, we put out about a half a paper shopping bag of actual trash every week. Pretty cool.