Tired Tropes: The Superpowered Loser

Everybody knows That Guy. He’s in the corner in the dorky clothes, his eyes always trained on the floor, either mumbling in hesitant whispers or holding court in long droning tirades. He holds a dead-end job and lives in a dead-end home, either in a tiny danky apartment or his parents’ basement. He’s got no obvious skills, no aspirations, no desire to rise above his lot, and no idea how to handle himself or how people really see him. He lives a life of bitterness, envious of other people’s success and maybe obsessed with the One Perfect Woman.

And one day, by an Act of Rob, he is imbued with a superpower.

His life suddenly turns around. Villains crumble at his presence. Beautiful women throw themselves at his feet. Powerful men are overwhelmed with jealousy but fail to topple him. Riches rain from the heavens. But at heart, he is still a loser in word and deed.

Only in Manhwa Land

This is not about the Super Loser trope, where the loser is acknowledged and portrayed as a loser in-universe despite his powers. Stories featuring superpowered losers as protagonists are adolescent wish fulfilment fantasies. It is a reassuring delusion that even losers can find wealth and women without needing to put in the work to overcome their weaknesses and insecurities. All he has to do is to have a convenient superpower fall into his lap.

The superpower itself comes in many forms. A supernatural boon that allows anyone to instantly feel pleasure through skin contact, a suit of high-tech powered armor, a sudden ability to use magic or extrasensory perception, or some other plot device. Whatever this superpower may be, its key feature is that its insertion into the story automatically elevates the protagonist into an untouchable, desirable being head and shoulders above everybody else. He doesn’t have to learn how to charm or think or fight; the superpower automatically takes care of that. He may encounter challenges and rivals, but thanks to his superpower, he will always prevail.

The superpower itself serves only to fulfil the loser’s greatest desires. When activated, it is an unstoppable instant-win device. In Korean webcomic Love Parameter, hopeless nerd Young Hoon receives a special pair of glasses, allowing him to read the parameters of everyone around him. When he wants to seduce a woman, the glasses tell him exactly what to say. All he needs to do is follow the script, and every woman he meets falls into his bed. Likewise, in Sweet Guy, Go Ho-Sang develops the miraculous ability to make anybody instantly feel good at a touch. He is the very model of a modern Korean loser — dead-end customer service job, unfashionable clothes, zero social skills — but after developing the power, no end of sexually aggressive women pursue him day and night.

In these stories the superpower is a crutch. Young Hoon doesn’t have to dress well, exercise or make himself more desirable; he just has to follow the script on his spectacles, and all the hot women come running at his beck and call. Ho-Sang never has to learn how to speak to women; he merely needs to ‘accidentally’ touch his target, or at most cook up an excuse to touch her, and a neverending stream of beauties will rush him into bed. Quite conveniently, they are all aggressive go-getter types, so he never needs to learn how to talk to women — not even his love interest. Take away their superpowers, and they will still be losers.

In traditional superhero stories, we see heroes using their powers for a higher and nobler cause, such as justice or protecting civilisation from world-eating monsters. They use their powers for a cause higher than themselves, face and overcome incredible challenges, and emerge as heroes worthy of the title. Superpowered loser stories are an inversion: they are about the loser relying on his superpower only to feed his ego and place himself above other men. There is no higher cause, there is no challenge to be a greater man, there is only the bacchanalian celebration of the ego.

Stories about superpowered losers are weak because the protagonists remain losers. Actions transform people. Events give people the impetus to choose to be better. Losers choose to remain static, to maintain the core traits that kept them as losers and instead lean on their superpowers. As their superpowers will never fail, they have no incentive to get better, no obstacle they have no doubt of overcoming, no reason to do anything with their powers other than feed their ego. As a result, there is no drama, no tension, no believable conflict — only the boring certainty that things will go his way and the inevitable pain of watching the loser stumble through the rest of life.

Rehabiliating the Loser

Yes, that means you.

To make a story about a superpowered loser work, the writer has to do two things: the loser must choose to use the superpower for a greater good, and the superpower cannot be a crutch. By pursuing a higher purpose, the protagonist has the motivation to become stronger, and will encounter supervillains that force him to keep honing his skills. The combination of internal and external desires combine to catalyse the loser’s transcendence. There are two ways to do this.

The first way is for the superpower to transform the protagonist. In DICE: The Cube That Changes Everything, Dongtae is a loser who is constantly bullied and shunned by everyone. One day, he picks up a mysterious die, becoming a participant in a game that allows players to complete quests in exchange for more dice. When rolled, these dice grant dicers points that can be invested in their stats or exchanged for goods. Dongtae uses the dice to become stronger, faster and more intelligent, and roundly chastises the bullies.

But there are more dicers out there. As gamemaster ‘X’ spreads the dice across the Korea, Dongtae’s school is thrown into chaos. His schoolmates will do anyything for more dice, including hunting and harming other dicers or innocents. Dongtae vows to challenge X and end the madness once and for all.

This story works on two levels. First, the proliferation of dice ensures that using them does not automatically lead to an effortless win, at least not against other dicers. While dice-granted abilities are powerful, none of them render the user invincible; a dicer must still use his powers intelligently or he will be defeated. Further, dicers who invest points in the wrong stats quickly pay the price when facing more skilled opponents. Second, Dongtae’s powers catalyse his character evolution. His motivation for using the dice stems from a desire to not be a loser, but as the story progresses, he chooses to use his powers to protect his friends and confront X. By using his power for a cause greater than himself, he leaves behind his adolescent wish fulfilment fantasies and takes on the mantle of a hero. As he encounters ever-more-powerful villains, he must strive to get better and attain more skills just to survive –- yet the dice quests force him to choose between expeditiously gaining more dice and doing the right thing.

The second way to rehabilitate a superpowered loser is to have other characters build him up. In Zetsuen no Tempest, the Tree of Genesis threatens to destroy human civilisation. Halfway through the series, Hanemura Megumu makes his debut. Hanemura is a weak-willed and wimpy construction worker who just broke up with his girlfriend…and who was incidentally chosen by the Tree of Exodus to defeat the Tree of Genesis.

As the Magician of Exodus, Hanemura may be the avatar of destruction, but he is still a loser. The other main characters train him to become worthy of his powers. He is beaten black and blue repeatedly, and keeps whining whenever that happens, but he still comes back for more. At the series’ end, Hanemura saves the world from catastrophe, and prepares to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend.

Once again, we see the superpowered loser choosing to use his powers for the greater good and to put in the effort to overcome his failings. Here, instead of the superpowers catalysing his growth, other characters force him to grow. Where superpower-as-catalyst brings out the protagonist’s innate drive, this approach uses characters to catalyse the loser’s development. The former approach makes for a story that allows the protagonist to dig deep and find himself, while the latter has plenty of opportunities for character drama.

The third way of reversing the superpowered loser trope is simply to play it straight. The superpower is a crutch and the loser is still a loser. Sure, he can elevate himself above others for a while, but there are always better men — and when reality hits, it hits hard. A villainous example of this are many of the evil vampires in Hellsing. They believe that their vampire powers make them unstoppable, but Alucard curbstomps them without breaking a sweat, usually by showing them the error of their ways through absorbing their most powerful attacks without even a scratch.

This approach knocks out the superpower, revealing it for the crutch it really is. Assuming the loser survives the fall, he now has the impetus to become stronger and stop relying on his gift. To complete the transformation, the sudden shock causes the loser to re-evaluate his life and strive to become a better man.

You ready to be a hero?

Zero to Hero

The superpowered loser is a tired trope because it is mere wish fulfilment. Instead of pursuing transcendent goals, it is all about elevating and preserving the ego. This inevitably leads to a boring story without drama, tension or opportunity for character development. Instead, give the loser a reason and a drive to be great, and watch him become a superhero.

Photo Credits:

Sweet Guy cover: original image from Baka Updates
Hanemura Megumu: Zetsuen no Tempest anime episode 15
Blast of Tempest Volume 10

Gatekeepers Make Creators Fragile

Creators and artists of all persuasions cannot count on gatekeepers. Many publishers and corporate sponsors do not have the creators’ interests in mind, only their own. That gives social justice warriors a vulnerability to exploit.

Earlier this week, political interest groups used deceptively edited footage to assassinate Milo Yiannopoulis’ character. The edited clip showed Yiannopoulis apparently defending paedophilia, leaving out the entirety of his argument: the law on age of consent is proper; in some rare cases a sexually mature teenager older than a child but younger than the age of consent may give consent; intergenerational relationships between younger and older gay men, both of them above the age of consent, are beneficial; and that paedophilia is an unforgiveable crime. The lie caught like wildfire across the Internet, prompting Simon & Schuster to cancel Yiannopoulis’ book publication. Yiannopoulis himself opted to resign from Breitbart to draw fire away from his colleagues.

Yiannopoulis is not a one-off event either. Disney-owned Maker Studies and YouTube severed ties with YouTube sensation PewDiePie after he was accused of making anti-Semitic content. Bestseller author Nick Cole’s former publisher dropped him after objecting to a chapter in his work Ctrl-Alt-Revolt that likened the antagonists’ motivations to abortion.

Social Justice Warriors and progressives of the Ctrl-Left know that gatekeepers are fragile. Stir up enough of a controversy and the gatekeepers will fold – if the gatekeepers are not themselves already converged by SJWs to suit the ends of SocJus. This trend can only continue into the future: now that authors and publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’, one can expect Big Publishing to weed out and reject every doubleplusungood thoughtcrime book and author.

From Crisis, Opportunity

Cleaving to fragile gatekeepers makes creators fragile. The fickle whims of the crowd will inevitably turn against anyone SJWs do not approve of, even their own allies. SJWs will always eat their own.

Creators must seek to be antifragile. Every crisis becomes an opportunity for growth.

After Nick Cole wrote about his being dropped, he signed on with Castalia House to release his novels. When Roosh V was attacked by feminists and slandered by the media, he went on the offensive and increased his own popularity. Milo Yiannopoulis is now setting up his own independent media network.

The lessons are clear. Build your own brands and platforms. Never count on gatekeepers to protect you; always go indie if you can. Never give in to the howling mobs of never-to-be-placated Social Justice Warriors. When mobbed, always counterattack at the earliest possibility. Study Vox Day’s seminal work, SJWs Always Lie, and be prepared for the inevitable wave of shrieking harpies. If you must work with publishers, select those that will not bow to the whims of SocJus, like Baen or Castalia House.

To be famous in the modern age is to attract the jealousies and intrigues of lesser people whose only talent is to lie and shriek and denounce. But as these men have demonstrated, the skilful creator can turn the situation around for his own profit. Antifragility is no longer an intellectual curiosity; for creators, it is a critical life skill.

Image: SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police by Vox Day

Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

Once again, the arts community is promoting Singapore literature through social media and the mainstream media. The latest initiative is #BuySingLit, billed as “an industry-led movement to celebrate stories from Singapore”.

Once again, the news turns me off SingLit.

A History of Disappointment

As a child I was a voracious reader. I read every book I got my hands on, no matter the subject. I inhaled encyclopedias, fairy tales, the Norse epics, Greek and Roman mythology, world folklore, comics, and so many more stories. In the mornings I would read about hobgoblins and dragons, in the afternoons I studied atomic theory and photography, in the evenings I followed the exploits of supersoldiers and scientists.

At the age of 12 I grew conscious of Singapore literature and the classics, and began to seek them out. Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Goh Poh Seng, Russell Lee, Wena Poon, Joanne Hon and other less-famous writers. Always I compared them to the other stories I’ve read, and found them wanting.

My synesthesia won’t allow me to read books. Instead, I experience them.

Ernest Hemingway’s prose is lean and taut and muscular, demanding a hundred percent of your attention. Michael Connelly’s stories are as black as a murderer’s heart and as slick as ice. Tom Clancy alternates ponderous white slabs with blazing crimson streaks. J. K. Rowling began as smooth caramel, but her later works transformed into dark coffee shot through with green and gold. J. R. R. Tolkien seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, stretches out into lush green vistas and soaring grey mountains. John C. Wright ignites fireworks with his words, blending them together into gold and bronze and violet and emerald on every page.

Compared to all that, every Singaporean writer produces thin mist of pale shades. Some are white, some are yellow, some are brown. Occasionally the mist parts to reveal black-on-white shapes as shallow as the ink that produce them. Other writers make the mist so thick and sticky and dry it feels like wading through a hail of glue drops frozen in the air. These stories are plain, staid, prosaic, illogical, shallow, boring, unreadable — and nearly interchangeable.

Singaporean genre fiction consistently ranks the lowest among the books I have read. Star Sapphire by Joan Hon is a romance story thinly veiled as science fiction, and not a particularly memorable one at that. The Singapore Noir anthology is bleakly bland while Best of Singapore Erotica fails to titillate. Douglas Chua and Barry Chen claim to write thrillers, but I have found their stories more useful as reusable sleeping aids. Only two writers caught my eye: Johann S. Lee, whose writing is competent but unremarkable (and I don’t swing towards gay male romance stories), and Neil Humphreys (who was born in England), specifically his thrillers.

The majority of Singapore’s prose output is high-brow literature, and even that fails the test. Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun promises a spy story focusing on a radical Christian sect, but all that stands out is that the protagonist seemed very concerned over whether he (and his manager) was gay — and that the secret police seemed pointlessly sadistic and otherwise inefficient. Lions in Winter by Wena Poon has multiple scenes that possessed neither a story arc nor relatable characters, yet claimed to be stories. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore by Catherine Lim is little more than dry sepia. Held against the starkness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the hidden depths of Road Dahl or the dark absurdity of Jean-Paul Sartre, these stories were limp and colourless.

Even so, I tried to participate in Singapore’s literary circles. I joined writers’ groups — and left soon after. I paid to attend workshops and classes — and learned nothing. I joined writers’ events and seminars — and all I found was navel-gazing, bloviating and boredom.

Everything But Writing

The chief problem as I see it is that the Singapore writing scene is about everything but writing.

Every writers’ group I have joined were for hobbyists. They brought together like-minded people to talk about their own writing, encourage them to write and participate in writing activities. This isn’t wrong per se, but I am not a hobbyist. I aim to be a professional. Professionals delve deep into craft and examine the state of the industry. These groups did not.

Programmes at writers’ events do not build up writers. #BuySingLit‘s events have art displays, treasure hunts and book tours. Only a handful of workshops are geared towards writing — and even those workshops are foundation-level courses. The same holds true for Singapore’s premier writing event, the Singapore Writers Festival. SWF has film screenings, music, history, panel discussions — anything and everything about the writers’ craft, or, indeed, writing. Contrast this to events like Dragoncon or Thrillfest, which teach more about the art, craft and business of writing in three days than SWF does in a month. The instructors at Dragoncon and Thrillfest go into the kind of detail that is sorely lacking in Singapore. I don’t have anything against the non-writing oriented events in local writing events, but one would think that the events, being about writing, would at least focus on the core audience and try to do more than teach beginner-level writing craft.

Singaporean publishers are only interested in a specific type of literature: stories about Singapore culture set in Singapore aimed at a Singaporean audience and foreigners who enjoy reading about Singapore. Writers who do not fit the mold will not find much support from the industry. While publishers are free to pursue whatever business model they like, people like me, a Hugo Award nominated science fiction and fantasy writer who will not limit his stories to Singapore, will have to look elsewhere. Likewise, Singapore’s mainstream media tends to focus on Singaporean writers who have either published through the usual publishing houses, or who are too big and controversial to ignore.

Add them all up, and what you have is a culture that encourages newbies to write and people to feel good. Not a culture that encourages people to sustain their writing or to further hone their craft. The only goal is producing a novel, anthology, poetry collection or whatever, not about living journey about pursuing a career at writing or the art of the written word. When someone publishes a work, the usual cry of “Support local talent!” echoes in the usual circles, without anyone paying heed to the actual quality of the content. Indeed, a couple of the stories and writers I mentioned above were award winners — and the award-winners of today aren’t better.

No Country for Writers?

Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety percent of anything is crud. In Singapore’s case, there aren’t enough writers to have a statistically significant ten percent of non-crud stories.

I intend to change that.

I’ve been writing fiction since I was 12 years old. My published fiction writing career spans 4 years. Later this year, I will publish at least one novel through Castalia House and one short story through Silver Empire’s [Lyonesse] (http://lyonesse.silverempire.org/) programme. I am already working on a bunch of other stories, which will be revealed in due course. If Singapore is no country for writers like me, then I will find other avenues to publish my works.

I will also be passing on the tricks of the trade. It’s been a long time coming, and now I feel ready to give back to the wider community of writers. Expect more posts zooming in on the way of the pen.

Fundamentally, I don’t care whether stories, especially mine, can be labelled SingLit or not. I care about good writing, wherever they may come from. Since my country continues to disappoint me, I will reach out to a wider audience.

Steemit: Liquid Democracy for Social Media

When people think ‘liquid democracy’, they think about politics and decision-making. Steemit, however, offers an opportunity to expand the concept into social media.

A liquid democracy is touted as democracy for the 21st century. Combining the best elements of direct democracy and representative democracy, a liquid democracy allows people to delegate their votes to a proxy who votes on issues for them — but individual voters are also free to withdraw their votes from the proxy if they feel the proxy is voting against their wishes.

This video provides a fuller explanation of the term:


Individual Steemians are free to upvote or flag any post at will. They may create bots to automate the voting process, or delegate their votes to curators. Guilds have their own systems of discussing which posts to upvote or flag. Instead of deciding on policy, though, Steemians collectively decide and reward what they believe is the best content on Steemit.

Lessons for Liquid Democracy

I can vote, you can vote, everybody can vote!

As a model for real-world applications of liquid democracy, Steemit has much going for it. People are rewarded for participating in the platform with tokens that can be exchanged for real currency, incentivising future participation. Instead of outright censoring controversial material, people can simply ignore the post and the writer; the lack of payment tells the writer what the marketplace of ideas really thinks of his content. For abusive content, voters can hide the content through coordinated flagging (‘nuking’). This will not make the content disappear, but flagging does massive damage to the user’s reputation, signalling him to either shape up or get out. And if a rogue users abuse the flagging, other accounts exist to counter these flags.

Steemit is a user-driven platform. Solutions are organically developed from the ground-up. Instead of relying on the mercies of an unaccountable development team, Steemians are free to identify and resolve issues through the platform’s tools where possible. The blockchain prevents content from being arbitrarily removed — at least not without someone noticing — which defeats attempts at government censorship. Unlike other social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, where censorship of dangerous ideas is celebrated, the hand of the dev team or moderators is little-felt at the day-to-day levels.

Social media doesn’t translate cleanly into policymaking. But there are three key lessons from Steemit that apply to liquid democracy.

The first is user empowerment. Steemit is designed around the user, empowering and incentivising participation in the platform. While Steemit’s model allows for weighted votes, in a state or organisation run by liquid democracy every user should only have one vote. This prevents powerful oligarchs from dictating terms to the rest of the nation. However, in a liquid democracy, people are free to delegate that vote to proxies, as in the case of Steemians empowering curation guilds to curate posts on their behalf. This frees people from the need to invest enormous amounts of time and energy into researching topics, and creates opportunities for people with the ability to do so to rise from the crowd. At the same time, voters are also free to vote according to their conscience instead of delegating their vote to a proxy who may not be aligned with their beliefs.

The second is protection of the marketplace of ideas. For a liquid democracy to work, free and fair debate is critical. All ideas must be allowed to participate in the marketplace of ideas, no matter how heinous they may seem to people. Censorship destroys and distorts the marketplace, driving targeted ideas underground but not obviating them. On Steemit, people are free to engage or ignore poor content and conceal abusive ones through flagging; in a liquid democracy, citizens should likewise be free to defeat bad ideas in the cut and thrust of debate, or simply ignore bad ideas into oblivion. The only place for censorship in a liquid democracy is to guard against a greater harm, such as preventing the disclosure of details of a criminal investigation.

The last lesson is decentralisation and division of labour. Nobody can be an expert at everything. In Steemit’s larger curation guilds, different subgroups handle specialised subjects. Steemtrail, for example, has multiple trails dedicated to topics like alternative energy, beer or fiction, operated by curators interested in them. Likewise, in a liquid democracy, political parties may form different subgroups to become the face of the party on topics like the economy, national security and so on. This allows political parties to deploy the best candidates to handle specific issues. While each subgroup would drive the party’s policy with respect to their area of focus, other party members are also free to join in if they are willing and/or qualified to do so. Party members and ordinary voters are free to delegate their votes to these experts. But they are also free to delegate their votes to someone else, or vote directly on the subject. This approach allows everybody’s views to be represented, while creating the environment for subject matter experts to tackle issues they are qualified for.

Lessons for Steemit

Sometimes, you have to be that guy.

Steemit also has a major lesson to learn from liquid democracy: transparency.

In a liquid democracy, proxy voting is supposed to be completely transparent. This ensures voters know how their proxies will vote. The proxy’s voting behaviour is also recorded, letting voters check the proxy’s voting record. Blockchain technology makes this possible by creating a permanent record of a proxy’s voting behaviour and how he intends to vote in the future. Politicians and proxies can count on the media to tell the world where they stand on certain topics and why. Steemit doesn’t offer the same capability.

Users normally trust curation guilds to vote in line with their tastes, but this may not always be so. Using Streemian, users may empower curators to vote on their behalf — up to a point. They may require the curator to vote on certain topics with specific tags, like writing or fiction, or to deny the curator the ability to vote on posts with other tags. This allows users to decide just how much power they wish to give curators. But even this is not sufficient. Here are two examples.

Alice wishes to promote science content on Steemit, so she requires her favourite curator to vote on posts tagged ‘science’. The curator follows her wishes by voting on all posts with that tag — even posts that contain erroneous facts or psuedoscience disguised as proper science.

Barry decides that he will vote on all police-related content himself, so he prevents his curator from voting on posts tagged ‘police’ and ‘crime’. The curator then upvotes and resteems a specific post that makes a false allegation of police brutality. Barry knows for a fact that this allegation is false and would not have upvoted or resteemed it. But as that post is tagged only as ‘writing’ and ‘blog’, Barry’s wishes are not acceded to. He only discovers the curator’s actions only when that post appears on his feed — and wonders what else the curator has voted on without his permission.

Users, curators and writers may do their best, but there will always be gaps not covered by filters. When faced with such scenarios, the easy option is to simply shrug and let the vote stand. Nobody is harmed by the upvote, so why bother? Besides, the user stands to gain curation rewards, and rescinding the vote will reset them.

However, the blockchain makes no distinction between curator and user. A curator may vote on behalf of a user, but on the blockchain the vote is recorded as originating from the user. A person cannot in good faith be expected to be recorded as having voted for a post that goes against everything he stands for, especially since with every vote drains an account’s voting power, reducing the curation reward. Further, should a curator choose to flag a post, there will be negative repercussions for the targeted user. Should a user believe that the target is not guilty, he should be free to cancel his own flag.

In a liquid democracy, every vote belongs to the user, to be given away or taken back as he sees fit. For a direct democracy to work, proxies must be transparent. Their votes and rationale for the votes must be known to all.

As we can see here, Streemian doesn’t do a good job in making votes transparent. The user must first log into Streemian, go to the curator trail and select a specific curator before he can see the voting history. And even that, that history is limited to the last ten votes. This is troublesome for a user, and inadequate.

Going forward, Steemit should introduce measures to enhance curator transparency. At any time, Steemians should be able to quickly access a curator’s voting record with a minimum of clicks, either in Steemit proper or on a third-party platform. The voting record should cover the curator’s history for at least the past twenty-four hours. Curators should justify every vote they make on the public record. When examining the record, users may choose to filter the record by tags for easier reading. Should they discover that a curator has voted against their interests, users are free to cancel their vote at any time. And of course, if a user feels a curator is no long aligned with his interests, he is free to drop the curator and vote manually. Finally, if the platform allows it, users should have the option of recording curator-delegated votes on the blockchain as such (i.e. User delegated Curator to upvote Post X) to distinguish them from manual votes.

Social Media for the 21st Century

Going forward, Steemit is primed to revolutionise social media. It natively encourages users to invest in the platform for the long-term through cryptocurrency. Through the adoption of the blockchain and empowerment of curators, Steemit is now a social media platform that runs along principles of liquid democracy. Steemit’s main stumbling block is lack of curator transparency, underscoring the importance of proxy transparency for policymaking. Should this obstacle be overcome, Steemit could serve as a model for the political evolution of democracies.

Film Analysis: Fifty Shades of Grey Franchise

The Fifty Shades of Grey movies surpasses the original prose trilogy while capturing its original spirit. Unlike the novel, I could endure the film until the end — mostly by picking apart everything wrong about them. With the release of Fifty Shades Darker, I’m confident that I cannot be further entertained by the franchise.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

In Fifty Shades of Grey, literature senior Anastasia Steele interviews billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey and is utterly attracted to him. Grey instantly falls for her, and begins to pursue her. Classic female fantasy. If Grey were a homeless bum or just an everyman, this would be a psychological thriller, but since Grey is a billionaire it’s billed as a romance.

It’s easy to understand why she is attracted to him. Christian Grey is wealthy, powerful and not ugly. But what does he see in her?

It’s obvious that neither E L James nor the scriptwriter have any inkling about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Billionaires do not live in the same world as regular people. The one percent hang out at exclusive clubs and societies that cater to the ultra-wealthy. They attend galas, pageants and social events to network with their fellow one-percenters and strike up marriage alliances. They are the guests of honour everywhere they go.

In these appearances, they smile and strut and schmooze and scheme. They know they are the movers and shakers of society, and they know that there will always be people waiting to pounce on the slightest sign of weakness. Thus, they have to learn impeccable manners and social skills, and see and be seen only by the luminaries of the world. The companions they bring to these events reflect their wealth, status and taste; they choose their mates very selectively and demand a hundred percent at all times.

An eligible bachelor like Grey will have no end of women throwing themselves at his feet. He will be invited to events where supermodels, actresses, athletes and fellow billionaires will be in attendance. During meetings with clients and investors, there will be no shortage of opportunities to meet glamorous hostesses or hire gorgeous escorts. More ordinary women (like Ana!) would do everything in their power to gain the privilege of a single night with him. Wealth and power are the most potent female aphrodisiacs in the world, and men like Grey would be spoiled for choice.

So why Ana?

Anastasia Steele is slim and pretty, but she is not supermodel material. She doesn’t demonstrate any sign of superior intelligence — her one shot at this, when interviewing Christian, was entirely unmemorable. The movies offer no opportunities for her to demonstrate qualities like resilience, independence and determination to him. As she makes abundantly clear, she does not share Christian’s sexual tastes.

Men like Christian Grey can afford to be picky. People do not become billionaires by the age of 27 by thinking like regular people. A man like that knows that he has to be highly selective to hire the right employees, and be ruthless in firing those who fail to meet his standards. Christian isn’t a complete naif either; he’s implied to have plenty of sexual experience in his past. Ana clearly doesn’t completely suit him — so why should he care about her?

The answer is simple: the series is not about Christian Grey. It is about the enduring female fantasy of being swept off her feet by a powerful man who finds her irresistible.

Romance? What Romance?

Romance stories are driven by interactions between the main characters. But when characters are flat, the story falls flat.

Take a look at Vox Day’s socio-sexual hierarchy and Heartiste’s Dating Market Value Test for Men. Grey is described as ‘dominant’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘intimidating’. By all accounts he should be an alpha or a sigma. But he acts like a low beta (Heartiste) or delta (Vox Day).

A high-value man seduces women by careful displays of wealth and attention, attracting them to him. Grey lavishes time and money on Ana, but receives no financial gain in return. A high-value man sets the pace of the relationship — he may negotiate boundaries with his mate, but the relationship is on his terms. Grey does everything Ana asks of him without the slightest complaint or protest. A high-value man employs wit, charm, game and deep penetration to win women over. Grey’s dialogue is either utterly bland or breathless proclamations of how much he adores Ana. A high-value man will run background checks on potential mates to guard himself, and hide that fact from people. Grey casually surrenders that knowledge to Ana without even drawing a concession. A high-value man seeks to maximise profit and cedes ground in negotiations only reluctantly. Grey displays none of the drive that makes men billionaires. A high-value man maintains frame. Grey surrenders it.

Christian Grey doesn’t act like a dominant high-status male. He doesn’t even act like a billionaire. Men like that do not have the luxury of dropping or delaying appointments on a whim just to chase a girl, not if they want to land the multi-million dollar deals that made them rich in the first place. They know that women are everywhere, but a sales opportunity may be once in a lifetime. They will remain focused on their mission of making money, especially if they are single, and only turn their attention to their women after they are done.

And if the woman keeps complaining about it? She’s fired and replaced without a second thought.

Christian Grey acts like every woman’s fantasy. He is rich and powerful, but eats out of Ana’s hand. He has the ability to devote time, money and attention on her, and will change his essential nature for her. He won’t ever chase other, higher-status women with more compatible sexual fantasies because he is utterly obsessed with her.

And in the real world, men who act like Christian Grey become hollowed-out shells of their former selves, losing everything that made them great.

Characters? What characters?

Every person in the film franchise revolves around Anastasia Steele. Their thoughts, feelings and actions revolve entirely around her. When she is not in the frame, they cease to exist. Case in point: Fifty Shades Darker.

The trailer promises that people from Christian’s past shows up. They do, but not in any significant way.

Mrs Robinson, the woman who originally seduced Christian, makes hostile remarks at Ana and…nothing more. As Christian’s business partner, she has leverage over him. She can whisper into his ear, spread rumours about Ana and use her resources to make life difficult for Ana. Instead, the movie resolves the conflict simply by having Ana throw water on her and walk away.

In the real world, women as powerful as Mrs Robinson don’t act directly. They will plot their revenge, hire thugs and lawyers, and ruin their target without any trace of suspicion falling on her. It may feel good to throw water on her, but people like Mrs Robinson won’t rest until she or her target is destroyed. And Christian ought to know that too. The movie shows no attempt to resolve the conflict, wasting an opportunity for drama.

Leila Williams, Christian’s former submissive, also shows up. She appears for a few scenes, utters a couple of lines, and fades away. There is no sense of personality or motivation to her. The one moment she makes an impact is when she breaks into Ana’s home. And even then, Ana’s reaction isn’t one of fear for her safety (what if someone else breaks in?) or relief (thank God Christian and his bodyguard dealt with this madwoman) but jealousy. Leila is simply a device to make Ana jealous, compelling Christian to further emasculate himself through signalling his loyalty. Once Leila has served her purpose, she disappears.

Jack Hyde was Ana’s boss, working as Commissioning Editor at Seattle Independent Publishing. When he first shows up, he serves to make Christian jealous. His existence signals to the audience that Ana is attractive to other men. When the three meet at a bar, Christian introduces himself to Jack by saying, “I’m the boyfriend.” This is a signal of anger, jealousy and insecurity; it is a definition of identity based on someone else instead of who he is. It is what an ordinary man would do, not a true high-status man.

In the real world, a true dominant would smile broadly, focus his gaze on Jack, extend his hand and say, “Hi. I’m Christian. Nice meeting you.” At the same time, he would wrap his arm around Ana’s waist and pull her into him. This is a demonstration of confidence, superiority, ownership and frame — without openly giving Jack a reason to get mad at him.

Later, Jack threatens to expose Ana’s relationship with Christian unless she provides sexual favours and tries to assault her. She fights her way out (the only time we see courage from her), then runs outside into Christian’s arms. Christian moves to have him fired. Jack naturally seethes at this treatment and plots Christian’s downfall, paving the way for the next story. Here, he simply exists to provide an element of danger and set up the next story.

In the real world, a man like Christian wouldn’t settle for having him fired. He would call the police and use his influence to have Jack locked away for sexual assault. Any regular person would do that, but once Jack is off-screen, he is immediately forgiven of all sins. This makes no sense whatsoever — unless you want a reason for the next story.

Kink? What kink?

All I will say about the sex scenes is that you can find much harder porn on the Internet for free.

Bondage, domination, sadism and masochism is the forbidden fruit that draws in customers. It is taboo, yet dramatic and glamorous. But its on-screen portrayal is tame. The movies walk the fine line between showing just enough BDSM to tantalise the audience while staying clear of the hardcore aspect that will alienate the vanilla audience — and errs on the side of the latter.

It’s All About Ana

Despite being named after Christian Grey, Fifty Shades is all about Ana. She effortlessly attracts and changes a wealthy man, but has no need to mold herself to him. She is the focus of his attentions, but since she can tell him off and he respects her limits, he isn’t really a stalker. There is just enough kink to lure in the audience, but it’s always on her terms and he never pushes her. She doesn’t have to do anything to earn Christian’s affections, but he makes grandiose displays for her. She enjoys the attention and wealth of a billionaire, and has no need to hold up her end of the relationship.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the perfect female fantasy. It allows a female audience to insert themselves into Ana’s shoes and pretend that they, too, can haul in a billionaire without having to lift a finger. No matter how cringe-worthy you may find the franchise, it is the textbook for understanding the solipsism, fantasy and hypergamy of the modern female.


Fifty Shades Darker No More Secrets Poster: Universal
Christian Grey: Fanpop
Fifty Shades of Grey still: Aceshowbiz
Leila Williams: The Daily Mail
Meh: Media Makeameme
Fifty Shades Darker No More Rules Poster: Universal

How to Recognise A Soulmate

The modern world has no room for soulmates. The First World has repudiated the strictures of the Church and traditional morality, ushering in an era of free love, rising divorce rates and increasing unhappiness. Corporations have turned Valentine’s Day into an excuse for ostentatious consumption, and with it, an opportunity for immense profit. Skeptics claim love is little more than brain chemistry. Pickup artists laugh at the idea of ‘the One’. Writers in the manosphere advise readers to keep their game tight and prowl for women, marking success by notches on the bedpost. The idea of a soulmate is anathema to them.

They are wrong.

Finding My Soulmate

12 years ago, when I was in secondary school, I was part of the National Cadet Corps. One afternoon we were scheduled for a meeting in a classroom after school. I was the first to arrive; only the cadets from that class were present. I sat at an empty desk, opened my notebook and continued crafting notes on my novel.

A girl sat opposite me. Dark-skinned, short curly hair, an androgynous face. The kind of girl most people wouldn’t look twice at. I kept writing.

“You have nice handwriting,” she said.

Her voice was an electric violet entwined with crystalline greens shot through with yellow, so bright I had to look up at her. She smiled at me.

A strange sensation crept over me. It was the feeling of familiarity, as though I had known her for a hundred lives or more. She was a plain girl, but her eyes were wide and soft and deep, and her smile bursting with joy and warmth. I thought of a photograph dating to the fifties, yellowed with age, of a woman in a pencil skirt and plain blouse, wearing the same smile she did now.

Her classmate wandered over. He was the leader of our company, the one who had called for the meeting.

“Hey Jas,” he said.

A voice in mind, quiet and calm and confident, said, No. Her name is Jasmine.

“This is Benjamin,” he continued.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Jasmine.”

I nodded.

It wasn’t the most romantic of encounters. We never thought that that meeting set the stage for the rest of our lives. But here we are today.

Recognising Your Soulmate

By now a spiritual reader would have recognised the signs and broke out into huge grins. If you’re that person, chances are, you’re going to know what I’m going to talk about. For the rest of you, read on.

To find your soulmate, you must first discard all illusions. Pop culture depicts soulmate relationships as smooth-sailing and effortless. Romance writers like to make everything work out somehow. Fairy tales end their stories with ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The game gurus of the manosphere have learned to be wise about women. They understand that women are as human as everyone else, prone to frailties, eccentricities and personal failings. They know that the majority of women out there are not suited for long-term relationships with them. They know that women positively respond to specific behaviours and negatively to others, and pass on advice to other men to make them become more attractive. They know the perils of being in long-term relationships with dangerous women, and correctly advise their readers to drop unsuitable mates the second they see the warning signs. They have experienced the suffering that comes from being attached to the idea of any particular woman being ‘the One’ — especially if that woman does not reciprocate their affections — so they teach men to develop the mindset of detachment and abundance.

But those that sneer at the concept of soulmates are mistaken.

The idea of a soulmate is misunderstood by society. Meeting your soulmate does not guarantee a relationship, much less a successful one. A relationship with your soulmate is not guaranteed to be smooth and pleasant. A soulmate may not be with you forever. Meeting your soulmate may be a capstone in your life, but it is not the end. It is, if anything, the beginning of a long and rocky road.

To understand the notion of a soulmate you must understand the soul. It is your essence, the sum of all you are. It is your personality, your worldviews, your beliefs, your habits, your hang-ups, everything that makes up who you are. Your soul is a diamond. And the only thing that can wear down a diamond is another diamond.

When diamonds are unearthed from the ground, they are dull and irregular and plain. Once inside a gem workshop, lapidaries carefully slice away their flaws, wear away rough corners, and meticulously grind facets at precisely-calculated angles. Diamond is so hard that the workmen must use diamond tools to shape diamond. After long hours of labour, the product is a sparkling, opulent gem with a rainbow at its heart.

So it is with your soulmate. A soulmate is a person who reflects your soul in its entirety, both its beauty and its ugliness. When you are with her, it is like diamonds grinding each other down. Your interactions with her bring out both the noblest and basest aspects of your self. She motivates you to exercise your strengths, and she exposes your flaws. And you, too, do the same to her.

Your soulmate inspires you to transform yourself into a glittering diamond of a human being.

Polishing the Diamond

Life with your soulmate becomes a journey of personal transformation and transcendence. But it is neither easy nor automatic. Like the lapidary carefully polishing a diamond, you bothhave to put in the work.

As you might have guessed from the anecdote, as a teen I was surly and antisocial. I was razor-focused on the Great Work of creation. Most people who did not contribute to that simply ceased to be relevant to my life. I had minimal social skills, and I saw no need to be friendly to people.

Jasmine showed me how I had gone wrong. And even today I am still learning from her.

For all this, humans are free. Free to cling to their old ways and free to change. Free to defend a fragile ego and free to exercise compassion. Free to stay and free to walk away.

When you are with your soulmate, you will grind away at each other. Your friction and conflicts will expose your deep-seated insecurities, fears and delusions to the light of day. You can choose to stay the course and work things out. Or you can choose to leave.

Neither choice is always right all the time. As she works on you, you too are working on her. You will see her at her worst. Her ideas, suggestions and actions may not be in your best interests all the time. Blindly going along with everything turns you from a diamond into a doormat, and insisting that she listen to you always is to demand the same from her.

Do not count on angelic proclamations, crackles of metaphysical electricity or flashes of mental imagery to signal a meeting with your soulmate. It is nice if it happens but do not assume it always will. Instead, like the lapidary who examines a diamond with a clear microscope and penetrating light, you must examine your relationship and hold it against measurable benchmarks.

Does your mate celebrate your successes or does she belittle them? Does she encourage you to grow your strengths or bury them? Does she motivate you to be healthier and fitter and wiser, or does she sneer at your attempts at self-improvement? Does she cultivate virtue alongside you or does she ignore you? Does she help you overcome your weaknesses or does she humiliate you for them? Does she encourage you to nurture and grow your wealth or does she leech off you? When caught in a dispute, does she seek to resolve matters with you or does she seek to impose blame? When facing a challenge together, does she partner with you or attempt to impose her will? Most of all: are you happy with her?

You must be brutally honest about yourself. The more she builds you up, the greater you can be sure that she is a keeper. if she tears you down, you must point out such behaviour to her and encourage her to change: if she ceases and changes for the better, she may yet have potential. If she refuses, you must leave. A relationship built on denigration and destruction will not last.

Predators and parasites seek only to grind you into dust. Soulmates offer you the challenge of becoming a diamond.

The Great Dance of Life

Jasmine and I have our issues. Plenty of them. We’re not saints, not by a long shot. But for over a decade, we have helped each other overcome great challenges, resolved some of our deep-rooted problems, faced down our fears and built each other up. We’ve had our ups and downs, our arguments and differences, but we stuck it out and invested the blood and sweat and tears needed to make things work. We still do. We aren’t where we want to be, but we are getting there every day, step by step.

A soulmate is someone you want to share the great dance of life with. Someone who sees you for the diamond that you are and helps you manifest your true potential, and someone whose inherent greatness you feel compelled to bring out. Like polishing a diamond, this dance is long and hard and rocky, but if you’ve found the right person, the challenge is worth it.

To all lovers out there, may you help each other become glittering diamonds in the world. And to all the singles out there, may you find your soulmate someday.

When Caught Between Polarities, Find the Deeper Truth

The world is a complex place. The movers and shakers of the world — people, organisations, superpowers — act and speak in strange, apparently contradictory ways, yet the universe bends to their will, and with it the destinies of ordinary people. Oftentimes the world seems caught between polarities: between centralisation and decentralisation, love and hate, spiritual and secular.

To leave your mark on the world, to avoid being caught in the wakes of clashing leviathans, you must discern the truth.

Truth is a strange thing. The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of a truth is another truth. To understand why this is so, we must peel back the veil of everyday reality and gaze upon the underlying principles of the universe.

The Dao De Jing describes existence as such: “From the Dao comes the one. From the one comes the two. From the two comes the three. From the three comes the ten thousand things.”

Observe the yinyang above. It symbolises the duality of nature, portraying how two seemingly opposite forces are in reality complementary and interconnected. The bright fades into the dark, the dark gives to the light, and nestled within each half is the seed that sprouts into the other.

Yin and yang are not binary opposites. One flows into the other, ever turning round and round in the great dance of life. Yin and yang is idealised as being in a perpetual state of balance. The reality is that yin may overpower yang, or yang overpower yin. The cosmic balance appears to be out of order – but the Dao remains, and all that is timeless and eternal remains the same. What changes is the manifestation of different facets of the Dao.

Ivan Throne of Dark Triad Man elucidates the following exercise. Visualise a long strip of paper. One end is white, the other black. In the space between is infinite shades of grey, with one colour transitioning into the next. Spin the paper round and round, fast as you can, and all you see is grey.

The black end represents the supreme manifestation of a given aspect of reality. The white end is the supreme manifestation of another aspect. The grey zone represents the manifestation of both aspects. Each shade of grey represents how either polarity is manifest in varying degrees and combined into a singularity.

Here are some examples to illustrate this principle.

What is the Truth?

The opposite of love is hate. One is the supreme manifestation of affection, the other the supreme manifestation of hostility. They appear irreconcilable until the moment a wild tsundere appears. When faced with her love interest, the classic tsundere switches wildly between both ends of the scale, acting lovestruck one moment and harsh the next. How can two emotions exist in the same person?

Answer: they do not. A properly-done tsundere experiences intense feelings towards her love interest but lacks the ability to properly comprehend or express said feelings. This is the underlying truth. Whenever she feels this surge of emotions, she expresses them in markedly contradictory ways. Confusion (for the love interest) and hilarity (for the audience) ensues.

From the one (unable to process emotions) comes the two (running hot and cold towards love interest), from the two comes the three (how relationship with the love interest plays out), from the three comes the ten thousand things (how other characters perceive her and her relationship to others, how the audience perceives her and her relationships with other characters, how this affects the audience’s perception of the story, and so on).

Now let’s look at the real world. To be specific: President Donald Trump.

In the real world, we see this in perceptions of controversial figures like Donald Trump. Here is a man who is loved and hated, lauded and feared, embodying the growing polarisation of America. The Alt-Right, New Right and other figures love Trump, hailing him the God-Emperor of America. Everybody bluer than left of centre hates him.

This is deliberate.

Trump has deliberately built an image designed to incite extreme emotional reactions. His supporters love him, his enemies hate him, and his supporters love the fact that his enemies hate him – so they will continue to support him. The underlying truth is that a man who can stir up the passions of the crowd is a man who cannot be ignored and will not be forgotten. This is the principle Trump employed to win the 2016 Presidential elections and take power.

Here is another example: be honest in all your dealings, but conceal yourself with a smokescreen.

How can you be honest if people do not know your intentions? How can you hide yourself effectively if you choose to deal fairly with people?

Answer: carefully choose what you reveal and what you hide.

Again, go back to Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump has made a number of grandiose promises: ban illegal immigration and refugees, roll back federal power, strengthen the economy and make America great again. At the same time, Trump is (in)famous for tweeting non-stop, making pronouncements and attacking his critics on the Internet.

The tweets are his smokescreen. Every time he says something controversial, the media swarm all over it like vultures. He uses simple, emotive language, leading many critics to deride him as a simpleton. The hostile media spends so much time and resources stirring up a two minute hate against his latest soundbite, they have nothing left when he acts.

At the same time, by acting on his campaign promises and signing so many Executive Orders in his first month in office, he has created the appearance of an honest, decisive executive to his supporters. His supporters trust that he will act on his word.

The question, then, is how to determine which of his words are the smokescreen and which of his words reflect his true self. This is a variation of the Japanese concept of honne and tatemae: honne are your true desires, while tatemae is the facade for public consumption (usually, but not always, politically correct). This keeps world leaders and policymakers guessing, letting Trump build up a reputation for unpredictability — a reputation he can use to his advantage.

Here is a third and final example: always court the spotlight, but the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

People only notice other people who stand out from the crowd, but people who stand out from the crowd are destroyed.

If you want to effect great change, you must be visible and command the attention of everyone around you. However, this increased visibility attracts the wrath of your enemies, who will plot to destroy you. Thus, you must hide your true intent and appear to be aligned with the will of the people, preventing your opponents from predicting and overthrowing you.

Look at Trump. Trump’s signature is to go big and press hard, making bold declarations and policy statements that he knows his enemies and opposite numbers won’t stand for. Between his speeches, announcements and air of controversy and unpredictability, he is constantly in the limelight. Not a day passes when he is not the talk of the entire world. His enemies are legion, constantly seeking avenues of attack. But Trump’s ideas echo the sentiments of the public: they resonate with the Americans who feel bullied by the Left, with Americans who fear the effects of mass immigration, with Americans who want the Federal government to stop encroaching on their rights. Trump speaks in simple language that anyone can comprehend, using the most popular technological platform of the day. Whenever Trump is criticised, his supporters — seeing Trump as one of their own — will rise to the defence of the God-Emperor.

Trump’s true thoughts are hidden in the fireworks. He has always scaled back from his opening positions. This makes his opposite numbers feel like they have won concessions, fence-sitters feel that he is reasonable, and his supporters feel that he has merely enacted the first step of his master plan — or that it is as far as Trump can go for now. And the reason he can do that efficiently is because his enemies can’t predict what he really wants and alter their tactics accordingly.

Find the Dao

The ten thousand things appear bewildering and incomprehensible. But all roads lead to the three, to the two, to the one, and to the Dao.

In the face of seemingly contradictory truths, recognise that they are opposite polarities of the same overarching principle manifested in reality. Discern the underlying facet of reality being expressed. That facet is the principle that guides the situation, such as a drive to gain, hold or express power coupled with the desire to defend against hostile attention.

The world may seem complex, yet it is governed by recognisable fundamental principles. The man who can discern and manifest these principles to suit his needs peers through the veil of reality and holds in his hands the levers of the universe.

Photo Credit:

Yinyang: free image from Pixabay
Donald Trump: Dark Triad Man

Martial Analysis: The Knife

Knives are brutally effective at killing people and terribly ineffective for self-defence. To understand this conundrum, we need to understand the properties of a knife.

First, the pros. Knives puncture and sever. With a properly sharpened knife, it doesn’t take a lot of force to penetrate flesh and open veins. Smaller knives can be easily concealed on your person, under a thin layer of clothing. The blade of a knife adds a few inches to your reach when held in a forward grip; held in the reverse grip, the blade can be used to hook and clear the opponent’s limbs. As a short and light weapon, it can be used freely in the clinch and at grappling range, allowing for multiple rapid strikes. Many commercial knife designs are adequately sharp, cheap and utterly disposable — which lend themselves to specific applications by certain professions.

Now the cons. Knives do not usually impart kinetic energy into a target. They cannot break bones or shock the nervous system; when the adrenaline is going, the opponent won’t know he’s been cut. Most modern knives have little mass behind them, so unlike their larger classical cousins they cannot cut off limbs. Cutting a threat will spray blood all over you. A blade offers only a few inches of extra reach — against a longer weapon like a stick or a chair, a knife wielder is at a clear disadvantage. Folding knives require greater fine motor manipulation — and training — to properly deploy, and there’s a not insignificant risk of messing up the deployment under pressure. Fixed knives, while easier to draw, are harder to conceal. And in the First World, it can be a tad inconvenient if the police ask you why you’re carrying a blade — especially if you do not live in a blade culture.

Forget what you see in Hollywood and most pop fiction: a single lethal strike is not enough. There is no such thing as an immediate kill with a knife. It takes between one to two minutes (usually on the longer side) for someone to bleed to death from a single severed major blood vessel. Up to an hour if you’re unlucky.

In combat every minute is an eternity. If you can’t intimidate the threat after pulling the knife, things will get very ugly, very quick. On the other hand, knives are ubiquitous, cheap, disposable, easy to handle and easy to conceal. Sneaking up on someone and stabbing him to death is depressingly easy. It’s not a clean death: it’s hard and messy and noisy — and that’s if everything goes your way.

This is the reality of the knife. It is an excellent offensive weapon. If you have the initiative, you can overcome its drawbacks through stealth and violence of action, filleting your target without ever giving him a chance to retaliate. And when you’re done if you have a cheap blade, you can simply toss it and get a new one. On the other hand, knives are poor defensiveweapons: they’re not going to quickly stop a threat — at least, not without proper training.

Before You Take Up the Blade

I am not a self-defence instructor. I’ve studied martial arts for a mere three years. Do not count on my words as gospel; if you want to dive deeper, seek out the knowledge of qualified teachers, many of whom I will link to at the end of this post. All I will do here is summarise what I have learned over the years.

In a court of law, a knife is a deadly force implement. It is illegal to use one if your life is not at risk. In many places, it is illegal to use one, period. In my own country, it is illegal for civilians to carry weapons for self-defence. If you choose to carry a knife as a weapon, you must understand your local law and the penalties for breaking it.

If you do carry a knife for the express purpose of combat, you must be psychologically prepared.

Extend your arm to the fullest. This plus the length of the blade is the maximum range of knife combat. More often than not, it will take place closer than that, so close you can smell the threat’s breath. You will be pumped full of adrenaline, your senses will be simultaneously sharper and duller than usual. Through the blade you will feel flesh parting and blood gushing. You will hear the grunts and screams and cries of a dying man. The stench of his fear and blood and waste will fill your nostrils. He will thrash and buck and flail and fight and you have to hold on. You must stitch the threat over and over and over and over again, working the target until the moments a viciously violent living being becomes an inanimate lump of meat and bone.

When it’s over, you will be covered in blood and filth. If the threat had a bloodborne disease, you’ve just exposed yourself. If you’re lucky, you will merely suffer long, agonizing weeks of pain, fever and vomiting. If not, you will suffer long, agonizing months of pain, fever, vomiting, intensive medical treatment — and then you will die. HIV and Hepatitis B and C are the primary pathogens of concern; using a knife on a threat with one is a fine way to catch it.

And even if you manage to walk away clean, you will never, ever, forget. All you can do is make peace with what you’ve done. Be ready.

Targets and Tactics

Different knife arts have different targeting methodology. In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, there are three primary targets: the guts (or groin), the underarm and the throat. There are five secondary targets: the eyes, the hands, the inner forearm, the biceps and the thigh. The primary targets are for killing, the secondary targets are for degrading the threat’s ability to fight.

To defeat a threat with a knife, you must achieve at least one of the following:

  • Psychological stop: Intimidate the threat into running away, or to give you enough space to deploy another option
  • Exsanguination: Puncture so many holes in the threat he bleeds out
  • Structural stop: Sever the muscles, nerves and/or tendons that allow him to move

A psychological stop is simple. When a threat accosts you, pull out a great big knife with a great big smile. If the threat persists, cut at his hands, eyes or face. Humans are hardwired to instinctively protect the head. The flickering blade, the spray of blood and (hopefully) a sudden pain combine to terrify the threat. The idea is to give him something else to think about and to convince him that you aren’t an easy mark.

But this only works against an uncommitted attacker. This is for the mugger, the woofer, the punk with more mouth than brains. Against someone whose blood is up and hell-bent on killing you, you can’t count on it. He may not even register the blade’s existence. Also, in many jurisdictions, this is a crime. You clearly didn’t feel threatened enough to carve up the threat, so it clearly wasn’t a life or death situation, so clearly the use of a lethal weapon is not justified. Use this tactic at your own risk.

Exsanguination is easy. Puncture the major blood bearing organs, sever the arteries and wait for him to bleed out. It doesn’t take a lot of training to do this; you just need to will to do the ugly, dirty job of manslaughter.

In PTK, the throat is the ideal target. Here are the carotid arteries and the trachea. Slice these and blood will gush free and flow into the airways. The threat bleeds and chokes out simultaneously.

After the throat is the underarm. The rib cage protects the chest, but the armpit is undefended. A stab here will puncture the lung and, with a long enough blade, the heart. When you retract the blade, the muscle and tissue collapses. The target suffers a sharp shock to the chest. With every breath, his lung deflates.

The groin region should properly include the guts as well. Here is a wealth of blood vessels and organs: the intestines, liver, spleen, stomach, pancreas. Rapid, upward thrusts and swift horizontal cuts to the region leads to massive internal damage.

Pulling off an exsanguination stop is depressingly easy. Just watch this:

There is no dancing around, no fancy footwork, no posturing. Just four easy steps.

Get as close as you dare. Jam his primary arm. Crash him into a wall or floor. Stab until you or he blacks out.

What if the bad guy attacks you with a blade or stick ? Simple. Cut or stab the hand, clear it out of the way, then bum-rush the target and stitch him up until you or he blacks out. If you have a knife in the reverse grip, it is easier to hook and shear the enemy’s weapon away.

What if the threat is already grappling you? Draw knife, cut him until he lets go, then escape or use the above tactic.

This is the essence of knife ‘fighting’. It is less a two-way exchange of blows, more a sudden furious desperate blitz of steel and spit. Advanced knife tactics are all about creating an opportunity to close in so you can do this.

As discussed earlier, an exsanguination stop will take time. Long minutes of stabbing and slashing and cutting and piercing until the threat ceases to be one. And if he is in knife range, you are also in knife range. The threat may access hidden weapons and fight back even as you stab him. You won’t feel it until you grow weak and black out and die. Even as you work him over, you must deny him the ability to kill you. You need to move as he moves, keeping his arms tied up and jammed against obstacles, and if you sense him drawing a weapon you must respond. Similarly, if the threat has friends, you cannot let yourself be tied up taking one guy out. Otherwise, they will pull you off him and do unto you what you were doing unto him.

The structural stop is based on the concept of defanging the snake. If a threat cannot hold a weapon or cannot stand he is no longer a threat. This plays into the main strength of a blade, allowing you to rapidly incapacitate a threat without the inconvenience of waiting for him to bleed out. As a bonus, you are less likely to take a spray of blood to the face.

The weapon arm is the primary target. The inner forearm is rich with nerves that control the hand. The largest muscles that power the arm are on the upper arm. To attack the former, you need to perform what is known as a gunting or crossada: a scissoring motion that deflects the weapon hand with your secondary hand while simultaneously slashing with your primary. This requires a great deal of training: it is very easy to miss or, worse, catch the blade with your naked hand. Alternatively, you move to the inside of an incoming attack, blocking the weapon arm with your secondary arm and slashing the forearm. To take the biceps or triceps, go for a deep gunting or inside slash, or slip out and jam the opponent’s arm against his body and slash the exposed muscle.

The eye is a valuable target. If the threat can’t see he can’t fight. The goal is to thrust and run. After you stick the eye, the threat will be blind in that eye. Run past his blind spot. This should buy you enough time to flee the area.

The thigh is the other main target. Here, you target the quadriceps. If the threat can’t stand, he can’t slash or strike you. However, if the threat has a firearm, you must also disable the hand (or stomp him in the face) or risk being shot in the back.

While a structural stop may be quicker than bleeding out a threat, it requires training. You need to meet an incoming attack with your naked hand and a tiny blade without getting cut. This requires exquisite timing and bravery, developed only in the training ground. If your cuts don’t go deep enough, the threat will still be active, allowing him to harm you. Further, most FMAs were born in a time and place without heavy jackets or jeans — blades may simply slide off clothing or won’t go deep enough. You need to train the comma cut, and to stab andslash a target muscle. Michael Janich has more below.

Structural stops rest on the assumption that you have someplace to escape to and the threat will obligingly go down and stay down. If you’re attacked at home, or if you’re in a confined space like an elevator or stairwell, you have to fight until the threat stops. If the threat runs away or gives up after you cut his arm, great. But if your cuts are too shallow, if the threat simply picks up his weapon with his other arm or draws a backup, and is still able to harm you, the fight is still on.

Sayoc Kali teaches the concept of timers and switches. Timers are lethal attacks that will permanently end a target, but take time to bleed out. Switches are structural strikes that will permanently disable a target’s limb, but will not kill him. Learn to mix and match targets as the situation dictates. Against a single threat, flipping a switch or two may be enough to end the fight. Against a pack of enemies, you need to keep moving while defending against the possibility of hidden ranged weapons; you may have to employ a timer and a switch on every threat to stop them. A berserker or highly dedicated attacker may only stop when he runs out of blood and air.

With a knife, there is no clean distinction between lethal and less-lethal force. A quadriceps cut may non-lethally put down a target, but it can also sever the femoral artery and cause him to bleed to death. A cut throat is presumably lethal, but a shallow cut might not dissuade the threat. But to the courts, a knife is always a lethal weapon: even if you use a knife non-lethally you are only allowed to do so if your life is at risk.

Reading is no substitute for training and experience. If you dare to take up the blade, find a trainer and prepare for the worst. Study the human anatomy and psychology, understand the strengths and weaknesses of the blade, and be ready for a whirling maelstorm of steel and blood.

Further Reading

This is only a basic overview. There is much not covered here: psychology, anatomy, tactics, critical skills. For more information, please see below.

Other noteworthy instructors include Doug Mercaida, Terry Trahan, James A. Keating, Ed Calderon and Raymond Floro.

The Price of Iron

If you wish to get stronger through the gym or the blade, the iron will demand its due.

It is inevitable. You must take every precaution you can to avoid unnecessary injuries, but if you want to grow you have to operate at the furthest reaches of your capability. You need to test and push your limits. Inevitably, error creeps in, muscles fail, and the iron bites.

I’ve practiced martial arts for the past three years. Followed a semiregular gym routine for the past five months. I’ve experienced blisters, blisters upon blisters, and calluses ripping off to expose naked flesh and nerves. I’ve been struck in the head, legs, fingers, wrist and groin more times than I cared for. I’ve bled upon my training grounds and my tools. As I type this freshly-torn skin on my left hand continues to remind me of its presence, as do the patches of battered flesh on my other right hand.

Pain for most people is one-dimensional. A tactile sensation, no more. For me, it combines with synaesthesia, flashing into two or three. The pain in my left palm is a curvy yellow lump, distant but insistent. When I touch my protocalluses, they are bubbles of white. I’ve experienced red pain, hot and, furious radiating down my limbs, cooling into gold and white as it poured out my fingertips and tongue. I’ve had pain that manifests as a solid white wall of sharp icy edges tearing into my brain, slamming into the entirety of my being, overriding sight and sound, smell and touch.

And compared to the other martial artists and warriors I’ve studied, this is nothing.

The iron is a cruel and uncaring teacher, but through pain it transforms you. To grow muscles, you must first tear them down with heavy labour. Repeated rough trauma hardens and toughens soft skin. Through familiarity with pain, the body learns its limits and the mind understands that an undefeated will can overcome pain. Endurance is developed through pushing through in spite of non-debilitating pain. If you are still functional, if nothing is broken or deranged or bleeding profusely, you are still good to go. When you are accustomed to minor hurts, you can face future ones with a smile and a laugh; when other pains come upon you, be they heartbreak or offense or rage or sorrow, you know in your bones that you have endured similar hurts and mastered heavier iron, and you can endure these too. And when the pains of training grow lesser, you know you are harder — and ready to take on greater weight.

But pain is not an excuse for self-destruction. It is a call for self-awareness. When training you have to be mindful of your movements and your capabilities. If you do not train with proper form, agony awaits. If you dare the iron more than your body can take, it will smash you. In the gym, this means pinched nerves, blown backs, broken bones. On the field, sticks and fists will find unprotected joints and flesh. On the street, you will to the hospital or the morgue. Sharp or throbbing pain is a sign that you’re doing something wrong. A sudden loss of sensation is a symptom of impending injury. Pain in your bones or joints and loss of range of movement requires immediate attention. In the gym, if you hit the weights with bad form you will hurt yourself; if you dare weights heavier than your body can handle, you will hurt yourself even more. If you keep getting hit during training, you must re-examine your defence and your footwork. If you do not correct your mistakes, you will destroy yourself.

The iron does not care about you. Only you can take care of yourself.

The iron is a harsh teacher, and its price is pain. Through the pain you become harder, tougher, stronger, more like iron in mind and body, better able to cope with the wounds and insults of life. The pain also teaches moderation and awareness, demanding you to perfect your form, keep yourself healthy and do only what you are capable of. If you want to grow stronger, more capable, better able to take the slings and arrows of life and return the favour tenfold, then pay the price of iron and be transformed.

Take Back Your Mind

The world is filled with noise. Talking heads spewing propaganda disguised as news. Clickbait sites screaming for attention. Outrage mongers twisting your heart to become more like theirs. A never-ending stream of pop-ups and notifications and messages, all urgent, all demanding your time and energy. In the face of such madness, there is only one thing to do.

Take back your mind.

The Art of Stillness

Digital noise is like a tempest, blowing your spirit one way, then another. It wears you out, scrapes down your soul, leaving you with nothing. A steady diet of clickbait grinds down your ability to focus, to read, to think deeply. It short-circuits your brain, triggering your amygdala instead of your neocortex. Instead of embracing the rationality that is the birthright of all humanity, it leaves you mired in a cesspool of anger, fear, sorrow, outrage, a whirlpool of negative emotions like a tribe of ever-chattering monkeys.

The antidote is stillness.

Silence the monkey mind. Let no thought touch you and no-thought pervade your consciousness. With a still mind and calm heart, the stress of ever-rioting emotions fades away. Here, you can reclaim your soul and transform your mind into a clear spring. This state of being allows you to immerse yourself fully and deeply in life. With constant practice, you can ease your stress, sleep better, digest well, and move with grace.

There are many ways to meditate. Mine is simple.

Find a secluded time and place where you will not be disturbed for the next ten to thirty minutes. This could be your bedroom, a yard, a park, someplace that is reasonably quiet and free from people. Take no distractions with you: no phone, no computer, no television, nothing.

Sit upright. Spine erect, head upright, hands held upright on your lap. Beginners may choose to sit on a chair or cushion. More advanced practitioners can sit cross-legged on the floor, in the half- or full lotus position. The object is to place yourself in a neutral state that your body can hold for a period of time.

Now, half-close your eyes and breathe into your belly. If you need to, place your hands on your stomach and breathe. On the inhale, your abdomen should expand and your hands move. Breathe gently but smoothly, going as deep as you can go, then just as calmly, breathe out. This is a calm, unhurried motion: there is no need to pant like a dog.

As you breathe, find your rhythm. My preference is to breathe in for four counts, and out for four. Others may prefer different rhythms. Find one that suits you best and keep to it.

And now, just breathe.

Focus on your breath. Be aware of the air rushing through your nostrils, reaching into the depths of your lungs; feel the movement of your diaphragm, the rise and fall of your belly. Should stray thoughts away, return to your breath. There is no forcefulness here, just the deliberate direction of intention. Instead of squashing stray thoughts, focus your attention completely on breathing.

If you find your mind wandering, that’s all right. The objective is to develop mindfulness. By detecting a stray thought, you are cultivating mindfulness. Simply bring yourself back to the neutral state and carry on.

Beginners should try to meditate for five to ten minutes. When you find you can keep a clear mind, expand your practice by a minute. If you can meditate for at least a half hour, you’re well on your way to becoming an advanced practitioner.

You can mark your meditation progress by examining the intensity and volume of your thoughts while meditating. The softer and more indistinct they become, the better.

In the beginning, your thoughts might sound like this: Bread milk eggs is the kettle on boil i need to answer an email wonder whats for lunch work is…

Later, they may go: Bread…eggs…kettle boil…answer mail…lunch…

With consistent practice, they become increasingly muted: Bread…mail..work…

At more advanced levels, all you’ll feel is the impression of a thought, the incoherent firing of random neurons. It may feel like this: ?

When you are ready, all you will sense is this: …

When you have reached that state of emptiness, grow your capacity to meditate.

The Wakeful Mind

In the waking world, strive to hold that clear state wherever you can. It won’t be easy, of course, or desirable. There are plenty of activities that require you to think. But what you should strive for is the conscious direction of intent, the same way you consciously focused on breathing and a clear mind.

When thinking through a complicated math problem, this means applying one hundred percent of your thoughts on cracking the equation instead of drifting off into unrelated tangents. When driving, you’re focusing on the wheel, the road and your vehicle instead of a random butterfly. When talking to someone, you’re focusing on what he is saying and how your words affect him. This is the state of the wakeful mind.

Buddhism teaches that there is a gap between the creation of a thought and your perception of it. Meditation teaches you to find it. It is something to be experienced, not read about. Once you find that gap, you are better able to respond appropriately instead of reacting unthinkingly. If someone bumps into you by accident, this allows you to smile and shrug it off instead of flying into a furious rage.

At a higher level, you may find your thoughts circulating around fixed themes and ideas. No matter how you try, these ideas colour the way you think about something. This could be things like “I am ugly” or “I am a victim”. These thoughts come up again and again everywhere you go.

These sticky thoughts are attachments. They stir up your emotions, making you feel a certain way. Every time you touch it, you will get the same emotional response. Such thoughts prevent you from fully living in the moment. Here, apply meditation to dissolve these thoughts. Calmly examine these thoughts, digging deeper as you go. If you mind that these thoughts are baseless, apply the same mind-clearing process to dissolve them. If these thoughts are not without merit, you can reframe them.

For example, someone may think “I am fat”. If an examination in the mirror and weighing scale reveals a perfectly healthy body, then the thought is obviously a delusion and can be released. If evidence suggests otherwise, the thought can be reframed as as a catalyst for action: “I am fat now and I do not like it. I will find a gym and sign up for personal training.” While you don’t need to be a meditator to do this, meditation makes it easier.

In a meditative state, there are no positive or negative emotions. Only a calmness as serene as a peaceful lake. In this state of perfect serenity and awareness, you can act without hesitation, without mental roadblocks, without fear. This is the state of a wakeful mind.

Feeling emotions is not wrong. Every normal and healthy person will feel emotion. You should neither shun negative emotions like anger, fear or sorrow; nor should you flee from positive ones like happiness, joy or pleasure. By sealing off emotions you seal off your heart to life, the opposite of what we want to accomplish. What you want to do is simply feel them in the entirety and let them go when the moment passes.

Emotions should come and go like a meditative breath. They should be experienced fully, then released completely. Imagine yourself to be a cup. A steam of emotions pours in, filling it to the brim. So long as it is full, it cannot hold more or different liquids. Empty the cup of your heart like you empty your lungs; let your breath carry out the emotion from the world. Holding on to emotions means holding on to something longer than is appropriate, leading you to self-harm.

Emotions are like snowballs. Small ones can pile up into an unstoppable avalanche. Here is a story about a famous warrior chief who decided to feed a flock of birds. As he scattered grains among them, he noticed that the grains were like the farms of a valley downstream of his village. Farms in lands he had taken from his former enemies as spoils of war. His enemies must surely be eager to take them back. He had to stop them! He must! So he gathered his men and marched to war.

This applies equally to positive emotions too. A woman decided she would never feel sad or depressed again. She went out with her friends, going to clubs and parties all the time. But she was never satisfied, graduating to drinking parties, hard drugs and one-night-stands with random men. She’s trying to numb herself by chasing highs, but all she’s doing is spiralling into self-destruction. This is the story of Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High).

Thoughts control emotions. A wakeful mind can sever emotional attachments, preventing the avalanche before it begins.

(I should point out at this stage that meditation is not a replacement for psychiatric treatment. People with mental health issues should seek help from a professional instead of attempting to self-medicate with meditation.)

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to meditate. Some traditions use extensive visualisation exercises, taking the meditator on a journey to the inside of their minds. In analytical meditation, one attempts to investigate a topic deeply with the power of a focused mind. Another practice requires you to observe the flow of your thoughts as they wander in your head. Yoga and qigong demand absolute focus, calmness and relaxation, like meditation in motion.

Find the method that works for you. There is a plethora of benefits associated with meditation that make the time worth it. To start, all you have to do is dedicate five minutes a day, every day, just for conscious breathing. This is only one-third of one percent of your day — and the payoff is spectacular.

For further reading, please see the following links: