Martial Mastery: From the Fundamentals to the Complex

 

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Ikken hissatsu. One strike, sure kill.

It is the standard karate practitioners aspire to: to finish the fight in a single blow. Combative oriented martial arts echo this principle. Jeet Kune Do aims to swiftly end fights with decisive strikes. Self-defence instructors advise students to defeat an attacker with three moves or three seconds. In Filipino Martial Arts, when weapons are in play, combat can be decided with a single stroke.

In movies, television and video games you’ll see plenty of flashy techniques and drawn-out action scenes. During live demonstrations and exhibitions, performers will roll out complex and fancy kata. It may look beautiful, but it is not combat. It captures the artistic side of the discipline, but not the martial component.

If you train for real world applications, then you must align your training methodology with reality. Under the stress of a life-or-death encounter a cocktail of hormones will flood your bloodstream. You’ll gain strength and endurance and pain resistance, but you’ll lose the fine motor control needed for flashy stunts. You won’t rise to the occasion; you’ll fall to the level of your training. And the longer the fight drags on, the more opportunities the bad guy(s) will have to harm you and your loved ones. Thus, your number one priority is to end the fight now.

You don’t need a thousand techniques. You don’t need to memorise entire catalogs of kata. You don’t need to know how to do two-man drills blindfolded. What you do need is a toolbox of high-percentage techniques that cover the scenarios you’ll reasonably expect to find yourself in.

And these high-percentage techniques tend to be the basics.

The Hidden Complexities of Basic Techniques

Basics look boring. These are simple, uncomplicated moves that old, slow grandmothers can do with their eyes closed. It’s tempting to skip them and go straight to the fun stuff. But these moves are basic for a reason: they are the base upon which you build true martial skills. And the truth is, basic techniques are anything but.

A staple technique in Filipino martial arts is the number 1 strike. This is a diagonal forehand shot aimed at the opponent’s temple or neck and bisects him clean to the hip. It looks simple. It is simple. But to do it right, you need to understand the following:

  • Targeting
  • Footwork
  • Hip twist
  • Shoulder whirl
  • Elbow drop
  • Wrist alignment
  • Grip control
  • Range
  • Timing
  • Recycle

For this one technique to work, these eight elements (and more) have to be tightly integrated into a single fluid motion. Beyond that, you need to know a host of other things: how to avoid feeding your hand to the enemy, how the length of your weapon affects your footwork, how to adjust for a moving target, how to extend or contract your arm to suit different ranges, how to step and strike simultaneously, how to conceal your intent until the last moment, how to whip your arm if you’re striking, how to follow through if you’re slashing…

If you break down a single technique into the parts that make it work, you’ll find that you need to understand and internalise a huge array of concepts before you can perfectly execute it. Perfecting even a basic technique will take countless hours of sweat and hard work. Not because the technique is difficult — the number 1 strike is a gross motor technique and easily to remember — but because to get the most out of that technique you must be able to integrate all these principles into a single fluid motion. Hard enough to do when training; now imagine doing it when you’re facing a maddened terrorist with steel in his hand and murder in his heart charging at you while screaming “Allahu Akhbar!

Basic techniques aren’t basic just because they are simple. They are basic because they contain the base principles upon which the entire martial art is built. The principles I described above apply to every slash in every flavour of FMA out there. The body mechanics are the same, the considerations of range and timing are the same, the way the weapon and the target influences the angle is the same, the only real difference is the direction the strike comes from.

To master the art, you have to master the principles.

It’s not easy. With so many things to integrate, it becomes extremely easy to mess something up under stress. During my last training session, we did basic knife drills. A response to a low line thrust and a response to a horizontal thrust. They looked simple enough, but when we flowed at speed, everything broke down. Footwork became clumsy. Angles got confused. Suboptimal responses came out. More than a few times a stab or slash broke through. And it wasn’t even close to the speed of a true lethal force encounter.

Basics aren’t simple. For the basics to work you need to put together a vast array of seemingly disparate concepts. With the basics being so complex already, why make your life more difficult by jumping to the advanced stuff?

And, more to the point, there is no need to.

Martial Simplexity

The foundational skills are the building blocks for more advanced techniques. A thorough understanding of the basics gives you the keys to understand more sophisticated concepts, and build a toolbox of techniques that you can call your own.

In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, the forewall is the last-ditch block. You turn into an incoming strike, meeting the blow with your weapon and reinforcing your primary hand with your secondary hand. It is a basic technique, easy to remember under stress. The only major consideration is that if you have a sword, you should meet the enemy’s weapon with the flat of your blade to preserve the cutting edge. After you defend against the opponent’s attack, you dash in for the counter–perhaps a basic number one strike. To augment a forewall, step into the enemy. This shortens the distance between you and him, allowing you to absorb the shock of impact on the strong of your weapon (i.e. the lower half) and reducing the time you need for your counter.

This is a basic technique, but if you enemy has fast reflexes or anticipates the counter, he’ll just block or evade your counterattack and you’ll be back where you started.

Now suppose, when your weapons contact, you slide your secondary hand across your primary and check your opponent’s wrist. Then slide in with a cut from six o’clock to twelve o’clock, slashing up through his groin. With your blade now pointing at his neck, if he’s still standing, you can step in and thrust deep into his throat for the finish.

The check clears a line of attack and delays the enemy for a split second, long enough for your counter. As the groin slash comes from below his cone of vision, he isn’t likely to see it coming until it’s too late, and the arc of the slash chambers your weapon for the throat thrust if needed.

If you break these motions down into individual steps, you’ll see that they are all basic techniques. The forewall is the same, just with a slight modification. The slash is basic, and so is the thrust. But the application requires an understanding of range, timing and footwork, foundational skills which are less easily learned.

Now let’s say you get lucky. You step into the attack with your forewall, and you grab the opponent’s thumb. With your hands still crossed, swing your arms anticlockwise and turn the hand palm-up. Done properly, this would break his structure, weaken his grip and strip his weapon. If he hasn’t dropped his weapon yet, snap your primary arm to the side to disarm him. Then finish him as you please.

Every movement is still basic, but now everything must be perfect. You must land the forewall at the perfect distance to allow the grab. Your gripping hand must be dead on target, or you will either grab air or a live weapon. The wrenching motion must be swift and decisive. When you perform the disarm, it’s the same mechanic as a horizontal slash, but if the enemy has a sword you must present your arm to the flat or you will cut yourself. You must also send the weapon flying in a clear direction or send it straight down into clear space, lest you hurt yourself or an innocent person nearby. And the entire sequence must be performed so fast, the enemy must be disarmed before he realises what’s going on.

This is not a high-percentage move. FMA masters note that the best way to disarm someone is to dis-arm him: to destroy the offending limb. But if you are supremely skilled, if the stars align, if you have the opportunity to do it… Execute at your own risk.

Once you understand the basic principles, you can pull off some pretty cool moves. But you can only reliably execute these cool moves if you are intimately familiar with the principles that make them work.

Returning to the Beginning

My training purposes have remained the same: self-defence, research and health in that order. I would like to be able to defend myself against aggressors. I would like the knowledge needed to credibly write protagonists skilled at martial arts. I would like to keep fit above and beyond my regular gym sessions.

The advanced stuff sure is pretty, but in sparring and high-speed flow drills, I find myself reverting to the basics again and again. No flashy disarms, no eight-strike combos, just techniques easily remembered under stress. Even so, execution isn’t always perfect. And that’s okay; it just means there’s always room to grow. Basic techniques are complicated enough as is; there’s no need to make things even more difficult by adding additional complexity when the body isn’t ready for it. My current training goal is to grasp the foundational skills of my chosen art. It’s going to take a while, but that’s okay.

The basics will save your life. Everything beyond that is a bonus.

The Unnatural World

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The modern world is unnatural. Edifices of stone and steel and glass and concrete surround us. Electricity comes with the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a tap. Food is superabundant, and the only predators we need fear are human. Everywhere safety is engineered into every facet of daily living.

Life is good. Life is safe. Life is convenient. But it is unnatural.

You are a human. You are biologically engineered to survive the harshest of terrain on Earth. Your ancestors walked the savannahs of Africa, the plains of Europe, the jungles of Asia, the deserts of Arabia. You were designed to resist disease and starvation and injury. Your brains gave you the smarts to live the life you are living now. But this life, this modern world, stay in it too long and it rots your brain and entropies your ability to live as your body calls you to do.

Reclaim your humanity.

Embrace Discomfort

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Walk proudly under the sun and bathe in its heat and light. Saunter through a storm, feel the rain on your skin, hear the crash of thunder and track the flash of lightning bolts. Seek regular, hard physical exertion; measure your labours by the pounding of your heart, the rivulets of your sweat, the fatigue in your muscles, and your ability to push beyond and achieve greater heights. Make your personal records a point of personal pride.

Fast wisely and intermittently, and feel your senses sharpen with hunger. You won’t start melting the moment you cease supplying yourself with nutrients. Cut off everything that harms you. Eat only enough to give you strength, shun all foods laden with sugar and hidden calories, and refuse to eat when you are full. Gird yourself against the inevitable social pressure to eat and eat and eat: you are a human, not a goose to be stuffed for foie gras. Develop a nutrition plan, be aware of what passes between your lips, and cease consumption when you’ve hit your goals.

Take cold showers. Sleep without temperature control. Skip unnecessary suppers and desserts and tea breaks. Do not chase the taste of good food, the feel of luxury fabrics, the ease of sedentary living. Take softness and hardness, heat and cold, dryness and humidity, when they come with equal indifference; treat them as forces to be adapted to, not fodder for complaints and grumbles. Whenever the world tempts you to overindulgence, smile and say no. The world cares nothing for your wants and needs; every so often remind your body that you, too, can throw back at the world everything it throws at you.

The Green and the Blue

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Strike for the forgotten corners of the Earth. Seek the places where the green of the Earth marries the blue of the sky. Witness nature first hand and remember when you were a hairless ape. Observe the frolicking of animals and wonder at their instincts, their rituals, their behaviours, their societies. Notice how they interact with other species despite the lack of a common language. Study them at life and play, and wonder how you can return to that state of innocence.

Climb a hill and feel the contours of the earth beneath your feet, the wind in your hair, the sun in your face. Remember and reconnect with the world that made you. This is the world you evolved to live in, not the four corners of a dreary cubicle or the air-conditioned sterility of a modern home.

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Stand before a cliff and study the patterns of erosion and plant growth. Before you is the story of a billion years. Cast your mind through time and visualise the forces of erosion, propagation, climate and rainfall combining to sculpt the rock. Before them, what are you? If even the hardest and most enduring rock can change before the inexorable might of time, how can you avoid change? How can you not be shaped by time? All you can do is recognise it when it comes, and shape your evolution to reveal your truest and innermost self.

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On spoiled beaches observe the infinite variations of waves crashing against the shore. In flooded pits and holes spot the hidden contours of the world and reconstruct the natural rhythms that created them, and the face of the world to come. Know that the litter you leave behind lasts for tens or hundreds of years, but the ocean has been here for millennia and will last for millennia to come. Recognise that the world is greater and older and more powerful than you, and recalibrate your mind to embrace the vastness of reality.

You are but one human striding across the face of this world. You are but a dewdrop in the face of four and a half billion years. You are indivisible yet interdependent, an actor yet acted upon. Have you honoured your body and tempered it to face the realities of a world indifferent to your wants and needs? What role do you play among your family, your tribe, your groups, your nation? What came before you to place you where you are, and what will come after your role has ended?

Depart the unnatural world for the natural, if only for a while, and remember who you are and where you stand in the great dance of eternity.

How I Deadlifted Twice My Bodyweight in Half a Year

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Having done all manner of bodyweight exercises for the past eight years, I wanted to try something new. My gains had tapered off, and doing more of the same wouldn’t help. I decided to sign up for a gym and try weightlifting. My plan was to run StrongLifts 5×5 and see where it took me.

That plan was scuttled on Day One.

The StrongLifts program requires power racks and barbells. Every time I entered the gym, every rack and barbell would be in use. There would always be someone else waiting in line to use them.

I had to make do with what was left.

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

I took stock of the situation. The other gym goers didn’t just take the racks and bars. They grabbed the benches and occupied the machines. Without fail, there would always be people on the equipment, and more people waiting for their turn. The one thing I could count on to be reliably available were the fixed barbells.

Fixed bars became the foundation of my new program. My goal was simple: gain muscle by lifting heavy. I wanted to go for big compound lifts: I only had between 45 minutes to an hour at the gym, so I had to maximise efficiency. I played around with the lifts for a while, eventually settling on squats, bent over barbell rows, clean and press, and of course, deadlifts.

I started with 30 kilos. Lift five reps, rest, then lift again. I did one exercise at a time, moving on only when I completed my five sets. I timed each rest session for twenty deep breaths, longer I needed it, shorter if I could get away with it. As it transpired, 30 kg was the bare minimum I could do. Coming to the end of the workout, I couldn’t even hit five complete sets. The day after I completed a proper workout, I awoke stiff and sore everywhere.

But it was progress.

The plan was to work out three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The rest of the week was for recovery and light workouts. At that time, rest was absolutely critical: my body just wouldn’t handle heavy exercises two days in a row.

My initial goal was to hit five sets of five reps of 30 kilos for all four exercises. With each session, I aimed to lift more reps than the last. If I could only do three sets of five reps the last time around, then I aimed to do three sets of five reps, plus one more rep. I built on that foundation, steadily working my way up to 5×5. If I couldn’t meet the day’s objective of lifting more reps, that was fine: I stuck to the old number and kept trying until I could. Within the first month, I had hit my target.

StrongLift’s approach of five sets of five reps of ever-increasing weight sounded good, but since I couldn’t count on the bars and adjustable weights being available, I had to be very careful about increasing weight. The fixed bars came in increments of ten kilos. Not insurmountable — it just required care.

After clearing 5×5 of 30kg, I picked up the 40kg barbell. It was noticeably heavier than the previous weight, but I was committed. I began with the modest goal of three sets of five reps. The extra weight piled on me fast: rest breaks took longer, and near the end I could barely squeeze out that many reps. The following day, the aching muscles returned.

I decided I would stick to my original goal of 3×5 until I could lift the bar with good form. No failed weight, no stumbling, no loss of balance, just good clean lifts. When I met that goal, I slowly worked my way up to 5×5. I spent a week doing 5×5 of 40kg, ensuring I could take the strain, before moving on to 3×3 of 50 kg and working up again.

Every increment is a new challenge. At lighter weights you might be able to muscle your way through. But at heavier loads, you have to start paying attention to form, or you will develop debilitating injuries. More than a few times I had to scale back to a lower weight or stick to smaller sets until I was ready. I learned to listen to my body, to pay attention to how I reacted to weight, and adjust accordingly. When in doubt, I fell back on lighter loads and lower reps: a man can always try for heavier weights at a later date, but he can’t recover so quickly from torn tendons, crushed bones or blown joints.

Do the Work, But Don’t Be An Idiot

No matter how busy I was, I made time for the gym. The weather didn’t matter, the time didn’t matter, how tired I was didn’t matter, I showed up and did the work three times a week.

If I showed up late, I adapted. If I was really tired and I couldn’t lift big, I toned it down. If I had something to do on a regularly scheduled gym day that I could not avoid, I made certain to show up on the following day. No excuses, no whining, just show up and do the work.

That is the secret to success in everything you do. You have to keep working at it, and keep getting better. You will always be tempted to slack off. Know that to succumb to temptation is to sabotage yourself. Be it writing, martial arts, gym or whatever else you do, if you want to get good at it, you have to show up and do the work.

Of course, the flipside is that you shouldn’t be an idiot.

If you’re struggling to finish a rep, you shouldn’t recklessly muscle through it if it means compromising your form. You’re there to get stronger, not to risk injury. If you’re sick, you shouldn’t show up. Working hard will only delay the recovery process, and it is rude to pass on your disease. Two months ago, I was bedridden with severe conjunctivitis for almost a week. I couldn’t even exercise: trying to run, jump, do push-ups or other activities drove up the blood pressure in my eyes, leading to throbbing aches. I simply rested until I had recovered. When I returned to the gym, I started off light, then worked my way back up.

Work hard. Give yourself no excuses to slack off. But respect your physical limits and stay safe and healthy. You’re going to the gym to get stronger, not to give yourself lifelong injuries.

Building Back Up

The iron tears your muscles down. Rest and nutrition build them up stronger than before.

I can’t advise anyone on pre-workout supplements, protein shakes or sports drinks. I’m allergic to everything on the market. I had to figure out nutrition the old-fashioned way: clean eating.

There are plenty of formulae and guidelines out there to calculate your optimal nutrient intake. The general principle is to consume plenty of protein and nutrients, moderate your carbohydrate intake, and have more saturated fat. Thanks to my dietary restrictions I’m practically forced to eat clean anyway. The one major change I made was to reduce rice and other sources of empty carbohydrates, and substitute them with chicken, tuna, eggs, and huge amounts of vegetables.

My current diet revolves around oats, white rice, white meat, eggs, the occasional fruit, pork and mutton where possible, and all the vegetables I’m not allergic to. I don’t presently have the time or inclination to measure every little gram of nutrient that goes into my diet. I just make sure that at least two-thirds of what I eat every day contains vegetables and protein, and the rest takes care of itself.

My hydration plan is equally simple: lots of water every day. Tea if the occasion calls for it, fruit juice if it’s available, but absolutely no soft drinks and coffee. This is less a lifestyle choice than a dietary requirement, but I have no issues with it. The body, after all, is 70 percent water, and you need to keep yourself topped up.

For me, the critical factor was getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is the bane of modern living, and a roadblock to getting stronger. You can’t keep abusing your body and expect it to get better without giving it time to recover. While my current schedule requires a workweek that fluctuates between 50 to 60 hours of work, I still take time out to get at least 7, preferably 8, hours of sleep. It’s not always possible, but I try my best.

Putting Everything Together

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As I grew more comfortable with the iron, I experimented with other exercises and inserted other workouts: pre- and post-workout jogs, dumbbells, variations of my preferred lifts, other lifts, heavy bag work. I mixed and matched to meet my schedule, sticking to my core lifts and keeping track of my performance. I keep my workouts between 45 minutes to an hour long, but every now and then I test myself by going the distance, stretching to 75 minutes by incorporating additional cardio work.

In addition to gym time, I did other exercises. Filipino martial arts, minimum of two hours a week. Yoga, at least once a week. High Intensity Interval Training, on occasion or when pressed for time. With my Individual Physical Proficiency Test (Army fitness test) coming up, I swapped out one gym session a week to train specifically for the IPPT events.

Put everything together, and in the past half year, I gained 3 kilograms of muscle, going from 57 to 60 kg. For my last gym session, I did the following:

  • 3 sets of 6 dips
  • 5 and a half minute run at 13 km/h
  • 1 set of 15 reps of deadlifts, bent barbell rows, clean and press, and squats with 40 kg barbell
  • 1 set of 5 reps of clean and press with 80 kg barbell
  • 4 sets of 5 reps of bent barbell rows and squats with 80 kg barbell
  • 1 set of 5 reps of deadlifts with 110 kg barbell

In half a year of training, I deadlifted almost twice my bodyweight…at the end of a grueling workout.

This program is not and cannot be for everyone. I started with a baseline of physical fitness, having spent 8 years doing bodyweight exercises and 2 and a half years of martial arts training. Absolute newbies might have to go at a slower pace. I’m also certain there are other ways to optimise this program: split training, precise nutrition intake, more rest. On the whole, though, I’ve achieved what I set out to do: get stronger fast. Since the gym doesn’t offer anything heavier than 110 kg fixed barbells, I imagine I shall have to find a different goal soon.

Discipline, body awareness, and exercise and recovery plans. These were the tools I brought to the gym. Going forward, I intend to continue to employ these tools to meet new challenges. Regardless of how fit you are now, these tools can help you get stronger, fitter and healthier. If your goal is to get stronger, then make a plan, work the plan, and hit the iron.

Anime Analysis: GATE – Thus the JSDF Fought There!

 

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GATE – Thus the JSDF Fought There had all the ingredients for awesomeness: modern military technology, high fantasy setting, magic, politics, war.

And squandered everything.

The anime started promisingly enough. A mysterious gateway opens in Ginza. An army of legionnaires, orcs and dragons pours out. The Japanese Self Defense Force responds decisively, defeating the invasion. The government declares the region beyond the Gate the Special Region, and sends the JSDF to explore the world that lies beyond the gate. The Japanese encounter the Romanesque Empire, setting the stage for a

Then it fell flat on its face.

I wanted to like the anime. But shortly after beginning the series, I couldn’t muster the interest to watch it regularly. I couldn’t bear to watch more than one episode at a time, and as the story progressed I found myself reaching for books instead of following the story. I was, quite simply, bored. And here is why.

Itami Youji is Boring

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Slacker.

Second (later First) Lieutenant Itami Youji’s claim is the very model of a modern major otaku. He is a slacker, obsessed with his hobbies, and has a penchant for being extremely friendly with his male subordinates.

He is also Ranger-qualified and a trained Special Forces operator.

First reaction:

It’s hard to believe that Itami has what it takes to be a Ranger or an S. These individuals are unmistakable. SOF selection screens for people with specific traits. As described by SOFREP, among these traits are stress resistance, extreme competitiveness, self-reliance, self-criticism and stoicism. Other traits include confidence, adaptability, resilience, and others useful to their mission set.

Itami is a slacker and a coward who runs away from tough assignments and difficult emotional decisions. He doesn’t show any particular tactical acumen, and in fact allows his subordinates to endanger each other (more on that later). He doesn’t pick up on his inter-team friction or the dynamics of the girls surrounding him. He isn’t seen training as hard as an SOF-qualified soldier would. He doesn’t demonstrate the hyper-competitiveness, self-motivation or stoicism needed for long-term operations. He has heart and treats the people of the Special Region with compassion, and occasionally demonstrates a grasp of politics and insight, but otherwise there is nothing that marks him as an SOF-trained soldier. In his own words, he’s a soldier only because he wants money to support his hobbies. (And, really, there are better and safer ways to do that.)

The key issue is that Itami is an otaku first and an S second. Itami perfectly fits the otaku stereotype, except that he is a bit more social and happens to be a soldier. He is a Potato Protagonist, allowing the otaku in the audience to insert themselves into his shoes. Itami is an S only because the creators needed to justify how he has the skills he displayed in the series — and to create the fantasy that otaku can also be heroes. The creators of the franchise elected to pander to the audience, and in doing so created a dull and unbelievable character.

What they should have done is to make him an S first and an otaku second. They should have either explained why he’s with a conventional unit, or made him an S performing special missions inside the Special Region. By giving Itami the character traits of a special operator, he would immediately stand out from the other generic protagonists that populate Japanese media. Making him an otaku would be the icing on the cake: nobody really expects an S to be an otaku, but since everybody needs hobbies, this little detail would humanise him.

Itami the S could have been amazing. Itami the otaku is flat.

So is his harem.

The Harem is Boring

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10000% zanier than their actual portrayal.

For a harem series to work, every female in the harem has to leave an impact on the other characters and on the world. Their characters need to be memorable, their interactions hilarious, and their presence significant. If a harem character doesn’t leave a mark on the world, and thus on the viewer, she is a flat character and can be erased. When everyone in the harem fails to leave an impact, the story has failed.

Lelei La Lalena is a 15-year-old sorceress with a knack for learning and for magic. She is among the first named characters from the Special Region to become fluent in Japanese, and to apply modern scientific principles to her studies. She could have been a major player in shaping the world beyond the Gate. However, she spends most of the anime as an interpreter and casts the odd sleep spell. While interpreters serve a vital role, they do not merely translate: they explain and smooth over cultural differences, facilitate transactions, develop a network of vital contacts and help both parties get what they want. Lelei does none of this. Likewise, in the major combat scenes, Lelei doesn’t provide magical support until the plot demands it. (Which is another knock against Itami: an S would want to know what the people under his command can do, and deploy them appropriately.) Aside from translating conversations, Lelei leaves little impact on most of the anime.

Rory Mercury is an immortal demigoddess with the body of a 13-year old and carries a massive halberd. She has a penchant for gothic lolita wear, and is inexplicably attracted to Itami. She is allegedly the Apostle of the war god Emroy, but she serves no religious functions or duties in-story. Rory is seen slaughtering soldiers of the Empire, but nobody contemplates the full implications of an Apostle of Emroy siding with the JSDF. There is no discussion of how, exactly, she became an Apostle. Aside from fanservice moments, Rory doesn’t add much to the story.

Tuka Luna Marceau is a High Elf who happens to be the Team Load. Prowess in archery aside, her sole contribution to the story is her mental breakdown and subsequent treatment of Itami as her father. This catalyses the Fire Dragon arc. Otherwise, she essentially fades into the background for most of the story.

Yao is a Dark Elf who is the other catalyst of the Fire Dragon arc. Other than being marginally less incompetent than Tuka, she leaves little impression. Which is a shame. She was chosen by her people to recruit the JSDF to destroy the dragon, and demonstrated some ability in psychological manipulation to force Itami to come to her aid. But after the arc is complete, that part of her personality goes out the window and she becomes Generic Battle Harem member #1847.

None of the harem members in GATE have a sense of personality or history, none of them employ their full range of skills, and indeed none of them serve any major purpose other than fanservice. While an action-oriented story with poor characters can be salvaged if the action makes sense, the action also fails.

Action Scenes are Boring

The signature of GATE is the clash between a modern military and a fantasy Roman Empire. Every major combat scene ends in a curbstomp — but the curbstomps are unsatisfying to the educated viewer.

Observe the following scene.

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It’s one thing for an immortal demigoddess to recklessly enter the fray. It’s quite another for a mere human to do so.

The JSDF’s chief advantage is their technology. If Itami were an S, he’d immediately understand that the best tactic is to maintain distance and gun down the attackers. Instead, he allows Kuribayashi to perform a suicide charge on the enemy with her bayonet.

And somehow, she wins.

Modern infantry barely spend time training for close combat. They have to be proficient in an array of skills, such as marksmanship, signals or first aid, and martial arts is the least important among them. The primary purpose of bayonet and martial arts training for line infantry is to develop aggression. After basic training, bayonets in most militaries are kept permanently scabbarded. For regular troops, the utility of hand-to-hand training lies in capturing people when it is too inconvenient to kill them, or to fight off a close-range ambush. Kuribayashi is a recon trooper: her training would be focused on reconnaissance and breaking contact. She isn’t an SOF type who may have to eliminate threats in close quarters, so she wouldn’t receive the kind intensive training needed to become a true human weapon.

Contrast this with the brigands. They are deserters of the Imperial army, which are based on the Roman legions. They would have spent their entire careers training to fight in close quarters in tight formation. Team tactics and melee combat would be second nature to them. They may not know what a rifle is, but with a bayonet a rifle resembles a spear, and these brigands would know how to handle spears. The enemy would have far more training and experience with melee combat than Kuribayashi would ever have.

Instead of utilising the Japanese firepower advantage, Kobayashi insists on trying to fight the enemy at their own game — in the process entering everybody else’s arcs of fire. This is, again, suicidal: if the JSDF troops needed to bring on the hate, she would be hit in the back.

Warriors fight alone, but soldiers fight in teams. Combined arms, teamwork and discipline are hallmarks of modern small unit tactics. They spell the difference betwene life and death. Kuribayashi’s impulsiveness jeapordised her own survival, and with that the rest of her team, simply to satisfy her ego.

Watch this scene in the Imperial Palace, where you see the same dynamic playing out.

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In both action scenes, when Kuribayashi shows up, the enemy conveniently forgets their armor, their weapons and tactics. Instead of swarming her from all sides, they fight her one-on-one. When the guns come out, the enemies just stand still and let themselves be massacred. They don’t take advantage of reload times and won’t attack until Kuribayashi has finished mounting her bayonet. Kuribayashi, in turn, does the biologically impossible: she is seen bulldozing a massive brigand out of the way, manhandling larger and stronger opponents with single blows, and moving much faster than trained swordsmen who aren’t laden down with gear.

The action scenes are unbelievable because they follow story logic. In stories, you begin with small scenes and build up the intensity to hit the climax. Likewise, the action scenes start with Kuribayashi engaging the enemy in single combat, then escalating into massacres.

In combat, you want to do the opposite. Start with maximum firepower to shock and overwhelm the enemy, then dial down the violence to finish off the survivors. Doing it the other way around, like Itami’s team, would give the enemy time and space to react. Worse, by allowing Rory and/or Kuribayashi to charge ahead of the group, the team is guaranteeing fratricide. Once again, this tells me that Itami is an idiot.

The action scenes are all about Girl Power, undercutting the pseudo-realistic tone the anime is going for. By employing Strong Female Action Characters instead of proper military tactics, the anime continues to pander to the lowest common denominator.

This is a shame, because there is an easy fix to the situation that satisfies both story andmilitary logic.

Start with firepower. Have Itami and the team mow down the enemy with automatic fire. Nonetheless, the enemy continues to hurl themselves at the Japanese, closing in to melee range. They let their rookies and new meat eat the bullets, allowing the veterans to engage the Japanese at their preferred range. The combat quickly descends into a desperate life-or-death struggle at close quarters. Of course, in a realistic setting it means Itami and his team will face the real risk of severe injury or death, and that would be a bit inconvenient.

With his poor tactics and inability to control his subordinate, Itami should have died at the Battle of Italica. His survival tells us something critical: the enemy is incompetent.

The Enemy is Boring

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Overconfident inflexible goons in Roman dress, proudly sponsored by TropeCo

The Empire is supposed to be a powerful human polity whose influence is felt across the Special Region, boasting the most powerful military and richest treasury among the known powers. But their actions tell a different story.

Whenever the Empire encounters the JSDF, they are soundly defeated. Yet the Empire continues to adopt the same strategies and tactics, sending armies to the meatgrinder with hardly an eyeblink. Other factions that know of the JSDF do the same thing, with the same results.

This is the definition of insanity. And incompetence.

The Japanese are not invincible.

Magic is not unknown to the people of the world, so why doesn’t the Empire have magicians? Why aren’t these sorcerers being put to work reinforcing body armor, destroying the JSDF from a distance, studying the Japanese technology or otherwise nullifying their firepower advantage? Since everybody knows you can’t face the JSDF in a stand-up fight, why won’t the Empire send spies, terrorists and assassins to wreak havoc at the Japanese base-cum-refugee camp in Alnus? If regular troops can’t kill dragons easily, why won’t the Empire investigate how to tame them?

Sure, the Emperor is supposed to be arrogant and stubborn, but one does not become an Emperor of a vast Empire by being a military idiot. At the very least, he’d have advisors and generals who would suggest and test other strategems, making full use of the Empire’s resources instead of attempting conventional battle.

This stupidity isn’t limited to the Empire either. When the harem visits Japan, nations jealous of Japan’s access to the Special Region attempt to kidnap the harem. They begin by disrupting the travel schedule, then deploy wetwork teams to kidnap them at a hot spring.

Once again, this sequence follows story logic instead of military logic. In a story you’ll want ominous foreshadowing and brief tastes of the adversary’s power to set the stage. In GATE, the enemy does this by shutting down trains and sending a thief to steal Rory’s halberd. In reality, you do not want the target of a deniable operation to know that you’re coming for him. Demonstrations of power aren’t merely wasted effort; they tell the target that he is on a hitlist. It’s far better to gather in secrecy and strike only when the time is right.

Of course, if GATE did that, it wouldn’t have an excuse to reveal Itami’s ex-wife.

It gets worse. The battle at the hot springs begins with Japanese Special Forces taking out threats with suppressed weapons. But suppressed weapons aren’t whisper-quiet. They eliminate muzzle noise and dampen the report. Threats downrange can still hear you; they just can’t tell where the shots are coming from. The wetwork teams would have heard the gunfire and reacted accordingly. Instead, they continued blundering about in the dark. Later, the survivors run into each other, in the open, in front of the bathhouse, completely violating all military tactics.

They are supposed to be hardened SOF troops, but all I see are rookie airsofters playing with guns.

The adversaries in GATE do not pose any significant threat to the Japanese. Not tactically or strategically. Their sheer ineptitude is the only reason the JSDF is unchallenged and, more to the point, why Itami continues to draw breath.

What Could Have Been

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The greatest knock against GATE is that it could have been awesome.

All the ingredients were in place. An Empire divided between hawks and doves, complicated by the hawks using high magic and low tech to credibly challenge the JSDF, the doves being arrested as traitors, and the fence-sitters wondering how to preserve the Empire. A Japan that has to fend off the ambitions of rival nations and deal with domestic pressure as the casualties mount. Rory Mercury being used by the Japanese for anti-Empire propaganda. The JSDF learning the same lessons the Americans did, that technology is no guarantee of victory. An Imperial Sorcerer Corps and Dragon Force taking to the field in desperate battles against the JSDF, while Imperial spies and terrorists stalk Base Camp Alnus to study the Japanese, steal their weapons, incite the refugees, assassinate their leaders, and poison food and water. The JSDF struggling to adapt to new tactics. Cultural and religious clashes in Camp Alnus flaring into dissatisfaction, resentment and conflict. Lelei saving her people from Imperial conscription. Tuka and Yao trying to convince their respective races to take sides in the war. Itami and his battle harem fighting fires all over the Special Region, utilizing firepower and diplomacy to save the day and bridge both worlds.

The world of GATE was rich with potential, but it was all wasted. Instead of exploring the evolution of war, GATE had simple curbstomps. Magic became a curio. Religions and culture have little bearing until it’s time to trot out the gods. Politics is defined by simple dichotomies of peace/good and war/evil. Action scenes are about Girl Power instead of emphasizing the differences in technology, tactics and procedures.

GATE could have been great. But by pandering to otaku, GATE remarkable only for its fanservice and utter lack of depth.

Hedonism and Its Discontents

Never before in human history have so many entertainments been available to so many. If you can read this article, you have Internet access; with the Internet alone you have access to an unlimited amount of games, movies, videos, music, information, cat pictures and other distractions. The modern world offers even more: hard partying and harder drugs and booze, delicious food everywhere you turn, immersive video games that suck up months and years of your life, sexual licentiousness the likes of which have never been seen before the modern age. It’s so easy to lose yourself in these indulgences, to organise your life around them and make them the cornerstones of your life.

But if you look deeper and set aside what temporary sensory pleasure you may derive from these activities, then what do you see?

Cheap booze and easy sex won’t fill an empty heart.

 

An insatiable black hole that swallows everything that approaches the event horizon. At the singularity it crushes all things to nothingness. The more it consumes, the more it grows, but it does not itself produce anything.

It is nothingness. No light, no hope, no virtue, no product, nothing. It takes everything good and reduces them to nothing.

Is such a life worth living?

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Hedonism requires hard work but its rewards are short-lived. That’s what makes it so insidious and so self-destructive: it creates the perception of earned reward, hooking the hedonist and blinding him to the absence of long-term profit.

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How many times can you look at this before you get bored?

Take game or pick up artistry. It’s a siren song for red-blooded modern men. Build your body and your courage, develop dominance, then go forth and seduce every desirable woman you lay your eyes on. Master the game and you’ll never need to sleep alone again.

Game takes courage, commitment and self-transformation. It demands the player to turn his back on modern notions of masculinity and transform himself into the bravest, strongest, most alpha male he can be. It takes hard work, brutally honest self-assessment and the guts to talk to random strangers on the street. And the reward? Your pick of women.

Your first lay might be memorable. Go into the low double digits and you might even think you’re getting good at it. As the number climbs and climbs you’re seeing hard proof that you have skills. That you’re a player, a PUA, an alpha. You can enjoy no end of short-term flings and no strings attached sex for as long as you want.

And then what?

The notch count is a meaningless tally of empty orgasms and non-relationships. The ability to seduce doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to build lasting relationships. The seduction process takes hours to minutes to talk a stranger into bed,then however long foreplay lasts, culminating in an explosive moment of pleasure. But after that? There is nothing beyond the little death. Just the possibility of the pursuit of a string of minor demises until the rest of your body shuffles off the mortal coil. And what do you have to show for it? What value have you brought to the world?

Nothing.

What about gaming? Spend enough time on Steam and you’ll see reviews from players who have sunk hundreds, even thousands, of hours playing a game. That is weeks, months, even years spent sitting in front of a screen, learning the mechanics and the lore, honing reflexes and mastering controls.

Achieving the acme of skill in gaming demands hard work and sacrifice. It means dropping everything to study the arcana of gaming: damage per second, item drop rate, cooldown period, respawn time, optimal builds. And for what end? To press keys and click buttons and move a funny-shaped gadget to control an imaginary avatar on a flat screen to slay simulacra of enemies over and over and over again.

Sure, gaming has attempted to gain the dignity of competition through esports. But esports competitors are a vanishing fraction of the entire population of gamers, and of those competitors an even smaller few can hope to win an award, never mind make enough money to justify the time and funds spent on gear and training. Rivalry is unbelievably fierce, and the long hours spent sitting down and staring at a screen will take their toll. For everyone else who can’t or won’t be pros, for those who prefer noncompetitive games, what do they get out of spending so much time in front of the screen? When playing there is the adrenaline rush and the dopamine hit — but after? Does shooting up hordes of imaginary robots or laying waste to legions of electronic monsters grant you treasure and prestige in the real world? What is the fruit of sinking days, weeks, months, years in front a screen to tap at mice and keyboards?

Nothing.

Pursuits like these offer rewards in exchange for hard work. It makes you feel like you have accomplished something, but these rewards are momentary and meaningless outside the contexts of these pursuits. Grinding your way to a hundred percent completion and attaining every single achievement within a game may mean something to fellow gamers — but it says nothing about you and your real-world abilities. Having a triple-digit notch count may make you the subject of pride and envy, but it doesn’t make you any more a man than a faithful husband who raised four children alongside his wife and is the pillar of his community.

Hedonism is all about you, but the world is never about you. The fruits of hedonism are fleeting. After a lifetime of these pursuits, when your vigor is spent and your body no longer up to the task, what do you have to show for it? Merely faded memories and the ashes of youth.

The measure of a man is not in the number of women he has slept with, the number of parties he has attended, or however many games he has played. It lies in how much he has given back to his people. Modern civilisation was not created ex nihilo. It requires ongoing work to defend, maintain and expand. It warriors soldiers to man the walls and the gates, architects and labourers for construction and maintenance, parents to raise their children, educators to pass on the flame. If you would enjoy the fruits of civilisation then you must give back to it, lest the fire dies in your lifetime or those of your descendants. And if you would do that, you must be the best person you can be.

Abandon Transience, Seek Transcendence

The pursuit of pleasure does not necessarily lead to contentment. The former is a temporary elevated emotional state, but the latter is a lasting state of mind. Achieving pleasure does not necessarily lead to growth. The former is a temporary elevated emotional state, but the latter is a permanent development of mind, body and spirit. However, one can experience pleasure after having achieved contentment, and one can find pleasure through the hard work of growth. Thus, do not seek empty and transient things, but rather focus on being the best person you can be and making the best possible world for yourself.

You become what you work towards. The more energy and thought you put into something–be it studies, physical exercise or painting–the better you become at it. Instead of spending time and money and energy in pursuit of empty pleasures, invest it in yourself and become the best you can be.

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Be this guy, the guy who trained him, or the guy who crafted the statue.

In the space of an hour you can do many things. Lift iron to exercise your muscles. Read to exercise your brain. Practice a skill or learn a new trade. Meditate or pray to temper your soul. Such activities can be fun in of themselves, but they also make you stronger, faster, smarter, more resilient, and more valuable to your loved ones and your community.

You only have twenty-four hours a day, and you cannot do more than one thing at a time and still experience maximum gains. To be the best person possible you must spend as much time as you can on self-development and minimise time spent on meaningless pursuits.

Every weekday I spend eight hours or so at work, and at least two more on writing. Usually more. Most weekends I’m either writing or doing writing-related business, pulling half- or full days depending on my schedule. Further I train kali at least two hours a week, and work out for an hour at least three times a week — usually more. It’s gruelling, if not downright exhausting, but it has paid off and will continue to pay off into the future.

This is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy yourself. Rather, when you do, do so mindfully, with an eye towards synergizing them with your other efforts. When I play games, watch movies and anime, or read books and manga, I soak in everything — plots, characters, lore, setting, music, visuals, dialogue — and apply these insights to my own work. I developed my style of action writing partly by studying martial arts films and playing games, and replicating the feel of technical accuracy and high velocity on the page.

Going back to the beginning, we now apply mindfulness and synergy to the hedonistic pursuits I have described. There isn’t anything inherently moral or immoral about game: it puts men on the path of self-mastery, confidence and eloquence, which are necessary skills in business, politics and relationships. The techniques a PUA uses to seduce a 9 are often the same techniques a regular man can use to keep the spark going in a long-term relationship and build up to marriage. A one-night stand climaxes in a moment of pleasure and ends in the morning; making love within the framework of a marriage deepens the emotional bonds between husband and wife through shared enjoyment. The outcomes of both paths are different, but they stem from the same foundation.

As for gaming, the obsession needed to master gaming is the same obsession needed to master other crafts. I have already described how I approach gaming: with an eye towards transferability. The focus needed to excel at space simulators like Kerbal Space Program and Children of the Dead Earth is the same focus the next generation of rocket scientists needs to take humanity to the stars — and, as a bonus, these sims can also teach the player real-world physics. I play story- and character-driven games, both to study the craft and to better understand and simulate how different people may or may not react in different contexts in response to different stimuli. For me, gaming is about learning — learning the art of writing and learning the intricacies of the human heart. Once again, the outcomes are different, but the skills are the same.

The differences between hedonism and growth, vainglory and transformation, are intent and outcome. Chasing pleasure for its own sake leads to ruin. Learning specific skills in pursuit of higher, nobler ends produces satisfaction and self-actualization — but only if you get there. If you want to be the best person you can be, if you see libertinism and untrammeled pleasure as the empty promises they truly are, then reject the path of transient pleasures and seek the road of growth and glory.

By pursuing self-mastery and excellence in writing, my latest novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS has been favourably compared to Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series. You can see for yourself on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

How Realistic Should A Story Be?

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On Facebook, indie thriller group Brass Catchers asked the following question:

What may strike me as an offensive oversight of a key feature or fact may not even register on another reader’s radar. So >how much do we authors need to worry about getting every aspect right? Are we actually limiting ourselves by fixating >on minutiae? Is the typical reader willing to forgive such mistakes in the name of verisimilitude and an otherwise >engaging storyline?

These are interesting questions without clear-cut answers. Different readers (and, by extension, media consumers) have different expectations. On one end of the spectrum, you have readers who just don’t care about facts so long as the story is enjoyable. On the other, these readers are extremely demanding and will not forgive the slightest deviation from reality. You can’t possibly write to meet everybody’s expectations.

If a writer prefers to make up Cool Awesome Stuff instead of doing the research, he’s going to appeal to the first crowd, and annoy the second. The novel Brass Catchers uses in their post exemplifies this. If a writer decides instead to produce a work of painstaking accuracy and show his work, the latter might appreciate it, but all that effort will be lost on the former — if not bore them altogether. Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels delve in-depth into sniping, firearms and ammunition, but most of the jargon will be lost on people who do not come from that world.

What writers can do is to write up to the expectations of their intended audience and the conventions of their chosen genre. The market is huge enough that you don’t have to appeal to everyone – you just have to hook the kind of readers you are writing for. But this does mean you need to know who you are writing for.

Thrillers are notorious for requiring painstaking accuracy to establish verisimilitude. A significant number of thriller readers are police officers and soldiers, former or current. For these people, thrillers reflect aspects of lived experience. They know how firearms work, they know tactics, they know the tools of the trade. They know that the slightest mistake will leave people maimed or dead. They have been trained to accept nothing less than one hundred percent factual accuracy, for their lives depend on knowing how to use a tourniquet, how to clear a room, how to adjust for wind drift over distance, and other such arcana. This mindset transfers into everything they do, including how they read stories. They know that people who use tools, tactics, techniques and procedures incorrectly will die — and they don’t care if these ‘people’ happen to be fictitious characters who exist only inside a story. If writers won’t take the effort to ensure their characters will survive, or if the readers sense that these writers are artificially manipulating the environment or enemies to ensure that their characters survive their mistakes, these readers will believe that the writers either don’t care enough to do the research or not skilled enough to write convincing thrillers. Writers who want to write stories set in such unforgiving milieus must steel themselves to be as conscientious and accurate as their intended audience.

The same expectations apply to historical fiction. People who enjoy historical fiction are likely themselves students of history. They would have immersed themselves in the culture of their favourite time periods, investing time and money into learning everything there is to know about those eras. It may not be lived experience — save for historical reenactors — but these readers will be aware of established facts. Fiction that contravenes these facts through accident or negligence will not resonate with such readers, because the writers have shown that they do not embody the same dedication to historical accuracy as the readers.

While thrillers and historical fiction demand painstaking attention to detail and vast amounts of research, other genres tend to be more forgiving. Romance readers, for example, focus primarily on the romance, while horror readers want to be horrified. Specialist knowledge, such as how firearms work or the proper way to address a high-status lady are not usually important to such stories outside of equally specialist subgenres. These readers would be more likely to forgive such mistakes like taking the safety off a Glock or having a character wear a Colt Single Action Army in a story set in 1870, so long as the rest of the story feels authentic.

Different kinds of readers will have different interests, leading them to focus on different things. Thriller readers pay close attention to tradecraft while romance readers do the same for relationships. Readers are likely to forgive mistakes and fabrications outside their area of interest, but not those within their area of interest.

So what about stories that are not set in the real world?

The Art of Making Up Facts

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Science fiction and fantasy stories are differentiated from other genres by the presence of elements that clearly do not (and may never) exist in the real world, such as ultra-high-technology in the case of sci fi and magic in the case of fantasy. For such genres, writers have to walk the fine line between exercising the imagination and maintaining verisimilitude.

Once again, I think this depends on genre expectations. Or, more precisely, how you want to define your story.

Hard science fiction is defined by adherence to known science. Readers of such fiction may well be scientists themselves. Between genre conventions and reader expectations, writers who want to market their stories as hard sci fi must therefore strive to be as accurate as possible. Indeed, part of the magic of hard science fiction is to how creators can exploit known science to create interesting stories, leading to media like Planetes, Children of a Dead Earth or Corsair.

And yet even hard sci fi is less demanding than thrillers. Readers want the feel of high technology and realism but not necessarily slavish devotion to reality. Even for works lauded as hard sci fi, such as The Expanse or Starship Operators, creators have gotten away with softer science or just making stuff up. For instance, a critical plot sequence in Nemesis Games of the The Expanse series involves terrorists somehow launching swarms of kinetic kill vehicles without anyone noticing, while an episode of Starship Operators involves a showdown with a stealth warship. However, these counterfactual elements will require vast knowledge of niche subjects to detect; for everyday readers and consumers, such subjects do not fall into the category of lived experience of personal research, so they are far more willing to gloss over them — if they are, indeed, aware of such aspects to begin with.

This is not to say that writers shouldn’t do the research, rather that there is simply a bit more wiggle room for stories not set in the present day.

Outside of hard sci fi, factual accuracy matters far less than internal consistency when pertaining to these made-up elements. Readers already know that you are making stuff up, be they nanomachines or fireballs, warp drives or divine arts. They just want these imaginary elements to stay true to the rules established in-story — and for characters and societies to treat these imaginary elements as aspects of their lived experience. So, if magic in a story runs on stored mana and there are people with higher mana than most, than it would naturally lead to the rise of magic users who are defined by their higher-than-average mana and specialisation in magic, and this in turn would organically lead to the rise of magical schools to pass on knowledge and societies to govern the behaviour of such magic users.

However, this rule only applies to imaginary elements. Everything else should still accord with lived experience and known history as far as practical. Thus, you cannot state that Singapore is a part of China, or that a baseline human has four lungs. If a story does require such aspects, then the writer must justify them, placing them firmly in the category of ‘imaginary elements’. Failure to do so makes these elements look like outright mistakes or just plain carelessness, turning off readers who care about such things.

Between Fact and Fiction

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Writers are like alchemists, balancing fact and fiction to create stories that will resonate with their intended audience. Stories with a strong grounding in fact resonate with readers, allowing you to carry them off into your story world. At the very least, stories must accurately depict the quintessence of the genre they fall into: thrillers must reflect tradecraft, romance must reflect relationships, hard science fiction must reflect science. Stories that fail to meet genre conventions and reader expectations will not resonate with the intended audience, and will not be respected.

I think a reasonable standard of realism that will please everyone but the most hardened pro-realism or pro-imagination zealots is to ensure that key story elements should not contradict the targeted readers’ lived experience and known historical facts without justification. Such justification can be as complex as creating entirely new branches of science, or as simple as signalling to the reader that the story is alternate history / science fiction / fantasy or some other genre, depending on the needs of the story and the tastes of the audience. Beyond that, writers are free to exercise their imagination to the fullest.

5 Life Lessons for Autists

I won’t call myself an autist. Not yet. I don’t have a formal diagnosis. Nonetheless, I display many of the classic signs of autism: deficits in speech and communication, repetitive behaviours and rigid rituals, hyper-focus on areas of interest. And the Big Three: poor verbal and non-verbal communication skills, impaired social skills, hyper-reactive senses.

I have experienced the same challenges many autistic people have faced. Many of these challenges persist. Even so, I have met many people along the way who have illuminated the path and provided sage advice, people who have helped me make life a little brighter, a little more bearable, a little more worth living.

For National Autism Awareness Month, here are five lessons I have learned along the way.

1. Endurance

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You ready to go the distance?

The measure of a human is how he endures the unendurable and continues to function.

The world is a noisy, swirling, chaotic kinetic maelstrom of sound and motion and odour and tastes and textures. My synaesthesia marries them in unions of audible colour, tactile light and visible smells. Couple them with hyper-reactive senses and the weight of the world is too much to bear.

The slightest human caress was fire against my skin, a pat on the head needles in my mind. Singlish, the true lingua franca of my country, is an ugly irritating spiky blob on the best of days and physically painful at the worst. The screech of train brakes emits painful yellow sparks and a lingering metallic aftertaste. Every clack of a mechanical keyboard is a sharpened sledgehammer to the brain. When I took up kali training, every clash of stick on stick was an explosion of brilliant white spikes.
And the people. People yammer on and on and on, creating floods of inconsequential noise, suddenly touching others and assuming it is benign, holding people to unspoken and unarticulated standards of conduct.

There is only so much the brain can process. So much energy a person has. There will come a breaking point, when the bulwarks fail and the world comes crashing in. When every sound is a stiletto to the ear, every sight sandpaper scraping against the eye, every texture the scratching of a thousand ragged fingernails in the imperceptible space between flesh and bone. It is a sensation that is there and not there, firing nerves in places without them, an infiltration and corruption of the interstitial places between skull and cerebrospinal fluid and brain. It is the corrosion of sense and reason and the descent of chaos and pain.

Humans call it a meltdown.

Running is easy. Secluding yourself in your room and hiding under the covers is pleasant. All too often it is the only sane option left in an insane world.

But there will be times when that option is not available. If you’re in a boardroom meeting, suddenly leaving will jeopardise your career. If you’re standing in a military formation, breaking discipline will lead to collective punishment. If you’re in a crowded elevator frozen between floors, you have nowhere to go.

There’s only one option.

Endure.

Even if you feel that the world is closing in on your mind, you must endure. If that is the least of bad options, endure. Success goes not to the man who quits at the first sign of discomfort, but the one who endures and pushes through pain to the other side.

Autists can—and should—armour themselves against overwhelming sensory experiences however they can. I wrap my sticks in heavy tape to blunt the noise of impact. I carry Flare Audio Isolate titanium earplugs all the time. I choose clothes and accessories and equipment with an eye towards minimal sensory impact. I work in quiet rooms and stay away from noise.

But there is only so much you can do. If you wish to interact with the world, much less leave your mark on it, you must engage it fully. You must open yourself to the unceasing pandemonium that is life in the modern age. If you will not blind or deafen yourself, life will seep through in all its wonder and chaos.

You must endure.

And in enduring, you learn that it is not a fixed capacity.

As you expose yourself to greater and more frequent sounds, you desensitise yourself to them. You learn how to mitigate them, how to cope with them, how to keep functioning. You learn to recognise the signs of an autistic meltdown and either head off the symptoms or leave the area. The truest test is to function at the ragged edge of your abilities, to keep thinking and talking and responding on the threshold of a meltdown—or in the middle of one.

It is not easy, but it is necessary if you live in a bustling city like I do.

To achieve great rewards one must endure great hardships. If you would do more than merely exist, you must push through pain and suffering to achieve your goals. You must develop the ability to endure.

2. You Are Not Special

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Snowflakes melt. Don’t be one.

If you’re autistic, chances are you have an all-consuming interest. It could be anything: prime numbers, train schedules, memorising pi, baking pies, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the complete genealogy and medical history of a flock of sheep, the search for a Grand Unified Theory.

It doesn’t matter.

Your special interests do not make you special. If you can’t find a way to contribute to people’s lives through your special interest, you are not special.

Writing remains my singular focus in life, but I also pursued knowledge in other fields, moving from one to another in days or weeks or months. In primary school I could discuss atomic power, King Arthur and the human immune system. As a teenager I could hold court on terminal ballistics, the discography of the Bee Gees and epistemology.

None of it mattered.

Nobody was interested in such arcana. Nobody benefited from my discourses and lectures and writings. Ergo, no value was delivered through these obsessions.

It’s fine to pursue these interests as a hobby. But if you can’t find and manifest the intersection between your interests and what people desire, nobody will care about them.

Autistics will feel distressed when they cannot pursue their interests. It is tempting to drop everything to focus solely on them. But that is attachment, and attachment is the root of suffering. If you deliver no value to others, people are not going to support you or pay you or otherwise help you continue existing so you can continue to pursue your interests.

The ideal, of course, is to make a living through your passions. To get there, you must act. You cannot limit yourself to stuffing your head with information or delivering lectures to unreceptive audiences. You must act. You must be the best in your field, identify missing needs and fill them. You must be give people a reason to give you money. In my case, there is a resurging demand for excellent fiction, specially science fiction and fantasy, and I intend to fill that gap. Likewise, there is high demand for articles about self-improvement, travel, life hacks, martial arts, the craft of writing and more—and my record on Steemit speaks for itself.

It is nice to imagine that one can make a living from one’s interests, but it isn’t always so. I would love to be a professional fiction writer, but that’s not on the horizon anytime soon. There was a time when I could simply write all day and not worry about anything else, but those days are over. I have bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold. I had to scale back my writing, again and again, to accommodate reality. There will come a day when I will be a professional writer, when I can support myself through my interests…but for now, life demands its due.

Your special interests do not make you special. What you do with them does.

3. Scripts Rule Society

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How much of this scene is on autopilot?

If you will not take holy orders and seclude yourself in a hermitage, or live by yourself alone in the wilderness, you must interact with people. It is an inescapable facet of life. If you want friends and lovers and children, if you want to buy goods and services, if you want to live in the modern world with all its trappings, you have to talk to people.

Social interaction is the chief weakness of most autistics. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but you can at least be functional in society.

Fortunately, society runs on social scripts.

Social scripts are predictable and expectable responses to specific circumstances. People who know each other exchange greetings when they meet. If someone does another wrong, the wronged party expects an apology and the offending party issues one. Societies enforce taboos and teach their members how to behave in public and private. Organisations have specific procedures and jargon so everyone is on the same page.

Imagine an intricate machine filled with uncountable numbers of enmeshed gears rotating in unison. That is society. Social scripts, especially codes of etiquette, are the lubricants that keep everything turning smoothly. They allow complete strangers to interact each other, and intimates to predict what the other party will say or do.

Social scripts enable mutual understanding and minimise conflict. Most people are unaware of these scripts. Autistics cannot afford to be—and, at the same time, can craft scripts of their own to pre-empt difficulties. For example, when buying groceries, the standard script takes six steps:

  1. Set groceries on counter
  2. Wait for cashier to register every sale and declare the price
  3. Check the price and make payment
  4. Receive change or card as necessary
  5. Double-check all items and gather them up
  6. Leave

To regular people, buying groceries is a simple, mindless transaction. It took me years to figure out how to do it smoothly. A neurotypical person may see groceries as an undifferentiated mass of stuff. For me, every bag, every good, every coin, every card, every person, every gesture, every sound, every perceivable action and object and event is a discrete item that must be logged and tracked and moved into appropriate positions or otherwise accounted for.

For autistic people, the mere act of buying groceries is a recipe for mental congestion. And that’s before accounting for off-script events.

It’s the little things: the cashier talking to you, children chatting behind you, dropping coins, incorrect change, a cash register noisier than usual, a bellicose customer. Neurotypical people may not have a problem with it, but autists with their minds busy processing the transaction will not be able to respond effectively.

If you can break down a script, you can pre-empt it and create your own scripts to your advantage. On the way to the counter you can start calculating the bill. As the cashier keys in the sales, you can prepare payment. When you pay the cashier you can take the time to check items. This frees up cognitive capacity to check items and prepare to go.

A script allows you to work with minimal cognitive load. It is a reliable heuristic governing human behaviour. Life is difficult enough; no need to make it worse

4. Empathy is A Skill

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If you can talk and think you can do this.

Neurotypical people instinctively learn social skills through everyday interaction. Autists are challenged to consciously learn them.

Empathy is a skill. Charm is a skill. All kinds of interpersonal communication are skills. Skills can be learned. If you are not brain-damaged, you can pick up the ability to communicate effectively in society.

Social scripts are useful, but they only apply to specific contexts. When events go off-script, you need to respond smoothly and appropriately. Social skills allow you to respond with a minimal of disruption. They allow you to broaden your horizons and spontaneously interact with people in multiple environments. To be an integral part of society, you must know how to talk to people. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

There are hundreds of books and websites out there that teach people, specifically autistic people, social skills, empathy and charm. After learning them, put them into practice. Start with social scripts, then graduate to unplanned encounters. Work your way up to ever-increasing levels of difficulty.

To highly introverted autists, this is extremely difficult. It requires obsessive study, the willingness to put theory into practice, the recognition that failure is inevitable and the will to get back up and try again anyway. It requires endurance and courage and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep trying. It is exhausting, but this is why you manage your energy and develop endurance.

And the rewards?

Friends, family, a career. The ability to be a functional member of society, to share your thoughts and aspirations and emotions, to find companionship, to divide sorrow and multiply joy. To live, fully and completely, in the world.

It is difficult, but it is worth it.

5. Change Yourself, Change the World

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Start with the man in the mirror

The world is not made for autists.

It’s simple demographics. Most people are neurotypical, ergo they shape society per their thought patterns, their quirks, their foibles. Many of them don’t know how to interact with autistics, many don’t want to, many don’t even care.

It’s nice to call for autism awareness. It’s nice to call for neurodiversity. It’s nice to call for autism rights. People who want to be nice will try their best to accommodate the needs of autists.

Not everyone will.

Nobody can change the world. Not by themselves.

Nobody can force people to change. Not without guns and concentration camps and the tools of dictatorship. People who demand that everybody change to accommodate them without themselves being willing to compromise are little more than bullies and petty tyrants.

You can’t change people without coercion but you can always change yourself.

You can choose many things: how you feel about events, how you act in response to stimuli, whether to change or stand fast.
Choose growth. Choose change. Choose to be the best person you can be. Choose to surround yourself with people who bring out your best.

Do this, and the world will change with you.

Summing Up

I lied.

These five lessons aren’t just for autistics. They are for everybody. Autists need them the most, but they apply to neurotypicals too.

No matter where you stand on the autistic spectrum, if you are on the spectrum at all, you are as human as me and everyone else. Growth is universal to all humans. All I have done is lay bare a few aspects of growth and placed them in a frame. Frame them a different way and the lessons still apply.

Life awaiting.

Embrace it.

Martial Concepts: Principles of Footwork

When people think martial arts, they think of stunning strikes, intricate grappling and dynamic takedowns. Footwork is underappreciated in pop culture. But footwork makes these techniques work.

In some martial arts and sports, such as boxing and Muay Thai, it may be advantageous to absorb blows to less vital parts of the body in exchange for setting up a decisive blow. This is Rocky Balboa’s favourite strategy, letting his opponents wear themselves out and setting up opportunities to counterpunch. You can see this in his immortal fight against Ivan Drago.

In Filipino martial arts, when faced with an incoming blow, the preferred approach is to get out of the way. To understand why, simply replace Drago’s gloves with knives.

You can be as tough as Rocky, but mere flesh and bone isn’t going to stop steel and hardwood.

FMA originates from a weapon-based culture. The main assumption is that everyone is either armed or has ready access to a weapon. There is no way you can block a blade or stick with your body. You’ll just end up a bleeding, broken mess. Even if you don’t see a weapon, it doesn’t mean that the threat doesn’t have one—in the dark, against a small blade, you can’t tell if the threat is armed until your lifeblood gushes out on the floor.

You cannot afford to take a hit in FMA. The surest defence is to evade.

This is the guiding principle behind footwork. But it’s not the only reason to train footwork.

Footwork and Range

To understand footwork, we need to first understand range. There are three main ranges in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, my base art: largo, medio and corto. They are analogous to long, medium and short range.

At largo, you and your opponent are out of range. Neither of you can attack each other. Footwork in largo serves three purposes: place yourself in an advantageous position, bridge the distance and strike, or to escape before he and his buddies catch up to you.

In medio, you and your opponent can strike each other. This is the most dangerous zone in FMA. Assuming the two of you are equally skilled, there are three outcomes: you hit him, he hits you, or a mutual kill. Two out of three outcomes against your survival is not a winning proposition. In PTK, footwork at medio is designed to take you out of the danger zone: either out into largo, or deep into corto.

Corto is bad breath range. This is the realm of grapples, elbows and knees. PTK specialises In combat at this range: its name loosely translates into ‘chop up into little pieces’. In PTK, the goal of offensive footwork is to carry you safely into this position to finish off the threat. If the opponent resists you more effectively than you realise, or if he has friends coming to his rescue, footwork also takes you out of corto and into safety.

Footwork lets you control the range to your opponent to suit your goal. If your goal is to escape, you want to maintain distance at largo, identify a clear escape route, and run. If he tries to catch up, footwork helps you evade.

If your goal is to finish the threat, footwork places you in prime position to launch your attack. It puts you at the range and angle to employ your favourite techniques without exposing you to the enemy’s.

Against multiple opponents, mobility is critical. You cannot afford to slug it out with one guy. His buddies will flank you, slam you to the floor, and introduce you to the joys of a boot party. You need to keep moving to avoid being swarmed. This allows you to either exploit an opening to escape, or to maneuver yourself so that the threats get in each other’s way, allowing you to engage just one at a time.

Footwork and Angles

The second component of footwork is angles. Different styles have different approaches to controlling range and angles. FMA players use the analogy of a clock to describe angles of attack and movement. You can see this in the picture below.

You are the blue circle. The threat is the red oval. The lines indicate possible angles of movement. In front of you is 12 o’clock, where the threat is. He is in medio, advancing to strike you. As mentioned earlier, there are only three outcomes, and only one will go your way. You must get off the X and turn the situation around. There are four ways to do it.

The first method is to close in with a diagonal forward step. You step off on the 10 or 2 o’clock line, about 45 degrees off the line of attack. Other styles prefer the 11 or 1 o’clock, or 30 degrees. Combine this footwork with a turn towards the opponent. This places you on his flank. When the enemy sees you vanish from his 12, he needs to reorient towards you, buying you a precious moment to escape or to strike.

This is the preferred approach of PTK. PTK is an offensive-oriented art. This step places you in corto, giving you easy access to the threat’s head, throat, arms, side and legs. From here you can employ elbows, knees, stomps, traps, whatever you like. Other styles go one step deeper, circling around the threat to gain his back. From here, you can do whatever you like to him without fear of retaliation.

The second method is to step off with a diagonal rearward step (or leap). You move back on the 7 or 5 o’clock line (or 8 and 4), taking you to largo. This is not a permanent solution: a person can advance three times faster than he can move backwards. If you keep retreating like this the enemy will catch up and overwhelm you. This is a desperation move, to be employed only when you are surprised.

There are two main reasons to do this in PTK. The first is to buy you time and space to turn and run. The second is to stage a counterattack. For the latter, as you move, you take a piece of the enemy by striking at his hands while moving your body (and vital organs) out of the way. Then, with the enemy weakened, you can close into corto for the finish.

The third method is to sidestep to the 3 or 9 o’clock. This maintains the range between the two of you, but it puts you on his flank. If you have a long weapon like a stick or a staff, this lets you employ the weapon’s reach to the fullest; had you moved to corto, you would either have to give up the weapon’s advantages or employ different techniques. Further, if the opponent is bull-rushing you, this sidestep uses his momentum against him, either by giving you an opportunity to strike him before he can turn towards you, or to let him give his back to you.

The last method is the most dangerous: you move along the 12 or 6 o’clock line. You are still on the enemy’s angle of attack. But this may be your only option if you are attacked in a train, a bus or some other location where you have no room to maneuver.
If you go down the 12 o’clock, you are countercharging into corto range. This is the realm of clinches, infighting and takedowns. Once inside, there is little art here, just single-minded aggression and a desperate fury of elbows and knees, chokes and strangles, throws and takedowns. As the enemy can also do the same to you, you need to finish him off before he recovers–especially if he has a weapon.

Down the 6 o’clock, you encounter the same perils as the backward diagonal, with the added disadvantage of still being in the line of fire. Committing to retreating on the 6 o’clock is viable only if you are going to turn and run. If not, you need to use this move to set up a counterattack. When the enemy attacks, he is opening a line to his body. What you want to do is to step out into largo (ideally striking his hand), then counterstrike along the open line before he puts his guard back up. High-level players don’t even step; they just subtly sway or shift their bodies, just enough to take the target out of range, then lunge in on the counter. Floro Fighting Systems specialises in this method of countering a threat.

Notice how the players subtly sway and step back as the attack comes in, then immediately counter along the exposed line. This requires a superior sense of range and timing to pull off—but highly effective when done right.

Footwork and Fighting

Moving isn’t just about getting to safety: it powers your attack. Since you’re already burning all the calories to move your body, you might as well drive your bodyweight into the threat too.

FMA torques the hips to generate power. After completing a technique, the player is in a position that allows him to twist his hips and launch into another attack, which places him in a new position to strike yet again. This synergy is the basis of kali’s famous flow principle

For example, assume a threat is throwing a straight right punch. A kali player might crash in on the 10 o’clock line, slapping down the extended arm with his left hand and jabbing at the eyes with his right. As he retracts his right arm, he snatches the target’s arm and pulls it down. This clears the way for a left cross, a right uppercut and another left cross. Four blows in three seconds or less.

Different martial artists will have different responses. A silat player may step off-line on the 11 o’clock line and follow through with an ankle stomp, and if that doesn’t finish the job, he can whip around into a groin slap, then grip and rip. A boxer might slip the punch and shovel hook the threat’s side, then continue swarming him with punches. A judoka could attempt a throw, a Brazilian jiujitsu player might go for a takedown and a submission. But they all have one thing in common: they move off the line of attack, then use their new position to recapture the initiative.

Different styles have different methods of generating power through movement. Find the techniques that suit your body and personality best and see how your footwork can accelerate these techniques. Then drill incessantly to ingrain them.

Final Thoughts

Footwork is critical. For martial artists, proper footwork takes you out of danger and places the threat at risk of your most effective moves. For fiction creators, understanding footwork lets you choreograph exciting, dynamic fight scenes a cut above bog-standard Hollywood brawling. For gamers, proper footwork means you won’t bleed so much, especially in action RPGs.

Martial arts is about doing to the enemy without him doing the same to you. Footwork is how yo do this. If you are a martial artist – get on the mat and train.

Racism Is Not Hurt Feelings

If Social Justice Warriors are to be believed, we live in the most racist period of human history. Racists are everywhere: in school, in church, in government. The only way to deal with them is to point your fingers and shriek. And to an SJW, there is a simple test for racism: if you are offended, it is racist.

Mothership.sg ran an article detailing the ‘everyday racism’ an Indian girl, Chandralekha, described in her blog. She is a student at the Business School of the National University of Singapore, and claimed that she she experienced so much racism she broke down into tears. I went to her blog expecting stories of discrimination, bullying and violence.

What I got was the usual litany of SocJus complaints.

Racism is Everywhere!

Her first complaint came from orientation:

We had a lot of games and for some reason, it required everyone to say some “phrases” in Mandarin. I can’t speak Mandarin >because I have never learnt it. I struggled to remember the phrases and say it properly. But I tried my best. Having noticed >this, my group’s leader came up to me and asked me how come I didn’t know Chinese? I was taken aback because no one has >asked me that before. Like it was an expectation. Everyone in Singapore is supposed to know. I told him that I didn’t take >Chinese in school. He got very confused. If the question that he had already asked wasn’t bad enough, he then asked me if I >was a Singaporean and if I was born in Singapore. That was a slap on my face. My nationality was questioned because I didn’t >speak Chinese. Wow. It was just plain ignorance. I can’t remember what I said after that or if I even said anything at all. I was >just stunned. Since primary school, I have been on the receiving end of Appunehneh jokes and jokes on my skin colour. It >doesn’t help that you’re a girl and that too a fat one. I had foolishly hoped that when I go to university, it would all stop >because people would be less ignorant. I realized that it had just taken another form.”

I’ve been asked similar questions my entire life. I have been asked if I were American, Australian, British, Taiwanese, a Chinese national, a Hong Konger, Korean, a New Zealander, a Eurasian or half-Indian half-Chinese. (The answer is no.) I don’t speak with a Singaporean accent and I don’t speak Singlish. My voice and appearance throws off a lot of people. It is annoying to field the same questions over and over and over again, but these questions indicate that the questioner wants to know more about you.

The alternative is that they don’t care about you and don’t want to learn more about you. Or are too afraid to be called racists for asking.

Yes, the group leader in question was insensitive and ignorant. But these are not sins equivalent to racism. He did not insult her, attack her, exclude her from activities, or shun her. All he did was say something stupid. It was an opportunity for Chandralekha to correct his misconceptions, but she chose to feel offended and justify it by calling him racist.

Her next complaint goes:

During breaks, I would sometimes join my classmates but they would often speak in Mandarin and I would just not >understand. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they did not know that I did not understand Mandarin. One day, during >a class on cross cultural communication, I shared my experience in NUS Business School where sometimes people leave me >out in conversations by speaking in Mandarin. Following that public confession, it just never happened to me again. Maybe it >was my fault that I did not tell them the first time they did it. Wait, I think I did. They probably thought that I was just joking. >But this is what makes it difficult. You would have to forever be explaining and earning your rights. It would just never come >easy.

I’ve been in groups where I’m in the linguistic minority. I’ve been in groups where Malays speak Malays to each other, Indians interacting in Tamil, Chinese speaking in dialects. It doesn’t bother me because I am not the subject of the conversation. They’re not speaking to exclude anyone; they’re just using a language both parties are familiar with. It is the height of selfishness to assume that you must be part of every conversation whenever you’re in a group, even if it’s about topics that aren’t relevant to you. Singaporean etiquette is to always use English when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your mother tongue, unless you know the other party shares the same language as you. Since everyone around the writer spoke English after she made her preferences known, they aren’t being deliberately racist.

Racism is only involved if people are deliberately shunning minorities using language, and even then, they wouldn’t just insist on a different tongue: they would turn away from the person, close the circle, look only at each other and never engage the person being excluded. People don’t exclude others simply by using a different language. They will demonstrate a cluster of behaviours, from subtle body language to outright requests for the ostracised person to leave. The writer has provided no descriptions of their body language. If these groups did not do any of this, then they aren’t being racist — the people are likely just having separate conversations while she is in the vicinity.

If you want people to know where you are coming from, you have to tell them. Humans are not telepaths. They won’t know what you are thinking or your preferences unless you tell them. Expecting people to always know your preferences without telling them is being immature. If you want to be part of a conversation, you have to let people know. It’s basic human behaviour, evidently lost on people like Chandralekha.

Her last complaint was this:

To commemorate NUS Business School’s 50th Anniversary, there was a Special notebook giveaway at the BBA office. There >were limited number of books and being the Kiasu Singaporean who loves freebies, I went to the NUS BBA office to collect it. >While the people before me were allowed to just take it and leave, when it came to my turn, the staff told me that they were >only for NUS BBA students. I said that I am one. He asked me to show my matriculation card but seeing that I was going to >take it out, he said nevermind and giggled. I stared at him. In a vain attempt of lightening up the situation, he said that he’s a >racist and giggled again. I just took the book and left immediately. I was disgusted by the entire event. That was just another >reminder that I would have to forever be explaining and earning my rights.”

There will always be idiots. How you handle idiots tells the world what kind of person you are. This is a minor matter. He did not attack her, insult her, deny her the freebie, or otherwise inflict any kind of harm against her. Her response is to get offended and complain about the inconvenience of having to assert herself.

Society runs by unspoken codes of conduct, but in the First World, the assumption is that these codes are sacrosanct. There is no formal education in assertive communication, and conversely, no explicit expectation that you have to stand up for yourself. When some jerk violates this code of behaviour, many modern youths like Chandralekha have no idea how to handle them. If they swing towards SJW and progressive tendencies, inevitably they will screech about how they have to keep explaining themselves.

It is incredibly selfish and immature to assume that the world must bend to your whims just because you don’t feel comfortable asserting your boundaries. Throughout my life, I have experienced constant taunting, insults, bullying and swarms of SJWs. I’ve been called a race traitor by members of my own race, and had people of other races insinuate I’m a fraud because of my name. Whining about how they were behaving didn’t do any good. People like that don’t care about how you feel. You can’t change those people, but you can change how you perceive and handle them.

Throughout her post, we have seen exactly zero incidences of racism. There is plenty of insensitivity on display, but not actual racism. She has not suffered physical violence, unfair marking, deprivation of resources, or any other such actions. She simply felt offended over and over again about trivial matters.

The Age of the Crybully

Babies and children have no frame of reference for life. When they experience an emotion, it is so huge and overwhelming they don’t know how to respond appropriately. When they want something, they whine and cry until their parents tend to them. If something doesn’t go their way, they continue to cry and throw tantrums. As they grow older, they learn how society works, pick up communication skills, and learn how to self-soothe when hurt and how to calibrate their responses and actions to suit the audience and situation.

SJWs are the exception. They still act like babies, screeching and crying and raging whenever they feel hurt. ‘Everyday racism’ is an excuse to find offense in everything to maintain the two minute hate. Instead of dealing with the situation, they want to guilt-trip or intimidate everybody around them into obeying their whims. They don’t want to grow up and enter adulthood; they want everyone else to coddle them. They are crybullies.

It’s clear Chandralekha has no idea what racism looks like. It is corrupt cops pulling over people of the wrong skin colour and cooking up excuses to levy punishing fines, teachers marking down minorities, governments restricting minorities from taking public office or exercising their rights, allegedly neutral organisations casting out people for being of the wrong race. It is violence and deprivation and exclusion from mainstream society. She has experienced none of these. Instead, she blew up her hurt feelings way out of proportion.

Chandralekha has not exposed racism to the world. She has merely exposed the smallness of her heart.

Crybullies prevent people like Chandralekha from growing up. They encourage and reward people for acting like babies by showering them with soothing words and SocJus dogma. Organisations further incentivise these crybullies by publicly supporting them or bowing to their every demand. By painting themselves as victims, crybullies manipulate society to meet their demands. They are overgrown children whining to adults.

Childhood is over. It is time to grow up.

Photo credits:

Everyone I don’t like is Hitler: KnowYourMeme
Racism everywhere: Memegenerator
Weaponised victimhood: Firebreathing Christian

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.