Move Every Day

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Humans are not meant to be sedentary creatures. Rooted to a chair and hunched over a screen for hours on end is a sad state of affairs. This stagnation of body, mind and spirit leads to a dead end of poor posture and health, chronic negativity, and low energy. But it’s the default position for most people living in the first world. If you want to be more than an ape chained to a cubicle all day, if you want to achieve your fullest potential, you must move every day.

I’m not talking about endless sets of mindless reps of alleged exercise. I’m talking about conscious, mindful and focused activity. It shouldn’t be something you can do while staring mindlessly at the nearest screen. It should be something that requires you to engage your senses, pay attention to your movements, ergonomically imposes loads on your body, and where applicable, molds your body to adapt to a fitness target. By being fully present, you take yourself to your limits and make the most of what you’re doing.

Activity takes all forms. Hiking, swimming, weightlifting, dancing, Frisbee, bicycling, martial arts, the important thing is you move your body in a way that is challenging yet manageable and motivational. Whatever activity you engage in should motivate you to do even more of it in the future.

In my case, I block out at least an hour every day to do something. I hit the gym twice or thrice a week, perform calisthenics or go running once or twice a week, and martial arts at least twice a week. Other times I do yoga or walk for hours on end. By training in a holistic fashion, targeting different muscles and developing different skills, I’m developing all-round fitness. And more.

Regardless of what you do, by moving every day you will realize a number of important benefits.

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Holistic Health

You are not just a body. You are body, mind and spirit, intertwined and interdependent, each affecting the others.

Regular exercise leads to improved health, cardiovascular endurance, strength, metabolism, balance, and other benefits. That alone is a good enough reason to exercise regularly. But the benefits of exercise go beyond the mere physical.

Vigorous exercise prompts your brain to provide an all-natural endorphin rush. It generates a sense of well-being and euphoria that persists for hours. While exercise is not a silver bullet for mood disorders, it is a method of emotional self-regulation that just about anyone can do. It grants you control over your emotions, letting you overcome the small setbacks of life with an endorphin hit at a time of your choosing. It guards against extended periods of negative emotions while providing an incentive for you to work out again in the future, creating a virtuous cycle that leads to continued self-improvement.

Aerobic exercise is linked to enhanced fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to analyse novel problems, recognise patterns and relationships in such situations, and extrapolate the latter to solve such problems. This is especially important for creatives and entrepreneurs, since their careers is all about identifying and resolving novel problems. Thus, exercising more makes you smarter.

Exercise makes you smarter by helping you solve novel problems, letting you tackle difficult situations that require out-of-the-box thinking. It refreshes your emotional state so you’re less likely to give up in the face of negativity and adversity, and more likely to keep on going. It strengthens your body so you can execute whatever task you demand of it. While everyone can benefit from these, these three outcomes synergize especially well for entrepreneurs and professional creatives, who have to work hard for long hours, persevere in the face of never-ending obstacles, and constantly develop innovative solutions to difficult problems.

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Develop Discipline

Discipline is a muscle. It grows when exercised and atrophies when unused. To achieve greatness, you must have the discipline to do the work every day. Exercising every day helps.

If you’re scheduled to lift heavy iron, train at the dojo or hit the track, go out and do it. Rain or shine, exhausted or energetic, sad or happy, you go out and do it. Set aside how you feel about the situation, about any discomfort or inconvenience you experience, and focus only on getting stuff done.

If you’ve had a bad day at work but you’re scheduled to squat for five sets of five reps, you will squat for five sets of five reps. If you slept late but promised to show up for martial arts training first thing in the morning, you will attend training. If you broke up with your lover, have a hangover, got caught in a traffic jam, whatever, you will show up and you will do what you’ve planned to do.

By training when you don’t feel like it, you are conditioning yourself to do your best in spite of what the world throws at you. You are mastering your emotions by choosing to train instead of slacking off, reducing your ability to be affected by negative emotions. You are developing the habit of seeing things through no matter what. The more you choose to train in uncomfortable situations, the lower the willpower cost you pay when you do train, so it progressively becomes easier the next time around. If you can perform at a high level when you are at your worst, you will surely excel at your best.

Discipline bleeds over. If you can be disciplined with training your body, it becomes easier to discipline yourself in every other aspect of your life, be it work, diet or whatever. You still have to consciously apply that same iron discipline to those fields, to set standards for yourself and live by them, but if you are used to applying discipline to physical activity, you can draw on those same habits of mind to impose discipline on the rest of your life.

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Do More

Eliminate dead time.

Naturally, the more you do something well, the better you get at it, be it weightlifting, running, or rock climbing. But that’s only half of the equation for increased productivity. If you want to do more, you need to remove inefficiencies. By training daily, you’re not just putting more time and energy into activity — you are eliminating dead time.

When traveling to and from the gym and other training areas, I’m usually reading something. The news, philosophy, fiction, or research. This helps me make the most of transit time. When training, I’m training. I focus solely on working out, not on random distractions.

When planning my training schedule, I don’t block in rest days. Just days of varying physical activity. The day after a hard training session, I take things easier with yoga, focusing on stretching out sore muscles, developing balance and coordination, and re-energizing through breath and bodywork. If I feel parts of my body require more recuperation time, I train something else. When I train martial arts, I cycle through different intensity levels to develop different skills — go slow to develop body mechanics and precision, go fast for flow and real-time problem solving, go hard to develop anaerobic fitness and test skills. And when the opportunity arises, I pack my bag and go walking for hours. Days without physical activity is dead time — I cycle between body parts and skills to miminise dead time, and adjust intensity levels to prevent overtraining.

This principle can be applied to the rest of your life. By eliminating dead time and seeking efficiency, you develop the capacity to do more. Instead of mindlessly decomposing on a couch, do something else that allows you to train some other aspect of your entire being while the rest of your body recovers. This doesn’t mean you should avoid sleeping or recovery — it does mean you should strive to be as efficient as possible.

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Movement is Life

In my last post, I wrote about writing 200,000 words in 2 months. That would not be possible if I didn’t already have a regimen of working out every day. While the physical activity is important (spending hours at your chair banging away at the keys is not conducive for long-term health), but even more valuable are the habits of mind, the discipline, inculcated from being accustomed to working at something regardless of how I feel about it. In that sense, being a pro writer isn’t all that different from daily training: the work has to be done no matter how you feel about it.

By moving more, you develop the discipline to act, no matter your personal circumstances. You increase your fluid intelligence, and with it your ability to tackle new challenges. You’re better able to self-regulate your mood, preventing you from spiralling down into never-ending discouragement and depression when things go wrong. You get healthier and stronger and fitter, allowing you to get more out of life. You eliminate periods of inefficiency, allowing you get even more stuff done. You create a virtuous cycle that keeps you growing, pushing past your limits, and achieving what you set out to do.

In other words, movement is key to a good life.

While you should move every day, this doesn’t mean you should break yourself in pursuits of such heights. If your body isn’t accustomed to it, training hard every single day of the week will lead to injuries and long-term health issues. Destroying yourself is the opposite of the goal of improved health, productivity and happiness.

Don’t be afraid to take breaks if you truly need them. While moving every day is a standard you should aspire to, recovery is as important as activity — arguably more so. Exercises stresses and tears down muscle; to grow, muscles need time to recover. Personally, my schedule is so packed that breaks tend to occur organically without my needing to arrange them. But if you haven’t reached this point, don’t worry about it. Take breaks if you need them — and if you don’t, move.

Humans aren’t sedentary creatures; they are dynamic ones. Daily physical activity helps you think better, work better, and live better. You get stronger in body, mind and spirit, and with greater strength comes greater capacity to act and achieve your goals.

Stagnation is death. Movement is life.

Dragon Awards 2017 Winners

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The results of the Dragon Awards 2017 are in. The winners have my heartiest congratulations for producing such fine stories, and the voters have my thanks for making the Dragon Awards the premier fan awards in science fiction and fantasy.

While my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS did not win the award, against a titanic figure like Harry Turtledove there simply is no competition. Turtledove has writing since long before I was born, and has contributed immeasurably to the field. Likewise, while none of the authors I recommended for the award won, this was simply because they were up against names even more famous and accomplished than themselves. I am particularly pleased that John Ringo, Larry Correia and Jim Butcher have won awards; they are giants in their field, and such recognition is long overdue.

Going by the numbers alone, it’s clear that the Dragon Awards is far more representative of fandom. With double the total votes of the Hugo Awards, the Dragons have demonstrated which award fandom would rather be a part of. Bear in mind that in recent years the Hugos have benefited from press coverage (and lies) about Puppy-related drama, while the Dragon Awards have by and large flown under the radar.

Of course, the Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to take it lying down. N K Jemisin and Alison Littlewood failed to discredit the awards after they withdrew their nominations (and disrespected their fans). John Scalzi failed to win an award in spite of the drama he generated by first withdrawing from, then returning to, the ballot. To further discredit the Awards, the new narrative is that the Dragon Awards is sexist, because all the winners are men.

To this, I have the following rejoinders:

  1. Women swept the Hugo Awards. If this isn’t sexist, then it’s not sexist for men to sweep the Dragons.
  2. For women to have a chance to win an award, they have to show up and stay in the game. Jemisin and Littlewood, both women, abandoned the field of honour. Such a pity, too: being a double Hugo award winner, Jemisin would have had a decent chance at unseating James S A Corey.
  3. Patty Jenkins, a woman, won the Dragon Awards for directing Wonder Woman.

I have no doubt that next year the SJWs will again try to besiege the Dragons. And again, I must recommend that the organisers establish a firm withdrawals policy. They should either prevent authors from withdrawing works, or allow them to do so on the condition that they are permanently banned and blacklisted from future awards. They must be ready to stand fast in the face of pressure from SJWs.

As for myself, I’m in the final stages of preparing my next story. For those who have voted for me, thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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If you would like to get your hands on the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, you can find it here.

No One is Obliged to Read You

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I approach writing as a craftsman. I produce stories for sale on the market. I measure my success in book reviews, social media engagements and royalties. My goal is to entertain my readers, and if I can communicate deeper ideas in my stories, all the better. For professional writers, it doesn’t matter if a story touches on rarefied subjects, if it espouses some transcendent matter of politics or philosophy, or if it attempts to understand the human condition: if it isn’t entertaining enough to excite a reader’s passions, it is a poor story.

This interview of prominent Singaporean literary figure Gwee Li Sui is a telling reminder of the vast gulf that exists between the craftsmen and everybody else. Observe this snippet:

Bharati: How do you think we can practically achieve this?

Gwee: For starters, it would be good if an MP could cite a Singaporean writer. Then we change the dialogue where writers stop becoming just people in a corner in a library activity, talking to people who are interested. They become part of a larger conversation. I think as a writer in Singapore, I feel we are not allowed to enter the sphere of a larger conversation.

Bharati: Why do you feel that way?

Gwee: Because we don’t have an audience. We speak through our books, we speak through our poems, people read our stuff but it’s still the same group of people. We hope to find new voices to engage the issues but again, that’s slow.

It’s tied to how the press covers us, how society perceives what we are doing. If you’re seen as just doing subversive things, that’s not very helpful. Because the point of literature or at least for writers is that we want to explore possibilities. We want to ask questions. We are not against any techniques per se, or any way of seeing the world per se. But we are never happy with any way of seeing. Let’s just put it like that. No technique is going to be satisfying. That’s our job. Our job is to be free, to be able to look at things from various angles.

Gwee: I don’t think writers not being to reach their audience is the writer’s fault. We don’t have the instruments, the levels in place where the writer’s work can reach out to a certain audience.

At one stage of course there’s the censorship, there’s also the level of values. We have a work culture that makes it irrelevant to read. We also have a level of propaganda which is that writing has to reach a certain economic advantage or political advantage in order to be celebrated. Or it has to talk about nation, or talk about certain places in Singapore in order to be of value. We have so many layers that makes writing misunderstood.

Bharati: I understand that you have several things working against you. But while this is a complex issue, involving a lot of different players and societal factors, shouldn’t you bear some responsibility?

Gwee: That’s a lot of things you want a writer to do. Our first responsibility is the art.

Bharati: But what is the point of the art if it doesn’t make an impact?

Gwee: It will make an impact when you read the work. It cannot make an impact until the work is engaged.

Bharati: So if you don’t want to take responsibility for that, who do you think should?

Gwee: Okay, on one level, the different agencies do engage us and bring us in so that people can listen to us talk. In that sense, the library is taking up the responsibility. When you say it’s the writer’s responsibility I keep wanting to stop going in that direction because at some stage it’s all going to collapse back on us and the writers will have to do everything. We’ve already for a time been doing everything. Sometimes we are also self-publishing. Sometimes we are being our own editors. Poets anthologising poets. Writers publishing writers. That’s sad. We have to go beyond saying the writers do everything.

Running throughout the interview is the undercurrent that Singapore literature deserves to be read. The writers have already done their part; the onus is on everybody else to make Singlit part of the cultural conversation.

This is a mistake. If you don’t produce works worth reading, much less remembering or discussing, then no one is going to care.

If you’re a writer, no one is obliged to read you. It is your duty to produce the best works possible and promote them to the best of your ability. You’re not going to get very far by demanding that others talk about the wonders of Singlit. Better to pull them to you, let them see for themselves the wonders you have made, and allow them to advocate your works for you.

Previously, I’ve made my thoughts on Singlit quite clear: I don’t believe Singapore literature has a body of work compelling enough to capture the popular imagination and become part of the cultural backdrop. Singapore has no shortage of writers, but this isn’t enough. If a story can’t connect with the intended audience, the audience isn’t going to read it. If the stories that make up the Singapore literary canon can’t command the attention of Singaporeans, they aren’t going to engage with them.

The West has the great pulp writers and the grandmasters of science fiction and fantasy. From their works came Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and other such masterpieces. These stories have inspired the Superversive and the PulpRev movements, which aim to take the art of storytelling to new heights. Japan’s horizontal integration of light novels, manga, anime and gaming ensures rapid dissemination of fiction to domestic and international audiences. These industries have a ruthless approach to fiction: series that fail to sell well will be axed, leaving only the best and most popular on the shelves. Such well-loved stories sustain the otaku subculture, which do their party in preserving and disseminating Japanese culture to the world.

Without the body of work, without memorable writers creating compelling content, there won’t be fans and influencers willing to go to bat for you. All responsibility is on the writer to make memorable stories and leave an impact on the reader.

Here’s another snippet from the interview:

Gwee: …Our responsibility first is to write.

Bharati: True, but also why do you write? You write so that you can also engage society, make an impact, right?

Gwee: No, I think we write because we have certain existential issues that we grapple with as a person living in society.

Bharati: That sounds self-indulgent.

Gwee: It’s not self-indulgent, because writers feel that in seeing our issues and then to go with a conscience, we are finding something that someone else may actually understand as well. We don’t think we need to step out in order to understand. We feel that we step in to be able to become universal. And that’s a difference.

On the contrary, it is self-indulgent if you’re writing primarily to grapple with ‘certain existential issues’. Writing is communication. It is well and good if you write just so you can thresh ideas in your head, but if you want people to read what you write, then you must write for them.

The audience comes first. If you write to expound on some weighty philosophical matter, you’re better off writing non-fiction in the form of blogs, essays and articles. People inclined to read such material would already be predisposed to such content. People who want to read fiction want something else: to be entertained. If the primary purpose of your story is to shove an idea down the readers’ throats, they will choke on it, hack it up, then close your book and walk away forever.

If you write fiction, literary or genre, you must entertain your audience. If you can awe them with wondrous feats of plot and prose, and capture their hearts with memorable characters, your audience will remember you. They will speak of you. They will make your stories part of their everyday lives.

And, as a bonus, they’ll pay you to write more stories.

The industry has changed. Online distributors and self-publishing platforms have made gatekeepers and censors irrelevant. No longer do you have to pray that your story meets a publisher’s desires — which, in Singapore, is inevitably a book about Singaporeans set in Singapore about Singaporean culture. Just write your story, edit and format it, and publish when ready. If the censors take issue with it, they can find out if Singapore law applies to overseas publishers.

Likewise, social media have made it possible for writers to reach wider audiences and access deep pools of literary resources. A fast-paced world demands fast-paced production, and a world full of distractions demands novelty. It is no longer enough for a writer to simply write books and let publishers take care of the rest. To reap the benefits of modern technology, writers must step up to the plate.

To remain relevant, a writer needs to push out at least one book a year. To make a living from writing, however, a writer must be prepared to write multiple novels a year. The pulp greats were famous for their prodigious outputs as much as their skill, and today the highest-paid independent writers are also the most prolific ones.

In addition, a writer must build his brand and pull in readers with his force of personality. My blogging is part of my content marketing activities. I engage other readers and writers online whenever I can. I talk about my stories whenever I can, and promote those of my fellow writers when the opportunity arises. All this is part of my efforts at branding. It isn’t enough to write great books; people must also be aware of your existence, and that means you need to go the extra mile and promote yourself at every opportunity.

Readers aren’t obliged to read you. You must give them something to be excited about. Write stories that make their souls sing. Make your presence felt everywhere you go. Build a canon and your fans will come.

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As for myself, my latest novel No Gods, Only Daimons is one of the most well-received Singaporean novels on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars from 31 reviews. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store or the Castalia House ebook store.

Trump’s Decision on Transsexuals in the Military is A Wise Choice

I was a soldier. I served for two years in the Singapore Armed Forces. My duties involved administration for my unit, focusing on personnel issues. My unit was deployed operationally to hunt for an escaped terrorist. Today I am still liable for reservist duties in a similar capacity. Based on my experiences, I can unequivocally state that I believe President Donald Trump’s decision to ban transsexuals in the military is a wise choice.

Cue outrage. Accusations of bigotry. Screeching about equality. For people who think transsexuals should be allowed to serve, only a rare handful acknowledge that such a policy carries with costs. But the ones I’ve seen count the cost in emotions and money.

The military pays the price in blood.

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Others may see glory. I only see pain and sacrifice.

TL; DR

For people who don’t want to read on, here’s a very brief argument:

40% of all transgenders have attempted suicide at some point. Two-thirds of transsexuals suffer from multiple mental illnesses simultaneously. Why is it a good idea to allow such people easy access to weapons in a high-stress environment?

Recruitment

If you’re still with me, excellent. First, some clarifications. I have no problems with transsexuals who choose to transition after military service. My argument is aimed at transsexuals serving or about to serve in the military and intend to transition during their service.

With this in mind, let’s dive into what the military needs.

The military is not a jobs program. It is not a healthcare program. It is not a social engineering laboratory. It is an organisation dedicated to defending the country against all enemies by breaking things and killing people. The battlefield does not care about trans rights, bigotry, equality or some other platitude du jour. The US military, being an all-volunteer military, has the luxury of recruiting people it believes can function on the battlefield.

The US military rejects people for all kinds of reasons: flat feet, asthma, diabetes, colour blindness. These health conditions are liabilities on the battlefield. People with gender dysphoria fall into a similar category. (See above, suicide and comorbidity). The US military is not obliged to take in people who can’t go to war and can’t fulfill its primary mission of breaking things and killing people.

There are two key questions recruiters need to ask about transgender recruits. How do you tell the difference between someone who develops gender dysphoria during service and wishes to get a sex change, and someone who joins the military with the express intention of mooching off the system to get free gender reassignment treatment? How do you tell whether a transgender recruit is suicidal, or will develop suicidal thoughts later in his career?

You can’t. Not with full confidence, not in this political climate. Easiest way to prevent problems? Don’t let transsexuals in.

Dollars and Sense

It’s been claimed that the military spends 5 times more on Viagra than it will on transgender services. Thus, the ‘reasoning’ goes, if the military can afford to spend $84.24 million on erectile dysfunction medicines, it can spend a paltry $8.4 million on providing transgender services.

That is both true and false. Most of the spending goes to military retirees who would have earned the right to medical care. Less than 10 percent of active-duty troops have prescriptions for Type 5 inhibitors. And Type 5 inhibitors, including Viagra and Cialis, do more than just treat erectile dysfunction: they can prevent severe altitude sickness and treat heart and prostrate diseases, among others. These are potentially life-saving medicines. Transgender treatments are entirely elective.

Transgender troops are a tiny minority; in the US military the high end of the estimate is 0.13%. So, retirees plus 10% who are active duty troops consume $84 million on ED medicines while 0.13%of the military will require $8.4 million. Sex reassignment does nothing to enhance military effectiveness or restore health. It’s not fair for a tiny group of troops to consume a vastly disproportionate amount of funding on elective procedures.

And money isn’t the only cost.

Training

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Don’t worry: if you screw up, everyone behind you dies.

It takes between one and a half years to three years to complete gender reassignment surgery. The basic term of enlistment in the US military is four years. Why would the military want to bring on someone who would be nondeployable for such a long period of time?

Modern militaries invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and months or years into training someone to be a warfighter. It’s reasonable to expect that when that servicemember completes training, that individual will be ready to serve. Transgenders who seek sex reassignment will impose time and monetary costs above and beyond what is already sunk into their training. Why should the military accept them?

Further, training is not a one-off event. Training is a continuous evolution throughout a servicemember’s career. Personnel are continuously penciled in for specialist training in specific schools to gain the knowledge they need to carry out their duties.

Gender reassignment requires multiple surgeries and months-long recovery periods. Longer if the person develops medical complications. That person will be out of action for significant blocks of time. No school is going to change its training schedule just to accommodate some special snowflake, and some really special snowflakes are going to use their surgeries and recovery periods as excuses to skip out on onerous training.

Now, what’s going to happen if you have a medic who can’t confidently resuscitate a dying soldier, a maintenance tech who can’t correctly diagnose and fix a wonky jet engine, an officer who doesn’t have the right knowledge base for his station?

People die.

In war, you need as many trained personnel at the front as possible. If a transsexual servicemember fails to attain training, it will negatively affect unit readiness. It will take far longer for a transsexual who transitions in-service to attain a necessary competency level than someone who does not. Further, it is difficult enough to replace combat losses; replacing personnel who go for elective surgery will simply add greater burden to the system. There is no room for special snowflakes who won’t even be around for much of their enlistment period, much less contribute to the mission.

Biology and Its Discontents

MtF individuals are going to be stronger than biological females. FtM individuals are going to be significantly weaker than biological males. In my time, we had sex-segregated fitness tests. A woman who scored full points on a female test will fail the male test. Very, very few women are going to be able to perform at the level of a man, and gender reassignment is not going to artificially alter a person’s biology.

The military is an arduous career, and lives are in the balance. What happens if you can’t drag a casualty, sprint for dozens or hundreds of yards under fire, drop him off and go back to get more? He dies. What happens if you can’t reload the main gun of your tank fast enough? The tank is hit and your crew dies. What happens if you are so exhausted you load up the wrong weapons on a helicopter or take too long to load it correctly? The grunts who need air support downrange now will die.

In the military, the price of failure is death. All it takes is one weak link for everybody around him to die.

Now, let’s suppose transsexuals who require hormone replacement therapy are allowed into combat. When they deploy into the field, they will be cut off from modern civilisation. If the enemy destroys the supply convoy carrying their hormones, they are out of luck. If they can’t get resupplied in time, troops who need external sources of hormones will suffer poor health. Alternatively, if these transgender troops develop medical complications from hormonal therapy in the field, medics aren’t likely to be able to help them. These servicemembers must be evacuated to the rear or suffer intensely — and in either case, they will become combat ineffective.

Now, what happens when someone becomes combat ineffective?

Someone Else Shoulders the Burden

Whenever a servicemember is out of action, everybody else has to take up the slack. If a squad leader is nondeployable, you’ll have to get an underqualified corporal to step up and take over. If an officer in charge of a specialist function is out of action, the unit’s senior NCO will have to wear two hats. There is no guarantee that the junior personnel will have the training and experience to properly execute his new duties, and the battlefield is an unforgiving teacher.

This creates stress and inefficiency that no one needs. The troops will tolerate it if someone is down due to severe illness or injury. But if it’s for an elective surgery? Rightly or wrongly, they will see it as shirking. This generates drama and conflict the unit doesn’t need. I have personally seen this before, and I can say it generates contempt for that individual. That contempt corrodes unit cohesion, and with it morale and operational efficiency.

There are other operational issues too. issue of personal equipment, housing, follow-up medical treatment as needed, training, and assignment of duties, among other things. The trans personnel will have to grapple with psychological and physiological issues as well, so everyone in the unit will need to undergo mandatory training to learn how to handle them, which takes away time and energy and money from training for war. Troops will need to figure out where transsexuals will sleep and shower, how to conduct urine drug tests without inviting charges of sexual harassment, and other such delicate matters. This creates inter-unit friction, reducing operational efficiency.

If someone is away for months on end, or if that person’s performance is compromised due to elective medical treatment, everybody else will have to take up his duties. They must take up more than their fair share of the burden, because someone, in their eyes, wants to be a special snowflake.

In a high-pressure, high-stakes organisation like the military, everybody must know if they can count on you to do your duty. If you can’t, they will have to pay the price. The military might as well recruit someone else who they can count on to be present for duty instead of recovering from elective surgery.

The Wages of Weakness

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There is presently no rush and no overwhelming need to allow transsexuals into any modern military. Barack Obama’s decision to allow transgenders to openly serve was motivated more by politics than sound military judgment. Trump’s ban prevented the military from experiencing the full impact of this policy.

Transsexuals place great burdens on the military that far exceeds their tiny population size. Individual transsexuals may bring talent into the military, but that advantage is vastly outweighed by the other costs.

And in the military, the price is paid in blood.

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.

Anime Analysis: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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Party wipe in the first five minutes.

If the anime adaptation of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash were set in a realistic and unforgiving world, the main cast would have been slaughtered in the first fight scene. Fortunately for them, they somehow blunder their way out and live to fight another die. Unfortunately, the sequence underscores the unreality of the series, placing Grimgar in that nebulous zone between fantasy and realism.

In contrast to most fantasy stories commonly seen in Japanese media, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash adopts a mundane approach. There are no grand quests or epic adventures, powerful villains or magical weapons, just a band of young people trying to make their way in a strange new world by hunting monsters. Driven more by character drama and interactions than by plot, the anime explores loss and grief and emotional bonds between people.

Alas, its attempts at emotional realism doesn’t translate to the realism in the rest of the story.

So-called Setting

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Pretty pastel colours won’t compensate for a lack of sense.

The setting makes no sense. The tiny slice of Grimgar that the characters inhabit do not exist independently of the characters. Once the party leaves town, it’s as if the town, and everything and everyone in it it, ceases to exist.

When the cast arrives in the world of Grimgar, they discover they have no memories of the past and no idea how they got there. They decide to serve as ‘Volunteer Soldiers’, the world’s equivalent of adventurers, to make a living. Starting as trainees, they must hunt monsters, sell their remains, and earn enough money to become full-fledged Volunteer Soldiers. This is where the setting runs into issues.

In true RPG fashion, the characters sign up at various Guilds to learn a job. After paying a membership fee, they enjoy seven days of training before being left to fend for themselves as trainee Volunteer Soldiers. The Guilds themselves serve no major purpose: they do not represent the interests of their members, they do not participate in politics, and they do not organise expeditions. It’s as if the only reason the Guilds exist is to make money off membership fees and provide skills training.

In such a setting, you’d think the Guilds would treat their members as investments instead of expendable spear fodder. Seven days isn’t anywhere near enough to turn someone into a competent fighter, and it shows. The cast of Grimgar are the leftovers people nobody else wants to party with. In their initial fight scenes they are hopelessly outmatched and utterly incapable of fighting. In a realistic setting, this means that the Guilds will be sending people off to die in droves. They aren’t going to make much money, if at all.

Likewise, while there are religions in Grimgar, they don’t seem to serve any purpose except being the functional equivalent of Guilds. The one time a temple is shown, it’s for a funeral. The priests do not seem to serve any religious purpose except for casting healing magic, in which case they might as well be white mages. There are no holy books, no divine teachings, nothing that marks them as religions as opposed to guilds with funny rituals.

Then comes the question of the economy. Volunteer Soldiers make money by hunting monsters and selling loot, including monster parts. Why are these parts useful? Why is there demand for these goods? Who uses these items and for what purpose? Ranta the Dark Knight offers monster parts in exchange for a Vice, but that is the only time a monster part is seen to have utility. There is no sense of a living economy in Grimgar; for all intents and purposes the scavenged monster parts might as well be vendor trash.

As for the monsters themselves, why are humans hunting them? Why are they roaming the world? What do they want? If they pose such a threat that humans are incentivised to kill them on sight, then why isn’t there a formal military hunting down and destroying these monsters? Why is the task of defending humans from monsters left to roaming packs of Volunteer Soldiers who lack skills and experience?

It becomes painfully obvious that the world of Grimgar runs on role playing game tropes to the exclusion of authenticity. Everything that exists serves the characters, and by extension, the viewer. The monsters create a sense of threat. The economy grinds down the party, forcing them to make tough financial choices. The Guilds teach skills, but nothing more. This is the kind of worldbuilding you expect from a game.

In a game, the player engages the mechanics first and story second. The player doesn’t need to worry the things that don’t concern his party; he just needs to breeze through the storyline and the world so he can get on with slaying monsters and picking up loot. While it would be nice if the game lore talks about monsters, politics and the economy, it is not necessary to enjoy the game or even run a game.

In a story, however, the setting must hold together as a coherent whole, as the characters will be doing more in the setting than just hunting monsters and picking up loot. Indeed, the Grimgar anime tries to show this by following characters in their off-time as they haggle in the marketplace, enjoy meals, and do other mundane things. Beyond the superficial level, though, you’ll quickly realise that Grimgar’s setting simply doesn’t hold together.

To create the feel of a living, breathing world, a fantasy setting must exist on its own, independent of the characters. The characters may change the society they live in, but the setting itself must justify and sustain its continued existence without the characters’ input. Otherwise, the society wouldn’t exist without them, which is ridiculous if the characters are newcomers to the world.

Contrast Grimgar’s setting with Danmachi. In this world, there is an enormous labyrinth under the town of Orario that spawns endless numbers of monsters, which possess magic stones at their cores. These magic stones are inherently valuable, as their stored magic can be used for cooking, water purification and other necessary activities. This generates demand for the stones, which justifies the existence of adventurers who brave the dungeon to kill monsters and recover stones, and the existence of an Adventurer’s Guild which trades these stones for money and regulates the activities of adventurers. The Guild can sell the recovered stones to merchants for a tidy profit, ensuring its continued existence, and the merchants can conduct commerce with these stones. Such wealth would naturally create the conditions for a dungeon-based economy to spring up around Orario. Orario itself doesn’t need a formal army to fight monsters, since the monsters are usually confined to the dungeon, some adventurers are one man or one woman armies, and the most powerful Familias are small armies unto themselves.

The setting of Danmachi feels more coherent than Grimgar because it is justified and self-sustaining in-story, much like real-world societies. While Grimgar deliberately poses many questions and leaves them unanswered, there must be a rational explanation for settings and institutions, even if they are implied instead of explicitly stated. Otherwise, what we have is a half-baked world, fit only for D&D games.

Empty Violence

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GOBLIN uses EYE POWER! It’s not very effective…

I don’t watch anime for action scenes. I’m invariably disappointed if I do. Grimgar is no different.

Grimgar tries to use many tricks to portray the party’s lack of skills and the impact of violence. Under the Scope talks specifically the use of weight, both physical and emotional. In my view, though, the weight makes the action scenes fail.

Let’s start with physical weight. Knife-wielding characters move and strike swiftly. Characters with swords move a tad slower and swing their weapons through large arcs. Moguzo with his oversized longsword swings his weapon with the awkwardness and authority you’d expect from a heavy weapon. It appears intuitive, but to people who practice weapon-based arts, this portrayal of weight falls flat.

As a rule, weapons are closer and faster than you expect. Watch this clip of a knife back cut. Blink and you will miss it. Likewise, when facing a sword cut thrown with full power and intent, you’ll only have fractions of a second to react. A polearm, wielded properly, isn’t much slower. As Metatron points out, great swords aren’t enormously heavy.

Contrary to anime portrayals, weapons can’t be clumsy and heavy: such weapons are hard to wield and will leave the user vulnerable. We see this in the early episodes, when Moguzo’s swings are clumsy and throw him off-balance. Weapons must be light enough to allow the user to recover and reorient after a swing. Heavy weapons will kill their users — they can only exist in a fantasy setting with superstrong users who can wield such weapons with ease or in a world where enemies that don’t know how to take advantage of awkward blows. Grimgar chooses the latter approach, degrading the perception of the threat the monsters pose.

Other tired tropes show up. Characters block sword blows with knives, never mind that the velocity, mass and inertia of a sword would batter the knife away. Limb shots don’t count: characters with wounded limbs can continue fighting with that limb. Characters clash swords and push away at each other, turning a contest of skill into one of plain brute force.

In visual media, viewers have to be able to see the action. This probably explains at least in part why the awkwardly heavy weapon trope has endured for so long. However, the knowledgeable creator doesn’t have to rely on imagined weight to pull off exciting fight scenes. Junketsu no Maria has accurate portrayals of Historical European Martial Arts, with characters using proper techniques and tactics to defeat their opponents.

The psychological aspects of combat in Grimgar are also lacking. On The Scope makes good points about how the camera work, character portrayals and the like feel like the party is in a life-or-death struggle, but life-or-death fights go beyond that.

Throughout the fight scenes, especially early on, characters stand around and yell encouragement, make speeches or banter with each other. They stare at wounds and weapons in the middle of a fight. The goblins in turn stand around and make noise or wait until the humans act. Occasionally, after dodging an attack, goblins actually jeer instead of counterattacking. There are huge gaps in the action and too much hesitation on both sides.

This may be fine if you want to portray a group of incompetent characters, but the monsters suffer from this too. Nobody exploits the speeches, the in-party arguments and other gaps in the action. In a realistic world the monsters would press the advantage — especially the combat veterans. Without anyone displaying a killer instinct or at least training, there is no perception of killing intent. These gaps are counterproductive: instead of emphasising the emotional impact of the fight scene, they suck intensity from it. Indeed, Minato’s early speech on fighting comes off as the producers trying too hard to convince the viewer that it’s a real fight.

Properly portraying incompetence requires knowledge of what it actually looks like. It’s more than just missed shots, awkward movements and bad plans. It’s clumsy footwork, resulting in trips and pratfalls and self-injury. It’s charging in recklessly and being flanked or surrounded by enemies. It’s falling for feints. It’s awkward body mechanics and poor posture, leading to reduced power, poor recovery, telegraphing and openings. Absolute newbies may even cut themselves with their own weapons.

Likewise, fights are governed by more than weight. They are about range, timing, footwork, beats, body mechanics, openings, lines and angles, teamwork, and avoiding fratricide and self-injury. Nobody — not the humans or the monsters — demonstrate more than a passing familiarity with these concepts, not even the more dangerous kobolds near the end of the series.

In a realistic world, a single mistake in combat is fatal. Yet characters keep recovering from these mistakes without penalty. This makes the major fight scenes feel fake. It’s as if both sides are just taking turns to exchange blows instead of actively trying to kill each other. This in turn makes the fight scenes feel artificial: the human characters aren’t actually at risk since they’re fighting unskilled threats, so whenever they are wounded it becomes a plot contrivance instead of an organic consequence of fighting skilled foes. Likewise, there is no sense that the characters actually improve their fighting skills, instead relying on planning and sheer luck to compensate for poor combat ability.

At the strategic level, the monsters show their stupidity. While they eventually adapt to human tactics, they have no grasp of higher-level strategy or even basic security. Early on, when the heroes are observing a party of goblins, the goblins are busy drinking without anyone pulling security. The goblins know that humans are hunting them, but some insist on traveling alone. When the humans raid a ruin occupied by goblins, the goblins don’t increase security, hunt for intruder or even react to assassinations of their kind until a significant plot point–making that point feel artificial instead of an organic consequence. Likewise, when the humans go hunting in a mine filled with kobolds, the kobolds have no security measures in place, no quick response force, and instead of stationing their elites near the entrance so they can efficiently fight off invaders, they are positioned deep inside the mine because…reasons.

You’d expect this from a game. Game designers need to give the player a chance to win and explore interesting settings in depth. To this end, game designers have to create a difficulty curve for the player, and create moments of drama only when the player is familiar enough with the setting and the monsters to be victorious. But in a story, this makes the monsters appear no smarter than a pack of dogs.

The characters are bad at fighting, and the monsters are only slightly worse. It’s the only reason there wasn’t a party wipe in the first five minutes.

Alleged Characters

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Band of LARPers

It’s clear why the main characters of Grimgar are at the bottom of the heap. The real wonder is how they are still alive.

The anime is marked by its slow-paced character-development. This might make sense if the story takes place under ordinary circumstances. But venturing into monster-infested ruins and forests to kill goblins for money is not ordinary, and the anime fails to account for this.

The characters lack curiosity about the world. They don’t research the world, they don’t investigate how society works, they don’t even talk to other Volunteer Soldiers to discuss the monsters. Even the notion of going to a pub to socialise with other Volunteer Soldiers is an alien concept to most of the party until halfway through the first arc of the series.

The party also lacks imagination. When funds are low, the party decides to take risks to hunt more monsters. Never mind that the party has a hunter, a thief, and a warrior talented in cooking or sculpting. The hunter doesn’t hunt game animals to ease their food expenses. The thief won’t engage in thievery, not even stealing from goblins instead of humans. Nobody talks about scavenging the monsters’ equipment, or at least explain why they won’t or can’t use them — and nobody discusses selling the monsters’ gear as well. Likewise, nobody pressures Moguzo to sell his carvings for spare cash, or at least to not waste time and money buying and carving up wood when they don’t any money to spare. You’d think that people who are desperate for money would rack their brains to think of how to make more money and reduce expenses — but our party is evidently too stupid to do so.

Beyond their intellectual failings, it’s clear the party isn’t serious about their profession. Many scenes in the anime involve the characters talking about mundane, everyday things. The party is never shown practicing with their weapons, rehearsing new tactics or discussing how to defeat the monsters. They get better at planning, to be sure, but planning alone isn’t enough. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and if the party isn’t familiar with each other’s roles and actions on target they will trip up each other and die. They are counting on live battle experience to get better at execution, which is pretty stupid: you always practice new tactics, weapons and ideas in a safe environment so that when you make mistakes people won’t die and you can correct them without having to adjust on the fly.

Somehow, the party outlives their mistakes and gains battle experience, but they are not changed by the violence they have inflicted. Veterans quickly learn how to adapt to war. It’s in the little things: readjusting their gear for better fit and speedier deployment, taking up tactical formation while travelling to better respond to ambushes, warily scanning for threats everywhere they go. None of this happens. The characters don’t even suffer any lasting psychological stress or trauma from killing or from being wounded. They do experience grief, but after the initial episodes they themselves are not affected by the violence they personally deliver.

The characters treat combat lightly. They approach it like a job or a game instead of desperate life-or-death struggles that don’t seem to serve any larger purpose. The first couple of episodes tries to lend emotional weight to combat, but this tone is not maintained throughout the series. The party is incredibly casual about violence, not caring about training or rehearsals — because in a world of poorly-choreographed action scenes, there are no penalties for ill-preparedness until the plot demands it. This lack of seriousness contrasts sharply with the earnestness of the emotional scenes delivered throughout the anime. Instead of sympathizing with the characters, I felt myself wondering why they care so little about their own lives.

Once again, these aspects can be overlooked in a game, since players want to get on to the exciting bits and skip the boring parts. But in a story, where characters have to appear authentic, the main cast of Grimgar come off less as Volunteer Soldiers and more like teen LARPers.

Conclusion

Grimgar tries to be realistic, but it’s too heavily wedded to unjustified and inexplicable RPG tropes. Instead of being a hybrid RPG / fantasy story like *Saga of the Shield Heroes * or an outright RPG-esque or fantasy story, it occupies a nebulous middle ground with the worst of both worlds.

If a story world is meant to be realistic, and if characters don’t respect the laws of the world, then the characters must be severely punished. It is simply cause and effect. Failure to uphold this law of storytelling undermines the perception of realism, and with it, the entire story. Conversely, if a story world runs on casual gaming tropes, then this must be made explicitly clear as early and as often as possible, so that the consumer will apply game logic instead of real world logic to the story. If a story wants to walk the middle ground between realistic fantasy and RPG fantasy, then it must strike a delicate balance while remaining internally coherent and believable.

If Grimgar were a video game, none of these issues would have mattered. But since Grimgar is a story, the clash between realism and RPG tropes fatally undermines it.

All images from the anime Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

The Way of Non-Attachment

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In my last post I discussed how hedonism leads to emptiness and suffering. Hedonism is a self-destructive mindset born from attachment to sensory pleasure. The antidote is the cultivation of non-attachment.

In Buddhist thought, craving (tanha) creates attachment (upadana) whose fruit is suffering (dukkha). If you fail to achieve what you desire, you experience suffering. If you do achieve what you desire, you may feel temporary happiness, before descending into suffering.

As an example, imagine an executive who feels unhappy because he can’t afford to live the high life. The latter is the craving resulting in attachment to the idea that he should live a life of luxury. To overcome his emotional distress, he decides to secure five-figure monthly income. He puts in 80-hour workweeks, sucks up to his bosses, aggressively negotiates for raises, and ruthlessly cuts out everyone who stands in his way. He achieves his target income and sinks his money into a magnificent house, expensive cars, club memberships and other pointless trinkets. To maintain his new lifestyle, he has to continue putting in 80-hour workweeks, juggle the bills, play office politics and watch for backstabbers — and in the process wrecking his health and sanity.

Our imaginary executive desired money and prestige, and willingly made himself a slave to money. Despite the outward appearance of success, he suffers immense workplace pressure and puts in crazy hours that sap his energy to maintain his lifestyle, and in the process suffering from even more money-related stress. His attachment to wealth and the appearance of success sucked him into a vicious, self-destructive cycle instead of taking him to contentment.

In Buddhist thought, there are four kinds of attachment: sensory pleasure, wrong view, rites and rituals, and self-doctrine (i.e. assuming that one has a permanent, unchanging self). Pursuing these cravings creates fuel for further suffering, since you will experience suffering either from not having what you crave or when you want more of it.

In light of this, non-attachment is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. By eliminating craving, one removes attachment and therefore suffering. The practice of renunciation, or nekkhamma, enables a person to free himself from worldly desires and gain spiritual perfection.

Non-attachment can also be found in other philosophies and religions from around the world. The New Testament of the Bible encourages Christians to exercise non-attachment, following the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. The Stoics held material possessions lightly and refused to be controlled by their desires, instead striving to be content with their lot in life. The Dao De Jing notes that people attached to material goods will suffer much, while contented people are rarely disappointed.

The practice of non-attachment is a universal concept. Regardless of your personal view on religion, the practice of non-attachment through renunciation of harmful desires leads to inner peace and saves you from self-destruction.

Ambition and Non-Attachment

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Not everyone is called to be a Buddhist monk, a hermit, or an ascetic, and that is perfectly fine. If you wish to live in the modern world then you need to abide by its norms and customs. You will need food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, education and so many other sundry things to get by. Quite naturally, you will need wealth to live.

For lay people, material goods and wealth are not necessarily evil if they create the conditions for contentment. It is going to be extremely hard to be content if you have to hold three jobs and work for 16 hours every day of the week just to eke out a living. If you do not need to worry about current and future expenses, your mind is at ease and will more readily find a state of contentment. Thus, for lay people, it is not wrong to be ambitious or to pursue career goals and dreams, so long as they do not lead to suffering.

The key is to understand what you want and why you want it. Armed with this insight you can predict if they will lead to suffering. Thus, if you want to earn one million dollars for the sake of obtaining luxury goods and the trappings of wealth, you can be sure to experience no end of *dukkha*, since these desires cannot be permanently satiated. Conversely, if you wish simply to be able to live a smooth life without ever having to worry about bills and unexpected expenses, you will be less likely to overextend yourself, push yourself to the breaking point and ruin your health and relationships.

Pair this insight with what you truly need for a fulfilling life. This could mean adequate food and clothing, shelter, positive relationships and community, and life purpose. You will realise that few of these things are material objects. Everything else is simply nice to have; there would not be any significant impact on your well-being whether you have them or not.

When you find yourself intensely craving something, ask yourself *why* you want it. What need are you trying to fulfil? Is it necessary to your well-being, or are you simply chasing transient feelings? If it is an essential need like food or medicine or a critical tool for a job, then there is no harm in obtaining it. If you are simply using it as an emotional crutch, then the best route is to let it go.

Your thoughts become your reality. How you think about yourself changes the way you feel, perceive and act. Whatever you turn your attention to becomes so. If all your thoughts are consumed with thoughts about making more money or hoarding it, you become a money-hungry monster. If your thoughts are filled with compassion towards others, you become more compassionate. Thus, if you find yourself ensnared with desire, simply turn your thoughts to something else, or clear your mind through focused meditation. Starved of attention, desire dissipates into nothingness.

This process applies to all forms of harmful desires, be it desire for material goods or casual sex or emotional disturbances. If you find yourself obsessing over something to the point where you experience suffering from it, such as ruminating over your failures or why you can’t get something, simply turn your thoughts to more productive uses — including how to improve your life instead of remaining where you are — and act on them.

You are not an eternal and unchanging being. Your life will change over time. It is inevitable. When your circumstances change, so will your life, your wants and needs. When these change, don’t resist it. Simply take stock of what has changed, understand your new life requirements, and take appropriate action to achieve a state of well-being.

Life is to be lived well. Not in the pursuit of fleeting things or feelings, but in fulfilment and in contentment. To reach such a state, identify the desires that lead to suffering and parse them from your life. With a free spirit and a light heart, you can escape suffering and find contentment in all things.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

How to Write Someone Else’s Martial Arts

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Fight scenes are fun. Fight scenes featuring believable techniques are even more fun. If you already know martial arts, incorporating them should be easier. But what if you don’t? Or if the story calls for characters to use other martial arts you haven’t studied?

It’s a question I faced when writing recent stories. My latest novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, required a character to be proficient in historical European martial arts, specifically the German school of longsword fencing. Another novella I wrote last year placed Chinese martial arts in the limelight. Unfortunately, I do not have any training in those styles, and there was no way to justify having the characters use the style I have trained in.

The best answer to the question is to simply train in that new style, or at least ask someone who has trained in that art to look over the fight scenes. But this may not always be available to you. Teachers in the styles I have selected aren’t readily available here. Here’s what I did to make fight scenes realistic and research less headache-inducing.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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A martial art is a paradigm. It is a method of moving your body to solve specific problems in a specific environment. These problems can be as simple as breaking a fall or as complex as handling multiple armed attackers hell-bent on killing you. The signature of a martial art lies in its approach to problem-solving based on its operating assumptions.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu aims to solve the problem of how to force a single opponent into a submission without necessarily causing permanent damage. Classical karate provides practitioners a means of unarmed self-defense against ruffians. Kali tackles the problem of confronting attackers armed with weapons. Some branches of HEMA attempt to replicate the battlefield techniques used by soldiers against enemies with and without armour in European battlefields.

Different martial arts are suited for different purposes in different environments. Once you understand how your chosen martial art is supposed to function, match it against the problem your character is going to run into. A kali practitioner with a baton may be able to fend off a single knife-welding opponent in a duel. A man who only knows BJJ and finds himself surrounded by raging gangsters on the street is in deep trouble. Depending on your writing goal, this may or may not necessarily be a bad thing. The trick is to know what kind of scene you want before writing it, and to explore the consequences of success or failure following the action scene.

The Way You Move

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In the age of YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, it’s easy to simply watch a selection of fight techniques online and replicate them in writing. However, every trained martial artist knows that techniques do not exist in a vacuum. Throwing random techniques does not a fight scene make; to write action scenes at a higher level, you must understand why a character will choose to move in a certain way in a given situation.

Different martial arts have different ways of moving to solve problems in different environments. The key to breaking down an art into its essentials is to understand the way its practitioners move. In particular, look at footwork, power generation and weapons. These are the three pillars that define an art.

Filipino martial arts is defined by its choice of weapons: the stick, the sword and the knife. As a weapon-based art, its practitioners assume that the opponent has a weapon. If you block a weapon with empty hands you will lose your arm; if you block with your weapon you might chip the edge and lose an opportunity for an immediate counterattack. FMA answers this problem through triangular footwork and timing. Instead of meeting force with force, the ideal is to get off the line of attack, evading the attack altogether, and disable the opponent’s arm and/or finish him off.

FMA relies heavily on hip rotation to generate power. Every strike ends in a chamber position, allowing the practitioner to seamlessly chain together a string of attacks without having to reposition his hands or feet. This combination of swinging hips and attack chaining is the basis of the FMA concept of flow: transitioning seamlessly from one technique to another to overwhelm the enemy with a blitz of strikes.

Sword-based Historical European Martial Arts appears to have some superficial similarities with FMA. However, FMA was developed in a jungle archipelago; the local climate makes wearing heavy armour impractical for most conditions. Europe’s climate allowed knights and wealthy soldiers to wear armour for extended periods. Plate armour mitigates or outright defeats the FMA tactic of stepping off-line and slashing the arm or thrusting to the body. In addition, unlike many traditional Filipino swords, European battlefield swords tend to have pronounced crossguards. Later swords incorporated knuckle-bows, basket hilts and cup hilts. These guards rendered decisive strikes to the hand more difficult.

The combination of armour and weapon characteristics lend themselves to different tactics. A HEMA longsword practitioner can bind the enemy’s sword, using his crossguard to trap the blade and protect himself, and thrust his own sword through gaps in the enemy’s armour. The historical fencer may also hold his sword by the blade instead of the handle, using the crossguard to hook, trap and trip his enemy–and the crossguard and pommel can be used to deliver the infamous murder stroke, using concussive force to defeat helmets. Further, HEMA training also emphasises preventing double-kills and guarding against afterblows from a dying opponent, an element not usually found in FMA, since FMA footwork ideally places the practitioner outside of the enemy’s reach.

In marked contrast, the signature weapon of the Chinese art of Bajiquan is the spear. Specifically, the daqiang, a long and heavy spear. The length and weight of the weapon makes it much harder for a practitioner to simply evade an incoming attack and counterattack in the same beat the way an FMArtist can with a light single-handed sword. Bajiquan spear techniques instead focus on controlling the enemy’s weapon with your own, either by small circles or swats, and immediately thrusting into unguarded space.

Empty hand Bajiquan carries echoes of the spear, emphasising explosive, linear movements like those needed to drive a spear home. Bajiquan delivers power through falling steps and abrupt movements, synergising with the footwork. Bajiquan footwork carry the practitioner deep into the enemy’s space to control his centreline, enabling the practitioner to destroy him with close-in body weapons: headbutts, elbows, hooks, low kicks, body slams and grappling.

While these are generalities, we can see how footwork, power generation and weapon characteristics make up the signature of an art. Tactics and techniques are derived from how the art trains its practitioners to move and the weapons the practitioners study. Once you know how a martial artist is likely to move based on his training, you can create a more believable actions scene.

The Fighter’s Heart

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You know what art your fighter studies, how he will move, and why he will move. Now it’s time to introduce the human element.

My approach to writing action scenes is similar to Chinese martial arts film. Every fight scene is fundamentally a clash between humans, and martial arts is a medium to express their unique personalities and achieve their goals. There are as many ways to express a martial art as there are practitioners. Different fighters have different personalities, skill levels, assumptions and conditioning, and their techniques will reflect that.

A large, strong, aggressive fighter is likely to charge straight into the fray, bashing aside all obstacles in his way. A defensive fighter will stay at long range and hang back until the time for a counterattack. A crafty martial artist will use feints and deception to create windows of opportunity to attack.

A martial art is like a toolbox. A fighter’s personality tells you which tools he will prefer to use. These are the techniques you need to pay extra attention to in your research and the ones your fighter unleashes in battle. It also means you don’t need to spend so much time looking for stuff you probably won’t use in your own work.

Taking Things to the Next Level

A fight scene is a clash of wills expressed in motion. When writing an unfamiliar martial art, you don’t necessarily have to have complete knowledge of the art to properly portray it. But to do justice to the art, you need to know the pillars of the art, its footwork, tactics and weapons, and know how your character will express the art. Armed with this knowledge, you can elevate your fight scenes to the next level.

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And if you want to see how well I did writing a bunch of foreign martial arts, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House bookstore.

Movie Review: A Silent Voice

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The anime Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice) is an excellent movie marred by flawed execution. At its heart, Koe no Katachi is a story about redemption, friendship and overcoming social anxiety, covering childhood bullying, suicide and the psychic scars of isolation and ostracism. The anime makes excellent use of its heavy subject matter, creating a realistic and entertaining character study.

But only of the protagonist.

The Sole Driver

The story focuses on Ishida Shoya, a former delinquent trying to do good. When he was in elementary school, Nishimiya Shoko transferred into his class. Nishimiya is deaf, relying on hearing aids and communicating mainly through written notes on her notebook or through sign language. While she can speak, she is unable to properly articulate her words. Her mannerisms lead Ishida to pick on her, causing the rest of the class to join in.

Until one day, he goes too far.

In an instant, the entire class turns on him. Nishimiya transfers out. Nishimiya’s deeds haunt him through the rest of his days in elementary school. Guilt and regret set in, festering into crippling social anxiety. In high school, Ishida is unable to even look at most people, picturing a ‘X’ in place of their faces.

With no plans and no hope for the future, Ishida contemplates suicide. But one day, he meets Nishimiya again, discovering that she attends the same high school. Ishida reaches out to her, and begins his long journey to acceptance, recovery and redemption.

The anime’s critical weakness lies in having too many characters. Nearly named character from the manga appears in the anime. This leaves very little screen time for all of them. While a manga has the capacity to fully explore the minds and actions of supporting characters in depth, the two-hour anime adaptation can only do so much. The anime elects to focus on Ishida’s struggles to face his past, understand the meaning of ‘friendship’, and fight through the mental block that isolates him from everyone else. While it was masterfully done, it came at the cost of character development for everyone else.

Every supporting character is defined by their deeds and personalities, and remain static for much of the film. Aside from Ishida, only Nishimiya Shoko and Yuzuru enjoy character growth — the former by being more willing to interact with others, the latter by growing friendlier and less sullen.

While everybody has believable personas and act entirely in line with their core beliefs and attitudes, the secondary characters exist mainly as a means to reflect Ishida’s progress in becoming more sociable. Indeed, characters like Mashiba Satoshi and Nishimiya Ito barely have spoken lines and almost no influence on the plot. Further, at times in the anime I found it difficult to understand why some characters did the things they do; only in the manga are these motivations revealed, such as why Ueno Naoka began bullying Nishimiya, why Yuzuru takes so many photographs, or why Mashiba joins in Ishida’s social group.

It is inevitable for lengthy manga to suffer major cuts when adapted to the big screen, but at least in Koe no Katachi, the core ideas and story remain intact. It is a testimony to the studio that they managed to deliver a powerful anime in spite of eliminating major story arcs and being forced to work with many shallow characters.

Almost-Amazing Cinematography

The major flaw of the anime is its cinematography. To be sure, Koe no Katachi has excellent visuals. Every scene is stylishly depicted, combining traditional anime iconography with beautiful background scenery and fluid motions. The art direction and soundtrack shifts at key moments, driving home Ishida’s mental and emotional state.

However, those key moments are also interrupted by flashbacks and surreal sequences. This is especially jarring in the opening segments of the anime, covering Ishida’s elementary school and early high school days. These shots distract from the main event instead of adding to it, making it more difficult to keep track of events and characters and muting the overall emotional impact of these scenes. The flashbacks could be cut from the anime without loss to the story — and should have been, to retain its overall coherence.

Final Thoughts

Koe no Katachi is a beautiful coming-of-age tale of friendship and redemption — but poor cinematographic techniques undo the key scenes. It stars realistically-portrayed characters suffering from deep psychic stories and personal failings — though the secondary characters are all static. Koe no Katachi is a few steps short of being a genuine masterpiece, but it is nonetheless an amazing story in its own right.

Photo credits:

Anime poster from Wikipedia