Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'

If there’s one way that my teaching differs from others’ it’s that our practice is integrative.  We don’t study fencing and nothing else. We study fencing and everything else. We explore the connections between the sword and diverse other arts, sciences and disciplines, and the ways in which foundational principles and lessons learned from sword practice, manifest in a wide variety of other fields. 
In my opinion, it is only the ability to apply what you have learned from fencing to non-fencing situations that gives fencing relevance, even importance. 
After all, we don’t fight duels anymore, do we?

Back in around 1964, Bill Medley & Bobby Hatfield (The Righteous Brothers) had a huge hit with a song, penned by the team of Barry Mann, Phil Spector and Cynthia Weil, called “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.”  Here are some lines from the lyrics:

You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.
And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips….

Now there's no welcome look in your eyes when I reach for you.
And now you're starting to criticize little things I do.
It makes me just feel like crying, (baby).
'Cause baby, something in you is dying…..

As you can tell, this is a plaintive and poignant song about love and heartbreak.
It’s also a song about Early Pattern Recognition.

As I’ve noted elsewhere Early Pattern Recognition – EPR, for short – is the fighter’s stock in trade.  Let’s define those terms.

For our purposes, a “pattern” is an inextricably-linked sequence of events which must occur in a particular – and therefore predictable – order.  There may be many events in the sequence, or there may be only a few. There must be at least two.
To “recognize” the pattern means to know what the individual events are that make up the sequence and in what order they occur.
By “early,” we mean being able to accurately predict the final event in the sequence from recognizing the preceding ones. How early is early? It depends. If there are 10 events in a sequence, recognizing the pattern after event number 5 is earlier than recognizing the pattern at event 9, but later than recognizing the pattern at event 3.

Ideally, the pattern includes a sine qua non event. That is, some event that indicates the nature of the pattern, always indicates the nature of the pattern and never indicates anything else. If X, then Y and always Y; and if Y, then X and always X.  In practice, all patterns are not perfectly clear or perfectly reliable. Nor is the race always to the swift or the battle to the strong, as Damon Runyon noted, but that’s the way to bet.

The earlier you recognize the pattern, the more time you have to respond. That is, with “advance warning,” you can select, prepare and execute your preferred response from among a wide range of possible responses, and act appropriately and adequately.
Without advance warning, you are re-acting to your opponent’s action, always playing “catch-up,”and forever allowing your opponent to be the locus of control of your behavior, rather than the other way around.  “Catch-up” means relying on the speed of your startle reflex.
If one runner starts the race before a second runner, that second runner will have to be much faster than the first in order to compensate for the first runner’s head-start and get to the finish line before him.  It isn’t impossible. Drawing one card to fill and inside straight isn’t impossible, either. It’s just not something you bet the ranch on.

Early pattern recognition is a specific type of  situational awareness which M.R. Endsley defines as "the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future."  EPR simply means that the perception, comprehension and projection occur at or near the beginning of a sequence of environmental changes. Or you might say that situational awareness is what allows early pattern recognition.

Here’s an example from music:
I bring in a new song for the band to play.
The first guy I show it to looks at, walking through it as he talks through it. “Let’s see…,” he says, “The first measure is C;  second measure is C, too; third measure is C; and then the fourth measure, that’s also C; fifth measure is an F; sixth measure is F; then the seventh measure is a C and the eighth measure, that’s C; the ninth measure goes to G; the tenth measure is F; the eleventh measure is C again and the twelfth measure goes d minor to G.”
He’s absolutely right. He plays it through correctly playing concentrating on each measure in turn, eyes on the page.

The second cat I show it to says, “Four measures of C, two measures of F, 2 measures of C; one measure of G; one measure of F; one measure of C and one measure two beats of d minor and 2 beats of G.”
He’s absolutely right, too. He plays the tune through only occasionally glancing at the page for reference.

The third player I show it to says, “Standard 12-bar blues in C with a II-V-I turn around. Cool.”  After that he plays the piece flawlessly without referring to the page at all, concentrating instead on the more important issue of getting the brunette seated at the bar to buy him a drink.

All these musicians had pattern recognition. But only the last player had the early pattern recognition that I’m talking about.  And you can see the obvious benefit in this context.

I suppose I should use a fencing example next.
Every sword cut has two phases: the preparation phase and the execution phase. A cut cannot be executed without a preparation phase. The preparation phase must precede the execution phase. By recognizing the first event in the pattern (the preparation) you can accurately predict the second event in the pattern (the execution) and thereby select an adequate and appropriate response.
But there’s more.
Perhaps, in order to prepare and execute the cut, your opponent must adopt a particular posture or position. To the extent that this posture or position is inextricably linked to the preparation and cut to follow, it also becomes a part of the pattern, an event which you can recognize and from which you can accurately predict the subsequent events in the pattern.

Here’s an example dedicated to the guys in my old neighborhood, in my ex-hometown.
1. A man faces you on the street, his brow knitted, mouth down-curled in a scowl. Teeth set. There is a bulge under his jacket just to the right of center of the waistband of his trousers.
2. He suddenly assumes a crouched stance with his left hand grabbing and lifting up the bottom edge of his jacket.
3. With his right hand, he reaches under his jacket and grasps the grip of a handgun that is tucked into the waistband of his trousers.
4. He pulls the handgun free.
5. He aims it at you.
6. He pulls the trigger.
7. The bullet hits you.

Where in this chain of events might you like to respond adequately and appropriately?
Is it necessary to wait until the bullet hits you before you understand what’s happening?
That’s possible.
There are people who have been shot while standing frozen in fear or disbelief while it happened (deer-in-the-headlights response). To be sure the “this can’t possibly be happening” response is not at all uncommon.

But an alert, well-trained person would respond by event number 2 in the sequence.
The sudden crouch of a man drawing a gun is a very reliable predictor of subsequent events. No one goes for a wallet that way, or a comb, or parking change. Not everyone going for a gun crouches that way, but everyone who crouches that way is going for a gun. 
An even better-trained person might respond at event number 1 in the sequence, recognizing the emotional arousal, aggressive expression and tell-tale bulge above the waistband that means, no, he’s not just happy to see you.

Here’s an example from another kind of fighting: fire-fighting.
A backdraft is very dangerous event which has injured or even killed firefighters.
It’s an explosion which occurs when oxygen-starved combustible gasses, heated to above the ignition point,  are suddenly provided with oxygen – usually by someone opening a door or breaking a window.
There are characteristic signs that backdraft conditions exist: Yellow or brown smoke, and especially smoke which exits small holes in puffs which are drawn back in again giving the appearance of “breathing;” and windows which appear brown or black from the outside. 
A well-trained firefighter constantly monitors the changes in the environment so that when the first tiny “puffs” of smoke appear at the edges of a door or window, that firefighter immediately recognizes the backdraft pattern and responds with adequate and appropriate action.

Now allow me to get the dramatic conclusion of this little discourse with one more example of early pattern recognition, and, in my opinion, a critical one. It’s an example that some of my students find very disturbing, and so they should.

Dr. Lawrence Britt compared the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile), and found that they had 14 elements in common. Among these are:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of "need." The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

4. Supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

7. Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

9. Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

Using Dr. Britt’s checklist it’s possible to compare and contrast a given country – let’s say, the United States of America – with one of the fascist models, such as Hitler’s Germany.

Some Americans might bristle at such a comparison. “But we’re not herding thousands of citizens into cattle cars to take them off to concentration camps!” they protest.
No. Indeed, we’re not.
At least, not yet.
And neither was Adolf Hitler  --  in 1938.
We are, at the moment, at an earlier point in the event sequence. Hitler’s death camps were the final event in the sequence.

It isn’t necessary to wait until the bullet strikes you to recognize the pattern of a threat and take appropriate action to prevent it, and neither is it necessary to wait until mass imprisonments and/or mass “extrajudicial killings” are occurring in America before taking adequate and appropriate action to prevent it.
“Absolute proof” that your pattern recognition is 100% accurate can only come with the unfolding of the final event in the sequence – and then it’s too late to act.
It isn’t just “pattern recognition” that we’re interested in, but early pattern recognition.
The earlier, the better.
History teaches us that early pattern recognition could have saved many millions of innocent lives from the predations of psychopathic tyrants, had the populace responded adequately and appropriately at the first sign of trouble.

I submit that one of the most valuable things about the sword is that it cultivates your sensitivity to patterns, thereby enhancing your capacity for early pattern recognition. It also, I hope, promotes early pattern recognition as a general “habit.”

You never know when that may save your life.



  1. Let me clarify one point about this article in response to an observation from a very dear friend.

    I say “early pattern recognition could have saved many millions of innocent lives from the predations of psychopathic tyrants, had the victims responded adequately and appropriately at the first sign of trouble.”

    This is by no means a “blame the victim” point of view. I’m certainly not saying and do not mean to imply anything like “It was their own dumb fault; they should have seen it coming. They got what they deserved for being stupid.”
    That’s not my point at all. It’s not even in the same zip code as my point.

    The only one to blame for a crime is the one who does the crime. Period.
    Rape is NEVER the victim’s fault; it’s always the rapist’s fault.
    Robbery is NEVER the victim’s fault; it’s always the robber’s fault.
    And genocide is NEVER the victim’s fault; it’s always the fault of the bloody bastards who do the killing. So many people have fallen victim to mass murder – American Indians, Armenians, Jews, Christians, political dissidents of all stripes --- to compile an exhaustive list would be --- exhausting. None of them “deserved what they got.” And none of them were to blame for it.

    A sane, reasonable, rational, decent human being might never “see it coming” without having been specifically trained to do so, just as the average person might not recognize the signs of backdraft as a trained firefighter would, or recognize the pattern of a 12-bar blues the way an experienced musician would, or recognize a sabre cut to the head the way a trained fencer would, or pick up on the signs that a relationship is ending the way a person might who’s had the poor old ticker busted up once before.

    My theory is that if we could teach people early pattern recognition AND get them to a level of creative competence that enables them to apply that in diverse areas of their lives, they might be able to recognize bad things coming before those bad things happen, and we might then have a fighting chance to keep those bad things from happening. And I think that would be a good thing.


  2. Ric Alvarez writes:
    Good article.

    I recently read a story online about how people fail to act in an emergency. They highlighted a particular airline accident, where people sat stunned in their seats, and burned to death – instead of getting up and walking out the hole in the fuselage. Those who HAD survived, had prepared themselves ahead of time by reading the ‘what to do in an emergency’ cards. They had visualized the exits, and their actions in case of emergency. THEY WERE PREPARED.

    When I used to fly sailplanes, I was either going up, or coming down. When I was going up – I kept one eye on the altimeter, and another on the cloud base above me. But I was ALWAYS aware of where I might land if I had to go down. “That field would be good – that dirt road over there, the airport is to the south…” whatever. Situational awareness.

    When I teach fencing, I teach the distinction between ANTICIPATION and PREPARATION.

    Anticipation gets you hit.
    Preparation allows you to hit.

    As you pointed out, effective EPR relies on a Sin Qua Non – a moment beyond which the unfolding pattern is committed.

    But a good FEINT relies upon the opponent’s anticipation of the action. A ‘faulty’ EPR if you will. It LOOKS like it’s going to unfold in a certain way, and then changes roles at the latest possible moment. This is part of fencing with second intention – setting up a pattern so that your opponent takes an action that you are preparing for.

    Anticipation is a trap.

    Preparation is the way out.

    Understanding possible negative outcomes, planning for them, is not a ‘negative’ mind set. “Plan for the worst, hope for the best – LIVE IN THE MOMENT”.

    Understanding possible negative outcomes, constantly living them out in your mind, is ‘borrowing trouble’ from the future.

    Anticipation is the foundation of paranoia. The guy on the street, might be grimacing over a pain in his gut. The bulge might be a bag of candy or a cell phone. Things aren’t ALWAYS what they appear to be on the surface. Especially if you're pre-disposed to look for a particular pattern. Be prepared for it to be a gun, but also be prepared for it to be a bag of skittles. Hold both possible courses of action in your mind as equally valid.

    That’s called balance. That’s the ZEN thing.

    That’s the Holy Grail of combat – or as you point out – everything else in life. That Sin Qua Non – where is it? It will be different in each pattern. It takes diligence, study and practice – understanding the difference between a feint, and a false lead.

    Anticipation gets you hit.
    Preparation allows you to hit.

    Understand patterns. Prepare for outcomes. But don’t live in fear.

    Fear is the mind killer.

  3. Thanks, Ric!
    GREAT comments, right on point.

    Each encounter is unique. No matter how much alike two situations are, there are differences.
    Yet, not matter how different two encounters are, there are similarities.
    I love paradox. (Even three, maybe four doxes...)

    This is why training never ends, why no one's ever "perfect" or an "expert."
    You must be able to recognize finer and finer distinctions between increasingly similar patterns -- that's how you know the feint from the real attack.

    That balance you mention is critical and is expressed in what I call the principle of economy of action: if it is not necessary to act, it is necessary not to act.

    This is all about recognizing the sine qua non element of the pattern, and acting at the "critical moment" when earlier would be too soon, and later would be too late.

    Thanks again for your very astute observations.



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