Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why We Learn to Fight

Continuing my new habit of posting about my To-Shin Do experiences, I'd just like to say that this week was pretty awesome, in no small part because I actually made it to TWO whole classes! Thursday and Saturday both saw me, this back-woods country boy turned nerdy ninja, hanging out in downtown Detroit learning a centuries-old martial tradition. Side-bar:  when I think of everything that had to happen throughout history and in my own life in order to make this possible .. it's crazy .. and pretty cool.

Anyway, the Thursday night class was mainly concentrated on testing, which is very different from the way I am used to testing. For one thing, it seems a lot more detailed and harder, and this is a good thing. This way, I don't run the risk of wearing a black belt someday yet not really being worthy of it (and worse, not knowing it). A twist of fate or someone's administrative screw-up forced us out of our usual facility and into the building's parking garage. This was made even more interesting by two things.

The Michigan Theater turned Parking Structure
(not my picture - found it on the web)
First, the parking garage used to be a very ornate old-time theater. The ceiling in particular consists of the remnants of what was once a grand cathedral-style piece of gilded-age architecture, but is now pocked with holes and crumbling, just like the rest of the place that wasn't converted into parking spaces. Littered about the ground were tiny bits of exploded "plaster bombs" that continue to fall randomly from the once majestic ceiling turned symbol of the sort of urban decay you can only find in the Motor City. It was almost surreal - I wish I had taken a picture - it was beautiful in a morbid sort of way, like ancient ruins of something great that has long since passed.

Second, we weren't the only ones using the parking lot that night. Aside from the birds and bats nesting in the ruins, it seems some local law students decided that would be a great place to have a kegger, blast loud music, and play some game that I'm unfamiliar with, so I'll just call it "throw the bean-bag into the hole in the target thingy." It reminded me of horseshoes, but without the large metal objects and therefore a lot less clanging. These folks were pleasant enough, and a few of them even wandered over to check us out - especially once the swords came out.

After class, we had to walk directly through the party in order to reach the exit, and one of the students who had obviously had a few beers stopped us and asked us a few questions. Of course, once he learned we were ninjas in training, he wanted to arrange a "fight" with one of his co-workers and asked us if we'd like to fight this guy. My friend and I answered with an immediate "No," and the guy then asked, "well, why are  you learning how to fight, then?"

I thought that was a great question, and it deserves an answer. Why DO we learn these fighting skills, if not to fight? There are a lot of answers, really. We practice the art as a way to learn about our minds and bodies, as a way to strengthen and improve our health, and things like that. But why learn combat skills when you can get those benefits from things like Yoga or working out at the gym?

The truth for me is that we learn to fight hoping we never need to. But, if we do, we will have the skills to protect the ones we love, the ones who can't fight for themselves, the innocent stranger, and even, to some extent, to protect the same enemy who would challenge us. That last part seems contradictory, but it's true - most of the techniques we learn are geared towards ending the fight without doing any permanent damage to the attacker. The winner of a fight is the guy that gets to go home in one piece afterwards, but even an aggressor who instigates a fight has a family to go home to at the end of the day, too .. so we learn how to avoid first, and if we have to, diffuse a violent situation with minimal damage to everyone. Sure, someone might end up with a broken arm or at least a bruised ego, but it actually takes a LOT to escalate a situation to the point that would require a ninja to permanently maim or kill. It's this aspect of compassion and giving precedence to non-violent solutions that I think makes this art special and so appealing to me personally.

After all that, I realize I still haven't talked about Saturday's class! I'll try to keep it short and simple this time.  Basically, it was awesome. We had our own room back, for one thing.  I also learned I had been doing my stomp kicks wrong for pretty much the entire time I've been doing this.  I should have known, really .. my kicks always felt awkward to me and seemed to land with not as much power as they should. But .. now that the error has been detected and corrected, holy crap! I feel like I really could kick down a wall, or send a guy twice my size flying across a room if I had to, and with LESS strength and effort than I had been trying to use before.

Ninja with Sword
I also had what is probably my most extensive lesson on swordsmanship ever. I learned what is basically one technique (there are literally thousands), but I feel like the guy teaching me really knew his stuff and conveyed it to me in a way I won't forget. I didn't notice how long the session lasted, but it felt like hours based on the amount of information I was absorbing and the amount of perspiration dripping into my eyes. We stopped when it felt like my brain was going to explode, and that's just one technique. I have a long, long way to go before I master even that one weapon, let alone the assortment of others for which the ninja are so infamous. But, that's why this is a life-long journey and not just a phase or something to be "in to" for a while. Anyone can take a few months of any martial art and learn a few basics, but to really learn and master even the smallest fraction of what they have to offer takes a lifetime. Think of how long it would take you to walk a thousand miles if you only took one or two steps per week because that was as fast as you could physically go.

That proverbial journey of a thousand miles which begins with a single step never actually ends, nor should it. Rather it becomes a way of life - a part of your that's inextricable from the rest, nurturing and growing your spirit, with each step giving you the strength and perseverance you'll need for the next.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Infamous "We're Hosed" Incident

My first "real job" upon graduating college was, among other things, a lot of fun and more than a little educational. This was in 1997, which was probably one of the best years in history to have graduated with a 3.0 GPA and a BS degree in computer science. They were hiring programmers off the street back then! I'm not even kidding. I had an interview and accepted an offer to work as a contractor at General Motors before I even took my last final exam. This was the job that brought me from western New York to Michigan, and as far as life-shaping decisions go, this one was pretty big.

A Complete Tech 2 Kit
Back then, I was working on a vehicle diagnostic tool called the Tech 2. It was a small (for its time) hand-held embedded computing device that could connect to any GM vehicle's communications bus, read, analyze, and store diagnostic information in real time, as well as reprogram all of the on-board computers. We frequently tested the tool's ability to test and modify a given vehicle's fuel-to-air mixture, and detect when a sensor had gone bad (or we'd just disconnected its power), for examples.

My assignment was with the team that developed and maintained the core operating system for this tool. Our code was the first bit of code that ran in the system, bringing it from power-up to functional, and providing all the real-time scheduling and communications protocols for the rest of the more vehicle-specific stuff. It was pretty challenging stuff for a newbie fresh out of college, but I ran with it and enjoyed it a lot.

One of the challenges we faced was that we basically had a 10MB flash "hard drive" that we could only access 1MB at a time, and that flash drive was filling up fast.  Mind you, there was no file system, so we addressed the flash directly by address and used a card page register to pick which 1MB we wanted to see at any given time.  This made for some .. interesting .. code constructs, and made it necessary to copy certain  parts of the software into RAM at boot time - things like the OS's API layer, which was contained on the flash drive at an addressed specified in a look-up table that started at address 0.  You still with me?  Good.

I had written the code that would locate this API code and transfer it from the flash drive into it's designated spot in the RAM during the tool's boot-up sequence.  In the name of defensive coding, I had written a block of code to detect the absence of this file and react accordingly - by disabling all interrupts and entering an infinite loop after printing an error message in the center of the screen. My downfall was having the error message read, simply, "WE'RE HOSED."  I figured it was ok, though .. the API binary was an integral part of every release .. surely this error message would NEVER be displayed, right?  Right??

Wrong.  In fact, during the very next release cycle, the CDs that were shipped to every registered GM dealership in the WORLD were pressed without including that particular file.  As soon as a few dealers updated their Tech 2s with the new software, the calls started pouring in from around the world - Australia, South Africa, Sweden, and all over the USA, to name a few.  Everyone wanted to know what the heck does this "we're hosed" message mean, and why had their expensive diagnostic tool become nothing more than an expensive paperweight with a display proclaiming this ambiguous message to the entire world?

Needless to say, I was mortified. We quickly rushed a new release into production that not only replaced "we're hosed" with a more appropriate error message, but also made sure the API binary was included this time.  As far as I know, the more appropriate error message was never seen .. which is a good thing.

The moral of the story?  When you're coding error messages, never ever assume they won't be seen, because if you make that assumption even once, chances are that's the one time you'll be ... hosed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Continuing the Journey

A few weeks ago, I wrote about re-starting my To-Shin Do training. I thought that perhaps a good way to stay motivated and keep up with my training would be to blog about it here.  So, if you keep an eye on this particular topic, you'll hopefully see an update now and then.  It's not meant to be a "brag-reel," even though it might sound like one .. it's just a way to get my thoughts out and maybe hold myself accountable.  And hey, if it manages to get one of my devoted readers interested in martial arts, that would be a nice bonus.

Anyway, the journey got off to a rough start. I was not actually able to start until last Thursday, a week after I had planned.  Tonight, I won't be attending class because I've got the Martian Death Flu or something. I hope I feel even slightly better by Saturday so I can go to class that day. Sometimes I wonder if the universe enjoys screwing with me like that when I commit to doing something that's going to be challenging anyway.

The one class I have attended so far, though, was really good!  I got a good work-out, managed to not get hurt, and even learned a few things. I was actually surprised at how much of the stuff my body just remembered to do, even though I hadn't thought about it for a couple years. We concentrated on various ways of applying a choke-hold, and getting out of one.  I was once again reminded that as physical as this art is, it is still mostly mental.  Let me explain.

As is usually the case when I'm learning something new, I screwed up the first few times I tried the technique. It felt difficult, un-natural, and ineffective. However, once my instructor pointed out what I was doing wrong and my mind was able to apprehend the science behind it and allow me to correct the mistakes, I was surprised at how physically easy it actually was!  The real challenge was not having the physical strength to brute-force something - in fact, using my strength with incorrect body positioning and alignment proved difficult and futile. The hard part was comprehending in my mind what was actually happening and how to respond to it. Once that part clicked, the technique itself became easy, natural, and yes .. very effective.