Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

December 31, 2010

Royal Ruminations

Filed under: Ruminations — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:10 am

Well Prince William of the United Kingdom is getting married. And from what’s available in the news, Princess-and-Queen-to-be Kate is a looker, and better still seems to be stable and sane.

A telling indicator of this is, she hasn’t made a public fuss about her image on a commemorative medallion which is, to say the least, grossly unflattering. Diana would have thrown a hissy fit.

One interesting thing came out recently, Kate is what they call, “of Jewish descent.” That is to say, she’s Jewish on her mother’s side (“The half that makes me all Jewish” as one lady I knew once put it) but wasn’t raised in the faith.

That can’t be anything but good for future generations of Windsors. Class they’ve got. A sense of duty they’ve got. But brains have never been their strong suit.

Back when I was studying physical anthropology I once said in class we should all be grateful to Prince Charles for his contribution to the nature versus nurture debate about intelligence, and the effect of increased spending on education.

Consider, HRH Charles Windsor has without doubt been given the most expensive education of any human being in history. He’s had the highest-level personal tutors in any given subject. (A friend of my father’s who had one of the more extensive private microscope collections in the UK taught him how to use them.) He’s had capital ships of the Royal Navy and multi-engine military aircraft as educational toys. He’s had extensive foreign travel.

And all of it has made him no more than a reasonably well-educated intellectual lightweight. If intelligence was totally the result of nurture, he should be the greatest genius alive. (This observation was not appreciated in the social sciences set.)

But perhaps I do His Highness wrong. Since earliest childhood he’s been under the kind of scrutiny that notes and records for posterity every embarrassing deed and utterance.

I remember when the press quoted him as saying (rather smugly I thought,) “Oh I don’t know where they get the idea I’m so successful with women.”

What I thought was, “You jug-eared, weak-chinned… if you weren’t HRH The Prince of Wales and rich as Croesus do you think all these babes you squire around would give you a second look?”

Then there was his pronouncement, “American English is awful. They turn nouns into verbs and coin all sorts of words which should not be.”

My reaction was, “Oh, you mean like Shakespeare did all the time?”

But it can’t have been easy growing up under the kind of scrutiny that notes and records for posterity every potentially embarrassing deed and utterance.

My impression is the UK press has not been kind or even fair to HRH. Years back he came under quite a lot of criticism for being stuffy, aloof, and reserved. As compared to the warm and approachable Diana.

Then Charles gave an interview in which he let his hair down and talked about the burdens of duty. They savaged him. Particularly cruel was a cartoon of him bawling his eyes out, labeled, “The Prince of Wails.”

It speaks well of Charles that as it became evident that Diana brought a cuckoos egg into the royal nest, he has never acted as if Prince Harry were anything but his natural son.

Years before the story broke on this side of the pond we were told by our son’s English godmother Prince Harry was most likely Guards Captain James Hewitt’s son.

I thought it was an interesting rumor, till I saw news photos of Harry and Hewitt in profile compared side-by-side which erased all doubt. Harry is Hewitt’s son.

“Leave it to Diana to find the one cad in the guards,” was how Judith Hatton put it.

The royal family could very easily have sent Harry into harms way in Iraq or Afghanistan and created a royal hero/martyr. Instead they have chosen dignity and duty, and ignored the circumstances of his birth.

Still, they must be relieved that William is finally getting married and will presumably soon after provide The Firm with a legitimate royal heir.

And it seems that the pair is being allowed unprecedented latitude to make their own decisions as to how the wedding is going to go. This augers well for their future life in the royal spotlight.

I note, for example, that the Obamas are not on the guest list. Now this could be a message from the UK – payback for the gift snubs. Or it could be that the royal-acting presidential pair are not being invited because it’s plain they do not know how to behave in polite society.

Either way, good for the Brits. And it’s ironic that if the press lightens up on the couple more than they did William’s father, it may be the legacy of the good press Diana created.

December 24, 2010

Looks that speak volumes

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:08 am

Note: This is one of a set of articles that look at movies from a particular point of view. Some previous entries are: Great flicks that bombed, What happened to movies?and Great moments in mediocre movies.

I keep meaning to do one on great lines and great exchanges in movies, but I’m having trouble coming up with a comprehensive list of lines I haven’t covered in the above categories.

What occurred to me the other day was, what about great “looks” in movies?

I was watching Robert DeNiro in a great but underregarded fantasy called “Stardust,” starring Charlie Cox and Claire Danes. (Based on a Neil Gaiman story, which is a good recommendation to begin with.) DeNiro, along with Michelle Pfeiffer, plays a supporting role.

What I saw was DeNiro changing personna from a tough pirate captain to a closeted gay priate captain who secretly longs for culture and civilized company. It’s a hoot! And it’s done largely with a change of expression, rather than outrageously gay camping it up.

DeNiro is good at the look, and that seems to me to be rare these days. There seems to be a manhood deficit among this generation male actors – and if you doubt this, think: Robert Mitchum, Robert Stack, Charles Bronson, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power – and these are names taken at random. And in some way I have trouble defining, it seems related to a lesser ability to… “act with your face.”

DeNiro never did it better than in The Mission (1986.) Soldier and slave-raider turned Jesuit Rodrigo Mendoza, attempting to protect a tribe of Amazon Indians he has come to missionize, leads some on a midnight excursion to a conquistador camp to steal weapons.

While creeping stealthily along the ground by the hammock of a sleeping soldier, the soldier stirs in his sleep. Reflexively, Mendoza’s left hand slides up to cover his mouth while his right slips a dagger into his kidneys just slick as a whistle.

Then That Look comes across his face when he realizes what he’s done. There’s no dialog, and if I remember correctly, no music, just background jungle noise.

And what volumes that look says! Guilt, shame, and the realization that you can reform, you can change, you can turn your life around – but you can’t throw away guilty knowledge. Once you’ve been a killer, you always know how to kill.

Another contemporary actor who can do this well, is Bill Murray. I wrote about an example of this in Great flicks that bombed.

Recently I saw Liam Neeson do this very well in Chloe (2009,) with Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfreid.

Basic plot is a Fatal Attraction riff involving a young professional “escort” who is infatuated with a handsome older married lady doctor. Lady Doc thinks her professor hubby is cheating and hires the escort to seduce him, to see if it can be done. Escort reports it can be done, and she has. Mission accomplished.

Wifey prepares a confrontation between the three of them in a cafe (after sleeping with the escort – not to shabby if you’re into that sort of thing.)

So, hubby (Neeson) is sitting with his back to the door while wife grills him on his allegedly cheating ways. He protests innocense, he flirts with pretty students, he doesn’t sleep with them.

Then escort Chloe walks in, hubby sees his wife look past him in recognition, turns around – and then does a whole page of dialog with just a look.

What you see on his face is: expectation from his wife’s expression that he’ll see someone he recognizes, changing to a “Hey it’s a pretty girl” look, without a trace of recognition, then turning attention back to his wife – who now sees for certain that her husband did not recognize the girl.

Julianne Moore deserves some credit in this scene too, but it was Neeson’s face that really caught my attention. Up till then you wondered if the girl was lying, after that you are sure.

Neeson’s countryman Peter O’Toole is very good at acting with his face, but the scene I always think of in this context is one with a lesser-known supporting actor, Michael Bryant in Goodby Mr. Chips (1969.)

It’s the eve of World War II, and schoolmaster Mr. Chipping is walking across the quad of the English boarding school with his close friend the German master.

The German master tells Chips the Fuhrer has ordered all Germans home. Chips pleads with him, “Don’t go.”

The German master tells him his mother is still alive in Germany.

“My dear fellow,” Chips says, “they wouldn’t.”

The German master gives him That Look, a look that freezes Chips’ tongue, and says, “My dear fellow, they would.”

Then he looks around at the campus he loves with an expression of hopeless sadness, and says, “You English. How much you have, and how little you appreciate it.”

Another example of the ability to do this kind of acting in a relatively obscure supporting actress was in The Iron Mistress (1952) a heavily fictionalized movie about Jim Bowie.

Young Bowie (Alan Ladd) goes on a business trip to New Orleans, where he is befriended by an aristocratic family and introduced to the dueling culture of the city. All of this is leading up to the invention of the Bowie knife of course.

After his new friend is killed in a duel, he duels the killer and kills him in turn. This is by the way, one of the more exciting single-combat scenes in movies. Bowie, who is a fighter but not a fencer, challenges the duelist to fight in a dark room cleared of furniture. He’ll use his knife and the other guy can use his duelling sword. The fight is lit by intermittent lightning flashes through the narrow windows. It’s very well done with the excitement coming more from what is suggested than what is actually shown.

At any rate, Bowie goes home to the backwoods and is sitting down to dinner with his brothers while Ma Bowie serves the meal and asks how his trip to New Orleans went. Ma Bowie was played by Sarah Selby, a gaunt spare woman who looks very much the part of a tough frontierswoman.

Bowies goes on about, “I sold our timber… I met… I saw” etc, then kind of mumbles, “I killed a man.”

Ma freezes stock still, with That Look on her face. The look that says, “Are my sons in a feud now? Is the law coming looking for my son?”

She asks, “Did he have it coming?”

Bowie mumbles, “As much as any man, I guess he did.”

Ma says, “Then we’ll speak no more about it.”

December 20, 2010

Knives, knife fighting, and nightmares – part 2

Filed under: Martial arts — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:19 am

OK, I hope you’ve read the stuff on Animal’s site I urged on you in part 1.

Now I’m going to present the case for knives as a tool of self-defense, and hope to God I’m not talking to the hormone-driven monkey-brained males he – and I, are terrified of letting loose on the world armed with sharp stuff.

When women ask me what they should learn to defend themselves, I suggest the most effective thing would be to learn how to use a knife. Guns are a bother in so many ways, and highly limited insofar as to how and where you can carry. Every empty-hand art takes a long time to master. Even longer for women and smaller men, because size does matter and it’s a denial of reality to think otherwise.

And consider, in this day and age who generally has more experience using knives? Women use knives in the kitchen every day. Men, well unless you’re a butcher or cut boxes in a warehouse all day, how often do you use a knife as a tool?

Nevertheless, the common response seems to be, “But what if he takes it away and uses it on me!”

Trust me, with a modicum of skill it ain’t gonna happen. And if he’s a psycho who likes to use knives on women – he’d have brought his own. (But I have to say, I know of an incident in Norman, Oklahoma where a woman faced a home invader with a knife from her kitchen – and had it taken away from her. She was then sexually tortured, though not with the knife. That’s all I know about the incident, and I wonder with teeth-grinding frustration what a little training might have done for her.)

Some advantages of a knife as self-defense tool are:

– A knife negates advantages of reach and strength. He’s got longer reach? So cut the arm. Strength doesn’t matter if the muscles and tendons are severed.

– A knife is potentially quicker than empty hands. The weight it adds to the hand is negligible, and you don’t have to put as much power behind strikes so they can be even quicker than a boxer’s jab.

– A knife is easier to carry and conceal than a gun – and with a modicum of practice quicker to deploy. One can generally carry reasonably effective but legal blades in the United States (countries like Sweden and the U.K. have outlawed carry of anything knifelike) and if you are stopped with something not technically legal it’s far more likely to be disregarded than a pistol – IF you are a woman or a middle-aged solid citizen and it’s not a “Rambo Killer Commando” fantasy blade from hell.

You must of course put in some time learning how to move a blade (including targeting, the yucky part) choose a method of carry that suits you, and practice deploying it.

So where can you learn how to use a knife?

More and more martial arts schools are including Filipino arts as part of the curriculum. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll get realistic training for self-defense though. What you’ll likely get is training for the kind of light recreation men in knife cultures engage in – the knife duel.

There is furthermore, a lot of video stuff available. Go to YouTube and you’ll find more stuff on knife fighting than you ever imagined. Much of it is Filipino/Indonesian. There is a lot of stuff alleged to be traditional Spanish, Italian or whatever as well. Trouble is, though you can pick up a lot if you have a grounding in martial arts, it’s not systematized.

For a systematic approach to learning, there are video courses available. Below are some examples I’m familiar with – which by no means exhausts the available resources. This is merely what I know of.

I have left out of consideration of some videos I think well of because the knife tactics you use will to some extent be determined by the size and design of the knife. James Keating and Bill McGrath have excellent videos on fighting with big knives of the Bolo or Bowie type. This is largely irrelevant to the needs of most people. Carrying a Bolo or Bowie (unless you are in costume and going to or coming from a historical reenactment event – that’s been established in the courts) is likely to be a serious bust. Not to mention it’s a knife that’ll actually make a bigger bulge under your coat than a pistol…

Some examples:

Lynn Thompson, president of Cold Steel knife comany has a video series, The Warrior’s Edge made with martial arts teacher Ron Balicki.

OK, so this is an exception to the above criterion. The series teaches Thompson’s own brand of long-range fighting with a big knife. I include it because it’s a good, comprehensive course in how to set up a training program based around a kind of sportive knife fencing.

I got my set cheap on eBay. From this, you and training partners can build a set of PVC boffer knives that’ll give you a lot of fun, exercise, and some useful moves. (Years ago in the Society for Creative Anachronism I created a knife fencing program for our shire using boffer daggers made out of old wrestling mat, cut to shape and wrapped in duct tape.)

Even more comprehensive in my opinion is Lameco Escrima stylist Felix Valencia’s Ultimate Knife Fighting course.

More comprehensive because it also deals with medium to short range fighting. Thompson dismisses this as too dangerous and favors long range. Probably true – but you don’t always get to pick. He also covers going to the ground with a knife (Yikes!) holdups, clinching and grappling, takedowns and a lot of stuff you’d rather not do, but may have to.

Libre Fighting has a three-DVD set on their method of boxing and knife fighting with a sturdy folder. Their basic six entries looks a lot like Wing Chun to me (though they don’t credit it,) which is one reason I like it. Another is the emphasis on using a more-or-less street legal knife.

DISCLAIMER: Because they’re training with smaller knives, they jettison the “defanging the snake” principle of Filipino martial arts in favor of going directly to deadly cuts and thrusts.

This falls into the category of “good tactical advice – lousey legal advice.” Google “Atienza Kali” and “homicide” – or simply “murder” and you’ll find the story of a Kali student currently doing 17 years hard for one deadly thrust given during a physical confrontation in a nightclub in NYC. (More on this later.)

It’s a bit difficult to get right now, but Aztec Warrior Princess Addy Hernandez (take a look at this lovely, fit woman and you’ll see why I coined the nickname) has a Silat-based knife DVD.

This one is very good I think because its based on different permutations of one short technique sequence. Easy to learn, easy to apply.

Also interesting because it’s based on a Silat stance where the body leans forward of the base a bit. Now in modern fencing the body is held straight up from the hips, but in a reprint of a 19th century fencing classic the master described a stance that leans a bit forward of the lower-body base. The reason I believe was, the sword protects the face and the abdomen is tucked a bit back because in that day and age before antibiotics abdominal wounds were almost always fatal.

Here you can find the Paladin catalog section devoted to knife and sword fighting. Some of the stuff I’m not familiar with so you pays your money you takes your chances.

Now for the big caveat – all of these courses are for knife dueling, not self-defense. They start out from the premise of two like-armed individuals facing off with weapons drawn. None of them devote any significant attention to carry and draw techniques. There’s no “knife iai-do.”

I trust I don’t have to point out that in the western world for good or ill (and I sometimes suspect manners and civility have suffered greatly because of this) duelling is seriously illegal?

Another thing Animal MacYoung pointed out about the Filipino arts in particular. The Filipinos like a knife fighting strategy called “defanging the serpent,” meaning to cut at the knife arm and off hand to neutralize the threat before thrusting to the deadly targets of the body and neck.

What Animal pointed out was that prosecutors and forensic examiners have another term for this. They call them “defensive wounds.” I.e. the M.E. is going to look at the late (un)lamented and determine he was murdered while frantically trying to fend off an agressor – or worse, after torture.

Animal also points out that most “knife fights” on the street are nothing of the sort, they are assaults with a knife by surprise, mostly from ambush.

All of the above can be great guides to training how to move a knife. For what actually happens on the street, get Animal’s two DVD’s on 1) Surviving, and 2) Winning a Street Knife Fight.

December 14, 2010

Legislating moral indignation

Filed under: Free Speech,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:07 am

Note: I’m cleaning up my “drafts” file and seeing what’s fit to publish. Among other reasons because I’m home with strep throat, losing money but not quite fit to write.

I originally wrote this last year as my weekend op-ed. The case referred to was a disorderly conduct charge against a 14-year-old girl who in Feb., 2009, called a 17-year-old black girl the N-word outside the local teen center. She then followed her into the bathroom at a pizza joint nearby, again used the epithet and said something to the effect of, “You don’t own this town.”

The disorderly conduct case went all the way to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

The 14-year-old got six months probation and had to attend a “sensitivity class.” This was all finished by the time the appeal went to the North Dakota Supreme Court as, “In the interest of H.K., a child.” I’m told there shouldn’t be any long-term legal burden for the girl, since juvenile records are by law destroyed when the juvie turns 18.

I don’t know any of the parties in the incident. I do know the attorneys on both sides.

It was spiked.


Something has been bothering me since the North Dakota Supreme Court ruling in a local case last month, something I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on until recently.

The Supreme Court upheld the disorderly conduct finding in juvenile court of a 14-year-old girl accused of using racial slurs against a 17-year-old African-American girl last year. The defense had argued the juvenile court was trying to criminalize the use of an offensive word, and that even offensive words are protected by the First Amendment.

I realized what was bothering me about this the other day, when I saw my son crying because a young teenage girl told him his T-shirt was “gay.”

(I advised him to suck it up and don’t let them see you cry or they’ll torment you without end.)

In the local case I fully realize there is more at issue than free speech. There are legitimate questions the prosecution raised about what constitutes disorderly conduct, fighting words, and actions likely to result in a disturbance of the peace.

And yet, I wonder if what was decided was less a question of law than moral indignation.

But shouldn’t we be indignant? Shouldn’t we do something?

Sure should, and if my kids used racial slurs like that I’d be pretty indignant on their backsides. But should moral indignation be a matter for the law?

There’s a lot of complicated ways it can be applied, but I think the basic question of whether a rule of conduct should be a law is, does it protect life and property?

The question is not whether it makes people nice, polite, socially conscious, non-smoking consumers of low-cholesterol organic foods.

I’d like to point out two examples of the desire to legislate moral indignation that fall, conveniently enough, on opposing sides of the political spectrum.

Once upon a time, in a state far, far away, I was a welfare bureaucrat for the state’s Department of Human Services. My job involved an awful lot of time spent establishing applicants’ eligibility for services. The department at that time claimed to have disbursement rate of around 60 percent. That is, sixty percent of all the tax money the department received eventually wound up in the hands of single mothers, dependent children, the aged, disabled, and blind.

This was considered very good for any welfare agency, where disbursement rates are more often around 40 percent.

There were of course, a fair number of clients who were con artists and scammers, i.e. “welfare cheats.”

This makes some people livid.

“That money is for the genuinely needy! We need to catch those cheats and make them pay it back, or send them to jail!”

In vain I’d explain that catching all the ineligible recipients would cost more money than the department would save, and actually make less available to genuinely needy clients. Didn’t matter to them, it was wrong and it had to be stopped, whether it would save money or not.

Switch to the opposite end of the political divide and income distribution.

Here live the people who are made livid by multi-million dollar golden parachutes paid to incompetent executives to buy out their employment contracts before they ruin their companies.

Again, it does no good to point out that the money paid them is insignificant in terms of total revenues, does not significantly affect costs of the company’s goods and services, and is in fact money well-spent to get rid of an incompetent or under-performing CEO. (Hat tip to Thomas Sowell for pointing this out.)

“It’s wrong!” and has to be stopped, whatever the damage done to contract law which, like free speech, is one of the foundations of our civilization.

There’s no doubt moral indignation feels good. Research shows feelings of moral indignation can cause a release of endorphins in the brain, resulting in a “natural high.” This would explain a lot about “cause junkies,” whose lives revolve around a passionate quest to set the world to rights.

But passion is a poor basis for deciding questions of law.

December 5, 2010

Knives, knife fighting, and nightmares – part 1

Filed under: Martial arts — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:09 am

For law enforcement officers, civilians, and martial artists, knives are a terrifying reality.

Police who have to get close to contacts to question or arrest them, have to keep in mind the possibility of them having something unobtrusive and deadly (maybe even perfectly legal) concealed about their person.

For civilians, the idea of being confronted by a knife-wielding robber – or worse a kidnapper, is a nightmare. On some primal level its even scarier than a gun, with good reason.

For martial artists, it’s a nightmare plus the shredding of their pride and self-image the first time it’s brought home to them that literally minutes of knife training beats a black belt.

I’ve written here about my primary martial art Pekiti Tirsia Kali which has a strong emphasis on blade use, the bush knife/short sword and dagger.

I’ve written about the new martial arts buzzword “combatives.” I wrote about the term coming into use to mean martial arts with a combat emphasis for military, police, and civilian self-defense here.

I covered briefly the history of military combatives and how the most relevant training for civilians came from the wartime OSS here.

I wrote how combatives is not new, but martial arts returning to their roots here.

I reviewed a little of what’s out there in books and instructional videos here. And here I discoursed a bit on what you can get out of the material if you’re training without a teacher of that specific discipline.

Most of these are mostly empty-hand oriented, with some time devoted to bare hand defense against a knife attack. Lots of luck. You’re going to need it.

The Fairbairn manual “Get Tough” has a few illustrations of basic moves with the Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger. But the F-S dagger, essentially a modern version of the medieval misericorde, is designed to be used for “silent sentry removal,” or to put it bluntly an assassination with a quick thrust.

For years material on knife use was hard to come by. Those who knew something about it tended to keep it to themselves. The first published material on “knife fighting” such as David Steele’s “Secrets of Modern Knife Fighting,” or William L. Cassidy’s “The Complete Book of Knife Fighting” is mostly about different kinds of knives, a bit about the history of knife duelling, and a few techniques disconnected from any system.

Martial artists with training in weapons-based martial arts refrained from publishing knife systems from a sense of responsibility.

No more. The cat is out of the bag, he’s pissed off and clawing up everything in sight.

There are all kinds of video courses out there now. Some of them are even pretty good. Some present pretty complete systems of training. And a lot of the material is available for zero dollars on Youtube. You could go from video clip to clip and pick up a fairly complete system.

Not that it matters, a complete tyro with a knife, a single technique, and a lot of heart (also called “crazy”) is deadly enough.

In part 2 I’ll review some of the stuff available, reasons why a knife may be a better choice than a gun for self-defense IN SOME CIRCUMSTANCES (remember that caveat please,) and what kind of trouble the available material can get you into.

In the meantime reflect on this self-defense adage, “Run from a knife – attack a gun.”

And review Marc “Animal” MacYoung’s secton on knife fighting on No Nonesense Self-Defense here.

Go to part 2.

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