Saturday, December 18, 2010

Computer Gaming and Fencing: the Transfinite Blade


One neat sub-branch of mathematics is Cantorian set theory. Cantor took one sly strategy, now sometimes called Cantor diagonalization, and applied it over and over again (in the same way Beethoven takes a single theme and develops it into a complete symphony) to develop the basis for an algebraic structure of infinities. Infinities?

Yes, there’s more than one if by chance you didn’t know. To be precise, there are a countable but infinite number of infinities. You can ask and answer questions like if I have two sets of two different infinite sizes and I put them together what is the infinite size of the result. Actually, that isn’t as interesting a question as it first sounds. It's more interesting to ask what is the particular infinite cardinality of interesting sets, say the Imaginary Numbers. And infinities can be ordered: one is strictly larger than another.

At this point I should mention that I have the highest regard for games, particularly those requiring strategy and analysis. Ever since 8 hours of Bridge with some particularly enjoyable partners turned a miserable, interminable wait in the Iquitos, Peru airport for a vintage airplane to take Lynn and I over the Andes into a pleasant day, I’ve had faith in the transcendent and transformative powers of games. And, obviously, games themselves can be art, just as playing them can be as shown by Ricky Jay, Bobby Fischer et al.

So I’ve just downloaded a wicked cool new game, an app for the IPAD, “Infinity Blade,” which, for once, lives up to the high praise it’s received. In spite of the limitations of the IPAD graphics engine, the game delivers dynamic real time graphics in a class with the best MMOs. But what I find particularly interesting is the game play itself, particularly the user interaction. For once, medieval combat is not trivially reduced to pushing a handful of virtual buttons. Instead, the touch screen swipe action is mapped to sword movement. Now, at any given instant you have to make the choice of whether to block or to attack and you have an infinite number of choices of how to sweep the blade, which yield greatly varying results. Combat requires continual focus, some precise hand muscle motor skills, even a little strategy. (Sound familiar?) In the parlance of the computer gaming development community, that makes the game deeply “emergent,” a very good thing.

Which leads me, naturally, to fencing. Among many other things it’s a game, too, in the strictest sense. However, I will spare you the formal, but trivial, argument showing that the infinity of potential actions in fencing is strictly larger than those in Infinity Blade. Further, stepping up into the meta-game, there are an infinite number of strategies within which are an infinite number of tactics which can lead to those actions. And it requires precise control and coordination of large and small muscles across the entire body.

So, from a certain point of view, fencing can be viewed as the equivalent of extreme computer gaming, even though a computer isn’t required.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

U of U Epee Circuit Tournament. On the Dangers of Exhilaration


One of the many memorable incidents in Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” is the is the camel charge of the Arab army into Aqaba during WWI. Freddie Young’s cinematography is spectacular; the young Peter O’Toole is dashing and passionate. Nevertheless, glorious as it is, T.E.’s description of the actual event in 7 Pillars of Wisdom is much better dramatically and has the signal virtue of being true. As Lawrence was riding pell-mell down a dune waving and firing his service revolver, his camel was abruptly shot out from beneath him and he was sent tumbling over the poor creature’s head. It was only after he’d stumbled to his senses and the tumult had passed that he realized that in the confusion he, himself, had shot his own mount by mistake. Lawrence’s self-effacing style is sometimes dismissed as disingenuous. I perceive his voice as a lens offering safety and strength through which he was able and willing to see the truth about the violence, chaos and weird, horrific humor of battle. In its own way it’s as immediate and visceral as the Wilfred Owen’s poetry or Hemingway’s early stories.

The incident came to mind Saturday at the USI Epee Circuit Tournament #4 at the University of Utah. Unlike the Weber State venue last month, the gymnasium was spare: just a large room with dirty white walls and, fortunately, a decent wood floor. The venue had been changed at the last minute requiring re-taping and setting all of the strips. Nevertheless, we started on time and the pools and DEs I saw were conducted efficiently and expeditiously. That may sound like a small thing but if you’ve ever participated in a competition where pool bouts were delayed because, for example, over-lapping events ran long, you know how dreary it is and how it can take a terrible toll on performance. If you don’t know when you’re going to fence it’s impossible to be ready.

We arrived a half hour early for the event, as had most of the other fencers. The room was cold. The pale faces and distract conversations suggested a higher level of stress than at the previous circuit tournaments, possibly because it was the last of the year. I stretched, warmed up and bouted with my cousin Robert in preparation, but it wasn’t clearly enough as I realized later. A critical mistake.

My first pool bout was against a newer member of our club. He’s capable, intelligent, athletic and he’s beat me in practice. It was a difficult and exhausting bout but I won with hand touches, one attack into his preparation and counter attacks that closed the line after his attack was short. The key was managing distance and that’s probably the most important thing I’ve been able to put into practice this year. Afterwards, I was confident, a bit exhilarated and totally exhausted. My warm up had been far from sufficient. Lynn suggested I eat a banana and I stupidly refused.

And so after that I promptly lost my remaining 4 pool bouts. Some were against better fencers, but some were not. And though I had a few good touches (a nice bind on a fencer with a rigid arm), my focus and attentiveness were far from where they should have been. Our pools finished early; many of the other strips were still busy. As I looked around, slightly dazed and embarrassed, Lawrence’s experience of shooting his own camel came to mind.

By the time DE’s started I was settled, nourished, warmed up and ready to battle back. I won my first DE, ironically against the clubmate I’d faced in my pool but then lost the second. He was a better fencer by multiple measures but I felt I should have taken more points in the encounter. The one positive point and most important aspect was that my coach came by during the bout and gave me some direction, which I then successfully applied to win a point. It may sound trivial, even to some fencers, but because of the speed and complexity of the sport it can be extremely difficult to do. But it can also be critical: at the last tournament the top fencer in our club won the final match in the tournament in part because he was able to do just that. To my mind, it’s a skill as important as knowing how to advance, lunge or parry.

My favorite bout of the day, however, turned out to be one that I had the pleasure to direct. It was a semifinal in the mixed senior event between two clubmates, Tom Gandy and Dakota Nollner. Both have improved during the last year and I suspect that improvement has not come easily for either, albeit for different reasons. From the very beginning it was clear it would be fierce. Almost every point was careful, demanding and draining. My favorite was the last: they were tied at 14 all. After a little blade play, Dakota suddenly and unexpectedly went for a low percentage shot, a toe touch. And got it. It was both elegant and clever. When he took off his mask and yelled I thought it was one of the few overt displays of passion that day that was merited.

The thing that stood out about the veterans event that followed was that everyone had improved. By now, I was fencing consistently, and doing consistently better. I was where I should have been in the morning when we’d first started.

Two regrets: the first, which I’ve already mentioned, is that in spite of my age and experience I persist in learning things the hard way. The second is that because I spent so much time watching the people I was competing against, I saw little of the other bouts, particularly, Lynn’s and Robert’s.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tourism at the Ends of the Earth...


This morning's NYT, has a pointer to some amazing video of a cruise ship in trouble in the Drake Passage on its way back from Antarctica. I recalled that Carolynn Foreman had said she'd had rough seas when she'd sailed to Greenland this past summer and I had both a renewed appreciation of what she'd weathered and how lucky we'd been when we circumnavigated Svalbard.

Here's a pointer to the article as well:

Running into Someone


It seems to happen to us more this time of year. You know how it is: you’re in Costco staring at an immense bag of lettuce heads wondering if you’ll ever use enough to justify it, or you’re in Neiman Marcus trying to make a rational decision about perfume for your wife, (both equally daunting and impossible tasks) when you look up and see someone looking directly back at you. You don’t know who it is but you know that both of you are trying to determine if it is the person you haven’t seen for years. Then there’s the moment of recognition and you think, it’s been so long, she (or he) looks so fit and prosperous. Or you think, she (or he), has really aged, how is they’ve aged when I haven’t? But then, of course you realize you have, even more.

You frantically catch up. And finally, she (or he) asks what have you been up to that she or he wouldn’t know about.

“Tournament next weekend in fact.”

All of which brings me back to the nearly ten years we spent in Boston, (where I didn’t fence but should have). Its preferred vision of itself as a tough town is deserved. When I think of all the things I enjoyed about it: learning to sail in Boston Harbor, working with very bright people, sea-kayaking (once) out to Georges Island, Thanksgiving dinner at our house in the wintry woods 10 miles west of town, Saturday morning breakfast in one of the large hotels followed by lengthy and lazy bookstore haunting, and the list goes on, nevertheless, there was one thing that was particularly memorable on several different levels.

While we were there, we discovered the fiction of Dennis Lehane. This was before he’d written Mystic River, when he was known almost exclusively for his Patrick Kenzy / Angie Gennaro mysteries. I can’t think of a contemporary novelist who’s better at capturing the diversity, complexity and uniqueness of a particular place. Besides being a damn good story teller, his novels are paeans to Boston and reading them while we were living there made living there richer, deeper and just more fun. In the late 90’s, after Gone Baby, Gone, Lehane left Angie and Patrick for different times and different characters. I missed them.

So there we were, just last Saturday, having stopped on a whim at the King’s English Bookstore, (one of the best in Utah) and who should we run into, whom we haven’t seen or heard from in years? Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzy. Lehane’s new novel Moonlight Mile returns to them. And how are they ten years later? Richer, deeper, more ironic and complicated, and so even more fun than they were before. I could have devoured the book that afternoon but it’s way too good to be devoured. I’m pacing myself.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What Weekly Open Fencing is Like

Pursuant to my last post, there's a new Adidas Advertisement which captures the spirit of weekly open fencing.  If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fencing Instructor Essentials


“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn…, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics – why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
(Merlyn to Arthur in T. H. White’s, The Once and Future King.)

I don’t know how much White is read these days, I fear he is less popular than he once was, which is unfortunate. His magnum opus is sometimes dismissed as pastiche which is lamentable and ironic as he is in many ways a 21st century novelist. He understood the medieval world in a way few people of his century did, (T. E. Lawrence being an interesting exception.) That is to say, he understood it by doing it. For example, he raised a hunting hawk using the medieval method using Hohenstaufen’s classic work as his guide and chronicled it in The Goshawk one of the finest and deepest books about a relationship between a man and a wild creature. Then there is that quote above. One can “spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing.” That isn’t hyperbole; it’s the practical humility of someone who actually fenced for years.

In that regard, I think my own skill has improved a little. For example, at open fencing a few nights ago I sensed I was at least a more interesting adversary to some of the more advanced fencers in the club. When I make a list of reasons for it, my coach, Kenny Nopens, tops the list. Here’s why:

1. Relentless attention to precision and detail. For example, something as basic as a parry four is still a complex movement of larger and smaller muscles requiring split second precision and nearly autonomic response. Kenny is able both to communicate that and work relentlessly with his students to achieve it. And that applies to everything: foot work, blade work, timing, observation, tactics, strategy.

2. Adaptability. In our club our fencers ages span fifty years. Kenny is able to work within the challenging and changing bounds of every person’s interest, skill, physical capacity and does so with good cheer and diligence.

3. Patience. When I taught (just before the end of the last ice age) I used to believe I was a patient instructor and I learned how crucial patience is. Kenny exceeds that by an order of magnitude. It produces results; I’m constantly amazed at how quickly his students improve and excel in competition.

4. Inspiration. On numerous occasions, Lynn, Robert and I have walked outside after a lesson and one of us has commented, “that was an amazing class,” even after practicing basic parries, or something equally fundamental. The reason is the depth Kenny approaches everything, whether basic or advanced. After each class, I always want to fence more and be a better fencer.

The point of this is not to embarrass my coach with praise (albeit deserved) but rather to identify what I think are the most important attributes for a successful coach, which I’ve just done.

Finally, on another note, I’m beginning to believe the multiple anecdotal pieces of evidence that suggest our sport is growing and in interesting ways. I don’t know that I believe Tim Morehouse’s quote that the number of fencers in the US has quadrupled in the last two years but I do know that the fencing equipment suppliers are doing well and that media attention appears to be increasing. And, there’s the local data point: our club is doing well.