WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

About sixteen years ago, I was watering my plants when one of those poor college saps who got suckered into going door-to-door to get signatures on environmental issues wandered into my yard looking both lost and bright-eyed at the same time. I like to think he’s get his bright-eyed enthusiasm, but the going door-to-door collecting signatures has a way of beating enthusiasm down with a stick. Anyway, he was collecting signatures to get a bill passed that would help end the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. I told him I thought that was a wonderful idea and asked what the proposed solution was. Nuclear? Too dangerous. Wind? Too dangerous for birds. The answer, according to him, was solar.

Now, bear in mind, this was in the early 2000s when solar tech was nowhere near where it is now and nowhere near ready to take over even New Mexico’s energy needs. He dug in his heels and said it was solar or nothing.

In a way, he was onto something. But, just like the guy putting raw ground beef on a burger bun, he was way too early. The technology was nowhere near mature enough. The ability to kind of power a house didn’t translate to powering a state even in a part of the country where we have something like 300+ sunny days a year. That was bad enough, but he was adamant that the only thing that would work was a complete switch over to solar. No incremental fixes for this guy, he was just going to throw a shit-ton of cash at the problem and flip a switch when it was all said and done and everything would be perfect.

Much as I love the idea of solar power, I couldn’t get behind an all-or-nothing solution, so I bid him good day and didn’t sign his petition; it seemed like it had disaster written all over it.

Back in World War II (and trust me, this will make sense in a few minutes), Japan suffered such heavy bombing that its infrastructure was basically destroyed. Electricity, gas, water, everything. Even phone lines were toasted. Being the Japanese, they rebuilt everything better than it was before and even eventually build the most advanced cellular network in the world. That was partially because they didn’t have to shoehorn it into an existing system; it could be anything they wanted it to be so they made it totally badass.

Or at least that’s the story I’ve heard. It may or may not be true, but last time I was in Japan, their cell system (and cell phones) were light years ahead of anything else I’d seen at the time. Theirs could launch space shuttles, my phone could very slowly play Tetris on a 2″ black and white screen.

The US power system (and its attendant reliance on fossil fuels) is very much a thing and any new things that get added have to be shoehorned into that thing or it’s all gonna fall apart or not even make it to the adoption phase. Fossil fuels are so entrenched in our culture that even the thought of doing something else leads to screams of “socialism!” and “dirty hippies!” Even though getting rid of fossil fuel reliance would be an amazing thing, it’s going to have to be an incremental process that will likely involve bribing no end of Congress critters. It’ll happen eventually – there’s too much public outcry over pollution for it not to – but it ain’t gonna happen all at once.

Interestingly, in emerging nations, that’s a non-issue. They don’t have to worry about shoehorning new tech into old or paying off the old guard to let them do it because there’s just not that much infrastructure there to replace. As a result emerging nations are the ones driving innovation in renewable energy technologies like solar while the developed parts of the world are stuck using decades or centuries old technology. Just like the Japanese after World War II, they’ve got a mostly clean slate to work with.

That means that things like wind a solar energy are much more viable systems and their utilization is driving down the cost of the technologies and improving them at the same time. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we’re still debating about clean coal and whether or not climate change is a thing.

So, hats off to innovation. It would seem that necessity really is the mother of invention. Read the original article here.

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Eric Lahti, Inderpreet Uppal, Shilpa Garg, Peter Nena and Damyanti Biswas

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And now, your moment of Zen.

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Why This Buzzfeed Self-Defense Video Doesn’t Suck

There’s an old joke in the martial arts world: How many martial artists does it take to change a light bulb? 100. One to change it and 99 to tell you how your way of changing bulbs won’t work.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time around martial artists, you’ll know we’re fantastically egotistical, very dogmatic, and prone to pointing out all the flaws in every system but our own. Frankly, this is antithetical to the idea of martial arts. We’re supposed to be able to look past all the nonsense and collect anything that we can use, put a little thought into it, and say “Okay, this has some promise.” And then use it.

There was a video from Buzzfeed floating around Facebook last week that I stumbled across in one of the many martial arts groups. Predictably, the comments were full of “there’s no way this would work” and “you’ll get yourself killed if you try this” with a handful of positive comments. In my opinion, there were some decent tips in it, with a few caveats.

The video, in case you’re interested is here:

It’s only a couple of minutes long and worth a watch. Just as a side note, this is Buzzfeed’s property and if they ask, I’ll happily take it down.

Now, granted, there are some shady videos out there. Marie Claire had a pretty bad one that focused on fancy techniques to escape things like wrist grabs and chokes and relied a lot on fancy movements and specious theories with a few bits of good advice at the end. A pair of MMA fighters took that one apart and showed why it wouldn’t work. Here’s a hint: it wouldn’t work because it relied too much on being fancy and having a cooperative opponent. In a stress situation, fancy is the last thing you want and you can safely assume someone trying to rough you up isn’t going to cooperate. Rather than try an obscure Chin Na technique against someone grabbing your wrist, how about just kicking him hard in the balls and boogying the heck out of there?

As a martial artist myself (nearly 20 years of Kenpo), that’s what I found interesting about Buzzfeed’s video: There was nothing fancy about it. It’s just simple, relatively easy to pull off things. Someone grabs your wrists from behind? Look at who’s grabbing you, kick backwards as hard as you can then turn around (something you’d want to do anyway) and hit them. Easy peasy. Someone’s too close, maybe a bear hug or just getting a little too aggressive? Thumbs in the eyes work wonders for getting people to back off.

The only thing I didn’t think was a good idea was punching someone straight in the jaw. Someone else might be able to shed more light on this, but it seems like a hook to the side of the jaw or a straight shot to the nose would work better. Jaws can be pretty pointy and tough and the last thing you want to do in a fight is hurt your hand trying to hurt someone else.

Sure, the video might not be the way your system teaches Purple Dragon Spreads Its Wings or Monkey Steals the Peach, but that doesn’t mean it’s not functional. And functional is all we need to care about in a simple self-defense video. The question shouldn’t be “Why didn’t they go for a wrist grab to ground and pound?”, but rather “Will a rear kick to the midsection followed by forearm to the side of the neck be enough to create enough space to get the fuck out of the situation?”

That’s it. This is about survival and creating the means to escape, not auditioning for the next Kung Fu biopic. Truthfully, all self defense situations should be seen through the lens of keep it simple and keep yourself safe.

Again, there’s a lot more that could be covered. For instance, once you’ve got your thumbs in someone’s eyes and their head is tilted back at a huge angle, keep pushing. At the very least, they’re gonna stumble if not flat-out fall, but that’s something that’s beyond the scope of a video designed to give you a few pointers to keep your ass out of too much trouble.

Toward the beginning of this point, I noted one thing that I’d like to reiterate. Even though all this stuff is pretty straight forward, watching a video and doing stuff in the air is one thing. Doing it against a person is something else entirely. The air, and even a heavy bag, will just hang out and let you pummel it. People have arms and legs and they go in all kinds of weird directions and we even have pointy parts (like chins) that hurt to hit. Even some heavy bags hurt to hit – my instructor has a bag that feels like punching rocks – and a broken hand is not a surprise you want in a fight. Find a friend and very carefully work through things. Do that a lot. Do it until it you’re sick of it and then do it some more. That tactile awareness is very important. Then find a heavy bag and pound the snot out of it. Don’t just rely on two minutes of video-based self-defense techniques to make you feel safe.

Besides, fighting is great exercise and beating holy hell out of a heavy bag feels pretty damned good.

As always, I’m interested in your comments. Tell me what you think, share an anecdote, or tell a quick joke.

Serve Your Sentence With Aplomb

There have been several claims about what the longest sentence in English is. They range from over a thousand words (1,288 in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) to nearly 14,000 (13,955 in Jonathon Coe’s The Rotter’s Club). Even though Coe’s apparently got the record nailed down tight until new sentence technology is discovered, 1,288 is freakin’ long sentence. Especially when most sentences range between 10 and 20 words with outliers on both sides.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends 15-20 word average sentences because as the author, Martin Cutts, explains, “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish has this to say on the subject: “Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.”

Sentence length and ease of reading

  • 8 words or less: very easy
  • 11 words: easy
  • 14 words: fairly easy
  • 17 words: standard
  • 21 words: fairly difficult
  • 25 words: difficult
  • 29+ words: very difficult

While there’s evidence that the average sentence length has shrunk 75% in the last 500 years – it wasn’t uncommon to see 70+ word sentences in the 1600s – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea (or good writing) to go for the long sentence. The reason for that has to do with readability. There’s evidence that the average person reading a 14 word sentence will pick up +90% of what they’re reading; that number drops to less than 10% at 43 words.

All this sentence length and reading comprehension stuff is something that’s been pinging around in my head ever since I wrote that post on words back in June. The gist of that post was understanding average vocabulary size with a brief foray into reading levels in prose and why writing to a 7th grade level wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While that post spent more time with the number of unique words in a book, it touched on the idea of sentence length impacting readability and that idea stuck in my craw. After all, even a short sentence filled with words like fustian, byzantine, and polyglot can make a minefield for some people:

The polyglot’s mind was a byzantine mass of competing ideas and definitions that led to her fustian speech.

Okay, so at 18 words that was slightly over the standard sentence length, but not so outside the norm that it should be hard to parse. On the other hand, most people don’t regularly use words like polyglot, byzantine, and fustian, so those will be speed bumps on the superhighway to comprehension. Other than that, there’s nothing untoward about the sentence. A simple parsing, even accounting for the odd word choice, should reveal she has a whole whack of ideas and definitions and that does something bad to the way she speaks. If you want to go full information density on it, we can also assume she’s probably smart since she knows multiple languages, but her thoughts are jumbled since she sometimes gets lost juggling all those languages and that reflects in the way she talks. Basically it’s an excuse for what seems like pompous oratory.

Parsing is the key element here. While there can be multiple types of sentences – declarative, interrogative, exclamative, and imperative – all sentences come down one key thing: relating words into a complete, coherent idea. Or, if you want to get all fancy with it, according to dictionary.com, a sentence is “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc, and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate, as in John is here. or Is John here?

So, really, a sentence is a bunch of words meant to convey a singular idea, no matter how complicated that idea might be. The kicker is, in order to understand the idea, you have to get through the sentence. That usually entails finding space in your head to store the words and brain CPU time to parse and process the words. All of this has to happen in the background as you’re reading and, in some cases, even moving onto the next sentence.

And you thought you weren’t smart. Shame on you. Even reading this post is requiring you to brain and brain hard.

By the way, if you’re thinking you’re going to break Coe’s longest sentence record, go for it. According to linguists, there is no functional top end in how long a sentence can be in English. Because of the way the language is structured, it’s possible to keep adding recursion (He said that she said that her grandmother said that Cthulhu said that guy over there did something…) or subordinate clauses or semi-colons or iterations or enumerations until the end of time. Even with just enumerations, it’s theoretically possible to write an endless sentence: She started counting to herself, never intending to stop: One, two, three, four, five, six… That sentence will only end when she runs out of numbers and I have it on good authority that there are a lot of them.

Does all this mean you should never go full Coe and write two short-stories’ worth of words into one sentence? Not necessarily, just realize longer sentences are harder to parse and, therefore, less likely to engage your reader. 15-20 words should be enough to convey the message you need to get across with a sentence. If it takes longer than that, or if you find yourself going balls to the wall with recursion, subordinate clauses, and whatnot, you might want to consider breaking longer sentences into shorter sentences. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if no one can load and parse them.

A quick addendum to this: As was pointed out in the comments, vary the length of your sentences. Shorter sentences read faster which allows you to speed up the pace; longer ones slow reading down, which allows a reader time to rest.

Just try to avoid the 1000+ word sentences. No one wants to read those.

What are your thoughts on sentence length? Leave me a comment.