BOOK REVIEW: Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown

Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short IntroductionBuddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Most people, if they know anything about Buddhist ethics, have heard of the Eightfold Path (right + view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.) However, just knowing that can lead to the impression that Buddhist ethics are blurry and that it’s all a matter of doing as one pleases within one’s personal interpretation of rightness. This concise guide offers an overview of the Buddhist ethics and morality, focusing on issues of global and modern interest (as opposed to those issues only of interest in places where Buddhism is practiced or at the time in which Buddha was teaching – i.e. issues like abortion, vegetarianism, war, suicide, and cloning and not subjects like caste, traditional family roles, etc.)

The first two chapters present a broad overview, and the rest focus on particular ethical issues. I found the second chapter beneficial; it asks how Buddhist ethics fit in the categorization scheme employed by Western Philosophy. I considered it useful even though the answer was that Buddhist ethics aren’t neatly contained by this way of thinking, but rather can be seen as a mix of multiple approaches. (e.g. Buddhism has sets of precepts – ala deontology, has a karmic doctrine that is arguably consequentialist, and, also, has elements similar to the virtue ethics of ancient Greece.)

Chapters three through eight investigate specific issues: animal rights and environmental ethics (ch. 3,) sexuality and gender (ch. 4,) war and violence (ch. 5,) abortion (ch. 6,) suicide / euthanasia (ch. 7,) and upcoming technologies that will change what it means to be alive and conscious (i.e. cloning, artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and CRISPR.) As with chapter two, there’s often no tidy answer. For one thing, the author tries to contend with what is common across various sects, and this is often reflected in the laws of countries, laws which are only partially informed by Buddhist philosophy. Also, it’s not like the Buddha had anything to say on many of these issues, which either weren’t issues (e.g. cloning) or were considered radically differently (e.g. gender.) Still, one does get an idea of how these questions relate to ideas such as karma and dharma, and how contemporary Buddhist thinkers might begin to consider them.

One will note that there are ethical territories that aren’t addressed (e.g. justice / punishment, ethics of governance, business ethics, etc.,) but a brief guide needs filters, and this one chose to focus heavily on modern, individual ethical questions of broad international interest.

If you’re looking to better understand Buddhist ethics, this book is worth reading.

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The War Mangled [Free Verse]

I heard the dead children,
their voices lilting on the wind.

The war-torn twice born
came crawling in under the wire,
bloody and shell-shocked,
but among the living, 

but the rest floated away:
their words
becoming both milder 
& more raucous,
never fully drowned out by
bombs or crossfire chaos.

BOOK REVIEW: The End of Killing by Rick Smith

The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest ProblemThe End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before one dismisses this book based on its seemingly pollyanna title, I’d suggest one think of it as an opening volley in what promises to be a series of crucial debates that will play out — one way or another — in the years to come. I believe Smith, founder and CEO of TASER and Axon, did a great job of presenting an argument for the pursuit of a range of technologies and policies intended to curb violence, as well as anticipating, presenting, and debating many of the opposing arguments. The book’s tone is more pragmatic than its bold and controversial title might suggest. That said, I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions by any means; though I do agree these questions need to be thoughtfully considered and debated.

I’d put the technologies and policies Smith advocates for into three basic categories. First, those that are nearly inevitable given societal winds of change and the nature of technological development (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary weapons of the law enforcement community, automated systems being deployed to curb violence in schools, and ending the war on drugs.) Second, those which may be laudable, but which are hard to imagine coming to fruition in the world we live in [or are likely to see in the foreseeable future] (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary [or exclusive] weapons of the military.) Third, those which are so full of the peril of unintended consequences as to be, frankly, terrifying – if not dystopian (i.e. the use of surveillance and profiling technologies to ACTIVELY attempt to prevent crimes that haven’t yet happened.)

Instead of describing the contents of the book chapter by chapter, I’ll discuss its ideas through the lens presented in the preceding paragraph – starting with the seemingly inevitable technologies. The central thrust of this book is that nonlethal technology needs to be developed / improved such that nonlethals can take up a progressively greater portion of weapons deployment and usage, with the aim of ultimately replacing firearms (and other lethal weapons) with nonlethal weapons. It’s important to note that Smith doesn’t suggest such a replacement could happen at present. He acknowledges that nonlethals are currently not as effective and reliable at incapacitating a threat as are firearms, and he isn’t advocating that people be put at risk by having to defend themselves with an inferior weapon. However, it seems reasonable, given the tremendous technological advances that have occurred, that nonlethal weaponry could become as or more effective than firearms.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, I would remind one that firearms aren’t – as a rule — as instantaneously and definitively incapacitating as Hollywood portrays. One can find numerous cases of individuals still moving with a magazine’s worth of bullets in — or having passed through — them. (And that’s not to mention the lack of precision that tends to come with throwing a projectile via a controlled explosion.) The point being, one isn’t competing with perfection – so one doesn’t need to be perfect, only better than an existing [flawed] system.

Smith addresses the many dividends of nonlethal weapon usage over that of the lethal counterparts, and there are many. For one thing, killing isn’t easy on anyone (anyone who’s right in the head any way.) Even when a killing is legally justifiable and morally defensible (or even state-sanctioned) it often still results in traumatic stress. For another, there is the reduced cost of getting it wrong, and the adverse societal impacts (e.g. revenge killings) that result from wrongful deaths. Long story short, if one can produce a nonlethal that’s consistently as effective at incapacitating threat, it’s hard to make a rational argument for not fielding said weapon. The example of an automated system to respond to school shootings is an extension of the nonlethal weapons argument, as it’s ultimately based on nonlethals deployed by drone (or robotic system.) The chapter on the war on drugs (ch. 15) bears little discussion as it’s no news that that “war” has been a failure and a phenomenally ineffective way of addressing a societal problem.

That brings us to the laudable but unlikely category in which I put military use of nonlethals as primary (or exclusive) weapons. I’m not saying that military nonlethal weapon systems won’t continue to be developed, improved, and deployed. Given the degree to which war of late features non-state actors and unconventional warfare, it’s possible to imagine such weapons playing a dominant role in specific operations. After all, military members aren’t exempt from the psychological costs of killing. However, military forces deploying into a war zone with nonlethals as their primary weapons is almost impossible to imagine, especially considering the diversity of conditions and opponents for which a military needs to be ready.

In warfare, there is something called the “force multiplier” effect of wounding an enemy over killing an enemy. That is, if you wound someone, it takes two people to carry him or her, plus a chunk of a medic’s time. So, one can imagine four people being out of the fight because one person is severely wounded, versus the one person who would be out of commission (the dead person) if the individual were wounded. To be fair, Smith imagines technology (drones and robots) doing the heavy lifting. Still, it’s hard to imagine how one side in a conflict wins if they have to transport, warehouse, feed, and care for every enemy that is incapacitated while the other side is just killing away. Even if that one side is much more automated, it seems tremendously expensive – even for a relatively small-scale war.

That brings to me chapter five, which I found chilling. That chapter considers how artificial intelligence and surveillance programs (albeit with judicial oversight and other protections) could be used to anticipate crimes so that law enforcement could actively go forth to try to prevent them. (If this sounds a lot like the Tom Cruise movie loosely based on a PKD story, “Minority Report,” it’s because it essentially replaces the three pasty precognitives with computers and offers a bit more oversight. While Smith cautions against taking fictional stories too seriously, he employs some fictional scenarios that I believe might be as a pollyanna as the Spielberg film is dark.) At any rate, the word “actively” is crucial to my concern. I’m all in favor of what has historically been known as “preventive law enforcement” — activities such as putting more patrols in high crime areas, youth mentoring programs, and programs that inform people and businesses about how to be harder targets. However, the idea of police going out and engaging people as though a crime has been committed when none has been conjures images of cities on fire.

First, such an approach is predicated on watching everybody – at least everybody’s online activity – all the time. Which seems both dystopian and of limited effectiveness. [What percentage of people who post on FB that they want to shoot someone are likely to do so?] What about the judicial oversight and related protections? When is a warrant issued to surveil or arrest a person? The warrant is issued based on something an artificial intelligence system already flagged, meaning a government entity is watching everybody’s behavior on a constant fishing expedition. I’m not fond of that idea at all.

Second, we aren’t nearly as good at forecasting the future as we think. Violent crimes are rare and often spontaneous events, and that puts them in classes of behavior we are particularly bad at making predictions about. And, we haven’t eliminated the trade-off between type I and type II error. Imagine there is a question about whether individual X is to be detained based on what the AI spit out. X either was or wasn’t going to commit a crime. We can imagine a four-way matrix in which two of the solutions are correct (i.e. 1.) X was detained and was going to commit a crime; 2.) X wasn’t detained and he wasn’t going to commit a crime.) However, since we can’t know the future [like, at all] the potential remains for mis-estimating whether X was going to commit a crime. So, we have two potential errors (i.e. 1.) X wasn’t detained but he was going to commit a crime [and thus did]; 2.) X was detained but he wasn’t going to commit a crime [wrongful detention].) So, we want to minimize the first error because any violent crime is unacceptable? We go out and shake down more high risk individuals. While we succeed in preventing crimes, we also end up with more wrongful detention. Our legal system’s requirements with regards evidence suggest that as a society we are averse to wrongful disruption of a person’s freedom. Hence, while a “preponderance of evidence” is sufficient for cases where one might lose money in a civil case, if one might be imprisoned, the standard becomes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongfully detaining an individual when a crime was committed may be sad, but doing it when there is only a suspicion that a crime might likely be committed is tragic.

Of course, under present standards one can’t detain a person for very long. So you let them go, and maybe they do the crime – whether or not they intended to in the first place (ever heard someone say, “if you’re going to treat me like _______, I’m going to act like _______?” I’ll admit that it’s a bit far-fetched but if the system spurs one crime in a million subjects detained that wasn’t going to happen, is that acceptable?) Alternatively, one could place surveillance on the individual. In which case, one is essentially living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Congratulations. It seems to me this approach offers either huge costs for a marginal gain, or you go full dystopia and knock out crime at a horrifying cost. Neither way seems appealing, but – then again – I am not willing to pay any price to keep anything bad from ever happening to anyone.

I found this book to have some fascinating ideas and to spur my thinking on subjects I might not otherwise have considered. While there was a significant bit that I found unsavory, I also discovered some ideas that were intriguing and worth pursuing. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in issues of technology and policy.

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BOOK REVIEW: Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller

Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World ViolenceMeditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Rory Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


I’ve long realized that all martial arts are models. Models are simplifications; they inevitably leave elements out—sometimes because those elements don’t seem relevant and sometimes because they can’t realistically (re: sanely) be included. Those of us trained as social scientists say two things about models. 1.) All models are wrong, and 2.) All models lie. The question is whether your martial art is the least wrong, i.e. tells the most acceptable lie, for your purposes. Rory Miller’s work illuminates the most crucial part of what martial arts leave aside, violence and the context in which it takes place in the modern world. I say the most crucial part because it’s not excluded because it’s irrelevant; it’s left out because it’s impossible to shun safety / encourage violence without the practice devolving into a last man standing competition. (FYI: If you’re saying, “Man, the martial art I study is completely street realistic,” then you need this book more than anyone.)

While it’s important to have safety in a training environment and, therefore, true violence must be prohibited (simulated, but not carried out), it’s important to understand violence so that one can prepare one’s mind for it and train oneself to recognize various types of violence so that one knows the best approach to avoid a bad outcome. One doesn’t want to end up wondering “how could this happen” as one is bleeding out on the ground as martial artists from a range of styles have experienced. I’m not saying martial arts aren’t valuable, and I don’t think Miller is either (he’s long practiced them, as have I.) While martial arts may not prepare one perfectly for a violent conflict, they move one in the right direction. The only real downside is if one allows oneself to be deluded into thinking one is going to roll through waves of enemies without a scratch like Jet Li or Steven Seagal on the silver screen. That’s why it’s important not only to read such a book as this, but to give serious thought to changing the narrative that plays out in one’s mind about the nature of violence so as to move it away from movie / sport fighting towards an approach that is most likely to get one and one’s loved ones out alive.

The book consists of seven chapters, plus front and back matter. The first chapter introduces two matrices as ways to frame one’s thoughts on the conflict. The first, the tactical matrix, looks at different types of attacks one might experience (eg. surprise ambush through preemptive attack) relative to allowable use of force (can one legitimately injure or kill one’s opponent?) The second, the strategic matrix, considers the various types of combative endeavors (e.g. self-defense, duel, sport, combat/military operations) and there goals, approaches, and dangers.

Chapter two is entitled, “How to Think,” and the emphasis is on “to think.” The central lesson is to not take ideas on faith, particularly ideas about the nature of violence from people who haven’t experienced it—particularly when those ideas seem to run counter to reality. Because violence is such a rarity, it is a subject for which there is a great disconnect between expertise and experience. (i.e. Chances are your plumber has unclogged tens to thousands of drains, but also that the person teaching you knife disarms has never been in a single knife fight.) The chapter considers the various fallacies and how they can be resistant to destruction. Emphasis is given to understanding your goals, making them realistic, and having a pragmatic path to achieving them. The take-away quote is, “Do not let yourself be crippled by something that only exists in your mind.” The chapter ends by looking at decision-making at the speed of a fight, which is pretty quick.

Chapter three gets to the heart of the subject, violence. It differentiates various types of violence, and considers the context (setting, timing, and the nature of the interaction) in which violent interactions take place. Much of the discussion revolves around what Miller calls the “monkey dance” -an attempt to exert dominance that often escalates into a fight. This is differentiated from predatory violence that demands a different approach. This section also addresses the neurochemical cocktail that gets shot into one’s system and the effects that it typically has—which is a leading cause of events unfolding differently than expected.

Chapter four describes the various types of individuals with whom one might find oneself engaged in a violent altercation. This is an important topic because the path to a best outcome varies depending upon the nature of the criminal, and so one’s ability to differentiate types of predator and to know how to best deal with each is as essential a skill as knowing the technical nuances of a punch or choke.

The fifth chapter examines training approaches, and how the typical martial arts education leaves one with blind-spots and built-in flaws. The chapter begins by looking at the many ways in which martial arts make modifications from realistic conditions in order to be safe. Most martial artists realize that they are training techniques or drilled responses into their subconscious so that their bodies can respond automatically–without the need for [slow] conscious thought–during a conflict. However, there’s a further assumption that the unrealistic parts of that movement (e.g. slowness or avoiding vulnerable targets) will go away under real life conditions. In an earlier chapter, there was a discussion of the fact that attacks are usually faster, harder, at closer range, and more surprising than expected (Miller calls it the four basic truths), and this chapter considers some ways that one can prepare for those realities.

The sixth chapter considers how one can make self-defense work. It should be pointed out that this isn’t just about how to engage in the fight, but also how to stay out of a fight or get away from it as quickly as is possible. There’s also a discussion of set rules for determining when one must fight. This is the type of notion that one must think about ahead of time, because one can’t expect to think clearly once the adrenaline has been dumped into one’s system. The remainder of the chapter explores how one is most likely to get out of an altercation alive once the fight has become inevitable.

The final chapter delves into the question of what comes after the violent encounter. This is also a subject on which many martial artists have unrealistic notions. If one survives in an unheroic / ungraceful way, one may have guilt or dismay about how imperfectly events unfolded. On the other hand, say everything works out for one, but one kills the predator. Most people seem to think that this won’t be troubling, because it was justified. This misses the fact that there are many traumatized soldiers who were also completely justified, but if you aren’t a hardcore psychopath, you aren’t wired for killing.

I found a lot of valuable food for thought in this book. The author includes many stories (sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing) that help to make the lessons memorable and poignant. Tables, charts, and the occasional photograph are used to illustrate points as well.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s concerned about violent altercations. If you’re a martial artist who has no such concerns because you think you have a lock on it, then you probably doubly need this book.

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Traveling Kashmir Under Curfew

Taken in July of 2016 in Srinagar

Taken in July of 2016 in Srinagar; Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) in back, fishermen in front, a typical Srinagar scene


We’d made our arrangements. We’d fly into Srinagar and spend a week there to acclimatize and sight-see before a trek that would take us from Sonamarg to Naranag (fyi: this direction was reversed the night before the trek because of bandhs (strikes) that blocked the road from Srinagar to Sonamarg.)  After Kashmir we’d head to Ladakh. Standing on the Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh’s greatest risk would be mountain sickness–a risk we’d curtail by acclimatizing in the lower altitudes of Kashmir. On the other hand, Kashmir had the potential to be dicey, but there’d only been infrequent violence in recent years–and never directed against foreigners or tourists. One didn’t even have to get special permits to visit anymore.


That was about a week before a militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, was killed. Wani’s death triggered a wave of outrage leading to violence. The death toll crept into tens of people. The violence mostly consisted of rock-throwing by young men directed at military, paramilitary, and police forces, and the response of those units involving lethal and less-than-lethal weapons (the latter occasionally were not so “less than,” as was seen with the  pellet guns which caused a fatality, reinvigorated the conflict–unbeknownst to us–as we were on the trail.)


We were on the horns of a dilemma. Should we dump our plans and either go to Ladakh for the entire time or someplace else like Kyrgyzstan–which had been on our short list when planning the trip. Either way, we’d loose a little bit of money, but safety wouldn’t be a concern. If we went straight to Leh (11,000 ft+ / 3500m) we’d be less eased into the altitude. Or, should we hope that the troubles would blow over and Kashmir would return to a safe status quo.


It was impossible to tell whether events would settle down or take a turn for the worse. Furthermore, the Indian government took an approach that was–for a democracy–baffling.  They shut down the local news outlets, making it even more difficult to find out what was going on on the ground. They also shut down phone and internet communications such that we couldn’t get in touch with our trekking company for several days. We could get in touch with our hotel because many of the locals have lived through past episodes and know how to set up communications so as to avoid being put out of business by government shutoffs. However, asking individuals who have an incentive to keep one coming regardless of the situation, one never knows how much one can trust their suggestions. We dealt with reputable operators, and they were ultimately a primary source of information, but one can never tell in the beginning.


I can only assume the Indian government’s thought process went something like this: 1.) We can’t suggest that people don’t travel to Kashmir because we’ll be seen as pounding the final nail in the coffin of Kashmiri tourism for a season that will already be dismal. This will only exacerbate the current problems because the Indian government is largely blamed for how backwards and under-performing Kashmir is. (Note: while there is wide variation as to what Kashmiris seek–some want to remain part of India but with more autonomy and access to resources, others want to be an independent country, and still others want to be part of Pakistan, none seem to be pleased with the current state of governance.) 2.) On the other hand, we can’t recommend that people travel to Kashmir either because we’ll look like huge putzes if we encourage tourism and travelers gets hurt–we may even face a crisis of confidence in tourism nationally. Therefore, lets just be as opaque as possible. We’ll try to prevent anyone from knowing anything about what’s going on so that whatever decision they make we can say we had no part in it.


Given the dearth of information, our decision ultimately came down to whether we wanted to be optimistic or pessimistic. We chose to be optimistic. I guess that was the right course, because ultimately the trip worked out. However, we did have to be flexible and make a lot of adjustments–often at the last minute. However, we didn’t loose much–or any–money because of the cancellation policies of the businesses we engaged.


First of all, there were some places that we’d planned to visit that were strictly no go. We’d planned to do a day trip to Gulmarg and an overnight trip to Pahalgam. Needless to say, we would have seen a lot more of Srinagar, itself, had it not been closed off. Basically, we could go anywhere we wanted to in the Dal Lake area, including the numerous gardens, but trips into Srinagar Old Town were not happening. We ended up taking an overnight trip to Sonamarg. We didn’t plan to do this because we were to see that town as part of our trek. However, there’s not seven days worth of Dal Lake to see (unless you really want to just relax), so we ended up making two visits to Sonamarg (which also doesn’t warrant that much time, but we couldn’t get anywhere else, and Sonamarg was safe and accessible.)


Second, we could only travel in the dead of night. You probably read the word “curfew” and thought, “Oh, that means that no one can be out after dark.” In Kashmir that logic was reversed, and everybody does everything after dark. As mentioned, drivers wouldn’t drive many stretches of road. However, the places they would go (e.g. safe and secure Sonamarg and locations along the Srinagar-Leh Highway, NH1D) they would only drive overnight. I had trouble grasping this logic, all though it seemed to work. It seemed to me that it would be easier to conduct an ambush in the dark and get away with it. I was told that it wasn’t ambushes that anyone was worried about. Drivers were worried about rock throwers breaking their windshields. Fair enough. It still didn’t make sense. It seemed that if one were going to make mischief, one would set an alarm for 1 am or 5 am and place your basket of rocks next to the bed. The roadblocks created what one might call a target rich environment because all the vehicles were bunched up together. Ultimately, I concluded that the reason it worked was that the rock-throwers lived with their mommies and daddies, and they were tucked in in their jammies during the hours in question.


During our first full day in Srinagar, there was an Indian Minister visiting to help ease tensions. We, therefore, didn’t realize that the vast numbers of police and paramilitary forces were unusual–even relative to the current heightened state of security.  The next day, it was a lot less intimidating as there were not AK-47-toting guards every fifty feet along Dal Lake Boulevard.


Ultimately, we never felt unsafe or saw any violence firsthand. Our most unnerving moment came traveling along the Srinagar-Leh highway in the middle of the night when we came upon a huge gathering of people blocking the road. The were just pashmina merchants and restaurateurs who were getting no business, and who were trying to stir up some business in the middle of the night. Needless to say, I suspect few were in the mood for 2 am shopping or eating. However, generally, while the locals were desperate because their tourism season had been strangled, the Kashmiri’s are relatively laid-back compared to much of India, so even the touts weren’t unusually annoying.


We were told not to tell locals that we were American, and we complied with that suggestion. (This obviously doesn’t apply to anyone who can ask to see your passport–e.g. security forces, nor to the sparsely arrayed other tourists–including India tourists–who are more likely to be able to differentiate accents and for whom there is nothing to be gained by deceit.) It’s not that there was any animosity against America, but rather there is a thought that mighty America can fix any problem that it puts its mind to. My wife is of Hungarian origin, so this didn’t even require a lie, per se, as long as she did the talking.


I guess the question of interest to readers is whether they should travel to Kashmir or not? If you can tolerate your plans being changed (or are the type that don’t make plans at all) you’ll be alright. I don’t regret the trip, and I think we had an educational and enjoyable experience.


That said, you may want to adjust downward any times your guidebooks recommends for your visit because you’ll end up bored if your travel is restricted. You may also want to allow more time for travel because only traveling at night means you  may lose a day trying to get out of town. I should point out that the hotels were very accommodating with regard to the early check-in necessitated by this travel situation. However, it is a bit more exhausting having to travel through the night.


If you’re not familiar with the nature of the Kashmir conflict, here is a handy timeline from the BBC to help clarify it.


BOOK REVIEW: Krav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World Violence by Gershon Ben Keren

Krav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World ViolenceKrav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World Violence by Gershon Keren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a comprehensive guide to the Krav Maga Yashir style of Krav Maga. The fact that there are multiple styles of Krav Maga was news to me. Yashir means “straight” or “direct” and this system was founded by the book’s author, Gershon Ben Keren, drawing heavily upon Imi Lichtenfeld’s original program, but modified to make it relevant for a modern, civilian practitioner. (To offer an example of said modification, Lichtenfeld’s system presumed that the fighter was an infantryman with a pack on his back, and so the original Krav Maga avoided movements that would be hazardous when so loaded down, but that are feasible for the average civilian on the street.) The author has a scholarly background in the psychology of violence, and emphasis on the realities of violence is a recurring theme.

The book follows a typical format for martial arts books. The early pages discuss the philosophy and approach of the system in detail. The book then proceeds to discuss basics such as stance and the fundamentals of punching and kicking. Finally, it delves into progressively more challenging self-defense scenarios (unarmed, armed, multiple attacker, and from various directions) and the counters that the system offers.

The book succeeds in its objectives. The photographs are well-done and provide the requisite clarity. One particularly nice feature is that the scenario photographs are taken in realistic settings so as to reinforce the importance of recognizing and using one’s environment. Key concepts are reiterated throughout so as to facilitate learning. The organization is systematic and builds logically through progressively more challenging situations.

The biggest criticism is of some of the book’s repetitiveness. Repetitiveness is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an important tool for learning, particularly with ideas that need to be thoroughly ingrained—e.g. self-defense concepts. However, some of the repetition in this book is more wasteful than beneficial. The scenario sections feature a textual description of the attack / defense event, and then there’re captioned photos that visually portray how the scenario plays out. The captions repeat much of the text, and they do it so close to the original text that it’s hard to imagine it being much more than an annoyance.

I’d recommend this book for someone who is considering whether to take Krav Maga classes, or for martial artists looking for insight in to the nature of this system. It has some sound general advice on self-defense that those interested in that topic might find useful.

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9 Self-Defence Tips for Women

Today is a day of protest in Bangalore to decry sexual assaults on women and children. It seems like an apropos time to offer some advice on self-defense.

1.) NEVER GET INTO A VEHICLE or allow yourself to be taken to another location:

This is line in the sand #1.  He’s telling you to get in the vehicle because he wants to do something that he’s scared to do at the present location. That means your chances if you scream, run, fight, or some combination of the above are better than if you get in the car. A thief wants your money/possessions and then wants to put as much distance between you and he as possible. Don’t believe anything a thug tells you about why he wants to take you somewhere–no matter what kind of soothing tone he may use. He means to do you harm at the end of that ride.

2.) Never allow your freedom of movement to be restrained:

Line in the sand #2. The same logic applies. He wants to bind or handcuff you because he’s scared to do what he wants to do with an unrestrained victim. Your chances are better if you scream, run, fight, or all of the above than if you allow yourself to be hogtied.

3.) If you remember nothing else from this post, remember points 1 and 2. 



4.) 2 ways a cluttered purse can be perilous:

First, if you decide to carry some form of weapon (e.g. pepper-spay or a stun-gun) or the ineloquently named “rape-whistle”, it will do you less than no good if you can’t put your hand on it instantaneously. (Why less than no good? Because your eyes will be on your bag, instead of on the threat.)

Second, see point 5, below.

5.) How to be robbed, a primer:

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Never fight over money or possessions, they can be replaced, you can’t!” That’s sound advice. However, you must keep in mind that violent criminals use “gimme your money” as a ploy. They wait until your eyes go down and then they pounce with much more ominous intent.  This is the second way a cluttered purse can be perilous. If you start looking through your purse, you’re at risk. Pitch the whole purse, let them find it. If they don’t go for it, then it’s time to flee or fight.

What’s the “proper way” to be robbed? You throw the money in the robber’s direction (preferably between his feet and behind him) and then you run the other direction. If he’s a robber, he’ll grab the money and hightail it in the opposite direction from you. If he chases you, then it’s time to be ready to fight for your life.

IMG_40726.) Choose classes wisely:

There are a lot of offerings of self-defense and martial arts classes. The first thing to know is the difference between self-defense and martial arts classes. Self-defense classes will teach you a few basic, easily remembered techniques to get out of the grasp of an unsophisticated attacker so that you can run. If you know that you don’t have a lot of time and energy to devote to learning to protect yourself, this is the type of class you should pursue. You probably won’t learn what you need to get safely away from an athletic psychopath, but–fortunately–such individuals are rather rare. I’d recommend this type of training periodically even for women with no interest in martial arts.

There are many different primary objectives one may see in various martial arts, including: sport, entertainment, sustaining a historical lineage, or preserving historical / cultural events and ways. While self-defense is one of several objectives of almost all martial arts, it’s the primary objective that will shape the martial art and its relevance to you. Sporting martial arts will get you in fighting shape and teach you to take a hit and keep moving, but may leave you with systematic vulnerabilities around the rules of the game.

For example, if punches to the head aren’t allowed, you won’t learn to defend yourself from the head punches that a real world attacker won’t hesitate to employ. If fighting on the ground isn’t allowed, then you’ll miss out on some beneficial training. Also, in a sport you may spend a lot of time punching with a closed fist. This is great if: a.) you’ve built up bone density with bag work and exercises, b.) your hand is wrapped tightly, and c.) you have a padded glove on. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll break one of the tiny bones in your hand on the attacker’s thick, bony skull–and it may distract you enough to lose advantage. This isn’t to imply such a martial won’t prepare you better than the next woman (and better than an attacker, for that matter), but you should only do it if you’re interested in the sport as well as in defending yourself.

Martial arts for entertainment may have you spending a lot of time practicing complex, spinning, aerial maneuvers that you cannot count on being useful against an attacker on the street. Again, if you enjoy this kind of martial art for its own sake, I’m not suggesting you should abandon it or that it isn’t benefiting you at all from a defensive standpoint.

Historical martial arts often offer the advantages of being combat-oriented and not rule constrained, but you may spend a lot of time working with archaic weapons and may not practice sparring or free-form fighting–which, I would argue, is essential to being ready to defend yourself. Again, these arts are awesome, but you need to be aware of what you are studying and what it’s value is to you.

Questions to ask:

a.) Can I watch a class? I’ve heard clever explanations for why this isn’t necessary for such-and-such martial art, but if they won’t let you watch a class, I’d move on to the next place. The observation class allows you to see whether that art is right for you and whether the teacher is skilled and professional.  Now, don’t expect a school to keep allowing you to show up and watch, but one class should give you enough idea. You may want to ask ahead to make sure it’s a fairly typical class. Some martial art schools occasionally have atypical classes to communicate some ancillary information to students which isn’t at all that useful in a day-to-day sense. (Alternatively, some schools have classes that are rigidly identical from one session to the next.)

b and c.) Will you teach me how to stay on my feet?  and Will you teach me how to fight on the ground? The ideal answers to both is “yes.” If they answer the first question by saying, “All fights go to the ground, we teach you how to get down and control the situation.” You have some sort of submission sport school that would likely make you tough as nails. However, there’s a reason there are weight classes in those sports. You don’t want to default to the ground voluntarily with someone who outweighs you by 60 pounds and who can bench press your body weight two or three times over.

That being said, if the answer to the second question is, “No. Going to the ground is ridiculous,” you might want to move on to the next school. To summarize, you want a school that will teach you how to stay on your feet so you can get away, but, also, you want a school that’ll prepare you for the worst case scenarios.

d.) Do you do sparring, randori, rolling (as in ground-fighting free-form training), or other free-form training? Note: In most martial arts, you’ll need to spend some time learning basics before you get into sparring (and that’s a good thing, in my view.) However, if the school doesn’t do any of that type of training at any level, it probably won’t prepare you for what you are likely to face. There are some old school martial arts that only do form and technique training, but with no “unstructured” training.

My final word on looking for a school: Don’t be scared off by the students looking haggard, sweaty, and mildly gimpy by the end of class. Such a school will prepare you much better than one in which the students look pristine going home.

7.) Drill with any weapon you carry:

Believe it or not, I once saw a professional law enforcement officer who accidentally sprayed himself full in the face with pepper-spray. (Among my varied and sundry past occupations was a stint in law enforcement.) No weapon is a magic talisman that you can put in your bag and expect to have it ward off evil.

8.) Don’t expect the Hollywood plop:

Squirting an attacker with pepper-spray, shocking them with a stun gun, or even shooting them with a handgun will not necessarily immediately and definitively incapacitate them. They may keep coming, hopefully impaired, but possibly just angered. There is an old samurai saying that goes, “Even in victory, cinch tight your helmet cords.” This means, even when it looks like your attacker is down for the count, maintain caution.

9.) Remember items 1 and 2, NEVER GET IN THE CAR and NEVER LET YOURSELF BE TIED UP.