Simplicity

I am an engineer by trade, and Wife points out that I have an engineer mind.

While I spend much of my time working with complex systems, I understand that simplicity is king. Simplicity is actually quite difficult to achieve because it takes work. You start off doing what you need to do, over time things grow and it will become more complex and kinda messy. You must take the time to stop, step back, and reengineer and rearchitect things to regain that simplicity. Typically this will mean you must discard and cast off.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Tao Te Ching #48:

In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.

Simple is not easy, but it is best.

I’ve seen a few things in the past couple days that reinforce this.

I stumbled across this blog posting on “What is good code?

Good code is simple. Even complex good code is comprised of simple building blocks. Good code hides or cuts through the complexity in the problem, to provide a simple solution – the sign of a true coding genius is that he makes hard problems look easy, and solves them in such a way that anyone can understand how it was done (after the fact). Simplicity is not really a goal in its own right, though; it’s just that by means of being simple, code is more readable, discoverable, testable, and maintainable, as well as being more likely to be robust, secure and correct! So if you keep your code simple (as simple as possible, but no simpler), it is more likely to be good code – but that is by no means sufficient in and of itself.

And all of this talk of simplicity isn’t just something for the world of engineering…. I think it applies to all things in life, and I think it’d do well to be applied to government.

Witness the mess there is in classifying sensitive information: (h/t Slashdot)

Protecting and classifying sensitive information such as social security numbers shouldn’t be that hard, but perhaps not surprisingly the US government has taken complicating that task to an art form.

It seems that designating, safeguarding, and disseminating such important information involves over 100 unique markings and at least 130 different labeling or handling routines, reflecting a disjointed, inconsistent, and unpredictable system for protecting, sharing, and disclosing sensitive information, according to the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.

Read the full article (it’s short) to see just how messy the problem is. This is not simplicity, this is about the furthest thing from simplicity. How does this make life easier?

Then I see this flowchart on Department of Defense acquisitions:

The Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Life Cycle Management System -- MY BRAIN HURTS!

Wow. Even the name (The Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Life Cycle Management System) is a complex beast.

I truly hope no one considers that to be a simple, streamlined process.

Have you ever noticed, any time the government talks about streamlining or improving their process, they always create some new group to do so? Nothing ever gets shut down or shed or cast off… it’s always grows.

If people are tired at how inefficient government is, at how bloated and slow it is, how complex, how confusing… why aren’t we working to truly simplify things? Why does no one believe in casting off? Why do we call them “law-makers”, as that seems to imply all they can do is make more laws instead of refining or repealing what we already have?

Why don’t we have any politicians that run on a platform of repealing, stripping down, and simplifying? Why is a discussion of “loss of government jobs” considered a bad thing? closing of government agency a bad thing?

Consider how truly simple things are better in life (or at least, consider how those ugly complex things make life difficult). Work towards the ideal.

Don’t be greedy

Here’s the way to always win — the trick is don’t be greedy.

– Han-shan

Leave it alone

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.

Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Tao Te Ching #60 – Translation by Stephen Mitchell

The important part is the first block. Think about it. What happens when you fry a small fish and you keep poking it? It falls apart. Or remember how your Mom told you to stop picking at that scab? And you didn’t, and what happened? It got worse, it got infected, it left a scar.

This country was founded upon “leave things alone.” Don’t tread on me. Stop interfering in people’s business. As Brian Enos said, “Freedom is letting things be.”

Why have we forgotten that?

When you remind people of that, why do so many resist it so much? Why is the response “Yeah but…”?

Life isn’t fair and no amount of effort, legislation, begging, praying, pleading, is going to make it fair. But the more you keep screwing around with things, the less you leave things alone and letting them work themselves out in a natural way (yes, that means being patient, even if it means it doesn’t happen in your lifetime), the more you’re going to risk screwing things up even more than they already might be.

Stop poking the fish.

Satisfying ego or satisfying results?

I just finished reading this letter over at Tony Blauer’s website. To be fair, the letter reads like a mix of a testimonial and an ad/promotion for Blauer’s approach. That said, the article still brings up an important point.

The letter recounts Tom Arcuri’s journey in studying and ultimately teaching martial arts. As Mr. Arcuri developed his own style, he recognized why students come to him: not necessarily to learn some style of art, but to learn how to fight or defend themselves. Recognizing a need to satisfy this goal, he set out to meet it. Unfortunately and admittedly he chose the wrong measuring stick for progress: variety. In class situations he could see all sorts of variety and teach it, but once the students got into pressure situations, the variety went out the door. Why?

The answer came to Mr. Arcuri one summer. He came to learn that when one gets into pressure situations, one reverts to gross concepts and skills. Thus variety for the sake of variety goes out the door. Consequently, he changed how he evaluates from “variety” to “results”. I think that’s a good change. Does it necessarily matter how you defend yourself so long as you defend yourself successfully?

Mr. Arcuri writes:

As a group we tend to be control freaks, ego centric, and a bit insecure regarding our skills. This is ironic since we emphasize self-confidence and constant devotion to self-improvement to our students. We spend an inordinate amount of time arguing to be right even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Knowing forty or four hundred techniques gives us control and feeds our egos, but does it enhance our student’s survivability in a “real street fight”? Remember, it’s women and children that are more likely to have to defend themselves in our society.

I touched on this recently. Some arts make a big deal out of how much they have in their curriculum and how much they can teach you. The reality? Not so much. Kuk Sool may tout 3608 techniques, but I’ve long wondered just how they arrive at that total. If you look at what Kuk Sool terms “techniques” (the joint locks, throws, sweeps, etc… Ki Bohn Soo, Sohn Mohk Soo, etc.), then to earn 1st degree black belt you must learn 226 techniques; to earn 2nd degree, 143 techniques (369 total); to earn 3rd degree, 40 techniques (409 total); to earn 4th, 25 techniques (434 total); to earn 5th, 30 techniques (464 total). Now this isn’t to say the official Kuk Sool curriculum doesn’t have other things involved, but the point is that by the time you become a “Master rank” in Kuk Sool, you’ve been taught 464 techniques: only about 13% of the claimed knowledge in the system. Wow. So where are all those other techniques? Super-secret for only the blessed and privileged to know, I guess. Or maybe creative counting; I’ve wondered if by 3608 techniques they mean just the strictly defined techniques or if they also count kicks (front kick, 1; low front kick, 2; middle front kick, 3; high front kick, 4; etc.), punches, and every other little thing, since I know in other arts they will label that sort of stuff “techniques”. But however things are labeled and counted, the point still remains the same: aiming to collect a big number of stuff.

Aside: after a while you’ll find the techniques you’re learning are the same or almost the same. The body only bends so many ways, so if you claim thousands of ways to bend the body, eventually you’re going to repeat yourself in some fashion. Certainly I saw a lot of such repetition in the Kuk Sool curriculum. That’s not all bad because it helps to demonstrate different entries and approaches. But make sure you take those numbers for what they are.

So what’s the point of all of this? IMHO, ego satisfaction. You can strut around qualitatively stating “look at all that I know.” Then it’s easy to get into dick-measuring contests (e.g. Hwa Rang Do, a Kuk Sool contemporary, one-ups with their 4000+ techniques; see my previous article). But will a big ego keep you from getting your ass kicked? Maybe, but I doubt it.

As I’ve often said, what ultimately matters are the personal goals that you have for yourself. If your personal goal is to just acquire a large library of knowledge, then that’s fine. If your personal goal is to inflate your ego, that’s fine too. I know it sounds like I’m down on that, and I personally am because it’s not my goal and I don’t see much true point in that goal. But truly if that’s what you want and you feel it makes your life better, who am I to tell you no? I do hope you have perspective on that goal, but otherwise go for it. Me, my goal these days is combat effectiveness. I’d rather have one technique that I could execute solidly and well and that could truly save my life, than a thousand techniques that I half-assed know and don’t practically do much for me. This is why Filipino martial arts hold so much appeal for me.

As an engineer (with an engineer’s mindset) and given how much Taoism resonates with me, that’s likely why Bruce Lee’s philosophies resonate with me. He speaks of emptying your cup so it can be filled, of keeping what is useful and discarding the rest, of achieving a true simplicity in combat. Note that for these things to happen, first you must acquire. While learning nothing vs. learning something then discarding it, might appear in the end to achieve the same results, they really don’t. Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote:

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.

(It would seem that perfection is attained not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed.)

To strive for perfection, strive for simplicity. If it is not useful, discard it; but that does imply you must first have acquired it so you could determine if it was useful or not. How to determine if it’s useful? Does it help you satisfy your goals? If your goal is to satisfy your ego, then fine. If your goal is to get satisfying results, well… to me, satisfying results satisfies ego. 🙂

He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside

When you’re betting for stones in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.

When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim.

And when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.

Your skill is the same in all three cases – but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside concerns weigh on your mind.

He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside.

-Chuang Tzu

This came into my inbox a few days ago. It’s relevant to where I am in life right now. When things don’t matter, I’m doing great. When important things are on the line, I don’t do so well. I’ve written about my trials in this, and also what I’m doing about it and how it’s working well.

Just good things to keep in mind.

Shooting, relaxing, and having no mind

I was scheduled to participate in a handgun class today, AT-4 Extreme Pistol. However due to the heavy rains and flooding issues the class has been postponed until tomorrow. Heavy rains, shooting on the move, paper targets… just doesn’t mix well for a safe and productive class. Tomorrow should be better.

Some weeks ago when I was assisting with a class I mentioned to one of the instructors that I was signed up to take AT-4 as a student. He gave me a puzzled look and wondered why I would take the class, saying something to the effect of I shoot better than that and don’t really need the class. While I appreciated the complement, I’m still taking the class. I signed up for it a long time ago, back when I was still unsure of my skills. While I apparently underestimated myself, I know I can still learn a lot by taking the class. Plus it’s good to just take it as a “résumé” builder — the more formal training the better.

I’ve been thinking about how to approach the class. What do I want to get out of it, what do I want to focus on for myself apart from the class curriculum. I think I’m coming back to something I’ve spent a long time trying to improve about myself:

Being relaxed.

Some years ago I injured myself in some way and so I wasn’t sure how I could keep up my empty-hand martial arts training while I healed from the injury. My teacher at the time suggested to me to work on forms and utter relaxation. To use only those muscles that had to be used and nothing more. For instance, if you’re in a horse stance, your leg muscles certainly need to be at work… but all of them? Your quadriceps sure, but your hamstrings not so much so ensure they’re not tight. Certainly in a horse stance your shoulders aren’t involved so why should there be any tension in them? You’d be surprised how much we involve muscles that have no true reason to be involved, and all that does is consume energy and tire us out quicker. The more I worked on being relaxed, while that in and of itself was difficult, the end result was making things a lot easier. Endurance went up merely because I wasn’t wasting energy.

I still have to work on the physical aspects of this. I guess it’s in my genes to be a tense “type A” person, so it’s an effort to relax (ironic eh?). It’s even in little things, like noticing during a workout or even just sitting here right now at the computer as I type this and I furrow my brow. There’s no need. If the brow is furrowed, I’m not relaxed. The more relaxed I am, the better I move, the better I work. Plus, it telegraphs. Can’t have a relaxed poker-face.

So back to the handgun class. I think the key thing I want to focus on is being relaxed. The class is about pushing your skills further, so if I really want to shoot well the more relaxed I am the better I will perform, the faster I can perform. But that’s just the physical side of it. I need to be mentally (and emotionally) relaxed as well.

No Mind. The Japanese would call it mushin. Chinese, wu-hsin. In Kuk Sool’s hyung bup, “mind clear”. I don’t want to have a gazillion things racing through my head. Maybe “front sight front sight front sight” but I don’t even want that. I want my mind to just be. Just let things flow. Be one with the gun, the target, myself, everything. Harmony.

This will be my personal goal for the class. We’ll see how I do. 🙂

Tao Te Ching #39

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creature flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as stone.

Translation by Stephen Mitchel.

Are we interfering with the Tao?

Humility may save your life

I train in an empty hand martial art. I train with guns. Some would say I have a greater ability than the average citizen to hurt other people and perhaps end their life. And there’s no question, when you start to learn these things you get a big confidence boost in your ability to take care of yourself. Unfortunately, ego can get in the way… and you can get over-confident, and that could get you killed.

Over-confidence can lead to a false sense of what your skills and abilities actually are. Over-confidence might lead you to make choices, especially in the heat of the moment, that turn out to be less than correct and could lead you into greater trouble. And worse? Being over-confident might lead you to be arrogant, and that could lead to you getting your ass handed to you.

What is the point of self-defense? To come out alive with as little injury as possible. A realistic humility aids in this endeavor. If I know it’s a bad part of town, while perhaps I could take care of myself just fine, why should I even put myself in that situation in the first place? If there’s no need to go there, don’t. There we go, I’ve just defended myself, came out alive, no injury to myself. I didn’t let my ego get in the way with a “I’m going to go there, and if any punk tries to mess with me I’m going to fuck him up good!” sort of mentality — that’s more than likely just going to get me in trouble.

Realize as well that just because you have those particular skills doesn’t mean you have to use them. It’s the old “you have a hammer so everything looks like a nail” problem. I recall my first “force-on-force” scenario. I had a (fake) gun, I felt like I had to use it (it’s a gun class after all, right?). But in fact, that was the wrong answer; the best answer was to just call the police and avoid putting myself in a potentially dangerous situation. It was a humbling experience. Yes, my ego felt really bruised to have gotten the answer so wrong. I wanted to rationalize, I wanted to make excuses, I wanted to save face. But that’s the wrong way to go about it because I wouldn’t learn. Better to make the mistake in a forgiving environment and learn from it. The experience was humbling in and of itself, and by accepting my mistake in a humble manner, it’s a lesson that’s stuck with me and I’d like to hope I’m a little better off for it.

If someone opts to get in your face for something stupid, just apologize. Back off. Yield. Take on a submissive posture (tho still have the mental preparation and wherewithal to respond should the situation turn ugly). Even if you were wrong, still apologize. What’s more important? Being right? Or being alive and uninjured? This isn’t to say be wishy-washy, it’s to say you should be smart, you should be wise, and you should maximize the course of action that allows you to stay alive and unharmed. Don’t let your ego, your testosterone, your fantasy, your false sense of honor, get in the way and get you hurt.

Be humble. Yield. Knowing how to yield is strength (Tao Te Ching 52). Ponder Tao Te Ching 59:

The generals have a saying:
“Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard.”

This is called
going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons.

There is no greater misfortune
than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy
means thinking that he is evil.
Thus you destroy your three treasures
and become an enemy yourself.

When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.

Bruce Lee on learning

Two separate but related quotes from Bruce Lee, on being.

It is the ego that stands rigidly against influences from the outside, and it is this “ego rigidity” that makes it impossible for us to accept everything that confronts us.

and

Seek not the cultivated innocence of a clever mind that wants to be innocent, but have rather that state of innocence where there is no denial or acceptance and the mind just sees what is.

Tao Te Ching #61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

Translation by Stephen Mitchel.