“I am the universe.”

September 25th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

Last Words is the posthumously published autobiography by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra). While it is an entertaining read, there is only one part that stuck with me:

I believe I am bigger than the universe, smaller than the universe and equal to it. I’m bigger than the universe because I can picture it, define it in my mind and everything that’s in it and contain all that in my mind in a single thought. A thought that’s not even the only one in there: it’s right between “Shit, my ass itches!” and “Why don’t we fuck the waitress?”

That thought, with all the others, is inside the twenty-three-inch circumference of my cranium. So I’m bigger than the universe. I’m smaller than it because that’s obvious: I’m five foot nine and 150 pounds and the universe is somewhat taller and heavier. I’m equal to it because every atom in me is the same as every atom in me is the same as every atom the universe is made of. I’m part of the protogalaxy five billion light years away and of that cigarette butt in Cleveland. There are no differences, we’re equal. Unlike our fake democracy, the democracy of atoms is real.

Depending on my given mood on a given day, I can reflect on one of these three relationships for a moment or two and find comfort in it. And know that I’m really at one with the universe and will return to it on a more fundamental level some day—my reunion with it—and all the rest is a journey, a game, a comedy, a parade…

Last Words by George Carlin with Tony Hendra pages 285-6.

Compare that with:

I am the universe.

Morihei Ueshiba, quoted in Art of Peace by John Stevens.

It’s hard to think of two individuals with less in common, but somehow they came the same conclusion. What they have in common is that they are both artists. Art at its highest expression seems to make the artist identify with the whole universe.

If I understand O-Sensei’s point, Aikido’s highest expression is when an opponent’s efforts to defeat the master are as futile as trying to defeat the entire universe. Another way to state this is that the Aikido master aligns themself with universal principles so that they are in a state of victory before the combat begins.

Carlin’s point seems to be that he late in life stopped identifying with society in any conventional way but instead identified with the universe. This identification allowed him to do his comedy at the high level he achieved.

This identification can sound arrogant at first glance, but they don’t seem to be making a unique claim. Anyone can achieve this state through effort.

Memories of Sugano Sensei

September 2nd, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

The news that Sugano Sensei has passed away has hit me harder than I expected. Sensei’s teaching is very important to my understanding of Aikido and I am very grateful for his attention and efforts.

Sugano Sensei awarded me my sankyu rank. He was teaching a seminar in Atlanta where dan grade tests were planned but there was a last minute change and several of us found out in the morning that we would be testing that afternoon. We only had a few minutes between classes to prepare. Chris Rozzet and I tested together and Sensei made us go through all gokyu and yonkyu requirements first, so the test was extra long. Sensei emphasized understanding omote and ura directions and attention to details of pins. I remember doing sankyo ura starting with an omote movement. Sensei made me do it again and again calling out “ura! ura!” repeatedly until I understood. It was a difficult and memorable test and I appreciated his attention. I liked the feeling that I earned that rank.

This experience endeared Sugano Sensei to me and I paid special attention to his teaching after this. I appreciated Sensei’s direct teaching methods. It was always clear what he thought was important. There was also a sense of spiritual seriousness in his manner that appealed to me. When I decided to become a live-in student in NY Aikikai, I was excited that I would have the chance to train more with him.

Sensei teaching schedule in NY Aikikai at that time was five days a week, two hours a day. This made him the most frequent instructor. He did often travel to teach, but he preferred going for weeks at a time instead of almost every weekend the way Yanada Sensei does. Because of this frequent contact, he was very influential for me. His teaching manner was different in daily training from seminars; he focused on very basic techniques and rarely stopped to explain details. His classes felt almost like religious ceremonies, starting with misogi, wordlessly demonstrating very basic techniques that we practiced by rote, closing with a moment of meditation before bowing out. I appreciated this teaching method because it gave it a chance for mastery. A much more typical way to teach is to try to constantly give new information to the students for fear they might get bored with the basics. I remember a week were Sensei began every class with several minutes of tai-no-henko. I gained insights from this repetition that no amount of explanation could have given me. I don’t remember being bored by the repetition even when I could predict what he would do next. Sensei’s presentation gave a feeling of spontaneity and excitement that kept me engaged.

I remember the first time that Sensei used me for ukemi. He had such complete control of the situation that I was constantly off balance trying to keep up with his movement. When it was over people were laughing because of my obvious confusion. Later I learned more of what was expected of me when taking falls, but I never lost that sense of his command over me.

Sensei’s teaching emphasized timing and distance and he didn’t often talk about kokyu. However I was always greatly impressed with his power and his conditioning. When he was teaching kaeshiwaza (he didn’t only teach basics), I had to attempt to apply ikkyo on him so that he could counter. It felt like I was trying to move a log! His arm was so strong and his balance was so firm that it seemed hopeless to attempt the technique (he clearly let me apply for the sake of the demonstration). His movements were flowing but vigorous and became a model for what I have tried to achieve in my own practice. He rarely showed static technique and would explain that static training was to learn what to do but left out when to do it.

Those of us living in the dojo would frequently go to lunch with Sensei Sunday afternoons after training. We would go to Souen, his favorite macrobiotic restaurant. Sensei was often quiet at these lunches, but clearly enjoyed listening to our conversation. We would try to draw him out with questions and discovered that he liked to talk about the foods and cultures of the various places that he lived. We could sometimes get him to discuss his time in Hombu and his impressions of the teachers at that time and training with O Sensei. These occasions had a family atmosphere where Sensei played the role of the quiet father enjoying the antics of the young people.

Occasionally we would go to a movie after lunch. We saw The Rock together and he praised it as having all the elements of a great movie. He enjoyed action movies with a classic style. The Wild Bunch was a favorite. Brian once suggested a movie playing at the Angelika which turned out to be The Addiction an arty vampire movie staring Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor. This was not Sensei’s kind of movie (I can’t say it was mine either).

After I left New York, my busy life kept me from visiting much and I saw Sensei only at seminars where it is difficult to maintain the natural closeness that I felt while living in the dojo. Sensei’s methods of teaching became very important to me when I started teaching in Atlanta and I have consistently opened class with a warm up based on the way Sensei would start class when I was in New York. I don’t try to mimic his movements, but I do try to keep the sense of seriousness that he brought to training. I don’t fear boring my students with basics as I know that I still feel challenged by them knowing that I still fail to have the degree of control and power that Sensei modeled for us.

Now Sugano Sensei is gone. There are many other people with closer student/teacher relationships with him than I and no one is looking to me to carry on his teachings. Others are in a better position to do that. I can only carry on with my training and hope that people will find some small reflection of his efforts in my actions. I hope that this brings good memories to others that knew and loved Sensei as I did.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

August 21st, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

I picked Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross based on a review in The New York Times by Scott Turow. This is the first time that I have bought a book on this basis (amazing but true). Mostly I choose books based on word of mouth or serendipity, unless the book is about Aikido or programming in which case I already know something about the author and subject. Scott Turow had a glowing assessment of Adam Ross’s talents and based on the review I expected a murder mystery that was more than genre fiction, much like Turow’s work. What I got was an experimental novel that plays with the murder mystery genre but is never really committed to it.

There are many references to M. C. Escher art and I think the author wanted to structure the novel like an Escher print. There are three narratives that have repeated elements, each time changed but recognizable. The central subject is marriage and the threat of violence in bad marriages. This structure never really worked for me. I used to enjoy Escher prints, but they are basically very cold and cerebral; not something that I want in a novel. The other problem is that Escher prints are never linear, the point is often an endless loop. A novel is a completely linear experience, and in this case the attempt to mimic the experience of an Escher print gives an ending that simply peters out and doesn’t satisfy. This may have been what the author was after and if so it is a success, but I felt very disappointed with the experience.

There are several sustained narratives that are very good and could have stood on their own. In particular, the retelling of the Sheppard murder from the 1950’s was very compelling. Adam Ross is a real talent as a writer, but I want him to focus on a more straight forward narrative. A well told story is rare enough that I don’t want it muddied by complicated, experimental structures that don’t boost the emotional connection I have to the story.

Innocent by Scott Turow

July 15th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

I still vividly remember reading Presumed Innocent more than twenty years ago. I was a little late coming to it because I can remember being on the train and it seemed that everyone was reading it. At the used book sale where I bought it there seemed to be hundreds of copies available. I was blown away by the experience. The emotional content was very strong (it is still the most vivid description of an affair I’ve read) and the ending genuinely surprised me. Very few books have stayed with me for so long, especially ones that I only read once (I can’t explain why rereading it was never appealing).

Innocent, the sequal, is not nearly the same experience. As a mystery it was effective and Scott Turow knows how to build the suspense. I was pulled along by the story and the ending was a surprise. Unfortunately, overall it was a disappointment. For a start, there were too many aspects that were implausible to me. Would Rusty Sabich really be an elected judge after the events in Presumed Innocent? I could believe a successful defense attorney, but I couldn’t believe that being acquitted of a murder on a technicality didn’t have a negative effect on his career. And after having such a sordid affair, would he still be married to the same woman? The story tries to deal with that, but I had a hard time accepting.

Part of the strength of Presumed Innocent in comparison to Innocent is that emotions were built on characters making choices that felt psychologically true. That feeling is lacking here. I don’t want to give away the story, but there are too many times where I doubted the narrative. In most genre books, implausibility is such a constant that I don’t even notice it. In a Scott Turow story the effect is discouraging because so much of the story telling is so strong.

If I hadn’t read Presumed Innocent, I wouldn’t have read Innocent. On its own merits I weakly recommend Innocent, but it is a pale comparison to the earlier work.

The Wordy Shipmates

June 27th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

What fun! I have seen Sarah Vowell on talk shows and on CSPAN Book-TV and I have always enjoyed her sardonic delivery and gentle humor. The Wordy Shipmates seems to have been written just for me. She’s about my age and all of her cultural references are part of my personal experience and the humor feel like private jokes just between us. On top of that I feel a deep cultural connection to the Puritans, the main characters in this history.

I haven’t done the genealogical work myself, but some of my relatives have traced my direct male ancestors back to Isaac Stearns, who came over on the ship Arbella. This is the ship that brought over the founders of Massachusetts, who are the focus of this book. So while my ancestor doesn’t show up in the text, both the criticism and the praise for these odd people feels directed at my heritage. Sarah Vowell’s heritage is partly Cherokee, which gives her a perspective for severe criticisms (well deserved).

On top of my Puritan genetic lineage, I was brought up Unitarian (in Canada in a church founded before the Universalist merger) and while it isn’t mentioned here, Unitarianism in America started with a schism in the Puritans.

Somehow I inherited from this cultural tradition the same argumentative nature (as my wife will tell you) that makes up most of the action in this story. While my actual opinions and beliefs are very different, I can understand how the debates over very small religious differences can mean so much to people.

Sarah Vowell treats the furious debates and the genocidal incidents (“— spoiler alert — what the English end up doing to the Pequot youngsters is way, way worse than kidnaping.”) as fodder for both humor and outrage. She both admires and loathes the Puritans and the example that they set for the American character. How can you love people that set the precedent for slaughtering Indians that continued through much of our history. How can you not love people that founded Harvard, the principles of religious freedom and the Protestant work ethic. This is always the problem with reading history. We want to find villains and heros in our founding stories, but all we really find are real people that never precisely fit either mold.

The End of the World as We Know It

May 17th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

I chose to read this memoir because I enjoyed Robert Goolrick’s novel. His novel involves very damaged characters and it is clear to me now that he is also extremely damaged himself. I don’t want to give away the reading experience, but there are sudden revelations of personal horrors that make this a difficult read.

The writing is riveting, but I have a hard time recommending it. I was well aware that some people live with this kind of personal pain and damage, so the painful experience of reading wasn’t changing for me.

A Reliable Wife

April 22nd, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is a relentless page turner. I was annoyed during the first couple of chapters because it felt like the same ideas were repeated over and over, but suddenly new information was revealed new information that made me reconsider everything that had been told. After this, the story had a grip on me that didn’t let go until the end.

This is a crime story about very damaged people. It was shocking to read that the author based all of the major characters on different aspects of himself. These are all people that have lived deliberately debauched lives. The existence of living for only selfish physical pleasure is presented as deeply depressing and the result of abusive circumstances. The characters, for at least some of the time, see a hedonistic existence as the best way to escape the pain they feel in their existence. Contentment is only found by the simpler, safer but less exciting existence of stable loving commitment to others. Those who can’t accept this lesson die.

This sounds simplistically moral, but the author does include minor characters that experience madness, pain and death without any sense of higher justice. The many characters reap what they sow, but I don’t think that the author is trying to imply that a virtuous existence is any guarantee of a good life.

The writing is mesmerizing and very sensual. While there is long discussions of the sex lives of the characters, I didn’t find it erotic to read as there was always a feeling of how damaged these people are. The sensuality comes from feeling the pain these characters experience so vividly. There were some distractions: one of the characters is portrayed as so wealthy that nothing can’t be bought, the setting was in some ways to simple, without the complications and randomness that would make it feel more real. The whole story happens on a stage that is designed and built by the author as a closed world. This closing off of the story from complicated and random real world made the story more engrossing while reading but made it less meaningful for me on reflection.

I recommend this book because of how engrossed I was while reading. I plan to read Robert Goolrick’s memoir The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life to find out how this kind of damage plays out in a real life.

Aikido Strategy

April 18th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

Naive understanding from before training

Before I started Aikido, my understanding of the strategy used came from conflict resolution experts that claimed to be using the Aikido strategy applied to interpersonal relations. This model followed a three step approach:

  1. Observe the energy of the attack.
  2. Blend with the energy of the attack.
  3. Redirect the energy of the attack.

I have a very clear memory of reading this in the years before I started training. While model may work for conflict resolution in the workplace, I don’t think that it is very useful for physical combat. Naturally, if you don’t see the attack at all you can’t defend yourself, but this model suggests a very passive defender that is in the wash of violence before taking control.


During my earlier years of training, I saw the strategy as the way of not fighting or the way of non-resistance. Some of my instructors would describe this as letting uke do what they want to do to take control. This strategy describes well the experience of learning basic Aikido techniques; if you are meeting the force of your partner you are making a mistake. This is the main lesson of what some people call “solid training”, where your partner grabs strongly in a static position and you find a way to move avoiding their strength. In tai no henko training, this entails letting uke establish a firm grip before attempting to turn. This is important training to understand kokyu, but it doesn’t represent a complete strategy for combat. As Sugano Sensei once said, static training teaches you what to do, but not when to do it. Another problem with solid training as a model for Aikido strategy is that it doesn’t represent a resisting opponent who would change the attack as soon as they felt you move, but a training partner helping you learn correct technique.

Sen sen no sen

When I began training directly with Yamada Sensei and Sugano Sensei, I began to understand the importance of timing in their technique. They didn’t stand passively waiting for an attack, but instead controlled the attack before the first contact. I had read before where shomenuchi ikkyo was described with nage starting the technique with a strike to the face, eliciting a response from uke that allowed the technique to continue. I understood the timing of many techniques as the defender starting the movement to control the attacker from the beginning so that they are responding to the defender. Some might see this as a break from their ethical understanding of Aikido, but I don’t think it changes anything; the technique still requires violent intent from the uke and most techniques emphasize control instead of damage. I have heard some karate students describe this as sen sen no sen, early timing or preemptive attack. To train for this, I try to practice as I have witnessed my seniors; starting to move so that I lead the attack instead of waiting for it to happen. This is particularly important in multiple attacker situations where if you wait on your partners, they could all reach you at the same time. The only way to control this is to move first forcing an attack from the uke of your choice.


This past Winter Seminar, Sugano Sensei was describing very basic technique. Describing tai no henko training, he said that it represented control over the contact with your partner. In this description, he used the term ki musubi. I am most familiar with this term from ki musubi no tachi, a paired form with bokken. I understand it to mean tying ki, where musubi means a knot. So the connection of the grip like a knot tying your ki to your partners. But he further explained that there are two ways to understand musubi, a knot or to create. I don’t know enough Japanese to know whether these are two meanings of the same kanji or if they are homonyms, but his explanation of the creation meaning was that by setting the combative distance and presenting your wrist, nage is creating a situation that ties uke‘s and nage‘s energy and movement together before contact is made.

So now my understanding of the strategy of Aikido is summarized by ki musubi. It isn’t allowing the attacker to decide the timing of the attack so that the defender is only responding. It isn’t attacking first to elicit an attack. It is instead creating and controlling a connection between combatants. This model for understanding how the techniques work builds on the previous ideas and unifies them.

For some time now, I have been starting the classes I teach with tai no henko practice. For this practice, I have beginners start with a static position to learn how to move but I have intermediate and advanced students start at a distance to work on timing. I don’t yet know how to demonstrate the idea of ki musubi as part of this practice, which simply means that I don’t have a deep enough grasp of the concept. I can only see the surface of it and I don’t know yet how to integrate into my practice, but I also know that you first have to see where to go before you can go there.

Which only leaves one question: Does it work in combat? or Is it practical? I don’t know the answer because I have never had to find out, but really that’s a different discussion.

Trotsky: a biography

April 9th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

Trotsky: a biography was a very difficult read for me. I wanted to read it because interest in communism because as a left leaning liberal, communism is the most significant blot on the history of liberalism. I am proud to call myself a liberal because of liberalism’s noble heritage of extending rights into larger and large portions of society. Abolition and civil rights are the greatest examples of this, but also the efforts of progressives and liberals to use the power of government to deal with the worst examples of market failure (pollution, exploitation of low wage workers, monopolies, consumer fraud, etc). However liberals and progressives had a blind spot to the threat of communism, particularly in the years before World War II. Later, liberals began to define themselves in how they differ from communists, but the taint of prior acceptance remains even today as we see critics calling President Obama a socialist and worse.

Leon Trotsky is portrayed in this biography as so certain of his reasoning that he felt justified in using extreme violence to push aside all obstacles to his goals. As it became clear that Stalin was committing atrocities against is citizens to cement his power, Trotsky became a hero to western communists because he was in the opposition and had an explanation of Stalin’s mistakes. The thesis of this book is that these supporters ignored the fact that Trotsky engineered some of the worst atrocities of the USSR when he was in position to shape policy.

This book ably proves its point, but it failed to make its story compelling to this reader. I enjoyed learning about Trotsky’s childhood and early revolutionary career and the closing chapters had some excitement where Stalin’s assassination attempts play out. The bulk of the book, from years just before the October revolution to Trotsky’s deportation, were tedious to read. I can’t believe that this is because those years were unexciting, Robert Service is just not a very good story teller. The book might have been more interesting to someone who already knew the ins and outs of the disputes among the Bolsheviks. I still can’t tell you what was the substance of the dispute between Trotsky and Stalin (is it really possible that they just didn’t like each other).

The research that went into this book is significant and I am glad this book exists, I just wish that had left it to historians and book reviewers to read instead of slogging through.

Static content managers

January 25th, 2010 by Edwin Stearns

WordPress is the right tool for this personal blogging site because it allows me to focus on content without worrying about HTML or formatting. The downside is that there is some security risk because it is dynamic. This is a trade-off to allow readers to post comments.

For the dojo website I want the advantages of quickly editing content that I get from WordPress without the security risks of a dynamic content manager. Currently I have to edit the HTML to make any changes, like up-coming events, dues changes and schedule changes. My first idea was to create makefiles that would build the website from markdown content and sync to the FTP server with a quick command, just like posting on this blog. My knowledge of HTML is low, so I quickly learned that there were many issues that I would have to resolve to get this going. Wouldn’t it be simpler to use existing static content manager software to solve this problem?

My criteria for the content manager was that it would create a static website (no logging in to the server except to transfer the files), Markdown format for content and that the site would look exactly the same as it does now (Tom Carter did a great job on the design and I don’t want to change that now). After some searching, I narrowed down to three options: nanoc, webgen and webby. All three used Markdown and Ruby for code. Ruby is my favorite scripting language (for purely aesthetic reasons), but I almost never have a need to use it in my work, so I liked the idea of using it for something practical.

I started with nanoc, but found that it didn’t handle images. This was a deal breaker because so much of the formatting depended on images; so I moved on to webgen, which never ran correctly on my Macbook Pro (probably because of Snow Leopard). When trying to build a default website, webgen would get caught in an infinite loop. These systems load with the easy to use rubygems interface, but it is time consuming to get each one going and find the problems and I was beginning to feel discouraged.

So I tried Webby. For some reason that I don’t remember, this seemed the least attractive of the options based on their web pages, but I have gotten further with this towards my goal than the others. It uses Markdown and ruby and smoothly handles images. I am still some time from replacing the dojo website with this system because of some weirdness in the formatting that webby wasn’t designed to handle (different pages uses columns differently, no biggie but it would have been easier every page was laid out the same), but I feel that I am on the right path.