Thursday, February 23, 2012

eBook review - Piper knife

In my previous post I offered a piece of my mind with regards to the use of instructional media, and what qualifies those media as good or not. The product reviewed here meets the criteria for the former category with flying colors, and if I may say, could stand as the model of a well-executed instructional book.

Before touching upon the contents, let me first address the form it takes. As obvious from the title, at issue as an e-book, but certainly not like the ones you have probably accustomed to. Namely, it is not in one of the familiar formats, such as PDF or e-PUB, but rather comes as sort of a software application that needs be installed on your computer and then registered online with author Erik Petermann. While that may sound as bit of a bother, it is well worth the effort. Namely, once it opens the layout is very clear and flows continuously within each chapter. There are no pages as such, and each chapter looks more like a web-page, so you can move through it simply by scrolling down, which makes the reading somewhat easier and faster. Also, from each chapter you can choose to go to the previous one, next one, or jump back to the table of contents. NOTE: Mr. Petermann, according to his own admission, has spent a lot of time and money on finding this solution, in order to prevent the information in the book from getting in the hands of just any  irresponsible individual or hormone-driven kid, which means it cannot be copied or printed, so you will have to deal with reading it on your computer.

The material is processed and presented just brilliantly. The author’s writing style is amusing, tongue-in-cheek sometimes, yet serious when needed. If you like the books of Marc “Animal” MacYoung, you will find yourself at home with this one, although I’d say it is even better, since it does not spend much space on author’s own “war stories” and digressions, as amusing and useful they may be in MacYoung’s case. While Petermann covers a lot of ground and topics, each one is given just the right amount of space and time in coverage, so the amount of redundancy is minimal. Certainly helping in making the book easy to follow and to the point is the fact that the author himself underlines in the introduction, when describing the Piper system of knife handling in combat as something “…so different, yet coherent and congruent within itself”.
Author - Erik Petermann
With that said, the book opens up with commentary on the legalities of using knife in self defense on the streets, which is in my opinion a mandatory section in such manual, but without trying to preach. No, this is simply a reminder of some very important issues one needs to pay attention to in a modern society. Petermann is open about being strongly opinionated in regards of the subject discussed, but also about not trying to impose his own personal beliefs and opinions onto readers. In relation to the chapter on legal implications of carrying a knife, he then moves to Ten golden rules of carrying a weapon.

Next chapter is very interesting and one of those mentioned tongue-in-cheek moments. It pertains to the history of Piper knife method, but written in a style that is unlike any other you may have seen in other martial art books. Aside from obviously pointing to the merits of Nigel February as the man who had systematized the body of knowledge in what is now termed Piper, everything else is laid without embellishments and decorum so often seen in other martial arts.
Nigel February
Without going into detail (you’re better off reading it for yourself), there is one very important thing that can be gleaned from this chapter. The Piper approach to combat is probably one of the most vital found today, with all the good and bad implication it bears. See, these very methods and techniques are still used on a daily basis in the urban centers of South Africa, especially among gangs and/or on unsuspecting civilian victims. SA being considered the death-by-stabbing capital of the world, it means all the techniques and “tricks of the trade” taught in Piper are really proven and very much present to this day in the streets and dark alleys of Cape Town and other cities there. Here is what the founder of Piper, Nigel February has to say himself: “I think the first thing to remember is that Piper or the Piper System is a research project, based on SA criminal knife use, and not a super-cool new knife system. To understand Piper is to imagine it as Frankensteins monster, containing bits, parts, strategies and attitudes of all SA gangsters into one organism....Which we then study so we can kill it [...] kill this monster, who comes at you with relentless energy, power and movement“.

Scarry? Well, it should be!

We are then treated with another quite significant matter that is way too often ignored in many other martial systems, let alone the books and videos depicting them, and it is the subject of fitness. Now, this chapter does not attempt in any way, shape or form to instruct the reader in exercises and/or regimes to follow, but does stress the importance of being in a fairly good physical shape if you wish to gain maximum use of the methods presented later. Petermann points that most important physical attributes for street combat, especially involving edged weapons, are speed and lively footwork, and thus suggests some form of specific physical preparation for it. When the specific requirements translate as the short and violent bursts of anaerobic activity, the method of training proposed is some sort of interval workout. In line with the later chapter on Intent and mindset (which is probably the common thread that runs through all of the Piper segments), addition of practices that call for emotional involvement is also recommended.

The next three chapters are closely linked, tackling the issues of awareness, being afraid and the abovementioned intent and mindset. In the last part, we are reminded of the scary and cruel environment from which Piper has evolved, so the magnitude of how much the proper intent and perception of your training mean is reiterated.

And now, the book moves into the more specific material relating to the “tools of the trade”. If you are thinking “finally!” then I must advise you to not skip over the above issues, as they are extremely important and put everything else in perspective. Anyway, the five chapters that follow pertain to the target areas on your enemy (the actual term used by the exponents of Piper, once more stressing the attitude in what they do and why), selecting a knife that will suit you best, applying the skills to improvised weapons, using other body parts in the totality of the real world altercation, and also training equipment that will help you in adopting the skills.

Petermann then presents the chapter on how to practice Piper. No, not the course on how to organize your training session etc, but what qualities to look for, how to approach developing them and where to look for insight, better understanding and inspiration. He also warns that this way of using the knife to fight is not some stylistically “rounded” entity that can be fully mastered as such. Instead, a lot of time and effort needs be invested in practicing the basics ,as that is what really makes the system functional, despite the commonly met obstacles of boredom and physical inconvenience. He puts it very succinctly in saying that ““…this is not a skill-set you’re learning to be cool at a cocktail-party or to show off to your blind date”.

In the following chapter, once again we see author’s excellent pedagogy in treating the subject matter. Namely, he puts together an overview of the technical material to come and therefore provides a look at the complete picture that the pieces of the puzzle. I find this to be a great way of helping the reader/attempted practitioner to not fall into the trap of failing to see the woods from the trees, which is a common problem in learning something from books or videos.

The topics of the carry and the draw of your chosen knife are often neglected and overlooked, but not in this case. The discussion on the eternal dilemma of forward vs. reverse grip is included, in a sober and rational fashion and with conclusions drawing from the entirety of Piper as such.

From here on, the reader will get their hands-on instruction in the fundamentals of the technical arsenal in Piper. The author goes into detail about the areas previously briefly covered in the overview. It is these chapters where Petermann’s analytical and pedagogical ability shines through. Namely, he demonstrated the exquisite capacity of analyzing and putting into meaningful (digestible) chunks of information the deceptive moves of Piper.

First, we are shown and explained the basic ways of keeping the blade in motion – shimmering and twirling. Most techniques in Piper generate their power from the wrist, so these are very important. Not to mention the psychological effect it may have on your adversary.

Passing the knife from one hand to the other is usually seen as detrimental ornamentation in most other knife systems, but within Piper it is an integral tactical element, and in that context very much acceptable. Shown are the four options/variations, and while you may not find all of them according to your liking (like I did not myself), you should be able to take at least two that can be integrated into your repertory.

At the first glance, this chapter will seem inadequate, as it only shows two stabbing techniques, but is a deceptive impression (as so many things are with Piper). Once these basic ways of doing it are under your belt, your are given some hints and guidelines on how to expand their applications in conjunction with other technical element.

The chapter on body movements may be the greatest obstacle to the grand majority of western practitioners of martial arts. It has to do with cultural and socially acceptable ways of moving in the African communities, but Petermann does a wonderful job of explaining it, and all you have to do is sweat over it.

The footwork is the driving force behind everything else that Piper does, like it is the case with most examples of great combatants, regardless of the style/system they represent. While different than in most other systems and styles, it is still practical and understandable, so among the explained methods, you should be able to find what suits you body type and physical ability and then put it to use.

I have to add here, that with the practice of body movements and footwork as done in Piper, you will probably get a very good workout out of your training session, and in a way that is pretty unique, so you will end up gaining some more value out of it all.

With all the previous techniques under your belt, the book now offers some more advanced material as a challenge to sink your teeth into, and possibly provide inspiration to be creative and find your own voice in expressing Piper.

In the end, it is probably wise to remind ourselves that the controversy that has been following this fighting system is simply the consequence of the novel dynamic patterns it shows and thus the lack of understanding of it. For quite a while, the main exponents did not even feel compelled to clarify the things. Again, quoting Nigel February: “Piper's global release & hype wasnt planned, but got out by accident. It was never meant to have ever left Cape Town, as we felt it was a local problem. Well it got out & has been misunderstood ever since. I guess its reason for existing now is down to its original purpose....It’s a live bad guy that all of us are now able to study & person though! Understanding intent though doesn’t translate well by watching some vids on the Net.“

In conclusion, while the physical expression of Piper is very unorthodox and initially difficult to understand, this e-book really does an excellent job out of trying to teach the most important aspects of it. In the meantime, the people from Piper have finally produced an instructional video as well, so paired up with the manual that should really give you the next best thing, second only to personal tutelage under one of the advanced exponents. Personally, I have not seen the video yet, but judging from this review, it is certainly worth getting.

Both products are available through 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Frustrations of learning from books and videos

As so many other websites out there, this one too features some video and book reviews, so relevant to that fact is my take on the widespread question of whether it actually possibly to learn martial arts from a book or video. Well, the only right, but also unsatisfactory answer is – it depends! In order to make this conundrum somewhat clearer, what follows is my criteria on what makes a good “media carrier” of martial art information.

As always, when it comes to my views and opinions, there is the issue of context. With regards to evaluating an educational media product, we can look at it either from the standpoint of the product in itself, or its worth to a particular customer.

User-related criteria

  I believe the first and foremost element of importance in the tough task of teaching/learning any physical activity from a book or a video is the “student”, i.e. the end user of the product. From that perspective, let us divide those as belonging to one of the three possible groups – a beginner, an intermediate or advanced practitioner of fighting studies. Each of those should first try to define and understand what are they looking for in a product.

So, we might as well begin with beginners. In case of a row novice, or more precisely someone deciding to take up a study of some martial system and still choosing the right one, they should look at videos and books as kind of a review, to see what is out there and if something appeals to them especially. For this purpose it is obvious that videos have advantage over books, but the latter will offer more details once our budding practitioner narrows his or her choice to three or four potential approaches to fighting. The problem here is the lack of proper perspective on the quality of movement demonstrated by the author of the product, so it is completely possible that some people will reject certain systems simply due to the dislike for the particular instructor on video. Fortunately, today we have within easy reach the overabundant resources of Youtube, so the search is much faster, wider in scope and cheaper…and time consuming, yes. As the matter of fact, there are downsides to it as well, but let’s leave that for another time.

Choices, choices

Once the prospect martial artist has finally picked his thing, he should actually refrain from using videos as the source of information in their training and rely on a qualified instructor. Books however, can and should be used as the source of information regarding the historical and philosophical background, so your training time with an instructor will be spent more efficiently, and potential questions (maybe) more pertinent and be less of time-wasters.

Of course, some people will reach for these forms of instruction for the lack of qualified instructors in their area. That one is really tough…still if you decide to go for it, make sure to also have a training partner (or a couple of them) who are as enthusiastic about it and then try to practice the material as closely as possible and with as much diligence as you can muster. Be aware that it is long and difficult path, especially undertaken like that, so the progress will be slow and irregular, comparing to training under an instructor. Also, whenever possible, take the opportunity to partake in a seminar or take a private lesson, for the reality check on what you have achieved thus far.

As you reach some level of training, certain books and/or videos are really handy as reminders of the curriculum requirements within your art or school. For those, you are well advised to ask your instructors for recommendation.

For the intermediate student, the media could be of much different use and value. Namely, with some serious training under your belt (or sweat on your shorts if you do not wear a belt :-) you will probably have achieved some understanding of the core principles and tenets of your chosen martial art, so the media products could provide a couple of useful things. First, how some other people within the same system approach their training. It will hopefully offer a fresh perspective on some already familiar things and further increase your understanding of those, maybe also add some new fire to your training sessions. Second, if looking at another style of fighting, you could expand your horizons on the coherence of your own system (would it hold on just as good against various other schools as it does against your fellow practitioners), or even see something that fits in nicely with your work to address the areas your style does not.

Context and coherence

However, be honest here – do not approach looking at other schools with preconceptions. Be aware of both their good and bad features (same goes for your own stuff) and how that fits with your thing structurally. Do not add some moves just because they look cool, but only if they can be embedded with your already existing method, as seamlessly as possible. To see the wrong way to look at it, just read some of the stupid comments and flame wars under any of the videos on the abovementioned Youtube.

The advanced practitioner should already be at the level to understand and appreciate the quality of movement, instead of getting lost in canonical technical minutia (yes, it means that spending 30 years growing more and more dogmatic and biased does not make you an advanced practitioner). With such understanding of principles, one can glean something of use from any other martial art, related or unrelated. It could be a drilling tool, training method, teaching progression, tactical consideration…whatever. 

Teaching perspective

Also, the advanced practitioners have already established a good filter to sift the observed information through, so it is easier to take what is useful and discard the irrelevant. For these people, the next link in the evaluating criteria of a product becomes more important.

Self-contained criteria

Now, all that said, all books and videos are not created equal either. Two primary measures that make an instructional product are its contents and presentation. Both are rather important, so it is hard to tell which one takes precedence. However, there can be no presentation without something to present, so…

The content, in order to be valuable, needs to be first and foremost relevant and in accordance with the advertised features. In other words, if a video is advertised as the “street solutions for self defense” it should not then spend 90% of instruction time (if any) on teaching the “hidden pressure points application of karate kata”. Also, there should be at least some amount of the pertinent material included. Please note, however, it does not necessarily mean dozens of different techniques, and at least 90 minutes, or 200 pages (certainly, 15 minutes does not qualify as a full-feature instructional video either). I am perfectly satisfied with a book or video that focuses on a single technique/tactic/method but then offers a comprehensive treatment of the subject, in-depth and thorough. Of course, copious material is no bad, but in that case the next point becomes all the more important.

With products that have valuable content to offer, it is the presentation that will make it or break it. Essentially, it means that no matter how relevant and maybe innovative the material is, it needs to be presented in a coherent manner and logical order, so that the end user could benefit most from watching or reading it.

There are a few ways to achieving that goal, all good and acceptable, so in the end the customer will decide, based on their own affinities, what videos and/or authors they tend to like most in a particular field. Of course, some people just have naturally good on-screen appearance or “literary” style and it will only help them if they have a good product, sometimes even make an average one come out as better. On the other hand, I have seen some examples of good material and solid organization, but with somewhat bland “personal touch”, which in turn made the product not as well received as it could and should have been.

Maybe you will ask for some more specific pointers regarding what is a good presentation. Fair question, but due to the limits of this post, here are just a few broad strokes:

-         chronological approach starts with what the practitioner will need to have grasp of first, in order to attain a good command of the material, and then move in successive steps from there. For example, a knife method would start with weapon carry and deployment, followed by stance and footwork, distance management etc. A grappling package could start with closing the distance, placing a takedown, taking the dominant position…

-         lexicon approach will divide the material in more or less rounded categories/chapters/ (maybe even volumes) and then offer the instruction in each, for easier reference. Some pointers on how to integrate the material are certainly welcome (training methods and progressions, drills etc).

-         flowchart approach opens up with some technique or method and then discusses possible reactions/counters to it, followed by possible solutions to those counters and so on.

There are other possibilities and combinations, but hopefully by now you get the idea. Of course, certain types of material or martial arts may have the built-in inclination towards one of the above presentation methods, so going for it would make for a more certain outcome.

Partially relating to the presentation are the technical production values, like lighting, sound, visual and graphic effects etc. Personally, I do not care much about the fancy package, as long as the image is clear enough and sound intelligible enough that I don’t have to physically strain to receive the intended information.

In conclusion, when reviewing the instructional products for this blog, I have in mind predominantly the “self-contained” criteria relating to the books and videos themselves, but in hope of providing some useful reference points so that you, the reader, could decide if they fit well enough with your personal “user-criteria”.