I research and teach medieval and Renaissance Italian swordsmanship (I have a PhD in recreating historical martial arts), blog about it, write books about it, have developed a card game to teach it (which involved founding another company, and crowdfunding), and run Swordschool.
And as if that wasn't enough, you can even contact me here.
This post is intended to be useful to the attendees at the recent seminar I taught with Chris Vanslambrouck in Madison, Wisconsin. It may also be of interest to folk who couldn't make it.
First up, huge thanks to Heidi Zimmerman who organised the seminar. It literally couldn’t have happened without her. And thanks also to Chris Vanslambrouck, who co-taught the seminar, with related plays from Meyer. Given that there was also a lot of Meyer technique being taught that weekend, it’s a miracle we covered so much ground, so hats off to the students. I’ve assembled a list of the material we covered, some planned, some answers to questions posed by the students.
Saturday: Fiore Longsword
We started with the most basic blows, and saw how they created the guards.
The blows were:
You can find a more complete version of the drill we used here:
We then did a parry and strike from donna, against the mandritto fendente, and a parry and strike from dente di zenghiaro, against the same blow. The latter is the beginning of our Second Drill:
This lead us to the universal counter-remedy: the pommel strike (as shown in the 8th play of the master of coda longa on horseback).
We then defended against thrusts with the Exchange of thrusts:
Then Breaking the thrust:
In the afternoon session we covered the rear-weighted guards (donna and fenestra), and briefly went over the 3 turns (volta stabile, meza volta, tutta volta), and the four steps (accrescere/discrescere; passare/tornare).
We then did a not-very-deep mechanical dive into the guard bicorno, including how to use it to prevent an exchange, and as a feint. This included an introduction to the woman in the window drill:
I’m just back from the International Rapier Seminar, held in Warsaw last weekend. It was an absolute blast, so the first order of business is a heartfelt dziękuję/gracias/thank you to the organisers, especially Lorenzo Braschi for inviting me (he was the very man who introduced me to the mighty porrón in Spain in 2012), and to Karol for driving all the way out to the Ryanair airport to get me, which was only marginally closer to Warsaw than it is to my house.
The event kicked off at 5pm on the Friday, so I spent the day in Warsaw being a tourist, mostly at the Warsaw Museum, which had a special exhibition on the reconstruction of Warsaw after the Nazi’s wantonly destroyed it (as in, 65% of the city completely levelled, 80% badly damaged) after the Uprising of 1944. I didn’t know much about the city before I got there, and it frankly blew me away. The sheer scale of the clearing and rebuilding beggars the imagination, especially when you realise it was done with picks, shovels, and horse-drawn carts, in a country ravaged by the war.
Walking around the old town, you wouldn’t immediately guess that the buildings were built 70 years ago.
The event began with a get-together, a bit of sparring and lots of chatting, and I got to meet a student I’ve been interacting with pretty much weekly since 2020 (hi Jas!). I taught two classes on the Saturday: How to Train, followed immediately by How to Teach. I can summarise them for you like so:
1. Run a diagnostic, fix the weakest link, run the diagnostic again
2. Generate the optimal rate of failure in your student/s.
Simple, yes. Easy? Not so much. But that’s why we practice, right? The classes were well attended, and I think well received. During the afternoon I dropped in and out of watching classes by the other instructors, and got to fence with Emilia Skirmuntt, she of episode 75 of the podcast. Plus a great catch-up with Alberto Bomprezzi, whom I haven’t seen since my trip to Spain in 2012, and meeting Jorge from Mexico who persuaded me to part with my proof copy of The Duellist’s Companion Second Edition.
There may or may not have been much carousing and revelry that evening…
Sunday was given over to the tournament, which had two excellent features: it didn’t occupy all the space, and I didn’t have to do any work on it. So I spent the day fencing people! Elmar, Radek (who went on to win the tournament, congratulations!), Chris, Heikki (the one Finn at the event), Cornelius, and Martin. Each bout was different, each one delightful in its own way. If I had them to give, I’d give out the special technical “this feels like fencing a specific historical system” award to Martin (organiser of Swords of the Renaissance, which I attended last year and will return to in September this year). We were both really tired (these events are exhausting), but there were moments when it felt like Capoferro and Fabris might not have been ashamed of us. Another highlight was working with Damian on grounding and mechanics. He’d asked for it in my class the day before, but we didn’t have time to go into sufficient detail. There's no substitute for working one-on-one with students.
I was too knackered by the heat to fence everyone I wanted to, so Pedro Velasco and Tomasz Kraśnicki, here’s your rain-check for my first two bouts next time!
The great thing about all the bouts, and the event itself really, is that it was all very collegial. There was plenty of competitive spirit, but none of the personality-driven jockeying for status etc. that can make fencing unpleasant. That’s down to the attendees, in part, but also to the spirit of the event itself, for which the organisers should be thoroughly applauded.
Dinner on Sunday night was a blast too; most of the attendees had gone home, but on my table at a restaurant in a square in the old town, there were 8 people, no two of them from the same country. We had the USA, UK, Denmark, Serbia, Bosnia, Finland, Denmark, and Italy represented. If I went on a bit much about flying and woodwork, then Marc, Nic, Nicole, and Vicky, my apologies. Blame the vodka! But to be fair, they did ask…
And breakfast on Monday involved an hour-long chat with Ton Puey, Chris Lee-Becker, and Pedro Velasco. I think that a huge part of the value of events like these is the unscheduled serendipitous interaction with colleagues and friends. I also found at least two new guests for the podcast whom I had never heard of before the weekend!
My main takeaways from this trip are 1) I should do more of them and 2) I need to work on my fencing fitness. My legs are killing me!
As is now traditional, the day after an event like this I'm flooded with Facebook friend requests, which is lovely, but I don't use Facebook. So, if you'd like to find me on social media, come to swordpeople.com and say hello!
It's the beginning of “Mental Health Week”, so I thought I'd share the chapter “Mental Health” from The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training. This comes after a chapter on visualising your mental model for training as a tree, with mental health as the roots, physical health as the trunk, and specific attributes as the branches, and is followed by a similar overview of physical health, before we delve into the details of goal setting, how to practice, etc. I am currently working on the audiobook version of The Windsor Method, and have attached the audio for this chapter here, in case it's better for your mental health to listen rather than read. Just click the play button:
If you'd like to know when the rest of the audiobook is available, please sign up to my mailing list.
Mental health is the foundation of all your training. If you’re too depressed to get out of bed, or too anxious to concentrate on your striking drills, it will be very hard to train effectively. I’m not a psychiatrist, and if you are struggling I hope you will get professional help. I did, and it works, or at least it worked for me.
If we were talking about physical health, you would agree that there are many things you can do to improve your general likelihood of avoiding disease and injury. Don’t smoke. Eat healthily. Exercise regularly. I think it’s the same for mental health. There are things you can do that will reduce the severity of mental health issues if they arise, or even avoid them altogether. But there are no guarantees, and all interventions carry some risk.
Meditation can reprogramme your inner voice, can reduce depression and other conditions. It can teach you how to control where your attention goes. But it can also make things worse, depending on how you do it and what you focus on.
Breathing exercises are particularly effective at reducing stress levels, and inducing a feeling of well-being. They are excellent for bridging the gap between conscious control and autonomic processes. But they can be frustratingly slow to work and don’t work for everything.
Exercise is a great mood enhancer, and is a simple way to boost endorphin levels which help with mood. But it comes with a risk of injury.
Spending time doing things you actively enjoy (like swinging swords?) is good too – and swinging swords can include meditative, breathing, and exercise components that are a feel-good triple-whammy. But everyone who has trained for any length of time knows that you can have bad training days. Understanding the foundations of mental health will help you figure out why. As I see it, they are:
1. Agency. A sense of control over your life and its direction. In many ways practising weapons drills is an externalised form of this. See! I can control this blade – I am in control. Control is always an illusion (you could drop dead at any moment), but it’s a very useful and necessary one.
2. Meaning. If you feel your life means something, you can tolerate a great deal more stress. Sacrifices you make for a greater good are much more bearable than those that are just taken from you.
3. Connection. We are social animals, and a great deal of our sense of meaning comes from the impact we have on those around us and our connections to them. The pandemic has highlighted this to an extreme degree. We need each other, and we need others to see that our existence has meaning. Believing that nobody would care if you disappeared is perhaps the worst feeling a person can have.
4. Sleep. The one natural process that is most key to your health and wellbeing. It only takes one bad night’s sleep to ruin your day. Sleep is a process and a skill, so I’ll discuss it separately from the other three branches, in Part 2: Practices.
Agency is the feeling of being in control.
It’s often reasonable to be upset, depressed, sad, angry, annoyed, or frightened. But none of those feelings are fun, healthy, or helpful so do what you can to avoid them. This has a great deal to do with what you focus on, and your sense of agency. The one single most important tool in your mental health toolbox is the ability to focus on your area of control. You don’t control the pandemic, or the weather. You do control whether you did push-ups today, or how you speak to the people in your life. Steven Covey popularised the idea of area of control (which dates back to the Stoics), in his 1989 book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He uses the terms “circle of concern” to cover all the things you are interested in or concerned by, and “circle of influence” to cover those things over which you can exert some control. The circle of influence is always much smaller than the circle of concern, but by focussing on your circle of influence, you actually grow it, and become more able to affect the things in your circle of concern.
The key skill then is being able to control what you focus on, to keep your focus within your circle of influence. A great tool for becoming better at choosing what you focus on is mindfulness meditation. As with any skill, it gets better with practice.
One way to focus on your area of control is to make good art. Neil Gaiman was, and always will be, right on this. In his commencement speech on May 17th 2012 at the University of the Arts, he said:
“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.” (Published in The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016).
Over and over again, I’ve found this to be good advice. I don’t know what your art is: writing code, painting, baking cookies, it could be anything. And it may well be that it feels like you can’t do your art right now, but there are related things you can do, to prepare for when things get back to normal. And ideally, whatever it is, share it. Which brings me on to my next thought: for mental health purposes, you’ll get the most profound sense of agency from helping others. There is nothing more empowering. It can be super-simple, such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard himself, deciding at the beginning of the first UK lockdown, to read one Shakespeare sonnet per day aloud . You can find it on the internet. It’s very interesting to compare this shot-at-home Sir Patrick sitting on a sofa in comfortable clothes reading out of a book, with the more polished professionally produced sonnet readings of his which you can find on YouTube. To be honest, I actually prefer the homemade version. You don’t have to be producing content like this. There are a million ways to help people, and there is nothing that is better for your sense of agency, and connection.
Meaning is the story you tell about the things you focus on.
In 2015 my family and I moved to Lucca, in Tuscany, for three months. We spent a lot of that time eating pizza, but also a great deal of time in museums, “looking at old stuff” as my kids would put it. They were aged 6 and 8, and so didn’t have most of the background stories that bring meaning to a statue or a painting. The thing was either pretty, or not. We went everywhere with art supplies, so they would often sit on the floor and draw and paint the marvels around them. My wife and I would take it in turns to hang out with them while the other went exploring.
We learned early on that it made for a much better museum experience if we prepared the kids with some stories, pitched at their level. One very successful example was a YouTube video that dramatised the story of how Michelangelo created his David. When we got to Florence and took them to the Gallery of the Academy, and there David was towering over us, it had meaning for them.
Meaning is primarily mediated through story. The meaning of a piece of art is mostly in the story it tells, and the story of its creation. The meaning of your life is entirely in the stories you believe about it.
Imagine the difference between a scrap of wood on the trash heap, and an identical scrap of wood that a devout Christian believes is a piece of the True Cross. The meaning the Christian brings to the scrap of wood determines the quality of their experience seeing it.
I have a thought experiment for you, to illustrate this. I call it “three broken legs.”
You wake up in hospital in a lot of pain. You have a broken leg. There are three possible stories to explain why.
1. You went skiing/hang-gliding/mountaineering/insert fun but dangerous activity of choice. You had an accident, and your leg is broken. It happens, you knew the risks and took them.
2. You were walking down the street one day, when somebody came up to you with a baseball bat, shouted hate into your face, and broke your leg with the bat.
3. You were walking down the same street one day, and saw a truck about to run over a child. You leap into action, you save the child, but the truck breaks your leg.
One of these injuries is neutral; one is likely to require some serious counselling and may result in long-term psychological problems, and one is a badge of honour that you will draw strength from for the rest of your life. The broken leg is the same in each case.
Your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. The story that comes with the scar determines your experience of the scar.
And mental health is entirely about your experience, your subjective response to external factors.
So how does this apply to training?
From an entirely rational perspective it is absolutely pointless to study most martial arts most of the time. You are never going to use them. I certainly have no intention of ever fighting a duel. My sword training is in that sense a giant waste of time. But it resonates with a depth of meaning for me that every sword person understands intuitively, and no non-sword people will ever fathom. I am wired to see meaning in swordsmanship. I’m guessing that if you are reading this, so are you. Or maybe it’s some other martial art that turns you on. It doesn’t matter which one; it matters that it has meaning to you.
The sword is a sacred object. With its sharp point it pierces the veil of illusion, and with its sharp edge it separates truth from falsehood. It demands balance and justice. It focusses my being on a single point.
But literally every object is sacred, if you see it through the eyes of the right story.
So why are you training? What meaning do you bring to the arts you practise?
It’s perfectly all right if they are just a fun way to spend time and stay reasonably fit. But you need to bring meaning to some area of your life. Endless contemplation of the infinite void in which people are meaningless specks of agitated matter and we might as well not bother might have the satisfaction of being kind of accurate, but it’s not conducive to mental health.
Connection is our relationship to the people around us.
We are social animals. Without our place in society, we are nothing. In every culture banishment is a severe punishment, and in many times and places was equivalent to or considered worse than death. For most of pre-history our place in our tribe was literally how we survived. This is as true for hermits as it is for the most gregarious among us. Having very limited connection is not at all the same as having none.
Loneliness is a plague in our society, at least as damaging as the global pandemic, and of course it has been made worse by the pandemic. It is literally better for our mental health to be hated than to be ignored.
Of course, it’s better to be loved.
But what has this got to do with training?
Simply this: a large component of martial arts training is social, and as with any other human activity, it creates tribes and societies. This is good, in that we need to feel part of a tribe, but comes with the risk of cultish behaviours. Once we are deeply connected to the people in a tribe, staying part of the in-group becomes more important than other factors like rationality, morality and kindness. Martial arts are as vulnerable to becoming irrational cults as any other kind of human organisation. All this means is that we must be mindful of our need for connection, and make sure that we are connecting with the kinds of people who will bring out our best selves. When evaluating a school or club, see how the senior students behave – do you want to become like them? Because if you stay, you probably will.
It goes deeper than our need for social interaction though. Creativity is intimately linked with connection, because we create primarily through connecting previously separate ideas. Great writers aren’t great because they invent a lot of new words – they are great because they connect old words together in new ways. When growing your tree, you need to draw on the ideas of those around you. You can do this through personal interaction, but also through books, videos, and other forms of idea-spreading.
Connection is necessary for your emotional wellbeing, but also for your creativity. I wrote my first book because a friend suggested I should. I wrote my second because a student from my old club happened to complain about there being nothing out there for the rapier. Without these chance connections, I doubt I’d have started writing; I never had “be a writer” as a goal in life. But look how that turned out! Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas explores the relationship between broad social connections and creativity in depth.
During the pandemic I have had a hard rule of at least one social call with a friend every week. Most weeks I have two or three. And if any of my friends contacts me wanting to talk, that takes priority over any work I may need to do. Connection is so fundamentally important to human wellbeing, way more so than any specific project I may be working on.
Our need for connection has many downsides, such as comparisonitis. We compare ourselves to those who are richer, prettier, stronger, luckier, more charismatic, more “successful”, whatever success means to you. My books do ok, but Stephen King probably wouldn’t be impressed by my figures. I find it helpful to be mindful about whom I compare myself with, and the metrics I use for comparison. Most people I know make more money than I do. I don’t care; I have way more free time. And my job description is infinitely cooler. If it comes down to money, I prefer to compare myself to the several billion people on the planet who make less than I do, rather than the much smaller number who make more.
If you are mindful of the categories you compete in, you can optimise for your mental health.
If you are living a life you believe to be meaningful, and have a sense of agency over it, and have strong connections to those around you, then you are in the best position to have solid mental health. If your training feels meaningful, gives you a sense of agency, and fosters connections with other people, it’s likely to help your mental health. This is why it is so very important to train in such a way that you are getting meaning, agency and connection. Because otherwise your training could feel meaningless, reduce your sense of control, and sever your connections with others.
After a session that goes really well, reflect on why. The chances are good that it scored highly in one or more of the three pillars. And if a session goes badly, which pillar did it fail to strengthen? How can you correct that next time?
I should also mention that your mind needs rest too. A bit of boredom is very good for you (see Bored and Brilliant, by Manoush Zamorodi if you don’t agree).
Swords have been a major part of my life since I was a kid and I still have days when my training feels meaningless. It’s normal, and we have ways round it. My own particular fix is having students. They depend on me to have decent sword skills, so on days when I can’t see meaning or value in training, I train for them.
Physical health is important primarily because it impacts on mental health. Would you rather be blissfully happy but disabled, or utterly miserable but physically fine? A great deal of your experience is mediated through your body. To take a straightforward example: adrenaline and cortisol are produced in the adrenal glands, which are connected to your kidneys. The adrenaline rush we get from a roller-coaster or falling in love? You can thank your adrenal glands. The grinding long-term damage from elevated cortisol levels? That’s your adrenal glands too. It is artificial to separate mind and body, they are deeply intertwined. This is why in many cases changing what you do with your body can deeply affect your mental health.
The AI revolution has been growing behind the scenes for a very long time, and now with chat bots like Chat GPT and image bots like Midjourney, the iceberg is breaking the surface. It puts me in mind of the machine-tool revolution in woodwork that occurred in the 60s and 70s, and the quartz revolution in watchmaking around the same time. The short-term result of both of these was that a lot of old-fashioned craftspeople went out of business, and it became much easier for lower-skilled workers to make decent quality furniture and watches, and much cheaper for ordinary people to buy a functional chair or timepiece.
What we see in both cases, and indeed in just about every case I can think of where new technology comes along, was a change in the market, which became much more democratic, and much broader, with a lower low end, and a much higher high end.
Let’s start with the woodwork example, as woodwork is millenia older than horology.
There is nothing in woodwork that you can’t build with just hand tools. Ships? Check. Lace cravat in limewood? Check.
Until recently, every woodworking project, including that cravat, went from tree to finished product with practically no mechanisation. All power was muscle power, human or animal. The tree was felled with axes, split with wedges, sawn by hand, planed by hand, and finished by hand. The circular saw dates back to the 18th century, when it was driven by wind or water power, and used in saw mills to cut trunks into planks, but it took a century or so to become widespread.
Mechanisation first occurred at the largest scales of woodworking: tree felling with chainsaws, ripping with giant circular saws, the planer-thicknesser (known as a jointer-planer in the US), and so on.
At one extreme, we have craftspeople making extraordinary things out of wood entirely with machines; at the other, we have craftspeople making extraordinary things out of wood with no machines at all. One great example of the latter is Tom Fidgen, author of a wonderful book The Unplugged Woodshop, who doesn’t use any machines at all! Yet he does run an online woodworking school… I wonder which makes more money?
At the level of the individual artisan working at the bench, the cataclysm of modernity didn’t really strike until the 1960s, with the development of smaller electric tools such as hand-held routers. This quickly lead to the demise of many companies making professional grade hand tools. It became very difficult to buy a decent saw or plane; all you could get was mass-produced low-grade wobbly crap. Just compare a Record plane from 1950 with one from 1975, and the cost-cutting is obvious. Plastic handles, parts made of bent mild steel rather than cast, etc. This was not the companies’ fault: the market for the high quality stuff just wasn’t big enough any more to be profitable.
But from the ashes of rubbish hand-tools, phoenixes have emerged, beginning with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, founded in 1981. The top end of the market is now way, way, higher than it ever was before. Such as this saw from Skelton Saws:
And planes from Karl Holtey, that begin at around £1k, if you can find them. Most are much more expensive.
Which make my beautiful, immaculate, Florip saws look very cheap! I have five: their bench saw, tenon saws both rip and crosscut, and dovetail saws rip and crosscut. Oh my goddess, these are amazing, and all five together cost about the same as one Skelton. But of course, about ten times what I'd pay for the cheapest options. Likewise, you can get a really high end plane from Clifton (an old brand that was going bankrupt, and was rescued by one of the few surviving handsaw makers in the UK, Thomas Flinn), Lee-Nielsen, Veritas, etc for a tenth of the price of the equivalent Holtey, but yes, about ten times what the crap in the big box store will cost you.
You can get an idea of what it takes to make a really cheap plane work properly in this video by Rex Krueger.
Putting these tools to use, most craftspeople fall somewhere in between the high-tech and the hand tool-only. I have always had a romantic and aesthetic preference for hand tools, so avoid machines where practical. But here’s the thing: from the perspective of the end-user, it is impossible to distinguish a board that has been dimensioned by machine and finished by hand, and one from which every shaving was taken away through manual labour.
There is no difference- you only get to see the final surface. Likewise, an article written by ChatGPT will be like a rough-sawn board. Usable for some applications, but by the time a craftsperson has planed it smooth, sanded it, and applied some polish, nobody will know if she wrote it from scratch, or edited it from an AI generated draft. Most end-users, most of the time, couldn’t care less how their book was written or their furniture was made. It either meets spec, or it doesn’t.
It’s also worth noting that mastering woodworking machines is in its own way as demanding and difficult as mastering hand tools. You can’t just dump a load of wood in the machine shop, turn everything on, and hey-presto! Out comes new furniture. It’s just that it expands the lower end, and speeds up production: less-skilled workers can get useful work done, and more skilled workers can work dramatically faster, especially in getting sawn lumber dimensioned and planed all round.
The major downside of machines in woodworking (other than the noise and the dust) is that one can tend to make the furniture that the machine can handle. The machines become a limiting factor. If you can’t fit a board onto your planer, you might rip it down the middle so it will… when cutting dovetails, I usually lay out the tails so close together that it’s impossible to cut them with a router (the cutter shank won’t fit through the gap between the tails).
Anyone who knows about such things will immediately see that these were hand-cut. This has nothing to do with practicality, and everything to do with satisfaction. It’s sticking one finger up to the machine-tool revolution, and quite silly because a) it doesn’t make the joint stronger and b) I’m perfectly happy to use machines for other things. The groove for the drawer bottom in this very drawer was cut with a router, and I used a planer-thicknesser to bring the front and sides to thickness.
If you are unfamiliar with woodworking machines, you can see a state of the art modern set-up here in Matt Estlea’s overview video of the making of his Roubo-style workbench, “Bertha”.
Same craftsman, different jobs, so different tools.
Of course, most furniture isn’t made by any kind of craftsperson. It comes from factory assembly lines, in massive quantities at an extraordinarily low cost. It is literally cheaper to buy a table from IKEA than it is to buy the wood to make the same table yourself. The same people who are (probably rightfully) worried about how AI will steal their jobs are almost certainly wearing clothes made on machine looms, and using furniture mass-produced by industrial processes. And probably wearing quartz watches.
Speaking of watches, here is one of the best watches in the world:
The Casio AE1500. Yours for about £30. Reliable, waterproof, multi-function, does everything you could possibly ask of a watch… Except make your craftsmanship spidey-sense tingle with glee. Which this handmade IWC perpetual calendar watch (you won’t need to adjust the date, month, or moon calendar until the year 2100) certainly does.
Get this: using only gears, springs, and levers, this watch can handle date changes, including leap years. It’s all 100% mechanical. The mind boggles. Is that worth paying about a thousand times as much for the watch? Some people certainly think so. The Casio does all that the IWC can do with ease, and more, at about a thousandth of the cost. Though, if I’m 100% honest, if money were no object, the high-end watch I’d get would be the Rolex GMT Master II, with the pepsi bezel. What can I say? The heart wants what it wants. Rolex got me with their advertising in the 80s, and I’ve never quite lost the urge. I found this genuine ex-dealer wall clock on Etsy, and I love it to bits:
Getting back on track now (please admire the deftness with which I didn’t go down the wooden timepiece rabbit hole), the quartz revolution almost destroyed the Swiss watch industry. Before those cheap, reliable, tacky watches came along, all watches were purely mechanical. The fancy ones were self-winding, and had interesting complications like GMT functionality and/or showed the date, but that was about it. And when cheaper, more reliable, tackier watches became available, there was a winnowing of watch companies that is heartbreaking to contemplate. In 1970, there were approximately 1600 Swiss watchmaking companies. By 1983, there were about 600 left.
One brand that made a tremendous success out of cheap quartz watches was Swatch. They went on to buy up some of the struggling fancy brands (Breguet, developer of the Tourbillon escapement (patented in 1801). Breitling. Even James Bond’s Omega) and made them profitable. At the same time, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Rolex doubled down on the exclusive luxury end of the market and went from strength to strength, because they are not competing on price or time-keeping accuracy. They are competing on craftsmanship and artistry. It’s worth noting that Rolex and Patek Philippe particularly were actively developing their own quartz movements in the early days, so they were not in any sense Luddite about their approach to watchmaking. But they recognised a fight they'd never win, and so chose new ground to compete on.
Since the quartz apocalypse, there have been some astonishing new entrants into the field, such as Richard Mille and Kari Voutilainen (whose watches start around the 200 thousand dollar mark, about ten times what the IWC watch costs), or Finnish watchmakers S.U.F Helsinki, whose watches start at about a tenth of the IWC. These newcomers are not just filling the gap left by the older brands that failed and were bought up; the market for this kind of art/craft is much, much, larger than it ever was. In terms of price, it goes approximately like so: Casio: x 100 = S.U.F Helsinki: x 100 = Voutilainen. The gap between the bottom end and the top is almost infinite: there are new watches by new makers out there that cost millions.
What does all this have to do with AI? Well, it’s the power-tool, quartz movement, equivalent for knowledge workers of all kinds, including programmers, graphic designers, and writers. Bill Gates reckons (in his article The Age of AI Has Begun) that this is the biggest thing since the graphical user interface, and he’s pretty well placed to make that assessment.The article is relatively fair-minded, and highlights some pros and cons. Pros include better cheaper healthcare, cons include the risks of AIs being misused by the malicious, and major disruption to the livelihoods of knowledge workers.
Here is what will happen, because it’s what always happens:
The market will split. There will be some people out of work because AI does their job better and faster than they can, and they can’t adapt fast enough. There will be some people who successfully position themselves as the hand-tool/mechanical watch artisan equivalent: poets, literary fiction writers, and so on. And there will be most people in between who learn to use the new tools, and use them to make more stuff, faster, and better.
There is space in the market for the cheap, practical, gets the job done for not much money solution. And there is space for the artisanal, bespoke, gets the job done for a lot more money solution.
On the left of my wall clock, there’s a version of my publishing imprint Spada Press’s logo, done on vellum, by the incomparable Nora Cannaday (whom I interviewed in episode 28 of The Sword Guy podcast).
It’s a one-off work of art. I also have this one, that I use in all my books:
Done precisely to spec, by the excellent Robert Simpson, using digital tools (which graphic designers were up in arms about in the 80s and 90s), and which has now been reproduced thousands of times in printed books and ebooks.
Which one is “better”? That really depends on what you want. They are both exactly what I asked for and are both excellent.
The real question is, who benefits from all this progress?
Back in the 80s, one teacher at school was banging on about how, with the new desktop publishing, you could do in a morning what used to take a week. I asked if you’d expect to get the rest of the week off, then? He said no…
And this is how it will go. If you are working for yourself, or it’s your company, then increasing productivity is usually a good thing, up to the point that it decreases the value of your product, and until your competitors become similarly more productive. If you work for someone else, this will just mean that you are expected to produce x times as much, for the same money or less.
In Gates’ article, he wrote:
“When productivity goes up, society benefits because people are freed up to do other things, at work and at home.” (Emphasis mine)
This is the most egregious rubbish. When productivity goes up, people are expected to do more work in less time. End of story. AI will mean either redundancy or more product for the same pay, for most employees affected by it.
Mark Hurst at Creative Good is a technologist who is usefully sceptical of various aspects of the modern techscape, including AI. He makes the point in his article ChatGPT’s dangers are starting to show that the companies involved in AI development are working to “privatise the gains, and socialise the losses”.
One critical area where the law has simply not been written yet is the use of copyright material to train AIs. To my mind, it’s a blatant violation of the rights of the creator to use their work (usually writing or graphic art of some kind) to train a machine to create other art in that style. Creators should have the right to decline such use, or to get paid to allow it, just as they might licence a film studio to make a movie out of their novel. I think it will be extremely difficult to prove what material the AI has used- for instance, any chatbot AI probably has access to every blog post ever written. But those posts are in most cases copyrighted to the writer. How do you prove that the AI stole your work? This is a solvable problem, I just hope that our society does the work to solve it. Making the owners of the AI liable for any infringements would go a long way towards motivating them to program the bot to behave ethically.
I think that dangerous new technology requires some kind of regulation. Cars, for instance. You need a licence and insurance to drive one. With AI, the primary worry is that ignorant people will mistake an algorithm with access to a finite (though very large) database for the arbiter of truth. And unscrupulous people will use AI to manipulate us into buying more stuff we don’t need, or voting for the wrong people. These are genuine concerns, but I am more concerned with the people who will become redundant, because they either don’t adapt, or re-brand, or their specific area is simply no longer needed by anyone. There can and should be some provision for them.
There is nothing inherently moral or immoral in AI. It’s a tool. It can and will be used to make our lives easier and better; and it can and will be used to make our lives worse. This is true for every tool ever made. Swords bring justice and defend the weak. Swords murder the innocent. It’s not the tool, it’s what we do with it. I could brain you with my #7 plane, stab you with a chisel, or use a chunky steel watch as a knuckleduster, which is how Mr. Bond broke his Rolex in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the book, not the movie). Though the tools you have access to will tend to guide your choices, whether you're conscious of it or not. When you're holding a hammer, you look for nails. I'm much more likely to joint an edge with my #7 that I am to hit anyone with it.
When I was thinking about getting a new (to me) car back when I lived in Finland, I considered getting a four-wheel drive, because it's that much less likely to get stuck in the snow. I asked a friend who really knows cars, and he said: “with four-wheel drive, you still get stuck, but in worse places”. Tools guide choices.
It's also true that all new technologies have unanticipated, often unanticipatable, consequences, for good or ill. I'm not a prophet, so won't make any predictions about the unanticipatable. But the obvious (to me at least) negative consequence of chatbot AI, like ChatGPT, is that we will outsource our thinking, and so become less good at it. Plato famously decried writing things down as bad for the memory. Folk are continuously ascribing all sorts of things to Plato and others (as Abe Lincoln famously tweeted: don't believe everything you read on the internet), so I'll quote him at length. He puts this story into Socrates' mouth:
The story goes that Thamus [a mythical inventor of writing] said many things to Theuth [a mythical king of Egypt] in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Source: http://www.antiquitatem.com/en/origin-of-writing-memory-plato-phaedrus/)
He was right, but I think we'd all agree that the loss of memory skill is worth the upside of writing. I think ChatGPT threatens to create a net dumbing effect on its users. Nicholas Carr warned of a similar effect of the internet itself, and most particularly Google, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He was not wrong. I don't know how many times I've explained to my kids that googling a search term is not the same thing as researching a topic. So we should be watchful for any feeling along the lines of ‘I'm too busy/tired/stressed to do this myself so I'll just get the bot to do it'. The main red flag for this is whether something you used to do yourself becomes “too difficult” if you don't have access to the AI helper.
Banning the new technology, as some people whose livelihoods are affected by it are calling for, is never an effective solution. It has been tried over and over again, just about every time a new, revolutionary, technology comes along. Banning nuclear weapons didn’t stop North Korea from getting their hands on them. It simply doesn’t work. I bet the horse-drawn carriage makers did their damndest to get those nasty mechanised car things taken off the streets. Or restricted to the speed of a horse. And guess what? Some carriage makers went into business making bodies for cars, and some people still drive horse-powered carriages for fun. But yes, an awful lot of them just went out of business. I don’t say ‘adapt or die’. But I do say ‘regulate and adapt, or die’.
Personally, as a self-employed swordsmanship instructor and writer, I can see how using AI could help me produce better books, faster, by (for instance) creating outlines, rough first drafts of specific chapters, back-cover blurb, etc. But there is no way for ChatGPT to run a seminar for me, or to conceive of the idea of a new training manual for the Art of Arms. Also, I’m very much at the bespoke, luxury, end of the market. Absolutely nobody has an existential need for a swordsmanship lesson, so automation is not a concern. You can probably tell from the headline photo, in which I'm wearing a vintage hand-winding Roamer watch from the 50s, and using a Record #4 hand plane from the 30s that belonged to my grandfather, that I'm aesthetically always on the side of the old ways. I teach swordsmanship, not shooting.
Swords, spears, and bows used to be state-of-the-art weaponry, but were superseded by guns. Swordsmanship and archery devolved into competitive sports (throwing javelins did too), and even twenty years ago there were precious few swordmakers in the Western world. But there has been a renaissance of historical martial arts, and a consequent renaissance in the craft of swordmaking. That doesn’t help those smiths who went out of business a couple of centuries ago, but it does suggest that there will be a resurgence of appreciation for older ways of doing things in the future. It’s hard to think of a technology where this doesn’t apply.
Music? CDs and tapes killed vinyl… but vinyl came back stronger than ever. We now have streaming at the bottom end, and vinyl at the top, with CDs in the middle.
Ebooks were supposed to kill print stone dead… only for print to survive, thrive, and for high-end leather bound editions to become more popular, and more profitable, than ever. Brandon Sanderson’s latest kickstarter, for a leather bound 10th anniversary edition of his Way of Kings, raised just under seven MILLION dollars! (I could get a thousand Breitling watches for that! not to mention a thousand Holtey planes!) But print is dead, right?
Midjourney image generation does not threaten David Hockney, or Lina Iris Viktor. It does threaten folk making a living producing graphics for websites. Chat GPT does not threaten poets like Simon Armitage or Amanda Gorman. It does threaten writers making generic blog posts for other people's websites (who, incidentally, keep pitching me to write completely off-topic crap for this site!).
It’s not my place to offer advice to people in different circumstances to mine (and unsolicited advice is usually obnoxious). But I see it, if you work in areas likely to be affected by AI, you have two options. Either master the new tool and use it to make your work even better, or brand yourself at the other end of the market. Both work, and both have value. There will always be people looking for the cheapest option, but there will also always be people looking for the hand made option, and who are willing to pay for it.
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Guy Windsor: a website all about the Renaissance Italian martial arts expert who blends historical accuracy with practical training.