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Category: Reflections

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 TrainingThis 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:


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Mental Health

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.

You can  find the complete book here:

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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.

This is Grinling Gibbons’ cravat, hand carved in about 1690, currently held in the Victoria and Albert museum

You can see how he (probably) did it in this astonishing video of Clunie Fretton’s partial reproduction.

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:

The Chippendale, from Skelton Saws, a snip at £750

And planes from Karl Holtey, that begin at around £1k, if you can find them. Most are much more expensive.

Karl Holtey planes: the pinnacle of the art

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”.

And compare that to his traditional dovetail cutting tutorial.

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).

Spada Press logo by Nora Cannaday (nee Kirkeby, hence the signature), at

It’s a one-off work of art. I also have this one, that I use in all my books:

Spada press logo, by Robert Simpson, at

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:

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.

A Roamer watch, a Record plane. And the first five saws in the saw till are my Florips.

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.


Further reading:

My brother Richard Windsor blogs about all sorts of tech stuff, including AI, from the perspective of investment advice. You can find his bearish take on GPT-4 here:

Joanna Penn got me thinking about AI as it affects writers, and she has written about it extensively on her blog, here:

Wikipedia article on the “quartz crisis”:

John Harrison, winner of the Longitude prize, and maker of clocks, including all-wood clocks (you can jump down that rabbit hole yourself!):


the coast of Islay seen from the ferry.

Life is worth living because of the people you love, and who love you. But everybody dies. In a perfect world, children would still bury their parents, but parents would never bury their children.

My father died recently, peacefully at home at the age of 83. The circumstances really couldn’t have been improved upon, and yet it was still, of course, a complicated, stressful, difficult, painful, grief-ridden time. I imagine you have gone through something similar, or will at some point in the future, so I have some thoughts on what was helpful to me and share them here in the hopes that it may make your own experience more bearable.

Everybody dies

We all know that, from the neck up. But if you know it in your bones, then when someone you love dies, it won’t be a surprise. You won’t have to spend precious energy on orienting yourself to the idea that the person has died. Because everybody dies. It’s what we do.

I take this to such extremes that I religiously say goodbye to my kids when they go off to school (they’re old enough to probably prefer it if I just stayed out of the way!) but there is a non-zero chance that we’ll never see each other again, and I want the last thing they hear from me to be something along the lines of “I love you”.

When I was 18, my best friend’s 17 year-old sister died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage while out with her friends. It came completely out of the blue: one second she was chatting and laughing, then lights out. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended, and it hammered home to me that everybody, but everybody, dies. And we don’t know when. A few months later my much-loved grandma also died, at 86. Hers was the second funeral I went to, and the difference between the two was precisely the difference between sadness and tragedy.

You’ll miss it when it’s gone

I don’t use my phone if I can possibly avoid it. A few friends and close family have my number, and various people who need it, but that’s it. I don’t put it on my business card. Because why on earth would you assume that the person you are calling has nothing better to do right now than answer the phone? I love talking to my friends, but almost invariably arrange a time in advance, I don’t call out of the blue.

Dad did though. Usually in the middle of my peak work flow time. Almost always for something that could very well have been an email or a text. Quite often just to tell me about something that he’d heard on the radio vaguely connected with swords. When the phone went and I saw it was him, I always picked up, and as I was doing so, expelled the “don’t interrupt me” annoyance with the thought “you’ll miss this when he’s gone”. And I do. Fucking interrupt me, dad, I’m just writing a blog post.

I’m so very glad that I had that thought in my head, and didn’t waste my time on work stuff at the expense of hearing whatever it was he wanted to tell me.

You don’t get over it, you just get used to it

When my mother-in-law died,  my mum, who had lost her mother some 25 years earlier, said that to my wife, and she was right. When someone you love dies it punches a hole in your world. While you will grow around it, there will always be a mark. Every family gathering from now on will have a gap in it where dad should be. We won’t get over it, but we will get used to it, and at the end of the day, what would a family gathering look like if nobody ever died? You couldn’t find a venue big enough to hold a party for a thousand generations of forebears and their offspring.

Save your spoons

Kind people, lovely people, get in touch to give their condolences. This is nice, and the proper thing to do. But when I do it, I always include something along the lines of ‘no reply expected’. Because otherwise you find yourself constantly thanking people, and it’s weird, tiring, and it turns their kindness into a burden of politeness which they presumably did not intend. So save your spoons, and don’t worry about replying to everyone. Anyone who would be offended by not getting a reply to their condolences isn’t really sympathetic.

Grief, and the extraordinary amount of bullshit admin that comes with a bereavement, are exhausting in ways you may not anticipate. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I went into my shed to cut the panels for the doors for a cabinet I've been making for my study. It's really simple woodwork: measure the exact size, cut a piece of 6mm plywood to the right size (a fraction generous), and trim to fit. Easy for a woodworker of my experience. But I found myself unsure of where to start. Measuring? Hauling the plywood out to have a look at it? finding a saw? What measuring tools to use? It was bizarre, but I figured my brain was occupied with other things, so I did a little tidying up and went back inside. A few days later I tried again, and it took about half an hour, job done.

Be grateful where you can

There is always something to be grateful for. In my dad’s case, things really couldn’t have gone more easily. He knew he was dying for a few weeks before he actually did so, which meant there was time to say goodbye and other things, express some final wishes (more on that below), and the process itself was remarkably peaceful and almost painless. He died at home, in his own bed, so quietly that my mum didn’t even wake up. We should all be so lucky. If his illness had been painful, then we could have been grateful for the pain ending. There is always something, if you look. It's not that bereavement should make you grateful, it's that finding a way to feel grateful makes the bereavement easier on you.

Respect their wishes but don’t be ruled by them

In the hospital, once he knew he was dying and there was nothing that the doctors could do for him, all dad wanted was to come home. It took a bit of persuading for the medical staff to release him. In essence, they weren’t expecting us to be explicit about and unembarrassed by death, and they didn’t want him going into an environment where the people around him weren’t ready to look after him as he would need. Once I explained our situation, and our mental preparedness, they cancelled all further investigations (blood tests that would show that nothing had improved; scans that would show that he was dying) and let him go. He was so keen to get home that he didn’t want to wait until the next morning when an ambulance would be able to take him, so I drove him home myself.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because I wanted him “safe” in the hospital, surrounded by professionals. But it wasn’t what he wanted, so I kept my mouth shut and got it done.

But, in his funeral arrangements there were a couple of things he wanted that I felt perfectly entitled to say no to. Here’s how I see it: If there is no afterlife, and death is the end, then the funeral is only for the living, and so the dead person’s wishes are a guideline at best; they won’t be affected by whatever you do. If there is an afterlife, then they are too busy being blissed out (one hopes) that they won’t care that certain details didn’t get done the way they wanted.

That’s all so far… (see “save your spoons”, above).

I’m cracking on with various projects (including editing dad’s last volume of memoirs), and not pushing things too hard. Grief is the price we pay for love, and it’s one hell of a bargain.

My father Roger Windsor died on Tuesday 22nd, at home. Sometime in the night- so peacefully that my mum didn’t wake up. He was 83, and lived to see seven grandchildren. Here he is on his 83rd birthday.

Losing a parent at the age of 8 is a tragedy. At 48, it’s a privilege. But still very distressing, very sad.

He left clear instructions for his funeral though, which included the following:

“NO black ties. I have enjoyed my life- be happy for me.”

He had many fine qualities. If there were a prize for best bedtime story reader ever, he’d be a strong contender. He did all the voices. His kids birthday party treasure hunts were legendary. And he spent his entire working life helping people, mostly in the developing world. Perhaps his defining feature was stubbornness, but matched by a profound integrity. Let me tell you a story:

We were on holiday in Aruba (stopping off to or from Peru, where we lived at the time). He insisted I have a go at wind surfing, because I’d done it a couple of times at school some years before.

Just fyi: windsurfing on a reservoir in England as part of a school trip is not like windsurfing in the sea with no supervision.

Before very long, I was drifting helplessly out into the blue, waving frantically for rescue. Some kind American tourists in a tiny motorboat tried to help, and managed to slice up the sail with their propellor.

I was eventually rescued by the chap who ran the board hire place. When he saw the sail he told my dad he’d have to pay for it. But as far as dad could see, their insurance should cover it, and he was being ripped off. Dad was never one to back down, so we eventually walked away with the owner still yelling at us.

Back at the hotel, dad mentioned this to the manager, who told him that actually, on Aruba, the norm was for the renter to take responsibility for that kind of damage. The owner’s insurance wouldn’t cover it.

So we went back to the hire place. The man was astonished to see us back, but my dad apologised, and handed over the cash.

I can’t think of a single example of dad failing to do what he thought was the right thing.

He wasn’t always right, of course. But he was always true.

He didn’t have to understand what I was doing to support it. When I wanted to do English at University, instead of biology, he was baffled, but supportive. When I quit cabinetmaking to teach swordsmanship full time, he was even more baffled, but supportive. To the end I don’t think he ever quite got what the whole sword thing was about- but he didn’t need to, to be very proud of me. I think that’s extraordinary, and I try to model the same for my kids.

We knew the end was coming. He was taken ill at the end of October, and spent a few weeks in hospital while they figured out that they couldn’t fix it. Being a veterinarian he knew the limits of medical science and understood exactly what was going to happen. No bluster, no demanding miracles, no denial, just facing death head-on. Fearless.

And so he came home and spent his last week at home with family, gently fading away.

You may have come across his memoirs, The Veterinary Detectives. Vol. 1: More Sherlock Holmes than James Herriot, and volume 2: A Vet in Peru. He had just about completed volume 3 A Vet for all Regions  before he got ill, and he asked me to get it out into the world, so you can expect it in 2023.

As his memoirs attest he lived a full and interesting life and made legions of friends all over the world. I'll miss him horribly, of course. But no regrets.

A very inexperienced Guy teaching class in 2001

21 years ago today I taught my first class as a professional instructor. It was in a small room in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. I expected about six people to show up, but we had over 70, from as far afield as Turku and Tampere. My class plan went out of the window because there was no space for that many folk to take part, so I talked for a bit, and then got everyone doing some really basic mechanics. Many of the people who showed up that day kept showing up for years afterwards, and it's thanks to them that we have a school.

The rest is literally history!

While thinking about the best way to celebrate the School’s survival over the last 21 years, it struck me that I really like teaching classes and hanging out with my students, so I’ve decided to run a couple of seminars, which are free or you can pay something if you want to. Given the constraints of teaching over zoom, these classes will be on solo training- a warm-up, some footwork and mechanics, and some blade handling, followed by time for questions and answers. To accommodate the fact that most of my students are in the USA and so miss all the morning sessions, these will be at 7pm UK time on Sunday 20th and 27th March. There are more details etc. on the booking pages:

Longsword Seminar:

Rapier Seminar:

I hope to see you there!

I have also set up a discount code: SWORDSCHOOL21BDAY for 50% off all my books on Gumroad and courses on Teachable. Except the free ones, they’re still $0.
Regarding my Gumroad shop, I’ve removed most of the free treatise photos etc. from the webshop because the file sizes exceed Gumroad’s terms and conditions for free products. I am looking around for better ways to host and share these resources- if you’ve got any suggestions, let me know!
The discount code expires on March 31st.

Thanks for being part of it!

One of the things I’m enjoying most about learning to fly is being an absolute beginner, and making beginners’ mistakes. Such as:

  • Getting my radio check and airfield information call in to the office (we don’t have a tower at this airfield), and wondering why I couldn’t get a reply even though the radio seemed to be working just fine. Turns out I had the volume turned down too low.
  • Having successfully landed the plane (yay! That’s the critical bit), when taxiing back towards the place where the planes are parked, my tail got caught in a bit of cross-wind, and I ended up getting the plane stuck in the rough grass between taxi-way and runway. That meant getting out and pushing while the instructor (Clive) drove us out. Clive has been (gently) mocking my “gardening skills” ever since. He also spent the rest of the taxi-way ride rolling a cigarette, manifesting complete confidence in my ability to go not gardening again. Planes on the ground are steered entirely with the feet, so he could actually have steered us out of trouble if necessary, but it’s fascinating to see how something I do all the time in class to essentially trick my students into relaxing, is being done to me, and I can see it and understand it, and it still works. I don't roll cigarettes, but I try to exude a sense of absolute confidence in my students.
  • Forgetting to check under my wing before turning in that direction. Instructor says ‘make a right turn’, and I just start doing it, instead of following correct procedure and actually checking for myself that it’s safe to do so and we’re not about to bump into something. Not that there’s much likelihood of that, where we are, but it’s essential to check, just like checking your mirrors before making a turn in a car. Incidentally, I had no problem with that in the previous lesson (on turns), but this lesson was on the stall,* and so the turns weren’t the focus. I was thinking about the stall, not the turn, and so forgot something essential that I had been fine with previously.

And, most interestingly for me, for the first five lessons I had practically no questions. I didn’t know enough to know what to ask. That phase seems to have passed and I am now pestering my instructors with all sorts of questions. It’s also instructive to note that there are many things that have been explained to me such that I understood them just fine, but couldn’t hold on to the idea until I’d seen it again, usually after a practical exercise in the plane that demonstrated the idea in action. Being able to follow the logic of an explanation is not the same thing as remembering, which is also not the same thing as really knowing and understanding.

I cannot overstate how useful this is to me as an instructor. It has been a very long time since I was last a real beginner at something; most of the new things I’ve learned over the last decade or so have been somehow related to things I’m already competent at, which changes things completely.

The instructors at Skyward are all nice; they don’t berate you for mistakes, just encourage you to learn. I think they’ve been a bit surprised by how I’m not at all embarrassed by making a mistake- I know many of my beginners often are embarrassed. Beginners taxi planes into the long grass, forget to check under their wing before a turn, fail to turn the radio volume up, and do all sorts of other silly things. It’s the beginner’s job to pay attention and do their honest best to do follow instructions. That’s it. It’s the instructor’s job to make sure that the beginner’s mistakes are survivable, and this is as true in martial arts as it is in flying.

I hope that all my beginners have felt that they were free to fail because I was there to create a safe space for them to fail in. But it’s been so long since I was last truly in their position that while I could be nice to them, I didn’t really understand their situation any more. In the past I have been a bit baffled by a lack of questions in a beginners’ group, or when this thing they could do just fine last time was now going wrong. I hope I met that with kindness before, but now I can meet it with comprehension too.


*A stall in an aircraft is what happens when the angle that the wing is meeting the air (the “angle of attack”) gets too steep, or there is not enough air flow, so the smooth flow of air over the top surface of the wing breaks up into turbulent eddies, and you lose lift. You fix it by putting the stick forward a bit, to lower the angle of attack (and gain some speed). It has nothing to do with the engine conking out- that’s a whole other problem.

For the first time in my life, on Sunday night I actually, deliberately, watched a football game. My kids’ friends were heavily invested in the outcome and so my kids wanted to watch what their friends were watching. Before I go on: to my English friends, I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. E a mi amici italiani: complimenti per la vittoria. 

Normally I would rather sandpaper my eyeballs than watch 22 millionaires chasing after a leather bag, but I was happily surprised by how, when viewed through a fencing mindset, it wasn’t entirely tedious. Yes, I did a crossword in the second half, and spent the extra time fiddling about on my phone, but there were moments of actual interest. I was especially taken at the beginning by all the passing back. Surely, the ball is supposed to go in the other direction? But these are, by definition, the best players in Europe right now, so they know what they’re doing. It eventually dawned on me that while you are in possession of the ball, the other team can’t score. And, you can only score while you are in possession of the ball. So possession of the ball is analogous to controlling both your opponent’s sword, and your own. It’s better to be in control of the ball near your goal than have it in the other team’s possession at the other end of the pitch. Suddenly a lot of baffling behaviour made sense. And it became clear that the players were trying to set up specific patterns, and were pulling back and re-thinking if that pattern was interrupted or choked off by the other team. Compared to fencing, most of football is very slow, so it’s quite easy to see the patterns if you look for them.

There were also some moments of stunning physical prowess. Both goals, for example, but also many saves by both goalkeepers. They were by far the most impressive players on the field, to my eyes- because most of the time they could only react, and it is much harder to succeed when you’re on the defensive, reactive, can’t do anything until my opponent does something, side of the engagement. 

I had a couple of thoughts on how the game might be improved though. For instance, in the case of a draw, the side with the most red and/or yellow cards should lose. That might incentivise cleaner play- or it might, if you’re desperate, incite massive fouling to get ahead. It would be interesting to see that experiment (but I don’t think FIFA read this blog).

I was annoyed by the half-hour extension- wouldn’t it be more fun if they just played until the next goal? Or just had a draw and shared the trophy?

I also thought that the game would be more interesting if every player had a taser… but only one taser per team was charged, and with only one shot. So you’d never know until it fired who was dangerous to get close to, and it would be a massive waste to tase the wrong player. There would certainly be assassination tactics to get rid of the best striker (or the goalie) on the other team. That is not by any means a practical suggestion, but it would be a bit like fencing longsword with both fencers having a dagger on their belt. It would change things in an interesting way.

My feelings toward football are coloured by the behaviour of the crowds. While I was growing up, football hooliganism was a huge problem, especially among England supporters, so I associate the game with the kind of thuggery, racism, and bullying that I also associate with the Brexit campaign. The flag-waving morons that voted Brexit (which was entirely driven by English voters) look a lot like the flag-waving England team supporters. I’m not saying they are the same- I know many football fans who are perfectly lovely. But I am deeply, deeply suspicious of anything that looks like nationalism, which all international sporting events do. And when those extraordinary young men, under the fiercest pressure, failed to get a ball past Sr. Donnarumma in the penalty shoot out, sure enough a bunch of racist pricks in the crowd yelled predictably racist abuse at them. 

My feelings are also coloured by the experience of being stuck in boarding school surrounded by sports-mad kids, who looked without favour on kids who didn’t share their religion. My personal experience of large groups supporting a sports team is that they are dangerous. That’s not fair to the majority of fans, but explains some of my bias and my instinctive aversion to the group mentality that takes over fans in a stadium.

I’m also struck by a fact that I knew already, but hadn’t given much thought to. The NHS posted a message featuring women during the game: “if England get beaten, so will we”. The incidence of domestic violence in Britain go up by 50% every time there is a major sporting defeat. I shudder to think of the horrors inflicted late last night, that would not have happened if England had won (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the same phenomenon occurs in Italy, so it really wouldn’t make any difference who wins). I’m not suggesting that banning football would solve the problem, or even help it at all. But I would be a lot more impressed by the footballing community if they deliberately worked to diminish this awful side-effect of their sport, and there yet again is a reason for my instinctive dislike of organised sports.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three England players: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. They missed their penalty shots. Boo hoo. But they also donated their entire tournament fees to the NHS to help with the Covid crisis. These are kids: aged 23, 21, and 19, and behaving with more grace and maturity than most people twice their age. Rashford particularly, as he also forced the current UK government of heartless corrupt venal and despicable arseholes to reverse themselves twice, most famously forcing them to feed poor children with free school meals, as if such a thing should ever be necessary. 

Here’s the thing. Was it a good game? I don’t know. It seemed like there was a lot of high-level sportsing going on, between two very evenly matched teams. I’ve lost some of the best, most enjoyable, most instructive fencing matches I’ve ever been a part of, and some I couldn’t tell you who won because we weren’t counting. Wouldn’t it be good if the thing that mattered wasn’t the outcome, but the quality of play? If England fans today were thrilled and honoured that their team got to play at that level more than they were disappointed by not scoring the most points?

Speaking of level, probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen done on a pitch was this catch by Indian cricketer Harleen Deol. No, I don’t watch cricket either (I just can’t get excited about the positions of round objects relative to white lines and/or sticks), a friend sent it to me. This is truly stunning. She catches the ball, realises she’s going to stumble over the boundary, throws the ball up, stumbles, turns, and dives to catch it. In an international match against England (and no, I don’t know or care who won: as far as I’m concerned, she did).

Don’t worry, this is not becoming a sports blog. We’ll be back to talking about swords more directly soon!

Back before the internet, back before Wiktenauer, in the days when historical fencing treatises were photocopied and distributed by hand, one man did something extraordinary, which we benefit from to this day. Dr. Patri Pugliese was finding, reproducing, photocopying and distributing fencing treatises back in the bad old days, before many of our community's leading lights were even born, let alone had begun fencing. I did all my early work on Capoferro, Viggiani, Angelo, Silver, DiGrassi, I.33 and other systems from Patri's photocopies. I never met him, but I owe him an enormous debt.

The torch Patri lit and carried has been taken up by Michael Chidester, architect of the Wiktenauer, so it's appropriate that I reproduce his tribute here (with his permission, of course).

11th May 2021 would mark the 71st birthday of Dr. Patri Pugliese, the most important person in the history of modern HEMA that you've never heard of. I will go so far as to say that there is no one in this world who contributed more to the spread and development of the HEMA movement, and especially of HEMA in America, than did Patri.

For himself, he was a passionate student of both historical combat (not just fencing, but also drill with pike and musket) and historical dance, and founded or participated in groups dedicated to those activities around New England. Most recognizably to readers today, he co-founded the Higgins Armory Sword Guild, which not only provided online resources and public classes and demonstrations for over a decade, but also supported his friend and fellow instructor Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng in his translation and interpretation efforts (leading to his publication of I.33, Meyer, and others).

But Patri's more profound legacy is fencing manuals. Throughout the '90s and continuing until his death, he distributed a staggering catalog of fencing treatises. This was before (and while) the consumer computing revolution changed everything—he was physically mailing sheaves of paper, loose or stapled together. Some were fencing manuals that he photocopied at local research libraries, others were printed from microfilm ordered from museums. He was the first person in the community to do this, and he charged only the cost of printing and postage, or in some cases a slight premium to recoup the initial purchase.

Of this, he simply wrote “I regard myself as a student of the sword rather than a publisher, and am making these manuals available to support research in this area. It would, of course, be selfish and inconsistent with the honorable traditions associated with fencing to do otherwise.”

I will include a partial list of Patri's catalog below. As the internet became more established, most of these were scanned and placed online (with his blessing—he was happy to increase their accessibility). If you ever accessed black and white scans of any of these texts from sites like Bill Wilson's homepage, the ARMA site, the Raymond J. Lord Collection, or the Higgins Sword Guild, then you have likely benefited from Patri's work. Wiktenauer itself could not have grown so quickly or easily without these scans, some of which we still use.

I often joke that our patron saint is Paulus Hector Mair, the shady 16th century Augsburg patrician who embezzled public funds to cover the cost of collecting fencing manuals and throwing lavish parties.

It was Patri, however, who embodied our highest aspirations of disseminating knowledge and resources as widely and freely as possible, and thereby pushing the bounds of our understanding of historical fencing traditions.

Patri Pugliese died after a struggle with illness in 2007, fourteen years ago. One of my greatest HEMA regrets is that even though I spent considerable time in Massachusetts during the years between 2001, when I started, and his death, I never crossed paths with him.

Fourteen years is an eternity in the world of HEMA. It is enough time that his name is no longer familiar to most teachers and students of historical fencing, but if any one of us deserves to be remembered, he does.

So raise a glass to Patri, my friends. He was a pioneer, not just of the study of fencing, but of the sharing of it. The edifice of knowledge that we have constructed in HEMA today was built on the materials he offered us, freely.

And then tell your students about this man to whom we all owe a great debt.

No, this post isn't a few days late. I posted this last week for my Patrons on Patreon: rewarding their commitment with early access to the things I produce seems fair to me. Want to join them? There's a link in the sidebar.

Now, on with the post.

Challenge: February 2021

Well, that didn’t go quite as planned.
It turns out that quitting the booze in January 2021 is way harder than it might have been in, say, May 2019. Michaela and I got to January 20th, then cracked a bottle of bubbly to celebrate Trumperdink’s ignominious expulsion, and especially to celebrate the United States finally electing a woman to the Vice Presidency- and a not-white woman at that. If anything deserves bubbly, it’s seeing women and people of colour advanced to high office.

But that kind of cracked the seal, and while there have been a couple of dry days since, we’re pretty much back to drinking as normal (I'm writing on January 28th).
I’m not sorry though. Here’s why:
If not drinking is good for you, then 20 days of not drinking is a lot better than none.
The benefits I was hoping for from dropping the booze didn’t materialise. I didn’t sleep any better, have not been more energetic, and in general have not been feeling better. It may be that 20 days isn’t enough, but in my experience I would expect improvements within a day or two. Waking up feeling hungover because you got plastered last night is one thing. Waking up feeling hungover when you haven’t touched a drop for ages is quite another. It did reduce my reflux, but it seems that the wine is less an issue than onions and other foods.
Most interestingly, it turns out that literally none of my self-esteem is tied up with meeting arbitrary goals such as this one. I don’t feel the slightest bit like I “failed”. Which is not what I would have expected.
Here’s a question for you: having dropped one bad habit this month, has it helped you any? Do you feel better for it?

So what’s the challenge this month?

Having worked on dropping a bad habit, we’ll now work on creating a good one. Think of one thing you might benefit from, and see if you can create that habit.

  • Getting up a bit earlier to exercise, meditate, or write?
  • Eating more vegetables?
  • Taking up knitting?
  • Flossing? (Your teeth, not the Fortnite dance. C’mon people.)

Try it for a month, and see what happens.
Here’s how to do it.

  1. start slow. If you want to create a meditation habit, start with five minutes. Not an hour. Eating something green at every meal? That could be just a slice of cucumber, to start with. No need to parboil then chargrill a head of broccoli, served with a freshly-made aioli. At least not at the beginning.
  2. attach it to an existing routine. I get the itch to stretch when watching TV in the evening, because I’ve created that habit. It feels kind of weird to watch TV without getting down on the floor and going through my stretches.
  3. this should be a positive thing. It’s hard to get up early for something miserable, but to practice your hobby? To read a novel? To luxuriate in a meditation? To play with swords? Looking forward to the activity makes it easier to schedule and easier to actually do it.
  4. exploit constraints. I floss regularly, because I eat foods like oranges and chorizo (no, not together, you animal) which get stuck in my teeth. I have to floss to get rid of the annoyingly stuck bits. While I’m there, I might as well do my whole mouth. Make the thing you want to do that bit easier to start (leave your knitting lying around, so you can pick it up any time), or put it in the way of things that you want to avoid. Do you have to move your meditation cushion to get to the TV remote?

One word of warning: if your new habit requires getting up earlier to put first things first, as I would highly recommend, then it must be accompanied by going to bed that much earlier.

HEAR ME, PEOPLE: do not sacrifice your sleep for anything.

(OK, babies get a pass. If your child needs you, wake up for her. Everyone else, including you and your late-night gaming habit? No.) Sorry to get all shouty at you, but this is really important.

Me, I'm going for a fairly ambitious goal: meditation and progress on one creative project before checking any kind of social media, messages, emails, anything. Five days a week. So, I will get up, do whatever limbering I need to do to be able to sit or lie comfortably, meditate for at least 20 minutes, then get started on (probably) writing the book I'm currently working on. Let's see how this goes… I'll report back in a month, and issue the challenge for March. (There's a giant clue regarding March's challenge in this post.)

So, what new habit will you create this month?

Happy New Year!

Though really, this is just an arbitrary calendar change. Years, solstices and equinoxes are real, observable, astronomical events. But this dating system is entirely human and arbitrary. And wouldn’t it make much more sense to date the New Year from the Spring Equinox? But I digress…

I don’t do resolutions. They don’t usually work, and this is entirely the wrong time of year to be making serious changes, especially if you live in the Northern hemisphere. Back when I was a member of a gym, I just did not go for the first couple of weeks in January, because it would be chockablock with enthusiastic unfit people, almost all of whom would quit within the week. Which is a shame, really, but it’s an inevitable outcome of the resolutions model.

So what does work?

Good habits and good people.

A rising tide lifts all boats (though may sink the boatless), and I am blessed by the enthusiastic and engaged students I interact with. If there is one key element to my success as an instructor, it has to be the calibre of the students I get to work with. Most of the time I spend interacting with students these days is through my zoom classes, through my mailing list (there’s a link to join below this post, if you’re not already on there), and most recently through a Discord server that I set up for the students at SwordSchoolOnline.Com (If you’d like to join us, and you’ve enrolled in any of the paid online courses, please drop me an email and I’ll send you the link.)

One of the students on the Discord server suggested we do a monthly “challenge”, where I set a challenge for students to have a go at. Of course I have to lead by example, right?

We started this in November, and my first challenge was to post a video or photo of yourself working outside your comfort zone. I had just started playing with GMB Fitness online courses, and so posted this:

December’s challenge was to add at least one rep to your maximum in any exercise: I did push-ups, and went from a rather pathetic start to a much more satisfactory maximum set. I won’t share the numbers here, because they are not relevant. Depending on your own experience of push-ups you’d be either intimidated or decidedly unimpressed (probably the latter!).

The challenge this month, for the start of 2021, is different.

We all have habits that do not serve our long term goals. They vary hugely from person to person, and can range from negative self-talk to smoking cigarettes, with almost infinite variety in between.

So here’s the challenge. This month, drop one of those habits. Just for the month. You can take it up again later if you want to.

The habit I’m dropping for the month is drinking alcohol. I love drinking. Especially wine. But I tend to drink more than I should, and more often. It’s bad for my reflux, and bad for my sleep. Cutting down would make sense, but it’s really hard to quantify and stay on top of. So for the whole month of January, I won’t touch a drop.

That should help my sleep, at least. And my finances. And my reflux. I’ve been meaning to take a month off the sauce for ages, but haven’t done so for at least two years! So it’s about time.

Drinking alcohol is a simple, clear, easy-to-keep-track-of habit to break. There is no fudging it- I either consume an alcoholic beverage, or I do not. But others are much more elusive, such as negative self-talk. And the essence of a habit is you can unconsciously start doing the thing- it’s become an unconscious response. The loop goes like this: stimulus-habitual response-reward. The habit can be broken at any of those three points, and it’s worth taking some time to be very clear about what those three points are for the habit in question.

  • You can avoid the stimulus.
  • You can change the response to the stimulus.
  • You can change the reward.

Changing the stimulus usually requires changing your environment. The old adage for alcoholics is “if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery”. So, if you normally drink in bars, don’t go to bars. Meet your friends somewhere else instead! Or if you usually smoke when you have a coffee, switch to tea. (Unless of course coffee is an addiction, which you might need to break before you quit smoking).

Changing the response is basically learning a new habit that gets you the same dopamine hit. The stimulus for me to have a drink is usually making dinner. Changing that would be very hard, somebody has to feed the kids! So I’ll need to do something else instead, to get the ‘reward’ which is actually the feeling of “I’m done for the day”. Having a drink is for me a signal that it’s ok to switch off. So I need to find something else.

Negative self talk is much harder to break at the point of stimulus, and at the point of response. But it’s possible to change the reward to something negative. One trick that works for some people is having a rubber band around your wrist, and when you catch yourself in negative self-talk, snap the band, which stings. If done consistently over time, this can lead your brain away from the behaviour that causes the sting (brains are weird- you’d think you’d just stop snapping the band, but it’s much easier to control that active choice than it is to control an unconscious response).

It is much easier to change a habit if you have social support for the change (good people, remember?). I’ve let my wife and kids know I’m off the juice for January, so they will expect me not to drink. Do what you can to recruit some social support. This can be positive, such as joining a group that’s centreed around quitting that habit, or negative, where you set up some consequences for failure. One classic is to write a cheque for a painful amount of money, to an organisation you despise. Then give the cheque to a friend who will send it to that organisation if you fall off the wagon. Personally I don’t like this approach, seeing failure as a one-time lapse and you’re done. I prefer to think of failure as a normal part of the process. If you could quit completely cold turkey with no lapses, you’re either extraordinarily motivated, or the habit wasn’t that strong.

Expect that it may occur (snap that band if you have to), and get right back on the wagon again. No negativity, no judgement. It’s like when meditating, and you’re supposed to be focussed on your breath. When your mind wanders notice that it has done so, and bring it gently back. The practice is not focussing on your breath. The practice is returning your attention after it has wandered. Same with this challenge.

I'll post this challenge in the Discord, and will be happy to discuss it there. Especially for habit-changing, getting the support of a community is incredibly helpful. See you there!

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