Friday, May 21, 2010

Hacking in martial arts

You don't have to be a computer expert to be a hacker. According to many definitions that hackers use among themselves (like RFC1392, aka The Internet User's Glossary, for example) a hacker is "A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system."

So, all you really need to be called a hacker is a love of knowing how things tick. The specialty doesn't need to be programming and circuits. The very authoritative Jargon file says that a person could be an astronomy hacker, for example.

So, a martial artist is a hacker of sorts--let's say, a biomechanical hacker. Some martial artists even create their own weapons or adapt them from everyday objects, which makes them hackers in a very traditional sense: "one who enjoys creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations," again in the words of the Jargon File.

As a martial artist and programmer myself, I can say that there are big similarities between those fields. It takes finesse. It takes knowledge. It takes an instinctive feel of the playing ground. It's engineering. And I love it.

My favorite way to hack the body involves controlling something that Aikidoists call the "center", or "ki". In the dojo, I've learned that when two people make contact, they become a single physical system, and the point of contact becomes the "center" of that system. Whoever controls that "center" controls all the movement of the system. This idea is common to all martial arts, but is especially important in Judo, karate, wrestling, and Aikido.

In general, there are a few ways to control movement:
  1. Change the location of the Center.
  2. Change the direction of your pressure on the Center.
  3. Overpower opposing forces on the Center.
For instance, take a certain throw involving head-control. In Aikido, they call it irimi-nage. In the vid the attacker starts with a knife attack, trying to engage the defender with the point of his blade in his partner's belly. The defender changes the point of contact instead to the wrist, the armpit, the back of the head, the front of the head, and so on. This technique is all about controlling the Center. (BTW, with small modifications, this technique also works on punches, kicks, swords, guns, you name it. If you're trained in it. :-D )

In a more usual sense of "hacking," the adaptation of common items as weapons is a classic idea in martial arts. The kama, for instance, started out as a sickle for farming before it was adopted into Okinawan Karate as a practical weapon. The famous nunchaku, commonly called "nunchucks," were originally tools for threshing grain. The jo staff was just a walking stick. And the list goes on. Martial artists have been hacking from the beginning of time.

I think this might be why many computer hackers are also martial artists. It appeals to the hacker aesthetic of using things in unusual ways to solve problems in a beautiful, functionally perfect, or clever way.

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