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Friday, May 29, 2009

Cross-Posted From An Honest Philosophy

Because I'm not sure you all read that one.

Anyway. I usually try to keep my personal life off of this thing (that's what Facebook and Livejournal are for), but this is pretty big, so I thought I'd share it here.

On Sunday, May 24th, Emily and I officially got engaged. This is actually something we’ve been discussing for a while, but it is now official.

We’re looking at a wedding date of Fall 2010, but haven’t set anything further than that. More details will, of course, be coming along.

I’m sure there’s something more profound and deep I’m supposed to say at this point, but I’ve got nothing. We’re both very happy, and, well, there’s not much else to say. Hooray us!

{We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming)

Powers (Annals of the Western Shore)

Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books; 1 edition (September 1, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0152057706

It's been about a week since I actually finished this book...I've just been taking my sweet time in reviewing it. Which I'd apologize for, but I've been trying to work on things like my business, which sadly leaves little time for book reviewing (which, as of yet, no one pays me for).

Powers is the third novel in Ursula LeGuin's latest "Young Adult" series, The Annals of the Western Shore. I use that label rather gingerly, mostly because this series seems to be to be no more limited to young adults than it is to any other group. I've long since moved out of the age group that is considered "Young Adult", and I have found every book in this series marvelous. Powers is no exception.

Powers, like Voices and Gifts before it, is the story of a child born with abilities that somehow make him or her unique. In Powers, the child is Gavir, a slave boy with a gift for "remembering things that haven't happened." In other words, he's a precognitive, though Gavir himself never uses that word.

Powers traces Gavir's journey from childhood to adulthood, and from slavery to freedom. The story of his escape from slavery is an interesting one, and occurs in one of the most unusual (but quite believable) ways that I can think of. Once free, Gavir wanders the Western Shore, exploring and growing until, at the end, he finds himself connected with Orrec, Gry, and Memer, the protagonists of the previous books in the series.

Since it's been a week, my memories of the details of the book have become a bit fuzzy, but I can say this with certainty; it's an excellent book. Le Guin gives Gavir a lively and honest voice, that draws you into the story and keeps you reading right through to the end. The world she crafts feels very real, and very lived in...this is a fantasy "on the ground"; giant armies and world-saving quests are not the story here. This is a human story, with all of the grief, joy, confusion, pain, and delight that such stories require. Read it.

(And if you don't take my word for it, Powers also won the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novel. So take it up with those who award such things too.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Going Ballistic: Circular Strength Training for Boxing Manual

Going Ballistic: Circular Strength Training for Boxing Manual
by Brandon Jones
RMAX.TV Productions

A (short) disclaimer:

Scott Sonnon and his RMAX International organization are one of the more controversial organizations out there, on par with Crossfit in terms of the amount of digital ink and vitriol that has been created around them. I confess to not having a completely unbiased view of on this matter, but I will do my best to review this product in as neutral a fashion as possible.

On with the show.

Going Ballistic is, as the subtitle suggests, a short guide to using RMAX's Circular Strength Training methodology to prepare for boxing competition. In his introduction, Jones further clarifies this by saying that the book itself will focus on preparing for amateur boxing competitions, but that the program could be applied to professional boxing, or even other combat sports. Jones further points out that the manual is not intended for beginners, either in boxing or in Circular Strength Training (CST from here on out).

The introduction out of the way, Jones proceeds to go through a quick overview of the bodies various energy systems, and introduce a variation on the Tabata protocol which is the heart and soul of this program. This section is pretty solid; it's a bit brief, but the information is good, and easily understandable. The specific variation of the Tabata protocol he proposes is interesting--I cannot say if it's effective, because I haven't tried it yet. I may, but until I do, I'll reserve judgement. It seems basically sound, if rooted in some rather corny (or least, cornily-explained) mathematics combined with cliche.

The manual after this rambles a bit, covering some concepts like Joint Mass Center and Emotional Joint Mass Center, a pair of interesting concepts that really could stand a more solid explanation, but the basic idea is conveyed here. Also conveyed here is the concept of triangle point, a concept familiar to many grapplers, but not, perhaps, to many boxers. The information again, is solid, if a bit sparse.

Jones then moves on to attack the "Stinking Bog of Tradition", or four "myths" that he sees as problematic in the boxing world. He breaks down each myth separately and reasonably convincingly. The only one I'm unsure about is his argument about the relationship between having a strong neck and resisting a knockout. I think some of his logic is sound, but having a strong neck still seems valuable to me. but then, as a Muay Thai coach, I can think of other reasons for a fighter to have a strong neck.

There are some pages on the relationship between the head, neck and shoulders, and on static stretching. I didn't find much in here I didn't already know.

The next chapter covers some interesting footwork drills which I plan to play with a bit. I always love finding new footwork exercises, and these seem fun. The diagrams are a bit hard for me to follow, but I've never been good at translating movement from pages.

The next chapter, finally, includes the Clubbell exercises for this program.
Here, frankly, is where I got most annoyed: there is one exercise in here that Jones lists, but refuses to show, saying it needs to be taught in person. Four more are included in a different set of material, and thus not replicated here. Which I guess is fine if you already own those other materials, but rather annoying to someone who wants a single manual for their program. I fail to see how it would have hurt the manual to include some of these exercises, even if there was some replication.

As for the one "unsafe" exercise, if you don't want to teach it, why bother listing it? It seems useless to me.

And that wraps up the manual.

So, is this book worth it?

This part where I diverge into something I rarely talk about with training materials: production quality. For the most part, production quality is rarely a factor for me. Tony Blauer, who I consider a great teacher and mentor, was notorious for having videos with less than stellar production values. I've gotten great mileage out of a lot of material that was not printed on fancy paper, or shot on high-definition digital cameras.


This manual is very, very short. I don't know how short because it's not even paginated. It's printed on white paper, single sided, and bound like it was printed at a local Staples. In short, it looks and feels more like a graduate students term-paper than a professionally produced publication. Yet it retails for as much as a hardcover novel would in a major bookstore.

And frankly, I think it's too much. While the manual offers some very interesting ideas, making full use of them requires investing in a slew of other materials (not just the Clubbells, but other videos or manuals from RMAX as well). The basic protocol which is the heart and soul of the training method takes about two-pages to explain, and while it's an interesting idea, I am not convinced it is $24 worth of interesting. I hate to always fall back to comparing to Ross Enamait's material, but his books have become the gold standard by which I judge value. His production values aren't great either, but his books are PACKED with information. This one, not quite as much.

Still, as I said, I may experiment with it. If you are a S&C junkie like I am, this may be worth looking at particularly if you coach boxers. If RMAX offered this at a cheaper price, or even as a PDF download, I'd say it's worth grabbing. As things stand right now, however, I can't recommend this one.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Functional Training for Sports

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I cracked open Mike Boyle's "Functional Training for Sports". Truthfully, I'm not entirely sure how I ended up with a copy. I know only a little bit about Mike Boyle, and half of it because he apparently made some controversial (or at least unkind) statements about Crossfit, and ended up on Crossfit Radio in the same episode as Coach Blauer. In any case, I decided to finally pull the book off the shelves and actually go through it.

"Functional Training" is one of those buzzwords that has been floating around for at least a decade or two, and it always struck me as something that wasn't terribly well-defined, but involved a lot of bosu balls and core boards. The cover, which depicts a man standing on a core board, near a squat rack, with a medicine ball in hand, did little to dissuade me from that view. But what about the content itself.

The content is interesting, though I confess to having mixed feelings about the utility of it. Functional Training for Sports is Boyle's attempt to bring the concepts, methods, and specific drills of Functional Training to the non-trainer. The book is aimed at the layman, or at least, the non-science oriented trainer. Boyle eschews a lot of the in-depth scientific terminology in favor of a rather straight-forward, basic writing style. The writing is, for the most part, readable and easily understandable, even to someone with a relatively poor science background (like yours truly). Boyle begins by defining functional training in a general sense before delving into specific components of the training, and finally providing some sample plans.

So why the mixed feelings?

On the one hand, the book does a pretty good job of doing what ti sets out to do. It provides a solid outline of various training methods that comprise Boyle's style of "Functional Training". The only section that I felt was a bit sparse was the section on Olympic Lifting, which is a highly technical subject and I think Boyle gives it short shrift. Perhaps he feels that you can learn Olympic Lifts from a book, which is understandable, but in that case, he might have done better to not include them. The short descriptions combined with a few pictures did not quite work for me.

The problem I found with the book was, having finished it, I found very little I could take away from it. Most of the books programming is oriented towards sports like hockey, football, basketball, and so on. I could probably adapt some of the material to Muay Thai with a bit of effort, and some of the principles definitely can carry over, but I could just as easily get more focused information from other sources (Kevin Kearns, Ross Enamait, etc.). As someone who is just sort of a general fitness nut, I found a lot of Boyle's programs just to long and complex for my needs. Most of his workouts are designed to take an hour to an hour and a half, which is more time than I usually spend on my S&C.

That said, none of those are really fair criticism in the sense that the book is bad. It just didn't offer a whole for my needs, which is less of a failing of the book,and more just a failing of matched purposes. It's certainly nice to have, and I may steal some stuff from it, but for the moment, it doesn't hold a place in my highest rankings.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

My good friend (and great writer) Lizard (aka E, Elizabeth, Liz) turned me onto Booking Through Thursday. By which I mean, she posted it on her blog, and now I'm posting on the same topic.

Yes, I know it's Friday. It's been a busy week.

Anyway, Booking Through Thursday asks:

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

This is one of those "yeah, duh" questions for me. I collect books at a prodigious rate...far faster than I can possibly hope to read them. There was a period of time where I tried to resist or curb that fact. I (theoretically) limited myself to a certain number of shelves for books. I promised to sell things to used bookstores, or to give things away.

No avail. The books kept piling up. Or, I stopped buying books, and started buying up martial arts training videos.

Essentially, at some point, I just accepted a certain fact; I have the sort of addictive personality that makes me want to collect things. I am going to end up buying stuff. I could either fight it, or just accept it, manage it as best I can, and go with it.

Which, honestly, has worked a lot better for me. Yes, I buy books, but stick to books I know I want to read. If I'm not sure about something, I'll leave it be, or borrow it from someone else. I stay away from bookstores, and limit myself when I do go in. I'll for paperbacks instead of hardcovers.

But overall, yeah, I'm a book glutton. And I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Black Stranger: And Other American Tales

The Black Stranger: And Other American Tales

Robert E. Howard, Steven Tompkins

  • Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2005)
  • ISBN-10: 0803273533

Robert E. Howard (REH hereafter) is probably best known in popular culture as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, in as much as he is known at all. I suspect that most people are more likely to recognize the name Conan than they are the name of the man who created him, but then, most people's vision of Conan is based of the very fun, but not very faithful, Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Erroneous picture or not, however, it's hard to deny that in the creation of Conan, Howard gave American popular imagination a figure who has survived for nearly a century, in pastiches, comics, movies. More recently, there has be a bit of a Howard resurgence, and several companies have begun publishing not only Howard's Conan stories (which are all excellent), but a great deal of Howard's other works as well.

The Black Stranger is, for the most part, a collection of REH's stories dealing with America. I say for the most part, because the titular story is actually a Conan tale, taking place in Howard's fictional Hyborian Age, rather than on the American continent proper. The story still fits perfectly, however, with it's dark, brooding forests, savage Picts (who are essentially Hollywood Indians with the serial numbers filed off), and stranded sailors, the story certainly feels like it could be set in a colonial or pre-colonial America. It's a very dark story, with murder, mysterious spirits, bloodthirsty tribes, and of course, some pirates. One of the creepier Conan stories, but compared with the other stories in this collection, it's actually rather...well, not uplifting, I suppose, but the protagonist gets out alive, which is more than can be said for some of them in the other stories.

The rest of the stories do take place on the American continent, though not all of them are "historical" by any stretch. "Marchers of Valhalla" follows a company of Vikings who have gotten themselves severely lost in an area that will eventually become Texas. Several other stories deal with Howard's vision of pre-Colombian America, which features mysterious civilizations paying homage to alien gods, conflict between civilization and barbarism (naturally), and, not infrequently, white men messing around with things they don't understand, and possibly should know better. As I alluded to earlier, some of these stories are pretty grim, and not filled with the sort of cheery derring-do that readers might expect. Which does not make them any less fun.

As the collection moves forward, the stories begin to move into areas of recorded history, and Howard's writing moves in a more horrific vein. "Black Cannan" tells a story of conflict between white and black residents of an insular area of Texas, while "Pigeons from Hell" is, in essence, a classic haunted house story. For the record, despite the possibly goofy title, "Pigeons from Hell" was, for my money, the most frightening story in this collection. If you have trouble sleeping after reading, don't finish off your night with this one.

The collection culminates with a couple of letters from REH, which are more interesting for their insights into Howard's mind and thoughts than they are for any literary enjoyment, and a single poem, "the Grim Land", which I enjoyed, but I'm not a big poetry reader.

The blurb on the back of this book compares the stories in this collection to dark classics like "Young Goodman Brown," "Benito Cereno," and "A Rose for Emily." I confess to not actually having READ those stories, so I'm hard pressed to say if the comparison is accurate. I can say that these stories are fantastic reading, full of mystery, horror, and adventure. Howard continues to impress me not just as a fun author to read, but as an author who really should be taken much more seriously on a literary level. This stuff is pure gold.