Category Archive: Product Reviews

Throwsticks

Throwsticks

Throwsticks

My friend Benjamin Scott recently launched his website on throwsticks. He describes throwsticks as “a primal hunting/survival/multi-tool dating back from ancient civilizations on at least five continents.” Ben makes nearly indestructible replicas of the Australian Aboriginal version called the kylie, arguably the best made hand thrown objects in the world. He has them for sale on his site: www.throwsticks.com

Ben sent me one of his throwsticks in the middle of last year. I tested it, loved it, and have been meaning to write about it ever since. I also wanted to make a video demonstrating it, but over the last 6 months I’ve been so busy traveling/moving that I haven’t had time to write a single post on this site, much less make a video. Until I do have time to make a video, this post will have to suffice.

The throwsticks or kylie that Ben is making are awesome survival tools. They’re designed to fly straight and level, and you can throw them a solid 85 meters if not farther. The Australian Aborigines used them primarily for hunting, but they also doubled as close range striking weapons, and you could use them as a close range throwing weapon too.

My favorite thing about Ben’s throwsticks is how fun they are to throw. When I first got mine, my brother and I spent a couple of days throwing it back and forth at great distances on a deserted beach. The way they fly, and the way they feel to throw, is amazing.

Throwing Objects In Self Defense

In addition to the throwsticks being a great deal of fun, I think learning to throw objects in self defense is seriously undervalued. It’s unlikely that you’re going to take someone out completely by throwing something at them, although if you nailed someone in the face or knee with one of Ben’s throwsticks that would certainly do the job! But throwing things at an opponent is an excellent idea, and the more accurate and harder you can do it, the better. In most natural environments there will be something you can throw at your opponent, and if you accurately hum something at your opponent’s face you will always get some kind of reaction, putting your opponent on defense. Either your opponent will get hit in the face, or he will be forced to move and/or block. Any of these options will create openings for you to exploit.

In my book on weapon use and defense I demonstrate at least a couple of examples of throwing objects at an opponent in self defense – using a backpack and a book. One of my favorite combinations is to throw something at an opponent’s face and follow with an immediate kick to the groin, etc.. You can do this with almost anything. As I sit here typing this post, my laptop, a vase in front of me, and a magazine next to me could all be used for such a purpose. If someone knocked down my front door my first move would be to grab whatever is next to me and throw it at them, putting them on defense and buying me a bit more time to get an advantage. In order to be as effective as possible with such a tactic, actually practicing throwing objects at targets makes sense. This is another reason I really love Ben’s throwsticks. They’re fun, useful for self defense training, and for anyone into outdoor survival they’re an excellent tool for a variety of purposes.

Whether you’re interested in buying one or not, I highly recommend you check out Ben’s website. He has numerous videos there showing how they work, along with very interesting information on their history and use.

Note: I am not profiting in any way if you buy a throwstick from Ben. I’ve written this post only because I think Ben has a great product that I think you’ll enjoy owning and practicing with. 🙂

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

My wife and I recently returned from another terrific vacation in Japan, where thanks to our friends Jerry and Hiromi Schmick, we had the great fortune to meet Gyokusui III, the third generation shakuhachi maker of the Gyokusui family, and to buy an incredible shakuhachi from him.

I’ve written about the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute created by ex-samurai monks as a meditation device and musical instrument that could double as a weapon, at least twice previously.  And as I’ve also written before, the more I practice it the more I realize how great it is as a compliment to self defense/martial arts training.  Not only is it a great counter balance to hard and violent physical practice, a doorway into the optimal mental state for action, and a tool for both self expression and clearing the mind, but the traditional one-piece shakuhachi, as it was originally made, is also an amazing weapon that can be carried anywhere.

Although the shakuhachi was a one-piece instrument for centuries, the modern version being made by most Japanese makers today is made in two sections, with a joint in the middle of the flute.  This makes it much smaller for transport but nearly useless as a weapon.  Of course, the vast majority of shakuhachi players today don’t look at the flute as a weapon.  Last year I visited Kitahara, a famous shakuhachi maker in Kyoto, and bought a modern two-piece flute from him.  But as a self defense practitioner and teacher, the traditional one-piece version is much more appealing to me.

Fortunately, in addition to being a famous and highly respected maker, Gyokusui III makes shakuhachi both in the traditional and modern styles.  The most common shakuhachi size is a 1.8, which is 54.5 cm/21.5 inches, but I was looking for a longer flute with deeper tones.  So I went to Gyokusui’s place looking for a traditional one-piece in a 2.4 size, which is 75 cm / 29.5 inches.  Here is my 2.4 next to a kali stick:

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

The shakuhachi I chose is thicker and heavier than the kali sticks I typically use (which are thicker and heavier than most kali sticks).

For traveling with a flute, Jerry recommended Japanese sword and shinai bags, which I found to be perfect, and you can get them with or without a shoulder strap.  Here are two that I’m using for my 2.4:

Shakuhachi Bags

Shakuhachi Carry Bags

Gyokusui was a fantastic host, and Jerry and his wife Hiromi were great guides and translators.  We spent more than 2 hours trying numerous flutes, all incredibly beautiful instruments in both sound and appearance.

Myself and Gyokusui III

Myself and Gyokusui III

Gyokusui's House

At Gyokusui’s Place

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

A Few Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Our friend Jerry is a practicing Komuso monk, living with his wife Hiromi in Nara, and is sponsored by Gyokusui, who lives and works in Osaka.  If you’re visiting Japan and interested in an incredible shakuhachi, in either the traditional or modern style, I highly recommend Gyokusui’s instruments.

As for the sound, I’ll end this post with a recording of myself playing one of my favorite honkyoku (Zen meditation compositions), the Jin Nyodo version of Kyorei, which I played on my new shakuhachi:

Fight From the Void

Komuso Monk

Komuso Monk

If you fight from the void you’ll always win.

There are different meanings and levels of understanding of the void, all of which are valuable.

Technical Void and Physical Space

When an opponent attempts to punch you in the head there is only one small space that is immediately dangerous.  If you move anywhere else it is not dangerous.  When your opponent attacks, his effort is directed at one point.  He creates a large personal void everywhere else.  If you move into that void and attack from it your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When you fake an attack to a particular target and your opponent reaches out or covers to defend against your attack, he creates a large personal void everywhere else.  When you redirect your attack into that void your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When your opponent has been deceived and is entirely unaware that you will attack, his body and the area around it is a void.  When you attack from and into such a void your opponent will be unable to defend.

In the above situations there is a technical/physical void, but there is also a corresponding mental void.  Your opponent expects one thing and not another, and you attack with what he does not expect, what he is not ready for.

Mushin (No Mind)

Mushin is a state of “no mind” or “empty mind”.  It is the ideal state for high level performance not only in martial arts/self defense, but in any activity.  When you focus on one thing you are not focused on any other thing.  As a beginner, any activity requires that you focus on particular individual components of that activity.  But as you get better and better and the activity becomes natural to you, you no longer need to focus on any individual component.  You can perform from a state of mushin, with no thought to get in the way or slow you down.  When you perform from a state of mushin you are fighting from the void.

A person who fights from the void can adapt instantly to change.  A beginner will be defeated by the technical strategies listed above (interceptions, fakes, etc.), but an advanced practitioner who fights from the void can adapt to them.  This is a higher level of fighting from the void.

Here is a quote on this subject by the Japanese swordsman Yagyu Munenori translated in William Scott Wilson’s book The One Taste of Truth – Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea:

When practicing archery, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of shooting the bow, your aim will be disordered and wandering.  When using the sword, if your mind is occupied with thoughts of strikes and parries, its tip will not likely be regulated.  When practicing calligraphy, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of writing, the brush will be unsettled.  When playing the koto, if your mind is filled with thoughts of plucking the strings, the melody will be confused.

Yagyu Munenori uses examples from a variety of arts: archery, sword fighting, calligraphy, and playing the koto (a musical instrument).  Anything you do that teaches you to act from the void or get into a state of mushin, including meditation, will give you experience operating from the ideal performance state.  That experience will help you in everything else that you do, as long as you put in enough practice time to make the fundamental movements second nature.

It’s no wonder that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect of Zen and spent their days playing the shakuhachi…

Blowing From the Void

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

The idea for this post came from my last shakuhachi lesson with my excellent teacher, Jon Kypros.  A few of my recent posts have been related to the shakuhachi and how they were designed to be used as weapons by samurai monks.  The more I play and learn about the instrument, the more I realize how perfectly the instrument and its original music complements martial arts practice.  I would go as far as to say that anyone who wants to get deep into martial arts would benefit from playing the shakuhachi for a variety of reasons.

In shakuhachi honkyoku music, it is taught that the empty space or void between the sound is as important as the sound itself.  An ideal is for the sound of the flute to ring out of the void*, and in order to do this well it must be played from a state of mushin.

In my last lesson my teacher mentioned that he spent three years practicing before he felt good about playing a certain two notes in succession.  To sound right they need to ring out of nothingness with the right attack, and the duration of each note must be fitting.  This idea of ringing out of the void gave me a new way to think about strategy and tactics in martial arts/self defense.  As I said, it’s no surprise that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect and spent their days playing the shakuhachi.

Lauren Rubin writes:

The daily life of the Fuke monks at the temples was quite regulated and disciplined. The komusō monks engaged in suizen meditation (“blowing zen”, meditation through shakuhachi playing), zazen (seated meditation), and sutra chanting. Daily activity at the temple centered on playing the shakuhachi. The daily schedule for the monks included practicing martial arts, practicing the shakuhachi, and begging.

The shakuhachi in the picture above is one I recently purchased from Ken LaCosse (highly recommended!), which he made with a black urushi lacquer exterior coating based on vintage komuso flutes.  Ken makes two types of shakuhachi.  He calls the one I bought in the picture above a mujitsu shakuhachi, and writes that mujitsu “alludes to the contrast/connection between emptiness (mu) and form (jitsu)”.  This idea of emptiness/void and form is common in both martial arts and shakuhachi.

You can hear it in the music my teacher plays below, on one of his much longer flutes (made and for sale by him):

Sorry, this video has been removed.

Again, I highly recommend playing the shakuhachi and lessons with Jon as a compliment to your martial arts practice.  You won’t regret it.

*Two of the three most highly regarded honkyoku are named koku and kyoreiKoku translates roughly as “empty sky” or “empty space”, where empty has a meaning equivalent to the void.  The composition is written and played to express sound ringing out from the void (as the the monk Fuke’s bell rang out).  Kyorei translates roughly as “empty bell” or “empty spirit”, and again the composition reflects the sound of the monk Fuke’s bell ringing out of the void.

精華 Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

Nanzen-ji Garden

Nanzen-ji Temple Garden

I’ve been on vacation in Japan for the last month, thus the lack of recent posts and slow responses to emails (I’ll be getting to them shortly!).  I spent a couple of months in Japan nearly 20 years ago, but hadn’t been back since then, aside from brief stop-overs.  It was even better than I remembered…fascinating history, awesome sights, great food, and ridiculously friendly and respectful people.  But most remarkable to me was the unparalleled depth and refinement of Japanese culture, likely due in part to their extreme isolation during the Tokugawa rule.  There’s no place like it, and I’ll definitely be going back again in the not too distant future.

Related to my trip…

Seika Kitahara Shakuhachi

Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

At the end of last year I wrote a post on the shakuhachi, a beautiful Japanese flute used by Zen monks of the Fuke Sect as their primarily tool for meditation, and designed by ex-samurai Komuso monks to double as a weapon.  Prior to the Komuso redesigning the flute, it was made from a weaker section of bamboo, but the Komuso monks began using the thicker, stronger, and heavier root-end of the plant.  In addition to its uses as a meditation device and easy-to-carry-anywhere potential weapon, making it a great tool for any martial artist/self defense practitioner, the shakuhachi is an amazing musical instrument.  (See my other posts on the connection between music and martial arts, and the benefits of using music as a counter-balance to martial arts practice.)

In my previous post I mentioned having purchased two of my other shakuhachi from a guy who sells Taiwanese made flutes.  The Taiwanese made flutes are around $100 US.  They’re relatively nicely made, they’re fine for meditation or folk songs, and because they’re made in one piece they can easily double as a weapon.  But on my recent trip to Japan I discovered an entirely new level of shakuhachi.  The one I purchased is pictured at left.

My wife and I were staying in a fantastic hotel in Kyoto with the best customer service I have ever experienced in my life.  If you are going to Kyoto, you need to stay at the Mume Hotel.  I asked the hotel staff if they could put me in touch with any shakuhachi makers in Kyoto, and they set up a meeting for me with both a music store that sold them and with one of the most highly regarded shakuhachi making families there, the Kitahara family (Japanese language website here).  I had searched online before I went to Japan, but I was unable to find anything in English regarding current makers in Kyoto.  The Kitahara’s have been making shakuhachi for generations, and both Ikuya (father) and Hiroki (son) are still making them today under their company called Seika (精華).

Shakuhachi made in Japan are not cheap.  It’s hard to find them for less than $1,000 US, and the average seems to be $2,000 – $4,000, with some going up to $10,000+.  Since I primarily play the oud and am only a beginner on the shakuhachi, I wasn’t planning on buying one there.  I only wanted to see and try them, and to see what the difference was between the Taiwanese made flutes I already had and a higher quality Japanese made flute.  I was also curious about the Japanese made wooden shakuhachi as a beginner instrument.  But when I got to Kitahara’s place, picked up one of his shakuhachi, and started to play it, I couldn’t resist buying one.  The difference was extreme.  I can’t speak for other Japanese makers, but the Kitahara/Seika shakuhachi I tried were amazing professional quality instruments.  Here’s a close up of the bottom/root-end of the shakuhachi I bought:

Seika 精華 Shakuhachi

Seika 精華 Shakuhachi

Again, I’m a beginner on the shakuhachi, but I do know that the instrument has amazing expressive potential.  It only has 5 finger holes, but by changing the position and shape of your mouth relative to the blowing edge or using partial hole coverings you can play an infinite variety of tones, from the Japanese pentatonic to any other scale you can imagine.  It’s also possible to play over 3 octaves by varying the way you blow.  The finer details and subtleties of playing are where the Kitahara’s shakuhachi make a tremendous difference.  There’s just no comparison between them and my cheaper shakuhachi, or a wooden version, which I also tried.  Here’s a close up of the blowing edge:

Seika Shakuhachi Blowing Edge

Seika Shakuhachi Blowing Edge

The Kitahara’s themselves were outstanding hosts.  I visited Ikuya Kitahara four times in a week, and took a long time trying to decide which shakuhachi to buy.  There was never any pressure to buy one, and Ikuya was very helpful, giving me playing tips and helping me to see which flute was best for me personally.  If you’re going to be in Kyoto and are interested in seeing or buying a high quality shakuhachi there, I very highly recommend visiting the Kitahara’s shop.  Here’s a link to their contact page.  It’s in Japanese, but if you show it to your hotel staff they can help with the directions.

Ikuya Kitahara

Myself and Ikuya Kitahara

One issue with any shakuhachi made from bamboo in a humid climate (Japan or Taiwan) is the potential for the instrument to crack/split if your home country or home itself is drier.  Some people store their shakuhachi in a sealed plastic bag or container with a damp cloth or other specially designed humidity releasing device.  I’ve read that there are pros and cons to such methods for various reasons, although nearly everyone seems to recommend a sealed plastic bag with a source of humidity for air travel.  There is very little or no lack of consensus though for another method, one that is nearly guaranteed to prevent full cracks…binding the shakuhachi.  Unfortunately Kitahara didn’t have time to bind mine before I left, but Perry Yung, a very respected shakuhachi maker and musician in the US, made a YouTube video on how to bind a shakuhachi yourself.  I’m going to give it a try in the coming days.  Perry was very helpful in answering my questions about binding, and he also makes both professional and student level shakuhachi that I’ve read great things about.

In addition to the shakuhachi as a musical instrument and tool for meditation, I’m fascinated by the history of its development and use by the ex-samurai Komuso monks of the Fuke Sect.  In Kyoto I visited the former Fuke Sect headquarters, the Myoan-ji temple:

Myoan-ji Temple

Myoan-ji Temple, Kyoto – Fuke Sect Headquarters

Although the vast majority of modern day shakuhachi players may have little in common with wandering ex-samurai monks, particularly viewing their instruments as potential weapons, this is a self defense website after all.  So I should mention that many modern shakuhachi, including the one I bought from Kitahara, have a joint in the middle.  This makes them impossible to use as a weapon while not in a carrying case/bag, as although the joint is tight, it would come apart on impact or when swung forcefully.  With such an amazing instrument, obviously it would be preferable not to use it as a weapon anyway.  But in a worse case scenario, if the end were pushed tightly to the end of the carrying bag and the front was gripped tightly over the bag, the bag would keep the flute from separating.  😉  Kitahara gave me a nice and strong leather carrying bag.  For my other shakuhachi, which happen to be one-piece, I really like these bags.

My goal for the not too distant future is to begin learning some of the original Komuso honkyoku pieces.  Jon Kypros, my current Skype teacher, teaches the Seien ryu honkyoku, which should be great to learn.  As a sound sample, here’s a nice video of a guy paying a Tozan ryu honkyoku piece:

Shakuhachi: The Fighting Flute

Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi

A flute, a tool for meditation, and a formidable weapon created in Edo Period Japan by samurai monks called komuso (priests of nothingness), the shakuhachi is an awesome instrument.

About a year ago I posted about the connections between music, dance, and martial arts, and I posted a picture of a dongxiao flute I bought while on vacation in Taiwan.  I mentioned that the dongxiao was solid, and about the length of a kali stick.  My first thought when I picked it up in the music store was…wow…this is a weapon.  I mistakenly assumed it was a flute that had originated in China, based on the name and where I bought it.  However, it turns out that the type of flute I bought was brought to Taiwan by Japan during the 50 year Japanese occupation of Taiwan.

Shakuhachi Woodblock

Komuso Samurai Monk – 1775

The bamboo flute migrated from China to Japan more than a thousand years ago, but the shakuhachi is substantially different from those first flutes.  The bamboo flute was used by Japanese Buddhist monks of the Fuke Sect as a tool for meditation, suizen or “blowing zen”.  But during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), significant numbers of samurai found themselves without masters, ronin, and decided to become monks.  They called themselves komuso, priests of nothingness.  These ronin would often sell their swords in order to pay the fee to become a komuso monk, and would wander the country playing their flutes for money.  Having no swords, the komuso changed the design of the bamboo flute to make it double as a weapon, cutting it from the root end of bamboo instead of from a thinner and weaker section.  This led to a dense, solid, and heavy flute with an end that resembles a mace.

The shakuhachi is three tools in one: a beautiful flute, a meditation device, and a weapon.  It’s also extremely portable and can legally be carried anywhere.  For a martial artist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The traditional shakuhachi only has 5 finger holes, four on the “top” and one on the “bottom” for the thumb.  Although skilled players can play any tones by using a variety of methods (partial hole coverings, head movements, etc.), the standard notes are on the minor pentatonic scale.  One great thing about the pentatonic scale is that it doesn’t matter what order you play the notes in.  It sounds very nice regardless.  It may take a great deal of time and effort to become skilled at playing traditional Japanese repertoire on the shakuhachi, but if you can play just the basic pitches in the lower octave, you can play/improvise simple but relatively beautiful music with a little practice.  I highly recommend it.

If you’d like to go beyond just messing around on it, there are teachers who can teach you to play the original komuso pieces, called honkyoku.  I’ve recently started taking private lessons via Skype with Jon Kypros, and I would recommend lessons with him.  For buying a shakuhachi, Jon makes very high quality flutes that are relatively expensive, although no more expensive than other makers of professional quality flutes.  But you can get cheaper starter shakuhachi too.

I bought mine (pictured above and below) from this site.  The site isn’t completely finished, and it may not look very trustworthy, but I’ve emailed with the owner, Benjamin Yen, and have actually ordered two flutes from him.  He ships the same day you order, and is easy to communicate with.  Benjamin’s flutes are made in Taiwan, from Taiwanese bamboo, which seems to be substantially less expensive than Japanese madake bamboo.  I’m not qualified to comment on how high the quality of Benjamin’s shakuhachi are compared to a professional grade flute, but they seem very nice to me for an entry level shakuhachi, and they certainly do make great weapons!  Here’s a picture of the root end (it’s solid!):

Shakuhachi Root End

Shakuhachi Root End

How can you use the shakuhachi as a weapon?  The material on my stick/sword page would be a great start, but you should probably focus on the entries listed on my 4 Step Matrix page as working for swords/blades.  It would be better not to use it as a “stick”, to minimize the chance of it getting damaged.  I’m about to start on my second book, on weapon use and defense, and in that book I’ll go into far more detail, applicable to the shakuhachi.

Update: I’ve done a second post on this subject if you’re interested: Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

As for the sound, I’ll end this with a video of a traditional honkyoku (not played by me):

Vigilant Personal Alarms

Personal Alarm

Vigilant Personal Alarm

I was not paid to do this post.  And I don’t ever review or recommend products that I haven’t tried myself and found to be functional/effective.  With that out of the way, Vigilant PPS (Personal Protection Systems) contacted me and asked if they could send me one of their personal alarms to test and review.  I’ve never bought, owned, or even seen a personal alarm before, and hadn’t thought much about them, but I found the idea interesting, and agreed to give one a try.  Here’s a link to the unit they sent me, on their website (also pictured at right).  This particular unit is a special addition in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where Vigilant donates $1 to the center for each unit sold.

I tried making a video for this review, but my laptop automatically and drastically decreased the volume when the alarm sounded, making it seem less effective than it is, so I decided only to post about it instead.  In the picture above, the same image displayed on Vigilant’s site, the unit may look slightly smaller than it is.  Here are a couple of pictures so you can accurately see the size of the unit:

Personal Alarm

Personal Alarm (Click for bigger image)

Although it’s slightly wider than my hand, it’s very light, thin, and would easily fit in a pant pocket.  The round “circle” is the “speaker”, and not a button.  And the orange button is used to activate an LED light that sticks out right below where the lanyard attaches to the device.  To make the alarm go off, you simply pull the lanyard off of the device, or pull the device off of the lanyard.  I think this is a smart design, as it would be easier to use under stress than having to find and press a button, and keep it pressed.  To silence the alarm you have to put the “pin”/lanyard back into the device.

The alarm is VERY loud, and it’s surprising that such a small device can produce such a loud sound.  It’s actually painful to my ears, and extremely annoying.  I have no doubt that the alarm would surprise an attacker, particularly indoors.  Although the alarm is extremely loud, it doesn’t travel well through walls or closed doors, so I wouldn’t rely on it to alert someone who is a wall/door or two away from you.  They may hear it, but I would assume that many people would just wonder what the noise was.  I’m also not sure you’d get much attention from people indoors if you used it outdoors, especially considering how many car alarms go off accidentally, and how few people pay attention to them.  However, an attacker isn’t going to know that.  He/she is just going to hear an extremely loud alarm go off.  If the attacker doesn’t want attention drawn to the scene, the use of this alarm could definitely cause him or her to flee.

It Doesn’t Replace Awareness and Prevention

No weapon replaces the need to be aware and to do what you can to prevent an attack before it occurs, and the owners of Vigilant said the same in an email to me.  In order to use this device you need to have it or the lanyard in your hand, or very quickly accessible, and you need to see the threat coming.  Again, that’s true not only for this personal alarm, but also for a gun, knife, pepper spray, etc.

When to Use It

I just received this alarm and have never used one before, so my thoughts on this are relatively fresh.  If anyone disagrees with me here, please let me know/discuss in the comments.

My thinking is that this alarm would not be ideally suited for a robbery, where an attacker threatens you with a weapon and demands your money, purse, etc.  Such robberies tend to be quick, the attacker can still grab what he wants, and I wouldn’t risk angering an attacker with an alarm in such a situation, particularly since the alarm isn’t going to do anything to stop the attacker from stabbing/shooting/assaulting you.

But I do think that in situations where bodily harm is the goal of the attack (from kidnapping/abduction to physical assault), this alarm could be valuable.  It’s far easier and quicker for an attacker to get an object you’re carrying than to rape or abduct you, and an attacker who wants you can’t get you if they simply run away.  They can’t run away with you.  Because more time is generally needed for rape or abduction, a loud alarm that draws attention may dissuade an attacker from continuing, increasing the chance that he gets exposed or caught.  So my initial thoughts are that this alarm would be ideal when bodily harm is threatened (or even beginning) and bringing attention to the attacker may cause him to flee.

I don’t see this as an effective tool for men in most situations.  Men are far less likely to be abducted or raped, and “fights” that men get into (which are almost always avoidable) often happen in crowded places anyway, where attention is already on the participants.

However, I do think it could be an effective self defense tool for women (particularly those who don’t want to carry pepper spray) and children.  Giving children pepper spray probably isn’t a good idea, but this alarm is something they could carry 24/7, anywhere.  It’s something they could easily learn to use, and something they wouldn’t have to feel bad about using even if they used it in error.  Unlike with pepper spray and other weapons, using a personal alarm cannot injure someone mistaken for an attacker.  There is zero downside to giving this alarm to a child, and considering it could save the child’s life, it’s hard for me to imagine why a child shouldn’t have one.  They’re also very inexpensive.

The key with any self defense tool is understanding when it should be used, and when it shouldn’t.  No weapon works in all situations.  No weapon is perfect.  For adults willing to put in the training time, I highly recommend learning to use and defend against weapons.  Weapons use dramatically increases your odds, and the training can be great fun.  But especially for women who are unwilling to learn to use a weapon (or unarmed self defense for that matter), and most definitely for children, I think this alarm could be an excellent self defense tool.

Let me know what you think in the comments…

Note: Vigilant also sells pepper spray, and they happen to carry my favorite keyring unit.

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud & The Jeet Kune Do Of Music

Istanbul

Istanbul

I’ve posted before on the connection between martial arts and music, and in this post I’m going to write about a particular type of music, the music of the Ottoman Empire, and why I consider it to be the “jeet kune do of music”.  But first, a review of my newest oud, an instrument particularly suited to this kind of music, which I just bought while on vacation in Turkey (thus the lack of posts recently).

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud

About a year ago I posted a review of my Turkish oud, built by Faruk Türünz.  It’s a beautiful instrument with a beautiful sound.  Although I love it, I also love the sound of Arabic ouds, which are typically warmer, deeper, and mellower.  I’ve seen a fair number of ouds in Turkey and a few from other parts of the world, but I have yet to see another built as well as those built by Faruk and his craftsmen.  So I decided to get another oud from Faruk…this time with Arabic tuning.  It’s a masterpiece of sound and design:

Faruk Turunz Arabic Oud

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud - Back

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud – Back

There is plenty debate and some disagreement on the characteristics of “Turkish ouds” compared to “Arabic ouds”.  Different makers from different regions make ouds with different sounds.  The “Turkish” and “Arabic” classifications are broad, and there is often overlap between regions and makers, along with sub-regions.  But in any case, my new Arabic oud sounds substantially different from my Turkish oud, even though they are both “Türünz ouds”.  It does have a warmer and mellower sound, but unlike some Arabic ouds, from my relatively limited perspective, it has a long sustain similar to my Turkish oud…something often considered characteristic of Turkish ouds.

Anyway, the instrument is awesome.  The craftsmanship and attention to detail, as with my other oud from Faruk, are unparalleled.  Every joint and connection is flawless:

Pegbox

Pegbox

Faruk Turunz Oud Pegbox

Pegbox

If you play the oud or would be inclined to try it, I very highly recommend getting one from Faruk Türünz.  You can read more about his unique and innovative method of construction in my first post on his ouds, here.  My new Arabic oud, for anyone who might like to know, has a bowl made of two types of alternating wood: santos and curly maple.  The soundboard is made of spruce, and the fingerboard and pegs are ebony.

The Jeet Kune Do Of Music

As anyone who has spent much time on my website can see, my martial arts/self defense philosophy is nearly identical to the jeet kune do concept espoused by Bruce Lee.  That concept heavily emphasizes limitless freedom of expression.  Of course, in order to express yourself freely, you must have the fundamental tools and techniques to be able to express yourself at all!  You not only need a comprehensive system to provide those techniques, but also a system that lets you loose, that doesn’t restrict or limit you.  In my view, there is no better musical equivalent than the music of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman music is very often referred to as Turkish music, but this isn’t quite accurate (despite the fact that I often do it myself), particularly if by “Turkish music” a person is referring to modern/popular Turkish music.  The music of the Ottoman Empire encompasses a large geographical area, from Greece and the Balkans to Central Asia and the Middle East.  During the reign of the Ottomans for more than 700 years, an amazing musical system was developed.  Ottoman music theory divides notes using the Pythagorean comma system (from Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician/philosopher), so that rather than having only 12 possible notes per octave as in western music, you have 53.  Ottoman music uses a “micro-tonal system”, leading to an increased variety of sounds, scales, and options.  In my view, this system provides more freedom for expression.  Due to the much larger number of notes, Ottoman music utilizes a large variety of scales that don’t exist in western music.  Instead of having only major and minor scales (with a couple of variations), Ottoman music has hundreds.

Ottoman music also has a strong emphasis on improvisation rather than strict memorization and repetition.  Written compositions are viewed only as guidelines, and good musicians may play a single composition differently every time.  But the skill of a musician who plays Ottoman/Turkish music is not based on his or her ability to play compositions, but instead, on the ability to improvise…to play what is called a “taksim”.

The Oud

The Oud

The Oud

For me, the oud is the ultimate instrument.  Its use dates back thousands of years.  As you can see, there are no frets on the fingerboard of the oud, which allows a player to create any sound and to utilize the micro-tonal system.  Although the oud does have a characteristic sound, it can fit in well with nearly any other instrument.  For example, in the video below you can see the oud being played along with famous American jazz musicians, in a non-Turkish/Arabic context:

The concept of jeet kune do includes having no limitations, and having no way as your way.  Despite being a beginner myself, these limitless possibilities are what makes the oud such an attractive instrument to me, and Ottoman music the perfect system to learn from.  They fit perfectly with the philosophy I use in FSD, and due to the commonalities between music and martial arts, they are equally enjoyable.

It may be unlikely to find an oud teacher in your local area.  But in this day and age that isn’t a barrier.  My excellent teacher, Mavrothi Kontanis, is available for lessons via Skype.  So if you are inclined, I highly recommend getting yourself an oud by Faruk Türünz, and contacting Mavrothi for lessons!  It’s the perfect compliment to martial arts/self defense.

Review: Surefire EB2

Surefire EB2

Surefire EB2

I’ve had a page on my website regarding the use of flashlights for self defense for a while, where I recommended the Surefire LX2 or 6PX Tactical.  Although those are both outstanding self defense lights, it’s time for an update.  Late in 2013, Surefire came out with a new model, the EB2 Backup.  You can see it on the Surefire website, here (And, you can find it for sale for less at places like BatteryJunction.com, which I have nothing to do with.  I also don’t get any commission if you buy one from them.  But I much prefer to buy from a small business than a company like Amazon, so it’s nice to provide a good alternative.).

The EB2 comes in two different colors (black and tan) and with two different types of switches (clicky or tactical).  For self defense, you need to get the tactical switch, and not the clicky switch.  The tactical switch allows you to access the high mode with a single press, whereas the clicky switch would require you to press it twice.  So remember, get the tactical switch.  I bought one and compared it to my LX2, 6PX, and a couple of other lights, and I find it to be substantially better.  Previously, the LX2 was my favorite flashlight for self defense.  Here’s the EB2 next to the LX2:

Surefire LX2 vs. EB2 Backup

Surefire LX2 and EB2

As you can see, the EB2 is just a little bit longer than the LX2.  It’s also just a slight bit thinner.  Otherwise, it’s about the same for carrying.  The clip is the same, and it feels very similar in the hand.  As far as the specifications, the LX2 has a 15 lumen low and a 200 lumen high.  The EB2 has a 5 lumen low and a 500 lumen high.  The EB2 doesn’t necessarily look 2.5x brighter, but it is substantially brighter.  Here is a photo where you can compare the beams:

LX2 vs. EB2 Beam

LX2 vs. EB2 Beam

The EB2 beam is on the right.  In the past, I trained a good bit with my LX2 at night, using one to defend against a variety of attacks.  The LX2 is extraordinarily bright, particularly in your eyes, due to the tight focus of the beam from the Surefire TIR lens.  This makes it more effective than flashlights that may have 5-10x more lumens, but without such a tight/focused beam.  But to me and the training partner I tested the EB2 with, the EB2 is on another level.  I don’t know exactly why…a combination of increased brightness plus the slightly yellow tint perhaps…but it’s extremely disturbing.  In fact, it’s so disturbing that it’s almost painful.  We quit training with it because it bothered our eyes too much.  Although I don’t enjoy getting shined in the face with the LX2, the EB2 is substantially worse/better.

For a self defense light, you will be fine with the LX2 or the 6PX Tactical (much cheaper, although it does not have a clip, which makes it less practical).  However, I would definitely recommend the EB2 over either of those lights, having tested it myself.  Here is the EB2 in my hand:

Surefire EB2 Grip

Surefire EB2 Grip

Here, from another angle, showing where I like to place the clip:

Surefire EB2 Grip

Surefire EB2 Grip

Although it might appear that the clip would get in the way of a good/solid grip, it doesn’t.  I feel it actually aids in a secure grip, even when striking something with it.

I’ve had a number of people over the last few months emailing about flashlight recommendations.  I haven’t tried every flashlight out there, but I have tried a number of them, have seen even more that other people I know have carried, and I’ve read a good bit about them.  Surefire lights are expensive.  I realize that.  But from what I’ve seen and read, there is no more dependable light.  They’re not going to break, they have a lifetime guarantee, the tactical/self defense operation cannot be beat (particularly for the models I have recommended), they fit perfectly in the hand, are easy to carry, and the TIR lens on the LX2 and EB2 makes a tremendous difference in the impact the light has on your eyes.  So although you can find a less expensive light, I don’t think you’ll be able to find a better light for self defense.

For information on using a flashlight for self defense, please see this page on my website.

Faruk Türünz: Master Oud Maker

Faruk Türünz

Faruk Türünz and I

This post will stray from the usual subject, but it is tangentially related.

I’ve just returned from a short trip to Istanbul, where I went to pick up a Turkish oud made by Faruk Türünz and his incredibly skilled crew.  I was so impressed by their knowledge, skills, and particularly, by Faruk’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of oud making, exploring new and revolutionary ideas that put his ouds and their amazing sound at the top of centuries of evolution.  People in every field can learn from Faruk’s continuous exploration, inquisitiveness, and his use of the scientific method to test his theories.

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk Türünz Oud

I haven’t written about it here before, but playing the oud has become my favorite hobby and pastime.  There are many similarities between playing music and martial arts (rhythm, timing, improvisation, volume, and even melody)…and I need to do a post on that soon.  But back to the subject at hand, I had read about Faruk’s amazing ouds, listened to them on his YouTube channel, and eventually decided I had to see and hear them for myself.  After emailing with him for a while, I decided to fly to Istanbul (a city my wife and I have visited a couple of times before, and love), and arranged to meet him at his shop.

Istanbul

Istanbul

The oud is well over 1,000 years old.  The European lute (from the Arabic “al oud”) and descended from it.  It has an amazing range, and because it has no frets, micro tones can be played that are between standard western notation.  The making of the oud has been passed down from maker to apprentice for centuries.  It’s possible to find relatively cheap ouds for the tourist market throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Northern Africa, and Central Asia but top quality ouds made by master luthiers are harder to come by, and often only custom made.  And there is no comparison between the craftsmanship, sound, feel, and playability of a cheap tourist oud and a top quality masterpiece.

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk has taken his ouds, made by himself and his skilled craftsman, to the highest possible level, by using revolutionary ideas, modern software, and custom tools to get the best possible results in sound quality, every time.

Early on, Faruk discovered that he could make ouds with the same materials and dimensions, but the sound would be different each time, because no two pieces of wood are exactly alike.  Looking at a mechanical engineering book, he came across formulas related to the vibration and frequency of various building materials.  His “aha moment” was realizing that the frequencies of the components of a musical instrument, which determine the sound quality and resonance, would be different due to the differences in wood, even with identical sized pieces of the same wood.  So he set about figuring out a way to first determine the ideal frequencies of the component parts of an instrument, and then to build the instrument based on those figures.

Brace Tuning Method

Brace Tuning Method

He calls it the “brace tuning method”, and you can see one of his craftsmen using it above.  With custom tools and software, he is determining the frequency of a single piece of wood that will be used to make an oud.  Each brace is custom made to create the perfect frequency to achieve the desired sound when added to the oud.  This revelation is what makes his ouds sound so consistently incredible.  But he doesn’t stop there.

Carbon Fiber Additions

Carbon Fiber Additions

In the image above, one of his craftsmen is adding carbon fiber strips to both strengthen and perfectly balance the neck of an oud.  And when you pick up one of his finished ouds, the balance is perfect.  It’s another step along the evolution of the oud.

Custom Fingerboard Leveling Machine

Custom Fingerboard Leveling Machine

Faruk uses ebony for the fingerboards of his ouds, and in the picture above you can see the use of his custom built machine that sands the fingerboard to make it perfectly smooth and level, every time.

Oud Making

Oud Making

Every step of the process has been explored, tested, and refined, and you know it the moment you see one of his ouds in person, the moment you pick one up, and especially, when you hear the sound.  They are technical masterpieces, and works of art.

Peg Box

Peg Box

Aside from his revolutionary work, the amazing thing about Faruk is his willingness to share his discoveries.  He’s happy to tell anyone about his formulas and exactly how he and his crew build their ouds.  Yet, few oud makers are listening.  Just like in martial arts, people are limited by tradition and unwilling to question, explore, test, and evolve.  Eventually they’ll be passed up by people like Faruk and his crew.  What they leave to chance, Faruk has found a way to engineer to perfection.  I would think that all makers of musical instruments would benefit greatly to hear of Faruk’s discoveries.  I hope he or one of his craftsmen will at least write a book on the subject to make sure his knowledge will be passed on.

Peg Box

Peg Box

I don’t play well enough to do justice to his ouds, so I won’t include a video of myself playing to this post.  But if you’d like to hear them, check out his YouTube Channel.  In person, the sound is far better than what you’ll hear in the videos.  If you’d like to get one for yourself, which I highly recommend if you’re even slightly inclined, here is his website.  He does ship them around the world, but using the purchase as an excuse for a trip to Istanbul is also highly recommended.  🙂

UPDATE:  10 months after writing this post I also bought an Arabic oud from Faruk.  I’ve written a review of it here.

Taiwanese Aboriginal Atayal / Truku Knife

Truku Aboriginal Knife

Truku / Atayal Knife

I  recently spent a few weeks on vacation in Taiwan, and with some difficulty managed to find a large knife or small sword made by the Truku aboriginal tribe, formerly classified as part of the Atayal people.  Aside from it being a unique weapon, I thought I’d post directions to the blacksmith shop for anyone who may be in Taiwan and searching for it, since it was relatively difficult to find.

If you’re like I was, you primarily associate Taiwan with the Chinese, the country where Chiang Kai-shek fled to escape the communists.  I was interested in visiting China without the Cultural Revolution, to see traditional Chinese culture that hadn’t been wiped out by both the Cultural Revolution and the extreme modernization where “to be rich is glorious”.  And in that sense, Taiwan didn’t disappoint.  The National Palace Museum in Taipei contains the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world, for example, as when the nationalists fled mainland China, they brought many treasures with them.  Traditional Chinese culture seemed to be alive and well in Taiwan, and talking with locals, they voiced the same idea regarding having a better preserved traditional culture than what you’ll find in much of the mainland.

But anyway, Taiwan is much more than the Chinese who fled there.  There is a large population of native inhabitants, or Taiwanese aboriginal tribes.  Driving along the east coast, in the Rift Valley, or in the mountainous areas of the country, the smaller towns are more aboriginal than Chinese.  The scenery is spectacular, particularly in and around the the Taroko and Yushan National Parks.  There are countless hikes on well maintained trails, including very long and high suspension bridges:

Walami Trail

Walami Trail

In the aboriginal areas, most towns have statues like these at the entrance on the main streets:

Taiwanese Aboriginal Statue

Taiwanese Aboriginal Statue

Every one of the statues we saw included the traditional knife/sword:

Aboriginal Statue

Aboriginal Statue

Before I left for Taiwan, I did a search on Netflix for Taiwanese movies, and came across a movie called Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.  The movie is about the Wushe Rebellion, an uprising against the Japanese by the Seediq tribe in 1930.  Here’s the trailer:

The movie may not be entirely accurate, but I highly recommend it if you like action movies.  It was filmed in Taiwan, and the scenery is exactly what you see there, particularly in the aboriginal areas and national parks.

After seeing the movie and the unique blades of the Seediq, I figured I’d have to find one for myself.  The Seediq tribe are from the Hualien area of Taiwan, and were previously grouped together with the Truku tribe as Atayal people.  The weapons of the Atayal, Seediq, and Truku are indistinguishable, at least from what I can tell.  So I searched and searched, found a few pictures of the traditional knives being sold in Taiwan, but was unable to locate them where they had been previously seen.

At our hotel in the Taroko National Park, I met an Atayal man and asked him if the knives were still being made and where I could find them.  He gave me directions to what may be the last aboriginal blacksmith in the country who is still making these weapons.

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop

Here is an article I found in English about the shop.  The only way to get there is with your own transportation.  My wife and I had rented a car, but even with directions it was difficult to find.  Hopefully the following images will make it easier.  The shop is located on Huadong Rd. in a village called Tongmen.  Here it is on a map:

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop Map

Tonglan Blacksmith Shop Map

And here is a closer satellite view of the town:

Atayal, Seediq, Truku Knife Shop

Atayal, Seediq, Truku Knife Shop

If you’re coming from Hualien and taking Highway 9, you’ll see the big lake, and should be able to find the shop from there.  The problem for anyone, such as myself, who cannot read Chinese characters, is that even with a GPS you will not be able to enter in the location.

The shop was empty when I arrived.  I got out of the car and walked around a bit, saw a girl walking down the street, and gestured toward the shop.  She slid the door right open and sold me the knife pictured at the top of this post.  Here’s another image:

Atayal Truku Knife

Atayal / Truku Knife

I had actually hoped to purchase a full sized sword, as they’re made with the same design in a variety of sizes.  A Google Image search for “atayal sword” will pull up several examples, such as this one from a site displaying Atayal cultural items:

Atayal Sword

Atayal Sword

Unfortunately though, it seems like the swords are no longer made.  However, the knife I was able to purchase (for about $100), is fairly large at 22 inches.

From what I’ve read, the unique open sheath design is used to keep moisture from collecting inside the sheath.  Taiwan is extremely humid, and it rains often.  So this makes sense.

It’s sad when quality elements and arts of traditional cultures die out, so I’m posting the information above in hopes that anyone else looking for a Taiwanese aboriginal knife or sword will be able to find the shop and keep them in business…keeping the art alive!