On the Gentle Art #12

bjj evolve

How do you go about making the perfect nozzle for a non-Newtonian fluid? Got the answer? I’ll give you a minute or two to come up with it. Now that you have it, how would you make that perfect nozzle work perfectly if you needed to dispense the fluid under high-pressure? Oh, and now for the catch. You need to figure out how this is going to work in a vacuum in microgravity. What the heck am I talking about? Let me clarify. NASA has put out an RFP for Oobleck dispensers to run cutting-edge experiments on the International Space Station. (The astronauts are bored, and they want to play practical jokes on their cosmonaut counterparts.)

Okay this is clearly a joke you’re saying to yourself at this point, but here me out. What if it wasn’t? What if there were hundreds of millions of dollars on the line in the form of U.S. government contracts? Or what if the astronauts’ lives depended on it? Let’s raise the stakes. What if your life depended on it? How would you go about figuring it out? (Okay all of you rocket scientists let everyone else have a chance to answer.) Chances are that you would start Googling what the heck non-Newtonian fluids are followed by a quick search for Oobleck. Then you’d scrounge around your house looking for bottle tops/caps that could double for nozzles. (Hint: Try the fridge.) You might head out to Home Depot or Lowes if you’re really adventurous. But soon after finding whatever materials you think are necessary, you’ll face an important decision. We’ll get back to this later…

Now let’s step onto the Jiujitsu mats. Let’s say that this is your first class, or you are a freshly-minted blue belt, or you have been practicing for five years, and you are a salty purple belt whose belt is so worn it looks like you tie your Gi with a loose weave of shoelaces. I come to you and ask you how do you do the perfect armbar? How would you answer? If this is your first class you would probably shrug your shoulders and say I don’t know. I would shrug along with you, and wait for class to start. (Tweedledee and Tweedledum) If you’re the blue belt you would probably hitch up your Gi pants, tug on your belt, strut over to me John Wayne style, lay me down, and begin to crank armbars on me while saying “like this” crank…”like this” crank. (You like the idea of coaching even though you just learned how to properly tie your belt…um GUILTY.) I would leave with a sore elbow, and some idea of you thrusting your hips into my arm. If you’re the salty purple belt you would most likely give me a few basic techniques, and wisely tell me to keep working on them.

Now all of us who’ve practiced BJJ long enough know that there’s no such thing as the objectively perfect armbar. Maybe out there in the cosmos there exists an archetype for the perfect armbar, but we as mere mortal martial artists will never attain it. But nonetheless, how would you do the best armbar possible? More precisely, how would you learn it? Well now we’re back to the Oobleck dispensing nozzle, and our important decision. On the one hand you could try to research everything on Oobleck and non-Newtonian fluids, nozzles, high-pressure pumps, microgravity, and vacuums. You would take everything that you learned, and hurriedly start designing the best nozzle. On the other hand you could say screw it and line up a bunch of pipes and nozzles and start squeezing Oobleck through these willy-nilly until you found the best one. (A lot more messy and fun!) Is one method better than the other? What if you ended up with the same nozzle both by design, and by trial and error? Would one method still be better than the other? I would argue yes.

Let’s take the first method where you painstakingly study everything that you think you need to know about designing the nozzle and you reach a great design. How is this not superior to the second method? After all you’ve saved yourself all of the time and messy Oobleck failures, and still come up with the same nozzle. You’re proud of that. You feel smart. Your hard work and intelligence has paid off. You’re ready to bid on that NASA contract, and you already know how you’re going to spend the first million dollars. (Shoyoroll Gis) But what if I was to tell you that you are wrong? What if I was to tell you that you’ve fallen for one of the biggest pitfalls that befall every would-be inventor, scientist, expert, and martial artist?

You see there is an idea termed the “God complex”. Social scientists like to use the term because it’s as catchy as it is apropos. Simply stated it stands for the proposition that people let their egos drive them. The “God complex” gives us a sense of superiority, especially when we have gained a little bit of knowledge about a particular thing. (Enter the blue belt #notDragon) Have you ever found yourself in an argument with a second-semester college Freshman? They’re the worst. They’re newly uber independent, and will talk your ear off about philosophy, being green, post-modern whatever, and their upcoming trip to Ecuador to help the needy (where they’ll most likely drink themselves to sleep every night and contract malaria and be a burden to their host family until their parents can call the embassy to get them medevaced out of the country at great expense to American taxpayers). Yeah these know-it-alls and the blue belt have enough knowledge to get themselves into trouble. They take what they’ve learned through research and study, and are tempted to push all other possibilities aside to apply their newfound knowledge.

So what does it matter in the case of the perfect nozzle? You did your research and you built it. That should be the end of it. Well you know what you didn’t do? You didn’t discover the countless ways in which not to build the perfect nozzle. That is to say that you didn’t gain the knowledge that comes with failing in a ton of different ways. You lost out on the lessons of how it could go wrong. You lucked out in solving the one problem for this application, but you didn’t find out how to solve the countless other nozzle problems that NASA might send you an RFP for in the future.

And here is where the second method is superior, and what jiujitsu practitioners know or should know all too well. The only way to ensure the best armbar is by trail and error. That’s how nature and science work, and by extension jiujitsu. Evolution is nothing but billions of years of trial and error. Look at the results. At every stage there are slight improvements on the preceding designs. And though nothing is perfect, I think that we and all of the plants and animals that we share this planet with are pretty cool. (Except for spiders. They suck.) And this evolution applies to the armbar. With every passing attempt you, me, and yes even the great Grandmasters themselves, Kano, Maeda, Carlos, and Helio took and continue to take steps closer to reaching perfection. The only thing that we have to keep in mind is to rid ourselves of the idea that we know it all, dump our ego, and the “God complex”.

© J. Manuel


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