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Oh captain, my captain – changing your perspective

Those of you who have seen ‘Dead Poets Society‘ may remember Robin Williams exhorting his students to stand on their desks in order to show them the importance of having multiple perspectives of the world. I always thought that this was a most excellent scene. If you haven’t seen it, consider checking it out (or check out the screenplay in the link and grep for ‘stand on my desk’).

I had my own ‘standing on my desk’ moment after I recently took up nito (fighting with two swords), after many years of wanting to. Kendo is traditionally done with one sword from a stance called chudan no kamae. There are four other defined kamae, but chudan is by far the most prevalent.

chudan.jpg Chudan is a highly versatile kamae with both strong offensive and defensive aspects. The range of techniques one can execute from chudan is far greater than any of the other kamae. It is also easier to judge the distance between you and your opponent, and execute multiple attacks from chudan. The consensus that I am aware of, seems to promote a high degree of proficiency with chudan before considering moving on to other kamae. This is something I agree with. I’m not saying you can’t be effective if you learn another kamae before having a good understanding of chudan. There are numerous examples to the contrary.

However, I do think that if you want a good understanding of chudan no kamae as well as others (as opposed to being a specialist in one kamae), then having an understanding of chudan before moving on is paramount. If you’re going to use another kamae, you’ll still be coming up against chudan kendoka more often than anyone else. Understand thy enemy.

In the short space of time that I have been practicing nito, I have gleaned numerous insights into my itto kendo that I might otherwise not have seen. For that alone, practicing nito has provided a valuable alternate perspective of my itto kendo. I think one of the keys to having these insights to begin with is the understanding of itto kendo, more specifically chudan no kamae. If I didn’t already have a good understanding of itto kendo, then very likely doing nito would have been more of a hindrance to my learning than a help.

As it stands, I have a decent understanding of distance and timing and what constitutes an opportunity for attack. These things differ subtly (but importantly) between nito and itto chudan. Because I understand one, I can relate them when I encounter them in the other. Each kamae informs my kendo about the other and I believe, makes my kendo better for it overall.

For example, nito uses one long sword, and one short. Typically, the short sword is held in front as a foil whilst the long sword is held overhead. When two itto kendoka engage in chudan, they judge the distance from each other by where their swords cross. That distance is different for nito such that if a chudan kendoka crosses with the short sword, they are actually dangerously close, and the nito kendoka can simultaneously cast their sword aside, and strike with the long sword.

Moreover, the nito kendoka can extend or retract the position of the shortsword to further confound the opponent’s sense of distance. Thinking about it – there’s no reason you couldn’t also do the same with one sword, and there are techniques where this occurs, but I’d never really consciously thought about it before. It makes me wonder what other insights I’ve missed by not allowing myself a differing perspective in other walks of life.

I think there are certainly parallels to be drawn as a software tester. If you think you have an excellent understanding of something, find a way to change your perspective, to challenge the ancient wisdom (such as it is). If you think you understand how a particular programming language works, learn about the underlying architecture that it runs on – see how the performance or the operation of the code differs from one to the other and why. If your product has competitors – check out their product. What does it tell you about yours? You are only really limited by your imagination. If you have trouble coming up with something, try standing on your desk.

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