He enjoys sitting

Well recently suggested that in fact sitting was one of my hobbies, and while I realise it was in jest (and I did indeed giggle) the comment conceals one of the ways I’m currently interested in looking at the world. In that most of the time we just work out how to get something done basically and never really return to look at the area properly.

Since I’m not particularly great at anything I do (although I think I’m pretty good at many things) I’ve found solice in the materials written by those who are and am attempting to absorb their material for my benefit (i.e. learnin’). Now one of the threads that I keep coming back to is that of the fundamentals.

Now its not that I enjoy studying samey basic materials over and over again, its that a truly good treatment of a subject must start by addressing the very basic things from which that subject is built, and it takes a truly lucid and deep understanding of something before those fundamentals are truly absorbed in to the self and can be communicated clearly. Every time you read a description of something fundamental from another experienced and valid point of view you pick up at least a new way of thinking about it, which may help things click with you and help your own practice.

In my opinion truly mastering a subject or improving at it beyond a certain point requires at least cursory study of the fundamentals of what goes into building it.

For example (and I realise I’m banging a drum about this but it interests me) my iaido is especially fascinating to me because never really been physically fit, so to move through the first 11 training forms (which are the ones I can say I “know” in at least a rough way) I’ve had to start to learn all kinds of things from that groups point of view. Posture, sitting, standing, stepping, breathing, these are the basic things (you also get to do cutting, which in itself is an elegant system) but even these can be broken down. The fundamentals of shifting weight, of tensing and untensing certain muscles, of balance and body position. And this has come back to help the rest of my life. My posture has improved in other places, I’m fitter, I’d like to think my movements are a little more graceful and I’m less likely to trip over my shoes now.

The book that initially got me thinking about this is Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go, a truly excellent text by Kageyama Toshiro, in this the very basic building blocks of a truly well played game are discussed and outlined, the connections between moves, the natural way things should flow into each other, basic strategies like nets and ladders and a number of other topics. Now I knew of most of these things before I picked up the book, but I didn’t really stop to think about it, and mostly played on instinct. My game has deteriorated through lack of practice but I’ve enjoyed starting to get it back on track with books like this, thinking about the very basic things and coming back to them again and again to ponder how they influence the more complex behaviours.

At an earlier point in my life I studied the work of Constantin Stanislavski, specifically briefly going through (most of, I was lazy) his excellent work An Actor Prepares, which is essentially Stanislavski going back to the fundamental building blocks of acting, how to construct the mental and physical notions of character within yourself, how to break up and study texts, searching for motives, how to stir yourself to various emotions, how to condition yourself to be able to use your imagination to tie it all together in a moving performance.

I feel this also plays a part in a number of interesting occult systems I’ve looked at (even so briefly) over recent year, I feel in some ways the enduring attractiveness of a lot of the Hermetic or Egyptian work is that it is essentially the fundamentals of the later more baroque schools of thought. But also the later stuff in a way holds similar goals, the GD (although in many ways very complex) I always get the impression sought a return to the fundamentals, by attempting to create a massive syncratic union of everything into Kabbalah and Tarot they sought to understand the fundamental things that were the building blocks of other systems and the world. Austin Osman Spare I always get the impression was motivated by this. While he’d go away and learn in other peoples systems he was truly looking at the fundamentals and constructing his own way (not always the best route, theres a lot to be said for really trying to grok a system of anything, but its true at some point you should try to do your own thing). In many ways the current final child of the old guard of Magic is the Chaos Magicians who are again I think looking into what the real fundamentals of humans and the world are and how you can tweak them for the most benefit.

In a similar vein are the Runes in a way, since they are at heart a mystery or a secret they describe the fundamental states of the world and inside that our lives and minds. I feel the study of Runes is again the study of fundamentals, in that although they can be represented as staves, sounds, numbers, letters, concepts, names, postures… but all some attempt to represent something truly underpinning the world.

I’ve also looked at this with roleplaying (and I believe and have recently been posting on this topic). What are the fundamentals of roleplaying? How to get people involved, to help them have fun, to explore characters motivations and actions, to play types of people they never get the chance to in real-life, to make them experience (at least in some way) a number of feelings they’d rarely get the chance too otherwise. My well known long running Kult campaign is in many ways a series of experiments on this front. Do we need dice? Character sheets? How can we generate an atmosphere? Do props help or distract? What kinds of lighting and music can help build atmosphere? What kills it? How best to pace a game? Can you run combat without getting bogged down? How to make players care for their characters? Is a “party” structure really necessary or just useful? How much direction does the game need, how much free reign do the players need? What kind of game do these players want to play? What kind of story do I want to help them tell?

In my own day-to-day profession I’ve also found that this sort of study is apparent. Again and again we see this outlined in many ways, the same building blocks are reused again and again. Breaking algorithms up into subroutines or functions, breaking code out into libraries, treating communication between programs as very simple streams (TCP sockets anyone?) and holding all of this up the concept of abstraction. We abstract to make things faster to develop, easier to modify and in many ways better to use and run, we abstract to make things simpler so we can make our computers do even more complex things, we abstract away from the fact that every current computer is at its heart a limited turing machine glued to a metronome.

Programmers relentlessly train themselves into the habits of efficiency, of doing things once and once only, and only then if really pushed. Always looking for ways make things cheaper and faster but always the idea that things must be robust hanging over us, if an algorithm has too many shortcuts, too many special cases, too many dodgy machine specific hacks it becomes brittle and unportable. In Perl culture its said that the three virtues of a programmer are Laziness, Impatience and Hubris and while I’m not sure I agree totally its interesting to ponder.

Even our user interfaces are built around these concepts, sooner or later every user has to get their hands dirty actually typing commands into a computer (although this is again abstraction), and those of us who enjoy this kind of thing get hooked on it, simple commands that can be held conceptually inside the mind join simply together with pipelines, and we again return to efficiency, abstraction and simplicity.

“When the Patriarch McIlroy invented the pipe, he knew that it would transform software, but did not know that it would transform mind.”
The Rootless Root

When programmers I know write code (and indeed write anything) they really have three choices. They do it in vim, they do it in Emacs or they use some piss poor tool that makes Baby RMS cry. They use concrete implementations of the platonic ideal of these two editors (okay originally they was ed and teco) because they were created, nay accreted over time in environments where people really really wanted to edit text. Vim is in many ways I feel the more simple, the more fundamental, the cleaner of the two ideals. Whats that? You want to move forward 2 paragraphs and three sentences? 2}3) and thats it. You remember typing some section title starting with the word “Good”? /^good and then hit ‘n’ until you find it. Emacs, whilst fun, is really more an entire environment in which the fundamentals of manipulating text are laid bare before your eyes, and hence you can do your own crazy thing should you wish.

Our Internet is also based on these principles, abstraction, efficiency and simplicity. It also looks towards that of independence, as given away by the name. Its an Inter-Network, a joining together of various independent autonomous systems to create a greater whole and pass information about, but at its heart its clearly very independent.

Just look at how email works for example (although those with a nervous disposition may wish to look away and pretend email isn’t foul) its a giant system for passing basically unformatted text files around, these days the text files are optionally formatted, but the actual mail transports don’t care. And look at the protocol, its simple (well it got more complex, the original is like 12 pages), so simple it can be typed by hand. Sure it would be more efficient to have it all squashed down and compressed into binary code but frankly its nice to be able to simply write or debug something with just telnet. Sure it would probably be more efficient in some ways to have some kind of big post-office like system and punt things around like that, but Email is built upon the idea that “When mails going between systems on the net we do SMTP, what you do to deliver it, read it or write it on your system is none of my business, just don’t expect me to do things your way.”

This is best summed up I feel by a wonderful checklist I’ve seen in a few places on Usenet and also sometimes on Slashdot about antispam ideas, essentially it includes things like “Your idea requires spammers to play nice”, “Why should I trust your system?” and other simple problems.

Efficiency, abstraction, simplicity, robustness, independence. These are just some of the fundamentals of computing, I’m sure in my rant I’ve missed a lot out.

Anyway the point of all of this was to attempt to discuss why I think the fundamental parts of activities require pondering and in some cases deep study before a subject will start to make real sense, so ask yourself:

How am I sitting, is it comfortable, is it good for my body?

How am I reading this text? Am I staring too long, will that be good for my eyes? How am I taking this information in? Can I recall it all? Should I take notes? How to take the notes? How to arrange them, format them, link them to the original text or other thoughts in my mind?

When I’m writing what are the fundamentals of that craft? The paragraph? The sentence? The word? How do I get my point across? How do I tell the story? What kind of structure should I use for my work? How to break things up? If its typed hows my typing? Should I take a course in touch typing? Is the light and desk the right height? How will it appear to the end reader? What control do I have on that formatting, should I use it? If its hand-written hows it organised? Can I correct mistakes? Is the actual motion of my pen making just text or is it writing as an art? Is that needed here? Is this a scribble or am I writing something important?

What about food, what are the fundamentals behind preparing food? Selecting ingredients, blending flavours, physically slicing or chopping items (and what about that? The best way to handle a knife, the best kind of blade for the kind of object), and what about eating food? Best place to be? (do you want a view? Do you want to sit? Stand? Sprawl?), methods of cutting food? Blending tastes from the meal on your palate? Drinks to go with it?

I recall a story of a zen master who looked particularly smug after eating something, and when asked about it said that this was because he was full. When it was pointed out everyone else had eaten as much as him he declared this to be false, his reasoning was that when he was eating that was all he was doing. Just eating, and savouring that. Everyone else was thinking about things, shifting themselves about in their seats, looking about and chatting.

What are the fundamentals of communication and polite conversation? When I was younger I watched a few small children interacting. One of them about 5 years old taught me the fundamentals of polite conversation (which I often forget to follow). In that: (a) You are not the centre of the world, (b) Conversation flows and forks naturally, don’t drag it too hard or it’ll jump the rails and crash and (c) Wait your turn to say something if you feel you have a valid point, if the conversation drifts away before you do then let it go, at some point in the future you may get a chance to say your bit, but does it really matter?

Now note that this is just about polite chatter and enjoyable social conversation, these rules don’t hold for meetings or any situation where it might be important that people know the information.

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use
a pile driver.”
— Anonymous.

Next time your climbing a tree think of this, what are the fundamentals of climbing? How does one lift ones self with the arms, or even with the legs? How many limbs should be on the tree at once, what kind of grips are needed? How do you judge the weight a branch will take? Where should your weight be positioned, resting on which limbs? If you fall how should you try and land? How best to try and catch yourself and stop the motion?

Everything from filing to swimming to walking and breathing have fundamentals, a lot of them overlap and most are useful to know, improving many parts of your life, just a matter of working out which to study then thinking and testing, fascinating work :)

14 thoughts on “He enjoys sitting

  1. bodybag_pilgrim

    The philosophers call them unstated assumptions, and emphasise the importance of recognising and stating them – as you note, one grasps them instinctively, but it’s rare that one can utilise them to their fullest on a simple instinctual grasp.

    1. mostlyfoo

      Excellent, good to see I’m not barking totally up the wrong tree then :) Ta for the name of the thing, often handy, if only so you can try and find what others have said on the subject before hand.

      1. bodybag_pilgrim

        The name comes from the big issue with logic; that is to say, GIGO outside computing. Logic will take you from a full set of correct assumptions to a correct conclusion, but you need to be sure that set is correct and full – and you can’t do that when some of those assumptions are unstated and potentially either unrecognised or misunderstood.

  2. galenx

    Thank you for the tao of programming type links. Some days I feel I am drowning in the battle between requirements, business analysts and what I think the user needs rather than going beyond the petty to the (potential) beauty of the code itself.

    Doesn’t help that what I’m developing on is a few steps down from an actual programming language, but that’s just me arguing with my tools and not flowing with them…

    Quote of the day?

    Thus spake the master programmer:

    “When the program is being tested, it is too late to make design changes.”

    I’m going to stick that on my desk, methinks. And no, you really don’t want to ask :)

    1. mostlyfoo

      No worries, it must be said while I quite like some parts of the Rootless Root I find the original Tao of Programming to be much… deeper? Cleaner? Not quite sure what, ESR always seems to strike me as someone pushing some kind of agenda (however I’m not sure if thats because I was exposed to his blog once and it poisoned my opinion of his other works).

      A well-used door needs no oil on its hinges.
      A swift-flowing stream does not grow stagnant.
      Neither sound nor thoughts can travel through a vacuum.
      Software rots if not used.

      These are great mysteries.

  3. mr_jez


    In the main, yes, because there is always virtue in reaching for a better understanding of what you do and how you do it. As Robert Heinlein wrote, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    And yet, a scholar-magician I respect greatly often reminds his students of the words of chaos magician Dave Lee, “Insects and magicians specialise.” You see, paradoxically, seeking for the fundamentals of everything means you reach the fundamentals of nothing, whereas seeking for the fundamentals of one thing means you may just find the fundamentals of everything.

    This may seem unnatural, but then, it probably is. Recall that evolution doesn’t allow the *best* to survive, it allows the *adequate* who get there *first* to survive. Being the best takes you somewhere else altogether.

    Reyn til Runa!

    1. mostlyfoo

      [ Bah, finding it most tricky to phrase my reply to this ]

      The point I was trying to aim for was that the goal of CM was to attempt to find the root fundamentals behind the whole thing by distilling other systems down and trying to find parallels.

      In practice however I feel that people are likely to end up starting off going in all directions and then start to whittle down the bits that don’t work for them or they don’t like until they’ve reached a comfortable set that they can then delve into on a deeper level, building a personal syncratic view.

      I’m not sure its really unnatural, I suspect that theres some sort of untransmittable understanding of things that can be reached via most systems of reasonable depth, hence while I feel they’re all different they all in some way reflect the Universe in some way, and understanding the Universe was one of the goals, if you keep flitting between a number of things without ever working with one for long enough then its likely you won’t get further than the surface basics (just expressed in 12 different ways), which is part of what I was rambling about above.

      Does that make sense?

      1. mr_jez

        I getcha. These things are hard to articulate, at the best of times… ;o)

        In hindsight I neglected to explain the two sorts of fundamentals.

        There are what we might call ‘how-to’ fundamentals. How can I best climb a tree? How can I best win a game of chess? And so on.

        And then there are what we might call ‘root’ fundamentals. These are very hard to actually give examples for. If I said things like…What is a tree? Why am I climbing it? What does chess mean? …then I *might* set you off in the right direction, but I might also set you off in the wrong one!

        Most of the communication I have had with most chaos magicians has been in relation to ‘how-to’ fundamentals, and not ‘root’ fundamentals. To be the best you need to master both, and that takes a terrifying amount of hard work.


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