Friday, July 10, 2009

The world seems to be losing its geniuses

I'm not one of those fanatic Michael Jackson fans, though I like his songs and grew up with Thriller and his other hits, and I never really gave much thought about him being a genius. But sadly it is only after death the the true depth of the man sees the light of day. Although his accomplishments are the stuff of legend that many performers still aspire to, it turns out Michael Jackson was one of the biggest donors to charity and I was touched by how much people who've met him remember a humble, down-to-earth person. Another example of how media can demonize certain people or issues and unduly influence the masses into unfairly negative thoughts or reactions.

Going back to the title of this post, I just noted that a lot of famous personalities seem to be buying the farm one after the other. There's David Carradine, Farah Fawcett and Robert McNamara who all recently joined the ranks of the dearly departed. It's not that these people died, thousands die everyday, but that they are famous personalities and they're going one after the other. Okay, so what's the relationship with being famous and being a genius? Depends on how you look at it. In my book, people who become famous (or infamous) are a genius at something, even if it is at monkey business. There's something you're good enough at doing that people take notice.

If you're into the 2012 and end times mania, it makes one wonder if this is the "rapture" that's being talked about in the Bible. But even on a more ordinary level, it's still sad to see all these people go.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Our heritage: the Filipino Martial Arts

I think all of us have a rudimentary awareness of what arnis is. Arnis is also known by the terms kali or escrima. There is a lot of confusion about which is which, but essentially the naming is just semantics, because all styles share common principles and techniques. More often than not, it’s just the names of the techniques that vary from style to style. Increasingly, more people are using the term Filipino Martial Arts (FMA for short) to encompass all the fighting systems within the Philippines. For familiarity’s sake, I will interchangeably use the terms arnis and FMA.

Basically, the first thing that comes to mind is that arnis is a fighting method involving the use of sticks. Unfortunately, for most people, that is where the awareness ends. One of the most common misconceptions about arnis is that one needs a stick in order to be effective. However, the Filipino martial arts are actually one of the most complete martial arts in the world. The primary training tool is indeed the stick, and the stick can be used as a weapon in and of itself. But the stick movements also translate into blade fighting and empty-hand techniques. Outside the Philippines, Filipino knife fighting techniques are considered very effective combat arts. Foreign law enforcement and military personnel often incorporate Filipino martial arts into their melee combat training.

However, FMA do not stop with weapon fighting, as each arnis style usually incorporates hand-to-hand combat and grappling. Arnis is a warrior art. Warriors of old trained not only in the sword and spear, but also had to learn knife and empty hand fighting. The progression of training in arnis reflects this, because training starts first with weapons and only at the advanced levels are empty hand techniques introduced. After all, warriors fight with weapons first, only using the knife or empty hands as a last resort. Most people are unaware of the true depth of arnis, so much so that, if not for the efforts of a few dedicated and forward-thinking masters, the art would have become, if not extinct, then at least much obscured and forgotten by majority of Filipinos, putting it on the same level as hilot or anting-anting (i.e. people know it exists but would have no idea where to start learning or most wouldn't be interested in learning it at all) .

Aside from misconceptions about the nature of the art, other Pinoys also look down on arnis, thinking that it is unsophisticated and pang-tanod. This is really sad, because ironically enough, FMA have gained wide acceptance and popularity among foreigners. In fact, a couple of Hollywood films have featured FMA to some degree in their fight scenes. Examples include The Hunted (featuring Sayoc Kali), Equilibrium (the “gun kata” fight between Christian Bale’s character and the head bad guy towards the end of the movie is taken from FMA knife fighting exercises), The Bourne Identity (Matt Damon trained in kali for his fight scenes) and more recently, 300. And yet in the Philippines, the art continues to languish from the inattention of popular media.

One sad example I can think of is a now-concluded ABS-CBN TV series called Panday (The Blacksmith), starring Jericho Rosales. As you can infer from the title, the story is about a Filipino blacksmith who forges a magical dagger that can transform into a sword and he goes on various adventures fighting supernatural creatures. The original Panday was played by the late Fernando Poe, Jr. in a series of movies. The character, theme and setting, even from way back, are very Filipino.

So it was with great disappointment that I found out that Jericho Rosales was practicing with the RP wushu team to prepare himself for the sword fights. This is why there are signature wushu stances and moves in many of the fight scenes of the TV series.

My first reaction was, “Why wushu?” There’s nothing wrong with wushu in and of itself, but for me it was all about authenticity. After all, how would you feel if you watched 300 and saw the Spartans executing very obvious tai chi or wushu moves? But more than that, this was a chance for ABS-CBN to feature and promote the Filipino Martial Arts even indirectly, yet they squandered this chance.

I don’t know if this has something to do with colonial mentality or some sort of cultural insecurity where we automatically assume that anything Filipino is inferior to anything “imported” or foreign. But the fact remains that arnis is very much in the sidelines of public consciousness. You would find more Filipino pride, feeling and awareness in basketball or boxing (in no small part due to Manny Pacquiao). Many foreigners are surprised when they visit the Philippines, because most of them expect the Philippines to be a mecca for Filipino martial arts, with arnis gyms on almost every street corner. Yet the opposite is true, because FMA are more popular in foreign lands.

Make no mistake, arnis is still alive, but it’s not mainstream. One has to really research heavily, and no small amount of luck also plays into it when trying to look for an instructor or gym that teaches arnis. And that’s really part of the problem…accessibility.

We have many commitments in real life, and work and family take up a lot of our time. So any recreational activity we may have has to be within an easy drive or commute from home or our place of work. It’s easier to find affordable training for aikido, taekwondo, karate, and even mixed martial arts (because of the Ultimate Fighting Championship phenomena), hence more people get exposed to these arts.

So what can we really do? Well, I’m trying to do my own part in increasing awareness of Filipino Martial Arts by writing here. But I wish that the major networks like ABS-CBN or GMA-7 would do feature shows or segments on the Filipino Martial Arts. This way, if more people become aware and interested, arnis instructors would feel more confident about investing in a gym or gaining acceptance in gyms or schools. It’s more than just promoting something Filipino. It’s a part of our cultural heritage, something that we should fight to preserve just like we do the Ifugao rice terraces or Boracay.

On a personal note, I was lucky I was able to find an arnis instructor. He is now teaching me Arnis Rapado. Rapado is a Bicol word that means “to hit” or “to strike”. Master Maning Bonsa started his training in Bicol, hence the heavy Bicol influence on his style. In any case, I wrote a more detailed description of Arnis Rapado in another article, so check it out when you can.

It's really hard to find old-style arnis instructors today. Either the instructor is nowhere near your home or office, or what is being taught is arnis geared for sport or tournament rather than combat. Although tournaments are good for building camaraderie and awareness, I would rather retain the combat aspect, because that is what the art is and it's what I can practically use for self-defense. My dream is that the Philippines does indeed become a mecca for Filipino martial arts, with gyms "in almost every street corner."

Monday, April 16, 2007

An introduction to airsoft

One of my hobbies is airsoft. Through this article, I would like to introduce you to this little activity that I enjoy almost every weekend.


What is airsoft wargaming? There are two meanings. The term “airsoft” originally referred to a toy gun that shoots 6mm (or in rare cases 8mm) plastic pellets, commonly called BB pellets or BBs, using compressed air or gas. Frequently, these toy guns are 1:1 scale replicas of real firearms. The replicas are usually so good that it is difficult to tell them apart from the real thing except through close inspection. This little fact has created a complicated relationship with law enforcement agencies throughout the world (see below).

Airsoft originated in Japan during the 1970s to provide a way for hobbyists to enjoy war games, because Japan has very strict gun control laws. Today, the term “airsoft” or “airsoft wargaming” generically refers to any game of military simulation that uses airsoft guns (other examples of war gaming are paintball and the use of simunitions).

The Game

Airsoft, first and foremost, is a game of honesty. Unlike paintball, which leaves paint stains on a person once hit, airsoft pellets do not leave any distinguishing mark that will indicate if someone is hit. If one is hit in any part of the body or on any of the equipment carried, then one is considered “dead” and should walk back to the safe area (so it doesn’t matter if you are hit on the finger or on your canteen, you’re still considered hit). The only hits that are not counted are hits to your gun (the one held in your hands, not the one in your holster or slung at your back) and ricochets (e.g. if the pellet bounced on the floor or the wall before hitting you). In jungle terrain though, if you’re hiding behind thick brush and the pellets still penetrate to you, you’re considered hit. However, ricochets off tree trunks are still considered valid ricochets.

The scourge of the game is called the “zombie”. As the name implies, a player “who never dies” is called a zombie because he/she does not admit to being hit. Although encountering a zombie can be frustrating, the common advice is not to make too big a deal out of it. Just take consolation in the fact that you know you hit the guy. Starting fights can ruin your whole day, and in fact some playing sites take a very dim view of fights. You can find yourself permanently banned from a site if you’re not careful.

The existence of zombies has fuelled something of an arms race among other players by modifying their airsoft guns to be really powerful. Unfortunately, this can also make the game unsafe and painful, especially for the honest players. Besides, a powerful gun is no guarantee that one can make a zombie admit to being hit. There are cases where a zombie has been bloodied and is already writhing in the ground in pain, but refused to admit being hit.

The power of an airsoft gun is measured by the speed the BB pellet travels, expressed in feet per second (FPS). Other countries use the joule rating, but in the Philippines, FPS is the standard of measure. Obviously, the higher the FPS rating, the more powerful the airsoft gun is. The weight of the pellet should also be taken into account because a heavier pellet will travel slower, although it may hit as hard or harder than a lighter pellet moving at higher velocity. Knowing your airsoft gun’s FPS rating is important because a lot of sites impose FPS limits on airsoft guns that can be played on their sites. Go over the limit, and you can’t play.

One other practice that is discouraged is hit calling. Meaning, when you shoot a guy, you shout out to him “Hey! You’re hit already! Admit it!”. This is unfair because there have been many cases that from the perspective of the shooter it seemed he was hitting his target, but from the perspective of the target the pellets really weren’t hitting. So one should always give the benefit of the doubt. An exception would be if you were making a “knife kill” (meaning you were able to sneak up behind the target without the target knowing it). Some people sneak in until they tap the target, but usually close ranges such as 5 to 10 feet are legitimate ranges for knife kills. In this case, calling the attention of the target would be more humane than shooting from close range, especially if you have a powerful gun yourself.

On being hit, if you are not sure if a ricochet or a straight on shot hit you, then the safest bet is to admit being hit. After all, there is always the next game. Furthermore, your reputation as an honest player will serve you in good stead later on.

The Place

One of the nice things about airsoft is that it can be played almost anywhere. Game sites can range from urban (CQB and MOUT – military operations in urban terrain), to grassy fields and heavy jungle. The sizes of the playing fields also vary from a few hundred square meters to dozens of hectares. There are many game sites available that cater to whatever fancy a player may have. Some sites are located in the city, while the bigger sites are usually located in more rural areas.

Aside from the game mechanics mentioned earlier, each site may have its own special set of rules. Some sites do not put any limits on the FPS of airsoft guns in their site (i.e. it’s an open FPS site) while others put a certain limit. However, FPS limits are dependent on the availability of a chronometer (chrono for short, which costs thousands of pesos) to measure actual FPS. Without a chrono, anyone can claim his/her gun is lower FPS than it actually is, making the site effectively open FPS.

However, extremely high FPS ratings can result in pain and/or injury. It is now becoming a trend that many sites have taken the initiative of investing in a chrono and setting FPS limits to make sure that game play remains safe and fun.

Some site organizers really invest in fixing up the site, either by putting speedball-type obstacles or making sure rest rooms and charging stations for batteries is available. Other sites have only the most basic of amenities, while others are composed of nothing more than a parking / safe area and the game area.

Whatever the site, the most basic things you will find are the safe area, the marshal and the playing area. The safe area can also be the parking area. This is where players gear up or gear down, rest and where “dead” players go and wait for the next game to start. Absolutely no firing is allowed in the safe area, to prevent damage to vehicles or injury to players just arriving on the site (and thus haven’t had the chance to put on their safety gear). More organized sites have separate test fire zones where players may safely calibrate their guns.

The marshal is the referee and makes sure everything is going smoothly. He is the one who explains the game scenarios, defines the victory conditions of a game, starts and ends the games and is the final arbiter in any dispute. An alert marshal is very important in controlling the instances of zombies during play, because he can call out anyone he sees is not playing fairly. It is normal to have 2 or 3 marshals per game and ideally even more over larger game sites. Without a marshal, the game will devolve into chaos.

The playing area is where the actual games are played. Only part of the whole playing area may be used or the whole site (except for the safe area), depending on the game scenario. The marshal will define the boundary of a particular playing area. In bigger sites, several different playing areas may be designated, with a couple of simultaneous games running.

The Scenarios

Game scenarios are dependent on the terrain of a particular playing site and the creativity of the game organizers. Players are usually divided into two sides. To recognize which side one is on, marshals will designate a “banded” team (with a colored cloth band or colored tape around one of the arms) while the other side is the “unbanded” team. More well off sites will have 2 sets of bands (red and yellow, or red and blue, etc.) with a refundable fee for the band charged to the players. Marshals will try to distribute players to make sure both sides are of equal numbers as possible, though through the course of the day one side can get outnumbered as players leave or one whole team joins one side (teams usually do not like being separated into different sides unless they’re a big team).

At the start of the game day, it is usual to begin with a couple of short warm up skirmish games involving a simple head-on collision between both sides. After that, it’s pretty much up to the organizers’ imagination. Games can range from rescue the pilot/hostage, capture the flag or Alamo-type last stands. Some games even have player respawn, meaning you just go back to your side’s base instead of the safe area and either touch the flag or wait a few minutes before joining the game again.

Games typically last between 15 to 30 minutes. Longer games are possible, but not too common because newly arrived players or “dead” players don’t like to be kept waiting too long before the next game starts. However, occasionally some teams host overnight games, commonly called bivouacs, in big sites. There, the game starts and ends with a fixed time (e.g. 6 p.m. today until 8 a.m. the next day) so that combat are continuous.

Bivouacs are part camping trip, part airsoft games. It’s usually a chance for friends to live it up for a few hours with long range patrols into enemy territory, or to simply kick back and enjoy a few barbecues under the night sky.

The Guns

One of the attractions of airsoft is that the guns are 1:1 scale replicas of real firearms. Many airsoft players try to inject a form of realism into the game, by dressing up to look like a soldier and of course having a gun that looks like its real world counterpart. It’s difficult to dress up with a paintball gun since it’s very obvious that it looks nothing like what a real soldier would use.

When airsoft first started, the guns were simple cock-and-shoots, where you had to charge the spring before being able to fire. For shotguns, that meant pumping a round each time you fire, or for rifles, it meant pulling the charging handle every time. After that, gas guns were developed, though it was a bit awkward carrying a small gas cylinder with a tube running to your gun. It used to remind me of firemen or flamethrowers.

In the 90s, Tokyo Marui of Japan revolutionized airsoft by introducing the Automatic Electric Gun (AEG). These types of airsoft guns housed rechargeable batteries powering an electric motor. This electric motor would cycle a piston to expel compressed air and this compressed air would in turn propel the BB pellet outward. With the miniaturization of working parts, later model AEGs became sleeker and more real looking. Tokyo Marui also introduced the concept of high capacity magazines (commonly called “hi caps” for short), hundreds of BBs stored in a single magazine, instead of the stacked rounds of regular mags.

Nowadays, it’s usually only pistols that use gas. Some pistols have their slides retract during firing, to mimic the loading action of a real pistol. These are called Gas Blow Backs (GBBs). Other models just simply shoot without the slide retracting, thus they are called Non Blow Backs (NBB). NBBs are generally sturdier than GBBs, but GBBs are still popular because of the realism of the moving slide.

Some people convert air rifles to fire airsoft BBs. However, more and more sites are banning the use of air rifle conversions because of the extremely high FPS generated by these conversions.

Purchasing airsoft guns used to be quite expensive because Tokyo Marui (TM for short) dominated the airsoft market. All this changed with the advent of ACM (All China Made) airsoft guns. Getting into airsoft and getting the parts are now much cheaper. Therefore, some guys get to accumulate a virtual armory of airsoft guns. Some people buy airsoft guns according to their use (i.e. they have a CQB gun, a field gun, a “friendly” gun and a dress up gun), while others collect guns because they like that particular model or series. It all depends on how much money you can spare for airsoft.

In the real world, your specialty and mission determines the type of gun you would use. For example, for hostage rescue, police SWAT would use MP-5s or M4s. A sniper would use a Barrett 50 or some other bolt action rifle, and a designated marksman would use an M14 or accurized M16. However for airsoft, beyond the external looks, all airsoft guns are fundamentally the same inside. Differences in barrel length will dictate the maximum effective range, same as in the real world, but the difference is not that dramatic for airsoft.

In airsoft, one’s choice of guns is pretty much dependent on one’s taste and theme. Some teams, for example, like to go with the M16 theme. Others go for the SWAT look hence they use mostly MP5s. Others like the AK47 better than the M16. It’s all a matter of preference. Terrain will still dictate the most efficient gun to use. MP5s and M4s are better for CQB, while M14s and full size M16s are better for field games. But don’t let these choices take precedence over what you really want to use. I’ve seen guys with MP5s doing well in the field. The important thing is that you’re happy and comfortable with your choice of airsoft gun. If your gun fits your style of play then that will go a long way in letting you enjoy the game day regardless of what type of gun you use.

The Gear

Airsoft is as much a game of dress up as it is a type of war game, though some people go for the casual and rebel look. However, the one NON-NEGOTIABLE item for airsoft is eye protection. A hit to the arm can be painful but it’ll heal. However, a hit to the eye, even from a cheap cock and shoot pistol, can still blind or at least damage the eye severely. This is why all playing sites have the “no eye protection, no play” policy.

The most common form of eye protection is the mesh goggles. These are cheap and are available at any airsoft shop or seller. As the name implies, it’s made usually of an aluminum or high impact plastic mesh covering the eyes, enclosed within a plastic frame or body. Mesh goggles also usually come with a lower face plastic protector.

Standard goggles are also available. They are slightly more expensive than mesh goggles but offer better protection because the eyes are fully encased. With mesh goggles, high speed BBs can disintegrate when they hit the mesh, propelling small plastic fragments through the spaces in the mesh and into the eyes. Goggles also provide better vision, especially in low light conditions.

For those who can afford it, there are also milspec goggles available. This is my preferred form of eye protection. The price of one pair can already buy you one AEG, but between the price of the goggles and the cost of eye surgery in case the eyes get injured, the choice is clear for me. Personally, I use ESS Land Ops goggles, which are in use with the US military. It’s rated to stop shotgun pellets from at least 30 feet away, so definitely it’s more than enough for airsoft. I just wash the lenses with hand soap every few games to prevent heavy fogging.

As to other protection for the head, it’s pretty much dependent on the player. Some players go for the full head protection provided by paintball headgear while others simply use Oakley wraparound eye protection and leave the rest of the face bare. It’s all a matter of style or preference.

For body wear, most people use BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform), usually patterned after their favorite military organization (e.g. MARPAT of the US Marines, flecktarn of the German Bundeswehr, etc.). Again, it all depends on the theme that you or your team wants to project. Some people simply wear a combat vest over civvies in order to replicate the PMC (Private Military Contractor) look. But I prefer using BDUs because for one, they serve to camouflage me better and they offer more protection.

Other protective gear include vests, neck guards, groin guards (a must for men, I believe), gloves, elbow and knee pads (useful in rocky terrain, believe me) and other tidbits that you may prefer. Whether you’re willing to go the full monty, or advocate a minimalist approach to gear, it’s all a matter of how much weight you’re willing to carry or scars you’re willing to risk.

Beyond the protective gear, some people carry radios, while others have a water bladder (e.g. Camelbak) with them. Hydration is one thing many people underestimate, so for me you should be bringing as much water as you can.

One other item that is frequently overlooked is footwear. When your feet are “killing you” then it’s hard to think of anything else except to rest. That’s not a good thing when you’re out in the field playing. Aside from the physical health of your feet, if you’re not paying attention to your surroundings then that’s the easiest way to get tagged. So save yourself a few trips to the safe zone and invest in good footwear. Hiking shoes are the best, because they’re good for almost all types of rough terrain.

Airsoft in the Philippines

Airsoft made its way to the Philippines in the mid-1980s, pioneered by such groups as Action Games League (AGL) and Team Nemesis. The hobby has largely been an underground activity mainly due to some legal impediments, particularly Letter of Instruction (LOI) 1264 that bans the importation, sale and public display of replica firearms. However, owning an airsoft gun is not banned, so this impacts more on importers and sellers. Still, there have been some cases where airsoft players were accosted by police because the airsoft guns were mistaken for real firearms, though the players are usually let go with a simple reminder to keep the guns well hidden to avoid attracting attention.

Interest in airsoft has waxed and waned over the years, but the hobby has proven very resilient and in fact experienced an upsurge in players due to the introduction of cheaper airsoft guns made in China sometime in 2004, commonly referred to as ACM (All China Made) airsoft guns. Furthermore, the increase in the airsoft population meant that people with some influence have managed to join the hobby. Thus, there are now moves spearheaded by these people in the community to provide a measure of protection to airsoft players via the PNP Implementing Rules and Regulations, which as of this writing will soon be approved. Through this measure, it is hoped that airsoft can become a more open hobby for people to enjoy.

Another benefit of the increase in the airsoft community is the increasing awareness of the hobby and thus psychological acceptance among non-players. Now, instead of automatically assuming that any group of “armed” individuals roaming an empty lot are either a robbery gang or rogue military personnel, people tend to take a second look first instead of immediately calling the police. Airsoft has also been increasingly featured in media such as in several investigative television news shows and in newspapers and magazines.

It is my sincere hope, and most likely the hope of the rest of the community as well, that airsoft would become so accepted in the Philippines that direct manufacturers (such as Classic Army of Hong Kong or Tokyo Marui of Japan) can even set up a store in the mall, and that there can be more airsoft shops opened so that the guns and parts will be easier to acquire and the prices even further lowered.

On Enjoying Airsoft

For me, airsoft is one of the few activities that have something for everyone. Many people have different reasons for playing airsoft. Some are milsim (military simulation) nuts that require as much accuracy to real world gear and tactics as possible (including the use of regular mags instead of hi caps to reduce noise signature when moving). Some are casual players who are just in it because of their friends, or just to get the exercise. Others buy airsoft guns just for collection purposes, while others are diehard techies who tinker endlessly with their guns or dress up their guns. Some people like to get into a team, while others prefer to go the lone wolf route. Whatever your main purpose for getting into airsoft, there’s a niche for you.

One advice though, try to be sensitive to your co-players because differing philosophies can result in conflict during discussions. I’ve witnessed, for example, a case within a team where there was a group of milsim fanatics who wanted to really train in tactics and movement, while another group within the same team was under the casual player category and questioned the need for training. This created a lot of conflict and led to the break up of the team. So make sure you understand your own reasons for playing, but don’t necessarily impose your own reasons on others. In any case, the most important thing is that whatever your reasons for going into airsoft, you’re an honest player. That way, everyone gets to enjoy the day.