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Asante Lawla is a London-based inventor, corrective exercise specialist and a martial artist who is currently working on an edge alignment device to help people learn to cut better. He practises an Indian battlefield martial art called Shastar Vidiya, which translates as ‘the science of weapons’. Finding that getting hold of the materials needed for cutting training to be expensive, time-consuming and messy, he developed a prototype for a new type of tameshigiri trainer. It uses lasers attached to your sword which makes marks on a target so you can see your edge alignment – something you cannot do with tatami mats or water bottles. Asante has a crowdfunding campaign that runs until the end of August 2022. See the crowdfunding page for all the details of the tameshigiri trainer, how it works and the status of the campaign: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/tameshigiri-trainer#/
The yoga practice Asante refers to early on in the episode is this one: https://www.shastarvidiya.org/teaching/sanjam_kiriya_variyam.html
Asante’s Shastar Vidiya Brixton Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ShastarVidiyaBrixton
GW: I’m here today with Asante Lawla who is an inventor, corrective exercise specialist and a martial artist who is currently working on an edge alignment device to help people learn to cut better. So without further ado, Asante, welcome to the show.
AL: Thanks for having me.
GW: It’s nice to meet you. Just so we can orient everybody, whereabouts are you?
AL: I'm in London, UK.
GW: Okay. Any particular bit of London?
AL: Oh, okay. I'm in Bromley at the moment, but I'm actually moving quite to the outskirts of Gravesend, which is just out of London. But I'm in Bromley.
GW: Okay. So I mean, London is huge, and it is basically a giant collection of villages. So how long is it going to take you to get from Gravesend into the centre of London?
AL: Oh, probably only about 40 minutes to an hour.
GW: That's pretty quick.
AL: Yeah. I mean, even going across London by public transport, you can easily get anywhere within an hour. It's driving that is the problem because of the traffic most of the time.
GW: Right. Yeah, because I live in Ipswich and I can get into Liverpool Street in about an hour on the train. And then I can get anywhere else in about the next half an hour or so. So yeah, property prices are a lot better in Ipswich than they are in central London.
AL: This is the only thing. I mean everyone tells you to move out of London for better house prices and the rest of it and then you realise if you're still within that sort of London catchment area prices are insane. So you really have to go quite far out before it starts making a difference.
GW: Indeed. So hopefully your new invention will make you so much money you can live wherever you want. We're going to get to that in a little bit. But I thought I'd ask you first, what is a corrective exercise specialist? What do you do?
AL: So it's a personal trainer that focuses on postural misalignments and ailments and how to correct those using some sort of strategy to try and avoid or even, what's the word, repair people's injuries. So if you've got bad knees, bad hips, bad backs. A lot of times it's not because of any particular injury. It might be because your posture is causing that and that you may have forward head carriage, which is putting pressure on your lower spine, which is causing certain muscles to essentially be under active when they should be doing a certain job, they're not doing it anymore. And the strategy is how do we turn those muscles back on? How do we make sure your posture is corrected so you don't have those injuries anymore and you don't cause further injuries by leading more and more into those fundamental misalignments in your posture, essentially.
GW: It's a little bit like a physiotherapist.
AL: No. So physiotherapist would be they'd give you specific stretches and they'd look at stuff more in-depth and like in terms of physiotherapy, essentially like manipulation and stuff like that. Whereas us it's more you need to work on building strength in your pecs and stretching out your lats or anything like that. It's more is more general or is a physio is going to look at manipulations. We're going to say is like a general plan that you need to stick to fix this postural problem you have.
GW: Okay. So if there was, say, two or three exercises you think everybody should be doing, what would they be?
AL: Probably squats just because they tend to find all of the different problems you have, if your knees cave in, if your feet go flat, you've got too much strain on the lower back, upper back. You'll find out very quickly if you start doing squats. Push-ups, just because they're great for practising getting your shoulders set in the right position. Because a lot of people, especially today, because you sit around computers and phones, you tend to have your shoulders rolled forwards and your neck down, whereas if you practise push-ups quite often, you generally gravitate towards better shoulder position because it's going to force you to have those shoulders back. And lastly, probably some sort of breathing exercise, to be honest, I'd say a lot of people don't really focus much on how your breath affects your posture and how it affects your state of mind.
GW: I'm so glad you said that. I've been banging the breathing drum for like 25 years now. I've produced an online course for breathing for martial artists, and it's been like the core of my practise since forever. But most people doing historical martial arts, at least, don't have any kind of a breathing practise.
AL: Yeah, it's unfortunate because it does make a huge difference in terms of especially posture, because if you breathe from your upper chest, for example, when you get tired and you start flexing your mid spine, especially if you do historical martial arts and wear armour or anything like that, you're going to notice how much of a difference that makes to your stamina and just pain in the body. Whereas if you learn to breathe more from the abdomen, at least, there's better ways of breathing around. It's just going to be a massive difference to your stamina and just how comfortable you feel generally. And your state of mind of course.
GW: Yeah. I mean, yeah, just getting your breathing under control and breathing more efficiently, which just is this massive boost to aerobics performance just because you're getting more air for less effort.
AL: Yeah. That as well. Yeah. Pretty much the one that people tend to overlook, though, is how much sort of intra-abdominal pressure and how you breathe affects that. Yes, you can have like a lot of oxygen intake and you get a lot more energy because you're breathing well. But if you're breathing in a way that is just not efficient or it's putting a lot of strain on your back you can be losing out on quite a bit of that energy because you have to compensate because you're constantly altering your body's equilibrium, if you like. So you always have and tighten and micro-manage all these muscles that are slowly burning away. Whereas if you do any kind of meditation, real meditation practise where they teach you how to sit and breathe and all that kind of stuff, it just massively helps getting you into that really good movement patterns, really good posture generally.
GW: Yeah, I think we are of one mind on this, but I think what we ought to do is get together into that in the same physical place and go over some breathing stuff. Because I think that would be really interesting. I'm coming at it from a martial arts perspective. Most of the breathing exercises I've been taught I've got from martial arts instructors of various kinds, but I've also developed a whole load myself. I used to play the trumpet, which gives you a particular kind of approach to breathing, like a very long exhale for instance. And I've been doing things like Wim Hof breathing.
AL: That is a famous one.
GW: Yeah. And that's, that's based on something called tomo meditation.
AL: Where you heat your body. I think it's from Nepal.
GW: Yeah, I think it's Nepal. So what does your physical practise look like?
AL: My own training or the martial arts that I do?
GW: Your own training.
AL: So my own training I do a system of yoga. So it's called 'Sanjam Kiriya Variyam'. And it's essentially a bunch of exercises that teach you how to move efficiently, that really work well with the corrective exercise stuff I've done. So it's really just squats, push-ups and sit ups, but you do them in specific ways to stretch you back and ensure you are not overloading the knees. And it's really, really lines up to corrective exercise, but it's just there's an element of breathing and stretching and how do you use that in combat? So the way you stand, the way you sit, the way you squat, how does that apply to combat specifically, how do you make sure your spine isn't going to be taken advantage of because you're leaning too far forward, so you're not leaning back enough and all this kind of stuff.
GW: I've never heard of that particular kind of yoga. So would you send me a link and I'll put it in the show notes so that people can look it up and get an example.
AL: Yeah, sure. I'll try and find something. I think there's something on our class website about it. I don't know how deep it is, but yeah, it's essentially yoga just with a more fighting focused curriculum.
GW: You don’t normally associate yoga with hitting people. It’s kind of the opposite.
AL: But you also have you have like the archer pose, you have the warrior pose. Some of the images of like Indian gods and goddesses doing postures that you see in yoga, but they're doing it in a fighting sense. So it's almost like that element. It's there in things like Kali. But yeah, it's there. It's just not as practised in the West because in the West you think of yoga as mainly just for relaxation and just general mental health and body health and the rest of it.
GW: Okay. So what sort of martial arts do you do?
AL: I do Shastar Vidiya, which is an Indian battlefield martial art, historic martial art, swords, spears, shields, all that kind of stuff. And it's yeah, it's really focussed on the battlefield context, which makes it super interesting. If you've come from a duelling background, whether it be like boxing or fencing or something, and this is more like, okay, we're going to be fighting in groups we can’t sit back, there are certain priorities. So for example in boxing your main priority was hitting the guy because you can win by scoring as many hits as you like or you can win by knocking the guy out. In battlefield combat, scoring a hit is great if it gives you an advantage and if it pushes the opponents back. If you scored a hit but it didn't really do anything because you remember people wear armour and wouldn’t die instantly. Then you're better off doing something that gives you some sort of tactical advantage than pushing someone back or gaining ground or moving in a way that just forces people into certain corners. So your team-mates essentially can help you out. So it is just a very different approach. And obviously so there's a lot of health benefits. It's like there's a lot of things you can't afford to do because you're not fighting 5 minutes or 5 minutes every few months. It's like you're expected to fight every day for several weeks, which means you tend to line up, in terms of body mechanics, we line up more with people like, I don't know, people that work fields, people that use sledgehammers and things like that. It's just a very different way of looking at combat coming from a boxing perspective where I came from.
GW: So where did you come across this art?
AL: And I think as you saw in the paper, either in the paper, or it was on the TV. And at the time I was doing Wing Chun had been doing some for about five years and previously had done boxing and Thai and a little bit of kickboxing just from my youth. And you get to a certain stage and a lot of arts start seeming quite similar, not exactly similar, but that the concepts keep coming up. And I just wanted to try something different. I saw it pop up. I went to this seminar and yeah, just the stuff he showed me, the movements themselves were pretty simple, but the concept behind the movements, I was like, that makes so much sense. I'd never really thought of combat in that way before. So stuff like reflexes, they say in battlefield combat, any sort of technique or approach to combat that relies heavily on reflexes or sight in general isn't favourable because on the battlefield you can't really see an attack coming or you can't pick out an individual attack when it’s most optimal.
GW: Yeah, particularly if you're in armour.
AL: Particularly if you're in armour. So it's more like how do I control the space of combat using timing? And if I'm approaching at this speed and I think he's approaching at that speed there is going to be a window of opportunity for attack. And how do I make sure I've got the highest chance of surviving the attack? I mean, you can always say, oh, if I've got, like the best skills in the world, I'll survive any attack. I'll just practise it a million times. But you do get that, people go, you know, but if you just practise it a lot, I'm like, yeah, you can practise every technique a lot. And there are people that can pull off pretty much any technique out there. But if you said, statistically, how many people will pull that off based on how many openings you have and how much margin there is for error it kind of changes. And Shastar Vidiya builds on the extreme opposite end where it says we the skill is there and we want to have skill, but we don't really want to rely on skill. Skill is something that saves you if you're in a pinch or allows you to carry out more complicated or more risky strategies. But generally you go on the side of strategy and you say, is there some sort of formation I can take or some sort of timing thing that I can use to make my chances of survival increase massively in an unknown? In that I don't know him, he doesn't know me and we're just going to run to each other and one of us is going to die kind of thing. That's really interesting.
GW: So where does this come from?
AL: It comes from India.
GW: Well, yeah, it is a big place which period?
AL: So you're going to be testing my knowledge now. So it's actually ancient. So they say it dates back in the art’s history, at least that dates back a few thousand years. But the one that is essentially our school is from the 18th century, from northern India and the Punjab area. So the Sikhs were the custodians, I guess, but it does predate the Sikhs. So it's taught by the Rajputs and the Nagas and various kingdoms before that.
GW: Is it related to Gatka?
AL: No. So it's like completely the opposite.
GW: Yeah. Because Gatka is like the Sikh duelling art.
AL: Yeah, exactly. So that's like a duelling / exhibition kind of thing. So there's loads of twirling and clashing of blades and really cool to watch, but it's just very different, a different approach to combat entirely.
GW: Okay, if people think of Sikh martial arts, Gatka is going to be the one they think of first. Almost certainly.
AL: Yeah, pretty much. This one's fairly unknown, unfortunately. Well, or fortunately, I don't know. Yeah. Gatka is the ones that most people associate with Sikhs. But as you say, India's a big place. And there were a lot of Sikhs and one of the arts was Shastar Vidiya. Gatka, I think, apparently was practised also in parts of Afghanistan and stuff like that, or at least like similar sort of fighting style with sticks. And then some of it crossed over into India and became associated with Sikhs.
GW: So why do you think the battlefield art survived like a full century after rifles and tanks and planes and things made of all that kind of thing obsolete.
AL: Hard to say, really, because they didn't really survive even in India, I think they're only a few practitioners of the art and battlefield arts in general or just traditional arts across the world pretty much died out. But I think the reason why they might have stuck around in India, like Shastar Vidiya itself is India's got a ton of weapons just culturally. They've got like a warrior cast thing dating back thousands of years and. I think that has helped to keep the culture alive, at least in some of the knowledge, in the same way that yoga is alive because it's linked to the culture, it’s linked to religion. So, you know, it's just harder for it to die out. And a lot of people want to change it because of those reasons. From a practical perspective, I just think it's super in depth, they really go into like, how do you do things specifically and why do you do them. In more depth than I've done in other arts, at least in like boxing and Thai.
GW: It is really unusual that I speak to someone who practises a martial art I have never heard of. That is really unusual. I need to get myself over to Gravesend for you to show me this stuff because I actually want to see it. It sounds fascinating.
AL: Even if you just look at it from a scholarly sort of lens and you don't you want to practise it, it's very interesting you like. I can totally see why they've done this and why they developed these weapons and why they move that way.
GW: So I'm also really curious about how it has survived because like the historical martial arts I practise have survived because while the art itself died out, somebody wrote it down in a book and the book itself has survived. So we know that, for example, in 1400 in Italy, this is how at least some people were doing knightly combat because in 1400 Italy an Italian trainer of knights wrote it all down with illustrations and everything. So we can date it precisely and fit in with everything else we know about period. So we have like this window into the past through the book. But where we have martial arts that survived through master-student transfer then every generation changes slightly, or even changes it quite a lot. So this is fascinating for me to see. I am imagining that this has been taught from teacher to student. But there's going to be historical records of it being used 200 years ago, 300 years ago or whatever. And it'd be fascinating to compare how the modern practise matches up with what was being written about it 200 years ago, 400 years ago or whatever. That would be fascinating.
AL: That would be interesting. And I found even in my own reading about different muscles, a person's perspective also can change people's understanding quite a lot. I can show one movement and it looks identical to someone else doing it, but the way it's applied is so different and the mentality behind it, how it's applied, can change the entire flow of combat. The easiest way to explain it was we've got like a boxing style in Shastar Vidiya, which is, you know, it's essentially like boxing. You punch and you kick and whatever. And one time I was sparring with my teacher and he said, the difference between me and you is like, you're really just trying to hit me with I'm trying to get into a position where I can grab your head and try and break it or something. Your main target is my face. My main target is the back of your neck. So it changes. So even though the movements can look similar enough to someone that doesn’t have a trained eye, just the way he was approaching me was completely different to how any other fighter approached me. I'm not used to people trying to target the back of my head because in boxing, Muay Thai, pretty much every other sport you're not allowed to. Because, you know, you after years of doing it that way. So yeah, there's that element as well, that changes things quite a bit.
GW: Yeah, it would. And when you have rules sets that say you can't hit the back of the head, for instance, which makes sense. I mean, people die if you get hit in the back of the head. And if you're trying to make a sporting contest. The classic example is sporting wrestling systems pin people on their back, like judo. You win by pinning somebody on their back. But the thing is, if you're actually, like trying to take down an armed assailant, you need to get them on their front because if they’re on their back, they still have four weapons available, at least, both feet, both hands. But if you put them on their front they can’t move.
AL: I actually went to a Budo, I forget the name of the art, but it was a seminar on this kind of stuff and it was a seminar aimed towards the police. So it was I guess it was a bit of jujitsu and judo. I don't know this exact roots, but it immediately changed my understanding of judo. I used to think throw people on their back, pin them and whatever. It's cool, but in a way it turns out to end up in the grapple like some type of BJJ situation. Whereas this guy was, here's some original techniques, where we're going to land him on their head. I'm always going to try get them on their front so they don't have access to weapons. And suddenly I was like, Oh, that's so efficient. Why didn't I learn this? You look at judo and you assume you kind of superimpose anything you see that looks like judo, you superimpose those ideas onto it and it's like, no, no, this is totally different. Even though the movements look same, it's like, I can hip throw you, land you on your back, or I can hip throw you to land on your head, which looks almost identical. But when someone's doing it to you, it's completely different.
GW: Yeah, like we do have in the art of arms I practise from the 15th century, we have a throw where you basically throw somebody on their back. But when you do it properly according to the text, you're actually getting them vertical and dropping them on the back of the head or their shoulder. Which is not the same thing at all.
AL: Yeah. Yeah. And it's frustrating almost, sometimes you do get like these sort of, you know, hyper MMA fans going, oh, there is no point learning traditional arts because they don't work in the MMA, I'm like you’re missing so much knowledge because even just police like the stuff they could learn is not going to be the same that you'd learn in an MMA, you know?
GW: Well, because MMA again, it's adapted to being a gladiatorial spectator sport.
AL: Yeah, exactly.
GW: Right. And nothing wrong with that. Like judo, the reason they pin them on the back is because it makes for a better fight.
AL: Yeah, right. And the people that bring in money, you know, stars or whatever, you don't lose them to injury and whatnot. This is one of the main sort of things around the rules because back in the day to day they didn’t care and suddenly they this guy was bringing in tens of thousands of fans and now he died. So they brought in all these rules to try to try and keep the combatants alive.
GW: Yeah. And I know there are so many of these of, I guess, incentives around how the art is created, that if you're not aware of them, all sorts of things get taken for granted or just don't make sense.
AL: Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much.
GW: You know, we have an assumption that everyone has a knife, because everyone did. If you're carrying a sword, you also have a dagger and probably also an eating knife. And somebody who's wearing a chainmail shirt and a sword and a dagger is not considered to be looking for trouble. They're not really armed. They're just dressed to go out. How are you going to restrain somebody like that? If they can get a hand on that dagger, you could lose your femoral artery very quickly.
AL: Yeah, it's the same with us. We always assume they have a dagger. I can't speak on this. But they say in India, at least and in a lot of places, it is still like that in that when you get into fights. Machetes and daggers and stuff do come out. And the idea of unarmed fighting doesn't really exist in certain places. It's quite new.
GW: Honestly, it doesn't make any sense to me. Like we are tools using animals. Why on earth would you not use a tool if you want to fight someone? It's like, that's insane. That's like trying to do woodwork with your fingers.
AL: This is it. In fact, I was having a conversation with someone and they said, Yeah, but MMA’s real fighting. And I was like, for hundreds of years, if you didn't use a knife, it wasn't even considered real fight. It was considered a game or a sport because the real fighting was always with weapons. There was no concept of fighting without weapons.
GW: Yeah. And so I'm assuming that you have an interest in cutting with sharps, correct? Is that part of the martial arts you practise?
AL: Yeah. Though traditionally they practise on sugar cane and obviously when they are cooking meat they practise on animals when they're preparing them. But in our art specifically, we don't have replacements, you know, I don't know, I guess over here, a lot of people buy tatami mats and stuff like that. And try and buy sugar cane to cut, you're going to be in debt pretty quickly.
GW: Yeah, you can't get green sugar cane in Britain very easily. If you can, it’s expensive.
AL: Yeah exactly. So I did try some tameshigiri, the tatami mats, and bottles and newspaper. And it was mostly fine. It was just the prep that used to kill me because I work full time, I teach classes, I'm trying to do my business stuff on the side. Obviously the corrective exercise stuff on the side and yeah, just spending 4 hours or whatever it was trying to prep these mats to get an hour worth of training. It's just like, ugh.
GW: I used to run cutting seminars and we would use tatami. And what I would do is I would get students to show up the day before, two days before the seminar for a mat preparation session after class. And they would do and then they would go into the tubs to soak and then like two days later they're ready. Then we have a cutting seminar. And so yeah, I didn't do it myself. I got the students to do it all.
AL: Then you’ve got the clear-up as well. All the little bits that come off.
GW: Of course. I mean come on. There have to be some perks to being the instructor.
AL: I tried clay once, that was probably the worst because I've done it indoors thinking, oh, if I put some sheets down and stuff, it'll be fine. You end up finding clay in the randomest places.
GW: Yeah, little bits of it fly everywhere.
AL: Yeah, they fly everywhere and months later I still find them bits of clay on things and I was like, where the hell?, how did they get like four metres over there? But that's kind of what led to me creating the tameshigiri trainer just like I need to get good at this and I need to find a way to do it efficiently.
GW: Okay. So tell us about this tameshigiri trainer, what exactly is it?
AL: So the tameshigiri trainer, it's a device that you click on to your sword and it projects two lasers, one that's perpendicular, so in front of the edge of your blade and one slightly in front of that. And that way when you move the sword, sorry, there's a target that reacts to these lasers. And when you swing the sword towards the target, you get lines left on the target that tell you whether your sword was kept straight during the cut, which is essentially the most difficult part of cutting training.
GW: So basically, it gives you a visual reference to tell you about your edge alignment.
AL: Yeah. You said that way better than I did.
GW: Feel free to copy and paste it out of the transcription and use it in your marketing materials.
AL: I told you, I do tend to ramble. I find it hard to cut my sentences down. So you get visual reference for your edge alignment. Man, that was so much better.
GW: So you say you hang this sort of white screen thing on the wall, and you sort of swing your sword at it without touching it. Do the lines persist on the target after the sword has passed through it?
AL: For a few seconds. For a few seconds. So they kind of stayed.
GW: I was looking at your Indiegogo campaign for this. I was thinking, well, that looks interesting, but I don't really get how that's gonna be helpful because basically you just have like a white screen and you pass some blink-safe laser across it, it just makes a very brief line and is gone as fast as your sword stroke is gone. So you found some way of making the laser do some kind of reaction in the target so the line persists long enough that you can actually see it after the sword blow?
GW: So if I may say so, that is fucking clever.
AL: Yeah. The funny thing is, I did come up with it for swords, but I actually saw it online. I was looking for like various things to practice training with, didn't find anything. And then randomly there was a guy on YouTube using an ultraviolet laser to write on some photoluminescent glow in the dark plastic or something. And I was like, oh, that persists for quite long. Then I thought if I could somehow figure out a way to use it with a sword, I could get accurate information about my aim, angle and all that stuff, just using some lasers. And I had the idea. I did study engineering previously and technical drawing and stuff, but then I took a course on technical design using 3D software, bought a 3D printer, and within I think about two or three weeks I had a prototype and was mucking around with it and I was like, this is perfect. It has solved the issue because now I can do 2, 3 hours practise before going to bed or just while I'm listening to an audiobook or something and get those moving patterns or set in stone rather than doing a few hours of cutting and then going away and practising and not knowing whether you're right or wrong and coming back a week later. Because even if you do have space and time and money. It's just a lot of effort and just so much effort to get a stand out and set it up and whatever.
GW: Yes, there's force feedback from a target that you're not getting with this thing.
AL: There is.
GW: But edge alignment takes care of most of that.
AL: I was going to say if your edge alignment is good. I mean, you know, obviously you run seminars, generally you don't feel that much resistance. You shouldn’t. You might feel a little bit of a thud. But it's not like you have to force the weapon through. And if you're using anything else, like bottles or what a lot of people use, you don't really feel anything at all. You just kind of go straight through. You don't notice it at all. Yeah. I mean, you do lose out on force feedback, but even when you are practising, force feedback isn't necessarily helpful in the corrective exercise sense in that you get force feedback for a microsecond. Whereas if you're training people to do squats, for example, you'll put them on a stability board that basically wobbles as they go down, which gives them that through the entire movement on the way down, on the way up. And that's how they get better at doing a squat. You give someone a split second of feedback and walk away and then give them a split second again. It's not really the same thing.
GW: No, that's a good point.
AL: So whether you are coaching or using a device, I think generally one of the concepts in corrective exercise is you can't teach someone to do something in the same way, that you can't force a horse to drink water, so you can bring a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink. You have to create a context in which you get enough feedback that they start correcting it themselves.
GW: Exactly. I'm in the process of producing an online course about how to teach martial arts because most historical martial arts are taught by people with no kind of pedagogical training at all. The model I use for how to teach is how children learn to walk, right? You don't sit a child down and give them a half hour lecture on kinematics and physiology and anatomy and posture and all of that crap. What happens is the child sees what they want to do, they have a goal, and they have a model to copy - other people walking around. They think “I want to do that” and they start trying to get themselves onto their feet. And gravity is providing continuous, absolutely consistent feedback all the time. And every time they make a mistake, they fall over. And every time they get it right, they get to walk a bit before they make a mistake and fall over and eventually pretty damn quickly, given how complex walking is, it is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. But really quickly, these tiny little children learn to walk. And that's it. So our job as instructors is to create the environment and the feedback mechanism. So the student, has a goal of learning to do swords. So you give them a model of how to do it and a feedback mechanism which tells them in real time immediately whether they're getting it right or not, which in our case is, if they're getting it right according to that level, then they hit you and don't get hit. And if they get it wrong, they fail to hit you and they get hit and it’s immediate. And it doesn't require explanation. It's just that you got hit or you didn't. And yeah, that's exactly it.
AL: That is actually how I teach a lot of form and stuff. I mean, because I did do Kung Fu for a little bit and you have to do katas and obviously Wing Chun you have to do katas and whatnot and I personally hate that. I mean, I don't hate that training, I hate using that to teach beginners because I always find in isolation, it's like trying to integrate an entire movement without learning how it feels under pressure first. You learn the form, then try it under pressure and it completely falls apart. And it's like, well, if you only pressure test it at the end, then that's going to happen. So instead, what I tend to do set up grappling exercises where the objective is just to push the person back and just physics wise and biomechanics wise, if you can't push the person back, you haven't got the right form. Your legs are in the wrong position, your shoulders are in the wrong position, your back’s in the wrong position. And when you start getting good at it without my input, then I start saying, okay, you could make this better by doing this, and then once you have finally got it, then I say, now here is a form that you can practise. Otherwise, if I gave you the form first, it would confuse you. You just have no idea why you are doing this and you get lost.
GW: I use forms in these syllabuses that I create, for teaching the historical arts that I teach. We very often have forms, but the way I teach it is, I mean, because most forms are basically a sequence of techniques. So we do the technique first and they practise the technique in various ways, and then they take one half of the technique, and they do that on their own to improve their ability to do the technique with a partner. Because with a partner, you have to be careful and not hurt your training partner. If your partner is imaginary, you can go as hard and as fast as you like and not worry about it. And then they use that solo practise to improve that performance of the exercise. And then what we do is we take a whole bunch of those solo halves of techniques and they're strung together into a form for each step is taught as a pair drill first. And then we have what's called the syllabus form applications drill, which is that you start in the middle and you have maybe two or three friends whose job is to give you the right feed from the right direction at the right time. So you just do the form and but each time you're moving your sword, you're doing it in the context of a training exercise.
AL: In the context of pressure, of some sort of feedback.
GW: Otherwise, just form on its own, it’s pointless.
AL: Yeah. And then what you find is people trying to shoehorn the form into situations, which can work. It's just, it could be working in wrong ways. Sometimes you can get things to work, but that's not really how it is intended to be used, which is bad in itself, but it can lead to like cascades of problems down the line because especially if it's a fundamental movement, it's going to cause problems. So that’s how I teach as well. I'll teach little pieces of it. Then I'll say play with it, add pieces on slowly, slowly, and eventually you can do it. You don't have like set forms in shastar vidiya. We actually have kind of like freestyle forms. And the idea is that your teacher will mark you on how many times you repeat yourself, how comfortable you look doing those movements, etc., etc., because they say their sort of philosophy is that if you learn to do a specific response, then you become predictable and your ability on the fly kind of suffers when it should be kind of like dance. I guess we still the best dancers on the guys that learn it routine and just do it. The guys where you can score music and they dance amazingly perfect technique without any instruction, just without them using their memories.
GW: Yeah, it is different every time.
AL: Yeah, and it's different every time. In fact, one time a teacher put me in a lock once, he said, see that lock, he hasn't done it in like four or five years, but the opportunity presented itself and he didn't think about doing it. You just kind of do it because your body knows how to cause someone else pain. So getting back to the tameshigiri trainer, that's kind of was aiming for, I just need something that can give me constant feedback. I can practise all the time.
GW: And it's immediate.
AL: Yeah, it's immediate. It's not like I have to cut, look at the target and go, did I scoop? When did I scoop? Did I scoop down, did I scoop up? Sometimes it's not even that easy to tell because you could be changing in elevation rather than actually twisting and that can cause things to twist in that rather than my hand just straight splitting up and down. And yes, it's been really, really helpful just for my own training. At which point my friends were like, dude, you have to put this out there.
GW: So have you yet had the experience of getting a student to cut tatami or whatever, and then get him to go away and train with this device for a bit and then come back and test on the tatami. Have you done that yet?
AL: I haven't yet. I haven't done it one to one, like someone just trying it out and taking it with them. They kind of got addicted after a while they got pretty good. And I was like, that didn't take long at all. I was thinking I didn't like when I got it, specifically, I don't know what you guys would call it. Let’s say your sword is in your right hand. You go from the bottom right to the top left, that cut is really, really awkward I guess. And I didn't even realise how badly I was doing it until I used the thing and then I corrected it quite quickly. But it's quite cool to see someone that had never done any swordsmanship. They were just in my house. Oh, let me try, let me play around with it. Yeah, go for it. And quite quickly, they got addicted and then they started getting pretty good on some of the cuts. And I was like, dude, you’re doing that pretty well. You've never done any swordsmanship before, which is again, kind of goes back to what we were saying about the feedback.
GW: Am I right in thinking that at the moment it's just on one edge? So if you have a two edged sword and you want to practise cutting with the back edge, you would just turn the sword around and do it that way.
AL: No, you can still do the back edge. All it is, is essentially it's just two lasers, so as long as they're linear, you know that the sword is moving in a straight line. If they're not colinear, it's not moving in a straight line. So whether the sword's upside down it doesn't really make that much of a difference. The only thing is, if you're using it backwards and you're going to go from one cut and quickly go to another cut, because the trailing laser is going to be quite far behind the edge laser, if you like. If you just wanted to practise that technique, I'd say practise that whole movement and like finish it. Don't like cut it short and go into another one and then once you know you've got it, then change or obviously flip the laser thing around to do that.
GW: Oh you could maybe fit two onto your sword, one on the true edge and one on the back edge.
AL: You could. It's expensive though I don't know.
GW: That here I am trying to find a use case for people to go buy two instead of just one, and here you are.
AL: I’m trying to help them save money. But no, you could definitely do that.
GW: At what stage of production are you in?
AL: So we've finished a prototype. We've got like some units that we've sent out. We wanted to send a bunch more, but we had an issue with the PCB because of the design.
GW: What is the PCB?
AL: At the printed circuit board. The circuit board. Yeah, there was an issue where it was supplying more voltage to the lasers than it should have because I asked the designer to make it limited to ten volts and they made it 11.5 or something. And it blew a bunch of are laser components. So we got a prototype and we're now working with a company in the US to finalise an industrial design which is going to be sent off to manufacturers to sort of mass produce. It has been designed with industrial manufacture in mind already. But this is more like putting the final touches on it.
GW: So do you have a background in industrial design?
AL: I studied manufacturing at school and I studied engineering, but I don't have a background in manufacturing since I've been working. Working, I've been working on the railway.
GW: How do you mean?
AL: I work on the railway doing inspection mainly and maintenance and stuff like that.
GW: So I just assumed that this is your full time job. I didn't realise you had a proper job on top of all this.
AL: No, no, I've got a proper job doing that to a 9 to 5, 8 to 4. And then I do this stuff in the evening as well as my classes, as well as my 1 to 1s and stuff. So yeah, you can see why rolling mats and stuff would be a real pain. Yeah, it's a massive pain.
GW: So is this your first product?
AL: I've got some other products, but this is the first one I'm doing seriously and taking it to market on mass scale, but I’ve designed lots of other stuff in my own time.
GW: Anything you want to tell us about? Or is it all secret?
AL: I’m designing some gym equipment that's designed to correct a lot of different ailments that people have and a lot of different movement functions, dysfunctional movement patterns. I forget, there is a proper term for it, but yeah, I’m designing like a bunch of gym equipment that's going to be about my second venture. Even if this doesn't do okay I’ll probably do that next.
GW: Oh. And how is your campaign going?
AL: Pretty good. I think at the moment we're nearly at $30,000 U.S. £25,000. Yeah, I’m really happy with so far. It's actually doing a lot better than I thought. We kind of launched it maybe a little bit too early because I'm thinking, oh, a few people will see it and we'll have time to sort of smooth over the rough edges, like make sure the copy and stuff is right. And then like the first few days it went out to Matt Easton and he got to test out quite early. And then he showed on his page and immediately we had a flood of people and we were like, oh, we’ve got to rush around then like it was like proper because yeah, we just didn't, didn't expect such a quick response and such a good response.
GW: That is great. And what made you decide to put your weight behind this particular project?
AL: Just from experience, I know that if you're not passionate about something and it's killing you putting a lot of hours into it, you'll start to burn out quite quickly. With martial arts, it's something I do for fun anyway. Sometimes I do martial arts to relax. I’ll put on the TV and I'll just practise martial arts. So a project that was directly related to my passion and things that I do for fun. I knew that I wouldn’t burn out too quickly. I knew that I'd have a lot of steam, a lot of fuel in the tank to make sure I get to the finish line.
GW: Okay. And how far away are you from actually getting it into production?
AL: So, hopefully, this is just an estimation that most manufacturers give you. They say six months from design to manufacturing. So we started in June with this company and we're hoping to be ready by December. But, you know, that's fingers crossed. That's like best case scenario.
GW: So, okay, are you going to getting it manufactured in China.
AL: I’m not sure. So I imagine we're manufacturing in the U.S. only because the U.S. is our biggest market, or at least maybe it's manufactured in some parts and manufactured in China. So maybe some components will come from China and maybe assembled in the US. But I know from speaking with the manufacturers that because of the whole China US trade thing at the moment and a bunch of other stuff going on in terms of trade, sometimes the shipping costs can kill you, even if it's manufactured in China, you end up paying insane amounts just to get to where you want it to be. So yeah, our biggest market will be the US. After that, the EU.
GW: So like I make about 80% of my income from the US sales of books and courses. It’s like sword central, the United States.
AL: Swords, guns, weapons in general too, because it's part of their culture, I think.
GW: Okay. So I'm kind of curious because I’ve produced various projects. And one of the more sort of outside of my usual comfort zone was a card game which accurately models my interpretation of this 15th century Italian knightly combat that I was talking about earlier. So if you play the game, you can reproduce the sword fight in the game in real life without any logic problems. It tracks absolutely accurately. And more often than not, you can actually point to the exact bit in the book where you have just done the thing that was said in the book. So it's like really sort of nerdy and specific and the general public doesn't care. Why should they care? But for a few people, it's like this is just like the best card game ever. The thing is, the most common response I got other than oh, that's a cool idea from my sword people was, oh, that's cool. I had the same idea myself. But they never actually done it. Ideas are cheap and anybody can have an idea to produce a tameshigiri trainer like that, for instance. But it's getting it from this is a cool idea to this is actually a working prototype to this is actually a product people can go and buy. That's the hard bit.
AL: Exactly. And that's the advice I would give. The topic I talk about a lot when people ask me about business and doing things. I've tried a few things. I have done game design. I have started working on a book I haven't finished yet, but I'm well aware of the like running out of steam thing and the ideas are cheap and that's, you know, anyone could come up with it. And I had a few comments myself, you know, people saying, oh, I came up with something about this and I'm like, yeah, but that's really easy.
GW: That's easy.
AL: But you know, you're not even doing it sometimes. It could be simple tasks that replying to emails, but when you've given up so much mental real estate to it and you're burnt out essentially from other stuff, simple tasks are becoming difficult. And yeah, that's why you need that. So every time I got a new revision on this or fixed a problem, it's like a massive sort of refuel. It's like I’m energised again because I get to use it and I get to play with it and it is so much better. And yeah, just the whole process has been super fun for me, so it's been a really good project.
GW: Tameshigiri is the Japanese word meaning test cutting, basically. And obviously in your video on your crowdfunding campaign, you have like a katana being used with this thing because tameshigiri = Japanese. Japanese sword. So it makes sense. But, you also have other swords and European swords particularly. So I was like, okay. Firstly, I was really pleased to see something was obviously aimed at the martial arts sword market in general, not historical martial arts in particular, but see something aimed at that market that explicitly includes the historical arts that I practise, that's actually pretty unusual.
AL: Well, for ages, I was trying to think of a name for it and I was going for like the obvious stuff, cut trainer, sword trainer and all this kind of stuff. And just the results on Google were so wild. And when I was actually looking up competitions, I found that guys that do Japanese martial arts and longsword and sabre as well as the Hungarian guys. Yeah. Yeah. I think it's Hungarian sabre. I found that they cut the best. And I was like, I have to include these guys. You know, they're the best. And also, just in terms of searching terms, when you start talking about sword cutting, tameshigiri comes up quite a lot. And some HEMA guys even still call it tameshigiri, like using the tatami mats, just doing tameshigiri and test cutting. So a good name to use, as it know, encapsulates a lot of different art, I think, at least.
GW: It's struck me quite particularly that you are explicitly including the historical martial arts which again, it is unusual for people that don't practise it themselves. In the larger martial arts world, we tend to get kind of forgotten and ignored.
AL: No, I really like the HEMA community. I think it's one of the most exciting sort of martial arts community. There are three communities. There's the sports guys and everything is pretty much established and is, you know, there's not a lot of new stuff happening, if you like, apart from new competitions and whatnot. Then you've got the traditional guys which are on the opposite end, super traditional. They don't wanna change anything and everything has to be done this way and that way and great. You know, there's a lot of depth and a lot of information there. But the HEMA guys, they're so ready to test things and try things and let's do this format, that format and, you know, let’s do memory games. Maybe we are interpreting this wrong, let’s look at the body mechanics and etc., whereas yeah, I just find that in general super interesting because you go into some clubs and it's like, no, this is the way it's taught, this is the way you practise, this is it. And this is what you are going to be doing for the next 20 years or whatever. Whereas I have taught at Fight Camp and Skirmish for the last five years I think.
GW: Ah, that’s how you know Matt Easton.
AL: Yeah this is how I know Matt Easton and Lindybeige, yeah you just meet loads of people and you go to different classes and there's all these different contexts. It's like I went to one where they were doing fighting on a ship because ships sway and things like that. And I was like, oh, this is pretty cool. And you don't get that amount of creativity and stuff in some arts, at least in the arts that’s I’ve practiced. You might do, but I'm unaware. I just find the HEMA community cool. Very cool. Very passionate people. Very passionate. Very, you know, ready to try things and experiment.
GW: Yeah, well, speaking of trying things, okay, you've got these ideas for gym equipment that you're not going to talk about in detail right now because they're not ready to be talked about. I understand. But what would you say so far as the best idea that you have not acted on?
AL: Best idea that I have not acted on. I remember seeing this question and thinking I should get back to this. The best idea I’ve not acted on. That is a tough one.
GW: Well, I mean, take a minute. I can edit the awkward pause out of the final audio.
AL: I do actually have an idea for a game that I was kind of tossing up. I wasn't sure if I should do this or do that. And it's essentially a similar sort of concept as yours that you want to take real fighting elements and make them into something playable, a game as mine was, that was essentially a rhythm app where, you know what a rhythm game is like dance revolution or?
GW: Oh, right. Okay, yeah.
AL: Yeah. Like these kind of things. But, you know, you’re fighting and it was like a tempo thing, so you had to select the right moves at the right time in the same way that you would in any sort of beat-‘em-up game. But it was very specific. Like you have to recognise what the person's doing and where they're going. And then you have to react with the right sequence in time, not just hold down block, whatever.
GW: That is a good idea. Would you do that as a keyboard game or with some kind of controller?
AL: Either, or, to be honest.
GW: I would make more sense to me, you know, Beat Sabre where you've got a controller inside, then it would make sense to me to do that. That kind of thing is actually getting up and moving around.
AL: I've actually got a few different formats. I had an idea of an app, I had an idea of how to do it fully in 3D, had an idea if I could do it in, you know, side by side, would you call it a 2D fighter kind of thing. As a concept it'd be really addictive and cool. And it kind of reminded me of shastar vidiya and like the way that it's taught, it's like we're not going to have an exchange, we're not going to have a duel. It's like you're going to run at this guy, you have one opportunity to get it right. If you get it right, you kill him, if you don't you die, kind of thing. More accurate for swords and stuff, and even though I used to love fighting games, used to love Tekken and Street Fighter, me and my brother used to play them all the time, but you find that you can find like cheat tactics and stuff like that to win. There's a lot of pros that kind of understand the game so well it’s not even so much about their skill anymore. It's that they understand these combos that can wipe your life out immediately you can't do anything about it. Whereas this is more, you know, anyone can pick it up. And if your rhythm and timing is good, you're good at identifying what your opponent's doing. You can beat someone that may have more experience, at least in theory. But yeah that's an idea that I still want to develop. At some point maybe someone will listen to this and find it and I'll still be happy because I'll get to play it.
GW: That's going to take a lot of money.
AL: Yeah, exactly. It's going to take a big investment.
GW: So I've been a little bit involved on the edges of developing a sword based computer game and just the amounts of money involved are insane.
AL: I've done it. I actually developed a motorcycle game. I mean, well, I developed it to a certain level and then I kind of said, this is taking too much of my money. So I had to stop. But yeah, that was another cool idea that I wish I had the money to pursue. I needed to be born in a rich family. This is what I really need.
GW: Do you know, the number one sort of predictive thing, if a young entrepreneur makes loads of money, it's almost invariably because they come from loads of money. And so they had no trouble finding the hundred thousand or half million, 2 million, whatever they needed to get started. And then, you know, it's much easier to make the 10th million than it is to make the first one.
AL: Yeah. And also the kind of like less spoken about it that morale, that drives it's not as easy to have if you might be homeless if you mess up. You know that you can always fall back on your parents’ house or whatever or you know that the money isn't even with yours to begin with. The drive is going to be way more than someone that's barely making ends meet.
GW: Basically, you can afford to take creative risks if they're not going to cost you your children's home.
AL: And losing tens of thousands of pounds doesn't feel like ten years of work. It’s my pocket money for the weekend anyway, I would have spent that on a car.
GW: Actually, one of the best things I ever did to improve my own entrepreneurial ability was when I moved to Finland. I had grown up with pounds and pounds were real money. I moved to Finland which was using the Mark back then and then they switched to the euro and it was still money, but it didn't feel like real money.
AL: I know exactly what you mean.
GW: Which meant that I could make sensible business decisions based on the numbers without having any kind of emotional attachment to it as money with actual sort of special value. And then I lived in Finland so long that when I moved back to the UK in 2016, pounds had lost their ‘this is real money’ thing and it was just another currency that I was used to making sensible decisions about. And yeah, it separates that kind of emotional attachment to the money. And that makes it makes it easy to invest in things like getting a decent web designer to go to your website because the money you're spending is a perfectly sensible business expense. But it's hard to spend that much money on something if it feels like real money.
AL: Yeah, I have the same experience except a negative one. And I went to Ibiza on holiday and we got all our money in cash and you know, the Euros feel like Monopoly money, I was like, this isn't even real and you just end up spending it like, you know, buying food and renting beach deckchairs and all that kind of stuff. And yeah, but I know the exact feeling where you just spend it and you don't think about it in the same way.
GW: And it can lead to profligacy. But in my case, it led to it led to the internal ability to take reasonable business risks.
AL: Yeah, rational.
GW: Exactly. Yeah.
AL: Makes a lot of sense. I'll get there eventually. I'm still at the, every time I spend a few thousand pounds, it hurts me.
GW: Oh, yeah, it does. But, you know, if you're spending it on things like industrial designers to get your prototypes, whatever, into production, then, yeah, it's money you have to spend.
AL: Exactly. Now that the campaign is going well, I’m much more comfortable, like couple of months ago, I was like, please let this go away. Yeah, I'm not far away from being properly broke. Like real broke.
GW: I think it's only fair to the listeners if we mention the inescapable fact of backing any crowdfunding campaign that there is always a risk that something will happen and the product doesn't actually get into production or it doesn't get distributed or whatever, like a factory could burn down. It's not like you're sitting on a big pile of these things where people buy them on the crowdfunding campaign, you just send them out. They're backing the campaign so that you can get this into production, so that they can be produced and distributed. And there are there are risks along the way that are not the same as just ordering a product that's already been produced.
AL: Of course. Of course. I mean, we all sort of hope that everything's going to go fine, but that there's a chance that something doesn't happen. Back me. Trust me, please. I will try my best.
GW: And it's tricky because, when doing a crowdfunding campaign you have to set the price of the thing you're selling at a level where you can actually make money when people buy it at that price. And it's almost impossible to know for certain how much it's going to cost to actually produce it.
AL: Yeah, this is a part I was actually struggling with. And if anyone's out there, maybe they could reach out and they could shed some light on it. Because normally when you sell something, at least as far as I understand, then you might have had investment elsewhere. People invest in the business like shares and blah, blah, blah. Whereas with the crowdfund you have to set the price not just for the profit of the thing, but for the development costs as well. As you say, it's not like I'm sitting on them and I'm just going to ship them out. It's like every little bit of profit that we might make is going directly into manufacturing design, marketing, shop. So yeah, I've kind of based the price on similar devices on the market and the price of the components and stuff like that. Hopefully it should be fine. And it’s worked out so far.
GW: The thing is that you have working prototypes.
AL: We have working prototypes. And I have spoken to the manufacturers and stuff and they think the pricing sounds reasonable.
GW: Am I right in thinking that you produced your first prototypes with a 3D printer and components that can be bought off the shelf?
GW: So I have thought for you, like your absolute worst case scenario, let's say something disastrous happens and the people who backed the campaign never actually get the product, which is a small but real risk. That's always the case with crowdfunding campaigns. Here’s a thought. You will be able to send them the print files for the 3D printer, and a list of compounds that they can go and get. So at least they can assemble one for a small additional cost. So actually you have safety net thing. So even if the worst case scenario happens, then people will have the capability to go to their local makerspace or whatever and put one together with the materials you provide.
AL: The funny thing is, I actually have a friend who is also into engineering and he was buying one and he messaged me and said, dude, I can’t wait. How did you make your first one? I didn’t give him a list or the STL file or anything like that because he wanted to do it himself. So I just told him what he’d need and he went off and done the same thing, funnily enough. He’s got a bootleg one just while I wait for the one for the real one to come out. And hopefully the actual prospect of owning not just the device but, you know, the travel pack and you the safety glasses and those have been tested and we've got video coming out soon. That's me doing an unboxing of it.
GW: All right.
AL: The target is hanging up. It's quite nice generally.
GW: I mean, looking at the campaign, your production values are pretty damn high.
AL: Really? Yeah. A friend of mine done the videos and he's worked in advertising for years and stuff.
GW: It’s very well done.
AL: Yeah. A lot of people have said that. Some people have said, oh, are you working with like a whole team? And I was like, no, it's just my mate Alex. He’s pretty good at what he does. And he's like a creative director for the company, essentially. So he kind of looks at all the things I produce and goes, maybe you should go in this direction, maybe you should go in that direction. Maybe you should change the wording. I'm trying to get him to go on camera. I told him the next time we make a video, I'm not doing it, you’re doing it because it's a lot of pressure. Yeah, we've done pretty well so far.
GW: Excellent. Well, I wish you luck with the with finishing up the campaign and getting the product into your backers’ hands.
AL: I will. I will.
GW: You did the right thing in that you got the prototype done before you launched the campaign. I did the same thing with my game. I have no chops in the game world. So I launched my campaign for my game when we had a working prototype so the game be played and sample artwork and all of the money was going to producing the kind of the print files and getting the printing done. That was it. It was realistic to assume that given the money, I could actually finish the job because the hard part was already done. So it seems to me like you've already done the hard bit, which is getting the design right.
AL: Hopefully. Hopefully. I spoke to the manufacturers. They're happy with all the stuff I've done. They think the pricing point is sensible based on the components and everything. But as you say, you never know what could have happen. I’m just hoping that I've done it all good. I'm sure it's probably like a bona fide way to do it, I guess, to set the price and whatnot. But I think I've been quite fair. I compared it to things like dry firing systems.
AL: Yes. So you got the dry firing laser systems, which I found out about afterwards. And some of them use similar sort of technology. They'll use a laser at the target and a way of registering the hit. And yeah, I've gone against that and the prices of them.
GW: That seems reasonable to me. Comparing the price to what it cost to set up a tatami cutting session.
AL: Yes, it’s a no brainer.
GW: Well, I must say, I'm very much looking forward to trying it when it gets here.
AL: Are you going to be at Fight Camp, by any chance?
AL: We're going to be at fight camp with it, so if anyone’s in the UK and you come to the Fight Camp. We'll have one set up that you can play around with.
GW: When is Fight Camp?
AL: I think it's the 18th, 17th to 19th August, something like this.
GW: So this show will have gone out before then. So, yes, they can look at Fight Camp and if necessary, come along and have a go. Excellent.
AL: Yeah. Thanks for having me on.
GW: Yeah, well, of course, the words out of my mouth were going to be thank you very much for joining me.
AL: Well, you know, I felt like I was holding you here a little bit.
GW: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Not at all.
AL: Oh, and yeah, thanks for having me. And it's been awesome.