A long time ago, I shared a house with several aikido fanatics. While I found the essential idea of directing rather than initiating force quite fascinating, that was a rather unathletic period of my life; I was more interested in heading down to the lab and teaching myself how to program than heading down to the dojo and learning aikido. As a result I didn’t get any more involved than watching my housemates practice moves in the quiet street next to the house, but some of the ideas stayed with me.

As time goes by, I find that those same ideas keep popping up in other areas of my life. As long as I can remember, one of my favorite technical tricks has been to make a subtle change to a program that has far-reaching effects. The one-line fix to a bug that appears to reside in an entirely different part of the system has always seemed like the acme of bug-fixing skill, and it’s an example of code aikido. In meetings, I’m fairly notorious for being silent most of the time and then making one comment that changes the whole course of the discussion – organizational aikido. The list of examples goes on, but I’m sure you get the point.

Most recently, I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. You can tell just from the title that it’s likely to be a familiar theme and, sure enough, it is. Basically it’s all about how influence flows through society, using concepts like “connectors” and “stickiness” and full of examples where brute-force approaches to problems failed but more sophisticated ones based (consciously or unconsciously) on these principles succeeded. What he’s really talking about is ki; ai-ki-do means, roughly, guiding-power-way. Gladwell’s tipping point is aikido writ large, as a way of moving society instead of just individuals.

There’s an interesting little connection to chaos theory here. One of the standard chaos-theory concepts is of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and starting a chain of events that eventually leads to typhoons in Asia. They actually call it the butterfly effect, when they don’t call it sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Small stimulus leads to large effects. In a way, the idea behind aikido is to be that butterfly, but with knowledge and intention. Instead of trying to create a typhoon in the obvious way, the idea is to understand how weather works so well that you can just give a tiny little nudge that will cause the typhoon to happen in a way indistinguishable from spontaneity. I even remember reading a story based on this idea once, where two god-like beings compete to see who can create the greatest effect from the smallest stimulus. I think it ended with one of them creating the universe or something, but I don’t remember.

That’s probably enough rambling for now. I’ll probably come back to this concept eventually, but in the meantime if anyone has any other examples of real-world aikido I’d love to hear them. If anyone can identify the story I just mentioned that would be even better.