Jazz and Martial Arts are These Members’ Passions

One member hosts a weekly radio show while another performs Iaido

22 June 2015

Norm Swanberg

Jazz Aficionado

Norm Swanberg was an ardent rock ’n’ roll fan when he went to the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1970 to see a jazz-rock band perform. Swanberg [below], then a junior studying physics at nearby Brown University, in Providence, was hooked.

Jazz quickly became his music of choice. He now channels his love for it as the host of a weekly radio show on KSDS-FM, San Diego’s award-winning jazz station. “The beauty of jazz is in its diversity and the variety among different artists and eras,” he says.

On his two-hour evening show, Swanberg, now an IEEE senior member, mixes music with historical tidbits and interviews with jazz personalities. By day, he designs radio-frequency systems for commercial and military clients through his consulting business, Dome Resonators, in Poway, Calif.

The radio gig began in 1990 when, as a recent transplant to San Diego, he found himself sitting next to a KSDS disc jockey at a jazz piano concert. “It was a happy accident,” he says. “I told him how much I loved his station and wanted to come there and volunteer, and eventually even work there.” The disc jockey advised Swanberg to take radio production classes at the city college, which he did before becoming a radio host.

The methodical nature that aids Swanberg’s engineering work also benefits his radio gig. For each show, he creates a spreadsheet on which he lists each song along with its length, the artist’s name, and the albums. He then calculates the timing of each segment so that he can break at the right moment for one of the station’s public service announcements.

He spends about two hours preparing for every show. If he is interviewing an artist, he reads about the person, listens to his or her albums, and prepares questions. In his 25 years as a radio host, Swanberg has met and interviewed many famous jazz musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall, and Herbie Hancock.

Working from home for his own company also lets Swanberg sneak in his passion during work hours. “When I’m sitting at my desk doing circuit simulations, I always have jazz in the background,” he says. “If something catches my attention, I put it in my spreadsheet.”

He owns a saxophone but hasn’t had time to play it for more than 20 years. He hopes to change that as retirement inches closer. “These days I play the radio dial,” Swanberg says, chuckling, “but someday I’ll play an instrument again.” —Prachi Patel

Ray Ballisti

Staying Zen

Thirty-seven years ago, IEEE Life Member Ray Ballisti decided to try martial arts as a way to relieve stress from work. He first trained in kendo, the Japanese art of sword combat, but later switched to iaido. This austere, noncombative art, involving precise and fluid movement with a samurai sword, gave Ballisti the perfect blend of introspection and physicality.

Iaido (pronounced ee-ah-ee-do), which is sometimes called “moving Zen,” is performed solo against imaginary opponents, although people sometimes practice with others. It is primarily a mental sport and requires extreme control and focus. Practitioners wear traditional clothing and learn techniques for smoothly drawing a sword from its sheath, striking opponents, and re-sheathing the sword. Wooden, blunt, or sharp swords are used, each of which requires different skills. Instead of sparring with others, practitioners are tested on the form of their swordsmanship in side-by-side duels in front of referees.

Ballisti [above], who is retired, was working as a computer systems manager at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, when he discovered the sport. He managed four Unix servers used by 60 researchers, which he found stressful.

Now 71, he holds the fifth rank, or dan, in iaido. The ranking is based on skill. Eight is the highest rank. He also teaches a two-hour class twice a week at the same martial arts studio in Zurich where he started as a student.

Iaido has helped Ballisti build his problem-solving skills by teaching him to expect the unexpected. “If you were to have an opponent, you cannot expect that he or she will behave as you do, so you must be open to all possibilities,” he says. Students learn to follow specific procedures, but over time they can change technique to demonstrate countermovement, or kata, to showcase their range and their ability to defend against potential opponents. “This is the way to approach a problem: Do not discard any possibilities, but take them all into account.”

The sport taught him to be patient, modest, accepting of criticism and, above all, to believe in himself. All of this helped him become a better engineer and team player at work.

Through his practice, he also gained the ability to empty his mind of distractions, focus on his thoughts and actions, make swift decisions, and then execute them well, which he says helped make him an effective computer systems manager.

Ballisti recalls how he would often get several requests at once to resolve technical issues from colleagues “who wanted their problem solved before others,” he says. “But I did not let myself get distracted. I moved ahead one problem at a time.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More