Friday, August 9, 2019

Yoga: The Ultimate Anti-Fraud Device (a.k.a. Fraud Alert: Don't Fall for This!)

Those of us who have been practicing yoga for a while will know that yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind (Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah). At crucial moments, this stilling of the mind can give us just enough space to reflect before doing something that might have disastrous consequences. In my case, this little space that the yoga practice gave me narrowly prevented me from becoming the victim of a fraud.

As with all good stories, we have to start from the beginning. A couple of days ago, I got an email from this gentleman I don't know, asking me if I could give chess lessons to his 8-year-old son. I was a little mystified; although I am known in some circles here in Pocatello as a decent chess player, I have never advertised myself as a chess coach. I asked him how he knew about me, and he said he got my email through a friend of his.

I was still a bit mystified: My US chess rating is not very high (1377, to be exact), and it seems to me that he would be getting a lot more value for his money if he were to find a higher-ranking player to teach his son. But then, I told myself, this out here is the boondocks, and believe it or not, I am actually the second-highest ranked active tournament player in Pocatello, probably because most of the people who live here are honest blue-collar folks who cannot be bothered with bourgeois pursuits like chess.

So I set my doubts aside, and agreed to give his son lessons twice a week, starting next week. I also decided to charge him the exorbitant price of $25 an hour. He agreed immediately, and said he would send me a check soon for $200 for 8 lessons. Wow, this guy sure has a lot of faith in me! He purportedly wants me to turn his son into a professional chess player, he has never even met me before, and he's willing to give me $200 upfront just like that. Note to non-chess-playing readers: In order to make it as a chess professional who teaches and plays chess for a living, one would have to be rated at least around 2400. I am highly doubtful that I will achieve this rating in my lifetime, at least not without some serious brain-enhancing surgery. And this guy wants me to help his son to get to that level. You see the disconnect here? But then I remembered that ancient advice about not staring a gift knight horse in the mouth. So I decided to just go along with it, and see how long I can fake it before he discovers what a poor chess player I really am, and fires me.

Little did I know that this gift horse would turn out to be a trojan horse.Yesterday afternoon, he sent me another email saying that he needs to mail me the check quickly because his attorney who handles all his affairs is going on vacation soon. Wow, not only does he have a lot of faith in me, he is also some kind of bigshot who is so busy that he doesn't even have time to write his own checks! I really must be moving up in the world, aren't I, if I am rubbing shoulders (or about to rub shoulders) with such high-value people? So I gave him my address, and I thought that was that.

Then this morning, when I was in the middle of Parsvakonasana B, I heard a knock on my door. I decided to ignore it and continue with my practice (full disclosure: I have this questionable policy of ignoring all and any interruptions I can ignore when doing my yoga practice. If somebody wants to get my attention during yoga practice, they would probably have to knock the door down!). Even so, my mind was a little jarred by the interruption, and it took me a few more poses before I could really settle back into the flow of second series. Well, at least he didn't knock when I was in the middle of getting into Kapotasana. That would have been really jarring to my nervous system.

After my practice, I noticed that somebody had sent me a text message. It was Mr Bigshot. He said that he had received confirmation that FedEx had delivered the check. I opened the door, and sure enough, there was an overnight FedEx package sitting at my doorstep. I opened the package, and in it was a check for $1700. WTF! I was only supposed to be paid $200. Even 8 lessons with a chess grandmaster is not worth that much money!

I looked at the text message again, and got the full story: Apparently, in his hurry to leave town for his vacation, his attorney had made a mistake, and had written a single check that covered both my chess teaching fee and the fee that he was going to pay his son's caregiver, when he should have written two separate checks instead (Personally, I think he should fire his attorney if he can't even write two separate checks...). So what Mr Bigshot wants me to do is to go to the bank, deposit the check, keep $200 for myself, withdraw the remaining $1500 in cash (yes, cash!), and mail it to the caregiver! If this doesn't ring any alarm bells yet, you seriously need to take a course in basic consumer protection. But there's more: I looked at the check again, and saw that instead of being issued by a law office or by Mr Bigshot, it came from some construction company in Washington state! I looked at the number that Mr. Bigshot is texting me from, and saw that it is a Chicago number (Area code 630, to be exact). Wow, this guy is really all over the place: He apparently lives in Chicago, owns a construction company in Washington state, and has a son and caregiver that lives in Pocatello, Idaho! Boy, am I moving up in the world!

I called the construction company, and spoke to their office manager. Turns out that the company is legit, but the check is written from a checking account that the company no longer uses. The office manager thanked me for alerting me to this fraudulent use of their account, and I texted them a picture of the check for their record-keeping purposes.

Needless to say, I did not go to the bank. Instead, I went to the police department to file a police report. The detective who took my statement congratulated me on my sharpness and presence of mind; according to him, this is a very common form of fake check scam, and many people have fallen for it in recent years. He also observed that many people fall for it because they just go ahead and deposit the check without verifying its authenticity. Banks are required by law to make funds available to customers as quickly as possible, so they would often clear a deposited check quickly, and agree to a customer's request to immediately cash a check. However, it normally takes the bank a few days to verify that the check is authentic and not fraudulent. By the time the bank does that, the scammer (in this case, this would be Mr Bigshit Bigshot if he had succeeded in scamming me) would have gotten the money, and would be enjoying a pina colada on a beach somewhere in Hawaii while the scammee (this would be me) would be stuck with having to pay the bank back for the bad check. Which meant that I would have ended up having to pay the bank $1500!

Anyway, I'm convinced that it was my yoga practice (specifically, the fact that I did not get out of Parsvakonasana B to answer the door) that gave me the presence of mind to pause before going to the bank, thereby saving me $1500! I may not be making any money from yoga, but it sure is saving me money!

I am writing this post because, having narrowly dodged the scammer's bullet, I see it as my duty to pay it forward, and inform all of you loyal readers (does anybody still read this blog?) about this danger that lurks out there in this impure world that we live in. I mean, seriously, what is the world coming to when even low-ranking chess players are being scammed? But then again, given the presence of our scammer-in-chief (you know who I am talking about), perhaps none of this should be surprising. But let me try to end this blog on a brighter note. Do you know that there is a song about both yoga and pina coladas? Enjoy!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Are all Eastern Europeans and Russians good at chess?

Obviously not. But if I'm not mistaken, that general part of the world has the highest number of chess grandmasters per capita. So maybe, just maybe, I can be forgiven for assuming this.

Why am I even talking about this? Last night, I drove up to Idaho Falls (about 40 minutes from where I live) to play at the local chess club. My opponent was this late-30ish/early-40ish gentleman who spoke with a thick Eastern European/Russian accent, and whose name was Yuran; sounds Russian or Ukrainian to me, although I cannot be sure.

Anyway, I immediately assumed that since he is Eastern European or Russian, he must be a strong chess player who has come to the local chess club to assert his dominance over us puny Idahoans and teach us a thing or two about the royal game. Adding to this perception was the fact that he carried himself with a certain self-assurance in his body language. So I sat down and buckled down for a tough game.

I had the white pieces, and he played the Dutch Defense. Which made me even more apprehensive, since the Dutch requires quite a bit of daring, panache, and careful study to pull off. After the first 6 or 7 moves, however, it became clear that he had no idea how to play that opening. His pawns were getting in the way of his pieces, which were in turn tied up in knots in his first two ranks. I quickly made short work of his army, and sent his king to the gallows (i.e. checkmate, from the Persian Shah-mat, "the king is dead"). To his credit, he graciously accepted the loss, and we played a second game, which I won as well.

So what's the moral of this story? Not much, really. I had subscribed to a stereotype, and that stereotype led me to overrate the strength of my opponent.

To all of you haters out there who think that I am being shallow in subscribing to stereotypes, well, consider this: While stereotypes can often lead us astray in our judgments of people and things (like it did here in my case), it is nevertheless a fact of life that most people employ stereotypes as a representativeness heuristic: When you are in a situation where you have very limited information to go on and have to make quick decisions, there is a tendency to latch on to a handy mental tool to quickly process what limited information there is and come to a decision quickly. Sometimes, this leads to tragic consequences (think police shooting), sometimes less so (think chess game against Eastern European/Russian man). But it is a fact that people employ stereotypes in navigating through life.

As you can see, this post has nothing to do with yoga. But I don't have any other venue to write about my random musings on life. So I write about it here. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Practicing with contacts, drishti

It's been forever since I last posted on this blog. At least, it feels that way. But I think the following experience is worth sharing, and thus worth posting here.

A couple of days ago, I got fitted with a pair of contact lenses from my eye doctor. I have worn glasses since I was 8, and have never worn contacts before. But a few weeks ago, I got sick of my glasses always sliding down my nose. So I decided to take the plunge into wearing contacts at the ripe old age of 42. I'm slowly starting to get the hang of putting in and taking out the contacts, so it's slowly becoming less and less of a big production every time I have to take them out or put them in.

Small factoid: I discovered that if I take a slow, deep breath, and practice the movement of pulling my eyelids away from my eye before actually handling the lenses themselves, I get better results, i.e. the lens won't land in some weird corner of my eye instead of on my cornea (where they are supposed to be), and I won't have to use the eye plunger to fish it out. Which is very important for me, since I am still very new to this business of sticking things in my eye, and I try not to put more things in/on my eyes than is strictly necessary. I call all this the yoga of contact lenses :-)

My new friend the contact lens remover, aka eye plunger.

But I digress. The main thing I want to tell you about here is this. This morning, I tried doing my practice with my contacts for the first time. I did full primary to Laruga Glaser's video on Youtube:

 I really like her voice a lot, and she has this really powerful yet reassuring presence. Have any of you guys ever met her or taken classes with her? I am very open to taking a class/workshop with her if the opportunity arises. But I digress again. Back to my story: It was my optometrist that suggested practicing with contacts; he thinks that if I practice with contacts, there will be less eye strain than if I were to practice without any kind of visual aid at all, which is what I have been doing for the last six years. Basically, less eye strain = less prescription increase over time = better for me and my eyes.

To be honest, I was kind of apprehensive about his suggestion: What if my contacts fall out during practice, and I land on them and smash them?. But I decided to give it a try anyway. To my surprise, practicing with contacts actually improved the quality of my practice. I could see better. Which means I could focus my drishti better. As a result, the entire practice felt more focused and energizing. Which proves again that drishti makes a whole universe of difference to the practice. I was especially apprehensive about Sirsasana: Will my lenses stay in place when I am upside down? They did! To be sure, they don't focus so well when upside down (contact lens makers probably don't practice yoga), but they still focus well enough to see.  

All in all, I am very happy about my new ability to see without glasses, especially during practice. I stopped wearing glasses during practice six years ago, because Matthew Sweeney suggested to me that if I can't see so well during practice, it promotes pratyahara. Which may well be true, but perhaps this is a situation in which gaining drishti power more than makes up for whatever loss of pratyahara there might be, wouldn't you agree?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Question: What is the meaning of Life?

Jean-Paul Sartre: "Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning that we give it." (Existentialism is a Humanism)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Chess, existentialism, and boredom

I was just rereading Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground in preparation for the Existentialism course that I will be teaching again in the spring. It's an absorbing read, and yet every few pages I'd get a bit restless, and feel the urge to put the book down and play a game of online chess.

That was when I was suddenly struck by the difference in mood and outlook between chess and philosophy. Chess promotes--almost forces--a very positivistic and certain outlook on the universe. In the world of chess, there is only one, crystal clear final goal: Checkmate your opponent. All the pieces move according to fixed rules, and ideally at least, they all work together to bring about this one goal in the most efficient way possible. The knight never pauses to ponder the meaning of his existence ("Am I just a being that moves in an L-shape? Or can I transcend my knightness and become more than that?"). The queen never questions her undying loyalty to her king, and will not stop at anything--even self-sacrifice--to achieve the all-important goal of annihilating the enemy king. There is no room for existential musings in the game of chess.

Philosophy, as you might guess, is quite different. For the existentialists in particular, to be alive is to be thrown into a world in which one is constantly uncertain, constantly struggling to discover one's role/s in this world, continually negotiating (and re-negotiating) the meaning of this role/s. It is in this spirit that the Underground Man, the protagonist of Notes from Underground, declares that an intelligent man is not and will never be a man of action. To be a man of action, one must take something as the first cause and justification of one's life (money, honor, love, etc.). Secure in the conviction that this first cause offers, one's mind is then at ease, and one is able to act and feel with complete confidence and without the slightest trace of hesitation.

The intelligent man, however, sees an infinite regress where the man of action sees a first cause. Because of this, the intelligent man lapses into inertia, and has no motivation to feel and act in the way in which the man of action does. The intelligent man can still make himself feel and do things, but he only does this because he doesn't want to be bored.  

People often say that chess is a thinking man's game. I'm not so sure I agree. For me personally, chess is the only thing right now in my life that I can lose myself completely in. When I play chess, the demands of the chessboard absorb me so completely that I stop thinking about everything else. Temporarily at least, I become a man of action. I believe that if there ever comes a day when I lose this feeling of being completely lost in the game while playing chess, that day will probably be the day that I quit chess. Then again, that's just what I believe right now. What do I know?  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Yoga, Life, Chess

Wow, I realized that I haven't written anything on this space for more than a year now. No particular reason for this; maybe for whatever reason, blogging ceased to be a thing in the past couple of years, as Angela so astutely observed in her latest post. Along with it went my motivation to blog. And besides, when all is said and done, life is to be lived, not blogged about. So I stopped blogging.

But after reading Angela's latest very thoughtful post, I decided to write something here again. Does this mean I'm going to start blogging regularly again? I don't know (who does?). But maybe I'll start by telling you (whoever you are) what has been going on in my life recently, and then we'll see what happens:

(1) I'm still doing the Ashtanga practice six days a week. These days, I mostly just do primary, except for certain days when I add on second up to Kapotasana. Don't know why this is so; I guess I like the constancy of primary. And also, I seem to have lost the ambition to go on to third (or sixth) series. And I don't talk much about the practice to anyone; it's just this thing that goes on in the background of my life, like an engine that keeps things going without drawing much attention to itself.

(2) After many years of anxiety and angst, I finally got my green card. I am now a permanent resident of these United States (yay!). What's really funny is that when I actually got my green card, it was a bit anticlimactic. Back when I first started the application process a couple of years ago, I told a friend that when I finally get my green card, I'll be so ecstatic that I'll probably go get shit-faced drunk. But on that fateful evening two months ago when I opened my mailbox and found my green card there, I was happy (more relieved than anything else, actually). And then I said to myself, "Okay great, now you can go sleep." So I just went to bed. How's that for anti-climactic?

But anti-climacticism aside, I am seriously really happy that in these uncertain times, there is still a place for me in this country. So I will go back to saving the world with even greater appreciation than before :-)

(3) Over the past year, the one thing that has really been taking up a lot of my non-teaching time is chess. I have basically become a chess nerd (not sure how else to describe what's going on). Since the beginning of 2016, I have played in a few chess tournaments. From a purely objective point of view, my performance has been mediocre. Seriously, there have been times after tournaments when I thought I was going to quit chess forever, so upset was I by my crushing defeats. But somehow, after a couple of days, the love of the game always brought me back to the chessboard.

Here's a recent picture of me playing at a tournament in Twin Falls, Idaho:

I don't know if you can tell, but I was losing, and in the midst of great mental suffering. My opponent was a young boy of 11. How about that?

What attracts me to chess? Besides the fact that it is a very complex and beautiful game (there are actually more possible chess games than there are atoms in the physical universe), it is also a great way to keep you real and grounded. In a chess game, losing focus for even a moment can lead to a blunder that will result in defeat.

Moreover, as some famous chess player once said, "It's not enough to be a great chess player. One must also play well." It doesn't matter if you are a complete novice or a grandmaster. When the pieces are set up at the beginning of the game, both players have an equal chance of winning or losing. It doesn't matter if you have won ten thousand games in the past, every single game is a new beginning, a new adventure, one that comes with the risk of defeat and the opportunity of victory. Unlike many other fields (for some reason, art and philosophy come to mind here), one cannot simply bamboozle the other party with big words or grand theories. In chess, the proof is always in the playing. If one believes oneself to be a great player, one must prove it on the board in actual play. In this way, chess keeps one real and requires that one constantly become vulnerable by exposing oneself to the continual possibility of defeat. It's inherently anti-bullshit.  

All in all, perhaps we can say that chess has become my other yoga practice. BTW, many scholars believe that chess originated in India, where it was called Chaturanga. Sound like a coincidence?

Anyway, that's all I have to say for now. Good night, and good luck.    

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The anything-goes culture, philosophy, chess, and yoga

It is the end of the semester here at the university that I teach at. For a professor like me, it is that time of the semester when one gets to grade lots of exams in a very short time, post the exam grades online, and then (at least in my case) get a few unhappy/angry emails from students who think that they deserve a better grade on the exam. Why do they think they deserve a better grade? Well, here are a couple of fairly typical reasons that these students offer: "I have answered all the questions on the exam, so I deserve to take A" [note: the grammatical error here was in the student's original email, so I have preserved it here in its entirety for maximum dramatic effect], "I have been getting As or A-minuses for the earlier papers in the course, and I need a better grade on this exam in order to get an A in the course, so I deserve a good grade for this exam." 

If you are not a millenial or younger (actually, even if you are...), you should have no problem hearing the tone of entitlement that practically saturates these "reasons." Apparently, there exists a universe in which one is entitled to a good grade in an exam just by virtue of having answered all the questions in it, no matter how irrelevant to the question or--let's be honest here--bad those responses are. Of course, it probably doesn't help my case that philosophy has a reputation among some undergrads (and probably many members of the public as well) for being an anything-goes discipline. As one of my former students recently put it to me, "If philosophy is just about your opinion, how can there be a wrong answer? If there is no wrong answer, how can one possibly get anything less than an A in a philosophy course?"

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a wrong answer in a philosophy exam (I'm going to set aside the question of whether there are wrong answers in philosophy as it is done outside of academic exams; that is too much to go into here). Simply put, the wrong answer is whatever answer it is that fails to provide the information that the question is asking for. For instance, if the question asks you to explain Sartre's view of the Other, and how the appearance of the Other affects your freedom, and you go off on some big rant about how you and the Other are One, and how this Oneness shows that everything in the universe is connected, then your rant, no matter how beautifully written a rant it is, simply fails to answer the question, and you will get a D on that response. (It's a D and not a F, because I simply don't have the heart to outright fail somebody who has taken the time and effort to write a long response).

Perhaps this is not obvious to many people, but in the serious academic study of philosophy, there are right and wrong answers, just as there are right and wrong answers in the serious academic study of mathematics (or in the serious academic study of anything else, for that matter). Perhaps this point is not obvious to many people because unlike the concise signs and formulas and equations that make up the language of mathematics, the language of philosophy is simply ordinary English (or whatever other human language it is that one chooses to study philosophy in). As such, perhaps people get the impression that philosophy is just words on a page, and since anybody can write words on a page, anybody can do philosophy well. Therefore, anybody can get an A on a philosophy exam just by putting words on a page. (Does this argument follow? I don't know, you figure this out for yourself :-)).

In any case, I believe that it is because of everything I have said above that philosophy gets a reputation (a bad one, on my opinion) for being an anything-goes discipline. And somebody like me who argues otherwise tends to be dismissed as an elitist, undemocratic, crusty ivory-tower academic.

But I beg to differ. I think that philosophy done properly (as in, philosophy that has right and wrong answers) is more profoundly democratic than any kind of anything-goes version of it ever could be. For instance, if one does not get Sartre right, and instead thinks that anything one says about Sartre goes just because one says it, wouldn't that run the risk of committing the injustice of misrepresenting Sartre's thoughts and ideas? And what good is democracy without justice? More broadly, what I am trying to say is that in an anything-goes culture, nothing significant or important will ever get said, because in such a culture, people will progressively lose the ability to discriminate and understand what is important and what isn't. You can call such a culture "democratic" if you like, but again, what good is this kind of democracy if it does nothing to help people to discriminate and understand what is right or wrong or what is important or not? What good is a democracy in which one is allowed to say whatever one likes, but in which one no longer has the tools with which to understand what is worth saying and what isn't? In such a "democracy", it is only a matter of time before we get to the point where the only people who are listened to are those with the loudest voices or those with the most resources/money. Unfortunately, these two groups of people tend to be the same individuals (ever heard of Donald Trump?). Such a "democracy", in other words, quickly degenerates into an authoritarian society in which individuals are judged not by the worth of their ideas, but by how loudly and flashily they present themselves and appeal to others.

The paradox, as you can see, is that an anything-goes culture which tries so hard to be democratic quickly gets to a place where it becomes very, very undemocratic. Perhaps we are already there (again, Donald Trump...). I don't have any solutions to this paradox. I am only a blogger/novice philosopher, not a pundit. But there is some reason to hope. Two of the things in my life right now--yoga and chess--are the very antithesis of this anything-goes spirit. If you claim to be good at chess, for instance, and you aren't, your lack of ability in chess will quickly be exposed. There is no such thing as anything-goes in chess; the only thing that "goes" is whatever strategy or combination of tactics it is that enables you to win. Similarly (and perhaps less obviously) in yoga, whatever goes is whatever combination of yoga practices and lifestyle that allows you to live a more fulfilled and productive life in your community. If it doesn't help you to do that, either you are doing it wrong or whatever it is that you doing is wrong in the first place. And actually, this applies even to something as mundane as asana. Despite all the bad press about "asana-fixation" that have been published in the yoga blogosphere in the last ten years, the fact still remains that there are productive (and therefore "correct") ways to do an asana, and less productive and even damaging (and therefore "incorrect") ways to do the same asana. Forcing your knees into padmasana when your hips aren't yet open enough is an example of the latter.

So, at the risk of sounding very immodest, perhaps there is a solution to this paradox of the anything-goes culture, after all. The solution lies in this question: What do yoga, chess, and philosophy done properly have in common? Answer: An attitude of humility, informed by the awareness that the only thing that goes is whatever works to address the problem at hand. Anything else simply won't cut it.