Archive for Go

Return of the Electronic Jesuit

Posted in Agathos, Go, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , , on September 24, 2011 by Joe Callahan

A few months back I wrote a piece about my personal and high-tech adaptation (philosophical rather than religious) of a practice called the Examen. Briefly, this is a practice that I first learned about from the Jesuits. It is simply pausing at a certain time of the day and taking stock of how you are behaving and acting relative to your beliefs, ethics, standards, etc.. It is an opportunity to do a spot check on being Agathos (my chosen term not theirs). My big tech adaptation of this practice was to set the tinny sounding alarm on my cell phone to noon and 5 pm so that when the alarm went off I paused and took stock of the day thus far.

A couple of weeks ago I made a bold leap in my use of technology. I had a credit towards a new phone and so I took my five year old cell (I’m told this is an antique by the standards of gadget lovers) and upgraded to a Droid phone. For the first two days I was convinced this device was designed purely to raise blood pressure and enslave the human spirit. The goal was clearly to reduce us all to crazed social networking junkies staring at tiny little screens forever lost in electronic narcissism. I got over it. I’ve come to really like the fact that this little pocket computer frees me from my desk. That’s nice since I work alone from a home office and its good to actually leave and see the world now and then.

I will eat your soul. By the way, you have a text message.

In addition to an app for playing Go, thus allowing me to continue getting my butt kicked anytime anyplace, I discovered that the alarms allowed me to add sounds! Now when noon and 5 pm roll around I no longer hear the annoying little beep beep beep. Instead, I hear the serene sound of a temple bell tolling. Ahhhh, I am whisked away to some Zen temple amongst the pines on a mountainside. Not really. But it is much nicer than hearing something like a warning for cabin depressurization or the need to summon a nurse. There is something to be said for aesthetics. I do enjoy that when it goes off in public people don’t get that “some jerk has an alarm going off” expression. Instead they look around confused like they are expecting monks to appear and summon them to chop wood, carry water. Some of them look like they wish it were true.

So has this pleasant gift of technology made any difference in my practice of the Examen? Nah. I do find that, regardless of ringtone, the experiment with this practice has been a positive. I’d like to say that every time the temple bells sound out that I determine all is right with my day. Of course that isn’t the case. But I do find that it causes me to stop and note where things are going awry with behavioral patterns that are not Agathos, that are not in keeping with a rational human character and that are not in harmony with nature. Additionally, it will sometimes occur to me that it must be drawing near noon or five o’clock and so there is a kind of preemptive Examen that happens before the digital Quasimodo starts pulling on the rope. This helps to keep a level of mindfulness through the day. That alone makes it a useful practice.

I will continue with the Droid Examen routine though there is room for improvement. Often my Examen is rather vague. It gets to be noon and I think “Well I don’t seem to be doing anything too badly. That’s nice” and on I go. It may be more effective to set some goals like “Today I will observe where I let attachment and desire cloud judgment” and be more focused when I stop to take my measure. Or that may prove to be too nitpicky. I’ll report the results of further experimentation. Maybe I’ll try a cool new alarm too.

Playing Go

Posted in arete, Go with tags on September 23, 2010 by Joe Callahan

Roughly a year ago I started playing the board game Go both for enjoyment and as a training tool for strategic thinking.  Go is its Japanese name but the game originated in China over two thousand years ago where it was called Wei Chi.  I first encountered Go a number of years ago via my studies in Taoism, Sun Tzu and Chinese martial arts but it sat on my “things I should learn” list for a long time.  Like chess, its counterpart in the West, Go was thought to both build skill in the art of strategy while also building one’s character.  I’ve read or heard numerous times that one is supposed to be able to learn much about another’s character as a human being by observing how they play Go.  When I first started playing I was interested to learn that the ranking system for player skill is the same as that in Japanese martial arts.  There are a series of Kyu ranks and then Dan (“black belt”) ranks leading up to professional status.

Another frequent observation is that it is very simple to learn the rules of the game but difficult to become good at it.  My own experience would support that.

It took no time at all to understand the basic rules.  The object is to build territory on the board while at the same time denying territory to your opponent and potentially surrounding and capturing his stones.  How one cuts off the opponent’s stones and how one builds legitimate territory are simple enough concepts.  How one does this while at the same time avoiding your opponent’s attempts to do the same is another matter.  Initially beginners make choppy clumsy attempts to chase each other around the board and surround each other’s stones.  A more experienced player who understands how to build territory can circumvent those attacks and very quickly leave the beginner wondering how they ended up with no place to set their stones.  In some ways it is not so different that the push hands exercise in Chinese martial arts.

There is a wonderful scene in the film Hero where Jet Li and Donnie Yen fight a duel in a Wei Chi house (chess in the subtitles) and an old blind man plays music.  The connection between the three arts is made clear.  The two fighters are even dressed in light and dark like the black and white stones of the game.

Its not difficult to see why games like Go or chess were considered valuable to the education of a man of worth.  In terms of Agathos, the underlying concept for this blog, such games as both recreation and training tool were (and still are) a display of Arete.  According to Greek art it was a worthy pastime for the heroes of the Homeric epics when taking a break between battles.

Unfortunately, whatever game they were playing is unclear and has not survived.  They seem to be placing or moving pieces but the inscription shows them speaking out numbers as in dice.  Whatever the case, in using Go as a tool to be Agathos I am apparently in good company.

Right now I am at a plateau.  I have become much better at avoiding the chase and surround game and my ability to avoid being chopped up piecemeal has improved.  However, I am entering my middle game without a good sense of the overall shape of the board.  I see the shapes in a given area but miss the bigger shapes.  I am able to respond tactically but not yet strategically.  Eventually my territory breaks down when playing strong players.  I have to accept that as a natural process.  Like so many forms of Arete, it is a pursuit that one has to follow without worrying about short term gain.  It is something to refine through a lifetime.