An open letter to The New Yorker's international gift subscription complaints department


Couple problems. I tried to gift my brother a New Yorker subscription just now:


Because I live in Australia, I click the appropriate link ("Click here to send this gift to an international address"):


Fill out my brother's details and click submit, because I'm not really paying attention. Oh, what? How in fuck's name is this a gift form? I've just ordered him a regular subscription with no indication who it's from. And he's the one getting the payment receipt.

Fine, whatever. I'll just have to tell him now that I ordered him a subscription. Luckily this credit card number runs out before the auto-renew kicks in, since, contrary to your claims ("If giving a gift, this does not apply to your gift subscription") on the order form for gifts, the subscription confirmation I received says plain: "This order includes the Subscriber's Automatic Renewal Feature". (Surely breaking some sort of false advertising / scam me out of my money law, at least in this country.)

I wonder if you've had many international gift subscriptions from this page. If not, maybe all this is the reason why.

* * *

Okay, so where do I go to try and sort out this mess? Ah, I see:


So I can't log into my account. Funny, I know that I have access to the online archive through my regular email login. Well, maybe customerservice needs a separate registration.

The next possibility asks for an account number. Well, since I bought my subscription on an iPad through the app I never received one. Never see a receipt since it goes through iTunes. Scratch that option.

Finally, aha!, "I don't have my account number, what should I do?" — perfect, right?


Select a country.

United States.

Fuck you too, Americans.

Luckily for all of us, I found a "Contact Us" page with a text box. Hopefully this will help to sort something out.

* * *

By the way, while I'm here, I also wanted to point out that having to use the clunky online archive mess for articles in the current issue behind the paywall is a pain in the arse.

* * *

Besides all this technology mess, though, love your work. Good luck sorting it all out.

Merry Christmas,


Adobe keming

From the company that brought you InDesign, arguably the world's best software for typography:

Screen shot 2012 07 01 at 4 54 52 PM

‘Play er’ is clearly the highlight.


Academic dress

The Thesis Whisperer has a series of articles (well, two at time of writing) on what to wear as an academic. It reminded me that I wanted to mention an experiment I'm currently conducting, the outcomes of which I am very happy about.

The experiment? Dress only in black. Like a uniform. I'm serious, and it's been fantastic. I own seven black t-shirts, two black shirts, and one pair of black jeans. That's it.

Every day I put on the same clothes, and my morning has become that small amount easier. My wardrobe is much smaller and easier to organise. As is washing day. I never need to worry about accidentally dressing down one day, nor that sometimes awkward feeling of wearing work clothes at the pub. Packing for travel is just plain simple.

Maybe I'll eventually tire of black. Or perhaps one day I'll take up saffron.


Thoughts on “The monk and the philosopher”

“The monk and the philosopher” (1998) is a unique book. It contains a number of presumably-edited ‘dialogues’ between father and son Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, the former a French philosopher and the latter a science PhD turned Buddhist monk, also known more recently as the happiest man in the world (somewhat tongue in cheek). (I strongly recommend Ricard's Happiness, which is how I happened on this book.) They discuss, of course, the meaning of life and other matters, largely couched in the context of Buddhism and its attraction to a once-scientist.

This book, or rather Matthieu's words, really opened my eyes in many ways to the ideas behind Buddhist philosophy; in fact, my misconceptions are basically quoted in the book as being how not to think about Buddhism:

[J.-F.R.] You sometimes hear people wondering how Buddhism could help bring peace, as it's a philosophy of detachment that encourages withdrawal from society. Monks live alone in the mountains and pray for others, but in fact they do nothing for humanity. (§6)

As I've expressed it to myself, that to achieve ultimate happiness and enlightenment we'd all end up living in caves in the mountains, and where does that leave our civilisation? This is a reductio ad absurdum view of Buddhism that doesn't accurately capture their advice for living at all. (More on this later.)

Indeed, the book contains a wealth of knowledge that fascinated the philosophical layperson part of me:

[J.-F.R.] Ataraxia is an imperturbable state that the wise man has to attain, according to Stoicism; it's to no longer be exposed to the unpredictable effects of the good and bad that come up in daily life. (§2)

Not only did I not realise that Stoicism was an ancient philosophical movement (hence the term ‘stoic’), but how great is the word ‘ataraxia’?

One aspect of the book that struck me quite forcefully was the unbreachable dichotomy between how consciousness is viewed in modern scientific versus Buddhist terms. I personally lean quite strongly towards the reductionist view of consciousness as discussed by those such as Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet, whereby our consciousness can be explained purely in terms of emergent properties of the way our brains take physical inputs, process them, and form symbols to represent objects in the world that is perceived. (To sum it up perhaps too pithily, consciousness arises from the feedback loop caused from the fact that our brains have symbols for themselves.)

Douglas Hofstadter in particular (in I am a Strange Loop) discusses the idea that other animals probably have a lesser consciousness than humans, and insects perhaps not at all, but he would never argue that a rock, say, has a consciousness at all. Whereas from the Buddhist perspective (and other eastern religious of similar lineage, I believe), consciousness is a phenomenon that arises from processes outside of what we'd term the physical world; Mattieu Ricard discusses the idea of a ‘field of consciousness’ that presumably pervades everything (even inanimate matter) and gives us the spark of life, or a soul. (Reincarnation can be seen in this light as maintaining a continuity of consciousness across lives, where a reborn soul picks off from a previous thread in this ethereal medium.) Occam's Razor effectively debunks this argument for me, but the Buddhist experience and the truth which they see is hard to disregard lightly. However, Jean-François refutes this somewhat in another section of the book:

[J.-F.R.] It's no good taking the sincere aspiration that people might feel for some spiritual system as any proof of its authenticity; it might well be fake, because the sad fact is that human beings have an unfortunate dendency to feel strong inclinations for all sorts of strange things. (§12)

That the self, or even reality itself, is an illusion is a common gross idea shared across Buddhism and other related philosophies (including the yoga texts). The philosopher summarises such thoughts:

[J.-F.R.] The influence that I can have on the course of events is an illusion; it brings me enormous hopes and disappointments, and makes me live in constantly alternating joy and fear which torture me internally If I can reach the conviction that the self is nothing, and that in fact I'm only the channel of a certain stream of reality, I'll attain a degree of serenity. [...] Alas, however, our actual experience rebels against such reasoning. (§19)

How intuitive it is that our minds reject the idea that our minds are free! Although this isn't presented in terms of free will, it's a great way to address that debate as well. (Again, I'm fairly into the camp that free will is an illusion, as well.) This statement covers more than just free will, however. Our worldly possessions, our fame or how we are perceived by others, our memories and nostalgia, is all a form of artifice. This shouldn't be viewed as nihilism because of the intrinsic altruism and avoidance of suffering that is part of Buddhist life. My mind still spins in circles trying to put my own consistent slant on the whole system, however.

Back to the Buddhist teachings that align more strongly with my own viewpoint.

[M.R.] At the same moment as committing yourself to the path, you should have the intention to attain Buddha-hood for the sake of all beings. You transform yourself in order to acquire the capacity to help others free themselves from suffering. (§5)

Altruism is discussed a lot in the book, but this quote summarises it all for me. There's no point in enlightenment if you're doing it on your own. In other words:

[M.R.] It's quite useless to liberate ourselves alone from suffering if all the living beings around us continue to suffer.

And to further reinforce that the solitary retreats that are common of the spiritual masters aren't the end goal: (and this applies more generally to other aspects of, say, the extreme physical abilities from yoga practises)

[M.R.] ‘The goal of asceticism is mastery of the mind. Apart from that, what use would asceticism be?’

Krishnamacharya himself espoused the view that demonstrating advanced yoga techniques was a useful form of propaganda. But now I'm digressing. The main thread here is that we belong to the world and environment in which we live, and our ultimate rôle should be to perfect ourselves and our surroundings in this context. How can we hope to achieve this? The tidy non-answer to such a question is to simply do it. Mattieu summarises the forms of laziness that prevents this from happening:

  1. To spend all your time eating and sleeping
  2. To tell yourself ‘Someone like me will never manage to perfect themselves’
  3. To waste your life on tasks of secondary importance, without ever getting down to what's most essential

Finally, the philosopher's closing to the book resonates with me quite strongly:

Wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both, nevertheless, exist — forever indispensable, forever separate, forever complementary.

I find I must agree with Jean-François's viewpoint, that a greater understanding of the philosophy and psychology behind Buddhist leads to a great appreciation for its power as a path to live by. Nonetheless, its metaphysical aspects simply do not gel with a modern view of science. I also find this with yoga. So how does one draw the line? As best as one can.


A weekend of Nrtta Sadhana

Last weekend I spent three mornings at an introductory workshop for Nrtta Sadhana with Emma Balnaves. Nrtta (pronounced sort of like nritta) Sadhana, developed and taught by Zhander Remete and Emma, is a yoga style that can be considered a progression from Shadow Yoga; Emma was very careful to describe N.S. as a separate practice to Shadow Yoga (in no way able to be combined in a single practice) but at the same time something like "a next step" after it.

I would describe nrtta sadhana as subtle, close, introspective — in comparison to shadow yoga being gross, wide, expansive. Etc. Some of those words were Emma's and I can't really do justice to the explanation she gave. The gist is that having worked on the outer body, focussing on large movements, the next step is to move inwards, using smaller and closer physical movements to keep the mind more tightly focused.

But what does it mean to say that nrtta sadhana is a progression from shadow yoga? Frequently throughout the workshop, Emma referenced to and used as analogy aspects of the shadow yoga prelude forms to describe how a nrtta pose should work or feel. And as sibling practices, overlaps in style means anyone who is comfortable in shadow yoga should appreciate the flow of nrtta sadhana. Strengths obtained in shadow yoga are used in nrtta sadhana and weaknesses not yet overcome will reveal themselves.

Nrtta Sadhana consists of some 32–36 forms, which share little in common with what is generally found in current western yoga practices. Nrtta Sadhana was taught to Zhander by a sadhu in India, and its forms are depicted in ancient temples there; Nrtta Sadhana can be considered a reincarnation of an ancient practise rather than a new form of yoga. Not plucked out of thin air, so to speak.

It doesn't make sense to try and write down a description of the physical aspects of nrtta sadhana; aside from its complexity, it is something that can only be learned in person. In broads terms, though, one major component in nrtta sadhana is in careful and delicate movements and placement of the upper extremities, which are often neglected in other yoga practices. As one might expect, this brings a very different "energy" to the practice over other forms of yoga (incl. shadow yoga); I am distinctly aware of this difference in my own practice even in my limited exposure so far.

The introductory workshop taught us three complete forms which I understand are the first three "palms" of the eight palms workshop, which are taught over nine days in more comprehensive workshops. Other nrtta sadhana forms again are taught in complementary workshops. It's not clear to me whether anyone knows the complete set besides Emma and Zhander. (I didn't want to ask too many questions on my first time.)

Indeed, this is a concern that's been expressed to me by some shadow yoga students I've spoken to — what's the point of doing a nrtta sadhana workshop if you can't attend classes for it except when Emma or Zhander is in town? There are two responses to this: firstly, (and these are my own words, here) since nrtta sadhana is so introspective I believe the benefit of self practice is of far more import. Secondly, I'm pleased to report that from circa 2013 Emma and Zhander are allowing select of their shadow yoga instructors to also teach nrtta sadhana. Whether Your-Local-Shadow-Yoga-Teacher will add it to their teaching repertoire is another question, but it opens the horizons for the practice.

So what was the workshop like as an attendee? Exhausting. Fantastic. The first day was the most physically demanding, and the last day the most mentally. As I mentioned above, I can't attempt to describe the different activities performed and practised, but a summary could be:

  • Day one: introduction and warm-ups
  • Day two: form one and half of forms two and three
  • Day three: forms two and three and putting them all together

We were instructed/encouraged/impelled to practise on our own each afternoon except after the last day (nice to have a rest!), and then every morning for two weeks to allow the work to properly sink in. Surprisingly to me, it actually has managed to imprint itself quite well in my brain already, and I'm enthusiastic to keep up the practice. After a few days on my own, I'm still recalling details that I'd seemingly forgotten.

Emma Balnaves is an excellent teacher. Clear and passionate, she guided each session (physical and discussion) with humour while keeping all firmly on track. I would love the privilege to take another workshop with her in the future. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't line up with theirs for the entire year! So it may have to be some time before I can.

On a personal note, I found I had two main areas of weakness: the flexibility of my hips (of course; as always) and the flexibility of my big toe (!). By all accounts these areas of the body are energetically linked, so I expect both to loosen up in tandem with (lots and lots of) work.

My year in 2012 is going to be hectic and exciting, and I'm hoping to use nrtta sadhana to keep me sane and energised. Thanks once again to Emma for having me at such a fine workshop.