Mike Kueber's Blog

October 11, 2014

Malala wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Filed under: Law/justice,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:33 pm
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According to an article in the NY Times, Malala Yousafzai “became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — grouped in the same pantheon as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.” The article went on, however to question whether this 17-year-old teenager who still goes to high school has the ability to effective with her campaign to increase girls’ education worldwide when, in fact, security concerns prevent her from even visiting her home country of Pakistan.

My initial reaction to the story was to wonder why the pantheon of previous Peace Prize winners didn’t include President Obama in 2009 (international diplomacy) and former VP Al Gore in 2007 (climate change). Could it be that even the Times recognizes that those two winners diminish the award?

My second reaction was that, President Obama notwithstanding, the Peace Prize traditionally has been awarded on the basis of past performance, not the prospects for future performance. Thus, Malala should have been awarded the Prize based on what she has done, not on what she will do. Wikipedia partially confirms that view of the Prize:

  • “… to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Obviously, the strike zone for the Peace Prize has expanded over time, not unlike the Rhodes Scholarship, which was initially awarded to scholar athletes with “energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports,” but now routinely is given to nonathletes. Cecil Rhodes probably turned over in his grave as that change evolved.

The Times article reports on the discrepancy between Malala’s experience and that of other winners, but fails to expound on it:

  • “Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize after a lifetime of medical and humanitarian work, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi won it after decades of human rights protest in Myanmar, but Ms. Yousafzai is so young that her future path still seems unclear. She often says that she wants to become a leader in Pakistan like another of her heroes, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of Pakistan, assassinated in 2007.”

Although Malala’s chosen cause – increased girls’ education – is not directly related to the Prize’s criteria, she is not averse to venturing into other arenas, as when she recently challenged President Obama on America’s use of drones:

  • Asked how he responded, she gave a knowing look. “He’s a politician,” she said.

Personally, I don’t think a 17-year-old girl has the experience or perspective to match wits with our President on the use of drones. And I don’t think her accomplishments deserve this sort of award. Rather, as with the award to President Obama, the selection committee seems to be using its recipients to advance the committee’s agenda, and Alfred Nobel would not turn over in his grave over that.

October 10, 2014

Happy Drugs and yoga

Filed under: Fitness,Medical — Mike Kueber @ 11:57 pm
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I recently blogged about the possibility that yoga, like good sex, causes the human body to produce drugs that cause immense happiness. The science behind this hypothesis is explored in a popular book and an interesting scientific article in Psychology Today, both published in 2012:

  • Book – Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Graziano Breuning
  • Article – The Neurochemicals of Happiness by Christopher Bergland

Breuning’s book focuses on four chemicals:

  1. Dopamine – the joy of finding what you want, which motivates you to keep seeking rewards.
  2. Endorphin – the oblivion that masks pain, which motivates you to ignore physical pain.
  3. Oxytocin – the safety of social bonds, which motivates you to build social alliances.
  4. Serotonin – the security of social dominance, which motivates you to get respect from others.

Bergland’s article addresses seven neurochemicals, including Breuning’s four:

  1. Endocannabinoids – “the Bliss Molecule”
  2. Dopamine – “the Reward Molecule”
  3. Oxytocin – “the Bonding Molecule”
  4. Endorphin – “the Pain-Killing Molecule”
  5. GABA – “the Anti-Anxiety Molecule”
  6. Serotonin – “the Confidence Molecule”
  7. Adrenaline – “the Energy Molecule”

Both Breuning and Bergland approach this subject from the perspective that humans (and other mammals) are programmed so that they feel happy when engaging in activities that are conducive to their survival. To create this feeling of happiness (and encourage this behavior), the body produces various chemicals during those physical activities.

Unfortunately, as life has become more sedentary, the chemicals aren’t being produced as much, with a deleterious effect on happiness. The authors suggest that certain physical activities can reverse this trend. Because Bergland’s background is as a self-described world-class endurance athlete, his focus is primarily on how these neurochemicals can be produced by athletics:

Endocannabinoid: sustained running produces a runner’s high.

Dopamine: the high resulting from setting a goal and achieving it.

Oxytocin: skin-to-skin contact, lovemaking, affection and intimacy.

Endorphin: strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse, and orgasm.

GABA: yoga is much better than reading a book.

Serotonin: actions that increase self-esteem and reduce insecurity.

Adrenalin: distress and fearful situations.

Based on these findings, yoga could easily be helpful in producing endocannabinoid, dopamine, endorphin, serotonin, and especially GABA. And there is a subsequent study in Psychology Today reporting that yoga helps produce oxytocin.  That leaves only adrenalin unaffected by yoga, and, personally, I am willing to avoid the high produced by escaping a fearful situation.  No parachuting for me.

The connection between yoga and oxytocin is the most interesting to me.  Breuning describes the function of oxytocin as follows:

  • When you have a good feeling about someone, oxytocin causes it. When you feel you can trust a person, or you enjoy their trust in you, oxytocin is flowing. The feeling of belonging, and of safety in numbers, is oxytocin too.  Social trust improves survival prospects, and it feels good. The brain motivates you to build social bonds by rewarding them with a good feeling, and thus promotes survival.

The social component of yoga is undeniable.  I have commented to several friends that I select classes to attend primarily on knowing which of my classmates are attending which classes.  We visit some before class and often afterwards.  And during class, there is a ubiquitous reference to sharing your energy with those around you, especially when the practice gets physically demanding.

Breuning says, “Touch triggers oxytocin,” and although our Lifetime Fitness classes don’t often involve touching, earlier this year I attended a special practice conducted by a master teacher from Minnesota, and preached lots of touching.  First he placed our mats only a couple of inches apart and then twice had us introduce ourselves to our mat mates (the second time was to demonstrate how often an introduction is forgotten within minutes).  Later in the practice, we held our mates arms and feet to help with balancing poses.  And finally, after we were all sweated up, he had us give our mat mates a big hug.  That is touching, big time.

I suspect the master teacher’s routine hasn’t been adopted in SA because many of my classmates aren’t ready for that level of familiarity.  In lieu of that, for the past few weeks I have been taking baby steps in that direction by shaking hands with those on adjoining mats immediately after practice and thanking them for a great practice and sharing their energy.  I believe that is oxytocin talking.

And after one especially demanding practice a couple of months ago, I mentioned to my two mat mates that the practice felt like a religious experience.  That, too, was the oxytocin talking.  And that’s a good thing.

No democracy; we just want Islam

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 11:01 pm
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A Facebook friend recently posted a photo of bearded, agitated Muslims marching with a sign that reads, “No democracy, we just want Islam.” The punchline of the photo is that the Muslims weren’t marching in the Middle East, but rather in Dearborn, USA.

My first reaction to the photo was from a practical perspective – i.e., that it was another conservative attempt to create hysteria over the presence of Muslims in America, just as they often do with a warning that Muslims are attempting to impose Sharia law in America. And because the Muslims are such a small minority in America, I am confident that they will never be able to impose their views on democracy or Sharia law.

But my next reaction to the photo was from an intellectual perspective – i.e., is there anything wrong with Muslim-Americans advocating for democracy or Sharia law?  Many groups and institutions in America are run under undemocratic principles and they are able to function, some quite well. And Americans are among the most religious people in the world, and most religious organizations are highly respected despite being highly undemocratic.

So, do free people have the right to prefer a government that is more theocratic and less democratic? Yes, they do, but because of our constitution and its strong preference toward democracy and against theocracy, it seems that anyone with such an inclination would be better off living in a country with traditions and values more similar to their own.

October 9, 2014

The new normal

Filed under: Culture,Education — Mike Kueber @ 11:01 pm
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A few days ago after yoga practice, I was talking to a friend about kids, and she told me that her son had autism. When I asked about his schooling, I’m not sure how I phrased the question, but I suspect I asked whether he went to classes with normal kids, and she responded that he had special classes.

Later in our conversation, I mentioned another yoga classmate who has four kids, two of them autistic. This classmate had posted on Facebook about going postal one day at a doctor’s office because a nurse/receptionist made some comment contrasting her two autistic kids against her two “normal” kids.

My yoga friend sympathized with my other classmate and said it drove her crazy when people used the term normal to contrast them with her kids. This statement caused my head to spin because I was thinking I had used that precise term at the beginning of our conversation, and I wondered why my friend hadn’t gone postal on me.

Although my head was spinning, I asked my friend how to appropriately describe her son. She responded that autistic might be OK, but she didn’t like any term that ended in “ic,” so maybe it would be better to say, “kid with autism.”

But that didn’t really help with identifying the other kids. Instead of delving into that, I veered into the topic of political correctness, and she quickly agreed that that was a problem, with too many thin-skinned, overly sensitive people.

Thankfully, the conversation drifted in a different direction, with no apparent damage done to our friendship. But I was still uncomfortable about how to deal with this issue in the future, so I decided to check the internet for an answer.

Lucky for me, a forum on Yahoo.com had a provocative, on-point question:

  •  Should autistic kids be in the same class as normal kids?

Not surprisingly, many parents of autistic kids took umbrage at the term “normal,” primarily because it implied that their kids where abnormal. In their minds, there was no such thing as a normal kid; all kids had their idiosyncrasies, so why should their kids be the only ones labeled? The devil’s advocate in me responded that all kids may have their idiosyncrasies and “special needs,” but the special needs of autistic kids often requires a separate classroom.

Finally, though, one parent provided me with a solution when she suggested that she didn’t want her autistic child “mainstreamed.” The dictionary defines this term as, “to place (as a disabled child) in regular school classes,” and although regular may be almost as objectionable as normal, the term “mainstream” avoids both connotations, and instead suggests “nonmainstream,” which is comparable to special needs.

I’m OK with that, and hope I remember that the next time I open my mouth.

Yoga sequencing revisited

Filed under: Fitness,Self-improvement,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 6:31 pm
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About a year ago I blogged about yoga sequencing based on reading a book on that subject and on my experience with the “signature” practices at Lifetime Fitness.

Essentially, the best sequence consists of some introductory sitting poses and perhaps breathing exercises to get your mind right, followed by three sun salutations (each performed about five times), with Sun A easy, Sun B hardened by including chair and a warrior pose, and Sun C hardest by including a panoply of poses that challenge the entire body. By the end of Sun B, you realize that your body is totally warmed and primed to take on the challenge of Sun C. By the end of Sun C, your body is totally engaged and clicking on all eight cylinders.

But everyone knows that it is preferable to gradually cool down a motor, so instead of abruptly relaxing after Sun C, proper yoga sequencing shifts from the vinyasa flows of sun salutations to a few stationary, but challenging asanas that keep your engine running for a few minutes. Finally, the practice ends with some stretching/flexibility asanas and the savasana.

Although this sequencing sounds pretty simple, it is difficult to execute. Because of varying abilities of the students and because some yogis are more lenient while others are more sadistic, the pace of the class often doesn’t meet the needs of the particular student. To avoid this result, our yogis regularly remind us that our practice is our own and that we should modify the practice as necessary to meet our needs. That is hard to do because of indirect pressure from yogis and peers to keep up.

Personally, I rarely find a class to be too easy. Much more often, the class is too difficult. Instead of yoga being like good sex (right down to the post-coital cigarette), it is like the Bataan Death March. A couple of days ago, I experienced that type of class, and another metaphor came to mind – i.e., in the last few minutes of practice, instead of my engine running on empty, it was running on fumes.  That is not a good feeling.

Speaking of good sex, I’ve read before about how good sex generates four “happy drugs” in your body – oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine – and I suspect yoga does the same thing. Sounds like something I need to research further.


Abortion rears its ugly head on Facebook

Filed under: Culture,Facebook,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:50 am

One of my sisters-in-law posted on her Facebook wall a crude abortion-rights poster that consisted of a simple decision tree. If you are on Facebook at all, you have probably seen the thing – essentially, if you have a vagina, you are entitled to an opinion on abortion rights (euphemistically called reproductive rights); if you don’t have a vagina, shut up.

Because I find the poster to be not only crudely insulting, but also simplistically fallacious, I sometimes comment, and I did so today, with my standard response:

  • Yeah, but the next time we have a discussion about fighting a war, do we want all non-soldiers to shut up?

Usually this response ends the discussion, but my sister-in-law took a different tack by accepting my suggestion:

  • S-I-L: Might be a good idea Mike!! Each one of us should be willing to stand up and protect our individual right!!
  • Me: Unfortunately, God did not bless men with the ability to have babies; nor women with the ability to fight in war.
  • SIL: Biologically men cannot have babies. However MANY women have proved they can fight a war!!
  • Denise Whitman: You are so wrong, Mike Kueber – but you will never admit it.

Where the hell did Denise Whitman come from? You may not recall, but as I blogged previously, Denise’s sister got into a heated discussion on Facebook with Kelly and me over bossy girls who show leadership skills, and Denise interjected that Kelly and me need to get a life. Both of the women “unfriended” Kelly.

No surprisingly, Kelly mocked Denise a bit:

  • Kelly: Come on Mike Kueber you know you are wrong! Admit it:

I was mightily tempted to mock Denise, too, with a suggestion that a picture of her can be found in the dictionary alongside the term “peanut gallery” – i.e., a group of people who criticize someone, often by focusing on insignificant details.” But I bit my tongue and instead said:

  • Me: By wrong, I assume you mean that only people with vaginas should decide the abortion issue. I tried to provide an analogy that shows how silly that idea is. Obviously, I failed. I could provide you with additional analogies, but I suspect it makes more sense to stop.

By now Kelly had cooled down and tried to calm the waters:

  • Kelly: I think abortion is wrong and I think men should have the right to vote on all issues just like women were given that right about 100 years ago! It is OK to argue and not let it become personal!
  • SIL: Mike and Kelly, everyone has their own beliefs on what is right and what is wrong. I don’t want to start a family war about this. Which is the reason I don’t ever say much in person or on FB about how I feel about politics, religion, and other personal issues. There is nothing I can say or do to change the way you feel or how I do. So we should just leave it as we agree to disagree!
  • Mike: SIL, whenever Facebook friends post a political poster, I assume that they are inviting a discussion of the topic. Otherwise they should include a disclaimer to “please don’t comment unless you agree.” As Kelly has suggested, people should be able to discuss politics or religion without getting angry or judgmental. But telling all men to “shut up” is not a good way to start a rational discussion on abortion. This issue is evolving and everyone should keep an open mind.
  • SIL: I do have an open mind Mike. I have 2 brothers that are as opposite as there ever could be. I listen to both of them and feel they both have good and bad points. I know you and your brother do not share my views and that is good to. But I felt that your comments were not about the abortion issue as much as they were just slamming woman in general. We are the ones that surrender our bodies and lives in most cases. We have also fought much harder than you can believe to gain a lot of the rights that men take for granted. I also believe that at 18 all able bodied people should sign up with SS. Equality should not just be for black and white.
  • Mike: Jeez, SIL, it’s ironic that I am “slamming women in general,” while your poster has women telling all men to shut up. As they say in sports, go figure. And you are wrong to infer that I don’t share your view on abortion. Personally, I would vote for Texas to adopt the ruling of Roe v. Wade, but I think each state should have been allowed to vote on this issue instead of having the Supreme Court force it on everyone nationwide.
  • SIL: Ok Mike, I find a hung jury!! And I (my post) did not tell MEN to shut up! It says ‘IF YOU DON’T HAVE VAGINA’. Have a nice day!!

Although that last comment doesn’t seem to make sense, it did include an invitation to draw this discussion to a close, and I accepted by giving her the last word.

About a week ago, I blogged about a Facebook discussion with a woman over George Clooney’s bride wherein the woman attempted to cut her losses by suggesting that, “This isn’t worth arguing about.” I told her that I wasn’t arguing, but rather was giving my brain its daily exercise. Today’s exercise was not nearly as satisfying because I sensed a failure to communicate. Although the soldier analogy is undeniable, it was not effective. And we never touched on the essence of the abortion issue, which is when does society have an obligation or right to protect a fetus from its mother.

Another day.

October 7, 2014

Further reflections of Pride & Prejudice and From the Terrace

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 7:37 pm
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I recently wrote about Pride & Prejudice and From the Terrace, but neglected to mention a common thread to these movies – i.e., the importance of marrying someone in your socio-economic class or preferably from a higher class. Pride & Prejudice was set near London around 1800 and From the Terrace was set in Philadelphia/New York immediately after WWII.

Both movies involve people near the top of society, but not at the top, and that is probably key to examining the resulting insecurities associated with climbing or falling. Although I find this subject fascinating, I confess to being totally oblivious to it during my formative or working years. Only late in life have I perceived the effect of these insecurities on different people.

But even with the benefit of my improved perception, I can’t imagine picking a life partner based on her social position. As Matthew Kelly suggests in The Rhythm of Life, a person’s principal reason for living is to be the best version of you that is possible and I don’t see how your partner’s elevated social status will help you toward your raison d’être.



Living for the moment

Filed under: Philosophy,Retirement — Mike Kueber @ 7:13 pm

This past Sunday, my 59-year-old best friend took a hiatus from his retirement and returned to the workforce by taking a job as a contract employee for State Farm Insurance in Denver. The contract, which runs through December 31, 2014, pays extremely well, and State Farm has apparently decided that highly-paid, short-term contractors are more cost-effective than moderately-paid, long-term employees. But what was my best friend thinking?

Working overtime for more money is as American as apple pie. One of my sons recently went to work as an emergency-room doctor, which is essentially a shift position. Because of a shortage of these doctors, his employer often asks him to work an additional shift, and if my son has no important plans for that day, he will take the shift because he can use the extra money.

My 57-year-old brother in ND helps build planes, and because of a shortage of able-bodied manufacturing workers in ND, his employer is always asking and sometimes requiring him to work overtime. Because my brother is attempting to stockpile some money for his retirement, he will often volunteer for some additional hours, but not when he is feeling drained.

But my best friend is different. He already has more money than he will need for his retirement. He even has more money than he will need for his estate. His primary reason for returning to work, it seems to me, is because he doesn’t enjoy depleting an estate that he has spent his life building. That sentiment reminds me of something a Texas historian said many years ago about a cattle-drive cowboy – i.e., the cowboy was unable to empty his canteen of water that he had so mightily sought to preserve during the long cattle drive. (Damn, I wish I could remember who wrote that. Dobie? Webb?)

A secondary reason for my friend returning to work is that he hasn’t taken to retirement. Although that is a common problem with retirees, I am surprised that it has afflicted him. He is a Jesuit-educated Irish Catholic who prides himself on being reflective. Yet, in the end, he seems more influenced by the Protestant work ethic.  Talk about irony.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about impulse control or deferred gratification, but that is not what my friend is dealing with.  When a person reaches our age, we need to live each year, each month, and each day like it is our last, and I believe that my friend’s sojourn in Denver is just where he should be.

Really listening

Filed under: Culture,Relationships,Self-improvement — Mike Kueber @ 1:18 am
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Last month when I was visiting with a friend in my hometown of Aneta, ND, she mentioned a high school chum who regularly returns to Aneta for its summer festival in June. This chum lives an outwardly successful life in a large urban area, yet still seems to enjoy returning to the small-town rural charm of Aneta and reconnecting with the people she grew up with. But something in their conversations has begun to bother my friend.

It seems that my friend and her chum usually bump into each other before or after Aneta’s small parade on Saturday, and invariably they have a warm and friendly chat for a few minutes before moving on. At first, these conversations were very satisfying, with the polished urban person asking appropriate questions and apparently enjoying the conversation. But lately my friend has realized that her chum asks the same questions every year, not unlike the movie Groundhog’s Day.

Although the repeated questions might not be immediately insulting, my friend has gradually become insulted because she has concluded that her chum is merely deploying her social graces in answering the appropriate questions and is not actually listening to or remembering her answers.

I think my friend is right.

One of my happy-hour friends complains that I often ask him the same question on multiple occasions, and I have to confess that this happens when I am making conversation with him instead of being hugely interested in what his answer is.

Don Imus has the same problem. Several times I’ve noticed him ask a guest something that I recalled he asked the same guest several weeks ago, and occasionally the guest will even point that out. Obviously, Don was making conversation in the earlier interview and didn’t particularly care what the guest’s response was (even though Imus takes great pride in asserting that, unlike other media interviewers, he actually listens to the answers and then lets those answers dictate the direction of the interview).

So, is this a teaching moment? I’m not sure. Obviously, it would be nice to be sincerely interested in your conversation, consistent with that old saying, “Be here now.” But sometimes a person is engaged in casual conversation that is not significant.

Do I want to waste my scarce brain cells remembering that? I vote yes, and I’m going to redouble my efforts here.

October 6, 2014

Saturday Night at the Movies #128 – Platoon

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 10:15 pm
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A few weeks ago, while channel surfing, I stumbled across Mel Gibson’s 2002 Vietnam war movie, We Were Soldiers. Because I remembered enjoying the movie a couple of years ago when I saw it for the first time, I gave it another viewing.  This time I enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to several friends, including my brother Kelly who told me that he would watch it because one of his favorite movies of all time was also a Vietnam war movie – Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. Although I had previously seen Platoon, I couldn’t remember much about it and decided to give it another viewing.

It’s hard to believe that We Were Soldiers and Platoon came out of the same war. The Wikipedia entry for Platoon suggests that it was intended to “counter the vision of war portrayed in John Wayne’s The Green Berets.” My recollection of The Green Berets (1968) is that John Wayne played it like a cowboys & Indians movie, with the Americans being the good guys and the North Vietnamese being the bad guys. By contrast, Oliver Stone’s Platoon has the American soldiers mostly as either deeply sadistic or stupidly naïve. I prefer Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers because it is inspirational and its soldiers (both American and Vietnamese) are essentially noble professionals.

After watching Platoon, I texted brother Kelly:

  • Me – I hope Vietnam wasn’t really like that.
  • Kelly – Pretty realistic I think.
  • Me – Although the movie is autobiographical, I think Oliver Stone’s credibility is low. But then again, Vietnam soldiers were not like those we have now.
  • Kelly – Yes, the men on patrol in Vietnam had it tough.
  • Me – Yeah, because morale was so horrible. But I wonder if our current troops would do better, or would they get demoralized, too.

My conversation with Kelly generated two questions that, despite further reflection, I am unable to confidently answer:

  1. Were the American soldiers in Vietnam as rotten as depicted? Who am I to judge Oliver Stone, although he seems to be a bitter cynic?
  2. Would the professional soldiers of today have performed better in Vietnam? Probably not, unless they were as rotten as Oliver Stone depicted them.
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