Thursday, August 15, 2013

Friday, August 09, 2013

Vagus Nerves and the need not to gossip or backbite

Interesting article:

Vagus thinking: Meditate your way to better health, from the 18 July 2013 edition of New Scientist

It talks about the importance of "vagal tone," the relation between heartbeat and breathing, as it affects the vagus nerve.

Remember the saying, "The journey between the head and the heart is one of a thousand miles."? Well, that is what the vagus nerve does. Literally. It connects the brain and the heart. It is very important for health and alertness. Recent findings show that you can improve the tone of that nerve.

"Then there are mental benefits. People with higher vagal tone tend to be intellectually sparkier, with a better working memory and ability to focus their attention. Some work even suggests that the low vagal tone commonly seen in people with chronic fatigue syndrome may account for the cognitive slowness that can accompany the condition."

The scientist researching this has come up with "loving kindness meditation" techniques to improve vagal tone, techniques that remind one of Abdu'l-Baha's teachings against negative thoughts about others, or even about life itself. As you see below, this is also a teaching of the Quran.

"Learning loving kindness meditation improves vagal tone," says Fredrickson. And good vagal tone improves emotional and social well-being. So an "upward spiral" exists, in which higher vagal tone promotes greater social connectedness and positive emotions, which then promotes even higher vagal tone. She calls social connectedness a potent "wellness behaviour", noting that social isolation is associated with an increased risk of death comparable to smoking, drinking too much alcohol, obesity or physical inactivity. If she is correct, vagal tone is an important player in the mind-body connection, and loving kindness meditation is a key to improving our mental and physical well-being, deepening our personal experience, and lengthening our lives."

..."Meanwhile, if you are tempted to think well of others, there is one thing you should know: improving vagal tone is hardest for people who have low tone to begin with. But whatever your level, there is hope – and regular meditation may not even be necessary. Exercise also boosts vagal tone, although there still isn't enough research to quantify its impacts. Repeated exposure to "excitative" music may do too. Andy Martens at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, has found that hearing positive feedback about yourself can increase vagal tone, suggesting that anything that enhances your self-esteem might help. And Kok has unpublished work showing that just reflecting on positive social experiences during the day boosts vagal tone."

The health of our vagus nerve also seems to have something to do with genius, the confirmations our efforts get from others, and from the Spirit. The Baha'i writings say:

"The confirmations of the Spirit are all those powers and gifts which some are born with (and which men sometimes call genius), but for which others have to strive with infinite pains. They come to that man or woman who accepts his life with radiant acquiescence."
~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Socrates and Confucius on Leadership

Thursday, August 8, 2013
10:20 AM

Research report

I am still fascinated with my utopia, my Ur world government. What would be the ideal governance that would prevail there? All my life I have been building and refining this imagined stepping stone to world government in my head. Since it has no physical existence, I build it up and tear it down at the drop of a hat. As soon as a problem crops up I go from raising to razing to rebuilding from the ground up. The construction changes as my enquiry into the nature of democracy advances and my questions change. Socrates put one question perfectly that I wrestle with constantly. Who should rule? His answer covers all the bases.
 "The true kings, the true magistrates, (...) are not those who wear crowns, those who have been elected by just anyone, those who have been chosen by lot, nor those who have used force or fraud, but those who know how to rule." (Xenophon, Memorabilia III, 9, 10).
Here, Socrates lists each of the most important ways of gaining power: birth or experience (wearing a crown), election (the characteristic road to leadership in an  oligarchy or meritocracy, but not, contrary to popular misconception, democracy), sortition (i.e., lottery for public service posts, as in a jury; this is the real characteristic of democracy, which assumes that all citizens are equal), of despotism (force) or kleptocracy (fraud). But the only legitimate path to leadership is, he says, is through demonstrable knowledge. Rule of those who know how to rule. Call it epistemocracy.
Lately, I discovered that this same idea, that power should go to those who can show they know, was best taken up in China. And by "best," I mean that they actually invented a way to assure that those to take high posts in government demonstrate that actually know what they are doing in a clear, systematic way. That invention is the written civil service examination. This led to rule by Mandarin. The Mandarins were the first group of leaders ever who could say with full assurance that they paid their dues, they showed in an objective manner that they know what they are doing when they take a post in government.
This is a momentous discovery that, I think, should be taught in every history class from primary school on up. I am still reeling from this realization, and I have been reading history all my life.
When you discover something like that, you change your reading habits. I immediately turned to a book about Confucius that happened to be sitting on my bookshelves. It is a biography of Confucius written in 1971 by one Betty Kalen. My question going into it was, how did the teachings of Confucius lay the groundwork for the invention of written exams? Clearly, Confucius did not say, "Use written tests if you want to have rule by Mandarin." But his teachings were a precondition somehow.

Kalen writes that the ultimate ideal of Confucian thinking is "Ta Ting," a world commonwealth. This, Confucius says, is the "great principle." In other words, he was a founder of the principle of universal peace that, the Writings tell us, is the goal of all other Baha'i principles. UP is the ring that rules them all, as JRR Tolkien might have put it. Kalen states that at United Nations headquarters in New York there hangs a plaque of black marble, inscribed in gold in the Chinese calligraphy of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the "father of the Chinese revolution." The quotation is from the Li Chi, the Book of Rites. In other words, it is traditionally ascribed to Confucius.

"When the Great Principle prevails, the world is a commonwealth in which rulers are selected according to their wisdom and ability. Mutual confidence is promoted and good neighbourliness cultivated. Hence, men do not regard as parents only their own parents, nor do they treat as children only their own children. Provision is secured for the aged until death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means for growing up for the young. Helpless widows and widowers, orphans and the lonely, as well as the sick and the disabled, are well cared for. Men have their respective occupations and women their homes. They do not like to see wealth lying idle, yet they do not keep it for their own gratification. They despise indolence, yet they do not use their energies for their own benefit. In this way, selfish schemings are repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless men no longer exist, and there is no need for people to shut their outer doors. This is called the Great Harmony." (Confucius, In Life and Legend, by Betty Kelen, Thomas Nelson, Inc., New York, 1971, p. 103-104)

Great Harmony! Sounds a lot like "Most Great Peace," doesn't it? I just had to see what this plaque, hanging at the UN in New York, looks like. No, I do not read Chinese, but just the same, I had to see it. This is surely one of the founding documents of any future world government. This, surely, is something that every person of Chinese heritage must be immensely proud. It must be like the US Constitution is for Americans, the subject of story, song and action movies.
So I did what anybody does who wants to see anything nowadays, I looked for the plaque of marble, inscribed in gold, on Google images. Not a trace. As far as I can tell, just a couple of years after Kelen's book was published, China entered the U.N., and demanded that the plaque be taken down. What the UN did with it, I have no idea. If you want to see the quote, in English translation, you have to go to California and see a roadside statue of Confucius:

I looked into this some more and found that official rulers of China, including the republic of Sun Yat-sen, the guy who did the calligraphy, did their best to repress all memory of Confucius. The Communist regime of Mao especially suppressed Confucius. Until, that is, about ten years ago. Now the Chinese government is supporting "Confucius societies" in universities around the world. So, maybe there is hope that China's founding document will once more find its way into the UN building.

More on my research later.


Thursday, August 01, 2013

Phantom and Admission Review

Phantom and Admission, Movie Review

Every Monday is two for one DVD night at our local video store. Sometimes I pick my movie based on the number of tomatoes it earns on's "tomato meter". Other times, I do not. Either the movie did not turn up on my tomato meter radar (I only read the reviews of movies that make more than 90 percent at rotten tomatoes), or, at the store, I cannot remember how well it did.

At such times, I have to rely only on the blurb on the back of the box -- our video store prints it out in large, senior friendly letters on the back of their boxes. The letters are so large that sometimes, when I forget my glasses, I can still, with effort, make out what the blurb has to say about the movie.
Last night, my double feature consisted of Phantom, a submarine drama, and Admission, which is billed as a light, romcom. Phantom I could not recall seeing at tomatoes. So I had only this:
"A submarine captain suffering from mind-altering seizures (Which are identified in the movie as epilepsy. Why not use the word?) is forced to leave his family when he is rushed into a classified mission. (As opposed to all the submarine crew who do not leave their families?) Haunted by his past and challenged by a rogue KGB group bent on seizing control of the ship's nuclear missile, the fate of humanity rests in the captain's hands when he discovers he was chosen for the mission in the belief he would fail."
I picked this film because I do not like to be bored at my double feature; it looked exiting, an action movie. It worked quite well, the male lead was impressive and carried it well. It seemed realistic, considering that the movie, while based on real events, is utter speculation from start to finish. All we really know is that a Soviet submarine sank in the late 1960's. That is all historians really can be sure of, so top secret was the mission, then and now. If everything in the sub happened as in the movie, we would all owe our lives to this submarine captain who saved civilization from nuclear annihilation.

It was not hard to lose yourself in the film, so realistic are the sets and sounds, but you have to get used to hearing supposedly Russian crewmen speaking American accented English. I thought that they could at least have pronounced the names in the Russian way. It is jarring to hear the name "Vladimir" mangled in the American way, instead of the guttural expletive that Russian mouths spit out. The crew, using an old-even-then diesel submarine, seem impressively competent. The ending is strange, they seem to dredge the sub home to Russia, though the ending titles explain that the sub, or at least its top secret "phantom" cloaking device, remains in American hands.
Admission is a Tina Fay vehicle that, I recalled, did fairly well on the Tomato meter. Still, the story of a university admissions officer, named Portia, no less? How romantic or even interesting can that be? Indeed, one adolescent character, who is forced to travel the world with his adoptive father, romanticizes Portia's boring existence.
Not so much boring, actually, as superfluous.
Admissions officers should not even exist. Universities get to cherry-pick who their students are going to be? Is not that like letting doctors pick only healthy people to cure? Or hiring cops only for places where no crime takes place?

Actually, one character, Portia's romantic rival, picks up on that feeling. She says to Portia something like, "In England our universities do not use the broad criteria of American colleges. We pick students only based on marks. For us, it is the gray cells that matter." Here am I thinking, is that better, or worse? If you have students so smart that you do not really have to teach them, will that not tempt the school not to bother about teaching at all?
Imagine a police department that has few criminals to deal with, and which also is tasked with criminology research. Which is likely to be emphasized, crime fighting or research? Which enhances the reputation of a school like Portia's Stanford, teaching or research? If she does her job well they will not have to worry much about teaching; all the students will teach themselves. They will enter the elite and give full credit to the brand's degree.
There should be a name for this sort of movie, ones that bill themselves as romantic comedies but which are really something else. In this case, Admission is too humorless to be a comedy, and not serious enough to be a drama. Call it an "anomie" flick.
In spite of the lead actor's proven amiability and skill, it is very hard to sympathize with Tina Fey's Portia. She lives with a man for I forget how many years, then when he leaves her for another woman, she can only pretend to care about it. She is depressed, but not primarily because of her relationships. She sees the futility of her work, but does not seek for more. She does find it useful, though, to pretend she is living a tragedy, to play on the pity that her breakup arouses in rivals and colleagues, and turn it to her own ends. She is no motherly type, but the only passion that she shows is for a boy that she thinks is her son. When it turns out that he is not, really, by then the viewer is past caring.
So lacking in commitment is Portia that nothing works out for her, and ultimately, she does not much care. So, why should we?
The feeling you get at the end is a mild sort of fleeting melancholy. Mild because her anomie is just what she has sown and reaped. In the same way, failure to even address its job as an institution of learning is what Stanford seeks and finds. Finally, Portia stands up for a student who seems actually to need to be taught. She pulls a fast one and gets him accepted, even at the price of being fired. Ironically, though, this boy is an autodidact, someone who educated himself. Even more than other applicants, he does not need to go to school in order to learn. He says that he saw early on that he had lousy teachers and role models, so he decided to teach himself. The ideal candidate, actually, for a lousy but high status school. Just what the elite schools seek, someone who requires as little teaching and guidance as possible. Clearly, Portia should not have been fired for picking him, because she was hired to do just this. Anyone who needs good teaching in order to progress, that is the student that needs to be weeded out.
In a sane world, institutions of learning would never get to pick the students they teach, any more than police departments can pick the neighbourhood they patrol, or doctors can weed out sick patients. There would be a separate admissions body that would assign applicants to a school based on sortition (that is, a completely random choice of individuals by lottery). First of all, it would eliminate students who are not capable of higher education. How long does it take for a computer to sort that out, a split second?
Then, everyone would be a candidate.
That is, Stanford would be assigned kids that are rich, middle class and poor, youths with high, middling and low marks, all based on clear statistical criteria. It would be forced to do its job, teaching. Education is a long term thing, but it would only take a generation or two using sortitioning to find out which schools really are elite schools, and which really do deserve to be at the bottom of the heap. The result would be a less elitist, a more democratic society.


Postscript: Not many movie reviews have a postscript, but this one does. I just read Leo Tolstoy’s assessment of the novels of Guy de Maupassant, and here he lays out three “conditions of a true artistic production,” it needs,
1. the correct, that is, the moral, relation of the author to the subject,
2. the beauty of form, and
3. sincerity, that is, love for what the author describes.

He goes on to point out that when approaching such a work of art, once it has passed these three tests, is to ask, what does the artist have to say that is new?

This movie was clearly written by someone very familiar with the subject matter, that is, the life of an admissions officer. That was new, for me. But beyond that, the artistic value of this film is its statement that it is unlikely that correctness, beauty and sincerity are even possible in today’s moral climate. There is no tragedy in a relationship breaking up that neither party committed to in the first place. Personal anguish, perhaps, but no tragedy. Tragedy and drama require more of the individual than the characters in this film are willing to give. All we can hope for is an ungainly, unpretty, unfunny comedy.