Duck Test Failure, Part 2

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In response to a recent post of mine about a friend’s suicide, a commenter referred to suicide as “an extreme position to take”.

On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc sat down in the lotus position in a busy intersection of Saigon. A 5-gallon can of gasoline was poured over his head by a fellow monk. He then lit a match and set himself on fire. He did not move as his flesh burned and his living body turned into a charred corpse. In the days that followed, there were several other similar acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks.

These suicides were acts of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s mistreatment of Buddhists. These were indeed extreme acts, intended to draw attention to the plight of Vietnam’s Buddhists and put pressure on the regime (and its US allies) to carry out the reforms it had promised.

But these suicides were not due to mental health issues. I do not believe that most suicides are acts of protest or attempts to get attention, but I think that belief is not uncommon, and highlights a fundamental problem with our attitude toward mental health issues.

We are often dismissive of mental health concerns because most of us really don’t have a perspective on it, which was largely the point of my post. When you look at, say, a paraplegic, even if you’re not one, you can sort of speculate on the challenges they face on a day to day basis. On the other hand, when you look at someone with a mental illness, you cannot speculate (unless you’ve had one yourself maybe) because you cannot see inside their mind. You assume that, if they appear on the outside to be similarly-abled to you, then they should have the same problems as you. So if someone confides in you that they have suicidal feelings, and you have never had similar feelings yourself, except maybe as a passing thought, then you’ll judge it as such (“Aw c’mon, life isn’t that bad! There’s always a way!”), because that’s how you would have dismissed those thoughts from your own mind. Unfortunately, our brains are not all wired the same way. For many, they cannot simply “get over it”.

I believe there are usually neurobiological causes for persistent suicidal feelings. Whether it’s BDNF dysregulation (http://www.wjpch.com/UploadFile/113197.pdf) or something else, it’s not something you can simply shrug off with positive thinking or exercise or stupid platitudes, and dismissing people with suicidal feelings (or any mental health issue for that matter) as weak-willed or attention-seeking is like dismissing people with physical disabilities as not trying hard enough.

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Oh, cheer up, Ducky! It can’t be that bad!

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On the train in to the city this morning, I received a call from a friend. He was calling to share a piece of bad news. A mutual friend of ours had died. The train went underground as I began to ask for the what and the how details. The last thing I heard on the other end before I lost the signal was that our friend had committed suicide.

News of the death of a friend is never an easy thing to hear. Death by suicide is even more difficult; what is it that brings a person to a state where they feel the only solution to the problem is to remove themselves from the equation?

I call this man a friend, but I can’t say that I knew him well or for a long time. Most of the time, when I meet someone new, I have no real, immediate sense of whether we’ll form a connection over the long term. Rarely would I say I “hit it off” with someone, but he was one of those people. He was warm, easy-going, and unpretentious, but also well-spoken, thoughtful, and with an amazing breadth of life experience. He was married to the same person for 30 years, seemed to be reasonably secure financially, and to most people around him, appeared to be enjoying the life he’d been given. But fairly recently, he had suffered a nervous breakdown and a possible depression, from which he seemed to have recovered.

But what do we really know of the minds of others? We don’t even know our own minds.

I think most of us see someone who seems generally similar to ourselves (upbringing, socio-economic standing, life opportunities, etc.), we figure they must be like us, generally speaking (walks like a duck, talks like a duck, …). We find it difficult to fathom that something could be so wrong in their inner life that they would nurture serious thoughts of ending their own existence. So if they don’t say anything about it, we might have no reason to suspect anything is wrong. But what happens when someone does express that they’re having those thoughts? I suspect for many of us, it’s so contrary to our natural sense of self-preservation, we don’t really know how to react. “Oh c’mon, cheer up! It can’t be that bad.” “It will pass. You’ll get over it.” or “How could you feel that way? You have so much to live for!”

We might mean well, saying these things, but I wonder: is it really the best we can do? Consider this: would it be acceptable to respond that way to someone without legs talking about the challenges they face trying to navigate a world designed for people with legs? Probably not. Me, I’d be saying to myself, “damn, he has no legs. I guess I should put up with his complaining, at least for a little while.”

I don’t particularly care much for professional sports, but I have a huge amount of admiration for Clara Hughes. During her career as a professional athlete, she competed in both Summer and Winter Olympics and is the only Olympian to have won multiple medals in each. This is not a stunning achievement. It is a unique achievement. No other man or woman in history has done this.
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But she has also dealt with mental illness. Some might say she’s “conquered” it. Some might even romanticize it, claiming it’s what enabled her to accomplish so much. The reality of mental illness is not so simple, nor in any way romantic.

Regardless how some may want to downplay or romanticize the role mental illness has played in her life, I’m genuinely glad she is out there talking about it and helping people understand.

And I’m saddened to have lost a friend. My life feels a bit paler today.

“1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their lives.” – Canadian Institute of Health Research

“2 in 3 people suffer in silence fearing judgment and rejection.” – Canadian Medical Association

“Only 49% of Canadians said they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness.” – Canadian Medical Association

Chicken Gulai

Chicken GulaiHere’s an easy, delicious recipe from an Indonesian friend of mine. I’ve always been intimidated by recipes involving lemongrass, but I really liked this dish so I asked if I could help her make it. It was worth it. Sweet, spicy, delicious comfort food at its best. (You’ll probably need access to a good Asian market for some of the ingredients.)

Ingredients

4 large chicken legs (with skin or without)
3 stalks of lemongrass
150 mL Túóng Ót Toi Viet-Nam chili garlic sauce
5 cloves garlic
1 small onion
1 tsp ginger
3 bay leave
4 lime leaves
200 mL coconut milk
4-6 Tbsp sugar

1. Fine-chop garlic, onions, and ginger, then mix together and crush with a mortal and pestle.
2. In a large frying pan, heat 2 Tbsp of vegetable oil.
3. Add the garlic-onion-ginger mix, garlic chili sauce, and coconut milk. Stir.
4. Add the lime leaves, bay leaves, and lemongrass.
5. Add the chicken.
6. Cover and cook on medium heat for 20 minutes or so (until chick is cooked through, and all the Sam ‘n’ Ella are dead).

Serve on jasmine rice and top with chopped shallots.

Note the original recipe called for aniseed and galangal, but I didn’t use either. Still tasted quite good to me.

Newtown: Guns Don’t Kill People

Statue of Minute Man John Parker in Lexington, Massachusetts

Statue of Minute Man John Parker in Lexington, Massachusetts

People do.

I started this post about a monthtwo months ago, when emotions were fresh and bitter. But I didn’t want to commit to what I wanted to write. My own words made me angry, and I don’t like being angry. Two months on, emotions are still fresh and just as bitter.

Guns don’t kill people. People do.

The people who colonized the United States of America saw themselves as people under siege. Many had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in their country of origin. They were living in a harsh land surrounded by hostile savages. And while they were subjects of a (somewhat) democratic country, they had no parliamentary representation. All these perceptions helped to create a siege mentality, which, even after a successful revolution against the “oppressors”, has persisted.

Today, it permeates popular entertainment and right-wing political discourse: our country was not given to us, it was hard-won, and we must defend it. Our enemies lie in wait all around, looking for signs of weakness, looking for a chance to take from us what’s rightfully ours. They’re jealous of our freedom and will destroy us if they get the opportunity.

When you’re under siege, it’s important to not appear weak, lest your enemies decide to test your defenses. Like many animals, who, when cornered, will puff themselves up to appear larger, more formidable an opponent to the predator, if you’re an embattled regime, having more, bigger and better guns will make you appear more intimidating to your foes. This strategy seemed to make sense during the period after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the early days of the Cold War. Eventually, it became clear that it was a strategy of diminishing returns.

Still, from a position of weakness, guns might appear to be an equalizer, and they can be. But if more guns is your solution to the problem of mass murder by guns, then you don’t have a solution.

True, guns didn’t cause the violence. But they were the enabler. And the amplifier. Let’s not kid ourselves; the angel-making capacity of the .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle is far greater than the knife, the baseball bat, the bare hand, or whatever other weapon the average “bad guy” has at his disposal.

But I’m glad we have guns. Because when the mob is reaching for its torches and pitchforks, coming for my children because they want to blame autism or mental illness or whatever it is that makes us different from them, for the deaths of their little angels, I’ll protect my angels. You people will always have more sympathy for the pretty ones, the popular ones, than the sad, lonely losers. So be it. I’ll be waiting for you. With a couple pitbulls too. Maim your ugly, neurotypical NIMBY faces when you show up at my castle.

America is a wounded animal, frantically biting its own wounds.

Jennifer Pahlka Is Reading Bloodfreak

In an article in yesterday’s SFGate, Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, says, “You can’t complain (about the government) unless you step up to the plate.

Jennifer Pahlka (Photo by Russell Watkins/DFID)

Jennifer Pahlka (Photo by Russell Watkins/DFID)

Thank you, Jen. You put so succinctly and eloquently, what I’ve been saying right here for a while now. And unlike me, she’s not talking out of her ass. The non-profit CfA is the real deal, doing the dirty work, not trash-talking.

I’ve had a peripheral awareness of CfA’s work for some time, but I’ve only just started looking more closely at them and I’m really seeing how they’re delivering the goods on rethinking and “rebooting” government. A lot of people in North America have bought in to the idea of “government = bad,” and yet so many of them really have no clue (or conveniently choose to forget) what government is, what it does, and why it came about. Sometimes, it takes a disaster to remind some of them how important a role they play in keeping our society functioning, despite all the tales of failure, corruption, and incompetence. But some still don’t get it. Fortunately, there are those who do…

A couple months ago, Pahlka posted a story on LinkedIn titled Paying for Streetlights, One at a Time. This parable tells of the town of Colorado Springs, CO, who was suffering from a burning case of pensionitis and decided to vote against a property tax increase, supposedly earmarked for emergency services. What followed was some rather extreme belt-tightening, including turning off a third of the street lights. People were given the option to donate between $100 and $240 a year to adopt a streetlight and have it turned back on. The cost to adopt one streetlight was more than the proposed annual tax increase, but many were apparently quite glad to pay this. Are people stupid? Of course, that’s nothing new. But this is the state of affairs; trust in government has eroded to a point where people gladly swallow a “cure” considerably worse than the disease, just as long they perceive it as being “less government”.

… we see both the value of local government and the waste and inefficiencies that drive the public away from it. We see that government must get better at what it does, but it also needs to sell its value proposition to citizens. Think about that streetlight – not only does it cost the citizen orders of magnitude more this way, it’s hugely inefficient and costly for the city to administer as well, turning lights off and on depending on whether each individual light is paid for. The better option for everyone would be to just keep the lights on, but the perceived value of government is so low that it drives outcomes that are bad for everyone involved.

Part of what Code for America does is to sell that value, by creating interfaces to government that are simple, beautiful and easy to use. In New Orleans, for example, Code for America Fellows created BlightStatus.com, which allows citizens to type in any address in the city and see whether the property has been reported as blighted, if it’s been inspected, if there’s been a hearing and when, and if the property is scheduled for demolition. The city had been struggling for years to integrate a dozen disparate data sets in a wide variety of formats in order to have a comprehensive view of these properties, even for the city’s own use, but the residents of neighborhoods affected by this blight were increasingly frustrated by the lack of apparent action. When one of the Code for America Fellows showed the application to residents at a community group meeting, he was thanked for his work with hugs.

CfA is working with multiple levels of government across the US to create modern, user-friendly access points (web sites, mobile apps) so people can get the government services they need, one project at a time. And now that these tools are getting into people hands, they’re running out of excuses for not participating in the political process. The future is looking kinda scary, but exciting, too.

Anyway, I don’t want to risk discrediting their work with my crackpot endorsement. Please go see Code for America and judge for yourself.

Participatory Democracy: There’s an App for that

Lately, I’ve been watching MIT Tech TV. In case you’re not acquainted, it’s sort of like TED, but without the tie-dye and patchouli. (If you don’t know TED, then I probably can’t help you.)

Anyway, last month, I watched Peer-to-Peer Politics: Moving Beyond Left and Right. In it, Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and, more recently, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked World, shared his thoughts on how bottom-up systems (which he’s spent a bit of time studying, and I use “studying” loosely, because he’s a science writer, not a scientist) from ant colonies to massively collaborative web applications, are informing the future of participatory democracy.

As I was trying out my Amazon associate links, I pulled up the cover of the Future Perfect and was struck by its similarity to another book I haven’t seen in years. D’I see what you did there, Johnson:

But back to the talk. In a recent post of mine, I was bemoaning the over-abundance of bellyaching that goes on after every political scandal and the general lack of participation of John Q Public in the political process except for a quadrennial coin toss. But Mr. Johnson pointed out that, while we may not yet be at a point to vote directly on defence spending or healthcare, many of us most certainly can vote on which potholes to fix, which crack-houses get busted, etc. because, many municipalities across North America support some form of 311 service. Indeed, he recounted one particular anecdote in which NYC residents were using the service to report a strange maple syrup odor in their neighborhood. Amid growing concern for a potential terrorist attack by Canadians — given the ongoing softwood lumber dispute and continued incursions into US territory to plunder and pillage, we’re clearly a shifty lot — they eventually correlated the data (reporting dates, location of callers) to trace the intoxicating aroma to its source (hint: it wasn’t a militant Canuck sleeper cell).

 

But ANyway, not two days after watching that, my very own dear city of Surrey, BC announced the launch of its own online service for reporting non-emergency neighborhood issues, like that crumpled-up McDonald’s coffee cup embedded in the drainage grate at the northeast corner of 104th Ave and 152nd Street. The actual service is outsourced to SeeClickFix and includes both the website and native apps for iOS, Android, and even Blackberry devices. Check out the totally sick caps I took of the iOS experience:

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You can file new issues (including photos), up-vote existing issues, add comments, it’s gamified (wouldn’t you want to become a Civic Crusader??)

Seriously, everyone should get on this. Because it’s still new here, the city appears to be pretty responsive. We’ll have to see if they can scale out as volume increases. Whatever city you live in, find out from their website if they have a similar service. If not, go to SeeClickFix or a similar service provider (try googling “neighborhood issue reporting”) and enter your city’s name so they can hit them up and pitch the service to them.