Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Police Murder in the Albuquerque Desert

I'm not as keen on second guessing police shootings of civilians as some, but I can't see ANY justification for this tragic police shooting of a homeless man camping illegally in the desert outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. What imminent threat to these officers' lives did this poor guy pose? Hell, he was even turning away rather than toward them when they shot him several times! It seems to me that the shooter(s) may deserve to be prosecuted rather than excused for murdering this man! They certainly should be investigated by more than a rubber-stamping board from the same agency as the officers who unleashed their ballistic barrage, and, as of this writing, there are encouraging signs that they may be.

And what's with the bean-bag shots and sicking the dog on the guy after he'd already been shot by assault rifle(s) five or six times and was lying immobile or even unconscious in his own blood? Even if he was still holding a knife, did they think he was going to jump up like Rambo, take a miraculous flying leap at them, and gut them like fish through their body armor before they could squeeze off any more rounds? 

Police officers need to be trained to handle the mentally ill and homeless without instantly and reflexively escalating to the overwhelming lethality of soldiers on the battlefield, and when they kill without good cause, they need to be brought to task for it. Yes, police officers are human, and human beings make mistakes under duress. But James Boyd was a human being too, and he too was under duress with heavily armed police barking orders at him, a big police dog menacing him, and a flash bang grenade exploding near him, all of which undoubtedly exacerbated his apparent mental illness that impeded his cooperation with the police officers' commands.

He didn't deserve to die the way he did, the police who killed him don't deserve a free pass, and police officers need to stop invariably acting like Navy SEALs on a search and destroy mission.

Monday, March 24, 2014

They Say It's My Birthday

My calendar says it's my birthday, and the Beatles tell me I'm "gonna have a good time," so I might as well oblige. After all, why not? I can't have too many more birthdays in my future, if any. It seems like every year, someone I knew in grade school or high school passes. One of my best friends from those days died years ago. I even wrote a blogpost about it.

But what kind of "good time" do I want to have? Do I want to spend the day sating myself with hedonistic pleasure by eating, drinking, and being "merry"? Well, I couldn't do that even if I wanted to. I have driving and chores to do, including getting a new passport photo taken for an upcoming trip to Thailand, and bowling league tonight. Besides, hedonism seems overrated to me. I'm more into happiness, which can be almost the antithesis of hedonistic indulgence.

Yes, I know there are philosophers and therapists who say happiness is overrated too, and that the more we pursue it, the faster it recedes from us. But my notion of happiness borrows from Aristotle's "Happiness is an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue."

In other words, happiness is doing like they sing in the old U.S. Army commercial: "Be all that you can be," or, at least, working diligently to do this. It's living a life of integrity in fulfillment of one's highest principles and in patient but steadfast pursuit of one's grandest goals. And, to my way of thinking, it's mindfully doing all of this with the love to which Augustine referred when he wrote, "Love and do what you will" and Mother Teresa spoke of when she said, "In this life, we cannot do great things; we can only do small things with great love."

Some people say love is overrated. I say it's not rated highly enough by enough people. Too many make excuses for not loving their fellow humans and animal and plant brethren. I don't make excuses. I just have trouble loving people. I always have. But here, early into my seventh decade of life, I want to love more and to find ways to do it. One way to do it, it seems to me, is to act in a loving way.

Psychologists tell us that if we can't feel the way we want to act, then we can act the way we want to feel and our emotions will tend to follow suit. I believe this. When I smile, I feel happier. When I carry myself with confidence, I feel more confident. When I walk and talk and comport myself in a more calmly deliberate manner, I feel more mindfully contemplative. So, I want to devote today to doing all of those things. To acting loving, confident, and contemplative, and to wearing a persistent smile on my face.

Hey, there are worse ways to spend one's birthday. So, Happy Birthday to me, yeah!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Psychology and Free Will

I've been discussing free will online with a Christian university student who happens to be a psychology major. He believes in free will, and I not only don't believe in free will, but I also don't understand how a psychology major, of all people, could. This is what I wrote to him a few minutes ago:

If I'm not mistaken, you're a psychology major. Now what is psychology if not the scientific study of behavior and mentation, and how can there be a science of uncaused behavior and mentation? And if you say that the cause of human behavior and mentation, including human will, is the individual person, I say that it is unscientific to assume that the proverbial buck stops with the conscious choices of the individual without taking into account the biopsychosocial factors, many of them undoubtedly unconscious, that cause those conscious choices. In other words, it seems to me that modern psychology implies determinism. Thus, if you really believe in free will, it seems to me that you should render serious consideration to changing your major.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Local Temple Break-in Raises Questions About Police Response and Buddhist Equanimity

A week ago yesterday, two people broke in to the local Thai Buddhist temple early in the morning and stole thousands of dollars in cash from donations stored mostly in traditional wooden donation boxes. Their crime was caught on cameras outside and inside the temple, but they were wearing masks and thick clothing that disguised their identities. Nevertheless, after some of the temple regulars scrutinized the videos closely, they think they recognized at least one of the thieves. They believe it was someone who had attended the temple previously and argued with other members present. This seems credible given the fact that the thieves knew exactly where to find most of the money housed in the temple. Of course, my Thai wife, who serves on the temple board of directors, and I also attend the temple on an almost weekly basis, and I didn't know where the money was stored. But then I wasn't looking to break in and steal it.

Another wrinkle to this story is that the head monk or abbot was sleeping in an adjoining room to the main temple area when the thieves broke in, and he awoke to watch the video monitor with frightened helplessness as the thieves ransacked the sacred space just outside his closed door. He picked up his phone to alert someone, but because of his rudimentary English, he called someone with better English skills than his and asked them to call 911. However, soon afterwards, an accomplice waiting outside the closed temple gates blew a whistle and the two thieves inside the temple hastily departed with their booty, scaled the temple fence, and took off in a car. Once the police learned that the culprits had fled the scene, they canceled their response.

Still, the monks and, later, other members of the temple waited patiently on scene for the police to arrive and investigate. And because they didn't want to disturb the evidence, they touched nothing, leaving the temple, where members meet daily in traditional Thai Buddhist style to offer food to the monks and gather for a brief service, unusable in the interim. They were still waiting twelve hours later when a local TV news reporter and her camera man showed up to do a story on the break-in. She immediately called police, and a few minutes later, an officer and crime technician arrived. A few minutes after that, so did my wife and I.

That day had been one of the coldest on record for the area, and two things that struck me as soon as I stepped through the shattered sliding glass door that served as the main entrance into the temple was how cold it was inside and what a sacrilegious mess of broken glass, splintered wood, and coins the thieves had left strewn all over the matted temple floor where attendees normally kneel or sit in reverent devotion.

After the police and news crew took their absence, I called the temple's insurance provider to help file a theft and damages claim, and then, as my wife and I helped clean up the mess on the floor, some of the members began to question why it took so long for police to investigate. The reporter had asked the police officer about this, and he replied that because the thieves left as quickly as they did, a lower priority was assigned to the call. But twelve hours and counting lower of a priority, and, even then, only in response to a reporter's goading? This seemed excessive even for the understaffed police department of California's capital city of half a million.

Some began to openly wonder if it would have taken the police as long to come out to investigate the break-in and burglary of a Caucasian business or Christian church. And, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder the same. A few days later, I composed the following letter to the editor of the local newspaper, although it hasn't yet appeared in the paper and, from the looks of it, may never do so:

Do the Sacramento police care less about Asian Buddhist temples than they do about Caucasian businesses and Christian churches? Some of us think this is a possibility after thieves broke in to a Sacramento Thai Buddhist temple early Tuesday morning, stole several thousand dollars in cash, and left behind a shattered sliding-glass door, splintered wood, and frayed nerves for twelve hours in the freakishly wintry chill before the police finally arrived to investigate. And they did this only after a local news reporter called in to ask when they were coming.
We all know the police keep very busy and we understand that they can't be everywhere at once or respond to every burglary minutes after the fact. But twelve hours after a serious crime while the distressed victims eagerly wait for them in the freezing disarray? Would they do that with Caucasians or Christians?
I don't presume to know the answer to the question I raised, but I wish someone would look into the issue. That's why I ended up writing messages to two local TV news reporters about it. One of the reporters has yet to reply, but the other graciously wrote back that she hoped to do a future story on police response times and would pitch the idea to her bosses. I hope she's able to do it despite the fact that, as she says, they don't want to incur the potentially unpleasant consequences of alienating the police department.

In the meantime, while serious measures are being taken to prevent future temple break-ins and thefts of donations, the abbot, who could have been assaulted or worse by the thieves, is now having difficulty sleeping at night and is struggling with anxiety over what happened. One could argue that no one was hurt and that not that much money was stolen, but if it had been me in that adjoining room knowing that the thieves could have discovered me there easily enough and harmed or even killed me, I'd probably be experiencing just as much post-traumatic anxiety and insomnia as the abbot.

But then I haven't been a serious Buddhist monk for several decades the way the abbot and his fellow temple monks have been. I've heard it said many times that we can't reasonably expect Buddhist discipline, even in the rigorous Thai forest monk tradition of our local temple monks, to inure one to fear, anxiety, and all other forms of emotional suffering. Yet, I find myself wondering if it shouldn't impart significant equanimity in the face of this and even far worse crime and, if it doesn't, if the Buddhist game is worth the proverbial candle.

Here is the story (with video) presented by the reporter on scene the day of the break-in, and here (with video) is another local channel reporter's presentation a day or two later.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Are the Odds?

I discontinued cable TV several months ago and barely miss it at all. I now get my TV fixes from broadcast TV delivered over rabbit ears, and from Hulu, Amazon Prime, and more recently, Netflix Instant. I've been binge watching great shows including "Battlestar Galactica," "Caprica," "Sons of Anarchy," "Justified," "The Good Wife," "Dexter," and, perhaps the best of them all, "Breaking Bad" and enjoying the bejesus out of them all.

But last night something unusual happened. I watched an episode of "Breaking Bad" in which the lead character becomes obsessed with killing a fly that keeps buzzing around his meth lab. And as I was watching it, a mosquito buzzed near my ear. You may wonder what was so unusual about this. Well, it's the fact that in the whole nine years I've lived in my house in Sacramento, this is the first time I can remember a mosquito bothering me in my bedroom. Given Sacramento's hot summer climate, nearby creeks and rivers, and abundance of mosquitoes during the hotter months, you'd think I would have faced this problem many times. But not only have I never been bothered by mosquitoes in my bedroom before, but I generally don't even see them outside during the colder months, and this month has been the coldest we've had since we've lived here.

So, why in the world did that mosquito come buzzing around my head at the same time I was watching a television episode about a pesky fly?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Preparing for Alzheimer's Disease

I watched a TED talk (you can view the embedded video below) last night by a woman, Alanna Shaikh, whose dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease twelve years previously. Her dad used to be a college professor, but now he requires round the clock care and supervision. Yet, he keeps busy and seems relatively happy filling out paper forms, and the good, loving heart he always had continues to shine through his senility in his dealings with people even as his disease has stripped away almost every other part of his mind.

Observing her dad and learning all she can about Alzheimer's led Alanna to resolve to prepare as best she can for the Alzheimer's disease she expects to develop when she gets older, even though she's also taking all the preventive measures she can such as eating right and exercising her mind and body.

Her strategy is to  (1) Cultivate as much strength and balance as she can since people with Alzheimer's typically begin to lose their sense of balance and subsequently become less and less physically active, and the more balance and strength she has going in, the longer she hopes to be able to remain ambulatory and physically active as her senility progresses. (2) Take up largely physical activity such knitting and drawing with which she can happily occupy herself when she's no longer able to enjoy mentally taxing activities such as reading, writing, or even watching TV. And (3) Work on making herself a kinder, more loving person so that when her Alzheimer's has done to her what it has to her dad and stolen almost everything else of her mind and personality, there'll still be a glowing core of love and kindness left behind to make things easier for her and her caregivers.

I think she offers sound advice that a guy like me, entering my seventh decade and quite possibly cursed with some risk factors of my own for the disease, would do well to follow. Finding an activity to enjoy that doesn't require much brainpower might be hard since I'm so hopelessly lousy working with my hands that I couldn't see myself taking up hobbies such as knitting, drawing, or building models or anything of that kind. But maybe I could learn to play an instrument such as guitar and be able to enjoy listening to and playing music well into my senility, hopefully without driving my caregivers insane. And I could surely do more to improve my strength and balance. I'd also like to think I could strengthen my lovingkindness. If the way we are when we're drunk enough that most of our inhibitions have been chemically disabled is revealing, then the fact that I tend to be quite happy and agreeable when I'm drunk may be a good indicator of how I'd be when senile. I hope so.

The prospect of being stricken with Alzheimer's or any other irreversible, cognitively incapacitating condition is one that most of us, myself included, would rather not contemplate. Yet, after watching Alanna last night and taking what she said to heart, I'm determined to do everything I reasonably can to prepare for the possibility that I may end up like her dad someday, because if I do, I want to be as happy and lovingkind as he is when the time comes. And the measures I can take to make that more likely will be good for me whether or not I become senile, so I have nothing to lose and potentially much to gain by getting started immediately.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Foreign Affairs Examines North Korea's Nuclear Threat

"Ironically, the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength." ~ Foreign Affairs magazine

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had a brief crush on a pretty classmate named Paulette, although I was too shy to let her know it. Now, some five decades later, she's a Facebook "friend" living in Guam and worried that North Korea might carry out its recent threat to nuke her island paradise.

I posted a comment to reassure her that even the craziest leaders of North Korea weren't crazy enough to bring devastating reprisal on themselves, and, besides, they probably couldn't reach Guam with a nuclear tipped missile even if they wanted to. At least not yet.

She hasn't responded, so I don't know if I allayed her fears, but I'm guessing that I probably didn't. If I lived in Guam or one of the other threatened territories, I probably wouldn't even be able to allay my own fears. Reason can soothe jangled nerves only so much in the face of nuclear threat, however small that threat might seem to be.

And "seem to be" is the operative phrase, because we don't really know the full extent of North Korea's nuclear capabilities or of its inclination to utilize them. We can only make intelligent guesses, and I read an article last night in Foreign Affairs magazine that offers some of the most intelligent guessing I've seen recently. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to calm anyone's fears.

For the gist of the article is that even though North Korea's leaders almost certainly don't want to initiate  military conflict with South Korea or the USA by using nuclear weapons, they could quickly escalate to it if their backs were against the wall after being overwhelmed by superior U.S. and South Korean forces in conventional warfare, just as NATO planned to do in Europe if it were overpowered by Warsaw Pact troops during the Cold War, and just as Russia and Pakistan plan to do now if they're attacked by superior conventional forces.

The article explains that what makes this escalation even more likely is the way advanced militaries such as the USA's conduct modern warfare against less advanced nations by immediately targeting their leaders, command and control systems, and communications infrastructure with "shock and awe" destruction. Were the U.S. to do this against North Korea, it would likely panic its threatened and isolated leadership into using nuclear weapons to save themselves, and God only knows what would happen then.

So, the article urges that the U.S. do everything possible to avoid conventional war with North Korea and if, failing that, it has to attack, that it do so in the most limited ways possible, leaving North Korea's leadership with a sense of some control over their fate and a way out.

I hope President Obama and his cabinet have read Foreign Affairs' incisive analysis and taken it to heart. And I hope my childhood sweetheart sleeps easier tonight.