Elephants & Science

January 18, 2023

Two interesting articles this week that at least I see a connection with. Then again, I’m no scientist.

One is the first public study I’ve heard of linking (at least potentially) the growing trend of self-violence, self-medication and suicide with a decline in religious belief. I originally saw the reference on a Roman Catholic web site, but then saw it picked up by the Daily Mail. Although I’m sure it won’t result in any measurable change in public, academic or political policies, at least someone has pointed out that these two trends – falling levels of religious behavior and rising levels of deaths of despair – might be related.

Of particular interest is the correlation not between religious belief and despairing actions, but the correlation between religious behavior (weekly worship attendance) and deaths of despair. What you say isn’t nearly as important as what you do. And whether you think you have a deep spiritual life or not, spirituality and privatized beliefs are not the same as active participation in religious life.

How could such an obvious (at least to me) correlation have escaped study for so long? Perhaps it’s because there is an overall trend for scientific research and studies to be less challenging than they used to be. In other words, disruptive science has seen a marked decline since the mid-20th century. This could of course mean we’ve reached a plateau and we aren’t able at this time to make more disruptive discoveries.

But it could also mean science as a whole is less interested in looking for disruptions.

As such, elephants in the room such as a decline in religious life and a rise in self-harm (as well as harm to others, which the study didn’t cover but which I think is also directly related) are simply not seen. People don’t want to see them, perhaps. Or they’re simply so inculcated in a particular line of thought as to not even conceive of such possibilities.

I also think there are deeper spiritual powers at work here. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to think of Satan and his powers being particularly interested in prompting lines of thought and inquiry that appear to render religious understandings of creation invalid. And that having accomplished this (or convincing enough people that it was accomplished) there’s no further diabolical interest in sparking scientific inquiry in such directions. After all, a diabolical misdirect might be discovered if science was truly as objective as it claims to be. Since people are inherently non-objective, the idea that science is not either shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone, peer reviews and other mechanisms aside.

It could also be that science has reached a certain level of institutionalization, financially and otherwise, where bold ideas are suppressed as unhelpful to the larger edifice. Scientists nurtured from primary school through their doctoral work might be so inculcated in an acceptance of the status quo that outside thought seems, well, blasphemous. As well as directly threatening to their livelihood. We witness the vitriol and professional bans applied against those who dare disagree with an established line of scientific thought, and it’s obvious that even the best-intentioned of scientists or academics would be loathe to challenge such a juggernaut. Watching your funding disappear and facing the wrath of school administrators is terrible. Being blacklisted on social media for simply asking questions is the same sort of terrorism those now in control (apparently) of our culture levied against the cultural movers and shakers of just a few generations ago.

I’m all for science in it’s proper contexts. But it’s no shock to me that those contexts have been warped and exceeded wildly on the one hand, and curtailed perhaps unprofitably on the other hand. Science as a monolithic institution of sorts may find itself caught in the very same difficulties it so glibly derided the Church for (and not entirely unfairly, to be sure). Either reason or faith when misapplied or misdirected can be terribly damaging, and Satan has proven himself adept at using whichever extreme is most advantageous at the moment.

Adjusting Tactics

January 15, 2023

I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in my life both domestically and internationally. I’ve moved from paper maps to Mapquest and now rely mostly on Google Maps for directions and information about locales. Although Google is far from perfect, and although their use of customer data is quite suspect (despite their original motto of Don’t Be Evil), it is overall quite reliable. Specific driving or walking directions can be a bit wonky at times but their information on locations is generally good.

Except for Hanoi.

At least, that’s the place I’ve noticed a disjunct thus far.

Places Google Maps provides me information on (and reviews) don’t exist any longer when I try to use a ride-hailing app to get to them. Other places the ride-hailing apps tell me are in existence don’t appear on Google Maps. For the first time I’ve had to cross-reference many things in Hanoi between the two apps to try and discern what reality is. Post-covid this has been a reality more with hours of operation, and holiday hours are always uncertain. But it’s the first time I haven’t been able to trust Google Maps’ basic information, and on multiple, multiple occasions here.

I don’t know if that’s the result of censoring or other activities that might vary from country to country. Or perhaps Google just isn’t as big a deal here and people don’t bother to update information or register. At the very least it’s a curiosity, and one I need to remember as I travel to other locales as well.

Pool Hall – Don Lounge, Hanoi Vietnam

January 13, 2023

Located just outside the eastern edge of Old Town Hanoi, this pool hall is located on the third floor of a shopping center. Even arriving later in the evening after the other shops had closed, security directed me to an elevator. There’s a club next to the pool hall and you can feel and hear the reverberations of the music until you enter the pool hall. The name of the club is what pops up in a Google search, not the pool hall. The only way I knew about this place was my young opponent at Monaco Billiard Game Club told me about it when I asked him about other places to play.

This is a nice place. Posh, I think is not an inappropriate word here. They don’t serve hard alcohol but they do serve a variety of fruit drinks that are actually works of art as well as delicious. The tables are in good condition as are the balls and cues. The place was almost entirely full when I arrived and snagged one of the few remaining open tables. They have a plethora of table attendants to rack the balls at the end of each game.

There’s a peculiar diversity on this side of the world about how to rack the balls – or more accurately, the position of the rack on the table. Standard competition rules in the West have the head ball even with the second marker strand on the table. However here they are fond of racking the center ball on that second marker line. This makes breaking a lot less challenging. However, when I politely correct them, they’re happy to adjust to my way of doing things. I’ve yet to determine if this is a real difference between Eastern and Western pool-playing styles, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s just improper training of the employees.

I would definitely go back here to play. It’s pleasant, there’s a better selection of refreshments, and the staff is attentive. While I’d still prefer to sip on a Jack and Coke while I play, it’s not a necessity. I do plan to keep looking for such a place in the future, though!

Pool Hall – Factory 47, Hanoi Vietnam

January 12, 2023

This is not pool hall. It’s a bar/club with a pool table on the second floor. I knew that before I went, but I wanted to enjoy a drink over a pool table and the last spot couldn’t provide that (though it provided far better pool equipment!).

Pool tables are one option in Southeast Asian bars to help them stand out with tourists. They provide a way of keeping customers busy so they stay longer and purchase more drinks. Arguably no different than anywhere else in the world in this respect. Factory 47 sits at the northern edge of Old Town and the primary tourist hub of Hanoi. It’s steps away from famed Ta Hien street, noted for it’s bars and revelry.

As such, don’t be under any illusions about Factory 47. The table, cues and balls are all in about the condition you’d expect in a club/bar catering to tourists and not to pool players. It was dead the night I visited (also part of the plan), but the techno/electronica music was still at a deafening tempo.

I won’t go back, but it was good to have a drink over a pool table, even if I was the only one playing!

Pool Hall – Monaco Billiard Game Club, Hanoi Vietnam

January 11, 2023

This is the place I visited with my buddy over six years ago on my first trip to Hanoi. It hasn’t really changed at all other than it no longer serves alcohol, just near-beer which was pretty much undrinkable to me. It’s located in the East Lake area, on the eastern side of Ho Tay Lake, just a little South of the Hanoi Club. The street is full of restaurants and at least one club. But this place is about pool.

It has ten 8′ tables. The tables, rails, and cloth are all in very good condition even though they cater to a wide range of players from novice to advanced. I played a few games against a young Vietnamese man home from studying at university in Australia. House cues are in decent condition and if you want to pay 30,000 – 50,000 Vietnames Dong (about $1.25 – $2.15 at current exchange rates) you can rent cues in better condition. Basic house cue tips weren’t fantastic but were workable. They definitely keep their equipment in good condition.

It wasn’t very busy early in the night when I showed up – maybe three other tables in use. They had nothing to drink other than fake beer – no sodas, no hard alcohol. Though it’s air conditioned it’s still very humid and having something cold to drink is practically a necessity. I probably won’t return here simply for that reason. Which is too bad because it’s an otherwise great place to play.

Billiards & Theology

December 29, 2022

Truth be told, billiards is a hobby that for me, usually doesn’t involve a lot of thought. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a world champion after playing for 30+ years. More often (especially if playing alone) it clears my head and I don’t think about much of anything else. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities for more useful intellectual and theological engagement with the game.

Earlier this week I headed out to one of my favorite locales with my colleague here in town, Matt. Although he readily admitted it had been a long time since he last played, he was eager to get out and I was happy to introduce him. As I was preparing to go I was WhatsApping with another long-time friend, peer, and colleague (in another country), JP. He was happy Matt and I were heading out and hoped it would be a good opportunity to build the relationship. But, he added, I should still show Matt no mercy when we played!

That got me thinking a bit.

In billiards (or any other competitive activity, I suspect), mercy is complicated. Mercy is, in fact, not always merciful. Showing mercy (deliberately missing shots or trying to otherwise throw the game so the other person feels more capable or hopeful) is actually unmerciful if the other person doesn’t have at least a nominal baseline ability to make a shot now and then. Showing mercy to someone with absolutely no skill at all only makes both people miserable by drawing out the game forever. Mercy is appropriate in a situation where there the other person has at least some ability, or some ability to improve on their current ability. Otherwise mercy becomes pointless and torturous to everyone involved.

So is all mercy like billiards mercy? Is God’s mercy like billiards mercy?

The Bible describes God as merciful (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 4:31, Nehemiah 9:17, Luke 6:36, etc.) and I believe this is true. In his mercy He extends forgiveness and grace through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of his divine Son, Jesus the Christ. This grace is necessary because of the sin that separates us from God’s perfect holiness, a condition creation has endured since the Fall of Genesis 3. And it is in mercy that God’s perfect timing continues to play out, allowing his broken creation to continue experiencing redemption person-by-person through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). There is a purpose to God’s timing and mercy. Otherwise continuing to experience the suffering of the world would be more than pointless, it would be cruel, even evil.

So what is it in us that makes God’s mercy merciful rather than simply torture?

The traditional – and wrong – answer is our good works in some way. Pelagius tried this route early on and it was roundly rejected by the Church and rightly so. If we contribute in any way to our own salvation, then the Son of God’s work on our behalf is only partial, imperfect. Passages like Romans 3 or 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 are strong in making sure we don’t mistake our efforts for something worthy of or deserving of God’s grace. Pelagius meant well, I assume. That’s the mark of a compelling heresy – it’s not trying to be heretical, it’s just trying to make sense to us in some way.

And as such, others attempted to rehabilitate his ideas. And frankly a lot of preachers I’ve heard are effectively Pelagiasts in barely mentioning Jesus at all in their sermons, never mentioning our sin in any specific, overt way, and focusing exclusively on exhorting their hearers to good works. Good works are important to talk about, but without any context to them, hearers presume it is these that impress God or lead him to bestow his mercy on us.

So it can’t be our good works, whether we define this in the narrow sense Pelagius tried to, as in our reaching out for/acceptance of God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ, or in the wider sense of impressing God with our good works. JP and I agreed on that so it’s clearly the right answer. But if so, what might there be about us that makes the mercy of God merciful?

I suggest going all the way back to the beginning, to the imago dei of Genesis 1:27. The quality that makes us redeemable, that makes mercy actually merciful rather than sadistic torture, is not something generated by us but gifted to us by our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Like everything else, it is received, not generated. Because God has created us in his image, we are redeemable. This is not something we can boast about, as Paul makes clear in Romans 4. It is something which God alone receives the glory for, and any boasting to be done should be done about him.

I’m still playing around with this theological noodling. Thoughts? Alternatives? Is the analogy flawed to begin with?

In any event, I didn’t show mercy, and we had a good time regardless. :-)

Pool Hall – Nine Ball Pool & Bar, Medan

December 23, 2022

Finding pool halls is an interesting thing. I rely on Google Maps and simple queries for billiard, billiards, billar, and other variations by language. Searching for pool brings a mixed result in some places where swimming pools are a thing. So it is that I discovered a new pool hall in Medan, Indonesia by accident when searching for another place with nine in the title.

Nine Ball Pool & Bar is on the far north side of town in a giant complex known as Cemara Asri (beautiful/lovely cypress/evergreen in Bahasa Indonesia). It was a 40-minute ride through town (at rush hour) to get there, and to say it was disappointing would be an understatement. I suppose in many ways though, it’s a blessing. It would be problematic to have a great pool hall located so far away from me!

First off, the use of the word bar in the title is misleading. This is not surprising in Southeast Asia where English words are often used without a full knowledge of their context. There is no bar here. Not even a counter. There is a small cooler with a few iced teas, Coca Colas, and approximately six bottles of Heineken. Don’t come too thirsty or you’ll clean out their inventory pretty quickly.

There are eight-foot tables here, about five of them. None of them appear to be in very good shape – warped bumpers, worn felt, etc. The cues are pretty typical for a place that doesn’t take care of the tables – they’re pieces of wood and have tips on them but their condition is rough to say the least. Worse, although there were four-five air conditioning units in the place none of them were on, so it was Southeast Asian hot and humid. There was one other table in use when I arrived.

There aren’t many places to play pool on the north side of town so it’s a shame this one is lackluster. On the plus side, on the ride home we passed another pool hall I’ll have to check out, which should only be about a 20-minute drive away. No danger to switching my preferred haunts for now!

Pool Hall – 時代撞球飛鏢概念館 , Chiayi City, Taiwan

December 7, 2022

If Google Translate is to be believed (and that’s always an open question), the name of this place translates to Times Billiard Darts Concept Hall. Which to be fair is a pretty accurate description of this place, literally. It’s a 24-hour pool hall, with plenty of bright lighting and close to a dozen tables on the first floor – I didn’t get a chance to check out the upstairs. Tables and cues are in good condition and it was pretty busy on a late Tuesday afternoon.

Staff was friendly and bemused. No English spoken beyond what Google Translate could provide, but also no real need for it. Playing pool is not complicated in terms of indicating what you want (it ought to be pretty obvious!) in terms of a table. Food and drink was limited to cans of pop – didn’t see any food options. I think they provided tea & cups at each table but I didn’t try it.

Definitely a good place to play pool in Chiayi City, and not simply for being one of perhaps only two options. I tried to find a second pool hall and was unsuccessful (even after going to the fifth floor of what turned out to be a residential apartment building – I think). Maybe on future visits I’ll be able to find it. For now, this is the go-to place.

Pool Hall – Forte Billiard, Singapore

December 6, 2022

This is another pool club located on the second floor of a mall, not too far from Clique. And it was pretty similar. A lot of tables and virtually no one playing mid-afternoon on a Saturday. Here there were more snooker tables than pool tables. Tables were in good condition, cues were decent. Staff was busy on a mobile phone and not very attentive, but there wasn’t much to attend to other than checking tables in and out. No food or drinks that I saw, and at most it would be a vending machine. There are restaurants elsewhere in the mall that I presume you could bring food or drink in from.

The ambiance here didn’t please me as much as Clique, but that’s a somewhat arbitrary judgment. As I was leaving a mother came in with her two pre-teen sons and was teaching them. It’s a good place for that sort of thing. Clean, brightly lit, and equipment in good condition.

Pool Hall – Clique Billiards, Singapore

December 5, 2022

I’m grateful there are pool clubs that are (relatively) sanitary and brightly lit and don’t serve alcohol. I’m glad these places exist so families can play pool together and kids can learn the game. But I don’t particularly care to play in them myself. There’s no shortage of tables to be sure, they’re in great condition with clean, new felt. Cues could have better tips but are somewhat straight. Staff is friendly and attentive, at least as much so as speaking a different language allows. It’s located on the third level of what appears to be a mall/family activity center.

The place advertises snacks and drinks but this appears to consist of Indomie and a few sodas. There were a handful of other people playing mid-afternoon, with a dozen 9-foot tables to choose from as well as 2-3 snooker tables. Definitely a great place to bring the kids and teach them the game!