Archive for February, 2023

Book Review – Singapore: A Very Short History

February 28, 2023

Singapore: A Very Short History: From Temasek to Tomorrow by Alvin Tan

I don’t know about you, but my history courses never covered much of Asian history. So as I find myself on the other side of the planet it makes sense to learn a bit more about these places, and it’s in general fascinating reading. As a good part of my work involves Singapore I picked up this book at the Changi Airport bookstore in Singapore last week. As the title suggests, it’s very short (just over 150 pages) and quite readable.

The book covers roughly 700 years of Singapore history dating from earliest mentions of the island in the 14th century, then called Temasek. About half the book covers Singapore’s history up until the mid-20th century and the brief but brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II, while the second half of the book gives far greater detail about the political details of Singapore’s progression from a former British colony to an independent city-state.

If you’re familiar with modern Singapore history, lived through that time, knew people involved with it, or otherwise thrive on detailed descriptions of political machinations then you’ll love the second half of this book. But for me it bogged down very quickly. Compared with the sweeping brushstrokes of the first half of the book this half was tedious and I ended up skimming the last 1/4 of the book.

I’ll look for another resource to learn more about Singapore’s more distant past but this book provided an adequate overview of particularly the last 200 years of Singaporean history and some insights into why this small place has and continues to pack such a punch on the world economic stage.

Truth by Majority Opinion?

February 27, 2023

There is a logical fallacy called the Bandwagon Fallacy, or an Appeal to the Majority Fallacy, or various other permutations. The idea is that just because a lot of people (4/5 Dentists, for example) do something or believe something doesn’t mean they’re right or what they believe is true. In our age of ultra-connectivity, social media influencers, activist celebrities and all manner of other media onslaught this fallacy is more relevant and dangerous than ever.

The truth remains, however, that simply being the minority opinion does not mean you’re wrong. Or stupid. Or evil. And being the majority opinion doesn’t mean you’re right. Or smart. Or virtuous.

Thriving as we do on righteous indignation, cancel-culture and revisionism of all stripes, it is imperative we remember this. Not just in retrospect, but in the moment. The more people scream at you that you’re wrong because all these other people are convinced their right, the more you need to hold on in quiet maturity. Listen to what they have to say. Weigh the evidence (if there is any), be as objective as you can, but don’t cave in to pressure to change your opinion just because a lot of other people insist your point of view must be wrong. In the absence of incontrovertible evidence, we must recognize in humility the constant possibility of error – well-intentioned or otherwise.

Two excellent cases in point.

First, as I’ve maintained for years, if you object to a law the best course of action is not to ignore the law but to work to change it. Laws are there for a reason. They are not perfect and may need to be amended or replaced, but simply to ignore them creates bigger problems. Immigration laws are a leading example of this. But it’s not just the US where our laws are routinely ignored because of some vaguely defined public opinion. Case in point, Great Britain, and the story of someone who was due to be extradited for violations of the law but his case was reversed because of agitation by immigration lawyers and a slew of celebrities and political officials. Instead of being back in his own country where he legally belonged, he remained in Great Britain and went on to commit and be convicted of murder. Not surprisingly, those people who previously very publicly advocated for the man not to be extradited are now completely silent when asked to comment on the situation.

After all, no need to admit you might have been wrong, to question the use of celebrity to circumvent the rule of law and all that jazz. We’ll just pretend nothing happened and move on with our lives. Lovely.

Another example comes in the wake of Covid. I won’t go into the ridiculousness about the early promises regarding vaccines compared to their eventual reality. But just in the matter of trying to understand how all of it started there was a great deal of insistence on what could or couldn’t have happened. Early on there were suspicions that a Chinese biomedical research facility near Wuhan (the epicenter of the outbreak) might have accidentally leaked the virus. It’s not an unrealistic surmise, but it was angrily and loudly denounced by a great many media and other figures who found it racist or insulting to the Chinese.

Perhaps our relations were better with China back then because there certainly seemed to be a strong desire not to offend them, and the idea of a lab leak was scuttled by and large by the preferred narrative of a cross-over event in a wet market, possibly from contaminated bats. Also a possible explanation, to be sure. But I was curious at the time why so many people seemed so insistent that this had to be the truth, and not the equally plausible alternative of a lab leak – particularly in light of Chinese reticence to share information about the early stages of the outbreak.

Now, in addition to the FBI, the US Department of Energy released a report this week indicating a low-level of support for the lab leak theory. Interesting on a variety of levels (Why is the Department of Energy weighing in on this topic?!). Is there a need for this sort of report at this time? Is it another means of ratcheting up hypothetical pressure on or against China in light of their stance on the Ukraine War? It’s odd, to say the least.

But certainly not odd enough for the media to immediately begin mitigating it. We are assured in a follow-up article that the DoE’s report is only a low-confidence assessment, meaning they aren’t confident that their findings are correct, but they (I assume) warrant releasing the report (again, why?). And, further, the lab leak theory continues to remain a minority view among those who weigh in on this sort of thing (qualified or otherwise, I presume).

The heart of the matter is that we don’t know for sure what happened. Maybe we will someday, but I don’t think that’s likely at this point. Therefore to have two or more possible explanations hardly seems extravagant. There seems to be no compelling reason to accept China’s proffered explanation of a cross-over infection at a Wuhan wet market. Particularly in light of the information of a nearby lab known to be researching exactly this sort of virus. Yet the public is being coached in terms of a majority and minority view which view to have. Why?

Truth is not a matter of majority rule. Application may be. But truth remains truth regardless of what we say or think about it, or whether we accept it or recognize it. Objective truth simply is. Sometimes discoverable as such. Sometimes revealed as such. Sometimes surmised as much. Sometimes convenient and other times not so much. But always true. No matter how many people want it to be or not.

Let’s quit treating people as stupid when their conclusions don’t match our own. Instead let’s focus more on training ourselves and our children to know the difference between a logical fallacy and a truth. Let’s teach them that media and celebrities can be just as flawed and inaccurate in their judgments and conclusions as the people they’re comfortable attacking. That should keep us plenty busy as the truth is ferreted out.

Revival (?)

February 18, 2023

Several readers and friends have forwarded me articles on the revival being reported in some circles at Asbury University in Kentucky. This is a Christian (Methodist) school and a typical chapel service started early last week started and hasn’t ended yet. Understandably this has generated a lot of interest in some Christian circles (if not secular). Much of this interest comes from social media posts from people at Asbury University (including the chaplain) being reposted over social media. This has led to people traveling to the school from other places to experience it for themselves.

So what should be made of this?

I’d say overall, nothing in particular needs to be made of this. I’m grateful for the students (and others) experiencing this moment and pray it is a continued blessing in their lives. Many Christians experience moments of profound awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives. Less often are these moments linked in time and place with other Christians, but just as I’d not (barring unusual issues) feel the need to question someone’s individual experience of God (unless it directly contradicted his Word), I don’t feel the need to question a communal experience. But, conversely, just as I wouldn’t try to extrapolate an individual’s experience into something greater, neither do I see the need for such an extrapolation of this communal event in Kentucky.

As usual, GetReligion has an excellent article on this topic. I’d highly recommend a read.

The things to look for in these situations are not the signs, not the experiences in and of themselves, but what and who they might point to or lead towards. The signs in and of themselves are fleeting and limited in scope. But what and more importantly who (Jesus) they point to or lead to are bigger.

A few years (12?!?!?!) ago all the rage was a book called Heaven Is for Real. It detailed a young boy’s account of visiting heaven and meeting Jesus and deceased family members. People made a big deal about the child’s experience. But why? Many Christians have reported encounters with Christ (so have some non-Christians I’ve met, and the experience brought them to faith in Christ). For Christians, such reports are just that, reports. They don’t tell us anything new. They may encourage our faith, but so should the Word of God first and foremost! Do we need additional reports to improve upon what God has already told us? I blogged about it here. And tangentially here. And again here, related to the aforementioned tangent.

Again, this is not to disparage such reports. I trust the boy did indeed have the experience he claims to. I am happy so many people are being touched at Asbury University. But these things don’t change my faith in Jesus Christ. At best, they encourage my faith. At worst, they have no impact at all because they aren’t happening directly to me.

Might revival be occurring? I suppose so, depending on how you define that word. Revival is nothing new in the Christian faith either on the individual or collective level. I don’t obsess about revival, which of course is in part due to my own church’s perspectives on such things. But I do pray as Jesus taught us that our Father’s will be done and that his kingdom come and that his name would be honored – most of all by those who profess to follow him. Is that the same thing as revival? Frankly, I think it’s probably much deeper, powerful, and longer-lasting than revival. Revival should lead towards these things. If revival is valued solely for the religious or emotional experience it imparts to those touched by it, we’re missing the deeper point.

Experiences and emotions fade. They can alter as we age, and of course Satan is happy to try and confuse us about them. God’s promises to us don’t change or alter. So I prefer to focus on and give thanks for those. I’m certainly not against a subjective, emotional spiritual experience, but my faith is not dependent upon having received one in the past or getting one now. My faith is grounded in God’s enduring Word and promise to me, objectively received in my baptism and received again and again at the Lord’s Table.

So, I pray that people’s lives are being touched in Kentucky. And in the rest of the world, whether it’s being reported on or not, whether or not there’s a critical mass of people involved. You don’t need to go to Kentucky to get in on the action. Likewise, if you’re so inclined and it doesn’t diminish your other vocational responsibilities, feel free to. Regardless, continue to nurture your life of faith in the Word of God and through his Sacraments and gathering in Christian community. If the Holy Spirit wants to reveal something to you or grant you some sort of special experience, don’t worry, He will. You aren’t going to miss out.

Pool Hall – The Last Black Billiards, Colombo, Sri Lanka

February 16, 2023

When I stopped by here about 4:30pm on a weekday the place was empty. While there’s a sign on the building overlooking Brass Founder Street, I had to guess which floor it might be on. I went up to the third floor and through a crack in the only door on that floor could dimly make out the glow of green felt. The young man watching over the place was startled when I came in. Probably because anyone was coming in, let alone a non-Sri Lankan.

This is a simple place. I was grateful the blacklights were not in use (the apparent reason for the name). Three tables, a few cues and the remnants of bits of chalk. The balls are chipped, and you can hear the cracks and divots in the slate under the felt. Some of the rails are dead. The cue tips are hardened so that chalk doesn’t stick. While I hope it’s a great introduction to the sport for the local youth, it’s not someplace a pool player needs to check out. Unless, like me, you just want to say you tried.

I stayed for about 10 minutes. When I went to pay (250 Sri Lankan Rupee for 30 minutes, about $0.65 US) he handed me 150 back and shook his head. It seemed fair, and he’ll have a story to share with the other lads when they start showing up later at night I’m sure.

Pool Hall – Eight Ball Pool & Snooker, Colombo Sri Lanka

February 15, 2023

This place is difficult to find, at least by Western sensibilities. There’s no sign outside (that I could see) and it’s located in a narrow building in a crowded neighborhood just east of the chaotic Pettah market area in Colombo. If (like me) you’re using Google Maps as a guide to find places like this, beware there are two listings with the words Eight Ball in the title, shown on the same street just a block apart. The one further south appears to be the real one. Can’t vouch for the other one. Were it not for a very committed tuk-tuk driver, I wouldn’t have found it.

I climbed to the third floor of the building with nothing but a printed paper pointing upwards that had been torn in half but still taped to a wall for my guide. My tuk-tuk driver followed right behind me, clearly uncertain as to the wisdom of this venture. There was one table available and I was directed to take it. To say this place is rustic would be very accurate and perhaps an overselling of the place. Three somewhat threadbare eight-foot tables in an unairconditioned room. No snacks or drinks or anything. Definitely a very local crowd, and probably skewing towards early high school age for the majority of them.

I started racking the balls and was immediately approached by a great hulk of a man. With sign language and a bare minimum of words that are somewhat universal in the world of pool it was apparent he wanted to play me. I have no illusions that Caucasians were rare in this establishment, and certainly not ones with a laptop bag dropped in the corner. It would be difficult to accurately convey how very different I was from everything and everyone in this room even if I claimed that I was the only one with green skin, six arms and giant, shrimp-like antennae sprouting from my head. I might as well have had those attributes, but they were hardly necessary.

I agreed to shoot, wary a bit of what I was getting into. He didn’t make any indication he wanted to play for money which I was grateful for. Money complicates everything and in some situations such complications aren’t simply unnecessary they’re unwise. So I racked the balls, indicated he could break, and we were off.

I assumed from the immediacy of his challenge that he was probably the house pro, and his shooting confirmed this pretty quickly. A smooth, fluid stroke, good confidence in the use of power, and a good eye for leaving himself with his next shot. He ran out five of his seven balls before missing. Not having shot for a week or more and being nervous about being in a new place, I missed my shot and he sank one more ball before missing. I dropped a couple of balls but missed and left him another shot. He was down to the eight ball but didn’t have a good shot on it. On my turn I ran the rest of my balls, had a long shot on the eight and missed, leaving him with the easy winning shot.

We racked again and this time the situation was reversed. I made some good plays early on and beat him while he still had two balls on the table. We agreed to play one more. By this time the mental aspect of the game had kicked in. I had overcome my jitters while my victory in the second game clearly had rattled his. In the third game I was shooting on the eight ball while he still had three balls on the table. I wasn’t making those three balls easy on him and they were still standing when I dropped the eight ball.

I thanked him and he asked where I was from. He agreed to a photo which in part due to my remaining nervousness is a bit blurry. But a good reminder nonetheless about how a shared love of something as simple as the game of pool can build bridges where language and culture and economics fail.


February 14, 2023

I consider myself to be more or less an egalitarian. Chalk that up to being an American, which in turn at least started out based in some pretty Biblical understandings of what it means to be a human being, even if we’ve never fully realized our own best ideals. I believe in the equality of all people not based on what they do or have but rather on the reality of their being creations of the one, true God.

This understanding of reality extends beyond human relations. I don’t like snobbery. But I have to admit I’ve become a bit of a snob.

I’d like that’s not related primarily to being an American with an American salary living in a part of the world where the costs of living are monumentally less, though of course this is a nearly impossible reality to avoid. I am privileged, not in the woke sense but in the very real dollars and cents sense. I don’t have to imagine my privilege it stares me in the face down every street I ride or walk.

Despite this acknowledgement, my egalitarian views long ago extended into my hobby of billiards/pool/American pocket billiards. I own my own cue, of course. One on each side of the world, currently. But I’ve always tried to employ the attitude that if my opponent isn’t using their own cue, neither will I. If they’re playing with a house cue I want to try and beat them with a house cue rather than wondering if my victory had to do with the better quality of the tools in use. I don’t make a big deal of this, it’s just what I try to do. If someone else can play on a crappy table, by golly so can I. It also has to do with wanting to be able to walk into any pool hall or pool bar or pool whatever, pick up a cue, and blend. Be grateful for the opportunity to play and don’t quibble about the quality of the materials.

Maybe it’s more a mix of machismo and egalitarianism? Hmmm.

It all sounds very nice on paper but I’m forced to admit I am no longer egalitarian in this sense. I have become a pool snob.

I’m not proud of this, but I can’t deny it. I can’t pretend all tables, felts, rails, cues, tips, and chalk are created equal because they aren’t. I can’t pretend equipment maintenance and quality doesn’t matter because it does. I don’t profess to be a great player by any stretch of the imagination, so struggling additionally because of the tools and materials I’m playing with is frustrating.

This has come to the forefront as I’ve played pool in a continually growing list of countries and cities in Southeast Asia. I’ve run into some very nice places that could compete in quality with anything I’ve come across in the US, even at the level of competition. But I routinely encounter far more rustic conditions. And I’m coming to grips with the reality that I certainly don’t have to play in these conditions, but the rather more troubling reality that I don’t want to.

Which means if I show up to a place and find out it’s really in bad condition, I’ll play a rack or two for the privilege of saying I’ve played there and adding it to my prideful list of places I’ve shot pool, but I don’t need to stay longer than that. And that’s OK. Especially if it’s just me and there’s nobody to strike up a game with. No harm done in playing for 15 minutes or so and calling it good enough. Because under many conditions, that really is good enough.

What this means though, is also OK with being more discriminating in where I’ll even bother to go. I mean, for safety reasons if nothing else, I’m not going to go to a random place with no reviews and not even an interior photo. Anybody can claim anything on the Internet, and I’d rather not show up at an axe murderer’s house who finds their victims by advertising online that they’re a pool hall.

I’ve come close to that a few times though (at least it felt that way – I’m sure it wasn’t really that perilous!). I’d like to think I’m learning, and this learning isn’t just base snobbishness but something far more appealing and honorable sounding like common sense.

I’m trying to convince myself of this, but I haven’t yet.

In the meantime, I’m being more selective of the places I bother to try out. And I’m giving greater thanks when I come across places that were worth the trip.