Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Among the Scrabble all-stars in Southeast Asia

A couple weeks ago, my girlfriend and I took our first dip in the waters of competitive Scrabble. We go head-to-head semi-nightly and the battles are always intense (sometimes, possibly too intense). We figured it was time to put our skills on public display.

The Singapore Scrabble Association was hosting the 2009 Yew Tee Scrabble Open Championship, which, as it turned out, was a warm-up for the biennial World Scrabble Championships (WSC) that was being held the next week in Johor Bahru, Malyasia, just across the strait from Singapore.

We were just there for a little fun, of course, full embodiments of our "Recreational" division (she finished 7th, I finished 9th out of 16 players). But others were there for some real-life Word Wars.

We didn't mingle much with the players in the Masters division. They had a pretty intense palate of games -- eight that day (compared to our six total) and eight the day before. But we chatted briefly with a guy decked out in short shorts and a Metallica "Ride the Lightning" T-shirt. (Didn't catch his name but the T-shirt was sick.) He had flown in from Hungary where he's among the elite, a top-rated player in both English and Hungarian versions of Scrabble. How someone can master all the arcane words required to be a world-class Scrabble player in just English is incredible. To be able to do it in multiple languages just makes my mind hurt. He was in Southeast Asia for the next weekend's WSC and was in Singapore to practice.

Also competing at the Yew Tee Open was New Zealander Nigel Richards, who cooly strolled up to the community center auditorium sporting jeans, a Scrabble T-shirt, a pair of thick glasses and a bulging fanny pack. I noticed him because of the fanny pack, of course, but little did I know that he is, or at least has been, the top-rated Scrabble player in the world, as well as the the reigning WSC champion. He crushed the competition in Singapore, winning 13 of his 16 games by a combined margin of 1575 points. He would go on to finish as the runner-up to Thailand's No 1 player, Pakorn Nemitrmansuk, at the WSC.

The WSC pitted more than 100 players from 40 different countries against each other over three days and 24 games worth of high-powered letter crunching. Turns out Thailand is a Scrabble powerhouse of sorts; Pakorn, who was the runner-up in 2003 and 2005, was one of three Thais to finish in the top 5. He won US$15,000 for his efforts. He secured his victory and a score of 670 by playing the word "botanica", whatever that means.

And here is an interesting little blog posting from the Wall St Journal several months ago about Scrabble.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama aces the politics of APEC as Singapore's political freedoms struggle to pass

I was at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference a couple weeks ago, mostly hanging out in the press room at the Suntec convention center watching on the TV the events going on a couple floors below me.

It was something of a historic conference with Barack Obama making an appearance, which was unfortunately truncated because of the shootings at Fort Hood. He ended up only being in town for less than 24 hours before he was whisked away to China.

While here in Singapore he was able to meet with leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Burma, the first time a US president has done either of those things (a prez had never met with ASEAN, and not formally with a Burmese leader since LBJ in 1966).

APEC is not an incredibly interesting event and Obama's presence there was all about cultivating US "soft power". Here is a good description of what APEC is all about from the Economist's Democracy in America blog:

It's a big deal because, while what gets said at these Asian summits isn't usually important, who shows up is. It isn't a big deal because...well, just reverse that last sentence... But it is one of the premier Asian forums for showing up and being photographed standing next to each other while smiling, and one of the irritating things about East and Southeast Asia is that showing up and being photographed standing next to each other while smiling is extremely important. The Bush administration failed to send sufficiently high-ranking officials to Southeast Asia, and experts from the region said that contributed to declining American influence.

From Obama's standpoint, APEC was all well and good; photos were taken, hands were shaken. But the event also highlighted some of the more unseemly aspects of the host nation in terms of its political freedoms (officially, we're supposed to refer to "host economies", for PC's sake; I'm talking about Singapore here).

First, a well-known freelance journalist, Benjamin Bland, was denied accreditation to cover the conference and a renewal of his work visa was rejected, so he couldn't even be in the city while the conference was going on. No explanation was given for the rejection, and Bland said that if he had spoken out about it he would have been arrested. No wonder Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 133rd our of 175 on the world press freedom index (a ranking, by the way, that Singapore's Law Minister K Shanmugam calls "absurd and divorced from reality").

An unrelated, but significant, event also took place while Obama was in town. It was the launch of a book by Dr Lim Hock Siew, Singapore's second-longest-held political prisoner. I can't say I know a whole lot about this man or his politics, but I couldn't help but be captivated by what he had to say at the book launch (see below).

As a top figure in the opposition Socialist party (and a defector of the still-ruling People's Action Party), he was detained without trial for close to 20 years (released in 1982). Opposition voices are not exactly welcomed in Singaporean politics, and as Dr Lim's case shows, many opposition figures are forcefully silenced. I don't know if the book launch was meant to coincide with Obama's visit here, or if anyone expected Obama to even acknowledge the plight of Dr Lim. Under the circumstances, it would have been wildly inappropriate and counterproductive of Obama to do so. Nevertheless, Dr Lim seems to be quite an interesting figure in Singaporean politics, or maybe I'm just a sucker for the underdog:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Overcoming the truthiness of Tim Donaghy and Game 6

One of the most painful memories of my life as a sports fan (one of my most bitter memories as a human) is the terrible conclusion of the Kings-Lakers playoff series of 2002. It will be a long, long time before a team I care about as much as the Kings even approaches the upper echelons. Those early-aught years were a special time in Sacramento sports history that I'm beginning to realize will probably never be recaptured. NBA talent is moving far away from Sactown, and its return is hardly guaranteed.

This all makes the revelations in disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy all the more painful. Of course we Kings fans accused the referees of engaging in some sort of conspiracy to allow the Lakers to win that series. But that's what any good sports fan would do -- blame the refs for his team's ineptitude.

Then the Donaghy thing happened and we learned that referees really can be corrupted. Donaghy came out swinging, insisting he was not the loan bad apple and that plenty of other dubious choices had been made by referees over the years. He promised a tell-all book and apparently wrote it. It remains unpublished after the NBA threatened to sue.

But excepts have recently emerged and they seem to back up everything Kings fans assumed way back then: Game 6 was fixed.

Now, considering the human tendency toward truthiness, one way to look at Donaghy's allegations is to say that his supposed "truth" jibes all too well with how we, as Kings fans, view the world: that there was a conspiracy against the Kings to boost TV ratings. I don't deny that I'm predisposed to believing anything that bolsters that notion, despite any evidence against it (there's not much, however). The truth is that Donaghy is not exactly a trustworthy character, and to use his claims as your supposed "proof" is not exactly firm ground to stand on.

Still, his claims sound all too plausible, but not in a "truther" sort of way, which represents cynicism to the point of implausibility. Basketball fixing is something that just seems too easy not to happen, it's just all very believable -- and the evidence was right there in front of us.

So yes, Donaghy is a schmuck. But that doesn't mean I still don't feel totally robbed and cheated by forces greater than myself because I didn't get what would have been one of the sweetest vicarious thrills of my life. And yes, the Kings shouldn't have missed all those free throws in Game 7, but that's beside the point (I do think they were the better team in that series, having proved it in Game 6).

In case you haven't seen it, here is what Donaghy has to say about what happened that fateful night in LA, care of Deadspin:

The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings presents a stunning example of game and series manipulation at its ugliest. As the teams prepared for Game 6 at the Staples Center, Sacramento had a 3–2 lead in the series. The referees assigned to work Game 6 were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. As soon as the referees for the game were chosen, the rest of us knew immediately that there would be a Game 7. A prolonged series was good for the league, good for the networks, and good for the game. Oh, and one more thing: it was great for the big-market, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.

In the pregame meeting prior to Game 6, the league office sent down word that certain calls — calls that would have benefitted the Lakers — were being missed by the referees. This was the type of not-so-subtle information that I and other referees were left to interpret. After receiving the dispatch, Bavetta openly talked about the fact that the league wanted a Game 7.

"If we give the benefit of the calls to the team that's down in the series, nobody's going to complain. The series will be even at three apiece, and then the better team can win Game 7," Bavetta stated.

As history shows, Sacramento lost Game 6 in a wild come-from-behind thriller that saw the Lakers repeatedly sent to the foul line by the referees. For other NBA referees watching the game on television, it was a shameful performance by Bavetta's crew, one of the most poorly officiated games of all time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truthiness is still alive and strong

Frank Rich has an interesting column this week in defense of Richard Heene, the 'Balloon Boy' dad. Not because Heene is any kind of great dad, rather because "Heene is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where 'news,' 'reality' television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking."

This column is an extrapolation of the themes Rich explored in his 2006 book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, a work that helped define the meaning of truthiness -- truth derived from emotion rather than from fact -- just as well as any late-night comedian could have. Even though that particular word has been absent from the popular lexicon of late, Rich reminds us that it still very much describes our present reality.

"None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he’s not. He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated."

Also this week, the Democracy in America blog over at The Economist cited recent research to help explain some of the reactions of both global warming deniers and believers to the new book Superfreakonomics:

"People's pre-existing personality biases, (the researchers found), actually shape their beliefs about the factual reality of the world; more information is unlikely to produce consensus, because people tend to reject information that does not cohere with their worldview ...

We have a dynamic of political discourse that produces absolute belief in things that, often enough, aren't true."

That, too, is textbook truthiness. From-the-gut truth is no longer a cornerstone of American policy (for now at least) so the catastrophic danger of blind faith does not feel as urgent. But it's clear that we've become a society that willingly abandons the need for fact-based truth for the sake of self-satisfaction -- and a good show.

(Note: I'm not trying to say anything about the truth or truthiness behind global warming here or what is said in Superfreakonomics. That's a different discussion entirely. It just happens to be the subject matter of the above link.)

(Only tangentially related, but related all the same: Here is an interview Dan Savage of The Stranger did with Frank Rich recently that is worth a glance. Describes how and why pop songs changed from show tunes to rock songs around the time the Beatles came along.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Singapore leaders are either too cheap to recycle or too lazy

Last week, Singapore's infallible first Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was giving a talk at the Singapore Management University and was asked a question about why Singapore has fallen so far behind other industrialized Asian nations like Japan and South Korea on the recycling front. His answer? Too expensive:

On recycling, (MM Lee said) the main problem is that the single rubbish chute in every Housing and Development Board flat encourages residents to throw everything into it, instead of separating their recyclables from food waste as the Japanese, Taiwanese and South Koreans commonly do.

“We have thought about this very carefully, but just restructuring the buildings to make the lift stop on every floor...may cost nearly $100,000 per flat. You start putting two or three chutes into every flat, where do you find the space and what will it cost?” he asked.

True, Singapore has some green tendencies. Just this week it launched a Zero Energy Building, which produces as much energy as it uses and is the first such building in Southeast Asia. The country has also found a fairly innovate method for disposing of waste, at least for the short term. Trash is incinerated and then shipped to an island a few miles off the coast where the ashes are buried. The Semakau landfill also doubles as a rejuvenated nature preserve. But trash incineration, even though it supposedly also creates up to 3% of the total power generated in Singapore, is far from a sustainable way of getting rid of waste.

Still, Singapore is hardly known for its environmentalism. The most popular food courts serve their goods almost exclusively on Styrofoam plates with disposable chopsticks. Grocers may literally give you more plastic bags at checkout than actual products you're purchasing -- one small bag for the meat, one for the soap, another for the shampoo and so on, all placed in another large bag to carry all your (bagged) products. It's shocking, and I stand by with a watchful eye declining the excessive baggage. I usually leave an unneeded bag or two on the counter when I leave.

Recycling is such an easy way to reduce waste. It's a habit that's been drilled into my Western mindset, but it's one of the healthier habits I've developed. Recycling bins apparently exist across the island, but I can't recall ever seeing one. And without a vehicle, it's not exactly convenient to haul bulging bags of bottles and containers to some faraway receptacle.

At my apartment, we put bags of recyclables and stacks of newspapers outside our door or down in the basement, assuming they're picked up and properly deposited. But now I'm not so sure that whoever picks up those items doesn't just toss them in with the rest of the trash.

For MM Lee to be so flippant about even trying to promote recycling is troubling. The way he puts it, it'll just be too expensive to retrofit apartment buildings and that's the end of the discussion. All it would take is to have a collection bin at all apartment complexes, convenient enough for willing recyclers, and have waste management services swoop by on their regular routes. People may be lazy, but just because they can't currently toss recyclables down a shoot like they do other refuse doesn't mean recycling is a lost cause. For such an advanced Asian nation, Singapore's primitive attitude towards recycling is inexcusable.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Weed: The cancer of Humboldt County?

I just watched the A&E documentary "Pot City, USA", a fear-inducing chronicle of grow houses in Arcata, Humboldt, NorCal.

Watch Part 1. (Thanks NCJ!)

Watch Part 2.

Watch Part 3.

Watch Part 4.

Having not lived in Arcata for nearly four years now, I honestly don't know what the situation has become. This documentary feels a bit sensationalized, complete with dramatic and emotive music and fast cuts. But it also seems pretty accurate when compared to what I've read elsewhere.

Many pot growers (and way too many smokers) often have a misguided sense of entitlement to do what they do simply because they think they're fighting against the injustice of prohibition. The feeling is all the more righteous in Humboldt because pot is quasi-legal there, or at least hyper-tolerated. It's really a shame to see the destruction, as depicted in the documentary, that some of these grow-ops have wrought. I guess I never realized how much damage a careless grower can do to a house -- the mold, the fire danger, the rot. Growers I've known are just more responsible than some, I suppose.

It seems to me that the main problem here is the quasi-legality of pot. Even before it reached that status with the passage of Prop 215, which made medical marijuana legal in California, Humboldt was a haven for pot growers. I also don't know what things were like in the years before 215, but I don't think it was any worse than what's shown in the documentary in terms of number of grow houses. After 215, my guess is that Humboldt's reputation attracted a new wave of growers eager to exploit the already liberal attitude.

But the fact that the drug was/is still technically illegal means growers can still rake in the cash. They have been able to operate in this grey area where pot is both legal and illegal -- liberalized laws make it easier to grow but growers can still get paid from the unregulated black market. A perfect storm, if you will.

One more argument, it seems, for why pot should be fully legalized and regulated -- it's an all-or-nothing endeavor. As mentioned at the end of the documentary, if pot was legalized, all those grow houses would cease to exist. I'm not entirely sure grow-ops would just up and vanish, but at the very least, the trade would not be so lucrative so reckless amateurs would be less inclined to rush up to Humboldt to make a quick buck. If growers had to register with authorities, for example, the potential for damage to a property would be significantly reduced, and if a house was trashed there would be a viable recourse.

It even looks like legalization could happen as soon as next year. Not holding my breath, but hey, California is a trend-setter.

It's clear that growing pot is not (always) a victim-less crime. But the victims would be far fewer if it was no longer a crime.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A tale of chaste sex-tourism in Cambodia

I was in Cambodia back in the summer. I wrote about it here.

But there is a sequel. It takes place in the seaside town of Sihanoukville. Here it is, at long last, finally published on The Tyee last week.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The absolute worst sports column ever written (in case you missed it)

Really slow on posting this, as I am wont to lag. But it is certainly worth your attention (if you've not already granted it) to check out this column written by Mark Whicker of the OC Register.

You've probably already heard about it -- meat-head in Orange County writes a column ostensibly addressed to kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard running down all the sporting events he can think of that she has missed out on during the 18 years of her incarceration. It is an embarrassment to letters and words and really anything else decent in the world, and indeed has been roundly condemned on these here interwebs. Hard to have any other reaction.

Whicker is obviously completely tone deaf to even conceive of such a thing, but his editors deserve just as much blame for giving his schlock the green light. It's strange, too, because not one week earlier the same newspaper ran an exclusive and very moving interview with Jaycee's aunt, Tina Dugard, who recounted her and her family's experience getting re-acquainted with Jaycee. It's heartfelt and tender, but Whicker's follow-up commentary bashes all those warm fuzzies with a baseball bat.

Whicker has apologized for "disconnect[ing] that bond" with readers who were offended by the column. But in an interview with Poynter Online, he sure doesn't seem all that sorry. "I vehemently believe I wasn't insensitive about the fact that she was kidnapped," he told the website. Hmm...

Seems it's a conceit Whicker's used before, as Poynter points out, having written almost the exact same article in 1991 when hostage Terry Anderson was released from captivity in Lebanon. At least those who fall victim to lunatics have someone keeping track of the sports world for them.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

New hoops league to tip off in Southeast Asia

Basketball fans in Southeast Asia now have some professional teams to call their own, as the ASEAN Basketball League was officially launched last week in Manila. Games should get underway next month.

Backed by AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes, the league will start with six teams from six different countries: the Brunei Barracudas, KL (Kuala Lumpur) Dragons, the Philippine Patriots, the Satria Muda BritAma, the Thailand Tigers and the Singapore Slingers. There will be 15 home and away games with a four-team playoff in February.

Basketball hardly enjoys the following in ASEAN countries as it does in, say, China. My guess is that the Philippine Patriots are going to be the hottest team and probably the most financially successful. Of all these countries, the Philippines is definitely the most hoops-mad -- while soccer is king everywhere else, it barely cracks the top three favorite sports in the Philippines, coming in far behind basketball and volleyball (in that order).

I played a few games with my Filipino roommate's 14-year-old son, and at a foot shorter and 15 years younger than the rest of us, he dominated. The Patriots are the team I'll go check out when they come to Singapore.

According to ESPN Star:

Each ABL team will be fielding seven local players, three ASEAN imports (with one needing just ASEAN heritage to qualify), and two international imports. Teams do not have to field ASEAN imports if they have the additional three local players they are satisfied that can perform just as well, like the Patriots of the Phillipines.

A significant point was made at the press conference and that is the salary cap has been set at US$400,000 per season, with the top import being set to be paid in the region of US$100,000. The second top import's salary will be set at US$50,000, with the remaining players splitting the salary amount left according to their discretion.

The league is interesting because it will pit club teams that represent countries against one another, injecting an undeniable flavor of international competition with heated rivalries almost a given. I'm sure the Singapore/KL games will be intense.

It may take a few seasons to get off the ground, but with solid financial backing and the moral support of FIBA, the ABL could really be something. Measured against the always floundering CBA in China, success should not be too difficult.

Monday, September 07, 2009

For all the dogs that get Left Behind...

We all know that most pets are hopeless heathens. Beautiful and loving beasts each one, but as unrepentant sinners, their chances of joining the faithful in eternity are nonexistent.

And when The Rapture hits and thousands of believers are instantly transported into Paradise, who will be left to care for our furry friends?

Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA, that's who. They are a group of animal-loving atheists who for a meager fee of $110 are offering their services to the hundred million or so Americans who believe that, when the time is right, on the verge of the Apocalypse, God will suddenly call them up to heaven while the rest of us, left behind here on earth, battle evil forces for the survival of our eternal souls (or something like that).

Lest you think it's a joke, the group writes on its website: "This is a serious offer to our Christian friends who believe in the Second Coming and honestly care about the future of their pets after the Rapture occurs."

The group's founder tells the Main Street website that somewhere between one and 175 people have signed up for the service. It's hard to know how many of these might be true believers who worry about their pets and how many are just fellow atheists who support the effort. Either way, it's nice to see such harmony between the saved and the damned, working together for the betterment of animal welfare.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hoping Kennedy's death eases the insanity in the health-care debate

In another blog posting for the Straits Times, I weigh in on the health-care debate, taking a cue from something Chris Dodd said about how everyone, in Ted Kennedy's honor, should just take a deep breath and talk about health care rationally, minus all the death-panel idiocy.

Not that Leaner readers need much convincing that the American health-care system is in serious need of an overhaul, however it happens, or that all this babble about death panels is nonsense, but here and here are a couple stories to push that argument even further (which didn't make it into the blog post). The first one embodies everything wrong with insurance companies; the second is just a tragic tale of how burdensome health care is in its current form.

As for the blog posting itself, the conversation developing in the comments is refreshingly worthwhile. Have a look.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

While we're free-associating, more Bill Hicks!

In searching for the YouTube link at the bottom of my last post, I ended up taking a pretty thorough journey down Bill Hicks memory lane. It reminded me that I had forgotten to watch the David Letterman clip from January featuring Bill's mother, Mary Hicks.

The brief backstory is that Bill was scheduled to appear on Letterman back in 1993, months before he passed away, but Dave, in a heavy-handed act of censorship, decided Bill's material was not appropriate for the show and cut the segment.

Fifteen years later, Dave decided to make amends and had Bill's mom on and showed the cut segment. Mary is very sweet and Dave honorably acknowledges his mistake and repeatedly apologizes for it. It's actually quite moving.

Here is Dave's intro, followed by the bit with Mary and Bill's never-before-seen Letterman segment:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Not gonna be such a good night for Muslims in Malaysia

The Black Eyed Peas are scheduled to play a concert near Kuala Lumpur on September 25, but the Malaysian government has banned all Muslims from attending the show. It seems the fact that the show will be sponsored by Guinness beer goes against Islamic law, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol.

The show is only allowed to go on at all because authorities think it will be good for tourism. Not for Muslim tourists of course; even Muslims that live outside the country are legally forbidden to consume booze there -- and to go to the show. (No beer will be sold at the concert either.)

Black Eyed Peas fans are not the only ones to feel the wrath of Malaysia's strict booze laws. A model who is visiting Malaysia was recently convicted of drinking a beer. For her transgression she was to face four lashes with a bamboo cane (her caning has been suspended until after Ramadan). She wants it to be a public caning, to set an example to other Muslims.

As for the Black Eyed Peas, I have a deeply ambivalent attitude toward them. They mostly just make me depressed. Their first two records are great. But the fact that the first track on their first record, "Fallin' Up" off Behind the Front, contains the lines "Is it 'cause we don't wear Tommy Hilfiger or baseball caps?/ We don't use dollars to represent, we just use our inner sense and talent", their Dr. Pepper commercials were a little hard to swallow when they came out. It's only gotten worse.

I bristle at the idea of accusing artists of "selling out". There's nothing wrong with success, however you define it. Black Eyed Peas know how to write hits (I doubt they play "Fallin' Up" very often these days), but I can't say I dig their music these days.

I think the late great Bill Hicks said it best:

He also said it here, but less directly. "It's only your dignity. Suck it!"

**UPDATE** Looks like the BEP show in Malaysia is back on. Score one for the moderates.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ESPN starting to cover disc golf

At a loss for anything else to write about, I thought I'd direct your attention to a solid article from ESPN's page 2 website about disc golf. (Page 2, of course, used to be the realm of Hunter S. Thompson in his later years. One can only imagine what his gonzo take on disc golf would have been...)

Every year, it seems, disc golf is deemed "the fastest growing sport in America" or something to that effect. Whether that's true or not any given year is hard to say. People are probably more financially strapped this summer than in summers past, and as folks search for low-cost entertainment, well, there are worse places to end up than a disc golf course.

The ESPN story does have its requisite introductions to the game, the obligatory hat tip to the "long-haired hippie" cliche and the standard disc golfer bluster -- one tournament director is quoted saying "Who's to say in 20 years [disc golf] isn't conventional golf?" No need to get carried away. Disc golf will always exist on the fringes of the sports world. Still, it's nice to see a major sports media organization like ESPN give some serious attention to it.

There are even a few things in this story that I didn't know about. I didn't know, for example, that there was some $2 million floating around in PDGA tournaments last year. And I had no idea that Dave Feldberg teaches a for-credit class on disc golf at the University of Oregon (cue underwater basket-weaving reference). All I can say is that I hope part of the class involves taking a field trip to Whistler's Bend in Roseburg, one of the best courses around, in my opinion.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Probing the gray areas of racial profiling

Here's something I wrote last week following the little furor over Obama's comments on the Henry Louis Gates affair. It's a tale long-time readers will already be familiar with.

I hesitated writing it because I wasn't sure the extent to which it would perpetuate certain stereotypes. I decided it was OK, though, because my point is that racial profiling is rarely a clear-cut issue; it so often falls into that uncertain gray area. Even what at first seemed like a clear-cut case of profiling with the Gates/Crowley incident turned out to have far more shades to it than first appeared. But we should stare hard at these gray areas, because that is where our prejudices really reveal themselves.

Still, some commenters found my story offensive because I supposedly perpetuate a racist myth. Others are offended that I condemn Crowley for being a racist (which is simply not true). Not sure how to reconcile the two sides, but I tried to write it in a way that rejects the notion that I was mugged because of the race of my perpetrators. It was merely situational, but highlights the thorniness of the issue.

The incident I recount in this story is something that happened, a real-world application to the utopian ideal that we can and should always look beyond the superficial. If I had taken one look at the gentlemen who mugged me, evaluated their appearance and run the hell away, wouldn't that in itself be racial profiling? Is that acceptable, and if so, where do we draw the line?

Conversing with them and expecting the best may have been naive, but it was also a conscious effort not to make prejudiced judgments. What was the "right" thing to do? I'm still not sure. But some of the nasty comments are sure, however -- sure that whatever I did, it was wrong. Ah, the conundrum.

You want to find a racist in this story, how about this guy?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Launching a new address

Welcome to the unceremonious launch of a new web address for the Left Coast Leaner. The address of the old site was going to change anyway, plus it wasn't a very good address to begin with.

Things should be much cleaner and smoother here on Blogspot. Much nicer software. Hope I retained some eyeballs. Also hope to move over some archives from the old site, for nostalgia's sake.

Also, I'm trying out this Adsense thing. If anyone finds it offensive or intrusive, please let me know. I don't expect to make any cash from it, but hey it's worth a try.

Thanks for reading!

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields: A morning basking in past brutalities

I've been spending more time travelling than blogging, lately. I should be staying put here in Singapore, for a while anyway, but for now I'm going to use this space to regurgitate some of what I've seen.

It's not all interesting, but some of it is. Back in June I took a trip to Cambodia. I was told before I left that Cambodia is a place where things rarely go according to plan. Even though I had no firm plans going in, I still found this to be the case.

The first part of my trip, in which I play "genocide tourist", can be summed up here. Read that for more explanation about the material below.

The rest of (this part of) the trip will be told through pictures (and some text):

This is the inside of one of the classrooms-turned-torture chambers at Toul Sleng prison (S-21). Hard to imagine what unspeakable acts happened to poor souls shackled to that metal bed, tortured into unconsciousness. Outside this room is a set of tall wooden poles. It's like a gallows but without the mercy of death. Prisoners would be yanked off the ground by their arms, behind their backs not over their head. Once the prisoner passed out from the pain, he would be lowered to the ground where his head would be shoved in a cauldron of rancid water, often contaning human waste, to be shocked back into consciousness.

These are some of the thousands of pictures of condemned inmates. The utterly terrified look of the guy on the bottom left pretty much sums up how I think I'd feel if in their position.

These are some paintings by Vann Nath, one of the 10 or fewer prisoners to survive out of the 15,000 or so detained at the prison (see some more of his paintings here, depicting the varieties of torture and murder inflicted at Tuol Sleng). Vann Nath recently testified at the ongoing genocide tribunal. Pay particular attention to the painting on the right (hint, note the water can)...

Look familiar? Looks an awful lot like waterboarding to me. That means the tactics the US has employed in the "war on terror" to extract information are comparable to the brutalities favored by the Khmer Rouge. Let it be said, indisputably: waterboarding is torture.

Part of what makes Tuol Sleng so chilling is its dirt and grittiness. This is not a Disneyland ride. I have no official confirmation, but if those aren't blood stains underneath where there were once shackles and countless suffering prisoners, I have no idea what they are.

In case anyone had the idea to plunge off the third floor of the cell block to end with a quick and relatively honorable death, three-storey sheets of barbed wire were stretched across the front of the building. That's the courtyard in front.

Finally, this is not at Tuol Sleng but the "Killing Fields", which likely more people have heard of. It's where most Tuol Sleng prisoners were hauled and finally executed, usually with a club to save bullets. The fields themselves, formerly an orchard, are not much to look at. Some exhumed mass graves, now grassy ditches scarring the earth. A lot of skulls too. It's all about the vibe there, just dwelling for a moment on the unspeakable acts and thoughtless murder committed just 30 years earlier on that very spot. The thing that represents this perversion of nature more than anything else is above: the killing tree. Guards would bash the heads of children against the base of the trunk and dispose of them that way. This glorious, benevolent entity twisted and turned into a tool of destruction ... it really just gets me, eats at my conception of nature. I sat in the tree's shade and pondered this paradox. It still haunts me.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Standing up for the "sexually challenged"

It's easy to retch at the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold the legal-discrimination edict of Proposition 8. A shame, yes, but really not all that surprising. And, sadly, it was the "right" decision, in that the court's job is to interpret the constitution, not legislate. Like it or not, in a state famously "governed by proposition", the constitution actually allows the nuptial equivalent of separate drinking fountains for gay people.

That is reason enough for California to junk its current constitution and start from scratch. Suffocating 2/3-majority requirements that leave the state financially hamstrung every year is probably the most politically viable reason to start fresh, but the fact that California's constitution now officially promotes ignorance makes the whole thing seem worthless. The fact that a majority of ignoramuses can pass a measure so rooted in archaic understandings of human relationships proves the current system is seriously flawed in what is otherwise a fine state.

Then again, it's not all that bad when compared to the situation in Singapore. We learned earlier that views of homosexuality here are not exactly enlightened. And though I think people in the US who would deny a homosexual the right to marry the person he or she loves would be the same people a generation earlier tsk tsking at "uppity negroes" holding up traffic, I also realize that they don't hold a flame to attitudes here.

To review the basics: sex between two men in Singapore is against the law; it is a "gross indecency" under section 377A. Apparently, sex between women is OK, or at least not criminal -- they seem to differentiate between "lesbianism" and "homosexuality" here. To be fair, anal and oral sex of any kind was illegal here until 2007, when that ban was repealed. Progress?

Like elsewhere, I would hope attitudes towards homosexuals here are evolving and that discrimination will die out in the next generation. But reading some of the things printed in the paper last week makes me think attitudes here have a long way to go.

Take this letter to the Straits Times, posted on the website. The author sagely informs us that "sexually challenged" is not an offensive term referring to gays. He continues:

"It is a fact that homosexuality is an abnormality for the simple reason that it is against the laws of nature. Nature intended each species to reproduce itself and homosexuality does not do the job.

"It is possible that some people are born with homosexual inclinations but that does not make them normal. They are in the same category as people born mentally retarded or blind or deaf or mute. While we may sympathise with them, we do not think of them as normal."

How enlightening. (In case that link disappears, as the ST website is not terribly reliable in its archives, here's the cache.)

On Thursday, another article ran quoting a professor named Koo Tsai Kee, who delivered an impassioned plea to Parliament warning that "intolerance" poses the biggest threat to Singapore. Ok, you'd think, some truly wise words. (Here's the cache.)

"Intolerance", Mr Koo says, is a "growing cancer in society". But to him, intolerance only relates to "religious and racial bigotry". The AWARE saga (linked above) was a showdown between a group of conservative Christians and another group of (for the sake of derogatory hyperbole) homosexual sympathizers. That the debate was "framed" this way by the media, Mr Koo claims, shows there is a clear "intolerance of diversity". In other words, being supportive of gays is an affront to Christianity and, thus, a potentially destructive show of intolerance.

The way the saga was covered, Mr Koo suggests, was tainted by reporters "hobnobbing with the homosexual fraternity", something that calls into question "whether there should ever be an unregulated press". ST editor Han Fook Kwang rightly refuted such claims in his defense of ST's coverage, which was as complete as it could be under the circumstances.

But no one in the mix seems to understand the heart of the issue: Tolerance means tolerating everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual preference. The very fact that there are laws on the books ANYWHERE that legalize discrimination and criminalize human nature is an affront to humanity. Until we see the end of officially sanctioned intolerance, the "growing cancer" will continue to spread.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The mysterious disc golf basket in downtown Singapore

I couldn't believe it when I saw it. I was on my way home from the CBD in Singapore, on the 70 bus. I was looking out the window as we passed SunTec City, the giant mall and convention center near the City Hall subway stop. Singapore was still a new place to me at the time, so there were many unusual sights for me to see. But this forced a double-take:

What in the world is a disc golf basket doing there?!

Disc golf in Asia is very rare indeed. The biannual Japan Open is well known and well attended (even if people grumble about the 150-weight-class requirement), and earlier this year Taiwan staged the first-ever Asia Open. There is also a course on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. (Tragically, I took a trip to Koh Samui a few months ago, and despite knowing that there was a course somewhere in Thailand, I didn't realize it was actually the very spot I was on holiday until after I got back. Foolish. Anyway, I heard rumors that it has closed, which I hope is not true, though it would make me feel better since I blew it so badly earlier.) And of course, there's my failed attempt to get something going in Beijing.

The game does exist here in Singapore, despite the absence of permanent courses. This is pretty much all thanks to die-hard Lance DuBos, an ultimate player who acquired some portable golf baskets along the way and trucks them out to various spots on the island most weekends. There is a very small core of us that get together for a few hours, most often at the state-land park next to Kallang MRT, and throw discs -- that is, when we don't get pummeled by violent downpours and bone-rattling thunder-and-lightning strikes.

But no one can explain the basket pictured above; no one else even knew it existed. From what I can tell, it's on the grounds of the Raffles Education Corp College. I'm not entirely sure what this college is all about, but they seem to have some sort of design program. My best guess is that some student sometime put together a disc golf basket for a project and they just kept it around because it was quirky. It sits there, apparently embedded in the ground (it's not portable), sitting unused in a small plot of lawn next to a basketball court. I wonder if it's ever tasted the sweet ching of a disc sliding through its hanging chains...

I can think of several better places to put that basket (and between 8 and 17 others). Kallang would be one, though I think it works better as a temporary course. Another would be the plot of state land at the end of Guillemard road where it meets Sims, right next to the Judo Club. That spot is a little too swampy, though.

The most perfect spot on the island, from what I've seen, is the vast plot of rolling hills on Upper Serangoon Rd, between Aljunied and Braddell Rds., the site of the old Bidadari cemetery. It is a crime not to have a disc golf course there. If we could only figure out the origin of that mysterious basket across from SunTec, maybe we could get this place on course to be a truly industrialized nation.

**UPDATE** (March 30, 2010): There is now an object disc-golf course at the old Bidadari Cemetery in Singapore: Bidadari Disc Golf Course. Contact me if you want to play, or check out the map.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Pacific Ocean's Trash Island revisited

Some of you may remember a mention I made last year about a massive "trash vortex" about the size the size of the continental US floating out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

It's still there, of course, and got a recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal. The gyre of trash sounds like an environmental travesty; The Economist doesn't seem to think it's doing much good since the breakdown of plastics tend to seep into the food chain on onto our plates. But the Journal still manages to put a positive, yet interesting, spin on it:

Though no one thinks any possible benefits of plastic outweigh risks, Prof. Karl did find some positive aspects of the patch -- a high concentration of microorganisms clinging to the debris. "The microorganisms are good for the ocean, because it turns out they're making oxygen," Prof. Karl says. "If plastics were otherwise neutral to the environment, then they'd be helping by harvesting more solar energy." Dr. Bamford says it is possible that a cleanup, even if it were feasible, would do more harm than good, by removing these organisms.

The Journal also mentions the disagreement over the exact size of this marine plastic pile. Could be as big as North America, could be as small as Quebec. I wonder how much of of the estimated 100 million tons of plastic out there is made up of my discarded goods...

(This originally appeared on this date at the old address, which is no longer accessible)