Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup Update 2 (Corrected)

CORRECTION: In the original post below, I used incorrect information about tie-breaking procedures. In case of a two-way tie, goal differentials and goal scored count first. If those criteria are also fully-tied, then direct matchups are used. This has specific consequences for Group H: if Switerland and Spain ended in a two-way tie, which could happen if they both tie on Frieday, Spain would advance on account of better goal differential (+1 against Switerland's 0) even if Switzerland beat Spain in the direct matchup. To me this makes no sense. Hey, blame it on FIFA!

With all teams having played 2 out of the 3 group stage matches, the only team that are sure to advance to the round of 16 are Argentina, Brazil, and the Netherlands. Mexico and Uruguay can both clinch a spot with a tie tomorrow morning, so it would be reasonable to expect a tie, which would put France and host country South Africa out of their misery. However, there is one reason for each team risking to go broke: the second qualifier from Group A would play Argentina, the team that has shown more consistency so far, and one of the 3-4 teams most highly likely to win the tournament. The first place team would play either Greece or South Korea, much more malleable opponents. (We now know that Uruguay and Mexico have advanced, in that order, even as Uruguay beat Mexico in the last group stage match.)

Argentina and South Korea have advanced from Group B. No one I know has picked South Korea, whose only trip beyond group play so far had been in the 2002 World Cup, which they co-hosted with Japan, where they reached the semifinals thanks to some very "directed" refereeing aided by the powers that be at FIFA. Nigeria blew a chance to be the first (possibly the only) African team to move on to the elimination round, even after losing the first two games.

The U.S.A. have a good chance to advance, but they will need to play better defense than they have so far. They have conceded 3 goals in 2 games, and have always had to come from behind. If they advance, they will be a tough opponent for whoever they play in the second round. England, also in group C, has a do or die match against Slovenia. Who'd have thunk? Capello's eleven need a win in the last match of group play to stay alive and move on. Germany, Serbia, and Ghana are going to play for two spots tomorrow. Australia has a fighting chance to advance, too, but what a shocker it would be if they did after their disastrous opener to Germany. My prediction is that Serbia and Germany will advance in that order, since Serbia owns the tie-breaker if those two teams end level on points. Expect two interesting match-ups in the second round. Serbia v. England and the U.S. v. Germany.

The Netherlands will clinch the first spot in Group E with a tie or a win over already eliminated Cameroon. Japan could qualify with a win or even a tie against Denmark, since it holds the advantage on goal differential. However, I believe that Denmark will prevail to advance in second place. Who either team will play in the second round is impossible to tell, because all teams in Group F are alive. Italy needs a win against Slovakia to be sure of advancing, and the way Italy have played so far does not bode well for the reigning World Champs. New Zealand, coming off their tie against Italy, shocking to many but not to the savvier football observers, could shock the world if they beat Paraguay, so far the most convincing team in the group. If everything goes as it should based on perceived team strength, Paraguay will advance in first place and Italy will take second place, to play Denmark or Japan and the Netherlands respectively. But, you have been warned: expect a shocker from this group.

Finally, the last group. Brazil and Portugal are favorites to advance in Group G. The only doubt is in which order. That makes a big difference because of the situation in Group H. Spain needs a win against Chile to advance. With a tie, they could be eliminated if Switzerland ties or beat Honduras, so far the weakest team in the group, seemingly incapable of producing any offense. Switzerland holds the tiebreaker against Spain. In my humble opinion, Spain will not beat Chile, who are a very solid team, and that will be the real shocker of the World Cup this year.

One last observation: an interesting scenario can develop in groups C and F. In group C, England and the U.S. are tied on points. If they both draw against their respective opponents, Slovenia will take first place. Which team advances between England and the U.S. will then depend on goals scored (being that both team will have an even goal differential.) Right now, the U.S. has the advantage, since it has scored 3 goals against England's lone goal. However, if England scores two goals more than the U.S., both teams will have an even goal differential and the same number of goals scored. In that case, the advancing team will be decided, literally, by a coin toss. The same thing could happen in Group F, if Italy and New Zealand tie their opponents with the same score. They would be level on points, level on goal differentials, and level on goals scored. What a sport!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Al Franken, People's Hero

That, you will have to admit, is a pretty catchy headline, because pretty much everybody in the U.S. knows who Al Franken is and because the calling someone a "hero" is pretty sure to raise curiosity in readers. "Hero? What did he do?"

In sum, Al Franken gets it. He gets what it means to be an ordinary American. But not only he gets it, he cares. And he is a United States Senator. It takes someone pretty heroic, if you ask me, to sit in the same room as people like Blanche Lincoln, Max Baucus, and Jon Lieberman (not to mention any of his Republican colleagues) and not to lose one's head and either strangle them or shoot oneself in the head. Though they sit in the same chamber, and are united by a common title, they have nothing in common. Because Lincoln, Lieberman and Baucus are first and foremost interested in keeping their jobs. Sen. Franken is interested in keeping his job too, I am sure, but not for the sake of the job, but for the sake of those he was elected to represent: the people of Minnesota, yes, but also you and me.

So it is with pleasure that I am linking to the text of Franken's keynote address (PDF) at the Eighth Annual American Constitution Society National Convention, delivered only a couple of days ago. It is well worth reading, because it contains a healthy and needed reminder of what the role of the Supreme Court is, and what a good Senator can and should to to ensure that Supreme Court appointments to come offer better representation to ordinary Americans (understood as Americans who do not the money, influence, and power to appoint and or buy their own personal judge or Justice).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

World Cup Update 1

After all 32 teams have had a chance to show what they've got, or what they haven't got, there is mighty little to cheer about. Play has been disappointing in most matches. Many of the favorites have failed to impress, with a couple of exceptions, Argentina and Germany, who have had the good fortune of playing against some of the weakest teams around (South Korea and Australia).

England, France and Italy have scraped together unimpressive ties. While it was legitimate to expect that both France and Italy would fail to impress in their first game, England played rather disappointingly against the U.S.A., though Howard, the American goalkeeper, was the man of the match. Holland and Brazil did little better, managing two rather belabored wins against Denmark, a solid but unimaginative opponent, and North Korea respectively. Serbia, another team that some saw as a possible surprise, managed to lose their opener to Ghana, greatly endangering their chances to advance to the second round.

Worst of all did Spain, which also managed to lose their opener against humble Switzerland. As I said in my previous post about the World Cup, I think Spain's chances of winning the World Cup are greatly exaggerated. They can still advance, but it won't be easy, particularly if they get to the last group match having to beat Chile to advance. Even if they do, they would be up against history: no team has lost its World Cup opener and gone on to win the Cup.

African teams continue to produce mixed results, with host nation South Africa virtually eliminated after two games, Nigeria needing lots of help to stay alive after their harakiri against Greece, and Algeria beaten by Slovenia. Ivory Coast and Ghana have a fighting chance, but they former plays Brazil next, and its chances to advance are almost inextricably linked to their ability not to lose against the Brazilians. Ghana can virtually clinch a spot in the second round by beating Australia, which after seeing Australia against Germany last Sunday might induce some to think that Ghana will go on to win easily. Not so fast. The real surprise so far, aside from Switzerland's win over Spain, has been Japan's victory over Cameroon. Japan is by far the best Asian team, better than the overrated South Koreans which were helped by incredibly helpful refereeing when they reached the semis in 2002, when the co-hosted the tournament with Japan. But they play Holland next, and will have to play their defensive best to hold the Dutch scoreless, since Japan's firepower is not too awesome.

In a few minutes, France will play for its World Cup life against Mexico. If it's up les Bleus it won't be an entertaining match, but the Mexicans have all they need to pull off what would be a stunner to many. A win over France would all but oust the 2006 runner-ups, because a tie in the next match between Uruguay and Mexico would result in both teams advancing, leaving the French nation to wonder why coach Domenech was allowed to lead his team to defeat in spite of almost failing to qualify for South Africa. That would be poetic justice to the Irish, who were eliminated by France six months ago when Henry handled the ball--not once, but twice--to produce the assist which cost Ireland a chance to advance to the World Cup Finals.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

World Cup Delight

Tomorrow marks the start of the XIX FIFA World Cup. With the Summer Olympics, it is the biggest sport event in the world. Starting with the South Africa v Mexico opener, 32 teams will be competing for the most prized trophy in all of sports.

I lived my first World Cup in the United States in 1994. Since then, football has come a long way in this nation, thanks mostly to a policy of spreading it across schools in America. It is known, with good reason, as the beautiful game. Its near universal appeal is due to a combination of factors: It blends individual skills with team spirit. It does not required a particular physical build (unlike, for example, American football or basketball), anyone can play it. And, above all, it requires nothing but a ball and a field to be played, not even a goal (kids use anything they find to make makeshift posts) or a proper football (I remember that growing up I didn't even need a football to play. I would just crumple an old newspaper in a ball and kick it around my grandmother's dark hallway.). This makes football the sport of choice in poor countries. This is a particular important point, because some other exciting sports, like hockey, American football, and tennis, require the investment of large sums of money over time in special gear, club memberships, lessons, etc. Football (with track and field sports being the other exception) is rather unique in being open to people of all social backgrounds.

Favorites to win include Brazil (as usual), Argentina, Spain, and England, with a few other teams right behind (Holland and Germany foremost, but do not count out the defending world champions--Italy). Personally, I think that Spain will not do as well as expected, certainly not well enough to win. Holland is long overdue and have a real chance to win, but to do so they will foreseeably have to get past Brazil, which is a tall task. Among the few other predictions I am bold enough to venture: look for Mexico to stun a theoretically better team along the way (England?). Italy is a huge question mark. If they advance, which they should in what is likely the weakest group, they become a threat for anyone on their way, especially Spain. The team is widely regarded as weak, but coach Lippi is showing a lot of confidence in the players he brought to South Africa. Do not underestimate his ability to motivate his "troops".

Until July 11, when the World Cup Final is played, count on my appearances on the blog to be scarcer than usual, and mostly football-related. I hope you share my interest but, if you don't, see you back here in a month.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The High Road Not Taken

Christians extremists like to make much of the supposed vitriol poured upon them by New Atheists (the moniker which christian extremists like to use for individuals like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.) They bemoan lack of respect for religion by these new atheists, their irrational rejection of god, and so on and so forth. They claim for themselves the high moral ground, and extol the works of like-minded people who deride atheists and, in general, all enemies of christianity.

One such work contains the following vile garbage directed at atheism: "Atheism is simply incompatible with a life well-lived (shalom)." Or, perhaps even worse, this:
The descent into atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheist paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors, some of which are psychological and some of which are moral in nature.

The last paragraph is insulting on so many levels that I don't even know where to begin: "descent into atheism"? "precipitated by immoral indulgences" and "typically, by a broken relationship with his or her father"? "the choice of the atheist paradigm [is] motivated by non-rational factors"?

And how about this gem? "The hardening of the atheist mind-set occurs through cognitive malfunction".

You can find the above examples of atheist-directed hatred in James S. Spiegel's The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief. The above excerpts represent sufficient waiver of the obligation to read the whole work before one can declare it complete nonsense even if it were not so sanctimoniously insulting as it is. It instantly earns a place in the Daily Fuel's Hall of Eternal Shame.

There is no higher delusion in this world than the belief that a moral life can only be lived by those who believe in a very specific god who, in his infinitely puzzling wisdom, issued such edicts as "Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you" or "And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he [is] unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they [are] unclean to you."

You know, most christians have found a way to get past these risible commands. As they fall, one by one, time will eventually win the fight against all other christian superstitions, one way or another. Until the last one finally and deservedly falls.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Shedding Light on the Path to Peace

David Michael Green of Hofstra University has an excellent, balanced article on the conflict between Israel and Palestine and how the recent, shameful attack by Israelis on a ship carrying foreign aid has the potential to be a turning point and a pivotal moment for the U.S. and the rest of the world.

It is a long article, but it is probably the most illuminating piece you are going to read on that part of the world and well-worth reading. Please do so.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

PSA: You Have The Right To Remain Silent, As Long As You Speak First.

The always interesting AdamB over at the Daily Kos remind us of today's SCOTUS ruling about Berghuis v. Thompkins. Thompkins had assumed that by refusing to answer most of the questions posed by the police officer who was questioning him about a murder he had affirmed his intent to avail himself of the right to remain silent. However
About 2 hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, Helgert asked Thompkins, “Do you believe in God?” Thompkins made eye contact with Helgert and said “Yes,” as his eyes “well[ed] up with tears.” Helgert asked, “Do you pray to God?” Thompkins said “Yes.” Helgert asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” Thompkins answered “Yes” and looked away. Thompkins refused to make a written confession, and the interrogation ended about 15 minutes later.

Thompkins was subsequently charged with first-degree murder.

I take no firm position on this ruling, as it may have hidden implications that may sway me one way or another. In the meantime you can read all about it at the Daily Kos.

Oh, and... if you get arrested on suspicion of a crime, remember you now need to momentarly suspend your silence in order to tell police officers that you intend to avail yourself of the right to be silent. Huh? That's right.
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