Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sayonara, Suckers!

After much deliberation I have decided to discontinue use of the Raul Groom moniker. It was fun while it lasted, but it has begun to feel like a straitjacket. The character was fun to play, but he isn't me, really, and that gets old.

For any and all who would like to continue to read my ramblings in blog form, please email me at raulgroom@yahoo.com and I will send you a link to the new site.

I also hope to reemerge soon at DU, under my given name, so watch for it, Dear Reader.

It's been a true pleasure. See you all around.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Bad Decisions

There is an adage that bad decisions are usually based on bad information. I made the decision not to pick UAB to repeat as cinderella because of an injury to Ronnell Taylor, UAB's dynamic sixth man.

Yesterday Ronnell played 18 minutes and scored 9 points. So he must be feeling better.

All Picks Wrong or Your Money Back

OK, so pretty much everything I told you yesterday turned out to be false. Kentucky looked awful in winning over Eastern Kentucky - they apparently have no half-court offense at all. Someone should have mentioned this to me. UAB did upset LSU after all, a pick I should have made just because UAB is one of my favorite teams. Arizona looked shaky early but cruised - they look as strong as people say. Pitt showed up against UoP but got beat anyway.

UCLA and Texas Tech play today, and I am starting to get nervous about the Knight Curse, given the stupidity of the rest of the knowledge I dropped yesterday.

Fortunately for me, OK State is a rare enough pick that if they win it all, I will probably cash (though probably not the big money) even if Kentucky doesn't make the final.

The team I am now regretting not putting in the final is Kansas. Kansas is awesome, but I hate them. I root against them in every game they play and I just couldn't bring myself to make them a centerpiece of my sheet. I feel the same way about Duke and UNC, which this year created a really big handicap since those are three of the teams with a legit shot to win it all. Selah.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Basketball Time

So the time has come to turn our attention once again to college basketball. I understand that many of the people who read this blog do not care about the NCAA tournament, for reasons which are incomprehensible to me. The NCAA tournament is the single greatest sporting event in the world. If everything on television were immediately removed in favor of constant airing of every NCAA basketball tournament since 1960, I would be overjoyed.

It amazes me that there are people who like the olympics, which contain some interesting events but which are largely boring and idiotic, yet do not like NCAA basketball. College hoops has everything you could ever want - ridiculously talented athletes, regular guys having the game of their lives, dominant teams dominating, underdogs defying all expectations, down-and-out players triumphing over personal adversity, backstories with coaches who are friends or who openly despise each other, the list goes on and on and on.

So here now I will tell you exactly what is going to happen in this tournament. I save this post until now because I don't want any of you to be able to use this in your pool sheets and possibly win money. In a perfect world I would be the only person who won money in any NCAA pool, so I don't give out my analysis until after the first game tips off (which it did about 3 minutes ago.)

This year we have an unusually flat field, which is going to make for some interesting upsets. But contrary to what people believe, it does not mean we are likely to see a repeat of last year where Alabama, an 8 seed, went so deep into the tourney. I in fact do not expect any double-digit seed to make it past the sweet sixteen, and I am very confident that the only team seeded higher than 4 that has any shot at making the semifinal is Georgia Tech.

Why is this? It's because of the Greatest Swordsman principle laid out by Mark Twain in Connecticut Yankee. A great team actually has more to fear from an extremely limited team than they do from a really good team. This may seem idiotic, and maybe it is, but I think you'll see this truth play out this year.

We also have a somewhat unusual situation this year in that many of the teams that did great last year are returning the same or virtually the same team this year. This list includes Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State along with lasts year's cinderella UAB. Of these, only UAB will not repeat the performance from last year. The reason is because their secret weapon - a deeply weird set of twins - has been destroyed by an injury to twin #1. They're still a tough team but they won't get past LSU.

A couple of very overrated teams you shouldn't have going as deep as you do - Arizona, Boston College, and Louisville.

Arizona just beacuse I went through a couple-year stretch in the 90's where I always bought the Arizona hype and it always wound up busting me. Then one year I decided to get wise and picked them to lose in the second round - they won it all. So now I have a hard and fast rule that I pick Zona to go to the Sweet Sixteen and then lose. Since I adopted that rule I have cashed in at least one tournament pool for four years running.

BC is just not that good. They dominated early and faded late, and they may well lose in the first round to Penn. I have them losing in the second round to my cinderella 12, Wisconsin-Milwaukee. An interesting point here about my Upset Theory - I know nothing at all about Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The reason I have them in the 16 is that they face two vulnerable favorites. Look back through most brackets and you'll find that the upsets usually happen because a seed turns out to be weak, not because the underdog turns out to be really good. UAB and Alabama last year were exceptions, but only just barely. Perhaps you could say the rule doesn't apply to underdogs from Alabama. I say it was a fluke.

Louisville is a team that is highly touted because they are coached by Rick Pitino and because they won their conference, which is considered a major conference. But CUSA is actually a second-tier conference, and Louisville doesn't deserve their high seeding. They may well lose in the first round, and I don't even remember who they are playing. They aren't solid.

A couple of underrated teams that despite being underrated are going to lose in the first round - UPAC, UCLA.

This happens every year - it's a logical consequence of the above rule. UPAC is a push seed (the 8-9 games are usually a push, and often the 9 is stronger) where they should have gotten more credit and wound up with a winnable game in the first round. Unfortunately they are playing against an underachieving Pitt team that is probably going to blow them off the court. It's really rare that a team doesn't show up for the first round of the NCAA tourney, and that's the only way Pitt loses this game - they're too talented.

UCLA is another really good team that somehow wound up seeded 11th, even though their conference produced a 1-seed with a somewhat questionable resume. This is unfair, but unfortunately for UCLA the team they are playing (Texas Tech) is not vulnerable. A lot of people expect Texas Tech to lose because Bobby Knight is the coach and his teams usually choke in the tournament. That's an interesting theory, but it's wrong. For years Bob Knight's teams were overseeded because they were coached by Bob Knight. Now that he's out of favor with sportwriters that trend is going to stop.

Anyway, the games are well underway now, so I'm going to finish this up and go grab some lunch somewhere where I can watch scores come in. For those who are interested I have Oklahoma State beating Kentucky in the final.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Social Security

This was a comment from Heathkernel that I missed when it was posted - it's so good I decided to move it to the front page. You go heathkernel. I especially like "middlingly competent."

Quote (from WashPost):
While he [Alan Greenspan] previously has suggested various ways of trying to restrain the growth of future benefits to bolster Social Security's future solvency, Wednesday he appeared to deride such efforts as merely "patching a system that is fundamentally inappropriate for the nation's future."

"Something's got to give," he said. "We have to find a better model."

[End Quote]

I think someone needs to have this guy check his job description. As a central banker, he is supposed to be setting interest rates, adjusting the money supply to optimal levels, and so on, not making political pronouncements. Calling Social Security "fundamentally inappropriate for the nation's future", besides being vague nonsense puffed up by rhetoric, is clearly a political judgment. He is not telling us what our financially viable options are for fixing social security. Instead he is telling us what option we should take among those financially viable options.

I wish someone could tell me why a middlingly competent central banker, with obvious ideological axes to grind, is fawned over by our media as the last word in politically impartial and far-sighted wisdom. If this goes on, we'll need to have the Jacksonian revolution all over again. Down with The Bank of the United States!

Foundation of Morality

Uncle Carlos made an interesting attempt to define morality in a previous comment. Folks can judge for themselves how successful it was - I was underwhelmed.

However, rather than simply call out the big UC, I thought I would make it clear what I mean when I use words like "ethics," "morals," etc.

Whenever we want to decide whether we are going to take some action, we have to ask ourselves three questions. We can ask the three questions in any order, if we like, because in order to undertake the action we must decide that the answer to all three questions is "yes." These questions are:

1) Is this action moral?
2) Is this action just?
3) Is this action indicated?

Of these three questions, the first is by far the simplest (that's why I like to ask it first - saves time.) Morality has been hammered into a great many distorted shapes throughout the many phases of history, and never more so than today. But the essential definition of morality has not changed significantly since it was attributed to Jesus in the gospels - Jesus warned his followers against hypocrisy in thought and deed.

Hypocrisy is, quite simply, the adoption of one set of standards for oneself and another for others. Jesus used the Pharisees as the stock hypocrites in a lot of his teachings, but of course there are plenty of modern examples and they are not hard to find.

In Jesus' time, folks sort of had to take it on faith that Jesus knew what he was talking about. In recent decades, however, the importance of this idea has become known to behavioral scientists through the "discovery" and understanding of the peculiar quality of empathy.

Empathy is the way in which human beings identify with one another. When we see a person in pain, we ourselves feel that pain to some degree. This is what creates what we call a "conscience," which is an individual's subjective moral compass.

Unfortunately, it is possible to train a person to have no empathy at all. We call these people "sociopaths," although that term is a controversial one with no well-accepted scientific definition. In the popular usage the term describes a person with no internal conscience, who relies on external pressures to guide his behavior.

Only a small percentage of people are true sociopaths, but most people exhibit some degree of sociopathic thinking at certain times, on certain subjects. In other words there are certain types of actions whose morality a person is incapable of properly evaluating. If this weren't the case, we wouldn't need the concept of "justice," the foundation of ethics.

The foundations of western ethics are to be found in Plato's Republic, in which Socrates gets buck wild and designs a weird fascist dystopian supersociety. Seems like a weird place to get your ideas about what's just and what isn't, but you take what you can get, I suppose.

Socrates, a guy who was so smart they had to make him drink poison to keep him from wrecking the society, spends the book defining justice, which eventually leads him to describe an example of a theoretically just society. The deep-down craziness of the resulting social model has been a source of glee for anti-Socratic bloviators for centuries, but in fact Socrates was demonstrating that even an apparently sound premise, extended far enough, becomes absurd.

But never mind all that. The point is, if you want to know what justice is, first read Plato's Republic. If you're not into the whole reading thing, it boils down mostly to the fact that relative justice is defined by the structure in which you operate, and the degree of justice in a society is basically determined by how closely the structure of the society accords with absolute justice, which of course is unknowable except by means of direct perception.

That's all just a fancy way of saying that the closest unregenerate humans (that's us) can come to real justice is by operating within the agreed-upon behavioral structures in our society. IOW, following the rules. In a democracy, of course, we also get to make the rules to some degree. We do this, it is worth noting, over Socrates' strenuous objection.

In any case, we've now boiled down our first two questions into basic tests we can use to evaluate an action. Let's forget the third question for a second and just take a look at questions 1 and 2, which have now become:

1) Would I accept this behavior if it were someone else acting this way toward me?
2) Does this behavior conform to the rules of the social structure in which I am operating?

Now we are ready to bring all this business back into the practical realm in which we are interested - namely foreign policy. Here we will choose an easy example so that there won't be much room for disagreement about the substance of the situation (so we can focus on the theory and see if we can accept it.)

Let's say some nation, call it Abia, is under attack by another nation, call it Cedia. Cedia has raised and equipped an army which is carrying out massive terrorist attacks in the country, conducting biological warfare, etc. Cedia does not claim this army as its own, however, it is common knowledge where they got their weapons and training, and under whose protection and patronage they are operating.

Now Abia has some choices as to how it can respond to this attack from Cedia. Probably the most natural response would be a counterrattack on Cedia. So we can evaluate that option pretty easily by asking if Adia would accept the idea that if Cedia were attacked by Abia, Cedia could legitimately launch a counterrattack on Abia. We assume the chances are that they probably would (though we return to this assumption below.)

So Abia has the moral right to counterrattack Cedia, since they would accept the same behavior if the situation was reversed. We turn now to the question of justice. Here we will assume that both countries are signatories to the UN Charter and thus bound by its provisions.

This is where we run into a bit of a snag. Abia may have the right to counterattack Cedia, but she must quickly seek Security Council authorization after the start of the counterattack. In this way the international community can pass judgment on the legitimacy of Abia's campaign against Cedia.

I choose this fairly simple example because it has actually happened in recent history - in fact, it's happened twice. The most famous occurence is of course September 11th and the war in Afghanistan, probably the most uncontroversial war in American history. The Taliban were supporting a mujahedeen army that staged a massive attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; the U.S. counterattacked Afghanistan.

Of course the Bush administration did not bother with the niceties of actually gaining SC authorization for the counterattack, but we will generously ignore that fact since if Bush had not specifically wanted to thumb his nose at a sympathetic international community, it would have been a trivial thing to gain the proper authorization under the UN Charter.

The other example, less well known in the US but uncontroversial (it's a matter of public record), is the U.S. attack on Nicaragua in the 1980's, an event that is so embarrassing to proponents of "moral authority" theory that it has been all but erased from the history books. Indeed, if you ask 100 people about the U.S. attack on Nicaragua, 99 will probably ask what you are talking about.

What happened there was that the U.S. was training and sponsoring terrorist killers who would enter Nicaragua and torture, murder and bomb people more or less indiscriminately in an attempt to destabilize and eventually overthrow the leftist government there. It was probably the clearest example of textbook international terrorism in the 20th century.

So Nicaragua was faced with the same options the US had after September 11th (the picture is slightly different in that the U.S. assault on Nicaragua was ongoing). They did not, of course, choose the most natural option, a counterattack, because it failed the third test which up until now we have not talked about. A Nicaraguan counterattack against the United States would have been a pathetic thing to behold, so instead the Nicaraguan government went a different direction, appealing to the World Court for redress and winning a huge settlement against the United States (it was never paid.)

So if we accept the basic factual premise of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan (that the September 11th hijackers were armed, aided and financed by the Taliban) we can probably clear it in terms of morality, as long as we accept that in 1986 the Nicaraguans had the moral right to bomb Washington, even thought they lacked the means.

Also, if we give Bush the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant to get Security Council authorization for the Afghan war but it just slipped his mind (sadly plausible) we can somewhat loosely assert that it was just and ethical.

The only remaining question is the practical one, which (hewing to the Nicaragua example) is the question of whether the counterattack will lead to a cessation of attacks against the U.S. That's a theoretical question and there is room for ample debate on all sides.

Unfortunately, the picture becomes much less rosy when we turn our attention to the Iraq war. I think it is fairly elementary that the U.S. would not accept that a country has the right to bomb Washington because they assert without proof that we are in possession of banned weapons and have the intention to one day attack someone.

Sadly, even if we ignore reality and assume that all of the stated premises for the war had turned out to be true (in case you're just joining us, they all turned out to be false), I think it would be hard to find an American who believes that a foreign nation would have the right to bomb Washington because they had proof that the U.S. had banned weapons and that we had plans to attack them specifically.

Indeed, that was the exact situation Iraq was in in the months leading up to the Iraq war. I would like to see the pundit who could go on American TV and assert that the Iraqis had the right to bomb Washington in February of 2003.

Of course, apologists for U.S. foreign policy are already frothing at the mouth. This comparison is absurd!

But can anyone say why, without descending into generalities and platitudes?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Morality and Authority

We finally got a little discussion of my last post, and i was delighted that one of the comments was not only very atriculate and well thought out but that it is a wondeerful example of one of the great successes of the American propaganda machine over the course of the last 50 years or so.

The poster slightly misinterprets what I am trying to say about the logical consqequences of the official goverment position on the September 11th attacks, but in a way that is perfectly understandable given the ideological framework in which such questions are discussed in mainstream American discourse.

The comment specifically mentions something calledd the "moral high ground," but this is a bit of a slippery term. What he is really referring to is something calledd "moral authority," which is the way that the idea of morality is usually handled in mainstream discussion in the U.S.

According to the poster, it is not logically inconsistent to say that the September 11th attacks were wrong because the terrorists are trrying to implement a worldview that is wrong (thus denying them moral authority) and we are trying to implement a worldview that is right (thus granting us moral authority.)

And the poster is right - within the ideological framework in which he is operating. Unfortunately that ideological framework, which also happens to be the dominant center-liberal ideology in this country, is completely defunct. The reason is because the entire concept of "moral authority" does not exist as a logically, ethically, or philosophically coherent concept. Indeed, the very idea that someone's actions, whatever they are, are good because the person's ideas are good is not morality but rather a complete abdication of morality.

So the question arises - what is morality? If I undertake a course of action, how do i know if it is moral? Well, the simplest test is the question - would I accept this action if it were undertaken by someone else in my situation? If the answer is no, that's the definition of hypocrisy, although those with parochial or even bible school educations will remember that in our era the idea of hypocrisy has been narrowed to "not practicing what one preaches," the wider (and more useful) definition apparently cutting a little too close to the bone for most American religious teachers.

In any case, it is thus quite easy to see that the idea that the Iraq war (or any U.S. war) is correct because the American worldview is correct clearly DOES absolve the September 11th attackers, since they were operating under the exact same assumption. If we say that we can kill people because we are right, anyone can say that. If we reject any ouside arbitration with regard to what is and is not justified (i.e. international law, which we clearly violated when we invaded Iraq), we have accepted the law of the jungle - what the biggest bully says, goes.