What is that?
It's a duck pond.
Why aren't there any ducks?
I don't know. There's never any ducks.
Then how do you know it's a duck pond?

Friday, November 25



Pixy's First Law of Economics: Spam is whatever you have too much of.

If you are trying to identify what is and isn't spam, forget blacklists and bayesian filters. Go by volume. Of course, you have to be in a position to measure the volume, but if you are, that's it for the spammers.

According to Snark!™ duepunti.net currently has a spam ranking of 48. Even if they send me no trackbacks at all for the next hour, they will still be considered a spammer and anything that comes from them will be automatically deleted (and bump their rank up).

Now they're up to 62.8. Slow learners. Of course, I don't provide any feedback, I just null-route the bastards.

I was just thinking - I could post the Snark!™ stats as a public service. Make it (ugh) XML and people could import it directly. Real-time dynamic spammer detection.

First I have to stop Snark!™ going mad and dropping the ball. It did that last night and generated a gigabyte of error messages. I think a leetle bit more tweaking is in order.

Update: See the link above. It still falls over now and then, so you can expect the values to suddenly get reset to zero on occasion until I (a) get that fixed and/or (b) get it to store the spam rankings.

Update: I did (b), 'cause it's easier to add code than to fix what's already there. Not better, just easier.

Update: Okay, I think I've managed (a) as well. Turned out to be a couple of bugs that only occured when there were no trackbacks to be processed. This didn't show up in my testing, because that would mean going an entire minute without getting spammed.

Update: The spammers have gone quiet for now. This is probably the first time I've ever wanted to get spamflooded. The point is, the more spam we get, the better the filter works, and the better the data we can provide to others. We now have an IP address list as well, but because the spam died down just as I implemented that function, it presently contains exactly one address.

We receive well over a million trackbacks a month, so I'm sure we'll have a nice set of sample data coming down the wire soon enough.

Update: Change log sort of thingy. Though I really just added that link to test the whitelist.

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Wednesday, November 23


Off To Sleepy Bobo's

Brush my toothy-pegs,

Put on my piggy jim-jams,

And say "I'm off to Sleepy Bobo's".

Everybody does!
OSM, we hardly knew ye.

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Monday, November 21




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Sunday, November 20


Hell No, We Won't... Er, What?

The best liveblogging of the withdrawal debate I've seen:
So, the entire last 6 hours in a nutshell is:

“Hell no! We won’t vote! oh, wait. We have to vote? Well, in that case, Hell no! You’re all wrong! We object! Do we still have to vote? Okay. We all vote on the same side you do.”

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

At Euphoric Reality.

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Correcting Fluid

Original story by Liz Sidoti for Associated Press. Additional editing for accuracy by Pixy Misa.

WASHINGTON - The House on Friday overwhelmingly rejected calls for an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, a vote engineered by the Republicans that was intended to fail. Democrats derided the vote as a political stunt, although it was exactly what they had wanted.

"Our troops have become the enemy. We need to change direction in Iraq," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Democratic hawk whose call a day earlier for pulling out troops sparked stirred Republicans to respond to a nasty, personal debate season of Democrat attacks over the war pretty much everything.

The House voted 403-3 to reject a nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate troop withdrawal, after Democrats had failed in desperate attempts to stop the resolution coming to a vote.

"We want to make sure that we support our troops that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will not retreat," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said as the GOP leadership pushed the issue to a vote over the protest of Democrats. [Hey, that paragraph didn't need any editing!]

It was the second time in less than a week that President Bush's Iraq policy stirred heated debate in Congress. On Tuesday, the Senate defeated a Democratic push for Bush to lay out a timetable for withdrawal, and then scored an own goal by submitting their own bill for the same thing.

Murtha, a 73-year-old Marine veteran decorated for combat service in Vietnam, issued his call for a troop withdrawal unconditional surrender and the abandonment of the Iraqi people at a news conference on Thursday. In little more than 24 hours, Hastert and Republicans decided to put the question to the House.

Democrats, aghast that their bluff had been called, said it was a political stunt and quickly decided to vote against it in an attempt to drain it of significance.

"A disgrace," declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "The rankest of politics and the absence of any sense of shame," added Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, "not that there's anything wrong with that."

Republicans hoped to place Democrats in an unappealing position — either supporting a withdrawal that critics said would be precipitous or opposing it and angering voters who want an end to the conflict living up to the reality of their own demands. They also hoped the vote could restore GOP momentum on an issue — the war — that has seen plummeting public support in recent weeks according to the same polls that predicted a comfortable win for John Edwards last November. [Kerry. What? Kerry was the presidential candidate, not Edwards. You're kidding. No, really, he was. Does it matter now? Guess not.]

Democrats claimed Republicans were changing the meaning of Murtha's withdrawal proposal. He has said a smooth withdrawal would take six months, although Murtha's own proposal called for an "immediate redeployment".

At one point in the emotional debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, told of a phone call she received from a Marine colonel.

"He asked me to send Congress a message — stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message — that cowards cut and run, Marines never do," Schmidt said. Murtha is a 37-year Marine veteran.

Democrats booed and shouted her down — causing the House to come to a standstill. However, no pies were thrown.

Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., charged across the chamber's center aisle screaming that Republicans were making uncalled-for personal attacks. "You guys are pathetic! Pathetic!" yelled Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, apologised to the nation for the behaviour of the House Democrats, explaining that they were a bit tired and would "feel better after a nap".

"It's just heinous," Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., said of the Republican move. "Whatever that means. It's a good word, though. Heinous. I think it means they pulled this out of their ass.

"This is a personal attack on one of the best members, one of the most respected members of this House and it is outrageous," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "We never intended it to come to a vote."

A growing number of House members and senators, looking ahead to off-year elections next November, are publicly worrying about a quagmire in Vietnam. [Iraq! What? The war is in Iraq, not Vietnam. Iraq? Isn't that a desert? Well, yes, mostly. So how does it become a quaqmire? Isn't that a swamp or something? Oh, never mind.] They have been staking out new positions on a war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public according to the latest opinion polls, which we both know aren't worth diddly, has resulted in more than 2,000 U.S. military deaths - far fewer than any other major war - and has cost more than $200 billion, which would be enough money to rebuild half of New Orleans, at least until next year.

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Saturday, November 19


Be Careful What You Ask For

House Republicans, showing vastly more political acumen than their Senate colleagues, have proposed that American forces withdraw from Iraq immediately, and are bringing it to a vote.

The Republicans, of course, intend to vote against it. The point is to force the Democrats to go on record. Or to go on record refusing to go on record. As John Cole notes at the above link, it's time to shut up and vote.

I wonder if the Democrats even know what a petard is?

More at Let Freedom Ring and Bareknuckle Politics.

(via Insty)

Update: No End But Victory is liveblogging the debate, but I'm a bit confused as to what exactly is happening right now. One thing for certain: The Democrats are not happy bunnies.

Oh! Here we go. Looks like it's on for real now. I'm sure the Democrats are enjoying being held back past 8 o'clock while their words are thrown in their faces.

MuNu Views:

Ace of Spades
The Jawa Report
The Llama Butchers

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Modest Proposal Number 317

America becomes part of Australia.

What you, the Americans, get:

  • Leaders who actually say what they mean. Well, you've got Rumsfeld, but we've got Howard and Costello and Downer and lots more where they came from.
  • Your President replaces our Governor General as head of state.
  • A really big naval base in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • Kangaroo steaks. Tastier and leaner than beef. And no BSE!
  • Tim Blair.
  • Holly Valance.
  • Several thousand miles of beachfront property.
  • The weather that California claims to have.
What we, the Aussies, get:
  • Nuclear warships. We've always wanted some.
  • Amazon.
  • The Bill of Rights. Particularly the second one.
  • Dave Barry.
  • Condi Rice.
  • A free trade agreement that really means it.
  • Halloween and Thanksgiving. It's a long haul to Christmas down here, and they will break the monotony nicely.
As part of the merger, the Senates of both nations will be disbanded and auctioned off for charity.

What say you?

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Sunday, November 13



Yes. Cows.

Update: No more cows. Well, no major cows. We are on the new servers, and things seem to be working well.

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Saturday, November 12


It's Not Science!

An argument I often find myself drawn into with adherents of astrology, creationism, dualism or other such fairy tales is the definition of Science. I use the capital letter here because these arguments are about the over-arching structure of the scientific system rather than any one scientist's efforts or any one scientific theory.

To save myself some time, I'll post my argument here, once, so that I can simply point any bewildered netizens I encounter back to it and say, read this.

What is Science? First and foremost, it is an attempt to understand the world. That is not surprising, but even in this there is a buried statement. If you are making an attempt to understand the world, you are making the statement that the world can be understood, that it is not random or arbitrary. This is shared by all attempts at understanding, even primitive concepts like animism and misapprehensions like the Cargo Cults.

Science sets itself apart from other such attempts in that it constructs a system, a rigorous framework, in which we can build our understanding. The framework is based on metaphysical naturalism.

For Science does not permit of just any explanation. Science seeks to explain the world in terms of the world. For any event we observe, Science seeks an explanation in terms of other events we observe. Events that we cannot observe are precluded from our explanations.

So, for example, we observe that if we leave a piece of rotting meat lying about, after a few days we find it crawling with maggots.

Hypothesis: Maggots spontaneously form from meat if it is left undisturbed.
Hypothesis: Maggots are planted in the meat by invisible immaterial demons.

We have two plausible explanations, but they can't both be true. Why does this matter? Well, it matters because we want to know which explanation is the correct one. We can perform tests - experiments - to see if our Theory of Spontaneous Maggotation is true. We can put the meat in a tightly sealed jar and see if our maggots generate.

And, as it turns out, they do not.

We can repeat the experiment, and we find that while maggots appear in unprotected meat, meat in the sealed jar remains maggot-free. We can vary the experiment, and find that even if we do not seal the jar, but merely cover it with a cloth, there are still no maggots.

This means that the first hypothesis is incorrect. This hypothesis required only meat and time, which have both been provided, but with no maggots resulting.

What about our demons then? Well, they are invisible and immaterial, so they clearly would not be stopped by something as simple as a cloth. But a cloth does prevent maggots. What does this mean in demon terms? It means that we have observed intances where demons do not create maggots.

And that's all we can say.

The difference here is that we know the first explanation to be incorrect. We know it for certain. It is wrong. It is false.

The second explanation? Well, maybe sometimes the demons are busy inflicting cholera on the people of the next village. We don't know.

The difference is that the first is a natural explanation, and the second is a supernatural one. Natural explanations derive from natural causes, and we can control natural causes. Supernatural explanations derive from supernatural causes, and we cannot control those.

The meat is there. We gave it time. No maggots appear, so spontaneous generation is false.

The demons may or may not have been there. They are supernatural; we cannot preclude them; we may not even be able to detect their presence. We do not know, nor can we ever know, whether the demons are the cause or not.

The Theory of Spontaneous Maggotification is a scientific theory, and it is wrong. The Theory of Devilish Wormonising is not a scientific theory, because we can never know whether it is wrong.

Science's utility lies in its unique ability to throw out its trash. This is known as falsification, and although it has been acknowledged since the dawn of science, it was not until last century that Karl Popper fully explained its role.

For a hypothesis or a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable, that is, we must be able to determine if it is false. On the other hand, there is no requirement for a scientific theory to be provable, and indeed they are not. A scientific statement can be provable; the predictions made by theories are a good example of this.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity predicted that gravity would bend light in a certain way and by a certain amount. Observations by Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed this; the prediction was proved correct. This did not prove the Theory itself. It lent support to it, certainly, but that is all.

However, had it turned out that light was not bent by gravity, the Theory of Relativity would have been proved wrong, and discarded. It would have been falsified.

Now, back to our invisible demons. We know that if we cover the jar with a cloth, we don't get maggots. Is the cloth blocking the demons? That would make no sense, since the demons are supposed to be immaterial. Cloth or cork or wax stopper, all prevent the maggots, but none should present any barrier to our demons. (And we can note that wrapping people in cloth does little to prevent cholera.)

We can't say whether the demons are stopped by the cloth or just slacking, because we can't observe the demons. In fact, we have no direct evidence that the demons exist. We have postulated their presence from the existence of maggots, the corruption of wholesome meat. But now we have no maggots. Perhaps that flimsy layer of gauze really is an impassible barrier to maggot-demons.

Only... Now that we have no maggots, we have no reason to postulate the existence of demons at all. We haven't proved they're not there. The only sign we might have had of their presence is gone, but we said from the beginning that they were invisible.

And that's the problem with the Invisible Demon Theory. You can't ever know for sure that you're wrong.

Science, as we have said, is a systematic attempt to explain the world. And we know that for an explanation to be useful, we must be able to depend on it. Knowing that s = ut + ½at2 sometimes isn't really a big help.

But you can't prove that it's always correct. You can't test every situation, because there are infinitely many situations in which any theory might apply. A theory is supposed to tell you what to expect, so if all you ever do is test it, it's not much good.

You can't prove your theory, but what you can do is disprove it. We say, s = ut + ½at2 always. And we look for cases where it isn't. We can't ever hope to prove it true, but just one counter-example will prove it false. And if, over time, we find no such examples, we gain confidence in the theory. We would gain confidence too from a mass of confirming evidence, but there is a critical difference: In one case, we were trying to prove it right, and we didn't happen to stumble across anything to the contrary. In the other, we were actively seeking counter-examples, and despite our best efforts we couldn't find any.

Failure of falsification can offer much stronger support than mere confirming evidence.

So falsifiability inevitably arises as a key requirement if you wish to construct a rigorous system for explaining the world. You have to test your ideas, and this is the only reliable way to do so.

But falsification is impossible for theories deriving from the supernatural. Which means that any rigorous system for explaining the world must be naturalistic. It must preclude all supernatural causes, and forbear trying to explain supernatural events, because the former cannot produce useful explanations and the latter... cannot even be detected.

So Science, from humble beginnings as simply a concerted attempt to get the right answer, turns out to necessarily require both metaphysical naturalism as its foundation and falsification as its primary tool in seeking truth. And it is unique. There is only one Science. A system based on naturalism and using falsification to test ideas is Science. A system that fails of either of these is not.

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Friday, November 11


Mind The Planet

Glenn Reynolds links to an article at Tech Central Station by Uriah Kriegel that explains why ID is non-science rather than just bad science.

It's a good discussion of the notion of falsifiability, and how we distinguish scientific theories from other ideas. Unfortunately, he trips up when discussing Einstein's Theory of Relativity:

When Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, the first thing he did was to make a concrete prediction: he predicted that a certain planet must exist in such-and-such a place even though it had never been observed before. If it turned out that the planet did not exist, his theory would be refuted. In 1919, 14 years after the advent of Special Relativity, the planet was discovered exactly where he said. The theory survived the test. But the possibility of failing a test -- the willingness to put the theory up for refutation -- was what made it a scientific theory in the first place.
It sounds like Einstein predicted the existence of Pluto - but Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930. What Kriegel is actually referring to is the orbit of Mercury.

Astronomers had known since the 18th century that Mercury didn't behave as it ought. Its orbit could be calculated quite precisely using Newton's Law of Gravity, but it stubbornly refused to follow that orbit. It wasn't out by much, but it was enough. Some astronomers suggested that the difference might be due to the gravitational effects of another planet orbiting closer to the Sun (they even tentatively assigned it the name "Vulcan"), but no such body was ever observed.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity had nothing specifically to do with Mercury, but it did provide a prediction of Mercury's orbit which was slightly, but still significantly, different from that produced from Newton's Law. The calculations based on Relativity happened to fit Mercury's observed orbit as precisely as we could measure it - strong support for Relativity, but not a decisive test as Mercury's odd orbit was something we'd known about all along.

What happened in 1919, though, really was something new. One of the predictions of Relativity is that gravity not only affects the path of matter travelling through space, it actually bends light. Nothing in Newton's Law of Gravity suggested any such thing. In 1919, just after the end of World War I, a British Navy exepedition set out to observe a total solar eclipse off the coast of Africa. You see, during a total eclipse the light of the Sun is hidden and stars that are near the Sun (as observed in the sky, that is, nothing to do with their true locations) are visible.

Astronomers could measure very precisely the positions of these stars relative to one another. And then they could do the same thing again during the eclipse. Einstein predicted that because the light of these stars would be bent by the gravitational field of the Sun, that they would appear in different positions when observed during an eclipse. What's more, he was able to calculate just how great the difference would be.

The expedition, led by Sir Arthur Eddington, made the observations required, and Einstein was proved correct. He become a household name almost overnight.

More details here, courtesy of Penn State.

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