Photo Gallery

Aside

In addition to viewing my wonderful pictures on Flickr ( 🙂 ) you can now check them out on the Why Dont You Gallery. In addition to this, Heather is currently working hard to create a gallery / ordering system where you can buy prints or purchase digital rights to a wide selection of images. If all goes well the Ogum site should be up and running in time for Christmas. Feel free to purchase some huge prints to hang on your atheist walls 🙂 .

Sarah Palin – Laugh Away

From the excellent “Why do people laugh at creationists” series on YouTube:

Why do people laugh at creationists? (part 26) Sarah Palin

It worries me that there are other people who think like this mad woman.

A lesson in data control

An odd, superficially unrelated, lesson from the current global credit crisis is the crazy ideas people have been having about online services.

Over the last few years, there has been a growing trend in technology and internet magazines to promote the idea of online office applications and “renting” software that is held on a main server. The holy grail of this has been along the lines of using a remotely hosted system to edit and store your data in the manner of Google Documents.

This has some fantastic advanages – it is operating system independant (so might draw an end to the Linux-Windows wars…), it saves on having to purchase local software licences and data storage, it allows mobile workers complete access, it removes the need to have in-house admin staff etc. These are powerful advantages and even I use Google Docs, Basecamp etc. They really do have their place.

However, the big problem is pretty big.

You have no real control over what happens to your data. You can have all the service level agreements in the world, but when the s*it hits the fan, you have no real say over the matter. You may be able to take legal action, but if the company has gone bankrupt what good will the do you? Equally, how water tight are the user agreements you signed up to when you took on the service? If they go down at a critical time for you does that fall foul of their overall 99.98% uptime?

Drawing on the Icesave farce as an example, if you store all your data with a big company – we’ll use troogle as a totally made up example – then it is great when everything works. But if, Thor forbid, Troogle has problems (financial, technical etc) then what real recourse do you have? Even if the company is in the same country as you, you may have less weight than you think – what value is there in suing a defunct company?

Fundamentally, giving your data / software to a third party company is a risk. We may have forgotten what that means in recent years, but it would be negligent to not take this on board now and refresh our mindsets. UK councils forgot that giving money to a bank to gain interest carried a risk because the risk had been (traditionally) so low. The ignored the fact that increased rate of return carried with it an implied increased risk and suffered as a consequence.

By all means use online storage, use online applications, etc. Just remember the risk is there and make sure you have considered it.

Bad Science and Elections

Now, I am sure every one knows that New Scientist is “pop science” – scientific news processed for laymen. In general this is great as is gives people an insight into the wonders of science without the tedium of years studying. Peer review is great, but only in its place. New Scientist is not the place.

Sometimes, this causes problems.

In this weeks issue, there is an article titled “Read my lips… and my voice, and my face” (online version titled “Software spots the spin in political speeches“) which is (at best) bad science being used for electioneering purposes. On the surface this is nothing more than the old idea that you can tell when people are lying by their gestures and use of language. This is a subject close to my heart and generally falls foul of the greatest of problems – it is sort of true. Body language, eye access, word selection and the like can give you an indicator of lies (for example) but only in the broader context of the persons behaviour.

Take the often cited example of people rubbing their nose when they lie. Yes, some people do this. But most of the time it means the person has an itchy nose and nothing else. The same with eye-access (as highlighted in The Negotiator), but the problem is people are different – not everyone looks the exact same way. Language choice is possibly the worst indicator as this is dictated by your background, education and the like. Simply put, there is no easy way you can use this information as a reliable indicator of deception or misdirection. You need to study the person in a variety of controlled circumstances and build up a pattern of their behaviour.

With this in mind, we can return to the New Scientist article. It seems someone has come up with an automated way of monitoring the terminology used, the voice and the facial expressions of politicians to measure how much “spin” there is in their speeches. Amazingly this has not resulted in 100% returns each time. This is how it is described:

The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns – “I” tends to indicate less spin than “we”, for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as “go” and “going”, and negatively charged words, such as “hate” and “enemy”, also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race (see diagram).

Now, this strikes me as inherently flawed given that politicians have their speeches written for them by teams of “experts” (who are more than capable of concluding which words mean which things), and are nearly always well coached in delivering them in a manner to “stir” the audience. It strikes me that adding an arbitrary judgement as to what is, or is not, spin gives nothing that even resembles science. In an attempt to dismiss this, Skillicorn (the systems creator) says:

Additionally, [Skillicorn] says, little details count: pronouns such as “we” and “I” are often substituted subconsciously, no matter what is written in the script.

But you have no idea which ones are added by the script writers, which ones are subconcious and you certainly still haven’t proven that using “we” means there is a lot of “spin” in the speech. We still don’t really know what “spin” is – is it a good or bad thing?

The “Headline” results of this study are that Obama’s campaign has more spin than any of the other politicians (+6.7, where 0 is average for a politician) while McCain’s campaign had the lowest (-7.58). It states this supports McCain’s claim to being a “straight talker” (*cough*) and on the surface looks like it is a Republican Political Campaign masquerading as Science. In the articles defence, there is some balance:

So the analysis appears to back up McCain’s claim that he is a “straight talker”. However, for the purposes of political speech-making this may not be an entirely good thing for him. “Obama uses spin in his speeches very well,” says Skillicorn. For example, Obama’s spin level skyrockets when facing problems in the press, such as when Jeremiah Wright, the reverend of his former church, made controversial comments to the press.

Great from a science point of view. We would like to think that the readers of New Scientist are able to accept the idea that spin is a positive force for a politican.

However (and this is supported by a quick scan of the printed media that have picked up on this), the general population are not. We have been indoctrinated by decades of thinking politicians spin is an inherently bad thing. This article has generated several headlines in the free media about Obama being full of spin and McCain being straight talking. Both can translate into political capital. Shame on the New Scientist.

One funny bit which never quite made it into the free-papers is this nugget:

“The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed,” says Pollermann, a psychologist who uses voice analysis software in her work with patients. Previous research on mirror neurons has shown that listening to depressed voices can make others feel depressed themselves, she says.

Well, that pretty much summed up the effect his speeches have on me.

It is during the US Presidential elections that I thank Loki I live in the UK….

Bless this blog

PCs’ demonic powers are self-evident to anyone who’s had to pay with their own blood for opening a case or for trying to get a cpu fan off its mount. So, it’s no surprise that there are religious ceremonies to propitiate the evil entities that haunt the average PC box. (h/t the Register)

There’s a Shinto shrine where you can get your PC blessed, according to iol.co.za

In high-tech Japan, not only programmers provide protection from viruses and other computer bugs, but also the gods.
At Tokyo’s Kanda-Myojin Shinto shrine, the faithful can bring their computer and have the priests use centuries-old ceremonies to ask the gods for help and protection for their computer, a shrine spokesperson said Friday.

Centuries old? Wow, if they protected 17th century PCs adequately, these are the ceremonies for me.

The site otakuinternational.com has a picture of laptops getting prayed over in the aforementioned Shinto shrine. Sadly, you have to go to Japan. They don’t do it over the internet, although I may have spotted a marketing opportunity there.

Among the traditional charms often found at a Shinto shrine, they offer a very unique one adorned with what looks like circuit boards and chips. You can even find one to bless your blog. I guess there is no such thing as too much protection!

Otakuinternational has a photo of what you need for blog protection.

From otakuinternational site converte dto jpg

From otakuinternational site converted to jpg

This may sound a bit pushy, o great and magic bloglord, but maybe you could see your way clear to sorting out the endless comments delay thing on this blog.

Toutatis knows I’ve poured enough coffee into the keyboard to slake the thirst of an army of vengeful spirits. And I am facing something that could easily be magnetic north, if only I had a compass.

*************
Aside

Someone called Chris, commenting on the Register piece, linked to a bbspot article about Bush supporting a faith-based firewalls from a couple of years ago. 🙂

LHC not haX0red- shock

My understanding of the Large Hadron Collider could be written in longhand on the back of a postage stamp and there would still be a sizable space for you to lick it without getting your tongue covered in ink.

However, I’m pretty certain that it doesn’t operate over the internet.

There’s a black hole of non-connectedness between the LHC and a website that reports on it. Although you might not immediately assume this to be the case, if you are a journalist. Someone has hacked a Cern discussion website. This was presented almost as if it was a near miss hack of the LHC.

Hackers claim there’s a black hole in the atom smashers’ computer network
Hackers have broken into one of the computer networks of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). …..
The work of the scientists was not derailed and insiders scoffed at claims that the hackers were “one step away” from the systems controlling the experiment itself.

Of course, it is always possible that CERN are running a public webserver off the same computer that it uses to control the LHC. Just almost off the scale of “unlikely”…..

It truly would be “one giant step for mankind” if you could make elementary particles collide by writing really elegant php code.

Cold metal

There is a new Google enterprise to get searchable digitised newspaper archives online. A great idea. (I’ve already had loads of educational fun with the Times archive and the Victorian British press archive that went subscriber only, just when it had completely engrossed me.)

The Google blog page has a link to Google’s press archive search but there’s a warning that you won’t find everything indexed. They suggest some searches.

Not every search will trigger this new content, but you can start by trying queries like [Nixon space shuttle] or [Titanic located]. Stories we’ve scanned under this initiative will appear alongside already-digitized material from publications like the New York Times as well as from archive aggregators, and are marked “Google News Archive.”

This instantly arouses my vapourware bullshit detector. Hmm. Space shuttle. The Titanic. First man on the moon… Maybe they’ve just stuck together a few very standard searches and plan to add lots more information as it becomes popular….. I feel impelled to test it a bit more rigorously.

I try a few off-the-wall searches. I pick the topics solely on the randomish basis that somebody’s mentioned the words to me in conversation today :

  • “Dolph Lundgren” – 4,370 articles
  • “Japanese swearword” – 279 articles
  • “linear algebra” – 3,520 articles
  • “Large Hadron Collider” – 3,370 articles.
  • “Frozen vegetables” – 236,000 articles

Blimey. This actually works really well. I can’t claim to have clicked on more than a handful of links but the ones I did click on were legit.. It’s definitely not vapourware. It’s already damn good.

So, the big test, then. I’m going for my favourite indicator that a human twat-a-tron is at work. “Political correctness gone mad” gets 3,420 print archive hits.
Wait. I run it again, to see if the British press is represented. Just because I suspect that it must appear several times a day, so 3,240 seems a relatively small total. (It’s outnumbered by all the phrases above except “Japanese swearwords” and the consensus of press opinion seems to be that these don’t really exist.)

This time I get a mere 1,550 hits. Bloody inconsistent Google. Plus, the timeline is bizarre to say the least. It claims the first mention was between 1880 and 1559. The next was in 1782, then there’s one from 1805. … I think not. They are making these up. The 1958 ones looks like a mistake as well.

Closer inspection reveals that the “dates” have leaked in from elsewhere in an article. Most examples are huddled around the last 8 years. In fact there’s barely an instance of political correctness gone mad until 1998. It’s only in the past couple of years that the full flowering of the phrase has taken off.

“The PC brigade” (h/t Alun) got 467. Ignoring the dating oddities, these are also clustered around the turn of the century, with a linguistic take-off from 2000.

These numbers are tiny. Ah ha. Google hasn’t archived the Daily Mail. 🙂 (No hits for “the Daily Mail is shit”, h/t Tom Donald)

Look, if they are only going to index serious newspapers, there is going to be no fun in this.

However, they must have archived a fair bit of newsprint crap, because “the Rapture” brings back a stunning 18,300 reports.

First mention is 0 AD 😀

Captcha

“Captcha is the bane of the internet,” says Matt Mullenweg, who runs the massively popular blogging site WordPress.com. “I can’t figure them out myself half the time!” (from the Guardian technology page today)

This is from a Guardian piece discussiing how captchas are welll and truly broken – by algorithms and by cheap human labour -thus increasing the volume of blog comment spam. The writer suggests Akismet or the type of non-machine readable questions that you find on ApathySketchpad as viable alternatives.

I’m comment-impaired at the best of times. I’ll try and comment on a blog and find that my comment just disappears. Granted, this suggests the universe has an innate capacity for mercy. But, just occasionally, the words that disappear into the net’s black hole were comments that I really wanted to make. So, I’ll try and rewrite it, in a half-hearted fashion. It will disappear again. I’ll have a final stab at writing. And sending. But by this time, it’s incoherent garbage, sent only to show the comment-eating demon who’s boss.

And then the captcha is there mocking you. Matt Mullenweg is so right, except, on his own proud boast, at least he gets them right half of the time. Falling foul of captcha is a daily occurrence here at WhyDontYou Towers. And a score of 50% correct is just a fond dream.

The idea is that only humans can read the things. A reverse Turing test. This whole concept falls down on the point that any shapes that are too unlike characters to be read by a souped up OCR-style algorithm are much too unlike letters or numbers for human beings to interpret them.

Even when you can distinguish those shapes that are meant to be characters from the deliberately inserted wavy lines, you face something like:

oo9I0g

There is no way to reliably distinguish between 9 and g, 0 and O, 1 and l and I.

So you type in zero zero nine one zero g, on the offchance. It rejects you. You don’t get another shot at the ambiguous letters.

Oh no. A fresh bleeding captcha. This time you find you have to choose between identifying a letter as either a very thin letter j or the letter i with a slight curve at the bottom. Failed again.

Next time it’s either an l with a slight curve at the top or an anorexic letter c. Ok, got the c right but then you thought that oddly shaped capital A was a 4, didn’t you? Robotic fool.

By this time, the human-detector software has often decided you are a bot cos you couldn’t even guess one out of 3. So your comment is bounced anyway.

If you’ve ever thought that you might as well go for the disabled option, don’t bother. That’s not worth it either. Captchas that claim to be for the disabled are actually even harder to use than their able-bodied comrades. Different experiences you can have with the accessibility captcha include:

  • A long silence. So you think it’s not working and cancel a fraction of a second after it kicks in.
  • so much feedback and background weird noises (to simulate the visual noise on the visual captcha) that you couldn’t even work out what it’s saying if you had a comic book aural discrimination superpower.
  • Voices so bizarrely accented and echoey that you are stunned by the novelty that this is suposed to represent speech. So you don’t notice, let alone memorise, the content as it racespast you in a jumble of syllables.
  • The disabled version sometimes matches the written one and sometimes doesn’t. Which one do you try? The wrong one, of course.

The whole concept of the disabled one seems stupid to me. You are assumed to be too blind to see the captcha image. So how do you see the captcha box and spot where the disabled button is? Are the blind fitted with memory enhancement chips that let them translate a string of meaningless letters and numbers from the native gibberese AND remember them long enough for their screen reader to kick in and tell them where to type?

Wittering on about blog spam again

This blog feels slightly shortchanged in the weird searches department. For example, if you look at HjHop’s site, he gets searches that are bizarre enough for him to make a funny feature of them.

Search engine choices that bring unsuspecting people here are generally just odd. Not entertaining, just odd. Normally, there are between 5 and 15 for Schwarzenegger (?) and similar numbers for pictures of guns. (??????) Sometimes, castles come top, usually Bodium castle – but there were only 7 searches for this today. Today’s search referrals also included Rorschach (?7) art and fine art, (?6) and (?5). 5 Fruit and veg is normally a front runner but came nowhere today. I defy anyone to make a readable post out of that lot.

I suspect noone has ever been directed by a search engine to what we fondly believe is the normal content of our posts.

But this blog could acquit itself well, if it ever gets in a competitive event relating to volumes of blogspam. According to WordPress stats for this blog, there have been 2,624 approved comments but

Akismet has protected your site from 13,409 spam comments already

Akismet doesn’t even cover the whole life span of the blog and it’s probably been reinstalled a couple of times – hence, reset to 0 – but even on these figures, that’s a good few times as many spam comments as there were legit ones.

There are clearly spam fashions. I quite admire the craftsmanship involved in the ones that have generic phrases designed to flatter you into allowing the comment through the filter:

Love your blog. I’ll bookmark it and return later.

or the old favourite from last year, with words to the effect that:

I didn’t quite understand what you said on [insert name of blog] but I’m interested to know more.

However, it’s as if the heart has gone out of the spammers. This week’s “new black” for spam seems to involve sending some random syllables, occasionally with a load of links:

qkncihdf tjnprcd mitqlanp oznqx eaqrpzu imfwatulo sjmxrqgh

for example. Or, what about this, where even the links don’t make an effort to disguise their innate spammishness, let alone entice the unwary with promises of free meds or unfeasible bodily expansion?

biprong unbrimming martinetism bosn amative biota spongida expectingly
ziafm wnwwqwuy
http://jdskmnffl.com
ktuhbdk info
http://jlvxkeva.com
uosgu wcmqjs
http://sgqwajre.com
kxrrd qzfkagqn

What’s going on? There are eleven of these in the Akismet spam queue today. Not one has an English word in it.

The Register had a long security post about blogspam, on Friday. The article was about a malware scam that claims to take the user to various legit sounding places.

Over the next several weeks I noticed a lot more of these, not only pointing to Google but also to Yahoo and MSN. The servers they pointed to all had the same basic structure, such as google-homepage.google-us.info, msn-us.info, yahoo-us.info, etc. Every one resolves to the same IP address: 124.217.253.8. That IP address is registered to Piradius.net in Singapore. The server appears to be hosted out of Kuala Lumpur. The domains, however, are registered in Ukraine:

(They’ve all moved since the article was written, of course.)

The rest of the article is fascinating. Click on one of these imaginary images and they run an executable. The article shows a series of legit looking screendumps, with the alerts very well designed. They put the fear of malware into you and offer you apparently Microsoft-approved solutions. There’s even a blag Microsoft Security Centre. The only intrinsic design flaw was that it said XP Security Centre, which was immediately suspicious to someone running Vista.

I’m as much of a mug as anyone. I just hope I haven’t fallen for any of these…….

One thing I’m pretty sure this blog been subject to (thanks to Firestats’ fund of fascinating information on referrers) is a hack of restricted WordPress content using the Google cache. It just involves asking for things from the cache by modifying the url request string. (I’ve done that by accident I suspect)

That password-protected site of yours – it ain’t
It’s one of the simplest hacks we’ve seen in a long time, and the more elite computer users have known about it for a while, but it’s still kinda cool and just a little bit unnerving: A hacker has revealed a way to use Google and other search engines to gain unauthorized access to password-protected content on a dizzying number of websites.

We don’t have any restricted or pay-per-view content,so no loss as far as this blog is concerned. But, it’s sort of blog-validating to be in there in a “dizzying number.” 🙂

Pipex still sucks

Long suffering readers of this blog will be aware of the problems I have had with my crappy ISP. Pipex used to be really good, and I have used them for years, then one day they were taken over by Tiscali. Tiscali had a reputation for being a terrible ISP, so logic would have said they’d buy a good one and learn how to improve.

No.

Tiscali took over Pipex and it went down the toilet. My internet connection is normally barely better than a 56k dial up modem. I have been trying to change ISPs, however I am caught between the problems of being on a contract with (the no longer existant) Pipex and being due to move house in a few months (making a new contract a pain in the ass). As a result I have to suffer this interminable service for a while longer.

To prove a point, this is what my connection has been like for the last year:

Speedtest Results from Thinkbroadband.com

Speedtest Results from Thinkbroadband.com

There are some gaps in the results – normally because for long periods of time my connection is so slow it wont run. Isn’t that a fantastic example of the modern, 24/7 connected society we live in.

Sadly, there is nothing I can do about it except continue in my quest to spread the word about what poor service Tiscali/Pipex offer. If you know anyone in the UK, please feel free to warn them! :???:

WordPress Upgrade

For the techies amongst you, WP 2.6 is now on the streets. (and has been for over a week – but I’ve been away). The promo video is:

When I get back to my proper PC, real content will be blogged once more.

Rise of the Machines

It is official. I hate all forms of technology. However, all of them hate me a LOT more. Truly the rise of the machines is inevitable and I will have to accept the day when my computer overlords stop toying with me and REALLY begin to punish me.

Over the last few weeks I have spent many, many hours of my life trying to reason with my computer overlord to try and get it to do simple tasks like connect to the internet or actually connect to the network it things has a maximum strength signal. You know, really challenging things like that. I have come to accept that Vista is actually the Devil Incarnate (don’t think Linux is any better…) but now I am learning where the acolytes hide.

I have an iPod nano and an iPod shuffle. I have had them for ages (both were presents, I am too tight fisted to buy things like that) and they used to work fine. However, since the Rise of the Machines has begun, they now make my life hell.

Over the last three weeks, both have intermittently ceased to work and forced me to reinstall their software from scratch several times. This is not normal behaviour for them – I’ve had the nano with no problems at all for two years… This was annoying but I could live with it.

Also in the last month, my Nikon Picture Project software (I use it to download images from my camera to the pc) has decided to stop noticing when the camera is attached. This forces me to use explorer to go into the camera (it is treated as a drive) and copy the files. The problem with this, is I now have to rename and batch process in separate stages. Time consuming but not life threatening, I suppose.

After a week of working fine, every time I attach my phone to the PC to update calendar / contacts, I get a slew of error messages saying some unknown driver hasn’t installed properly. Again, annoying but I can live with this.

The spell checker in Firefox (which I use to write this, so I am pretty dependent on it..) has decided to only work 1 time in 10. This is not one of those times so I will apologise for all typos now…

Today’s FINALSTRAW©™® is iTunes. When I got my new computer I backed up all my old music to an external HDD and copied it to the new machine. For some reason iTunes decided that meant it needed to have three entries for every song – giving me over 3600 entries. I spent what felt like 10 years deleting the spurious entries and everything worked fine. Tonight I have opened iTunes and they are all back. All of them. For good measure, there are even more entries this time. It seems that all my podcasts have now been duplicated. I am sure it is doing this to see if it can push me to a nervous break down. It is close…

I am about to search google to see if I can find an automated way to delete the spurious entries (as they dont actually point anywhere), if my internet connection dies as I try to find the solution it will be the final proof my PC is now sentient and is waging a guerilla war against me.

Time to lighten the mood

I will applogise for the last few posts here being a bit morose and screaming about the doom and gloom of our crazy world. To try and make things better (and to shamelessly get more hits on my flickr stream 🙂 ) I want you to have a look at these four castle pictures and let me know which one you think is the best – comments on flickr would be preferred but here will do 🙂

Chirk Castle Tower Scrabo Tower Killyleagh Castle Clouds over Hillsborough Fort

Thanks for your patience and the normal miserable service will resume tomorrow.

Fame and Fortune

Status

Well, actually maybe neither fame or fortune, but I have just realised I am a “featured photographer” on Flickr now! (Check out the Strangford pages, you may have to scroll down a bit though…). I am sure this is of little interest to any one who is not in my immediate family, but I couldn’t resist 🙂 [edited to add Newtonabbey pages as well! Wow!]

At last, a use for Javascript

spEak You’re bRanes has a Twat-o-Tron. (It generates random comments, plucked from Have Your Say section of the BBC’s website.) *

This site is so brilliant that you’ll want to wave your arms in circular stirring movements and punch an invisible ceiling and shout “You go, girl!” and other demonstrative American talk-show things. But it’s very British, so I will have to restrain myself to a “Jolly good job, that chap.”

All the comments quoted were found on the BBC “Have Your Say” site. Yes, people really have written them. On purpose as far as I can tell. (from spEak You’re bRanes)

The twat-o-tron will give you the distilled flavour before you dip into categories like “Armchair Warriors” on the whole site.

This blog is dedicated to the dribble-spattered lunacy of BBC “Have Your Say” discussions. Part of me thinks that the right-wing “blogosphere” of America is encouraging its slow readers to get over to the BBC and add their ill-informed opinions… but another part of me fears that the sample is actually more representative… perhaps the majority of people in the world really are this awful and stupid. (From the about page of spEak You’re bRanes )

I tend to assume that most of the BBC comments that cause apoplectic rage fits are spoofs. (It’s wishful thinking, I know, but leave me some illusions.) However, if even 1 in 10 of these comments are legit, it makes you wonder how people can be that stupid and still manage to operate an email account.

[hat tip: Alun Salt]

* (Don’t use Internet Explorer 6 though. It works but its hard to read.)