Links for oct 07

technical notes

Fasthosts are money-grabbing censorous bullies

I moved my hosting to positive internet” because my previous hosts, fasthosts, are money-grabbing, censorous bullies. There’s a long story to this, but the advice you need to know is this:

If you have a fasthosts contract, cancel it immediately. Of course, you can always renew it as the expiry date approaches, but if you don’t cancel then you risk stupid fines if — like me — you lose you credit card and forget to update you details with them

There’s details about this which I won’t bore you with. Basically, I got a reminder email a week before they were due to take a year’s payment for hosting, and it took me a week to get round to answering it. By then, it was too late and they’d charged me an additional 30 quid for being late to paying them for the privilage of another year’s hosting. 30 quid for a week delay after a single reminder email is too much, and I complained bitterly but just met an immoveable wall. So I posted about it on my blog , including the advice to cancel any existing contracts, and that’s where the second take home message comes in:

Fasthosts retain the right to take down your site without warning, and without appeal, if you post anything that they don’t like. With me they refused to discuss the matter, refused to show how what I’d posted was against their terms of service, refused to discuss what part of my complaint post against them was ‘unsuitable’. Conclusion: fasthosts have no respect for freedom of expression, especially when it comes to criticism of them and possibly on other topics too

I had a long and futile email correspondence with them about this. I didn’t make a big fuss about it, partly because they had all the cards, and partly because I was busy with more important things, which I wanted my website to be operational for. Now fasthosts weren’t a bad host, technically, as far as these things go, but their complete lack of respect for me as a customer, and for some of the values I think hosting should be about (freedom of speech), mean that I couldn’t risk keeping my hosting with them. I knew that when the next thing went wrong I would meet exactly the same response from them: “lump it and shut up.”

I moved to Positive mostly because they offered free hosting to badscience, but so far I have found their service reliable and their support excellent — both competant and friendly.


No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

Cover of “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice”

I have been seriously impressed by Tom Slee’s book “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice”. It’s an accessible guide to economic game theory and an impassioned critique of market popularism. Slee is obviously an activist, but also has a measured, academic approach to economic theory. What is great is that he uses standard economic theory and simple illustrations to make a case for the necessity of collective action for solving our problems. It shows how far MarketThink dominates popular discourse that such a minimal plea comes across as radical. “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart” is a lively and intelligent guide to how good individual choices can lead to regretable outcomes, and the ideas in it are essential tools for intellectual self-defence.

Book website

Blog of the book


the wire-mesh mother of methodology

It might be the case that, while exploratory factor analysis isn’t a generally reliable tool for causal inference, for some reason it happens to work in psychological testing. To believe this, I would want to see many cases where it had at least contributed to important discoveries about mental structure which had some other grounds of support. These are scarce. The five-factor theory of personality, as I mentioned above, is probably the best candidate, and it fails confirmatory factory analysis tests. As Clark Glymour points out, lesion studies in neuropsychology have uncovered a huge array of correlations among cognitive abilities, many of them very specific, none of which factor analyses predicted, or even hinted at. Similarly, congenital defects of cognition, like Williams’s Syndrome, drive home the point that thought is a biological process with a genetic basis (if that needs driving). But Williams’s Syndrome is simply not the kind of thing anyone would have expected from factor analysis, and for that matter a place where the IQ score, while not worthless, is not much help in understanding what’s going on.

The psychologist Robert Abelson has a very nice book on Statistics as Principled Argument where he writes that “Criticism is the mother of methodology”. I was going to say that such episodes cast that in doubt, but it occurred to me that Abelson never says what kind of mother. To combine Abelson’s metaphor with Harlow’s famous experiments on love in monkeys, observational social science has been offered a choice between two methodological mothers, one of the warm and cuddly and familiar and utterly un-nourishing (the old world of linear regression, analysis of variance, factor analysis, etc.), the other cold, metallic, hurtful and actually able to help materially (statistical methods which are at least not definitely unable to do what people want). Not surprisingly, social scientists, being primates, overwhelmingly go for the warm fuzzies. This, to me, indicates a deep failure on the part of the statistical profession to which I am otherwise proud to belong. It is never a good sign when your discipline’s knowledge is the wire-mesh mother all the baby monkeys avoid if at all possible. Less metaphorically, the perpetuation of these fallacies decade after decade shows there is something deeply amiss with the statistical education of social scientists.

Cosma Shalizi, ‘g, a statistical myth’


Eternal Recurrence, The Heaviest Burden

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again — and you with it, speck of dust!” — Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you experienced a a tremendous moment in which you would have answered him, “You are a God and never have I heard anything more divine!” If this thought gained power over you it would, as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you, the question in all and everything: “do you want this again and again, times without number?” would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions. Or how well would you have to be disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than this eternal sanction and seal?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by R.J. Hollingdale

technical notes

If you can see this post…

…then you are looking at a page hosted by positive internet


A global roar

It would be a wonderful thing if a million people around the world voiced their support for the Burmese democracy movement: Stand with the Burmese Protesters. Here’s the bumf from their petition

Hi, have you heard about the crisis in Burma?

Burma is ruled by one of the worst military dictatorships in the world. Last month Buddhist monks and nuns began marching and chanting prayers to call for democracy. The protests spread and hundreds of thousands of Burmese people joined in — but they’ve been brutally attacked by the military regime.

I just signed a petition calling on Burma’s powerful ally China and the UN security council to step in and pressure Burma’s rulers to stop the killing. The petition has exploded to over 500,000 signatures in a few days and is being advertised in newspapers around the world, delivered to the UN Security Council, and broadcast to the Burmese people by radio. We’re trying to get to 1 million signatures this week, please sign below and tell everyone!

Thank you so much for your help!