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Archive for February, 2011

Mennonite farm from Wikimedia Commons. Mennonites are good guys, not spammers

I have a Google Alert watch for ‘WHQR’. I was curious when I saw this notice in my email:

What Are the Benefits of Donating My Car to WHQR?. Although the option has been around for a number of years, many charitable organizations, such as WHQR-FM …

The notice provides a link to an article on the site ‘eHow.com’. I’m not going to provide that link here, for reasons which I hope will become clear.

This struck me as odd: why would a 3rd party bother to write about donating cars to WHQR? The article itself is pretty generic and the information isn’t essentially wrong; we do receive, and value, donations of cars.

I Googled eHow.com and started seeing messages about “content farms” — a new term for me. eHow is apparently owned by Demand Media. Their business model is to churn out thousands of pages per day of mostly recycled press releases from all kinds of businesses and organizations.

The purpose is to get a lot of page views, move to the top of Google rankings, and make tons of money from ads. Google has moved to quarantine some of the more flagrant ones, but it’s hard to see how this can be stopped completely.

Some of the sites writing about this refer to it as spam. But some of them appear to be possibly a little spammy themselves. I am going to link to this one, which is useful but essentially recycles material from an earlier post at the same location.

Maybe everyone knows about this. I didn’t. Another example of crappy stuff beating out useful stuff on the web. Sigh.

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I was reading an article about Occam’s Razor (and how’s that for an attention-grabber, sports fans) that defined it along the lines of “Of two possible explanations for something, the simplest one is probably correct.” That’s been bothering me ever since. It rather seriously mis-states what Occam’s Razor is all about. It has nothing to do with probability and is not a predictor.

The logical principle elucidated by the Franciscan friar William of Occam (or Ockham), c. 1285-1349, is sometimes given as Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate. “Entities are no to be feigned without necessity” is one translation. Let’s say we had theory A (simple) and theory B (complex). If we relied just on the formulation above and new evidence came to light that theory A can’t explain, then wouldn’t that prove Occam’s Razor (OR) wrong?

Not at all. In fact OR demands that the simpler explanation that accounts for all the observed phenomena is to be accepted as correct. It can’t be proved or disproved; it’s an axiom or heuristic principle. We don’t say that in Euclidean space “parellel lines probably never meet.” By definition, they can’t.

For much of the Middle Ages the Ptolemaic system was capable of explaining the motion of the stars and planets. It was based on the notion that they had to move in circles (because, as we know from Aristotle, circles are the perfect shape). To explain observed irregularities astronomers had to add circles on top of circles (epicycles) in ever more complex patterns.

Now, of course, we “know” that the movement of Earth around the sun (Copernicus) and the elliptical nature of planetary orbits (Kepler) explain the  motions we see. But how do we know that we know this? In theory epicycles could multiply and be refined endlessly to account for new observations; but eventually OR caused that monstrously complex system to collapse under its own weight.

Here’s the ironic part: probably many today would use OR to argue against the idea of a supernatural Creator. But for Occam himself, his principle was a grand demonstration of God, the one entity who exists by necessity and whose marvelous economy is to be found throughout the plenitude of created world.

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