Friday, 25 September 2009

Six sex sux

In the news this week.
Brits have had 'indirect sex' with 2.8 mln people.
This is the latest marketing gimmick from Lloydspharmacy UK; the Sex Degrees of Separation Calculator. It purports to calculate the total number of direct and indirect sexual partners that you have had in your lifetime. This is a good way to raise awareness about sexual health issues, but as a statistical exercise it bites.

Here is their description of the calculator:
In July 2009 Lloydspharmacy commissioned the polling firm YouGov to ask 6,000 people over 16 about their sexual behaviour, specifically how many sexual partners they have had. We then created 17 age ranges and calculated the average number of sexual partners within each of these ranges.

When you enter the age range of each person with whom you have had sexual intercourse, the calculator raids its database to work out how many previous sexual partners people within that age range have had on average. It then repeats this process for their partners, their partners, their partners, their partners and their partners.

This is added together to give a Sex Degrees of Separation total.
Give it a try. It all sounds very scientific, but all they have really done is take some legitimate survey results and concocted a meaningless calculator so they can then put out a fancy press release so that the media can put the words "sex" and "2.8 million people" in their headlines, so that people click on the inevitable link and increase traffic to lloydspharmacy’s website. Why don't they just take the easy route and put out a press release saying "Please visit our website. It has a lot of information about sex".

I think the calculator is a little bit more sophisticated than I present here (although not much), but from what I can work out, what it does is take the number of people you have had sex with and multiply that by the average number of sexual partners for each of those (adjusted for age) and then multiply this through again 6 times (to complete the 6, sorry sex, generations). Therefore, if you have had sex 5 times and the average sexual partners of those in the groups you identify is 7, then your total indirect sexual partners is 5x7x7x7x7x7x7 = 588,245. That is huge, scary and almost certainly wrong.

While the calculator makes the correct assumption that the person you had sex with as a 16 year old has not, on average, had as many sexual partners as the one you bonked as a 30 year old, it does not then extrapolate this through to the next generation – e.g. it assumes that the first person that your 30 year old wife had sex with as a 16 year old had, at the time, the same number of sexual partners as your wife has had in total, hence the constant use of 7 in my example above. This is completely, ridiculously wrong and hugely over-inflates the real value. Also, why 6 (sorry sex) generations? Why not 8, or 10, or 1000? This arbitrary value seems to have been chosen for three reasons: 1. Because 6 sounds a bit like sex (wink wink nudge nudge); 2. Because of the term six degrees of separation, which is meaningless in this context; and 3. Because for most people the calculator will produce a number in the hundreds of thousands or millions, which is mighty impressive, but not completely unrealistic. Take the generations up to 10 (and why not?), and suddenly you have a problem, because most people will have had more indirect sexual partners than there are people in the world. And on this same point, the calculator makes no correction for the fact that once you are a few generations in, most of the people will be having sex with other people already counted in previous generations.

Here is my simple and I believe far more realistic idea for a calculator. It doesn’t require big surveys or complex age calculations. Simply make one assumption, that each person you have had sex with had had sex with the same number of people as you, at the time that you last had sex with them. This seems reasonable to me, as people in similar social circles are likely to have similar sexual proclivities. The first person you had sex with therefore counts as one, because we assume that you were their first too, the second person counts as 1+1,because they would have had sex with 1 other person, who would have been doing it for the first time. The third person counts as 1+2+1 (they’ve had sex with two people, one of whom had sex with one other person and the other with none). And so on. Doing the maths on this gives the formula x = 2n-1 where n is the number of sexual partners you have had an x is the number of direct and indirect sexual partners you have had. Recalculating my example above then, your five sexual partners would end up being 25-1 = 31 not 588,245. That is quite a big difference. To get to a million indirect sexual partners would require 20 sexual partners, but even that isn’t true, because, just like the Lloydspharmacy calculator, I have not taken into account people having sex with those already counted.

Feel free to tear my formula to bits or point out my error in analysing the Lloyds calculator, but in the end does it really matter whether you have had indirect sex with 30 or 600,000 or 2.8 million people? Always take appropriate precautions, in sex and marketing. They are both dirty little exercises, yet strangely alluring.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Poor Janet Jackson

The latest celebrity fad has reached Australia - $600 charm bracelets that are supposed to enhance the power of positive thought.
Says today. The article is - unintentionally - a good summary of the classic pseudoscience propaganda; combine eastern philosophy with celebrity endorsement and cha-ching.
Importer Hans Wrang said the bracelets contained the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac and were inspired by the ancient Eastern philosophy of attracting luck, health and prosperity by thinking positively.
Princess Mary sparked the craze when she accepted one of the La Chance bracelets as a gift from the Danish jewellery designer Martina Baggar. Stars including the U2 lead singer Bono, the Hollywood actress Kate Hudson and the soccer star Ronaldhino followed suit.
If you think positively, you attract luck, health and prosperity. Sounds reasonable. Attracting the same by buying a $600 bracelet that will be out of fashion in six months; not quite as convincing.

The twist to this story comes at the end, and it's a corker.
Mr Wrang said celebrities were carefully selected before being offered a bracelet.

''One of the things we insist on is sitting down with them face-to-face to make sure that we know what they think of the bracelet.''

The singer Janet Jackson requested a bracelet while in Denmark last year but could not spare the 10 minutes Ms Baggar insisted on to explain the bracelet's philosophy before giving it to her.

''Her minders asked us to just send it round but we said no … We don't just give them to anybody.''

It's the celebrity snub. Can't find 10 minutes in your busy schedule to hear some bastardised version of Eastern philosophy from a Danish jewelery designer (Ms Baggar), then no free bracelet for you. What a brilliant piece of marketing. Imagine the discussion down at your local beauty parlour.

"Nice bracelet, Jan"

"Thanks luv. Did you hear that Janet Jackson was told she couldn't have one."

"Really? Why?"

"You see she just didn't get what this bracelet is all about. It's not a fashion item, you know. It's about positivity. You have to be totally committed to the whole philosophy or it's just not for you."

"Gee, and then her brother died. Just goes to show you."

Glancing at the website of the company - LaChance - that produces these overpriced charm bracelets (which are, appropriately enough, made in China), they seem to be happy to sell them without the requisite 10 minutes of intense training, but maybe I'm wrong and Ms Baggar does personally deliver every single one. If not, Janet Jackson might just buy one anonymously off the internet, and we certainly cannot have that.

We don't just give them to anybody.

I personally think that if Buddha found out he'd be turning in his... uh... nirvana.

Oh, and If you've got $600 to spare and your looking for a way to enhance positive thinking, how about donating it to your favourite charity? If you've got that kind of disposable income you already are lucky, prosperous and probably healthy. Enjoy it.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Some ads suck, some don't

Recently, two somewhat similar TV advertisements have caught my attention. Both rely on foreign accents for their humour, yet I find one stupid and one charming.

The first ad is for Budget Direct insurance, where a young woman with an 'outrageous French accent' repeatedly asks an older, Aussie guy to "Googelay boojay direk" until the man puts her straight with "It's Google, love, Google Budget Direct". Patronising? Yes. Funny? No. The second is for Mainland Cheese, where the locals of a New Zealand town are preparing for the first annual Mainland cheese day, until they excitedly reveal the specially prepared banner which reads "Mainland Tuesday".

Both ads make fun of the characters accents, but in completely different ways. The first ad encourages us to laugh at the funny accent in a "aren't French people stupid that they can't even say Google properly" way, while the second uses a clever pun that just happens to only work with a New Zealand accent. No one is belittled by that, and most importantly, it's funny. The way the characters take the error is also incredibly endearing.
"Well, I guess we'll just have to celebrate every week."
Reminds me slightly of a Seinfeld episode where a non-Jew converts to Judaism for the jokes and Elaine asks Jerry if he is offended, as a Jew, and he replies "No, I'm offended as a comedian".

I don't know of Boojay is any good, but Mainland Cheddar is delicious.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Simon Singh's pulled Guardian article

I've been trying to think of something cool to post about and have been put off by my lack of real insight into, well, anything really. It's a bit of a problem, but hopefully something will come to me. In the meantime, what better way to get things rolling then to hear some true insight from a dead-set legend, Simon Singh. For those who don't know, Singh (author of several bestselling science books) was recently sued by the British Chiropractic Association for an article that appeared in the Guardian newspaper (more information here). His article has been pulled from the Guardian website, and today, a worldwide campaign has been launched, whereby the article will be posted in blogs and magazines worldwide in protest at what many believe is his poor treatment by the BCA and the British legal system. Hopefully it will be hard to miss. And here it is.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Everyone's at it.

Hello and welcome to my new blog, The Crapologist. If you've made it this far then I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Well, it's a start.

So what is crapology. According to the Urban Dictionary it has two meanings.
1. An apology that is crap.
2. The study of feces to predict the future.
I like both of those - and am particularly intrigued by 2. - but I was thinking more along the lines of...
3. Talking crap as if it were science.
I also found this eloquent definition from The Blogtionary.
Any body of conjecture, surmise or hearsay that is dressed up in the garb of scientific knowledge in the hope of passing it off as fact.
So what I said but written by a lawyer.

Whether it's intentional, poor research or just plain ignorance, crapology is a genuine social problem. It's also really annoying.

And because there aren't nearly enough blogs out there (15+ million, apparently), I thought I'd dilute things just a little bit more with yet another one.