Monday, 15 August 2011

Shane Warne, TAIslim and the phantom clinical trial

Shane Warne is a man of integrity. He is the last person anybody would accuse of selling out. Sure, he is always going on about one product or another, but really, there is nothing wrong with telling the world about the things you like, and Warnie likes a lot of things. Why, in the last fortnight alone he has, on twitter, enthusiastically endorsed Russell Crowe's new album, McDonalds Cheeseburgers, British Airways, Carlton Draught (twice), Spinners by Shane Warne, 888 sport bets, Mr Whippy (twice), Special K and Dunhill1, and has not declared any financial or other interest in any of these products. He's just a fan.

And when he loses a lot of weight in just a few months, and puts it down to "Fitness and healthy lifestyle, with help from @StevenBaker10 and his protein shakes and Tai Slim drinks", and some people deign to suggest that it is simply a marketing exercise and not a genuine miracle weight loss product, then I am, to be perfectly honest, shocked and saddened. I mean, you only have to look at the post on his website2 to see how genuine he is about this.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Internet browser versus IQ: The truth!

A new study has found that people who think that Internet Explorer users are dumber than users of other browsers are actually dumber than Internet Explorer users.

Researchers came to this conclusion after reviewing media reports, blog posts, comments, forums and tweets referring to the AptiQuant hoax; a made-up report claiming that IE users - and especially those using older versions - had average IQs up to 40 points lower than those using other browsers.

The researchers collected all online references to this study that were written in the two days before the hoax was exposed, and categorized the commenters into those who got "sucked in" and those who "called shenanigans".

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sockpuppetry of the dicks

What would you do if, like me*, you had a prominent online presence and people started saying nasty things about you on blogs or in comments or on Youtube, or you weren't happy with your Wikipedia entry?

If you said, "I would create a fake online persona and set about deviously correcting all of these perceived wrongs" then you are a dick. If you are now thinking "you'd have to be a moron to believe that you could get away with something like that" then you are not a dick, although you are a bit up yourself.

Recently, a couple of high profile hands have unwillingly emerged from the sockpuppets they control. First up was Scott Adams, author of the comic strip Dilbert. He created the pseudonym PlannedChaos and for several months went around defending "himself" on websites such as Reddit and Metafilter, including, at least twice, referring to himself as "a certified genius". He ended up outing himself as certified douche bag.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

How to win the lottery. Part 3: The Scam

Thus concludes the epic trilogy that is "How to win the lottery". If you were wondering, yes there will be a digitally remastered special extended edition, some disappointing prequels and I'm currently working on a 3D version that is bound to be an embarrassment for all concerned.

In Parts 1 and 2 we learnt that if Mr Sucker buys a quickpick every week for fifty years, he will lose about $14,000.

Is there any way that he could increase his odds of coming out ahead? Yes, there is, but before you proceed, I must warn you that each of these techniques brings with it a terrible curse. Enjoy.

Monday, 20 June 2011

How to win the lottery. Part 2: The Payout

Part 2 in a three part magnum opus - or possibly optimus prime - on how the lottery really works, and what you can do to make it work in your favour, if you can, which you can't. Or can you?
Mr Sucker lived a simple life. He loved his family and worked hard to support them. His one vice was his weekly lottery ticket. And the occasional line of cocaine. And the prostitutes, the many, many prostitutes.

But let's concentrate on the lottery, at least for this post.

In Part 1 we learnt that his lifetime chance of winning 1st division was approximately 1 in 262, and that he was guaranteed to win 4th, 5th and 6th division many times. But what I want to know now is how much money will he spend in total, and how much can he expect to win?

The total spend is easy: A standard quickpick each week for 50 years is approximately $20,400 at today's price ($7.85). Calculating the winnings is a bit of a pain in the arse, but here goes. There are two ways: The first is to calculate the average number of times he will win each division, using the odds calculated in part one, then multiply these by the average dollar amount paid out for each division. This sounds hard. Fortunately, there is an easier way. A much easier way. One might call it a piss-easier way. Tattersalls and the Victorian State Government have already done the work for us.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

How to win the lottery. Part 1: The Odds

I like to keep my posts, like my love-making, short and/or sweet, so when this one started ballooning out to Oracian, or possibly John Holmesian proportions, I decided to break it up into a trilogy of geeky maths delights, guaranteed to show you how to win the lottery.

I have bought precisely one lottery ticket in my life. I was fifteen and it was technically illegal. Luckily, I won jack shit.

I gave up, because you'd have to be stupid to buy a lottery ticket. Or so I keep telling myself.

Do you buy lottery tickets? If so, the following conversation may sound familiar to you, especially if your name is Bob.
"Hiya Bob, what brings you to the local newsagent where I buy my pornography."
"Hey Cedric, I'm just picking up my weekly quickpick."
"Tattslotto, eh? Did you know that the odds of winning Tattslotto are more than eight million to one against? Eight million!"
"I think I heard something like that. Still, you've got to be in it to win it."
"Uh uh. Sure, someone will probably win, but, statistically speaking, it is virtually impossible for you to win. You don't buy Powerball too, by any chance? "
"Er, sometimes, if there's a jackpot."
"Fifty five million to one*. Fifty five! Million! Man, you are such a Sucker. You won't catch me throwing my money away on this delusion. Those odds are seriously crazy. Did you know that the chance of getting hit by lightning is only one in 1.6 million? Know anyone who has been hit by lightning? Ha ha! Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe that the latest issue of Brazilians get brazilians is out." 
"Right then. See you later, Prick**." 
Cedric seems like a nice enough guy, and I like calculating big numbers and have as much interest in the goings-on behind the curtains at beauty salons as the next man, but the thing is, those odds are not true - or at least not honest. How could they be? It is a ruse invented by the anti-fun brigade. I mean, c'mon? Multiple people win these lotteries nearly every week.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Bolt Cola - now with 10% less carbon pollution!

Melbourne columnist, broadcaster and prominent climate change denialist* Andrew Bolt likes Coke. He also has a television show called The Bolt Report. On this television show he has a segment called "Spin of the Week". On this week's show his spin of the week was "carbon pollution". Here is the transcript.
And to our spin of the week. You’ve heard a thousand times that to stop global warming we’ve got to cut our emissions or, as the urgers now put it.

[this is followed by footage of various politicians repeatedly saying "carbon pollution"]

Carbon pollution? Now that phrase is meant to make you think of dirty soot, but it’s a lie. They aren’t talking about carbon, but carbon dioxide, which isn’t black stuff but invisible gas [breathes out]. And carbon dioxide isn’t pollution but plant food for photosynthesis. Now look, this is the sound of carbon dioxide [cracks a can of Coke open] and if that really was pollution would I do this? [takes a mouthful] Ahhh.
Yes, he really did say "ahhh".

It was pretty funny.

I study pollution for a living. The two big ones in my field are nitrogen pollution and phosphorus pollution. These come in various forms, often from fertilisers, and when they end up in the water they cause eutrophication and toxic algal blooms. This is bad.

They are also plant food.
They are also in Coke.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The end is still nigh, goddamit!

There has been a lot of misinformation bouncing around about the end of the world and how it was supposed to be on the 21st of May and how stupid those people who believed it were and how funny it was when it didn't happen and how even more hilarious it was to go up to the believers afterwards and say "cheer up, it's not the end of the world".

Everybody, believer or not, just needs to chill. It hasn't happened yet, but it will.

The actual date for the end of the world is the 21st of October this year, and it always has been. Harold Camping and I have been saying this for months yet nobody seems to have listened. People have simply been misinterpreting the myriad billboards posted around the world. You'll have seen them, they are the ones with a guy crapping in the corner and the seal of approval from The Bible.

Ham-fisted cancer scare

Full disclosure upfront: I like meat. It tastes good. I like steak, ham, salami and sausages. A lot. They are delicious.

They also cause cancer, dammit! Bowel cancer... cancer with shit in it.

Red meat 'increases risk of bowel cancer' - cries the Herald Sun

Warning to stay out of ham's way - puns the Sydney Morning Herald

No ham, say cancer experts - moans The Age

I had a strange sense of déjà vu (is there any other kind?) when reading these headlines. And not without reason.

The World Cancer Research Fund UK has just published a 855 page report on the best available evidence for preventing bowel cancer. This is an update to a 2007 report.

The new report, or should I say the press release*, makes a number of statements about whether particular nutritional and lifestyle factors either increase or decrease the likelihood of developing bowel cancer, or whether there is insufficient evidence. One such statement is:
For red and processed meat, findings of 10 new studies were added to the 14 studies analysed as part of the 2007 Report. The Panel confirmed that there is convincing evidence that both red and processed meat increase bowel cancer risk.
So, nothing new really, just confirming what we already knew. And, if you look more closely at the report (I didn't but these guys did), the stated risks from red and processed meats are actually slightly lower than they were in the previous report.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

It's the (fuel) economy, stupid!

Have you ever bought a new car, admired the impressive fuel economy figures plastered over the front window, got the car home, driven it around for a few months and realised that it is almost impossible to reach those fuel economy figures doing anything like normal driving? Yeah, me too.

I have always assumed that the fuel economy figures were based on some kind of track - one that simulates both city and driving conditions - and that the good people from the government testing laboratories put on their grandpa hats and driving gloves and diligently drive the cars around the track for a few hundred kilometres whilst monitoring how much fuel they are using.


Tuesday, 19 April 2011

I am so smart, S-M-R-T, I mean SMEs

I wonder who first realised this was kind of a silly idea?

SMEs are invited to submit proposals for the development of a pleasant-tasting, low-priced drink that will enable secondary school students to work safely and with sustained alertness all day.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Think of the children

I held this post off while I waited to see if I could get it published on the Screen Play blog on Mission successful. Incidentally, I've been getting some excellent comments, including a couple from Barbara Biggins herself. It's been a lot of fun and makes me realise how great it would be to write a blog that people actually engage with. Oh well.

First published in, April 12, 2011.

Think of the children

The debate over an R18+ rating for computer games in Australia reminds me of the republican debate (and not just that the letter R is prominent in both). It is inevitable that we will become a republic, and it is just as inevitable that we will get an R18+ rating for games, yet there will always be a vocal and powerful group of "concerned citizens" hell bent on going to their graves opposing it. Given the age of most anti-R advocates (both kinds), this is a distinct possibility.

Barbara Biggins, CEO of the Australian Council of Children and the Media this week published an opinion piece on the ABC website complaining that proponents of an adult rating are cynically manipulating public opinion by claiming that the introduction of an R18+ rating would, in fact, protect children because many games that, under the present system, would get rated MA15+ would instead get rated R18+. These would then be off-limits to children (hurrah!). Her main gripe is that the supporters of an R18+ rating have co-opted the opposer's (her) main argument ("Won't somebody please think of the children?"). She is not happy.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

"Interest Free" not as interesting as it sounds

I am interested in interest, and my interest in interest was recently piqued when I saw a promotion for Sydney's Furniture & Bedding.
Free for 28 months! Sounds wonderful. Nice one Sydney! I've never shopped there myself, but I am told that their furniture is great. Perhaps I should check them out. But hold on a sec, what does that incredibly small asterisk next to the 28 signify? I'd better check the small print. After all, I suppose there is a slight possibility that there could be fees and charges that aren't prominently displayed in the massive banner advertisement.
fees and charges apply and are available on application

My interest started to wain, so I instead visited the website of Australia's biggest provider of interest free terms, Harvey Norman, where they are a little more forthcoming.

So what is the deal with these deals?

Take this hypothetical but imminently realistic situation. I wander into my local Harvey Norman and purchase a $1,000 computer.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Final statement by the Journal of Cosmology: Waaaaaaaah!!! Also, buy our book

Alas, all things must come to end. It is with great sadness that I must report that the special series of comically paranoid press releases from the Journal of Cosmology (JOC) have finished, forever. On the upside, they go out with a bang.
Final Statement by the Journal of Cosmology on the Hoover Microfossil-Meteorite Discovery 
All Roads Lead to the Obama White House
This latest statement is almost all in bold, so you can tell that, this time, they are serious. Read it (scroll down, down, down - the website still sucks). It goes on a bit, as usual, but in summary, the President of the United States of America is behind the plot to destroy the reputation of everyone involved in the Richard Hoover paper. Oh, yes!
On Friday, March 18, 2011, Dr. Rudolf Schild, Editor-in-Chief of JOC spoke at length with Richard Hoover and learned that the White House, i.e. the offices of President Obama, became a party to this issue almost immediately after the story broke. The exact nature of this involvement is unknown to us.
A lot of the rest of the statement is a classic straw man argument. They make great pains to point out that "Hoover's data is accurate", and nobody has proven that the data isn't accurate, and therefore they "...believe the data is real. The implications profound" (grammar still isn't their forte). The thing is, none of the commentaries I saw claimed that the data was faked. They complain about the interpretation, not the data.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Is there life on Mars?

Famed NASA astrobiologist, Richard Hoover, has been hunting meteorites and extremeophiles in the frigid Antarctic for over 10 years. To the amazement of all, what this treasure hunt has uncovered is alien life: Fossils of ancient bacteria which hailed from colonies which thrived on comets, moons, and other planets.
Finally, definitive proof of life on other planets. I've been waiting for this since, well, the last time scientists discovered definitive proof of life on other planets.

In case you didn't notice, I was being sarcastic. The Journal of Cosmology, on the other hand, is almost certainly not being sarcastic with their press release:
In a world-wide exclusive, this startling, paradigm busting research, and the pictures to back up these claims, has been published in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology.
Dr. Carl Gibson of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at Scripps Institute and the University of California at San Diego had this to say: "Dr. Hover has provided the world with extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims. This discovery completely changes our perspective of the nature of life and our place in the Universe, The world will never be the same."
Extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims? Truthfully, I have no idea about the extraordinariness of this evidence. I am not an astrobiologist and I have no experience with "the most advanced micro-scanning technology in the world". I know a little more than most about cyanobacteria, but as far as I am aware, they evolved on Earth around three billion years ago, and that is where it ends, or should I say, begins.

Also, I haven't read the paper.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Bust a cap in your plan

How does your friendly local telecommunications company jack up their prices without jacking up their prices? This week, Telstra showed us one way.
TELSTRA will start charging all long-distance and mobile calls in one-minute blocks later this month, after moving to 30 second blocks two years ago.
What kind of difference does this make? Let's use maths to work it out. Assume that calls cost one dollar per minute. Each full minute will cost the same regardless of whether you are charged for 30 second blocks, one minute blocks or even one second blocks. That final minute, though, is where the scam kicks in. If you are charged in one second blocks, maths says you will pay an average of 50c for that final minute (or part thereof). If you are charged in 30 second blocks, you will pay 50c if the call finishes in the first 30 sec, and the full dollar if it's more than 30 seconds, for a maths determined average of 75c. If you are charged in one minute blocks, you will obviously pay the full buckaroonie. In short, Telstra now charges an extra 25c per call. All without increasing their prices. Genius.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Nightingale Collaboration - neatly clobbering online quacks

As of today, online quacks in the UK have a reason to be afraid... somewhat afraid. The Advertising Standards Authority has new powers to investigate and punish companies who's websites make bogus claims. Not-at-all-coincidentally, the Nightingale Collaboration (NC) has just launched.

The ASAs new powers include the power to ask search engines to remove ads that link to the dodgy website. These ads are then replaced with ads pointing out how stupid the website is. Superb! Google is a partner, so it looks like it will have real balls.

The NC is specifically aiming to stamp out dodgy health claims. They are running a 'focus of the month' campaign, aiming to eradicate one dodgy health claim at a time. First up is homeopathy. Easy, seeing as any health claim made for a homeopathic product ('nothing' in a pill) is provably wrong. Easier still, the NC website includes a handy set of instructions for submitting a complaint.

Expect a truckload of complaints over the coming months and, just maybe, fewer bogus health claims online. At least in the UK. Temporarily.

I will follow with interest.

Monday, 31 January 2011

You have to be read

Does writing a science blog that nobody reads make me a real journalist? No, says Tim Radford, "Former Guardian science editor, letters editor, arts editor and literary editor"*. Why not?
Journalists write to support democracy, sustain truth, salute justice, justify expenses, see the world and make a living, but to satisfactorily do any of these things you have to have readers. Fairness and accuracy are of course profoundly important. Without them, you aren't in journalism proper: you are playing some other game. But above all, you have to be read, or you aren't in journalism at all.
Dammit! I'd like to be thought of as a journalist, of sorts, sort of. But the words "you have to be read" have haunted me since I read them.

I have to be read. I want to be read. I need to be read. The question is, how can I be read? I have a theory that will probably not pan out: Write it and they will come. If I produce good content, people will find the blog and link to it, and others will find it, and the cycle will continue. Is that realistic? What I don't want to do is spend my days pimping my blog wherever I can. That is not my way. I am, therefore, probably doomed from the start.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Brain-Body Performance Institute - Nintendo's creepy half-brother

Executive brain training hit the news this week...
OFFICE workers will undergo brain training to become ''executive athletes'' in an Australian-first clinical trial aimed at making staff smarter, healthier and more productive.
You know? Just like the Nintendo DS Brain Training games (RRP $49.95). The program being spruiked in this article is the one run by Paul Taylor of the Brain-Body Performance Institute.
We take the latest research from the disciplines of Neuroscience, Physiology and Psychology and blend it with the lessons of the Armed Forces and Elite Athletes to create programs that are both easy to follow and powerfully effective.
So you're saying I'll also need a Wii Fit Plus (RRP $159). Assuredly, though, my "Biological Age" ("as seen on the Biggest Loser"), bares no resemblance whatsoever to my Wii Fit Age? Or my Brain Age

I'm probably being unfair though. I am sure that the testing developed by Mr Taylor and neuropsychologist Dr Roy Sugarman is far more sophisticated than those silly Nintendo 'games'. Why not try this simple test? Pick which of these lines is from Mr Taylor, and which is from the website of Dr Kawashima's Brain Training.
Ten years ago we thought the brain wasn't very changeable, but we know now it is completely malleable, just like the body. And if you want to get the most out of it, you need a good training plan and you need to stick to it.
Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain.
The Brain-Body Performance Institute's website is humorously dressed up in typical life coaching mumbo jumbo. Here is my personal favourite:
...they enter into ‘self-determinism’, a critical stage in the motivation continuum which is characterised as being driven to improve current health and fitness situations
Translated into English = "they decide that they want to get a Wii Fit Plus, and they swear that they'll totally use it everyday".
Oddly (reminder, RRP $49.95), brain training programs are big business:
The trial is part of a growing trend, in which online brain-training programs in the United States have grown into a $US295 million business
Here is what you do. Develop a computer based IQish test, and then develop a training program so that participants get better at your test. You know? Exactly like Nintendo does.

Elements of the program also sound eerily similar to the embarrassment that is Brain Gym, a program which was popular in schools across the UK a few years ago.
Brain Gym is a set of perfectly good fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudoscientific explanatory framework.
Still, this new training program is probably good for a laugh, and if I worked for SAP I'd sign up. Actually, I might first ask a few questions about this "Biological Age" testing:
Mr Taylor's trial will start in March with 60 of SAP's Melbourne staff, who will have stress hormone levels measured, undergo genetic testing, brainpower assessments and bio-age tests to measure their real age against their health age.
Genetic testing? A multinational software company is going to allow a personal trainer access to the individual results of the most personal of all homonyms of jeans. The mind boggles. Admittedly this particular study is being run with some Swinburne University researchers, so it may be that someone on the ethics committee at the university keeps some kind of cap on the amount of personal genetic information that is passed around. However, Mr Taylor's websites contain the portentous line
coming soon...
This, my friends, is a VBI (very bad idea).

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Oh celebrities! Will you ever learn?

The excellent UK science charity Sense About Science have released their Celebrities and Science 2010 pamphlet, part of an ongoing campaign to correct some of the pseudoscientific crap spouted by various celebrities.
Each year at Sense About Science we review the odd science claims people in the public eye have made – about diets, cancer, magnets, radiation and more – sent in to us by scientists and members of the public. Many of these claims promote theories, therapies and campaigns that make no scientific sense. We ask scientists to respond, to help the celebrities realise where they are going wrong and to help the public to make sense of celebrity claims.
It has short explanations from experts in the various fields as to why these people are kooky, and is well worth a look, with simple explanations doled out by experts in the various fields. This year's collection includes a variety of food related celebrity silliness, such as Sir Cliff Richards' blood group diet, and Olivia Newton John's insistence on taking "digestive enzymes with every meal". Power Balance bracelets ($60 rubber bands) also get a mention. Disappointingly, my high school crush Julia Sawahla gets called out for, when visiting the tropics, taking homeopathic 'nosodes' instead of anti-malaria tablets; this is exactly the same as doing absolutely nothing.

By far the oddest though, comes from cage fighter Alex Reid with this delightful anecdote:
it’s actually very good for a man to have unprotected sex as long as he doesn’t ejaculate. Because I believe that all that semen has a lot of nutrition. A tablespoon of semen has your equivalent of steak eggs, lemons and oranges. I am reabsorbing it into my body and it makes me go raaaaahh.
although this is spoiled by the party poopers at Sense About Science
Alex... the nutritional content of the ejaculate is really rather small. And it’s worth remembering that unprotected sex might result in pregnancy or the passing on of a sexually transmitted infection.
The main lessons from this exercise are nicely summarised in four dot points:
  • Nothing is chemical free: everything is made of chemicals, it’s just a case of which ones.
  • Detox is a marketing myth: our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.
  • There’s no need to boost: bodily functions occur without ‘boosting’.
  • Energy and fitness come from… food and exercise: there are no shortcuts.
Oh celebrities! Will you ever learn?