Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unbelievable Paper Spam

Not all spam is electronic. Some comes in professional looking printed form. My mate Dave just received a real doozy, from the 'International Biographical Centre'. He was told that he was being reocgnised as an 'Icon' in the field of philosophy, and had the 'International Socrates Award for Philosophical Achievement' bestowed upon him by IBC.

Jolly serious sounding stuff.

Except that to formally complete the bestowment, you need to cough up for the certificate. And that costs ... wait for it ... USD635! So it must be a very, very nice certificate indeed. Or (much more likely) the IBC are in business because enough sad little people out there are prepared to pay for an ego boost. As long as that remains the case, it's worth the Ibc sending these letters out to anyone who crosses their radar.

So Dave wrote in to ask for an explanation:
Hello IBC,

I recently received [...] a letter advising me that I had an 'International Socrates Award for Philosophical Achievement' bestowed upon me by IBC.

Could you please tell me a little more about how decisions to bestow the award are made? (Do you have a panel of reviewers? Which specific parts of my work were considered?)

Also, I'd appreciate it if you could let me know the names of other recent recipients, so I know just what kind of league I'm now playing in.

Thanks and Regards,

Let's see what they have to say for themselves. After that, we can try to find out what they can say to justify the spectacular cost of the certificate. They do say that it is 'laminated', but that hardly warrants the price of over 600 Dollars.

For a bit more on the IBC, take a look on Wikipedia, and on this blog post, and this one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hitting the bottle

Bottled water is pretty popular among the middle classes in South Africa. There are various brands, but one of the biggest here is Bonaqua. (Maybe the biggest by market share - I'll check in due course.) So I'll start with them.

If you go to the Bonaqua website you'll see bits of the usual horrendous bollocks that media people are paid to produce. Apparently an "ice-cold bottle of Bonaqua" is "the coolest accessory around". That's presumably news to people who might have suspected that a labrador puppy, or a convertible was very cool. Not to mention people who thought that an accessory was a durable item like a pair of sunglasses or a handbag. Of course, this is advertising, and the people who make it are paid to abuse the language, in order to achieve an effect. It's striking that the "coolest" claim is almost completely free of content. There's no objective standard of cool which you could use to check it. And if it was false, it's not clear how you would have been harmed for following it (except by having the fact that you're a moron thereby revealed). So it's hard to see that it could even be misleading - it doesn't say anything definite enough.

What bothers me isn't coolness, though. In some places in the world there really is a problem about getting access to safe drinking water. Sometimes there is tap water, but it isn't really safe. In such places you really do need to filter or treat the water you can get, or have safe water brought in.

South African cities are not such places. The tap water is almost always perfectly healthy. So there's no systematic need to buy bottles of water. And there are good reasons not to buy bottled water. The process of making bottles pollutes directly, consumes water, and creates plastic waste. Driving the bottles around creates more pollution. When there's perfectly good water on tap, those environmental costs are completely optional. And they should be avoided, unless you have some special reason to drive up atmospheric carbon or get more plastic into the oceans and landfills.

Bottled water, though, is profitable. And it sure helps to encouage the punters to think that it's healthy, and to downplay the environmental costs.

So back to the website. Consider the following (from the section called "The world of water":
Consumers all over the world are realising how important it is to take better care of themselves, to balance their fast-paced lifestyles. Worldwide, people are eating better, exercising more and seldom seen without a bottle of their favourite brand of mineral water.
Well, many millions of people are horribly poor, and have almost no choice about what to eat. Many could feed a family for the price of a bottle of water. Leave that aside and look at the paragraph, though. People are taking care of themselves. People are eating better, exercising and drinking bottled water. Suppose the first claim is true. And we all agree that exercise and diet make an impact on health. What about bottled water? What's the link? The site doesn't explain. Read on:
In South Africa, this trend has caught on fast. Gyms are packed, restaurants that serve healthy food options are popping up all over and bottled water is in ever fashionable consumer's hand.
Again - what's the link? Why not go to gym, eat some salad, and drink tap water? Keep reading:
There is an abundance of bottled water brands available on the South African market, but funky, refreshing Bonaqua has proven to be a favourite lifestyle accessory for those who demand both quality and taste.
Oh hell. How the hell could one kind of water be specifically funky? Anyway, I was hoping to find a link about the link between bottled water in general, or Bonaqua specifically, and health. I didn't find one, just more flim flam about accessories.

If you follow a link at this point, you get told a bunch of stuff about how important water is for the body, and how to be healthy you need water. None of the claims made specifically relate to bottled water. I discussed all this with my mate Dave, and he decided to send an email to Bonaqua. (There's a "contact us" link on the website).

Here it is.
Subject: Bonaqua Query

Hello Zanele, Michelle,

The Bonaqua website makes a few claims about Bonaqua that I find interesting. I wonder if you could help me make sense of them.

(1) The site says that an "ice-cold bottle of Bonaqua" is "the coolest accessory around". What does this actually mean? How do you measure cool?

(2) In the section "The world of water" the following text appears:

"Consumers all over the world are realising how important it is to take better care of themselves, to balance their fast-paced lifestyles. Worldwide, people are eating better, exercising more and seldom seen without a bottle of their favourite brand of mineral water."

Of course many many millions of people on Earth are terribly poor, live in awful conditions, and have almost no choice about what to eat. Many of them could feed a family for a price of a half litre of bottled water. Maybe you don't regard them as 'consumers'. Leaving them aside, as your website clearly intends, here is my question: What does taking care of yourself specifically have to do with bottled water, as opposed to clean water from any other source?

(2a) Can you direct me to any research you have done showing a measurable health benefit of your bottled water over municipal tap water in a South African city?

(2b) In particular, consider my case. I eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. But I don't ever drink bottled water - I only drink tap water. Can you direct me to any research you have done, or are aware of, that would explain what mistake I am making as far as "taking care of myself" goes.

Thanks and regards,


I'll post an update once Dave has told me about the response.

PS: The image of a pile of used plastic water bottles was flagrantly stolen, by me, from this site.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Time vs The Economist (Economist 1, Time 0)

Travel does terrible things to a person. Take an otherwise rational being, and stick them in a succession of economy class seats and airport concourses for long enough, and they'll start shopping in completely idiotic ways, endorsing intelligent design and otherwise showing that they've abandoned their senses.

That's how I ended up buying a copy of 'Time' magazine, for the first time in ages. I was desperate. Jet lagged, unwashed, rumpled, crabby and also (perhaps the airport food, or the diet in Las Vegas) flatulent to the level of a superpower, if only I'd had any control over it. Worse, I'd finished the novel I had with me (Cormac McCarthy's riveting, dark, spectacularly violent Blood Meridian) and read the current and previous weeks' editions of The Economist cover to cover, including the advertisments.

It was awful. So bad I struggle to explain it. Think of a cross between news-lite and vacuous celebrity drivel. They had a 'Technology Roundtable' where they rounded up some people who had made a lot of money, and asked them dumb questions, leading to answers that were barely coherent sometimes, and rarely interesting when they were. Jay Adelson (CEO of Digg) had this to say about 'The future of free news':
Increasingly, over time, I think information is ubiquitous. I think that I will be able to get a lot of that data - sometimes not even assembled by an individual - to give me the answer that I want. And for that, I will not have to pay.
Clearly he spent more time on getting his hair right for the 'interview' than on the answers, and Time spent more on photography than editing. If anyone can see an argument here, or even a hint of an analysis, please let me know. The best answer gets a free (slightly used) copy of Time magazine.

Anyway, it's easy to take pot shots. The cool thing is that there is one story, a review of an exhibition, that was covered in the Time and one of the two issues of The Economist that I had just read. So my weary flatulent self read the one with the other in recent memory. And the comparison is most instructive.

The exhibition is currently at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It is covered in in Time on November 23, 2009 (pp112-2) and in The Economist on November 12th.

The Economist says something coherent, historically informed and useful. In 650 odd words. Time take a bit over 1050 words, and chuck around pomposities like 'rectitude' and barbarisms like 'Bauhauslers'. Sigh. And there's some outright vacuous smoke. For example:
... there's a color photograph of Gropius' righteously Cartesian office, with a right-angular chair resting on a grid-patterned carpet and a grid-patterned tapestry hanging on one wall.
Uh. Well. No. That's bollocks. Regular geometric patterns are a staple of ancient art from all over the world. They massively predate Descartes. And a 'Cartesian' set of co-ordinates assigns every point an address, it has axes so that points are identified by signed distances along the two (or three) perpendicular axes. Calling a rug with a grid on it 'Cartesian' is just pseudo intellectual tosh.

Next time I'm buying the National Enquirer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Effortless Incitement comment spam policy

I've been getting some comment spam. That is, irrelevant comments on blog posts here, containing links to sources of Viagra, Escorts, and so on.

For the record, I'm going to delete them from now on. (I deleted a few just before I made this posting.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mendacious spam from ''

The life of a blogger, even a lazy scoundrel with a shameful recent track record like me, is a life with a few different kinds of spam in it. I've had kooky invitations to review dodgy products (including things allegedly having sex pheremones in them). The latest one really takes the buscuit, though. Here's the text:

Dear Blog Owner,

Our website is a informational databases and online news publication for anything and everything related to science and technology. We recently ran a poll asking our website users regarding what online informational resources they use to keep up to date or even to simply find great information. It seems many of our users have labeled your blog as an excellent source of Science information. We have reviewed your blog and must say, we absolutely love the information you have made available to the public and would love to make your blog a part of our top science blogs. After browsing your blog, our research team has decided to award you a Top science Blogs award banner.

It is a distinction we offer to the blogs that our team feels is ahead of the curve in terms of content.

Thanks again for the great information and we look forward to the great responses your blog will receive from our site. Your blog presence will be very effective for our users (top science blogs).

We have put great efforts in making this decision to give deserving with award acknowledgment. For listing please reply to request banner.

William Lee
Research team

What a load of bollocks. There's occasionally some decent stuff here at Effortless Incitement, but nothing that would warrant this effusive gushing. So no, I won't reply to the request banner. Sod off and find some other way to drive traffic to your rather lousy site, why don't you. Ouanquerres.

(My mate Dave tells me this reminds him of the periodic dumbass 'invitations' to appear in directories of important people. These seem to get sent to just about anyone who publishes anything. And you have to pay. So they're really offering you the chance to appear in a directory of 'people so depressingly sad and stupid that they'll pay to appear in a directory containing only such people'.)

Oh, and a quick Google showed that Larry Moran over at Sandwall has receive the same invitation. He's a biochemist, but the blurb was effusive about his 'PHYSICS' information.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Mad Ads - Prof Bumba and Nangi Herbals

Here are a few more pamphlets making crazy magical claims, as handed out on streets in South Africa. I'm not going to describe these mad ads in much detail - these things get kind of repetitive at some point. Thanks to readers who sent in contributions and links, whicih will all be added eventually.

First up, we have Prof Bumba, based in Johannesburg. The Professor seems to have the power to be in four places at once, given the list of premises. Helpfully, you can use sms to make appointments.

Then we have Nangi Herbals, including the thoughtfully bundled package of schlong related services, the '3 in 1 Penis Combo':

Someone should be printing these things on T-Shirts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Robophobia in The Grauniad

Last week's Guardian has a blog piece by Mark Lawson about the composer Emily Howell, who has a forthcoming album. Part of what is interesting about Emily is that she isn't a natural person, but a trained computer program. She's the successor to Experiments in Musical Creativity (EMI, or 'Emmy'). Both are projects of David Cope, himself a composer. There's a lot you can read (including a lot that’s on line) about the history of Cope's work, and the music produced by the systems he has developed and trained. I'm not going over any of that here, but I do want to take issue with some things Mark Lawson has to say. Lawson doesn't care how good Emily's music might sound. He says it's "worthless" because it's not made by real people. I think that he is being a silly anthropophile robophobe twerp.

After some rather disorganised paragraphs in which Lawson half-heartedly faces up to the fact that much creativity is a matter of re-arranging elements that are not themselves original, he turns to banging the table. Along the way are a few telling bits of rhetoric that show honesty is not a big priority for him, including the gem that when Emily produces a work it is by “simply randomly reshuffl[ing]” bits of another. Clearly he’s simply ignored the fact that Emily is laboriously trained, and that the process of construction is guided by the set of constraints produced by the training. Anyway, here comes the table banging:
So logic is on her side. Art, though, is illogical. Although she can be defended intellectually, the creator of From Darkness, Light is no more a composer than a synthetic sperm knocked up in a laboratory would be a father.
Oh. So a traffic light isn't a “real” instruction, because it's just a machine. Calculators don't tell us arithmetic truths, because they're not people. I haven't really been to Scotland because I didn't walk there. It’s not about what happens, it’s about where it comes from. Why should we think this? Lawson continues:
Music, writing or art is a communication between two humans. This does not mean it has to be emotional or warm – a delusion industrialised in large parts of Hollywood – but that there is some sort of conversation between two members of the same species, even if the artist's side of the exchange is "go away and leave me alone".

Paradoxically, it was JD Salinger, a novelist who has refused any rapport with his readership outside the pages of the books, who most beautifully captured this truth when the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye suggests that reading a really good book makes you want to phone up the author. A composition by Emily Howell might make us want to email her, but we know that she could not reply. Admittedly, we also know that Salinger wouldn't take our phone call, but the crucial difference is that he could if he wanted to.

A computer, cleverly programmed, could probably produce the Doubting Thomas Passion by JS Bach or More Snow on Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway. But the exercise would be worthless because the works from the software would not be informed by being a God-fearing kapelmeister in 18th-century Germany or a suicidal macho male in mid-20th century America.

Our shelves may be full of composers and writers who could be accused of having only artificial intelligence, but their efforts are still more worthwhile than art created by AI. "From the heart – may it go to the heart," wrote Beethoven on the manuscript of his Missa Solemnis. From the byte to the brain can never be equivalent to that.
This is a pretty strong set of claims. No matter how beautiful, or moving, or exciting, or anything else music, including Emily Howell’s, might make us feel, it's "worthless" because it didn't get to us by being passed through the brain of a natural person. And the reason for that being important is that we could (in some fabulously diluted sense of could, which covers long dead people who can't talk to anyone now, and living ones who don't want to talk to us, etc.) talk to them about stuff.

It's interesting that no matter how it got here, and irrespective of whether anyone could (or would want to) talk to where it came from, that is surely the most lousy justification for a claim that I've seen all week.

Lawson is, I’d argue, perfectly free himself to have a silly prejudice to the effect that he prefers music that in some sense came out of a brain. But it’s arrogant and absurd for him to declaim that such much is in general “worthless” just because he’s prejudiced.

More than that, it’s confused. People, and their brains, are physical systems. Their basic working parts are mechanisms – mechanisms of DNA transcription, protein construction, ion channelling, neurotransmitter action. Their interesting functions are the product of gigantic co-ordinated action among these myriad mechanisms. This means that if having in some sense been produced by mechanisms guarantees being “worthless” then everything made by any person is worthless.

Besides all that, it’s fascinating to learn more about music, and what sorts of process can compose it. There’s little reason to think that what goes on in Emily will be strictly analogous to what happened in Bach’s skull, but there’s at least a tantalising suggestion that we have more idea that we used to about what might have been in there. And there’s exciting work to be done – I for one would like to see computers capable of sophisticated ensemble improvising.

Here are some links:
Lawson’s article (comments unfortunately closed).

David Cope's mp3 page, with material by EMI. (In particular, see 5000 works in Bach Style.)

Article on Ars Technica.

Article on Times Online (includes streaming media with short clips from the forthcoming album).

Article on Vox.
(The image at the top was lifted from an image challenge on B3TA.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lint - some lazy linking

There's more for fans of Lint on YouTube. First, the following brief monologue by Bell Ectric, which regrettably sheds almost no light at all on either Lint's "Belly" phase (if phase it was) or his alleged period of regular lemon consumption:

Second, the following work by "Seven Inch Stitch" entitled "I eat Fog" (a reference to one of the first works Lint published under his own name, rather than by the expedient of submitting stuff to Sci Fi publishers as 'Isaac Asimov' or 'Arthur C Clark'). It's closer to the Beach Boys in idiom and content than the famous and difficult to find acoustic (the term 'musical will not suffice) efforts of "The Energy Draining Church Bazaar". Still, it shows genuine admiration of Lint. We must assume that the "Jeff Lint" identified as a collaborator on this is someone else of the same name:

Lint: The Movie

The details of the production and scheduling of Jeff Lint: The Movie are foggy at best. Those non-waiters and mimophobes who are waiting expectantly can pass the time with the teaser trailers that have recently become available.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Exploiting gullible South Africans (BPSDB)

Over the past month or so I’ve published brief accounts of a series of what I’ve called mad ads. There’s a full list of links to the ones I’ve written up so far at the bottom of this article. These are mostly simple and naïve looking pamphlets handed out at traffic lights and stuffed into mail boxes. A few appear in the print media, and so far there’s also been one web site. All of them offer a range of treatments for genuine medical conditions (including diabetes, HIV infection, fertility, sexual function). Almost all offer to effect anatomical changes, including penis enlargement, vaginal reduction. A very high fraction claim to be able to help influence events in the world at large, including finding employment, finding love, achieving business success, winning court cases, preventing or effecting divorce, winning lotteries.

The supposed means of achieving this impressive range of services varies in detail, but is always some kind of mish-mash of divination and magical intervention, and often involves herbs.

I admit that these adverts are, to a critical and naturalist eye, pretty funny, which is part of why I scan them and write them up. The typos and spelling mistakes and bold claims are easy to laugh at. (‘Dr Raju’ apparently ‘has the power to sit on a crocodile & lion skin while floating on water and communicating with the dead’.) The clearly naïve presentation encourages finding this amusing.

This is also rather serious stuff. Almost all of the claims are close to guaranteed to be false. None of them are supported by anything that looks remotely like good evidence. For this reason I expect that most or all of them would be found to be in breach of advertising standards regulations in South Africa.

Even so, they keep on being produced and distributed. I’ve mostly described ones from Durban, which is where I live. But similar material can be found elsewhere in South Africa. It has been like this for some time. The most obvious explanation for this is that enough people are willing to pay for the bogus services. Why else would those who try to sell them keep on promoting them? How else could they afford to keep on advertising?

It would be surprising, therefore, if there weren’t some people with genuine and sometimes serious medical conditions (diabetes and HIV among them, damnit) who were wasting their time and money, and harming themselves, by responding to these adverts and being charged for rubbish instead of seeking proper medical care. That's not acceptable. It also seems likely that there are people wasting their time and money trying to get semi-magical solutions to problems at work, or in relationships, or in efforts to make money. These people are being shamefully exploited, and that’s not acceptable either.

I will, I promise, get around to reporting at least some of these adverts to the Advertising Standards Authority in South Africa, and I’ll report on the results of those reports. In the mean time, please keep on sending me additional examples, and try not to forget to be outraged as well as amused.

The list of mad ads (to date):

Professor Madu. I kid you not


The less awesome Dr Jadhu

Study in Brown

Dr Jose Buba - all the way from Mauritius

But still, they come: Dr Mama Hafisa & Dr Hashiraf...

The incredible 'Dr Maama Mzei Ndimungoma'

The amazing 'Dr Mama Simba'

The amazing 'Dr Raju'

Friday, October 2, 2009

Professor Madu. I kid you not

I've been collecting more mad ads for the current series, including a few print ads, which I'll scan and comment on soon. A big thank you to those who've sent me links and scans of additional examples. This one really is a cracker - spotted by a reader in Gauteng. It's also unusual in being a web-site. Yup, you can email this guy, and specify what spell you want casting.

And there's a pretty cool menu of spells. You can apparently make people marry you, or just be your Valentine. You can get luck, or be a 'Warlock Lover'. The 'Krakow Spell' will help you 'Become the master of your life and determine the course of your destiny!' which seems pretty cool. Obviously there's much more than this, including 'Aura cleansing', some 'Authentic Voodoo Spells' (clearly there's a worry about the efficacy of fake voodoo...), and the 'Black Curse Spell' that, because 'it can bring about horrendous times for the person to whom' it is directed, you are thoughtfully asked not to request 'unless it is absolutely necessary'. Not only can you, as always, get an enlarged schlong, the Professor will also help you get a 'more vascular look' for your member. If your intended is into veins or something. (Sings: "You're so vein...".)

There's loads more, including a startling biography of the good Professor, who, among other things, was 'anointed' by the 'gods of his fore father's ancestral powers' to 'heal and solve most of the problems and ailments that are failed to be healed by others doctors'. It's awesome, and it's all in delightful clunky web 0.6 style, with flashing stuff and lurid backgrounds, and bizarrely selected images.

You can check out the site here:

My favourite odd image on the site is the one at the top of this posting. Except it flashes

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Sorting Room

Steve Aylett is undoubtedly the best of the Jeff Lint impersonators currently stalking the earth. Here's an extract from "Only an alligator", volume 1 of a series called "Accomplice". It describes the misery of a group of individuals (not all human) who work in a basement facility called the sorting room. Chew on this, Max Weber:
It just kept coming, every day. Miscellaneous objects wrapped in paper and card. Magazines. Notes and forms full of writing. But none of it related to anyone here in the basement. Nothing was mentioned but strangers and their obscure affairs. Why were these objects turning up? What did it all mean? And what, above all, what was expected of them here?

They had devised a number of means of disposal. Some they burnt as they covered their faces with rags. Other stuff they tried to eat. The big objects they sculpted into an angular sentinel in a conical hat, which they pelted with cans until everyone became sort of embarassed and fell silent. Fang would stuff it all in a car boot and drive it over a cliff. Gregor had taken to baking the things in a high-tech ceramics kiln. He would remove the ingredients before the process was complete, and form this mush into a poultice for his arse. Near the cabinet was an open corner, a stale etheric fold gaping into seemingly bottomless space - this blot of shadow they called the Drop and it was invaluable, swallowing just about all the stuff they could dump there. But throughout they suspected that there was something more specific and important that they should be doing with it all, and sometimes, in private, they wept with the build-up of sheer, unspoken stress. At other times one of the group would go into a hysterical screaming jag at the unstoppable flow of stuff sliding down from the chute above. They never openly communicated their doubts. Inadequacy, depression and fear of discovery grained the gloomy air.
For more, you'll need to get hold of the books. A decent place to find out what they are is here, at

Friend Magnets

Quite some time ago I had a few postings about Roger Coghill, who sells magnets that are supposed to have various medicinal powers, spreads alarm about power lines, and offers a large prize for an experiment on a human infant, in his ethically alarming eponymous 'Challenge', a caper with no scientific merit. My mate Dave had one of those generically pointless correspondences with him, which are covered in the earlier postings. (And here.)

Dave now tells me that he's received a friend request, via Facebook, from one Roger Coghill. Torn between curiosity about what jollies might be found in the Dodger's status updates and posted items on the one hand, and lively aversion on the other, Dave asked Roger to 'jog his memory' since he couldn't seem to place him. I wonder what if anything will come in reply?

Anyway, here's the request:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lint? Or one more bastard?

I suspect this one of being an amatuerish piece of fakery.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dr Jose Buba - all the way from Mauritius

Here's one more mad ad before the week is done. I hope to set the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (see earlier post) on a few of these next week if I can find the time to prepare complaints.

This time we've got Dr. Jose Buba. Here's another guy who can apparently do divination with a 'mirror and water' (although unlike the good Dr. Raju he does not claim he can 'sit on a crocodile and lion skin while floating on water and communicating with the dead'). And he can supposely organise you the usual things like a large penis, a job, winning the lottery, not to mention less common services like treating epilepsy and sorting out any hassles you might have with "bewitched people".

Note, if you can be bothered to check out the small print, that this guy gets his leaflets printed by the same establishment as Dr Raju, and Dr Mama Simba, not to mention Dr Mama Hafisa & Dr Hashiraf and Dr Jadhu (and associates). This print shop is getting the lions share of the trade in quack flyers, at least the ones that have come to my attention. The phone numbers for the quacks are all different, though. And the indicated places of business differ too. So it seems as though the number of quacks is large, but for some reason they're using one print shop to do most of their work. I'd be interested to know more about what that is about...

Here are the two sides of the flyer - one in isiZulu, the other in English. Notice the AIDS ribbon in the top left corner of each version. (Larger versions display when you click on these ones.)


Not long ago I posted Study in Brown, noting some of the bold claims made about the services of one KS Brown, one of Durban's merry band of peddlers of services including supposed penis-enlarging personal problem solving. Those services were, like most of the competitors who I'm documenting in this series on mad ads, promoted by means of a fairly crudely designed pamphlet. (Many of the pamphlets are strikingly similar, a matter that deserves further investigation.) But KS Brown seems also to have an eye on a somewhat more upmarket crowd of gullible and supersititious types, as the bit of advertising below suggests. I also had it handed to me at a traffic intersection, but the original has the dimensions of a business card, it's printed on card (not low grade paper) and in full colour. Wow.

Otherwise it's pretty much the usual stuff - larger penises, treatment for chronic conditions, fixing relationships. All, of course, 'guaranteed'. And she or he will do 'ancestral problems'. Also, this one has a proper address. Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa here we come!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Advertising standards and mad ads

In one of my mad ads postings I mused about the state of advertising standards in South Africa. Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment sent me a link to a bit of good news. This is that the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa ruled against the makers of the herbal supplement Revivo, requiring that the product must be withdrawn in South Africa, because the advertising makes unsubstantiated claims that the product works as a treatment for HIV. You can read an article about the ruling on the website of the Treatment Action Campaign.

Apparently it is possible to complain by email. I suspect that the operators I've been publishing about are moving fast and light, and may change premises regularly, making it more difficult to deal with them than a formal business with a proper address. still, I'll try to find time to write in, and then post updates about what ever happens here. In the interim, I'll keep on scanning and posting mad ads, because they aren't running out just yet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The less awesome Dr Jadhu

After some of the recent mad ads in my series, I have to say Dr Jadhu is initially something of a disappointment. OK, he uses the title 'Dr', and claims guaranteed results, using 'spiritual powers and astrological charts'. But the list of promised therapies is rather short. No direct reference to enlarged penises, no specific mention of diabetes, AIDS, etc.

Then again, some of the more general claims are still rather impressive. For me "achieve and do whatever you want with the one you love" stands out. This compares rather favourably with the claim by Dr Mama Hafisa & Dr Hashiraf that they'll organise you a penis of "any size you want". And is actually very creepy indeed, given a moment's thought. (What about whatever the one you love might want?) I suppose if you get your monstrous member from the first lot, and your intended doesn't respond as you'd hoped, you head on down to Dr Jadhu's place to deprive them of any say in the matter. How very romantic. And 'Kings of Tokoloshe' would be a pretty good name for a band.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Study in Brown

So, maybe your penis is still too small. Maybe you have financial problems. You want a job, or to pass and exam. You might have AIDS complications. You need to win a court case, ovecome an enemy. Perhaps you want to go 'more rounds' during sex, or have more sexual power (hardness, and strength). You might be married, unmarried, or divorced, or getting divorced and want to switch to one of the others. You could be paralysed from a stroke. Or maybe you just have a cough, or swollen feet. (Or other things I can't be bothered to list.)

But don't worry. K S Brown, who interestingly does not use the title 'doctor' can help. With a belt, braces and who knows what combination of 'God, herbs and ancestors' offerring a range of 'guaranteed' services, including the '4 in 1 sexual gear', and they'll work within 3 to 7 days.

This pamphlet (handed to me at two different traffic intersections last week alone) arrives folded, so the first image below is the front and back cover, the second the inside. Click on images for larger versions.

This is the most recent in my mad ads series. If you see ones I haven't covered, as long as they're recent and from South Africa, please email me scans. Once the pile has grown enough I may stop this lazy blogging and write something considered about them.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

But still, they come: Dr Mama Hafisa & Dr Hashiraf...

I'm continuing with my series on mad ads for this or that spooky, pseudo-scientific or otherwise problematic adverts for services relating to health. Since I started I've run into the pamphlets of several practitioners who are new to me. A trip down town got me two new exhibits, handed out by people on the pavements. I don't know if I'm just noticing it more because I'm paying attention, but it still seems to me as though there's a bit of an upsurge in this kind of advertising.

I mean to make enquiries into what laws cover advertising, and if there are public bodies that it is possible to make complaints to. But I'm kinda busy, and only get to blagging late at night. So for now I'll just carry on scanning and posting the things for your delectation and amazement. The latest one is for the combined services of Dr Mama Hafisa & Dr Hashiraf. In many ways it's similar to the others, including the prominent focus on penis size, and sexual endurance, along with claims to assist with infidelity, court cases, and so forth. And of course the scandalous claim to help 'people with HIV'. The scans are below, and you can check the advert out and form your own opinion. I found a few features of this one especially striking:

First, the appearance of the crescent moon and star symbol of Islam. It seems as though there could be a niche market here, or subtle differences of style and emphasis in the quackery. It would take more than looking at the adverts to figure this out.

Second, the penis related claims are most impressive. Apparently these two can organise 'any size you want'. The typo infested sentence reading "Bring your Penis your Penis to us you will not regreat" inspires a strong version of the fear occasioned by a tattooist who can't spell, as well as raising the question of how you might visit without bringing your penis.

Third, the interventions that can supposedly help win court cases, etc., are herbal, and "100% natural". Boggle.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The incredible 'Dr Maama Mzei Ndimungoma'

Here's another in my 'mad ads' series. This follows earlier postings about The amazing 'Dr Raju', and the (also) amazing 'Dr Mama Simba'. Again, there are some interesting similarities in the services offered, including penis enlargement, crime prevention, court cases and treatment for diabetes and HIV/AIDS, although this one is a little more modest, insofar as there's no talk of a 'guarantee'. You'd think that if she could use super-powers to attract customers, there would be no need for advertising.

Here's the pamphlet, front and back. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The amazing 'Dr Mama Simba'

Not long ago I posted details of the pamphlets of a certain 'Dr Raju' and the remarkable claims made in them. There's more - in fact there are a few regular sources of these amazing adverts. Another that I receive junk from at least as often as from Dr Raju is 'Dr Mama Simba'. Here's the pamphlet (front and back) and then some sardonic comments.

So there's quite a bit of overlap here. Enlarging penises and shrinking vaginas for example. Not to mention assisting with career advancement and winning court cases, and managing the Tokoloshe. But there's some more conventional medical stuff here too, such as claims to help with diabetes, blood pressure, and (especially alarmingly) AIDS.

There's also the 100% guarantee. This is dreadful exploitative nonsense that in most cases is contingently very false: nothing has 100% effectiveness with any medical condition. And in some cases it's necessarily false, unless Dr Simba would honourably refuse to take the money of one side in a court case, having already rendered a service to the first. Perhaps we could do an experiment on this some time...

If you're in Durban, or elsewhere in SA, and have similar adverts please either email me, or if you've blogged them send me links - I'd like to keep on tracking this stuff.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Useful piece on nutrition, science and supplements

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry recently published a useful piece called 'Science and Pseudoscience in Adult Nutrition Research and Practice'. It's by Reynold Spector who has held professorships of medicine at Iowa, Stanford, and Harvard-MIT, and is presently a professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The piece discusses what we know about human nutrition (a lot), what we know about the value of supplements (in most cases we know it's little or nothing), and issues relating to who gains and who loses from the massive trade in diet related products, and the often unhelpful reporting and advertorial on these topics.

It's well worth a read, and a link, and being brandished in the face of a popular and pernicious kind of idiocy. Here's the piece: Science and Pseudoscience in Adult Nutrition Research and Practice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The amazing 'Dr Raju'

It could be difficult for people outside South Africa to appreciate the level of popular superstition, and the brazenness of those who exploit it. So I'm starting a little series, showcasing some of the advertising. First up one of the pamphlets promoting 'Dr Raju', who offers an impressive array of services including some top of the line divination, and medical interventions that will change physical proportions (making penises larger, and vaginas smaller, 'like a virgin'). Readers should note that the service comes with a 'guarantee' and includes offers to help at the 'Gambling Cassino' (sic). My favourite, though, is the assertion that the good doctor is able to 'sit on a crocodile and lion skin while floating on water and communicating with the dead'. I would totally pay ZAR200 (about USD 26) to see that.

Here's the front and back of the pamphet. I get these dropped into the mailbox where I live regularly (around once a month) and also get handed them at traffic lights, and find them generally lying about the place. Dr Raju is not the only such service provider - I'll follow up with other examples in the future.

Oh, and ... uh ... I seem to have recovered the will to blog. For a bit. Maybe.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bad Vibrations at UKZN

This posting is cross-posted at Intrepid Aardvark, which should be considered as its primary home. I've mostly put it here because I'm feeling a bit down about the low posting rate I've managed over the past few weeks. - Doc S.
Far too much pseudo-science and useless or harmful health 'interventions' huddle under the umbrella of 'alternative' medicine or 'alternative' healing. These 'alternatives' thrive in 'alternative' places (such as dubious 'societies' of homeopaths), and with 'alternative' people (exploitative weasels who market their products as 'nutritional supplements' precisely to avoid the standards applied to licensed medication).

Occasionally, though, the nonsense secures some kind of status at a formal research institution - one where proper science normally goes on. This status makes matters worse: it gives a veneer of respectability to dangerous rubbish, when alternative medicine should be robustly criticised and scientifically tested. When this happens, people who care about evidence and effectiveness should kick up a stink.

David Colquhoun has written several fine articles on this phenomenon in the press, and on his blog DC Science, where he also criticises the running (all too often the wronging) of universities. I've included links to a selection of his pieces on this topic near the end of this article.

Here at Intrepid Aardvark, we're going to keep an eye on instances of this in South Africa at least, and to the extent we can, in Africa at large. Here's the first installment.

A recent issue of UKZNOnline (an electronic brag-mag at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) includes an article enthusiastically reporting on a talk on 'body alignment as a healing strategy' presented to the university department of Physiotherapy.

The speaker was Mr Jeff Levin. Looking at his website I see
no evidence of any scientific training, but rather a worryingly long list of fields ("architect, nutripath, author, healer and pioneer in the world of energy medicine"). The webpage as a whole gives no indication of the existence of any rigorous trials, or peer-reviewed research. There's a typical list of testimonials and anecdotes but no sign of a randomised double-blind trial with a placebo condition. So no indication of meaningul evidence.

Jeff waffles; mostly about 'energy' including 'vibrational energy' and 'fields'. There's a description here.

The article in UKZN on-line burbles on enthusiastically about the waffle and the waffler. Levin, we are told, is "internationally renowned for his healing work." Levin, "demonstrated how electromagnetic influences caused by cell phones, electric devices such as tooth brushes, geopathic stress from earth grid lines and negative emotions, can shrink an individual’s energy field. In the same way, positive emotions and the creation of healing vortices can expand energy fields and promote healing."

Here's most of the rest of the article, with quotations from Levin:

"To maintain health the body must maintain optimal vibrational frequency. Any change in the ordered frequency of the body manifests as disease."

"The human energy system is powerfully affected by emotions and the level of spiritual balance. Negative emotional experiences become subconsciously locked into the body at a cellular level and contribute to the disease."

"Body alignment technique lifts the body’s vibrational frequency to its optimal level thereby relieving bodily manifestations of pain, fatigue, chronic and acute conditions and structural imbalance, as well as learning difficulties," said Mr Levin.

During his introductory talk, Mr Levin demonstrated the effectiveness of this modality in relieving pain using some volunteers. The responses were almost immediate to the astonishment of those involved.
It makes sense that Levin doesn't have much to say about evidence, because there's little if any evidence for anything he says, significant evidence against much of it, and the general framework is sharply at odds with some of the best established science from over 100 years ago. Among other things, it's quite clear that:

  • There's no good evidence at all of health disruptions from power grids. (And see this related article on 'magnet therapy' .
  • On alternative Chinese medicine, much of it also regularly talked about in terms of energy, Chi and other flim flam, see this piece.
  • There's a substantial body of science stretching well over 100 years on the conservation of energy, and the fact that the same small set of fundamental [note 1] forms of it are to be found in all systems whether living or not. There's no evidence for the kinds of gaps that would be needed for the woo-energy to fit in. For a recent short review, see here.
In endorsing this stuff, UKZN have scored an unfortunate own goal.

[note 1] That is, if you take 'fundamental' to mean strictly fundamental physics, then the number might be very small, even one, depending on how the unification of fundamental forces plays out.


Relevant articles in DC Science:

Quackery at Leicester
(with a little help from Human Resources)

The Salford 'MSc' in complementary meds, now dropped.

General problems with alternative medicine.

Westminister University (quackery central?).

Amethysts and 'yin energy' (with specific remarks on vibrations).

The Vacuous Energy Invoking Gambit

Defenders of this or that kind of pseudoscience can often be heard saying things like ‘everything is made of energy’ or ‘it’s all energy’. Or, more specifically, that their preferred brand of tosh should be taken seriously because it involves ‘a different kind of energy’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this, whether about crystal healing, or chi, or acupuncture, or reflexology. This cloud of smoke is supposed, it seems, to help. The sceptical naturalist is apparently expected to stagger back going ‘Egad! That’s true – energy is everywhere and very, very important, and so whatever mystical crud anybody likes probably really happens!’

Let’s call the nebulous appeal to ‘energy’ the Vacuous Energy Invoking Gambit (‘VEIG’, pronounced like ‘vague’). It’s nonsense. There are lots of reasons for this, and in this post I want to review a few of the ones that seem important to me, and say what follows from them. I’m indebted to my mate Dave for discussion of some of the historical issues. This posting is rather long for this blog, even though in a sense I’ve been brief: there’s a whole pile of science stacked up against loose energy talk, and this is no more than a tour of some of the highlights.

What I’ll say here is intended to complement articles by, among others, David Colquhoun on DC Science, including this. It’s useful to ask anyone deploying the VEIG to define energy, or say what units it is measured in. (And ask them to explain what it means that it’s the same units as work, and to say what the difference between energy and power is.) They generally don’t mean energy in any remotely rigorous sense, but rather as a metaphor for ‘oomph’ or ‘making stuff happen-ness’ and these metaphors can survive only in a near vacuum of accurate science.

Here I’ll focus on some aspects of the history of science, especially the conservation of energy, and say something about how that history places a burden of proof on anyone making claims about energy, which are supposed to refer to anything except kinds of energy found in all physical systems and already known to mainstream science.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries various experiments attempted either to find vital or otherwise spooky forces at work, or to test the hypothesis that in living and non-living systems the same small set of forces were conserved.

Earlier scientists had postulated additional forces to explain various phenomena, including forces of attraction and repulsion for electrostatics, magnetism and the cohesion of bodies; forces of irritability and sensibility to account for perception and other responses of living things to changes around them; forces to explain fermentation, the origin of micro-organisms, and chemical bonding. Some of these forces were found, including the forces described by Coulomb’s laws relating to charge and magnetic polarity. None of the non-physical ones, or the ones supposed to occur only in living things, were. Electricity is an interesting case: Galvani had supposed electricity to be a distinctively animal phenomenon (he stimulated parts of frogs with metal instruments leading to muscle action). This idea was widely taken seriously until Volta generated it with combinations of metals in a humid environment, and in the absence of animal tissue.

Alongside this work finding that living and non-living systems were interestingly alike, even where scientists had often supposed they were not, was a body work beginning to unify the physical treatment of force, work and energy. Important pieces of the puzzle included:
  • Faraday’s researches on electromagnetic induction, which also showed the unity of apparently different sorts of electricity (whether electrostatic, induced or from batteries),
  • Joule’s on the quantitative equivalence between heat and mechanical work,
  • Helmholtz’s on deriving the principle of conservation of the sum of kinetic and potential energy from rational mechanics, and relating to this principle to the work of Joule.
Helmholtz also referred speculatively (but being himself medically trained) to the possibility that conservation of energy applied to living systems. A great deal of experimental effort was spent on this possibility. Much of it involved different forms of calorimetry. A calorimeter measures the heat given off by a process. Different forms of calorimeter are distinguished, among other things, by how they accomplish this, and what other sorts of measurement of the process (what it emits, for example) they also permit.

Boyle’s air-pump experiments had shown air to be essential to life and flame alike. Lavoisier and Laplace designed the ice calorimeter, which permitted measurements of heat produced against carbon dioxide emitted by a living creature. Comparison of the results for flames and life led Lavoisier to conclude that respiration was a form of combustion, obeying the same conservation constraints. It was also discovered that muscular action involved the consumption of oxygen and the emission of carbon dioxide, suggesting a further relation to respiration, and providing further evidence of conservation. Leibig, who did some of the key experimental work in this area, mistakenly expected that matter rather than energy is conserved in respiration. This view was not refuted until the work of Frankland, who performed detailed experiments establishing the energy gained from the consumption of specific foodstuffs. (See the image below, from Coleman 1987, page 136 - a figure from Frankland 1866. Click on the image for larger version.)

Further research required different tools. Regnault and Rieset introduced the respiratory calorimeter, which enabled accurate measurements of the consumption and emission of gases by the processes in the calorimeter, in 1849. Late in the century Rubner combined the ice and respiratory calorimeters further to investigate the applicability of the principle of conservation of energy (of known types) to biological systems. His emphatic conclusion (some individual experiments lasted over a month) was that:
Not a single isolated datum chosen at will out of all of these experimental results can leave us in any doubt that the exclusive source of heat in warm-blooded animals is to be sought in the liberation of forces from the energy supply of the nutritive materials (in Coleman 1977, 142).
Complementary enquiries refuted specific claims for peculiarly biological causal principles to explain this or that phenomenon. Among the highlights of this research are the following:
  • In 1828 Wöhler produced urea in the laboratory, a result that Shlick later suggested “refuted once and for all the doctrine that the synthesis of organic compounds requires a special force” (Shlick (1953, p. 524).
  • In 1897 Buchner successfully isolated an enzyme from yeast, and showed that it promoted fermentation in the absence of any cells. So Pasteur was wrong (about the requirement of living cells for fermentation) and the theory of the chemical catalyst had been vindicated.
Coleman notes that by 1897 Bernard was able to state confidently that:
…there are not two chemistries or two physics, the one applicable to living creatures and the other to inert bodies; rather there are general laws applicable to all substances[s], however [they] might be disposed, and these laws admit of no exception (in Coleman 1977, 126).
For a while chemistry was a striking exception to this trend. Although various chemical regularities had been discovered, there was no serious contender for an explanation of chemical bonding in terms of fundamental physical processes, and the possibility that there were as yet unknown chemical forces was taken seriously by leading scientists. The philosopher Broad referred to chemistry as the ‘most plausible’ candidate for an ‘example of emergent behaviour’ (Broad 1925, p. 65). Chemistry did not remain an exception, though. Following a series of important advances by Thomson, Rutherford and others, Bohr successfully constructed, first, a dynamical model of the hydrogen atom, then of heavier atoms, and finally aspects of the structure of the periodic table (see Pais 1991, pp. 146-152). A key measure of Bohr’s success was deriving good fits to the hitherto descriptive Balmer formula for the emission spectra of hydrogen and some other simple elements from his model. A physical theory of chemical bonding had been developed, and while it did not apply readily to all molecules, or indeed all atoms, it did dispose of the view that chemical phenomena involved distinct non-physical forces or forms of influence.

The upshot of all this work, and much more along the same lines, is to establish a very strong burden of argument on anyone wanting to make empirical claims about any kind of energy that isn’t one of the set recognised and measured by mainstream science. People who play the VEIG have some work to do. It’s not enough simply to say that the putative phenomenon relies on ‘energy’ or involves a ‘different kind’ of energy. There’s plenty of reason to think that there are very few kinds of energy, that they obey specific conservation principles, and there are no distinctively different ones (‘chi’) in living systems. There’s no direct evidence for the existence of any kinds of work and energy besides basic physical ones (mechanical, electrostatic) and much of the same evidence regarding conservation of known kinds of energy indicates clearly that there are no gaps where such woo-energy might hide.

So, woo-promoters, stop being VEIG, and let’s see some real measurements. Seriously, show that acupuncture in a calorimeter violates energy conservation assuming only established forces and forms of work, or explain how the known energy in food is converted into ‘chi’, and how fiddling about with needles has anything to do with it. Show us equations and non-bogus experiments. Or fuck off.

Selected references

Broad, C. D. 1925. The Mind and Its Place in Nature, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Coleman, W. 1977. Biology in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schlick, M. 1953. ‘Philosophy of Organic Life’, in H. Feigl and M. Brodbeck (eds.) Readings in the Philosophy of Science, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., pp. 523-536.

Pais, A. 1991. Neils Bohr’s Times, in Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, Oxford: Clarendon.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Encephalon #64

The latest issue of Encephalon (a neuroscience and psychology blog carnival) is out at Neurocritic, and it's really a very fine piece of work. Check it out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Muppet chickens and Kubrick

Someone somewhere (I didn't bother to check) made a version of the chickens from The Muppets doing the Blue Danube Waltz. Someone else figured it would be a good idea to lay this over the famous sequence using that music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Who am I to argue?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dead or Alive? Knowledge about a Sibling’s Death Varies by Genetic Relatedness in a Modern Society

ResearchBlogging.orgHappy Birthday, Charles Darwin! This piece is a modest contribution to a large scale blog love-in that I mentioned in an earlier posting. It's about a recent study by Thomas Pollet and Daniel Nettle driven by a simple hypothesis about genetic relatedness, and how this might make a difference to what people know about other people. Specifically, it was hypothesised that individuals would be more likely to know whether a related sibling was alive or no. Here's the abstract:
Using a large sample of non-institutionalized individuals from the Netherlands
(n = 7610), we examined the influence of relatedness on an individual’s knowledge about whether their sibling is alive or not. Respondents were generally less likely to know whether their sibling was alive if they were not fully related. The effects were stronger for differences between paternal half-siblings and full siblings than for differences between maternal half-siblings and full siblings.
Hamilton (1964) argued that selection should favour investment in closely related kin, and this hypothesis has been largely confirmed in a wide variety of studies. A reasonable precondition for investing in someone is knowing whether they are alive or dead, and so whether someone has this knowledge is a plausible proxy for openness to investment. More specifically the authors say "Our hypothesis is that respondents will be more likely to know whether a sibling is alive when they are fully related than when they are not."

This study is part of a larger, ongoing, study of kinship in the Netherlands (the Netherlands Kinship Panel Study (NKPS)). For the present research "respondents [were] asked to list all their siblings (adopted, step, half- and full siblings) and to indicate whether they know whether this sibling is alive or not".

As the authors note, an alternative view is that levels of affiliation and dispostion to invest might follow development, in particular who was around when an individual grows up. "This proximate theory would suggest that relatedness in most families is confounded with being raised together." They proposed to track this confound by distinguishing both paternal half-siblings (who are generally raised apart) with full siblings and maternal half-siblings (who are generally raised together) with full siblings. The study excluded adopted siblings because there were so few in the study. (It would be interesting to know more here, but a specific study would probably be needed to ensure enough adopted individuals for useful analysis.)

Data analysis considered up to the first six siblings, and controlled for "education (9 categories: from incomplete/primary to university/postgraduate; treated as interval), age, age differences between the siblings, gender of the respondent, and number of family transitions before age of 16" where a "family transition" was "an alteration in the respondent’s family living situation since birth, for instance going to live with grandparents or with another family member". The analysis constructed multinomial logistic regression models to calculate the "independent effect of sibling type on knowledge about the sibling’s death". I was surprised to hear that over 1200 of the subjects (total number 7610) even had as many as six siblings.

Figure 1 below shows the raw proportion of respondents who did not know whether a sibling was alive or dead as a function of sibling type and number.

The analysis using the regression models showed that across "all six models, sibling type proves to be a highly significant predictor of knowledge about a sibling’s death [...]. The other variables did not prove consistent predictors." And the predictive value of sibling type is dramatic: "respondents are 25.75 times more likely to not know whether their sibling 1 is alive when" that sibling is a step-sibling than when he/she is a full sibling (emphasis added).

The authors are careful to note that their hypothesis concerned ultimate outcomes, rather than proximate mechanisms. It's an interesting question by what means relatedness is tracked, and to what extent it depends on epigenetic factors. Surprisingly the authors don't mention a study published in 2007 in Nature regarding sibling detection. That paper is well worth a look - it doesn't settle the questions here, partly because the proposed system is partly dependent on observed interactions with mothers, and duration of coresidence with candidate 'siblings', but it should have been discussed. Also, the conclusion of the Nature paper is worth quoting in this celebratory article:

"These results contribute to a growing body of findings showing that humans are not immune to the evolutionary forces that have shaped other species, and that Darwinism has a central role in discovering the neural and psychological architecture of our species."


Hamilton, W.D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour I, II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1-52.

Lieberman, D., Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2007) The architecture of human kin detection, Nature 445, 727-731.

Thomas V. Pollet, Daniel Nettle (2009). Dead or Alive? Knowledge about a Sibling’s Death Varies by Genetic
Relatedness in a Modern Society Evolutionary Psychology, 7 (1), 57-65 DOI:

Monday, February 9, 2009

Comparative Mind Database

There's a possibly cool project in the offing to create a Comparative Mind Database. My mate Dave's mate Wayne has written some useful thoughts on the challenges facing such an endeavour over at his blog. Wayne's right - there are some tricky questions. I think his list is pretty good, but would add a concern that isn't specifically related to design, but to the economics of the affair.

If it takes work (over and above what can be automated) to get research reflected in the CMD, which it will, then it has, as far as possible, to be in the interests of the people doing the science to do the work. That pretty much has to mean that the payoff in terms of impact for work already done and quality of ongoing work should be greater than the cost, over some acceptable time scale.

Bill Gates TED talk

Here's Bill Gates, talking about mosquitoes and the problem of creating great teachers. Both big issues.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mini blag roundup

I've been a bit slow blagging for a week or two (not counting today). I'm not heading for another prolonged layoff, and I haven't been incapacitated with digrizfizzes. I've just been pre-occupied with various affairs in meatspace. Also I've been semi-working on a few pieces that are taking longer than expected.

To help fill the dead air, here's a roundup of a few things I've read that are well worth looking at.

First, over at Not Exactly Rocket Science (a fine blog if you don't know it) you'll find the following:

(1) A good write up of an interesting and careful study showing how self-reported race classification was sensitive to changing socio-economic status.

(2) A good, if ultimately rather depressing, piece on how 'absolutists' are less capable of rational compromise, although more responsive to symbolic incentives.

(3) A very interesting piece on a genetic variation that is associated with different levels of aggression in response to perceived provocation. [This Achewood on Morally Challenging Hot Sauce is more relevant that you might think until you read the aggression article.]

Then at the British Psychological Society Research Digest (also a good one to keep an eye on) are these:

(1) An account of a study of the rhetoric of the (far right) British National Party, and how it's like a conspiracy theory.

(2) A study confirming that you really do spend more when using credit than you do with cash, and when you're sad. Cash/Credit study (sad)

(3) A very interesting study finding that training in face discrimination reduces magnitude of the effect on the race Implicit Association Test (IAT):

And finally over at Epiphenom, a report of a study showing that spiritual guidance actually reduces success in substance abuse treatment.

Construal Level and Procrastination

Here's a study that's got a bit of attention, including at The Economist, at intellectual vanities and at Psychology Today. The paper found that the degree to which a task was construed abstractly made a difference to the level of procrastination: more abstract meant more procrastination.

You can currently get the paper at website the first author (Sean M. McCrea) here.

This is the full abstract:
According to construal-level theory, events that are distant in time tend to be represented more abstractly than are events that are close in time. This mental association between level of abstractness and temporal distance is proposed to be a bidirectional relationship, such that level of representation of an event should also have effects on the time when the activity is performed. In the present studies, participants were asked to respond to a questionnaire via e-mail within 3 weeks. The questionnaire was designed to induce either an abstract or a concrete construal. Using a variety of manipulations of construal level, the studies supported the predictions of construal-level theory. Individuals were less likely to procrastinate performing the task when the questionnaire induced a more concrete construal. Furthermore, this effect did not depend on the attractiveness, importance, or perceived difficulty of the task.
Based on a body of previous research suggesting among other things that events in the distant future are more likely to be represented abstractly (and vice-versa), and that concrete construals lead to better task performance, the authors hypothesised that "forming a concrete representation of a task will reduce procrastination, independently of any effects of planning or understanding of the task."

There were three complementary experiments, all using subjects who were students at the University of Konstanz. In all cases students had a questionnaire (about various tasks) to complete and return by email. In all cases they rated the importance, difficulty, pleasantness, convenience and interest of the tasks In all cases the number of hours taken to return the questionnaire (there was a deadline) was recorded (there was also a coding system for 'early', 'on time', 'late' and 'not returned' for an additional analysis). Subjects were randomly assigned to the abstract or concrete condition in each experiment.

There were also some differences between the three experiments.

In experiment 1 the questionnaire itself included either abstract or concrete demands relating to the same generic tasks ("open a bank account"). The abstract condition required participants to describe "what characteristics are implied" by the activity, in the concrete condition the demand was to say something about how to go about the task.

Experiment 2 was much the same, except that the abstract task required providing categories ("A bird is a _______" while the concrete task required providing examples ("A bird is an example of a _______").

Experiment 3 was designed to address a risk that, despite the inclusion of difficulty and other ratings, any difference in return times in experiments 1 or 2 was related to something other than the abstract/concrete construals. Here all subjects completed the very same questionnaire, but half were primed concretely and half abstractly. The prime was a colour print of Seurat's 'La Parade' (detail from it here), with subjects either told something about the technique of pointillism (concrete) or the desired effect (abstract).

One way of looking at the bottom line of the results (there are several analyses in the paper) is to look at the response times for the three experiments:
Experiment 1:
Concrete: 175.78 hours
Abstract: 503.85 hours

Experiment 2:
Concrete: 301.76 hours
Abstract: 532.20 hours

Experiment 3:
Concrete: 338.75 hours
Abstract: 491.29 hours
As the authors note this is a significant addition to our understanding of procrastination. It's been known for some time that factors such as delay discounting are important for explaining procrastination, but this shows in addition that "the way the task is represented influences when individuals complete it."

This is important, and possibly useful. Maybe some of my mate Dave's more tardy grad students would find it helpful if they thought in more concrete terms about their overdue work ("write 500 decent words a day") instead of being distracted by hopeless tasks that happen to have vivid concrete descriptions ("read the whole internet"). Are you reading this, punks?

Finally, all discussion of procrastination should include a look at John Perry's fabulous essay on structured procrastination.
Sean M. McCrea, Nira Liberman, Yaacov Trope, Steven J. Sherman (2008). Construal Level and Procrastination Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1308-1314 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02240.x