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.