Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Aldi's Bargain Basement Bullshit

I am incapable of going on a shopping trip to an Aldi or Lidl store without checking out the weekly 'special offers'. I appreciate the efforts to have themed catalogues of 'fishing', 'camping', or 'world cup', but more often than not, the stores are filled with a mishmash of unrelated paraphernalia ranging from media-centre PCs to electric dog-bowl warmers.

On my most recent trip to my local Aldi, I observed the following on sale for €2.75 or so:

The ACU-STRAP morning & motion sickness band!  No drugs? Non drowsy? Sounds fantastic!

Let's investigate a little. What does this product do?
Stop travel sickness before it starts! The Acu-Strap uses the science of acupressure to alleviate the nausea of Morning Sickness, Travel Sickness, Anesthia and Chemotherapy. [Source]
Neat! The "science of acupressure". What is "acupressure"? Well, it works on the same principles of acupuncture - applying pressure to parts of your body to trigger a self-healing effect. After some investigation, it seems that while the proponents agree that acupressure works, few of the believers seem to agree on what the actual mechanism at work is, or even agree on how to map out the pressure points on the body. How very curious.

Skeptical Neuroscientist Steven Novella wrote a piece called "Why I am Skeptical of Acupuncture", and any sensible person who takes the time to read it ought to agree with him, so allow me to quickly copy and paste the five headings he uses to focus his undermining of this ancient chinese practice:

1) Acupuncture is a pre-scientific superstition
2) Acupuncture lacks a plausible mechanism
3) Claims for efficacy are often based upon a bait-and-switch deception.
4) Clinical trials show that acupuncture does not work

Okay, so acu-puncture/pressure doesn't work, but what's the harm? What's the harm in charging people €3 to wear a piece of cloth with a plastic nipple and enjoy a relatively cheap placebo effect?

Forgive the 'slippery-slope' mentality, but I can only see it as a negative that something so stupid is available so cheap on the mass market. This moronic fashion statement is a conversation-starter, and over countless coffees across Ireland, credulous nitwits will hear their friends rave about their magic wrist-bands that cured their nausea, as they regurgitate the pseudo-science about 'acupressure' and contribute to the growing number of people who are turning away from science-based medicine and embracing flashing lights, ritualistic practices, and other expensive (and dangerous) wastes of time, when genuine medical intervention means the difference between life and death.

I entirely expect that the vast majority of people who use this product will realise that it's a piece of junk as soon as they stop to consider that there's no instructions in the packaging telling them how to position the "scientific" acu-pressure nipple they just purchased, and that their nausea and vomiting hasn't taken the slightest hit. All the same, I worry for the ninnies (won't somebody please think of the ninnies!). The people who persevere with this piece of crap because they see that the box says to "Stop travel sickness before it starts!", so they wear the band constantly to keep the threat at bay. It's cheaper than buying medicine or going to the doctor, so if it doesn't work, just keep adjusting it until it hits the sweet spot!

I fired off an e-mail to Acu-Life, posing as a customer seeking advice on how to wear the band. This is the response I got:

I am not familiar with the Acu-Strap wristband... I am not sure there is any simple remedy for morning sickness. Generally, it passes after the first 3 months of pregnancy.

The Acu-Life strategy:

  1. Remove references to shitty product from website.
  2. Deny existence of shitty product.
  3. Sell remaining stock to Aldi for quick hocking.
  4. Profit!

Remember, reading Sully's blog keeps Rheumatism and Gout, Lumbago, Sciatica, and Arthritis at bay, and balances the body's four humors! If you stop reading now, it could be fatal.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Much ado about fadas

Part of the problem with being a pretentious prick is when technology obstinately reminds you that you’re a knob, and punishes you for it:

'Seÿffffffffffe1n' over e-mail, but 'Sully' to my friends

My name is Seán. Not Shaun, or Shawn, and certainly not Sean. It's Seán.

I’m not sure when exactly I decided that rendering my name “Seán” without the fada over the “a” was wrong, but I suspect that I became more insistent about it during the time I spent in the States, as I tried to impress upon the local ladies of Pittsburgh that I was interesting and exotic (“You have an accent? That’s hot. We should make out”).

It’s likely that I’m a stickler for the fada because Seán is such a common name on the Emerald Isle (in both senses of the word). I figure being one of the breed who is fussy about having it included separates me somewhat from those who don’t care (and those who insist on its omission).

It's not an unreasonable insistence – it's only people from Ireland that are expected to know about the sanctity of the fada. If I’m asked to spell my name by a person who sounds like a paddy, I’ll tell them “S, E, A, fada N”, and listen for the derisive light scoff. I don’t expect non-nationals to ‘get’ the fada, so I don’t subject them to it unless they bring up how wrong my name looks written down (a Polish colleague refers to me as ‘Soen’ in all e-mail correspondence, and it’s starting to grow on me.)

While I'm keenly aware that not everybody should know what to do with the fada, I've yet to get it through my thick skull that websites will often freak out when I spell my name the "right" way. When flying from New York to Pittsburgh, I suffered unnecessary delays because my boarding pass said "Se n". Being exceptionally slow to learn, a month later I got a boarding pass that said "Sen". Rather than fixing the root cause of the problem, I just got better at giving bitesize explanations for the fada and how computers don't like it. (I mentioned the 'Sen' thing back in February 2007)

As my garbled name in the screenshot above attests, putting a fada into an online form is a bit of a gamble, as there's no telling what will come out on the other side. A messy e-mail header is harmless enough, but when the bouquet of roses I sent my ladyfriend from came with a lovely note signed by somebody called "Se??????n", I felt it spoiled the sentiment somewhat.

After giving my (US-based) girlfriend some casual abuse over her 'inability' to spell my name correctly online, she jumped on the fada bandwagon. Including the fada is a cinch on Irish / UK keyboards [just hold down the Alt-Gr key when pressing a vowel], but US keyboards lack this functionality. It turned out that every time she wanted to casually mention my name in an e-mail that I would never see, she would have to go to my Facebook profile and copy/paste the troublesome character, or use the 'insert symbol' feature on Word.

Until I had to send an e-mail to a lecturer with a US-keyboard, I never truly appreciated what a pain in the arse this was, and despite my repeated insistences that I'm reformed and no longer demand to see the 'a' in my name wearing its proper headdress, she and a few of my close friends go to the bother anyway, in a uniquely touching display of my monomania taking precedence over their convenience.

I'm a little torn on this whole 'fada' business. As a pedant, I want things to be done right, but I appreciate that something of such little import should scarcely warrant a moment's thought, let alone an anguished blog entry. I know that more often than not, using a fada online is throwing a spanner in the works, but shouldn't web developers have adapted to their world-wide-userbase by now? It's tough enough for us Irish folk on the Internet ("Come on now Seœ∂fµn", the websites condescend to me, "every developed nation in the world has a postal code, just fill yours in and we can both get on with our day"). Shouldn't we Irish be able to enjoy the small dignity of being able to spell one's name as it's intended?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Clogged Razors and Crying Girlfriends: A Memoir

My grandfather died last month. I tried blogging about it, but couldn't quite find the right angle that fits my style, and instead of finding a way to address it, I just put off blogging altogether. When I've got writer's block, I open up my folder of stupid little posts that I started writing but never bothered to finish, and today I figured I'd post one. It's a little goofy, but I enjoyed reading it, so please enjoy this bizarre piece of writing from two years ago:


Apologies are in due for the lack of updates lately, but you see, I’ve been doing some soul-searching these past two weeks or so. The source of all my neuroses, anger and aggression has been located and diffused. I’m a changed man.

On Saturday, the seventh of June 2008, something amazing happened. But first; some context.

I’m a hairy man. Always have been. My mother had the first inklings, as she reported “a strange tickling sensation” as she brought be into the world. Growing up as a child, the school bully would exclude me from the pink-belly sessions that the other children dreaded, as the thick coating over my abdomen made dealing out the punishment more of a chore than it was worth.

For years, my mother brought me to specialists in order to curb the rampant growth of hair on my body. The local priest would show up once a week to bless the bathtub so I could immerse myself in holy water, but it was to no avail. The parish bishop pulled some springs and arranged an exorcism, which succeeded only in making me wet the bed. Prayer vigils were held across the nation by good-natured nuns who spread the word of the hairy-lad in Limerick who was relying on the grace of God to remould him in His image, as per the scriptures.

Finally, my mother found solace from a kindly biologist who proffered that my condition was part of the evolutionary process – I was a prototype for extreme-cold enduring homo sapiens, and I had been honoured by my creator. I myself found this to be a huge comfort, and it enabled me to experience a normal childhood, one no longer marred by my mother’s constant appeals to higher powers to heal my accursed flesh.

During my primary-school years, my condition may have worked to my advantage, as it only took a few shears, some glue, and a willing 12 year old to create a rather convincing looking bearded-dwarf who could buy booze without much hassle.

On holidays, I would enjoy massive popularity, as young children would cling to my body-hair in the swimming pool, and have me ferry them into the deep end. I still remember the magical Summer of 2000, when I learned the only phrase I’ve ever needed in Spanish: “Por favor, sea amable en mis pezones” [“Please, be gentle on my nipples”].

Of course, once I became of age and decided I’d enjoy the company of a girlfriend, things got difficult yet again. Teenage discos were a particularly unhappy time for me. To compound the aesthetic problems that quiffs of hair clamouring around my shirt buttons caused, the insulation provided by the body hair also caused me to sweat profusely when dancing. As an evolutionary experiment, it seemed I was doomed to fail, as my genes would never be propagated.

I soldiered on valiantly, but the fears amplified as I became more clued in as to what exactly one is expected to do with a girlfriend – would I ever find one willing to put up with full-body beard-rash?

I developed a rather sophisticated strategy to get on in life, and I took to preying on drunken girls who majored in social-work, knowing that their charitable streak would likely compel them to put up with me for weeks after the first awkward, inebriated encounter. My relationships would stumble along in a begrudging fashion, where my girlfriends would speak plenty about how ‘looks aren’t important to me’ in an attempt to convince themselves, until the inevitable night that I’d be roused from my slumber by the familiar sounds of a sobbing girl and the spluttering of an electric razor bested by my dense locks.

In October 2006, when I was living in Pittsburgh, the cycle began anew with a social-work major from Wisconsin. Over the following weeks, I waited for the signs that her tolerance was cracking so I could begin building a new casefile and moving on, but curiously, she seemed to find my vulgar personality a more pressing matter than my overly follicled torso. In an attempt to distract her away from my hideousness, I let her invest her efforts into correcting the errors of my ways, knowing that the strenuousness of this impossible task would irreparably subvert one’s ability to relate to into mainstream conventions.

With some brilliant maneuvering, I spent almost two years hiding what I was from my girlfriend, by conspiring never to be seen with my shirt off in a well lit room, and convincing her that I was wearing a coarse woolly jumper whenever she brushed up against me in the dark. These efforts kept her from fully appreciating the dearth of bare skin on my body as she continued her project of rewiring my brain.

While this dastardly ‘relationship hack’ would work within our little bubble, I lived in fear of the day when her eyes would be opened to the monster she was consorting with.

That day finally came without warning.

I had agreed to go on a double date to Six Flags Great America, figuring that a loud theme park would be a great opportunity to hide in plain sight. The morning we were due to leave, I observed her packing a bag.

“What do you need your swimsuit for?” I asked nervously.

“We’re going to Six Flags!” she replied in her chipper fashion.

“Six Flags, where we go to ride rollercoasters and consume over-priced snacks?”

“Yeah. But there’s a great water park there too”.

I swallowed hard. There was a water park? The gig was up. There was no point trying to hide it now. I could imagine the horrified looks on her friends’ faces. The suppressed titters in the queues. The teasing chants of the kids. And the Mexicans. Oh God those Mexicans. “¡Dios mío! ¡El pelo diablo!”

Hours later, as we plodded through the amusement park, lining up for hours in the obscene heat to experience 60-second thrills, the banter kept coming back to the water park, and what a treat it would be when we finally got to go for a dip.

After hours of enduring the cruel heat, the time came to go for a swim. I gave my girlfriend a quick goodbye hug and walked towards the changing room. Just before disappearing into the doorway, I looked over my shoulder at her. She was looking at me, wearing a big, dumb, oblivious smile that was still directed at me.

I had been getting on quite well with my male counterpart over the course of our couples-date, right up to the point we walked into the changing area and went into our respective stalls. Little did I know it, but that would be the last time he would be able to look me in the eye. Once I came out the other side of that door, his gaze was constantly distracted, and his warmth and ease of conversation evaporated, and we continued with stilted spurts of small-talk for the rest of the evening. Offending the eyes of this new acquaintance was a mere dress rehearsal for what was to come: it was time to throw away another relationship and enjoy the awkward two hour drive home.

The colour drained out of my world with each step I took towards the meeting point, as my new-friend flanked me by a good six feet to avoid association. I trudged along, looking at the shadow that stretched out in front of me, observing the outlines of my fur rustling in the breeze. I could sense that my girlfriend was nearby, but I hesitated until I was a few paces away before I looked up at her. And there she was, still wearing that big, dumb, oblivious smile.

As it turns out, she doesn’t swim with her contact lenses in.