Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Bullshit Bus rolls into Limerick

Every May Bank Holiday weekend, Limerick hosts 'Riverfest', consisting of open air concerts, firework displays, and markets hocking exotic goods and foods from around the globe. The main timesink is the market, where shoppers can traipse down the uncomfortably narrow road, browsing the stalls and taking in smells and tastes from across the globe. French, Italian and Chinese cuisines and desserts are all within a crepe's throw, in what must be a dream come true for all of those quixotic suburb-dwellers yearning for a more exotic life in some distant locale.

I was there this morning, and while pushing my way through the throng to score some oriental noodles, I noticed a stall set up hocking Power Balance bracelets (and a cheaper non-brand alternative). I've heard of these before, so I decided to take a look:

The box enthuses "As worn by Celebrities & Athletes!"
Power Balance bracelets are silicon wristbands with holographic stickers attached. Sounds like a cute fashion accessory, doesn't it? They cost $29.95 on the company website. What could justify such a price? They sprinkled in some bullshit. These are not mere adornments, Power Balance claims, these are a performance-enhancing tool!

Let's read the display:

So many alarm bells go off when you think about what this notice says. Let's ignore the drivel about this thing reacting "positively with your body's naturally occurring and ever-flowing energy fields", because this is patently wrong. Have a look at the empty promises of improving "Balance, Flexibility, Strength, and general Wellbeing". These are not empirically measured metrics, and "Wellbeing" is a term that snake-oil peddlers use when they can't make direct health benefits, so that can be immediately dismissed.

Your humble blogger, handling bullshit with his bare hands
Let's take a moment, dear reader, to look at the underhand way that "professional sportsmen" have endorsed this product. Luminaries such as David Beckham, Ronaldo, Shaquille O'Neal, and Linford Christie are listed as having "experienced the benefit of Power Balance". Experienced? As in someone accosted them with a bracelet as they politely tried to excuse themselves? That counts as an 'experience', but not one that they're necessarily championing. This non-endorsement however, could be enough to get some hero-worshipper to cross the line and part with €30 to get one step closer to his idol.

The guys peddling these bracelets have some serious nuts. Just have a look at EFX, who saw Power Balance charging a 30,000% markup on a 10c silicon bracelet and decided to get a cut of the action, but with a harder-sell:

"Try before you buy" it exhorts! Stand on one leg and have someone (more than likely the vendor, let's face it) push on your wrist until you fall over! Then put on the magic bracelet and repeat the procedure! This is science! There are so many things wrong with this 'trial' that I'd rather not expend the energy on it. The only truthful statement on this packaging is that it poses a choking hazard to children.

It's no surprise that something like this would be at a market. Far be it from me to opine on subjects in which I have no expertise, but I have pigeonholes into which I place people who seek out such bullshit. Cosmopolitan types who make a habit of going to markets to procure produce at inflated prices for the sake of not engaging in a more conventional corporate environment are the kinds of people who buy into the bunkum like alternative medicine, because they're 'alternative'. These are the belief networks that promulgate fear of western medicine and propagate rubbish that muddies the water about safe, important procedures, like vaccines. These people are dangerous in a rather subtle way.

Power Bracelets are an Australian Export, and thanks to the efforts of some Australian sceptics, they recently admitted to their lies:

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.
We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.
If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.
When I was at the stall this morning, I picked up the bracelet with a chortle and started telling my friend about the specious claims they were caught out on. The attendant kept her distance. It's possible she was aware of the high-profile fall-from grace that Power Balance had suffered. Had my initial reaction been any different, I reckon she'd have offered to test my balance.

[A scientific breakdown of the claims made by Power Balance are available on Skeptic Blog]

Friday, April 29, 2011

Me and My Kindle 3: After the honeymoon

I've been using my Kindle 3 regularly for three months now, and I've already posted my initial impressions, but as I continue to pick up on tips and tricks, I figure it's only right to pass them on.

When I travel to the states, my smartphone becomes a dumbphone unless I want to pay Vodafone's extortionate fees:

€30 a day for 50MB? It takes a serious set of cojones to call this "Great Value"

This, of course, is totally unfeasible. Since I paid the extra $50 for the 3G model, I get "free" worldwide wireless internet through my Kindle. I was aware of how limited and clumsy the browser was before I made the purchase, but I figured that janky web browsing is better than none at all.

Facebook is fine for whiling away a few minutes in an airport terminal, but the browser makes it a chore. Likewise, pecking out e-mails in Gmail is more of a pain than it ought to be with the Kindle's Qwerty keyboard, but it's good to know that if there's something that requires an immediate reply, I won't be off the grid when I have my Kindle with me.

The true revelation came when I accessed Google Reader - I didn't consider that it would be a viable alternative to a native RSS reader, but it works quite elegantly. The keyboard shortcuts work (press 'f' to get full-screen, 'j'/'k' for previous/next), and the text is very comfortable once you crank it up to 125%.

There are a few shortcomings. Naturally, the pictures will be grayscale, and flash content won't load, so you won't be watching videos or playing games, but you shouldn't have expected that anyhow. Since the browser doesn't support multiple tabs or windows, it will scold you for trying to click on an external link on the desktop-version. If you're intending on reading through RSS feeds that only give the first paragraph, you'll need to fire up the mobile version ( to successfully navigate away from the current page.

Don't want to see this? Load 
This might not sound ideal, but with a very slight amount of effort, your Kindle becomes a self-updating newspaper and magazine of sorts, which I find very exciting (and much more palatable than paying a few dollars to subscribe to a blog that's normally free). It reminds me of a futuristic sci-fi movie I saw aeons ago that showed old men reading electronic newspapers that automatically updated. Realizing you're holding a piece of the future you once dreamed about is a thrill for any person.

Since a lot of my enthusiasm stems from how this purchase saves me from spending money to entertain myself, I should mention that Google Voice works through the Kindle browser. Setting up a Google Voice number is a little awkward if you don't live in the States, but once you have it, you can use any web-connected device to send and receive texts. This was a bit of a relief during my sojourn abroad, as I knew that if the plan changed, I'd be able to send and receive text messages and figure out a Plan B without having to spend a fortune in roaming charges.

Free texts to the US? Don't mind if I do!

As far as usability goes, it does sting to have to interrupt reading for the sake of take offs and landing, but the convenience of being able to download Michael Shermer's 'The Mind of the Market' from the tarmac made up for that somewhat. The atrocious audio-player feature is a wretched addition that I can't even ignore - while walking through Newark Airport I heard the familiar tune of the fantastic Skepticality podcast. For a thrilling instant I thought someone was piping it out over the Airport's PA, but then realized that my Kindle's Alt & Space keys had somehow depressed simultaneously in my backpack and triggered the playback.

I've been reading through a book I got for Christmas over the past few nights, and I've been missing my Kindle sorely. My finger twitches when I see a word I don't recognize, but there's no built in dictionary to look it up with. I want to highlight certain phrases and expressions but I have no tools to hand to do so. Last night I fell asleep while reading, and this morning I realized I didn't put in the bookmark. I feel like a big baby for admitting it, but sacrificing comfort to facilitate turning pages isn't an experience that fills me with nostalgia. To those who ask if the Kindle is a barrier to immersing yourself in a book, I would suggest that it's less intrusive than a bound hard-copy.

The Kindle is the best way to read a book, and now that I've experienced it, the ways I was perfectly contented with a few months ago seem unreasonably anachronistic by comparison.

tldr: Get a Kindle with 3G, then use Google's webapps to squeeze even more value out of it. It's awesome.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Flyer Foul-Ups, and other distractions

For some reason, having a phone on me at all times just means I end up taking pictures of weird stuff, rarely sharing it with anyone unless I can find a suitable occasion.

I've designed a few flyers in my day. Not particularly good ones mind, but I always endeavour to get the basics right - I may not have the flashiest artwork, but at least I'm consistent. Unlike this flyer advertising additional downloadable content for Mafia II on the PS3:

Which is it, flyer? The 'Made Man' or 'Man Made' pack? While both are phrases used in the English language, it puzzles me that something this obvious slipped through.

I'll get to the next flyer after I clear out some more weird stuff from my phone:

On the impulse buy rack at a grocery store in the US: a "Kid-Pleasing" TV Series. How do you please kids? Suggestive tail pulling, naturally
They have ORANGE Cadbury's Creme Eggs in the US. Can somebody get me a freaking green card already?

Can't afford Penguin bars but refuse to buy a non-aquatic themed equivalent? Seal bars are available at your local Lidl to fill this gap in the market

Yanks covers their cars in moronic Jesus-propaganda to win good graces. "Elect Jesus"? "Jesus Christ - He's the Real King" in Coca-Cola font? Who comes up with this crap and sells it for $9.99? And how can I get on this bandwagon?

Okay, back on topic - the other flyer I want to share is from Harvey Norman. Remember Harvey Norman? Here's a hint - they're conniving, bait'n'switching sons-a-bitches. Let's have a look at their latest, 'Hardly Normal' flyer:

Holy balls! A Nintendo 3DS for €129! I'll be there right away! Hang on a tick - the picture is of the Nintendo 3DS, but the accompanying text (and logo) reads Nintendo DSi Console. This is an obscene screw up, and when part of your business practices involves advertising deals in print that aren't available in store, you don't get the benefit of the doubt on this one, Norman. From now on, I'm referring to such promotional material from your company as 'liars'. Heh-heh.

And thus concludes today's lesson on blogging for people with dull lives. Don't have anything interesting to say? Post some pictures and make some words about them!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Free Catholic Tat. Only €6

Most of what comes through our letter-box at home is junk-mail, but yesterday morning, something arrived that was more interesting than the typical rubbish:

As the bright red text attests, this is a mail-in offer for a free("!!!") 'miraculous medal', which apparently grants the wearer "great graces!". The only catch is you have to order a book about the medal itself.

For €6 (which including postage and packaging), superstitious old biddies can read a tale about Jesus' mother appearing to a French nun almost 200 years ago, in which she pitched a medallion design that sold like hot cakes. This medallion comes "Free!!!" with the book, so modern day dullards can avail of the "graces" that this must-have accessory bestows.

On the inside we get the hard sell, including the hucksterish offer to pay after you receive your wares:

Click for the full thang, in case you think I'm spinning this

Do you want to participate in "the spiritual regeneration of our dear country"? To do that, you'll need "great graces". Maybe you know someone in need of prayers - maybe "in studies or in work - or a special protection - or even a physical cure?" Well, for €6, you can "read about conversions, and broken families reunited, and people and property protected from misfortune... and cures of severe illnesses..." [the source ends in ellipsis - I didn't add that to make the claims seem even more specious].

Since the medal is "already blessed you can begin using it - immediately", along with the "powerful Novena" that accompanies it. How fantastic! The fact that some over-educated virgin has muttered some incantation over a pallet full of these surely raises the value a bit, and it never hurts to add a few "powerful" prayers to the old arsenal.

This is a troubling document. Not only does it leave no stone unturned in trying to qualify its appropriateness for vast swathes of society, but it's hocking a stupid trinket under the pretenses that it grants supernatural powers of wish-fulfilment. Are there Catholics stupid enough to believe that such McGuffins act as a parabolic antenna to boost your prayer power? If all you need to receive favourable treatment from the heavens is a shitty fashion accessory, what does that say about the internal consistency of the religion? Or the value of prayer in general? I know that these superstitious old hags trade prayers like recipes to find one that yields results (my own mother is well on her way to becoming an old biddy herself), but such a cynical attempt to co-opt that process irks me.

This leaflet also came into work, hand delivered by the postman - leading me to believe that these flyers are being indiscriminately distributed throughout Limerick city and county (if not nationwide) via An Post. This is not a cheap way to advertise to young, educated, savvy people, so forgive me for my assumption that this is aimed squarely at the older folks. Something tells me that once this company has the details of these cash-cows, their wrinkly teats will be sucked dry.

And who is responsible for this mailshot? The Irish Society for Christian Civilization. The same tinfoil-hat wearing Catholics who were squawking about the evils of the Lisbon Treaty back in the day, comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union, and generally advancing a "yay-Jesus, fuck everybody who doesn't like him" attitude.

Silly Catholics, believing in fictional entities.
Do you really want to see your grandmother's €6 go to support the endeavours of the Irish Society for Christian Civilisation, including their art department? Get to her house right now and hide this leaflet before the damage is done. (That money is rightfully yours to inherit!)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

What to expect when you're expectorating

Warning! This blog entry features talk of bodily functions. Ye be warned.