24 January 2008

Dutch Court Sides with Obnoxious Priest

Remember Harm Schilder, the obnoxious douchenozzle of a priest in the small Dutch city of Tilburg. He was loudly ringing his church's bells early every weekday morning for mass prompting complaints from the neighbours and noise bylaw charges from the town. After stubborn refusal to be nice (and putting a "we're praying for you" message on the church website directed at the pissed-off neighbours), he eventually ceased ringing the bells in the face of several thousand Euros worth of charges.

And now it seems he's free to piss people off again.

According to a comment I just received on the original post (and verified elsewhere), late last year the church won its court case against the city. It seems that there is a law in the Netherlands that states that churches are allowed to make as much noise as they want when calling their congregation (”1.1.2. Excluded from determining the noise levels are […] the sound required to call one to practice their religion or life philosophy”). This state law apparently trumps local noise bylaws.

I again call all on angry Dutch people to protest this despicable human being and this archaic law by setting up a rival church right next to Fr. Schilder's house and unleashing 3:00 AM calls to prayer that would make Pearson airport sound like a Brahms lullaby.

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16 January 2008

Expectations Screw-up Observations

In the past, my brother and I have observed a very good way of pushing a product: start with a product that is similar in quality1 to the best products out there, then charge a whole whack more for it.

The reasons this works is twofold:
1) prestige value - consumers appreciate that they bought something exclusive
2) expected value - consumers assume that the more expensive product is better

But it turns out that there may be more involved than that. According to a recent paper by Antonio Rangel and colleagues from the California Institute of Technology, not only do consumers expect a more expensive product to be better, they actually interpret it to be better, too:
They asked 20 people to sample wine while undergoing functional MRI's of their brain activity. The subjects were told they were tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons sold at different prices.

However, there were actually only three wines sampled, two being offered twice, marked with different prices.

A $90 wine was provided marked with its real price and again marked $10, while another was presented at its real price of $5 and also marked $45.

The testers' brains showed more pleasure at the higher price than the lower one, even for the same wine, Rangel reports in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In other words, changes in the price of the wine changed the actual pleasure experienced by the drinkers, the researchers reported.
This is not really a surprising finding; it's just the placebo effect, albeit in a consumption scenario rather than a health care scenario.

Just another reminder to the woo crowd who push the "Don't knock it before you try it" piece of doggerel: your brain2 is very good at fooling itself - don't trust it.

1 It doesn't have to actually be better, but it can't be too much worse or else the illusion of superiority fails.
2 Actually all our brains - I don't want woos thinking I'm picking on them.

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15 January 2008

UFOs mean Jeebus is coming!

From MSNBC.com, there is a story about a major UFO sighting in a small Texas farming community. Dozens report seeing a very large, flat, quiet, low-flying object with lots of bright lights around nightfall sometime last week. I'll leave it for others to debate the existence of UFOs. I'm not touching that one.

One thing I will touch is a quote from the article:
"People wonder what in the world it is because this is the Bible Belt, and everyone is afraid it's the end of times," said Steve Allen, a freight company owner and pilot who said the object he saw last week was a mile long and half a mile wide.
That's just wonderful. At least somebody down there recognizes the craziness of the fundies down there (even if he is a guy reporting a UFO sighting).

I wonder if this is related to Hugh Ross1 of Reasons to Believe Ministries who thinks UFOs are demonic in origin.

1 A former astronomer, now old-Earth creationist, and, sadly, a Canadian.

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09 January 2008

Q-Ray Ionized Nut Kick

Here's a happy story for those of you who like to see woo peddlers get kicked in the proverbial nuts: Q-Ray makers ordered to pay $16M in refunds to consumers (For those of you unfamiliar with the product, the damn thing is a just a metal bracelet with a gap and two little knobby things on each end.)

A US court has upheld a 2006 ruling that says the makers of the Q-Ray "Ionized" Bracelet (of latenight infomercial fame) have to surrender $16 million in profits, to be paid out to duped consumers for false advertising, as well as refunding up to $87 million to elligible customers seeking refunds. The best thing about the ruling was this statement from judge Frank Easterbrook:
Defendants might as well have said: Beneficent creatures from the 17th dimension use this bracelet as a beacon to locate people who need pain relief and whisk them off to their home world every night to provide help in ways unknown to our science.
How awesome is that comment?

From the beginning of the company in 1996 until the original 2006 court decision, Q-Ray has used terms like "ionized," "natural pain relief," "enhancing the flow of bio-energy" via "Q-Rays," and featured testimonials of how the product has enhanced the lives of their owners. Since that decision, the company has toned-down the claims a bit. On the US website, you'll no longer see any claims about it doing anything. On the Canadian website, though, you'll still see claims about "Balancing your bio-energy" and even the statement
Like acupuncture, yoga and tai-chi, the Q-Ray Bracelet is based on traditional Oriental medicine. The exclusive process that goes into every Q-Ray is designed to balance the negative and positive energy forces in your body to achieve a state of “Chi,” where you will feel and perform at your best.
Just in case you were wondering, according to CBC's Marketplace program, based on electron microscopy, in no way can the bracelet be considered "ionized." It's just a plain metal bracelet.

The Q-Ray Bracelet: $65-$300 Piece of Scrap
(From randi.org)

Now, the cost of Q-Ray bracelets ranges from $65 to $300, with an average one around $200. How many idiots (or frantically desperate people) are there in the world that they could sell (87000000/200 =) 435000 of the stupid things? It's depressing, really. The sad thing about the ruling is that the duped consumers get their money back - no doubt to spend on some other quackery. So many better things can be done with the $16 million profits and up to $87 million in refunds. Like giving it to me ;-)

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03 January 2008

Lots o' Science

Normally, if you want the very best in science blogging every couple of weeks or so, you go to the Tangled Bank or Philosophia Naturalis. But if you want the best of the best, you go here:

Open Lab 2007

Open Lab is a science anthology assembled by Bora (aka. Coturnix) and a group of volunteer science bloggy people. There are a lot of articles, and I have no idea if I'll get around to reading them all. I really don't read enough science blog stuff as it is.

*Depending on your view, I read too little or too much science blog stuff right now. "Too little" in that I haven't even read an issue of Philosophia Naturalis since the first one, and only sporadically read Scienceblogs and Tangled Bank. "Too much" in that I'm absolutely terrified to stand in/on/under any structure I've designed because I spend too much time reading science blogs when I should be working. I guess what this boils down to is that there is an abundance of great science writing out there, so go out and learn something!

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