Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Fool and His Money

What is it about the patently ridiculous that has some people panting in anticipation and creaming their jeans over the possibility that some random assortment of sciency-sounding words might actually work miracles for them? Why are people so eager to circumvent actual scientific understanding for the mad ramblings of some marketing department bent on bullroaring bullshit to bamboozle you out of a buck (or sixty)?

I mean, seriously, if I told you that a hologram mounted in a piece of rubber worn on or near the skin would increase your balance and strength severalfold by harmonising with your body's natural frequencies, and that I could furnish you with just such a device for a mere $60, you would be right to punch me in the face, kick me several times while I'm down and then walk away shaking your head.

But this is exactly what a series of companies are currently doing, taking the gullible for a ride and earning themselves huge sums of ill-gotten cash in the process. The Power Balance Band (as well as the Eken Power Band and others of a similar ilk) is being sold for anything up to $90 (for a Power Balance pendant) with the promise of improvements to strength and balance.

Power Balance, from their website at (I have had to use the US version of the site as the Australian one has changed, as explained below), claim:

Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.

Ooooh! Tantalisingly vague.

EKEN, on their website at claim:

nFIT (nano Frequency Infusion Technology) is our proprietary system for programming the EKEN holograms. This method ensures that each hologram receives a highly concentrated dose of the frequencies required to produce the highest potency and longest lasting product on the market.

Wow!!! That's amazing. Of course, given that they do nothing, it's not hard to claim that they have the "most potent" product on the market.

So, firstly, a hologram is little more than a photograph. Sure, a very sophisticated process must be undertaken to make these photographs appear three dimensional, but the result does not resonate at a particular frequency (or, at least, any more or less than an apple, a wedding ring or a Choice Shonky Award), and certainly not at the "natural frequency" of the human body, whatever that means.

So the nFIT, and any similar systems used by any other similar company, is, to be frank, absolute bollox.

Further, these bands are manufactured in Chinese factories and distributed, after customisation, to customers around the world, at the price of around $2 per band. If you really want to get your hands on a similar product, I would recommend the Skepticbros' Placebo Band. It uses exactly the same technology as a Power Balance or EKEN Band, at the price of $2 plus postage! Get your's from here:

But there is some science behind these products. There are, indeed, three effects working to elicit the apparently amazing effects that wearers report from these bands: the placebo effect, confirmation bias and applied kinesiology.

The placebo effect is a well known phenomenon whereby the use of an inert substance or object with no actual effect induces an improvement in whatever symptom it is being used to treat based entirely on the subject's belief in its efficacy. The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon to study. For example, if you are given the choice of a red sugar pill or a blue sugar pill to cure depression, the red one is likely to be more effective. Likewise, in a choice between a generically packaged or professionally branded packaging, the branded pill will generally do better. In many cases it appears as if the ceremony surrounding the placebo is as effective as the placebo, or is the actual contributing factore, in creating an effect.

But placebo is often a very minor effect and has very little actual therapeutic benefit beyond combatting percieved intensity of relatively minor symptoms. Basically, it makes you feel better but not much more.

The second effect, confirmation bias, is extremely common. Basically it is where you selectively remember things that confirm a bias while also forgetting the myriad of other ocassions that disprove the bias. This is like when you wake up one day having dreamed of someone and they call you that day, and you attribute this to some form of latent psychic powers you might have. You have remembered this one ocassion where the two events happened to align, but you forget that you may have dreamed of that person many times in the past weeks or months without a corresponding phone call, or have received a phone call from them with no accompanying dream.

The same thing is happening with sportspeople or others who are giving testimonials for these bands. When they are wearing the band they attribute their good results to it, conveniently ignoring the bad results they may also have had, or the good results they had previously without the band. We all do this. Confirmation bias is an extremely common and extremely potent effect and it takes a lot of conscious suppression to overcome the perception of amazing coincidence that it can engender. But it is real and we need to be aware of it.

Finally, applied kinesiology is something that is generally used in selling these products. The sales person will ask you to extend your arm and stand on one leg. They will push down on your arm and, lo and behold, you will become unbalanced. Then, after giving you a band and repeating the experiment, you will miraculously be able to resist the pressure.

Seems amazing, but in actual fact a fourth effect, the idio-motor effect (or, in some cases, pure malicious intent from the seller), is in play. In the first test the sales person pushed down but slightly away from your body, leading you to overbalance, while in the second test they pushed down and slightly towards your body, helping you to anchor. Richard Saunders has an amazing video of his experiences being tested by an EKEN Band seller at Sexpo this year where the effect is clearly evident, and he uses the same tricks to show the miraculous balance powers of the Skeptics' mascot, Little Nomington. Powers that rival the Power Balance Bands in every way!!

To round out the story of Power Balance, following their winning of the Choice Magazine Shonky Award, the ACCC recently banned then from promoting the bullshit they have been saying about their bands. Rather than fight against what should be an error in judgement from the ACCC if their marketing was provable, Power Balance admitted straight up that there was no evidence for the efficacy of their product. They have, as noted above, removed the dodgy explanations from their website pending, hopefully (but not likely) an explanation of the three effects explained above. They were also ordered to refund any customer who requested it the money they had wasted on their shonky crap.

This is a massive win for good sense and the ACCC should be applauded. If only they would also go after the myriad other alternative practitioners who get away with selling inefficacious or placebo-based products or services (yes, Reiki practitioners, Acupuncturists, crystal healers, faith healers, psychics and remote viewers, I'm looking at you).

If you own a Power Balance band, or anything similar, I urge you to return it and get the refund you are entitled to. If you don't have one, I urge you to never get one and to ridicule anyone who does, in turn urging them to request a refund.

But in either case, when you see someone selling something with a fishy sounding pseudoscientific explanation, do some research (don't just look at the seller's website) and work out if it has any credibility first. It might save you $60, or more.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ho Ho Hmm

My partner is an avid facebooker and, recently, she relayed to me a comment from one of her friends. This comment said:

Why do atheists celebrate Christmas when it is all about the birth of Jesus?

Now, I am an atheist and, as I exclaimed to my partner (after a lengthy rant she had heard before), this particular friend was lucky she was not in my friends list or I would have torn strips off her. What absolutely drives me crazy about this kind of comment is that it assumes that Christmas is a fundamentally Christian event and, further, infers some exclusivity to Christians for enjoyment of the event, completely ignoring historical and social facts (not to mention whether their religion holds any veracity in the first place).

To begin with, history, Christmas is not a Christian holiday. Originally the celebrations that would take place on 25 December were associated with the winter solstice. Almost every pre-Industrial society celebrated the winter solstice going back well before the supposed birth of Jesus was commemorated on this particular date, a time when Winter was supposedly at its worst and, therefore, the cycle of rebirth and death was to begin again. Trappings like the Christmas tree, the Yule log and the giving of gifts are all pre-Christian traditions subsumed by the Catholic Church as they attempted to convert the heathens.

In fact, for some time during the middle ages, the Catholic Church actually banned many of the traditional aspects of Christmas and, I think, Christmas itself on the “suspicion” that it was actually a pagan festival!

Then there are the social facts of Christmas. Australia has something like 7% church attendance nowadays. So, in a population of some 21 million people, a mere 1.5 million actually attend some form of church. Now I realise that church attendance is hardly the measure of whether a person holds to religious tenets (or, at least, claims to), but I think there is a good argument to say that these people represent the vast majority of those that actually care about the religious aspects of Christmas. Contrast this with those people who claim no religion, some 19% or 4 million Australians, and you can start to see how redundant the religious message is.

Furthermore, Australia has Constitutional prohibitions on the institution of a national religion and has significant minorities from cultures that either don’t celebrate Christmas at all (the Chinese community, for example) or celebrate it only due to the preponderance of public holidays granted to the workforce at the time. The overwhelming iconography of the season is of Santa Claus, reindeer, pine trees and gifts rather than mangers, wandering stars, wise men and divine infants and, were it not for the tenacity of the Christmas carol, we probably wouldn’t even hear these ideas expressed either.

Christmas has become, and may well have been for a very long time, secular in nature. It has long since ceased being a religious festival for the vast majority of people and has, instead, migrated into either a consumerist obligation, a convenient break or an observance of the bonds of family and friends, depending on who you ask (and, indeed, when you ask them).

This brings me to what I actually do believe about Xmas (I have no qualms using this abbreviation).

I recently heard a song that I believe was penned in 2009 but which I didn’t hear until this month. It is called White Wine in the Sun and was written by Tim Minchin. There are two versions currently around, one by Tim himself and one by Kate Miller Heidke, both performers I respect. I do prefer Tim’s version, simply because I think he is more sensitive to the flow of the text (although, it probably helps his cause that he is backed by an orchestra!). But either way, it is the text of the song that is important. It goes something like this:

I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental, I know,
But I just really like it.

I am hardly religious
I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu
To be honest

And yes I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism,
To the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the Westernisation of a dead Palestinian press ganged into selling Playstations and beer,

But I still really like it.

I’m looking forward to Christmas,
Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus.

I’ll be seeing my Dad, my brother and sisters, my Gran and my Mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun.

I don’t go in for ancient wisdom.
I don’t believe just ‘cause ideas are tenacious it means they’re worthy.

I get freaked out by churches.
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords
But the lyrics are spooky,

And yes I have all of the usual objections
To the mis-education of children who, in tax exempt institutions,
Are taught to externalise blame,
And to feel ashamed,
And to judge things as plain right or wrong,

But I quite like the songs.

I’m not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolates is just fine by me.

Cause I’ll be seeing my Dad, my brother and sisters, my Gran and my Mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun.

And you my baby girl,
My jetlagged infant daughter,
Will be handed round the room,
Like a puppy at a primary school.
And you won’t understand,
But you will learn someday,
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world,
My sweet blue eyed girl

And if my baby girl when you’re 21 or 31,
And Christmas comes around,
And you find yourself 9000 miles from home,
You’ll know whatever comes,

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun.
Whenever you come,
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles, your grandparents, cousins and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you I the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun.

I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental, I know…

Now, I wholeheartedly suggest that you, at the very least, go and listen to this song on YouTube (here: and, if you are inclined as I was, to LOVE it, I also suggest you purchase it from iTunes because, quite frankly (in my estimation) Tim Minchin’s lyrics here are pure genius.

I have only three qualms with this song as it pertains to my personal experience:
  • I don’t like white wine and will only drink red wine.
  • I don’t have any sisters and all of my grandparents live in the UK, therefore being unavailable to drink in the sun with me at Christmas time.
  • I have a son, not a daughter (funnily enough of a very similar age to Tim’s).

Obviously these quibbles are minor and simply due to a recontextualisation of the song to my own circumstances. Tim can hardly be blamed for this.

In every other respect this song perfectly encapsulates my own philosophy on Christmas.

I do have a lot of, potentially insurmountable, philosophical issues with Christmas as a religious holiday and as a consumerist wet dream. The lead up to Christmas can be harrowing and, even on the day, the travel that is involved (because both myself and my partner come from families where the parents have divorced and re-coupled) can be taxing. But generally, on the day (and/or on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day) I will find myself relaxing in the company of people I love, sipping at a red or a beer, and just feeling content and safe.

That’s right Christians, Christmas isn’t about your god, it is about my (and, one would hope, your) family.

And when I say family I am not talking about just the nuclear family. My family consists of my parents and their new spouses, my brother, his wife and step son, my step brothers and sisters and their partners and children, my partner’s parents and their partners, my sisters and brother in law and their partners, my foster sister (unofficially fostered into both wings of the family for about a decade now), my partner and my son. Amongst this group are several who have chosen not to marry formally (me included) and there is almost not a standard nuclear unit amongst the lot of them.

So, whoever you are, whatever you believe, whatever your family looks like and however far you choose to extend it and define its boundaries or members, wherever you intend to spend it and whatever you choose to drink during it, I hope that your Christmas is a pleasant one, spent in the company of people you love and who make you feel safe.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Man Box

OK, so there are plenty of things I could decide to discuss as a first post, but as I intend this blog to be a bit of a running commentary of all sorts of things that occur in my live as they occur, I figured I'd discuss something I saw today that really inspired me.

I am a big fan of TED talks. I am subscribed to their video feed, I check the web site often and I tried to get in to the Adelaide TED when it was held recently (unfortunately I heard about it a touch late and wasn't able to fit in). For those that don't know about TED, it is a series of coferences that are held around the world where inspiring, interesting and awesome people are invited to talk for a short time on the issue they are known for. It covers everything from amazing presentations of statistics to inspiring stories of courage, from cybernetic limbs to environmental success stories. It is truly phenomenal and can be found here:

Today, however, I saw something I have dreamed about for a long time. I saw another man stand up on stage and say that a good proportion of what most men think and do in social settings is twisted. He said that men need to redefine the ways they construct their own masculinity and break free from their "man box"; the group of characteristics that they are expected to conform to by other men.

This guy was Tony Porter and his talk is here:

Basically I have been thinking, and even ocassionally saying (on certain forums I frequent), that I think there is something amiss with regard to men and gender. I have studied some aspects of the feminism movements and I am of the opinion that they were incredibly important, and remain so considering the disparities that continue to be perpetrated. I am also of the opinion that feminism has been at least as important to men as it has to women, fundamentally changing the social expectations of men in almost exclusively positive ways, in the same way that the anti-slavery movement has changed the social expectations of white people in general towards the previously enslaved. But there's something missing from feminism.


I need to clarify that comment. Men are, in my experience, welcomed by most of the current wave of feminists if they demonstrate that they actually understand what women are on about when they talk about their issues as a gender. Men can have detailed, constructive dialogues with women on feminist issues without feeling as if they are being condescended to, kept outside of the loop or blamed, personally, for feminist issues. This is not the problem. The problem is not within the feminist movement, as such.

Feminism, fundamentally, was a sweeping re-framing process that women engaged in to change the lense through which they saw themselves and, as a result, through which men (and society as a whole) saw them. Women consciously, or unconsciously, created the conditions by which they could fundamentally alter what it meant to be a woman and then grasped the reigns of that creative process to redefine themselves in a multitude of femininities that had not previously existed, or which had existed but had been looked down upon.

What have men done?

Largely, I would argue, men have either been actively belligerent against the feminist movements or have been passive recipients of the changes wrought by them. In odd cases here and there, and I would include myself in that category, some men have taken a personal journey to re-imagine what masculinity means to them, but on the whole there has been practically no masculinist movement that seeks to reimagine men in the same mould of what feminism did for women. Or at least I have not seen one.

This is not to say there hasn't been a "men's movement". But on the whole I have found this to be one of three things:
  • a mysoginistic band of black-shirted thugs or martyred divorcees bent on reclaiming what they percieve to have lost in matrimonial disagreements,
  • a regressive series of pseudoscientific nutters who try to derive a masculinity by reference to some strange primal masculinity,
  • or a seemingly well-meaning but reactionary group that appear to want to define masculinity in opposition to what they now percieve femininity to be.
Up until today I have not seen any serious attempt to try and re-define what it means to be masculine in a similar way to the feminist movements, particularly in the last 30 years.

What do I mean by re-define though? What am I looking for?

All of the above men's movements are reactionary. They all take feminism and its oppositionalism toward traditional male stereotyping as the basis and work from there. I would like to see men, without any necessary reference to feminism as such (while still using it's example as a guide), break from the traditional stereotypes and, as a whole, begin to imagine and implement new masculinities in a conscious way. To be able to respect one another for taking a new path towards being a "man". To be able to remove the cultural blinkers and accept multiple varieties of masculinity at once as belonging to the general pool of available options.

Don't get me wrong, this does happen. But I think it currently happens largely because of direct feminist influences, whether they be pressures from growing up in a feminist era, the influences of high incidence of divorce amongst a generation of parents or feminist intervention through post-modern curricula in education institutions. I don't think there has yet been a lot of thought put in by men and, as a man, there is still an awful lor of pressure to conform to gender stereotypes, pressure that I see as specifically lacking for the women in my life.

In other words, women and now told they can be anything, but men still can't be seen as effeminate in any way lest they put in jeopardy their masculinity as a whole.

Getting back to Tony Parsons for a minute, his talk was a revelation. He still didn't go as far as I think men need to go, but he took an important first step. He recognised that much of the current male cultural pressure is mysoginistic and "twisted". Further, he was prepared to stand up in public and say it. And even better, he was prepared to explicitly explain that he thought men needed to break free from this "man box", with the implication that some form of re-imagining would then need to occur. Most importantly, he implied that doing so would not jeopardise your standing as a man.

I think this is such a vitally important idea and I am grateful to Tony for having done what he did. It is the first time I have ever seen it, the first public confirmation of a view I have held for a long time.

As a father of a two year old son, I want to make sure he does not inherit from me the "man box". I hope that I can liberate him from the stereotypes that, for so long and for so many men of my generation and those prior, have held in chains the hearts of both men and women. I don't just want him to be able to express his emotions and hold down a job, should he wish, as a nurse or airline steward. I want him to, also, feel that it is normal that he might hug another man who he loves (and, while I don't want to discount the potential for him to be gay, I mean this in a non-sexual way) or engage in meaningful discussion about gendered or emotional perspectives in any field. I want him to feel equally at ease skipping through a field of wild flowers because they are beautiful and engaging in the thrill of a physical sporting contest. I want him to be able to have relationships with women and feel, not just as if she is his equal, but also that he is her's; intellectually, emotionally, physically and sexually. Likewise I want him to be able to have relationships with men that similar and not based purely in comparative expressions of machismo.

Thanks Tony, you have given me some hope that I am not alone.