Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Skeptics' Circle 44

I regret that I haven't posted very much this week, but some family medical issues have kept me preoccupied. Fortunately I prepared my entry for this week's Skeptics' Circle 44 well ahead of time. Hop on over to Salto Sobrius to read it and plenty of other skeptical goodness.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pirate Drinks

Alrighty, then. I suppose I'll be makin' one more contribution to the festivities o' Talk Like a Pirate Day. As rum and drinkin' be prime elements o' the pirate life, I'll be contributin' these two suggestions to you lot o' scurvy dogs.

Captain Jack
1 part Gentleman Jack Daniels
2 parts Captain Morgan Tattoo

Pirate Port
1 shot o' Captain Morgan Tattoo in a wine glass of grape juice (red for ruby, white for tawny)

Alright then ye scurvy dogs! I've had enough o' pirate talk for the year. Off wit' ye!

Thar Be Tile On Ye Floors, Mateys!

Let that be the beginning and end of my contribution to "Talk Like a Pirate Day".

Over the weekend, we layed tile on approximately 25% of the downstairs of our house with the help of our Brother- and Sister-in-Law, two nieces, and a couple of other friends who wanted to learn the technique for when they do tile themselves (as well as just being helpful sorts). We squished grout between the tiles of about half that area. Hopefully we'll have all the essential components of the house back in their homes in the next day or so: the washer, dryer, hot water heater, and toilet are already back in service, but the refrigerator still needs to return to its place in the kitchen. My A&S projects are largely waiting for this endeavor to reach completion.

We do have some pictures, but they're not in our own camera, so embarassing pictures of me on the floor spreading mortar and laying tiles will have to wait.

Friday, September 15, 2006

An Example of a Blinded Test

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I found some interesting bottles of wine on the closeout rack of a wine store we frequent (to digress, closeout racks are great). We found bottles of Jewel Shiraz and Jewel Syrah at a very low price. I immediately found the labeling odd, since Shiraz and Syrah are actually the same species of grape under two different names. The grape is usually called Shiraz by Australian growers, while French growers use Syrah, but both of these wines were made from grapes grown in California. Consequently, they should be exactly the same (as they were also bottled the same year, 2002), so why give them different labels.

I asked a store clerk about the labeling, and she told me that the Syrah should actually taste a little softer and richer. That sounded nonsensical to me, but why not take this opportunity to conduct a little test, especially since these bottles were marked down to very manageable prices.

We therefore bought a bottle of Shiraz and a bottle of Syrah and took them with us to the apartment of some friends of ours -- Lord William and Lady Juliana. My job would be to devise a test to see if anyone else at the table could distinguish between the Shiraz and the Syrah.

The test would be a simple “Which of these things is not like the others?” I started with four identical wine glasses. I then tied some colored thread provided by Juliana around the stems to uniquely identify each glass: gold, light blue, white, and green. Rolling a die, I randomly assigned Syrah to one of the glasses and wrote its color on a piece of paper to stick in my pocket. I poured Syrah in that glass and poured Shiraz in the other three. I made sure they were all filled to the same height and then took them to the dinner table. I provided blank sheets of paper for my three testers. Their task was to write down the thread color of the glass that held different wine from the other three. Instructions given, I left the room. Juliana's parents came by a little later, and they got pulled into the test, too, so I had a sample size of five participants.

Just by random chance, I should reasonably expect one or two of the testers (roughly 25%) to get the right glass. Three or more correctly identifying the odd glass (the Syrah) would indicate that there probably was a detectable difference between the two wines, be it flavor, aroma, color, etc.

As it turned out, no one identified the glass of Syrah correctly, which conclusively proved to me that there was no difference between the Shiraz and the Syrah (except, perhaps, that the Syrah had a classier label).

There were some flaws in this test. Given time and resources, I would have liked to make the following changes:
  • It would have been nice to have an intermediary between me and the testers so that I -- as the person pouring the wine -- would have no interaction with the people tasting it; that would make it a truly double-blind test (as it is, it's single-blind).
  • It would be nice to have more people involved in the test for statistically better results.
  • More test scenarios would be good: three glasses of Syrah and one of Shiraz, for instance.
  • I also didn’t think to ban table-talk before the test, so the comments of Juliana -- the first tester -- may have prejudiced the next two somewhat; fortunately the Juliana's parents arrived later and didn’t hear the table-talk, and I was able to forbid discussion of wine opinions before they’d written their choices.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Make the Puppy Happy: Skeptic’s Circle 43

Every time someone believes an implausible claim or explanation without good reason, a puppy cries. Learn how to keep the puppy from crying at this week’s Skeptics’ Circle, brought to you by Ethics and Science.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Another Triumph in the Courts

I discovered an interesting bit of news today. It seems that a judge in Illinois has ruled that selling a piece of cheap jewelry -- like the Q-Ray Bracelet -- with a claim that it relieves pain is false advertising.
U.S. District Judge Morton Denlow ordered QT Inc. of Mount Prospect, Illinois, and its owner, Que Te Park, to refund more than 100,000 buyers of the bracelets -- priced up to $249.95 -- and forfeit profits of $22.6 million earned between 2000 and 2003.
That's right: even if a substantial percentage of customers claim that they actually experienced pain relief due to the placebo effect, advertising that your product actually provides some medical benefit without actual scientific evidence to support the claim is false advertising, and you can lose millions in court.

Now if people would just start suing the homeopaths and their ilk in the alternative medicine market...

The Coronation of Gunther and Kora

I had the pleasure of attending the coronation of His Royal Majesty Gunther and Kora over the weekend. This event included some additional auspicious awards, including the knighting of Sir Ulrich von Brandenburg (here's hoping I didn't mess the name up) and the entry of Lord Leon Jeronimo Suarez into the Order of the Meridien Blade.

Unlike some previous coronations, this one had a rather full schedule of activities to engage citizens who were not preoccupied with peer meetings and other coronation business. This included heavy fighting tournaments at which Their Royal Majesties each chose their armored combat champions. Her Royal Majesty has scheduled the selection of Her Rapier Champion to take place at Red Tower, I believe, and Their Majesties announced they would also be holding a tournament to select the Queen’s Yeoman at some future date.

There was a rapier tournament at this coronation, and I had the opportunity to fight a round against His Excellency, Earl Godwine. It is a pleasure to see that his attitude has changed from “I don’t fence, and I don’t like to watch fencing,” to “I fence, and I’m darn good at it, too!” His Excellency may not have perfected hand parries, yet, but he certainly isn’t lacking in accuracy, range judgement, and willingness to engage. His Excellency stabbed me in the leg and throat in rapid succession, and went on to the semi-final round of the tournament before being eliminated by the tournaments’ eventual winner, Lord Leon. As this was a double-elimination tournament, I continued to the quarter final round, where Lord Tormod dubh Gunn eliminated me (as has happened all too often in the past).

The evening’s festivities included the traditional White Rose Ball, which was held outdoors on the field used for the day’s armored fighting activities. The dancing went quite well, with no shortage of participants until the wee hours of the morning. I would like to thank Baroness Mariana for organizing the Ball as well as the musicians who performed for us and Lord Lorenzo Petrucci for teaching a couple of 15th-century Italian dances (Chirintana and Marchesana) after the scheduled dance list was complete. I will also say a special hello to Lady Vivian Vyvienne, since I always enjoy discovering a lovely new dance partner.

Alas, I will be out of the SCA loop for the next few weeks, as home repairs, family medical issues, and a planned vacation will be occupying my time.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Skeptic Material Direct to You

Sometimes a piece of good material for a skepticism post falls right into your inbox. That’s right, someone at the last place I worked sent me a chain letter! Let’s all enjoy picking this piece of modern creduloid literature apart. When I get “advice” like this, the first thing I usually do is search the database to see if it’s a known urban legend. This one was easy to find.

CELL PHONE INFORMATION / share with family & print for future use..!!!

Yes, it announces in the very first line that it’s probably bunk. The “share” advice and multiple exclamation points are major giveaways.

What to do when your cell phone gets lost...

Here is something worth knowing if you have a mobile phone ....Have you ever wondered why phone companies don't seem interested in trying to prevent the theft of mobile phones? If you have ever lost, or had one stolen, and if you are on a plan, you still have to pay the plan approximately up to 24 months, and you have to buy another handset and enter into another contract. This is more revenue for the phone company.
The conspiracy theory element is very popular in chain letters, and usually BS. Service providers won’t generally require you to sign a new service contract if your phone is stolen. In fact, if you’re still under a contract, your phone may be insured against theft. If you’re not under contract, they may offer you a discount on a new phone if you sign another contract, but they probably won’t require it.

There is a simple way of making lost or stolen mobiles useless to thieves and the phone companies know about it, but keep it quiet.

To check your mobile phone's serial number, key in the following on your phone: star-hash-zero-six-hash (* # 0 6 #) and a fifteen digit code will appear on the screen. This is unique to your handset. Write it down and keep it safe.
The Snopes article shows this particular piece of the urban legend to be partially true:

Entering the sequence * # 0 6 # on your cell phone's keypad may produce a display showing a unique fifteen-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) string. However, this only works with phones that use the Global System Mobile Communications (GSM) standard, as these phones contain a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that holds users' subscription information and phonebook information. Not all cellular phone service carriers use GSM technology, so entering the * # 0 6 # sequence will not work with every cell phone.
Returning to the chain letter…

Should your mobile phone get stolen, you can phone your service provider and give them this code. They will then be able to block your handset, so even if the thief changes the sim card, your phone will be totally useless. You probably won't get your phone back, but at least you know that whoever stole it can't use/sell it either.
Having the IMEI string, if it exists for your particular phone, might make it possible to keep a thief from registering it with another provider, but you certainly don’t need it to contact your own service provider and notify them that your phone was stolen so they can terminate its service.

If everybody did this, there would be no point in stealing mobile phones. You may want to send this to as many people with mobiles as possible.
The thief probably won’t try to register the phone with another provider and won’t get much for selling the handset, since the value of a stolen phone is the calls that could potentially be made on it before the service gets cut off. Digging the IMEI string from your phone (if it exists) is going to a lot of trouble for very little effect; the hardware simply isn’t worth that much to the thief.

What you really need to do if your phone is stolen is contact your service provider as quickly as possible to cut off service before the thief can make any calls.

No charge for directory assistance. Phone companies are charging us $1.00 or more for 411 - information calls when they don't have to. When you need to use the 411/information option, simply dial 1-800-FREE-411 or 1-800-373-3411 without incurring a charge. This is information people don't mind receiving - Pass it on. Works on home phones and cell phones.

This is actually a separate claim, addressed in a separate Snopes article. It turns out that this part is true. The service is provided by a company called Jingle Networks. There’s an automatic voice recognition system that asks for the location, type of listing, and listing name for which you want a number and then reads back the corresponding entry from its database. The only catch is that you may have to listen to an advertisement before you get the number.