Quantum Quackery

August 26, 2009

OK. I admit it.  I’m a dozy dork, not up with what’s been going on on this ridiculous planet. I heard about this freakazoid only last week and he’s been plying his horrible trade in my backyard for over a decade. 

Danie Krugel

Danie Krϋgel is an ex-cop.  He is now head of the security guard detail at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein.  He is not a professor, he is a campus cop, but he claims to have invented a device that would rival in importance the invention of the wheel.  He claims he can find any missing person, whether dead or alive, by passing a sample of that missing person’s hair through his device.  Well, you may think, that’s entirely plausible, hair contains DNA, dunnit, and DNA’s this magic stuff, yeah, you know, like, it’s prolly true.  But he claims to be able to track gold and diamonds too, substances notably lacking in DNA.  Never mind, the hair clippings from which he claims to obtain DNA are similarly short of that commodity, DNA being found only in the follicles, not the dead the stuff found on the barber’s floor.  I don’t wish to be in any way prejuducial to Mr Krϋgel’s case, so let’s look at the evidence.

There is a well known fallacy of “appeal to authority”.  This is the old “Prof. So-and-so says so, and he’s a Nobel Prize winner, therefore it must true” argument.  Less well known is its corollary: “This doofus is a campus flatfoot, therefore he knows nothing, so whatever he says is crap.” Both are different sides of the same coin, and both are fallacious and wrong—the Nobel prizewinner can spout crap just as the the flatfoot or janitor can come up with a universal truth.  We must look at what they actually say, rather than at who they are, in other words eliminate ad hominem considerations.  Well, we’ve seen what he says.  He says if he has some hair he can feed it into his secret machine which will give him a bearing on where the person from whom the hair came is.  It is apparently done using a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.

Has your bullshit alarm gone off yet?  It should have.   There are enough red flags in the last two sentences of the previous paragraph to stop a train.  Firstly, whenever I see the word “quantum” used by anyone other than a bona fide, card-carrying particle physicist my guard goes up; mention of the poor quantum is almost obligatory in any pseudoscience.  There is such a phenomenon as quantum entanglement, and very interesting it is too, but it is impossible (according to the laws of physics as we know them) to use the phenomenon to transfer information of any kind.  If it were possible, it would open the way to superluminal (faster than light) communication which has far greater applications than finding missing persons.  Why does he keep his machine secret?  He says it’s to prevent others stealing his ideas, but that’s what patents are for.  If his machine actually works, all he’d have to do is patent it and his fortune would be assured.  No, it’s far more likely that it doesn’t work at all and is being kept secret to prevent others finding out that it is nothing more than an empty box.  What of the hair?  We shed hair all our lives in addition to having it hacked off at great expense.  Why would his machine find the hair that is actually on my head rather than the kilos of it that is lying around elsewhere?

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has had a long-standing offer of a million US dollars for anyone who can conclusively prove they have “paranormal” abilities of any sort.  There have been plenty of attempts at the prize, but no winners.  The JREF have confirmed that if Mr Krϋgel can demonstrate that his machine works they would fork over the money but he has, unsurprisingly, declined. He’d better be quick if he wants to change his mind because the prize will be withdrawn at the end of the year (it’s been on offer for over ten years and the thinking is that if It hasn’t been won by now, it never will be).

Finally, lets look at the actual results of his searches.  Very few have been successful, and those were not necessarily successful because of Krϋgel’s machine.  Anyone could expect some successes due to chance or “cold reading”.  Occam’s razor slices through all the hype surrounding these successes.  Failures are far more common, go look them up on the intertubes.

It’s all very entertaining until you remember who his clients are.  These are desperate people who have literally lost a loved one.  If you are a parent try to imagine what it must be like if your child goes missing.  You will do anything to get that child back, including hiring any fraud who comes along promising to help.  I believe people should be protected against that, and until Krϋgel shows in independent tests that his method works he should be forbidden from operating it.

Some people think it’s all wonderful, though:

This technique he uses is quite genius descovery, and besides that I am glad he is using the technology to help people, perhaps it could be of more good use in the future, it can also be used to proove the workings of telepathy, one atom interacting with another on a different quantum plain and distance since time and space are never the same.
lots of Love and hugs

Zana Elohim Life Form

The Grumpy Old Man life form thinks it’s crap.  Have a great day.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Herbal Hogwash

August 25, 2009


Revivo tea is a dietary supplement consisting of a range of herbs.  It is marketed worldwide, but intensively so in South Africa, where HIV and AIDS are endemic.  On their websites Revivo made several expansive claims:

  • “we have developed Revivo based on extensive research into effective herbs for HIV, as well as the ancient wisdom of Chinese Herbal Medicine, which has been treating HIV and AIDS successfully even before HIV and AIDS was recognised”;
  • “it is the culmination of only the best methods of herbal supplementation for HIV and the ingredients of the formula acting synergistically have proved itself to be better than any of the herbs taken individually”;
  • “…herbs in Revivo are designed to stop this hidden heat and replenish what is already consumed, that is why so many people are benefitting from using Revivo, irrespective of what stage of HIV they are in”;
  • “…upon contact 5 of the herbs almost completely destroyed the virus and 6 others had significant activity against the virus.”

Reading these claims, one cannot escape the conclusion that what is being claimed is that Revivo tea is a treatment for HIV and AIDS.

Making misleading or unsubstantiated claims is illegal in South Africa, as well as in many other jurisdictions.  A complaint was laid with the South African Advertising Standards Authority, stating that the claims made on behalf of Revivo were both unsubstantiated and misleading.  The ASA upheld the complaint and ordered that the websites be taken down.

But is this enough?  Revivo are still permitted to market their product, and are doing so through their own in-house website, with the offending claims removed.  The new website explicitly denies that Revivo is a cure or treatment for HIV. But the impression that their product is an effective treatment for AIDS still lingers, even though the offending websites are no longer accessible.  Surely it would be better at the very least to order Revivo to withdraw their product from the market?  If they wish to continue marketing it, they should be forced to rebrand it entirely, so there would be no perceived connection between the new product and Revivo.  Perhaps a substantial fine should be levied as well, as a disincentive to others who may think of cashing in on the misfortune of others.

Sophisticated Westerners are often taken in by this kind of advertising, despite such obvious red flags as misspellings, apparent ignorance of the convention for rendering biological names (Zizyphus jojoba given as Zizyphus Jojoba), the appeal to the superiority of “ancient Chinese wisdom” (why should ancient wisdom be superior to modern wisdom, or Chinese wisdom superior to, say, Eskimo wisdom).  Most of the Africans suffering from HIV infection are not sophisticated.  They are poor, inadequately educated, and desperate enough to believe anything, to clutch at any straw that may give them hope.  Even if Revivo does no harm in itself, gullible people may believe that by taking it they are treating their condition and they will not seek out efficacious conventional treatments such as anti-retroviral drugs, which are obtainable free of charge through government clinics.

For laws to be effective they must be effectively enforced.  This sort of misrepresentation is not harmless and should be countered by real penalties that will be a deterrent to other snake oil salesmen who may be tempted by the lure of a quick buck at the expense of the weak and uninformed.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


August 21, 2009

There is a phenomenon known as sensitisation whereby a person who has previously had no problem with, say, eating shellfish suddenly experiences a severe allergic reaction to it. The same thing is happening to me, but with a word rather than anything I eat. The word is “massive”. I hear it all the time, almost always used inappropriately. Listening to radio news this morning, I learned how a former senior politician had suffered a massive heart attack, there are massive fires putting residences at risk, there is massive relief now that the massive transport strike is over. Between the news and the weather came a commercial for Cape Union Mart where, apparently, massive savings are to be had, then we were informed of a massive cold front due to make landfall tomorrow. Is this a “fad” word that has just come into vogue and is being flogged to death, or has it always been so misused and I have only recently started to notice it? I have news for any media person who reads this: massive does not mean big. Look it up.


Caster Semenya winning the 800m Gold Medal in Berlin

Caster Semenya winning the 800m Gold Medal in Berlin

The controversy over poor Caster Semenya’s sex has shone the spotlight on an elephant (well, perhaps not an elephant, but at least a medium-sized rhino) in the room. Caster is an eighteen year old South African athlete who won the world championship gold medal for the womens 800m yesterday. She has a deep voice, some facial hair and a well-developed musculature, so she is being accused of not being a proper woman by some, others baldly state that she is a man. This, of course, is nonsense. The fact of the matter is that the media confuse sex and gender. What is at issue here is Caster’s sex, not her gender. She may exhibit some masculine attributes, but her sex is female and she is therefore eligible to compete as a woman. Take a look at the accompanying photo. I, for one, would not like to meet any of these women in a dark alley, but that does not alter the fact that they are, nonetheless, women. Caster’s mom, Dorkus, is even more masculine than her daughter; in fact she makes Arnold Schwartzenegger look slightly pansyish. Sex is a binary variable, either male or female, gender is more a continuum, a mixture of masculine and feminine attributes. The media confuse these two things because they are so coy they blush to their roots even to think about sex, much less say the actual word.


Talking about binary variables: either something is unique (one of a kind) or it isn’t. Please, please stop saying that so-and-so is “very unique”, it makes no sense because it is nonsense. Have you ever heard of anyone being “slightly dead”?

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Friday Shorts

August 7, 2009
Miss Scarborough

Miss Scarborough

Thanks Richard Gebhardt for this, it made my day.


I’m writing this at 0300. My reason for being up at this preposterous hour is that I’m too excited to sleep. This afternoon I’m going home to spend the long weekend with my beloved Scallywag and the Doofball who will probably bite me for abandoning him so cruelly.


Yesterday was the anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb on Japan. I’ve been having a lively debate with my sandal wearing, organic muesli eating, herbal cigarette smoking, free-range egg throwing friends who think that it was just horrid of the nasty Americans to do such a thing to the peace-loving, chrysanthemum-growing Japanese. My argument is that the Americans didn’t do it—the Japanese did it to themselves. When the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbour, Japan’s annihilation as a military power was assured.

The merest glance at a high school history textbook will leave a reader of the slightest discernment with one very important lesson: don’t wage war against white men. This is a lesson learned the hard way over the millennia by assorted native tribes of Africa, Asia and the Americas. You see, we don’t have a tradition of ritualistic warfare in which a battle is fought, the defeated cedes to the victor some token, and everyone goes happily home. Our wars must continue until the defeated is unable to wage further war. The Japanese failed to understand this. They thought that their destruction of much of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour, together with victory over the remainder of the US carrier fleet at Midway would the force the Americans to the negotiating table and allow the Japanese free reign in the Western Pacific. Things didn’t quite work out that way at Midway, where it was the Japanese who lost the Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu. But what if it had been the Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise that had gone to the bottom instead?

It wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference. America had the resources to replace them with not three but thirty new carriers. So when the allied forces had systematically cleansed the Western Pacific of Japanese forces, why didn’t they reach a negotiated peace with Japan instead of preparing to invade their home islands? We’ve said it already: it isn’t in the European tradition to treat until one side is utterly defeated—Japan had to be destroyed as a military power. Invading the Japanese home islands could only be achieved at a horrific cost in allied lives; even Japanese schoolgirls (girl-child learners for SA readers) were trained to defend their emperor with wooden spears. Fortunately for the allies, a way to avoid invasion was at hand.

The Manhattan Project was not set up with Japan in mind. It was conceived as a counter to the very real threat of Nazi Germany developing nuclear weapons. With scientists like Heisenberg and von Braun, the Nazis had the expertise to develop and deliver an atom bomb. But by August 1945 Germany was already defeated, Berlin a smouldering pile of rubble. The choice faced by the allies was a simple one: invade Japan at the cost of hundreds of thousands allied lives, or force the Japanese into unconditional surrender by dropping atom bombs on their cities. They made the decision to use the bomb. It is my contention that not only was that the correct choice, it was the only possible choice in the circumstances.

But I’m running out of battery; here endeth the history lesson.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.