Stellar Silliness

June 30, 2011

I received this offer the other day:

All About Name A Star:

Name a Star is ideal for:

Birthdays – Christmas – Valentine’s Day – Anniversaries – Engagements Weddings – Mother’s Day – Father’s Day – Baby Showers Showing Appreciation – Graduations – Retirements – Memorials

Give a gift that truely lasts forever. Name a Star is the ideal gift for friends and family of all ages and is perfect for those “hard to buy for” people.

Name a Star allows you to express your feelings with this special gift. Anyone is sure to be overjoyed when they receive this unique, personalized certificate.

For just R89 you can dedicate a star in our registry and get a beautiful, personalized certificate to present to your friends or family.

The certificate features the star’s celestial coordinates so it can be located easily using Google Sky.

If you fork over your R89 what are you getting? Do you imagine a couple of centuries hence astronauts setting course for a star system bearing your name? If so, you’re in for a disappointment–all you have bought is a certificate (actually a pdf file that you’ll have to print out yourself) signifying nothing; even though it might look lovely hanging on the wall next to your doctorate from Thunderwood College and your dog’s rabies innoculation certificate.

The truth is that no company can name a star on your behalf. Here’s what the International Astronomical Union has to say on the subject:

The IAU frequently receives requests from individuals who want to buy stars or name stars after other persons.  Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee.  However, such “names” have no formal or official validity whatever: A few bright stars have ancient, traditional Arabic names, but otherwise stars have just catalogue numbers and positions on the sky.  Similar rules on “buying” names apply to star clusters and galaxies as well.  For bodies in the Solar System , special procedures for assigning official names apply (see the IAU theme “Naming Astronomical Objects“), but in no case are commercial transactions involved.

As an international scientific organization, the IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of “selling” fictitious star names or “real estate” on other planets or moons in the Solar System. Accordingly, the IAU maintains no list of the (several competing) enterprises in this business in individual countries of the world.  Readers wanting to contact such enterprises despite the explanations given below should search commercial directories in their country of origin.

In the past, certain such enterprises have suggested to customers that the IAU is somehow associated with, recognizes, approves, or even actively collaborates in their business.  The IAU wishes to make it totally clear that any such claim is patently false and unfounded.  The IAU will appreciate being informed, with appropriate documentation, of all cases of illegal abuse of its name, and will pursue all documented cases by all available means.

Thus, like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy.  True, the ‘gift’ of a star may open someone’s eyes to the beauty of the night sky.  This is indeed a worthy goal, but it does not justify deceiving people into believing that real star names can be bought like any other commodity.  Despite some misleading hype several companies compete in this business, both nationally and internationally.  And already in our own Milky Way there may be millions of stars with planets whose inhabitants have equal or better rights than we to name ‘their’ star, just as humans have done with the Sun (which of course itself has different names in different languages).

So think twice before giving this “gift” to a loved one. She may realise that the thought counts for very little.

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

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Computer con

March 1, 2011

There’s a very old joke which goes like this:

An English professor is enjoying extracurricular jollies with the wife of a colleague. He is atop the lady when her husband enters the room.
“I’m surprised,” exclaims the husband. “No, sir. I’m surprised. You are astonished,” says the professor.

Well, I’m both surprised and astonished at a scam that has been perpetrated in Ireland. Firstly, I’m surprised that anyone attempted this con because no sane criminal could possibly believe it would work. If someone came to me and said, “Hey Mark, I’ve had a brilliant idea for conning suckers out of their money. We take the Dublin phone book, right? Then we ring people up at random and say we’re from Microsoft and we have detected there’s something wrong with their computers. We tell them we can fix it online, but they must pay for a service contract. We get their credit card details and debit them say €100 or €200 and we don’t do a thing to their computers.”

“What do we say when they ask exactly what’s wrong with their computers?”

“We just make something up. Say their analogue navel rectifier’s got an exploit. Nobody who uses Windows knows anything about computers, anyway. If they sound really suspicious we just go into the wrong number routine.”

“Nah. Forget it. Nobody could be stupid enough to fall for something that obvious.”

But fall for it they did. In their droves. This is where the astonishment comes in. There are people who dress themselves in the morning and walk amongst us on their hind legs who are so stupid they would give out their credit card details over the telephone to strangers. A lot of them don’t even realise that they have been conned: they think there was an actual problem with their computers that the helpful folk at Microsoft have fixed for them.

Microsoft Ireland pay a person to be their ‘customer experience manager’. I would rather have the job of licking the mall toilets clean with my own tongue after a hot dog eating contest than fill that role, but it is filled by one Mary Ashe Winton, who has this to say:

Anyone who receives an unsolicited call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft should hang up. We do not make these type of calls, offering a technical support package.

Quite right, Mary. I hope Microsoft pay you top dollar in exchange for your rare gift of common sense.

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


Cyber Jiggery-Pokery

May 25, 2010

Sometimes we get ripped off in subtle ways. An example of this is the thumb drive for my computer which I recently bought. It purports to have a capacity of 8GB, but it really doesn’t, for two reasons.

Because the internal architecture of computers depends on switches which can be in one of two states, computer storage comes in exponents of 2. A bit is one such switch and a byte is an array of eight, or 2 cubed. Unfortunately, when computer science was in its infancy, it was decided to hijack terminology from the decimal world to describe binary quantities. Kilo in decimal-speak means 1000 (10 to the power of 3), but in the binary world it is taken to mean 2 to the power of 10, which is 1024.

Similarly, Giga in decimal is the prefix which means 10 to the power of 9 (1,000,000,000), but in binary it means 2 to the power of 30, or 1,073,741,824. In my view it is reasonable when purchasing a computer storage device to assume that the quantity quoted is a binary quantity, not a decimal one, but this is not what actually happens. My so-called 8 Gigabyte drive, which should store 2 to the power of 33 bytes (8,589,934,592) actually only stores the decimal quantity (8,000,000,000 bytes), so I have been short-changed by nearly 600MB, enough to store a full length feature film.

To be completely fair, this is partly the fault of the computer scientists who should have come up with their own terminology from the beginning; the other (larger) part of the fault comes from the hardware marketers who cynically exploit the ambiguity to gain a competitive edge in a cut-throat market.

We also get ripped off in blatant, unsubtle ways. This same drive contains files which are allegedly essential for the correct operation of the device, and are not removable. These files are not stored in an area in addition to the 8 GB which I am supposed to have; they are part of the 8GB, so they eat further into the amount of storage I thought I was buying and would have available for my use.

These files are Windows executable files which are of no use to me whatsoever because I don’t run Windows on my computer—the files don’t do anything at all, but take up a few hundred MB of space which I thought I was buying for my own use. Because it isn’t worth the manufacturer’s while to produce different versions of their product for different operating platforms, we all have to suffer because of poor Windows design, even if we don’t use Windows.

What can we do about it? Not a lot, unfortunately. I suppose we could approach the advertising standards authority and tell them that this thing we have bought isn’t what it says on the tin, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope from that quarter, or from other related agencies or consumer protection organizations. We just have to put up with it if we want to buy these things, and be aware that we aren’t going to get what we should be getting.

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


Fuel Follies

May 13, 2010

A few times a year I receive in my email inbox idiotic chain letters sent to me by people who, I think, hit the “forward” button without bothering to read what they are sending out. Here’s one that I received yesterday:

 

RAND MERCHANT BANK:
This is about petrol prices and an invitation to join the resistance. By the end of this month petrol prices are set to soar even higher.

If we want the petrol price to come down, we all need to take some intelligent, united action.

Last year there was a “don’t buy petrol day”-but the oil companies just laughed at that because they knew that we would “hurt” ourselves by refusing to buy petrol.

It was more of an inconvenience to us than a problem to them.
But, whoever thought of the ideas, has come up with a plan that can really work.
 
READ ON AND JOIN THE ACTION!!

By now you probably thinking petrol priced at about R7.00 is cheap. It is currently at +- R8.00 for regular and unleaded.

Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations (the bullies like US and Britain) have conditioned us to think that the cost of a liter is cheap at
R 7.00 ,
we need to take aggressive action to teach them that buyers control the marketplace……… not the sellers.

With the price of petrol going up each day, we consumers need to take action.

The only way we are going to see the price of petrol come down is if we hit someone in the pocket by not purchasing their petrol.

And we can do that without hurting ourselves.

How?

Since we rely on our cars, we just cannot stop buying petrol.

But we can have an impact on petrol prices if we all act together to force a price war.
Here’s the idea:
For the rest of the year, don’t purchase any petrol from the two biggest overseas oil companies (which are now one), SHELL and BP…
(Local is Lekka – So buy Sasol / Engen / Excel)
If the overseas companies are not selling any petrol, they will be inclined to reduce their prices.

If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.

But to have an impact we need to reach literally millions of petrol buyers.

It is really simple to do!

Now, don’t wimp out at this point…keep reading, and all will be revealed as to how simple it is to reach millions of people.

I am sending this message to 30 people. If each in turn sends it to another 10 people (30 x 10 = 300)…and those 300 send it to at least 10 people 300 x 10 = 3000)
And so on, by the time the message reaches the sixth generation of people; we will have reached over 3 million consumers!

If those 3 million people get exited and pass this on to 10 friends each then 30 million consumers will have been reached. If it goes one level further, you guessed it three hundred million people!

Again, all you have to do is to send this to 10 people. That’s all.

How long will all that take? If each of us sends this e-mail out to 10 people within one day of receipt, all 300 million people could conceivably
be contacted within the next 8 days! Acting together we can make a difference.
If you’re fed up paying too much for petrol, please pass this message on.
COMMENCING  NOW  DON’T BUY BP /SHELL, go and support SA Brand SASOL,
our currency and economy will be strengthen by 65% in 18 months the capital will stay in SA.
Africa must stop feeding the world giants it must feed itself.

I cannot do justice here to the garish, primary colours and huge, teletubbies font sported by the original document, but we can try to deconstruct the meaning of the text.

The first line (and the title of the attachment) is Rand Merchant Bank. Did the author of this crap really think any reader would be stupid enough to think that this is an official communication from that organization? Why else put it in?

Then comes an invitation to join “the resistance”. Doesn’t that bring to mind an image of courageous heroes squatting in the night with sten guns at the ready, waiting to do battle with the dark forces of evil? And who are the forces of evil? Shell and BP, apparently. Why those two? Your guess is as good as mine.

We are told that oil prices are set to soar “even higher” at the end of this month. How does the author know? The oil price depends on the international spot oil price and on the relative value of the rand to the dollar. If the author of this drivel knows either of those two things with certainty, he or she could make a fortune and be able to afford as much petrol as he or she wants. The petrol price that we pay at the pump is not set by the oil companies, but is a regulated price set by the government (that presumably this moron voted for) and is a combination of the basic crude oil price, the cost of refining petrol from the crude oil, the total cost of transportation, the cost of the distribution infrastructure, profit for each company in the chain and various government taxes. And we can consider ourselves fortunate that it isn’t higher than it is—in the UK the price for unleaded petrol is £1.21 per litre, or about R17 per litre, more that double the price we pay.

The next paragraph exhorts us to take “intelligent action”. With absolutely no respect whatsoever, I must state that the author would not recognise intelligence if it bit him.

Any communication that contains multiple punctuation marks, as in “JOIN THE ACTION!!” should be treated with the contempt it deserves; it will certainly not contain anything worth knowing.

“Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations (the bullies like US and Britain)…”. The US and Britain are not members of OPEC. This cretin’s ignorance is really starting to get to me now.

“…we need to take aggressive action to teach them that buyers control the marketplace…….not the sellers.” How is it possible to walk on your hind legs and breathe unassisted and yet be so ignorant of basic economic facts? Markets are controlled by BOTH buyers and sellers, who come to an agreement on price. That’s what a “market” is. If a buyer feels the price of a particular commodity is too high he is at liberty not to buy it; if a seller thinks the price is too low, he is at liberty not to sell it. Some oil producing nations, mindful of the fact that oil is their only source of wealth, and that once the oil runs out they will (thanks to a disfunctional education system dictated by their idiotic religion) have to revert to their previous existence as camel-herders, try to make their oil reserves last as long as possible while realising the highest possible price for their product. To this end they agree amongst themselves to cut down production thereby causing an artificial supply deficit which means they can get higher prices. This practice is of limited effect because there are oil producing countries who are not part of the cartels and who are happy to increase their output to make up for the shortfall.

We are then exhorted to hit the oil companies in the pocket by not buying their product. Here is a factoid that may shed some light on the idiocy of this point of view: South Africa accounts for less than 1% of global oil consumption. If everyone stopped buying petrol in South Africa today and went back to walking and transporting goods by donkey-cart, the oil companies would hardly notice; prices would not be affected at all.

The author of this nonsense suggests that we are to boycott Shell and BP products in favour of those from Sasol and Engen, because they are local. Well, actually, they aren’t: they are merely distributers of fuel obtained from overseas suppliers including, you guessed it, Shell and BP. Some of Sasol’s petrol comes from their oil-from-coal plants, but this is a small percentage of sales.

Then comes the usual crap about how many people can be reached if everyone is stupid enough to forward chain letters to everyone in their contact list. The truth of the matter is that the author of this bullshit is too dumb to write a computer virus, but this is the next best thing. If you receive bullshit like this in your inbox, please resist the urge to forward it—the internet is already so clogged up with crap there’s hardly any room left for honest porn.

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


Quack Link

March 1, 2010

“No more stress-headaches, insomnia, hangovers or mood swings.” So read the headline of one of the latest pieces of spam to hit my inbox. Well, spammer, I’m interested. I suffer from chronic insomnia and the occasional hangover . What could this miracle drug be? I read on.

Oh. It’s not a drug at all. It’s a little McGufty you hang around your neck like a piece of jewelery. How is this supposed to relieve my hangover? Well, according to the marketers of the Q-link pendant (which is what this spam is flogging), my hangovers are caused by “…being blasted with radiation from work monitors, cell phones and giant electricity pylons, we’re being zapped at home by televisions, mp3 players and game consoles.” And all this time I’ve thought hangovers were caused by drinking too much. Silly me.

So how does it work? It is alleged to contain a “resonating cell, (nature’s microchip)” which neutralizes all these pernicious “rays” we are constantly bombarded by. Oh wait, this is wonderful! I can “go on using my cellphone, watching TV and working on my computer”. I’m so relieved.

And it must really work because Tiger Woods wears one. Perhaps it should come with a warning: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery whilst wearing this thing. But they still haven’t really explained how it’s supposed to work.

OK, we’ve got there. Here comes the science:

Tuning YOUR body to the perfect frequency

It works like this. The Q-Link contains a resonating cell (also known as ‘nature’s microchip’) which works to counteract the effects the tools of modern life have on your body.

Put simply, it ensures your body is operating at its perfect frequency – a bit like the human equivalent of a tuning fork.

Your body is made up of trillions of cells. Now, each and every one of these cells has a frequency. Unfortunately every time your body experiences any stress, all these frequencies go out of synch…

This is where we come in. Q-Link’s proprietary technology ensures that all these frequencies are resonating harmonically.

Wow. Just wow. I’m overawed, flabbergasted at the scholarly erudition of this. How can I argue against what you say when you haven’t actually said anything?

But all this is quibbling. Priced at a mere R1,599 I’d have to be mad not to try it. Who knows, perhaps I’d be able to drink as much as I liked without suffering the morning after consequences. I wonder how much that would cost.

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


Nano Nonsense

October 9, 2009

Every day I receive in my inbox a financial newsletter which tells me what’s going to happen in global markets and where I should most profitably be investing my non-existent wealth.  Usually I read it avidly, dreaming of yachts and private jets, and skip impatiently past the blue advertising links embedded at various points in the text.  But yesterday was a slow day, and I clicked on a link because it contained the phrase “nano-technology” and I love all things scientific and technological.

What a shock!  It seems we are all about to be consumed by flesh-eating bacteria!  Medicine is powerless!  A worldwide conspiracy of government glitteratis has succeeded in keeping this secret from us, but now it is out.  But do not despair!  In a message that begins “Dear Germ-Conscious Friend” salvation is promised.  It comes in the form of a device that appears to be no bigger than a cellphone and is catchily called the New Nano UV Disinfectant Light Scanner.

This amazing little device kills an incredible 99.99% of bacteria and viruses in ten seconds flat!  Now I know that 93% of statistics are made up, but this surely looks as though it might be true?  Any lingering doubts are dispelled when we are informed that this “proven, working technology” has been tested and given certification by independent laboratories.

A Happy Customer

A Happy Customer

I read avidly on, because I still haven’t got to the bit where the “nano” comes in.  It seems a person called Eleanor Smith has purchased one of these doohickies and is delighted, her testimonial is above, unless it comes out below.  Still haven’t got to the nano nitty-gritty yet, but here’s a relief: it’s 100% chemical free!  I wonder what it could be made of?  Here’s a picture (above or below) that constitutes absolute proof that this thing is on the up-and-up.  I do wish they would put the “order” button at the top of the page—I could already have had one instead of still stupidly risking my life amongst all these horrible ravenous “E. Coli” and “C. Difficile”.

Proof Positive?

Proof Positive?

I get to the bottom, and still no explanation of the “nano”.  Just this: “Now, using state of the art nano technology and multi-wavelengths including UVA-, UVB- and UVC-light…”  Is it possible?  No, surely they wouldn’t be so base as to use a scientific term to hoodwink, would they?  That’s what “quantum” was invented for.  If only they’d said: “in a revolutionary new application of quantum entanglement this device will provide 100% protection against being run over by buses or hit upside the head by falling meteorites” I would have smelled a rat immediately.  Cunning rascals; we’d better have a sceptic take a closer look at their claims.

“By Jove, Holmes, look at this photograph!  It’s obvious this thing has utterly destroyed these germ colonies.”

His lips stretched in a sardononic grin and his ice-blue eyes glittering, Holmes whipped out his magnifier and examined the photograph closely.  “You notice, Watson, that the hand-written labels on the bottom row of Petri dishes labelled ‘before’ do not appear to match those on the top row, labelled ‘after’.  The formation of the characters is quite different.”

“Gosh!  You’re right, Holmes.  So this light effects handwriting as well as killing germs!  That is astonishing!”

“Would a better explanation not be that they are not the same Petri dishes?”

“But that would mean…”  Watson tottered, his face ashen.

“Precisely, my dear Watson.  These miscreants are using a new technique we detectives call ‘lying’.  It consists of deliberately misrepresenting facts in order to cause their victims to believe things which are not true.”

“God, what can the world be coming to?”

Why not just take a photograph of a virgin petri dish, then grow bacteria in it, take another photograph then lie about which one was taken first?  That’s the way I’d do it.

There is so much else wrong with this advert that it is hard to know where to start critisising it.  There is the same ignorance of how to render biological names that I have complained about in another context; there is the typical scare tactic followed by the ‘white knight’ in his lab coat riding to the rescue; the appeal to authority (certificates and accreditation, for what? It doesn’t say, possibly for being safe to use in submarines); the use of scientific-sounding jargon which the ignorant lap up like ambrosia.  And on and on.

Does this thing cause harm, though?  Probably not, unless you shine it in your eyes for too long, or eat it, or poke it into bodily orifices.  If the Eleanor Smiths of the world derive comfort from it and are prepared to part with R699.95…WHAT?!  This thing probably doesn’t cost more than ten bucks to make.  They’ve made me use an interrobang I’m so gobsmacked.  Oh, wait, they give you a couple of free batteries as well.  That’s OK, then.

Is it wrong to poke fun at or make money out of the idiots who infest this planet?  After all, it’s not their fault they’re fools.  Nope, if you can’t be bothered to think, you will get what you deserve, which is your money taken, and perhaps a dose of C. difficile as well, whatever that might be.

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