Damn my impoverishing ethics! Damn them to hell!

From: Stephen Sprogis <stephensprogis@hotmail.com>
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2012 18:04:34 -0400
To: dan@dansdata.com
Subject: Extra money for you

Hi Dan,

   I see you would like to recieve some extra money, so I'd like to offer you $10 a day to display an ad banner for Virtual Pilot 3d. I'd be happy to pay you the first 3 days upfront via Paypal, and every Monday thereafter as long as we're in business. Let me know if you're interested.



I ditched Burst Media as my annoying-banner-ad provider on dansdata.com a while ago (they didn't close my account with no explanation, I QUIT, that's my story and I'm sticking to it). So just sticking a hard-coded banner at the top of every page and getting a no-muss-no-fuss seventy bucks a week for it doesn't seem like a bad idea at all.

(DealExtreme showed some interest in running a banner too, which would be a very natural fit for the site, but we had a lot of trouble communicating. Their banner-ad-buying person does not seem to be one of their English-understanding people. Perhaps when they complete their long voyage to the new and improved dx.com, which is now working fine in parallel with the old site, they'll have another go. If someone reading this is from DealExtreme, or anywhere else that is in honest business and would like to buy a simple whole-site ad on dansdata.com or this blog, talk to me!)

I'm not going to stick a static ad on my site if it's promoting a terrible piece of software, though. So I had a little look for reviews of this Virtual Pilot 3D thing, of which I'd never heard.

Those reviews seem oddly thin on the ground. Hit one in my Google search is a press release, hit two is virtualpilot3d.eu, and hit three is a page on virtualpilot3d.eu called, of all things, "Virtual Pilot 3D™ Scam", full of what seems to be machine-translated gibberish.

That weird European site also has a page called "Virtual Pilot 3D™ Is Not Flightgear", which explains:

...As previously noted, a division or segment of society Flightgear was a very special reason. The FG and the Virtual Pilot 3D™ There are major changes between.

Virtual Pilot 3D™ some outstanding features include:

* Enhanced plug and play system running smoothly.
* Very complex and require technical knowledge to start a game without having to perform a quick easy way.

...et cetera.

Presumably this was also machine-translated from something else, but I think I get the gist. Why are they so enthusiastic about telling us their flight simulator isn't some other flight simulator?

Back to looking for reviews. The fourth hit is people discussing Virtual Pilot 3D on a flight-sim forum, one of whom points to the Wikipedia article for the free open-source flight simulator... FlightGear.

It would appear that the Virtual Pilot 3D people have, at time of writing, been unsuccessful in getting that Wikipedia article to not point out that their commercial product is a rebadged version of FlightGear.

You can't take Wikipedia as gospel about everything, though, and it doesn't have any sources for the specific claim that Virtual Pilot 3D, as opposed to other commercial flight-sims called "Flight Pro Sim, Pro Flight Simulator, etc", is a FlightGear rebadge job.

So let's take another tack.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun covers pretty much everything worth knowing about PC gaming. When some oddball game comes up for $2.49 on Steam and I've no idea what it is, Rock, Paper, Shotgun almost always has a review.

They also have a regular column, The Flare Path, about military strategy games and flight-sims. I wonder...

Well, that was easy. The Flare Path for the 24th of August is, entertainingly, titled "Don't Buy VirtualPilot3D".

My name is Tim Stone. I've been a flight simmer for thirty years, and a flight sim critic for 4369 days, 9 hours, and 37 minutes. In all that time I don't think I've ever loathed a piece of software as passionately as I loathe the game you are currently thinking about buying. If you can spare a moment I'll explain why.

Oh, my.

The Virtual Pilot 3D people didn't just copy FlightGear; they also ripped off demo videos and images from completely different flight-sims, and photos from real life, presenting them all as being from Virtual Pilot 3D.

VP3D pinched picture

Picture allegedly of Virtual Pilot 3D.

NASA flight simulator

Picture definitely on a NASA site.

And then, there's this...

Fake testimonial

...oh, just read it, it's funny.

This isn't the worst case of game "authors" ripping things off from other people and hoping no-one will notice. The worst case would be the point-and-click adventure game Limbo of the Lost, which also scored coverage on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and even has its own wiki. (The wiki is largely devoted to tracing the illegally-copied sources for every component of Limbo of the Lost, including little-known indie oddities like Thief 3 and Oblivion.)

But gee, the Virtual Pilot 3D guys really are trying for the game-scam gold medal, aren't they?

Well, there goes my ten bucks a day. It's normal for annoying Web banner ads to sometimes be for scammy products, but deliberately running a constant ad for known scam-software exceeds the limits of even my highly elastic ethics. If the guy was offering me a thousand dollars a day, then since he's not actually selling fake antivirus software or botnet infectors or something (as far as we know...), I'd run the ad, take the money, kick half of it back to local charities and sleep the sleep of the just. But I doubt I'd be able to haggle him up that far.

So, until Sir Dolly Santos of the East Umbopoland Embassy To Nigeria comes through with that $US57,144,000 he promised me after I wired him $500, readers are still cordially invited to reward me for my honesty concerning Virtual Pilot 3D by making a small donation.

No, wait. Make it a large one.

A frequently-to-be-repeated offer

Anybody who runs a blog with more than one post a year will receive unsolicited offers of "content". I get them all the time.

It's a distinct category of spam. They offer you a "free" blog-post worth of text, and often also a small amount of money, in return for you publishing said text, a few words in which link to some Web site the contributor specifies.

This one's a little more interesting than most.

From: Robert Lobitz <r.lobitz@kasacapitalmarketing.com>

[This is not a good sign. That e-mail address is the one on my dansdata.com domain registration; it's not my actual Dan's Data contact address, dan@dansdata.com, that anybody who visited the actual site could find. Mail to domain-registration addresses is sort of like when a phone caller starts out by asking if he's speaking to Mr or Mrs surname-of-partner-to-whom-you-are-not-married.]

Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2012 12:49:25 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: dansdata.com Article


I would like to start by saying that I was thrilled to find dansdata.com - it's not everyday I find a website of this caliber!

[Whenever someone cold-e-mails me saying something like this, I Google what they just said and, usually, find a few thousand copies of the same text, making clear that they not only actually do find a site "of this caliber" every day, but may find one approximately every minute. This time, though, there were only a couple of hits. So, good so far!]

I am interested in having one of my unique and interesting to read articles

[Yeah! Sell it, baby!]

published on dansdata.com. In return, all I ask for is that you let me include a link to my site HIDXenonHeadlights.com from within the article --- I would be willing to offer a one-time monetary contribution as well. Please let me know if this sounds like something you'd be interested in.

Public Relations
KASA Capital

As I write this, the first hit in a Google search for this gentleman's alleged name is an article called "A Brave New Reality: Changing the Bird Cages of the World"

I cannot, in all honesty, say that that article is truly "interesting to read". It's more like "first-year university student trying to make it to the specified page count when he didn't do the reading, has a killer hangover, and has to turn in the paper in one hour".

The "Brave New Reality" article is also almost entirely free of any actual information. The world must change, and the world changes, and we should change the world, apparently. But it does at least seem to be pretty close to "unique", and not sprayed all over umpteen other blogs that also accepted the "one-time monetary contribution".

(To see if a given chunk of text is a "proper" article and not a sort of journalistic copypasta, take a distinctive string from the article - in this case, let's use the rather odd "Among my pursuits and businesses are the caring of birds as protected pets" - and search for that. [Spelling errors make these searches a lot easier.] Your typical spam-article, scam e-mail or bullshit Wikipedia reprint sold on eBay will have a zillion hits. As I write this, though, the "Brave New Reality" article is only published, as opposed to discussed, on two sites, culturechange.org and evolvingsustainability.com. The latter site is currently down, and may belong to the same guy as the first site anyway.)

The real purpose of "Brave New Reality" is, of course, not to actually inform or entertain. It's to link to a site and get it some Google-juice. In this case, that site is BirdCages.net. Hence the rather stretched metaphor.

Hit two for Robert Lobitz's name is "Child-proofing the Bedroom". Again, it's plainly been written by someone who doesn't have much writing skill, and it doesn't really say very much, but it is unique to the site it's on. And it gets its link in, too, this time to BunkBeds.net, which unsurprisingly looks very much like BirdCages.net.

Those two sites are both subtitled "A KASA Store". KASA Capital are strangely reticent about how many of these sites there are in their "diverse network of e-commerce entities", but I think it's safe to say there are a lot of them. They seem to be kosher online shops, too; no discount Viagra or fake watches.

I wanted to see just how many of these sites there are. It took me a moment to find something to search for that was distinctive to sites following the BirdCages.net/BunkBeds.net template, but I managed it by searching for a couple of strings of the hours their customer-service phone line is open.

Motorcycle fairings, medical scrubs, baby changing stations, martial arts supplies, silk flowers, caviar, boxing bags, radio-controlled planes, bike carriers, easels... if I'm counting right, there are 20 KASA sites found by the above search. If they've got more than one template, they could have a lot more than twenty sites.

I think it's safe to say that KASA are not experts on train horns, bar stools, poker chips, fish tanks and so on. I would, in fact, bet good money that they're just drop-shippers, who never even see the products they sell. Buy at wholesale, sell at retail, send goods straight from the wholesaler to the customer, spend the rest of your day on the golf course.

(The contact-hours search didn't find HIDXenonHeadlights.com, the site the article Robert was offering me would have to link to, because HIDXenonHeadlights.com has a different template. Searching for a string from that site's contact page found a few more KASA sites.)

So as far as KASA's actual retail business goes, they may not be the best place to buy any of the numerous things they sell, but I see no reason to suppose they'll take your money and run.

This still doesn't make it a good idea for blog-owners to take link-buyers like KASA up on their offers, though.

For a start, all you get, besides however much money they offer, is this worthless fluff-content that only exists to link to some site that frequently has nothing to do with the site on which the fluff appears.

More importantly, if Google notice you're engaging in link-buying schemes - or have been so deeply idiotic as to allow links to link-buyers' sites to appear on your site for free - they'll punish you by reducing your site's PageRank, as well as that of the link-buyers themselves. Serious offenders can be erased from Google altogether until they perform suitable penance.

So I'm sorry, Robert, but unless the "one-time monetary contribution" is in excess of a hundred thousand dollars, I'm afraid I'll have to turn down your offer.

And congratulations: You're in a pretty lousy business, but you could be worse!

eBay: Now 1% less preposterous!

I've written about ridiculous paranormal flapdoodle for sale on eBay before.

Spooky doll
(source: Flickr user Sue)

Numerous eBay sellers offer haunted dolls and other allegedly magical objects, including a whole range of magic tuning forks, umpteen radionic orgone tachyon thingies, and the list goes on. In the "Everything Else" category, genealogy books, self-help DVDs, dildos and magic energy crystals rub thankfully-metaphorical shoulders.

Basically, if it's too hokey for a sideshow fortune-teller, or even a televangelist, to contemplate selling it, someone on eBay will put it up in Everything Else -> Metaphysical.

This has got to be a pretty sweet business to be in. Grab random rocks and sticks and charity-shop dolls, make up some incoherent blather about how the objects in question are imbued with the spirits of Nefertiti and Joan of Arc or the chakra energy of a million sunspots, chuck 'em up on eBay and see who bites.

And people do seem to buy these things. I'm doubtful about whether any of the items that cost more than a house ever actually sell to anybody who isn't a shill of the seller seeking to pump up their feedback scores, but as I write this a "Completed listings" search for "haunted" and "doll" turns up plenty of green numbers indicating an apparent sale.

Now, though, eBay has banned the sale of "advice, spells, curses, hexing, conjuring, magic, prayers, blessing services, magic potions, [and] healing sessions".

This isn't as great as it might at first sound. The LA Times actually talked to eBay about it, and they said all they were doing was "discontinuing a small number of categories within the larger Metaphysical subcategory", their only stated reason for this being because purchases of magic spells and prayers and such "often result in issues that can be difficult to resolve". (You don't say.)

(A complete list of things prohibited on the US eBay site is here.)

I also don't know how much impact this policy change, which happened and was reported on only a few days ago, has yet had.

Most of the metaphysical claptrap isn't in the now-banned categories at all, for a start. So there are still a buggerload of magic tuning forks on offer, and the classic haunted dolls aren't banned, either. I think the haunted doll may actually be the gold standard for eBay paranormal crap; quite a lot of other allegedly magical items, like jewellery, now have "haunted" and "doll" in their description, to make sure anybody who's dumb enough to buy a haunted doll also has the opportunity to buy talismans and wands and who knows what else.

And spells are now supposed to be banned, but there still seem to be plenty of them on sale. These listings include services to help those who've been victimised by other spells; this seller will call upon the Archangel Michael to un-curse you!

(I saved a local copy of that auction here. It's too hilarious to allow it to pass from this world when the auction expires, or is taken down.)

And magic potions are supposed to be banned too - potions are the only physical objects on the new-prohibited-items list - but there are still plenty of them on sale, too.

Perhaps these spell and potion listings were created before the policy change. I also hope eBay's got humans in the auction-removal loop, to prevent auctions for Magic: The Gathering cards, Lego magic potions and other such non-paranormal items from being cancelled. If a human has to click something to kill each auction then it may take a while for the spell and potion merchants to be shut down.

(Having humans cancel listings would be practical, by the way. As I write this, the whole "Metaphysical" category on eBay.com, including international listings, has about 120,000 listings. That sounds like a lot, but it wouldn't take long for full-time workers to sort through. 25 people working seven hours per day and taking one minute per auction could sort through 12,600 auctions a day.)

A blanket ban on paranormal bullshit would probably be a big problem for eBay, because it would cover "mainstream" paranormal bullshit like...

Miraculous Medals
(source: Flickr user funkypancake)

...those umpteen Catholic medals...

Tefillin and cheerful Jewish guy
(source: Flickr user Simply Boaz)

...tefillin, any crucifix or Star of David necklace or ring or brooch or other knick-knack with colourful description text, and umpteen other religious collectibles. Which includes religious items of legitimate historical value, and religious items that people just buy for fun. Many people, for instance, enjoy collecting Catholic kitsch, the cornier the better.

I also wouldn't want to be the guy who has to draw the line between Harry Potter movie memorabilia and magic wands that are actually meant to work, between collectible knives and magic ones, or between geological specimens and magic crystals.

Still, even this small change is an improvement over the previous anything-goes policy. People who want to blow their savings on mystic nonsense should at least get a nice flashy tarot reading or personal magic-trick presentation for their money, rather than just read a wall of poorly-written pink capital letters and then pay fifty dollars for a twenty-cent bottle with some discount-store lavender oil in it.

If, of course, you really are in possession of some paranormal object or magic spell, you could make money a lot faster by just demonstrating it to James Randi, and make a million dollars.

Since Randi's advancing age means he now looks like a particularly dangerous emeritus member of the faculty of Unseen University and like a little bald wrinkly smiling man, though. the Anti-Randi Marching Band probably find him even more frightening.

Snake-oil by phone

A reader (and commenter) writes:

I realize you're probably sick to death of hearing about PFC scams, but this might amuse you anyway: I just got a phone call from a heavily-accented call-center voice purporting to be part of an energy-saving campaign by my electricity provider, Hydro-Quebec. They promised to send me a gadget which I would plug into any outlet and which would reduce my electricity consumption 30-40%.

(Initially I thought it might be a Kill-A-Watt or similar, which I would actually use, or could if my ancient inefficient appliances didn't belong to my landlord.)

When I asked how it worked, they claimed it contained "three special capacitors" and that it reduced some sort of ill-defined stray currents in my wires, and that it would reduce what was read on my electricity meter by the above 30-40%. Initially they gave the impression they were going to just send it to me, which I would have gleefully accepted so that I could dissect it and demonstrate its non-function. But it transpired that they were actually offering me a "great deal" and a "once in a lifetime offer" - yes, those are the words they used - of 50% off on its $400 price.

Once it was clear I wasn't going to get a piece of hardware for skewering, I suddenly found I had better things to do. I called Hydro-Quebec and they know there are people doing this, they had a security department number to hand (which referred me to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Office, which isn't open), but I was kind of surprised to get it at my home number.


Yes, I am just a little tired of bogus power savers, having written about them here, here, here and here on Dan's Data, and here, here, here, here and here on this blog.

But it bears re-re-re-repeating, here and elsewhere, because people are still selling these things (and removing all doubt in the comments of relevant blog posts...), and innocent people are still buying them. The more frequently this message is repeated, the more of a public service it does:

Magic power savers that're somehow meant to substantially reduce your household (or small business) electricity bill by hazily-described means involving capacitors, power factor or even stranger alleged technology are, without exception, scams. Power factor is a real thing and so is power factor correction, but household and small-business electricity consumers are almost never billed by power factor - spinning-disc electricity meters can't even measure it - and magic one-size-fits-all power-factor-correcting gizmoes don't actually even do what they're supposed to. The components inside these things aren't necessarily even connected. So even if you were billed by power factor, these gadgets would not improve it.

I have, to date, not had the pleasure of some guy with an Indian accent trying to sell me a magic power saver over the phone. Indian dudes ringing the doorbell and trying to get me to change my electricity supplier, yes; phone solicitations for power savers, no.

(The door-to-door guys are probably having a pretty bad time. I presume someone's making out like a bandit hiring Indian kids for a "working holiday" in beautiful Australia, then leaving the unfortunate workers stuck in yet another of those godforsaken semi-scammish door-to-door sales jobs that only pay by commission and have all sorts of outrageous requirements designed to soak up what money the poor bastards do manage to make. The door-to-door electricity guys, here in Australia where the power industry is still well enough regulated that there are no real "scam" providers as far as I know, are kind of like the Kirby vacuum or Cutco knife salespeople, selling a legitimate, if overpriced, product in an unpleasant way. They are, at least, not selling white-van loudspeakers, or fake health insurance to grandmas.)

My household has, however, been enjoying the attentions of another breed of Indian-accent phone-scammers. These guys, invariably identifiable thanks to the distinctive autodialer pause when you pick up the phone, were calling us a couple of times a week, though I think they've been quiet for a little while now. We may have finally persuaded them to stop, or perhaps they got busted. Or, more plausibly, they've submerged and departed for a while to avoid being busted.

Aaaaanyway, these guys usually say they're from Microsoft or something, and tell you there's something terribly wrong with your computer, and you need to go to their Web site and install some malware to fix the problem.

Anne (my Anne, not the Anne at the top of this post) has frequently asked these callers why they do not seek honest employment. The next time I pick up a call from them, I think I'll pretend to be racist.

"Is there, do you know, a single honest man anywhere in India? Clearly the British need to return and take you naughty little children firmly in hand once again. You silly little dusky monkeys, bless your souls, simply cannot grasp the white man's honour, can you? It's really not your fault; you simply cannot tell right from wrong. We blame ourselves, you know. It was foolish of us to trust you, with your tiny, adorable brains, to govern yourselves."

(Suggested background music.)

Just wasting a telephone scammer's time is small potatoes. We must aim, instead, to induce incoherent rage.

Not the publicity he was looking for, instalment 3762

A reader, well actually he probably isn't, writes:

From: "japan-best.com webmaster" <postmaster@japan-best.com>
Date: Mon, 07 May 2012 22:27:24 +0900
To: dan@dansdata.com
Subject: Inclusion in one of your articles

Dear Dan

I am Marc with japan-best.com

i read your article here
and would like the possibility of include my site in it.
I have also took note of yOur paypal adress :-)

You can check us here :
japan-best.com <http://japan-best.com/en/>

I am looking forward to hearing from you and discuss that further

Have a great day


Marc, buddy, your Spam-O-Matic might need a little recalibration, there.

My contact-and-donation pages may score surprisingly high for various panhandling Google searches, but that doesn't mean it'd be a good place for you to advertise your site full of allegedly Japanese merchandise.

Including, I now see, some front-page items whose description does not match their pictures.

At first glance, Japan-Best looks like a valid online store, but the more things I click on, the more I think it may actually be a 100%-machine-built lazy-dropshipper paradise. Or, conceivably, just a fancy way of stealing credit card numbers.

Or maybe it's legit, if clumsy, but massively overpriced. Look at this hideous wristwatch, for instance; from Japan-Best, including shipping, it costs twice as much as the same item on eBay.

Between eBay and legit dealers like HobbyLink Japan, I don't think there's much reason for anybody to buy stuff from weird machine-made sites like Japan-Best. But I'm sure a little PayPal baksheesh to get some crafty links inserted in random high-PageRanked Web pages will turn that right around for you, Marc!

UPDATE: Marc quickly replied in the comments below. Then, more than six months later, he decided to e-mail me this:

Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2012 14:30:50 +0900
From: "japan-best.com " <postmaster@japan-best.com>
To: dan@dansdata.com
Subject: remove private infos

japan-best.com here,
Say what you want about the website.
but remove the email adress from the article, you have no right to do that.

So apparently the postmaster@domain address is sooper sekrit private information now. I learn something every day!

This on top of the strangely popular idea among Internet ne'er-do-wells - which is the only reason I'm bothering to add this update to the post - that there's something confidential about e-mail you send to strangers.

It might be polite to not publish the reply address as well as the rest of an unsolicited commercial e-mail from a stranger, but "rights" don't come into it. Well, unless there's some nutty Net-privacy law where the complainant and/or "culprit" live that forbids disclosing such information without consent.

Failing that, there is no more reasonable expectation of privacy of your return address when you send an e-mail to a stranger than there is of your phone number if you telephone a stranger who has Caller ID. People you annoy on the Internet have no legal obligation to keep your identity secret.

And if your address is one of the standard addresses you should expect to find on any mail server...

So I reckon I'll leave it as it is, Marc. Your move, genius.

Posted in Scams, Spam. 7 Comments »

Hey presto, an old fuel saver is new again!

Remember the Moletech, or possibly MTECH, Fuel Saver?

Pretty much your standard magical catalyst-or-something, it got pimped by the Sydney Morning Herald, and those guys who say every hokey fuel saver in the world works said it works too. And then the Herald article disappeared in a way that basically said THIS ARTICLE HAS DISAPPEARED IN A SUSPICIOUS WAY, even as the Australian Government department that was alleged to be testing the device told me they'd never heard of it.

And then the Herald covered their tracks with the professionalism of a small child attempting to rearrange eight cupcakes to conceal the fact that there used to be twelve cupcakes.

(If Asher Moses wants me to ever forget he wrote that piece, and more importantly that he or one of his Herald workmates then stumbled around incompetently trying to pretend the article never existed instead of just saying "whoops, sorry" like a sensible person, he's going to have to kill me. It would appear that Twitter and the SMH actually are a bit similar, dude.)

Aaaaanyway, rejoice, for the Moletech-or-whatever fuel saver still stands ready to relieve you of a few hundred bucks while for-a-certainty paying for itself really really soon with amazing mileage gains. Entirely according to the usual script for BS molecular-magic fuel savers, the Moletech people have opened new marketing vistas and evaded any disappointing online commentary from clearly crazy people who suggest their product might not work by changing the product's name, to "Greentech".

Any doubts you may have about this clearly-unassociated-with-that-Moletech-thing-that-didn't-work product are sure to be dispelled by the new Greentech Web site, whose FAQ page currently contains the following hard evidence:

Q: How does it work?
A: Immediately effect will be observed as soon as the contact between the fuel and Greentech Molecule Enhancer was established.

The Greentech doodad comes in two parts, too, one for the fuel and one for the air intake. I think the Moletech gadget only had one. This makes all the difference, I'm sure.

On the somewhat less... slender... "Main Functions" page, the Greentech people explain that their product does all of the things that magic quantum magnetic moonbeam fuel-saving devices are always claimed to do (plus, oddly, apparently the magical removal of pollen and tobacco smoke and other such things that human beings do not like breathing from the air going into the engine, even though an engine doesn't give two slim shits about whether a bit of pollen made it through the air filter).

How is the Greentech thingy meant to do this?

Why, by reducing Van der Waals forces between fuel molecules, of course! A Canadian distributor rabbits on about this at greater length.

This, as usual, would be either study-of-physics-revolutionising instant-Nobel-prize material, or cause a slow but inevitably apocalyptic unravelling of the very fabric of the planet, depending on whether your view of fuel-saver-company quantum flapdoodle tends more towards the Larry Niven/Iain M. Banks or Peter Watts/J. G. Ballard ends of the sci-fi spectrum.

If it didn't kill us all by next year and actually did what they claim - more power, less fuel consumption, lower exhaust emissions, just like all the rest - then the Greentech doodad would, yet again, be a zillion-dollar product for sale to every maker of internal combustion engines, not something sold to end-users on the Internet.

The Greentech people are proud that they've been selling this thing for more than a decade now, but in all that time they've neither inked monster contracts with Toyota and General Motors, nor been erased by the conspiracy that's the only thing that could possibly have stopped them from doing so.

The abovementioned Canadian distributor hoped for a Sydney-Morning-Herald-like response to their product from Wheels.ca.

They didn't get it.

Those poor lemurs

A reader writes:

Thought you'd get a laugh out of this one:


The best part:

Healing Frequency Resonation: These oils have been imprinted with the
universal healing frequency of 728 Hz using a modified Lakhovsky/Tesla
multi-wave generator embedded with oscillators made from large
double-tipped lemurian crystal mined from Minas Gerais, Brazil.


Dear god, the "Ascended Health" site seems to be genuine. Well, if you click on their "Buy Now" links you do at least get a PayPal page, not a "Ha! We fooled you!" message.

The danger here is subtly greater than that usually posed by using holistic universal healing frequencies, which is to say a placebo, to treat illness. The Ascended Health people claim to be able to treat the usual long list of diseases, but this one page, about treating brown recluse spider bites, is subtly pernicious in an unusual way.

It is generally known that brown recluse bites are Bad News. Especially among Internet-comic fans who know that the exceedingly grody picture on the Wikipedia article for loxoscelism - the results of a decent dose of brown-recluse venom in humans - is of the leg of Jeffrey Rowland, the Wigu/Overcompensating/TopatoCo guy. His depiction of himself in his comics has had a leg-scar for as long as he has.

(Rowland's story was, of course, recently severely beaten by what happened to Peter Watts. Oh, and anybody who at this point is thinking about complaining about links to scary spiders and nasty medical pictures should bear in mind the way in which I have responded to such complaints in the past. I got a million of 'em, kids.)

The thing is, though, that the brown recluse is not actually very dangerous, and even if one bites you, placebo treatment is likely to be effective. And it's an excellent ailment for sellers of useless woo-woo treatments in other ways, too.

Brown recluse bites, you see, often hardly hurt at all at first. It's actually quite difficult to persuade a brown recluse to bite you at all; about the only way for it to happen unless you are a lunatic doing it on purpose is if you put on clothes with a spider inside and thus press it up against your skin. Some spiders are aggressive (including a few of those for which my country, Australia, is so famous), but brown recluses really aren't.

(The Australian version of the forcing-the-spider-to-bite-you situation is redbacks in your boots, or, classically, lurking under the seat in the outside dunny. Redbacks aren't tremendously aggressive, but they're still likely to become quite cross if you sit on them.)

Even if you are bitten by a brown recluse, though, most bites inject little to no venom and do little to no harm. Treatment of such a bite with prayer or reiki or homeopathic antimatter will be entirely successful.

If a brown recluse manages to envenomate you only slightly, the bite will over days develop into a nasty sore that'll take forever to heal, but will heal. Unless you were already rather frail, or the sore gets badly infected, or some other complication develops, you'll once again be fine in due course no matter what treatment, genuine or woo-woo, you get.

If a brown recluse manages to envenomate you really effectively, though, you're in trouble. But the symptoms will still take days to develop.

So what we've got here is a bite that's hard to receive and detect, which may or may not do you any harm at all, and which will be separated from the actual illness it causes, if it causes any, by a significant amount of time.

This is immensely fertile ground for people to fail to correctly figure out what's going on, in both illness and treatment. A given "brown recluse bite" may actually be a bite from some other, less dangerous spider or insect. Or it may be an infected wound, or it may be some random mosquito bite or pimple that's grown in the worried mind of the patient into a terrifying situation, on account of how they're pretty sure they saw a spider yesterday and it may have been brown.

And even if you do have a real and highly envenomated recluse bite, it's not going to eat your entire body in an afternoon like necrotising fasciitis (which, again, is what Peter Watts was lucky enough to get). Hospital treatment for recluse-bite loxoscelism is basically supportive medicine to keep the patient as healthy and happy as possible, and removal of any particularly distasteful dead flesh. If the necrosis is serious enough to threaten a whole limb then the whole necrotising area will be surgically removed, but this is seldom necessary. Basically, you just keep the wound clean and wait for it to go away.

OK, so now let's suppose you've got genuine loxoscelism and you decide to treat it with mental telepathy and the singing of hymns.

Well, if you've got the rare kind that'll take a limb, you'll lose a limb, and possibly your life, because having your arm rot off is not good for you.

If you've got the much more common, much less dangerous form of loxoscelism, though, you'll just be in a lot more pain than if you were doped up in the hospital, and you'll probably wind up with a worse scar. You may manage to get blood poisoning or something, but most likely the disease will follow its natural course, and you'll recover. And believe that you were cured, unpleasant though the process was, by whatever pointless placebo treatment it was that you tried.

(There's also the possibility that woo-woo alternative-medicine treatment will actually be bad for you in and of itself. A significant subset of folk medicines are actively poisonous in one way or another. The Ascended Health "powerful synergistic mixture of special natural magnetic minerals and oils" doesn't sound very likely to be toxic if you're only rubbing it on a wound, but who knows.)

This is the great problem with unscientific medicine, which was all medicine up until the late 19th century. You don't know what the disease is, you don't know how it works, you don't know what the treatment does, you don't know what the confounding factors are, and in the end you may by pure chance actually manage to do some good, but that's not the way to bet.

This is why homeopathy was such a success when Hahnemann invented it in 1796. "Conventional medicine" at the time was likely to involve almost nothing that actually stood a chance of making the patient better, and several things that could kill people who weren't even sick. Compared to that, harmless homeopathic placebos were a giant leap forward.

Today, though, we've got treatments for a vast array of diseases that're much better than placebo. Even when you've got something like a recluse bite for which there is no direct treatment (antivenoms for recluse toxins do exist, but they have to be administered very soon after the bite, which almost never happens when the bite is hardly noticeable), there are still numerous evidence-based things you can do which are proved to make the disease less severe, or at least less unpleasant.

It is, once again, vitally important to take pains to avoid fooling yourself, because you are the easiest person to fool.

(I am aware, by the way, that Lemuria does not really have anything to do with lemurs. Lemuria, hypothesised to be the homeland of the lemurs which Philip Sclater knew of in Madagascar and India but not places logically in between, is yet another new-age trope for which the world can thank the regrettably-not-inimitable-at-all Madame Blavatsky.)

Development of mutant healing factor not guaranteed

A reader writes:

I was wondering if you'd heard of the appearance of some pseudosciencey Power Balance-esque magnetic bracelets in the new Avengers movie - and that the bracelets are actually for sale for $200 (!), endorsed by Paramount and Marvel Comics.

I first read about this on a Hijinks Ensue comment post. As a fellow skeptic and longtime reader of your blog, I thought I'd alert you to this scummy product placement.


Magtitan wristband

Yep, the Limited Edition Colantotte Magtitan Neo Legend really does seem to combine five forms of pseudoscience, doesn't it?

It's not at all like the admittedly worthless Power Balance wristband, though. Power Balance and similar "hologram" or "ionised" bracelets don't have any identifiable physical properties, or effect on users, that a non-"energy"-enhancing silicone rubber wristband doesn't have, as long of course as the user believes their bracelet is special.

But the Magtitan Whatever Edition has magnets in it. And, as we all know, magnets can do anything.

This is sort of like the problem with debunking psychics, where the true believers say "OK, Mr A proved to be a fake, but Ms B must be genuine!", and then move on to Mr C, Ms D and so on as each new prospect is debunked until the skeptics run out of un-wristband-enhanced energy. Nobody can ever prove that every single "quantum" talisman, psychotronic money magnet, mobile-phone antenna-booster sticker, ultrasonic mosquito repeller, magic electricity saver or miraculous fuel additive is a scam, so chronic credophiles always have a new thing to believe in. And finding a new thing to believe in takes a lot less time than proving the thing doesn't work.

I agree that this product placement is weird, though. You'd think it'd be counterproductive.

"Do you find it entirely plausible that part of the Hulk's transformation invariably includes the manifestation of a pair of indestructible purple pants? Have you never wondered how Tony Stark can pull hundreds of gees and take hits like Superman without ever being turned to red chunky salsa inside his armour? Then do we have a health product for you!"