In which I attempt to become, like, poetic.

May 17th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 18 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday May 10 2008

I was hoping this week to attend a protest of patients and scientists in favour of human-animal hybrid embryo cell experiments outside parliament, discussing and explaining the science to MPs, chatting to people with Motor Neurone Disease who have concluded that christians’ sense of intuitive moral unease is not quite as important as a possible treatment for their illness, and wearing, obviously, a dog’s head and goat hooves with patches of hair glued crudely to my naked chest and legs.

But the Medical Research Council, who are older and wiser than me, sent out a circular email to discourage attenders. They explained that lobbying MPs would have a “negative impact” and might “actually be counter-productive” on their softly softly approach. They couldn’t support people who went, and if attending they should make it clear they have nothing to do with the MRC. Since I may one day be applying to them for a grant myself I’d like to clarify formally that I have no opinions. I will leave the real work on public engagement with science to the people who helped manage BSE, GM and MMR. I will not discuss the embryos. I will not distort their finely tuned message.

We would all do well to remember that elaborate runic rituals behind the scenes can have an enormous impact on what is heard. HiFi guru Russ Andrews was recently trashed by the ASA for making elaborate claims about a very expensive power cable. He believed he could affect what people heard simply by weaving a lot of wires elaborately into a clever and expensive little spiral. What buffoonery.

image According to Shakti technologies, three small pieces of wood cut into a wavey shape called The Hallograph can modify the movement of sound information around a room. It is the result of over 10 years of research “studying the effects of the speaker/room interface”, during which the company learned “how to reduce the audibility of the chaotic reflections from the walls of the listening room so they won’t overpower and interfere with the direct sound from the speakers. The Hallograph contours the frequency, amplitude and time coefficients of the first reflections you hear.” Apparently this produces a stunning increase in clarity.

image If you’re worried about any rough corners in what people hear, you could try the CD Stoplight, a pen that you rub around the edge of a Compact Disc “to reduce the scattered reflections of the laser beam and increase the signal-to-noise ratio of the detected laser”. The result is a significant decrease in harsh “edginess” and an increase in clarity and resolution at only $19.99 from Elusive Disc.

image The Marigo Labs Signature 3D Mat has received glowing reviews from Home Theatre and HiFi and may also prove useful to the MRC. “Voices take on additional (natural) weight, depth and fullness. There’s also a greater sense of air and three-dimensionality, and a more natural decay to the sound. The differences are unmistakable.” This is a £100 Kevlar matrix mat that you stick on top of your source, with a funny little geometric pattern applied by hand using superfine silver strand in a proprietary array.

image Meanwhile MusicDirect sell special supports which can change what people hear simply by lifting the cable off the floor. “The improvements you will hear in detail and dynamics are not subtle.” Cheaper than PR advice at just £80. Or you could go all out and invest in the Shakti On-Lines, little black matchboxes that attach to your HiFi cables with velcro for only $99. They eradicate any confusing noise in the signal, and produce “a blacker background that increases resolution and dynamics.”

I’m wearing one right now. Is it helping?


Bit busy on Friday with the dayjob, but Andrew Lansley’s speech on this in parliament was a particular travesty, especially on the Trent research, and exemplified heroic “have you read the paper?” wrongness. I might have to take it apart on Tuesday in time for the vote. Tra la.

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18 Responses

  1. briantist said,

    May 17, 2008 at 10:05 am

    Here’s another one to add to the list of stupid AV things. Yes folks you can pay £100 for a 2 meter HDMI cable!

    “Featuring 24k gold contacts for maximum signal transfer and corrosion resistance, silver-coated conductors for superior signal transfer and ultimate high-definition video, Advanced nitrogen (N2) gas-injected dielectric ensures maximum signal strength and ultra-high density quad-layer shielding. Ideal for all HDMI connections between high-end DVD players, cable/satellite boxes, AV receivers and HDTV’s.”

    It’s a data cable – it transfers 0 and 1s or not. So it will do it just as well as this £2.63 one. Shame on Comet!

  2. drunkenoaf said,

    May 17, 2008 at 10:52 am

    While the balls-out claims of these comanies are funny in a D’Oh, the humanity- kind of way, what’s more important in the article is the MRC’s decision not to support the white coat protest.

    Why wouldn’t they?

    Political pressure (oh dear– politicians, or even worse, god-bothered ministers meddling because they hold a cheque book over the MRC)?)

    Or is it really about keeping their subtly crafted key messages clean?


  3. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    The parliamentary debate on the bill is an interesting, if long, read.

    What comes across mainly is a duly serious discussion about something serious. It actually restored my sometimes wavering belief in the idea that the people in the Commons are really doing, and capable of doing, the job they are elected for. This is because the debate noticeably transcends the political party affiliations of the MPs speaking.

    What does come over is that the opposition to the bill consists of two groups of people: (i) the catholic and evangelical Christian MPs, who oppose all embryo research – even what is currently legal – and all abortion; and (ii) the Conservative front bench – see Andrew Lansley’s speech, presumably made with his leader’s approbation – which is cynically jumping onboard with (i) to embarrass the Government, most particularly over the 24-wk limit.

    What further comes across is that many of the gang under (i), like Nadine Dorries, are, as ever, prepared to misquote and misuse the scientific and medical evidence to make soundbites for their ideological POV. And again, the Tory front bench is prepared to re-quote these lines for political advantage. Feel free to draw your own inferences.

  4. pv said,

    May 17, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    to misquote and misuse the scientific and medical evidence to make soundbites for their ideological POV

    In any other walk of life we would call it lying. Why are they so fond of it because “bearing false witness”, as I understand it, is something despised by their sky fairy leader (whose own existence depends on bearing false witness – funnily enough). It is written in stone, is it not?

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 17, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    yeah reading hansard can be absolutely fascinating, and moreso because of the variety of styles. sometimes you find people delivering impressive and thoughtful disquisitions on important topics that are well evidenced, well argued, essay long, and all done verbally, but they do this alongside morons who hector like old crones at a hanging and make interjections with all the substance of a grumpy five year old. it must be very weird to be in the first group.

  6. briantist said,

    May 17, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    What amuses me the most about the group (i) MPs is that they all claim they want to use express THEIR own opinion, but strangely they then all carry the same party line of what is, technically, a foreign government (of the Vatican City).

  7. garyg said,

    May 18, 2008 at 2:07 am

    Maybe your comments on Shakti Innovations are a little premature. OK, reducing chaotic sound reflections is just crazy, but the guy in the picture seems to have invented the Hallowicket. If England were allowed to use these while batting, those wavy bits might just let a few more balls past. Come to think of it, a wavy Hallobat to reduce the number of edges might just see us beat New Zealand and South Africa this summer. Isn’t science wonderful.

  8. Christine Lowe said,

    May 18, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    I know I’m easily amused but I like the way the Music Direct lot offer you a larger image of their supports for the price of a click and then show you two smaller images but surrounded by lots of white space. Perhaps if I had used the Shakti on-lines that would have helped?

  9. mch said,

    May 19, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Heh, bear in mind that some cables are indeed much better than others.

    There does come a point – especially with digital – that you’ve got maximum transmission rates and any more won’t get those 0s and 1s any more 0ish or 1ish.

    But very high speed 0s and 1s smear and distort and crossover resulting in re-sends or corrupted signals if you don’t have good enough hardware, or you bundle cables together without proper shielding etc.

    (Any 80s geek can tell you what speed your dialup is from listening to the modem connect)

  10. brookster said,

    May 19, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    I thought the daddy of all daft audiophile equipment was the Pear Anjou speaker cables:

    A three-foot pair, sir? Only $2,750.

    “Simply put these are very danceable cables … Great swing and pace — these cables smack that right on the nose big time.”

  11. outeast said,

    May 20, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for the recommendations, Ben. I’m always sceptical of these audiophile gadgets, but with your endorsement behind them I finally decided to upgrade my gear.

  12. DSThomas said,

    May 20, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    While i agree with the points in the article i did feel the urge to reply to “Briantist” re his comment on the £100 hdmi cable

    I work for an electronics retailer (and no it isnt comet) and, mainly by experimentation to relive boredom, can confirm that more expensive av cables do actually make a difference to the picture and sound output.

    Although the signal sent down a hdmi cable is digital there is a visible difference between a cheap standard one and a medium quality cable. However i do agree any cable priced over around £30 is a waste of money as the increased quality from there on is negligible.

  13. hexhunter said,

    May 20, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    In Physics class a couple of years ago my teacher checked his magic book of materials, he found that Gold was more or less as conductive as Copper, so it’s only main benefit is that it wont rust like Copper does, but then who’s ever seen a green scart connector?

    The best metal for a connector is apparantly Silver, but then that’s so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth the care required to keep it from rusting up.

    – Deus X Machina –

  14. DrJon said,

    May 21, 2008 at 8:17 am

    I just heard Nadine Dorries on the Today program. Apparently they lost the bill because the science in England isn’t as good as elsewhere: “science is better in other countries”. I didn’t realise “science” changed depending on which country you were in.

  15. Dr Aust said,

    May 22, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Crikey. Nadine can’t even get the scientific facts that can be cited to support her case right. It beggars belief, really.

    Like I say, remember when you come to vote next time that the Tories initially put Nadine on the Parliamentary Education and Skills Committee. Not that she doesn’t badly need some (scientific) education, but I fear it would be wasted on her.

    As has been repeatedly observed, if you are “not anti-abortion”, but genuinely think 24 wks is too late a limit, than your position should logically be to put in measures to increase access to termination early in pregnancy. This is the position of, e.g., Prof Stuart Campbell the 4D ultrasound man. I don’t agre with him but at least the view is logically consistent.

    If you don’t support better access and services, both for those seeking terminations in the first trimester and for contraception, the morning after pill etc etc, and don’t support more and better sex education, and so on, then anyone with any nous will justifiably conclude you are flat-out anti-abortion, whatever bullshit and flannel you put out to the contrary.

  16. biker said,

    May 25, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    Weeell, MAYBE I can conceive of a marginal advantage in sending your 1’s & 0’s down super-spiffy cable (actually, no I can’t..), but only if your source is connected using this connector, gold plated for “a better connection.”
    Er, that’s an OPTICAL connector by the way……..

  17. biker said,

    May 25, 2008 at 7:42 pm


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