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My Top 5 Movies of 2012

5. The Cabin In The Woods

The theme of this movie: WTF.  Really.

No points for noticing that the cabin kids slightly resemble the Scooby-Doo gang.

4. Looper

I’m tired of time-travel tropes. Somehow this film took the well-worn bits and created something refreshing.

The time travel mechanics don’t hold up to geek-level scrutiny but it’s almost unnoticeable in this imaginative sci-fi thriller.  What’s very noticeable though is Emily Blunt’s very convincing American accent.

3. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

It’s a food porn documentary driven by an elegant soundtrack and by a legendary  obsessive compulsive (by western standards) sushi chef.  As with good food, this film is better experienced than described.

2. The Raid: Redemption

The recipe is simple: Elite SWAT Team vs. a ruthless drug lord in a high-rise apartment.  This simplicity is the movie’s greatest strength and provides the perfect foil for the non-stop and visceral violence.

This is the churrascaria of action films… without the salad bar … without utensils… and serviced by angry knife-wielding waiters.

1. Argo

I was invested from the start to finish. While not completely true to the events of the Iranian hostage crisis, the deviations were in crafting the year’s most nail-biting non-action climax.

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Manny Pacquiao to sell placebo?

It looks like Manny Pacquiao is going into the “power bracelet” business.   Here’s the link on his website.

Manny’s newly-formed corporation, MPBoxing Inc., is partnering with a “power bracelet” manufacturer to create a wrist band that improves strength, balance and flexibility.  The product’s name as quoted from the website is going to be Manny Pacquiao Edition Ion Power Bracelet.

The writeup does not provide information on the workings of the supposed Ion Power Bracelet.  I’d rather not judge the dish before it is served but I sure hope that there is real science behind this trinket.  To be fair, I’ve emailed Timothy James of MPBoxing Inc. for more information on the product.

The product’s name is an indication that it might be derivative of the”ionized” bracelets that were sold by several manufacturer a couple of year ago.  The most popular brand, Q-Ray’s Ionized Bracelet, was taken to court by the FTC and was found guilty of fraud by the Federal Trade Commission of false advertising.  Another website has compiled an excellent timeline.  We all know that these products do not live up to their claims but still they continue to persist in the market.

The well-known Power Balance bracelet is the current poster boy for these type of trinkets.  The only difference between it and these ion bracelets is the “science” behind them (natural energy field  vs. ions).  I’ve discussed Power Balance’s debunking in a previous entry.

The business that is Manny Pacquiao is ultimately his business.  As a fan and a fellow Filipino, I can only ask that he not slap his name on a possibly fraudulent product and make money from it.  As of this blog entry’s writing, the contract between MPBoxing Inc. and the wrist band’s manufacturer has not been finalized.  I sure hope Manny and his management team come to their senses and demand testable proof that the product actually works before endorsing it.

My Top 10 Movies of 2010

A little break from this blog’s theme.

10. Four Lions

A hilarious take on religious fanaticism.  Uncomfortably funny.

9. Mother (Madeo)

A well-constructed Korean suspense drama.  I like the way this movie is shot.  Great twist in the end.  I smell an American remake.

8. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Exhibit A on the theme “Box Office Performance Does Not Reflect How Good a Film Is”.It’s a hate it or love it movie.  Most folks of the videogame generation will love it as I did.

7. Exit Through The Gift Shop

A very unorthodox documentary on graffiti art.  Life imitates art… and subsequently becomes a farce.  Some say it’s a fake.  Fake or not, either conclusion leaves it no less provocative.

6. 127 Hours

One guy trapped in an isolated canyon.  Cuts his own arm off to escape.  How do you make a 90-minute movie out of that?  Danny Boyle shows us how in this action-drama movie without much action.

5. Inception

Sometimes I think this movie is not as smart as it thinks it is.  Nevertheless, it’s a great ride.

4. Black Swan

A heavy-handed psychological thriller.  Follows a ballet dancer’s descent into madness.  Nothing is subtle here.

3. The Social Network

Strip this movie down and you’re left with the timeless themes of friendship and betrayal.  That is why it works.

2.  The King’s Speech

Brilliantly executed script.  A fine mix of history, comedy and heartwarming drama.  As a former stutterer myself, I can say that Colin Firth’s acting was spot on.

1. How To Train Your Dragon

The only movie in this list that I can watch over and over again.  Best flying scenes I’ve seen.

That’s my list for 2010.  Which one is your #1 movie?

Power Balance P@wned

I first heard about the Power Balance bracelet in early 2010.  A user in one of the running forums I frequent  claimed to have improved her 10K PR (personal record) by using the bracelet.  I was ready to dismiss the bracelet  as a more stylish version of the magnetic healing bracelets that were so popular in the early 90s and move on with my forum lurking.  However, this being the age of the internet, I decided to quickly <insert preferred search engine here> it just to satisfy my unnatural curiosity.

I quickly found the Power Balance website.  I was immediately impressed at the “slickness” of the site.  It screams “this is a proven product and is used by professional athletes and we have their faces and paid testimonial on our site to prove it“.  This got me thinking.  If this was a product endorsed by professional athletes then there must be something to it.  Off I go a-clickin’ links on their website.  Here’s are the highlights.

  • The How It Works section is pseudo-science gibberish.  The company claims that the hologram in the bracelet is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.  This seems to be derivative of Eastern mysticism where a natural force is believed to exist among human beings.  The Western version of this force earned a lot cash when it went to cinema.  It was called The Force in Star Wars.  Jokes aside… I typically go into something with an open-mind but given that the basic principle of the product is flawed, I was immediately suspicious.
  • There is demo page with a video.  The video does not actually demonstrate the product.  It shows a series of tests that owners of the product can perform to see if it works.  Strange.  If I were selling a product, I would ensure that the demo would show the product working and not encourage people to try it when they haven’t bought it yet.
  • The testimonial page has an impressive list of athletes including Shaquille O’Neal and Derrick Rose of the NBA.
  • The basic silicon model costs $29.95.  That’s a lot of cash for placebo.
  • The site has a counterfeit warning page which lists retailers that sell fake bracelets.  That’s like the pot calling the kettle black.  You can also use the page to report a fake.  I wonder if they get reports for themselves.

The product marketing fails the basic sniff test.  Any product that claims to do something should show that product doing what it claims to do.  I was wrong.  There is a video out there.

Impressive eh?  I was close to purchasing a bracelet to try it myself.  Further googling led me to Richard Saunders, an Australian skeptic.  He basically saved me $29.95 + shipping.  In the video below, he debunks the bracelet by showing the flaws and cheats in the tests.

Today Tonight in Australia also featured the bracelet and Saunders.

Looking at things logically, we can safely call this product a fake.  In a recent development, Power Balance themselves have admitted that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974. Gizmodo has a screen shot of the statement.  Here another related article from The Telegraph.

Also please check out Dr. Steven Novella’s blog post on recent developments regarding Power Balance.  It includes a timeline of events which shows the work done by Australian skeptics to expose this sham.

Still thinking of getting a Power Balance bracelet?  Why not buy a Placebo Band instead?

The Nitpicker’s Guide to Transformers 3 (trailer version)

I just watched the latest Transformers 3 trailer.  I noticed a small narrative flaw and decided to blog about it.

I must admit that the trailer managed to get me excited even though I still think that Transformers 2 is analogous to mushy turd. I have high hopes that the Michael Bay from the 90’s was on the director’s chair for this movie.  His movies from the last century, Bad Boys and The Rock, were pretty awesome.  Every Michael Bay movie since has been…hmmm…  meh.

The trailer shows Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin discovering a downed spacecraft of supposed Cybertronian origins on the far side of the moon.  It implies that the Apollo 11 mission was a massive cover-up.  Watch the trailer first and follow along.

  • At 23 seconds – We hear Neil Armstrong confirm that they have landed on the lunar surface.
  • At 43 seconds – A mission control radio operator switches to what we can assume to be an encrypted channel for communications.
  • At 50 seconds – The venerable Walter Cronkite appears on TV and says “we now have had confirmation, loss of signal from Apollo 11… Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon”.
  • At 56 seconds – A suited man in mission control tells the Armstrong over the radio, “Neil, you are dark on the rock.  Mission is a go.”
  • Succeeding seconds – Neil and Buzz explores the spacecraft.  An offline Transformer awakens after they leave.  Trailer credits and title rolls.

My nitpick

  • The mission control sequence shows the Apollo 11 lunar module losing radio contact with Earth at one point.  This loss of contact is signaled by Walter Cronkite’s statement.
  • We know for a fact that one side of the Moon always faces the earth.  The side that is always facing away is called the dark or far side of the Moon.  Spacecrafts on the far side of the Moon are not able to directly communicate with Earth as the Moon is in the way.
  • We also know for a fact that Tranquility Base, Apollo 11’s landing site, is not on the far side of the moon.
  • Putting the last two known facts together , we can say that Apollo 11 will always be in direct radio contact with mission control.  So what the heck was Cronkite talking about?
  • As it turns out, the Cronkite segment was broadcast while Apollo 11 was orbiting (not landed) the moon.  This makes sense as Apollo 11 will constantly be going in and out of the moon’s far side.
  • The trailer uses the Cronkite segment in a different context to lend weight to a fictitious scenario.  A scenario wherein Apollo 11 will have moments of indirect radio contact for them to do their “real” mission.  It’s a neat narrative trick.
  • Also, we don’t really expect the public to buy the “loss of radio contact” bit.  Any teenager in school during the 60’s will surely notice that the facts don’t line up.

I’m pretty sure there are more inaccurate things in the trailer that “Lunar Mission” buffs will notice.  I won’t be surprised if someone makes a blog entry out of those.

At the end of the day, it’s all good.  Heck, it’s a movie.  Also, we don’t expect Michael Bay to be scientifically precise right?

Vaccine-nation?

I did two things over the weekend:

  1. Watched FRONTLINE: The Vaccine War on Netflix
  2. Read Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh

I highly recommend these two if you have a couple of hours to spare.  Try the 1st if you’re a couch potato.  Try the 2nd if you’re a bookworm.  If you’re neither an anthropomorphic  root crop nor a highly-evolved invertebrate, then watch/read both.

For the uninitiated, Frontline is a public affairs television program on the PBS network.  In a weird way, I’ve always associated PBS with Sesame Street.  It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that the same network that aired Mr. Snuffleupagus is also airing well-made public affairs TV programs.

What?  PBS also airs NOVA?  Quick, what’s the term for documentary orgasm?  Documengasm?

I digress.

I’ve always liked Frontline’s presentation.  Two sides of an issue are given a fair shake. And if there is no clear dichotomy, the arguments across the spectrum are given a voice.  Fair and balanced?  For the most part, yes.

Frontline’s interviews and narration are woven and sequenced in such a way that they immediately draw a clear picture for the viewer.  It’s the documentary equivalent of a Borg-McEnroe tennis match.  The divisions are clear and the message is delivered like a John McEnroe tantrum but with finesse.  I also think the show allows viewers of one opinion the opportunity to assess the other side’s argument on neutral ground.  You have to.  You can’t shout “You’re wrong!” at the TV and expect a witty retort.  You can change the channel but it defeats the purpose of watching the program in the first place.

The Vaccine War is an enlightening look at the anti-vaccination movement and the medical establishment’s stand.  Science-based media productions would typically portray anti-vaccine folks as kooks.  While on the other hand, anti-vaccination propaganda would portray the medical establishment as the iron-fisted Big Brother entity.  As such, watching a neutral presentation was quite refreshing.  It’s also a personal accomplishment that I managed to watch a Jenny McCarthy interview without uttering “bullshit” once.

During the course of the program:

  • Medical studies were matched against personal and emotional anecdotes
  • Vaccination risks were weighed against benefits
  • The issue of vaccination as a public responsibility vs as a private decision was discussed
  • The latest developments regarding the founder of the anti-vaccine movement was brought to light
  • Tons more stuff

In the end, I think the episode politely takes the side of pro-vaccination.  I also take that side albeit with less politeness.  I think it makes sense to do so.

Watch the documentary.  If you have an opinion on the issue please do comment.

… and what about Simon Singh’s Trick or Treament?  Probably a blog entry for another day.

A Letter Added to the Organic Alphabet Soup

1991.  High school science class had us commit to memory the letters C, H, O and N.  These stand for Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen.  The essential elements of organic life.

1996.  College chemistry class added S and P (sulfur and phosphorus) into the mix.  Professors call it the “big six.”  Easy to remember right?  A little bit of (Johnny) mnemonic if you happen to find yourself answering a quiz question on the topic.

C, H, O, N and a little bit of S and P.

2010.  December 2 is now an important date for our little mnemonic.  From this point onward, it now goes:

C, H, O, N and a little bit of S and P. Not much P around?  You can use As (Arsenic).

Uh oh.  Time to revise those biology textbooks.  Blame it on NASA –> NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

Better yet, blame it on the critter they found.  Meet strain GFAJ-1 of Halomonadaceae.

Critter Details:

  • GFAJ-1 is an extremophile.  In short, it’s a tough little bugger.
  • Found in Mono Lake, California.
  • Mono Lake is extremely salty and alkaline with a pH value of 10.  In comparison, household bleach has a pH of  around 11.
  • GFAJ-1 can substitute phosphorus with arsenic.  Essentially, it can utilize arsenic in its cellular structure.
  • It incorporates arsenic if phosphorus is in very limited quantities as found in experiments.
  • Arsenic is notoriously poisonous to multicellular organisms.

In short, it’s a bacteria that has the option of using a typically lethal element in order to survive.  Amazing right?  Maybe not to us non-scientific folks, but think about it this way.  Imagine meeting someone who does not need to eat but ingests sunlight and dangerous cosmic radiation instead.  A hundred geek cred points if you recognize the guy below:

Alas, I can only dish out silly analogies (please do chime in if you have a better analogy).  I leave it to the experts to provide clear and concise information on the discovery and its implications.

Alla Katsnelson writes in Nature News:

Many science-fiction writers have proposed life-forms that use alternate elemental building blocks, often silicon instead of carbon, but this marks the first known case in a real organism. Arsenic is positioned just below phosphorus in the periodic table, and the two elements can play a similar role in chemical reactions. For example, the arsenate ion, AsO43-, has the same tetrahedral structure and bonding sites as phosphate. It is so similar that it can get inside cells by hijacking phosphate’s transport mechanism, contributing to arsenic’s high toxicity to most organisms.

I’ve also found Ed Yong’s writeup on Discover Magazine to be the most casually informative.  His latest update in the article provides a little dose of skepticism from other experts.

On a less scientific note, it’s interesting that NASA encouraged some hype to build up prior to the announcement by embargoing details until the announcement itself.  Some blogs and online publications even cried Aliens! Not at all far-fetched considering the details of the announcement.  Even I was sucked into the hype machine by speculating that the Cassini probe has finally found life in one of Saturn’s moons.

I’m hoping that that NASA’s next announcement has less embargo and more aliens in it.

———————————————————————————–

Updated: December 7, 2010

I mentioned briefly that Ed Yong’s article referred to some scientists casting doubt on this discovery.  Interesting news broke today on the same note.  A coworker sent me an article in Slate by Carl Zimmer which details criticisms on the find.  No mincing of words from the author of the counter-argument as she used the word “flim-flam” to refer to Wolf-Simon’s research. Needless to say, this is science at work where investigations inevitably follow a major find.

Arsenic isn’t exactly something you want to eat. It has a deserved reputation as a powerful poison. It has been used as a murder weapon and it contaminates the drinking water of millions of people. It’s about as antagonistic to life as a chemical can get. But in California’s Mono Lake, Felisa Wolfe-Simon has discovered bacteria that not only shrug off arsenic’s toxic effects, but positively thrive on it. They can even incorporate the poisonous element into their proteins and DNA, using it in place of phosphorus.

Meanwhile in the interwebs…

I recently found this article on my friend’s facebook page.

WHY WOMEN IN CHINA DO NOT GET BREAST CANCER

I’ve yet to do the research on this one.

Thoughts?  Bunk or not?

———————————————————————————–

Updated: December 2, 2010

I had a difficult time sifting through the internet “muck” in order to get to “real” information.  There are few independent studies made on the topic.  Most of the so-called “research” are biased and funded by either side.  Information available from either side claims to be from independent research but provides no link to said study.  One can only conclude that the results have been cherry-picked to satisfy one side of the argument.

The one good study I found is from the Institute of Community Medicine, University of Tromsø, Norway

The part of the discussion that addresses the question at hand is as follows:

The contradicting results may indicate that any association between milk consumption and breast cancer is not a strong one. Still, one has to remember the methodological weaknesses of dietary assessment methods. A variety of dietary methods have been applied, and we do not know how valid many of them are (including our own). The distribution of milk consumption varies greatly between the study samples, and the definition of reference group differs accordingly. Also, the possibility of sufficient adjustment for potential confounders varies between the studies.”

I don’t need to paraphrase the above paragraph.   Though there is an indicated result, the study does beg for more studies on this topic.

Much thanks to Josebelo Chong M.D. for clearing a path through the muck.

Prof. Jane Plant, PhD, CBE

That’s Incredible! …or is it?

I took everything on That’s Incredible! as the wholesale truth as a kid.  One such episode that amazed me featured James Hydrick (a.k.a. Sum Chai).  His persona is based on what I can describe as a martial artist crossed with a telekinetic monk.  He demonstrated his telekinesis in the show (link below).

JAMES HYDRICK (1981) That’s Incredible “FULL UNCUT VERSION”

To the show’s credit, one of the hosts attempts to debunk Hydrick.  I doubt though if the producers would approve of that.  Hydrick’s supposed powers failed him in another television show in which James Randi exposed him (link below).

James Randi exposes James Hydrick

I still prefer Ripley’s Believe It or Not over That’s Incredible.  The former’s title begs viewers to think for themselves albeit with a little too much subtlety.

Christmas Gift Idea: Baloney Detection Kit

Why not give the gift of knowledge this holiday.

Sure, book gifting for some folks might be one step removed from unforgivable triteness (e.g. re-gifting), but it depends largely on the book.

Might I suggest Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World

It is perfect for the science geek, dork, dweeb, nerd and permutations of the like in your life.  Also great for friends and family you want to introduce to critical and skeptical thinking.