“DNA-Based” Perfume Scam Gathers Steam

July 21, 2008

Longtime Skeptic’s Carnival readers might remember an item I wrote about “DNA-based” perfume way back when. Well, it seems that “My DNA Fragrance” has taken a step up in the world, securing a couple of celebrity plugs and a mention on E!’s Chelsea Lately Show. Their website no longer features jangling flash-based music, but instead a bunch of sweaty spokesbodies writhing in silk to a new slogan: “The scent is in you!”

Unfortunately, the facelift doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by any further explanations of what the heck “based on your DNA” actually means, leaving my skepto-meter solidly at “scam.” In fact, it’s potentially a scam on the level of “naming a star” after someone.

All we know, still, is that you pay nearly 100$ for a Q-tip to swab your cheek, mail it back to them, and then they supposedly have this sample sequenced in a lab. Sometime later, you receive some  “personalized” perfume in an aluminum spray bottle. What happens in between, and what “personalized” even means when translating DNA sequences into smell, is anyone’s guess. They aren’t telling:

Your DNA sample is processed into a numerical sequence similar to a social security number. No one can use this code to deduct any genetic information. Your DNA is used as the blueprint to create a one-of-a-kind fragrance from your genetic code. No two people have the same genetic sequence. Therefore, no two fragrances can smell alike.

My DNA Fragrance™ is made through our revolutionary fragrance formulation process using your genetic sequence as the blueprint to create your exclusive elixir. In the fragrance industry fragrance formulations are a highly guarded trade-secret.

If I took a section of your sequenced DNA (particularly a string without any “identifiers” as they claim), assigned colors to each codon, and then made an image out of it, it would look like, well, random noise. And there are a zillion different ways one could “map” genetic sequences onto another medium such as mixed perfume scents. The results of any one method would technically then be “unique” to you, but the arbitrary choice of method means that you could end up with just about anything at all as an end result.

Why would assigning DNA sequences to smells be any different? The method of translation is everything here. I could build a perfume mix based on the number of moles on your back if I wanted to: the key is not uniqueness, but rather how the source information relates to some final goal. Without telling anyone what the goal of that matching is, and how the DNA sequences help reach it, talking about the final perfume being “based on” your DNA would be just pseudo-scientific psychobabble. So either they are looking for particular genetic markers that in some way relate to genetically determined body odor (thus allowing the company to compliment it with a specific mix of perfume scents), or they’re just arbitrarily translating genetic gibberish into nasal gibberish.

However, if this company has actually identified all the specific genetic markers that determine someone’s body odor, it’s news to me. And news to biologists. While there’s certainly evidence that some significant portion of BO is genetically determined, even top geneticists aren’t anywhere close to having a complete map of the genes determining one’s natural “musk,” let alone knowing all the different genetic variations possible throughout the world’s population. Does this Beverly Hills company know something that top geneticists don’t? Unlikely.

Worse, as I noted in my original article, even if they did have such a process, it would be a tremendous waste of effort. What someone smells like is not some sort of mysterious secret that only your genes can reveal. Noses can do it directly, and on the cheap. Mailing in a patch of a sweaty, pit-stained T-shirt would be a lot more direct and effective way to get information on someone’s unique stench.

Of course, this is all assuming that they even bother running the expensive DNA sequencing at all. Without any information on how your DNA would be mapped to specific scents, this company has a tremendous incentive to simply pocket the huge lab fee, skimp on or entirely omit the sequencing/mapping process, and then just send customers randomly mixed scents. How could anyone argue that they had gotten things “wrong?” What would “wrong” even mean, without any idea of what the translation process is aiming at or trying to match?

In light of all of this, the new testimonials are a hoot:

There are a couple of things that we noticed that might intrigue you too. Glynis insists that there is an element of the fragrance that smells just like the children when they were tiny babies and believe me the look in her eyes tells me something is going on there!

Babies in general have a pretty distinct and recognizable smell, and perhaps the perfume happened to contain an element of that. But if the implication is that the perfume managed by design to capture not only what this specific woman smelled like, but also her children too, then that’s even more implausible than the original sales pitch.

I also noticed that as she moved her hands close to her face the scent would trigger Goosebumps down her arms; something she did not notice herself until I pointed it out to her.

Sounds like a mild allergic reaction to me!

Of course, maybe I’m just spoiling the fun here: giving someone a perfume “tailored to their DNA” may not really mean anything scientifically, but people obviously appreciate the overall sentiment (hence the marketing appeal).

Well, too bad. There’s lots of fun to be had in the world, and not all of it involves buying into dodgy, poorly defined product claims. And for more than 100$ minimum, we’re talking about serious amounts of money that could be spent on sentiments that actually make sense when you think about them.


James Dobson Shocks No One With McCain Flip-Flop

July 21, 2008

Conservative Christian crank James Dobson is apparently the last person in the universe to realize that he will, after all, be supporting the Republican nominee for President this year, contrary to his pre- and post-primary promises.

“I never thought I would hear myself saying this,” Dobson said in a radio broadcast to air Monday. “… While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.”

Ah yes, we’re all waiting in suspense to see what happens next, aren’t we?

Dobson, of course, would apparently like folks to think that this predictable turn of events is all down to recent revelations about the two candidates and some serious pondering on his part:

In an advance copy provided to The Associated Press, Dobson said that while neither candidate is consistent with his views, McCain’s positions are closer by a wide margin.

“There’s nothing dishonorable in a person rethinking his or her positions, especially in a constantly changing political context,” Dobson said in a statement to the AP. “Barack Obama contradicts and threatens everything I believe about the institution of the family and what is best for the nation. His radical positions on life, marriage and national security force me to reevaluate the candidacy of our only other choice, John McCain.”

Changing political context? Back when Dobson said that he could not “in good conscience” vote for McCain, both McCain and Obama were pretty much the same guys they are today. Obama was just as much a contradiction of everything Dobson slouches for, and McCain was just as much… uh, whatever the heck he is.

In fact, the only new developments in the Obamaverse in recent days have involved Obama playing up his more centrist positions. The only recent developments in McCainia has been a mirroring stroll towards centrism, including McCain’s recent, horrifying admission that maybe gay people can raise kids, you know, if no one else wants them. In short, the only new information Dobson now has with which to change his mind is an Obama apparently slightly closer to his positions than before, and a McCain slightly farther.

So here’s a far more plausible scenario: Dobson is an opportunistic gasbag who knows, and always knew, that if McCain won, that he’d eventually be endorsing him. His hyperbole to the contrary was merely a means of trying to throw his weight around: the ultimate in playing hard to get. And given that the whole point of the ploy was first to hurt McCain’s primary ambitions and then to try and weasel as many concessions out of McCain’s camp as possible, his backing off now is doubly pathetic: Dobson seems to have entirely failed in both realms. As a last resort, he seems to have settled on the lame booby-prize goal of nudging McCain to pick a more orthodox evangelical-type as a VP.

But whether he wins or loses that final gasp effort, the result will be the same: the hapless and increasingly irrelevant Dobson stuck having to chew through his own foot to get it out of his mouth.


Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.


Prospective DNC/RNC Convention Protesters Already Extremely Annoying

July 19, 2008

Oy vey. Drudge and other media sources are starting to profile some of the groups planning on turning the upcoming party conventions into three-ring freak circuses, and I’m already sick of these people. Here’s a sampling of the bounty of bombastic banner-waving boneheads who think that strutting around in the street with posters is an effective way to accomplish anything but some decent exercise:

“We are completely peaceful,” said Rob Weiland, a 37-year-old courier from Denver and member of the group We Are Change Colorado. “We follow the ideals of Ghandi.”

Spectacular. Except that Gandhi was opposing the sometimes brutal colonialist exploitation of an entire country. “We Are Change,” on the other hand, are a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy nuts with a website so full of rambling YouTube nonsense that it crashes my browser (warning: website may crash browser).

Read the rest of this entry »


Late Night TV Discovers Most Offensive Thing Ever

July 9, 2008

Apparently, if you own a television (and thank goodness I chucked mine), and had it switched on during the 4th of July, you may have been lucky enough to encounter this utterly unbelievable dadaesque monstrosity of commercial insanity:

Liberia: “What, too soon?”

And it’s real.

Anyway, after watching that commercial, I sort of wanted to call this 1-900 number instead.


Ancient Jewish Tablet Ignites Controversy: Another 3-Day Messiah?

July 5, 2008

When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.

The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.

As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.

However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)

And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.

Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?

You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!


Adulterers for Marriage!

June 29, 2008

No wayFrom the “What, Seriously?!” file comes this incredible story of Congressional hubris: ten Republican Senators are co-sponsoring the usual federal “marriage protection” balderdash. That, and the complete lack of explanation of how banning some marriages would in any way help preserve or enhance other marriages, is nothing surprising.

What is surprising is who the Republicans tapped to headline this doomed bill: habitual prostitute client David Vitter (R-LA) and suspected old-school gay cruiser Larry Craig (R-ID).

If this isn’t all just an elaborate joke… then it’s a wonderfully, wonderfully amusing world we live in.


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