Placebos and Advertising

It isn’t just that expensive wine is more enjoyable, but actually paying more for wine makes it more enjoyable. Researchers from CalTech and Stanford found that the brain’s pleasure centre has more activity when tasting $90 wine compared with $10 wine, even when it is exactly the same wine.

I find it amazing that the brain has such sway over the body, but it’s something that the advertising industry has known for ages.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, I first read about the work of Louis Cheskin, whose work in advertising since the 1930s was revolutionary. His theory of sensation transference was used to design product packaging that would change the way people felt about, and even experienced the product. In one example with underarm deodorants, Cheskin sent the same identical formulation to testers in three different packs with unique colour schemes. The testers consistently reported differences in fragrance and effectiveness, and one colour scheme even resulted in rashes. Cheskin’s consultancy group was named the Color Research Institute, for obvious reasons.

So, given this background, I shouldn’t have been surprised by a recent article in Wired Magazine on placebos. It reported that the “placebo effect” is not a single effect at all, and using different colours or shapes of a pill can make that pill more or less effective in its treatment, even if that pill is just a sugar pill. In other words, the packaging of drugs, whether it is the form of the pills, or the design of the box, or how the medical practitioner gives it to a patient, can change how well a drug works.

While the placebo effect is associated with snake oil, it is considered to operate equally on legitimate drugs. That’s why in clinical trials, the main hurdle is to achieve levels of effectiveness higher than a placebo. But since the placebo effect itself can be made stronger or weaker, or achieve particular effects, you could imagine a trial where the placebo is chosen to have a weak effect so the drug stands a better chance of succeeding at trial. In fact, the Wired article claims that the placebo effect has become stronger recently, making it harder for drug trials to succeed. I can see a more worthwhile application of the placebo effect being to tailor packaging so that not only does it add to the drug’s effectiveness, but may even offset side-effects.

Perhaps in the future, the list of active ingredients on a drug’s packaging will also need to include aspects of the packaging like colour or shape. I may choose to avoid my paracetamol tablets if they are blue because it upsets my stomach. However, there’s one piece of information that’s already on the packaging that may yet be proven to work for other drugs (as it works for alcohol): the price.

And I will leave you with the thought that if more expensive drugs turn out to be more effective (purely on that basis), then may heavy subsidies of certain drugs be causing more harm than good?

Microwave Porridge Recipe

One of the reasons I post recipes on my blog is so that it’s easy for me to find them later. The category of Recipes on the blog is a bit like an ever-expanding personal recipe book.

And while this recipe is rather mundane, it was worked out through long trial-and-error to determine the optimal times for our 800W Sharp Carousel Microwave Oven. Coming into the warm weather, we are likely to have less porridge, and if I don’t write this down somewhere, I will probably have forgotten by the time the cold weather returns.

It is what Harriet reliably asks me for breakfast every morning, so woe betide me if I ever forgot how to make it. (She will consent to eat croissants instead of porridge, but I don’t think that’s a long term option.)

However, while it is simple to make, porridge is the prince of breakfasts. It’s healthy – low GI, low in gluten, low in sugar, high in fibre, high in protein. It’s been eaten for at least 4,000 years. There’s a special day devoted to porridge (10th October is World Porridge Day, if you must know). With a little creativity, it can be made into a variety of flavours.

I find the rolled oats packet’s suggested amounts make too little. Simply doubling them makes too much. These amounts are just right.

Porridge (Oatmeal) for One


  • 1/2 cup (125mL) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup full-cream milk


  1. Mix all ingredients in a decent-sized microwave cooking pot (eg. a rice cooker). Place, uncovered, in microwave for 3:00 mins on HIGH (for 800W oven).
  2. Remove and give a quick stir. Return to microwave for 2:30 mins on HIGH.
  3. Rest porridge for 2:00 mins, then scoop out into a bowl.

Porridge for Two


  • 1 cup (250mL) rolled oats
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup full-cream milk


  1. As above, mix all ingredients in a microwave cooking pot, then place, uncovered, in microwave for 5:00 mins on HIGH.
  2. Remove and give a quick stir. Return to microwave for 3:00 mins on HIGH.
  3. Rest porridge for 2:00 mins, then scoop out into two bowls.


  • If you like, you can probably add a pinch of salt, and also an additional flavour like cinnamon or vanilla into the porridge.
  • Our traditional toppings are 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar or a drizzle of local honey. However, maple syrup, fruit jam, breakfast cereal, or yoghurt could also work if they are more to your taste.

Contactless Sport

The other week, I got my first contactless credit card – a Visa payWave. You’ve probably seen the ads for payWave and PayPass cards – the banks have been issuing them for a while now – and I was keen for my old card to expire so that I could get a new card with this feature.

That said, I haven’t gotten the chance to use its contactless capabilities yet, but that’s not to say I haven’t noticed anything different. The day after I added the new card to my wallet, my Myki travel card stopped working.

The problem is that both my Myki and my new payWave credit card use a wireless standard called ISO/IEC 14443 that operates at 13.56MHz. Myki uses a technology called MIFARE that complies with this standard, while payWave uses contactless EMV technology. However, while they are sisters in the technology domain, neither card pays any attention to the other when in my wallet, and they interfere when I put the wallet near the reader in a station turnstile.

One solution to this is to replace the wallet with a special RF-shielded one, like this, and place the different cards in the right spots so that interference doesn’t occur. However, while I experimented with some strategically-placed aluminium foil in my wallet, in the end all I needed to do was ensure that the EMV and MIFARE cards were distantly separated by a chunk of other plastic cards and a coin pouch (I know my wallet is chunky, but I can still fit it in my pocket!).

While this may be a first world problem, it’s still something that’s going to occur more and more as new contactless cards are added to the wallet. Today, I have just a travel card and a payment card. But in the future, I am likely to have more payment cards, plus a contactless library card, drivers licence, medicare card, health insurance card, auto club membership card, frequent flyer card, etc. It won’t be possible to distantly separate all these cards from each other, and they won’t play as nicely with each other as I would like.

One of the great advantages of contactless is that it’s so convenient. For example, I don’t need to take my Myki out of my wallet to get through the station turnstiles. However, in the future scenario above, that sort of convenience might apply to one card, but not to the rest.

As a software guy at heart, I see the logical solution being to turn all of these cards into pieces of software running on a single piece of hardware – that way the multiple pieces of hardware won’t conflict at the radio level and, essentially, changing the game. Whether that hardware is a phone, a dongle or just another plastic card, this has got to be the future for contactless.