A reader writes:

For various reasons, we still use wired landline phones at our house. I have an old 80's phone (first generation touch-tone) that belonged to my grandmother that I would like to continue to use. The only thing really wrong with it is the ringer.

It has an actual bell and clapper ringer. But the plastic posts that hold the bell in place inside the body of the phone have broken, so instead of ringing properly when it gets an incoming call, it just makes a feeble rattling sound. Since I'm not all that fond of the harsh sound of an old-style phone bell, what I would like to do is rip out that bell and replace it with the kind of electronic warble circuit that modern phones have.

First, what on earth are those modern ringer circuits called, and can one buy one or do I have to get a cheap phone and rip it apart? And second, is this a drop-in replacement, just solder the modern ringer in place of the bell and it will work, or is it more complicated than that?

And finally, are there instructions out there on the net for doing something like this and I just haven't found the magic search term that will get Google to take me there?

I tried googling this question a few times, but the signal to noise ratio of people talking about unrelated phone topics was too bad and I always came up empty. And then I realized, Hey, if I send Dan a few bucks I'm pretty sure he knows the answer and I will have saved myself a lot of time and frustration.


(And he did, indeed, send me a few bucks!)

The basic parts of old-fashioned phones - from the Bakelite era - should all be interchangeable, because they're just passive and electromechanical components powered by, and dependent upon, the phone line to operate.

So if you were working only with gear of that era, before the pushbutton era, you could probably build a telephone using the earpiece from one phone, the mic from another, the ringer from another, and the pulse-dial mechanism from yet another.

I think the basic electrical characteristics of the Plain Old Telephone Service, and its modern equivalent which is full of high-tech networking gear that pretends to be the POTS as far as phones are concerned, are about the same around the world.

The phone line constantly provides about 48 volts at low current to run telephone systems. (It's sometimes called minus 48 volts, because the phone system is "positive ground", to reduce corrosion of underground components. The power supply wires are at about -48V relative to the power returns and ground.)

The phone line tells a phone to ring by superimposing about 90 volts at about 20Hz AC on the normal 48V DC. When you pick the phone up and it goes "off hook", the line voltage drops to single-digit volts, and your phone should draw double-digit milliamps of current, at most.

(There's a long-lived strain of Magical Free Energy Machine that claims to allow you to tap useful power from the phone company's battery banks, taking advantage of that 48 volts that's sitting there all the time. Actually, the continuous current consumption of a phone is supposed to be in the microamps and the entire subscriber loop isn't expected to draw more than ten watts. The phone company will notice and may get angry with you if your house draws even a few watts from the phone line. You can power a little LED reading lamp or similar low-current device from the phone line without much trouble; the free-power scammers usually promise that you can substantially reduce your electricity bill, though, which is not true.)

Modern phones with transistors in 'em react to these different voltage conditions by doing what the old phones did, only fancier. This presents a problem for you, because when everything's controlled by a circuit board that activates different things in response to different input voltage characteristics, there's not necessarily a simple "ringer" that can be removed and put in another phone.

I wouldn't be at all surprised, though, if you could take the circuit board of a modern phone, with ringer attached but no handset any more, and just stuff it inside the casing of an old phone that still has everything but a ringer (just removing the half-broken bell mechanism would do the job there). Wire the newer phone's board in parallel with the old phone's parts and it ought to work. You may be violating a law or two by connecting an unapproved home-made device to the public telephone system, but if it's electrically the same as the original two phones plugged into a Y-adapter, I don't see any potential for real harm.

I'm not certain about this, though, and welcome input from commenters who've monkeyed with phones more than I have.

(Oh, and if you just want to reconstruct the broken plastic parts inside the phone, that's a perfect job for polycaprolactone, the nylon-like plastic that softens in hot water or a barely-warm oven and can be used, and reused, to make plastic parts of any shape. The main problem with hastily-squished-together polycaprolactone parts is that they tend to look blobby and weird, or spookily organic, but that doesn't matter for parts that're inside a casing that nobody will see.)

On the pulverisation of potatoes

I should write things here. I used to write things here all the time. I stopped to write a book, and haven't written that yet either. Sorry about that.

Apropos of what I am currently doing: Potatoes!

Because I am a human and am sane, I like mashed potatoes. I didn't make mash very often, though, because I am also lazy, and all the peeling got me down.

Because I did not wish to use a drill, a brush and a bucket, I bought one of these contraptions...

Crank peeler

...which actually works pretty well for peeling vegetables in bulk. (It can also be used to make curly fries, and the long spirals of peel it creates when peeling potatoes make surprisingly good biodegradable cat toys. The crank-peeler I have has a suction cup that holds it onto the kitchen bench well enough; there are also versions with a clamp.)

I also bought a potato "ricer", like this one...

Potato ricer

...which works like a gargantuan garlic crusher, and turns any chunk of cooked potato (or other vegetable) small enough to fit into it into instant extruded mash, with one squish of the handle. (There are many other models, some quite large. I don't know if the suspiciously cheap metal eBay ones are any good.)

But this was all still too much of a production. The ricer's a bit annoying to clean (one of the deadly flaws of many kitchen gadgets), and you can't effectively mix additives (butter, egg, garlic, whatever) with the spud in the ricer. So you end up having to mash "manually" anyway, to mix the additives in.

But now, in what I think we can agree is one of the greatest examples of laziness improving the human condition ever witnessed, and which I'm sure we can also agree is a brand new idea that could have come from nowhere but my own genius, I have developed a technique which solves all of your pesky potato problems. (You won't believe this one weird trick! Chefs hate me!)

What you do is, you don't peel the potatoes.

Buy washed potatoes so you don't have to wash them either. Cut them into similar-sized lumps. Lumps with skin on will, I think, cook a bit slower on the skin side than lumps without. Adjust lump size and shape accordingly.

Remove any really egregious eyes or gashes or other spudular injuries. Don't worry about this too much, though. You're going to be pulverising these things; little imperfections will vanish.

Continue to dress and cut spuds and dump them into your large pot until you think a suitable mountain of spud has been achieved. Put pot in sink, run it full of water, slosh some out again, let it flow through a bit, to wash the lumps clean of whatever stuff still clings to supermarket washed potatoes.

(My house has one of those "instant" hot water systems where the water flows through a gas heater rather than sitting in a big tank, so our hot water doesn't taste funny. I therefore do this washing stage with hot water, to make the cooking a bit faster.)

Transfer spuds to stove. Cook until when you poke a chunk with a knife or skewer there is no longer any perceptible crunch.

Drain spuds and mash, with ordinary or fancy handheld masher.

To prevent your masher from getting clogged with skin, pull a knife through the spud-chunks to slice the skin-bits up. (My potato ricer is completely useless on spuds with skin. The skin blocks its holes immediately, and then what it manages to mash squirts out vertically or seeps around the blockage in a quite faithful simulation of the phenomenon of "paradoxical diarrhoea". Don't all thank me at once for this information.)

Add butter and egg and whatever else you like. To make mixing butter with spud easier, melt the butter in the microwave. (Cover the butter if you do this; it tends to explosively splatter before all of it is melted.) If you've somehow managed to make the spud too dry - by, for instance, not adding all the butter that exists in the world - add some milk too. If the spud is too soggy because you've by some terrible wicked miracle managed to add too much butter, add egg; the egg cooks in the hot potato and stiffens the mix.

And you're finished. There's surprisingly little difference between mash with and without skin; when it's thoroughly mashed the skin can be quite hard to see. And leaving the skin in lets you pretend you're being virtuous and getting more vitamins and stuff.

I invite suggestions of ways to streamline my mashed-potato workflow even further!

Too big to believe

Sorry about not writing anything for ten thousand years. I started writing a book. I'm not very good at it.

Apropos of nothing, the other day it occurred to me, as I am sure it has occurred to many other people, that there's a parallel concept to the Big Lie.

A Big Lie is a lie so audacious that people can't believe you're not telling the truth. If nobody can believe that you would just make up reasons to exterminate a significant percentage of the population of Europe, or found a religion entirely upon stuff you pulled out of your arse, or throw trillions of dollars down the toilet in the pursuit of imaginary terrorists, then you can be successful in such ventures.

(Hitler of course said the Big Liars were in fact the Jews, who he went on to explain were to be expected to lie about everything all the time. This would make it a little odd that anybody believed their lies, regardless of size, but never mind. Water under the bridge, old chap. Some credit is deserved for anybody whose own Big Lie is an accusation that someone else has told a Big Lie.)

What occurred to me the other day is that there's a converse to the Big Lie: The Big Truth.

A Big Truth is a truthful statement with such vast and terrifying implications that people refuse to believe it.

There's a term for the logical fallacy of disbelieving something because its implications are unpalatable, the "argument from adverse consequences" or just "appeal to consequences". "God must exist, because if he doesn't then I will not be able to live forever." A Big Truth is a very large and shiny example of this fallacy. (And, as for believing a Big Lie, it's not necessary that everybody disbelieve a Big Truth, only that people disbelieve it purely because of the largeness of the disturbance to their world that would occur if they believed it.)

A few Big Truths that spring to mind:

Illegal drugs are less harmful than legal ones.

The consequences of a lifelong addiction to clean heroin, in and of itself, are: Constipation. You're also better off getting your stimulation from amphetamines instead of caffeine. Arguments against this are generally of the form "if you take way too much of that drug and don't eat right and never get any exercise then you'll be very ill", which can of course be said of alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine. (And sugar, for that matter, though it's not a drug.)

Many leaders of the free world are by their own admission guilty of crimes for which the punishment is death.

The first and worse of all war crimes is the crime against peace, the starting of a war of aggression, because that's the one that makes all of the other war crimes possible. (Inevitable, even, because there's never been a war of any size in which some combatants didn't take the chance to have some war-crimey fun.)

Lying about your enemy and saying they are lunatics who attack their own people and have terrible weapons pointed at us and really it's them that are starting the war et cetera does not get you off the hook, because that's how everybody starts a war of aggression in a "free" society. But everybody knows Dubya and Cheney and Rumsfeld and their minor lickspittle Blair and extremely minor lickspittle Howard will never see the inside of a courtroom over this.

Climate change is happening, even if there are leaflets and novels with the author name bigger than the title that say it isn't.

Oh, and gods do not exist.

What Big Truths can you think of, readers?

On killing numerous aliens with a rubber-band gun

I'm glad there's no PC version of Grand Theft Auto V, because I don't have a console, so this removes the temptation to play the darn thing.

If previous GTA games are anything to go by, GTA V will have numerous punishingly hard missions that are almost impossible to finish the first time, aircraft that are only slightly easier to fly than the real things, and a split personality in which it tries to tell some kind of serious crime story in a world in which vehicular homicide is a normal part of driving, cops try to murder you if you nudge their car while parking, and the entire city is wallpapered with Viz-level sight gags.

I much prefer the Saints Row games. They have the same basic structure as GTA and its other clones - open-sandbox city, plot missions and side diversions. And Saints Row started out with a pretty straightforward console-only GTA clone. But they've gotten crazier and crazier since.

This is a mission of average weirdness, in the last Saints Row game. (In case you missed it, the guy who put the tiger in the car is voiced by Hulk Hogan.)

Saints Row IV is a lot weirder than this.

I had to play all the way through it before I could write this, to make sure I knew about the part three-quarters of the way through where the game turns into Command & Conquer for an hour, or something.

It doesn't do that. It does have a few fun genre shifts, though, as you'd expect based on the little Atari Combat and text-adventure bits in the previous game.

Herewith, some almost-totally-spoiler-free observations:

If, like me, you're playing Saints Row IV on PC, you will probably not like the tight third-person camera. There is no in-game field-of-view adjustment. Get this mod to back the camera off before you even start playing.

The mod is the same one that did the same thing in Saints Row III (officially known as "Saints Row: The Third"; the next one will probably be "SaintV RoVV V.V"). Engine-wise there's almost no difference between SRTheThird and SRIV. This also means you do not need a very powerful PC to run it. Like Bioshock Infinite, SRIV is a game that has to run on current-generation consoles. So the PC version isn't quite as pretty as it might be, but has quite modest hardware requirements.

I've no complaints about any other components of the PC version of SRIV. Like Saints Row III, it plays nice with alt-tab, and on my computer at least, never crashes. There are very few non-crash bugs that I've noticed, either. Start a mission that requires you to go somewhere, and dick around doing a zillion random things, collecting stuff, buying clothes, playing whole minigames, whatever, on the way there? No problem, works fine. I did fall through the ground once, and got stuck under the scenery in a Diversion once, and once was glowing blue and floating around slightly above the ground until I saved and loaded. Oh, and sometimes the game decides to play a given NPC voice log whenever you start a play session. This is not a deal-breaker.

SRIV parodies a variety of other games, and a movie or three, quite well. Though the developers must have winced when they played Far Cry III: Blood Dragon and discovered that it opens with the exact same parody that opens SRIV, but does it better.

(If you've any interest in silly action games and Ahnie moofies, by the way, you must play Blood Dragon. There's less to it than there is to SRIV, but Blood Dragon is bargain-priced to compensate. And it is fucking hilarious.)

Saints Row IV has, of course, caused permanent damage to my psyche, because I am Australian and played the full version of the game, which you may have heard contains Things Australians Cannot Handle. In the case of SRIV, those things are a DLC-only weapon which resembles a Pear of Anguish on a pole...

...which you stick up people's bottoms, making them look rather surprised, and then they fly into the sky training happy little colourful stars.

It also contains characters taking imaginary alien drugs in a computer simulation within an actual game, in order to give themselves the ability to run and leap and punch like superheroes, in that computer simulation, within an actual game. Which will cause Australian children to start smoking crack, or something.

Aaaaaanyway, Saints Row IV grew out of an expansion pack for Saints Row III that was going to be called, with the series' typical intellectual humour, Enter the Dominatrix. Matrix-style, it'd be mostly in a simulated city, partly in the dystopian real world outside it.

They decided to expand that DLC into a whole game. And there's plenty of game here - an easy 24 hours of gameplay without rushing or dawdling. I like to play a few of the "Diversions" over and over and level weapons I don't even use much just in case I'm forced to use them on a mission, so I took thirty hours to finish the first time.

(I'm playing through again, to try different weapons and avoid a couple of upgrades that turned out to not be a great idea, like the one that gives your super-sprinting a tornado effect that blasts everything near you into the air. Oh, and like previous Saints Rows, there's two-player co-op as well, now including a few Diversions that you can only play if you have two people. That'd add an hour or three.)

Making a whole game out of a hypertrophied expansion pack could have been a very bad idea, but I think it actually works really well. With two caveats.

Caveat one: You still have all the car-customisation stuff from the previous game, but your eat-your-heart-out-Neo superpowers in the simulation and the lack of roads in the un-simulated world mean there's very little reason to bother. You can still tear around the city on the wrong side of the road and do burnouts to amuse pedestrians and terrify hostages in freshly-hijacked cars, for small cash and XP rewards. The game even gives you some... unusual... vehicles to play with. But the only vehicles that're actually useful in a game-progression sense now are fast aircraft, which can move you across the city a bit faster than you can run, and get you to high places if you can't be bothered solving a few jumping puzzles.

Caveat two: The city map is basically the same as in the last game, but now you've got superpowers, and the combination of the map and the somewhat clunky superpower controls (on PC, at least) isn't great when compared with games that were designed to work like this from the ground up. Look at the Prototype games, for instance; you never get hung up on an awning or cornice or something there, and it's significantly easier to land a super-jump exactly where you want to.

(Your movement powers in SRIV are utterly shamelessly cribbed from Prototype, but that in turn may have cribbed from the Crackdowns, and then there's Infamous and Destroy All Humans too... but those are all console-only and I've never played them, so I'm not sure. Saints Row IV may not even be the most ridiculous Action President game ever, because Metal Wolf Chaos also exists.)

There are an awful lot of blue collectible things in SRIV. YOU DO NOT NEED TO COLLECT THEM ALL, thank god. There's doubtless some achievement for getting them all, but I maxed out all of my superpowers and still had 200-odd blue things left over.

On normal difficulty, SRIV is pretty easy for any experienced PC gamer, especially if you do whatever side missions are currently available so you have their rewards before you do the next main mission. I like this. I'm not really here for a gruelling gaming challenge; I want to see the sights and have fun. I have a feeling of dread when I start a mission in a Grand Theft Auto game. I have a feeling of anticipation when I start one in the last couple of Saints Rows. (I never played Buggy Saints Row I; SRII was definitely harder than III or IV.)

Because SRIV is pretty easy, you don't need to grind for money or XP. If you enjoy playing a given Diversion over and over then go for your life, but if you power-level early on then you're probably going to be stuck at the level 50 cap with most of your gear maxed out for a few hours of gameplay at the end.

On the subject of which, the maximum-level ability upgrades in SRIV don't make you as tough as you were if you bought all the level 50 upgrades in SRIII. This is good, because the top SRIII abilities made you literally immune to harm from falls, vehicle impacts, fire, explosions, and all bullets. Only melee attacks could hurt you at all. This was somewhat ridiculous even by Saints Row standards.

Once you get past the non-stop over-the-topness of everything, this is actually quite a well-considered, highly-polished game. When you end a Diversion, for instance, you always end up back at the start location, so you can easily play it again if you want to. There's also a new, fun and elegant way to reset your notoriety to zero if you're tired of shooting cops. And it's impossible to leave followers behind when you Hulk-jump off into the distance.

The only really badly-judged thing I noticed in the whole game is that you spend a fair bit of time collecting blue thingummies, and there are a lot of windows in buildings that are also lit up blue. After a while you get a thingy that indicates actual collectibles on the minimap, though, which pretty much deals with that distraction.

This is not the Most Imaginative Game In History, but quite a lot of stuff happens that you would not expect, and the jokes are good. There is a modicum of challenge, and I presume a bit more if you choose the hard difficulty setting. But mainly it's just trying to be fun, and succeeding.

Playing this game while reading Ready Player One AND Promethea has loosened my already uncertain grip on reality even more.

Highly recommended.

Reports of MWO's death have been somewhat exaggerated

A reader writes:

I enjoyed reading your MWO posts, even though I never tried it myself. I came across this article regarding its current state and the ongoing community ragefest: Mechwarrior Online Forum Ragesplosion/

I'd love to hear your take on the situation.


I haven't written about MWO for ages, but I've still been playing it a lot. Well, at least until I got Saints Row IV the other day and started spending my time killing aliens with dubstep while listening to Paula Abdul. (Or possibly the other way around.)

There has indeed been a sudden spike in stories about MechWarrior Online Community Rage, and those stories do indeed reflect a rageful portion of the game's community. But this is of very little importance to casual players. If you like big stompy robot violence, give it a try; you can have a lot of fun with it without paying a penny.

Here some things that can actually ruin an Allegedly Free Game like MWO.

1: Developer goes broke/crazy/off to the Bahamas with all of the money.

2: Technical problems - frequent crashes, things not dying when you shoot them, awful performance on sub-$10,000 computers, et cetera.

3: Zillions of cheaters ruining the game for everyone else.

4: Zillions of griefers ruining the game for everyone else.

5: Zillions of foul-mouthed children attempting to ruin the game for everyone else.

6: Forests of bizarre incomprehensible rules and mechanics that turn off new players, and which even experienced players often can't figure out.

7: Not fun to play for more than ten minutes unless you pay real money.

8: Outrageous "grind" - having to play for an awfully long time to buy new toys with the in-game money you've earned. (Unless, of course, you pay real money!)

9: Boringness. Every match is much like the previous. Caused by insufficient difference in stuff you can do, too few levels, too few game modes.

In MechWarrior Online's case:

1: Not a problem. So far as anybody can determine, the developers are getting a reasonable money-flow, and aren't blowing it all on ale and whores. The people complaining about the game are, of course, really complaining about the developers, non-delivery of promised features, delivery of unwanted features, and so on.

Given that development of the game started in late 2011, I think it's in pretty good shape. Which is good, because its non-beta Actual Launch is happening on September the 17th.

(All of the stuff current open-beta players have will carry over into the "Launched" game. There may or may not be any major new features launching along with the game.)

2: There are only minor technical problems. A few players suffer frequent crashes, which may of course just be their computer. Once in a while it crashes for me, too; there is, for instance, a bug that currently crashes the game if too many people have been shooting too many machine guns for too long. But it's basically fine. The game also does not have huge system requirements.

It is currently strangely difficult to hit small, fast 'Mechs - the Spider is currently disproportionately difficult to destroy. There are no major hassles beyond that, though.

3: The only "cheat" that currently exists is Third-Person View (3PV), which is the pole holding up the middle of the Big Top at the Circus of Forum Complaints.

By default the game now starts in 3PV, with your camera above and behind your 'Mech; you can turn of 3PV-on-startup in the options.

The idea of the new view mode, besides letting you see at least the back of your cool paint job, is to help newbies by letting them see their 'Mech from the outside. You're meant to be able to see what direction your walking tank's legs (which are like the tracks of a tank) and your torso (the tank turret) are pointing. This reduces the amount of time newbies spend rubbing on buildings and wondering why they're not going anywhere.

3PV is moderately useful for this, but the view is close enough to your 'Mech that you actually can't see the legs of many larger models. Which is a bit silly. 3PV also makes aiming a bit more confusing, because your targeting reticle is still "projected" from the 'Mech's cockpit; this makes it seem to jump around the landscape from the higher point of view of the 3PV drone.

F4 toggles 3PV mode, and you can see who's using it because the 3PV "camera" is actually visible in the game - it's a little floating drone with a red flashing light on it that you, and your enemies, can see clear across the map. (The drone is indestructible, but highly visible.)

In certain situations... can use 3PV to see the enemy without them being able to see anything but your drone. This can be very bad news in "pro" games, and it's fairly bad news in normal games, because there are a lot of snipers in the game at the moment. This gives rise to a lot of matches that involve people hiding behind hills or buildings, trying to spot the enemy, then popping out for one shot and hiding again.

I, however, do not often find myself in a snipe-fest game, mainly because I play the "Conquest" game-mode (stand on various spots to "capture" them and add their points accumulation to the team total), rather than the simpler team-deathmatch "Assault" mode (which still has capturable bases at each team's start point, but you're only meant to capture those as a last resort, or to conclude a game where you can't find the last surviving baddie).

Organised snipers can still pretty much lock up a Conquest win, but it really doesn't seem to happen much, and I don't see much 3PV peeking either. If I played nothing but Assault, and if my Elo score were good enough that the game kept throwing me into games with "pro" players, I'd probably be much more annoyed about this.

The sniping problem has been exacerbated by the fact that the last big patch for MWO introduced the "12v12" game mode, putting 24 players on the field (provided the matchmaker can find that many before its timer runs out...) rather than the previous 16. Even in 8v8 there were often situations where one schmuck wandering out into view of the enemy team was killed before he could get a single shot off; that's now 1.5 times as likely.

Again, though, I haven't found this to be a major problem - it just encourages more tactical play and situational awareness. And being aware of where your guys are and where the enemy probably are is actually harder in 3PV mode, because in 3PV you don't have a minimap. It also takes two seconds to deploy or recover the 3PV drone, so you can't just keep quickly flicking between modes to keep an eye on everything at once.

6: Confusing rules? Ghost heat. Oh, lawdy, ghost heat.

Just go to the Smurfy stats page and scroll down to "Heat Penalties per weapon"; the orange numbers (with details when you hover the mouse pointer over them) tell you how much extra heat you get if you fire more than X of weapon-type Y within one second of each other. Penalties for SRMs and Streak SRMs are small, for other stuff are larger, for AC/2s are kind of buggy last I looked, it's all a complete schemozzle.

Just don't install more than the green-number quantity of a given weapon class and you don't have to worry about this crap at all. It's a silly mechanic, and I hope they scrap it.

Besides that, the only really confusing thing in the game at the moment is ECM, which when it was introduced was pretty close to all-powerful. Now, ECM can not only be countered by an enemy ECM in the correct mode or inactivated by a TAG laser fired from outside its range but inside the TAG's range but now the Beagle Active Probe also neutralises a single ECM within 150 metres and your ECM will also be neutralised for four seconds if you're hit with a PPC or ERPPC.

Got that?

Fortunately, this is not actually very annoying in play. If you're a newbie and don't have ECM of your own, then you still can sometimes target enemies and sometimes not, depending on the state of the ECM chessboard. If you're a newbie in one of the 'Mechs that does have ECM, just resign yourself to the ECM sometimes not working.

Oh, and there's some weird stuff involving missile tubes at the moment, too. Not only can it be difficult to get your LRM 15 shooting out of the missile mount on your 'Mech that has 15 tubes, and your LRM 5 shooting out of the mount with six tubes, but in certain situations some 'Mechs shoot more missiles than the launchers should have, apparently with completely corresponding damage done and ammunition consumed.

Again, though: Not a game-breaker.

7: No, you don't have to pay real money to have a good time. You don't even have to pay real money to get "General XP" to unlock fancy modules and such; you make GXP (very slowly) in normal play. The "Hero" 'Mechs that can only be bought with real money vary from "lousy" to "OK".

8: MWO is fairly grindy at the moment. They reduced money rewards in the big 12v12 patch, and it does indeed now take rather a while for a non-real-money player to earn enough to buy and kit out a big 'Mech. You still get a fountain of money in your first 25 games, though, so newbies can get into anything they like quite quickly.

By the standards of really grindy free-to-play games, MechWarrior Online is quite mild. This is not much of a compliment, though; Koreans be crazy.

9: On the boringness front, MWO currently has only two game modes, not very many maps, and no overarching galaxy-conquest metagame. But there's a lot of 'Mech customisation possibilities, so anybody who likes stompy-robot games is likely to find MWO diverting for quite a long time just as it is.

If you play high-level Assault games then the infestation of snipers may indeed make your game more boring; it's not very exciting to be a sniper, either. Conquest in the middle of the Pick-Up-Game pack, though, is quite varied, especially if you've got a few very different 'Mechs to pilot.

The only really serious missing feature in MWO, if you ask me, is a good way for PUG gamers to communicate with each other. At the moment there's text chat... and that's it. No quick text-chat macros, no voice chat. (There's some voice-chat thing that's partially integrated with the game, but you have to install it separately and nobody uses it.)

There's a half-decent command mode, though, with a full suite of move-to-here, attack-this, defend-this sorts of waypoint commands. Few PUGs feature anybody using this mode, but there's nothing stopping you grabbing command for yourself and trying to herd the cats.

Overall, MechWarrior Online is not fatally flawed, or a pain to play. And you really can play without spending a penny, though realistically you're likely to end up dropping at least ten to twenty bucks if you really enjoy the game.

I'm still going to be jumping over buildings and blowing up tanks with missiles from my power-armour in Saints Row IV for another day or three. But I have played a lot of MWO, and needed the holiday. Do feel free to check it out in my absence.

UPDATE: There's been another patch, on September the third.

Changes relevant to this post:

* There's a little tutorial now, which takes you through elementary movement, but not weapons. Better than nothing.

(To get to the tutorial, click the "Game Modes" button, which is next to the big "Launch" button. Game Modes also lets you go to the Training Grounds, where you can plod around an empty map and shoot stationary enemies.)

* PPCs, ERPPCs and Gauss Rifles have been nerfed in various ways as a further anti-sniper effort. Gauss projectiles are now much faster, but all other news for these weapons is bad.

* The third-person camera now gives a better view of your 'Mech's legs.

* Changes to hit-detection and ping-compensation code which may make it possible to shoot a bleeding Spider once in a while.

Also relevant to new players: The new patch has changed the "trial" 'Mechs (which anybody can play without buying them) again, too. Now they're a stock Raven, Quickdraw and Stalker, and a "Champion" Centurion-A.

The stock tabletop builds used to be all you ever got as a trial 'Mech, which was bad, because it meant newbies' first experience of the game was always in something that doesn't work right in MWO. Almost all stock builds run way too hot, have far too little armour, or both.

The addition of "Champion" builds to the trials has helped a lot, because Champ 'Mechs are community builds with quite good loadouts. But this time the stock 'Mechs aren't too dreadful either. The Quickdraw-4G runs too hot and is missing some armour, but the trial Raven-3L is not too dreadful and has ECM, allowing newbies to play with that a bit. The trial Stalker-5M is only missing a little armour and actually has a decent number of double heat sinks; it still runs hot because of all those lasers, but having more guns than it can safely fire at once is the whole idea of the Stalker.

All that glisters

I've written often about scams, of one kind or another. I find them fascinating.

I've tied myself in knots classifying this one, though. To my mind most examples of it are clearly over the "scam" line, and I think almost everybody would agree that at least some examples of it definitely are, but...

Look. Here's the deal.

The other day, I wrote about "liquid metal bullion"...

Melted fusible metal in plastic bag

...which was presented on eBay as some kind of investment that's fun for all the family. It's actually of some interest as a novelty, but has little monetary value and is full of poisonous heavy metals.

While exploring the peculiar world of the "liquid bullion" dealers, I discovered another odd category of eBay "bullion":

"Gold" bars and coins, that actually have very close to no gold in them.

And "silver" ones, too, and a few others plated with more exotic precious metals. But mainly gold.

Small fake gold bar with a winged Jesus on it for some reason

I bought one. Here it is. I paid a grand total of $US2.30 for it, including delivery, from this dealer.

It took a couple of weeks longer to arrive than it should have - possibly because the sender didn't know the difference between Australia and the UK, as far as address labels go - but apart from that, the transaction was entirely unremarkable.

I was going to cut into the bar to show it wasn't solid gold, but since it sticks to a magnet, I think we can pretty much take that as read.

A metal that sticks to a magnet must contain iron, nickel and/or cobalt, iron being the cheapest. So under the plating this is clearly a slug of iron or steel of some sort.

For the sake of completeness, though, I still measured its vital statistics.

Fake gold bar

The bar's dimensions are about 44 by 28 by 3 millimetres, which would give it a volume of about 3.7 cubic centimetres if it didn't have rounded corners and that embossed image of Jesus-with-wings-for-some-reason on one side...

Fake gold bar in display case

...and an angel and some symbolic Commandments on the other. (It also came with this little clear plastic case, to help keep the practically molecularly thin gold layer intact.)

(Oh, and yes, I did specifically choose this particular style of object-of-no-value made to appear desirable by a perfunctory shiny coating. On account of the symbolism. I'm dead subtle, me.)

When I measured the volume of the bar more accurately via the immersion method (PDF), as per the liquid "bullion", I got 3.5 cubic centimetres.

When I weighed it normally, I got 27.4 grams.

That gives a density of 7.8 grams per cubic centimetre. My lab balance and cack-handed technique are accurate enough that I'd say with some confidence that the real density is somewhere in the 7.75 to 7.85 range.

The density of pure iron is 7.9 grams per CC; various steels have densities between 7.75 and 8.05 grams per CC. Common mild steel is about 7.85.

So yeah, this is indeed a chunk of cheap steel, as any fool who stuck a magnet to it could have told you without all the science stuff.

At this point you might be thinking, "No harm, no foul". It looks like gold, but it doesn't feel like gold or in any way beyond superficial appearance attempt to resemble gold. So it's just a decorative trinket, not an attempted scam. Right?

Well, maybe. Except the auction title was:

HOT EXTREMELY RARE!! "Jesus"_1 Troy oz. .999 24K Pure Gold Layered Bullion Bar

Let that sink in for a moment.

As I write this, the same seller has more bars just like this one, plus other ones with these descriptions:

Amazing price MAPLE LEAF GOLD BAR One Troy oz 100 MILLS .999 Gold 24K PLATED


1 oz 24K GOLD plated elephant OF SOUTH AFRICA the Krugerrand BAR 100 Mills RARE


...and so on.

All of the descriptions contain keywords you'll find in auctions of solid-gold items, but some of them also have the plain words "plated", and "gold clad ... iron". Others, though, only reveal their not-anything-like-solid-gold nature with odd terms like "100 Mills" or "gold layered".

Both of these terms seem to be recent inventions, at least when it comes to bullion. By definition, there's no such thing as "plated bullion"; it's as silly, though not as hazardous to health, as calling that low-melting-point alloy that has lead and cadmium in it "non-toxic".

EBay currently has quite a lot of allegedly-bullion items using these odd descriptions.

There actually is a unit called a "mil", with one L instead of two; it's a thousandth of an inch. That's obviously not what it means here, though, because a hundred mils is a tenth of an inch, which is 2.54 millimetres. If you can figure out a way to make something that's three millimetres thick yet plated with 2.54 millimetres of gold on both sides, a career as a TARDIS engineer awaits you.

What "mill" actually means to the eBay gold-plated bar-and-coin sellers is... unclear. Perhaps it's a millionth of an inch. A hundred millionths of an inch is 0.00254 millimetres, 2.54 microns; that actually does qualify per the US Federal Trade Commission as "Heavy Gold Electroplated". You can get thicker plating that that, too, up to the point where it qualifies as gold-filled, with the gold accounting for a readily measurable fraction of the item's weight, rather than just a barely-weighable plating. (Apparently a general rule of thumb for jewellery subject to wear is that one micron of plate thickness will wear off the item per year.)

Given that the "mill" is not any kind of defined unit and seems to be interchangeable with the similarly un-defined "gold layered", though, I don't think it's excessively uncharitable to assume that the actual thickness of the plating on these things is as thin as possible without letting the colour of the underlying metal show through.

I mean, the one I bought is supposed to be "1 Troy oz", too, but it only weighs 27.4 grams, not the 31.1 grams of an actual troy ounce. It doesn't even quite make it to an ordinary avoirdupois ounce; that's 28.35 grams. Given gross failures like this, I doubt the vendors spend a lot of time worrying about the actual thickness of their plating.

But so what, I hear you say. This is just the usual level of cheerful eBay flea-market dodginess, right? Anybody who's been on eBay for a while is probably familiar with its own special not-quite-scams.

Listings, for instance, that don't make it quite as clear as they might that the item being sold is an empty box which at one point contained the new and exciting game console prominently featured in the listing title. See also people selling a picture of a fancy guitar, or a miniature dollhouse version of a big-screen TV. Et cetera. If the buyer cannot figure out why a "one ounce" gold bar is selling for $2.30, wasting money on eBay is probably not their biggest problem.

I invite you, at this juncture, to check out the highest prices people have paid for "100 mills" or "gold layered" things on eBay, by searching completed listings. Red numbers indicate something that didn't sell, green numbers indicate a sale.

As I write this, that search is headed by "1 OZ GOLD SOUTH AFRICAN 2010 KRUGERRAND COIN BULLION 100 MILLS 999.9 24K LOT 10", which a UK seller unloaded for £670 ex delivery - more than a thousand US dollars.

Those were clearly not real Kruggerands, because the listing says: "This 2010 coin is layered with 100 mills thick of pure 24k Gold". But right before that, the listing copies from Wikipedia and says, "The Krugerrand is a South African Gold Coin, first minted in 1967 to help promote South African Gold. The coin, Produced by the South African Mint, proved popular and by 1980 the Krugerrand accounted for 90% of the global coin market".

Which is true. But those solid gold coins are not what this dealer is selling. They are selling ten coins that look a bit like them, but are each worth no more than my little plated Jesus-bar.

Unquestionably, the person who paid £677.95 delivered for these ten shiny poker chips was under the impression that they'd just bought ten ounces of highly fungible gold at a huge discount.

They are not alone in this thought. Scrolling down that search turns up a ten-gram "100 Mills" bar that sold for a hundred UK pounds, then a five-gram "100 Mills" bar selling here in Australia for $AU122.50, then a five-gram "100 Mills" bar from an Irish dealer selling for €87.50.

Four "2010 UK SOVEREIGN COINS -1oz - 24k PURE GOLD Layered .999 Fine -TAX FREE"? Those had "100 Mills" in the description, and went for £159.90 delivered. Another seller was pleased to relieve a customer of £154.94 delivered for "NEW 2013 Royal Coronation & 2012 Jubilee 24k PURE GOLD Layered Double Coin Set", again allegedly "100 mill" plated and "Genuine Coins - Not Copies Or Reproductions"!

That same seller also managed to unload a single "2010 BRITISH SOVEREIGN 24K PURE GOLD Layered Proof COIN -1oz .999 Fine *MUST SEE", for £106.99 delivered.

And on and on it goes.

So: Is this a scam?

I'd say yes, because "good faith" is a critical legal concept. Good-faith, as I've written before, is the undoing of a long list of "technically legal" rip-offs. If there is no way anybody would agree to a given deal if they knew exactly what it was, then camouflaging the true nature of that deal, however lightly, is attempted fraud.

Deals of this nature are, of course, not hard to find, and they're often being offered by large corporations, not eBay fly-by-nights. Payday-loan shops, dodgy mechanics, questionable sweepstakes, and umpteen outfits whose business model seems to accept a repeat-business level below one per cent and the kind of word-of-mouth goodwill usually only enjoyed by serial killers.

What about rebate programs that require you to send the same cut-out barcode from a package to two different addresses simultaneously? Reward-points programs predicated upon normal consumers' points expiring before they accumulate enough to be able to redeem them for anything? Airlines that routinely sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, in the expectation that not everybody will actually get there on time (thanks, interminable "security" nonsense!)? And, of course, the worst invention in the history of capitalism, gift certificates, whose principal reason for existence is "breakage", that portion of the gift cards sold which are never redeemed.

There's plenty of other underhanded activity in the bullion market, too, with the endless promotion of overpriced "collectible" bullion coins (particularly to certain market segments...), and sharp dealing in the "cash for gold" business. But at least all of those outfits generally are selling and buying actual gold, not plated slugs that only superficially resemble actual bullion.

Advertising a near-worthless little chip of gilded steel as "Gold Bar 5 Grams 'Canadian Maple' 100 MILLS .999 24k Fine Bullion!" is not a good-faith act. You're clearly fishing for suckers.

There are some other murky terms used in describing these bullion-like shiny objects. "HGE", for "heavy gold electroplate", for instance, which is a term that exists in the jewelry market, but not so much in the bullion one. And "gold dipped", suggesting there's some worker out there spending all day dunking Krugerrand-resembling circles of steel in a cauldron of molten gold. There's "thick layer", too, which I think always indicates a layer actually notable for its thin-ness.

This rather cumbersome eBay search is for several of these terms, but not the slight-honesty-indicating terms "not pure gold", "not 100% solid gold" or "not solid gold". It has plenty of hits even when it's only searching the titles, and hundreds of hits if you click the little "Include description" box and then click Search again.

People sometimes pay big bucks even for the eBay items whose listings do include "not solid gold" disclaimers, though. And everybody who buys one of these things for more than the couple of bucks it's worth should have paid more attention. There's almost always some clue, if only what turns up when you search for terms like "gold layered" or "100 mills".

But not everybody is able to pay more attention, or aware of just how many scams there are on eBay.

I would also be willing to bet, given the long and depressing list of large green numbers in a completed-listings search for this gold-plated tat, that some people have spent a lot of money on these things. Perhaps they're hoping to quickly flip this amazing bargain to local precious-metal dealers. Perhaps they're under the impression that they're providing for their childrens' future. All they're actually doing, though, is transferring their life savings to a person selling scrap iron, and possibly lining themselves up for criminal charges if they ever try to sell these damn things on.

Not everybody selling gold-plated imitation bullion is a scumbag. Some of the "gold layered" listings are fixed-price "Buy It Now" items, for instance. Those cost a few bucks more than the auctioned ones usually sell for, but by their very existence they provide a strong clue that both they and their auctioned cousins aren't what your slightly dotty grandparent with an iPad and time on their hands might at first assume them to be.

Someone could still blow their entire retirement nest egg on the Buy-It-Now ones, but it'd take some effort. And the buyer would at least end up with a really big pile of almost worthless gold-plated novelties, which'd look good in an outraged local news story.

Some of these things also have pretty-much-honest descriptions, that clearly say something like "plated" or "replica" instead of "dipped" or "layered" or whatever. (The one I bought may not have put any disclaimers in the title, but its description text did contain "*PLEASE REMEMBER THESE BARS ARE NOT SOLID GOLD*".)

Even these better dealers do still love the magic word "bullion", but they're nonetheless more or less in "good-faith" territory, if you ask me. Even a moron in a hurry might realise the product is not solid gold when it says "plated" right in the auction title.

Oh, and just to confuse things even more, you can get real silver coins and bars that've been "layered" with gold. People overpay for those, too. As I write this, a Completed Listings search shows that someone thought a "2000 Washington Mint Sacagawea 24kt Gold Layered .99 Silver 4 Troy Oz Coin" was worth $US167.49 delivered. The gold value of that coin is as usual negligible, but presuming the seller's telling the truth about the amount of silver in it, then it is at current spot prices worth about eighty bucks.

So, still a rip-off, but only by about a factor of two.

("Silver-gilt" items are quite common in the legitimate jewelery business, especially for large items like sculptures and medals. Olympic "gold" medals, for instance, are silver-gilt to keep the price down. By specification they have to be be at least 60 by three millimetres, which at 2014 gold prices would make them cost the thick end of seven thousand dollars. There are more than three hundred events in a Summer Olympics and another hundred in the Winter, so that'd add up, especially for larger-than-spec medals; the London 2012 medals were unusually large, at 85 by 7mm. That much solid gold is currently worth well north of $30,000. So instead, Olympic golds are silver with a generous six-or-more grams of gold plated onto it, to make sure that even if the medal-winner insists on wearing the thing around all day, it won't wear through the plating.)

As I write this, a Completed Listings search for these gold-plated silver coins shows only six sold going back to May this year. The least anybody paid for one was $US105 delivered. For a coin worth, I remind you, $80. And that only when you manage to find someone who'll listen to your story about how there really is some silver there under the silly gold plating.

(This problem may solve itself, because very thin gold plated straight on top of silver will slowly turn silver and tarnish as silver atoms migrate through the gold. To avoid this, "proper" gold-plated silver jewellery has "barrier layers" in between, in a sandwich that may be silver, then copper, then nickel, then finally the gold. I doubt the sellers of "gold layered" "100 mills" silver coins go to these lengths to make sure their products retain their lustre.)

High in the most-expensive-first Completed Listings searches you'll also find a number of people paying a few hundred dollars for one hundred plated coins or ingots. Those people have not been ripped off either, though I presume most of them are hoping to get in on this occasionally-lucrative business themselves.

Please don't do that.

If you appreciate kitsch, do feel free to decorate your wall with the complete series of ULTRA RARE SOVIET NAZI JESUS ELEPHANT LUCKY MONKEY MARTIAN GOLD LAYERED ALMOST AN OUNCE HYPERBULLION INGOTS.

But I wouldn't pay more than two bucks a unit, if I were you.


A reader writes:

I was watching an awesome Honda ad featuring the ghost of Ayrton Senna and his 1989 car...

...and I noticed people arguing in the comments on Jalopnik about Doppler effect, which I think you can hear in the video as the "car" goes past the camera.

Per your previous writing about "common sense" and concepts that "slither out of people's mental grasp", can a series of speakers set up around a racetrack and playing the sound of a car actually create the same Doppler effect as the actual car did?


No, they can't.

The Doppler effect happens when a moving object emits something, in this case sound waves. When each new wave is emitted in front of the sound source, it's closer to the previous wave than it would have been if the emitter were stationary. Behind the emitter, each new wave is a bit further from its predecessor than it would be if the emitter weren't moving.

This works for light as well, hence "redshift" and "blueshift".

We don't notice redshift or blueshift in everyday life because Doppler shift is a proportional effect, and the speed of light is so high that no light-emitter that humans normally deal with moves at an appreciable fraction of lightspeed relative to us. The speed of sound, however, is relatively low (about 340 metres per second close to standard temperature and pressure), and the human ear is quite sensitive to changes in pitch. So we can easily hear this effect on the sound of a car engine...

...or horn, when that car passes us at speed.

(My favourite example of car-horn Doppler shifting, which includes a lot of moderately comprehensible cursing, is this one.)

If you set up a bunch of speakers to imitate the sound of a passing car, none of them are moving, so there will be no Doppler shift from the point of view of a stationary observer. You could create the same effect by deliberately adding pitch shifts to the sound being played so that it sounds correct from a given listening location, but that'll make it sound wrong to listeners somewhere else. Doppler changes are caused by waves being bunched up and spread out by motion, and that just doesn't happen if neither listener not sound-emitter are moving. There's nothing about the order in which speakers play sounds that change what the sounds are.

(OK, there might be some interference effects audible at various listener locations. But that wouldn't sound Doppler-y.)

There actually would be Doppler effects if you were in your own car driving around the racetrack during the ghost-of-Senna performance, though. A moving listener creates Doppler shift in exactly the same way as a moving source:

Again, though, the pitch-shifts wouldn't sound right. They'd entirely depend on your speed relative to whatever stationary speakers are sounding at a given moment.

A related concept to this is the idea of the faster-than-light laser dot.

Consider flicking the dot of a laser pointer across, say, the face of the moon. (Presume you've got a laser that's well enough collimated that it still has a small dot at that distance.)

If the dot crosses the moon in, say, a hundredth of a second, and even if you ignore its curvature the moon is about 3,400 kilometres across, then that dot is going about 340,000 kilometres per second, which is faster than light. Address for delivery of Nobel Prize in Physics will be provided on request.

Unfortunately, and to the chagrin of a great many cats, a laser dot is not a "thing". It's just where photons happen to be falling and bouncing off at any given moment. Moving a dot faster than light is indeed perfectly theoretically possible, but you might as well give two blokes each a flashlight with an accurate timer built in, have them synchronise timers and then move a thousand kilometres apart, and then turn their flashlights on and off so that one light-pulse happens a thousandth of a second before the other. Presto, now a dot has moved at a million kilometres per second, more than three times the speed of light!

Except that doesn't mean anything, because that dot of light is not a thing moving faster than light. You could fill the space between those two flashlights with a trillion more flashlights timed to give a wonderfully smooth movement of the dot, but the dot would still not be a thing travelling faster than light. A spinning lawn sprinkler may have a contact point between droplets of water and the circumference of its spray pattern that goes round and round at a quite impressive speed, but that's just where the water hits the lawn, it's not an actual separate moving object.

(By the way, smart alecks, relativistic time dilation does not mean the flashlight timers would get significantly out of sync if the flashlight-carrier on one end got to his assigned location on foot, taking weeks, and the other got to his by rocket-sled at ten thousand kilometres per hour. At 10,000km/h your clock will tick slower than that of a stationary observer, but only by a factor of 1.0000000000429. The fastest object humanity has ever made is the Helios 2 probe, at 70,220 metres per second relative to the sun; it achieved a time dilation factor all the way up at 1.000000027!)

A further extension of this idea is to say, "OK, what if I've got a stick a million kilometres long, and I hold one end of it and spin it around my head in a circle in, say, five seconds? The circumference of a circle with radius one million kilometres is 6,283,185 kilometres, and the tip of the stick it will go all the way around that circumference in five seconds, which is 1,256,637 kilometres per second. The tip of the stick is a thing and not just a dot of light, so it's really going at that speed, which is 4.2 times the speed of light, NOW can I have my Nobel prize?"

No, you still can't.

Ignoring the obvious issues regarding the construction and inertia of a million-kilometre broomstick, there is no way for one end of an object to know what's happening to the other end at faster than the speed of light. Motion of the object occurs when the molecular bonds that hold it together are stretched and pull the molecules along, and there's nothing about those molecular bonds that causes them to influence each other faster than light. Otherwise you could make an instantaneous communication system by taking your very long magic broomstick and tapping on the end of it in Morse code or something.

So even if your very long stick were made of alien indestructium with an infinite tensile strength, spinning the middle of it round and round would just cause the whole thing to start wrapping up into a spiral. You could then try cracking it like a whip if you wanted, because you're Cowboy Galactus or something, but the other end of the object would still not travel faster than light, because no "information" within the object, in this case the information regarding the location and motion of its component particles, can travel faster than light either.

This seems bizarre, but again this is because we're talking about scales far larger than those on which humans normally operate. On the very large scale, nothing is particularly solid. If planets and stars and even galaxies run into each other, the energies involved may be unimaginably large, but all of the actual objects behave pretty much as if they were made of blancmange.

(Actually, in galaxy collisions, few to no actual collisions of the objects that make up the galaxies are likely to happen, because galaxies are mostly empty space.)

If Unicron were actually the size of even a small planet, no material that even theoretically exists in the universe would be stiff enough for him to be able to transform like his car-sized distant relatives. (Well, maybe if he's made of some kind of degenerate matter and has magical technology to prevent himself from collapsing into a black hole. Once you can cancel gravity, you might as well move information faster than light, too. It never seems to take a Transformer or Decepticon much more than twenty minutes to get to anywhere in the universe, after all.)

To reward anybody who managed to get to the end of this post, the ghost-of-Senna ad sounds pretty good, but the Shell-Ferrari one from a few years ago is much better:

(I think that version's the best one on YouTube in both resolution and sound. Aspect ratio's wrong, though.)

Psycho Science is a... sort of... regular feature here. Ask me your science questions, and I'll answer them. Probably.

And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.

A metallurgical detective story

There are people on eBay selling "liquid metal bullion".

They don't like to tell you exactly what metal this alleged "bullion" is, except they always swear it doesn't have any mercury in it.

They generally say it's solid at room temperature, but will melt from the heat of your hands.

Those of us with a mild recreational interest in the periodic table will draw a rapid conclusion if given the characteristics "metal, melts at body-heat temperatures, doesn't explode on contact with moisture...

...and non-toxic."

That'd have to be gallium, right?

Wrong. I bought some, and it's nothing like the gallium I already own.

I didn't know what the hell the "liquid bullion" was. Not, at least, until I played around with it for a while.

Fusible metal ingot

There seems to be some sort of tradition in the hobbyist low-melting-point-alloy business of casting your little ingots in unorthodox moulds. The mould is usually something that clearly indicates that the metal was liquid at temperatures low enough that to not instantly destroy a chocolate-box tray, silicone ice-cube tray, or similarly non-refractory mould material.

Wood's metal casting

I cast my own Wood's metal in a Lego mould.

You could craftily fake this by casting wax in a chocolate tray, then using that form to make a sand mould, or something, but I don't know of any such scandals in the retail weird-metal market.

All of the low-melting-point alloys exist because of the odd fact that mixtures of chemicals can have a lower melting point than any of the ingredients.

On the face of it, this doesn't make sense. I mean, the universe should be nice and sensible and line up with the way ancient philosophers hoped it worked, from tiny billiard-ball atoms all the way up to clockwork galaxies. Then, the melting point of an alloy would be the melting point of its constituents, weighted by what proportion of the alloy each constituent took up. So for Wood's metal, for instance, you'd have:

50% bismuth, melting point 271.5°C
26.7% lead, melting point 327.46°C
13.3% tin, melting point 231.93°C
10% cadmium, melting point 321.07°C

Weighting each of those by the fraction they take up gives 135.8, 87.4, 30.8 and 32.1; add those up to get your naïve simple mathematical logical melting point and you get 286.1°C.

The melting point of Wood's metal is actually only about 70°C. Stuff like this is why metallurgy was much more art than science for a long, long time.

(In case you're wondering, which you probably aren't but I was, for these kinds of calculations it's safe to use Fahrenheit, Celsius or Kelvin temperature scales. The arbitrary zero points of Fahrenheit and Celsius don't screw it up. Beware anybody who tries to tell you that a 30°C day is "twice as hot" as a 15°C day, though, because that's so dumb as to possibly be not even wrong. 15°C is 59°F, for instance; making 59°F "twice as hot" gives you 118°F, which is 47.8°C. Kelvin starts at absolute zero, so it's the only scale in which you could actually fairly say one temperature is twice another, though I'm still not sure how useful such an observation could be. Starting at -273.15°C makes "doubling" room temperature in Kelvin rather dramatic, though; 15°C is 288.15 Kelvin, double that is 576.3 K, which is 302.85°C.)

Many alloys don't have this oddly low melting point. Brass, for instance, has a melting point from about 900 to about 940°C depending on its formulation; it's composed of copper (melting point 1085°C) and zinc (melting point 420°C). The melting point of brass is higher than you'd expect from naïve proportion calculations.

But the most common low-melting-point alloy is ordinary tin-lead solder, which exhibits the melting-point-reduction effect. Tin melts at 232°C, lead melts at 327°C, but if you mix 63% tin with 37% lead you get an alloy that melts at only 183°C.

And so, back to my "liquid bullion" ingot, which I bought on eBay Australia for $AU19.01 delivered after watching several people buy their own for prices that exceeded my modest snipe.

It was quite small. Only about four centimetres in length...

Fusible metal ingot in hand

...and it weighed more than fifty grams.

That made it dense enough that, despite the seller's claims of non-toxicity, I treated it as if it were made of solid cadmium until I could figure out the thing's composition for myself.

(The seller was this guy - possibly NSFW! - who is now out of the "liquid bullion" business, having found the whole thing to be "nothing but a headache". That "NSFW" is there because after he got out of the liquid bullion business, he sold several pornographic coins. I am not making this up. As I write this he's only selling a sofa, but I'm sure he'll offer the Internet flea market some more eyebrow-raising products in the near future.)

The listing for my "bullion" ingot gave no hints regarding its makeup, but I bought it anyway, partly because low-melting-point metals interest me. I also figured that "liquid metal bullion" might be just as entertaining as "copper bullion", with which I had a lot of fun a few years ago.

(Tl;dr: Base metals sold by the troy ounce may be a fun novelty, but are not a good investment.)

Copper-bullion sellers are still rampant on eBay, but this liquid-metal schtick is new, and extraordinary.

It is, you see, mystery bullion! An unknown metal! Usually billed as very rare and valuable and desirable, whatever it is, but available to you today for amazing prices!!1!

I saved the listing from which I bought my little ingot. I won't upload the whole page-copy here, though, because malware-detection services tend to flip out, with some justification, if they find what looks like an eBay listing on some site other than eBay.

Here's what the listing said, though, with only the eBay trimmings and images removed.

Children, avert your eyes! Just reading this may delete more than a year of science education from your brain, and make you noticeably less intelligent than you were before!

999 Pure Liquid Metal Bullion INGOT 99c A GRAM 52.6 Gram Not 1oz Silver bar Coin



You will receive 1 ONE
Ingot as pictured which weighs 52.6 GRAMS IN TOTAL. Size is (1 & 3/4" long) (1" Wide)  (1/4" High)




Purchase as many as
you like. You will only pay the quoted postage cost as I will cover any EXTRA

This metal is
considered  bullion as it is pure rare

It melts at the low
temperature of less than 30 degrees, will even melt in your hand if held long


Spot Price is
increasing at a rapid rate with the demand of this

Pure Liquid Metal

Only 99 cents per
gram and one off low postage cost of $3.00

There's... I mean...

Look, I'm not even going to start with that description. It's the sort of scientific word-salad more often seen in explanations of crackpot cancer cures.

Oh, OK, just one thing: "Rare earths", and metals which are precious for their rarity, are not the same thing, no matter what certain eBay sellers think.

The elements known as "rare earths are actually quite common; the only "rare" thing about them is their concentration in any given load of ore, meaning you need to dig up a lot of the planet to get a little bit of rare-earth element. And then it's difficult to separate the different rare earths from each other, because several of them have very similar chemical properties.

Rare-earth elements are today used to make neodymium-iron-boron magnets, hence the term "rare-earth magnet". Modern lighter "flints" are made from a very sparky, pyrophoric...

...and somewhat excitable...

...alloy of different rare earths, plus a few other things and iron for strength.

Rare-earth magnets and lighter flints are not very expensive per gram, though, because they contain no precious metals. For a few bucks you can now buy a ferrocerium stick intended for use as an emergency fire-lighter - just scrape it with a knife blade, file or similar item to create a shower of sparks.

(There are fancy versions of these things with built-in scrapers, but a simple bare ferrocerium rod is almost as good. You can get a little one with a handle, perhaps a stick of magnesium too for use as high-temperature tinder, and a bit of hacksaw blade for scraping and spark-striking, for about a dollar delivered. A chunkier bare ferrocerium rod will only set you back a few bucks from a dealer who doesn't quite know the difference between magnesium and ferrocerium, and may theoretically save your life one day. It will definitely provide you with considerable entertainment and some tiny holes burned in whatever happens to be near you when you play with it.)

The YouTube link in the above exercise in eBay creative writing goes to this video, from the brain-polluting "HouseholdHacker". That dude used to make ridiculous practical-joke "how-to" videos, which on the one hand encouraged a lot of adults to do entertainingly silly things, but on the other hand probably turned some kids off science. Which took that guy right the hell off my Christmas-card list.

Now, though, HouseholdHacker seems to be producing serious videos. The one linked to by the liquid-bullion guy isn't what you'd call packed with educational information, but the only actual inaccuracy I noted in it was incorrect rounding so the melting point of gallium was 0.1°F off. That is not exactly a capital crime.

But I still think that you're going to transition from "joke videos to get people to do stupid things" to "actually telling the truth", you shouldn't keep your old name. Mixing the two is completely uncool, man.

(Oh, and while I'm on this subject, see also my favourite example of this latter crime. Good ol' Kip deleted all of his highly remunerative Metacafe videos at some point after he reinvented himself as the video face of Make magazine, thereby ensuring that I stopped watching any of their videos. I think Make came to their senses and quietly fired him after a year or three; their videos are much better now, and they've recently started an interesting new series.)

If you want a video about low-melting-point alloys that's not from a professional bullshit artist, you could do a lot worse than turn to "Brainiac75":

Oh, and if you want a good video about gallium alone, then you obviously need to turn to actual scientists...

...and their magnificent example of an actual scientist who looks like a mad one from a horror movie.

Aaaaanyway, anybody who hasn't yet died of old age reading this page may remember that the question was... what is this "liquid bullion" stuff?

While I was sniping auctions, little fifty-gram ingots like mine kept selling for twenty-five Australian dollars or more. That's a good price for fifty grams of gallium, but it's not a good one for a similar amount of toxic low-melting-point alloy. Small amounts of anything cost more per gram, but you don't have to buy a huge amount to pay a lot less. Brainiac75 above said he paid only ten Euro cents per gram for some of the lower-melting-point alloys in his videos.

(The very lowest-melting-point alloys in Brainiac75's video are alarming concoctions like an amalgam of periodic-table neighbours mercury and thallium. That is not ten cents per gram, but it stays liquid down to -60°C. Cesium-potassium-sodium makes it down to -78°C without solidifying, but it also explodes on contact with water.)

For my first attempt at identifying the metal, I contacted the seller thusly, batting my eyelids innocently:

I've received my little ingot, and now I find myself wondering what it's actually made of. Your listing doesn't mention this, other than to say that it contains no mercury. What actually IS this alloy?

I'd also be interested to learn where to look up the "spot price" you mention in the listing. (Which again, of course, requires me to know what alloy this actually is.)


While I waited for him to reply, I measured the little ingot's density.

Accurately calculating the density of a small object is tricky. Getting a vague ballpark figure isn't hard, especially if the object is roughly a rectangular prism, as this one was. Just measure the edges, fudge any bevelled edges into a sensible-looking in-between number, and then multiply the numbers. Doing that with the little ingot gave me a volume of about 5.6 cubic centimetres. Since it was bang on its advertised mass of 52.6 grams, this gave me a density of about 9.4 grams per cubic centimetres.

The density of solid gallium is only 5.91 grams per cc, so clearly this wasn't gallium.

(Gallium is also one of those odd materials that expands when it freezes; liquid gallium's density at its melting point of 29.8°C is about 6.1 grams per cc.)

My faithful triple-beam laboratory balance gives me quite accurate weight numbers, but I wanted a more accurate volume than fudged dimension-multiplication could offer.

When a metal has a low melting point you can, of course, just melt it and pour it into a graduated cylinder to measure its volume. But gallium, if there was any of it in this alloy, tends to "wet" a wide variety of other substances. So, presuming there was gallium or something that behaves like it in this alloy, getting all of it out of a narrow graduated cylinder again could be difficult.

Another way to measure volume is by filling a graduated container with water or oil or whatever else is compatible with the object whose volume you want to measure, and then dropping the object into it and seeing how far the water level rises. This often doesn't work any better than just measuring the edges, though. It's a good quick strategy for extremely irregular objects - figuring out this technique is what is suppose to have sent Archimedes running naked down the street shouting "Eureka!" - but I've tried it several times with different items, and every time I got miserably inaccurate results.

There's a much better way of measuring object volume by immersion, though. You just need to add a precision scale to your apparatus. Pretty-well-calibrated 0.1-gram-resolution digital scales are now commodity items, and my abovementioned lab balance will do the job nicely.

What you do is, you put some water - or, again, a different liquid if water is incompatible with the object you're measuring - in a vessel deep and wide enough to completely submerge the item whose volume you're measuring, without the object having to touch the bottom.

You then weigh the vessel and the water, or just press the zero-out "tare" button on your digital scale.

Now, you immerse the item you want to measure in the water. If it's less dense than water you have to push it down into the water until it's fully submerged, but it's probably more dense than water, in which case you can just suspend it rather than push it in.

The important part is that the object must be immersed, but not resting on the bottom of the container. This is because what you're measuring is the increase in weight of the container, not the rise in level of the liquid in it.

Whatever you suspend your object with should have as close to zero volume as you can manage. I used some kapton tape, partly because it is narrow and extremely thin yet has good adhesive, but mainly because it is unquestionably the scienciest of all of the more than two dozen kinds of tape I have to hand.

("Florists' crepe-paper tape?" Got that. "Colourful metallic tape less than a millimetre wide meant for decorating fingernails?" Yup. "Copper and aluminium foil tape?" Of course. "Self-amalgamating?" Which kind would you like, the old rubbery type or the new silicone stuff? "Gaff?" Multiple colours. "Foam draught-excluding door-seal tape?" Please. "Bendable-fridge-magnet tape?" Yes sir. PTFE thread-sealing tape? Naturally. "Unstretchable fibre-reinforced tape?" Ashamed to say I have only glass-reinforced, must get the aramid kind too. "Velcro tape and liquid tape?" Possibly the first and definitely the second doesn't really qualify as tape, but I've got 'em both anyway. And you can buy off-brand probably-kapton polyimide tape all over the place these days; it's generally just called "high temperature tape".)

Again, if you're measuring the volume of a ping-pong ball or something by the immersion method then you'll have to push it down into the water, but that'll still work. You could push it in with three needles mounted on some gantry over the scale, for instance.

Anyway, you suspend or shove the thing you're measuring into the water, suspending or shoving as little other stuff in there as possible, and the vessel will then become heavier by the mass of the liquid the object has displaced. Water weighs one gram per cubic centimetre at one gravity, so presuming you're using water and don't need numerous decimal points of accuracy, each gram of weight gained equals one cubic centimetre of object volume.

If you're now having some kind of "common sense" brain-spasm, wondering why a ping-pong ball shoved into a glass of water should make that glass as much heavier as would an identically-sized sphere of tungsten suspended in it, you may find this PDF soothing.

The initial mass of my glass plus water was 436 grams even; dangling the "bullion" ingot in it raised that to 441.5 grams, for a volume of 5.5 cubic centimetres.

This made me pleased about my original guesstimate of 5.6 cubic centimetres, though slightly less pleased about the time I'd spent bent over a laboratory scale to get a scarcely-different number. It's a bit like that story about how the Great Trigonometric Survey painstakingly measured the height of Mount Everest and came up with exactly 29,000 feet. That's exactly how tall everybody had always said the mountain was anyway, so, the story goes, they added another two feet to prevent people thinking they'd actually just gone to ground in a club in Calcutta and spent their time inventing snooker and the gin and tonic.

Anyway, 5.5 cubic centimetres and 52.6 grams gave me a density of 9.56 grams per cubic centimetre.

I now had a reply from the seller regarding what he reckoned I'd actually bought. He said:

Hi, the metal is frenchs metal type3 or gallium, both the same.


He was receptive to my then pointing out that "French's metal" and gallium are very much not the same, the latter being non-toxic and the former containing both lead and cadmium. It was at this point that he told me he wasn't selling this stuff any more on account of its headacheyness, which is I suppose one way of describing what happens when you sell poisonous heavy metals, both lead and rather more scary cadmium, as "non toxic and non hazardous to handle".

"French's metal" is an unusual term for an unpopular substance. It's easy to find people selling Wood's metal, which is bismuth, lead, tin and cadmium, and melts around 70°C. Rose's metal is also pretty commonplace; it's just bismuth, lead and tin, so not as poisonous as Wood's metal, and melts just below the boiling point of water.

French's metal winds the melting point down to only about 41.5°C by adding indium to the Wood's-metal mix. There are some further variants that melt even lower thanks to the presence of thallium as well; if this stuff really melted in your hand, I strongly suspect it'd have to be one of the thallium alloys.

Which would be bad. Especially if you were melting it in your hand.

There are very good reasons to have as little thallium in your life as possible. Cadmium is something in the order of ten times as toxic as lead, but you can at least touch the stuff with your bare hands without appreciable danger, provided you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

Metallic thallium can pass through the skin, though, and is much more toxic than cadmium. Exact comparisons are difficult, because human thallium exposure is usually via one of its several useful-yet-toxic compounds, rather than the pure metal. But thallium is probably tens, if not hundreds, of times as toxic as cadmium. See this PDF from the US EPA, for instance, and compare with MSDSes (previously) for cadmium, like this one or this PDF one.

You really, really don't want to get any thallium on you.

(One of the symptoms of thallium poisoning is that your hair falls out. Needless to say, this means thallium sulfate used to be used as a depilatory, not that long ago. See also the use of lead and mercury compounds for skin whitening. Thallium is also still used in some countries to poison rats, ants and troublesome spouses.)

Fortunately, most people don't need a fusible alloy that melts at as low a temperature as bismuth-lead-tin-cadmium-indium, and fewer people still need the alloys with thallium as well. Presumably, because of this relative unpopularity, "French's metal" and its relatives are often not called that, and just stuck on page 137 of the specialist-alloys catalogue with no name beside their ingredients and melting point.

On with the investigation, then. What actually is the melting point of this stuff?

If it were pure gallium then it would indeed melt in your hand, provided the ambient temperature was high enough; gallium melts at 30°C (86°F). It's too dense to be pure gallium, though, so if it melts at blood temperature then it's probably terrifyingly toxic.

"French's metal" formulations - without thallium - are frequently quoted as melting at 117°F, which is 47.2°C, way higher than any survivable body temperature. Similar alloys with added thallium are quoted as low as 105°F, which is 40.6°C and still not "body temperature" unless you're quite gravely ill. Measuring the melting point can therefore help me decide whether it's moderately-nasty French's metal or some handle-with-gloves thallium alloy.

I've got a high-accuracy digital probe thermometer, from back in the day when I reviewed incredible quantities of CPU coolers. (It's tempting to simplify the setup by just pointing one of today's inexpensive non-contact infra-red thermometers at whatever you're heating, but in this case that wouldn't work.)

So I set up the sort of advanced experimental apparatus for which I am so justly renowned...

Gimcrack apparatus for measuring melting point of fusible metal alloy

...with the metal ingot again suspended in water, but this time inside a resealable storage bag, of the type generically referred to as, but in this case not actually a, Ziploc.

The bag insulated the metal from the water, of course, and my temperature probe was in the water, not inside the bag to get all probably-cadmium-ed up. So I needed to be a bit crafty to get a useful melting-point number.

What we're interested here is how low the temperature the metal melts at is, not how high it is, if you get my meaning. So I ran the water temperature up to 50°C (122°F), at first. Then I turned the heat off and snapped the above picture of the setup, while the metal got around to melting.

Melted fusible metal in plastic bag

After taking this photo, I hung the melted metal in its bag back in the water, and allowed the water to cool.

As the water temperature fell through the low forties Celsius, the metal started solidifying again. Crystals started forming in the liquid, so at first the metal in the bag felt like a dense liquid with a little sand in it, then more and more like unusually heavy wet sand, until finally it solidified entirely.

I think this might mean this alloy is non-eutectic, with no clear melting point because different components melt at different temperatures. It could also just be the normal way a cooling metal will crystallise if you keep poking at it and examining its texture, though - the "liquidus temperature" is defined as the temperature at which solid crystals can coexist with melted material. I'm not sure.

The metal was wholly solid again when the water temperature was 40°C (104°F). Taking the bag's insulation effect into account, that told me the melting point was above 40°C and below 50°C, so the "melts in your hand" claim was clearly disproven, but I didn't yet have much idea exactly which alloy I was looking at.

I then ran the temperature slowly back up again, and the metal was re-melting, with the same sandy-liquid feel, by the time the water was back up to 47°C. But, notably, not when the water was only at 42 or 43°C, which would indicate a scary thallium alloy.

And then a pinhole opened in the corner of the bag and tiny droplets started escaping, and I terminated the experiment before I got heavy metals all over the kitchen again.

(Perhaps a genuine Ziploc® Brand bag would have been tougher. Squishing a gritty liquid with 83% the density of lead around in a the pointy corner of a polyethylene plastic intended to contain only food would probably cause any such bag to spring a leak, though.)

I could have re-bagged the metal and kept refining my temperature range, but what I'd done so far makes me confident that the melting point is somewhere in the 42-to-47-degree-C range, and probably the upper portion of that range. So I'm about 95% sure that this is indeed some kind of French's metal alloy containing lead and cadmium, but not deadly thallium.


If you want a relatively inexpensive fusible alloy to play with, go for Field's metal. It melts at about 62°C (144°F), and it contains only bismuth, indium and tin, so genuinely is non-toxic. Bismuth and indium are a bit expensive, which means Field's metal is too, but you could cast a teething ring out of it and probably not harm the baby.

Describing any of these low-melting-point fusible alloys as "bullion", though, is if anything even sillier than doing the same for copper. They're not worth enough per kilo to be an investment item, and most of them contain lead, cadmium and/or even thallium, which makes them less "valuable heirloom" and more "toxic waste".

Two low-melting-point metals, one assistive cat

Here, along with one helpful wubble, is where my own "liquid bullion" ended up. I've left it in the triangular shape the corner of the plastic bag gave it, along with the little spherical droplets that escaped into the saucepan. It's quite pretty, covered with tiny sparkling crystal surfaces; cooling it slower might have made bigger crystals, though nothing that could compete with bismuth.

To the right of the "bullion" lump is my sample of gallium, which is currently solid. Gallium is one of those substances that'll stay liquid below its freezing point if nothing serves as a nucleation point to start it crystallising. (The same thing can happen with water and various beverages in smooth plastic or glass containers).

Gallium sticks to almost everything, though, so if you slosh it around in the bottom of a container it'll make a silvery mirror out of whatever parts of the container-sides it touches. Once it finally decides to solidify - which, for my gallium at least, can take weeks - you can flick the flexible sides of the container to break the thin gallium coating off them. The result is what you see in the above picture - uneven coverage of the sides with thin plating I didn't manage to dislodge, and random dislodged flakes of gallium sitting on top of the solid layer in the bottom of the container.

(I rather like these little PET bottles, by the way. My gallium came from the Amazon seller in a tough grey translucent container that doesn't show it off nearly as well as this new one. Five of these eighty-millilitre containers, about 8cm high and 4.5cm wide, only cost me $AU3.88 delivered on eBay. They seem to be a couple of bucks more expensive now. UPDATE: But because they're standard PET bottles blown to shape from a preform, they shrink if you put them in boiling water! I think I can re-liquefy my gallium in one of these bottles, but now I've got one funny-looking one from pouring too-hot water on it.)

As I write this, the spot price of silver is less than $US20 per troy ounce; precious metals in general have taken a dive in the last few months. The spot price for gallium is at the moment maybe $US500 per kilogram, and one kilogram is 32.15 troy ounces. So gallium is something like $US15.55 per troy ounce, right up there with silver.

There is, just as with copper, no real liquid market (pun not intended) for small quantities of high-purity gallium. But the value of the stuff is sufficient that if you manage to buy it by the kilo at close to the bulk spot price, it really could qualify as an investment.

If you buy fifty grams of gallium in a little bottle from that Amazon dealer then you'll be paying a large markup on the bulk price, as is normal for metals other than the generally-accepted "precious" ones sold at retail in ounce quantities. It's also possible to quickly turn gold, silver or platinum into cash, if you suddenly need to. In a similar situation with gallium you'd have a hard time finding people who even know what it is, much less people who'll buy it from you at a fair price, in a hurry.

On the other hand, gallium's value is closely pegged to its real usefulness in the world. Gold, silver, platinum and palladium all have real-world uses, but their value is far higher than those uses justify. A large slice of the precious-metals market is people buying the stuff as an investment or just a store of value, perhaps as an alternative to a savings account in their shaky local currency. (India, in particular, has a strong tradition of storing household money in gold.)

Precious metals have never been a good long-term investment in the modern world, but they're portable and fungible, and that counts for a lot, even if you accept that you could make more money with index funds, bonds, or often even crappy-yield savings accounts.

Nobody's casting gallium ingots and keeping them in Fort Knox, though. Which is just as well, because the stuff would totally pull a Cryptonomicon if you turned the heating up too far.

A bottle of sloshy liquid non-toxic gallium is a lot more fun than a similar amount of similarly-valuable but much-easier-to-sell silver, though. I think that's a fair trade.

But don't buy weird "bullion" of any kind from eBay dealers, especially ones that say their product is non-toxic but aren't actually sure what it is. And if you are an eBay dealer selling weird "bullion", for pity's sake figure out what it is that you're selling, lest you be the next schmuck to put a "safe for kiddies!" sticker on a lump of cadmium. Or worse.