Niagara calls

Well, now we know what it takes to get me to write a new blog post: The gentlest threat of legal action I've ever received!

I mean, compare and contrast the start of the Firepower debacle, or these guys, with this genteel and civilised missive.

From: Andy McCutcheon <>
Date: Tue, 19 Jan 2016 02:19:26 +0000
To: "" <>
Subject: Blog Post

Hi Dan;

I have enjoyed reading several of your blogs - you have a naturally cynical humour much the same as mine!

I am the recently appointed Head of Digital for CT Healthcare Global, who owns Niagara Therapy, Equissage and Accell Therapy. As such I have been made aware recently of a number of subjective blog posts on numerous sites that in many cases start off innocently, but tend to attract commentary that is full of misinformation, untruths and borderline libellous information about the company. Many blog posts are un-moderated and therefore are allowed to fester. Since many blogs continually pump fresh content they index very well on search engines and therein lies the issues.

The post on your site which was done back in 2012 is somewhat accurate and at the time, the company was finding flyer distribution a viable means of generating interest in their products. In the past twelve months however and more specifically when I took over in October, I have made sweeping reforms to the way that data is collected and the type of data that is presented in the marketplace.

I have been busy consolidating a new website (This is a link to the staging site) [if you're reading this long after I posted it, in due course the staging site will presumably become the new] to include all of their brands and culling a tremendous amount of superfluous content that is not required, removing information on medical terminology or outlandish sounding medical claims. Having said that, being highly regulated by the TGA we are closely governed by the Australian Government in both our ISO manufacturing processes as well as our conscionable code of conduct.

While much of the commentary is somewhat accurate - it is also quite misleading. The form you have posted has not been accurate since 2013 and on that basis I was wondering if you wouldn't mind taking the thread down for no other reason than inciting subjective commentary based on outdated information?

I am more than happy to assist you in posting accurate information about the company if you wish to do so or since you are in Australia free to come to the HQ for a tour so you can see first-hand what we do and what our medical devices do and how they have helped millions of people since 1949?

Can you please come back to me on this?


Andy McCutcheon
Head of Digital Marketing
Australia & New Zealand

Mob: +61 401 780 488 Tel: +61 7 3386 7256 NZ: 0800 55 2526
Address: 29 Resource Street, Parkinson Q 4115. PO Box 698 Archerfield Qld 4108

Seriously, I'm impressed. This is the way to do it, guys.

(Oh, and yes, it took me more than a week to even notice he'd sent me this. So it goes.)

Of course, Andy, I'm not going to take that blog post down. The gentleness of your language makes clear, I hope, that you know that actual legal threats would be ridiculous in this situation, if I have good faith, public interest and truth on my side. I remind you that defamation law in Australia was relatively recently changed to make truth alone a sufficient defence against a libel action. While you make reference to "misinformation" and "untruths", you seem to have neglected to actually name any such things I have written. Without such specific complaints, you seem to me to just be unhappy about people's expression of their opinions based on disclosed information. Suing critics for this reason is popular, but wrong.

That previous post had three main points.

One, I got a really impressive piece of junk mail from Niagara, except they didn't even admit what their name was on the junk-mail. Which, as you say, was probably not a good policy, and I'm glad you're changing it.

Two, Niagara not only concealed their name, but also kept their prices a secret. This seems to be because the prices are really, really high, and you don't want to scare off customers with a price tag before you can explain the many excellent qualities of your products which make them well worth the money.

Three, Niagara have, as you say, been in business for an awfully long time, but have in that time found it difficult to take a moment to prove that their products actually are better than many far cheaper massage-y things.

That's really the clincher. Like the makers of a zillion other odd health products, Niagara said they had scientific evidence that their products were worth buying, but that evidence was actually... scant.

I wrote about that evidence at the time, in some detail, and I must note once more that despite your stated concerns about "untruths" you have not actually mentioned anything in my 2012 post, or even in the comments, that is wrong - only that it doesn't reflect the state of Niagara's operation today.

I am happy to write this new post, therefore, and will add a link to it from the old one. Glad to be of service!

The core of the whole thing remains the evidence, so let's check out the new and improved Niagara Medical Research pages (which I presume will in due course move to here.)

I downloaded the 15 documents currently available on the two Medical Research pages. Many of them actually are published medical studies, or a review of groups of studies. So that's a good start. Some of this is stuff I talked about in the last post, but because my only real function in the world is processing information and attending to the needs of five cats, I read everything again and will write anew about it here.

In no particular order, I started my reading with "Influence of Cycloid Vibration Massage on Trunk Flexion".

("Cycloid Vibration" is Niagara's unique selling point, a multi-dimensional mechanical massage system that is alleged to be sufficiently superior to, say, your standard Sharper Image massage chair, to justify prices that make the Sharper Image chair's price look reasonable for the first time in human history.)

This study is from 1960; Niagara's evidentiary documents are in general not terribly new. If something worked in 1960 then it'll still work now, of course, so let's press on.

It tests the effect of "cycloid massage" on trunk flexion, in a respectable sample of... healthy people. There is, however, some kind of control; some of the subjects just laid down quietly with no massage, which actually by itself seemed to slightly help trunk flexibility.

More importantly, however, and I'm afraid I'm going to be saying this rather a lot of times in this post, this study made no test of a simple vibrating massager versus a fancy "cycloid" one.

And, in any case, even if cycloid massage was simply brilliant at increasing the trunk flexibility of healthy people, and even if it's better than a cheap massager, that doesn't prove anything about the claims being made to actually sell the Niagara products, which are not marketed to healthy people who'd like to be able to bend over slightly more.

OK, on to "Joint mobility changes due to low frequency vibration and stretching exercise". This one's from 1976. Abstract: "It has been shown that fifteen minutes of locally applied cycloid vibration of low amplitude and frequency is equally as effective as a fifteen minute programme of flexibility exercises in increasing short term mobility of the hip flexors."

Again, the people being tested were not sick - "Forty-two healthy young adult males", the same kind of university undergrads that show up in so many, many studies, for obvious reasons. There was again at least a partial control, because this was a crossover study - the control "treatment" was just sitting quietly in a chair, but every participant got the massage, and did the stretching exercises, and did the "control", just on different days.

This study found effects as per the abstract. But did they test a simple vibrating massager against a cycloid device? No. And did they get any information relevant to Niagara's core pain-reduction and illness-treatment claims? Also, so far as I can see, no.

OK, on we go to "Results of a large scale clinical trial of the Niagara Thermo Cyclopad®", which is a substantial document that does speak to one of the Niagara sales claims - treatment of lymphoedema. It's also quite recent, having been done in 2001. It's never been published in a peer-reviewed journal, though, and its two primary authors aren't exactly monsters of academic publishing.

(Here's the first primary author's current two lonely Medline hits. I suspect the "Judith H Merritt" to be found in the author listings for a decent number of published papers is not the same as the "Ms Judith Merritt" co-authoring the Niagara paper, however, because Judith H. Merritt doesn't seem to deal with many study subjects large enough to see with the naked eye.)

None of this should be taken to mean that I think the Thermo Cyclopad® report is slanted research-for-hire, but given the plethora of extremely implausible and indeed mutually contradictory devices that use as their evidence a great big "scientific study" that was never published and was written by unknowns, I think I'd be remiss not to mention these details.

(Please note that I also try to carefully and consciously control my own unfair propensity to disbelieve any scientific study with a registered-trade-mark symbol somewhere in its title.)

Aaaaaanyway, in the Thermo Cyclopad® study there is another odd-sort-of-control, that being 20 "normal" people who did not have lymphoedema, using the Niagara massager to "determine if the normal population could gain some benefit".

In this normal-participants section of the study, the massagey-thing reduced leg volume a bit, but only in the subjects' left legs. Not the right.

I think you'll find that anybody who's done science and stats can tell you that a result like this is a classic indicator that you're measuring nothing. So far as I can see, the rest of the normal-participant results, all faithfully graphed, bear out this interpretation. Various things changed a little bit, some in a direction that'd be good if these subjects actually had lymphoedema, others in directions that wouldn't be.

I think my favourite "evidence of absence" result in the normal-subjects tests is that apparently three weeks of massage-pad use reduced the subjects' heart rate by 6%.

Some basic health indicators - weight, BMI, that kind of thing - moved in healthy-looking directions in the "normal" cohort, but I'd venture that just knowing you're in a "medical study" of some kind may encourage you to walk a bit more and eat fewer burgers. Researchers try to control for this, but unless you keep all your study subjects locked up in a panopticon, you can never perfectly keep up with their behaviour.

Okay, who cares about that first part of the study, those people were already fine, it didn't hurt to buzz 'em about a bit and see if anything happened. What about the subjects who actually have lymphoedema?

Well, there are plenty of graphs in the, deep breath, "secondary lymphoedema and primary lymphoedema or mixed primary and secondary lymphoedema participants" section. The first of those graphs, of leg volume - the measurement that was so weird with the "normal" cohort - is pretty good. And left and right legs changed in the same way, which was no doubt good news for the sanity of the researchers.

Not much actually happened to the lymphoedema subjects' leg volume during the treatment period, but the follow-up four weeks later showed a considerable leg-volume reduction, suggesting that some kind of structural improvement may have happened.

(Or, once again, the participants may have tended to do some other thing that helped with their leg volume, like for instance getting a prescription for diuretics, or bandaging, or exercise. And again, having been part of a study may have changed their behaviour in other ways. The study says it controlled for this and the statistically-significant results still stood... but patients forget. And lie.)

All the rest of the graphs in this section are pretty much flat. Overall they slope a teeny bit in a promising direction - blood pressure is the best of these, but blood pressure isn't what this study is supposed to be about; measure enough things and you're guaranteed to find something you can spin as news. But, overall, not much of anything actually changed.

On to the Venous Oedema section. It starts with "No statistically significant results were obtained for this group", so I shortened my workday by zipping right on by to "Lipoedema participants", who were also bereft of statistically-significant results and thus saved me from poring over numerous further pages.

(This, by the way, is excellent evidence for this not being a work-for-hire fake study. If you're paying people to say your product is great, they may not write a transparent work of banana-republic election propaganda that says 144% of the vote went to the President-For-Life, but they also won't start whole chapters of the report with, "um, well, perhaps the patients felt better, but we certainly couldn't measure it!")

On to "Lymphatic function". This might have been helped a weeny bit, but had a sample size of only five, so who can tell.

Then there are the subjective quality-of-life reports, in which about half of the cohort reckoned the massage treatment helped them in one or more areas. Good for them. (A few also reported some peculiar unpleasant side effects. Generally speaking, both positive and negative subjective reports from medical-study participants are likely to be poor-quality data.)

Then there are Case Studies looking in more detail at things already reported, and then the Conclusions, which do their best to make the Thermo Cyclopad(R) look good... "from a holistic point of view".

Overall, I'd say this whole 94-page study probably looks great all leather-bound and sitting on Niagara's "Clinical Evidence" shelf, but if you actually read it, it's severely underwhelming. Not least because, yet again, they tested the expensive Niagara massager but not against a cheap one.

Next document!

Now we've got "The Influence of C.V.T. on Muscle Spasm", a paper that was "read at the 33rd session of the American Congress of Physical Medicine", et cetera et cetera, "1955", if you can believe that. It makes various claims about the benefits of "cyclotherapy" (which, by the way, is also a term for some kind of cancer treatment unassociated with Niagara), not the least of which is that it was reported to reduce "spasticity in a large percentage" of multiple sclerosis patients.

The source of this information?

A "personal communication" from a doctor in Pennsylvania.

And there are various other case reports and testimonials, and the conclusion that cycloid vibration "possesses that advantage of relative innocuousness, of simplicity of use, and of ready availability", but of course nothing about even more readily available cheap vibrating massagers.

OK, what about "The Influence of C.V.T. on Physical Activity"? Streaking forward in time to the Space Age year of 1961, it studies "normal college students ... in good physical condition", and "nearly all of the subjects in the treated group served as controls but on different days" - so, another crossover study.

It found the massager could cause muscle relaxation, which was probably not news even in 1961. The researchers found the time to test four different kinds of "cyclo massage" to really nail down the certainty of this finding, but once again it somehow slipped their mind that they ought to try other kinds of massager as well. And maybe even do a blinded test where the people doing the massaging don't know that one thing they're using or lying on or sitting in is the Special Niagara Massager That We're Pretty Proud Of Don't You Know, and another is a Boring Vibrator That Probably Came From One Of Those "Sex Shops" And Is Probably All Sticky Eww.


Right, on we go. "The Influence of Vibration on Temperature and on the Clearance of Radioactive Sodium in Human Subjects".

A study from Nineteen Fifty Frickin' Six this time! A study done on people who were actually sick! A study that showed that the special cyclo vibraty thing warmed people up a bit! A study that found that fluid injected into skin or muscle (not blood vessels) probably dissipated into the body faster when the body was buzzed! A study that, once more, did not test the cyclo-thingy against normal vibrators!

"Changes in the Pattern of Breathing Caused by Chest Vibration", from 1976. Unconscious cats and rabbits breathed ten to fifteen per cent more deeply when being buzzed. Might be relevant for things like asthma and sleep apnoea, I suppose, except then they went on to try it on six humans and it didn't do anything - well, not anything good. Study observes that effects on respiration from vibration had been found in several other studies. Says nothing about why you'd particularly want a Niagara vibrator for this purpose. Particularly given that it didn't seem to work.

"Effect of Chest Vibration in Pulomonary Emphysema". A "preliminary report" from 1968, and this PDF is a really terrible facsimile of it, but the full text unfortunately doesn't seem to be online anywhere.

Refers to other studies already mentioned, puts a rather small sample of obstructive-lung-disease patients in a couple of different versions of buzzy chair, discovers that they breathe slower but deeper when being buzzed. Minute volume - total volume of gas breathed per minute - fell. Apparently this is a good thing. Non-fancy vibrating chair not tested. Theorises that "the feeling of relaxation induced by this procedure appeared to be the important factor..." for one sub-sample of subjects. Does not wonder whether a massage chair from SkyMall or something wouldn't be just as relaxing. I suppose they didn't have SkyMall in 1976.

Aaaand then there are a couple of literature reviews.

One is all about whether it's safe to use electronic massagers when you've got a pacemaker. OK, whatever.

The other literature review mentions some of the above, plus a few studies that aren't on the Medical Research page.

In the part at the beginning talking about how they searched for the papers and the things they excluded from the search, this literature review alerted me to the existence of something called "ejaculation therapy". Not "premature ejaculation therapy", just "ejaculation therapy". Well, if it feels good, do it, that's what I say.

Ahem, once again.

According to the review, those other studies said:

In 1981, mice healed faster and better when cycloid-vibrated. Cheap vibrator not tested.

In 1984, 16 old ladies with crook knees reckoned that Niagara was better than nothing. Niagara not tested against cheap vibrator. (At least one of the old ladies probably could have loaned the researchers a cheap vibrator. I'm just saying.)

Tissue fluid drainage in presumably rather confused pigs with no superficial lymph nodes. Niagara helped. No cheap-vibrator test.

A "high quality controlled single blind crossover human study" of Niagara against "current best practices" in tissue-fluid-drainage, and and Niagara looked pretty good, but they didn't test... by now you'll know how that sentence ends.

Oh, and in a follow-up after a month with no Niagara-ing, this study found that limb volumes had returned to what they were, contradicting the big 2001 study mentioned above.

More people seeking medical help in the movement of unwanted bodily fluids. Again Niagara seemed to work well, in objective measurements and quality-of-life reports. Again no cheap-alternative comparison.

In 1976, buzzing people's hands increased skin blood flow. No cheap comparison.

In 1984, buzzing reduced blood pressure a bit. No cheap comparison.

But in 2006, people with orthostatic hypotension - undesirable reduction of blood pressure when sitting quietly - had their problem suppressed by buzzing.

Buzzing! It's good for what ails you! But there was no comparison with a cheap alternative!

Also on the Medical Research pages are three Register of Therapeutic Goods certificates proclaiming that Niagara products are legal to sell in Australia. There's also an ISO certificate verifying that whatever it is that Niagara does, they manage and document these activities to ISO 13485 standards.

And then there's a pamphlet about THE CYCLOID VIBRATION PRINCIPLE, which makes various assertions about, for instance, the "superb results" Niagara's special vibrators have had in the treatment of edema.

Only the CYCLOID ET CETERA pamphlet, among these last five things, even loosely resembles "Medical Research". The others should not be on the Medical Research page. Far be it from me to suggest that perhaps their role is to pad out this online version of the abovementioned Clinical Evidence shelf.

And that's the end of Niagara's evidence.

So. Andy. Mister McCutcheon. Maaaaate.

I have spent six hours reading through this stuff and writing this post, and I am confident in saying that it has absolutely one hundred per cent confirmed what I said before.

Niagara's alarmingly expensive buzzy things may be good for this or that, but people who do studies of Cycloid Vibrational Thingummies, which as you so proudly say has been an area of study for sixty years now, mysteriously never, never, never test Niagara products against cheap alternatives.

I find it very difficult not to consider this something of a red flag.

Your new Web site, like the current one, has a Products page. Let's just look up the prices then, shall we?

The secret pricing of Niagara products was, you'll recall, a big part of the reason why my previous post was less than entirely, well, sold on your ideas.

Wow, you've got "Customised Pricing Solutions For Every Budget"!

That's great!

I didn't put the quote marks around that statement, though, they're there already on the Web page as I write this. But never mind that supercilious feeling I get when I see a sign promoting "Fresh" fish or "Delicious" sandwiches, I'm sure you're sincere. Let's just-

"We Have A Number Of Tailored Payment Solutions We Can Offer Starting At Only AUD$15.00 per week."

Aaaand... that's it for the pricing information, so far as I can see.

Potential customers can, on the current site or your new one, not see what your products will actually cost them, but only request a quote.

Which I presume, as before, will be delivered by a Niagara employee earnestly seeking to make a sale.

And if the customer is advanced in years and limited in means, I am sure that Niagara, with its much-vaunted long commercial history, is entirely willing to patiently relieve said customer of the mere $AU780 per year which the minimum payment entails, until in due course Niagara is made entirely whole when the balance of the principal-plus-interest is paid by the customer's estate.


Oh, by the way - are you still presenting potential customers, by the nature of the kind of relief you promise tending toward the old and dotty end of the skepticism spectrum, with anatomical diagrams where pain in the customer's anything will surely be eased by a Niagara product of unknown price-tag?

Yes. Yes you are.

Are you still putting those diagrams on junk-mail and shooting outrageous amounts of said junk-mail all over the world?

Well, I presume you are telling the truth when you say that you aren't. Good for you. Woo.

But no, Andy, I am not going to take down a post about what an organisation did in the past because it promises not to do those things in the future. Especially when it is demonstrably still doing every one of those things that matters.

I believe our brief correspondence can here be ended.

[UPDATE: A day after this went up, Andy McCutcheon replied to the insolently-courteous e-mail I sent him to tell him I'd not done what he asked, and had instead just talked about the concerns I had about Niagara products at much greater length than before.

His response was,

Much better. Thanks

Succinct. But, again, much more courteous than I've come to expect from people who get upset about my writings.]


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.