Your unrequested Firepower update

I've managed to go almost a month without saying anything about 2008's uncontested See What Happens When You Don't Pay Attention In Science Lessons, You Idiots gold medal winners, Firepower.

So here's an update.

The Independent in the UK has a pretty good overview of the whole debacle, in "A miracle pill, a sports team and the most wanted man in Australia". The New Zealand Herald has "Hunted fuel-pill peddler made same claim in NZ 16 years ago" - which wasn't exactly a secret, but still the hopeful investors came thick and fast. For, I remind you, the chance to own their own little slice of a product that was not just different in no way at all from Firepower head Tim Johnston's own previous scam in New Zealand, which was also different in no way at all from hundreds of previous products from other scam artists.

Meanwhile, making-a-career-out-of-Firepower Gerard Ryle co-authored the Sydney Morning Herald's most recent piece, "Firepower's Phileas Fogg steals away". In which Tim Johnston manages to add a couple more creditors to the list by, for instance, skipping out on his flat in Hampstead with a month of rent still owing.

Also at the Herald, there's "Western rugby joins the ruckus", in which whoever at Western Australian Rugby Union drew the short straw glumly joins the hunt for Tim, because he owes them money too. Oh, and one Ross Graham, which the Firepower Web site is still happy to inform us is "the founder of Executive Traders and the owner of various private mining related companies", is apparently personally owed nine point seven six million dollars.

I really hope Graham never gets a penny back. Look at him in that press release, saying "I sent members of my team to check out Firepower's operations in Russia and Asia. They were impressed with what they saw, and realized these great products would enable Firepower to grow into a very successful business".

I know that "quotes" like that in press releases are always written by the press guy and just initialed by the person who's supposed to be "saying" it. But Graham nonetheless did approve the quote, took an active role in the Firepower scam, and never actually did do any due diligence despite saying that he had. No sane person could actually think the Firepower products worked if they really did "check out" Firepower's essentially nonexistent Russian and Asian "operations".

So, you know, screw that guy.

Moving on, the Herald also has "Firepower creditors home in on wife's $5m property" and "Firepower boss rejected plan to restructure" (...possibly because part of that plan involved Tim Johnston turning himself in).

And, more juicily, "Firepower used fake tests to woo Russians". Apparently after the faked tests were discovered and the Russian Railways network immediately cancelled their upcoming deal, Firepower had new tests done... and apparently correctly, too, because the new tests showed no effect. Oddly, these new tests weren't added to Firepower's motley collection of promotional literature.

Earlier, there was another Gerard Ryle piece, "Firepower offers pill franchise", in which my friend Stephen Moss attempts to unload Firepower International, the company he used to be so proud of and which still, against all reason, has that picture of Stephen putting a pill in that bloody million-dollar Rolls-Royce on its front page.

Stephen says he's owed money too - oh, poor baby! - and denies any involvement, blah blah blah.

Amazingly enough, Firepower franchises currently seem to be about as salable as Enron stock. Oh, and I couldn't put it better than Ryle: "By coincidence, Bill Moss [Stephen's dad...] was part of a Macquarie Bank consortium that sold the Sydney Kings to Johnston for $2 million last year. The deal gave the consortium a 500 per cent profit on the $400,000 it spent buying the Kings in 2002. The Firepower parent owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid endorsements to the Western Force and some of its players."

So once again, Steve - if you're short of a buck or two, try hitting up your dad for a loan!

Let's see, what else have we got?

Magnate's bid for Firepower fails (A mining zillionaire is one of the Firepower creditors and for some reason wanted to buy a controlling interest, but Tim Johnston popped up from his Undisclosed Location for long enough to say no.)

Owner of Sydney Kings faces arrest (Yep, that's Tim again. It's Firepower's liquidator who wants Johnston arrested.)

There were two attempts to revive the Sydney Kings basketball team (the previous jewel in Firepower's sports-sponsorship crown); they both failed, and there's squabbling over the remnants.

Meanwhile, have you heard about the amazing Moletech Fuel Saver?

This time, for sure!

Now they've really hit the big time

Can you just not get enough of my posts about Australian fuel-additive swindlers Firepower, but find it difficult to pick those posts out from the others in my Scams and Strange Tales categories?

Well, now your worries are over, because How To Spot A Psychopath has added - for no extra charge! - a whole separate Firepower category.

I hope this'll help out the journalists who've been contacting me so entertainingly often for background info.

To save you all from yet another Firepower post, I'll add the latest few articles about them to this one:

The law firm whose services Firepower retained to sue the Sydney Morning Herald and journalist Gerard Ryle for the articles Ryle wrote about them in 2007... has now filed an application in the Federal Court to wind up Firepower, and put the proceeds towards their unpaid bills.

The Sydney Kings, the basketball team Firepower sponsored, are now officially dead, with large outstanding debts.

So Tim Johnston, the high-rolling Firepower chief executive who's recently, apparently, high-tailed it out of the country, is now in hiding from a number of very tall and muscular men, in addition to the usual collection of angry creditors.

The next post will be about Lego or something, I promise

I'm sorry about this Firepower Fest, but a Who Da Bitch Now? opportunity like this doesn't come along every day.

Remember, gentle reader, how Firepower got hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from Austrade, the Australian Trade Commission?

(...and then hired as their new CEO one John Finnin, the Austrade guy who made the grants possible, among other even dodgier activities - and then fired him shortly afterward, when he was arrested as part of a child sex investigation, of all things...)

Well, now it turns out that the bright sparks at Austrade hired out consultants to Firepower at $190 an hour - one of whom also later joined the Firepower team... no, no conflicts of interest here, how dare you suggest such a thing!

But Austrade accidentally signed that consultancy deal with a Firepower "subsidiary" which didn't actually exist.

(This seems to be a common problem for Firepower-associated business entities. I noticed yesterday that Stephen Moss's "Global Fuel Technologies" does not seem to appear anywhere on the Australian Business Register.)

So now Austrade have joined the creditor chorus, as they try to get the $173,000 they're owed back from any part of Firepower that retains a shred of reality.

Mind you, the Austrade contract said that Firepower had lots of hugely lucrative deals in the pipeline, and also that Firepower's products had been "comprehensively tested by several world leading/independent testing institutes". Which they, of course, hadn't. So if you ask me, the whole contract was nothing but toilet paper from the moment it was printed and it serves Austrade right that they got completely screwed.

Since the money they were busy shovelling into Firepower's pockets came from the Australian taxpayer, though, I still think it'd be rather nice if they managed to screw some of it back out of Firepower.

Perhaps Firepower could sell that million-dollar Rolls-Royce which Stephen Moss so proudly insisted was absolutely 100% Firepower property?

Hey, the picture of Stephen and "his" Roller is back up on the front page of!

Stephen Moss and 'his' Rolls-Royce.

I imagine that's a sight that really irritates the people who're trying to get what they're owed.

Further Firepower folderol

Thanks to Anthony Klan's new piece in The Australian, I now have a few more pieces of the riveting Firepower jigsaw puzzle.

(And yes, that's right, Firepower are now getting a kicking from the Murdoch press as well as the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald.)

My bestest buddy Mr Stephen Moss is such a fresh-faced looking chap because he's only twenty-three. And his father, Bill Moss, used to be the Head of the Banking and Property Group at Macquarie Bank.

Before he resigned from the bank, Bill Moss was part of a Macquarie Bank consortium that bought the Sydney Kings basketball team for $AU400,000, and then sold the team to Firepower for two million bucks. Nice work if you can get it.

Stephen's own Firepower-but-not-Firepower business, whose name he never revealed to me, is apparently called Global Fuel Technologies.

That company name appears to only exist on pages having to do with Firepower. It is notably absent from the Australian Business Register.

And now Stephen's unhappy, because he's one of the numerous people to whom Firepower owe money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says.

Not to worry, Steve - I'm sure your dad'll be happy to help you out. I hear he's been doing rather well lately.

Sayonara, Firepower!

It's been a while since I last wrote about the fine and upstanding fuel-additive company, Firepower.

We left them threatening my long-suffering blog hosts because I made available for download some promotional literature which Firepower's Australian CEO instructed me to make available for download. That, you may recall, was after he himself had decided not to sue me after all.

That second threat - from some Firepower representative who still hasn't had the courage to actually contact me - didn't work out too well for them, as anybody who's spent a minute or two on teh intarwebs could have predicted.

But I'm sure Firepower have worse things to worry about now. Because, amazingly enough for a company whose fuel-saving products would obviously be worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year if the claims made for them were true, Firepower now appear to be on the verge of collapse.

Offices abandoned, boss-man uncontactable, angry creditors (including the basketball team Firepower so famously bought) trying to get their money... it's a sad, sad scene, which observers of the burgeoning magic-fuel-pill industry haven't witnessed since, oh, the last magic-fuel-pill company came along.

(The Firepower debacle has been very bad for the entire Australian National Basketball League. Not only did they buy one of the front-running teams and then just kind of... not pay anybody, but they apparently got one of their mates into an advisory position for the whole League.)

Oh, yeah - remember those financially brilliant sportsmen who so eagerly invested in Firepower? On account of how they saw a video in which some chimneys were producing black smoke, and then it turned white, and if that isn't hard scientific evidence then I don't know what is?

Bad news for them too, I'm afraid.

Yes, I'm a bit gloat-y about all this. But overall I'm just... tired.

Over and over and over, this shit happens. Some bloke in a thousand-dollar suit turns up with a PowerPoint presentation and some dodgy supporting documentation from conveniently far-away nations, claiming to have a magic substance that causes internal combustion engines to do thermodynamically implausible things. If he's telling the truth then he'll be the richest man in history by a couple of orders of magnitude... and yet, instead of making his case to General Motors or Exxon, here he is in a rented serviced office, selling shares for cash.

And people hurl money at him, completely ignoring the fact that the same damn scam has been run hundreds of times before. Heck, they don't even care if the same guy has run the scam before.

And there's much excitement and news reports and press conferences, and extravagant displays of wealth and power (it's fine to spend millions on a basketball team; oddly enough, though, they never remember to spend a few grand on a proper test of their claims...), and anybody who dares point out that it's all obvious bullshit gets threatened with legal action.

And then... they take the money and run.


(Find all of my Firepower posts here.)

The best Firepower can manage

Stephen Moss, CEO of Firepower International, hasn't breathed a word about suing me since starting our correspondence with that threat. But he sent me a report yesterday. It was apparently done for Firepower by a Shell laboratory in Germany.

Just like all the best scientific studies, this one is a big secret, so I'm not allowed to make it available for download.

The test was of some substance referred to as "Polyfuel Type #1", which was a thick gelly that had to be mixed with quite a lot of diesel before it became liquid enough to be poured into a fuel tank.

(Note - I originally said "jelly" in the above sentence, rather than using the non-word "gelly" which featured in the original report, specifically in the phrase "...which resulted in a gelly-like composition." I presumed that this spelling was just a typo or a German translation glitch or something, but apparently the use of the letter J in that word greatly angered someone representing himself as being from Firepower. He then contacted Blogsome and made a number of demands, one of which was that I change the spelling to what it said in the original. No problem, Mister Firepower Spelling Expert!)

Mr Moss tells me that this thick... gelly... was actually just what you get when the almost-on-sale "Firepower Pill" is ground up and mixed with diesel fuel, and it was presented this way to make the test easier.

Since the report says the gelly had to be pre-mixed, for some time, with ten litres of diesel before it was thin enough to use, this raises some obvious questions about what the heck the Firepower Pill actually is. I'm also personally willing to bet that if you crush one of the (rather small) Firepower Pills and put it in some diesel yourself, you will not get any sort of gelly, or even jelly. Mr Moss has offered me some Pills to test for myself; I may take him up on that, just to see if they do gel diesel, or petrol, or anything else.

Anyway, whatever the heck it was that they were actually testing did, according to this report which Moss says I may not distribute, reduce the fuel consumption of a Volvo FM12 truck, in a proper rolling-road drive cycle test, by about four per cent. Less on the highway cycle, more on the city-street cycle, where the engine was occasionally idling. Emissions improved, slightly, too.

So we've got a test of something that I have to trust Mr Moss was in some way related to the Pill they're now (almost) selling, on a large diesel vehicle (the Firepower Pill is meant to work on any petrol or diesel vehicle), which showed only a 4% fuel economy improvement, versus the 10%-to-30% claims Firepower make on their site and in their proudly presented anecdotal evidence.

In our correspondence, Moss has trotted out the "unburned fuel" fallacy, and stuck to it with some enthusiasm, even though Total Hydrocarbon ("THC"; quiet, you boys in the back row) emissions figures make clear that almost all of the fuel that goes into any modern engine is fully combusted.

The secret Shell report itself makes this clear. Here's a darn great diesel truck, consuming much more fuel per kilometre than a passenger car, yet even on the urban cycle where it's occasionally not moving at all (and before the magic Firepower substance was administered) it still only emitted 0.456 grams of THC per kilometre. It consumed 0.422 litres of fuel per kilometre on that test, which has a density of about 850 grams per litre, so it burned about 358 grams of diesel, and emitted less than half a gram unburned.

In other words, the worst it ever managed was burning 99.87% of the fuel that went into it.

Now, according to the report the 0.456 gram-per-kilometre THC figure dropped to only 0.389g/km when the Firepower concoction was added to the fuel; reducing THC emissions by 15% is a good thing, as long as there are no hidden downsides. But the notion that this reflects a more complete burning of the fuel which could have some perceptible effect on power or economy is ridiculous, since 15% of 0.13% is, to a first approximation, bugger all.

Mr Moss went on to favour me with the "catalyst" fallacy, which I have addressed on previous occasions, including the very first time my then-so-innocent eyes fell upon Firepower, back in 2006. In brief: The common fuel-additive claim that it makes the fuel burn faster (from the site: "Treated fuel burns 25-30% faster..."), or more easily, is nonsense. Fuel in a modern engine already burns pretty much optimally; if it burns faster or lights more easily, all that'll give you is engine knock, which is a bad thing.

Mr Moss also had a go at the "engine cleaning" fallacy, and just when I was wondering if I perhaps wouldn't be hearing it, the "conspiracy theory" fallacy as well. And he reiterated his great fondness for anecdotes.

And that, plus this super secret report I'm not allowed to show you, is all he's got.

Tim Johnston, the Chairman of Firepower Holding Group, has been selling fuel pills with these same claims since 1992.

Mr Moss seems to be distancing his outfit, Firepower International, from Tim Johnston - he told me that "Firepower International is not owned by Firepower Group, I think some articles have made the mistake of assuming we are the same entity. Firepower International is privately owned by a collection of investors and owns the worldwide rights to the Firepower Pill."

(And interestingly, a reader's just pointed out to me that the domain is actually registered to Stephen Moss.)

But Firepower International, or Group, or Whoever, have all engaged in conspicuous displays of wealth - sponsoring sports teams and, Mr Moss insists, actually buying the million-dollar Rolls-Royce he was until recently depicted next to on the site.

So you'd think that at some point over the last several years they might have found the time to spend a measly hundred grand on used cars to hand, along with some Firepower Pills, to an automobile association or technical college or something for proper testing.

But no. The Australian Automobile Association say they'd love to talk to Firepower, but over the whole of last year Firepower have unaccountably failed to pick up the phone.

So that's it. The crowning jewel of Firepower's evidence is this one secret report from 2004, of a substance that resembles their Pills in no way whatsoever, and which found not even half of the smallest benefit that Firepower allege is commonplace in all sorts of vehicles.

Mr Moss keeps urging me to just try the magic Firepower pills in my own car, whereupon he says I'll be unable to deny the obvious power gains, if not the improvement in fuel economy.

But countless people - probably millions of people - have tried snake-oil fuel products in the past and been convinced of just those improvements, because they wanted to see them. They wouldn't have bought the darn stuff in the first place if they didn't think it was at least likely to work; that belief sets you straight on the train to a textbook case of confirmation bias.

Even if the product is something that's actively harmful at best, like Slick 50, you can find a long queue of people who'll swear, hand on heart, that it works.

You can also, of course, find a long queue of people who'll swear that using an electric fan in a closed room is deadly dangerous, that elves are real, or that a fence post near Coogee Beach was an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

(I have personally witnessed that last queue. But not Mary.)

The first principle of science, though, is that you must not fool yourself - because you are the easiest person to fool. If you do an unblinded, uncontrolled test like just dropping a pill into your petrol tank and driving around, you can very easily completely fail to get any closer to the truth than if your test involved throwing darts at a piece of graph paper.

We've been working on science for about the last 400 years, and it's really worked out quite well. If you're lucky enough to live in a First World country, practically everything you see, touch and do on a daily basis is either entirely the product of, or has been almost unrecognisably improved by, science.

And science is hard. But it's worth it.

It's long past time for Firepower to put up or shut up.

A few more Firepowery links

It's not just me and the Herald who've been paying attention to Firepower lately.

(Actually, I'd pretty much forgotten about them, until their CEO threatened to sue me yesterday.)

Here's a Webdiary piece that sums up the strangeness that is Firepower, including the previous versions of their fuel pill. All these years, and it still hasn't set the world alight.

Here's a piece on Gas Week that asks, among other things, why almost $400,000 of Australian taxpayers' money seems to have been handed over to these people. And here's Gerard Ryle, the Herald journalist, summing up the story as it stood early last year, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Science Show. Firepower's science doesn't seem to have moved on in the interim.

Here's a piece about the Australian Automobile Association trying to get Firepower - or any of the several other, lower profile, fuel-pill makers active in Australia at the moment - to submit to proper testing. That was a year ago, and Firepower said then that they hadn't even noticed that the AAA had called. I wonder if they've answered the phone yet?

Oh, and much the same "results" that were presented to me in PDF form just yesterday were shown to Crikey a year ago, in great secrecy. Crikey weren't very impressed, either.

Big sites pick up the story!

M'verygoodfriend Joel Johnson at could, I think it's fair to say, be more impressed with the CEO of Firepower International.

(I'm basing this assessment on the idea that "blowhard dickbag" is an insult. Do tell me if I'm wrong.)

Rob Beschizza of the Wired blog has also picked up the story, taking the time to Photoshop the Firepower logo a bit, and writing a disappointingly sober piece on the subject of Firepower-esque scams in general.

Oh, sure, it's all very sensible, Rob. But how are we supposed to take you seriously if you haven't called anyone a cockmonger?