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wondering if you wouldn't mind taking the thread down for no other reason than inciting subjective commentary based on outdated information?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.]

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?

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 metallurgical detective story

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

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

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

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

...and non-toxic."

That'd have to be gallium, right?

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

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

Fusible metal ingot

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

Wood's metal casting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fusible metal ingot in hand

...and it weighed more than fifty grams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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




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

This metal is
considered  bullion as it is pure rare

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


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

Pure Liquid Metal

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

There's... I mean...

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

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

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

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

...and somewhat excitable...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimcrack apparatus for measuring melting point of fusible metal alloy

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

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

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

Melted fusible metal in plastic bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Two low-melting-point metals, one assistive cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More green ink by e-mail

A reader writes:

Dear Dan
I purchased some modulators from Mr Orchard and had one of the units tested using a machine called a PowerMate that is made in Adelaide.

The result was a 30% reduction in power consumption. The test was done over a 3 month period.

Mr Orchard is way ahead of his time. People just on get it!



The contents of this e-mail is highly confidential and for the intended recipient only and to the e-mail address to which it has been addressed to. It's contents may not be disclosed to or used by any other 3rd party other than this addressee, nor may it be duplicated in any way or format without prior consent by the sender. If received in error, please contact the sender by email quoting the name of the sender and the addressee and delete it from your email server and email client software. The sender does not accept any responsibility for any forms of viruses, spyware or malware. It is the responsibility of the receiver to scan all their incoming e-mails and all attachments that have been sent to them.

First, no, e-mail sent to a stranger is not confidential, and no disclaimer boilerplate at the end can make it so. (I'm not sure what the "commercial" part is supposed to mean, either.)

EMPower Modulator

That aside, I presume you're sincere about your statement about seeing the magical EMPower Modulator doing at least one of the numerous extraordinary things it's meant to, and I will also grant for the sake of argument that the test you saw was not rigged, or performed with a defective power meter. (The "Power Mate" is I think meant to be able to take reactive loads into account; cheap power meters like the ones I write about here cannot fully do this.)

In that case, all I can say to you is the same thing I say to everybody who says they know of some gadget that reduces electricity consumption, or improves fuel economy, or in some other way could save a lot of people a lot of money:

Why is the person who has been selling this thing for so many years or, in many cases including that of Harmonic Products, DECADES, not a billionaire Nobel-Prize winner?

You demonstrate your device informally. You talk journalists and a technical college or two into testing it. With that evidence, you talk serious test labs and/or universities into testing it. And then there you are with your proven invention that, because most of the world's population will want it, is not worth millions of dollars; it's worth billions. Hell, even if an evil corporate conspiracy steals your invention, rips up your patent and robs you of your rightful reward, you will still have greatly bettered the lot of humankind. Provided, of course, that the evil conspiracy doesn't tuck your gadget away in the same vast warehouse where they keep the Ark of the Covenant and the hundred-mile-per-gallon carburettor.

There are hundreds of these things. Fuel savers, power savers, perpetual-motion machines, things that allegedly enhance health or cure deadly diseases by means unknown to science, and of course persons distributing the wisdom of super-advanced aliens via channelling.

All could revolutionise the world, if true. None have ever managed it. They always just sell the gadgets, or tickets to their performances, one at a time to punters like you.

(And, notably, they do not mysteriously vanish when the abovementioned giant corporate Illuminati Freemason conspiracy catches up with them. A lot of these people have been selling the same scam pretty much all their lives, without any repercussions beyond getting serially busted by the government because they keep taking people's money and running.)

The closest these miracle devices and potions get to actual success is when they manage to be bought in quantity by someone who hasn't applied any proper tests to see if they work, or who are just hoping to turn a buck on resale or shares in the company. See the ADE 651 "bomb detector" and its various relatives, for instance, and the whole miserable Firepower saga.

If the EMPower Modulator works, it is a miraculous device, and I use that word advisedly. (The same goes for the pieces of purple aluminium jewellery that Harmonic Products told me protect the wearer from radiation, make beverages take better, make metal on your person invisible to metal detectors unless you intend to do something bad with that metal, et cetera et cetera.)

But apparently Harmonic Products are perfectly happy to frame a lottery ticket and hang it on the wall for visitors to admire.

They say it'd win a billion dollars, if they only cashed it in.

Why haven't they?

UPDATE: Peter replied to me, with the following cogent rebuttal:

Yes the world is flat and the Sun revolves around the earth.
Happy sleepwalking.

Sent from my iPhone

I'm not sure whether he's agreeing with me or not.

(There was no boilerplate confidentiality disclaimer this time. Presumably he's cool with his e-mail being published, provided he sent it from his phone.)

And there was much rejoicing

Following on from my post the other day about patent trolls:

Soverain Software, who pretend to sell software but actually do nothing but sue people, wanted substantial cash payments plus one per cent of all US online sales involving online shopping-cart systems.

Thanks to the patents they bought when dot-com Open Market went bankrupt, they were quite successful in this.

But Newegg just kicked Soverain in the nuts so hard their patents died.

Not quite the public gut-hanging I would have recommended, and they had to go to an appeal to get it. But it'll do for now.

Bits, batteries and BS

A reader writes:

I am a hi-fi person. The kind who likes music to sound as good as possible. I know you are interested in sound too.

Small audio server

I am building the item shown here, which is a Micro ITX system to provide very clean USB signal to a DAC.

It's built around an Intel DN2800MT Marshalltown Mini-ITX motherboard which accepts anything from 8 to 19V DC.

Audiophile battery. Yep, they're serious.

They recommend a battery power source as that clean power helps give better sound. Whether or not you believe in that is another thing. The battery source they suggest is the Red Wine Audio Black Lightning High-Current Battery Power Supply which is $900, costing as much as the entire rest of the system.

I have a problem paying $900 for a battery and charger.

Here's my question. Do you think a standard laptop battery extender (lithium battery plus charger) or similar would work as well? They are a lot cheaper. See for example:

Anker® Astro3 10000mAh Multi-voltage 5V / 9V / 12V 2A External Battery Pack, $US59.99, or HyperJuice 2 External Battery for MacBook/iPad/USB (100Wh), $US299.95. Red Wine Audio specify the battery they use to be "One 12.8V, 10Ah LiFePO4 battery pack". I can get one here with charger for $US159.99. Does that look like a viable solution to you?

I am not an expert in your area so I can't tell whether these provide clean DC power. For example do they use a components that add noise or is it clean DC? I've done a lot of searching and cannot find the answer.

All the best,


Right off the top: Yes, any other battery with an appropriate voltage and current capacity will work as well as the super-special audiophile one.

Many modern batteries have some circuitry on board to, for instance, cut the battery off before it runs dead flat, or protect against short-circuits. But in normal use, they all deliver DC electricity that's clean as a whistle.


Anybody who seriously claims that running hi-fi gear from a battery instead of wall power will give you...

* Improved dynamics
* Blacker backgrounds
* More natural sounding highs
* Better defined bass
* A larger soundstage
* More holographic imaging

...does not deserve your money, for that battery or for any of their other products.

I would go so far as to say that they do not even deserve the money of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, or a professional puppy-drowner.

The Computer Audiophile site is not as badly contaminated with fluffy anti-reason as the real champions of audiophile insanity. But that's only because those champions are so demented that they speak favourably about the audible advantages of $350 wooden volume knobs, small objects made of exotic materials that you're supposed to place in mystically significant locations on and around your hi-fi equipment, $6500 power cords justified via avant-garde atomic physics, and of course plenty of quantum flapdoodle. (That quantum flapdoodle is sometimes quite hotly defended, too!)

The Computer Audiophile forums could be better, too. This wizard manages to list several ways in which uncontrolled observations cause us to see and hear things that aren't there... and then turns around and say that that's why blind tests are useless!

'Cos the reason why people think audio voodoo works, and then don't think it does on the rare occasions when someone takes the trouble to do a blinded test, is because audio placebos don't stop working just because you've discovered that they don't do anything real. And because blinded tests encourage you to give up those placebos that you previously thought made stuff sound better, you'll then be listening to music through less ridiculously expensive gear that doesn't have those wonderful placebos, and this will make you unhappy.

Or something.

Here's another parade of forum-post explanations for why blinded tests tend not to say what audiophiles want them to.

OK, it's not The Computer Audiophile's fault if people say nutty things on the forums.

But the Audiophile himself chimes in further down that first thread, and doesn't really disagree. And he also posted in this thread, to say that in his experience audio bits read from a solid-state drive sound better than the same bits read from a spinning drive.

(See also, the magnificently deranged concept that there is such a thing as an audiophile SATA cable.)

And here a Computer Audiophile blogger explains that the stress of a blinded test "makes it harder to remain objective".

I now choose my words carefully when I say:

For fuck's sake, people.

As I've written before, these attitudes on my part are not just knee-jerk "scientism" that assumes that empirical testing always beats personal experience. A hard-core attitude like this is foolish, when you're talking about unquantifiable things like "how good that painting is" or "how good that music sounds".

My opinion, rather, arises from the large number of tests done in the course of, for instance, developing lossy compression algorithms, investigating the neurology of hearing, and actually testing weird audiophile claims.

Over and over and over it has been shown that the ear is, if anything, even easier to fool than the eye, and that those who claim a special ability to detect differences in stimuli better than mere modern instrumentation and the scientific method can identify, are mistaken.

And it doesn't matter much what those stimuli are. Dowsers, wine experts, "intuitive healers", audiophiles; they're obviously very different in their scope of activity and the likelihood that their activities will cause misery and disaster, but presuming they're sincere, they're all making analogous mistakes for analogous reasons.

This is not a case of different "schools of thought". This is rationality versus irrationality.

Getting back to audio gear that's alleged to sound better when running from a battery than when running from the mains: The makers of this gear may somehow have managed to screw up their power-supply design so badly that the thing really does run better from battery. But that is the only reason why I am not comfortable in betting my life that they are completely wrong.

In this respect, the choice of battery or mains power is rather like the choice between valve or transistor hi-fi amplifiers. A properly-designed transistor amp should be, and as many blinded tests have demonstrated definitely is, audibly indistinguishable from a properly-designed valve amp.

Valve amps sound better when overdriven into distortion, which is why the "valve sound" is such a big deal for guitar, and other musical-instrument, amplifiers.

But a hi-fi amp should not ever be driven that hard.

Show some golden-eared types a badly-designed valve amp that really does sound different from a transistor one (though not necessarily very different from a badly-designed transistor amp...), however, and at least some of them are sure to want to throw money at you.

This sort of thing happens over and over in the audiophile world. Never mind the pure frauds like expensive audiophile cables that turn out to be made from garden hoses and hot glue. Look, for instance, at this highly-regarded little amplifier, which is actually very badly designed, and atrocious in every way.

I suppose some of this stuff may come from people's memories of early versions of new technologies, which often genuinely were inferior to the highly-developed versions of older technologies available at the same time. Early transistor amplifiers could sound quite audibly lousy, for instance, because early transistors were quantifiably unable to amplify audio as cleanly and linearly as vacuum tubes. See also early audio CDs, many of which sounded if not unarguably worse than top-quality vinyl or reel-to-reel tape, then certainly not as good as you'd expect from the slogan of "perfect sound, forever" and the alarming price of a CD player in 1983.

The lousy sound of transistor amps in 1958 and CDs in 1983, though, have nothing to do with how they sound today.

Let me make perfectly clear, however, that I've got no problem at all with the notion that sound quality can be compromised on the digital side of your DAC - particularly when you're using a general-purpose computer as your audio source. There are plenty of possible software and hardware issues that can cause clearly audible problems with the sound.

To give only one example: If you're running an operating system like Windows that has multiple sound sources, not all of them may even show up in the "mixer" control panel. So even if you mute everything but the source you want and set every relevant volume control to maximum (as the Computer Audiophile FAQ sensibly suggests), there may still be obvious scratchy interference noises from sources that for whatever reason refuse to mute, and for whatever reason are very noisy. Like, say, a microphone input with no mic plugged into it.

And then there's the analogue side of the audio chain, which for the vast majority of PCs and Macs today is the audio hardware built into the motherboard. That hardware is almost certainly going to be built down to a price and thus, in the very cheapest versions, may have gross distortion on the level of this stair-step alias-tastic output:

Behold: Aliasing!
(Picture courtesy of Practical Devices.)

Onboard audio hardware is also often not very well shielded from the numerous high-frequency RF sources with which it shares the inside of the PC.

But if you're using a quality internal sound card or any sort of half-decent outboard USB DAC, and if there's nothing on the software side on the PC polluting the bits the DAC, then the notion that the signal coming out will be in any way detectable in a blinded test different between different computers, let alone between one computer running from the mains and an identical one running from a battery, is demented.

Yes, it is possible for an audio system to sound better from battery power than from mains, but only if it's got a badly-designed power supply. If "dirty power from a computer motherboard can result in very audible noise and decreased sound quality", so you need to run even your add-on USB card from battery, never mind the DAC, then there is something severely wrong with that USB card, to the degree that it just won't work properly. Anything that can corrupt digital audio data - remember, this is before the signal even gets to the DAC - in an audible way will also corrupt every other kind of data, and this effect will be noticeable in things as simple as sustained data transfer rates.

And then the Computer Audiophile dude goes and uses a "PCIe riser cable" so he can cram a USB controller card into his tiny computer case - but such a cable is completely unshielded!!1!one! You're running the card from battery power but transferring all of the data to and from it through an antenna?!

UPDATE: Damn, a perfectly good snark ruined - Chris pointed out to me almost immediately that the Computer Audiophile picked a riser cable that already does have shielding!

(I'm sure that if he ever thinks of this, he'll immediately hear the difference and wrap the riser cable with earthed foil, or something.)

Sometimes you strike something that's beloved by audiophiles, inexpensive and functional, like the Tripath "class T" amplifiers (which are their trademarked version of a Class D amp). Built amps of this type, and modules from which you can build your own, are all over eBay and other online vendors. The specs of the cheapest ones aren't very good, but just stick a valve up though the casing, decorate your description of the hardware with some real scientific terms that don't actually apply, keep a wall of pseudo-postmodernist babble in reserve in case of hard questions, and the audiophile market will be fine with it.

Usually, though, audiophile snake oil is expensive, and all you get for your money is a placebo.

This woolly-headedness is for some reason acceptable for audiophile hardware, but not for other technology.

"Well, this is where the GPS says I am, but I think the satellites it's looking at right now lack a certain positional air and musicality. Look, you can see the fix jittering. Well, I can, at least; perhaps your eyes aren't as good. I'll wait until it gets dark so I can try some other satellites when the intervening molecules are cooler."

"I'm pretty sure I play Counter-Strike better when my chair's facing east."

"Water boiled from English 230-volt mains power makes better tea than water boiled from US 120-volt. Everyone agrees 120-volt at 50Hz is almost as good, though."

"My calculator's more accurate when I press the keys more firmly."

Most people would consider statements like these as possible symptoms of a formal thought disorder.

But believing some talisman improves your car's power and mileage, or that a magnetic or copper bracelet helps with your arthritis, or that one should always visit one's astrologer before investing any money, or that water has memory, or that bits and electrons have special properties depending on where they came from?

That's fine, according to a lot of people.

We've gotten past this crap. We no longer believe you can revive a drowned person by blowing tobacco smoke up their arse, we no longer believe the brain's only purpose is cooling the blood, and most of us no longer believe planets whistle around in ludicrous epicycles in order to place humanity at the centre of the universe. And no matter what certain alternative-medicine practitioners say, bleach is not a fucking cure-all.

For pity's sake, we have actually achieved the transmutation of base metals into gold. (Though not the way the ancient alchemists or their rather peculiar modern heirs wanted to do it, which is probably just as well.)

If I were you, I'd forget about taking advice from people who insist, in the face of a world of astonishing technology, that it's reasonable to spend large amounts of money on devices that only make sense if the science and engineering that led to all that amazing technology is actually invalid. I find it particularly galling to see this counterfactual thinking applied to powering of a computer; the people who designed and built the hardware in there, including literally billions of transistors operating at billions of clock ticks per second, have not found any mystic benefit to powering the thing from batteries instead of wall power. But when it comes to the handful of transistors and thousands of cycles per second of a piddling audio output, suddenly some occult force arises that's not amenable to the science that puts supercomputers in your pocket and robot probes on distant planets.

Happily, getting superb audio quality out of a PC is a completely solved problem, thanks to boring old science and engineering. It's not even expensive.

The process is:

1: Buy an Asus Xonar DG or something for, like, fifty bucks. Or less.

2: Install it in whatever PC you like.

3: Plug in your headphones and/or ordinary inexpensive hi-fi amplifier and decent speakers.

...and that's it.

If you absolutely must spend more money than that, I suggest you buy from an engineering-first, low-bullshit manufacturer like Headroom or Practical Devices. Those people usually have a bit of audiophile tinsel on offer, like expensive capacitor-upgrade kits that don't fare well in blinded tests, but they also have plenty of claptrap-free products.

I'm hoping it's opium

UPDATE: A terribly nice chap asked me to take this post down. I didn't.

In among the supermarket flyers that fell out of today's issue of the local newspaper was this intriguing single glossy page:

Front of questionable pain-relief flyer

Note the subtle change from a promise of FREE TREATMENT for your Arthritic Pain at the top of the page, to "you may be entitled to a FREE TREATMENT", boldface mine, in smaller print further down.

Note also the invaluable diagram to remind any forgetful elderly readers of the parts of their body which they might care to concentrate on, in hopes of feeling some pain there:

Helpful diagram of bits of people that can feel pain

The reverse of the flyer:

Back of questionable pain-relief flyer

(I've put the plain text of the flyer at the end of this post, to help searchers find it.)

These people may be 100% kosher, and their promise of some undisclosed kind of pain relief that may or may not be free may be given in entirely good faith.

I am a horrible, cynical person, though, so I have my doubts.

Pain relief is the gold-standard undisputed champion of things that placebos, and woo-woo alt-med nonsense that is in truth actually just a placebo, can treat.

This is a good thing. If you believe your pain is reduced, then your pain is reduced. Hurrah!

It's not like believing a small electrical gadget is curing your cancer when it isn't. Tumours are objective things, but pain is subjective. If you think it's gone, it's gone.

This doesn't, however, mean that anyone offering quote "free" unquote asterisk double-asterisk dagger double-dagger section-sign pain treatment to arthritis sufferers should be left alone to sell whatever it is they're selling.

For one thing, someone making this sort of offer may not be selling a true placebo. The classic example in alt-med arthritis treatment is Traditional Chinese Medicine arthritis pills, often called "black pearl" pills, which have on many occasions been found to simply contain plenty of normal non-Traditional-Chinese-Anything painkillers and anti-inflammatories.

On the plus side, this makes those pills work really well. But unknowingly taking large doses of steroidal anti-inflammatories, benzodiazepines and plain old paracetamol (a compound whose sole shortcoming as a painkiller is a rather narrow therapeutic index, the difference between an effective dose and a toxic one...) is a good way to end up unexpectedly hospitalised, or dead. Especially if you're as old as the average buyer of arthritis medication.

(The sellers of such medicines usually refer to the presence of real medicines in their woo-woo pills as "contamination". It is a wonder which passeth all understanding that "contamination" of alternative medicines always seems to involve substances that do what the alternative medicine is supposed to do. Never speed in the sleeping pills, never codeine in the erectile-dysfunction pills. A mystery, indeed.)

And then there are the alt-med treatments which are actually actively harmful. Poisonous, but otherwise placebo, anti-pain medicine may actually work better against pain than a sugar-pill placebo; if it's got obvious unpleasant side effects, then it must be powerful stuff!

(See also, sellers of worthless medicines who put warnings on them that say, for instance, that they should not be taken by pregnant women. And sham surgery, the most powerful placebo there is!)

Elderly people are ideal customers for a lot of scam artists. The perfect customer is someone who's losing their marbles but unaware of it - the dottier you become, the less qualified you are to detect your dottiness, and the more likely you are to conclude that you've made a solid deal when someone more compos mentis than you can see you're being thoroughly ripped off.

If Grandad's sliding into senility but hasn't (yet) had control of his finances taken away, he will be disproportionately likely to hurl large portions of said finances at door-to-door fake home repairers, worthless investments, phone scammers pretending they're from Microsoft, and of course the world's extraordinarily large supply of cashier's-cheque overpayers and Nigerian princes.

(Just this moment I myself received a very attractive e-mail offer from "MR.ALEX GOODWILL", who appears to be quite a prolific philanthropist.)

And, of course, there are also many older people who are just desperate for something, anything, to stop everything from hurting all the time. They may be as suspicious of a "Free treatment! Honest!" flyer like this as I am, and just as sure that whatever it is, it probably won't actually be free, but they're willing to try it anyway, in pursuit of even a slim chance of making their life a little more worth living.

Personally, the second I saw this flyer I was ready to bet money I had borrowed from Jimmy the Toecutter that this offer, whatever it was, was some sort of alt-med woo-woo BS.

But again, who knows, it might be totally legit. So I did a little digging.

When I searched for chunks of text from the flyer all I found was this Word document on a server belonging to the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority. It's a complaint about a very similar-sounding flyer, including the helpful body diagram. But that flyer actually named the provider of the alleged treatment - "Niagara Healthcare".

(Niagara's response is a pretty great piece of weaseling, and a successful one, too; the complaint was not upheld!)

Perhaps my flyer had nothing to do with Niagara, though. So I searched for "Digitalpop", the name of the company on the postage-paid response thing, and "niagara". And hey presto, DigitalPop are listed as the ad agency for Niagara here in Australia.

I don't know if that'd stand up in court, but it's good enough for me. And even if this flyer by some quirk of fate doesn't have anything to do with Niagara, I think they're still a mob worth writing about.

Niagara are, you see, in the motorized-massage-gizmo business. Here's their Australian site. They sell handheld massagers, chairs with motorized rubby things in the upholstery, and other such things, including adjustable chairs and beds that help the infirm to get up, and so on.

They don't actually list any prices, though. Not on their Australian site, not on their UK one, and not on this US site either. That last site does have this Sale page proudly offering a ten-inch-thick queen-sized memory-foam mattress for a mere $US699, down from $US1499. I'm sure it is far, far better in many very convincing ways than the superficially strangely similar memory-foam mattresses you can get for three to four hundred dollars on eBay. Doubtless those are all cheap crap that will fall apart in no time.

(I bought the cheapest memory-foam pillows I could find on eBay, more than ten years ago now. They are still in perfect working order.)

Apart from that, the Niagara sites are... priceless. If you want the price of a chair, for instance, then on the Aussie site you have to fill in this quote-request form.

That is seldom a good sign.

It would appear that you can pay 1600 New Zealand dollars (more than $US1300, as I write this) just for a handheld Niagara massager, and I don't know what the chairs cost but there's a used one on eBay Australia right now with bids starting at seven and a half thousand dollars. There's a "Niagara Platinum 6 Electric Massage Therapy Bed" on offer, too; a snip at $AU5000 Or Best Offer!

(There's also a Niagara chair on for less than $200, but it's only heated, not a massager.)

Niagara's Australian "key benefits" page quotes four alleged studies supporting the usefulness of their "Cycloid Vibration Therapy". I was surprised to discover that the second and the third studies on the list actually seem to exist and be published and everything. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of replication of their results, and neither study is of pain relief, and although the Niagara page calls them "recent studies", they're actually 28 and 31 years old, respectively. But they're still well ahead of the usual "studies" that are supposed to support unconventional therapies. For whatever that's worth.

I could find no evidence of the existence of the last-mentioned study at all, though. And the closest I could find for the first one was this study, which seems to have been done by the same guy quoted on the Niagara page and to be studying much the same thing quoted on the Niagara page, but which is singing the praises of "LPG Endermologie" rather than "Niagara Therapy".

"Endermologie" buzzes your flesh around to make you look slightly younger, and actually does work, for suitably small values of "work". (I'm sure all the ladies on the Endermologie Web site are actually in late middle age and displaying the miraculous results of the therapy, because it'd be a serious insult to their customers' intelligence if they depicted their products being used by heavily Photoshopped and distinctly underweight 20-year-olds.)

For some reason, the little list of studies on the Australian Niagara site doesn't include this 2002 study, which is the only abstract I could find in the whole of MEDLINE that actually refers to "cycloid vibration therapy", which is what Niagara call their great discovery.

That study's abstract says it found that cycloidal vibration along with compression bandaging helped the healing of venous leg ulceration. Except that doesn't seem to really be what it found at all, because there was no control group, just 21 patients getting their bandaged injuries buzzed. A better study would have some patients bandaged without massage, some patients bandaged and vibrated the expensive Niagara way, and some patients bandaged and vibrated with the finest, cheapest electric massager the nearest sex shop had to offer.

What, I wondered innocently, have other people had to say about Niagara?

Well, Consumer NZ is unimpressed with them, straightforwardly calling their products "overpriced".

Ricability, a UK consumer-research charity, gives Niagara special attention in this PDF, titled "Sharp selling practices in the selling of assistive products to older people".

The UK Office of Fair Trading made them change unfair contracts.

And, interestingly, the UK Advertising Standards Authority did not uphold a complaint (in this PDF) about a "free trial" of Niagara products not lasting long enough.

In Niagara's successful response to the complaint, they said that their free trial lasted "approximately 45 minutes". It seems clear to me that this "free trial" is the "free treatment" that my flyer is offering, if you send in the form. A salesman "medically trained consultant" comes to your house and sets up a buzzy thing, you get to use it for a little while, then he tries to sell you a handheld massager that costs as much as 25 Hitachi Magic Wands, or a chair or bed that costs as much as a good used car.

(Niagara's response also says that they've sent 500 million mailings about their products in the previous 20 years. I don't have much to say about that, I'm just boggling a bit. No wonder their scientific evidence is thin on the ground, even though they proudly say they've been in business since 1949. They've been far too busy printing advertising material to ever clearly demonstrate their very expensive massage doodads do anything that far cheaper, but suspiciously similar, ones do not.)

Maybe the Niagara gadgets all work great, and are more than worth their hefty, semi-secret price tags. Maybe this flyer doesn't even have anything to do with Niagara, despite the many points of similarity. Maybe we are all actually brains in jars. Who knows?

What this looks like to me, though, is an offer of "free treatment" from a company whose products are actually so astonishingly expensive that they'll only tell you what the things cost if you consent to talk to a trained salesperson. They market these expensive products to elderly people, who may be more amenable to tricky sales techniques, or unaware of cheaper alternatives. And Niagara's products may be more effective at relieving arthritis pain than far cheaper massage devices, but they present no evidence that this is the case, despite a proud claim of having been in business for more than sixty years.

One of my personal rules of thumb is, "nothing worth buying is sold door-to-door".

I now add another one: "If a product is a secret, you probably shouldn't buy it".

And now, a transcript of the flyer, to make it easier for searchers to find this page.

Are You Living With...
Arthritic Pain?
Is Pain impacting your daily lifestyle...
Complete this application today to receive your
DON'T put up with it any longer!
Have you been diagnosed with?
Arthritic Pain
Poor Circulation
Fluid Retention
Swollen Joints

Where is most of your pain?

Thank you very much for your co-operation.
By completing and returning this form you may
be entitled to a FREE TREATMENT.


The other side:


Happiness is nothing more than good health, Mobility and Quality of Life

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