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.

"I will not buy this record, it is the wax tadpole."

As a dedicated, to the point of self-destructive obsession, follower of the DealExtreme New Arrivals feed, I read a lot of very strangely translated product descriptions.

For a while there, for instance, they were regularly adding new "Gypsophila" laser pointers. There are about twenty of those listed now.

That one was pretty easy one to figure out. Gypsophila is the genus of flowering plants whose most famous member is "baby's breath", and baby's breath is known for its large number of tiny flowers. A laser pointer with a diffraction grating built into it will project tons of tiny dots in one pattern or another. "Tons of tiny dots" is in some way connected in Chinese or at least whatever translation software they're using with baby's breath flowers. And there you go, Latin plant name instead of "grid of dots".

Sometimes it takes a little more thought, though. Like when I found glasses and a clock in a shade of black called "Dumb".

DealExtreme aren't alone in using "dumb black" as a colour description. There are plenty of other Chinese dealers who do, too.

I briefly wondered whether this could have something to do with direct or accidental racism and/or survival outside English of racist archaisms, like that whole "nigger brown" thing. Then I thought a bit more laterally, and came up with this:

We, the Chinese sellers of inexpensive mass-produced objects, have a product which we describe in our complex language as having a glossy, shiny black finish. We wish to sell this product to those English-speakers who'll buy bloody anything.

None of us speak English, so we'll hit up our highly unreliable translating software, in which we have the same faith that awful tattoo artists have in those gibberish Asian fonts, for a suitable word.

What, context-not-understanding translation software, is an English word for whatever the Chinese is for "glossy/shiny"?

The software spits out several words, in an alphabetical list, and we take the one at the top: "Bright".

Hang on - we've got some matte-black products too. Not shiny, not bright - dull. So while we're here, we'd better find what the English for "dull" is.

Out comes another list, again alphabetical, and we again take the top result: "Dumb"!

Hm, better be careful, wouldn't want to look silly here. Forget the translation software, let's ask an English thesaurus what the antonym of "bright" is. Whatever that is, it will surely mean "matte".

Oh look, there's "dumb" again! So it must be exactly right!

Result: Descriptions of matte-black objects as being "dumb black" in colour.

(A plain Google search for "color dumb black" OR "colour dumb black", that extra word being there to filter out racists, currently turns up "About 84,800 results". But that's because Google reduces server load by not actually accurately counting hits for string-searches until you click on past the first page of results. There are actually only 30 results not counting duplicates. If you search for "dumb black" on eBay, you get several more examples of this mistranslation, along with various rude T-shirts.)

(P.S.: This post's title is of course partly this, and partly that.)

An excuse to use that spider photo again

Here's yet another Reddit-comment transplant, this time from this thread about scary animals in the USA, in the opinion of...

Huntsman spider


I opined:

1: The house centipede. Perfectly harmless, but practically a prototypical creepy-crawly, and very common.

2: The toe biter. Apart from the egg-carrying creepiness, toe-biters have that name for a reason, and their bite may be the most painful of any insect. Won't kill you. May make you kill yourself.

(Most insect-bite-pain-scales, like the not-entirely-serious but well-researched Schmidt one, don't cover large swathes of the arthropods. The Schmidt scale, for instance, only covers the stinging Hymenoptera - wasps, bees and ants.)

I regret I have been unable to locate a YouTube, or even LiveLeak, video of someone deliberately getting bitten by a toe biter. All those marvellous videos of people eating staggeringly hot peppers (or just straight capsaicin), or volunteering to be tased, or shooting each other with fireworks, or engaging in the various other things that only other drunk 20-year-olds used to get to watch... there are even voluntary Irukandji jellyfish stings! But no toe biters.

If you can't find me video of some idiot being turned into a flowing puddle of agony by a toe biter, I of course welcome your suggestions of even more terrifying American fauna and/or flora.

Dead kids, dead animals, and other such jollity

Here's another post that was about to be a comment on a Reddit thread that no bugger'd read because the thread is five whole hours old.

The thread is about this picture of some Chinese doctors (disrespectfully translated versions here and here) bowing in respect to the body of a terribly young organ donor. She donated pretty much everything, and was only eight years old.

Needless to say, the Reddit conversation immediately wandered as far and fast from the topic as it could, thanks to someone noting the similarity between the doctors' respect for the dead girl and a hunter-gatherer's respect for the animal he's just managed to kill.

(Put like that, it sounds as if it's about half an inch away from turning into 4chan dead-baby jokes. The thread isn't actually like that. Well, no non-deleted comments with a score above minus 50 seem to be, anyway.)

This comment in particular pressed one of my personal Talk Buttons, so now that I've spent a couple of hundred words explaining the background, here's my Canned Rant on the subject of carnivores who never see an animal killed:

I don't think it's bad that people don't see where their meat comes from any more, but I think everybody who eats meat should at least visit an abattoir once. Not watch a documentary, visit one, so you get the full experience - sights, sounds and definitely smells. The smell of blood cooking on the steam pipes, the smell of various useful components of animals that people aren't going to eat, the smell of the hair being burned off the hog bellies by a guy with one of the safest, and least interesting, jobs in the whole awful place...

Talk about your "life leaving the eyes..."; how about seeing a pig screaming, thrashing around, managing to get its back feet off the hook and then flapping on the concrete floor, still fettered but no longer hung, as the blood fountains out of its throat and its dog-level brain may actually realise it's now every bit as fucked as it thought it was going to be if it got shoved up that ramp with all the rest...

(Sheep and cows don't seem to have any idea what's coming, thanks partly to clever feed-ramp design. Pigs figure that shit out, though, and do NOT want to go into the building. Perhaps that problem's been cracked now with even more animal-psychology; I saw all this, including the unexpected Porcine Murder Show, on a school trip more than 25 years ago.)

I still eat ham and bacon. But only occasionally.

(I also don't know whether it was normal, back then, for slaughterhouses here in Australia to hang up very-much-conscious pigs and cut their throats, without stunning them first. The usual reason for hanging and bleeding conscious animals is to comply with kashrut and/or halal rules, but obviously there's no such thing as kosher pork, so that couldn't have been it. If an animal's stunned or brained before being bled, then this sort of drama's only ever going to happen, with or without an audience of rather alarmed Agricultural High School kids, if the stunner-guy manages to miss.)

On Human Freedom, and Education, and Boobies

Instead of writing stuff here where thousands of people read it, I've been arguing with people on Reddit, in posts old enough that about seven people will read them.

I would now like to rescue some of that wasted time on my part and waste some more of yours, by asking you to check out this Reddit post about a teacher in Florida who got in trouble for bikini pictures and was going to be fired. She then basically said, "screw you guys, I can make way more money posing for photos than I can teaching anyway", which is not really a heartening outcome for that situation.

My first comment is here. Someone took exception.

Comment there, comment here, heave a sigh and skip the whole damn thing; the choice is yours.

What I'm trying to get at is that the USA has managed to get itself into a royally messed-up position with regard to sex (and race, and religion, and government, and capitalism, and war, and numerous other things), and the USA is so damn big that you drag large amounts of the rest of the "Western" world along with you, including us here in Australia.

The kind of mess I'm talking about is the one in which logical connections between concepts and arguments fade away, to be replaced with mere associations and "common knowledge", that're given the weight of a logical connection. Or there are logical connections, but they're based on unjustified premises.

So, for instance, sex plus children equals sex with children, which we've arbitrarily decided is the worst crime that can ever happen. (No, I am not suddenly joining NAMBLA, I'm just saying that I think killing a hundred children might very well be worse than groping one of them.) Therefore when sexy photos of a teacher come to light, whether taken professionally or by a boyfriend/girlfriend or at a party or whatever, that teacher must be fired. Teachers must apparently teach kids morals (I don't remember any of them doing that for me, but perhaps it's different in the States), but sexy pictures are immoral, therefore teachers with sexy pictures are ipso facto unable to do their job and must be fired.

Countries that managed to dodge that Puritan bullet cast from solid Original Sin (Bodies are dirty! Women are evil! God spends a lot of time thinking about penises!) find this particularly hilarious today. Today, kids with the slightest particle of computer/smartphone knowledge can see all the boobies and peeners they like. So it is I think preposterous on its face to argue that teachers' Adult Activities outside school time have any further impact on their effectiveness or otherwise as a teacher.

Back when department-store underwear catalogues were among the more treasured possessions of many schoolboys, and kids looked up anatomical terms in the encyclopedia in hopes of finding something exciting, you could make the argument that a teacher appearing in Playboy or a "naturist" magazine or whatever would have a shattering effect on their classroom authority. It'd still be because of unfounded associations between being a functioning mammal and pedagoguery, but there would at least be a massive effect.

Today, though... even if you do think bodies are dirty and teachers should be asexual, what further harm is done by adding the pink bits of a particular teacher to the vast and ever-increasing storehouse of other sexual imagery accessible to the entire class?

(And yes, "pedagogue" is a fun word to keep in your knapsack when discussing this stuff with someone whose vocabulary you suspect does not contain it. Deploying "pedagogical", or "niggardly", or "penury", or "titillate", may reduce your chance of changing their mind from slim to none, but it is good for a laugh if they take the bait. You've no-one to blame but yourself if this gets out of hand, though.)

Argue with people infected with this puritan virus, and they'll say of course the teacher should be fired, even if the kids already have daily access to hard-core goat pr0n, because that's what it says in the teacher's employment contract!

Except I was saying not that it's legally permissible to fire the teacher, but that it's wrong.

Oh, so we're still arguing? Well, teachers are meant to teach and they can't do it if the class is all a-tizzy, or a-titty if you will, with knowledge of the teacher's unclothed appearance.

Except, again, there's been no explanation of what the great qualitative difference is supposed to be between the general knowledge that people are naked under their clothes, and the specific knowledge of exactly what this person looks like under their clothes.

(Particularly true in the case of this one particular teacher, called Olivia Sprauer in real life or "Victoria V James" when getting her gear off in front of a camera; in the latter situation she always seems to be so massively airbrushed that you're not really seeing her at all.)

Oh, so we're still arguing? Well, there certainly aren't any other countries that're less hung up about this stuff! And they absolutely certainly don't have better educational outcomes than the States!

And on it goes.

(Does anybody know where I can find data on different countries' definitions of teacher misconduct? I don't read Japanese or the highly implausible languages of the alleged Belgium, so I just had to kind of say "Japan, dude", without primary-source support.)

I'm uncomfortably aware that some of what I've said in that thread sounds as if it may have something to do with Men's Rights Activists, so let me make this perfectly clear: MRA is in my opinion a few per cent perfectly legitimate (for instance, bias in divorce proceedings that gives a terrible mother a better chance of getting custody of the kids than an excellent father). But the rest of it is outrageous atavistic nonsense, surprisingly often being espoused by people who seem to think it's a good idea to be known as "the Blackshirts".

The thing that had me commenting in that Reddit thread in the first place was my constant low-level resentment of one important part of this general sex-in-any-way-associated-with-children panic in the USA, and Australia, and the UK, and umpteen other countries. It is, of course, the popular belief that that every man in particular is constantly quivering with the desire to interfere with kids.

So if you see a man talking to your children, your best course of action is to call the police at once.

I really like talking with kids. (Not enough to actually have any though, you understand, let's not go crazy here.) But if I'm not related to them, I have to avert my eyes if I see any approaching. I wouldn't even consider saying more than "hello", and I'd feel nervous even about that.

(In the real world, kids are much more likely to be molested by someone who is related to them, or by a friend of the family or neighbour or babysitter or suchlike, than by a stranger. And abuse by relatives is likely to be more harmful than abuse by a stranger. But we don't cotton to facts 'round here, pal.)

Again, this is one of those things where incorrect premises lead to a demented result: Child molestation is the worst crime possible, Crime Value Infinity, and child molesters do exist. So even if the chance that a given person is a child molester is one in a million (and according to the conservative press it's apparently more like one in three), the magnitude of harm times its probability remains infinitely high, and the situation must be avoided at all costs.

If the cost in this case is glaring at a man as you lead your children away or calling the police because he's got a camera and is in a park and so are some children and holy shit better get the SWAT team for this one, and making damn sure the strange man knows you're implicitly accusing him of being a criminal that makes Pol Pot or Doctor Mengele look like pikers, then so be it. Think of the children, et cetera.

(It's like the ban on Saying Any Words Related To Terrorism in airports: No matter how small the possibility, the thing you think you're guarding against is infinitely bad, so logic calculations all go to zero or infinity and actual thinking cannot occur.)

Thank you for making it to the end of this post. Your reward is the Brass Eye paedophilia episode.

It's got Simon Pegg in it!

A crafty religious ambush

The other day a reader contacted me (I'll identify him if he asks me to). He'd read my piece about collecting old technology, and in lieu of a donation sent me a Diamond Mako for free.

How cool is that?!

Diamond Mako PDA

The Mako is a Psion Revo with different stickers on it. So it's a fold-open PDA, marginally bigger than a really humongous modern smartphone. It dates from those peculiar few years when having a phone-book on a digital device that couldn't make phone calls was normal.

The Mako/Revo is about the cutest thing ever to be decorated with a QWERTY keyboard. The battery in this one is pretty clapped-out, though; I'll need to replace it if I don't want to charge the thing, via this well-thought-out setup...

Variac step-down electrical mishap waiting to happen

...pretty much daily.

Along with this PDA-I-might-take-notes-on-one-day-if-I-can-get-it-to-IrDA-to-a-modern-computer, though, also came that most earnestly offered and least frequently appreciated of gifts...

Religious tract cover

...a religious tract!

Fair enough.

New rule: I'm perfectly happy for anybody to proselytise at me, as long as their religious literature is accompanied by an interesting piece of superannuated technology.

I haven't quite worked out my full schedule of fees yet, but an Amiga 600 that can run Speedball II from a CompactFlash-card "hard drive" will earn you complete perusal of a volume of religious literature not exceeding 100 pages. Give me a working NeXT cube and I will attend any service, no matter how long, at any church you specify within 150 kilometres of my home.

This tract is pretty standard stuff, but my correspondent asked me to read it and tell him what I thought, so that's what I'm going to do, in my usual buys-ink-by-the-tanker-load style.

I can't imagine that I'll be telling him, or any of you, anything you've not heard or thought before. But the fact that he sent me this thing, presumably in the expectation that it might cause the scales to fall from my eyes and the majesty of Jehovah to sweep me away, bothers me more, the more I think about it.

Just saying why this tract, to spoil the ending, does not persuade me at all, may be worthwhile.

(I did Google and Tineye image searches on the rather gaudy cover picture, to see if this particular tract is online anywhere else; I didn't get any matches, though Google's "Visually similar images" are pretty darn spectacular, and probably include Captain Goodvibes somewhere. Searching for a chunk of the text of the tract, which I'll include in this post for the convenience of future searchers, turned up one hit, at "Evangelical Tract Distributors". They have this tract with a boring non-psychedelic cover, "on sale" for zero dollars and zero cents. They'll send me in Australia up to a thousand similarly free tracts for only a $US20 shipping fee. It's twenty bucks for one tract too, though.)

Side one of religious tract

Side 2 of religious tract

Mercifully, this tract has only four small pages, making the old-technology-gift to religious-enthusiasm ratio pretty darn favourable, if you ask me.

Legibly larger versions of pages one through four are here: One. Two. Three. Four. And here's the text:

SEARCHING, probing, questioning, people are always looking for answers. From the vastness of outer space to the tiny world of microcircuits, all questions demand answers. But there is one question, life's greatest question, that many avoid. This question darkens the brow and fixes the gaze on eternity for it asks, "Where will I go when I leave this world?"

As people get older they often try to escape this question. Nonetheless, the question remains and all must face it [all underlining my correspondent's, not the tract's]. Perhaps you are avoiding it because you are not sure if there is an answer.

There Is an Answer

God has assured us in His Word that we may know the answer. Here is God's statement about it: "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may KNOW that ye have eternal life" (I John 5:12-13).

So we see that we may know where we are headed after this life and that there are only two possible choices. We may know if we are safe in Christ having eternal life and on our way to heaven, or if we have rejected Christ and are on the way to the terrible place awaiting all those who despise God's offer of salvation.

He that "hath the Son" hath life, eternal life. He that hath not the Son of God as his Savior hath NOT life. It is not a question of how good a life you have lived. It is a question of God's Son. Do you have Him as your personal Savior? Can you truly say that you know Him, that you have come to Him, that you have placed your faith in Him? "Acquaint now thyself with Him. and be at peace" (Job 22:21).

In Which Class Are You?

"For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God (I Corinthians 1:18). So again you can see, God's Word describes some people as "them that perish," and others as those "who are saved." In which class are you?

Perhaps you are living a good. respectable life, and you feel that you are good enough already, and do not need a Savior. Or perhaps you are in the opposite class, and feel that you are too bad to be saved. God's answer in either case is plain: "...There is none righteous, no, not one" and "...there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:10, 22, 23). We are all sinners. God's Word says that we are all "dead in trespasses and sins." We all need a Savior.

"But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

And God's invitation of mercy and salvation goes out to all alike. For He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that WHOSOEVER believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). We beseech you to receive Him into your heart as your Savior. For "as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God" (John 1:12).

It Is Up To You [handwritten: "Daniel Rutter!"]

You, yourself must decide the answer to Life's Greatest Question, "Where will I spend eternity?" It all depends on what you do about God's Son. For, "He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18).

Answer the great question today; believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and KNOW that when you leave this old world that you will spend eternity in the presence of your great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

152 W. Prairie Ave.
Coeur d' Alene, ID 83815

[This would appear to be that church.]

Oh, boy.

Here's what this tract says, boiled down:

"If you accept the Christian belief system, why don't you accept the Christian belief system?"

That's it. That's all it's got. It says that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven and avoid hell, and it says that again, and then it says it a couple more times.

And, in the immortal tradition of all religious certainty, this tract cheerfully ignores the fact that several of its claims aren't even agreed upon by all Christians.

There are plenty of Christians who don't believe hell exists, for instance. This is not surprising, since it is exceedingly difficult to imagine why a loving god would visit hideous screaming flaming-sulfur acid-burning fingernail-peeling eye-gouging lye-drinking tooth-ripping knee-smashing genital-mincing torture for a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion et cetera years on Adolf Hitler, much less people who just thought religion was a load of claptrap and lived a good life.

(This tract actually has a bit of a bet each way there, because it doesn't actually mention hell, or lakes of fire or eternal torment - it just talks about a "terrible place" or where one might "spend eternity". This is compatible with the idea of eternal death being the only non-heaven option, rather than eternal punishment.)

There are also plenty of Christians who believe heaven, if it exists, is where good people go, whether or not they've kept any particular day holy or prayed on any particular schedule while pointed in any particular direction. Again, it's difficult to figure out why a loving god made us with this demonstrable inability to determine which, if any, of our thousands and thousands of contradictory religions, is the one true path to paradise. But this tract says he did, and we'd better choose right, or else.

And then there's the odd modern invention of the concept of a "personal relationship with god". This, also, is very far from universally accepted, even among Christians.

If you've got a personal relationship with someone they probably at least occasionally say things to you, after all.

It can also be argued that the very notion of a human having a personal relationship with the infinite creator of the universe is far, far more ridiculous than the notion of an E. coli bacterium having a personal relationship with the human whose gut it inhabits.

Now, this is all just part of the miraculousness of the Lord, of course. He's someone you can have a chat with, even if he doesn't seem to say anything back in a way that can't be blocked by appropriate medication. And he's simultaneously someone who sees the totality of reality spread out before him like a vast polydimensional tapestry, yet you also have free will, unless you're a member of one of the religions that says your eternal destination is known to God before you are born.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

If your religion were true, then just showing someone a tautological tract like this one would be likely to convert them in a flash of spiritual magic. You should be just dripping with miracles, like all of those people in the Bible. Some or all of the true believers should, to give one way in which a true religion might manifest itself, be able to speak in tongues - which is to say, your words should be comprehensible to everyone who hears them, no matter what language the astonished listeners speak.

Instead, religious people who "speak in tongues" have decided that it's actually just babbling away nonsensically in ways usually linquistically connected to languages of which the speaker has experience. It's often alleged that this is the language of angels, and it can be understood by some other members of the congregation, who stand up dramatically to "interpret" the doodly boodly boo boo boobly. (Or maybe it's a "private prayer language", whatever that means.)

I presume you're not a glossolalist, though. You probably have some sort of cessationist explanation for why the sun no longer stops in the sky and bushes no longer spontaneously combust and then start talking. You probably think people who do believe in ongoing but silly-looking modern miracles of one kind or another are misled. Perhaps to the point where the ones who say they're Christians are in fact not true Christians at all, any more.

But how can you tell?

What is it that suggests to you that the mainstream Christian ideas in this tract are the correct ones?

The tract, once again, presents no argument.

One wonders why such a thing as this tract even exists in the Western world, where we all know the basic Christian beliefs.

Even if we manage to avoid organised religious instruction, after all, those of us who live in societies where Christianity is commonplace are entirely familiar with the highly sensible idea that God sacrificed himself to himself in order to expunge the stain of original sin upon all humanity which was there because God allowed the most persuasive liar in the universe access to God's favourite creations and then they disobeyed God and ate something which apparently made evil suddenly exist or something and God then punished not only Adam and Eve but also arbitrarily decided that their disobedience would now sin-stain all of those first humans' offspring even though the offspring were not the ones who committed the sin but it's all right now because the temporary death of the human-like aspect of God during which that aspect might or might not have visited hell or some place like it freed all humans from the abovementioned arbitrary damnation brought upon us by God because of one bad act by our distant ancestors provided we follow the appropriate rules during our life which may or may not involve cutting off a piece of one's penis or being very respectful towards special little biscuits.

For some reason, many people outside the Western world find it hard to take this stuff seriously.

If you've been marinated in it all your life, though, then you definitely already know about these basic Christian beliefs, along with blatantly ahistorical nonsense like Caesar Augustus bizarrely deciding that for tax and census purposes everybody in the Roman Empire had to return to wherever their distant ancestors lived.

People who don't believe evolution is true - who are often quite convinced that God has communicated the truth of creationism to them via another of those "personal relationship" deals - sometimes ask "if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"

This argument fails for at least two reasons, but applying the same logic to religion does not, because religions usually claim to have invalidated previous faiths.

Christianity, for instance, says it superseded Judaism. But if that is the case, why are there still Jews?

And Islam says it superseded Christianity. But there you Christians still are, and the Jews, and the Muslims. And don't you Abrahamic siblings all just get on like a house on fire. (Or a church, or a temple, or a mosque, the setting-on-fire of all of which is apparently often also strongly encouraged by God in those personal conversations people keep alleging they have with him.)

And all this time the Hindus and Buddhists have been sitting there too, not being persuaded by any of you guys. People convert one way or another from time to time, usually to the great alarm of conservative members of whatever faith they converted from, but the overwhelming determinant of your lifelong religion remains the religion of your parents.

Which, once again, is exactly what we'd expect to see, if all religions were fictional.

If one religion were true, with an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent deity, then that religion should be more persuasive. Its followers and prophets should be distinctly different too. You certainly shouldn't see everybody in every faith bumbling around in the same way, and every faith producing the same few great people, few terrible people, and great mass of ordinary people.

And yet, that's what we do see.

Most religious followers have plenty of stories of events that plainly prove that they're on the right track. When I worked with Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, many of them had stories of encounters with the malevolent spirits that constantly strive to tempt us from righteousness. Some Catholics hold forth about the effectiveness of their various sacramental adornments, many Scientologists have seen their "tech" work wonders, many Muslims think you might as well drive with your eyes closed because they've seen many times that you'll only crash if Allah wills it, believers in reincarnation from the Hindu to the New Age think the evidence couldn't be more clear, evangelicals are surrounded by miracles and portents every day, and umpteen religions claim some great practitioner didn't need to eat or didn't rot after they died.

The closer you look at such claims, though, the more tenuous they become. Most religious claims are exceedingly difficult to test in any empirical way, but the very fact that most religions say they have hard evidence that they are the only correct religion indicates that, as in the case where two men say they're Jesus, most of them must be wrong.

For pity's sake, even the three flavours of Christians whose job it is to mind the place where Jesus was allegedly crucified and interred keep getting into fistfights when someone moves a chair. And heaven forfend anybody shift the Immovable Ladder. I am not making this up.

I also have to quibble with the tract's statement that "all questions demand answers". The question of the preferred sock colour of François Mitterrand does not, to my knowledge, keep many people up at night. And this isn't just me snarking; I find "it doesn't matter" is a perfectly satisfying answer to that question, and to many others, some much more important to religious people than the sartorial preferences of deceased Gallic statesmen.

Take, for instance, the question, "do gods, which do not intervene in the universe in any way, exist?"

The logical answer to this question is "it doesn't matter", because a god who does not interact with the universe is a god who might as well not exist.

This is not the sort of god that Christians believe in, of course. Some Christians believe Jehovah interacts with the world in profound and obvious ways, because otherwise humans and roses and organ music and the laughter of little children and preachers who can cure terrible diseases by magic - though, again, not in any empirically-verifiable way... - would not exist.

Many Christians believe Jehovah stopped performing miraculous party tricks many centuries ago, but that he does still definitely interact with the world, once again because of that direct personal relationship with their deity which they solemnly believe they have. This would be impossible if that deity did not interact with at least the minds of his followers, in some way.

This is a pretty solipsistic justification for belief, though. "I feel God's presence in my heart and mind" is all very well as a justification for your own belief, but it won't convince anybody else unless they independently find such thought processes going on for them as well.

And this certainly isn't a reason for any unbeliever to believe in any particular one of the hundreds of different allegedly-holy scriptures out there. If your only evidence is your God-filled heart, then what answer have you to someone who apparently feels as internally convinced as you, but says that God has called upon him to spread the new doctrine of invisible pink unicorns and eating nothing but geranium leaves, and heretics must be put to the sword?

(Or, of course, someone who starves their baby to death on the grounds that he's insufficiently pious, and then waits patiently for him to resurrect and the murder conviction to thus be quashed. They honestly believed it! Who are you to say the baby won't pop back up any minute now?)

This tract doesn't even make it to the level of Pascal's Wager. All it says is, "We reckon heaven exists. Why don't you want to go there?"

Given the paucity of this question, I shall conclude with the answer I most enjoyed delivering to the more dim-witted Jehovah's Witnesses who asked me, "Don't you want to live forever?" I don't believe it, of course, but at least I was doing them the favour of inserting a new idea or two into their brain.

No, I don't want to live forever.

Forever is a long time. Forever is a trillion trillion trillion trillion googolplex trillion trillion, et cetera, years.

If you could carry one atom at a time, at walking pace, you could move the whole observable universe from where it is to somewhere far, far beyond its borders, and still have made no inroads whatsoever on forever.

God, presumably, has lived, and will live, forever.

Christians seem pretty definite about that.

God needed to keep himself amused.

So he made the world, and maybe many other worlds. And heaven, and that's where he lives, and he'd like you to come and join him.

To be in heaven with him.


He could let you die, but he won't.

Have you ever wondered why God didn't just kill Satan, given that Abrahamic doctrine makes clear that he could have done so any time he liked?

God's not going to let the bastard die.

All Jehovah has left is sharing the misery.

What I discovered today

I believe I have discovered the true meaning of Easter.