Back on the web now. My apologies to everybody who missed me. Living without broadband for two days was quite an experience. It would make a good reality show, maybe for PBS: 1980s House.
Speaking of being wired up and of decades past, when I sat down to catch up on what I had missed I came across a wonderful item. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the voluntary recall of nine books on home improvement. Printed in China with lead-based ink? Not exactly.
The books contain errors in the technical diagrams and wiring instructions that could lead consumers to incorrectly install or repair electrical wiring, posing an electrical shock or fire hazard to consumers.
Several aspects of this story amuse and/or fascinate me. And there are implications for that other great and dangerous DIY area, personal finance.
First off, the oldest of the books first appeared in January 1975. (Presumably the other eight were cut-n-paste jobs from then on.) So it took 35 years for anybody to notice something was dangerously wrong. In fact, it is not clear how the problem was eventually spotted, since the USCPSC said that there have been no reported incidents or injuries relating to the recall.
As Chris Walters at The Consumerist brilliantly pointed out, this strongly suggests that nobody ever actually attempts the projects in DIY home improvement books. Collectively the titles sold 941,000 copies. And yet after 35 years not a single incident. Not even one.
That people do not actually carry out the projects in DIY books is not a surprise to me. There is an entire sub-genre of books on how to get rich with advice so impractical and doomed to failure that their continued existence is itself proof that practically no one ever tries to follow the advice. I believe that only a small minority of those books purchased even get read, never mind acted on.
The second peculiar aspect of the book recall is that neither the publisher nor the USCPSC will say what, exactly, is wrong about the electrical instructions in the books. "The books contain errors" is all we get. It would be hard to imagine a toy being recalled because it was dangerous in an unspecified way.
I’m really scratching my head here. It can’t be that the error is too subtle or complicated to be explained in a sentence or two. For those of you unfamiliar with household electrical work, it’s not all that complex and there are no shades of gray. Something is either correct or horribly and obviously wrong.
Perhaps the specifics of the mistake are being hidden in a benighted belief that repeating any advice, even to say it is wrong, is tantamount to spreading and endorsing it. Maybe they believe that saying "these books are being recalled because they suggest wiring without proper grounding which is very dangerous" will just remind people that it is possible to wire without proper grounding. Or maybe they are worried about providing would-be murderers with a new means of electrocution.
My biggest fear is that the motivation is nothing more than a reluctance to publicly point out what is wrong in a published work. That would be rude and embarrassing. Better to discretely pull the books off the shelves and buy up old copies from consumers. As somebody who spends his time pointing out what is wrong in the published advice of others, and who wonders why he’s often the only one doing it, I find this possibility to be disturbing.
But the aspect of this story that has me most excited is the wonderful precedent that it sets for issuing refunds on advice books that are found, even decades after publication, to be dangerously wrong. Think of the hundreds or even thousands of personal finance titles issued in the past 35 years that could be eligible. The ones that told you to put all your savings in the stock market, for example. Or the ones that advocated "creative" means of financing a house purchase without a down payment.
In fact, this might be a new business opportunity. The refund in book recalls is, I assume, the full purchase price. But you can get DIY home improvement and personal finance books at used book dealers for 10%-20% of original retail. Most of them are in as-new, never-opened condition.
[Photo of one of the books in question from Amazon. It is marked out of print.]