Dangerous Books Recalled

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 Bad Wiring Bookup 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.]

No Comments

  • By Atticus, January 11, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    Welcome back. You have been missed.

  • By Mr. ToughMoneyLove, January 11, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    The failure of DIY book purchasers to actually DIY (and I know some) is consistent with the many PF blog readers who read primarily to learn about others who make the same stupid mistakes they do. It’s not PF improvement, it’s “lets all establish the lowest rungs on the PF ladder together.”

  • By Jim, January 11, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    Welcome back Frank.

    I actually think I might have Sunset complete home wiring at home. Or at least a very similar title. I’m sure I’ve at least flipped through it once or twice.

    I’m guessing they don’t go into more detail on the nature of the errors because they have 9 different titles that probably have various errors that would take a couple pages to describe which is too much for a press release. And describing the errors might not be so easy if its a matter of badly drawn diagrams. “this black wire may look like it connects to this white wire over here but actually the black wire is supposed to be shown as going under the white wire so don’t be an idiot and try and splice the black and white wires together”

    I was going to snatch up all the used copies of these books from Amazon and turn them in for the full refund, but theres none for sale. Either Amazon de-listed them or someone else beat me to it and bought them all.

    Another possible theory on why nobody had problems: People buy the book. Open it up and start reading. Then encounter a error in a diagram that they can’t figure out and just giveup in frustration.

    Hmm…I wonder if I could bluff my way through writing DIY books. Apparently publishers don’t even proof read the things even when the consequences of error are burned down homes. THe people actually using and reading the DIY books don’t know about the topic so they won’t know any different and just give up in frustration thinking its just too hard for them to figure out.

  • By Four Pillars, January 11, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    A couple of reasons for no incidents that I can think of:

    1) Most of the these books cover many areas of wiring. Most buyers probably only use part of the book for a specific project or two so they might avoid the errors.

    2) Define “incident”. Most wiring incidents don’t result in a 5 alarm blaze. Most likely the circuit doesn’t work at all or gets overloaded very easily if something is wrong. The homeowner would probably fix it themselves (after buying a new book) or hire someone. No incident would get reported.

  • By Alexandra, January 12, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    It could just be that this book represents decades of thoughtful Father’s Day gifts that (like that brown, striped tie) just never got used?

  • By Rob Bennett, January 12, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    Think of the hundreds or even thousands of personal finance titles issued in the past 35 years that could be eligible.


    This is the Buy-and-Hold story.

    I have studied this in great depth. The entire Buy-and-Hold concept was rooted in a mistake. The mistake was uncovered in 1981. But for 30 years now the feeling has been that it would be “rude” to ask all those who endorsed Buy-and-Hold to correct the bad advice they have given to millions of investors.

    The financial losses at this point are so huge that it has become unthinkable to many to pursue this. And most of those who have been done harm find the entire thing unbelievable. What? Could it really be that 90 percent of the “experts” in this field don’t understand even the ABCs? Yup. It’s possible — when those who do understand become so timid and “polite” that they don’t dare to point out the consequences that follow from getting this stuff wildly wrong.

    The ones that told you to put all your savings in the stock market, for example.

    It’s worse than that. Had Buy-and-Hold been an obvious Get Rich Quick scheme, most people would have known to be wary. The Buy-and-Holders weren’t saying to put everything in stocks or to day trade or to smash the market or anything along those lines. They put forward advice that for a long time sounded plausible and even prudent. They used to complain that some rejected this ultimate of all get Get Rich Quick approaches as being too “boring.”

    When the Bernie Madoff stuff came out, I remember one guy who had invested with him saying “Madoff isn’t a fraud — I made money with him!” There’s something in human nature that leads us to believe that, if we make money for a time, it’s not a Get Rich Quick scheme. The reality is that all the successful Get Rich Quick schemes produce good numbers for a time. The longer they do that, the more dangerous they are.

    The only way out today is persuading a small number of people with influence to work up the courage to give voice to the “rude” truths.


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