Dan's Data letters #170Publication date: July 2006.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
A fool and his money are welcome here
My father-in-law just bought a CAD2,900 HDTV (Panasonic TH-42PX60U) for $CA5,000. He got hooked by the sales rep for an extended warranty ($CA500), HD DVR ($CA650), cables ($CA300), and a "power box" ($CA500). He lives in a new house in a new subdivision, in Calgary, Canada. Not exactly a third-world country with problematic power delivery.
The first two in the list don't make me want to vomit. The second do. I searched your site for your (expected) rant against the latter two but couldn't find it. If you don't mind, would you please point me in the right direction? If I have any hope of getting him to return some stuff, it has to be in print - he won't listen to just me.
To address the extra-cost items in order:
Extended warranties can be worthwhile, but they're often a complete rip. For every extended warranty that saves someone's rear because the device in question genuinely does crap out a couple of months after the normal warranty term expires, or that gives you neat-o pickup-and-delivery service on a repair that'd otherwise make you take a day off work to drive your broken gadget around, there are a hundred that never give the purchaser any value at all. Most electronic devices, definitely including TVs, either die young or live for a long time.
Extended warranties are also often provided by, um, highly profit-focussed outfits whose shenanigans cost you more in pain than a new TV would have cost. Extended warranties are, after all, a form of insurance, and insurance (which is also often foisted upon hapless customers) is gambling. The extended warranty is usually the slot machine of the insurance world, not even the blackjack table.
Because extended warranties often show on retailers' accounts as pretty much 100% profit, salesmen who get commissions love them very dearly indeed. In stores where the sales staff don't get commissions (or get small ones, or are just decent human beings who aren't actually in love with soaking their customers), management often forces sales staff to push warranties very hard, if they wish to remain employed. So, either way - "You're not getting the warranty? That's very unusual. I really don't recommend it. Hey, Carmine! Salvatore! This guy's telling me he doesn't want the warranty...!"
More fun reading:
Slashdotters on dealing with extended warranty vendors
More Slashdot, on Best Buy's campaign (they're not alone) against savvy shoppers
(Not to be missed: Those Colecos'll rust up on you like that!)
Every time I read one of those stories I thank my lucky stars that Best Buy, in particular, is on the other side of the planet from me.
Now, on to the $CA300 (which, as I write this, would be about $AU360, $US270 or 18,500 Bangladeshi Taka) in cables.
There are some situations where super-spec very expensive cables are justified. Anything that's carrying high analogue bandwidth a long way, for instance. The perfect example is a long VGA monitor extension cable.
Medium-priced cables that're electrically identical to cheap and nasty cables but have better strain relief and connectors and overall toughness are also justifiable, especially if you're plugging and unplugging a lot, or just moving the cable around, or running it under carpet and walking on it, or whatever. Or if you just like to have Nice Things.
You'll get a lot of those cables for $US300, though. You should have enough spares to decorate a Christmas tree.
Speaker cable for very big speakers, or long runs, should be reasonably thick. "Medium duty" figure-8 cable will do for practically every purpose, though. Go to the heavy duty stuff if you like, but don't expect it to do anything better.
Super-heavy-duty cable is just a pain to terminate - all of the separate conductors won't fit into a normal spring or even screw-down terminal, so you have to leave some floating or terminate the cables with banana plugs or those funny ribbed pin things or something.
(If you need a relatively short length of cable with a sensible amount of copper in there and massively thick insulation, by the way, try cheap jumper leads, as I mentioned a little while ago.)
Simple 12AWG - often sold as at least "medium duty" speaker cable but still quite skinny wire, with only 2mm copper diameter inside the insulation - is extremely conservatively rated for 9.3 amps constant power transmission. You'd need 74.4 volts to push that much current through eight ohm speakers (speakers don't actually have the same impedance for every input frequency, but their nominal impedance is good enough for simple back-of-an-envelope Ohm's Law power calculations), and that'd give you output power of 692 watts per channel.
Which is a lot.
With the amount of air cooling that normal speaker cables get, even if they're all tangled up behind the stereo, you could actually blow 40 amps down wire that thick without worrying. Even with the cables under the carpet on a world record hot day, you could still very safely double the constant rating.
So unless you're aiming to make a very, very loud noise, even 12AWG speaker cable is vastly more than you need.
(If you're wondering about resistance, for the to-and-from loop to each speaker to add one lousy ohm to the speaker's own impedance, you'd need 12AWG speaker cables 615 feet long.)
So something like this is all you need for speakers.
(Incidentally, plain cable on reels at your local electronics store may not be terribly expensive per metre, but may still be marked up massively over wholesale. You just can't win.)
UL-approved non-combustible insulation like you get with this cable doesn't matter much for ordinary speaker cables, but it's a must if you're installing wires in your walls. Otherwise your cables can carry a fire from one part of your house to another.
And no, I'm not at this moment even going to dignify the I-can-hear-the-wire brigade with an argument against them.
(I've been there before, on numerous occasions; do feel free to knock yourself out reading all of those columns.)
For every other kind of wiring, you're pretty safe with the cheapest, funniest-smelling discount store cable you can find. For digital cables, in particular. The cheapest TOSlink optical cables may have flaky connectors, and I dare say it's possible to buy dodgy DVI and HDMI cables as well, and there are some really awful coaxial antenna cables out there; if you're plugging a TV into an antenna or cable box with those dreadful PAL connectors, instead of the more-common-these-days screw-on F connectors, the cheapest cable is not the wisest choice.
But if you're just going to plug-and-forget, for most applications, get something cheap and a spare as well (you'll be able to afford it), and rejoice.
Regarding the "power box" - some hi-fi power filter gadgets in the $CA500 price bracket are actually pretty decent power conditioners. Again, of course, there are plenty of stupidly-marked-up options, and if your dad's just bought a small computer UPS with a different label on it then all bets are off. But you can get a decent small-ish-rated ferroresonant power conditioner for that kind of money, and those genuinely can protect your gear effectively from not just the power glitches that you apparently don't have often enough to care, but also dangerous spikes from lightning strikes and so on.
Of course, if you can't remember the last time you woke up to find some electrical gear in your house had fried in the night, then the power conditioner is definitely a waste of money, and your dad may not have bought a decent one anyway.
Here's a proper ferroresonant power conditioner (no recommendation implied - I just found it with a Froogle search).
Note that it's just a freakin' heavy beige steel box with a cable and some outlets. 1000VA rating - that'll cover a couple of steaming PCs with big CRT monitors, or three or four LCD-screened PCs with nothing overclocked in them.
Here's a Monster product which I'll use as an example of an... alternative... power protection gadget, around the same price point.
OK, it's got connectors other than mere mains sockets, and it's got more mains sockets. It also has little lights and a front panel display.
But it weighs nine pounds.
The proper line conditioner weighs 51 pounds. Admittedly, that's including its shipping carton, but I don't think it's a steel shipping carton.
The weight difference is because the Monster product is a glorified surge/spike powerboard, with no big heavy transformer in it. It's got special digital sockets and all that jazz, but the big chunk of iron is more generally useful. A big transformer can just soak up bad stuff by sheer force of inductance, and that which also gives your gear the ability to ride out small power interruptions, though to keep on trucking over a break of more than a large fraction of a second requires a proper UPS or SPS. Ferroresonant conditioners also shouldn't wear out over time, unlike cheap lightweight surge/spike gadgets of all kinds.
(The Monster product should be much cheaper than it is - the question of how much of its retail price pays for marketing and how much is delicious gravy for the Monster corporation I leave open for debate.)
Anything that'll kill a ferroresonant line conditioner outright will probably at least leave you needing an electrician to come in and rewire your house. It may require the fire brigade.
The Monster product, of course, has a Connected Equipment Warranty. Those are often somewhat weaselly, but I had no such doubts about the Monster one, because I had no damn idea what the hell it said. The manual (PDF), like various other downloadable Monster manuals, contains four exhortations to look at the Warranty Information section for more information, but it does not actually contain a Warranty Information section, and I could not find that section separately on the Monster site. I think they leave it as a surprise for you when you actually open the carton of your new expensive Monster cable jewellery.
I finally found a description of the warranty and claim process, which may or may not be current, in this PDF.
Ah, there's the weaselling I've grown to love.
If you come home to a smoking TV connected to your Monster power doodad, and the TV's antenna cable doesn't pass through said doodad, you're boned. If all cables are Monster protected, you have to call Monster and tell them what happened in detail, which may be difficult if you weren't there at the time.
Then, if you make it this far, they send you a form, you fill it out, you send it back with the Monster doodad, at their expense (I think - that ought to be what "shipping prepaid" means, but maybe it just means that someone better pay for the shipping before it happens). Which is nice. But as usual, you need to still have the receipt for your Monster doodad. Or you're boned.
Now Monster get to decide whether they want you to be boned anyway.
And on it goes. "Prorated fair market value" is mentioned. That probably means "less than the full replacement cost", in case you were wondering. What the heck kind of blown-up gear you'd need to have for them to pay out the full $US250,000 mentioned in the fancier Monster power gadget blurbs, then, I shudder even to imagine - full replacement value could be half a million dollars or something. Who the heck's plugging their home Jumbotron into a Monster product?
Maybe Monster are a bunch of pussycats who'll replace people's dead gear even if they can't jump through all of the hoops. I am not brimming over with confidence about this, though.
After I sent Brian this, he got back to me and said "The crushing part is that his $300 cables don't include any speaker wire. It's just to connect his 'power box' to the TV and to the HD DVR. Meaning he spent a fortune on digital cables (most likely HDMI and Toslink)."
Also since then, I found this.
Although, obviously, someone called Garrett M. Vonk probably can't be trusted.
Foolable dad #2
I have a family member pressuring my elderly father to buy into an Endowment to the tune of $2500, for my mother with dementia. This endowment is to pay for a "legitimate study" to document the success of Mannatech products. He has already spent over $5000 on these products for her, and has stuffed horse pills and powder down himself and her for over two years with no improvement. Saying no is almost impossible. Please tell me what recent information there is out there regarding the fraudulent nature of this company.
[Karla e-mailed me because I've expressed my deep and abiding love for all things Mannatech on previous occasions.]
If nothing else, after sinking much time and money into worthless therapies, people become even less likely to be amenable to persuasion away from them, because it'd be so shaming for them to finally be shown to have been wrong all along.
Every situation's different, of course, and some people certainly do turn away from pseudoscientific medicine when they see it's not doing any good. But, regrettably, it's not the way to bet.
There's not a whole lot in the way of "recent information" about Mannatech, either for or against. The actual scientists never paid much attention to Mannatech in the first place, because it is incumbent upon the claimant to prove the truth of their claims, and Mannatech never did (well, beyond that whole Darryl See thing). No new claims, no new evidence, no case to answer. There's not a whole lot of recent evidence for the ineffectiveness of dowsing, either, for similar reasons.
In brief: Mannatech have never, and I'll betcha will never, be able to come up with any evidence that when you eat their special sugars, you do anything other than digest them like every other carbohydrate you eat. This new "legitimate study", if it ever even happens, will not address this fundamental problem with their claims.
Of course, my own infallible psychic powers tell me that the study won't try to address the problem; it'll probably be another clinical study of some sort in which they set out to gather evidence for their products' effectiveness and, surprise surprise, find it. Nobody else will be able to replicate the results, so the scientific community will continue to ignore them, but the "study" will still look great on their brochures, and more worthless Mannatech crud will be sold.
There have, however, been some lawsuits filed recently that have some relevance to your father's situation.
Some Mannatech investors, for instance, aren't happy.
Just because people are suing doesn't mean the suits have any merit, of course, but if the complaints are upheld then this should still give even the most enthusiastic Mannatech-booster pause, because it's not just about financial shenanigans.
And then, there's this particularly tasteful one.
Really, though, new evidence either way is unlikely to make up anybody's mind, unless it greatly deviates from the ample evidence we already have. Science (and simple logic...) say that Mannatech is just another multi-level marketing outfit selling crap that nobody needs. Mannatech, their unscrupulous dealers (that's the beauty of MLM - plausible deniability about what your dealers say to make sales) and their precious anecdotes say that they've got the cure for a rainy day. The fact that similarly convincing evidence can be presented for the great curative properties of drinking your own wee and squirting coffee up your bottom don't faze Mannatech and their fans at all.
If your dad's one of those fans, the FDA could issue a statement tomorrow saying that Mannatech products have conclusively been demonstrated to cause boils, eye-warts and genital amputation, and he wouldn't care one bit.
You might like to think about warming up the engine on a little old lawsuit of your own, though.
[Karla replied to me, and said "No, my father is not 'sold out'. He does not have the strength to say no to my sister, so he asked me to do it for him and I reaped the whirlwind. The response I received seemed like such a canned, pre-programmed response with intensely personal insults that we are gravely concerned about the mind control this has over her and others like her."]
Hurrah, once more, for alternative medicine!