Celestial Billiards

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Earlier this year I wrote about some of the risks facing humanity. I’ve begun to expound on those risks with additional information. Here is the first risk in the list, Celestial Billiards.

One risk we face that is certainly out of our control involves our environment. Not the environment on Earth, but the environment in the universe. There are many, many forces out there in the universe, and they care not in the least that they may affect life forms on our planet should they interact with it. There are many objects flying around in our solar system that can (and eventually will) intersect with our planet. If they are large enough, they can wreak havoc upon a city, or a nation, or upon the entire earth. Modeling of the impact of the Yucatan body that brought the end to the dinosaurs shows that the entire atmosphere of the earth was aflame from the impact and subsequent reentry of the material thrown out across the globe. Only the creatures burrowed into the ground, or shielded by water had much of a chance of surviving the immediate impact. Today, we use many telescopes to identify and track objects found in our solar system. Still, it seems that every few months we learn of an object that could cause significant harm to the earth passing between us and the moon. One valuable use of a proposed Space Force would be to combine this detection team with a proactive defense capability, one that would be able to divert an oncoming object away from impact with earth.

The odds of an ecosystem destroying impact is very low. But our solar system has another kind of risk to throw at us, and this risk is probably orders of magnitude more likely than an asteroid’s impact. That is, we could have a solar flare that would wreak havoc upon our electric grid, causing large portions of the world to instantly regress back to stone-age conditions. Our sun is huge, and we still don’t understand the physics of how large-scale eruptions can throw off millions of tons of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space. If the eruption is large enough, and if it is aimed at Earth, it will hit us. We would have a mere two to three days warning. Would we be able to power down our electrical grid before it hit, causing catastrophic damage to our wiring and transformer base? Is there a way to shield these huge transformers so that they would survive? For it is a known fact from physics that if wires are present when electrically charged particles flow past, voltage will be induced in the wires. And transformers are nothing but masses of wire windings, aimed at either stepping up or stepping down voltages. The last major solar storm that reached the Earth happened in 1859. At that time, only telegraph wires were strung across the countryside to give us an idea of what will happen with a much more wired world. In the 1859 flare, telegraph operators reported receiving electrical shocks from the induced voltages. Telegraph wires sparked and caused fires. And all of this happened with single wires carrying low-voltage electricity.

Were we to have such an event today, the damage would be catastrophic. Overloaded wires will cause transformers to blow. Not just the local ones on the poles that step voltage down to household level, but the huge ones that work with the high voltages used to transfer electricity across the country. These transformers are huge, there are insufficient spares available to restore service should it be required across a large swath of any country, and the available manpower to fix the grid is lacking. Look how long it took to restore service to Puerto Rico after a massive failure of their grid. It would be much worse with a massive solar flare. Thus here is another area where we need to invest manpower in preventive activity, and much of that manpower must be well-versed in electrical engineering and physics. More than just manpower though, we must also invest in spare parts, and stage these transformers in locations where they can be moved to where they are needed. Given the economic model for utilities where state regulators must approve any rate increases due to the investment of a utility, it will take a real awakening of the world to this risk factor to convince those in power to grant rate increases for a danger that may come tomorrow, but may not show for 100 years. Those who pay electrical bills will not understand prudent risk avoidance when it raises their electrical bills unless there is a huge effort made to teach the public about this risk.

 

 

America First? Or America Alone?

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With the resignation of Nikki Haley as the US Ambassador to the UN, it is time to reflect upon the state of the US foreign policy under Donald Trump. First, congratulations to Nikki Haley for her efforts at the most difficult job of representing this nation’s suddenly altered foreign policy on the largest international stage available. She did an admirable job of trying to convert otherwise unintelligible tweets (covfefe anyone?) into a coherent set of talking points for discussion at the UN. Even when she was patronized by other White House officials, she stood her ground.

Theodore Roosevelt was famous for his maxim: Speak softly, and carry a big stick. Although he has not codified his policy to date, Donald Trump’s equivalent statement would be:  Carry a big stick, remind everyone loudly and repeatedly that you carry it, and threaten repeatedly to use that stick if you don’t get your way. That’s one heck of a foreign policy, certainly one that hasn’t come from a US President for a very long time. Along with the vocal and twitter pyrotechnics, go out and meet foreign dictators in person, and claim victories for your policies even though the foreign dictators make zero real concessions. Oh, and send your son-in-law out to solve the Palestinian problem, while backing the Saudi administration since they did such a wonderful job of feting you on your visit to their country. You know, the Saudi administration that is still prosecuting an endless war against Yemen (with our weaponry – don’t you feel proud to see how effective our armaments are?). The Saudi administration accused of murdering one of its critics at its Turkish consulate in Istanbul? Yes, they will be wonderful allies in assisting with solving the Palestinian problem that has been intractable ever since the formation of the country of Israel in 1948.

Of course, everyone else in the world must recognize the absolute wonderfulness of the US, and feel honored to do business with us. In fact, trade is a privilege that we can and will withdraw even from our longest-standing and strongest allies if their leaders dare to diss our leader. Thus we have the image of Donald Trump loudly calling for the evisceration of Justin Trudeau after Trump left the G7 conference early, when Trudeau dared to say that Canada would not be bullied. How Dare He Put Canada First! Everyone in the world knows it is America First! Thus Donald exemplified his first principle of foreign relations in his administration – I am the state, and if I’m unhappy, everyone will be unhappy. And your country will pay the price.

One of the largest problems the US faces over the next few decades will be the escalating tensions between the US and China over economic and military matters. And since the Trans Pacific Partnership was intended to form a group of nations pledging to use common trade as a way to keep China contained, of course Donald Trump welcomed the arrangement even though it was developed before his inauguration. WRONG-OH! Come on now, a multi-national agreement negotiated by Obama? That’s two of Donald Trump’s bête noires in one single agreement. That didn’t even survive two days of the Trump administration. Likewise, NAFTA was repeatedly denounced and the terms were renegotiated with both Canada and Mexico.

Now, nearly two years after the administration repudiated decades of trade policies, what successes does the Trump administration have to show? Well, there’s a joint agreement with Korea. And we have rebranded NAFTA into USMCA, which tinkered around the edges of NAFTA but didn’t dismantle the basic structure. Just think what we could have done had we begun a process to renegotiate NAFTA under a banner of cooperation, instead of threatening massive tariffs if our demands were not met.

Did I say tariffs? The signal economic accomplishment of this administration has been the implementation of protective tariffs against most of the rest of the world. This, of course, is in line with the belief of this administration that the country to whom the tariffs apply are the ones who pay the tariffs, thus exporting our payment of tariffs to other governments and countries. Oh wait! You mean that’s not how it works? You mean it is the customer within our country that has to pay the tariffs, and then they have to decide whether to eat the tariff cost themselves, thus reducing profits, or add the tariff cost to their finished good cost, thus raising prices to the American public? And not only that, the other countries can retaliate and apply tariffs of their own on US exports, thus making our products less competitive and reducing the demand for US exports. Boy, it is such a good thing that trade wars are easy to win.

Well, let’s move on from the economic sphere and enter the world of diplomacy. The success of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State will long be remembered as a high point in this administration’s efforts. The close relationship between Trump and Tillerson was reflected in the high prestige that the State Department is held within this administration. Oh, Darn! You mean I’ve got it wrong again? Trump fired Tillerson via twitter? And his replacement, Mike Pompeo, is still awaiting many ambassador and other senior State Department officials to be named and confirmed by the Senate? Well, at least the lack of qualified and experienced personnel in the State Department has not caused the standing of our nation to decline in the eyes of the rest of the world. Oh, wait. You mean that the ambassadors of the world had the audacity to openly laugh at our President as he spoke at the UN General Assembly? Did they not get the memo that this administration has restored our swagger and caused the rest of the world to once more fear American power?

I could go on and on with the signal accomplishments of this President and his administration in their activities outside of the US borders. Perhaps the best compliment I can give them is that the success they have had in their international activities is on a par with the success they have had on implementing their family separation program at our southern border. There we saw a totally amateur effort aimed at displaying a tough man bravura against illegal immigration, while totally ignoring the logistics and information systems needed to process and track families that were forcibly separated. After all, when ignorance and disdain for expertise forms the core of an administration, one expects incompetence in one area to be matched by incompetence in others. And so far, this administration has an almost perfect record of incompetence.

Good thing our leader is so humble and gracious.

The Origin Myth Debunked

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Once upon a time, there was a country unified by its mythology about the morality and heroism of its founding fathers and elected leaders. We all learned about the first President who chopped down the cherry tree, only to realize he could not lie when confronted with the accusation of cherrycide. We learned about the rail-splitter from Illinois who studied books by candle-light, always trying to better himself despite his poor circumstances. We learned about the bully hero of San Juan Hill, who fearlessly charged against the Spanish lines in order to overcome Spanish resistance. We learned about the Navy Lieutenant, who rescued one of his crewmen by swimming with him for four hours through shark-infested waters in the South Pacific, supporting him through a life jacket strap that he clenched in his teeth.

Someone else tried to add to the mythology of origin stories for our elected leaders. By parlaying a small loan of only $1,000,000 into a vast, world-class fortune and business empire, our current President deliberately encouraged this façade in order to emphasize his business acumen and brilliance. Alas, it now appears this myth-in-progress has been shattered beyond recognition, due to the investigative efforts of a failing representative of the press. It now appears that, despite assertions of penury, our Dear Leader has benefitted from decades of largesse from his wealthy parents. Loans? He’s had a few, including one year (1979) where he borrowed $4.7 million from his father in the first eight months of that year. I remember that year. Inflation was awful. That must have been the reason for needing that degree of cash infusion.

Instead of using his God-given talents to create his empire, our Dear Leader relied upon the fortune of his father to establish his presence in the Manhattan real estate market. And his father was available to bail his son out of innumerable tight situations, especially when the decisions made by the Dear Leader turned out to be, shall we say, less than inspired? Such as the decision to buy and finish building a third extravagant casino at Atlantic City where he already owned two other casinos that were funded on a pyramid of debt. The Dear Leader continually talks about his business acumen, and how he knows how to use debt better than anyone else. What the Atlantic City debacles (multiple bankruptcies, casino closures, an ever-shrinking percentage of equity) show is that when properties are leveraged far beyond their carrying capabilities, external factors can cause the collapse of the enterprise. Especially when you yourself create the external factor by cannibalizing demand for existing casinos by opening the Taj Mahal. Far from the wise use of debt to build useful assets, his companies continually tried to grow via the public debt market. Not even the father could rescue his son from his series of follies, although he did try that one time when he sent a messenger with a check for $3.35 million to buy casino chips the day before a loan payment was due, then the messenger left with the chips. The family obviously wanted the chips to fall where they would, preferably outside of the casino premises and unspent, enabling the loan payment to go through. It was telling that this blatant scheme caught the attention of New Jersey gaming authorities, who levied a $65,000 fine for the illegal loan.

It was also telling that Federal and State tax personnel were never able to penetrate and discern the degree of deception and deceit that girded the Trump family business empire. It was indeed a brilliant strategy born of a desire to minimize taxes by illicitly undervaluing properties when ownership passed within the Trump family. The failing media source describes multiple times when Trump tax documents show a relatively small value is declared for a property, only to have the same property sell for orders of magnitude more money within a few years of the ownership transition. Amazing how those things work. And always in the favor of the Trump family? The odds of that happening naturally (like if oil were discovered underneath the apartment buildings after the Trump siblings gained ownership) was astronomically small. But the Trump family is correct when it states that all of the transactions passed tax audit muster. For that, we must express our gratitude to the apparently understaffed tax compliance offices of New York and the IRS, since they were unable to detect any systematic bias in the values assigned to the transferred properties, thus reducing the tax due from the family by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The one single example that best demonstrates the venality and greed of the Trump family was the creation of a fictional entity whose sole purpose was to inflate the value of supplies and capital goods used to maintain the Trump family properties. This fictional entity, All County Building Supply and Maintenance, was equally owned by the Trump siblings and the manager of this entity, who was a nephew of Donald Trump. It’s sole purpose was to pay the vendors who supplied the Trump real estate empire with boilers, stoves, refrigerators, all manner of goods, and in turn provide invoices to Fred Trump’s businesses that overstated the value of the procured goods. The excess dollars from the inflated invoices went to the owners of All County, and over the course of a decade, managed to strip millions and millions of dollars out of the cash cache that Fred Trump accumulated over his career and transfer it to his children, free from gift or estate tax limitations. It would be very instructive to see if the monies thus transferred ever were declared as income, but since I am sure that the tax returns in question during the 1990’s are still being audited, we the people will never know if yet another layer of tax avoidance occurred.

The business practices of the Trump family, and thus the true facts behind the myth that the Dear Leader has fostered, show a complete disdain for the laws of this country. Almost as if the laws were never intended to apply to those of a certain wealth level and status. Almost as if a member of this family could act with impunity for any and all actions that he takes. It is certainly informative that in the first two years of his administration, the Dear Leader has shown zero concern for the fiscal realities of the Federal Government. Cut tax revenues by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and shower the richest with the benefits of these reduced taxes? That’s great for America! (Please note that corporate tax reduction is a separate concern than the misguided transfer of tax benefits to individuals and pass-through businesses, such as the ones that the Trumps use.) Spend hundreds of billions more for defense? Great! More contracts for my friends, both corporate and personal. Kill regulations that improve the health of citizens and workers? Well, if it means that corporations can spend less and make more money, that is surely good for the nation. Spend money on those who need assistance due to the bifurcation of the income distribution in this nation? Bah! Humbug! Those takers need to take responsibility for their own situation, and go back to school in quantum physics instead of living the life of luxury on the public dole.

As an observer of society, I marvel at the ability of the wizard to keep the projection of competence and brilliance alive within his steadfast believers. Those of us who have peered behind the curtain, know with certainty that this empty shell of a human cares nothing for the population of this nation, nor of any other nation. No, the only thing that motivates this simulacrum of a human is adulation, since his delusions have shown to himself that no one has ever done so many good things in his short time in office. And we’d all better pay homage to him for his magnificence, since he will punish his naysayers. Unfortunately, my opinion of the intelligence of the American public does not bode well for a repudiation of this charlatan. I hope beyond hope to be proven wrong in November.

Source materials:  This week’s NYT expose on Trump family finances;  The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump’s Atlantic City Empire from Philly Mag.

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Acrylonitrile

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The last chemical I wrote about, hydrogen peroxide, I described as a cute, cuddly chemical. The next chemical I was involved with was anything but cuddly. Acrylonitrile, or Acrylo as we called it, is an organic chemical that is used to make acrylic plastics and fibers. By itself, it has toxicity as it will release cyanide within the body. But the process to make the chemical is also very nasty, and especially so where we made it in Memphis. A little background first, though.

I received a promotion and gained the title of Production Supervisor in the Acrylo process. This was a big enough process that it had two production supervisors. I was placed in charge of planning the annual shutdown, which required intense logistical planning. I served as a backup to the real process supervisor. He was a Memphis native who had come up from the hourly wage roll to his exempt role position. He actually was a classmate of Elvis Presley when they were both in junior high school, but he did not have any good stories about their shared time. So I had the advantage of being able to learn about supervision while only occasionally really taking charge.

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The Acrylo process is a huge process, more like an oil refinery than a standard chemical plant. It had six huge reactors where the chemicals propylene, ammonia, and oxygen (from air) are mixed with a catalyst in fluidized bed reactors. These reactors were about 12′ in diameter, and some 40′ tall. The reaction itself creates significant heat, so the reactors are full of tubes containing water which turn into steam that helps to drive the later separation processes. Once the chemicals have reacted, the off-gases are sent into an absorbing tower. This tower was over 100′ tall, and about 15′ in diameter. After the gases are absorbed in water, it is necessary to separate out the other reaction products. The primary one is hydrogen cyanide, which I wrote about earlier. There were two distillation towers used to separate and purify the hydrogen cyanide, which was then sent by pipeline to the other part of the plant that produced cyanide as its primary product. I remember that one of the pumps that transferred the cyanide developed a leaky seal, and since it was several months before the scheduled shutdown, the solution was to barricade off a section of the process with good old yellow and black warning rope, guaranteed to be a barrier against all chemicals. NOT! In fact, even beyond the tape, you could taste the cyanide, and this is how I became sensitive to cyanide and was able to easily pass the sniff test during my annual physical at the plant. It does not smell like bitter almonds, rather, it is an unpleasant sensation that grabs at the back of the throat.

Once the cyanide was removed, the crude acrylonitrile had to be separated out of the ammonia-laden water. There were a total of five distillation towers, each with a different purpose, until finally the refined acrylonitrile was pure enough to go into the storage tanks. One of the distillation towers actually concentrated another byproduct, acetonitrile, which is used as a solvent. Eventually though, the ammonia-laden water was neutralized with sulfuric acid, and had to be disposed of. Now every other commercial acrylo plant in the US was in a location where the waste stream could be injected into the earth in a deep well. In Memphis with its extensive aquifer system near the Mississippi River, this was not a viable option. So when the plant was built in the 1960’s, and energy was extremely cheap, the solution implemented was to incinerate this stream. We had three huge stacks that could be used to “thermally oxidize” the solution, and release nitrogen, water, and sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere. We were the 2nd largest sulfur dioxide emitter in western Tennessee. Only the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plant was a larger source. As you can imagine, when the dual energy shocks of the 1970’s came, burning a water waste stream put a larger and larger burden on profitability. So much so that when our plant suffered a major freezing incident one winter, that proved to be the final straw that led to the plant’s closure and eventual dismantlement. Chemical plants really, really do not like cold, freezing weather. And seeing 12″ diameter burst water pipes start to leak when they finally thaw is not something I ever want to witness again.

But before the process was closed, there were some really wild times I had. One in particular involved a one ton cylinder of sulfur dioxide. Now pure sulfur dioxide was used as a polymerization inhibitor in the vapor space in the columns where cyanide was purified. So we had tubing running from the cylinder up to the tops of the distillation towers. Even though sulfur dioxide boiled at 14ºF, it took a little extra push to ensure that enough gas flowed up to where it was needed. So we had a simple plywood enclosure where we kept the cylinder, and we had steam coils underneath the cylinder. Such a complex system couldn’t ever go wrong, could it? Well, it did go wrong, and the fusible plug in the cylinder that kept it from over-pressurizing, that plug melted and began to release the content of the cylinder to the atmosphere. That was one of the days where the other Process Supervisor wasn’t there, and I was in charge. I had to direct the evacuation of the adjacent laboratory and technical building, but what saved us was one operator who was able to get onto a forklift with breathing air, and pulled the cylinder out, where it could be sealed by hammering a wooden plug into the hole where the fusible plug had been. We prevented releasing the entire cylinder contents, which could have affected a large area, including US 51 highway which ran parallel to the plant.

To this day I don’t remember what we did to get another cylinder in and fix the tubing that had torn away when the cylinder was pulled out, but I do remember that we didn’t create a huge environmental incident.

When we finally did get into our planned shutdown, the biggest job was the replacement of our 100+’ tall absorbing tower. We got cranes in that were able to lift the entire tower – the big crane to lift from the top, a smaller crane to guide the bottom section. Then the process was reversed so that the new column was installed. We did this on a weekend when most of the lab people and other technical engineers weren’t around. My job? To run the video camera that captured the move. Somewhere there was a VHS tape that documents the replacement of this absorbing tower, which was used for about one year before the entire process was shut down.

Propylene is the main reactant to make acrylo. It has properties very similar to its chemical cousin, propane. So you know those long cylindrical tanks that hold propane? We had four big tanks that held the propylene. One thing that most folks don’t know about chemical piping is that there is almost always a little bit of leakage that comes out of valves and flanges. And for whatever reason, propylene attracts wasps. So going up on the storage tanks was a bit of an adventure. It was necessary to keep watch in order to knock down wasp nests before they got too big.

One other similarity to a refinery was that the residual gases from all of the columns was released through a flare stack. This stack was 175′ tall at its tip, and one of the tasks for the shutdown was to inspect the flare. I, being a novice supervisor, didn’t always think about my decisions. We had an intern who had his own pilot’s license, and was clearly unafraid of heights. So he asked, and I gave permission, for him to do the inspection on his own, and trusted him to do it safely. If he had an accident, my career would have been over at that time. But he completed the inspection, and came down safely. It was only years later after I gained more experience that I realized what a risk I took with his life and with my own career in my company.

The equipment for this process was huge. We used air as an ingredient. So it was a 2500 horsepower air compressor that fed the reactors. That was one impressive motor that ran that compressor.

Of all of the chemical processes I worked with, this one was by far the “dirtiest”. We emitted tons per day of sulfur dioxide. We sometimes had cyanide leakage. We had another wastewater stream that did go to the sewer system, that we had to monitor for compounds that had the nitrile (or cyanide) functional group – the CN on the end of the molecule. Before I worked in the process, they had tried to see if they could use the ammonium sulfate waste stream as a fertilizer for soils that needed acidification. They had a section of ground near the plant set up to receive the waste, and monitored the soil to see how it worked. Spoiler alert – it didn’t work.

One thing that I appreciated in my time in this process was that we had a Superintendent who believed that his supervisors should know what we were expecting workers to do. So all of us had to put on self-breathing air packs (like scuba tanks), put on chemical-proof suits, and disassemble and reassemble a flange with its bolts. It did show me how exhausting working in that type of environment was. When I took off the suit, I was drenched in sweat. But in my mind, I thank my old supervisor’s supervisor for giving me a taste of what it really is like to work in such an environment.

In the Memphis plant where I worked, there were four large chemical processes. I’ve shared the stories of three of them. One more to go.

 

You Will Be Haunted, By Three Spirits

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Donald lay in bed, waiting for the gastric discomfort caused by the double cheeseburger and fries to settle down a bit. He had his comforter in his hand, and was just about to send out a tweet denouncing all NFL players who ever spoke out about any social issue ever, when his comforter buzzed. On the screen popped up an image of Richard Nixon, and his words were spelled out in the form of a text.

“Donald, I have come to warn you of the path you are on.”

“Donald, if you do not change, you will wear the chains of disgrace that I bear.” With this text, the image on the comforter drew back to show the entire body of Richard Nixon, shrouded in chains binding his arms and legs.

“Donald, I am sending you three messengers, to show you how you have come to this point in life, and to offer you a chance to repent. If you ignore these, your fate is sealed.” And with this last text, the image of Richard Nixon faded from the screen and only the unsent tweet remained.

“That was strange,” thought Donald. He looked up and Hannity was still on the television. Nothing around him seemed to show that he had just had a virtual visitor on his comforter. He put it down and reached for the television remote control. Better to try to sleep than to have to think about what had just happened.

Sleep was hard to come by, but eventually his mind calmed, and he was able to doze off. That is, until about midnight when his comforter suddenly began buzzing uncontrollably. Donald shuddered, then groggily reached over to the nightstand to pick it up. When he did, the visage of his old mentor, Roy Cohn, appeared on the screen. Donald sat up and looked dumbfounded at the screen, and as he looked, Roy began to speak. He was clad in his trademark robe, seated in his old apartment, and he said “Donald. Remember those days we spent together in the ’70’s? What is it that I taught you then?”

Donald replied to the image. “You taught me to never settle, never surrender. To counter-attack and counter-sue immediately. And no matter what happens, claim victory and never admit defeat. I’ve tried to follow your advice. Look where it’s got me!”

Roy’s cadaverous face nodded in agreement. The image was of Roy just before he died of AIDS, and he was hollowing out what was already a slender body. “Let me show you what you missed while we were together.” Roy’s face dissolved, and a pier on the waterfront appeared. A huge car was parked on the pier, and two men were approaching the trunk, which they opened. They hauled out a bundle shaped like a human, totally concealed by cloth wrapped tightly around it. They took chains and wrapped them around the bundle, securing the chains with a padlock. Then they lifted the bundle up and tossed it into the dark water. After the loud splash, the bundle sank beneath the surface without hesitation. The scene dissolved again, and Roy’s face appeared once more. “You see what happened there? I got Fat Tony off on that charge. We used my technique and it worked. It’ll work for you too. Keep that in mind. These times are tough and you need to be strong.” And Roy’s face disappeared from the screen, and the comforter went silent.

Donald turned the light on, then pulled up twitter. He wiped out the post he had intended to send about the NFL, and instead wrote yet another condemnation of his attorney general. He ended it with “Where’s my Roy Cohn!” and sent. Many would wonder about the tweet sent at 12:45 in the morning.

Donald turned the light back off, and tried to resume his sleep. He was just entering REM sleep when …. his comforter began buzzing uncontrollably again. He picked it up, and this time he was face to face with one of his nemesis MSNBC commentators, Rachel Maddow. She spoke not a word, but pointed with her long fingers at a monitor to her side, and his attention was drawn to it. He recognized the Oval Office, and saw himself seated at the desk, with papers cluttering the surface. He got up, and left the office for a state function, the meeting with the Emir of Losewhatchakan. Not five minutes after he left, he saw a hooded figure enter the room, and that figure crept over to the desk and pilfered two pieces of paper. Looking around to see if he had been observed, he crept cautiously away. When Donald saw himself returning to the office, he never noticed that the papers were missing. Rachel’s face reappeared as the scene dissolved, only this time he heard her say in that annoying way she had, “And to think that all of your staff is laughing at you behind your back. Never has a President been treated with so little respect that his own staff would sabotage him – and never has there been a President who would not notice that he was being thwarted. Now, watch this.”

She indicated the monitor beside her. On the screen appeared an image of an immigrant detention center. The chain link partitions indicated this was a serious place. He saw his agents approach one woman who was surrounded by three children. The agents took possession of the children, actually pulling one from the mother’s arms. Though there was no sound, the anguish of the mother and the children were apparent as unheard wails could be seen coming from each of the family members. The mother was escorted away to yet another place of confinement as her children disappeared down a corridor. The scene dissolved again, and Rachel pointed up once more with her long, long fingers. Longer than Donald’s, that’s for sure. Rachel said, “Your program was more successful than you could have imagined. But there were people who didn’t like what they saw in this scene. They actually thought this was cruel to separate the family in this way. But you know better, don’t you?”

Donald was confused. He could not force a coherent word out of his mouth, but did manage to shake his head in assent. His mop of comb-over flopped back and forth, deprived as it were of its binding chemicals.

Rachel had one more thing to say. “If you don’t crack down harder on those who disagree with you, your reign is in peril. Remember what Roy said,” and then her visage faded away.

Unable to truly focus, the only thing he could think of tweeting was “The FAILING NBC network keeps showing FAKE NEWS.” The tweet appeared at 2:30 on the time stream. Soon Donald was back snoring peacefully amidst the soft pillows.

But there was one more interruption on this endless night. His comforter began buzzing louder than ever, and he again reached over to grab it. When he did, what appeared was a stylish blonde covered totally in white fabric. Her body appeared to be similar to his daughter’s, but he could not tell because only her eyes and a wisp of hair protruded from the eye slot that showed flesh. She spoke not a word, but held her finger up to where her mouth would have been, and extended her other arm in an open invitation to follow. Donald did watch as the scene changed to that of a crowd of white-clad people marching along a street. Slowly the camera panned back to reveal that the crowd of people extended as far as the eye could see, an endless mass of pilgrims walking, walking, walking. The crowd was even bigger than at his inaugural. Who were these people? Then the camera pulled back further, and he realized there were tall spires around the crowd, and that all of these people were MUSLIMS! So! Many! MUSLIMS! If he didn’t act soon, they would be all over our country, flooding our streets, turning our daughters into abaya-clad disciples of Allah! Something must be done! But as he felt resolve entering his limbs, the scene dissolved into yet another scene. Now he could see a camp of some sort, with thousands and thousands of tents, and even more people milling about, aimless, idle. He recognized that this was some sort of refugee camp, the people looked like they were Asian, and there were just so many of them. He could see them storming our border as an unending horde. He must do something to prevent these hordes from overrunning our civilization. Then the scene changed once more, and he saw a dreadful looking ship, in danger of foundering on the ocean, crammed to the brim with dark-skinned people. He saw the ship list, and saw people fall or jump off into the ocean without any survival gear, hundreds and hundreds of people. He knew then that this was a vision of the future, that all of these people were intent on invading our shores. He tried to stir himself, but found his muscles frozen.

He awoke from this last vision at his normal hour. He was determined to share his lessons from the visits of the evening. He would be ruthless in his pursuit of those who denigrate him. He would be unceasing in the efforts to keep the nation pure by banning all immigrants other than those who had enough money to buy citizenship. He would keep the faith of Roy by striking out through the legal system at all who had wronged him. He turned to his comforter to begin to share his lessons of the night with his many followers.

 

What? You believed that the visits of the spirits to Donald would result in a transformation? That he would grow a conscience and his heart would grow three sizes? That he would show charity towards all, and malice towards none? You don’t know him very well, do you?

 

North to Alaska!

Denali.jpg

Hedonism, thy name is cruising. Nowhere else can you find the invitation to indulge each and every whim and luxury perk as easily than when you are on a cruise. You are offered the opportunity to purchase jewels, or fine art, or just have another drink any time you desire. Want to throw away your money faster? Just take a spin or two in our casino for a chance to come out ahead. Want a foot massage? We’re just waiting for you to show up at the spa entrance. Want to take a helicopter trip up to the surface of a glacier? Just buy the tour. All it takes is money. After you have spent the initial outlay for the cruise, and ancillary expenses like port fees, transit fees, and beverage packages, each additional charge for another luxury is just a charge card away. Money is the lubricant for cruise operations.

We went last week on a cruise and land travel package up to Alaska, including two days in and around Denali National Park. We were unbelievably lucky to enjoy clear blue skies as we drove into the park, and we had a crystal clear view of the mountain itself. If we had visited the day before, or the day after, all we would have seen would have been fog and clouds shrouding the peak.

If you go to Alaska for a cruise, you cannot help but feel sympathy for the salmon that are completing their life cycle in an attempt to return to their birth waters and spawn before dying. You see them crowding the waters as they surge upstream to their place of birth, ready to give up their entire existence for the chance to reproduce. Then they die, and their bodies serve either as food to the animals of the forest, or they decompose and release their nutrients directly into the waters to serve as fertilizer for the entire ecosystem. The salmon are the mechanism for sending the nutrients of the ocean back up onto the land.

Salmon.jpg

In much the same way, the passengers on the cruise ships migrate upstream as well, stopping at various ports of call, and spreading fertilizer in the form of money. Money spent directly in bars and restaurants, money spent at souvenir shops, money spent at the jewelry stores that crowd the docks of the larger towns. But the fertilizer goes to others as well. It supports people like Bear and Ryan up in Haines Alaska, where Bear came up for the season in a cargo van that has served as his home for this season. He’ll drive on back once fall hits and the cruise ships depart on their migratory routes across the Pacific. Ryan takes his independence a step further, and has lived in a tent on the outskirts of town. He didn’t share his future plans once the season is over, but it likely will not be to spend the winter in a tent in the Alaskan panhandle. But both of them served ably as driver and guide for tours in the town of Haines, sharing their stories and the beautiful vistas as we went to the Raptor center to see eagles and owls and falcons.

The monetary fertilizer also lands far from the ship route as well. Cruise ship workers are bound to the ship for 9 or 10 months at a time. There was Ivory, who is studying to become a sommelier and better her lot. Yes, being away from her 2 and 4 year old children is tough, but she’s hoping to have her aunt, who’s serving as caregiver, bring her children to the ship when they dock near her home in the Philippines. It will only be after her full term is through that she’ll be able to try to re-bond with her children for the 2 months allotted before she is obligated to return to the sea. Her fertilizer is being saved in order to eventually buy a house so she can stay with her children before they grow up.

Entire economic ecosystems are supported by the five month cruise season up in Alaska. That’s when the lengthened daylight makes the place tolerable for those who don’t love winter sports. Many people grab a piece of the money. There was the retired biologist from Wisconsin who served as an ecological evangelist and bus driver on our Tundra tour through Denali. Her stories of the relationships between species served as a reminder that the web of life is complex, and unraveling a single strand can lead to many other effects on the web. There was the petroleum geologist who used to work on the North Slope, but now had weekend gigs driving tour buses from Denali to Seward. There were the guide and bartender on our train coach heading up to Denali from Anchorage. Money helped to lubricate that trip as well, either for souvenirs or for beverages. Hot chocolate in August? Well, especially with a little peppermint schnapps in it to chase the gloomy clouds away.

The transit experience to and from the cruise was the antithesis of the cruise experience. The fun of being shoehorned into 9 and 10 seat rows at the back of the massive planes for a 7 hour bout of claustrophobia. The joys of walking endless airport corridors, only to turn a corner and see another set of moving walkways for you to manipulate your carry-on bags. The ultimate joy of having gone through airport security in Vancouver, only to have to go through an entire extra set of security checkpoints and facial recognition software in Toronto to ensure that you matched your passport picture. And the final indignity inflicted on US travelers by the security system, having to have your luggage unloaded from your connecting flight, go through US customs inspection, and then and only then will your initials and destination appear on the giant screen, enabling you to finally leave and find your gate. After all that, the walk into the nether regions of the airport parking lot at 11:30 at night was a walk in the park. Admittedly, after the sweat drips off of you as you reacquaint yourself with the world of humid air, it is difficult to remember all of the good times you had on your cruise. Maybe the travel to and from the cruise is your penance for having been able to forget all of the worries of the world for your week of hedonistic pleasure seeking.

 

In Support of the Journalists and Media

Pull-Off-Veneer

The veneer of civilization is thin. Those with the oratorical skill who are able to manipulate their audience into violently turning against the objects of derision, are deliberately pulling at a loose piece of veneer, caring not whether the veneer comes off and exposes the termite-infested structure found beneath. That to me is the danger we face when the leader of the nation castigates an entire branch of our society and declares them to be “The Enemy Of The People”.

You see the raw hatred expressed by attendees at these rallies. It emanates from the middle finger salutes they proudly wave at journalists. You hear it as they scream “CNN Sucks” at the faces of those who try to bring the story of the rallies to their audiences across the nation and the world. Up till now, flimsy barricades separate the hordes of gesticulating shouters from the cameras and microphones held by members of the press. But mark my words, at some point there will be a trigger. Perhaps it is an ill-chosen phrase spoken over the sound system that sets it off. Perhaps it will be some member of the press who pushes back against some rally supporter who has intruded. Perhaps it will be someone radicalized in the sewage of white supremacy beliefs who decides to take matters in his own hands. But some time soon, the barriers will fall, and the fury pent up by the constant denigration and denunciations and hate speech coming from the President will be unleashed upon the hapless press pool.

The images of the conflict will dominate the airwaves for days. Broadcasts showing the chaos, confusion, and casualties that resulted from the charge over the barricades will horrify those who believed “It can’t happen here”. Images abruptly cut off when cameras were destroyed will resonate over the airwaves. Cell phone videos providing additional perspectives will surface, each one swimming up to the surface of the boiling soup of the media world, only to spread out and sink back into the simmering pot.

Then the question will come up. Was this riot against the press a one off? Or will others across the nation who share in the beliefs of the President that members of the media are horrible, horrendous people, instead begin attacks wherever the press is displayed? Is it conceivable that enough people could be motivated to act against the press that this country could have its own Kristallnacht, with TV studios raided, and newspaper employees having to fight against those who would throw spanners into the working printers, ceasing for a bit the dissemination of news they find distasteful.

Think this is excessive hyperbole? I offer an example from my state of West Virginia, where we have “Trump Lite” as our governor. This gentleman with the oxymoronic surname of Justice, not only lashes out against the press whenever they print something he doesn’t like. No, he upbraids them when they print something that he agrees is accurate, but somehow if this news is published, it will cause damage to the state of West Virginia and its reputation. He is fostering the concept that the news media is biased and wants to destroy everything good being done in the state by his administration. How many other politicians around the nation are taking advantage of the cover provided by the President in his continuing campaign against the media? The belief in the fake nature of the news is spreading, and will find more and more purchase if it is allowed to fester without a vigorous and continuous denunciation.

So on this August 16, inspired by the Boston Globe’s campaign to speak out against the ongoing attack against the free press, I offer my own denunciation of the tactics of this President. There is only a thin line of metal barricades that stand against the unleashing of the animal instincts that has been aroused by the words of this charlatan. But as we’ve seen in other countries in the last century, those who can inspire the animal spirits of crowds can lead their nations into paths of evil and into their own destruction.

Photograph courtesy of Salvaged Inspirations and may be found at   https://salvagedinspirations.com/how-to-remove-veneer/

 

Want to Take a Dip in the Lake on Mars?

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Humanity needs a frontier in order to provide meaning to our existence. It is in the pursuit of the frontier that we have an opportunity to exhibit our best character traits, and provide a relief valve for our churlish nature. Up until the 20th century, we had frontiers on most continents. Exploration in the Amazon rain forest, conquering the outback in Australia, “civilizing” the American west by taking it from its original inhabitants, all of these helped to fuel the imaginations of the time. Once the frontiers closed though, it has not been possible to dream of adventures in exploration that would open new vistas to humanity.

Until recently, that is. Beginning with government efforts in the US and the Soviet Union enabling space exploration, we now are in a world where many nations are launching their own satellites, and conducting virtual space exploration to other bodies in the solar system. Private industry is playing a larger role, as the value in providing access to near-earth orbit becomes profitable. Even now, we have begun to dream of new adventures in revisiting the moon, and placing human footprints on other celestial spheres.

That is why the recent discovery of a lake of liquid water sealed under the south polar ice cap of Mars is so important. The story of the discovery may be found in the August 3 issue of Science Magazine. The Italian research team describes the results from the European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express probe, where radar pulses were sent down into the Martian surface, and the return pulses were analyzed. The pulses show both the surface features, and the features below the south polar ice cap. They show a clear signal of a very strong return of the radar beam from below the ice cap in certain places. By comparison to radar images taken from subsurface lakes in Greenland and Antarctica, they can state with confidence that the bright reflections represent a free water surface found below the ice. That water is undoubtedly extremely salty, since even under a kilometer and a half of ice, the freezing point of water needs substantial salt content in order to keep the water as liquid at the temperature of Mars. Still, the discovery of water, on a planet that long ago lost its atmosphere due to the decay of its magnetic field, gives hope that in the future humanity may actually be able to survive the hostile landscape of another planet.

mars ice cap

Mars Northern polar ice cap

The discovery shows how human probes continue to make significant discoveries at Mars. Right now there are eight probes (from the US, the ESA, and India) either circling Mars, or rolling over the surface of the planet. It is no longer extraordinary to see 360° panorama views of the surface of Mars, showing the approach of a lander to the distant mountain that will be explored next. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the entire cycle of space exploration. One of my earliest memories was hearing over the radio the announcement of Sputnik’s successful launch as my family drove back from vacation. I was an inveterate space junkie during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I remember the early moon probes, and watching the pictures return from a moon growing ominously closer, until the picture went dark upon impact. Now, the discoveries from Saturn, and Jupiter, and Pluto, and even from asteroids and comets keep coming as we expand our exploration horizons.

But for humanity to really create a new frontier, it will be necessary for humans to venture back beyond our own planet, and onto suitable surfaces elsewhere in the solar system. There are very few locations where we could exist, even for a short while. One would not want to land on the Jovian volcanic moon of Io, which continually sends plumes of material up from its surface in response to the intense tidal energy released from rotation around Jupiter. Europa would be a candidate, but the crevasses in the icy surface covering it’s moon-girdling ocean would be risky for someone to navigate. The outer gas planets themselves offer no solid surface at all – just an atmosphere that keeps growing thicker and thicker until it turns into a sticky liquid. Really, we have only the moon and Mars as candidates for humanity to set up any sort of outpost.

So I am firmly in favor of continuing human exploration of space, even though the additional scientific payback from human observation may not be justified financially. No, it is because we as a species wish to continue to explore, to see what lies beyond the next ridge, to satisfy the itch that comes from too much stability and comfort, that is why we must keep extending humanity’s reach. Otherwise we will become jaded, and will gain a mindset that says we can only win if others lose. Western civilization has shown for the better part of a millennium that the payoff for exploration activities always exceeds the input costs, even when the act of exploration creates martyrs along the way. It certainly has a better record of payoff than various economic theories implemented over the past 38 years can show.

There’s yet another reason for humanity to return to space. The exploration of space has become internationalized over the years, and those who staff the International Space Station have come from an increasing number of countries around the world. All who see the Earth from space come away with a firm belief that we are fortunate to live on such a hospitable planet, and that you cannot see borders from space*. We on Earth need to regain the perspective that we had back in December 1968, when the first Apollo flight to circle the moon broadcast that magical image of the moon, accompanied from the words of Genesis .  For those of us who remember that moment, we will never forget it. If you truly wish to make America great again, then we should reach once more for the stars.

 

* You can actually see the borders of North Korea at night, when the line of demarcation shows the difference between North Korea’s neighbors and their surplus of electric lights, compared to the darkness inhabiting the hermit kingdom.

 

 

Of Venn Diagrams And Current Events

Trump venn diagram

So many people shout on the internet about socialism seeping into the psyche of this country, supplanting the natural urges for rugged individualism that made this country great. “If we only went back to the principles of the Constitution” they exclaim, as they gleefully ignore any reasoning why it sometimes feels like applying a straitjacket in trying to fit the modern world into the confines of that same Constitution. It is pointless to try to describe the difference between a nation perched on one edge of a continent, with an ever-opening frontier to the west offering a fresh chance to all who wished take it, and our modern nation, with the former frontier areas becoming depopulated as more and more people pour into the urban meccas.

At the same time, voices stridently denounce taxation as theft. It is the ascension of the cult of selfishness as defined by Ayn Rand. The rugged individualist is the highest expression of humanity, and all must strive to achieve that measure of greatness. If they fail, or are unable to find a place in modern society, then they should be judged harshly by Darwinism and cast aside without any assistance from the rest of humanity.

If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject – Ayn Rand

So an entire sub-group of our society has adopted not the morality of Christianity, but instead the amoral selfishness of Ayn Rand as the driving principle for our society. And in 2016, enough of them managed to seize political control with the assistance of others who were discontented with both their own economic circumstances and the choice of candidates. For better or worse, they judged Donald Trump as the preferred choice, and allowed a shyster from Queens to take office.

Forget the parable of the Good Samaritan when it comes to the aliens among us. Instead, inject fear of the other into the conversation in order to demonize any and all who have not met all hurdles for legal residence, and soften up the sphere of public opinion to enable their dehumanization. Forget the commandment about not bearing false witness. Instead, boldly contradict something you said yesterday that was recorded by all of the various media sources you decry as fake. Forget all prohibitions against adultery and fornication. Instead, judge someone by how effectively they set up their non-disclosure agreements with their various extra-marital partners. Forget any sense of shared sacrifice to rebuild the infrastructure of this nation. Instead, pitch a tax reform plan with 95% of its benefits aimed at corporations and plutocrats, and falsely pitch it as the greatest middle-class tax cut of all time. Time and again we can point to the times when the actions of this administration have been aimed at the degradation of those who voted for it. Yet even now, 18 months after taking charge, those who were hypnotized into becoming true believers of the cult of personality still see their leader as walking across the Sea of Galilee, unencumbered by the laws of physics. Kind of reminds me of his hair.

Why is it so many have swerved from acceptance of reality, onto a path leading starkly towards authoritarianism? How is it that we now have an administration that feels any challenge to its power by the press is grounds for exclusion of the representative of the press who dared to raise her voice in a question? How is it that an administration can be emboldened enough to falsify transcripts of the Helsinki press conference to eliminate all reference to a question as to whether Putin favored Trump’s election, even though millions heard the question and answer either in real time or replayed later?

How many times do you need to hear “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” before you realize that this administration is trying to cut itself free of reality? In the speech to the VFW on July 23, President Trump said:  “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” That is a direct appeal to believe only the words of the great leader, and ignore any and all evidence to the contrary that may be presented by any person or group who dares to disagree with the temporary delusion of the leader. A delusion that will be walked back the next day, only to be reaffirmed the following day.

Still, those who have become addicted to the sugar high of red hats and “Lock her up” chants refuse to accept the evidence of their eyes and ears as to the incompetence and greed of this administration. The one overwhelming success of the Trump movement has been to commandeer the complete support of a minority of the American public. Body and soul, they still believe that the man is only in it for them – they know that the discomfort they are feeling due to farm markets unraveling under the influence of a trade war is only temporary. They remind me of the black knight in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie, who after having had both arms and legs shorn off, kept saying “It’s just a flesh wound”.

During the last administration, the same corps of true believers were convinced that Barack Obama was destined to implement martial law, that FEMA had ordered millions of death shrouds to handle the violence that was sure to come due to the overreach of the Obama administration, that the Muslim brotherhood was just waiting for the signal from their leader in the White House in order to unleash ferocious jihad upon hapless American citizens. Funny, it seems to me that none of those things ever happened under Obama, nor were we ever in danger of any of those things happening. But if you took a Venn diagram of those who believed Obama was the epitome of evil, and mapped it on those who believe Trump is actually Making America Great Again, you will have a significant overlap. It is clear there is a minority within this nation who actively resist the reality of life in the 21st century. The question to be answered during the upcoming mid-term election is whether that minority will be allowed to hold the rest of the nation hostage, actively thwarting all efforts aimed at improving the lot of the American people while enabling the groper-in-chief to continue his self-aggrandizing swagger while he cedes control of our foreign policy to those who wish us ill.

The message sent in 2016 was that there is profound discontent in the economic maldistribution within this nation. Entire swaths of the population found themselves bereft of hope, and they hitched their wagon to the candidate whose words addressed their fears. Three years after the announcement that this misogynistic racist was mounting a serious run for the presidency, one can only hope that the scales are beginning to fall off of the eyes of those who have been deceived. We can only hope that soon the Trump rump will be a vestigial tail upon the national dialogue, as its elected enablers are swept from the scene.

Modern Medical Morass

Medical maze

I had a very interesting discussion with my orthopedic physician a while back (as I age, I seem to collect more and more physicians of different specialties). He was helping me to decide a course of action to take with my balky knees that have deteriorated over the course of my lifetime, and as we discussed the specifics of my knees, we diverged and ended up discussing a wide range of topics concerning the US health care system.

He was of the opinion that the current system we have for health care is incredibly inefficient, and shared an anecdote to illustrate his point. A woman came into his office complaining of leg pain and weakness. She had been to multiple physicians in the past but had found no relief. As his assistants were taking her history, and conducting an initial assessment, they sensed that her problems were not in her legs, but were caused by back problems. They discussed this with the doctor, and he agreed that an x-ray of the back was justified.

The x-ray revealed that the patient had significant arthritis in the back, resulting in bone-on-bone contact for at least one set of vertebra. This had caused impingement on nerves going down the legs, accounting for her symptoms. The normal progression of the diagnostic process would call for a MRI exam to confirm the extent of the back issue.

But. The insurance company response to this type of diagnosis is firm and consistent. No MRI will be authorized until the patient has exhausted all other options. In this case, it means that the patient was referred to physical therapy for a 6-week course of treatment. So the insurance company was willing to spend $3,000 on a course of therapy in order to avoid a MRI expense (I have no idea what an MRI costs), with its potential diagnosis of a need for back surgery at much greater cost.

The doctor had referred the patient to therapy, and the course of therapy had not yet been completed. He said that he fully expected that the patient will have no improvement from this expensive course of treatment, and then he will be able to get the approval for the diagnostic tool he knows is necessary for this patient to finally find relief through treatment. He speculated on the reason why insurance companies would go this route – refusal to fund an expensive diagnostic tool but approve an even more expensive course of treatment. His speculation is that actuarial analysis shows that if even a few patients do receive help from physical therapy, or a few patients die during the course of therapy, or a few patients give up on the process and just keep suffering with their ailment, then the avoided surgeries more than offset the cost of the therapy.

My doctor was very generous with his time with me. We did discuss my options, and my preference for lower levels of intervention. Right now I am receiving periodic injections of cortisone. More intrusive means of treatment are available if I don’t have relief from this level of treatment, up to and including knee joint replacement. I am very grateful that my doctor has allowed me to have enough information to make an informed decision and to be an active participant in my treatment.

We discussed the problems that the current insurance-based systems impose upon doctors being able to provide options to patients. He presented a hypothetical case where a patient with a high-deductible insurance policy, but with a health savings account, would come in with symptoms that indicated a need for further investigation. The two choices would be an MRI (expensive, but comprehensive), or an ultrasound (less-expensive, but not as sensitive and potentially could miss rare issues that an MRI would pick up). The current environment would indicate that the standard of practice is to insist upon an MRI, and if the physician should ever be in the position where he / she went with an ultrasound, and that patient happened to have that obscure condition that only an MRI would detect, he / she would be liable under malpractice litigation for not following the standard of care.

But if the doctor and the patient could enter into an agreement where the patient accepted the risk of a potential for a missed diagnosis for a rare condition, in exchange for a lowered payment for the test, then overall costs for the medical industry would be reduced. That is just not possible right now, but with the huge increase in insurance deductibles, it may be coming back. No, my doctor said that at present, he has the need to reduce his liability risk to zero by over-prescribing diagnostic tests since there exists no mechanism to transfer the risk for a missed diagnosis to the patient. This is where my doctor says that the malpractice industry has raised medical rates, by insisting that all illness can be detected or treated if only the patient is tested for all potential conditions related to their symptoms, regardless of the likelihood of a rare condition. Thus a huge cost results from the excess diagnostic tests required to detect the condition that afflicts a few tenths of a percent of the population.

My doctor expressed hope that a single-payer system would emerge out of the morass of the current health-care system. He acknowledged that any such system could have its own set of problems, but he seemed to be comfortable to accept standards such as Medicare has established for treatment to be extended to the population at large. Insurance companies would still have a role in administering claims, but the ability of doctors and patients to have a say in the treatment protocol would be greatly increased.

During the uproar with the Affordable Care Act, much was made of the imposition of “death panels” who would represent government imposing life and death decisions upon poor helpless upright citizens of the US. What opponents of the Affordable Care Act have always refused to acknowledge is that the “death panels” they feared have always existed, and they belong to the faceless bureaucracy of the insurance companies, doing their darnedest to increase both the complexity and costs of the medical profession, and actually harming patients in their insistence to adhering to rigid and often obsolete standards of diagnosis and treatment.

But what do I know? I’m only a consumer of the medical industry, with very little input on treatment options and zero input on the cost of the approved treatment. I am very thankful for physicians like my orthopedist, who is treating me as a full partner in my own treatment, and who is willing to share his thoughts on the medical system.