We live in the golden age of pseudoscience.  Thanks to the internet, the public now has enough science knowledge that the average person feels reasonably comfortable discussing science concepts and science news stories.  However, that knowledge hasn’t really gotten to the point where the average person can critically evaluate scientific statements.  The result is that hucksters can come forward with unsubstantiated claims and half-baked ideas, and have those claims and ideas virulently propagated throughout the popular consciousness.  I believe that this phenomenon is retarding the advancement of human culture.  And so, in the spirit of public service, I would like to do my best to debunk a recent pseudoscientific sham that’s cropped up in the field of spacecraft propulsion.

It started in 2006, when New Scientist ran a cover story on Roger Shawyer’s “EmDrive”.  The EmDrive is essentially nothing more than a microwave resonance cavity — an enclosed metal container that has microwaves bouncing around inside.  Shawyer claimed that the geometry of his cavity was such that the microwaves would produce a net force on the enclosure.  If the device worked as he claimed, Shawyer would be revolutionizing not just space travel but virtually all of human science and engineering.  The ability to convert electricity directly into momentum, without any reaction mass, would mean that spaceships no longer need to carry propulsion fuel of any kind.  They would only need an electrical generator, like the nuclear thermoelectric and solar ones that NASA’s space probes currently use to operate their science instruments and communicate with Earth.

The EmDrive.

The EmDrive.

The problem is that such a device, as far as anyone can tell, would violate one of the most fundamental laws of physics — the law of conservation of momentum.  Conservation of momentum is a modern reformulation of Isaac Newton’s first law of motion.  In his treatise Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, Newton wrote:

When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.

This means an an object — say, a spacecraft — cannot spontaneously accelerate until some external object or force acts on it.  For a rocket, this force takes the form of high-temperature gasses pressing against the inside of the combustion chamber and rocket nozzle.  What happens to those gasses?  Newton summed that up with his third law of motion:

When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Which means whatever direction the rocket accelerates in, the gasses are accelerated in the opposite direction.  If we consider the situation from the perspective of a “stationary” observer, it would look like this:

Apollo at rest

Apollo firing

In order for the spacecraft to move to the left, it has to bounce off of something else, and send that something else moving to the right.  In the first picture, the total momentum is zero, because nothing is moving.  In the second picture, the total momentum is still zero, because the momentum of the spacecraft is equal and opposite to the momentum of the exhaust.

Conservation of momentum doesn’t just apply to macroscale objects bouncing off each other.  It applies to fundamental particles as well.  Quantum electrodynamics is the branch of quantum theory that deals with electromagnetic interactions.  This subject was pioneered by Richard Feynman, who invented a tool for understanding the interactions between photons, electrons, and other fundamental particles — the Feynman Diagram:

From Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

From Feynman’s QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

These diagrams are still used by physicists to figure out the probabilities of different types of interactions occurring.  Here’s an example of a Feynman diagram showing the Higgs Boson being created and destroyed:

Two gluons produce six quarks and two leptons, with intermediate help from the elusive Higgs boson.

Two gluons produce six quarks and two leptons, with intermediate help from the elusive Higgs boson.

The horizontal axis is not time.  These interactions occur so quickly that we cannot assign a timescale to them.  The vertical axis is not space.  The interactions occur within such a small space that we have no way of determining the relative locations of the particles at the time of the interaction.  The arrows do not represent direction of travel of the particles.  Quantum theory is agnostic about the direction of causality, and the interactions are considered equally valid going from left to right or right to left.  Aside from the rules about what kind of particles can interact with which other ones (for instance, photons can only interact with particles that have charge), just about the only thing we DO know about these interactions is that momentum and energy are conserved.  Without those assumptions, we simply wouldn’t have a physics anymore.  We’d have to start from the beginning.

Of course, we have no reason to.  The law of conservation is called a “law” because the amount of evidence supporting it is overwhelming.  In the 1920s, physicists almost threw out conservation of energy and momentum, because there seemed to be energy and momentum disappearing during beta decay — when a neutron decays into a proton and electron.  Then Wolfgang Pauli proposed the existence of a new, hard-to-detect particle that (he theorized) was also being produced during beta decay — the “neutrino”.  It was a move of desperation and seemed like a stretch at the time, but subsequent experiments showed that the neutrino does in fact exist.  So the conservation laws are not only supported by the evidence, but they have actually driven discovery over the last century.

Now, back to Roger Shawyer and the EmDrive.  Shawyer denies that the EmDrive violates any known physical laws.  The following appears on his website:

Q. Why does the EmDrive not contravene the conservation of momentum when it operates in free space?
A. The EmDrive cannot violate the conservation of momentum. The electromagnetic wave momentum is built up in the resonating cavity, and is transferred to the end walls upon reflection. The momentum gained by the EmDrive plus the momentum lost by the electromagnetic wave equals zero. The direction and acceleration that is measured, when the EmDrive is tested on a dynamic test rig, comply with Newtons laws and confirm that the law of conservation of momentum is satisfied.

I have bolded the phrase to focus on.  He says that the momentum is built up inside the cavity, and only then is it transferred to the enclosure.  This is identical to saying that the device, with no external influence, goes from a state of net zero momentum, to one of net non-zero momentum.  Given that Shawyer is an aerospace engineer, and his paper on the EmDrive seems to demonstrate a facility with mathematics, my assessment is that he is intentionally producing pseudoscientific nonsense in an attempt to fool everyone who isn’t fluent in physics.  Here is the diagram of the device that appears in his paper:

From "A Theory of Microwave Propulsion for Spacecraft" by Roger Shawyer

From “A Theory of Microwave Propulsion for Spacecraft” by Roger Shawyer

The microwaves are created by the magnetron and enter the resonance chamber via the waveguide.  Since the microwaves carry momentum, they exert a backward pressure on the source:

Microwave momentumAssuming the entire apparatus is hanging in empty space, this means that it will accelerate in the direction of the blue arrow… but only during the time the microwaves are traveling through empty space.  Since microwaves travel at the speed of light, they will reach every portion of the cavity in a few nanoseconds.  As the microwaves reflect off each surface, they will transfer momentum to those surfaces.  And because the microwaves have nowhere to escape to, all of their momentum will transfer to the enclosure, cancelling out any net momentum.  If, instead of a magnetron, this were a machine gun, then you would be able to see the device vibrate as the bullets struck various surfaces.  If it were a cannon firing a single cannon ball, and the enclosure were the size of a room, you might see the entire enclosure move and change direction a few times.  However, it would eventually stop moving, and the center of mass of the entire device would be in the exact same spot where it started.

This brings us the central claim of Sawyer’s paper:

The group velocity of the electromagnetic wave at the end plate of the larger section is higher than the group velocity at the end plate of the smaller section. Thus the radiation pressure at the larger end plate is higher that that at the smaller end plate.

By group velocity, he means the speed at which the waveform travels along the length of the device.  Inside a waveguide, the microwaves bounce back and forth, and therefore the waveform will move more quickly in the axial direction the more narrow the chamber is.  This is called the group velocity, and (for reasons I won’t get into) it is the rate that energy is transferred down the length of the waveguide.  But the device that we’re talking about isn’t a waveguide, it’s a resonant cavity.  Inside a cavity at resonance frequency, the reflected waves combine together to form standing waves.  Depending on the geometry of the cavity, there will be some number of stationary nodes where the electromagnetic field is always zero.  Between the nodes will be points where the field oscillates between maximum and minimum values of the electric and magnetic fields.  It’ll look something like this:

From University of Liverpool course notes for Physics 370, Advanced Electromagnetism

From University of Liverpool course notes for Physics 370, Advanced Electromagnetism

If the enclosure is made from a perfectly conductive material, then the radiation is perfectly reflected from the walls.  For the case of a traveling wave, this would mean that twice the momentum of the wave is transferred to the material.  For a standing wave, however, there is no momentum transfer.  This is because a standing wave is a superposition of a wave moving toward the wall, and one moving away from the wall, simultaneously.  In a waveguide, there is no radiation pressure on the transverse walls.  In a resonant cavity, all the walls are transverse.  The electric field is perpendicular to the boundary at every point, and the magnetic field is parallel to it at every point.  The direction of energy (and momentum) transport is given by the Poynting vector, which is the cross product of the electric and magnetic fields.  Therefore, energy can only flow along the surface, not into it.    Moreover, in a traveling wave, the electric and magnetic fields are in phase.  In a standing wave, they are 90 degrees out of phase, so the Poynting vector switches direction twice every cycle.  This means that energy is sloshing back and forth.  In the resonant mode depicted above, the peak energy density moves from the center toward the outer surface and back again.

It may seem odd that the energy within the cavity can move around without exerting pressure on the walls on the enclosure.  In truth, there is energy transfer occurring, but it takes a different form.  The electromagnetic field is causing the electrons in the enclosure to slosh around.  If it truly were a perfect conductor (“superconductor”), and the interior of the cavity a vacuum, the field and electrons could oscillate forever, without any energy input.  If the cavity is constructed of copper (like the EmDrive), then resistive heating will occur in the metal.  The energy radiated as heat would have to be continually replaced by the magnetron.

Getting back to the subject at hand, I have shown that Sawyer’s central claim is nonsense.  However, there’s more.  After making his declaration about the group velocity, he seems to segue into an entirely different justification for the same supposed effect:

"Assume that the waveguide is now tape red as shown.  In this case the group  velocity is higher at the wide end than at  the narrow end. Thus re solution of the forces  shows F1 is greater than F2, whereas th e sidewall force Fs2 is higher than Fs1. "
“Assume that the waveguide is now tapered as shown. In this case the group velocity is higher at the wide end than at the narrow end. Thus resolution of the forces shows F1 is greater than F2, whereas the sidewall force Fs2 is higher than Fs1. “

He is now making an argument about force vectors, and putting his foot directly in his mouth as a result.  The gist of this seems to be that because the right endcap is a smaller target, it gets less pressure applied than the left endcap.  Well, *if* the radiation were actually applying pressure (uniformly, let’s say), then it would be applying horizontal pressure to the sloped portion as well.  Sawyer seems to have intentionally left that contribution out of the free body diagram in the lower right.  He specifically addresses this complaint on his website:

Q. Why does the net force not get balanced out by the axial component of the sidewall force?
A. The net force is not balanced out by the axial component of the sidewall force because there is a highly non linear relationship between waveguide diameter and group velocity. (e.g. at cut off diameter, the group velocity is zero, the guide wavelength is infinity, but the diameter is clearly not zero.) The design of the cavity is such that the ratio of end wall forces is maximised, whilst the axial component of the sidewall force is reduced to a negligible value.

This is simply gibberish.  It’s true that there is a nonlinear relationship between the diameter of a waveguide and the group velocity, but as discussed above, group velocity just isn’t relevant here.  Moving along in the paper, Sawyer states:

As with any microwave cavity, if the axial path length is a multiple of half the mean guide wavelength, at the frequency of operation, then the waveguide will form a resonant cavity.

“Axial path length” and “mean guide wavelength” are both characteristics of the geometry of the cavity, and do not depend on the “frequency of operation”.  A “waveguide” will not form a “resonant cavity”, unless you put end caps on it so that it’s not a “waveguide” anymore.  It’s like he doesn’t even understand the basics of his own device.

The electrical and magnetic fields at each end plate will add in phase, to give instantaneous powers equal to Q times the transmitted power.

Nope.  The fields are 90 degrees out of phase in a resonant cavity, and there is no calculation in physics that involves adding the electric and magnetic fields.

In the remainder of this paper, Sawyer reasons in circles, butchers special relativity, and comes to the conclusion that the thrust of his device is velocity-dependent.  Finally, he vaguely describes his test program, without any data, though he does say he achieved a “specific thrust” of 214 milinewtons per kilowatt.  Given that “specific thrust” is the ratio of thrust to the rate of air flow through an engine, it’s impossible to tell whether he just got his units confused, or he actually had air rushing through his resonant microwave cavity.  That would certainly explain any forces that showed up.

OK, that’s it for the EmDrive.  I hope we can now dump it into the wastebin of history.  In part two, I’ll take a look at the recent controversy over the Cannae drive.

I hope you enjoyed my analysis!  If you believe I have made any mistake, or you just want to contribute to the discussion, please comment below.

Online dating just isn’t what it could be.  I think the main reason for this is that most people are awful at marketing themselves.  I’m sure both men and women have this problem, but I don’t spend much time shopping through men’s dating profiles, so I don’t know where exactly the chaps could most use polishing up.  Besides, that’s already been done.  Women are very outspoken about the problems with men’s dating profiles.  Which brings us to number one:

10.  Don’t dis male daters on your dating profile!  The number of women who do this is staggering.  Yes, we all know that the internet is full of mouth-breathers who will send sleazy messages to women.  It’s 2014, get over it.  Bringing attention to this on your profile knocks your classiness down like five notches.  It looks like you secretly enjoy the attention.  Just ignore all that and get on with the business of finding the man of your dreams.

9.  Don’t post photos of yourself doing yoga! yoga Yes, yoga is an excellent life practice.  Just like brushing your teeth and doing laundry.  Weightlifting is pretty important to me, but if I posted a photo of myself doing some squats or bench press, you would all think I was a douche.  Adult people exercise, and hopefully they enjoy it.  Drawing attention to it simply comes across as braggy and self-absorbed.  I hate to break it to you, but you’re not the only woman in town doing yoga.  In fact, you’re the fifth woman I’ve seen this evening who admits to being, or wanting to be, a yoga instructor.  Tell us what’s unique about YOU, or we’re going to assume (perhaps accurately) that nothing is.

8.  Don’t post photos of yourself with your girlfriends!  I don’t care if you carefully explain in the caption which one is you.  We want to date one woman, not one woman plus a bunch of her friends that we can’t have sex with.  Photos like these make it look like you’re one of those women who can never go anywhere without her girlfriends.  Too many grown women cling to their girlfriends and live a kind of mutually vicarious life through each other, dating men only in order to generate fuel for their giggly gossip sessions.  If you’re not one of those women, do yourself a favor and let us know by posting photos of yourself alone, proud and independent. But-

7.  No more selfies!  For the love of God, no more downblouse pics!  Do you think we’ve never seen that angle before?  Or that when we meet you in person, we aren’t going to notice that your cleavage isn’t quite as ample as it appeared in that photo?  And no more photos taken in the bathroom mirror!  That tells us two things: that you’re lazy, and that you spend a lot of time looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror.  Please go out into the world, interact with other human beings, and ask someone to take your photo.  It doesn’t matter if you look like shit.  At least you look like an interesting, independent person who isn’t obsessed with her beauty.

6.  Your face has the exact same expression and is at the exact same angle in every photo!  Do you think we don’t know what you’re doing?  Come on.  You look ridiculous.

5.  Do not use the phrase “they’re, there, and their”!  And not just because you’re the tenth woman I’ve seen tonight who said the exact same thing.  Congratulations, you’ve mastered basic grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Are we supposed to be impressed?  And would you really refuse to date a guy just because his written English wasn’t perfect?  Do you have any idea how snobby that makes you look?  If I wrote on my profile, “Don’t bother contacting me unless you can do it in iambic pentameter,” you would assume that I were joking, because no one could possibly be that stuck up.  If only.

4.  Don’t tell us that you “probably won’t reply”!  Every halfway attractive woman on dating websites gets tons of messages from guys, most of which they don’t reply to.  That’s understood.  If you go out of your way to mention that on your profile, it makes you look like a snob.  And now we’re definitely not going to message you.  On the other hand, if you really aren’t answering ANY messages, and aren’t using the site to find dates, then go away!  Turn your account off, you’re gumming up the site!

3.  Don’t make self-deprecatory comments about being on a dating website!  This, too, makes you look like a snob.  Online dating has proven itself useful to many men and women in finding sex, love, romance, and marriage.  If you think it’s somehow an inferior way to go about meeting people, then do everyone else a favor and go back to studiously ignoring boys at the coffee shop and waiting for your meet-cute to happen.

2.  Don’t tell us that it’s hard to summarize yourself!  Dating profiles are a low-bandwidth means of communicating your personality.  Everyone gets that.  The challenge here is to creatively use the medium to get across your personality anyway, and you just failed.  You aren’t telling us that you’re such a unique, complex, and ineffable person that you can’t possibly give us a sense of yourself in words.  You’re telling us that you’re uncreative and inarticulate, and too lazy to put any effort into your profile.  You get to put up photos; use those.  You can provide links to other websites.  You could even link to a Youtube video of yourself! (If the dating website you use doesn’t allow this, stop using it immediately.)  The possibilities are endless.

And the number one mistake that women make on their dating profiles is…

1.  Tell us what you’re going to bring to the relationship!  This is so rare, it’s kind of like finding the winged unicorn.  Is it, like, un-feminist or something to suggest that you would actually do things for the man you’re going to date?  I want you to understand that without this information, we’re basically just judging how hot we think you are and whether or not you would be too obnoxious to put up with.  Is that really what you want?

There you have it, ladies!  I’m offering this advice up free of charge.  If you like what you’ve read and want to learn more, please contact me about my one-on-one coaching services.  Happy dating!

A Lesson in Leadership

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Culture, Philosophy

Way back in 2001, I had the honor of seeing detainees from Afghanistan come off the plane at Guantanamo Bay with my bare eyeballs.  I was visiting  from my home base of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where I ran the base cable news station with several other 18-22 year olds.  My mission was to shoot a news segment about the Marines’ involvement in setting up and running Camp X-ray, where the detainees were being stockpiled.

The funny thing is that it wasn’t the detainees, or the war, or anything to do with 9/11 that sticks in my mind from that day.  No, the reason my memory of that that day keeps poking itself out from my grey matter is because of the words a female Sergeant of Marines said to me.

I was standing on a hill above the airfield with three other Marines who, like me, were professional rubberneckers of one sort or another.  Two of them were male, and like me, barely out of high school.  The other was the female sergeant, a little older.  I don’t remember her name, only that she was latina and she looked like she meant business.  We’ll call her Sergeant Vasquez.  I soon learned that Sgt. Vasquez was a member of Camp Lejeune Combat Camera, where another female Marine of my acquaintance, whom we’ll call Private Zendra, held a post.

Zendra and I had been contemporaries earlier that year at the hive of debauchery that was Marine Barracks Fort Meade, Maryland.  Situated in the shadow of the National Security Agency, these barracks played home to us while we attended the Defense Information School (DINFOS), where we trained to become proficient in the art of gathering visual, aural, and human intelligence.  The rest of the time, we were all kinds of naughty.  Zendra in particular.  One day, without joy and without any cause I could discern, she began throwing herself in my direction.  I figured she was unhinged in some way and set about trying to figure out why.  After unsuccessfully trying to bluff my way into drinks at a Baltimore bar, I sat her down and asked her to explain her childhood to me.  She did not find this subject interesting.  Later that night, when the time came for us to part ways in the barracks stairwell, Zendra, without ever having given me so much as a smile, planted her lips on mine.  I didn’t kiss back.  My dating experiences were not extensive at that point in my life, but I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

The next day, Zendra was attached to another strapping young denizen of the barracks.

I’m not sure we ever spoke again, but she stayed on my mind.  She was a puzzle to me, albeit a pitiable one.  And that’s why I decided to pose this question to Sergeant Vasquez:

“What do you think of her?”

“Nothing in particular,” she replied, thrusting out her lower lip.  “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason,” I came back weakly.  “Just curious…”

I realized this wasn’t the place to bring up the subject and was ready to give it up.  But the others were listening in and had shrewdly picked up the subtext.

“Oh, was she one of the DINFOS whores?” asked one of them.

“Yeah… I guess you could say that,” I answered nervously.  Everyone was apparently satisfied by this, and we all turned our attention and binoculars back to the blindfolded Islamic men making their debut on US soil.  It wasn’t until I excused myself and turned to go that I learned the subject wasn’t finished.

“PFC Catha-Garrett, can I talk to you for a moment?” Sergeant Vasquez said.  I could tell by her tone that she had been waiting for this.

We moved away from the others some distance.  She didn’t have me come to attention or parade rest, which was customary during an upbraiding by a senior Marine.  She didn’t yell.  She didn’t berate.  She didn’t have to.

“I want to talk to you about how you brought up Private Zendra earlier.  Honestly, as a female Marine, I’m not proud of her.  She’s made some mistakes, and she has some shortcomings.  But there’s no reason to be bringing her up at a time like this.  I mean, what does she have to do with any of this?”  She motioned toward the airfield.  “Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I said.

“Just stay focused on your job.  You don’t need to be worrying about shit like that.”

“Aye Sergeant.”

I walked away stunned, impressed, and knowing she was completely right.  What I didn’t know then that I know now is that what she said was brave.  She was probably asking herself the entire time we were standing there whether she should say something, and God bless her, she decided yes.  She took a stand against the locker room vibe that prevailed throughout the Marine Corps.  Another female Marine might have joined in dragging Private Zendra through the mud, but not Sergeant Vasquez.  She was a true leader, and a true woman.  I wish I knew her real name.

Ever wonder what happens when you turn on your electric range?  Well, it’s like this: electric ranges are made from nichrome, which possesses the important property of high electrical resistance.  When you flip the switch, your alternating current (AC) mains voltage is placed across it, causing electrons to slosh back and forth through the burner 60 times a second.  The high resistance of the nichrome is a complicated topic of solid-state physics and has to do with the electronic band structure of the atoms, but you can think of it like this: the atoms in the burner block the flow of electrons.  Some of the electrons breeze right through, but others collide with the atomic nuclei at full speed, transferring some of their energy.  The electrons don’t have nearly enough energy to actually dislodge one of these atoms from their place in the material, but they do have enough energy to make the atoms vibrate.

Well, the magnitude of the vibrations of the atoms in a material is exactly what we mean when we talk about temperature.  Run a current through a piece of nichrome, and it gets hot.  Touch it, and that vibrational energy will transfer to your finger.  Unfortunately, the molecules of human flesh don’t handle that much kinetic energy very well.  The proteins will denature, cell walls fly apart, etc etc and it’s just generally a mess.

But what we’re interested in today isn’t how the burner feels to the touch — it’s how the burner feels from a distance.  Hold your hand over the burner, and you’ll feel heat.  A lot of what you feel is high-temperature air expanding upward from the burner.  But now hold your hand to the side of or underneath the burner.  You’ll still feel some expanding air, but now most of the heat you feel is being transferred through a different mechanism: electromagnetic radiation in the infrared frequency range.

You see, electromagnetic theory tells us that a charged particle (electron or proton) generates an electric field at all times, and a magnetic field while it is moving.  Relativistic electromagnetic theory tells us that when a charged particle accelerates, it produces field distortions that that actually radiate energy into the surrounding space.  So what happens when a charged particle is vibrating back and forth rapidly?  It produces electromagnetic waves at the frequency of its oscillation.

The atoms in the nichrome of the electric burner are effectively electrically neutral — each atom has an equal number of protons and electrons.  However, the electrons passing through the material are transferring their kinetic energy only to the nuclei.  Electrons can deflect each other through their electric fields, but a direct electron-electron collision has never been observed.  In fact, we’re not even really sure how small the electron really is — it’s effectively pointlike.  So the effect of the current is to cause the nuclei to begin vibrating, and as they do so, they drag their electron clouds with them.  The net effect is that the positive and negative charges within each atom become displaced from each other, forming an electric dipole.  The dipole isn’t static — the positive and negative ends are moving away from each other, reaching their limit, moving toward each other, overlapping, and moving away from each other again many times a second.  As they do so, they emit electromagnetic waves at the frequency of their oscillation.  In the case of the nichrome burner, the atoms are vibrating trillions of times a second and emitting high-energy infrared radiation.

This radiation travels through space at the speed of light and strikes your hand.  Now the reverse process happens.  As the electromagnetic waves pass into your flesh, they excite oscillatory motion in the dipole moments of the atoms and molecules there.  Your hand becomes hot, and you feel that heat.

( As an aside, this is similar to how microwave ovens work.  Microwaves are longer and lower frequency than infrared, so the mechanism is slightly different.  Instead of instigating dipole oscillation inside molecules, microwave ovens set up standing waves within a resonant cavity.  Then molecules with permanent dipole moments, like, water, must rotate to align themselves with the field as it rapidly oscillates, producing vibration. )

But infrared isn’t the only type of electromagnetic radiation coming out of that stovetop.  There’s also the kind you can see.  As the burner heats up, it gets redder and brighter.  This is electromagnetic radiation in the visual wavelength range, only slightly higher energy than infrared.  The thing about waves in general is that they can only drive oscillators at frequencies close to the natural resonant frequency of the oscillator.  Visible electromagnetic waves are too high in frequency to drive a dipole oscillation within an atom, but they’re high enough in frequency to be absorbed and scattered by electrons.  That’s how your eye detects them — electrons in your retina absorb the light, setting off one of several chemical reactions (depending on the incident wavelengths) that send signals to your brain along the optic nerve.

Though these two types of radiation are distinguishable on a certain qualitative basis, really, they’re both just electromagnetic radiation in two arbitrarily defined wavelength ranges.  The electric stovetop emits radiation along a continuous spectrum, with a power distribution determined by Planck’s Law.  I won’t give the formula, because I’m trying to keep this treatment mathless, but here’s a picture of it, courtesy of Wikipedia:


Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_body.svg

As you can see, the peak wavelength is determined by the temperature.

Tungsten filament light bulbs work the same way as electric ranges.  They get hotter and so emit more of their radiation in the visible range, but still produce a large amount of infrared, which is why incandescent bulbs are such a dangerous household appliance.  Since the invention of the incandescent filament, the lighting industry has moved on to other technologies, such as fluorescent bulbs, and now Light Emitting Diodes.  LEDs display a phenomenon known as electroluminescence, which is far more efficient than incandescence at producing visible light.  But that’s a topic for another article.  If you’d like to know more about LED lighting, visit http://www.cree.com.  If you’d like to buy some LED lighting fixtures, visit http://www.grandlite.com.

Prengathu — a short story

Posted: March 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

Artwork by Craig Mullins


Sergeant Hans Traiger leaned out the side of the dropship, looking for a sign of the battle.  A hundred meters or so below, land rovers sped to and from the front lines, throwing up clouds of the red dust that covered Prengathu.  The height didn’t bother him; under any other circumstances he would have enjoyed the ride.  As it was, he wanted to vomit.  He and his men were about to join in a skirmish against the Xehari, and Traiger had never lead a squad in combat before.  Word in the rear was that these were crack Xehari units, maybe the best the Collective had to offer.  Whatever the ‘hari were looking for on this planet, it must be a big fucking deal.

Traiger glanced back toward the rear of the vessel.  His designated marksman, Lance Corporal Leggett, sat in the seat just aft of the opening.  Leggett was fiddling with his meter-long .50 caliber rifle and staring vacantly at the horizon.  The lad was a killer shot, but had never been in combat before.  Traiger moved over to him and slapped him on the shoulder, shaking him out of his reverie.

“You all right, kid?” he shouted over the dull roar of the wind.

Leggett nodded.  “Ready to kick some ass, Sarge.”

“Hey, don’t get too excited.  We need our marksman calm.  You work slow and methodical, y’hear?  You’re the ‘hari’s worse nightmare.”  Sergeant Traiger gave him a grin and a firm squeeze before moving away.  It was his job to keep morale up.  He probably could have done a better job of that over the last few weeks.  He was letting personal bullshit distract him too much — so what if some broad back on Mars had stopped returning his transmissions?  Plenty of fish in the sea. So what if North America was in the throes of violent revolution?  Not his problem.  This lifestyle could drive a man crazy over time — dancing all over the galaxy, having to wait weeks at the minimum to communicate with anyone back home.  Wherever home was.  He had spent all week obsessing over the last message he had received from her, nothing else to do.  Nothing to do but wait, and wonder, and worry.  And train, damnit.  He had a job to do.  The dropship was racing toward a line of jagged hills now, shimmering in the heat from the ion thrusters.  The fight was on the other side.

Traiger pulled his head inside and turned to his men.  “Alright squad, listen up!” he bellowed over the noise of the dropship.  “We’re about to land!  Get out fast and set up a perimeter on me!  Steele and Browning, you’ll be setting up the rocket launcher first thing.  We’ll be right on the ‘hari’s flank, and it should be a damn slaughter.  But stay alert!”
The hills were coming up fast now.  There was smoke beyond, pouring up from the battlefield.  Traiger thought he could hear the dull thump of explosions.  He took one last look around at his men.  The shit was about to hit the fan, and this was the last calm moment they would have for hours at least.  He caught the eyes of those he could, made sure they were good to go, gave them each a slow nod.  Across from him, Private Delgado watched the view out through the cockpit, gulping frantically.  Sergeant Traiger reached over and tightened up Delgado’s ammo harness, giving him a lopsided grin.  Delgado implored him, wide-eyed.  Sergeant Traiger leaned back, checked the chamber of his rifle for the fiftieth time, and winked.  Delgado smiled.  Atta boy.

Then his stomach lurched as the pilot pulled up at the last second to clear the top of the crags, and suddenly they were flying over hell.  They could feel, as well as hear the explosions now, and the scents of sulfur and ozone whooshed into the cabin with a burst of hot air.  Looking out, Traiger saw muzzle bursts lancing out all over the terrain, along a convoluted battle line that stretched between the twisted, smoking wrecks of vehicles.  From the other direction, the area they were firing at, came the bluish laser blasts of the Xehari troops, sending up smoke wherever they seared the terrain.  The fight surrounded a huge ruined stone fortress that now loomed into view.  Traiger recognized it from his five-minute briefing.  He examined it as the pilot banked en route to the LZ.  It looked ancient, crumbling, made from the same red rock as rest of Prengathu.  There was a circular wall surrounding it.  Inside, the fortress rose on a hill to an apex in the center where there was a tower.  Something glinted there, blinding Traiger momentarily.  That didn’t belong.  He slid his visor down and magnified the image.  There was machinery at the top of the tower, definitely Xehari.  It was unfolding, turning his way, brightening.  An icy torrent of adrenaline hit his bloodstream.  That was a solar laser.

“Brace for impact!” he screamed, lurching toward an empty seat at the rear of the craft.  Before he got there, a light bloomed out, throwing his shadow, pitch-black, over the suddenly contorted, squinting faces of his men.  The dropship lurched, and Traiger felt an intensely hot wind that seemed to carry him forward off his feet.  Then the light blinked out, and he hit the floor, which was now slowly canting upward.  He scrambled up, slipped as the deck dropped from under him, and made a desperate grab for the safety belt which dangled toward him.  His rifle slid away behind him.  Browning, who was sitting just to his left, came to his senses and helped muscle his Sergeant up into the seat.  “Hold me up!” screamed Traiger as he strained his pectorals, moving the buckle across his waist.  He locked it home as he stared at the red desert ground, coming straight toward him and what remained of the dropship. The front half of it was gone.  One wing had been taken clean off, and the remaining thruster sputtered, attempting to compensate. Acrid smoke swept toward him from the red-hot, seared edge, and he smelled burnt flesh.  Delgado was still strapped into his seat, but half his face was gone.  Half of Delgado’s face, and nearly half of Traiger’s thirteen-man squad, gone in a flash.  He turned to Browning, and nodded thanks.  Browning’s eyes were red, rimmed with tears.

“What the fuck, Sarge?” Browning implored.  Browning was the biggest man in Traiger’s squad, real macho type.  But he looked like a child now, scared, helpless.  Traiger shook his head.

“It’ll be all right,” he heard himself say.  “Just a rough landing.”  He raised his voice toward the end so what remained of his squad could hear him over the wind.  A few faces turned toward him, uncomprehending.  He cinched his belt up, straining against almost his entire body weight now.  The dropship had begun to shudder violently as it traced a lazy spiral across the sky, losing altitude.  Smoke billowed up from electrical fires in front.  For a moment it poured back into the cabin, searing Traiger’s eyes and choking his lungs.  Around, through the rushing turbulence of the air, him he heard prayers, sobbing, and incoherent mumbling coming from what remained of his squad.  He watched the ground coming up as the dropship slowly toppled forward.  Traiger felt strangely at peace.  It was a beautiful way to die.  He wondered if it would hurt.  The ground rushed closer.


* * *

Thirst.  He was so thirsty.  Hans’ mouth seemed to be gummed shut with dust.  He opened his eyes and half his view was filled with the stuff, stretching away from him.  Stretching off to the vertical horizon, where it met the pink sky.  His face was half buried.

Somewhere down at the bottom of his vision, there was something there.  He moved his left hand.  Yes, something there.  A strap.  That was his rifle, safe and sound.  Hans tried to sit up, but his muscles didn’t work.  He couldn’t remember how to use them.  With great effort, he rolled over onto his back.  A torn, rusted canopy of metal loomed into view.  What was that?  Wind whistled through the sharp angles in the metal, echoing in the interior.  It was so quiet.  So quiet. Hans’ eyelids slid shut.  So tired.

Later, Hans woke again.  There was something.  Some reason he had to get up.  Slowly, he lifted his knee.  It felt like a rusted hinge, searing with pain the entire way.  He curled his fingers into a ball.  Pain throbbed in his knuckles.  The pain made him angry.  Panting, redfaced, Hans rolled over, lifted his body up, planted a foot in front of himself, and stood.  His vision washed black, and he staggered to the side, slamming into metal.  He lost control of his body, sliding back onto the ground.  As his vision slowly cleared, a skull swam out of the darkness.  A skull wearing a helmet.  In front of Hans was a skeleton in combat armor.  It sat slumped, just like Hans, against a curved metal bulkhead.  On the chest, there was a nametag: “Leggett”.  A spear of ice slid into Hans’ heart.  He knew that name.  He looked around.  There were more skeletons, dead soldiers.  Hans staggered back onto his feet.  There was a skeleton strapped into a seat, a shard of metal jammed through battle armor into its rib cage.  He turned around.  There was another skeleton in a seat, half its skull missing.  But more importantly, there, in the distance, beyond the metal canopy, beyond the red sands, there was a fortress rising up from a hill.  Hans shivered.  He walked forward, out of the rusted tomb.

This was a battlefield.  Rusted hulks of machinery were here, craters, blackened patches of ground and sand turned to glass.  But the battle happened long ago.  Hans stood and stared, for perhaps a hundred years, trying to understand what happened here.  Had he been here before?  Gradually his eyes settled on something a few feet away from him.  It was a corpse, half-buried in dust.  Hans stepped forward and nudged it with his boot.  It gave way with a crunch. The thing was dessicated, but much of it was intact.  Scaly plating and cables twisted within.  Xehari… the name floated to Hans from a great distance away.  The cyborg race.  This was his enemy.  Holes were punched through its plating, one right between the crumbling compound eyes.  Hans remembered.  He had held his pistol and aimed it, as this creature came at him up this hill.  Squeezed the trigger and nailed it in the forehead.

Hans felt like someone had shot him in the head.  His fingers pinched the bridge of his nose; lights flashed in his eyes; he tried to remember.  It was so long ago.  He opened his eyes and looked up.  That fortress.  There was something there.  Some reason to go there.  Hans strode ahead through the dust.  He wanted to move faster, to think faster, but his mind and body wouldn’t obey.  It was as though he were moving through a viscous fluid.  His head felt thick and dull.

At the lowest shoulder of the hill, volcanic rocks rose out of the dust, waist-hight.  At their base, Hans spotted shell casings scattered around, the brass tarnished but otherwise the same as new.  They were .50 caliber, the kind used in a sniper rifle.  Hans squatted down and fingered a casing, then looked over the rocks at the expanse between him and the fortress.  He remembered.  He had knelt here, rested the barrel on the rocks, looked through the scope, and shot dozens of Xehari as they had worked their way toward the hill, using those boulders as cover.  Steele, and someone else, had run forward under his fire.  Had run down there, down where that dry stream bed flattened out . . . Hans caught sight of something, at the edge of a boulder the size of a house.  He continued down the hill.

The corpse was disintegrated, half inside a small blast crater, shards of bone and armor sticking out of the dust all around.  But here an arm was intact, the fleshless hand still gripping a rocket launcher, its barrel empty.  Hans moved on.

As he walked toward the fortress, he passed the dead and mutilated corpses of many Xehari.  Then another dropship, wrecked, surrounded by more dead, of both races.  A dead soldier leaned against the nose of the dropship, helmet and rifle discarded, pistol in hand, surrounded by hundreds of spent rounds.  Hans recognized the insignia of a Lieutenant.


Sergeant Traiger stood over his platoon commander, flanked by his two surviving men.

“Lieutenant Vickers?” he asked softly, not sure whether the man was dead or alive — one of his legs was missing.  Vickers moved.  His head slowly, unsteadily rose up.  The lieutenant’s eyes were wide, and his blood-smeared face seemed locked into a grin.  Steele took a step back.

“Do you hear it?” said Vickers.  Traiger dutifully listened, but heard nothing.

“Hear what, sir?”

Vickers turned toward the fortress.  “That.”  His expression didn’t change.  “It’s coming from there.”

A moment passed.  “He’s gone mad.” said Ivanov.

“We’ll get you out of here, sir,” said Traiger, shouldering his rifle.  Vickers looked at him sharply, and his smile faded.  The light disappeared from his eyes, and his head went slack.

* * *

The fortress glowed a supernatural red in the light of the sunset.  Its contours and crenellations diced the light up into a mosaic of red and black.  The night side of the wall was a great swoop of darkness, a hole in the fabric of space, sucking everything in, including Hans.  He didn’t want to go there.  Something evil was waiting for him there, in the darkness.  But he didn’t want to stay.  Didn’t want to be with the corpses from his past that he couldn’t remember.  There was certainty ahead, terrible certainty.  Hans began to choke, and cry.  He was scared, and he was sad.  But most of all he was lonely.  He looked over his shoulder.  There had been someone there once.  Hadn’t there?


Finally, they reached the fortress wall.  A giant archway opened up here, and through it they could see the hill rising up, the walls and ramps that formed the base of the fortress.  Sergeant Traiger motioned for Steele and Ivanov to press up against the wall behind him as he scoped out the interior.  Still no sign of any more Xehari.  He couldn’t believe he had successfully penetrated their line.  It seemed too easy.  Still, he couldn’t hesitate, he had to seize the initiative.

“Fan out,” he ordered his men, and moved quickly through the archway in a low crouch.  He had just passed beyond the wall when heard a mechanical whirring from ahead, and saw a metal barrel swing into action.

“Get down!” he yelled, and dove for a low rise, the only cover nearby.  Steele landed next to him a second later.  Then an earsplitting hammering sound came from above and Traiger turned in time to see Ivanov, sprinting toward him, eyes wide, erupt into gouts of blood, intestine, and brain, as a stream of bullets tore into his body.  His body wetly collapsed, inches from Traiger’s feet.  Blood speckled his face as he watched slugs pound into the pile of flesh, boiling the meat away.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” muttered Steele, casting about for an escape.  Above, they heard the whir of the sentry gun scanning its field of fire for more targets.

“Shut up,” said Traiger.  “There’s only one way out of this.”  He pulled a grenade off his vest and popped the pin.  Steele’s eyes widened.  “When I say go, you run that way as fast as you can.  It’ll try to track you.”  Steele nodded furiously, ditching his rifle, helmet, vest, any extra weight he could find to get rid of.  “Ready?” asked Traiger.

Steele took a deep breath.  “As ready as I’ll ever be, Sergeant.”  Traiger released the trigger and started counting in his head.  At three, he said “Go.”  Steele took off at a sprint.  Servos hummed to life above.  Traiger stood, in full sight of the sentry gun, and threw the grenade straight at it.

Hans stood over the pile of discarded gear.  He was in almost complete darkness now and wouldn’t have found it if he hadn’t known what to look for.  But there it was — the battle vest with the name tape that read “Steele”.  He looked into the darkness, in the direction that Steele had run.  There was a momentary flash of light and Hans saw the outstretched corpse, spread-eagle, just where he expected it..  Far off, a storm was brewing in the sky, sucking in the darkness of the gathering twilight.  Thunder rolled through the air.  Hans charged up the hill, past the demolished hulk of the sentry gun.
Steele had died to save him.  He had been too slow.  The machine had gotten off a single round, and that’s all it took.  Single round, center mass.  He had tried CPR, but Steele was already dead.  He had raised his blood-caked face to the sky and screamed.  Gathered up Steele’s assault rifle and charged the citadel.  Climbed these slabs of dusty red stone, rage bubbling up through his skin as it did now.

A bolt of lightning struck beyond the far wall, and a wind began to batter Hans.  It didn’t rain on Prengathu, just lightning and dust.  He hauled himself over one last great slab of stone, and found himself on a battlement.  He stepped forward, and his foot landed on something that rolled right out from under him, sending him crashing into the stone.  Lightning flashed again.  There were .50 caliber shell casings everywhere.  Yes.  It was here.  He leapt to his feet and rushed to the wall.  His sniper rifle was still leaning here, its barrel rusted.  Hans picked it up, sighted in, looked through the scope into the courtyard below.  Its light-enhancing optics still worked.  Remains of the Xehari HQ were visible below, machines set up around the edge of the courtyard with thick cables twining between them.


And there, in the middle, was the carriage, like a small tank with treads, above that a life support system topped by a dome of glass, now shattered.  It was a Xehari hivemind, dead, its three-hundred pound brain torn through by a round from this rifle.  He had stumbled onto it, and taken it out before the bodyguard had even realized he was there.  He had used the rest of his rounds to take out a Sentinel, one of the eight-foot, armored guards that protect the hiveminds, as it charged at him up the crumbling side of the fortress.  Then he had switched to Steele’s assault rifle and fought off a platoon of Xehari regulars.  There were too many of them, they had forced him to take cover.  Back along the battlement into the fortress, through this doorway. Hans entered, taking refuge from the clouds of dust that were now sweeping over him.

The dusty stone hallway was filled with massive clumps of lichen.  It was the only plant native to Prengathu that anyone knew about.  It exploded into gouts of green mist as Hans tore through it.  There were dead Xehari here, littered through the fortress.  Hans’ foot kicked something metallic that slid across the stone.  The assault rifle.  He had run out of rounds, switched to his pistol, killed the last of them.  Or he thought he had.  Then a second Sentinel had come at him, blasted him with its laser.  He had managed to hold it off for a few seconds, here, at this corner, while he cooked off his last grenade.  His timing was perfect.  But the Sentinel was unstoppable.  It kept coming at him, around the corner, one arm missing, part of its head gone, oozing that blue biomechanical fluid that kept the Xehari alive.  Hans had tried to get away, fired off the last of his pistol rounds, tried to run, but he was wounded, wounded all over, he now realized, and the Sentinel had grabbed him.  In a last, desperate effort, he had thrust his hand inside the thing’s head, grasping for a brain to crush.  It rammed him against the wall, trying to crush him with all its weight.  And the wall had given way.

Hans stood before the hole in the wall.  There was a void beyond, black and silent.  The only light now was emanating from the lichen, an eerie bluish-green that streaked across the walls in swirls and patterns.  Lightning struck the fortress, shaking the walls and sending streams of dust sifting down through cracks.  Hans kicked a loose rock into the hole.  A few seconds later, he heard it faintly rebounding.  He knew this was his goal.  He had to go in.

He crawled over the edge and let himself down into the darkness, hanging from the edge of the hole.  His body swung freely — there was nothing under the hallway.  He still could see nothing below, and the air here was musty, dead.  For a moment, Hans contemplated pulling himself back up, going back out into the desert with the skeletons of his dead squad, out in the light and open where he might find something, anything, but this.  Then gravity seemed to increase and Han’s fingers slipped away from the stone, too weak to hold on.  He felt the darkness enveloping him from behind, pulling him downward.  Then the ground slammed against his feet and his left leg snapped.  Hans screamed with pain as he sprawled out against the damp, slimy floor.

Visions swam before his eyes.  He began to shiver and felt beads of cold sweat forming on his brow, and soaking his armpits.  Shock.  He was going into shock.  No.  Not like this.  He forced himself to sit up.  He sat in the darkness and breathed, bringing his body under control.

And then he heard it.  A footstep, only feet away.  Every cell in his body jumped like a plucked guitar string, and he felt dizzy with terror.  “WHO’S THERE?” he screamed, as loud as he could, feeling the adrenaline surge through his bloodstream.  Something hissed.  “WHO IS IT?  WHAT ARE YOU?”  The shouting made him feel good, feel powerful.  It made him forget the pain and the fear.

He lurched to his feet, and lunged in the direction he had heard the hiss.  It scrambled out of his way, and Hans flailed his hands through the dark.  He brushed something cloth, seized it, and tugged, feeling the weight of a person.  A body tumbled into him, bony, clothed in what felt like a robe.  It tried to get away, but Hans got a hold of it, wrestled it to the ground, began punching it.  “I’LL KILL YOU!” he yelled, slipping his hands around its emaciated neck.  As he choked it, he put his knee on its chest, forcing the air out through its constricted throat in a death rattle.  No.  Not yet.  Hans wanted to see the face of his enemy.  He let go with one hand and began searching around on himself.  There was something he had, something he could use… His hand gripped a cylindrical object and tore it off his vest.  A flare.  A geyser of fire erupted, blinding him for a moment.  His captive squirmed out from under him and scrambled away.  Hans chased after, ignoring the pain. He grabbed the creature and threw it against the wall.  It was wearing a black cloak, which Hans tore aside.  Under that was another hood.  There seemed to be no end to the cloth concealing its face.  Hans thrust the flare at it.  “WHO ARE YOU?”  The last hood came aside, and Hans dropped the flare.

His own face stared back at him.  Pale, wrinkled, mottled, warted, but it was him.  It was the most hideous thing that Hans had ever seen, or could imagine ever seeing.

“You.” Hans growled between clenched teeth.  His hand shot out and grabbed its larynx, squeezing hard.  Its eyes bugged out.  “Why did you let them die? Huh?  Why did you let them die?” The desire to destroy this thing settled on Hans, thick and black, deepening even as he pulled his arm back to hit it.  It looked into his eyes, sending sickening tendrils of supplication worming their way in to his brain.  He couldn’t will his hand to move fast enough, to strike hard enough.  As his fist flew toward its face, he watched in horror as the skin on his knuckles paled and rotted away.

Then the punch made contact, knocking its head into the stone wall behind it.  As Han’s fist drove forward, the rock shattered.  Light streamed through the maelstrom of gravel created by the shockwave.  Hans and his corroded double flew through the wall into the searing light and heat of Prengathu in midday.  As Hans watched, the robed thing began to crackle, smoke, sizzle, and evaporate into the arid desert air with a final shriek of defeat.  The sun grew brighter and brighter, washing everything out into a radiant, blinding white.


* * *

Sergeant Traiger opened his eyes.  White canvas snapped and tugged at tent poles, rippling in the wind.  He heard voices, metal scraping on metal, bustle around him.  He sat bolt upright.  Pain surged through his head, and a hundred other parts of his body.  A medical tech, uniformed in white, came toward him.
“Whoah, easy soldier!  You just lay back and relax. You’ve had quite the beating.”  The med tech placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back down.  His head settled into the pillow.
“General Kasin, he’s up!” called an unseen voice.  Traiger heard several people approaching.
“General, I don’t think he’s ready for visitors yet,” said the med tech.
“Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”  A face loomed into Traiger’s field of view.  It was General Kasin, his regiment commander.

“God damn, son.  You’re the finest soldier this regiment has ever seen.  It’s amazing you’re still alive.”  He turned to an officer next to him.  “Give it to me.  Sergeant Hans Traiger, I hereby award you the Galactic Legion of Merit for kicking ‘hari ass so hard you kicked them straight out of this system.” He pinned a medal on Traiger’s chest.  “Congratulations, Sergeant.  Thanks to you, Prengathu is ours.”
Traiger stared at him blankly.
“Now don’t get too excited.  If you need anything, anything at all, don’t you hesitate to let us know.”
“Well, General,” said Traiger.  “How about getting me the hell off this planet?”

The following is a long and wonky piece on health care policy in this country, giving my erudite opinion on exactly why it’s so fucked up.  If you’re bored by policy talk, don’t bother to read it.  But also, don’t consider yourself eligible to vote or have any sort of opinion on this subject.  Unless you have a rebuttal to my conclusions, you’re wrong.  And everyone else is lying to you (who doesn’t agree with me).

I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time.  Years, in fact.  I’ve been heavily focused on this issue since 2004, when I had my first experience (as an adult) with the US medical industry.  A big part of my life to date has been coming face-to-face with institutions and practices that viscerally struck me as fucked-up, rejecting the “that’s just the way it is” hypothesis, and tracking down the exact reasons for this fucked-up-ness.  Nine times out of ten the answer is politics.  This explains why as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly sure of my libertarian instincts.  Every new fucked-up thing I encounter in the world is inevitably traceable to unlibertarian policies.  When you view the world through a libertarian lens, solutions become obvious.  I suppose that’s true for any political ideology.  The difference, however, is if you quiz a Marxist anarchist on what their post-statist, post-property society would look like, their answers become incoherent, and completely at odds with human nature.  Libertarians know what’s going on.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  Let me talk about my first experience in the US hospital system.  I had an injury — second degree burns on both feet.  My friends drove me to the hospital, where I was required to fill out paperwork for what seemed like an hour before they would treat me.  In the end, their entire treatment consisted of some wet cloths on my feet, and a morphine shot.  Total bill?  $1500.  Half of that was just for the morphine shot.  I’m just guessing here, but I’m pretty sure the street price is less.  The staff told me that they didn’t have the expertise to treat my burns, and that they had to send me to Harborview Medical Center, necessitating an ambulance ride.  Add on $800 for that.  At Harborview, comfortably high on morphine, I carefully observed everything that was done to me, looking for the expertise that apparently the other hospital lacked.  I was given a saline IV drip.  The (by now massive) blisters on my feet were pulled off, and my feet washed clean.  Then a silver oxide compound known as Silvadine was smeared all over my feet, which were subsequently wrapped up with gauze.  That was it.  That was the whole treatment, and from what I understand, this is standard procedure for a second degree burn.  No need for special expertise.  I was sent home the next day with painkillers and instructions for tending the wounds myself.  The Harborview bill was over $1000 as well.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it.  A week later I realize the burns were infected with cellulitis,  and I had to go back to the hospital for three nights to get an antibiotic drip.  I was charged well over $1000 for each night I stayed there.

The vast majority of the people I talk to about this have never looked at a medical bill, or had to pay the full cost of their medical care, because they’ve been covered by insurance.  I was not.  I had no idea how badly inflated the cost of medical care was, and thus saw no reason for medical insurance.  I haven’t bought medical insurance since then, but I’ve kept myself out of hospitals and away from doctors.

The common response to this is to lament my not having insurance, and to rail against those greedy insurance companies for making insurance so expensive that I couldn’t buy it.  Or to rail against greedy hospitals or doctors.

Which is clearly total nonsense.  Insurance companies, hospitals, and doctors are no greedier than anyone else.  The entire human race is greedy.  Food manufacturers are greedy, by this logic a Big Mac should cost $20.  Instead, McDonald’s charges a price for the Big Mac that makes sense to us, relative to the price for other goods.  Obviously, greed isn’t the issue.

$800 for a shot of morphine is not a real price.  What is a real price?  A real price is one that allows us to make comparisons between goods.  Real prices are determined by the supply of and demand for said goods, relative to other goods on the market.  If a good is very expensive, it means that that good is either very expensive to produce, or in very high demand.  By paying for an expensive good, you’re saying, yes, I want to devote my resources toward that expensive production process, or yes, I want that good more than anyone else does.  That’s how it works in a free market, anyway.  Morphine is a simple chemical, and like most chemicals, it is fairly cheap to produce.  Morphine has a natural source, the poppy flower, from whence it has been derived for thousands of years.  It does not require designer bacteria or special equipment to produce.  In a free market, it would probably cost about the same as honey.  According to the Johns Hopkins Hospital website, a 50 mL vial of Morphine Sulfate costs a measly 23 dollars.  Assuming that the hospital I went to paid a similar price, that’s an incredible 3500% markup.  And I doubt I even got 50 mL, that seems like a lot.

So if not greed, what does account for these amazingly inflated prices?  Let’s go back to that bit about most people not looking at their hospital bills.  Most people don’t look at their hospital bills. They aren’t even aware that the prices exist.  Insurance just pays for it.  But ok, if the insurance company pays for it, shouldn’t they care what the prices are?  No!  Insurance companies pay out claims on policies, but the policies are paid for by the insured. And they pay dearly.  According to the Kaiser/HRETHRET Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Benefits in 2008, the average cost of health insurance premiums for individuals was $4,704 per year.  That’s a fucking ludicrous amount of money to pay for health insurance, especially if you don’t use it much, which most people don’t.  In this, I’m in agreement with those advocating Universal Health Care.  Where we disagree is WHY this problem exists, and what to do about it.  They say it’s greed.  I say that explanation is transparently false.

So why ARE people paying so much to the health insurance companies?  Reason #1 is that they aren’t — their employers are.  Right now about 60% of working Americans receive health insurance through their employer, who typically pays the bulk of the cost.  Well if the employers are shouldering the lion’s share, shouldn’t they be pissed?  No!  Employers are not required by the government to pay payroll taxes on health insurance premiums for their employees.  So employers are perfectly content to dish out for health insurance instead of paying their employees a higher salary.

So now we’ve arrived at policy problem #1:  the tax break for health insurance.  Essentially this is a huge subsidy from the government to the medical industry, and the result is that it jacks up prices.

Policy problem #2:  Occupational licensure.

As I mentioned earlier, while at Harborview hospital, I was able to collect, through visual observation, a complete understanding of how to treat a second-degree burn.  While injured and stoned.  It’s really very simple.  In fact, most of medicine is.  That’s the big secret that doctors don’t want you to know.  In fact, protecting this secret is almost the very essence of what it means to be an MD.

The AMA cashed in by selling tobacco ads.

At the turn of the 20th century, the American Medical Association began a successful campaign of lobbying for government policies that would raise the wages of its members.  Using the smokescreen of “increasing medical standards”, the AMA set up the state medical boards that exist to this day, began shutting down medical schools, and enacted state licensing of doctors.  The AMA reduced the number of medical schools in the USA from an all-time high of 160 in the year 1900, to only 85 in 1958.  Among the schools shut down were 12 of the 14 black medical schools that existed at the time.  By controlling medical schools and licensing requirements through the state medical boards, the American Medical Association now has a choke-hold on the supply of doctors.  And naturally its members have an incentive to keep that supply low.  60% of all applicants to medical school are turned away.  You can’t even go to medical school if you want to, and have the means to pay. Why keep people out of medical school?  Because people who have graduated from medical school, but are being denied licensure, are far more likely to lobby for a change in the status quo.  Can’t have that.  I should give a shout-out at this point to Milton Friedman, who discussed this in his 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom”.  That’s right, these ideas aren’t new.  They’re inconvenient for the powerful — the American Medical Association, the most powerful trade union in America, sending your medical costs sky-high.  I’m not saying every doctor in America is evil.  Like most people, they’re usually just complacent.  But the AMA as a whole is as evil an organization as any you will find on this Earth.

Why shouldn’t I be able to rent a storefront, stock up on medical supplies, and go into business as a doctor without the government’s permission?  Because I might fuck up?  So what?  When you purchase a good or service, it’s your responsibility as a consumer to ensure that you’re getting what you bargained for.  If someone wants to come to me, and pay me money, knowing that I have very little experience or formal schooling, isn’t that their right?  What right does the government have to interfere?  More to the point, isn’t it far preferable to allow this than to have a choked-off supply of doctors driving up prices to the point where the poor can’t even afford medical care?  It simply doesn’t take four years of medical school and years of residency to understand how to set a bone, make a cast, treat a burn, suture a cut, administer antibiotics, or any of a myriad of other basic medical procedures.  Most of what goes on in ERs around the country, paid for by taxpayers at inflated prices, could be happening in corner clinics for reasonable prices paid for by the patients.

Policy Problem #3:  Massive government subsidization

1991 Source Book of Health Insurance Data

When you subsidize something, it becomes more expensive.  That’s Economics 101.  This year, the USA will spend 2.5 trillion dollars on health care, and about half of that will be paid by the government.  Half.  That’s incredible.  Imagine if the same were true of the food industry, if half of all farms, grocery stores, and restaurants were owned by the government.  Most of this money is being funneled to old people through the Medicare program.  For a doctor or hospital, Medicare and MedicAid are even better than health insurance plans.  It’s a regular bonanza.  When the government is paying, you can charge pretty much anything you want.  Why should the government care?  It’s not their money!  To paraphrase Milton Friedman, there are four ways to spend money.  Here they are, listed in decreasing order of efficiency:  Spend your own money on yourself, spend your own money on other people, spend other people’s money on yourself, and spend other people’s money on other people.  That last is government.

So those are the three main reasons health care is fucked up in this country.  If it weren’t for the government, health care would be way cheaper and more accessible.  Our overall health knowledge and public health literacy would probably be higher, too.  The American Medical Association has successfully propagandized the public into thinking of their health as something to be left to the professionals.  You get sick, you go to a doctor.  They’ll take care of it.  And make a pretty penny while they’re at it.

Some people got shot. Surprise!

Posted: January 15, 2011 in News, Politics

The response to this whole Gifford-shooting thing is sickening.  American Left, you make me sick.  For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this week’s cover of The Stranger, one of Seattle’s newsweeklies.  Normally I find the Stranger’s leftist rhetoric to fall within bounds of decency I can tolerate, but this is just shit.  Shame on you, Stranger editorial staff, for permitting this, and shame on you, Dan Savage and Aaron Huffman, for creating it:

That’s very very extremely clever you guys.  Blame Sarah Palin, the one person who might have a shot at unseating your hero Barack Obama next year.  And in the process, insinuate that she’s somehow associated with every assassination attempt on anyone, ever.  Keep it classy.

If you actually believe that putting crosshairs on a map makes someone responsible for a killing, you’re an idiot.  Either that or extremely deluded.


Let’s assume for a moment that the premise at the root of this accusation is true:  that inciting a criminal act makes one culpable.  All right.  I think we can find some more likely suspects than Sarah Palin.  Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes of all time:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants.  It is its natural manure.”

— Thomas Jefferson

I’d say that’s rather more of an incitement to violence than some crosshairs on a campaign map.  Or how about this one:

“I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence.”

— Malcolm X

Or, if we want to get a bit more modern, how about this one:

“… I come back from Africa to stained dresses and cigars and this and impeachment. I am thinking to myself in other countries they are laughing at us twenty four hours a day and I’m thinking to myself if we were in other countries, we would all right now, all of us together, [starts to shout] all of us together would go down to Washington and we would stone Henry Hyde to death! We would stone him to death! [crowd cheers] Wait! Shut up! Shut up! No shut up! I’m not finished. We would stone Henry Hyde to death and we would go to their homes and we’d kill their wives and their children. We would kill their families.”

— Alec Baldwin, The Late Show with Conan O’Brien, 1998

Oh, but there’s more:

““Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, Kill your parents.””

— Bill Ayers, of the Weathermen, a Communist terrorist who later served on the board of Chicago Annenberg Challenge with Prez. Obama, and is reported to have written Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father

“Michele, slit your wrist.  Go ahead… or, do us all a better thing [sic].  Move that knife up about two feet.  Start right at the collarbone.”

— Montell Williams, farcically speaking to Republican Representative Michele Bachmann, on the air

“Like Fredo, somebody ought to take him out fishing and [gunshot sound]”

— Air America host Randi Rhodes, in 2004, comparing president Bush to an unfortunate character in The Godfather

“On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod’s law dictates he’ll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. – where are you now that we need you?”

— Charlie Booker, in England’s Guardian newspaper, October 23, 2004

“And this current administration is no exception. It should be hung and tried and shot, as any war criminal should be.”

— Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack de la Rocha, Coachella music festival, April 2007

“See I’m a get him the crowd with a couple heavies / And lay the barrel to the ground, hold the gat steady
And now I’m ready for my adversary, talk is cheap / I’m looking for a way to make a plan and keep it neat
And check it out and make around and pick a rooftop / And get a spot where the view’s hot, set up shop
Cause all I wanna see is motherfucking brains hanging / Another level when it’s me and Devils gangbanging
So don’t be telling me to get the nine, violent spirit / Cause when I’m violent is the only time the devils hear it
Rat-tat-tat goes the gat to his devil’s face / I hope he think about how he done us when he lay to waste
And get the feeling of the peeling from the other side / From guns given to my people from my own kind
So get with Ollie cause I’m probably fin to make you mad / I’m steady waiting for the day I get to see his ass
And give him two from the barrel of a black guerrilla / And that’s real from the motherfucking Bush Killa”

— Rap artist Paris, in his 1992 song “Bush Killa”

I think that’s enough.  What was that you were saying about Sarah Palin and the Tea Party spreading hate?

But that wasn’t really what I wanted to write about.  I wanted to discuss the question that the left is obfuscating, and everyone else is avoiding: WHY Mr. Loughner did this.  Why try to kill a congresswoman and everyone around her?  To me, the answer is obvious, and yes, of course it’s political.  Loughner felt that Representative Giffords held power over his life, and that she was misusing that power.  The first cause is reason enough for resentment — by what right does she rule?  Why SHOULD she have power over the lives of others.  Because she was voted in by a majority?  What sort of justification is that?  If you believe that you own your own life, why should any one person, or group of people hold that sort of power over you?  If it sounds like I’m making an anarchist argument, you should know that that’s probably because I’m an anarchist.  I see the Tucson shooting as a response, not to some rotten media environment, but as a response to power.  Specifically, the power that is growing, accumulating in the hands of the US Federal Government.  If you doubt this, I’ll be happy to make that case in another post.  Our government has been continually accreting power more or less since it was created, and it is now beginning to reach the point where people find it intolerable, tyrannical, oppressive.  Crazy people serve a purpose in society not unlike canaries did in mine shafts back in the day.  They’re sensitive to the environment in a way that ordinary people aren’t.  Loughner saw the power, and resented it.  He felt his helplessness, and wanted to do something about it.  Rep. Giffords was merely a convenient target.

Loughner is headed to the slammer, but there are many more potential Loughners out there, and the power of our government is growing.  These sort of attacks will increase.  In response, our government will crack down, becoming more and more of a police state, and inspiring more attacks.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Power grows, and it protects itself.  We’re headed for a dark future, politically.  My advice:  stay the hell away from politicians.

Thanks to Michelle Malkin for sources.