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Week of 4 April 2011

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Monday, 4 April 2011
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10:11 - Lab day today.

I see the Republicans are talking about cutting $4 trillion over ten years. Much too little, and much too late. What I want to know is (a) what initial numbers are these so-called cuts based on, and (b) when these supposed "cuts" will occur. It's easy to play with numbers. As they say, figures lie and liars figure. I want to see some concrete numbers, based on, say, actual FY2000 spending and federal employment numbers. They can take this amount as the baseline budget and number of federal employees and civilian contractors, cut everything above that instantly, eliminate all new programs that have been created since then, and then make further cuts from there.

I also see the Republicans have floated a trial balloon about cutting the Big Three: social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Fine, that needs to be done, as anyone sane must realize. But the cuts they're talking about are much too tiny to have any real effect on federal spending and deficits. For one thing, they plan to exempt those currently 55 years old or older.  That's understandable, because those folks don't have much time to make other arrangements. But it's entirely unrealistic. Those of us in that age group did carry our elders, true. But there were many more of us and many fewer of them at the time. The proportions are quickly being reversed as the Baby Boomer pig moves through the python. Our children's generation cannot afford to support us, even if they are willing to impoverish themselves in the process. And why should they be?

When Social Security started, there were something like 36 workers supporting each retiree. The retirement age was set at 65, and the average retiree collected benefits for perhaps two or three years before dying. The worker/retiree ratio has plummeted over the years, and continues to decrease as more Baby Boomers retire. And, on average, retirees are living much, much longer and collecting Social Security for sometimes decades.

In case it's not obvious to everyone, this is simply unsustainable. Congress needs to boost the SS retirement age significantly and soon. For example, they might increase retirement age to 70 for anyone currently age 55 or older, 71 for age 54, 72 for age 53, and so on. In other words, your current age plus your retirement age totals 125, with a maximum retirement age of 80 for anyone currently age 45 or younger. Same thing with Medicare. That's obviously brutal for anyone who's currently older than 50 or so, but the alternative is worse.

I suspect most people who know me would call me a workaholic. Perhaps that's true, and I do plan to continue working indefinitely. I have zero interest in retiring, and that would be true even if I were independently wealthy. The work I do is what I want to be doing, so in effect I'm on one long vacation. Unfortunately, that's not true for most people, so it'll be much harder for them to resign themselves to working until they drop. But I don't see any alternative.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011
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08:12 - I had a scare this morning. Ordinarily, Barbara gets up and takes her shower. While she does that, I take Malcolm out and get the newspaper. This morning, when I got up and walked down the hall, Malcolm didn't follow me. I went out and got the paper, expecting to look around and see him standing at the door waiting to come out. He wasn't there. So I walked back to the bedroom and found him still lying on the floor where he'd been when I got up. His eyes were closed and he wasn't moving, even when I reached down and touched him. His nose was warm and dry, which is ordinarily a bad sign, but in this case I was happy it was warm.

I helped him to his feet, but he wasn't able to stand on his own. I finally got him out of the bedroom, down the hall, and to the front door. I had to pretty much carry him out into the yard, where he immediately lay down and wouldn't move. I went back to tell Barbara what was going on.

As it turns out, we had a loud thunderstorm last night, which I managed to sleep through. Malcolm was in a panic, and Barbara finally gave him an acepromazine tablet, a heavy-duty tranquilizer our former vet had prescribed for him when we took him on car trips. They definitely worked for that, turning Malcolm from a Tasmanian Devil into a sluggish pile of fur, with the effect lasting 8 to 12 hours. And that was when Malcolm was a younger dog. Barbara said she gave him the pill around 1:00 a.m., so I expect he'll just sleep until noon or later. Next time, she'll cut the dose to half a pill, if not a quarter.

18:55 - A little while ago, Malcolm died in Barbara's arms. He held on until she was able to get home, but lasted only a few minutes after that.

It wasn't the acepromazine. Malcolm had liver problems, and possibly liver cancer. The last time we talked to our vet, Sue Stephens, about it, she agreed with our decision not to put him through surgery. Malcolm had been acting subdued for the last several days, panting a lot and drinking more water than usual. I'm convinced his ongoing problems were the cause. The tranquilizer had nothing to do with it.

Malcolm had a good life, and enjoyed it right up through yesterday. No dog could have had a better mistress than Barbara.


Wednesday, 6 April 2011
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08:23 - Thanks to everyone who posted or emailed condolences. Here's the image of Malcolm that Barbara chose for her journal page.


Barbara and I are both stunned by the suddenness of Malcolm's loss. With our other dogs, there was a slow decline that gave us a chance to get used to the idea of losing them. Malcolm had been a bit slower than usual for the last several days, sleeping more and playing less, but even on Monday he was barking at delivery trucks, going for walks, and playing ball. Then yesterday he was gone.

Last night, we had no idea what to do. We ended up making a couple of cans of chunky soup, because we had to eat even though neither of us was really hungry. Then we sort of watched a couple episodes of McLeod's Daughters, although I have no memory of what they were about. Then we kind of read our books for a while, went to bed, and were finally able to get to sleep. This morning, I awoke to the reality of no Malcolm and went out by myself to get the newspaper.

Barbara, wisely I think, decided to go to work today and then to the gym after work. I'm not sure what I'll do today. Yesterday, I was working in the lab for short periods between checking on Malcolm every few minutes. I don't think I'll work in the lab today. I can't trust myself, and a lab is nowhere to be when one is distracted. On the other hand, I'm not sure I can write today. That requires intense concentration, and I don't think I'm up to it. Also, without Malcolm pestering me periodically, I'm not sure I'd be able to get anything done anyway.

We'll carry on, because that's what people do. But we've lost our child.


Thursday, 7 April 2011
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09:16 - Paul Jones called yesterday to say he was heading out to run some errands and ask if I wanted to ride along. I grabbed the chance to get out of the house, and rode with Paul to Wal-Mart, where he was looking for a deep-cycle marine battery to power his telescope.

Things are too quiet around here without Malcolm. When we lost Kerry, at least we still had Duncan and Malcolm. When we lost Duncan, at least we still had Malcolm. With no dogs at all now, I miss the routine activity of short walks, being pestered, hearing a bark when the mail or UPS truck shows up, and so on.

Barbara is already looking around for a suitable Border Collie. I suspect she'll look for a male. I'm not sure if we'll get an older rescue dog or a puppy. Frankly, I'm in favor of a puppy or at least a young dog, simply to delay the next time we have to go through this. And then perhaps after a few years we'll get a second dog. I never want to be without a dog.


Friday, 8 April 2011
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09:35 - Although his subject is pharmaceutical companies, Anthony Nicholls', What Is Really Killing Pharma, could equally be applied to almost any science-based industry. In short, Nicholls' answer can be summarized as "lawyers, marketing dweebs, and MBAs". In other words, people who have no clue about science and are attempting to "manage" it. The contrast is stark between the days when big pharma companies were run by scientists--most of whom rose through the organizations from the lab bench to the executive offices--and nowadays, when most are run by, to put it politely, non-technical people. My rule has always been, "If you can't do it yourself, you can't manage it", and that's been made blindingly evident by the ongoing decline of big pharma companies.

And speaking of big pharma, it's articles like this one that make me wonder if we're destined to return to the pre-antibiotic era: Scientists Find Superbugs in Delhi Drinking Water

Most people don't appreciate just how close we are to returning to the Bad Olde Days when people who got a serious infection simply died. And we're actually worse off nowadays, because we no longer have the robust immune systems that people had before antibiotics became common. I wonder if the ultimate answer is bacteriophage viruses, which are basically a horde of tiny assassins that hunt down a particular pathogen while ignoring everything else. Or perhaps nanoparticles, which, if this pans out, will be about as difficult for pathogens to develop immunity to as, say, heat or alcohol.

One thing is sure. We need a new generation of scientists to develop these new miracles, and we're not producing enough new scientists and engineers. Nor are pretend scientists and engineers good enough, as India and China are finding out. Of course, it's also critical that we produce enough jobs for all these new Ph.D.'s in biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, and so on. That is, as I've said, easy to accomplish. Simply make all R&D expenses not just a tax deduction, but a tax credit at the federal, state, and local level. If a corporation pays a biologist in its R&D department $100,000 per year, rather than just expense $100,000 against revenue, deduct $100,000 from the taxes due.

But the real shortage isn't in chiefs, those with terminal degrees in science and engineering. It's in Indians, those with a hard science BS or even significant exposure in college to the sciences, engineering, and math. These people generally won't pursue careers in the sciences or engineering, but they're important just the same. The level of scientific knowledge among the general population is pathetically low, and falling fast. These are our voters, and they're uneducated on nearly everything that matters.

If I could wave a magic wand, I'd eliminate all college majors and degrees other than the hard sciences, math, and engineering. Those who intend to pursue a higher degree could come out of college with a BS in one of those fields. Those who did not could come out of college with a BA in one of those fields, with additional coursework in some other area of interest. But basic competence in science at at least the BA level should be a requirement for a college degree. Period. Sure, that cuts the eligible student population to maybe 10% of what it is now, but that's no bad thing. Only 10% of the people in college actually belong there.


Saturday, 9 April 2011
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09:25 - Sue Stephens, our vet, called last night to see how we were doing. Barbara, of course, had been kicking herself for giving Malcolm the acepromazine tablet, thinking she'd contributed to his death. I'd been kicking myself for not taking Malcolm in to the vet first thing Tuesday morning, or at least later during the day. Sue reassured us on both counts. The masses in Malcolm's liver, probably cancerous, finally caught up with him, and there was nothing we could have done differently that would have helped.

If anything, Barbara giving Malcolm the tranquilizer probably eased his passage, and, in retrospect, I'm glad I didn't take him out to the vet and leave him. That would simply have meant he'd have spent his last hours surrounded by strangers. As it was, he spent his last hours with me on the floor next to him, petting him and telling him what a good dog he was, and Barbara was with him at the last. As Sue said, that was far harder for us, but far easier for Malcolm.

Barbara and I are recovering, slowly. She's already looking around for another Border Collie, and has several prospects. I suspect it won't be long before we welcome a new family member. The new ones never replace the old ones, of course, but they do make it easier.


Sunday, 10 April 2011
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.