Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Obligatory Ted Kennedy Post

I do not envy my colleagues who have spent the day calling politicos and local bigwigs for quotes about the late Ted Kennedy. I offered a quote of my own, which I suspect won't make it in the paper: "He was nowhere near as awful as his enemies said, and nowhere near as awesome as his admirers insisted."

The same can be said of this blog post.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Another Fine Meth

I have a friend who went to Canada this one time and came back with some codeine medicine, which is prescription-only in the United States but over-the-counter in the exotic Northlands. (It’s a generic prescription, and she probably could’ve bought the pills much cheaper at an American Wal-Mart, but the doctor visit required to get written permission to buy the pills would’ve been an expensive and time-consuming pain in the ass.)

Codeine used to be over-the-counter in America too – nothing fights a cough better than codeine cough syrup – but that’s been banned in the name of the War on Drugs. Then effective cold medicines were banned in case people used them to make meth, another battle in the War. Now the less-effective cold medicines are slated for banishment, too:
Only a few years ago, making meth required an elaborate lab — with filthy containers simmering over open flames, cans of flammable liquids and hundreds of pills. The process gave off foul odors, sometimes sparked explosions and was so hard to conceal that dealers often "cooked" their drugs in rural areas.

But now drug users are making their own meth in small batches using a faster, cheaper and much simpler method with ingredients that can be carried in a knapsack and mixed on the run. The "shake-and-bake" approach has become popular because it requires a relatively small number of pills of the decongestant pseudoephedrine — an amount easily obtained under even the toughest anti-meth laws that have been adopted across the nation to restrict large purchases of some cold medication.

"Somebody somewhere said 'Wait this requires a lot less pseudoephedrine, and I can fly under the radar,'" said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
Actually, the story I linked to about “shake-and-bake” meth doesn’t say anything about banning pseudoephedrine; that’s just me extrapolating past drug-fighting trends into the future.

I read once that the reason science can’t cure the common cold is that there’s no such thing as “the” common cold. About 200 different viruses can cause coldlike symptoms, and once you get a specific virus you’re immune to it for life. (That’s why old folks rarely get colds while kids are always either suffering from a cold, coming down with a cold or getting over one.)

So the eventual ban shouldn’t affect me personally, if I can just catch and work through about 110 colds before it becomes law.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Feral Genius Spectacularly Obvious Solution to the Homeless Problem

A few months ago I had to write a hard-hitting news story about some local elementary school students who’d spent a week of classroom time learning about the Social Problem That Is Homelessness, then writing little essays and fingerpainting little pictures about it. (My story focused on how said pictures were being put together into an art exhibit for parents.)

When writing about elementary school class projects I’m professionally obligated to convey the journalism concept of “Aw, how cyuuute.” (That’s why the First Amendment is so important.) So I quoted some of the captions the kids had painted for their homelessness pictures: “Everybody needs a home,” “Homeless people make me sad” and “The mayor should make it against the law to step on homeless people while they sleep.”

Coincidentally, I agree with all three statements (except I’m pretty sure it’s already illegal to step on sleeping people, and the mayor had nothing to do with that). But solving the homeless problem is just as simple and easy as the young artists’ suggestions would indicate: have government pass a law requiring everyone to buy a place to live. For anyone refusing to make such a purchase, simply charge them a tax almost as high as housing costs, to incentivize people into wanting a place to live.

If it’ll work for health insurance, why not housing, too?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Drinking Games

Despite the great distance separating my home state of Connecticut from the Mexican border, there’s enough illegal immigrants here for immigration to have been a Major Political Issue in 2007 before the economy surpassed it in gravity. The Nutmeg State had ICE raids of Hispanic and Portuguese neighborhoods in major cities; New Haven issued ID cards to illegals while Danbury, in the extreme western end of the state, decided to Do Something about illegal immigrants instead. (Two days ago, the Feds approved a partnership Danbury had requested months earlier, between city police and immigration agents to “crack down” on the problem.)

Shrug. My mother’s parents were born in Poland, but eventually moved here and became Dumb Polacks who took factory jobs away from deserving Americans. But my grandparents came here legally, by which I mean they bought one-way tickets to America and passed a TB test when they got here. (If that’s all it took to emigrate nowadays, I’d’ve long since become “one of those dumb American immigrants taking jobs away from deserving New Zealanders. Or maybe Tasmanians.”) If they had to leap over the same hurdles as today’s immigrants, they never would’ve left their miserable little Polish farm village not far from the Russian border.

So I think the best way to solve the illegal immigrant problem is to reform immigration law and processes so more people can come in legally. However, even if I were the type of person who sincerely believed, for some reason or other, that immigration was bad for America and needed to be stopped, I hope I’d never be callous enough to deny water to a would-be immigrant dying of thirst in the desert.

Then I read the story of Walt Staton, sentenced to 300 hours of community service and a year’s probation for leaving water in the desert for illegal immigrants passing through:
Walt Staton, a member of the group No More Deaths, left full water bottles in December in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge for the illegal immigrants who routinely pass through the 18,000-acre refuge, according to court documents. A judge sentenced him Tuesday to 300 hours of picking up trash on public property and a year of probation, No More Deaths said in a written statement. He is also banned from the refuge during that time, the group said.

Although the case involved only a misdemeanor charge, both sides used the divisive issue of illegal immigration in their arguments; Staton's lawyer argued that Staton's actions were humanitarian, but the government said otherwise.
The story goes on to list plausible-sounding reasons why individual water bottles really would hurt area wildlife, and later adds:
Mike Hawkes of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge said Thursday that although he had no issue with groups leaving water out for illegal immigrants, "there's ways to do it without leaving plastic jugs out there." …. Hawkes said refuge officials and members of No More Deaths had met and were trying to come up with methods that don't involve plastic bottles.
So maybe a misdemeanor littering charge and sentence picking up more of the same is perfectly sensible. But the prosecutors’ rationale is scary:
In a sentencing memo, the federal prosecutors wrote that Staton's "actions are not about humanitarian efforts, but about protesting the immigration policies of the United States, and aiding those that enter illegally into the United States."

Noting the phrase scrawled on many of the plastic water jugs -- "buena suerte," or "good luck" in Spanish -- the prosecutors said, "The obvious conclusion is that the defendant and No More Deaths wish to aid illegal aliens in their entry attempt."
True. It’s also true that in this case, “aid illegal aliens” is exactly synonymous with “save people from dying of thirst in the desert.” Whatever damage illegal immigrants might do to my country isn't as bad as what the prosecutors do to my country by making a federal case out of that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vacation Wrap-Up

I get a lot of vacation advice from the View-Master company; the only reason my Traveling Companion and I stopped at Quebec’s shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre (the “e” is supposed to be accented) – indeed, the only reason we knew the church existed – is because I have the vintage three-reel set in my stereoscope collection. The photo I took is considerably less cool, what with the lack of 3-D effects. But my pic, unlike the View-Master company’s, features some Japanese ladies. I have no idea who they are; I wanted to take an unobstructed, tourist-free shot of the church and the fountain before it, but never had the opportunity:

I spent the second half of my Canadian vacation in Montreal, so my Traveling Companion could attend Anticipation, the 67th annual world sci-fi convention. One discussion panel, which had a title like “Legal Systems Past, Present and Future,” had as a panelist a Scottish writer named Charles Stross who, at one point, while discussing some particularly nasty laws of days gone by, said “If you think the U.S. has draconian laws now …” My now-required-to-return-home passport weighed heavy in my purse when I heard this; damn Ronald Reagan, I thought, whose ramping up of the war on drugs led to a country formerly known as a bastion of freedom being known instead for things like “draconian laws.” Damn the second George Bush, whose cowardly response to the 9/11 attacks turned this up to 11. And damn Barack Obama for reneging on his promises to reverse this trend.

These patriotic platitudes remained in my head a day or so later, when I watched Cory Doctorow receive his Prometheus Award for best freedom-themed fiction (for his novel Little Brother). It’s a fine book to be sure, but has no goddamned business being considered “relevant” in a country that labels itself “free.” Of course, that’s the country’s fault, not the author’s.

During the question-and-answer portions of these panels I kept my hand down, because I couldn’t think of a non-plaintive way to ask the only question on my mind: “Yes, our country and the entire Western world is on the wrong path these days. What the hell can we do to stop it? What can anyone do?”

Do you guys have any suggestions? I’m clean out of ideas.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Photoeaux Blogging: Quebec City

Never trust a French-Canadian hotelier who says “We have high-speed Internet. I learned this last week in Quebec City and later in downtown Montreal. But after walking dozens of miles through Quebec’s quaint, charming and extremely steep and hilly architecture, quaint 1990-era bandwidth speeds almost seemed right. After returning to the States and my own wonderfully well-Internetted home last night, I emptied the souvenirs from my luggage and photos from my camera’s memory card, including some from Quebec City.

Many beautiful statues line the streets of Vieux Quebec, and at first glance I thought this guy to be one of them:

But no. He was a street performer who’d covered himself in copper gilding before playing the pan flute on one street corner. He didn’t acknowledge me or any of the other people who dropped Canadian one- and two-dollar coins in the begging can he had before him.

Bishop Batman blessing the city:

A trompe d’oeil street mural, viewed from the next street over (four or five stories taller on the hillside):

The same mural from street level:

Detail of me just below the guitar player. I’d originally planned to strike a pose to blend holistically with the greater mural, but a high hillside wind scotched that plan when it started blowing my hair into my face.

Extremely expensive French-Canadian high-fashion boutiques lined many of the old city’s cobblestone streets, including some with names you'd never find in respectable upscale English-speaking neighborhoods:

Every English speaker took at least one picture of that window. It is the law.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Mon rouleau de dîner est sur le point de brûler en bas votre restaurant

Since my hotel’s “high-speed” Internet connection is anything but (one of my e-mail addresses timed out three times before I could finally access the lone piece of spam it had waiting for me), I’ve abandoned my original plan to load photos tonight and will instead explain why you should never, ever visit a foreign-language country without first committing to memory whichever phrase locals use to express the concept “My dinner roll is about to burn down your restaurant.”

My Traveling Companion and I spent the day tramping through the oldest parts of Quebec City, which meant we spent lots of time climbing up and down sharp hills and steep staircases. Five solid hours of this left us pretty worn out, so when we returned to our hotel this afternoon we decided that instead of going out again, we would simply have dinner at the large, fancy-looking Chinese restaurant next door.

Every single person we’d met in Quebec thus far spoke English better than the average American high-school student, so I decided to take the French phrasebook out of my overstuffed purse and leave it back at the hotel. Naturally, this resulted in the Chinese restaurant’s having the only wait staff in all of French Canada where everyone speaks English as badly as I speak French.

The menu didn’t have English translations either, but the restaurant had a buffet option and I didn’t need a phrasebook to know the French word for buffet (“buffet”), so we were able to order without too much difficulty.

The buffet had an entire small table that held various types of bread and rolls, and a miniature version of the conveyor-belt ovens you sometimes see in pizza restaurants – put your bread on one end of the conveyor belt, and by the time it emerges out the other end of the oven it’s nicely toasted. I put a dinner roll on the conveyor belt and went to get some butter (“beurre”).

When I returned, I expected to see my toasted roll waiting for me in the oven’s catch basin. What I saw instead was an empty catch basin and a few thin wisps of smoke wafting out of the oven.

Uh-oh. The dinner roll was maybe one-sixteenth of an inch too thick to make it through the oven; the conveyor belt carried it to the halfway point, where it got stuck. I couldn’t possibly reach it myself, so I went looking for a waitress to help me.

I couldn’t find one (side note: I’ve eaten in four Quebec City restaurants since last night, and by American standards every one of them has been hopelessly understaffed), but I did eventually find a teenage busgirl adding croutons to the salad bar.

Pardonnez-moi,” I said to her, and pointed to the bread table. “My bread is stuck in the oven.”

She repeated the only word she’d understood – “Bread?” – and turned to get more from the kitchen.

Non, non,” I said, and gestured toward the oven on the bread table. “My bread – ma pain – is burning – uh, c’est fumée, – no, dammit, that means it’s smoking – c’est stuck in the oven …” Finally, I trailed off and gestured for her to follow me to the bread table.

I do not know the meaning of whatever she cried out when she looked inside the oven, but she turned some knobs and flipped some switches to cut the power while a teenage boy arrived on scene with a pair of tongs. The two of them eventually extracted what looked like a smoldering charcoal briquette, and the boy started to offer it to me before he caught himself and threw it out instead. Since I couldn’t recall the French phrase for “I’m sorry” I instead offered a meek smile and said “Pardonnez-moi, merci, pardonnez-moi.”

Considering the bad reputation Americans already have in foreign countries, I really, really hope they thought I was from Toronto.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Vacation: Day 1

Eat your vegetables. Brush your teeth. Take your vitamins. Don’t slouch like that. Make sure your jacket’s zipped all the way up to your chin. I DON’T CARE IF IT’S AUGUST, GODDAMMIT, ZIP UP YOUR JACKET AND DON’T TALK BACK TO ME AGAIN!

Sorry. Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell like that. It’s just that I’m a little tired right now, having driven all the way from Connecticut to the luxurious Super 8 on the outskirts of Quebec City. (By “luxurious” I mean “It has an indoor water park.”) I also made the mistake of stopping at the Vermont “Welcome Center” on I-91, just over the state line from Massachusetts.

Vermont’s a lovely state, but I always experience a wave of low-grade irritation when I stop at the Welcome Center and read all the signs reminding my grown-up self that seatbelts are good and smoking is bad and making personal decisions is hard and that’s why the government does it for you.

The Welcome Center sign that irritates me most of all is actually two signs mounted on a single post by the center’s exit ramp; the top sign says “Airbags Save Lives” while the bottom one reads “Place Children in Rear Seat.” I always thought truth-in-advertising laws should require an additional sign explaining that kids have to stay in the back seat because if they’re up front, an exploding airbag will kill them.

But I had no time for filing lawsuits today, because I wanted to cross the border into Canada as soon as possible. I did, however, have my camera ready, so I could photograph the sign and then Photoshop it into something educational enough to post here. But when we got to the exit ramp, the sign was gone.

“It’s about time they took the damned thing down,” I said to my Traveling Companion. “I like to think it’s because some Vermont transportation official read the blog post I wrote about that stupid sign, and realized the error of his ways.”

“You go right ahead and tell yourself that,” my Traveling Companion replied. And so I did, which kept me in a fine mood until we crossed into Canada and the friendly border guard asked us, “Do you have your passports?”

He, of course, had no interest in seeing them; he just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t wind up stranded in his country now that our own freedom-loving government won’t let us come home without a passport anymore. I think my shoulders slumped a little when I said “Yes, thank you,” to the guard.

The line of American cars trying to get into Canada was much, much longer than the line of Canadian cars trying to enter America. Considering how insulting my government is to its own citizens these days, I don’t blame so-called foreigners for wanting to stay the hell away. I would too, if I had anywhere else to go.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Chance At Atonement

My single biggest regret of the last twelve months is that I did not buy the can of escargots I found in a French-Canadian dollar store last October. (Not that I’d ever eat such; I just want to gross people out by holding the can out to them and “Check out my dollar-store escargots.”)

Life rarely gives you the chance to take back missed opportunities but this time might be an exception, since I leave for Quebec City tomorrow. And not a minute too soon! Between my regular job, some freelance assignments and the time I spent hunting down my passport after the post office lost it, I’ve been working 70- or 80-hour weeks lately, so my hope is that of I recharge my batteries now, I can maybe get back to updating this-here blog more than thrice in a blue moon.
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