Monday, April 30, 2007

China and melamine

The poisonous petfood horror story gets bigger and bigger now the killer ingredient has been traced back to a massive Chinese scam of adding melamine to feed and fertiliser products to give them a false reading on protein content.
China turns out to have an industry devoted just to turning coal into melamine to enable Chinese companies to cheat their market. It is standard practice.

Wikipedia, as ever a brilliant resource, offers a succinct understanding of just what melamine is. It explains:
Melamine is used combined with formaldehyde to produce melamine resin, a very durable thermosetting plastic, and of melamine foam, a polymeric cleaning product. The end products include countertops, fabrics, glues and flame retardants. Melamine is one of major components in Pigment Yellow 150, a colorant in inks and plastics.
Melamine is also used to make fertilizers.

The awful issue here is that China, in the grip of capitalist frenzy, is employing any devious method of finding added profit that it can devise. Brilliant people with a brief for expediency will find some nasty shortcuts if there are no regulations to stop them.

The scam may now be exposed, but the problem remains, with melamine-containing feed and fertiliser products exported all over the world - and, alarmingly, some US pork products already out in the market before it was realised that the pigs had been fed melamine-containing swill.
Of course, it may yet come to pass that we discover that farm animals around the world have been eating it for years. After all, the idea behind the melamine con is that the foodstuff is rich in protein to help with the fast growth of animals.

One greed feeds another greed.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hamming it down

Now it is ham we have to avoid. Just like trans fats, we discover that nitrites, used in the curing of meats, has been poisoning us for aeons. It is being associated with emphysema, of all things.

If we are to consume ham and bacon, hot dogs and sausages, it should be less than 14 times a month.

Day by day we discover that for the sake of shelf-life, we are subjected to invidious chemicals. Trans fats are shelf life. Nitrites are shelf life. Shelf life trumps human life in the market place - albeit that it all began with the best of intentions. Trans fats make things taste good and are cholesterol-free. Nitrites make them look good and last. We demand those things.

So it comes to pass that science must look to safer alternatives - which are not too far away if one looks at the Food Product Design website. Fruit may bear fruit, says this article.
Well, let's hope it is organic fruit - or there's sure to be another great toxin kerfuffle.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Trans fats rampant

The revelations about toxic nature of trans fats have turned me into one of those picky people. I ask before I eat.

In Australia, the news is invariably good these days. Doing a large investigative earlier this year, I discovered that the cooking oil companies have been helping their clients move to trans fat-free oils and large supermarkets, particularly Woolworths, have been demanding of their suppliers that all baked goods come in under the safety level for trans fats.

In America it is a different story.
The people are continuing to consume trans fats in blissful ignorance.
Oh yes, they have product labelling in the supermarkets so that those of us looking to avoid trans fats can do so. But it means not eating a lot of things - for instance, my favourite Shaws muffins.
I've also had to stop my rare, but adored indulgence in Dunkin' Donuts' Crullers. Dunkin' Donuts products are loaded in trans fats - which does not omen well for the heart function of US policemen who are reputedly hooked on them.
I also adore dining at a wonderful restaurant chain called Smokey Bones where, the big treat, is to finish the meal with one of the best a la mode apple pies in the world. But, when I asked, I was told, no, the apple pies are not trans fat-free.
At least Smokey Bones is honest. And we have stopped having their divine apple pies. Sigh.
McDonalds has said it is planning to abandon partially hydrogenated oils - but not until 2008. Why the wait? They have pretty much done it in Australia - before any legislation was made.

New York has issued an edict to eliminate trans fats from the restaurant world. Philadelphia has followed suit. California is making noises. But why is this country so reluctant?

There is a strong Ban Trans Fats lobby, working very hard at putting pressure on the food industry.

But eating out in the US is still like a lottery - and shopping for baked goods is a label-reading ordeal.

The businesses which have assured me that they are rid of trans fats now are my haunts - Panera Bread and Starbucks. No, I won't hear a word against the much-maligned Starbucks! They are my friends, a place where I can safely have the pleasure of a cake with a coffee.

Monday, April 23, 2007

At last, it's spring.

Finally, the sun has come out in New Hampshire - after the terrible lashing we received last week when the nor'easter blew in and brought the place to a standstill. Days of high winds and driving snow/sleet/rain downed trees and powerpoles, closed roads and airports, flooded huge rivers and left a wake of sludge and devastation. We had an 8-hour power outage and a car breakdown all at once - which left us trapped in an increasingly cold apartment, putting on layers of clothing, reading by battery lamps, eating cold food and listening to the sleet slapping against the windows. Notorious New England weather which, I suppose, is worth experiencing - once!

The moment the sun emerged, just a couple of days later, spring erupted - as if it had been hunkered down waiting impatiently for its moment. Suddenly there are sprawls of jubilant daffodils leaning and beaming towards the light. Trees are budding and breaking into leaf. One has burst into blossom. And tulip leaves bursting from the soil so fast one swears one can see them growing.
We celebrated by heading out for walk along the canal stream and woodland trails of Mine Falls Park. Oddly, when we came to park the car in what had always been a rather grungy and derelict old industrial backwater of Nashua's mill district, we were assailed by, of all things, the moan of the bagpipes. And there was the piper, standing alone outside one of the formerly abandoned buildings which, it quickly become apparent, had been transformed into a thriving arts centre and was having a great big celebratory event.
Try to keep me out! I was inside like a bullet - to be greeted by very nice, homely ladies standing behind a refreshment table laden with dips and cheese, crudite and drinks. There were galleries in all directions - vast expanses arrayed with masses of highly enthusiastic art. No, I won't be calling The Australian Art Collector with any exciting new discoveries, although there were a couple of highly-priced gems outstanding amid the masses of mediocre mixed media. But there was no shortage of refreshments. Tables groaned with goodies all over the place - cakes and cookies, crackers and dips...hospitality which really made up for the art.
There were six separate exhibitions in the show - and many more scattered around the town, accesible by a shuttle, I discovered. It was an "Art Walk" in which people didn't actually walk.

One room was full of the most excellent basketweaving. I praised the weaver, noting that she had mastered the fine and complex art of classic Indonesian basketry. She was amazed. She had no idea of the background of any of the designs. How odd.

In another room there was a warm overcrowding of furniture and projects complete and pending - large screen panels, collages, bolts of fabric, baskets of dressed soft toys and some extremely quaint vanity objects - hand mirrors and hairbrushes with Scrabble pieces and rhinestones glued to them. As I walked around examining things, a massive woman heaved herself from a chair in the corner and moved to the centre of the room where she flopped down on a couch - the spread of her body taking up most of it. I hadn't noticed her amid the distraction of objects and furniture but now I greeted her and observed that she was one of the most immensely fat women I had seen, with very unkempt hair. And there she was, like a vast overwintering bear in her den of strange creations. Suddenly I felt as if I had stepped into a Fellini film.
She turned out to be very personable, albeit with some questionable artistic practices - dismembering fine old books and making collage-type restructures of them. "Librarians don't like it," she said. I didn't either.

Out into spring sunshine again, we set out on our familiar towpath walk, happy to see the understorey forest growth budding out amid the still stark and wintery trees. Chipmunks chirped, blue jays squawked, fish marked the spot against the current in the canal and several slider turtles came swimming along, less shy than they seem to be later in the season. It was on the low trail by the Nashua River that evidence of the flooding remained. Great lakes of crystal water lay in the glades, some of them with exquisite floating layers of autumn's leaves. In many places the trail was all but impassable and we picked out way gingerly through thick and muddy layers of river silt. Our shoes were a mess. But there was a large, only partially-melted snow pile up near the road and we shuffled around in it merrily, having found the perfect shoe-cleaner. How very New Hampshire.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

This gun thing

One after another my Australian friends have emailed their horror at the Virginia Tech massacre and asking "what is it about America and this gun thing?", "why doesn't America do something about gun control?", "who is this gun lobby?"
As if I have the answers, just because I am here.
Well, I don't. For all my time in the USA and for all my love of this country, I don't get it, either. Countries without gun culture have a hard time understanding gun culture - hence the uniformity of anti-gun outcry from other countries at yet another school massacre by a gun-totin' spite-bent psychotic.

I can pointer to a well-reasoned article in The Economist. It has no by-line, which is a pity. But it claims that the USA has half the privately owned guns in the world. It also ponders that Canada, also with liberal gun laws, has far less per capita gun crime.
According to the Johns Hopkins Centre for Gun Policy and Research, there were about 80 gun deaths a day in 2001 - and in 2002, some 58.841 gun injuries treated in emergency departments, with 49 per cent of gun injury costs borne by the US public. Billions of dollars. And, the rate of gun deaths in the US is eight times higher than in other high-income countries. It is a huge national burden.
Switzerland is riddled with guns - with a low gun mortality rate.

Why is the US different? Culture? Media? Temperament?
Perhaps all three. After all, there has been an historic sense of entitlement to private gun ownership in the USA - ever since the country's first fight for independence when it was believed that it was essential that there was an ever-ready private militia for national defence. Then again, some argue that when the right to "bear arms" was written into the US Bill of Rights, it really meant the right to engage in military service. Whatever it meant, it has been accepted and defended as the right to private gun ownership - and there is an adamant belief that everyone needs to be ready to defend themselves. From each other?
The US gun lobby can cite all manner of statistics about states which introduced tigher gun control thereafter experiencing higher gun mortality and injury. They have quite a legtimate case. Then again, some of them are claiming that, if the students of Virginia Tech had all had guns, they could have "taken out" the shooter.
That's where we foreigners recoil in incredulity. It seems plain nuts.

But there we have it. The gun thing is an American thing. It is a potent part of the national psyche and the country is prepared to carry the human losses rather than lose the right to "responsible" gun ownership.

Which is why no one is speaking out about it and why the status quo will not change - and why I am done with the subject, for once and for all!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui and Columbine

Does this remind us of anything?
“You have never felt a single ounce of pain in your life but you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can, you had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn't enough, your brats. Your golden necklaces weren't enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn't enough. Your vodka and cognac weren't enough. All your debaucheries weren't enough. Those weren't enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything."

Cho Seung-Hui's words remind of the Columbine massacre kids.
These are the words of the scorned and ostracised - one who could never gain acceptance among the bright confident and, perhaps seemingly smug in-crowds of school and campus life. The partying jocks and popular girls. Cho was a shy boy, never included. His defences were to withdraw into a shell of resentment and loathing. Just like the Columbine boys - except that they were friends and Cho Seung-Hui had no friends at all.
He lived alone, a stranger in a shared dorm, pretending the others simply were not there, his acute loneliness and sense of rejection feeding his psychosis until it grew out of control.
There is a certain campus cultural syndrome echoed here - one which inadvertently taunts and tortures the outcasts other students blithely describe as "loners".
We saw it in Columbine and we see it again at Virginia Tech.

There is probably no campus in the country where there are not students in a similar state of mind. It can't be helped. There is no blame. Young people are not psychiatric diagnosticians. They are young people, self-interested and preoccupied - yes, hedonistic, even. Retrospect has 20/20 vision but busy daily life does not.
So a college policy must be established encouraging students to be on the watch for the lonely ones - and some sort of group activities should be gently but firmly encouraged in which such outsiders can be given a sense of belonging.

In every instance that Cho's dysfunction was noted, it would seem that he was just sent off on his own again - to feel yet more alienated. They say he simply "fell through the cracks" - but it is hard to see an easy solution. We must all ponder it - as, indeed, in our different ways we are. The whys of that deranged student haunt all our minds.

There really is no point in turning campuses into high security areas. That is not the solution. These acts of hideous spite and revenge - Virginia Tech and Columbine - have come from the inside the campus in a world where, lethally, guns are easily available.
Of course, one could ask the USA to do something about the 270 million guns in private hands and heaven knows how many sitting about in retail stores waiting for the 10 minutes it takes to buy them, but the gun lobbyists will justify even these atrocities in the name of their inalienable right to bear arms. They will just keep telling us that it is not the fault of the guns.

True enough. It all goes much deeper than that. But let's face it, mad Cho Seung-Hui would never have wiped out 32 lives and sent 15 to hospital and nor would Harris and Klebold have killed 12 and wounded 24 if their choice of weapons had been limited to kitchen knives.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To family of Cho Seung-Hui

Now his identity is revealed - Cho Seung-Hui, a student of creativing writing who would appear long to have shown signs of psychotic behaviour. His imagination alone, one gathers from mentions of his "disturbed" creative writing. People described him as "a loner" - which, of course, means lonely, brooding, isolated, an outsider.

Amid the convulsions of shock and grief for those bright young lights snuffed out by his eruption of psychopathic violence, one must offer thoughts of compassion to his family - good, hard-working, hope-filled Korean dry-cleaners. And to his sister, another bright young light, a student at Princeton, whose future forever will be shadowed by the dark and awful shame of her brother's action.
Psychotics are hard to diagnose, hard to understand. People often just think they are moody and strange. They come in many degrees and usually are more harmful to themselves than to others. I am not sure that we ever will understand the mad voices which drove this young man to this deeply shameful act. But if we must apportion blame, let it not be to his family or to Koreans, but simply to guns, so easily purchased by all US citizens, including undiagnosed madmen bent on running amok.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Shame on the gun culture

It's about guns!
The Blacksburg college massacre was a madman with a gun. It was a gun culture disaster.
It could not happen if guns were not so readily available and so absurdly legal.
It took the Port Arthur massacre in Australia to shock the government into serious gun action - through which it paid people to turn in their guns. Not that guns were ever as easy to own or as common in Australia.
America is rampant with people who believe that it is their absolute right to own guns - lots of them. They are a powerful group - gun-totin' and aggressive and they have the government in their thrall. Everyone is afraid of them. Well, they have guns, after all. And there is nothing people with guns like more than having an excuse to use them.
This appalling college massacre must be a wake-up call to the USA.
Every day we read stories about friends accidentally killing each other because they are brandishing their guns. People with guns love to play with them, flaunt them, carry them... And they are constantly having "accidents" with them. Small children kill each other playing with daddy's guns.
There have been too many of these mindless massacres. People emotionally disturbed, people with grudges... They should not have free access to weapons of death.
The time has come to clue up and kill this gun culture.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kafka's airport

Do not be tempted to change planes in Montreal en route to the USA. Who could have known that it would be such an exceptionally awful ordeal?

In blissful ignorance, we had accepted the Star Alliance option of flying Air Canada from Paris to Boston via Montreal. It was a bad start when Air Canada's Charles de Gaulle checkin desk insisted that, despite our long-standing booking and early arrival at the airport, we were destined to "the last seats on the plane" and hence, had to sit separately in central seats at the back of the plane. It was decidedly unimpressive, if not repulsive, to unfold my airline blanket after removing it from its plastic bag and find it absolutely covered in long blonde hairs. Such things seem par for the course these days. The cabin service was adequate and the seven-and-a-half-hour flight was pleasanty uneventful with good movies.

The big puzzle was when the stewards handed us all Canadian customs forms and said we had to fill them in - despite the fact that Canada was not our destination. There was considerable debate among incredulous passengers, but the air stewards just kept insisting, explaining that we had to collect our baggage on landing and go through Canadian customs. It seemed a bit odd.

But it came to pass. Of course, one of our bags was last off the carouselle, giving us some anxiety about our two hours of change-planes time. Little did we know that we would need every minute of it to stand about in slow cattle grid queues going through the most bizarre airport protocol in the world.

It turns out that Montreal takes transit passengers but does not have a transit area.

It is an airport designed by Franz Kafka!

The only way to get to the next plane is to go through all the formalities of entering Canada and then go through the formalities of leaving Canada and then go through the formalities of entering America. Hence we queued and queued in the cattle grids, firstly for Canadian Immigration stamps, then another queue for Customs. Then, lumbering along with our luggage, we had to follow signs around the airport to a Departure area where we had to queue at a checkin again, to show boarding passes, then fill in new Customs forms and join another cattle grid queue for US immigration and yet another cattle grid queue for customs before being able to part with the luggage and queue in another massive cattle grid for Security checking. By this time, we were not only cutting it fine to catch our plane, we were absolutely ga-ga with the infinity of zig-zag ropes and queues snaking to and fro across these endless hallways - and utterly mind-boggled that there was such a thing as a modern International Airport without a transit area.
If I was a gibbering cot case at the end of this absurd, impractical and insulting queue torture of officialdom, how on earth did old and frail people cope? Or mothers with bubs and toddlers?

Montreal, nice city that you are, you should be ashamed at this treatment of transit passengers. It is uncivilized and inhumane. Pure Kafka.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ills of air travel

Air travel has now descended to a point where one can only say it has become a squalid experience.

I am old enough to remember when people dressed to travel. It was big deal - even in economy.

Now, one can't say that air travel is cheap. It is not. But it certainly is popular, despite the fact that it also is hell. Has become hell.
It has become an animal scrum.

I truly believe that most people are really nice - and interesting. But put them in the miserable airport holding pens waiting to get on planes and they are all the enemy. They sit about looking suspiciously at their fellow passengers, readying themselves for a ruthless ritual of queue-push and trample they to get to onto the plane. As if it's going to leave without them. When called in to board first (after the elite travellers, wheelchairs and babies), because you're one of the poor bloody sods allocated seats in the arse end of the plane, you suddenly find access to the departure gate blocked by a cram of scowling people. You have to squeeze between these sods with the better seats because they simply don't want to let you get on ahead of them. They want to be first on so they can hold up all progress down the plane by fussing around in the aisles while trying to jam ten tons of handluggage into the overhead lockers. The logic of loading the rear passengers first seems to strike some nerve of outrage in the modern traveller. So they push their way on among the tail-seaters and there they are, blocking the aisles in elaborate displays of aerial luggage juggling.

The airlines have their passengers where they want them - absolutely under their power. Well, let's not say the airlines as such. Whatever service or product one mentions these days is in busy answering to voracious shareholders and boards which forever seek higher and higher profits. There is no such thing as enough profit. Only "more". Hence, the interminable cut-backs and compromises.

I've become very sad and disillusioned by Qantas in recent years. A lifetime of passionate loyalty to the "national carrier" has been eroded into, well, straight-out aversion. I feel badly treated. Disrespected.
It is a very long time now since I had a civilized seat allocation from Qantas. It does not matter how early I book and pay - a year ahead! I am still victim to some perverse check-in seat allocation which will put me exactly where I hate to be, bumping around in the tail of the plane. Yes, I know it's the safest place. But it is not the most comfortable. I happen to hate it.
Yet, somehow, there is never any other seat to be had - even if I check in four hours ahead. Told that I can only get seat allocation at check-in, I al told at check-in that all the seats already have been allocated. Am I the only person who can only get seat-allocation at check-in. Qantas told me last time I inquired that I simply did not have enough Frequent Flyer points to merit a good seat allocation. I am only a Bronze flyer. Therefore worthless.
So, this time I chose Singapore Airlines.
Uh-oh. Arriving early at Adelaide airport to get seat allocations, where was I seated? Right at the back of the tail. Again!
And on the next leg to Frankfurt? Well, not quite in the back rows - but in the centre block of the tail section. This was another experience altogether - very odd. It seems the air stewards just can't see you there as they roam the aisles with their trays of drinks or snacks.

On both legs, the aircraft were filled to capacity. Indeed, I heard one check-in queuer in Adelaide mention that the airline had phoned to offer Business class seating if she would reschedule for the following day - the plane was overbooked.
Out of Singapore, Singapore Airlines turned into the Star Alliance flight which meant that it was also taking Lufthanser passengers and those of several other airlines. Needless to say, it was packed to the gunwhales, so to speak.
And there is the barrel over which the airlines have us. Volume is all. Sardine travelling at all costs, sorry, I mean profits.
So it comes to pass that the passengers are just a hapless form of product - willing to accept the myriad inadequacies, most of them with no idea that it was ever otherwise.

And, here comes the crunch, they travel packed in together against all rules of personal space, cheek to jowl with strangers in proximity they would tolerate in no other circumstance. They are fed a thin supply of oxygen to make them docile and drowsy. And, in sharing this meagre air, they share generously the myriad germs being introduced amongst them. Yes, I sat beside a sore-throat and coughing Malaysian accountant on the first leg and across the aisle from a French woman with an incessantly sneezing, nose-blowing streaming cold on the second leg. An ugh of ambient illness. And, that is not counting the chorus of sneezing, hooting and coughing from the rest of the section. Bugs and viruses from everywhere poured into an an aerial petrie dish.
I give myself three days before I find come down with my share of these illnesses. It is the dividend of every long-distance air trip.

Not only do we pay a lot of money to travel, it costs us.
Yes, a squalid business it is.
It is time for some organised air rage.