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Tag: government

Drones and droids and robot dogs, oh my!

The older I get the more wary I become of technology.

What I haven’t figured out is whether one necessarily follows the other: Am I just becoming more fearful as I age, or is technology proving itself more worth fearing?

Both are unstoppable forces. Just as one can’t stop the march of time (even with anti-aging technology), one can’t stop the march of technology.

It keeps coming — whether it’s wise or not, safe or not — and we all blindly jump on board and become dependent on it. If it makes us prettier, gets us where we’re going, let’s us accomplish things more quickly, or function without actually using our brains, we humans are generally all for it.

Already we’re reliant on the Internet, GPS, and cell phones. Already we can purchase almost anything we want online. But the day may soon come when, once we order it, it gets delivered by a robot, perhaps a flying one, or a terrain-traversing one, or one capable of hurling 35-pound cinder blocks 17 feet.

I would say these robot dogs could become the newspaper delivery boys of tomorrow, if newspapers had a tomorrow.

droneLast month 60 Minutes revealed that Amazon was working on drones that will be able to fly to homes and deliver packages at our doorstep.

Last week the New York Times reported that Google has purchased Boston Dynamics, the engineering firm that designed the graceful beast known as “Big Dog” (seen in the video above) and other animal-like robots, mostly for the Pentagon.

It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year, but Google’s not divulging what it’s up to.

Given search engines don’t generally need to climb mountains, or hurl cinder blocks, to find their information, one can only wonder.

Is the company branching into war machines? Does it want to corner the market on robot pets? (Boston Dynamics did serve as consultant on Sony’s ill-fated pet robot dog, Aibo.) Is it hoping to take Google Earth one step further and have robots take photographs through our windows? Or, more likely, is Google, like Amazon, positioning itself to become the place where you buy everything, and working on lining up a delivery team whose members don’t require salary, or health insurance, or coffee and pee breaks?

It almost looks like Amazon is poised to cover air delivery, while Google, with its latest purchase, is positioning itself to cover the ground. (That, at least until Big Dog becomes amphibious, leaves the high seas open — aye, aye robot! — for, say, a Yahoo, Bing or eBay).

biigdogBoston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., builds animal-like machines that can traverse smooth or rocky terrain, some of them at speeds faster than a human. Most of its projects have been built under contracts with Pentagon clients like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts held by Boston Dynamics, but that it did not plan to become a military contractor on its own.

So why does it need computers with legs, or robots that can climb walls and trees? Surely Google isn’t working on ”Terminators” that can track you down, knock on your door and provide you with the top 10 recipes for apple crumb cake.

The Times reports:  ”… Executives at the Internet giant are circumspect about what exactly they plan to do with their robot collection. But Boston Dynamics and its animal kingdom-themed machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts … The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care.”

EVEN ELDER CARE? Oy, robot! I do not want a robot dispensing my medication if I end up in such a facility. At that time, I will be even more terrified of technology, and the last thing I would want to see would be a robot coming into my room –  no matter how sexy its voice – saying, “Time for your sponge bath.”

I’m not a total Luddite.

I can publish a website or two, and can hook up my cable TV, and can figure out about 10 percent of what my cell phone does.

But I resent how steep the learning curve has become — how much effort is involved in keeping up with technology. That device promising to make life easier — once you spend a week programming it — may be smaller than your little finger, but its owner’s manual will be fatter than a James Michener novel.

What I fear, though, is where technology can lead, especially technology without forethought, and how quickly and blindly many of us hop on the bandwagon, giving little consideration to the possible repercussions, and how easily it can run amok.

The one futuristic (but already here) technology I’ve researched most is dog cloning. Once achieved, the service was offered to pet owners hoping to bring their dead dogs back to life, and willing to pay $150,000 for that to be accomplished in South Korean laboratories. It bothered me so much, and on so many levels, I wrote a whole book about it. You can order it through Amazon, but don’t expect drone delivery for at least a couple more years. Might one day drones deliver our clones?

I realize my fears are both irrational and rational.

Fretting about the future, I guess, is part of getting older. Old fart worries were around back when automobiles first hit the road (and went on to become a leading cause of death). And it’s probably true that once we stop moving forward, we tend to stagnate. But there’s moving forward and smartly moving forward.

I’m not a fan of big government (except when it helps me get health insurance), but I sometimes wonder if we need a federal Department of Whoa, Let’s Take a Look at this First. Maybe it could monitor emerging technologies, and their ramifications, and determine whether they should be allowed to emerge at all. Maybe that would prevent unimaginable (but, with enough research, entirely predictable) things from happening — like cell-phone shaped cancers forming on the exact spot of our bodies where we pack our cell phones.

But we tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to those kinds of things. We wait for the damage to be done and leave it to personal injury lawyers to straighten it out — whether it’s a new anti-psychotic drug that unexpectedly made young males grow female breasts, or irreparable harm done by robotic surgical devices. (If you’ve been victim of either, lawyers are standing by to help you. At least that’s what my TV tells me.)

I want to enter my golden years without shiny silver robots assisting me in living, and without drones hovering outside my door (even if they are delivering a good book). Though I’ve met some clones, I wouldn’t mind getting through life without having any contact with droids and drones and robot dogs.

Sometimes, at least from the Fearful Old Man Perspective (FOMP), it seems we’re so focused on the future that we fail to see and appreciate the present, and don’t even begin to learn from the past.

Sometimes it seems we like dancing on the cutting edge, then cry foul when our feet get sliced up.

Sometimes it seems we embrace technology too quickly and casually, when it should be a careful and thoughtful embrace, made with the realization that, as much as technology can make life better, it can also screw it up badly. We tend to view technology in terms of what it can add to our life, not even considering what it might subtract. And, in what’s the biggest danger of all, we tend to let it overrule our hearts and do our thinking for us.

It can save and prolong lives, even, in a way, re-create them. It can make our human lives – though it’s arguable — more convenient.

But it can also gnaw away at us until we become tin men and scarecrows — maybe not actually missing our hearts and brains, but at least forgetting we ever had them.

Air Canada manages to lose a dog, rip the media and bash a country — all in one week

larryHere’s a dog story that proves accidents can happen, and then happen again.

Usually it’s no big deal, but when it’s an airline making the mistakes,  and they’re strictly the result of carelessness, we have to wonder a bit.

In this case, the first boo boo came when an Air Canada employee in San Francisco decided that, due to a flight delay, a dog being flown to a new adoptive home in Canada needed a potty break. When he let the Italian greyhound out of his crate, Larry escaped.

Jutta Kulic, while attending a dog show in Sacramento, had dropped Larry off at the San Francisco airport. She zip-tied the crate, and instructed the airline not to open it for any reason. Larry, who belonged to a friend of Kulic’s who died of cancer, was on his way to a new home — or so she thought.

That flight ended up being delayed, and later that night, Kulic received a call from Air Canada telling her Larry had run away.

After talking with Kulic about what had happened, CBS13 in Sacramento reached out to Air Canada (that’s what TV news people do these days, “reach out”) which generally means sending an email. 

That’s when the airline made its second blunder.

The email an airline representative sent to the station, apparently accidentally, wasn’t meant for public consumption. Instead, it was an internal exchange about how to handle the media inquiry:

“I think I would just ignore, it is local news doing a story on a lost dog,” read the email from Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick. “Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the US media spends its time.”

Later the airline sent another email to the station, this time with the requisite apologies and saying the incident was being investigated.

Kulic said she is afraid she’ll never see Larry, who is brown and white and two years old, again.

But the family in Canada says they’re still hoping he might be found and delivered to them.

The fuzzy — and not so fuzzy — sides of the federal government furloughs

justwalkPoliticians aren’t happy about it. Americans aren’t happy about. But there may be one group can see a bright side in the federal government shutdown.

Dogs. (Then again, they see the bright side in pretty much everything.)

With their owners spending more time at home, the pets of furloughed federal workers are likely getting more attention, more dog park time, more time to snuggle while watching daytime TV on the couch.

Let’s just hope no one gets too used to it.

The shutdown, while already hurting some pet-related business, is helping some others. The  Huffington Post reports that business is booming, for example, at Muddy Mutt, a self-serve dog wash next to Shirlington Dog Park in Northern Virginia.

“I’m getting more business because people aren’t working,” said Andrew Low, owner of the Muddy Mutt, where dog owners commonly bring their dogs in after romping in the river. Low said the business is usually quiet during the week. But since the furlough? “Twenty-five on Monday, 14 on Tuesday, 23 yesterday… We don’t even ever come close to that.”

The furlough might be bad news, though, for professional dog walkers in the DC area.

Christina Bell, owner of Doggy Daze DC,  said that business is down by about half since the shutdown went into effect. JJ Scheele says her business, Dog Walking DC, has also taken a hit.

“All the walkers are down anywhere from one to three dogs,”  Scheele said.

At Just Walk DC, a dog-walking cooperative, Meg Levine said the decrease of customers, three days into the shutdown, has been slight. But between government-employed pet owners having more time, and less income, a protracted shutdown could hurt dogwalkers badly — not to mention the rest of the country.

“There certainly is a sense of frustration from a lot of my clients, who feel that this is just needless roadblocking,”Levine said. “For the most part, we are continuing to chug along and feeling very hopeful this will end soon. I like D.C. when it functions. Oh, this town.”

(Photo: Dog walker Meg Levine, courtesy of  Just Walk DC)

Bucharest voters to decide fate of stray dogs

bucharest

The tens of thousands of stray dogs that roam the streets of Bucharest would be captured and killed under a plan proposed by the city just days after the fatal mauling of a four-year-old boy.

But first they will give voters a say — a referendum is scheduled for Oct. 6.

After the fatal mauling of a boy playing with his brother in a park, Romanian President Traian Basescu called on the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta to pass a law that would allow for stray dogs to be killed.

“Humans are above dogs,” Ponta said.

Mayor Sorin Oprescu, in announcing the referendum, said, “We will do what Bucharest’s people want, exactly what they want.”

The controversial plan has divided Bucharest, a city of 2 million people.

bucharest2An estimated 40,000 to 64,000 stray dogs roam its streets — some peacefully minding their own business, some begging, trespassing, rifling through garbage and, sometimes, attacking humans.

In recent years, a Bucharest woman was killed by a pack of strays, and a Japanese tourist died after a stray severed an artery in his leg.

But it was the killing of a boy earlier this month that has brought the debate over strays to a fever pitch. Hundreds have demonstrated both for and against the proposed measure and have vowed to continue rallying, according to the Associated Press.

Those who see the dogs as a threat and nuisance say — ironic as it sounds — that exterminating the strays will make for a more civilized society.

“We want a civilized capital, we don’t want a jungle,” said Adina Suiu, a 27-year-old hairdresser. “I will vote for them to be euthanized. I drive a car most of the time, but when I walk around my neighborhood, I am always looking over my shoulder. If we don’t stop them now, we will be taken over by dogs.”

Burgeoning stray dog populations are a problem in several countries in the former Eastern Bloc. In Ukraine, authorities in Kiev were accused of poisoning strays as they prepared to host the Euro 2012 soccer championships. In the Kosovar capital of Pristina, officials gunned down nearly 200 strays in a three week “culling” campaign.

Vier Pfoten, an animal welfare group, says the solution isn’t killing strays but sterilizing them. The group has sterilized 10,400 dogs in Bucharest since 2001, but says a far more massive effort is needed to control the canine population.

Bucharest’s stray dog problem became more acute in the communist era when former Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu razed large swaths of the city. Residents, forcibly moved into high-rise apartment buildings, had to abandon their dogs.

“When the great demolitions came, many houses were knocked down and owners moved to apartments and could not take dogs with them,” Livia Campoeru, a spokeswoman for Vier Pfoten said. “People are irresponsible, they abandon their dogs, and there is a natural multiplication.”

Among those speaking out against the mass extermination is Brigitte Bardot, the French actress and animal rights activist. “I am extremely shocked to find that revenge, which has no place here, will be taken on all the dogs in Romania, even the gentle ones,”  she wrote in an open letter to Basescu.

(Photo:  Top photo by Eugen Visan, Associated Press; bottom photo by Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press)

Together again: Dog and Marine reunited


Marine Sgt. Ross Gundlach, while serving in Afghanistan, made a promise to Casey, the explosive-detecting yellow Lab who worked alongside him.

“I promised her if we made it out of alive, I’d do whatever it took to find her,” Gundlach said.

Gundlach, after completing his military service and enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, managed to find out that Casey had finished her military service and been sent to work for the state of the Iowa, detecting explosives.

Knowing it was probably just the first round of a long bureaucratic battle, Gundlach wrote to State Fire Marshal Director Ray Reynolds, explaining the connection he felt with the four-year-old dog who’d been both lifesaver and companion. Gundlach wears a tattoo on his right forearm depicting Casey with angel wings and a halo.

Governments being governments, whether they’re state or federal, you’d expect Gundlach’s plea to get bounced around, filed away or heartlessly overlooked.

But, as reported by the Associated Press, things happened quickly.

“He’s been putting a case together for the last two months, sending me pictures,” Reynolds said. “ … It just tugged on your heart.”

Reynolds got in touch with the Iowa Elk’s Association, and it agreed to donate $8,500 to buy another dog for the fire marshal’s office.

Then, he got in touch with Gundlach, telling him that he needed to come to the state Capitol in Des Moines on Friday to plead his case before a “bureaucratic oversight committee.”

Gundlach, 25, showed up with his parents.

Reynolds told Gundlach the meeting had been delayed, but invited he and his parents to attend an Armed Services Day celebration in the rotunda.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers, military personnel and civilians were already there, and knew — unlike Gundlach — what was about to happen.

That’s when Casey appeared.

A ceremony was held in which Gov. Terry Branstad officially retired Casey from active duty, thanking her for “a job well done.”

Casey was given to Gundlach, who put his head in his hands and cried.

“It was a total surprise,” he said. “I owe her. I’ll just try to give her the best life I can.” During the 150 missions they performed together, Gundlach said Casey never missed an explosive. He credits her for making it back home safely. “I wouldn’t be here … any kids I ever had wouldn’t exist if Casey hadn’t been here,” he said.

His father, Glen Gundlach, seemed just as surprised.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “The state of Iowa, I love ‘em.”

(Photos: Charlie Neibergall / AP)

Newt’s strip club VIP card is in the mail

Newt Gingrich has been issued a lifetime VIP card by an upscale Dallas strip club, entitling him to free admission, preferred seating, free auto detailing, steak and lobster dinners and access to the the club’s “intimate members-only lounge.”

The owner of The Lodge, Dawn Rizos, thought it was the least she could do after Gingrich — who awarded, then snubbed her last year — got in touch with her again through American Solutions, his conservative “citizens action network,” sending her an unsolicited membership card and requesting a $2,000 donation.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Last year, Rizos was informed that her gentlemen’s club — doing business as DCG, Inc. — had been selected to receive one of the American Solutions “Entrepeneur of the Year” awards for is efforts to stimulate the economy.

Gingrich invited Rizos to a private dinner in Washington to receive the award, provided she made the requested $5,000 donation, which she did.

The week before the event, though, American Solutions realized they had accidentally bestowed the award on a strip club, and rescinded the invitation. The organization refunded the $5,000 to Rizos, who donated it to an animal rescue organization — specifically to create a shelter for pit bulls, which was dubbed “Newt’s Nook.”

This week, apparently not having learned from the mistake, American Solutions, under the signature of Gingrich, sent Rizos an unsolicited membership card and again asked her for money.

The letter referred to Rizos as “a key member of our American Solutions family of supporters” and added, “Will you enclose a special year-end contribution of $1,000, or even as much as $2,000, to American Solutions, Ms. Rizos?”

The letter said the money would go toward American Solution’s mission — more important than ever since “the resounding rejection of Barack Obama’s leftist ideology and governing policies on Nov. 2.”

“Thanks to  members like you, American Solutions played a critical role in helping create this year’s sea-change election,” the letter said. ”But our most important role now lies ahead of us … helping our newly elected officials lead the country to a future of jobs and prosperity.”

The letter, which carried Gingrich’s return address, included a facsimile of the membership card he said was on its way. Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, is general chairman of American Solutions.

Rizos said she will hold off making a new donation to Gingrich until they can discuss last year’s disinvitation. Instead, she said, she is sending him, at no charge, a Lifetime VIP membership card to The Lodge – with all the perks and privileges – which the club says is worth $2,000.

“His letter included an American Solutions membership card with my name on it, so I’m very happy to reciprocate,” she said. “It’s just a temporary card right now, but I promise we will have the permanent one waiting for him at the door.”

(Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be construed as suggesting Newt Gingrich has ever been to The Lodge. But Ace and I have.)

Salvation Mountain: A heap of commitment

Between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains — in what may sound, and look, like a space you’d land on in the old board game Candyland — there was a man, and a mountain, I needed to check in on.

About 12 years had passed since I first visited Salvation Mountain — Leonard Knight’s massive, hand-painted monument to God. I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, fond of seeking out stories in the middle of nowhere. He was 67 by then, and had spent almost 15 years constructing his mountain out of hay, tires, adobe and more than 100,000 gallons of paint.

What struck me then was his incredible commitment to the task. What struck me this time is how, even after finding a modicum of fame, what with his own book and DVD and his appearance in the movie, “Into the Wild,” his determination and focus remain — not on himself, not on getting rich, but on the mountain, its maintenance and its continued survival.

Leonard, at 79, is still at it.

He can’t hear too well. His eyes are going bad. He walks with a pronounced limp, and he can no longer lift the hay bales he uses as bricks, or to mix up adobe, to fashion his ever-expanding monument.

While volunteers still drop by to make donations and help with the labor from time to time, on this particular day — Thanksgiving — he was alone.

“Have a seat,” he said, shifting over to the next chair. A blanket was stretched across posts to block out a relentless wind. For the desert, in November, temperatures were chilly. Leonard, wearing paint-spattered khakis, kept his hands stuffed in his jacket as Ace sniffed at the conglomeration of items in the back of his pick up truck.

Salvation Mountain looked much like it did 12 years ago — bright, bold and scripture-laden. But it’s far more famous now, with everyone from National Geographic to Ripley’s Believe it or Not finding it worthy of note.  And after Leonard and the mountain were featured in ”Into the Wild,” the 2007 movie based on the travels and eventual death in the Alaskan wilderness of Chris McCandless, interest in his monument rose again.

Even so, he said, maintaining the mountain, much less working on more recent additions — including a “museum” area that wasn’t there the last time I dropped by — has become a strain. The volunteers seemed fewer this year. Leonard blamed the weather. “The summer was too hot, the winter’s too cold, or it’s just too windy, like it is today. You can’t paint on a day like today.”

Crazy as the weather has been, it’s still better than his native Vermont, he said.

Knight was one of four children, born in Burlington, Vermont. He never liked school, got teased a lot, and dropped out in the 10th grade. In 1951, he joined the Army, was trained as a mechanic and got sent to Korea.

Upon his return, he worked as a mechanic in Vermont, supplementing his income by picking apples, which helped him raise enough money to make trips to Caliornia to visit his sister. He treasured the trips, except for the fact that she would make him go to church.

Leonard hated church, and religion, and God, at that point in his life, and he figured the feeling was mutual. “I wasn’t doin’ nothing that God would be pleased with,” he has pointed out.

During one visit, after an argument with his sister, he stomped out and sat in his truck. There in the driver’s seat — for reasons he can’t explain — he found himself saying, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart” over and over again.  Jesus, he says, did.

For the first time in his life, Leonard had a sense of direction — and it would be, as it turned out, a very strange direction.

In 1971, still in Vermont, he noticed a hot air balloon one day, advertising a brand of beer.

What if, he thought, he could market God similarly? He began researching and seeking materials to build a hot air balloon, and praying to God to help provide them, but for nine years it remained a distant and unreachable dream.

On a cross-country trip in 1980, he had engine trouble in Nebraska, and had to spend several days there. The mechanic working on his truck offered to help with the balloon project. They got a bargain on some material, and, for three years, Leonard stayed in Nebraska and sewed.

Not one to do things on a small scale, Knight stitched together a balloon that was 200 feet high, 100 feet wide, and built a burner, complete with fans, to help fill the balloon.

The balloon never got off the ground, though. When he came to the desert in Niland, California to make a final attempt to launch it, he discovered the material was rotted.

It was then, in 1985, his 14-year quest to launch a God is Love balloon over — that he decided to build a small replica of the balloon, in the middle of the desert, out of adobe. He planned to stay for a week in Slab City — a makeshift community of desert-dwelling loners, snowbirds, RV’ers and on-the-verge of homelessness types.

But what started as an 8-foot sculpture would become Salvation Mountain, rising about three stories high, an accumulation of tires and other junk salvaged and donated, coated with adobe and brightly painted with flowing rivers, budding flowers, a yellow brick road and Bible scripture –all topped by a big white cross.

It’s a constantly evolving work, and, as you might expect, it has fallen victim to both structural collapses and government bureaucracy, at both the county and state levels.

When state-conducted tests found contaminants in the soil, they blamed Leonard and his paint.

Leonard had his own tests done that proved otherwise.

County supervisors backed off their threats to shut him down, but by then all the free publicity from the controversy had added to the mountain’s legendariness.

Today, the mountain is more likely to be referred to as a work of folk art than an environmental hazard, and even though the mountain is a squatter — an unauthorized work on public land — Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2002 afforded it some protection when she entered it into the Congressional Record as a national treasure.

Leonard lives on the grounds of his masterpiece. He beds down for the night in a small cabin mounted on his 1930s-era fire truck, which like every other vehicle in his compound, be it tractor or bus, is covered with painted-on Bible scripture.

He works on it everyday, weather permitting. A newer ”museum” wing, still under construction, features a tree whose base was created from tires and adobe, and whose branches he cut from dead and fallen trees nearby. He hauled them to the mountain, and bolted them on, painted them and added flowers, which he says are easily made by punching your fist in a mound of adobe not yet dried.

Leonard urged me to go take a look at the addition, and apologized for not making it a guided tour. His leg was bothering him. Ace wasn’t sure what to make of it. He explored its nooks and crannies, and, back at the main mountain, climbed up the yellowbrick road path to near the top.

When I returned and took a seat next to Leonard, he gave me a DVD of a documentary about the mountain, “A Lifetime of Childlike Faith,” and a Salvation Mountain magnet. I asked him what his plans were for Thanksgiving dinner and he said some friends were bringing him some turkey.

Leonard gave Ace a final pat on the head, and we said goodbye to the old man who lives in the desert, having learned, or relearned, at least two things.

One is that there’s a thin and sometimes not immediately discernable line between visionary and nut job, so be careful who you call a nut.

The other is that — however eccentric Leonard Knight may be, and no matter what your feelings are on God — faith can indeed  move mountains.

Or even build them.

Impotently roaming through Canada

We took the shortcut John Steinbeck couldn’t.

And it wasn’t because he didn’t have Mapquest. It was because he had a dog.

Steinbeck, once seeing Niagara Falls, had hoped to scoot west across southern Ontario, re-entering the U.S. at Michigan. But Canadian border officials told him that, while Charley was welcome in Canada, the author might have some problems getting his poodle back into the U.S.

Steinbeck lacked papers documenting that Charley was vaccinated against rabies, and — 1960 being pre-email, pre-fax — getting sent an instant copy wasn’t a possibility. His only choice, other than waiting on the U.S. mail, would have been to drive back into America and get Charley re-vaccinated.

So he opted to turn around. Even that proved problematic. While he never got through the gate to Canada, he got a good grilling once he was back at the entrance to the U.S., and, from the sound of it, got it bit frustrated with the U.S. officials. Steinbeck didn’t like government bureaucracies. “Government can make you feet so small and mean that it takes some doing to build back a sense of self-importance.”

Ace and I on the other hand would have no problem on either end. I had his paperwork, but wasn’t asked for it at any point.

We zipped right through Ontario, traveling less than four hours, and under 200 miles, as opposed to the seven hours and more than 400 miles it would have taken had we stayed in the U.S., veering south and north again.

The scenery, once we got outside of Niagara Falls, wasn’t much different than what Pennsylvania and Ohio would have offered — a lot of the same flat land and fast food franchises. The only real difference was the money and the metric system. I stopped for some 99-cent gas — even though I knew it was that much per liter. And even though it cost about the same to fill my tank, it still felt good to get something — ephemeral as it was — for under a dollar.

I popped inside the gas station to get some cigarettes, and asked when I didn’t see the standard racks of them behind the counter. The employee pulled open a big drawer — law requires them to be kept out of view — revealing numerous brands I’d never heard of in funny boxes. I asked her what was cheap.

She recommended “Next.” I paid in American, got change in Canadian. The pack’s government-required warning — one of several really hard-hitting ones — showed a burned cigarette, with all its ash hanging on, though in a very limp manner, and a written reminder that the cigarettes I intended to smoke could make me impotent.

That not being a big factor in my life right now, I lit one up. They were shorter than American cigarettes, which is how America would want it, but there are more to the pack.

I would have liked to spend a night in Ontario, smoking my Nexts, and the only reason I didn’t was fear of big roaming charges if I got on my phone or my computer.

Leave it to America to come up with roaming charges (I’m assuming we invented them). What’s next? Freedom fees. Wanderlust taxes? Curiosity tolls? America seems to like us to stay put and spend money, and if we go somewhere, have a destination and reach it, thruway style. Do what the GPS lady says. Don’t you dare stray from the path. Stay within the parameters of your network.

I’m sure there are good reasons for roaming fees, I just don’t like the name. The word “fees” should just not be attached to a concept as free and wide open as “roaming.”

I feel a song coming on:

Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam (fees may apply)

And the deer and the antelope text.

As a society, partly because of our increasing tendency to take directions from computers, we have grown less likely to be vacilando. It’s a Spanish word, from the verb vacilar. As Steinbeck notes in Travels With Charley: “If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there.”

Steinbeck said there is no English equivalent for the Spanish word. I would argue “roaming” comes pretty close, though.

Vacilando as we’ve been on our journey, we didn’t wander much in Ontario, and managed to get to Sarnia and the U.S. entry gate just as the sun was going down. There was no search, there were no seizures, just a flash of the passport, a peek at the dog and a few polite questions about whether I’d purchased anything in Canada (“Just these funny little cigarettes,” I replied).

We stopped for the night right there — in Port Huron — and took off the next morning for the other side of Michigan and step two of our shortcut: a ferry ride across Lake Michigan.

Change — spare, and otherwise

With the weatherman saying it would be noon before the torrential storms that have soaked the east coast arrived in Portland, Ace and I squeezed in a quick visit to the city’s waterfront early Friday.

My hope was to get there early enough to see some fishing boats coming in, maybe some loaded with lobster, 40 million pounds a year of which are harvested off the coast of Maine before making their way to bib-clad diners in fancy restaurants. But, seafood-wise, there wasn’t much going on.

So, taking in the sounds and smells of a city waking up and getting down to business, we walked down some wharves and alleyways as the sun came up — though it did so all but hidden by layers of grey clouds, some passing so low it seemed you could reach up and grab a handful.

Only a few souls were on the streets, one of whom, an employee at the Porthole Restaurant, saw Ace, then went back inside, returning with a handful of sausage balls.

In addition to those giving handouts, there were those seeking them, including the woman above who — treatless though she was — Ace quickly befriended, partly curious, I’d guess, about what might be under her blanket, partly, I’d like to think, because it looked like she needed a friend.

It being the first of the month, her rent was due. She didn’t have it. So she made a sign, grabbed a blanket, took a seat on the ritzy side of the street and hoped for the best.

We contributed $4 to the cause before wandering on. Following a sweet smell in the air, we walked down to the Standard Bakery, next to a Hilton. I had a cup of coffee while Ace stationed himself in a position not too far from the door, in case somebody came out with spare croissant, or spare scone.

Like the lone pigeon wandering the bakery parking lot — that showed some street smarts, I thought — Ace had no luck.

Plenty of upscaling has gone on in Portland’s Old Port District, as it has in harbors and riverfronts across America. As in Baltimore’s glitzy Inner Harbor, panhandlers — showing some street smarts, as well —  occasionally sneak in, as if to remind us of the incongruity of it all.

Unlike in Baltimore, Portland’s waterfront remains a working one — at least on one side of Commercial Street. On one side, former warehouses are now home to boutiques, restaurants and bars; on the wharf side, condos and cruise ships have joined the soggy blue- collar fishing operations.

Maine’s not an easy state to survive — much less prosper — in. The state government itself, like most, is having hard times. Just yesterday, the governor announced $10 million in spending cuts, mostly in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The cuts would not result in layoffs, the state said, or in a significant cutback to people currently receiving services — which sounds like a pretty good trick.

“What we have done is tried to absorb in programs funding that we otherwise would have used to expand or increase the program, because as you all know, we have significant demand on services,” DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey said.

I’ve read that sentence four times, and still don’t understand it.

Meanwhile, due to the poor economy, the number of people waiting for services– in nearly all the department’s programs — just keeps growing.

With many of its biggest industries being seasonal — potatoes, lobster, blueberries (the state produces more than 95 percent of them) – hard times are nothing new in Maine, leading it to turn to tourism to fill in the gaps.

An expansion of its casino industry is also being looked at. Maine voters will decide in November on a proposed $165 million casino and resort in the western part of the state.

In 2003, voters approved slot machines at a racetrack, now known as Hollywood Slots, in Bangor. Since then they’ve rejected three casino referendums. This time around, who knows? They might decide it’s the best way to weather the economic storm.

As Ace, the pigeon and the down-on-her luck tenant could tell you, you do what you have to do.

(To see all of “Travels with Ace,” click here.)

Pawlitical appointment

They call Hewitt the sixth member of the Snohomish County Council  — and, some suspect, he may be the most energetic and charming one of the bunch.

The county council in Washington state actually has five members, but Hewitt, a black and brown terrier mix, has been a fixture in the council’s eighth-floor office for more than a year, the Daily Herald reports.

Hewitt belongs to County Councilman Dave Somers, who was headed home from work about two years ago when two men pulled alongside in a pickup truck and asked him to take their dog.

“The guy says, ‘Be good to him, give him a good home,’” Somers, who already had three dogs, recalled. ”Then they took a left, and they were gone.”

The councilman drove to an animal clinic, where, when asked for the dog’s name, he responded “Hewitt” — the name of the street he was on when the dog was handed over.

After a few months, Somers started bringing Hewitt to work with him — because, he says, the dog liked people so much.

“He could stay at home, but he’s just so much fun,” Somers said. “He enjoys us, and he fits right in. So we’ve settled into a routine here.”

(Photo by Dan Bates / The Herald)

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