How to Tell One Robax from Another

I have a sore back. It’s something that hits me once or twice a year due to a problem with lower back spasms. This time it’s been going on for more than a week, which is unusual. Today I was almost completely incapacitated, which is very unusual given that two days ago I thought I was almost over it.

The go-to drugs for back pain are the collection of Robax drugs. Those are the ones you see advertised on TV with the wooden dolls dancing around after they get a pin taken out of their backs. Well, they help me a bit, but not much. Even after taking a pile of Robax pills I still feel like there’s a dagger in my kidney.

There’s a reason for this sad lament: a sadder lament and a bit of information that you might find helpful.

Here in Canada we have not caught up to the U.S. when it comes to over-the-counter drug packaging. Go do a Rite-Aid or a Duane Reade in the U.S. and check out the pills. The packages very clearly state what are the active ingredients, and even more clearly state the dosages. It’s writ large and clear, in a design that has clearly been vetted by UX designers. Bravo!

U.S. package. Easy to read!

But go into a Pharmaprix or a Shoppers Drug Mart or a Jean Coutu in Canada and check out the same pills. Yes, the information is there, but it’s written in 4 point Helvetica in a block of text with no line breaks or spacing or any other cues to help you quickly make sense of it. Plus it’s in two languages, and given how unreadable it is, it’s like two foreign languages.

Canadian packaging. WTF?

So when I went to a Jean Coutu last week to get some back relief, I was faced with the same problem I’m always faced with. A wall of pills that all look the same and have the same basic names but it takes a good amount of study and ideally an internet connection to sort out which is the one you should buy. This time, however, I finally managed to figure out the difference between the three different types of Robax back pills. And now for your reading pleasure I preset that information to you, in plain English, the way it should – but isn’t – on the package.

Note: the one thing they all have in common is methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant. The difference lies in what pain reliever they’re married to, if any.

  • Robaxin: methocarbamol only.
  • Robaxacet: methocarbamol and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Robaxisal: methocarbamol and acetylsalicylic acid (ASA, or Aspirin).
  • Robax Platinum: methocarbamol and ibuprofin (Advil).

That’s it. It’s that simple, although some are also available in “extra strength” dosages. In that case it’s only the pain reliever that’s “extra strength,” not the methocarbamol.

But wait! For some reason, the standard dosage of methocarbamol is 400 mg. That is, unless you’re buying straight Robaxin, in which case it’s 500 mg. Or Robax Platinum, which has the standard dosage of ipuprophen (200 mg) and 500 mg of methocarbamol. There is no reasonable explanation for this difference.

However, you should know that if you already have ASA, acetaminophen, or ibuprofin in your medicine chest, you need only buy Robaxin. Because there is absolutely no difference between taking one Robaxin plus one Advil, and taking one Robax Platinum. Similarly, the only difference between one Robaxin plus a Tylenol and one Robaxacet is you get a bit more methocarbamol in the former case.

In my case, I find Robaxin with acetaminophen (or Robaxacet) does the trick for me, at least for muscle pain. If I take Robaxisal, I need to supplement it with Tylenol, which means I’m taking ASA that I don’t need. We have tons of acetaminophen already, so what I really should be buying is straight-up Robaxin and just take them with a couple of Tylenols.

This next bit should be a separate blog post…

While I’m on the topic of drug dosages, you should familiarize yourself with a few standard dosages. For example, the standard acetaminophen (Tylenol) pill contains 325 mg of active ingredient. The “Extra Strength” ones contain 500 mg. If you take three regular ones you’re getting 975 mg, which is pretty much exactly the same as the 1000 mg you’d get if you took two Extra Strength ones.

You might think all of this is really obvious, but I’m shocked at how often I meet people who have no idea what’s in the pills they take, and who believe silly things like “regular Tylenols don’t help me at all! Only the Extra Strength ones work!”

No. Read the labels. Hopefully we’ll learn from our neighbours to the south and the labels will one day be clearer.

Now go take a pill.

Me and Merguez Sausage

Merguez sausage is one of those things I should like, but don’t really. But why not? Tasty lamb meat spiced with harissa and other goodies then stuffed into slender tubes. Bring it on! But for some reason I find that merguez sausages never quite deliver the kind of sausagy goodness I regularly get from Italian sausages, smoked “farmer’s sausage,” and zingy bratwurst.

Let’s be clear; I don’t dislike the merguez. I just don’t love ’em as much as I expect to. I’m thinking about this because I had merguez sausages for dinner tonight (which, as usual, I liked but didn’t love). It brought to mind the first time I had a merguez sausage. Oh, you want to hear about that? Sure thing. Read on.

It was late October, 1993. I was in St-Tropez, in the south of France, by myself, taking photographs for a travel guide. I’d been on the road for six weeks and hadn’t had a home-cooked meal or even much of a conversation with anyone since I’d left Montreal. All I knew about St-Tropez before I got there was that I didn’t belong and that I saw Rachel from Another World go there “to escape,” back when I was a teenager home from school with the flu and we had only two channels on television.

My resources were meagre (this wasn’t a high paying job) so when it came time for lunch I skipped the fancy cafés along the quais (deserted as they were – remember this was late October) and looked for something more modest. Near a small square I found a sandwich kiosk that was open, a rare thing this long after the tourist season. The only thing he sold was grilled merguez sausages on chunks of baguette, which at the time seemed rather perfect.

So I ordered one, along with a can of Coca-Cola. The grumpy proprietor, who said not a word to me but sighed audibly at least four times, placed two red merguez sausages on an electric grill for approximately five seconds, then dropped them into a split piece of yesterday’s baguette. No mustard, no sauce. That, with the cola, came to something like 80 Francs, which I remember translated to about $12 Canadian. (Remember, that was almost 20 years ago.)

I ate it. It was tasty enough but really could have used some mustard and another five minutes on the grill. Whatever, I moved on, eating better and spending less in other towns down the line (Fréjus, Cannes, Nice, Manosque, Apt, and then the long road back to Paris).

Since then I’ve had merguez sausages many times, usually as part of a couscous royale. It’s never bad. It’s never great. But I keep trying. Perhaps what I need to do is revisit the original situation, even if only in spirit. I need to grill a couple of fresh merguez sausages – for at least five minutes – and put them on a fresh chunk of split bread (something softer than a baguette) along with an enormous blob of Dijon mustard. And I should open a cold beer to go with it (perhaps a crisp and crackling summer lager). Maybe that would re-boot my perception or at least boot out my prejudice.

Name Plates in the Cube Farm

I once worked in an office environment that was a vast array of cubicles, and every cubicle had a name plate to identify the cube’s inhabitant. There were two kinds of name plates available; one type was a free-standing A-frame of the type you see on executive desks that say “The Buck Stops Here” and the other type was a flat frame that clipped to the cubicle wall.

From my perspective, the free-standing ones were more useful. You could put it on top of your cubicle’s shelf unit, and anyone within 50 feet could see it and know where you were sitting. That’s very useful for helping new employees figure out who’s who and who’s where, and for locating someone in a part of the cube farm that you’re not familiar with.

The flat ones were less useful, as you could only really see them when you were within a few feet of the person’s cube. In other words, you had to begin your search with pretty tight parameters, such as “third floor, north wing, fifth row” which is a lot more complicated than just “third floor, north wing,” or “near where Bob sits,” or even “over there” if you’re already in the north wing.

Given that I’m in the business of helping people figure things out and do things, I much preferred the free-standing name plates that could be seen from afar. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my colleagues – in some cases people in the same line of work as me – preferred the flat ones. I thought about this for a while and eventually realized that name plates perform another function that I hadn’t considered before. They are territorial markers.

Not being one to lay much territorial claim to a cubicle, this had escaped me at first. After all, I didn’t put any personal photographs or art projects or any other significant “me” markers around. (Exception: I pinned a cartoon that I’ve been carrying around for 15 years on the wall, along with a slip of paper on which was written my verbal mantra, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”) Because really, I’m happy to show up every day and to do good work, but I don’t want to move in.

However, some of the cubicles around me were overflowing with photos, children’s doodles, plants, gizmos, knick-knacks, and other personal detritus. (There’s a good article on CNN about this phenomenon.) Whatever. It’s your cubicle dude, you can decorate it as you like. But the name plate is there to help people find you.

What really drove home that these were territorial markers was when I noticed some people had their name plates inside their cubicles, where only people in the cubicle could see them.

Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes people just don’t think things through. But I brought this up a few times with a few people – doing so casually so as not to raise defenses – and the response was always along the lines of “whatever, it’s how I like it,” as if the location of your name plate was purely a matter of personal preference, like the color of your socks. When I pressed them on the issue of people needing to find them they’d say something like “if people want to find me all they need to do is ask!” (Insert mental “GONG” sound here…)

I’ll let you ponder that. In the meantime, I’m deleting a lot of text that I had written–stuff along the lines of this being so territorial it’s like a declaration of war – because I try not to be judgemental. Let’s just say that if you don’t understand what the purpose of a cubicle name plate is, you probably don’t understand a lot of other things you need to know to do your job right, especially if you’re in the same line of work as me.

Here’s a picture in case you were reading too fast.


Due to overwhelming demand in the comments, here is the cartoon that I’ve been carrying around for 15 or so years. OK, maybe it’s eight years. Or nine. No, at least nine. Maybe 12… It’s my “justify your existence” mantra, and in a way it relates to the name plate issue:

(For more like this, check out Ted Goff’s website:

Michael Ruhlman’s Tomato Basil Pasta with Tomato Butter

I heard about this recipe some time ago, and when I found it on Ruhlman’s web site I vowed to make it as soon as possible. Weeks passed. Months. Finally, a few weeks ago I gave it a shot and wow, I can’t believe I waited so long. This recipe is very easy to make and is packed with delicious flavor. The sauce is a buttery reduction of tomato water, and it’s topped with raw fresh tomatoes and basil, making it essentially salsa cruda but with the richness of a butter sauce. Super summery, and super delicious!

spaghetti with tomato butter

Ruhlman’s original recipe yields four servings. I have adjusted it for two, and made a few other small modifications (for example, I don’t use quite as much butter). I also clarified the instructions. This seems like a good time to post this, as apparently tomato water is “in” again.


  • Use truly ripe and juicy tomatoes; preferably not roma. Ironically, romas are typically best for sauce because of their lower moisture level, but for this recipe you want tomatoes that are quite watery.
  • You will need a fine strainer (preferably hand-held). Also a whisk (although a spoon will do in a pinch).

Michael Ruhlman’s Tomato Basil Pasta with Tomato Butter (Blork version)

Yield: 2 servings.


  • 2 or 3 ripe and juicy tomatoes, large dice
  • 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt
  • 180 g spaghetti
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, sliced thin or minced – whichever you prefer (preferably fresh and juicy, not the cheap stuff from China)
  • About 1/2 cup of basil, sliced into ribbons
  • olive oil as needed
  • 40 g cold butter, cut into three chunks (Note: if you think that only the good die young, and you feel like a badass, use 50+ g butter)


  1. Put the diced tomatoes in a non-reactive bowl big enough to fit it comfortably and be able to stir without spilling. Mince a pinch of the basil and add it to the tomatoes. Season with the salt, toss well, and cover. Ideally you should let this sit on the counter for a couple of hours, but in a pinch 30 minutes will do.
  2. Put a big pot of salted water on to boil.
  3. Cook the pasta, drain it, and put it back in the pot. Oil the pasta to keep it from sticking to itself.
  4. In the meantime (3 or 4 minutes before the pasta is done) heat a bit of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the garlic and cook it until it is just beginning to soften (a couple of minutes). Do not brown it!
  5. Hold the hand strainer over the pan and dump the tomatoes into it so the water flows through the strainer and into the pan. Shake to get all the water into the pan, then return the tomatoes to the bowl.
  6. Whisk the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Add the butter one piece at a time while continuing to whisk.  Keep the sauce moving until all the butter is melted.  Turn off the heat. (As you’re doing this, give the pasta an occasional shake to make sure it isn’t sticking.)
  7. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat evenly.
  8. Divide the pasta among two bowls. Top with the tomatoes and basil, scratch on a bit of freshly ground pepper, and serve. (Note: do not use Parmesan cheese with this dish.)