by Colby Cosh
the puck man alone
Poor Orlando Boni. When you're the world's leading manufacturer of
portable hockey-puck shooting machines, you get a lot of strange phone
calls. "Whenever some goaltender turns in a stellar performance, I get all
kinds of people calling me who say they want to learn his style," says the
70-year-old craftsman from his Toronto factory. "One guy told me he was
some kind of wizard who could make things disappear, and he wanted to buy
a machine and 'practise' on pucks. Another one told me he was a karate
expert and swore he could catch a flying puck with a pair of pliers.
Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me anymore if I got a call from Idi
Recently, though, he got a call that did surprise him. Some
enterprising westerner said he had a 14-year-old son training as a goalie,
and he wanted to know if the standard model, the Boni Porta-Puck, was
capable of firing a puck at 500 feet per second. "500 feet per second?"
Mr. Boni says incredulously. "That's 340 miles an hour! Even our
custom-enhanced machines don't go any higher than 110 or 120. I told the
guy, if you want your son to try stopping something that moves that fast,
buy an M-16."
More cryptic calls followed, all of them mentioning the mysterious
figure of 500 feet per second. Up Front was happy to clear up Mr. Boni's
vexation. After reading of Brian Buckley's whimsical attempt to register a
Black & Decker heat gun with the Canadian Firearms Centres (see our
story "Register this!" Apr. 15), opponents of the federal gun registry are
looking for more ways to sow confusion. Unfortunately, the Boni
Porta-Puck, popular though it is, does not throw its rubber projectiles at
anywhere near 500 feet per second, which is the defining boundary for a
"firearm" under the Criminal Code and the Firearms Act. As a public
service, we therefore discourage our readers from calling Mr. Boni for the
purposes of (otherwise wholly laudable) political subversion. He insists
he is much too busy.
On the other hand, if you just want to check out goalie trainers and
other interesting mechanical equipment for hockey players, by all means
have a gander at http://www.boni.com/. The quest for
unorthodox "firearms" is probably the second most unusual request Mr. Boni
has had. The first was the call he got a few years ago from NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. "I wasn't convinced it was legit until I got a fax
from the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maine," he says. "Turns out they
wanted something that could fire weather densitometers into orbit from a
spacecraft, and the densitometers were shaped just like pucks."
Unfortunately, they couldn't work out a way to make the Porta-Puck work in
a zero-G environment. But today, somewhere in the files, there is a NASA
patent with "Special thanks to Orlando Boni for technical assistance" on
it. "Imagine," he says, "me, a consultant to NASA!".
The Baltimore Sun reports April 13 on a craze sweeping South
Korea, where parents are eager to have their children taught good English
as a mark of status and a career kick-start. The subtle consonantal
distinction between "r" and "l" is absent in Korean, as in other Asian
languages--a source of much mirth among Anglophones in the days when cheap
ethnic jokes were still permitted. But it is no laughing matter to the
achievement-oriented Koreans, who believe their difficulty with "r" and
"l" actually comes from having shorter tongues. The preferred solution:
As reporter Barbara Demick points out, the western world is full of
second-generation Korean immigrants who go from "rice" to "lice" and back,
flawlessly. But that hasn't hindered a booming trade in "frenectomy," an
operation in which the membrane under the tongue is cut back. For some
children who are literally "tongue-tied," the surgery really is necessary.
But a persistent folk belief among Korean parents that westerners have
different tongues has sent thousands of parents to ear, nose and throat
men to have the frenectomy done, unnecessarily but harmlessly, for amounts
ranging from US$230 to US$400. Could they simply be taking the phrase "a
foreign tongue" too literally?
Bulgaria, tomorrow the world?
Cal State Fullerton economist Edward Castronova has discovered that
Norrath is the 77th richest country in the world, with an economy slightly
larger than Bulgaria's. No, don't bother checking your atlas: Norrath
doesn't exist. But its economy is real. Confused? Norrath is the "virtual"
setting of Sony's on-line game Everquest--or, as devotees and detractors
have dubbed it because of its addictive nature, EverCrack.
The game takes place in a fully realized Tolkien-style fictional world.
This world has its own currency, which players are supposed to acquire
through skill: off-line "trading" of items for real money is formally
forbidden. In practice, it goes on constantly. Prof. Castronova calculated
the black-market "exchange rate" for Norrath's currency by monitoring eBay
and other auction sites. "The nominal hourly wage is about US$3.42 per
hour," he writes tongue-in-cheek. "A unit of Norrath's currency is traded
on exchange markets at US$0.0107, higher than the yen and the lira."
Whether these findings reflect on the nature of on-line commerce, or of
Bulgaria, or of economists themselves, the reader alone can
Improbable but true: silicone breast implants, absent from the surgical
marketplace since 1992, are making a big comeback. Because of the crazy
legal climate in the U.S., doctors still will not do silicone implants
there: they are using the more common, and less "realistic," saline ones.
But in Canada, where tort law is not yet a ubiquitous pestilence, the
federal health ministry has cleared new-generation silicone enhancers that
are less likely to rupture than the notorious older ones. Plastic surgeon
Walter Peters told the CBC that the new gel is "very, very thick" and
would not migrate within the body, even if the membranous wall of the
implant broke apart.
Some continue to insist, in the face of a yawning void of evidence,
that unruptured silicone implants are a health hazard--that the silicone
itself is dangerous. One CBC interviewee called it a "silent epidemic" and
complained of "breathing problems, infections and chronic fatigue." What,
no scrofula? It is odd that people have to find reasons to object to
narcissistic self-mutilation. Still, at least we are ahead of the
Americans in one technological, er, sphere.
shoulders out big tobacco
In February, Alberta increased the provincial tax on a pack of
cigarettes by $2.25 in one fell swoop. This made Alberta's tobacco tax the
highest in the country and provoked similar increases in B.C. and
Saskatchewan. Suddenly a lot of people in these provinces seem to be
chewing nicotine gum rather furiously, or worrying like a mangy dog at
nicotine patches on their arms. There is no question the tax hike has
caused plenty of people to kick the filthy habit, although it has made
nonsense of Ralph Klein's reputation as a tax fighter.
The obvious beneficiary of the hike is Mr. Klein's government, whose
revenues are expected to increase by $281 million this fiscal year as a
consequence of it. But let us not forget the peddlers of the gum, the
patch and other remedies. The Calgary Sun (April 21) recently wrote
that Calgary pharmacies cannot even keep anti-smoking remedies in stock:
one druggist said that demand for such products had doubled.
A correspondent notes that drug companies plow money into the Alberta
Tobacco Reduction Alliance (ATRA), which is primarily funded by Alberta
Health and serves as a lobby group, information clearing house and
anti-tobacco propaganda unit. Partners in the Alliance include
GlaxoSmithKline ($5,000 in 2001-02), Boehringer Ingelheim ($2,000),
Aventis Pharma, and Pharmacia ($1,000). Coincidentally, Glaxo makes the
smoking-cessation drug Zyban, Boehringer markets the QuitCare cessation
program, and Pharmacia recently reacquired the Canadian rights to
Nicorette gum and the Nicoderm patch from Aventis, which entered into
marketing partnerships with Pharmacia on other drugs under the
The Alberta government paid ATRA a lot more than that--$1 million in
the last fiscal year--for the privilege of being convinced to introduce a
quarter-billion dollar tax grab. It is unclear why they needed the
convincing, but that is still a nice return on investment. Judging from
the empty drugstore shelves, though, the pharmaceutical companies might
have done even better for their paltry few thousand.
The cure for
all earthly ills
Turning to another corner of our pharmaceutical society, Up Front
recently spotted one of those news items too sad for fiction to rival. In
late March, a pharmacist from Pleasant Hill, California, named Jamey
Sheets became depressed over a state investigation that had led to a
90-day suspension of his licence to practise. A pharmacy co-owned by
Sheets had been connected to a batch of steroids which had infected
several people with meningitis, killing three of them. One day, Sheets
took home dermal patches containing a powerful painkiller, slapped on six
of them and waited for death. His body was found by his wife.
One of the things which attracts students to the practice of pharmacy
is control over the means of pain and pleasure, and indeed of life and
death. Sheets' death highlights a well-known but not much studied
phenomenon: the prevalence of suicide among people who have easy access to
the means. Dentists and psychiatrists are sometimes said to be especially
prone, but in fact all health practitioners are at particular risk, as are
farmers (who usually have guns, poisons and veterinary drugs about).
British data on the incidence of suicide among various occupations
(1982-92) placed veterinarians at the highest risk among men, followed by
pharmacists, dentists, farmers, forestry workers and physicians. Women do
not take their own lives often enough to provide such a clear picture of
the various risks, but even on the distaff side, doctors, vets, paramedics
and pharmacists were four of the top five.
Ironically, pharmacists are slowly being co-opted into a social
movement toward "assisted suicide" for the ill and infirm, as variously
defined. Yet in the other ear we hear continual pleadings about the
abhorrence of suicide and the need to prevent it. Funny old
murderer Raymond Tudor has been on the loose from the Drumheller
Institution since March 25, and the Calgary Herald has revealed
(April 25) just how the devious master criminal was able to make good his
escape. It appears he walked out the front door. According to "sources
close to the investigation," the 48-year-old Tudor appears to have shaved
off a long beard, blended in with visitors and waltzed right out of the
medium-security prison--but not before nearly signing his real name to a
logbook. (This is medium security? What does minimum security look
like?) Tudor robbed and killed two Calgary senior citizens in 1994 and
1995. We're sure Correctional Service commissioner Lucie McClung will
apologize sincerely to your family if you happen to be next.
A new study
by the Health Services Utilization and Research Commission of Saskatchewan
has confirmed the principle that for medical procedures, high volumes mean
better outcomes, and therefore small rural hospitals mean worse treatment.
The study compared death rates in communities that lost hospitals in the
1993-94 cutbacks to those that kept theirs. It found that death rates
dropped, significantly, in the towns that "suffered" hospital closures.
Small rural hospitals, as a rule, tend to stand in the way of surgical
expertise, because the practitioners do not get a chance to do the same
procedure as frequently as they would otherwise. But, of course, "caring"
healthcare unions scream murder when a hospital is shut down,
anywhere--particularly in B.C., where the cost-cutting Campbell government
is now closing three hospitals and fending off the outrage of the people
whose lives those closures may save.
health news, researchers at the University of Western Ontario have
surveyed physicians and found more evidence of physician hostility toward
walk-in clinics. According to the Toronto Star, a focus group of
family doctors complained that they were often asked for second opinions
on diagnoses made in the clinics. The clinics, they say, have "evolved
from being a place to find urgent, after-hours care into a convenient
alternative to a scheduled appointment with a family doctor." In other
words, patients are responding to convenience, giving up on overbooked
family physicians and questioning what their doctors tell them. We can't
have all that, now can we? Perhaps the richest Star quote comes
from Dr. Philip Berger, head of family medicine at St. Michael's Hospital:
"The problem," he says, "could be eliminated if doctors agreed to be on
call outside office hours." Sure. And maybe they'll go back to doing house
plane struck the Pirelli building in Milan on April 18, killing pilot
Luigi Fasulo and two persons inside the tower. Italian officials initially
tried to quell panic by announcing that the incident was accidental. This
seemed rather a lot to swallow: not only had the plane "accidentally" just
happened to strike the tallest office building in all Italy, but it also
"accidentally" hit it dead centre. Eventually authorities were forced to
reveal that Fasulo was a wealthy man who had been "duped" out of his
fortune by a "band of swindlers," according to La Repubblica. His
family, as families will at such times, continued to lobby for the earlier
theory that it was an accident. Displaying an admirable cold-bloodedness
(it is easy to forget that Fasulo is, in death, a murderer as well as a
suicide), the regional president of Lombardy, Roberto Formigioni, quipped,
"Oh, it wasn't suicide? Then we'll call it a 'voluntary collision.'" They
still do some things better in Europe: one of them is sarcasm.