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title Up Front

May 13, 2002 Issue Full Text

by Colby Cosh

Please leave 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 Amin."

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 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!".

Frantic frenectomy fracas

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: outpatient surgery.

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?

Today 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 judge.

Keeping abreast

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.

Big drug 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 deal.

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 world.

Duly Noted

Double 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.

In other 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 calls, too.

A small 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.

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