‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

saxophoneIn the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Jason Gencher

University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine

Class of 2018

@jasongencher

Trumpet Plastic Surgery

tiger trumpetThe world of instrument making is a peculiar blend of tradition and innovation. Once a good design is found, it’s rare for major modifications to occur. The big names we have heard of, Stradivarius violins (or as Homer Simpson says, “Strada-who-vious?”), or Steinway grands, are physically quite similar to their ancestors – a quality openly sought by musicians who buy these makes. More often, the innovation occurs from within the constraints of the traditional form of the instrument. We’ve switched out the cat gut for more resilient plastics (though you can still find the purist who swears by the older string type), and moved away from wooden piano frames, which has resulted in much fewer pianos spontaneously collapsing, releasing their strings, bound so tightly they could cleanly remove a finger. It’s therefore rare to come across a trumpet that’s almost completely made of plastic.

The “tiger trumpet”, a plastic trumpet that comes in a variety of vibrant colours, is the latest in a trend of professional quality plastic instruments. Likely inspired by the “p-bone”, a plastic trombone, and the first (and arguably, simplest) of the brass instruments to depart from its metallurgical heritage, the tiger trumpet is the answer to the trumpeter with a penchant for ‘toys’, which if you know any trumpeters, is all of us. At the highly affordable price of $295, I was able to get my hands on a beautiful blue and yellow model and examine it.

The horn itself is almost entirely made of plastic. It seems like a cop out to begin by saying that plastic has its limitations, as the horn is truly quite impressive. However, the basis of function of the valves still requires a small amount of metal, and indeed, with exception to a thin layer of aluminum which coat the valves, and supply the mechanical energy in the springs, the tiger trumpet is all ABS plastic.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene – for the more seasoned chemists, or the well-informed consumer, this plastic may ring a bell. You’ve probably come across it in the form of the beloved (and sometimes painful) children’s toy Lego, but it’s used in a variety of other applications. The plastic is rigid through a large range of temperatures, and when molten can be coloured with a variety of dyes. The plastic does have a drawback, and this is best told by the tale of the world’s largest auto recall of which several million cars manufactured by GM were subject. As it would turn out, ABS is prone to photo oxidation, and the mechanism of the seat belts in several GM SUVs made roughly over a 10 year period contained this plastic, which degraded, and was the cause os several hundred car accidents. Beyond the inherent wastefulness in the manufacture of most plastics, which use impressive amounts of petroleum products for their synthesis, photo oxidation, and solvency in acetone (keep that nail polish remover away from your trumpet) are the principal causes for concern with an ABS trumpet.

I had the chance to play the horn too. I expected the trumpet to be lighter than brass, but still wasn’t prepared for the reality of just how light it was, weighing in at just around one pound. From the instant I placed it to my lips I sensed a difference. The deathly coldness of a metal mouthpiece was absent, and I jerked my head back only in a Pavlovian reflex from the act of putting the trumpet to my lips. Surprised, and feeling a tad foolish, I drew a breath and breathed a few notes. The ‘edge’ of a brass trumpet wasn’t present, but yet, the sound was still very familiar. With few exceptions, brass players will tell you that your tone is influenced by the metal alloy used to in moulding your horn, the lacquer which coats it, the bore size of the bell, the size of your mouthpiece and other specs. This fastidious attention to detail is sometimes dismissed by the pithy remark “mind over metal,” but is generally accepted as a reasonable set of guidelines in selecting a trumpet. As such, finding the tiger trumpet sound to be so similar to the sound of a brass horn was shocking. As I warmed up on the horn, I tested the upper and lower ranges. Here, the plastic structure revealed some weakness. It seemed like the horn sounded great in the low to mid, but not high range of a trumpet’s traditional breadth. It produced a warm and round sound that is associated with the large bored flugelhorn (German for “horn with wings”). The valve system of the tiger trumpet is impressive, albeit they do generate a fair amount more resistance than I am used to, though the trumpet I usually play on as a make is distinguished for how little resistance it’s valves offer.

When I played the horn, I could perceive the amount of research and development that came with creating a plastic trumpet. Plastics are common enough in amplifiers, and recording technology, that it seems almost surprising that they hadn’t been used in making actual instruments. Though I probably wouldn’t take out my tiger trumpet when I’m playing a show with a jazz orchestra, and I wouldn’t expect an orchestral musician to use a tiger trumpet when playing Rimsky-Korsakov, or Shostakovich, it’s quite possible that the tiger trumpet will become the first successful milestone to a rich tradition in the art of plastic trumpet making. I began by commenting on the balance between tradition and innovation in instrument making. While the tiger trumpet has not changed the traditional design of the trumpet when speaking of the how the pipes are connected, the fact that an instrument which ranks among some of the more complex brass instruments commonly played by musicians can be designed and created from less expensive plastics clears the way for greater accessibility to music and musical education, an innovation the world could use. Without music, life would B flat.

 

Jason Gencher

 

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