Opening Notes

Tanya Davies,Susan Oh February 14 2000

Opening Notes

Tanya Davies,Susan Oh February 14 2000

Opening Notes

Tanya Davies

Life after near-death

On April 1, 1974, Pam Barrett, then 20, was diagnosed as having advanced Hodgkins disease. She was, as she puts it, “on my deathbed.” After receiving experimental radiation therapy, Barrett made a slow and painful recovery. She later credited her illness with “convincing me to go to university to learn the best way to defend being a social democrat.” Last week, Barrett, who has served as leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party for the past three years, took a very different lesson from what she described as an even more dramatic brush with death. During a visit to the dentist, Barrett had a possible allergic reaction to a local anesthetic, during which, she says, she “died” and her soul left her body. The next day, Barrett, who calls herself a “lapsed Catholic,” resigned from politics, saying she wanted to explore her spiritual side. “I’ve always believed in a God,” Barrett told Macleans. “I just don’t have a handle on what exactly I believe.”

After receiving the anesthetic, Barrett says she experienced three separate blackouts. During one in the hospital, she recalls holding a nurse’s hand and feeling her soul ascend. “It was really weird, I could see the two of us, sitting there. Then, suddenly I’m back in my body.” Barrett says she saw neither a white light nor an image of God—commonly reported by others who have near-death experiences. “Either I wasn’t dead long enough, or there was a real message there,” she laughs.

“You know, ‘You weren’t going to heaven, darling; you were headed in the other direction.’ ”

Though she didn’t see God, Barrett firmly believes God sent her a message: “You need to find a new path.” The feisty Barrett, who has earned a reputation as one of Alberta’s most effective opposition politicians, took that as a sign that she needed to find a new career. “I’m not going to get to a new path if I stay with this all-consuming job,” she says. “You vow you’ll take time to smell the roses but you never do.”

Cyber sex-ed for global students

The opening graphic depicting a lava flow is intriguing. But even more arresting is the cover line: “Itchin, burnin’ & squirmin’.” No, it’s not a paean to Elvis Presley of the All Shook Up era. It’s the eye-catching introduction to what turns out to be a sobering discussion of sexually transmitted diseases—and just one part of a University of Alberta health-education software program that is taking the world by storm. What began five years ago as a student project on AIDS in Canada has

mushroomed into The Healthy Student Software Collection. It includes chatty cyber-lessons on safe sex, alcohol abuse and how students cope with

stress. The series has been downloaded in 62 countries, ranging as far afield as Nepal and Namibia. “My job is health promotion,” explains health-education co-ordinator Judy Hancock, “and this is how I can reach the most people.” She credits the popularity of the software program to its “comfortable and conversational tone.” This is the result of her constantly reviewing the tone and language with students. Hancock, 45, a former junior-high-school teacher, is still trying to adjust to the heady reach of the Web. “When I taught, you’d be lucky to reach the five kids who sat at the front of the class,” she says. “To reach 62 countries is a bit mind-blowing.”


Lying down on

It looks like a dentist chair, but the Microsphere computer workstation lets the user recline and work, instead of sit up and spit. The integrated chair—designed by a team of Canadians—has adjustable headand footrests, can recline 30 degrees and has movable trays to hold a monitor and keyboard. And the chairs frame, constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum and steel, can support a 136-kg body and 48 kg of computer equipment.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How do people want to sit?’ ” says Geoff Orr, the 25-year-old co-founder of Vancouverbased Microsphere Inc. Two years ago, he and partner Ben Moglin enlisted the help of two engineering graduates and a design grad to create the userfriendly computer workstation. The

Microsphere was introduced at the Comdex convention last November, and participants immediately sat up and took notice. All 100 of the trial units were snapped up for $2,330, and CNN picked the chair as a “top five Christmas present.” Now, Orr and Moglin have set up an Internet site ( to take orders. And they are updating the original chair. By next month, a trendy all-chrome version will be available as well as attachments like cup-holders—so users can compute with a cappuccino.

Typing toddlers

While some adults are still trying to learn how to scroll with a mouse, toddlers are learning on the computer by using interactive software designed specifically for twoto five-year-olds. One program is Buddy Brush and the Painted Playhouse, which allows click-happy preschoolers to play games while learning computers. North American sales have been so good that Ideas That Play Entertainment, a Vancouverbased software company, has licensed the program in 10 countries.

The appeal to toddlers is the title character Buddy Brush, a cartoon character paintbrush who acts as a guide through brightly animated activity areas. Kids dip Buddy into paint cans to colour a scene or blend primary colours into other shades. Music, which starts to play as the activity is started, becomes more elaborate until it turns into an original score.

Susan Oh

Golden memories

Few events in Canadian history carry the romance of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. The Right Way On (Timberholme) is the firsthand account of William Olive, who spent that year as the manager of a Yukon steamboat company. His lively memoirs include vivid sketches of those he met— Mountie Sam Steele and bandit Soapy Smith among them—and an eye-opening description of the vast profits to be made in liquor, which sometimes fetched $2,000 a gallon.