Archive for June, 2009

The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle

I was doing a literature search on some toxins when I got to thinking about how poisons get into the body, and in cases where that doesn’t happen accidentally, how various poisoners have achieved their nefarious ends. There is an old mnemonic: Stick it, Sniff it, Suck it, Soak it. An effective trick for remembering the four pathways into the body used by medications and toxins alike: injection, inhalation, ingestion, and absorption.


The Vessel with the Pestle

As with so much else, Shakespeare is a fecund source of toxic text. The Bastard in King John boasts that he can offer “sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth.” Take Hamlet, for example, with at least five nasty poisonings by my count – six if we include the knavish piece of work by Gonzago in the play within the play – not to mention the other on-stage and off-stage deaths by dagger, drowning, and execution. No “sniff it” murders, but stick, suck and soak get the full Shakespearean treatment. I’m not aware of any inhalations of poison in the Bard’s works, although in Timon of Athens there is an unsettling prefiguration of air pollution:

… a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air.

macbeth-witchesAnd the witches’ brew in Macbeth must have issued the most mephitic and pestilential of odours, enough, as my uncle used to say, to knock a buzzard off a shyte wagon:

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw …
Pour in sow’s blood, that hath eaten
Her nine farrow; grease that’s sweaten
From the murderer’s gibbet throw
Into the flame.

But other dramatists of the time made sure that all four of poison’s pathways were well covered. In the spectacularly gory final scene of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (think Romeo and Juliet meets Pulp Fiction) Livia dies of inhaling poisoned smoke; the Duke expires messily from the revenge tragedy standard, poison meant for another; and Bianca, who has been raped by the Duke and forced to become his mistress, commits suicide by kissing the Duke’s poisoned lips. Not to be outdone by Hamlet, Middleton also adds a couple of other fearsome killings: Isabella is murdered by flaming gold and an anguished Hippoloto impales himself upon a sword.

On a lighter note, those of a certain age may remember LMAOing at the jousting scene in Danny Kaye’s 1955 film, The Court Jester. A bumbling commoner ends up encased in armour and set up to fight in a joust to defeat an evil conspiracy against the king. Before the tournament begins he is warned to be careful of the ritual libation offered to the combatants. A witch who is trying to be helpful has poisoned one of the drinks. As she puts it, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.” Hilarity ensues as Danny struggles to remember these zany instructions. Just when he thinks he’s got it, he’s told that everything has changed because the vessel with the pestle has been broken and replaced with the flagon with the dragon. Now the pellet with the poison’s in the chalice from the palace; the flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true. Oh my! But never fear. The drinks get safely spilled, the jester wins the tournament, and he becomes the unlikely hero of the day.

gertrudeThe Chalice from the Palace

Hamlet is the classic instance of the poison-meant-for-another plot device. Shakespeare liked this so much that he used it three times in the same scene as Gertrude, joined later by Claudius and Laertes, drops dead with bulging eyes and a strangled WTF. “No, no, the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet! / The drink, the drink! I am poisoned.” To be followed, of course, by Hamlet himself. “The point! envenom’d too!” (An example of Stick it.) But at least in Hamlet’s case the poison was actually meant for him. For my money, however, the Ghost’s blood-curdling description of his death by poisoning in the ear is a high point of the play:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment.

poisoned-chaliceIf you go to PubMed, you will look for hebenon in vain. Numerous theories about its meaning have been proposed. There is a useful review in Liberman and Mitchell’s An analytic dictionary of English etymology. Shakespeare may have borrowed the term from his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who liked poison scenes too. In his Jew of Malta Marlowe writes of “the blood of Hydra, Lerna’s bane, / The juice of hebon, and Cocytus breath, / And all the poisons of the Stygian pool.”

Why am I prattling on about poison in this way, you may ask. It’s because of one of those odd coincidences that, while investigating the toxic effects of fentanyl and its derivatives, I found an article in the London Review of Books that mentioned the use of “levofentanyl” as the poison of choice in a failed attempt by Mossad agents to assassinate a leading figure in Hamas. This was to be a “soak it” murder, achieved by spraying the poison into the ear of the victim. Like the Ghost’s leperous distilment. Although familiar with fentanyl as a synthetic primary μ-opioid agonist commonly used to treat post-operative and chronic breakthrough pain, I had never heard of levofentanyl.

killkhalidPaul McGeough’s new book, Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas, raises the disturbing issue of the use of poison (or should I use the term biochemical weapons?) by the state to carry out covert murders. Here, in vivid detail, is a description of a plot to liquidate an undesirable in an unpleasant and undetectable way. It was a devious plan approved by the then and once again Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Mishal’s murder had to be discreet and, if possible, invisible. The attack would take a matter of seconds – so quick he wouldn’t know it was happening. One agent would shake a can of Coke and pop it open to distract Mishal while another would spray levofentanyl, a chemically modified painkiller, in his ear. He would feel as if he’d been bitten by an insect; 48 hours later the drug would kill him, leaving no trace. Mossad agents rehearsed the assassination using water instead of poison on unsuspecting pedestrians in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu liked what he saw, and gave Yatom [the head of Mossad] the go-ahead.”

But it was Mishal’s luck that the murder attempt was botched. Reading McGeough’s account one wants to laugh as much as one feels like throwing up. Subsequent events also did not go well for Israel. Things unravelled quickly. King Hussein and Bill Clinton got involved, bottoms had to be kissed, Mossadl had to provide the antidote to their poison, Mishal survived, and he went on to become a Hamas hero.

My professional interest was sparked by the nature of the poison used in the attempted murder of Mishal. A contemporary account in Salon (Newsreal: Bibi the bungler by Jonathan Broder) calls it a “lethal nerve toxin.” When I read McGeough’s account I had never heard of “levofentanyl.” A search on this term produces no results in PubMed and other major drug databases. I’m very curious about the nature of Mossad’s version of hebenon and its power to kill. Obviously I have some work to do, since this kind of information is not too readily available in the standard sources. I hope to post about this again in the near future.

umbrellab&wThe Flagon with the Dragon

For no better reasons than those of prurient curiosity, I investigated some recent politically-motivated poisonings. From the cold war period there is the notorious 1978 murder of the defector journalist Georgi Markov. While strolling on London’s Waterloo Bridge, he was stabbed in the calf by an umbrella, a coup de parapluie administered by the Bulgarian secret police. Death came by means of a tiny pellet containing ricin, a deadly toxin with no known antidote. In this case the pellet with the poison was in the brolly full of folly carried by the creepy crawly.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko was poisoned during the 2004 campaign, possibly by enemies in his own government. Dioxin seems to have been the cause of a sudden illness that nearly killed him and left his face greatly disfigured: jaundiced, bloated, and pockmarked. Yushchenko survived and went on to win the election. Cynics continue to question the circumstances of his case, but it is possible that the pellet with the poison was in the container of a retainer.

More recently, in 2006 former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized in what was established as a case of poisoning by radioactive polonium-210. The pellet with the poison was in the brew that glowed blue. He died an agonizing and well publicized death three weeks later.

These three other famous poisonings have been given much more attention in the Western media than the Mossad’s cock-up in Amman. But then, it is easier to speak critically of current and former enemies (those shady Eastern Europeans) than of our supposed allies.


Five ways to improve PubMed

anatomy-mannequinWhen I think about the current state of PubMed, I am reminded of the apocryphal Irishman who, when asked the road to Dublin, replied, “If I wanted to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.” We have come a long way from the old command line interface, but in the harsh digital glare of the increasingly rapid advances of web technology all around us, PubMed is beginning to look feeble and a bit tatty.

But it isn’t just that PubMed’s overall appearance could use an overhaul. Many of us frequent and not-so-frequent users are increasingly dissatisfied with the usability of the interface, the presentation of the data, and the seemingly haphazard pace of development. In his keynote at the Canadian Health Libraries Association conference in Winnipeg, David Rothman reminded us once again of the opinionated Harvard PhD student, Anna Kushnir, whose rant about PubMed grabbed the attention of librarians. Although her criticisms were hasty and ill-informed, we know they reflect the frustrations of many users of the database. We shouldn’t dismiss them with knowing smiles. Kushnir’s diatribe in a prominent publication was a clear signal that change is needed. PubMed cannot remain in statu quo.

On the last day of CHLA 2009, we arranged ourselves into groups and held “Table Talks” about various issues confronting health libraries. I sat at one of two tables given the less than onerous task of coming up with ideas for improving PubMed. Our discussion was lively and the time passed quickly as we nearly fell over ourselves in our eagerness to get to Dublin.

From the many recommendations that were made, these are at the top of my wishlist:

1. Direct Export to Citation Managers

Importing references from PubMed into citation managers is a cumbersome process (display results in MEDLINE format, save results to text file, import text file into citation manager). For institutions using RefWorks, RefGrab-It helps. But wouldn’t it be nice if PubMed offered its own single-step direct citation export à la Scopus?  Even Google Scholar can do this trick. It might also get some people to actually use PubMed rather than searching it from within EndNote or Reference Manager.

2. Improve the MeSH database

Where to start. The MeSH database is stiff and laboured, with occasional outbreaks of tumid extravagance. My group all agreed that we need clearer, more intuitive visual displays of the thesaurus and subheadings. The creation of a search statement using MeSH headings needs a complete rethink. The ‘Add To’ feature for inserting MeSH terms to a search box is kludgy. Parentheses can end up skewed when AND and OR statements are added to this box. Even searching for MeSH headings is difficult and unpredictable. But worse, no one really understands it.  When I teach MeSH, my students glaze over as if I were lecturing on 12-tone music. The way PubMed presents MeSH is fussy and needlessly complex. We need a MeSH mashup.

3. Eliminate need for capitalization of Boolean operators

Does this require further elaboration? AND, OR and NOT are ridiculous holdovers from the days of vacuum tubes and punchcards. They should die now.

4. Add adjacency searching and real string searching

Adjacency searching, although chiefly of interest to librarians and hackers, would crank up the power and precision of our search strategies. And let’s allow true quoted phrase searching. Right now a phrase in double quotation marks will only be found if that phrase appears in PubMed’s phrase index. Searching for an unindexed phrase, e.g., “enhanced interrogation,”  “assessment and management,” is out of the question.

5. Simplify the creation of permanent links to PubMed records

This is my own little bugbear. Couldn’t there be a simpler way to create a permanent link to a PubMed record? How about a neat little button which, when clicked, will copy the permanent link for one or more records to the operating system clipboard for easy insertion into a document or web page.

Faculty liaison: a mist-stick revelation

A thought-provoking post over at The Social Justice Librarian, which raises the issue that has most concerned this liaison librarian for the past months. Not exactly “Will they like me?” but a generalized anxiety about my ability to break through to the profs at the Faculty of Pharmacy. It’s been a hard year of snakes and ladders. I’ve had to be someone who, as Dryden wrote, “outweeps an hermit and outprays a saint” (Annus Mirabilis, 261).

guns&rosesWhile I’m fizzing with ideas about fast-forwarding the Information Literacy Revolution and infiltrating the Pharmacy curriculum, I’m sanguine enough to know that my colleagues across the street do not wake up each morning wondering what they can do for a librarian. Nor do they join the IL cadres in the square at dawn for vigorous calisthenics, roaring out the slogan of the day: “Recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Can’t you just see that inscribed for the masses in jagged characters on some monstrous red billboard?

Good liaison work requires disciplined effort. Look at the busy-as-bees Bolsheviks, who were always issuing directives like “the lower organs of the party must make even greater efforts to penetrate the backward parts of the proletariat.” How, short of forced exile to the Googlag, do I get my faculty colleagues to believe in information literacy and insert it into the curriculum?

At this year’s Canadian Health Libraries Association conference in Winnipeg ideas were spewed out in great wodges on the subject of getting librarians out of the library and into the classroom. The Latin root of “liaison” is ambivalent: it means a binding together, but it can also denote a ligature that ties off understanding between sides. How to get it right? The debate was stimulating, although at times during the exchanges I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s criticism of John Dryden: that he was more delighted with the fertility of his invention than mortified by the prostitution of his judgement.

As a librarian in one institution who has a second job as a teacher in another (“I am the faculty we complain about”), our Social Justice blogger provides a valuable perspective. As she sees it, the liaison waters are troubled, full of whirling whys and wherefores and awkward whences and whereuntos. She voices her divided sympathies about the need for a librarian in the lecture hall, confessing that if as a teacher she is left to seek out a librarian on her own, it may never happen – for reasons of time, priority setting, and a vague unpersuadedness. Here is how the post ends:

If this is how I feel, when I really look at myself critically, I am quite concerned about what faculty who haven’t been through library school think about the value of bringing a librarian into their classes.

If we can’t even convince me, and I’m one of us, how the heck are we going to convince other faculty members of the value of working with librarians?


The following is not meant to sound like a pep talk, but to do that kind of convincing successfully, I believe, is more than printing business cards, sending a few tepid emails, and affirming ourselves in the mirror each morning. It’s not that we’re good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, not responsible for the destruction of the library of Alexandria. How did St. Patrick convert the Irish, St. Augustine the Angles, St. Cyril the Slavs? Miracles. They excelled at what a cynic would call conjuring tricks. (Sadly, these are not included in the curricula of today’s infosci faculties.) Behind their smoke and mirrors these great saints must also have been whiplash smart, good public speakers, and savvy manipulators.

St-Pat-driving-snakesWe need some of that magic. Besides dotting our evidence-based i’s and crossing our core competency t’s, we must perform a little prestidigitization with our academic colleagues. We have to blow them away with the keenness of our skills, the depth of our knowledge, the sparkle of our eloquence, and our absolute conviction. We need good marketing and brand recognition, while taking care to translate our concepts into language faculty can relate to. Let’s not forget how an advertising campaign can go horribly wrong. Years ago Clairol introduced a new curling iron to the German market as the “Mist Stick,” not realizing that in the German language Mist means “manure” and sticken means “to embroider.” The product, it need scarcely be mentioned, had little subliminal mystical appeal in the land of the Teutons. (An old Irish Catholic joke: Definition of mysticism: seventy per cent mist – the foggy dew type – and thirty per cent schism.)

It wasn’t mystical powers that earned me some acceptance in my faculty, but my persistent marketing campaign appears to have been effective. I have no magical crozier to swing, but I can search, surf, cite, retrieve, compute, social mediate and PowerPoint better than they can. I was able to convince them that I was someone who could stick it to information illiteracy. The result? A small miracle. There are no snakes slithering through the faculty halls.

PubMed custom filters: where the bee sucks

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
~  Samuel Taylor Coleridge

bee-sucksI received a prompt comment from the programmer responsible for the new custom filter feature in My NCBI. I was assured that any bugs are now being corrected. Reason for hope.

I was also told that my health literacy filter was broken. It had somehow accumulated a few of those annoying smart quotes (subject for another rant at another time). I carefully retyped all the quotation marks. But the filter still doesn’t work properly. Although it tells me how many records I will find, it won’t apply the filter when I click the tab. I have to copy the code into the search box myself.

However, I did have luck with other attempts at custom filtering. I am frequently asked for Canadian content from PubMed. So I created a simple search and saved it in Custom Filters. Here is the code:

“canada”[MeSH Terms] OR canad*[All Fields]

Sidebar. You’d think that “canad*[All Fields]” would be sufficient, but that search produces fewer results than when ORing the two terms above.

Having added the new filter to my tabs, I did a general PubMed search on “diabetes.” I clicked my Canada tab and it worked. PubMed instantly created a subset, just as if I had ANDed the code to “diabetes” in the search box. From 330,831 records I was able to limit to 7,470 records with some mention of Canada. I love it, but not unconditionally.

What a pity that, as reported in the NLM Technical Bulletin of May 29, custom filters do not have the “tack” on the filter name tab – which means you can’t further refine your results by, say, clicking on the “Published in the last 5 years” tab.

It occurred to me that the Custom Filters feature might be having trouble with very long strings of code. I experimented with the Cochrane filter for controlled trials (see Robinson et al. Int J Epidemiol. 2002 Feb;31(1):150-3.) True nectar to the professional:

(randomized controlled trial[pt] OR controlled clinical trial[pt] OR randomized controlled trials[mh] OR random allocation[mh] OR double-blind method[mh] OR single-blind method[mh] OR clinical trial[pt] OR clinical trials[mh] OR (“clinical trial”[tw]) OR ((singl*[tw] OR doubl*[tw] OR trebl*[tw] OR tripl*[tw]) AND (mask*[tw] OR blind*[tw])) OR (“latin square”[tw]) OR placebos[mh] OR placebo*[tw] OR random*[tw] OR research design[mh:noexp] OR comparative study[mh] OR evaluation studies[mh] OR follow-up studies[mh] OR prospective studies[mh] OR cross-over studies[mh] OR control*[tw] OR prospectiv*[tw] OR volunteer*[tw]) NOT (animal[mh] NOT human[mh])

Plug this un-in-one-breath-utterable cryptogram into Custom Filters and it works perfectly. WTMI. Whom the Gods would destroy, etc.

I must apologize for the flippant remarks I made in my previous post. It must have been the nicotine. I hope that the snag with the NLM health literacy filter can be fixed. I intend to use Custom Filters frequently and uncomplainingly when all the kinks are worked out. Can we then look forward to the addition of the kitschy tack icon to the custom filter tab? That would be nectar indeed.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I.

Custom filters in PubMed. Fail.

“Filter, flavor, flip-top box!” For a moment I was excited to hear about PubMed’s new Custom Filters feature – until I actually tried using it. Yes, it’s nice to be able to store my canned search strategies in My NCBI, but let me tell you about the difference between niceness and usefulness.

The good news is that I can now store search filters in My NCBI, from the very simple to the impossibly convoluted. I can even add a filter to the PubMed window as a tab that shows the number of citations retrieved by the filter search. The bad news, however, is very bad. The tab doesn’t actually work. It displays the number of results I would get if I applied the filter. But will it apply the filter? Clicking on the tab has no effect, at least in the few despairing attempts I made yesterday.

filterflavorHere is where I’m in danger of starting to sound like Sylvia Plath (Viciousness in the kitchen! / The potatoes hiss.) To apply a saved filter to a PubMed search I was in the middle of, I had to interrupt the proceedings, go into My NCBI, find my filter, click Edit to display the saved search strategy, highlight it, and copy and paste the whole thing back into the PubMed search box. Is this progress? Why go to the trouble of creating a custom filter tab just to have it sit there and show a number?

It is puzzling why Custom Filters would be called an “enhancement.” This feature amounts to little more than a method of storing search strategies – and a hamstrung one at that. It’s as if whoever programmed this must have gone to the cottage before the coding was complete. Hey you there, sunning on the dock. Please butt out, lose the swimming goggles, pick up your laptop, and give us a filter tab that works.

By the way, the first filter I saved is NLM’s own health literacy search filter.

In case you’re planning to use it, there is an error in the code and the web page has not been updated. The former MeSH heading “Prescriptions, Drug” has been replaced by “Drug Prescriptions.” (Actually, the better term to use is the broader MeSH term “Prescriptions.”)

“health literacy” OR
“health literate” OR
“medical literacy” OR
(health [ti] AND
literacy [ti]) OR
(functional [tw] AND
health [tw] AND
literacy [tw]) OR
((low-literate [ti] OR
low-literacy[ti] OR
literacy[ti] OR
illiteracy[ti] OR
literate[ti] OR
illiterate[ti] OR
reading [mh] OR
comprehension [mh]) AND
(health promotion [major] OR
health education [major] OR
patient education [major] OR
communication barriers [major] OR
communication [major:noexp] OR
health knowledge, attitudes, practice [major] OR
attitude to health[major])) OR
(comprehension [major] AND
educational status [major])OR
(family [ti] AND
literacy [ti])OR
((“drug labeling”
OR Prescriptions [mh])
AND “comprehension”)
OR “adult literacy” OR
“limited literacy” OR
“patient literacy” OR
“patient understanding”[ti] AND
english [la]

Are there any bookmarklets worth using?

I’m not an avid promoter of bookmarklet use, but reading a Download Squad post about Bookmarklet Directory got me thinking again about the many I have used and immediately discarded as well as the few I have retained. These have become so useful to me that sometimes I forget they’re not built into my browser. Here are my favourites.


Readability page

Predictably, I suppose, given my age, I have become a great friend of Readability, a simple tool that strips out the tinsel and tassles that tend to clutter web pages. In place of tiny, squint-inducing text, this customizable bookmarklet provides nothing but a soothingly readable page in a large font. No jiggling and jouncing Flash trash to divert your attention. Try it instead of just increasing the browser font size. Readability is easily customized, and I have found it to be quite reliable.

bitly sidebar

The bookmarlet is ideal for tweeters. Quickly and elegantly it automatically shortens a web page address and creates a brief text-plus-link draft of a Twitter post ready for editing. This is a keeper. The bookmarklet is available on’s main page. Enter your Twitter account information and you’re ready to go. The more elaborate Sidebar Bookmarklet slides out to shorten your long link, then shows Traffic, Conversations, and History. It’s easy to share your link on Twitter, Gmail, Email, and Facebook.

Delicious Talk


I’m a compulsive Delicious user. A morning browse of my Network gives me more stimulation than swilling a Tim’s double double. When I find a web page that’s bookmarkable, clicking on the Delicious Talk bookmarklet quickly shows me who else has added that page to Delicious. In this way I have discovered many other Delicious users who share my interests.

Proxy Bookmarklet

I use a few other bookmarklets, the most notable being my library’s proxy bookmarklet, which adds proxy server data to an e-journal’s web address for easy access to full text. I guess bookmarklets like this are in common use, but I don’t hear much about them. I can say that showing this tool to some of the profs in my faculty has been the cause of great excitement, especially to one who insists on searching PubMed from within EndNote. Although I can’t persuade him of the benefits of searching PubMed itself, at least now he can access the full text of articles he finds. That was a house call well worth making.

Of course there are thousands of useful bookmarklets out there. Digital Inspiration has a nice round-up, some of which I’m not familiar with and will need to try myself. Perhaps I’ll be persuaded to add a few more to my toolbar. Now if I could just figure out how to call up bookmarklets with a keyboard shortcut …


Sparks of intelligence at CHLA 2009

stringed lightsNora Young, the host of the CBC Radio 1 program Spark, gave a sparkling keynote address at the Canadian Health Libraries Association conference in Winnipeg. Riffing on themes such as “the new ecology of information” and “the end of information scarcity,” she evoked — without the aid of a PowerPoint — an emergent information-rich society in which the online and offline, the real and the virtual, are dissolving and being reshaped into a new reality characterized by technologically enhanced collaborative communication and ever-fluid “mobiquity.”

To the optimist, these shimmering aleatory and digitized topoi are the new spaces for participatory culture: distributed, dialogical, and democratic. To the pessimist they are the backdrop for the humming cybernetics of a totalized and surreally synthetic culture: etiolated expanses, decanted mind spaces, mirages of nihilation — the ossified remains of Enlightenment certainties and Romantic hope. The latter vision is the dystopian world frequently depicted in science fiction, especially that of William Gibson.

Nora Young joins the optimists in pointing to traces of a new kind of sustainable, participatory, socially mediated democracy, a notion appealing to librarians and others concerned with building up the social commons and contributing selflessly to the general welfare of society. But such political optimism runs up against certain inescapable realities, such as, of course, the truly ubiquitous human tendency to enslave others, but also, at the organic level, the real limitations of the human brain. According to the author of the recent book Rapt, Winifred Gallagher, our grey matter can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime. This seemingly vast amount of calculating power is not infinitely expandable. Multitasking is a myth. You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that, and we don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money. Do we really want to invest our cognitive cash on endless tweeting, bleeting or scanning our various virtual realities for infotidbits?

robot-pink&wiryGallagher’s book is the focus of a fascinating discussion of the science of concentration by John Tierney in the New York Times. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that when our attention is interrupted by something bright or novel,  our brain triggers a counterreaction in which neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s planning centre — start oscillating in unison and send signals directing the visual cortex to heed something else. These coordinated neuronal firings have trouble getting through in our noisy, distracting cyberenvironment. It takes a great deal of prefrontal brain power to suppress a strong sensory input like a Flash commercial, the peep of a mobile device, or a Facebook poke. If we’re trying to read Aristotle or a soda bottle at the same time we may not have the cerebral resources left to focus on the words. The blinkering and distraction that result from our own cerebral hardware are exacerbated by technology. As Marcus Breen has said, the fragmentation of rational knowledge in the postmodern world has produced a focus on information that is unaware of its history. The personal and political implications cannot be ignored.

Will this new ecology of information leave us miocene ape multitaskers juggling too many bananas on a tightrope over the yawning vortices of mobiquity? Nora Young thinks we can manage the danger by avoiding digital “nowism” and a heedless mode of living detached from social solidarities. But she is a bit vague about how that might be done, leaving up to us the decisions on how to shape our ethics and our politics. There is no little red book to guide us. Meanwhile, the steady infiltration of technology brooks no opposition. No doubt the current vogue for yoga, gardening and scented candles has something to do with a desire to slow down or escape the ceaseless flow of streaming data. The irony is that these placid pursuits themselves are perfectly commodified products of an increasingly sterile, shrink-wrapped, meretricious technocracy. We’re soaking in it.

As usual, William Gibson encapsulates in his fiction the alluring and terrifying aspects of this future now more evenly distributing itself on a handheld near you:

tube-of-lightBobby Chombo on virtual reality
“We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it. We didn’t need the goggles, the gloves. It just happened. VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going. Without scaring us too much, right? The locative, though, lots of us are already doing it. But you can’t just do the locative with your nervous system. One day you will. We’ll have internalized the interface. It’ll have evolved to the point where we forget about it. Then you’ll just walk down the street …” He spread his arms, and grinned at her.

“In Bobbyland,” she said.

“You got it.”

William Gibson, Spook Country, p. 65


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