Archive for July, 2009

Dying is unequivocally the major cause of death

Milton Berle once said you know you’re old when you order a three-minute egg and they ask for the money up front. My baby boomer generation is deep in crow’s feet; and in keeping with the relentless demographics of aging in our society, interest in some, any, pharmacological fountain of youth is growing.

PharmaGossip, blogging with a sense of humour from the UK,  has posted a splendid send-up of Big Pharma propaganda to the anxiously aging. Basing itself on a report from an industry blog called BNET Pharma, it skewers the questionable drug marketing practices we have come to loathe and vituperate.

Here’s how it begins:

Phoni told the WSJ that it did not know about a study published last week in Nature that claims the life expectancy of mice was increased 9 – 14 percent if they took Heapamunee, a drug Phoni markets to suppress the immune system so that organ transplants won’t be rejected.

A Phoni spokesman called it an “interesting preclinical study” and said that the company had only just become aware of the findings.

“Phoni have only just acquired Heapamunee as a result of our hostile takeover of Whyus,” said Phoni’s President of Global Marketing, Rich Pillager, “and so we’re still working out just what assets we need to strip out of the company before we shut it down. However, following the Nature study, our marketing team is already up to speed on the case.”

Rich Pillager is a wonderful creation, worthy of Martin Amis in his eighties heyday. You can be sure that the Rich Pillagers of the world are working night and day concocting “anti-aging” drugs while convincing us that becoming superannuated is a disease that can best be treated with their magical elixir in a capsule.

PharmaGossip also makes fun of Aubrey de Grey (“Aubrey de Nutcase”), a death-defying British gerontologist and self-advertiser, only slightly altering a real quote of his: “Dying is unequivocally the major cause of death in the industrialized world and a perfectly legitimate target of medical intervention.”

De Grey strikes me as the kind of bloke who reads the obituaries every day and can’t understand why people die in alphabetical order. “It’s time to break out of our denial about aging,” he admonishes. I didn’t know I was in denial. Like Woody Allen, I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens. But I see how it’s pharmamarketing’s prime directive to feed my fears about that clean-sweeping scythe. Is it really true that when you get old your broad mind changes places with your narrow waist? Not at all. Stupidity, greed, deceit, and sheer, undiluted wankery know no age barriers.


Tweeting in English and German: Motivationsfördermaßnahmisierungen


Just a few weeks ago the social media analytics provider Sysomos released a report on who is using Twitter and how. One has to take their findings with a grain of salt given the unreliability of the data Twitter can provide. How many of us, for example, are reporting our age, or reporting it accurately? Yet the statistics are interesting because Twitter is so new to most of us. As we newbies learn to give it to the bird and constrict our random musings into headline-style brevity, we can’t resist a look at just how Twitter is doing.

As A.J. Liebling might have put it, people everywhere confuse what they read in Twitter with news. Twitter has had a great deal of media attention lately, yet one of the more interesting findings of the Sysomos survey is that a mere 5% of Twitter users account for 75% of all activity. There are 30 million Twitter accounts. If the Sysomos research is correct, that translates into a relatively small number of active Twitter users, especially when you compare it to the Malthusian hordes now clogging the Facebook servers with middle-aged angst, birthday greetings, and barbecue invitations. Nevertheless, according to a recent article in The Guardian, Twitter continues to fascinate the most powerful of the Interneterati. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is apparently interested in adding it to his online empire.

Twitter, the so-called media revolution that isn’t, is a fad that will pass when something better arrives, possibly by this Christmas. By that I don’t mean to disparage Twitter. I find it a useful adjunct to the news and notifications I get from blogs, listservs, Delicious, Facebook, Friendfeed, and all the other digital demands upon my attention. But it will pass, perhaps swamped by Google’s new Wave or overtaken by a feisty competitor like Posterous, which has no garrulity limit and offers easy lifestreaming by various means, including email.

Sysomos reports that 94% of Twitter users have less than 100 followers. That sounds right. After all, it’s hard to get noticed in our alienated, I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-delivered world. Nor should it come as a great surprise that 21% of account holders have never published a tweet. What did interest me was the breakdown of users by country. In light of the extraordinary media coverage of Twitter’s global reach, especially in the recent Iran election turbulence, we learn that the largest non-English-speaking country on Twitter is Brazil, with 2% of total users. The planet has many more nations than Twitter has characters available for a tweet, so it is a bit strange that the number of world users is still so comparatively low. Could much of that be related to language?


The English language utterly dominates Twitter. The top four countries on Twitter are all English-speaking (US, UK, Canada, Australia). Of these, the US makes up 62% of all Twitter users, followed by the UK with nearly 8%, and Canada and Australia with 5.7% and 2.8% respectively. Even tiny New Zealand is among the top tweeters. Germany comes in at number six, just after Brazil, with 1.5% of Twitter users. I don’t know enough Portuguese to know how well it fits into the Twitter straitjacket, but for its German clientele Twitter must be a tight fit indeed.

German is something I know a bit about, a language I learned in infancy in a military PMQ, subsequently forgot after returning to Canada, and then relearned over many arduous years sweating over Hegel and hypotaxis. German is a wonderful language, but its Meccano set grammar and mucilaginous gutturalism are well known. Some wag once quipped that German was invented solely to afford the speaker the opportunity to spit at strangers under the guise of polite conversation.  In his novel Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess called it “a glottal fishbonecleaning soulful sobbing sausagemachine of a language.” German is heavily inflected, expansive and loquacious and likes to swing its weight around. How then can this brawny linguistic Siegfried be squeezed into Twitter’s tight corsets? Twitter is El Greco to German’s Rubens. Twitter is Jack Sprat and German is his wife. Twitter is gossamer and lace; German is horns and hides. Twitter tweets the Minute Waltz; German bellows Tristan. But these mismatches don’t deter many Valkyries from slipping into ballet slippers. Let’s take a closer look at how bulky German verbosity does blogging lite.

Along with its being an American invention, Twitter’s anglicism has much to do with the fact that the English language is reasonably well suited to Twitter’s 140-character telegraph style — all the more so as English sheds some of its Latinate vocabulary and gets back to its Saxon roots. But in the language of modern day Saxony (or Salzburg or Zürich), where Twitter updates are called Befindlichkeitsmeldungen, the monosyllabic roots it shares with its near relative have evolved differently. The lengthy word combinations of modern German give little trouble to German speakers, but we anglophones invariably find them confusing and threatening, like coiled barbed wire or algebra. As Mark Twain said, some German words are so long they have a perspective. When you are reading even a simple news story in Der Spiegel, massive alphabet clusters streak across your vision like tracer fire. In a recent post from one of my favourite medical library blogs, medinfo, I encountered the daunting word Motivationsfördermaßnahmisierungen, which means something like “efforts at motivation-promoting measures.” Try adding a few words of that heft to Twitter’s modest text box and you’re headed for serious Twitter malfunction.


In most cases German requires an inordinate amount of space to express itself. This makes for somewhat terse Twitter communications. Take this modest, housekeeping tweet from a medical library in Münster, the Zweigbibliothek Medizin der Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Münster:

Die Dachdeckerarbeiten sind abgeschlossen, das Zeitschriftenmagazin ist wieder zugänglich.

An awful lot of clotted letters to make two points: that roof work has ended and that library patrons once again have access to a journals storage room.

This next tweet is overwhelmed by the simple task of announcing that the library is closing at 6pm:

RT @WWU_Muenster: Wegen des JUWI-Festes schließt die Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek heute bereits um 18 Uhr:

A tweet from Münster’s local Greenpeace group resorts to the use of an English word to reduce confusion, but even this cannot stave off near catastrophe. Once you have retweeted @someone’s tweet, added a hashtag or two and a shortened URL, there is scarcely any room left to pry in even short German words:

RT @betterandgreen FTD: Die deutsche #Solar-Revolution #erneuerbare Energien

Faced with the near impossibility of expressing anything much more than a grunt of approval or dismay, some Teutonic tweeters just seem to give up altogether:

@nico hehe. Süß

Or resort to Germlish:

Alles klar. Also entweder Tupper-Party oder Sauna-Exzesse in der Bib

Welcome to remote Bücherverbrennung #amazon #kindle #drm #wasdukaufstgehörtdirnicht

Clearly, the language of Goethe and Schiller would be much more comfortable with, say, a 350-character limit. On second thought, make it a thousand. Enough of these Twitterschwierigkeiten, the difficulties caused by Twitter’s artificial constraints and unrealistic character limits or Twitterzeichenbeschränkungen. German speakers need a Twitter enlarger, eine Twittervergrößerrungsapparat.

Postscript: The Awful German Language

There is a famous passage in Mark Twain’s awesome essay, The Awful German Language, in which he has the definitive last word on German word length:

In my note-book I find this entry:

July 1. — In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient — a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community.

That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject — the length of German words.  Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.  Observe these examples:




These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page — and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock.

But Mark Twain’s examples pale before some more recent additions to the German dictionary. How long can compound words get in German, you may ask? This is always hard to determine, but I did come across this high-calorie, 63-letter monster:


Literal translation: “beef labelling regulation and delegation of supervision law.” There’s a mouthful that will fill any stomach. Try squeezing that into your next tweet.


The weaponization of toxicity


In a previous post I looked at the use of poison for state-sponsored assassination in the recent past. In the period since the assassination attempt on Khalid Mishal by Israeli agents in 1997 I have not found any other reports of the use of fentanyl for murder. While its lethal effect on people who have used it as a heroin substitute has been notorious, I discovered another even more disturbing application of the drug.

Fentanyl (N-phenyl-N-(1-(2-phenylethyl)4-piperidinyl)propanamide) is a potent synthetic opioid agent widely used for surgical analgesia and sedation. It is 200 times more potent than morphine. In therapeutic use fentanyl is quickly absorbed through the skin and is frequently applied as a skin patch. There has been research into the use of this drug in spray format.

Although prodigiously useful in the operating room, fentanyl has toxic cousins that deliver a lot more than freedom from pain. Nonpharmaceutical fentanyl use can be deadly. According to a 2008 MMWR report 1,013 deaths in six jurisdictions were attributed to fentanyl abuse in a two-year period, making this the largest such epidemic ever reported. Recent data on illicit fentanyl and its analogues indicate that these compounds are becoming increasingly popular on the drug market. The street will sell you a pocketful of sweet dreams with many aliases: China White, Synthetic Heroin, Mexican Brown, Persian White, Apache, China Girl, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, and Tango & Cash. All of these potentially lethal hits make morphine look like child’s play.

But beyond its common use as a street drug, fentanyl — or, more accurately, powerful variants of the drug — is being studied by a number of governments for official use as a biochemical weapon. For example, a fentanyl derivative was used to end the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, in which many hostages died from accidental overdoses of the narcotic. [1,2]

It was this act of terrorism that first brought the issue of incapacitating biochemical weapons to widespread public attention. On October 23, 2002, a group of Chechen terrorists raided the Dubrovka theatre during a performance and took 800 people hostage. The 50-odd hostage takers were well armed and the women among them were wired with high explosives. They demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and threatened to kill the hostages if their demand was not met. On the morning of October 26, Russian Special Forces troops disseminated a biochemical agent through the ventilation system, putting everyone who remained in the auditorium into a deep sleep. Approximately 30 minutes later, the troops stormed the building, killing the hostage takers and ending the crisis. 125 hostages died from the effects of the gas, and many more were severely injured. Several days later, the Russian Health Minister let it be known that the gas contained a derivative of fentanyl, but he did not reveal the specific nature of the agent used. According to Russian media reports the drug used was the formidable incapacitating agent Kolokol-1, whose active ingredient is secret but could possibly be the extraordinarily potent carfentanil or 3-Methylfentanyl. Sprayed into the air as an anesthetic gas, it takes effect very quickly, within one to three seconds, reportedly rendering its victims unconscious for two to six hours.

The deadly denouement of the Moscow theatre siege is a frightening example of how incapacitating biochemical weapons can be used by the state. The obvious ethical questions aside, it has generated increasing interest on the part of governments in exploring the weaponization of drugs. Indeed, as science and technology continue to advance, our rapidly increasing understanding of human physiological systems indicates that the development of new incapacitating biochemical weapons is not only possible but inevitable.
In a recent article in International affairs, J.P. Perry Robinson discusses the growing concern over the use of chemical weapons, not so much by terrorists, but by the state for purposes of what it interprets as counterterrorism. [3] Of course, counterinsurgency applications of toxic chemicals have been in use for decades. Major European powers used them in their colonial domains, the Americans in Vietnam. But the re-emergence of biochemical weapons in counterterrorist guise is troubling. Police forces in the UK, for example, are equipped either with Agent CS or with PAVA spray for law enforcement use, and, according to Perry Robinson, the readiness with which the US Marine Corps has taken to Agent OC — a toxic riot control spray produced from ground chili-peppers — seems an indication of a trend. So, perhaps, is the absence of any serious criticism of the Russian government for having authorized the use of a lethal neurotoxin to end the 2002 hostage incident.

Since 1992 proponents of so-called “non-lethal weapons” have been attempting to loosen the constraints imposed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on the weaponization of other forms of toxicity, such as riot control agents (RCAs). In a process of creeping legitimization, several countries now appear to be pursuing more lethal forms of incapacitating biochemical weapons.

The process has been one of not only “public diplomacy” and other more hidden pressures for exemption, but also one of national legislation. In the United States the “Ensign Amendment” of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act asserts that “riot control agents are not chemical weapons.” No other state that is party to the CWC has adopted such a position, nor even commented publicly on what the United States has done. At the same time, the failure to amend the the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention to prohibit the growing acceptance of RCAs demonstrates the varying levels of ignorance, incompetence, heedlessness, short-termism and conflicting political interests among the world’s governments. A situation in which some types of toxic weapon are tolerated but others are not is certain to be unstable.

Let us hope that saner views will prevail now that the Bush years are over. Otherwise a toxic chemical attack could be coming to a theatre near you.


1. Geoghegan J, Tong JL. Chemical warfare agents. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain. 2006 1 Dec ;6(6):230-234

2. Pearson A. Incapacitating biochemical weapons: science, technology, and policy for the 21st century. Nonproliferation review. 2006 July;13(2):151-188.

3. Perry Robinson JP. Difficulties facing the Chemical Weapons Convention. International affairs. 2008;84(2):223-239.


Being wrong is a feature, not a bug

An incisive and unblinking analysis of the fate of publishing and other dinosaurs recently appeared on Michael Nielsen’s blog: Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted? This longish essay is based on a colloquium given June 11, 2009, at the American Physical Society Editorial Offices. The topic and the occasion of its delivery would not normally promise an exciting read – most writing of this kind being tedious in the extreme – but this paper is a cracker.

help graffitiAlthough Nielsen’s main subject is the impending fate of the likes of Elsevier, his theme is broader.  With compelling insight and a rare ability to avoid excessive jargon and boilerplate, he describes why it is hard for incumbent organizations in a disrupted industry to change to a new model. He makes telling comparisons with the newspaper and music business, both of which are singing the same swan song from the same hymn book. He could just as easily have been talking about another industry tilting on the edge: academic libraries. Does this sound familiar?

I’ve described why it’s hard for incumbent organizations in a disrupted industry to change to a new model. The situation is even worse than I’ve described so far, though, because some of the forces preventing change are strongest in the best run organizations. The reason is that those organizations are large, complex structures, and to survive and prosper they must contain a sort of organizational immune system dedicated to preserving that structure. If they didn’t have such an immune system, they’d fall apart in the ordinary course of events. Most of the time the immune system is a good thing, a way of preserving what’s good about an organization, and at the same time allowing healthy gradual change. But when an organization needs catastrophic gut-wrenching change to stay alive, the immune system becomes a liability.

Many unsuccessful attempts at implementing services like those I’ve just described have been made. I’ve had journal editors explain to me that this shows there is no need for such services. I think in many cases there’s a much simpler explanation: poor execution. Development projects are often led by senior editors or senior scientists whose hands-on technical knowledge is minimal, and whose day-to-day involvement is sporadic. Implementation is instead delegated to IT-underlings with little power. It should surprise no one that the results are often mediocre. Developing high-quality web services requires deep knowledge and drive. The people who succeed at doing it are usually brilliant and deeply technically knowledgeable. Yet it’s surprisingly common to find projects being led by senior scientists or senior editors whose main claim to “expertise” is that they wrote a few programs while a grad student or postdoc, and who now think they can get a high-quality result with minimal extra technical knowledge. That’s not what it means to be technology-driven.

The same basic story can be told about the disruption of the music industry, the minicomputer industry, and many other disruptions. Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

When new technologies are being developed, the organizations that win are those that aggressively take risks, put visionary technologists in key decision-making positions, attain a deep organizational mastery of the relevant technologies, and, in most cases, make a lot of mistakes. Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works: you start out with an idea that’s just plain wrong, but that contains the seed of a better idea. You improve it, and you’re only somewhat wrong. You improve it again, and you end up the only game in town.


Nielsen’s predictions are stark, but possess the clear contours of hard, inevitable truth. The implications for libraries are obvious:

This flourishing ecosystem of startups is just one sign that scientific publishing is moving from being a production industry to a technology industry. A second sign of this move is that the nature of information is changing. Until the late 20th century, information was a static entity. The natural way for publishers in all media to add value was through production and distribution, and so they employed people skilled in those tasks, and in supporting tasks like sales and marketing. But the cost of distributing information has now dropped almost to zero, and production and content costs have also dropped radically. At the same time, the world’s information is now rapidly being put into a single, active network, where it can wake up and come alive. The result is that the people who add the most value to information are no longer the people who do production and distribution. Instead, it’s the technology people, the programmers.

How do librarians add value to information? We won’t find the answer in the NYRB or the TLS.

So far this essay has focused on the existing scientific publishers, and it’s been rather pessimistic. But of course that pessimism is just a tiny part of an exciting story about the opportunities we have to develop new ways of structuring and communicating scientific information. These opportunities can still be grasped by scientific publishers who are willing to let go and become technology-driven, even when that threatens to extinguish their old way of doing things. And, as we’ve seen, these opportunities are and will be grasped by bold entrepreneurs.


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