Friday, February 25, 2011

"No soul to be damned, no body to be kicked"

There's a possibility you've missed the story of Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, being sued by Boston-based NMT Medical over alleged comments about the conduct of a trial that he was, at one time, lead investigator for.

Summary: NMT sponsored the trial of a treatment that it thought could benefit chronic migraine sufferers. The trial showed, fairly conclusively, that the treatment - which is both expensive and invasive - doesn't work. For reasons that I'm not fool enough to go into here, the final published paper glossed over the negative result, hinted at more positive effects (beyond the scope of the original trial parameters) that could be deduced by suitably massaging the data ("excluding outliers"), and ignored potentially serious side effects arising from the procedure. Dr Wilmshurst and one other investigator withdrew their names from the paper before it was published, and Dr Wilmshurst was so indiscreet as to talk about the whole fiasco at a conference in Washington in 2007. His comments were published on the web, and from there it's only a short hop to the High Court.

There's so much Wrong in this story that it's hard to know where to begin. It's wrong that a US company can sue a person under English law for something said to a conference in the US. It's wrong that a speech made - on-topic, by an eminently qualified person - at a technical conference, should be the subject of legal proceedings. It's wrong that lawyers and judges, of all people, are being asked to judge the validity of medical trial methodologies. It's wrong that Dr Wilmshurst has, so far, spent the price of a medium-sized house on his own defence; what exactly are his lawyers doing, to earn that sort of money? It's wrong that he has no prospect of ever getting that money back, since (a) most US courts will (understandably) refuse to enforce an award ruled by a UK libel court, and (b) if he wins, the company will probably be broke anyway. It's utterly, indefensibly, inexplicably wrong that a company can sue for libel - a law that's supposed to protect the reputations of people - at all. This case is the epitome of asymmetrical justice.

And not least, it's wrong that you and I only hear about the whole story through blatantly partisan blogs (like this one). Because, while I know nothing about Dr Wilmshurst personally, I know that he chose to have this fight. And there are plausible people on the other side of the case.

But what's most wrong of all is that NMT's directors are doing the right thing.

If their flagship product doesn't work, their company is in big trouble. It is clearly the directors' duty to do everything in their power to obscure that fact and continue to milk money out of the structure of gullible, vulnerable patients, susceptible doctors, and equally amoral insurers that, collectively, represent their meal tickets. Already the company has lost over 90% of its share price; a decisive victory for Dr Wilmshurst could wipe it out.

It's not optional. NMT's directors have to be as unscrupulous, vicious and amoral as inhumanly possible. It's their duty to their shareholders; anything less could get them sued.

Welcome to the world we've built ourselves. Not only do we reward amorality - we demand it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rumour as news

"Christchurch struck by another major quake, worse than last September's."

That was the news that somehow osmosed into the office yesterday afternoon. The usual New Zealand news sites, unaccustomed as they are to being viewed by more than three people at once, promptly vanished from the web. The Herald, TVNZ, Stuff were all unavailable.

So where to find out what was going on? Experimentally, I tried Twitter.

Now, there are those e-vangelists who claim that Twitter is the only news source you need nowadays. You get breaking news from people on the spot, far faster than conventional media can deliver it. And, of course, unfiltered by editorial policy or bias.

And this is true, kinda. On the other hand, the news is filtered by the fact that it's being written by twits. But now let's see how it covers this breaking news story...

Well, first observation is that it doesn't merit inclusion among 'Trending Topics', being squeezed out by news of greater moment, such as "Libia" and "rafa araneda" (the Chilean TV presenter, of course). If I were relying on Twitter to tell me what's new in the world, I'd have missed this story entirely. Granted, one of these is, objectively, a bigger story - but surely Christchurch should outrank "BIEBER ALERT"?

Hard information from Christchurch? Almost none. What I'm seeing is the accounts of people all over the world who are watching their TVs. New media feeding off old. There are some excellent pictures (I think this one deserves some kind of award, but Lord alone knows who took it or who first posted it online), but if I were watching TV I'd have seen a lot more, a lot quicker.

Decisive victory to old media.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Observing the observers

The local New Zealand media doesn't even pretend to care what's going on in Egypt, not when there are truly important stories such as Lindsey Lohan's alleged kleptomania to talk about. So I've been watching a lot of Al Jazeera lately.

AJ, for those not blessed with its coverage, does care about Egypt. It cares a lot. It seems to have covered absolutely nothing else for the past two weeks. And apart from the obvious partiality of its coverage (it makes no attempt to hide its contempt for Mubarak and his regime), there's one other thing that bothers me about it...

Western media has tended to portray the protests as "pro-democracy". Yet that word is significantly missing from most of AJ's coverage. Rather than aspiring to future democracy, they are passionate about purging current corruption.

Just to prove I'm not imagining this slant, I compared Al Jazeera's coverage with that of several major Western news outlets (by searching their websites for current news stories featuring "Egypt" plus either "democracy" or "corruption" or both). What I found:

Dear Mr Mubarak,

First, congratulations on being Egypt's longest-serving ruler since Muhammed Ali Pasha. Egypt is an ancient and widely respected country, unlike some in your neighbourhood, and having earned a place in that history should stand as an achievement in itself.

And congratulations also on remaining in residence long after many lesser dictators would have given up. You are clearly a man of principle and tenacity. We must stress, however, that at this difficult time it is more important than ever to avoid seriously blotting your record with the Americans. Keep this up, and you can look forward to a retirement peppered with prestigious speaking engagements, talk-show appearances and memoir-serialisation rights that will keep you in both hookahs and hookers for life.

We understand that you're not a democrat. We understand why you're not a democrat. That's fine with us. Our media may quack up a storm about "democracy", but as William Hague made clear on Al Jazeera last week - we're perfectly happy for you to govern Egypt however you like, just so long as you do it quietly. And if you can end your present domestic crisis - or even just ride it out until October - without spawning an international one, then good for you.

And we understand that people in your position should be appropriately rewarded for your efforts. It's a stressful job. Nobody begrudges you a few millions in your Swiss retirement fund. You absolutely should give plum jobs to your unqualified cronies, treat yourself to the occasional duck island or private business trip or bunga-bunga party at your taxpayers' expense. That's expected.

But there is such a thing as moderation. When you've amassed a family fortune that's one-seventh of your country's total GDP, you have run your course and then some. The time to retire was probably about $60 billion ago. You're not Rupert Murdoch.

On your way out, if you could forward this note to every other Arab leader in your address book, it would save us the trouble of researching them.


The People of Europe

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More home improvements

I've been wanting a heat pump, now, for 26 years. That's how long it is since I learned about them in first-year thermodynamics. The idea of getting much more energy out than you put in appealed strongly to the lazy freeloader in me - which, let's face it, has always been a strong if not dominant character trait.

But it wasn't until I came to New Zealand that I saw them widely advertised as a household appliance. We had ours fitted yesterday, a day before - in accordance with the universal laws governing these things - the weather turned cooler.

The installation involved drilling a hole through our wall. I was eager to watch this operation, because I wanted to know if it was true that the wall is, basically, made of polystyrene.

Turns out it's completely true.

There's a thin layer of plaster on the outside, then about two inches of polystyrene, then (allegedly, though I haven't actually seen this) a timber frame, then about a quarter-inch of plasterboard on the inside. Sometimes I'm amazed the house has stood up this long.

But so far, touch wood, it's doing well. And as from yesterday, it's significantly more comfortable, when the weather outside is either inclemently warm or cold.