The tricky business of unblocking your brain

Don’t read this if you’ve got an aneurysm.

Spend 24 hours in the company of a couple of hundred brain surgeons and you’d have a sense of unease too. I’m at a conference where “minimally invasive neurological therapies” are being discussed. My take-home message? No one knows anything for sure. Until it’s too late, that is.

Not that they aren’t good at their job – they’re the best in the world at getting at blockages and other problems inside your brain. But they are here to discuss the things they don’t know. And those are conversations you’d rather not overhear.

The typical presentation goes like this. “So, we went to perform an angioplasty on patient A, who was suffering from acutely reduced vision” (I may be paraphrasing badly). “Here’s the imaging.”

On the screen appears a picture of some loopy, tangled-looking blood vessels. There are murmurs and sharp intakes of breath. A voice just behind me mutters “ay-ay-ay”.

I have no idea what I’m looking at. I’m only here to give a talk about more general issues in scientific research. But I have that sinking feeling, like in the first five minutes of an episode of Casualty, that something bad is about to happen.

“I’d like to know: what would you have done?” the presenter asks. She offers two options. The room votes. The split is even, an observation that makes me hugely uncomfortable. There is no consensus. Why is there no consensus? Surely there’s a right thing to do in any situation? The presenter goes on to explain what she did. There is another round of murmuring in the room. Clearly, many people – approximately half – think this was a very bad idea.

The next presenter describes a surgery that started to go wrong 4 hours into an operation. He talks like it’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “What do you think?” he asks the audience. “Shall I go on or stop now?” A voice from the back shouts, “No, no, no. Stop. You have to stop!”

He did go on, as it happened. He describes how the procedure progressed, blow by blow. “No, no, don’t do that!” comes an anguished shout, like this is Surgery Live. It’s not: this all happened last year. “Yeah,” the presenter mutters. “Thanks, I know that now.”

The next presentation ends with, “Well, I’ll never do that again.” Then comes another: “So, I’d like your opinions – should I treat this? If so, how?” The audience is calling out answers like a classroom full of show-offs. The session chair asks for calm.

Not all the answers are helpful. “If you get bleeding there, that’s going to be catastrophic.” The presenter furrows his brow. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I’m asking.”

This one is not a done deal, as it turns out. “Thanks,” the presenter says as the deluge of conflicting answers abates. “I’m due to see her again in ten days, so that’s really helpful.”

Here’s hoping she’s not reading this.


A patient prepped for surgery. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Disney didn’t buy Twitter — partly because it can't master the Bare Necessities

Walt Disney Co. has decided against bidding for the social network.

Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of your – @simba DIE U STUPID LION UR SONG IS SHIT.

That was a short representation of one the alleged reasons why Walt Disney Co. opted out of bidding for Twitter last night. Despite hiring two investment banks to help them weigh up a deal, Disney have dropped out of the running partly because – according to Bloomberg – of the social networks’s reputation for bullying and harassment, as well as its falling profits. Individuals close to Disney management allegedly told the business news website that Twitter did not fit well for the company, which, after all, is more famous for feel-good anthropomorphic animals than angry, anonymous eggs. 

Those who mistakenly believe Twitter is a happy place where ev’rybody wants to be a cat might need an explanation. Despite the apparent abundance of cat gifs, Twitter can be a violent and angry social network – a report last year stated that 88 per cent of the abusive mentions on social media happen on the site. Twitter has long struggled to stop abuse overwhelming discussion on the social network. This has fed the perception among some of its 300 million users that tackling abuse is a low priority, with efforts at reducing trolling overshadowed by the release of new features such as increased message length and curated news feeds known as Moments. Because of this, the site has become seen as – in one former employee’s words – “a honeypot for assholes.” Oh, bother.


Earlier this year, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was bombarded with racist tweets upon the film's release, forcing her to leave the site for a few weeks. "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines," she wrote. The company did take action in the wake of the Jones case, permanently banning the prominent right-wing journalist and notorious troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, from the site for his role in fanning the flames of the abuse. But, while Google has set up a new company, Jigsaw, to make the internet a safer place, Instagram regularly bans offensive hashtags and Facebook has devoted time to constantly updating its anti-harassment tools (most recently making it easier to report revenge porn), Twitter’s trolling problem continues.

Even Twitter's former top employees have criticised the company's efforts. In a leaked memo from 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo said: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years." Earlier this year, the current CEO Jack Dorsey admitted Twitter "must do better" at dealing with abuse. Salesforce, another potential buyer, have also allegedly been put off by the site's reputation. "The haters reduce the value of the company... I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion," reported CNBC's Jim Cramer

Neither company has declared publicly that Twitter's abuse problem dettered them from the sale, but could the loss of this latest suitor push them to take the problem more seriously? Having some sort of pre-emptive anti-harassment tool has become the bare necessities of running a successful social network, but Twitter still waits for users to report abuse and then, frequently, tells them that the abusive content actually didn’t violate their rules. 

It is not too late for Twitter to turn itself around, as many of its users are still loyal despite the abuse. With one successful attempt to tackle harassment, a resurgence for the site could be just around the riverbend. In the words of the wise Rafiki: "Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it."