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Archive August 2010

RIP: Sir Graham Liggins – an ‘outstanding medical scientist’ Peter Griffin Aug 24

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The respected medical research scientist, Professor Sir Graham Liggins, died today after a long illness. He was aged 84.

Professor Sir Graham Liggins

Professor Sir Graham Liggins

It was fitting that the first tribute to Sir Graham, or “Mont” as he was known to friends came from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, who set up the Liggins Institute which is named in Sir Graham’s honour. Sir Peter said he  considered Sir Graham to be  a “great friend, mentor and hero”.

You can read Sir Peter’s tribute in full here. An excerpt:

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, working out of National Women’s Hospital and The University of Auckland, Mont made a series of highly original observations that totally changed our understanding of pregnancy and birth. Importantly, he made discoveries which led him to develop the first treatment which made it possible for babies who were born prematurely, with lungs that were not functioning properly, to have a chance to breathe and survive.

The experiments that he undertook to demonstrate this were amazingly innovative and ground breaking. From a set of extraordinary insights and understandings of unexpected observations, he recognised that by giving steroid hormones to the mother he could mature the organs of the fetus to the extent that, even if it was born prematurely, its lungs could work. With extraordinary speed and in conjunction with Professor Ross Howie, he translated his discovery into a clinical trial which was remarkable for its rigour. The trial demonstrated that indeed the survival premature babies could be increased considerably.

This observation changed the face of neonatology worldwide and has been responsible directly and indirectly for saving an enormous number of lives. Without doubt it is considered the single most important advance in obstetrical and perinatal research of the last 50 years. He made many other important and ground breaking findings about the birth process and reproduction.

Clash of the anecdotes on vitamin C Peter Griffin Aug 22

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If you read today’s letters to the Sunday Star Times you’ll see the flip side of anecdotal evidence on the use of intravenous vitamin C to treat serious illness.

The letter below illustrates well why it is potentially very dangerous when people make decisions that may impact their health based on anecdotal evidence. Miraculous recoveries and “miracle cures” get all the headlines as the 60 Minutes piece from last week that was the subject of an earlier post shows.

What doesn’t get reported, unless they go horribly wrong, are the ineffective and often expensive alternative treatments people and their families resort to when they are near death. On a side-note, who’d have thought this stuff would be so expensive and why was the writer greeted by a “resident naturopath” at their local chemist?Is that, like, normal?

Source: Sunday Star Times

Source: Sunday Star Times

How the media lost interest in Climategate Peter Griffin Aug 21

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I’ve blogged before about how climategate’s final act, in which three separate investigations largely exonerated the scientists concerned and reaffirmed the climate science, was under-reported by the New Zealand media compared to the explosion of coverage at the start.

Well, TVNZ’s Media7 show hosted by Russell Brown set out to find out just how much of a tail-off in coverage there was between November when the story broke with the leaking of the CRU emails to July when the Muir Russell review reported its findings.

Data visualisation guru Keith Ng used Meltwater News statistics to track references in key mainstream media outlets to “Climategate” in the period during which the climategate scandal was being covered, and also the period of its aftermath when the three separate review panels reported back.

Source: Keith Ng

Source: Keith Ng

This isn’t a perfect measure and you’d expect some disparity between the initial coverage of the sensational news that thousands of emails detailing climate scientists off-the-record discussions had been leaked, and the mopping up of the affair in dry review papers.

But the difference is quite marked for the majority of the media. The New Zealand Herald, TVNZ and TV3 really went to town on climategate between November and February, but coverage tailed off majorly after the fact.

Interestingly, Stuff, the website for the Fairfax newspapers, did as much reporting on Climategate’s aftermath as it did climategate itself.

Both Stuff and Radio New Zealand did comparatively less coverage of climategate overall than the other media outlets.

The statistics back up what we experienced at the Science Media Centre – huge interest in the initial leak and reaction to it in New Zealand – this lastest through COP15 and into the new year when NIWA released its temperature data for 2009 and the last decade.

Then a major tail-off in interest in the media as the reviews came in – no one was interested in covering it and most of the stories represented by the red bars above are  in fact international stories about the climategate reviews. I was only able to find one column in the Meltwater results, an editorial in the Gisborne Herald, analysing Climategate in the light of the exoneration of the scientists. That’s despite the flurry of columns written on the original leak of the emails, many of which predicted them constituting the “nail in the coffin” for the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

Here’s the Media7 show ‘Bridging the Gap’ where the data is discussed…

Unvaccinated and bizarrely proud of it Peter Griffin Aug 20

A colleague who read my previous post about the 60 Minutes miracle cure programme pointed out some of the reaction to the story on the Facebook page of the official-sounding Vaccination Information Network.

A visit to the page finds it is anything but informative. Despite that, the VINE has attracted a following of 8000-plus people interested in a hodge-podge of pseudoscientific information about vaccinaton, the “AIDs hoax” and worse.

Obviously, people commenting on the 60 Minutes story were triumphant that “nutritional therapy” had won out in the case of Alan Smith. As one poster writes:

Great to hear about this, everyone should know how Vit C cures the most stubborn bacteria. I am sure there are many others that did not get the right treatment and are not alive today.

The Vaccination Information Network, which is the work of anti-vaccine campaigner Erwin Alber, was according to Facebook, started in 1988, in New Zealand, “to help parents make an informed choice on behalf of their child”.

Consider that last bit when you look at the photos of the children below, whose parents proudly on their behalf, proclaim their anti-vaccine status on Facebook…

vine

Now should I show you some pictures of children who were not vaccinated and suffered physical and/or mental disablement as a result? No, I think you get the point…

Sins of omission in 60 Minutes ‘miracle’ story Peter Griffin Aug 20

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If you watched the 60 Minutes item Living Proof on Wednesday night, you’ll no doubt agree that King Country farmer Alan Smith is lucky to be alive.

60 minutesAcutely affected by the H1N1 virus, Smith lay in intensive care close to death, an ECMO machine battling to keep his fluid-filled lungs functioning.  As Mike McRoberts says in the introduction to the 60 Minutes piece by veteran reporter Melanie Reid, Smith came back from the dead.

But what saved his life?

Well, if the 60 Minutes piece is to be believed, large doses of vitamin C administered to Smith intravenously at the behest of his desperate family pulled him back from the brink of death. The family had to battle doctors to allow the treatment to proceed and even had to enlist top-flight constitutional lawyer Mai Chen to apply the legal blowtorch to the hospital treating Smith to allow the treatment to continue.

Smith’s lungs began to clear as the vitamin C was administered though his family admits this may have had something to do with the fact that at the same time, Smith was put in the prone position – that is, he was rolled onto his stomach in the hope that this would help clear his lungs.

Where did the family come across the idea of administering vitamin C intravenously? What does the peer-reviewed literature say about this sort of treatment for pneumonia-like symptoms? Could Smith’s family have actually risked harming him by giving him large doses of vitamin C? None of that is clear from the piece, because 60 Minutes didn’t  interview anyone with a medical or scientific background equipped to answer these questions. No one from the two hospitals that treated Smith would comment on how he was treated but it is clear from the case notes flashed across the screen that the doctors treating his thought intravenous shots of vitamin C was a wacky idea and would do him no good.

The upshot is that we have an apparent “miracle”  on our hands – that’s definitely  how 60 Minutes promoted the piece:

So was it a one-off miracle? Or has the family stumbled on a miracle cure?

Or how about option three – no one knows what led to Smith’s recovery and there’s certainly no evidence it was vitamin C. Not that you’d get that sort of equivocation from 60 Minutes, who obviously didn’t want to let pesky experts get in the way of a powerful story about a good kiwi family standing up to a cold medical bureaucracy. At the Science Media Centre, we asked experts to watch the piece and provide feedback on it.

Professor John Fraser, Head of School of Medical Sciences, University of Auckland told the SMC:

It is disappointing that the journalist did not attempt to seek expert advice on the reasons why the consultants were unwilling to administer high dose vitamin C. There is certainly no evidence from the medical literature that this treatment works particularly in severe cases of pneumonia. The consultants were quite right to resist the use of an unproven treatment, and to their credit they did acquiesce to accommodate the family’s wishes because they felt it would do no harm. In this remarkable case the patient did survive but there is no evidence that this was due to the vitamin C. This is a wonderful story of personal survival and it is sad that it has been used to discredit those professionals who were just trying to provide their best for a very sick patient. If the vitamin C had killed him, then the story would have been different. That is the risk of using an unproven treatment.

None of this point of view was reflected in the 60 Minutes piece, though any number of independent experts like Professor Fraser would have happily provided it if asked.

The evidence on intravenous vitamin C

At the very least, 60 Minutes could have added a bit of background about intravenous vitamin C treatments and the lack of empirical research suggesting such treatment is effective. I haven’t been able to find a single study looking at intravenous use of vitamin C to treat people in Smith’s condition. There are instead assorted case studies of patients treated in this way – but almost always for types of cancer and there have been some studies looking at vitamin C administered to mice and rats. This paper published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine ten years ago suggests: “Some cancer patients have had complete remissions after highdose intravenous vitamin C infusions”.

A study by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008  showed “high-dose injections of vitamin C reduced tumour weight and growth rate by about 50 percent in mouse models of brain, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers”. The paper caused some heated debate among scientists as this letter from molecular biologist Professor Piet Borst to PNAS illustrates:

It is possible that ’the promise of ascorbic acid in the treatment of advanced cancer may lie in combination with cytotoxic agents’. As long as this has not been tested, we should try to avoid a new hype of vitamin C as cancer treatment by pointing out, especially in PNAS, the limitations of the available data.

There simply isn’t enough peer-reviewed literature to see this treatment endorsed by the medical profession other than those offering alternative therapies yet isolated cases of cancer sufferers going into remission following treatment with intravenous vitamin C keep the media spotlight on this supposed miracle cure. Check out another such story that screened in the US on ABC:

YouTube Preview Image

The reality is that Smith’s being placed in the prone position is just as likely to have been responsible for his recovery than the administering of large doses of vitamin C or anything else for that matter. We simply don’t know and the 60 Minutes piece suggests you should be willing to defy the advice of medical experts and demand alternative therapies for yourself or loved-ones who are seriously ill. How irresponsible is that?

Campbell Live does no better

Campbell Live followed up the 60 Minutes piece this evening, not with a medical expert adding clarity and context, but with Mai Chen, the lawyer who came to Smith’s rescue. Chen had no qualms about veering well out of her area of expertise telling John Campbell:

The intravenous vitamin C is a well-researched treatment. At the point we intervened John, his family had been advised three times to turn off the machine… intravenous vitamin C has actually been administered by doctors for ten years, low-level doses not intravenous for 25 years. Its a well-researched medication form of treatment.

Then she says…

Its so difficult to get doctors to administer treatments that they don’t consider to be conventional or not research-based.

Note the “not research-based” bit. She then goes on to contradict herself, expressing her concern that “New Zealanders all could potentially face this issue” but admitting that medical specialists using “professional judgement and the Hippocratic oath” ultimately decided what was best for their patients.

TV’s Aversion to experts

Here then are another couple of examples of TV current affairs shows avoiding watering down a sensationalist story by actually interviewing people who know what they are talking about.

We know that the TV networks have been advised that experts are a turn-off to audiences, that people relate to human stories, the victim, the patient, the family, not the academic giving a dispassionate view.

In this case the sins of omission are potentially dangerous by sending a message that it is acceptable to take treatment into your own hands when you or a member of your family has “nothing left to lose” defying experts and evidence in favour of treatments that haven’t been proven effective. Nice one TV3…

How many ways can you spell QUACK? Peter Griffin Aug 17

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The weekend’s Skeptics conference was a refreshing reminder that there are sharp-witted people in New Zealand interested in rational thought and with a healthy disdain for pseudo-scientific claims, quackery and silly beliefs.

Some of the conference sessions are available as podcasts over at the Science Media Centre website – more are to come as soon as I find time to upload them. Check them out if you want an insight into the shonky science behind the MMR-autism hoax, the catastrophic theory of Nibiru, the planet set to smash through the solar system and take us out, and the peculiar spike in cases of sudden unexplained acceleration in the wake of the Toyota recall.

It was a shrewd skeptic that alerted me to the imminent arrival of well-known US quack Caroline Myss, who on August 28 will hold an all-day seminar at the Langham hotel in Auckland. The cost is $235 per ticket.

Myss’s line in quackery is of the mystical type. As her website explains…

As a medical intuitive, Caroline can sense if someone is ailing, how soon they will become ill, why they will get ill and where the illness will likely develop. She also specialises in helping people to understand the emotional, psychological and physical reasons behind an illness.

Her flavour of alternative medicine has made her a New York Times best seller with books like last year’s Defy Gravity: Healing Beyond the Bounds of Reason and 2005′s Invisible Acts of Power: Channeling Grace in Your Everyday Life.

Caroline Myss has over 6,400 followers on Twitter. Her last tweet, posted in April read:

I am trying to work out a system to do healings online. What does everyone think?

What will kiwis think of Caroline Myss? Will they flock to the Langham to hear how they can “heal any illness…channel grace…live fearlessly”. Hopefully anyone considering shelling out $235 (plus Ticketek service charges) will read up on Myss first. She may be a best-selling writer, but her PhD appears to come out of a packet of Cornflakes:

She also claims to hold a Ph.D in “intuition and energy medicine”, but the degree was granted by Greenwich University, a now-defunct correspondence school that was never accredited to deliver higher education awards by any recognized government accreditation authority.

Vitamin C as miracle swine flu cure?

Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Sciblogs readers should tune into 60 Minutes on TV3 tomorrow night. I’d be interested in your feedback on the science-related piece they will be running. This is how TV3′s promotional department have described it:

LIVING PROOF?

60 Minutes 18 Aug: The amazing story of a King Country dairy farmer who caught swine flu and very nearly died. Intensive care specialists were all set to pull him off life support, saying there was no hope. But his family refused to give up. They demanded the doctors try high doses of Vitamin C, a radical treatment well outside mainstream medicine. The hospital told them it wouldn’t work but the family insisted. It turned into a fight, the family even hired a top lawyer. But in the end, as Melanie Reid will show you, the farmer is now very much alive. So was it a one-off miracle? Or has the family stumbled on a miracle cure?

Big claims indeed – it is either a one-off miracle or a miracle cure. Let me know what you think – the show screens tomorrow night at 7.30pm on TV3.

The science of climate change – Australia weighs in Peter Griffin Aug 16

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If New Zealand’s senior climate scientists weren’t tied up responding to vexatious attacks from the Climate Science Coalition, they have time to put together useful overviews of climate science aimed at informing the public about the state of climate change, as this useful report from the Australian Academy of Science does.

aus climate reportIt is ironic that the day the Climate Science Coalition launches a legal attack on NIWA in an attempt to “set aside” the country’s official climate records, a compelling scientific overview points to global temperature trends that echo the trends identified by NIWA.

As one of the speakers who presented the report at a press conference in Canberra today said, there is “no international scientific conspiracy” aimed at misleading the public on the extent of climate change and humans contribution to it.

The introduction to the report, The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers, is unequivocal in its conclusion:

The available evidence implies that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. It is expected that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at business-as-usual rates global temperatures will further increase significantly over the coming century and beyond.

aus climate report 3

Source: Australian Academy of Science

Source: Australian Academy of Science

Source: Australian Academy of Science

Source: Australian Academy of Science

Source: Australian Academy of Science

Aussie bid to boost science literacy, engagement Peter Griffin Aug 12

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As Australia rolls towards a Federal election a fair amount of pork barrel politicking is underway as Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott fight to swing the divided electorate their way.

Still, there hasn’t been much for science, the only significant thing outlined in Labor’s science policy released this week being the A$21 million Inspiring Australia initiative aimed at encouraging “science engagement”. It should be noted that along with the Inspiring Australia announcement came news of “modest reductions” in other areas of science funding totaling, you guessed it, A$21 million. So a reshuffling of the deckchairs, but one, as a science communicator, I can relate to.

Furious debate over Climategate, the ETS, the response to the swine flu pandemic, immunisation and other science-related issues suggests there’s a real need for the public in general to get good, easy to understand information to help inform their opinions. Logically you’d think of the media there and part of the funding package is aimed at “…public, commercial and online media outlets, which are ideally placed to communicate Australian science issues and achievements to the public”. No idea what this will mean, but hopefully some of it will go towards supporting the likes of the Australian Science Media Centre which does a fantastic job of brokering relationships between the media and the scientific community in Australia and whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with via the New Zealand SMC.

Interestingly, there’s also a line in the policy about “on-the-job media training to improve the ability of scientists and researchers to work with the media”. This would be a huge boost for scientists. Media training in scientific organisations across Australasia is generally carried out by the institutions and reserved for the management and most senior scientists. That is because it is very expensive. It is often slanted towards dealing with crisis management. But the bulk of scientists just want tips on how to communicate their science more effectively. If this money goes towards helping them do that, it has to be a good thing.

According to Labor’s science policy, the A$21 million will go into the following things:

Recognising achievement. Labor will continue to run the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, which play a vital role in raising the profile of science and alerting the community to the achievements of individual scientists and science teachers. Labor will also contribute to the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prizes.

National Science Week. Labor will continue to support National Science Week, Australia’s premier vehicle for bringing science and research to the people, right across the country. It is an annual, nationwide celebration of Australian achievements and capabilities in science. It aims to identify, engage, inspire and ultimately enlist and mobilise the best Australian talent in science and research. It provides hundreds of opportunities each year to get the community involved in science and to promote scientific careers among young people.

Unlocking Australia’s full potential. Labor will support science events and activities in Australia’s cities, regional and remote areas all year round. There will be specific programs for young people, outer-metropolitan and regional areas, and indigenous and remote communities, as well as programs integrating science into popular community events such as writers’ weeks and music festivals. Activities will involve educators, industry, and physical and social scientists, and will build long-term partnerships and networks. Labor will also renew support for programs delivered through the Higher Education Research Promotion program.

Connecting with mainstream and new media. Labor will promote science through public, commercial and online media outlets, which are ideally placed to communicate Australian science issues and achievements to the public. Labor will provide targeted, on-the-job media training to improve the ability of scientists and researchers to work with the media. We will also support cadetships for future science communicators. This will boost science literacy in the media and the ability of journalists to make science meaningful to the widest possible audience.

Hackers, crackers, script kiddies and cyber criminals Peter Griffin Aug 11

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If you are spending any serious amount of time on the internet these days, you are likely to become the target of cyber criminals who will come at you with something as relatively harmless as spam or as dangerous as a “phishing” attack to steal your bank account details.

As we increasingly live our lives digitally, the chance of our information being compromised, stolen and used for nefarious purposes is escalating. You may have heard of hackers and cyber terrorists, but there’s a whole ecosystem of cyber criminals and a sort of taxonomy security experts have come up with to describe them. Security software vendor AVG has helpfully outlined those categories in a piece from its Australia/New Zealand “security evangelist” Lloyd Borrett.

Know Your Enemy:

Hackers

In the early days of computers, ’hackers’ were white hat good guys who tried to do no harm and hacker was a benign term. Hackers illegally accessed computers to learn more about them, or to find security holes in the computer or the network to which it’s attached. They did nothing malicious, used their skills for good purposes and took pride in the quality of hacks that would leave no trace of an intrusion. Today’s white hat hackers are typically computer security experts, who specialise in penetration testing and other security testing methodologies to ensure that a company’s information systems are secure.

Crackers

During the early 1980s the lay of the land changed and we started to see the rise of ’crackers’. This refers to a person who intentionally accesses a computer, or network of computers, for evil reasons – typically, with the intent of destroying and/or stealing information. Today these bad guy crackers are sometimes referred to as black hats, or mostly just hackers.

Usually, both hackers and crackers have very advanced computer and networking skills allowing them to develop scripts or programs to help them attack computer systems and networks.

Script Kiddies

Hacking tools can sometimes fall into the hands of ’script kiddies’, who often use them randomly and with little regard or perhaps even understanding of the potentially harmful consequences. These script kiddies usually have very limited computer skills and can be quite immature, trying to effect large numbers of attacks in order to obtain attention and notoriety.

Cyber Criminals

We typically use the term ’cyber criminals’ to describe those who use the Internet in illegal ways, or to facilitate illegal or fraudulent activities.

More specifically, cyber criminals are the people trying to put malware onto your system so that they can obtain valuable information such as credit card and bank account details, user names and passwords. This is identity theft and those responsible will either use the information to defraud someone, or sell it on to someone else who will.

Cyber criminals are also scammers and phishers who try to con you into giving them money. They might claim to need your help to transfer large amounts of money, or that you’ve won a prize in a lottery you never entered. Sometimes it’s the promise of an inheritance from a wealthy relative you’ve never heard of.

Some cyber criminals illegally distribute software, music, movies against copyright laws. They might even sell illegal forms of pornography. Typically their activities are entirely profit motivated, though in the cases of cyber bullying and cyber grooming the motivations lie elsewhere.

Not all cyber criminals have sophisticated computer and networking skills. Today, the vast majority of cyber criminals simply use the malicious tools and kits marketed for profit by those creating them.

In effect, most cyber criminals are simply up-to-date script kiddies, but now they’re motivated by profit, not notoriety. For about US$400, almost anyone can buy appropriate scripts and after about four  hours of working through the instructions, be fully set up as a cyber criminal. Scary stuff.

Cyber Spies

People trying to illegally obtain information about companies or government organisations are known as ’cyber spies’. Typically when the attack is against a business it is profit driven, while when it’s against government organisations it is espionage.

Cyber Extortionists

People who carry out blackmail via the Internet are ’cyber extortionists’. For instance, threatening to release confidential information if an individual or company does not pay a large amount of money. Cyber extortionists may put in place a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) against the web site or network of a business and demand payment to stop the attack. They might trick you into downloading and installing malware/scareware/scamware, for example rogue anti-virus software, and then demand payment in order for it to be removed.

Cyber Activists

Relatively new on the scene are ’cyber activists’ who use the Internet as a fast and cheap communications tool for their public movements. They may be involved in cause-related fundraising, community building, lobbying and organising public demonstrations. One example is Iranians using Twitter to organise mass protests in 2009.

Cyber Terrorists

Of course, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, so we also have ’cyber terrorists’. These are cyber criminals who use the Internet to destroy computers or disrupt Internet-connected services for political reasons. Just like a regular terrorist attack, cyber terrorism typically requires highly skilled individuals, a lot of money to implement, and detailed planning. An example is when hundreds of DDoS attacks in 2007 virtually took down the Internet in Estonia.

Cyber Warriors

It seems that many countries, including the USA and China, have decided that the Internet is a valid tool to fight a war against their enemies. While the Internet can be used to greatly enhance military and economic power, it also presents a soft underbelly to present and future adversaries. Thus governments are recruiting and training ’cyber warriors’ to use the Internet for offensive attacks, and to protect us from such attacks by others. Sad, but true.

Crazy science letter of the week part 12 Peter Griffin Aug 03

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Chemtrails over Northland? Well, yes according to Clare Swinney – a massive geoengineering scheme to combat global warming and one being denied by the authorities.

It’s a twist on the mass poisoning/ mass medication motive usually given by people who believe the vapour trials left by aircraft passing overhead are actually discharges of chemicals designed to turn us into compliant, unquestioning citizens – or something!

Source: Northern Advocate

Source: Northern Advocate

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