What we’re reading: 23 April 2010

blogsIn the BMJ editorial office, we often come across interesting articles, blogs, and web pages. We thought we would share these with you. Some are medical, some techie, and some just general.

Trish Groves, deputy editor writes:
The eruption of the Icelandic volcano and the chaos it caused have thrown up some great stuff on risk:

Is driving more dangerous than flying through ash? Julian Baggini discusses risks of dying in various settings, then gets on to how lives are valued by governments – ranging from the QALY thresholds used by NICE to the cost of saving a life in the developing world.

Here’s food for thought: “many Americans avoided planes after 9/11 and travelled by road instead. As a result, a team of researchers from Cornell University estimated there were at least 1,200 more deaths on America’s roads than there would have been. Some 1,200 people died because they were avoiding what they perceived to be a riskier form of transport, 954 more than who died on the planes used for the terrorist attacks…Were the government to allow flights to go ahead [this week] when the risks were equal to those of road travel, it is almost certain that, over the course of the year, hundreds of people would die in resulting air accidents, since around 2,500 die on the roads each year.”

And in the Economist there’s a great piece on risk-management lessons from the volcanic ash cloud. Much of it is about better planning, but it also admits: “Many employees stranded in London simply spent the weekend enjoying an unexpected, sunny “volcation”. They are now taking the opportunity to meet people face-to-face whom they normally connect with only virtually, while connecting virtually with colleagues back home whom they normally deal with in person. ” Volcation; nice word.

Sally Carter, technical editor writes:
I’ve got the t-shirt so I thought I’d read the book. It’s The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara. In 1952 Che was a 23 year old medical student with asthma. He and a biochemist friend called Alberto Granado took off on an old Norton motorcycle on an 8000 km tour of South America. Initially the diaries sound like Che and Alberto are just on a lad’s adventure.

“His wife was pretty randy and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine took her by the hand to lead her outside.”

“By one o’clock Alberto had brought up the entire contents of his stomach, and at five in the afternoon, absolutely starving and with no land in sight, we presented ourselves to the captain as stowaways.”

But by the time you finish the book, it’s clear the effect some of his experiences, such as visiting the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile and meeting  a homeless communist couple looking for mining work had on him. The men also spent time working at the leper centre of San Pablo in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest talking with and treating the patients there.

“… we didn’t wear overall or gloves, we shook hands with them as we would the next man, sat with them chatting about his and that, and played football with them, This may seem pointless bravado, but the psychological benefits to these poor people – usually treated like animals – of being treated as normal human beings in incalculable and the risk incredibly remote.”

Sounds like quite a gap year.

Maggie Butler, technical editor writes:
Three Cups of Tea is the remarkable story of Greg Mortenson, a larger than life American, who at the time of writing the book had built 55 schools for boys and, most importantly, girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

His story began when, after a failed attempt to reach the summit of K2, he lost his way down the mountain and on his last legs stumbled into the impoverished village of Korphe in the remote Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. The villagers showed him the utmost kindness while nursing him back to health, and he even learnt to love their cups of tea made with rancid yak milk – yum! After learning that the children of the village had no school, but had makeshift lessons in the freezing cold on the edge of the mountain, he vowed that he would come back one day and build them a school.

Unlike most people who make that kind of promise, Greg actually kept his. He was not a rich man and worked as a trauma nurse. On his return to America he set about raising the money needed, saving money on accommodation by living in his car! He wrote hundreds of pleading letters on an ancient typewriter before he was introduced into the wonders of word processing.

He eventually raised the money and after many setbacks, including first having to build a bridge to the village, he built his first school. Together with Jean Hoerni he founded the non-profit making Central Asia Institute, which has become his life’s work, and he has gone on to build many more schools, not to mention the odd health centre and women’s centre. It has been a long and eventful journey, during which he has been kidnapped by Waziristan warriors, caught in crossfire between opium smugglers, had two fatwahs declared against him, and drunk tea with Taliban leaders, to name just a few of his adventures.

Greg has the rare ability to make friends with everyone he meets on all sides of the political and religious divide, probably because he just cares about people, children especially. In his mind, it is only by giving young people in that part of the world a balanced education and enabling them to escape from poverty that we can hope to stop them from turning to terrorism. This is especially important now with the rise of Saudi funded madrassas.

When asked what motivates him, he says, “The answer is simple. I see the eyes of my own children full of wonder—and hope that we each do our part to leave them a legacy of peace instead of the perpetual cycle of violence, war, terrorism, racism, exploitation, and bigotry that we have yet to conquer.”

You can’t say more than that!