Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Book Club and the Book: Life on the Ground Floor

After years (maybe even decades) of yearning to belong to a book club, I attended my first meeting this week. What a great evening! Interesting book, congenial people, fascinating discussion (about the book and other topics), not to mention tasty munchies and a cosy fireplace on a very cold and icy evening. Life is good.

The evening's book was Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine by James Maskalyk. The 'presenter'  led off a well-organized and articulate introduction, with background on Maskalyk, a summary of his previous book Six Months in Sudan, some excerpts from book reviews, and an audio clip of an interview with Maskalyk on CBC's The Current. Then the floor was opened to general discussion.

Masalyk divides his time between the emergency department of St. Mike's an inner-city hospital in Toronto and a program at Addis Ababa University to train emergency physicians in Ethiopia. The book interweaves vignettes from these two settings, interspersed with sketches of visits to his grandfather in Northern Alberta. The structure of the book follows the letters of the alphabet, with musings on a topic for each letter: A was for airways, B for Breathing, C is for Circulation, and so on. This might sound plodding, but Maskalyk writes with such verve and the ability to put you right in the situation he's describing that the artificiality of the structure soon melts away. Medical information is brought to life with anecdotes about the patients he's taken care of and some of his descriptions wander into the poetic.

The contrast between the conditions in Toronto and Addis Ababa is incisive and thought-provoking. Medicine in Toronto is dispensed without any concern about potential costs, whereas in Ethiopia everything is in short supply from the blood that must be rationed among patients who all need it and the payments that are 'pulled creased and tattered from some worried mother's pocket'.  Equally clear are the similarities. Whether in Toronto or Addis Ababa, Maskalyk loves the the clarity of the ER - the sickest, most urgent first and the rest must wait. Emotions and biases must not distort those choices. Decisions must be completely independent of whether the patient is rich or poor, white or black, male or female.

For some in the book club, the sections where Maskalyk visits his grandfather showed the most humanity; they just didn't resonate as well with me and the opening section with his grandfather might have discouraged me from continuing if it hadn't been a book club selection. Once I got past that, I really loved the book and whizzed right along reading it. I definitely recommend this memoir.

More book reviews here.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

What's in a Word? Poubelle

Poubelle is the French word for trash can.  Who knew that word is named after Eugène Poubelle, who introduced trash cans to Paris in 1884. Building owners were mandated to provide these trash cans, much to their chagrin at the extra expense. Even more surprisingly, three types had to be provided, for compostable items, for paper and cloth, and for crockery and shells. Recycling back in the 19th C.

As an aside, ten years later, after a resurgence of cholera, Poubelle decreed that all buildings had to be connected to sewers.  Again, at the expense of the building owner.

What an interesting man.

By the way, I first became of Poubelle in a caption at the Art Gallery of Ontario's current exhibit, Impressionism in the Industrial Age, which focuses on the depiction of industry in the paintings of the impressionists. Interspersed are photos from the era as well.  Lots of interesting historical facts sprinkled throughout the exhibition. Like the fact that 300,000 people were displaced by the expropriations for the grand boulevards, wide streets and vistas of Haussmann's design for Paris that we so revel in today.

Other 'word' posts:

Other posts on words:

Friday, October 5, 2018

Donna Strickland: Amazing Physicist, Amazing Canadian, Amazing Woman

Canadians, and women, have revelled in the accomplishment of the self-effacing Donna Strickland, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics. She is only the third woman to win the Physics prize in over a century and only the fifth Canadian ever.

Bravo Strickland!

Shame on University of Waterloo!

In the 21 years Strickland has worked there, the university has not seen fit to promote this Nobel-calibre physicist to full professor. Hmm. Could it be because she's female?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Information Sparkles with McCall's Infographics

Tommy McCall makes information come alive. He doesn't just present existing information - his graphics deliver new insights. He illustrates how you can take data and turn it into information, and then make it visually captivating and thought-provoking.  His immense creativity gets to the nub of what's important and figures out a way to convey that - succinctly and powerfully.

His recent brief TED talk shows some wonderful examples of his own and other infographics through history, including some perspective on Florence Nightingale's use of infographics to animate her argument about military deaths from poor care. Watch McCall here.

I wrote about Tommy in my blog  once before, when I first met him on a bus on the way to TED, and I've been following his wonderful work ever since. You will be fascinating delving into the trove of great graphics in his portfolio here. Bravo Tommy.