Friday, November 18, 2011

Know-It-All -- Writer's Poke #339

A.J. Jacobs is a humorous gimmick writer that tackles absurd topics and takes them to their logical extreme conclusions.
The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Be the Smartest Person in the World was the first book of his that I discovered. To accomplish his task, Jacobs spent a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. His book captures the experience of reading entry after entry, and he shares some of the more unusual items of interest he picked up while reading, as the blurb on notes, “33,000 pages, 44 million words, 10 billion years of history.” He also describes the attitudes and reactions of friends and family. Seems as though a lot of people thought Jacobs was a bit nuts attempting to accomplish this task. After all, who sits down to read an entire encyclopedia?

Jacobs continues to crank out rather silly “life experience” books; they all seem rather artificial, because he assigns himself some weird task, and then he writes about it. In one book, he attempts to live a Biblical life, literally. In another book, he pretends that life is one long series of experiments, attempting to live like George Washington, to experience life as a woman, etc. In his latest book scheduled for an early 2012 release, he attempts to attain the perfect physical body. Judging by the author’s photo on the book’s cover, that one will be a real hoot, for sure.

In all honesty, though, who wouldn’t want to know everything? Who wouldn’t want to have the perfect body? And for that matter, who wouldn’t be curious to know what it’s like to experience life as the opposite gender? But part of Jacobs’ premise, too, is that attempting these extraordinary achievements is goofy, or at least only for the uber-obsessed. When we see someone with a body-builder’s physic, instead of describing them as “a perfect specimen,” don’t we generally label them as a “freak”? Likewise, calling someone a “know-it-all” isn’t exactly a compliment. Perhaps we’re just trying to comfort ourselves in our own averageness?

If you could dedicate one year to doing something outside the norm of your daily life, what would you most like to accomplish? What do you think you might learn from the experience?

“Never despise small beginnings, and don’t belittle your own accomplishments. Remember them and use them as inspiration as you go on to the next thing. When you venture outside your comfort zone, wherever the starting point may be, it’s kind of a big deal.” – Chris Guillebeau

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lemon AIDS -- Writer's Poke #338

Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang served as South Africa’s Minster of Health from 1999 to 2008; she was rather notorious for her views on AIDS, arguing that a diet of lemons, beetroots, and garlic was a fine way to delay the development of HIV.
As far as I know, this woman wasn’t stupid. She was a real doctor, having received medical training in South Africa, the Soviet Union, Tanzania, and Belgium. So why did she support a nutritional approach as the best way to combat HIV as opposed, say, to using a more conventional (and scientifically-based) approach, such as treating the disease with anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs)?
Apparently South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, didn’t believe that HIV caused AIDS, and so, until his cabinet finally overruled him and voted that it did in 2002, ARVs weren’t available to the general population.
Africa was, and still is, trying to find itself. Tshabalala-Msimang supported the idea that Western medicine didn’t always know best, and that Africa should look to its own traditions to find the answers it needed to solve the AIDS crisis. Part of Africa’s “ancient traditional knowledge” apparently included waging war on disease with lemons, beetroots, and garlic.
In the 21st century, it seems a bit incredible that a Health Minister of a major world country could promote such views, doesn’t it?
How can we make sure that beliefs don’t ever stand in the way of evidence?
“If we only said safe sex, use a condom, we won't stop the spread of AIDS in this country.” --
South African President Thabo Mbeki
"Shall I repeat garlic, shall I talk about beetroot, shall I talk about lemon... these delay the development of HIV to Aids-defining conditions, and that's the truth." -- Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, South African Minister of Health (2006)