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1. The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison | The Believer | February 3, 2014 | 37 minutes (9,369 words)

An affecting essay about medical acting, illness, and empathy:

I grow accustomed to comments that feel aggressive in their formulaic insistence: That must really be hard [to have a dying baby], That must really be hard [to be afraid you’ll have another seizure in the middle of the grocery store], That must really be hard [to carry in your uterus the bacterial evidence of cheating on your husband]. Why not say, I couldn’t even imagine?

Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion. They won’t even press the stethoscope to my skin without asking if it’s OK. They need permission. They don’t want to presume. Their stuttering unwittingly honors my privacy: “Can I… could I… would you mind if I—listened to your heart?” “No,” I tell them. “I don’t mind.” Not minding is my job. Their humility is a kind of compassion in its own right. Humility means they ask questions, and questions mean they get answers, and answers mean they get points on the checklist: a point for finding out my mother takes Wellbutrin, a point for getting me to admit I’ve spent the last two years cutting myself, a point for finding out my father died in a grain elevator when I was two—for realizing that a root system of loss stretches radial and rhizomatic under the entire territory of my life.

More Believer: “Christmas in Thessaloniki” (Arnon Grunberg, 2013)

2. Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia

Jeff Sharlet | GQ | February 4, 2014 | 30 minutes (7,543 words)

Violence, threats and living in fear that things are only going to get worse:

“Something is coming,” says Pavel. What it will be, he’s not sure. He’s worried about “special departments” in local police stations, dedicated to removing children from gay homes. He’s worried about a co-worker discovering him. He is worried about blackmail. He is worried, and he does not know what else to do. He wishes he could fight, but he doesn’t know how. Sign a petition? March in a parade? Pavel would never do that now. “My children,” he murmurs. “This law,” he says, referring to the ban on “propaganda.” “If something happens, it touches only me. And I can protect myself.” But the next law: “This is about my child. My baby.” If the next law passes, they will leave. The two women are doctors and Nik works in higher education, careers that will require new certification. Which means that only Pavel, a manager for the state oil company, will be able to work right away. They will be poor, but they will leave. They might have to separate, Pavel and Irina and Emma to Israel, where Irina can become a citizen, Nik and Zoya and Kristina to any country that will take them. They might have to become the couples they pretend to be. For now, they are staying. “We’re going to teach them,” he says of his two little girls, Emma and Kristina. “How to protect themselves. How to keep silence.”

More Sharlet: “Quebrado: The Life and Death of a Young Activist” (Rolling Stone, 2008)

3. The Ghost Files

David J. Craig | Columbia Magazine | February 1, 2014 | 21 minutes (5,319 words)

Historians are uncovering gaps in the National Archives and analyzing data to find scores of classified documents that should have already been declassified and released to the public:

Krasner, who earned a PhD in mathematics at Columbia, is among a half dozen computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians now working with Connelly on a multimedia research project they call the Declassification Engine. For the past year, this team has been gathering up large numbers of federal documents and creating analytic tools to detect anomalies in the collections. Several of the tools are on the project’s website and available for anyone to use. The one Krasner is developing is intended to find evidentiary traces of important historical episodes — a diplomatic crisis, say, or preparations for a military strike — that scholars until now have failed to notice. The Columbia researchers suspect that by spotting something as subtle as an uptick in a diplomat’s telephone activity they may be able to reveal the existence of historical episodes that the US government has largely suppressed from the public record.

“If you can make out something happening in the shadows, then we can ask: does it seem curious that little information about this event is available in the public record?” says David Allen, a PhD candidate in history at Columbia who is working on the project.

More Columbia Magazine: “Shades of Green” (Michael Christman, 2013)

4. Pain

Will Boast | VQR | February 1, 2014 | 15 minutes (3,757 words)

The writer, on his father’s pain tolerance, which eventually lead to his death:

Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable. My younger brother, Rory, and I wrestled with him on the grape-juice-stained shag carpet of the living room. Kick him, punch him, jump on his back, pull his hair (what little he had left)—we could never hurt him. In the backyard, sawing old railway ties to make raised flowerbeds for Mom, he cut himself with his ripsaw, looked down impassively at his meaty, calloused hand, now torn open and bloody, as if it were a thing unconnected to him. In the kitchen, he picked up hot saucepans by their bare handles. When I tried, my hand shot back. On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—he wouldn’t even flinch.

More VQR: “First the Fence, Then the System” (Lauren Markham, 2013)

5. ‘Every New Technology Creates Almost As Many Problems As It Solves’

John Brockman | | February 3, 2014 | 36 minutes (9,124 words)

An in-depth interview with Wired co-founder and technology “protopian” Kevin Kelly about the future of sharing and tracking on the Internet:

The question that I’m asking myself is, how far will we share, when are we’re going to stop sharing, and how far are we’re going to allow ourselves to monitor and surveil each other in kind of a coveillance? I believe that there’s no end to how much we can track each other—how far we’re going to self-track, how much we’re going to allow companies to track us—so I find it really difficult to believe that there’s going to be a limit to this, and to try to imagine this world in which we are being self-tracked and co-tracked and tracked by governments, and yet accepting of that, is really hard to imagine.

More Brockman: “The Local-Global Flip, Or, ‘The Lanier Effect’” (2011)


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