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Seyward Darby
Editor in Chief, The Atavist Magazine

The Alarmist: Is One of the Pandemic’s Loudest Scientific Voices Helping or Hurting Public Health?

AlexSecret

How should scientists balance the need to raise the alarm about a health threat with the complexity and methodical pace of research required to understand that threat? How do you weigh potential harm done versus good achieved when deciding what to tell a frightened public? These aren’t new questions, but in 2020, they’ve come into sharp focus. No one embodies them more fully than scientist Eric Feigl-Ding, a Twitter sensation for his urgent threads about the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps you’ve read some of his viral tweets — the most famous ones begin with phrases like “BLOODY HELL” and “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.” In less than a year, his following has grown from 2,000 to more than 250,000 Twitter users. Jane C. Hu profiles Feigl-Ding for Undark, asking whether he’s the town crier the internet needs or just another purveyor of disinformation:

Even when his public exclamations are technically accurate, Feigl-Ding’s critics suggest that they too often invite misinterpretations. In a thread about the first study of a COVID-19 outbreak on an airplane, for example, Feigl-Ding failed to mention the important caveat that researchers suspected all but one case occurred before people got on the airplane. In another, Feigl-Ding appeared to summarize a Washington Post piece on a coronavirus mutation, but omitted crucial phrases—including the fact that just one of the five mentioned studies was peer-reviewed. It wasn’t until the sixth tweet in the thread that Feigl-Ding mentioned the important detail that the “worrisome” mutation doesn’t appear to make people sicker, though it could make the virus more contagious.

To Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, this represents a pattern. “[T]his is his MO,” she wrote in an email. “He tweets something sensational and out of context, buries any caveats further down-thread, and watches the clicks and [retweets] roll in.”

Such critiques of Feigl-Ding’s particular brand of COVID-19 commentary are by no means new, and previous articles—in The Atlantic as far back as January, for example, New York Magazine’s Intelligencer in March, the Chronicle of Higher Education in April, and in The Daily Beast in May — have explored questions about his expertise in epidemiology (his focus prior to COVID-19 was on nutrition) and whether his approach to public health communication is appropriate or alarmist. But as his influence has grown, and as the pandemic enters a much more worrying phase, critics have continued to debate whether Feigl-Ding, for all his enthusiasms, is doing more harm than good. Some complain that Feigl-Ding’s army of followers can be hateful when other scientists publicly disagree with his tweets. Others say that Feigl-Ding himself has been known to privately message his critics—a tack that some found unwelcome.

For his part, though, Feigl-Ding says many of his critics’ disagreements with him have come down to a difference in style. “Sometimes it’s a matter of a philosophical approach about tone: Should I say ‘whoa’ or ‘wow?’” he said

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Trapped in Limbo Down Under

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They came with what few possessions they could carry when they fled their homes: a watch, a copy of The Alchemist, a few pieces of clothing. Many were still children; others were barely adults; all of them were refugees. Yet the place where they were headed saw them, as journalist Lauren Martin writes, as little more than “cause for alarm.” In “Temporary,” a longform multimedia project published by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Martin explains how a decade ago powerful politicians in Australia insisted on preventing asylum seekers from reaching their country’s shores. The initial result was the establishment of detention camps on poor South Pacific islands. When those filled up, some people were let into Australia, only to be told to keep waiting, indefinitely, for an answer about where they would be allowed to live their lives. Now some 30,000 people are in a state of legal limbo — “they have been mostly lost across one of the world’s wealthiest countries, notorious for its punitive treatment of people seeking its protection.”

In “Temporary,” Martin introduces audiences to several members of Australia’s “legacy caseload.” Among them is Zaki, a teenager when he fled Afghanistan on the heels of his brother’s beheading and his father’s disappearance, both at the hands of the Taliban. Zaki is now a marathon runner:

Forty, fifty kilometres, “it’s not an easy process,” he admits. He doesn’t say how it began, this running for hours a day. But he proudly recalls that crossing the finish line in his first race, raising thousands of dollars for children with cancer, “was a very rewarding moment.”

He also clearly recalls telling his mother, when he first arrived in Australia as a teenager, “I don’t have to run from anything anymore.”

He can still remember the place he left, his village where a mountain river flows, and playing as a happy child with a happy family who was “there for me no matter what.” He remembers the killings that made his mother run with her remaining children to Kabul. But the Taliban found them there, too, delivering warnings—on Taliban letterhead—about him, the oldest surviving son.

So Zaki started running. Onto his first airplane. Through jungles. Into small, dark rooms, where he was confined, hungry, thirsty and very frightened. As he ran from Afghanistan, he was beaten, threatened, he made friends and walked for days and nights on end. He made it to the sea, where he was tossed until he went into shock in a broken boat, and then, finally, he made it to an Australian outpost called Christmas Island. He was blistered by the sun and wind. Tired.

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The Secrets of a Hidden Diary

Courtesy of Christina Lalanne

When writer Christina Lalanne bought an old house in San Francisco, she was sure it had a story to tell. What she didn’t expect was that the story would come to her in actual words. As Lalanne details in “Castles in the Sky,” her story for The Atavist Magazine*, the words were written in a diary and in letters that fell from the ceiling of the house’s basement while she and her husband were renovating it. The documents had been hidden for more than a century, stashed away by the man who built the house in 1910. His name, Hans Jorgen Hansen, was inscribed in the diary, which was mostly composed in Danish, but he wasn’t the only person to write in it. So did a woman named Anna—a fact Lalanne found odd, given that Hans’s wife was named Christine:

What drama or scandal was locked in these pages? Handwriting is a funny thing, not least because few people read it much anymore. Anna’s was neat, polite, and comfortably contained by the page. Hans, whose writing made up 90 percent of our find, had a bolder stroke. His flourishes veered maddeningly into indecipherability. In places, the pressure he exerted on his pen had made the ink pool and the letters bleed.

I sent a few diary passages to various Danish friends of friends, but while the language was theirs, none wanted to spend the time required to decipher such baroque penmanship. Frustrated, I made out the letters as best I could and typed the words they seemed to form into Google Translate. At first what came back was gibberish. But the longer I spent with the words, the more of them I got right, and the more the translator divulged actual language. I was also becoming familiar with Hans’s scrawl. His “D” was the longest, most elegant version of that letter I’d ever seen. It marked the beginning of the diary entry in which he lovingly recalled meeting Anna when they were children.

I eventually typed every word from the diaries and letters—some 20,000 in all—into the translator, and a picture of Hans and Anna’s story began to come into focus. Mat and I also did some genealogical research, amassing supporting facts. I found documentation of Anna and her grandmother’s 1897 passage to New York via Ellis Island. I found the household in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Anna was employed. I found evidence of Hans’s departure from Denmark after his stint in Faaborg—a voyage to Sydney, Australia, and onward to Brisbane—as well as his death certificate and a record of his grave just outside San Francisco, which we visited. We reconstructed Hans’s family tree and found a great-grandson on Facebook. We learned that Hans had three children with the woman named Christine, and that their marriage ended in divorce.

I was sure I knew why: Hans and Anna could only love each other. What then had kept them apart?

“Castles in the Sky” is a love story intertwined with Lalanne’s meditation on her relationship with the past, including the loss of her parents when she was still in grammar school. Through dogged sleuthing and poignant reflection, she seeks to unravel the mystery of what happened to Hans and Anna:

I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.

Every few years I have a different experience of knowing. I’ll be in a crowd or walking down the street, and I’ll catch a glimpse of my mother or father. Something about the way they move or hold themselves or brush their hair from their face makes me certain. I’m wrong, of course, but the joy is true. If only for a moment, something I want seems real.

A similar thing happened when I finally found Anna. My trip to Denmark had furnished me with the facts that follow a person during their life, no matter where they end up. I knew Anna’s date of birth and the village where she was born and her date of entry into the United States. I knew that her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. I found her application for a passport. I looked at her picture, her dark hair and mournful eyes. She signed her name in the same meticulous way she had in Hans’s diary.

These facts are what made me sure that the Anna I came across on Ancestry.com was unmistakably, irrefutably her. My heart leaped in my chest. Then it fell, because of where I found her and what it might mean.

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*The author of this post is the editor in chief of The Atavist, which is Longreads’ sister publication.

How Should We Talk About Suicide Online?

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After her son, Junior, killed himself in April 2020, Kelli Wilson discovered that he’d been active on a “pro-choice” website — the choice in question being to kill oneself. In her deep dive into the intersection of suicide and the internet, Vice writer Shayla Love describes how Wilson is now advocating for legislation that would “increase the liability website servers have for the content on the sites they host.” Love doesn’t name the website Junior frequented “due to the concerns of experts who believe that naming it explicitly could lead to self-harm by distressed people.” She refers to it instead as “Suicide Solution.” It wasn’t an easy choice to make, Love explains, because there’s nothing easy when it comes to suicide — including assigning blame:

I wrestled with how to write about a site like Suicide Solution. Even publishing an article at this length, that includes details of what makes the site dangerous, is a controversial choice. Suicide survivors and researchers alike cautioned against publishing the site’s real name. At least one expert I spoke to was hesitant to be interviewed at all because of the fear that they would contribute to driving more people to the site. And, in fact, it might. In one thread I read on Suicide Solution about how people found the website, several users referenced a past VICE article from 2015. Our choice to not to use Suicide Solution’s real name is a reflection of the uncertainty that plagues this arena— about how the internet confers risk, how the ease of finding the site contributes to that risk, and the variability in how people will use the forum.

Still, [April] Foreman [ a psychologist on the executive board of the American Association of Suicidology], said that it makes sense to think that if we just control all the information online about suicide, then people won’t die by suicide anymore. But Suicide Solution’s many incarnations throughout the decades are enough proof that a community like this one may never fully disappear. Trying too hard to stifle it could only drive it back to the Dark Web, out of sight.

“Suicide was a leading cause of death for youth before the internet and before social media, before bulletin boards,” Foreman said. “It has gone up some, but it was a leading cause of death before all of those things because something else is going on. At the end of the day, you could get rid of that website. And I don’t think that you would see an appreciable change at all in in suicide deaths.”

Instead, she thinks the more critical question to ask is: What need is Suicide Solution meeting—even dangerously so—and how do we create systems and supports around the person so that they don’t have to turn only to the internet to feel supported?

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The Secret Group Trying to Topple North Korea’s Regime

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When writer Suki Kim heard on the news that there had been a break-in at North Korea’s embassy in Madrid, led by a young man named Adrian Hong, she “sat upright.” She had known Adrian for several years. They had crossed paths at a Korean Students Conference in 2003, after which Kim went on to write the book Without You, There Is No Us, about her time as an English teacher in Pyongyang, and Adrian became an activist who spread awareness about human rights abuses in the Hermit Kingdom. Now he was being hunted by two governments. When Kim texted Adrian, he agreed to meet with her at a barbecue restaurant in Times Square. He told her that, yes, he’d led the break-in, but for good cause: He was now a leader of Free Joseon, a secretive international network of activists seeking regime change in Pyongyang:

“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”

Adrian had no formal protection for his actions, not even from the U.S. government: If he was apprehended in New York for what happened in Madrid, he could be extradited and face up to 28 years in prison. In her New Yorker feature “Follow the Leader,” Kim recounts how Adrian went from working at NGOs to risking his life in the name of freedom alongside likeminded activists. One of them is Chris Ahn, who Kim called on to help with a high-profile defection. Ahn was traveling at the time:

“Holy shit, it’s perfect,” Adrian said, when Chris told him that he was in Manila. “You know what’s happened with Kim Jong Nam, right?” Chris did. The day before Adrian’s call, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il had been assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport, by two women who smeared a nerve agent on his face. The killing was assumed to have been ordered by Kim Jong Un, his half brother, in the interest of eliminating a potential rival. Adrian told Chris that he had just received a call from Kim Han Sol, who is believed to be Kim Jong Nam’s eldest son. According to Adrian, they were introduced in Paris, around 2013, by a mutual contact. Han Sol, who was wearing a pair of Gucci shoes, told Adrian that he was aware of his work with North Korea. The two men kept in touch. Adrian told me, “Never met a kid with so much money. Kim Jong Nam had stashed away a lot of cash during his life.” Immediately after his father’s death, Han Sol noticed that the Macau police who typically guarded his house had disappeared. He called the mutual contact to tell Adrian that he, along with his mother and his sister, needed to get out of Macau as soon as possible. It was easy to see why Han Sol would be of interest to various countries and their intelligence services. Considered by some to be the rightful heir of the former Great Leader, Han Sol represented valuable leverage to whoever captured him, dead or alive—Adrian called this a “zero-sum game.”

Adrian, who was in the U.S., asked Chris, “Can you go meet them at the airport in Taiwan tonight, and make sure that no one is following them?” Chris threw some clothes in his backpack and headed to the airport. It was after midnight when he arrived in Taipei. He had Han Sol’s flight number, and he found a small noodle stand by the gate, where Han Sol and his family could sit while he scanned the crowd for threats.

The family arrived early that morning, wearing sanitary masks to cover their faces, which wasn’t unusual in Asia even then. Han Sol was about five feet ten inches tall, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a coat, and rolling a suitcase. His mother was a pretty middle-aged woman, who reminded Chris of his own mother. Han Sol’s sister, who was wearing jeans, looked to be in her late teens. Adrian had told the family that Chris would be wearing a black T-shirt and a Dodgers cap and would answer to the name Steve. Han Sol spotted Chris and said, “Steve?” Chris nodded and said, “Let’s go.”

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There She Goes: How to ‘Feminize’ a Face

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When most people think of the medicine of gender reassignment, hormone therapy and genital surgery likely come to mind. In a thoughtfully written feature in The Guardian, journalist Jenny Kleeman describes a new frontier: facial feminization surgery, or FFS. Kleeman introduces readers to trans women who, unsatisfied with — or traumatized by — the way they are perceived physically, visit surgeons who shave jawlines, plump cheeks, lift brow lines, and perform other procedures that can make faces read as more feminine. “I’m not trying to make myself beautiful,” says Sophia Drake, the main subject of the story. “I see testosterone as a poison in my body, a poison that I had to deal with for 20 years. I want to put my face to the way it would have been if testosterone had never been [there].” Her surgeon, Dr. Keith Altman, operated on Drake in October 2019:

There was no more easy chatter between the doctors when Altman returned to the theater to operate on Drake’s brow and forehead. This was the most difficult part of the surgery. It would remove the parts of Drake’s face she thought were most male, the features she hated so much. Altman brushed sterile aqueous iodine over her face and hair, rendering her first rusty red and then yellow. He made an incision into her hairline with a swift, steady hand.

He drew back her skin in either direction from her hairline until it gathered in folds on one side at the tip of her nose, and draped back across her crown on the other. With a tiny steel mallet and a chisel, Altman set to work carefully chipping away her brow bone, before filing it with a tiny drill bit. Then he stopped, and everyone in theatre craned in to see the difference.

When he was satisfied with the result, Altman changed his gloves and turned his attention to her forehead. The MRI on the lightbox showed Drake had a large sinus cavity with a thin wall; the challenge was to saw the bone down without perforating the sinus, and the best way to do this was to remove part of her forehead entirely. Altman drew a 5cm by 3cm rectangle on to her skull with marker pen. He sliced into it with another fine tool, then prized out the section of bone. He held it in his hand as he filed it back, turning a flat plane into a gentle curve. When he put it back in place, he pulled the skin over it, tilting his head to the side to check his work. Finally, the piece of forehead was fixed back in the skull with two 4mm titanium plates, which his trainee, Maini, secured using a tiny screwdriver. Drake’s skin was smoothed back for a last time. “Good,” Altman nodded.

As Kleeman details, FFS raises challenging questions about privilege and beauty standards. The surgery is expensive and not covered by the National Health Service in most of the United Kingdom. According to Juno Roche, author of Trans Power, FFS contributes “a kind of two-tier system where, on the whole, the most successful trans people are beautiful people that pass. People who are proud to be trans, and those people who can’t afford the surgery, fall into a separate category. That’s most people. And we have to create safety for everyone.” Then again, Roche adds, “Trans people deserve an easy life. This is a tough gig.”

For Drake, the results of FFS were life-changing. Kleeman interviewed her two months into post-surgery:

The change was almost imperceptible to me, at first. But I could soon detect a new poise: her face seemed narrower, and strangely her shoulders did, too. Her dimples were more prominent, her eyes looked brighter and more expressive. There was a faint, pale pink sliver of a scar along her hairline, mostly covered by the dark roots of her fringe.

“It was just enough, without being too much,” she told me. “The hairline frames my face better. I find that my eyes aren’t sunken, they’re further out. I feel that I’ve got a lot more expression in my eyebrows now. Other people spot this”—she cupped her hands around her jaw—”more than I do. But when I go back and look at old pictures, I see a massive difference.”

The biggest change was in Drake’s demeanor. She no longer sat with her arms across her chest or played with her jewelry. She was open, at ease, comfortable.

“It’s made me so much happier. Calmer. I can sit and relax in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to,” she said. “I don’t walk around any more worrying that people are looking at me.”

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