How the First Ebola Outbreak Was Identified and Contained

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In May, the Financial Times published a story by Peter Piot, a microbiologist who, in 1976, helped contain and identify a deadly new virus called Ebola in Yambuku, a remote Congolese village. Piot returned to the village nearly 40 years later to see how much had changed. Here, Piot recalls what it was like to enter the village and figure out how infections were being spread:

Once we had all settled down, the sisters prepared a solid dinner of Flemish beef stew and started to tell the story of the epidemic. They explained in great detail how their colleagues had died, who the first victims were at the mission and then in other villages, and that nothing seemed to work as treatment. One sister had kept careful notes on each patient. They decided that we should sleep on the floor in the school classroom as we did not know whether the bedrooms in the convent were contaminated. But I didn’t sleep much that first night in Yambuku, with a thousand questions going through my head and the sounds of the rainforest outside.

It quickly became clear that something was wrong at the hospital. Epidemiological detective work by our team confirmed the suspicions: people were being infected at the hospital through injections made using contaminated needles and syringes (only five syringes and needles were issued to the nurses each morning), and hospital staff and attendees at funerals were falling victim through exposure to body fluids infected with the virus. In addition there seemed to be transmission from mothers to babies.

Closing the hospital (which, in any case, had been abandoned by frightened patients) was the decisive action that stopped the Ebola epidemic, and the last victim died on November 5. In simple terms, poor medical practice had killed hundreds of people. The missionaries were undoubtedly doing highly valuable work in education and community development but managing a hospital (without a physician, since they could not find one who would work in such a remote place) was beyond their expertise.

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Why Autocorrect Doesn’t Correct Obscene Words

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus talked to autocorrect inventor Dean Hachamovitch for Wired, and learned why some swear words don’t get autocorrected:

On idiom, some of its calls seemed fairly clear-cut: gorilla warfare became guerrilla warfare, for example, even though a wildlife biologist might find that an inconvenient assumption. But some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn’t want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check’s most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.”

I called up Thorpe, who now runs a Boston-based startup called Philo, to ask him how the idea for the list came about. An inspiration, as he recalls it, was a certain Microsoft user named Bill Vignola. One day Vignola sent Bill Gates an email. (Thorpe couldn’t recall who Bill Vignola was or what he did.) Whenever Bill Vignola typed his own name in MS Word, the email to Gates explained, it was automatically changed to Bill Vaginal. Presumably Vignola caught this sometimes, but not always, and no doubt this serious man was sad to come across like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. His email made it down the chain of command to Thorpe. And Bill Vaginal wasn’t the only complainant: As Thorpe recalls, Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs.

Thorpe went through the dictionary and took out all the words marked as “vulgar.” Then he threw in a few anatomical terms for good measure. The resulting list ran to hundreds of entries:

anally, asshole, battle-axe, battleaxe, bimbo, booger, boogers, butthead, Butthead …

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Photo: Meaghan O’Malley

Could the Ideal Mormon City Be One of Inclusion?

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In a recent piece for The Big Roundtable, Daniel A. Gross profiled Alasdair Ekpenyong, a gay Mormon struggling to make sense of his sexuality within the context of his faith. Alasdair sought answers in many venues, including alternative communities and Mormon history. From the story:

That winter, Alasdair began to write a series of academic essays about the Mormon city. This was the topic that his former bishop studied, the topic that Alasdair had been researching at the commune back in April. He still worked for that bishop sometimes, combing through old Mormon documents that might illuminate the spiritual dream of a utopian city. The bishop had supported him for a long time. He had been there at the end of Alasdair’s mission, after that first sexual experience with Rick, and during Alasdair’s transition to earning a living without his mother’s support.

In those months and months of research, Alasdair felt he had found some deep kernel of truth. He had read the prophet Joseph Smith’s writings on architecture and urban planning, writings that had deeply influenced the layout of both Provo and Salt Lake City. Smith had mapped out the city of faith he imagined. It was a careful grid, split up for farms and factories, for houses of worship and houses of men—each of the many pieces that comprise a House of the Lord. “Let every man live in the city,” wrote Smith, “for this is the city of Zion.”

One of Alasdair’s essays took Smith’s command literally. In the city Alasdair described, perhaps a man did not need to date a woman to remain in the church. He proposed a city designed for inclusion, a city with fewer locks and more doorways.

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Photo: Miami University Libraries, Flickr

Love for the Library: A Reading List

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My New Year’s resolution for 2014: forgo book-buying—just for a year. I’ve made two or three exceptions (a signed first edition! A play from my friend’s small press!), but, miraculously, haven’t binged in my local bookstore, much as I want to. I own hundreds of books. I want to read what I already own. And I want to save money, like any good millennial.

But there’s still the library—my salvation. I put the hottest titles on hold. I stumble upon books I never would’ve thought to read. I can check out giant stacks without feeling any guilt. Libraries are amazing. Here are four stories looking at different aspects of the library system. Read more…

Rebecca Solnit on the Political and the Trivial

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Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.

-Rebecca Solnit, in The Believer (2009).

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‘Alice Munro Writes So Well About Secrets’

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Then he had things to tell her about himself. The fact that he had produced a condom did not mean that he was a regular seducer. In fact, she was only the second person he had gone to bed with, the first being his wife. He had been brought up in a fiercely religious household and still believed in God, to some extent. He kept that a secret from his wife, who would have made a joke of it, being very left-wing.

Corrie said she was glad that what they were doing—what they had just done—appeared not to bother him, in spite of his belief. She said that she herself had never had any time for God, because her father was enough to cope with.

-From Alice Munro’s 2010 short story, “Corrie,” newly unlocked by The New Yorker and recommended by author Elliott Holt: “Alice Munro writes so well about secrets. ‘Corrie’ is a suspenseful story about adultery and blackmail, about illness and faith, and about the compromises we make for happiness.”

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Photo: Kyle Lanningham, YouTube

The Unique Heartbreak of Loving a Rock Star

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A central agony in these books is alienation—not only the pain of abuse, or heartbreak, or evaporation, but the pain of having your pain appropriated. The books themselves reclaim the hurt for their authors, and whatever their literary merit, they offer at least some catharsis for the reader, who can always relate. Rock songs make heartbreak seem valorous, but it’s more often a state of debasement in which you’d gnaw through the floor to get back what you had.

The books also serve as a caution, maybe a useless one, against letting passion erase us—against falling into the abyss. This resonates particularly with women, whose worth has forever been determined by the men they’re attached to, and whose place in rock and roll, never as liberated as it pretended to be, has been diminished and maligned. But love gets the better of all of us; it’s just that men have more often been the ones to sing about it.

-Alexandra Molotkow in The Believer, on the memoirs of rock stars’ exes.

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Meet the ‘Vexatious Litigants': People Who Can’t Stop Going to Court

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Rahman, whose wife died a few years ago in a traffic accident, is now primarily devoted to litigating. In what little spare time he has, he reads the Koran, tends to his fruit trees and studies law, making do on a few hours’ sleep a night. As a vexatious litigant, he will now need special leave to begin legal proceedings in NSW, but there is, he claims, still the International Criminal Court to consider. Though he has been declared bankrupt and lost one of his houses, he carries on with tireless, doomed determination.

The British lord chief justice Thomas Bingham observed that the vexatious litigant keeps on when “on any rational and objective assessment, the time has come to stop”. Australian judge Nye Perram identified “the capacity to endure failure beyond the point at which a rational person would abandon the field”.

There are fewer than 100 vexatious litigants in Australia. According to Grant Lester, a forensic psychiatrist who has studied the field extensively, courts are loath to make the declaration in any but the most extreme cases.

“To manage to be made a vexatious litigant, you have to be the crème de la crème,” he says. “Your most sacrosanct right is to have your day in court.”

-Sam Bungey in The Monthly.

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Photo: fabliaux, Flickr