The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Photo: Richard Barnes

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Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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1. No Exit: ‘Your Feeling of Autonomy Is a Fantasy’

Gideon Lewis-Kraus | Wired | April 23, 2014 | 42 minutes (10,559 words)

A remarkable inside look at the hope, desperation, and financial realities for startups and founders working in San Francisco and Silicon Valley:

All the while, Martino’s ultimate warning—that they might someday regret actually getting the money they wanted—would still hang over these two young men, inherent to a system designed to turn strivers into subcontractors. Instead of what you want to build—the consumer-facing, world-remaking thing—almost invariably you are pushed to build a small piece of technology that somebody with a lot of money wants built cheaply. As the engineer and writer Alex Payne put it, these startups represent “the field offices of a large distributed workforce assembled by venture capitalists and their associate institutions,” doing low-overhead, low-risk R&D for five corporate giants. In such a system, the real disillusionment isn’t the discovery that you’re unlikely to become a billionaire; it’s the realization that your feeling of autonomy is a fantasy, and that the vast majority of you have been set up to fail by design.

See also: “High Tech” (Mat Honan)

 

2. The Life Sentence of Dicky Joe Jackson and His Family

J. Malcolm Garcia | Guernica | April 15, 2014 | 30 minutes (7,710 words)

In order to pay for his son Cole’s life-saving surgery, he transported meth. But he got caught. Eighteen years later, his family, and the man who prosecuted him, are still working to set him free:

Jackson married his wife Yvonne in 1979 and they had three children, April, Jon, and Cole. Cole was born in 1990 with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a rare and potentially life-threatening immunodeficiency disorder characterized by a reduced ability to form blood clots. It almost always affects boys. Treatments include bone marrow transplantation, transfusions of red blood cells, and the use of antibiotics. About the same time, the Jacksons lost their health insurance when an automatic deduction of the monthly fee did not clear the family’s bank account. The Jacksons sued but the case dragged on for years.

More Guernica: “Cake” (Glen Pourciau, 2007)

 

3. What Michael Did

Amy Dempsey | Toronto Star | April 22, 2014 | 31 minutes (7,856 words)

A family copes after a schizophrenic son kills his mother:

“He did what he did out of fear,” Michael’s father says now. “He was mentally ill. Not criminally responsible means you’re not morally responsible.” “It wasn’t his fault,” says Rebecca, who rested her hand on her brother’s shoulder as they walked out of court that day. Her twin did not feel the same way. For years after his mother’s death, John was furious with Michael. He can admit it now because his perspective has changed. But at the time, though he didn’t broadcast it to the rest of his family, John was enraged.

See also: “Beyond the Brain” (Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Wilson Quarterly)

 

4. Chat Wars

David Auerbach | n+1 | April 19, 2014 | 26 minutes (6,582 words)

Sabotage, bureaucracy, and emoticons: Inside the late ’90s chat wars between Microsoft and AOL, from the perspective of a former Microsoft programmer:

The messenger war was a rush. Coming in each morning to see whether the client still worked with AOL was thrilling. I’d look through reams of protocol messages to figure out what had changed, fix the client, and try to get an update out the same day. I felt that I was in an Olympic showdown with some unnamed developers over at AOL. I had no idea who my adversaries were, but I had been challenged and I wanted to win. AOL tried different tactics. At one point they seemed to be identifying the Microsoft client because it wasn’t downloading a huge chunk of advertising that the AOL client downloaded. So I changed our client to download it all (and then throw it away). They put in mysterious messages that didn’t seem to affect their client but broke ours because we weren’t expecting them. One day, I came in to see this embedded in a message from the AOL server: “HI. –MARK.” It was a little communication from engineer to engineer, underneath the corporate, media, and PR worlds that were arguing over us. I felt some solidarity with him even though we were on opposing sides.

More n+1: “Bad Education” (Malcolm Harris, 2011)

 

5. The Mind Readers

Roger Highfield | Mosaic | April 20, 2014 | 32 minutes (8,187 words)

On the scientists working to bring consciousness back to patients in vegetative states or comas:

Kate Bainbridge, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, lapsed into a coma three days after she came down with a flu-like illness. Her brain became inflamed, including the primitive region atop the spinal cord, the brain stem, which rules the sleep cycle. A few weeks after her infection had cleared, Kate awoke from the coma but was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. Luckily, the intensive care doctor responsible for her, David Menon, was also a Principal Investigator at the newly opened Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge, where one Adrian Owen then worked. Menon wondered if elements of cognitive processing might be retained in patients in a vegetative state and discussed with Owen how to use a brain scanner to detect them. In 1997, four months after she had been diagnosed as vegetative, Kate became the first patient in a vegetative state to be studied by the Cambridge group. The results, published in 1998, were unexpected and extraordinary. Not only did Kate react to faces: her brain responses were indistinguishable from those of healthy volunteers. Her scans revealed a splash of red, marking brain activity at the back of her brain, in a part called the fusiform gyrus, which helps recognise faces. Kate became the first such patient in whom sophisticated brain imaging (in this case PET) revealed ‘covert cognition’. Of course, whether that response was a reflex or a signal of consciousness was, at the time, a matter of debate.

More Mosaic: “How Malaria Defeats Our Drugs” (Ed Yong)