Daniel Engber’s story on weird news has been 10 years in the making. In 2004, six months into his first journalism job at Slate, Engber began researching the origins and trajectory of “weird news” (“Groom Impaled by Flying Wedding Cake,” that sort of thing)—a long-standing staple in newspapers that was garnering an intense following online in the early 2000s. His work sat dormant, though, until he noticed a new trend: News had to work harder and harder to stay freakish. “There’s always been an irrepressible efflorescence of weirdness from the American public,” says Engber, but what was exceptional yesterday is often commonplace today. Engber examines the future of weird news in a world that’s weirder than ever.
When Erika Hayasaki, an associate professor of literary journalism at the University of California–Irvine, decided to write about the neurological phenomenon called mirror-touch synesthesia, she knew she needed a good subject. What she didn’t expect was to find Dr. Joel Salinas. Not only does Salinas have mirror-touch synesthesia, an extremely rare form of empathy that manifests itself physically (you literally feel another person’s feelings, including pain); he’s also a practicing neurologist. Hayasaki shows us how Salinas negotiates the physical empathy he feels in response to the pain his patients experience, within a profession that customarily requires some emotional distance. “I’d waited for a few years to do the story because I was waiting for the right person,” says Hayasaki, who says that Salinas was “really open” with her. “I lucked out.”
Four years ago, when the journalist Alissa Quart was a new mother considering part-time caregivers, she encountered the “global care chain”—immigrant mothers caring for United States children in order to send money home to their own children overseas. Quart spent more than a year and a half getting to know one of these mothers, Blanca, and her young son, Guido, who moved from Paraguay to New York after spending a decade apart from his mother. Quart follows Blanca and Guido as they try to make sense of a byzantine public school system, and she contrasts the savvy of upper-middle-class parents navigating New York public schools with the confusion experienced by the city’s many low-income immigrants. Quart is the author of several books, including Branded, Republic of Outsiders, and, most recently, Monetized, a collection of poetry about income inequality.
When the writer Gabriel Kahn asked for a list of billionaire conservative Philip Anschutz’s holdings, his aides were unable to come up with a complete list. “I think they were kind of embarrassed,” says Kahn, who reports in this issue on one of Anschutz’s especially ambitious projects: a 500-square-mile cattle ranch in Wyoming that he is attempting to convert into one of the largest wind farms in the world. Anschutz’s windmill odyssey—which has gone on for close to a decade and will require some $8 billion in investments—is the subject of "Bonanza." "I’m fascinated that the people behind the project don’t see it as a service. They are in it to make money," says Kahn, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who is now a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. “But that might be the most encouraging thing for anyone who wants a self-sustaining renewable energy industry.”
Edward Snowden made sure we all learned about the secret global surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency. But what do you know about your neighborhood pharmacy? It turns out many frontline medical service providers are also collecting huge quantities of data. “We are all interesting to commercial companies hoping to sell us something, and their efforts to collect data on the average person are perhaps more sweeping, but those efforts are subject to much less public debate,” says Adam Tanner, who describes a hidden medical data market in “We Know What’s in Your Medicine Cabinet.” Tanner, a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and a Reuters correspondent for 16 years, says he started researching the topic while writing his first book, What Stays in Vegas: The World of Personal Data—Lifeblood of Big Business—and the End of Privacy As We Know It, published by PublicAffairs in 2014.
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