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One Good Thing: The wonderful sci-fi novel A Memory Called Empire makes diplomacy enthralling

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One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which recently won the Best Novel award at science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Awards, reads like its author was simultaneously influenced by Game of Thrones, histories of the Cold War, various anti-colonialism writings, and the Star Wars prequels. It’s a grand, galaxy-spanning space opera that is mostly about diplomacy. Or, if you prefer, it’s an impressively wonky novel about galactic geopolitics that just happens to feature spaceships and aliens. I love it.

It’s difficult to talk about A Memory Called Empire without spoiling some of its best surprises because the core of the book sounds impossibly dry. But let me give it a shot anyway, because the best way to read this book is to know almost nothing about what happens after its first few chapters.

Mahit Dzmare is just 26 years old, and she’s been named ambassador to the mighty Teixcalaanli Empire. She grew up on tiny Lsel Station, a space station near extremely important jumpgates that allow the Teixcalaanli people to travel easily to other parts of the galaxy. The control of those gates has allowed Lsel to maintain independence rather than being sucked into the empire. (In this far-future world, humanity has carved out its own corner of the Milky Way, but life on various planets and space stations has created impressive genetic variance as natural selection does its thing. Mahit, for instance, is taller than the average Teixcalaanli citizen.)

Like others from Lsel Station, Mahit’s brain contains something called an “imago,” a machine that gives her access to the memories and feelings of her predecessor, Yskander, just as he had access to the memories of his predecessor, and so on, back through several ambassadors. The people of Lsel Station use these imagos to create long lines of knowledge and intelligence, a kind of institutional memory turned very literal. Such neurological enhancements are illegal within the empire, but goodness, wouldn’t the empire like to get its hands on them anyway?

But Mahit’s imago is out of date. Yskander died — or maybe (probably) was murdered — before he was able to update his imago with the last 15 years of his ambassadorship. She only has five years of memories, and they are woefully incomplete, leaving her reeling when forced to navigate situations that Yskander would have known how to handle but that she does not.

That’s probably all you should know before starting this book because Martine takes that basic premise and weaves it into an addictive tale of political intrigue, espionage, and interstellar war. The story remains firmly within Mahit’s point of view as Teixcalaanli society stands on the brink of catastrophe and Mahit tries to untangle a web of promises made and deals cut by Yskander, who was almost certainly killed because of the many different diplomatic balls he kept trying to juggle. Can Mahit avoid the same fate?

What’s impressive to me about A Memory Called Empire is the way it takes all of the above — which could sound like impenetrable sci-fi nonsense that only the devoted and/or diehard diplomacy wonks would be able to wade through — and grounds it in recognizable human traits. For all of its big, exciting plot devices, the book is most concerned with the ways that gigantic empires gobble up local cultures almost without trying.

Mahit spent most of her life studying Teixcalaanli culture, not because she ever expected to be an ambassador but because it seemed so much more exciting and glamorous than her own. But now that she’s actually embedded within the empire, she longs for home all the same, and her imago becomes a kind of link to a place she might never see again, both literally (imagos only exist in Lsel) and figuratively (it’s a deep, psychological connection to the history of her people).

When you live in a place filled with power and wealth, it can be difficult to see how power and wealth breed destruction radiating out from the center. The empire can’t help but knock over smaller, independent nations, because even when it doesn’t try to, its pop culture and brand of politics infect everything around it. Smaller nations can stay alive through crafty diplomacy or military might or some combination of the two, but they still have to coexist in a world built by people who don’t realize how much chaos they’ve caused. The chaos becomes oxygen. It’s all around, so it must be normal.

What’s even more impressive about A Memory Called Empire is how Martine weaves a conflict between a colonial power and the not-yet-but-probably-some-day colonized, alongside a conflict about the political struggles within the empire, struggles that move toward the book’s forefront as they continue, with Mahit and her imago right in the middle. She can’t stop what’s coming, but she can maybe influence it via crafty diplomacy and some light espionage. And in so doing, she might buy a little more time for Lsel, which is all she can ever ask for.

Martine does some impressive world-building, from the idea of a city as a single algorithm that can be corrupted to the way Teixcalaanli citizens name themselves — with a number and then a noun (the novel’s most important supporting character, for example, is Three Seagrass). And sometimes this world-building happens almost as a grace note at the novel’s edges, as do the numerous examples of Teixcalaanli poetry she includes.

Mostly, however, A Memory Called Empire offers a reflection on what it means to know everything about a place and how it’s hurt people you love, while still longing to, in some ways, be of that place. Mahit doesn’t want to be a Teixcalaanli citizen, yet she can’t help but wish she could all the same. It would make so many things so much easier. And yet it would also be a betrayal. So, ever the diplomat, she seeks a middle ground, as everyone around her tries to knock her off the razor-thin wire she balances upon.

A Memory Called Empire is available through bookshop.org and all major booksellers, though I had to wait a bit to get a copy, due to the novel’s popularity in the wake of the Hugo win. A sequel will arrive in 2021.


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The US just broke its record for the highest number of new coronavirus cases in a day

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The United States broke its record for the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases reported in a single day on Friday, an alarming sign that what some epidemiologists are calling a “third wave” of infections is spreading at breakneck speed as winter approaches.

According to the New York Times, by the end of the day on Friday at least 85,085 cases were reported in states across the country — about 10,000 cases more than the previous same-day high on July 16.

Public health experts had long warned that uneven compliance with social distancing guidelines, inadequate contact tracing programs, and premature reopenings of indoor venues were creating conditions for a resurgence of virus transmission after its summer peak, and that is what appears to be happening now.

A bar graph showing the US case totals for each day, going back to March 3. A red trend line goes across the top of the bars, peaking first in early April at around 35,000 cases, falling to just over 20,000 in early June, spiking to around 70,000 in July, falling to around 40,000 in September, and rising again to about 60,000 in October. The Covid Tracking Project

The new case numbers also show that the geographic spread is wider than during past spikes. According to an internal report produced on Thursday for officials at the Department of Health and Human Services obtained by the Washington Post, more than 170 counties across 36 states have been designated rapidly rising hotspots. And 24 states have broken single-day records of new cases in the past two weeks, the Post reports.

Also concerning is that in the past month there has been a 40 percent rise in the number of people hospitalized for Covid-19 infections. Deaths have not surged so far, but epidemiologists have pointed out that there can be a significant time lag between a surge in cases and deaths tied to that surge.

“Today’s cases represent infections that probably happened a week or two ago,” Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray told Vox’s Dylan Scott in July. “Today’s deaths represent cases that were diagnosed possibly up to a month ago, so infections that were up to six weeks ago or more.”

Saturday, President Donald Trump downplayed the record in new reported cases on Twitter, and incorrectly claimed that cases were up only because testing ability is up.

But public health experts have pointed to state-level policies on distancing and contact-tracing as a key driver of the current uptick. Moreover, the high rates at which coronavirus tests are coming back positive in many states — a key data point for estimating the true spread of the virus — and the surge in hospitalizations are signs that the new wave is not just a function of testing capacity. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, a high positivity rate actually suggests that not enough tests are being done to track and contain spread in a given area.

Murray, the epidemiologist at Boston University, told the Washington Post that the wide geographic range of the new wave will make it difficult to move health care workers to hot spots. Previous spikes were concentrated in certain communities, allowing medical professionals from less affected areas to be moved to deal with outbreaks. But the breadth of the current outbreak could tax US health care capacity in a manner that has not been seen before.

And Murray also pointed out that this wave is more dangerous that the two that preceded it because it started from a higher point of infections.

“We are starting this wave much higher than either of the previous waves,” she told the Post. “And it will simply keep going up until people and officials decide to do something about it.”

Experts have warned about a third wave for a while

Medical professionals, epidemiologists and many public health officials have long pointed out the risk of a third wave.

As Vox’s German Lopez wrote in early October, experts warned that a third wave looked likely in light of the fact that the virus was never really suppressed nationally, and that premature reopening, encouraged most aggressively by Trump and Republican governors, would simply accelerate its spread:

Consider Florida. Last month, the state reopened bars and, more recently, restaurants, despite the high risk of these indoor spaces. After Florida previously opened bars, in June, experts said the establishments were largely to blame for the state’s massive Covid-19 outbreak in the summer. As Florida reopens now, it has roughly two to three times the number of Covid-19 cases that it had in early June, and its high test positivity rate suggests it’s still likely missing a lot of cases. The state is fanning its flames while its most recent fire is nowhere near extinguished.

This is, in effect, what much of the country is doing now as it rushes to reopens schools, particularly colleges and universities, and risky indoor spaces. Coupled with recent Labor Day celebrations, experts worry that’s already leading to a new increase in Covid-19 cases.

Experts have pointed out that Trump’s persistent agenda to downplay the dangers of the virus — and his suggestions that the news of a third wave is a media conspiracy designed to throw the election in Democrats’ favor — could intensify the problem as the virus is made into an increasingly partisan issue. The president has repeatedly failed to take responsibly for the US’ troubled pandemic response, including at the second presidential debate. He has instead blamed China and Democrats for the country’s problems, while leaving it to individual states to create plans for lower the rate of infection.

Some states have had more success in reducing infection than others, but none has managed to eliminate spread altogether. And more worrying still is the fact that cold weather and flu season have yet to fully settle in many states as winter approaches.

The good news is that we know how to counteract further spread.

“None of the ideas to prevent all of this are shocking or new,” Lopez recently wrote. “They’re all things people have heard before: More testing and contact tracing to isolate people who are infected, get their close contacts to quarantine, and deploy broader restrictions as necessary. More masking, including mandates in the 17 states that don’t have one. More careful, phased reopenings. More social distancing.”

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‘A Disturbing Pattern’: ICE Detainees Were Pressured to Have Gynecological Surgery, Doctors Say

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A report drafted by a team of independent doctors and experts found a “disturbing pattern” of questionable gynecological surgical procedures performed on female detainees at an ICE detention center in Georgia. 

The medical professionals say they reviewed more than 3,200 pages of records from 19 women who “allege medical maltreatment during detention” at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, which has emerged at the center of a political firestorm following complaints from women held at the facility. 

The report alleges a number of women were pressured to have “unnecessary surgery” without an adequate discussion about the risks, benefits, or alternatives.

“Our findings reveal a disturbing pattern that warrants further investigation: one in which many women either underwent abdominal surgery or were pressured to have a surgery that was not medically indicated and to which they did not consent,” the authors, including nine board-certified OB-GYNs affiliated with major academic medical centers and two nursing experts, wrote in the report. “None of the women appear to have received adequate informed consent.”

The report represents the most extensive examination of medical records among detainees at the facility to have emerged since a September whistleblower complaint alleged a pattern of “jarring medical neglect” and confusing medical care at Irwin. The report’s authors include doctors affiliated with Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, and Baylor College of Medicine. The medical experts developed the report in coordination with lawyers representing detainees and a coalition of advocacy groups.

VICE News reviewed a copy of the report, which was drafted as a five-page executive summary, on Friday. The report was delivered to members of Congress on Thursday, but has not yet been publicly released. Its existence was first reported by the LA Times.

The document details accounts of women who were treated by a local gynecologist named Dr. Mahendra Amin, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. 

In a statement, an attorney for Amin noted that the report did not involve a complete review of all the relevant medical records, and called the doctors and nursing experts’ review “severely incomplete, at best.”

“Any serious medical professional would agree that one cannot possibly come to a conclusion regarding the appropriateness of a medical procedure without reviewing all of the relevant medical records, especially the records from the physician who performed the procedure and the hospital where the procedure was performed,” Amin’s attorney, Scott Grubman, wrote in the statement.

Amin is fully cooperating with official investigators and he “looks forward to the investigations clearing his good name and reputation,” Grubman said. 

The Irwin County Detention Center is run by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections and houses immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment specifically on the report on Friday, citing an ongoing investigation by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general. LaSalle Corrections has denied wrongdoing in the past, and did not immediately respond to questions about the report from VICE News on Friday. 

‘A disturbing pattern’

The report says that reviewed records, which include sworn declarations and transcribed telephone interviews, suggested that Amin’s findings justifying surgery appear to be unsupported “by all other available sources of information.”

“There are indications that both Dr. Amin and the referring detention facility took advantage of the vulnerability of women in detention to pressure them to agree to overly aggressive, inappropriate, and unconsented medical care,” the document alleges. 

Women detained at Irwin, the document goes on, faced “pressure to have unnecessary surgery without a discussion of risks, benefits, or alternatives, including one woman who was told she needed removal of her uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.” 

The report found that several women indicated that they’d been referred for psychiatric treatment if they refused gynecological procedures.

One woman, who believed she was going to have a cyst drained at Amin’s office, was instead taken to the local Irwin County Hospital for surgery, according to the report. 

“When she attempted to refuse, she was told that she could die if she didn’t have surgery.”

“When she attempted to refuse, she was told that she could die if she didn’t have surgery and, at the same time, told that ICE might deny a request for surgery if she changed her mind later,” the report says. 

Women were sometimes referred to the gynecologist even if they didn’t have gynecological complaints, according to the report.

The report alleges that unnecessary transvaginal procedures were performed without consent, and imaging results were exaggerated to justify surgeries while less invasive treatments were not “adequately pursued.” 

In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, however, one of the authors said it appears Amin might have saved a woman’s life in one instance, in a detail that isn’t mentioned in the report. 

Dr. Ted Anderson, director of gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a member of the review team, told the Post that Amin had incorrectly diagnosed a woman with fibroids. But then Amin found that she had cancer and appropriately performed a hysterectomy, Anderson told the Post.

The records

The report’s authors state they only uncovered one signed consent form, which they describe as “an English language consent for a woman whose primary language appears to be Spanish.” 

Yet they also acknowledge that they did not obtain all of the patients’ medical records.

“Records produced by the Irwin County Detention Center, Irwin County Hospital, and by Dr. Amin appear to be incomplete,” the report says. “In some cases, fewer than 20 pages of medical records were provided. No imaging studies were produced. In many cases, referral records, operative notes, pathology reports, hospital records, and imaging reports were either entirely missing or incomplete, and office notes were nearly illegible.”

Amin’s attorney argued that the lack of access to the complete patients’ records should be seen as a fatal flaw in the report’s findings. 

“Importantly, only four ICE detainees have ever requested medical records from Dr. Amin’s office, and only five ICE detainees have ever requested records from the hospital,” Grubman wrote. “In fact, upon review, it appears that, for the vast majority of patients included in the cited report, no records were requested from either Dr. Amin or Irwin County Hospital.”

Those requests overlap, he said, meaning fewer than nine detainees requested their records directly from the hospital or the doctor’s office.

“The report states that the medical records that were reviewed did not contain informed consent forms,” Grubman wrote. “However, these forms are contained in the medical records maintained by the doctor’s office and/or the hospital which, again, were not reviewed.”

Anderson told VICE News in an interview Friday evening that the team believes the records they reviewed were sufficient to form conclusions. And he said the group also recovered records from the Irwin County Detention Center, which had been forwarded to the facility from Amin’s office and from the hospital. 

“For each of the 19 women, there is some medical or psychiatric record,” said Anderson, who previously served as the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the country’s premiere professional organization for OB-GYNs. 

“Is there enough data to say this is overly aggressive or unnecessary in most cases? Yes.”

“Are these records 100% complete? Absolutely not,” said Dr. Michelle Debbink, a board-certified OB-GYN based in Salt Lake City, who was not a part of the team behind the report but did review the records of six women who underwent gynecological care while at Irwin. “Is there enough data to say this is overly aggressive or unnecessary in most cases? Yes.”

VICE News has independently uncovered four consent forms signed by women who were detained in Irwin and treated by Amin. Three were for surgical procedures, and one was for a birth control injection. Those women or their attorneys have told VICE News they received medical treatment that they either didn’t want or didn’t understand, despite signing the forms. 

Anderson argued that if the women did not understand their operations, they should not be considered to have agreed to them. 

“Consent is actually a conversation that you have, and not a piece of paper,” Anderson told VICE News. “There are documents we got from the detention center in which the patients report asking why they had surgery and say they don’t understand what happened. That clearly indicates there was not informed consent.”

Debbink agreed. 

“It’s unclear to me that there is a pattern of appropriate informed consent conversations with these patients before they are booked for surgery, and that should be the pattern,” Debbink said. She added, “It is clear to me, from the stories that these women tell independently of one another, that they had no idea what was happening. And I personally saw zero signed consent forms.”

In September, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security, told the National Review that an initial DHS review found that early allegations included in the September whistleblower complaint were not backed up by documentation sent to Washington, D.C. by ICE. But he said an audit team would review the Irwin facility’s original records.

Scott Sutterfield, an executive with LaSalle Corrections, told VICE News on Thursday that  company policy prohibits comment during pending investigations.

“However, we can assure you the allegations are being investigated by an independent office and LaSalle Corrections is fully cooperating,” he wrote in an email. “We are very confident once the facts are made public our commitment to the highest quality care will be evident.”

He added: “We are confident the facts will demonstrate the very malicious intent of others to advance a purely political agenda.”

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Record-breaking Colorado wildfires force more evacuations

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Officials say an elderly couple was found dead as the largest blazes in the US state’s history continue to spread.

Authorities in the US state of Colorado have issued an evacuation order for residents near Rocky Mountain National Park, as gusting winds on Saturday fanned the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history.

Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for eastern Estes Park, a small town in northern Colorado, after wind pushed the 188,300-acre (76,200-hectare) East Troublesome Fire further east.

A red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service was in effect for the area as winds of 97 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour) and low humidity were expected through Saturday.

“We tried to get ahead of it to get everyone safely out in an orderly fashion,” said Larimer County Sheriff’s Office spokesman David Moore. “We are expecting a very long day. Fingers crossed and prayers.”

A satellite image shows smoke from the East Troublesome wildfire in northern Colorado [Satellite Image 2020 Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters]

The fire, which started on October 14, was 14 percent contained as of Saturday.

As the flames spread, authorities closed all 668 square kilometres (415 square miles) of Rocky Mountain National Park to visitors and ordered the evacuation of several mountain communities.

The blaze has killed at least two to date, after an elderly couple was found dead in their home outside the town of Grand Lake, about 30km (19 miles) from Estes Park, on Friday.

Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, both in their 80s, had “refused to evacuate”, instead opting to stay in the home they had lived in for many years.

“Our parents left this world together and on their own terms. They leave a legacy of hard work and determination to overcome – something all of Grand County will need,” the family said in a statement that was read by the sheriff.

Schroetlin called the wildfire “a catastrophic event” in the small community.

Colorado has witnessed the largest fires in its history this year, which has also seen massive blazes in California and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

More than 1,813sq km (700sq miles) of land have burned so far in the East Troublesome Fire, Larry Helmerick, fire information coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, told The Associated Press news agency this week.

Another fire in northern Colorado that began in August and is still spreading – known as the Cameron Peak Fire – has become the largest in state history.

As of Saturday morning, that blaze was 60 percent contained and has destroyed more than 207,000 acres (nearly 84,000 hectares), officials said.

Authorities in Colorado said this week there was a possibility the Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire could merge.

Scientists have pointed to climate change as making wildfires more intense across the US, among other major climate events, such as storms and droughts.

The Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, has destroyed more than 207,000 acres of land [Loveland Fire Rescue Authority/via Reuters]

Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said drought intensified the blazes in the state.

She said it is “just a matter of time” until the wildfire threat affects more people, who are moving closer to forests.

“If I had a panic button, I would push it – because we have put millions of homes in harm’s way across the Western US,” Balch told AP news agency.

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