Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Life

Well that sucks

Well, that’s it. I’m officially the first in my immediate family to get COVID. Though I was one of the 20% or so of passengers to keep his mask on, I blame my flights home from the San Diego border region last Friday.

Symptoms are very mild so far: no fever, some stuffy nose, infrequent cough. Like a moderate cold. I plan to continue much work remotely, but with more rest breaks, as long as it remains this mild.

San Diego Yesterday

Had a good day of meetings in San Diego yesterday with border rights and migration advocates, none of whom I’d seen in person since before the pandemic, and some whom I was very happy to meet for the first time.

No interesting photos of me sitting in meetings, so here’s a photo of the Pacific Ocean instead. It was also my first glimpse of the Pacific since before the pandemic.

We’re spending today in Tijuana.

Makes sense

90% of everything is crap. If you think you don’t like opera, romance novels, TikTok, country music, vegan food, NFTs, keep trying to see if you can find the 10% that is not crap.

Kevin Kelly’s “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known

I’m writing this in a space not owned by a billionaire

  • If I write something on this site and it gets mediocre traffic, 200 people will see it.
  • If I record a podcast for my employer (I prefer “chosen community of colleagues”) and it gets a mediocre number of downloads, 800 people will download it.
  • If I write something on the website of my chosen community of colleagues, and it gets mediocre traffic, 1,000 people will see it.
  • If I post something to my Twitter account and it performs in a mediocre way, 2,000 people will see it. (If it does well, a quarter million people might see it.)

That’s badly backwards, isn’t it? The platform that does the best for me, in terms of “reaching audiences,” is the one that neither I nor my colleagues own.

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44 billion (imagine how thoroughly infant mortality could be eradicated with $44 billion) is a bright, flashing reminder of how that needs to change.

We should be creating in spaces that we own, not in spaces run by oligarchs for marketers. Those others’ spaces should be more for conversations (hopefully constructive ones) about what we’ve developed elsewhere, in our own spaces.

My personal goal from this point forward to even out the imbalance between the numbers in that bulleted list above. A lot of that means being less lazy: sending a tweet is easier, by design, than writing an open-ended bunch of words like I’m doing now.

I guess I’m just repeating the now overplayed advice to “bring back the blog.” (The format doesn’t necessarily need to be a textual blog, of course.) But I think that advice is still generally right. We should own our ideas and words, and limit Elon Musk’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s properties to being places where we point to, and discuss, ideas and words developed elsewhere.

That’s all to say, expect to see more of me here and less of me on Twitter. Thanks, Elon, for the reminder.

Logged way too many hours this week

This isn’t normal, obviously. I’ve been finishing a giant project about the border which should go public in a few weeks, while writing a border update, a commentary, two speaking engagements, some planning meetings, and… I’m sure I’m forgetting “what else” because I’m very tired.

This is all to say that next week looks way more “normal” on my calendar, and I look forward to posting normally to this site again.

This site will be quiet this week

Back in November I neglected this site as I banged out a massive report on the fifth anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. It was time well spent—several thousand downloads—but it did mean that adamisacson.com was dormant for a couple of weeks.

The same thing is happening this week (January 24-28). I’m in the latter phases of a big project about the U.S.-Mexico border, documenting abuse, impunity, and organizational cultural problems at U.S. law enforcement agencies. By “latter phases” I mean “the point at which the project has seriously taken shape, and what remains to be done is very fun (despite the subject matter) but very, very demanding of every waking moment of time.” And also some sleeping moments.

So while I’ve bookmarked dozens of browser tabs, I haven’t been able to fill up my news database, so I haven’t been able to post links or anything else here this week.

Since I’m also giving two talks this week, writing a border update, and also a short commentary, I’m more than maxed out. I won’t be able to put any content here.

Next week looks way better on the calendar. See you then.

I’ll take it

Delighted that the sun is setting after 5:00PM once again, here in Washington. Up in New York it’s still 4:46.

Snow day

Washington is having its largest snowfall since I think 2019. Here’s what a walk around the neighborhood looks like.

Sadness (and hope)

We don’t do “sad” well here in the United States. We’re not really mourners or grievers. We go great lengths to avoid feeling sadness. “I’ll give you something to cry about” is something parents actually say to their young children. Perhaps it’s the same around the world.

Unless it’s something immediate, like the departure of a loved one, we put our heads down, furrow our brows, and soldier on. We numb with addictions, from alcohol to fentanyl to overwork to social media. (We write blog posts.) We bury.

We avoid feeling sadness, too, out of a sense that it’s a wrong turn: that it’s the opposite of acting to reverse it. That it’s pointless wallowing, or an admission of defeat.

It isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s first necessary to feel the sadness fully. Only then can we work to ease it. Maybe this part of the year is the time to do that. To give in, if only for a moment.

2021 has been another unrelenting year. Even if we haven’t been hit directly by COVID or other, mostly human-caused, tragedies, there’s an ambient sense of loss. Despair has been building up in our peripheral vision. If we look at it directly, we may find that all the little bits of sadness have accreted into a howling mass.

There’s great sadness for everything we lost during the pandemic. More than 800,000 people gone forever, in this country alone—1 in 400—along with all of the contributions they could have made. People who lost their incomes and saw their careers or ambitions derailed. People who lost parents or those they most admired, their sources of stability. People who just feel a lot less rooted and secure than they did two years ago. All the human connections, from classrooms to churches to celebrations, that never got made.

Sadness for the tens of millions deluded into refusing life-saving vaccines and treatments. Sadness for “essential” workers who’ve taken risks every day for us. Sadness for the big share of our population—the non-voters, the “low information,” those forced to work long hours while raising kids, those simply disconnected from their communities—whom our government, at all levels, didn’t make the extra required effort to reach and protect. Sadness for those in poorer countries denied a chance even to obtain vaccines and treatments.

Our planet: the fading-away species, their dwindling habitats, that we’ll never see again. The human victims of climate-related storms and wildfires. The imminent loss of coastal and floodplain communities, and the mass dislocations to come. The unchecked disappearance of rainforests and coral reefs. Humanity’s frustrating incapacity to act collectively on even modest efforts to change behavior. The knowledge that the weakest and most marginalized will bear the worst of it.

The tents going up in our towns, big and small, as the cost of a home slips out of reach. Kids and parents experiencing homelessness just blocks away. The growing addicted population. The numbingly common overdose deaths: more than 10 per hour nationwide. A Congress run by the “more compassionate” party but failing to pass legislation to help Americans falling through the cracks.

The storm clouds of U.S. democracy’s possible extinction in 2022 and 2024, and the paralysis among the majority who must act to prevent it. The marginalized, like Black Americans, LGBT Americans, undocumented Americans, the poorest Americans, whose experience of life here—interactions with police, employers, immigration agents, judges, and now even voting registries—can barely be called “democracy” anyway.

Our leaders’ remarkable inability—or lack of will—to hold accountable people who’ve broken our laws, including those paying no price for inspiring terror at the U.S. Capitol 50 weeks ago. A sad echo of the impunity granted to all who lied their way through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through systematic torture, and in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis.

The manufactured suffering of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, whom a Democratic U.S. administration has left homeless and cut off from family and support networks in some of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, without even a chance to ask for protection here. The parents in those border cities sending their kids across alone, heartbroken but knowing they’ll be better protected. The peculiar glee with which many U.S. border and immigration personnel carry out these policies.

The growing number of countries becoming populist, nationalist dictatorships—first through fair elections, later through sham elections. The lack of formulas for unseating those regimes. The growing ranks of jailed, tortured, and exiled journalists, activists, and civic leaders. The probability that the United States could become one of those regimes. What that will mean for those of us who continue to speak out.

That’s a big, built-up mass of sadness and loss, constantly hovering in our peripheral vision.

Placing that mass into our direct focus, sitting with it and trying to draw some wisdom from it, can’t happen on a typical, hectic, routine day. We have too many responsibilities and people to attend. We have to stay paid. We certainly don’t sit with it on social media or wherever else our ragged “national conversation” takes place—those venues substitute outrage for sadness, making it worse as we endlessly scroll.

Here at the end of the year, though, most of us have time out of the routine. Hopefully that means at least a few hours not looking at our phones, and reflecting, alone and with those closest to us. If we get a chance to do that, then we should try, for a moment, not pushing the sadness away when it comes.

Go ahead and be with it for a long moment. The end of the year is a good time to do it. Don’t wallow, but do feel it deeply, in all its dimensions. Give in to it: let the sad pass through. It will probably be wrenching. It may hurt.

But then, act. Don’t turn the sadness into anger—at least, not into undirected rage. Sadness and anger are only worthwhile if, like alchemists, we can forge them into something creative.

Examples abound of people doing that. I know hundreds of them from my work in Latin America. But there are hundreds—even thousands—within a 10-mile radius of where you’re reading this.

Those doing registration and get-out-the-vote drives? Fighting for housing, addiction treatment, or asylum? Feeding the hungry, assembling COVID test kits, taking in strangers? They see so much of the sadness on a daily basis that they probably have PTSD. But they keep going.

Right now there are people teaching and mentoring kids, caring for the ill, caring for others’ kids, developing life-saving medical treatments. There are people defending migrants, representing victims of police brutality, advocating for those experiencing homelessness.

People trying to undo deliberate government policies that cause human suffering, at home and abroad. People pushing audacious ideas, from criminal justice reform to housing-first to alternative energy to immigration reform to disarmament to stopping human rights abuse. People trying to end armed conflicts and solve devastating political impasses.

Artists willing new works into existence, changing how we feel or view the world, comforting us, discomforting us, provoking us. People urging political leaders to act, but not content to wait around for them.

As with sources of sadness, the sources of hope are innumerable. They mean so much more than the latest outrages on our phones’ screens.

So give in, for a moment, to the sadness that comes with being alive right now. But then reflect on how to reduce it, how to alchemize it into hope.

Reflect on our own behaviors that might be contributing to the sadness—we all have some. Reflect on how we can better use our talents, our energies, and our connections with people to bring relief, to create… happiness. To create human happiness out of thin air, where nothing existed before but indifference and apathy.

After the sadness, go look for the embers of hope: in our communities, in our families, in our networks, and in ourselves. Then let’s fan them into real flames.

Let’s have a happy new year.

An off-topic rant

Time for some off-topic venting. Bear with me, it’s just 353 words. But I need to rant.

It’s been 21 months since everything first closed down, and it’s still hard to get a COVID test here in the US. Wherever there’s a test site in DC, there’s dozens of people in line. Even hundreds. Some of them coughing. Pharmacies are mostly sold out of tests.

It’s December 2021.

And it seems worse elsewhere.

Think about how incredible that is. What a failure of leadership. We thought this would get better without Trump, but it didn’t. It just didn’t.

Perhaps the “free market will sort this out” myth took hold. Well, the free market didn’t foresee this.

Our family got boosters, but the online appointment system (with for-profit pharmacies, no government involved) made us wait nearly 3 weeks. For our kid, we had to drive for miles—and then the pharmacy screwed up the vax record and my wife spent an hour on hold trying to fix it.

We’re OK: we can deal with that kind of hassle. We have desk-at-home jobs and an older child.

But we’re the minority. What about those in worse shape than us? Elderly? Single parents? Low income? Low information? They’re struggling enough as it is.

What to us is added friction, to them means missing out on boosters and tests.

Getting tested and vaccinated should be effortless by now, especially for people trying to hold down jobs, raise kids, and stay afloat. People who don’t get the latest updates from NPR, NYT, or CDC.

That it isn’t effortless—that there are still so many shortages, so many friction points, and so little specific, current information from credible government sources, leaving so many instead just to share experts’ tweets? That’s a failure, and it will kill people this winter.

OK, end of rant.

I don’t initiate conversations about this in real life, because every time it comes up, I get so mad that whoever I’m talking with starts looking concerned. Even as I write this, I should probably go breathe into a paper bag.

Apps I’m using

My new laptop computer arrived on Friday, and I decided to set this one up from scratch instead of migrating from the old one. (I’m using it right now.) That gave me a good look at the software and services I’m using most lately.

My daughter, a senior in high school who’s applying for college right now, is getting a similar model computer for Christmas. Coming off my own setup experience, I thought I’d write her up a list of the apps I’ve found useful, and that she might find useful as a university student.

Here’s the list that I’m sharing with her. Note that:

  • I use a Mac, so this list is Apple-centric. I’ve been in that ecosystem since 2006, so I don’t really know what many of these apps’ Windows or Linux equivalents are.
  • I like apps and sites that let me keep my hands on the keyboard, rather than distracting me with a lot of clicking or fiddling around. So a lot of these apps favor keyboard shortcuts and automating things, but that often means a steeper learning curve.
  • I like inexpensive or free apps that do one thing really well. Still, a lot of these apps charge money to use them, at times as a subscription. Since I spend about two-thirds of my waking hours doing something at a computer, I don’t mind spending a few hundred dollars a year to make that experience less unpleasant and more efficient, while supporting developers.

Utilities

  • 1Password: A password manager is the first thing I install on a new computer, so that I can install everything else easily. 1Password holds all of my logins and passwords behind a single password that only I know. I don’t know the passwords to any of the sites or services I use: 1Password generates them and saves them, and I just copy and paste. All I have to know is that one master password to open the vault. ($2.99 / month)
  • TextExpander: I haven’t typed my name in years, I just type “aaaa” and TextExpander instantly puts in “Adam Isacson.” Why have to remember today’s date when I can just type “dddd.” I have snippets for Latin American countries and leaders. (“ammlo” is so much easier than “Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”) Also for bits of HTML code, my address and phone number, my email signature, and much else. ($39.96 / year)
  • Alfred: It’s like the Mac’s spotlight feature on steroids. (£29 / year)
  • Dropbox: Still works better than iCloud as a way to back up and sync your documents everywhere. But I’m starting to worry about its privacy policies. ($9.99 / month for 2TB)
  • Magnet: A handy little app that snaps and resizes your windows around the screen. ($7.99 one-time)
  • Copy ’em with helper app: If you copy and paste a lot, this holds the last X number of things that you copied, so you can paste them without having to copy again. I use it constantly, especially when doing data entry. (There are other apps that do this, this is the one I’ve used for years.) ($14.99 one-time)
  • BusyContacts: Everyone needs a contacts app that’s easier to use than the really poor one that comes with the Mac. This is the best one I’ve found. I don’t love it, but it’s good with tags and group emails. ($49.99 one-time)
  • BusyCal: A better/prettier calendar program than the one that comes with Mac. Fantastical is also good, but I’m not crazy about its related contacts app (CardHop), so I use BusyCal because it integrates with the superior BusyContacts. ($49.99 one-time)
  • OmniFocus: This is the to-do list app I’ve used for many years, but it’s probably too complicated for most people. ($49.99 one-time standard, $99.99 one-time pro) Things is prettier and simpler. ($49.99 one-time) Even the much-improved Reminders app that comes with Mac may be enough for most folks these days.
  • DeepL: This is the best translation app. ($6.99 / month)
  • Hazel: A nifty app that’s always watching your computer for things that you’ve told it to watch for. Something sitting in the trash too long? It’ll automatically empty it. A movie in your Downloads folder? It’ll move it to your “Movies” folder. Lots of stuff more complex than that, too. ($42 one-time)
  • Bartender: The menu bar at the top of the screen can get pretty cluttered. This little app cleans it up for you, hiding the items you choose. ($15 one-time)

Keeping in touch

  • Spark: My preferred alternative to Apple Mail, which is also fine. I prefer it mainly because of the keyboard shortcuts (archive, delete, reply, forward without taking your fingers off the keyboard or even using control keys) and the way it connects to OmniFocus, Evernote, and other apps. (Free, charges for teams)
  • Messages (built-in), WhatsApp, Signal, and Slack: So people can interrupt you. (All free)

Research

  • Obsidian: This is my current go-to app for note-taking and processing ideas. It works on nothing but plain text files, which can be linked to each other by using [[double brackets]], which Obsidian can display as a big network map of all of your files. Obsidian has a large and growing universe of free plug-ins allowing you to use it for many things. If you’re happy with something less full-featured, stick with the Notes app that comes with the Mac, it’s gotten a lot better lately. (Obsidian is free, though they ask for support)
  • DevonThink: A pretty app that gives you a place to store all of your research documents (PDFs, websites) in a very searchable archive. (I used to use Evernote for this—and still use it for bills and taxes and stuff—but it’s had some bad updates and I hope it gets better.) ($99 one-time standard, $199 one-time pro)
  • PDF Expert: If you work with PDFs a lot (like academic articles and NGO reports), this has a few slight improvements over the built-in Preview app. A nice environment if you highlight and annotate a lot. ($79.99 / year – it’s gotten pricier recently)
  • Instapaper: If you’re on a web page that you want to read later (a newspaper article, a blog post, basically anything that’s not a PDF), click the “Instapaper” button in your browser and it saves a copy of just the text, without all the other web cruft. At the Instapaper website or phone/tablet app, all of your saved articles are there in a nice readable layout. You can highlight important parts, and then export the highlights elsewhere. Pocket is very similar; I use Instapaper because I have for more than 10 years. ($29.99 / year; Pocket is $44.99/year for premium)
  • Readwise: A service that takes your highlights from Instapaper, Kindle or iBooks, and PDFs (if you send the PDFs to an email address), then puts them all together for you—including in a special folder in Obsidian, thanks to a plug-in. ($7.99 / month, lite version $4.49)
  • Zotero with BetterBibTex: A reference manager that has made footnotes and bibliographies about 1,000 percent easier. It keeps your reference documents and spits out citation data with plugins for Microsoft Word and Google Docs. My last report had 319 footnotes, but it was really painless thanks to Zotero. Through some hacking, Zotero with plugins can even take the highlights you made in PDF Expert and turn them into a notes page in Obsidian. One inelegant wrinkle, though, is ending up putting many of the same documents in both Zotero and DevonThink. (Free; $20+/year to store documents)
  • InoReader and Unread (for iOS): In one place, read the RSS feeds for your favorite sites, Twitter lists, YouTube channels, and similar. Read all new content as though it was emails in your inbox or articles in a magazine. Read folders that show just certain categories or items that meet search criteria. Navigate, and save things to Instapaper, without taking your hands off the keyboard. This is how I get about 95 percent of my news. (Inoreader tiers are free, $1.67/month, and $5.83/month; Unread is free, $19.99/year premium)
  • Otter.ai: This service makes decent transcriptions of any audio file, like mp3s of recorded lectures, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc. ($100/year for pro)
  • Firefox: Safari is a good browser and I use it a lot, but it lacks a lot of extensions. Firefox is fast and privacy-forward (unlike Chrome, which is an invasive spy), and I use it with these extensions:
    • Instapaper: Adds the current web page to Instapaper.
    • Zotero connector: Adds the current web page to Zotero.
    • Clip to DevonThink: Adds the current web page to DevonThink.
    • DarkReader: Most of Mac OS can go to dark mode automatically at sunset, but Firefox doesn’t without an extension like this.
    • Privacy Possum: This one “monkey wrenches common commercial tracking methods by reducing and falsifying the data gathered by tracking companies.”
    • uBlock Origin: A good ad blocker.(Free)

Writing

  • Ulysses: Most of my writing will never be printed out on paper, so I don’t care what it looks like laid out on a fake page like Microsoft Word does. What I want is text that can be converted to a website easily, with little garbage code, which Microsoft Word is terrible at. Ulysses is bare-bones but has a lot of nice features that make writing pleasant (great autocorrect, easy linking, word count targets). You can break a big writing project into sections and move them around. It’s easy to export to the web. I’m writing this in Ulysses right now. If you regularly write very long papers—more than 10 pages—take a look at Scrivener, which is great for storyboarding and keeping all of your research handy. It’s too complex for shorter-form writing though. ($49.99 / year; Scrivener $41.65 one-time with educational license)
  • Microsoft Word: Most of the world uses Word, so you have to have it. I don’t enjoy writing in it, I feel like my train of thought gets interrupted while I’m poking through all of the endless toolbars, and the interface looks like the cockpit of a jet plane. The “track changes” features are great, though, and it usually comes bundled with Excel which is the best spreadsheet. Google Docs is better if you’re collaborating with people. Neither one converts to clean HTML. (MS Office I think is $69.99 / year)
  • OmniOutliner: Often your first step when writing is to make an outline, and OmniOutliner is the easiest and prettiest app for doing that. It’s also good for taking notes in classes and meetings. It doesn’t get in the way when you’re thinking. ($49.99 / year)
  • MindNode: Sometimes a rigid outline isn’t the best first step for writing something. Sometimes you need something more spread out and visual: a mind map. I enjoy using MindNode for that. ($19.99 / year)
  • BBEdit: You don’t need this for plain writing. BBEdit is useful if you’re manipulating text a lot, like lots of complicated search-and-replaces. Usually if I’m about to put something on the web, the text has to spend some time in BBEdit to clean up the HTML (curly quotes, make sure some links open in a new window, deal with letters with accents, strip out goofy formatting). And if you’re ever coding, BBEdit is amazing. ($39.99 / year)
  • Keynote: If you’re making a slideshow, the Keynote app that comes with your Mac is far superior to PowerPoint. So much easier to work with. You can convert it to PowerPoint later. I think it makes much prettier charts than Excel does. (Free)
  • OmniGraffle: This one’s not necessary, but the company that makes OmniFocus and OmniOutliner makes this app that easily produces diagrams. ($149.99 one-time – it’s gotten pricier)

Sound and images

  • Acorn: I’ve used this app to edit graphics for years, and am happy with it. But I have no idea if it’s better or worse than competitors like Pixelmator (cheaper) or Photoshop Elements (pricier). (Acorn $39.99 one-time, Pixelmator $19.99 one-time, Photoshop Elements $99.99 one-time)
  • Audacity: This venerable free, open-source audio editor does what I need it to do (mainly, editing podcast audio). It has lots of useful plug-ins to do things like reduce noise and level speech. It can convert from any format to any another. (Free)
  • Audio Hijack: This app lets you grab the audio from any app running on your computer. Great for recording Zoom meetings, recording podcasts, recording lectures and events, whatever. (And then you can take the audio you grabbed and run it through otter.ai for a transcript.) ($59 one-time)
  • yt-dlp: If you’ve ever seen a video on the web and said, “I’d like to download a copy of that,” this will do it for you. You can also tweak the commands to just download the audio, saving it as an .mp3. Yt-dlp requires you to use the Mac’s built-in Terminal app, so all commands must be typed into a Unix command line. I use TextExpander to do all this, but this is still the hardest app to use on this entire list. (Free)
  • VLC: This free, open-source video player has been around forever and can play any format. (Free)
  • Calibre: A nice free library for your e-books. A plugin lets you remove the DRM from your books, but you’ll have to look up how to do that yourself. (Free)
  • Screenflow: This one is expensive, but if you record presentations on your computer screen, like a video lecture with a slideshow, this app makes it super-easy. ($149 one-time)

Photo

Saturday evening’s sunset at Washington DC’s MacMillan Reservoir.

Photo

Northeast Washington DC’s Metropolitan Branch Trail this morning.

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