Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


Tips and Tricks

What AI is Useful For Right Now (It’s Not Web Search)

Many more good ones in this Twitter thread
(Update: as of the evening of May 29, Google still provides the pictured result.)

Some things generative AI tools are really useful for:

  • Translation
  • Transcription
  • Suggesting code in many programming and scripting languages
  • Summarizing or pulling specific information from long, already-existing documents or collections of documents
  • Assistance with classifying or archiving information for easy retrieval
  • First drafts of low-priority correspondence
  • Thinking through complex ideas or narratives
  • Making entertaining images to help visualize things (but not to share publicly as embarrassing “boomer images“)

What generative AI tools really are not useful for:

  • Answering questions using information drawn from the open web: the answers are often vague or hallucinated, at times hilariously so, and always require further verification

You’d think that Google and other companies rushing to “put AI in everything” would know this. Anyone who has used even the best LLMs for more than a few hours has had the model tell them outrageously wrong things. It’s puzzling that Google put “AI overviews” at the top of their trillion-dollar company’s results pages when the tech is plainly not ready for that purpose yet.

A “Summarizer and Archiver” GPT

If you have a paid ChatGPT subscription, here’s a “GPT” I’ve made that gives you a bullet-pointed summary of an article or report, in Markdown format (plain text with simple formatting notation, which is easy to archive and share).

These are the instructions I’ve given it (which I think I’m done tweaking, but maybe not yet):

Summarizer and Archiver is designed to assist with summarizing lengthy articles and reports on topics such as security, defense, human rights, and migration in Latin America and the Caribbean. Summaries follow a structured format, beginning with the principal argument, including supporting findings, conclusions, and recommendations, and formatted as bullet points with boldfaced phrases. An approximate guideline is five bullet points for the supporting findings and conclusions section, though the number could be greater or fewer as warranted. Additionally, up to 10 consistent tags are suggested for archiving. The communication style is formal, ensuring consistency in language for ease of future search and archival. Responses are provided in blocks of Markdown code for ease of sharing.

I just ask the GPT to summarize an article or report, which is either an uploaded PDF attachment or copy-pasted text. (For added clarity, I put the pasted text between <article></article> tags.)

Here’s the result when I fed it a March 10 El País interview, in Spanish, with Chilean President Gabriel Boric:

- **Principal Argument**: Chilean President Gabriel Boric reflects on his tenure, emphasizing his commitment to addressing the country's pressing issues, such as improving pensions, stimulating economic growth, and tackling crime, despite facing challenges such as low approval ratings and the failure of constitutional reform attempts.

- **Supporting Findings and Conclusions**:
  - **Constitutional Reform Efforts**: Boric acknowledges the failure of two constitutional reform attempts but views them as learning opportunities rather than losses, underscoring the importance of updating the constitution eventually.
  - **Economic and Social Priorities**: He outlines his administration's focus on economic recovery, reducing poverty and inequality, improving public education, and addressing security as top priorities, with significant legislation passed to enhance security and police forces.
  - **Political Landscape**: Despite challenges, including high disapproval rates and the impact of political scandals, Boric remains optimistic about his government's progress and the tangible improvements in Chile's social and economic indicators since taking office.
  - **International Relations and Political Ideology**: Boric distances himself from authoritarian regimes and emphasizes the importance of a progressive government working in unity with the center-left to improve citizens' quality of life, contrasting his administration with right-wing movements in Latin America and globally.
  - **Future Outlook and Legacy**: He discusses his hopes for Chile's future, including the continuation of progressive policies and the development of a long-term coalition for progressive governance, while personally not aspiring for a second presidential term.

- **Recommendations**: Boric suggests that continued efforts to improve economic conditions, enhance security, and address social issues will be crucial in countering the rise of the far-right and maintaining democratic stability. He also emphasizes the need for political unity and the adaptation of progressive principles to meet current challenges.

- **Tags**: #Chile, #GabrielBoric, #Presidency, #ConstitutionalReform, #EconomicGrowth, #Security, #PoliticalChallenges, #ProgressiveGovernance, #InternationalRelations, #FutureOutlook

I now add long articles and reports to my personal archive with these summaries first. I’ve done this dozens of times in the past few weeks, and it’s working well. Hope you find it useful.

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.


  • 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)


  • 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)
  • 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)


  • 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 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)

Tips and Tricks: how I gather information every morning

Doing my job properly means reading a lot. Even before “reading,” though, it means scanning and gathering from a wide variety of sources, both here and in Latin America: news, journalism, analysis, scholarly and think-tank research, NGO reports, government documents, and my own fieldwork, meeting, and interview notes.

This “gathering” exercise is, for me, a well-worn morning ritual. It happens very early, and usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes. It’s a solitary task, usually performed with a smart playlist of mostly new, unheard music shuffled into my headphones. (I use Apple Music for this; if I hear a song I like, I give it a “star” rating and it goes into another playlist where I can hear it more often.)

At this point, I’m trying to figure out what’s happened and what’s relevant for my work. I’m not doing close reading, I’m saving things for later. I save the most important things in a database that I coded myself. You probably don’t need to do that. But I do recommend two “buckets” to put things in:

  1. A “read later” service that quickly cleans the HTML cruft away from, and archives, every article that I find of interest and seriously intend to read closely once I’m out of “gathering” mode. These services have apps that let you read saved articles on your phone or tablet, keeping everything in sync. I use Instapaper, which costs $30 per year, and it works fine for me. Pocket, its main competitor, may be just as good.
Instapaper version of an article from Colombia’s El Espectador.
  1. Since those “read later” services can’t handle PDFs, you need a separate place to put PDFs to read later (in my case, these are mostly government reports, NGO reports, scholarly articles, hearing testimonies, and the like). Saving them to a folder that syncs with the cloud, like in Dropbox or iCloud, is fine. Some people like to use an archiving app like Evernote or DevonThink, which is fine too. The important thing is to be able to get to them easily when you’re in “reading” mode.

For me, “gathering” means consulting, in as fast and automated a way as possible, the websites of about 300 news outlets, NGOs, think tanks, blogs, and other sources of interest throughout the hemisphere. I’ve found it possible to do this in less than 90 minutes by relying on two tools: RSS and Nuzzel.


Did you know that almost every website that posts articles regularly has a “back end” that lists the articles in reverse chronological order? And that you can subscribe to dozens of these “back ends” at once, and read them all together like one big e-mail inbox?

RSS stands for “Real Simple Syndication,” and it was a big deal during the early 2000s. Google even had a service called “Google Reader” that was hugely popular and dominated the market, but then Google discontinued it when they couldn’t figure out how to make money from it.

The popularity of RSS never recovered—but most sites still have RSS feeds. Here’s mine. Here’s the New York Times’s “Americas” feed. Here are the feeds of Colombia’s El Tiempo. Here’s The Onion’s feed.

If you clicked one of those links, you may have seen a lot of XML code that was hard to read. That’s because you need to use a website or app called an RSS reader. These show you all the feeds you’ve subscribed to, as a giant list of articles. Most keep track of articles that you’ve read already, so you don’t have to see them again, you just see what’s new.

There are some good RSS readers out there: FeedWrangler, Feedly, Reeder, FeedBin, NewsBlur and NetNewsWire are probably the most common. On iOS, Unread and Reeder are great. I use FeedWrangler on my computer ($19 per year) because it has two key features. (Others may have these now too, but they didn’t years ago, the last time I was shopping around.) They are:

  1. “Smart streams.” I subscribe to over 300 feeds. That’s something like 4,000 articles per day, many of which are totally irrelevant to me. I can’t read through all that. I work on defense and security in Latin America, so I have a “smart stream” called “Military,” in which FeedWrangler looks through everything and just gives me articles that include the word roots <<“Armed Forces” OR “Fuerzas Armadas” OR military OR militar OR army OR ejercito OR “FF.AA.” OR FFAA OR “Guardia Nacional”>>. That gives me a much more manageable list that looks like this:
Not every resulting article is relevant, but most of them are.
  1. Navigation without taking your hands off the keyboard. If you use Gmail and get hundreds of messages a day, hopefully you use the keyboard shortcuts that process your mail without you having to reach for your mouse, or even your arrow keys. (“J” for previous message, “K” for next message, “E” to archive the message, “R” to reply, etc.). It’s such a time-saver. FeedWrangler lets me navigate similarly through hundreds of articles each morning. J and K to go up and down; “I” to send it to Instapaper. I do have to reach for my mouse, though, if I want to open the article in another browser tab, which is usually necessary to read it more fully or to put it in my database.

That’s RSS, and I don’t know what I’d do without it. Also, when adding feeds to your RSS reader, be sure to mix in a few feeds from sites that you visit for fun: in my case, I’ve got feeds from many music, humor, culture, and politics sites, local neighborhood blogs, and tech and baseball news. Thanks to RSS, I usually find out about newly released music, upcoming concerts, or new gadgets on sale at 5:30 AM while gathering Latin America news and analysis.

Twitter and Nuzzel

Twitter now rivals RSS as a source of news and analysis. I follow over 1,000 colleagues, scholars, journalists, officials, and enthusiasts covering aspects of Latin American politics, security, human rights, or U.S. policy. And many of them are actively posting links to relevant stuff every day, much of it stuff that I would miss otherwise.

It’s impossible, though, to scroll through 1,000-plus people’s postings from the past 24 hours looking for links to click on. That’s where Nuzzel comes in. This free site looks at the accounts of everyone you follow, and spits out a web page with all of their most-linked-to pages over the past 24 hours (or other time period). That’s all it does, and it’s a huge help. I usually check Nuzzel first every morning, before wading into RSS.

My Nuzzel home page this morning.

If you want to go all in

RSS and Nuzzel give me 90-95 percent of what I gather every day, and they’re both very quick to navigate. But I check a few other things, as time allows, when I want to be complete.

  1. I keep a page with links to a few sites that don’t have RSS feeds, or have unreliable RSS feeds. Here is mine: it’s not a long list, and I only click on a few of these every day, if in the mood. You don’t need to have a website to make a page like this, even a Google Doc will do.
  2. At a higher but not insurmountable skill level, I use a command-line tool called youtube-dl to grab audio or video of think-tank events, congressional hearings, and official speeches or press conferences that might have interesting information. That way, even if I don’t have internet access, I can view or hear those resources later. Thanks to youtube-dl, for instance, I have a whole playlist of congressional hearing audios saved on my phone.
  3. I sign up for any relevant e-mailing lists, such as think-tanks and human rights groups announcing releases of reports. A small but hopefully growing number of people are also putting out newsletters, like James Bosworth’s Latin America Risk Report or the Perry Center’s Daily News Roundup.

Reading what you’ve gathered: still working on that

So that’s how I’m finding most of my information these days, and it works really well. This exercise, though, is the easy part: you’re sort of on autopilot, scanning through a firehose of sources for what’s important. Later, you have to dedicate separate time for reading (or watching, or listening to) whatever you’ve saved to “read later.” And ideally, while doing that reading you have some system for filing away the facts or other bits of information that you’d want to be able to refer back to later.

This is still an unsolved problem for me. I’ve now got a big pile of Instapaper files, a bursting folder of PDF documents, a stack of recently published books, and a long playlist of hearing and event audios. Closely reading them, and putting the important bits in a place where I can find them later, requires more time than I’ll ever have, and I haven’t figured out how to delegate much of it to others.

My database of saved information falls behind a lot, especially when I enter seasons of heavy travel, meetings, or publication deadlines. For now, I’m just doing my best. And even if I never catch up, I’ve still got a high level of “situational awareness” just from performing that daily “gathering” exercise every morning.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.