Our Current Situation: Off the Beaten Path

INTRO: This week I want to veer off into some rarely mentioned resources. I figure you already read Salon, or Slate, or Vice, or Vox, or whatever your news spin of choice, and don’t need me pointing to articles about filibusters or chemical warfare.

We are immersed in information. All answers are only a Google search away. They may not be the right answers, but they are answers. And, the human brain is greatly satisfied in locating any answer, regardless of accuracy. Our acceptability threshold is low.

This means that well-meaning professionals working diligently to provide high-quality information are ignored. News organizations don’t call upon them, and their results don’t rise to the top of the search results page.


TAX-FUNDED RESEARCH YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE: The Library of Congress runs a research service for members of Congress called (predictably enough) the Congressional Research Service. The CRS is not allowed by law to share its work with anyone other than the requesting member of Congress. The loophole here is that members of Congress can share the research reports with anyone they choose. The Federation of American Scientists regularly contacts members of Congress and asks for reports and posts them at Congressional Research Service [CRS] Reports.

Here’s a search tip. When you’re looking for a reasonably high-quality explanation of a current issue, search the keywords for the issue and add the term CRS. This helps bring Congressional Research Service reports to the top of the results list.

Example: A search for Chemical Weapons might bring up a Wikipedia page and a multitude of news sources, but a search for Chemical Weapons CRS should bring near the top of your results —

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress” (Sept. 30, 2013)

Chemical Weapons: A Summary Report of Characteristics and Effects” (Sept. 13, 2013)


Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Progress and Continuing Challenges” (Brief Report) (Oct. 1, 2014)

These are a little dated, but it indicates how long Congress has been struggling with this issue.

In January 2017 the CRS prepared a report titled “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response.”

It’s a treasure trove of information. Highly recommended.


40 TOUGH JOBS: The Political Appointee Project published their “40 Toughest Management Jobs in Government.” This is a good guide to the jobs Trump should be filling first.

The Political Appointee Project is a project of the National Academy of Public Administration.

“The Academy is an independent, non-profit, and non-partisan organization established to assist government leaders in building more effective, efficient, accountable, and transparent organizations. The Academy’s unique feature is its 800+ Fellows—including former cabinet officers, Members of Congress, governors, as well as prominent scholars, business executives, and public administrators. Our Fellows have a deep understanding of financial management, human resources, technology, and administrative functions at all levels of government, and direct most of Academy’s studies.”

Their work can be a little dry, and they’re as understaffed as anybody right now, but there’s a ton of great, practical advise here on running a government.

Compare this list with the Washington Post’s Appointee Tracker. The deputy positions are among the most challenging jobs in the federal government. Trump has not nominated a candidate for nearly every deputy position. This is willful sabotage.


NEOLOGICAL STUDIES: I don’t think neological is really a word, but it should be. Neology: The study of the new. (Oh, wait! It is a word, but with a different meaning: “the use of a new word or expression or of an established word in a new or different sense : the use of new expressions that are not sanctioned by conventional standard usage : the introduction of such expressions into a language.” Whatever. My definition is better.)

It’s a shame that our most forward-thinking government institution is DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA may be best known for giving us the internet (AP Style says you don’t have to capitalize it anymore), but its also been instrumental in human-computer interface research (moving prosthetics with your mind!, robot and drone technology, and onion routing.

There are very few organizations willing to think such far-out thoughts (experimental space planes, exoskeletons, and starships for interstellar travel). We’d be better off if the blueprint for our future was not in the hands of the military.


PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Weird spike in mortality statistics.

Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century

“This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.”

Maybe Trump voters are the last gasp of a dying breed.


VOTING DATA: Interesting set of voting data to dig into if you’re into that sort of thing.

Creating a National Precinct Map

“This map tells many particularly interesting stories on which I’ll elaborate in future posts, but suffice to say that most of the precinct swing can be explained by one variable: education level, perhaps augmented somewhat by race and ethnicity.”

We have an epidemic of willful ignorance and gross miseducation.



“It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.”

~Confucius (551-479BC)

I have zero idea if this is a legit quote (or legit accurately translated quote), but I endorse the sentiment.



(h/t Sean Bonner)

EDITORIAL: I think the 5 stages of grief template has been largely debunked, but I find myself in the we-are-eternally-fucked-and-wallowing-in-willful-ignorance-and-every-institution-is-failing-us-but-we-had-a-good-run-i’m-just-going-to-drink-this-bourbon-sit-on-the-beach-and-watch-the-sun-set-except-i-have-decades-before-i-can-retire-and-things-are-so-fucked-up-i’ll-probably-never-be-able-to-retire-I-should-just-say-fuck-it-but-I-don’t-want-to-be-poor-again-being-poor-sucks-so-I’m-going-to-keep-working-and-mourn-silently-but-I’m-still-drinking-this-bourbon stage. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the stage I’m in.

If there are so many transgressions, and so many bad people, why are none of them ever punished? Good people work really hard and evil still flourishes. Things suck here and we have it GREAT. Subscribe to the Human Rights Watch weekly newsletter if you want a reminder of how much worse it could be.

So, I’ve been thinking lately about Neal Stephenson’s “Innovation Starvation.”

If you haven’t read it, it’s Stephenson’s lament that there are no more grand ideas in literature anymore. Specifically in science fiction. Let me concede immediately that there are huge problems with his essay, but, putting those issues aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about art as a template for new ways of understanding the world.

If the law won’t save us, and journalism won’t save us, and non-profits won’t save us, and protest won’t save us, it’s up to poets and comic book writers and science fiction writers and comedians. That’s where we’re going to get a new narrative for the future. (Really, it’s up to us all tapping into our human compassion and finding ways to let that drive flourish, but until then the poets and writers and singers of songs will have to carry the burden.)

And, right about the time I’m thinking this I come across this essay by Cory Doctorow about his new novel Walkaway where he writes:

“Stories of futures in which disaster strikes and we rise to the occasion are a vaccine against the virus of mistrust.”

And so, that’s where I’m turning my attention when I’m feeling bleak. Stories where humans rise to the occasion.


Excerpt from The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg.

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
“They buy me and sell me…it’s a game…sometime I’ll
break loose…”

Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.

Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.

The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.

The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:

This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
“Where to? what next?”

Sunday Spectacle: Books and Stories to Check Out

WRITING UPDATE: The new Full Moon Story is up. An Unhaunted House is a comedic tale about Miliwata, Florida, the most haunted city in the USA.

Check out the previous stories, The Conscience Switch, a peek behind the curtains of power that explains how the world can be so horrible sometimes, and Blissful Skies, about a little boy that hates his grandmother and loves falling stars.

I am now officially behind on the novel writing. I wrote exactly zero of the three thousand words I had targeted this week. I’ll be traveling later in March and my dream is I will be able to make up some wordage as I sit in airports and on the airplane. We’ll see. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.


BOOKS TO CHECK OUT: I note the books I’m currently reading in the right-hand column, and I have a page for books I’ve read in 2017 with a brief comment. This new feature Books to Check out will be an irregular post pointing to books that have caught my attention and made it to my to-read list. These are not books I’ve read, but books I might check out of the library. My personal inclinations and my day job combine to make me think about books. A lot. If you click through the links you can purchase the books at Powell’s. Or, my recommendation, visit your library. If they don’t have the book ask them if they have an interlibrary loan program.

I love Richard Kadrey. His Sandman Slim series is pure entertainment. And now he’s added a new comedic series.

“Coop, a master thief sort of gone legit, saved the world from an ancient doomsday device—heroism that earned him a gig working for the Department of Peculiar Science, a fearsome top secret government agency that polices the odd and strange. Now Woolrich, Coop’s boss at the DOPS, has Coop breaking into a traveling antiquities show to steal a sarcophagus containing the mummy of a powerful Egyptian wizard named Harkhuf. With the help of his pals Morty, Giselle, and a professor that’s half-cat, half-robotic octopus, Coop pulls off the heist without a hitch.

“It’s not Coop’s fault that when DOPS opened the sarcophagus they didn’t find the mummy they were expecting. Well, it was the right mummy, but it wasn’t exactly dead—and now it’s escaped, using a type of magic the organization hasn’t encountered before. Being a boss, Woolrich blames his underling for the screw up and wants Coop to find the missing Harkhuf and make it right, pronto.”

The Wrong Dead Guy (Another Coop Heist) by Richard Kadrey


“From the 1970s through the 1990s more than one hundred feminist bookstores built a transnational network that helped shape some of feminism’s most complex conversations. Kristen Hogan traces the feminist bookstore movement’s rise and eventual fall, restoring its radical work to public feminist memory. The bookwomen at the heart of this story—mostly lesbians and including women of color—measured their success not by profit, but by developing theories and practices of lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability. At bookstores like BookWoman in Austin, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, and Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, and in the essential Feminist Bookstore News, bookwomen changed people’s lives and the world. In retelling their stories, Hogan not only shares the movement’s tools with contemporary queer antiracist feminist activists and theorists, she gives us a vocabulary, strategy, and legacy for thinking through today’s feminisms.”

The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability by Kristen Hogan


I was recently introduced to the concept of the nepantla, which prompted me to add The Gloria Anzaldua Reader by Gloria Anzaldua to my reading list.

“Nepantla is a concept used often in Chicano and Latino anthropology, social commentary, criticism, literature and art. It represents a concept of “in-between-ness.” Nepantla is a Nahuatl word which means ‘in the middle of it’ or ‘middle.'”

“Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004) was an American scholar of Chicana cultural theory, feminist theory, and queer theory. She loosely based her best-known book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, on her life growing up on the Mexican-Texas border and incorporated her lifelong feelings of social and cultural marginalization into her work.”


“The definitive history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon agency that has quietly shaped war and technology for nearly sixty years.

“Founded in 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnik, the agency’s original mission was to create “the unimagined weapons of the future.” Over the decades, DARPA has been responsible for countless inventions and technologies that extend well beyond military technology. Sharon Weinberger gives us a riveting account of DARPA’s successes and failures, its remarkable innovations, and its wild-eyed schemes.”

Imagineers of War The Untold Story of Darpa the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger


Out at the end of April. I’ve already pre-ordered it.

“In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

“One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.”

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer