My appearance on WYSO’s Book Nook

Dance of the TrusteesIf anyone is for some reason interested in anything I have to say, please feel free to listen to this interview I did with Vick Mickunas for the long-running and always interested program Book Nook.

We spoke about my book Dance of the Trustees, life in Yellow Springs, the joys and difficulties of writing nonfiction, and some of the strange situations I’ve managed to get myself into and/or write about over the years.

Thanks a ton to Vick for the invite, and although everyone usually dislikes hearing their own voice, I have to say I think this turned out pretty well!

The interview can be heard here.

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Some thoughts on the strange and unexplained closure of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, NM


Update: 9/13/18, 10:18 p.m. – a cool new article was just published with the director debunking some theories and comments from someone who was evacuated from the mountain.

What follows is a collection of some thoughts and information about the mysterious FBI-led shutdown of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. Obviously it’s a pretty wild thing to happen, and the total silence from the Feds is stoking the fires of conspiracy theory and allegations of questionable-goings on.

In fact, I’m surprised at how much traction this story is getting. Media outlets from all over the world have picked it up, and almost immediately a bunch of videos appeared on YouTube offering all kinds of extraterrestrial/New World Order/prophecy explanations for the evacuation. I am as intrigued as anyone by this (and just as stonewalled by authorities in getting information), and  I thought I’d compile some ideas about what’s going on and a few of my own thoughts on the situation.

Note: I am not posting the in any sort of official or reportorial capacity but simply as someone who lives very close to the area and who drove up to the facility the morning after the evacuation occurred. (In fact, I’m happy to say that I took one of the photos that is being circulated everywhere ha!)

A little background on the facility and the evacuation:

The National Solar Observatory (NSO) is a group of telescopes located in the Sacramento Mountains near Alamogordo, New Mexico. As the name indicates, the primary area of research is the Sun. The facility is managed by the National Science Foundation and is used by a consortium of research facilities such as New Mexico State University and Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). There is an unincorporated community near the site with a post office called Sunspot that, as far as I understand, was/is comprised of a small amount of researchers, workers, and their family members.

Sometime on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 7, the FBI appeared at the facility and ordered everyone out. All told, approximately 25 employees and residents were moved.

The Otero County Sheriff’s Office was told to stand by but they weren’t alerted as to what was actually going on. The most thorough account of the situation was reported by the Alamogordo Daily News, and a few comments made by the County Sheriff have really stuck out in reports on the closure:

“…for the FBI to get involved that quick and be so secretive about it, there was a lot of stuff going on up there,” (the sheriff) said. “There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything.”

As a reporter for an area paper, I drove up to the Observatory at around 11 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 8 to see what was going on. The NSO is an incredibly beautiful area, and part of its beauty is the wonderful stillness of the mountain forests. The only barricade was a single line of cautionc tape and a temporary stop sign. Nothing was seen or heard in the roughly 45 minutes I was parked at the entrance. It was completely, totally silent.

I next drove over to the Apache Point Observatory, a facility less than a mile away on the same mountain range but run by entirely different entities. There, it was business as usual. Vehicles were parked in parkingp spots, people were inside doing work, someone was walking to her dorm carrying an empty lunch container. She said they had no idea what was going on either but were told that they did not have to evacuate or stop working. If something huge or incredibly dangerous was about to happen, she said, it apparently wasn’t a threat the employees of a facility very close by.

After my visit to Apache Point, I went back to NSO and there happened to be a truck going in and a car going out at the gate. The truck belonged to a maintenance guy dispatched to make sure some water pumps were working, as the NSO pumps water to the Apache facility. The car going out was an older couple who used to live in Sunspot and still collect their mail there. The maintenance guy said he didn’t know anything more than anyone else: his boss told everyone to evacuate because some kind of threat was levied at the Observatory. He didn’t know if it was against the foundation or employees, or if it was an employee of the facility making a threat.

There has been no word from anybody about anything since the evacuation. Every possible agency has been contacted and the answer is essentially the same: no comment and the facility will remain closed until further notice. (The NSO’s website has a cute message: “With the excitement this closure has generated, we hope you will come and visit us when we do reopen, and see for yourself the services we provide for science and public outreach in heliophysics.”)

Some notes and observations:

  • The facility is not nearly as remote as some people are saying. In fact, I can see the large telescope of the observatory on the ridge of the mountain from the parking lot of where I work. NSO is around 40 miles from Alamogordo but takes at least an hour to get there because you have to approach it in a roundabout way. That being said, it is no more than half an hour from the tourist town Cloudcroft, and the drive is all on paved and well-maintained roads.
  • Some have theorized that the facility was evacuated due an incoming threat, such as aliens (of course) or a space rock coming to obliterate the area. If this was the case, evacuating only the facility at Sunspot makes no sense. Again, Apache Point is a mile away. If something was coming to destroy the mountain, you’d think they’d get everyone off. To me, this suggests that it was probably a threat or a problem affecting the National Solar Observatory specifically. Maybe a disgruntled employee; maybe someone planning an attack.
  • People are suggesting the facility was evacuated because the government doesn’t want the Sunspot scientists observing something secret out in space. This also makes little sense, as there are numerous facilities all over the country and world that would have no problem observing everything  Sunspot can. Unless every single one of these facilities was evacuated at the same time, the trying-to-prevent-people-from-seeing-stuff theory doesn’t really hold a lot of water.
  • A bunch of random people started following me on Instagram after I posted about the evacuation. I don’t really know how Instagram works, so I don’t know if my post was publicized somewhere or if these people are a bunch of bots. Either way, someone claiming to have an inside source at the FBI messaged me and said the site was evacuated because a craft would be entering the atmosphere and landing at the nearby White Sands Missile Range and the government didn’t want anyone to see it. The person would not tell me if the craft was human-made or alien, or if it was malevolent or good.The person also said the facility would be reopened the following Monday once the craft landed, with the official story being that there was a mercury leak, as one of the telescopes using something like 10 tons of mercury in its operations. As of Thursday, a week after NSO was evacuated, the facility is still closed.

All of this leads me to believe that the cause of the evacuation was your average human threat. Either someone internally or externally made a threat against the facility or the FBI was investigating something sketchy going on nearby. The area has a prominent “Don’t tread on me,” anti-government attitude, and it’s been suggested that maybe there was militia activity in the surrounding forests.

It’s possible there was a hazmat issue on account of the aforementioned mercury or other chemicals used by the site. I didn’t see anyone in white suits when I was up there, and as far as I know nobody from the nearby towns has seen trucks or crazy equipment rushing through the area. (Not that this means anything, as I certainly didn’t roam the facility when I was there.)

Or perhaps the scientists at the observatory did actually see something out in space and the FBI swooped in to grab all the evidence. It would be helpful to know where the staff is now – are they just hanging out at home, or are they in a secret location being debriefed?

Still, though, I can’t imagine that a lone observatory saw something that no other place on the entire planet picked up. As much as I would be thrilled to know life exists beyond our own planet, it seems way, way, way more plausible that a violent idiot human was making threats.

Some other theories/explanations that have been put forward:

  1. NASA launched a rocket from the nearby White Sands Missile Range the day the site was evacuated.
  2. FBI warns regional research facilities of threat of intellectual property theft. Maybe someone was trying to get at information they shouldn’t?
  3. Some dickhead kid was plotting an attack against a college; turns out it was NMSU. The story broke on the day before the NSO evacuation, but the plot goes back to 2015.
  4. C) Or, as one person simply said, Sun Aliens.

The locks and canals of the mighty Muskingum

Lock #10 is unique in that it is a double-lock, with two chambers to raise and lower boats. At least half a million gallons are displaced in each step of the process.

Atlas Obscura recently published a piece I wrote about the old lock system still in use up and down the Muskingum River in southeastern Ohio. The locks are operated by hand and require the skills of a lockmaster, who stays on site to help the estimated 7,000 annual boaters traverse the dams that make the river navigable.

It’s always a pleasure to pore through dusty old archives and historical collections, and this certainly holds true when investigating the interesting history of my beautiful hometown! Thanks to the various historians and lock enthusiasts for talking to me, and to Tim Curtis for showing me how it all works!

The article can be found here. 

I will be writing a full-length book about Sealand, the world’s foremost micronation!

I am utterly elated to announce that I just signed the contract to write a book called “Bastards of the North Sea: the Story of Sealand, the World’s Foremost Micronation and the Family that Founded It” for Diversion Books.

The story of Sealand has captivated me for a very long time, and it’s pretty much a dream come true to be able to write a full-length piece of nonfiction about it! Thanks so much to my agent Amanda Morrison Jain for hooking this up!

Prince Michael of Sealand of course published his autobiography in 2016, and so my book with be like an unofficial journalistic complement to his work.

I imagine “Bastards of the North Sea” will be published in early 2020.

Any and all micronational leaders please feel free to get in touch, as well as anyone well-versed in maritime law!

My book Dance of the Trustees: On the Astonishing Concerns of a Small Ohio Township will be published on July 31 and is currently available for pre-order for 30% off.

My book Dance of the Trustees: On the Astonishing Concerns of a Small Ohio Township will be published on July 31 and is currently available for preorder for 30% off. That makes it a mere $15.37!

Please feel free to buy a bunch of copies of this incredible tome so I can retire and only write books.

Readings from and Q&As about this project will take place in Ohio in August and September. Stay tuned!

About the book:

“On September 9, 2015, in the quirky village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, the Miami Township Board of Trustees arbitrated a dispute concerning an area bed and breakfast that was apparently causing a lot of problems in the neighborhood where it was located. People were irate – the B&B was considered too loud or unfairly under attack, and the township officials were called incompetent by both sides for not ruling in their favor. The trustees looked amused, concerned, interested, annoyed, and baffled at the situation before them.

But this quaint debate was one of many fascinating problems the trustees deal with on a daily basis. While Miami Township is small, the concerns are myriad – cemeteries are filledwith unknown remains, there is a fire department to oversee, and they sometimes take legal action against properties clogged with junk. The responsibilities are doubly impressive considering no trustees have backgrounds in public office.

This book combines entertaining nonfiction vignettes with well-researched township history – including its history of religious cults and the possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald was once in town – and elucidates the processes behind an entire civic division. The book documents 21st century township life with humor, warmth and erudition, but also with the scholarship befitting an easy to read civics textbook.”

My Search for an Incredible Piece of Sci-Fi Trash

When I was a kid, I had this ridiculous sci-fi novel full of mutants, profanity, shoot-outs, and sex. Needless to say, I loved it. But when I was older, I couldn’t remember its title or author. And thus began a decade-long search to track down this incredible piece of sci-fi trash, leading me to bookstores around the country and into the vast annals of sci-fi. I just had an essay published at The Millions about my quest – read it!!

Medical waste: Who gets it, and what happens to it?

This article was originally published on April 9, 2018, in the El Paso Inc. Medical Section. The article was edited for length and slight stylistic reasons; the original version can be found below.

Autoclave

The Mediwaste autoclave, closed. Photo by Jorge Salgado.

 

Every day, box trucks pull up to a nondescript warehouse on the far-east side of El Paso to unload a fairly grotesque cargo. The trucks are carrying used catheters, bandages, diapers, syringes, and soiled gowns collected from around the city. The trucks belong to Mediwaste Disposal, a locally-owned company that handles the medical waste of more than five hundred clients in El Paso and New Mexico. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the contents of those ominous red buckets in your doctor’s office, the Mediwaste fleet is the group to follow.

Companies that produce “regulated medical waste,” such as funeral homes, tattoo parlors, veterinarians, dialysis centers, and dentists, are required by law to dispose of it properly. While the waste eventually ends up in El Paso’s Clint Landfill, the process is not as simple as chucking it there. Texas law requires that a company fully licensed and vetted to treat medical waste pick it up and treat it.

“This is stuff you don’t want any Tom, Dick, and Harry handling,” said Mike Perez, one of the company’s co-founders. (There are other medical waste transporters in the city, but they take their loads elsewhere to be treated.)

To begin, Mediwaste supplies each business with containers that fit their needs. The containers are picked up as often as needed and loaded into the back of a box truck, which is legally required to have extra leak-proof capabilities. Labels are affixed denoting the containers’ provenance and are transported back to the warehouse. Each truck does approximately 35-40 pickups per day, Perez estimates.

The surprisingly innocuous Mediwaste facility is spare and clean-swept, with a few indistinct apparatuses in one corner and the smell of disinfectant lingering in the air. The day’s haul is taken off of the truck and dumped wholesale into what look like metal minecars.

MediwasteCart

A Mediwaste cart filled with…medical waste! Photo by Jorge Salgado.

 

Up to four of these carts are wheeled into a giant autoclave to begin the sterilization process. Superheated water from the adjacent boiler bathes the carts and their contents in steam for almost an hour. A sensor on the autoclave records the entire process to make sure that necessary temperatures are met, and these records are kept on file for five years. (If for some reason the autoclave goes down, the waste is stored in a refrigerated truck until it’s back online.)

Following their steam bath, the carts slide back out of the autoclave and their contents are dumped into a trash compactor, which crushes the assorted waste together in preparation for transport to the landfill. Though the prospect of dumping medical waste into a standard landfill seems questionable, Perez said that the autoclave process ensures that pathogens and other malicious contaminants are killed. In fact, he said, “our waste is probably the cleanest waste in the landfill.” Not only that, but it is an arguably cleaner way of dealing with the waste than earlier methods, such as incineration, which could release hazardous chemicals into the air.

Autoclave with Cart

The autoclave can hold up to four medical waste-bearing mine carts. Photo by Jorge Salgado.

 

Every aspect of the process is governed by stringent health and safety guidelines dictated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which Perez said are some of the strictest in the country. On top of the regulations governing transport and treatment, the facility is required to have security cameras and a fence running the length of its perimeter. At the end of each day, employees are required to patrol an area stretching two miles in any direction from the facility to make sure that no telltale red bags have dropped from any of the trucks.

When Perez began the arduous process of applying for permits and licenses to open the facility, many area residents expressed concern about seeing recognizable body parts. This kind of waste is called “pathological waste,” Perez explained, and as of yet Mediwaste does not have the equipment to appropriately process it.

However, those capabilities are forthcoming. Squeamish readers may want to proceed with caution – the company will be getting a shredder within the next month. True to its name, the shredder will allow them to render body parts “unrecognizable” before the pulp is treated along with the usual regulated medical waste. This is partly done on the behalf of landfill operators, who may not only get freaked out by finding an intact foot but would have to shut down operations in case the remains are evidence of a murder.

The homegrown company kicked off its operations when it picked up its first load from a pediatrician’s office in 2015 and is considering branching off into other unpleasant territories when the time is right, such as treating asbestos and chemical waste. Perez is as surprised as anyone that he finds himself running such a strange operation, but he is glad he is. In addition to appreciating the company’s success, Perez takes pride in the fact that the company can offer something positive to the community he grew up in. The facility is the first located in El Paso County, which means that tax revenue stays local and that trucks carrying hazardous waste don’t have to drive for hours to the next closest location to dispose of it.

“We took a chance and rolled the dice,” Perez said. “It’s not every a mom and pop operation shows up and says ‘Hey, I’m here to take your medical waste.'”

****

Sidebar: What happens to pharmaceuticals and similar waste?

Mediwaste is able to collect and process most pharmaceuticals for disposal. “As long as it’s non-hazardous, it can be run through the autoclave and taken to the landfill,” Perez said.

“Non-hazardous” in this context refers to pharmaceuticals whose components will be rendered inert in the autoclave process and thus won’t leach into groundwater or soil. However, certain medications must be incinerated in order to fully destroy them, as do items such as asthma inhalers, which can explode in the autoclave, and medications like warfarin, which contain explosive chemicals. Chemotherapy waste, such as canisters and related supplies, likewise must be incinerated.

Other options for disposing of pharmaceutical waste include treating it with chemicals, or in the case of pills, encasing them in concrete and burying them in a landfill.

Sidebar redux: How can I properly dispose of my household medications?

According to the El Paso Department of Health, disposing of most household medications is a fairly easy process. First, take an old plastic container with a screw-on lid and fill it with an unappetizing substance, such as dirt, coffee grounds, or kitty litter. Next, take pills, patches, syrups, etc. and put them in the plastic container. Put the lid back on and shake the contents. The moisture that collects in the container will dissolve the pills safely. The container and its contents can then be put out with the regular trash. Disposing of medications in this capacity instead of dumping them down the toilet reduces the amount of chemicals that pollute waterways and ecosystems.

However, such a method won’t work for items like syringes, home medical tools, and asthma inhalers (the latter of which can explode if punctured or heated). These items can be taken to hazardous waste collections sites around town. Some medical facilities or pharmacies are also equipped to take this waste as well as unused and expired medication. Fort Bliss also has collection points.