RL157 - Truth & Reconciliation

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: They were playing with their salads, referring to John attending a meeting as a candidate for city council, but the audience wasn’t even looking at him, but they were just playing with their salads.

The show title refers to John’s opportunity to visit South Africa and write a book about the Truth & Reconciliation commission that he didn’t take because his band was invited to SxSW.

Their sponsor is Cards against Humanity who asked Paul & Storm to say Hi to John:

John Roderick, Merlin Mann, on the line, Supertrain!

It is complicated, which isn’t always bad, but John wouldn’t say it is going well. It is raining today in Seattle and John would say that is a good feeling. Everything else is just a shit-show. No, not really! John has seen one or two shit shows before, this isn’t his first shit show.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Sports (RL157)

School just ended and for Merlin a summer of camps begins. Right now, his daughter is at track camp. At her age, as long as somebody she knows is going to be there, she can deal with it. John’s best role in cross country was being the manager, standing somewhere on the race course and when his friends came buy, screaming ”Pick it up! Good effort! Power through” He didn’t know much about sports, but he just wanted friends. John was bad at making friends, bad at having friends, and also bad at running or cross-country skiing. The girl he liked ran cross-country and John just wanted to be around her, so he ran cross country, but he had the habit of stopping in the middle of the race and climbing a tree to retrieve a bird’s nest or losing the path because he was all alone, running either twice as far as everyone else or running across a golf course. He was not purposeful. In the end everybody mutually agreed that if he was going to stick around, he should probably just be the assistant manager, which worked great for him. John is made to assistant-manage!

The elephant in the room, at least when Merlin was coming up, was that there is a little athlete in each person that just needs to be yelled out. John’s dad certainly followed that prescription. BMOC! He would stand at the side of the basketball court when John was in 5th grade, screaming at the ref ”You are missing a good game here, ref! That was a foul!” and John would have rather been anywhere else. Merlin read an interesting article recently telling parents not to yell at anything or anybody, but just sit there and watch. You are embarrassing everybody and you are not looking cool when you are yelling encouragements or insults at your kid.

There is a picture from 1929 of John’s dad standing at the beach in ankle-high leather boots, the ones you needed a special tool to lace, with boxing gloves on in full-on come-at-me boxing pose. John wants to know the last time a 9-year old in America was given boxing lessons. It is surely still happening, but there are a lot fewer 9-year-olds lacing up in boxing gloves and having a go at each other than there were in 1929, so John forgives his dad for all of this stuff because he couldn’t know that yelling at the ref wasn’t helping. He imagined it was as integral a part of the game as the shooting and coaching.

When John was a kid, nobody knew what to do with dads like that. Maybe everybody just assumed it made sense, like smoking on airplanes. By the time John’s dad was a grandfather for John’s older brother’s and sister’s kids, he was actually banned from attending his grandson’s soccer games for yelling at the coach. He was incredulous and thought it was a conspiracy of the Baby Boomers, this new generation who had gone soft and were getting their woodle feelings hurt by him standing at the sidelines of a 7-year-old’s soccer game, yelling ”Foul!”, yelling at the coach, or yelling at the opposite coach. He wasn’t mean about it, but in his world it was just how you played games.

When John was 10, he was mortified, but as he was 20 he yelled at his father about it a lot. When he reached 30, John realized that when his father was 9, people were punching him in the face. John's granddad would sometimes put him in a bathtub full of ice-water to toughen his spirit. John can’t be mad at him, but boy did he not want him yelling at his stupid basketball games, about which John cared not. Whether they won or lost didn't matter. Like Merlin’s daughter, he just wanted to be there with his friends. Running up and down throwing balls at each other was the worst possible solution to the ”How to be with friends” problem, but what did John even want to do? Chess club? No! Lord of the Rings club? Not even really. John was in the Lord of the Rings guild and had strong feelings about the Dune guild sitting on the other side of French class, but that didn’t give him that much relief.

People being underused (RL157)

When John had day dreams back in 7th grade, he was really hoping that the Soviet Union would invade and all of his knowledge of airplanes and military expertise would come into action. He felt like the Pavement song ”We are Underused”. John’s makes an impression of the song on the podcast and it sounds like being in a weird church, but being a Pavement fan in the 1990s was being in a weird church. The first time John heard that song he burst into tears because of the idea that we are underused and the implication that you will never find a proper use for yourself. ”Honey, I’m a price and you are a catch and we are a perfect match! Like two bitter strangers” (lyrics from Spit on a Stranger) It still gives Merlin shivers! When John sees people in the world who are perfectly utilized, he is very rarely impressed by the person or by the use they have found for themselves. Merlin remembers having been impressed by a kid from Japan that was younger than him, but had the highest IQ in the world. He thought there had been some mix-up, because why did that kid get the high IQ? And where is this kid now?

Ken Jennings is one of these people who performed on a worldwide stage in a way equivalent to Marilyn vos Savant. He was literally the smartest guy in the world because he won Jeopardy! 74 times and when you meet him, he is genuinely super-bright and super-good. He is very fast and the thing you would never expect about him, even though he is a total nerd, is that he has a knowledge like Merlin across every area. You can’t make an inside Indie Rock reference or an inside reference really to very much that he won’t get, it is amazing! He will not just get it, but also turn it into a pun and shoot out. It is so frustrating! It was the same when John first met Sean Nelson: He gets everything! When you are friends with Ken you realize that, being the smartest boy and not being in the Smashing Pumpkins, he is now making a living writing funny books of trivia. They didn’t put on a litter, carried him up for princess Leia to give him a medal and his problems were solved, but he is still underutilized and it is fascinating to think what would happen if DARPA came and gave him an office?

General Wesley Clark (RL157)

There was an article in the Seattle Times in May 2015 about General Wesley Clark, the Army general who ran for president in 2004, tried to get the Democratic nomination and lost. He was the Valedictorian at West Point, he was a road scholar and a 4-star General. Since that time he will join the board of directors of any penny stock company if you pay him enough. He has been on the board of 10 companies and 9 of them have gone bankrupt. Really, that is what this guy is doing? It gave John a cold chill that at 60 years old he could make some money being a fraud. Clark was on the board of a place called The Grilled Cheese Truck and there he is, literally almost a retired director of the CIA. It is almost John’s dream job. He could be John’s dream cautionary tale. There is a lot of money in Hydroponic Lettuce!

Their podcast being used to feed AI (RL157)

Roderick on the Line has crossed 150 episodes. It is unfair to say that the program has become self-aware, because it has always been pretty self-aware, but now they have crossed a threshold where it is plausible that someone is listening to this program after Merlin and John have died. It will probably not be John's grandkids, because they don’t give a shit, but some researcher or college-nerd. Even though it feels like there are millions and millions of podcasts, too many podcasts in fact, it is still the very early days and they are one of the early ones who have achieved a lot of episodes. Imagining that the conversation they are having right now will one day be listened to by someone after their death, and that future person will think to themselves that John and Merlin were talking about them, gave John pause. Early podcasters are also ideal candidates for colonization by AI developers because if your AI is supposed to be interactive and human, you have to feed it a lot of existing information in order to bone up on the culture. 157 episodes is a lot for an AI to gobble down, but using Planck’s theorem and Bernoulli’s principle, an AI will be able to just download that stuff.

A lot of broadcasters out there have a lot more hours of talking on the air, but most of that is asking interview questions. People like Garrison Keillor are just reading some bullshit stories about fake people. Podcasters who are talking to one another about each other and themselves are a very ripe data set. Merlin and John have never had a guest on their program which becomes the primary way of how two people interact: The cadences, the back-and-forth, knowing when to zig and when to zag. All of a sudden John got this weird feeling that not only is somebody listening to their program when they are dead, but they might also become prototype AI personalities or the front faces of AI. Once you get that technology working, you are going to be starved for enough data to construct a full personality and you are never going to have enough of it. Most people obviously are going to want Scarlett Johansson, but there are also going to be people who want a middle-aged guy trying to figure things out as a friend. The big question is if John and Merlin will have any control over that or if they will just pitch up John’s voice two clicks and put a flanger on Merlin. You take it, you turn it, that is the motto of Thought Technology Inc!

For Merlin it feels like a lot more responsibility. He wants to be himself, because he wants his AI to be cohesive, but maybe he should go easy on the dick jokes. People will be scrolling through all the available AI friends, one middle aged guy after the other, and some would surely chose the one with the dick jokes! "Middle-aged guy from Ohio who spent a lot of time in Florida, makes some dick jokes, sometimes it is a little hard to parse exactly what he is talking about." It is possible! The problem of self-awareness, both that their podcast has become self-aware and also that Merlin and John have too much self-awareness, is that especially in John’s current pursuits, self-awareness is a major disadvantage. The number one reason Hitler was so successful is that he had no self-awareness. It ended up being his downfall, but for 10 years it really served him well. Merlin was talking to his daughter about this: Think how different that game would have been if he hadn’t tried to go into Russia! He could have held his own against pretty much everybody if he had been a little more self-aware and if he had realized that this was good for now, let’s rest for a couple of years and build things up a little bit. If he had stopped in Czechoslovakia, we would be living in a different world! It is terrible to say, because so many people want to go back in time and kill Hitler, while very few want to go back and advise him to be satisfied with Prague and not invade Poland or Russia.

Things you are naturally good at and things that you want to do (RL157)

It is interesting to think about people who are really good at sounding informal and off-the-cuff. If you are thinking too much about what you are going to say, you are going to sound like a weasel. With growing sophistication, a candidate must be able to sound natural without sounding like he is trying to sound natural. John already sounds natural, but that isn’t really what people want. They want you to sound natural, but not really. This is why stand-up comedy is so daunting to Merlin: He enjoys it a lot when it is done well, but he also finds it scary. Coming up with those bits, refining them and listening to the tapes involves a lot! Getting to the point where Louis C.K. can make a joke that sounds like he just said something accidentally, and then make a joke about how he said it accidentally, but all that being part of the bit without sounding like you are reading off a sheet, takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness. The more you do it, the less you hope you are sounding self-aware about doing a bit that you wrote.

None of that appeals to John! Paul F. Tompkins and John had kind of a minor disagreement one time, and what he was trying to say to John was that he didn’t like it either. Being a stand-up comic is not dependent on liking it, but you do it anyway. If you are 7.5 feet tall (2.30m) and have big lungs and a big heart, you have a job waiting for you in basketball, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you like it. John wonders how many of us have spent their lives being confused about not liking the things that we are natural at or being pushed into. Probably only a small proportion of all the people who are successful at stuff would say that from the moment they started, they knew they wanted it and that they liked it. John wanted to be a stand-up comic, but the prospect of listening to himself being a bad stand-up comic on a tape in order to get better? You might as well just pour salt in his eyes!

Finding yourself (RL157)

John remembers the first time he was introduced to the work of Richard Feynman, who was very adept at presenting himself as fully realized. There was obviously something crazy about him, but he presented himself as somebody who was not only a Nobel-prize winning Physics-genius, but also a safe-cracker, a competitive archer, a ladies-man, a break-dancer and a Finish carpenter. There are people who have a lot of pride in themselves and who are very accomplished without any question. John was reading Feynman's books at an impressionable age and he felt that Feynman was the standard of human personal realization. At the same time, John would probably not enjoy him as a personal friend, because over time he would be wearing and there was also something false about his self-promotion.

John had a friend and party-buddy who was a punk rock house squatting gutter punk guy, right during the period when "party" stopped meaning "fun time". It had turned from fun into serious business. John hadn't seen him for a couple of weeks and afterwards he showed up looking very serene with his head shaved and wearing all natural fiber clothes. He had decided that his life was on the wrong path and he was on his way to Tibet to get on the right path, going the whole hog with Tibetan Buddhism. He did not want to get baked and play video-games anymore and sailed out of John’s life on a magic carpet of stacked-up flip flops. Before his change John had known him as one of those super-righteous hippie punks, but also as the most misogynist person he had every met. He was such a dick to his girlfriend and to every woman he knew and there was something very broken in him! Presumably his path to self-actualization has also addressed the bad dog in him.

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