RL186 - Electric Paper

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: Како сте?, meaning ”How are you?” in Serbian, referring to Merlin having been trying to learn a bit of Serbo-Croatian when he was 12 years old because of his step-father.

The show title refers to the fact that the offices of the 1960s have not fundamentally changed compared to now. There was a lot of paper pushing back then and we still do that, it is just electric papers.

During this episode they both said ”You go ahead” simultaneously and John thinks this has never happened before, but Merlin said it had happened 3 times. It is like they got jammed up in a revolving door and then somebody shot them both.

John’s mom is more and more becoming a character on this podcast and she objects to it because she feels like John is misrepresenting her, but that is only because he is not describing how tough she actually is.

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

John deciding he is not sick (RL186)

John is fighting an interior thing, but he hasn’t been getting ill lately and he is going to stick with that. A good friend of his claims that she never gets sick and even when John personally witnessed her being sick, she denied being sick, which is such a flip from a lot of people who are always getting sick when they are not. John started to adopt the mentality that he is not sick and Merlin wonders if that actually works to fight things back.

The corollary that you are constantly thinking you are being sick and then you do get sick might really be a thing. John used to be sick all the time on this program, but now he is chasing the alligator away. He feels some sensations that are not sickness, but his body telling him that he is alive and that foreign agents are lurking around the dark corners of the city of his lungs and nose. John is not going to allow them, but it is going to be a counter-insurgency on the part of his white blood cells and other things he doesn’t understand.

There is probably other stuff out there in the universe, but others say that those people would already be here if they existed. Merlin doesn’t know if that makes any sense. He shouldn’t be so sapiens-centric and normative, like in Star Trek, where other life-forms look like a regular person, but they put some makeup, some green stuff and some weird ears on them. John would probably be the emissary, so much seems clear, and what if it is not somebody in a shiny lame-y cape and a green face, but what if your dark city is being contacted by various attackers that John now seeks to repel?

Maybe they are knocking on the door! This is how they make contact and want to commune with him and right now his body is having some fairly profound reaction, but what if it is just that his body doesn’t know how to interpret interstellar communication? What if it is a form of benign intergalactic toxoplasmosis where they need to plant some ideas for the first 6 weeks before they can go to the next stage? ”Take a look at the star men, playing with his ding dong” might be Merlin’s favorite David Bowie song. Maybe it is a star man playing with his ding dong!

Tale of Two Cities (RL186)

When John was in 5th grade, they handed him ”Tale of two cities” and said ”You are a smart kid, here, read that!”, which sounded like a dare, like you would say ”Here, kid! Climb this ladder!” John had never heard of the French Revolution and he read the whole thing without having any actual comprehension of what he was doing, but they wanted him to write a book report on it. Obviously he wasn’t going to read Watership Down with the rest of the class, because he had read that already. This was the honors program! Read Moby Dick!

John was required to report to adults who he at the time thought had not read those books. He didn’t know what he was reading, but he gave a good game and because it was a dare, he couldn’t admit that he didn’t understand those books, because then the adults would be disappointed in him and he wouldn’t be a genius. Both were written by Dickens and they basically tell the same story: A white whale fights a revolution against some kind of sun king, which was later turned into the play Les Miserables. The Sun King goes up a river, finds a white whale, and battles with himself.

The Godfather (RL186)

”What I want is a guarantee. No more attempts on my father’s life!” John has not been watching the weird one, especially not the later weird one. (The are talking about the movie The Godfather), because it is 7 hours long and involves a conspiracy to kill the pope and John doesn’t want to hear it. He saw the first movie of The Godfather in 1977 when they sat him down in front of an enormous television that also had a record player in it.

They told him it was an important film and he had to watch it, but then they left, because they didn’t want to watch it. "This is for you now, we are punching your card and giving you an adult ID, which involves watching The Godfather, uncomprehending!" John wanted to watch Happy Days and be a normal kid, but he was forced to watch this long, confusing, slow moving film where they had edited out all the blood and guts. What was this montage with the baptism of the baby and with people walking in and out of barber shops? John felt miserable and doesn’t even remembers how he got reintroduced to it. Maybe he was tired about middle-aged men making references that he didn’t understand. Now he has seen it 25 times!

The Comics Code (RL186)

Merlin’s daughter was looking at one of his X-Men posters yesterday and asked what the Comics Code was that she also had seen on old comics. Merlin tried to explain it with his meager understanding of it. It came from a book from the mid 1950s by a demagog who was saying that comics were destroying their children, mainly going after war comics, crime comics or EC-comics, the Tales from the Crypt. John loved those! They looked beautiful and they still stand the test of time.

It seems like whenever a president or a head of state showed up in a comic, it was always a weird hero that you wish would go away as fast as he could. There is an Avengers with David Letterman in it that is pretty weird. Famously, Captain America was always punching Hitler in the face and which you could get a pass on, but then Quentin Tarantino interpreted it all the way with Japanese girls and swords. There was a time before the rating system in movies came along where you had to create media that was utterly inoffensive to anyone, including a toddler.

John’s mom teaching him the codes for sex in movies (RL186)

Right around the time when they were forcing John to read Moby Dick and watch The Godfather, his mom sat him down watching a film with him and said ”That right there is a code for them having sex!” and John was like ”What?” He had missed it! It was a movie like ”From here to Eternity” where they were kissing and the camera panned away to waves washing in the beach or a locomotive going into a tunnel or whatever it was.

As an 8-year old he just thought they liked each other very much and were kissing and they were segueing to another scene. John was embarrassed like every time somebody started talking about sex, but he was curious about this code. His mom brought it up again later and said ”In movies, when people are having sex, they can’t make an overt reference to it, so there are all these ways”. They also can’t show tongue kissing, but they are kissing very passionately like some scene from Animal House where the guy puts his hand up over her mouth and kisses the back of his hand.

Passionate kisses are still very chased, but his mom explained that this is not how people actually kiss when they are about to make love. John asked how people actually kiss and she explained that they slobber all over each other with their tongues and snot is coming out of their nose and it is very horrific. a) John’s parents weren’t married anymore and b) they both kept their affection completely out of public eye.

If John’s mom was kissing someone and John came into the room, the kissing stopped and everyone clasped their hands in their laps and said ”Anyway, what were we talking about? Moby Dick!” It was the 1970s and people were slobbering over each other in big ways, but John didn’t have a lot of first hand exposure to it and he did understand the Mathematics of sex. Those codes really did a job on us! For example, we never see dead bodies in person.

Think about how much straight-up murder was on TV in the 1970!. Kojak, Chicago Bang Bang, or just people getting killed on TV. Europeans find it weird that Americans have so much murder on TV and so little affectionate sex, and vice versa. There was no shooting on those British imports, but there were boobies: Hail Britannia! Carry on, Benny Hill!

There are times where you need a bridge to explain something. Merlin talks about one day having to explain to his daughter that those things actually mean something beyond kissing and John will from now on refer to sex as beyond kissing and it is going to improve his life in a lot of ways.

Letting people slam into revolving doors (RL186)

Merlin doesn’t like to go through revolving doors anymore, but by opening that side door you are ruining the climate in the building. The only time John actually uses a revolving door is when somebody he knows goes through ahead of him and as the door is halfway through he sticks his foot in it, it stops and the person slams into the glass, which is one of John’s favorite gags. A lot of his friends know he is going to do it, but they forget about it because they are excited to go through a revolving door. That gag works over and over and over. Do you renounce Satan?

Then John goes around and through the side door. That is why people call him an asshole, but nothing about that is bad. They didn’t do anything wrong. It is on John, but it is small and it is putting a little bit of joy into everybody’s life. Even the guy who is dressed like a beef eater, standing outside hailing cabs, laughs, too! He has seen it all and he is working right next to a giant poster of himself. His idea of getting dressed for work must be so different than Merlin’s idea of getting dressed for work.

Key fabs on the keyring (RL186)

John has two fabs on his keyring now. Once upon a time he had one key and life was simple. Then he got more and more keys until he eventually got a key fab, but he didn’t want one, because it screwed up his whole keyring. Now he got two fabs, which is the direction we are going: One day we are going to have a ring of fabs and no keys. There are some car keys like for the Nissan Leaf that you never have to put in the car, but it knows the key is in the car and it starts the car. This is the future!

John’s key fab which performs the exact same function as a key except that it is more awkward than a key. Merlin thinks of detective Akamoto (see story in RL176) doing his little disco dance to make the door open by touching it with his butt. Instead of maintaining his police-like dignity and sticking a key into a key-hole, he takes a three-pointer with his ass.

Computers didn’t increase productivity one iota (RL186)

The other day John was sitting on the couch, reading some Scientific American and his mom said: ”Did you know that computers have not increased productivity one iota? It takes just as long to do everything now than it did in 1965. Computers have only increased productivity in things that are not important and that only exist as computer things. We can’t compare how long it took in 1965 because there was no Photoshop then!” She was doing computers in business for 30 years and at no point along the way did it ever increase productivity one iota and it still hasn’t. John was astonished by that statement and was thinking about processes, realizing that he could not refute what she said with anything.

There were magazines about computers in 1979, probably called Computer Talk, where they would editorialize that, after all these investments in computers, they still hadn’t improved productivity one iota. There are 6 iotas in a moment, 12 moments in a bit and 75 bits in a Megabyte. It is base 1024! Then Robert’s Rules of Order comes into effect.

If these magazines were reporting this stuff, why didn’t the general population rebel? Unlike now, nobody read computer magazines at the time except computer people and computer people were unwilling to look critically at computers because it was their happy place. They always thought that productivity will certainly begin to improve very soon, but it never did. We built the Saturn 5 rocket using pipe-benders and slide rules and we have yet to best it! Instead we keep building rockets that keep exploding on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It is the balance-your-checkbook argument: At the end of the month you sit down with your check register and you balance it with a pen as opposed to booting up your check-balancing software and looking at all the pie charts it generates. It takes the same amount of time and has the same effect.

Merlin counters with a quote from Upton Sinclair: ”It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it” If you are a computer-jockey, you are not going to look for instances where the computer-stuff is not the best way. Merlin counters that it depends on what you looking at being productive in: As users of desktop-, laptop-, and mobile computers we see little changes in how our life works, while the big changes are not in our face every day. We are allowed to be productive or not productive in very different kinds of ways because a lot of things are being done behind the scenes by machines and computers that are actually making things more efficient. For example in agriculture it is huge what we are able to do at scale and the infrastructure is developed beyond just getting things locally.

John says that crunching prime numbers is a thing that computers allow us to do in a much larger scale, which has a tangible effect in terms of cryptology, but encryption is only necessary because of computers. Computers create new needs for technology, like John’s dad saying he needed his car to go to the mechanic. Most of the agriculture productivity increase is a result of Monsanto gene manipulation which has produced a mono-culture and, while it isn’t actually an improvement in productivity, is the streamlining of a thing we didn’t want.

In aggregate, does all that make the world better? It just seems like in the inexorable march of technology, the thing that is fairly consistent is that as soon as it is less expensive and more reliable to have a machine do something, a machine will do it, which then necessarily changes the nature of what an actual person does. In the last 30-40 years you needed people who did word processing or data entry, but now there are machines that do that kind of stuff better, faster, more efficiently and less costly.

Data entry was considered a technology job 30 years ago, but it is not anymore, because now that job is done by the technology itself. Technology changes what we are doing at our computers. John says that the machine taking over word processing just creates different ways of processing what we formerly did with typewriters on carbon copies, but ultimately all that technology, including the typewriters and the carbon copies, is meant to process your insurance claim.

The computer is doing things that have more or less remained constant: Processing your insurance claim or filling out your mortgage document. Ultimately the end result still takes as much time as it once did when it was done in long hand, it just involves a lot more people, a lot more process, and a lot more layers of technology, while the actual stuff that is getting done hasn’t really changed and takes just as long.

The question is how many John Siracusas are dancing on the head of a pin, yelling at their TV screen, trying to refute this argument. The ultimate proof is the fact that we not only have not reduced the 40 hour work week to 20 hours, but we have increased it to 60 hours. A lot more people are working longer and we have not accomplished a world in which machines are doing our work, but we have just added multiple layers of action, but filling out mortgage papers took probably less time in 1920.

Why do we have computers and machines and what is their actual purpose? We keep applying them to things with the idea of streamlining our processes, which will give us all this extra free time to make art and sit on the beach, but computers have yet to prove that they can actually do those things better! You can buy a computer program to fill out your taxes and you can learn how to use it and input all your data in it, but at the end of the day it takes just as long to make your taxes as it did in 1950. Why have you bothered?

At the other end, computers generating prime numbers and sequencing genomes do have an effect on science and they are pushing the envelope forward, but we don’t reserve computers just to to that work, but we spend most of our energy and most of our time applying computers to newspaper layouts and we are bamboozled into thinking it is easier and faster, but it actually takes just as much time as when we put stick-em glue down on a piece of graph paper and the end-result is questionably better. All the time we talk about kerning! We used to do that by hand, which was better, prettier and closer to the truth. Merlin says that technology has made it easier for people to email John about this. He is going to get so many angry emails from people who are barely on the spectrum.

Merlin wonders if there was an era that was the in sweet spot. On one hand it is nice that food doesn’t make us sick anymore and on the other hand we don’t want devices in our house listening to us to create ads. Somewhere in between had to have been the sweet spot where technology was put to good use, but not too much good use. It is not about computers not letting food make us sick, but about technology, which is not about new apps. So much of the reporting of what we now call technology is really about consumer-facing devices.

It is easy to make a straw-man about technology when you are talking about Samsung having a refrigerator with a large screen on it, but first of all there is all kinds of technology happening behind the scenes to make life easier, safer, more reliable and less costly, but on the other hand Merlin learned to become reluctant about drawing too many conclusions about a future that he doesn’t understand. Something that right now seems like an inconvenience or a silly thing might be a pretty big deal and we might be glad at one point is going to be there.

John is not talking about the future, but about the now. Although the now is the beginning of the future, that has been the conversation since 1965. In 5 years we are going to have a paperless office, in 5 years you are not going to have to do your taxes, in 5 years there won’t be computer programmers, because all that would be automated. They have been saying that every 5 years for the last 40 years, but today we have more computer programmers than ever.

Merlin is not prepared to debate how technology has made food safer, but there are things like quality control or tracking epidemiology, all the way down to people in Africa having the beginnings of trade based on SMS. There are all kinds of ways in which technology gets used in a novel way, in a small way, in a scalable way, or in a big way that end up improving our life. The fallacy is to think that any given new technology is going to fix the world, which it is not, but it is just going to be the next technology that we then make a decision what to do with.

John says that computers have made it much easier to import strawberries from New Zealand and have strawberries all year round, an amazing thing we didn’t used to have and which is actually an improvement. There was a time when you went to the grocery store in winter and all they had were root vegetables and chocolate-covered grasshoppers, except the grasshoppers were not chocolate-covered. Now those things have created a whole new host of problems and we have to use technology to facilitate these processes, meaning that we created problems that we now have to solve, which is the march of technology.

John’s question is how quality of life has improved in the last 50 years that is directly tied to improvements in technology. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century we had an explosion of technology with the electric light bulb, and we already had the locomotive, the motor car, and the airplane. Throughout the 19th century we developed the steam engine and ships no longer had sails, which was a fantastic march of progress.

John’s mom remembers the first time she saw a tractor, because before that they were plowing with horses, but even when they had gotten a tractor, the cart where the grain was going into was still pulled by horses until the late 1940s. Those were technologies that changed everybody’s life, but looking at the last 40 years, the actual way we are living in 2016 compared to how we were living in 1966 hasn’t really changed.

We are basically flying the same airplanes, we are driving the same cars, we are filling out our taxes and we are voting, but we like to think that this has been a comparable revolution, but a lot more of it is just spinning our wheels. In 1966 the perception where we would be in 2016 was ”Wow, 5 years from now is the future!” A lot of the things H.G. Wells talked about actually became true and the physical new technology actually became real and was astonishing.

Comparing 1966 to the present, we are doing very different things now. People aren’t typing on carbon copy anymore, but they are moving stuff around with a mouse, while the output, the newspaper on the TV, is not a major change relative to a newspaper. We still read newspapers, albeit not all of us, and the information contained in it is more or less the same. Poop still moves down tubes. In the past guys in overalls knew where the clog was and now somebody in a dark room is looking at a screen, coming to the same conclusion.

It is computerized now and it is better, but not as dramatically as we think. In the early 1900s poop was being buried in pits and being thrown out the window, which is why the man walked on the edge of the sidewalk and threw his coat down into the puddle. Now we have a sewer and poop moves down tubes and that is a major advance, but computerizing the process of poop going down tubes hasn’t really changed and is still a 20th century technology, just with sensors in it.

John is not saying that we should stop! We are on the cusp of a big revolution where self-driving cars are happening, a thing that could not be accomplished without computers. It is a major advance that will change everyone’s life dramatically. It will be the first sign of the computer revolution of the 21st century, the last 50 years of gearing up and getting everybody to understand this, of increasing processing power to be able to revolutionize transportation in that way. The jet airplane was invented in the 1940s and by the 1950s we had a 707. What we have done to make the 787 was to make it incrementally more efficient, but it is still essentially the same thing. In the office of the 1950s we accomplished a tremendous amount of paper pushing and we are still pushing those papers now, they are just electric papers.

Twitter is something new that didn’t exist before and that gives a glimpse of how society is going to be different in the future, but during the last 40 years we have just been changing the tools. Maybe it is equivalent to the years between 1840 and 1880 where we were building these creaky weird little railroads, steam engines were increasing productivity and creating cities, but it wasn’t clear what that was going to be like. All of a sudden in 1880 there was an explosion of technology, but we also had cities now as a long term product of the steam engine.

Now we had to solve city problems and the steam engine or the internal combustion engine was great for that. It did change our lives! The same thing is about to happen with self-driving cars and John is excited about it! This is what technology is enabling us to do and now we are going to see what it is. Our whole lives we have been in this interregnum where we have just been taking boxes of legal papers up in the attic and have been inputting them into machines. Now we are on the cusp!

What John’s mom was saying was proof of that: We have been putting everything into computers all this time, but it really hasn’t increased productivity one iota.

Reading classic literature (RL186)

Merlin wants to like Moby Dick. John found it impenetrable as an 8-year old and when he was 20 he thought he would read it again and understand it. John is a enormous fan of Melville's other works. Merlin had to read it in college in a class called American Masterworks and they read Absalom, Absalom!, Moby Dick and The Ambassadors. He liked Absalom, Absalom! a lot, but maybe not the other two. He kept telling himself that Moby Dick is post-modern, but that didn’t make it that more interesting.

John preferred Joseph Conrad in every respect. He read Tale of Two Cities again and didn’t like it the second time either. Obviously the worst of all these books is Billy Bud. Merlin was a big reader! There was a thing like Classics Illustrated during a push in the 1960s and 1970s to get kids to want to read real books. Obviously you should never read a comic book because it is going to rot your mind and you can only read so much Henry Huggins before you become a dullard. Sure, you can read Encyclopedia Brown, but how do you get really smart before you read those big thick European books? Merlin had a small collection of inexpensive hard-back books of the classics with fun covers, but there was still a Tale of Two Cities inside and he never got past the first couple pages of that.

The Extreme Teen Bible (RL186)

Sean Nelson found the Extreme Teen Bible at one time, which is the bible updated for teens, but not just ordinary teens, but extreme teens! The book is streamlined with all the King James talk taken out of it, with certain passages in red and with sidebars, like ”Did you know that Jesus never took any shit off of nobody?” It is fantastic and they had lot of fun with it, they might even have read it aloud from stage on tour at one time. It is called Nelson’s Extreme Teen Bible, which is why Sean Nelson might have discovered it in the bookstore.

If you are trying to guide a kid to something that you know is good, timeless and cool, you can’t help but sound like an old man with a beetle wig. There is a Dominican Monk called Brother Gabe who is a regular listener to this program and who lives in Portland now. He has become Father Gabe within the scope of the podcast. Merlin met him in a bar in Portland and Father Gabe said that they had given him a church there. He is not in Oakland anymore, but he got an upgrade. He probably is going to have a lot to say about the extremity. The Bible he uses is probably still in Latin and hand-illustrated and he does a realtime translation into English.

Online Translations (RL186)

When people write John letters in foreign languages, he uses online translation to write them back, which is a major innovation. ”Oh, I’m writing to you in Serbo-Croatian!”, but now John is going to get angry letters from Serbs and Croats telling him that those are not the same language and there is no Czechoslovakia anymore. ”Talking about The Ukraine?” - ”Noooo!” Using the definite article with Ukraine is actually a big deal. John has been on their side ever since it has first been explained to him and saying it is a bad habit that took him a long time to break. Merlin got a Berlitz to talk to his step father in Serbo-Croatian when he was 12 and he learned a little bit. First of all, he is fucking dead, thank God! He was a very bad person! ”добровече! како сте?” (Good evening! How are you?)

John greeted someone in Czech one time and they replied to him enthusiastically in Czech, but John had to say that he was just kidding, he only knew like 7 words, but they told him that his accent was incredible. They were very impressed with John’s monkey imitation of how they pronounce things. For a very brief moment he imagined himself learning Czech, but then he was like ”Nah!” He never learned German either and that would actually have been practical.

Recommending media (RL186)

Although John consumes and enjoys a lot of media, he does not recommend a lot of it. He understood early on that there is a tremendous difference between being a reader and being a fetishistic reader of books. It came as a result of a conversation he overheard between two people who both presented themselves as extremely well-read. They were arguing with each other by citing John 3:17 in the sense that like ”Oh, that is interesting, it is just like this passage from Ulysses” - ”Yeah, it really reminds me of x, the original translation of Anna Karenina”.

It was a classic liberal arts conversation: Two people outdo each other on references and nobody is ever allowed to say ”I don’t know what you are talking about”. They were just throwing authors and book titles at each other and at the end of the conversation no understanding had taken place. It was not a conversation about ideas, which actually was discussed at length by Italo Calvino (Merlin just made that up), which is very interesting because Umberto Eco had a passage about Calvino. Merlin remembers reading about that in the New Yorker in an article about Borges. John was reading the Times' literary supplement about a book about Borges. You are still reading that? That used to be so good, Merlin is so glad John can still enjoy that.

The conversation John overheard was infuriating because the initial jumping-off point was an idea that John was really exciting about and he kept waiting for someone to say something about it, but eventually they were 1000 miles from that idea, had traversed no ground and no ideas had been shared. A large part of John’s education was finding his own path through ideas. If you walk into someone’s home library with floor-to-ceiling books on three walls, that is more books than you could possibly read in a lifetime. There is so much emphasize on ”Here are the 10 books you need to read”, but when you follow that advice you are missing the opportunity to find your 10 books. Every book is useful, even a book that you hate or throw on the ground. In terms of discovering your own taste and finding your own intellectual path, reading two chapters of a book and realizing it is garbage is just as useful as reading a book all the way through.

During a crucial moment in John’s life he had a friend who’s mother taught a course on novels at the university. When his friend was done reading the books that his mother forced her students to read, he would pitch those books to John. It was one professor’s reading list, it was almost like he was taking her class, but it came at precisely the moment when John didn’t have money to buy books, but he was getting this steady stream of books.

John was getting none of her interpretation and he was not sitting in class discussing it with other students, but he was just getting those free books. They were leaping-off points to other books and it was all very personal. John really believes that even if you are given a reading list, if you are not pursuing a personal journey, you are not getting an education, because chasing is the key moment.

John is very reluctant to give somebody three books about WWII, because there are so many of them. Start with the one in front of you! Don’t even go on Amazon and look for the one with the best rating! Find one and start reading it and then chase that trail because and make it yours! What interested John's about WWI was the Balford declaration. He spent a life chasing the ramifications of it and how it changed the world. The world today is still a product of it which in turn was a product of WWI. That is John’s take and it might not be what you take away from WWI. You may take a different thing and chase your own dragon.

John doesn’t recommend media even if people address him directly and plead him to tell them where they should go, because it is obvious: Just start and chase! John hates the monoculture where everybody has seen the same thing and everybody has read enough reviews on the Internet to know what their take on it should be. There aren’t enough situations where people are saying ”That is not what I got out of that book at all!” People have forgotten how to trust their own instincts!

At a certain time everybody agreed that The Eagles sucked. All the cool kids were reading the same articles where people initially were advancing a pretty contra-argument. The Eagles Greatest Hits is the best-selling album of all time, but in the 1980s it was super-easy to write an article saying that The Eagles are garbage and it became a thing that you could not argue against. Even now when Glen Fry died, all the reflection pieces said ”Well, his band sucked and I still kind of feel like he sucked. Now he is dead and I'm writing this thing to commemorate that, but he really was intolerable” Wow! Now the really radical stance is to like The Eagles, which is a product of people having reading lists that are too small.

Merlin thinks it can be useful to give somebody a starting point to something. When it comes to comics, Merlin will frequently recommend this comic or that comic, but he will also ask what kind of novels or TV-shows they like, not just for theme, but also what kind of stories they like. Just because they like Science Fiction is no guarantee that they will like Steven Moffat’s Dr. Who. Do you like switcheroos and changeamups? Merlin tries to take all that into consideration.

In this age there is something implicit that for a long time has been called The Canon. You don’t want to not know about something in the canon, because you will look like a dummy. There is the CliffsNotes problem of people who sound like they are asking ”What books should I read?”, but what they actually say is ”What book should I be able to say that I’ve read?”, which is a different thing altogether.

Think about the joy of discovering a book or movie accidentally! Any nerd or a geek can talk about having an extreme attachment to a thing that most other people don’t like at all or consider be the worst of that particular kind of thing, but they have a special affection for it, because it was theirs and they discovered it. Even if their critical faculties will grow, they might still always enjoy that one thing, even though they may not think of it as the best one. You cannot know that unless you discovered it. You can’t replicate the experience of having discovered something by letting somebody hand you a list with ”These are the three things you should know to name-check.

The example John always comes back to is the Israel-Palestine problem. Really thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive people disagree passionately about what that problem is and what even constitutes that problem. The jumping-off point is your moral education. You can read 1000 books about it and you either are going to have your opinion confirmed or you are going to disagree. The number of entry points to that argument is very hard even for John and he cannot imagine educating someone else on it in a way that wasn’t deeply personal, because there are so many factors in play and a lot of them are a product of books he read a long time ago.

In a way it is like how you responded to your nursery rhymes: Last night John was watching a mini-series about Carlos the Jackal because that is what he thinks of as fun. Carlos the Jackal was one of the people who invented terrorism. He was a terrorist who went through every stage, starting in the 1960s, and he wasn’t arrested until 1994. He pioneered a lot of different kinds of terrorism, he was there at the start when hijacking planes was still fun. He was fighting for the Palestinian cause and for global revolution. This mini-series is glamorizing him. He is very sexy and he is the hero of this film, played by a sexy actor, and because it was made by French television, it also shows his penis.

There is a way to watch it and become very sympathetic to the idea of throwing a grenade into a café, because this is your protagonist. To watch it either suggest that you read backwards and start at the White Album and then listen to Sergeant Pepper and Rubber Soul. Or you go back to Jerry Lee Lewis, which you have to do to make any sense of what is happening in Carlos the Jackal. After you have read backwards you start reading forwards and it becomes a very involved and personal journey.

A lot of people who are wearing Palestinian scarfs on their college campus had their opinion given to them by their professor or whoever stopped them on campus and handed them a flyer. That was their entrance point into having a feeling about it and that is going to determine how they read everything else. It is hard to imagine that whatever that first black & white opinion they developed would ever really be affected by evidence because it is so intractable. There are many depths of opinion you can have about it, one of them is to stand in your quad and yell about it, and one of them is to have read 80 books. John would like people to have read the 80 books he has read, but he would also like people to have read 80 different books.

How John became interested in WWII (RL186)

John doesn’t want to shape people who are interested in him in a way that makes them acolytes. He does not recommend a lot of media, but maybe he should? Part of it is that John doesn’t know where to start. Why would you be interested in the Balford declaration the first time you read about it? How can you see it and understand what it represented? Merlin doesn’t know how much John is sandbagging here, meaning he is acting like he isn’t as good at something as he is.

You listen to somebody else talk about something you don’t know about or you don’t know a lot about or you don’t have an opinion about that you are particularly attached to all the time, but in this case John is talking about stuff that people know some stuff about like WWII. He seems like a pretty intelligent guy and he got a point-of-view about it, so it is not unusual at all to say that you want to be a bit smarter about it and you ask John where you should start. What got John into WWII was a) that his dad fought in it and b) the planes, boats, trucks and tanks were cool.

When John was a kid, F-4 Phantoms were flying all around his house and he was very interested in the F-4U Navy airplane that could take off from aircraft carriers and fight over Corregidor because he loved planes. He would get books about planes in WWII and he would learn about them because they were rad. He read enough of those books that he started to ask what was going on there. It was not just Hitler and Yamamoto and John read about all those other characters, he got confused and watched the Winds of War and then read that book.

After that he became conversant in WWII, but WWI looked so boring because they just sat in muddy trenches for years with helmets that had little spikes on them and every once in a while somebody got hung up in some barb wire. Yawn-city! John avoided learning about WWI for a long time, because it was just so dull. They had no cool planes and Eddie Rickenbacker up there in a plane made up of Balsa-wood? Yawn!

The more John learned about WWII, the more he didn’t understand and the more he learned about Hitler, the more he didn’t understand until eventually all arrows pointed to WWI, which he didn’t want to learn about. A bunch of people riding into battle on horseback and getting cut down by machine guns? Nothing about that is fun! But John read about it eventually and realized that WWI was about the 19th century colliding with the 20th century. All these empires were washing up on the shore of modernity and John had to go back and learn about the empires.

John was reluctant, kicking and screaming, because he did not want to learn about Prussia, because what does that have to do with anything? There were no airplanes! Then John was reading about the 30 Years' War. If you want to talk about boring! It is not that the 30 years war was boring, but the scholarship about it is boring. Chapter after chapter about salting the fields and why is the king of Sweden involved? John can't tell anybody that here is the book about WWI they should read, because he didn’t get there that way. He got there by loving airplanes and he can’t divorce that whole long walk, the walking back, this way and that way, from that initial beginning of being a kid and sitting cross-legged in the library reading about those cool things.

That is how John found his way into every single thing he ever read and it feels very individual. With every book he recommends, he feels enormous responsibility to also recommend the ten books that should come in advance of it. It feels a little bit like the long version of The Godfather where they are trying to put those movies that were narratively all broken up in some kind of chronological order. Then you have to start reading a book about the 30 Years' War which was literally the most boring thing John has ever read.

Where are you coming into it? Are you interested in cool planes? John can tell you what to read about cool planes! Or have you seen Band of Brothers and you want to know more? That is fascinating, too! By the time John watched Band of Brothers, he had all this context that made that mini series really sing. If that had been the first thing he experienced about WWII, he would have just jumped off from there, he would have figured out who Major Winters was and what he was like when he was a Lieutenant.

When you look at Wikipedia while you are watching it, you realize there is not a lick of exaggeration and it was just as awful as it looked. There are 50 movies about D-day and about the Battle of the Bulge, the absolute last thing that has happened in that war where six million Russian soldiers had already died. It is the 3rd act of the war. The United States really play a small role in the war in terms of fighting battles. There are not 50 movies about the battle of Stalingrad, but talk about brutality! The thing about D-Day is that it is so fantastic with these guys in those little boats!

Merlin’s daughter went to an aviation museum with her Brownie Troop and she is really into planes now. The chalkboard on her door now says ”Home to Amelia Earhart” and has a plane hanging from it. She said she will be into this for at least a year now. Merlin told her about aeronautics and aviation and he told her John’s dad’s story about the zero, even if it may not be exactly true. He was also trying to explain D-Day to her and how improbable so much of D-Day was.

If you are learning about WWII and you left off midway in 1943, there is no way this was going to end great for America. It was bad and it seemed entirely possible that they were going to lose big. You can’t appreciate how awesome the whole D-Day thing is unless you appreciate what a crapshoot it was. There is no way a plan that huge could work and not be discovered. It is mind-boggling!

The first thing many people understand about the battle of Midway was that it was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. You learn about it as a fait accompli, but in reality it was a totally random series of happy accidents, incredible luck and awesome risk-taking. People were flying on empty gas tanks and at the last possible minute they looked down, saw a task force and radioed it in. The Japanese were kicking the American’s ass everywhere: in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They were ruling and most of the America’s fleet was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

American Pluck is part of their foundation myth, but you have to read about that stuff with the sense that this could have gone either way. The Americans were the underdogs here, which is what is so great about it. When D-Day started, they didn’t know that Hitler had gone insane. They knew that the Russians were pushing back and what was the strategy, but they didn’t know that the chain of command in the Nazi army had broken down and that Hitler was acting as his own general, not taking any advice from his soldiers. Now we look at that and think there wasn’t any way we could lose, but that was not how they thought at the time!

How many books have you read about the Homefront? How many different times did you have an A-ha-moment? John is still reading books about the Meaning of Hitler and it is still a palm-slap to the forehead for him every time. He never thought of that! In all these years he never had that moment and he doesn’t know how it would have been like if he had read the Meaning of Hitler first. He is confused by it.

John is thrilled that Eleanor (Merlin’s daughter) likes airplanes, because that had been the entrance to so many things for John. Airplanes were the gateway drug for his whole education. If instead the first thing your will read is House and Green Gables (Did he mean The House of the Seven Gables?) or Pride and Prejudice, you are going to follow such an incredibly different and amazing path and John envies you! He would never want to interrupt that by saying ”Read this book about airplanes!”

Toys having become gender-specific (RL186)

John doesn’t understand how much of the weird gender-specificity of culture is self-selected and how much is imposed. A lot of people in John’s 5th grade class read and talked about the book ”Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret!”, but John had to read it secretly because no boys were supposed to read it. It was for girls only! This was before the gender-division of toys and stuff.

John read in an article that 80% of toys in 1975 were non-genderized (here is one and here is one). There was a ball and you could play whatever game you wanted with it, but now every ball has either Frozen or G.I. Joe stenciled on it. Boys did not read ”Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret!”, but John did because he was curious about it and he liked to read books. All the girl books were about her having her period for the first time, but John did not know what that was and if he should be happy or sad for her. That knowledge didn’t turn him into the world’s greatest lover, but into somebody who was wondering when he was going to get his period.

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