RL353 - Reverse Khrushchev

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • Using your phone too much, Screen Time (Technology)
  • John going to the gym (Aging)
  • John culture-jamming billboards (Early Days)
  • Being critical about new technology (Technology)
  • Computer maths, certain fields are not real sciences (Philosophy)

The problem: Throw a frog at a wall, and see if it sticks, referring to the fact that ”social sciences” are not sciences, but should be a new category of things where people are throwing a frog at the wall and if it sticks they are calling her a witch.

The show title refers to John pounding on his table and his daughter’s shoe with lights in it going off which is the reverse of the Khrushchev shoe banging incident.

John jokingly asked how Merlin got in there, but Merlin gets in! Like with roaches: When the head can get in, the rest of them can get in. You can take precautions like steel wool, but in John’s climate it will rust.

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

Using your phone too much, Screen Time (RL353)

It is moist in Merlin’s office right now because it is on the bottom of a hill. He does run a dehumidifier and he has a repeating task to empty the bucket. He could connect a hose to it if he was to use it in a basement situation. John wonders how often Merlin’s phone reminds him to do something and Merlin learned from Screen Time that he already had 75 notifications today.

A lot of those are because he has everything wired and his phone will tell him that something changed a bit over here. He got 22 notifications about his garage door, which seems a little excessive, but his white whale has been knowing when mail has been delivered and he uses some sensors to tell him those things. He got notifications for 10 messages, 5 notifications about tasks, which is not too bad!

John also looks at his Screen Time and sees that he is spending almost all of his time Social Networking and Gaming, which is what people do with their phones, but John feels he is over the line. During the last 7 days he was up 10% from last week to 5:49 hours per day. Merlin’s daily average is 5:09 hours. He got a bee in the bonnet about this, a birdhouse in his soul.

He has become more and more the way that Jonathan Coulton dealt with devices and he has tried to push back against that impulse, trying to be a modern contemporary man. He doesn’t have sex appeal or relevance, but that shouldn’t stop him from trying to catch himself becoming too much of an old man about new ideas and to stay up on his skate board.

There will always be a market for trying to freak out parents and to stoke our fears and insecurities about what we are capable of and what we are good at as humans who deal with a kid. Merlin always had an attraction, sensitivity and suspiciousness about turns-out-journalism. John and Merlin used to have so much stuff turns-out-ing each other back in the day, but they hardly do it anymore.

Merlin read a few things this week about Malcolm Gladwell and his latest book. The evolution of his reception has not gone great. Like a lot of people, Merlin was looking for more credulousness and with each book of his he had more situations where he would think: ”Huh? Is that how it turns out?” Turns Out is an addiction! ”Is that really why people buy hush puppies? Are you sure?”

Merlin enjoys a lot of that genre, like the Freakonomics radio show and podcast. He likes watching TED talks, but not so so much. He doesn’t like a drone, he is not pro-drone. It is advisable for everyone, particularly the elderly, to keep an eye out for an idea that feels turns-out-y and do your own research if it is actually true.

Right now there is a lot of stuff to tweak parents and get everybody freaked out about how all these devices and dinguses are making your kids stupid. Screen Time can be very good still. John is on the receiving end of so much unsolicited advice about what he must and must not do, and much of it comes from the utter terror of getting it wrong and ruining the child, but it is also being encouraged by the concept to always do the thing that made sense to us when we were a kid. If our parents yelled at us for watching TV, that must mean that screens are bad and we should be yelling at our kids about that, too!

A phone is not a phone anymore, it is a baby computer and it is how we do stuff, it is how Merlin does his work, and it is absolutely frustrating when people paint with a very broad brush over any device with a screen. It sounds smart, safe, and mature to say that people are always looking at their phones, but it is Baby Boomers looking at their phones that brought us 2016 (probably referring to the election of Donald Trump). Don’t yell at Merlin’s kid and have her put her phone into a bag when she goes to school! Yelling at kids is a pretty popular thing to do.

John uses his phone more than he would like and one of his goal with an Apple Watch was that he wanted to be untethered from the phone and be away from the temptation of the phone and still be plugged in if anything blows up. The phone has for example replaced magazines for him. He used to read and enjoy magazines, especially after he worked at a magazine store. When he was a kid, the first thing his mom did to grant him an entrée into the adult world was getting him his own subscription to Time Magazine in 1976. Merlin got it at the same time and really looked forward to that every week, especially the Howard Hughes issues.

John read about Evil Knievel jumping the snake canyon in 1974, which must have been in his mom’s copy because he didn’t have his own yet. Evil Knievel was a big Rock star! One time Time published a photo from a KISS concert of a girl sitting on her boyfriend’s shoulder with her top off and John asked his mom why they were able to put this nudy picture in Time: ”It is a news photo, which means it isn’t prurient, but it is there because it is newsworthy” John was stewing on that for a while before he understood that it was different from the magazines that focus on nakedness because it was newsworth-nakedness, but he is still chewing on it 50 years later. He uses his phone as a magazine and in that sense he is grateful to it.

When John’s daughter walks into a room and sees him looking at his phone, he can see in her eyes that she doesn’t know whether he is reading a fascinating article in The Atlanic, if he is just scrolling Instagram, or if he is playing Threes. To her it all just looks like he is absorbed in this portal to something else. When he gets in a boundary-less mode with his phone, even when he is not looking at it, part of his mind is occupied by it. When she is trying to talk to him he is listening, but his attention is split to the point that he is thinking that if he could go into the bathtub for a while he could look at his phone uninterrupted.

In the aggregate John wonders what he got out of the 5 hours that he spent looking at his phone today because it was a big part, if not all of his free time. He read a couple of cool magazine articles, he knows that Andy Levy is having a beard right now, and he is trying to figure out whether he likes it or not. Josh Gondleman won an Emmy, but Game of Thrones got snorfed and Matt Haughey has some issue with his garage door opener. John knows all this stuff that is fun as it goes by.

Just in the last 10 days They changed the game algorithm in Threes and made it much harder to play. Now it is sending seven #2 at you in a row, but John cannot handle seven reds! He needs a #3 or a blue! If Merlin has 3000 he is having a really good day, but John’s high score is 87.849.

John is not teaching his daughter how to make a fire with a flint and he wouldn’t be, even if he didn’t have a phone. He can’t say to himself: ”Look at all the time you wasted! You could have been working on her everyday carry!” and he doesn’t want to chastise himself about a thing he wouldn’t be doing otherwise, but what would he be doing otherwise?

John would be sitting there, reading a magazine, but at least there is a greater distinction to his daughter's eye between reading a magazine, a hard-cover book, or staring at the wall, which used to be the three things he did. Now all three of those things are on his phone and maybe what he is missing the most is staring at the wall, which used to occupy three hours of every day. John still stares at the wall for 1.5 hours a day, but you stare at the wall and sometimes the wall stares you.

John going to the gym (RL353)

Last week John went to the gym two times and both times he went on the treadmill and walked for an hour. Now he has done it three whole times (the first time being in RL340) although he has always dismissed it, but if your settings are such that it is a little bit of work because you are walking uphill a little, it does quiet your brain. John was thinking all the thoughts about how many guns would it take to take over Tajikistan, but after a while he was just working and not thinking and by the end of the hour he just went away! How wonderful is that?

John doesn’t worry about being disturbed by his watch while he works out because he puts everything down. He is not watching TV either, but he is absolutely trying to get into that state. Merlin finds it hard to avoid the TV! Yesterday he picked up his Chinese food and every God-damn restaurant and take-out place has big Samsung TVs running. They are cheaping out and don't buy cable, meaning it is pixelating over-the-air TV with a local news show going in and out or a judge show. This is hell for Merlin!

The worst is sports and CNN while traveling, that is the screen Merlin wants out! Men are terrified to be alone, except John, and men also like control, which is why there are TVs in the airports: People would lose their god-damn mind if they wouldn’t have something to stare at. John doesn’t like to be forced to stare at things!

John culture-jamming billboards (RL353)

Back in the 1990s John had a little cadre, let’s call it a cell, like in the magazine Adbusters, that felt like they were mounting a resistance. They used to climb up on billboards in the middle of the night and changed their messages. They would go so far as to print out huge rolls of paper in the same font that changed the message from ”Chevy like a rock!” to ”Chevy like a cock!”, that kind of culture jamming.

They took on some big players, like the ”Your baby has a heartbeat after 11 days” with a picture of a strange little zygote worm child with a bow in her hair, a billboard that was meant to make you feel bad about having the option of an abortion. John's little cadre would change the messages of those sarcastically, which was really fun!

They would put their watch caps on and run around like John Belushi in Animal House, they had walkie talkies and people stationed at different corners. The next day the billboard would be there on a busy street and until the billboard company got up there and tore it down everybody would have a good chuckle. The newspapers picked up on it and it was good times and it felt illegal because they were destroying private property.

At one point John did an interview with somebody and he said that having to look at these billboards is involuntary because you are just walking out the door, trying to walk from one place to another, and you are bombarded by messages that you are not able to sign off on. You are not able to approve the whole notion of receiving the message and that is a form of assault and indoctrination, which they were opposed to.

There was the same logic to it that graffiti artists employ when they say that this concrete is negative space and they are not defacing it, but it is already a defacement to live in a world surrounded by concrete and they are decorating it as an act of resistance against living in a Logan’s Run (?).

Nowadays one thing after another that John does not consent to is shoved right up his bottom every time he picks up his phone! Every website you go to throws up a thing saying: ”This site uses cookies! Consent!” and people are asking to sign up for their newsletter. Every time you go to the website of a magazine they are trying to throw ads at you every way they can, the most popular being to block the thing you are trying to read with an ad where it is unclear how to click it away and you are just fucked! We all agreed that everything is on the cloud and now your cloud is full.

John's daughter’s shoe was for some reason all the way at the other side of the table and had lights in it that go off when the child is running, and John pounded on the table in affirmation so hard that the shoe went off across the room. John did a reverse Khrushchev (reference to Shoe banging incident)!

Being critical about new technology (RL353)

Merlin has been citing this quote from the Plato dialog Phaedrus a lot: ”This new technology will be the end of us!” There were people who believed that writing was a terrible idea and it was going to damage our memory if we were not forced to memorize epic poems to tell each other the news. This has always been the case, ”ever thus to deadbeats, Lebowski” and whenever a new technology comes along our natural impulse is to look at all the ways it is going to be dangerous. Merlin is always skeptical or cautious about unintentionally adopting a very strident view about something he doesn’t really understand yet.

Lately John felt like we crossed some line in the sand where the idea of coming up with a theory about something stopped begin a theory and all that was required for it to be considered true was that you come up with a theory, like: ”If you let your kid look at their phone too much, that kid will end up a violent offender! That is my theory, based on a magazine article I vaguely remember reading, and also just my good sense and intuition about how things work, and now anytime I see a kid looking at a phone I am going to speak about my theory as though I read a double-blind series of scientific tests that were run by a reputable agency over the course of a decade to produce this data.”

Even when that is true and the University of Pennsylvania ran a 10-year study involving 2500 people, it is still just 2500 people and the study was probably designed by some 20-year olds. What does it really proof? John is not even getting into the replication crisis, which is huge! When people go back and try to reproduce all this fascinating social science from the last 20-50 years, practically none of that can be reproduced!

Computer maths, certain fields are not real sciences (RL353)

John has gone on record on this program being critical of computer maths. There are a lot of computer maths people listening to the program and there is nothing funnier than an antagonized computer maths person, unless it is an antagonized electrical engineer.

What John really wants to interrogate is: Social sciences have for the last 60 years been motivated primarily by a desire to elevate themselves to the level of a science. We decided that sociology and psychology were sciences and should live in the same part of a college campus that was also shared by biology. We called them sciences rather than arts or a new category of thing, which is a land of theory or a land of things where people are going to throw a frog at a wall and if the frog sticks they are going to say ”She is a witch!”

In making those things a science we encouraged or necessitated that the people practicing those disciplines are now using what appears to be the scientific method, but in reality is a mistake like Social Darwinism, which is taking a theory that does not apply to what you are doing, but mistakenly applying it and then calling it science. If you take 1000 cells and irradiate them with nuclear tides and those nuclear tides produce a result in 1000 cells and every one of them starts to mutate in a certain way, then you can say as a scientist that you have seen this result and you can extrapolate and assume that in 10.000 of these you will get the same result.

But if you take 1000 random Yahoos across the United States and show them a television program, interview them afterwards how they feel about Tacos and get some bell curve of answers, trying to conclude anything from that is just sorcery, reading tea leaves, or Tarot! It is bonkers how many Americans you would have to survey and how carefully you would have to word those questions and how smart everyone involved would have to be to produce any reliable conclusion about how people are and what they think and do and how they feel!

And yet, 35% of our culture is people saying they talked to 11 people who confirmed their bias and now they are talking about their theory as though it is true: "Enough people feel in their emotions that what I said makes them feel good or it confirms their own bias going in!", and now they are all shouting about it, and pretty soon every person in the world says: ”Well, you know…” and lays out some shit that they couldn’t prove.

Everyone is agreeing that 17-year olds are the ones who are going to save the planet because 17-year olds have been demonstrated to care more than 55-year olds. Interesting theory! How could you possibly say anything other than you had a feeling this morning and enough other people had a feeling and they all yelled at each other?

We are not even trying anymore! It is not even at the level of: ”Chicken: The other white meat!”, but: ”We don’t eat saturated fats anymore because they are saturated!” Turns out that was all hokum, but that at least it had some actual Chemistry behind it briefly, but it really was just: ”I have heart disease, my dad had heart disease, we liked hamburgers, so maybe it is hamburgers?” It is infuriating and it is not generational, although a lot of people say: ”The Millennials!”

If John Siracusa has some thing he would like to add or some complaint he would like to lodge, he can email Merlin at moc.liamg|flesruoykcufog#moc.liamg|flesruoykcufog. He will for sure text Merlin about it. He has John’s number, so why doesn’t he text John? Merlin finds it a constant battle against confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a dick and Merlin fights it all the time. David Foster Wallace: ”This is water!” (speech, transcript available online) We are always scanning the horizon for something that tells us that we are believing the right thing and doing the right thing.

Up until World War II there were lots of people, maybe even the majority, who wanted to make the world better. They thought about it largely in practical terms, not just in terms of clean water, but in terms of the franchise, the right to vote, or the right to pursue liberty. The Declaration of Independence is just a list of ways that the people of the time thought they could make the world better. It is not a complete list, it unintentionally excluded a lot of ideas because they hadn’t had them yet, but it was a list of practical things they thought they could do to make the world better.

Since the war a lot of the energy that people have devoted to trying to make the world better is psychological, not: ”If we put this together it would improve a lot for people” The Civil Rights Movement was very practical: "We need housing, we need job opportunities, we need to end segregation in schools!" At a certain point it started to be psychological: "We need to improve the mentality of people by getting into their homes to get into the values of their families, schools and churches!" At that point there is a lot of confirmation bias about what we can say to people that is going to change their feelings about things, and once we changed their feelings we have necessarily changed the world for the better!

All of that is based in the world of sociology and psychology and we say that we need a woman president because female energy is different from male, the female mind works differently, and a woman being president would change the world for the better. 25 years ago we said that women in business would change the nature of business and we believed that women would be able to use their powers because men are contemptible, which is the one thing we all agree on. As time went on we saw that a lot of women were getting into business and the ones that succeeded were the ones who acted like men, but that was not changing anything, it was not what we anticipated, it was not the plan!

Now we have to adjust the plan and we are rightfully furious that women have to act like men because we are still working on the theory from 1990 that women going into business are going to bring female acumen to it, which we now are not sure whether it is a different thing, which of course it is sometimes, but not others. Merlin interjects that women being more involved in lots of parts of life is an empirical good for a lot of reasons, but the reasoning for why that is a good idea has changed over time. It was considered a really bad idea up until 40 years ago, at which point it changed to being a good idea, but it turned out that the reason for it either didn’t work or wasn’t true.

This is not just true for women in business, but for every single aspect in our social world: We have an absolutely innate and noble desire to make the world a better place and to open up the rights to engage in every aspect of the world to everyone. It is the liberal project and it is natural to a lot of us. The problem is that we have progressed past the level of providing clean water and sanitation to everyone and past the point where everyone has the vote. There are a lot of asterisks, but we are talking about a fraction of a percentage.

Merlin says that there is a lot of deliberate effort in Southern States to get people off the voting rolls, which affects some groups a lot more heavily than others. John argues that it is still only a very small percentage. Merlin tries to hold against it and says that if you suppress voting enough, people stop going to the polls, but John says that what Merlin is saying is a theory and there are a lot of magazine articles who say different things about why people didn’t go to the polls. A lot of those are based on a feeling that the last election didn’t go the way that people running the polls wanted it to.

Merlin argues that in Georgia the secretary of state who is running for office also makes the laws about who is enfranchised. John thinks that Georgia is a racist place and racism plays a role in how elections are run. Gerrymandering is a much bigger issue and there are 50 different things in the United States that are at least as important as disenfranchisement in Georgia for people in San Francisco to worry about, but Merlin says that he is equally affected by Stacy Abrams not being able to get into office because they took a ton of people off the rolls.

John argues at length that voter disenfranchisement in Georgia is not an emergency, but it has existed all the time and the situation is now better than it has ever been before, but it is just now the topic that everybody is hip about. People are advancing a theory with a very emotional component and people aren’t doing independent fact checking on it. Merlin gets really upset about John’s take and says that he is very wrong.

Georgia elections are just one of 1000 examples of a conversation where we go in with the presupposition that if we read an article that confirms our bias about Georgia and about racism we are going to take it at face value and that we are are not going to believe an article that says the opposite. We are not going to question the source of the article that confirms what we want to think and we are going to doubt the veracity of the article we read that throws shade on it.

We are going to proceed to go to the next article with all what we ”know” and we have now constructed a world view based on surveys, anecdotal evidence, and interpretation of a small sample set. The secretary of state of Georgia is never going to say: ”I intentionally disenfranchised 10.000 noble voters who were lined up out front of the polling station with the ballots in hand”, but he is going to say: ”A lot of these people don’t exist anymore, a lot of them died”

We are not going to believe whatever his justification is and we are going to find it disgusting, but he is an elected official, a member of the same world that we are a member of and it feels he is justified in his actions, whether or not we with our limited set of articles about it (agree with him). John is disinclined to believe him, but that is based on his own bias.

The stuff John has internalized came from his parents trying to make the world a better place, using the thought technology they had available to them at the time. They raised John with values that were different from values they were raised with, different values than maybe had ever been tried before, and in a lot of ways John’s mom raised him experimentally.

She said: ”The world is dominated by a certain kind of man! I have a male child! I am going to raise him not just to not be that kind of man, but to be the antidote to that kind of man. I am going to do that based on an idea that hasn’t really been tried. We didn’t have all this information before and I am going to make it up as I go, partly on the strength of magazine articles. I am going to raise my kid a way I have never seen a man raised. By raising him this way I am going to be part of creating a better world!”

It created in John someone whom it never in a million years would have occurred to try and kiss somebody who didn’t want to be kissed. Who knows if John would have ever be the opposite person of that, he doubts it, that is in his emotional nature, but her work did make the world a better place and John is one less guy who is out there trying to kiss people who don’t want to be kissed and who thinks that this would be part of being a normal dude. Merlin says there are a lot of people out there who think they are not doing anything wrong. From one end of the spectrum: ”You are not allowed to be mad about me for this!” to: ”I had no idea that this was a problem” It is difficult to change if you don’t know you need to change.

A lot of their listeners are going to have a hot take on this and are going to want to correct John, in particular by laying out their hot take. He recommends people to sit with it because: How much interrogation have you done about where you got that hot take? How much of that hot take is personal to you before you lay it out to John as though he didn’t read the same magazines that you did?

The hardest part about this world-shaping that we have been doing based on theories that we feel are correct is that we feel very strongly that our values are right and that the world we are trying to make is going to be a better world. Everybody feels that way and we are at odds with one another about what that looks like and why.

We can all point to studies and theories, but we cannot universally point to theories that are proved correct. Along the way we abandoned a lot of the theories that have driven post-war liberalism about housing, zoning, or gerrymandering. There were housing projects that were thought would be an incredible advance in terms of sanitation, safety, or economic mobility. We remade our cities based on a theory of how we were going to make lives better, and those projects largely made things worse.

When we abandoned those theories and moved on to the next thing we didn’t really mea culpa about it and adjust any of the underlying theories that drove us to tear down whole neighborhoods and replace them with brutalist high rises, we didn’t go back to re-evaluate what was motivating us, but we just said: ”These projects didn’t work because we didn’t have enough lighting!” or because of mismanagement, and we tore them all down and now we are onto something else.

There is not a tendency to go back and ask more question about the methodology that brought us to that conclusion before be leap to the next big overarching project that is going to make people’s lives better. We make the false equivalence that it is just as simple as bringing clean water to a town, a series of reproducible steps, something that is concrete.

We are trying to make communities, but what committee understands what makes a community so well that they can go in and make one, not just out of nothing, but by taking an existing one and change its values so that it becomes a different one that is going to produce results that we think we want and that is going to make the world a better place.

John says this as a guy who believes all of this, as a world maker, an activist, a progressive, someone who has been that way his whole life and who does believe that you can make the world a better place by actions big and small. He looks at what we have been through and what we have done and what the results are and it is a hit-or-miss proposition. We don’t take that into account when we sit somewhere and shout about what we think the next thing should be.

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