RL397 - Open Ticket

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John likes to divide his life up into stories, referring to John looking at old photographs and being able to pin certain events to certain stories.

The show title refers to John’s relationship with Kathleen Edwards that feels like more recent than it was and somehow the book is not yet closed and there are still things going to happen, but in reality John hasn’t seen her in years and she has lived a whole decade of her life in the meantime.

When Merlin called John, his audio interface did not work and it sounded weird because he was recording via his built-in microphone, but everything is weird these days. It sounds like he was in a phone booth in an empty train station. They spent some time troubleshooting John’s problem and it was fixed by hotplugging the audio interface. It just keeps going! Another day in paradise! It doesn’t get any better than this! Nothing can change me and you!

Raw notes
The segments below are raw notes that have not been edited for language, structure, references, or readability. Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first! These notes were not planned to be released in this form, but time constraints have caused a shift in priorities and have delayed editing draft-quality versions to a later point.

Looking at old pictures (RL397)

John has been looking through his photos from 2010, which doesn’t seem that long ago on one hand, but on the other hand it feels like a million years ago. Merlin also does that from time to time. He sent John that he had posted on John’s birthday and it gives him a memory called Hot Rod. iOS 14 has come out last week and you can put you a widget on the screen that uses computer smarts to figure out a photo that you might want to see today.

John likes to divide up his life into stories and cross-hatch it. It is very easy to remember that when John and Merlin met they had immediate rapport. Merlin liked all the guys in John’s band immediately, the give and take, the push back and forth, and it was one of the rare times since college where he was meeting somebody who will have a very serious and extremely stupid very long conversation about something that almost nobody else cares about, and that is the definition of a friend.

Merlin met John very early in the Long Winters career. They were on one of their first tours and one of their first shows in San Francisco, and from that point on John knows that Merlin was him through all of The Long Winters stuff. It is never hard to remember when Merlin came into this because Merlin was right by John’s side through all of this Rock’n’Roll stuff. Up until the time when The Long Winters stopped touring, if John looks at a picture he can tell by the length of his hair and the glasses he is wearing and the teeth he does or doesn’t have, where he was, where he was coming from, and where he was going to.

John met Coulton and Hodgman during the middle-end of his touring years and there is a very jumbled timeline because they met on this day, but didn’t start hanging out almost a year later, but that was still a long time ago in the period after John was no longer able tell where he was in context of an album cycle. He had long hair and a missing tooth, but that came and went a few times and ways.

John has a lot of very good friends very good memories of the last 10 years that are disconnected from time and place. John has never lived in the same town as Merlin, Hodgman, Coulton, Kathleen, Jesse Thorn or any of his friends. Ken Jennings lived in Seattle and John’s old friends from Rock music, but most of his friendships and professional relationships from 2010 to the present have been with people who did not move away, but those relationships have been made and became super-important and central to what John does.

Part of it is that all those people and John travelled a lot for what they did and they would always meet in places they happened to be together as members of this group of travelers. There are an awful lot of photos in John’s timeline of him sitting in an airplane or looking out the window of an airplane. Most of John and Merlin’s pictures of them together from the last 10 years are from Sketchfest, while the pictures of the 10 years prior to that were mostly in Merlin’s house or at The Bottom of the Hill.

With a lot of John’s friends they would meet at different places doing shows together here and there, which is very difficult for John to fit together to any kind of narrative because there isn’t a narrative. There is no actual traveling from place to place like there was in the old days. They didn’t all pile into a truck, but it is just airports. There was a period at Jonathan Coulton’s house where they had an actual guest bed, but then Christine decided that that room was going to be her office and they took this wonderful queen-sized bed out of their house and replaced it with a series of IKEA foam blocks covered with a sheet.

Merlin had an inflatable taco, that came after his guest mattress that was shaped like a taco but claimed to actually be a mattress and the child bouncing the ball. John had said: ”Who lets a child bounce a ball?”

John was trying to figure this game out together with Hodgman, looking at old pictures, and there were many different events that either feel not that long ago or a million years ago, but those perceptions don’t correlate with the actual timeline of events. It feels very Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel where you are just bouncing around in the timeline. For Merlin, the ability to check or augment his memory comes down to Gmail and Apple Photos because his photos have geolocation in them and they are in order. He has whole periods where he does really need to work his system to be able to figure out what happened when and with whom and in what order.

John feels like he has Open Tickets with all these people. It isn’t just a matter of knowing this person back then, but there are so many people in John’s life whom he knew then and he still considers himself a friend and if they called him and needed him to rescue them for a place he would drive 6 hours to save some friend he hadn’t seen 20 for years because he likes to drive and he likes a mission. A lot of those relationships ebb and flow, a lot of those people are mad at him. Even if a person John didn’t know called and said they would need somebody to get them because they are in trouble, he would do it because he has nothing keeping him from helping people.

John’s 15 closest friends that he has done shows with for the last decade that Open Ticket is a short order ticket, like ”When is the next burger coming up?” It is partly related to COVID, but partly just in general throughout that whole period when they stood in an airport and said: ”See you!” there was never a plan for the next get-together, or if there was they knew they had something in June, but there were always going to be 4 things that came up between now and then, but now there is no real clear sense that John is going to see anybody again. John is texting with his friends on a regular basis, but they are not actually in a band with each other.

How John met Kathleen Edwards (RL397)

Merlin has met Kathleen Edwards and they have both been at John’s old house. She is one of the tentpole people in John’s life where he thinks of her as a very present person in his life that he thinks about all the time that is part of his most recent life, but in looking at his photos he realized that she first came out to Seattle to visit John in 2009. They had met at Austin City Limits Music Festival and she came over backstage and introduced herself to him. She had a group of hovering people around her, like somebody to style her and a manager, and when she started talking to John they were all looking at him and he could feel the nervousness that they have about her having somewhere to be and having someone more important to talk to.

She told John that she really liked his record and she and her entourage went off into a dust cloud because it was at a music festival. Later she was coming through Seattle when she was touring with John Doe where they were just doing duets and John went to see her show because that is what he did at the time and he remembered her from that encounter in Austin, and he was blown away and enraptured. He doesn’t remember the precipitating incident, after the show he went up and told her that he liked the show, and he was waiting in line to talk to her and expected just a handshake and a ”Nice to meet you!”, but she said: ”Oh, wait around!”, which is always fun.

John waited around but it got really late and there was some complication and phones weren’t that good back then and it was a misconnection. Within a short amount of time after that there was a knock on John’s door and she was there with a suitcase, there must be some email of her announcing coming to Seattle, but it felt very natural and John showed her the guest-room and she stayed for a week and they might even have gone to Portland together and stayed there for a week. It is unusual for John to have such a vague memory because usually events are very tethered to any given time and a story.

John would have been able to order this until they have spent 6 years now in the upside-down where everything feels like it just recently happened all at once. When Merlin, Scott Simpson, John Hodgman and Jonathan Coulton came up and they did The Gamechangers, Merlin has pictures of them from 2012-08-28 (see RL47). Kathleen was there and at that point they had been friends for years, but Gamechangers feels like it happened 1000 years ago, while John’s friendship with Kathleen feels like it happened more recently than Gamechangers, which is not logically possible because when she came to Gamechangers he wanted her to be a part of the show, but she then spent a day with them while they were rehearsing and she said this wasn’t her thing and she bailed.

This was a different time than when Simpson shot that video of John and Dave Bazan rehearsing that beautiful Pedro the Lion song.

John and Kathleen did many things together, they did shows, they travelled together, they wrote some songs together, she came out a number of times which are all big events in John’s memory, and in trying to piece it all together and finding all the pictures and the framework of their friendship he realized that most of it happened between 2009 and 2013, a long time ago. John still talks to her, and he keeps feeling that she is going to show up on his door at some point with a suitcase and they are going to write some songs.

Merlin called it an Open Ticket, a thing that is not complete, there have been these chapters in the story but the book is still open and she could show up with a suitcase anytime.

But if you look at Kathleen’s timeline: She has put out a handful of records, she has dated Justin Vernin, she quit the music business and opened a café, she ran the café for a long time, and Merlin saw something about her returning to music and she was gone long enough that she could say: ”I am back!” and not have it be embarrassing. The whole time it felt like there was an open ticket on this and she and John haven’t written a song lately because it is hard to get on each other’s calendar, but looking at it John realized that she has lived a whole decade of her life and John hasn’t seen her in years!

The generational shift where people start existing online (RL397)

This decade is the decade where John went from taking 15 pictures a year to taking 300 pictures a year. He had whole relationships with people in 2006 where he doesn’t have a single photograph of them and he had a three-year relationship with a girl from 2002-2005 and he has maybe 4 pictures of her total, all taken from a flip-phone and they look like you are looking at them through mashed potatoes. Merlin has more photos of poor punctuation on signs than he has of most people he knew before 2007. He doesn’t have a picture of his best friend from his youth and John doesn’t have a picture of any of his friends except the yearbook.

John doesn’t have any pictures of all the people he knew in the 1990s during the Rock years, but he has 1000 pictures of him and Hodgman sitting in an airport waiting for their flight, both making a face. This was John’s most recent life, but also the one that he will never not have documented. 40 years from now he will be able to look at the first picture of Kathleen Edwards he ever took and go: ”Oh yeah, she showed up on my door with a suitcase!”

One of Merlin’s favorite movies is Synecdoche, New York, which is quite a divisive movie, and the idea of ”Wait a minute? What? How is that little girl now living in Berlin?” It is very Billy Pilgrim (from Slaughterhouse-Five) and he would have to think to tell you what year it is. It is really hard to keep it all straight.

Since John’s dad died he has been chewing on this idea: As far as the Internet is concerned his obituary is all there is of him. You might find his service records in the Library of Congress or the Department of Defence, and there are some articles about him in the newspaper archives on microfiche of the Seattle Times in 1961, and in Anchorage he was in the newspaper a lot, but those are newspaper archives that have not been digitized or if they have they are photos that are not searchable. Maybe one day automation will allow to put the archives of the Anchorage Daily News of the 1970s online in a searchable fashion, but as far as right now, John’s dad’s life condensed to his obituary was the first thing that was ever posted about him online. He died at 87 years old and the last 10 years of his life were when things started to go online and he was an old man and there wasn’t anything about him to say.

But it is not just John’s dad! John as well has been to High School with people who have never been online. They are not even talking about QAnon on Facebook, but they are 50 year olds who never had an email address. Compare that to people who are really online and you will realize that future historians are not going to bother worrying about somebody who is not online because the people who are very online have generated so much material that a future historian will rather examine this person’s life who took 40 pictures a day than trying to find something out about the millions of people who never put anything online.

This thought experiment is at the heart of the Omnibus project: If a thing doesn’t make it onto the web now during this transition, then it will not exist in the future. Merlin and John are balancing in the cut: The first halves of their lives are not on the Internet and to the future they are going to seem like they are the first generation that walked into existence and were born at age 32. Now John is looking at that idea internally because he himself feels weirdly that he was born age 32 or even 40 because he has this incredible record that he wouldn’t have noticed not having until he did have it. A lot of Rock people in John’s era didn’t pivot to whatever John pivoted to, and they are 50 years old and have a bunch of copies of Magnet Magazine where there is an article about them on page 13, but they didn’t transition to being very online.

Phil Wandscher, the guitar player of Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter just recently moved to Spokane and is posting pictures of himself on Instagram going to motorcycle swap meets out in the county. He is not posting that on Instagram because that is content, but because that is what he is doing.

John has a feeling in his heart that all these open tickets and the croissant of folded layers of time of the last 12 years is this thing coming home to roost, where John’s dad won’t exist in the future but John will, but how? In a way he still feels he is at the beginning of that time loop.

What will probably happen is that in the future there will be people with 10.000 photographs and future historians are going to wonder how to sort through them all, but all any of this archive and our online behavior is all just fodder for the machines. When you die your kids probably won’t even have the keys to your photo thread, but the photos won’t go away, but the ownership will just transfer to the machine and it will only be connected to you through your very strong password and it is going to become the hamburger of information that is only comprehendible by Cray supercomputers and all our hopes and dreams are getting thrown into Black Mirror style montages of wedding photos and what to do about that?

John has no idea how memory is going to work for someone who is 25 and who has never had an adult moment that wasn’t in some way or another documented, maybe by 40 people who all geolocated it and some time 80 years from now they are sitting somewhere attached to a machine and the computer asks: ”Would you like to see March 14th 2017 from every angle?”

Merlin talks about his changed behavior when it comes to discovering new music on Spotify, from hearting whole albums a couple of years ago to only picking single songs from Discover Weekly and Release Radar. All the years he spent organizing his music in the past, it all got jumbled by iTunes Match that replaced his copies of songs with the wrong versions. Apple Music sucks and it flushed a bunch of Merlin’s shit down the toilet. All the demos and rough-cuts that John gave him, it is all gone and now he is renting his musical life on Spotify in tea spoons.

John finds it crazy that Merlin is in a relationship with this AI that recommends music to him because that is what they used to do for each other in the past and that recommendation increased your friendship with that person. John had relationships with people die on the vine because they put on a record that John was not that into, and you could see it in their face that if you don’t like that record, how could you like them? Like Merlin’s friend said: Not liking The Beatles is like not liking air.

Merlin continues to rant about music discovery on Spotify and how namespace pollution causes problems. Discogs is the only place to go when you want to find stuff. Merlin wanted to find a band called Green from around the time R.E.M.’s Green came out, but there are 30 bands whose name is just ”Green”.

AI favoring white people in thumbnails on Twitter (RL397)

This make Merlin think of an interesting conversation this week on Twitter about the way that AI deals a lot of dirt to people of color (see for example here). It takes him even further back to every Mathew Brady photo you have seen from the late 1800s where everybody is standing still and looking very stern, and there are very few photos of people rocking out and having fun, in part because of the way this daguerreotype is going to be captured, but does that mean those people never smiled? No, but it just means that all of the photos we have for technical reasons makes it look like they never smiled.

What is the version of that today? There could be a million photos of gas station quotes, but however people will enter that great archive there will be some weird stuff about it that is peculiar to the time. Like the time when Merlin did that second curtain flash thing and for about a year and a half every picture he took during that time is fucked up because he thought that looked cool, which is not so different from putting a fucking Instagram filter on everything you ever post that makes you look like a smooth bunny. There are some nice pictures like the one with John in the cape and the cigar. In every instance there is something about how we capture stuff, how it gets stored and remembered and indexed, and Merlin wonders what the next version of that will be.

John thinks it is going to be volume instead of quality. Because we stand astride those two universes, John can’t help but still bring an importance to photographs that comes from a time when you had your film developed once a month and it cost a lot of money and pictures were precious. Like in the parking lot of Back to the Future there was a Fotomat and Merlin’s daughter couldn’t even fathom what he was talking about when he told her about it.

John mentions the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, but Merlin can’t bear to watch it because he is scared to watch it. There is nothing in it that you don’t already know, but you hear the people saying it directly to you and everything is worse than you thought. Merlin is not on Instagram or Facebook, so he only hears second or third hand what John just described, like the QAnon stuff. Charlotte Alter is making a lot of enemies in the Twitterverse because she is talking to actual people in actual places and an astonishing number of them in a short conversation will say something completely batshit, and she is saying not to assume that Biden is going to win because there is some crazy shit going on out there. It is a land of contrast!

Incognito Mode (RL397)

John asks if Merlin uses Incognito Mode when he searches for things on the Internet, but he doesn’t. On his phone he has a VPN and he couldn’t say if he is behind 7 proxies. He watches a lot of YouTube and pays for the no-ads version and it is how he spends his evenings most nights, but when he is watching some shitty Nazi video he is not going to watch that on Main because he doesn’t want that signal to be used as part of his recommendations. It is not about wanting to see boobs without anybody knowing, but he doesn’t want the system to get confused about what he is here for. On YouTube he gets so much less bullshit than what most people do.

John wondered how much namespace pollution there is around Merlin and he googled his name, but there is only one Merlin Mann in the world and all of the different things. John also googled for the band The The, but Google has figured it out and was showing him the band. He noticed that it was showing him his last searches from his phone and he didn’t know that there was that connection. Merlin mentions the right to be forgotten.

Merlin’s daughter following him on Twitter (RL397)

Merlin was a guest on some podcast yesterday, but he doesn’t say the name of it. Merlin’s daughter follows him on Twitter, which is very upsetting. John has no idea what that is going to be like and there will come a day when youth will pass away.

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