RL447 - Flip Too Far

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John says it’s something in the seaweed, referring to a new discovery that feeding a certain kind of seaweed to cows reduces their methane production by up to 40%.

The show title refers to swiping too many times on your phone to a home-screen that you were not supposed to go to because it contains things you didn’t want to look at, like Apple News.

John opens the show with ”Who is it?” (from the children’s TV show Electric Company). Merlin replies with: ”Christmas time! Santa is going to spank you!”, which is a North Florida thing. John was a spanky Santa for a decade (see OM391).

Merlin recently turned 55.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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.

Rain and snow in Seattle, changing weather conditions (RL447)

In the local fish wrapper in San Francisco they said they were going to have 8 days of rain, but no snow. It is trying to snow in Seattle and it is very frustrating for the children because it does at some point snow and then also rain, so the children look out the window and go: ”It is snowing!” and they put their little suits on and get their sleds and they run out and are standing in the rain, waiting for the snow. Every 5th drop of rain is a big huge snowflake right now.

On his podcast Road Rage with his sister Susan, John has talked about that for Seattle drivers every condition is a hazardous condition. They don’t have any object permanence or memory of the past and whenever something happens it is like the first time that has ever happened and no-one knows how to handle it, even when it rains. There should be a name for this! Merlin has lived in San Francisco for 22 years, but he still sometimes spaces on the basics about it although he should be used to it, like always wearing layers when he goes to another part of town because it is warmer almost everywhere else.

The coldest summer John ever spent was a winter in San Francisco (John’s dad used to say that, but actually it is the other way around and it is attributed to Mark Twain: ”The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”). Merlin explains how the temperatures change over a day in a weird way that is hard to understand. In Seattle people can’t get their heads around that it will continue to rain, sometimes until June, but that has changed a lot recently because of the Global Warming. It is not as foggy in San Francisco as it used to be in the summer.

Every one of these silver linings is: ”Did you read the latest thing?” Coffee is bad for you, wine is good for you. Don’t ever say that coffee is bad for you, Merlin is not afraid to stand up for big science.

John reading the news again after a 9-month hiatus, manipulative headlines and AI-like articles (RL447)

For a long time John wasn’t reading the news at all, which was really great because there is absolutely zero in the news that pertains to our lives. At one point John had felt that Twitter made him a more-informed person and he was reading the news on Twitter now, years after he first joined. Often he knew something way before anybody else did, and he felt so in and so wise, he was so now! It was when you still had to explain what Twitter was. Now it became a terrible thing to read the news on Twitter and everything is just terrible.

For 9 months John wasn’t reading the news, but there is the damn Apple News on his phone and when he flipped too far it was telling him the news and sucked him in because it looked like it showed him a news item that was tailored for his needs. It is a racket because they are trying to get you to subscribe! Merlin doesn’t want to read the news in an app, but on the site where it lives. Apple News is another example of a thing where they lost the enthusiasm to make it good after they released it.

Merlin’s week is divided into Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday where he does podcast-related things, recording with people, and when he does the behind the scenes he is much more likely to put on cable news in the background with the sound off than he is on Thursday and Friday, and if he is away from all of that flipping, blissfully involved in writing… or maybe building an Eiffel Tower of popsicle sticks, he keeps dancing around it and now that John mentioned it he spoiled Christmas.

Merlin has heard that Americans are the only people who experience culture shock upon returning to the US. America is a lot! And when Merlin is away from the news at the end of the week and he dips back in a flips, he goes: ”Wow! No wonder everybody is so fucking mad all the time!”

They are supposedly targeting the news feeds at John based on what he googles, but what they show him is that a ”mother in Arkansas drowns two babies”, and ”whole family dies in a house fire”. He doesn’t want to hear about the bouncy castle in Australia.

John got addicted to the news again because of Apple News until he found out he could delete it off his device and he felt: ”Boo yah! Look at you, Apple! I deleted your own thing off of this! I wish I could do it more!” There are many things on his phone that John can’t delete, but he was able to delete Apple News.

A couple of weeks ago, late at night, John went on his phone and his hands were moving on his own when they typed ”News” into the search bar on the Safari and it pulled up Google News, which is also very tuned to you and is based on the searching he does around the Ottoman Empire and the Top 20 best Bismarck quotes, but the mother in Arkansas drowning two children and the bouncy castle in Australia is all they have.

A theme for Merlin has been that he gets so fucking mad even at the news that he paid for, especially The New York Times. Whether they realize it or not, they want to keep us scared and off-balance, annoyed, aggravated, and frustrated that they start to feel like the only source of the information that either makes you feel alive or makes you feel dead. Their job is to keep us always on edge. In reality their motto should be: ”Not so fast!” because as soon as you think you understand something there will be a ”Turns out!” and you can’t have joy in the moment because you have to figure out what to be scared about.

John subscribes to The New Yorker and The Atlantic because although it is news, it is long-form and somebody has thought about it. You get a bigger picture, it takes you longer to read, but it is so hard at night when the daemon dogs come, you have been sorting Rock posters all day, and at the end of the day they have to go back into a flat file somewhere because there wasn’t a reason. You did it, it feels good that you sorted them all, but there was no audience waiting for you to hand them out.

The news was tailored to John and went through all these house fires where all these children died and through everything about Trump, and he came upon a news item without any dead babies or disaster about a farmer who also happened to be a marine biologist. At first it looked like an infomercial, an advertorial, and he had to check it a few times to make sure it was not. He stopped clicking on Buzzfeed articles because ha cannot stand it. They know exactly what he wants to see to loop him in, like Top 10 celebrity moments where Jimmy Page made them get their period early, and then the article totally sucks.

YouTube only showing John 1970s late night clips (RL447)

John must have set up YouTube wrong because no matter what he watches, within 3 videos it will direct him to Milton Berle on the Carol Burnett show (find video!). It thinks John wants to watch The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. John has watched a lot of Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett shows from the early 1970s, and every 6 months Merlin watches every appearance by Don Rickles, and John has seen every time Don Rickles ashes his cigarette into Burt Reynolds’ coffee cup, and Dom DeLuise thinks it is really funny and falls on the floor and ”can’t get no respect” John has watched it all, but YouTube thinks this is all John is.

Instead John would like to also watch someone unwrap some Disney presents. Don’t put him into a box! John showed his daughter at one point how a lathe works and she really got into lathe videos and smelting videos. Merlin recommends the LockPickingLawyer, a guy who is really good at picking locks and who tells you what is good or mostly terrible about a lock. It is the perfect YouTube, aside from the Japanese guy who makes tiny food in a doll house and then doesn’t eat it (maybe this one?) or the people who groom elderly and tiny dogs, the guy who watches carpets and then break dances.

Every time John watches Richard Burton describe his process to Dick Cavett (maybe this one) it resets him all the way to the back. Dick Cavett was friends with Groucho Marx who wrote him a letter and mentioned that Peter O’Toole has two phallic names.

Merlin is always looking for what other thing that actress was in, and he is always googling for people’s heights and who is taller than somebody else and he will end up on articles that feel like a form letter that somebody got paid to write. He continues to talk about different algorithms surfacing different things.

John with Dick Cavett, Mel Brooks, and Richard Lewis (RL447)

One time John was fortunate to be in a room at the Chateau Marmont with John Hodgman, Dick Cavett, Mel Brooks, Richard Lewis, the dark-haired comedian from Curb Your Enthusiasm who is always really anxious and fretful, and Jack Black. Richard Lewis had brought something for Cavett and he pulled out Groucho Marx’s day planer from 1956. John was looking over their shoulder at the day planner as Lewis, Cavett and Brooks go over it and Cavett was just narrating it, he knew him by the hour and knew this was the day that he did that and later on this day he went to see Lucille Ball.

Cavett can’t go an hour without mentioning Groucho. Richard Belzer (?) knew this. He was on Curb (Curb Your Enthusiasm?) a week or two ago and he has something going on health-wise. Merlin used to love when he was on Letterman. All of them were lovely people, although at one point Mel Brooks turned to John and didn’t say: ”Who are you again?”, but he literally said: ”What is it you do here?” - ”It is a good question, sir! I am not a waiter, but you wouldn’t have heard of my work!”

Merlin had Lucky One by Michael Penn in his head, which he doesn’t mind because it is such a good song.

John's cousin Libby Roderick (RL447)

John's cousin Libby Roderick is a globally famous Alaskan folk singer and eco warrior. She had her own record label called Turtle Island Records and she was a very popular niche folk artist. They sang one of her songs at the first World Conference on Women in China (in 1995) and when the Mars Rover stopped working at one point many years ago and they couldn’t get it to respond, somebody at NASA sent one of her songs called Dig Down Deep to the Mars Rover and it started moving again.

Alaska has its own culture, but there is also Jewel who is a bit anomalous and who went down to the big city and everybody is very proud of her. She lived in her car for a while.

Feeding seaweed to cows reducing methane output (RL447)

There is a weird new kind of article, not the ones where you have to click through to see each picture of Demi Moore in High School, but the headline says: ”Tom Petty says George Harrison was his best friend” (example: Tom Petty Felt Blessed Having Known George Harrison: ‘I Loved Him so Much’) and in the first little bit of the article you feel that this is so sweet, but as you scroll down it keeps going and is not talking about Tom Petty anymore.

It feels like those articles are written by AI or by someone who doesn’t have English as their first language, but they are very fluent and it feels like they were plagiarizing 100 articles into one. John feels manipulated like it would lead him right to joining a cult and he has to snap out of it because he spent 20 minutes reading about that stuff.

Recently John had been doom-scrolling and went through all the articles about the Supreme Court, the January 6th Committee, Omicron, Bitcoin, and the mother who drowned her babies, when he came to an article that said that a farmer who also is a marine biologist discovered that if you feed a particular kind of very common seaweed to cows it neutralizes the methane in their gut, and if we successfully put seaweed in all the cow chow around the world it would take more methane out of the atmosphere every year than if every automobile in America turned off its engine.

Where did this article come from? It reads like the science plant that was going to take all the offal from slaughterhouses and convert it into platinum and cooking oil that was in Discovery Magazine and that he did an episode of the Omnibus on (Anything into Oil, see OM136). It is Supertrain in a nutshell! Now John got this cow chow idea and he would really like it to be true. It comports with his general attitude about the news including themes that are sometimes a decade long.

Certain kinds of doomsday problems that cannot be solved undergird the news, like the population bomb in the early 1970s where there was not going to be enough food, the famines, peak oil, the ozone hole because of the hairspray in the 1980s, the killer bees, wasps, and turtles, where the world is coming to an end. The big one in John’s childhood was nuclear war that was impossible to avoid and only a matter of time, and for the last 50 years it has been Global Warming in various forms: We have screwed it up and it is over forever, we passed the threshold, and right now Climate Change is what we say reflexively and we see it everyday when we look out the window and it was snowing a minute ago and now it is not. John is not mocking the notion of Climate Change, on the contrary, but so many of these things came and went and no-one ever foresaw the solution.

John got a phone call from Phil Landersher (?), which was very strange.

Seaweed-based cow chow is a thing that two days ago didn’t exist in John’s mind, but now maybe instead of switching all to Teslas and stop burning gas we can just feed seaweed to cows, which would be a game changer! Merlin remarks that there are all these difficult problems now because the easy ones have already been solved.

John sent the article to his cousin Libby Roderick who has been a Climate Change apocalypto for 25 years. Back in the days her folk concerts were widely attended by the folk music community, and while she had a great sense of humor on stage she would get serious every show and start talking about Climate Change before that was even a phrase and when people would still call it Global Warming. Everybody in the room would rattle their fleece.

John got back from her what he expected: A Happy Holidays reply in which she also specified Happy Solstice, but no reference to the cow seaweed article. As a long-time climate change warrior she was not interested in stories about how we are going to change Climate Change by feeding seaweed to cows. Instead she is very invested in how we are going to solve the problem by ending our dependency on oil, switching to vegetarianism, and super-duper changing the world. There is also a certain apocalypse porn about it, the feeling that it is too late and there are no solutions.

To Merlin the elephant in the room is COVID: Every time we could have done something about it we didn’t, and now people are spreading optimism that we have not yet earned because some of the solutions are not actually helping anything.

John doesn’t even know if that article is real or if it has been written by the same bot that was talking about Eric Clapton’s racist rants, or if the solution to Climate Change is breeding one million of a certain type of owl that loves eating carbon dioxide and farts lithium which you can use to build more Tesla batteries. ”Who? Me!” - ”One, two, three!” - Mr. Owl! (from a classic Tootsie Roll Commercial)

People who are really invested in the problem have a tendency to also know what the solutions are and they are not open to… you see this all the time with people who are convinced that society is collapsing, but it could be as simple as having George Clooney run for president and bring the whole country together. We all love George Clooney! Nothing is off the table now! He is a beautiful man with a smile and a very accomplished spouse (Amal Clooney). Alec Baldwin is too divisive a figure, but George Clooney could run for president! Matthew McConaughey was considering running for governor of Texas. Maybe that would be the lithium-farting owl of American politics that would change the whole world? Do we even know if we could feed carbon dioxide to owls?

It is the same that nobody knows where the crows sleep and if we could find out that, maybe it is a lithium mine and we wouldn’t have to go to the Atacama Desert (in Chile). Maybe this is why they are stealing all our Aluminum foil?

John knowing the dad of the new Miss America from Alaska (RL447)

The new Miss America Emma Broyles is the first one from Alaska. John recently read about it in his targeted news feed. She works with Special Olympics and these days you have to be smart and not only have one talent. There is a joke: ”Oh, you are from Alaska? Do you know my friend Jim?”, and half the time John does know the person. But how many Broyles can there be in Alaska? Turns out she is the daughter of Ron Broyles, a really good friend of John’s from High School! Ron was a fit guy who he lifted weights and was in good shape, and who was in some bodybuilding contests in middle age.

News outlets trying to keep people scared and off-balance (RL447)

As you are reading the news you are playing a Frogger game where every log is a new apocalypse and you are hopping from apocalypse to apocalypse. At least in John’s lifetime there has always been something that comes along and staves it off. We all have Borderline Personality Disorder because the apocalypse was that the atmosphere was going to burn off, but then we stopped using hairspray and it didn’t burn off, but we didn’t high-five each other about it, we just pivoted to whatever the next apocalypse was. It is like having a Borderline Personality Disorder girlfriend. ”Look honey, I solved the problem that you were so upset about!” - ”The new problem is this!”

Merlin gets the same feeling with the COVID coverage. If you ask a public health policy person a question you will get different answers depending on their expertise. They might all be medical professionals, but they are going to tell you different things. It is all about keeping you scared.

Buzzfeed is different from Buzzfeed News, which is very good, they have a great staff. As Merlin put in his wisdom document, the people who write the article rarely get to pick the headline, so don’t blame the writer, but they also A/B-test those, which is why every single article in John’s news feed has the headline ”Janet Jackson nipple slip”. They will chose headlines like: ”The surprising revelation at the Ghislaine Maxwell trial”, but they won’t tell you what it is because they want you to click. With headlines that just say: ”Something something: What you need to know!” the question is whom this is for and for whom this will be a hook, which is a big idea in the world of ADHD because the hook gets into you and you don’t realize it until it is too late and two hours are gone. They also do seem very pitched towards anxious people who visit websites about news and want to be updated about things and they want you off-balance and scared.

What will you change today based on what you learned today? If you have been learning things for the last two weeks or the last 10 years and haven’t changed anything, what is finally going to get through to you about what needs to change? Is it possible that you don’t actually want to change? You want to buy the new energy-efficient house? Anybody will tell you that it is much cheaper to live in a shitty old house than to use the resources needed to create a new house! People get so serious about this stuff because they have no idea that Twitter in particular is not real. They have made it real because they continue to be around people who agree that it is real. It is the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!

At a certain point more education does not produce better results (RL447)

John thinks about this all the time because it is baked into the idea we had as Liberals for the last 150 years that education is going to change the world and is going to create a nation of informed workers and of philosopher kings. It became such a truism throughout the 20th century! Education is always the path, we say: ”Come to America and get educated, that is your path!” and we said it to ourselves all the way up to the dawn of the Internet that was going to democratize information and education. It is baked into our view of the world that there is no downside to education, but in fact we hit a wall somewhere where the graph of the benefits of greater access to education started to flatten out and we might be on the downside now!

100 years from now we will no longer be saying that education fixes everything. In some situations in America we will continue to wish that education was better, but there is ample evidence that better education hits a wall and more and more better education does not produce the results we expect, but we are still doubling down on it. In the future we will start thinking of those issues differently and no longer as education issues. Right now every person in America has access to a little device that has all collected human knowledge on it and they scroll through 11 Demi Moore nip slips and no amount of education is useful in that situation. John and Merlin are very educated and they are still looking at 11 different owls that fart lithium.

Merlin gives some headlines that make his point, like Is Omicron as contagious as the measels? or S.F. politico was accosted by woman with a knife Which politico? What woman? Scientists didn’t see omicron coming and no-one knows what is next. Could the Sierra get 100 inches of snow by Christmas? Here’s the mountain forecast Betteridge’s law of headlines says that if a headline ends with a question mark the answer is: ”No!” Merlin’s personal favorite is: I thought I was a genius selling my home during the Pandemic. Now I live in a crap shack which John would absolutely click on.

The video of Prince at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame introduction in 2004 (RL447)

There is a video where Prince was throwing his guitar in the air and was ruining the show for everybody (video). John saw that the other day and they have done a whole show about this (see RL199). Merlin’s feelings in the past were mostly quite positive, but have changed recently.

After that episode John got a lot of feedback from fans who did not like his hot take that Tom Petty was very visibly not into what Prince was doing. People were very mad at him! Merlin was going deep with a friend on Tom Petty last week and how much he loves Tom Petty. The Heartbreakers were so tasteful and restrained! Each time Merlin watches the video his feelings harden a little bit about Prince’s antics. It is a great guitar solo, but for John it is all in Tom Petty’s face that he is super-bummed, but he is being a pro about it. There is a moment when Prince looks at Tom and Tom gives him the most forced smile and it powers Prince even more.

Merlin can promise you that he loved Prince a long time before you did. When he came home with a copy of 1999 and the ”1” was a penis, he was in 10th grade, and it made his mother very upset. That was some scandalous shit at the time! What that guy did when he was 19 was crazy! Dirty Mind is insane! This discussion is not about not loving Prince, but it is about bad behavior. When John introduced that idea, almost no-one agreed with him, but now the scale seems to be tipping, and it might be am example of the invisible influence that Roderick on the Line has on our culture.

Their slogan All the great shows has made it into the culture and could be George Clooney’s slogan for his presidential run, and he will not even know where it came from! Now it seems like John is reading articles about how Tom Petty was not into it, where when they talked about it the first time 5 years ago, everybody said that he was so into what Prince was doing. This is the hidden hand of Roderick on the Line.

Merlin’s year-end recommendations (RL447)

Merlin mentions John’s Patreon, where John is reading his travel journals from the 1980s now.

Merlin also wants to put the video of Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin, and friends on David Letterman doing Foggy Mountain Breakdown, one of his favorite YouTube performance videos ever.

Merlin recommends the Rockpile documentary Born Fighters. They have one proper album called Seconds of Pleasure. A very young Huey Lewis is in this movie. They were the band on Cruel to be Kind (song by Nick Lowe) or anything from D7 (?). Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds had this fucking amazing albums that not enough people know about and the backing band on both is Rockpile and they were recorded at the same time. Watching fucking Albert Lee dick around on guitar backstage, Dave Edmunds’ eyes are glassed out!

Dave Edmunds was the first guy John ever saw play a Danelectro Longhorn guitar, which is a crazy music video and John was so into him, but now it is like he never existed.

Steve Martin has an audiobook that is extremely good.

Merlin wanted to end the year on a happy note.

Happy end of year solstice and Mary Times!

Merlin says it is a joy and an honor to do the show with John because they are not going to be around forever and every time he does the show it makes him happy. John loves Merlin, too, and he is going to start eating cow seaweed immediately and maybe it will cut his greenhouse gases and maybe we will live forever!

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