RL459 - Ukrainian Prank Calls

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • Merlin getting organized, using smaller bins instead of large boxes (Merlin Mann)
  • John’s plans of a personal museum in his new house not coming very far (Mid-century modern)
  • The war in Ukraine, the importance of logistics in military and applying that to your own life (Military)
  • John having to dismantle his faith in institution, the CIA has failed, defeating the Russians as easy as keying their car (Military)

The Problem: John is the Russian Army, referring to John learning from the war in Ukraine in that logistics is far more important than combat and that his situation previously in his life has had a lot in common with the Russian army.

The show title refers to Ukrainians sending fake messages to Russians over unsecured walkie talkies.

The audio starts with a few seconds of the song Panama by Van Halen.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Merlin getting organized, using smaller bins instead of large boxes (RL459)

Merlin is always doing projects, and right now he has returned to his energy project, trying to get his energy straightened out. He is also spending a lot of time with bins and bin systems. He is also going to take his bricked MacBook Pro to the Apple Store today.

By the time Merlin was in college he was moving 5 times a year, and there is a funny Zeno’s paradox of moving, where you repeatedly take half the distance and you get closer but you never actually get there. You start moving things, especially if you have some help, but even after you have moved some big things and it looks like you have made some progress you are not even close to being done. Liquor boxes work really well for books because otherwise people are putting too many books in one box. And especially when you come to the kitchen with all the drawers you are doing so many steps but you are still not done.

Merlin went from putting tons of of crap into a big box to putting little bits of well-organized things into a small bin. Having boxes of the same size is useful for purposes of stacking on a moving truck. He is getting organized now, and that involves a lot of half-steps that make you feel you are getting closer, but you are just taking smaller and smaller steps. You should never organize stuff that should actually be discarded. Moving stuff to a nicer box is not getting organized and you are inhabiting a personality disorder. He recommends the Akro-Mils stackable bins.

They continue talking about what different bins Merlin uses for different organizational processes. He mentioned his good pal Chris Contran (?) from college who used to take on personal experiments and wanted everything he owned to be visible, which also requires to get rid of a lot of shit.

John wonders what Merlin will do with things that he might need one day, like a power brick or something you don’t know what it is for, but it feels important. He learned a trick from Martha Stewart Magazine 15 years ago: If you have a box that you have not opened since college, you tape it up, you write a date 6 months in the future, and if you haven’t opened it in 6 months you just throw it away. It is also how Merlin cleans out their junk drawers.

The place where you store something should almost always be the first place you just looked for it.

They discuss if they put their phone down in weird places sometimes, which John does, but Merlin doesn’t want to put down valuable things in places where he wouldn’t want to have them overnight, and his phone is always in his left front pocket.

John’s mind looks for things the place he looks for it, and it is usually there, but it would be unfindable by anybody else.

It is catalog season again and Merlin lists a few catalogs he recently received. John got a Patagonia catalog in the mail although he has never ordered anything from them. It didn’t even sell anything, but it was just a whole catalog full of stories of people doing mountain things. It was a magazine that looked like a catalog looking like a magazine, and he actually read some of the stories in it.

John’s plans of a personal museum in his new house not coming very far (RL459)

John is a fan of the Roland Juno 106 synthesizer from the early 1980s and he has a couple of them and they are worth more than gold for him. It is not the Dr. Dre one, but the doctor character in Prince and The Revolution had one, definitely Nick Rhodes had one. It is pre-DX7 and it is a weird in-between analog and digital with pre-programmed sounds and analog controls. At some point along the way he came upon an outboard programmer thing you would hook up to the Juno 106 through a 32-pin cable and in 1984 this would have been a dynamite piece of sequencing kit that allows you to make loops.

All it does you can do on your watch now, it is a non-essential kit, but it is super-groovy and John has it in a box. He pulls out the keyboard all the time and plays it, but he never uses the sequencer, and no-one would because now you would just play the Juno 106 into your computer. It is a curiosity, and it is not a small thing, and for the last 20+ years he has had this box with this thing in it and a couple of drum machines with associated power bricks. The 1984 in John looks in the box and thinks this is a box full of gold bricks, while anybody subsequent to 1993 looks in there and goes: ”How is this stuff still in the world?”

Merlin has an Atari 2600 with the controllers and everything, but he can’t bare to throw it away because he wanted an Atari 2600 so much when he was 14 and now he has one and he is 55 and it is in the garage and sometimes he goes to look at it.

When John was looking for his current house he had the vision of a wall of shelves with an Atari 2600 arranged artfully, next to his Mac Classic II that would be on and on the screen there would be cool flying toasters flickering, and this little thing from post-war and his 1952 radio was going to be on, playing Jazz softly, and walking into his house you would be transported to the coolest place you had ever been. The shelves would have cowboy boots on them and it would be a catalog that looked like a magazine, like a personal museum.

John does have those things, but they are all in boxes stacked on top of boxes, and he has found better boxes and he has gotten rid of so many things, but every time he thinks he is cutting to the bone is not anywhere close to the bone, but he hasn’t even started shaving his mustache. His wall currently has a bunch of cigar boxes full of things, there is a jug from an Ohio potting company from 18-whichever.

Merlin has a collection of metal he found on the streets and he once tried to create an entire deck of cards from cards he found on the street. They are probably in a box somewhere. One time John found a playing card with a bullet hole in it that he carried around as a good-luck charm, but he never got anywhere close to putting together a deck. In a box somewhere he got… Merlin used to collect Chick Tracts (he calls it Chick Publications), but he mostly gets another copy of ”Hi there!” because that is the one that weirdos buy in bulk to leave instead of a tip.

John found the ace of spades outside in Athens Gerogia, which was significant, and he carried it for a long time, but now it is in a box and he doesn’t know where. He also has 3 mugs with CB-lingo from the 1970s, which is exactly the right amount.

The war in Ukraine, the importance of logistics in military and applying that to your own life (RL459)

But all they have talked about so far, putting things in boxes and putting boxes on top of boxes, is what the Russian Army doesn’t know, and John doesn’t think they are pretending to be incompetent. Merlin has stopped following the war in Ukraine too closely because it was making him too sad, but they have talked about the 40-mile single line of trucks they couldn’t keep fueled (see RL455). He gets the part where nobody tells Mr. Putin bad news, but he doesn’t get how 8 or 9 generals are already dead right now.

John in trying to learn from the war in Ukraine and trying to apply the lessons to his own life. When he was young and would meet a person serving in the armed forces he would always ask them what they did. Whenever they said they worked in supply or drove a truck or were part of the administration he was always disappointed because at 15-20 years old he thought that everybody was Sgt. Rock.

John’s dad flew supply planes in World War II and John was always a little bit disappointed and maybe his dad was too. George HW Bush flew a dive bomber and John F. Kennedy swam across the ocean, pulling his PT-109 (torpedo boat) by his teeth, which is quite good for a guy with Addison’s disease. The stories John’s dad told from the war were always stories from the high adventure, but really his job was a methodical job where you fly things in, drop them off, come back, get more things, and take them back out.

As John has gotten older he has gotten more and more interested in the logistics and when he went to Africa with his friend Lt Col. Matt Martin retired, (see USO tour), Matt explained through the whole process that almost all officers in the military are engaged in a process of moving pallets of bottled water from this place to that place. You can’t do the armying without bottled water, it is incredibly important! The confusing part is that at a certain point they expect the people who are really good at moving things around to make more complicated decisions, and that is where you run into problems, at least in the US military.

John’s lady friend is job searching right now, she is in marketing in cyber security (so it is his daughter’s mother). They don’t have tangible products, but they are shipping solutions. In modern business the first idea is often to start a business and only the second thought is figuring out what the business does.

What Matt Martin explained was that the beauty of being in the army is that you have goals that are knowable and that you can execute on those goals and then you have accomplished the goal and that is how you gain rank. But at a certain point you walk through the membrane and the goal becomes some statecraft or you are interacting with people who have 700 years old tribal rivalries and not only is there no goal you can achieve, but there are no goals there.

The war in Ukraine has pointed out that all the logistics stuff that John used to laugh at is what the Russians weren’t doing, they were not systematizing the moving around of boxes and that is the sharp point of the spear. What John realized is that the way he manages his own life is like was Col. Bo Gritz and he was in charge of the vision of the military. His whole life he thought that being a successful grown-up man was to be an effective combat team and that everybody who was moving boxes around the world were a bunch of pencil-pushing pencil-necks.

A part of John thinks he is the Russian army because there is a lot of corruption in him, there is a lot of skimming of resources, there is somewhat a lot of sending false reports up the chain, sometimes when the president of John Roderick wants a report he gets something that eliminates some of the variables, and the long tail that would support a functioning enterprise got neglected, the boxes get pushed over to the side, and nobody is rotating the tires because it is not the glamorous work.

Also: Nobody in the military keeps their job for 15 years, but the opposite: You do it for a year and then they move you to a different job, which seems dumb because why would you move someone that just got good at their job, but the point is not the person, the point is the job, and everybody should be able to do the job and it is a way of eliminating the problem that there is only one guy who knows where the forms are. Everybody keeps moving, everybody can do every job, and a person at a particular rank you can slot in anywhere because you know that at that rank they can do this set of jobs.

Also: Only some of the people get promoted and you get stopped at the level of your incompetency and at some point you are even too old for your rank. The funnel really narrows between Lt. Col and Col because that is where you are in command. There are a lot of really good Lt. Cols and they have a wealth of people to choose from and maybe it is the ones that can give really bad news in a congenial way that make the extra step, and not many people get their first star.

John has been contemptuous of logistics, not because he didn’t love watching it, but in his mind. Merlin once had to cancel a camping trip because he couldn’t fit everything in the car and now they will always rent a crossover SUV that they never would want to own, but it fit everything comfortably with room to spare and all the stress has gone away.

Merlin talks at length about that not being able to tell Putin bad news is a loss of opportunity to improve the situation.

His whole life John wanted to hear generals and State Department guys and spooks in khaki trench coats and people who had the satellite information sitting on nightly news shows, talking about the strategy and Putin’s mindset and all this stuff, that was what this whole thing was about, but somehow he got linked into this world on Twitter that he is lurking around in, not commenting, that is the interesting part of the war because he can listen to Command Master Sergeants talk about the quality of the gasoline that they don’t have, and that this operation failed because they didn’t rotate their tires.

From the satellite it looks like they are undefeatable, but in 16 hours they are not going to have any more sandwich meat and nobody knows about it, especially not Putin, and that is actually the problem. None of the pundits on TV are talking about this and even the soldiers might not know that tomorrow at 1600 hours there is no more lunch meat and that is the end. He is also fascinated by people saying that because they have seen that there were things welded to a thing that don’t belong there must mean that they are already in deep trouble because doing that is only a last resort.

John is thrilled not only to see the Russian Army fall apart, but also the whole Western intelligence strategy, the whole 10-layer cake of what we think of geopolitics and war analysts. Even the Lt. Cols in the US Army that had been to Ukraine or that had been stationed anywhere were saying: ”For Russian to be able to just walk in and overwhelm the Ukrainian Army you would need to see this many containers sitting on the tarmac of this airport, but they are not there, so our satellites are telling us that they can’t do what they are saying!”

John having to dismantle his faith in institution, the CIA has failed, defeating the Russians as easy as keying their car (RL459)

Nobody loved the CIA more than John in 1980 and by 1990 he was very disappointed by the CIA and by 2000 he did not have a good word to say about them, and now he feels like they are not doing anything and their intelligence is so bad that they are almost like a foreign agent. They miss so much because they are as an institution up their own ass, they have all the money but no accountability because nobody can challenge them because it is all secret. That whole side of American foreign policy has just failed, although it was so cool and there were so many great movies about it with people with little pens with daggers in them and stuff on their umbrella, but it is all just terrible and not working.

The NSA is built around the idea of monitoring every single cell phone conversation in the world, looking for somebody to say ”Castro’s beard”, but it turns out in this war the Russians were just using walkie talkies they got at the drug store and they blew up the 3G towers that would have let them use their secure communications. Ukrainians were making prank calls and talking to the Russians on their walkie talkies telling them that the guys were on their way and be there in 6 hours and the Russians at the airport outside in Kiev were holding their ground while Ukrainians were throwing molotov cocktails at the trucks (see for example this article).

Some soldiers were also told they were on a training mission all the way until they were crossing into Ukraine, and then they were told that the Ukrainians would welcome them with open arms because they were going to liberate them, but just because two groups nominally speak the same language does not mean that they will welcome the other’s army with open arms. Ohio wouldn’t welcome the army from Alabama to march in and tell them how to make barbecue.

John has always been against conspiracy because it seems impossible to keep a secret even among 5 people and nobody who is a conspiracy theorist has ever managed a project, and how can the world be ruled by a secret cabal of bankers and tech billionaires when it then comes down to if they have rotated their tires or not?

When John is talking to his lady after her job interviews it turns out that nobody knows anything, which is astonishing! Kurt Vonnegut said that anybody who can’t explain what they do for a living to a 10-year old is a charlatan. Merlin explains that whenever you can’t understand someone’s motivation, it always comes down to money or fear. John adds that the other thing is just plain dumbness. In Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout short story two pieces of yeast are debating about the meaning of life while they were eating sugar and suffocated in their own shit, and neither of them ever realized that they were making champaign.

John has to dismantle a lot of faith in institution and his own arrogant and smug relationship to it. He has always been counter-institutional, but that alone requires that you believe in the institution. Merlin likes to go back to not feeling like he has to follow the news every single day because it has become an existential threat to him, he liked it better when things were boring and he didn’t have to know how Congress works. He never wants to be the smartest one in the room ever!

When you are on social media you think that the world is really fucked up, but as soon as you get off you realize that social media is the thing that is fucked up, and you can’t know it if social media is your world and you are in it. John stepped away from it for a year and realized that 80% of that is just in that closed system and when you step out of it is all just disappears because you are not hearing those voices anymore.

You apply that to Aldrich Ames, the spy that was a KGB guy and all these guys that were complaining that for all these years they had been giving away their agents’ phone numbers and 15 CIA agents died because Aldrich Ames put a piece of bubble gum under a park bench in Washington DC, and now it turns out that actually defeating the Russians is just about letting the air out of their tires. All of the ICBMs are sitting in silos out in Iowa, still fueled and ready to go, but all you needed to go was to key their car!

There is a video of Boris Yelzin being drunk and dancing, and he is doing the Trump double-handjob gesture. There is also a picture of Brezhnev with a swimming cap on in a floatie in a swimming pool with two KGB agents on either side of him keeping him from sinking. John looked at that picture so many times, trying to figure out how the Russian bear was going to respond to Casto’s beard, but it turns out we are all just making Champaign!

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