OM311 - The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

This week, Ken and John talk about:

Ken and John’s reading habits (OM311)

In the past John used to exclusively read fiction and he was a lover of fiction prose who knew all the Alaskan frontier adventures by Jack London and all the poems. In college he started to study history and he started to read more non-fiction and the Martin Amis years of British cool-kid fiction ejected him from the whole game. He read those books, but he didn’t like the tone of the culture surrounding the hipster post-modern stuff like Bret Easton Ellis, and he didn’t want to be confined to just reading William James or reading Slaughterhouse-Five again and again. He is not making it all the way through to The New Yorker’s bestsellers of 2016 either.

Ken still reads fiction. The other night John borrowed The Dog of the South by Charles Portis at Ken's house, which he loved, but it was a novel to read on an airplane and it didn’t feel Earth-shattering. As a creative person it was good to read a book that wasn’t trying to win a Pulitzer Prize, but just told an artful story with great characterization. Ken thinks that Portis is really funny and a great American original. You can see his off-kilter folksy American voice in the Coen Brothers’ True Grid. It is comedy like A Confederacy of Dunces (by John Kennedy Toole) is comedy where you are meant to go on a little trip with some people whom you might not like.

Ken wants his book back now that John has read it, but John wrote in the inside cover ”Read by John Roderick on -date-” and then he left it in a laundromat like a Chick Tract.

Ken reads almost exclusively fiction because reading facty stuff makes him feel like he is on the clock. He likes short stories because he has a short attention span. John loves short stories because they are the peak of fiction. Ken is probably doing it wrong by reading a full collection of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories because he didn’t enjoy the 30th one as much as he enjoyed the first one. Maybe he should be reading them in The New Yorker? When reading the 4th book of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series (So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) you are no longer rolling on the floor.

Ken has a real weakness for the big book, the masterpriece, the opposite to The Dog of the South, like a Moby Dick or Brothers Caramats (?), the book that feels like it contains all of human experience in it. He is one of the few people who has read all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago (by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), although it was for a class in school. He is also on book 4 of the Min Kamp series by Karl Ove Knausgård, which is like climbing a mountain by getting trough this guy’s 20s and 30s.

Both Ken and John will read multiple books in parallel. When John was in his 20s and 30s his bed always had 4 books in it, all open to different places and when he had a friend over he would have to sweep all these half-open books onto the floor. In a passionate moment he was not going to put bookmarks in them all because he wasn’t a nerd. He would make a big gesture like: ”Get these books out of here!” He would flip the sheet, the books were flying, and whoever his paramour was would go: ”Oh my God, you are so radical!”

Mindy also tends to have a bunch of books going at the same time, but she never finishes any of them because she gets more excited about the next book. She often drills in, fails to get purchase in a book, and then she feels like she should continue to give this guy more than 30 pages, but she is not feeling it. Ken has many books in the air and he is dogged about finishing them, even a book he doesn’t like. John wasn’t going to be defeated by Infinite Jest (by David Foster Wallace) and was going to fight through it and he made it!

Ken never read Ulysses (by James Joyce), but he read through Gravity’s Rainbow (by Thomas Pynchon), just pushing through it to be able to say that he had finished this damn book, and he has no idea what is happening. This book took John months and at one point he was reading the book in 4 places simultaneously because when he got to the middle he had to go back to the beginning and start again, now that he understood what the heck that was. Then he got 3/4 of the way through and had to go back to the middle while he was also still reading from the front. When you finally get to the tail end of it you are sailing, but John really wanted to take Thomas Pynchon out behind a wood shed and kick him (see RL18)! Ken has read all of his other novels and never had that experience again, but he enjoyed them all. John agrees that the small ones are all great.

Ken likes big books because technology has broken his brain to the degree that he wants a more readable book now and the Knausgård books are almost too readable. Ken slides through them like butter and nothing catches because his narrative voice is smooth like (Haruki) Murakami. John tried to read the first one, but it felt like he was reading his own diary, but not in a good way. This is the life he is glad he didn’t lead and why is he even here? Why does he want to be here? Ken likes books that have a whole world in them and part of it is just that he is a bit of a workaholic and he likes to feel like he has accomplished something (dusting off his hands while he is speaking). He was going to finish the Elena Ferrante books!

A Dance to the Music of Time (OM311)

The ne plus ultra is Anthony Powell’s 12 book series A Dance to the Music of Time. It is dryly funny 20th century Britain. Powell is called the English Proust (Marcel Proust) because he mined his own autobiography to described the social milieus he moved through, starting in the 1930s and going all the way to 1970s Britain including all the wars and social changes. You would think those books would be self-indulgent like Knausgård, but that is not true. They are extremely tightly structured and each volume of 250-300 pages only contains 4 scenes, typically a party or a late-night dinner at some restaurant with him summing up his 20s, 30s, then World War II, then his 40s.

The title is a reference to the Nicolas Poussin canvas where he is imagining his life as a series to the rhythm of a dance where different partners come through at different times while motives recur. It is intended to be comic and you never have to read Proust once you discover these books because they are funny in addition to being insightful looks of the time. Proust is unintentionally funny because characters keep recurring and you will have seen every scene in this guy’s life where they appeared before and you wonder where this guy goes between books.

It sounds like the stories John tells on Roderick on the Line, a podcast he has been doing for 10 years where he tries never to repeat a story. Apparently this guy goes into carbon freeze between episodes because you see every time he meets these people. Ken and Mindy are reading those books together. They were written retrospectively and the last book was written in the 1970s about recent times, but the early books were written in the 1950s about the 1930s. It is a really interesting record of Britain during the wars. Ken reads an excerpt from the beginning of the 4th book, which is the beginning of the 2nd movement, called At Lady Molly’s:

”Everyone knows the manner in which some specific name will recur several times in quick succession from different quarters; part of that inexplicable magic throughout life that makes us suddenly think of someone before turning a street corner and meeting him, or her, face to face. In the same way, you may be struck, reading a book, by some obscure passage or lines of verse, quoted again, quite unexpectedly, twenty-four hours later.” ― Anthony Powell, At Lady Molly’s

This is the first account of someone describing the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon.

Daughters of the Dust (OM311)

In summer of 2020 Ken read a piece in the New York Times about the Criterion Collection, a high-end collectible of art movies that started out on Laser Disc and is now on BluRay. It came up recently on John's war movie podcast Friendly Fire and this collection has preserved war movies that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Come And See is the definition of ”to suffer”, but everyone should see it and listen to the episode.

The point of this article was that in over 1000 movies there were only 3 African-American directors. One of the movies mentioned was Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, a tone-poem about the life among Gullah communities off South Carolina and the first movie by an African-American woman ever to achieve wide release in America.

Ken had never heard of it, but the next day he was watching a recent Frederick Wiseman documentary about the New York Public Library (Ex Libris: The New York Public Library from 2017) and he recommends all of his documentaries for quarantine times. They were showing the opening of a new art exhibit at a cultural center in Harlem and there was a poster of Daughters of the Dust in the background, which Ken had just read about for the first time the day before. This phenomena is called Frequency Illusion.

Having catch-phrases associated with yourself (OM311)

During every hour of this podcast Ken and John come up with many amazing ideas and the culture scrambles to keep up. Ken has a famous bit on Jeopardy where he answered Ho to a thing that should have been Rake, which is a good meme at least.

John has a few bits that have entered the lexicon of his crowd. The ones that have escaped his immediate orbit are Keep moving and get out of the way, which was a doctrine of living in an urban environment because you need to keep moving and get out of the way, it is not ”or”.

Another known bit is a story where he described the phrase All the great shows while he was in conversation with an artist and said: ”Hey, I love your shows!” and instead of saying ”Thank you!” he said: ”Which shows?”, which was a dick move, but he caught John who didn’t actually love his shows and was just sitting at a show-biz thing being show bizzy!

Maybe he knew that John was BS:ing him and John said: ”All the great shows!”, which was a leftover from years before. The phrase escaped John’s orbit and is well-known within podcasting. There is even a podcasting company that made it their tag line and didn’t credit John at all.

John has been teased quite a bit, and not only by his horoscope-reading sister, for saying that he is a rational person who believes in science, but that he also can be kept up at night by ghosts if he is staying in a strange house. He doesn’t see that those are mutually incompatible! Although he does not believe in ghosts he also cannot sleep in a house that is full of ghosts. The ghosts are going to exist, whether you believe in them or not! John believes in science, but also in spooky action at a distance.

Lawn signs, John’s candidacy for city council (OM311)

During John’s run for office he had lawn signs that got distributed by an army of volunteers, but they don’t know the entire town and when John was driving around up in North Seattle, not only where there none of his own lawn signs, but he only saw one solitary home-made lawn sign for one of his opponents and he felt like: ”Where are my lawn signs?”

One day he was crossing Beacon Hill on a smaller arterial and he saw a house on a corner that had ”Roderick for city council” signs very prominently on both sides of their yard and John felt like pulling over and going up and ringing their door bell and giving them all a hug and some baked goods. He felt so validated by this house that he saw in the wild, which is different than seeing your sign on the freeway because this was a person who not only was going to vote for him but who also wanted everybody to know and John was pretty proud.

There has been a pretty careful mathematical study of whether or not lawn signs do anything and the effect turns out to be basically zero. The Washington Post headline read: ”Sorry campaign managers: Lawn signs are only 98.3 percent useless.” There is only a 1.7% difference with a 1% margin of error. Lawn signs are very expensive and labor-intensive to put out there. Only 1 in 50 elections can get swayed by a 1.7% difference in the electorate.

Ken and John just had a Twitter conversation with Lt. Governor of Utah Gary Herbert who was running against Mike Weinholtz, Ken’s former boss when he was a computer programmer in Utah. Herbert is an Omnibus Futureling and he posted pictures of his campaign signs in the shape of the state of Utah and they are green and yellow, colors John and Ken had said had no place in politics. Utah has rectangle privilege and in many states you couldn’t do that. The signs didn’t help, though!

Being on The Letterman Show doesn’t help record sales (OM311)

Back when John’s band had records for sale they were talking all the time about impressions, which is a marketing idea. Your goal as an Indie Rock band was to get on The David Letterman Show, it was the sign you had truly arrived and it was the difference between The New Pornographers and The Long Winters. The New Pornographers had played the Letterman show more than once while The Long Winters had somehow been in contact with their bookers who said they loved them, but they never made it on the show.

To their surprise and consternation they learned that an appearance on the Letterman show did not sell a single record, but your record sales remained absolutely constant and was probably even in decline, even though you were playing in front of millions of people for the first time. To make an impact The Letterman Show needs to be followed up with print, you need to be in national magazines, and you need to have your records prominently displayed in record stores because only when people see your name twice they notice it. They also have to hear the song on the radio and go: ”That is the band that I saw on The Letterman Show and that I read that article about!” and then at the record store they see the record as the final step that gets them to buy.

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