RL117 - Put on the Carrot Hat

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: John’s Siri just speaks to him in Welsh, referring to John having all the tools to complete his projects, but they have a Welsh troll voice.

The show title refers to John motivating himself by putting a carrot on a stick and attaching the stick to a hat and putting on that hat every morning to motivate him to do something.

It is really early! John’s night last night just kind of petered out instead of ending with a bang.

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

Weather changes in Seattle (RL117)

Because of global climate change, the city of Seattle has been enjoying spectacular weather, which has been a real trial. June is normally the month where it rains a lot and for the last 20 years of John living there it surprised people every year. There are a couple of nice days in April and May and everybody is ”Summer is here”, but then in June it just rains and every year they go ”What?” This bait and switch makes people feel they are being robbed, but the summer eventually comes in July.

During the last couple of years it has just been sunny and 75 degrees (24°C) all June, which is s real rip-off. The rain kept all the allergenic components and pollen down in the ground where they belong, but now there is nothing keeping them down and the sky is just filled with bits floating around and getting in John’s eyes and nose. When he wakes up in the morning, there is chewing gum in his eyes and his nose is all scratchy.

Global Climate Change is really bad! There are surely people who’s houses are being washed away into the ocean because they live on an atoll, the bears are dying in the arctic, but John has really scratchy eyes. If he had a parade, he couldn’t go and would have to be in a motorized chair! As he walks around in a T-shirt and shorts and enjoys the live in paradise, he feels itchy and sneezy. He could probably do some research and take some kind of medicine. Merlin takes a nose medicine every day which is one of those really annoying old-person pills where you only notice that it is doing anything when you stop taking it.

John renting an office, too many recurring payments (RL117)

John got an office, which has a monthly rent plus a little utility payment, meaning that the rent isn’t really the rent. There is one company providing the internet there and he can’t shop around but has to pay what they ask and they will provide you whatever service they think is their service. You say that you want Internet that is fast and good and they will say that they have this amount of Internet that they are willing to give you. You can't go down to the market place where AT&T and Comcast have their little booths and people are hawking their wares. John has to have Internet down there, which is another payment. He also has trouble invoicing people and has downloaded an Invoicing program which is yet another a payment. Now he is looking at nose spray and has to pay for that every month as well.

It is one of those things like when John first realized he will not be able to live in the modern world without a driver’s license, which he realized at the age of about 26 when the inconvenience had surpassed the indignity of having to get one. He got a driver’s license and right away he had to get insurance, obey the law and all these other corollary effects. Once they get you, they drag you back in!

In Seattle the most stringent lease is you walking into the manager’s office one day and ”Yeah, you know, I just, umm” - ”Oh, yeah, okay!” It is not that John is feeling bound, he likes having it, but he is not using it yet. John loves the office and does not yet resent it. It hasn’t become a thing yet where he is paying money but doesn’t even want to go down there because it makes him feel so bad about the waste. Merlin reminds John that he now also need a second set of everything. The office has not yet turned into that and is still a place of hope. John has all of these wonderful projects that he is tantalizingly close to embarking.

He bought the expensive voice recognition software and he is going to train it and play the tapes into the software. Even if it produces a 75% accurate document, combing through the transcripts and fixing them up will be the type of work he will be excited to do, clarifying the ideas and begin on a big writing project. The dictation software could also produce Jabberwocky, but editing is fun! Merlin bought a voice recognition software when he was in a similar place and it would have been pretty great if he could have just been able to walk around in his private office and have the dingus take it all down, but in the end it didn’t help.

Merlin's office (RL117)

In the summer of 2008 Merlin’s daughter needed to get her own room and Merlin was pretty sprawled out in the second bedroom. It was time for him to get an office and it was kind of a big deal, but not a huge deal. He would love to not have the expense of it, but it would be chaos if he went back to a pre-office economy. Now the sprawl is in the office and he dreads the idea of having to consolidate all of this. He could probably just grab the laptop and literally walk away and set the rest on fire.

It is ironic that a lot of the reason for it was to get a place to record podcasts and now he has a streetcar going by outside that everyone can hear. He should really have thought that through.

Within a few months after that, everything got so much easier when he got stuff like the iPhone. He needed a place to put his giant computer and his giant screens and all that stuff, but if he really has something to say, he can type it on the iPhone, no problem! He has all the expense and all the trouble, hassle and garbage in his office at a time when he could be writing anywhere, but he is not doing that and that is not the office’s fault.

Motivating yourself with a carrot on a hat (RL117)

The plan is that on Monday he puts a carrot on a string and attaches it to a fishing pole and and attaches the fishing pole to a hat. He puts on the hat every morning when he wakes up and he will start working. If he does that on Monday, by Wednesday he might have forgotten that he did that and there will just be this carrot that he doesn’t remember where it came from. The idea is that he will put on this hat with the carrot that he always puts on, although he has never put on a hat in his life, and he will chase the carrot and he will forget that this was all a plan that he was trying to sneak up on himself. John needs a way to habituate himself to doing a work thing over a period of time, which has been true since he was in 5th grade.

When John was making record albums there was a lot of expense involved and he had to get a bunch of people all pulling together which actually did have the effect to get him to finish the things that he did finish. His new office is just another one of these strategies. If he gets an office, buys a new computer, puts the new computer in the office and he is paying for Internet at the office, then he will necessarily wake up every morning at 9:00am, have a healthy breakfast, read the newspaper, put on the carrot hat and by 9:30am he will be merging into traffic on his way to the office.

At the office he will hang his hat on the hat rack and say ”Good morning, March!” and he will sit down at his computer and write the work that he really truly does want to write and that he desperately needs to write, but obviously doesn’t need strongly enough to write that he just wakes up and writes it without all this baloney in the middle. It is astonishingly easy for John to wake up in the morning and not put on the carrot hat, spend 3 hours looking at his phone and decide it was a long time since he had fried chicken and better take care of that before the days gets too much older and another day goes by.

Apple changing the cables with the iPhone 5 (RL117)

When John bought the iPhone 5 he also needed to buy 5 new cables because over the years of owning an iPhone 4 he had acquired all the cabling he needed, a car charger, one at his mom’s house, one upstairs, and one downstairs. Then you wait for the new phone to come out and all your cables are garbage. Not everybody in John’s family switched over to the iPhone 5 which means they have duplicated cables everywhere. How can John trust Apple that they are not going to come out with a brand new cable with the iPhone 6 again? "Burn me once shame on you, burn me twice…" John might as well set up an autopay at his bank and it just starts paying everybody he shakes hands with something via some Tinder app. ”We both like Foghat, so here is $20!”

Getting a gym membership he never used (RL117)

see story in RW101 and RL315

John can remember a gym membership he bought in the mid-1990s where he decided to get a year instead of month-to-month because that was the only way that was going to motivate him. He got his picture taken, he got an ID card with his photo on it, he put it in his wallet and he never went back to the gym even a single time. He did not even go in to use the bathroom when he was walking by, but he started changing his route so that he wouldn’t go by the gym and be forced to remember it. John never took the card out of his wallet, because what if tomorrow was the day? It was a terrible feeling and John has done it to himself 1000 times.

Creating a generation of artists (RL117)

Apple in particular has profited from the idea that we are all artists and all we previously lacked was the right tools. The premise at the foundation of 1970s childhood education was that all we needed to do was to free these people’s little minds, get them out of the 1950s model of education and let them play and finger paint in order to discover a generation of artists. Even if that were true and we had discovered a generation of artists, the further leap was that we actually wanted a generation of artists. What a fucking nightmare world we would live in! John’s mom used that premise to raise him, she let him explore his creativity and discover the artist within.

There were certainly students who were not being encouraged to finger paint, but the philosophy of education in general was much more finger painty. Apple has consistently done a marvelous job of convincing us that we are all film-makers, graphic artists, podcasters and writers and all we needed all along was this box of tools that would set us free. Once we had made the record or the film we were working on, we would be completely validated and we would be helping people.

We have all been buying these boxes of tools and toys for decades and each of us has a machine sitting on our desk with the ability of making a complete film with animation and music. You can even completely shoot and edit it on your phone. You don’t even have to play an instrument because all the musical parts are in there and you just have to cut & paste them and make a new symphony. You can’t resent them for it because it is a beautiful idea and they have actually made very elegant software that enables us to do it, but the number of people actually making films has more or less remained constant.

What we all have now are giant super-expensive guilt-boxes that sit on a table-top and say ”Look how elegant I am! You could be making a film on me right now if you were just slightly more of a person! You could already be writing the book about the making of the film, but you are not and you have the tools, so it is some other flaw in you!” John already had that voice in him, he didn’t need a white box to amplify it.

Every morning John walks by his elegant white box of tools that by now has a Welsh troll voice, his Siri speaks to him in Welsh, but he is a middle-class person who was given that opportunity over and over again, even before Apple came along. Nobody insisted that he majored in engineering in college, but he was invited to major in literature or whatever struck his fancy and the burden of why he has not made as much beautiful stuff as he feels he should have is all on him.

John cannot point to any real obstacle outside himself and he wonders whether that is part of the conversation they were having for months and years about the next generation that is following on their heels and that is excited about all the obstacles they perceive in the culture. The reason they haven’t succeeded is because of all the institutional problems. Maybe you will see them as privileged middle class people, but that is not how they see themselves, because you are not perceiving all the cultural walls that is preventing them from using all their little white boxes to make stuff. In particular the ones who don’t have the little white box, but have to use a Dell, which has all the same software, or maybe they don’t even have a Dell but they need to go to the computer science center at the library to use their incredible little white boxes that are free to anyone.

Over the course of 10 years we have enabled all those things that have been out of reach, like recording your own record album or publishing your own book, and we are still catching up with that in some ways. It is so easy and fun to take a photograph, add some filters to it, put it somewhere and collect your stars. It is addictive and it is a big community-kind-of-thing. Merlin is a guilty as anybody of saying ”I said a funny thing, I hope people like it!” Everybody has that stuff on their phone and although people have edited video of their baby, it is not something we keep going with.

John talked in a previous episode about manifesting, the idea that people are announcing that they are now a professional photographer or an SEO expert and a thought leader, but it is not the same thing as showing up and doing the work every day. Merlin could go up at 5am, an hour before his daughter wakes up each day and have an hour to write. If he would write 15 minutes a day, he would have so much more written than all the time he sat around thinking how neat it would be to go on a retreat to finally write the thing he needed to write. Now he has an office where he can do that and feel bad about that, too. That is the advice of the books Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

John doesn’t mean to describe all this stuff as though it were an actual additional obstacle, but it is another in a long like of non-actual obstacles.

The ease of modern design processes (RL117)

If you worked for General Motors in 1964 and wanted to design a new car, you drew it on a big pad and you constructed it in 3 dimensions using clay and wood and shaped it using an X-ACTO knife until it looked like the GTO in your imagination. The process of getting a drawing into production and make a new car was incredibly labor-intensive and yet they redesigned these cars every year. The 1956, 1957 and 1958 Chevy don’t look alike at all! There were people calculating missile trajectories using slide rules.

Today we have the technology to calculate missile trajectories on our phone and we have the capability using auto-drafting programs to design a new car every day and make a 3D-model of it on the 3D-printer in our living room, but the design of cars, buildings or anything is objectively getting worse and worse all the time the easier it gets to make things! What used to be special knowledge is now diffuse knowledge. John can't imagine what is happening in the car design salons at General Motors today, but there once was a room with people in their shirt sleeves and horn-rimmed glasses walking around drafting tables.

It was like recording on tape: You knew what the limitations were before you made a suggestion. We recorded this track live and the bass player made a little fuzz, but is it worth it to go back and record that entire thing and shoot for the moon, knowing that we are either going to be burning tape that is expensive or that we might lose this take? Before anyone made a suggestion, everybody had in their mind that if you wanted to change some minor thing about the tail light of this design, this talented drafts person and designer would have to go back and redo this whole thing and it was going to take them a lot longer and it was expensive to do. It was not a questions of just moving the mouse and trying what it looked like if the tail lights were oval-shaped or shaped like a bat.

What ended up happening was that the design more or less came out of one person’s imagination. Maybe you made some suggestions, but getting it to the place where everybody could even see it was the lion share of the work. Now we have the ease of being able to record 1000 tracks, the ease of manipulating the bass line. Anybody walking through that salon who has the clearance, who has made it to the level of manager, can waltz by and say ”What if the whole car was 2 inches shorter and 2 inches taller?” Everybody knows that there is no cost to making that suggestion and even though the designer is sitting at the computer going ”OMG, please fuck off!”, he has to look and answer to the guy and make it 2 inches shorter and 2 inches taller and the guy goes ”I like that better!” and the designer goes ”Oh fuck! It is worse!”

John can point to buildings in the city and tell you whether they were designed pre- or post-AutoCAD because at the point where it was no longer expensive to design things, the quality of the design just dropped. Now design is a thing that you can just do and the question is how much the materials are going to cost. The designer put dragons all across the top of the building and every window is quadruple-pane purple glass, but somebody will tell them it is too expensive and the designer will delete everything and show the version without anything and that is the one that looks good enough. It is true across the board! In contemporary car design they make a platform that will run for 15 years and every year they just slightly change the tail lights and make a little modification here and there.

John’s projects and the problem of getting started (RL117)

These are the projects that John has in mind right now:

  • He should finish his album.
  • He should also finish an album of songs that are different from the songs he is making currently, an album of songs that don’t sound like his shoe gaze record by The Long Winters.
  • He should finish his book about his walk across Europe (Merlin’s wife asks about that every few weeks, and everybody who got to read part of it is wondering what is wrong with him because it is such a good book!)
  • He should write his theory of feminism, which is going to be a pretty thick book, but it is going to change the way we look at the world.
  • He should write his book on economics, which is again a massive tong, but it is hard work and requires research. John would need at least 3 minions that he could ask stuff like how much trees are worth.
  • If John collected all of his Seattle Weekly columns, all the columns he has written in the last couple of years, there is the thread of a kind of Rock ’n’ Roll autobiography / book of cultural musings. The page count is already there, it just requires the connective tissue.

It isn’t a question of ”Pick one and go”, because if he picks on and works on it for a little while, he will think about that other thing. Writers have been doing this for centuries and the unpublished works of all of John’s heroes are half-though-out scribbles and outlines of books that they should have been writing. In addition to all of that work, John has to maintain his Twitter and he still hasn’t graduated from college.

John doesn’t believe that the technology is any kind of new inhibition, but it has just been given a different shape and form compared to the very old inhibition or very old roadblocks in between the real process of just waking up in the morning and writing. It couldn’t be simpler and yet it is not easy. John remembers sitting and working in Wordstar, having to remember the commands for all the simple little edits you wanted to make and feeling like this was better than a typewriter because with a typewriter you can’t go back and change a whole paragraph.

The fact of a typewriter is that once you write the paragraph, you can go back and cross it out with a red pen, but it is there and maybe two months later you will come back and wonder why you crossed that out, because it was the germ of a great idea. In Word Processing software, John will all the time delete a page of stuff that will then just be deleted. You end up with what you end up with and a lot of times it is what you settle on rather than it being particularly crafted.

Everybody can do it, but not everybody is trying (RL117)

Merlin has recently gotten to be friends with a guy (Rich Stevens) who puts up a super-popular Web Comic every day. All he does every day is sit in Photoshop, make this web comic and put it up by midnight, which is harder than it sounds. There is a pretty good recent documentary called Stripped about the making of comic strips. It is real drudgery of turning in weeks of Cathy, but he manages to pull that off every day.

Today he put up a post on Medium, he also has a column in MacWorld every week, but it all started with this thing that he put on the web. He is a frustrating character to a lot of people because he doesn’t have any advertising on his site and he also built a platform for selling T-shirts, coffee cups, ice scrapers and fun stuff that people love to get. It is a success story in so many ways about what the tools let us do and how the changing platform hasn’t left him behind. Not everybody can do it, but not everybody is trying to do it either.

Returning to medieval economy (RL117)

Zooming out from an economic perspective or a larger culture perspective, we are returning to an almost medieval economy where each person is carving little shrunken apple heads and selling them at the fair. We each have a little booth where we are producing our small little product, like arrow heads, matchbooks, or souvenir spoons, and we are going out to the renaissance fair, successfully making a living with our little wares.

That is not how you would build a skyscraper or the Interstate Highway system or even work a farm. It is very siloed, it is very much not thinking of the system as a thing that we are actively changing, but we are finding a way within it to make our booth unique enough that people come here and buy. Ultimately we all have all the T-shirts we need and any new T-shirt is an excessive T-shirt. If every one of us would be making a living selling T-shirts, we would run out of clean water at a certain point.

Bands have experienced it over the last 10 years: Are they really in T-shirt sales, is that where we are? It was the suggestion 10 years ago. Bands would rather be in music sales, selling their music, but people were telling them in 2005 that they couldn’t expect that anymore and music should be free and if you were really good, people would buy their T-shirt. All power to the music-is-free people! John would love to do Roderick on the Line T-shirts and there are already bootlegged T-shirts that John is discouraging anyone from doing because their team of lawyers is going to come after them like fucking barracudas! Home-T-shirt-making is killing podcasts!

Maybe 10 years from now we will look back and realize that only through the atomization of making and the democratization of manufacturing were we able to arrive at this next place, the advancement of thinking, a brand-new way of imagining us humans building something new. At least right now it feels like we have lost our industrial base. We have lost a degree of collective cooperative making of things and we are left with 1 million garage sales. Apple and the Internet overlords are encouraging every one of us to have an Etsy store, but that isn’t really progress. We are back to selling our knitting, a thing we have been doing for a long time, and the fact that we have a website doesn’t change the fact that it is just knitting.

Blurring the lines between different qualities of media (RL117)

John does not want to die from this life without having published at least one book and hopefully more than one. If he were to publish a book today it wouldn’t be like the books on the shelf that he is lovingly pawing with his eyes right now. People started wondering in music very quickly if you are actually going to make a CD or if you just put it up online. It became a valid question to ask an established artist and albums went from something you owned, cleaned, took out and looked at into something that you hack into the sea with everything else. Music is valued accordingly. A small segment of people puts it on repeat or puts it on their iPods and listens to it at the gym, but a lot of people will download one song of it and listen to it once. Not that they don’t like it, but that is how people consume music now.

We are probably very close to a time where the question is if a book should be just a Kindle file, because it so expensive to actually publish a book. It isn’t a book! Let’s stop kidding ourselves that bands are making albums anymore, because they are not, and let's stop kidding ourselves that people are writing books anymore, because they are not.

The other day John was on an airplane with his good friend John Hodgman who told him that they were going to meet George RR Martin. John had never read a word of his writing which is an embarrassment to Hodgman. He handed John his phone with the book Game of Thrones on it and he has actually read it on his phone. John still buys books in book form, but now he was sitting on that airplane and was reading Game of Thrones on Hodgman’s phone. The interface is nice, the type is big, it is easy to read and you flip to the next page with each screen being much shorter than a page of typewritten book writing. By the time the plane landed John had read a couple of chapters and he enjoyed the ease of reading on a phone. John can’t be opposed to that, because it was pretty great and it is dumb to be opposed to something that is already happening. It is value-neutral because the reading-part is no different.

If John is ready to publish his book, it is probably not going to be an actual book or it would be like releasing records on vinyl now. It makes him feel sad that it will not be a hard-cover book with a slip-cover that is stacked in the window of a book store, that people go in excitedly to buy and that they carry it around in their bag and read it on park benches. It probably is just nostalgia and ”Too bad!”, but it changes John’s feeling about books in a primary way and shatters what it is. It isn’t a book! Game of Thrones was obviously published first as a book and now John is reading it on a phone, but if it was published today, it is a novel, but is it even a blog?

There used to be a huge difference between putting on a vinyl record and listening to your friend’s demo on a cassette recorder. The cassette sounded great, but the vinyl record was something special just by the format alone. Now you sit in front of your computer with your headphones on and you listen to your friend’s demo and to a major label release. You can hear the difference, but in some cases the major label release is intentionally lo-fi and your friend’s demo has been dressed up with a lot of expensive-sounding plug-ins and it is just as over-compressed as the Top 40 on the radio.

The quality of the good stuff should always wins out and you should be able to tell the difference between something really wonderful and something that is just made to approximate something wonderful. For that cassette demo to make it all the way to a vinyl record required so many intermediary steps where somebody had to say that this was good enough to make it to the next level and John remembers having a cassette demo of his band and feeling that there was no way they would ever make an actual album. At least they could play this cassette for people at a party.

If you are reading a novel on your phone, Buzzfeed, or a YouTube comment section, you are interacting with the device the same way and the words look the same. Reading everything through the same window makes it a very different experience. John has to imagine that we don't do the work anymore of saying ”This is Thomas Pynchon, this is good, and now I am on a comment section and this is garbage writing!”, we are not taking the intermediary steps of turning the talk radio off and walking over, or taking the book down and changing gears, but we just open a different app.

If you are working hard to add your novel or your book of ideas to the world conversation and then people are reading your book of ideas before switching to Twitter, which is also a world of ideas, and Buzzfeed, then all the ideas end up being in a soup of ideas and it will be hard to remember which ones are the good ones and which ones are the bad ones. We are not privileging ideas over others anymore just by format.

John has the problem all the time that he doesn’t remember where he read something. Did he read it in the New Yorker or did he read it in a comment on a Chemtrails website? Nobody is chasing down attributions anymore. John posted a Carl Sagan quote on his Twitter the other day and 80% of the replies were like ”Wow, amazing” and 10% of the replies were ”That is probably a fake quote!” because any time somebody says something really smart and prescient, it turns out that it is fake.

Only 10% of the people labored to explain to John how Carl Sagan could not actually see into the future, but all of his observations were obvious! That quote was probably one of 40 quotes they read between Facebook and wherever else they go and all of them are ”Wow! Amazing!” and all of them saw it completely out of context. It was hilarious that people were chastising him for posting a fake quote that wasn’t actually fake. They didn’t even take the two seconds to track it down.

The best ones were the people who somehow mistook John for saying that he believed that Carl Sagan actually could see into the future. They didn’t perceive that John was saying that it was an interesting remark that seems to apply to us now. If John had not been able to scrape it off of somebody else’s Twitter feed and repurposing it, but if he had to read it in a book, maybe he would never even have read that book in his whole life! Right now he couldn’t tell you a thing about that quote. It was probably Mark Twain or Eleanor Roosevelt. John is so sick of himself!

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