RL120 - The Frog Leg King

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: John got into a fisticuffs in front of the Toyota dealership, referring to one time he went to a doctor who was visibly afraid of him because he had a Bowie knife sticking out the side of him.

The show title refers to somebody who does the same thing every day, like cooking frog legs for 25 years and who becomes the frog leg kind instead of us questioning what is wrong with that person.

It is going pretty good, but everything is different. Like Heraclitus said: You can never dip your foot into the same Skype (You Cannot Step Into the Same River Twice).

Every time Merlin sees a cloud that looks like something and he calls his daughter over, it doesn’t look like that anymore. It has been so long since John looked up at a cloud and saw a dog or a taco, which might be because the skies are always blue in Seattle. When there are clouds in Seattle they don’t look like anything, but they look like film on a soup. It is the depressing time of the year where there is only one contiguous cloud in San Francisco called the weather and as far as you know it goes all the way to Japan.

Perry Como has surely been to Seattle, he has been everywhere and this generation of guys was banging showgirls two at the time.

John has been traveling a lot. Merlin has 4 topics on a card he wants to talk about:

  • Fever
  • Office
  • Assistants
  • All the President’s Men (movie)

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

John having a strange fever (RL120)

John had a strange fever that he could not account for and in retrospect it feels like he had an unusual illness that coincided with 4 very hot days. He was tossing around feverish and his bed was a puddle at 85 degrees (30 °C) in the night. Since John stopped eating gluten all of his normal measurements of illness have to change.

He used to get terrible sinus infections, but since he stopped eating gluten he did not have a single one. It was probably some mild bird flu and he was waiting for it to develop secondary symptoms but it never metastasized into a normal cold and he didn’t know what illness it was. It hurt, but it was not producing any of the next level stuff where he is really uncomfortable. Now it is gone and John bid it Vaya Con Dios.

John used to get a fair amount of colds, but he also drives himself pretty hard. Normally he would have a 5-day fever like that and then, no matter what he did, even if he was curled up in a rag dosed in antibiotics, at the end of 5 days he would get a sinus infection and a lung infection and he would have to spend another 8-10 days clearing that out. It almost felt like whenever he got a cold he should just go and run in the rain because no matter what he did he was going to get this next level of illness.

John is a vitally young guy in his early middle age. Sometimes he has to go up 5 times at night to pee, which he was complaining to his mom about the other day. He said that he hadn't seen a doctor in years and she just asked why he would need to do that. Middle aged guys have to go to the doctor because things happen to them and he also needs to get up at night to pee, but she just said ”Welcome to middle age!” It sucks! Talking about health to people is like talking about birth or bad relationships: Everybody got their horror story! John and Merlin talk about testicular cancer and the song Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.

John’s moles and experiences with doctors (RL120)

John doesn’t want this show to turn into something just for the ladies, but he is prone to moles and people tell you to worry about them. Every new girlfriend he would have would be like ”You didn’t used to have this mole!” - ”Nah, pretty sure there was something there” - ”But it never looked like this before” and they would hustle him off to some doctor who would look at them and say that those were not a problem. John wanted to know what the bad moles looked like so he could assure people, but the doctor would say that it is like the supreme court definition of porn: You know it when you see it. He wouldn’t be able to explain it and John stopped giving a shit. If one of his moles takes over, then that will be his superpower!

It might be part of the problem of who we are and our unchecked white privilege, but John has never heard a thing come out of a doctor’s or a lawyer’s mouth that he didn’t feel like ”Meh, I knew that already” or ”I could have figured that out in about 20 minutes if I hadn’t come here thinking you were a magic sorcerer!” The answer to this problem was pretty much what he thought. We imbue these people with magic powers because of their 3 years in school. John has fucking sandwiches in his refrigerators that are more than 3 years old.

John does not think 3 years in school is that big of a deal. A lot of them are also very young. Merlin thinks of a doctor as an old-ass man. John had a doctor who looked at him like he was afraid of him. He was young, small, he went to medical school in Giana, and they did not teach him not to be visibly afraid of his patients.

John did have a Bowie knife sticking out of his side when he walked in, which might have been the thing that intimidated him at first, like a Steve Martin arrow, because he had gotten into a little fisticuffs with a guy in front of the Toyota dealership. You should have seen the other guy! You never take your car to the dealership to get your oil changed.

Volkswagen’s anti-theft star bolt (RL120)

Volkswagens have a ”special” anti-theft nut on their wheels. Five of the bolts that hold your wheel are normal bolts that you can remove with a tire iron, and one of them is a special star bolt and you have to have a special star adapter. A long time ago John had borrowed a Volkswagen and when you get a flat tire on one of these, nobody can change it, not even AAA if you don’t have the star bolt, which is of course the first thing that every Volkswagen owner loses. If you are into stealing tires off of Volkswagens, that seems like something you would get for your kit, but here is the deal:

They make multiple different kinds of star bolts! Who steals a wheel off a car anymore? When was the last time you saw a car up on blocks? You used to see that all the time! Merlin would rather have the prospect of some diligent person potentially stealing a wheel than knowing if he is on the side of a freezing road he can’t change his god-damn tire. It was a plot point of Smokey and the Bandit. There is a version dubbed for TV without the swears, which is like The Big Lebowski or Glengarry Glen Ross that really is a joy to see on TBS.

David Rees (RL120)

Their friend David Rees now has a television show //(called Going Deep with David Rees) and Merlin and his daughter argue over who has a bigger crush on him. That show is a god-damn gift from heaven and David Rees is the perfect delight. He appears on the show exactly how he is, he is not putting on a thing, and he really wants a better shoelace a lot. John spent last night looking at the Internet at all of the people complaining that David said god-damn, but he is holding back a lot, he is a profane motherfucker like the father from Christmas Story, he paints in rich tapestries of cursing.

Because he said ”god-damn” during the paper airplane episode there were surely dozens of people who will never watch this program again because they had to take their kids down into the basement and spray them with a firehose for half an hour to wash god-damn out of their ears. That one really grinds some people’s gears, even those who can stand some poopy vagina talk. You can say ”Shit!” all day, but taking the lord’s name in vain is what it says in the book not to do. John missed the Party Hole episode, because whenever somebody has a party hole and John is not in it, he will watch the show only to the party hole part.

The first time John met David was upstate Massachusetts somewhere in an undisclosed location. On the first JoCo cruise they were both on the boat solo. John didn’t bring anybody because his daughter’s mother was pregnant and couldn’t go on the boat (John said her name but Merlin bleeped it) David and John got on the boat and he came over and said ”I guess we are cruise wives!”

They were thrilled and had a magical time, they went to Jamaica together, but they were not going on the normal tour and went off into town and decided they were going to find a restaurant that served barbecued goat. They had some goat, they went snorkeling in the off-limits area, both of them for the first time in a long time. David took off his swim suit because he wanted to snorkel in his natural fish-self and was snorkeling around naked and John did the same. It was the best! How could they ever go back to the real world? John and David were very close.

On the subsequent five cruises John started bringing his family and David brought a different old friend from High School each time. They were all amazing weird Southern gothic nutcases and amazing smart incredible David Rees-ian type of people. John never met a guy who knew so many nutty people as David Rees does, but that probably makes sense. John couldn't bring five people he knew from High School, he couldn’t even get five people to answer the phone! It implies that David is still tight bros with all five of those guys, but it might be a bit of a North Carolina or a Mint Julep Nascar thing.

On the last cruise they went to Jamaica again and decided to scour the island for a record store that had super-old weird reggae LPs (see story in RW41). They spent a very hot long weird exhausting day until they did find a guy who had some cardboard boxes of old Reggae albums, which David probably overpaid for, some of them had to be washed off because they were covered in dirt, but they are now part of his record collection.

On one of the recent episode they talked about some famous people and got the feedback that after all these years Roderick on the Line has now started dropping names. Merlin says that he can’t believe the restraint John shows because he moves in the corridors of power. The story about the dinner with his dad where they were doing Can Can took some name-dropping, but it is very memorable and Merlin wouldn’t know such a thing even existed. John also talks about people nobody knows which balances it out. Had they been talking about David Rees two months ago, nobody would have known who the fuck they were talking about, but justifiably he is a famous guy now. This is a rare example of somebody who got famous who should have been famous all along. Fucking people! It is exhausting.

Merlin says that the Party Hole episode is the first one where something genuinely went tits up with the operation, which makes it even funnier and it has a cameo from Jonathan Coulton, but the children he has with him are probably loaners because he likes to protect his kids from the harsh eye of the public. We are not going to be able to separate our public and private lives for that much longer. It is all just an Amazon algorithm for what we want to buy. His kid is just another face that pops up on his computer sometimes, saying ”Hey, your kid would like some food today!” - ”Fuck you, computer!” - ”Have you fed this darling child today?”

People doing the same thing every day (RL120)

When somebody says something really bananas to Merlin on Twitter, he doesn’t get mad but he always assumes he didn’t get the reference. The people he engages with on Twitter are pretty nice people, but occasionally he gets one from real out of left field and if their picture is not something from the OC and if there is an URL he will look at their thing. People do things like follow airlines and celebrities who obviously have somebody tweeting for them on their behalf.

Recently Merlin got a weird at-response to a tweet that is probably 2-3 years old, which is usually a good sign, in response to something John’s friend Sean said. It was a certain super-fan from the SeaTac area that John might remember from The Long Winters board days and Merlin read her entire timeline from the last two years. John has done a thing like that before. He loves people and he wants to see what is making people tick. Sometimes you learn a lot about the center by looking at the wings. Like Heraclitus said: ”You can never tip your toe into the same crazy person twice” It is not a coincidence that John was recently reading Heraclitus.

That deep-dive on this dingeling really brought back Merlin's memories of the old days. By reading that person’s timeline, you really get a sense of how they spend their day: They go to the mall pretty much every day and take a picture of themselves. When they are 60 and Merlin and John are 60, they are going to have those pictures of themselves, but Merlin and John will not! Merlin used to take 150 photos of his daughter a day and he gets about one a quarter. In our culture, the people who do the same thing every day for a long time are sometimes plucked out and identified as the true geniuses of our time.

There are people who have been cooking frog legs every day for 25 years and the graphic ”The Frog Leg King” appears around their head. All of a sudden he is the frog leg king and people are flying in from around the world to taste his amazing frog legs, but we should really be concerned about this guy, because he has been doing nothing but cooking frog legs for 25 years, which seems like a failure of the imagination. Still, he is the fucking frog leg king! Taking a picture of your reflection in the window at the mall every day for 25 years is a Hot Topic because it seems like you are the Terry Richardson of your time, some genius art photographer who had a weird Picadillo.

The sum total of human knowledge, comparative religion (RL120)

Probably 10 years ago Merlin read a story in Harper’s and also heard it on This American Life about a guy who documented everything. He weighed the newspaper every day, he kept all the stickers from the meat he bought at the store. It is a fascinating story, but now it is basically what everybody does on Pinterest. John pre-visioned this already in the early 1990s when he saw the storm clouds on the horizon and a little Mexican boy came and took a thoughtful Polaroid photograph of John and handed it to him. That is how John’s son, the leader of the revolution, will be able to identify him when he comes back in time.

The sum total of human knowledge is only going to be valuable in so far as we are able to collect it and sort it. In the 1980s and early 1990s John had a notion of comparative religion: If we put all the religious texts throughout history next to each other, look at them in 3 dimensions, pick out all the similarities and figure out what the differences are and how they relate to one another, there should be some body of knowledge as a result. Maybe we would have another dimension of insight into religion, where it comes from, why it is there, and what it means. Maybe there is a 10th religion out there that is actually the combined tenants of all religions.

This extends to our tremendous body of knowledge, all the libraries in the world, all the oral accounts, all the novels, and if there was a way to collect it and sort it, what would we know better and what would we do with that information? This is the future! We just need to develop the technology to bind and sort this dimensionless cloud of information. We are doing it now, Turns out, it is a digital scrap books of how much the newspaper weighed and every collected meat sticker from every package of Hamburger you buy. The collected sum of all human knowledge is just a busy signal. There are a lot more people who are collecting meat stickers than people who are comparing Heraclitus to Augustin. The very few people who do that are so drowned out by the meat stickers that the high knowledge and the low knowledge may cancel each other out.

John does not prefer the high knowledge anymore. The meat sticker scrap books are rising up in the room like in the trash compactor in Star Wars, there are meat stickers everywhere. Then this little bottle cap floats by and inside it says ”Have you ever noticed that Augustin, Aristotle and Heraclitus all said this?” and John is like ”Huh? What?” and it floats by and is eaten by a compactor monster.

At this point there should be a box that you can walk into with your clothes on and three seconds later it should tell you what is wrong with you. If we had enough data over time that is in context with trend lines, there should be a lot of interesting stuff to figure out and sometimes it surfaces as an Infographic on somebody’s blog. The problem is not the intelligence, but we just don’t have any way to analyze it because there is so much noise.

The movie The Russia House with Sean Connory, Michelle Pfeiffer and Roy Scheider is one of those early 1990s meditations on the end of the Soviet Union, a Cold War thriller like Hunt for Red October with Sean Connery as a reluctant spy. There is a scene where Roy Scheider, a CIA high Mackey-Mack, is running an operation from within a cleanroom at the headquarters and there is another guy who is a Cold War trope: An older grey-wild-haired who is clearly homosexual, but everybody is pretending that he is not because he is such a Bletchley Park CIA flamboyant genius.

He is the John Nash, Glenn Gould, Misfits of Science mutant types that they keep in the basement. They are allowed to walk around within the CIA in a kimono and an Indian head dress on, like Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, because when it is time to process the reams and reams of information, they have what amounts to an artistic insight that cuts through the noise.

The problem with the American intelligence community and with all the massive data dump scenarios is that we have culturally eliminated the Hiawathas from the process at the same time. The CIA no longer hires Hiawathas, but they are looking for middle-brow best and brightest, the people who can get into Yale and score off the charts. They have all this information, but they don’t have the people to process it.

What they and all of data-driven culture is missing are the key people who are able to see artistically and who can see through the clouds and know that we can eliminate 85% immediately because it doesn’t apply. It is the Hannibal Lecter thing: Who is your killer? Somebody who works a straight job? It is somebody who sees the pattern and eliminates 85% of the data because they know it is irrelevant.

We have salt-mines full of information and we are trying to grind it and process it with increasing granularity, but he are not hiring Hiawathas who are flying over the top in a kimono, who swoosh in and point at the answer that was right in front of us the whole time. 9/11 was not that hard to figure out, even through retrospect. You can imagine one person sitting at their desk, saying ”You know what? I see a pattern emerging!” and yet that person was shunted off into some store room because he didn’t have the clearance to talk to the guy who had the other half of the information.

The problem with generalism is: How do you train, recognize and raise generalists? If the culture is designed to celebrate the frog leg king, the guy with 7 PhDs in frog legs, how can you tell if this guy over here who never even graduated from college has more insight in the situation than the frog leg king? The fact that he has 7 PhDs is ludicrous and you should recognize it as a sign of his mental illness, not of his greatness.

We need people who are able to see patterns or have a drive toward a certain kind of curiosity that is a little outside the spectrum, but the cult of bureaucracy and the misidentification of our culture as a meritocracy has smoked all those people out.

Google-style job interviews (RL120)

There are an admissions processes everywhere in America because there are more applications for any job than there are positions. One of John's good friends just did 25 interviews for a computer-maths job, which is an actual job where things need to get done. It requires a certain amount of imagination to do the job well, but this isn’t a job at Bletchley Park trying to crack the Enigma code. She described innumerable examples of people asking her ”If you were on a sinking ship and you had one American nickel and an uncooked bag of pasta, how would you get out of this situation?”

It is a Google-influenced version of interviewing people where the question is meant to convey to the interviewee that the interviewer is a really smart hot shot person. She was trying to field these interview questions over and over again and John advised her to say ”This question is irrelevant to the performance of this job and in fact the person you want in this position is somebody who is going to consider all the evidence in any given situation, weigh it over time and make the best reasoned choice. You do not want someone who is going to shoot you some kind of answer off the cuff that ties together a nickel and a bag of pasta. By asking this question, you are interviewing for a different job that does not exist at your company!”

They are asking stupid SAT questions because they wish they worked for Google or they hope to find a Hiawatha everywhere all the time, but they only end up choosing the people who went to Princeton anyway because that person could not even pick a good answer to that question if they tried and they don’t even have the mental resources to know what a good answer to it is. These geniuses don't exist anymore but we are interviewing people as though you need to be that genius just to work at Attachmate. If that genius is working at Attachmate, it is a net loss for everybody.

Merlin thinks it is a Kobayashi Maru scenario: You have to solve a no-win situation in a simulator and no matter what you do, the Kobayashi Maru and your ship will be destroyed and it ends with you dying. It seems like a test of your decision making, but it is a test of your character, to see how you react in an impossible situation. Kirk is the only one who has ever passed it because he cheated. There are certainly answers that a person asking those interview questions has on a piece of paper, but they just want to see how you react to stuff like that, to show your creativity and cool! But how many of these jobs need creativity and cool? maybe .01%

They are looking for someone who is thoughtful and confident, but many people need a few minutes to think about it before they come up with the solution. We have eliminated a lot of people from contention because we prize somebody’s cool in an interview under fire for whatever reason. Everybody is a fucking artist now because everybody’s mom told them that they were an artist all through grade school. We think that creativity is a thing that we even need in the business class, but of 1000 people working at a company you need 2 creatives and the rest of them needs to be diligent and get along with other people.

We are populating places with people who pass these dumb creativity tests, but the reality is that most of them aren’t creative. The dumb test gets slightly mutated until enough people pass it and all of a sudden we have a different definition of creativity because they wanted 40% of the people working there to be creative. 40% of people in the world aren’t creative and you are probably not going to skim the top 40% off to come and work at a software company that sells phone trees. In a country that values creativity as highly as we claim do there is actually less room for creative people because creativity has been coopted and systematized.

Letting people run the world who know what they are going for is only 1 of 100 potential equally valid ways you can run the world. If you pick people based on standardized tests, there needs to be somebody sitting on top who is managing the system from the top down and who know what those people are doing. Everyone of those system has evolved haphazardly and is an accidental hive where this is the by-product. In the past we didn’t really have the technology to do it a different way. Technology has evolved at the same time that these systems have evolved and it is like a big ant hill that keeps getting built and falling down and built and falling down, but at least we have the ability to recognize that we are increasingly producing a world of senior frogs. Was that the plan?

Our culture is getting dumber, we are getting less interesting at an exponential rate, we are privileging dummies, we are sucking from the firehose of idiocracy because we have not adjusted or recalibrated our systems and our ant hill is starting to fall. Part of that is the responsibility of the people that we have been sending to Princeton for the last 20-40 years. We have chose who went to the next level and those people have been producing an increasingly garbage culture. We haven’t just emptied the asylums, but the people who have the opportunity to make good choices are making bad choices because they are cogs and what we call imagination is not imagination. We need to recalibrate!

We probably can't reform the universities, but people standing outside of this culture need to start saying that the universities are not where we need to look. If you want an education these days, you can get one on your own. We can start building educational models that are outside of this whole cattle chute that we have spent the last 100 years designing to find the smartest people and we can teach ourselves and start to value other qualities and characteristics. When John was 19 years old there might still have been a chance to kick down the door into that world by sheer force of will and good Essay and Interpretive Dance, but these days are gone. There is no way a person like John could make it through that system now.

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg went to Harvard, they dropped out, and they started billion dollar companies. These guys are not our heroes at all. Maybe Bill Gates has become a likable guy, but only through a combination of PR that devoted millions of dollars of people working on him to make him appear in public as a pleasant person who has a good heart and who is giving his money away for clean water. He has become a honorable character in the world, but he is still a fucking frog leg king and so is Zuckerberg. Neither one of these guys are heroic humans, they aren’t even full humans, but they are just guys who had one idea and did it to the exclusion of all other human activity. Through a combination of psychosis or grit they were able to stick with it so long that they pushed it through to become what they wanted.

In Bill Gates’ case it was some word processing program that ran on a fucking little game box that everybody decided we all needed to have at home because the typewriter wasn’t good enough. It took 15 years for Personal Computers to be pretty much boat anchors before they were really better than a typewriter and a Mimeograph Machine. John is still being asked to fax shit to people, the training wheels are still on. And Zuckerberg? He built a thing that we all waste our time on sending baby pictures back and forth. They were pioneers, sure, and this is where we are now: We are in a post-Facebook world, but are we happy about it? Was that really good? Was Facebook the best we could have come up with?

There is no denying that it did happen, that it has adjusted our course for the future and that we always will live in a post-Facebook world, but John doesn’t see it as heroic or even good. Zuckerberg is no fucking Lancelot! He is a guy who got where he is because we decided a certain type of person was going to succeed in schools and he got to a place where he has produced a thing that is the direct result of how we decide who goes to college. We are living in a world where all the restaurants who used to have hand-carved turkey sandwiches have been torn down and turned into senior frogs and John doesn’t fucking like it, it is a bad world!

John is starting to get bored (RL120)

John has never been bored in his life, neither as a kid nor a teenager. You would never ever have heard from him that he was bored, because if he was left alone and he had anything, even two pebbles, he would devise a thing with two pebbles that would keep him interested, not just occupied. He wasn’t bored when he was a drunk and at any job he had, once he figured out how to do the job, he could let his mind roam.

Lately John has found himself being bored because he looks at his phone all the fucking time, it is exciting and he likes the Internet and he is on the Twitter, floating around and looking at stuff and looking stuff up, but all of a sudden in the afternoon he is sometimes just so fucking bored! John’s phone has the collected world knowledge on it and yet the interface with it and how he is using it, what he is seeking out there, is producing a novel sensation of boredom of access to anything and boredom of navigating a world that was created with no imagination.

The architecture of this phone-based Internet world has a decided lack of imagination built into the fabric of it. It was built by people who were told that they had imagination, everybody congratulated them and they were ”Thanks a lot! Did you notice that the back button takes you back and the forward button takes you forward? Did you notice that you can scroll over here and look at that and click on the ad and it goes to the next thing?” - ”Yeah, I did notice that and fuck you, guy! It is not that great!”

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