RL154 - West Coast Noncommittal

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: Marlon Brando was waiting in the bushes, referring to a story when John’s dad had a small personal confrontation with Marlon Brando over a lady in the 1950s.

The show title refers to John’s way of naming the dialect of people from the West Coast.

This week, the sponsor Cards Against Humanity asked Paul and Storm to say ”Hi!” to John:

I’m not a doctor, but you know I’m feeling fine. Turns out, all I need is you and Roderick on the Line. Good morning, John! Hi Merlin!

They start the show in a sportscaster way. That’s just swell! Bob’s your uncle! John has his raccoon hat on and he is ready to broadcast.

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

The purest English language (RL154)

Adults on old group pictures, like on class photos from a technical school, often don’t look like normal people, but their faces and their physiognomy look old. On recordings from old movies or the radio, people don’t talk like normal people either. In the early classic movies from the 1930s there is an almost British quality to the way people speak, but at the same time there is a self-awareness of their diction that feels a little bit put on. Merlin thinks it is the way that people were trained in elocution and part of it is stage craft from being in plays and stuff. As we have learned from Singing in the Rain, you had to talk very clearly in the early days. Your voice would sound like a clarinet and you got to have a real resonant voice. It was Hollywoods version of received pronunciation, like the BBC English.

The English language has continued to evolve as it moved away from its place of origin and the most perfect English is actually spoken by the people of Alaska. When English reached Alaska it had been through every gate and had made its way through all the Midwestern nasal, Southern drawl and Westcoast noncommittal, which is spoken from the teeth. Alaska has been settled by Europeans fairly recently and their language is a mishmash of all the different spoken Englishes. They refined it until it has become perfect, even better than broadcaster English! People from England find this theory laughable, but they are speaking a kind of archaic English, some leftover hodgepodge, some steaking kidney pie that has been left out on the counter.

Meanwhile the Alaskans have sent the language through 1000 cheesecloths and here it is: The best version! Not some Boston baked beans of English. The problem is that Alaska has a very small population and everyone else is allied against this theory, but John really thinks that there is something to it and he demonstrates it in his own perfect way of speaking English. There are some small glitches, some brief Max Headroom moments when you can look behind the curtain and see the matrix. For instance, he does say ”Erybody” or ”Rondevou”. Merlin is defensive, because he has more of these than he realizes and as soon as people start pointing them out, he becomes self-conscious. People yell at John for saying ”Sasquatch”, for example. Merlin is unsure about ”pajamas” (vs ”pajahmas”), but John says that would be like aunt vs ”ahnt”. They agree that ”ahnt” is terrible, it is like writing a sentence without an Oxford comma.

Merlin says that a big part of being in any kind of long-term relationship is identifying the things that only you are allowed to be right about. Minimizing those makes you a better person. Even though you might still think in your mind that you are allowed to be right about something, you might want to keep your powder dry. Merlin knows how fucked up he is and he is desperately looking for improvement opportunities, but he capitulated on ”ahnt”. Everyone else in his family is talking about insects and says ”ahnt”, while he is the only one who refers to ”ahnt" Sue as Aunt Sue. As soon as Merlin will say that they will be going to aunt and uncles house later in the month, he catches himself having to speak it phonetically. You take the first name of the guy who was the deputy on The Andy Griffith Show (called Don Knotts, played by Barney Fife) and you take the phenomenon of the sun coming up in the morning and Merlin pronounces both of them the same. Not Barney Dan, but "Don" and "dawn"! Merlin cannot hear any difference when John is saying them. It is like colorblindness. People from the tristate area will say ”Down”. John thinks that Merlin means New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, but Merlin is talking about New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. People are very sensitive about their pronunciation, just as people are sensitive about a lazy eye.

Reading and pronouncing words (RL154)

You might have read a name or a given word thousands of times, and you might know more than 98% of the population about this noun, but you might still never had to say it out loud. John used the word ”physiognomy” at the beginning of the show, but he does actually not know how it is pronounced. Most of the time when he is using it he has already started a sentence and it is too late to avoid it. Then he stays committed while he is in the air doing a daffy and he is going to land it. Depending on the person he is talking to is, he is either going to go ”physio-gnomy” or ”physiognomy”. He has gone to dictionaries a number of times, looked at the jumble of upside-down ”u”s and other diphthongs trying to find out the pronunciation of that word, but he can’t make heads or tails of it even when he really investigates it. No-one uses it and says it out loud and John is waiting for someone else in the world saying that word to him so that he can at least latch on to their pronunciation. He heard it once, but no-one ever speaks it because no-one else doesn’t know how to pronounce it.

The development of language (RL154)

Merlin says that we tacitly understand that you shouldn’t use a word if you don’t know its meaning. You can go look it up, but you might want to be careful. For example, there have been a number of times when Merlin said ”expendable” when he meant ”flexible”, which was super-embarrassing. John used to say ”momentum” when he meant ”inertia”. Merlin is not a word-nerd, but he likes using the appropriate word and it drives him crazy when he realizes he has been using an incorrect word for a long time. John knew he was using ”momentum” and ”inertia” incorrectly, he was searching his heads-up display for ”Fuck you, asshole!” like the Terminator but "inertia" was not an entry in his dictionary for that application. He knew the word, but it wasn’t on the short list and he kept getting to ”momentum” instead and was just saying it because he wanted to get on with the thought. Nate, the bass-player of The Decemberists once said to him in a bar ”Do you mean inertia?” and he was like ”I do! Thank you!” and that use of that word is tied to Nate Query since then. John cannot say the word without picturing his kindly face. Every time Merlin drinks from a water fountain, he thinks of John’s friend Eric Spurlock that he has never met (see story in RL268). It is a mental virus spanning 30 years! There might even be listeners who will be thinking of Merlin thinking of John’s friend that they have never met. Eric planted that bug knowingly because he is a sadist.

Merlin is slowly grinding into permanent old-man mode! When they started this podcast, they were still young men with a podcast of ideas, but now they are just Liebschnitz and Stoller. Merlin does not think that language should be static, because it is obviously always evolving. John explained to his daughter the other day that the actual words of Frère Jacques, which he still sings at night, should be ”Brother John, sleeping are you!”, but she wouldn’t believe it. It is the reason why we are in a very tenuous military alliance with France! Merlin likes the evolution of things and he is not a big fan of ”hella”. It is to this generation like ”You know?” was to theirs. It became something people are putting everywhere, but that’s okay.

Merlin’s overarching issue is not really a language problem, but a communication problem. There are probably think-pieces about this on Medium right now. Young people don’t know how to communicate with other people anymore. For example if Merlin talks to somebody on the phone, he speaks very clearly, he focusses very heavily, and he risks sounding repetitious, but he makes sure that everybody understood what was just said and agreed upon. He does that in emails all the time. Sometimes they get groceries delivered from a place in town and when they will call because there is a replacement, they will not even talk into the phone and they don’t know how to communicate and to pause to let the other person speak. They don’t know to account for latency in a call and it becomes just a meandering.

A lot of people say that millennials are uncomfortable with eye-contact when they talk. Instead you have to send them emoji. John should get more into emoji, but he is an old enough guy that he can’t see what half of the emojis are and they all look like the turd to him. If somebody sends him a winking devil cat, he wonders if that is a turd! Some of them are really difficult to interpret, like is this face anxious or scared? Merlin refuses to stop using sentences and punctuation when he texts people, but he was told that this makes him sound angry. You have three options when you are saying ”Thank you”: Either you say ”Thanks!” with an unnecessary exclamation point. Failing at that you say ”Thanks” with no punctuation and if you say ”Thanks.” with a period, it is considered a ”Fuck you!” John has struggled with this a lot, but in the meantime they have jumped the old-man shark, like ”why are socks so hard to put on? Where does that other one go?” John has succumbed somewhat to the exclamation point escalation, because he recognizes that the ”Thanks.” with the period is a little cold mayonnaise. He has said ”hella” for 30 years and it is one of those things like ”dude” or in the late 1980s that ”OMG, today is beautiful!” and the other person would say ”Yeah, it is!” and it felt like it was a challenge. But dude and hella are both words that John was initially using as a parody, but after a week they became normal.

Merlin has seen an article about the ascendence of ”no yah”, like ”That movie was really good, no it was great!” He says ”No really, it was great!” all the time, agreeing with somebody by saying ”No!” Merlin and John are both very confused, because they do want language to be useful, meaningful and to follow some rules, but then they don’t want to stand in the way of the constant evolution of communication and be old and angry about it. At the same time, the entire theme of this podcast for the last three years has been that standards are declining everywhere and we need to pull up our pants and go back to work at our jobs. John is navigating those very precipitous hills in his own life, but he cannot capitulate, because that isn’t in his nature. At the same time it is important to listen and learn. John is comfortable listening and learning, he has done it his whole life, but at a certain point, ”you just need to listen!” is being used as ”you just need to capitulate!” There needs to be some back and forth or some pushback of ideas, some thinking and churning on it. John just ended a sentence with ”, right?”, which is super-annoying. It was pointed out to him at a recent event where the host, a very educated and erudite woman giving a long presentation, said ”, right?” at the end of every sentence until it was like a fog horn in the room. While it didn’t detract from the smartness of the presentation, John started to wince.

The difference between hearing and listening (RL154)

The reason why middle aged people are so uncomfortable is because they stand athwart two eras and go ”Wait! Just hold on everybody!” It is why they buy red Corvettes and why the middle ages is talked about as such a difficult time. Merlin and John are experiencing it themselves!

There is a difference between listening and hearing. You can hear stuff, like traffic noise, but if Merlin is listening, he is focusing his attention to what people are saying with the idea of wanting to understand it better. A more recent definition is: Listening means that you pay attention to more than content. When you listen to someone, you go way beyond what they are saying and what you think they are saying. You want to learn more about who they are, what they think and the context for why they are saying what they are saying. God damn it, Gamergate douchebags! Listening means more than just the facts that somebody says, but it means to hear what somebody is saying and then listen to why they are saying it so that you can understand the context for more. People are not looking for a note from you on how they said it and what they said, but they are looking for some empathy, which sometimes means: "Not talking!" It does take more than one minute to get good at this. You have to be here for a while and not talk for a little while in order to understand what these folks are talking about. Ultimately, listening is an emotional exercise, as opposed to hearing.

John was at a pre-school meeting the other day and the teacher asked if they can remember the first time they really felt heard by a teacher. She said that her first time was in 11th grade when the teacher really heard her project and her teacher's response made her decide to be a teacher herself. They went around the room and everybody told the story about the first time they were ever heard, noticed and seen by a teacher. The problem for John was there was never a time when he didn’t feel heard by the teachers. Already when he was 3 years old, he assumed he was being listened to by the teachers. All the way through school it never once occurred to him that the teachers not only knew his name and what he was working on, but they were validating his process and was celebrating him. He can see it in his daughter, too. She is not questioning that everybody is listening to her. John was sitting next to a woman who said that no-one has ever listened to her, but she got straight As and that is how they knew her, but she never spoke. It is a very different experience from John's and the majority experience was feeling un-heard. Learning to listen without offering an opinion was not John's instinct and he learned about it his whole life. Since the time he was 22 years old he has known a lot of strong people who had a bad day and would want to talk about it and would like John to just listen. It was really hard for him, but he learned to do it. It is one of the things you do when you are in a relationship.

Merlin only recently realized how terrible he was at listening to people. He is still not as good as he could be, but at least he became aware that he needed to fucking relax and let the other person talk. Beyond the Mars and Venus part, it is something that most men in America of Merlin's and John's age are seriously thinking about for the first time. We expected that everybody was going to listen to us and to what we had to say and if they didn’t, they were dumb or black. They just couldn’t get that what we were saying should receive wisdom. Getting better at that is a very interesting challenge. If Merlin's girlfriend in the past had a bad day, she wouldn’t even be able to finish her sentence before he would offer his advice and his solutions, with the goal to make her feel better on his terms.

This is the primary problem in John’s mother’s relationship with his sister: Their mother is a solver and John’s sister wants to talk about her feelings. Their mother-daughter-bond is very strong, but when Susan comes in and wants to vent about her day, her mother starts ”Why don’t you talk to your boss tomorrow and say that this is not acceptable” or ”Why don’t you just…” It is her nature to do that, because the way John's sister expresses her frustration of her day is very discomforting. She would say things like ”It is unjust!”, while her mom would try to be a coach. John has been watching this dynamic for 40 years and his sister’s agitation is something that her mom wants to help resolve. Part of that resolution is that Susan isn’t seeing that she could change her behavior and resolve this problem or she could take a different tact, but Susan doesn't want to do any of that, but she wants to vent her emotions and have the feeling pass. Then she will go back to the behavior that got her in trouble with her boss. John’s perception of it goes back to the introvert/extrovert polarity where Susan wants to vent her emotions, but she does not want to solve her problems, while her mom does want to solve problems so that emotions cannot ever enter into it. It is a completely different paradigm!

Over the years this has been characterized in the press as a Mars/Venus issue, but John was watching it play out between the two primary women in his family and sees it as part of the introvert/extrovert paradigm or the emotional/rational paradigm. Sometimes he laughs and laughs, because he hears his sister go on about something. He realizes that she needs to offload her feelings about it and he looks over at his mom, like ”Please just stay out of it!” There are other times when she is yelling about the same problem every afternoon and he is wondering why she won't you just stop taking her smoke break right under her boss’s window. Is that so crazy? John doesn’t want to hear the same emotional vent every day, because that kind of emotional vent is actually stressful even for a passive witness. The thing that emotional venters don’t always see is that listening to them requires energy, too. It is the classic problem that introverts have with extroverts, because introverts are very aware of what extroverts need, while extroverts are typically not even conscious that there is such a thing as an introvert, let alone that an introvert has different needs.

John’s sister is conscious of the fact that John and their mother somehow are bad listeners, but she is not aware of how much it takes out of them to listen to a litany of complaint where it seems like the solution would be easy. John got out of that game a long time ago in his own family. Pretending to read has been a fantastic strategy his whole adult life, but he is struggling to actually read while people were fighting in the other room. We are in an era where listening and talking are very occurrent. There are different ways of listening, we are being challenged to listen better, but there is also awareness that listening is a very active activity. Listening actively it is a strain or an exercise that does take vitamins and if it is not an effort for you, then you are probably not really listening. That effort is real and makes a lot of introverts need to sit in a dark room with a wet towel over their head.

Empathy (RL154)

There is an element of empathy in this: It is easy to understand the feelings of somebody who has the same feelings as you do. If your sibling died and you talk to somebody who recently lost a sibling, you have a good person to talk to, because they understand what you are going through. No matter what it is, it is not as difficult to have empathy for somebody who a) has the same feelings as you and b) deserves to have those feelings. It gets challenging when you try to understand why somebody is how they appear to you and whether they deserve that feeling or not. The difficult part is to get good in understanding what’s not just on the surface, whether or not they deserve these feelings, whether you think their grievances are appropriate, and whether your ideas about what should change are realistic.

It is very easy to find shortcuts about those things and just can write all those people off. A good teacher and a good public servant has an element of empathy. You have to be realistic about what can be accomplished and you have to become very empathetic while listening and hearing from people while you don’t even understand where they are coming from and while you are trying to understand whether or not they are a chemtrails person. Empathy is not just feeling for people who you like or agree with, but it is learning to understand and hear people out who you absolutely don’t agree with and then live with the fact that you will just never agree and that this doesn’t make them the worst person in the world, but they are just fucking different.

In Star Trek - Next Generation there is an empath character on the ship called Commander Troy. At the time the show came out, it was a cool bit of writing to imagine a science future having not just a doctor, a science officer and a chemist, but also a feelings professional. It was the first time we had ever seen a feelings professional on a science show. Very clearly there were scripts where someone needed to talk to Troy. She was the one with the expertise! Sometimes they were encountering an Alien intelligence and at that point they hadn’t had any Troy scripts for a while and they realized they needed her to interact with this alien life-form. For the most part, they were using science to explore the universe and more often than not, the way to encounter an alien life form was to put the shields up and fire up the photon torpedos.

We are going through a cultural phase right now where someone like Merlin is encouraged by the multiplicity of voices in the world to really focus on empathy. There are empaths in our world and then there are people who are constitutionally incapable of empathy. Empathy is just another one of our talents like sports ball and like being able to run and jump. Some people are really good at it while some people need to really train to activate it in themselves. Then there are cultural dampers we put on it and there is a whole swath of the world, probably 25% of the people, who have little or no empathy at all. John doesn’t think that empathy is a thing that everybody can have, but it is great that we are talking about it and are aware of it. He has been on the JoCo Cruise five times and he knows what it is like to be in a world where empathy is the language currency, but there are a lot of people on the spectrum for whom empathy is a distant idea.

John’s mom has as much empathy as she can have, but it isn’t enough for his sister and it never will be enough. Over the years John told his sister that if she is the one with this deep capacity for empathy, why can she not show some empathy for her mother who has no real capacity for it? That is where John found the greater struggle: Their mom can say that she doesn’t know how to empathize with this and it all seems like complaining to her, but she knows that about herself, she tries to not talk and she has gone as far as to bake her way out of it. She made cookies to literally have tried everything. John's sister as the empathetic one has never found the reservoir of feelings on behalf of the person with no empathy. This person has trouble sharing your feelings, can you feel that? Can you share those feelings?

John is definitely not a science officer, but he is much more of an empath. Not so much that he is not ready to power up some photon torpedos. Explore new worlds: Yes! Seek out new civilizations: Yes! Hit them with photon torpedos: Yes! It is a struggle!

For Merlin it is almost impossible to deal with, and it is tripple impossible to impart on (sic) his kid, the strange message about how much you can actually change about stuff at a given time in the world. When it comes to crossing the street, for example, he wants her to be actively engaged in the process. Going across the street like you are in war is such a delicate operation to explain to a little kid. He does not want to make her care less on one end, but he also does not want to make her scared. Instead he tries to impart something in between, explaining to her that there is something very complicated going on here: The basics are to look left, right and left, but then keep looking and keep make eye-contact while keep going across. Even if we do this perfectly, things can still go wrong and we have no control over that. There is a certain existential freedom in realizing that some things always could go wrong even if you do your best, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still try to do your best. The larger message is that just because you see other people failing doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying. Even if the system is broken, we still have to do what we think is right and we still have to learn and get better.

Run for office (RL154)

The attitude of young people

If you are a historian or interested in looking back at all, you get the feeling that progress is made over time. We are not confronting the same problems anymore than we were in 1650. During the middle ages, learning moved backward in some ways and we lost a lot of ground in technology, but we were also developing a whole new complex set of ideas of what constituted a person and what constituted our ethical basis. Our current idea of justice is a product of the religious churning during the middle ages. We think of as it the dark ages because we lost Astronomy for a while, we lost the Roman concept of the aqueduct, and we lost a lot of intellectual ground, but at the same time we moved from a polytheistic, animist world to a monotheistic one that is rooted in the idea that there is one God you could have a personal relationship with, not just by being out in the woods burning sheep bones to appeal to the God of scabies and relieve your suffering, but your whole life and all life is rooted in this central authority. That is where all of our contemporary ideas of the rights of men come from. We didn't just loose a lot, but we were also building a whole new thing for a while.

We have made tremendous progress, but there is tremendous progress still to be made through thought-technology and we are in a very active mode right now. The generation that followed John’s and the generation after that is just bigger and louder than John's generation. They may be the biggest loudest generation ever and they are going to set the tone a lot more than John’s generation did or is even capable of. One of the hardest things to grapple with is that the spigot is wider and not everybody is coming from the same place. It is unprecedented that, as you try to resolve disagreement, no-one accepts even one basic premise from the other person they are arguing with. Even 50 years ago, basic premises were for the most part commonly held and if you were an outsider to those, you did at least know them and you looked at yourself as being in opposition to those common ideas. A lot of people today don’t even know the first thing of where the other person is coming from and they are not especially interested either.

Obama in South Dakota

There was a really cool article in the New York Times about Obama’s visit in a small South Dakota town called Watertown to give the commencement speech at their little community college. A big reason for this visit was that he had been to 49 of the 50 states while being president and he got a letter from a little girl inviting him. The reporter went to town and talked to a bunch of locals before Obama arrived. South Dakota was overwhelmingly a Republican State and no-one in this little town had voted for Obama. They would say that he wants to make America a muslim country and all that usual stuff. Then Obama came and hundreds of people went down to the airport to watch the plane land. As Obama drove through town, the reporter followed the group of people that he had been talking to already and he followed their responses. They were all thrilled that Obama waved at them and that they could see the president. They watched his speech on television and they were moved to tears that he was talking about their town. He was only on the ground for a couple of hours and when his car drove to the airport again, people crowding the streets to see him. At least through the narrow lens of this reporter’s experience, the opinion of a lot of those people about Obama was transformed by that tiny little bit of physical contact. They went from thinking he was the anti-Christ to admiring him, thinking he had given a good speech, and being surprised, astonished, touched and moved by the whole experience.

Of course that is true! John was vociferously against Reagan, but had he ever seen him, let alone been close to him, he surely would have swooned. You only get the sense of how much we share and how little actual differences we have by being around other people. People are screaming at each other in disagreements on the Internet, but if they were in the same room, they would quickly be friends. Anyone who has ever travelled through Alabama knows that they are the friendliest people in the world. They are terrible racists, but wonderful people in so many other ways. That is what we don’t share anymore!

Talking to a wide diversity of people

While being out on the campaign trail and talking to everybody, a lot of energy is being focused on John. He is the hub of that wheel, meeting people from a lot of different spheres, and all he wishes is that they could all meet each other. He is seeing an incredible diversity of thinking. He met a 25 year old girl in the Louis C.K. store who already had all the wisdom that she was ever going to need. What we don’t know is that 6 months later her store might be is closed because she was rude to customers. Like so many 25 year olds before her, she thinks she can start a store and be rude to people. You don’t need to be nice to old white men because they are irrelevant to you, but then your store closes because you are a bad customer service person. You learn like so many people have before you that customer service is part of the equation. John is meeting a lot of politically active 25-year olds who think they already know everything there is to know about a city and about government. It is a great age for that! You are very smart at that age, maybe smarter than 40-year olds because you still have all your brain cells, but what you don’t know is all the stuff that you don’t know.

John is talking to people all the time who propose a simple solution until they become aware that every solution causes 42 new problems that they didn’t anticipate. John has conversations with young people who do not understand that they didn’t invent the civil rights movement. People have been doing this work for a long time, the struggles and challenges have been different, and those young people are able to speak this way because people have been doing this work for a long time. They feel indignation that we are not moving fast enough, but they should look back just a few years to where we were then and imagine how indignant they would feel! John is not saying that by way of saying to respect your elders, but he is saying to get a little context. Just because Twitter and SnapChat are new doesn’t mean that the ideas that are being expressed on those platforms are equally new and unprecedented.

John had a meeting yesterday with people who offered to volunteer for his campaign. 25 people of all ages from 20 to 65 showed up on mother’s day. It was a real cross-section of Seattle from people who had only lived here for 6 months to people who had lived here their entire lives, people with a masters in social work, people who had worked political campaigns, people who were artists and who were engaging in this campaign pretty confused about what is even happening politically, there were a couple of teachers and a couple of people from an activist background. It was incredibly inspiring to have all these people in the room and listen to them. What John really wanted to do was to sit there for a 4 hour long round-table and start talking. What is the single-most problem facing the city? Unfortunately they didn’t have that time. John is getting this every day: A round-table where everything is being directed at him. People are either trying to train him, trying to school him, or trying to connect with him. People are hoping that John is going to recognize their issue and then broadcast it for them. It is all really compelling and it is moving John’s heart, which is the best thing about it, because at 45 years old you think that maybe your heart can’t move anymore.

John sat in a meeting where 20 people spoke about the fact that Metro Transit had raised the bus fare with $0.25 in 2015. At first it felt like there would always be somebody who is mad about anything, but listening to 20 different who were trying to survive on $750 a month made it clear that they needed to take 5 busses every day and what seemed like a small fare increase was actually prohibiting them from getting certain foods at the grocery store. They were supporting their children and their elderly incapacitated parent as the only earner. You hear one of those and you are like ”Wow, that person has a really bad scene”, but when you hear 20 people tell a story like that, you realize that these are only the 20 of those people who took another two busses to come to this meeting to talk about it. They are a very small percentage of the number of people who are surviving at a level where a $0.25 bus fare change is a significant change in their welfare. You realize that politics is important work and income inequality is desperately real. Somewhere in this town there are people who are throwing their X-box in the garbage because somebody spilled a drop of pop on it and they don’t like it being sticky, while John is sitting in a basement listening to these stories!

How rich people can make their contribution

At the same time John has been thinking about Jeff Bezos a lot. He is a big figure in Seattle and an important key to what is going to happen in the city. He keeps himself at a distance, but he has a lot of employees, a lot of them are good people, and the culture of Amazon is very ”circle the wagons”. Like Elon Musik with Space X, Jeff is also a space visionary and he is building a manned space program called Blue Origin. A lot of people don’t know about it because Jeff Bezos is not as publicity-hungry and not much a show-boater than Elon Musk, but he is using his own resources to build a space capsule for normals to go into space. It is far enough along that they were able to launch a brand new rocket that they had designed from the ground up not that long ago. When the bottom stage of the rocket is done launching the capsule, it parachutes back and lands on the ground with retro-rocket-firing. The capsule is a beautiful thing and six people can go up and do a near-Earth orbit weightless space experience in the near future. Jeff Bezos is very wealthy, he owns Amazon, he lives in Seattle, he is hiring a lot of people, and he is also building a space program in the Seattle area.

John is a big supporter of space exploration and he thinks that this is super-great. He always felt that the argument that we shouldn’t spend that money on NASA because it could go into building low-income housing was a bad argument. He understands that from a liberal point of view there are a limited number of dollars and why would you spend them going to space when people are poor, but space exploration is at the soul of what we should be doing. We should of course find the money to feed and house people, too, but that money should not come from space exploration but from the people with gold bathtubs. Now that John is spending a lot of time talking to people who need an extra $0.25 a day just to ride the bus, the context of this whole conversation has changed for him personally. He still wants Jeff Bezos to explore space, but he also wants to rope in all the visionaries and regather them into the conversation around his town because the idea of no-one going hungry is equally exciting to explore. It is not as glamorous and you don’t get a space-suit for it, but it is also part of this feeling of progress. We keep moving and doing better, but it is not resolved and there will always be people starving.

Then the 25-year olds will ask why Jeff Bezos wouldn’t just pay the extra $0.25 for everybody? Yes, but: There are a number of those things, like the bus fare, the housing problem, or the mental health problem and every person John talks to says ”What we really need…” Yes, we really do need a better mental health system. We closed the asylums and we put the people who used to be housed in asylums back on the streets, but we should build some asylums again or save those we have decommissioned before they fall into the ground, paint them and get them working again. We should think about them differently and we should not just ”One flew over the cuckoo's nest” them, because there are some people who need a place to be besides a doorway or a jail. They are never going to be reintegrated into society and there needs to be a comfortable safe place for them funded by society. Some of these people are going to be violent and angry, there need to be trained people there. At every step of the way we need so much!

Think about all the single mothers who end up homeless because it is fucking hard to stay on top of the game! All of a sudden you are living in your car and you don’t even think of yourself as homeless, but "in between places". The kids have to get to school, you need to get to work and you are in your car. That mother isn’t even letting it onto her kids that she is in trouble, but she tells them that they are going to have fun living in their car for a little while. She is doing that for a couple of weeks and then something else bad happens, like the car breaks down or something. Then she really needs help and is up against the wall! She rolls into some place where she has to fill out some form to get on a waiting list and six months from now they might call her. No! There is not enough wiggle room for so many people and yet we have obscene amounts of money. Rich kids on Instagram are happening simultaneously to this which does inflame people. People who say that this is unrelated are wrong, because it is related!

What lies in our power to do about that? The era of armed revolution is in our past. The era of using law as a cajole is maybe in our past, because these rich kids on Instagram have the best lawyers you can get. We are entering into an era where empathy actually is the agent. This is an anti-teaparty argument or an anti-Ayn Rand argument. We are all in this together and your wealth did not come to you purely by your own ingenuity, but our whole culture provides you with this incubator. Wouldn’t it be cool if in addition to building a private space station or in addition to building really cool electric cars we were also able to bolster the part of the couch where the stuffing is coming out? Do you start making that argument on sit council or do you start making that argument on your award-winning podcast? We need to gather enough people in this new way of thinking for it to become less shouty and less finger-pointy and more like just a bunch of people with compassionate looks on their faces, saying ”Hey, we don’t begrudge you your success, but chip in!” It doesn’t mean that they should go work for Houses for Humanity, but they should chip in right here!

This is not a basically impossible problem to solve! There is obviously something that can be done over some amount of time and the question is how John differs from the other candidates in what he would chose to do differently in order to make something like that happen. That is the exact question he gets asked every day! It is a good question! To begin with, no other candidate is talking about this stuff in this way at all. The conception is that all we have at our disposal is either suing someone or passing a law requiring them to submit to a tax. Tax is our only model! Merlin suggests that you can bring people into a foundation board. They can give you a bunch of money because they are rich, but more importantly: They might be good at getting money from other people. You could also be a statesman making that case to people so that they want to help and get their buddies to help. Bill Clinton is great at this, Bill Gates is good at it, he has done incredible work providing clean water to people around the world, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. It is much less glamorous to build a facility in Seattle for homeless mothers who have reached the end of their rope. There is no glamour in it, except in the big picture, which is building a city that takes care of everybody!

During the whole second half of the 20th century the argument was that education is key and it keeps kids out of jail, but who wants to fund quality education in Seattle schools? Any billionaire wants to step up and do that? The only way we can fund Seattle schools is through a tax and the only way we are allowed to apply that tax is to everybody. We can do it through car tax or property tax, but there are only so many ways. Rich people have excellent ways avoiding taxes and it falls back to the middle class over and over. It would be wonderful if somebody would step up and fund Seattle schools with the rounding error on their ego project, but then other people would ask for the homeless mothers. A lot of people suggest we need taller buildings with bigger fences to keep people from jumping off, while others say that the people who are falling off that building aren’t jumping, but they are getting pushed. A lot of technologists believe that technology is eventually going to make it impossible to be poor by assuming trickle-down economics, or Georg HW Bush’s philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats. It is demonstrably untrue and the rich are getting richer.

Picturing the goal and working backwards, funding schools

We should picture the city we want and we should get everybody onboard with some basic principles. Let's say that 40 years from now we all want a prosperous city that looks a certain kind of pleasant. Nobody would reject that on the face of it and everybody has a different idea of how to get there. 40 years from now, there shouldn’t be a homeless person in Seattle who has no other options. There is always going to be somebody who wants to live in a garbage can, but most people don’t want to and many of the people who do want to will realize it was a bad idea during some night in November. We are such a punitive and moralistic society when it comes to homelessness, drugs and mental illness. We spend so much time saying that this single mother with her two kids should have smoked less pot in High School and done a bit better and gone to tech school. Our instinct in America is that it is probably her fault.

This kind of judgmentalism keeps us from having a real compassionate system, because there will always be somebody who says they don’t want their tax dollars to go to mollycoddle these whores! That is really not how it is and most of us recognize that, which is what we only need: Most of us! We need to get that vision of the city and then start reverse-engineering the practices, rather than trying to build the city by each person telling you what they think is what we need. Get the 40-year picture first and then see what that would look like in 30 years and in 20 years. How would we get there? Build backwards from the goal! It would surprise us how it would look like in 10 years and to get to that point we would have to reevaluate what we are doing now. We can’t just keep flopping around like a bunch of Koi who’s pond is drained, but we need to get out of this rut and start doing some weird and wonderful stuff now that will put us there in 10 years. It will not be a solution, but it will be on the path to where we want to be in 20 years.

That is the story that John is trying to bring to this election and that he is trying to tell to Seattle: We have tried all ways of incremental politics, hiring one more social worker to help fill out the forms at the office where you get in line for emergency housing, but actually, we need more than that! We need to build across a wide spectrum and we need to fund the schools as though we are going to have to keep funding the school. The way we fund Seattle’s schools today is by passing a bond for two years as though two years from now maybe we don’t have to pay for schools anymore. How did we end up with that as the best solution? Harvard University figured out a long time ago that they needed an endowment. Seattle doesn’t have an endowment for their public schools, whether it was gutted or whether it got lost in the back and forth of politics. How can we depoliticize our schools? The state legislature shouldn't be able to decide that we don’t teach art anymore because there was one gay art teacher in Shoreline.

Why the holy Jesus fuck don’t we have money for schools in America? Why are those things tied to Car Tabs? It is bonkers, particularly when you think that the state of California is subsidizing water for a bunch of raspberry farmers and the city of Seattle has $2 or $3 billion to build a tunnel under the city that will be obsolete before the paint is dry. If you put $3 billion in an endowment fund, never touch the principle and just use the interest, it wouldn’t fund all the schools, but it would sure as shit go a long way to funding the schools in perpetuity. Nobody is thinking about that, so every year they notice they don’t have any money for schools or libraries.

A few years back it seemed very surprising to Merlin how many leaders at big companies were talking about the achievement gap in America. They realized that it was getting harder to hire in certain kinds of high-tech careers. A lot of people were saying that we need to invest into those kinds of careers for people who aren’t even in school yet. Investing into the community as a thing, let alone building a community that would be a desirable place for people to move to seems like such a no-brainer! There are halv a dozen reasons why you would try to find the budget even just to provide the essential things, let alone the nice things. We assume that our schools are basically trade schools. The economic impact argument alone, having better schools makes better employees, is a reason for Amazon, Costco, Microsoft‚ Vulcan or Starbucks to take an interest in Seattle public schools. 1000 miles above that is the opportunity to be a true benefactor. Schools need art programs, poetry and dance and we are can not just use schools as a training program for people to work in assembly or coding scenarios (with coding being the modern assembly), but we want our schools to create citizens. Those are the people who are really going to advance the ball in 30 years! It is an argument that a lot of capitalists would be really interested in, but it is much easier to show up at the job fare with a bunch of balloons and tell people to apply for a job as a coder. Maybe people would get a chance to apply for the program where they are building windmills in South America.

Market bubbles

The funny thing about a bubble is that the longer it sticks around and the bigger it gets, it is not getting stronger, but weaker. It is true in the same way for soap bubbles than for San Francisco bubbles. The bigger it gets, the more we feel its impact. There is gross stuff going on in San Francisco right now, because everybody wants to get in on this bubble. Merlin is not an economission (sic), but the bigger it gets, the more likely it will burst. You don’t have to look more than 5 or 6 years into the past to see what happened in a bubble: Everybody thought that the housing prices were going to get up forever with no regard to how those loans were being made and whether people should have them at all. The scary part is the destruction when the bubble bursts. Many business, families and artists who have been in town for dozens of years will be going away because somebody needs that space. It starts to add up and less and less people want to live here anymore with a cultural wasteland as a result. Everything was just a little bit overpriced a couple of months ago and now what the fuck are we going to do? It is just as terrifying as Walmart moving out of town! People are treating a city like a gold rush town without necessarily investing much in what will keep it sustainable and desirable.

Market forces and capitalism are not natural forces

At this moment in world history we are up against the fact that a pure market is just a thought-technology. The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were full of political ideologies attempting to reign in and govern market merkantilism. We saw a lot of different attempts, but unfortunately some of them were very ideological at a time when technology allowed people to literally stamp numbers on other people and mass-murder them in conjunction with market reforms, which discredited a lot of the ideology. Some of the ideology was way up in the sky and did not reflect the actual truth of people, but it doesn’t mean that we just accept the market as God. People keep saying that the market is what it is and you can’t stop people who want to buy, but the market is a lot more complex than that and the market is governable. Just saying that supply and demand are natural forces in the world seems a little bit Ayn Rand and intellectually flat.

Merlin saw an article in the paper about parking. The number of cars in San Francisco vs the number of parking spaces is completely bananas. Right now 1/3 to 1/2 of the cars have a disabled permit, which is very desirable because it means you can park at a meter for free. There are twice the number of disabled permits than the number of parking spaces. Merlin’s wife just changed jobs back to a full time career and she is working at the nice new campus of the university. It is impossible to park there and with MUNI it would take her 1,5-2 hours, so now she drives a lot and parking costs $30 a day. At the hospital for UCSF where she works, the waiting list for employee parking is 25 years. Two things are funny about that: 1) it is a fucking 25 year waiting list to get a parking permit and 2) there are still people adding their name to that list. There is the market for you! From the day San Francisco was founded until 10 years ago, you could be a working class person and live almost anywhere, including Downtown San Francisco. In Seattle the same has been true until just 5-10 years ago.

Seattle has been a city for 150+ years. During all that time it would have been crazy to say that you cannot be a working class person and live in the city anymore because that is just how markets work, sorry! What are you, some kind of communist? Figure something else out, because you can’t do anything about that! One of those mentalities is crazy and it is not the one saying you should be able to live anywhere in Seattle as we always have been. No, the crazy one is that you have to drive 30-45 minutes and pay $30 in parking. The market has determined that Seattle-land is worth more than diamonds because people who earn $250.000 a year want to walk to work. It shows that we didn’t do very good planning and planning is the key. None of these things are set in stone!

Capitalism didn’t win any epic battle of ideologies and it is not unassailable from here on out. It has its acolytes who are going to argue for it and they will call you a communist if you try to talk about any kind of regulation. There are people who believe that governments are the soul of evil, but the fact is that we are still in an ongoing process trying to navigate how to be human beings and govern ourselves. We are at an exciting moment and the pressure that is put on us by this insanity is going to develop new thinking, which should always be exciting to us! People in San Francisco, New York City and Seattle realize that their house was worth $200.000 in 2002, then it was worth $500.000 in 2007, then it was worth $198.000 in 2007.5, and now it is worth $600.000 in 2015, which all seems crazy! What do you do about that? Lay down in your bathtub and eat a meatball sandwich? Or do you run for fucking city council?


Merlin just saw on John’s Twitter that he has raised good money in his VoteRoderick-campaign. John is a huge proponent of a campaign finance reform and he can see how much better it would be even in something as small as a city council race, let alone on a national scale. Think about the millions of dollars you have to raise! For every dollar you take from anybody, they hand it to you while they look you in the eye and say ”You are not going to fuck me later when we need to change the law for my bulldozer company, are you?” You got half the cheque in your hand and they will tell you that one day they will ask you for a favor.

John’s dad and Marlon Brando (RL154)

John’s dad and Marlon Brando once had a confrontation over a lady. John’s dad was an actor. He always wanted to be one of the Bohemians, and he was. In the 1950s when he was lawyering and drinking, he was a member of a theater group in Seattle called the Cirque Theater that did productions in the round. A young actress by the name of Rita Moreno was his co-star in a play and John’s dad and her had a little time. One night he came out of the theater with her and Marlon Brando was waiting in the shadows of the bushes. They were already acquainted and were also having an affair de coeur and they had a little bit of a confrontation in the bushes. No-one raised their fists, but they were fighting verbally and she saw that Marlon Brando was the one of the two of them who was suaver. Speaking of someone who had similar experiences, John has been in the bushes, not with Marlon Brando, but with other younger Brandos. You walk away with that and realize that you are just a couple of kisses away from Kevin Bacon. There is nothing really special about other people, it is just that some of them are more beautiful and talented. The way you deal with that information and shoulder that burden determines your course in life. John’s dad could have grabbed Marlon Brando around the ankles and said ”Take me with you! I’ll be your Karl Malden”

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