RL382 - The Year with the Asterisks

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John’s not here to impress the snorks, referring to John not having any problem with looking dumb for others, and he will continue to sequester despite others breaking quarantine because he is not there to impress the snorks.

The show title refers to the fact that every college knows that when kids apply in the future, their grades from 2020 don’t matter because it was the year with the asterisks.

Raw notes
The segments below are raw notes that have not been edited for language, structure, references, or readability. Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first! These notes were not planned to be released in this form, but time constraints have caused a shift in priorities and have delayed editing draft-quality versions to a later point.

John’s daughter’s school giving them insufficient homeschooling material (RL382)

John has a situation where the teacher of his daughter’s class is providing bad, garbled, disorganized material of the impression that times are tough on her, too, so anywhere, he is some stuff she just pulled down and is throwing at them without any sort of context or explanatory supporting documentation, like ”We are working on the states”, which means basically: ”Educate your children!” There is still a pretend packet that John is forced to sit down with and interpret rather than just teaching her about the states.

It used to drive Merlin nuts when there was ”homework”, which was basically combination of a rehash of what they did at school that day combined with a context-free ”what is this in service of” thing and sometimes it really just felt like something they got off the Internet and printed out because homework is a thing that we do. Merlin learned In project management that it is critical to open with what we are trying to accomplish, which sounds obvious, but when you are the one doing the project it is difficult to stop and explain it to somebody in pigs and bunnies.

John would be gratified if they would just send them some busywork, because a lot of what is happening between John and his daughter is somewhat performative. She doesn’t want to be in school anymore this year and i feels like a farce to her. Merlin’s kid got her final grades today and she had straight As, which is okay, except it would have been nice to come out of this first year of middle school with the grades she earned. Merlin hates to sound like Ayn Rand, but there are so many things the kids are not going to get, but they continue the theater of school in order to feel like they are helping.

At John’s daughter’s school they feel like they can’t give her straight As because of special circumstances, but the kids didn’t do anything wrong and suddenly all their straight As got evaporated. John wants to maintain a fiction between him and his daughter that they both know is a fiction that every day they are going to do school. It is not like when the lockdown started that they sat down every morning for 3 hours and do schoolwork, take a lunch break and work on it for 3 more hours, that went away a long time ago, then it was an hour in the morning and an hour at night and some kind of outdoor project, but now John puts this packet down in front of her, telling her that they are now working on the states and she just goes: ”What?”

John wants something perfunctory in the shape of a packet that they can put down in front of the child and say: ”Complete this!” They can work on the states. If the school tells him to teach her the 50 states and capitals, that is actionable, but they need something intelligible from the school. It is no longer even about learning, but it is about this agreement between John and his daughter that she is still in school, that school matters, that the things that are coming from the school are official and not negotiable, but they are just do the schoolwork and then they can talk about it or elaborate on it and work from this.

But if the school just sends a pile of marbles and tells John to invent an education she will see right through it that no-one is in charge here. John has to go downstairs to talk to Merlin and Mommy is talking about web security on a Zoom call to somebody in Austfalopiphacus, which is a very expensive call. So she needs to also be at work and not just playing Barbies or out running around in the street. It is absolutely 100% a shared fantasy, but the school is not playing along and just giving John a packet that if he were to use it as educational materials he would need to sit with her and educate for 5 hours today.

Coronavirus lockdown going into phase II, people wanting to reopen (RL382)

We are now moving into phase II of coronavirus. Nobody was prepared for this and the suggestion is out there to maybe go back to normal, which has put everybody in a posture of ”Do I have to stop trying now or do I have to start trying again?”, which is 100 times worse! If the word coming down from up high was: ”In order for this to work we are going to have to stay quarantined as hard as we have been until August 1st”, then everybody would just act accordingly, even if it was extremely hard.

Instead you hear on the news that people are on the beach while other people are maintaining a strict quarantine, so now what? There are videos out there from people doing all kinds of stuff in quarantine, like going to the movies or going out for drinks. Philip Bump from the Washington Post posted a thing the other day about the fact that COVID is in the White House now, at least two staffers have it. The White house is the one place in the world where they have the resources and the control to keep this thing out, but they couldn’t do it, but you want people to go to Chick-fil-A? (see tweet here: ”The White House has all of the protections recommended for reopening, protections many businesses don’t have. Yet the virus still gets in — and its residents still insist other businesses can go ahead and reopen.” — Philip Bump)

When John’s mom comes over she has a mask on, she sits in a chair in he back yard and John sits with a mask on 20 feet from her and they have a social afternoon where they don’t see each other’s faces and then she goes home. They started doing that because even though John’s mom is a super-introvert and she and John would be fine and it is more his sister and daughter who are going crazy, they started doing this while looking over the fence at people having picnic and even though they know they are doing the right thing they start to feel like dummies and look like fucking idiots.

John and his mom are not at all worried about looking like idiots to normals, they are not here peer-pressuring, they are not here to impress the snorks, but they don’t want to wear this mask and yet the risk to her as an 85 year old is probably greater than it was 2 months ago. The thinking was that if you have been around somebody who had corona you have to self-quarantine for two weeks in order to be safe and if you are around somebody who might have had it, you still need to go isolate for a while. It seems like we are not even pretending that we are doing that anymore. How is it that not everybody in the White House has this fucking thing? How can so few people have it, given how careless they have been with their behavior?

If this was incredibly virulent and everybody who got in contact with somebody got the disease and died, that would be one thing. If this was like a bad cold that just killed old people, it would be another, but because it just bounces around you want all the people who violated quarantine and stood outside a Chick-fil-a cocking their shotguns and talking about their hairstyles to get sick in order to demonstrate that that is not what we are going to do, but if they all get out there and hugging each other and wrapping themselves in the American flag and shooting their guns in the air and they don’t get sick, it just makes the quarantine look dumb.

Then you flip the page and read that 15.000 more people got it this week, but none at the Chick-fil-A but mostly Mexican people working at a food processing plant. No! Why is the virus also recapitulating the problems of the United States? When those dingelings say that it is time to get back to work, they mean it is time for the low-wage workers who comprise the business of the rich people go back to work. A virus in particular you want to be the great leveler. This is the type of thing that class can’t protect you from. It is in the White House! It is a great universailzer, and yet somehow it is striking more profoundly across class and race lines.

You want to grab the virus by the shirt and say: ”Why didn’t you kill Boris Johnson?” He was so arrogant about this virus, and then he got it and went to a hospital and they named their kid after the nurses that saved him. Isn’t that sweet? The virus had a chance to scare the living shit out of everybody in the world, the prime minister of the UK having died two weeks after said that they need herd immunity, and yet he pulled through! John doesn’t want Boris Johnson to die, he is hilarious, but what a great opportunity from a PR standpoint if this virus is really serious about getting famous.

It is like that guy at SxSW in 2000 or 2001 who said one time that if you want to make it in the music business you have a choice: Do you go to your grandmother’s funeral or do you finish out the tour? Josh Rosenfeld replied that at Barsuk records they would like you to be able to attend your grandmother’s funeral. Put that on a mug! After the panel was over he just got mobbed by people and he knew he was the hero, he already knew when he was born that he was meant to be a hero and the Gods had finally lifted him up.

When you hope that people you don’t like will get the disease, you have to consider that this person will probably give it to other people, maybe the lady working at the Chick-fil-A or the person who parks your car. This does not discriminate in that way! A douchebag could easily give it to many non-douchebags, and that is not sustainable. Also: Politically everything will always be somebody else’s fault, especially in this economy with this administration.

Merlin took a walk yesterday for Mother's Day down to the beach and they got a socially distanced coffee. He took note of all the places that are open or not open and he couldn’t believe how much stuff was closed, but he also couldn’t believe how much stuff is open. There was also a referendum back in March that there was not enough retail space in San Francisco and they would tax you if you have a store front that is not used and Merlin wonders what is going to happen with that law.

There is a school that will be opening one day a week, which seems like the worst of all worlds. How much cleaning will you have to do to keep those kids safe and on top of it all you are throwing your kids into a fucking petri dish for six hours of education.

There is a colossal failure of imagination. Two months ago everything was unprecedented and we had yet to evolve (as John Siracusa would say) a new way of thinking and no-one is prepared to really slam the casket lid down on a lot of things that are going to die. This is an exciting time and a world of potential. Now, because of the mealy-mouthed and weasely way that this first stage has been handled, a lot of people are trying to justify their existence or trying to imagine a future in terms of the past, just trying to get stuff in motion again, and they don’t have the imagination of modeling something new.

Like giving Merlin’s daughter passing grades in school. Those people only had three options: Success, fail, or incomplete, and they picked the one that would get them into least trouble and they didn’t have the imagination to understand that what every kid needed most right now was something supportive. When those kids apply to college, every college in the country is going to recognize that your grades from 2020 kind of don’t matter. Everybody knows that this is the year with the asterisk. The school district could send a letter home saying ”Amazing! You were amazing this year! Isn’t it amazing that we are all still here!” or whatever.

Unfortunately the pandemic hasn’t panned out to be as big as a disaster as it could have been so far and it does look like a panic for nothing, it does look like liberal hyperventilation or whatever it is being cast as. It is hard to say that John wished the earthquake was stronger because it is not quite strong enough to justify anything other than a weekend at Bernie’s! A lot of people aren’t worried about people getting harmed and a lot people on both sides of the aisle hope the other side gets harmed. Because the virus isn’t breaking the way it was predicted to this hasn’t even been enough of a crisis that it has precipitated the culture war that was burbling beneath the surface particularly.

There were already guys with guns at Subway that were protesting Black Lives Matter protests before that, they were already doing that. The dingelings at the University of Virginia who marched with their polo shirts and their torches. That was a bigger march than any of the reopen-coronavirus-marches, or perhaps not, it depends on how these things are reported and how the photographs are framed. There are just a handful of people banging trash can lids, asking us to reopen, it is the Westboro Baptist Church problem: If seems there is a whole huge group of people in the country who believe that God is killing soldiers because of gay marriage, but there are 40 people who believe that. Both sides!

How the music industry copes with the pandemic (RL382)

Taking to the music industry folks, the have said weeks ago that there is no live music and concert industry, even leaving bands aside, the global constellation of the concert industrial complex, the venues of the Great American Music Hall, the Fillmore, the Independent, Slims, a lot of venues in San Francisco are legendary world-class music venues that employ hundreds of people and they represent the San Francisco tip of a global network of booking agents, managers, tour managers, sound people, bartenders, security, Ticket Master, into the tens and hundreds of thousands of people and within their culture they have all met in their secret gold-plated bathrooms and have realized that their business is over and no-one is going to a concert until 2022.

They aren’t sitting around, thinking they might open maybe in August, because when they run their numbers… One promoter who is working for a big theater the size of the Filmore had set up on their seating plot chairs every six feet and they had a capacity of 60 and the tickets were $300. They are trying to think of a scenario that somebody would tour under these conditions where the band shows up and people are sitting on folding chairs 6 feet from one another. Not to think of you having to go to your chair, to the restroom or to the bar.

The Hip Hop world went right over to Instagram, doing live stream concerts. They are different enough and unique enough that they are worth it. Ben Gibbard has been doing a show every week from his little home studio since week two of the quarantine. People are being inventive and John is feeling a tremendous pressure in the world to return to the things that weren’t working before we really realize how stupid our world was.

DJin the 25th anniversary of SubPop (RL382)

John told this story in RL62

For the 25th anniversary for SubPop John and Nabil Ayers co-DJed a SubPop night at Linda’s Tavern which was co-owned by Bruce Pavitt, a cool-kid bar, and Nabil brought all his records and Ben London brought all his records, all the people brought their vinyl for 1989 and they did a whole night’s worth of Grunge DJing and every record they pulled out of these crates they would hold it up and go: ”Oh my God! Remember that band! This is going to blow their minds! This is so fucking great!”

They were tittering with how it is going to destroy the room, and then they would drop the thing and it would just suck. ”Remember fucking Cat Butt (see RL62), remember El Steiner? This is going to be incredible! Throw it on!” and all night long they were playing records from what they thought were those legendary bands from the time and the good music was by Soundgarden and Mudhoney. There was an aperture and only a few bands got through, but those were the ones that were good.

John being on a panel with the Rasmuson Foundation (RL382)

After John gets off this call, he is going to have a Zoom meeting that on his calendar is a 5 hour Zoom meeting. Earlier this year he was asked to be on a prestigious panel for a foundation that gives artist grands. Within Alaska culture, this group called the Rasmuson Foundation is the premier arts foundation started by the descendants of Elmer Rasmusson, the man who started the national bank of Alaska and he gave all his billions of dollars back to the people of Alaska when he died.

John grew up with this family. Elmer Generation was there right before his uncle Jack and when uncle Jack arrived in Alaska in 1951 Elmer had already scraped together the simoleons to start a little bank. This was when Anchorage had a population of 10.000. His granddaughter Natasha Rasmuson married Kurt Hansmeyer who lived at the end of John’s street. It was small-town stuff. Now this foundation is endowed with an incredible amount of money and they are giving it away.

They reached out to John and asked him to be on a panel that will look at hundreds of applications for artist grants and he is going to help them choose. Some of those grants are small and some of them are big, but they are giving out dozens of them. They were going to fly him up to Anchorage and put him up at the Captain Cook Hotel for a week, sit together in a conference room with these other mature artists and they were going to work through all these performances. That did sound like a lot of work, but it is a real honor to be asked. Also knowing that the state of Alaska holds him in such high regard as an Alaskan is an honor. The whole thing was worth it just to see uncle Jack go ”What???” when he told him about it. He couldn’t believe it and thought it was amazing.

Now in this situation they said that these artists still need these grants, but they can’t fly John to Anchorage and spend a week in a hotel, so John is going to sit on multiple multi-hour Zoom calls and review all these people, like when Merlin forces him to watch a YouTube video with him, but multiple times for 5 hours each. They have presorted those pretty extensively already because they get thousands of applications, so they have narrowed it down to the top 100 across a whole spectrum of musicians and artists.

There is often the argument that the music business is rigged or full of rich kids, but when you really listen to 100 artists who are all looking for a grant, you realize that it is not rigged, but if you are good, you stand out and people want to pick you, and if you show promise people will get what they are going for, but you might not yet have figured out how to land your chorus or whatever else. What makes a song-writer good is writing a bunch of songs that are almost good and getting an appropriate reaction from people. Then you go back and do it again and try something else.

You think that those songs are almost good and if you just had some money and didn’t have to work you would be writing good songs all the time, but that is not true because you have not yet demonstrated that you can write a single good song and anybody who is in a position to give you a year off to write some good songs is never going to do it because i is like going to the ministry of silly walks with a walk that isn’t that silly.

Now John has agreed to do this and can’t say that there is no amount of money or respect or love for the state of Alaska in the world that would have made him agree to a thing where he had to sit on 5-hours Zoom calls multiple days in a row, listening to people’s demos, even if they had promised that the king of Alaska was going to hand John his scepter. But now John can’t back out and those people are counting on him. The Rasmusen Foundation is just trying to fulfill their promise, and if next year there is a coronavirus they hopefully won’t do it this way.

The lack of good leadership in the US right now (RL382)

John is extremely anxious, not because it is going to affect him, not because of the upcoming meat shortage because all of the meat processing plants are shut down, there is never going to be a hamburger shortage in Seattle because all their hamburger is locally sourced gras-fed hamburger where it says the name of the cow on the package, but John is anxious about how broken we were and how this is not going to… There is no version of where we are right now… but it is because our president is so bad. It is unbelievable!

Merlin thinks there is often a benefit to something like Occam’s Razor (If there exist two explanations for an occurrence the one that requires the smallest number of assumptions is usually correct) There are simple explanations for everything. Everybody had an uncle or friend of the family that is like That Guy, but he is all of those guys together: He is not just racist and not very bright and incurious about the stuff that would enable him to do a D+ job, but he is all of those things, which is a pretty bad combination in a leader right now.

People wanting to dismantle unjust systems without having a plan for a replacement (RL382)

There has never been a plan, people have always just done what they wanted and not done what they didn’t want, and that has produced systems that were entrenched, class systems and caste systems, the capitalist system, they were just the result of people making decisions on what they wanted or didn’t want to do and when they saw somebody across the stream doing the same thing they synced up on this. Just basic stuff. In the last 50 years we challenged a lot of those systems and we wanted to dismantle them because we look at them and said that there are things intrinsically unfair and unjust about them.

We have dismantled a lot of them with the premise that there was an underlying truth, an underlying justice that was waiting for us and if we could just take away the artificial injustice that had been imposed and we would find something good underneath and we could build something fair and was in the way was not the fact that we were not a very good band, but a conspiracy to keep our band down. Like Science Fiction we have envisioned a world in our minds that is post-capitalist or post-patriarchic or post-racist or post-whatever. We have Star Trek-ified reality in our imaginations so that we confidently tilt against the windmills of all these bad systems.

We discovered that there is no good thing beneath them, but it will just be all against all again. If you take away the premise that the president of the United States is not a grifter you find that we never wrote down anywhere that the president of the United States didn’t get to be a grifter if he wanted to. We tried to dismantle what we thought of as an oppressive system and what we got was an autocrat and what is waiting beneath is not better, but worse. You can’t go into these things with the idea that we are just dismantling the bad, but you have to go into it with a fully fledged vision of something better where you already have all the laws written.

So much of what we do now is ”all wrapper no present”. Like: ”Don’t worry about what the laws are that will enable us to have a free and just society, we will deal with that later!”, or: ”We just have to get all those Washington insiders out and the outsiders in!”, and that mentality goes across the spectrum and everybody calls for a fresh start, but what we are doing is getting rid of the people who knew how things worked and replacing them with people who don’t know how things work and then we are going to watch for 4 years trying figure out how things work and right around the time when they figure i out we will get rid of them and replace them with people who don’t know how things work.

The alternative is to have a class of people who just run things, but we don’t want that. So here we are! John thinks about it in terms of the critiques John used to make about drone warfare that would attract the attention of Lt. Col. Matt Martin who would send bitchy emails that ended up taking John to Africa (see RW76, OVTH): The idea that we now have this technology and we hadn’t really thought about the ethics of it until it was already here, so we are just going to keep doing what the technology allows us to do and Y’all worry about the ethics.

The problem is that it is too late to worry about the ethics because we are already doing it and possession is 9/10th of the law. It is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. So much of what happened in the last 20 years… John has an Amazon Echo and when he asks: ”Computer, what is the Land War in Africa” it listed a bunch of actors like Charlize Theron, a thing that is listening to John, he doesn’t want it there, he didn’t agree to it, but it is there because somebody in this house wants to be able to say ”Computer, play Old Time Road”.

John being fine with the current situation (RL382)

John realized in the last three months that what he wants to do every day is to ride his bike and work in the garden and make a little dinner and continue to do his podcasts. Time is a flat circle and that has never been clearer. John doesn’t have any ambition anymore. He doesn’t want to go anywhere, he doesn’t want anything different to happen, but he could just get old this way. He stopped caring for his beard, he looks like Michael Chabon, but he is not worried about it. There is no try, there is only do!

John has a lot of time to sit and think what we could be making, and maybe he needs to start a blog and start writing this stuff down on Medium. There is a lot of thought leadership going on over there. John started watching a TED Talk the other day and after 30 seconds he rage-quit because there is a reason he doesn’t watch TED Talks. Merlin thinks there are some great ones out there, like the one with the pickpocket guy Apollo Robbins or the one with Temple Grandin.

Michael Lewis who wrote the book Moneyball has done lots of things like The Big Short and his latest book is The Firth Risk about the current administration, doing a deep dive on three agencies that are critical but that people don’t think about much: Energy, agriculture, and commerce. Merlin also recommends his podcast called Against the Rules that is very good, talking about the current administration firing all the referees because they think the rules don’t apply. The thought danger is that in order to go far enough back upstream to a place where there are referees who are generally accepted, you are walking back across lines of injustice because at that point there are going to be people who are disenfranchised, which is the thing we find most intolerable in our contemporary world.

This is the thing we didn’t expect in 1990 when we started to say that the referees are part of the systemic class-based patriarchic world and it was the Left and the universities that did no longer accept your biased referees. What we didn’t anticipate was that what was good for the goose was good for the gander and all the people in front of Chick-fil-A carrying rocket launchers also could say that they won’t accept your referees either.

The initial premise of all this stuff is good and virtuous. The Russian Judge is a meaningful analogy for a reason. Soviet judges at the Olympics in the past did tend to grade pretty harshly on the Western teams and it is understandable that you want to get the Russian judge out of there because they are corrupt, but what if you go further than that and now there is no judge anymore and you just decide who wins?

You can’t put that Genie back into the bottle! You can’t have 1000 or no referees and you can’t have competing systems of law. You can find someone on either side of the aisle that said that the entire system is corrupt and they can’t get a fair trial from within it and we need a new system of law, but when that happens someone eventually will come in as a complete autocrat and just impose their fucking law on anarchy scramble and then you wanted to introduce more justice into the world but you introduced chaos and now there is less justice in the world.

Merlin doesn’t think Fake News was a fixture of the Left for more than 2 months before the president started saying it and then these other people started saying it and now he even uses it as an adjective. When anybody Merlin respects is using that phrase they are just carrying the water for that dingeling. Everything you make can be weaponized by somebody who wants the weapon more.

John does believe there are things that are real. It hurts so bad! ”I believe in America!”

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