RL385 - Home Corn

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John has a ravine, referring to the ravine behind John’s new house where he is working in any spare time he has right now.

The show title refers to John’s daughter’s school using a bag of corn kernels to do math and during the lockdown everybody had to buy their own bag of corn, which Merlin called Home Corn.

Apparently they had to restart their Skype call 4 times this morning.

John feels great. ”Grab a rabbit! No seat! Don’t laugh!”

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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.

How has the internet met our expectations? (RL385)

When Merlin will get elected, in the first 100 days of his administration he will personally smite Comcast and Skype and many things will be dealt with. How well has the Internet achieved what Merlin hoped it would do? Let’s go back to 2010 and imagine John asking what he would think it is going to be in 2020 and now here we are, what is Merlin’s take?

There are many different Internets for different people around the world and very much in the United States. Merlin is pretty happy with the tech part for himself and he had gotten faster upload speeds in Yosemite on an LTE connection that he gets in his house with the premium Comcast cabletown connection.

There are still 500 different Internets depending on where you are and who you are. For instance, John’s router dropped out 4 times this morning. ”We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin” (lyrics Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton) ”In the clear blue skies over Germany… 80 men tried and 80 men died. Now they’re buried together on the countryside” (lyrics Snoopy vs. The Red Baron)

It is astonishing to Merlin how big and fast everything has gotten and the quality of technology has improved in leaps and bounds. His first computer did not even have a hard drive and used 800K floppy disks and today one of their failed Skype calls that was less than a minute long is way bigger than the first hard drive he ever had. His family doesn’t care about 4K Ultra High Def, but Merlin does, and even to his terrible eyes it looks so good, and things like Veronica Mars from a few years ago that is only in 720p just doesn’t look as good.

On the other hand it does seem troubling that it is not better distributed in the population. It makes sense that the provider concentrate the efforts where they do the most good and they level their resources, but it is pretty wild that you can travel somewhere and have no Internet for 45 minutes and then suddenly wicked powerful Internet. Around the time they did John’s first website in 2003 there was a lot of stuff going on that had not become a thing yet. The Dot Com stuff had crashed and Web 2.0 was on the rise where everything got a lot cleaner, standards-compliant, accessible, cooler, more fun, there was Ajax and all these ways of doing stuff in the browser, Merlin had a website that did pretty well, but the excitement of that time has now just turned to ashes.

Flickr and Vimeo are no longer how they used to be and Merlin has still not found anything that he enjoys quite the same way than he enjoyed using Flickr back then. It was a community and it was very neat and they kept things more discrete, so you could share baby pictures with your friends. Today it is great in some ways, but… Merlin tried to not interact with technology on Sundays before noon, but there was no way because how was he going to turn on his Internet-controlled lights?

They don’t use Yellow-pages or an atlas anymore and you realize how much of your shit is technology and it is almost impossible to not look at screens or use a computer. How are you going to do practically anything? Merlin buys books for his Kindle, which is on him, but it is like a dystopia of our own design!

John agrees that Flickr is a great example and a lot of the things from that era didn’t make it to now for a good reason. The Message Board communities from back then couldn’t exist now in the same way because who is going to go to the message boards of 50 different bands that they like? It has become something more like Reddit where you have a large-scale community of what we used to call forums. For a long time you couldn’t post a picture on the Long Winters forum. John doesn’t know why Flickr isn’t still a viable community. Nothing about what it was doing then couldn’t translate to now, but the network effect cuts both ways, which means the more people use a thing the more people will use it. Yahoo has made some pretty odd decisions, also with the garbage fire that is Tumblr today. Myspace one day lost everybody’s music.

Today Merlin read that the Amazon Look has been discontinued, which was a camera that can give you advice about your clothing choices, but now it is just not going to work anymore. John still feels that the fact Vine went away was culture war stuff. Where the fuck is Vine? They were acquired by Twitter and then shut down. Everybody is holding a different part of the camel and John cannot pick what part of the camel he holds. He doesn’t want to get stuck with the wrong part of the camel. You don’t want to be the one who says ”A camel is like a python” because you instantly loose all respect with the ladies.

John is not part of the Internet culture. Every time he goes to San Francisco he wonders what part of the Internet he is holding and whomever you are talking to, you never know if they were the one who invented RSS or if they are Jack Twitter, so you can’t shoot from the hip. From 1982 on, almost 40 years ago, as a consumer John wanted computers to be as dumb as himself or effortless for the user to not have to climb the mountain to the computer, but that the computer would come down where the users live, but every day he is still greeted with a string of unintelligible numbers, like ”to restart your Comcast X-finity blorg you need to go on to the blirg blorg”

The computer and the phone are extremely limited devices because John has to climb the mountain each time to figure out how to do the next thing. If he wants to do a video blog and wants to publish something to the Internet, he could call Merlin or John Siracusa or he could spend a week trying to figure it out, buy a bunch of hardware and probably get up to the level of a 90-year old grandpa, relative to what a 15-year old can do, but none of it works. In 2010 he absolutely would have believed that by 2020 he would walk in…

What is amazing is that you open your laptop now and it comes on and doesn’t spend 5 minutes turning on. Apps launch pretty fast now, that is all extraordinary, and a lot of it is idiot-proof, like he clicks on the mail and there is the mail, but in terms of the overall experience John would have expected that computers would be integrated into our lives because kids are raised on computers now and they live on top of the mountain already.

John’s daughter’s Montessori school having trouble adapting to the lockdown situation (RL385)

One of the problems with the quarantine has been: John has sent his daughter to Montessori and when he first toured that school it was conspicuous that there were no computers and they were so proud of not doing any screen time, but just playing with colored blocks, and when they do math they get out a big bag of corn kernels and the kids do higher math by using matrix telekinesis to juggle corn kernels in the air. They were coming from a public school where the teacher was pressured from the district to take it all online.

Alexa just told John that there were no coming calls

When the lockdown started the Montessori school was trying to figure out what to do and was just throwing Hail Maries and all of a sudden you have to log on to Seesaw and download the stuff from the Google Drive and be there ready for the Zoom call with your pie pieces cut out of a piece of paper, and you need to buy a bag of corn kernels, like Home Corn, but they will do it all online. They continue their deliberately primitive and non-electronic approach, but they are using electronics to do that.

None of the people at the Montessori school know how to use electronics, so every time you log on somebody is going to have the wrong password or has put the wrong time into the thing, half the kids are going to be there, half of them didn’t know where to find the material, half of them are sitting there with a pair of scissors, but it is corn kernel time. It is forgivable because COVID just threw everybody into insanity, but even now computers still are not integrated and it is not clear where they belong in our lives.

Merlin admires and respects Montessori and Walldorf to make deliberate choices on how you conduct yourself in the world. A lot of people do little things like not using their phone at certain times of the day. When his daughter was born he had a bunch of completely made-up rules on how to be a less terrible father while working in a house with a baby. Take off you headphones as soon as you see your house on the way home to intentionally begin a transitional period from what you were doing to what you are going to do next. He also doesn’t open his laptop before his kid has gone to sleep every night, and until something better comes along that is a very good rule.

The problem is that we have a very incomplete idea what makes something difficult or easy. Online learning is different from other kinds of learning, there is no button you can press to transform your job where you make $60.000 a year and make two roommates online. There has been an exaggerated level of expectation what educators in particular know about technology. Like if John was invited to a gig and brought his guitar and they wanted him to use their Dell PC to make music instead. Merlin doesn’t know how to use a fucking PC, let alone how to make Vaporwave. He can tap his way around, he can check his email, but he doesn’t fucking know how to make that kind of music, let alone use that particular program. It is just a performance! Go out and do a performance!

That is not dissimilar to tell a teacher to put all his stuff online. They have quiet time when they look at colored blocks, so now they are supposed to put the colored blocks online, but with what? Every Mac laptop has the shittiest conceivable camera and we are discovering that now because we were never forced to do it that way.It is an Anna Karenina thing where we each fucked up in our own different way because of what is expected of us and what tools are available and what our recourse is if we don’t understand why something is not working.

It is a frustrating way to conduct your life when everything mostly works fine until it doesn’t and now you have to jam that square peg into the round hole. John is always frustrated because ”What I want…” is just some stuff he can print out and use to teach his kid. The natural way to do it is to sit down at a table with a pice of paper with some word problems, math problems, geometry problems or some text to read. Presumably there is a text book, so why don’t they send him the text book and he will work through the assignments with her.

Montessori’s philosophy is to throw a bunch of corn on the floor and then the little chickens are going to find the corn. Just send him a thing so they can sit down and have something they can do today. Because it is based on the idea that 18 kids are all pecking at the corn and one of them is going to go: ”I don’t know how to do this!” and another one is going to go: ”Let me show you, my fellow kid!” and they are going to educate themselves, like Lord of the Flies, but they just keep them from eating each other.

John only has a black and white printer because the idea that he was ever going to print out any pie charts did not seem worth it and all he ever does is print out contracts, sign them and fax them, but now he has to print a pie chart and pick the one that is a different shade of pink from the other one. ”Oh fuck!” Or the keywords were highlighted with a different colored background, but on the black and white printer it looks redacted and that is simple problem number one: Why do they assume everybody has a color printer? But in a lot of cases the assumption is that you just look at it on your iPad, but John doesn’t have one of those either and they don’t use computers that way, they never once sat their daughter in front of a computer, which has produced a 9-year old who is not interested in it and her eye just wanders, it is not a fascinating place to her.

Why does the transition to computers take so long? (RL385)

John expects that you would be able to either print out a piece of paper and not have it cost $7 in toner or living in a paperless world where everyone else is also living in a paperless world. John still gets asked to print out a document, sign it and fax i back while that person probably has Internet in their washer and dryer. At the same time other people want you to go into a virtual program on your phone and put a pretend signature on the thing, and then there is John who can not imagine any reason why his washer and dryer would be on the Internet, but it doesn’t feel like it is a transition period because it lasts an entire lifespan of a human being.

When they transitioned from horses to cars it took a few decades. They had to build roads across America and gas stations and they had to decide what traffic signals meant, you have to get the gas to the gas station, but that all went down between 1915 and 1930, in about 15-20 years and then you could get into your car in Pine Barrens New Jersey and drive to San Francisco and there was the Golden Gate Bridge. Hop on Roue 66! We built that entire infrastructure in just 15 years, but John is still unplugging and restarting his router exactly the same way as he did 15 years ago for the same reasons, which seems weird.

In 1960 Kennedy said we were going to go to the moon and in 1969 they were on the moon, which is a specious comparison, but it is also not. He just threw that out there and surprised a lot of people, especially with trying to bring that man safely home. Like that woman on TikTok who does the videos where Donald Trump is talking and she always cuts to herself with a different haircut, like: ”What? Who? Me?”

There is a display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle where they walk you through the whole space program and when you walk up close to a Saturn 5 you see it is made of pipe fitters and was built by the same guys who built refrigerators. The Kennedy speech is on a look there and you can just see the pocket protector guys fall back in their chairs. Merlin would have said ”difficult” instead of ”hard”.

Screen Time, John’s daughter’s mother not wanting to let her have computers (RL385)

Her mother is an Internet security executive, but she is also a Hippie luddite and there is a tremendous tension between the fact that she spends all day on a computer working with computer people about computers for computers about computers (John woke up Alexa again by saying ”computer”) and in her house she has an Alexa so she can say ”Play the Beastie Boys Check Your Head!”, she would be the first one to want computer light bulbs, although they don’t have those, but at the same time when John wants to teach his kid to use Wikipedia she doesn’t want her on computers, not because she is worried about her taking bikini selfies and putting them online, but probably about her watching unboxing or ASMR videos.

Merlin says that the people in Silicon Valley who make all that stuff are very conservative to letting their kids use computers. He heard interviews with the guy at Google who did a lot on the algorithm for recommending videos and he doesn’t think it is such a positive force in the world, people from Facebook say similar kinds of things. The people who are keeping their kids away from screens have their reasons a lot of the time, not because they are luddites or hypocrites, but just because you own a bar doesn’t mean your kid is allowed to drink from birth.

Merlin grew up in a period where the TV was the idiot box, TV = screens, screens = bad, and pretty soon you are killing yourself at a Judas Priest concert, all because of TV. They have previously talked about John’s attitude vs Jonathan Coulton’s attitude in regards to screen time. Merlin tries to not use a screen to do stuff and is like the David Cross character with the Victrola (see this clip from Mr. Show), and you are little bit too cute if you are not making sensible decisions about when it is appropriate to use technology.

Technology is embedded so deeply in culture where a privileged few gets to utilize it at high speed in ways that they want and a lot of other people are stuck with a very shitty panopticon experience. John doesn’t mind the fact right now in his daughter’s life being a character on a Tootsie Pop wrapper: ”Let’s go out and roll hoops!”, ”Let’s do archery practice!” In some ways it is still 1970 for his daughter because of the things that she has access to. Not that all her toys are made by the Amish, but she plays with dolls, reads books, rides her bike and plays in the yard.

John expected a lot more protest from his daughter that he and her mom spend so much fucking time looking at their phones, that by the time she was 9 she would either accuse them of hypocrisy or she would be some Latter Day Saints television commercial, sitting over in the corner with a single tear dripping down her face as her mom is on some Slack channel talking about her marketing budget and John is telling a person on Twitter exactly where they can put it. She definitely bounces in and says: ”All right, phones down!”, but she takes it in stride and it hasn’t become an attractive nuisance, she does not say: ”Let me look at your phone!”, but she forgets that she could and yet she accepts that her dad looks at a computer or phone a lot while at the same time telling her that there is nothing on the Internet although he is on there all the time and it affects his emotions and his presence.

John enjoying working in his ravine (RL385)

Right now John is working in his ravine in any spare time he has. State law and county law and city law all have very strong feelings about whether or not he is allowed to go down into the creek at the bottom of his ravine and start fucking around building dams. You need to do an environmental impact statement and you are supposed to get 15 layers of permits, you need hydrological engineers, and every institution in Washington and King County and the town he lives have some clause about wet lands.

John’s creek is not visible from the road and is so fucked up by the past that John just said: ”Sure, I am not going to do anything that is bad, but I am a human beaver!” and he is down in the creek, beaving away, and when his kid comes along she he tells her that she is either the beaver or the dam. John is building little structures, he is taking metal parts out and putting wood parts in, all in the hopes that one day he will cut the ribbon and unveil his masterwork. The beavers will flock and the mayor with a top hat and a sash will come in and give him a gold medal.

When he is down there, his mind is absolutely evacuated of any concern other than a 9-year old boy’s desire to put things in a stream and make the stream go here. He is completely disappeared! It is so incredible that he will come out of 6 hours in the ravine and he is completely covered in mud, he is soaking wet, but he has a moment where he remembers his phone and the Internet and all the people he knows, and he hasn’t looked at his phone in 6 hours.

John wanting to teach his daughter Wikipedia (RL385)

John does believe that he could log on twice a week. All his encyclopedias are in storage and ”What I want…” are his encyclopedias. He wants to sit with his daughter and say: ”Oh, the andromeda galaxy? Let’s look that up!” When he was born in 1968 his parents bought the Brittanica for him because the idea back then was that it would be with them for the rest of his lives and it was the greatest savings bond you can buy. What a crazy year to buy an encyclopedia, the addendum for the next year was surely a thick one. They still thought what killed the dinosaurs was sadness. But in High School when John wrote a research project he got his Britannica out and he was still looking stuff up in that thing until Wikipedia.

Because his encyclopedias are in storage John needs to have his daughter understand Wikipedia because he wants to talk about stuff with her, and he wants her to do what he did, which is that when nobody is around to pull the encyclopedia down when it is a rainy day, and that is what is missing in not having the Internet. John probably spends 30% of his day on Wikipedia. Merlin basically uses 4 websites all the time: IMDB, Wikipedia, Google News, Twitter. His ecosystem has gotten so much smaller and it really has become more on an appliance than a playground. John’s favorite thing in the world is that Merlin called it ”Weekeepedia” They should interrogate that!

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