RL388 - Medical Lunch

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: John is his own Time Loki, referring to John setting every clock in his house slightly differently and therefore being the agent of his own chaos.

The show title refers to Dan Benjamin having to have his lunch at a certain time of day, like it were Dialysis, and not being able to record at times when John usually records.

John’s audio video settings are all screwed up and he can only hear Merlin through the internal speakers. John doesn’t have a speaker icon in the menu bar, but he didn’t turn anything off because he runs stock. This is the show because what is in the show is in the show, and especially what is not in the show is necessarily not in the show, which took John a long time to figure out.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Moving the recording of the show back an hour (RL388)

They have moved the show back an hour and John has started to assume that he can get up in time for the show without setting an alarm. John always dreamed of having an internal clock and not needing a clock because he would just know when things were, and he is lucky that he does. He can lay down and say he will take a 9 minute nap, which blows Merlin’s mind. John didn’t always have that, but it came gradually. For many years they have scheduled to record on Mondays at 10am Pacific Time, but recently in these challenging times when they are both going to bed later and sleeping later, they decided to go at 11am instead.

Prior to the pandemic there were too many things to do in a day to start recording at 11am, and the only show John has at 11am is the one with Dan Benjamin because Dan has to have his lunch at a certain hour and when John would suggest a different hour Dan wouldn’t be able to have lunch. He says it like it is Dialysis, and how can he do it without getting his medical lunch. John doesn’t know what it is like to have lunch at noon everyday because he always has it at different times or not at all.

Now after all these years John sees the wisdom of Dan Benjamin and realizes that it is better to record at 11am because he stays up so late and is usually so tired. Merlin feels like he does a better job doing different kinds of shows at different times of the day, but there is no logic to it. He records with Dan at 8:30am, which has become in the last three months just a skosh early, but sometimes the results are really good. He learned a long time ago that he should not do too many podcast recordings at night, and when he does he must not drink a lot. YLNT they always recorded at night and sometimes they had obviously had some beverages, and that is not professional, but they were young and didn’t know any better.

Today is the Apple Developer Conference (WWDC) and Merlin was watching that. Everybody is very excited and Marco Arment is jumping up and down. John’s story is that he rolled over, looked at his clock, and it was 10:59am, he picked up his phone to text Merlin, and of all the people John works with Merlin is the absolute best at getting a text that says: ”Can we go 15 Minutes late” - ”No prob, Bob!” Every other person John works with, his family, the mayor’s office, everybody when he does that they suck in air and go: ”Ahhh, okay!”

Speed limits (RL388)

When Merlin was a kid in Florida the state park called Booker Creek was the first place that had all of their speed limits be unusual numbers. Now you see that all the time, for example 9 mph. John thinks that is so good! Merlin’s friend Dennis used to do this: When the movie starts at 7:30pm, he would plan to leave at 6:56pm. It works!

John sets every clock in his house and his life slightly differently from every other clock. He is not doing a Vince Lombardi, but a Time Loki, an agent of his own chaos. In John’s house the microwave is set 7 minutes fast, the clock in his car is about 12 minutes fast, the old clock on the mantel can be 15 minutes fast, they are all a little fast, but different amounts, and when he realized he could change the time on his Apple Watch, he set that a little bit off to sometimes as much as 11 minutes. Not only are all his clocks fast, which makes him feel he is almost late to something, which he is, but he also doesn’t know how late he is and he can never look at a clock and assume that he has 10 more minutes because it is 10 minutes fast.

To John, like most people, speed limit signs have become from just a suggestion to being a sign about what the cops up ahead might think is the speed limit, to something he looks right through. When he was on his two motorcycle trips he realized that on a motorcycle you have a super-different experience with everything and every aspect of being just on a normal road is completely heightened and exploded, especially on a big displacement motorcycle that feels it is too much motorcycle for John anyway.

As he initiates any turn, even just a gradual turn on a country road, at least 30% of his brain is consumed with the fear that he is going to do it wrong and crash and die. In a car, if he overshoots a turn or if there is a goat in the road, which can happen especially in Oregon, and if you slam on the breaks and the car goes into a skid, John knows what that is going to do and how to recover from that, how to take evasive action, he can do all kinds of things in a car because he knows what he is doing.

On a motorcycle it is not just the risk of doing it wrong, but also not knowing how to recover from a skid or how to take evasive action because he is barely hanging on to this and he has his fingernails on the edge of the cliff at all times because he is only just able to… John has ridden two-wheeled motor-vehicles his whole life, but not these big things at these speeds in this conditions. If there is a goat in the road when John is on his Vespa he does know what to do, but he is also not going 75 mph. In a pinch you could just step off of a Vespa and let it hit the goat.

John started to notice that the speed limit signs are 100% tied to the road and the way that the corners are structured, the way that that they are banked, the radius, the sidelines up ahead, are taken into consideration and reflected in the speed limit signs, which blew John’s mind. Not just that they are not arbitrary, but they also are not just one single formula. There are banked corners, flat corners, and corners in between.

John got a gradual and dawning appreciation for engineers. Everything about a road is engineered, which is incredible what they have calculated into it and the things they have built that seems like they have just piled up some dirt and paved it, except in the South, there you just throw a bunch of dead mules and goats in there and pave it. The Marina district is all built on garbage and ship wrecks. The SoDo area (South of Downtown) is just old bottles, dead horses, Indian canoes, anything they thought didn’t have any value, all these canoes that would now be in museums around the world.

John was always exactly 10 mph over the posted speed limit because the speed limit is conservative and the motorcycle is agile, but John never was 12 mph over it because between 8-10 mph felt like exactly the right tempo. A little bit over that felt like going too fast and being dangerous. Even though the speed limit signs are only in increments of 5, they are calibrated a lot more carefully than John thought. Speed limit signs that say 19 or 29 mph feels hilarious, but it would shock John into realizing that they actually reflect a calculation.

The single best piece of advice Merlin heard about appreciating Shakespeare is that if it is a play you should see it performed as a play. If it is a poem or a sonnet, hear it read aloud, and the second best is that in the absence of getting to see a performance, if you are stuck just reading it like a monster, it is really important to discover the right speed to read Shakespeare that would allow you to get the most from it. There is a velocity that feels good, and that is true for a lot of stuff in life like an US highway that has a maximum speed limit but also an implicit minimum speed limit. You are not supposed to be going 15 mph on a highway because that is not safe and the minimum speed on an Interstate is actually 45 mph.

Appreciating engineering (RL388)

Merlin recommends a podcast by Tim Harfort (?) called Cautionary Tales with the log line: ”Telling true stories about mistakes and what we should learn from them” It talks about Chernobyl, about a World War I civilian pretending to be a German officer or a waiter at the Beverly Hills Supper Club trying to get people out. We can learn so many things from giant disasters about the smaller disasters. This week’s episode is called Tsumani of Misery about realizing after the Tsunamis in Japan how big of a sea wall they would have had to make to prevent against a Tsumani hitting the Fukushima plant and all the estimates that go into that.

John hates to always be the one who ties that into the social sciences. Design by committee creates problems because although sometimes the solution to an architect working apocryphally and not accounting for the weight of the books when building a glass library is to get other people in the room, but if you get too many people in the room the design falls apart. The problem in the social sciences is that there is often very little collaboration and you get these engineered theories without any oversight or anybody saying: ”Wait a minute! Shouldn’t we add in a factor for the fact that there are no sidelines on this corner?”

The theories that come out of universities or think tanks are often what we base public policy on because they get published and republished and people talk about it, but there is no process of vetting or testing before people start making policies about them. Increasingly social policy is made on the Internet in a split second and there isn’t even a sense that there should be any engineering behind a theory other than that somebody you trust published or even just reposted it without comment.

Trying to find the right blend, not just in engineering, but in every other part of the world of expertise, of not just trusting this one person who is a mad genius or who is working in isolation, but getting other human eyes on it and do collaboration, but also not letting it get bogged down in a bureaucratic process where there are people in the room who don’t belong there or trying to serve too many masters.

If Merlin and John had a third person in this show… they tried one time to expand their franchise by talking to people who are ongoing characters on this show, but Merlin didn’t want the work and it was harder than it seemed. It turned out that he is much worse in person than they make him out to be. Like the show they tried to do with John Siracusa (see RD2016) where he just yelled at John about evolution for an hour and a half. There is not oxygen in the room between Merlin and John for a third person and they are not even in the same room.

How scientists of different disciplines interact (RL388)

Merlin starts talking about the replication crisis in psychology: There are certain tentpole studies that people are still quoting to this day, but almost every single one of them has something wrong with it that we didn’t discover for a pretty long time. The Standford Prison Experiment, the Shocking People one, the monkeys with the bananas, the rat over here pushing a button. The other day Merlin was searching for an analogy that suits his feeling that they are going through a large experiment right now with the coronavirus.

Every time somebody tries to talk about anything beyond a very small area with very recent data it is bullshit and it is only useful in extremely specific cases. Having national COVID numbers is like having a national weather forecast (Merlin tweeted about this). First of all there is no normal to return to and they are not going to go back to anything close to normal until they tramp this thing way the fuck down. Wear a god-damn mask and stay inside for three weeks! Everybody keeps going off half-cocked and we see what happens.

The Marshmallow test, something from the 1960s or 1970s, is where they sat a kid down and put a marshmallow in front of them and if they managed to not eat it for 5 minutes they would give them two. That was a victim of the replication crisis and people trying to replicate it did not get the same results.

There is no rubric that is shared across all sciences for what we are trying to accomplish and sometimes we are not even working out of the same teacher’s edition. Of course it is going to be confusing when a city planer and a civic engineer and a designer and a mayor start getting real. Then you add in somebody with expertise in the realm of diversity, somebody with an expertise on how people interact with machines, and when you put all those people in a room with social scientists and there is absolutely no baseline because they are not even speaking the same language and we make no attempt to even have a common language anymore, even within university graduates.

People who just want to correct somebody else (RL388)

A lot of people think of themselves in one profession as the necessary corrective to another profession. ”My job is to be the one who keeps those people with that job in check.” This is baked into America in a way, we think of the press as the thing that keeps government in check, the Supreme Court keeps Congress in check, and both keep the Presidency in check. Engineers keep city planners in check, increasingly a civilian review board keeps the cops in check, but all that is an actual job.

The journalist’s job isn’t to keep government in check, but their job to do journalism and keeping the government in check should be a byproduct of them doing a good job, an outcome of good reporting. Keeping the Congress in check should be the outcome of the Supreme Court, not its job. That is also true for when social scientists and engineers interact, but in the meetings they are just trying to find false in each other’s argument or the flaw in each other’s plan. They think of their job as to be a snoopy Vulture (?), and when they walk out of the meeting they feel that they really did their work today because they found a flaw in everything the other person proposed.

A big part of corporate culture now is that all you have to do in a meeting is shoot somebody else’s ideas down, you don’t even have to come in with ideas. Being the antidote or the corrective that keeps someone else in check is somehow seen as God’s work. Merlin once gave a talk at Maddison where one of his friends is a professor and the phrase he uses in academia is problematizing.

When you hear something from the Supreme Court sometimes there are judges asking surprisingly difficult questions of one side and not the other and on first blush people think they are going to rule against the people they are asking the hard questions to, but often it is the opposite because they give the person with the strong case the opportunity to make their case even stronger and they give them the ammunition to deal with the appeal that will come out of this. They push the person with the better argument harder because they can handle that.

The desire to dunk on somebody in a meeting is to walk out of that meeting as the hero. The engineer who is putting the speed limits on the Highway at the end, although the Highway has of course been constructed from the start with speed limits in mind, doesn’t get a medal and no-one knows their name. It is just a guy in a hard hat, standing there with a clipboard among 15 other people who look the same, but she is the one who designed the whole thing! The only heroism at the end of working 30 years at the Oregon Department of Public Works is that they give you a certificate, probably not even a gold watch anymore.

Compare that to somebody who is sitting in the meeting at city hall about the road getting built and saying: ”We can’t have a road that comes around the corner there because what is going to happen if there comes a guy who has never been on a motorcycle before comes around the corner and didn’t see the sign?”, just throwing up that kind of questions, trying to make thing more complicated than it is and trying to make a good idea fail, but not out of good faith, but with a certain amount of laziness and looking at somebody with a hard job and wanting to make your job look as hard as theirs and wanting to seem to be as much an expert as they are.

John is part of the commentariat on Internet and computers and city planning and all that, he sits there on his squeaky chair and talks about things he has no expertise on, but at least he is not part of a committee.

Merlin thinks that people who should know better like journalists have become so sloppy, certainly in tweets. He talked to his friend John Gruber about how reluctant they both are to reblog or retweet something that has a typo in it because that makes them look bad as well. Especially the Washington Post seems like they are deliberately trying to make Merlin insane because every piece in that publication has been through several layers of editing, but you will see an error that your phone would have caught.

Merlin might have typos all the time, but he is not the Washington Post or the president that people turn to for their expertise. John Dickerson asked the question the other day: ”What is the term for only engaging with an argument by the worst act done on behalf of it?” We see it all the time that the most inconceivable, outlandish, far-fetched corner case that happened one time comes to define an entire argument or movement. He then concludes that the term he was looking for and that had been coined by Jonah Goldberg from The Dispatch is ”nutpicking”, which is looking straight past what the person is trying to say that is substantial and specific, but making it weird and abstract by finding one hypothetical.

John doesn’t think that when he or Merlin comment on the world as they see it that their goal is to tear people of good faith down and tear good things apart, either for their own amusement or for making themselves seem bigger than they are because they don’t have a dog in that race. John spends a lot of his time defending parts of the American story or parts of government that seem opaque, ill-mannered, or ill-intentioned from the outside.

When running for office a lot of John’s journey was to say that this whole process seems corrupted, but it is really the effect of a combination of benign circumstances and well-meaning people who with very good education and trying to do the right thing have created a structure that none of them can extricate themselves from. The reason we don’t have smooth-paved road in that part of Seattle is not that somebody at city hall wants you to have a bad day, but the taxing structure that was put in place by the legislature doesn’t allow the city to fund this kind of construction without there being a referendum that isn’t going to happen, or whatever.

John is against the concept of conspiracies in general, but there is so much evidence of so many small-scale panty-anty conspiracies right now, like the whole business with the fireworks. There seems to be ample evidence that this is really happening and that somehow huge crates of fireworks have been delivered to the inner circles of all the cities that stood up during Black Lives Matter because it is like a war zone in these places and fireworks are going off all night long.

John saw a report from West Harlem (New York City) last night where parades of cop cars were going around the block at 3am bumper to bumper with their sirens on, just literally in a parade.

His whole life John has looked as conspiracy and found that most of the time the simplest answer is probably the best, and the simplest answer is almost never that a secret tribunal of Jews in Switzerland is running the banks, but when the Reagan administration deregulated the banks some bankers saw an opportunity, probably largely out of goodwill, some of them motivated by greed, and they thought what they were doing was going to be good for the economy, and it was, and it is just a cascading set of people trying to mostly do the right thing and some of it was going to benefit them too, but that has now created an untenable financial situation. It is not that capitalism is intrinsically bad, but if you take government regulations away you will end up with an unregulated industry.

But how can you now come out and say that conspiracies are fake? There are so many of them! Every morning John wakes up and walks across the bones of the 50 conspiracies that were laid out on the Internet just last night. To make a sweeping generalization, like ”It is not like the cops are doing this…” The cops don’t have the brains to put a conspiracy together.

People coming up with conspiracies because life is not fair to them, fairness vs justice (RL388)

Merlin adds that we don’t tend to over-notice the things that are neutral or that benefit us. Those seem normal because we deserve it. What we notice are things that are damaging to us or the things that might become damaging to us and those are a lot of fertile ground for conspiracies because there must be some explanation for why your life is the way it is and you just need to reverse engineer who is out to get you. Of course it is the Jews or the Italians or whoever. If you did an accounting of the things that have mostly gone pretty good for you, then you would be less likely to think that there are cabals. The truth is: Nobody cares about you!

John’s mom, at no point in her life did anyone ever tell her that things were fair. She has absolutely no expectation that things would be fair. If you tell her that something is not fair in a situation that she has control over, she will tell you that she is doing her best to make this fair because she doesn’t want anyone to feel that favoritism is playing a role. When it came to the Christmas presents that John and his sister got, their mom was working to try to balance favoritism, which she had experienced as a kid as a deficit to her, as much as she could.

From the small scale of cutting a sandwich in half and giving some to each of her kids, which she can control the fairness of, outwards to for example a school where you have to apportion out your time and your intellectual and emotional resources among 30 kids to try to make it as equal and equitable as you can, there is a decreasing ability to do that really. It is not as easy as cutting a sandwich. Everybody’s needs are different and you are one person who only has X-amount of training and you can only know a kid so much.

Merlin’s kid’s teacher once said that fairness isn’t giving everybody the same thing, but giving everybody what they need to succeed, which is a lot more tricky than giving everybody exactly one orange slice, regardless of how much food they had in the last 24 hours. People are much more worked up about losing a dollar than gaining a dollar and will do odd things to keep themselves safe and protected and there is also our heritage and history.

Fairness is completely subjective and it easy to be wherever you are and feel like you have been treated unfairly and to project that backwards on systems. In school a teacher is trying to split their attention among 30 kids, but there are 30 classes in this school, the school is one of 30 schools in a district, and there are 30 school districts in the state, and at every level even if everybody is trying to be fair and do a good job and be a good and honest person, if you take any product of this school district as an adult and ask if that was fair, it is so much easier to say that you weren’t treated fairly and to build a little castle in your heart about that, especially if you were raised or are living in a culture as an adult where the currency is often calculated in terms of fairness.

John’s mom was raised with very little expectation that any aspect of society was going to be fair to her and when she got a good shake in places it was never her expectation and she didn’t really celebrate it either, but it was often a thing she had to accomplish for herself or it ended up being fair because she fought for it. Back in the 1940s fairness wasn’t seen as a component of justice, and people were not talking about that until very recently. Justice is so different from fairness that it might be unrelated, but we have equated them because it is easy to do.

Justice is a concept that is carved out of granite and it is a lazy aspect of our current world and a bad analogy to say that fairness, which is made out of balloons, is justice light or justice for dummies. It is really not! Justice is something where you have a sword in one hand and a scale in the other, while fairness is a piece of cake on a paper plate. John lives in a world where the language is very different from the world his parents lived in and very different from any of the people he reads about who lived before him, let alone people younger than him who are way further out on the fairness wing because it has been a conceptual direction we have taken, in a lot of ways because justice is so hard to achieve.

Justice if often bloody and it is hard to stay focused and to not sag your shoulders and try to backengineer justice from fairness. Everybody getting a can of Fanta with their lunch is fair, but that doesn’t work toward justice. The can of Fanta or an equal portion of ketchup on everybody’s tray isn’t… Merlin like John’s analogies and wants him to be in charge of something, if only for a weekend.

John has never been a manager (RL388)

A friend of John who owns a hotel asked him the other day if he would be good at managing people and his initial reaction was: ”Well, sure!”, but when was the last time he managed anybody? Except for having been the leader of a band, which was was just juggling live rats, he has never managed people. He was the assistant manager of the Grunge bar The Offramp, but that position was 100% toothless and the owner was running a complete cult of personality and had made John the assistant manager to put a layer of insulation between him and the staff, but when the staff came to John all he could do was go to the owner and ask.

One time when things were going well the owner told John to give everybody a shift drink whatever they wanted, which was John’s big moment because he was giving everybody a drink, but one of the staff who was terrible at her job but was the owner’s pet, asked for a glass of Chambord and John was 22, he didn’t know what anything was, ordered a glass of Chambord for her, but when Lee Ray (presumably the owner) heard about it he was mad because that was expensive stuff and he had meant to give everybody a well drink.

John has never been a manager and he doesn’t have any real idea what kind of a manager he would be and he suspects that he would maybe not a good one. He would be really bad at it! Managing 20 people sounds like a nightmare!

Merlin had once been asked to take care of the guy who was selling the banner ads at their dotcom and he had other stuff to do and had no interest in doing this, and he did not notice that the guy was running an eBay business out of there. He didn’t like taking to him because he was from Castro Valley and he was very strange. He was terrible at his job, but it was also very difficult to be good at this job because it was the caveman age of selling ads on the Internet, and Merlin’s boss took that job away from him, which was probably a very good idea.

Just as with sales people: There are people who are born to do sales and who can sell anything, and there are people who are born to manage and can manage anybody. If you understand what motivates people you can be a good manager, but Merlin is a terrible judge of character and he doesn’t like human beings. He is probably the wrong person to be looming over the banner ad guy.

John would probably be a micro-manager who would be telling people what to do, like his mom was with him and came in and said: ”That was very good, but here, you just needed to… let me just stomp on your toys for a second!”

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