RL420 - The New Urbanist Superhero League

This week, Merlin and John talk about

The Problem: You never know what a whale’s going to do, referring to the phrase Nantucket Sleighride when you shoot a harpoon at a whale and the whale takes your whole ship on a ride.

The show title refers to the New Urbanist movement that John talked to while he was running for office and he felt for a brief moment like a member of this group.

Merlin accidentally quit Skype 2 seconds after John started talking, so they had to redo the intro. John has grown accustomed to computers being somewhat unreliable and he didn’t think much about it. It is the nut behind the keyboard. John was looking out the window at squirrels in the trees and he thought Merlin was talking about a literal nut. Merlin was watching a lot of stuff involving tech community douchebags and he needs to take a break.

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 Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first!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

Watching a documentary about WeWork (RL420)

Merlin is not a fan of call-out culture. He was watching a documentary about WeWork, which was a heck of a thing at one put with a $40 billion evaluation by leasing office buildings, subdividing it and selling desks. It was a heck of a thing, but also a hack of a thing. Because Merlin is the Admiral (Matthew C.) Perry of TV he discovers a lot of the stuff and then makes his family watch it, so he watched it with his kid in the morning and then again with his wife in the evening. Merlin has the uncanny ability of associating a bit of audio with where he was at a certain time.

Merlin’s lady friend does some event planning as part of her job and she is managing a off-site meeting or retreat with a bunch of the doctors she works with and Merlin has a specific recollection of Bodega Bay, the place where The Birds was filmed, there was a man with astonishing dyed black hair and a speedo at the pool, he was visiting the church from The Birds, his daughter had just gotten really into Pokémon Go and WeWork was just about to go public and had released their S1 form which was completely bananaballs.

The douchebag who ran the company was getting paid $6 million to license the trademark ”on-we” to his company, his wife would be the only person who could declare his successor, all kinds of crazy stuff, and in only 6 weeks it completely imploded. Merlin recommends watching the documentary on Hulu. They used the phrase Nantucket Sleighride (John used it in RL418).

They claimed that the floor of a building in which WeWork was located was worth more than all the other buildings they were leasing put together. There was nothing to this and it turned into a weird cult with WeWork and WeLive, they wanted to do schools called WeGrow and some coke-fueled idea of WeGrownup, which was going to be for continuing education. It more and more sounded like a Cambodian reeducation or L. Ron Hubbard’s religion. Any time somebody would ask him a question about the actual business he would bring it back to raising human consciousness.

The phrase that keeps coming up over and over and you can’t unhear it, but how often do you hear one of those thinkfluencers say that they want to change the world? Very few of them are committed to helping the world. Change the world means to screw up something that already works in order for me to make an ungodly amount of money. Elon Musk consistently touts that he reinvented subway tunnels, but he is not really trying to change the world. Tesla and batteries are good, but WeWork kept falling back on his real plan to elevate human consciousness through office space.

John getting a daguerreotype taken at WeWork (RL420)

John went into a WeWork twice: First time there was a guy coming through town who was making old-fashioned tintype photos, almost certainly from Portland, and John knew somebody who knew somebody who knew that this guy was coming through town and John should get his picture taken, which is exactly the Portland thing he loves to do. This was not an old West situation, this was at a WeWork, and John wanted it to be classic because it was going to be a daguerreotype, he only had one shot, and he didn’t want to miss his chance to blow.

When he is at a state fair and somebody suggests to get a old-timey photo in Western clothes John will go in and get into character, for example take off his tortoise shell glasses because they are not historically accurate, and even if no-one sees his underwear he is going to wear period-correct underwear. John got a wonderful photo from the state fair where he is dressed like a major in the cavalry who has fallen into disfavor and has gone a bit wild, but he still wears his old uniform, he got a whole backstory for the guy, and that picture is prominently displayed.

John won’t go to a costume party and talks about WeWork, but he is in the character of the person in the costume. He has a lot of friends in the cosplay community, he has been cosplay adjacent in a couple of different directions, and every time he is going to a ComicCon there are cosplayers all around, but they all just talk about Facebook and looking at their phones. You are a steam punk Batman, why are you looking at Facebook right now? John asked a cosplay friend two days: ”If you are going to dress up as Silk, the Chinese lady Spider Man, why aren’t you also Silk?” - ”I just like dressing like Silk” - ”Don’t you want to be Silk?” - ”I just like to dress like her!”

John was wearing Aviator glasses that with a classic frame, like a World War II look, he got his khaki jacket on, and he took the picture, John was very happy with the experience, he enjoyed the man, and months later in the mail came the thing and it turned out that his glasses, although clear, were polarized and the daguerreotype camera that was made out of gears and ribbons perceived the polarization as impenetrable and the glasses were the blackest lenses you ever saw. If they actually looked like that they would be the coolest sunglasses you ever saw, but in the context of a daguerreotype it is weird.

Every time someone mentions the Korean boy band BTS Merlin thinks of Built to Spill. Imagine someone in a silky, slightly-see-through lady blouse and you can see a Built to Spill T-shirt under it, and if she had combat boot? Who are you? Marry me, please!

John doesn’t know what to do with this daguerreotype because it looks a bit like a time traveller and not in a good way. If he had taken his glasses off it would have been amazing. It is a beautiful item, somebody would probably like it, it is like Tony Soprano dressed as Napoleon with his horse sitting on Paulie’s wall.

Meeting the New Urbanists at WeWork while running for office (RL420)

The second time John went to WeWork it was the same WeWork, he was running for city council, he had been to every single union in the city, they are extremely political, and they said that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, so they are going to go with the guy that tehy all vilify publicly as being not labour friendly and in actuality, because this is Seattle, he is super-labor-friendly, and we are not going to choose you because: ”Who the hell are you?” - ”I am the guy!” - ”Not yet!”

It was very difficult to do that week after week, day after day, to walk into a big room full of people and go: ”Hi, I am me! I am here to contribute to the town!” - ”Nope! There is already somebody doing that, although we don’t like them” and they are not even listening to your answers because they already have the answers in mind what they want you to say.

When John went to this WeWork he had already been given a rating on somebody’s website, the New Urbanists, young people who are very into bike lanes, they want density, and there is the idea in Seattle of hubs: Anytime you have a transit stop you have the opportunity to build density at that corner. Seattle has a real problem with nimbys. Everybody wants it all to happen, but just not right here. They go so far as to not want a 5-story building here where every apartment in it is $1.5 million because that is going to bring parking problems or noise or young people.

People vote for all this stuff because in their hearts they believe that the homeless should be housed and that there should be no childhood food insecurity, but when you tell them that you are going to build a new multi-purpose building with a grocery store at the bottom and 7 market-rate apartments and 7 subsidized apartments for middle-class families that can’t afford to live in the city, those people will be out there protesting: ”No density!” Those nurses and firemen can be a pretty rough trade, especially if they have two kids in school.

John is an Urbanist in a lot of ways, although he doesn’t hook-line-and-sinker with it, but he does feel like that if you put in transit, then right around that transit stop you should just build a little town there because then those people can get on the transit to go to work and they don’t have to have a car, it is a whole thing. Early in the campaign John had been giving a rating by this group of young people, like: ”We don’t know anything about this guy, so we are going to give him a rating of Middle!” based on some press release that John wrote in 4 minutes and said 3 things.

They had an event at the WeWork where they were going to in-depth interview the candidates. It was during a period where John was wearing business clothes every day and John there, they had already given some lukewarm endorsement of one of his opponents, and he sat in the room with them and laid out all his ideas about Urbanism, and then the gondola comes over and it lands in the tower that also got an elementary school and an observatory, and it has water slides, a university and a polar simulator with a ski jump.

These guys were like: ”You are incredible!” - ”I only got started! Are you kidding me?” Follow with me: A bear on a mini bike riding around, every time has one of those, you give it a little motorcycle and it is going to just ride around and delight people, maybe with a Hydro Flask full of honey, that would be cute! They each got to choose their hat, there are as many hats as there are bears!

As John was leaving the WeWork, standing out front, everybody coming in was wearing J.Crew suits and every seat is taken with young Urbanists doing their off-site work, they got conference rooms with people, and John was talking to another candidates who was running for a different seat and who also lost, but he was very popular with the polity, and he said to John: ”In the beginning I couldn’t figure you out, I though you just didn’t know what you were doing, but lately you have been killing it and if you had started your campaign 4 months earlier you would be the front runner now!” - ”That is not what I want to hear, but thank you!”

Merlin calls that a stompliment: It is supposed to be a compliment, but it ends up being not all that nice. He said: ”Your gondola plan is not realistic, but you are a great candidate!” - ”My candidacy is founded on funiculars and gondolas, so: You don’t know what you are talking about!”, but John felt briefly as a member of the new Urbanist superhero league where there were all wearing pegged pants and very expensive shoes, looking serious, basically like going to a gym, except it was an office, and one day the WeWork was just gone. What happened to that dream?

Parkour (RL420)

Every parkour person seems to live in the outskirts of Paris or in Brasilia because they are always parkouring on brutalist architecture. Maybe it has more things to grab, or even a Frank Lloyd Wright, but you could parkour the shit out of a Victorian neighborhood. They have more finials than Merlin had hot meals (see RL260 where John has touched more dicks than you’ve had hot dinners) ”You go up a Queen Ann, if you pardon me saying… it is better than going down with a whimp!” You never see Parkours in Queen Ann neighborhoods, but they are always on libraries or going through half-constructed buildings in Ukraine (John accidentally says The Ukraine again).

Time travel (RL420)

”What I want…” If John could communicate with a sea aminal [sic], he is not sure he would pick a whale. If it was any animal he doesn’t know what he would pick. We all want to do it, but what if they have harsh criticism? They have seen some really upsetting stuff and there are so many boring people, let alone if you are talking to a dog. This is the problem with time travel: It is a question like the one if you wanted to be able to fly or be invisible. John Hodgman says in his famous This American Life segment that people who want to fly are extroverted look-at-me people while those who want invisibility are full of shame. He has a unified field theory about it.

The problem with time travel is that: All the extroverts all pick going to the future, but they don’t factor in that in the future when they arrive they will be boring and useless to everyone else. They bring no new technology, they bring no real context, they have no skills that are useful. After the original novelty of ”Hey! Descartes is here! Don’t put Descartes before the horse! Ha ha ha!” you will have two weeks where he does all the talk shows, but very quickly the game is going to turn into: ”Hey, have you seen one of these?”, holding up a GameBoy, and he will just say: ”I do not know! What is this?” and that is going to get old very fast and then Descartes will just be a guy who still believes in Phrenology and maybe he can fill in a couple of blanks.

Whereas if you go back in time you will become a God and you can misuse that power, but you can help people, you can make penicillin. Even John who doesn’t know how to make penicillin could at least refine the trebuchet for them a little bit. He could help make a lawnmower engine or sketch it for somebody. If he met Descartes and would show him a rudimentary design for a lawnmower engine and suggest to build a tiny minibike for two and then you get a bear on the minibike and that is on the fucking royal crest!

John podcasting from his new house, his mom coming into the room (RL420)

This is the first podcast that John is recording from his new house, he is in the classic podcasting posture of travel John, meaning he is lying in bed with his blanket on and his laptop on his lap and his microphone in his hand in his new bedroom, and the door just creaked open and there stood his mom who did not expect him there podcasting. Normally she waves her hand, like: ”Oh, don’t let me interrupt” and she disappears, but this time she just stood there holding a jaw of paint and just stared at him.

John’s mom says: ”Hi Merlin!” and Merlin asks her if she could go back in time and kill Bonaparte, would she do it, but no she wouldn’t. She has some pretty strong feelings about him, but why would you lose them, they are important! What you are angry at is as shaping of who you are as what you are happy with. John’s mom just came to stand in the doorway and show her appreciation. You could screw up a lot of stuff without Napoleon! When ABBA appeared at the Eurovision Song Contest, what would they sing? Would they sing Mama Mia instead of Waterloo? What would Lewis and Clark be doing? Mom’s people were already in Ohio at that point.

Whales, Nantucket Sleighride, Moby Dick (RL420)

A Nantucket Sleighride is when you as a whaler shoot a harpoon at a whale and you are then supposed to draw the whale to you, but sometimes the whale takes you on a ride and all of a sudden your big ship is going to pulled by a whale until it ends.

You never know what a whale is going to do. John has a beautiful illustration of a sailor standing up in a whaling boat, holding a lantern on a pole because the whale took him for a ride and then the sun went down and they are out there in the sea over the horizon. Imagine you are a group of whalers on different boats and each one harpoons a different whale and each one goes on a separate Nantucket Sleighride in three different directions!

If you chase two rabbits you will lose them both. You can’t run and chase three toddler at the same time. One toddler does the work of one toddler, two toddlers does the work of half a toddler, and three toddler do no work at all, which is the opposite of horses.

Moby Dick

John read every single word of Moby Dick because that is the kind of reader he is, but he still doesn’t understand one of the top 4 things a whale can do, which is to go down. The whole industry of whaling presumes that if you stick the whale with a giant spear it is not going to go down, but it is going to run that way on the surface. John thinks the whale should just take a deep breath and go down, they do that anyway to eat or fight giant squid. Merlin would hate to see if somebody stack John with a giant spear, but he is on good terms with his neighbors right now.

Merlin has discovered a vein of Moby Dick fan fiction. There is a lot of fan art of Ishmael and Queequeg in the bed together, looking very open to whatever.

Whales going around, not down

2020 is Merlin’s year of saying: ”Let’s please stop guessing what somebody’s motivation is or deliberately understanding other people’s motivation!” We can’t expect everybody to respond to a thing the same we would. A whale that is harpooned may behave differently from the way you would have guessed.

The number one thing a whale does is to go around. If you get chased by an alligator you need to zig-zag because an alligator in a straight-away is going to take you down to its meat locker. Like Robert Shah says in the Indianapolis speech (from the movie Jaws): He is going to drag you down!

80% of whaling is going around, looking for the whales because the whales are going around. One of the reasons why there was any kind of interest in visiting Hawaii after Captain Cook and after a long period where the colonial enterprise was not interested at all was that the whalers needed a place to stock up on fresh water and coconuts. Why do the Hawaiians use ukuleles? Because many Portuguese emigrated to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane factories. They are at the heart of it a seafaring people and they originally arrived as sailors on whaling ships and they brought their ukuleles.

If the number one thing a whale did was go down and not around, then they would run out of squid in that area very quickly. They continue to talk about different whales. You could imagine a whale that went all the way around the world but never went down. It could just be eating Krill.

Their eyes are on either side of their head, which means they are more likely a food rather than a predator. Merlin talks how his pet lizard who also has eyes on either side is very careful and feels himself forward with his tongue. Horses and cows also have eyes on the side and they are both food. When it comes to a whale the eyes are so far apart that each eye sees a completely different world at the same time without being able to see in front of it at all and the whale brain has to combine those two picture into a single image of the world it occupies. In the same way that we have a blind spot where our ocular nerve connects to the shin bone they have a blind spot that is probably 15 degrees from left to right directly in front of them.

he problem with talking to whales is that a whale is fucking boring. What stories do they have to tell? That they go around and go down and have been to Hawaii a bunch of times?


The most noble creature on Earth is Charlize Theron, she puts all horses to shame, look at her withers, she is so majestic! What about Margot Robbie? She is the Charlize Theron of Avignon (referring to the counter-popes of Avignon). If John could talk to her, he would. She knows how to go down or around. Merlin means that in the Australian way. He did find a pretty good bear on a motorcycle.

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