Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by Nicholas Britell and our ad music is by Build Buildings.
We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser. Peter Clowney weighed in too. The show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas, Christine Driscoll and Rachel Ward. It was mixed by Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Maeve Higgins, who brought us the Kurt Vonnegut essay.
We had production assistance from Shani Aviram, Jacob Cruz, Emily Kennedy, Rikki Novetsky and Sarah Stodder.
Additional music for this episode came from Our Many Stars, Onry Ozzborn, and One Two Three.
Frank + Oak
Annie-Rose: Guys I’m about to order a kilogram of Mongolian potatoes to my address in Brooklyn.
Rachel: What? Let me see, hold on –
Rachel: She is, oh my god, Annie-Ros
Annie-Rose: I don’t know how much this is. Like, I don’t – I genuinely don’t know the conversion rate
RACHEL: You are paying 6,000 symbol….
ANNIE-ROSE: It’s, um
ANNIE-ROSE: Do you think it’s gonna let me do it?
BOTH: I mean what are the shipping charges?
RACHEL: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Rachel Ward. And I’m not gonna say this is a punishment but I mean it’s not a story that’s gonna show you in the best light. Do you want to tell about the Thai food Christine?
RACHEL: First of all, who are you?
CHRISTINE: My name is Christine Driscoll, and I’m the Associate Producer here on Surprisingly Awesome.
RACHEL: And what happened with the Thai food?
CHRISTINE: Well it was really late one night at Gimlet Media HQ and I heroically offered to order Thai food for everyone who was working late in the office
RACHEL: Which was a lot of people.
CHRISTINE: It was probably my third week here. And I like, took all these people’s orders I haven’t met. I was like oh, what a great way for them to meet me. And then like 45 minutes goes by and I get a phone call from the delivery person and he’s like I’m outside and I go outside and I realize he’s not outside. He went to South 3rd Street, all the way across the other end of Brooklyn. Ugh. I had to go tell everyone, “Hey remember when I said there was food coming, that Thai food you picked out late at night? It’s not coming at all. I’m sorry. I’m gonna order a pizza.”
RACHEL: We all had to eat your humble pie, which was a pizza pie. And that’s a problem we have here at Gimlet. You add or forget one “south” in the address and your delivery guy winds up 40 minutes away. But to a lot of people in the world, this is like, the least of their problems.
CHRISTINE: The majority of people in the world don’t have middle of the night Thai food. Because the majority of people in the world, four BILLION people, don’t have addresses. Or at least, not what we would consider an address in the US. In the postal BIZ these people are referred to as “The Unaddressed.”
RACHEL: That sounds like a Bruce Willis movie. And the trailer would be like “In a world, without postal address, how do you deliver the mail. HOW do you have a post office.”
CHRISTINE: But that really IS the question. And that brought us to this woman.
MONA: There’s no street name on my street – the beginning nor at the end.
CHRISTINE: This is Mona Harb, she’s works at the American University of Beirut. And she’s a professor of Urban Studies and Politics. We reached out to her to ask about how addresses work in Lebanon. Because — spoiler alert — they are pretty … informal.
MONA: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, we often joke about it like when you have to give an address to someone it will take like 10 minutes of explanation about all the landmarks along the way. I mean they range from the name of shops to a big tree on a corner, or a garbage dump somewhere or the image of some political leader on a corner.
CHRISTINE: And another way Lebanon is different from the US: there’s very little home delivery of mail.
MONA: I have a young daughter, she’s 7 year old and last year she was reading about the postman in school. And I had difficulty explaining to her who that person is (laughs). It’s so abstract that she can not even understand that there’s somebody distributing mail. I can’t even show it to her.
RACHEL: No addresses, no mail carriers — how did Lebanon get here?
[AUTOMATED VOICE MESSAGE]: Thank you for calling LibanPost. For English, press 2.
RACHEL: Hi Chadi?
CHADI MEGHAMES: Hi Rachel.
RACHEL: This is Chadi Meghames. He’s the finance and administration director for LibanPost. It’s the private company that has an exclusive contract with the government of Lebanon to run the national mail system.
CHRISTINE: In the world of postal services, LibanPost is pretty new. It was formed in the 1990s, after Lebanon’s civil war ended.
CHADI MEGHAMES: After 15 years of civil war in the country, that had impacted directly the infrastructure of the country, and its economy, the Lebanese government decided to privatize the postal sector in Lebanon, and this is why LibanPost was created.
RACHEL: During the war, Lebanon’s infrastructure for mail delivery was destroyed. That infrastructure was, namely, letter carriers. Because when you live in a world without addresses, the maps that those letter carriers are carrying around in their heads they ARE the post office’s infrastructure. So after the war, the folks that letter carriers had been delivering to, they were gone — in the best case scenario those people were displaced by fighting. So those mental maps were no longer valid. And the state was starting from scratch too. So no post office, no addresses.
CHRISTINE: So it’s the late nineties, early two thousands, it’s LibanPost, this postal service contractor for Lebanon, that is supposed to replace the pre-war, government-run postal service with a modern, efficient system. To help people get addresses, so they could get mail.
RACHEL: And this — this plan to create new infrastructure in the face of war — this actually parallels an experience that we had here in the US during world war two, when a lot of letter carriers went off to serve. The corps of post officers was depleted, but people still needed to send and receive mail. So the postal service had to figure out how to move mail more efficiently. That’s when the idea of ZIP codes first surfaced.
CHRISTINE: ZIP stands for zone improvement plan — but when the postal service marketed it they leaned on the idea of making the mail faster. I think they worked backwards from Z-I-P. And ZIP codes did make the mail faster. The ZIP code let the post office send mail DIRECTLY to where it was going, instead of leap frogging across the United States through a bunch of different mail processing centers.
RACHEL: They did that by having each digit in the code mean something. So, here’s the anatomy of a ZIP code: The first digit means your region. If you live on the East Coast, you’ve got a lower digit. I live in Brooklyn, NY – my first digit is a 1. If you live in San Francisco, your first digit is a 9. The next two positions in the code, the next two numbers, are the code of a mail facility within that region. So the second position for both my home address in Brooklyn, and Gimlet’s address in Brooklyn are 12 — my work and home mail go through the same facility.
RACHEL: The last two digits are even more local – so my last two digits at home are different than my last two at work, even though they’re both in Brooklyn.
CHRISTINE: And so Lebanon needed the same kind of systematized, infrastructural overhaul, that the US went through. But on an even wider scale.
RACHEL: When LibanPost was formed, what was the problem that you were trying to solve?
CHADI MEGHAMES: Our main problem, our main challenge let’s say was … to manage, the … lack of addresses in this country.
RACHEL: Because almost everyone has been using the informal addresses that Mona described. By the big tree on the corner.
CHRISTINE: They needed help. A partner. Someone who could work with a country that had been through A LOT. A country that had been through, like, years of incursions! Meddling from other nations! Colonisation! Religious tension! Influxes of refugees! They needed someone who could help create some order.
RACHEL: So here’s a quick exercise – let’s do this math together. Think of a modern country, where they also speak a little French, which is the colonial language of Lebanon. A place where the government is known for providing a lot of services. Where everything just works. Where everyone is NICE.
CHRISTINE: Is it Canada?
RACHEL: It’s Canada. Canada would help Lebanon fix its postal office.
CHADI MEGHAMES: You know, when there was no postal sector in the country 15 years ago, so the Canadians were the most experts in the field.
RACHEL: This wasn’t the first time Canada had stepped up to the postal service plate.
CHRISTINE: Canada’s postal service was considered one of the most modern systems in the world because they were early adopters of a bunch of digital postal technologies, like online package tracking and electronic postmarks. And so Lebanon’s request was not unusual — it was actually pretty common for a country to come to Canada and ask it to help create or modernize a postal service. Canada Post at this point had already provided assistance to the postal services of Thailand, Serbia, BELGIUM!
RACHEL: And in 1998, the Canadian postal service went to Lebanon. The promise was that everything would be better, more efficient. Mail would get sorted by machines. New delivery trucks would hit the road. They would retrain postal workers, to replace the letter carriers who had the maps in their heads. They would build more places where you could mail things. And they would tackle the biggest problem: Help people get addresses.
CHRISTINE: It was supposed to be a win-win. Better post office for Lebanon and a nice bit of cash for Canada. Over the life of a 12 year contract, the profits were expected to be more than a billion dollars.
CHADI MEGHAMES: The Canadians, they committed to invest in the infrastructure of the post and to have the same standards, postal procedures, to put in place all the processes needed in order to start operations, So this was what was committed between the two entities, the government and the Canadian …
RACHEL: And uh, did Canada do all of these things?
CHADI MEGHAMES: [laughs] I would prefer not to answer this question.
RACHEL: I see.
CHRISTINE: Chadi is being really polite. What he’s not saying is, basically, this deal did not work. Despite Canada’s big modern postal system, and their experience elsewhere, they just couldn’t crack Lebanon.
RACHEL: There were two big problems at play here. The first was the way that the Canada Post deal worked. It wasn’t just an agreement between Canada Post and LibanPost. It involved contractors — contractors who were hoping to make a lot of money on the deal. One of these contractors was a Canadian engineering company, SNC Lavalin. And while taxpayers didn’t know it at the time, an investigation by the Canadian newspaper the National Post later revealed that the whole deal to help Lebanon’s post office was structured so that the profits went to SNC Lavalin first, which created incentives that weren’t in the public’s interest.
CHRISTINE: And there were lots allegations of graft and corruption on both sides, Canadian and Lebanese. And we reached out to Canada Post and SNC Lavalin for comment multiple times. But no one wanted to rehash this.
RACHEL: But the second problem was that creating a modern postal service is really, really hard. Especially in a place that’s managed without one for so long. Mona Harb — the professor we talked to earlier — her daughter doesn’t know what a letter carrier looks like because, in Lebanon, most of the stuff we do by mail, they do in other ways. Like utility bills. A bill collector comes to your house, you pay on your doorstep, not through the mail. In fact, according to Mona, just about everything in Lebanon has a workaround — formal or informal — that makes up for the lack of a modern postal system.
MONA: So they resort to other, to other ways of getting things done and it’s uh in Arabic we call it [al shatarak], the astuteness of the Lebanese who manage to get things done against all odds and all constraints. You can imagine. And including informal or illegal ways sometimes but you have to get things done.
RACHEL: For example:
MONA: We have 7 million Lebanese in the diaspora so every person you know knows somebody living abroad, so it’s very common for people when they’re travelling or going somewhere to ask you do you need anything. Do you need books? Do you need clothes for your kids?
KAREN: I’m a senior art director Karen. I work in advertising
RACHEL: How does a letter get somewhere?
KAREN: Sometimes it doesn’t. Like when I got my acceptance from Miami Ad School I got the letter 6 months later, I was already there.
RACHEL: Wait, how did you know you got in?
KAREN: From an email, thank God, yeah
RACHEL: Why did it take so long?
KAREN: Because I’m Lebanese!
TIM: My name is Tim Fitzsimmons and I’m a former freelance journalist based in Beirut. There’s like a huge network of journalists secretly carrying things like I need a new camera lens or I need a new satellite phone to Beirut for the press corp there because anything going through the tradition channels has a chance of getting taken.
TIM: When we had just opened the bureau there, LibanPost called and they said we have a very large package for you that we need to deliver in person. Where do you live. And we had to quickly ask, hey has anybody got this call. And the conclusion was this is probably Syrian government aligned people trying to figure out where at least this particular press outfit was located, because LibanPost never calls with a large package. Ever. They would not know who to call, they would not deliver it. it’s just not how it works. So we knew it was off.
CHRISTINE: So nearly 20 years after Canada Post and LibanPost signed this deal, this is the state of affairs. If LibanPost calls you, your first thought might be: This is suspiciously good service.
RACHEL: And by 2001, the deal had fallen apart. The private partner, SNC Lavalin, pulled out. Canada Post was left holding the bag. The promised improvements didn’t really come through. Canada Post’s contract just quietly ended in 2004, and when it did, Lebanon didn’t renew it. Today, people are still struggling with trusting the postal service.
CHRISTINE: BUT people are still using their war-time workarounds. That astuteness of the Lebanese people, al-shatarak, is alive and well. And fixing the postal system is just, not really a priority.
RACHEL: And even though the Canadians bounced, LibanPost is still a company. They’re still responsible for supporting a postal system, even if it’s a system that not a lot of people actually want to use.
CHRISTINE: So what is there left to do, when you’re a postal service in a nation without addresses? If you’re a company like LibanPost is, Chadi Meghames told us, you pivot.
CHADI MEGHAMES: Our main goal was to shift the company from a traditional postal operator and to have diversified product and services. Our main target now is to become the daily life facilitator of the citizens, and this is what we are doing currently.
RACHEL: Daily life facilitator?
CHADI MEGHAMES: Yeah. The daily life facilitator of the citizens. Yes.
CHRISTINE: And citizens actually ARE interested in having their daily lives facilitated. Here’s Karen, the woman who got her college acceptance letter after she’d already been there for six months.
KAREN: it’s really horrible dealing with government stuff, like you have to know someone or you have to wait forever. So LibanPost for example if your passport expired you call them, they come to you, they take your passport, and they go bring you – they take what they need, for example you need two photos, you know, 50 pounds, whatever they need, plus their service. And they go and they renew it for you and they bring it back.
CHRISTINE: And that’s what LibanPost is now: It’s a broker for dealing with bureaucracy. Don’t want to stand in line at some government office? Don’t want to pay a bribe so you don’t have to stand in line? Pay the post office to deal with that bureaucracy for you.
RACHEL: So they’re easing bureaucratic distress, but LibanPost is still trying to crack that BIG problem. The lack of universal addressing. Chadi told us they’ve got ambitious plans.
CHADI: Currently we are shifting to a new concept to instating the GPS code into a unique 8-digit code
RACHEL: That 8 digit code is called a “NAC.” N – A – C.
CHADI MEGHAMES: The NAC is my baby, and it, it’s the remedy to our problems.
RACHEL: NAC stands for Natural Area Code. It’s based on latitude and longitude. And it’s a way of giving the ENTIRE WORLD addresses. Because everywhere has latitude and longitude… Like for example, we looked up Buckingham Palace on one of these NAC sites, it has a lat and long.
RACHEL: And according to one of the NAC sites we’ve been using, that lat/long is: 51.50077,-0.14334
CHRISTINE: SUUUPER easy to remember.
RACHEL: Totally. Not. But this site, NACtag dot info, uses an algorithm to give us a FIGHTING CHANCE of memorizing that location, by converting the latlong into a shorter string of numbers AND letters. So Buckingham Palace, on this particular NAC tag system, is: GZM7 RKH3
CHRISTINE: Also suuuuper easy to remember.
RACHEL: I know.
CHRISTINE: But it is a little better.
RACHEL: It is a little better. And this is how Lebanon is going to solve the problem of no addresses, and no trust in the postal service. They’re going to start assigning everyone addresses. At first it’s going to be internal only — you won’t KNOW you’ve moved from the “unaddressed” to “addressed” column. But LibanPost says it’s assigning everyone a NAC tag. Eventually those addresses might show up on houses — they might even be integrated with emergency services. So someday you might be able to just write something like GZM7 RKH3 on a postcard, and send it to the queen.
CHRISTINE: So Lebanon got to this point after a lot of hassle. But what happens if you skip all of the middle men — Canada Post, SNC Lavalin, networks of journalists — and go straight for the high tech solution? We’ll find out, after the break.
RACHEL: From Gimlet Media this is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Rachel Ward.
CHRISTINE: And I’m Christine Driscoll.
RACHEL: And you might have even heard about this next story in the news, here are some headlines:
RACHEL: This spring, the Mongolian postal service — called Mongol Post — decided to overhaul its system. But unlike LibanPost, the Mongol Post didn’t ask another country to come in and do the work. Instead, Mongol Post went straight for a technical solution. They licensed technology from a British company called what3words.
CHRISTINE: And the technology is similar to those NAC tags that Lebanon eventually decided to use. what3words uses latitude and longitude to create a unique code for every place on earth.
RACHEL: Except the codes are MUCH easier to remember. Instead of a string of numbers and letters, like GZM7 RKH3, Mongol Post will use a three word phrase. The hope is that three little words will solve all of the problems that stem from not having an address.
GILES RHYS JONES: So what3words is a global addressing system. We have divided the world up into 57 trillion 3 meter by 3 meter or 10 foot by 10 foot squares and we’ve allocated each one those squares a three word address, so three dictionary words to describe any spot on the planet
RACHEL: This is Giles Rhys Jones. He’s the chief marketing officer of what3words.
CHRISTINE: Giles explained that literally EVERY place in the entire world — from Antarctica to Beijing — has its own three-word code in their system. So for example — Buckingham Palace, it’s three words are fence.gross.bats.
RACHEL: So I’m gonna do this right now. So I’m gonna go to what3words.com and there’s a button here explore map and I’m gonna put in the name of my college radio station WRUW. And it brings it up and you can zoom way in on this map so I’m gonna place the pin at the door there’s a little door and you had to ring a bell to get in. The address of my college radio station is making.straw.allows.
RACHEL: Yeah. Spent a lot of time at making.straw.allows.
CHRISTINE: The place I spent a lot of time at in college was a couch in the art history library called yoga.plank.poker.
RACHEL: Ok, here’s another place I used to hang out. The English and French departments were there. It is toys.doing.fantastic.
CHRISTINE: Whaaaat, Do you know how to say that in French?
CHRISTINE: Okay, but there isn’t any trouble getting “LA POSTE” to the French Department. It’s always in the same place. Mongol Post is interested in what3words because they want to reach a nomadic population.
GILES: They have a population of 3 million people which is dispersed across a country the size of Western Europe and a third of the population are nomadic so they move on regular basis. And they have mobile phones and they order things online and they still need to get medical records and documents but post struggles because addressing is not particularly robust.
RACHEL: So with what3words, no address, no problem. You can even sort of customize your address.
RACHEL: is there a dispute system if you discover your home is something you can’t stand?
GILES: The dispute system tends to be you take a step to the left and into another box and most people’s homes are large enough to accommodate 15 or 20 or so and so what you do find is people will move around that they like or until they find something that feels representative of them, it’s a little like a horoscope, people pour meaning into these words.
CHRISTINE: As long as you have a home or property that’s bigger than 3 meters by 3 meters, you can scoot the pin around your property until you find the three words you like.
RACHEL: Like if the queen doesn’t like fence.gross.bats, she could go with those.added.animal.
CHRISTINE: Or daisy.rich.rarely.
RACHEL: Or shirt.rewarding.vague.
CHRISTINE: Mongol Post in the process of rolling out what3words now. People may be able to use the words on letters or packages as early as October. And some entrepreneurs in Mongolia have already adopted it.
RACHEL: Can you tell me how to say your name?
TELMEN: Uh, it’s Tel-men. T-E-L-M-E-N.
RACHEL: Telmen Gerelt is one of the owners of an ecommerce site in Mongolia, called M Market. M Market uses what3words to ship. (And, full disclosure, Telmen is helping with the rollout of what3words for Mongol Post).
TELMEN: We are one of the biggest online shops in Mongolia at the moment. Of course there are a few online shopping companies in Mongolia.
CHRISTINE: M Market is like Mongolian Amazon. It’s got a little of everything. Like, phone chargers, fitness trackers, exercise machines, baby bottles, this thing called a “beauty bar.”
RACHEL: I am obsessed with the beauty bar. I had NO IDEA what it was, because we were looking at this website in Mongolian. And when I first saw it I thought it looked like… an adult product. So I switched on the translate on the website, and discovered that it is a “anti-wrinkle, it’s easy to offer a more effective skin tightening v-shaped face.” Apparently you run it across your face and it does … something for beauty.
CHRISTINE: So like most beauty products.
TELMEN: So, if you go to — to address section of the M Market, when you order a product, and there’s a map below that. So people now using what3words on the map, they get the map, and uh, and point out their address.
RACHEL: Telmen says right now, having what3words on his website is mostly about educating consumers. And maybe they’ll get the app on their phone, that helps them map the real world out into phrases.
CHRISTINE: A system that lets you send a beauty bar to anyone, anywhere in Mongolia, with just three simple words. It sounds like a dream address solution. You would think Lebanon would be jealous. Except.
MICHELLE: You’re starting with a serious lack of infrastructure for a conventional addressing and postal delivery system to work. So I’m reading these stories and I’m like this is great and happy and techy and fun, but how is this going to work. None of this makes sense to me. I’m Michelle Borok and I’m an American who lives in Darkhan, Mongolia.
RACHEL: Michelle works for an English language website called UB Post. UB is what everyone calls the capital, Ulaanbataar. And she wrote a piece about what3words from the perspective of someone LIVING in Mongolia — someone who doesn’t have a business stake in what3words.
CHRISTINE: Michelle is a big fan of postal services. Both the US and Mongolian postal services helped her with her love life.
MICHELLE: I came here as a tourist in 2010 and I fell in love with Mongolia. I thought it was this weird crazy great place.
RACHEL: And you know what happens after you fall in love with a weird crazy great place. You fall in love with a person in that weird crazy great place.
MICHELLE: He spoke no English, I spoke no Mongolian. I went back to Los Angeles and we skyped for about 10 months with the help of a translator. And then I said this is a ridiculous long distance relationship scenario so I need to just go ahead and move there. So that’s what I did.
RACHEL: Michelle packed up everything she owned. What she could fit in 9 suitcases was coming with her. Everything else she sold on eBay.
MICHELLE: So I was every day at the post office. One of the first things I did when I moved to Darkhan was I told my husband I need to send some mail. So he’s like yeah we have a post office. I was like great. It happened to be pretty much just across the street. And so we walked in and it’s this… old Soviet style building. And we signed up for a post office box. They said ok, here’s your mailing address. Every time you send mail, for your return address you need to include your phone number. So yeah the thing is the post office doesn’t have mail carriers. So when you get a package, the postal worker calls you on the phone and says come here, come get your package
RACHEL: This is the infrastructure problem that Michelle was talking about earlier, one that she thinks is a huge barrier for what3words. And for what it’s worth, when we asked Giles at what3words about this, he seemed confident the infrastructure was there. Michelle was not confident. BUT, to her, it’s not actually that big of a deal getting stuff through the mail. Because, to Michelle, ultimately, this system is fine. Just like folks in Lebanon, everyone in Mongolia has a workaround.
MICHELLE: There’s a whole other system of delivery that exists here, these rogue taxis, kind of like a gypsy cab. Where it’s just people who use their private cars and they take fares. And there’s also cross country buses. So if you want to get something from ulaan bataar say a car part or a tractor part, you call your cousin and say my tractor’s broken. Your cousin in UB goes and finds the piece, then once they’ve got it, they go to the bus station and they find the bus that’s going to Darkhan and they hand the tractor part to the bus driver. The bus driver takes about $1.50 or $2 and shoves the tractor part under his bus with all the passengers’ luggage. And then when he gets to Darkhan, he calls the number that you’ve written on the package. That’s our Fedex. I use it all the time. It’s so easy.
CHRISTINE: Michelle’s got a really interesting perspective into Mongolian life. She grew up in the United States and she’s married to a Mongolian. So sometimes she does things the Mongolian way — just throws it under a bus. And sometimes, she does does things the US way — she uses a third party shipper to get things sent to her from the United States.
RACHEL: Michelle knows that’s a special position to be in. Some people in Mongolia are a lot better off than others. Especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the nation that heavily influenced Mongolia’s economy.
MICHELLE: What we have now is a free market with a touch of oligarchy.
RACHEL: Just a dash.
RACHEL: If you grease the right palm, the right things can go to the right places.
MICHELLE; Yeah, exactly. It’s how everything here works. Every little thing. As a foreigner, I sort of giggle and glee that I have access to that because I’ve got this Mongolian husband who knows the system. But here’s this other part of me that says that this is wrong this shouldn’t be this way. It’s.. I struggle with it.
RACHEL: So this. This sense of unfairness? This is what fires her up about what3words.
MICHELLE: There are bigger problems in Mongolia than getting a letter delivered to your front door. Each urban establishment is ringed by what are called Ger Districts.
RACHEL: Ger, by the way, is what Mongolians call a tent. We call Mongolian-style tents yurts, but in Mongolia they’re actually called Gers. So Ger Districts are:
MICHELLE: These unofficial settlements where people have migrated from rural areas to city centers and they are doing so because they need access to state resources. We’ve had a couple of really harsh winters since 2010 that have wiped out entire herds of livestock and destroyed families. These families take what have left and they’ve moved to the Ger Districts they don’t have access to the central heating system. They don’t have access to clean water. They don’t have access to electricity. They are not worried about the post office. They are worried about the state knowing where they are so they can get state welfare, so that their children can get access to schools.
CHRISTINE: To Michelle, this big idea — to map everything, to give everyone an address — it’s just solving the wrong problem.
RACHEL: And not only that — she’s not even convinced that what3words is actually rolling out in Mongolia.
RACHEL: As somebody who is pretty engaged with what’s going on with domestic news you’re just not seeing any evidence that government mail is going to be rolling the system out.
MICHELLE: Absolutely not.
RACHEL: We asked what3words about this, and they said that they’re primarily focused on rolling their technology out to institutions, not individuals. To them, it’s the clients’ job to communicate with customers. We also talked with Mongol Post’s head of postal operations who said the company is working on rollout now. It’s just not there yet.
CHRISTINE: So could there ever be a situation where like maybe a year from now you meet with somebody, or you contact somebody on facebook and you arrange to meet somewhere to exchange a stroller, I guess, and you set a location using what3words instead of saying meet me at this park?
MICHELLE: Me? No. I’m a Luddite. I like my life to be pretty straightforward. I don’t need it. It’s not something I need.
RACHEL: Michelle, in this way, thinks the same way a lot of Lebanese folks do. People find workarounds that don’t require them to adopt something new — especially if that new thing doesn’t work for their lives. They’re choosing something else over efficiency.
CHRISTINE: Where are we?
RACHEL: This is the Dag Hammarskjöld Postal Convenience Center in New York, New York. Zip Code 10017.
CHRISTINE: Do you know what our NAC geo code is right now?
RACHEL: I have no idea what our NAC tag is. Or are what our 3 words are. We could find out.
CHRISTINE: I’ll look up my – I’ll look up our three words! Is it postal convenience center? I would die. Slang Easy Random. Why are we here?
RACHEL: I wanted to come here because this is a post office that really demonstrates the magnitude of the task, of giving everyone an address, and getting mail there. This is a really SPECIAL post office. Or postal convenience center. It’s right by the United Nations, so as you’re walking up, everyone around you is speaking something other than English. It feels really international, but at the same time very New York.
RACHEL: Oh my gosh look how Manhattan that is.
CHRISTINE: The steam.
RACHEL: The steam, rising out of the ground.
RACHEL: The other thing that’s special about this place is that the novelist Kurt Vonnegut writes about it in his last book, in an essay titled: “I Have Been Called a Luddite.” Just like Michelle.
RACHEL: He’s writing about his ritual of mailing his work to a typist. When he’d written enough pages, he would step out of his apartment and go down to the corner store to buy an envelope, right in this neighborhood. He’d wait in line with people from all over the world — maybe people from Mongolia, maybe people from Lebanon — and then once he had his envelope, he’d walk over to the postal convenience center And then he’d wait in line again, with more people from all over the world. He’d ask them about their accents, they’d talk about their days.
RACHEL: Kurt Vonnegut could easily have had somebody do this for him. But there were two reasons that he didn’t. The first is pretty cute – basically, it boils down to him having had a crush on one of the women who works at the counter. He wrote:
RACHEL: “All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. But every day she will do something with herself above her waist to cheer us up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have ironed it flat. One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and so generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world.”
RACHEL: The other reason is bigger. And it sheds a little light on why Michelle likes being a Luddite, and why the Lebanese solve their own problems.
RACHEL: It’s SATISFYING to do it by hand. To do it yourself. To know it’s going to get done. It’s the human thing to do.
RACHEL:“Then I go outside and there is a mailbox. And I feed the pages to the giant blue bullfrog. And it says, ‘Ribbit.’ And I go home. And I have had one hell of a good time.”
RACHEL: You can put a layer of addresses on the world. But you can’t make the world conform to a layer of addresses. There are always going to be messy things; things will always go wrong.
RACHEL: But humans always fix them. We don’t always do it in a big way, but it always get fixed. This essay makes me think Vonnegut wouldn’t have minded al-shatara that much. He definitely wouldn’t have bothered memorizing his three words. Because the way it ends makes it really clear: He took too much pleasure in being human.
RACHEL: “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Ok it looks like I’ve gotten a piece of old-fashioned mail from Gimlet Media’s Surprisingly Awesome. It’s addressed simply to Goldstein. Alright well I’m Jonathan Goldstein, the host of the new Gimlet podcast Heavyweight, and it’s gonna be launching on September 27th.
I’m going to open this up.
Thanks for agreeing to do this! Oh, of course. What are you doing? You’re reading our credits! That is true.
They are as follows:
Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by Nicholas Britell and their ad music is by Build Buildings.
They were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser. Peter Clowney weighed in too. The show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas, Christine Driscoll and Rachel Ward. It was mixed by Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Maeve Higgins, who brought us that Vonnegut essay.
You may remember a while back that Surprisingly Awesome asked people to invite them to their WEDDINGS. Well this Friday they’re unveiling the lucky couple. Subscribe to their newsletter to meet the newlyweds – it’s gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/newsletter. They send it every other week and it’s full of fun facts that they couldn’t fit into episodes. Gimletmedia.com/newsletter.
But right now, stick around because after the notes from our sponsors, there’s a peek at my new show, Heavyweight. Oh, that’s really nice.
With warmest regards,
Surprisingly Awesome, a production of Gimlet Media
There’s no PS. Nothing on the back side either.
RACHEL: Right, because I’m adding the PS live in studio right now. So PS: We had production assistance from Shani Aviram, Jacob Cruz, Emily Kennedy, Rikki Novetsky and Sarah Stodder.
Additional music for this episode came from Our Many Stars, Onry Ozzborn, and One Two Three.
Finally, this week we are sad to see our producer Elizabeth Kulas go. She’s got a cool new job with our friends at NPR’s Planet Money. They are very very very lucky to have her. Elizabeth found this episode’s story on a visit to Beirut. After getting lost in cabs a dozen times, because there were no addresses, she thought to herself, hmm. Maybe there’s a story here. And that’s this story here. Elizabeth, thank you for everything and best of luck.