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#28 Shipped to Timbuktu

An email to the wrong address sends us hurtling into the world of professional cookie advisors. Plus, a new Yes, Yes, No. This is a rebroadcast of a story.

June 22, 2017
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PJ: So I’ve got this friend, let’s call him Dale. Dale has a gmail address that’s pretty generic, like dsmith@gmail.com. And people who have email addresses like these get a lot of emails that aren’t meant for them, like email wrong numbers. And this happens to Dale all the time. Last time I saw him, he’d just gotten an email written completely in Spanish from a kid somewhere asking if he can turn in an assignment late. Another time, he got a letter congratulating him on the low insurance rate for his two-door Chevy Cobalt. He doesn’t have one. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Dale’s a nice guy but he likes to mess with people. He likes to play pranks. So Dale answers the emails. Here’s one he got a while back.

DALE: I think it started off, “Hey Ladies, to all Calgary area district commissioners and district cookie advisors:” and then it it started talking about how they had a bunch of stale cookies that they didn’t know what to do with, and we gotta move them off the shelves, if they’re past the expiration date then we can’t use them in the next cookie campaign.

PJ: The emails continue and Dale learns that the world of professional cookie advising is surprisingly bureaucratic. At the top, there’s a national cookie advisor, and then beneath her there are provincial cookie advisors who report up, and then beneath them, there are district cookie advisors. He was picturing a corporate office building with a lot of people in fancy business clothes talking about cookies all day. And Dale decides that what he should do is send an intentionally stupid email detailing all these asinine solutions to their stale cookie problem. He says the advisors should sharpie over the expiration dates on the packages. Or he says they could just eat all the stale cookies themselves.

DALE: In my mind I was thinking no one’s gonna believe this, what a stupid email to write to somebody. Who would hire a person with suggestions like these?

PJ: Instead, Cynthia, who’s the Calgary area cookie advisor, responds to Dale’s email with complete polite cheerfulness. She sends him a cookie freshness calculator to help him sort his stale cookies from fresh cookies. So Dale responds with even stupider responses. He was trying to make it more obvious that he was just kidding.

DALE: I said, “What’s the status on the cookies? Yarr, me so hungry” with a picture of cookie monster. and I think she responded with something along the lines of, “Those orders were supposed to go in a month ago, or did I misunderstand your question?”

PJ: Rather than clarifying, Dale asks her, why are we even in the cookie advising business? He said his clients, they’re all about chocolate bars now.

DALE: And Cynthia responded, “Chocolate bars,” question mark, question mark, question mark, question mark. All of my other suggestions were met with like, “Oh maybe I misunderstood or something,” but this one was very emphatic, it was like, “Chocolate bars?!!!”

PJ: It actually seemed like Dale had touched a nerve, because after that cookie advisor world went quiet.

DALE: There was radio silence after that. I felt bad. I felt like I was in a little bit too deep maybe.

PJ: The original email he’d gotten had been meant for a woman named Debbie. What if he’d gotten Debbie in trouble, or even just made her look bad.

DALE: I’m a little afraid. I’d like to think that, oh they just got it sorted out and now it’s funny and Debbie is in on the joke and everybody can laugh at me and I hope that they’re not laughing at poor Debbie. They’re just people trying to do their cookie job.

PJ: Hello?

CYNTHIA: Hello.

PJ: Hi Cynthia?

CYNTHIA: Yes, it’s me.

PJ: Hi it’s PJ. How are you doing?

PJ: I wanted to find out if Dale’s prank had hurt anybody, so I tracked down Cynthia. She lives in Calgary. Cynthia has multiple sclerosis, so it can be hard for her to talk. Her friend Sheila volunteered to help out and I read them the emails.

PJ: “And of course the obvious solution is to eat them during our next member meeting. Please discuss with the rest of area and I will forward your decision on to national. Thanks so much.” Do you remember getting that?

CYNTHIA: You know, I don’t but-

SHEILA: We get a lot of questions all across Alberta at cookie time. Often they have suggestions that don’t always fly. So we find a way to respond to them as best we can.

PJ: Cynthia and Sheila explained that they were part of Girl Guides. In the US, we have Girl Scouts. Most everywhere else they call them Girl Guides. Like the Girl Scouts, they wear uniforms, collect merit badges, and sell cookies to their parents’ friends. Coordinating the thousands of underage cookie salespeople can be a logistical headache, and so some adults volunteer as cookie advisors. Those advisors frequently field confused emails. And they’re used to handling them diplomatically. That’s why Cynthia was so patient with Dale. It was her job. But she was very patient with me. Even as, for reasons unclear even to me, I explained to them the whole pattern of events that had led Dale to email her.

PJ: Yeah I guess the email was meant for a Debbie but it went to a Dale.

CYNTHIA AND SHEILA: Ohhhhhhh.

CYNTHIA: Now it’s starting to make a little bit of sense.

PJ: The thing about talking to Cynthia and Sheila on the phone, is that they had this tone of voice. It had been in the emails too. And I was starting to think of it as girl guide voice. Girl guide voice is cheerful and patient, unrelentingly so.

PJ: Is there like a cookie general?

CYNTHIA: Cookie general?

SHEILA: No. We have advisors and commissioners but that’s about the extent of the military terms.

PJ: And when I started reading about Girl Guides, I found out that that helpful, sunny tone is hardwired into their original mission statement, which reads, “A girl smiles and sings under all difficulties.” So, all difficulties. When I first read this I’m thinking that this is hyperbole.

JANIE HAMPTON: Hello.

PJ: Hi, can you hear me okay?

JANIE: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

PJ: It’s not. I talked to this woman named Janie Hampton. And she told me about this thing that happened that I literally found unbelievable. So a few years ago, Janie decided to write a book making fun of the Girl Guides.

JANIE: I have to admit that when I started writing the book I thought, you know I’m gonna make this a bit of a satire, and laugh at them.

PJ: Honestly it was sort of a Dale thing to do. And Janie says most people think about girl guides the way she did. They’re not considered cool.

JANIE: What we call naff nowadays.

PJ: What’s naff?

JANIE: Sort of unfashionable. Nerdy. Do you use the word nerd?

PJ: Oh we absolutely use the word nerd. I’ve had it applied to me.

JANIE: Right.

PJ: So, Janie sets out to tease some nerds. But then she starts researching and one day she’s deep in the girl guides archive in their London headquarters. And she finds this old notebook. It’s small. Seven by ten. And the book is a handwritten log of everything one Girl Guide troop did, years ago.

JANIE: And it said, we did skipping and we did knots and we did all sorts of jolly things. And then I came across this song that they’d written. And it said, “we sang our song yesterday, and it went: ‘we might have been shipped to Timbuktu, we might have been shipped to Kalamazoo. It’s not repatriation. Nor is it yet starvation. It’s simply concentration in Chefoo.’” And I thought, what on earth does that mean? Concentration in Chefoo?

PJ: Janie doesn’t know where Chefoo is, but she’s sure it’s not in England. So she looks it up. Chefoo is – was – a place in China. A coastal city. It’s a good seven thousand miles from London. According to the guides’ logbook, the song had been written and performed by a group of girl guides for a concert on Christmas Day, 1942. This Christmas concert, Janie discovers, was held in Chefoo. But not at a school. The girl guides sang their song in a concentration camp. Janie was baffled. Why would a concentration camp in China have a singing girl guide Troop? So Janie starts digging, and she finds another, more complete log of what happened to these girl guides. It’s a website, run by an an old Belgian man named Leopold.

LEOPOLD PANDER: Leopold Pander. I’m seventy four years old.

PJ: So, the good news: Leopold was an actual witness, he was born in China, ended up in the same camp as these Girl Guides. The bad news:

LEOPOLD: I try to remember something but nothing comes back to me.

PJ: He has absolutely no memories, except for this nightmare he used to have when he was a kid. At the time it hadn’t made sense to him, but later he thought it must’ve taken place at the camp.

PJ: What was the dream that you would have?

LEOPOLD: Well, I’m there in the hot sun, the blue sky, it’s a brown slope, it’s a brown earth and there are big stones next to myself. Dirty earth and people running all over the place.

PJ: Are there sounds?

LEOPOLD: No sound. Absolutely no sound. Somebody picks me up and then I wake up. That’s all I remember. But the problem is, the curiosity is that that dream came back very often!

PJ: Leopold grows up, and as an adult, he wants to know about this place that he used to dream about. And so he builds a website. He invites people to write in with memories of the camp. And the story he learns is pretty crazy.

NEWS: Japan’s latest invasion of China which has already lasted two years is war on a huge scale.

So I did not know this, but during World War Two, when Japan occupied China, they built concentration camps that were filled with American and British and other European civilians…

NEWS: Japanese put their prisoners of war to work.

PJ: …civilians who’d been living in China. One of those camps was called Weihsien. That was Leopold’s camp. And among the inmates at Weihsien were a group of children. They were American and British. They were mostly the kids of missionaries. And they’d been studying at a boarding school called Chefoo. Japanese troops invaded Chefoo and captured the kids and eventually brought them to Weishen.

JANIE: With their teachers but no parents. So about a hundred and fifty children, who for four years were in this camp. And the teachers had very sensibly taken with them books, paper, musical instruments…

PJ: And, of course one more thing:

JANIE: Brownie uniforms, guide uniforms, all the things they thought, we’re going to need this sort of thing to keep the kids occupied.

PJ: In the Japanese camps, there was very little food. Prisoners died of starvation. Take Weixen, imprisoned monks would smuggle in eggs and then everyone would share them, and then they’d also have the kids eat the ground up eggshells just to get some extra calcium. And the camp had almost no infrastructure. The prisoners had to build their little world from nothing, their own kitchens, their own lavatories, their own hospitals and their own Girl Guide Unit. The logbook Janie had found was the record kept by one of the girl guide’s leaders. The leaders were called Brown Owls.This one was a woman in her twenties. And the tone of her writing was the exact same cheerful, impervious to bad news tone that Dale’s Cookie Advisor email thread had had. This is the entry from the day they were marched into the camp: “Hullo. What’s this? Behind bars? Yes. It’s Weihsien camp! Well I guess there’s a good deal of fun to be got out of this. Just the place to earn some badges.” According to the logbook, The Brown Owl ran the troop as if it were any other girl guide unit. Concentration camp or not.

JANIE: They were all told: It doesn’t matter how disgusting the food is, we still want good table manners. It doesn’t matter how hungry you are, you’re not going to steal. You’re still going to do a good deed every day and help other people.

PJ: Obviously, the grim sadness of life in a concentration camp should have overpowered this miniature world that the Brown Owls were trying to build for their young girls. But according to Janie, that’s not what happened. Instead, it was the girl guides who started to exert an influence on the adults around them. They led by example.

JANIE: It made a difference to all the adults in this camp and kept them going. The whole atmosphere was better because they had this very strong promise that they wouldn’t stop smiling. They wouldn’t give up. They would carry on singing songs. They would insist on everybody washing.

PJ: This is the point where I wondered, was this true? I didn’t think that anyone was necessarily lying to me, I just thought probably the Brown Owl had left the bad stuff out of her log book. I figured she’d put the best possible spin on an awful situation. That’s what girl guides do, right?

PHIA BENNIN: Oh and the door’s open? Oh, hello!

MARY PREVITE: C’mon in!

PJ: Fortunately, there’s a woman who’s still alive and remembers Weihsien.

PJ: It’s the first time I think I’ve been right on time.

MARY: You timed that out. I mean from New York!

PJ: Her name is Mary Previte. She lives in New Jersey. I visited her with my producer Phia Bennin.

MARY: Oh by the way, can I pour you some tea? I am so bad about this.

PJ: Mary Previte is a small, beautiful eighty-two year old woman. She’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I don’t know if anybody I’ve interviewed has ever fully broken into song, unprompted. Mary did. Seven times. She’s like a real-life Mary Poppins or Maria Von Trapp. Also, unlike Leopold, Mary has a phenomenal memory. She told me about the day that Japanese troops arrived at her boarding school.

MARY: The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese showed up on the doorstep of our school. They put seals with Japanese writing on everything, the tables, the chairs, the pianos, the desks, everything belonged to the great Emperor of Japan. And then they put armbands on us, everyone had to wear an armband, A for American, B for British, whatever our nationality was.

PJ: The girls were eventually transferred into Weihsien. And Mary became a concentration camp girl guide. This was over seventy years ago, but when Mary talks about the camp, it sounds like she’s still there, like she’s twelve years old again. She said the story about the Brown owls insisting on good table manners, absolutely true.

MARY: So you’re eating some kind of glop, out of maybe boiled animal grain cause goulain is a broomcorn that the Chinese feed to their animals, was often what they fed us, and you’re eating it out of a soap dish or a tin can, and here comes Miss Stark up behind us, one of our teachers: “Mary Taylor, do not slouch over your food while you are eating! Do not talk while you have food in your mouth! And there are not two sets of manners, one set of manners for the princesses in Buckingham Palace and another set of manners for the Weishen concentration camp!”

PJ: Mary was separated from her parents, unsure of when she’d be released, surrounded by attack dogs and men with guns. She says that she spent a lot of her time just thinking about earning merit badges. In the winter, it would get cold, freezing. But no heat was provided to the prisoners by the guards. Instead, Mary and her friends had to go collect left over coal shavings from the guard’s quarters.

MARY: I remember now the ritual of going to Japanese quarters to get the coal dust and carry it back.

PJ: Like making a new pencil from pencil shavings. Except the coal was heavy, and it had to be passed bucket by bucket in a line of girl guides. Then the shavings had to be mixed with dust and water and dried into balls of coal. It was long hard work. And then at the end of it, you still had to go use the recycled coal in a pot bellied stove, and keep the stove lit so that everybody would be warm. It sounded horrible. Like a childhood from a Charles Dickens novel. Except Mary remembers it as being surprisingly fun. A game she could win.

MARY: I and my partner Marjorie Harrison, we won the competition in our dormitory of which stove lighting team made the pot bellied stove in the winter turn red hot more times than any other girl in the camp. Well, you know here I am eighty-two years old and what do I choose to tell you? I won the pot belly turn red more times with me and Marjorie Harrison than any other girl in our dorm!

PJ: When you describe it it sounds like you’re describing summer camp instead of describing like a concentration camp. Did it feel like summer camp?

MARY: Well I never was in a summer camp so I can’t give you a, no. No, no. Absolutely, not. When you had guard dogs, bayonet drills, electrified wires, barrier walls, pill boxes with guards, armed guards in them, you know, you weren’t in a summer camp. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying this was fun city. I’m telling you we lived a miracle where grownups preserved our childhood.

PJ: There’s reference in the logbook to the trouble the adults were having keeping it together, but you’d have to know to look for it. A scout leader writes one entry that reads “Dear me! What a tragedy! Brown owl had an attack of neuralgia — let’s hope she better for our meeting.” Neuralgia is a nerve disease, but what that actually meant was that the Brown Owl was having a nervous breakdown. Years later, Mary went and tracked down one of the grown ups.

MARY: I said Miss Carr, what were you feeling when we were in a concentration camp? Well, all the grown ups in the camp knew about The Rape of Nanking.The atrocities the guards, the soldiers had done when they came to the southern city of Nanking.

PJ: Japanese soldiers went door to door systematically raping and killing tens of thousands of Chinese civilians.

Mary: So they knew what could happen. The teachers knew what could happen. So I said to Miss Carr, What were you feeling? She said, Well I would pray to God, that when they lined us up along the death trenches, and they were outside the camp, when they lined us up to shoot us so our bodies would fall into the death pits, that I would be one of the first, so I didn’t have to see it.

PJ: So there were two sets of prayers. At night, the grown-ups, many of them not much older than the kids themselves, prayed grimly for a fast death. And then they woke up in the morning and they sung psalms with the kids, set to bouncy camp melodies.

MARY: It was like you weren’t going to be afraid if you could sing about it. We would sing, “day is done, gone the sun, from the sea, from the hills, from the sky, all is well, safely rest, god is nigh.” How can you be afraid when you’re singing about “all is well, safely rest, god is nigh?” How could you be afraid of that? So we were constantly putting things into music. Often, there was a little bit of a twist of fun to it. One of the songs that we sang was, “We might have been shipped to Timbuktu, we might have been shipped to Kalamazoo, It’s not repatriation, nor is it yet stagnation, it’s only concentration in Chefoo.

PJ: There probably aren’t many places on earth where you have less reason to be cheerful than a concentration camp. But it turns out in a place like that, being able to be cheerful, to have a positive outlook, it’s not dopey or silly. It’s how you survive. How you tell the story matters.

MARY: I can still, for example, one of the things that we sang when the Japanese were marching us into concentration camp was the first verse of Psalm forty-six: “God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength” and on it goes, “in trouble we will not be afraid,” all of these words, just sung into our hearts, that sticks. It’s like you’ve got a groove, sticking in the gramophone record. I am safe, I am safe, I am safe. That was just profound.

PJ: The first Chefoo brownies warded off despair for four years. Until finally, on August 17, 1945, they were rescued.

MARY: It was a windy day.

PJ: Mary remembers the American plane flying low over the camp.

MARY: Then the parachutes falling from the sky. All I knew was I was running to find whoever it was that was dropping out of the sky beyond the barrier walls.

LEOPOLD: I’m there in the hot sun, the blue sky, it’s a brown slope. It’s a brown earth.

MARY: And the people went berserk.

LEOPOLD: People running all over the place.

MARY: People were crying, screaming, dancing.

LEOPOLD: Somebody picks me up and then I wake up.

PJ: Leopold says the nightmare that used to haunt him is just his memory of that day, of being a four year old, lost and wandering around a riot of freed concentration camp survivors. Most of the people who were there on liberation day are now dead. One of the dormitories at Weihshen’s a memorial, but mostly, the place exists as a footnote in some books, on a website designed by a Belgian man, and in the memories of the remaining survivors. It’s a half disappeared world with a strong pull on the people who do still remember it. A couple weeks ago, at the grocery store, I watched a gang of brownie scouts rush down the pet food aisle. They had their uniforms on, covered in merit badges for public speaking and backyard astronomy. They were happy and safe in their own world, well-fed and rich and a million miles from Weishen. I wondered if they knew what they might be capable of.

Coming up after the break: The Riddler.

AD BREAK

 

ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to “Yes Yes No,” the segment on the show where our boss, Alex Blumberg, comes to us with stuff that he finds on the internet that he doesn’t understand and we explain it to him. And then afterwards he’s like, “That’s it?”

PJ: Okay, so this is like, this is not typical in that this is a thing that I found on the internet that I don’t understand.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mixin’ it up.

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX: Go for it.

PJ: I don’t want to be agist or whatever, but I did look at it and I was like, “Maybe this is a thing that’s like a reference Alex knows that I don’t know.

ALEX: Oh.

PJ: Because of agism.

BLUMBERG: Oh.

ALEX: Which Alex?

BLUMBERG: Happy to help you out, sonny.

PJ: That one. Okay.

BLUMBERG: This is a tweet that you don’t know.

PJ: It’s not only do I not know, but like a lot of people are reacting to it so it means something. So you guys know who Adam West is.

ALEX: Yes.

BLUMBERG: Yes.

PJ: He played Batman on the old campy Batman.

BLUMBERG: Yes.

ALEX: Mmmhhhmm.

PJ: So I was looking up his Twitter account for other reasons and. . .

ALEX: Hold on, can we just like have a break out session here? What does other reasons mean?

PJ: It’s not like embarrassing or anything. It just feels like a long story. There’s this Twitter account that just tweets that Batman, like from the 60’s or whatever. They just tweet the labels from that show. It’s called like Batman Labels and it’s so funny, cuz they’re really specific. It’s like, “Anti-theft Joker spray” or whatever. Like they’re, they’re, they were clearly the sign designer on that show was having a lot of fun.

BLUMBERG: Yeah.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: So they tweet that so I’ve just been like

BLUMBERG: : by the way i used to watch that show i had no idea it was comedy.

PJ: Me ,too!

BLUMBERG: Yeah, yeah.

PJ: So Adam West, that Batman, I was looking at his Twitter cuz I’ve been like thinking about it a lot and having weird Batman dreams because of it. And this tweet, like he tweets stuff and people like are whatever. This tweet like went crazy and it makes no sense to me. So, he says, “At my age I try not to let myself get bored. No nincompoopery allowed.” And then there’s a picture of him and he looks kind of plaintive. And in one hand he’s holding a bunch of grapes and the other hand he’s holding a garlic head.

What does that mean? Like I’ve never felt more profoundly “no” in my life. Like the old grapes and garlic joke? There,. . .you don’t look in @ replies and get more. . .

ALEX: Clarity?

PJ: No, cuz it’s all people who are just responding to a famous person. “You sure aren’t a nincompoop in my book. You look great for your age!?” Like he didn’t ask that question. Like, that sorta thing.

BLUMBERG: What’s crazy is like how much, how many people are coming on to him in his @ mentions.

PJ: What did they say?

BLUMBERG: “Are you modeling for a still life Mr. West? You’re still such a fine figure of a man.” And then there’s another one, like, “Wow, you’re a real hottie.” Stuff like tha. . .it’s just weird.

PJ: It’s not the the point of the thing.

BLUMBERG: “No nincompoopery allowed.” I have no idea.

PJ: But here’s what I wonder is if this actually a pure “No No No” tweet? Like if this was something like a joke he had with his wife or like his kid and he was like, “Brawp, put it on Twitter. People will just tell me I look hot. It doesn’t matter.”

ALEX: Heh.

PJ: Like, did anyone ever get this?

ALEX: I wonder if it’s somehow a joke about like a classic painting featuring a still life.

PJ: Called like “The Nincompoop”?

ALEX: Called like, “Still Life with Nincompoop, Grape, and Garlic.”

PJ: I looked up the definition of “nincompoop” to make sure it didn’t mean something I didn’t know about. It means exactly what you think it means. This is one where like I want. . .if we don’t know, I want to call Adam West.

ALEX: All right. So we have to call Adam West.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: Alright.

PJ: Alright.

BLUMBERG: Bring me back here when you find out.

PJ: Hold on a second. Okay. Alex. So it’s been 24 hours and I have news. So, Phia was able to get contact information for Adam West in under an hour. And I called him to find out what his tweet meant.

BLUMBERG: Huh . .

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: : What?

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: : Shut up.

PJ: Seriously.

BLUMBERG: : That’s why you brought me back into the studio?

AG/PJ: Yes

BLUMBERG: : Oh my god.

PJ: And I am now at a “yes” for this.

ALEX: I’m dying to know what it means.

PJ: You said that sarcastically but I know you mean it.

ALEX: No, I, I was not being sarcastic. I so desperately want to know what this means. Now more than ever because I just don’t like you having info. . .having knowledge that I don’t have.

PJ: Oh, get used to it. Anyway, so I called him.

ADAM WEST: Desert bat cave.

PJ: Hi, is this Adam West?

ADAM: It is.

PJ: Hey, it’s PJ. How’s it going?

ADAM: It’s going great.

PJ: Did you just say “desert bat cave?”

ADAM: Well it’s – you’re, you’re calling me in Palm Springs.

PJ: Oh, I’ve been there once, it is a beautiful beautiful place. It is not like New York in spring which is gray and cold and horrible.

ADAM: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I like New York in … what, what was the old song? “I like New York in June?”

PJ: What song is that?

ADAM: That was an old Cole Porter song, I believe. You see. . .

PJ: He sounded like the most normal nice man in the world. We talked for, like, probably 35 minutes and then at the end I was like, I hung up and I was like, “Wait I never really asked him about the tweet.” And then I called him back and was like, “Hey Adam West. I’m so sorry to bother you again.”

So…okay. So the tweet. . .the deal is, it’s a joke about vampires. The reason he’s holding garlic and grapes, is the joke is like, “Oh what if you’re such a nincompoop you that didn’t know like which of these things warded off vampires, garlic or grapes.”

ADAM: Yes.

PJ: Ah.

ADAM: What if you were such a nincompoop you didn’t know and you thought it would be grapes and not garlic.

PJ: That makes sense to me. And So it was almost like a skit, but then the caption is being like, you’re saying like, “Oh, I don’t mess around.” But obviously you’re messing around.

ADAM: Yeah, I think was too obtuse.

ALEX: He’s like describing a joke that he made to himself.

PJ: Yes. It’s an Alex Goldman tweet.

ALEX: Oh, it’s totally an Alex Goldman tweet.

BLUMBERG: : I still don’t get it. He’s describing a joke that he made to himself about vampires? What?

ALEX: All right, all right. Here’s the scenario.

BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX: Imagine a guy. A guy who is so old and dumb, he doesn’t know whether grapes or garlic ward off vampires. And he thinks to himself, “It’d be super funny to tweet this, but not give people the vampire reference, so they have no idea what I’m talking about.”

PJ: It took me 40 minutes to get where Alex just got in half a second.

ALEX: Except vampires were never mentioned in the tweet, so .

BLUMBERG: : But then, “At my age I try not to get bored.” What is that, what’s that, so I come up with amusing scenarios to amuse myself and take pictures of them?

PJ: I think exactly.

BLUMBERG: : Ok – Alex Goldman, so you’ve, you’ve sent tweets like this?

ALEX: On April 12th, I was just looking through my Twitter feed.

PJ: I’m sorry.

ALEX: On April 12th I tweeted the words “Elk Neck”.

BLUMBERG: : … So anyway, PJ

PJ: Yeah yeah yeah.

ALEX: It got 8 favorites.

PJ: Yeah, and similarly, if people really liked you like they like Adam West, like, that got like 100 retweets. There’s a, there’s a, a point where people were just like, “Adam West is just goofing around. I don’t need to full. . .I don’t need understand this on a 1-1 level. I like him and he’s goofin’ around and I support it.”

BLUMBERG: Well that’s what, so that was so confusing. So it was like sort of like, so like, you’re looking at that tweet and looking at all the, all the responses to that tweet. Like we were sort of looking for meaning.

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: And there was no meaning to be gotten.

PJ: The meaning was –

BLUMBERG: Like what percentage of the people commenting understood what his joke was?

PJ: I’m gonna say like maybe zero.

BLUMBERG:  There’s no signal in that whole thing.

PJ: It was all noise.

BLUMBERG: It’s all noise.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: I love this tweet so much.

PJ: I think I mentioned, but like, we talked for a very long time. Like longer than I talk to most people.

ADAM: The. . .a podcast is like a radio show isn’t it?

PJ: Yeah, exactly.

ADAM: I started in radio.

PJ: You did?

ADAM: Yeah.

PJ: What kind of radio?

ADAM: Well, it was AM at that time and I. . .

BLUMBERG: He has a beautiful voice.

PJ: He really does.

ALEX: Yeah, he really does.

PJ: And he said that his like big breakout hit was Batman. And that role actually created a lot of problems for him. So the thing that everybody already knows about Adam West’s Batman is it was like  a very goofy version of Batman.

VILLAIN: Ho ho, ha ha. Remember me old chum.

BATMAN: You jolly devil. Harm one hair of that boys head.

THE RIDDLER: Riddle me twice Batman. What kind of pins are used in soup?

ROBIN: Terrapins, Batman.

BATMAN: Right.

THE RIDDLER: Very good.

PJ: And this was supposed to be funny. Like, Adam West thought it was funny. The people making the show thought it was funny. But some of the viewers thought that Adam himself was not in on the joke. That he was trying and failing to play a very serious Batman. And that he was a dope. And so when Batman was over it was hard for him to get other jobs. Like other, particularly serious acting jobs.

ADAM: You know, there were times when I was so poor and desperate to work that I was shot out of a cannon.

PJ: Really?

ADAM: With my cape flying behind me.

PJ: Wait, not really though. Not really. I. . .

ADAM: Yes, once. In order to survive and take care of family and so on, I had to do a lot of stuff I didn’t want to do.

PJ: So he kept trying out for all these serious roles, but he couldn’t get them because nobody took him seriously. And then finally he was just like, “You know what? Fine. I will just embrace the joke that everybody’s making about me.”

ADAM: I realized that everybody loves Batman so why the hell shouldn’t I love Batman. I am Batman.

PJ: So he started allowing himself to be typecast as Adam West, the guy who used to play Batman and used to make us all laugh.

BLUMBERG: Right

PJ: And he credits that with saving him.

BLUMBERG: : I still don’t quite get the “no-nincompoopery allowed.”

PJ: Yeah, and everytime I asked him about that he, he, he’d be like, “Oh, well, a nincompoop. . . ” And I was like, “No, I know what a nincompoop is. . .” But I feel like. . .Erase that sentence in your mind, and just hear it as, like, “JK,” or like, “Here’s a joke.” Or like, “Smiley face emoji.” Like, you know what I mean? It’s like. . .

BLUMBERG:  Oh, right. “No nincompoopery allowed” is like a smiley face emoji.

PJ: Yes.

ADAM: Anyway I better, I better run and not take too much. . .

PJ: Thanks so much. And, yeah, just thank you for existing in the world. You are a very wonderful person.

ADAM: Well you sound like a great guy, and my best to all your pals and fellow workers there.

PJ: I’ll pass it on.

ADAM: Ok, Kiddo.

PJ: Alright, have a good one.

ADAM: You, too . Thank you.

PJ: Bye.

ADAM: Bye.

PJ. That conversation you just heard was originally recorded last year. This month, Adam West died. We feel very lucky to have gotten to talk to him.

 

You can find more episodes of the show at itunes.com/replyall. You can also find us on Google Play as of this week. Our website is replyall.fail.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

#99 Black Hole, New Jersey

A mysterious thief has been using the internet to steal a bizarre array of items – watches, scooter parts, clown costumes. This week, Alex heads straight towards his hideout.

June 15, 2017
View show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ VOGT: I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: And this week, PJ–

PJ: Super Tech Support’s back–

[SUPER TECH THEME]

BRINA: Hello?

ALEX: Hi, is this Brina?

BRINA: Yeah.

ALEX: This is Alex Goldman, how ya doin?

BRINA: Pretty good, how are you?

ALEX: Good.

ALEX: So, recently, I spoke to this girl named Brina. She’s 16 years-old. She lives in Pennsylvania. She works at a gas station. And she had a pretty odd tech support issue. So, awhile back, she decided to save up to get an Apple Watch.

ALEX: Why did you want an Apple Watch?

BRINA: Um, I don’t know. I guess I thought it was cool. And like it’s better when you’re driving instead of having to look at your phone for directions you can just look at your wrist.?

ALEX: It must have been like six months that you had to save up for that thing.

BRINA: Yeah. It was like a while I worked at Subway making $7.25 an hour, so I don’t know. I guess you have to do the math on that, but like, I worked a lot of hours.

ALEX: I did the math: 55 hours. After she got it, she was not too into it, and so she decided to sell it on this auction site called Poshmark.

PJ: It’s like one of those sites that’s Ebay, but it’s not Ebay.

ALEX: Exactly. And someone bought the watch, which she was super excited about. And they asked her to ship it to this address in a town called Port Reading, New Jersey. 600 Markley Street.

PJ: Is that supposed to mean something to me?

ALEX: It’s not! But it will.

BRINA: So I had my Apple Watch, and someone bought it, so I did like what I would usually do, shipped it right away, because I like to ship it as fast as possible.

ALEX: You don’t actually get paid on poshmark until the buyer receives the package, so Brina wanted to ship it fast. And then a couple days after she shipped it, the person who bought it said, “Hey, my Poshmark account has been hacked. Some hacker ordered that Apple Watch. I don’t even live at 600 Markley Street.” And Brina was just like, “Oh, god.”

So she’s freaking out a little bit. She gets in touch with the post office and does a thing that I didn’t know you could do, which is, you can pay 13 dollars to have a package intercepted.

PJ: Cool!

ALEX: Basically what that means is they flag the thing, so when they, you know, swipe it with a bar code reader, it will say, uh, “This package should not go out, keep this at the post office, or return it to the sender.”

BRINA: And I called the USPS, like the post office that it was going to, and they said it’d be intercepted, and then all of the sudden on my tracking it said it was delivered.

ALEX: God, you must be really pissed off.

BRINA: Yeah. (laughs) $400 watch. Kind of pissed. (laughs)

.

ALEX: So this Apple Watch is long gone. And the company that she sold it through, Poshmark, they tell her they’re not going to refund the money.

But she knew the address where the hacker had the watch sent, and so I start looking into 600 Markley Street, and the first thing that I notice is that whoever is getting stuff sent there is insanely brazen and prolific–

PJ: What do you mean?

ALEX: So I Googled the address, 600 Markley Street, and a LOT of people complain about having their Ebay or Etsy or Poshmark accounts being hacked, and having their stuff sent to this address. And there’s just no rhyme or reason to the stuff that’s being sent there. Like, there were scooter parts, a Fitbit, uh–$545 dollars in designer clothes. Someone on Twitter said that a bunch of clown costumes were bought?

PJ: That is so weird.

ALEX: (laughs) Yeah, it’s a–it’s a weird mix. And Brina has a theory, which is, she’s convinced that this is not just one guy who is hacking peoples’ accounts and keeping all of this stuff, but that this is some kind of organized crime, like, it’s a hacking ring. And that it even has a fake company serving as a front. And the reason she says this is because 600 Markley Street isn’t like a street address, it isn’t somebody’s house. It’s a warehouse owned by a company called Meest.

PJ: M-E-E-S-T? Sounds like something Gollum would say.

ALEX: (laughs, then, in Gollum’s voice) Meest.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: And Meest has a website. And, if you look at it, it says that they ship to Eastern Europe, Middle Asia, and the Caucuses.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: But when you Google Meest, you find tons of people saying it’s a scam, about how their accounts got hacked, about how stuff is disappearing to this address, and it has like, a Better Business Bureau rating of a D-. It does not have a good profile on Google.

ALEX: And Brina started talking to the other people who were victims of these hacks, and started hearing all kinds of crazy rumors.

[MUSIC – RUMORS]

BRINA: People online are saying it’s an abandoned warehouse, someone comes and picks it up at the post office, they don’t actually deliver it to this place.

Like she’s saying, the post office is pulling the packages aside and were getting kickbacks from this fake company to send these packages somewhere. And she wanted to go investigate.

BRINA: I–I wanted to go check it out, but my parents wouldn’t let me (laughs).

I just want like, this whole–the whole scam to stop, that’s what I was trying to do, but no one’s really doing anything about it.

ALEX: So, Brina’s parents wouldn’t let her go investigate this. But, um–I’m a grownup. And I have a car.

[Alex driving]

GOOGLEMAPS: In 800 feet, turn left onto Port Reading Avenue.

ALEX: So, the first place that Brina wanted me to go was the the Woodbridge post office, which is the post office where they were supposed to intercept her Apple Watch, just to see if they were somehow involved, like if anything shady’s going on, if they are taking bribes. This is an idea I was skeptical of, but I wanted to just go make sure.

[Car door slams, Alex enters the post office]

ALEX: Are you in line?

MAN: No, yeah, I’m in line.

ALEX: (laughs) So, I got there, and I just walked up the counter, and I had my, my recorder rolling, and I said:

ALEX: Hi.

POSTAL WORKER: What’s up?!

ALEX: Uh, I’m a reporter. And I am work–working on a story about a bunch of packages that seem to be getting delivered to an address in the Port Reading area.

POSTAL WORKER: Oh, I know what–I bet you it’s 600 Markley.

ALEX: Yeah (laughs).

POSTAL WORKER: How bout that? Did I get–did I get it right?

ALEX: Yeah, yes. You got it exactly right.

POSTAL WORKER: Hey! Yeah, Boy, I must be–I must–I’m psychic.

ALEX: Do–do packages get delivered there all the time?

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah. We get a lot. A lot. A large volume. More than, total more than Woodbridge gets all told.

ALEX: That, that specific address gets more mail than all of Woodbridge?

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah. Yeah.

ALEX: Oh my god, go ahead, I’m sorry.

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. Overnight. Insane.

PJ: That’s great. It’s like the haunted house in the neighborhood.

ALEX: And so I said to the–to the guy who was working the front desk.

PJ: You were like, “Are you dirty?”

ALEX: I said, “You know, someone told me they got, they sent an intercept, and the package went out anyway.” And he said, what, to my mind seemed like a pretty plausible thing to say.

PJ: Uh huh.

ALEX: “We deal with lots of packages. People make mistakes!”

PJ: Yeah, that’s what I assumed the whole time.

ALEX: Yeah, me too, but the interesting thing was that the post office–they’re also suspicious of 600 Markley Street.

POSTAL WORKER: The inspectors, they were down here checking it out. Someone, somebody in there must be hacking the credit cards or something.

ALEX: Like the post inspectors were down here?

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah.

ALEX: Do you know when that happened?

POSTAL WORKER: Oh they’ve been going all on and off, for a long time.

ALEX: So, I decided to go check it out for myself. I drove to 600 Markley Street.

[MUSIC – EYES OPEN]

ALEX: I passed a bunch of strip malls, through some suburbs, uh, and then down sort of this like, industrial park, and there were a bunch of different companies there, one was like a gypsum company.

PJ: Gypsum. Is that a–?

ALEX: It’s like a mineral.

PJ: Mineral?

ALEX: Mineral.

PJ: God we know–

ALEX: We’re very stupid–

PJ: Nothing about the world. There’s all these gypsum miners listening, like, “You idiots.”

GOOGLEMAPS: Turn left onto Blair Road.

ALEX: And uh, at the, at the very, very end of this of this road is 600 Markley Street, which is just like this gigantic warehouse.

PJ: Is there a sign?

ALEX: There is a pretty utilitarian sign that says, “Meest – America Incorporated.”

[GETTING OUT OF CAR WALKING SOUNDS]

ALEX: So I go in, and there’s like a very small waiting area. A couple chairs, there’s a table with some magazines on it. And then there’s window, like at the doctor’s office, where you sign in. And, um, I just walk up to the window, I’m wearing my headphones, I have this gigantic microphone. And um, I’m pretty nervous.

ALEX: Hi.

ALLA: Yeah, hi.

ALEX: Um, I’m a reporter? And I was hoping that I could talk to someone here, um, about a story that I’m working on. Apparently a lot of packages are ending up being sent to Meest, that, are … somehow being purchased on hacked Ebay accounts, and I was wondering if there was anyone I could speak to.

ALEX: Her–her expression totally didn’t change. She picked up the phone. Said like 1/2 a sentence in what I assume was Russian, and put it back down.

PJ: Huh.

ALEX: And then another a woman came out and said:

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: I think that you’re supposed to talk to our general manager, Natalia, but she’s not in today.

ALEX: Ok.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: So she will back on Tuesday.

ALEX: Sure.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: Yeah, because um, it’s not usually, you know, we have some kind of reporters coming.

ALEX: (laughs) Right, I understand.

ALEX: And then she said something I think she really wasn’t supposed to.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: Yeah. Usually police or FBI is here.

ALEX: Oh really? You have the police and FBI visit?

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: Yeah.

ALEX: And as soon as she said that, the receptionist, the one who did–who maintained a totally, uh, neutral expression, kind of looked at her with a, “Please shut up,” face.

PJ: (laughs) Well yeah. [pause] Wow!

ALEX: So I left. I emailed Natalia, and she told me that I could come back for an interview. So, I went back, and I brought producer Phia Bennin.

ALEX: You ready?

PHIA BENNIN: No.

[MUSIC – “Driving to Meest”]

ALEX: Phia was nervous.

PHIA: Yeah, cause we were going to like some weird warehouse in the middle of New Jersey. Like nowhere, New Jersey, where all of these stolen packages were disappearing and we were going to confront some complete strangers to find out what the hell was going on.

ALEX: We arrived at about 5 pm, just as the company was, like–the company was closing for the day.

ALEX: Hello! We’re back, we have an appointment this time!

[Muffled talking in the background.]

ALLA: Yeah, take a seat please.

ALEX: Oh, sure.

PHIA: So, we both sit down in this little like waiting area, and we’re just staring at this black door that’s in front of us that Natalia’s going to come out of.

ALEX: And it also happened to be the end of the day, so there were people pouring out that black door,

[Sounds of employees leaving the office for the day]

ALEX: And every time the door opened, I was like, “Maybe THIS is going to be Natalia.” But it was uh, a lot of people, mostly women who spoke Ukrainian or Russian and they were saying goodbye in another language to the receptionist. And then, finally–

Natalia: Hello!

ALEX: Hi.

PHIA: Hi!

ALEX: Alex, nice to meet you.

PHIA: Hi!

ALEX: This is my producer–

ALEX: Natalia came out into the lobby.

PJ: What’d Natalia look like?

ALEX: She was um, very put together. She was very well-dressed, she seemed very professional, she was very polite.

PJ: How old?

ALEX: Uh, maybe early 40s? She bought us back into her office, which was a very big room with a conference table in it, and we sat down at her desk. And the first thing that she says is, “You’re not recording this.” And Phia’s like, “Ok. But if you’re voice isn’t in this piece, it’s going to make it seem like you have something to hide.” And Natalia thinks it over and says, “Ok. Turn on the recorder.”

ALEX: And the first question I ask her is just, “Can you tell me what Meest does?”

NATALIA: Meest America is a mail-forwarding company. We are a freight-forwarder, a shipper. Uhhh.

PHIA: What does that mean, what is a freight forwarder?

NATALIA: A freight forwarder is basically a shipper: a company that ships. (laughs)

ALEX: So, according to Natalia, here is how Meest makes money: They ship packages to former USSR countries and they do this at a much cheaper rate than like, FedEx or UPS. And one of the ways they do this is by taking packages that are sent to them in the US and consolidating them.

NATALIA: For instance, I live in, let’s say, in Lithuania, and I want to buy goods from three online stores, different goods. Well, we offer, we receive the goods here. We, um, repackage the goods from these three stores, into one box, and a customer saves on shipping as well.

ALEX: So, according to Natalia that’s how Meest makes its money. But I wanted to know: if that’s the case, why are there so many reports of fraud?

ALEX: Is something that you guys are aware of, is this something that you’re trying to deal with, and if so, how are you trying to deal with it?

NATALIA: Yes, of course this is something that we are aware about (laughing). And, uh, what we do when we found out that this happens and let’s say the owner of that account calls us we immediately return the good to that store or the owner, but unfortunately it often happens late, and the goods are already shipped or even delivered. And it’s damaging our image, the image of our company.

Obviously, I’d seen all the pages of people complaining about Meest when I Googled the company, but there was this other thing that I found. It was a website, it was in Russian, and there was a post on there that basically instructions on how to use Meest to steal stuff. And I wanted to show it to her.

ALEX: I found a website that was in Russian that was basically like, it was, it was … um, it’s basically like a hacker saying, like this how you, how steal from people. I don’t know–

NATALIA: Oh boy–(laughs). I-I don’t know about this. What is that called? It’s a blogger?

ALEX: It’s a, it’s a forum for hackers, it’s like instructions, and if you go down to the bottom, it says like–

PHIA: Do you read Russian? Is this–?

NATALIA: Yeah. Mm. Mhm. It, it looks like it’s instructions, yeah. (gasps) Oh my god! And they put our address. That’s horr–

ALEX: I mean, how does that make you feel?

NATALIA: Terrible (laughing) Terrible. I have to go there and um, and give them instruction that every package that arrives here with a hacked account or stolen credit cards will be reported to FBI and sent to Interpol. Oh boy (laughs). Can I have this link sent to me? Please send me this email.

ALEX: Yeah sure, I’ll—

ALEX: She was very upset.

PHIA: She was rattled.

ALEX: She was super rattled.

NATALIA: Uh, we, we try to be reliable and honest, we are honest with our customers, but this online fraud that’s happening at the online stores, um, this has to be fought. What you showed me right now upsets me a lot.

ALEX: The reason that these frauds are so upsetting for Natalia even though this fraud represents an incredibly small percentage of the thousands of packages they send a day, if eBay or Poshmark or Amazon decides to stop shipping with them, like–they could shut down. And even just trying to approach these companies, she’s worried that’s going to put them on their radar and just, they’ll blacklist Meest and not let people ship to them anymore.

PJ: Which seems like a totally reasonable concern.

ALEX: And she said it’s happened before. That some companies just don’t send to the address anymore.

PJ: Huh.

PHIA: At one point, Natalia actually reached out to the FBI to get help from them, and the only thing that ultimately came of it is that they did an audit of Meest.

PJ: That sucks!

ALEX: So she’s reached out to the FBI and (laughing) has not had a lot of luck.

PJ: Huh.

[MUSIC – Sad Marimba]

ALEX: We talked with Natalia for about 45 minutes. And, toward the end of our conversation, I told her about Brina and the missing Apple Watch. And I said, “Would you be willing to give us like the name or the phone number or any kind of contact info for the person who stole her watch?” And she was like, “We have a whole list of accounts we’ve closed because of fraud. Would you like us to give you that contact info?” And we were like “Yes, of course we would.” And so, she said she’d send it along.

ALEX: But in the meantime, we were trying to come up with other ways we could get to Brina’s watch thief, and Phia came up with a brilliant idea. She was like “Why don’t you send a package to Meest, care of Brina’s hacker’s account, and put a tracking device in it, and see where it goes?”

PJ: What?!?! That is brilliant.

ALEX: It is brilliant. Right?

PJ: I mean the other thing that you could do, do they have a weight limit on packages that they’ll send?

ALEX: I don’t think so. [long pause] You want to send me?

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX: (laughs) Um, my battery life is not 12 days.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: But–

PJ: You can put some water and some food pellets.

ALEX: I will say you are not the first person to make that suggestion.

PJ: Oh man, I think it could be really good.

ALEX: (laughs) Um, so, on Tuesday, me and Phia and Tim and Sherina, decided to buy five GPS tracking devices.

PHIA: These are the cutest little GPS devices in the world. Looks like it could be like, a cute little bleep-blorp thing in Star Wars.

ALEX: (laughs) Phia means a droid.

[Box taping noises]

ALEX: We sent one to Brina’s hacker, and then four to other accounts we know were used in hacks. And, we sent each of them with an account number associated with it. With a Meest account number.

PJ: And you sent them to account numbers that had shown up in frauds before.

ALEX: Yes. Put them in boxes. And we got um, a Russian-speaking friend to translate a note for me, that uh-so–

PJ: “Hello criminal!”

ALEX: I mean, honestly, it’s very close to, “Hello criminal!” I basically wrote like, “Hi, I’m a reporter. I wanted to know how you hacked the account, how easy it was, why you chose Meest, and also I was curious about where this package was going, so I put a GPS device in it. Please get in touch!”

PJ: Oh man. (laughs) It’s so funny to imagine a bunch of freaked out criminals reading your note angrily.

ALEX: So um, we sent them out. So here is the web interface, I’ve got the password typed in.

PJ: So now I log in?

ALEX: So yeah! Just press login.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: And it’ll tell you where all five of them are that moment.

PJ: I’m at Spytech, login. This is exciting. Ohhhhhh! Six hundred Markley Street. They haven’t left the reshipping place.

ALEX: Right. So we’ll uh, tell you if they go somewhere.

PJ: Cool.

[MUSIC – Basement Marimba Loop]

ALEX: After the break, the case goes international.

[BREAK]

ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So it’s been a week since we send out the GPS devices, and I’ve been checking in on them intermittently, and um, while I’ve got you in the studio, why don’t we, just check in to see how far they’ve gotten. Let me just log into the um, the tracking site. [typing noises]

PJ: Weird. Ok. So. (laughs) How many–we sent five?

ALEX: Five.

PJ: The fifth, the third, the second, and the first are all at Meest. And their batteries are all either like dead or nearly dead. The fourth package, on the other hand, made it all the way to the airport.

ALEX: I think that that package actually is going to get delivered.

PJ: The battery’s at 38%.

ALEX: Unfortunately, that’s not the package that was headed to Brina’s hacker. And, on top of that, I think the battery’s probably going to die before it reaches its destination.

PJ: So …

ALEX: Some person is going to receive a thing that says, “Hey, uh, this was purchased from a hacked account. Here’s a dead GPs–(laughs)–here’s a dead GPS.”

PJ: What a stupid waste of money. What a stupid, stupid waste of time and money.

ALEX: Kinda, yeah, I mean.

PJ: No not kind of.


ALEX: Ok, totally. Yes. But I actually have some good news. Natalia got back to me with info on the specific hacker who stole Brina’s watch. She gave me everything. She gave me his name, his email address, his phone number, and his mailing address.

PJ: Where was the address?

ALEX: The address is in a City in Russia called Izhevsk.

PJ: Ihzevs [sic].

ALEX: Izhevsk.

PJ: Izhevsk.

ALEX: It’s the home of the Kalashnikov.

PJ: The Kalashnikov rifle.

ALEX: Yes. Um, it’s a pretty big city, there’s about 600,000 people, um, it is known as the electronic music capital of Russia.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: I feel like electronic music is big in Russia, too. At least in the stereotype that I have’t really filled in in my head.

ALEX: In my head, I was thinking like, um, very minimalist Kraftwerky stuff, but you’re probably right, it was probably like EDM music.

PJ: Hold on, Izhevsk, electronic music [typing sounds]. Do you want to hear? The sound of Izhevsk?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Ok. This is from Ildar Spacehealer. [moving around] He was, just for the record, he was born in Izhevsk, but now he lives in Inner Izhkar.

ALEX: Ok.

PJ: This song’s called “Old Computers.”

ALEX: (laughs)

[“Old Computers” plays]

ALEX: This is way more what I was imagining!

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yes.

[Music stops playing]

PJ: Ok, so that’s Izhevsk.

ALEX: Uh, yeah, the point is that’s where our hacker lives.

PJ: And what is our hacker’s name?

ALEX: Abdullah Maskim.

PJ: M-A-X-I-M, like the magazine?

ALEX: It was M-A-K-S-I-M. But I think that is, since it’s written in Cyrillic originally, there are a lot of different spellings, including, like, the magazine.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: Um, you wanna see where he lives?

PJ: Yes, I do.

ALEX: It’s on Google–it’s on Google Street View.

PJ: (whispering) What a weird world we live in.

ALEX: Yeah.

ALEX: So, um, here’s a picture of it.

PJ: It is a big … sad, it’s just like a big block apartment building, like it looks like a, it looks like uh– looks like familiar–in–the–Russia-scenes-of-The-Americans type apartment building.

ALEX: So, we obviously wanted to call a guy. And, to do that, we brought in a hired gun.

PJ: Who?

ALEX: Uh, uh, a reporter named Ashley Cleek, who also speaks Russian.

PJ: And?

ALEX: And, she’s a great. And she came into the office, and the first thing she said to us was “Listen, here’s what I can tell you. Abdullah Maksim: made up name.”

PJ: Why?!

ASHLEY CLEEK: Because Abdullah is like the most generic, like, Muslim-sounding name.

ALEX: Huh.

ASHLEY: And Maksim is one of the most generic Russian names, I mean I know it doesn’t seem like it to us, but–

ALEX: Ok. (laughs) So it was like, “John Smith lives here.”

ASHLEY: Yeah. Except for it was like–it was like, um, Hussein Bubba.

ALEX: (laughs) It was–?

ASHLEY: You know? Like John Hussein–two first names.

ALEX: Ohhhhhh.

ALEX: So, Ashley took all the information that Meest gave us–the phone numbers, the physical address, and she started searching online. And eventually, she found some accounts that were connected to the phone number, and they were associated with this guy name Nikita.

PJ: Nikita?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: Not Abdullah Maksim.

PJ: Nikita?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Also sounds like it could be just like a made-up, generic Russian name.

ALEX: Sure.

PJ: But it’s not.

ALEX: No, it’s not. And we know that because we called him.

[Sound of dial tone]

NIKITA: Hello?

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: So, Ashley told us that he was super polite and sweet. And when she asked him, “Have you ever used this company Meest?” He was like, “No,”

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian] He said he doesn’t have an account with Meest, “I don’t work with Meest.”

ALEX: Wait, if he doesn’t work with Meest, then why was his phone number on there?

ASHLEY: Exactly. I said they gave us your number, your phone number and your account number. That’s why we’re calling you. And he was like, “I–I don’t know why.”

ALEX: But Nikita had a theory. He told Ashley that back in March, someone had hacked his bank account and his email, and he thought that maybe someone was using his identity on Meest, and his best guess was that it was someone in Ukraine.

ASHLEY: I said are you in Izhevsks [sic]–in Izhevsk? And he said, “No, I don’t even live near Izhevsk, I live in a town that’s many kilometers away.” And I said, “Where do you live?” And he said, “In Orenburg.”

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: He said, “I’m 17, I don’t go to school, my mom cleans floors in the hospital.”

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: “I’m trying to get work cutting wood in the forest,” because apparently there’s a lot of forests around there. And after 10 minutes or so, he told us that he had to go. So after he got off the phone, Ashley relayed to us everything that he said and we just sat in the studio, sorted through it, tried to figure out whether he was telling us the truth or not.

ALEX: I don’t believe him. What do you think?

PHIA: I believe him.

ALEX: You trust him.

PHIA: I trust him.

ASHLEY: I don’t believe him. I did until the forest.

ALEX: Ashley just felt like he was laying it on too thick.

PJ: The only thing I’ll say in favor of like, maybe telling the truth. I mean first of all, like, you just don’t know. But if you are him and you are a scammer, you could just hang up the phone, too. You know what I mean? Like you don’t necessarily need to tell a story.

ALEX: Right. So we called him back.

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: And Ashley said, “Can you prove to us that you were hacked recently? You said your email address was hacked. Can you give us your email address?”

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: He said, “Oh I don’t remember it.”

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: (laughs) And–and she said, “How can you not remember it?”

PJ: Did–did the hacker steal his memory?

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: We said, “Can you give us your email address?” He said, “There’s very little internet in Russia.”

PJ: (laughing) It doesn’t make any sense.

ALEX: “It’s very hard for me to remember stuff like that because I don’t use the Internet very much, so I just have it saved into my browser.”

PJ: God, that is–not credible.

ALEX: And then, we said, “Ok, so you know, we’re not the police, we’re reporters. But we’re going to send someone to this address, and we’re going to ask for you, and see if people know–know you.”

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: And his response was to say, like, uh, “When are you going to send someone? Is going to be tonight? Is going to be tomorrow? Are you going to send the police? Um, is it going to be you that’s coming?” And this is a person who just a moment ago claimed they’d never heard his address. They live 400 miles away.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: So, Ashely says to him, “Look, we want the watch.” And he says, “I don’t have the watch!” And so Ashley says, “Fine, all we want is an apology.” And he says, “Well if you find the hacker who was the watch, tell him I want an apology, too.” And finally, it just wasn’t going anywhere, so we hung up.

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

[Ashley hangs up phone]

ALEX: We got off the phone with him and, um, we actually found his Facebook page.

PJ: (gasps) Really?

ALEX: Yes.

PHIA: Well, we found a Facebook page also associated with that phone number.

ALEX: Yes.

PHIA: Also with the full–Nikita’s full name.

PJ: Is he wearing an Apple Watch in his profile picture?

ALEX: Uh, let me just show you. Let me just show you.

PJ: Let me see. (laughing) He’s got the stupid Anonymous mask. Oh! What a dork. He’s got an Anonymous mask that’s like actually in plastic packaging, like he just bought it, his–his Anonymous mask.

ALEX: Yeah, so at this point I thought it was time to just call Brina and let her know everything we’d found out.

ALEX: Hey, is this Brina?

BRINA: (laughs) Yeah.

ALEX: How’s it goin?

BRINA: Um, pretty good. How are you?

ALEX: I was super excited to tell Brina about everything that I had discovered because like, I knew everything about this guy! I knew everything about where her watch had been. Um, I knew the name of the person who’d taken it, I knew the final destination of it.

ALEX: So I’m curious, (clears throat), given all of this information, how you’re feeling right now?

BRINA: Um. Like kinda bummed that like that guy won’t send my Apple Watch back or even like, apologize or anything. But I guess like, kind of like relieved that like Meest isn’t like, a big hacker company our anything.

ALEX: Right.

BRINA: But it still like, kind of like bums me out a lot that the person–because I could have sold it to someone who actually like, really wanted an Apple Watch, but instead it was given to someone for free who doesn’t even deserve it.

ALEX: Right.

[MUSIC: SIMPLICITY]

PJ: Do you feel like this is solved?

ALEX: (sighs) I felt like a conquering hero (laughs), who managed to figure out all of this stuff, but then, um, I guess didn’t think for like, two seconds, that the thing that I didn’t come back with was … the watch.

PJ: The thing that she lost?

ALEX: Yeah. But what she did say was, she was like, “You know, now that we have all the info, like maybe I’ll go to the local police in Izhevsk, and see if I can get this guy in trouble.”

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: She’s just going to call the Izhevsk PD?

ALEX: If it weren’t for her parents, she would’ve driven (laughs) to this warehouse, and been like, “Where’s my watch?” It doesn’t seem like Brina’s really afraid of anything

ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. Our editors are Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks this week to Brandon Garcia, Bobby Deaton, Vitaly Kremez, Yelena Batchko, Julia Meter, Runa Sandvik, Emily Kennedy, Efrain Dieppa, Greg Kleinisch, and a huge extra special thanks to Dalia Wolfson, and Denis Vitchevsky. Matt Lieber is a potluck dinner at a picnic table in the shade on a balmy evening. Fellow Gimlet podcast Science Vs. just released the last episode of their season, and um, it features me and PJ talking about our addictions to artificial sweeteners. Uh, you should check it out. And you should check out their entire catalogue. That’s Science Vs. And you can get it wherever you can get podcasts. The song that played us out at the end of the episode, is “Simplicity,” by Macroform, also known as the greatest hold music in the world. Reply All is now available on Spotify, go check us out. You can also listen to the show on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get our podcasts. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in two weeks.

#98 Fog of Covfefe

The last person on earth who has not heard about covfefe walks into a studio, and a strange journey begins.

June 8, 2017
View show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet this is Reply All, I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt

ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to Yes Yes No, the segment on the show where the, uh, students become the teachers, and we go to our boss Alex Blumberg. Doesn’t know much about Internet goofs and gaffes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

ALEX GOLDMAN: And, uh, we teach him about uh stuff that’s going on on the Internet.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Goofs and gaffes?

ALEX GOLDMAN/PJ: (laugh)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, so.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you have some, uh, tweets for us?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, all right. So, this is a tweet that I found. This tweet feels like it has levels.

PJ VOGT: Ooh!

ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m-I’m–I’m confused in many, many ways. So I’m like, I’m very eager to have this explained to me. And it’s–it’s–it’s a tweet within a tweet within a tweet.

PJ: You mean–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes, that’s right–

PJ: Oh ok. So, it’s a series of embedded quote tweets?

ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s a tweet, quoting a tweet that’s quoting a tweet.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh my god, this is like Inception.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It is. This is the Inception episode of Yes, Yes, No.

ALEX GOLDMAN: All right, go.

ALEX BLUMBERG: All right. Um. Can we play some Inception music?

PJ: No! (laughing) I am putting my foot down!

ALEX GOLDMAN: Ready? Here it comes: [in low, gravely Inception voice] Aaahhhhh. That was uh, the–the entire thing was just–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ah, that’s right! Do it again, do it again.

ALEX GOLDMAN: [in Inception voice] Aaaahhhhhhh…..

ALEX BLUMBERG: All right, so the tweet starts–

PJ: I just want to say I’m so against this. (laughing) I’m so against this! Literally, like, not to be like, hacky, whatever, but like, people comparing anything that is all complicated to Inception. It’s always like, people are like, “I ordered a popsicle, but I got two popsicles. It’s like Inception!”

ALEX GOLDMAN: [Inception voice] Aaaaaahhhhh…

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Sorry. Let’s just–

ALEX BLUMBERG: You’re right.

PJ: (laughing) I’ve ruined the fun!

ALEX BLUMBERG: OK. Uhhhh, ready?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: All right so, I guess I’m going to start from the top? The outer level.

PJ: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah,

ALEX BLUMBERG: All right. So, the tweet is a guy named, uh, Dollars Horton. That’s the name and then it’s @crushingbort.

PJ: Oh yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I know @crushingbort.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You know @crushingbort?

ALEX GOLDMAN: He’s one of my favorite tweeters, honestly.

PJ: Really?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I really like him.

ALEX BLUMBERG: All right. And then, his tweet is simply, the caption is: “five months from now.” And then he has an embedded–then he’s linking to a tweet. And the tweet he’s linking to is… from Hillary Clinton. And I-I–I got to believe that this is a fake, that this is a photoshopped Hillary Clinton tweet (laughing)?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, and Hillary Clinton, in this, uh, alleged universe, has, is tweeting the following: “The only kerplappy…” (laughing) It has funny words in it.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s gonna be hard for me to get through. “The only kerplappy that covfefes in these gelpsfss–(laughs)–gelpsfssAAaæ5 are the millions dead! pongebob face.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You got it?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Let me read it one more time: “The only kerplappy that covfefes in these gelpsfss,” and then it’s just like a bunch of As and weird, ending in the number 5, “are the millions dead! spongebob face.” And then… that tweet quotes another tweet from Donald Trump, um, that says: “the media ignores my sincere kerplappy to Australia.” (laughs)

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: “no one will–” “no one will report,” uh, “no one will report nuclear missile create JOBS.”

PJ: Ok.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh wait. And it doesn’t say ignores, it says ingores.

PJ/ALEX GOLDMAN: (laugh)

PJ: Ok. Uh, where are we at on this?

ALEX GOLDMAN: PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?

PJ: Yes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No. Alex Goldman, do you understand this tweet?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

PJ: (inhales deeply) We’re home again guys. (laughs) The fact that you’re a “no” on this makes me thing, you um–

ALEX GOLDMAN: Haven’t looked at the computer in a while.

PJ: Yeah, there’s like a–

ALEX BLUMBERG: What–ok. I know about covfefe–

PJ: Ok, ok, ok, ok.

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s a good place to start.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. I know–I know that it’s a thing. And I know that it’s a thing that emanates like, everything on the internet, today, from Donald Trump.

PJ: But you don’t know more than that?

ALEX BLUMBERG: I–uh–and I–I think–no, I don’t really know more than that.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Aw.

PJ: Ok. It’s exciting to get to tell you about this thing.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, seriously.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I know!

PJ: Um. Ok. So late last Tuesday night, uh, at like midnight…

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, it was 12:06.

PJ: Trump had just gotten back from like, the Europe trip, and like he hadn’t really tweeted in any sort of Trumpian way all week.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.

PJ: And so he gets home, and like, everybody else goes to bed, and he’s alone with his phone. And he did this tweet–he did this thing that he often does on Twitter, which is that he’ll start like a rant. Like he’ll–he’ll say something kind of inflammatory, but it won’t finish the sentence and like, everyone will react and go crazy, and like, wait for him to finish the thought. And sometimes it takes him actually quite awhile to finish the thought, like an hour.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.

PJ: And it’s never clear like whether what’s happening is like a bunch of people are like wrestling with him for the phone–

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: Or he’s like, enjoying like the crowd that assembles, or like he just got distracted. Like, you kind of don’t know.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.

PJ: But when you’re there when it happens, it feels kind of exciting?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

PJ: So…

ALEX BLUMBERG: And you were there when this happened?

PJ: I was there.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: And it was a tweet from him…

ALEX GOLDMAN: It was a tweet that said, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”

PJ: And like, everybody went crazy! In a way that, for the record, like, the next day, people were kind of making fun of people for going so crazy, but if you were there, it was a very exciting moment.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

PJ: ‘Cause it’s very clear that he meant to say, “Despite the negative press coverage,” and he just like…

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: (laughing) So profoundly screwed up!

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) And then it was–and it was literally just the-the-the-the clause?

PJ: Yeah. And he never–all night–all night–like, all night he never followed up on it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) So it’s just literally like somebody saying, uh, “Let me just say one more teggalangaga.”

PJ: And then that’s it!

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then that’s it.

PJ: That’s it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then you’re like, “Wait! What’s the next thing?” (laughing) Ok.

PJ: So, he tweets that out, and just like, more so than any other times, there’s like the long–like everybody just kind of goes nuts who’s awake right then. And it’s like, there was this like golden period where every joke was funny.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.

PJ: Like–like the worst jokes were like so funny, ‘cause you’re just so excited about the weirdness of it?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Like, what were some of the good ones?

PJ: I don’t even. Ok! They’re not gonna, like–(sighs) it’s like–I feel like I don’t wanna say them to you guys, because they won’t-their–they don’t stand up to the light of day. Oh, let me look at the ones that I favorited that in the moment I thought were funny. Oh, this is gonna be sobering. Ok. Like, “I don’t remember liberals freaking out when Obama covfefe.” “Covfefe? I barely know fefe.” Um.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ooh…

ALEX GOLDMAN: This is tough to listen to.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wha…

PJ: But I don’t like–I don’t like wanna be like crapping on people’s tweets, because in the moment–

ALEX BLUMBERG: No, no, no!

PJ: –these tweets were so good!

ALEX BLUMBERG: I get it. I get it.

PJ: (sighs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Give me some more though.

PJ: “Hey I just met you and this is crazy, despite the neg–the constant negative press covfefe.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my god!

PJ: Um.

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s kind of good.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s alright.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s alright.

PJ: That was like the–the highest point of it, was like just successfully rhyming. Um.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right, and you were like, “Does the human imagination know no bounds!?” (laughs)

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: You know what else–you know what else, though, occurs to me?

PJ: What?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Is that all of you people who thought you were like, so different from the president you were mocking, you’re all doing the same thing.

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX BLUMBERG: You’re all up at–you’re all up too late, tweeting shit you shouldn’t tweet.

PJ: (exhales)

ALEX GOLDMAN: You are getting owned so hard by Alex Blumberg right now.

PJ: This is not what I come to this segment for (laughing). Yeah, that’s totally true. Anyway, the thing that happened the next day was like–

ALEX GOLDMAN: It was like Cinderella had turned back into a pumpkin.

PJ: Yes! But then there were all these people trying to put on Cinderella shoes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: In fact, I woke up, having not been awake for the thing–for the original tweet just being like, “What are all these ug–what are all these rotten pumpkins strewn about Twitter?” (laughing) “This joke is bad!”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.

PJ: And like, the sort of like, the point where I think like, even the people who were like, “But it was funny last night,” like had to give up, uh… Do you have the Hillary Clinton tweet?

ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t. Hold on (typing sounds).

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh…

PJ: Yeah. Do you see where this is going?

ALEX BLUMBERG: The guh–the joke killer in chief.

PJ: Yes. Um.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, here. So uh the day after covfefe fever Donald Trump tweeted — made a totally unrelated tweet that said, “Crooked Hillary Clinton now blames everybody but herself, refuses to say she was a terrible candidate, hits Facebook and even Dems and DNC.”

PJ: And so, she responds probably 12 hours after this joke is like fully, fully, fully dead and she says: “People in covfefe houses shouldn’t throw covfefe.” And she quote tweets him. And it gets 306,000 retweets.

AB: Yeah…

ALEX GOLDMAN: She didn’t do a great job with the joke. It’s kind of–she just kind of replaced a couple words with a gibberish word.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Yes.

PJ: And it’s just like–that feeling of like, “Oh god. The thing we had to suffer through for like a year, of like Donald Trump says something wild and unintelligible. Hillary Clinton like, makes a joke about it that’s not very funny.” And it was like, at least like the election was supposed to end that. And so it was just like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.

PJ: It’s not a good feeling.

ALEX GOLDMAN: There’s actually like a whole other facet to this story which we haven’t really talked about, which is while you were rolling your eyes at Hillary Clinton’s lame joke, the Trump internet saw covfefe as something totally different. So, there is this idea among sort of ardent internet Trump supporters that no matter what he does he’s always–he’s always like, several–several steps ahead of people, and he’s actually much smarter than everybody gives him credit for.

PJ: He’s a chess master.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. He’s playing what they call ten-dimensional chess. So, everybody just rightly just agreed that covfefe was a typo, except for the Trump…

PJ: Like the super diehard–

ALEX GOLDMAN: 4–4chan the donald subreddit people… they decided that it was not a typo.

PJ: Really?

ALEX GOLDMAN: That it was deliberate. And–

PJ: And what did it deliberately express?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Can I, uh, ask you guys to do me a favor?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Ok. Uh, I’ve got up Google Translate. Can you go ahead and type in, uh, C-O-V.

PJ: [a long pause] What the hell?

ALEX BLUMBERG: C…O…V…

ALEX GOLDMAN: Space.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Space.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Space. F-E-apostrophe-F-E. Ok. What does it say?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh. It says uh–oh, apparently that’s an Arabic word–or an Arabic sentence that says, “I will stand up.”

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, uh, if– if you believe the ten-dimensional chess version of Donald Trump–

PJ: (whispering) This is insane.

ALEX GOLDMAN: What he said was, “Despite negative press, I will stand up.” Um. Now, a bunch of Arabic linguists have said: that’s a terrible, uh, translation, no one speaks like that.

PJ: But what do they know?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

ALEX GOLDMAN: But what do they know?

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, Donald Trump was–was doing some ten-dimensional chess.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Native Arab speakers.

PJ: (laughing) That is so funny!

ALEX GOLDMAN: Isn’t that crazy?

PJ: Oh man. So, if we return to our original tweet, uh … Alex, are you at a point where you could try to explain this?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes! Ugh.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: This might be the hardest recap yet.

PJ: (laughing) There have been some tough ones.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I know. But not like, Inception level.

ALEX GOLDMAN: [Inception voice] Uuuuhhhhhhhh…

ALEX BLUMBERG: Thank you. Uh…

PJ: Oh god. (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) I’m gonna make it so you can’t edit it out.

PJ: (laughing) I have so much hatred in my heart! Just like watching like a running joke get forced in.

ALEX GOLDMAN/ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: All we have to do is one more call back, and then it’ll be funny.

PJ: (laughing) I hate this so much…!

ALEX BLUMBERG: One more. It’ll be funny. Uhhhh … ok. Uh…alright. Ok, so: Dollars Horton. Once again, the tweet is: “Five months from now,” and then he is quoting a fake tweet from Hillary Clinton, that says, The only kerplappy that covfefes in these gelpsfssAAaæ5 are the millions dead! spongebob face.” And then, that fake Hillary Clinton quote includes a fake Donald Trump quote that says, “The media ingores my very sincere kerplapy to Australia, no one will report nuclear missiles create jobs.” Jobs is all capitalized.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright. So what does this mean, Alex Blumberg?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, Alright. So what this means–it all goes back to a tweet that Donald Trump sent out a couple weeks ago, or about a week and a half ago. In which he said, “Despite the media covfefe” and then just stopped. And then twelve hours after that, in waltzes Hillary Clinton with a-with a–with a tweet that had a bad joke in it.

PJ: Mhm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So that was the original event. And that was–so that was sort of–that was the whole covfefe cycle. And now, so Dollars Horton in this tweet is imagining the covfefe cycle just, sort of like, continuing on for months and months and months, and in this imagined future, five months from now, Donald Trump (laughing) has accidentally nuclear bombed Australia…

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Which if it really happened, I wouldn’t be laughing at. Just so everybody knows. Uh… he’s accidentally nuclear bombed Australia. Followed by a tweet in which he says (laughing), which is really a funny scenario. I mean it’s not a funny scenario…

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: But the–the, imagine this tweet of like, if I accidentally bombed Australia, this is what I would be tweeting. But it–in the–in this imagined future in which he accidentally bombed Australia, with nuclear weapons, he–his first act was to tweet the following: “The media ingores my sincere kerplappy to Australia. No one will report nuclear missiles create JOBS.” So that was, like, which is actually a very–I feel like a very effective, um, uh satire of a Donald Trump–Trump tweet.

PJ: Mhm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then, Hillary Clinton, also in a very effective satire, has… sort of gone completely off the rails in this imagined future, and is just sort of like, jumping on in all sorts of confused and jangled ways, and trying to, like, poke fun and also point out how actually horrible it is to accidentally nuclear bomb a country, in a confused sort of muddled way that results in this tweet: “The only kerplappy that covfefes in these gelpsfssAAaæ5 are the millions dead! spongebob face.”

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, I think we’re at Yes, Yes, Yes.

PJ: Feels good!

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, Goldman, you wanna play us out?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (sings) Ba da da da da da!

ALEX BLUMBERG: No!

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

PJ: (laughing) You guys can’t even pull off you’re terrible–!

ALEX BLUMBERG: What’s the theme song of our fuckin’ segment, dude?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh! [Inception voice] Ehhhhhrrrrrrr…

PJ: This is really the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Ehhhhhrrrrr…

PJ: More Yes Yes No coming up after the break.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Are you ready for another one?

ALEX GOLDMAN/PJ: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, this one–this one is so weird.

PJ: (laughs) Good…

ALEX BLUMBERG: Um. Let’s start with the name, shall we?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The tweeter: Gregory-Cat Botherer?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Mhm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The Twitter handle is @cat_beltane. Um, cat beltane wrote this tweet recently: “the Dog_Rates account would like to apologize for saying “doggos think sweatshops are h’cking bad” hecking hecking bad and vows to be neutral about sweatshops.” You guys are laughing.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s a good joke.

PJ: It’s a good joke. We are still stuck in covfeve

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?

PJ: Yes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?

ALEX BLUMBERG: (sad voice) No!

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Not even close.

ALEX GOLDMAN: You sound exasperated.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

PJ: So the first thing you need to know.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Yeah, good.

PJ: There’s a lot of things you need–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Out of seven million.

PJ: Well, ok.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PJ: So, here’s question. How far can you go into this tweet before you’re confused? What is the first thing that confuses you?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh…the–the second word.

PJ: Ok. Wh–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Dog–dog rates.

PJ: Dog underscore rates. Ok. So, there is a–there is a Twitter account, uh, that has over 2 million followers.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok.

PJ: And it is devoted to rating peoples’ dogs,

ALEX BLUMBERG: Rating them.

PJ: Yeah. So like, scale of one to ten?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ohhhh.

PJ: Except they always give them above 10. Like, every single time. Um, can I just show you the best moment in WeRateDogs™’ history? Where a guy got angry, that he thought the ratings system was skewed?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, so, this guy Brant?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: He was like, “@dog_rates You’re rating system sucks! Just change your name to cute dogs!” And then WeRateDogs™ wrote back: “Why are you so mad, Bront?” And then he said, “Well, you give every dog 11s and 12s, it doesn’t even make any sense!” (laughing) That’s a guy who is not in on the joke.

PJ: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) And then WeRateDogs™–and then WeRateDogs™ says, “They’re good dogs, Brent.” Brant: “It’s a cheap gimmick!” WeRateDogs™: “Well Brint, (laughing) the people love it and I’m doing it for them, not you.” Uh. Brent: “All I’m saying is you could have real legitimate ratings instead of every just saying (laughing) every dog is a 10, 11, or 12

PJ: So like, that is basically–that is like a good encapsulation of what is good about this.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: (laughing) Alex Blumberg is losing his mind.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, “They’re good dogs, Brent” is really funny.

PJ: Yeah. Yeah. And like, they’re just good at–they’re both–they’re both funny, and they’re good at like, whatever the internet jiu jitsu is of that. Like they, they made that guy look dumb, but not in like a particularly mean way, do you know what I mean?

ALEX BLUMBERG: I know, every–every once in awhile we’ll do–we’ll be doing on of these Yes Yes Nos and I’ll–and I will have the feeling about a tweet the way that you sometimes feel about like a line of poetry or something, where it’s just sort of like, it’s so–it’s so… there’s a world in the line.

PJ: Yes!

ALEX BLUMBERG: You know what I mean? And that’s how that feels? “They’re good dogs, Brent” is just so–there’s so much in there!

PJ: Yes. Yes. And like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: And it’s so… delightful. When you know the backstory.

PJ: And there was–there was a while where you could just say like, “They’re good dogs, Brent,” or “They’re good dogs, Brant” and it was just like, a very nice passphrase or whatever.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. And when would you say it? Use it in a sent–use it in a tweet.

PJ: Um… well, I wouldn’t use it in a tweet. But like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh.

PJ: Like, I’d be at a dog park and like–like, uh, I’d be there with Lola, and she’d be like… she’d be–we’d be–we would fall into that really simpering, horrible, just like, cute overload thing where you’re just like, “That dog’s cute. That dog’s cute! That dog’s cute!” And then you’d just be like, “They’re good dogs, Brant.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: Or you could do it, if somebody was really mad in a way that was missing the point, you would just be like, “They’re good dogs, Brant.” Do you know what I mean?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right, so you could use it either literally, about actual dogs–

PJ: Or as a way to be like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

PJ: “You’re really mad and I’m just gonna like squeeze a clown nose right now.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.

PJ: It like–it’s like this deescalating, absurd thing.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Simmer down.

PJ: Yes. And–

ALEX BLUMBERG: But without–with–but in a funny way.

PJ: Yeah and like and like sorta everything they do is like that like their avatar is a cute dog so they talk in this like made up cutsie dog language they say hecking all the time time so that’s why it says h *

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ohhh…

PJ: Like hecking bad. I’m saying this like a beleaguered person, I love this so much. It makes me really happy. It’s a horrible part of me that will like, look at dog internet and just like feel joy the whole time. Just full disclosure.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Got it.

PJ: Love dog_rates. So! Basically the only thing you need to know is that, WeRateDogs™ account is extremely good at the internet, it has made this thing that everybody likes and nobody ever gets mad it. Like, never messes up. Until the night of covfefe.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (gasps)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What?

PJ: And it as this crazy thing–

ALEX GOLDMAN: He was a covfefe casualty.

PJ: Where he’s like, I think never blundered, and it was like Blunder City in this way that was like, truly insane. Like truly, truly insane.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What happened?

PJ: Ok, so. Covfefe goes down. People get very excited. The dog_rates guy.. (clicking sound) makes makes a post where he’s like…

ALEX GOLDMAN: He tweeted a picture of a hat, and it said “I’m so sorry” at the top. And it was a picture of a hat that he’d made that said: “Covfefe AF.” Which means “I’m covfefe as fuck.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And… he was selling this hat. And right away people were upset about it, because it just seemed really crass like the moment this meme breaks that this guy just was like, “Oh, I’m gonna make a hat for it. Tryna make a quick buck.” People, like, got really annoyed at him.

PJ: and then then he tried to apologize. He said–he said: “Pupdate: half of all profits will be donated to Planned Parenthood.” So that was like him trying to dig himself out of people who were like, “You shouldn’t be profiting off like a Trump tweet” I guess? And then, all of his followers who were conservative, all of these people got really angry at him because they were like, “I come here for cute pictures of dogs! Not to, like, see you support abortion!”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

PJ: So then, he tried to apologize to those people, and he was like, he wrote this really long like out-of-voice thing, that was like, let me actually find it, it was like–he said: “I let my personal beliefs infiltrate an account that’s not meant to share them. If my actions offended you, I’m sincerely so–sorry. Alienating a portion of my audience is stupid and unnecessary. Different opinions are good. Conversations about those opinions are valuable. I’ll do my best to put the train back on the tracks to the wholesome, pure, escape from reality account you all have come to love.” In a note that he titled “Regarding the events of last night.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Aw.

PJ: So then, people were angry because they were like,”How dare you! You don’t stand with women! You don’t stand with women’s rights!” The conservative people were mad because he made it about abortion. The progressive people were mad because he made it about abortion, and then like flinched when people got angry. Like, it was like–it was so cra–like, I never… It was almost beautiful–

ALEX BLUMBERG: And all he was trying to do was make a buck off a meme.

PJ: Yes!

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow!

ALEX GOLDMAN: The other thing is that–it–it really (laughs) it really demonstrated to me, how like, we really can’t enjoy anything without it turning into a political fight.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I know. Like, the entire internet is like…Thanksgiving with the in-laws. Alright  so now i think i got it. I think it’s–I think it’s time for a recap.

PJ: Alright, let’s go back to the tweet.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The tweet is, from Gregory Cat-Botherer: “The @dog_rates account would like to apologize for saying, quote: ‘doggos think sweatshops are hecking bad’ and vows to be neutral about sweatshops.” Um. So this is a tweet that is in, uh… in the wake of what I now know to be the dog_rates controversy. Um and I would say, this is coming from the progressive side of things.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

PJ: Mhm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Where he’s like… he’s mad at dog_rates for going back on his like progressive stance. Um and sort of like imagining a world in which, uh, instead of tweeting about… abortion, he tweeted about sweatshops.

PJ: Mhm, mhm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And saying “sweatshops are bad” and now in imagining a world in which there has been sort of conservative backlash against the anti-sweatshop tweet, and now he’s saying that he’s gonna be neutral about sweatshops.

ALEX GOLDMAN: We’re at Yes Yes Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: We’re at Yes Yes Yes.

PJ: Alright

PJ : Hello hello.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright.

PJ: Okay sorry let me just get my bearings. Okay so that last conversation we had was on monday it’s now Wednesday. I have a small but exciting update about dog rates but also there’s this thing i’ve been really excited about telling you guys that I forgot to tell you. you know about it but alex i don’t think you know about it

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.

PJ: so i feel like we actually there’s been like a couple Yes Yes Nos where we talked about like, Ken Bone, or like, whatever, that there’s like a–there’s a thing that happens where the internet really loves somebody and they want to know everything about them until they find the thing they don’t like and then they hate the person as quickly with the same force. And there’s like, I didn’t–there’s a word for that, which I didn’t know.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh yeah. Great shorthand.

PJ: So, uh–Milkshake duck? So, there’s this viral tweet by this account Pixelated Boat, that just says, (laughs) “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes!” Five seconds later: “We regret to inform you that the duck is racist.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh (laughing).

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, Pe–people–people be–rapidly become milkshake ducks.

PJ: Yeah. So you’d be like, “Oh” and I think he did like kind of like a rare like double milkshake duck, like he like, milkshake ducked himself to the conservative side of the internet, then he milkshake ducked himself to the progressive side of the internet.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: Like, it was like, usually you just do one.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Right. You don’t double down.

PJ: (laughs) Yeah. So I wanted to talk to the guy who did this so I called Dog_Rates yesterday.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Ok.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Really?

PJ:  Yeah he’s a totally nice guy his name is Matt Nelson.

MATT NELSON: Hello?

PJ: Hey, Matt?

MATT: Yes. How are you?

PJ: Hey, this is PJ. How’s it goin?

MATT: Good. Exciting slash scary last 72 hours-ish?

PJ: So I don’t know who I was picturing would the WeRateDogs™ account but it definitely wasn’t Mat like he’s a college sophomore and his whole motivation for doing this thing it’s not really money it’s he just has a very pure love of the feeling of writing a funny tweet and lots of people liking it. Like I think his motivation is basically he’s like a class clown for the internet. So it’s been really weird for Matt to suddenly feel like his tweets have gotten him in the crosshairs of what feels like to him a national scandal.

MATT: so the National Review Online has now made three or four articles on this now

PJ: really

MATT: Which is yeah. OK. Ian Tuttle has made two. He himself has written two full length articles about the WeRateDogs™ covefe incident that to me like whaat?

PJ: So part of why this is so confusing for Matt is because this wasn’t like his first political post, like he’s done a bunch since the election every time he did ‘em mostly people liked em and if someone got mad Matt would just do you know the internet jiujitsu stuff we talked about before, he’d manage the situation it would turn out fine and like it just wouldn’t be a problem. Like for instance he talked about this post he did back in January after the Women’s March of this dog with a sign that said I march for my moms.

MATT: And then someone responded I don’t like to see this on my timeline,” just uh–and I said, “This is something you can’t ignore right now.” Um, and then someone said, “100 percent unfollowed,” and I said, “I 100 percent don’t give a shit.”

PJ: (laughs)

MATT: And so like someone-someone–someone screenshotted that, and that went just as viral as the actual post. Um, so from that, and like we, so that was our most unfollowed day ever, we like lost 800 people, but we gained 37,000.

PJ: in the right.. it seems like the thing you had sort of identified like there are certain issues that are that you can be a bit political and people will like it. And then if someone says something mean to you and you retort people were really excited to see Dog Rates kind of like having a backbone.

MATT: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Well first of all if you enter an argument with my avatar online you’ve already lost. You look like an idiot

PJ: because you’re yelling at a picture of a cute dog.

MATT: Exactly. Exactly.

[LAUGH]

ALEX GOLDMAN: But I don’t understand then why… this–he treated this particular situation as a teachable moment where he had to walk it back.

PJ: Yeah I mean Matt seems confused by that too, like i think that he he described covfefe night the same way I did. I do think a mysterious fog rolled into town and clouded everybody’s judgement. He thinks he made a big mistake and some of that was the joke wasn’t even funny in the first place and he kinda knew that and for him the thing he most regretted was just the apology. He’s like it wasn’t in my voice it didn’t sound like me it came from a place of fear I just shouldn’t have apologized

ALEX BLUMBERG: See, the thing about the internet, for all, like–the thing that like, I feel like, we’ve talked about this before, but the thing that is like, it’s really annoying and it’s like crowd, and like all–and it reacts in this crazy way, and it’s got mob mentality, but it does– It is really, really, really good at pinpointing exactly when people are disingenuous. And that’s the thing that drives it crazy.

PJ: Yeeaah! Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And that’s what he was doing

PJ: Yeah he flinched…. And he sorta knows it…

MATT:  I’ve accepted with a following such as mine you can’t please everyone. In this case I tried to. I can assure you there are more mistakes coming. Like that’s just that’s just the nature of it there’s gonna be uhh I think  I believe there was a picture of a dog and there was like a peeled banana in front of him and then some other bananas. And I said that he unpeeled the banana. And immediately people were like no he peeled it. And so I was like oh shit what do I do and I looked it up and I was like it can be either what. What. What do I do. Unpeeled or Peeled. Like but those are the things I should be worrying about.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me Alex Goldman the show is produced by Phia Bennin, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Damiano Marchetti. The show is edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. The theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Matt Lieber is that playlist that has that Beach Boys song “Windchimes” on it but then right after that song ends “Snowblind” by Black Sabbath comes on. Our show was mixed by Kate Bilinski. Congratulations to Rick Kwan who is out this week because he just had a baby boy. We can seriously hardly wait to meet him. You can find the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening! We’ll see you next week.

#16 Why is Mason Reese Crying?

For Jonathan Goldstein, YouTube offers endless nostalgia, but he always finds himself returning to the same subject – a precocious child actor from the early 70’s named Mason Reese. And then a few months ago, new clips of Reese began popping up on YouTube. What’s more, they appeared to be uploaded by Reese himself. Jonathan…
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May 25, 2017
View show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

This week we are rebroadcasting one of our favorite stories. It’s actually not a story reported by me or PJ, it is a story reported by Jonathan Goldstein, who you probably know as the host of Heavyweight. He also worked on This American Life, he is an incredible writer. And this is one of my favorite stories we’ve ever done. So, here’s Jonathan.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: If as a child I’d been told of a future world where there dwelled a magical TV that could play anything I wanted, an infinite television jukebox that I could watch all night, without ever having the remote pried from my hands, I’d say, you must be describing Utopia. And this is where I find myself. Wednesday night. Two thirty AM. Utopia.

[ROCKY MARCIANO AND MUHAMMED ALI FIGHT]

JONATHAN: There are things from my childhood that I’ve seen on YouTube that I thought I’d go to my deathbed without ever getting to revisit. Like the fake boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano that special effects wizards put together in 1970 to determine who was the greatest fighter of all time. I often turn to it long after I should be in bed. Our bookshelves are where we project our taste, where we announce to our dinner guests that, of course we enjoy Faulkner, the golden age of comics, and the essays of Montaigne. But if our bookshelves are where we telegraph a version of who we want to be, then our YouTube search histories, culled from late hours punching away at whisky soaked keyboards, are what we really are, the self that is lead by desire rather than decorum. After watching Ali and Marciano for a couple rounds I think, wasn’t there a song about Muhammad Ali I’d once heard?

[“BLACK SUPERMAN”]

JONATHAN: And then Superman makes me think, of course, of David Lee Roth heroically bounding around in leather spats and fish net bikini underwear. And so I seek out his haunting isolated vocal tracks that make “Jump” sound like an a cappella spiritual intended to rouse the faithful to action.

[“JUMP”]

The clip recalls a time when Eddy Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli reigned as the Kim and Kanye of their day. Eddy played guitar and Valerie starred in One Day at a Time, a sitcom in which a mustachioed leather vested janitor named Schneider allowed himself into her family’s apartment whenever he pleased.

[ONE DAY AT A TIME CLIP]

JONATHAN: Even though we can see almost anything we want on YouTube there’s something about the endless possibility that can cause anxiety; and so, we just circle back to the clips that deliver the dopamine of childhood nostalgia. We all have that sweet spot and for me, it’s the early seventies, when my first memories of being alive were beginning to form. And the figure who most perfectly evokes this time… the ten letter late night search term I inevitably keep coming back to more than any other is Mason Reese.

MASON REESE: People kept telling my mother I look like a munchkin. Well this is what a munchkin looks like.

JONATHAN: In the seventies, Mason Reese was an advertising phenomenon who appeared in dozens of commercials for everything from Dunkin’ Donuts…

MASON: Do I look like a munchkin?

JONATHAN: …to Raisin Bran.

MASON: This cereal’s got a lotta, lotta delicious raisins

JONATHAN: And the Underwood Chicken Spread ad…

[UNDERWOOD CHICK SPREAD AD]

JONATHAN: …with this adorable spoonerism that became a 1970’s catchphrase:

MASON: Like I told her, Mom, this is like having a borgasmord.

JONATHAN: Lately I’ve been trying to explain Mason Reese and I keep coming up short on analogies. “He was like the Wendy’s ‘Where’s The Beef?’ Lady,” I say. “Or Mikey from Life Cereal.” But it isn’t quite true. While they were limited to one product and one memorable slogan, Mason advertised everything. And he went from being a TV commercial star to being a star star. When he walked down the street people asked for locks of his signature red hair and blessings for their babies. One mother even named her twins after him, calling one Mason and the other Reese. When I bring him up to my mother to see if she remembers, she says, “Wasn’t he the little boy who was so homely, he was cute?”

MASON: How come every lady doesn’t use Ivory Soap?

JONATHAN: There was something uncanny about Mason Reese. Because of his precocity, he didn’t quite track as a child and some people even thought he was a little person dressed in children’s clothing who, after a day’s shoot, sparked up a stogie and poured himself a bourbon. The little-old-man sad-eyed face. The Prince Valiant haircut. The scrunchy voice that sounds as though spoken underwater in a tub of buttermilk. The hair that only seemed to grow so bright red in the seventies. Mason Reese is as synonymous with childhood as the memory of sitting in a wet bathing suit on the hot vinyl back seat of my father’s Pontiac while listening to an AM radio blare “American Pie.” His face is the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen, of crayons, comic books. Except in the past year, new Mason Reese videos began to appear, things from TV I don’t recall ever having seen. It was as though my very desire was somehow having an incantatory effect, summoning deeper cuts from the past.

[MASON SINGS “SINGIN IN THE RAIN”]

JONATHAN: Mason on afternoon talk show, The Mike Douglas Show tap dancing to “Singing in the Rain.” Introducing Leonard Nimoy and hamming it up like an old pro.

MASON: Please join me in welcoming one of my favorites. Leonard Nimoy.

JONATHAN: And then, there’s this:

[MASON TELEVISION PILOT]

JONATHAN: An ABC sitcom pilot simply called, “Mason” where he plays a friendless child genius who brings home a 35 year-old man in safari shorts he met while wandering the streets of New York:

[MASON TELEVISION PILOT]

JONATHAN: But amidst this trove of new material, I found something else. Something I didn’t expect, something confusing and sad.

MIKE DOUGLAS: And he’s doing something I understand that you especially like, a song you’re especially fond of.

MASON: Yes

JONATHAN: In this clip Mason is co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show, and Harry Chapin is being introduced:

MIKE: Do you want to tell us what the song is? Or do you know?

MASON: Is it, I mean, is it that song?

MIKE: You know what it is.

MASON: No, I don’t want that song.

MIKE: Why Mason?

MASON: You’re not putting on that song?

MIKE: Why?

MASON: Cause you’re just not.

MIKE: Aw, now he gets–he’s very touched by that song.

      

JONATHAN: Mason, seated on his mini-director’s chair, just can’t take it and drops the facade of the precocious TV broadcaster and collapses his face into his hands and weeps.

MASON: I know what song it is.

MIKE: Oh, you know what song it is? Well maybe we oughta bring the guys with the worms back? (laughs) C’mon pal, c’mon over here and sit with Uncle Mike. Aw, you gonna be alright? Well, this song is very touching as you can see and Mason is very touched by it. Is it okay? It’s called “Cats in the Cradle.” Harry Chapin (audience applauds).

HARRY CHAPIN: This is for my kids and for Mason.   

[CAT’S IN THE CRADLE]

JONATHAN: And as Harry Chapin sings the quintessential song of complicated father/son love, Mason cries inconsolably.

YouTube is a cultural repository, but it’s full of fragments, broken and left over, like Roman ruins. Was there something that took place before the Harry Chapin introduction? Something that was happening just outside the frame, off stage and unseen? There wasn’t much context to be gotten from YouTube commenters either, most of whom were just mean, saying things like, “What the hell is that red haired thing?” “Wow! He was more horrifying then I even remember.” “I hated this ugly twerp when I was a kid.” But there was this one thing, and when I first discovered it, I couldn’t believe it was true. Looking more closely at the user account, the person uploading these new videos, I noticed the name was Mason Reese.

I now had many questions. Why would Mason Reese upload a video of himself crying? Myself crying as a child, should such footage exist, would be the kind of thing I’d probably never even show my closest friends let alone the whole world. Why was Mason doing just that? And why did he post the videos now, forty years later? These were questions I couldn’t answer by just tweaking my search terms, by adding more tabs to the browser window. What I wanted most wasn’t to expand the frame, but to pass right through it entirely. In short, I wanted the real world.

MIKE: How long have you been acting in commercials, Mason?

MASON: Well, since I’m seven now, I’ve been acting three years.

MIKE: That means you started when you were about four.

MASON: And a half.

JONATHAN: What we were actually hoping to do was to actually look at some of the clips with you.

MASON: Yeah! I don’t mind doing it. That’s very interesting.

PJ: Coming up, Jonathan enters the real world and directs his questions to the one and only person who can actually answer them.

[AD BREAK]

ALEX: And now, back to the show.

JONATHAN: So I’ve started rolling.

MASON: Cool. Hello, hello.

JONATHAN: Mason lives in a modest two-room apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. When he greets me and my producer Chris at the door. I’m surprised by how little he is.

[PHONE RINGS]

MASON: I don’t know who that could be calling.

JONATHAN: The haircut’s almost the same, the red hair, the eyes…

MASON: Usually it’s my mom.

JONATHAN: …the expressions. It’s all there, only surrounded by more flesh. Looking at him is intense, like seeing an old friend.

MASON: Every now and then, by the way, you might hear a fire engine or something go by.

JONATHAN: It’s New York.

MASON: That’s New York, baby. It’s exactly right. It’s living in Manhattan.

JONATHAN: Mason seats us in his living room, which is a shrine to his child star. There’s a photo of him co-hosting a telethon with Henry Winkler, a 1973 Clio award for best actor in a commercial, and a photograph of himself jogging in Central Park with Andy Warhol and Grace Jones.

JONATHAN: And–and looking around, like you’ve got this, you’ve got all these photos of yourself as a kid and a lot of memorabilia. In some ways do you feel this responsibility to that kid in a way? Or like, do you feel like you’re a…

MASON: I’m going to interrupt you quickly. All of these pictures that you see of me with the Batmobile, and Peter Lupus from Mission Impossible and Leondard Nimoy and William Shatner and all these you know…

JONATHAN: Cover of TV Guide.

MASON: Cover of TV Guide and the book I published when I was seven, that’s what I have in my living room.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

MASON: …in my bedroom, there’s not one picture. Why is that?  Because that’s where I am an adult, that’s, you know what I’m saying? And to me that’s very important, I’m a fifty year old man. That’s my private area.  This is my public area. And in private this is not who I am.

JONATHAN: But is this–is this here for like, for us? Or is this here for you?

MASON: Both. Both. Because it’s a great reminder to me of what I’ve accomplished in my life.

JONATHAN: Mason Reese is fifty but he doesn’t look it. He doesn’t look it in the way his Pomeranian doesn’t look his age, or any age. Because a Pomeranian is what it is. And Mason Reese is Mason Reese. And the world seizes on all those who are singular, unique, those who are what they are, and the world celebrates them the best it knows how. By nailing them to a crucifix. By sticking them in front of a camera to hawk fried dough and canned meat spread. Mason hasn’t made a commercial since his teens, but his life seems pretty okay. In the intervening years he’s opened a few bars and even runs his own entertainment company, Borgasmord Productions. And why did he post the videos now, forty years later?  Mainly, he explains to me, because a friend of his put together a DVD of “Mason Reese’s Greatest Hits” and he thought he might as well share it with people who might be interested. Chris sets up a laptop on the coffee table.

CHRIS NEARY: What we were hoping to do was to actually look at some of the clips with you.

MASON: Oh! Yeah! I don’t mind doing it. Yeah, that’s very interesting.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

JONATHAN: We start off with perhaps the greatest hit of them all, The Underwood Deviled Ham commercial.

[UNDERWOOD DEVILED HAM COMMERCIAL]

MASON: So the whole Borgasmord thing at the end, I mean, that ended up being the money shot as they call it, you know, that was it. That was the big one. It wasn’t a mistake. It was planned. But it–

JONATHAN: It was?

MASON. Yeah and I’ll tell you how. So Andy Doyle who was the ad exec for the company, came up to me and he said, “Mason, we would like you to mispronounce the world smorgasbord…”

JONATHAN: That’s…that’s interesting.

MASON: and I said, “Well but Andy, I know what the real word is and I don’t want America to think I’m not smart enough to know the word.” So what he did was he went and got a yellow pad of paper and wrote down all of these words that sounded like smorgasbord, and I picked out borgasmord. So Andy looks at me and goes “Mason, you are really incredible. You’re not going to believe this. Borgasmord is smorgasbord in Swedish.” But it’s not…

JONATHAN: Right.

MASON: Smorgasbord is Swedish. So he lied to me. So the bottom line is the ad exec lied to a six and a half year old kid, and that commercial literally launched my career. That’s what made people like Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas and all the others, you know, call me on the phone and say, “Hey, this kid is something a little different and we want a piece of him.”

JONATHAN: Let’s take a look at another ad.

MASON: Ah, Dunkin Donuts. Yes.

[DUNKIN DONUTS COMMERCIAL]

MASON: Yeah, that was one commercial that I actually kind of regret doing.

JONATHAN: Why?  

MASON: Well, let’s watch it and you’ll, at the tag line I’ll tell you why.

[DUNKIN DONUTS COMMERCIAL]

The only reason why I’m not particularly fond of that commercial was the fact that the tagline was “Don’t tell me I look like a munchkin.” Well, what do you think happened? Every fucking place I went, you know, “Oh, that’s the munchkin.” For a year. That was just abuse after abuse after abuse.

JONATHAN: Do you want to just take a look at the Harry Chapin?

MASON: No. I’d rather not.

JONATHAN: Oh, really?

MASON: Yeah, yeah. I mean it was–I’ll tell the story behind it. For some reason, and to this day, I don’t know what the reason is, because my father and I were very close, that song “Cat’s in the Cradle” has a really hard effect on me. So people always say to me, “Oh, did you have a strained relationship with your father, or was he always away?” And the answer was no. My dad was always around. So I never really understood why I identified with the song other than the fact that I was a sensitive kid. And Harry was on The Mike Douglas Show. I was the co-host and I asked him, “Are you going to be singing ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?” He said, “No, they asked me to do another one of my newer songs.” “Oh, okay.” So I was not prepared for him to do that. And at the age of seven I wasn’t able to, you know, figure out, well did he lie to me? And that’s what I must have been thinking. You know, as a young kid. And I literally just broke down and fell apart.

JONATHAN: Because you had been lied to?

MASON: No, ’cause I wasn’t–yes, ’cause the song was going to be playing. But I’m sure part of my mind was, well why would Harry say no? I literally just broke down into hysterics. And nobody understood why except me, my parents, and probably Harry. You know it was a ninety-minute show back then. And it was probably a good thirty minutes left of the show. And I refused to come back. And I just went down into the commissary, which was in the basement of the building. And I sat there and had a soda or something. And you know, I just refused. I didn’t want to go back any more.

JONATHAN: A lot of Mason’s stories involve his being lied to by adults. Which is sad, but what was it about “Cat’s in the Cradle” in particular, a song to make cry, if anyone, neglectful dads, not little boys. If it’d been any other song, I think Chris and I might have just let it drop, but as it was, we couldn’t. I mean, come on, a child actor and a song about a dad bringing him to tears? And so we pressed him, unable to let go of all the beautiful poetic, Freudian connotations.

CHRIS: “Cat’s Cradle,” I was trying to figure out why it might affect you so much. Do you think because you were working so much, do you think it was sort of, the roles were reversed and you were the one leaving?

MASON: Oh, no, no, no.  Because 99.9% of all the work I did was in New York.

CHRIS: But I feel like songs like that can…can register, because it’s really about distance, it’s not about having a catch.

MASON: As I said, that’s a beloved song.

JONATHAN: I’m just going to belabor the “Cat’s in the Cradle” theory one last…one more–

MASON: He’s dead already.

JONATHAN: Is it possible in a way it was as though, like, it was sort of like you singing the song to yourself.

MASON: Oy gevalt.

JONATHAN: And then we drop it, but feel that one out just a little bit. You know it’s…

MASON: This is not rocket science.

JONATHAN: You are both a child and an adult.

MASON: Well, I didn’t have a childhood. All of the stereotypical things that kids do and did, I didn’t do. I mean I never went to a prom. I never played sports. I never took extracurricular after school activities. Did I sacrifice anything? I know you didn’t ask that, but that’s a logical question. Well, I don’t know. Did I? I don’t think so. I often tell people that when you’ve ridden an elephant in the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, been an NBC correspondent for the news, piloted The Goodyear blimp, I wasn’t in the Goodyear blimp, I flew the Goodyear blimp, when you’ve gotten to do all the things that I did, algebra is pretty fucking boring. I’m a very unique circumstances. My mother and father every day of my life said, “I love you” to me. And every day of my life would give me a kiss and a hug and just tell me that they loved me. And, like my mom called me this morning, and she wanted me to, I was with her yesterday for three hours, literally like vacuuming the floor and cutting her toenails. Oy. That’s not what someone wants to do to their ninety year old mother, but I was doing it because I’m a nice boy.

CHRIS: I just thought that, just in light of what you were saying, if we could watch the one where your mother comes to the show?

MASON: Sure, I can watch that. Yeah.

MIKE: When did you first discover, Mrs. Reese, that this young man was a bit precocious?

MASON: My mom was a good looking broad. She’s a beautiful woman.

MRS. REESE: Let’s see. He was born April eleventh. I’d say April twelfth.

MIKE: He is, to say the least, an unusual child. How do you and he get along?   

MRS. REESE: Fabulously. We yell. We fight. But we love each other a lot.

MIKE: I want to bring his father up, okay Mason? Want to bring your dad up?

MASON: Will the real Bill Reese please stand up?     

MIKE: Tell me about his reading habits. He reads at what level?

BILL REESE: Between tenth and eleventh grade.

JONATHAN: Why do you think you’re welling up?

MASON: Well again, you know, I mean to some extent because my mom and dad probably still loved each other at this point in our lives. You know, things were a lot simpler maybe for me. My parents had not divorced yet. My two brothers and my sister and I were all very close.  We still all kind of lived together for the most part. So, yeah. I think a lot of it harkens back to a simpler time. More carefree perhaps. Even though I had a job to do, I was still more carefree, because I was a kid. A lot of responsibilities had not been put on my head yet. You know it’s funny. My mom doesn’t understand YouTube. She kind of gets it but doesn’t really fully understand it. I showed her this clip and I jokingly said to her, but maybe it was true, I said, “That’s probably the last time you ever kissed dad.” Well, and I do love my dad, you know. God.

JONATHAN: When you’re a kid, you cry because you feel lied to, because life is unfair and you don’t understand anything. And then as an adult you cry because life still isn’t fair, but you do understand it. You cry because you do understand it. By 1977 Mason’s dad would begin spending more and more time at the company he started, and eventually he’d convert part of his office into a living space where he could spend nights. In his early teens, around the time the commercial offers started to dry up, Mason’s parents would divorce and Mason would move into the office with his dad. At eight thirty in the morning when employees began to show up, Mason would sometimes still be lounging around in his t-shirt and underwear.

MIKE: We’re going to visit more with the Reese’s following this. We’ll be right back.

JONATHAN: At one point while watching the videos, Mason tells me that he realizes the commenters can be mean. “Oh my god, what a freak. He was so ugly. What kind of talent did this kid have,” he says quoting them. “I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t affect me.” When I ask him why he hasn’t disabled the comments for his videos he seems genuinely surprised that you can do such a thing. He pauses to consider it, but as of today he still hasn’t done it and I don’t think he ever will.  It would mean not being able to receive any of the nice comments, like this one: “Hey Mason! Thank you for these. They would not have been the seventies without you.”

ALEX: Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the podcast Heavyweight, which is amazing and you should listen to every episode. Mason Reese just started a YouTube series a couple months ago called “Life Interrupted.” We’ll post a link to it on our website and in the notes for this podcast.

Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Chris Neary, Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and edited by Alex Blumberg. Matt Lieber is the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen, of crayons, of comic books. Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore. Special thanks this week to Lizzie Vogt, Beth Card, and Grant Shprintz. Our theme music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

You can find us at itunes.com/replyall or replyall.limo. Thanks for listening!

[BREAK]

MASON: You might ask how you can tell a giraffe is friendly.

MIKE: How do you tell if a giraffe is friendly?     

MASON: It isn’t easy.

 

#97 What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished?

This week, Phia wonders what kind of person falls for phishing attacks. Is it only insanely gullible luddites, or can smart, tech savvy people get phished, too? To find out, she conducts an experiment on her poor, unsuspecting coworkers. Further Info Follow Daniel Boteanu on Twitter 

May 18, 2017
View show transcript

PHIA BENNIN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Phia Bennin.

So, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering nonstop about the same question. The question is about this kind of hack…phishing.

I’ve always had the impression that phishing is something I shouldn’t worry about, because nobody really falls for it. And even here at work, in March, we were trying to figure out how Alex Blumberg’s Uber account got hacked. And when Alex Goldman even suggested the possibility that he might’ve gotten phished, Blumberg got genuinely annoyed.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you know what phishing is?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Did that happen?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No.

ALEX GOLDMAN:: (laughing) You seem so mad!

ALEX BLUMBERG: I- I- I- I can’t image giving my password to someone who wrote to me over email.

PHIA: Blumberg felt about it the way I did. Phishing is for dummies. But then a month later, news came out that the President of France, his campaign got phished, like some of his staffers ended up handing over their personal passwords. And actually, I started to notice that a lot of the hacks that I’m reading about recently, they start with phishing—John Podesta, that was phishing, the Sony hack by North Korea—that was phishing.

And, it got me wondering…what kind of person gets phished? Is it just insanely gullible people? Or could it happen to the smartest people I know—people like Alex Blumberg?

[MUSIC]

PHIA: So, I called up this guy I know, he’s a computer hacking expert, and I asked him, like, how hard would it be to rig up a test to phish Alex. He said, “That’d be no problem.”

And I thought, “Huh! In that case, like, maybe we should try it on everyone at Reply All.” He said, “Sure!”

So, he sent every member of the Reply All team some kind of phishing test. And a couple days later, I asked Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, and Alex Blumberg to meet me in the studio.

[Studio audio plays]

And they had no idea what it was about.

PHIA: Ok…so, you know how I have been pretty obsessed with, like, how…we could get hacked?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PHIA: And I spent a few weeks just looking into a bunch of different theories of what–how somebody could hack into a computer, into a Gmail account, and one of the theories that came up that we didn’t really spend any time on is phishing?

PJ VOGT: Yeah, because when it came up s–people got offended. Like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: I was offended. I associated phishing with like a clumsy attempt to get you to reveal your password that I feel like I wouldn’t fall for.

PHIA: Well, so after you got offended, I got really curious, and I ended up talking with this one guy, he’s a digital forensics investigator?

PJ: Daniel Boteanu?

PHIA: Daniel Boteanu.

PJ: I remember him.

PHIA: Now good friend of the show.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Real charmer.

PHIA: Total charmer. So…don’t be mad at me.

PJ: Uh-huh.

PHIA: But I asked Daniel if he would try a phishing test on the staff of Reply All and on Alex Blumberg.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh damn! (laughing) Ohhhhhhh…oh! That is so devious! I’m so mad at you, if I clicked on it!

PHIA: (laughs) Um, so. Oh, I’ll just add one detail, which is before I did any of this I went to President of Gimlet Media, Matt Lieber, and said, “Is it okay–

PJ/ALEX BLUMBERG/ALEX GOLDMAN: (laugh)

PHIA: –if I ask this man to do this thing?”

PJ: And he said yes?

PHIA: Uh. Matt Lieber said “Yes.” He pointed out that without permission someone could be phishing us also.

PJ: Huh. Usually I go to Matt for my “nos” and Alex for my “yeses.” (laughing) I’m surprised you got a “yes” out of Matt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: The suspense is killing me.

PHIA: I gotta say, Matt Lieber actually said, during the whole Uber thing, that he suspected that Alex had been tricked by a phishing campaign.

PJ: Oh, so this was a little personal for him.

PHIA: Yeah, he was like–

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. He has a very low estimation of you apparently.

PHIA: He was like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PJ: Not every relationship has to be a PJ and Alex relationship.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

PHIA: Well, so, okay. So, Daniel started his test on a Monday morning, and by 6 PM, the same day, he had control of somebody’s email.

PJ: Alex is–Alex Blumberg is slowly opening his laptop (laughing).

PHIA: Well, so, ok, so—before we started, I had no idea how Daniel was going to be able to do this, but watching him work…just opened my eyes to all these different things phishing was capable of.

And the first thing that I saw is that Daniel can impersonate anybody. And he said actually, for this test, to test like my co-workers, he was gonna impersonate me.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh.

PHIA: So, to start with, let me tell you what happened to our Executive Producer Tim. Because Tim was editing this piece, he was the one person on staff who knew that this phishing test was going to be going on. And, he didn’t know what was going to happen, but it just made him incredibly paranoid. So, for the last week and a half, he’s been sending me Slack messages like almost everyday being like, “I was just phished! You just attempted to phish me!”

PJ: (laughs)

PHIA: “I’m catching you!”

PJ: He’s phishing himself.

PHIA: Yeah. So, Monday morning, Tim slacked me and was like, “What’s the audio you’re emailing me about?” And, I have no clue what he’s talking about. But, I see him in the kitchen, so I grab my phone, hit record, and meet him there. At which point, it’s clear he just realized what’s going on.

TIM HOWARD: What did?

PHIA: What, what what, what? I just sent you audio.

TIM: Ahhh. Yeah.

PHIA: Should we go into the stairwell?

TIM: Yes.

PHIA: Ok.

TIM: Uh, yeah. So Phia, you don’t know about the email that you just sent me?

PHIA: (laughs) No.

TIM: So I just got an email.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

TIM: That was–it had a–it has an audio file. It was sent to me, Alex, and Sruthi. So I click on it. And it says, “Gmail, you know, one password to rule them all, whatever.” And it asked me for my password.

PHIA: Mhm.

TIM: So I said, “Fuck this!” And I wrote back, “Can you slack me the audio?”

PHIA: Uh-huh.

TIM: Because I don’t want to–I’m already signed into Gmail!

PHIA: Yeah.

TIM: So–

PHIA: So you–so you switched–

TIM: –I could tell that it was a phishing attempt for some smart asshole who’s actually emailing me.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

[Stairwell sounds]

TIM: What’s messed up about it that like, somebody on the other end–

PHIA: Uh-huh.

TIM: –is emailing me right now pretending to be you.

PHIA: Yeah.

TIM: And it sure fucking looks like you.

PHIA: Really?

PHIA: He shows me the email and it’s crazy because it completely looks like it’s coming from me. Like, it looks like it’s coming from phia@gimletmedia.com. But, obviously I didn’t send it.

TIM: Yeah, look at–there it is.

PHIA: “Hey guys.”

PHIA: Ahhh! Phia gimlet at R nedia. That’s so funny! R + N looks like an m! Okay, now I really want to fuck with this person.

PHIA: (laughs)

PHIA: Let me explain how this works. Daniel had bought a domain. He bought the domain gimletrnedia.com, and he was sending the emails from there. But, gimletrnedia looks exactly like gimletmedia.

PJ: Woah!

ALEX BLUMBERG: Damn.

PHIA: And after all of that, Tim and I were walking back to our desks and he was like, “So what’s the audio you were trying to send me?”

PJ/ALEX GOLDMAN/ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: He’s like a mouse trying to get a cheese out of a trap.

PHIA: Ok. So, here’s the second thing I learned: You don’t even need to fall for the scam for Daniel to learn a ton about you.

PJ: Ok.

PHIA: So, for instance, PJ, you received this email that looked like an invoice coming from a consultant, and when you clicked on the link in the invoice, it took you to a page that looked like a Google login page and asked for your username and password.

PJ: Yeah.

PHIA: You didn’t put anything in. But, over in Toronto, the hacker, Daniel, he was still watching you interact with the fake page. Here’s Daniel:

DANIEL BOTEANU: My records show that he clicked on it from an iPhone.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

DANIEL: Uh, probably saw that it was something suspicious, clicked on it a second time from an iPhone. And then, I have records showing that the same link is opened two more times from Mac computers, but two different computers. So, I’m guessing PJ saw that something was going on and he started digging a bit deeper and–and trying to find out what happened or wh–what’s happening with this email.

PHIA: Yeah.

DANIEL: And, I’m suspecting that after PJ maybe sent an email internally saying, “Hey guys! This is what I got. Just be careful. Don’t click on this–on this email.”

PJ: Wow! He could tell that? It’s so funny. It’s like knocking on the door of somebody’s house.

PHIA: Mhm.

PJ: Like even if they don’t answer, like, a light turned on, and it turned off.

PHIA: Right.

PJ: Like he can figure stuff out.

PHIA: Right. Yeah!

PJ: Like, I opened it–I opened the email, thought it was real–

PHIA: Mhm.

PJ: And then, like, I figured out what it was.

PHIA: Mhm.

PJ: And I was really curious. Like, I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I can learn anything.” So I was like, trying to like, examine the package to figure out what was going on. And the moment that I was like, definitively realized it was fake was that in the signature of the email there’s a phone number.

PHIA: Mhm.

PJ: And I googled the phone number and the phone number didn’t go to like, the made up company that they were doing.

PHIA: Oh!

PJ: And I posted in Gimlet slack saying “Hey everybody, watch out. Someone’s trying to–it seems like somebody is targeting Gimlet in particular.”

PHIA: Right, and the reason Daniel had thought you had done that is because he had sent the same email to a bunch of members of the team, and after you looked at it for the fourth time, nobody else clicked on it. And, that’s okay for Daniel because he can try like, all different methods of phishing the team, and he can try it a bunch of different times, so since you’re sounding alarm bells, he probably won’t include you in the next phishing attempt.

PHIA: So Alex, what–what did you get?

ALEX GOLDMAN: I have no idea!

PHIA: (laughing)

ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m–I am on tenterhooks. I do not recall this at all!

PJ: So you didn’t figure out that anything was going on (laughing)!

PHIA: So you got an email that was just like Tim’s, but I was in the room when you got it. And you turned to me and you were like, “What is this?! Why do I have to listen to this?!”

ALEX GOLDMAN: Did I open it?

PHIA: You did not open it. Congratulations.

ALEX GOLDMAN: That is definitely not because I was smart enough to recognize it was a phishing scam.

PJ: I feel like if had you had not been in the room, this would have worked.

PHIA: I know. And–and Daniel said the same thing. He was like, “If I was trying this phishing attempt in earnest, I would’ve tried to impersonate somebody who I thought wasn’t gonna be in the office that day.”

PJ: Right.

PHIA: Ok. So, now for the third thing I learned, which is my favorite thing I learned. Even when you try to protect yourself, like when you set up two-step verification, you’re still not safe. So, this happened towards the end of the day. At this point, nobody on the Reply All team had fallen for it.

DANIEL: I was a bit disappointed at first when I saw that aw, it didn’t work. Maybe we–we did this, all of the emails came at the same time. We should have changed some things. But then, we got the big tuna.

PHIA: So, the big tuna. I think we all know who that is.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So, I–it worked on me but I want to claim–

PJ/ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing)

PJ: Just skipping over (laughing)…

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Way to–way to brush right pass that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So I went–so I got the email. And I was like–

PJ: What did yours say?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mine says… uh… hold on. Mine says–

ALEX GOLDMAN: Who’s it from? Is it from–

ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s from Phia. And it says–it says: “Uber update. Hey Alex, I was wondering if there’s– if we’re giving away too much of your personal information in the Uber update tape with Troy. Will you listen and let me know what you think. Not kosher. Question mark.”

PJ: Nice!

ALEX BLUMBERG: And so–and so it was just–and then there was just like this little thing, there’s a little, you know, Uber update. And it’s coming from Phia at what I now realize is gimletrnedia.com

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh…which is really amazing, like you don’t–you don’t notice the–I know that that’s what it is and it still looks like gimletmedia. It’s crazy. So then–but–so I didn’t open it, cause I was like I don’t have time. Again. I might’ve–it might’ve worked anyway. And then I was like, up on the third floor, you were in–in a meeting with…

PHIA: Sruthi.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Sruthi. And I was–and I saw you guys and I went over, and I like motioned if I could come in. You were in one of those glass–

PHIA: Mhm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: –conference rooms. And I was like, “Hey, I got your email! What’s that about?” And then you looked so confused and–and like, mad, that I thought you were like having–

PHIA: (gasps)

ALEX BLUMBERG: And I was like, “Oh, I’m just being an asshole. I just bumbled into their meeting like I’m the CEO.

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: I was like, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’ll listen.” And so then I left. And then I was–I had this whole narrative where I was like, “Was that–would I have done that–is this like abuse of power?”

PHIA: Aw…

PJ: Aw!

ALEX BLUMBERG: And I was like, “No, I wave people in sometimes too! It’s ok!” So, there was all this guilt that was like, sort of driving me to like complete the task of listening to this audio. And so then I went down there and–and then I clicked on it to listen to it. And then…and then it’s like it–it impersonates a Google Drive.

So then you have to go and like put in your password and stuff like that. Which I did. Because I was like, “I gotta help–I gotta listen to the thing for Phia.” But if, I don’t–I don’t know–yeah.

PHIA: You not only put in your password, you put in your–your two-factor authentication code.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah! Yeah.

PJ: Whoa…

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PHIA: So…so–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Which would–yeah.

PHIA: Daniel would fully be able to get into your email account.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, so how does that work? So what did he do? He–he was like–what- what–what was I putting my actual two-factor authentication code into?

PHIA: What you put it into is his own little page that then forwarded it–

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s on his computer.

PHIA: Yeah. So, that’s on a server. And, when you put in your username and your password on his page, he just immediately forwarded that to a real Gmail login. And from there, because he put in your username and password, a two-factor code was texted to you.

And, when you then put that again into his fake page, he immediately put that into the real Gmail login page and he was completely into your Gmail. And the server he was using was actually based in New York, so if you check where you’ve recently signed into Gmail, it will show a New York-based location, which is what Daniel says, they would really do if it was a targeted phishing attempt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s hella sophisticated.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. That’s really imp–interesting. I do feel like if I hadn’t…you–you basically said you sent the email.

PHIA: I–no!

ALEX BLUMBERG: You did, though.

PHIA: You came in and I said, “I don’t know.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: You said “I don’t know,” but you were like…

PHIA: And you said, “I didn’t look at it, you don’t really remember. I’ll go back and check.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Cause I was like, trying to help you out. And get back to you in time.

AG/PJ/ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PHIA: I–I know you–(laughing) thank you.

ALEX BLUMBERG: After–after rudely interrupting your chat with Sruthi.

PHIA: Thank you.

PJ: (laughs)

PHIA: Sorry.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I don’t know. Yeah. No, I mean it feels like obviously, like, yes, if you–if you have like your entire company conspiring to phish you, yes. They can trick you into clicking on something. I don’t think that proves anything. If they know–if they know every little bit of context around your life, you can be tricked.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I think you are being a little too cavalier about this.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You can be tricked.

PHIA: Do you feel any differently about how offensive of an idea it was that you might’ve gotten phished?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Uh, no, I mean, yes, I do. But, I’m–I feel like, this will–unfairly, you know, sort of solidify a narrative about me that I’m not–that I’m not happy about.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: I f–(laughing) if you hadn’t said the thing about how Matt that it was like–that I was phished–

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Then I’d be responding to this whole conversation very differently. But yes, for the purposes of everybody out there, you–you too can be phished.

PHIA: Yeah.

[MUSIC]

ALEX BLUMBERG: Um. Ok.

PHIA: We’ve kept you more time than we should.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright. I gotta go. Bye!

PHIA: Alright. Bye!

PJ: Thanks, Alex.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Bye!

PHIA: I left that studio feeling like my experiment had totally failed. I’d convinced myself that phishing was real, and pervasive, but I hadn’t convinced Alex at all. All I’d done is like, made him feel suckerpunched. So, I decided the only reasonable thing I could do now was to expand the experiment. The results of that, after the break.

[BREAK]

PHIA: (clears throat) Ok.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Seriously, why are you all here?

PHIA: Does eh–everybody have a microphone in front of them?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh–I do.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yup.

PHIA: Ok. So… the last time, uh, we were all in a room together.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.

PHIA: We…uh, talked about this phishing test that I had–

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PHIA: –instigated.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Surreptitiously performed.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, which I got–I got really salty about. Which I’m embarrassed about now.

PHIA: You are?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PHIA: Cause–

ALEX BLUMBERG: I think I overreacted.

PHIA: I–I felt like–I left that room feeling so guilty and just like, bad about it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: No…it was just–it was–no, it wasn’t you. It was me.

PHIA: Well…

PJ: But you did–you–you–underneath the saltiness you were making an argument, which was that…you felt like–cause what we were trying to say–or what, like–

ALEX BLUMBERG: I thought I was gonna filt–fit into a false narrative about me.

PJ: And–and rather than it being about whether phishing worked, it was about–you felt like it was saying that you, Alex Blumberg, are like a–a bumbling–

ALEX BLUMBERG: A bumbling Mr. Magoo–

PJ: Like if everyone else is like yes on this–

ALEX BLUMBERG: –on the internet.

PJ: –you’re like a no somehow.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. Exactly.

PHIA: Right. Well, it–it seemed like, you agreed on an intellectual level that like, yes, anybody is capable of getting phished, but…on an emotional level, like, this didn’t really demonstrate that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Wait, are you telling me that I’ve been phished again? (laughing) Is this all about—?

PHIA: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) God!

PHIA: No, no, no, no! No! No.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You brought me here to murder me!

PHIA: No.

PHIA/PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: To murder my–to murder my ego!

PHIA: No! It was just, after we talked in the studio the other day, we were, as a team, like trying to figure out like, how–how could we do something that like actually, at like, an emotional and an intellectual level felt like people get phished and, uh, without it feeling like a murky test.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.

PHIA: So, like–and–and proof that like it’s not just Magoos that get phished, like smart people get phished too.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

PHIA: And, um–and so it was like, is there somebody that Alex thinks is really smart that we could try the phishing test on, and then it would feel–and we could do it like very purely, and then like, that would sort of make–make you feel better.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Help me feel better by helping somebody else feel bad (laughs).

PJ: There’s like–

PHIA: Yeah, I’ve learned no lessons.

PJ: Tell more lies. To more people. Yes.

PHIA: Right.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m down.

PHIA: So it was like, should we–should we try to phish like Ira Glass, your–your old boss.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.

PHIA: Or maybe your old colleague, David Kestenbaum, or your brother-in-law, who’s like super, super smart. But we couldn’t actually get permission to phish Ira or David, and it turns out that your brother-in-law doesn’t really use Gmail, which we needed for this phishing test.

So…then we were like, maybe we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. We do know somebody that Alex thinks is smart. And like, and that person also is maybe the source of part of why this feels so bad for Alex. So…you look so confused right now!

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait, did you guys phish Matt Lieber?

PHIA: So…I thought it might interesting…

PJ: (laughs)

PHIA: Um. So–so yes. So, we thought, “What if we tried it on Matt Lieber?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PHIA: But this time I wanted it to be very pure, so I was like, “Daniel, do not tell me like– like, I’m not going to be informed about anything that you’re trying to do. Don’t help me cook this up with you–”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

PHIA: “Just try to phish Matt Lieber.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.

PHIA: So…

ALEX BLUMBERG: Very exciting.

PHIA: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: So when was this?

PHIA: So this was Monday.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok.

PHIA: So Monday–

ALEX BLUMBERG: And it’s now Friday.

PHIA: And it’s now Friday.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok.

PHIA: So on Monday, Daniel sent Matt the phishing test, and literally forty-one seconds later, Matt had fallen for it… he was phished.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.

PHIA: So, obviously I wanted to tell him what happened. And I grabbed him, brought him into the studio.

PHIA: I think this is the first time I’ve been in a studio with you.

MATT LIEBER: I know!

PHIA: But before I could tell him that he’d been phished, I had to tell him that you’d been phished, and as soon as I told him that, he actually just started, like crowing about it.

MATT: He–he fell for it?

PHIA: Yeah!

MATT: No. He fell–he got phished?

PHIA: Yes.

MATT: Amazing. So you–he–you–ok. So you successfully, um, phished Alex. Your boss.

PHIA: Yes.

MATT: Ok. Wow.

PHIA: Yeah.

MATT: Oof!

PHIA: So, when we started this whole project, did you think that Alex–like, did you think that he was likely to fall for it?

MATT: (breathes out) Yes.

PHIA: Why?

MATT: Um, uh, how do I say this without being like, “Oh, he’s a totally credulous dolt.” He’s in general–he’s a v–you know, he’s a very emp–he’s a…he always assumes the best in people.

PHIA: Mhm.

MATT: And he’s generally like a very empathetic person, that’s one of his superpowers. And so, I don’t think he’s like looking out for people who are trying to screw him.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

MATT: I’m the more, like skeptical person–

PHIA: Mhm.

MATT: –when it comes to other people’s motives.

PHIA: Yeah. Ok.

MATT: But I just want–I don’t wanna come off like I’m being a jerk about Alex.

Because Al–obviously Alex is like a great journalist. He’s–which requires him

to be skeptical.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

MATT: And the truth is, the fact that he was phished, tells you that this could happen to anyone who is targeted.

PHIA: Right. So I think the same thing you think. I think like, everybody needs to be like crazy paranoid all the time. And it is possible to phish anybody if you’re targeting it. But, Alex felt like it was like not a clean test and therefore he, like, doesn’t feel like–

MATT: I’m now–

PHIA: –anything’s been proven.

MATT: I’m now of course terrified that you’re gonna be like, “We also phished you! And we did so successfully.” Did you?

PHIA: Well, have you received anything weird from anyone?

MATT: I don’t know.

PHIA: Like, anything like today, maybe…?

MATT: (inhales) Oh my god. Did you phish me?

PHIA: (long pause, then laughs)

MATT: (laughs) Oh my god, now this is like we’re in a David Mamet movie.

PHIA: I feel so…I’m…this is like the worst experiment I’ve ever done. Um. So, earlier today…

MATT: Wait. Yeah.

PHIA: You got an email from Alex Goldman?

MATT: Uh-huh.

PHIA: At–

MATT: Oh my god! Fucking Goldman! That was weird. Because of the way the file was attached.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

MATT: The weird thing about it was because I kept having ih–the two-factor authentication thing (laughing).

PHIA: (laughs)

MATT: Oh my god…this is just th–this is humiliating.

PHIA: (laughs) Uh!

MATT: Because, I’ve sat here in judgement of Alex.

PHIA: No! But you actually like, this confirm–does this confirm for you that it could happen to anyone?

MATT: Yeah. It could happen to anyone. (laughing) It–If you’re an idiot like me. God, he’s so br–this Daniel! We should–we need to hire this Daniel guy!

PHIA: (laughs)

MATT: He has such good insight into what would tweak people.

PHIA: Uh-huh.

MATT: Because he sent me an email saying, as though it were from Alex Goldman saying: “One of our producers found this document posted online, which reveals Gimlet’s salary levels. Um. Is this something that you think should be public?” And I was like (gasps). I was like, “Oh my god.” Like cause if everyone’s salaries got out it would be like a nightmare, right? So, I click on it. It’s a PDF and in order to view the PDF I have to log into my–my Gimlet account.

PHIA: Your–yeah, yeah. Your email.

MATT: Which I do. I put in my username and password, which now I need to change (sighs).

PHIA: That’s why I wanted to talk to you today.

MATT: (laughs) And then, I did the two-factor authentication. I responded to Alex and I cc’d Katie Christiansen, our Director of People Ops–

PHIA: Mhm.

MATT: –who, is the person who would like, know what the answer to like why is this out here?

PHIA: Mhm.

MATT: And…she said, “I can’t see the file.” And…when I went back to download it again I had to do the two-factor again and I’m like, “That doesn’t make sense. Like, I just did the two-factor authentication, why would I have to do it for a second time?” But of course I was like, in the middle of a bunch of things, and I was just like, “Ah whatever, it’s Google. I trust Google.”

PHIA: Yeah.

MATT: And I put it in. I feel like such a jerk now.

PHIA: I–

MATT: Well, I feel like a jerk because I was saying like, “Oh, Alex Blumberg. What a–what an old person who doesn’t know how to, like, protect himself in the real world or online! Because he doesn’t have me!”

PHIA: (laughs)

MATT: Mr. Savvy. Like, Mr. Savvy Skeptic who like–ugh, terrible. Wow. This was a real comeuppance. (sings) Da dun da dun da dun (blows raspberry kiss)!

PHIA: (laughs)

PHIA: So, that’s what happened to Matt.

ALEX BLUMBERG: God! I–I feel terrible now because I feel better.

PHIA/PJ/ALEX GOLDMAN/ALEX BLUMBERG: (laugh)

PHIA: Ah! Then like, one of my goals actually happened.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. I do feel better.

PHIA: You do?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Cause I do. Like I do feel like Matt is the way more suspicious one and in–if I had to choose like which of us is harder to phish, I would’ve chosen Matt. For sure.

PHIA: Here’s–here’s the one thing that comforts me a little bit…I never phished anyone that I assured I wasn’t going to phish.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

PJ: Wow!

PHIA: And that is a small comfort, but it is a comfort!

PJ: That is wild! That that is–that that helps you sleep at night.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PHIA: It does!

ALEX BLUMBERG: That is really…

PHIA: So, I wanna say now: I promise to never phish anyone in this room again.

PJ: Just in this room?

PHIA: Yeah.

PJ/ALEX BLUMBERG: (laugh)

[MUSIC]

Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We’re edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan.

Special thanks to Kashmir Hill, Emily Kennedy and a HUGE thank you to our phisher Daniel Boteanu.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Matt Lieber is bubble tea.

Applications are open to be Reply All’s Fall Intern. The deadline for applications is 9 AM on May 29th and you can find out more on our website, replyall.limo. And you can find more episodes of the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

[BREAK]

PJ: Hey guys! Before we go, we just wanted to ask you for one quick favor. So, there’s a short survey at replyall.club that we’re asking people to fill out. Basically, it helps us put advertisers on the show and continue to make the show. If you’re looking for like a short, easy way to help us out, this is actually like, hugely helpful. And, we’re going to give a free Gimlet membership to somebody who takes the survey. Could be you.

If you’re interested, go to replyall.club. Thanks!

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