April 12, 2017

#94 Obfuscation

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

This week, we debut a new segment designed to help you calibrate your anger in a changing world. Plus, how to cloak yourself from all the people who are now allowed to see your internet browsing history.

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

PJ VOGT: And I'm PJ Vogt. And this week we are debuting a new segment? Is that true?

ALEX: It is true.

PJ: Okay, so here's the deal. Right now, we are living in a time where the amount of things that I am supposed to be mad about on a given day has greatly outpaced my ability to be mad or even pay attention to all of them.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: And so, we're introducing a new segment called, "Why Is Everybody So Mad and Do I Have to Be Mad Also?"

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Which is where (laughing) you go find out about something, and then we rate it from one to ten, and we decide if people have to care about it. Obviously, I asked Matt Farley to do a theme song for it.

MATT FARLEY: (singing)

There's an information overload

Everybody's ready to explode

Fake news, strong views, so many sides which one to choose?

I don't want to lose, I'm so confused. Oh, oh, oh!

Why is everyone so made and do I have to be mad also?

ALEX: (sighs) I—have you noticed that all of these segments we have, it's like, Alex has to go do the work, and then you have to sit in the studio and hear him talk about it?

PJ: Ah...no, I haven't really noticed that.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Anyway, the thing that last week I asked you to go check out, is this ISP thing. Everybody on the internet. And like, actually everybody. It was like, the progressives, who are terrified about Russia, but also like people on Breitbart. Like, the political spectrum in America was super mad saying,"Oh. Trump and the Republicans just passed this new law and now, like, your ISP—like Comcast, Verizon, whoever—they can now just spy on your browsing history."

And so last week, I just asked you: "Do I have to care about this? Does anybody have to care about this? If so, how much? If not, great." What have you learned?

ALEX: Um—ok!

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: That's a tall order, man!

PJ: I love to not care.

ALEX: Alright, so let me just clarify what actually happened: In October of last year, the FCC, under Obama passed a bunch of privacy rules that would have made it so internet providers like AT&T and Verizon can't sell your personal information to advertisers—unless you give them permission. And those rules were set to go into effect at the end of this year.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: But, then a couple weeks ago, Congress was like, "Eh, we don't need these privacy rules. We're gonna kill ’em."

PJ: And that is what people are upset about.

ALEX: Yes. So the people who are freaked out are freaked out because, right now, your internet provider can basically see every site you visit.

PJ: Even if you clear your browsing history.

ALEX: Even if you clear your browser history, they have this list. And, they’re allowed to hang onto it if they want to. They’re allowed to sell it if they want to.

ALEX: So, the first thing I wanted to know was like, why did Congress kill these privacy rules in the first place?

PJ: Mhm.

ALEX: So, I went straight to the—where the source—

ALEX: I went to (laughs)—

PJ: You went to Congress?

ALEX: I, uh, watched the Senate debate about this bill. And—and before it even starts, this guy has to get up on the Senate floor and say just the title of the resolution.

Senate Announcer: Resolution providing for consideration of the joint resolution, Senate joint resolution 34. Providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5 United States code of the rules submitted by the Federal Communications Commission, relating to "Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and other Telecommunications Services."

ALEX: So, everyone starts shuffling around to get in their places on the Senate floor, and while I'm waiting for it to start, CSPAN plays this delightful classical music.


PJ: How long is a hearing like this?

ALEX: Hours.

PJ: You watched all of it?

ALEX: I watched about an hour and a half.

PJ: Good enough for me.

ALEX: So Jeff Flake, he's a Senator from Arizona, he sponsored this bill. He gets up on the floor—

JEFF FLAKE: Mr. President, I rise in support of my resolution of disapproval under the congressional review act...

ALEX: And he lays out this defense of getting rid of these rules.

JEFF: Now Congress needs to repeal these privacy restrictions in order to restore balance to the internet ecosystem and provide certainty to consumers.

PJ: What does that mean?

ALEX: Basically what he’s saying is that companies like Facebook and Google can already sell your personal information, and it's just unfair that internet providers, like Verizon and AT&T, can't do it also.

PJ: Everybody should be able to get your data and sell it.

ALEX: But the difference is, I'm under no obligation to use Facebook and Google if I don't want to.

PJ: Right. Also, like, as much information as Google has, something that is a little bit reassuring, is they don't have everything. Like, the ISP has everything.

ALEX: Right. So I wanted to talk to Senator Flake. Both he and his 23 co-sponsors, uh, all of them declined, or did not get back to me.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: I also emailed...every internet service provider I could think of. The only people I got on the phone with were Comcast, and the woman who answered the phone was like, "I'm very overwhelmed by the request for comment on this particular bill. Um, what you can do is read our blog post!" That’s basically every company’s official stance.

PJ: Okay, but then what do the blogs say? Is it just like, “We’re not gonna sell your stuff even though we’re allowed to”?

ALEX: Well, what they actually say is that they don't collect your sensitive data, like health care information, information about your kids, and they don't sell that. So after trying to reach, like three dozen people, there was only one person who agreed to talk to me.

HOWARD WALTZMAN: Howard Waltzman. I'm the General Counsel for the 21st Century Privacy Coalition.

ALEX: And can you tell me what the 21st Century Privacy Coalition does?

HOWARD: Uh, we're a—group that advocates on behalf of internet service providers in the privacy and data security area.

ALEX: So basically, it's an interest group that's funded by internet service providers. And what Howard said to me was like, Look. All the Republicans did was undo rules that hadn’t even taken effect yet.”

HOWARD: Preventing these rules from going into effect don't give the ISPs, like, new rights to do different things with your data than they already have.

ALEX: According to Howard, there’s enough regulation already, this is totally unnecessary.

HOWARD: In general, when you look at, um, the internet, and you look at how the internet has flourished over the last 20+ years, I don't think the internet would have flourished in the way that it has if consumers didn't trust how their information was being handled online.

ALEX: But I mean, okay—


ALEX: I—I am a consumer, and I don't trust the way that my information's being handled online. I'm a—I'm very paranoid about it. Um. In as far as, I know that-

HOWARD: Do you use the internet?

ALEX: Very aggressively (chuckling).

HOWARD: Well. Then you, I mean, you may be concerned about it, you may tek—take steps to protect your information, but, you're not so concerned about it that you're not using the internet.

ALEX: Well, oh—ok. First of all, I do a podcast about the internet, so that I have no choice. Have to use it in order to do the podcast.

HOWARD: (laughs)

ALEX: But second of all, it's like, the internet is very necessary in order to function in the modern world. But that doesn't mean that I'm not somewhat uncomfortable. I understand that some advertising needs to exist in order for the internet to work, but, that does not mean that I'm not concerned about it.

HOWARD: Mmkay.

ALEX: (chuckles) I mean eh-ah—I already get served quite a bit of ads in my internet browsing, and in my day-to-day, like, does this mean that ISPs will feel emboldened to serve me more ads based on my browsing habits?

HOWARD: ISPs'll have the same requirements they've had for the past 25 months. So, no, I don't believe they'll feel more emboldened to do anything.

[MUSIC - "Uncontrollable Tattoo Applicator"]

ALEX: So, Howard's point is that: These companies are responsible, they do right by their customers, and we should just trust them. But, the people who are mad about these rules being killed, are like, "Actually, (laughs) we should not trust them because they have exhibited some extremely sketchy behavior in the past."

Like, um, installing spyware on your phone that collects all of your browsing history and your keystrokes. Or Jeremy Gillula, who is a—who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me, um, they will—just put new ads smack dab in the middle of websites.

PJ: They will add extra ads into the thing?

ALEX: (laughs) Yes. The would add ads so you had ads in your ads.

JEREMY GILLULA: You know, there was an example where somebody went to the FCC website. We're talking, you know, a government agency, and there was an ad for boots. Just, right smack in the middle of the page. Uh, you can bet the FCC did not partner with anyone to sell boots, uh, from their webpage.

PJ: Which companies did that? Like big ones, or was it like—

ALEX: I'm pretty sure it was a—

PJ: Bimblecorp.

ALEX: I'm pretty sure it was a big one. Gimme just a second. Okay, so, AT&T and Charter have both done it.

PJ: Whooa!

ALEX: Yeah. When Charter was doing it, they sold it as, quote unquote: Enhanced Internet Service.

PJ: Oh! Go to hell!

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Ohhh, I'm not gonna say George Orwell, but come on.

ALEX: So, as you might imagine, the EFF is not super happy that these rules have been repealed by Congress.

PJ: And do they—I mean—not that you would have asked them this question, necessarily, but like, on the scale from, like...

ALEX: Oh (laughs) I did ask them this question!

PJ: Oh really?

ALEX: I asked—I asked Jeremy, I said, "Ok, on a scale of one to ten..."

PJ: I was gonna say, "Global warming to dropping your least favorite Starburst."

ALEX: Here's what I said. I said, "On a scale of one to ten, one being-”

PJ: Orange, by the way.

ALEX: —one being your favorite blogger resigning...

PJ: Uh-huh. Resigning … is very … (chuckling)

ALEX: ...from his blog.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: Ten being the internet is shut down forever...

PJ: Where does it fall?

ALEX: Where does this fall?

JEREMY: I...I would probably call it, uh—being honest the internet isn't broken, but I would call it, probably, like a seven.

ALEX: A seven?


ALEX: I mean that's—

JEREMY: A seven or an eight.

ALEX: —that's pretty bad. Eh-eh-eh

JEREMY: I… think it's pretty bad, yeah.

PJ: Ok. I feel like I'm starting to see the worst case scenario here.

ALEX: I think that it genuinely sucks that I get my internet and my cable from the same place, and they collect information about what I watch from my cable box, and what I'm searching for on my internet. I don't like that. It's icky.

PJ: Like, for you as a—a single human living in the world, the worst that comes of this is like, you're getting served ads for something private and weird, you know, and like, your wife walks into the room and she's like, "Oh, why are you getting so many ads for like, uh...divorce pills?" or whatever.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: And you're like, "Aaaahh!"

ALEX: Right.

PJ: And I feel like the other thing, actually, is just what if they collect all this data on you intending to sell it and then somebody hacks them. And then like, hackers have your browsing history.

ALEX: That seems pretty unlikely, knock on wood.

PJ: Why?

ALEX: I just think that, ok, well—

PJ: I mean, it’s just like every company has data breaches every month, do you know what I mean? That doesn't feel that unlikely to me.

ALEX: Ok, fair enough.

PJ: And, they can anonymize stuff, but like … you anonymize stuff but, like, things that were made anonymous often become un-anonymous just through, like, context.

ALEX: Yeah, uh—

PJ: Like, this person—Google searches "Alex Goldman" a lot, and lives in New Jersey, like, you know what I mean?

ALEX: I don't Google search myself a lot.

PJ: Yes, you do.

ALEX: (laughs) No I don't!

PJ: Yes, you do.

ALEX: I don't.

PJ: Give me your computer. I wan- I'munna type in "A" in Google and see what the first thing that comes up is. No, I want to see.

ALEX: Go ahead.

PJ: "A" - Arab News, okay. "L" - Alphabay Market? "E" - Alex Jones contact info? (laughing) You really don't! "Alex G?" Whoa, man, you really don't. Alex Goldman only comes up if I search "Alex G" and then it's you looking up your Wikipedia page (laughing)... which I'll give you a pass on. Ok. So that's the future you're looking at is me doing that.

ALEX: (laughs) Um.

PJ: So. Having learned all these things, where are we on the scale? One to ten… do I have to care about this?

ALEX: I kind of feel like this is around a four. I do think that is going to lead to companies doing creepy new targeted advertising.

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: But if that's like the worst thing they're gonna do, I feel like it's annoying; it's not life-changing.

PJ: Ok. Ok! I'm not gonna care about this. I'm gonna keep my head in the sand.

ALEX: But.

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: Because I thought that I might be incredibly blasé about this, I convened what I like to call "The Panel of Four."


ALEX: It is four experts—

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: That, um, might have differing opinions.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: And I didn't tell any of them what I was calling them about. So first up we have Paul Ford, who is the co-founder of the digital product studio Postlight and an old-school super-nerd.

ALEX: Hey Paul, this is Alex Goldman. How are ya?

PAUL FORD: Oh hey! I'm just about to get on a bus.

ALEX: Oh, ok.

PAUL: [indistinguishable]

ALEX: Uh, on a scale of one to ten, how bad do you think that the FCC's privacy a- repeal was?

PAUL: Oh boy, I was—(sighs) probably a seven.

ALEX: Adrian Chen, writer for The New Yorker.

ADRIAN CHEN: Mm… well, I have not been following it very closely, but I would say… five.

ALEX: Kashmir Hill, journalist at the Gizmodo Media Group.

KASHMIR HILL: I knew you were gonna ask this.

ALEX: (laughs)

KASHMIR: Um … I'm gonna give it a … six.

ALEX: And, Jane McGehee, retired graphic designer.

ALEX: On a scale of one to ten...


ALEX: How worried are you about the Trump administration's repeal of the FCC privacy regulations that took place last week?

JANE: Ten.

ALEX: Mom...you're really ten—

JANE: Ten?

ALEX: —you're really ten worried? Ten worried means like, in my mind if you're—if you're ten worried, you're like staying up all night.

JANE: Ok, I'm not staying up all night.

ALEX: Alright. Are you having panic attacks?

JANE: I am, but for different reasons. Eight worried?

ALEX: Are you losing your appetite?

JANE: (laughs) That'll never happen.

ALEX: Okay, so you're eight worried.

JANE: Why can't I be ten worried?!

ALEX: (laughs) Uh, I think it's a bit of an overreaction.

JANE: I always overreact! That's my MO.

PJ: I'm totally cool with your mom being on the panel of experts, I'm not totally cool with you convening a panel of experts and then berating one of them for their answer.

AG: Look, we have a special relationship. I'm allowed to say that.

PJ: (laughs)

AG: But let's say, for sake of argument, you are a Jane McGehee. You are very worried about this, it bums you out, you—all you want to do is just figure out a way that the ISPs can’t actually track you.

PJ: Okay, so what do you do?

ALEX: So there's a couple things. The first is, any website that says, "https" on it.

PJ: Uh-huh...

ALEX: So there's two kinds of websites—

PJ: Secure...

ALEX: Secure, which is the "s."

PJ: And huh-tuh-puh.

ALEX: And—oh boy...

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: Oh boy...

PJ: Huh-tuh-puh.

ALEX: I mean, we're ostensibly a tech show, man.

PJ: Ostensibly.

ALEX: Um, the “s” websites, your ISP will be able to see you go there—

PJ: But not what happens.

ALEX: —but it won’t be able to see you do anything there. Anyway, the other, much more secure way to protect yourself is a VPN. And if you don't know what a VPN is...

PJ: Virtual private network...

ALEX: Very good.

PJ: I used to use them sometimes in Canada, because when I lived in Canada, I couldn't watch American Netflix, and the VPN made it so Netflix couldn't tell where I was connecting from.

ALEX: Yeah, a VPN is basically a connection to a computer that's located somewhere else. So when you're browsing the internet, it looks like your traffic is coming from that computer instead of yours.

ALEX: So, those are the two obvious ways to hide yourself online. But I discovered another one, which is actually kind of absurd and pretty great. Um. It's designed by this philosopher named Helen Nissenbaum.

PJ: She's a philosopher?

ALEX: Yes. And Helen said that thing happened to her, she said, "You know, in 2005, I was working on this—this ethics study with these guys, and I w—I found out that Google was storing all of my searches, and I was like, "Oh, d- w—like, why would they do that?"

HELEN NISSENBAUM: And I said, "Oh, this is really disturbing I'm- I'm not so happy that Google or the other search companies, are keeping a full record of all my searches because some of them I find to be quite intimate, and, my colleagues, who were computer scientists, they said, "It's on their servers, so of course they're maintaining your search queries." I said, "Is there anything I can do about it? Can I say. 'No, I don't want you to?'" And they said, "Well, of course not, because they just collect the searches, so, it's theirs to keep."

PJ: It's so great, cause it's just like, it's almost like, the same way, like a joke is like, "A carpenter and a doctor walk into a bar." It's like, these computer scientists were like, "Technically we are able to do this and so of course we’re going to. But she's a philosopher, she's like, "But why?"

ALEX: Yeah. So she thought about this for a while, she got really mad about it, and then she came up with this, like, great big idea to save privacy. So, do you know what (clears throat), do you know what radar chaff is?

PJ: Yes. It is stuff that planes shoot out so they don't get picked up on radar.

ALEX: Right. It's like sh—it's like little pieces of shrapnel that have like aluminum on them, so they make a radar go crazy.

PJ: Right. It's like, "there's planes everywhere!"

ALEX: Right. And the program that Helen made is basically like radar chaff for the internet. It’s this program called TrackMeNot.

HELEN: What TrackMeNot does is it automatically sends search queries to whichever site you have it installed in, in the background.

ALEX: So, I actually installed TrackMeNot on my computer, and it works for any website. So, say you're on Amazon and you're looking for cat food and, whatever, cat toys (laughs).

PJ: Uh-huh.

Alex: Um, it will also in the background, be doing random searches on that site. I don't even notice them. This—

PJ: Lemme see.

ALEX: This is a—this is a log of all the s—on the right hand side, a log of all the searches it's doing in the background right now—

PJ: On your computer.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: So it's like..."new hundred dollar. In box. David Mclaughlin. CNN had Donald Trump solved?" That's great.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: They actually, it looks realer than I thought.

ALEX: Yeah, well, they’ve designed to make it look like a person doing real searches so it confuses Google.

PJ: So it works?

ALEX: (inhales) ... Great question.

PJ: (laughing) Do you know the answer?

ALEX: No one knows the answer. Google's not gonna tell you if your Google-tricking bot works.

PJ: Beating it. Right.

ALEX: They—she's also worked on another plug-in that's called AdNauseum.

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: And it's a plug-in that when you go to a website automatically clicks on every ad on the page.

PJ: (whispers) Oh, that's amazing.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: So it's like, this guy loves cars and jacuzzis, and blah blah blah. You just seem like eh—a hyper-consumer.

ALEX: Totally. And Helen sees this as like a part of a larger movement that she calls the "obfuscation movement." So, AdNauseam obfuscates you from advertisers, TrackMeNot obfuscates you from places where you type in searches. And this guy, Dan Schultz, after all this stuff happened in the past couple weeks, made this program called Internet Noise, which obfuscates you from ISPs by randomly visiting websites.

PJ: I love that because, I go back and forth between being cynical and not. But like...(sighs) I just like the idea that instead of being mad, I like the idea that you’re just like "No, this is gonna be like hand-to-hand combat." You know what I mean?

ALEX: (laughs) Right.


PJ: Ok. That is it for our first edition of "Why is Everyone So Mad, and Should I Be Mad Also?" Here is where we're leaving this.

Four out of ten, according to you, Alex Goldman, if people feel upset with that they should direct it to you, Alex Goldman.

ALEX: PJ agreed, though, so I think that he—

PJ: I don't recall that.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: And, uh...and, if you're interested in like, slightly anonymizing yourself, get a good VPN. Or if you wanna do it in a more artistic, weird way, uh, try obfuscation—you can use Internet Noise, AdNauseam, and TrackMeNot.

ALEX: And we'll put links in the website.

PJ: We'll put links in the website, where you'll be tracked. Okay.

After the break, a man tries to teach a salmon to find gold and two humans reach total transcendence. Stick around.



PJ: Welcome back to the show. It’s April, which means everybody here at Reply All is making preparations for, what for us is the biggest holiday of the year, Email Debt Forgiveness Day. As we all know, Email Debt Forgiveness Day is April 30th, it's the one day of the year where, if there's someone who you were supposed to email and you didn't, because you felt anxious, and you let it go on too long, and then before you knew it, too much time had passed to really say anything, Email Debt Forgiveness Day is a day where you're allowed to just email that person as if no time has passed at all.

It is an opportunity to free ourselves from doubt, and regret, and as we talked about it at the show, we realized that there is one person who really needs Email Debt Forgiveness Day. And that person is also one of our show's editors, Mr. Jorge Just.

PJ: How many people do you think you have in your head right now, like avatars of people who are disappointed, because you owe them an email?

JORGE JUST: (laughs) If I start to think about them, like it gets crowded.

PJ: Yeah.

JORGE: Oh yeah. You know those photographs of Woodstock?

PJ: (laughs) Yes.

JORGE: Mhm. Just like—yeah. Except they're all frowning.

PJ: (laughs) And they're not enjoying peace, love, and music.

JORGE: Mm-mm. Yeah, they're like covered in mud and they haven't eaten in three days. And they're angry about it (laughs).

PJ: There was this one person in particular who Jorge felt really bad about. His friend Chris Colin. Chris is a journalist, he's a professional writer, which means that normally he is completely capable of writing his own emails.

But, at a party a while ago, Jorge and Chris made this weird bargain where Jorge agreed to write two emails on Chris' behalf. For Chris. But Jorge didn't do it. He didn't do it the next day, he didn't do it the next week, next month, and pretty soon a year had passed.

And, in that year Jorge's been feeling really terrible. And so we decided to try to take care of it in the studio in preparation for Email Debt Forgiveness Day. And I just have to say, Jorge just—his whole demeanor changed. He looked like a person who was in actual physical pain.

PJ: Do you wanna try to just … call Chris?

JORGE: Yeah, let's—yes. Yes, yes, yes. Why not?

PJ: Yes?

JORGE: Um...yes. I think we should call him.

PJ: Alright. Let's call him.


PJ: Hello?


PJ: Hey, Chris?


PJ: Um. So, Chris, I'm here with Jorge. Oh, also this is PJ.

CHRIS: Hi PJ. Hi Jorge.

JORGE: (laughs) Hello.

PJ: Can I just ask you some questions?

CHRIS: Yeah?

PJ: Um. Do you remember a party, twelve months ago, where bartering occurred?

CHRIS: Uh, that's not how I remember it. I remember this party being two years ago, Jorge?

JORGE: (laughs)

PJ: So what happened two years ago?

CHRIS: I had a birthday party. The theme was bartering, you had to barter for something, uh, and then you would get something in exchange.

PJ: It was your birthday party?

JORGE: (laughs)

CHRIS: Yeah, it was my birthday party.

PJ: Man, that's different! And worse! Then what I had heard.

CHRIS: What did you hear?

PJ: Oh, that it was your wife's birthday party.

CHRIS: Jorge, why would you say that?

PJ/JORGE: (laugh)

JORGE: To lighten my psychic load.

CHRIS: It was my birthday party, but I remember that he had a really excellent idea. Which was, um, he would write two emails that I really didn't wanna write.

PJ: That sounds great. That sounds really generous.

CHRIS: Well, yeah—I mean, I—I like to think that he got something pretty good. Jorge, do you remember what you got?

JORGE: (laughs) I think I got four tickets to the theater.

CHRIS: (laughs) Uh, no. It was a really good idea. I can't remember if Jorge knew...that I was the kind of guy who could really use that. I like to think it was sort of a targeted offer.

JORGE: (laughs awkwardly) Right now I'd like to think that you aren't the kind of guy who could really use that. Cause that would also lighten my psychic load.

CHRIS: Um. Wait, are you saying that this has been hanging over you? Cause I feel like it's been hanging over me. I feel like you—

PJ: Whoa.

CHRIS: Like, you have owed me these emails and it's been just one more thing—it's like, it's like a third email that I’ve needed to write. Like I—it had the opposite effect of what it was supposed to have, like...

JORGE: (laughs)

CHRIS: It was like, "Aw man. Now I gotta—I- I should write Jorge and like, give him his assignments, but it's just—but I haven't gotten around to it.

PJ: So you thought this was your fault?!

CHRIS: Yeah! No, I felt like he gave me this really—well, you know, it's like when you have like a Groupon certificate, and you just like, you realize it's been like four years and you haven't used it. It just sort of—it's that...species of guilt.

PJ: Well, that's exactly why we called!

CHRIS: (laughs)

JORGE: (laughs)

CHRIS: What's gonna happen...?

PJ: Jorge do you wanna tell him?

JORGE: I forgive you.

CHRIS: (laughs) Wait a second. I don't think it's like a thing where you forgive me...

PJ: (laughs)

CHRIS: I'm not saying I did—did wrong by you...I'm just saying, I haven't taken advantage of your very sweet offer. But I don't think that was like a crime against you.

JORGE: Uh, yes. I feel like I owe you—uh, yes. This has been hanging over me. Like I'm a bad person who says he's gonna do something, and then doesn't do it. CHRIS: I mean you—but technically you definitely do owe me something.

JORGE: (laughs)

PJ: I think two things, actually.

CHRIS: Two things. Yeah!

PJ: Do you have two emails that you still want written for you or at this point would it be better to just like scuttle the whole deal?

CHRIS: You couldn't pay me to scuttle this deal.

PJ: I mean, is there one—is there one that comes to mind right now?

CHRIS: (sighs) Um. Yeah...I've got, like, literally decades old—a decade old, uh, collection of emails that it would be nice for him to deal with. Like strangers who wrote me notes and I—and they were so sweet that I wanted to write like really meaningful replies and I just didn't.

PJ: What's the worst one?

CHRIS: (sighs) Um … well, I—I wrote a story about a man named Randy, who um, subletted, uh, an office from me when I was not gonna be in the office. And he was an older guy, uh, super eccentric, and um, he would—every time I would see him, he would like have some new scheme about like training a Malaysian raven to, uh, to tell whether a man was wearing a hat or not. Or um, he had once been in Alaska and he tried to teach salmon to—to find gold for him.

JORGE: Oh...(laughs).

CHRIS: He had a lot of schemes. He was a really fascinating guy. And he was living—I realized that he was living in this office, that I had rented to him. He...it started to become clear that he was sort of quasi-homeless. And the other people at the office were getting increasingly upset about it. And I just sort of felt like...um. I don't know, I got sort of caught in the middle of this whole thing and I was sort of—I was sticking up for him. And I felt like it was—it was a—it was about San Fran—it was like a referendum on what was happening in San Francisco in this very micro way.


CHRIS: The—the funky people were getting edged out. And then, one day I got a call that Randy had died. And uh—and it turned out my business card was the only thing they found, in his pockets.

PJ: So, Chris wrote an article in the newspaper about Randy. He wrote about Randy's scheme to open a hot dog hut in Thailand and his plan to build the world's first million gallon aquarium. And when the article was published, people who'd known Randy wrote to Chris. People who wanted to share their memories of Randy and say how much the article had meant to them.

CHRIS: And I just couldn't, I never—I never got around to writing back to them. I don't—I don't know how to explain how I'm such a horrible person, I just—(laughs) they just like...sat there. And it—and it was like one year, and then it was two years, and then now it's a decade.

PJ: Well, it's not that you're a horrible person, it's that you don't do it at first because you wanna do it really well, and then the longer you wait, the better it has to be.

CHRIS: Right.

PJ: And so, starting on day two it just becomes more and more impossible every day.

CHRIS: Yes, that's true. It snowballs. Yeah.

PJ: I know a guy who's really good with emotional snowballs.

JORGE: (laughs)

CHRIS: Ok! Alright! Oh my god. I mean, I can't even tell you how...(sighs) I really feel like I would lose ten pounds if you wrote back to these people.

JORGE: I would be happy to do this.

CHRIS: Ok. Just … due diligence here, tell me are you gonna write quick little notes, "Sorry bro. Didn't get a chance to write back to you" kind of answers?

PJ: (laughs)

JORGE: (laughs)

CHRIS: Or are you gonna really—are you gonna sweat this as much as I have been meaning to sweat this?

JORGE: I mean (laughs), before you ask that question, I—I will admit I was just gonna send the shrug emoticon.

PJ: (laughs)

JORGE: Um. But uh...yeah. We will write these emails.

CHRIS: (laughs) I—I can't wait to see what I write.


PJ: So that conversation was Monday. Jorge turned around the emails on Tuesday. Chris made his changes and sent them out to the people who had been waiting on them for nearly a decade by the end of the day on Tuesday. Both of them, I'm happy to report, are now free of all worry, pain, and anxiety. They walk around beaming, like they've achieved a kind of transcendence. Because they have.

If you would like to join them in that transcendent state, Email Debt Forgiveness Day is April 30th, we hope you will use it to unburden yourself of email debt.

Also, if you have just a huge email debt story, something that has been weighing you down, we wanna hear about it. You can send us an email at replyall@gimletmedia.com. Use the subject line "Email Debt" so we know to look for it. Maybe...we'll call you and talk to you about it on the show.

Also, if you want more information about Email Debt Forgiveness Day, we made a webpage for it. It's at emaildebt.club.



Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and 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 were mixed by Rick Kwan.

Special thanks to Dylan Moss and Emily Kennedy.

Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. And our theme song for our new segment: “Why Is Everybody So Mad and Do I Have to Be Mad Also?" was written by Matt Farley, as many of our best songs are. Matt is available to write custom songs for you for a reasonable fee. Just check out his website. It's motern—M-O-T-E-R-N—media.com. Our logo is by Matt Lubchansky.

Matt Lieber is the first cookout of the year.

You can visit our website at replyall.limo. You can find more episodes of the show on iTunes or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your choice. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.