In The Moment: Episode 50


In this week’s interview, former Town Hall Artist-In-Residence Erik Molano talks with Peggy Orenstein about the fraught emotional landscape and difficulties faced by modern adolescent boys. Orenstein outlines the harm our society does to teenage boys by pressuring them to suppress their emotions, cultivate aggression and dominance, and glorify sexual conquest. Molano and Orenstein delve into the complications of pornography, and how the images and narratives it presents are skewing young men’s understanding of sex and teaching them to model relationships that are unhealthy and emotionally toxic. Orenstein calls for a collective cultural shift to help young men break down these social constructs and reconnect with sensitivity, emotion, and healthy sexuality. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

Transcript coming soon!

In The Moment: Episode 49


In this week’s interview, Robert Frank talks with Chief Correspondent Steve Scher about the power of peer pressure. Robert provides examples of how social influence effects our health, consumerism and our perception of government. Robert and Steve talk about the weight that high positions of power have on our cultural morality, as well as the impact that our neighbors and friends have on our decision-making and general well being. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

Transcript coming soon!

Can Peer Pressure Save The Planet? A Conversation with Robert Frank

We’ve long known that our choices are heavily influenced by our social environment. Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Cornell University Professor Robert Frank to explore his new book’s message about how peer pressure can help combat climate change. Frank will be at Town Hall on 1/20. Tickets are only $5 (and free for anyone under the age of 22).

AE: At the core of your research is the idea of “behavioral contagion”—people adopting behaviors modeled by those around them. What are some ways this phenomenon can create problems for us?

RF: Here’s a simple example: We often cite secondhand smoke as the reason for our many taxes and regulations on smoking. But what we don’t acknowledge is that the far greater harm that arises when someone takes up smoking is to make others more likely to smoke. Behavioral contagion can act to our detriment, as with smoking, but also to our benefit, such as when installing solar panels or buying electric cars makes others much more likely to do so.

AE: Critics are skeptical of individual action to combat climate change, such as eating less meat, turning off lights, or buying more energy-efficient appliances. If we really want to solve the problem, they say, we need robust changes in public policy. You say that you once embraced those criticisms, but that your study of behavioral contagion has led you to a more nuanced view. Can you explain?

RF: Critics are right that without strong collective action, our efforts to combat warming will fail. After all, there’s not much tangible benefit for the planet if I recycle but nobody else does. But changing personal behavior has broader effects than many of us realized. Most importantly, it deepens our identities as climate advocates and increases the likelihood that we will prioritize acting on those values—voting for policies to fund green energy and knocking on doors to help elect politicians who will support those policies. 

AE: Do you see a generational component connecting social influence and action based on environmental values?

RF: One clear split is the divide between younger and older voters. The former are far more committed to decisive action on climate change, and are more burdened by the practical consequences of inequality. Older voters are more prosperous, on average, and better positioned to oppose the large tax increases required for any serious effort to combat climate change and inequality.

AE: You say that opposition to more progressive taxation is rooted in a cognitive illusion—that, contrary to what most prosperous voters seem to believe, paying higher taxes wouldn’t require any painful sacrifices from them at all. Can you explain?

RF: No tax proposal on the horizon would threaten prosperous voters’ ability to buy what they need. But since higher taxes leave these people with less money to spend, it’s totally natural for them to worry about whether they could still afford the special extras they want. But because such things are inherently in short supply, the way you get them is to outbid others who also want them. And your ability to do that depends only on your relative bidding power, which is completely unaffected when you and your peers all pay more in taxes. The same penthouse apartments with 360° views end up in exactly the same hands as before. If enough people understood why higher taxes wouldn’t require painful sacrifices, progress in securing funding to face environmental challenges would suddenly become possible.


Join us on 1/20 to hear more from Robert Frank on harnessing the power of social influence to help build support for environmental policies. Tickets are on sale now

In The Moment: Episode 48


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández about the problems with our nation’s immigration prison system. Hernández outlines the financial incentives for private prisons to keep their cells filled in order to receive money from the government, and identifies similarities between immigration prisons and the mass incarceration of the 1980’s Reagan-era war on drugs. Hernández and Scher discuss the stigmas migrants face, as well as the factors perpetuating this prison system and what it would take to dismantle the immigration prison system. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk with folks coming to our town hall stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. It’s the beginning of December and as 2019 winds down so to our town hall programs, but don’t let the light listings on the calendar fool you. We’ve got some hard hitting events about racial and social justice and assortment of art and music programs to satiate your holiday spirit and with that same holiday spirit in mind, many of us look to help those around us in need. There are the obvious choices, food banks and homeless shelters, but there are also the places hidden from sight or behind fences and bricks like the immigrant detention centers that housed thousands of immigrants from across the globe. The U S imprisoned Chinese immigrants on angel Island in San Francisco Bay in the 1850s immigrants were detained to Ellis Island before they were allowed into the U S but for many decades of the nation’s existence, the Southern border with Mexico was more fluid.

People living on both sides could cross to be with family members or seek work, but that is all changed today. The U S puts around 400,000 people annually into detention to await some form of civil or criminal determination or their feet. Often their crime is the very fact that they crossed the border without the proper documents and who benefits from this harsh treatment of people fleeing their home countries in search of asylum or a better life lawyer says our quality Moke Garcia Hernandez was born on the U S side of the Texas Mexico border. He is a law professor at the university of Denver and is coming to town hall on December 9th to talk about his new book migrating to prison. America’s obsession with locking up immigrants are in the moment. Chief correspondent, Steve Cher spoke with CSR over the phone.

I just met with some folks yesterday, told him I was reading your book and they said, Oh, I have to read this book because we’re going down to the Northwest immigration detention center in Tacoma on a regular basis to try to help some of the people there. And talk to some people there and that’s their, that’s their reality right now. Yeah.
Those folks who are advocating at the Northwest detention center are really at the forefront of activism focused on, on the shutting down this, this practice that’s grown up over the last four decades or so. So those are good people to to, to learn from.

How much access do people actually get to the folks who are in these prisons?

It’s very hard to get inside these immigration prisons. The, the sad reality is that even lawyers tend to not to, to go into these facilities. Many of them are located far from large urban centers where you have substantial immigrant rights communities, social service communities, clergy, the kinds of folks who take take tend to take an an interest in the struggles of people who are, who are going through one, one prison system or, or another. And so what that, what that means on the ground is that when you go walk into, into immigration court hearings involving detained individuals, you’ll see that most of them are showing up there by themselves. That’s true of the adults. That’s true. The families. And that’s true of, of kids who as well,
What’s the justification for that? When you ask a immigrate you know, a, a person on the other side who’s representing the government Cost? It would, it would obviously come at a finance a substantial financial cost to the government to, to provide publicly funded immigration attorneys for, for everyone who’s going through the process.

But again, it’s costs or cost. How much do these systems cost the American taxpayer when people are, what is it, 400,000 annually to these prisons?

I think the number fluctuates between four and 500,000. But we’re talking regardless, we’re talking about a large number of, of individuals, most of whom are going to be going through the process without the assistance of, of, of lawyers. And, and, and not only is that, is it expensive to run these facilities, but it’s also expensive on the court system itself. The, the, the reality is that judges don’t really, immigration judges don’t really like seeing immigrants show up in their courtrooms standing alone either because they don’t know what’s going on. They, they you know, the, the judges then have the responsibility of trying to help out this person just so that they can raise some claim that maybe is good and maybe it’s not good, you know? And, and and, and lawyers actually are efficient.

They, they help identify when, when somebody’s got a good legal claim, when they don’t have a good legal claim. And, you know, sometimes the thing that a lawyer does is have that hard conversation with a client that says, look, you know, the reality is the way immigration law is currently structured, you’re out of luck. And that gives that, that gives an immigrant the information that they need to make a decision about how to, how to move forward. And, and, and, and from the perspective of the court system itself, you know, that, that’s actually quite helpful.
Well, that makes sense.

But somebody must benefit. Who do you think benefits from this privatized system of imprisoning? There’s, there’s, there’s lots of value that comes from locking up immigrants to begin with. The private prison corporations that run facilities around the United States core civic and the geo group are the two largest private prison operators in the United States, both of which have a heavy footprint in the immigration prison prison practice. But local officials are equally invested. Many times County governments either own or operate the immigration prisons that contract with ice. In other instances, the County will own the facility and contract with a private prison corporation that then goes out and gets the contract with the federal government. But regardless of how it’s structured County County governments quite frequently have a, have a financial interest at stake in keeping their prison beds filled. And then when the federal government is, is the is the party that’s paying for this incarceration, then it essentially then it’s essentially free money because the, the folks who are going to be hired are going to be local people who are going to be spending their income in local community, boosting the local economy.

And and those jobs are selling points that politicians across the country use when they want to get elected or when they, when they want to get reelected. And so on one hand you’ve got the private prison corporations that are profiting from this practice. On the other hand, you’ve got the politicians that are using immigration prisoners as a way of, of, of, of wooing votes.
Well, you call your book, your book is titled migrating to prison, America’s obsession with locking up immigrants, but it is under the umbrella it seems, and you draw some connections with America’s obsession with mass incarceration more broadly.

The, the immigration prison system that we have today was born in the very same circums out of the very same circumstances that the drug war mass incarceration system. That’s much more commonly known was, was, was born in the, in starting in the middle of the 1980s. And the, and the Reagan years when people of color were being, were being pinned as the, as the folks who were bringing drugs into our communities. And the very same legislative debates in Congress and the white house and the very same pieces of legislation that were adopted by Congress. We see not only that, the, the legal infrastructure that gave rise to the drug war mass incarceration was built. But at the very same time, the immigration prison system that we have today started it started to develop. And so these two things, these two things are our, our, our two, two ends of the very same phenomenon and willingness to lock up people, primarily people of color for, for committing sins that many of us commit and, and have the good fortune of not getting caught.

Well, people express shock and outrage. Some people express shock and outrage when Donald Trump, the candidate, talked about the kinds of people who were coming from Mexico. But your book documents that same kind of language all the way back to, well, I’m sure we can go even further back, but we’ll stop with the Chinese and how they were treated and viewed on the West coast. And the 18 hundreds History of, of demonizing migrants had, has been a part of the history of the United States for, for, for, for generations. It’s not new. It takes a different form. And, and one of the things that Donald Trump does is, is that he’s, he’s returned to that abrasive, explicit racism of the late 19th century. But, but, but, and, and that’s that, that’s lamentable too, to be sure, but I think it’s, it’s not okay to, to, to imagine Donald Trump as being, as being the, the unique human being, the, he imagines himself to be. The reality is that that the groundwork for the Trump administration was laid long before Donald Trump walked down. The, it came down the escalator in Trump tower to announces his, his presence, his candidacy for president of the United States.

Well, as we all know, except for the indigenous people who were, were here for 10 to 14,000 years before Europeans started coming. We’re all immigrants. I was thinking about my grandparents story. They came through Ellis Island. They were, they were held up for a little bit. They were central Europeans and they were Jews. I think about my, my mother-in-law’s story who came fleeing the Nazis. Also Jewish, couldn’t get into the U S ended up in in the Dominican Republic for four years. But her husband who was already her, her father rather, who was already here and had an established business, eventually got his family in. So in some ways, similar stories can be told except when it seems we come to the question of race. I mean, those, those Jews and those central Europeans were not considered white for a long time, but eventually they became white. Not the same case for the Chinese or for the Mexicans who lived along the Mexico us border. That’s  that certainly is right. And I think that’s one of the thing w w the, the, the, the racial dynamics of immigration imprisonment, especially in the late 20th century and moving forward into, into today is what makes me worry that unless we have a radical, a re-imagining of migration, that will, will not only continue to see immigration and prison meant on a large scale, but that it will actually continue to increase rather than rather than, than, than, than shut down. One of the, one of the pieces of of, of history that I find most fascinating about this about this book that I learned while writing what putting together the book is, is in 1954 when Dwight Eisenhower, the war hero who had only recently been elected president decides that we should actually shut down the immigration prisons that remained Ellis Island being the most famous of, of those because it was situated within, within view of the statue of Liberty. You can have an ironic view of the statue of Liberty. And, and, and, and that came about because we stopped viewing these individuals as who, who were primarily from Europe, we stopped being them as, as, as a threat. And, and, and until we stopped seeing people of color in the United States as as dangerous, they don’t think we will ever get to a point where we get to revisit a period like we, like 1954 when the Eisenhower administration decided to shut down the immigration prison system that existed then.
But how successful was he in shutting it down over time?

Well, he, he, he shut down the largest immigration prisons that existed on the East coast and, and on the West coast. And so certainly it wasn’t, it he didn’t get to the point of absolutely abolishing the entire prison system. There were some folks, especially along the Southwest Mexicans who were still being detained on a short term basis. But we got as close as we ever have been. And I think I think in that history there’s something to be learned, something that is that, that we can use as as inspiration for, for crafting a a new path into the interference.
Well, I was struck by the facts that of the numbers of Hispanics, Mexicans and Americans of Hispanic descent who were lynched during the, you know, during the run up to the, to that era very much the same numbers you write as the number of African Americans that were lynched

On the, on a per capita basis. These were certainly different sized populations. But yeah, the, this was a, this was unfortunately, lynching fortunately was a, was a known phenomenon in the South West of, of the United States at the time in places like South Texas where I was, I was born and raised. And so the, the, the history of, of violence inflicted upon Latinos, Mexicans and others. In the United States, a, certainly not a new one. I think the immigration prison system that we have these days is just the latest, the latest of that state inflicted violence. But equally problematic. And, and, and, and it’s important too, to think of it not as be as occurring in a vacuum out of isolation, but as being only the latest version of this, that this, this preexisting pattern that goes back generations.

Let’s let’s talk about some of the people, the individuals. So as an immigration lawyer as well as a law professor, you, you come in contact with, with people on a regular basis. Who are some of the clients that that I don’t know either, either you can be specific or you can, you know, protect their names. But who are some of the people that you are thinking about these days and their, and their stock? Their lot?
That’s just a few weeks ago we celebrated veteran’s day in the United States. And, and like on that day, I can’t help but think of a gentleman named Jerry at AMECO who was born and raised in, in South Texas. Not very far from, from where I was. And our community was, is a fairly poor community, a heavily Mexican community. And when I graduated from college, I went off to, I mean when I graduated from high school, rather, I went off to college in new England and when he graduated from, from high school, he joined the U S army. And then, so he got deployed to Iraq where his job was to lead a, a group of, of tanks that patrolled through, through what was dangerous a territory. And while I was trying to acclimate to a new environment and the or, or Ivy league university that I was attending, he was getting attacked by people who were interested in repelling the, the U S army.

And one day his tank went over an IED and it blew the thing, the tank apart. And he was injured and he got sent back home. And unfortunately he didn’t get the care that he, he needed. And so he turned to drugs and as he was going through the criminal justice system, one day he just disappeared because ice had gotten ahold of him. And the reason I just got ahold of him was because he was not born in Texas. He was born in Mexico and he was, he has a green card. He’s been a lawful permanent resident for, for decades. And, and that’s what allowed him to be as American and, and in every way possible as in me, if not more so. But the sad reality is that when it comes to immigration law, what matters isn’t that he decided to put his life on the line for the United States.

What matters is that he was born just a few miles South of the magical line that we called the U S Mexico border. And that means that to immigration law and ice. He’s not one of us. He’s one of them. He’s in South Texas. He, his or the law firm that I’m a part of was able to get him out of, out of the immigration prison and and help him go through the we’re still helping him go through the immigration court process to try to fend off the, the government’s effort to, to the board him,
You know, you start this book also with the Diego Rivera Osorio a child,
A child who came to the United States. When his mother Wendy decided that life in [inaudible] was too dangerous for them to stay. And when they arrived in the United States, they immediately went up to a a border patrol officer and requested asylum. And within a few days they found themselves locked up in a Pennsylvania immigration prison. And the days went by. Eventually giggle won his case to stay in the United States. But it took 650 days of being confined in that Pennsylvania facility. A judge years later, a judge wrote that Diego had gone from diapers to this detention inside this facility. This is how we treat babies, infants. And not only that, infants who are going through the legal process exactly as Congress set it out. This, this is, this is truly troubling. And unless we have an enormous, the powerful reason to do this, I don’t think it’s defensible in any by any stretch of the imagination.
And, and just because we should note this the Trump administration has maybe increased the numbers of people who are detained this way, but the Obama administration pursued very similar policies
Live in the Obama administration operated the largest immigration prison system in the history of the United States until the Trump administration. That’s an important difference to be sure, but I don’t think it’s one that lets the Obama administration off the hook. The, the, what, what president Trump is doing these days is to ramp up. But w the, the, the foundation that president Obama set for him. And, and, and to be sure president Bush before Obama and president Clinton before, before Bush, that this is not, this is a not, not a, a policy that, that, that Donald Trump invented out of whole cloth. Certainly it is one that he has, he is exploiting two to wreak greater or greater havoc on, on more human lives.
All right, so what the people that end up in prison let’s talk about like who they are and, and then what they’ve done and where they go. Because you argue in the book that we can call these different things detention centers, but they’re all prisons and, and because people can’t leave. So what is the justification in current American law for locking up people who cross the borders without authorization?
The, the, the, the luggage. Two reasons. One is that you won’t show up for your court dates. And the second is you might endanger the public or the real, the, the reality is that we know how to, how to help people show up for court dates. We can first off start, we can start off by providing them with lawyers. Eh, we have, we, we’ve, we’ve piloted various projects. I’m going back to the Reagan years in which we have provided immigrants who are going through the, through the court process would access to lawyers. Right now there is no right to appointed counsel in immigration court, which is why most of the folks who are going through that process while detained are doing it by themselves. They’re doing it without the benefit of, of legal counsel. We give people lawyers the, the lawyer, one of the things lawyers do is obviously to identify claims that can be made to, to a judge, to, to find a way for this person to stay in the United States.
But there are also advisors, there are counselors. They, they help people understand the process and the more that people understand them process, the more they buy into the process. You pair the lawyers with social workers was other support services that makes sure that they have bus fare to get there. That they know and know where they’re supposed to be going and that they know what things that they need to bring an ID in order to walk in the door. That if if, if, if, if the car breaks down, their child gets sick, that they, that they have an ability to communicate with the relevant people so that they can change that court date and, and make sure that they are able to to, to abide by the process as, as, as Congress. Set it out for them. On the other hand, have the dangerousness factor is something that president Obama would wave around.

He said, my, my let me, I’ll paraphrase the speech he gave in and outside the white house in November, 2014 when he said, my administration’s immigration enforcement priorities, there’s to go after felons, not families as felons aren’t part of families, as a families don’t include felons. The reality is that we’re all mixed bag and some of us get caught and send them. Some of us don’t get caught. But, but if we want, we want to target people because of criminal activity, that’s what the police are for. That’s having, having ice, they’ll do the same thing. Is, is, is redundant at best. It’s disingenuous at worst because all we’re doing is, is, is targeting folks through two different law enforcement agencies for, for having the bad luck of, of, of, of of, of being somebody who’s not a us citizen.

But I also understand from your book that the, the felony, some people are committing or the aggravated felony, I think you said it’s called, is the act of crossing the border. Has that always been a felony in the U S
Crossing the border once is, is, is, is a, is a federal crime. It’s a, it’s a misdemeanor. Not, not a, not a felony. It’s been true since 1929. If you, if you in the United States, you get deported from the United States and then you cross back the United States without permission. That’s a felony. That’s a punishable by up to two years in prison, mint in the federal, in the federal prison. That’s also been a federal crime since 1929. But the reality is that we haven’t really prosecuted those prosecutors have gone after other activity that they think of as more serious. But that’s sort of the change in the in the late years of the Bush administration, George W. Bush administration when his administration decided that we ought to prioritize, so we should dust off these federal crimes and, and start to use them. And, and, and that remained true. And there president Obama, and it remains true now under president Trump where we are first the first criminally prosecuting people who are just coming to the United States without the government’s permission. And then we put them through the deeper, the immigration prison and deportation process too, for a second after the government to have a second bite at the Apple.
Some of those people staying in prison,
Most of those folks are, are getting in going in and out of the prison system fairly, fairly quickly. As they’re, they’re often sentenced to, to what judges will call time served better if the amount of time that it takes for them to go through the, through the conviction process. But we’re, we’re seeing averages [inaudible] that are hovering well above that as much as about 18 months. For, for some individuals it’s, it’s possible to get sentenced to many, many, many years, but, but the reality is most people don’t get Sentis to many, many years. They instead do a few months in federal prison and then they’re handed over to ice to be imprisoned while they’re going through the process of deportation. How long can that take? Well for Mexicans and, and it tends to, to be really fairly quick process, but for folks who have the strongest ties to the United States is a, and who or or that is, who have families here have been here.
And then it may take longer because they have an incentive to fight. And sometimes they may even have resources to hire a lawyer through family members who are, are working in the community and can pay for a lawyer. It also can take a long time for, for folks who are from countries that don’t have particularly good relationships with the United States. The the, in order to deport somebody, we actually actually get travel documents from, from the country that we’re sending somebody to. And there some countries that are pretty, pretty slow. I’m at to do that. And then, so it can, it can, it can even, it can take years in some, in some of the more egregious instances.
And and just just to bring us up to date, what’s the status of, or the numbers of separated children in detention right now? Do you have a sense of that? And also I guess families in detention right now?

Yeah. Right now we have three facilities. The, the, the federal government run three facilities that detain families together. Two of them are in Texas and one of those is in in Pennsylvania. That facility where Diego and his mother, Wendy were, were, were locked up. And, and, and I don’t know off the top of my head what the latest figures are on the number of, of, of families that are, are being detained.

That’s still happening. Oh, that’s still, that happens. It happens on a, on a, on a daily basis. Right.
All right. I want to, I want to take a step back, just one step back cause you were talking about how race plays into this and also how economics plays into this. So the Chinese that were on the West coast came over here to work on railroads and in mines and they were inevitably underpaid and then ended up at some point incarcerated on angel Island, some of them and being seen as the undesirable and illegal immigrants. And there’s also the history of the [inaudible] program, which directly affects the West coast of course, which recruited young men from Mexico to come pick the crops and then they were supposed to go back down when the seasons were over. Those people were also sort of a [inaudible]. They were exploited and they were also denigrated. And the same time they were necessary to the economies of the of the businesses that hired them. Right.
But that certainly is true. So we’re, so we’re the, the, the, the Chinese of course. So who were, who were key key in, in developing the, the, the railroads and, and there had been urban life and and, and culture along the West coast. But I think, I, I think it, it, it’s one of the frequent criticisms that we see of immigration prisons is that they, they, they, they remove people from, from the, the, the labor market when, when the labor market is what’s what is in many ways helping to, to bring folks to the United States. That’s certainly true. But I think one of the things that the that the immigration prison does it, that it could actually commodifies the human life inside the facility. Just, just like w we, we can do in, in other contexts as well.
That is if for every person who locked up the federal government is paying a daily rate to a private prison company or to local government and, and, and with that money people are being employed. Food is being bought. And and, and local economies, our, our, our become dependent on that, on that money. And, and, and so there is, there is not only profit to be made, but that economic dependency to be had by locking up migrants and and, and so, so that helps to explain it is that these, these facilities not only pop up throughout the country, but why it is that they are so difficult to, to shut down.
Well, well, well let’s talk, give me a minute to talk about the trends because we know that there’s xenophobia involved, nativism, racism, but early nineties, I was looking at some Pew numbers. I think it said that in the early nineties, there were about 3 million in the 80s, early nineties, about three and a half million unauthorized immigrants living in the U S by the middle of the odds was, or actually 2010, it was 12 million. Now it’s down to about 10 million. Do you think, if you agree with those numbers, do you think that the, the, the issue of immigration is also the fear people have of immigration is directly tied to the change in the numbers in the population increase?
I think it’s, it’s, it’s direct. It is so, so tied so much to the number of, of people as it is to the way that politicians in PR in particular use the, the, the the specter of immigrants as a tool for, for fanning latent fears and turning that, that, that fear into, into into votes. I think politicians have been incredibly adept at exploiting the, the, the history of racism in the United States to whoo voters who are already discomforted by the presence of newcomers or the thoughts of that newcomers might show up in, in, in their communities. And, and that is an unfortunate at is unfortunately a time honored tradition in the United States.
Well, but we will have a 440 million people in America by a, I forget that by when, but about 85 million will be foreign born. Now I’m making up. No, I’m think those are the right numbers, but I, I just looked at him and now I’m, I’m not sure, but I think that’s right. Or first or second generation. Does that matter? Does it matter if America has 400 million or 500 million or a billion over the next century?
People, I mean, in, in living in the U S
Yeah, I mean, cause that’s part of the argument people make, right? Well, I’m not racist. I’m not opposed to immigration. I just don’t want to see America. Have so many people that I won’t have the kind of lifestyle I want. I wanted the environment. I want you’ve heard, I’m sure you’ve heard all the, are you live in Colorado? I’m sure you’re that argument. Yes.
Colorado. And but of course I’ve only lived in Colorado six years, so I am one of those
False, right. You don’t count on us, right? Hey, I’m one of the people who’s targeted by that kind of language. I think it’s important to disclose
Personal stake and in that kind of a conversation do I think it matters? Certainly there’s a, this is an, this is, there’s a certain duplicity to, to those arguments when we welcome people from Western Europe and Canada and other wealthy countries, but, but tried to shut the door. Folks who are, who are coming from the global South people, people who look like me, Brown skin people, black skin people, poor people, people who are fleeing for their lives from, from political violence and gang violence from, from economic catastrophe. And I certainly also don’t, don’t, don’t take the, the, the, the, the, the, the point that I’m, I’m more morally upright simply because my mother happened to be in the United States when, when, when I was born. And somebody like Jerry [inaudible] his mother happened to be about about 10 miles South of where I was, where I was born.
If, if, if, if, if, if, if I merit living in the United States, it’s because I’ve committed myself to making a life here. I’ve committed myself to, to, to, to making a community of friends or family of, of, of I dedicate myself to, to helping my students become, become young professionals and, and citizens of our, of our democracy. And it’s not because I, my, my, my mother happened to be in Texas just like, it shouldn’t be it shouldn’t expose Jerry Amico to, to deportation simply because he, he he, he decided to join the U S military and got injured in the process and then we didn’t help him get this get the medical care that he needed. And so he turned to to, he made some bad decisions as a result.
So what are solutions in the long run? Because you know that there are candidates who say right now, candidates in the presidential election who say, we shouldn’t criminalize anybody who’s moving across borders, we should have open borders. Would it, would you support the concept of open borders, not just in the U S right, but around the world? Is that a feasible solution?
I think that’s something that we need to be talking about. I think it has to be part of the conversation. Look, I’ve, I’ve lived in, in, in, in parts of world where at one point there have been borders that have been heavily policed, if not by, by, by military, at least by local law enforcement agents. And, and yes, we can look at Europe where, where I lived in well I lived in the former Yugoslavia where at one point there were literally tanks and and, and snipers. And now there’s not even a stop sign. But we don’t have to look that far. We can look to Colorado and New Mexico at one point in the midst of the great depression as, as people were heading West from Texas and New Mexico and, and, and Oklahoma. The governor of, of, of Colorado actually sent the, the national guard down to the to the border with New Mexico and the border with Oklahoma to try to keep out people who, who they thought were coming here to, to work, coming here to, to take the jobs of, of Coloradans from places like New Mexico and Oklahoma.
We, we, we don’t do that anymore. That [inaudible] now still to our contemporary years, it sounds like like, like, like a like, like fiction. But the reality is we can build up borders just about anywhere and we can also choose not to build up a borders. And, and I’m hopeful that the conversation, the political conversation now will, will expand sufficiently broadly in the, in the era of Trump to, to, to ha give serious thoughts, serious consideration to the possibility of a radical departure. Because we know where we get when we do what we’ve been doing for decades. And, and, and that’s that’s profiting from, from human misery and, and, and, and that’s unacceptable.
What, if anything, should the United States do for the people who are fleeing for their lives or for better economic opportunity from El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala?
I think we should do exactly what, what in our best moments we’ve given people the right to do that is to come here and ask for protection. Come here and ask for, for, for us to make a little bit of room and into, allow them to, to try to make a, a life just like we’ve been trying to make our lives for ourselves. We have in his eye O asylum system that’s in place. Lou, we should, we should pour resources into that asylum system to help the folks who are making those critical decisions to do so. Do so under the best circumstances. And we should we should help the folks who are, who are coming here fleeing for their lives, asking for asylum by, by giving them lawyers, by letting, letting them be working while they’re going through the process so that they can, they can support themselves, their kids can be in school and for starters they can be in the United States. So this process that we have right now where the Trump administration is basically shut down the border and force people to stay in the Mexican border towns that even though the U S state department this says are too dangerous for us citizens to travel to that, that’s, that’s absent, that’s unconscionable.
But what about the nations that those people are fleeing the cause? Those are also by the state department zone account unsafe. And we, you know, we, we we know that they are unsafe for many, many people who can’t leave. Is there some responsibility the U S has overall for those countries too?
Certainly the U S does have a, does have a role to play in, in, in helping to support economic development and helping to support the, the, and maturation of political democracies. And, and I would, I would be happy for, for the United States to, to do that. Unfortunately, the, the standard practice and us foreign policy has not been particularly rich when it comes to supporting young democracies. On the contrary, w w w w we, we are, we have a solid track record of supporting anti-democratic processes and most, most, most recently, the, the, the, the crew and, and, and believe, yeah, that we, that we have been supportive of just a few years ago, we sort of boarded a coup in Honduras. And and so I’m not particularly hopeful on that front. And instead I focus my attention on what I know best, which is how it is that the U S immigration system, including this Island system, can help the folks who do have the, the means and the, and the willingness to, to, to get to the United States, to get to our doorstep.
What, what a possibility do you think there is of actually dismantling this migration to prison system that’s in place now?
Look, when I was, when I was born, we, we hardly locked up anyone. Today I’m not yet 40 years old and we lock up almost half a million people. If we can, if we can build this system and in my lifetime, I’m hopeful that in my lifetime we can, we can tear it down.
Do you hear from any of people at the federal level who are with you on that and have proposed or even picked up some ideas along the lines that you’ve proposed?
If we’re going to start moving in that direction, we can’t rely on Congress who can’t rely on members of people who are currently elected officials to, to be carrying this banner. This is a, this is a long road. This is a difficult road is a road where I don’t know all the twist or the turns. And and which I certainly can do by myself and no member of Congress can do by, by herself or by himself. Cause I think this is, this is a conversation that needs to start at the community level. And, and then move up from, from there to the, the hallways of Congress.
So we’re back where we started with the citizen activists who are going down to those detention centers and protesting.
That’s right. That’s where, that’s where the true power lies.
CSR, our quality Moke Garcia Hernandez will be coming to our forum stage next Monday, December 9th at 7:30 PM if you’d like to join in the conversation or get a signed copy of [inaudible] book migrating to prison, America’s obsession with locking up immigrants, get yourself a seat. There is a link to the event in the podcast description below and if you can’t make it out but you’d still like to hear his talk, it will be posted on our civics podcast series. Well thank you for listening to episode 48 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle band EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to our full Townhall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. We also film and live stream select events on our Townhall Seattle YouTube channel. Just search Townhall Seattle and subscribe to support town hall. See our calendar of events or read our blog. Check out our website at town hall, seattle.org we’ll be taking a holiday break, but we’ll be back with more exclusive town hall interviews in January. Enjoy your holiday season ahead and thanks for joining us right here.

Sacred Music of the Renaissance(s)

Despite being born nearly 350 years apart, jazz legend Duke Ellington and Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli have more in common than it might seem.

Both Ellington and Giovanni were pivotal influences on the music of the Renaissances taking place during their lives (Harlem Renaissance and Italian High Renaissance, respectively). As well, in the latter portion of their careers both wrote “sacred” music. 

Much of Gabrieli’s music was written to match the acoustics of the halls for which it was composed. His reverent motets and dazzling sonatas would have echoed from the mosaic-covered vaults of Saint Mark’s Basilica and other Venetian churches in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. 

On December 21 Early Music Seattle presents a holiday concert celebrating Gabrieli’s masterful arrangements. They may not have access to the unique layout of Venice’s San Marco church—with its two choir lofts facing each other, which enabled Gabrielli to create striking spatial effects—but certainly the vaulted ceiling and custom-built acoustic reflector of Town Hall’s Great Hall will amplify the effects of dialogue and echo that permeate Gabrielli’s work. 

In much of Gabrieli’s composition, precision is key. Some of his pieces were even written such that certain instruments could be heard clearly from among the entire orchestra. We’re excited to hear how the state-of-the-art acoustics in the Great Hall complement these pieces of musical canon. 

Just as Gabrieli’s compositions were written for large, carefully arranged ensembles, Ellington’s sacred concerts also relied on collaboration—featuring jazz big band, gospel choir, tap dancers, and more. These concerts were no small undertaking, and have rarely been performed live because of the immense number of musicians required. 

Earshot Jazz has been presenting works from Ellington’s three sacred concerts for 30 years, performing pieces which Duke himself considered to be some of his most important creations. They’ll do so again on December 28. Ellington released three albums in his sacred concert series—the first recorded in 1965 and the last recorded in 1973, just six months before his death. Despite the somewhat somber quality of the third concert, Ellington remained proud of his sacred performances, even referring to them as “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” 

Now, after so many decades (or centuries), these two musicians have one more thing in common—their music will be on Town Hall’s stage this month!

Join Early Music Seattle and Earshot Jazz for concerts featuring compositions from two of the most groundbreaking musical minds of their times. Tickets are on sale now.

In The Moment: Episode 46


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talked with Northwest Harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds about food security in WA. Reynolds outlines the complexities in approaching and unpacking issues of food justice in our region, breaking the issue down past policies and programs and asserting that solutions to food inequality aren’t technical alone. Scher and Reynolds look at the future of food in WA, exploring the growing efforts of local farmers, free community markets, and food pantries. Reynolds highlights food sustainability models at work around the globe, and encourages large action through small scale change in our region. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello, Welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, every episode, a local correspondent interview, somebody coming to our town hall stages and gives you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. Well, November is upon us and as we approach Thanksgiving and think about gathering around the table with family and friends, it behooves us to consider those that are food insecure. The United nations defines food insecurity as a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. Northwest harvest reports that one in 10 in the world and in Washington state struggle with hunger and are food insecure. The majority of working age Washingtonians living in poverty or working or actively looking for work and many work more than one job. Northwest harvest is a nonprofit operating statewide in Washington, distributing food to 375 food banks as well as meal programs and high needs schools. They provide nearly 2 million meals every month. At 7:30 PM on November 11th, Thomas Reynolds, the CEO of Northwest harvest, will be moderating a discussion on reducing hunger on our great hall stage. Just food. A conversation about food as a right in Washington state will also feature us representative Kim Schrier. Thomas Reynolds sat down within the moment, chief correspondent Steve Scher to talk about why hunger persists in the U S and worldwide and about creating grassroots systems to reduce it.

I’ve done a lot of work with FAO. I spent many years working in international setting with Karen and national and I’ve seen extreme poverty and extreme hunger in so many places. I think a lot of people think about Bangladesh in the seventies and eighties and Ethiopia people have of a certain age have images and blazoned upon them about what hunger might look like. I think here in the United States, hunger has a different type of face. People assume that hunger and homelessness or cinnamon synonymous hunger actually impacts most of us in our own neighborhoods. 94% of people who go to food banks and food pantries here in Washington state. Half homes are housed. And so I think we need to expand our notion of what it means to be food insecure and what it means to be hungry. Our policies falling short, or is it just that that’s a lot of people and so it takes time.

I think so much is done towards finding the technical fixes to the issues. In fact, in the United States, there’s this premise that there’s a lot of wasted food and there’s a lot of hungry people. So if we just give the wasted food to hungry people, the problems solved there in lies the problem. This is not a technical issue. There’s plenty of food in the world. There’s, there’s enough food and there’s enough production to feed every single person on the planet. And yet there are still so many hungry people. It’s because of the not the technical issues. It’s the institutional racism, the cultural racism, the injustices that people groups face that creates the symptoms of that sort of injustice. We see that here in Washington state. We see it in the United States, it seemed around the world. And so we’ve got to stop relying on technical fixes new programs new policies, new systems alone. I think we need to be addressing what’s at the heart of the issue. And that is the way that we as people see and tolerate hunger around the world.

A Trump administration, this is October force changes to slice 4.5 billion over the what used to be called food stamps snap now over five years, trimming as much as $75 for one in five. Struggling families on nutrition assistance, institutional blindness, institutional racism, or just dismissing of the concerns of anybody who’s, you know, not wealthy.

Perhaps it’s just a financial exercise on a spreadsheet and people haven’t considered the real impact of what the $75.

Do you really think that that’s all they do is, I mean, cause you just said it’s institutional racism, institutional inequity. You think that all they’re doing is just looking at a spreadsheet.

I think there’s almost no more analysis behind that for some of the people who propose these cuts. You know, it’s, it’s about you know, finding numbers that satisfy certain constituencies instead of realizing the real impact on the real people who needed that $75. There’s also these imaginary strategies that say let’s make government smaller and let’s have nonprofits pick up the pace. In fact, if the snap cuts went through, it would be a 20% reduction in the plan to snap spend over the next course of years impacting nonprofits as well. It would impact nonprofits, it would impact communities, but the idea is nonprofits would pick it up. We’ve done the analysis. If that 20% cut was done for government funds, every single food pantry across the country would immediately have to quadruple their output. That’s simply impossible.

You said there’s enough food, food pantries, just get all the guilty feeling people and all the noble people that step up.

Again, there’s,

There’s, you know, this is all couched in the idea of food waste, but instead we need new types of solutions. We need, we need to address this at the issues level. We need to understand the inherent, cultural and institutional racism of the fact that people, some people have more than enough and some people don’t have enough. You know, as I was talking to a friend of mine an Abdullah, him and Dan, he’s Sudanese, he said in Sudan, one of the worst insults that you can give someone is he eats by himself. And I said, I’m gonna unpack that for me. He said, it’s the idea that a family could sit down to a meal together knowing that their neighbors, you know, just down the street are not sitting down to a meal and being okay with it. I think at a fundamental level we need to Pierce the consciousness of every American household so that people no longer feel comfortable about sitting down at that meal when they know people in their own community or not. Alright. How come you focus on institutional racism? How many, let’s just say in King County, how many who are food insecure or people of color

In King County, in every County across Washington state people of color experience disproportionate amount of food insecurity. I don’t have the exact number for you, right?

The reason I’m harping to, yes they do. Right, but in raw numbers, what does it look like? I mean disproportionately, yes, it’s, it’s people of color, but in round numbers isn’t it white people who are experiencing food insecurity, why doesn’t that register with the very snap cutters we were just talking about

Also racism and institutional racism isn’t necessarily conscious or the United States has had three centuries and longer to perfect its racism. It is embedded into our culture, institutional practices and by these policies that could look equal, applied equally to each person cutting snap across the board for example. Is that what you mean by these policies? Educational opportunities job opportunities who, which resumes get screened in and get screened out based on the name. All of these things are aspects of cultural and institutional racism and not any one policy by itself can explain why there is this disparity. But the preponderance of all of these policies, all of these practices, all of this shared DNA of who we are in America contributes to this disparity.

How does that manifest for you when you go before, so you said you worked with FAO, you probably have testified before, some of the very people or their aunt, they’re the predecessors who were making changes, making calls. How does that manifest when you sit down and talk with them? What do you hear?

Again, it’s really focused on technical fixes. I mean literally down to how calories does each person need per day based on the temperature. You know, if it’s colder, people need more calories and to try to do the math by calculating the right number of calories that need to be distributed to the right number of communities on the right number of days based on the weather. We could do these calculations forever and never solved the promises, the conversation you have with them. These are the kinds of things that you talk about when you’re sitting down with them. You hear this and it’s published in reports. It’s, it is a very technical approach to a fundamental issue that will never be solved through technical approach. And when you bring that up and you bring up the fact of, well, if you do have institutional racism, when you confront them with it, their responses, I think there’s lament over the fact that things are so complicated and so challenging and so difficult to unpack.

And in fact in the morass of the complications and the complexities of the issues, maybe people take a breath and say it’s just too difficult to solve. That’s why I think it’s so important to focus on for justice. You know, Northwest harvest is focused on the equitable access to nutritious food for all here in Washington state. And that’s our contribution to food justice. We really think that the conversation can be had about what does that look like? What does that look like in South King County? What does that look like in rural parts of the state? States where still you have mostly white people who are elected to positions in which communities are, for instance, 75% Spanish speaking. You know, these are issues that we want to bring attention to. It’s not going to be about a solution set that says if grocery stores would simply identify things that are about to expire and give it away, we’re going to solve the problem.

That’s, that is a supply chain issue that probably has some level of importance, but it’s not problem solving. Northwest harvest has existed for more than 50 years and almost every single year of its existence we have distributed more food and I think better food, but we’ll be distributing more food and better food food for another 50 years if we just keep focusing on the supply chain issues. So what is food justice in South King County look like now? And three years from now and five years from now? You know, in the magic wand world, I have a lot of respect for local leaders and local community organizers. I think food justice in our food system means more people who are in their own community are making decisions, are representing the ideas and perspectives and desires of that local community block block by block, each neighborhood contributing to a solution set that makes sense for those families.

Literally you’re talking about you, you think we could have like that at block by block? I don’t know if the policy needs to describe a block by block approach, but our process needs to be, wow, give me, give me an example how, I mean, where do you live? What I would like to do, instead of starting with my block, I’d like to start with a high concentrations of Somali communities of Ethiopian communities, of African American communities of migrant farm worker communities and really understand their perspectives, their ideas, what who do they trust, what are the resources that they’re looking for? How would they describe the menu at home? And then begin to understand how would they construct a food system. I think those are the voices that are missing from a lot of the policy conversations. And if we could recenter the conversation on the people who experienced food insecurity, then we have the chance to start building back a better system.

Does Northwest harvest has some, have some, have some experience in doing that with those communities? I mean, what are they telling you when you sit down with them? I think we could be doing so much more. I feel like we are at the very beginning of a journey to be more focused on equity in our systems. We do focus for, you mean we, you mean your Northwest harvest? Northwest harvest is that organization. Yeah. I would not describe us as leaders. I’ve described us as learners. I would not describe us as pace setters. I’d describe us as people who are looking to join and participate in the ideas of other people who’ve been thinking about this a lot longer than we have. Who are the leaders that you’re looking at in those communities? We respect the indigenous people here.

I went and spent time with the [inaudible] people last year. Powerful, beautiful ideas about returning to using historical food practices. Lamenting the fact that the environmental degradation of the sound is reducing food supply. A deep respect for the foods that we eat in the meals that we prepare and the number of people who sit together at those meals. I think we have a lot to learn from the indigenous people of our area. I think we have a lot to learn from newly arrived immigrant communities. I think about living well, Kent in the Kent area who work with immigrant communities from lots of different communities. They are, you know, they are thinking about how do we grow more carrots? How do we grow more cabbage? How do we grow more onions? Why? Because SpaghettiOs worked for part of the community, but a carrot is utilized in almost every table that I have visited and I, you know, and I’ve been to more than 70 countries. So I think it’s the people who are challenged by the economics of our neighborhoods and our communities, especially in Western Washington and have already began to put solutions into place at the local level. I guess they’re the most exciting people that people that I want to hear from. With this work.

I want to hear about the solutions. So go, let’s go to the Lumey for a minute. [inaudible] And when you were there talking to them, do they have people that they say, yes, we have food insecurity in our, in our neighborhoods, in our, in our region. They, among the tribe, tremendous food insecurity. What, so they, they laid out the problems for you. What were their thoughts about solving some of those problems with, with your help or with the help of, you know, all the different leaders and conveners you’re talking about?

Yeah. First of all, I would not position us ourselves as the helpers. I think we’re joiners. We can offer connections to other parts of the state. I’d like to see us as helping to move places where there’s abundance to places where there’s food constraints. What do you think that means? What does that look like? It, it looks like, for instance, the Anaba farms and WAPA Wapato fourth generation Japanese farmers a farming family that was displaced a number of times because of racist policies, including internment during world war II. They are resilient. It’s a resilient family in a family that now farms more than a thousand acres and often finds that they’re a class B. Fruits and vegetables aren’t saleable in the market. So they distribute it through Northwest harvest more than a million pounds of fruits and vegetables every year. They do it because they believe in, in a, in a more equitable and better society. So Northwest harvest is in a position where we can work with farmers like that. We can work with growers, we can work with ranchers and we can utilize those fruits and vegetables to link with the groups in our network that do have retail fronts, if you will, food pantries or health clinics that have a convening that are convening people who experienced food insecurity.

So what do you guys offer them facilitating the actual movement through trucks, through trucking, through movement from Yakima Valley to the Lumey

Nation? Literally, yes, we do that as well. We also offer our voice in terms of policy, you know, identifying fundamentally unjust policy and identifying ways that policy can be implemented in a more equal sort of way. We, we also offer, you know, direct access to food. We just started the soda community market here in Seattle, which is not a food pantry. It’s a grocery store that you don’t pay a, it’s a, it’s an opportunity for people to come in, pick through our watermelons or our apples or our fresh milk and you know, have a shopping and take that home. So there’s a number of ways that we participate in the systems. Who comes to that? And what’s your hope for who comes? Like how big a popular population

[Inaudible]

The soda community market is open to anyone who is hungry or as concerned about being hungry. On any given day. There are no restrictions there. You don’t have to be from a certain zip code. You don’t have to be in a certain housing status. You don’t have to be any sort of label. If you identify for yourself that you need some fresh healthy food, you can come to the Soto community market and people have been coming, you know, we see more than 3000 people a week and those people are often taking food back to home, whatever home means at tent government supported housing or something else. And you know, I would say our impact probably is about 7,000 people a week that we’re providing food for. So is that a scalable solution? Do you guys see that as something you could do around the region?

I deeply believe in it. In fact, I think it’s scalable, but maybe not in a way that you were thinking one of the issues around food pantries are, it’s stigmatizing to go. It looks, it oftentimes looks and feels like an institution, right? There’s people lined up, they’re way down. Get a Brown bag. Yeah. That’s no discount on the love and care that people who run food pantries have and the Greek guard they have for the people who approach. But still there’s a stigma for, I’d like to flip that around. I’d like to introduce the idea to Washington state residents that it should be stigmatizing. If you go to a grocery store that doesn’t have a free option. And if we could get that to move, then it’s infinitely scalable. That’s a huge concept. How do you get that? That’s like that sound. I was giving you some waiver.

The one thing that sounds pretty pie in the sky, these are businesses that weren’t gonna do that, aren’t they? What happens when you sit down with them? I think it makes Safeway, I think it makes wonderful business sense for them to do it. In fact, most grocery stores do have food waste. They have things that don’t sell. They have they have the logistical issues of ridding themselves for the things that didn’t, didn’t work out. You know, the promotion didn’t work. They bought too much. You know, the inclement weather meant that less people bought less things.

[Inaudible]

Why not eliminate the whole supply chain headaches of moving food out that didn’t work and just simply offer it to people who need it for that day. I think it’s easier. I think it makes good business sense. Got it. Got anybody to go with you on that yet in the industry?

I think it’s just about starting the conversation right now. You know, we’re going to start on the other direction. You know, we’re looking at ideas about at our free grocery store. Maybe we’ll put a cash box and you can pay. You want to I wa what I think is incredibly important is that we don’t perpetuate this idea and this is not my idea, but I think it’s beautiful that there’s two different doors. Some people go through the grocery store door, some people go through the food bank door. I’d like to have just one wider door. So we’ll start on one end. You know, we, right now we have a free grocery store. Maybe eventually we’ll introduce the idea if that, if you want to pay, which could literally mean, you know, a couple of coins and some pocket lint or you know, a a hundred dollar bill because you believe in the concept that you could come through our free grocery store and participate on the other end.

I’d just like to invite a grocery stores and grocery chains to think about, you know, what if, what could be possible, what could be possible for our brand, what could be possible for enthusiasm for future consumers that are not currently frequenting our store? If we had a free option, what would that mean for our community living? Well, Kent, so you said that they were talking to you about more carrots. What are they doing now and what would be something that that could happen in the future? I love living well Kent Schempp. So Isaac is the executive director and they’re doing a couple of things. I think really smart things, things that I’ve seen done in other countries and I haven’t seen done so much here in the United States. One is they’re mapping unused or underused farmable land here in King County. Literally mapping it going acre by acre saying this is available, this is and designated for use at this point.

And they’re looking to create the opportunity for farmers, probably newly arrived immigrant farmers to farm that land. They are also doing what I think might be the only no cost to the farmer farmer’s market and East Hill Kent, which creates the opportunity for farmers to come and sell their product. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruits in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable options at a, at a no cost for them to sell their goods, which means they can pass on the savings and the reduced risk of the free farm booth to the residents of that community. So people are literally taking home cabbage and radishes and, and zucchini and whatever’s a ripe and fresh at that period of time from late spring to early fall. I think that’s a wonderful idea. And, and it really accomplishes a number of things.

Better use of public lands, better opportunities for farmers who have tremendous skills but not, not necessarily the skills that for instance, technology companies are looking for right now. And then better, healthier fruits and vegetables for families need it in, in a location where there’s not a lot of options. So are there policies, state or County policies that keep that you earlier talked about unjust policy. So with that in mind, either policies that keeps something like that from happening there are land use issues but not insurmountable. In fact, I think this is a really ripe area for us to be looking at. How do we utilize public lands? We, again, we Northwest harvest, are we the people who are thinking about food justice? We, the residents of Washington state. I see, I see. When I think about unjust policy, I think about the lunch shaming that used to occur in this state, which literally was when families who were benefiting from reduced lunches, maybe a mom or dad or a caregiver hadn’t topped up their account.

And so the child goes to school and they’re stamped on their body with a stamp that says my account is delinquent that used to happen in the United States. I’m not talking about a hundred years ago. I’m talking about last year. That’s a policy that we changed last year. You know, there are fundamentally unjust policies that really are medieval in their construction that still exists in Washington state. And I think we need to address those issues too. Again, it’s not just the technical issue of how do we get the food to the people who need food. It’s the, it’s the it’s the intentional or unintentional stigmatizing of people who are experiencing challenges either economically or in terms of food security. If I’m not mistaken, the Trump administration’s plans do call for a little bit of re stigmatizing of the people who want to use lunches around the country if they go through by December after the public comment period.

Well, what are the other medieval practices that you, that you know next year, so you had a success last year. What’s next year? And this is again, back to the legislature or by County? By County, yeah. We’re still forming our policy agenda. There’s, there’s a number of areas that we’re interested in. I think most residents, Washington state recognized that we have the most regressive tax environment of just about any state in the country. We’d like to see better opportunities for people who are you know, at the, you know, the bottom fifth in terms of economic prowess here in Washington state. We’d like to find some ways for them to get some some more tax benefits. There are some things that are onerous for instance the deductability of medical benefits. Why not just have some sort of standard benefit that low income people could benefit from instead of having to keep track of all their medical receipts and turn those in and deduct them.

You know, there’s probably some easy wins that could be put into place that would just make things easier for people who are really struggling. But does that spell one, is that a state policy or is that gonna be a federal issue? It’s something that we can address within the state. It’s probably a, it’s a, it’s probably a federal environment, but each state has an ability to, to pass policy that can be difference making. So you could have a, this is what you’ve spent, this is your deduction. And that goes towards, it’s not an income tax of what’s it going towards. It could be something like in the form of a credit, a credit that could be turned into cash or turned into healthcare that could be turned into a, that could be turned into a, an offset for, for taxes out.

Trace your path for me. You said you worked with FAO, you’ve been in other countries. How’d you end up here? Yeah, I grew up in the Seattle area and I, after school I moved to San Francisco and I, I told my mom I would never move back cause it was your hometown or because, yeah, cause I was just excited to see other things. See the rest of the world. I had a, in San Francisco I participated in starting social enterprises. Even before social entrepreneurship was really a thing that was talked about. Like what? We started restaurants. We started a S a city of San Francisco surplus store for things like street signs and parking meters. We started a screen printing company all in support of getting jobs for formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, formerly drug addicted youth. So why was that important to you?

How’d you end up doing that? Because you want to tell your mom, I’m leaving Seattle, I’m going here. What was important? I just fundamentally believed it was right. I wanted to, I wanted to participate. I mean, we had really grandiose ideas. We really, our, our little group believed we could actually disrupt the way capital worked in the United States where you’d like just college graduates to the college graduate. In fact, a book was written about our organization and as the author was writing the book, she continually asked me how old I was and I, I said, I don’t, I don’t want to answer. So in the book she writes, Thomas Reynolds, who is so young, he declines to answer the question of his age. Yeah, I just, I just really believed in that I thought business could be used for a better purpose and that instead of this idea of the ultimate and only purpose of business is to return shareholder value, felt that there was a social component that was essential to the health and really the vitality of humanity.

Sure. The hard to sell, the hard to sell the businesses who say shareholder is the only thing that matters. So less hard to sell now than it used to be. I’m sure. I’m sure. So you did what? Then? I went to business school. I felt like I had understood the social dimensions, but I wanted to learn the language of business. So I went to business school and in business school it was an international program, spent time in Paris and Tokyo and in Philadelphia. And most of my business school cohort were from other countries. And one woman, an accountant who were worked for a consulting group from Kenya said, you shouldn’t do this social entrepreneurial stuff in the United States. You should do it internationally cause it’s needed elsewhere. I thought, Oh, that’s an interesting idea. I ended up going to work for care international and I spent 15 years with Karen and national and I worked in Asia, I worked in the middle East, I worked in the South Caucasus.

And then ultimately I moved back to the U S with care to run programming for the entire care world, which was 95 countries. The kind of programming that looked at entrepreneurship. We did a variety of things. But our cares, main focus is gender equality. And so we were interested in the economic development, education, health care water systems, but specifically as interventions that could enable greater gender equality between men and women and people of all genders. So early on before you were in charge, when you’re going into these countries, what were your, what were some successes? I think one of the most gratifying moments was in the South Caucasus when we were, I was living in the country of Georgia. And more than half the population were subsistence farmers and together, you know, I think it’s never one organization alone, but I think it’s people working together together with more than 50 other organizations.

We worked with the European union to change the national policy of Georgia. And this was Georgian led. It was not international led, but local people who are passionate about making change. We introduced new financing options for farmers to be able to cooperate and to build businesses that were the next step in the slow supply chain beyond production. We, we changed tax law to create an incentive for growing rural businesses. And then we then there was a financing facility to help capitalize new rural businesses to start. And that was incredibly gratifying. It was gratifying to see the development of the Georgian economy to see the numbers of Georgian farmers who are lifted out of poverty. The creation of the Georgian farmers association, which last time I checked had more than 20,000 members. And what I really took away from that experience was, it’s not technical fixes alone. It’s not projects alone. It’s not policy alone. It’s not one organization or the private sector or government working alone. It’s when we mix these things all together and we pursue an end and be agnostic about the ways to get there so that we could identify policy changes. We could then identify new resources and we could identify new relationships that could help pursue that end.

By the way, just on Georgia, what w what was changed fundamentally, what was it a top down system before and when it was a, it was a Soviet States, did they, is that what the issue was?

So many issues? Was there a fundamental change that you just had to come from the bottom instead of the top? That the fundamental difference was that the, the tech structure unintentionally prevented the development of small businesses beyond a certain point. Because if you are informal, you are untaxed and once you became formal, no matter how small you were, there was a pretty substantial tax that was both complicated to track. And then you know, significantly deterred farmers from becoming formal in participating in the economy.

Right. So is there a farmer or an entrepreneur in that beginning supply chain who jumps out at you as somebody who was

A leader at their level to make these sort of changes occur in Georgia? Are we talking about Georgia? Yes. Yes, absolutely. There were a number of them. Nino’s advocates at an extraordinary farmer from the [inaudible] area, her organization and care work together to start a cheese factory because there were a lot of cows and not a lot of cold storage. And if you can get seven liters of milk and a little bit of time, you can produce cheese that almost everyone in Georgia likes to eat. And so we started with the cheese production facility, but her ambitions were bigger. She wanted to see fundamental change and she recognized that the people around her, she was benefiting from the cheese factory. And the farmers who brought their milk were also benefiting, but she, she could only just impact this one little area.

And so it was with Nino and with another, a number of other farmers. And with the agricultural attache of the European union that the idea of the Georgian farmers association was created. There was a lot of research and, and respect for the cooperatives that are substantial, you know, powerfully substantial and economically substantial all across Europe. You know, in America generally. Our belief is that farming needs to be large scale farming and you know, single crop or you know, a couple of crops. And in Europe it’s a smaller groups of farmers who come together and cooperate to produce you know, just as much productivity, even more actually than just large scale farming. And so the country of Georgia had nothing like that. And the idea was to just take best practices from other parts of Western Europe to increase productivity per Hector and do it by cooperating based on the premise that if there’s more cooperation than the supply chain can be further developed, cold storage, transportation, marketing, export.

And that if the technical support could be identified and the skills could be built, that it would have an exponential effect, not only on Nino’s community but farming across the country. And that was probably seven years or so ago. And I’m amazed at the growth and I’m amazed at what’s happened since then. I was in Moscow three years ago and the people who took me around were most excited to take me to Georgian restaurants with the incredible Georgian cuisine and wines. Yes. Is that the sort of things that you think grew out of the ability to be agnostic about, about approaches? Well, I think the Georgian table has been established as it was, it was a Soviet favorite for decades upon decades. Sure. A Georgian wine has increased production and there’s you know, many multiples more being extorted now than there was before.

I think it’s difficult to tie the Georgia wine exports to those specific interventions. What I think about is the reemergence of some of the industries. For instance, like Hazel nuts the re there I think soon to be re-emergence of the tea industry. Georgian tea was something that was very much respected during Soviet times and then fell into almost complete disrepair. Almost no exports at all. And now some of those industries like the tea industry are being revived. Hmm, okay, I’m going to skip over the U then you start running all of care. Those, not health care, but yes. Programs. What was attractive about Northwest harvest that brought you back to a place you said, Hey, I’m out of here for six years. I was not in the same time zone for more than three weeks in a row.

I was traveling all the time and I was meeting with governments. I was raising money and I really missed that connection with people and ideas local people who are passionate about substantive change. I just felt disconnected to that. And what I recognized was I had, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars a year to allocate to different projects and different ideas. And I, and I began to recognize the pattern. And myself, I liked to find local people who are committed to longterm change, who are interested in doing something more than just a technical solution. And I found myself drawn to moving investments to people like that. And then I realized I wanted to do that myself. And so I want to do it in my own home community. And it just felt like the right time I had, I had done enough traveling. I had done enough, you know workshops in capitals and hotels.

I had done enough airport lounges and I wanted to come home and I wanted to see if I could make just a tiny bit of difference in my own home community. And so that’s why I moved to Northwest harvest. So you bring agnostic concepts to Northwest harvest. What are your, what do you see unfolding in the, in the short term with that in mind me, where, where do you take some of these ideas right away? Well, what’s exciting is when I started it was one in eight Washingtonians experience food insecurity, they’re not sure where their meal’s going to come at some point throughout the month or year. That number is now one in 10. And we attribute nothing to Northwest harvest work. We think the economy has been better. You know, maybe a little bit of work in terms of policy change, but we think the hard work is ahead.

We’d like to see hunger cut in half between now and 20, 28. And we’re agnostic at how that happens. But we have a set of beliefs. We think if a broad set of actors can be identified and mobilized and joined together to address the underlying causes of food insecurity, that’s gonna be difference-making. We believe that if we can create equitable access to nutritious food for people across Washington state, that’s going to be difference making. And we believe that if we can identify investments in scalable, effective hunger fighting initiatives, those three things together we think will transform the hunger landscape here in Washington state. And again, we don’t see this as our way work. We see this as the work that needs to be done by all of us. The underlying factors. What are some that you think can be addressed them? What’d you, what’d you say?

  1. 2028. 2028 so, okay. Nine years. Yeah. Yeah. Been used to reduce hunger by half a, there needs to be a more equitable access to jobs and employment across the state of Washington. There needs to be for those who are challenged by transportation, we need to identify ways that affordably food can reach households or hubs in which people can easily go and pick up food. I’d like to see food as a right codified into law here in Washington state and that we would identify practical ways to implement that policy so that government agencies you know, local County and state level are thinking about how do we enact that concept of food as a right for every individual. Many people in communities across the state still view food as a privilege that’s actually out of touch with the way the rest of the world is moving in terms of food. So I think those are some of the things that are truly we need to get there. We must get there in order to see substantive change. And virtually none of them are technical fixes. This is really about changing the perception of people in society so that people say it’s intolerable, that community members just down the street or in the next neighborhood aren’t doing well. I want people, each person here in Washington state to identify way that they can get involved, get engaged and be a difference maker in, in a more equitable state.

What’s that look like? All of us being involved. What does that look like other than telling our elected representatives? What does that look like? I do think that’s important. I wasn’t in a denigrating I’ve seen but, but you know, you know, just one very practical way.

Most all of us have at least a window sill, but we could have a window sale. We’re gonna have a backyard. We could have a suburban farm, we could have a, you know, a hundred acres and we could just grow something and share it with our local food pantry. I think that would be a tremendous difference for two reasons. One is it, it connects people to the the, the, the reality that we all need to be contributors because we are consumers in this state. The second is because it’ll help us think about and appreciate the role of food and that food is so much more than just fuel. Food is a connector. It brings people together. It tells stories it promotes hope in many ways. And then the third is it would enable us to be thinking about what’s the type of society that will want to live in and to recognize that next week, next year next decade, maybe it’s unimaginable that we could be hungry, but it is possible and that we could imagine that there’d be a society waiting for us in that future period when we were in need.

That’s going to welcome us and help us get the food that we need. All right.

Business school. So you know all about deliverables. What do you want to come out of this town hall event that’s a deliverable, not just to people living there, but to the policy leaders that you’re listening to.

I would like people to be leaning forward in their chairs thinking about why is it that it’s okay to go home and have a meal and not think about the people who aren’t. I would like a, the people who participate in the town hall too have a sense on what policies should they be supporting and helping advocate for going forward. And I would like people who attend the town hall to be thinking about what are the injustices that are sitting in plain view that they just haven’t been thinking about or have been tolerating because no one’s confronted them on it. So in your deliverables, okay, who are the people that are going to be that you’re relying on on the panel? I’m going to have the privilege to talk to wonderful set of powerful women. Representative Schrier, Melanie Cunningham from PLU and Taylor Wong, who’s a restaurant here here in the Seattle area.

What I like about the way the panel is constructed is we have a representative from government, a representative from business, and a representative from higher education who all bring their own perspectives to why food justice is important. I’m just excited about asking the questions and seeing what sort of ideas they have, what examples they bring. You’ve got you know, Taylor is a first generation immigrant to Washington state and she relied on food assistance when she was young and now runs a restaurant empire. Melanie Cunningham is a powerhouse in the areas of equity and diversity and inclusion. And I think she will provoke us all to think about what is happening in our communities. Why are we okay with it? And what could we be doing differently? And I think representative Schrier has brought fresh perspective to Congress and I think it’s because of her background as a pediatrician, as a business leader and as a person who truly cares about food justice issues here in Washington state. All right, sir. Thank you. Thanks Steve.

Thomas Reynolds, CEO of Northwest harvest will moderate a panel discussion on food justice, just food, a conversation about food as a right in Washington state. It’ll be November 11th at 7:30 PM on our great hall stage. There’s still tickets available, so get yourself a seat and join in the conversation.

[Inaudible]

Thank you for listening to our 46th episode of in the moment, our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to our town hall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and watch a ton of great events on our Townhall Seattle YouTube channel to support town hall. See our calendar of events or access our media library head to our website at town hall, seattle.org next week, our chief correspondent Steve share, we’ll be talking with HW brands about the history of the American West till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment. [inaudible].

In The Moment: Episode 45


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with Dan Hooper about particles, relativity, and the origins of our universe. Hooper outlines our growing understanding of the conditions in which our universe began, highlighting what we know about the first few seconds after the Big Bang and how several astronomers and mathematicians throughout history helped us determine that the universe was expanding. He discusses the limitations of language in explaining mathematical equations, and the value of explaining scientific research to people who don’t know much science, a practice which he says helps him better understand his work and can even lead to breakthroughs. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall.


Episode Transcript

This transcript was performed automatically. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, every episode, a local correspondent interview, somebody coming to our town hall stages and gives you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s Halloween week and the air is crisp outside. The sun is out, leaves are falling and spooking out our stages this week or events about the battles against global disinformation and the future of food in Africa. We’ve got some advice from multi-disciplinary artist, Jenny Odell on Friday, November 1st about reclaiming our attention in the age of distraction and some great rental events from earshot, jazz to a veteran’s day. Open mic on Saturday, November 2nd but to prep us for what’s to come next week. On Friday, November 8th our chief correspondent Steve share talks with the head of the theoretical astrophysics group at the Fermi national accelerator laboratory and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the university of Chicago. Dan Hooper about our universes. First seconds,

[Inaudible]

Humanity knows more about the science of the origins of the universe than ever before. Thanks to Einstein and all the mathematicians, physicists and engineers who have followed. We have learned about the makeup and origins of energy matter, space and time. And yet many questions remain, especially about the very first microseconds of the big bang when according to physicist Dan Hooper, the laws of physics as we know them, did not apply. Hooper talked to chief correspondent, Steve share about his upcoming appearance at town hall and his book at the edge of time, exploring the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds.

Dan Hooper. Hey Steve, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. My pleasure. You know whenever I read these books, I’ve read a few. I always struggle with them because I am not a scientist. And, and I was wondering when did you know, in your life that you understood the math?

Well, I mean, I, I was pretty good at math when I was young, but I wasn’t especially interested in it. You know, I didn’t go to college thinking I was going to be a, a scientist or a mathematician or anything remotely like that. You know, I, I grew up in a small town in Minnesota and I hadn’t learned about any of the exciting or adventurous forms of science or math. I really just learned about, you know, memorizing a bunch of names of chemicals and a bunch of procedures for doing math problems. It was pretty dull stuff. But about halfway through college I ended up taking a modern physics class as part of just as a general education sort of thing. And I learned about relativity and quantum mechanics and it blew my mind. And that was the only thing I, you know, thought was really interesting in the world. So for me it was an easy decision at that point. But I, you know, most of my colleagues like can tell you, Oh, when I was six I wanted to be a physicist. I had nothing like that in my experience. I was 20 or 21 when that occurred to me for the first time.

You’re, you’re in Oak park, huh?

Yeah. So you’re not at the moment, but I live in Oak park.

But that means you’re right near where the first of the real interesting stuff in physics is taking place. Right.

Are you’re talking about a Fermi lab, that’s where I am right now. Yeah. That’s for nets in Batavia, Illinois. That’s farther out West. Right, right. But yeah, I mean I’m, I’m the main high rise tower at Fermilab as we speak and I’m looking out the window and I can see you know, the, the, the campus where the Tevatron was the, a big particle accelerator we had here for a long time. That’s retired now. But but yeah, we, we’ve made a lot of great discoveries here. Back in the day.

I remember when we were little kids, we are not little kids, but when we were in high school, we got, took a tour out there just to see this is out here. This is the thing. I remember

You may still take tours here all the time. There’s a steady flow of science and enthusiasm coming through.

Now remind me, why did that get retired? What superseded that accelerator?

Well. So you know, for a long time the biggest accelerator in the world was the Tevatron. But in Europe at a, at the CERN laboratory, we built this thing called the large Hadron Collider, which is even bigger. In most respects is just a bigger, more modern version of the type of Tron. It’s a little different cause it collides protons with protons at the Tevatron we collided protons with antiprotons. So there’s some subtle difference differences. But basically the large Hadron Collider is a bigger, more modern version of the Tevatron. And once that was up and running and had been collecting data for a while, it made sense to retire the Tevatron and move on to other things.

And you write in your book about next steps in what we need to build and to get to the next steps. And in understanding all this, all these ideas, all these concepts. I’ll come to that though. For the first time, human beings have begun to understand the origins of the universe have begun. How far past have begun? Are we?

Well, there’s always going to be questions that we don’t have answers to. I think that’s just the nature of science. I think I talk about it in the last chapter that I just don’t think there could ever be an end of, of the [inaudible] progress or the, the quest we call science. But a hundred years ago we didn’t even have an inkling about how our universe might change or evolve or if you don’t know that it could change or evolve, you certainly can’t talk about how it might’ve begun that those were just questions you couldn’t even conceptualize much must much less try to answer. But now, I mean, we’ve got a pretty good picture of how our universe has changed over as 13.8 billion year history. We know what it was like a billion years ago. We know it is like 10 billion years ago, but we know what it was like.

A hundred thousand years after the big bang. We notice last a second after the big bang, that first second. There’s a lot of mystery. We don’t know what the we don’t have any direct way of observing what the universe was like a million or a billion or a trillionth of a second after the big bang. We can do some experiments that inform us as to what it might’ve been like, but we don’t really know. And in that tiny fraction of a second carries with it enormous implications for how the world got to be the way it is. And I think that’s, that’s the part that has a lot of nuts yet to be cracked. That that is really where the mysteries and cosmology lie.

What would be occurring? What’s thoughts or conjecture that’s occurring in the first, second of the big bang that could possibly be occurring?

Well, instead of thinking about it as an event, let’s just think for a second about how space expands. So it turns out that if you have a piece of space with a pretty uniform amount of energy or matter in it, the space will expand faster if there’s more stuff in it. So today the universe is pretty big and pretty dilute most of spaces pretty close to empty. And, and, and in this state, the universe is expanding pretty slowly about if you take two points in space a few million light years apart from each other, there’ll be moving away from each other because of the expansion of space at about like 70 kilometers a second. So pretty slow in the grand scheme of things. But when the universe was smaller, the density of all that energy was higher space was expanding faster and you’d go back farther and farther and farther in time, and you reach a point where the universe was really, really dense. It was really, really hot and it was expanding really, really fast. And that is how I think about the big bang, this sort of state of hyper rapid expansion, hyper high temperatures, incredibly high densities all evolving in the blink of an eye.

That’s, that’s just an, an amazing thing to try to contemplate. And you know, I was, I was a, I was talking to a friend who is, you know, a rational journalist and telling him I was, I was talking to you and he said, I have a friend who’s also a physicist and we talk about these things, but he gets to a point where he says, my friend says to his friend, you know, it’s just sounds like magical thinking to me. What, what do you tell us? What do you tell him in me about why it isn’t magical thinking? Why the calculations that that Freedman Alexander Friedman did a hundred years ago being confirmed today, tell us the math gives us these answers

If, okay, if, if in 1922 and Alexander Freeman was doing those calculations, if you asked me then, if I had been around then and, and I was, you know, a similar kind of businesses, but within 1922 sort of perspective and knowledge I would have told you, of course this won’t turn out to be right. The university will be more complicated than that. I’m sure it’s worth checking, but probably something else will show up when we do the observations. It’s quite remarkable that Alexander Freeman turned out to be right. So let me back up and say what Alexander Freeman worked out and, and, and, and, and what, how we found out that it was true. So in 1915, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which says that space and time aren’t the sort of static, unchanging backdrops that we usually think of them as or, or at least before Einstein, we thought about them as instead space can warp and change and expand and contract and do all sorts of things.

And if it does those things depending on how much energy including matter there is in space and where it is in space. So Freeman was one of the first people to look at Einstein’s theory and say, well, okay, if we take the universe as a whole, we make certain simplifying assumptions. Like there’s the same amount of stuff everywhere on average. You can work out that the universe should either be expanding or contracting and then you can exactly work out how much it should be expanding or contracting. At the time, Einstein really rejected this idea. Einstein really thought the universe should be static and he said some pretty critical things, dismissive things, even about Friedman and others work. But in 1929 and when the huddle observed that our universe is in fact expanding and that suddenly put Friedman’s work and others on pretty high plane and people then took that and built upon it. And slowly over the course of decades or even a century, we’ve measured how our universe expanded, not just today but over it’s 13.8 billion year history. And we now have a really detailed picture of how that’s all played out. And if you take Freeman’s equations from 1922 and plot those curves right through what we’ve measured, man, it is spot on. So yeah, Friedman’s work turned out to be entirely valid to the best of our ability to measure it a hundred years later.

Do you ever feel trapped by the language you to use? In other words, the mathematics, mathematical equations, the work you do can prove it, but then when you have to explain it, you have to come up with metaphors, big bang Einsteins. I, you know, a car and Newtonian universe. There was a car in Einsteinian universe, that sort of thing.

Yeah, I think, I mean this is just a statement about language, right? I mean I would argue that if you want to talk about the feelings you have for the most important people in your life and you know, you, you would, even in that case, you’d have to rely on metaphor and, and the imperfect, a limitations of language. Or if I want to talk about how my favorite record makes me feel when I hear it or if I want to talk about you know, why I prefer a particular kind of scotch over another kind. Like all these things rely on, on language, which in, in any cases is, is imperfectly designed for the problem at hand. The science is the same way. And I, I find it actually helpful in my research to have to try to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t scientists. Because if I can think about the problems I’m working on in my research in different, in different conceptual frameworks, and you’re using different language, for example, not just mathematics it means it helps me to understand it more deeply and sometimes that actually leads to breakthroughs. And if I can understand it more clearly or more deeply, it’s more, more likely that I’ll be able to come up with you know, well I’ll be able to advance the problem in ways that may be just manipulating equations won’t, won’t facilitate.

Hmm. Hey, any examples of that for you where you have advanced the the problem address? The problem is advanced advanced it by putting it into a language first.

Well, I don’t know if we’ve advanced it yet, but just this week some colleagues of mine here, Fermi lab and a couple of people in Oxford and I are, are thinking about what black holes in the early universe might have been like. And it turns out that the math says that if, if a black hole is spinning, it radiates away certain kinds of particles more than if it’s not spinning. And I’ve read the papers that show this as true and I think I understand the math, but I didn’t have any intuitive understanding for why these conclusions followed. So I sat down with my colleagues and I said, let’s try to explain to each other why this is true without using any map. And we put it in words in different ways and we’re like, well, is that really right in, does that really right or is there a better way to think about it?

And I think at the end of that conversation I had a different, or maybe even deeper understanding of why that happens to be true. You know, I wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t put that in the paper. I’m going to write on this and I’m going to publish in a journal for other scientists. The, the math will be there, but I don’t, I don’t know that all this pontificating about metaphors will be, but it helps me think about the problem. And I think that’s at least as important as a, you know, making sure you get the factors of two right.

I thought it was interesting in your book how you talked about one of the, one of the problems that you run into in studying the universe is that we only had the one universe to study. Yeah. So we’re inside the box and trying to figure it out. It’d be a lot different if we could get outside the box. I mean we are trapped by our own cognition abilities, cognitive abilities, aren’t we?

Well not just our own cognitive abilities, but our own empirical limitations. So probably the single most important thing we have to observe about our universe in terms of cosmology is what we call the cosmic microwave background. This is the light that was released throughout all the space, about 380,000 years after the big bang when the first Adams were forming. And we have studied this over the last 50 years in quite amazing detail and we look up at the sky and we see this pattern of slightly hotter and slightly colder places in the sky. In terms of the radiation that’s from this background, but we basically, I’m gun pretty close to a extracting all the information we can get out of that. We’ve counted the number of hot spots and cold spots of different sizes and we’ve just kind of run out of sky. If we could instantly teleport somewhere else in the universe, you know, a, you know, a 1 billion light years away or something there, you’d have another pattern of hot and cold spots in the sky. You can measure those and you can know twice as much as we do. But we can’t do that. There’s no way to get a billion light years away except by traveling for a billion years and that’s not very practical. So yeah, we’ve kind of extracted everything. Well, almost everything. We’re approaching the point where we are gonna distract everything we can out of this cosmic microwave background. And we’re going to have to find new and different ways to learn how to learn about our universe from that.

What are people thinking about? What’s the new and different way that might be possible? What’s the conjecture?

Well, it totally depends on what time scale you’re thinking about. Like, so for the next decade, we’re just gonna keep squeezing the cousin micro background, keep getting more and more out of that. Beyond that we’re talking about using something we call 21 centimeter cosmology to, to kind of extract even more information out of the universe. The basic idea there is that all the hydrogen gas runs, but the universe gives up a particular kind of light. And by measuring that light at different frequencies, you measure the light that was admitted at different points in cosmic history. So you kind of get different slices at different points in time, so you can kind of have put together like a film strip of of the universe history with pictures at different frames. So that, that’s an exciting thing that we’re just starting to do now. We’re also just starting to be able to do what we call gravitational wave astronomy.

Hmm.

Where we detect the ripples in space and time that are created when it really dramatic things happen. Like black holes merging with one another, stuff like that. And it’s possible one day we’ll detect gravitational waves that were released are produced in the big bang itself. That would be pretty exciting. Even farther down the road I think we’ll be studying something called the cosmic neutrino background. So the universe we think or we’re pretty sure is a build with a bunch of particles we call neutrinos that were produced about a second or so after the big bang. Eventually we’re going to measure those and not just tell that they’re there, but we measure them in detail. I mean, this is probably a hundred years from now or something, but but yeah, we have a lot of steps that I’m excited about going forward. Even some of them that will be well after my time on earth has gone

Well. I just liked it. You use the phrase ripples in time and space because that just says what level that we’re operating at when we’re thinking about these things. [inaudible]

Well, let me tell you a little bit more about that. So, you know, like I said before, nine Stein’s theory of relativity space itself can change. So like for example,

Okay

If I take two points in space, the distance between those points in space can change without anything moving. This, the space itself can do the changing. So when things like black holes merge with each other, that’s so dramatic that it sends these waves through space, these ripples. And as those ripples pass through you, the distance between points in space kind of go back and forth. They oscillate back and forth getting farther and closer away from each other. Now it’s really subtle. It’s you, you need incredibly sensitive detectors to even notice this is happening. But for the first time we’re able to see these, these waves and they’re real phenomena. And you know, we see a bunch of these ’em every year now when a black holes merge.

Hmm. All right, two questions. Two callbacks. One do you have a preferred scotch?

It changes with time these days. I’m, I’ve been a bourbon guy lately. I know it’s not a scotch, but I, I, and I, I’m, I have a pretty serious hobby in a cocktail making. I’ve got a half of my kitchen is full of cocktail gear and kits and various bottles of, of things. If you’re ever in Chicago, look me up and I’ll fix you up with a, a nice drink.

I’ve, I’ve gravitated to bourbons as well in the last few years. I guess we’re part of a trend. Is there a all right. Yeah. I had a mezcal cocktail yesterday that I really loved. So WWE gimme one gimme one bourbon cocktail that you’ve been making that you really are enjoying making.

So I’ve been doing these smoked old fashioned actions lately. Oh what I mean by smoke, so it’s just like super classical fashion. There’s nothing fancy about it at all, except that I have of some pieces of wood that are planks from a bourbon barrel and I light them on fire and I take a cold glass and I catch the smoke on the surface of the glass and it turns out the cold glass smoke naturally adheres to. So I do that and I get the right amount smoking it, and then I pour the drink into the, into the glass. And it really, you know, just makes for a beautiful variants of an old fashioned.

Very nice. It’s nice to have those [inaudible]. I mean, I imagine it’s nice to have those hobbies when you come home from doing big brainwork. You can do something simpler.

I’ve been a hobby guy my whole life. You know, in the hobbies change with time, but I get pretty obsessed with whatever hobby I’m on at the moment.

I see. Okay. Here’s my other, just I cavalierly, and you kind of already explained this, but I cavalierly said a car and Einstein’s universe in the car and Newton’s universe you described, you know, driving in a square mile, both those things. Would you elaborate on what the difference is and what that tells us about the universe we live in?

So I use this metaphor in the book to try to convey the difference between the Newtonian view of space and time that the version that physicists adhere to before Einstein. And then Einstein’s view of space and time. So in, in the Newtonian view, I imagine somebody getting in a car, they drive a mile, they turn 90 degrees to the right, they drive a mile and then 90 degrees to the right again in nine degrees to right again. And you’ve gone a perfect square and you wind up exactly where you started because that of course is what, you know, your high school geometry says what happened, but then Einstein’s a car or an in a car being driven in Einstein’s sort of universe, which happens to be our kind of universe that geometry can change. So if you drive the car too fast, that will change the route you take through space.

And if there’s a bunch of energy in the form of mass or other stuff somewhere along your route that will warp or distort the geometry of space in such a way that after you’ve driven your, what you think is a perfect square, you’re not exactly where you started. So for example, take the solar system in the Newtonian view, we said that space was just this perfect static, rigid backdrop in the force of gravity pulled between the sun and earth in such a way to keep the earth on its elliptical orbit around the sun. What Einstein said is that the really deep down isn’t a force of gravity. Instead, the energy that’s stored in the mass of the sun changes the geometry of space throughout the solar system and the earth is simply moving on what is basically a straight line through that space. But that straight line happens to wrap around on itself and it seems to us like it’s elliptical orbit.

So instead of thinking about gravity is a force, Einstein said gravity is just the phenomena that follows from the way that mass and energy changed the geometry of space in a warp space. A bunch of this stuff you were taught in like 10th grade geometry turns out not to be true. Like we were taught that if you take two parallel lines and follow them, they stay parallel forever. But that’s only true and in flat space or non warped or non curved space. But it turns out those paralyze parallel lines can sometimes converge or diverge. And according to Einstein and we’ve measured them. That’s true. Also things like the, like a triangle in your high school geometry class that any three angles, the three angles of any triangle will always add up to 180 degrees. Not. So in curb stir workspace they can add up to either more or less than 180, depending on the geometry of that space. So, you know, Einstein’s view of space and time was, you know, really turned the whole Newtonian view on its head. It was probably the greatest paradigm shift in the history of physics.

We operate in Newtonian or Einsteinian space in our, when I walk around my house. Well, Newtonian space is a really good approximation of anything you’re going to find around here. Okay. Unless you’re like close to a black hole or something like that. The universe we live in is awfully close to Newtonian, but we can do really high precision tests that show that it’s not perfectly Newtonian and you’d really need Einstein’s theory to get the details right. For example, the GPS system, there’s satellites that tell your phone exactly where you are at any given moment. Those wouldn’t work if we didn’t put in the relativist of corrections. You know, and, and when we put satellites out in the solar system, we need to account for all of the relative as of corrections if we want to accurately predict where they’ll go in a and navigate them properly. So, yeah, I mean, the universe is in fact that we live in is in fact one described by general relativity. But you won’t, you know, screw yourself up too much by wandering around, you know, your, your neighborhood and with the Newtonian perspective in mind.

But given that the Einsteinian perspective has, has value. So just in the last, well, just recently we’ve had another announcement about quantum computing. How does quantum computing, if at all, relate to the notions and the quantum theories that you’re, you know, you’re looking at when you’re exploring a concept like the quantum gravity era?

Sure. So there are really two really important underlying theories that were developed in the 20th century and physics one, one’s relativity, which I already of talked about a bit. The other is quantum physics or quantum mechanics, or mean the same thing. So before the quantum revolution, people thought of objects as being, for example, in one place at one time and having a well-defined velocity and, and, and events that took place took place at one specific point in time and one specific place and stuff like this. But that’s not really how the universe turns out to work. Instead, instead of talking about an electron as like a point in space, you have to talk about it as a wave that describes a probability distribution of outcomes or, and can be in different places at one time and they can move and you have different velocities, different amounts of energy at the same time.

And events that take place can, can occur at multiple times at once. You may have heard of things like Schrodinger’s cat, which kind of is a thought experiment that illustrate some of this weirdness when it comes to quantum computing. Whereas in a non quantum computer, what we call a classical computer takes these kinds of you know, analogues steps where you know, you you, you kind of calculate things one bit at a time in quantum computing. You can, like, just like an electron can be a superposition of different places. A quantum computer combines things called cubits, which do calculations and superposition and for certain kinds of algorithm, algorithmic problems, you can do them much faster with a quantum computer than you can with a classical computer. I think the, the news you’re talking about is that Google has announced that it’s done some sort of quantum computation faster than you can with a classical computer for the first time. I’m not an expert on this, but I, you know, I’ve read the same articles that you have probably, if that’s true, that’s a really big step. And you know, it’s exciting to be living in the future.

Yeah. Does it, does this sort of work inform your work at all or is it very far removed?

Well, certainly quantum physics informs my work in almost every step. I’m, I was trained as a particle physicist and that’s still kind of my, my basic mindset as a, as a scientist and particle physics is a fundamentally quantum kind of physics. When I talk about particles, I’m talking about quantum objects behave in quantum sort of ways. And so yeah, when I, when I, when I do physics, I’m usually doing quantum physics. Now when it comes to quantum computing, I mean, that’s an application of quantum physics. I am, I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase quantum computing in a paper I’ve written. But you can certainly consider me an interested or even fascinated spectator.

But it’s another example, isn’t it, of the, of both the progress and the pro proof that’s evolved from when Einstein first proposed these concepts.

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I mean, this, this stuff isn’t some sort of esoteric, philosophical you know, point. It’s something that enables us to build workable technologies that really work in the real world. You know, in the same way that you need general relativity to get GPS to work, right. And I need to know how quantum mechanics works to make the transistors and my cell phone work. You know? Yeah. These are, these are extremely real world theories that not have, not only been tested and have been shown to be correct, but enable us them and they manipulate our world in new and powerful ways.

You were talking about the Einstein was saying that gravity wasn’t a force itself, but but an outcome of other forces but you also wrote for gravity to be compatible with quantum theory, we need gravitons or gravity particles. Put that in context for me.

Yeah. So, so, okay, let instead of talking about gravity first, let’s just talk about electromagnetism, which is something we understand much better than we understand gravity. So on the one hand we have the idea of the of the electromagnetic force. We know a magnet’s work. We know electric fields work, things like this. We use these things called Maxwell’s equations to describe that stuff, but that’s the classical or non quantum version of electromagnetism. We also know that deep down what electromagnetism is, are a bunch of photons. These are individual particles or Quanta of the electromagnetic field, and these particles travel through space. And some sort of way that we now understand very, very well. And the sort of classical big picture of limit of those photons is the electromagnetic force that we understand. So in an analogy, we have a classical theory of gravity, general relativity, and that works really well.

It’s, it’s not that it’s wrong or something, but we know deep down there must be a quantum version of it. That underpins it all. And just like there’s a photon which is responsible for the electromagnetic force, we imagine there has to be a particle we use called the gravitron. And it is somehow responsible for the phenomena we call gravity or, or the, or the phenomenon associated with general relativity. We’ve never seen a graviton and it would be really, really hard to do. So it’s the sort of thing that it would be hard to imagine an experiment that would actually see these particles individually, but you know, in the distant future perhaps but we don’t know how this works. We don’t have a really a workable theory of quantum gravity yet people speculate about things like string theory and loop quantum gravity is ideas, but we just don’t know how gravity works at a quantum level. We snow. It has to, it’s, you know, deep down. But there are more open questions associated with quantum gravity than there are you know, real solutions at this time.

You have at the beginning of the book, this the big bang Erez and the era at, at 10 to the minus 43 to 10 to the minus 95, approximately, right? So this is right at the, I don’t how, what, but milliseconds, I don’t even know how to break it down smaller than that of the big bang is the quantum gravity era. What does that mean? There’s, there’s an unknown in there, but it has to, there’s something, it has to be,

Well, we don’t know what that era was like. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. But we do know that when the universe was that hot and that dense, that the laws of physics that we know of have to break down. We know that general relativity is not compatible with quantum mechanics at those extreme condition, under those extreme conditions. So there has to be some new theory that comes into play. A theory of quantum gravity. We don’t know what that’s like. We can speculate. But yeah, and when we, when we run our equations backward, we seem to think that roughly 10 to the minus 43 seconds after the big bang is, is where this era was, was kind of a completing itself. So there was this little tiny bit of time where the universe maybe can, consisted of more than three dimensions of space, we don’t know. And maybe space itself kind of existed in the superposition of different shapes and geometries. Maybe it was 11 dimensional or 26 dimensional. And who knows what kinds of forms of matter and energy existed at that time. All we can really say for sure is that our universe in that era looked nothing like the universe. What we see around us today.

You already touched on it, but you must, when you’re thinking about these things, you must, and I know everybody must ask you this cause it’s so perplexing. What’s the before? Do you speculate on it before or do you just or not?

Well, so I mean if you really just take general relativity and run it backwards, you find that 13 8.8 billion years ago, the universe gets hotter and hotter and hotter and denser and denser and denser and it’s at a spirit specific point in time at what we call times zero. Okay. The universe gets infinitely hot and infinitely dense and then time doesn’t go back any further than that. So they’re literally, according to that picture wasn’t any time prior to the big Bay. It’s like talking about what happened before the big bang. From that perspective, it’s kind of like talking about what’s North of the North pole. Like you just, there is no way to get to travel in any direction on the surface here is that we’ll get you farther North than that. That’s just the edge of of spacetime, which is where the title for my book at the edge of time comes from.

So all that being said I think we should be pretty open minded about how that really played out after all. We don’t have any way of observing the first fraction of a second after the big bang. And it’s entirely plausible in my opinion, that any number of weird unexpected things happened in that window. And maybe there were things that happened before that some very serious businesses talk about scenarios where a, the big bang kind of occurs in cycles where the universe expands for awhile and then it contracts and it kind of goes through a bounce and starts all over again. I, those theories have problems and none of them really work very well so far. But is it possible that one day we’ll work out a theory like that that does work and that turns out to be right. I think we should be open minded to that. On the other hand, it’s also possible that there really was a, an edge in terms of time and there just wasn’t anything that occurred before that and not only to know events happened, but there was no time in which those events may have happened. Before T equals zero.

We are back to the question of language again, aren’t we though? I like the analogy of you can’t go North of the North pole. That’s fascinating. Tell me something, what do you get like your, I, I’m sure you’re gonna this is at the edge of time is a great book and you’re going to have many, many great questions when you come to town hall. But what do you get

Okay.

From I guess, yeah, spiritually if I may from top from talking about these ideas.

Not just from talking about these ideas, but just from thinking about these ideas and getting to think about it in a lot of different ways. I mean, I just invited deeply fascinating in a way that I don’t think I have language to convey or communicate. And I don’t know when would you use the word spiritual? So I’ll kind of go in that direction. I mean, when I hear Buddhist monks talk about the kind of transcendental or sublime experiences they have in meditation and you know, I’ve never had that experience myself. But you know, I have some some experiences thinking about the universe and having insights about it that I would describe as sublime. I don’t know about transcendental, but you know, the closest thing I’ve ever come and there’s, there’s some kind of way in which my brain gets rewarded for, for kind of wrapping its head around some of these hard ideas. And it, it feels good and it feels exciting and it feels kind of pure. I think a certain kinds of scientific experiences or intellectual experiences probably it doesn’t have to be science can, can be deeply satisfying in a way that very few things in my experience happen.

Great. Great answer that that in a in a good, good PD scotch. All right. Thank you sir. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Oh, I’m excited about this and I can’t wait to come to Seattle, so.

Great. Great. All right. Enjoy the, I hope you have some decent weather. Enjoy the decent Midwestern Indian summer, if that’s what you’re having.

Yeah, I enjoy the fall. This is a good weather. I like Chicago in the fall.

Yeah. All right. Thanks a lot. All right. Cheers man. Take care. Bye.

Steve shares spoke with Dan Hooper, author of at the edge of time exploring the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds. He will be speaking on our forums stage at town hall on November 8th at 7:30 PM thank you for joining us for episode 45 of in the moment. Earthy music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. Listen to our town hall produced events on our earths and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and you can watch a bunch of great events on our town hall, Seattle YouTube channel. So check that out as well to support town hall, see our lineup of, or to access our media library head to our website at town hall, seattle.org next week, our chief correspondent Steve share, we’ll be in conversation with Northwest harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds about food as a right in Washington state. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 44

In this week’s interview, Town Hall’s own Haley Fenton talks with Timothy Wise about agribusiness and the future of food. Wise outlines the control that corporations like Monsanto have over small-scale farms worldwide. He delves into the profit-motivated decisions that don’t coincide with the needs of farmers or consumers, and highlights the fact that foreign governments are attempting to partner with Monsanto due to funding, which has resulted in the company exerting control over their nation’s crops and production of fertilizers—a direction which Wise asserts is the wrong ecological choice on a global scale. Wise and Fenton examine agroecology and explore strategies for disrupting these harmful patterns.


Episode Transcript

Transcribed by Jini Palmer. Please email typos or corrections to communications@townhallseattle.org.

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to In The Moment a Town Hall Seattle podcast where every episode we talk to someone coming to our Town Hall stages. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s mid-October here in Seattle and our rental partners have been hosting some incredible events, Earshot Jazz, Seattle Arts and Lectures, and the Moth Seattle are filling our stages with music and stories. And we’ve got a few fun programs next week with Seattle Radio Theater Halloween edition and our own chief correspondent Steve Scher will be onstage with Anand Giridharadas on October 28th to talk about society’s economic elite and how they’re doing everything in their power to preserve their position on top. Two days later on October 30th Timothy Wise will be gracing our Forum stage to talk about the Battle for the Future of Food, which is our highlight for this episode of In The Moment.

The world of agribusiness has a deeply penetrating control on policy, not only in the U.S. but in small countries in Subsaharan Africa like Malawi. As Tim Wise puts it, agribusiness spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. But shifting the future of agriculture to an agroecology model, even against said goliath forces is a feat worth pursuing for the farmers, consumers, the environment and climate change. Timothy A. Wise is a senior researcher at Small Planet Institute and Tufts University’s Global Development and Environmental Institute and is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Our correspondent for this episode, Hailey Fenton is our Donor Relations Manager here at Town Hall Seattle. She comes from a commercial fishing family, was the head baker of a farm to table restaurant, provided resources on an urban youth farm, organized communities for local food distribution startup and work to get her own hometown food co-op off the ground. So it goes without saying the sustainable food is a passion that both Haley and Timothy share. 

*** 

Haley Fenton: My first question for you, I kind of wanted to go back to the beginning. I was really curious, what was your relationship to food like growing up in, in your family?

Timothy A. Wise: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I grew up in a classic suburban family in a very kind of traditional North American household where food was kind of the food of the fifties and sixties, which was kind of the beginning of the processed food world and, and wasn’t actually featured very prominently in our cultural lives. So I feel like my deep appreciation for what it takes to produce food and to enjoy it and to have food embedded in a culture really came from my international travels.

HF: Mm. So it sounds like growing up there wasn’t a lot of questioning around food and where it came from and what you were eating.

TW: No, when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties and there sure wasn’t much attention to that at that point. It’s, it’s amazing to see how much that interest has grown.

HF: So you said that a lot of your appreciation came from your international travels, but do you kind of remember what your first awakening was to our industrial food system?

TW: Well, I know that my first awakening to the injustices that hardworking farmers suffer came in Peru when I was studying as an exchange student. And, and I was just struck by the dramatic landscapes of the Andes. Highland agriculture and steep slopes beautifully tended by very hardworking farmers who were living in desperate poverty because the range of policies that were in place really had them working as in kind of a feudal environment. And, and so that’s what really awakened me to the to just how desperate lives can be for people who work incredibly hard growing food for all of us. I think my appreciation for what industrial agriculture is kind of doing to our, to the larger food world came through a lot of work on United States agricultural policies, but also on the impacts that those policies and our trading agreements and arrangements have on Mexican farmers.

HF: Hmm. Yeah. I think that your work, not only this book but previous works of yours, do a really amazing job of showing what food really is in the context of human lives, which is also economics and public health and politics and gender. And I think that it stresses the importance of it because it, food does touch all of those worlds that I think is highly, highly underappreciated.

TW: Yeah, no, I think, right.

HF: And so you’re obviously well steeped in this world and have so much experience, but in the process of researching and writing this book, were there any surprises or revelations that you had?

TW: Oh, all the time. All the time. I mean one of the most striking conclusions that I draw out in the book is that is just what a deeply penetrating control agribusiness firms have over policy in the US and really even more so in a small country in sub Saharan Africa like Malawi. They just are dedicated to shaping policies in ways that are going to increase their sales and their profits. And that that doesn’t often or usually coincide with what small scale farmers most need or what consumers most want to eat. And so it’s a, I was, I was shocked at the extent to which those companies were really kind of right there in the government’s writing policy. I tell the story in the book of discovering that the seed policy in Malawi and of course of an interview, I was doing that the seed policy in Malawi, which threatened to make it illegal for farmers to save exchange and sell their seeds, which is really where 80% of the food in Africa comes from is from farmers saving their own seeds and sharing them with other farmers that they were threatened to make that make that illegal because the seeds wouldn’t be certified by the government and only crop breeders, commercial crop readers would get that certification. They even went so far as to say that such seeds saved by farmers should no longer be called seeds. They should be called grain worthy of eating, but not planting, you know, in an outrage. Farmers said to me, holding up a kernel of corn, how can we’ve been planning this for generations? How can this not be a seed? But talking to in the course of this interview, I said, I got flustered and said, this policy is so bad. It could have been written by Monsanto. And the guy I was talking to looks down at issues and pauses and looks up and says, well, actually four months into official is one of the authors of the policy. And of course Monsanto’s stands to gain because if all farmers have to start buying seeds every year, they control 50% of the corn seed market in Malawi.

HF: Oh, that is, that’s a lot to take in for sure.

TW: Yeah. But they were, that was not uncommon. That was not uncommon at all. And another, also in Malawi, I, I learned that I was perplexed because one of the most popular corn seeds that had been bred by Malawian farmers been very productive and it was no longer anywhere on the market. And I kept asking why? And someone finally said, Oh, don’t, you know, and I was like, no, what? He said, Oh, the, when the government had to privatized because of international monetary fund austerity program, they sold off the national seed company and Monsanto bought it. And Monsanto properly, promptly shelved the seeds that it didn’t have patents on and substituted seeds. It did have patents on, even though those seeds were far less productive than the ones that that the Malawians had bred for their particular climatic conditions and, and tastes.

HF: And so why are governments so eager to partner with Monsanto?

TW: Well they want foreign investment. And they’ve bought the argument that they need a green revolution for Africa. That’s the big push by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. And they created the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa in 2006. And the premise is that Africa was bypassed in the first Green Revolution, which brought commercial seeds and fertilizers and other technologies to farmers in India and Latin America, but it didn’t reach Africa. And now African needed its own green revolution. So there’s big money enticing governments to adopt policies that promote just those kinds of inputs as the paths to modernizing their agriculture.

HF: So encouraging these new seeds, encouraging these technologic quote technologically advanced fertilizers and such.

TW: That’s right. And the governments are, many governments are actually subsidizing the purchase by small scale farmers of those inputs at great cost to themselves. And Malawi in one year had spent 60% of its entire agricultural budget on fertilizer and seed subsidies. And, and the tragedy is that they, it’s, there’s very little evidence that it’s working. I did some background research but I was just presenting in Rome at the committee on world food security meetings that shows that, that they’re not getting the kind of productivity increases that they promise that when they do, that’s not translating into reductions in hunger in rural areas. So it’s really a failing strategy. And, and in the current context where we’re all worried about climate change, it’s enticing farmers really paying farmers to give up what are far more climate resilient agricultural practices and substitute for those commercial seeds, monoculture crops. Just corn crops everywhere you look and fed by inorganic fertilizers that are produced using fossil fuels. So  it’s a fossil fuel intensive process that they’re trying to introduce. Really kind of the, the wrong way to go as we think about the changing climate.

HF: So why did corn become the crop of the world? It seems.

TW: Well, it’s not the crop of the world. I think our people would argue probably that rice is the crop of the world. And if you look at Asia and how many people subsist on it, but corn is is particularly amenable to crop breeding and it can be it was developed in Iowa to be so-called high yield by doing a process called hybridization where they created as a different wet form of crop breeding. And it has the great advantage for seed sellers that the yield advantages that you get from this, from these seeds only last one year. So when you sell someone a hybrid corn seed, it will not remain highly productive if you save seeds from that crop and plant them the next year. So you need to buy seeds every year. And that’s really the trap of the green revolution project for Africa, is that farmers are really on the edge financially. And the last thing they need is to be trapped into a system in which they have to buy seeds every year and they have to buy fertilizers or those seeds won’t be highly productive.

HF: Essentially creating demand for forever.

TW: That’s right. That’s the, that’s the trap.

HF: Yeah. So you said that you just returned from Rome where you were presenting your research on Agora and the green revolution to the committee in world food security. Is that right?

TW: That’s right. The annual meetings of the committee on grow on world food security, which take place in Rome every October. And since the food price crisis that’s been, that was designated the kind of lead coordinating body for actions on food security and nutrition in the world.

HF: Can you tell us a little more about what that committee does and what the goal is of that community as far as action goes, as a result of these meetings?

TW: Well, it’s housed at the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations meetings take place there in Rome. Government representatives are there. So it’s a UN body with governments represented often by their agriculture ministers or, or ambassadors to the food and agricultural organization itself. And every year they are taking on kind of important issues that are on a long term agenda, trying to shape a more sustainable path to improve food security and nutrition, particularly in the poorest countries in the world. This year was particularly interesting because the hot button issue on the table was a new expert report that was strongly recommending ecological agriculture as the paths forward. And the dangers of continuing to follow that Green Revolution path. So it was an interesting and an important meeting.

HF: And what was the response to the presentation of that report?

TW: Oh, well, the response in the plenary was very encouraging with all of the different, in a lot of different country representative speaking up. I mean, I’ve been going and attending these things since 2012. I think the narrative has changed dramatically. It’s really, I think climate change has really woken people up to the fact that what we’re currently doing, our current agricultural development model isn’t working. People have noted the F the food and agriculture organization annual hunger report has shown that three straight years hunger, global hunger has increased the number of people and chronically and severely in hunger has increased across the world to over 800 million people with another out with some 2 billion people considered malnourished suffering some form of food insecurity. And that’s happened at a time when actually there’s a global overproduction of, of those commodity grain crops, rice, wheat, corn. So, you know, there you go again. Hunger, amid plenty. What’s, you know, what’s wrong with this picture? And I think there was, you really heard a lot more appreciation from many more government representatives. That business as usual is not an option anymore with change. Making farmers lives much more difficult all over the world, not just in Africa but in Iowa. Right. And so there was a lot more interest in support for, you know, approaches like agroecology, which tries to minimize the use of commercial inputs and maximize the regenerative forms of agriculture that can help rebuild soil fertility. Which is really the foundation for for long term food security. As I argue in the book. That’s how we need to eat. If we’re going to eat tomorrow, it’s going to be because we have adopted practices that rebuild the natural resource space on which our food production depends. Soil, water, climate, seeds.

HF: So it sounds like you left feeling a little hopeful.

TW: I, I did. I am. I’m very hopeful about that change in approach though, the acceptance of that approach. What’s less, what’s more worrying is that as well all of the recent climate change reporting from international institutions as highlighted. We don’t, we don’t have any time to wait to make these changes. Agriculture is contributing some 23% of greenhouse gas emissions by itself. So and the food system as a whole, when you count transportation, everything else, it could well be over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to our food system. So, so it’s urgent that we make those changes. Farmers in sub Saharan Africa who I spent a lot of time with are suffering. You know, it’s not a future looming threat for them. Climate change is upon them and has been for years and it’s, it’s devastating. So they need help adapting their farms to changing climates so they can by growing or wider variety of crops, not just one, which if it fails, you have nothing. I’m doing it in a way that makes their soils healthier. I’m not depleted, which monocultures said by synthetic fertilizers don’t really rebuild soils. They deplete them. I wish I heard the urgency at these, at these gatherings. What you do, what you hear from representatives like the US government representative there is that they don’t want to see anything that impedes the spread of industrial agriculture. The way they put it is we’re going to need all the tools in the toolbox to fight climate change and the tools that they want to promote a new genetically modified drought tolerant varieties of crops. And other commercial innovations that you know, may or may not contribute to helping our, in the long run helping are helping small scale farmers adapt to climate change, but that it’s not what they need now.

HF: And do you think that’s because of a belief that technology and Western intervention is the path to success or because it’s tied to business or both?

TW: I think those are, those are completely intertwined. You know, I in my book I spend a couple chapters looking at the United States one just looking at the Iowa agriculture where I’m essentially asking the question. I mean I title the section, the roots of our problems and ask the question, you know, why are we exporting this maladaptive model to Africa when it really doesn’t seem to be working well for Iowa? But agribusiness reigns Supreme in Iowa for sure and it’s very hard to see much, see many openings for changes because of that. But they truly also believe that they are feeding the world. They’re not, but that’s deeply embedded in the culture of the United States and of USA agriculture that are highly productive. Industrial model of agriculture is feeding the world.

HF: And elaborating on what you said about Iowa and how the United States itself obviously has plenty of issues with industrial agriculture, what are things that folks in the United States can do to participate in this global issue of food sustainability?

TW: Well, we, there’s an interesting new debate. I mean, I can also say that I came out of a book tour in March through Iowa. I spent a week there giving talks about the book. And I came out actually hopeful there too because I think the flooding in the Midwest which has persisted for pretty much the whole summer in some on and off in some parts of the Midwest has awakened to people, to the fact that climate change is coming for them to and that maybe this model isn’t working so well. They have really low crop prices because we’re over-producing almost everything. Farmers are struggling, debt levels are rising. It’s very hard to argue with that. The current model is working very well either for Iowa’s farmers or its consumers. Their waters are very polluted from the chemical runoff and the seepage of chemicals into the groundwater.

They’re losing topsoil. They’ve lost half their top soil in Iowa. Probably the richest agricultural land in the world has lost half of its topsoil to erosion from over-farming and bad farming practices. So there’s, there is an emerging, I think, consciousness that that needs to change and that government policy is where that change is going to happen. So the democratic presidential candidates many of them have very interesting ambitious plans for reshaping the farm bill and other types of farm legislation to essentially they’re proposing to make it encourage what they, some people call carbon farming. Others just call regenerative agriculture where farmers are paid incentivized with subsidies to to adopt more climate friendly and, and environment environmentally sustainable practices. Everything from planting cover crops during the winter to planning patches of one large patches of land and grasslands, which can sequester carbon over the long term and can, can slow the runoff. It’s coming off of agricultural fields.

HF: It sounds hopeful.

TW: No, I, I’m, I was very encouraged by the shift and then again, it’s the shift in the narrative and, and the battle is to translate that into concrete actions when you know that that agribusiness firms and their political allies are going to fight every step of the way if it impedes their profits. I mean, agribusiness, people don’t realize that, that the agribusiness lobby, which is somewhat unfortunately called the farm lobby, like it’s lobbying for farmers spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. So this is a huge lobby that has very clear marching orders from its corporate sponsors and those marching orders are to expand markets for, for, for commercial products here and abroad. That’s why you get this aggressive push to export the industrial model of agriculture to places like Malawi.

TW: You mentioned the shift in the narrative and how important that is. What was the narrative previously and how was it ineffective?

HF: The narrative was driven by again, this sort of modernization, a trope where, you know, small scale farmers using limited technology were backward in developing countries. They needed to modernize, basically, agriculture needed to be recreated in developing countries in the image of the agriculture that we got in the United States with heavily mechanized, very few people working on the farms. Highly chemical intensive and capital intensive, not labor intensive. And that, that would allow developing countries to become high yield producers of food crops and be more food selves, food secure. And you know, that’s not how it’s played out. For most developing countries some sectors within developing countries have become higher oil producers. Like in Mexico. There’s parts of Mexican corn production that are on farms that look every bit like farms in Iowa and have productivity levels as high as well, but that hasn’t made Mexico a food secure country. Mexico now imports something like a third to 40% of it’s corn every year from the United States. It’s not self sufficient in corn. And the quality of that corn is, has gone down Hill as those industrial seeds have replaced native seeds, which corn was domesticated and in Mexico. So it has the richest diversity of corn varieties in the world. A recent survey, nobody believes me when I say this, but a recent survey by the, by the biodiversity Institute in the ministry of agriculture, ministry of environment in Mexico identified 22,000 different unique varieties of corn adapted to their local culinary desires ecological conditions, et cetera. So displacing all of those with one or two strains of hybrid if not genetically modified corn is as a real loss.

TW: And so what would you say is the you’ve been touching on what the new narrative is now, but what would you say is kind of the elevator pitch for the new narrative of the future of agriculture?

HF: Business as usual isn’t an option. We’re growing more commodity crops of food, but we’re not feeding more people. It’s not translating into improved poverty, and reductions in poverty and improved livelihoods for poor people in developing countries. And with climate change, it is both a major contributor. That industrial model of agriculture is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and a very poor model for farmers in developing countries to adapt to climate change. So that’s, that’s the narrative that came out of this committee on world food security meeting. We need to change course the food and agriculture organization of the UN, which has really been one of the main promoters of that green revolution model for years. Now has a program called scaling up agroecology that basically recognizes that fossil fuel intensive agriculture is, is not the future.

TW: And are these the messages that you hope folks walk away with from reading your book?

HF: Yeah, they are. And I hope they walk away hopeful because the, because one of the striking things about researching the book was that everywhere I went, I saw small scale farmers, usually in some sort of farmer associations doing it right. They know that they have a better sense of what works. And they saw often with the help of agricultural scientists ecologists are reshaping their traditional practices to be more highly productive, more resilient to climate change and and less chemical intensive. And it’s working and I’m, I saw community after community where those kinds of projects are really giving farmers and farm families a much more diverse diet, much healthier and, and, and stronger soils and a much more stable income and food source

 

*** 

JP: Timothy Wise is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food and will be in conversation with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty and Africa Coordinator Million Belay on Wednesday, October 30th in our Forum. So come down early, hang out in our library or Otto bar, ask some questions during Q&A, get your book signed and chat with them.

Thank you for listening to episode 44 of In The Moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. If you can’t make it to an event, you can always hear them on our Arts and Culture, Civics and Science series podcasts. And if you’d like to support Town Hall, consider becoming a member. Head to our website at townhallseattle.org for more information. Next week, our Chief Correspondent, Steve Scher, will be talking with Dan Hooper about our universe’s first seconds. Until then. Thanks for joining us right here, In The Moment.

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In The Moment: Episode 43


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s the second week of October, 2019 and the temperatures have plummeted. The leaves are turning bright oranges and reds and people have been cozying up to our auto bar and the library that’s in the forum before and after events. So come on down, grab a book, a drink, and bring your friends. In the coming week, we’ve got programs about mushrooms, science, and the economy and music to fill your mind and senses. And next Wednesday, professor and author of Melanie Mitchell is coming to our forum stage to talk about AI. She chats with our chief correspondent, Steve share on this episode of in the moment to give you a glimpse into a human thinking about AI.

Facial recognition programs are the latest technology to be touted as the breakthrough in the human quest to create artificial intelligence. But it turns out the software doesn’t work like it does on TV, where high-speed computers magically find just the person being sought. Facial recognition software can be fooled by something as common as a blurred image according to computer scientists, Melanie Mitchell that can make plans to put AI into positions of decision making from self driving cars and security to financial decision making. Ill-Considered they just aren’t that smart. Mitchell has written a book artificial intelligence, a guide for thinking humans. She says her goal is to help readers get a sense of what the field has accomplished and how much further it needs to go before these machines can actually take part in the conversation about their own intelligence. That is to be conscious. Mitchell will be coming to our forum stage at 7:30 PM on October 16th to unravel the promises and pitfalls of artificial intelligence. Our chief correspondent Steve shares spoke with the Portland state university professor of computer science.

***

Steve Scher: Thank you for talking to me. I appreciate it. 

Melanie Mitchell: Oh well thanks for the opportunity. 

SS: I’ll just jump in cause I was wondering and you know even after reading all this, I’m still, I still sometimes get a little vague. Is there anything artificially intelligent about this Skype technology we’re using? 

MM: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of intelligence, I would say. No, but it certainly, it does some very useful things like it probably does some signal processing of our audio and makes, you know, takes out noise and all of that stuff. It’s, you know, people have different definitions of intelligence. 

SS: I know. That’s why I asked. Yeah. So for you know, your, your definition, no? 

MM: No. Yeah, I would say absolutely not.

SS: Yeah. Imagine a, a system that did have intelligence that was doing this, what would be, what would be more sophisticated about it? If sophisticated is even the right word?

MM: Well it would be able to join in our conversation, make some comments, tell you that you’re not speaking loud enough or you’re not speaking clearly enough or maybe you have, I, I didn’t see this, but maybe you have some like a egg on your tie or something I could tell you that

SS: I see that would be intelligent. I mean, Alexa doesn’t do that most of the time. Alexa says, Hmm, I don’t know that one.

MM: Right, exactly. I mean, I don’t think intelligence is a yes or no question. It’s, there are certainly degrees of intelligence. It’s a continuum. There’s also different dimensions of intelligence. So it’s a little hard to say that something is or isn’t intelligent, especially since we don’t have a good definition, but it certainly isn’t intelligent enough to, to join in our conversation. 

SS: Is that one of the issues with trying to write a book about where we stand with artificial intelligence that the definition of intelligence is still under examination?

MM: Yeah. That makes it a little more challenging. But it’s not that unusual. I mean, in science, people use terms all the time in every science that don’t have a very rigorous definition. So, you know, one example is I know that people in genetics are still debating the definition of the word gene. And for a long time, like in physics, the word force, that was just something ill defined. It was kind of a placeholder for something that we didn’t understand yet. And so I think of intelligence is that it’s kind of a placeholder until we understand better what we’re talking about. Consciousness is the same. You know, all these words that just stand in for things we don’t understand yet.

SS: I find it always fascinated to think that there is, there are still all these black boxes and yet scientists or what would you say? Are they, are they scratching around the, on the outsides of these black boxes trying to get in? I mean, what’s the, what’s a good metaphor?

MM: Yeah, that’s that. I think that’s, that’s pretty good. Are there, you know, there if you ever read the book Flatland, you know, something’s in a true dimensional world trying to imagine a three dimensional world. So we’re in our two dimensional world of understanding intelligence and there’s a third dimension, maybe even a fourth that we haven’t even conceptualized yet.

SS: I see, I see. Yeah. We’re working at it though, right? That’s part of what everybody’s trying to do, right? Working at that. 

MM: Absolutely. Yeah. 

SS: So I, I want to know how you started thinking about this and I’m going to take a kind of a geeky roundabout way. There, you know, there’s a, there’s a Star Trek Enterprise episode where where Picard encounters a group of people, Tamarians who communicate in metaphor or story or allegory. It’s always unclear. I mean, what actually is going on. But I always thought it was a remarkable way to think about how we communicate because though we, they had Language they had words that matched. They had no way of actually communicating because it was all in metaphor. And I noticed that one of the first things that you write about that kinda got you thinking about all this was this book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who were pretty amazing writers write about about metaphors. What was it about, about that idea that sort of begin began the spark for you in thinking about artificial intelligence?

MM: So in a sense, we all communicate via metaphors and that is something we’re quite unconscious of. That metaphor has really permeated our language. You know, if we say, Oh, she gave me a very warm welcome. That’s a metaphor, right? It’s a temperature, it’s a physical temperature and it’s not, you know, it’s, it’s not literally a warm in the sense of the temperature didn’t literally go up, but we, that’s the way we think about most concepts. And that was just a real revelation for me. You know, that’s not something I’d ever thought about before I read that book. But then once you see it, you see it everywhere in language and it’s, it, it really gives an insight into the way we think into the way we conceptualize. So that got me really interested in this, this whole question of like, what are our concepts? How do we use concepts in such a flexible way where computers are so rigid and literal? You know, they, they would have a hard time understanding that kind of metaphor. So it seemed like an incredible challenge to be able to get computers to understand things in the same way we do. And a lot of people think that’s impossible. I think it’s possible, but I think we don’t know how to do it yet. So really interesting. Kind of open question

SS: Just on a side note or maybe it’s part of it. I teach at the UW now and I’m teaching a communications class and many of my students are communications majors which is about language and not language and nonverbal interactions and all the ways we humans interact. And sometimes I have a half or three quarters of the students are Chinese speaking students. And I often find myself using a metaphor or an idiom and then looking up and realizing that makes no sense to them. That has no meaning for them because their like, their command of English is like my command of Cantonese or Mandarin doesn’t take us that far. It’s so sophisticated, isn’t it? These concepts, these metaphors that we live by.

MM: Yeah. and you know, each language has its own, it, it, it’s, it’s interesting too, if you try and learn a foreign language to kind of learn what their metaphors are and how, how they differ. One, one example I remember from French was in English we say, we say I had a dream, right? It’s kind of this, this notion that you, you possessed it, right? Or it possessed you. Whereas in French you say, I made a dream and I wonder if they really conceptualize it differently or they, they just have a different way of saying it and there’s a lot of controversy on that. So I think it’s really interesting this kind of cross cultural study of metaphors. 

SS: Have we seen people doing work in AI that are having any breakthroughs by comparing metaphors across different languages?

MM: You know, I haven’t seen that. One of the things I talk about in my book is, is translation programs like Google translate and kind of where they stand. They, and it’s a good question of whether they could deal with translating metaphors. You know, they, they learn, they use statistics, they learn from lots of paired sentences where you have a sentence in English and a sentence in French. And they learned from statistics of associations like that, how to translate phrases and they do it well in some cases and they do it very poorly in others. So I guess the answer is no, we haven’t seen a breakthrough in that yet.

SS: All right. I want to come back to Google translate and all those systems, but let me come back to how you went through. Why was it that this notion of language and metaphor, these ideas of the physical hot, cold warmth and how it translates into language and metaphor. How did that translate for you into wanting to study it through computer technology and computing?

MM: Well, what really got me into the field of AI was Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel Escher, Bach. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it was a book written back in the 70s that really tackled the question of how is it that something like consciousness or understanding could emerge from something like the brain where you have neurons, which are like little machines. They don’t understand anything individually, but collectively we get the phenomenon of human cognition sort of how does that happen? And you know, I don’t think the book completely answered that question, but it approached it in a really novel and interesting way. And when I read it, it just spoke to me as the most interesting question out there. And so that’s really what got me into the field of AI. And I even ended up studying with Douglas Hofstadter who was my PhD advisor.

SS: But it was, but, but you wanted, why was it through like, you could have studied linguistics, you could have studied cognition. What was it about unwrapping that question of consciousness through looking at how computers function that intrigued you?

MM: That’s a really good question. I guess my background kind of primed me to become a computer scientist. I focused a lot on math and physics as an undergraduate and did a lot of, did a lot of things with computers and kind of grew up with computers. So it just struck me that computers computation as a, as kind of a phenomenon was broader than just in computers. Computation was a way to understand how we think. That was kind of my view back then at least. And so AI was a way, not only to make computers smart but to use computers to understand ourselves.

SS: I see, I see. All right, so I’m gonna let me ask one more thing about this. Let me ask you about this experiment as a way to understand how this stuff gets applied and, and I don’t think you, you are, you’re reporting on this experiment, but this test, but explain it a little bit. One group of researchers, a group of researchers was, was trying to test how the physical, something is warm relates then to how somebody perceived somebody eat with these metaphors. Somebody warm, somebody cold. Do you remember that experiment that you wrote about?

MM: Yeah, I do.

SS: What, what was, can you describe the experiment and what was being studied.

MM: Yeah. So I guess the, the, the thing that was being studied was, are these metaphors just things that we say or are they, do we actually have any sort of literal, physical grounding of these metaphors in our bodies? 

So here’s the experiment. You have the subject come in to the lab and while the subjects being sort of checked in by experimenter, the experimenter says, could you hold this cup for me? And it’s sort of framed as being part of the sort of check in rather than part of the experiment in the cup is either hot coffee, the cup is hot coffee or cold water, let’s say. And then the experiment, the subject reads about someone and they’re asked to describe that person’s personality. And it turned out that if the person had been asked to hold a cup of hot coffee, they used metaphors like she’s very warm, or she’s very cold if they held a glass of cold water. That the actual physical temperature that they had recently experienced influenced the way that they communicated metaphorically. So there was evidence that these metaphors are actually, we actually conceptualize them in terms of physical, bodily states. And this has been replicated a lot of times in different ways.

And so the theory is that all of our abstract concepts really relate back to our bodies and the way our bodies sense temperatures, sense space, sense time. That our thinking is fundamentally rooted in our bodies. So that was, that was a discussion that was a part of the book where I was talking about how it is that humans understand the world and kind of focusing on the question, well computers, they don’t have bodies, right? Could they ever understand the world in the same way we do without a body or does it even matter? Do they need to in order to attain human level intelligence? 

SS: And where are you at now in your thoughts about that? 

MM: I’m kind of coming around to the embodied cognition ideas that we, that we can’t get computers to understand our language or our world without some kind of body that can experience the same things we do. Now that brings up another question. Why would we want them to understand our world in the way we do? Well, I think it’s, it’s an open question of whether they can actually do the things we want them to do, like drive on their own or make decisions about people or, you know, war or any kind of social thing that involves humans. Can we trust them to make those decisions without actually understanding things in the same way we do? And that’s a very big question. And I think it’s an open question. A lot of people in AI say, we don’t have to have, we don’t have to mimic human intelligence. Computers don’t have to have the same kind of intelligence we have, but then there’s the question, how can we trust them? So that’s kind of what that whole section was about.

SS: Well, it also raises a question of what would their intelligence be if it wasn’t grounded in the human intelligence? Of course, that’s the, that’s the bugaboo, right? Oh, AI will be this, the, the singularity that takes over the whole world. And you touch on that, you write about that. But is there a way to think about an interactive intelligence? You know the Skype that is commenting on the egg, on my tie that is outside our way of conceptualizing intelligence? 

MM: I don’t know. I think that’s a very good question. You know, we, we certainly have other kinds of intelligences in the world. We have animals that don’t have exactly the same kind of intelligence we have. And perhaps they think in different kinds of metaphors depending on how advanced they are. And we have trouble communicating with them, but we want computers that can communicate with us and can assist us and that can in some sense share our values. So I’m not sure that we want to have computers that have a different kind of intelligence

SS: That’s a wild notion. Computers that share our values. Has anybody been working on that aspect of artificial intelligence?

MM: There’s a lot of talk about it. So there’s a lot of talk about imbuing computers with morality, the kind of moral value systems that we humans care about. And how one could do that. There’s several, actually several books that are just coming out on that very topic. And there’s even research centers that look at that kind of question. But it’s very hard because in order to have moral values, you really need to have concepts. You need to understand something about the world. And that’s exactly what computers aren’t able to do yet. So I think it all goes together. You know, intelligence, morality, having values, it’s hard to imagine separating them out.

SS: Well, and you know, you talk about in the book you talk about the famous one that has come off of propagated the fundamental rules of robotics or robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders conflict with the first law. And then a robot must protect its own existence as long as the protection does not conflict with the first or second law. And you talk about how Asimov was a visionary. But you mentioned that he postulated a story where a robot got stuck because it couldn’t make a decision between those. But between those laws, it was very much in a feedback loop, not able to be, I guess, intelligent.

MM: Right. I think his purpose in stating those laws was really to show it’s in some sense, ironically, that any fixed law is going to lead to a behavior, you know, a suboptimal behavior. You have to be flexible about it. You know, computers are too literal. And the robot in those stories was trying to literally apply the law without having any flexibility. And it couldn’t, it got stuck in a loop. So that really was the point. And that the problem is that, and people have seen this throughout the history of AI. It’s impossible to write down rules for behavior, because behavior just doesn’t fit into a set of fixed rules. We can’t engineer knowledge into computers because knowledge doesn’t fit into a set of fixed logical rules. And that’s why AI has had so much trouble over the years and people have turned to this, you know, learning from big data rather than trying to program rules into computers. But each approach kind of has its own limitations.

SS: All right, so let’s look at that. I mean, this book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans is an assessment of where we are now with AI. So let’s pick a few things. Where are we now? And all right, let’s go back to Google translate. Is Google translate a sophisticated AI?

MM: I would say it’s a very sophisticated program. It works very well, a lot of the time. It can have pretty spectacular failures, which I think if anyone’s tried to use it to translate anything beyond sort of relatively simple texts, they can see that. And it’s interesting because it’s able to do these, these translations sometimes very well without really understanding anything about the text that it’s processing. And that’s this kind of the state of AI in general that we have these systems that can do very well in many domains, except they occasionally fail. And the reason they fail is because they really don’t understand the data that they’re processing. No context. The context, the sort of the models of the world that we humans have, these systems don’t have. Some people like to call it common sense, you know, they are missing common sense, which really means that they don’t have the knowledge about the world and the ability to apply that knowledge in new kinds of situations.

SS: Well, who has been successful in even limited ways in bringing common sense to AI?

MM: That’s a good question. Really no one.

SS: They’ve tried though right, there are people who were trying, right? 

MM: This is a bit, you know, this goes back to the beginning of the field itself. Tried to give computers common sense. You know, and there’s been different approaches. One is program at all in, tell computers, every single fact about the world. Well, we can’t do that because there’s just too many facts about the world that we don’t even consciously think of ourselves. So the new approaches, let the systems learn, let them learn from data. But how do we, how do they learn? So far this kind of learning approach hasn’t resulted in breakthroughs in common sense. And in fact, there’s this new government program to fund AI researchers called Foundations of Common Sense. It’s funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

And the goal of it, it’s kind of a grand challenge. And the goal is to create a program with the common sense of an 18 month old baby and to kind of have it go through all the developmental stages of an 18 month old baby. So to me it’s a really interesting contrast because we have these computers that can beat any human at chess or go, that can drive on their own in many situations that can translate between languages, that can do all these incredible tasks, but it’s still a grand challenge to have a program that has anything like the knowledge or common sense of an 18 month old who really can’t do much at all. Like have all those really fancy kinds of intelligence. And yet that’s sort of the horizon that everyone’s looking at now and saying that’s our goal. And it comes back to this this famous statement by Marvin Minsky where he said what he’s learned about AI is that easy things are hard, namely the things that are easiest for us, like the things that an 18 month old baby can do are in fact the hardest things for AI.

MM: Talk about IBO and what was the process by which you were able to do an experiment to train one of those little robot dogs to kick a soccer ball, but what the process by which this action, which on the outside, only with little robot dog can walk up to a soccer ball and kick it and then wait for me to kick it back. What was the, what was entailed in that? 

SS: So first I’ll say that I didn’t actually train a real IBO dog. I trained a simulation. And I trained it via a process that’s called reinforcement learning. It kind of mimics early psychology experiments where people used to train like rats to, to running mazes and so on where you give them rewards if they do the right thing. And that’s all you do is you let them take actions. And if they ever do the right thing, you give them a reward. But those rewards they can learn from those rewards and they can learn kind of by looking a little bit back in time. So if the dog, the robot dog actually manages to kick the ball, you give it a reward. Now in a computer, of course, it’s not like a real dog that, you know, gets pleasure from getting a dog treat. It’s kind of a simulated reward. But it can then learn that the things that it did to lead up to kicking the ball were actually good too, even though it didn’t get a reward for those. And reinforcement learning allows the system to figure out back in time what it did right to lead up to the part that gave it a reward. This was an extremely simple reinforcement learning system that I used, but a version of it, much more complicated was exactly what was used to train machines to play chess and go better than any human. So it’s a very powerful learning technique.

SS: Is it intelligence? 

MM: As I said, I don’t think you can say yes or no. It has, I would say it has some intelligent behavior but very limited. And one problem is that unlike humans, if something changes about the way I present the problem, like let’s say I give it a, a much bigger ball. It might have problems adapting its knowledge or its intelligent behavior to this new situation, or if there’s some obstacle in front of the ball, it wouldn’t know what to do. And similarly, you know, these systems that play chess or go better than any human, they’re incredibly intelligent at that task. But if you change the task a little bit, like you changed the shape of the go board or you you do something like that, it’s unable to adapt. So I think a big part of intelligence is that ability to adapt your knowledge to new kinds of situations, to changes in your environment. And that’s something that AI really struggles with.

SS: So in your book, you talk about a series of puzzles that are Russian researcher had done, I’m trying to find that you probably know more than me. Is that we’re, where different shapes and sizes are trying to be compared. Is that, is that sort of what you’re working on then?

MM: It’s related to what I’m working on. Yeah. So that, those are a set of visual puzzles where you’re, you’re asked to see abstract similarities. They’re very difficult, not for machines in particular, but also for people. Some of them are quite difficult. They’re kind of like an IQ test in a way. But what makes them most difficult for machines is that there’s very few examples. You have to sort of abstract from very few examples. And right now what computers are best at is when they have millions of examples. And that’s something they’re quite different from humans. Humans don’t need that many examples to learn something or to abstract the concept. So I’m interested in how we can do that kind of abstraction as people do with very few examples.

SS: How do you feel about it? I mean, I know you like doing it and it’s fun. How do you feel about, in terms of what you’ve been talking about and you know, in terms of the evolution of AI?

MM: I’m excited about it. I think it’s a very hard problem. And I don’t think we have all the ideas yet that are needed to get it to work. But it’s always exciting to work on open problems that don’t have solutions yet. And that’s one of the reasons I like AI is it’s all the problems are still open.

SS: I love, I hope you don’t mind. I love the last paragraph of your book. “The impacts of AI will continue to grow for all of us. I hope that this book has helped you as a thinking human to get a sense of the current state of this burgeoning discipline, including its many unsolved problems, potential risks and benefits of technologies, and the scientific and philosophical questions it raises for understanding our own human intelligence. And if any computers are reading this, tell me what ‘it’ refers to in the previous sentence, and you’re welcome to join in the discussion.” I mean that’s very much, it’s encapsulates everything you’re talking about. It’s, it’s the understanding of self in its relation to the world that we are still waiting to see emerge from the machines we’re building.

MM: That’s exactly right. Yeah.

SS: And I guess we’re still waiting, but in the meantime we have these, these dumb machines that are sort of taking over various aspects of our world. 

MM: It’s not necessarily all bad. We all rely on them and they can do a lot of useful things, but I guess we should really think hard before we turn over all of our decision making to these machines.

SS: Alright, professor, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. 

MM: Thanks. I enjoyed it very much. 

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JP: Get yourself a signed copy of Melanie’s book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans and be part of the conversation next Wednesday, October 16th at Town Hall Seattle. The program starts at 7:30 PM but you can come early and hang out in our downstairs library or Otto bar and be part of our Town Hall community.

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