An End-Of-Season Message from Wier

Looking back, I don’t think anyone will remember Town Hall’s 2019-20 as easy, but it certainly started and ended in celebration. This eventful year featured our first (almost!) full season back in our beautifully renovated building, and a return to our nomadic, Inside/Out years with an (almost!) fully virtual program. I reflected a bit on the highlights of the year in the video below, and I hope you’ll take a look.

I’m in the building once-twice a week, and every time I experience a deep feeling of loss. I wonder when we’ll have a full audience in the Great Hall again; when the building will hum with the energy of multiple events, when we’ll gather for another party in the Reading Room or a pre/post-show drink in the Otto. We don’t know when it will be, but we’re already planning for the time that we can welcome you back, and envisioning how it might work. Here’s our commitment to you for the next season:

  • continued presentation of digitally-produced events
  • livestreaming events that happen once we’re back in the building, in addition to small live audiences when its permitted
  • sustaining our $5 ticket model

Since early March, we’ve offered our digitally-produced events completely free with an option to support us with a donation. Everything you’ve heard about the struggles of non-profits right now is true; and like other organizations, we’re facing decreased revenue and deep impact on our financial stability. Next year’s budget is 65% of our 19-20; to address this shortfall, we’re introducing a $5 charge for our digital events. Though we will continue to offer free tickets to anyone 22 & Under, reintroducing ticket income will allow us to continue to produce at our fullest capability.

Our programming will be dark—and our administrative offices will be closed—from July 3 – July 26. If there is a time-sensitive need while our office is closed, please send us an email at help@townhallseattle.org. We’ll be back in the office on Monday, July 27 returning phone calls and emails. Before we go away for July, be sure to join us for Pramila Jayapal sharing stories of her political and personal history with Naomi Ishisaka on Wednesday, July 1 and a special live episode of Life on The Margins, featuring Ijeoma Oluo, on July 2. We’ll pick up the thread again with a cool program with the Institute for Systems Biology on July 30.

And so here we are—celebrating the start of a new chapter with a new building, and celebrating the start of a new chapter with a new online stage. Wherever we find each other in the year to come, thank you for being essential to Town Hall’s commitment to the truth; to civil discourse; and to strengthening our community, through shared experiences of ideas and arts, at a time when we surely need it.

With gratitude,

Wier Harman
Executive Director

Town Hall Seattle Statement on the Deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd

Whether seen as individual lives tragically taken, or the latest examples of our nation’s 400 year history of systematic disregard for Black Americans, the heartbreaking deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd over just ten weeks have left our nation—and this community—convulsed with grief. As sad and shocking as these stories are we know that they are just the reported examples of an incomprehensible structural crisis, at once too big and too painful to comprehend.

As individuals and as an institution, Town Hall Seattle shares the pain felt by so many. We are in solidarity with our Black and Brown colleagues and community members in the fight for justice against police brutality and the institutionalized racism that enables it.

Town Hall is committed to becoming an anti-racist organization. We have made specific commitments around our present and future operations, with the goal of modeling the society we want to live in. We have a very long way to go toward this goal; more information about that process and our commitments is here.

Who Was The Joyce Girl? A Conversation with Annabel Abbs

Author Annabel Abbs writes powerful stories that capture the lives and struggles of remarkable women. Her first novel, The Joyce Girl, tells the fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce, forgotten daughter of author James Joyce. Abbs gives voice to Lucia and enables her to tell her own story—a fascinating, heartbreaking tale of thwarted ambition, passionate creativity, and the power of love to inspire and destroy.

Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall discussion of The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020. To preface the conversation, she spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about the life of Lucia, what it means to be a self-taught writer, and the amazing but overlooked artists who Abbs finds inspiring.

AE: Can you tell us a bit about The Joyce Girl?

AA: It’s a fictional re-working of a critical period in the life of the only daughter of James Joyce (the Irish author of the great modernist novel, Ulysses), Lucia Joyce. The novel is deeply researched, but all of Lucia’s letters, medical notes, diaries were destroyed, so there was very little of her left. During this period—1928 to 1934—she lived with her family in Paris where she was training to be a dancer. She was supposed to be a very good dancer and had performed in dance tours in Italy and Belgium as well as at various theatres in Paris. But during this time she stopped dancing, and I wanted to understand why she had given up something she loved. At the same time her father was grappling with his final book, Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years to write. Lucia was also believed to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett at this time, and then with Alexander Calder, who became her drawing teacher when she gave up dance. Later on, she told other people she had been engaged to each of them.

AE: How much of the story is biographical and how much is fiction? Why did you choose a mixture of the two, rather than fully in a biography format?

AA: Lucia is already the subject of a biography written by a Joyce scholar, and although I relied heavily on it, the book is constrained by the absence of material in Lucia’s voice. No new material has come to light, so I felt wary about writing a second biography. I felt her story lent itself to a fictional re-telling where I could slip beneath her skin and imagine her experience—at the centre of an oddly dysfunctional exiled family but in the wild excitement of Paris at its creative apotheosis. All the characters are based on real people and all the main events of the novel actually took place, so the biographical facts acted as my scaffolding leaving me free to imagine Lucia’s thoughts, feelings and responses.

AE: What was it like to write the characters of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Carl Jung? How did that experience compare to writing Lucia, particularly as a figure whose personal character is likely less well-known but is more central to this story?

AA: Lucia was the hardest character to write. Not only had her own letters and diaries been destroyed but so had hundreds of letters that mentioned her or discussed her predicament. I felt as though I was looking for her through an endless telescope. I had quite a few photographs and one snippet of autobiography that I used to look at in a London archive, but it was hard to fathom her from so little. Joyce, Beckett and Jung have tens of biographies between them, as well as collected letters, interviews, voice recordings and numerous scholarly works. I read four biographies of Beckett, and hundreds of his letters, as well as attending an entire season of his plays, going to something every day for a month. I had a much clearer sense of their characters, their foibles, their likes and dislikes.

Lucia came to me in that strange liminal time between wake and sleep. It sounds weird, but in those few minutes I found a version of her—my version.

AE: Many would consider James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to be household names—yet not Lucia Joyce. Why do we have so few details about her life? What initially drew you to tell Lucia’s story—and what draws you to continue that discussion today?

AA: Yes, Joyce and Beckett are household names, as is Carl Jung—who she was sent to in 1934 as she became more and more fragile. This juxtaposition made me uncomfortable—the way the men in her life had become legendary figures while she had been erased from history, barely a footnote in most scholarly works on Joyce. There was considerable evidence that Joyce had been hugely influenced by Lucia, and inspired by her dancing. References to it appear throughout Finnegans Wake. I felt this needed acknowledging. I was indignant at the attempts to wipe out all trace of her. But the stigma of mental illness was very strong then. Lucia’s story is really about what happens when you live in the shadow of another person, what happens when your own creativity is thwarted, and the dark underbelly of jazz-age Paris. There was an entire community of extraordinary dancers (mostly women) in Paris at the time, most of whom have been forgotten. We still think of 1920s Paris as being very much the playground of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Picasso. But there were just as many women trying to live in a new, more emancipated way. I’d like to see them all resurrected.

AE: How does your own work as a dancer compare with Lucia’s point of view? When researching Lucia’s life, did you find that you and she had any similar experiences from working in that field?

AA: I’d done some dance before but not the freeform modern dance that Lucia trained in. So I tracked down someone who had trained with the same woman as Lucia. She was nearly 90 and she introduced me to a group of dancers (most of them very elderly!) and a teacher who taught me to dance the same method. It’s called the Margaret Morris Method (Margaret Morris was the name of the woman who devised this style of dance) and it’s still going in some parts of the world. It’s a very expressive form of movement, with lots of improvisation. I loved it, and it gave me an immediate understanding of how Lucia must have felt when she danced. It’s nothing like ballet. It’s very free, very creative. It was Lucia’s voice, I realized. She spoke through her body while her father spoke through words.

AE: You mentioned that Lucia served as her father’s muse for Finnegans Wake. Can you elaborate on this, based on your research about their lives and relationship? 

AA: Joyce attended all Lucia’s performances and there are accounts of her dancing in his study while he wrote. Finnegans Wake is full of references to dance and when she was initially hospitalized he visited her every Sunday and they danced together. Later, Lucia said that all the bits in Finnegans Wake about dance, love and madness were about her. Dance seemed to be how they communicated when words failed them, it seemed to be a bond between them. What struck me was how they were both breaking boundaries. He was writing a book about the ‘dark night of the soul’ using language as it had never been used before (or since) and she was dancing using movement as it had never been seen before. Her dance was as radical as his writing.

AE: What do you think of the concept of “the muse” in general—as a typically feminine figure that’s been woven into our concept of authorship in classical and contemporary literature? Do you see the archetype as empowering? Damaging?

AA: The notion of the muse (usually female, often supine) seems quaintly old-fashioned now, thank goodness! It’s a notion that requires a person to be both subject and object, making it inherently problematic. I find it hard to see the traditional muse as anything other than passive and possessed. On the other hand, in the past being a ‘muse’ offered women the chance to do something a little more interesting than they might otherwise have done and to have exposure to a circle of artists and writers. So I’m reluctant to write them off. All too often they were aspiring artists themselves. They frequently had an enormous impact on the works they inspired, but received no credit for this. This is what bothers me—how little agency they seem to have had and how little credit they received.

Does anyone call themselves a muse now?

AE: You’ve famously decided against formal writing courses and MA programs, instead building your own curriculum and structure. How long did it take you to figure out what worked for you? How do you keep yourself motivated?

AA: I had too many family commitments to do a course, although I would dearly have loved the support network that comes with doing a Creative Writing Masters! Instead I bought some books and devised some creative writing exercises that I did whenever I was stuck. And I read like crazy, copying out lines and paragraphs and then dismantling them so I could better understand the author’s craft. I also edited and rewrote, over and over. I was kept motivated by my rage at how Lucia had been treated. Whenever I stalled (which was often), I took out a photograph of Lucia in the mental hospital where she died, and was re-fuelled with anger. Then I got back to work.

I think you need to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos, uncertainty and isolation if you take this route. COVID-19 lockdown is a good dry run!

AE: Who are some female writers and artists from history who inspire you, but who have been overlooked or overshadowed in their time? Who are the female artists and authors who inspire you today?

AA: Oh so many…where to start? Overlooked…all the best-selling female poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many women wrote and published hugely popular poetry, but very little made it into the cannon. It frequently lacks the muscular style of their male counterparts but why do we rate muscular more highly than emotional? Letitia Landon is my current favourite—she wrote under the initials L.E.L and died tragically at the age of 36. I’ve also been researching and writing about a painter called Gwen John who also worked in 1920s Paris but was completely overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John.

Finally, I’ve spent much of lockdown looking at the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe—all that open space has helped keep me sane in my London house—and reading Hilary Mantel, one of the best historical novelists writing today (in my view!).


Annabel Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall conversation about her book The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020.

 

Shouting From The Margins

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many historically marginalized groups are finding themselves facing prejudice, animosity, and rejection by a system already stacked against them. But South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green is stepping forward as proof that if you speak loudly enough, your voice can still triumph, even from the margins. 

In a typical Town Hall season, we select Artists or Scholars in Residence and give them the literal keys to the building so they can engage with our programs and develop original events for the community. This year, in consideration of the current global crisis, we’re altering our Residency platform to present a podcast residency.

In partnership with South Seattle Emerald, Town Hall presents Life on the Margins. Co-hosts Marcus Harrison Green, Enrique Cerna, and Jini Palmer share stories not just about marginalized communities, but from within, and alongside them. In each bi-weekly installment of this residency podcast, they engage with the narratives and experiences of our city, sharing them more widely with the Town Hall community.


Alexander Eby: Back in 2017 you served as Town Hall’s Scholar In Residence. What’s got you excited to be working with Town Hall again?

Marcus Harrison Green: It’s great, to be honest with you I feel almost as if I never left. Town Hall is such a central hub of the city when it comes to civic engagement, when it comes to featuring  public intellectuals, provisions of space for communities to come to and gather together and feel as if they are a part of the fabric of the city. Even after I left as the Scholar In Residence I would still go and participate in talks, I would go to and attend talks that were very insightful life affirming and challenging. And, well I’m not a really religious person, but I imagine it’s like the feeling of having worked at a church for a while as a youth minister or what have you, and then shifting to becoming a congregant. So even though I wasn’t necessarily there in an official capacity anymore, I was certainly there in intellectual or an emotional one. So it’s almost as if I never left.

I think the Beach Boys said something like this once, trying to create an experience where people can go from it, but can never leave it. And that’s really what Town Hall is to me. Even though I’ve gone from the physical space, it stays with you. It makes an indelible imprint upon you.

AE: Can you tell me a bit about Life On The Margins? What inspired this project?

MHG: I think for us—myself and my co-hosts Enrique Cerna and Jini Palmer—I think like anyone, we’re all consumers of media, whether that’s broadcast or printed or digital. For us, this podcast came about because we were seeing a need that wasn’t met, and conversations that weren’t being had with any regularity on a lot of mainstream platforms. We really wanted to hone in on what’s been going on with marginalized communities, on their stories. Our city and county, certainly before the coronavirus, have been seeing this shift and reconfiguration. And even now I think it’s more important when you have this pandemic that we’re all experiencing, and the potential for certain communities, especially communities of color, to be disproportionately hurt. 

I know that the early local numbers don’t quite match to what’s been going on nationally—I think in Louisiana, 70% of the deaths that have been recorded are African-America, and there’s been a huge surge of COVID cases in the Latino community. If these numbers are any indication, it’ll be communities of color who will be hurt the most. And I think that even though we are empathizing with and featuring the stories of communities of color,  this is still something that affects people who are within our community, within the fabric of Seattle and King County. These are stories that affect us all, so we’re just trying to bring some light where darkness once was.

AE: With the quarantine directly affecting everyone’s lives right now, the first episode of Life On The Margins is very much reflective of this moment in time. What kind of direction do you hope to take the show in future episodes? 

MHG: We definitely want to make this a longer-running podcast series, and this is just season 1. We felt that, given the current state of the world, that would certainly be a good topic to explore in this 6-episode run. So that will be the thrust of it for the first few episodes, but obviously life is large, so we want to try to highlight other things that are going on. And we’re definitely acknowledging that people are experiencing some COVID fatigue, shall we say, and many folks want to take their minds off of what’s going on around them. 

AE: I’m curious about your thoughts on this—the idea of self-isolation and quarantine as a sort of blueprint for collective action. Once the quarantines are lifted, how can we use this shared experience to motivate ourselves and others to show up for other causes and make change in other parts of society?

MHG: We keep hearing this mantra repeatedly right now, “we’re all in this together.” One of the things this time of quarantine has given us is to be somewhat introspective and contemplative. I think that’s allowed people to interrogate and examine what that actually means, for all of us to be in this together. What does that look like in practice? Lots of people are scanning fundraising pages for different organizations and thinking about their $1200 stimulus check, thinking maybe they don’t necessarily need all of it. I know this is all indefinite, but I think when all of this is over it will have shown us that if we can come together in the worst of times, why can’t we in the best of times? 

I think we’re going to see an awakening, an acknowledgement of other people’s humanity and empathy. I people on my daily walk, people who used to hurry to pass you by—now their cadence is slower and more deliberate, and they actually wave and say hi. This is a period where we can use this time to look within ourselves and learn to extend our locus of concern to other people.

AE: What’s on your quarantine reading list? 

MHG: Right now it’s a lot of the Stoics. I’m in the middle of reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It poses a question a question to me that’s applicable not just to this time period but to life in general, which challenges me to wake up every morning and face this strangeness and uncertainty and ask myself “how do I want to be remembered in this time, and how do I want to remember myself in this time?” Was I a better friend, a better son, a better roommate? Did I cultivate resilience? Was I kind, was I generous? Was I somebody who I was proud to be? And I think anything that can challenge you day by day to be a person who’s better because they’ve endured the worst. I know it’s a 3000-year-old text, but that still resonated with me.

I’ve also been reading How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi, Nickel And Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Then there’s Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, and I’m about to start Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown—I’m trying to knock out about one a week. 

AE: Who do you have lined up for future guests on the show?

MHG: We’re definitely trying to get a range of people, to strike a balance between the sort of well-known figures and everyday people, if you will. We’ll certainly have a mixture. At the end of the day, what we sought out with our guests was people who had an interesting story, or an interesting take or stance to share with our listenership. We do have Luis Rodriguez coming up actually on the next episode. He and his wife Leona are very prominent because of their famed and venerable coffee shop called The Station coffee house, which is continuing to help serve people in need and bring people together.

AE: What’s one message you want to send to listeners of Life On The Margins, and to Seattle in general? 

MHG: I would say that we have an opportunity here to really sit still and really examine life as it is, and ask if we want it to continue to be this way. I think it’s time to really focus on what matters, and to maybe rethink things. We’re always in this frenzy of life, we barely have time to think because we always have to move on to the next thing and the next thing after that. And now we have the time to not take things for granted—just saying hello in a coffee shop, sending a message to a loved one expressing that you care. This is the kind of time where we can value life more than we have done and cherish it more than we have done. How do we want to show up in this world today, how do I want to be present, what do I want to take away? That’s something we can do now, and I hope it’s something we can bring forward into the future.

Listen to Marcus Harrison Green, in conversation with Jini Palmer and Enrique Cerna plus special guests, every two weeks with new episodes of Life On The Margins

Emerging Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Yonck

Humans occupy a unique place in nature. Our evolution has been interdependent on pattern recognition and the development of technology unlike any other animal on the planet. We often consider our primary evolutionary advantage to be our intelligence—yet we are still limited in our ability to define what “intelligence” actually means. 

Futurist Richard Yonck speaks to audiences and writes about artificial intelligence and other emerging trends and technologies. Yonck sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss how we define intelligence today, and introduce us to technologies and ideas that are redefining our understanding of intelligence both in and beyond ourselves.

AE: Your new book, Future Minds, is about the many ways our world is becoming more and differently intelligent. Can you expand on that?

RY: Absolutely. Future Minds takes a very broad view of the purpose of intelligence in the universe in order to better understand the ways it is likely to develop here on Earth over the next century and beyond. Using what’s known as a Big History framework that spans the life of the cosmos, it explores the possible fundamental drivers behind the development of complexity, life and intelligence. From there, it dives into the work and research into intelligence-related technologies that are rapidly transforming our world today. From advanced AI to brain-computer interfaces to biotechnological augmentation and more, it looks at the possible paths that lie ahead for humankind.

AE: Broadly speaking, how do we currently define “intelligence”? Do you agree with that definition—and if not, how should we be defining intelligence?

RY: There is no single unifying definition of intelligence. In fact, based on the literature, there are literally hundreds of such definitions. This is in part because it’s one of those words that AI pioneer Marvin Minsky used to call a “suitcase word.” Not rigorously defined, it carries many different meanings and associations which contributes to lots of challenges when talking about it. In the opening of the book, I explore a range of these in order to try to get to the kernel, the core meaning for the purpose of this discussion. This isn’t to say it’s the only way to define intelligence. I’m just trying to establish a starting point.

In writing Future Minds, I wanted to understand why intelligence exists at all in this cold, impersonal universe of ours. How do the basic underlying principles of nature drive the incremental ascent of complexity, life and intelligence? Eventually, this came down to a variation of a definition that comes to us via the field of physics: Intelligence is anything that seeks to maximize its own future freedom of action, whether that effort involves cognitive choice or is merely deterministic in nature. In other words, anything that promotes and perpetuates its own existence or that of its descendants, including its ability to act on and influence the environment to its benefit, can be said to be a form of intelligence. Taken as a relative statement, this can apply to different levels of living, and perhaps even nonliving processes, up and down the scale. Single-celled organisms, plants, animals, including humans, and even technology can all fit along a spectrum when viewed in this way.

AE: What are some of the technologies that are causing our world to become differently intelligent?

RY: Certainly, a lot of people would point to artificial intelligence and deep learning as examples, though many in and outside the field take issue with calling these systems intelligent. But we tend to forget just how young this field and its advances are. The 75 years of AI is barely one human lifetime and we’ve been wielding technology for some 150,000 generations. Beyond that, our species has existed for an eyeblink of time relative to all life on this planet. So far as I’m concerned, these technologies are only barely getting started.

Beyond this, we have augmentation technologies like brain-computer interfaces, otherwise known as BCIs. Designed to allow us to connect to and operate devices using our thoughts, many people think of these as belonging to the world of science fiction, but BCIs have already come so far. They’ve been used to send messages on Twitter, to operate wheelchairs, to type on virtual keyboards, and even to play video games. While much of the early research and its applications have focused on restoring lost functions for the physically and cognitively impaired, in time, uses of this technology will extend to much more elective and discretionary purposes. 

We are probably only a few decades from BCIs being very commonplace in society. This will continue a long-term trend that has allowed us to access and interact with our technologies by ever more natural and immediate means. The most recent and evident form of this has been the progression of computer user interfaces. Eight decades ago, computers were programmed by physically rewiring them. This was followed by punch cards and punch tape, then using keyboards to type on a command line, followed by the graphic user interfaces of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, our devices are increasingly operated using natural user interfaces including touch, voice, and gesture. Each step of the way, these interfaces have allowed us to interact in more natural ways with our devices, until today, even a young child can easily make use of the amazing processing power of a smartphone. BCIs and other interface technologies will only continue this trend, eventually giving each of us the ability to access immense informational and processing resources using only our thoughts.

Numerous other fields are contributing to a world in which we and our technologies will become increasingly and differently intelligent. Biotechnological neural augmentation, neuro-enhancing drugs and various forms of directed brain stimulation are all taking us in this direction. In the end, we shouldn’t be surprised to see each playing a role according to different needs and circumstances.

AE: Your books and other writing look at many different aspects of the future. What does it mean to be a futurist? 

RY: Again, here’s another word that’s often not well-defined. There are plenty of people who attach the word “futurist” to their resume because they think it makes them sound forward-thinking, but a futurist’s work is much more specific than that. It’s a field made up of people who actively study the future in structured ways, applying rigorous methodologies to try to anticipate and prepare for different potential futures. Many of these people receive formal education in master’s and doctoral foresight programs, while others have transitioned from different fields, many of which often have a strong analytic component. In my case, that’s computer science. Still others are trained and mentored within large corporate environments, such as Intel, Microsoft, and Ford Motor Company.

Though human beings have always had the ability to anticipate what lies ahead, the field really got its formal start following World War II, during the Cold War era. There was a need to better understand weapons development feasibility and timelines, which led to the early think tanks, such as the Rand Corporation. Over time, the need for futurist thinking and foresight extended to and became essential to other parts of government as well as to corporations and other organizations. Today, most major companies utilize in-house and consulting futurists, though these forecasters and analysts often go under many different titles.

AE: What technologies or ideas are helping us understand intelligence today?

RY: It might be easier to say what fields are not involved. The study of intelligence in its many forms draws from so many different branches of science. Scanning technologies, artificial intelligence, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, and developmental psychology are but a few of the fields that play a role in our developing understanding of the brain’s structure, function and language. Some of this knowledge is being used in the course of trying to model and emulate the brain through technologies like neuromorphic computing, while other areas have inspired neural networks and developmental learning models that are being applied to deep learning.

AE: How likely do you think it is that the refinement of technologies like brain-computer interfaces or deep learning neural networks will result in a new form of intelligence? 

RY: That really depends on the time frame being discussed. If you’re talking about five or even ten years, then I don’t feel it’s very likely. But if you’re asking about 50 or 100 years from now, then it’s much closer to being an inevitability.

I’d also suggest that developments in intelligence will probably remain incremental. In the past, new technologies like written language and literacy, mass communication, the Internet, and smartphones have taken time to develop and be adopted. Each of these has changed what we know, as well as how and when we can know it. Not only has this augmented our intelligence and access to knowledge, but it’s contributed to the rewiring of our neuroplastic brains in order to make better use of these technologies. While many aspects of technological adoption are speeding up, it still takes time to make that happen.

As far as computers, neural networks, deep learning, and the like, these are all becoming more capable, but it’s a mistake to think of them specifically in terms of human intelligence. Besides, we already have plenty of human intelligence all around us. The value of artificial intelligence is the many ways in which it differs from our own thinking so that we can leverage it to our advantage. This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t draw on our understanding of the human brain as an inspiration for AI. But biology and technology are such radically different starting points, it would be a mistake to assume we’ll ever develop a machine that can think exactly like a person. At least not for a long time. This isn’t to say AI won’t eventually be able to emulate human thought and behavior quite well. It almost inevitably will and that raises many of its own issues and concerns. But AI will achieve this through fundamentally different means than the human brain does. Which in part is what I mean about our world becoming “differently intelligent”.

AE: If humanity is going to leave Earth one day, we may need to be prepared to encounter intelligences beyond our planet. How can we bridge the gap when approaching intelligences that may be very different from our own? 

RY: That’s a really big question and there are several different elements to address. First, it’s not a question of if, but when we leave Earth. From a purely statistical standpoint we have to expand beyond this one planet if we are to survive as a species in the long run. As the famous physicist Stephen Hawking said, “if we want to continue beyond the next 100 years, our future is in space.”

While my book attempts to expand what we identify as intelligence, in part to better recognize it when we do encounter it, both here on Earth and elsewhere, I’m not optimistic that we will meet anything nearly so advanced as ourselves beyond this planet for a very long time. Of course, I could be pleasantly surprised, but I think it may be many millennia before we find ourselves directly interacting with an extraterrestrial species, if in fact any exist within our tiny region of the universe.

AE: We share a world with many animals we often consider to be intelligent (chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, ravens, octopuses, etc.) How do we apply contemporary discussions of intelligence to these creatures? Could studying these animals prepare us for interactions with artificial or alien intelligences?

RY: There’s a ton of terrific research being done on all sorts of animal intelligence. Many of us tend to think of human intelligence as superior to most, if not all of these, but in fact we’re all just differently intelligent. After all, intelligence is much more than just the neural processes that take place in our brains, which even in us humans we’re only aware of a tiny percentage of. It’s also our metabolism, our emotions, our cells, our genetics and much more. Whether we’re talking about an ant, a bat, or a whale, that creature’s intelligence has evolved specifically so it can successfully occupy a particular ecological niche. Human beings evolved to fill what’s been referred to as a cognitive niche which has worked out very well for us. But we’re extremely poorly evolved for many of those other niches, so from those perspectives, we’re really not all that intelligent at all.

AE: What steps could we take as a society to live in an era alongside an emerging intelligence we can’t easily comprehend? How can we foster that comprehension?

RY: The question implies or assumes that the emerging intelligence is separate from ourselves, which is only one scenario. Certainly, if AI ever reaches a certain level or threshold, there are many ways we’ll have to adjust, but it very likely won’t be in the sort of adversarial terms we’ve come to know from the fictions of The Terminator or The Matrix. As I discuss in my book, the biggest issues are probably around what are known as value alignment problems. It could even be argued that we’re already starting to see this. Since people begin from such different origins than whatever technological intelligence may eventually be developed, what is important to us isn’t likely to align with what is important to that advanced AI. As a result, we wouldn’t need to be in direct conflict with the AI in order to experience it as a threat. In fact, the AI wouldn’t even need to be conscious or have what we would recognize as self-awareness. Simply the inability to care about us or it seeing us as an obstacle to what’s known as its “utility function” would be sufficient to get us in a great deal of trouble that could ultimately result in our extinction. While that’s an extreme extrapolation of existing trends, we’d be wise to consider the possibility and seriously explore how best to avoid such an outcome.

But that’s only one possibility. What if we ourselves are the emerging intelligences, given the potential for augmenting our own minds? After all, we are by far the most advanced and adaptable intelligence we know of, so that’s a pretty significant jumping off point to start from. What challenges would this present for different forms of inequality between populations, for how we interact as a society, for maintaining the many features we value in our humanity? As we continue to enhance human intelligence, we’ll have a lot of different things to consider and plan for.

Yet another emerging intelligence we need to think about is our global civilization itself. By many measures, this may be the true emergent intelligence we need to pay attention to. Just as individual cells don’t comprehend the larger body they’re part of, it’s challenging for us to fully appreciate society as its own form of evolving independent intelligence. To be sure, these are still early days and human civilization is still developing. But I wonder how things will appear in a few thousand years, taken from a different, less anthropocentric perspective?

AE: What is your favorite product of human intelligence? Which advancement in the modern era do you appreciate most?

RY: My favorite product of human intelligence would certainly have to be language. Spoken language has only been around for a few hundred thousand years—and the written word, a bare fraction of that. With the development of language, it became possible to assemble and manipulate concepts, to exchange and build ideas, to communicate knowledge between otherwise isolated minds, share our inner worlds, expand our understanding that others have their own subjective worlds, all as deep and rich as our own. In the absence of true language, none of this would really exist.

As for a favorite advancement in the modern era, I’d have to say it’s the scientific method. While there are those who see this as its own type of belief system, it is in many ways the antithesis of that. More than just a single area of knowledge or understanding, the scientific method is itself a technology, a series of processes by which real, objective insights about nearly everything can be acquired and built upon over time. All along the way, the capacity for reevaluation and correction of that information exists, leading to a deeply structured body of knowledge based on objective reality that all of humanity can draw on and benefit from. Nearly every aspect of our world has been enhanced, improved, or made possible by the products of the scientific method and probably more than 99% of all existing technology has resulted from its use over the past four hundred years. Now certainly, we’ve reached a stage when we can say that there are things we will never be able to know and answers we can never attain, but even this insight comes to us courtesy of this profoundly beneficial process. As a result, this will remain one of the key drivers in the continued advancement of intelligence and knowledge for the foreseeable future.


Richard Yonck will be joining us at Town Hall next season on 9/15/2020 to discuss his book Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe. 

 

(Virtually) Here For It

R. Eric Thomas tells the kinds of stories we need. They connect us with the American experience writ large—the trends, the headlines, the important conversations—all filtered through his unique and hilarious perspective. Thomas joined us for a livestreamed conversation on 4/16 (watch the full event below) to discuss his new book Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America. But before the broadcast, he spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss writing rituals, staying busy during quarantine, and ways to find humor in absurdity.

AE: News and pop culture happen so fast these days, you have so much to keep track of when writing for your column at ELLE.com. How do you decide which topics make it into your articles? What about on a personal level—how do you choose what to consume when there’s so much out there?

ET: I try to be really judicious with my news diet personally because, like you said, there’s a lot out there and most of it is not great. So typically, I track what’s happening online all-day for work and then purposefully try to separate from the news stream in the evening. Like everyone else I’m addicted to social media, so I’m not able to distance myself completely. But after work I’m much more likely to be tweeting about food or YouTube videos of Broadway stars than I am about a press conference or stimulus package. Then, before bed I find the most distressing article I can and I read that and then go to bed. I don’t mean to but it always ends up that way so I’m just claiming it as a practice.

AE: Your job must require you to basically live on social media. It must be exhausting to be exposed to fraught news stories and the Latest Terrible Thing every day! How do you find the humor in current events? What drives you to keep coming back? 

ET: I look for the absurdity, of which there is plenty. I look for the things that make me excited, of which there is also quite a lot. It’s ultimately more enjoyable to write humorously about things that make us happy rather than things that make us angry or sad. So, I take the little things and blow them up, focusing on little strange details or asides that still capture the spirit of the news.

AE: If you had to pick one of the essays and stories from your book to tell people in order to give them a sense of what the book is about, which would you choose? 

ET: All of the essays are different in terms of approach and subject, but I think the essay “There’s Never Any Trouble Here in Bubbleland” is a fun grab bag of all the ingredients I worked with in this book: humor and heart, applying ideas about identity and belonging to one’s lived experience, and pop culture references.

AE: Every writer’s process is different, and most tend to look a little strange from the outside. What’s one of your strangest routines or rituals to get yourself in the headspace for writing?

ET: My new thing lately is dusting my baseboards. This is sort of a quarantine habit, actually. I used to go buy a baked good when I was trying to get in a writing headspace—I will go to the ends of the earth for a blueberry muffin. But with that off the table for now, I have to resort to things I can do within my house. My baseboards are shining like the top of the Chrysler Building right now.

AE: What are your go-to strategies for chasing off boredom while in isolation? What’s the weirdest trend you’ve heard about (or participated in) while in quarantine?

ET: I’m actually pretty busy in quarantine, which I’m grateful for. I’ve got my day job and other events and projects that are keeping me tied up. But I’m really appreciating that the lack of access to a larger physical social life does afford more opportunity to watch TV and movies and read, so I’m doing a lot of that in the evenings. I thought about getting really into skincare, like purchasing a lot of products and emerging from my house absolutely gorgeous when this is over. I did the purchasing part but I haven’t really gotten around to the rest. There’s time though. Whenever this is done, I’m going to be a supermodel.


R. Eric Thomas joined us for a livestream on Thursday, 4/16—and you can watch the entire event below.

Updates: Town Hall and the Coronavirus

March 24, 2020

Friends,

On March 23, Governor Inslee issued a shelter-in-place order for all individuals, with the exception of essential workforce. That description of essential workforce includes allowances for “artists and musicians providing services through streaming,” provided guidelines around safe assembly are also followed. No more than 10 artists and technicians can be present at these events, and social distancing and enhanced hygienic measures must be employed.

That means Town Hall is able to continue to offer its program of livestreams—many in collaboration with partners like Earshot Jazz, CityClub, and Citizen University—for the foreseeable future. If you squint, maybe it’ll feel like we brought Town Hall over to your house, without the squeezing past people to find your seat.

How long is “foreseeable”? Well THAT’s anyone’s guess—but know that we are committed to playing our part in the heavy worldwide lift to blunt the impact of Covid-19, AND doing what we can to support and sustain Town Hall’s close-in community of artists and presenters, organizations and audiences.

It’s a community that has been tended and nourished by trust and good will for nearly 21 years—and coming off the achievement of our capital work together, that bond feels especially strong right now. We work to keep open lines of communication—always and forever—so please let me know if you have any ideas, questions or concerns.

Wier Harman
Executive Director


March 11, 2020

Hello friends,

In light of Governor Inslee’s declaration this morning restricting public gatherings, Town Hall has suspended in-person attendance at programming throughout our building—including our smaller performance spaces unaffected by his announcement—until March 31. The period of closure may ultimately prove to be longer, but for now please check our website for information on the status of individual programs in April and beyond. We will share more general updates as soon as we have them, and feel free to reach out to info@townhallseattle.org with specific questions.

While our building will not be open to the public, we are presently exploring prospects for digital delivery/livestreams of some currently-announced and soon-to-be-announced programs. More information will follow later this week.

If you have purchased tickets to one or more events during this time and would like a refund, please contact us at patronservices@townhallseattle.org. We also hope you will consider supporting Town Hall during this financially challenging time by not requesting a refund and treating the price of the ticket as a contribution.

We at Town Hall are awed by the sense of collective responsibility and sacrifice emerging across our community—the realization that our only chance to bend the curve of infection is through coordinated action.

This time asks for maximum patience and understanding, even as it asks us to make choices we’d thought impossible even days ago. It will not be easy, but let’s try to find a sense of our own power now, by imagining what we can accomplish together.

Wier Harman
Executive Director

__________________________________________________________________________

March 6, 2020

Hello friends,

Town Hall exists to inspire a healthy, sustainable community that supports and cares for one another. Now, as people across our region and around the world grow more concerned about the spread of COVID-19, ideas of “health” and “community” have taken on a more direct meaning.

Our leadership team meets daily to share news and coordinate response regarding the coronavirus, so we are able to adjust our approach based on the most current information available. And so, like other organizations lighting up your inbox today, we want to take a moment to address our approach to the coordinated regional response, and what it means for upcoming programs. Here are some things to know:

–We are taking our advice and direction from Public Health—Seattle & King County, along with other sources. The latest general statement from the agency can be found here: https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/health/news/2020/March/5-slowing-the-impact.aspx

–At this time, we have determined that we will remain open and continue presenting events for the foreseeable future.

However, a look at our calendar will show that a number of programs are being cancelled or postponed at the request of presenters or institutional partners. In these cases, we are working quickly to notify ticket buyers directly about cancellations and to share new dates for postponements. Information about requesting refunds and automatic rescheduling of tickets for postponed events is included in these specific event-by-event communications.

–In light of this, we recommend that you check your email, our website, and/or our social media channels for the latest information about an event you are planning to attend.

–For events which are taking place, know that we are implementing additional disinfection measures across all areas of our building, with special focus on high-traffic areas and objects that are regularly touched (including door knobs, counters/tables, elevator keypads, etc). We are also working to create greater distance between seats, when it is feasible.

–Meanwhile, audience members can take a variety of precautions. First, evaluate whether you should be considered a “person at higher risk,” advised to stay home and away from large groups and gatherings where there will be close contact with others—like Town Hall. People at higher risk include:

    • People 60 and older
    • People with underlying health conditions including heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes
    • People who have weakened immune systems
    • People who are pregnant

For all other attendees:

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Practice excellent personal hygiene habits, including washing your hands with soap and water frequently, coughing into a tissue or your elbow, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Stay away from people who are ill, especially if you are at higher risk for coronavirus.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects within your home (like doorknobs and light switches). Regular household cleaners are effective.
  • Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy foods, and manage your stress to keep your immunity strong

–Know that many Town Hall programs are made available as audio and video recordings. And while we are presently in the middle of transition in our livestreaming capability in the renovated building, we hope to have this resolved soon, and to encourage it as a viable option for staying in touch with our programs in real time.

Finally, we encourage everyone to read these recommendations from the King County Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control for reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection for ourselves and others. 

Stay healthy, and we look forward to seeing you this spring! 

Wier Harman
Executive Director

Getting Animated with Gustafer Yellowgold

A pancake smackdown, gravy bats, a little yellow man from the sun who loves to go on adventures—Morgan Taylor’s creations have been delighting kids and parents alike since 2005. With colorful animations and lively music that The New York Times has called “A cross between ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Dr. Seuss,” Taylor is a fan favorite on Town Hall’s stages. 

Taylor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss the origins of his beloved character Gustafer Yellowgold, sources of musical inspiration, and ideas for having fun while stuck inside.

AE: Can you tell me a bit about Gustafer? What inspired the character?

MT: What eventually became Gustafer started out as a doodle on a Dayton, Ohio record store marker board in the 90’s. I would draw this yellow, pointy-headed cat-faced creature on the new releases board each week. I put him in absurd situations, like frying up a box of turtles and frogs on the stovetop. He existed mostly on bar napkins until years later when I’d moved to New York City and started a children’s book and music project. I had some fictional short story-songs sung in first person, so when I first drew them out, I used the yellow guy. Coincidentally I already had a song called “I’m From The Sun,” and realized—hey, this is this guy’s story! It was a happy accident really. I put the Sun concept with this character and the whole world sprang forth.

AE: Why choose Minnesota as the setting to introduce an alien to Earth?

MT: Kind of in the same way that Stan Lee put Spider-Man/Peter Parker (and all his fictional heroes) in New York. The fantastic superhero premise has a more grounded, tangible quality when it’s in an actual geographic location. (As opposed to Metropolis or Gotham).

I have a list of Minneapolis bands that inspired me growing up, so I guess that had something to do with it. When I first was conceiving the fictional premise I had Gustafer land on Earth and living in a town called Butterburg. Having him in Minnesota is funnier and gets a good reaction.

AE: Why do kids connect so well with your music? What about parents? 

MT: I’ve always seen it as a “nobody excluded” rather than saying it’s specifically for children. Children are easier to entertain. It’s getting the folks to equally enjoy it that I find the most fun. I think the visual has always played a vital role in how the songs are conveyed. There’s a little magic in the silliness/emotionality combination that seems to work on all ages. 

AE: Which came first for you, the music or the animation? What gave you the idea to combine them?

MT: Always music first. Sometimes a concept will inspire the music, but I always have to have the song before I can start to make the visual. Like, I knew I wanted to write a song called “I Jump On Cake” and the general image the title itself conjures, helped me know what the lyrics should be.

AE: Lots of listeners have said they enjoy the mellow energy of your songs. Why choose to keep the pace slow?

MT: I don’t know. It wasn’t on purpose. Maybe growing up listening to so much soft rock has something to do with it. My live shows are 85% uptempo. And when the songs are mellow, they have the funniest visuals. So they don’t have a sleepy slowness. If your love ballad is sung by an eel or a pterodactyl it almost is better that it’s tender musically.

AE: Which of your songs would you recommend for first time listeners? Do you have any favorites?

MT: It never hurts to start from the beginning. “Wide Wild World” from 2007. That one has a scrappy charm and the songs are each unique to each other. I’m proud of it all. My albums are all short. My first few I barely cracked 30 minutes. 

AE: What are some of your favorite bands? How have they influenced your music?

MT: Beatles are kings of songwriting. Bread are the kings of soft rock style. But, my inner 9-year-old still lives in a room plastered with Kiss posters. After pre-teen years with Van Halen, Journey and Pat Benatar, I grew musically with R.E.M., The Replacements, and especially Minneapolis’ Trip Shakespeare.

In the 90’s it was T. Rex and Guided By Voices (my hometown Dayton, OH buds) and my adult Kiss resurgence. After I moved to New York City I finally found my love of Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Nick Drake and all the solo songwriter legends like that. As far as influence, I just strive to have my own voice like they all did. The Kiss thing; I had a chance meeting with Gene Simmons a couple of years ago and told him it was no coincidence that I ended up combining pop-rock and fantasy characters.

AE: Lots of kids and parents are cooped up at home right now—what would you suggest for ways to keep from getting bored indoors?

MT: Go outside and run around in the fresh air. Read. Get into new music. Find fun podcasts. Listen to audiobooks! Don’t spend all your time looking at screens. And most of all—create!

Morgan Taylor makes regular stops at Town Hall as part of our Saturday Family Concerts series. Check out all the catchy Gustafer Yellowgold songs on his YouTube page or listen to his latest audiobook.

 

A Suggestion While in Self Isolation: Read a Book.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” – Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

Don’t leave your house. Stay home. Stay healthy and keep others healthy. Do you need some suggestions for what to do in your home? Buy a book and read it.

Books are a life blood of Town Hall. We bring in authors and speakers from around the corner to around the world to inform, enlighten, and inspire all of us. The recent pandemic has hampered those efforts. There are deep fears in our literary community about how the coronavirus could damage the longevity of some of our most beloved bookstores.

We, at Town Hall, always delight in working with some of the finest bookstores in our city. They could use all of our help right now. Connect with your favorite local bookstore, order a book, read it, and repeat.

Ada’s Technical Books. They’re closed until March 31 at the earliest. They’ve had to lay off employees. You can order books using their online store.

Elliott Bay Book Company. They’re closed until March 31 at the earliest. You can order books online and they are currently offering free shipping.

Phinney Books. As of now, they’re “open,” but for pickup and delivery only. They’ll be in the store for their usual hours, but no browsing will be allowed in the store, and ideally as little customer traffic as possible.

Third Place Books. They’re three locations are still open with reduced hours but are taking it day by day. They are offering free shipping when you order online.

University Bookstore. All locations, with the exception of the Tacoma store (limited hours), are closed until March 30 at the earliest. They are offering free shipping when you order online.

Do what you can to help ensure the vitality of our region. We’re not one of the most literate cities in America for nothing. We appreciate knowledge, and wisdom, and creativity, and the imagination of us all. Find all that, now more than ever, from one of our local bookstores.

(Literally) Food for Thought: A Discussion about Conscious Eating with Sophie Egan

We face ethical choices every day, like when we stand in the grocery store line. Is this food good for me? Is it good for others? Is it good for the planet? Health, nutrition, and sustainability expert Sophie Egan will be at Town Hall on March 19 with insight from her new book How to Be a Conscious Eater. She’ll be in conversation with environmental author and journalist Tim Egan. Tickets are on sale now.

Sophie Egan recently sat down Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss organic foods, the bulk aisle, and how to carry a couple of cucumbers.

JS: What did you eat as a kid? How ingrained are those habits as we become adults?

SE: Pizza. A lot of pizza. My parents told me I was going to turn into a pizza. I was a picky eater and ate what kids eat: chicken nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. These sorts of foods become our comfort foods as we grow older. Top Ramen for me. They are given a special status for life. They’re called foods of privilege because they were given to us in our formative years when we felt safe, secured, and loved.

It’s actually about exposure. Kids can eat all sorts of things. There’s a program called 100 foods before one. Kids can eat spicier things than you may think—can eat different textures, different flavors, all sorts of things.

JS: When did you start questioning what you were eating from an ethical perspective?

SE: My own habits have been informed by my work. For over five years, I served as the Director of Health and Sustainability Leadership and Editorial Director for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America. I couldn’t help but start thinking about what I was eating in that role.

The food systems were much more opaque before. Now they’re much more transparent. That’s a good thing, but the pace of the issues we have to contend with has accelerated, from the plastics used in food production to slave labor used in our shrimp supply. There is a lot to be cognizant of, and with all these issues making decisions on what we eat is becoming more and more complex. My hope is that my book helps inform those decisions.

JS: Organic food: is it worth it?

SE: There are two good starting points. The dirty dozen are the foods that have the highest pesticide residues. The clean fifteen are the foods with the least.

JS: For those with limited financial means, what do you suggest at the grocery store?

SE: Eating in ways that are good for the planet tends to be good for people. Plant-based food is good for the planet and less expensive. Compare a bag of lentils versus a pork chop, for instance. You want whole grains? Buy a tub of oats. Wild salmon? Buy canned or frozen. Organic produce? Buy frozen. The bulk food section is a great place to get good food at the best price. You can get your granola there without the packaging and without the marketing.

JS: What simple tips can you give someone going to a grocery store wanting to be a conscious eater?

SE: Labels are confusing. Flip the package over. The front of the packaging is nothing but marketing. The information you need is on the back.

Evaluate foods based on what’s in it (is it healthy?), what’s on it (be cognizant of stickers and claims), and the package itself (what will happen to this package when you’re done?).

JS: You don’t need a plastic bag for your cucumber.

SE: Use a reusable grocery bag and reusable produce bags.

JS: What should meat eaters consider?

SE: First—less is more. Less red meat is better. The red meat you buy most often comes from factory farms, which is incredibly harmful to the planet in a wide variety of ways. When you buy your meat, make sure it’s not factory farmed; that it’s more humanely raised; that it’s got grassfed certification. It was raised on a pasture and not in a factory. 

JS: Aside from personal changes in eating, what can people do to help the planet food-wise?

SE: Speak up to local governments to incorporate food solutions when it comes to climate change. Food is often left out of climate change discussions when it’s a key facet of it. Raise your voice to institutional purchasing. Look at your kids’ school, your workplace, your healthcare provider. Are they being ethically conscious about their food choices?

Want to digest more about conscious eating? Join us on March 19 as Sophie Egan takes the stage with Tim Egan. Tickets are $5 and FREE for anyone under the age of 22.

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