A Light Conversation with Shannon Perry

There’s more to see at Town Hall aside from the plethora of events that we have taking place (you can check out our calendar here). There is art to see. Town Hall commissioned several artists to create permanent pieces that can be found throughout our building. In the southwest stairwell, for instance, you’ll see artwork on light boxes done by Shannon Perry.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Perry to discuss babies, glass powder, and tattoos.

JS: How did you become aware/get introduced to Town Hall?

SP: I’ve been attending talks, book releases, and concerts at Town Hall for years. The arts and literature community got me acquainted with the space originally. 

JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall with your art?

SP: Town Hall provides space for such a diverse array of talented performers, authors, and artists from all over the world. I’m proud to have my art featured in the space. 

JS: What was the inspiration for your Town Hall artwork?

SP: I was pregnant while working on this project and gave birth shortly after I completed the drawings. It was a massively transitional time for me and my identity was torn between my rebellious pre-motherhood life and wanting to provide a stable, structured environment for my son without losing touch with the theatrical idealism of youth. The recurring vine is representative of life marching ever onward, and the vignettes placed throughout mark moments  of feeling within that timeline viewed from this new and intimidating precipice. More generally, it’s about growth. The piece is a reflection, both on Town Hall’s redevelopment and the experiences I’ve had there—and the different perspectives I’ve had at each event over the years crystalized into a sort of floating timeline.

JS: What was your favorite thing about creating this piece?

SP: I got to work with a great team of people, most specifically Bradley Sweek of Amiga Light, who has been a longtime mentor to me. Seeing my illustrations screen-printed with glass powder and melted into glass felt really special and permanent. I’m a tattoo artist by trade, so I work with permanent art all the time but being able to hold the glass and feel the tangible weight of it was a super gratifying experience.

JS: What was the most challenging thing about this project?

SP: This project helped expand my skill set to making larger pieces of work that are fleshed out over time. Typically I work on pieces I can finish in one or two sittings, due to the constraints of creating art on people’s bodies. I’m excited to see what new projects I will create as a result of finding out how much I enjoyed moving into a larger and more tangible framework!

JS: What do you hope Town Hall attendees get from the piece?

SP: I hope they can create their own stories and experiences with it. Most of all, I hope the humorous aspects of some of the themes will serve as a wink to children, punks, misfits and grandmothers alike.

JS: What’s next, artistically, for you?

SP: I’m working on a series of screen prints of new illustrations, some of which I’d love to eventually see turn into murals, or possibly a children’s book for all ages? I am always excited to see what the future brings, at least pertaining to making art!

What Are People Doing

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Admiral Robert E. Koontz entertained with a dinner aboard the USS Oregon” and, “Patrons of the Orthopedic Tea Shop are notified that an excellent tea will be served every afternoon at five o’clock.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

On the cover of the October 18, 1919 edition of the Town Crier was the distinguished gentleman John Spargur, the conductor of the Seattle Symphony from 1911 to 1921. The newspaper was touting their first show of the 1919 season that was to happen on November 7. On the repertoire was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Gustave Charpentier’s Impressions of Italy.

Today’s Seattle Symphony is now under the direction of Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, their concerts the weekend of November 7 will include the movie music of John Williams.

Town Hall has their own classical music series. Curated by artistic director Joshua Roman, our Town Music season started last month with a stirring cello show.

Upcoming concerts include:

November 25, 2019:
Piano Ki Avaaz, featuring Joshua Roman (cello), David Fung (piano), and Kristin Lee (violin).

January 19, 2020:
Catalyst Quartet, presenting “Hemispheres: South America.”

April 8, 2020:
yMusic, a sextet that reimagines the classical music genre.

May 20, 2020:
Spektral Quartet, that presents a convergence of classical canon and modern composition.

Tickets are $15 per show ($10 for members). Tickets are FREE for anyone 22 and under.

Learn more here.

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.

Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, I’m your host, Jenny 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.
Thank you for talking to me. I appreciate it. Oh well thanks for the opportunity. 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? 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. I know. That’s why I asked. Yeah. So for you know, your, your definition. No, no. Yeah, I would say absolutely not.
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?
Well it would be able to join in our conversation, make some comments about tell Kelly 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
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.
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. Say that
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?
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, w like in physics, the word force, that was just something it’ll define. 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.
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?
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.
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. Absolutely. Yeah. 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 Tamara eons 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 Lang, they had words that 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?
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
Just on a side note or maybe it’s part of it. I teach at the UDaB now and I’m teaching a communications class and many Al 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.
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. Have we seen
The people doing work in AI that are having any breakthroughs by comparing metaphors across different languages?
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.
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 con, 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?
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, yeah, 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 Hofstetter who was my PhD advisor.
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?
That’s a really good question. I, I guess my background kind of primed me to become a computer scientist. I, 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.
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 this test, but, 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?
Yeah, I do.
What, what was, describe the experiment and what was being studied.
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 cock, the cup is hot coffee or cold water, let’s say. And then the experiment, the, 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 you know, she’s very cold.
If they held a glass of cold water, that, that the actual physical temperature that they had recently experienced influenced the way that they communicated metaphorically. So there that 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? And where are you at now in your thoughts about that? 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.
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, the, the Skype that is a commenting on the egg, on my tie that is outside our way of conceptualizing intelligence.
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
That’s a wild notion. Computers that share our values. Has anybody been working on that aspect of artificial intelligence?
There’s a lot of talk about it. So there’s a lot of talk about in viewing 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.
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, well Adam was Asimov [inaudible] Asimov was a visionary. But you mentioned that the, the, where he postulated that was 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, in a feedback loop, not able to be, I guess, intelligent.
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, suboptimal behavior. You have to be flexible about it. You know, computers are too literal. And the, 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.
All right, so let’s, 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?
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. Right? 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, the really the, the, 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.
Well, who has been successful in even limited ways in bringing common sense to AI?
That’s a good question. Really no one, they’ve tried the right, they’re people who were trying, right? 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, 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, that’s, it’s a, it’s a really interesting contrast because we have these computers that can beat any human at chess or go that can, you know, drive on their own in many situations that can translate between languages. It’s going to 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, that’s the, 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 an ATM. The things that an 18 month old baby can do are in fact the hardest things for AI.
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, but 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? So first I’ll say that I didn’t actually train a real IBO dog. I trained a, a simulation. That’s right. 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 amazes 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 like if the 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 [inaudible] 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, the system to figure out back in time what it did right to lead up to the part that gave it a reward. And 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.
Is it intelligent? 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 would 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 goal 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.
So in your book, you talk about a a series of of a puzzles that are Russian researcher had done, I’m trying to find that you probably know more than me is that we’re, we’re different shapes and sizes are trying to be compared. Is that, is that sort of what you’re working on then?
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 to be, 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.
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?
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.
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. The 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, then 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.
That’s exactly right. Yeah.
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. 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.
Alright, professor, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Thanks. I enjoyed it very much. 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 Townhall Seattle. The program starts at 7:30 PM but you can come early and hang out in our downstairs library or auto bar and be part of our town hall community.
Thank you for listening to in the moment. If there’s anyone coming to town hall that you’d like to hear from, email us your requests at podcast at town hall, seattle.org our theme music comes from the Seattle base band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. If you can’t make it to an event, you can always listen to them on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Just search town hall Seattle and subscribe and if you’d like to support town hall, consider becoming a member. We have many different tiers of membership, but everything goes towards supporting the civic and community institution, our inclusive programming, and enriching the connections and cultural experiences that you’ll have. Till next time. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

Waxing Poetic with Sarah Galvin

There’s more to see at Town Hall aside from the plethora of events that we have taking place (you can check out our calendar here). There is art to see. Town Hall commissioned several artists to create permanent pieces that can be found throughout our building. In the south stairwell, for instance, you’ll see a poem written by local literary luminary Sarah Galvin.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Galvin to discuss her process, the poem, and gargoyle people.

JS: What’s your arts background?

SG: I started writing seriously in second grade. I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Narnia, and tried to write a novel about gargoyle people living on a planet made of ice cream. People told me I might be older when I finally got to publish, and I remember feeling so frustrated. I wanted to publish a book RIGHT NOW. I think as a service to little kid me I will actually try to publish that book, which was about 90 pages long, at some point. I started writing poetry when I was 14, after reading Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I was very into stream of consciousness writing at that age and what came out of that obsession was terrible. At 16 I began going to performances by this one-man-band called Sexually Active Corpse. SAC, a man named Will Waley, sang pornographic, surreal nursery rhymes over beats made with a Casio and an assortment of children’s instruments. My first real poems were sort of an imitation of his lyrics, which listed the hypersexual, surreal behaviors of a multi-gendered “speaker” with the ability to change bodies and travel through time, among other magic powers. The poems inspired by Will were also terrible. I finally began to write real poems when I realized that music, a beat, and a tune provided Will’s art a layer of meaning and a source of momentum that I needed to create somehow silently on the page. My first source of guidance for this was Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy’s” which is (depending on who you ask) an epistolary novel or a series of poems using Wendy’s restaurant comment cards as a formal template. After gaining a rudimentary understanding of how to structure prose poems from “Letters to Wendy’s,” I started reading all the poetry I could find, and picked up techniques as I read.

JS: How did you become aware/get introduced to Town Hall?

SG: After I was accepted to University of Washington’s poetry MFA program, I went to see my soon-to-be thesis advisor, Heather McHugh, read at Town Hall. I had been freelancing at The Stranger, and when I walked into the auditorium, several people I knew from the paper smiled at me and beckoned to me to enter the room. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I started to cry. I saw Heather, up on the stage, dressed as a bird in a flesh-colored spandex bodysuit, and all these people from the paper I could hardly believe had admitted me to work with them, and thought, “how do I deserve to be in this beautiful place with these geniuses? How can this be where I belong?” Ever since that night, I have had tender and reverent feelings about Town Hall. I believe it is a cathedral of art in Seattle.

JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall with your poetry?

SG: It was an incredible honor, given my first experience of that space and what it has come to symbolize to me, to be asked to contribute a poem to be permanently on view there. I felt like I was completing something that began the first time I walked into Town Hall, answering for myself the question of whether I really could create anything worthy of the space. It is a magical place for me, in a way, the place where I went in a few steps from making a child’s art to making grown-up art. Town Hall for me has always physically manifested a right of passage. I was a student, now I hope it’s time for me to teach, to beckon the next generation of artists into that grand hall.


Because you had never seen a seagull, your description of the one
that flew into the store where you worked inspired
the manager to call the police.

I want everything to be like that bird, so overwhelmingly itself
that it is its own spotlight,

but 90% of things are the guy sitting next to me who punctuates
statements like “I’ll pull together some numbers for you” by
pounding the table so hard, my coffee bounces.

His animation lacks the meaning of emotion it references, like
an elaborate set with no play.

There are so many sets. The absence of a play seems like an emergency,
considering the amount of wasted resources,

but there’s not really anyone to call
about that kind of emergency, which perhaps is
why people pray.

JS: What was the inspiration for the piece?

SG: Richard Kenney, one of my professors in grad school, was talking about poets in a lecture. He said something about how people look at poets like they’re crazy in their exaltation of mundane moments. Something like: “Without poetry, you walk up to somebody and say, ‘the streetlight today is an angel of the lord,” and they think you’re nuts. But you really saw that.” Exaltation of mundane moments is what poetry is all about. The primary project of art in any medium is to lift the veil of familiarity from life, which we need in order to function (imagine being blown away by every streetlight! You would never make it home from work.) When art works it makes every experience it exhibits feel like you’re experiencing it as a child again. Shortly after I met my wife five years ago, she said when she first got to Seattle as a teenager she worked at Urban Outfitters, and one day a seagull came into the store. Being from North Carolina, she had never seen one of our gigantic stretch Hummer seagulls before, so she called security and told them a “large waterfowl” had entered the building, and they better come quick. They of course laughed when they saw it was just a giant Dick’s fries-fed Seattle Seagull. It’s a love poem—I adored the exaltation of something familiar in her response to the trespassing seagull. Over and over, she makes my world new, gives me inspiration, and this poem expresses that facet of our love. Art is the core of our relationship in a lot of ways.

JS: What’s your process with your poetry? Is it systematic (specific times/places you write)? How much editing do you do after? 

SG: I usually start with words from a conversation I found interesting. In this case it was Richard Kenney’s lecture. But it can be a sentence from a dream, something from social media, a poorly translated restaurant menu. I don’t think initially about what it “means,” I just follow a train of associations to create the poem. It feels like a desire to answer a question, like, what did that random sentence mean to me? Why do I keep thinking about this image? And because of the inspiration, my poems usually get their momentum from a poetic device called “anaphora” in which the same image or concept recurs and develops throughout a poem. I will write for four or five hours, finessing the same small set of words, then let the draft sit for a week or two, after which I dive back in for an intense round of editing that lasts vastly different lengths of times based on the length and complexity of the poem. Very occasionally, a poem just appears in 20 minutes in exactly the form it should be.

JS: Are there specific messages you’re wanting to convey in your work or are you opening it up to readers to give their own interpretations?

SG: I would say I hope the readers wind up in a similar emotional space after reading my poems, but I want that to be specific and personal to each of them. I want them to finish the poems with a sense of conclusion, yet with more questions than they had before they started reading. And I want them to feel deeply excited by the questions. You know how when people in cartoons turn invisible, sometimes somebody throws flour or a sheet over them and you can see someone’s there? That’s how poetry works for me. It outlines meanings that are too complex to be directly expressed with words. But I try to make the poems accessible—I want every reader to see that the invisible cartoon character is Donald Duck and not Mickey, even if they see an outline and not all of his features. It’s not language poetry, which tries to de-commodify poetry by completely relying on the reader to create meaning.

JS: What do you hope Town Hall attendees get from this particular piece?

SG: Well, as I mentioned the only words that can express what a poem is “about” are the exact words of the poem itself—I’m fond of the idea that “poetry is ‘about’ something the way a cat is ‘about’ the house—but this one is about love, and how when you really love someone, their day-to-day experiences fill you with wonder, awe and endearment. It’s also about how, as humans living through late-stage capitalism, we spend much of our time trapped in a sort of quantitative experience of life, and the little moments of love and art that free us from that. I hope people will read the poem and feel a renewed appreciation for the people they love and the moments of beauty those people bring. I hope they feel compelled to tell the important people in their lives they love them, and to make art.

JS: What’s next, artistically, for you?

SG: I just finished a new manuscript, which I sent to Black Ocean, the press that absorbed my previous press Gramma’s catalogue (which includes my most recent book, Ugly Time) when they closed down. I’ve been teaching a bit and want to teach way more! I love it. I just pitched a few classes to Hugo House, and ideally at some point I’d love to teach a class or two a quarter at Cornish, UW, or Central. I’ve been looking into how to make that happen. I also teach one-on-one writing lessons, so if you’re reading this and are interested, get in touch with me through my website! For those of you who have taken my classes, I’m sorry to say the price of the class no longer includes unlimited Jell-o shots, as I stopped drinking a year ago, but there will probably still be candy. Also, I like to write at least a couple of essays or reviews a month, and at the moment I have nowhere to publish them, so I’m looking for a publication to freelance regularly for. Oh, and I turned my blog, the Pedestretarian, a series of reviews of food found on the ground, into an Instagram, and I may either find a publication that will publish the reviews as a regular column, or start my own little printed publication. I’m also working on a book of essays.

Behind the Otto Bar

Otto Haas moved to Philadelphia in 1909 from Germany to expand his company, Rohm and Haas, which became wildly successful. In 1945 he used some of his wealth to start a foundation to address post-war social needs, and his children and grandchildren have continued his philanthropic legacy. His grandson thinks Otto would have felt very at home at Town Hall: “Otto cared so deeply about his local community, and he made sure no one was ever left behind. He would appreciate Town Hall’s commitment to making a place where everyone is welcome and can afford to take part.”

Otto’s commitment to his community was evidenced throughout his life, work, and approach to running his business. He believed it was his responsibility to ensure that his employees could live a good life. During the Depression, he worked hard to make sure no one ever lost their job. As Duncan noted “They might have to make do with a different role for a little while, but he did whatever it took to make sure their livelihoods were secure.”

Outside of public life, Otto was known for his mischievous sense of humor, love of the outdoors, and gathering with his family. Town Hall is grateful for the opportunity to honor his memory in our own gathering space, the Otto bar in the Wyncote Foundation NW Forum.

Portrait of Otto Haas by Kathryn Rathke.

In The Moment: Episode 42

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.

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m your host, Jenny Palmer. Well that’s it folks. Our homecoming festival is officially over and the stats have come rolling in. During our festival we had 52 main stage programs with more than 100 presenters. There were over 12,700 tickets sold across 4,500 households and 1077 of those tickets were claimed by a new 22 and under audience, which if you didn’t know Townhall is offering free tickets for youth. That’s right. Anyone that’s 22 and under can attend any of our town hall produced events for free and with a month long extravaganza of spectacular events in the bag. We can now turn to our regularly scheduled programming. We might be done with our festival, but we still have a packed calendar in October. Our rental partners are filling these autumn days with earshot, jazz, and sandbox radio performances and the moth will be packing our great hall with new stories for the grand slam champion. On October 25th ambassador Susan Rice will be coming to speak with former us secretary of the interior. Sally jewel. On October 14th and we have more than a few events to satiate that curious mind of yours. Basically we have another full month ahead and you can check it all out on our website at town hall, seattle.org but for now, let’s bring it back to this moment.
What does freshman calculus have to do with college admittance? Research has proven that higher education is an equitable and Paul tough a writer and journalist has written about that research and the landscape of higher education and his new book, the years the matter most how college makes or breaks us. Our correspondent for this episode, Sally James is a science writer based in Seattle who sat down to talk with Paul about the time he spent on college campuses with students and teachers and what he learned about higher education.
I I really enjoyed the book and I I read it with a couple of different perspectives. Both a parent who has sent three children to college and a former college student who was low income and going to a kind of pretend Ivy. So I found a lot of things in here that I think a lot of parents are going to be wondering about. I feel like we have to unpack a little bit. One of my favorite sections, which is on page 138 I’m going to set up something you said lacrosse bros really do run the world. It really is who you know and not what, you know, by the time you reached the last page of pedigree, you either want to go firebomb a bank or enroll your kid in squash lessons or both. Can you just talk a little bit about the D moralizing numbers on how inequitable higher education is?
Yeah, they’re really striking. So that I was writing in that particular chapter about this, this research by this sociologist named Lauren Rivera. That is not even about college. It’s about what happens after college and the way that all of the inequities in college admissions replicate themselves. And in some ways there are, are expanded on when college graduates or college seniors are applying to jobs at investment banks and law firms and consulting companies. But I feel like it is a,
It’s just an amped up version of what’s happening throughout the college process. And there has been over the last few decades this increasing stratification of higher education so that the most prestigious, most well-resourced, most selective institutions are now admitting students with a smaller and smaller range of test scores and are admitting more and more well off students and fewer and fewer low income students. And that is often not the way we think about it. I feel like there is this, this idea in the public sphere that in fact those most selective institutions are a real bastions of equity and diversity. And they certainly often talk that way, but when you look at the numbers and a study came out a couple of years ago that maybe for the first time really a lot easier to look at those numbers. It’s clear that there are very few low income students at those most selective institutions and the institutions that are at a, at educating a lot of low income students are the ones that we have been defunding and pulling resources back from over the past couple of decades.
And I, and that state schools for the most part, wouldn’t you?
Yeah. Pub public universities in general. So everything from community colleges to flagship institutions we’ve been cutting their funding for for decades, but especially since 2000, 2001. And even more, especially since the recession 10 years ago you know, we just slashed our funding in the recession and then never never restored it. And so all of the, like all these stories about rising tuitions and rising debt, at least on the public side, that all just has one, one main cause, which is that, that those institutions used to be something that we funded publicly and we have just switched the funding source from the public, the individual students and higher education doesn’t function well that way. And it certainly doesn’t function equitably that way.
I think we can segue because another one of my favorite parts of this is the entire chapter on freshman calculus. And just for the people listening, a very idealistic calculus professor at the university of Texas used some of his own history as someone who had what I’d call imposter syndrome during part of his education. And his success made him interested in rescuing other people from that. And I think students who have come from what you call less than gold plated high schools fall into a kind of trap where they aren’t in the same place as the other students on that first day of college calculus because the majority of other students probably took it already in high school. And I was gonna say, if you wouldn’t mind just saying a little bit about why freshman calculus represents an enormous obstacle to STEM careers.
Sure, sure. I’d be happy to. Yeah. So I’m so happy to hear that you like that chapter. My favorite chapter in the book as well. And I find that that calculus professor already tries them to be an amazing character and getting to hang out with him for a few months was a great opportunity. So so I’m always happy to talk about it. So one of the many sort of unusual facts that inform that chapter are the fact that calculus is role in the culture and in higher education has changed drastically. So when, when this professor 40 years ago was in college, only about 7,000 students from the whole country took AP calculus and now it’s, it’s hundreds of thousands each year. Something like one in five high school seniors takes AP calculus and, and the best math educators actually say like, we shouldn’t be teaching calculus in high school at all.
That if you really want to be a great mathematician, you need more grounding in high school in geometry and algebra and, and the sort of building blocks of calculus before you take it on. But it seems to be the case that that calculus has taken on this role in the culture and in college admissions of sort of this generic signifier of eliteness the same way that that taking Latin was a few general a couple of generations ago. And you know, like high prestigious colleges don’t really care if, you know Latin and they don’t really care if, you know, calculus, they just see AP calculus on your transcript and they’re like, okay, it’s that kind of kid. Right? they’re, one of the statistics that I still can’t quite believe though it’s totally true is that 93% of Harvard’s freshman has taken AP calculus or, or something even higher.
And that’s not just 93% of the math students, that’s 93% of the French majors and the music majors and the basketball players and everybody else. It just, it’s very difficult or very unusual at least to get into Harvard without having taken AP calculus. And that then has the additional problem that AP calculus is not offered in more than 50% of high schools in the country. And it’s not surprising to note that it’s not evenly distributed. So, so low resource, low income high schools are less likely to offer AP calculus or calculus of any kind. And schools that educate a lot of rich kids are much more likely to have AP calculus. So it’s become this gatekeeper that makes it very difficult to get into a prestigious universities without having, and it’s, you know, for more than 50% of high school students, they can’t take it no matter what they do. So it’s one more one more gatekeeper that makes it harder for low income students to succeed.
Well, and I think, I think just to help podcast listeners, I also think that, so let’s say you’re lucky enough you’ve been admitted to college and now you have to take calculus and get a good grade in order to be a biologist, a physicist and astronomer, a geologist, a doctor the student you introduce us to, Yvonne has so many things going for her and yet you give us a wonderful emotional play by play of her believing that she isn’t good enough. Even during the, as the, the weeks go by and week by week, midterm by midterm, she remains very on edge about whether she belongs. And I think what’s interesting is education has this image as something objective, mathematical, you know, GRA like gravity. If you have the education then you are, society is saying you are smart enough and yet she can’t get that message without an awful lot of kind of hands on encouragement from, from people. If we can’t reproduce Yuri, if there can’t be a URI at every, you know, big kind of flagship university, what other ways could we make calculous less of an obstacle?
It’s a great question. And so one of the things that I find really, really striking about that chapter is that, yeah, so like she’s learning, Ivana is learning math, which we think of as the, as, as you said, as this very sort of empirical, rational thing. You either like do the math right or you don’t, but so much of what is going on with her and I think she would agree with this and or either the professor would agree with this, with psychological. And she was in this, this sort of moment of great turmoil about her ability and about her ability to belong at UT and in Austin and you know, in this very elite worlds you want it to be a math major. And so she was constantly questioning whether she could do it or not. And so she was getting all of these messages.
And one of the things that is really striking to me is that, is that I think, I feel like early the messages she was getting from early men weren’t necessarily the most helpful for her because she was hearing from him that she was going to be fine. Everything was going to come together, just give it a few more weeks and suddenly everything was magically going to happen. She was hearing from her sister who was another, you know, high performing student, a UT student, but also from a, obviously from the same, you know, very low income background. She was hearing from her sister that actually she wasn’t going to succeed in calculus, that low-income Latinas from the West side of San Antonio just couldn’t pull this sort of thing off, which didn’t seem very reassuring but somehow felt comforting to her. And then it wasn’t until she, she had this one conversation with the, with her TA, this woman named Erica winter, that she found I kind of synthesis of those two arguments that really made sense to her.
This idea that you really are behind, like you really have had disadvantages and they’re not just imaginary, they have created these, these obstacles that are going to be very difficult to surmount, but those don’t define you. Those are not actually part of your, your essential character and who you really are as a mathematician and you’re going to be a great one. And if you want to close the gap between yourself and the students who have more preparation, you can, you’re just going to have to work really hard and really strategically. But you can do it. And, and, and I, and we can help you do that. And that I think was, that was the message that really worked for her. And I think it’s a complicated message to get right. But I think there are lots of lots of teachers who are working on how to convey that and how to convey that not only through words, but through the kind of math problems you assign and the way that you help students complete.
Well, my question has to do, again, I’m very, I’m very taken with how a parent can be both giving my child the appropriate skepticism. So for example, about standardized tests, how do you communicate the skepticism at the same time that you want to encourage and challenge? And I’m curious, when you think of, you know, three years from now, your son, three, four years, your son may begin setting down this sort of record that we’re all saying, you know, shouldn’t matter, but it does. And if he reads your book, what, what do you think he will, how will he put into action? The combination of skepticism and, and wanting to believe?
I mean, what I really hope that, that he and other young people take away from the book is amend might be a little bit counterintuitive, but it’s to, it’s to think about college admissions beyond their own specific case, right? Which is not how it, like we, we, we put so much pressure on our kids and they put so much pressure on themselves and the system puts so much pressure on them to just like get it right for themselves. And I want them to think not just about themselves, but about everyone in our community and in our culture who, especially those who had a few or fewer advantages than they do. And I feel like this is this generation that does think so systematically about inequities in this way that, you know, I don’t think previous generations did, whether it’s gun violence or racial discrimination or climate change.
I think they are, you know, really thoughtful about what, how advantage works and how disadvantage works and, and what kind of changes they need to make in order to make systems fair. But I don’t think that we encourage them to think that way about college and he, and so, you know, 15 or 16 or 17, we, we suddenly compel them to dive into this system that is inequitable and and, and perpetuates inequities. And instead of asking them to sort of critique it and, and, you know, have, have a, a skeptical view toward it, we just tell them like, this is the most important thing for you to win in this system. And so, so that’s, that’s my hope is that is that young people can sort of use this book to take a broader vision of, of what’s going on in that system.
And, and my hope is that not only will that make them, you know, more active and more concerned with reform, but it will also, I think change the pressure that they feel about their own, their own outcomes. It’s like once you start caring about climate change, you no longer want to have the fastest car, right? Because you know that the fastest car is actually also destroying the planet. And so my hope is that the same thing can be true. Once you start caring about the, the big picture inequities in higher education admissions, you realize that simply pulling for your own advantage and not caring about anybody else’s is just not living up to your own values.
I’m, I’m interested in again, how is this imaginary future college student who reads your book and the kind of attitude that he or she takes when sitting down to take an sat or an act knowing that knowing that there’s a way in which it shouldn’t matter and yet we have to take it seriously. So, so I’m imagining a high school senior or high school seniors parents right in the thick of essay writing. It’s September, I’m thinking about next year and what, what is the piece they make between the knowledge you’re giving them about inequity and the kind of, but I still want my child or I am a child and I still want a college education. And I understand, you know what you said about maybe there’ll be the reformers but before they’re the reformers they have to, you know, get those letters in April.
Yup. Yup. I know it’s, I mean I feel like it’s a real dilemma that I don’t, I don’t yet know the answer to. And every time I talk to talk to parents, students, I, I think about it. I mean I feel like they’re, one of the things that comes through to me in, in the book and in my reporting is that there are these different approaches that low income and high income students are taught when it comes to higher education. And in example, after example, a higher educated higher income students are taught to think of education as a bit of a game. So this sat tutor who I write about, it encourages them not to take the sat seriously and to think like it’s just a game. It’s kind of a scam. You, you know, don’t think that this is really a sign of your, your value or your, or your worth as an individual.
It’s just like your, your ability to do well on this test. It’s just an ability to outsmart these test makers. Right? And then the same thing happens in class in, in, in college itself where low income students are, have this very, you know sort of philosophical idea about how important the actual work is and how important grades are. And I think hiring income students are, are taught to be a little bit cynical about it and to think really big, you know, it doesn’t matter who you know and not what you know. And so I think that that the fact that high income students are taught that sort of cynical approach to school is on the one hand sort of smart and strategic because, you know, a lot of those things are true. That is sort of the way the world works, but it also has the effect of making them cynical which I don’t think is the way we want our teenagers to be.
And so that, that’s why I feel like I keep pushing back toward this idea of encouraging teenagers, high school students to look at the big picture of the system and ask themselves the role that they want to play in it. And to be more yeah, to look more at the system and not just at themselves. And so I don’t, I don’t know what, what decision that leads do in any individual students. You know, I think some of them, it will steer them away from college. Some of them it will make, make them, you know, apply to the same kind of colleges, but with them more a more strict, clear purpose in mind. But I think, I think not doing that, encouraging them just to think of it as a system in which they’re their only goal is to get the best thing for themselves.
He both leads to an unfair system, but it’s also unfair to them. Because it, it pushes them toward a kind of world cynical worldview that I don’t think is what we want for our kids. I don’t think that’s a, that’s, you know, an answer that is completely a gift, a clear picture of what, what each parents should do, where you should apply and how you should apply and how you should study. But I think that, I think it’s true. I think, I think we do have to complicate the system for our kids rather than just simply,
Right. Well, this is this just, this book just gives, like you said, it gives a parent so much pause and reason to wonder about where our child is going to get the kind of confidence that we want them to have. I mean, you want them to have confidence. I don’t mean confidence just because somebody wants to go to Princeton. I just mean enough confidence to pursue what they really want and not let the institution kind of tell them you’re not good enough. One of the things that’s been said by a lot of different analysts of our college system is that it may be we’re sending too many people and as you just said about your chapter seven, there should be somehow an alternative to the four year liberal arts model. Do you want to talk about the school in the book that you it starts with an a and it’s in Chicago, I want to say,
Yeah. A roof, pay a roof, pay college,
What they’re doing that’s completely different.
Yeah. So I, so to answer the question that was sort of embedded in that question, like do I think too many people are going to college? I, I don’t, I don’t, I mean, I think, I think there are a lot of people who we have not properly prepared for colleges and, and for college and a lot of colleges that aren’t properly prepared for the sort of students who are coming who are coming in and you need more education. But I am, I really remain convinced by all the data and, and economics literature that in fact a college degree is more valuable now than it has been at any other time in American economic history. And that there, there is no question that a college degree is on the whole a good investment. That said, there’s a lot we can do to improve the system, but I don’t think that the problem is, you know, too many students getting too much higher education.
That is not the case. But yeah, I think a [inaudible] is an amazing model for one of the ways that we could change higher education is a two year, a pretty new two year college in Chicago that is associated with a four year university Loyola, which is a prestigious Catholic private institution with a mostly well-off high achieving, high scoring student population. And that’s not the kids who are to a repair route. A is mostly educating pretty low income. Chicago public school graduates with relatively low test scores and yet they are not trying to push them all in a vocational direction. They’re giving them this sort of Jesuit based liberal arts education for two years that is designed to prepare them to go on to four year colleges and they take a very different approach than most community colleges do.
They focus a lot on, on low cost and making sure students don’t have to pay too much, but they also have this very what, what the Jesuit priest father through Rose who runs it, calls a, a very intrusive culture. Meaning that the educators, he and the other educators who run the school really take an interest in their students’ lives and not just their academic lives, but everything else. And they do their best to, to help their students in whatever way they need to. So it’s a really thorough going kind of approach
In the sciences. A lot of, I follow a lot of people that are in graduate education and they in order to be encouraging of future PhDs, they will post, I got a C in calculus or I got a 2.8 when I was this age or you know, all trying to support the notion that there’s nobody born to be a PhD and, and it isn’t easy. And and, and also that the self doubt is completely part of the road. Your road will include self-doubt.
Right. I think that’s so youthful. I mean I think, I think, you know, you, you mentioned posting it and which makes me think about social media and I think that that, I think there is a lot more of sort of sensible understanding of how to convey those messages to people. The, the messages of, of, you know, struggle and failure being part of the process. I think working in the other direction in social media, there’s so many students that I talked to who would say like that they are, especially in freshman year that they’re, they’re watching their students who graduated from high school with them who are off at other institutions. They’re watching them on Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and everything else and feeling like everyone else is so much happier and like, because that’s the way we do our social media. We, we emphasize the good times. And so I feel like so many college freshmen now are having that experience of feel of the, the sort of social media. The grass is greener on the other side feeling and, and if anything, I think that makes it harder.
I think the social isolation is a theme that appears in some, several different stories of people we meet in your book that they feel as if sometimes it’s economic, sometimes it’s cultural that, that their, the in an extreme minority of whatever class they’re in. And I think it’s interesting that, do you ever question whether by trying to have diverse populations of students, we are somehow forcing some of those students to be the only representative of their culture. And so they’re they might have an emotionally better four year college experience somewhere that was less prestigious, but where they felt like they belong.
Yeah, I think about that a lot about that a lot. There’s one student in particular, Matthew Rivera, a student at Trinity college in Hartford, who I wrote about who you know, within this, both very academically prestigious but also very wealthy and white institution. And he was the low income Puerto Rican student from the Bronx. And so he just felt culturally completely out of place. I felt like the students didn’t want them there and it felt a very little sense of belonging. And one of the ways that he described thinking in his freshman year was, should I transfer it to, I think it was the state university of New York and Albany, where some friends of his were. And he was like, I know that it’s not gonna be as good an education, but I’ll be happy. I won’t feel miserable every day. And so I think, but I think obviously the fact that we, we would force or even incline any student to have to make that choice is completely wrong.
And it’s just, it’s just an a factor of admissions. Like if, if those institutions continue to admit just a tiny number of students like Matthew Rivera, then those students are going to continue to struggle emotionally and psychologically, even when they’re succeeding academically as he was. And so, but if he’s part of a group of, you know, 20% or 30% of the freshman class rather than eight or 10% of the freshman class, it’s gonna feel very different for him. And I think, you know, the, the institution itself as Trinity was beginning to do when he, when he got there the institution itself can also just do some very basic things to make students feel more connected to them and more of a sense of belonging. So I think, I think it’s a solvable problem. I don’t think the solution is that the students like Matthew should always go to the state university of New York and Albany. I think it’s great for them to have academic experiences that challenged them and push them and provide them with opportunities. But I think there’s lots of the institutions can do to make them feel more welcomed.
By the time you’ve finished the process, I think you might have in your mind, Oh, I wish I could write a book that was just about chapter six because that was actually, do you have it? Do you have the next, do you have any ideas about what your next really long article by be about there,
There is a section of the book that I do feel like yeah, this is what I’d like to explore more and it’s chapter seven the chapter about students who came out of high school without a particular love of school and wanting to find some other kind of pathway. And the students who are, I wrote about one ends up doing factory work, one ends up doing office work. Women ends up in fast food, but all of them feel this, this pressure to get more credentials in order to succeed. And they try different options to try community colleges. They try a sort of apprenticeship programs and they have different degrees of sort of success and failure. But what that chapter really exposed me to was the fact that we just have a terrible system in place for those students. Like, you know, even for students like yogurt though when I wrote about at Princeton it’s rough enough being a low income student, a even at a highly resourced institution like that. But being a low income student at a community college or sort of anywhere in, in are very sort of slapdash and haphazard system of higher education is so difficult. And it’s those students who, who really we need to help them most are. We just, we like if they, if we aren’t able to get them some kind of credential, they are going to have a life of stuff, low wage service or manufacturing jobs and we’d need to do a lot better by them.
Hmm. So the kind of anti college anti college success or [inaudible]
Yeah, I mean I think it does involve college. I mean, I think, I think a big part of the solution is community colleges. And right now we just don’t, you know, we have cut our funding for community colleges by such a incredible degree that they just don’t function as well as they need to. In fact, you know, but those are the students who need more help rather than less help and we just keep giving them less and less help. So I don’t think the, I don’t think there is a great path that doesn’t involve college for those students. It, they certainly don’t all need four year degrees, but we need to provide a lot better options for them and fund those options a lot better.
Paul tough will be coming to our forum stage on Friday, October 4th, 2019 to talk about his new book, the years that matter most. If you’d like to ask Paul a few questions or get a signed copy of his book, make your way to the forum stage a town hall, Paul’s event will start at 7:30 PM and we still have seats available so you can purchase tickets at the door or on our website at town hall, seattle.org
Thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle baseband, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. If you can’t make it to a town hall event, you can always listen to our series, podcasts, arts and culture, civics and science, or if you’re more of a visual learner. We have a whole library of live streams and videos on our YouTube channel. Just search town hall Seattle and subscribe. Next week, our chief correspondent Steve, we’ll be in conversation with Melanie Mitchell about the successes, hopes and fears of artificial intelligence. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

The Morel You Know – Town Hall Mushroom Talks Coming Soon!

For crimini out loud, you should attend these coming mushroom events at Town Hall. Tickets are on sale now!

On October 13, famed mycologist Lawrence Millman will take the Town Hall stage with his new book, Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore, combining ecological, ethnographic, historical, and contemporary knowledge. Millman will discuss how mushrooms are much more closely related to humans than to plants, how they engage in sex, how insects farm them, and how certain species happily dine on anything from cockroach antennae to leftover radiation. You can learn more about the event here. Tickets are only $5 (and free for anyone 22 and under).

But wait, there’s morel.

On November 15, the visually stunning and groundbreaking documentary Fantastic Fungi will debut. It is directed by award-winning filmmaker and pioneer of time-lapse photography, Louie Schwartzberg. Fantastic Fungi is an immersive experience, showing how the fungi kingdom offers us a response to some of our most pressing medical, therapeutic, and environmental challenges. The film is narrated by Academy Award-winner Brie Larson. The screening will be followed by a conversation between Schwartzberg and mycologist Paul Stamets. After the movie learn more from Schwartzberg and Stamets about the film itself, as well as the incredible communication network of mycelium under our feet—and its potential to restore the planet’s ecosystems, repair our health, and resurrect our symbiotic relationship with nature. The evening is presented by MOVING ART in association with Atremis Rising Foundation and Reconsider and Area 23a.

You can learn more about the event here

Town Hall’s Feeling Jazzed

October at Town Hall kicks off with the 31st annual Earshot Jazz Festival. The season’s lineup is diverse and eclectic, with everything from classic swing sounds to avant garde experimentation and collaborations by modern masters. Here are just a few of the jazz offerings you’ll find at Town Hall this month.

10/6 – Trailblazing trumpeter Bria Skonberg has been described as “one of the most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” (Wall Street Journal). Whether you’re looking for a sound that evokes Louis Armstrong, or just curious to see a Millennial take on the world of hot jazz, this concert is not to be missed!

10/12Two powerhouse duos shake the stage on this Saturday night. First, witness the collision of two definitive styles, with the expressive improvisational vocals of Fay Victor alongside the practiced elegance of pianist Myra Melford. They’re followed by Indian-born jazz drummer and producer Ravish Momin and Haitian percussionist and turntablist Val Jeanty for a hypnotic and genre-exploding electronic exploration of jazz rhythm. 

10/17 – Some consider Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdés to be the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. He’s brought that energy to his latest project, a piano jazz trio that integrates the sounds of the sacred batá drum, a central feature of ritual music in the Yoruba religion. Experience the latest project of a jazz master who’s been shaping his school of music for over 50 years.

10/25 – Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is no stranger to Town Hall. He was onstage at the Cornish Playhouse in March, 2018 for the Summit In Seattle, a historic collaboration alongside three other movers and shakers of the modern jazz world. Now he takes the stage for the first time back in Town Hall’s newly renovated building to bring the house down with the help of his hand-picked quintet.

11/1 – It’s delightfully challenging to even begin to describe the 18-piece Belgian ensemble Flat Earth Society. Despite their size the group doesn’t play like a jazz orchestra or a Big Band. Their eclectic sound defies expectation, and that seems to be the way they like it. There’s nothing else for it, except to experience this provocative, disruptive, and utterly absurd performance for yourself.

Can’t get enough Earshot at Town Hall? Check out the full lineup below or click here!

10/5 – Jazz Showcase: Jacqueline Tabor, Marina Albero, Mandyck/ Johnson/ Bishop

10/6 – Bria Skonberg Quartet

10/10 – Jazz Up Jackson Street: Benefit for Washington Middle School & Garfield High School 

10/11 – Orrin Evans Trio with Jeff “Tain” Watts

10/12 – Afro-Electric: Fay Victor and Myra Melford, Ravish Momin and Val Jeanty

10/15 – Seattle Modern Orchestra

10/17 – Chucho Valdés Jazz Batá

10/18 – Cécile McLorin Salvant with the Aaron Diehl Trio

10/21 – Anton Schwartz Sextet

10/23 – Jay Thomas East West Alliance

10/24 – Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller’s Parlour Game

10/25 – Tyshawn Sorey Quintet

10/26 – Kiki Valera y su Son Cubano

10/30 – Egberto Gismonti

11/1 – Flat Earth Society

11/2 – Jazz Showcase: Bill Anschell Standards Trio, LaVon Hardison, Tarik Abouzied/Joe Doria/Cole Schuster

11/5 – Emmet Cohen Trio

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “One of the most delightful screen romances ever produced will be at the Coliseum Theatre on Friday” and, “Mrs. H.W. Salmon and two little daughters will be traveling to St. Louis for two months.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

“Why do we hesitate to swell our words to meet our needs?” asked a writer for the September 27, 1919 edition of the Town Crier. “It is a nonsense question. There is no reason. We are simply lazy – too lazy to make ourselves comfortable. We let our vocabularies be limited, and get along rawly without the refinements of human intercourse, without refinements in our own thoughts; for thoughts are almost as dependent on words as words are on thoughts.” The writer continues in the piece entitled “On Enlarging One’s Vocabulary,” “For example, all exasperations we lump together as ‘aggravating,’ not considering whether they may not rather be displeasing, annoying, offensive, irritating, or even maddening…Like the bad cook, we seize the frying pan whenever we need to fry, broil, roast, or stew, and then wonder why all our dishes taste alike.” The writer has some suggestions. “Enlarge the vocabulary…I know that when we use a word for the first time we are startled, as if a firecracker went off in our neighborhood. We look about hastily to see if anyone has noticed. But finding that no one has, we may be emboldened.”

Many feel emboldened when they head off to college. It’s a new chapter in their lives. Their worlds are expanding. Their vocabulary is enlarging with text books stacked high in their dormitories. But does college still work? Can a college education today provide real opportunity to young Americans seeking to improve their station in life, or is the system designed only to protect the privileged and leave everyone else behind? Paul Tough will explore the landscape of higher education on Town Hall’s stage on October 4.

You can learn more about the event here.

As always, tickets are FREE for anyone 22 and under. Another word for FREE is COMPLIMENTARY.

In The Moment: Episode 41

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.

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m your host, Jenny Palmer. We’re nearing the end of our month long September homecoming festival here at town hall Seattle. This past week, art, music and panel discussions filled our building. We hosted a live comedy podcast. Craft your hours in the forum post event and a vital conversation took place in our great hall about our climate crisis between Naomi Klein and Teresa mosquito and even though these events have passed, you can watch the live streams or listen to these events on our media library page at town hall, seattle.org we’ve got one more week left of the festival and a few more music and educational programs to add to your agenda tonight. We’re hosting the city council debates for districts three and seven, so swing by and educate yourself about how you’re going to fill out that ballot. Our global rhythms music series is having their first concert of the season, this Friday night, which we’ll be bringing the history and soul of Garifuna culture to life, Garifuna collective and how Gucci Garin AGU will be playing their traditional rhythms in the great hall. At 7:30 PM if you’ve got kids swing by Saturday morning at 11:00 AM for a Saturday family concert with Ricardo beauty and how good shag Aaron AGU. That same day, Alexandra Horowitz, our subject for this episode of in the moment we’ll be talking with science writer James C who about our dogs ourselves. We’ve got a whole slew of great events to come, so do yourself a favor. Check out our calendar, get yourself a seat and join our townhome community,
Who we are with dogs is who we are as people rights. Alexandra Horowitz, the head of the dog cognition lab at Barnard college and our town hall guests September 28th in her previous books about dog behavior and intelligence, the writer and researcher focused on the dog’s perception of their world. In this conversation with chief correspondent, Steve share, Alexandra turns to the relationship between humans and dogs. It is a relationship that has changed both species and depending on how we decide to proceed could change our relationship even more. Our dogs ourselves explores the laws and cultural choices that currently dictate the dog human relationship. Cognition, scientists like Cora widths are uncovering facts about the bond that could’ve been end parts of that relationship. As Horowitz told Steve share in the last few years, the amount of research into the dog’s understanding of the world has gone from a trickle to a flood.
Well, there was a trickle. So, you know, address both ends of that. Natural formation. There was a trickle first because the dogs I think weren’t considered cognitively interesting too. The comparative psychologists and animal behavior researchers who studied all manner of species, especially comparative psychologists who were really keen on animals who were more like humans because we were interested in seeing, you know, how much they matched us or reflected us or how much better we were at skin tasks than nonhuman animals, I would say. And so dogs were considered maybe not likely to show interesting cognitive abilities. And also they’re, they’re so familiar, they’re so well known that I think people thought, well, why do you need to study this? You know, familiar dog. But then when some of the early research came out and showed that in particular dogs have these excellent social cognition skills where in, they can use others to solve problems.
You know, they can understand a little bit of other minds, something that we value in human cognition. Then people got very excited about dogs as a potential study subject. And of course, they’re much easier to study than some of the animals who had been studied. So if you’re studying chimpanzees, you know, you have to keep chimpanzees, which is logistically quite difficult. And you know, if you know a lot of chimpy chimpanzees, you might say morally hard to justify keeping them in small cages or small enclosures, or you have to find them in the wild, which is also really difficult, you know, because they’re just living their life. So dogs were easy to, to study. They were looking like interesting subjects all of a sudden. And that accounts for the river of research that we now find ourselves waiting in.
What do you think about the research that you’re seeing? What, what most inspires you perhaps, or what most does it inspire you about what you’re finding?
Okay. Well, you know, the research I do is I’m a little eccentric. I think it’s not kind of the standard line dog cognition research where you’re asking the same cognitive questions of dogs that you’re asking of humans or other non-humans, you know, how do they solve these tasks? Can they imitate things like that. But there are other people doing, you know, slightly odd research you asking questions about you know, whether our anthropomorphism is that we make of dogs that attributions to their abilities or emotions or our skillset are, are correct. I love that type of work. I like the work that’s been done about olfaction and I try to do olfactory research where we’re trying, you know, we’re really getting a handle on how little we know of what their abilities are and what their experiences via smell, which is their primary sensory modality. So those things to me are the most exciting types of research in the field.
You do two things that are very interesting to me. One is the to well you talk about uhm, well right. And [inaudible] talks about wound wealth like this. How does the animal, how does the creature itself see their place in the world, which is a very different way of viewing a very dumb way of viewing science, right, than it has in the past, which is used it as utility. And so you’ve done that just by walking in, observing with your dog and what that w with your dogs and other dogs, what they see and what they experience and, and trying to, is it fair to say, trying to get inside their minds, is that fair to say when you’re on a walk with your dogs?
Sure. Yeah. I mean, my research or my just casual observations are, are really pointed in that direction as you say, to the, what it’s like to be that animal.
And what about the work you do with when people come to your when they come to your lab, you are looking at them as paired with their humans. Correct. Not the dog in and of itself sometimes, but their interactions with their, with their humans, isn’t that right?
It’s both. It’s both the dog human relationship, depending on the study. You know, we’ve studied document play for instance. But it’s also what the dog how the dog performs on some task. I, I give them because I’m interested in you know, can they smell different size quantities of different quantities of food for instance. And the, and the owner comes along when the dogs come to the lab. But I asked the owner not to really participate in any way. They’re there just for a sort of moral support. But I don’t want them cuing the dog. So the owner is significant in those studies because the dog really does want to get a cue of how to behave from the owners. But I, but I’m trying to leave the owner out of it as much as possible.
The dog wants the cue from the owner and the owner wants to give a cue to the dog. So they’ll perform in the in the way that they feel better, best about them, right?
Yeah. Just like in psychological studies that we participate in ourselves, people often want to succeed at the study, right? So they form some notion about what the study is about and then try to succeed at it. Even though it, they’re probably wrong about what the study is about. And it’s not obvious what counts as success really. You know, psychologists are just studying how we behave. So the dog people come in and want their dogs to, you know, be great, [inaudible] perform well and it’s really never about that. And as much as I can keep the owner’s in the dark, frankly, when they’re there about what the study is, the better because that way they don’t, there’s, there’s no way for them to helpfully cue their dog to perform in a certain way.
What about the dog? Does the dog also have that desire, want to perform to be great?
I would say that all appearances are no, they do not because they don’t seem to want to perform to a level. They’re just interested or they aren’t interested. They notice a difference between stimuli or they don’t notice a difference. Right. Or they’re motivated to participate and find the next thing or they’re really not motivated. So they don’t seem to have performance anxiety.
Yeah. Does, what does that, if anything, what does that tell you about the dog mind? The theory of mind of a dog?
I mean, I think that tells me that they haven’t taken on all our, of our bad anxieties and habits for them.
Yeah. Good for them. Do you have a, is there a recent experiment you’ve done or your lab has done that you were particularly just found fun and joyful?
You know, this, while it might seem odd to you or, or your listeners, but the one that I did recently, it was actually about two years ago that I loved, was this thing called the, what I call the old factory mirror test. And I was modeling this after a really interesting tests that Gordon Gallup will primatologist developed many years ago. Wherein he asked, you know, do chimpanzees have an understanding of themselves, self-awareness. And he represented that if a Chimp could look in the mirror and see that, you know, there’s something that there was something on their forehead, for instance, a little red Mark and move to touch the red Mark on themselves, you know, through, through the mediation of the mirror just as we would if we looked in the mirror that it showed that they might have this kind of self awareness. This is me with the Mark in my head, just as we do when we look in a mirror, you know, by age two or something, you look and you say, you know, that’s not another kid.
That’s me. And I can use the mirror to, you know, change my, to try to look differently. And self-awareness is one of these things we’re really interested in another, whether other animals have, and this is a flawed test, but really the only test we have to try to study it. And dogs don’t pass this test. Typically they, you know, if they, they seem to use mirrors maybe to find out about the world. So they, so they see them and can see things in them and maybe understand that things are behind them in that they see approaching them in the mirror, but they don’t seem to look in the mirror and see something different about themselves and then move to change. And I reasoned, well that’s because they don’t really care. You know, what they look like so much. I’m a, they’re not like a grooming species like primates, but also, you know, they’re smelters primarily.
So what if they kind of smelled themselves and noticed that they had a different smell? Would they be more interested in that than what they typically smell like? And so I created a little study where the, I presented them with their own scent and then their own scent, which was modified by another smell. And I also presented other little odors to them, like the son of another dog that they didn’t know or the son of a dog they lived with at home. And I was looking at how long they investigated all the samples. And what I found was that they were way more interested in their own scent when it was modified with another scent. In other words, just like looking in the mirror, somewhat like looking in the mirror and seeing a Mark on your forehead noticing that’s you. And it’s more interesting than just you because there’s something different there.
And there were more interested in that than their own image or then just the scent by itself. Right. It wasn’t just that, that’s a really exciting sense that’s been added to my smell. Mmm. I want to smell that it was that it’s me, but different. And that’s weird, you know, and I want to investigate that longer. So to me this was a very cool experiment because it’s all about trying to understand that infect like what is the olfactory experience of the dog, how do they, how do we get it? How you might think with olfaction. And it was an attempt, you know, albeit I think the flawed one and at first pass effort, but an attempt to start to get at that.
It’s also, isn’t it the the reason why the trickle has turned into a river because so many scientists like yourself are envisioning investigating the world in new ways, in ways that show us the animals or show the animal’s thinking rather than our thinking about the way the animals think culturally. What do you think is prompting that?
The availability of these dogs allows us to be a little inventive and come up with new things. But the field itself really is always evolving new methods to try to get at the minds of animals. So, and humans for that matter, you know, and so like brain imaging is a field that’s really exploded and one reason we’re excited about it is just another way in to the mind, you know, the another way into find out things about ourselves or others that are, it’s hard to find out otherwise. So, I mean, I think we have a natural curiosity and the field re reflects the curiosity that we as a society feel about ourselves and about our relationship with the in our culture.
Yeah. It’s also, isn’t it interesting that it’s a, it’s the dogs that we do that with because we’re so familiar with them and yet we’ve, and we ascribed so much to them and yet we seem to also want to actually know if what we’re ascribing is real, it seems important to us that it is this real
Want confirmation. Right. You know, is it, people ask me a lot if, if their dogs loved them, you know, if that’s fair to say. And I, and I say, you know, I haven’t spoken to your dog, but but they, but they want, they want some confirmation, scientific confirmation. And yet, you know, if I told them no, I think a lot of people, and you’re talking to Scott, which is not what I believe, but if I had said that, I think a lot of people would still go away and say, you know, but, but my dog, I know, I just know my dog does. So we use science and the results of science as, as part of our fact finding. But I think people also rely on their own intuition as well.
You somewhat tongue in cheek in your biography say that you know, you are, you are owned. She’s owned by canines, Finnegan and Upton and been tolerated by the feline Edsel. What’s unpack that, that that joke you’re making that, that you are owned by those dogs?
Yeah. It’s always inadvisable to unpack your own jokes, but I’ll do it for you Steven. The you know, while I’m playing with the fact that it’s odd that we talk about owning our animals and we do legally own dogs because, so the law, they’re considered personal property. They are objects that persons like us and own and do with more or less as we choose. But I feel like that’s in that right. And it doesn’t match how we feel about dogs, the familial feelings we have about dogs, they’re members of our families. So it’s weird to say and we own them, right? I was responsible for my son when he was little, but I didn’t own him. He was his own person. But I really, he needed me to get around and to grow up. I didn’t own him. So I feel like if we’re going to talk about ownership, I’d rather talk about it as a two way street that we’re mutually owned by each other.
You write about the evolution of, of a dog well, of animal rights laws or animal laws and then the, we come to the time of animal rights and the idea of what rights animals have and what rights dogs have. When you say that, you know, as property, they have the rights of chairs, the same, same rights as chairs have in many ways. What what, what do you think would be at, would the world look like if it were different and how, what would it be to make it different?
A lot of thinkers, legal thinkers are puzzling over that very issue. And one who I, I think has intriguing ideas named David favor suggests that for instance, just as we’re responsible for children but they are their own persons. Maybe dogs could be a slightly different status. Maybe something like living property instead of just property where we’d actually have to take into account their wellbeing in a serious way more than the absence of cruelty as, as mandated by animal cruelty laws requires of us. If we did that, I think, you know, there might be some circumscription on owning dogs. If you weren’t a good owner of this living property, then maybe you wouldn’t get to own them. You know, think about how our society is decided over the last 40 years. Mostly because of Jane Goodall and the people who followed her and studying chimpanzees that we shouldn’t keep, except in extreme situations.
We should not keep chimpanzees for medical experimentation. You can’t just keep chimpanzees for behavioral research anymore. Captive. It’s inappropriate. We’ve decided as a culture to these kind of magnificent animals who are us. And so we’ve had to limit the types of things we can do with chimps. And I think that’s okay. You know, but it is a change and there might be a time when we’d say, well we have, we can still live with dogs. We made dogs. We kind of have to, we owe something to them because they are dependent on us. But maybe we can change for their benefits as a species and individually the things we can do with dogs, the ways we can own dogs.
One of your examples is the way breeders work, right? What are, what, what would breeders do differently if, if we had a little more attention to that aspect of the dog?
Yeah, there are a lot of interesting aspects of breeding ducks. Obviously, you know, you have to have, you have to make more dogs. We want to continue to have a dog population and breeders might be acquired that forever. But pure breeding is right now for matching of breed standard, which is which is largely about appearance and a little bit about temperament. And it’s led to some really serious health problems with lots of breeds because inbreeding as we know biologically is not a sound practice. So what if instead breed standards required that the dog be particularly healthy? You know, what if we were bred for health instead of for looks, that would be an improvement. And the very fact that we can as property sell dogs, I think if that were altered in some way or if, let’s say the dog got to have the benefit, some of the monetary benefit of work that they do for us, then our relationship with the species would change. But we’d still be living with the dogs. You know, they don’t have to, they don’t have to be full persons in order for us to give them a little bit more than we give them now.
Well what do you mean by that? Like what
I think people are concerned that if you treat animals that it’s anything but property that then suddenly, you know, you’re pretending that they well first of all that they would have responsibilities that they can’t live up to and then that you there’s kind of taking over, you know, that they take over your life. And I think that there’s a way that we could live with dogs and do more things to their wellbeing for their benefits rather than for our interests. And still have a dog human relationship. I think it’s, you know, a lot of the sciences pointed in this direction and a lot of animal welfare science, which is really blossomed in the last couple of decades, is about saying like, all right, we live around these other animals. You know, how can we treat them best if we’re going to look at the food industry and how that’s changed and our interests in finding food from more humanely raised food, right?
It’s that kind of thing. Can we more humanely deal with dogs given our knowledge of what they need in their life? They need social companionship for instance, like it’s, it’s actually cool to leave them alone most of the days as we often do. If we have a job that keeps us out of the house for 12 hours. What if you just couldn’t do that? You had to figure out something else to do with them during that time. Because we know that it’s a real stressor. This type of thing I think is, is the type of thing I have, we should have a conversation about as a society.
Well, one of the other things is one that you mentioned in your book is a spaying and neutering and that we have deliberately desexed dogs because it’s messy and it causes problems for us. What, well, we’ll give your thoughts on mandatory spaying and neutering that occurs at a shelters. For example,
The policy to spay neuter dogs has come about because we have a huge overpopulation of dots. That’s why mandatory spay-neuter grew in the, from the seventies to today to be a much bigger deal. And it’s entirely understandable that that happened. You know, people were having to euthanize millions of animals, dogs and cats every year. And it’s hard. Horrible. It’s horrible. Now we still have the policy, but we, I think it’s worth looking at it again whether that’s going to bring us to the place with, with domestic animals where we want to be. It doesn’t eliminate mandatory spending or it doesn’t eliminate the problem of two Benny overpopulations or too many dogs. I’m on a dogs. We still use an EIS, million some dogs and many more cats every year in this country. So, and we see other countries that don’t have spay neuter laws, in fact, where it’s illegal, where they don’t have a stray dog problem.
And so you have to say, well, this is the solution we took to try to solve this problem and understandable, but are there other choices? What would it be like to do other things, right? For instance, to discourage or make people aware of, of like the responsibilities of living with a dog who is intent to could impregnate another dog or become pregnant. What, what would you need to be able to take on if you’re going to be a breeder of dogs and create new puppies? You know, I think that we’ve put off onto this one policy. You know, we sort of treated as the solution to this big problem that we created of millions of dogs every year being euthanized because they don’t have homes.
Got one solution. It’s, it’s just not a simple solution. It’s not solving the problem. And it also, you know, kinds of lets us off the hook when we shouldn’t be let off the hook. We need to be more responsible dog owners and all the other ways, you know, [inaudible] spay neuter is is, is asking the dog to bear the problem. That’s our problem. You dog the path of surgery because we humans have created too many other dogs and we don’t want more.
And yet we have more and more and more and more. Because there seems so many people want to have dogs. Sweden and Norway are two countries. You mentioned have tried some other approaches. What were their approaches? And do you have enough science to say, Oh, cause it, there’s some causality here. This actually is getting us towards a different solution that’s successful.
They’ve just taken a different approach the whole time. You know Switzerland has an animal protection act, which, which, which requires legally that you honor the dignity of an animal and that means no unnecessary surgeries and Spaniard or would be considered unnecessary because it’s harmful. It’s harmful, it’s a harm to the animal. The surgery is painful and unless you need the reproductive organs removed for some other reason, but cancer for instance it affects the whole body effects an animal’s growth. Deleteriously and their solution has been to put, prioritize the animal in that relationship and they have to spend a little more time making sure, a little more care, making sure that, you know, their dog and heat does not get out. Or if they’re gonna have puppies, they have to have places for those puppies. But it doesn’t appear to have gotten them at a worst plate is not gotten them the middle worse place than the U S or the U S is at a much worse place.
So that’s just, I’m not saying we should all be like Norway. I don’t know. I feel that that’s it. It should reflect though that what we feel is the only solution to this problem is not the only solution to this problem. So let’s find one that works for both humans and dogs because this one is not a dog friendly solution. This is in the book, this argument, this was also in the New York times recently. Did you look at the comments? Did you see what kind of reactions you got? I did not look at the comments. Because I wasn’t interested in, I wasn’t interested in engaging with two and a half
Responders. I mean, I feel like I’m proposing that we look closely at something, but I’m not mandating anything and I’m not requiring anything. I’m suggesting something. I’m saying, here’s some facts and that I’ve put together. And here’s some other ways to think about this beside the way that we’ve been handed, and if people are gonna yell at me about that, then I don’t need to be yelled at about that. You know, we’re on the same side. We’re both in favor of dogs. We’re both pro dog, so I feel like we should focus on that as opposed to arguing about the policy. So I’m glad that it was widely read as it appears to have been because that’s the idea is to say, Hey, this is something that we’re not supposed to talk about. So let’s just talk about it. I don’t believe that there’s anything which we shouldn’t be talking about. I mean, heaven forbid that that we have something we can’t be talking about that. That’s not what our society is about.
Alexandra Horowitz talking within the moment, chief correspondent Steve share for an extended interview between the two. Listen to Steve’s podcast at length, wherever you find your podcasts. Alexander Horowitz comes to town hall to talk about her new book. Our dog’s ourselves. The story of a singular bond on September 28th at 7:30 PM now go take that best friend of yours out on a long walk.
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