What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog looks 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, “The ban is off and the long-loved, but lost a while, sugar bowl is again in evidence,” and, “There will be a ball at the Masonic Temple this evening celebrating the reunion of Alsace-Lorraine to France.”  In this new 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 December 14, 1918 edition of the Town Crier is a gentleman sitting at the keyboard of a Mason & Hamlin piano. The caption reads, “Claude Madden, leader of the Amphion Society, at one of the many new Mason & Hamlin pianos recently received by Montelius Music House, going over a new score just written and probably to be presented at this season’s concerts.”

The Amphion Society was Seattle’s largest male choral body. Madden was its musical director and it became one of the West Coast’s top choirs. Madden was also the conductor of such prestigious musical groups as the Arion Society, Ladies’ Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Orpheus Society of Tacoma. He was most known, however, for his leadership of the Amphion Society. One article in an October 1917 edition of Musical America took note that the chorus “has lost six of its seventy members by conscription and enlistment.” The concerts performed “will be lighter than those usually given, and mostly compositions by Americans will be used.”

When one thinks of today’s large choral bodies in Seattle, one looks no further than the Seattle Men’s Chorus. In fact, it’s one of the world’s largest men’s choruses. Founded in 1979, the Chorus “is a voice for LGBTQ advocacy in the community and across the country.” They’ve performed on stage with the likes of Debbie Reynolds, Rosemary Clooney, Kristin Chenoweth, Leslie Jordan, and many others.

Their holiday show is in full swing.  Their show “Jingle All the Way” is a high-spirited celebration that brings together beloved carols, fresh takes on holiday classics, and show-stopping dazzlers. Undoubtedly, Claude Madden would approve.

For a list of coming concert dates, go here.

Our Inside/Out Season in Brief Review

Our Inside/Out Season In Brief Review

Our Inside/Out season has come to a close, folks. We’re thrilled to be able to enter our newly renovated building come March (learn more about that here). We’ve had a wonderful time out in the community these past months offering up civic, arts, and educational programs that have reflected and inspired our region’s best impulses: creativity, empathy, and the belief that we all deserve a voice. We’re eager to showcase all of that and more soon.

In the meantime, here are a few highlights of our season that took us from Phinney Ridge to Columbia City; the Central District to the University District; West Seattle to Capitol Hill; and plenty of spaces in between.


Sam Kean: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us. On September 6 our Inside/Out season started in earnest at the Bathhouse Theatre. Author Sam Kean discussed the very air we breathe. You can hear that talk here.

Dar Williams: A Thousand Small Towns. The award-winning singer graced the Rainier Arts Center stage for a discussion of America’s small towns—and sang a few tunes, too. You can watch that talk here.


Masha Gessen: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Vladimir Putin’s biographer revealed how, in the space of a generation, how Russia surrendered to a more virulent and seemingly invincible new strain of autocracy. To listen to that talk, go here.

Juan Gonzalez: How NYC’s New Mayor Inspired America’s ‘Resistance’ Cities. The legendary journalist sat down to discuss Bill de Blasio’s election and what Seattle’s place is as a ‘resistance city.’ Watch that event here.


Lawrence O’Donnell: Playing with Fire. The MSNBC host presented a keen examination of the 1968 presidential election at Seattle University. You can watch that lecture here.

Martha Nussbaum: The Philosophy of Thoughtful Aging. One of the world’s greatest living philosophers offered her perspectives on the aging process. To watch, go here.



Dr. Beverly Tatum: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Town Hall was thrilled to bring Tatum to both the Rainier Arts Center and the Westside School for a forthright conversation about racial identities in our school system. You can watch her talk here.

Neil Patrick Harris: The Magic Misfits. The award-winning actor came to Temple de Hirsch Sinai to discuss his new children’s book and perform a magic trick or two. You can listen to that evening’s event here.


Denise Fairchild: Equity in Clean Energy Solutions. The activist discussed the global fight to conserve our natural resources, and the magnified impact of this battle on low income communities and communities of color. You can hear that talk here.

Charles Waters: Can I Touch Your Hair? The poet spoke at the Northwest African American Museum with Reagan Jackson about race, mistakes, and friendship. You can watch that event here.


Nadine Burke-Harris: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. The renowned pediatrician discussed early childhood trauma. You can watch her talk here.

Jonathan Kauffman: How Hippie Foods Changed the Way We Eat. The award-winning food writer talked about co-ops, tofu, and more. Read an interview with him here.

MARCH 2018

Robert Reich: The Common Good. The famed professor and author discussed the fundamental purpose of society and the common good that defines it. Watch him speak here.

Kory Stamper: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. The lexicographer cracked open the complex world of words. Listen to the talk and an interview done with her here.

APRIL 2018

Richard Powers: Overstory. The award-winning novelist discussed his luminous 12th novel, Overstory. The novel was about trees, but much more than trees –  it was about the regenerating possibility of reconciliation, and of homecoming. Read an interview with Powers about his book, here.

Samantha Irby: Meaty. Irby chatted with Lindy West in a hilarious evening exploring Meaty—Irby’s widely beloved collection of smart, edgy, and unabashedly raunchy personal essays. Watch their talk here.

MAY 2018

Barbara Ehrenreich: Natural Causes. The bestselling author talked about the aging process and extolled the value of living well while accepting our mortality. Listen to that talk here.

Town Music: JACK Quartet. The JACK Quartet joined with Joshua Roman for an unforgettable performance that included a Roman’s composition entitled ‘Tornado.’ You can listen to an interview with Joshua about the piece here.

JUNE 2018

Michael Bennett: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. The football champion discussed the role of race in sports. You can watch those gripping conversations here.

Angela Garbes: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy. The food and culture writer discussed pregnancy with Lindy West. Thoughtfulness and Hilarity ensued. Watch the night’s event here.


Teaching for Black Lives. A summit of activists and educators assembled for a treatise on how we can end institutional racism in our classrooms. Watch the event here.

Jose Antonio Vargas: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. The Pulitzer Prize winner discussed his experiences as an undocumented immigrant in America with Ijeoma Oluo. Watch their discussion here.


Vishavjit Singh: Sikh Captain America. The cartoonist and activist took the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute stage for a conversation about the importance of confronting our own stereotypes. Read a profile of Singh here.

Michael Hebb: Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner). The end-of-life advocate invited us to a conversation we’re not having often enough—how we want to die. Read an interview with Hebb here.


Blair Imani: Modern HERstory. The activist told powerful stories about women and nonbinary people rewriting history. Read a poem by an attendee of that event here.

Francis Fukuyama: Identity, Dignity, and the Politics of Resentment. The famed political author asserted that the demand for recognition of one’s identity is a fundamental human instinct—and a major contributor to populism and polarization in America. Watch the discussion here.


Adrienne Mayor: Gods and Robots. The folklorist and historian of science takes us back in time to the mythology of robots, automata, AI, and humanity’s timeless impulse to create artificial life. Read an interview with Mayor here.

Randy Shaw: A Generation Priced Out of New Urban America. The housing activist sat down with Mónica Guzmán of the Evergrey, exposing how millennial home-buyers are having their access to housing in big cities restricted, exacerbating trends of racial and economic inequality. Listen to their discussion here.

There’s more yet to come, friends. In fact, we’ve got Jonathan Weisman and a Mozart birthday bash coming in January. Check our calendar for details and find most all our Inside/Out events in our media library.

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Age of Animals

The October 9th, 1920 edition of the Town Crier has a small piece on the age of animals.

It reads:

Sparrows have lived to be forty years old. A horse does not live much more than twenty-seven years. Cats get to about thirteen years old. The tortoise is supposed to live to be between 300 and 400 years old. Some persons say toads live forever, but, of course, that has not been proved, though certainly they live to an exceedingly great age. Both an eagle and a crow have been known to live to be 120 but the wren only about three years. An elephant’s lifetime is about 150 years, but he isn’t regarded as grown up until he is about twenty-five years old.

Do you want to know how to live forever like our friends the toads? Marc Freedman discussed his new book How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations with Eric Liu at the Phinney Center last night as part of Town Hall’s Civics Series. Together they explored our drive for longevity and the perils of age segregation and shared his discussions with social innovators from across the globe about bringing the generations together for mutual benefit.

You can watch it here.

The Duke’s Sacred Roots

Jazz legend Duke Ellington (1899-1974) called his sacred concerts “the most important thing I have ever done.” What he did: brought jazz into church. This year, Earshot Jazz is celebrating its 30th anniversary of presenting Ellington’s music. The concert will be held on December 28 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Duke Ellington is in the pantheon of jazz greats. He was a composer, a pianist, and the leader of a jazz orchestra (still in operation) from 1923 until his death, a career spanning more than 50 years. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Bundle of Blues,” and “Mood Indigo.”

Though Ellington is known for his ubane and cosmopolitan ways, he had deep roots in the Christian faith. He was brought up by his parents in the Baptist and A.M.E. Zion churches. He knew a plethora of hymns and Bible stories by heart, and read the Bible every day. Duke prayed regularly and attended church as often as he could with his demanding touring schedule. He took gospel tunes and wove them into his own songs.

It was in 1962 that Reverend John S. Yaryan asked Ellington if he would perform at the new Grace Cathedral in San Francisco when it opened in 1965. Ellington agreed, and the concert premiered on September 16, 1965. Personnel included (amongst others) Ellington on the piano, Cootie Williams on trumpet, Johnny Hodges on saxophone, Louie Bellson on drums, and Bunny Briggs performing an accompanying tap dance. One song in the concert, “In the Beginning God,” was awarded a Grammy Award in 1967.

Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert premiered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on January 19, 1968. The concert ended with “Praise God and Dance,” which comes from Psalm 150.

By the time of his Third Sacred Concert, Duke Ellington knew his life was near ending. He would pass away on May 24, 1974, of complications from lung cancer and pneumonia. The third concert was performed at London’s majestic Westminster Abbey on October 24, 1973. Here’s his “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Earshot Jazz’s concert this year features the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra; guest vocalists Stephen Newby and Nichol Veneé Eskridge; the NW Chamber Chorus; members of the New Revelations Choir (from Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church), and special guest tap dancer Alex Dugdale.

For more information and tickets, go here.

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, “It is called the ‘Hospitality Club’ and it has come into being without flourish of trumpets and is meeting a real demand on the part of sailors and soldiers for a quiet, home-like place where they are welcome to read, write, study or amuse themselves in their own way.” In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

The December 7th, 1918 edition of the Town Crier was very excited about the arrival of Carter the Magician. He brought with him “a company of twenty-five people with fifteen tons of marvelous illusions.” Carter, the Town Crier writes, has “astounded the world with his incomparable mysteries and uncanny, laughable entertainment in conjuring.” The act included levitation that—it was said—he learned from “the native fakirs and mahatmas” on “the banks of the sacred River Ganges.” The show that took place at Seattle’s prestigious Metropolitan Theatre created quite a furor.

Another astounding event coming soon, one that will undoubtedly create a furor at Seattle First Baptist Church, is Seattle Radio Theatre’s holiday show, A Very KIRO Christmas. No word on if there will be levitation, but KIRO Radio voices and other local celebrities, along with live music, sound effects, and family-friendly holiday laughs, will present a light-hearted holiday comedy live on stage.

Don’t miss A Very KIRO Christmas at Seattle First Baptist Church on 12/11!

Life-Sentenced Prisoners and the Future of Mass Incarceration

Most Western democracies have few or no people serving life sentences, yet in the United States more than 200,000 people are sentenced to such prison terms. Steve Herbert, University of Washington Professor of Law, Societies, and Justice, will be on Town Hall’s stage on 12/11 with Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project, to discuss the flaws in a life-sentence based criminal justice system.

Herbert’s new book, Too Easy to Keep: Life-Sentenced Prisoners and the Future of Mass Incarceration, shares moving personal profiles of individuals affected by life sentences. He sat down recently with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss regret, redemption, and reform.

JS: What initially got you interested in the prison system?

SH: I have long been interested in the criminal justice system, although I’ve primarily focused my prior research on urban police departments. I have taught about punishment and prisons in my classes, although until 2013 I had no direct experience with prisoners. That changed when I learned that colleagues at other universities had taught courses where they brought their university students inside prisons to teach courses alongside prisoner students. I was motivated by their stories to try and replicate that at the University of Washington. It was that decision that led me down this road.

JS: What was the impetus for your new book? 

SH: I started teaching at the Washington State Reformatory in 2013, and began teaching ‘mixed enrollment’ classes there in 2014. These classes combine students from UW with incarcerated students in classes taught exclusively at the Reformatory. I learned in teaching these classes that there were many people in prison for extraordinarily long periods of time who were amongst the very best students I had ever encountered in any classroom. I must confess that I did not expect this to be the case. That prompted me to learn more about life sentences, and how common they happen to be.

JS: What preconceived notions/prejudices did you have going into interviewing lifers? How did that change after talking to them?

SH: I had enough familiarity with life-sentenced prisoners that I expected them to be thoughtful and interesting. I don’t believe that they necessarily challenged any stereotypes I had. The process of stereotype destruction had already occurred when I started teaching inside.

JS: What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from lifers? 

SH: I think the most significant lesson is that so many of them are deeply regretful about their past transgressions, and that they try as hard as they can, under limiting circumstances, to engage in some form of atonement. I could not help but be impressed by their resilience, and the strength more generally of the human spirit.

JS: Rehabilitative incarceration—is that something you believe in? How can we make it a reality? 

SH: There is no question that many, many prisoners are hungry for opportunities for self-improvement. Efforts to respond to this desire for positive change bring benefits to everyone, both inside and outside of prisons. For that reason, they should be supported. In my observation, many impactful programs are those that are run by volunteers from the outside. For example, my teaching inside could only have occurred due to a partnership with University Beyond Bars, which works to provide college preparatory and college level courses for prisoners. In Washington State, at least, efforts to make it as easy as possible for these outside organizations to do their work can only pay dividends for all involved.

JS: Do lifers have a desire for redemption? In what ways? How, if at all, does this help them in their day-to-day lives in jail?

SH: I cannot speak for every lifer, but there are clearly very many of them that earnestly seek redemption. They manifest this desire in myriad ways, but most notably by trying to be mentors to the younger prisoners in their midst. They try to help these prisoners redirect their lives so that they do not reoffend and thus return to prison. They also try to work a job, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in various prisoner-run organizations. These activities help provide structure and meaning to their lives, and help them lessen the day-to-day pains of imprisonment.

JS: What are some more poignant stories you have in regards to your interviews with lifers?

SH: One inmate told me a story about how he participated in a dog program at his institution. He described how terrific he felt when he first met the dog, and interacted with it in his cell. He said that it was the first time he had ever been asked to care for another sentient being, and that it was a terrific feeling. He told this story as he was describing his general maturation. This was a consistent theme across many of my interviews. Many of the prisoners, especially those who got their sentences while they were young, discussed how their maturation led them to be more concerned for others, and how this shift was really critical to their more general projects of self-improvement and atonement. Said one prisoner, ‘When I committed my crime, I didn’t think about the consequences or who I was hurting or anything like that. I just wanted some money. So, I didn’t really think about that kind of stuff.  It was just all about me. Me, me, me. But then I realized it really wasn’t about me, and change started happening.’

JS: What fixes would you propose for life sentencing?

SH: The best route forward is to change sentencing policy. Life sentences are too commonly invoked, so a shift in punishment policy is a smart move. This can happen in a number of ways, but a key one is to make parole more widely available. Like many states, Washington no longer allows parole for most prisoners; they all serve fixed sentences. This means that many prisoners who undergo profound change cannot have that reality recognized in a reduced sentence. That, in my view, is a key policy that deserves reconsideration.

JS: Can the public do anything to improve the lives of lifers? In what ways?

SH: I think the public can lessen the distance between themselves and prisoners. The best way to do this is to find a volunteer program for which they can work. Regular encounters with those who are incarcerated will work to dispel the stereotypes that are commonly held. They can also lobby their legislators to shift punishment policy.

Don’t miss Steve Herbert with Ashley Nellis and Katherine Beckett on 12/11 at Pigott Auditorium at Seattle University.

What the Heck is a Sackbut?

Our friends at Early Music Seattle are partnering with Early Music Vancouver to present two performances of Monteverdi’s Christmas Vespers on December 21 and 22. The concerts will include violins, cornetti, sackbuts, theorbos, and voices under the direction of David Fallis.

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is a sackbut? Theorbo-huh? Who was Monteverdi? What’s a vesper? Town Hall is here to help.

Sackbut [sak-buht]:

A sackbut is a type of trombone popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. This isn’t to be confused with a slide trumpet (don’t do it) but it did evolve from it. The difference between the two is that the slide trumpet possesses only a single slide joint, while the sackbut has a double slide joint that allows for playing scales in a lower range. The evolution then: slide trumpet, sackbut, trombone. Sidebar: Are you aware that there is an English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble?  There is.

Theorbo [thee-awr-boh]: 

A theorbo is a member of the lute family. It’s a plucked string instrument with an extended neck and a second pegbox. A theorbo player plucks or strums the strings with one hand while pressing down on the strings with the other hand to different places on the neck produces different notes. That gives a theorbo player the ability to play chords, basslines, and melodies. They were developed in late 16th century Italy. You’ll hear theorbo compositions in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo.

Cornett [cornet]: 

A cornett isn’t a cornet. Cornets are trumpet-like instruments. A cornett is an early wind instrument that dates back to medieval times. It was popular from 1500 to 1650. It’s a wooden pipe covered in leather and has finger holes and has a small horn. They were played frequently in Venetian churches. You’d hear cornetti a lot at the Basilica San Marco, the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. There were different types of cornett, like the high cornettino, the curved cornett, the tenor cornett, and the bass cornett. Some composers who used cornett, other than Monteverdi, include Johann Sebastian Bach, and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Monteverdi [Mon-tuh-vair-dee]: 

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was a pioneer in the development of opera. He was an Italian composer, string player, and choirmaster who created both secular and sacred music. He was also the Maestro di Capella at the Basilica San Marco, where all that cornett playing was happening. Though most of Monteverdi’s output has been lost to time, his surviving music includes madrigals, sacred works, and three complete operas. His L’Orfeo (1607) is one of the earliest operas ever created.

Vesper [ves-per]:

The word comes from the Greek “hespera” and the Latin “vesper,” meaning “evening.” Vespers is a sunset evening prayer service which has been in existence since at least the 4th century. Several composers have made music based on them, including Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Giuseppe Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani or “The Sicilian Vespers,” and, yes, Monteverdi.

Take your newfound knowledge of sackbuts and the like and attend what is sure to be a glorious evening of music. Go here for tickets.

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, “The Army and Navy Club was the center of much gayety on Thanksgiving day, the decorations suitable for the occasion,” and, “Mr. Bissett is one of the living authorities on Lincolniana and his library of 1886 volumes and pamphlets is sixth in importance in existence.”  In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

With the holiday season comes children with eyes of wonder and glee, looking towards the skies for Santa and his reindeer, or looking under the hearth for festooned holiday packages. In the November 30, 1918 edition of the Town Crier, there was an ad put out by the Grote-Rankin Company. They suggested parents get wheel toys for their children. “To those who are going to buy practical toys for the children, this announcement is but an introduction to the comprehensive stocks of wheel toys that we have assembled for your inspection.” Among the wheel toys, “moderately priced,” they assembled included automobiles, hand cars, coaster wagons, velocipedes, choo-choo cars, Sam-E-Cars, doll cabs, and more. “The assortments afford countless opportunities to make the little folks happy.”

The holiday season at Town Hall affords opportunities for today’s little folks to be happy, too. Coming December 8th and 9th is Seattle’s beloved kiddy rocker, Caspar Babypants. Caspar—aka Chris Ballew, the former lead singer of the ‘90s rock band, The Presidents of the United States of America—will be playing plenty of catchy tunes, including many off his new album, Keep It Real!.

Performances on December 8th will be at Bloedel Hall at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Performances on December 9th will be at West Seattle’s Westside School. Learn more about the concerts (FREE FOR KIDS) here! Interested in reading an interview we did with Caspar? Go here

Poets in the Pews

Welcome to the first installment of Poets in the Pews – where a poet attends a Town Hall event and writes a poem about the experience afterwards.

Maia Ruth Pody, an 11th grader at the Center School, is a Youth Poet Laureate as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools (WITS). She attended Town Hall’s recent Blair Imani event where Imani discussed her new book, Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History. You can watch the event here.

Feminist Sapphics

How were green things torn from the frozen earth? The

ice around the dirt wasn’t merely melted

by a smiling sunlight; it split apart when

        thousands of hands tore

through the ground like ice picks. Behind these clawing

fingers are the fighters, the apoplectic

mothers, tired heroines. Sympathetic

        characters aren’t

working for our modern subconscious. We need

new intelligentsia, ready for the

stories grown from malnourished roots that elder

        women replanted

and their daughters nurtured. The expectation

wasn’t endless martyrdom, so when silence

greets those declarations of reparations

        owed, we speak louder.

There will be a Seattle Youth Poet Laureate & Writers in the Schools reading on 12/3 at Elliott Bay Book Company!

The Seattle Youth Poet Laureate is a program of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools (WITS). Founded in Seattle in 2015 by WITS writers Matt Gano and Aaron Counts, the YPL program aims to identify young writers and leaders who are committed to civic and community engagement through their poetry and performance. Each year, a cohort of students work together throughout the year to share their powerful voices, leadership, and love of community at events throughout the region, and the Youth Poet Laureate also gets a book deal with Poetry NW Books to publish a collection of their poems which is released in May. Learn more, here.

Photo by Rick Sood.
Photo by Rick Sood.

Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention.

On 12/3, Town Hall will present Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar at Stanford University, to discuss her new book, Gods and Robots. We’re delighted to bring her to the stage for a first look at the ancient origins of humanity’s timeless impulse to create artificial life. To offer us a preview of her upcoming event, Mayor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss automatons, Medea, and Siri.

JS: How did you first get interested in classics and folklore?

AM: You might say I’m a historian of human curiosity—I’m interested in uncovering historical and scientific knowledge embedded in ancient mythology, legends, and folklore. Much of my work takes place in the borderlands where classical Greek and Roman literature and art meet archaeology, history, anthropology, and science. What I am seeking are the earliest inklings of the scientific impulse in premodern cultures.

JS: What inspired you to combine that interest with robots and AI?

AM: I live in Silicon Valley where brilliant innovators are exploring and producing ways to imitate, improve, and surpass nature, developing Artificial Intelligence, advanced robotics, and other marvels. So I was curious—who first imagined automatons? How deep are the roots of the human desire to make artificial life? Most historians trace the first working automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, could the ideas of making self-moving devices and androids have been imagined long before the technology made them feasible? I found compelling evidence that the concepts of making artificial life were thinkable as early as the time of Homer, in myths first written down in about 700 BC.

JS: To avoid confusion, how do you define a robot? An automaton? Artificial intelligence?

AM: Robot and automaton are interchangeable in informal speech. But a glossary of technical terms is included in Gods and Robots. An automaton is a self-moving mechanical or constructed device resembling an animal or a human. Some automatons perform tasks according to predetermined instructions and some respond to different circumstances. Artificial Intelligence mimics cognitive functions associated with intellect or mind, such as learning, planning, and problem solving; there are complex categories of “narrow” and “general” AI and four ascending types of AI. Robot is a slippery term but usually means a machine or self-moving object with a power source; some robots can be programmed to sense surroundings and process data to interact with the environment and perform actions.

JS: When writing the book, what parallels between the ancient and modern world struck you most about our human want/fear/need/desire/etc of technology? 

AM: It is striking that the ancient myths about the god of invention Hephaestus, the techno-wizard Medea, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and the legendary craftsman Daedalus are really the first-ever science fiction tales. The ancient stories and art works show how the power of imagination allowed people more than 2,500 years ago to ponder how one might create driverless carts, self-navigating ships, and bronze killer robots—if only one possessed the sublime technology and genius of the gods. It is often remarked that where science fiction leads, inventions often follow. And indeed, by the fourth and third centuries BC, a profusion of genuine self-moving devices, animated statues, and automated machines were being designed and built.

Hephaestus, god of metalworking.
Medea, granddaughter of Helios, the sun god.
Prometheus, giver of fire to humanity.









JS: What ethical conundrums did the ancients face in regards to robots/technology/etc?

AM: The myths suggest that as long as the self-driving chariots, golden servant-androids, and automatic machines fabricated by Hephaestus are confined to the realm of the gods, they are charming and benign. But when automatons like the bronze robot Talos and the artificial woman Pandora are sent to earth and interact with humans, then all kinds of troubles are unleashed. Today many warn that technology favors tyranny. Notably, that ethical concern appeared in both ancient myth and in historical times and places: there was a strong link between autocratic rulers and machines of malice.

JS: What’s your favorite mythological story in regards to artificial life? Why? What can it teach us today?

AM: The myth of Pandora is my favorite. She was created as ‘evil disguised as beauty,’ to punish humans for accepting the gift of divine fire, stolen by Prometheus. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to fabricate a seductive femme fatale android ‘programmed’ to open sealed jar of eternal misery for humankind. The story has so many layers of meaning. A cruel and vindictive tyrant, Zeus jealously guarded his divine technology of fire and commissioned an evil fembot as revenge. Prometheus, whose name means ‘foresight,’ tried to warn mortals against accepting Pandora, but her deceptive charms were dazzling. Today, Pandora’s box is often compared to the allure of the ‘gifts’ of AI and robotics. Even the last thing in the fateful jar, Hope, has a double meaning. Philosophers since antiquity have debated whether Hope was the best or worst thing in the jar.

JS: If you were to make a robot, what would you name it? What would you want it to do?

AM: Great question, but ironic for me! I own a smartphone but I have no smart appliances and I never talk to Siri or Alexa. I prefer cars with few automatic features—I like to roll down my own windows and I use printed road maps instead of GPS navigation devices. I’m unlikely to interact knowingly with a robot and can’t think of anything I’d want a personal robot to do.

As for robot names, Tik-Tok is my favorite because it designates the extreme poles of robotics for good and evil. The original Tik-Tok was the rotund and genial mechanical clockwork servant in Frank Baum’s popular Oz books (1907). By 1983, his namesake has become a psychopath robot bent on getting away with murder in John Sladek’s chilling sci-fi novel Tik-Tok.

Don’t miss Adrienne Mayor’s event on 12/3 at Pigott Auditorium at Seattle University.


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