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.

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.


Disco Hippos and Laughing Your Head Off with Caspar Babypants

Late nights and ear damage helped convince Chris Ballew that perhaps there was something new in store for him during his run as lead singer of Presidents of the United States of America. The band was a big deal in the 1990s. The Seattle-based Presidents released a self-titled debut album in 1995 and it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and their song “Peaches” garnered the band their first and only Billboard Hot 100 Hit. “Kitty,” “Lump,” and “Dune Buggy,” were other popular tunes on that influential album.

Yes, the band was popular (they formed in 1993 and dissolved in 2015 since, as Ballew posted on the band’s Facebook page, “we are OLD PEOPLE NOW!”), but there was an itch during their reign that Ballew knew he wanted to scratch.

Enter Caspar Babypants. Children’s music has been Chris Ballew’s bag since 2002. He’ll be performing FOUR SHOWS soon as part of Town Hall’s Saturday Family Concert series.

Ballew recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss the Beatles, losing stuff, and dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs.

JS: When you put out a new kid album, is it focused on a particular theme/idea?

CB: I don’t make themed albums as a rule but I do have a few that fit that description. There’s a holiday record, two Beatles cover albums, and two lullaby records in my library of releases. I grew up on Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles and the way that record took me on a wild psychedelic ride still influences how I make records. I want the families that buy my records to feel that same sense of being on a ride when they listen to them. For me the themed record is too much of a limitation, and I prefer the kaleidoscope of weirdness that a non-themed record can achieve. But in a general sense the theme is always bizarre little stories that I turn into songs that make me laugh!

JS: Are there commonalities between playing shows for kids v. adults?

CB: When I play a show for kids I still feel that thrill of connecting to an audience and the interplay between my music and their happiness. If the parents are paying attention and participating then I get to do some of the same call and response type stuff that I can do with an adult crowd. The fun of the mechanics of doing a show is the same, too. I always feel like I am setting up for the circus during load in and sound check. I love that feeling and I still get to experience it with my shows for families.

JS: Are there big differences then between playing for children and playing for adults?

CB: The first major difference is the time of day. My shows for families happen at 10:30 am for the most part. The days of stumbling to bed at 2:30am after an 11:00pm set time are blissfully behind me! Another difference is the venue. I’m playing in beautiful old theaters or library meeting rooms or YMCA gymnasiums instead of dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs. That is another change I’m very happy about. This time around I’m booking all of my own shows so another big difference is that that I’m responsible for all of that stuff. We used to have a booking agent and manager in the rock band so I didn’t have a lot of responsibility on that level. Now it’s all on me!

JS: I see you have a song on your new album called Dropped My Lollypop. That sucks for kids. What small things inconvenience you?

CB: I really don’t like looking for lost things (even though a bunch of my songs are about lost things!). I feel like all the time I’ve spent looking for lost things is time I want back. Beyond that I really feel that all my problems and friction is related to making this music which I love so I decided to love my problems as well and now I don’t have any problems.

JS: Your “Disco Hippo” song – quite a hip swaying, toe tapping tune. What genre of music do you think is the funniest?

CB: I think really fast bluegrass music is hilarious. There’s also an electronic artist name Squarepusher who makes it insanely fast music that sounds like synthesizers on speed playing crazy jazz. I put that on the car while I drive around and laugh my head off!

JS: What spurred you to turn from rock music to kid music?

CB: The entire time I was having success in the 90s I also had I got feeling that that success was not my final destination. I spent about 14 years hunting outside the rock band for another form of expression that would scratch that itch. Finally I figured out that simple innocent music for children was what really resonated with me in a way that was perfect. I feel like the music I make now is exactly what I really am as a person. I am way more like a child than a grown-up. The rock band was extremely close but it just wasn’t exactly right. Late nights and ear damage convinced me that I had to find something else. When I figured out I was supposed to be making this music I was incredibly relieved.

JS: What’s your favorite thing about performing for kids?

CB: As an adult I want to live in a state of imagination and wonder. I want to be able to rearrange the world in my mind to be hilarious and bizarre and entertaining. I want to find the innocent perspective necessary to really see the natural world as the greatest show on earth. I think kids have that perspective baked into their innocence. I love being around that energy and I love helping families bond over music that they can all truly love.

Don’t miss Caspar Babypants’ performances December 8 and December 9.

Octavio Solis: An Accidental Playwright of Unconstrained Imagination

This interview was conducted by Margaret O’Donnell, Artistic Director and Founder of the Seattle Playwrights Salon. Powered by Shunpike, the Seattle Playwrights Salon is a staged play-reading series founded in 2016. The Salon meets at Palace Theatre & Bar in Seattle from 7PM-9PM the second Friday of the month. It is one of the few regularly scheduled evenings in Seattle where playwrights and actors can bring new plays in development before an audience.

The interview below has been edited. You can read the full-length version here.

Octavio Solis will be on Town Hall’s stage on December 4 at the Rainier Arts Center discussing his new memoir Retablos: Stories From a Life Along the Border.

MO: You’ve been writing plays for nearly 30 years, and have had at least 25 of your plays produced. How have you changed as a playwright in these years?

OS: Oh, I have more unproduced plays in my folders. Theatres may commission works from a writer, but they’re under no obligation to produce them. Sometimes they don’t like the work. Sometimes the work is just not right for the time or their audiences. These works languish away in neglect, but sometimes they get cannibalized by other newer works.

I think my writing has changed quite a bit over time, but it’s because I’ve changed. We all must or else we become stagnant individuals stuck in some idealized time. Some things, however, still hold true. I still cling to the notions of theatricality—that is, the use of all the elements of live theatre to make the story vivid: lights, music and song, direct address, heightened language. I like works that dance across time and space, that bend these dimensions at will in the way Shakespeare did.

And yet at the same time, I think I’ve settled a bit. I like to focus more on people. I’m more inclined to slow the page down to let them talk. Too much effort is directed at moving the action forward, and not enough on moving the action inward. Each character is a kind of maze, and I am drawn to the language that acts as a kind of string that leads us into and out of the maze.

MO: Are the themes that interest you different than they were 30 years ago?

OS: Yes, I think I have absorbed some new themes into my oeuvre. For as long as I’ve been
a playwright of note, I have devoted myself to defining the American experience for Latinos in this country. The complexities, conflicts, and ironies of being an immigrant in America. The love for and struggle against the temptations of our consumer culture. The Mexican culture as it evolves into a new hybrid American society. What it means to live on the hyphen.

But now I am drawn to environmental issues. I think moving to the country, raising goats and chickens, living off our green garden; these new aspects of our rural life have awakened my environmental heart. Now as I see so much of our forests charred by wildfires, I am struck by how much of it is due to climate change. We’re at a tipping point. We have to respond to the dire
circumstances in our planet, even if we’re only the Cassandras and canaries in the coal mine.

MO: Has the way in which you get inspiration for your work changed over the years? How?

OS: Many companies have concerns they’d like me to address, so some commissions come with issues attached. Still, I have to find what matters to me. I have to be inspired to give them the play that they’re looking for. So often I ask, what is my way in? What about the issue or topic is personal to me? I have to care deeply or else I won’t care at all. What I look for is the element that will change me in the writing. I can’t be expected to change people’s perspective if I am not willing to be changed by the writing myself. So it’s always an education, always a discovery, which means there’s always a risk. By this, I mean that I have to be ready to have my beliefs upended by the work I do. I have to be ready to let the play talk to me directly and indirectly about things I have not considered about myself.

MO: Have your writing habits changed over the years? What works best for you now?

OS: I used to write with fervor every day, every chance I could. I used to stand by my writing with a ferocity that permitted no challenges. I was young. There was still so much room to grow. Over the years, especially since writing is all I do, or at least the only occupation I have full-time, I used to demand that I write every day, all day, and when I was wasn’t I punished myself grievously by not going out and enjoying myself. Now, I know that was wrong. I have learned
that when I’m not writing, I am still writing. I am thinking and processing and engaging with my stories in my sleep, in my idle moments, when I’m driving my car; even when I am doing a repetitive physical task, I am writing. It’s the process before applying fingertips to keys or pen to paper. The dreamtime. The digestion of the idea. Consequently, I have parsed out my energies more wisely. I don’t write every day, but when I finally do sit down to write, I sit for six to eight hours and hammer out what needs to be written. Raw and unvarnished, ugly and badly worded. That’s what a first draft should be anyway. This process has become harder to maintain as I get older.

MO: What are you working on now?

OS: I’m working on getting the word out on Retablos, my new collection of memoir stories by doing readings and book-signings. I am working on a screenplay. I am doing the final touches on the rehearsal script of “Mother Road” which goes in rehearsal at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this January for its premiere in March 2019. I am revising a work I had produced earlier this summer in Los Angeles. I am winterizing my farm in preparation for the first big freeze of the season.

Don’t miss Octavio’s event on December 4.

A Short Story about Short Stories Live

Seattle is a literary town. The city is always noted as one of the most literate cities in America, and recently the city was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a City of Literature (one of only two in the United States – the other being Iowa City).

Being a book town, Town Hall is delighted to present Short Stories Live: The History of Seattle Literature on November 18 at the Rainier Arts Center. Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with the night’s curator, Elliott Bay Book Company’s Karen Maeda Allman, to discuss her history at the store, the stories of Seattle’s history, and what we should read next.

JS: What’s your role at Elliott Bay Book Co? How long have you been there?

KMA: I’ve worked at Elliott Bay Book Company as a bookseller and as author events co-coordinator for 19 years now and I’ve had a chance over the years to discover some overlooked classics that deserve a much wider readership. These books can help us understand something important about our city. Many of the issues still resonate today.

JS: Why did you choose Horace Cayton’s autobiography, Long Old Road: Back to Black Metropolis?

I found this excerpt of Harold Cayton’s long out-of-print memoir in Reading Seattle: The City in Prose, edited by Peter Donohue and John Trombold and published by the University of Washington Press. This anthology of over 100 years of writing about Seattle also includes essays and stories by Rebecca Brown, Mary McCarthy, Tom Robbins, Matthew Stadler and many others. I’m a longtime resident of Capitol Hill and the fact that Jim Crow was part of life here in our neighborhood haunts me. I often wonder how this history affects us still.

Horace Clayton

JS: What about famed Vashon Island author Betty MacDonald? What made you decide to choose her work?

KMA: My first encounter with the writing of Betty MacDonald was in a small article in a ‘zine called Transom, which I picked up at Confounded Books when it was still sharing a space with a CD and vinyl store called Wall of Sound. Her loving portrayal of a lunchtime visit to Pike Place Market could have been written today, when life is just as tough for struggling artists, writers, and single parents. MacDonald’s Anybody Can Do Anything has been reissued by the University of Washington Press, along with two of the author’s other memoirs. This timeless book also made an appearance in James Mustich’s 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, published this year by Workman Press.

Betty MacDonald

JS: Can you tell me why you chose Japanese American writer John Okada?

KMA: I’d read John Okada’s novel No No Boy, but after I started working at Elliott Bay I read it again and thought about how many of the events in the novel took place within a few blocks of our old location in Pioneer Square. That area was also part of the Nihonmachi, or pre-World War II Japantown, which was a district that was hit heavily by the “evacuations” of Japanese families in the early 1940’s. These evacuations were nothing more than incarcerations and bans of people based on race, immigration status, and religion. Now that these practices have returned to our country for other groups of people, we have much to learn from the brave individuals who resisted and survived those times.

John Okada

JS: And Vi Hilbert?

KMA: We had the honor of working with the late Vi Hilbert, a revered storyteller, historian and Elder of the Upper Skagit. Lushootseed is her native tongue, and she was committed to furthering its revitalization along with the cultures of the people indigenous to our region. The SAM Olympic Sculpture Park signage includes Lushootseed plant names. Seattle University has named a campus building and an ethnobotanical garden in her honor. Lushootseed culture also lives on through stories such as those collected in Haboo.

Vi Hilbert

JS: For those that want to read more, what would you recommend?

KMA: Check out the work of Kathleen Alcala, Glenn Nelson and Jourdan Keith, all people of color writing about our relationship to the natural world. Poets Laura Da’, Claudia Castro Luna, Anastacia-Renee, and Quenton Baker inspire and teach me. Children’s book writers Kelly Jones, Sanae Ishida, Ken Mochizuki, Jessixa Bagley and Julie Kim are inspiring the next generations. Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein, Rebecca Brown, Donna Miscolta, Frank Abe, Nisi Shawl, Nicola Griffith, Sonora Jha and Chrystos are just a few pushing the boundaries of form, identity and possibility in their writing. There are so many more, but this is my list for today.  

To hear these amazing works read live by local Seattle actors, don’t miss Short Stories Live on 11/18.

Where Science Fiction Meets Science

What can a black hole teach us about the history and future of our universe? How well did the movie Interstellar capture the science of black holes? Are black holes black? Chris Impey, a distinguished professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, will be joining us November 15 at the Museum of Flight to discuss his new book, Einstein’s Monsters: The Life and Times of Black Holes.

In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley had a chat with Impey about space’s great wonder, the Theory of Relativity, and how dumb that Disney movie, The Black Hole, was.

JS: For the layperson – what IS a black hole?

CI: A black hole is an object so dense that the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light, meaning that nothing can get out. The event horizon marks the edge of the region where everything is trapped. A black hole is a situation where space is so curved that a piece of the universe is pinched off. Black holes range in mass from a few times the mass of the sun to over ten billion times the sun’s mass.

JS: Why are they important to study?

CI: Black holes provide the ultimate tests of general relativity. This gravity theory is very successful but it’s only been tested where gravity is weak, so confidence in the theory will grow if it can predict and explain the bizarre properties of black holes. Massive black holes are the keys to understanding how galaxies form and evolve. Black holes may also show how to derive a theory that reconciles gravity with the behavior of subatomic particles.

JS: What would happen to you if you went into one? What would it be like to your senses?

CI: A person could not survive passing into the type of black hole that results when a massive star dies. They would be spaghettified, bones and muscle fibers stretched to the breaking point. The event horizon is not a physical barrier; a person falling in would see extreme distortions of space and time as they met their fate.

JS: What movie best captures black hole science?

CI: The best black hole movie of recent times was Interstellar (2014). It boasted a pre-eminent scientific advisor in physicist Kip Thorne of Cal Tech, and computer simulations of spinning black holes were run to generate the CGI graphics. The science, like space and time itself, is stretched to the limit but not broken.

JS: What movie was the worst at it?

CI: Disney’s Black Hole (1979) gets a partial pass for when it was made but otherwise it’s in the category of scientific implausibility and very cheesy dialog. It’s notable for being Disney’s first non-PG movie. Tied for worst is Event Horizon (1997), with a premise of creating a black hole for space travel, but then somehow manages to invoke Hell and adds a lot of ridiculous plot devices and melodramatic acting.

Disney’s “The Black Hole”, 1979.

JS: Are black holes black? If not, what color are they?

CI: They are essentially black because no light can escape. However, they are not totally dark because, according to Stephen Hawking, they emit a tiny amount of radiation causing them to very slowly evaporate. Hawking radiation is too cold to have a color.

JS: How have black holes confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

CI: Black holes have been used to demonstrate the warping of space and the slowing of time that happens near the event horizon. Gravitational red shift has also been seen, where photons lose energy climbing out of the intense gravitational field. The detection of gravitational waves from binary black holes confirms not only the existence of black holes but also a key prediction of general relativity.

JS: What happens when black holes meet?

CI: Black holes do not often meet, since they are the remains of rare massive stars, and then only the subset where two stars are in a close binary orbit. They get closer due to the release of orbital energy as gravitational radiation, accelerating the merger. After this slow crescendo of gravitation waves, there is a torrent as the black holes merge, followed by a slow “ring down” phase. The math of black hole merger is that the mass of the merged black holes is less than the sum of the two masses, due to the release of gravitational waves. Somewhere in the universe two black holes merge every second.

JS: Every galaxy has a black hole. Why?

CI: Every galaxy has a black hole, with a mass roughly proportional to the total mass of old stars in the galaxy. This fact suggests that black holes play an important role in the evolution of galaxies. The black holes are inactive most of the time, but feed on gas and stars in the central region of a galaxy and flare into activity. Galaxies and their central black holes grow together, but it’s an open research question which came first, the galaxy or the black hole.


JS: You wrote that black holes “distort space and time very close to their event horizons.” Can you unpack that a bit more for me, a layperson?

CI: General relativity says that mass curves space, and so gravity is just the response of a moving object to the curvature of space. This curvature is subtle for a small object like the Earth or a low density object like the Sun, but the fantastic density of a black hole amplifies the effect. The event horizon corresponds to the place where the distortion is so extreme that light is bent back on itself and so cannot escape.

JS: What drew you to the study of them?

CI: I got into black holes through the study of active galaxies and quasars. These are galaxies harboring supermassive black holes in a highly active state, where the accretion of matter and subsequent particle acceleration causes strong radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. These are the most luminous objects in the universe. Black holes get as big as ten billion times the mass of the sun. Who could resist studying them?

JS: What can a black hole tell us about our past? Our future?

CI: Black holes are mute to the past, in the sense that they conceal what went into them. They can only form by the violent compression of matter. There is no black hole in our past, nor any in our immediate future, because the Sun will die instead as a white dwarf. But they do tell of the future of the universe since they embody entropy and disorder, and that is the ultimate fate of matter and the cosmos.

Don’t miss Impey’s event on 11/15 at The Museum of Flight.

Hitting the Ground Running

Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” runs. He runs a lot. He’s run fourteen marathons and logged tens of thousands of miles on roads, sidewalks, and paths all over the United States and the world. His feet are landing him at Seattle First Baptist Church on November 11 to discuss his new book, The Incomplete Book of Running.

Aaron Roche, Seattle Running Club’s Director of Communications, runs too. He runs a lot. He recently talked to Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley about the emotions one gets while running and a few good spots that Sagal can stretch his legs while he’s in town.

JS: What are the benefits of joining the Seattle Running Club?

AR: What I say is that it is a community dedicated to empowering the runner in all of us. It’s a low-pressure environment that encourages camaraderie for runners of all shapes and sizes! A club with some seriously kind-hearted and genuine volunteers who dedicate much of their time and energy to ensuring each member has a positive Seattle running experience. Also, free Tech t-shirt OR a racing singlet with each membership! 10% discount at partner stores! Registration discounts to local, club-sponsored races! Trail work parties! Group runs! A cross country team and access to associated workouts! Sunday trail runs! Destination runs! A lot of running!

JS: What are some of your most memorable runs?

AR: The Enchantments through-run this past September from Stuart Lake to Snow Lake. Doing that 19-or-so mile adventure with about a dozen of my Seattle Running Club family is an experience I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

JS: What are some good Seattle spots for beginning runners?

AR: Seattle’s city parks and pedestrian/bicycle trails offer the perfect terrain to lace up and get out there for your first ever run, your first run in five years, or your first run in Seattle. Living in the South End, I’m partial to anything that combines the Lake Washington Boulevard Trail, Chief Sealth Trail, and Seward Park! My go-to park runs are Seward, Woodland Park, up to and around Green Lake, Magnuson Park, and Lincoln Park.

JS: What are some good Seattle spots for more established runners?

AR: Once you’ve explored the aforementioned trails and urban parks of Seattle, it’s nice to spice things up with some trail and longer runs out on the Eastside and in the mountains. My favorites are Coal Creek Parkway to a loop around Cougar Mountain, the Redmond Watershed Preserve, East Lake Sammamish Trail (and the complete circumnavigation of Lake Sammamish), anything between I-90 and Hwy 2 on the Pacific Crest Trail (Kendall Katwalk and Lake Valhalla come to mind), the Enchantments, and the Snoqualmie Valley Trail between Duvall and Fall City.

JS: What has running given you emotionally?

AR: Running has always been a therapeutic outlet for me. I get angry on runs. I feel vulnerable on runs. I lose my mind on runs. I experience tremendous joy and clarity on runs. The spectrum of feelings during a run can span from one extreme to the other and can be like taking a drug. People say running is their drug of choice and I would agree.  Running gives me purpose. I can turn to running to explore my physical limits. I can use running as a way to satisfy my need for competition. But the best part is the runner’s high. It is no myth! Also, it’s an excuse to wear split shorts!

JS: What are the next events for Seattle Running Club?

AR: Check out our website for the latest!

Don’t miss Peter Sagal’s event on 11/11.

Barsuk Bands We’d Like to See on Town Hall’s Stage

Sometime in October, 2001 I first heard the opening musical strains of NPR’s “On Point.” They’re enrapturing, unmistakable—and as of 2001, practically untraceable. This was before most of us even knew how to use the internet. Few people had heard of a small online resource called Wikipedia (launched earlier that year) and it would be nearly a decade before music identification apps like Shazam would explode into ubiquity with the iPhone revolution. I had no way to know this was anything more than the program’s theme music—and once I did learn it was a real song, I had no way to track it down. But when I first heard the jaunty snares and hypnotic guitar loop that announced the start of the program, I knew I wanted more. (That particular tune is “Everything Is Alright” by Four Tet, in case you’re curious.)

I was so fascinated to sit down with Town Hall’s Digital Media Producer Jini Palmer to learn about some of the opening music she uses in our Town Hall podcast series.

Frequent radio and podcast listeners are no doubt familiar with the practice of bookending a program with a few bars of catchy ramp-up music. And plenty of listeners will know the peculiar and unique chagrin of loving the ten seconds of theme song that opens their favorite podcast, but having no idea how to locate the full song. That’s why I was so fascinated to sit down with Town Hall’s Digital Media Producer Jini Palmer to learn about some of the opening music she uses in our Town Hall podcast series.

Recently Jini has been updating the series podcasts to feature opening music from the local label Barsuk Records. She’s selecting songs that she thinks speak to the character of each podcast series, transporting listeners to the right headspace while highlighting each show’s individuality. As I listened to these tracks, I was struck by how much each one had its own distinctive flair—which got me wondering about what it would be like to hear these artists perform on Town Hall’s stage.

For the opening song of our Arts & Culture series podcast, Jini chose the languid pop track “Eleanor” by Hibou, the echoing shoegaze-synth solo project of artist Peter Michel. “This song is from Hibou’s first album, and this particular song is kind of a breakdown of the album’s style.” Jini says. “This one has all the same elements that I enjoy in many of their songs, like the synth-drums and ringing guitar, but with a more measured tone that seemed appropriate for introducing the Arts & Culture lectures.”

Peter Michel (aka Hibou)

But Hibou’s breakneck melodic dream pop isn’t absent from our podcast series altogether—the opening music for Town Hall’s insider podcast In The Moment is in fact “Dissolve,” the very first song of Hibou’s self-titled album. And as listeners of In The Moment can attest, those first driving seconds of Hibou’s energy seem relentlessly committed to putting you in a good mood. I wondered aloud to Jini about the possibility of bringing Hibou to Town Hall in person to perform the theme song at a potential live recording of In The Moment. “That sounds great,” Jini chirps, “and I’m sure Hibou would bring great energy. But a live In The Moment still seems a long way off.”

She turns my attention to a different track: “Eating Paper” by David Bazan. The song’s rhythmic rock guitar—alongside steady ringing tones with a curiosity-piquing timbre from an instrument I can’t quite place—comprise the theme music for our Civics series podcast. “I can imagine David Bazan playing to a packed Forum, with all the chairs full and standing room in the new Library and Bar.” As I listen, I can understand why. Bazan’s lyrics are provocative and profoundly down-to-earth. His honest, confessional tone seems to beg for a more personal performance—the kind that Town Hall’s new Forum or Reading Room are perfectly designed for.

David Bazan

“Or maybe in the Great Hall?” The comment startles me; I had pictured Bazan as such a perfect fit for the Forum that it almost feels wrong to move him, even hypothetically. But her reasoning makes sense. “Could you imagine what it would be like to hear him with the acoustic reflector?” I can. The old Great Hall admittedly had some sound quality issues: dead spots, audio distribution trouble, uneven volume depending on where you sat. The new acoustic reflector will deliver higher quality sound evenly throughout the Hall, and is designed to work with amplified, unamplified, and acoustic music. The songs on David Bazan’s album Strange Negotiations (where Jini discovered “Eating Paper”) switch effortlessly between acoustic, rock, and folk—and seem to live somewhere in between.


I was struck by how much each one had its own distinctive flair—which got me wondering about what it would be like to hear these artists perform on Town Hall’s stage.

Our Science series opening song was a bit of a dark horse, but the selection spoke to Jini’s peculiar sense of humor. She selected multi-instrumentalist Eric Elbogen, a.k.a. Say Hi To Your Mom (or just Say Hi for short) to lend us the gently grooving guitar-and-synth chords of his track “Galaxies Will Be Born.” It’s a deliciously ironic choice, given that the lyrics to every song on that album are pretty much exclusively about the life and times of vampires!

I chose [this song] because the guitar reminded me of stars twinkling. That, combined with the song’s name, made it relate in my mind to Science since we have so many Astronomy events,” Jini explains. “Plus I thought it was a funny juxtaposition to open our Science talks with a song from an album that’s about mythical creatures like vampires. Most people wouldn’t necessarily make that connection unless they were familiar with the album and what it’s about, so it’s mostly just a joke for me.” 

Say Hi (To Your Mom)

The song certainly primes Science listeners with a kind of pensive quality, but Say Hi’s creatures-of-the-night theme took me in a bit of a different direction. Eric’s music would make a fantastic complement to Seattle Radio Theatre’s annual live Halloween broadcasts at Town Hall, such as last year’s popular show Chimes At Midnight or this season’s live broadcast of Orson Welles’ fateful classic War of the Worlds on October 25, 2018. It’d be a real treat to see Say Hi join the live music accompaniment section for a Seattle Radio Theatre show—but sadly that’s just a beautiful dream. For now, we’ll have to make do with rocking out to his catchy vampire-themed album Bleeder’s Digest on the way to the show.

As our conversation draws to a close, Jini delights me with news of her runner-up musical choice. “I was considering using something by The Long Winters,” she tells me. “I almost went with their song ‘Unsalted Butter’ for the Arts & Culture podcast, and ‘Scared Straight’ for Civics. I like both of those songs a lot, and I dig The Long Winters. But they just weren’t the perfect fit like the other bands. Barsuk has so much good stuff, it was hard to pick.” The comment encourages me to dig deeper into the archives of other bands on the Barsuk record label—and there are plenty of great options to choose from. It’s strange the way we come to learn about amazing music, and how we come full circle. Exploring the origins of theme music back in 2001 inspired me to do the same for Town Hall’s podcasts and fall in love with the music on Barsuk records. And at the end of it all I re-encounter The Long Winters—a group I discovered several years ago because they’ve lent one of their songs to another podcast to use as a theme song.

Long Winters

I can imagine The Long Winters really putting Town Hall’s new acoustic system through its paces, and how they’d certainly bring the house down as headliners at one of our annual Distilled fundraisers or a reopening celebration for our newly renovated building. Of course, I know a Long Winters concert at Town Hall is purely hypothetical. Indeed, so would be a performance by Hibou, David Bazan, or Say Hi. For now I’ll have to make do with the first ten seconds of our podcasts.

But we’ve come a long way since 2001—this time I know where to find the songs.

Barsuk Records has been kind enough to let us use songs from their incredible repertoire. Take a look at their website to find more amazing groups like the ones features on Town Hall’s podcasts.

For more information about Hibou, David Bazan, Say Hi To Your Mom, and The Long Winters, check out their websites or pick up a copy of their albums.

Talking About Death Over Dinner

How do we want to die? Where do we want to be when our lives end, and what do we want to happen to us after we’re gone? It’s a topic we go to great lengths to avoid, from our hospitals to our homes. But for Michael Hebb, creating an environment for us to join our families at the table and have a conversation about the end of our lives is at the core of his work. Michael Hebb will be speaking on Town Hall’s stage on 10/11/2018 to explore ideas in his book Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner). He sat down with Town Hall’s Copywriter Alexander Eby for a deeper dive into the most critical conversation we’re not having.

AE: Your Death Over Dinner project is fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit about where it all started?

MH: For the last 20 years I’ve been gathering people to reinvigorate how we eat together and spend time together at the dinner table, and to make it as impactful as possible once we get there. In many ways we’ve lost the art and the knowledge of how to gather people at a table—not just go out to a fancy restaurant, but actually really use the table as a site of culture and engagement and joy.

This has ranged from bringing Presidents together—working with the Clinton Global Initiative and the Obamas—to working with people that are unsheltered or homeless or suffering from chronic illness. In these contexts we often work our way to the topic of death, and that layer has really morphed the table into a site of healing. Death Over Dinner was a way to get people back to the table to have this conversation and create healing on a larger scale, hopefully to reach millions. If we are our own best healers and our community is the second best, what are the tools for us to help deeply engage with each other and work on the issues that we repress?

AE: And the tool you decided to start with was something that’s commonly present in our homes. We can all get our heads around the idea of sitting down at the table with family or friends and talking over a meal.

MH: Right. Death Over Dinner was a way to cultivate a warmer and more inviting environment to have a conversation about this very complex and weighty topic of death. It’s provocative and it gets people’s attention, but in many ways our approach to death is very broken. 75% of Americans want to die at home and only 25% of us do. So when it comes to end-of-life, half of America is not getting its wishes fulfilled.

Often the reason for this is that people’s wishes haven’t been communicated in the proper way. Families don’t feel emboldened to honor those wishes, and they don’t know what decisions to make for a loved one when dealing with a tragedy or a crisis or a terminal illness. The cost associated with not having that conversation and not talking about death—you can’t even put a price tag on it. The number one cause of bankruptcy in America is medical expense, and the number one line item in those medical expenses is end-of-life expense. It’s literally bankrupting us to continue not having these conversations. Not to mention the emotional toll. If something tragic happens to your parents, your spouse, your friends, and you don’t know what they want, there’s such an additional emotional weight that settles if you’re not able to have these open conversations.

AE: I imagine you could learn a great deal about the people you’re closest to in your life by hearing from them what they would want their last wishes to be.

MH: I’ve never done a death dinner with a married couple that hasn’t said to one another “I’ve never heard that before,” or “I never told you this before.” In a good way. I’ve seen families build compassion and reveal hidden depths to one another. I’ve seen strangers become lifelong friends. We know it’s a critical conversation, but almost no one takes that next step with us, holds our hand or opens the door for us. I wanted to walk into these canyons and help people find the pathway, I wanted to take them through the labyrinth.

And I wanted my book to act as a guide us to start thinking about death and preparing to have this conversation in general.  It’s meant to act as a resource to get people thinking about how to talk with the people we love, and also to look inward at our own lives through the lens of death. Death meditation has been around since the birth of philosophy, and is one of the best ways to actually identify how you want to live, to create your own personal mission statement for life. It’s the oldest, strongest medicine for knowing thyself and connecting with others—and it’s also practical as hell. It’s extraordinary that death, the topic we avoid talking about the most, has this much impact.

AE: When you say this is a conversation that we’re not really having, do you mean we as in all of everyone humanity or do you mean just American culture?

MH: Well, I can speak to a certain measure of authority that we aren’t having this conversation in the United States, but this is also true all over the world. In America, it was not until recently that doctors and nurses and social workers had an established code for end-of-life conversations. There’s an emotional weight that comes with those professions due to the fact that many of these doctors and nurses don’t have a healthy way to talk about the deaths that they’ve witnessed. There’s a very large percentage of our medical profession suffering from PTSD, with the highest burnout rate of any industry. There have been improvements, but we’re still at the very beginning.

And this isn’t a problem unique to the United States. I recently worked with the leadership of the Australian healthcare system, the Australian Center for Health Care Research. They discovered our initiative and reached out to us after they did a three year study which concluded that conversations about end-of-life would be the most effective way to improve healthcare in Australia. They were very clear that they had repressed the conversation, and as a result they did not have an especially robust system for living wills, power of attorney, advanced care directives—none of these notarized documents anywhere near the level they would have liked. I told them these documents are great and we should all have them, but it’s the conversations—the living, nuanced, personal conversations—that really help family members to know how to honor somebody or how to make decisions for them if they’re incapacitated.

AE: Do you recommend people organize their own Death Dinners?

MH: Having this conversation over dinner is the context that I introduced, but the book is meant to be for anybody. The goal was to increase people’s literacy and comfort around this topic and their ability to have their own end-of-life conversations with the people in their lives. You can have them in person, over phone, over E-mail. The project is for people who gravitate towards the comfort of dinner as a setting, to remove that barrier to entry. All you have to do is roast a chicken.

Michael Hebb will be speaking on Town Hall’s stage and signing copies of his book Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner) on 10/11/2018.

Rock Talk with a Woman of the World

“It was always my belief that rock and roll belonged in the hands of the people, not rock stars,” Patti Smith once said. Evelyn McDonnell is doing her part to put  rock and roll in the hands of the people with her new book, Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. McDonnell, associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, will be at MoPOP on Friday, October 12th to discuss women who have defined musical history.

But before taking our stage, she took a seat with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss having a crush on Michael Jackson, Rhode Island bands, and her vision of an all-female super group.

JS: What was your first introduction to rock growing up? What bands/singers most influenced you as a tot?

EM: My parents loved music. I grew up in a house with one room centered around the TV and the other, the stereo. I was exposed from a very early age to a variety of genres: jazz, classical, show tunes, and rock. In another life, my mom would have been a musical actress (instead, she was an award-winning high school teacher), so we listened to a lot of cast recordings. I have very early memories of standing on coffee tables and singing and dancing along to “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” at cocktail parties. We also listened to the Beatles a lot, and Dylan, and Joan Baez; Mom loved Joan Baez. One of my favorite TV shows was the Jackson 5 cartoon show. Michael Jackson was my first crush, the Jackson 5 Greatest Hits my first album. Motown, the sound of young America, indeed!

JS: When you reached high school/college, what bands/singers influenced you?

EM: In high school, I remained a Beatlemaniac. I remember distinctly the day John Lennon was killed. My clock radio woke me up with the news; I woke up crying. Bruce Springsteen was one of the first contemporary artists who really spoke to my life as a kid growing up in an industrial small town in the American heartland. Around the same time I discovered Patti Smith. That was transformational. I was in love with Bruce, but I wanted to be Patti. She was the first artist—a female, a tomboy, a writer—that I could really see myself in. She opened the door to punk rock, which was the defining musical genre of my coming of age, particularly the Clash, the Jam and the Ramones. I didn’t know at the time about the great female punk bands until the Go-Go’s broke through, and Beauty and the Beat provided sweet vindication for my quirky teenage self.

JS: Did you gravitate towards male-led bands or female-led bands? Did that matter to you? In what ways?

EM: I listened to anyone. I was what they now call a poptimist, but I just called populism (which is still the name of my blog). But I always paid particular attention to female artists, because as a woman in the world, I knew we needed each other’s support. I also could often relate to what they were singing about in gendered ways. My first paid article was on a new local band called Throwing Muses. That pretty much set the tone for everything to come.

JS: Have you ever been in a band yourself? If so, what kinds?

EM: I have been in a couple of one-off bands, “off” being the operative word. Both were in Rhode Island. One was a band of music critics that played a benefit every year; I was a backing singer. It was a pretty generic bar band. The other was with a group of friends for a farewell show for a cross-country road trip two of us were embarking on. We were named the Fiendish Thingees.

JS: What was the impetus of this book?

EM: So many important, genius female artists have emerged in the past decade, but no book has gathered or acknowledged them. We also felt it was important to connect today’s women who rock with the ones who paved the way for them. The last book to try to connect all these threads in a big, multi-voice, illustrated fashion came out in the 1990s—Trouble Girls—and so much has happened since then. At the time we started putting this book together, we also felt like it was a historic time for women, what with the U.S. about to elect its first female president, and we wanted to acknowledge our female sheroes. Of course, the context for the book quickly changed, and in a sense, it became more important.

JS: With the women’s marches, you mean? The #MeToo movement?

EM: The book was completed before the #MeToo movement became huge, before the Harvey Weinstein articles came out. So in a sense, it was prescient. But the point is really that assault, harassment, and discrimination have been hurdles for women in the music industry since the beginning, and yet, we’ve persisted. Since Ma Rainey mentored Bessie Smith, women have also been passing each other the torch, which is a lot of what this book is about—sometimes explicitly, as when Alice Bag writes about June Millington, and Peaches salutes Sinead O’Connor. This book was conceived in one political environment and is being published in another one, but because these stories have eternal truths, it remains just as relevant.

JS: Who would be in your all-female band super group? What would you name the band?

EM: Wow, that’s hard. Sandy West on drums. Carol Kaye on bass. Poison Ivy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe on guitar. Bjork on vocals. Aretha on vocals and piano. Sheila E on percussion. It’d be a stylistic mess. I’d call them Girl Genius.

Don’t miss Women Who Rock on October 12. Get your tickets here.

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