Connecting Across the Social Distance with Eric Liu

At a time when quarantines are keeping us isolated from our neighbors, it’s more important than ever to help us maintain connections with our community and stay engaged as citizens. Eric Liu, co-founder of Citizen University, hosts regular Civic Saturday gatherings in Seattle to help us reflect, connect, and cultivate the kind of healthy civic traditions we need during this difficult time.

Town Hall and Citizen University are presenting a Virtual Civic Saturday on 3/28 to give civic-minded Seattleites a place to gather—even if it’s not in person. To preface this livestreamed event, Liu sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby for a conversation about community health.

AE: During this time of social distancing, what are some ways we can maintain engagement with our community and feel that we’re still contributing to our society, even if we can’t do it in person?

EL: There are so many ways! Create a contact sheet for you and your neighbors—it’s a good chance to check on elders and introduce yourself (from an appropriate distance) to folks you don’t know yet. Read and subscribe to the Seattle Times—we in this area are unlucky to be an epicenter of the virus but we are exceedingly lucky to have an independent daily newspaper with such talented and dedicated staff. Circulate your time, talent, and treasure at any scale using any platform available.

AE: When health concerns are making people feel alienated from their neighbors, it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Right now, in what ways is Seattle (and our nation) most united?

EL: We are all realizing that when it comes to a pandemic there is no such thing as someone else’s problem. Our community is only as healthy as its least healthy members. That’s always true but most of the time society forgets it. There is no avoiding that truth now.

AE: What agencies and sectors would you encourage people to support right now? Who should we donate to? Who should we patronize?

EL: We should first make sure we help those who help us: health care workers, grocery workers, delivery workers. We can help them by pushing our policymakers and big employers to do right by all of them: living wages, paid sick leave, safer workplaces. Second, we should all get better at asking for help. Epidemiologically and economically, things are going to get worse before they get better. So it’s not so much “who should we donate to” as it is a matter of practicing mutual aid and figuring out how we can help each other.

AE: Many people are finding themselves stuck in their homes with an abundance of free time—the perfect opportunity to buff up our civic education! What are some texts at the top of your “civics required reading” list that you recommend people read during this time? Why do they resonate with you?

EL: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is about how people come together in times of disaster and form the kind of communities that we all yearn for—and she argues that the yearning means that we shouldn’t let that feeling evaporate after the worst passes. We need to pay close attention now, during the crisis, to how we practice kindness and civic love and civic responsibility so that we can keep up those practices after the crisis.

AE: What’s a message you would want all of Seattle to hear and meditate on in the coming weeks?

EL: Society becomes how you behave.

Join Eric Liu online on 3/28 for a Virtual Civic Saturday, or check out Citizen University to explore Civic Sermons from past gatherings

Getting Animated with Gustafer Yellowgold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Little Ink on Tattooing

The days when tattoos were most associated with sailors and ex-cons are long gone. Seattle has a diverse and thriving tattoo scene. Gage Academy of Art Artistic Director Gary Faigin moderates a panel of three tattoo artists on March 24 at Town Hall. Tickets are only $5 and free for anyone 22 and under. Update: In-Person programming at Town Hall has been suspended. We hope to have this panel discussion on tattooing to occur in the coming months.

One of those tattoo artists, Heidi Sandhorst of Dark Age Tattoo, sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss a tattoo as a celebration, black and grey tiger faces, and how there are no strange requests.

JS: When did you start appreciating the art of the tattoo? What spoke to you about tattoos?

HS: This seems like such a hard question because tattoos have been such a part of my life for a long time. Tattoos have been in my field of awareness since I was a preteen and when I really started discovering music for myself: punk and riot girl. Most of the people in those bands and those that went to their shows had tattoos. Most of my friends had tattoos. I have always been an artist, have always been creating art and tattoos are just another way to express myself, to shrug off the status quo, to heal, to just enjoy something beautiful, and so many other things. It can mean anything and/or nothing for those who decides to wear them and I love that.

JS: What was the first tattoo you got? How many do you have now?

HS: I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday, I made the appointment a few weeks before it and I got a black and grey tiger face on my back shoulder. I can’t really say how many I have because I have larger pieces that took many sessions. I still have to tattoo my back and the back of my thighs, but that will be one big piece, and little bits here and there. I will probably never be done!

JS: What tattoo on you means the most to you? Why?

HS: The tattoo that means the most to me is usually the most recent one I got because it’s the one I am the most into at the time. Some people get tattooed for a story; I get tattooed to celebrate the art of artists and people I love. My most recent one is a peony on my knee by an amazing artist, Jamie August. Jamie is also one of the kindest people I have ever had the honor to meet.

JS: When did you start tattooing others? When did you decide to try and make it your job?

HS: I didn’t start tattooing people until I was well into my apprenticeship, so I had already decided to make tattooing my career when I did my first tattoo. 

JS: What tattoo did you do  for someone else are you most proud of?

HS: I strive to be proud of every tattoo I do.  I am proud when I execute a clients idea well, when they are happy, healed, safe, whatever their goal for the tattoo is and I have successfully aided in that process. I am also extra excited about subject matter I enjoy drawing and tattooing. Being given free reign to draw and tattoo it in my style is my favorite! 

JS: What’s the strangest request you’ve had for a tattoo?

HS: There are no strange requests! We are all human and you should never feel judged for being as “weird” as you want to be. I however will not tattoo anything racist/hateful and I deeply strive to not tattoo anything culturally appropriative that is offensive to the culture it was taken from, but I will admit that is a lifelong learning process and I defer to people that come from those cultures and actively seek out information from cultures and perspectives outside my own to be better informed. I know since these perspectives are outside my own I have to commit to always seeking out those voices and I will always be learning and growing.

JS: How long have you been at Dark Age?

HS: I have worked at Dark Age as long as it’s been open. Since 2014. 

JS: Why do you think it took so long for tattoos to make it to the mainstream?

HS: Tattoos have always been “mainstream” for me, so I’m not sure. Perhaps with the rise of Instagram and social media,  the ability to see so many people expressing themselves in so many ways so easily has made it more acceptable to express oneself.

JS: What’s the future hold for you in regards to tattoos?

HS: My future in tattooing is my future in life, to grow and learn always. To always be becoming the best artist, healer, steward of compassion I can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Organic food: is it worth it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: What should meat eaters consider?

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

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

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

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

Oud Intentions

What happens when you merge fluid improvisation and subtle noise with traditional Arabic music—then add the talent of a guitar master? The Vancouver-based band Haram aims to find out. Led by award-winning oud virtuoso Gordon Grdina, Haram will be joining us at Town Hall on 3/1 in a Global Rhythms performance alongside legendary guitarist Marc Ribot.

Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Gordon Grdina for a conversation about ouds, band history, and the spirit of collaboration.

AE: Initially, what got Haram together? What factors steered the band towards including elements of traditional Arabic music?

GG: The band came together in 2008 from two main ideas. First, I wanted a band that could play the traditional Arabic music I was studying but in an unorthodox way. This was the Iraqi folk music I was learning from my teacher Serwan Yamolky and the traditional radio music from Egypt in the 50-60’s by musicians like Oum Khalsoum Farid Al Atrache, Abdel Wahab etc. We’ve since expanded to include Sudanese and Persian music from the same period. 

Secondly, aside from my trio I wasn’t playing regularly with a lot of the incredible musicians in Vancouver and wanted to have a larger ensemble where we could all play together and get a chance to hang out. Some of the musicians were already versed in this music but most weren’t. I knew their incredible sensitivities would bring out new aspects of this ancient music and the repertoire would bring out aspects of their own playing we hadn’t heard before. It ended up being a great idea and we’ve enjoyed many great nights of music since then.

AE: Why are you drawn to the oud as an instrument? What’s it like to try to merge that sound with the rock/jazz/indie/improv sensibilities of the band at large?

GG: I had a very good guitar teacher when I was young who always brought new interesting music to each lesson, and left it with me so that I would get inspired. At 13 I was into a lot of blues and slide guitar, and my teacher Marko Ferenc brought me a Vishwa Mohan Bhatt record with Simon Shaheen. He wanted me to check out Vishaw’s slide playing, but as soon as I heard the Oud for the first time I was blown away. I couldn’t understand how the sound was being made but it grabbed me and I fell in love with it instantly. Simon Shaheen is also one of the greatest Oud players in the world so that didn’t really hurt either. I then got interested in other Oud players like Hamza El Din and Rabih Abou Khalili and later Munir Bachir and others. 

I didn’t get an Oud and start playing the music until I graduated from Jazz School. I got one off of Ebay and instantly started a band called Sangha with my friends Hidayat Honari Neelamjit Dhillon and Hamin Honari. We play original music based in Arabic Persian and Indian concepts. So my understanding of the instrument and practice of it has always been within a blending of tradition. I’ve since studied traditional Arabic music more in-depth, but using the traditional alongside all of the other aspects of my musical understanding is intrinsic to how I make music. I knew that this band would bring out different aspects of the musicians and I could see how their unique voices could add a different dimension to these timeless melodies. 

AE: What interests you most about working with Marc Ribot? What do you think the result will be of blending his musical style with Haram’s?

GG: Everyone in the band and myself are huge fans of Marc. He is one of the icons of the instrument because he transcends the guitar and creates music that immediately touches you. He is soulful, always interesting and intriguing no matter what he does. His sound isn’t based in flawless technique—even though he has that too. It’s based on creating the most direct and honest music in the moment. The most exciting part of this band is that everyone thrives on freely creating in the moment with a sense of abandon.

I think that Marc will meet this abandon and take us all to the next level. I’m expecting excitement, surprise, a fair amount of ripping and the unknown!

Haram and Ribot join forces onstage on 3/1 for an energetic and intuitive concert in a unique exploration of Arabic musical traditions. Get your tickets here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some Information about Misinformation: A Conversation with Samuel Woolley

 

Information literacy is an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy. Samuel Woolley will arrive on Town Hall’s stage on January 9 to discuss his new book The Reality Game. It shows how the breakneck rate of technological change is making information literacy nearly impossible. Woolley argues for a new culture of invention, one built around accountability, and especially transparency.

He recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss bots, bias, and Facebook.

JS: What initially got you interested in misinformation?

SW: I first got interested in digital misinformation during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—offline protests that made serious use of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to organize and communicate. I noticed, during these protests and participants’ use of digital tools, that the internet wasn’t only getting used for democratic ideals or to aid the people fighting back against authoritarian regimes. In fact, it looked like the regimes and their supporters were also using these same social media platforms in attempts to artificially amplify their own talking points. They were building armies of fake accounts—known as sock puppets and, when automated, political bots—to massively spin things in their favor. A small group of researchers, including my collaborator Philip Howard and I, quickly discovered that these coordinated “computational propaganda” (as we began calling them) campaigns were also being used to attack and defame opposition leaders. Bot armies were simultaneously co-opting the hashtags the activists were using to coordinate and filling them with misinfo, spam and noise—making it so the platforms became less viable tools for communication. After running early analyses on these circumstances, we began to widen our net to focus on whether similar tactics were being used around the globe. The punchline is well known to most people now, but suffice it to say that we found similar tactics being used during almost all online conversations surrounding the elections and other important events we examined—from Australia to Venezuela.

JS: What can we do, John and Jane Q. Public, do to combat it? How can we tell fact from fiction these days?

SW: I think that the public should have hope for several reasons, and also that there are several things we can do to combat misinfo, disinfo, and computational propaganda. First, it’s important to note that the very fact that we are having serious public discussions about the problems associated with misinfo and “fake news” (though I prefer not to use this particular term) is a win for truth. Those who work to spread fiction, for political purposes or otherwise, have a much harder time spreading junk news and other informational garbage when people are savvy to the problem—as some have said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” when it comes to such issues. When my teammates and I first started studying and reporting on these problems in 2013, it was very difficult to get anyone, let alone tech firms, to pay attention. Now, stories about misinformation are everywhere you look. 

Social media firms are also responding, some more effectively than others. 

There are also tools people can use to track social media bot accounts and false narratives. BotOmeter allows people to plug in Twitter accounts handles and, using numerous parameters, learn if a suspicious account is actually automated. BotCheck.me, from RoBhat Labs in Berkeley, has similar uses. The team at RoBhat also have tools like NewsBotAI, which assesses bias in news articles, Surfsafe.me, which assesses author credibility, and FactCheck.me, which works for cluster automated behaviour and improve response times to misinfo attacks. On top of this, teams at the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin, FirstDraft, Data and Society, the SMaPP Lab at NYU, the Digital Intelligence Lab at IFTF,  the German Marshall Fund, the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council and others are constantly releasing top notch research and deploying exciting new tools to combat misinformation and bolster solid reporting.

JS: Are our social media channels too far gone? Twitter, I know, recently banned political ads. Will that prove at all effective? Why/why not?

SW: The largest social media companies,Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc., face the serious challenge of catching up to a problem that has existed on their platforms for a decade. For the longest time, they were doing little more than deleting the automated accounts they chanced upon. They did not, by their own admission, do nearly enough about the issue of political manipulation on their platforms. They set their sights on growing as fast as possible without thoughts to the informational repercussions that came with this massive scaling. It’s hard for me to see this unfettered growth, alongside the disregard for how they were damaging democratic communication, for anything other than greed and negligence. Finally, though, the executives at the companies are beginning to take responsibility and they are deploying serious resources towards fighting back against misinformation and other forms of manipulation online. 

Really, though, it is the researchers and engineers at these companies who I have the most faith in. They are the ones with the serious know-how, and they’ve shown they want to do something. It was these employees that spoke back against Zuckerberg’s recent move to allow to allow politicians to spread disinformation in Facebook ads in the name of “free speech.” It was them who fought back against (and eventually sunk) predatory payday loan ads and Google’s Project Maven AI drone project with the pentagon. Recent moves by Twitter to ban all political ads, or by Facebook’s near opposite move to allow some forms of political disinformation in ads, feel a little too cut and dry for my taste. These companies are being heavy-handed, likely for the sake of optics and marketing, rather than taking a nuanced approach to the problems. I mean, what exactly constitutes a “political” ad? And how can they allow the most influential among us to spread totally fake narratives? It seems like the companies are trying, and even trying hard, but that they’ve still got a lot of work to do. This makes me wonder, what new social media platforms will arise? How will new channels be built, from day one, in efforts to prevent the flow of misinfo?

JS: Facebook—friend or foe?

SW: Facebook, as I’ve mentioned, has a lot of problems and shoulders a serious share of the blame for the current fractured state of the global information ecosystem. Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and other executives at Facebook have become well known among the tech crowd, from external researchers like me to current and former Facebook employees, for tightly controlling their firm. They would do well to make the process of fixing the problems they’ve helped to create by allowing more democratic input from their own employees and outside experts. They should listen, and listen well, to their research team—which is full of capable, well-trained, social and computer scientists. 

Google also shares a huge share of the blame, but has gotten much less attention, mostly by remaining mum and towing the bogus line that they are “just a search company.” As if the world’s largest search firm hasn’t had a hand in allowing the information we see and consume on their engine to be manipulated and disinformative at several junctures throughout its brief history. They also own YouTube, which researchers like Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis have shown to be rife with white-supremacist, racist, and other seriously problematic content. Google needs to step up in a very big way. Twitter, because of its smaller size, is more a bit player in this drama—though they get a lot of attention because journalists and policy wonks hang out on the platform. In recent months, Twitter has arguably been doing more than its larger rivals to fight back with its political ads ban and other moves. What we chiefly need, though, is more collaboration between the firms. Right now they aren’t taking these issues on as a team. They are still trying to hide their cards from the companies they see as their opponents in the market when really they should be focusing on their opponents in the fight for the truth.

JS: Fake news stories. Twitter bots. Deepfake videos. What’s next on the misinformation front?

SW: I think the next frontiers for misinformation lie in innovations in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and extended reality media. I’m also concerned about the realization of individualized political ad targeting and things like politically motivated geofencing. To date, the vast majority of social media bots we’ve seen have been clunky and brutish, usually just massively amplifying likes or re-posts on behalf of one political idea or person or in opposition to another. 

They’re the cheapest tool that has gotten the job done for those hoping to manipulate public opinion. With social media firms stepping up their responses to misinformation, and with innovations and price drops in AI tools, it’s likely we will begin seeing more convincingly human AI accounts. Whether these accounts will actually be able to convince people, rather than polarize and disgust them in the way their clunky-automated brethren have, remains to be seen. But we should be planning for AI to be deployed for manipulative information operations. Also worth thinking about: will AR and VR tools be used to spread propaganda? If so, how? I list examples in my new book of some ways this is already happening in places like China and beyond. We’ve got to get ahead of such uses of our emergent technology before they grow out of hand.

JS: Is technology moving at too fast a rate for us to keep up with it in regards to misinformation? 

SW: Yes and no. Yes, technology is growing too fast and we could really benefit from a “slow” technology movement like that discussed by Janell Burley Hoffman and others. We need a new direction in tech that focuses on thoughtful, ethically-made tools that are built with human rights in mind rather than growth and profit. But no, too, because I’m a firm believer that politics, scandal, and points of concern move like a pendulum. History shows us we tend to swing from one extreme to another, politically, culturally, economically, socially. We are lucky when we exist in times of relative balance. The way technology has allowed disinformation to scale through automation, and the way that features like anonymity prohibit our ability to catch the “bad-guys”—these things are scary but they aren’t insurmountable. Technology is not a runaway train, we aren’t dealing with HAL or Skynet here, we still have control and there are still many, many, things we can do. We can, for instance, built tools with the best features of humanity in mind. We can design for benevolence, equity and fairness. 

JS: What do you suggest the government (local/state/federal) do to stem this tide?

SW: Generate sensible policy! I say “sensible” because many of the attempts I’ve seen, from Europe to Brazil to the US, lack technological viability and tend towards heavy-handedness. We need governments and policy-makers to consult very closely with public interest technologists and social scientists who study technology so that they create laws and regulations that actually combat rather than complicate the problems at hand. I’m proud of politicians and political entities like Mark Warner and the City of Seattle that have worked to actually combat misinformation online. My other caution is, though, that we need systematic regulation to this problem. Fragmented laws—for instance amalgamations of divergent regulation at the local, state and federal levels—could hurt us in getting things done a lot more than they could help.


Learn more when Samuel Woolley talks misinformation on 1/9. Tickets are on sale now.

The American Xenophobia Paradox: A Conversation with Erika Lee

The United States is known as a nation of immigrants—but it is also a nation of xenophobia. Erika Lee,director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, takes the stage at Town Hall on December 10 with an unblinking look at the irrational fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants which have been defining features of our nation from the colonial era to the Trump era. Tickets are only $5 (free for anyone under the age of 22) and are available now.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley sat down with Lee to briefly discuss political power, racism, and Benjamin Franklin.

JS: What initially got you interested in the topic of xenophobia? 

EL: I have always been fascinated with America’s history of immigration, one that has been marked by both a tradition of welcoming immigrants and a long record of xenophobia – an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants. But the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump’s explicitly xenophobic campaign still took me by surprise. Then he was elected. My students, many of whom were first generation immigrants and refugees, asked me, “How did this happen?” I didn’t have the answers. I knew that I owed it to my students—and to all Americans—to try and figure this out.

JS: For the layperson, what IS xenophobia?

EL: Coming from the Greek words xenos, which translates into “stranger,” and phobos, which means either “fear” or “flight,” xenophobia  literally means fear and hatred of foreigners. But I think that it is important to think about xenophobia beyond this literal translation. It is an ideology: a set of beliefs and ideas based on the premise that foreigners are threats to the nation and its people. It promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners (and, crucially, people considered to be “foreign” or outsiders). And it is a form of racism; it defines certain groups as racial and religious others who are inherently inferior or dangerous—or both—and demonizes them as a group based on these presumptions. When we think about xenophobia in these ways, it becomes clear that it is not only about immigration; it is about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship, and who does not.

JS: As a nation of immigrants, why the paradox? Why do we fear the very thing we are supposedly proud of?

EL: This is one of the biggest puzzles that I try to figure out. The U.S. is indeed a “nation of immigrants;” a nation built by immigration. And while we have allowed generations of immigrants to come to the United States, that welcome has not always been uniform across groups; nor has it translated into full equality. There have always some groups that we have been wary of; to the point of demonizing them and labeling them threats to the United States and to the American people. Whom we have welcomed or banned has often been defined by race. European immigrants—while not uniformly embraced into the United States—have certainly faced less systemic xenophobia and discrimination than non-Europeans. When we understand xenophobia as a form of racism, this paradox, I think, is easier to understand.

JS: How does xenophobia work? Why does it endure? Who does it benefit?

EL: Xenophobia is often understood as something that rises and falls depending on what is going on in the United States. When our economy is good, when we are at peace, when we are unified as a country, we are more welcoming. When we are suffering through an economic downturn, are at war, or fractured as a society, we are not welcoming. 

History shows that while economic and other concerns certainly help to make xenophobia thrive, it is not just an inevitable consequence of national anxieties. It is actively promoted by special interests in the pursuit of political power. It has also endured because it has been an indelible part of American racism, white supremacy, and nationalism, and because it has been supported by American capitalism and democracy. And it has succeeded through repetition. Targeting and discriminating against one group of immigrants makes it easier (and normal) to do it against others. Even as Americans have realized that the threats allegedly posed by immigrants were, in hindsight, unjustified, they have allowed xenophobia to become an American tradition.

JS: You note how Benjamin Franklin ridiculed Germans for being “strange.” Did the Founding Fathers have the thought that they could very well be “strange” to the native populations being immigrants themselves? 

EL: In fact, it worked in the opposite way. America’s white settlers did not think of themselves as “foreigners” or “immigrants” in the same way that we use the terms today. They believed they were destined to possess and rule over the lands that became American colonies and the United States. They identified Native Americans and African Americans as America’s first “others;” those who were threats to the colonies and then the United States because they were unfit to American citizenship and racially inferior. 

JS: Chinese exclusions, Japanese internment camps, the Muslim ban – we have a long history of negative treatment towards immigrants. How/why do we target certain populations at certain times? What are the ingredients to cause this hysteria?

EL: Xenophobia thrives best in certain contexts, such as periods of rapid economic and demographic change, war, and cultural conflict. This, in part, helps to explain why and how we have targeted Chinese, Japanese, and Muslim immigrants. The anti-Chinese movement spread during the economic recession during the 1870s; the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the targeting of Muslims in America happened during World War Two and after 9/11. 

But xenophobia is also about racism and political power. Chinese, Japanese, and Muslims have all been portrayed as inherently more foreign, and thus, more dangerous than other immigrant groups. As such they have been targeted for racially discriminatory policies like African Americans and Native Americans. And the campaigns against them—especially the anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim ones—have been actively promoted by politicians as part of larger political agendas and as a way to mobilize voters. 

JS: Are we making progress as a society to eradicate it?   

EL: I’m sorry to say that at the end of writing this book, I am much less hopeful that I was at the start. The Trump era has revealed just how powerful and effective xenophobia remains in the United States. 

JS: What can a citizen do to help in this regard? 

EL: I believe that the first step is to understand how our anti-immigrant attitudes and laws have been steeped in racism then and now. In the past, we used explicitly racist language. Today, code words like “law and order” and “national security” obscure policies that are still racist in their intent and execution. 

Another concrete action that we can all take is to remain informed about immigration issues and how immigration works so that we can be prepared to recognize “fake news,” mistruths, and distorted facts.

We also need to be resolved to the idea that solving xenophobia will not happen overnight. This is a much bigger and deeper problem than just electing a new president. It is deeply rooted in our worldview, our politics, and our laws. 

Lastly, we can all get involved. There has been a tremendous backlash to Trump era immigration policies. If you agree that this administration’s approach to immigration is hurting, rather than helping our country, then let your voice (and your vote) be heard. 

Hear Lee speak more about xenophobia at Town Hall on December 10. Learn more here.

Classical Music is Child’s Play: A Conversation with Julia Tai

Charlie Brown is going to be meeting Dr. Seuss soon. On November 24 on Town Hall’s Great Hall stage, Philharmonia Northwest will be presenting a family concert highlighting the wondrous writer of The Cat in the Hat and the lovely holiday television chestnut that is A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can learn more about the coming concert here.

In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley sat down with Philharmonia Northwest’s Music Director Julia Tai to discuss Offenbach, brain development, and instrument petting zoos.

JS: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

JT: I am the Music Director of Philharmonia Northwest and the Co-Artistic Director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra. I’ve performed with the Seattle Symphony, American Youth Symphony, Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, Estonian National Youth Symphony, and many others.

JS: Does Philharmonia NW do a lot of family concerts?

JT: We have done several family concerts in the past, including Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. We make it a priority of the orchestra to provide engaging musical experiences for young audiences, whether that’s a family concert or a side-by-side concert with high school musicians. We’ve also invited elementary school students to come watch our dress rehearsals, and have collaborated with young dancers to choreograph live dances in our concerts. Family concerts are very special occasions for sure. We love seeing the audience filled with kids—listening, dancing, and having a good time. In our upcoming concert, we will also have an instrumental petting zoo in the lobby before the concert so kids can get their hands on different instruments.

JS: Why do you think kids should be exposed to classical music?

JT: There are all kinds of studies out there that talk about how music helps kids’ brain development, concentration, and problem-solving skills. But from a musician’s point of view, I want kids to be exposed to the beauty of symphonic music at a young age. Symphonic music is so varied in sound and form. It’s also great at depicting stories, conveying feelings, and evoking imagination—think Fantasia or Bugs Bunny. I think that music can be one of the earliest ways in which a child can really perceive something bigger than life.  

JS: What were YOUR earliest introductions to classical music? What struck you about the music in those early years?

JT: My mother was a music teacher at a high school, so my childhood was filled with music. She has lots of videos of famous conductors and orchestras in the world, so I was immersed in music from an early age, even before I start going to live concerts. I also started studying the violin when I was 4 and a half, so very early on music was a big part of my life. I remember the first time a piece of music conjured up feelings of being at the ocean. Making that connection between perception, imagination, and sound was a big discovery for me.  

JS: What are some ways parents can bring classical music into kids’ lives?

JT: There are so many resources out there. But mostly I would recommend making music an activity: playing and participating, not just something you play in the background. Just like teaching kids how to read, you can play story tapes, but the most effective way is to sit down with your kid and read a book together. Music leaves a much bigger impact on the kid when they are in the middle of making it. Enroll in a kids’ music class or go to live music concerts. When children see people making music in front of their eyes, it’s a much different experience than listening to it on the radio at home.  

JS: Do you have kids? How do THEY like classical music?

JT: Yes, I have a four year old daughter. Music is definitely a big part of her life. We have been going to Music Together classes since she was 18 months old. We always have music in the car or in the house. She loves to sing and dance to it. We want music to be part of life, not just something you ‘do’ occasionally.

JS: What can audiences expect from the show? Why did you choose the pieces you picked for the show?

JT: The show is going to be really fun—it’s good for all ages too. We start with Offenbach’s Overture from Orpheus in the Underworld, which includes the Can-Can Dance that everyone knows. Then we have a symphonic poem for narrator and orchestra that tells one of Dr. Seuss’ stories, The Sneetches. It’s a story about some serious themes like bigotry and exploiting people for profit, but it’s delivered in the delightfully playful rhymes that we love from Dr. Seuss. It ends with a beautiful message about how people can live peacefully together by embracing differences. It’s just so timely to talk about these things—how we can live harmoniously with people that are different from us. The second half of the program is a new piano concerto using the themes from Peanuts. It includes many familiar themes from A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’ll be a great way to start the holiday season.

Tickets are on sale now!

Talking about Talking to Your Kids About Death: A Conversation with Caroline Wright

How do you talk to kids about death? Author Caroline Wright wondered the same thing when she was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain cancer as a mother to her young sons. Now, having lived a year past her prognosis and written a children’s book to help children know the undying love of a parent, Wright will be at Town Hall on November 9 to help other parents find hope and agency with similar diagnoses. She’ll be joined by a panel of leading experts in the fields of children’s bereavement and cancer to discuss the complicated issue of what to say to our kids to comfort them when facing loss. Tickets ($5, and free for anyone 22 and under) are on sale now.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Wright to discuss honesty, science, and comfort.

JS: Tell me a bit about yourself.

CW: I’m a cook, writer and terminal brain cancer patient. After my undergraduate education in Paris, I completed the La Varenne culinary program with Anne Willan in Burgundy, then started my career writing and styling recipes as a food editor for Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine that folded in 2012. While I was writing articles, I authored three cookbooks.

After I was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive, incurable brain cancer, I shifted my diet and began writing personal essays regularly about my cancer as it relates to food on my blog. I also wrote a children’s book for my sons about my enduring love for them.

JS: What emotions swirled through your head upon hearing of your cancer in regards to your children?

CW: I had no idea how to help them process the news because I had no idea how to process it myself. It was a strange experience, to say the least, to be a source of comfort and pain simultaneously for my boys. 

JS: How long did it take you to share with them the news? How did you go about formulating it? What were their initial reactions?

CW: My husband and I told them immediately. (Our engaged child at that point, really, was Henry, as he was four. Our younger son, Theodore, was only one; he was nonverbal at the time and still somewhat a baby.) We told Henry everything we knew, which wasn’t very much, as the situation developed. Henry was scared, of course, and struggled with the meaning of what was happening; his reactions would emerge randomly, out of context, when little bursts of understanding would break through. This meant that talking about my cancer was always an open dialogue, part of our daily lives.

JS: How have those reactions changed/evolved as time has passed for them? 

CW: I don’t know if their reactions have changed, or if they have become more capable of expressing them over the time that’s passed. Henry seems to remain in a similar realm of understanding as when I was diagnosed two years ago; Theodore is a totally different being than before and is growing up in the presence of my cancer as fact. The biggest change I’ve noticed is Theodore’s expression of sadness surrounding things that happened at that time, like mentioning baldness or when his grandparents moved to Seattle. He understood far more than we thought he did at the time.

JS: Did your religious upbringing (if you had one) come into play when discussing death with them? 

CW: My husband and I aren’t religious. We didn’t offer any sort of odds or hope or narrative of what might happen if I died, or lean on anything but fact. We just talked about love a lot, about how our connection is permanent regardless of the outcome, which feels spiritual in a way but not specific to a religion

JS: Did scientific discussions come into play? 

CW: Yes, more so than religion—we gave our boys developmentally appropriate answers, backed in what we did know. We only talked about the present, because that truly was all we knew in that moment (which is still true!)

JS: What ARE effective strategies in discussing/coping with death and grieving with youngsters?

CW: There are many—and the experts on the panel could probably speak to theirs—but for our family it was very simple: be honest and present, saying something rather than nothing. (Saying nothing is definitely scarier.) Providing outlets for our boys to maintain their schedules and connect with other people was helpful for our family, too. I don’t think there’s a right way to connect about death. And it’s a process, anyway—it’s not one conversation, but many. They change over time. The most important thing, I think, is just being there and being open, which is so hard if you are the one who is sick and is reckoning with death. For me, it was about holding optimism and reality separately, being very careful to know when to mix the two around my sons.

JS: What can we, as a community, do to help children who are dealing with death/grieving?

CW: Talk about it, out in the open. Silence from adults is what causes kids to feel alone in grief, when they are capable of understanding so much. Also, connecting kids with peers who are experiencing similar circumstances is incredibly helpful in knowing that they aren’t alone. People such as the experts on the panel at my upcoming Town Hall event are from a variety of outlets and are full of resources. Sometimes a peer can connect more fluidly than an adult.

JS: What do you hope people get out of your coming talk? Your new book? 

CW: I hope to support families out there that were once like mine, facing uncertainty and pain without the words or understanding of what to do. From personal experience, I know the importance of language as it relates to death, and hope I can make it easier for other parents out there navigating their own trauma. I hope my book brings comfort to families facing the loss of a parent from terminal illness, but also to anyone who reads it a different loving perspective on death regardless of faith or creed.

JS: What’s next for you?

CW: Honestly, I don’t know! I am choosing these days not too look too far ahead; I try to stay present, knowing what a gift today is. I’m busy and doing a lot of things I love: writing, mostly; a lot of cooking; being a mom; making things that mean something to me, that tell a story and connect me to others. I’ve come close to the edge, seen behind the curtain, or whatever other preferred metaphor that communicates the limits of mortality, and I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that very little matters from that place. I try to keep that in perspective every day. I’m not on social media at all. Instead, I write a weekly food blog about my life now called The Wright Recipes, which helps give shape to what I’ve experienced in writing it. I also write a monthly newsletter that provides a space for those who want to keep up with how I spend my days, which has proven to strengthen my connections with friends, whether I know them personally or not. I’m grateful and alive and up next I hope is more of the same.


Join Caroline Wright and a panel of grief and bereavement experts on Saturday, November 9

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