In The Moment: Episode 46


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talked with Northwest Harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds about food security in WA. Reynolds outlines the complexities in approaching and unpacking issues of food justice in our region, breaking the issue down past policies and programs and asserting that solutions to food inequality aren’t technical alone. Scher and Reynolds look at the future of food in WA, exploring the growing efforts of local farmers, free community markets, and food pantries. Reynolds highlights food sustainability models at work around the globe, and encourages large action through small scale change in our region. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello, Welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, every episode, a local correspondent interview, somebody coming to our town hall stages and gives you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. Well, November is upon us and as we approach Thanksgiving and think about gathering around the table with family and friends, it behooves us to consider those that are food insecure. The United nations defines food insecurity as a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. Northwest harvest reports that one in 10 in the world and in Washington state struggle with hunger and are food insecure. The majority of working age Washingtonians living in poverty or working or actively looking for work and many work more than one job. Northwest harvest is a nonprofit operating statewide in Washington, distributing food to 375 food banks as well as meal programs and high needs schools. They provide nearly 2 million meals every month. At 7:30 PM on November 11th, Thomas Reynolds, the CEO of Northwest harvest, will be moderating a discussion on reducing hunger on our great hall stage. Just food. A conversation about food as a right in Washington state will also feature us representative Kim Schrier. Thomas Reynolds sat down within the moment, chief correspondent Steve Scher to talk about why hunger persists in the U S and worldwide and about creating grassroots systems to reduce it.

I’ve done a lot of work with FAO. I spent many years working in international setting with Karen and national and I’ve seen extreme poverty and extreme hunger in so many places. I think a lot of people think about Bangladesh in the seventies and eighties and Ethiopia people have of a certain age have images and blazoned upon them about what hunger might look like. I think here in the United States, hunger has a different type of face. People assume that hunger and homelessness or cinnamon synonymous hunger actually impacts most of us in our own neighborhoods. 94% of people who go to food banks and food pantries here in Washington state. Half homes are housed. And so I think we need to expand our notion of what it means to be food insecure and what it means to be hungry. Our policies falling short, or is it just that that’s a lot of people and so it takes time.

I think so much is done towards finding the technical fixes to the issues. In fact, in the United States, there’s this premise that there’s a lot of wasted food and there’s a lot of hungry people. So if we just give the wasted food to hungry people, the problems solved there in lies the problem. This is not a technical issue. There’s plenty of food in the world. There’s, there’s enough food and there’s enough production to feed every single person on the planet. And yet there are still so many hungry people. It’s because of the not the technical issues. It’s the institutional racism, the cultural racism, the injustices that people groups face that creates the symptoms of that sort of injustice. We see that here in Washington state. We see it in the United States, it seemed around the world. And so we’ve got to stop relying on technical fixes new programs new policies, new systems alone. I think we need to be addressing what’s at the heart of the issue. And that is the way that we as people see and tolerate hunger around the world.

A Trump administration, this is October force changes to slice 4.5 billion over the what used to be called food stamps snap now over five years, trimming as much as $75 for one in five. Struggling families on nutrition assistance, institutional blindness, institutional racism, or just dismissing of the concerns of anybody who’s, you know, not wealthy.

Perhaps it’s just a financial exercise on a spreadsheet and people haven’t considered the real impact of what the $75.

Do you really think that that’s all they do is, I mean, cause you just said it’s institutional racism, institutional inequity. You think that all they’re doing is just looking at a spreadsheet.

I think there’s almost no more analysis behind that for some of the people who propose these cuts. You know, it’s, it’s about you know, finding numbers that satisfy certain constituencies instead of realizing the real impact on the real people who needed that $75. There’s also these imaginary strategies that say let’s make government smaller and let’s have nonprofits pick up the pace. In fact, if the snap cuts went through, it would be a 20% reduction in the plan to snap spend over the next course of years impacting nonprofits as well. It would impact nonprofits, it would impact communities, but the idea is nonprofits would pick it up. We’ve done the analysis. If that 20% cut was done for government funds, every single food pantry across the country would immediately have to quadruple their output. That’s simply impossible.

You said there’s enough food, food pantries, just get all the guilty feeling people and all the noble people that step up.

Again, there’s,

There’s, you know, this is all couched in the idea of food waste, but instead we need new types of solutions. We need, we need to address this at the issues level. We need to understand the inherent, cultural and institutional racism of the fact that people, some people have more than enough and some people don’t have enough. You know, as I was talking to a friend of mine an Abdullah, him and Dan, he’s Sudanese, he said in Sudan, one of the worst insults that you can give someone is he eats by himself. And I said, I’m gonna unpack that for me. He said, it’s the idea that a family could sit down to a meal together knowing that their neighbors, you know, just down the street are not sitting down to a meal and being okay with it. I think at a fundamental level we need to Pierce the consciousness of every American household so that people no longer feel comfortable about sitting down at that meal when they know people in their own community or not. Alright. How come you focus on institutional racism? How many, let’s just say in King County, how many who are food insecure or people of color

In King County, in every County across Washington state people of color experience disproportionate amount of food insecurity. I don’t have the exact number for you, right?

The reason I’m harping to, yes they do. Right, but in raw numbers, what does it look like? I mean disproportionately, yes, it’s, it’s people of color, but in round numbers isn’t it white people who are experiencing food insecurity, why doesn’t that register with the very snap cutters we were just talking about

Also racism and institutional racism isn’t necessarily conscious or the United States has had three centuries and longer to perfect its racism. It is embedded into our culture, institutional practices and by these policies that could look equal, applied equally to each person cutting snap across the board for example. Is that what you mean by these policies? Educational opportunities job opportunities who, which resumes get screened in and get screened out based on the name. All of these things are aspects of cultural and institutional racism and not any one policy by itself can explain why there is this disparity. But the preponderance of all of these policies, all of these practices, all of this shared DNA of who we are in America contributes to this disparity.

How does that manifest for you when you go before, so you said you worked with FAO, you probably have testified before, some of the very people or their aunt, they’re the predecessors who were making changes, making calls. How does that manifest when you sit down and talk with them? What do you hear?

Again, it’s really focused on technical fixes. I mean literally down to how calories does each person need per day based on the temperature. You know, if it’s colder, people need more calories and to try to do the math by calculating the right number of calories that need to be distributed to the right number of communities on the right number of days based on the weather. We could do these calculations forever and never solved the promises, the conversation you have with them. These are the kinds of things that you talk about when you’re sitting down with them. You hear this and it’s published in reports. It’s, it is a very technical approach to a fundamental issue that will never be solved through technical approach. And when you bring that up and you bring up the fact of, well, if you do have institutional racism, when you confront them with it, their responses, I think there’s lament over the fact that things are so complicated and so challenging and so difficult to unpack.

And in fact in the morass of the complications and the complexities of the issues, maybe people take a breath and say it’s just too difficult to solve. That’s why I think it’s so important to focus on for justice. You know, Northwest harvest is focused on the equitable access to nutritious food for all here in Washington state. And that’s our contribution to food justice. We really think that the conversation can be had about what does that look like? What does that look like in South King County? What does that look like in rural parts of the state? States where still you have mostly white people who are elected to positions in which communities are, for instance, 75% Spanish speaking. You know, these are issues that we want to bring attention to. It’s not going to be about a solution set that says if grocery stores would simply identify things that are about to expire and give it away, we’re going to solve the problem.

That’s, that is a supply chain issue that probably has some level of importance, but it’s not problem solving. Northwest harvest has existed for more than 50 years and almost every single year of its existence we have distributed more food and I think better food, but we’ll be distributing more food and better food food for another 50 years if we just keep focusing on the supply chain issues. So what is food justice in South King County look like now? And three years from now and five years from now? You know, in the magic wand world, I have a lot of respect for local leaders and local community organizers. I think food justice in our food system means more people who are in their own community are making decisions, are representing the ideas and perspectives and desires of that local community block block by block, each neighborhood contributing to a solution set that makes sense for those families.

Literally you’re talking about you, you think we could have like that at block by block? I don’t know if the policy needs to describe a block by block approach, but our process needs to be, wow, give me, give me an example how, I mean, where do you live? What I would like to do, instead of starting with my block, I’d like to start with a high concentrations of Somali communities of Ethiopian communities, of African American communities of migrant farm worker communities and really understand their perspectives, their ideas, what who do they trust, what are the resources that they’re looking for? How would they describe the menu at home? And then begin to understand how would they construct a food system. I think those are the voices that are missing from a lot of the policy conversations. And if we could recenter the conversation on the people who experienced food insecurity, then we have the chance to start building back a better system.

Does Northwest harvest has some, have some, have some experience in doing that with those communities? I mean, what are they telling you when you sit down with them? I think we could be doing so much more. I feel like we are at the very beginning of a journey to be more focused on equity in our systems. We do focus for, you mean we, you mean your Northwest harvest? Northwest harvest is that organization. Yeah. I would not describe us as leaders. I’ve described us as learners. I would not describe us as pace setters. I’d describe us as people who are looking to join and participate in the ideas of other people who’ve been thinking about this a lot longer than we have. Who are the leaders that you’re looking at in those communities? We respect the indigenous people here.

I went and spent time with the [inaudible] people last year. Powerful, beautiful ideas about returning to using historical food practices. Lamenting the fact that the environmental degradation of the sound is reducing food supply. A deep respect for the foods that we eat in the meals that we prepare and the number of people who sit together at those meals. I think we have a lot to learn from the indigenous people of our area. I think we have a lot to learn from newly arrived immigrant communities. I think about living well, Kent in the Kent area who work with immigrant communities from lots of different communities. They are, you know, they are thinking about how do we grow more carrots? How do we grow more cabbage? How do we grow more onions? Why? Because SpaghettiOs worked for part of the community, but a carrot is utilized in almost every table that I have visited and I, you know, and I’ve been to more than 70 countries. So I think it’s the people who are challenged by the economics of our neighborhoods and our communities, especially in Western Washington and have already began to put solutions into place at the local level. I guess they’re the most exciting people that people that I want to hear from. With this work.

I want to hear about the solutions. So go, let’s go to the Lumey for a minute. [inaudible] And when you were there talking to them, do they have people that they say, yes, we have food insecurity in our, in our neighborhoods, in our, in our region. They, among the tribe, tremendous food insecurity. What, so they, they laid out the problems for you. What were their thoughts about solving some of those problems with, with your help or with the help of, you know, all the different leaders and conveners you’re talking about?

Yeah. First of all, I would not position us ourselves as the helpers. I think we’re joiners. We can offer connections to other parts of the state. I’d like to see us as helping to move places where there’s abundance to places where there’s food constraints. What do you think that means? What does that look like? It, it looks like, for instance, the Anaba farms and WAPA Wapato fourth generation Japanese farmers a farming family that was displaced a number of times because of racist policies, including internment during world war II. They are resilient. It’s a resilient family in a family that now farms more than a thousand acres and often finds that they’re a class B. Fruits and vegetables aren’t saleable in the market. So they distribute it through Northwest harvest more than a million pounds of fruits and vegetables every year. They do it because they believe in, in a, in a more equitable and better society. So Northwest harvest is in a position where we can work with farmers like that. We can work with growers, we can work with ranchers and we can utilize those fruits and vegetables to link with the groups in our network that do have retail fronts, if you will, food pantries or health clinics that have a convening that are convening people who experienced food insecurity.

So what do you guys offer them facilitating the actual movement through trucks, through trucking, through movement from Yakima Valley to the Lumey

Nation? Literally, yes, we do that as well. We also offer our voice in terms of policy, you know, identifying fundamentally unjust policy and identifying ways that policy can be implemented in a more equal sort of way. We, we also offer, you know, direct access to food. We just started the soda community market here in Seattle, which is not a food pantry. It’s a grocery store that you don’t pay a, it’s a, it’s an opportunity for people to come in, pick through our watermelons or our apples or our fresh milk and you know, have a shopping and take that home. So there’s a number of ways that we participate in the systems. Who comes to that? And what’s your hope for who comes? Like how big a popular population

[Inaudible]

The soda community market is open to anyone who is hungry or as concerned about being hungry. On any given day. There are no restrictions there. You don’t have to be from a certain zip code. You don’t have to be in a certain housing status. You don’t have to be any sort of label. If you identify for yourself that you need some fresh healthy food, you can come to the Soto community market and people have been coming, you know, we see more than 3000 people a week and those people are often taking food back to home, whatever home means at tent government supported housing or something else. And you know, I would say our impact probably is about 7,000 people a week that we’re providing food for. So is that a scalable solution? Do you guys see that as something you could do around the region?

I deeply believe in it. In fact, I think it’s scalable, but maybe not in a way that you were thinking one of the issues around food pantries are, it’s stigmatizing to go. It looks, it oftentimes looks and feels like an institution, right? There’s people lined up, they’re way down. Get a Brown bag. Yeah. That’s no discount on the love and care that people who run food pantries have and the Greek guard they have for the people who approach. But still there’s a stigma for, I’d like to flip that around. I’d like to introduce the idea to Washington state residents that it should be stigmatizing. If you go to a grocery store that doesn’t have a free option. And if we could get that to move, then it’s infinitely scalable. That’s a huge concept. How do you get that? That’s like that sound. I was giving you some waiver.

The one thing that sounds pretty pie in the sky, these are businesses that weren’t gonna do that, aren’t they? What happens when you sit down with them? I think it makes Safeway, I think it makes wonderful business sense for them to do it. In fact, most grocery stores do have food waste. They have things that don’t sell. They have they have the logistical issues of ridding themselves for the things that didn’t, didn’t work out. You know, the promotion didn’t work. They bought too much. You know, the inclement weather meant that less people bought less things.

[Inaudible]

Why not eliminate the whole supply chain headaches of moving food out that didn’t work and just simply offer it to people who need it for that day. I think it’s easier. I think it makes good business sense. Got it. Got anybody to go with you on that yet in the industry?

I think it’s just about starting the conversation right now. You know, we’re going to start on the other direction. You know, we’re looking at ideas about at our free grocery store. Maybe we’ll put a cash box and you can pay. You want to I wa what I think is incredibly important is that we don’t perpetuate this idea and this is not my idea, but I think it’s beautiful that there’s two different doors. Some people go through the grocery store door, some people go through the food bank door. I’d like to have just one wider door. So we’ll start on one end. You know, we, right now we have a free grocery store. Maybe eventually we’ll introduce the idea if that, if you want to pay, which could literally mean, you know, a couple of coins and some pocket lint or you know, a a hundred dollar bill because you believe in the concept that you could come through our free grocery store and participate on the other end.

I’d just like to invite a grocery stores and grocery chains to think about, you know, what if, what could be possible, what could be possible for our brand, what could be possible for enthusiasm for future consumers that are not currently frequenting our store? If we had a free option, what would that mean for our community living? Well, Kent, so you said that they were talking to you about more carrots. What are they doing now and what would be something that that could happen in the future? I love living well Kent Schempp. So Isaac is the executive director and they’re doing a couple of things. I think really smart things, things that I’ve seen done in other countries and I haven’t seen done so much here in the United States. One is they’re mapping unused or underused farmable land here in King County. Literally mapping it going acre by acre saying this is available, this is and designated for use at this point.

And they’re looking to create the opportunity for farmers, probably newly arrived immigrant farmers to farm that land. They are also doing what I think might be the only no cost to the farmer farmer’s market and East Hill Kent, which creates the opportunity for farmers to come and sell their product. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruits in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable options at a, at a no cost for them to sell their goods, which means they can pass on the savings and the reduced risk of the free farm booth to the residents of that community. So people are literally taking home cabbage and radishes and, and zucchini and whatever’s a ripe and fresh at that period of time from late spring to early fall. I think that’s a wonderful idea. And, and it really accomplishes a number of things.

Better use of public lands, better opportunities for farmers who have tremendous skills but not, not necessarily the skills that for instance, technology companies are looking for right now. And then better, healthier fruits and vegetables for families need it in, in a location where there’s not a lot of options. So are there policies, state or County policies that keep that you earlier talked about unjust policy. So with that in mind, either policies that keeps something like that from happening there are land use issues but not insurmountable. In fact, I think this is a really ripe area for us to be looking at. How do we utilize public lands? We, again, we Northwest harvest, are we the people who are thinking about food justice? We, the residents of Washington state. I see, I see. When I think about unjust policy, I think about the lunch shaming that used to occur in this state, which literally was when families who were benefiting from reduced lunches, maybe a mom or dad or a caregiver hadn’t topped up their account.

And so the child goes to school and they’re stamped on their body with a stamp that says my account is delinquent that used to happen in the United States. I’m not talking about a hundred years ago. I’m talking about last year. That’s a policy that we changed last year. You know, there are fundamentally unjust policies that really are medieval in their construction that still exists in Washington state. And I think we need to address those issues too. Again, it’s not just the technical issue of how do we get the food to the people who need food. It’s the, it’s the it’s the intentional or unintentional stigmatizing of people who are experiencing challenges either economically or in terms of food security. If I’m not mistaken, the Trump administration’s plans do call for a little bit of re stigmatizing of the people who want to use lunches around the country if they go through by December after the public comment period.

Well, what are the other medieval practices that you, that you know next year, so you had a success last year. What’s next year? And this is again, back to the legislature or by County? By County, yeah. We’re still forming our policy agenda. There’s, there’s a number of areas that we’re interested in. I think most residents, Washington state recognized that we have the most regressive tax environment of just about any state in the country. We’d like to see better opportunities for people who are you know, at the, you know, the bottom fifth in terms of economic prowess here in Washington state. We’d like to find some ways for them to get some some more tax benefits. There are some things that are onerous for instance the deductability of medical benefits. Why not just have some sort of standard benefit that low income people could benefit from instead of having to keep track of all their medical receipts and turn those in and deduct them.

You know, there’s probably some easy wins that could be put into place that would just make things easier for people who are really struggling. But does that spell one, is that a state policy or is that gonna be a federal issue? It’s something that we can address within the state. It’s probably a, it’s a, it’s probably a federal environment, but each state has an ability to, to pass policy that can be difference making. So you could have a, this is what you’ve spent, this is your deduction. And that goes towards, it’s not an income tax of what’s it going towards. It could be something like in the form of a credit, a credit that could be turned into cash or turned into healthcare that could be turned into a, that could be turned into a, an offset for, for taxes out.

Trace your path for me. You said you worked with FAO, you’ve been in other countries. How’d you end up here? Yeah, I grew up in the Seattle area and I, after school I moved to San Francisco and I, I told my mom I would never move back cause it was your hometown or because, yeah, cause I was just excited to see other things. See the rest of the world. I had a, in San Francisco I participated in starting social enterprises. Even before social entrepreneurship was really a thing that was talked about. Like what? We started restaurants. We started a S a city of San Francisco surplus store for things like street signs and parking meters. We started a screen printing company all in support of getting jobs for formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, formerly drug addicted youth. So why was that important to you?

How’d you end up doing that? Because you want to tell your mom, I’m leaving Seattle, I’m going here. What was important? I just fundamentally believed it was right. I wanted to, I wanted to participate. I mean, we had really grandiose ideas. We really, our, our little group believed we could actually disrupt the way capital worked in the United States where you’d like just college graduates to the college graduate. In fact, a book was written about our organization and as the author was writing the book, she continually asked me how old I was and I, I said, I don’t, I don’t want to answer. So in the book she writes, Thomas Reynolds, who is so young, he declines to answer the question of his age. Yeah, I just, I just really believed in that I thought business could be used for a better purpose and that instead of this idea of the ultimate and only purpose of business is to return shareholder value, felt that there was a social component that was essential to the health and really the vitality of humanity.

Sure. The hard to sell, the hard to sell the businesses who say shareholder is the only thing that matters. So less hard to sell now than it used to be. I’m sure. I’m sure. So you did what? Then? I went to business school. I felt like I had understood the social dimensions, but I wanted to learn the language of business. So I went to business school and in business school it was an international program, spent time in Paris and Tokyo and in Philadelphia. And most of my business school cohort were from other countries. And one woman, an accountant who were worked for a consulting group from Kenya said, you shouldn’t do this social entrepreneurial stuff in the United States. You should do it internationally cause it’s needed elsewhere. I thought, Oh, that’s an interesting idea. I ended up going to work for care international and I spent 15 years with Karen and national and I worked in Asia, I worked in the middle East, I worked in the South Caucasus.

And then ultimately I moved back to the U S with care to run programming for the entire care world, which was 95 countries. The kind of programming that looked at entrepreneurship. We did a variety of things. But our cares, main focus is gender equality. And so we were interested in the economic development, education, health care water systems, but specifically as interventions that could enable greater gender equality between men and women and people of all genders. So early on before you were in charge, when you’re going into these countries, what were your, what were some successes? I think one of the most gratifying moments was in the South Caucasus when we were, I was living in the country of Georgia. And more than half the population were subsistence farmers and together, you know, I think it’s never one organization alone, but I think it’s people working together together with more than 50 other organizations.

We worked with the European union to change the national policy of Georgia. And this was Georgian led. It was not international led, but local people who are passionate about making change. We introduced new financing options for farmers to be able to cooperate and to build businesses that were the next step in the slow supply chain beyond production. We, we changed tax law to create an incentive for growing rural businesses. And then we then there was a financing facility to help capitalize new rural businesses to start. And that was incredibly gratifying. It was gratifying to see the development of the Georgian economy to see the numbers of Georgian farmers who are lifted out of poverty. The creation of the Georgian farmers association, which last time I checked had more than 20,000 members. And what I really took away from that experience was, it’s not technical fixes alone. It’s not projects alone. It’s not policy alone. It’s not one organization or the private sector or government working alone. It’s when we mix these things all together and we pursue an end and be agnostic about the ways to get there so that we could identify policy changes. We could then identify new resources and we could identify new relationships that could help pursue that end.

By the way, just on Georgia, what w what was changed fundamentally, what was it a top down system before and when it was a, it was a Soviet States, did they, is that what the issue was?

So many issues? Was there a fundamental change that you just had to come from the bottom instead of the top? That the fundamental difference was that the, the tech structure unintentionally prevented the development of small businesses beyond a certain point. Because if you are informal, you are untaxed and once you became formal, no matter how small you were, there was a pretty substantial tax that was both complicated to track. And then you know, significantly deterred farmers from becoming formal in participating in the economy.

Right. So is there a farmer or an entrepreneur in that beginning supply chain who jumps out at you as somebody who was

A leader at their level to make these sort of changes occur in Georgia? Are we talking about Georgia? Yes. Yes, absolutely. There were a number of them. Nino’s advocates at an extraordinary farmer from the [inaudible] area, her organization and care work together to start a cheese factory because there were a lot of cows and not a lot of cold storage. And if you can get seven liters of milk and a little bit of time, you can produce cheese that almost everyone in Georgia likes to eat. And so we started with the cheese production facility, but her ambitions were bigger. She wanted to see fundamental change and she recognized that the people around her, she was benefiting from the cheese factory. And the farmers who brought their milk were also benefiting, but she, she could only just impact this one little area.

And so it was with Nino and with another, a number of other farmers. And with the agricultural attache of the European union that the idea of the Georgian farmers association was created. There was a lot of research and, and respect for the cooperatives that are substantial, you know, powerfully substantial and economically substantial all across Europe. You know, in America generally. Our belief is that farming needs to be large scale farming and you know, single crop or you know, a couple of crops. And in Europe it’s a smaller groups of farmers who come together and cooperate to produce you know, just as much productivity, even more actually than just large scale farming. And so the country of Georgia had nothing like that. And the idea was to just take best practices from other parts of Western Europe to increase productivity per Hector and do it by cooperating based on the premise that if there’s more cooperation than the supply chain can be further developed, cold storage, transportation, marketing, export.

And that if the technical support could be identified and the skills could be built, that it would have an exponential effect, not only on Nino’s community but farming across the country. And that was probably seven years or so ago. And I’m amazed at the growth and I’m amazed at what’s happened since then. I was in Moscow three years ago and the people who took me around were most excited to take me to Georgian restaurants with the incredible Georgian cuisine and wines. Yes. Is that the sort of things that you think grew out of the ability to be agnostic about, about approaches? Well, I think the Georgian table has been established as it was, it was a Soviet favorite for decades upon decades. Sure. A Georgian wine has increased production and there’s you know, many multiples more being extorted now than there was before.

I think it’s difficult to tie the Georgia wine exports to those specific interventions. What I think about is the reemergence of some of the industries. For instance, like Hazel nuts the re there I think soon to be re-emergence of the tea industry. Georgian tea was something that was very much respected during Soviet times and then fell into almost complete disrepair. Almost no exports at all. And now some of those industries like the tea industry are being revived. Hmm, okay, I’m going to skip over the U then you start running all of care. Those, not health care, but yes. Programs. What was attractive about Northwest harvest that brought you back to a place you said, Hey, I’m out of here for six years. I was not in the same time zone for more than three weeks in a row.

I was traveling all the time and I was meeting with governments. I was raising money and I really missed that connection with people and ideas local people who are passionate about substantive change. I just felt disconnected to that. And what I recognized was I had, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars a year to allocate to different projects and different ideas. And I, and I began to recognize the pattern. And myself, I liked to find local people who are committed to longterm change, who are interested in doing something more than just a technical solution. And I found myself drawn to moving investments to people like that. And then I realized I wanted to do that myself. And so I want to do it in my own home community. And it just felt like the right time I had, I had done enough traveling. I had done enough, you know workshops in capitals and hotels.

I had done enough airport lounges and I wanted to come home and I wanted to see if I could make just a tiny bit of difference in my own home community. And so that’s why I moved to Northwest harvest. So you bring agnostic concepts to Northwest harvest. What are your, what do you see unfolding in the, in the short term with that in mind me, where, where do you take some of these ideas right away? Well, what’s exciting is when I started it was one in eight Washingtonians experience food insecurity, they’re not sure where their meal’s going to come at some point throughout the month or year. That number is now one in 10. And we attribute nothing to Northwest harvest work. We think the economy has been better. You know, maybe a little bit of work in terms of policy change, but we think the hard work is ahead.

We’d like to see hunger cut in half between now and 20, 28. And we’re agnostic at how that happens. But we have a set of beliefs. We think if a broad set of actors can be identified and mobilized and joined together to address the underlying causes of food insecurity, that’s gonna be difference-making. We believe that if we can create equitable access to nutritious food for people across Washington state, that’s going to be difference making. And we believe that if we can identify investments in scalable, effective hunger fighting initiatives, those three things together we think will transform the hunger landscape here in Washington state. And again, we don’t see this as our way work. We see this as the work that needs to be done by all of us. The underlying factors. What are some that you think can be addressed them? What’d you, what’d you say?

  1. 2028. 2028 so, okay. Nine years. Yeah. Yeah. Been used to reduce hunger by half a, there needs to be a more equitable access to jobs and employment across the state of Washington. There needs to be for those who are challenged by transportation, we need to identify ways that affordably food can reach households or hubs in which people can easily go and pick up food. I’d like to see food as a right codified into law here in Washington state and that we would identify practical ways to implement that policy so that government agencies you know, local County and state level are thinking about how do we enact that concept of food as a right for every individual. Many people in communities across the state still view food as a privilege that’s actually out of touch with the way the rest of the world is moving in terms of food. So I think those are some of the things that are truly we need to get there. We must get there in order to see substantive change. And virtually none of them are technical fixes. This is really about changing the perception of people in society so that people say it’s intolerable, that community members just down the street or in the next neighborhood aren’t doing well. I want people, each person here in Washington state to identify way that they can get involved, get engaged and be a difference maker in, in a more equitable state.

What’s that look like? All of us being involved. What does that look like other than telling our elected representatives? What does that look like? I do think that’s important. I wasn’t in a denigrating I’ve seen but, but you know, you know, just one very practical way.

Most all of us have at least a window sill, but we could have a window sale. We’re gonna have a backyard. We could have a suburban farm, we could have a, you know, a hundred acres and we could just grow something and share it with our local food pantry. I think that would be a tremendous difference for two reasons. One is it, it connects people to the the, the, the reality that we all need to be contributors because we are consumers in this state. The second is because it’ll help us think about and appreciate the role of food and that food is so much more than just fuel. Food is a connector. It brings people together. It tells stories it promotes hope in many ways. And then the third is it would enable us to be thinking about what’s the type of society that will want to live in and to recognize that next week, next year next decade, maybe it’s unimaginable that we could be hungry, but it is possible and that we could imagine that there’d be a society waiting for us in that future period when we were in need.

That’s going to welcome us and help us get the food that we need. All right.

Business school. So you know all about deliverables. What do you want to come out of this town hall event that’s a deliverable, not just to people living there, but to the policy leaders that you’re listening to.

I would like people to be leaning forward in their chairs thinking about why is it that it’s okay to go home and have a meal and not think about the people who aren’t. I would like a, the people who participate in the town hall too have a sense on what policies should they be supporting and helping advocate for going forward. And I would like people who attend the town hall to be thinking about what are the injustices that are sitting in plain view that they just haven’t been thinking about or have been tolerating because no one’s confronted them on it. So in your deliverables, okay, who are the people that are going to be that you’re relying on on the panel? I’m going to have the privilege to talk to wonderful set of powerful women. Representative Schrier, Melanie Cunningham from PLU and Taylor Wong, who’s a restaurant here here in the Seattle area.

What I like about the way the panel is constructed is we have a representative from government, a representative from business, and a representative from higher education who all bring their own perspectives to why food justice is important. I’m just excited about asking the questions and seeing what sort of ideas they have, what examples they bring. You’ve got you know, Taylor is a first generation immigrant to Washington state and she relied on food assistance when she was young and now runs a restaurant empire. Melanie Cunningham is a powerhouse in the areas of equity and diversity and inclusion. And I think she will provoke us all to think about what is happening in our communities. Why are we okay with it? And what could we be doing differently? And I think representative Schrier has brought fresh perspective to Congress and I think it’s because of her background as a pediatrician, as a business leader and as a person who truly cares about food justice issues here in Washington state. All right, sir. Thank you. Thanks Steve.

Thomas Reynolds, CEO of Northwest harvest will moderate a panel discussion on food justice, just food, a conversation about food as a right in Washington state. It’ll be November 11th at 7:30 PM on our great hall stage. There’s still tickets available, so get yourself a seat and join in the conversation.

[Inaudible]

Thank you for listening to our 46th episode of in the moment, our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to our town hall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and watch a ton of great events on our Townhall Seattle YouTube channel to support town hall. See our calendar of events or access our media library head to our website at town hall, seattle.org next week, our chief correspondent Steve share, we’ll be talking with HW brands about the history of the American West till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment. [inaudible].

In The Moment: Episode 45


In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with Dan Hooper about particles, relativity, and the origins of our universe. Hooper outlines our growing understanding of the conditions in which our universe began, highlighting what we know about the first few seconds after the Big Bang and how several astronomers and mathematicians throughout history helped us determine that the universe was expanding. He discusses the limitations of language in explaining mathematical equations, and the value of explaining scientific research to people who don’t know much science, a practice which he says helps him better understand his work and can even lead to breakthroughs. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall.


Episode Transcript

This transcript was performed automatically. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, every episode, a local correspondent interview, somebody coming to our town hall stages and gives you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s Halloween week and the air is crisp outside. The sun is out, leaves are falling and spooking out our stages this week or events about the battles against global disinformation and the future of food in Africa. We’ve got some advice from multi-disciplinary artist, Jenny Odell on Friday, November 1st about reclaiming our attention in the age of distraction and some great rental events from earshot, jazz to a veteran’s day. Open mic on Saturday, November 2nd but to prep us for what’s to come next week. On Friday, November 8th our chief correspondent Steve share talks with the head of the theoretical astrophysics group at the Fermi national accelerator laboratory and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the university of Chicago. Dan Hooper about our universes. First seconds,

[Inaudible]

Humanity knows more about the science of the origins of the universe than ever before. Thanks to Einstein and all the mathematicians, physicists and engineers who have followed. We have learned about the makeup and origins of energy matter, space and time. And yet many questions remain, especially about the very first microseconds of the big bang when according to physicist Dan Hooper, the laws of physics as we know them, did not apply. Hooper talked to chief correspondent, Steve share about his upcoming appearance at town hall and his book at the edge of time, exploring the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds.

Dan Hooper. Hey Steve, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. My pleasure. You know whenever I read these books, I’ve read a few. I always struggle with them because I am not a scientist. And, and I was wondering when did you know, in your life that you understood the math?

Well, I mean, I, I was pretty good at math when I was young, but I wasn’t especially interested in it. You know, I didn’t go to college thinking I was going to be a, a scientist or a mathematician or anything remotely like that. You know, I, I grew up in a small town in Minnesota and I hadn’t learned about any of the exciting or adventurous forms of science or math. I really just learned about, you know, memorizing a bunch of names of chemicals and a bunch of procedures for doing math problems. It was pretty dull stuff. But about halfway through college I ended up taking a modern physics class as part of just as a general education sort of thing. And I learned about relativity and quantum mechanics and it blew my mind. And that was the only thing I, you know, thought was really interesting in the world. So for me it was an easy decision at that point. But I, you know, most of my colleagues like can tell you, Oh, when I was six I wanted to be a physicist. I had nothing like that in my experience. I was 20 or 21 when that occurred to me for the first time.

You’re, you’re in Oak park, huh?

Yeah. So you’re not at the moment, but I live in Oak park.

But that means you’re right near where the first of the real interesting stuff in physics is taking place. Right.

Are you’re talking about a Fermi lab, that’s where I am right now. Yeah. That’s for nets in Batavia, Illinois. That’s farther out West. Right, right. But yeah, I mean I’m, I’m the main high rise tower at Fermilab as we speak and I’m looking out the window and I can see you know, the, the, the campus where the Tevatron was the, a big particle accelerator we had here for a long time. That’s retired now. But but yeah, we, we’ve made a lot of great discoveries here. Back in the day.

I remember when we were little kids, we are not little kids, but when we were in high school, we got, took a tour out there just to see this is out here. This is the thing. I remember

You may still take tours here all the time. There’s a steady flow of science and enthusiasm coming through.

Now remind me, why did that get retired? What superseded that accelerator?

Well. So you know, for a long time the biggest accelerator in the world was the Tevatron. But in Europe at a, at the CERN laboratory, we built this thing called the large Hadron Collider, which is even bigger. In most respects is just a bigger, more modern version of the type of Tron. It’s a little different cause it collides protons with protons at the Tevatron we collided protons with antiprotons. So there’s some subtle difference differences. But basically the large Hadron Collider is a bigger, more modern version of the Tevatron. And once that was up and running and had been collecting data for a while, it made sense to retire the Tevatron and move on to other things.

And you write in your book about next steps in what we need to build and to get to the next steps. And in understanding all this, all these ideas, all these concepts. I’ll come to that though. For the first time, human beings have begun to understand the origins of the universe have begun. How far past have begun? Are we?

Well, there’s always going to be questions that we don’t have answers to. I think that’s just the nature of science. I think I talk about it in the last chapter that I just don’t think there could ever be an end of, of the [inaudible] progress or the, the quest we call science. But a hundred years ago we didn’t even have an inkling about how our universe might change or evolve or if you don’t know that it could change or evolve, you certainly can’t talk about how it might’ve begun that those were just questions you couldn’t even conceptualize much must much less try to answer. But now, I mean, we’ve got a pretty good picture of how our universe has changed over as 13.8 billion year history. We know what it was like a billion years ago. We know it is like 10 billion years ago, but we know what it was like.

A hundred thousand years after the big bang. We notice last a second after the big bang, that first second. There’s a lot of mystery. We don’t know what the we don’t have any direct way of observing what the universe was like a million or a billion or a trillionth of a second after the big bang. We can do some experiments that inform us as to what it might’ve been like, but we don’t really know. And in that tiny fraction of a second carries with it enormous implications for how the world got to be the way it is. And I think that’s, that’s the part that has a lot of nuts yet to be cracked. That that is really where the mysteries and cosmology lie.

What would be occurring? What’s thoughts or conjecture that’s occurring in the first, second of the big bang that could possibly be occurring?

Well, instead of thinking about it as an event, let’s just think for a second about how space expands. So it turns out that if you have a piece of space with a pretty uniform amount of energy or matter in it, the space will expand faster if there’s more stuff in it. So today the universe is pretty big and pretty dilute most of spaces pretty close to empty. And, and, and in this state, the universe is expanding pretty slowly about if you take two points in space a few million light years apart from each other, there’ll be moving away from each other because of the expansion of space at about like 70 kilometers a second. So pretty slow in the grand scheme of things. But when the universe was smaller, the density of all that energy was higher space was expanding faster and you’d go back farther and farther and farther in time, and you reach a point where the universe was really, really dense. It was really, really hot and it was expanding really, really fast. And that is how I think about the big bang, this sort of state of hyper rapid expansion, hyper high temperatures, incredibly high densities all evolving in the blink of an eye.

That’s, that’s just an, an amazing thing to try to contemplate. And you know, I was, I was a, I was talking to a friend who is, you know, a rational journalist and telling him I was, I was talking to you and he said, I have a friend who’s also a physicist and we talk about these things, but he gets to a point where he says, my friend says to his friend, you know, it’s just sounds like magical thinking to me. What, what do you tell us? What do you tell him in me about why it isn’t magical thinking? Why the calculations that that Freedman Alexander Friedman did a hundred years ago being confirmed today, tell us the math gives us these answers

If, okay, if, if in 1922 and Alexander Freeman was doing those calculations, if you asked me then, if I had been around then and, and I was, you know, a similar kind of businesses, but within 1922 sort of perspective and knowledge I would have told you, of course this won’t turn out to be right. The university will be more complicated than that. I’m sure it’s worth checking, but probably something else will show up when we do the observations. It’s quite remarkable that Alexander Freeman turned out to be right. So let me back up and say what Alexander Freeman worked out and, and, and, and, and what, how we found out that it was true. So in 1915, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which says that space and time aren’t the sort of static, unchanging backdrops that we usually think of them as or, or at least before Einstein, we thought about them as instead space can warp and change and expand and contract and do all sorts of things.

And if it does those things depending on how much energy including matter there is in space and where it is in space. So Freeman was one of the first people to look at Einstein’s theory and say, well, okay, if we take the universe as a whole, we make certain simplifying assumptions. Like there’s the same amount of stuff everywhere on average. You can work out that the universe should either be expanding or contracting and then you can exactly work out how much it should be expanding or contracting. At the time, Einstein really rejected this idea. Einstein really thought the universe should be static and he said some pretty critical things, dismissive things, even about Friedman and others work. But in 1929 and when the huddle observed that our universe is in fact expanding and that suddenly put Friedman’s work and others on pretty high plane and people then took that and built upon it. And slowly over the course of decades or even a century, we’ve measured how our universe expanded, not just today but over it’s 13.8 billion year history. And we now have a really detailed picture of how that’s all played out. And if you take Freeman’s equations from 1922 and plot those curves right through what we’ve measured, man, it is spot on. So yeah, Friedman’s work turned out to be entirely valid to the best of our ability to measure it a hundred years later.

Do you ever feel trapped by the language you to use? In other words, the mathematics, mathematical equations, the work you do can prove it, but then when you have to explain it, you have to come up with metaphors, big bang Einsteins. I, you know, a car and Newtonian universe. There was a car in Einsteinian universe, that sort of thing.

Yeah, I think, I mean this is just a statement about language, right? I mean I would argue that if you want to talk about the feelings you have for the most important people in your life and you know, you, you would, even in that case, you’d have to rely on metaphor and, and the imperfect, a limitations of language. Or if I want to talk about how my favorite record makes me feel when I hear it or if I want to talk about you know, why I prefer a particular kind of scotch over another kind. Like all these things rely on, on language, which in, in any cases is, is imperfectly designed for the problem at hand. The science is the same way. And I, I find it actually helpful in my research to have to try to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t scientists. Because if I can think about the problems I’m working on in my research in different, in different conceptual frameworks, and you’re using different language, for example, not just mathematics it means it helps me to understand it more deeply and sometimes that actually leads to breakthroughs. And if I can understand it more clearly or more deeply, it’s more, more likely that I’ll be able to come up with you know, well I’ll be able to advance the problem in ways that may be just manipulating equations won’t, won’t facilitate.

Hmm. Hey, any examples of that for you where you have advanced the the problem address? The problem is advanced advanced it by putting it into a language first.

Well, I don’t know if we’ve advanced it yet, but just this week some colleagues of mine here, Fermi lab and a couple of people in Oxford and I are, are thinking about what black holes in the early universe might have been like. And it turns out that the math says that if, if a black hole is spinning, it radiates away certain kinds of particles more than if it’s not spinning. And I’ve read the papers that show this as true and I think I understand the math, but I didn’t have any intuitive understanding for why these conclusions followed. So I sat down with my colleagues and I said, let’s try to explain to each other why this is true without using any map. And we put it in words in different ways and we’re like, well, is that really right in, does that really right or is there a better way to think about it?

And I think at the end of that conversation I had a different, or maybe even deeper understanding of why that happens to be true. You know, I wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t put that in the paper. I’m going to write on this and I’m going to publish in a journal for other scientists. The, the math will be there, but I don’t, I don’t know that all this pontificating about metaphors will be, but it helps me think about the problem. And I think that’s at least as important as a, you know, making sure you get the factors of two right.

I thought it was interesting in your book how you talked about one of the, one of the problems that you run into in studying the universe is that we only had the one universe to study. Yeah. So we’re inside the box and trying to figure it out. It’d be a lot different if we could get outside the box. I mean we are trapped by our own cognition abilities, cognitive abilities, aren’t we?

Well not just our own cognitive abilities, but our own empirical limitations. So probably the single most important thing we have to observe about our universe in terms of cosmology is what we call the cosmic microwave background. This is the light that was released throughout all the space, about 380,000 years after the big bang when the first Adams were forming. And we have studied this over the last 50 years in quite amazing detail and we look up at the sky and we see this pattern of slightly hotter and slightly colder places in the sky. In terms of the radiation that’s from this background, but we basically, I’m gun pretty close to a extracting all the information we can get out of that. We’ve counted the number of hot spots and cold spots of different sizes and we’ve just kind of run out of sky. If we could instantly teleport somewhere else in the universe, you know, a, you know, a 1 billion light years away or something there, you’d have another pattern of hot and cold spots in the sky. You can measure those and you can know twice as much as we do. But we can’t do that. There’s no way to get a billion light years away except by traveling for a billion years and that’s not very practical. So yeah, we’ve kind of extracted everything. Well, almost everything. We’re approaching the point where we are gonna distract everything we can out of this cosmic microwave background. And we’re going to have to find new and different ways to learn how to learn about our universe from that.

What are people thinking about? What’s the new and different way that might be possible? What’s the conjecture?

Well, it totally depends on what time scale you’re thinking about. Like, so for the next decade, we’re just gonna keep squeezing the cousin micro background, keep getting more and more out of that. Beyond that we’re talking about using something we call 21 centimeter cosmology to, to kind of extract even more information out of the universe. The basic idea there is that all the hydrogen gas runs, but the universe gives up a particular kind of light. And by measuring that light at different frequencies, you measure the light that was admitted at different points in cosmic history. So you kind of get different slices at different points in time, so you can kind of have put together like a film strip of of the universe history with pictures at different frames. So that, that’s an exciting thing that we’re just starting to do now. We’re also just starting to be able to do what we call gravitational wave astronomy.

Hmm.

Where we detect the ripples in space and time that are created when it really dramatic things happen. Like black holes merging with one another, stuff like that. And it’s possible one day we’ll detect gravitational waves that were released are produced in the big bang itself. That would be pretty exciting. Even farther down the road I think we’ll be studying something called the cosmic neutrino background. So the universe we think or we’re pretty sure is a build with a bunch of particles we call neutrinos that were produced about a second or so after the big bang. Eventually we’re going to measure those and not just tell that they’re there, but we measure them in detail. I mean, this is probably a hundred years from now or something, but but yeah, we have a lot of steps that I’m excited about going forward. Even some of them that will be well after my time on earth has gone

Well. I just liked it. You use the phrase ripples in time and space because that just says what level that we’re operating at when we’re thinking about these things. [inaudible]

Well, let me tell you a little bit more about that. So, you know, like I said before, nine Stein’s theory of relativity space itself can change. So like for example,

Okay

If I take two points in space, the distance between those points in space can change without anything moving. This, the space itself can do the changing. So when things like black holes merge with each other, that’s so dramatic that it sends these waves through space, these ripples. And as those ripples pass through you, the distance between points in space kind of go back and forth. They oscillate back and forth getting farther and closer away from each other. Now it’s really subtle. It’s you, you need incredibly sensitive detectors to even notice this is happening. But for the first time we’re able to see these, these waves and they’re real phenomena. And you know, we see a bunch of these ’em every year now when a black holes merge.

Hmm. All right, two questions. Two callbacks. One do you have a preferred scotch?

It changes with time these days. I’m, I’ve been a bourbon guy lately. I know it’s not a scotch, but I, I, and I, I’m, I have a pretty serious hobby in a cocktail making. I’ve got a half of my kitchen is full of cocktail gear and kits and various bottles of, of things. If you’re ever in Chicago, look me up and I’ll fix you up with a, a nice drink.

I’ve, I’ve gravitated to bourbons as well in the last few years. I guess we’re part of a trend. Is there a all right. Yeah. I had a mezcal cocktail yesterday that I really loved. So WWE gimme one gimme one bourbon cocktail that you’ve been making that you really are enjoying making.

So I’ve been doing these smoked old fashioned actions lately. Oh what I mean by smoke, so it’s just like super classical fashion. There’s nothing fancy about it at all, except that I have of some pieces of wood that are planks from a bourbon barrel and I light them on fire and I take a cold glass and I catch the smoke on the surface of the glass and it turns out the cold glass smoke naturally adheres to. So I do that and I get the right amount smoking it, and then I pour the drink into the, into the glass. And it really, you know, just makes for a beautiful variants of an old fashioned.

Very nice. It’s nice to have those [inaudible]. I mean, I imagine it’s nice to have those hobbies when you come home from doing big brainwork. You can do something simpler.

I’ve been a hobby guy my whole life. You know, in the hobbies change with time, but I get pretty obsessed with whatever hobby I’m on at the moment.

I see. Okay. Here’s my other, just I cavalierly, and you kind of already explained this, but I cavalierly said a car and Einstein’s universe in the car and Newton’s universe you described, you know, driving in a square mile, both those things. Would you elaborate on what the difference is and what that tells us about the universe we live in?

So I use this metaphor in the book to try to convey the difference between the Newtonian view of space and time that the version that physicists adhere to before Einstein. And then Einstein’s view of space and time. So in, in the Newtonian view, I imagine somebody getting in a car, they drive a mile, they turn 90 degrees to the right, they drive a mile and then 90 degrees to the right again in nine degrees to right again. And you’ve gone a perfect square and you wind up exactly where you started because that of course is what, you know, your high school geometry says what happened, but then Einstein’s a car or an in a car being driven in Einstein’s sort of universe, which happens to be our kind of universe that geometry can change. So if you drive the car too fast, that will change the route you take through space.

And if there’s a bunch of energy in the form of mass or other stuff somewhere along your route that will warp or distort the geometry of space in such a way that after you’ve driven your, what you think is a perfect square, you’re not exactly where you started. So for example, take the solar system in the Newtonian view, we said that space was just this perfect static, rigid backdrop in the force of gravity pulled between the sun and earth in such a way to keep the earth on its elliptical orbit around the sun. What Einstein said is that the really deep down isn’t a force of gravity. Instead, the energy that’s stored in the mass of the sun changes the geometry of space throughout the solar system and the earth is simply moving on what is basically a straight line through that space. But that straight line happens to wrap around on itself and it seems to us like it’s elliptical orbit.

So instead of thinking about gravity is a force, Einstein said gravity is just the phenomena that follows from the way that mass and energy changed the geometry of space in a warp space. A bunch of this stuff you were taught in like 10th grade geometry turns out not to be true. Like we were taught that if you take two parallel lines and follow them, they stay parallel forever. But that’s only true and in flat space or non warped or non curved space. But it turns out those paralyze parallel lines can sometimes converge or diverge. And according to Einstein and we’ve measured them. That’s true. Also things like the, like a triangle in your high school geometry class that any three angles, the three angles of any triangle will always add up to 180 degrees. Not. So in curb stir workspace they can add up to either more or less than 180, depending on the geometry of that space. So, you know, Einstein’s view of space and time was, you know, really turned the whole Newtonian view on its head. It was probably the greatest paradigm shift in the history of physics.

We operate in Newtonian or Einsteinian space in our, when I walk around my house. Well, Newtonian space is a really good approximation of anything you’re going to find around here. Okay. Unless you’re like close to a black hole or something like that. The universe we live in is awfully close to Newtonian, but we can do really high precision tests that show that it’s not perfectly Newtonian and you’d really need Einstein’s theory to get the details right. For example, the GPS system, there’s satellites that tell your phone exactly where you are at any given moment. Those wouldn’t work if we didn’t put in the relativist of corrections. You know, and, and when we put satellites out in the solar system, we need to account for all of the relative as of corrections if we want to accurately predict where they’ll go in a and navigate them properly. So, yeah, I mean, the universe is in fact that we live in is in fact one described by general relativity. But you won’t, you know, screw yourself up too much by wandering around, you know, your, your neighborhood and with the Newtonian perspective in mind.

But given that the Einsteinian perspective has, has value. So just in the last, well, just recently we’ve had another announcement about quantum computing. How does quantum computing, if at all, relate to the notions and the quantum theories that you’re, you know, you’re looking at when you’re exploring a concept like the quantum gravity era?

Sure. So there are really two really important underlying theories that were developed in the 20th century and physics one, one’s relativity, which I already of talked about a bit. The other is quantum physics or quantum mechanics, or mean the same thing. So before the quantum revolution, people thought of objects as being, for example, in one place at one time and having a well-defined velocity and, and, and events that took place took place at one specific point in time and one specific place and stuff like this. But that’s not really how the universe turns out to work. Instead, instead of talking about an electron as like a point in space, you have to talk about it as a wave that describes a probability distribution of outcomes or, and can be in different places at one time and they can move and you have different velocities, different amounts of energy at the same time.

And events that take place can, can occur at multiple times at once. You may have heard of things like Schrodinger’s cat, which kind of is a thought experiment that illustrate some of this weirdness when it comes to quantum computing. Whereas in a non quantum computer, what we call a classical computer takes these kinds of you know, analogues steps where you know, you you, you kind of calculate things one bit at a time in quantum computing. You can, like, just like an electron can be a superposition of different places. A quantum computer combines things called cubits, which do calculations and superposition and for certain kinds of algorithm, algorithmic problems, you can do them much faster with a quantum computer than you can with a classical computer. I think the, the news you’re talking about is that Google has announced that it’s done some sort of quantum computation faster than you can with a classical computer for the first time. I’m not an expert on this, but I, you know, I’ve read the same articles that you have probably, if that’s true, that’s a really big step. And you know, it’s exciting to be living in the future.

Yeah. Does it, does this sort of work inform your work at all or is it very far removed?

Well, certainly quantum physics informs my work in almost every step. I’m, I was trained as a particle physicist and that’s still kind of my, my basic mindset as a, as a scientist and particle physics is a fundamentally quantum kind of physics. When I talk about particles, I’m talking about quantum objects behave in quantum sort of ways. And so yeah, when I, when I, when I do physics, I’m usually doing quantum physics. Now when it comes to quantum computing, I mean, that’s an application of quantum physics. I am, I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase quantum computing in a paper I’ve written. But you can certainly consider me an interested or even fascinated spectator.

But it’s another example, isn’t it, of the, of both the progress and the pro proof that’s evolved from when Einstein first proposed these concepts.

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I mean, this, this stuff isn’t some sort of esoteric, philosophical you know, point. It’s something that enables us to build workable technologies that really work in the real world. You know, in the same way that you need general relativity to get GPS to work, right. And I need to know how quantum mechanics works to make the transistors and my cell phone work. You know? Yeah. These are, these are extremely real world theories that not have, not only been tested and have been shown to be correct, but enable us them and they manipulate our world in new and powerful ways.

You were talking about the Einstein was saying that gravity wasn’t a force itself, but but an outcome of other forces but you also wrote for gravity to be compatible with quantum theory, we need gravitons or gravity particles. Put that in context for me.

Yeah. So, so, okay, let instead of talking about gravity first, let’s just talk about electromagnetism, which is something we understand much better than we understand gravity. So on the one hand we have the idea of the of the electromagnetic force. We know a magnet’s work. We know electric fields work, things like this. We use these things called Maxwell’s equations to describe that stuff, but that’s the classical or non quantum version of electromagnetism. We also know that deep down what electromagnetism is, are a bunch of photons. These are individual particles or Quanta of the electromagnetic field, and these particles travel through space. And some sort of way that we now understand very, very well. And the sort of classical big picture of limit of those photons is the electromagnetic force that we understand. So in an analogy, we have a classical theory of gravity, general relativity, and that works really well.

It’s, it’s not that it’s wrong or something, but we know deep down there must be a quantum version of it. That underpins it all. And just like there’s a photon which is responsible for the electromagnetic force, we imagine there has to be a particle we use called the gravitron. And it is somehow responsible for the phenomena we call gravity or, or the, or the phenomenon associated with general relativity. We’ve never seen a graviton and it would be really, really hard to do. So it’s the sort of thing that it would be hard to imagine an experiment that would actually see these particles individually, but you know, in the distant future perhaps but we don’t know how this works. We don’t have a really a workable theory of quantum gravity yet people speculate about things like string theory and loop quantum gravity is ideas, but we just don’t know how gravity works at a quantum level. We snow. It has to, it’s, you know, deep down. But there are more open questions associated with quantum gravity than there are you know, real solutions at this time.

You have at the beginning of the book, this the big bang Erez and the era at, at 10 to the minus 43 to 10 to the minus 95, approximately, right? So this is right at the, I don’t how, what, but milliseconds, I don’t even know how to break it down smaller than that of the big bang is the quantum gravity era. What does that mean? There’s, there’s an unknown in there, but it has to, there’s something, it has to be,

Well, we don’t know what that era was like. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. But we do know that when the universe was that hot and that dense, that the laws of physics that we know of have to break down. We know that general relativity is not compatible with quantum mechanics at those extreme condition, under those extreme conditions. So there has to be some new theory that comes into play. A theory of quantum gravity. We don’t know what that’s like. We can speculate. But yeah, and when we, when we run our equations backward, we seem to think that roughly 10 to the minus 43 seconds after the big bang is, is where this era was, was kind of a completing itself. So there was this little tiny bit of time where the universe maybe can, consisted of more than three dimensions of space, we don’t know. And maybe space itself kind of existed in the superposition of different shapes and geometries. Maybe it was 11 dimensional or 26 dimensional. And who knows what kinds of forms of matter and energy existed at that time. All we can really say for sure is that our universe in that era looked nothing like the universe. What we see around us today.

You already touched on it, but you must, when you’re thinking about these things, you must, and I know everybody must ask you this cause it’s so perplexing. What’s the before? Do you speculate on it before or do you just or not?

Well, so I mean if you really just take general relativity and run it backwards, you find that 13 8.8 billion years ago, the universe gets hotter and hotter and hotter and denser and denser and denser and it’s at a spirit specific point in time at what we call times zero. Okay. The universe gets infinitely hot and infinitely dense and then time doesn’t go back any further than that. So they’re literally, according to that picture wasn’t any time prior to the big Bay. It’s like talking about what happened before the big bang. From that perspective, it’s kind of like talking about what’s North of the North pole. Like you just, there is no way to get to travel in any direction on the surface here is that we’ll get you farther North than that. That’s just the edge of of spacetime, which is where the title for my book at the edge of time comes from.

So all that being said I think we should be pretty open minded about how that really played out after all. We don’t have any way of observing the first fraction of a second after the big bang. And it’s entirely plausible in my opinion, that any number of weird unexpected things happened in that window. And maybe there were things that happened before that some very serious businesses talk about scenarios where a, the big bang kind of occurs in cycles where the universe expands for awhile and then it contracts and it kind of goes through a bounce and starts all over again. I, those theories have problems and none of them really work very well so far. But is it possible that one day we’ll work out a theory like that that does work and that turns out to be right. I think we should be open minded to that. On the other hand, it’s also possible that there really was a, an edge in terms of time and there just wasn’t anything that occurred before that and not only to know events happened, but there was no time in which those events may have happened. Before T equals zero.

We are back to the question of language again, aren’t we though? I like the analogy of you can’t go North of the North pole. That’s fascinating. Tell me something, what do you get like your, I, I’m sure you’re gonna this is at the edge of time is a great book and you’re going to have many, many great questions when you come to town hall. But what do you get

Okay.

From I guess, yeah, spiritually if I may from top from talking about these ideas.

Not just from talking about these ideas, but just from thinking about these ideas and getting to think about it in a lot of different ways. I mean, I just invited deeply fascinating in a way that I don’t think I have language to convey or communicate. And I don’t know when would you use the word spiritual? So I’ll kind of go in that direction. I mean, when I hear Buddhist monks talk about the kind of transcendental or sublime experiences they have in meditation and you know, I’ve never had that experience myself. But you know, I have some some experiences thinking about the universe and having insights about it that I would describe as sublime. I don’t know about transcendental, but you know, the closest thing I’ve ever come and there’s, there’s some kind of way in which my brain gets rewarded for, for kind of wrapping its head around some of these hard ideas. And it, it feels good and it feels exciting and it feels kind of pure. I think a certain kinds of scientific experiences or intellectual experiences probably it doesn’t have to be science can, can be deeply satisfying in a way that very few things in my experience happen.

Great. Great answer that that in a in a good, good PD scotch. All right. Thank you sir. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Oh, I’m excited about this and I can’t wait to come to Seattle, so.

Great. Great. All right. Enjoy the, I hope you have some decent weather. Enjoy the decent Midwestern Indian summer, if that’s what you’re having.

Yeah, I enjoy the fall. This is a good weather. I like Chicago in the fall.

Yeah. All right. Thanks a lot. All right. Cheers man. Take care. Bye.

Steve shares spoke with Dan Hooper, author of at the edge of time exploring the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds. He will be speaking on our forums stage at town hall on November 8th at 7:30 PM thank you for joining us for episode 45 of in the moment. Earthy music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. Listen to our town hall produced events on our earths and culture, civics and science series, podcasts, and you can watch a bunch of great events on our town hall, Seattle YouTube channel. So check that out as well to support town hall, see our lineup of, or to access our media library head to our website at town hall, seattle.org next week, our chief correspondent Steve share, we’ll be in conversation with Northwest harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds about food as a right in Washington state. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 44

In this week’s interview, Town Hall’s own Haley Fenton talks with Timothy Wise about agribusiness and the future of food. Wise outlines the control that corporations like Monsanto have over small-scale farms worldwide. He delves into the profit-motivated decisions that don’t coincide with the needs of farmers or consumers, and highlights the fact that foreign governments are attempting to partner with Monsanto due to funding, which has resulted in the company exerting control over their nation’s crops and production of fertilizers—a direction which Wise asserts is the wrong ecological choice on a global scale. Wise and Fenton examine agroecology and explore strategies for disrupting these harmful patterns.


Episode Transcript

Transcribed by Jini Palmer. Please email typos or corrections to communications@townhallseattle.org.

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to In The Moment a Town Hall Seattle podcast where every episode we talk to someone coming to our Town Hall stages. I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s mid-October here in Seattle and our rental partners have been hosting some incredible events, Earshot Jazz, Seattle Arts and Lectures, and the Moth Seattle are filling our stages with music and stories. And we’ve got a few fun programs next week with Seattle Radio Theater Halloween edition and our own chief correspondent Steve Scher will be onstage with Anand Giridharadas on October 28th to talk about society’s economic elite and how they’re doing everything in their power to preserve their position on top. Two days later on October 30th Timothy Wise will be gracing our Forum stage to talk about the Battle for the Future of Food, which is our highlight for this episode of In The Moment.

The world of agribusiness has a deeply penetrating control on policy, not only in the U.S. but in small countries in Subsaharan Africa like Malawi. As Tim Wise puts it, agribusiness spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. But shifting the future of agriculture to an agroecology model, even against said goliath forces is a feat worth pursuing for the farmers, consumers, the environment and climate change. Timothy A. Wise is a senior researcher at Small Planet Institute and Tufts University’s Global Development and Environmental Institute and is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Our correspondent for this episode, Hailey Fenton is our Donor Relations Manager here at Town Hall Seattle. She comes from a commercial fishing family, was the head baker of a farm to table restaurant, provided resources on an urban youth farm, organized communities for local food distribution startup and work to get her own hometown food co-op off the ground. So it goes without saying the sustainable food is a passion that both Haley and Timothy share. 

*** 

Haley Fenton: My first question for you, I kind of wanted to go back to the beginning. I was really curious, what was your relationship to food like growing up in, in your family?

Timothy A. Wise: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I grew up in a classic suburban family in a very kind of traditional North American household where food was kind of the food of the fifties and sixties, which was kind of the beginning of the processed food world and, and wasn’t actually featured very prominently in our cultural lives. So I feel like my deep appreciation for what it takes to produce food and to enjoy it and to have food embedded in a culture really came from my international travels.

HF: Mm. So it sounds like growing up there wasn’t a lot of questioning around food and where it came from and what you were eating.

TW: No, when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties and there sure wasn’t much attention to that at that point. It’s, it’s amazing to see how much that interest has grown.

HF: So you said that a lot of your appreciation came from your international travels, but do you kind of remember what your first awakening was to our industrial food system?

TW: Well, I know that my first awakening to the injustices that hardworking farmers suffer came in Peru when I was studying as an exchange student. And, and I was just struck by the dramatic landscapes of the Andes. Highland agriculture and steep slopes beautifully tended by very hardworking farmers who were living in desperate poverty because the range of policies that were in place really had them working as in kind of a feudal environment. And, and so that’s what really awakened me to the to just how desperate lives can be for people who work incredibly hard growing food for all of us. I think my appreciation for what industrial agriculture is kind of doing to our, to the larger food world came through a lot of work on United States agricultural policies, but also on the impacts that those policies and our trading agreements and arrangements have on Mexican farmers.

HF: Hmm. Yeah. I think that your work, not only this book but previous works of yours, do a really amazing job of showing what food really is in the context of human lives, which is also economics and public health and politics and gender. And I think that it stresses the importance of it because it, food does touch all of those worlds that I think is highly, highly underappreciated.

TW: Yeah, no, I think, right.

HF: And so you’re obviously well steeped in this world and have so much experience, but in the process of researching and writing this book, were there any surprises or revelations that you had?

TW: Oh, all the time. All the time. I mean one of the most striking conclusions that I draw out in the book is that is just what a deeply penetrating control agribusiness firms have over policy in the US and really even more so in a small country in sub Saharan Africa like Malawi. They just are dedicated to shaping policies in ways that are going to increase their sales and their profits. And that that doesn’t often or usually coincide with what small scale farmers most need or what consumers most want to eat. And so it’s a, I was, I was shocked at the extent to which those companies were really kind of right there in the government’s writing policy. I tell the story in the book of discovering that the seed policy in Malawi and of course of an interview, I was doing that the seed policy in Malawi, which threatened to make it illegal for farmers to save exchange and sell their seeds, which is really where 80% of the food in Africa comes from is from farmers saving their own seeds and sharing them with other farmers that they were threatened to make that make that illegal because the seeds wouldn’t be certified by the government and only crop breeders, commercial crop readers would get that certification. They even went so far as to say that such seeds saved by farmers should no longer be called seeds. They should be called grain worthy of eating, but not planting, you know, in an outrage. Farmers said to me, holding up a kernel of corn, how can we’ve been planning this for generations? How can this not be a seed? But talking to in the course of this interview, I said, I got flustered and said, this policy is so bad. It could have been written by Monsanto. And the guy I was talking to looks down at issues and pauses and looks up and says, well, actually four months into official is one of the authors of the policy. And of course Monsanto’s stands to gain because if all farmers have to start buying seeds every year, they control 50% of the corn seed market in Malawi.

HF: Oh, that is, that’s a lot to take in for sure.

TW: Yeah. But they were, that was not uncommon. That was not uncommon at all. And another, also in Malawi, I, I learned that I was perplexed because one of the most popular corn seeds that had been bred by Malawian farmers been very productive and it was no longer anywhere on the market. And I kept asking why? And someone finally said, Oh, don’t, you know, and I was like, no, what? He said, Oh, the, when the government had to privatized because of international monetary fund austerity program, they sold off the national seed company and Monsanto bought it. And Monsanto properly, promptly shelved the seeds that it didn’t have patents on and substituted seeds. It did have patents on, even though those seeds were far less productive than the ones that that the Malawians had bred for their particular climatic conditions and, and tastes.

HF: And so why are governments so eager to partner with Monsanto?

TW: Well they want foreign investment. And they’ve bought the argument that they need a green revolution for Africa. That’s the big push by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. And they created the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa in 2006. And the premise is that Africa was bypassed in the first Green Revolution, which brought commercial seeds and fertilizers and other technologies to farmers in India and Latin America, but it didn’t reach Africa. And now African needed its own green revolution. So there’s big money enticing governments to adopt policies that promote just those kinds of inputs as the paths to modernizing their agriculture.

HF: So encouraging these new seeds, encouraging these technologic quote technologically advanced fertilizers and such.

TW: That’s right. And the governments are, many governments are actually subsidizing the purchase by small scale farmers of those inputs at great cost to themselves. And Malawi in one year had spent 60% of its entire agricultural budget on fertilizer and seed subsidies. And, and the tragedy is that they, it’s, there’s very little evidence that it’s working. I did some background research but I was just presenting in Rome at the committee on world food security meetings that shows that, that they’re not getting the kind of productivity increases that they promise that when they do, that’s not translating into reductions in hunger in rural areas. So it’s really a failing strategy. And, and in the current context where we’re all worried about climate change, it’s enticing farmers really paying farmers to give up what are far more climate resilient agricultural practices and substitute for those commercial seeds, monoculture crops. Just corn crops everywhere you look and fed by inorganic fertilizers that are produced using fossil fuels. So  it’s a fossil fuel intensive process that they’re trying to introduce. Really kind of the, the wrong way to go as we think about the changing climate.

HF: So why did corn become the crop of the world? It seems.

TW: Well, it’s not the crop of the world. I think our people would argue probably that rice is the crop of the world. And if you look at Asia and how many people subsist on it, but corn is is particularly amenable to crop breeding and it can be it was developed in Iowa to be so-called high yield by doing a process called hybridization where they created as a different wet form of crop breeding. And it has the great advantage for seed sellers that the yield advantages that you get from this, from these seeds only last one year. So when you sell someone a hybrid corn seed, it will not remain highly productive if you save seeds from that crop and plant them the next year. So you need to buy seeds every year. And that’s really the trap of the green revolution project for Africa, is that farmers are really on the edge financially. And the last thing they need is to be trapped into a system in which they have to buy seeds every year and they have to buy fertilizers or those seeds won’t be highly productive.

HF: Essentially creating demand for forever.

TW: That’s right. That’s the, that’s the trap.

HF: Yeah. So you said that you just returned from Rome where you were presenting your research on Agora and the green revolution to the committee in world food security. Is that right?

TW: That’s right. The annual meetings of the committee on grow on world food security, which take place in Rome every October. And since the food price crisis that’s been, that was designated the kind of lead coordinating body for actions on food security and nutrition in the world.

HF: Can you tell us a little more about what that committee does and what the goal is of that community as far as action goes, as a result of these meetings?

TW: Well, it’s housed at the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations meetings take place there in Rome. Government representatives are there. So it’s a UN body with governments represented often by their agriculture ministers or, or ambassadors to the food and agricultural organization itself. And every year they are taking on kind of important issues that are on a long term agenda, trying to shape a more sustainable path to improve food security and nutrition, particularly in the poorest countries in the world. This year was particularly interesting because the hot button issue on the table was a new expert report that was strongly recommending ecological agriculture as the paths forward. And the dangers of continuing to follow that Green Revolution path. So it was an interesting and an important meeting.

HF: And what was the response to the presentation of that report?

TW: Oh, well, the response in the plenary was very encouraging with all of the different, in a lot of different country representative speaking up. I mean, I’ve been going and attending these things since 2012. I think the narrative has changed dramatically. It’s really, I think climate change has really woken people up to the fact that what we’re currently doing, our current agricultural development model isn’t working. People have noted the F the food and agriculture organization annual hunger report has shown that three straight years hunger, global hunger has increased the number of people and chronically and severely in hunger has increased across the world to over 800 million people with another out with some 2 billion people considered malnourished suffering some form of food insecurity. And that’s happened at a time when actually there’s a global overproduction of, of those commodity grain crops, rice, wheat, corn. So, you know, there you go again. Hunger, amid plenty. What’s, you know, what’s wrong with this picture? And I think there was, you really heard a lot more appreciation from many more government representatives. That business as usual is not an option anymore with change. Making farmers lives much more difficult all over the world, not just in Africa but in Iowa. Right. And so there was a lot more interest in support for, you know, approaches like agroecology, which tries to minimize the use of commercial inputs and maximize the regenerative forms of agriculture that can help rebuild soil fertility. Which is really the foundation for for long term food security. As I argue in the book. That’s how we need to eat. If we’re going to eat tomorrow, it’s going to be because we have adopted practices that rebuild the natural resource space on which our food production depends. Soil, water, climate, seeds.

HF: So it sounds like you left feeling a little hopeful.

TW: I, I did. I am. I’m very hopeful about that change in approach though, the acceptance of that approach. What’s less, what’s more worrying is that as well all of the recent climate change reporting from international institutions as highlighted. We don’t, we don’t have any time to wait to make these changes. Agriculture is contributing some 23% of greenhouse gas emissions by itself. So and the food system as a whole, when you count transportation, everything else, it could well be over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to our food system. So, so it’s urgent that we make those changes. Farmers in sub Saharan Africa who I spent a lot of time with are suffering. You know, it’s not a future looming threat for them. Climate change is upon them and has been for years and it’s, it’s devastating. So they need help adapting their farms to changing climates so they can by growing or wider variety of crops, not just one, which if it fails, you have nothing. I’m doing it in a way that makes their soils healthier. I’m not depleted, which monocultures said by synthetic fertilizers don’t really rebuild soils. They deplete them. I wish I heard the urgency at these, at these gatherings. What you do, what you hear from representatives like the US government representative there is that they don’t want to see anything that impedes the spread of industrial agriculture. The way they put it is we’re going to need all the tools in the toolbox to fight climate change and the tools that they want to promote a new genetically modified drought tolerant varieties of crops. And other commercial innovations that you know, may or may not contribute to helping our, in the long run helping are helping small scale farmers adapt to climate change, but that it’s not what they need now.

HF: And do you think that’s because of a belief that technology and Western intervention is the path to success or because it’s tied to business or both?

TW: I think those are, those are completely intertwined. You know, I in my book I spend a couple chapters looking at the United States one just looking at the Iowa agriculture where I’m essentially asking the question. I mean I title the section, the roots of our problems and ask the question, you know, why are we exporting this maladaptive model to Africa when it really doesn’t seem to be working well for Iowa? But agribusiness reigns Supreme in Iowa for sure and it’s very hard to see much, see many openings for changes because of that. But they truly also believe that they are feeding the world. They’re not, but that’s deeply embedded in the culture of the United States and of USA agriculture that are highly productive. Industrial model of agriculture is feeding the world.

HF: And elaborating on what you said about Iowa and how the United States itself obviously has plenty of issues with industrial agriculture, what are things that folks in the United States can do to participate in this global issue of food sustainability?

TW: Well, we, there’s an interesting new debate. I mean, I can also say that I came out of a book tour in March through Iowa. I spent a week there giving talks about the book. And I came out actually hopeful there too because I think the flooding in the Midwest which has persisted for pretty much the whole summer in some on and off in some parts of the Midwest has awakened to people, to the fact that climate change is coming for them to and that maybe this model isn’t working so well. They have really low crop prices because we’re over-producing almost everything. Farmers are struggling, debt levels are rising. It’s very hard to argue with that. The current model is working very well either for Iowa’s farmers or its consumers. Their waters are very polluted from the chemical runoff and the seepage of chemicals into the groundwater.

They’re losing topsoil. They’ve lost half their top soil in Iowa. Probably the richest agricultural land in the world has lost half of its topsoil to erosion from over-farming and bad farming practices. So there’s, there is an emerging, I think, consciousness that that needs to change and that government policy is where that change is going to happen. So the democratic presidential candidates many of them have very interesting ambitious plans for reshaping the farm bill and other types of farm legislation to essentially they’re proposing to make it encourage what they, some people call carbon farming. Others just call regenerative agriculture where farmers are paid incentivized with subsidies to to adopt more climate friendly and, and environment environmentally sustainable practices. Everything from planting cover crops during the winter to planning patches of one large patches of land and grasslands, which can sequester carbon over the long term and can, can slow the runoff. It’s coming off of agricultural fields.

HF: It sounds hopeful.

TW: No, I, I’m, I was very encouraged by the shift and then again, it’s the shift in the narrative and, and the battle is to translate that into concrete actions when you know that that agribusiness firms and their political allies are going to fight every step of the way if it impedes their profits. I mean, agribusiness, people don’t realize that, that the agribusiness lobby, which is somewhat unfortunately called the farm lobby, like it’s lobbying for farmers spends more on lobbying in Washington than the entire defense industry. So this is a huge lobby that has very clear marching orders from its corporate sponsors and those marching orders are to expand markets for, for, for commercial products here and abroad. That’s why you get this aggressive push to export the industrial model of agriculture to places like Malawi.

TW: You mentioned the shift in the narrative and how important that is. What was the narrative previously and how was it ineffective?

HF: The narrative was driven by again, this sort of modernization, a trope where, you know, small scale farmers using limited technology were backward in developing countries. They needed to modernize, basically, agriculture needed to be recreated in developing countries in the image of the agriculture that we got in the United States with heavily mechanized, very few people working on the farms. Highly chemical intensive and capital intensive, not labor intensive. And that, that would allow developing countries to become high yield producers of food crops and be more food selves, food secure. And you know, that’s not how it’s played out. For most developing countries some sectors within developing countries have become higher oil producers. Like in Mexico. There’s parts of Mexican corn production that are on farms that look every bit like farms in Iowa and have productivity levels as high as well, but that hasn’t made Mexico a food secure country. Mexico now imports something like a third to 40% of it’s corn every year from the United States. It’s not self sufficient in corn. And the quality of that corn is, has gone down Hill as those industrial seeds have replaced native seeds, which corn was domesticated and in Mexico. So it has the richest diversity of corn varieties in the world. A recent survey, nobody believes me when I say this, but a recent survey by the, by the biodiversity Institute in the ministry of agriculture, ministry of environment in Mexico identified 22,000 different unique varieties of corn adapted to their local culinary desires ecological conditions, et cetera. So displacing all of those with one or two strains of hybrid if not genetically modified corn is as a real loss.

TW: And so what would you say is the you’ve been touching on what the new narrative is now, but what would you say is kind of the elevator pitch for the new narrative of the future of agriculture?

HF: Business as usual isn’t an option. We’re growing more commodity crops of food, but we’re not feeding more people. It’s not translating into improved poverty, and reductions in poverty and improved livelihoods for poor people in developing countries. And with climate change, it is both a major contributor. That industrial model of agriculture is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and a very poor model for farmers in developing countries to adapt to climate change. So that’s, that’s the narrative that came out of this committee on world food security meeting. We need to change course the food and agriculture organization of the UN, which has really been one of the main promoters of that green revolution model for years. Now has a program called scaling up agroecology that basically recognizes that fossil fuel intensive agriculture is, is not the future.

TW: And are these the messages that you hope folks walk away with from reading your book?

HF: Yeah, they are. And I hope they walk away hopeful because the, because one of the striking things about researching the book was that everywhere I went, I saw small scale farmers, usually in some sort of farmer associations doing it right. They know that they have a better sense of what works. And they saw often with the help of agricultural scientists ecologists are reshaping their traditional practices to be more highly productive, more resilient to climate change and and less chemical intensive. And it’s working and I’m, I saw community after community where those kinds of projects are really giving farmers and farm families a much more diverse diet, much healthier and, and, and stronger soils and a much more stable income and food source

 

*** 

JP: Timothy Wise is coming to Town Hall to talk about his new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family, Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food and will be in conversation with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty and Africa Coordinator Million Belay on Wednesday, October 30th in our Forum. So come down early, hang out in our library or Otto bar, ask some questions during Q&A, get your book signed and chat with them.

Thank you for listening to episode 44 of In The Moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. If you can’t make it to an event, you can always hear them on our Arts and Culture, Civics and Science series podcasts. And if you’d like to support Town Hall, consider becoming a member. Head to our website at townhallseattle.org for more information. Next week, our Chief Correspondent, Steve Scher, will be talking with Dan Hooper about our universe’s first seconds. Until then. Thanks for joining us right here, In The Moment.

In The Moment: Episode 43


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Jini Palmer: Hello and welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast. In the moment, I’m your host, Jini Palmer. It’s the second week of October, 2019 and the temperatures have plummeted. The leaves are turning bright oranges and reds and people have been cozying up to our auto bar and the library that’s in the forum before and after events. So come on down, grab a book, a drink, and bring your friends. In the coming week, we’ve got programs about mushrooms, science, and the economy and music to fill your mind and senses. And next Wednesday, professor and author of Melanie Mitchell is coming to our forum stage to talk about AI. She chats with our chief correspondent, Steve share on this episode of in the moment to give you a glimpse into a human thinking about AI.

Facial recognition programs are the latest technology to be touted as the breakthrough in the human quest to create artificial intelligence. But it turns out the software doesn’t work like it does on TV, where high-speed computers magically find just the person being sought. Facial recognition software can be fooled by something as common as a blurred image according to computer scientists, Melanie Mitchell that can make plans to put AI into positions of decision making from self driving cars and security to financial decision making. Ill-Considered they just aren’t that smart. Mitchell has written a book artificial intelligence, a guide for thinking humans. She says her goal is to help readers get a sense of what the field has accomplished and how much further it needs to go before these machines can actually take part in the conversation about their own intelligence. That is to be conscious. Mitchell will be coming to our forum stage at 7:30 PM on October 16th to unravel the promises and pitfalls of artificial intelligence. Our chief correspondent Steve shares spoke with the Portland state university professor of computer science.

***

Steve Scher: Thank you for talking to me. I appreciate it. 

Melanie Mitchell: Oh well thanks for the opportunity. 

SS: I’ll just jump in cause I was wondering and you know even after reading all this, I’m still, I still sometimes get a little vague. Is there anything artificially intelligent about this Skype technology we’re using? 

MM: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of intelligence, I would say. No, but it certainly, it does some very useful things like it probably does some signal processing of our audio and makes, you know, takes out noise and all of that stuff. It’s, you know, people have different definitions of intelligence. 

SS: I know. That’s why I asked. Yeah. So for you know, your, your definition, no? 

MM: No. Yeah, I would say absolutely not.

SS: Yeah. Imagine a, a system that did have intelligence that was doing this, what would be, what would be more sophisticated about it? If sophisticated is even the right word?

MM: Well it would be able to join in our conversation, make some comments, tell you that you’re not speaking loud enough or you’re not speaking clearly enough or maybe you have, I, I didn’t see this, but maybe you have some like a egg on your tie or something I could tell you that

SS: I see that would be intelligent. I mean, Alexa doesn’t do that most of the time. Alexa says, Hmm, I don’t know that one.

MM: Right, exactly. I mean, I don’t think intelligence is a yes or no question. It’s, there are certainly degrees of intelligence. It’s a continuum. There’s also different dimensions of intelligence. So it’s a little hard to say that something is or isn’t intelligent, especially since we don’t have a good definition, but it certainly isn’t intelligent enough to, to join in our conversation. 

SS: Is that one of the issues with trying to write a book about where we stand with artificial intelligence that the definition of intelligence is still under examination?

MM: Yeah. That makes it a little more challenging. But it’s not that unusual. I mean, in science, people use terms all the time in every science that don’t have a very rigorous definition. So, you know, one example is I know that people in genetics are still debating the definition of the word gene. And for a long time, like in physics, the word force, that was just something ill defined. It was kind of a placeholder for something that we didn’t understand yet. And so I think of intelligence is that it’s kind of a placeholder until we understand better what we’re talking about. Consciousness is the same. You know, all these words that just stand in for things we don’t understand yet.

SS: I find it always fascinated to think that there is, there are still all these black boxes and yet scientists or what would you say? Are they, are they scratching around the, on the outsides of these black boxes trying to get in? I mean, what’s the, what’s a good metaphor?

MM: Yeah, that’s that. I think that’s, that’s pretty good. Are there, you know, there if you ever read the book Flatland, you know, something’s in a true dimensional world trying to imagine a three dimensional world. So we’re in our two dimensional world of understanding intelligence and there’s a third dimension, maybe even a fourth that we haven’t even conceptualized yet.

SS: I see, I see. Yeah. We’re working at it though, right? That’s part of what everybody’s trying to do, right? Working at that. 

MM: Absolutely. Yeah. 

SS: So I, I want to know how you started thinking about this and I’m going to take a kind of a geeky roundabout way. There, you know, there’s a, there’s a Star Trek Enterprise episode where where Picard encounters a group of people, Tamarians who communicate in metaphor or story or allegory. It’s always unclear. I mean, what actually is going on. But I always thought it was a remarkable way to think about how we communicate because though we, they had Language they had words that matched. They had no way of actually communicating because it was all in metaphor. And I noticed that one of the first things that you write about that kinda got you thinking about all this was this book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who were pretty amazing writers write about about metaphors. What was it about, about that idea that sort of begin began the spark for you in thinking about artificial intelligence?

MM: So in a sense, we all communicate via metaphors and that is something we’re quite unconscious of. That metaphor has really permeated our language. You know, if we say, Oh, she gave me a very warm welcome. That’s a metaphor, right? It’s a temperature, it’s a physical temperature and it’s not, you know, it’s, it’s not literally a warm in the sense of the temperature didn’t literally go up, but we, that’s the way we think about most concepts. And that was just a real revelation for me. You know, that’s not something I’d ever thought about before I read that book. But then once you see it, you see it everywhere in language and it’s, it, it really gives an insight into the way we think into the way we conceptualize. So that got me really interested in this, this whole question of like, what are our concepts? How do we use concepts in such a flexible way where computers are so rigid and literal? You know, they, they would have a hard time understanding that kind of metaphor. So it seemed like an incredible challenge to be able to get computers to understand things in the same way we do. And a lot of people think that’s impossible. I think it’s possible, but I think we don’t know how to do it yet. So really interesting. Kind of open question

SS: Just on a side note or maybe it’s part of it. I teach at the UW now and I’m teaching a communications class and many of my students are communications majors which is about language and not language and nonverbal interactions and all the ways we humans interact. And sometimes I have a half or three quarters of the students are Chinese speaking students. And I often find myself using a metaphor or an idiom and then looking up and realizing that makes no sense to them. That has no meaning for them because their like, their command of English is like my command of Cantonese or Mandarin doesn’t take us that far. It’s so sophisticated, isn’t it? These concepts, these metaphors that we live by.

MM: Yeah. and you know, each language has its own, it, it, it’s, it’s interesting too, if you try and learn a foreign language to kind of learn what their metaphors are and how, how they differ. One, one example I remember from French was in English we say, we say I had a dream, right? It’s kind of this, this notion that you, you possessed it, right? Or it possessed you. Whereas in French you say, I made a dream and I wonder if they really conceptualize it differently or they, they just have a different way of saying it and there’s a lot of controversy on that. So I think it’s really interesting this kind of cross cultural study of metaphors. 

SS: Have we seen people doing work in AI that are having any breakthroughs by comparing metaphors across different languages?

MM: You know, I haven’t seen that. One of the things I talk about in my book is, is translation programs like Google translate and kind of where they stand. They, and it’s a good question of whether they could deal with translating metaphors. You know, they, they learn, they use statistics, they learn from lots of paired sentences where you have a sentence in English and a sentence in French. And they learned from statistics of associations like that, how to translate phrases and they do it well in some cases and they do it very poorly in others. So I guess the answer is no, we haven’t seen a breakthrough in that yet.

SS: All right. I want to come back to Google translate and all those systems, but let me come back to how you went through. Why was it that this notion of language and metaphor, these ideas of the physical hot, cold warmth and how it translates into language and metaphor. How did that translate for you into wanting to study it through computer technology and computing?

MM: Well, what really got me into the field of AI was Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel Escher, Bach. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it was a book written back in the 70s that really tackled the question of how is it that something like consciousness or understanding could emerge from something like the brain where you have neurons, which are like little machines. They don’t understand anything individually, but collectively we get the phenomenon of human cognition sort of how does that happen? And you know, I don’t think the book completely answered that question, but it approached it in a really novel and interesting way. And when I read it, it just spoke to me as the most interesting question out there. And so that’s really what got me into the field of AI. And I even ended up studying with Douglas Hofstadter who was my PhD advisor.

SS: But it was, but, but you wanted, why was it through like, you could have studied linguistics, you could have studied cognition. What was it about unwrapping that question of consciousness through looking at how computers function that intrigued you?

MM: That’s a really good question. I guess my background kind of primed me to become a computer scientist. I focused a lot on math and physics as an undergraduate and did a lot of, did a lot of things with computers and kind of grew up with computers. So it just struck me that computers computation as a, as kind of a phenomenon was broader than just in computers. Computation was a way to understand how we think. That was kind of my view back then at least. And so AI was a way, not only to make computers smart but to use computers to understand ourselves.

SS: I see, I see. All right, so I’m gonna let me ask one more thing about this. Let me ask you about this experiment as a way to understand how this stuff gets applied and, and I don’t think you, you are, you’re reporting on this experiment, but this test, but explain it a little bit. One group of researchers, a group of researchers was, was trying to test how the physical, something is warm relates then to how somebody perceived somebody eat with these metaphors. Somebody warm, somebody cold. Do you remember that experiment that you wrote about?

MM: Yeah, I do.

SS: What, what was, can you describe the experiment and what was being studied.

MM: Yeah. So I guess the, the, the thing that was being studied was, are these metaphors just things that we say or are they, do we actually have any sort of literal, physical grounding of these metaphors in our bodies? 

So here’s the experiment. You have the subject come in to the lab and while the subjects being sort of checked in by experimenter, the experimenter says, could you hold this cup for me? And it’s sort of framed as being part of the sort of check in rather than part of the experiment in the cup is either hot coffee, the cup is hot coffee or cold water, let’s say. And then the experiment, the subject reads about someone and they’re asked to describe that person’s personality. And it turned out that if the person had been asked to hold a cup of hot coffee, they used metaphors like she’s very warm, or she’s very cold if they held a glass of cold water. That the actual physical temperature that they had recently experienced influenced the way that they communicated metaphorically. So there was evidence that these metaphors are actually, we actually conceptualize them in terms of physical, bodily states. And this has been replicated a lot of times in different ways.

And so the theory is that all of our abstract concepts really relate back to our bodies and the way our bodies sense temperatures, sense space, sense time. That our thinking is fundamentally rooted in our bodies. So that was, that was a discussion that was a part of the book where I was talking about how it is that humans understand the world and kind of focusing on the question, well computers, they don’t have bodies, right? Could they ever understand the world in the same way we do without a body or does it even matter? Do they need to in order to attain human level intelligence? 

SS: And where are you at now in your thoughts about that? 

MM: I’m kind of coming around to the embodied cognition ideas that we, that we can’t get computers to understand our language or our world without some kind of body that can experience the same things we do. Now that brings up another question. Why would we want them to understand our world in the way we do? Well, I think it’s, it’s an open question of whether they can actually do the things we want them to do, like drive on their own or make decisions about people or, you know, war or any kind of social thing that involves humans. Can we trust them to make those decisions without actually understanding things in the same way we do? And that’s a very big question. And I think it’s an open question. A lot of people in AI say, we don’t have to have, we don’t have to mimic human intelligence. Computers don’t have to have the same kind of intelligence we have, but then there’s the question, how can we trust them? So that’s kind of what that whole section was about.

SS: Well, it also raises a question of what would their intelligence be if it wasn’t grounded in the human intelligence? Of course, that’s the, that’s the bugaboo, right? Oh, AI will be this, the, the singularity that takes over the whole world. And you touch on that, you write about that. But is there a way to think about an interactive intelligence? You know the Skype that is commenting on the egg, on my tie that is outside our way of conceptualizing intelligence? 

MM: I don’t know. I think that’s a very good question. You know, we, we certainly have other kinds of intelligences in the world. We have animals that don’t have exactly the same kind of intelligence we have. And perhaps they think in different kinds of metaphors depending on how advanced they are. And we have trouble communicating with them, but we want computers that can communicate with us and can assist us and that can in some sense share our values. So I’m not sure that we want to have computers that have a different kind of intelligence

SS: That’s a wild notion. Computers that share our values. Has anybody been working on that aspect of artificial intelligence?

MM: There’s a lot of talk about it. So there’s a lot of talk about imbuing computers with morality, the kind of moral value systems that we humans care about. And how one could do that. There’s several, actually several books that are just coming out on that very topic. And there’s even research centers that look at that kind of question. But it’s very hard because in order to have moral values, you really need to have concepts. You need to understand something about the world. And that’s exactly what computers aren’t able to do yet. So I think it all goes together. You know, intelligence, morality, having values, it’s hard to imagine separating them out.

SS: Well, and you know, you talk about in the book you talk about the famous one that has come off of propagated the fundamental rules of robotics or robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders conflict with the first law. And then a robot must protect its own existence as long as the protection does not conflict with the first or second law. And you talk about how Asimov was a visionary. But you mentioned that he postulated a story where a robot got stuck because it couldn’t make a decision between those. But between those laws, it was very much in a feedback loop, not able to be, I guess, intelligent.

MM: Right. I think his purpose in stating those laws was really to show it’s in some sense, ironically, that any fixed law is going to lead to a behavior, you know, a suboptimal behavior. You have to be flexible about it. You know, computers are too literal. And the robot in those stories was trying to literally apply the law without having any flexibility. And it couldn’t, it got stuck in a loop. So that really was the point. And that the problem is that, and people have seen this throughout the history of AI. It’s impossible to write down rules for behavior, because behavior just doesn’t fit into a set of fixed rules. We can’t engineer knowledge into computers because knowledge doesn’t fit into a set of fixed logical rules. And that’s why AI has had so much trouble over the years and people have turned to this, you know, learning from big data rather than trying to program rules into computers. But each approach kind of has its own limitations.

SS: All right, so let’s look at that. I mean, this book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans is an assessment of where we are now with AI. So let’s pick a few things. Where are we now? And all right, let’s go back to Google translate. Is Google translate a sophisticated AI?

MM: I would say it’s a very sophisticated program. It works very well, a lot of the time. It can have pretty spectacular failures, which I think if anyone’s tried to use it to translate anything beyond sort of relatively simple texts, they can see that. And it’s interesting because it’s able to do these, these translations sometimes very well without really understanding anything about the text that it’s processing. And that’s this kind of the state of AI in general that we have these systems that can do very well in many domains, except they occasionally fail. And the reason they fail is because they really don’t understand the data that they’re processing. No context. The context, the sort of the models of the world that we humans have, these systems don’t have. Some people like to call it common sense, you know, they are missing common sense, which really means that they don’t have the knowledge about the world and the ability to apply that knowledge in new kinds of situations.

SS: Well, who has been successful in even limited ways in bringing common sense to AI?

MM: That’s a good question. Really no one.

SS: They’ve tried though right, there are people who were trying, right? 

MM: This is a bit, you know, this goes back to the beginning of the field itself. Tried to give computers common sense. You know, and there’s been different approaches. One is program at all in, tell computers, every single fact about the world. Well, we can’t do that because there’s just too many facts about the world that we don’t even consciously think of ourselves. So the new approaches, let the systems learn, let them learn from data. But how do we, how do they learn? So far this kind of learning approach hasn’t resulted in breakthroughs in common sense. And in fact, there’s this new government program to fund AI researchers called Foundations of Common Sense. It’s funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

And the goal of it, it’s kind of a grand challenge. And the goal is to create a program with the common sense of an 18 month old baby and to kind of have it go through all the developmental stages of an 18 month old baby. So to me it’s a really interesting contrast because we have these computers that can beat any human at chess or go, that can drive on their own in many situations that can translate between languages, that can do all these incredible tasks, but it’s still a grand challenge to have a program that has anything like the knowledge or common sense of an 18 month old who really can’t do much at all. Like have all those really fancy kinds of intelligence. And yet that’s sort of the horizon that everyone’s looking at now and saying that’s our goal. And it comes back to this this famous statement by Marvin Minsky where he said what he’s learned about AI is that easy things are hard, namely the things that are easiest for us, like the things that an 18 month old baby can do are in fact the hardest things for AI.

MM: Talk about IBO and what was the process by which you were able to do an experiment to train one of those little robot dogs to kick a soccer ball, but what the process by which this action, which on the outside, only with little robot dog can walk up to a soccer ball and kick it and then wait for me to kick it back. What was the, what was entailed in that? 

SS: So first I’ll say that I didn’t actually train a real IBO dog. I trained a simulation. And I trained it via a process that’s called reinforcement learning. It kind of mimics early psychology experiments where people used to train like rats to, to running mazes and so on where you give them rewards if they do the right thing. And that’s all you do is you let them take actions. And if they ever do the right thing, you give them a reward. But those rewards they can learn from those rewards and they can learn kind of by looking a little bit back in time. So if the dog, the robot dog actually manages to kick the ball, you give it a reward. Now in a computer, of course, it’s not like a real dog that, you know, gets pleasure from getting a dog treat. It’s kind of a simulated reward. But it can then learn that the things that it did to lead up to kicking the ball were actually good too, even though it didn’t get a reward for those. And reinforcement learning allows the system to figure out back in time what it did right to lead up to the part that gave it a reward. This was an extremely simple reinforcement learning system that I used, but a version of it, much more complicated was exactly what was used to train machines to play chess and go better than any human. So it’s a very powerful learning technique.

SS: Is it intelligence? 

MM: As I said, I don’t think you can say yes or no. It has, I would say it has some intelligent behavior but very limited. And one problem is that unlike humans, if something changes about the way I present the problem, like let’s say I give it a, a much bigger ball. It might have problems adapting its knowledge or its intelligent behavior to this new situation, or if there’s some obstacle in front of the ball, it wouldn’t know what to do. And similarly, you know, these systems that play chess or go better than any human, they’re incredibly intelligent at that task. But if you change the task a little bit, like you changed the shape of the go board or you you do something like that, it’s unable to adapt. So I think a big part of intelligence is that ability to adapt your knowledge to new kinds of situations, to changes in your environment. And that’s something that AI really struggles with.

SS: So in your book, you talk about a series of puzzles that are Russian researcher had done, I’m trying to find that you probably know more than me. Is that we’re, where different shapes and sizes are trying to be compared. Is that, is that sort of what you’re working on then?

MM: It’s related to what I’m working on. Yeah. So that, those are a set of visual puzzles where you’re, you’re asked to see abstract similarities. They’re very difficult, not for machines in particular, but also for people. Some of them are quite difficult. They’re kind of like an IQ test in a way. But what makes them most difficult for machines is that there’s very few examples. You have to sort of abstract from very few examples. And right now what computers are best at is when they have millions of examples. And that’s something they’re quite different from humans. Humans don’t need that many examples to learn something or to abstract the concept. So I’m interested in how we can do that kind of abstraction as people do with very few examples.

SS: How do you feel about it? I mean, I know you like doing it and it’s fun. How do you feel about, in terms of what you’ve been talking about and you know, in terms of the evolution of AI?

MM: I’m excited about it. I think it’s a very hard problem. And I don’t think we have all the ideas yet that are needed to get it to work. But it’s always exciting to work on open problems that don’t have solutions yet. And that’s one of the reasons I like AI is it’s all the problems are still open.

SS: I love, I hope you don’t mind. I love the last paragraph of your book. “The impacts of AI will continue to grow for all of us. I hope that this book has helped you as a thinking human to get a sense of the current state of this burgeoning discipline, including its many unsolved problems, potential risks and benefits of technologies, and the scientific and philosophical questions it raises for understanding our own human intelligence. And if any computers are reading this, tell me what ‘it’ refers to in the previous sentence, and you’re welcome to join in the discussion.” I mean that’s very much, it’s encapsulates everything you’re talking about. It’s, it’s the understanding of self in its relation to the world that we are still waiting to see emerge from the machines we’re building.

MM: That’s exactly right. Yeah.

SS: And I guess we’re still waiting, but in the meantime we have these, these dumb machines that are sort of taking over various aspects of our world. 

MM: It’s not necessarily all bad. We all rely on them and they can do a lot of useful things, but I guess we should really think hard before we turn over all of our decision making to these machines.

SS: Alright, professor, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. 

MM: Thanks. I enjoyed it very much. 

***

JP: Get yourself a signed copy of Melanie’s book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans and be part of the conversation next Wednesday, October 16th at Town Hall Seattle. The program starts at 7:30 PM but you can come early and hang out in our downstairs library or Otto bar and be part of our Town Hall community.

Thank you for listening to in the moment. If there’s anyone coming to town hall that you’d like to hear from, email us your requests at podcast@townhallseattle.org. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. If you can’t make it to an event, you can always listen to them on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Just search town hall Seattle and subscribe and if you’d like to support town hall, consider becoming a member. We have many different tiers of membership, but everything goes towards supporting the civic and community institution, our inclusive programming, and enriching the connections and cultural experiences that you’ll have. Till next time. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 42


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m your host, Jenny Palmer. Well that’s it folks. Our homecoming festival is officially over and the stats have come rolling in. During our festival we had 52 main stage programs with more than 100 presenters. There were over 12,700 tickets sold across 4,500 households and 1077 of those tickets were claimed by a new 22 and under audience, which if you didn’t know Townhall is offering free tickets for youth. That’s right. Anyone that’s 22 and under can attend any of our town hall produced events for free and with a month long extravaganza of spectacular events in the bag. We can now turn to our regularly scheduled programming. We might be done with our festival, but we still have a packed calendar in October. Our rental partners are filling these autumn days with earshot, jazz, and sandbox radio performances and the moth will be packing our great hall with new stories for the grand slam champion. On October 25th ambassador Susan Rice will be coming to speak with former us secretary of the interior. Sally jewel. On October 14th and we have more than a few events to satiate that curious mind of yours. Basically we have another full month ahead and you can check it all out on our website at town hall, seattle.org but for now, let’s bring it back to this moment.
What does freshman calculus have to do with college admittance? Research has proven that higher education is an equitable and Paul tough a writer and journalist has written about that research and the landscape of higher education and his new book, the years the matter most how college makes or breaks us. Our correspondent for this episode, Sally James is a science writer based in Seattle who sat down to talk with Paul about the time he spent on college campuses with students and teachers and what he learned about higher education.
I I really enjoyed the book and I I read it with a couple of different perspectives. Both a parent who has sent three children to college and a former college student who was low income and going to a kind of pretend Ivy. So I found a lot of things in here that I think a lot of parents are going to be wondering about. I feel like we have to unpack a little bit. One of my favorite sections, which is on page 138 I’m going to set up something you said lacrosse bros really do run the world. It really is who you know and not what, you know, by the time you reached the last page of pedigree, you either want to go firebomb a bank or enroll your kid in squash lessons or both. Can you just talk a little bit about the D moralizing numbers on how inequitable higher education is?
Yeah, they’re really striking. So that I was writing in that particular chapter about this, this research by this sociologist named Lauren Rivera. That is not even about college. It’s about what happens after college and the way that all of the inequities in college admissions replicate themselves. And in some ways there are, are expanded on when college graduates or college seniors are applying to jobs at investment banks and law firms and consulting companies. But I feel like it is a,
It’s just an amped up version of what’s happening throughout the college process. And there has been over the last few decades this increasing stratification of higher education so that the most prestigious, most well-resourced, most selective institutions are now admitting students with a smaller and smaller range of test scores and are admitting more and more well off students and fewer and fewer low income students. And that is often not the way we think about it. I feel like there is this, this idea in the public sphere that in fact those most selective institutions are a real bastions of equity and diversity. And they certainly often talk that way, but when you look at the numbers and a study came out a couple of years ago that maybe for the first time really a lot easier to look at those numbers. It’s clear that there are very few low income students at those most selective institutions and the institutions that are at a, at educating a lot of low income students are the ones that we have been defunding and pulling resources back from over the past couple of decades.
And I, and that state schools for the most part, wouldn’t you?
Yeah. Pub public universities in general. So everything from community colleges to flagship institutions we’ve been cutting their funding for for decades, but especially since 2000, 2001. And even more, especially since the recession 10 years ago you know, we just slashed our funding in the recession and then never never restored it. And so all of the, like all these stories about rising tuitions and rising debt, at least on the public side, that all just has one, one main cause, which is that, that those institutions used to be something that we funded publicly and we have just switched the funding source from the public, the individual students and higher education doesn’t function well that way. And it certainly doesn’t function equitably that way.
I think we can segue because another one of my favorite parts of this is the entire chapter on freshman calculus. And just for the people listening, a very idealistic calculus professor at the university of Texas used some of his own history as someone who had what I’d call imposter syndrome during part of his education. And his success made him interested in rescuing other people from that. And I think students who have come from what you call less than gold plated high schools fall into a kind of trap where they aren’t in the same place as the other students on that first day of college calculus because the majority of other students probably took it already in high school. And I was gonna say, if you wouldn’t mind just saying a little bit about why freshman calculus represents an enormous obstacle to STEM careers.
Sure, sure. I’d be happy to. Yeah. So I’m so happy to hear that you like that chapter. My favorite chapter in the book as well. And I find that that calculus professor already tries them to be an amazing character and getting to hang out with him for a few months was a great opportunity. So so I’m always happy to talk about it. So one of the many sort of unusual facts that inform that chapter are the fact that calculus is role in the culture and in higher education has changed drastically. So when, when this professor 40 years ago was in college, only about 7,000 students from the whole country took AP calculus and now it’s, it’s hundreds of thousands each year. Something like one in five high school seniors takes AP calculus and, and the best math educators actually say like, we shouldn’t be teaching calculus in high school at all.
That if you really want to be a great mathematician, you need more grounding in high school in geometry and algebra and, and the sort of building blocks of calculus before you take it on. But it seems to be the case that that calculus has taken on this role in the culture and in college admissions of sort of this generic signifier of eliteness the same way that that taking Latin was a few general a couple of generations ago. And you know, like high prestigious colleges don’t really care if, you know Latin and they don’t really care if, you know, calculus, they just see AP calculus on your transcript and they’re like, okay, it’s that kind of kid. Right? they’re, one of the statistics that I still can’t quite believe though it’s totally true is that 93% of Harvard’s freshman has taken AP calculus or, or something even higher.
And that’s not just 93% of the math students, that’s 93% of the French majors and the music majors and the basketball players and everybody else. It just, it’s very difficult or very unusual at least to get into Harvard without having taken AP calculus. And that then has the additional problem that AP calculus is not offered in more than 50% of high schools in the country. And it’s not surprising to note that it’s not evenly distributed. So, so low resource, low income high schools are less likely to offer AP calculus or calculus of any kind. And schools that educate a lot of rich kids are much more likely to have AP calculus. So it’s become this gatekeeper that makes it very difficult to get into a prestigious universities without having, and it’s, you know, for more than 50% of high school students, they can’t take it no matter what they do. So it’s one more one more gatekeeper that makes it harder for low income students to succeed.
Well, and I think, I think just to help podcast listeners, I also think that, so let’s say you’re lucky enough you’ve been admitted to college and now you have to take calculus and get a good grade in order to be a biologist, a physicist and astronomer, a geologist, a doctor the student you introduce us to, Yvonne has so many things going for her and yet you give us a wonderful emotional play by play of her believing that she isn’t good enough. Even during the, as the, the weeks go by and week by week, midterm by midterm, she remains very on edge about whether she belongs. And I think what’s interesting is education has this image as something objective, mathematical, you know, GRA like gravity. If you have the education then you are, society is saying you are smart enough and yet she can’t get that message without an awful lot of kind of hands on encouragement from, from people. If we can’t reproduce Yuri, if there can’t be a URI at every, you know, big kind of flagship university, what other ways could we make calculous less of an obstacle?
It’s a great question. And so one of the things that I find really, really striking about that chapter is that, yeah, so like she’s learning, Ivana is learning math, which we think of as the, as, as you said, as this very sort of empirical, rational thing. You either like do the math right or you don’t, but so much of what is going on with her and I think she would agree with this and or either the professor would agree with this, with psychological. And she was in this, this sort of moment of great turmoil about her ability and about her ability to belong at UT and in Austin and you know, in this very elite worlds you want it to be a math major. And so she was constantly questioning whether she could do it or not. And so she was getting all of these messages.
And one of the things that is really striking to me is that, is that I think, I feel like early the messages she was getting from early men weren’t necessarily the most helpful for her because she was hearing from him that she was going to be fine. Everything was going to come together, just give it a few more weeks and suddenly everything was magically going to happen. She was hearing from her sister who was another, you know, high performing student, a UT student, but also from a, obviously from the same, you know, very low income background. She was hearing from her sister that actually she wasn’t going to succeed in calculus, that low-income Latinas from the West side of San Antonio just couldn’t pull this sort of thing off, which didn’t seem very reassuring but somehow felt comforting to her. And then it wasn’t until she, she had this one conversation with the, with her TA, this woman named Erica winter, that she found I kind of synthesis of those two arguments that really made sense to her.
This idea that you really are behind, like you really have had disadvantages and they’re not just imaginary, they have created these, these obstacles that are going to be very difficult to surmount, but those don’t define you. Those are not actually part of your, your essential character and who you really are as a mathematician and you’re going to be a great one. And if you want to close the gap between yourself and the students who have more preparation, you can, you’re just going to have to work really hard and really strategically. But you can do it. And, and, and I, and we can help you do that. And that I think was, that was the message that really worked for her. And I think it’s a complicated message to get right. But I think there are lots of lots of teachers who are working on how to convey that and how to convey that not only through words, but through the kind of math problems you assign and the way that you help students complete.
Well, my question has to do, again, I’m very, I’m very taken with how a parent can be both giving my child the appropriate skepticism. So for example, about standardized tests, how do you communicate the skepticism at the same time that you want to encourage and challenge? And I’m curious, when you think of, you know, three years from now, your son, three, four years, your son may begin setting down this sort of record that we’re all saying, you know, shouldn’t matter, but it does. And if he reads your book, what, what do you think he will, how will he put into action? The combination of skepticism and, and wanting to believe?
I mean, what I really hope that, that he and other young people take away from the book is amend might be a little bit counterintuitive, but it’s to, it’s to think about college admissions beyond their own specific case, right? Which is not how it, like we, we, we put so much pressure on our kids and they put so much pressure on themselves and the system puts so much pressure on them to just like get it right for themselves. And I want them to think not just about themselves, but about everyone in our community and in our culture who, especially those who had a few or fewer advantages than they do. And I feel like this is this generation that does think so systematically about inequities in this way that, you know, I don’t think previous generations did, whether it’s gun violence or racial discrimination or climate change.
I think they are, you know, really thoughtful about what, how advantage works and how disadvantage works and, and what kind of changes they need to make in order to make systems fair. But I don’t think that we encourage them to think that way about college and he, and so, you know, 15 or 16 or 17, we, we suddenly compel them to dive into this system that is inequitable and and, and perpetuates inequities. And instead of asking them to sort of critique it and, and, you know, have, have a, a skeptical view toward it, we just tell them like, this is the most important thing for you to win in this system. And so, so that’s, that’s my hope is that is that young people can sort of use this book to take a broader vision of, of what’s going on in that system.
And, and my hope is that not only will that make them, you know, more active and more concerned with reform, but it will also, I think change the pressure that they feel about their own, their own outcomes. It’s like once you start caring about climate change, you no longer want to have the fastest car, right? Because you know that the fastest car is actually also destroying the planet. And so my hope is that the same thing can be true. Once you start caring about the, the big picture inequities in higher education admissions, you realize that simply pulling for your own advantage and not caring about anybody else’s is just not living up to your own values.
I’m, I’m interested in again, how is this imaginary future college student who reads your book and the kind of attitude that he or she takes when sitting down to take an sat or an act knowing that knowing that there’s a way in which it shouldn’t matter and yet we have to take it seriously. So, so I’m imagining a high school senior or high school seniors parents right in the thick of essay writing. It’s September, I’m thinking about next year and what, what is the piece they make between the knowledge you’re giving them about inequity and the kind of, but I still want my child or I am a child and I still want a college education. And I understand, you know what you said about maybe there’ll be the reformers but before they’re the reformers they have to, you know, get those letters in April.
Yup. Yup. I know it’s, I mean I feel like it’s a real dilemma that I don’t, I don’t yet know the answer to. And every time I talk to talk to parents, students, I, I think about it. I mean I feel like they’re, one of the things that comes through to me in, in the book and in my reporting is that there are these different approaches that low income and high income students are taught when it comes to higher education. And in example, after example, a higher educated higher income students are taught to think of education as a bit of a game. So this sat tutor who I write about, it encourages them not to take the sat seriously and to think like it’s just a game. It’s kind of a scam. You, you know, don’t think that this is really a sign of your, your value or your, or your worth as an individual.
It’s just like your, your ability to do well on this test. It’s just an ability to outsmart these test makers. Right? And then the same thing happens in class in, in, in college itself where low income students are, have this very, you know sort of philosophical idea about how important the actual work is and how important grades are. And I think hiring income students are, are taught to be a little bit cynical about it and to think really big, you know, it doesn’t matter who you know and not what you know. And so I think that that the fact that high income students are taught that sort of cynical approach to school is on the one hand sort of smart and strategic because, you know, a lot of those things are true. That is sort of the way the world works, but it also has the effect of making them cynical which I don’t think is the way we want our teenagers to be.
And so that, that’s why I feel like I keep pushing back toward this idea of encouraging teenagers, high school students to look at the big picture of the system and ask themselves the role that they want to play in it. And to be more yeah, to look more at the system and not just at themselves. And so I don’t, I don’t know what, what decision that leads do in any individual students. You know, I think some of them, it will steer them away from college. Some of them it will make, make them, you know, apply to the same kind of colleges, but with them more a more strict, clear purpose in mind. But I think, I think not doing that, encouraging them just to think of it as a system in which they’re their only goal is to get the best thing for themselves.
He both leads to an unfair system, but it’s also unfair to them. Because it, it pushes them toward a kind of world cynical worldview that I don’t think is what we want for our kids. I don’t think that’s a, that’s, you know, an answer that is completely a gift, a clear picture of what, what each parents should do, where you should apply and how you should apply and how you should study. But I think that, I think it’s true. I think, I think we do have to complicate the system for our kids rather than just simply,
Right. Well, this is this just, this book just gives, like you said, it gives a parent so much pause and reason to wonder about where our child is going to get the kind of confidence that we want them to have. I mean, you want them to have confidence. I don’t mean confidence just because somebody wants to go to Princeton. I just mean enough confidence to pursue what they really want and not let the institution kind of tell them you’re not good enough. One of the things that’s been said by a lot of different analysts of our college system is that it may be we’re sending too many people and as you just said about your chapter seven, there should be somehow an alternative to the four year liberal arts model. Do you want to talk about the school in the book that you it starts with an a and it’s in Chicago, I want to say,
Yeah. A roof, pay a roof, pay college,
What they’re doing that’s completely different.
Yeah. So I, so to answer the question that was sort of embedded in that question, like do I think too many people are going to college? I, I don’t, I don’t, I mean, I think, I think there are a lot of people who we have not properly prepared for colleges and, and for college and a lot of colleges that aren’t properly prepared for the sort of students who are coming who are coming in and you need more education. But I am, I really remain convinced by all the data and, and economics literature that in fact a college degree is more valuable now than it has been at any other time in American economic history. And that there, there is no question that a college degree is on the whole a good investment. That said, there’s a lot we can do to improve the system, but I don’t think that the problem is, you know, too many students getting too much higher education.
That is not the case. But yeah, I think a [inaudible] is an amazing model for one of the ways that we could change higher education is a two year, a pretty new two year college in Chicago that is associated with a four year university Loyola, which is a prestigious Catholic private institution with a mostly well-off high achieving, high scoring student population. And that’s not the kids who are to a repair route. A is mostly educating pretty low income. Chicago public school graduates with relatively low test scores and yet they are not trying to push them all in a vocational direction. They’re giving them this sort of Jesuit based liberal arts education for two years that is designed to prepare them to go on to four year colleges and they take a very different approach than most community colleges do.
They focus a lot on, on low cost and making sure students don’t have to pay too much, but they also have this very what, what the Jesuit priest father through Rose who runs it, calls a, a very intrusive culture. Meaning that the educators, he and the other educators who run the school really take an interest in their students’ lives and not just their academic lives, but everything else. And they do their best to, to help their students in whatever way they need to. So it’s a really thorough going kind of approach
In the sciences. A lot of, I follow a lot of people that are in graduate education and they in order to be encouraging of future PhDs, they will post, I got a C in calculus or I got a 2.8 when I was this age or you know, all trying to support the notion that there’s nobody born to be a PhD and, and it isn’t easy. And and, and also that the self doubt is completely part of the road. Your road will include self-doubt.
Right. I think that’s so youthful. I mean I think, I think, you know, you, you mentioned posting it and which makes me think about social media and I think that that, I think there is a lot more of sort of sensible understanding of how to convey those messages to people. The, the messages of, of, you know, struggle and failure being part of the process. I think working in the other direction in social media, there’s so many students that I talked to who would say like that they are, especially in freshman year that they’re, they’re watching their students who graduated from high school with them who are off at other institutions. They’re watching them on Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and everything else and feeling like everyone else is so much happier and like, because that’s the way we do our social media. We, we emphasize the good times. And so I feel like so many college freshmen now are having that experience of feel of the, the sort of social media. The grass is greener on the other side feeling and, and if anything, I think that makes it harder.
I think the social isolation is a theme that appears in some, several different stories of people we meet in your book that they feel as if sometimes it’s economic, sometimes it’s cultural that, that their, the in an extreme minority of whatever class they’re in. And I think it’s interesting that, do you ever question whether by trying to have diverse populations of students, we are somehow forcing some of those students to be the only representative of their culture. And so they’re they might have an emotionally better four year college experience somewhere that was less prestigious, but where they felt like they belong.
Yeah, I think about that a lot about that a lot. There’s one student in particular, Matthew Rivera, a student at Trinity college in Hartford, who I wrote about who you know, within this, both very academically prestigious but also very wealthy and white institution. And he was the low income Puerto Rican student from the Bronx. And so he just felt culturally completely out of place. I felt like the students didn’t want them there and it felt a very little sense of belonging. And one of the ways that he described thinking in his freshman year was, should I transfer it to, I think it was the state university of New York and Albany, where some friends of his were. And he was like, I know that it’s not gonna be as good an education, but I’ll be happy. I won’t feel miserable every day. And so I think, but I think obviously the fact that we, we would force or even incline any student to have to make that choice is completely wrong.
And it’s just, it’s just an a factor of admissions. Like if, if those institutions continue to admit just a tiny number of students like Matthew Rivera, then those students are going to continue to struggle emotionally and psychologically, even when they’re succeeding academically as he was. And so, but if he’s part of a group of, you know, 20% or 30% of the freshman class rather than eight or 10% of the freshman class, it’s gonna feel very different for him. And I think, you know, the, the institution itself as Trinity was beginning to do when he, when he got there the institution itself can also just do some very basic things to make students feel more connected to them and more of a sense of belonging. So I think, I think it’s a solvable problem. I don’t think the solution is that the students like Matthew should always go to the state university of New York and Albany. I think it’s great for them to have academic experiences that challenged them and push them and provide them with opportunities. But I think there’s lots of the institutions can do to make them feel more welcomed.
By the time you’ve finished the process, I think you might have in your mind, Oh, I wish I could write a book that was just about chapter six because that was actually, do you have it? Do you have the next, do you have any ideas about what your next really long article by be about there,
There is a section of the book that I do feel like yeah, this is what I’d like to explore more and it’s chapter seven the chapter about students who came out of high school without a particular love of school and wanting to find some other kind of pathway. And the students who are, I wrote about one ends up doing factory work, one ends up doing office work. Women ends up in fast food, but all of them feel this, this pressure to get more credentials in order to succeed. And they try different options to try community colleges. They try a sort of apprenticeship programs and they have different degrees of sort of success and failure. But what that chapter really exposed me to was the fact that we just have a terrible system in place for those students. Like, you know, even for students like yogurt though when I wrote about at Princeton it’s rough enough being a low income student, a even at a highly resourced institution like that. But being a low income student at a community college or sort of anywhere in, in are very sort of slapdash and haphazard system of higher education is so difficult. And it’s those students who, who really we need to help them most are. We just, we like if they, if we aren’t able to get them some kind of credential, they are going to have a life of stuff, low wage service or manufacturing jobs and we’d need to do a lot better by them.
Hmm. So the kind of anti college anti college success or [inaudible]
Yeah, I mean I think it does involve college. I mean, I think, I think a big part of the solution is community colleges. And right now we just don’t, you know, we have cut our funding for community colleges by such a incredible degree that they just don’t function as well as they need to. In fact, you know, but those are the students who need more help rather than less help and we just keep giving them less and less help. So I don’t think the, I don’t think there is a great path that doesn’t involve college for those students. It, they certainly don’t all need four year degrees, but we need to provide a lot better options for them and fund those options a lot better.
Paul tough will be coming to our forum stage on Friday, October 4th, 2019 to talk about his new book, the years that matter most. If you’d like to ask Paul a few questions or get a signed copy of his book, make your way to the forum stage a town hall, Paul’s event will start at 7:30 PM and we still have seats available so you can purchase tickets at the door or on our website at town hall, seattle.org
[Inaudible].
Thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle baseband, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. If you can’t make it to a town hall event, you can always listen to our series, podcasts, arts and culture, civics and science, or if you’re more of a visual learner. We have a whole library of live streams and videos on our YouTube channel. Just search town hall Seattle and subscribe. Next week, our chief correspondent Steve, we’ll be in conversation with Melanie Mitchell about the successes, hopes and fears of artificial intelligence. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment.
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In The Moment: Episode 41


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

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

In The Moment: Episode 40


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello and welcome to [inaudible]
In the moment. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. It’s the third week of September, 2019 and the moments are flying by quickly here at town hall, Seattle or homecoming festival. Momentum is in full swing with events this past week from award-winning novelist Marilyn Robinson to diplomat, Samantha power to Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan. And as we approach our fourth week of the festival, we have some even more hip exciting events to add to the roster, including tough art, collective takeover. On Saturday, September 21st you had me at cello at cello concert on Sunday, September 22nd and hot takes with hot dykes, a live podcast with standup comedians, Clara Pluton and Val Negro on Tuesday the 24th and in the midst of all that entertainment, don’t overlook the critically important discussions filling our space. Naomi Klein talks about the green new deal with three Somos SCADA. Jonathan Safran Ford talks about how what we eat impacts climate change. With our in the moment, chief correspondent Steve share on the great hall stage and on this episode we get to know Timothy Faust, who will be discussing a single payer health care in the forum and if you happen to be in districts three or seven in the Seattle area, Townhall is hosting the city council debates next Thursday, September 26th if you’d like to see a full lineup of all of our events.
Check out our calendar at town hall, seattle.org single payer healthcare is a health insurance system financed by taxes that is managed and run by one entity such as the government providing essential healthcare to all citizens. There are many approaches and ideas for how this healthcare system could work in the United States, but healthcare, data scientists and activists, Timothy Faust, got on the ground to talk to people throughout the U S about health inequalities in their neighborhoods and how a single payer system could benefit all our correspondent Venice. [inaudible] Has been a journalist, reporter and editor in Seattle for over a decade. Most recently as editorial director at the Seattle globalist Venice sat down to talk with Timothy about why he’s passionate about healthcare, what he’s learned while working with the affordable care act and his new book health justice now single-payer and what comes next. So yeah, thanks for talking with me. I guess first can you talk about you know, what, what was the emphasis for writing this book? I mean, what was the need that you saw for having a book about this topic?
Sure. So I spent much of the past two years driving around talking to folks about single payer and health and equity and health justice. And one of the things that I realized is a, there’s, there’s wasn’t a good book out there and for a lay person, and I’m a consummate lay person, I’m talking about well healthcare, talking about what it is, how it operates, what insurances, why these things work the way that they do or don’t work the way that they don’t. At that single payer policy was understood. Generally it’s on the complicated, but then it was understood generally or the specific contours of, well, this thing is and how it works and how it operates or quite as fluently understood as I’m, as I might one of them to be so Polish your ass the rest of the book. And I thought this would be a good fit for it. And we’re not really much of a writer, but managed to excrutiatingly pull the words out of my head, like yanking my own teeth. I know what it was, a little book for them. And now here we go. We got a little 220 page ish bad boy that I’m rather proud of that seeks to answer Phil. Three questions. One, what do we have to, what do we want instead? And then three, what lies beyond.
Mm, okay. Yeah. So maybe can we back up a little bit and talk about like how did you come about like driving around to folks about talking about health care and the health justice system, I mean, or health justice. How did you, how did that come about for you?
Sure. I’m pretty haphazardly to be honest. I know quite a bit. I wouldn’t say no quite a bit, but I know a little bit about health policy. From my prior experience helped enroll full under ACA plans and Florida, Georgia and Texas. And then I work at an insurance company. I’m originally a true believer in ICA. I thought all this can solve all problems with Atlanta. You know, we may give given a chance to work the right way. I recall I once got into a shouting match, I’ll set a bottle with somebody. But whether or not the a snake work and I was wrong. I was super wrong. My, my goal and the time, my longterm plan was to this was back in 2015, 16. You get a job working for a state Medicaid program and do this for a few years cause I love Medicaid, especially in New York.
And then maybe you got a job then [inaudible] under a Clinton presidency and then hopefully work on single pattern in pass. And then of course, so that didn’t work out for it. Right. Intervene. And I reckon, Oh shit. Like we got a big problem here. Here’s the thing I’m really care about. I should go out and talk about it. And so I had some friends that had a podcast called Chapo trap house, really popular broadcasts. I played D and D Dungeons and dragons with one of the guys for about a year and a half. And I got them. There’ll be come on and just talk about single payer. And that was pretty popular. The same time I’m a member of the democratic socialists of America. So I happened to have a lot of folks from, from branches across the us say, Hey, would you be interested in coming to speak to us?
So I’ve got DSA locals across the U S to help put together events. I’d come and speak. And then more importantly, I’d get a chance to learn well, healthcare on the ground because healthcare is very different. And you know, Boise and Boston and Houston and Dallas and all these towns, I mean, Seattle, Seattle, and Eastern Seattle and Spokane have different healthcare needs. So I got a chance to learn more about health care in different, different parts of the U S and the specificities and contours of how health and manifests and then we’ve got a chance to put that all into a book.
Hmm. Yeah. I guess, are you finding, you know, you’ve been traveling around a lot or have you been finding kind of different reactions to the idea of a single payer in different parts of the country, like different resistance to, you know, different aspects of it and or skepticism of the idea in general?
I think there’s a lot of folks who understand they are afraid of their own bodies now. They are afraid of leaving their kids behind or they are afraid that they will be punished with a mountain of medical debt for a thing which is virtually beyond their control. But a lot of folks in just in a kind of in the middle they don’t quite know what this thing is. They’ve been told a lot of misinformation by people who profit from that misinformation. And so I’ll talk to a good number of those folks. And always eager to talk to more like listening to folks and but yeah, that’s been, I think that real that’s the real productive ground for them. Single-Payer question.
Hmm. Okay. So I guess, can you maybe describe what some of the misinformation that you’re hearing from people, like maybe some of the most common misconceptions about it and, and what do you tell them?
Sure. Well, the biggest one that gets swung around with a little hammer, you got a single pair, simply can’t afford it. That’s going to cost so much extra incremental money that we could never finance. And I have two responses to that. One of which is that, I mean, frankly, I don’t myself necessarily care about the economic arguments. I think this is a civil service, civil rights. People are, I think people want them to settle the people that live freely in their bodies. We can provide one, it’s what a government is there to do to, it’s economically proven to invest in American as hell. Every dollar spent on healthcare or the federal government typically for experts return compared to two way. And you’d have one central terminal or things like war crimes, but to, we fundamentally can afford single payer because we’re already affording it.
Right now or this year, we’re going to spend three point $9 trillion on national healthcare expenditures. You’ve got a whole bunch of steps or whole bunch of arguments. Single-Payer costs significant in the lesson, right? One single payer three year national health monitors have increased much faster than inflation once because of healthcare costs while they of control and the increased just kind of one line it’s profitable to do so. So a health go off year over year, over year we still spend four point $7 trillion eight years from now. What a single payer does is at the very least, keeps that cost flat. So there’s a large quantity of money that it saves efforts. You are not getting up left foot. Bug’s $7 trillion line two of that three point $9 trillion going right now. A full third of that is it’s considered waste either outright fraud or it adequacy of the contemporary American insurance.
Oh, half of that of that 30% is provider’s sideways. Things like unnecessary services being our price Mark. Other half of that is pay or sideways things like admin costs and efficiencies and pricing and this kind of the general and competence of the insurance industry bring prices down. So where we have this big chunk of change, we’re already hammering all contrast that to go single payer, the political economy research Institute, that’s a, our estimates are both single payer plans in Congress will cost a 10% less per year. Well Carl been now, so a 10% less to cover all people at full versus a bloated massive private carve outs and fraud waste. A pretty easy comparison for me. And what are you talking through with folks? You know, they, they tend to understand it. Some folks are concerned that their taxes will go up. I’m not to easy to fucking right now spending a lot of money, private facts to insurance companies that premiums, deductibles, copays, all that is life away.
So I think the nurse campaign’s estimate is that under their plan, a average, and I think this was docked out, if you look at the tax proposal, family of four making $40,000 a year right now spends about five to $6,000 on a health care in a given year, which is, I’m seeing them on the money. And that’s a combination of insurance, premiums, deductibles and copays. And the, under the Sanders plan, they’d spend $420 a year be a tax. But that tax is more offset by a marked reduction and their family. And on top of that you’ve got like your employer in spending, you know, 6,000 or warm $10,000 a year on insuring you cause retired employment to insurance. In theory provides the room for them to pass on that savings in the, for my higher wages and a better benefits.
Okay. And so that tax is essentially part of their income tax, right? Is that, is that kind of what the, the argument is
The actual financing models contingent upon the policy pass? Right. and like there’s a bunch of different ways one can fund the program but are still like determined upon how the policy is written. The most common one right now is an income tax, a progressive income tax that expands the higher counts of it. So people who make a hell of a lot more money. But I’ve more into the pot. But there are certainly alternative ways to finance lists or a compliment in your finances.
Okay, cool. Thank you. When I was reading the book, I did find it interesting that the last section of the book, I’m kind of focused on other social justice issues, connected to health justice, such as racism, affordable housing and gender issues. I, I was wondering do you, do you find when you’re talking to, you know, just the general public to lay people, do they, you know, intuitively find that connection between, Oh, you know, like, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of mold in my house or in my apartment, so that’s what’s making me sick, I guess. Are you finding that they, that they intuitively make that connection? You know, topics that I think a lot of people tend to shy away like intersectional topics that I think people tend to shy away from like gender issues or can’t get certain types of health care because they’re female. Yeah.
Yeah. I mean folks who got like just got mold in the walls and do get sick and see their kids get sick. They’re saying the causes of why they’re getting sicker while their kids are getting started. People on, I’m surprised to learn that they’re unsafe. Home conditions are causing illness and it’s often feel powerless or can’t do anything about it. And frankly that’s not long. A lot of them can’t do anything. I probably gotta organize where I talked about, so I kind of put a delay between social determinants of health and structural determinants of health, social determinants of health or things like housing and food and education, income and struck. But these things offer as we understand on evenly apportioned, cross the public, right? Some folks have adequate housing, some folks do not. Some folks are adequately safe at home or in their own bodies.
And some folks are not. Some folks had access to the healthcare they need and some folks don’t. Some folks have income and other people don’t. I mean I, I posited that the method of portion and these social determinants is through along the lines of things like structural racism, structural poverty, structural Pega, Patrick alcoholism like Mike McConnell wants to call it. Examples is a natal mortality. Black infants die twice. The rate of white infants. How there’s no inherent like quality of black people that mix infants die twice as often. Clearly something else is at play here. There was no racial components to County. You can take it up a few degrees less abstract. We know that for example, black man in a white man with the same symptoms of chest pain when we were in the same ability to pay or needed the same hospital will receive different kinds of care. This has been measured by it. See downstate did a study on this, a really brilliant study looking about how black men both receive worse care and receive more bad care. Little difference there. Then then wiped my arms. Like racism plays a pretty big role in how he received, how you like even literally receive help or even before you take out the intersections of inequality these things do affect how we behave in healthcare, get sick, die, et cetera.
You talked a little bit about the affordable care act, the ACA and you know, in the book also you mentioned that you were a big fan of it and actually started working in it and I was wondering, can you describe what you liked about it and kinda the reasons why you kind of left that industry?
Oh so actually still work in the industry. I gotta get, I have about $2,000 of medical costs a month, and frankly I needed the insurance. So I’m kinda, there’s a certain hiring to that. I’ve made my own [inaudible] and bargain. Honestly, nothing I say reflects my employer and certainly not vice versa. No, I mean, I, I I thought the thing would good be good. I thought the government would be a, a good actor here that like the, they had like you could channel a corporation and they could do nice lens and I don’t think insurance companies are malevolent. I think they’re just incompetent. I think they’re a inadequate to handle the task we put before them. They can’t do the right things. We, if they wanted to, they are unable to invest in the things that make a difference and all they can do is they can’t manage costs.
All they can do is scrape off their profit and pass the costs back to you. The the consumer. I mean the idea that healthcare as a commodity, that you are a consumer instead of a person I find pretty abhorrent. And I find that the justification for maintaining the insurance industry to sustain this model pretty flimsy at best. They’ve had 40 years to do the right thing. And even with the ACA, they have failed to do it time and time and time again. So there was large swats and population who just, you know, we couldn’t have targeted or shouldn’t have targeted because they weren’t eligible for the ACA. I’m not going to book my brain. I didn’t really understand why. Hey, government would actively deny care to people if it was free. Which kinda had a, a catalyzing effect in my understanding of how government works and how, you know, certain bad actors can ruin things for the bunch.
Okay. How, how do you feel about the ACA now?
Oh, it was a mass government subsidization in private industry in an attempt to coerce it completely. It’s a big part. It’s a big pint of whale. Please, please, please. How many billions of dollars we’ve got to give you. You stop being sick people off their insurance plans. That’s how I see it now. That’s not how I thought at the time. No, I mean like it’s, there’s, there’s no, like Paul on the road to Damascus conversion story. I just looked around at what I’ve been doing for a year and said, huh, have things gotten better? And the answer was no. And I couldn’t blame it on like a, you know, GOP interference or whatever. I had to say this whole thing is not working the way it ought to. What does kind of settled upon single payer is the thing that I thought a the model which made sense to me.
Okay, cool. And, and I guess, can you kind of describe your your, your ideal scenario and what would have to happen in the next you know, you can give me what the timeline is. I’m thinking five, 10 years for your plan to come about. What would have to happen?
My ideal scenario is full single-payer. Full stop. No question. That can be a transition plan or we have a couple of years where people kind of get ramped into a ramp out of the plan. We’re going to be overnight. I don’t really care. We can either make it illegal to sell insurance and compete to get single pair or we can nationalize the insurance industries and fill their mouth’s with old. I don’t really care either way. I think the latter probably makes more sense as far as what we needed to get there. I mean, we need a massive popular movement. Health reform and the has been tried in the U S many times and it’s failed every single time. Even when my well-meaning Sanders or well-meaning policy leaders or other woman people. All right, the helm, the only time health perform succeeds as when there is a large popular movement behind it.
Doesn’t need to be that large. Like think of like a, a act up act up as the HIV AIDS advocacy program that was sprung out in the 80s and they were facing a lot. There was a sitting president who said that HIV was a plague brought by God to kill gay people and that this was good. And even in the face of that, they organized, they allied with homeless people and people using drugs and people of color and poor single mothers and put together massive of mass, the top of popular movement. And they won. They won and they won and they won. They won. And I won a, I think we need similar popular movements. And I think the nice thing about health justice is it shows that you can be working on housing and so we are working with part of that, the health care movement at the same time.
Right? Not, I don’t think you want to build a singular monolithic popular movement. I think you build a, you, you win whatever you can, wherever you can. Right. You’re in Seattle. I can’t tell you what to fight for in Seattle cause I don’t know, I don’t want to be covered back. I don’t, I don’t, I want to fight over. I try to call the shots if I can say it as if there is something you think you can go forward and women because small material gains you get larger material games. This kind of like snowballing of a a victory. We will build the quilts that can win single payer and so much more beyond it.
Okay, cool. Yeah. Thank you for answering that. Like, you know, is there like an example that’s particularly egregious that you know, you don’t that you’re, that you wish people would know about?
One of the things I talked about mentioned earlier was that prices in the U S are fundamentally fake. And that sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Often prices are determined as a function of costs, right? It takes me $5 to build a gizmo. I want to pay my employees and myself, I cost $2. So at a total of seven there’s other competing giggles in the market and they’ll go for $9. So I will sell mine for eight 50 or whatever that’s I use to use costs to set a price. That’s how it works in healthcare and not at all. And so I got a couple of a couple of comparisons. I like. One is inpatient care in the U S costs 40% more than the same procedures performed in the same patients when performed in France or you’ve got a MRIs. Mris are a great example because MRIs are pretty consistent that as big tubes of printed money and one MRI is virtually indistinguishable from the, another MRI made by the same company.
So in the U S and MRI scan costs five times the same machine doing the same procedure costs in Australia. There’s no difference there. The MRIs aren’t more expensive to produce. It’s the same machine coming. It’s coming the same person that’s that they can afford to to charge five times more. So they do, I think it’s dumb or even not domestically. The, in a given a given hospital and like the literal same hospital, the literal same MRI machine who perform scans that have a seven fold cost variance, that is to say one scan might cost $200 and another scan might cost $1,400 even though it’s literally the same button being pressed to perform the literal same kind of scan. I simply, because [inaudible] prices are set as a function of who’s paying for it. If a hospital has a more powerful or dominant relationship with an insurance company, they can demand that the insurance company pays more for a given procedure.
Or if the insurance company has a particular scheme or a particular policy in which certain procedures cost more or cost less or whatever. But there was no real, like there’s no sensible approach to how a thing lets us standardize as an MRI on this cost. And if you add more competitors in the market, if you add a new hospital to a city or if you had a new facility to a region, costs go up, not down. There’s no, like this is not a market good. It doesn’t behave like a market good. In general it is, it’s a big gold rush. Big land grab. Everybody’s going for it and it doesn’t behave in the ways that we’re told to believe. Markets should behave, costs go up, prices go up, prices are invented. The, at the insulin for example now costs $400 a vial.
It costs fractions of, of honey produce costs go up simply because they can. Most famous case of that is Martin Shkreli on the pharma bro who took Dera prim, which is a, an antifungal, I forgot what it is. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a drug used to treat infections in people that have autoimmune diseases like HIV AIDS and increase the price. Something like 17000% overnight suddenly because he could and he didn’t go to jail for it. We only went to tell because he ended the fraud in some rich people. The EpiPen now costs $500 with insurance, even though it used to cost a think 150 a couple of years ago. Like these costs increased simply because they can, not because of any kind of like sound business logic or anything. And so that’s where, that’s where the real like bankrupt in, of, of Medicare or whatever is coming from. It’s coming from bad actors in the provider side. And in the face of all this, insurance companies can’t do anything. They have no leverage. They have no tools, they have no nothing. They can’t handle these rising costs. All they can do is make you pay for more of it. The hopes that that will prevent you from seeking care, but then they have to pay for.
Okay, great. And, and I was also, I was wondering, do you feel that you go around talking to people who already kind of are sold on single payer health care? I was, I guess my, my main question is, you know, you know, for whom did you write the book, you know, D do you feel like you’re preaching to the choir when you kind of lay out your arguments here or are you, are you actually, are you reaching people who kind of, you know, are curious, want to learn more?
I wrote the book from my dad mostly. So I imagined my father as a reader and then wrote a book for him cause he’s a, he’s a nice guy who wants the best but it doesn’t know a lot about healthcare policy and doesn’t quite know how the whole kitten caboodle operates. So, okay, let’s, let’s, let’s put together a thing that he can read and understand and hopefully enjoy. And so far it’s getting the dad’s seal of approval. Five out of five dads stars with is all I can ever help for. As to, as far as like like the, the hope is that my hope is that the book of the toolkit for folks who want to talk about single payer but don’t know how folks who wants to know what this thing is, to what degree that’s successful, I don’t know yet.
The book only came out last month. So my hope is that people that come to this book talks will take the book, you can read it and carry that forward. And talking to other folks that that they talked to about and self care is a thing people do discuss. I’m sure I have a pretty skewed index on how often people discuss healthcare. But I do believe people discuss healthcare pretty frequently. So I hope people can use, they learn in this book to talk to people that they know about healthcare health office,
Timothy Faust. We’ll be talking in our forum on Wednesday, September 25th. There are still some tickets available. So if you’d like to get involved in the conversation, head to our website at town hall, seattle.org. Thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own Barsac records. We filmed and live stream two events this past Monday, September 16th so if you’d like to watch Caitlin Dowdy discussing death or Samantha power talking about her career as a U S diplomat, check out our YouTube channel. Just type in town hall Seattle and you can access our whole library of videos and live streams. But if you prefer the medium of audio, which I suspect you might, our events will also be published on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Just subscribe, listen, and learn. Next week on in the moment, our chief correspondent Steve share talks with author and dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz about the odd, surprising and contradictory ways we live with dogs. Until then, thank you for joining us right here in the moment.
[Inaudible].

In The Moment: Episode 39


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m Jenny Palmer. It’s the beginning of our 2019 2020 season here at town hall Seattle, but the season’s opening is particularly special because we’re celebrating a month long homecoming festival and town halls 20th year of programming. Our festival started off with a bang on labor day and we welcomed Robert Reisch and Pramila Jayapal to our great hall stage and Alex Gallo Brown spoke to a full house in the forum. We live streamed rice and Jaya Paul, so you can watch this speak to a sold out crowd on our YouTube channel and you can hear both of their talks on our civics podcast series. It’s only the first few days of the festival and the energy inside her home has been truly awesome to witness. Our building is freshly renovated and we’ve got over 40 plus events for you during the September homecoming festival. So grab yourself a calendar of $5 ticket and prepare to learn, laugh than be part of the ever-growing community that is town hall.

All of this is to stay with the new season and a beautiful new building. We’re also freshening up the format of in the moment. Instead of two interviews each episode, you will hear one longer interview between a local Seattle correspondent and a speaker coming to town hall. This will give us an opportunity to really deep dive with someone coming to our stages and get to know their topic, personality and interests. And instead of releasing episodes every other week, I’ll be releasing one interview a week so you’ll get a more regular glimpse of who’s coming to town hall. Well, as much change as there is in the air, some good things stay the same. Our beloved Steve Cher is still our chief correspondent for in the moment and on this inaugural episode of season three, Steve talks with Soviet, born at British journalist Peter Pomeranz

the manipulation of information by people seeking to effect outcomes of Wars of business. Deals of elections is always going on, but something new and different is happening at the start of the 21st century. The scale of the dissemination of misinformation of lies and a fake news is destroying democracy around the world. Peter Pomerantz, if details this new style of author Attarian warfare in his book. This is not propaganda adventures and the war against reality. This inundation of lies creates uncertainty. The gives authoritarians power. Steve share spoke with Pomerantz of in a preview of his September 10th talk at town hall.

So it’s, it’s having its own challenges. Firstly. Um, there’s a whole plethora of kind of dodgy knee sites who do a mixture of anti-immigrant stuff pro the president and pro Russia. So the presidents, uh, you know, shaman is a kind of Trump like figure the swears a lot. He breaks all social norms. He’s misogynistic, he’s racist. Uh, but he’s about of the people. And so like people outside of Prague, but for him, um, the president’s has largely a, a kind of symbolic figure, but he still has some ways. And then the prime minister is this billionaire Babish who has no politics as such. He’s just into money, but he’s one of the richest men in the country in our kind of is the prime minister, which is kind of creepy as well.

How does the, uh, how does a country that has Vox, Vox love hovel as its, as its leader and its spiritual leader go from that to [inaudible]?

Yeah. Well, well, well well there was always a lot of opposition to huddle and people, the people who liked huddle kind of all seen as naive liberals nowadays they’re called have a Lloyd’s and the tease for being so naive and wooly and there was always another strain in Czech culture. But you know, sort of the habit traditional still does very well in the elections. They just come second. So it’s still that and prog votes for the kind of liberal party. But like a lot of places, um, you have this tactic of polarization that’s called in populists, divide the country and just scrape the elections as exactly as you see in America and Italy. You know, it’s it’s tactic that we see everywhere else.

Yeah. And that language of uh, you know, mocking liberals for their, for their Willie headed beliefs and, and is also part of it everywhere else, isn’t it?

I think what unites all these, this new wave of what we call populace is actually not policies cause they can have very different policies and then not really ideological in the classical sense. What unites them is tone and language. So if you look at Putin, Trump detects in the Philippines at Bolsa, Nora in Brazil, also at Boris Johnson, mitral Varage and in England and certainly Z-Man in Prague where I am now. They all have a sense of humor, which is based on telling kind of rude to BU, breaking jokes about, about genitalia, about sex, and about, um, um, about willies and, and grabbing women by the, you know, all these, all these things. And I, I didn’t, that’s an accident, you know, I don’t think that that’s an accident as well. Um, that’s the way I’ve kind of saying that of the people that tapping into, uh, you know, uh, the, the folk energy of like, you know, of the carnival, um, of the comedy club, which is great when it’s kind of an in comedy club.

But when the powerful do it, they kind of create this, this space of moral Calles where anything becomes possible and humor can take on a very kind of dark side when it’s used by the powerful to kind of strip away norms. Uh, you know, you start with humiliating jokes and you end up with humiliating populations generally. So that’s what unites them. It’s that, it’s that language that jokes in this ironic sense. You know, that very, very sarcastic. Um, which again, you know, that’s a good thing if it’s being used to oppose the powerful, but when the powerful starts to use it, it starts to kind of eat away a kind of a, an a, a culture where, you know, actually morality and seriousness is actually quite important.

Isn’t that interesting that you, you mentioned that about the powerful using it because that kinda runs through your, your writings, which is that in some ways the tactics of the pro-democracy movement, even if you will, the tactics of the comedians who punched up is turned on its head to punch down and to, and to, to manipulate.

Yeah, completely. I mean that, that, that, I mean, firstly that that’s happened at so many levels. I mean, in a way, I guess the big story is that, you know, at the end of the 20th century,

Hmm.

You know, I’m going to use kind of really like crude language. The bad guys lost the totalitarian dictatorships in the Soviet union, Nazi Germany, but also apart, you know, a South African apartheid and military dictatorships in South America, we forget, you know, the glorious years of 89 and the early nineties when all these author’s heritage Virginians crashed. But now I, they were kind of stiff and ideological and serious and the pro-democracy movements were fun and sort of street theater and, and, and youth rock and roll and root language to kind of punch up and I guess what they did, uh, the people who lost. And sometimes it’s literally the same people in the case of letting me a pizza. Um, sometimes it’s kind of like their grandchildren or their children as it is in the Philippines with the Mark [inaudible]. Uh, they kind of said, okay, well why can’t we adult these tactics?

So they kind of taken on the language, uh, the tactics of the pro-democracy movements. Um, I mean, Pete’s is very funny in Puson poses as a kind of dissidence in, you know, the world order of the great had you want a Comerica that’s kind of his pose. Look at me. I’m like, uh, you know, I might be [inaudible] of your authoritarian rights. Uh, I’m a bad boy, you know, doing naughty things. Um, and that’s part of his appeal, which is ridiculous cause at home he obviously quashes any discipline, but he plays like, you know, he’s, he’s, he’s the, a dissidence of the world order. Um, I know, I look, obviously you see this in, in Trump’s and Salvini, you know, they’re constantly saying that, that the rebels punching up against the, uh, soft authoritarianism of multiculturalism or something. Um, and, and, and they’ve done it very effectively. They’ve done it very effectively. So you have these kind of powerful people dressing up as the common man. Um, and they’ve done it very effectively.

I was reading a, uh, a statement, it was an article the other day and it was about how Trump’s supporters take him seriously, but not his words. And, and his opponents take his words seriously, but not him. And that seems to be a fundamental mistake on his opponent’s part.

Yeah. Yeah. That’s, yeah, I thought that as well. And that sounds pretty clever to me. Um, is there a button there? No, no. I want to develop it. I just want to build on it. And what does that mean? Is those two things connected? Yeah.

You know, the slipperiness of Trump’s language and the language of police him, um, is, is kind of very indicative because what they really do is through this kind of study, sarcastic, ironic and almost cloud-like language they use, they smuggle in a lot of other stuff that was considered to BU. So Trump, you know, in that crazy magic mix of his language, kind of like spirits in, um, you know, this very, very divisive nationalist rhetoric, which has been taboo in America for obvious historical reasons. Um, so I wonder whether that kind of the slipperiness of their language about that. They kind of, you know, they use irony essentially, you know, uh, where their was, don’t necessarily, you know, within an essentially that was then, it’s already mean what would that, what that meant to signify allows them to slide lot of stuff. And if you look at the new rights, you know, the far right, which was dressed up as the new rights in Europe and in America, they use irony a lot.

You know, that’s that kind of way of like, you know, they just about, um, they joke about being racist or they joke about, um, uh, being antisemitic and, and, and that kind of allows them to sort of bring it, bring in this Rudy doc stuff, uh, reached out and live, uh, who was the editor in chief of the daily stoma, which is, uh, a Neo Nazi American website, kind of even writes about this. What do you use the language of the incident, the language of irony to read. Just summarize our ideas. But irony is a very interesting thing. It’s a, you know, it’s this kind of, it’s a very weird, it’s a very unique form of speech where what you say is and what you mean, which has lots of positive things, uh, but, but can also be a way of bringing in a lot of dark stuff. Um, yeah.

Well it’s interesting isn’t it? Because I remember watching Fox news try to do a comedy show to compete with the daily show and its popularity and they couldn’t do it. And yet these people, this next iteration have figured it out how to be funny and at the same time drive home their points and gather their supporters.

Oh, th I mean, if there was one guy who I would like to be more on in America at the moment is Jesse Waters. You know, he’s the saw, he’s a Fox news presenter, but he’s all about sarcasm, irony. He does everything with this kind of, with this, with this really sarcastic grant. And he comes from a very liberal family. And apparently, again, I don’t want to spread fake news as you relatives are appalled of what he’s become, but he’s like a muster all of this, uh, um, uh, of using irony to kind of like, you know, make the unaccept and acceptable. But all of Fox has got a little bit of a review show feel to it doesn’t it calls in as a role, you know, like, you know, that, you know, that, that, that, that go-forward way, he stares into the camera. Uh, you know, there’s something I remember at one point looking at Fox and the analysis of this evening thing and it was like, uh, it was, it was, it was like a comedy portrayal of, of, of the all male American family.

You started off with bill O’Reilly, the kind of like, you know, they’re kind of sarcastic all knowing uncle. Um, then you go, Clara, who’s off the bed. It was tuck a call. So they kind of, the son who’s already like sort of fire and full of passion and bit confused the well and then shown how to see the drunk that comes home, often Miller play. And just start shouting, screaming and run saying, and it was just as almost like a comedy take on the kind of American masculinity, but since then O’Reilly’s gone. But it really was like the uncle, the son, and then like, you know, the father, uh, and it was a little bit tongue in cheek. The Russians are greater. That’s Russian propaganda is deeply sarcastic and very aware of how of its own kind of like, um, uh, of it. So the fact that it’s propaganda that kind of playing with the, with the, um, with the viewer and you know, because Fox and Russian propaganda, it’s become quite often quite comedic in a sophisticated way. You have stuff like, you know, the cold bash show and John Oliver has to become really, really serious. Then I’d like that. I like the serious Poe faced, uh, uphold as of morals in society.

So let’s talk a little about how it started and, and how it started for you. How did, how did the story of your parents, you tell the story of your, of your father on the beach being arrested? What w what were his crimes? You know, his crimes and crimes in Soviet union.

Exactly. So, so, so, so, um, so the book starts with my father going for a swim in DESA in 1976 and coming out and there’s two men standing over his clothes and left from the KGB and they tell him to get dressed. Uh, they take him to the KGB station. He is charged with, um, again, it’s hard to get your head around this today. Um, distributing, um, illegal literature, which was in that, in his case, uh, glad to be in the book of the author of Lolita. And it wasn’t even for the details for a book called invitation to be heading and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn school like occupy logo, which is a kind of grand novel about the Soviet prison system. Um, I know it’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, it’s, even though it sounds crazy that you would be arrested for giving friends books and uh, and basically they, they cool the next two years, they hold it around sort of 16 of his friends and relatives to get them to that.

He given them these dangerous books and in the end, one person broken and said he had committed this heinous crime. Um, and, and some of the books, thoughts with that and that I talked to the president where I live in a world where Rudy’s censorship, even in countries like Russia and China, I mean is incomparably less to what it was before. You know, in that sense, we won that war in the 20th century. Um, you know, we live in a time of information abundance and yet it hasn’t equals better societies in that kind of direct way that we thought it would. And so I kind of start with that problem.

You call it censorship through noise.

What do you mean? I mean, that’s, yeah, that’s, well that’s what sensors do. I mean, at the site there’s actually good academic research on how this thoughts who rush certain in, in sort of the early 2000 tens. Um, so basically they realized that the Russians, basically the Russian government realizes when God, we have these protest movements on, I mean, we can send to the moon a little bit online, but you know, someone would be very effective. I’ve said, they basically decided to create troll farms that flood the internet. So much does inflammation so much rumor and conspiracy that they confuse the protesters and start to divide them. They can look at the maps of the Russian, the Russian internet, um, in the early two thousands, tens, and it’s just like, you know, incredible dialogue among different people and blogs. They’re all talking to each other and creating this vibrant civil society online, which then spills out some streets and then you look at it now and it’s cuts and divided and polarized and broken up into little bits and that, and that was a strategy.

So you, you flood the zone. Uh, and then when you know, democratic, you know, democratic activists say, hold on, you know, this is a form of censorship. And the government goes, no, it’s not. It’s freedom of expression. And actually, you know, go prove that these profiles are our actual phones. These are just, you know, these are Patrick businessman, uh, concerned citizens who are stating their opinion, uh, you guys and what was fought for freedom of expression and inheritance. How do you like, that’s a great, those I didn’t know if they went through with it. It was the Russian troll farm, um, sued Facebook at one point, uh, for taking down some of that fake news sites saying, hold on, this is against our first amendment rights. Um, I think that itself was a sort of a piece of trolling. I don’t know if they went through with it, but, but they definitely had to raise the issue.

Did you read or, or, uh, the Muller report or any of the reports leading up to the Muller report and their focus on the Russian efforts to, uh, affect the American elections?

Of course. Yeah. I mean, it’s part of my job. I run a thing time for the NSC that looks at 21st century propaganda. So I’ve been a, I read bits of the Mueller report and it’s, this is a field, you know, we do similar sorts of analysis for elections in Europe.

Yeah. So do you, did you, did you look at that and I, you know, I’m not surprised here it is in, in happening in the U S because Putin and, and two of the less to another extent, Trump understand the, uh, the way to manipulate populations or seem to anyways understand ways to mitigate populations.

I mean it was still amazing for me. The fact that they went and did this in the U S I mean that was always, that must have been a big policy decision in the cabinet. Cause that’s a big step to do that kind of mess. Very provocative and do it in a way that you’re always going to get cool. You’re going to get cool if you did it like this. So it’s almost as if they were kind of, you know, let me get, yeah, let me, can you still, I mean, it was amazing to see that they decided to do this in us as almost as if they wanted to get courts. And that may have been part of the point because having looked at known how propaganda had developed through Russia in the 90s and two thousands going back to this guy, so cold that I talked about who was the head of pro domestic propaganda in Russia and the two thousands.

So his methodology was to reach out into every narrative, you know, the dissidents, the pro liberal networks here and your fascist narrative and kind of put his own people inside of that and show everybody almost how he was manipulating each of these narratives from inside and crushed them against each other. You know, he’d support, um, what not festivals that were incredibly provocative and the same time he’d support these ultra conservative groups who would come and attack them, whatnot. Festivals are being far to, you know, answered engines and he’d be feeding both these groups. So he was both reaching inside and polarizing, um, with the Kremlin, the sense of Goodwill, but letting people know that he was doing this as part of his power as a way of saying, look, I’m everywhere. Don’t invest with me. And in a way that’s exactly what the Kremlin has done inside America. You know, it’s reached out into different narratives, far left far right activists, um, uh, racist groups, uh, crude inside of them, uh, you know, further polarization, but done it in such a way where they must have known they’d get caught, uh, through really quite a cheap operation given the sense of the criminal is everywhere and all powerful and it’s now it’s on the front pages of the New York times every other week. So, um, you know, it’s almost as if they taken the tricks that they developed domestically, the Russians and exported them

to, to what end is this? I mean, what’s the end game for creating this kind of chaos and lack of a population’s ability to trust what they think they know?

Yeah, that’s fantastic question. I mean, I think in a, in a world of uncertainty and lack of trust, two things happen. One

you, the little guy or me, the little guy has a sense that we can’t change because we’re surrounded by this uncertain world where the truth is unknowable, which is full of conspiracies. Can Spencer conspiracy that always go hand in hand with this kind of discourse and this kind of a propaganda and you’re surrounded with this crazy dark, Whoa full of forces you can barely see. And in this dark, dark world, of course you need a Trump or a pizza to guide you. Um, so it’s quite interesting living in Russia and like save you a propaganda, which should tell you that everything was great in the Soviet union. People would know it’s rubbish. Kremlin propaganda today has channels like NTV which say everything is terrible in rushers, but of criminals and dangerous elements and Western plots. So therefore you need a strong who tend to kind of help you through this world. So you know, this kind of propaganda defeats your sense that you can do anything. Your sense that you have any kind of agency and it makes you young horse strong hub now. I think that’s how it was essentially that’s his essence. Um, what the game plan is strategically in terms of uh, ju politics. Um, I think if you just create a world of chaos then multilateral rooms, um, and kind of any kind of moments of framework fall away and what back in a world where mice has rights.

I was thinking about, uh, your story about what happened in the, in the Philippines with Duterte and how they, they set up or his, his intern, his marketing experts set up these Facebook groups and when he got enough people then he would start posting a crime story and he would, he would boost the crime story and get comments from his staff linked to these crime stories and link it to drugs as a way of sort of getting drugs to be the key election topic. That do I take could Duterte could, could focus on, well, do you think that same thing is happening? Have you looked enough? Does the same thing happening with immigration stories in America online and, and raising its profile for Trump.

Um, I think that’s definitely been happening in Europe and I would be amazed if it wasn’t happening in America. There’s two things here. One is, you know, in a certain way newspapers always used to do this or TV channels used to do this. Um, if they were kind of owned by various various business forces who wanted certain political results, what’s new social media is that it creeps into your personal world. What was interesting with in the Philippines that it wasn’t just fake news sites, it was Facebook groups. We should really already intimate where people will be posting things about their families and what’s going on in town and insidiously climbing into that space. What people have much less of a defense. You know, I think when we watch TV, if you’re watching Fox and you go for it, you’re making a pretty conscious choice that you’re adopting a certain worldview.

Um, when it’s, you know, Facebook fee is just something else. It’s just this really cooling crawling inside. What, when you’re in a place where your defenses are down. So, um, I would be amazed if it isn’t happening in the U S and also, you know, look, we have an election approaching in the U S very, very soon. And the fact that we’re even asking this question, the fact that we don’t know the fact that we don’t understand how the information environments online is shaped. We understand who’s behind various websites. We don’t know why we see something in our Facebook feed is actually now becoming a crisis. I mean, I’m already seeing stories about how Google is promoting the Democrats. What happened. We have to be able to affirm the stat and how the consent environment is being shaped for us to have a healthy democracy. Um, even if it isn’t happening, if that was speculating about it, I can’t answer.

It is already a huge problem. So I really, really hope that we are gonna see regulation again, today’s not regulating content, which I think is almost impossible, especially in America, but making the internet radically transparent. So we do understand why algorithms pick one bit of content them and not another who is behind all the information that we see in our Facebook feed. Um, I think we’re moving towards that kind of regulation in Europe and, and hope people get it in the U S as well. And I think we need it fast before the next election. Um, because the fact that we don’t know is, is just disastrous. I mean, newspapers, TV, we should romanticize it. They would deeply, deeply, you know, populism, but at least we could understand who was behind different things so we can analyze it and criticize it, engage with it. But now we’re just like, you know, we’re just surrounded by these information forces that, you know, we, we have no idea how that created.

What would that look like on the internet if we had those sorts of regulations, what would the page shut? That’s the discussion that we’re in at the moment and about the people who think about regulations. So I think stalls, I mean, I would start with the rights of a person online. When you go online, you should understand whether what you see is, I’m certified organic, by the way. I didn’t think we should get rid of anonymity. I think I’m number two is fine. We should just know why someone is being anonymous. It’s fine for someone. Say, look, I’m being anonymous because it would, you know, I need to preserve my safety. That’s actually fine. But you know, that should just be stated, uh, much from to understand if something is organic or Aptify campaign, if something is a bottle or human beings. So just to understand what we’re interacting with.

But I think even more than that, I think every time we see a political ad or any kind of issue based ad, we should understand who put it there. I don’t feel why to being targeted at me. Yeah. And who are these people targeting other ads ads? Oh, they the same ads. You know, there’s Trump campaign or people allies. The Trump campaign targets can be with one message and my neighbor with another one, I should be able to instantly see that I should have the press of a button. They should be able to open up the backstage of internet production. But I think we have to go farther than that. I think companies like Facebook and Google have to submit regular reports about that algorithm choices, whether the algorithms of being games and how that tries to thoughtful about basically, you know, there is obviously a question of that kind of commercial, uh, priorities, but I’m sure there’s a way around that. Uh, but overall we have to open up the black box of the algorithms as well. It’s a sensitive process. It’s not an easy process, but we have to move towards that. And the, the, the other question is just disastrous. Well, we just, democracy is kind of just, we can’t see how it’s working.

You mentioned the commercial aspect, but this is fundamental to how it’s being manipulated, isn’t it? You, you’re, you wrote a, the more we express ourselves online, the less power we have. Is part of that then coming from the ability of not just the Cambridge analytics but the companies themselves too, to know so much about our

patterns of behavior. I mean if there’s one kind of crisis in my book, one drama, it’s that. So, so as, as we mentioned, some of the book starts with my father being arrested for reading, but he’s also a writer. Um, and read the battle of for freedom of expression, which also is like to read, but also the freedom to express yourself was a huge part. The battle of the 20th century, uh, against the authoritarian regimes and freedom of expression was seen as kind of a guarantee of self-empowerment. The more you can express yourself, the more power you are, the more rights you have. And here in this new paradigm, everything’s been totaled. His head, the more you say about yourself on social media, the more you reveal about yourself, the more the social media companies can learn about you. And then what you can be targeted by political propaganda in ways that you might not, even though we didn’t know exactly what the technology is with like psychographics, but the principle is that right?

And that is a huge turnaround that we haven’t really got aheads around because we still think in terms of freedom of expression equals more power to the individual. But what if it doesn’t cool? What if it means the opposite? Um, that process at the moment is completely transparent. So we should completely, every piece of content that is then sort of talks at, at us. We should know at the very least why it’s being talked to that us, we’re already aware of it when we go somewhere and write something to our friends on WhatsApp and then we’d get like, you know, some sort of like, yeah, you know, I’d work for a chat. I mean, we kind of joke about it world wildly free, taught about it and joke and joke about it, but, but actually if you translate that to the political sphere, then, then it gets that very alarming propaganda as a part of life. There will always be people trying to influence us, but the individual has to have the right to be, to understand how and why he’s being manipulated so we can respond to it. Um, and at the moment the whole playing field was great.

I, uh, I teach a class at the university of Washington. It’s a communications class and, um, uh, it’s about interviewing. It’s about talking to people of course. And, and much of, much of the, the way information is disseminated is often through interviews. So I want people to understand that about their, about the prospect that I, I’ve been starting the class lately by asking them are there some things that are true? And um, these young, I guess we could call them postmodernists, uh, uniformly say no. And even when I say is the earth round and I do not get, you know, a hundred hands going up saying, yes, the earth is round. Yeah. I mean they just are so unwilling to see something as being fact based. I mean, we sit in a building and I say, did a scientist, you know, did somebody have to build this building? Did they have to follow certain procedures in order to make sure the walls don’t collapse? And yet that idea doesn’t quite sink in because for them, truth is situational. Is that part of the problem?

So there’s a lot of writing about, um, there’s a lot of writing about how postmodernism, um, and sort of this radical relativity, uh, relativeness, sorry, um, has, has kind of started to eats itself up. Um, the great paradox is a postmodernism started, you know, this kind of doubt about truths and relating I suppose. I suppose what they’re saying is, let me think out loud for a second. What they’re saying is, is that truth is a subset of power. Yeah. Yeah. That sort of thing itself is some sort of power as it’s a subset of power, uh, and power that was created, that means truth is always created. Yeah. So I suppose that, that’s what I say. Sure. So the question is how do we, how do we engage with that? Um, now I battled with that. Let me bring something back. Something very, very simple. I battle this problem in the form of writing. Yeah. So,

Oh,

I actually completely agree that writing rep will Taj from a gold side view, pretending I’m an objective observer, looking at things, you know, like a, uh, you know, like a, like a Tulsi. And the rater is actually untrue. I know. I mean, I declare I can with my advices and stuff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So in my writing, what I’ve tried to do is introduce myself into the text to the point where all my biases are [inaudible]. And by doing that, I hope to get to a point where I can engage with the other posts because by exposing my biases and where I’m coming from, they can do the same thing. And we can start to engage with one and level. I suppose the rationale, let’s see, the truth will emerge in the ability to communicate with one another. You stop being able to communicate with one another. I think maybe even your students would have, not that it’s a problem. So maybe that sort of, that you know, that

no

truth will emerge in our ability to talk to one another. Um, but that actually means a very vulnerable subjectivity. Um, so I think there is a way to kind of actually be that yes, you know, objects. It was, here’s another form of subjectivity that yes, all discourse is a Ford by power, but that doesn’t mean we have to get caught into a trap where we can talk about anything in to each other anymore, which is sort of the place that we’ve got to. I don’t think we can go back to like, you know, a kind of like pretending that we are sort of impartial observers standing above the fray. But I don’t think we have to cut ourselves off from the possibility of interaction.

You, you talk about, um, the, the, I mean, what you’re talking about in and is empathy, right? To try to figure out how we are in another person’s shoes and then communicate that. And one of your, uh, ideas is that, or one of way you’re looking at it is that people who really read a lot and people who read fantastic things from speculative fiction and science fiction to, you know, to, to, to the magical realists are maybe more likely to imagine different realities is reading, is reading going to be one way out of this?

Yeah, that’s, so I didn’t want to over a month a size the idea of the artists, but certainly in my book, um, I have a kind of a competition set up quite hopefully it’s not too, um, ideologies, but it is that between propagandists who try to use information to break people, uh, and to use ideas and stories to subjugate people and a certain type of artists who in the book has been solidified by my father, uh, who see auth as a way of interacting with other people, uh, imagining different kinds of society who the power of imagination. So look, I think artists can be very evil sometimes. I think imagination can be, it usually uses, so I don’t think there’s an apriori morality. Um, actually there’s always great seating, sort of like these horrible dictators. And the Hulk show for example, and Albania with the great dictates in the 20th century was always questing, quoting, Proust.

So I said, you don’t think that if you read a bit of Joyce, you’re going to be a good person at school, but if you put that much into faculty to good use, then that’s the only thing that can actually compete with the propagandists propaganda is basically really art. You know, that’s what these people are. A good arts can set us free and certainly the ability to imagine can set us free and move the conversation forward. Um, so exactly. I don’t, I try to keep this very light touch in the book, but there are also still logical studies which show reading lots of creative literature in your, in your, as a kid then makes you more, um, likely to have kind of interesting ideas politically. So, so there is a relationship there. Um, but I think you’ve said something very, very important about your students and true.

Um, I think that’s absolutely key. It is true. You know, all our favorite discourses. We’re actually in viewed with loads of biases. You know, if we keep up the ideal that we can communicate with each other and find sort of common ideas and a way to talk to each other, then that I think we can do that while remaining. Um, conscious of our own sort of limited subjectivity. I think a lot of this post-truth discourse is it Sloan, um, is actually connected to a larger crisis. So I think one way out of this is to look at sort of the larger framework, so facts and love themselves and not very pleasant and not always even, um, you know, something that people want to embrace, you know, fantasy as much as my, as much more pleasurable than the way. Um, but as you, as you say, we don’t have, uh, uh, post-truth Trump in discourse when it comes to building a bridge.

Yeah. The moment you give a blueprint for bridge, suddenly everyone’s talking about the facts because you’re talking about something that you have to construct and build, which needs evidence. I think evidence and evidence based discourse is very connected to that idea of a rational future enlightenment’s ideas of the future. Um, we’re very, very, you know, they also have this kind of like fact-driven discourse attached to them and in the 20th century, whether it’s sort of communism, which tries to say that it’s a scientific discourse, democratic capitalism, they both kind of use evidence to prove that that building is better society. But I think what’s happened now is, is that, you know, certain communism collapsed as an ideal late 20th century. That democratic capitalism took a real battering, um, off the 2008 crisis. Um, and say these kinds of discourses about the future and evidence that we were getting there kind of fell away.

And you have this, these sort of, this generation of politicians who don’t even try to be factual. They’re like, Hey, what do we need? Thoughts a little getting anywhere. That’s sort of, I mean to say sort of coincidence that Trump who to do Ted Tay Zeman oral nostalgist, you know, they don’t try to prove anything. Why would they need facts that bathing in, you know, the emotions of make America, Russia, China, the Czech Republic, right? Again, so one way of restoring facts and factuality in political discourse is by forcing a conversation about the future. So very practical way of doing that. I think it’s constructive, what’s known as constructive journalism, which, which has many interpretations. But the way I’m using it as a form of journalism that forces people to think about practical solutions. So instead of kind of rhetoric, you get like, okay, what are you going to do in this concrete situation?

So you force politicians into a framing where they have to talk about the facts because they will then be held accountable to them. So I think that’s one way forward. You know, we have to create discourses where facts are important. Um, there’s no point standing there screaming, you’re not being factual. You have to make facts useful again. So, so that’s the challenge for us in journalism. These are big challenges. I don’t think we can go back. We can’t put the genie back into the bottle. We’re going to have to [inaudible] people at uni. You’re going to have to really understand, well, how do we carry the ideals of a New York times or CBS or whatever into, into a digital age and into a social media age? I mean, what is public service broadcasting for social media rage? And honestly, I don’t think we’ve even started thinking that through a, but it probably will mean a lot more audience analysis and understanding the various online communities even more and trying to bring them together around, you know, common common areas and common EPS, the model GS that they can both share. Um, but together, if we just started this process, um, almost, it’s almost like, you know, birth of television where people sort of slowly works out that, Oh, maybe we should have some public service television or public service spirits and television to kind of counterbalance, uh, other things. So, so, uh, w w we’re really just at the start of the process of how we do that.

Peter Palmer ansif author of this is not propaganda adventures in the war against reality speaks within the moment. Chief correspondent, Steve Cher, and will be appearing at town hall September 10th at 6:00 PM to hear the complete conversation Steve had with Peter Palm Retsef. Listen to at length with Steve. Share wherever you find your passion.

thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. If you’re a fan of town hall, consider becoming a member every month. You’ll receive a beautiful paper calendar in the mail. Get invites to special town hall receptions and events, and feel proud knowing you. Help keep ticket prices affordable so everyone can have access to programs, educate and connect community. To find out more, including a full lineup of our homecoming festival, go to our website at town hall, seattle.org on our next episode next week, social equity facilitator, Christiana obey Sumner. We’ll be in conversation with Ebro X Kendi about his book, how to be an anti-racist. Thank you for listening and thank you for joining us right here in the moment.

In The Moment: Episode 38


Episode Transcript

Please note: This transcript was generated automatically, please excuse typos, errors, or confusing language. If you’d like to join our volunteer transcription team and help us make our transcript more accurate, please email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Hello and welcome to in the moment. I’m Jenny Palmer. It’s the beginning of our 2019 2020 season here at town hall Seattle, but the season’s opening is particularly special because we’re celebrating a month long homecoming festival and town halls 20th year of programming. Our festival started off with a bang on labor day and we welcomed Robert Reisch and Pramila Jayapal to our great hall stage and Alex Gallo Brown spoke to a full house in the forum. We live streamed rice and Jaya Paul, so you can watch this speak to a sold out crowd on our YouTube channel and you can hear both of their talks on our civics podcast series. It’s only the first few days of the festival and the energy inside her home has been truly awesome to witness. Our building is freshly renovated and we’ve got over 40 plus events for you during the September homecoming festival. So grab yourself a calendar of $5 ticket and prepare to learn, laugh than be part of the ever-growing community that is town hall.

All of this is to stay with the new season and a beautiful new building. We’re also freshening up the format of in the moment. Instead of two interviews each episode, you will hear one longer interview between a local Seattle correspondent and a speaker coming to town hall. This will give us an opportunity to really deep dive with someone coming to our stages and get to know their topic, personality and interests. And instead of releasing episodes every other week, I’ll be releasing one interview a week so you’ll get a more regular glimpse of who’s coming to town hall. Well, as much change as there is in the air, some good things stay the same. Our beloved Steve Cher is still our chief correspondent for in the moment and on this inaugural episode of season three, Steve talks with Soviet, born at British journalist Peter Pomeranz

the manipulation of information by people seeking to effect outcomes of Wars of business. Deals of elections is always going on, but something new and different is happening at the start of the 21st century. The scale of the dissemination of misinformation of lies and a fake news is destroying democracy around the world. Peter Pomerantz, if details this new style of author Attarian warfare in his book. This is not propaganda adventures and the war against reality. This inundation of lies creates uncertainty. The gives authoritarians power. Steve share spoke with Pomerantz of in a preview of his September 10th talk at town hall.

So it’s, it’s having its own challenges. Firstly. Um, there’s a whole plethora of kind of dodgy knee sites who do a mixture of anti-immigrant stuff pro the president and pro Russia. So the presidents, uh, you know, shaman is a kind of Trump like figure the swears a lot. He breaks all social norms. He’s misogynistic, he’s racist. Uh, but he’s about of the people. And so like people outside of Prague, but for him, um, the president’s has largely a, a kind of symbolic figure, but he still has some ways. And then the prime minister is this billionaire Babish who has no politics as such. He’s just into money, but he’s one of the richest men in the country in our kind of is the prime minister, which is kind of creepy as well.

How does the, uh, how does a country that has Vox, Vox love hovel as its, as its leader and its spiritual leader go from that to [inaudible]?

Yeah. Well, well, well well there was always a lot of opposition to huddle and people, the people who liked huddle kind of all seen as naive liberals nowadays they’re called have a Lloyd’s and the tease for being so naive and wooly and there was always another strain in Czech culture. But you know, sort of the habit traditional still does very well in the elections. They just come second. So it’s still that and prog votes for the kind of liberal party. But like a lot of places, um, you have this tactic of polarization that’s called in populists, divide the country and just scrape the elections as exactly as you see in America and Italy. You know, it’s it’s tactic that we see everywhere else.

Yeah. And that language of uh, you know, mocking liberals for their, for their Willie headed beliefs and, and is also part of it everywhere else, isn’t it?

I think what unites all these, this new wave of what we call populace is actually not policies cause they can have very different policies and then not really ideological in the classical sense. What unites them is tone and language. So if you look at Putin, Trump detects in the Philippines at Bolsa, Nora in Brazil, also at Boris Johnson, mitral Varage and in England and certainly Z-Man in Prague where I am now. They all have a sense of humor, which is based on telling kind of rude to BU, breaking jokes about, about genitalia, about sex, and about, um, um, about willies and, and grabbing women by the, you know, all these, all these things. And I, I didn’t, that’s an accident, you know, I don’t think that that’s an accident as well. Um, that’s the way I’ve kind of saying that of the people that tapping into, uh, you know, uh, the, the folk energy of like, you know, of the carnival, um, of the comedy club, which is great when it’s kind of an in comedy club.

But when the powerful do it, they kind of create this, this space of moral Calles where anything becomes possible and humor can take on a very kind of dark side when it’s used by the powerful to kind of strip away norms. Uh, you know, you start with humiliating jokes and you end up with humiliating populations generally. So that’s what unites them. It’s that, it’s that language that jokes in this ironic sense. You know, that very, very sarcastic. Um, which again, you know, that’s a good thing if it’s being used to oppose the powerful, but when the powerful starts to use it, it starts to kind of eat away a kind of a, an a, a culture where, you know, actually morality and seriousness is actually quite important.

Isn’t that interesting that you, you mentioned that about the powerful using it because that kinda runs through your, your writings, which is that in some ways the tactics of the pro-democracy movement, even if you will, the tactics of the comedians who punched up is turned on its head to punch down and to, and to, to manipulate.

Yeah, completely. I mean that, that, that, I mean, firstly that that’s happened at so many levels. I mean, in a way, I guess the big story is that, you know, at the end of the 20th century,

Hmm.

You know, I’m going to use kind of really like crude language. The bad guys lost the totalitarian dictatorships in the Soviet union, Nazi Germany, but also apart, you know, a South African apartheid and military dictatorships in South America, we forget, you know, the glorious years of 89 and the early nineties when all these author’s heritage Virginians crashed. But now I, they were kind of stiff and ideological and serious and the pro-democracy movements were fun and sort of street theater and, and, and youth rock and roll and root language to kind of punch up and I guess what they did, uh, the people who lost. And sometimes it’s literally the same people in the case of letting me a pizza. Um, sometimes it’s kind of like their grandchildren or their children as it is in the Philippines with the Mark [inaudible]. Uh, they kind of said, okay, well why can’t we adult these tactics?

So they kind of taken on the language, uh, the tactics of the pro-democracy movements. Um, I mean, Pete’s is very funny in Puson poses as a kind of dissidence in, you know, the world order of the great had you want a Comerica that’s kind of his pose. Look at me. I’m like, uh, you know, I might be [inaudible] of your authoritarian rights. Uh, I’m a bad boy, you know, doing naughty things. Um, and that’s part of his appeal, which is ridiculous cause at home he obviously quashes any discipline, but he plays like, you know, he’s, he’s, he’s the, a dissidence of the world order. Um, I know, I look, obviously you see this in, in Trump’s and Salvini, you know, they’re constantly saying that, that the rebels punching up against the, uh, soft authoritarianism of multiculturalism or something. Um, and, and, and they’ve done it very effectively. They’ve done it very effectively. So you have these kind of powerful people dressing up as the common man. Um, and they’ve done it very effectively.

I was reading a, uh, a statement, it was an article the other day and it was about how Trump’s supporters take him seriously, but not his words. And, and his opponents take his words seriously, but not him. And that seems to be a fundamental mistake on his opponent’s part.

Yeah. Yeah. That’s, yeah, I thought that as well. And that sounds pretty clever to me. Um, is there a button there? No, no. I want to develop it. I just want to build on it. And what does that mean? Is those two things connected? Yeah.

You know, the slipperiness of Trump’s language and the language of police him, um, is, is kind of very indicative because what they really do is through this kind of study, sarcastic, ironic and almost cloud-like language they use, they smuggle in a lot of other stuff that was considered to BU. So Trump, you know, in that crazy magic mix of his language, kind of like spirits in, um, you know, this very, very divisive nationalist rhetoric, which has been taboo in America for obvious historical reasons. Um, so I wonder whether that kind of the slipperiness of their language about that. They kind of, you know, they use irony essentially, you know, uh, where their was, don’t necessarily, you know, within an essentially that was then, it’s already mean what would that, what that meant to signify allows them to slide lot of stuff. And if you look at the new rights, you know, the far right, which was dressed up as the new rights in Europe and in America, they use irony a lot.

You know, that’s that kind of way of like, you know, they just about, um, they joke about being racist or they joke about, um, uh, being antisemitic and, and, and that kind of allows them to sort of bring it, bring in this Rudy doc stuff, uh, reached out and live, uh, who was the editor in chief of the daily stoma, which is, uh, a Neo Nazi American website, kind of even writes about this. What do you use the language of the incident, the language of irony to read. Just summarize our ideas. But irony is a very interesting thing. It’s a, you know, it’s this kind of, it’s a very weird, it’s a very unique form of speech where what you say is and what you mean, which has lots of positive things, uh, but, but can also be a way of bringing in a lot of dark stuff. Um, yeah.

Well it’s interesting isn’t it? Because I remember watching Fox news try to do a comedy show to compete with the daily show and its popularity and they couldn’t do it. And yet these people, this next iteration have figured it out how to be funny and at the same time drive home their points and gather their supporters.

Oh, th I mean, if there was one guy who I would like to be more on in America at the moment is Jesse Waters. You know, he’s the saw, he’s a Fox news presenter, but he’s all about sarcasm, irony. He does everything with this kind of, with this, with this really sarcastic grant. And he comes from a very liberal family. And apparently, again, I don’t want to spread fake news as you relatives are appalled of what he’s become, but he’s like a muster all of this, uh, um, uh, of using irony to kind of like, you know, make the unaccept and acceptable. But all of Fox has got a little bit of a review show feel to it doesn’t it calls in as a role, you know, like, you know, that, you know, that, that, that, that go-forward way, he stares into the camera. Uh, you know, there’s something I remember at one point looking at Fox and the analysis of this evening thing and it was like, uh, it was, it was, it was like a comedy portrayal of, of, of the all male American family.

You started off with bill O’Reilly, the kind of like, you know, they’re kind of sarcastic all knowing uncle. Um, then you go, Clara, who’s off the bed. It was tuck a call. So they kind of, the son who’s already like sort of fire and full of passion and bit confused the well and then shown how to see the drunk that comes home, often Miller play. And just start shouting, screaming and run saying, and it was just as almost like a comedy take on the kind of American masculinity, but since then O’Reilly’s gone. But it really was like the uncle, the son, and then like, you know, the father, uh, and it was a little bit tongue in cheek. The Russians are greater. That’s Russian propaganda is deeply sarcastic and very aware of how of its own kind of like, um, uh, of it. So the fact that it’s propaganda that kind of playing with the, with the, um, with the viewer and you know, because Fox and Russian propaganda, it’s become quite often quite comedic in a sophisticated way. You have stuff like, you know, the cold bash show and John Oliver has to become really, really serious. Then I’d like that. I like the serious Poe faced, uh, uphold as of morals in society.

So let’s talk a little about how it started and, and how it started for you. How did, how did the story of your parents, you tell the story of your, of your father on the beach being arrested? What w what were his crimes? You know, his crimes and crimes in Soviet union.

Exactly. So, so, so, so, um, so the book starts with my father going for a swim in DESA in 1976 and coming out and there’s two men standing over his clothes and left from the KGB and they tell him to get dressed. Uh, they take him to the KGB station. He is charged with, um, again, it’s hard to get your head around this today. Um, distributing, um, illegal literature, which was in that, in his case, uh, glad to be in the book of the author of Lolita. And it wasn’t even for the details for a book called invitation to be heading and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn school like occupy logo, which is a kind of grand novel about the Soviet prison system. Um, I know it’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean, it’s, even though it sounds crazy that you would be arrested for giving friends books and uh, and basically they, they cool the next two years, they hold it around sort of 16 of his friends and relatives to get them to that.

He given them these dangerous books and in the end, one person broken and said he had committed this heinous crime. Um, and, and some of the books, thoughts with that and that I talked to the president where I live in a world where Rudy’s censorship, even in countries like Russia and China, I mean is incomparably less to what it was before. You know, in that sense, we won that war in the 20th century. Um, you know, we live in a time of information abundance and yet it hasn’t equals better societies in that kind of direct way that we thought it would. And so I kind of start with that problem.

You call it censorship through noise.

What do you mean? I mean, that’s, yeah, that’s, well that’s what sensors do. I mean, at the site there’s actually good academic research on how this thoughts who rush certain in, in sort of the early 2000 tens. Um, so basically they realized that the Russians, basically the Russian government realizes when God, we have these protest movements on, I mean, we can send to the moon a little bit online, but you know, someone would be very effective. I’ve said, they basically decided to create troll farms that flood the internet. So much does inflammation so much rumor and conspiracy that they confuse the protesters and start to divide them. They can look at the maps of the Russian, the Russian internet, um, in the early two thousands, tens, and it’s just like, you know, incredible dialogue among different people and blogs. They’re all talking to each other and creating this vibrant civil society online, which then spills out some streets and then you look at it now and it’s cuts and divided and polarized and broken up into little bits and that, and that was a strategy.

So you, you flood the zone. Uh, and then when you know, democratic, you know, democratic activists say, hold on, you know, this is a form of censorship. And the government goes, no, it’s not. It’s freedom of expression. And actually, you know, go prove that these profiles are our actual phones. These are just, you know, these are Patrick businessman, uh, concerned citizens who are stating their opinion, uh, you guys and what was fought for freedom of expression and inheritance. How do you like, that’s a great, those I didn’t know if they went through with it. It was the Russian troll farm, um, sued Facebook at one point, uh, for taking down some of that fake news sites saying, hold on, this is against our first amendment rights. Um, I think that itself was a sort of a piece of trolling. I don’t know if they went through with it, but, but they definitely had to raise the issue.

Did you read or, or, uh, the Muller report or any of the reports leading up to the Muller report and their focus on the Russian efforts to, uh, affect the American elections?

Of course. Yeah. I mean, it’s part of my job. I run a thing time for the NSC that looks at 21st century propaganda. So I’ve been a, I read bits of the Mueller report and it’s, this is a field, you know, we do similar sorts of analysis for elections in Europe.

Yeah. So do you, did you, did you look at that and I, you know, I’m not surprised here it is in, in happening in the U S because Putin and, and two of the less to another extent, Trump understand the, uh, the way to manipulate populations or seem to anyways understand ways to mitigate populations.

I mean it was still amazing for me. The fact that they went and did this in the U S I mean that was always, that must have been a big policy decision in the cabinet. Cause that’s a big step to do that kind of mess. Very provocative and do it in a way that you’re always going to get cool. You’re going to get cool if you did it like this. So it’s almost as if they were kind of, you know, let me get, yeah, let me, can you still, I mean, it was amazing to see that they decided to do this in us as almost as if they wanted to get courts. And that may have been part of the point because having looked at known how propaganda had developed through Russia in the 90s and two thousands going back to this guy, so cold that I talked about who was the head of pro domestic propaganda in Russia and the two thousands.

So his methodology was to reach out into every narrative, you know, the dissidents, the pro liberal networks here and your fascist narrative and kind of put his own people inside of that and show everybody almost how he was manipulating each of these narratives from inside and crushed them against each other. You know, he’d support, um, what not festivals that were incredibly provocative and the same time he’d support these ultra conservative groups who would come and attack them, whatnot. Festivals are being far to, you know, answered engines and he’d be feeding both these groups. So he was both reaching inside and polarizing, um, with the Kremlin, the sense of Goodwill, but letting people know that he was doing this as part of his power as a way of saying, look, I’m everywhere. Don’t invest with me. And in a way that’s exactly what the Kremlin has done inside America. You know, it’s reached out into different narratives, far left far right activists, um, uh, racist groups, uh, crude inside of them, uh, you know, further polarization, but done it in such a way where they must have known they’d get caught, uh, through really quite a cheap operation given the sense of the criminal is everywhere and all powerful and it’s now it’s on the front pages of the New York times every other week. So, um, you know, it’s almost as if they taken the tricks that they developed domestically, the Russians and exported them

to, to what end is this? I mean, what’s the end game for creating this kind of chaos and lack of a population’s ability to trust what they think they know?

Yeah, that’s fantastic question. I mean, I think in a, in a world of uncertainty and lack of trust, two things happen. One

you, the little guy or me, the little guy has a sense that we can’t change because we’re surrounded by this uncertain world where the truth is unknowable, which is full of conspiracies. Can Spencer conspiracy that always go hand in hand with this kind of discourse and this kind of a propaganda and you’re surrounded with this crazy dark, Whoa full of forces you can barely see. And in this dark, dark world, of course you need a Trump or a pizza to guide you. Um, so it’s quite interesting living in Russia and like save you a propaganda, which should tell you that everything was great in the Soviet union. People would know it’s rubbish. Kremlin propaganda today has channels like NTV which say everything is terrible in rushers, but of criminals and dangerous elements and Western plots. So therefore you need a strong who tend to kind of help you through this world. So you know, this kind of propaganda defeats your sense that you can do anything. Your sense that you have any kind of agency and it makes you young horse strong hub now. I think that’s how it was essentially that’s his essence. Um, what the game plan is strategically in terms of uh, ju politics. Um, I think if you just create a world of chaos then multilateral rooms, um, and kind of any kind of moments of framework fall away and what back in a world where mice has rights.

I was thinking about, uh, your story about what happened in the, in the Philippines with Duterte and how they, they set up or his, his intern, his marketing experts set up these Facebook groups and when he got enough people then he would start posting a crime story and he would, he would boost the crime story and get comments from his staff linked to these crime stories and link it to drugs as a way of sort of getting drugs to be the key election topic. That do I take could Duterte could, could focus on, well, do you think that same thing is happening? Have you looked enough? Does the same thing happening with immigration stories in America online and, and raising its profile for Trump.

Um, I think that’s definitely been happening in Europe and I would be amazed if it wasn’t happening in America. There’s two things here. One is, you know, in a certain way newspapers always used to do this or TV channels used to do this. Um, if they were kind of owned by various various business forces who wanted certain political results, what’s new social media is that it creeps into your personal world. What was interesting with in the Philippines that it wasn’t just fake news sites, it was Facebook groups. We should really already intimate where people will be posting things about their families and what’s going on in town and insidiously climbing into that space. What people have much less of a defense. You know, I think when we watch TV, if you’re watching Fox and you go for it, you’re making a pretty conscious choice that you’re adopting a certain worldview.

Um, when it’s, you know, Facebook fee is just something else. It’s just this really cooling crawling inside. What, when you’re in a place where your defenses are down. So, um, I would be amazed if it isn’t happening in the U S and also, you know, look, we have an election approaching in the U S very, very soon. And the fact that we’re even asking this question, the fact that we don’t know the fact that we don’t understand how the information environments online is shaped. We understand who’s behind various websites. We don’t know why we see something in our Facebook feed is actually now becoming a crisis. I mean, I’m already seeing stories about how Google is promoting the Democrats. What happened. We have to be able to affirm the stat and how the consent environment is being shaped for us to have a healthy democracy. Um, even if it isn’t happening, if that was speculating about it, I can’t answer.

It is already a huge problem. So I really, really hope that we are gonna see regulation again, today’s not regulating content, which I think is almost impossible, especially in America, but making the internet radically transparent. So we do understand why algorithms pick one bit of content them and not another who is behind all the information that we see in our Facebook feed. Um, I think we’re moving towards that kind of regulation in Europe and, and hope people get it in the U S as well. And I think we need it fast before the next election. Um, because the fact that we don’t know is, is just disastrous. I mean, newspapers, TV, we should romanticize it. They would deeply, deeply, you know, populism, but at least we could understand who was behind different things so we can analyze it and criticize it, engage with it. But now we’re just like, you know, we’re just surrounded by these information forces that, you know, we, we have no idea how that created.

What would that look like on the internet if we had those sorts of regulations, what would the page shut? That’s the discussion that we’re in at the moment and about the people who think about regulations. So I think stalls, I mean, I would start with the rights of a person online. When you go online, you should understand whether what you see is, I’m certified organic, by the way. I didn’t think we should get rid of anonymity. I think I’m number two is fine. We should just know why someone is being anonymous. It’s fine for someone. Say, look, I’m being anonymous because it would, you know, I need to preserve my safety. That’s actually fine. But you know, that should just be stated, uh, much from to understand if something is organic or Aptify campaign, if something is a bottle or human beings. So just to understand what we’re interacting with.

But I think even more than that, I think every time we see a political ad or any kind of issue based ad, we should understand who put it there. I don’t feel why to being targeted at me. Yeah. And who are these people targeting other ads ads? Oh, they the same ads. You know, there’s Trump campaign or people allies. The Trump campaign targets can be with one message and my neighbor with another one, I should be able to instantly see that I should have the press of a button. They should be able to open up the backstage of internet production. But I think we have to go farther than that. I think companies like Facebook and Google have to submit regular reports about that algorithm choices, whether the algorithms of being games and how that tries to thoughtful about basically, you know, there is obviously a question of that kind of commercial, uh, priorities, but I’m sure there’s a way around that. Uh, but overall we have to open up the black box of the algorithms as well. It’s a sensitive process. It’s not an easy process, but we have to move towards that. And the, the, the other question is just disastrous. Well, we just, democracy is kind of just, we can’t see how it’s working.

You mentioned the commercial aspect, but this is fundamental to how it’s being manipulated, isn’t it? You, you’re, you wrote a, the more we express ourselves online, the less power we have. Is part of that then coming from the ability of not just the Cambridge analytics but the companies themselves too, to know so much about our

patterns of behavior. I mean if there’s one kind of crisis in my book, one drama, it’s that. So, so as, as we mentioned, some of the book starts with my father being arrested for reading, but he’s also a writer. Um, and read the battle of for freedom of expression, which also is like to read, but also the freedom to express yourself was a huge part. The battle of the 20th century, uh, against the authoritarian regimes and freedom of expression was seen as kind of a guarantee of self-empowerment. The more you can express yourself, the more power you are, the more rights you have. And here in this new paradigm, everything’s been totaled. His head, the more you say about yourself on social media, the more you reveal about yourself, the more the social media companies can learn about you. And then what you can be targeted by political propaganda in ways that you might not, even though we didn’t know exactly what the technology is with like psychographics, but the principle is that right?

And that is a huge turnaround that we haven’t really got aheads around because we still think in terms of freedom of expression equals more power to the individual. But what if it doesn’t cool? What if it means the opposite? Um, that process at the moment is completely transparent. So we should completely, every piece of content that is then sort of talks at, at us. We should know at the very least why it’s being talked to that us, we’re already aware of it when we go somewhere and write something to our friends on WhatsApp and then we’d get like, you know, some sort of like, yeah, you know, I’d work for a chat. I mean, we kind of joke about it world wildly free, taught about it and joke and joke about it, but, but actually if you translate that to the political sphere, then, then it gets that very alarming propaganda as a part of life. There will always be people trying to influence us, but the individual has to have the right to be, to understand how and why he’s being manipulated so we can respond to it. Um, and at the moment the whole playing field was great.

I, uh, I teach a class at the university of Washington. It’s a communications class and, um, uh, it’s about interviewing. It’s about talking to people of course. And, and much of, much of the, the way information is disseminated is often through interviews. So I want people to understand that about their, about the prospect that I, I’ve been starting the class lately by asking them are there some things that are true? And um, these young, I guess we could call them postmodernists, uh, uniformly say no. And even when I say is the earth round and I do not get, you know, a hundred hands going up saying, yes, the earth is round. Yeah. I mean they just are so unwilling to see something as being fact based. I mean, we sit in a building and I say, did a scientist, you know, did somebody have to build this building? Did they have to follow certain procedures in order to make sure the walls don’t collapse? And yet that idea doesn’t quite sink in because for them, truth is situational. Is that part of the problem?

So there’s a lot of writing about, um, there’s a lot of writing about how postmodernism, um, and sort of this radical relativity, uh, relativeness, sorry, um, has, has kind of started to eats itself up. Um, the great paradox is a postmodernism started, you know, this kind of doubt about truths and relating I suppose. I suppose what they’re saying is, let me think out loud for a second. What they’re saying is, is that truth is a subset of power. Yeah. Yeah. That sort of thing itself is some sort of power as it’s a subset of power, uh, and power that was created, that means truth is always created. Yeah. So I suppose that, that’s what I say. Sure. So the question is how do we, how do we engage with that? Um, now I battled with that. Let me bring something back. Something very, very simple. I battle this problem in the form of writing. Yeah. So,

Oh,

I actually completely agree that writing rep will Taj from a gold side view, pretending I’m an objective observer, looking at things, you know, like a, uh, you know, like a, like a Tulsi. And the rater is actually untrue. I know. I mean, I declare I can with my advices and stuff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So in my writing, what I’ve tried to do is introduce myself into the text to the point where all my biases are [inaudible]. And by doing that, I hope to get to a point where I can engage with the other posts because by exposing my biases and where I’m coming from, they can do the same thing. And we can start to engage with one and level. I suppose the rationale, let’s see, the truth will emerge in the ability to communicate with one another. You stop being able to communicate with one another. I think maybe even your students would have, not that it’s a problem. So maybe that sort of, that you know, that

no

truth will emerge in our ability to talk to one another. Um, but that actually means a very vulnerable subjectivity. Um, so I think there is a way to kind of actually be that yes, you know, objects. It was, here’s another form of subjectivity that yes, all discourse is a Ford by power, but that doesn’t mean we have to get caught into a trap where we can talk about anything in to each other anymore, which is sort of the place that we’ve got to. I don’t think we can go back to like, you know, a kind of like pretending that we are sort of impartial observers standing above the fray. But I don’t think we have to cut ourselves off from the possibility of interaction.

You, you talk about, um, the, the, I mean, what you’re talking about in and is empathy, right? To try to figure out how we are in another person’s shoes and then communicate that. And one of your, uh, ideas is that, or one of way you’re looking at it is that people who really read a lot and people who read fantastic things from speculative fiction and science fiction to, you know, to, to, to the magical realists are maybe more likely to imagine different realities is reading, is reading going to be one way out of this?

Yeah, that’s, so I didn’t want to over a month a size the idea of the artists, but certainly in my book, um, I have a kind of a competition set up quite hopefully it’s not too, um, ideologies, but it is that between propagandists who try to use information to break people, uh, and to use ideas and stories to subjugate people and a certain type of artists who in the book has been solidified by my father, uh, who see auth as a way of interacting with other people, uh, imagining different kinds of society who the power of imagination. So look, I think artists can be very evil sometimes. I think imagination can be, it usually uses, so I don’t think there’s an apriori morality. Um, actually there’s always great seating, sort of like these horrible dictators. And the Hulk show for example, and Albania with the great dictates in the 20th century was always questing, quoting, Proust.

So I said, you don’t think that if you read a bit of Joyce, you’re going to be a good person at school, but if you put that much into faculty to good use, then that’s the only thing that can actually compete with the propagandists propaganda is basically really art. You know, that’s what these people are. A good arts can set us free and certainly the ability to imagine can set us free and move the conversation forward. Um, so exactly. I don’t, I try to keep this very light touch in the book, but there are also still logical studies which show reading lots of creative literature in your, in your, as a kid then makes you more, um, likely to have kind of interesting ideas politically. So, so there is a relationship there. Um, but I think you’ve said something very, very important about your students and true.

Um, I think that’s absolutely key. It is true. You know, all our favorite discourses. We’re actually in viewed with loads of biases. You know, if we keep up the ideal that we can communicate with each other and find sort of common ideas and a way to talk to each other, then that I think we can do that while remaining. Um, conscious of our own sort of limited subjectivity. I think a lot of this post-truth discourse is it Sloan, um, is actually connected to a larger crisis. So I think one way out of this is to look at sort of the larger framework, so facts and love themselves and not very pleasant and not always even, um, you know, something that people want to embrace, you know, fantasy as much as my, as much more pleasurable than the way. Um, but as you, as you say, we don’t have, uh, uh, post-truth Trump in discourse when it comes to building a bridge.

Yeah. The moment you give a blueprint for bridge, suddenly everyone’s talking about the facts because you’re talking about something that you have to construct and build, which needs evidence. I think evidence and evidence based discourse is very connected to that idea of a rational future enlightenment’s ideas of the future. Um, we’re very, very, you know, they also have this kind of like fact-driven discourse attached to them and in the 20th century, whether it’s sort of communism, which tries to say that it’s a scientific discourse, democratic capitalism, they both kind of use evidence to prove that that building is better society. But I think what’s happened now is, is that, you know, certain communism collapsed as an ideal late 20th century. That democratic capitalism took a real battering, um, off the 2008 crisis. Um, and say these kinds of discourses about the future and evidence that we were getting there kind of fell away.

And you have this, these sort of, this generation of politicians who don’t even try to be factual. They’re like, Hey, what do we need? Thoughts a little getting anywhere. That’s sort of, I mean to say sort of coincidence that Trump who to do Ted Tay Zeman oral nostalgist, you know, they don’t try to prove anything. Why would they need facts that bathing in, you know, the emotions of make America, Russia, China, the Czech Republic, right? Again, so one way of restoring facts and factuality in political discourse is by forcing a conversation about the future. So very practical way of doing that. I think it’s constructive, what’s known as constructive journalism, which, which has many interpretations. But the way I’m using it as a form of journalism that forces people to think about practical solutions. So instead of kind of rhetoric, you get like, okay, what are you going to do in this concrete situation?

So you force politicians into a framing where they have to talk about the facts because they will then be held accountable to them. So I think that’s one way forward. You know, we have to create discourses where facts are important. Um, there’s no point standing there screaming, you’re not being factual. You have to make facts useful again. So, so that’s the challenge for us in journalism. These are big challenges. I don’t think we can go back. We can’t put the genie back into the bottle. We’re going to have to [inaudible] people at uni. You’re going to have to really understand, well, how do we carry the ideals of a New York times or CBS or whatever into, into a digital age and into a social media age? I mean, what is public service broadcasting for social media rage? And honestly, I don’t think we’ve even started thinking that through a, but it probably will mean a lot more audience analysis and understanding the various online communities even more and trying to bring them together around, you know, common common areas and common EPS, the model GS that they can both share. Um, but together, if we just started this process, um, almost, it’s almost like, you know, birth of television where people sort of slowly works out that, Oh, maybe we should have some public service television or public service spirits and television to kind of counterbalance, uh, other things. So, so, uh, w w we’re really just at the start of the process of how we do that.

Peter Palmer ansif author of this is not propaganda adventures in the war against reality speaks within the moment. Chief correspondent, Steve Cher, and will be appearing at town hall September 10th at 6:00 PM to hear the complete conversation Steve had with Peter Palm Retsef. Listen to at length with Steve. Share wherever you find your passion.

thank you for listening to in the moment. Our theme music comes from Seattle based band, EBU, and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. If you’re a fan of town hall, consider becoming a member every month. You’ll receive a beautiful paper calendar in the mail. Get invites to special town hall receptions and events, and feel proud knowing you. Help keep ticket prices affordable so everyone can have access to programs, educate and connect community. To find out more, including a full lineup of our homecoming festival, go to our website at town hall, seattle.org on our next episode next week, social equity facilitator, Christiana obey Sumner. We’ll be in conversation with Ebro X Kendi about his book, how to be an anti-racist. Thank you for listening and thank you for joining us right here in the moment.

Listening Guide: In The Moment Ep. 37


In episode #37 of In The Moment, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talked with Alva Noë (5:48) about the philosophy of baseball. Noë explores the benefits of a slow and easy game and how it provides time and room for reflection. He asserts that, in a way, we’re all playing the game by asking the same questions as the players do in the moment. The pair pays tribute to ex-Mariners player Ichiro Suzuki and the generational magic of watching a game with your kids, meeting the players, and catching a ball. 

Host Jini Palmer talked with Edward Wolcher and Megan Castillo (17:50), Town Hall’s Curator of Lectures and Community Engagement Manager, about our upcoming Homecoming festival in September. They tell us about the lineup of speakers, artists, and fun unique programs in store—what’s new, what to expect, and what to look out for. 


Still Curious?

-Hear a Big Think interview with Alva Noë discussing contemporary research on human consciousness.

-Join Edward Wolcher for a discussion on solving climate change in an August installment of Town Hall’s beloved Penny University series.

-Check out Town Hall’s Homecoming Festival lineup!

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