Episode 20 Andreus Stefik Transcript

Making Better Episode 20

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hey, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris2: ..and I’m Chris Smart, the producer of Making Better. Due to a technical glitch, we lost our intro that we had recorded for this episode, so you’re going to have to listen to me a few seconds. Our guest this time is Andreas Steffik, professor and inventor of the Quorum programming language, which is 100% accessible to blind or visually impaired programmers. Quorum is also a very high-level language, excellent for teaching kids how to code, and Quorum is the first programming language developed using the scientific method. And without further ado, here is Episode 20.

Chris: Andrea Steffik, Welcome to Making Better podcast!

Andrea: Thanks for having me, guys!

Chris: You’re most well known for having invented a programming language called Quorum. Now, a lot of our listeners might not even know what a programming language is—I mean, they know how to use their iPhone, but they don’t know how it works—so if we could maybe even start with the absolute basic of what’s the difference between a programming language and a spoken or written language.

Andrea: Yeah, sure. So when people write computer software, oftentimes computers are really picky, right? They don’t necessarily understand natural language in the way that you might see on Star Trek or on science fiction shows, so oftentimes computer scientists have derived ways to tell the computer, effectively, what they want it to do. But here’s the catch: even though we knew pretty quickly after people like Alan Turing were inventing a lot of ideas mathematically about programming, even though we had some mathematical understanding of how to tell a computer what to do, we had almost no understanding of how to tell humans how to tell computers what to do. And so, for example, in a programming language like C++, if you want to tell the computer to do something ten times, literally just that. You might say a phrase like, “for (anti=0; i<10; i++){}” That’s a lot of weird verbiage and symbols to represent the concept of just doing something over and over again; but in fact, that’s kind of how it derives. Now the idea in a programming language is, it’s not just the human interaction, it’s actually also what happens when it gets sent down to, like, a chip. You take those sort of like weird words and symbols and stuff like that, and then it gets translated down to ones and zeros, and those ones and zeros are the thing that actually tell your iPhone or your Windows machine or Linux or Mac or whatever you have, what to do when you use Siri, or when you load up and app or a game or anything like that. So basically, it’s the translation between what a human wants it to do, and then what a machine wants it to do, and the whole tricky part about Quorum is we’re trying to gather evidence to figure out how to make it easier for those pesky humans that are in the process.

Chris: My life as a programmer started with, actually my very first language was PDPA Assembly language, and I’d go on to learn—you know, I did a lot of programming in C and probably about 25 different Assembly languages, I was a low-level, silicon-under-the-fingernails kind of hacker—and those languages are incredibly arcane. So, you used the scientific method to design your language, Quorum. Could you tell us something about that process? Because the languages I’m accustomed to were pretty much designed by electrical engineers.

Andrea: Yeah, that’s true. So, let me give you a little bit of context. You might assume, given that there’s a lot of [sobejrs?] that are paid in the United States, that this issue of how to make it easier for people would be really well studied. Let me sort of formalize this for the United States, at least. So if you take Bureau of Labor Statistics data and then you look at how many people are basically in the ballpark of computer scientists, like software engineers and there’s a couple other categories, it’s over 300 billion dollars a year that we pay software engineers to develop software. So, it’s a lot of money. Now here’s the thing—what that means is, is that if there’s anything wrong with programming languages for any one of them, that is causing productivity issues, confusion, lost hours—that means that, at scale, it can be very expensive to try and write software sort of like with one hand behind your back, if you will, if the languages are slowing you down. So here’s the thing: you might then think that because that’s so expensive, that companies would be interested, that academics would be interested. But in fact, there’s this wonderful study by this guy call Antihanikayanumho, who’s out of Finland, and a number of us in the academic literature were basically saying, hey, we can’t find the evidence. Where’s the data? You guys are all scientists, why don’t you have data on this issue? It’s a lot of money. And Anti** actually didn’t believe us, so in Finland he basically sat around, I swear, for about four years, paper by paper, reading them in the academic literature, like Programming Language communities, Software Engineering places like that, paper by paper, counting, is there evidence in this peer-reviewed, top conference paper, or is there no evidence in this paper? And so then he did that for the years between, like, 1950 and up until modern times, in his case he stopped in 2012 because that’s the nature of his finishing a PhD. And it turns out, for this more than $300 billion in wages that we spend, it turns out there’s only 22 experiments between 1950 and 2012. Now to put this in perspective, in fields like medicine, 22 would be adorable, right? So like between 1990 and 2001, there were something like 110,485 randomized controlled trials. The point is, we have this huge, huge problem related to wages that any tiny little increment of productivity lost is actually very expensive at scale, because engineers are expensive to hire. However, we have almost no evidence on what the impact is on people, so we don’t even know how much of this wage data is actually being wasted because we don’t have any data. So part of the Quorum project was first realizing that, and then the next part is figuring out how on earth do you actually study something as complex as how people invent things to try to lower that curve. And that’s a whole other topic that I imagine we’ll get into. That’s sort of the 10,000 foot view of the evidence and why it matters and stuff like that, and then the details are tricky, too, in a different way.

Chris: Well, how did you use the Scientific Method to design Quorum?

Andrea: Right. So when we first designed it, even though Antihani’s work hadn’t come out yet, we realized that there wasn’t much data. And the truth is, we didn’t really know what to do, but we were doing lots of observations of people—like, we conducted a lot of studies with blind children, and blind children had a special difficulty because in audio, these languages are often even more esoteric—you know, you have to state all the semicolons, screen-readers skip characters, there’s all sorts of complicated stuff. But in addition, because there was no studies, it really left us to ask, well how do we even run such studies? And of course, in computer science, if you go get a PhD in the field, you’re not trained in how to conduct empirical studies, that’s very rare. So what I did was, I thought well I better get help. So I spent several years just sitting around psychology departments trying to figure out what they do, to figure out how they investigate complex problems. And then eventually, although it took a few years to figure out the details, we started making scientific experiments that are related to the medical models. And so, this means especially a couple techniques: one is, we conduct surveys for things that we can’t easily manipulate—when we’e just trying to get subjective data. So this is useful for things like what keyword should I use to represent this idea, and I’ll give you a quick example of that. In C++, I mentioned that if you want to have something do something over and over again, you say “for (anti=0; i<10; i++)” and that means to do something ten times. But on quorum, after doing extensive surveys and then replicating them and doing all sorts of stuff, we ended up with much simpler phrases for many of these constructs. So in Quorum, the exact same code that does the same thing, is just as efficient, is: “repeat 10 times” right? Which is much simpler. And you literally just write then in the computer program, “repeat 10 times”, and it does the same thing as the previous code. Now then what we’ve done is we do that with every part of the language, or as many as we have time to conduct studies on, and then once the surveys are done, we then move to features using a procedure called randomized controlled trials, which is a really complicated topic, but basically involves pitting alternative features against each other and then whatever wins, goes in the language and whatever loses gets removed from the language over time in a deprecation process.

Chris: Part of what you did designing Quorum developed a control language called Rando, I think.

Andrea: Oh god, this is true.

Chris: What was it called?

Andrea: Random-o. Which—was actually not my idea, it was a colleague of mine named Bill White, who unfortunately passed away in the last year. But I wanted to call the thing “Ridicu-lo” but my friend told me you better watch it, in peer review they’re going to yell at you. He was like, well, it’s all random, why don’t you just call it “Random-o”? So.

Chris: And what did Random-o look like?

Andrea: So basically what we did, is we had conducted all these surveys of what words to use. But then, I had this idea that from the medical literature, ‘cause I was starting to read, that maybe what we want to do is we want to compare languages with a baseline, right? Like say, if I’m testing Python or Assembly or any other of these programming languages, I want sort of like a baseline to compare them all to, to figure out what characters and symbols might sense compared to a baseline. But the question is, what the heck is a baseline? So when you look at the history of medicine, that often became placebos, and placebos are a complicated topic, but often they involve taking like a sugar pill or something like that. But there’s no programming language “sugar pill,” that doesn’t compute, right? So that meant there was a couple of options: one is, there are programming languages that have been designed to be intentionally difficult for people—one of them is called “whitespace” and there’s another one called “brainfuck.” And these particular languages could be used as a baseline, but the problem is, they’re sort of designed to be confusing, and it felt kind of unfair. It wouldn’t be a fair comparison to have a baseline—it’s sort of like, instead of giving someone a sugar pill, it’s like poisoning them. Yeah, you’re going to do better than murdering your patients. So what we thought to do instead was, once we had designed Quorum, we then ripped out all the symbols, and with somebody in my lab—Suzanna Sebert was her name, at the time—she basically sat around effectively rolling electronic dice and she randomly chose symbols to represent the syntax of the programming language. For example, instead of “repeat,” it might be “\” it might be “#” it might be something else. And so, the language, when you look at it, of course, is absolutely absurd, literally randomly chosen. And so you might think that a language that is totally designed randomly would do very badly in studies, and that is of course true; however, it turns out some programming languages don’t do better than a random..

Chris: I think I saw you at a C-SUN presentation where you said the Random-o outperformed Pearl, which I can understand entirely, because Pearl is completely incomprehensible.

Andrea: Yeah, right. Well yeah. So in the first study that we ran, which was really small, we only had like eighteen people in that study, it was a tiny, tiny pilot study. And we had this hint in the data that Pearl might not be much better than random. But the problem is, people in my lab, we sort of thought, how could that be true? Even though Pearl I think has a reputation for being incomprehensible, it was intentionally designed by a human being to look like that. And so we were always really hesitant to just say they did a bad job, because that’s a subjective thing, but the reputation for it being hard to understand could be well-deserved, but we didn’t believe it. So we ran a replication study that was much larger, and compared, I think it was six languages—in this case I think it was Pearl, Python, Java, Quorum, Random-o and maybe one other, but I forget. In any case, the study that we ran the second time, the replication, with the Pearl result was effectively identical, on a new sample of people. We also found that Java actually did slightly worse than Pearl. To a lot of people, that sounds a little surprising, there’s a couple reasons. One, Java is actually required nationally for students in high school as part of the computer science A-standard through the College Board. So, the College Board literally chose a language that studies show does no better for human beings in terms of comprehension, than one where my lab sat around rolling dice and chose the symbols randomly—which is kind of terrible. But in addition, we sort of figured out why from that study, why it happens, or at least we suspect we have a pretty good hypothesis as to why. And the reason is, a lot of the individual symbols that were chosen in programming languages are actually common across many of them; so Pearl and Python are different, but they actually have many commonalities, like they both use the word “for” for looping constructs. They both have certain kinds of brace structures, I mean Python doesn’t but Java does. And it turns out a lot of the decisions that were made across the board related to C-style syntax, which is where a lot of these come from, actually made bad initial decisions and then a lot of programming languages effectively just copied them.

Chris: Kernigan and Ritchie just based the C programming language on mathematical logic—I mean, if you’ve taken a mathematical logic course, you kind of know C automatically.

Andrea: Yeah. So, very briefly, I was at a DARPA meeting and Brian Kernigan was there, and somebody asked him how he derived the symbols—and I swear to you, the study that we had written wasn’t out yet at the time, but I’d just finished it and we hadn’t submitted it for publication–“but Brian, but how did you figure out how to choose all the symbols and stuff?” He’s like, “well look, we didn’t know that C was going to become a standard, so we just kind of chose randomly.” And I swear to you, he said those actual words, but of course it was a DARPA meeting so, you know, it’s not like recorded or anything like that.

Chris: Now you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve developed Quorum. What is it, other than efficiency—is it easier to learn, is it…can I do more with fewer lines of code, what is it that makes Quorum special?

Andrea: The short answer is that, as the language progresses over time, it gets easier to use as we gather more data and make changes. So, I’ll give you an example of a change we’re making right now, because it will give you a sense of the process we do to make things easier. There’s this wonderful paper by Neil Brown in the UK, talking about the errors that programming languages give out. And the errors that languages give out are often really esoteric, they have like weird symbols like “__cdeco::55123” or something like that. I’m making up those exact symbols, but the idea is they’re often very esoteric, and they don’t give you common sense English explanations, like hey you missed a semi-colon, or this character looks wrong. They’re not really like that. And interestingly, there’s some evidence from a different scholar in Ireland, named Brett Becker, and his data shows pretty clear evidence—outside of our research group—that these errors can be made a lot simpler, and more crucially, that if do that it makes it easier to learn programming languages in the classroom. So if my team, we read Brett’s work and started talking to him to figure out what we do to make things easier. And it turns out that, when we investigate the errors that people get in Quorum—which we know because people use it online all the time, and so we can see the kinds of errors people have—it turns out that 70% of the errors that are in Quorum right now, today, that we need to fix this, are actually generated by a tool behind the scenes called Antler, this sort of parsing tool Terrance Parr in San Francisco developed. But it turns out that the specific regions of Antler that trigger these errors give pretty esoteric things, and it’s pretty obvious, looking at the data, that these are going to be difficult for people to use because of Brett’s data and because of Neil’s data. So basically, what I have a graduate student doing right now is doing all sorts of behind the scenes calculations about what triggers these errors, under what conditions and stuff like that for people, so then we’ll go back and then review them, do edit passes, go through peer review related to what these errors are, with the goal of, within a release or two, making it so people can solve these errors a little bit faster, which we’ll measure in our lab. So that’s an example sort of like an upcoming study, but a lot of Quorum is built with the same philosophy. Like, somebody will email us and say, hey, I wish you had this feature, and we’ll test it in the lab, and it will either work or it won’t, in terms of being easier. I’ll give you one brief example of that one. There’s a topic in programming languages called lamdas—a lamda is a totally esoteric, totally sort of in the business kind of way to have a function that doesn’t have a name. And it sounds like some fancy word for it, but I swear to you that’s really all it is. It’s a function, that doesn’t really have a name, and it computer science you can kind of pass these around in certain ways, they can be transferred and there’s all kinds of funny things you can do with this. Now interestingly, when the programming language C++ added them to the language, they wrote this long white paper about why they were important, and why they were adjusting the language and the purpose and all this kind of stuff. And so we were curious, like well maybe we should have lamdas in Quorum, and some of the people in my lab were arguing pretty vociferously for them because they liked them. But people’s likes don’t always match people’s productivity or things like that. So we conducted a test, and we compared exactly to the criterion that the people in the white paper on C++ claimed would be benefits, and then we tested it with a whole bunch of different kinds of people. Notably, we tackled freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors at a university, because we’re testing in college range in that case. But in addition, we also recruited from a group of people that are sort of like really aficionados of lamdas—like they eat and breathe these things, they’re part of a group called the lamda lounge, they get together and talk about lamdas—they like lamdas. And so you would think that a group like this would have significant bias, and as such it’s interesting to test with them, just to kind of see what happens. But when you really pull out the data, and you conduct the experiment, as it turns out, lamdas really don’t help, at least in the context of the study that we did. And therefore, when we went tot he next design phase of Quorum, lamdas didn’t get included, because the study showed that they really didn’t help that much. Does that make sense? Sometimes computer programming is really like really esoteric, so it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to translate into English, but I’m doing my best.

Francis: Back in the day, I guess it was 2016, when we had a President that actually could think, you were honored at the White House as a White House Champion of Change.

Andrea: Yes sir.

Francis: And that’s really impressive. So I’m wondering, what is it about your program that caught the White House’s eye and why would this program be honored (and you) as a Champion of Change?

Andrea: You never really know for sure, but I’ll tell you the story and then tell you what they told me—what they thought—and then you can kind of decide yourself. So, I was literally sitting on Dumbo with my daughter at Disney World, or something like that. And I got off, my phone was beeping and I was annoyed because I shouldn’t have even had my phone with me. But I got this email from the White House, and I was like, that doesn’t happen. I thought it was fake, so I effectively mailed them back (because it’s hard to spoof a mailback from an address that’s a dot-gov), and they’re like, no, this is real, blah-blah-blah, you should do this thing. And I’ve been nominated for this award by someone, and I didn’t know who, and I couldn’t figure out who, etc. etc. And that ends up being a long story that I won’t get into, but in any case, by that January, I’d found out that I’d won this thing, and I still didn’t really in my head have a good sense of why, exactly what it was for, why or stuff like that, but the White House basically started talking with us about the details of why individual people on the award and I didn’t know fully until I got there. But when started developing Quorum, there was really two things, I think, and that they expressed to me (the staffers and such) that caught their eye. Number one is, when we first started Quorum, there was almost no initiatives in the United States to include people with disabilities in programming. And this is a big deal, because people with disabilities make up, depending on the number you want to cite, between 13 and 15 percent of people broadly. So like, it’s a lot of folks, you don’t just want to not include them. But in addition, in K through 12, it’s actually required by law that any kid with a disability, no matter who you are, whether it’s blindness, deafness, doesn’t matter—you should be able to participate in whatever academic stuff is going on. So if that’s programming, that’s important, if it’s history, you shouldn’t be excluded, that seems unfair. When we first started Quorum, the very first year we were testing with like, people with disabilities, because I just thought that was really interesting, they had cool problems, it was really fun going and talking to a group of blind children and just learning what they care about, what they’re interested in and—it was just a lot of fun, and it ended up sparking this sort of like movement where now there’s schools all over the country, at schools for the blind, that are teaching programming. Now Quorum is used by way, way more people than just at schools for the blind. I care very deeply about that, and so everything we do we try to make just hyper-accessible, as much as we can. Nothing’s perfect, but we try. That’s number one, the second one was, when I talked to people and the staffers, they said, you know, this problem where there’s 300 or more billion dollars in wages and we aren’t gathering much evidence, that seems like a lot of money, that seems significant. So they had me write up a thing talking both about groups of disabilities and causing change in a K-12 community to get more people involved, but in addition change in an academic community to try to push other scholars to be gathering more and better evidence over time. I think it was those two things that caught their eyes, but you know, you never know for sure. It was a little humbling, to say the least. I was pretty surprised to get that award.

Francis: Well nowadays you have to be a flat earther or something to get recognized for your scientific achievements at the White House.

Andrea: No kidding. Have you seen that flat earth movie on Netflix? It’s just…

Francis: Not yet.

Andrea: I forget what it’s called, but it is really crazy how conspiracy theories have become sort of the norm—not just at the White House, although that’s true. But I think also like how algorithms on YouTube and other places sort of highlight these sort of crazy, crazy ideas, and it’s hard to tamp down. Climate change denialism is very well funded—that’s insane, but it is what it is. It’s weird that, like, we balance freedom of speech so much that we’re allowed to shout conspiracy theories from the rooftops—which sounds OK, but on the other hand, it’s kind of dangerous, because if those people control the White House, they also change policy which impacts all of us.

Chris: Getting back a bit to Quorum, how is it being used in the wild now? I mean, it’s been around for a few years, so people must be doing something with it.

Andrea: Yeah, quite a bit. So the strategy in the lab is sort of, it’s kind of a dumb name, but it is what it is—we call it push up, push down, and when we started we were targeting only—and no one else—a small number of schools for the blind. And that involved, in the very first year, about four or five kids, somewhere around there, so like, nobody, right? And that made sense, because Quorum was brand new, it barely worked—I mean, we had just started the thing—and that was sort of where I began. But, interestingly, it started to grow at first over the next couple of years in the blind community, and the number of users ballpark-doubled pretty much every year, for year-on-year, for many years. Nowadays, if you include only people online, I think it’s something like 81,000 users per year, is what it was for this last year. Now the question is, what do all these people do with it? And the answer is, I’m not totally sure, but we think it’s mostly schools, and that’s on purpose because it’s an evidence-based programming language, we want to be able to change it, and it’s really convenient to be able to change it in relation to the school cycle over the summer. So for example, we gather evidence over the school year, we do whatever we’re going to do, and then over the summer we’ll sort of flip a switch, change over all the curriculum, change over the language, and then people adapt during our trainings and stuff like that over the year for the new change. That’s so complicated, but generally speaking that’s gone really well, and it’s allowed us to sort of find a nice balance between being used in practice, and also maintaining an evidence base that can allow us to make adjustments slowly over time. So what is it used for? I think mostly K-12 computer science would be the most accurate answer. However, we have a lot of technologies that are useful even at the professional level, we’re just not targeting those groups yet because we kind of want to wait until a few more years, as the language develops, so that we can basically make adjustments over time. In other words, the closer it gets to professional practice and use by companies, they’re not going to want it to change very quickly, and so we kind of are trying to find that balance with the language. Let the user base grow, but try to grow it on the younger side first. That’s our push down, and then later push up.

Chris: And what specifically did you do to make it accessible to people with disabilities?

Andrea: When we started talking to blind children, I spent a lot of time just sitting there asking them, like “hey, you’re 14 you’ve never used a computer before, and like you don’t know much about screen readers either, but now you’re a programmer, and what do you want to do with it?” And so, totally unfair, unreasonable questions, but we were just trying to talk to kids and see—you know, if you’re a kid, you’re blind, and you want to do stuff, what kind of features do you want, what would help you? So that led us to a couple directions that we’re either still working on today, or that we do—and then also there’s a few papers that have come out in the last ten years that have shown pretty strong evidence about what features are helpful to people when they code. And so, I’ll give you a couple examples. First, I’ll do the code ones, because they’re pretty easy to understand. And if your listeners that aren’t blind, that haven’t used stuff, when you use a text editor, it turns out that like the way that you handle keyboard support is really important for people that are blind. There’s all sorts of special keys that let you navigate in certain ways, that let you get context information, and stuff like that. In programming, those special keys don’t really have the same meaning, and so—there’s a wonderful study by a woman named Katie Baker that showed pretty good evidence about how you could redesign that navigation so that it would make it easier for people to get around in a programming interface. And then that was followed up by this wonderful disertation by the guy named Amir Armali, who also works at Google but is, like, a rockstar, just absolutely fantastic person and academic. And he basically extended Katie’s stuff to show that you should modify these keys in another fancy way. And so one of the things that we do is, as other academics work in this space, we steal their ideas as much as possible to make sure that we’re sort of conforming to the evidence about what helps people with disabilities most, not just a blindness specific feature. But the short answer with that navigation is in our tools, one of which is called Quorum Studio, there’s a feature called “smart navigation,” which is effectively just Amir Armali’s dissertation work, but coordinated inside of that environment—it lets you bounce between functions in a certain way, and bounce between parts of the code in a very known, specified manner. So that’s one. That’s just navigation, there’s evidence it helps, but that’s just one feature. One of the other things that, when we talked to blind children, that they wanted to do is that kids consistently and repeatedly wanted to be able to design computer games. And when we asked them, we said, oh yeah, you want to make audio games? Because maybe a child is fully blind—and almost universally, these kids were like, no, I don’t want to make audio games, I want to make games that I can play with my friend, and my friend happens to be able to see. And so, that’s just a claim I heard over and over again when I talked to kids in the wild. And the problem is, I didn’t know how to make computer graphics accessible, not just to people that are blind but there’s a lot of complexity in making games accessible in general, for lots of people with different kinds of disabilities. But eventually we figured it out, and so we did some collaborative work with our lab and the University of Washington, especially this guy named Richard Labner, and we also eventually did some collaboration with Microsoft on some of their back end, so this stuff is pretty complex technologies. And we derived a methodology which you can do any kinds—and I mean any—kind of complex 2D or 3D graphics, fully blind-accessibly. And the idea is actually really simple; basically we have a graphics layer that can render or basically put on the screen any kind of 3D graphic—so this can be like a cube, this could be like a spinning, fire-breathing dragon, this could be and architectural plan, this could be engineering or CAD diagrams or anything like that. And inside of our applications, because of this sort of pseudo magical technology we have behind the scenes that took me like five years to figure out, when the screen reader gets it, it has no idea that there’s this complex sort of 2D and 3D graphic stuff going on behind the scenes, but it knows absolutely what those things are and allows screen reader users to interact with it at the sort of native operating system level, in the general sense, using any screen reader, at least on Windows, for right now. So, the application, at a laymen’s level, is basically you can make 3D games and have 3D game level editors and stuff like that, and you can do it even if you can’t se the screen.

Chris: Francis’ son has a great interest in playing video games, maybe he’d be interested in learning Quorum and making his own?

Andrea: Love it! That’d be great. I’d be happy to share anything. The 3D graphics features comes out in Quorum Studio 2.0, which will be in July* but we have—the beta is working now and we’ve been starting to do some webcasts and stuff on it. So I’d be happy to share those with you or your son, and we can put him in the beta, too, If he just wants to give it a shot.

Francis: Sounds great. He’s a real science nerd, and I think he would really enjoy coming up with a game that doesn’t involve killing people.

Andrea: Ha ha. Sorry, we only allow games to be created that kill people, that’s the rule, I’m sorry…

Francis: (chuckles) It’s a stretch, I know.. What the original inspiration for doing it, and was it intimidating to think that you could start your own language and people would avail themselves of it? Like, how do you go from having a language to having people know about it and use it, I guess is the second part of my question.

Andrea: And so the first part was, how did it get started, and the second was…

Francis: Yeah, what was the inspiration, originally? Because to undertake something that big, I imagine you had to have one of those moments where you were just really inspired.

Andrea: When I was an undergraduate, I spent a year on the East coast, and I worked with this composer whose name is Ben Johnston—he’s a composer that studied what’s called microtonal music, it’s kind of like on a piano, every key is a certain frequency, and as an undergrad, I was reading about this in a textbook, I didn’t understand it. So on a whim, I found out that this guy was retired, ‘cause I found out this guy was retired and living in North Carolina, so I literally just cold-called the guy and said, hey, I’m this random guy on the west coast, can I come study with you? And he said, sure. So, I then convinced, somehow (and I don’t know how, in retrospect) the university to give me college credit to go work with this guy. And so they gave me a full year of college credit to go do an independent study with this guy, in part because he was well known, he was not going to [inaud] etc. And then, by pure happenstance, I happen to get a bunch of scholarships like, the day before I left, I would not have been able to make it without them, to drive to North Carolina to go work with this guy on this kind of music—so why am I telling you this? Well, it turns out Ben derived this kind of music that, with a nasty notation system that was really hard to understand. And so I spent a lot of time when I was working with him to try to figure out how to make that easier for musicians, and this led to some led to some albums and stuff like that. I had to involve this like, complex linear algebra translation and all this weird math stuff, but at the end of the day, it had in my head this idea of, you can take a language, whether it be from music or something else, and then you can make that easier for people, and that matters because musicians can’t play it without it being easier. So, when I was in graduate school for computer science now, I had been interested in working with the blind because of my music background, and I just thought, I love doing sound related work. And literally, the first time I sat down with an actual blind student and had them try to use a screen reader for audio, and like they got a compiler error that was a minute long in their screen reader, it was glaringly obvious that the programming languages could be made much easier to use. So it was two things—it was sort of like, working with the musician, that has nothing to do with computer science and having them be a hard notation, and the second was, I sat down with a child that was blind, and they just struggled to use something like C++ or Python or whatever it was at the time, and it became very quickly obvious that if I changed all the words and symbols in the programming language, that it could be easier. I didn’t have any evidence of that at the time, it was just a hypothesis, but since then there’s plenty of data. It’s clear that that is an evidence-based position nowadays. I think that was the first half of your question.

Chris: What is your background, Steffik, how did you become a professor at UNLV and get into computer science and where’d you grow up?

Andrea: I grew up in Vancouver, Washington, which is right near Portland, Oregon. My degrees are in—I have Bachelor of Arts in Music, I did mostly composition while I was there, just sort of writing music, sort of having fun with it. I also have degrees in, Bachelors and Masters and PhD in computer science, and that really came from this sort of music experience: basically, to figure out all these notation problems, I had to do some math I wasn’t familiar with as a musician, and that ended up involving basically finishing a computer science degree to figure it out, and then I just kind of went on from there—the PhD sounded fun, so I went on from there. But for a professor, after graduate school, I really wanted to work with populations with disabilities, and I knew that I could do that in industry. You know, I had a job offer from a screenreader manufacturer pretty quickly after graduate school—

Chris: Which company was it?

Andrea: It was Freedom Scientific.

Chris: You said that that was 2008, so that was after I left, so it wasn’t me who offered you the job.

Andrea: I don’t remember exactly, it was a long time ago, but it sounds like it wasn’t. I mean, they were super kind, they were doing amazing work, but I kind of had this hunch that if I worked at a company, I would be basically making a product, and then that product might get better for people with disabilities. But I sort of had this hunch that if I was an academic, I could do something whacky to try to make a bigger difference for a larger community of people. I’m actually really glad I made that decision, because I feel like that’s come to pass more than I would have expected. So, maybe a little bit lucky, but..

Chris: What got you interested in working with people with disabilities?

Andrea: I have a music background in general, and so that got me really interested in sound applications. And I had a professor that I was working with at Washington State University, and he was interested in music related to coding, which personally I didn’t think would work—and I think the evidence bears that out—however, it seemed like it might be interesting to consider people that might use sound technologies. Who would they be? So I started looking around to figure out who would use a sound-based technology related to programming, like who would that benefit, potentially. And I started having conversations on mailing lists with people that were blind programmers, either in industry or in school, or that were learning, or that were very frustrated trying to figure out how to learn, and stuff like that. And so when I started looking into that, it seemed pretty obvious that there was almost nothing happening in academic scholarship, at companies, to try to make these tools easier for people, and that smelled like an opportunity, and I kind of jumped on it. Since that time, it’s kind of expanded to more disability groups, because why not help as many people as possible, but that was definitely the impetus of it.

Francis: One of the things that we like to talk about on this show is the idea of any reason you can come up with to be optimistic about the future. And I was wondering, I guess, if you are optimistic about the future, and if so, why.

Andrea: I have one that you might be interested in, Francis, just because of your comments about politics and the White House and stuff. So one of the things that we’ve been working on—I’ve been working on—is writing a book related to evidence and computer science, because there’s been this problem where, even in the academic peer-reviewed literature, there’s a death of evidence; meaning there’s a lot of scholars out there that are not using the scientific method and they’re getting published anyway. And that’s unfortunately a fact, there is strong evidence for the position that many scholars are publishing without evidence. However, it also turns out to be the case, that when you look at the history of evidence-gathering in other fields, as other fields change they tend to become stickier with their evidence. So, for example, for a microbiology person you might have a guess, but I’m not sure—do you know when you first, in drugs, had to actually start declaring what was in them, for a company? Any idea?

Francis: Oh wow. No idea, actually.

Chris: Was there a [inaud] in 1996?

Andrea: Oh no, it was early 1900s. Right?

Chris: OK

Andrea: And then when did you first have to test to see that your drugs were safe? Like, when did you, when did a company, by law, have to say, I need to test my drug first to make sure it doesn’t kill people? When did that happen…?

Francis: I imagine that’s a post-“better living through chemistry” affair, so I’m going to say ‘60s.

Andrea: That’s a really good guess, but it’s late ’20s. And then in the ‘60s, it turns out that’s when the laws changed so that you had to gather evidence to determine if a drug worked, at least better than placebo. Right? Which is not a great standard, but it’s better than it was before. And so why am I telling you this? Because it turns out, at each of those small increments, fields lagged the medical sciences started to get a little bit stickier with how they were damping down on pseudo-science and stuff like that. Now, they’re not perfect, we know that there’s anti-vax people today that are nuts and stuff like that, but in the medical communities, a significant portion of these studies that are done by actual scientists, that are published in peer-reviewed venues, follow standardized evidence standards, they follow very complex but also really important checks and balances in procedures to make sure that things work. One of these is called the consort evidence standard. And here’s why I’m hopeful: I’m hopeful because even though fields like computer science might have issues right now—and clearly we have issues politically with pseudo scientists being in charge of federal agencies, that’s a big problem—but I also feel like, we live in a democracy, we get to choose still, and historically it was actually much, much worse for a long time, and even though we have kind of a bad lull right now, a lot of these problems actually have been kind of slowly fixed over time to get rid of some of the nastiness that are there. So maybe in our time, I don’t know exactly what laws need to be changed, but it almost feels like we need some anti-propaganda laws. Maybe we need some laws protecting against megaphones for pseudo-science. And how to balance that with freedom of speech I’m not sure, but I feel like these changes will happen over the course of the next 20, 40, 50 years. And it might take a generation or two, but I’m hopeful that as that occurs, we should see significant changes in technology as the evidence standards improve [inaud]

Francis: You know, I think that regulation is something that we just have to live with in so many areas of life, and regulating accuracy in—it’s tricky, but it’s become something where it’s just too important to not figure out some way to approach it. You know, it’s kind of like we’re in a post-journalistic environment. You know, there was a time when journalism would kind of step in at a certain point and say no, that’s not true, here’s the evidence. And at least there could be a consensus, but now it doesn’t even seem like that’s happening so much.

Andrea Yeah, I think so too. And the nice thing is, too, when it comes to regulating this stuff, it doesn’t have to be any one solution; for example, right now, if you look at cable news channels there’s MSNBC, there’s FOX, and there’s CNN. It doesn’t have to be three, we can break them all up, break them into tiny little pieces, make sure that there isn’t one owner that gets a national news just for himself, and then make it so that, even if there’s one crazy person that has a thing, we don’t have to give them megaphone, right? And the FCC actually used to have laws like this—sorry, not laws but regulations, related to breaking up local groups. Maybe we need to do that. And then it wouldn’t even regulate accuracy, it would just say, well look, you can say whatever you want, you just don’t get a megaphone about it.

Francis: Excellent, yeah.

Andrea: And so, there’s lots of options.

Chris: Is there anything you’d especially, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s work, that you’d like to promote or plug or make sure our listeners leave knowing?

Andrea: Sure. I’ll plug Quorum Language, which is a programming language, it’s often great for schools, it’s highly accessible to people with disabilities but also it’s fun for making games and stuff like that. You can get it quorumlangugage.com

Francis: Great

Chris: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for coming on Making Better.

Andrea: Thanks guys, I really appreciate the conversation.

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Episode 19: Lainey Feingold Transcript

Making Better Episode

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hey, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: And this is Episode 19 of Making Better Podcast, featuring disability rights attorney Lainey Feingold!

Francis: And when thinking in terms of change, how to actually make that happen in this world, I don’t think anybody is better situated to make that happen than lawyers. I think we really, really need lawyers. We need the ACLU, we need people like our guest right now, because compared to the difference that marching in the street does, I think litigation, personally, does a lot more.

Chris: I’ve known Lainey for some time now, and have the greatest amount of respect for her. She’s one of the few people out there I admire entirely, and if you’re interested in digital accessibility, she can tell you the entire history, because she’s been there from the beginning.

Francis: Don’t get me wrong, I love a good lawyer joke—but I really think that the lawyers who are making a difference in our country right now and around the world are true heroes.

Chris: And with that, let’s get on with the episode!

Chris: Lainey Feingold, welcome to Making Better!

Lainey: Thanks for having me, glad to be here.

Francis: This is Francis DiDonato, and yes, welcome to our show.

Chris: You’re one of the top ADA attorneys, or at least in my opinion you’re the top ADA attorney. Can you tell us a bit of your background, and the journey that brought you from childhood to where you are now?

Lainey: Yes, but let me start just by saying that, you know my focus on the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, is digital accessibility only, so I just want to give a shout-out to so many lawyers, civil rights lawyers around the country who do ADA law in very many different sectors: the built environment, people with mental health issues, prisoners with disabilities, there’s so many ADA lawyers, so yes, this is my space and I’m so happy to be in it, but I have to say that to start.

I fell into doing disability rights work and digital accessibility work, kind of like the way life happens—serendipitously. I got out of law school in 1981, I wanted to be a union-side labor lawyer—that’s what my focus was during law school, we had a group called the women’s labor project. We weren’t the first generation of women to be representing labor unions, but I would say maybe first-and-a-half. It was a very male space at the time. I did that, and then I transitioned to traditional civil rights, and then I unexpectedly [aired?] from a job, and I was like, uh-oh, now what? And much to the greatness of how my career turned out, there was a temporary opening at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, DREDF in Berkeley, which is a national leading disability rights nonprofit, and I took a job there, was supposed to be four months, turned into four years. While I was there, the issues came into the office about blind people not being able to use ATMs, and that’s basically how my career in this space started. 

Chris: So in the digital accessibility space, there’s more than one approach to a lawsuit. You wrote a book call Structured Negotiations, and you can speak to that—which I think is the proper approach—but there are what I consider to be highly unethical attorneys, like Carlson Lynch and some of the other firms out there, who really do “shoot first, ask questions later”

Lainey: So you’re wondering what I think of that? Yeah, I’ve written on the ethics of the space. There is one category that I think is left out of your question, it’s collaboration, which I have been lucky enough to do as a lawyer because the blind individuals and organizations who have let me be their lawyer are collaborative people. You know, I did write the book called Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, and it tells the story of the work we’ve done over the last 25 years in digital accessibility with collaboration. Because I’m a lawyer, because I wrote the book, I tend to get the focus; but the truth is, if it weren’t for the people, if it weren’t for the people with disabilities who faced the barriers wanting to solve things with collaboration, the whole collaborative effort never would have started. And yes, in the past several years there have been lawyers come into the space who I don’t think have a goal of true inclusion and accessibility; but there’s also a third way, which are civil rights lawsuits for the right reasons, brought by ethical and highly-skilled disability rights lawyers. Those lawsuits have been very important to shaping the digital accessibility space. So, it’s not just, oh, there’s collaboration on one side, unethical lawsuits on the other—there’s also very highly ethical lawsuits.

Chris: My biggest disappointment with the Obama administration was that they never published the rules to the ADA Restoration Act, or to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. I mean, they had eight years to do the first of those, and six years to do the second; how does that affect your work as an attorney on these cases, when the federal government never actually published rules to associate with the laws they had passed?

Lainey: Yeah, the question of rules—not speaking to any specific law, but my biggest familiarity is with the lack of rules around web accessibility that the Obama administration—I thought they were going to pass them, there was testimony, we had hearings, we wrote, spilled a lot of ink or pixels or whatever you say now, on the whole issue of what would the regs look like if there were regs about web accessibility. They never came out—I think it made it harder, it makes it harder for lawyers, but I just want to say, I think it makes it harder for champions and advocates inside organizations, in companies, in government agencies, because a lot of big institutions, they like something to point to. They like to be able to say, OK, we’ll do this because it’s written here, and I think it would be easier for people inside to be able to say, oh here we have these regs, we have to do it. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is going to be 30 this July, having it’s 30th anniversary, since the beginning it has called for the inclusion of disabled people by having very strong nondiscrimination provisions and very strong provisions about what they call effective communication, and that’s really what digital accessibility is about. Without accessibility, disabled people are excluded, and so that’s why, in my presentations I often say, the web regulations are dead.

Chris: The Supreme Court recently refused to hear the appeal in the Domino’s Pizza case, and Domino’s Pizza was using the lack of rules as their defense. Do you think that trend is going to continue?

Lainey: I think that was a trend, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to take that case, I think, pretty much put an end to that argument, because what Domino’s was about was that the Ninth Circuit—the Federal Courts in the US are divided into eleven parts of the country, and those are called circuits, and one in California, where this case was, was part of the Ninth Circuit. In the Domino’s case, the Ninth Circuit said, yeah, this case can go forward even though there aren’t regulations. And the Supreme Court could have said, hey, we want to rethink this, but they didn’t. So, I think we’re going to see less of that argument going forward.

Chris: With these laws like the ADA Restoration Act and CVAA, passed overwhelmingly in the United States Senate, with 98, 99 votes with a couple of absences, so therefore they seem to have bipartisan support, but we don’t seem to be getting any support from the current administration.

Lainey: I think there’s no such thing, really, as “bipartisan support” any more, to tell you the truth. It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s another thing to get into the nitty gritty of it, but I think that ADA is strong enough, and we can see by this rise of lawsuits, to support digital accessibility, and the biggest threat is probably the judges that the President put forward and the Republicans approve in the Senate, that is a big threat to the judiciary and the kinds of rulings we could get down the road as these issues percolate up through the court system.

Francis: I’ve thought for many years now that we don’t have a robust journalism in this country any more, that holds our leaders to task, nor the fact-checkers or the people who give people a sense of what’s going on in the world. And I’m wondering if lawyers are filling that void through lawsuits right now.

Lainey: The void by the media?

Francis: Not insisting on accountability. It’s an issue of accountability that is kind of missing right now, with a media that doesn’t really cover the things that are going on that are illegal, or just wrong.

Lainey: I really don’t know how to answer that. The media has been covering the lawsuits, but basically what happened—this March, which is in two weeks, will be the 20th anniversary of the first web accessibility agreement in the United States. And that was an agreement that we negotiated in structured negotiation with Bank of America, and Bank of America has long been a champion in this space. And by “champion,” when I say champion about any company, I don’t mean they’re 100% perfect, I mean they have a structure in place, they recognize digital accessibility, and when something goes wrong, they can get it fixed. So that was 2000, that was 20 years ago, and that same year that we did that settlement, there had been a lawsuit that was filed—I forget if it was eBay or AOL, I believe it was AOL—for over 20 years, the law has been used to advance digital accessibility. The media was not very interested until we started seeing two things: one is the onslaught of lawsuits, but two, when there is a big lawsuit, like the Target case which was one of the first big lawsuits on web accessibility, that was 2008. And by that time, structured negotiation and collaboration had really worked with a lot of companies to improve accessibility, but when I do talks, I say, does anyone know that Bank of America is a champion and signed the first agreement in 2000? Well, no one knew that, but everybody knew that in 2008, there was a lawsuit against Target. So the media has played a role, and it’s good to have the attention on those lawsuits. The problem we have now—there’s attention, but is it the right kind of attention? And that’s something that I struggle with, this onslaught of lawsuits is bringing attention to the issue, which is good, however I believe it’s creating an atmosphere of fear and looking at accessibility through the lens of risk rather than inclusion, which I think is dangerous.

Chris: You ran into that with Anderson Cooper, when he interviewed you for 60 Minutes?

Lainey: Yes I did. We had an interview with Anderson Cooper before the election. It was for 60 Minutes and my colleague, Linda Dardarian and I, who had been my partner in so much of this work over the years, along with our clients and—he interviewed us, and he seemed so into collaboration. We talked to him about talking prescription labels that allow blind people to safely take medication, we talked about our work with Major League Baseball and how, as soon as Major League Baseball met the blind baseball fans, they were all gung-ho to do accessibility. They had really fancy film people who came back to Linda’s office and spent literally three hours filming the talking prescription label from Scriptalk, and then they didn’t run it. They chose to run a hit piece on the ADA, and it was very distressing. And I think when we come up to the 30th anniversary, the disability community—there’ll be a lot of positive articles, but I think there’s going to be a lot of blowback because of misuse by a very small handful of lawyers, but nonetheless a handful that gets attention.

Chris: I had written four articles of my blog, that can be found at Hofstader.com, I describe as “ADA Trolling.” I got an awful lot of blowback on those articles, one lawsuit threat from somebody I actually named in the articles—it was just a threat, I wasn’t actually sued—and I got a lot of blind people who were raging at me for saying why take a moderate approach, we should be more aggressive, which to my mind says if you’re going after every small business, the first people they’re going to call are their Congressmen or the Chamber of Commerce, and they’re going to try to get ADA weakened.

Lainey: I think there’s room for a lot of strategies. And you know, one of the things that I talk about in my trainings—well, first of all, I always do what I did at the top of this show, which was to remind people how important lawsuits—I mean, look at the wonderful work that ADAPT does with direct action—many, many strategies that contribute to the forward arc of history—is long, but it bends toward justice. But I just think we have to be careful, because there is a reality of how people look at lawsuits, and I think they just have to be done carefully. All I can say is that collaboration has worked, other strategies have worked too. I would not tell someone, oh you must do a collaborative, structured negotiation approach, because it’s not the right approach in every situation, and it may not fit the personalities involved in the activism. So I think it’s really important to keep the broad view, but when collaboration works, it can be very powerful. I think there is a feeling that if you’re not fighting, you’re not trying hard enough, and if you’re too nice, you’re not loyal to your causes—and that just hasn’t been my experience. So, you know, that’s really all I can say. But I really don’t want to be the poster child for, oh, not trying to be very careful, oh, Lainey Feingold doesn’t do lawsuits and therefore she and her clients have gotten these results, and therefore a more aggressive strategy isn’t good; because no, sometimes the more aggressive strategy is good. The proof is in the pudding, like what are the results? One of the things I don’t like about what’s happening in the legal space now is that most of the small handful of lawyers, everything they do is settled confidentially, big press release at the top of it, you know, we’re having this multi-million dollar lawsuit—then you find out it’s settled, you have no idea what for and where’s the accountability? Where’s the transparency? What can the community expect from this particular website or technology?

Chris: In some of the very early web accessibility related cases, NFB v. Amazon and NFB v. AOL, the consent decrees at the end of the day did not require accessibility. Amazon has taken up the accessibility cause since, and I think Peter Corn is doing a great job there, but Amazon’s website is still nowhere near compliant with the guidelines…

Lainey: I don’t want to speak to particular results of particular lawsuits, but I do want to say that National Federation of the Blind has done an amazing job on digital accessibility both in lawsuits and a lot of behind the scenes things that we don’t see, where their lawyers who are fantastic, top-shelf digital accessibility civil rights lawyers, the firm Brown, Goldstein and Levy, and the partnership between NFB and Brown, Goldstein and Levy, has saved a lot of cases from going in the wrong direction. I’m not talking about cases they file, which are important—I mean, they’re doing very important cases right now on voting accessibility, they’re doing one of my favorite cases (I don’t want to say favorite, but), an important case on self-check (there was a lawsuit filed against WalMart because their self-check devices weren’t accessible, and instead of helping the customer, the staff person stole money from the customer). So in this era, we need all hands on deck, and honestly the NFB has, is doing currently some very important work in this space, and helping out in cases in a backseat way that’s very, very important to many of the successful outcomes that we see.

Chris: Changing gears to something broader, is disability is somewhat unique among other minorities. I like to say that first, we are the only minority you can join in an instant, and second, we’re the only minority that you will join if you live long enough. How does the uniqueness of disability fit into civil rights in general? We’re the only minority who’s discriminated against by every other minority.

Lainey: Yeah. Well, one thing I don’t believe—what do they call it, the oppression olympics—I don’t like comparing one type of exclusion or discrimination as different, or bigger, or more important or more troubling. So, I just want to say that—one of the things we say in digital accessibility is, if only people would design for their future selves. And that goes to your point that anyone can join in an instant, and if we’re lucky enough we’ll all join, because we’ll get to live to an old age where our eyesight will fail, our mobility will weaken, our hearing will weaken. So yeah, it creates the opportunity, especially in digital, to do just what I said—design for their future selves. But I think we also, in disability rights, face a fear that people have with the association of being sick or being disabled, with being dead. And you know, the disability community, there’s so many great writers right now writing about disability as point of pride and being disabled as an identity, and I always encourage companies I work with to try and tune in to the disability community and meet people, to just shift that attitude away from I don’t want to deal with it. So yeah, I think it raises opportunities and challenges. We can all become part of the community at any time.

Chris: Lainey, can you speak to your book, Structured Negotiations?

Lainey: Yeah, thank you for asking. Structured Negotiation came about in the mid-1990s, when I was at [] as I said, and blind people around the country were starting to raise issue: we have the ADA, it was passed in 1990, but I still can’t get $20 out of an ATM machine because the machine is not accessible. And they came to [] and they came to Linda Dardarian’s firm in Oakland, and they said, can we use the law to fix this? And for various reasons I describe in my book, we decided to write letters to the banks instead of filing a lawsuit, even though they would have been good lawsuits. We wrote letters to Bank of America, Wells Fargo and CitiBank, and it took four years, four or five years, because there were no talking ATMs at the time; but we never had to do a lawsuit, and it was just a great experience because the blind people who were part of that effort were so skilled, technologically. Of course, they had come and said “we want to use ATMs independently” and the banks got to meet those people—people like Gerry Coons, Roger Peterson, Cathy Martinez and others—and it just worked, because blind people could give input. We talked about everything from what color—now it seems, OK, ATMs are all the same, but what color should the cancel key be? And what should the talking instruction say? And toward the end of that, a couple of the more technologically skilled people—in particular Roger Peterson and Gerry Coons—are like, well you know, Lainey, great job, talking ATMs, but there is this new thing called online banking and we’d better make sure that’s accessible. And that was my first foray into the web, and thanks to the farsightedness of the blind advocates that worked on the first cases, we talked to the organizations, we said “this online banking thing has to be accessible.” The WCAG, the web content accessibility guidelines, had just, WCAG 1.0 had just gotten adopted—I think it was 1998 (just had the 20th anniversary). So that’s how we got that first Bank of America agreement that we talked about earlier. And when that whole process was over we were like, wow, that was a lot better than doing a lawsuit! That allowed the clients, who typically in lawsuits don’t have a very active role—I mean, sometimes they do, but typically they don’t—it allowed everyone to share their concerns in a safe space, so to speak. We could really hear—there were concerns from the banks that were legitimate, and safety and cost, but instead of fighting about it and waiting for a judge to tell us what to do, we were able to work it all out. And so, we’re like, that’s a good thing, we should call it something, and we called it Structured Negotiation, and I wanted to write a book about it because I felt it was something that people could learn, both activists and lawyers, just like you learn to be conflictual and aggressive. There are strategies to be collaborative, and that’s really what my book is about.

Chris: My background in accessibility has primarily been workplace accommodations, and I see an awful lot of change in focus away from the workplace, where blind people now have about an 80% rate of unemployment, to—I don’t want to say frivolous, but you know, things like let’s make Facebook accessible and other things that have nothing to do with jobs or education or being able to build a foundation for a good life. Where do the priorities lie?

Lainey: That’s a good question, and something I grappled with when I was first approached by *Rhein Charlston and other Red Sox fans who were blind, who could not access the Major League Baseball website. Until that time, I had mostly been focused on financial issues, working with banks on accessible banking information. We had done accessible pedestrian signals with the city of San Francisco in structured negotiation—I wrote about that in my book, which was a real safety issue, the ability to cross the street safely. We did some work with other health care institutions—accessibility matters for “important issues” like finance and healthcare, which of course it does, but I tell you the truth, I think if you ask people what is your favorite case that Lainey ever did, they would say, “Major League Baseball!” And the number of people who are impacted by—I mean, I’m not a sports fan myself, but I learned through that case that people like to listen to their hometown games, and people don’t live in their hometowns, and therefore they really rely on the web. So I learned from that not to be judgmental about what’s important and what isn’t, and to understand that people with disabilities have the right to participate in all aspects of society, all of which are digital in the 21st Century. As to employment, I think that’s been one of the biggest failings of the ADA, are the dismal employment rates, and I do think there’s starting to be more of effort. I have been doing some work with an organization called Disability IN, that is a business-to-business nonprofit that focuses on inclusion and diversity, and I just love this organization because they’re really working on the details with these big companies, about what it takes to hire people with disabilities, have the processes in place to make sure people get hired, throughout the employment cycle: get hired, work, be promoted, can be retired. And while the focus of that has sort of long been in the HR department, now everyone understands that without accessible technology in the workplace, we are not going to have a diverse workforce. And Disability IN has an accessibility committee that I work with that really understands that, Microsoft’s been doing some great work on that. Is it perfect? No, but I think there’s a growing recognition and—and here’s where the lawsuits come in—there are starting to be lawsuits on the employment side of things, and I think that is gonna also help really push the needle. I agree with you that employment has been left behind and is critical, but I’m not so quick to say that I know this is important, this isn’t important.

Chris: Going to a broader question, why is diversity itself important?

Lainey: I’ll speak to that in a second, but you also mentioned education. That’s another place where the law has played a role in moving things forward. I have not done a structured negotiation with higher ed or K-19 institutions, but again, the National Federation of the Blind and Brown, Goldstein and Levy and Tim Elder, who’s another disability rights lawyer who does really important ethical work, have done great work in the educational space and there’s a couple of really good settlements that really lay out what it means to have an accessible education environment. Just in the last month, there have been settlements with Harvard and MIT on what it really means to have a good program on captioning for deaf students. So there is a lot of work being done in the education space—not so much work, I think the gains have been further along in education than in employment.

Chris: In California, our mutual friend Lucy Greco has been talking a lot lately about all of the online educational materials that—well, she works at Berkeley, that the UC system had online—they’re just taking down because they don’t want to go through the expense of making it accessible, so it’s not just going to be inaccessible to people with disabilities, it’s going to be inaccessible to everybody.

Lainey: Well, I really get sad when people say, You know, I’m just gonna close a business, I’m just going to take down the videos, I’m just not going to provide that—because we want inclusion, we don’t want this—talk about backlash, public backlash. We don’t want disability rights to be seen as, oh, this is so expensive we’re going to take away what people have who aren’t disabled. So when that happens, as it happened at UC Berkeley, it’s distressing. And it doesn’t need to, because the ADA was originally designed, and still designed, to recognize that, you know, if something is too expensive, under the law and based on the size of the institution, the ADA is not designed to put anyone into bankruptcy nor does it. I mean, it’s too bad it happened at an institution with someone so great as Lucy Greco in the web department (of course she had nothing to do with that). But Lucy is a good example of the employment side, and back to your question about diversity—when you have disabled people (Lucy is blind) in jobs, especially in policy jobs, but really in any job, it will make the organization as well as the products that that organization produces, more accessible. I mean, I did a presentation once with Microsoft, and I just love what they said—if you have a deaf person working in the cubicle next to you, it’s a lot less likely that you’re going to put out a video without captioning. Or if you have a blind person, it’s a lot less likely the video player won’t have controls that are accessible. So, it’s not only important to the people getting the jobs who need employment, but to the outcome of whatever the organization is doing, I believe will be more creative. There’s a lot of studies on diverse teams make for more innovation and creativity, all sorts of diversity, including disability.

Francis: This past week there was a Democratic debate in Nevada, and someone asked Bloomberg if he thought he deserved having his $50 billion, and his response was basically, “yeah, I worked really hard for that.” I mention that because I’m a PhD, I worked my butt off because I wanted to cure diseases, and just about everyone I know works really, really hard, so the notion that for some reason this one man’s workload was 50 billion times more than the bottom 125 million Americans, struck me as absurd. There’s a larger issue there, which is that our society seems to have lost its appreciation for how interconnected we are, and how diversity is just a fact of life. We live in this mosaic, and what makes us function is the fact that we do have such diversity to a large degree. And I was thinking, just as an issue, it’s kind of really critical right now because I think we’ve lost sight of how important it is to honor those of us who maybe aren’t capable or even interested in making what’s considered financial success their goal, but play an integral part is what’s keeping society going.

Lainey: Well, first of all, when Bloomberg said that I almost threw my shoe at the television. I was like, are you kidding me? Of all the bad things he said, that also stood out in my mind. My husband just had to have, he’s fine now, but he had to have spinal surgery for something, and every medical professional who helped him, he was in this very expansive mode and he would say, “thank you for not becoming an investment banker! Thank you for becoming an anesthesiologist!” or “I’m so glad you chose to use your skillset to do this, or do that, instead of just make money.” So yeah, we have a lot of problems in our society right now that are too big for the scope of this conversation, but it is true that I’ve heard many disabled people use the term, you know, disability is just part of the spectrum of the human experience, or the continuum of the human experience. And I know my life is certainly enriched and better that I—I remember when I was first exposed to disabled people. Even though I’m in Berkeley, California, which is the birthplace of the modern independent living movement, and even though I have, as a person who considers herself progressive and on the left and I was a civil rights lawyer working in a firm doing race and gender cases and I was a union labor lawyer, until I went to [dredef] I just had no idea. I had no exposure—of course I knew people had disabilities, but I didn’t know there was a community, I didn’t know there was a culture. I just didn’t know, and I think even though this is 25 years later, I think people still don’t know. You know, with social media and things like the disability visibility project that Alice Wong runs, and a lot of the louder, more active voices on Twitter, really help people understand that disability is part of the human experience, which as you say, is what diversity is all about.

Francis: I like the promoting idea of neurodiversity, especially in the Asbergers community, and how there’s what I guess they consider neurotypical, which is the maybe like most people fit into that particular form of brain-wiring, but the thing is, you can succeed and live a really really happy life without having those particular challenges that are suited for neurotypical people. And you know, I think this idea of comparing everyone against the idea of idealized human functioning is just a very short-sighted, I guess easy thing to fall into.

Lainey: Well, there’s some great autistic speakers that I’ve heard at accessibility conferences, among them Jamie Knight, who works for the BBC in London and Ashley McKay* who is in Australia. And I’ve heard them both say independently, you know, if you’ve met an autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. And in design now, companies like Microsoft or Adobe, who are really focused on inclusive design, I think they call it “design for one, build for all.” It’s like, just recognizing that all of us are unique and that disability can be an innovator and you know, like disabled people, we’re not looking to be cured, we’re looking to be included. And that’s the privilege, really, that those of us in digital accessibility have, advocating for building or writing or podcasting, whatever role we’re playing, is to just broaden up what people think of when they think of technology and digital.

Francis: I’m wondering if non-adversarial approaches to resolving disputes is something that could potentially backfire? The closest I’ve come to being in a situation where I viewed that was a divorce, and you know, we decided the most spiritual way of divorcing was to get this guru dude, his name was Hari something or other, and he brought us together and he tried to explain what could go wrong if, you know, we didn’t come together. And he told us all of these dirty tricks that people use and how it just wreaks hell in their lives. Unfortunately that became sort of like the checklist of my spouse in how to proceed, and we ended up in court, and the whole thing sort of backfired. It does make me wonder sometimes if non-adversarial approaches sometimes possibly get a backfire, or if it’s just more appropriate sometimes than others?

Lainey: The reason we did not call structured negotiation “collaborative law,” is because collaborative law is a process that developed in the family law space. And I don’t know—you said “guru,” I don’t know who you used or what their training was, but there’s a whole world of collaborative lawyers who have conferences and training and, because I wrote this book, I’ve gotten to know those lawyers who do things very similar to structured negotiation in different fields, like there’s business lawyers who want to be collaborative. I believe there is a role for adversary, but first of all everything can backfire, things don’t always go as planned, that’s what life’s about. But I think there’s an imperative for collaboration, and I think—I had a chance to speak in Basque country, Spain last year to collaborative lawyers who didn’t know anything about accessibility, and I came to do a training on structured negotiation, and as we were working on developing the training, I said, well, do you want me to put in some stuff about accessibility, and these guys were so open and they were so interested. So we ended up sort of doing a half-accessibility, half using collaboration to advance accessibility. I think collaboration is particularly well suited for accessibility, because including disabled people in every aspect of accessibility is key to success, and I think that includes advocacy too. And so with structured negotiation, we’re able to have meetings, you know, like we work with a pharmacy in Texas, and they hadn’t really known any blind pharmacy patients. I mean, their individual pharmacist did, but the top people in the corporation didn’t, and structured negotiation—and—I tell these stories in my book—allowed people to be in the room together, and share stories, and that makes the need for accessibility—yes, it’s a civil right, it’s a law, it’s a requirement, it’s good coding practice and design and everything else—but it’s also about people, and it’s also about stories. And if you can come up with an advocacy strategy that lets people talk to each other, it advances the cause.

Chris: How do you think we might be able to get the story of accessibility out to more people? I often get emails just from random business owners saying they got a letter saying they were about to be sued—they have no idea what to do, and they’d never even heard of accessibility.

Lainey: Yes, it’s very unfortunate when people’s first exposure is being the receiver of a letter like that. I think there’s a lot of ways in, and the web accessibility initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium has a really great website with so many free training and business case and accessibility statement information, so much. I refer people there, I encourage people to go to conferences. I also encourage people to find—in San Francisco, we have the San Francisco Lighthouse and there’s, in Massachusetts there’s Perkins and the Carroll Center. Find your local community, and just sit down and see if you can learn something, or start a relationship. On my website, which is LFLegal.com, I have a resource section, and there’s a category in there about usability testing, which lists nonprofits that can help companies get some direct experience with disabled people and how their technology is used. And a couple of those resources are online themselves, so like Knowbility, who runs a really wonderful conference called AccessU, which I know you are aware of—they also run an online portal where they have a database that people with disabilities who can test technology and give feedback, and organizations can participate in that. So, once you get past the fear and panic of getting a lawyer letter, there’s a lot of resources out there that can help people do the right thing.

Chris: Just as a quick shout-out, the Lighthouse of San Francisco is my favorite of all of the blindness agencies in America. I think Brian Bashin does an amazing job, and I think Erin Lauridsen, their technology director, is absolutely amazing.

Lainey: I would second that. They really do a great job, and Erin’s been just an amazing addition to that team. I often speak about fear—we know fear is a bad motivator in most aspects of life, you know, family, religion, neighbors. You don’t want to, like you can’t move forward if the whole thing is fear, and I don’t like how accessibility gets put in the fear category because of these lawsuits. But if you get one, or you hear about one, you just have a responsibility to get past the fear and connect with people with disabilities to make things accessible.

Francis: For me, one of the main emphases for beginning this was, I had a sense that there was this huge potential, largely unmet, for making the world a better place right now, with regards technology, with regards to harnessing the goodwill of so many people who are just decent, hardworking, want to make the world a better place. And I kind of feel a sense of optimism that we just had this huge wellspring, this huge resource that is somewhat untapped right now, for what can make the world a better place. And I was wondering if you might share my optimism for the future, and why.

Lainey: I do write about optimism in my book, and I think optimism as a trait is an important trait. I don’t think that structured negotiation would have succeeded without optimism, because we have this aggressive court system that, it would be so easy if you weren’t trusting of collaboration and optimistic it would produce results, you’d just throw in the towel and say I’m going to go file a lawsuit. And Helen Keller says nothing happens without hope and optimism. So I’m a big believer in optimism—I think it is a hard time in the world right now to be optimistic, the racism that has been exposed in the current administration, that’s always been there but now has free reign, is very frightening. I’ll be a lot more optimistic when a Democrat wins in November in the US, politically. I don’t usually opine about things like that, but you’re asking me about optimism—I’m optimistic about the younger generation stepping up and reading the riot act to the world about climate crisis and climate change. I do think—and one of the reasons I like working with disability and I think the larger corporations in the United States are really starting to get accessibility. I think that the work Microsoft is doing and, like we said, no company is perfect—but there’s, under the micro scale of digital accessibility, not talking about climate crisis internationally—yes, the tone has changed. I think hearing large corporations, Accenture, they’re also doing a great job, Adobe is doing some great work—just hearing them talk, it’s not everything, it’s not every product, but I think there is a shift. So, I’m optimistic about that. But we can’t sit back, we all have our role to advancing inclusion, and we can’t stop doing it. But am I optimistic? I guess yes, I guess I’m still an optimistic person, although I do think there’s some pretty serious hurdles in our path.

Francis: The world really* needs lawyers right now, especially in the environmental world, civil rights—lawyers are just such an essential part of what can protect people, protect the earth and make the world a better place. Given that we do have such a heterogenous sort of population of people in society who are…you have on the one hand—I don’t want to simplify too much—the people who are trying to be really honest and work together and make things happen in a way that’s good for everyone, then you have others that are totally predatory and will come into a negotiation that’s supposed to be non-confrontational, that’s supposed to be more non-adversarial, and just be manipulating the whole time and trying to win. So—I don’t think I simplified it well.

Lainey: Well, I think I know what you’re getting at, or what I’m hearing—is bringing up two things for me. One, I know sometimes I sound like Pollyanna-ish, but there are a lot of lawyers who are trained to be certain way. But in structured negotiation, because from the very start we try to be transparent and kind of down to earth and explain, this is the problem you have, we would like to solve it with you. And we do that in emails and letters and phone conversations—people behave differently in this process than they do in adversarial processes. I have had friends who are traditional lawyers say, oh, do you ever deal with this person, he’s so difficult, and blah blah blah, and I’ll say, that hasn’t been my experience with him. And I think many lawyers I’ve talked to who have represented some of the biggest companies in this country that I’ve negotiated with have told me privately that this has been the best experience of their legal career. So I think systems can force people into certain behaviors, and when you give them an opportunity to behave differently, I’ve seen people do it. On the other hand, so no one thinks I’m like a total unrealistic person, there are lawyers who are in it for the wrong reasons, and whose behavior is something that I think hurts, not just the legal profession, but digital accessibility, and I used to feel responsible to convert all those people. And especially new people who are filing cases who originally I thought, oh great, the more lawyers the merrier who want to do accessibility. And I would try to talk to some of these people that we talked to, that we talked about at the top of the hour. And you know, those lawyers brought me to tears more than lawyers on the other side of the bargaining table. Now I realize, you know what, I can only do what I can do, and I can’t change lawyers who want to use the ADA for the wrong reasons. I can see my role as trying to make people realize that most lawyers, 99.9% of disabled people, are using it for the right reasons, and you know I have a slide in some of my talks, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact that there are unethical lawyers, or lawyers who don’t believe in collaboration, who don’t have any mindfulness, who are just like aggressive bulls in a china shop—don’t let that make us forget that the ADA is about inclusion and this diversity of human experience that we’ve been talking about. So I try not to let it upset me, and I try to let my optimism stay solid.

Chris: Well, with that, we might as well reach the end of this interview, and I’ll ask you the same question we ask everybody, and that’s—is there anything specific that you’d like to promote or plug or pimp or—it doesn’t have to be your work, it can be somebody else you think is doing something remarkable?

Lainey: Well, there’s a lot of people doing a lot of remarkable stuff. I guess I’ll give a shout-out to Haben Girma, I don’t know if your audience knows her—she has a book called Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, and Haben is a great representative of this work and these issues, and I have been lucky enough to do some book events with her and I see the audiences line up, and I think the best thing about what Haben does is how she answers people who say to her, “oh you’re so inspiring.” And she never lets it go to her head, she says, “what have I inspired you to do? Name me two things that you’ll do to improve inclusion of disabled people, based on your inspiration.” And I love that, you know. I love the concreteness of it. It made me two things: you’re inspired, tell me two things that you’re going to do when you go back to work on Monday that will result in more inclusion in the world or, as you say on this podcast, making the world a better place. So that will be my shout-out.

Chris: Well, thank you very much for coming on Making Better, Lainey.

Lainey: Thanks for having me, I really enjoyed talking to you.

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Episode 18: Brian Dunning transcript

Making Better Episode 18

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: And this is Episode 18 of Making Better Podcast, featuring noted skeptic Brian Dunning!

Francis: Yeah, and I have to admit, I was a little bit skeptical, at first…nyuck nyuck nyuck

Chris: Brian was a fascinating guest, and we talked about all sorts of topics from the world of scientific skepticism and critical thinking. We cover some COVID-19 conspiracies, we even talk about UFOs and Bigfoot. Let’s get on to the interview.

Chris: Brian Dunning, welcome to Making Better!

Brian: Thank you for having me, lot of fun to be here.

Francis: Yes, and from upstate New York, I’d to welcome you as well.

Chris: So you’re host of the Skeptoid podcast, which is one of the most popular in the Skeptics movement, and right now we’re going through a major pandemic and there are a lot of conspiracy theories swirling all over the place about it. Would you like to speak to some of those?

Brian: Oh my gosh. It’s been one of the busiest weeks in my whole history. I’m getting emails and calls all day long from radio stations or video news shows, wanting to talk about the conspiracy theories, so I know a lot of people are having a slow few weeks, not at all for me. I did three of them yesterday, it was just brutal. In fact, because of all of these conspiracy theories popping up, everyone was saying, “hey, you should do a podcast episode about these conspiracy theories.” But with Skeptoid I don’t do current events, and I don’t do new, fringe-y ideas or things that haven’t yet proven to have long legs. One of the charters of Skeptoid is that all the episodes are evergreen—you can pick one up in five years and it’s going to be just as relevant today. So, I’m not really going to do an episode on this week’s COVID-19 conspiracy theory. Of course I can talk about that on the radio shows all they want, because I had to do something talking about it, there was just so much demand. I did an episode talking about the phenomenon of why we are having conspiracy theories and how we always have, every time there’s been a pandemic in the history of mankind. There’s been conspiracy theories and there’s been people using the pandemic as a political weapon, and so comparing and contrasting what’s happening now to a couple of prominent ones in the past. It’s both relevant today, and it’ll still be good in five years from now. Trying to keep up with the conspiracy theories as they’ve been appearing has been nearly impossible.

Chris: I heard yesterday that a bunch of people in Liverpool burned down [a 5G] tower.

Brian: Yeah, I heard they’ve been doing that in the UK and I think I heard they were doing it in Canada, and I also heard that so far there’s been no reports of that in the US. What’s silly is that the term “5G tower” doesn’t really mean anything. Yes, some 5G antennas are going to be mounted on existing towers, but they’re not going to be building any new towers for 5G. The range of a 5G antenna is so much shorter that, really, these are just going to be put on buildings and places like that.

Francis: Do they weigh the 5G technology against a duck before they did that, or…?

Brian: One of the points that I make every time I’m doing one of these is talking about how, if you’re worried that radio signals are going cause diseases or cancer or whatever it is you think, then 5G is the one that you should be least worried about, because as it’s the highest frequency of all the different cell phone technologies, it penetrates the least into tissue or anything else. If you’re worried about penetration into human tissue of these radio signals, 5G is the one that’s by far the safest.

Chris: What are some of the 5G conspiracies you’ve heard—and we know it’s non-ionizing radiation so it’s not going to penetrate the skin, so–I guess if you’re afraid of 5G, you should be wearing sunscreen at night.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a good point. The 5G one is really the newest of them, because first of all, when the coronavirus came out—I always expect people are going to go for billionaires first, and that was exactly what happened. People said, oh, Bill Gates was behind the coronavirus, Bill Gates is one of the illuminati and for some reason they want to commit global genocide and reduce the world’s population. So somebody looked into, you know, the Gates Foundation is one of the biggest donors to medical research in the world, if not the biggest. And someone looked into all of their past grants and they found that one of their grants went to a company—I don’t remember where it was—but this same company, on another grant that had nothing to do with the Gates Foundation, had done some research on developing a vaccine for an avian coronavirus, five, six years ago, something like that. And so based on those two tenuous connections, that this was a disease that had nothing to do with COVID-19 and this was a grant that had nothing to do with Bill Gates, they figured that Bill Gates is funding the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the first one that I saw; I guess the second one that I saw was, which for a long time was the biggest, was that this was a bioweapon that was either deliberately or accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the province of Wuhan, which was of course where the first cases were reported. So that’s an actual disease research institute, and they’re very similar to the US’s Plum Island Research Institute, which is no longer located on Plum Island—they’re basically just worried about protecting their agriculture, and so they are always doing research to protect against things like mad cow disease, things that can affect their crops. So it’s a very innocent institute, but someone decided, well, just because it exists, therefore if a disease from that same area came out then it’s putting two and two together and therefore, the Wuhan Institute of Virology must have created COVID-19. No evidence or rationale behind it at all, it’s just connecting two things that seemed to be vaguely related. Anytime anyone can find two things that are vaguely connected, even if that connection is not a real one, you know, just two things that happen at the same time, in the same place, in the same genre—well, suddenly there’s a global conspiracy. That’s just one of the failings of the way our brains work; we’re always looking for patterns, we’re always looking for meaning behind meaningless currents of events.

Francis: My PhD is in microbiology, so I get a lot of questions about whether COVID is a disease that is originally sort of a, some biowarfare kind of a thing, and you know, obviously there’s no evidence of that based on anything. If you wanted to weaponize a virus, this is definitely not what you’d come up with.

Brian: You take something like anthrax, that actually has been used as a bioweapon, that’s got a kill ratio of, I think, 60% or better, and COVID-19 is, what, 2%, something like that. It would be the world’s worst bioweapon ever.

Francis: Have you heard any, like, really outlandish COVID conspiracies?

Brian: Well, you can’t really get more outlandish than the 5G. You know, everything is so goofy and incredibly scientifically illiterate about every part of that. We know what causes COVID-19, it’s a virus. We have genome of that virus. We have its descent from other coronaviruses that it evolved from–there’s so much that we know about COVID-19, and 5G cell phones don’t play any role in that, not even remotely! And we also know everything about 5G and about radio and how it can’t possibly have any remote connection to any kind of a disease or harm to living tissue. So why and how people put these things together? I mean, really the only thing you can look at is, well, they both kind of happen generally around the same year or so, so therefore one caused the other…I mean, I can think of a lot of things that happened in the same year that don’t have anything to do with each other. You can’t get much closer to that than this.

Chris: Why is it that you think people subscribe to conspiracy theories? More so now than 20 years ago?

Brian: Well, first of all I believe the data does not support that people believe them now more than they did either 20 years ago or at any time in the past. I think if you look at the survey data of conspiracy ideation over all the time that it’s been researched, one thing we find that it does not have any preferences for any particular demographics—we don’t even find a correlation between education and conspiracy ideation. It really is truly something that affects all people equally, or at least all demographics equally, and everyone is somewhere along that spectrum. I think they always have been, I think they always will be. Certainly some particular conspiracy theories appeal to some demographics more than others, but there’s no demographic that’s immune from them. And over time, we’re to see different conspiracy theories come and go from popularity. Flat Earth—nobody had thought of that more than five years ago. But why people believe, why they always have, why they always will—there’s a number of different reasons for this that are the most often cited. One of them is just they’re attractive because they are really oversimplified and easy to grasp explanation for a complicated issue. People don’t understand geopolitics, but it’s easy to understand, oh, there’s a global new world order cabal that controls everything. Boom, got it, understand everything now. Makes it easy to wrap your arms around a complicated question, so it’s attractive from that perspective. Of course I’m sure you guys have talked in the past about how it’s, one of the leading theories is that it’s an evolved defense mechanism. Having a certain amount of native paranoia is a protective measure, especially, you go back to the days when proto-humans were—classic example is you hear a rustle in the grass, the guys who are a little bit more paranoid and suspect there might be some malignant agent in the grass, like a saber-tooth cat, he runs and jumps up in a tree, and he doesn’t get eaten. The other guys who are less paranoid, they say oh, I’m not going to worry about that too much, and occasionally one of them gets eaten. So over time it’s the people who are a little bit more paranoid are the ones who survive better in the gene pool. That may not be the case today, where we don’t necessarily need those skills to survive in the same literal sense, but that’s really a leading theory of why it’s baked into our brains at such a basic level.

Chris: Other than doing things like Skeptoid, how can we educate the populace to be better critical thinkers?

Brian: One of the most common questions I get is, people say oh my mom, my friend, my co-worker, whatever, is a 9-11 conspiracy theorist, or they have whatever strange belief it is that they have. They’ll ask me, do you have an episode that I can play for that person that will cure them of that? And I always say, well, yeah I do, but don’t play them that episode. Play them a different episode, something that you’re both already in agreement on, something that your friend is going to appreciate, not something that he’s going to see as an attack and shut you down and not listen to anything else you have to say. You never want to open by directly challenging someone’s sacred cow. You don’t want to go after their most cherished beliefs, that’s a bad way to open any conversation. But finding common ground is always a great way to open any conversation. I can suggest a hundred Skeptoid episodes that you and your friend are both going to enjoy listening to, and your friend is going to go, ha, that was really cool, I want to learn more. Do you have any other episodes like that? And when you can get people to appreciate the value of skeptical analysis and critical thinking, and get them to really begin to realize the benefits of it in their daily life, i.e. ability to make better decisions, not getting sucked into multi-level marketing schemes, etc. etc., you’ll find that those people will eventually want more and they’ll come around on their own to questioning this strange belief that you originally opened the conversation with. So, find common ground and don’t go for the jugular right off, that’s my summary.

Chris: We’ve had Michael Marshall on the show, and he does the podcast “Be Reasonable,” where he goes out of his way to interview people with really bizarre beliefs. He does it in such a gentle way that you can actually get a feeling for understanding what the people have to way.

Brian: Yeah, I love Marsh. He’s a great guy.

Francis: I have a couple classic conspiracy theories I’d like to throw at you—for example, the Rothschilds family. Did you research that whole thing and come up with your own analysis of it, or was it one of those things where you didn’t even feel like you really needed to..?

Brian: Yeah, I did an episode on the Rothschilds conspiracy theories obviously. There has never been an episode where I don’t feel I need to do any research. You know, it’s a weekly show, and it’s only about a twelve, thirteen minute show, and that twelve/thirteen minutes takes me legitimately the entire week to research. Skeptoid is exhaustively researched, and you’ll find complete references and bibliographic references and further reading suggestions at the bottom of every page on the website. So I never just talk about an episode just with my personal thoughts or off the cuff or anything like that. There was a lot to unpack when it’s something like the Rothschilds. Well, first of all, what is the specific claim? It’s difficult, in that case, because there are so many. The Rothschilds are one of those people—it’s like the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch—conspiracy theorists are simply going to throw that name out there and connect it to anything and everything. Oh, something evil happened in the world that I don’t like? Therefore, George Soros was behind it, or the Rothschilds were behind it, or the Koch Brothers, whatever it is. So it was difficult to find specific claims that you could address in that. I just kind of had to take them all on board and say, OK, basically this is a wealthy Jewish family that was involved in a lot of major world events over this period of about a hundred years or so. And even though they no longer exist in any meaningful way as an entity, people still believe that they are controlling world events. You know, the Rothschilds family is so diluted now and their assets are so diluted, any one who owns a bank account, you or I, we own about as much Rothschild entity as anyone in the Rothschilds family does. Anyone who has an interest-bearing checking account has shares, and those banks have shares in companies, everything is just sort of owned communally now. You can no longer say that any one entity controls anything. If you do say that, then you really need to go back to school at a 101 level and learn something about world economies. That was really kind of the thrust of the Rothschilds episode, is just kind of making those points rather than trying to pick and choose particular claims against them—there’s just too many.

Chris: How much do you think that anti-semitism contributes to conspiracy theories today?

Brian: Anti-Semitism is probably the ugliest part of my job, ‘cause it comes up every frickin’ day. Every frickin’ day I come into something that’s motivated by really ugly anti-semitism. I wouldn’t say that it causes conspiracy theories, it’s just that Jews tend to be the targets of so many, because they’re easy. In fact, the episode that I mentioned that came out this week on pandemics, one of the pandemics that I looked at was the Black Death in the 1300s. Well, who was the conspiracy theory about that? Who was causing the Black Death?—it was Jews, Jews are always the easiest target, they always have been. They’re a marginalized community, they have not had their own country throughout most of recorded history, they’re just kind of the ultimate outcast class. And so, they’re an easy place for people to point blame. In the case of the Black Death, it was claimed that Jews were seen poisoning the wells, therefore the Black plague is caused by whatever the Jews were poisoning the wells with. Now the interesting thing about that is, when you look at this and you try and analyze it from the perspective of, ok, why did people come to that conclusion, you learn some interesting stuff. And in that case—and I had never heard this before, so this was fascinating for me to learn—because of centuries of anti-Semitism and because the Jews did not have their own state, they lived in isolated communities. They were often, especially following the Crusades, a lot of them had been driven out of Europe, so the ones that remained in Europe lived in these isolated communities, often physically a little bit separate from the main cities. Sometimes they were even literally walled. And because of Jewish cultural practices, they tended to wash their hands and wash their bodies more often than other people. And because of this, to some degree, there was probably better sanitation inside many of these Jewish communities than there was outside of them, and so Jewish people tended to not get the plague as soon as other people did—and again, this is a generalization, but it would be likely to have happened enough times that people finally came to the conclusion, oh look, the Jews are immune from this! And here’s a story of someone who says he saw a Jew throwing something into a well, therefore, there’s your conspiracy theory right there. So that whole aspect of the culture happening to equal better sanitation and happening to confer some protection against the plague was a fascinating aspect of the story.

Francis: You think though that the Bible stories kind of contribute to it a little?

Brian: This is my person interpretation on that, and I know some of my colleagues don’t agree with me, and others do: I think all of anti-Semitism ultimately comes down to the Bible story, where Jews betrayed Jesus to the Romans. And I think that’s kind of the ultimate root, if you have to pick one ultimate root of anti-Semitism, I’d say that’s it.

Francis: Is there any time that you’ve come across these things and—were convinced that actually there must be something going on here, in terms of some sort of like, covert power grab or some sort of covert attempt to maintain control over a society or an industry or something.

Brian: That’s the basic idea behind the “illuminati” or whatever you want to call it, that there’s a secret cabal operating behind the scenes to whom all the world’s nations have voluntarily turned over their sovereignty. Why would anyone do that? If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re sitting on top of the world owning Russia, and some guy comes in and says, “hi, I’m from the local freemason chapter, I’m going to hand you your orders for everything that you’re going to do this year,” why would you do any of that? It just simply doesn’t make any sense, that any entity would want to hand over its sovereignty to some shadow cabal. Nobody knows who these people are, not even the people who they’re directly manipulating, what is the evidence of their existence.

Chris: Why don’t we do a lightning round—I’ll just toss out a topic, and you can talk for a couple of minutes on it. Why don’t we start with Homeopathy?

Brian: Alright! Homeopathy, yeah, probably one of the least plausible of all alternative medical modalities. You know, so many people, if you asked them “what is homeopathy”—I was on a backpacking trip with some friends a few years ago, for example, and they start handing out homeopathy pills. “Here, you need this, this will help you with your altitude sickness, this will help you with your headache,” whatever it is. And I asked them, so what are they? “Oh, it’s just an herbal supplement, no side effects, it’s just a very mild herbal dose”—and of course it’s not. People simply don’t understand, the number of people who know what it actually is a very small part of the market of people who actually buy into it. Because when you look at the box, it’s going to say “extract of milkweed” or whatever it’s supposed to be a homeopathic dilution of, and of course it’s not. If it’s homeopathic milkweed, that means by definition there is no milkweed molecules in there at all—that’s the big disconnect. My favorite way to illustrate that is that if you take a single atom or a single molecule of milkweed and dilute it in a swimming pool that is the size of a sphere the size of the earth’s orbit, that is a typical homeopathic dilution. It’s not a molecule in a swimming pool or in the ocean, it’s in a sphere of water the size of the earth’s orbit. That’s a staggering, staggering number that is mathematically accurate and I think begins to bring it into perspective for some people.

Chris: What about some of the other skeptical topics that may not be alt-med, like Bigfoot or borthman?

Brian: There really is no skeptical topic that should be too silly to talk about, and Bigfoot, of course, is the classic example. I mean, there are people who derisively refer to some subset of skeptics as “Bigfoot skeptics,” because you’re talking about things that are silly, that are not relevant, that don’t have any place in the life of intelligent adults—and yes, that’s true. However, they are absolutely relevant, because it’s the exact same thought processes that lead someone to believe in Bigfoot that leads someone to believe in the flat earth, or in a multi-level marketing scheme, or whatever it is that actually does affect our lives. And when you say that it’s a terrible, terrible thing that Dr. Oz is selling these worthless supplements, but it’s a harmless thing that grandma thinks her dog is psychic, it’s actually the exact same broken thought processes that lead someone to believe in both of those two things. So it is very useful to talk about the silly subjects like Bigfoot, because 1) they’re fun, 2) it’s the same subject, it’s gonna help you correct your thinking, and it’s a fun way to do it. I really love the silly subjects like, any cryptozoology, any famous ghost stories, any famous UFO stories. And there are so many, and the concepts that come up in all of these episodes are the same ones. You really can’t hammer them home enough times and as far to really begin to appreciate the value of skeptical criticism.

Chris: Often my favorite Skeptoid episodes are those that cover topics I’ve never heard of, like some ghost story from someplace or something like that. Which are your favorites of those?

Brian: I tend to have the most fun researching the historical mysteries. The episode that comes out next week is on the holy grail, and again, 700 episodes and it finally takes me this long to get around to the holy grail, which you’d think would be one of the basics. I still haven’t done the, what’s it called, the cloth that covered Jesus’ face?

Chris: The Shroud of Turin.

Brian: The Shroud of Turin! Thank you. I still haven’t done an episode on that. But I really enjoy the historical research. I buy a ton of books, I buy books almost every week or I check them out of libraries, and I just get on my knees and thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for openlibrary.org that lets me check out books online that I wouldn’t be able to drive three hours to a library to get in time. I thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy learning so much about these odd little corners of history. If I can indulge with my favorite, absolute favorite example of this, was one of my early episodes on Borley Rectory. It’s one of these many houses, claims to be the most haunted house in the world, and as is the case with most of these houses claiming that title, it was conferred upon them by someone who was hoping to make money off of it. And in this case, Borley Rectory was sort of the brainchild of this Barnum & Bailey type character named Harry Price, who went and he lived with the people who lived in the house with the family for a period of time. He hired psychics to come in and do investigations that he could then write chapters about. The whole thing was planning to write this book, from the beginning. The one story that I had read about from Borley Rectory as a child, and that always fascinated me my whole life, was the idea of automatic writing, which was described as writing that appeared on the walls while people were watching. And there are even photographs of this writing, it was kind of this spidery handwriting that said “Maryanne get help,” and Maryanne was the name of one of the daughters in the house. The fact that all accounts said that this writing appeared on the walls while people were watching, that freaked me out. I’m going, well, there’s no explanation for that. I mean, there’s got to be one, but it’s got to be a ghost or something weird happening there. And it wasn’t until I finally did the Skeptoid episode on it, 45, however many years later, that I learned what happened. And it was a couple of people who do seances, who Harry Price hired to come to the house, sit down, and do a seance and to do their seance they used a, basically a Ouiji Board, it’s the thing you put your hands on called a planchette, and it would just move around; but instead of having a board with letters on it, they had a pencil that stuck through the middle of the planchette and would write on paper as it’s moving around on the table top. So to do this, they needed a big roll of paper that they could unroll on the tabletop, and what roll of paper was handy but wallpaper—these big rolls of wallpaper. They turned them upside down so that the blank side was facing up, and they put the planchette on and the seance people did their thing, moving the planchette around with their hands, and guess what, it happened to write out the words “Maryanne, get help” and there were plenty of people in the room watching. Now, when you hear it told like that, it doesn’t sound very mysterious at all; you know, it’s well-established that people can easily move those around deliberately, or they happen automatically with the ideomotor effect—in this case I’m sure it was done deliberately because these people were writing out some handwriting—and over the course of Harry Price writing about this and it appearing in a newspaper article and then later appearing in these books, at some point somebody heard that it was being written on the wallpaper, and they assumed that that meant wallpaper that was on the wall. It’s an assumption that we’d all make if you hear “writing appeared on the wallpaper.” So it goes from this very easily explainable case of the seance people simply writing it out with their hands to “automatic writing” appearing on the wall while people were watching, and it’s just simply a loss of translation in the telling and re-tellings of this. And as far as I was able to determine—I was the first person to kind of make that connection, and explain the automatic writing, which was a very exciting moment in the early days of Skeptoid—I think that best exemplifies why I so much enjoy doing these historical mysteries. It’s ‘cause occasionally you do find these wonderful little tidbits like that.

Chris: Why don’t we move on to UFO’s?

Brian: Alright. So, another question I get all the time, and this is a question that people usually ask early, derisively or aggressively, OK Mr. Skeptic, that kind of a thing; “do you believe in aliens?” And I said, yeah, in fact I side with almost all astronomers and exobiologists and cosmologists, almost all of us are in universal agreement that it’s an absolute certainty that somewhere out there is life, and probably a huge amount of life, throughout the universe. I think most people think of that. However, that is a very, very, very different question than “are flying saucers visiting the earth.” Because one is an absolute certainty, and the other one, as far as we understand physics, a virtual impossibility. The distances involved are simply not possible, and the energy levels required to go back and forth to transport people back and forth in some sort of a spaceship—especially when you consider the time element. I like to think of a Christmas tree, and if you imagine a Christmas tree with all of its little lights turning on, the blinking lights, and a light blinks on here, and it blinks on here, and it blinks on there—very, very rarely do you have two lights impossibly close to each other that blink on at exactly the same time. That’s a good analogy for two civilizations happening to exist at the same time so close together that it might conceivably be possible for one to travel to the other. Interstellar travel happening at exactly the same moment on a universal timescale would be incredibly rare. And we know just from our own observations that we probably don’t have any civilizations close enough to us that we would be able to travel there and back within any reasonable timeframe of how long we expect human civilization might last, whether that’s ten thousand years, a hundred thousand years, a million years, you simply wouldn’t be able to do it. So that’s the basic answer to the question of why earth does not appear to have been visited by any aliens, because there is no evidence that we have, not even any slightly compelling evidence that we have, and I think that’s the reason. So it is possible to both believe in aliens and to dismiss the idea of alien flying saucers visiting the earth.

Chris: Aside from the fact that i believe that everything that Terry Pratchett wrote is true, I don’t actually believe in a flat earth. The flat earth story seemed to have just popped up out of nowhere, and became real popular really fast. I actually know a friend whose brother is a flat earther. Can you speak of the flat earth stories and where you think they came from?

Brian: Yeah. So that’s a really, really, really fascinating story, a lot more interesting than people realize, because flat earth has had two completely different iterations. The original Flat Earth Society that, you know, we all heard about when we were kids—hey, there’s people who actually think there’s a flat earth, and we laughed about it, and they had like a newsletter or something—so that was a real thing, and that happened in the, I believe in the late 1800s, is the first time anywhere in the history of earth, so far as we know, that some group of people believed the earth was flat. There’s no instances in ancient civilizations where there’s any evidence that people thought the earth was flat, at least educated people. And it arose from the culture of Biblical literalists, people who interpreted certain Bible passages as meaning the earth was flat, therefore the earth was flat, therefore it was up to them to prove that the earth was flat in order to prove the literal truth of the Bible. And so that’s where the original Flat Earth Society came from, and by the 1970s, this was down to really just two people, an elderly couple living in a trailer out in the California desert, sending out this mimeographed newsletter—I think it was down to 20 or 30 subscribers at its low point, and literally their house burned down and they both died soon thereafter, and that was the end of it. That closed the chapter of the original Flat Earth Society. And then in 2015—that really, really recently—is when, we can track this down to case zero, is when some guy wrote a self-published book on lulu.com entitled The Flat Earth Conspiracy, and at the same time he made a Youtube video called “The Flat Earth Conspiracy.” This was actually in November 2014, is when this was, and based on that alone, all of the other Youtube videos promoting a flat earth cited him as the original work, he was actually case zero, the germination of modern flat earth belief. And unlike the old flat earthers, this had nothing to do with the Bible or Christianity or anything like that, it was all about conspiracy mongering and alternative science, very much in line with other conspiracy theories today. It’s those ivory-tower elite scientists are corrupt, therefore they’re lying, therefore anything you heard in your science class is wrong, therefore any alternative theory is right, therefore the earth is flat. I mean, that’s literally the logic behind it. So we’ve got these two totally different cultures of flat earth belief, and I think it’s just a wonderful story of how different they are, and how they both have totally unrelated stories.

Francis: I don’t understand anti-science bias. I could easily understand bad science bias, like if you think that there’s something about a scientist who’s just not being rigorous enough or something, but how could people have a problem with science? You know, this is like a really, really big deal right now, because when you think about global warming, when you think about a President who is out there talking about hydroxychloraquine being a drug to cure COVID, it’s just almost like there’s this chaos right now, where there’s no authority that says this is the fact, and this is not a fact, and this is scientifically proven and this is a conspiracy or, you know what I mean?

Brian: Yeah.

Francis: I just don’t know how we got to this place.

Brian: Again, I don’t think this is something that’s new. I mean, science literacy is not something that most people are interested in. I mean if you stop the average person on the street and ask them any kind of a basic science question, it’s not that they don’t know—they probably heard it in school—but they simply don’t care. It’s not of interest to them, it’s not part of their daily life. So science literacy is not something that a lot of people are big on, it’s not one of their interests. And nevertheless, so many people, all of us to some degree, we’ve got this baked-in conspiracy ideation, our tendency to embrace conspiracy theories, to embrace oversimplified explanations for complicated subjects. So when you roll those two things together, you can see that coming up with an alternate science, accepting some alternate explanation for things—it’s not so much that you don’t understand the science, because you don’t care about the science. The reason you embrace it is because it sort of strokes your ideological desire to have a superior insight, to know more than the other people, to know more than those elite, ivory-tower scientists. This is basically what characterizes []. When you hear them talk about it, you’re not going to hear them use science terminology, you’re going to hear them use terminology that criticizes the status quo. They’re gonna talk about oh, the science cabal, and they talk about science as a religion and only they are brave enough to reject the “dogma” that scientists embrace. They talk about it in these terms, they don’t talk about it in science terms. So, that characterizes Flat Earth, it characterizes alternative medicine, it characterizes Nicola Tesla—everyone, so many people on Youtube idolize Nicola Tesla, they say, oh, he invented free energy! You could do anything, he had magic Jesus powers, Tesla could do everything and anything and everything and he’s been suppressed by the government; that’s an easy explanation to understand for why we don’t have free energy, why these problems are actually difficult. It’s so much easier to embrace a conspiracy theory that says the evil government suppresses it, and yes it is as easy as you think it should be. It’s just our tendency toward conspiratorial thinking and anecdotal thinking. It’s an easy way to check all of those boxes.

Francis: Sometimes I wonder how much religion has to do with it, too, because you know when you have so much credibility given to religions, people who interpret religion as fact, as opposed to maybe like a really awesome spiritual metaphor or something that can guide people in their lives; that automatically creates such a anti-science foundation to the way we think.

Brian: It’s another iteration of that some idea. It’s a very simple explanation that explains all of these complicated things, and it’s something that so many people have been raised to believe. It’s the culture and the society of what they’ve been immersed in since they were born, it’s really hard to question those things. You know, that’s something that characterizes all of us. The greater predictor of whether you’re a liberal or a conservative is what were your parents, and where did you grow up? It’s not like you came to these conclusions yourself based on rational analysis of things, it’s simply that’s what was drilled into you.

Chris: We’re running up against our time limit, so Brian, is there anything you would like to promote or plug or pimp or…other than Skeptoid itself?

Brian: Yeah, I mean, obviously Skeptoid. Come to Skeptoid.com or find Skeptoid wherever you listen to your podcasts, and check out my latest book, Conspiracies Declassified. It’s available on Amazon or any bookstore, wherever you get your books. Conspiracies Declassified, it’s fifty of our greatest conspiracy theories, deconstructed and explained, check it out.

Chris: Well thanks so much for coming on Making Better.

Brian: Thank you, we had a lot of fun!

Francis: And I think it’s kind of refreshing we didn’t touch on 9-11. [laughter]. Thank you very much.

Brian: OK gents, thank you!

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Episode 17: Lisa Willis Transcript

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader.

Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato.

Chris: And this is Episode 17 of Making Better Podcast, featuring Professor Lisa Willis from the University of Alberta.

Francis: It’s a pleasure for me to have Lisa Willis on, because, like myself, she also has a PhD in Immunology.

Chris: Lisa Willis focuses on helping women achieve their goals in STEM fields: Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics, and she describes something that she calls “the glass obstacle course” which is a lot more complicated than a glass ceiling, and she provides a number of good examples as to the things a woman needs to navigate in academia.

Francis: It’s really important that academia opens up to demographics that it seems to have really hindered, historically.

Chris: Ok, with that, let’s get on with the episode.

Chris: Dr. Lisa Willis, welcome to Making Better!

Lisa: Thank you for having me.

Francis: Yes, thank you very much for coming on, very excited to have you today.

Chris: We first became aware of you on the CBC podcast, “Quirks and Quarks.” How did you come to become a spokesperson for women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, also known as STEM?

Lisa: Well, I am a female, in STEM, and I have come up—did my undergrad degree at UVIC, my graduate degree at the University of Guelph, and then my post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto; and so I have lived this Canadian experience of being a woman in STEM. I always saw things happen, and I wasn’t really sure why they were happening, or what they meant. So, for example, when I was a student one of the faculty members told some very sexist jokes in class, in front of 300 immunology students—and that kind of bothered me, but it was the status quo, nobody wanted to say anything about it. And then when I was a PhD student, I saw a lot of things happen that really should not have happened, and that bothered me too, and there’s always this sort of idea that women are somehow not as good at science, or not quite as deserving of awards. And I always had questions, you know, why is it that the longer I am in science, the harder it is to get ahead, the more obstacles I seem to face—is it me? Or is there something else going on? And one of the issues is that the places that I was working and doing my schooling were predominantly men, so when I did my PhD at Guelph, my department had only 12% female faculty members, even though the student population was almost 50%. So that’s an issue, I wasn’t seeing role models, I wasn’t seeing people that I could talk to about these experiences. And eventually, I just got fed up with having these questions and these doubts about whether I belonged in science, and I happened to see someone give a talk—Dr Imogene Coe from Ryerson University—give a talk on women in science, and she talked about how there were systemic biases, and there was research about this. That just lit a fire under me, so I went to the literature—I’m a scientist, all of my information, all what I deal with on a daily basis, is literature and what other people have found with nice studies. So I went to the literature, and spent probably about two weeks searching through every single paper I could find, not just on women in science, but also on racialized people in science, on people with disabilities, on LGBTQ individuals, indigenous peoples, and what I found was shocking to me. I had always thought, growing up, that sexism wasn’t a thing anymore, and now there was really, really good data that shows that simply having a woman’s name at the top of a CV, even if the CV is identical to the man’s, just having that name be female means that the people, professors, reading that CV or that resume, think that woman is less competent and less hireable. And that’s just not OK to me. So I saw the data, it really transformed how I thought about my place in science but I also recognized that there was a gap in the education about equity, diversity and inclusion, about women in science. Most of the training was focused on telling people that there was an issue, but from an anecdotal point of view: people tell lots of stories about issues, they try to appeal to the morality, that it’s morally wrong to discriminate against women, and what I saw was that with researchers, that wasn’t coming through, the message was not making it through to researchers because they’re used to being analytical. If you spent 30 years training your brain to think a certain way about the world, to be analytical and to question everything, well then the information about EDI has to be presented to you in that way, so that you can understand it. And no one was doing that, and so that’s when I started Inclusive STEM: it’s talks and workshops, seminars, that are designed to teach scientists, at every level, about equity, diversity and inclusion using what the data says.

Chris: I was Vice President of Engineering at a company here in Florida that makes software and hardware for people with vision impairment. When I took that job, I had a team of just eight people in software engineering, and all of them were white men, a couple of them were blind. When I left that company six years later, I had fifty people on my staff and twenty-three were women, which I did have to go well out of my way to try to come up with gender equity on the team, because 90% of my applicants were men. But when you were discussing on Quirks and Quarks the notion of the “glass obstacle course,” a lot of those were issues I was aware of and went out of my way to try to avoid. So if you could speak to some of those particular issues that women face…

Lisa: Yeah. So, the thing is, this is a cultural problem. This is not something that white men are doing to women, this is something that every single one of us does, it’s a cultural bias that men are better. We see it in our TV, in our movies, in our books, in our casual conversation. What happens, because we have this systemic belief that men are better than women, every single one of us perpetuates that at every single interaction in every single day. So there is not one glaring place where women are discriminated against, it happens everywhere. So in university, women are graded more harshly on their assignments than men are. They are less likely to get scholarships and fellowships and grant money, they are less likely to be invited to speak at meetings, they are less likely to get awards, and the problem is that speaking at meetings and getting funding and getting awards: these are our scientific currency. And if you are slightly less likely to get an invitation to speak at a meeting, or a grant, then you’re also less likely to get that award, which means you’re also less likely to get invited to speak at a meeting. It actually snowballs, a lot of tiny things that snowball into this giant issue, the longer you’re in them, the worse the issue gets.

Francis: Where do you think this comes from? In my own personal life, I can’t imagine why other men would in any way look at women differently in science, more favorably or not favorably. Why do you think this even happens?

Lisa: I think it stems from a history of a power imbalance between men and women. So if you look at the majority of people in power in Canada and the US, those are Europeans that came over, right? Europeans with power who came over, and if you look at a lot of the European power structures, if you just look at the UK, women had very little power. They had to have a dowry so that their fathers could pay men to marry them, essentially. They had no choice, they were considered property. In other places around the world, women are still considered property. So I think that this comes from an historical culture that now we’re trying to change, because we recognize that it shortchanges people. We are losing out on human capital, we are losing out when people cannot come to work and perform their best. We are losing out when we say that we don’t want to hear someone’s opinion simply because they’re a woman, or they’re a person of color.

Francis: You mentioned Inclusive STEM—is that the same as I-STEM?

Lisa: No. Inclusive STEM is my own little title for my program of talks and workshops. I go all over Canada talking to scientists. I’ve given lots of talks in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC. I haven’t been out to the Maritimes yet, but I would love to. I also haven’t been up north yet, but again, I would love to. And I really try to tailor my talk to the audience that I am talking to. One of the really important things when you’re talking to anyone, when you’re trying to change someone’s mind about something, is making sure that you’re not shouting something from the mountaintop while they’re down in the valley below, because that shouting goes right over their heads, it doesn’t work to change their minds. And so I’m trying to meet people where they are, to get them to change their minds, really change their actions, about women, racialized people, people with disability and indigenous people, and LGBTQ as well. I tailor it to who I’m talking to, I have seminars that I give to high school students, everyone from high school students all the way to faculty at universities who make decisions and write grants. And I talk about the scientific benefit of working with diverse teams, I talk about the numbers in Canada and how, for women, the percentage of women in STEM fields hasn’t changed in 20 years—most people find that shocking. We might think that we’re getting better, but the numbers don’t actually support that. I talk about the data demonstrating bias in STEM, in the last 10 years. The amount of data that has been generated that demonstrates bias in very clear ways is just extraordinary. And then I talk about what do we actually do, every single one of us, on a daily basis; what do we do to change the culture, to make it so that people can actually come to work and be their authentic selves, and contribute to an amazing team.

Chris: What are your thoughts on the Harvard University implicit bias test?

Lisa: I think it’s a great starting point for getting people aware of their biases. Every single human being has bias, it’s normal, it’s cultural, it doesn’t make you a bad person. But acting on those biases is the problem—we’ve got two ways of thinking about it, there’s the intentional biases, there are people who actually think that they are better than you because they are male, or because they are white or whatever; and then we have something called unintentional or unintended bias, implicit bias, Harvard implicit bias test. And these are biases that we don’t know we have, and every single human being has them. They cause you to respond to situations, to respond to people, in ways that are discriminatory. It’s so important to note that the end result is still discrimination, regardless of whether or not you intended it to be. And so the Harvard Implicit Bias Test is a great way for people to start paying attention to what their biases are, and it’s only when you pay attention to what your biases are that you can actually start to change your behavior. You can have an interaction with a person and say, “am I feeling this way about this person because of their skin color, or am I feeling this way about this person because I genuinely actually don’t like what they’re saying?” And once you start to think about that in your daily interactions, you can start to modify your behavior, and that’s what we really want. We need to change the culture.

Francis: What are some of the implicit biases that came up in the Harvard study? What are the most common ones?

Lisa: There’s lots about women. There’s a really fun one, just if you want to have a little bit of fun with Canada-US biases; there are all kinds of racial biases, there’s ageism, sexism, all of the -isms that you’ve heard of. I imagine that sexism and racism are the most insidious, the most common of those biases and the most insidious, because most people don’t actually think that they are biased.

Chris: I am going to have to argue that able-ism is worse than those.

Lisa: Oh, yes, my apologies. I would agree, absolutely agree.

Chris: I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, that was an opinion piece, though, that said that the Harvard test doesn’t scale well and it has trouble reproducing results, which is common among almost any psychological study.

Lisa: Yeah, well, so the way that the test works, is that you’re given a set of associations: pictures, essentially, and you’re asked to associate a picture with a word, or a word with a word, and you have to do it as quickly as possible without getting it wrong. So that’s how the test works, it doesn’t actually ask you what is your bias. But if you are faster at associating men with, a picture of a man, with a word that represents power or strength, then you are associating the picture of a woman with that word, then that is how the test discovers your bias. And so you can sort of get good at getting in the zone sometimes, and you can go really fast, but you can also slow down and fudge the test. I mean, it’s an easy test to fudge. And it’s certainly probably not something that would hold up in a court of law, for example, but anyone who is going there and trying to start understanding their biases and how they might be interacting with people, I think it’s really good for that.

Francis: It sounds like a really great way to start measuring something like that.

Lisa: I think so. You have to start somewhere.

Chris: Another article I read, preparing to talk to you, was in the Atlantic, and it interesting—and this might speak to European culture in general—but it said that in the Scandinavian countries, where gender equity is considered the best in the world, there also seems to be problems with women in STEM that they don’t, that women there tend to trend toward the more traditional fields that women might be seen in, education and nursing and other sorts of things, while men tend to trend towards STEM subjects. I wonder what you might think about the Scandinavian situation?

Lisa: I have seen that data, and I’m not 100% sure what the rationale for that is. That culture definitely supports women; so for example, women have really nice (and I think men too, but that could depend), parental leave policy…

Chris: Yes, it’s for men and women…

Lisa: Yeah. So there are some things that they’re doing really, really well, that I think we could sort of model our own society on, but I don’t know if anyone has looked at their biases, right? Because you can have a really good parental leave policy, but then also expect that the woman would take that policy more than the man. So I don’t know about how the rest of that culture operates, because I haven’t looked into it, so I can’t really address your question. But I think it’s a very interesting thing that we should be looking at.

Francis: I’d like to play a devil’s advocate for a minute and suggest that there could be a biological difference between men and women that could account for some of it—what I’d like to mention is that, when I grew up, I guess because of being in New York and the type of people that I grew up around, I had a very strong belief that differences between men and women were pretty much, not necessarily imposed, but they were culturally imposed maybe, and that there really wasn’t any difference between boys, girls, men and women, and it was all just sort of like role-playing that we learned, learned behavior. Then, I had a child who was a boy, and what I witnessed was that when you take a bunch of 5 year olds and put them together, you know, the boys, most of them, not all, most of them like to play a certain way and the girls like to play a certain way. And you kind of see this continuing throughout childhood. And it was at that point I realized that, you know, there was just like nothing I did to make my son amazed at trains and fire trucks and wanted to play war stuff, but he just did it. It was like something in him that behavior was instinctual or something. So, I personally think that there is some kind of like biological mediator or, in the majority of men and women, there’s something that trends them in a certain direction. I don’t know necessarily if you agree with that or not, or if you do, whether that could have something to do with why people—when they’re still pretty young and figuring out what they want to do with their lives, some go into STEM and some go into other directions.

Lisa: So, there are definitely some differences between men and women at a biochemical level. There are a couple of different body parts, there is more testosterone, on average, in men than in women, and conversely there is more estrogen and progesterone in women than in men, and our immune systems function a little bit differently. There’s some really fascinating science that’s happening with the immune system and with pain receptors. But our brains don’t function differently. It was long thought that there were genetic differences that gave rise to the male brain and the female brain, and that research has been pretty much universally debunked. When you look at children, if you look at national toy catalogs—so, I don’t know if in the US you have Toys R Us, but in Canada we’ve got Toys R Us, and Canadian Tire—they sell children’s toys. And if you look at their catalog, from about zero to two years of age, those toys are gender-neutral, they are mostly sort of blues and yellows and greens in color, they’re rattles and stuff like that, whatever. But as soon as you get older than two years of age, the toys split into girls’ toys and boys’ toys. And if you look at the catalog, you can go online and you can look at these catalogs, the toys that are marketed to girls are all about passive things, they are about physical appearance, like braiding hair. The girls that are in these images, they look a certain way, there’s lots of pink, there’s lots of princess stuff; and the boys’ toys are very blue, but they’re also, the toys are full of muscles, they’re really, really overdeveloped muscles, there are guns—boys that are shooting guns, and there’s a lot of violence in these ads that are marketed to kids that are three. And so as young as three, we are socializing our children into what they should like and shouldn’t like. You should like toys, or you shouldn’t like toys. And as soon as you get into a situation where your child is interacting with lots of other children, whether that’s primary school or whatever, then you see a massive shift. So boys who used to like playing with dolls, or liked painting their toenails or wearing skirts, all of a sudden there’s now huge social pressure to not do any of those things, and five-year-olds can be utterly brutal to one another when it comes to these gender norms. And so I think what we’re seeing, even at these very young ages, is less about biology and more about society. I mean, it starts before the baby is even born, whether the parents decide to paint the nursery bright blue or bright pink; whether the parents decide to clothe their baby in gender-neutral clothing or in things that are very gendered; whether or not they allow their boys to grow out their hair, which is typically a very female thing to do—this starts way before we even think it starts. And it has echoes throughout your entire life, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing a lot of young people experiencing this gender dysphoria, not knowing if they want to be more masculine or more feminine, or whether they prefer to use the pronoun “they” because they don’t want to be either of those things—we’re having a bit of a crisis, and it’s affecting our children right up until they graduate high school, they’re having these issues. So I don’t know of any really good evidence that points at biological differences for these socialized phenomena. I think it’s far more the social phenomena than it is the biological.

Chris: I’ve done a lot of work in India over the years, and there’s tremendous problems with sexism there, but at least in my field—software engineering—it’s about 50% female, which is entirely different than the US and Canada, where software engineering is dominated extraordinarily by white and Asian men. So I don’t understand why, how things are different in India, if it was actually biological. And I can’t speak to the rest of the STEM fields, either, though, I can only speak to software engineering, it’s the only one I know the data on.

Lisa: I think there’s some really good points in that. There are a lot of theories where, if you look at one dataset you can pull out things, maybe this is why men are better or whatever, but when you start to accumulate the data and try to reproduce those studies and look at other cultures, you start to see that maybe these theories don’t hold up so much, and that’s a really good example of one of those. I mean, even if you look in the US, the first software engineers were women, they weren’t men.

Chris: That’s true. And they were in the Navy.

Lisa: Yeah. There were lots in the Army, there were a lot at NASA.

Chris: They were called “calculators” at NASA.

Francis: There seems to be a huge difference, though, at least among whites and male vs. female—I guess it’s true, there’s something like, according to Scientific American in 2010, 51% in STEM were white males and 18% were white females; and then similar among Asians, where 13% were Asian male and 5% were Asian female. So pronounced.

Lisa: There was always that stereotype that Asians were good at math. I don’t know if you grew up with those stereotypes, but I certainly grew up with those stereotypes.

Chris: I had a good friend, she and I were at a bar in Las Vegas, and she’s an Asian woman, and we were talking about bias and things like that, and she says, “everyone assumes I’d know math, or Kung Fu.” She says, she was a model, paid to have her picture taken, and was not very good at math in any way, shape or form, but she said everyone always just assumed she could do math.

Lisa: So historically, there was a good reason for that—I mean, there were lots of cultural reasons, but the number system in Chinese is far simpler than it is in English, and the numbers themselves are shorter words. And I don’t know if this study has held up, someone who’s actually an expert in this area should talk about this instead of me—there was a study that was done that looked at how many words in a row you could remember, and it’s not the number of words in the row, it’s the timing it takes you to get through those words. The human brain seems to be wired so that you’ve got, I think it was like six seconds, but I can’t be certain, but it was like six seconds. Whatever number of things you can get through in sex seconds, that what you can remember later on when you’re challenged on it. And you can, just by the size of the words, you can get through more numbers when you’re speaking Chinese than you can when you’re speaking English. And so, the simpler number system, combined with the ability to remember larger numbers, combined with the societal factors that valued people who got really good grades so that they could maybe come over to North America and have a better life or make more money or whatever the reasons for coming over to North America were, certainly really provided the foundation for why North Americans thought that people of Asian descent had better math abilities. But that only works if your first language is Chinese. If you learn the number system in English, then that completely falls apart, and now that we have so many third and fourth-generation North American people of Asian descent, that stereotype doesn’t work anymore. But we cling to them for some reason—socially, we like to cling to these stereotypes.

Francis: I was thinking of maybe switching gears—right now, the percentage of grads that get funded is the lowest ever, and what I’ve seen and experienced is that the stress level of being a scientist—which was already really, really high when I started, a couple of decades ago—it’s just gotten worse. And I think a lot of people are wishing they never got into science to begin with, at this moment. I wondering if the general atmosphere of being a researcher, being a scientist right now is one that is chasing people away. I asked a friend who happened to be African-American, and he was in the MD PhD, why there are so few black men in research—and I think that number is bound to be something like 2% of researchers in America…

Lisa: Is it really that low? I would have thought it was much higher than that.

Chris: It’s about 13% in the States.

Francis: Yeah, I would have as well. Black females account for 6.5% overall, but like in science it’s 2%. Basically what he told me is that if you can get to the point where you can get a PhD, a lot of the African-American men that he knew thought, I should just get an MD, my overall quality of life will be better, ultimately. And honestly, I can’t argue with that logic.

Lisa: I absolutely hear what you’re saying. This job, being a faculty member, leading a lab, is the most stressful job I could imagine, for so many reasons—funding levels are low, competition is high. I take my work home with me every night, I am 100% a workaholic. So is my partner, who is also a scientist. So It is not a life for everyone, and I think that the harder that it gets, we are pushing people away, essentially, but we are pushing disproportionately women and racialized persons and non-able-bodied persons and indigenous persons away, because it’s already so hard, they have an even harder time because of the bias that they would have to face. And so their road to success is longer and harder than other people’s, which is already long and hard. And so I think that’s a major problem. We also are not set up as a scientific society to accommodate people who have different needs; so if you just look at parents, for example, a woman who has just given birth needs to breastfeed or pump, and there’s nowhere at a university where a woman could go to have a little bit of privacy so that she could do this in comfort, if that’s what she wanted to do. We could easily have a parent room in the department where people who have just come back to work can go for an hour over the lunch period to play with or spend quality time with a new baby, male or female—you know, caregiver could bring a baby in for an hour and they could sit and have little family time. This is a really easy change that we could make that would allow people to come back to work after a child is born; we don’t make these changes, even though they are easy. We don’t want to change our system to allow people who are different to be able to succeed on their own terms, and that I think is a major problem. We are failing in that regard.

Chris: So how did you personally navigate the “glass obstacle course” to get to the point of being faculty at a prestigious university?

Lisa: There are lots of things that you can do. You have to be tenacious and willing to work hard. Male or female, white or racialized, it is hard work to get where you need to go. Having a really great support system is crucial—it’s really hard, it’s just so much harder to do it, when you don’t have someone at your back cheering you on—and that goes for any field that you go into. And you have to be a little bit strategic about who you decide to work with, because they are the people who are going to help your career along. You need people who are gong to write you excellent reference letters, you need people who are going to give you opportunities to go and talk at a meeting, for example. And so, one of the things that I think is perfectly OK to do is to ask in an interview, what are your thoughts on equity, diversity and inclusion? And if your potential professor has never even thought about these things, or thinks it’s not a problem, then as a woman or a person of color, or whatever group you belong to, you don’t want to work for that person, because your journey is gong to be harder. You need to work for someone who is going to help you do what it is that you need to do. That’s what I did, I worked for some absolutely amazing people who were incredibly supportive, and that combined with my partner’s support, my own drive and a lot of luck, I was able to get to the University of Alberta. One of the things that I think is important to consider, and I’m happy to have people debate me on this, is—so there are people who are at the forefront of equity, diversity and inclusion thought, and these are the people who come up with words like “micro-aggression”—not just words, but the theory behind them and the meaning—micro-aggression, intersectionality, all of those kind of things. And so there it’s sort of at the forefront of EDI thought. And then there’s the rest of the human population, and when I talk to the human population about my science and my expertise, I don’t talk about the names of molecules and stuff like that, I talk to them in a way that they can understand. I talk about how I am trying to understand how bacteria sense and respond to the environment, because that is something that everyone can understand. I think it’s really important talk about EDI, to acknowledge that you can be an ally, you can be a good EDI person, without necessarily diving into the details. You don’t have to get pronouns right every time, you don’t have to be comfortable using the word “intersectionality” in daily speech. I think asking people to do that is asking them to meet you where you are, instead of meeting them where they are. And so I would really like to see people start making steps, every single person start making steps, start making little changes in their lives that gets them on the path. And those little changes will snowball into bigger changes, and that’s how we’re going to change the culture. I think demanding that someone use one of these newer terms, regardless of how great that term is and how important that term is to a marginalized group of people—because it starts to explain their experience, that’s really important—but I don’t think we should be asking them to be that savvy on this topic.

Chris: I’ve stopped attending intersectionality conferences because they always forget the accessibility for the people with disabilities.

Lisa: Oh god, yeah.

Chris: In many cases I’ve written to them months in advance, asking and even offering to help, and they just refuse..

Lisa: Yeah. I know that there are conferences now that are asking about food allergies, they ask in advance about accessibility issues and how they can help, and I think that that’s incredibly important. That’s the way that everyone should be moving, and it is ironic, and I’m so sorry you experienced this, that a group of people who are supposed to be experts on this were not inclusive. That’s just not OK.

Francis: One of the things that I’ve seen in science a lot is that, although we are supposed to be evidence-based, sort of on the cutting edge in a lot of objective—a lot of them are not necessarily very mature people, like on a social level. In academia especially you’ll see that, I think, because they don’t have the normal constraints that industry might have on what it takes to just get along in a group and function optimally. Maybe there’s some element of that as well.

Lisa: There’s definitely some of that, and my sister laughs at me all the time because I am not emotionally intelligent. I am incredibly smart and analytical and logical, and I have a really hard time managing emotions, and they’re two sides of a coin. It’s a spectrum. Some people are good at both, I guess, but when you train for so long to be a scientist, you train to be really analytical, and there’s also a power thing that happens; so once you become a professor, you have a lot of power over the trainees that work with you. That can be a problem. More educated, so you frequently know more than the other people in the room about topics, and that also goes to scientists heads a little bit. They start to think that maybe their experts outside of their area of expertise—there’s a whole thing that happens. But you’re absolutely right. I would say half of the people that I work with are not the most emotionally intelligent individuals, yes.

Francis: Maybe it would nice to discuss your work a little, in laymen’s terms.

Lisa: Yeah. We have two areas of expertise, or rather two areas of study. The first one is trying to understand how bacteria sense and respond to the environment and environmental changes. So, bacteria are literally everywhere, and we’re really interested in the ones that are on your skin and are part of what’s called your microbiome. So, all of the bacteria that live inside and on you, and they are just vitally important for humans to be healthy. And what we’re trying to do is to understand how they respond to a change in nutrients, or how they respond to a predator, because bacteria can actually be predators of one another. Viruses can show up, fungi can show up, it’s a very complex, dynamic environment and we’re trying to understand how bacteria sense that, with the hope of being able to modify it. So bacteria are incredibly important in IBD—Inflammatory Bowel Disease—in mental health, in immunity, in all kinds of things. So that’s one of the areas that we’re studying. The other area is the human immune system, and we are really interested in ways that the human immune system is different in men and women. Women obviously have a unique set of challenges, biologically, when it comes to reproduction, and the immune system plays a critical role in that. One of the major things is that you have to essentially turn the immune system down so that it doesn’t actually attack the growing baby, and so women have this particularly highly regulated immune system around pregnancy, and that changes how they get other diseases. So for example, women are ten times more likely to get autoimmune disease than men. And so we’re interested in trying to understand these differences so that we can figure out how this gives rise to disease.

Francis: The microbiome topic is really hot right now, and there’s a lot of areas, I guess, that it’s thought to be a key factor in. You mentioned depression, was it? Psychological?

Lisa: Mental health.

Francis: Mental health, can you explain that?

Lisa: Yeah. So, your gut microbiome, especially, is linked to your mental health. If you think about your nervous system, one of the largest nerves in the body wraps around your gut, the vagus nerve. And that has all sorts of communication with your brain—there’s some pretty good evidence that the composition and function of your gut bacteria can actually influence depression and other mental health disorders, and so by changing your microbiome, you might be able to change how it is that your thought processes work. It’s a fascinating area of study, and I think one that’s really, really important for us to be looking at, because I think mental health is one of the most important societal issues that we have right now.

Francis: Very much so. We had as a guest M.E. Thomas, who wrote a book about her life as a sociopath…

Lisa: Oh, cool!

Francis: ..and she’s a sociopath but she’s also extremely high functioning, does well as a professor, and is part of a community of people who are investigating what neuro-diversity really means in culture right now. What we’re doing is, we’re sort of understanding diversity in a different way, in how people’s minds function differently, and this one-size-fits-all concept for what it means to be a functioning human is really, never really made sense and it certainly doesn’t make sense now, with what we know.

Lisa: Yep. I think we should stop using the word “normal,” it doesn’t exist.

Francis: Yeah. They use “neurotypical.” That’s a little better. But yeah, I think “normal” is a pretty loaded word at this moment. A huge part of what’s gong to ultimately make this world a better place is acceptance and even celebration of diversity. Why not? You know, I live in New York City, and New York City is proof that diversity is something that can totally work. You know, because we have people from everywhere that come here, and we all get off on the fact that there is this diversity and [inaud]. That’s why people come here, because it’s not this cookie-cutter city where you only have one thing going on, and one culture. I mean, it just adds to the vibrancy, to the sort of like the ecology of it all. Diversity is good, it helps the world become a much more interesting and even sustainable place.

Lisa: I completely agree. I lived in Toronto and it was the same way, a melting pot of all different kinds of people. I wonder if some people don’t like that opening up of possibilities—for some people, knowing exactly what their prescribed path is and how they’re going to get there is a very comforting thing, and I wonder if that opening up of possibilities scares them.

Francis: Well, it’s scary until you experience it, and then you realize that those fears were unfounded, and that maybe you’re like limiting yourself with those. In science we use the term “elegance” that’s something that I’ve always loved in science, that concept of elegance in science, where you can have a result that, it’s just so simple and clear and pure, it’s something that you experience as beauty. That’s something I was wondering if you had any comments on, like, how you experience beauty in science or in the work you do to forward diversity.

Lisa: I experience beauty in science all the time. I absolutely love it, there is nothing else that I would rather do than science. It’s amazing. I don’t really see diversity so much in the science itself, but in my team, seeing people realize that things were possible that they didn’t know were possible, or working together cohesively to come up with that beauty in science, I think that is beautiful, and something that I really try to cultivate within my team. I am excited about the possibilities for the future, and what I would actually love to do would be to challenge you and your listeners to make some changes. Choose one thing that would advance Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, just one thing, and to try that out and see what they can do to try to change the culture. That’s what I would like to do.

Francis: So can I infer by that that you’re optimistic about the future?

Lisa: I am optimistic about the future. This is very much a social conversation, there are things that governments are doing to try to improve this, there are things that individuals are doing to try to improve this; if you look at the movie industry, they’re making incredible strides. We’ve got female directed, female led movies that are doing just outstandingly well at the box office. That’s been a real grass-roots, women deciding that they’re going to make things, and we can’t sit around and wait for the culture to change, we can’t sit around and wait for the people in power to empower us, we need to take that power for ourselves. And I’m incredibly hopeful for the future.

Francis: Do you have any books or anything you’d like to promote?

Lisa: I don’t. I am writing a couple of articles on what exactly scientists can do to change the culture, steps that they can take; hopefully that will be out in the next few months, but I don’t have anything at the moment.

Chris: Well, thanks so much for coming on the Making Better podcast.

Lisa: Thank you very much for having me.

Francis: Yeah, thank you, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

Lisa: Yeah, you too.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at MakingBetterPod.com and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us, or send us a donation. You can find the form for that on our website. Follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Episode 16: Liz Lucendorf Transcript

Making Better Episode 16, Liz Lutgendorff

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: This is Episode 16 of Making Better Podcast, featuring science fiction enthusiast and podcast host Liz Lutgendorff, with special guest co-host Sina Barahm.

Francis: And this should be a welcome change, because honestly, the science that we have right now, I wish was fiction.

Chris: I agree, it does seem like a rather science-fiction-type world out there if you look at the news or anything else.

Francis: Unless you’re looking at Trump, and then, I wouldn’t even tarnish the word “science” in any context of that man, fiction or otherwise.

Chris: And with that, let’s get on with the episode…

Chris: Liz Luckendorf, welcome to to Making Better!

Liz: Thank you for having me.

Chris: Liz, you do a podcast called “Science Fiction Double Feature,” which is about both Science Fiction and science. Can you tell us a little about it?

Liz: Way back in the day, my partner and I did a podcast called “The Pod Delusion,” and a few years ago, I just kind of missed doing podcasts. And at the time, I was reading a lot of science fiction, I’m like, well, let’s do kind of a, Pod Delusion-esque thing where I interview an author about their novel, and how interesting and fun it is, usually. And then a second person, about some aspect of that novel in real life. So if the novel focused on artificial intelligence, I’d talk to someone about artificial intelligence; if it talked about magic, I’d interview someone about the history of magic. So, it’s kind of a double feature because you have the author and the second guest.

Chris: Who are some of the authors you’ve had on?

Liz: Some of my favorites have been Anne Leckie, who wrote the Ancillary Justice books, and she’s one of my favorite sci-fi authors so I was thrilled to have her; but also Malka Older, who wrote the series called the Centenal Cycle, which is kind of futuristic democracy, I think is the way to put it, rather than actual science fiction. Carrie Patel, who did, about kind of a city underground; Christiana Ellis is the last one. I really quite enjoyed the novel, it started out as a serialized fiction, so she’d post every day, but the novel itself has been like all of those together, and it mashes both science fiction and fantasy. So one of the core elements is nanobots that get amplified by a magical amulet, which I quite enjoyed.

Chris; Which authors would you love to have on, whom you haven’t had yet?

Liz: Oh, man, all of them! So, I’m about to start a book called Gideon the Ninth, by Tasmin Muir. Everyone has mentioned this novel this year, I just have constant pre-reviews in my Twitter feed, and so I would love to have her. So I’m going to read it next, but then hopefully I’ll like it and maybe she’ll do an interview.

Chris: Terrific. Sina, why don’t you talk about some of the ones you like, and maybe we can spur a conversation.

Sina: I’m always fascinated by the differences in predictions that are true about, for example, books that came out during the 50s and 60s, you know, we were all gonna have pocket nukes and kind of the old golden-age of all of that and the predictions around that, but then when you look at the computer predictions, I mean, it’s so different, because it was pre-transistor. And so, I’ve always been fascinated by this, this sort of significant segmentation, if you will, between some of the fiction from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and then 80s and 90s, and then of course another shift with respect to the web and the internet, right? So, post-Gibson and moving into this idea that everything is going to be networked and really rapid access. For example, I’ve been going through Next Generation episode by episode recently, just something fun with dinner kind of thing, and it always bugs me so much that Data goes “Stand by, Captain, accessing…” and it’s just like, you’re retrieving like 2 kilobytes of information—we can do that on our watches now, and yet that was considered super-advanced because he was “accessing” you know, all of this knowledge. But yet, we have Wikipedia at our fingertips now, so I’m really just fascinated by that dichotomy.

Chris: I recently re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and the fact that the computers were all these giant vacuum-tube farms jumped out at me, because I think the transistor was invented two years after he published that book.

Sina: I don’t know why that reminded me of something, but that reminded me of a question for Liz: which is, Liz, you read the Diamond Age, Stevenson’s novel?

Liz: Yes.

Sina: I have a question for you. So this is something that always bugged me—I enjoyed the book, I like it, he gets better at writing endings as his career proceeds, which is lovely to see, but this is the question that I have: the thing that always irks me about that is, the plot revolves around this idea, so I understand why it’s there, but all of this advanced technology exists yet they haven’t figured out text-to-speech, something that us are very familiar with and use on a daily basis to access technology. And that’s always just irked me about that novel. I was wondering if there’s things like that about novels that, even though you might love them, sort of jump out at you as, oh my goodness, this one plot point…

Liz: I’m struggling to think of some now, ‘cause like I’ve mostly—my current reading habits are basically, I would like to read people who are currently writing, so they will keep writing me more novels—I’m very selfish, kind of like I will give you money rather than your estate money, because your estate is probably not going to give me any more books! Oh, there was a book I read not that long ago, and I can’t remember the title but I absolutely loved it, and it was interesting, because all of the communication in it was like old Usenet groups, and the aliens have hive minds, and they’re like these kind of weird dog-things and I absolutely loved that book, but the way that they kind of news-worked, with all these usenet groups, and it was just like such an artifact of the time. And that didn’t annoy me as much, ‘cause maybe kind of cross-stellar communication network. The thing that got me, now that I think about—again, I book I love—is Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book, and a central plot point of that is that the Dean of the History Department, because they have time travel, and the History Department at Oxford gets to regulate time travel, which again, I just love, I don’t care if it’s a terrible kind of weird conceit—but they can’t get in touch with him, because they don’t have mobile phones. This is like, 20 years in the future from now, and so that kind of thing, where there’s this key point of technology missing, and the key plot point of something happening or not happening is because the Dean is fishing in Scotland and there’s no possible way to contact him—like Scotland is so far and remote that that wouldn’t be possible.

Chris: That’s always been a problem I’ve had with The Walking Dead—I was like, you have guns, you have all this other stuff, how come you don’t have walkie-talkies? They don’t exist anywhere in The Walking Dead.

Liz: That’s very true. I only read the comics of The Walking Dead, though, I didn’t actually watch the television series because the comics were brutal enough!

Chris: I watched the first couple of seasons of the TV show, and that was it. I sort of lost interest. Francis, you’re a big Star Trek fan, do you want to speak to some of your life as a Star Trek guy?

Francis: I guess I grew up with Star Trek, and it informed me with all its moral lessons. It kind of replaced, in some ways, religion for me and gave me myths that I could sort of live by; but what I liked about it, too, is that it had that dichotomy between, say, logic and emotion and that kind of thing, and I guess they carried that on with Data, to some extent. You know, I always thought that was a really fun way to, ..a lens to view the world through. I guess one of the things that was interesting to me, too, was we had M.E.Thomas who wrote the book about being a sociopath, and if you don’t have any emotions, what governs your morality? And I guess with the Spock example, somehow he was like an extremely moral person, but it was completely not based on emotion. I thought was interesting…

Sina: ..or religion.

Francis: Yeah. Although I guess they did have their religion, they did that meditation and that sort of thing. But that’s pretty advanced stuff for our society back then, because you really couldn’t question religion too much publicly back then and get away with it, but Star Trek found a way to address a lot of these big questions.

Liz: What I quite like about Star Trek, which I feel lis missing a lot in some of the sci-fi now, or speculative fiction, is like the hopefulness of the future—there is a current trend in a lot of the books that are recommended to me, of just absolute kind of dire, post-apocalyptic wastelands. I don’t besmirch the kind of genre that they go into, I’m just not a particular fan of it, and I find it just kind of wearying on a kind of, just, consumptive level. Like, I like fiction and science fiction because it’s interesting and hopeful and has nice ideas, and offers like this vision of the future that you can kind of aspire to; and the post-apocalyptic stuff is just like, well, everything’s gonna be horrible, and the level of horribleness varies between post-apocalyptic endings. And some are really good, I do like some post-apocalyptic stuff; there is a series, the book is called Archivist Wasp* and it’s like a post-apocalyptic future, but there’s still hope in that future. And so when you think back to Star Trek, it’s just like, oh, we’ve got this amazing Federation, we’ve got impetuses to explore, and sure there’s wars and stuff, but ultimately it’s got this really great core message, which I feel is lost sometimes in the doom-laden post-apocalyptic stuff.

Sina: I am so glad you said that, because I feel very similarly about, like, dystopic sci-fi. There’s nothing wrong with being dystopic or examining and exploring, you know, post-apocalyptic, but I find some of it to just be—you know, it’s very predictable, it’s like, well, yes, our society is definitely hinged on a few key things like constant power and access to resources and such being there, and when those go away obviously you could explore some things within the human condition. But I don’t find it as difficult, right? And again, I’m not trying to besmirch that genre, like you said, but I think trying to solve the problems in, for example, post-scarcity, like Ian M Banks with the culture series, is just so much more, I feel so much more joy when I read those books, and yet I feel like they’re still struggling with really complex situations, but able to just explore it in a way that feels better to me.

Liz: Yeah. I have this tagline at the end of my podcast, which is like, remember the science fiction we read today is basically the science fiction of the future. And I think it’s that sort of thing, if all we read is kind of post-apocalyptic stuff, or like everything’s terrible—as much as I like William Gibson, you know, these very highly stratified societies based on wealth and access—oh my god! like that’s so disheartening, whereas if you read something like Becky Chambers, which is hopeful and is like, expansive and like they solve problems and complex ethical issues, but they’re done in a way that you’re left with, like, “we can work our way through these problems” rather than “all is lost.”

Chris: A few years ago I read a book called Station Eleven, it was by a Canadian woman, I can’t recall her name—

Liz: Emily St. John Mandel. Really good, I know. It’s really good as well.

Chris: I thought that was, you know, the Walking Dead without the walking dead. It was just such a great book, with this post-apocalyptic but very, very hopeful message, that you know, good humans will continue to exist and continue doing good things.

Liz: And that’s the kind of post-apocalyptic stuff I can deal with, like even if the world ends there’s still hope, whereas some of it just goes down these, like, really dark—like there is no hope, kind of way out of it, and that’s the stuff that’s always recommended to me. And I’m so—I can’t, I can’t face it!

Chris: The only problem I had with Station Eleven is she hasn’t written a sequel.

Liz: It’s true.

Chris: It ends with them, like, seeing other people off in the distance, so like it ends right where the next book should start, but there’s no next book.

Liz: When I looked for that book, ‘cause I was in Toronto, I think, we were in Canada—basically I always look for, what’s the top ten by women, and I found that. And it was in the “literary” section in Chapters, and I was so annoyed that it wasn’t in the sci-fe section. Maybe that’s why, maybe it just didn’t find an audience ‘cause it was in the wrong section.

Sina: Speaking of female authors, who are, would you say, your top four or five female authors?

Liz: Only four or five? Oh, god! And I’ll cover all the speculative fiction, because I like to kind of mix them between. But I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is Mexican-Canadian, and so all of her novels are novels, but they cover different thing, so; the first one, Signal to Noise, was kind of magical realism in Mexico City, the second one was Certain Dark Things, which was about vampires, but more like Mexican vampires, so not like…she mentions kind of like our traditional western-European vampires, but the main characters were not of that variety of vampire. And the last one, which I absolutely adored, was Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is 1920s Mexico and like a kind of re-animated mind-god. Brilliant, so good! So her, for sure; as I mentioned, Malka Older, I love the Centenal series, it just explores so many interesting things about, kind of, electronic voting, about information society, about democracy, so very good. Probably V.E. Schwab, who writes more fantasy, but her Darker Shades of Magic series was really, really good; she writes for all ages, so she does sort of middle-school kind of YA and adult fiction. She also did a series called the Villains, which basically explores some villains, which is also interesting. I have recently been reading a lot of—oh, I can’t pronounce her first name, I’m gonna massacre it, but Aliette de Bodard—she has a fantasy series as well, but I’ve mostly read her short science fiction, which is—if there is a Vietnamese empire in space, and it follows different aspects of that, and some of it—and the best story I can mention is The Tea Master and Detective, which I describe as like Sherlock Holmes and Watson, if Sherlock was a Vietnamese aristocrat and Watson was a spaceship with PTSD. It’s so beautiful and vivid, there’s about four short stories, I think, or four novellas, and all of them, they just like explore a different aspect of this universe, and they’re just beautiful and elegant and interesting and explore such interesting kind of sci-fi and ethical concepts.

Sina: Have you read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga?

Liz: Yes.

Sina: I am absolutely in love with her as an author, because she I think has the ability to write in any genre, whether it’s a whodunit, whether it’s a space opera, whether it’s a police procedural on a planet or—just all of these other things, and nails it every time in my opinion, but then I love the way that she doesn’t fetishize the technology—which I admit to really enjoying, but you know I can get that from other authors. With her, the technology has like a really significant purpose for existing: for example, her incubators, which just completely turns around all of the societal implications of women carrying children. I thought that was just fascinating, not to mention I think she’s one of the only authors I respect that has a main character with significant disabilities, and does that superb amounts of justice.

Liz: I haven’t read as many of the Miles books, but I agree.

Chris: What about Margaret Atwood?

Liz: I think it’s a Canadian thing, that you’re forced to read Margaret Atwood as a child and then you just grow up hating Margaret Atwood. So I had to read so much in high school, and as a result I just dislike everything she writes, including The Handmaid’s Tale, and I don’t think I’d pick up Testaments either. I’m sure everything everyone writes about them is great, but I just can’t stand Margaret Atwood…

Francis: Can you elaborate on that, like why?

Liz: I don’t know, it’s just…I find it really hammer-over-the -head kind of torturous in that, like she’s going to make a point, she’s gonna make it a hundred times and she’s going to batter you over the head with it. I just can’t…I just can’t! I remember reading her in high school and thinking like, oooh, like I got the point on, like, page 10, can we move on? I just can’t deal with it. I like Margaret Laurence, who also writes kind of like, she’s a short story author, also from Canada, and like her stories are equally kind of hard to deal with, but just much prefer her to Margaret Atwood. Sorry Margaret Atwood fans!

Sina: I completely agree with you. I found the same to be true about things like, you know, The Fountainhead or whatever, where—you know, make your point, but if you’re going to beat me about the head with it a thousand times, like I got it the first time, maybe the second time, but completely agree.

Liz: Gilead is a terrible place!

That’s right…

Liz: There’s the patriarchy—and….

Francis: Perhaps we could dial back. You had mentioned about how some science fiction is very dystopian, and some of it is a little more positive…I was wondering if there were any sort of utopian visions for the future that you’ve read in books that seem plausible to you that you’d like to share.

Liz: I’m going to say Becky Chambers again, just because I love her and I think she doesn’t shy away from the problems that you could see in the future, but you still have humanity being helpful and like, working through problems. So, I’m thinking mostly about her second novel, which is A Closed and Common Orbit. You have AIs, but they are in ships, basically, but one gets downloaded illegally into a body kit, so she looks like a human—or it looks like a human, but I always think of “she”—it’s basically, how do you then navigate that, being actually illegal but having your own personality and all the people who are around who help her and things like that. And I just love it, it’s so hopeful, but it’s just like, the core of it, is this person is illegal by the nature of her existing and things like that. And there’s still crappy bits in the universe, but like people still overcome them, and I think that’s realistic. I don’t think utopias are necessarily realistic, but still being able to confront hard things and changing things and being hopeful about the change you can bring are really positive things to hope for. Oh man, I need to think of others…gonna have a look at things I’ve read—this is really hard off the top of my head.

Sina: In my group of friends, a lot of folks liked the first book in that series more. I—and it sounds like you did as well—really enjoyed the second one, I thought that exploration was really fun.

Liz: If you like Becky Chambers—she came out recently, really recently I think, with a novellas called To Be Taught If Fortunate, and it’s this group of explorers, basically if you think of our future now possible trajectory of catastrophic climate change, kind of diminishing rights and things like that. Basically the space program ends because they can’t afford it any more, but then there’s this big groundswell of citizen-sponsored space travel, and so they send these groups of astronauts off to explore distant planets, and they have some sort of cryo-sleep, but on their way to the stars, they adapt their bodies, they go into a torpor and they adapt their bodies to have some acclimatization to the planet. So in some times they end up with more muscle mass because it’s higher gravity, and things like that. And again, it’s not so much about the planets they find, but it’s the beauty of exploration and like the pursuits of knowledge and these sort of things, and like persisting even though the people listening may be gone and things like that. And it’s so wonderful, it’s just absolutely wonderful in terms of hopefulness and like all the great things you want to feel about science in the future.

Sina: It is definitely on my to-read list, thank you.

Liz: What else have I read about the future?

Sina: I mentioned the culture earlier—how much of Ian M Banks (sp) have you read, and what do you think of his envisioning of a post-scarcity society?

Liz: I’ve read very little. I never really read much Ian Banks, Ian M Banks. Two years ago, I was in the middle of my PhD, and I just like realized that I wasn’t reading any fiction at all, and like I really missed fiction, I needed a break from history. And so I just latched onto a list, and I read my way through it, and some of it I absolutely loathed, and some of it I really liked. But by the end of it I realized it was almost all men. And so I basically then had a year of being like, alright, I’m just gonna not read any men, or not any white men, because the list was mostly white men—apologies to all white men, no offense, but you’ve written a lot of books. And then for a year I only read women and nonwhite men, and then I basically just made it my mission to only read them. So, unfortunately, I only encountered Banks at the very end of that list, so I only read the one book that was on that list, which apparently is not the best book to read.

Sina: Right.

Liz: So I haven’t read any others. I feel like I should, I feel like I should make an exception—but we’ll see.

Chris: You were reading through the list of what the hundred greatest science fiction books of all time or something like that—which of those were your favorites?

Liz: So, I only read the ones I hadn’t read before—so I had already read loads of Asimov and some others on there. So I had read The Doomsday Book off that list, by Connie Willis, which again I absolutely love. I didn’t mind, like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, I didn’t like a lot of the classics of sci-fi, because they tended to either be a bit racist or a bit sexist. And like, there’s the debate about whether or not you should read them, and all this sort of stuff, but they may have been the best for their time, but they’re certainly not the best now, I think is my opinion on it.

Sina: Your kindness of using “a bit” instead “overflowing with” is uh, very generous.

Liz: the worst one, I will tell you the worst one—oh God, there’s three worst ones! Oh, I’ll go with the one I think is the worst, which is A Spell For Chameleon. It was like a lesson in misogyny, you know, the kind of main lesson was “don’t trust pretty women,” or just don’t trust women in general! You can only trust ugly women, because they’ll have going for them; it was just terrible on levels I cannot describe. It made me so [inaud]. A couple others did as well.

Sina: Heinlein…I mean, it was just, essentially, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen level of just, wow, this is so like the worst part of the 50s and 60s in literature form. I remember in one book, this woman is coming home from work, she’s late getting home, basically, to summarize the plot, and basically her response to her husband is, “I was raped on the way home, we had to wait for the trial and the execution,” and it was just this odd sense of, like, “rape is bad” but that’s about the most moral it gets. Right? Because everything else is just completely objectification, and so it’s just fascinating, and I have some trouble reading those books now. I think it would have been different reading them at the time—but even then, there were, especially for example in the feminist movement and such, my understanding is in the 60s and 70s there were still folks talking about these issues in response to science fiction, it’s just those voices weren’t really amplified a lot back then.

Liz: Yeah, the thing that annoys me, and I must have had like a particularly bad run at one point, where kind of rape or sexual assault just became like a plot point for the main white male character to…do something, and there was absolutely no impact, like the women’s feelings didn’t matter or didn’t matter because they were dead, or…there was no deeper meaning to it, or deeper explanation of like, you know, this is really bad and this would be quite traumatic for anyone involved or related to it. And now it’s just like, oh my god, like it was just so insensitive, on like such a huge scale that—and again, I just had this run of them, and now every time I read it in a book I’m like, well that’s really lazy writing and you should have done something more interesting with your plot.
Oh, I just found it—A Fire Upon the Deep! Oh, I loved it. So good.

Sina: [inaud] Verner Vinge?

Liz: Yes! It was just so good!

Sina: I thought that’s what you were alluding to but you made it sound like it was a more modern novel, so I was like, I wasn’t sure about, hesitating that as a guess—it’s the first book I ever read by him.

Chris: I had dinner with Verner Vinge and Greg Vanderheiden once.

Sina: Oh really?

Chris: Yeah.

Sina: What I find fascinating about stuff like A Fire Upon The Deep and things like that is, that today we are building those robotic systems and software systems that behave like these things that were explored in speculative fiction 30 years ago—you know, swarms and the idea of like peer-to-peer communication and all of the stuff we just take for granted today, they were explored as concepts, pretty well in a way, in terms of not only the good sides but what could go wrong, decades ago and I just wish more architects of our society and technology today would read more speculative fictions preceding when they invent something.

Liz: I also really quite like the idea of advanced technology discovered through basically archeology, so you have these kind of vastly superior alien races and all of these kind of pesky lower humans and the like, going like we’re going to go trip across all this super-advanced technology, and hopefully not destroy the universe by accident, which is what they almost do, and it’s just such a wonderful concept, right? Of course, like if there were these super-advanced civilizations, and they had technology that persisted, why wouldn’t we, right? Like, we are that kind of species, we’re like let’s go press all the buttons and see what happens! Contact, which I had never read before, also very much enjoyed. There is like a really, I call it really trashy vampire novel called Sunshine, not the one that the film’s based off of, not science fiction at all, but like the characters in it were so adorable that I loved them.

Sina: Who’s that by?

Liz: Robin McKinley. I disliked quite a few of the navels, but I think that, aside from like taking every kind of best list with a massive pinch of salt, is that you’re only ever going to like about 30% on whatever list that you come across. So if you don’t think you like it, you probably won’t like it, and t hat’s fine, don’t read it.

Sina: Let me toss a name at you—Octavia Butler. Thoughts?

Liz: Yeah, I haven’t read many Octavia Butler books, and again this probably comes from my reading history, like all the way up until, actually, quite recently. Again, I just read the kind of classic sci-fi, most of them white and male, so I didn’t come across Octavia Butler, and I should read more now, but again, she died, so she’s not going to write me any more books—but I recently read one, and it was great but harrowing. But essentially, it’s like these humans are brought onto an alien ship, and it’s basically, if you think about assimilation from a cultural point of view, it’s how it feels to have to, like, culturally assimilate as, like, another person. So if you think if you’re black and you’re having to assimilate into like a white culture, is the closest analogy. It’s the kind of trade-offs and all the sort of things you have to make, and it’s harrowing! It’s really distressing!

Sina: Lilith’s Brood?

Liz: It’s not Lilith’s Brood,, let me find it…I’ve read it quite recently, as I felt really bad for not reading any Octavia Butler,..

Sina: Because she and Ursula Kela-Guinn* were some of my earlier exposures to female authors, to women authors in sci-fi and fantasy.

Liz: The Dispossessed, I read that as part of a list and again was super, super good, I loved that. The other one I felt a bit weird..but I can’t remember what it’s called…Dawn! Very good but harrowing, so I recommend it. So I should totally read Kindred and all thse other ones, but I haven’t. And I haven’t read like the, was it the Broken Earth series, either, even though [inaud], so I should definitely do that. Because I have no excuse there, because she’s still writing books.

Sina: Now, fair disclosure, this is obviously going to be heavily white male-dominated, but there are a few women authors, actually several of the ones we discussed, on their—I like the list Wikipedia has of joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula. That’s a reasonable filter in a way, although it’s definitely symptomatic of of its time. So again, heavily white male dominated, but you’ll get some male authors from other parts of the world, and you will definitely get some female authors in there, Lois McMaster Bujold is on there, Connie Willis is on there, I think both LeGuinn and Bulter are on there, if I’m not mistaken. So, I’ve enjoiyed that list, because it’s only a few, every few years that aligns, it seems, since the 60s. So it’s a nice collection of 30 or 40 books.

Liz: Nice. I’ll have a look.

Sina: It has that for both novels and novellas and short stories and such. I haven’t worked through short stories—I always feel weird—it sounds like you read a lot more shorts and novellas, so what are your feelings on that, because to me—I’m always scared to read a novella or a short story, because I’m afraid I’m gonna like the universe a lot, and then it’s over. And so, that’s always just a sense of, I don’t know, trepidation before reading one.

Liz: I’ve only recently started reading novellas, and what kicked it off was Martha Wells Murderbot Diaries, I don’t know if you’ve come across those…

Sina: Yep

Liz: I love Murderbot, like I always say, I would love to be murder [inaud], but I think Murderbot would be uncomfortable with that—such a good character, and so I read the first one and then rapidly consumed the others. Although, there’s going to be a full-length Murderbot, so I’m like, “Yaay!” And because of that, I picked up Aliette Bodard’s book, and because I knew Becky Chambers, I picked up that one, and then Cho, who wrote Sorceror to the Crown, which is a full-length novel she did. I’ve been doing the “read harder” challenge this year as well, because I’m an idiot and I just want to read everything all the time, and she wrote a book called The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, which qualified as my romance pick for the read harder list, and it was just delightful and funny. So, I have kind of gently made my way into novellas.

Chris: I get the audio version of Analog and Asimov’s every other month, and really enjoy that, because I find that sometimes the effect that Sina said, you know, I want more from this author—often six months later you get more in the same universe, just another short story. And if I don’t like the story, I know it’s going to end in ten minutes.

Liz: One of my favorite authors, though, is Ted Chang, and he mostly does novellas and short stories. And they’re absolutely wonderful—there’s, I think it’s a novella-like story in it, which is basically—I love the ethical implications of it, because it feels so tangible to now in that there’s these kind of limited AI creations made in the virtual world, but then part of the problem is basically platform obsolescence. So they all exist on this platform, that platform then gets bought out but they’re not supported, and there’s this hard core group of people who have nurtured these creations for so long, for like decades, and so they’re like real people, they kind of have their own emergent personalities. There’s this huge ethical thing where you’re like, oh my god! They’re just desperately trying to make sure that they persevere, and it’s just such a wonderful story and it feels so timely, it feels like we’re on the cusp of like, creating these slightly emergent personalities and like, would we just shut them up? if the platform became obsolete, like the Facebook of these creations, and then that got bought out and then wasn’t supported—Oh my god! The pain! Like they’re actual, kind of emergent beings that you would just turn off.

Sina: This totally sounds like a Black Mirror episode. That’s a very Black Mirror-esque plot. I’ll have to check that out.

Liz: It’s a bit more hopeful than Black Mirror.

Sina: Yes, that [inaud] corrected.

Liz: But I think anything is more chipper than Black Mirror.

Chris: I enjoy Black Mirror, but it leads me to the question, and we were discussing how much speculative fiction or science fiction these days is dystopic, do you think that’s informed by just modern culture being somewhat dystopic? I mean, we have Trump in America, you have Brexit in England, you have social credit in China—I mean, all over the world we seem to be getting bombarded with bad, dystopic news.

Liz: Yeah, I think it’s some of the time—I mean, you look, probably, a bit like a sci-fi historian would be able to tell you what other, previous things existed. Like I’m pretty sure when nanobots were huge, it was all grey goo and things like that, so I imagine it’s of the time and it’s hard to see the hope in the current system, but I think, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about the hope. I think more than ever, we should write about the hope.

Sina: Hear, hear.

Francis: How about if we discuss a little bit, examples of how societies were run with regards to, say, work, in any of these novels. Because it seems like technology’s making it much easier to get what society needs with fewer work hours, but that hasn’t translated into a general good. And I’m wondering if any sci-fi writers have grappled with that one.

Liz: I haven’t read anything like Ian M Banks, where there is definitely this alternative future. Like, it’s always kind of varieties of capitalism, I think. Where there’s the kind of like more dystopic end, where people are exploited in terms of modifying their bodies to do a job, or whatever, or just simple like the extension of digital technology wearer ones like a [crowgramer?] and variations of that, it’s mostly that, it’s mostly still capitalism.

Francis: Is it just so hard to make a well-functioning society seem interesting from, like a dramatic point of view, or is it just hard to envision?

Liz: I imagine when you’re in a system it’s hard to imagine outside of it, or maybe hard to make something like communism or that be more believable, because we’ve had such epic failures of the Soviet Union or because they seem more totalitarian and you don’t want that kind of vibe. It’s hard to say. I think the thing that you also find are these kind of space-opera empire things, which I mostly just like accept for some of them. I think it would be really sad if we ended up with a space empire, and I kind of love Star Wars. So in some ways I’m very hypocritical of this trope. But it would be really sad if we all went to space and there was a giant empire.

Francis: Star Trek, as a theme throughout all the different shows, they went to pretty great lengths to try to show what an advanced society would look like. Some of it was little bit cringe-y, maybe, but I think that’s part of the territory, perhaps. I’m just surprised there’s not more of it.

Liz: Same. I agree. The book I’m reading now, which is called Velocity Weapon, it doesn’t really articulate a different model of how the economy would work or anything like that, but there’s definitely a sense of, like, basic needs are taken care of, but there’s still the stratification of people who have wealth and power and those who don’t. So I think some of the futures are like, there is a base level of sustenance and things, but it’s not enough, there’s still the stratification and so that’s where some of the tension comes from. But yeah, I want a story like that. Maybe they think just Star Trek has done it so they don’t want to do it, or Ian M Banks has done it, but I’m sure there’s going to be, or there already is, a story that has a much more interesting way that humanity is organized.

Sina: Stross plays with some of the evolutions of economics a little bit, like in things like Acelerando, for example. But I think until you go to post-scarcity, which we just find so much less of than dystopic, let’s tear all the things down, it’s not as heavily explored; and part of it might be because it’s honestly, it tends to solve some of these fundamental problems. So perhaps constructing a plot is viewed as more difficult? I don’t know, that could be completely wrong on my part, but it seems like it’s very easy, you know, when there’s an impending asteroid or nuclear event or something, to then immediately have story threads that just spin all over the place out of that. Whereas, if you have a lot of things resolved, then the tension that would lead to a plot might be more difficult to find.

Chris: If automation really does cause 70 or 80 percent or however many people to be without work, you know, I mean Karl Marx predicted that everyone in the post-scarcity world—you know, and he predicted the automation thing, this was a late essay from him, I think it was 1869—where he discusses, you know, everyone’s going to be doing intellectual pursuits and art and music, and people, society will advance more rapidly. And even in the 50s, Buckminster Fuller wrote that if technology is used appropriately, within 20 years every man women and child in America will be living like a millionaire, and within 30 years everyone on the planet will be. And clearly those things haven’t happened.

Liz: Yeah. (laughs.)

Sina: Good talk (more laughs). It’s true though. Well, they have, right? I’ll push back on that a little bit. I would say they have, they just happened for 1% of 1% of 1% of people, right? So they have happened, it’s just that concentration of resources and access to them—he just got the error* bars wrong.

Liz: The way that certain countries operate now is fundamentally different to a hundred years ago, so a hundred years ago in the UK is so different now, and there is still massive stratification, but manufacturing is not a thing we really do anymore in the UK, at all. There are pockets of it, but if you’re gong to say our economy runs on manufacturing, that’s not going to be true, right? So it’s going to be service economy, which is very different, and it’s going to be things like digital data technology, all these sort of things, marketing, all these sort of not-manual, maybe not entirely intellectual, but certainly involves more brainpower than it does brawn, in some cases, service industry maybe not. But it has fundamentally changed, it’s just that we’re now seeing, maybe not developing the way we thought we would in that there’s like zero hours contracts and this kind of gig economy which doesn’t provide enough money. So it’s really futuristic, right? Like, oh my god, I can order food on my app, I can then order a cab on my app, I can go through the airport security with an app, so there is like loads of weird inroads into these futures, but there just not very evenly distributed. And if you then go to another country which does the majority of manufacturing, like that also looks weirdly dystopian because of how bad those countries are regulated and how bad they are for human rights. So, we kind of have like a mish mash of these futures? Depending on what country you’re in, you’re experiencing a different future.

Francis: Well, Bernie has this new slogan—“Us not me,” something like that. And I think that, you know, when society uses technology in a way that is sort of geared towards the capitalist idea of everyone for themself, a lot of potential gets wasted. The real quality of life, I think, for the majority couldn’t help but be pushed down. It’s not what it’s geared to cater to.

Liz: One of the people who I had in my PhD was, in history, was a Labor kind of theorist and journalist called J.A. Hobson. And like other secularists (cause my PhD was in history of secularism), he really disliked charity, because he felt that basically it was used by those who should have already given more wealth through taxes to basically say, “oh, look how good, look how charitable, look how wonderful I am for donating all this money”—and I think a lot of people are making the argument now that kind of large amounts of philanthropy is basically that same thing, right? Like you have Jeff Bezos, you have Buffet, you have Gates, and they have vast sums of money and they’re like, “oh, look how good we are, we’re doing a space program, and we’re solving malaria in Africa” and things like that. But how much more would we have solved if the kind of taxation system could more distribute that, in more directed ways. And like maybe we wouldn’t have SpaceX and things like that, fine. But maybe NASA would be better funded, who knows. And I always kind of look at that kind of historical perspective, because it’s just like, we still have the same problems that we did in the 19th Century, in the 20th Century, early 20th Century. We kind of moved forward and backwards. Like, everyone’s making the argument, I think, in the States right now that like, Oh my god, we’d increase the tax rate and wouldn’t even reach the taxation rates under the New Deal or the 1940s and 50s in America, which also everyone looks at as the golden age of America. And it’s like, maybe we should just tax everyone again! I think we probably have already had the tools to solve some of these problems, or at least make them less worse, but politics goes back and forth, and it’s just how can you motivate enough people to say, that’s the world we want. It feels like the US is now finally having those conversations that loads of people who already have health care systems had in the 30s. So,..

Sina: There’s also an interesting aspect of large amounts of wealth being used for, basically, for whitewashing—so you see this with the Sacklers, for example, and giving to museums and universities and things of this nature, and Laurence Lessig recently, in response to a lot of the stuff that’s going on with the MIT Media Lab and taking Epstein’s money, etc., wrote a really, I thought, very well thought-out, honest, really raw Medium post, and he goes through the different kinds of funding and you could ethically treat them. And one of assertions that he makes that I completely agree with is that, if your funding is coming from an entity which is in any way questionable, it is your responsibility to take that funding anonymously, so that you’re not contributing your universities’ brand, or museum’s ethical position to helping someone else whitewash things that they’ve done over the decade.

Liz: There’s a really interesting article, I think in the Financial Times today as well, that said something like 30%, the kind of majority stake of external investment in companies—when a US company would invest in Ireland, for example—is actually just corporations moving around money. They’re not even contributing to increasing productivity or increasing jobs or anything, it’s literally just moving money from one bank account to another. Thirty percent of the foreign direct investment, which is like a huge thing! It’s meaningless! So at that point you just like, are these instruments that we’ve developed even useful for this kind of measurement of actually investing in a country? I think like the EU’s doing quite a lot of work in trying to—everyone talks about tax avoidance and tax havens and things like that—I feel like it’s moving slowly, but maybe just not fast enough.

Sina: I tend to be very socially liberal, and things of this nature, so I completely am aligned with what you’re saying with regards to taxation, but then I’ve also had experience with these systems and just the level of corruption and sheer incompetence, like absolute terrifying incompetence, that tends to be rewarded within these systems, is what makes me very hesitant for the thing that other parts of my philosophy tell me is absolutely the right thing to do, per the examples you cited, like the New Deal and so on and so forth.

Chris: Liz mentioned NASA might be more well-funded, but does that mean that NASA would just be spending more money on the useless Orion rocket that it’s trying to build now for profoundly more money than using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy?

Liz: It’s quite interesting—I just finished reading, not that long ago, a book called Why Nations Fail, and it’s super interesting. Part of their argument—and you have to see it through the lens of like, they clearly are on board with the kind of capitalist system, but the whole thing is about capitalism and the market-driven sort of stuff forces innovation. And I think that’s quite interesting as an argument, and you kind of see it with SpaceX and NASA, but maybe that’s just because NASA’s always strapped for cash, and maybe they would be more innovative if they could. And because they’re not allowed to fail, at all, I think that’s part of the problem is that, if you’re just constantly forced to be 100% foolproof, you’re always going to be very, very risk-averse. And SpaceX is allowed to not be as risk-averse, and maybe it’s not so much the institution but how the institution has to function.

Chris: Howard Bloom is the guest on our next podcast release, which will come out later this week [note: released in September 2019] and, it’s gonna sound crazy, he’s been on Coast to Coast AM 300 times, but he’s their token liberal and real science communicator—they bring him on when they need an alternative point of view—and he was pointing out that if you actually look at the federal budget, it was all the US Congress adding money to NASA’s budget but requiring that it be spent with certain companies, like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing and the traditional military-industrial complex. It seems to be huge handouts to private companies, as opposed to SpaceX, who’s working driven by investors and whatnot.

Liz: That’s quite interesting. You look at these institutions and actually, if you look into the details, and maybe it not be the institutions but the proscriptions placed upon them.

Sina: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: Yeah, it’s NASA’s scientists would come up with something smarter, but they’re really not allowed to by the Congress.

Liz: Oh, Congress!

Francis: I think it would be a good idea to have a separate fund, if you were going to have a progressive tax on corporations and people, to insure that it doesn’t just go to the military or to paying off the debt, that sort of thing, but more specifically to reinvigorate the economy and give resources to people who are aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors, that sort of thing, and create opportunity that way. The idea of just taxing the rich and giving it to Lockheed Martin doesn’t really appeal to me.

Sina: I think you may have mentioned this book earlier—it was envisioning, you mentioned like a future democracy —that’s what made me think of it—and they have this idea of micro-democracy.

Liz: Yeah, Infomocracy, by Malka Older.

Sina: That’s the one, yes.

Chris: I read that one, based on Sina’s suggestion, so…

Sina: I really enjoyed the concepts. I thought it got a little odd, you know, just with the plot and everything was, I had a few gripes, but nothing, just personal opinion based stuff. But what was interesting to me was the—I don’t know how practical this is, but the extreme variance along the edges. So you can have something that is what we would today call white nationalist, you know, whatever, right in like a little square, and then literally meters away from that, have something completely different, and meters away from that, and that to me was really fascinating in a way that—I don’t know, I haven’t necessarily seen explored elsewhere?

Liz: I think that’s why I loved it as well. I also just love the kind of like—I like information, which was like, I think the author describes as like a cross between Google and Wikipedia, alright, like they can instantly or near-instantly verify anything that’s said, so they are the kind of repository of “the truth” almost. It’s such a good idea, and she explores it more, almost a second novel in that series is more interesting, because it looks at some of the places in the margins that are still kind of fighting against …

Sina: ..where corruption can still happen, for example.

Liz: Yeah, exactly. Again, I just really loved it, because I had never encountered such an interesting concept. You have lots of interesting ideas in science and like physics and space flight and all these sort of things, but actually to tinker with democracy, as a science fiction concept—like how great is that! And I love that you had all, everyone had to agree to it, so you had all these pockets; but also that you could have, in Mexico, you could have one centenal, but the other twenty centenals of the same party could be in Europe, or somewhere else. So, it was almost like you could have these pockets of liberalism or democracy or …white nationalism…and it could form together as a club, and then have your own sense of government, but it was just really interesting. I don’t know what else to say other than I love that book, and everyone should read it.

Sina: I’ve had this theory, I’d love to get your thoughts on it: there’s something called, I believe it’s the Overview Effect, which is when astronauts go into space and see the earth as one thing, it tends to eliminate a lot of biases around things such as, a different country is meaningless from up here, you know, it’s like we’re all one, and man is that a really small pale blue dot, to quote Carl Sagan, right? And what’s interesting to me about sci-fi, the reason I bring that up is, that elimination of geography mattering—sci-fi seems to achieve that for me, or does and has and did; and I’m wondering if that’s true for you, or if you see that sort of effect, like without the luxury and the being able to up and see the planet spinning before you, you still get that sort of mentality of, some of these artificial and arbitrary barriers just don’t matter.

Liz: Yeah, I think so. And especially, like one of my favorite things growing up was the Foundation series, again, which is like kind of massive and expansive and interesting. Still with its problems, but that kind of far-reaching effects of humanity, I guess. And also the positronic man, where you’re talking about what makes a person an person. I remember reading that quite young and being like, “whooaaa” like that’s amazing, and you can kind of, you see that now with some of the other AI books, but it was definitely one of the original ones that did that. So reading those kind of things, and encountering aliens and you encounter all these concepts which in real life come up as prejudice and all these sort of things. But you always see them from the better side of it, of like overcoming prejudice, and that being what the hero wants to accomplish. I think it really does, depending on the novels you’re reading—if you’re reading, like, horror, maybe not, but for me I totally agree that is definitely, I think that has had an impact on me.

Chris: Have you ever seen a website, going back to Infomocracy, called thirty-thousand.org?

Liz: I think I’ve heard of it, but no, I haven’t been to it.

Chris: They are activists who are trying to work in the US—they have no traction, so they’re not very famous—but they want to go to the Constitutional minimum number of people Congressman, which would give us approximately 30,000 Congressmen in the US, basing it on the theory that, if you only have 450 some-odd Congressmen, it’s easy to bribe 450 people, but how do you bribe 30,000 people who all live in somebody’s neighborhood, so if you’re that geographically small, everyone’s going to know their Congressman, and just be able to go over their house and tell them off if they want to.

Liz: I guess it would make it a less prestigious thing, as well. There’s at least 30,000 CEOs, do you care who a CEO is? Probably not. And so maybe it makes it more democratic in the sense that, it’s not a job you might want to have for a long time, and so you see more churn. Maybe just term limits, like the president has term limits, why doesn’t Congress and the Senate have term limits? Like, that seems to be a problem in itself, the fact that you can just become vested in your own office and…

Chris: My opinion on term limits has always been that the ballot box is the term limit, and then the voters can kick you out. And I would rather leave it to the voters. I mean, I was happy to have Ted Kennedy as my Senator for as many years as I lived in Massachusetts.

Liz: Unless your district is completely gerrymandered, and it would be..

Sina: Right. So, I live in North Carolina, even as a blind person I can tell you how messed up the map looks. Like, it is so bananas, and obviously the Supreme Court has ruled on this and they’re re-drawing the maps now, but it’s just, yeah—unless, if you’re a person of color and living in a neighborhood where all of you have been put in one district because it’s been determined that we’re gonna just call that district, we’re gonna lose that one, but then we pick up these other ten predominantly white districts that we know is gonna vote for us. You know, so, it’s a massive problem. Like, voting is not fair in this country, full stop. I used to believe that it was, and then data after data has convinced me it’s absolutely untrue.

Chris: I was just going to say, the term “gerrymandering” however, was named for a former governor of Massachusetts, Gov. Gerry, who literally, when he re-drew the Congressional map after a census, had a salamander-shaped district that ran all the way from Cape Cod to almost the center of the state, that was really narrow and had arms and legs.

Liz: But the interesting thing about democratic conventions. So we have—relatively, I’ll stress, relatively stable democracies in the UK and the USA—but technically, the institutions of that democracy haven’t seen a huge amount of change in the 150 years. They’ve both seen a lot before that, especially, like, the UK’s political system evolved quite a bit in the 18th and 19th century. But now we feel like, this is how you do democracy, and maybe that’s not entirely correct anymore. Maybe there needs to be more participation, maybe there needs to be more Senators, more Congressmen—it’s really hard to innovate once you have that system, and maybe we need to look at things like, …unfortunately, you know, countries that have experienced a lot of turmoil and tend to redraft their constitutions…you look at Thailand, right? They’ve had quite a few in recent years, military coups, but they then have the opportunity, if they manage to then swing back towards democratic norms, to draft a modern constitution. And that’s quite interesting, because maybe that’s not a bad thing, maybe redrafting your constitution isn’t bad. It would reflect the whims of the time, they needs to be consensus, and that would be really hard, but if we had a re-draw modern constitution for the United States, would the right to bear arms be in it? Probably not, because why would you? And there’s things like that, so I think you can look at it as, lots of people say, oh people are becoming lazy, people don’t pay attention to politics, and maybe what we need is less democracy not more democracy, we need more technocracy, or whatever. But I think it’s just like, we just need to innovate like we do with everything else we do, right? Maybe we just need to innovate, examine, democracy and how people are interacting—user research, talking about user-centered-design. Where are the democratic deficits, and where can we self-correct them?

Sina: One thing that comes to mind, I was reading this paper recently on virtual democratic agents, and so, the idea being that we have such a lossy-system rightnow, and basically the only entities that benefit are the ones we’ve been discussing, big business, etc., so whether it’s 430 or some odd Congressmen, you’ve got 100 Senators, etc., there’s a limited number of people; and what happens is, they are representative of a lot of other people. There’s no way this one person is going to be remotely equitably representative of even, frankly, 20 other people, much less 20,000 or in some cases, millions, right? And so the idea is, can you come up with agents that are reprsentatives of all of us, so we all have bot, if you will; it is granted the right to vote on issues, on all issues. And over time, as you grow up, as you mature, as you change your beliefs etc., you inform the bot of issues, and you inform the bot of your philosophies, and then these agents vote on your behalf. Because, you don’t have time to look at an appropriations bill on parks funding, but you might care about the parks, so you would want to set a set of criteria that would say, yeah, this is something I want to vote on. Whereas something else might be something that you don’t, and obviously for anything contentious, something that can’t have an automated decision made about it, that’s the one that the bot emails you about, or texts you about and says, listen, a vote’s going to go down in 7 minutes, you got an opinion on this? Or with more time, etc. So, I was really attracted by the idea of just eliminating these lossy humans, maybe we keep them around for coming up with the legislation and such, but removing, decoupling the impetus they have from creating the legislation and passing the legislation, almost separating those two.

Liz: That’s super interesting. That would make a great sci-fi story. I find politics really interesting, well, I find governance really interesting, less politics. And especially, you look at all the different institutions that exist across the world, like from multi-lateral institutions, and we have such a variety of them, and yet everyone seems unsatisfied with them in some way, which they’ll, the phrase that like, democracy’s the worst option except for all the rest—there’s still value in the systems we have, it’s just like, I think we’ve just stopped self-correcting, and why have we stopped self-correcting? Or at least, maybe it’s just our perception as people who are politically aware, and of an age where we have seen the past and don’t think it’s as good as now, maybe it’s all fine and it’s just our present-ism which is the problem. Or—I was talking to someone I know in Finland, and some other parts of Europe have, like, a far-right party who has a lot of power, or a lot of percentage in the parliament, but actually all the other weight against this larger, and so they probably won’t have political impact. And they have people who say, the kind of far right nationalists are going to last ten years, because it’s a demographic shift and things like that, and so maybe we’re just in one of these periods, you know, progress isn’t a straight line, it goes back and forth, and we’re just currently in a slight recession and then it will all race ahead again in ten years when everyone accepts climate change is a thing, and everyone accepts love is love, and everyone can marry whoever they want, and all these sort of things, and it’s just this kind of crunchy period of like, getting through this backlog of people who haven’t updated their bots! At all, in the last 50 years, they’re still operating on this assumption that is very outdated.

Chris: So, do you believe that the arc of history, as Martin Luther King suggested, does bend towards justice?

Liz: I think so. My PhD looked at a certain period in time, and it looks at the history of secularism. And 150 years ago, you couldn’t be an open atheist in Parliament, right? Charles Broadlaw*, who was the first open atheist—OK, slightly less than 150 years, maybe a 140—he was elected in the 1880s as an open atheist, small “r” republican. So the first thing he has to do as an MP is swear an oath to God that he’ll uphold the Queen, right? It’s a bit difficult. And so he faced tremendous opposition getting into Parliament. And then eventually he passed a law which harmonized all the kind of affirming and swearing practices in the UK, and then it wasn’t problem for the people who came after him. And progressively, over time, over the last 150 years, being an atheist isn’t being a problem any more, it’s actually fine. Growing acceptance, just like being gay, LGBTQ+, all of the things, has much faster become more of an accepted thing across more and more parts of the world. You have to look at everything objectively, and I think when you’re in a period of just, like, “oh my God, the Amazon’s on fire, oh my God everything’s terrible, oh my God Trump,” all these things, you’re necessarily going to dwell on the things that are bad because you’re already in that mentality. But there are still things, maybe not like Steven Pinker-eseque, like, everything is totally great and better than it has ever been, because I think that has its flaws as well—

Chris: Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now felt like I was being beaten over the head with ideas with which I already agreed.

Liz: I know! you have to look at statistics, and you have to look at all of the other things that are progressing, and you can identify the things that aren’t progressing as you’d like. There is, it feels like, worldwide, a stall in human rights and democracy, so it’s not huge, but it is slightly regressive, so you get more authoritarian governments and things like that. As well, like, poverty is reducing, disease is reducing, there’s generally more toleration for human rights in a greater variety of places. Doesn’t mean we have to be complacent, but I think we also have to recognize that, like, not everything is bad, we’re not heading towards a complete dystopia. And going back to the book I read, Why Nations Fail, the really interesting argument they had was that not everything is linear but contingent; so you’ll have events where one thing can happen, and one thing—well, multiple things can happen but it takes one path over another. And I think instead of looking at things as straight lines of inevitable utopian future, inevitable capitalist dystopia of like a William Gibson variety, or whatever, all of these things are contingent, and it’s going to take a huge amount of decisions over time for one future to occur over another. And they might go back and forth, they might swing one way and swing another way, and it’s more like, how do we make those important contingents swing the right way rather than the bad way? We don’t have to be angry all the time about everything, but focus attention on the important things maybe. I don’t know! I really like the argument, and it oddly made me more hopeful..(laughs)

Francis: One of the things that was coming to my mind when we were just talking is how, with capitalism and power in general, there’s very little problem with thinking globally, and organizing things globally, and I think when you see in science fiction a lot of the time, the future is usually one where there’s some sort of process resulted in a world government that is fair and works a lot of the time; but what it seems to me in the left and in progressive movements is that, it’s always very local—and they even say, think globally, act locally, that sort of thing—but it’s really hard to compete with capitalism and these other forces that are working on a global scale, and we’re all trying to figure out things in our own individual countries and…I was wondering if that might be something that changes whether we have, within the left, internationally, say like a set of goals or a set of principles that inform parties internationally.

Liz: I have no idea.

Francis: You know, I’m wondering, in science fiction, how often that is the case, that there is sort of an evolution that leads to the world functioning as one whole, and the government being a force of good and benign, and how did they get there?

Chris: I’ve seen that in science fiction, where the reason the human race ends up all organized as a species rather than a bunch of separate nations fighting amongst each other, is the result of an alien invasion or the threat thereof.

Sina: Some annihilation event, yeah, that’s what I was thinking. I think it would be horrible, but I almost want somebody to scam, like a message from some aliens saying we’re going to attack in ten years, because it would lead to some temporary unity that, even after the scam is exposed, might have enough [histories?] to hang on.

Chris: Hire some Russian hackers and get it done on Facebook!

Sina: Like, that’s the fake news campaign I could probably get behind!

Liz: There’s like three branches of that—there’s one, there is this like existential threat, either alien or increasingly, kind of, like we’re killing the planet and it’s an environmental push; and then two, it’s just this kind of gradual seep, right? We decide we need more resources, so we go and mine the asteroids, and we kind of spread out into the local system and then someone just always discovered faster-than-light travel or something, or wormholes, blah-blah-blah-blah. And so you get this kind of gradual thing, or this like massive leap in technology or everyone banding together. I said a third one—I think the third one’s just dystopia, that we just generally collapse. I don’t know, like it’s, someone’s either going to luck out on one, or it’s going to be completely different, right? We’re just going to either continue as a species, or we’re just not. And I don’t know what one would be. It would be lovely if it was more utopia-driven rather than, like, we need to scavenge asteroids to keep our planet alive, but, at this moment we’re probably betting on the asteroids keeping the planet alive.

Sina: For sure.

Chris: Well then, informed by science fiction, what do you, all three of you, think the future might be?

Sina: Liz, do you want to go first?

Liz: I’m still thinking…

Chris: Francis, do you have an idea on what the future might look like?

Francis: There could be a crystallization of a generation that comes along and then just decides, hey, we could just create our own rules. And somehow, technology gets to a point where its potential is explained to people in a way that facilitates a much grander vision than we have right now, which is kind of like everyone for themself. It could be one of these things that just unfolds, really fast and in a really big way, and becomes like a source of excitement and, I feel like, because capitalism is sort of strangleholding the potential for technology to be used for the benefit of all, that when it finally does become something that’s used for the benefit of all, the quality of life and the creative outpouring—I think it just become immense, and the standard of living could go up hugely in a very short period of time. I think that’s inevitable, because it’s just a choice, ultimately, it’s a choice that’s not been given to people, or even had them be made aware of for the most part. I mean, you have people like Buckminster Fuller, but for some reason there’s no traction there. And when that does happen and the collective goodwill and the collective creativity is connected with the technological potential that we have today, it’s just gonna be amazing. I hope I live to see at least its beginnings.

Liz: I kind of still have hope in politics, or the ability for collective action, like through countries and things to change. I think the recent example that I will pick on will be the New Zealand government; they’re a small country, they can kind of experiment with these things easier than something like the US or maybe the UK. Where they had like—was it the wellness budget? Basically, instead of focusing the outcomes of their national budget being on, like, GDP and growth and the kind of traditional economic markers, they were focusing on well-being of their populace, and so they had to re-think how do you base your entire economy, and measure it and implement programs, that focus rather on the outcome of increasing GDP on the increasing happiness and wellness of their country? And that’s really interesting, right? LIke that’s the kind of first of its kind, and with all the kind of markers of traditional capitalism being kind of undermined by capitalism itself. So like we said with the foreign direct investment basically being a sham, or like, you know, all these offshore banks and that sort of thing happening, if you start changing the parameters of what you’re focusing on as a country, then maybe that’s enough to twist the dial? To be like, allright, we’re going to focus on outcomes. So once you’ve looked at health and education and all these things, then maybe you start to find the investment for more kind of things like space flight and advancing technology. So maybe all it needs is that slight focus shift of an actual government to say, we want an outcome that’s not based on finances. And then there’s also, we have this, not just a demographic shift in the US that might benefit the Democrats, but an overall decline in population, which most of, I think, I’ve read several things which are like, at the point in time where you don’t have more people, and you actually have a declining population, that’s gonna have really weird effects on a traditional economy, right? Like, you can’t be focused on growth unless you can manifoldly increase the amount of productivity one person can have, and maybe that’s when automation takes off and things like that. But then, the pressures won’t be on employment, the pressures will be on, like, how do we actually make stuff? If there’s not enough people to make stuff and things like that. So I’m wondering if just the kind of sheer forces of economics and the shifting of how people are thinking about government, will ultimately shape the world in unintended ways or unforeseen ways that even sci-fi hasn’t speculated, because sci-fi has existed in economies of constant growth and GDP output economies and things like that. So, who knows?

Sina: I think it’s going to be really messy in the short term, but I’m still long-term optimistic. I feel like that’s an intrinsic character trait that, through biology, nurture, education, etc., I hope I never lose. And so I am very pessimistic about certain short-term things, whether it’s political, whether it is access to water, is something that’s very concerning in terms of just the percentage of the world population that will have access to clean and potable drinking water in the next decade and so forth, but zooming out and kind of looking more, longer term, I love, I really love Liz’s kind of puzzle-piece putting together of automation with declining population, that really resonated to me. And I think that things like that should hopefully lead to some emergent effects, to speak to some of Francis’ points. So, for example, when you have ubiquitous access, not only to information—which is sort of what the web has started us down the path of, and things like infomocracy explore a little bit more, but also the access to synthesize and to use that information through things like 3-D printing and personal manufacturing, then maybe technology can start to be used to reduce our reliance on systems which are perpetuating all of these things that, in this conversation, we’ve kind of all agreed are bad, or not productive for society. So that’s why I’m long-term optimistic, because I’m hoping that through my belief in just humans, as individuals, instead of humans in groups, that by increasing access to manufacturing, to personal knowledge synthesis and creation and review etc., that we would enable that generation that Francis is talking about to actually exist. But change periods are really messy and hard. Once you zoom after it, that you can see so many of the benefits, so, maybe I’m not necessarily relishing some of those change periods, but they need to happen, because the outcome is worth it.

Chris: OK. Well with that, we’ll ask Liz the same question we ask every guest we have, and that’s is there anything you’d like to promote or tell us about that you’d like our listeners to take a look at?

Liz: Just check out my podcast, that’d be lovely. But I think the thing that I really enjoyed about changing my reading habits was just how much new and interesting science fiction it brought to me. So I would recommend everyone to do a reading challenge—not like a hard one, but say read ten books. If you look at your book collection, you realize you’re mostly reading male authors, then just like read ten books by someone who you wouldn’t read, so either like a non-white author or a woman author or someone from another country or translated book or something like that, because what I have found is that it has made science fiction that much more richer. So I would recommend that, just challenge yourself to read differently, even five books, it would be great and I hope you enjoy the result.

Chris: Great! Well, with that, thank you Liz so much for coming on.

Liz: Thank you! It was really fun.

Chris: Thanks Sina, for helping us out with this episode

Sina: Always a pleasure.

Francis: Yeah, thank you both.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at MakingBetterPod.com and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us, or send us a donation. You can find the form for that on our website. Follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Episode 15: Michael Bungay Stanier Transcript

Making Better Episode 15: Michael Bungay Stanier

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: And this is Episode 15 of Making Better podcast, featuring author and business coach Michael Bungay Spanier.

Francis: Now business coach—there’s a term that I wouldn’t normally be too excited about. because I wouldn’t really define myself as like a rabid capitalist or anything. However, I think in regard to optimizing human interaction and communication, we can actually learn a lot from business.

Chris: Yes, there’s a lot that goes on, I noticed a lot from my own career as a manager that came up in the interview, and I think Michael does an awful good job at communication in general, whether you’re using the ideas he presents in business or you’re using them just in your regular day-to-day life.

Francis: Indeed. So shall we?

Chris: Let’s get on to the interview.

Chris: Michael Bungay Stanier, welcome to Making Better!

MBS: I am delighted to be here. I just love the whole theme of the podcast, which is, how do we champion the work that we do to make this world a better place, so I’m really excited to be part of the conversation with you.

Francis: Thank you very much.

Chris: Can we start with a bit of your background? Where you grew up, and going on to be a Rhodes Scholar and, how did you end up in Canada?

MBS: I am Australian by birth, born there fifty-some years ago, fifty-two years ago or something like that, and I had an awesome childhood growing up. I mean, I grew up in Canberra, the little-known national capital of Australia, sort of in between Sydney and Melbourne there. Went to high school in Canberra, liked it there, went to university in Canberra, to the Australian National University, and there I did something called an Arts Law Degree. So Arts is a B.A. in literature, which is what I love and what I was actually OK at, and then there’s a law degree, which in Australia is an undergraduate degree. And you often do these combined degrees to kind of have a kind of richer educational experience, and make your qualifications kind of a bit more diverse. Anyway, law I was not so good at, honestly. I struggled, didn’t really get it, I wasn’t really interested in it—I finished my law degree being sued by one of my law school lecturers for defamation, which if nothing else, should have been the clue that a law career was never going to be in the cards for me. What saved me from becoming a sad and unhappy and barely adequate lawyer, was winning this Rhodes scholarship—which is fantastic, and I applied to be a Rhodes scholar because my dad is actually British. He actually grew up in Oxford, and so he went to Oxford University, and I was like, OK, that’s how I get to go to Oxford University as well, be a Rhodes Scholar. Got to Oxford, where I did a Masters degree, but really the main thing that happened at Oxford is, number one, I met my wife, Marcella; and number two, I was plucked out of that stream of becoming a lawyer. So that was great, that got me to England, meeting Marcella meant that I didn’t rush back to Australia. And I’d now spent eight years in universities, so I’m now basically both over-educated and largely useless. So, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, what’s going on, and I got my first job, which was in the world of innovation and creativity. I actually helped invent products and invent services for companies, and that took me to England and London, and then I joined the [Change] management consultancy, helping organizations evolve and grow. That took me to Boston, and then in 2001 I moved from Boston—actually Cambridge, which I know is where you are some of the time, Chris—from Boston and Cambridge up to Toronto in 2001, and shortly after that I started my own company called Boxed Crayons, and have been going since then.

Chris: And how did that lead to what you call Business Coaching, and how did you end up where you are now?

MBS: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the saying, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense”—because I’ve never really bought in to the idea of these people who make plans and then actually follow them through and they ended up being the thing that they decided to be 20 years earlier. That certainly wasn’t my experience, I kind of stumbled around from spot to spot. When I was a teenager, I just figured out that I was good at listening to people. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to slightly angst-y teenage friends about their complicated love lives, and as I had no love life whatsoever, I was like, “oh, I can listen to your stories, at the least.” And I remember thinking, as a kind of 16 year old, I’m good at listening to people but I don’t know what I’m doing, and I wonder if there’s a better way to listen and a better way to be helpful in these types of conversations. When I went to university, I joined a telephone crisis hotline, a kind of youth suicide hotline, and that taught me the first basics of how to be present, how to ask good questions, how to be curious and how to be supportive and helpful in a conversation. And honestly, that thread has then just carried through all my life. You know, when I worked in these consulting roles, I would often reframe what I was doing not as consulting, but as coaching. And when I moved to Toronto, I did my formal coach training, built up a coaching practice, and then discovered that actually I didn’t like coaching—it was a bit of a shock—but I kind of figured out that what I liked doing was teaching and writing and being in front of audiences, so that’s where I moved from not so much the business coaching side myself, but more, how do I teach other people to be more coach like, so that they can have better relationships, be more effective in the business that they do, and effectively just, to coin a phrase, make things better.

Chris: How would you say that business coaching differs from coaching in sports or something like that, and what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring?

MBS: Those are two good questions. So let me take one at a time. Part of the challenge with coaching in generation is that there’s about 927 definitions of it. Everybody’s heard of coaching, and context makes all the difference. So we all can conjure up an idea of what a sports coach looks like, you know, somebody with a whistle around their neck and telling people to run laps or do drills up and down the ice, depending on what country you’re in. And then there’s life coaches, which are people going, look, I’m going to help you figure out what you want to do with your life, and have a happier life. And there’s executive coaches, which are where I come in, and I support high potential people, or senior people in businesses. So you’re quite right, there’s a whole bunch of different ways of doing it. Here’s something that I think unifies all of these different types of coaches, which is effectively they’re all teachers. They’re all looking to say, let me help you figure some stuff out and actually get closer to the goals that you want to achieve. And what all coaches have, is a mix of advice and curiosity to help people move forward. And I take the stand that the more curiosity people can bring into their conversations, the better questions that they can ask, the more effective they are as teachers and the more effective they are as coaches. So it is a standard belief that most sports coaches—you don’t ask people questions, you tell them what to do, like go run around the field, or go sprint up and down the ice, or go juggle the knives or whatever it is. But what you find is that coaches who work with the very best sporting teams in the world, or the best sporting players, ‘cause you know, individual coaches such as people who coach tennis players, they don’t spend a whole lot of time telling people what to do, they spend a whole lot of time asking the questions that help people go deeper into solving their own problems. That’s the unifying piece between coaches, whatever context shows up, which is like, this mix between some advice, but the better you are, the more questions you ask. Then the second question you asked, which is, OK, coaching and mentoring, what’s the difference between the two—and there is a difference. Mentors are often people who have walked the path that you’ve walked, so if our mutual friend Chris Smart, who is the audio producer for this podcast, is going, look, I’m looking for a mentor around podcast production, you’re going to find some other experienced podcaster to go, hey, take me through how you produce this. You know, somebody who is a mentor, I mean it literally comes from the Greek story around Ulysses, and Ulysses had a mentor as a guide for one of the characters in Ulysses. A coach is somebody who doesn’t necessarily, hasn’t necessarily walked that path, but is able to still shape a good learning experience. So, for instance, with Chris Smart, technical audio producer here, I couldn’t be a mentor to him because I know very little about audio production. I could be a coach for him, though, because I know to ask good questions, and I could challenge him on what he’s attempting to achieve and how he’s thinking about marketing and where he could find ways of improving his skill. So I think there’s a difference there. In short, good mentors have experience, but the best mentors ask good questions.

Chris: I mentor an awful lot of young blind people, and as you say, if they’re interested in a career in software engineering, I’m quite able to help them. Even if they’re 16 years old today, I can help guide them along the way.

MBS: Yeah. But you’re beyond the specific mentoring around software development, is a way that you could coach them, regardless, in whether they want that path. I mean, in my past I’ve worked with people with disabilities—I’m thinking of a guy with an acquired brain injury from a car crash, and I didn’t have that experience of knowing what that was like, I didn’t have the technical expertise to understand what acquired brain injury meant and the implications of that, and I could still coach him around that. So I couldn’t mentor him, but I could still coach him.

Chris: And what to you say to skeptics who might say that a lot of this sounds like common sense?

MBS: Well, they’re right, often. What people often need is not some sort of “aha” or “here’s the answer that I just hadn’t thought of.” What people often need and benefit from in a coaching conversation is one, feeling that they’ve got somebody on their side; two, somebody who’s giving them space to figure some stuff out, and you’re actually creating some thinking time and some reflection time, to be encouraged; thirdly, somebody who’s a cheerleader, who’ll go, look, I think you can do this, this is what I see in you, this is why I believe in your. So, if you think the job of a coach is to uncover the answer that’s never been thought of before, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, because most answers have been figured out. If you’re thinking that a coach is somebody who can actually help you generate a new insight about yourself or about the situation, help you have the courage to try something new and take some first steps and experiment, to help give you the resilience to help you get through the struggles and the difficulties and go, “ah, I tried that, it didn’t work”—do I choose to take that personally, do I give up? Well then, that’s what coaching can really bring, and that just goes beyond what common sense is.

Chris: In my own experience, my fundamental management basics is, I’m not the expert here, I’m the member of the team who handles the management tasks. And I do a lot of what I call ‘deferring to the expert,’ and sometimes the expert is the most junior member of the team, they just happen to know one specific area better than the others. And often the advice I end up giving an engineer is, well go ask this other engineer, he or she has worked on something rather similar in the past. I do an awful lot of trying to get the team—in my experience, I often find two people together can be more productive than two people separately.

MBS: You totally right. I mean—so, I wrote a book four years ago called The Coaching Habit, and it’s a big champion of this kind of, look, slow down the rush to give advice, stay curious a little bit longer, ask better questions, because actually then magic can happen as part of that. In this new book that’s coming out, called The Advice Trap, I kind of take that a little bit further and I go, no really, here’s why you shouldn’t give as much advice as you want to give, and there are three reasons: the first is, and I think this is what you’re pointing to, Chris, right away—that actually, most of the time you don’t really know what the real challenge is yet. You get seduced into thinking that the first thing that somebody puts on the table is the real challenge, and quite frankly, mostly it’s their first [?], stab in the dark, or it’s an early hypothesis; but rarely is the first challenge the real challenge. But, you know, let’s just say that somehow, miraculously, that they brought this perfectly and accurately articulated challenge to the table, well then here’s the second reason why you should be skeptical about your advice—your advice isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. You’ve got all these cognitive biases telling us that, no no, my advice is pretty miraculous, pretty wonderful, but the science will tell you that it’s actually not. A lot of the time, it’s just not as good as you hoped it would be. But let’s just pretend that, not only do you have the right challenge figured out, and you’re like this is exactly what I should be working on, and you’ve also got a brilliant idea, it’s the best idea, it’s the best possible solution. The third reason why advice is overrated is that, even if you know the real challenge, even you’re the person with the best possible idea, it’s not often the best act of leadership to be the person providing the idea. If you’re the senior person, you’re just like you are in these conversations, Chris, and you’re like ‘here’s my idea,’ what that does is it sucks the oxogen out of the room, and by oxogen I mean not just enthusiasm but autonomy, and trust, self-sufficiency, competence and confidence, everything/body pays a price for you as the boss being the person who’s always providing the answer.

Chris: When I’m building a team, one of the things I do in job interviews is ask an engineering related question that I know the candidate cannot possibly know the answer to. And what I want to hear is the candidate’s steps to how they’re going to solve this problem.

MBS: It’s like show you’re working, right? It’s like, I want to see the struggle, because the struggle tells me everything, it’s far more interesting than t he fast answer you might give.

Chris: Exactly. Because nobody is going to know every algorithm off the top of their head—you can be a PhD in computer science and you’re not going to know everything, and I rarely got a PhD in computer science to apply for a job. But for me it was seeing if they’re willing to ask for help. In fact, I used to work at a company called Turning Point Software, where we were run—it’s where I learned pretty much everything I know about managing software engineers—and we were a high-end consulting company, so everyone there was very talented. So we would almost always, to break the big egos walking in the door, was assign somebody a task that was way to hard to solve on their own, and then wait for them to come out of their office to ask for help.

MBS: Exactly.

Francis: I wonder if there’s like kind of a difficulty in harnessing people’s creativity in their management potential, their excitement about work.

MBS: Yeah, it’s a powerful question. I mean, there’s been research for years from firms like Gallup and the like that say the percentage of people who feel engaged in their work is depressingly low, it’s like I think 40% or maybe as high as 50%, but I don’t think it’s that high. And if you just think for a moment and you go, boy, what would an organization be like if we could unleash the potential of the people here? So that they were engaged, and felt that they were working on stuff that mattered, and felt that they’re excited and felt empowered and supported, all of those words. If we could turn organizations into that, how would we do that? Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever worked with big organizations before, I have, and it can be a bit of a soul-crushing experience. You become a small cog in a big machine, and here the machine is driven by capitalism, so the quarterly results and are you making money and are you making a profit and shareholders are your number one stakeholder—but there was a report put out recently, there’s a statement actually from the—I think it’s called the Council of Business? It’s based in the US, it’s like all the CEOs, many of the CEOs from the Fortune 500. They put out a statement going, ‘we have to think of business as not just being driven by shareholder requirements to make a profit, we have to think of all the stakeholders that are involved.’ So, you know, Francis, I think that it’s true that there’s just, as far as I’ve known forever, organizations asking the question ‘what does it mean that we can do business well and also have a culture that allows people to thrive and be at their very best,’ and it’s difficult, because the trend is always to just keep working, get it done. We started with the industrial revolution, with factories, and now we’ve just kind of adjusted that slightly.

Francis: When I first worked in industry, and it was for a big company, I think the most shocking thing for me was the complete lack of loyalty that was implicit in working for these people, and you know, on the one hand to be like a team player and get “meets or exceeds expectations” on your reviews, you’d be expected if need be to miss your kid’s birthday party. But the minute you leave that office and get your paycheck, everything that that business owes you is done, there’s no sense that you’re in this together, building up a business and that your sacrifice has any meaning outside of that particular pay period, you know?

Chris: In the software world, I mean, the 60-hour work week is pretty standard, so it becomes your entire life. I mean, your social life becomes the people you work with, because all your friends you used to know stopped calling you because you never have time to go out.

MBS: Right. It’s an interesting balance, because—take some of the really big tech companies that we call know of, like Google. You know, I’ve gone and hung out on the Google campus a few times, it’s pretty awesome, quite frankly. You know, you’ve got amazing food, dry cleaners, sporting field, masseurs, it’s really set up to be a pretty pleasant place to work, and there’s a couple of things going on there. One is, it’s like we want our people to feel that they’re well treated and they’re well looked-after, and that’s absolutely a key part of it. The other is like, this is a really comfortable prison, we’re keeping you working 60 or 70 or 80 hours and we’re making it really easy for you to not leave the campus and not do the work. And it’s not like the people who are in Google going, ‘and I’m feeling exploited’—although I’m sure some of them are feeling that way, but there’s a lot of people who go, ‘I feel very fulfilled by this work. I work really hard, I get a lot of meaning from my work, I like working 60 hours a week because that’s actually how I get a sense of purpose and engagement in my world.’ It’s complex. You know, there’s a deal of collusion on both sides around how we work together, but it’s also, coming back to your early point, there’s a large percent of people who feel very disenfranchised by their experience of working.

Francis: And it comes also to, there’s a question of what a civilized work/life balance should be.

Chris: Google is an especially strange situation. I mean, Microsoft is much more like a pyramid, a standard management structure, whereas Google gives an awful lot of autonomy to individual teams and, because those teams have budgets and schedules, they’re often terrible at cooperating with other teams within the same Google complex. I could speak specifically to their accessibility group—they have all kids of trouble getting the gmail team to cooperate with them, because they have competing priorities.

MBS: Where I go around all of this is, kind of geeking out around philosophies of management. Because if you think to yourself, ‘well, we should be able to coordinate all of this,’ you’re just massively underestimating how hard it is to navigate a complex system. Because these things are, you know, there’s like a thousand sub-cultures, there’s a thousand micro-teams—it’s a huge, complex ecosystem where you can’t get everything to line up in a machine-like way, it’s just impossible. It’s like too complex, too messy, too human. So part of what they do is they go, look, we got the money to be able to pull this off, we set up all these things and kind of Darwinian-esque, the kind of law of the jungle that the stronger ones will rise to the top, the weaker ones will drop off, and that is an interesting thing to pursue, and of course it c an be really frustrating. Because if you’ve got somebody like you, Chris, and you’re like I’m trying to just coordinate, and there’s like six different teams doing approximately the same thing, two of which directly contradict the other two in terms of what they’re trying to achieve, how do I work with that?

Chris: What I find though, when I talk to Microsoft employees, they seem to have a better sense of purpose and what they’re supposed to be doing, whereas the Google people—it seems like it’s a thousand start-ups all sharing one campus.

MBS: That’s interesting. I mean, I don’t know enough about the specifics around that. Both of those organizations are clients of the company I started, Box of Crayons, so we’ve seen a little bit into both of those companies, but we get to see just a very, very small part, very small window into that whole organization. So what we see, I can’t tell whether that’s the whole thing, or a small thing, or just my particularly good client or my particularly bad client part of that.

Chris: Getting back to your career, you were named one of the top eight business coaches in the world—how do they measure such things?

MBS: I think they’re mostly going on good looks, because that’s the only way I can explain it. I’m a very, very good looking man. You know, I don’t know—I think you’ve got to take all of these award things with a certain pinch of salt. I know that part of the reason I was recognized is the company in which I hang out, and so I’ve been part of a group for a number of years called the Marshall Goldsmith 100, and that group has a certain amount of profile, which means that when somebody is coming up with award lists, they notice that, so that helps. You know, it helps that the last book I wrote, The Coaching Habit, has been the number one coaching book, so that helps as well. But in the end, we’re just talking about this a few days after the Oscars ceremony, it’s a bunch of humans sitting around going, ‘here’s who we’re picking’ as part of this. Am I one of the best eight coaches in the world? No, I doubt I’m even close. Am I influential in the space of coaching? Yes, I am, because of the books I’ve written and the stuff I’ve put out into the world. Am I first or third or fifth or ninth? You know, it’s anybody’s guess.

Chris: How do you at Box of Crayons measure success on a project? You know, if Microsoft hires you to do something, how at the end of the day do you know if you’ve been successful?

MBS: It’s such a good question, and one that we wrestle with and our clients wrestle with as well. Part of the goal is to try and define what success looks like with the client at the start of a project, not just at the end of the project. So we’re like, what do you care about? What measures matter to you? So as an example, with Microsoft, one of the things we did was we created an online training program for them. You know, I was the guy in front of the camera, and we co-created it over so it would run for five or six weeks, and the client had some really good success criteria. They wanted to measure three or four specific things, and to see if that behavior would change, and they wanted to get a certain number of people to complete the program. And because Andrea, who’s the client, had such clear specifications, we took a poll before the training started, effectively going ‘so how often do you ask question, and is your manager good at being coach-like,’ and then we took a poll after it had finished, and you know what? We made great progress. They wanted to get x-thousand people to finish the program, we actually got 3x of those people finishing program, so we basically crushed it at Microsoft, it was amazing. Then there are other clients we work with who we’ve done training with and we’ve put some thousands of people through the training program, but because we haven’t ever quite figured out with them what matters in terms of measurement, what we have is qualitative feedback, people saying your training’s great, and I’ve changed my behavior, but often we don’t have quantitative measures so we can say ‘and this is how much it’s worth’ to the company’s bottom line.

Chris: You have four key questions you present in Coaching Habit, can you describe those questions and how they’re used?

MBS: Sure. So, in The Coaching Habit I actually lay out seven questions, or I go here’s what you’ve got, seven good questions. The idea when I wrote this book was, how do I make coaching less weird? How do I make it more accessible for people? And part of it is to try and de-complicate it, to say look, it’s actually not this sort of mysterious, arcane ritual. If you can stay curious a little bit longer, then you’re going to be more coach-like and you’re going to be more effective as a manager, as a leader, as a human being. And how do you be curious a little bit longer? Well, you have some good questions to ask. And so when I was writing this book, I was back and forth going, OK, is it a hundred and twenty questions, is it three questions, is it something in between? And I went back and forth as I wrote different drafts, but I kind of ended up on the seven questions. So I’ll tell you a few of them, and people can google what are the seven questions from The Coaching Habit and you’ll find them easy enough, ‘cause they’re all over the internet. But I’m a particular fan of the kick-start questions, so this is a helpful way of starting any conversation, particularly kind of one-to-one, and the kick-start question is simply, “what’s on your mind?” Some people will recognize it as the Facebook question, ‘cause that’s the question Facebook asks to get people typing, so obviously, it’s got to work fairly well. But what I love about “what’s on your mind?” is it says to people, tell me what’s going on, you tell me rather than me telling you, that’s an empowering act. But don’t tell me anything and don’t tell me everything, tell me about the stuff that really matters, so that we can have a conversation about the stuff that really matters. And I’ve found the kickstart question just happens to be particularly good at opening things up, so the person talks about what matters to them, but also directing them so we get into the juicy stuff fast. Let me rattle through the list of the seven questions.

The first one is the kickstart question, which is how do you get a conversation moving? And the question is: “So what’s on your mind?” The second one is the focus question, and it carries the insight that the first challenge that people bring up is almost never the real challenge. So the question to ask here is, “So what’s the real challenge here for you?” The third question, best coaching question in the world, and that question is, “And what else?” That holds the insight that the first answer is never their only answer, and if you ask the question and then just run with the first answer, everybody’s missing a trick. Question number four, the foundation question: “What do you want?” You know, it really matters how you ask that question, because it can come across a bit kind of grumpy or clippy or kind of, whatever, but if you show up with genuine curiosity going, OK, that’s the real challenge for you, what do you want here? then that can go into really interesting places. It’s a really good question to ask yourself as well, if you’re in some form of working relationship with somebody and it’s not working quite as well as you’d like and you’ve got to try and figure stuff out, asking yourself “what do I want?” helps set you up to have the conversation, to give the feedback, whatever it might be. Number five is the strategy question—this is like about, OK, let’s make clear the choices you’re making, the opportunity cost that being involved in the choices you’ll make. So “if you’re saying yes to this, what must you say no to?” Because I’ve found that too many of us are actually pretty poor at saying no to the stuff we should say no to. Number six, the lazy question, kind of provocatively titled, which is “How can I help?” What we’re trying to do with the lazy question is to stop people feeling like they need to jump in and fix things, and ironically asking how can I help slows down the rush to jump in and help. And then the seventh and final question is the learning question, which is “What was most useful or most valuable here for you?”

Chris: There were two management related books that were really influential on my career. The first was The Mythical Man-Month and the second was out of Harvard, and it was Management By Walking Around. Are you familiar with either of those?

MBS: I know Management By Walking Around, I haven’t heard about The Mythical Man-Month. That sounds very intriguing. What’s that about?

Chris: The fundamental thesis is that nine women can’t have a baby in one month, that the solution to a scheduling problem is not throw more people at it.

MBS: I’ve heard that metaphor before, it’s perfect. What it reminds me of is a model, a way of seeing the world, which talks about the difference between simple, complicated and complex. I don’t know if you know this as a descriptor—here’s the model, simply. So simple is, as you’d guess, a simple formula. In the book I read, they said it’s like baking cake. And obviously, even if you’re Michael, you don’t know how to bake very well, you follow instructions; take the cake mix, add some water, add an egg, beat it up, put it in the oven for x number of minutes at y number of degrees, you’re going to get a cake. It might not be Cordon Blu, but it’s going to be a cake—that’s simple. Complicated is, as they say, like launching a spaceship. It’s hard, but if actually you follow all the spreadsheets in the right order and you tick off all the tick-boxes in the right order and you do all the to-dos in the right order, then you’ve got a decent chance of getting a spaceship up into orbit. That’s complicated. Complex they describe as being like a flock of birds, particularly like those kind of murmurations of starlings, you know, they kind of swirl around and change shape and—you know when birds are flying together in that kind of close flock, nobody is thinking to themselves, what’s my to-do list? or what’s my GANT chart look like for this particular flying thing? They’re operating on some core principles, and for birds it’s fly towards the center, fly as close to the other birds as possible, don’t run into the other birds. What those principles have that define the complex system, and kind of the emergence outcome that complex systems generate, is these principles that are in tension with each other. You know, there’s a tension between “fly as close to other birds as possible” and “don’t run into the other birds.” There’s a tension between “fly into the center” and “don’t run into the other birds.” It’s that tension that allows kind of a degree of autonomy and self-directedness, but within a system that is consistent. And all of this is a very long explanation to kind of react to the idea of the man month, which is it’s very easy to reduce organizational life down to this kind of mathematical formula, which is like if I just add another three people, I’ll be able to do 30% more 30% better. And just as we’re saying here, which is like, do you know what? Most organizations and most projects aren’t about complication, in other words more capacity equals more success; they’re complex and actually the thinking that needs to be done is, what’s the real challenge? What are we really working on? Who, are we using all the skills in the group? As a group, do we have a way of figuring our dysfunction? Because every group is dysfunctional. How do we process miscommunication? How do we process disappointment, how do we build resilience into this team so that it can get through the hard stuff together? And that’s where you get into the juicy conversations, but that’s not figured out by a mathematical formula.

Chris: In a complex system, it’s easy to get stuck, and you write about getting un-stuck. Can you speak to that?

MBS: That’s a broad question. You know, there’s always an interesting place to look between your own agency, your own ability to get yourself unstuck, and to look at a system and go, how is the system getting me stuck? How does the system need to change for me to get un-stuck? I personally brought up in the system where it’s like, come on Michael, step up and figure this out, you’re a big boy—if things aren’t working then it’s up to you to solve this and get it sorted. And that’s a very convenient narrative for me to have, because I feel empowered by that quite often. But I also come from the place that I am a able, white, tall over-educated middle-class man that, basically, when it comes to privilege, has been dealt all the right cards. So quite frankly, if anybody can kind of figure this out by themselves, it should be people who have a profile like mine. You got access to all the assets, not just tangible, physical ones but just those more intangible ones around sense of being centered, a sense of being connected, a sense of being in the center of things rather than on the outskirts of things. If you’re on the outskirts, and whether that’s because of a disability that you might have because of your gender or your race or whatever, I think getting stuck is often not about you at all, it’s about a system that puts you in a place to get stuck. And that’s a more complex thing to tackle, and honestly Chris, you probably know more about that than I do.

Chris: Do your techniques for business coaching work in small companies as well as they do in big ones?

MBS: Honestly, I would say that my techniques, which aren’t that sophisticated—you know, in the end it’s like, here are some good questions, ask them more often. Listen to the answer. They work pretty well in organizational life. Honestly, if you work with other human beings, this stuff works. You know, if you have spouse, ask him or her some questions. If you have kids, stay curious a little bit longer. If you have a really small company of like, you plus one other person, approaching that with a way of engaging them as human beings rather than as something else, can make all the difference. So, yeah, it boils down to it for me, I’m like, this stuff is about humans connecting with human beings, and it doesn’t really matter the context that you’re in.

Francis: Is it realistic for people nowadays, with the job market as it is, to try to figure out what their life’s passion is and expect to turn it into a career?

MBS: Yeah, that’s a really juicy question, because you see that advice all the time—just find out what your passion is, and then pursue it and turn it into money—and I don’t see that working out lots of times. So I see a couple of things happening. The first is, a lot of people go, I don’t even know what I’m passionate about. And OK, even if I do know what I’m passionate about, and it’s collecting china dolls, how does that become a career? It doesn’t help me at all. But even if you are passionate about it…so let’s go to our friend Chris Smart, who’s the producer of the podcast. He might be going, you know what, I am passionate about podcasting. I love it, I love it! But what can often happen is if you then turn your passion into a profession, it kind of loses some of the magic, because now you’re like, I’ve got to chase money, I’ve got to chase an audience, I don’t get to do the stuff that I love so much because I’ve got to do all the other stuff that’s required to turn it into a business. But then I think there’s another twist on this, which is I think that what you become passionate about often emerges from the work that you’re doing, or the life that you’re living. So honestly, 15 years ago, if somebody said to me, you’re going to become a kind of global authority and spokesperson around coaching, I’d be like ‘really? I don’t even know what coaching is. How am I gonna do that?’ And it doesn’t even sound that exciting. So to my surprise, I’m like, OK, the work has told me what I’m actually most interested in. And it’s through doing the work that you uncover your passion.

Chris: We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion on this podcast, yet all of the business coaches seem to be white men. Is there an issue with diversity in the management’s world, and is there some way we can address that?

MBS: Yes, there’s a problem with diversity in the business world. There’s a problem with diversity just amongst gender, as a starting point. You look at the number of women who are CEOs of big companies, and it’s tiny. You know, you walk down through an aircraft and you’re walking through business class, and you look around and it’s like, it’s almost all old white people, mostly men. And I’m one of those people quite often. So yes, there’s an issue around diversity, around that, not to mention an issue around kind of the whiteness, not to mention the issue around ability and disability as well. So there’s a lot of people doing a lot of great work around this, getting beyond just the stock-photo diversity. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, those stock photos that are out there which are around, you know, here’s a picture of a very happy company at work, and you’ve got somebody who kind of represents African-Americans, somebody who’s asian, somebody who’s white, somebody who’s young, somebody who’s old, somebody who’s got a visible disability of some sort—and you’re like, oh wow, you really like needing to tick all the boxes in a single photograph. And it just feels manipulative, it doesn’t feel realistic. But there are lots of people I know who are like, no, I’m being a champion for you to actually understand diversity in its more subtle forms, which is not just can we get somebody else sitting in the room that looks a bit different, to how do we bring diverse sorts of opinions, diverse approaches to a challenge, diverse ways of seeing the world and actually contribute in a way that makes our organization better.

Chris: When I was VP of engineering at Freedom Scientific, a company here in Florida, I was really interested in making my team more diverse, and I was pretty successful getting more women involved, but my applicant pool was 85-90% white men. I was able to find some really outstanding women to come work for us, but on racial issues, I only got applications from white people and asians. I didn’t get a single African American apply for a job, at a company our size we really couldn’t go out and do a whole lot of drafting.

MBS: Well, I think you see tech companies for whom this is a real challenge going, yeah, it’s not enough to address this in our recruiting process, we actually have to be investing in high schools so that a diverse pool of people are interested in tech early on, so that they follow through and then they graduate with the degrees we’re looking for, and the diversity in all sorts of ways, so that they can be hired. I mean, it’s a system issue.

Chris: You have a new book coming out at the end of this month, can you tell us about it and how it’s different from Coaching Habit?

MBS: Sure. So if The Coaching Habit is a champion for, look, here’s what you need to do to be more coach-like, take the seven questions and ask them, The Advice Trap says, hey, it’s trickier than you thought, or than I thought, to actually show up and be coach-like, to ask those seven questions. And the metaphor that runs through the book gets to how do you tame your advice monster? It’s a real way of tackling this whole idea of going, uh, you’ve got these deep habits where we just love to jump in and fix it and solve it and give advice. For your sake and for their sake and for your organization’s sake, you’ve just got to slow down the rush to give advice, and you’ve got to stay curious a little bit longer, it’s a key leadership attribute. And that’s what the book tackles, which is like what does it take for you to actually tame your advice monster.

Chris: Excellent. With all that we’ve covered, let’s move to something more general. What are your thoughts about the future, and what is it out there that makes you optimistic?

MBS: Well, I know for sure that I am lousy at predicting the future. And you know, there’s that one of those traits of humanity to feel that we’re always at the end of history, we’re like this is it, this is the culmination of the human race. And I’m like, well, it’s interesting how the human race has evolved and changed and shifted over those tens of thousands of years, and I remember reading Bill Bryson’s book many years ago called A Short History of Nearly Everything, and he said this: look, stretch out your arms from fingertip to fingertip, so you put your arms out straight and parallel. And what you’re representing in your span is the history of the earth, six or seven billion years old. And if that’s the earth, if you look at the fingernail of your pointer finger, the white bit, that kind of bit that’d clip off when you’re cutting your fingernails? That represents the entire history of humanity in the context of the age of the earth. And then of course if you go, well that represents some tens of thousands of years, where are we today in 2020 around that? You go, wow, we are a very irrelevant speck in this future. So, partly the way I think about the future is similar to that, or similar to what happens when I look up at the stars and I go, wow, there’s a billion billion billion stars up there, where it’s just a very small part of it. So hold it very lightly, enjoy your time while you’re here on earth, ‘cause you get one crack at it and you’re done. It’s an extraordinary time to be alive, because pretty much it was impossible for you to be alive at any other time in any other place. So I don’t know for sure if this makes me optimistic, but it makes me appreciative that I’m just amazingly lucky to be alive right now, and so make sure I squeeze the lemon to get the very most I can out what’s on offer.

Francis. What do you see from your work, are examples of untapped human potential that could ultimately lead to a better world?

MBS: Look, here’s my personal mission, here’s the way I put it. It’s to infect a billion people with the possibility virus. So what I mean by the possibility virus is the opportunity to say, I see the choices that I have, and I make bolder, more courageous choices. And if you track back all the stuff that I do, so much of it is around staying curious, seeing your choices, making braver choices. And I think if everybody does that, then we get a little closer to helping people tap their potential, and when we’ve got people closer to tapping their potential, we’re a little closer to living in a better world.

Chris: Other than your new book, do you have anything you’d like to promote or plug, even if it’s somebody else’s work, or something like that?

MBS: Well, for people who are interested in the book, whether or not you pick up the book and, you know, obviously it’d be great if you did but you don’t have to, but you might be interested at theadvicetrap.com, because there’s a questionnaire to figure out which of three different advice monsters is kind of strongest within you. Three different personas of the advice monster, and the questionnaire just gives you a taste of which one might be loudest, most kind of vital inside you, so that’s at theadvicetrap.com. And then in terms of what else that I’d like to mention or promote, knowing what this podcast is about and what you stand for, I’d maybe suggest another book, which is by a friend of mine called Laura Gasner-Oating, and she’s written a book called Limitless, and I think it’s a pretty good call to arms to say, believe in yourself, believe in your potential, and start fulfilling that, because we all win when people are feeling that they’re limitless and feeling that they can step up to their potential.

Chris: Well, excellent. Thank you so much for coming on Making Better.

MBS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at MakingBetterPod.com and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us, or send us a donation. You can find the form for that on our website. Follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Episode 14: Fred Schneider Lead Singer B52s

Making Better Episode 14, Fred Schneider

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: And I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: Welcome to Episode 14 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring our first bonafide rock star, Fred Schneider, the lead singer of the B-52s.

Francis: Fred’s such a favorite of mine, on so many levels, and I think he’s just been this really insightful mind in terms of what’s been going on in the world, how to not let it get you down to the point where you can’t party anymore.

Chris: And the B-52s have been one of my favorites acts, ever since they emerged way back in the late 70s. I saw them perform many times, and this is the first time I got to talk to Fred, so it was really fun.

Francis: Yeah. And I think their work is very light-hearted, because it is sort of party music. A lot of the times I think the genius gets lost, but it’s aged so well over time and I’m just really delighted to have him here.

Chris: Well, with that said, let’s get on to the interview.

Chris: Fred Schneider, welcome to Making Better!

Fred: Thank you, thank you. Good to be here.

Chris: Fred, this is not actually the first time you and I have met. I was one of the kids standing outside the stage door at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey when you guys headlined there over Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and it was a spectacular show. I just wanted to shake your hand as you were coming out, so that was the first time we met.

Fred: Oh, OK. Yeah, Kid Creole, they’re great.

Chris: That was a spectacular show, I mean I was, everyone was dancing all night, everyone was sweating through our clothes. I mean, both of the acts were just wonderful.

Fred: Oh good. Well, that’s the point.

Francis: You’re definitely the ultimate party band. I could think of no bands that have, the music’s aged better. I mean, you just have this place that’s so timeless, and it’s really amazing to see how you could hear the B-52s recordings from the 70s now—or the early 80s, it feels like now—I don’t know you did that trick.

Fred: Well, we never tried to sound like anybody else or follow trends, so—we were our own trend.

Chris: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting process, because the B-52s are both extremely accessible, but they’re also abstract and surreal, and I was wondering how you managed that balance.

Fred: I think we just get people going, and then they sing along, and I don’t know how deeply they go in to the lyrics, but they’re catchy! We put a lot of work into ‘em. We have dozens of songs that we worked on but never finished, so, I think the music gets people going along and we have a lot of sound-candy in our lyrics and vocals and..

Francis: You started out as a poet, correct?

Fred: Yes, the last thing I did before I dropped out of college, ‘cause I was so lazy, was do a book of poetry, but I wound up liking it and eventually, later on, parts of some of the poems were incorporated into lyrics that we did.

Francis: One of the things that really stands out in the B-52s is the surprising imagery and words and, I think, just the fun of the lyrics.

Fred: Well, we have a sense of humor but we’re serious about having a sense of humor. I mean, I’m more influenced by Dada and surrealism than camp, so…we have political references in several songs, and we mostly do the talking about political and environmental and other important social issues when we do interviews.

Chris: I remember an interview with you in Vegetarian Times about thirty-five years ago, in which you said something like you guys were “militant vegetarians”—that you would go to McDonald’s and throw things at people?

Fred: No. I don’t think I said that (laughs).

Chris: As I said, it was an article I read thirty-five years ago, so I might be mistaken.

Fred: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I’m sure we’d get thrown out for throwing McNuggets at people.

Francis: Part of the purpose of our podcast is, we’re trying to look for reasons for optimism in the world. And with all that’s going on right now, I mean, we’re in a time right now where there’s ten thousand children in detention centers in this country and, I mean, it just goes on and on and on. I mean, the level of cruelty that has been let loose with this President that we have is just—I would have thought, unthinkable…

Fred: [inaud] and the Republican Party’s in cahoots, and rich billionaire Koch Brothers, all these other horrible people funding it—it can get pretty depressing at times, but then you have all the kids who are saying, do something about climate change, you’re all going to be dead, we’re going to be suffering from this. So, once we get, impeach Dump, let’s see what happens. I’m sure the Senate’s just gonna stick their heads up their behinds and let him—give him a free pass. None of the Democrats of course, all they need is 51 votes to get rid of him, but you know, that’s not going to happen. I find that kids protesting about climate change positive…

Francis: Greta’s such a star, huh?

Fred: Oh yeah, no she’s fabulous.

Francis: Isn’t she the best?

Francis: She’s a hero for a lot of people, and rightly so. And the ones who criticize her are A-holes, so I find that very encouraging. Young people are not going to put up—and they’re fighting for banning guns and assault weapons and—things I’ve supported for as long as I can remember, so it’s good to see that they’re really getting a lot more attention.

Chris: I do find myself getting inspired by young people. I mean, I’m 59 years old and it’s inspiring that so many—you know, I live in Florida, and you know the whole Parkland kids on the gun issue are really pretty amazing.

Fred: They’re fantastic.

Francis: I think a major issue right now in the world is inclusion. And one of the things I always loved about the B-52s is that I think, in terms of supporting gay rights and bringing gay culture to the mainstream, you know you guys have been a the forefront of that, too.

Fred: Well, everyone’s invited to our party, and always has been. I mean, in the beginning, having been bullied in high school, I wasn’t about to be a standard-bearer, but bands know, my friends knew, family knew—even Elton John was in the closet. But, you know, gradually we got more comfortable with it and like, ah, what the hell, who cares.

Chris: I read that when you came out to your mom she didn’t even stop vacuuming.

Fred: Uh-huh. Good thing it was my bedroom she was vacuuming (laughs). I think that’s a great story. “I know, Freddie.” (laughs)

Francis: Is that what she said?

Fred: Uh huh.

Francis: I think my parents always suspected I was, ‘cause you know, I mean, the minute I started growing a little public hair I had pictures of Ziggy Stardust all over my bedroom.

Fred: There you go.

Francis: Still, like, I guess it’s a very sort of divisive country that we have right now in terms in terms of culture, in terms of politics. What do you see as being things that we can do to, like, heal this country, or put just more into a place where people can appreciate each other’s diversity?

Fred: Vote out Republican leaders, and implement positive things for the average citizen, which Republicans don’t do, and pull the wool over their bases eyes and hopefully they’ll realize that well, coal’s not coming back, you just lost all your manufacturing jobs, there goes your farm—when are people going to realize, whatever? You know, why should you decide what a woman does with her body, you old fart?

Francis: Exactly. One of the things I always found really kind of strange is how, you have this conservative party, and they preach conservatism, but actually a lot of them are the most decadent people on the planet.

Fred: They’re pigs.I mean, consorting with top porn stars and hookers, and wife who is not exactly a Vogue model…

Francis: That’s true. When they had the Republican convention in New York, a couple years, a few years ago, they actually had to import escorts because there weren’t enough escorts in New York to facilitate the Republican convention.

Fred: Oh, well a friend told me that whenever the Baptists come to town at the hotels, they go gangbusters with the porn..

Chris: And when the Christian right said they were going to boycott San Francisco, the people who run the Fulton Street Fetish Fair thought they’d have to close down.

Fred: Who cares. Who wants them in town? (laughter) Christian Wrong is what I call ‘em. They’re not even Christians, they don’t follow Christ’s teachings, I don’t know who—I think Satan’s got them in his back pocket, so, they sure act like it. You can’t tell ‘em anything ‘cause they’re so stupid. But, you know, there’s other things going on. People can do their own thing with their donations, and public work. I’m part of a coffee company now in Florida, and we’re opening an event space in January in DeLand, Florida, for progressive groups and charities. Our coffee, we get our coffee from Laos, where we dropped half a billion pieces of ordnance, and so part of the profits from what we do goes to remove ordnance—‘cause one of the leading causes of death in Laos is stepping on mines and things like that, and losing limbs. And the other thing is to supply anti-venom against snake bites. But the coffee’s grown organically, to certify it cost a fortune, so we can say, you know, it’s grown organically in Laos. So we do that, and men and women get equal pay. It’s a very Buddhist country. It’s called bruiting.com. You know, young people and even people our age and younger who don’t support conservatives, really make an effort to make the country better rather than worse—though I do like what Stormy Daniels said, “make America horny again.” (laughs)

Francis: One of the things that is very clear about the B-52s is that they’re very sex-positive. But it’s in a healthy way, it’s not in that creepy Republican way, you know?

Fred: Oh no. We love—you know, let your freak flag fly, we’re not gonna judge, just be safe. We lost so many friends to AIDS that we’ve done a lot of benefits and things like that, and lent our name to things, and—just got to get the word out. Still, people need to take care of themselves. We should start putting cameras in the conservatives’ bedrooms, though I don’t think you’d see much in Mitch McConnell’s, but..

Chris: Francis and I have both lost friends to the virus as well.

Francis: It was a plague, man.

Fred: ..So many in the early 80s, yeah, it was scary. We just did, there’s a show called Pride, and we talked about a friend of ours, Tommy Rubnets(sp) who passed away, and he was about to break through his videos and art. One of his videos is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he passed away in his early 30s and so all four of us talked about what was going on in New York when we first lived there. And it was like, all of a sudden from the disco era and sexual freedom to, what is this going on, and will I get it? It was already in people’s bodies, but no one knew it. They called it “grid”

Francis: I remember that.

Francis: Getting back to the music if possible—I heard you’re a record collector? Your record collection must be amazing.

Fred: Oh, it—it is.

Francis: Do you have any highlights you’d like to share? Some of your favorites in there?

Fred: Oh boy. Well, I’m a Motown nut, so I love my Motown. I love Work Your Speaker instrumentals from late 50s and early 60s—they call it like, ping-pong percussion. I can listen to a bunch of that, I love striptease music, I love Funk. I love electronic and avant-garde classical. When I did my radio show for Sirius, I played mostly New Wave dance mixes that I found at the thrift store around the corner from my apartment in New York, so I’m pretty all over the place. And really bad albums, like Christmas with Barbie, I play that. I used to play a lot of stuff until my ex said, “can we hear something normal?”

Francis: That’s something I can’t imagine people say to you too often, though.

Fred: No, no no. “Cause I have all these friends—I do a lot of like, Soul clubs, I’ve done several Soul clubs with, well, kids—well to me they’re kids, at my age—in their late 20s, early 30s, and I have extensive Soul records from the 60s that they’d never heard, even some of the ones I played at Soul club 40 years ago, almost, in New York that were like standard to play. So, I like to educate people and I send records all over, to my friends, especially 45s—they’re easier.

Francis: I just inherited a huge 45 collection. I just take one out at random and put it on every day.

Fred: The new record players—the bluetooth ones—the speakers are amazing. You can buy a cheap-ass record player and plug it into this little bluetooth speaker thing and get full sound like you would from big speakers. As long as it sounds good and the records are clean.

Francis: You mentioned something earlier in this interview that I can’t get out of my mind now—there’s a whole bunch of B-52 songs that never got released?

Fred: Well, they were never finished, either. If we were jamming on different things and hit a wall, we’d do the HellTyler(sp) show or the Mary Shirley morning show, and just be the celebrity guest and, with different names, and just do ridiculous things—sing ridiculous songs and do ridiculous commercials and…

Chris: Your Wikipedia page says that you’ve collaborated with a lot of other songwriters. How does that process go?

Fred: Well, right now I have a song out with Ursula One Thousand, called the Neptune Freeze, it’s on YouTube, and they’re gonna be up. And I have Hifi Shawn from the Soup Dragons, we have a song out called Truck. I’m working with Hard Group from Public Enemy on a whole album, and we have a song that’s gonna be on the soundtrack of a movie in Mexico, I sing it in English and Spanish. It’s less stressful, and of course I have the Superions, and I write all the lyrics for them. Our Christmas album’s coming out again, ‘cause the label Four screwed us over royally and gave us nothing. But we have Bat Baby and Really Scary Halloween story out, so—I’ve got a lot of stuff in the can. And it’s fun! I can do whatever I want, and there’s no stress.

ChrIs: And you live on Long Island?

Fred: Yes. I have a place in the city, too, but that’s more like a storage unit.

Francis: Who else was from Long Island? Lou Reed was from Long Island.

Fred: Lou Reed, Dee Snider lives out here, from Twisted Sister. I don’t go to those parties you see in those glossy magazines. It has to be something really special for me to go—well, especially in the summer I’m usually working, but if I am here in the summer I don’t go in town on the weekends ‘cause it’s so crazy. There’s plenty to do here. It’s becoming—like my neighborhood went from having so many neighbors and all that, I mean I didn’t know most of them, but—there are people here all year ‘round now, it’s like a bunch of rich-ass people who can afford to come out here just one month or two months or just every weekend or something, so it’s like, oh brother.

Francis: It’s great to have the country-city balance.

Fred: Well yeah, the county I live in has the most farmland left in relation to its size, so God bless Estee Lauder for buying up tons and tons of farms and turning them into conservancies and things.

Francis: So is there any contemporary music that you particularly find exciting right now?

Fred: I like the Fabulous Downey Brothers. I’m the worst for hearing things, ‘cause when I watch YouTube I watch either when they take like a, there’s a preacher and there’s video called “flaming butthole”—heh—‘cause he talks about gay people are gonna have flames coming out of their butthole (laughs). And so someone turned it into a song! And the video of this idiot speaking is crazy enough, but the song is—so, I like that and I like, just anything like that. I’m the worst for listening to new music, ‘cause if I listen to the radio I listen to NPR, or I play my own music, you know, my own music and all that. I mean, records I have and CDs I have out the wazoo…

Francis: Well back when you came to New York, I think your first show was at Max’s, right?

Fred: Yes

Francis: And there was definitely, it was an underground, you know? You pretty much had to go downtown to experience the new music back then, the punk rock, the New Wave, all that…

Fred: Oh yeah. I mean, we didn’t even have our first single out. And we played on a Monday night in December, which is like dead as a doornail. But we were excited, because a lot of our idols played there. And back then, people don’t realize, for most of the 70s and early 80s, New York went dark from 23rd Street down—well, even 34th Street down, all the way to the tip of Manhattan, the only lights were on in like, were like the East Village and the West Village. Chelsea was dead. You had to go places…

Chris: There was an article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about how people, approximately our age group, are nostalgic for New York back it was a sewer, and that, you know, we really miss …

Fred: Forty-Second Street was just full of dirty movies and all that…at least it was interesting. I mean, I got mugged, but, you know, I think everyone did.

Francis: Yeah, it was kind of worth it, though, to have that atmosphere. I really miss the existence of an underground like that. You know, I think in some ways it was like a, it was just so much cross-pollination going on amongst artists. I guess you came out around the same time as The Cramps did, right? It was sort of like the second wave of bands that came out…

Fred: Yeah, we were more the New Wavers. We started out Punky, and actually Luxe and Ivy(sp) came to our first show, so—I think there were only 17 people at the show (laughs) and there were three bands. I think half of the people there were our friends who came up.

Francis: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that we haven’t discussed about, like say, new ventures or anything?

Fred: Well, the band is going to work on some new songs for a deluxe CD set of all our albums, so we’ll have some new material, and for some reason they’re finding live shows of ours, so who knows? That’ll be exciting—and the band is already booking a few shows for next year, so we’ll be on our way.

Francis: I was also thinking that one of the things that I really enjoyed was the basement tapes that Bob Dylan puts out occasionally, and hearing alternate takes and that sort of thing. And I think there’s a lot of bands where that would be kind of excruciating to have to listen to, but with the B-52s, I think you know if you considered even putting out some of—I know you like, jam a lot and try to develop songs and that sort of thing, I think I would really love to hear some of that. And I would love to hear some live tracks, so if you’re thinking about doing something like that, I’d totally would love it.

Fred: Well, I think we’re going to put out Killer Bees, the first thing we ever jammed on. I have a really good quality recording of it—yeah, we’ll see. It depends.

Francis: I think the B-52s have always had this amazing balance of being really, not square at all, but also promoting this light, this beauty, this peace and love kind of thing in a way that doesn’t make you nauseous. It kind of makes you want to dance, and, you know, thank you so much for doing that all these years, and the world still needs it, so keep on keepin’ on, you know?

Fred: Oh, we will. I mean, that’s our show, you know, we just want everyone to have just the best time. We’re not going to hit them over the head with a message, there’s enough depressing stuff going on. We want to be the antidote to that, we go-go dance to our drummer.

Chris: Is there anything you’d especially like to promote or plug?

Fred: Well, just check out Breyting.com, because we’re going to be putting out blends of coffee, and like I said, we’re going host charities and progressive groups, and we’re gonna do contests on the Buzz, which is the B-52s band site on Facebook. And we’re still goin’ the band’s still goin’

Chris: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on Making Better!

Fred: Well, thank you! Thanks for having me.

Francis: Thanks, Fred.

Fred: Sure!

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at MakingBetterPod.com and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us, or send us a donation. You can find the form for that on our website. Follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Episode 13: Dean Amber Miller Transcript

Making Better Episode 13—Dean Amber Miller

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: And I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: And this is Episode 13 of Making Better Podcast, featuring USC-Dornsife Dean Amber Miller!

Francis: Amber Miller is a fascinating person. She has amazing ideas when it comes to new directions for how academia can function in society, but she’s also a cosmologist with over 100 scientific papers published so far.

Chris: We had a wide-ranging conversation, with topics from what role academia can play in society all the way to things like gravitational waves and some of the newest concepts in cosmology.

Francis: Why is there only one Big Bang, why couldn’t there be multiple ones? So, you’ll find out the answer to that..

Chris: Let’s go on to the interview…

Chris: Dean Amber Miller, welcome to Making Better!

Amber: Thank you for having me.

Francis: Great to have you.

Chris: Dean Miller, can you tell us about yourself, your background, and how you got to be where you are?

Amber: I grew up in the Malibu Mountains, sort of in the middle of nowhere. My parents were hippies, I spent a ton of time outdoors—I think that led to a certain level of curiosity and inquisitiveness, but also some self-sufficiency and love of the outdoors, love of animals. I went to Santa Monica high school, which was very far away, it was about an hour commute each direction, and that made me kind of an independent person. I spent a lot of time by myself, heading back and forth in the commute and trying to figure out what to do after school, between after school and my evening school-type activities. People often ask me, you know, what were the formative elements of childhood, and I think probably being left alone and being given a lot of independence made me re-think what was possible in a lot of ways. I think being different as a kid, growing up with hippie parents in a place where there was a lot of kids that were very, very similar to each other in a small town in Malibu made me comfortable being a little different. And I think having parents who didn’t tell me, you should be a doctor or you should be a lawyer, you should be an engineer, and just letting me figure out for myself what I wanted to do, gave me the freedom to be a musician when I was kid—I spent all my time playing music, pretty much—but then when I went off to college, it was really wide open. I could do anything I wanted. I studied a little bit of psychology right at the beginning and quickly got bored with that, although I have always been interested in the way people function, but I had a boring Psychology class, probably more than anything about the subject itself. In a really fascinating class, a little seminar course I took on black holes, it just worked my whole brain and made me think in a different way and I thought, man, college is the time when you can explore anything, and I can read about all kinds of things later on; but if I don’t study astrophysics right now, I’ll never learn it. So I just dove in and did it. That put me on that path for quite a while—although I was always interested in many different things at the same time.

Francis: Was it unusual for a woman to be engaged in that at that time?

Amber: You know it’s funny, I think that’s something about that independence—I never thought about that, to be completely honest. My friends have never been the people who are necessarily in my classes, or later on, my colleagues at work. I always had very close girl friends, but it never really was a thing for me that there weren’t very many other women studying astrophysics. I’ve always had a little bit of a schizophrenic perspective on being a scientist and being an academic. I remember when I left graduate school, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a professor. I was sure I wanted to do something interesting, and I was sure that I wanted to make an impact, but I wasn’t really sure how, exactly. And I’ve always been very interested in policy and politics, and I thought about going to—I can’t remember if I was looking at a Congressional fellowship or a White House fellowship at the time, and I remember I had gotten a NASA/Hubbell fellowship, which was kind of the best thing you could get in my field, and mentioned to my advisor that I was thinking about maybe going to D.C. and doing this other thing, and—I love my advisor, and he gave me good advice at the time, but what he said was, “that’s the craziest thing I ever heard! You don’t want to do that, you’ll never get a tenure-track job.” And he was right, it was the right thing to do, but it was kind of sad because I really did want to go off and do the policy thing at the same time that I wanted to go off and be an academic. I think that’s another thing that many of us struggle with, you know, the academic path to get to be a tenured faculty member at an elite institution is really a pretty, you got to stay pretty focused, which doesn’t reward people who are doing many things at the same time. So I did go on that very focused path, I took the Hubbell fellowship, I went to the University of Chicago, I worked on another set of cosmology projects, and—luckily, because I could not stand Chicago, it was too cold and too dark for me—luckily I got the job as a junior faculty member at Columbia only 6 months after I’d been there, or a I probably would have gone crazy in Chicago. I did stay there for one more year, but I needed to be near the ocean and I needed to be somewhere where the time zone made it so it wasn’t dark, ever, at 3:30. That was kind of my [inaud]. So I moved to New York to take this junior faculty position, and again, I tried to stay pretty focused, although New York is a very distracting place and there are so many things to do, and I really—and I don’t just mean socially, I already started getting kind of preoccupied by this idea that I really didn’t just want to focus on the single question in the world that was really most interesting to me, which was where did the universe come from. That felt like very much my own, single question, but I also really wanted to find a way to have an impact on things that affect everybody today. I was thinking about the environment, and thinking about the energy economy, and thinking about what scientists could do in all kinds of other ways. So up through tenure, I was not doing a lot of other things because I knew that I had to stay focused, but once I got tenure I felt like I was liberated a little bit to focus on other things. Not the the exclusion of my physics, but in addition to, and that’s when I joined the Council on Foreign Relations, and t hat opened up a whole other world of things that, again, impacted my thinking in terms of what could academics do, how can academic talent be pulled out of the academy and used to make a practical impact on the world, while also—as someone who understands more than anybody the real importance of fundamental research. I am not at all somebody who thinks that, if you’re working on something that doesn’t have a practical application, it’s not valuable. My entire research career has been working on things that have absolutely zero practical application, all about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But I’ve always had kind of these both sides, saying knowledge for the sake of knowledge is critically important and interesting, but I also want to do something that has more practical and transparent impact today.

Francis: What was it like for you, with all that history you had after physics, when the images from the Hubbell started coming through deep space?

Amber: I think maybe the level of awe is not what the general public experiences—I found them beautiful and fascinating, but maybe a little bit, I was perhaps less awestruck than I think some people might have been.

Francis: Is that because it was already known and there just wasn’t images for it?

Amber: I’m not sure that I would say “it” was already known—some things were known, some things were not know. Seeing particular images of them, it’s still spectacular and beautiful, but it maybe is not as shocking or new as it is to some people.

Chris: Getting back to your bio, you had decided to study astrophysics. Is that your undergraduate degree?

Amber: Yeah, so I did undergraduate degrees in—actually it was physics, and then I picked up a second major in astrophysics and then I went to Princeton to get a PhD in physics, but I studied cosmology at the time. There’s kind of a cultural difference between whether you get a PhD in physics or in astronomy/astrophysics, and I was always really more on the physics side. But physics was always a tool for me, so that I could study what I was really interested, which wasn’t even really astrophysics, it was always cosmology.

Francis: Why cosmology?

Amber: I think it was really about the question, where do we all come from? What is the origin of everything that we see around us? I think it’s really that most fundamental question that humans have grappled with for all time, and the idea that one could get at it through this physical mathematical, experimental kind of framework was just fascinating to me.

Francis: Thinking about those first few seconds, why one big bang? If there’s one, why couldn’t there be a bunch of them happening all over the place?

Amber: There could be. I think that’s one of the big questions. I mean, when you say “all over the place,” for a universe to be created requires a certain set of physical conditions. But that doesn’t mean that it has to have happened only once.

Francis: So, is there any evidence to that? Or is it all theoretical at this point?

Amber: It’s theoretical at this point. I mean, I think what we have evidence for is that the universe in which we live, this universe that has three spacial dimensions and one temporal dimension, we know roughly for how long this universe has been around. We know that this universe started very, very hot and very dense and much, much, much smaller than it is now. We know that there was some sort of creation event that happened at the time that we would define as time T equals zero; and we know a lot about what has happened from the very first moments of that creation event until what the universe looks like today. What we don’t know is the mechanism that made that creation event happen, and that’s why we try to study the detailed physics of the universe, looking further and further and further back in time. Now, the kind of research that I’m involved in now is trying to understand what the conditions were when the universe was much, much, much, much less than one second old. And the idea there is that if you can understand the mathematics and the physics of the universe at that point in time, you get the best clue you can possibly get as to what it was that formed the potentially underlying higher dimensional spacetime, or what it was that actually set off that event. I mean, if you can really understand that, then you have a better picture of whether or not there might be multiple such events.

Francis: Are there any theories right now that you particularly align yourself with, and what that was?

Amber: No. I mean, look, they’re all very, very highly mathematical and I’m an experimentalist, so my work is building from the ground up the kind of instrumentation that is needed to be able to make measurements to distinguish between different ideas. And if you’re not in this business, you’d say, well OK, but don’t you have a theory that you really like? And I guess from my standpoint, it isn’t really a question of one sounds better, or you like one better. There is a mathematical truth out there, and we will someday uncover it, and the goal is to try to get there. I don’t have a favorite potential truth. I mean, I guess what I can say is that for the non-expert, I think the way that is easiest in my mind to think about what almost certainly happened is something called the phase transition. And the phase transition that people are most familiar with is when ice turns into water and water turns into steam—it’s the same substance, but it’s going from one phase to another. If you think about the creation of our universe, one image I like to give people is that if you imagine a creature that doesn’t have any concept of up or down, it only understands a flat world, and it doesn’t have any concept of liquids or gases. For it to live, for it to understand a world, it needs something solid and it needs a solid, flat surface. So if you put that little creature at the surface of a lake, and the water in the lake is on the one side, and the air is on the other—there’s no universe for that creature to live in, because there is no flat, solid surface, there’s nothing there, so that creature has no universe. But then you cool the water in the lake, and all of a sudden—from the perspective of this creature—out of nowhere comes a universe to live in, that just appears in seemingly everywhere at the same time, because all of a sudden you have a layer of ice on the surface of this lake. There’s been a phase transition that has created a universe from no universe. And from the perspective of the creature that can only understand that type of universe, it came from nowhere. But from us, looking at it with an omniscient view, you know that there was something there before, that transitioned and phased to create this flat surface. I think it’s going to be something like that. There are mathematical theories that give phase transition, that creates the type of universe that we see.

Chris: These are fairly complex topics that we’ve just been discussing. How do you see communicating this to the general public?

Amber: You know, I think that there are people who do that a whole lot better than I do. I think one of the things that’s gone wrong in the relationship between academia and the public is that that the concepts that academics are working have gotten more and more specialized, and more and more complex. Academics have had to spend more and more time getting deeper and deeper and deeper into ideas, and t hey have not typically gotten a huge amount of training in how to communicate these ideas to the outside world. And in fact, there’s often a disincentive to learn how to do that, because people who spend a lot of time doing that often get hassled by their colleagues or looked down upon by their colleagues as people who are no longer serious about their science, because they’re spending so much time thinking about how to communicate it to the public. And it’s a two-way street, you see the public responding to academics trying to communicate by making dismissive comments about them being eggheads up in ivory towers, or working on things that are irrelevant and not practical in today’s world; and so I think there’s kind of a retrenchment, also on the academic side, to say well if people don’t appreciate what we’re doing, then why should we go out of our way to make an effort to help people understand what we’re doing? And people on the outside saying, well, if academics can’t explain what they’re doing, why should we care? And I think that we need to do a number of different things. I think that we need to do a much better job of training our academics to be communicators. We need to do a much better job of making sure, within the university context, that that kind of communication is rewarded and appreciated and not looked down up on or punished. And I think the public needs to slow down a little bit and be willing to get out of their Twitter-spheres for long enough to spend time thinking and talking about complex ideas. And I think that there’s some work for everybody to do.

Francis: My early research was at Rockefeller University, and it was firmly rooted in basic science. And it seemed like, at the time, studying what we, I guess at that time was just referred to as nuclear proteins and that sort of thing, it was something that we should know about. But it opened up what ultimately became the field of epigenetics. And when you think about what a huge impact epigenetics has had—back then, we were just sort of stabbing in the dark, and trying to characterize proteins that we knew had to have some kind of important function.

Amber: I think this is so important, and something that so many people don’t understand. You know, it is so much easier to understand a breakthrough cancer treatment than it is to understand the study of a basic protein that might be a fundamental thing that you need to be able to produce that treatment. Or, a really basic concept in chemistry that creates a way of thinking about a new drug, and it’s so much easier to appreciate the end state than it is, you know, the beginning of that pipeline, that I think the beginning of the pipeline often gets lost and sometimes you even hear people say, oh, it’s not science that generates innovation, it’s innovation that generates innovation—which makes me crazy, because it’s just so blatantly not true. Today’s technology companies and biotech companies are building on decades and decades of scientific innovation that have taken place and built this incredible knowledge base from which they can function, and that pipeline is important and it’s great that the end result is things that people understand, but we also have to find a way to give people a little bit more insight into the critical importance of the earlier stages of that pipeline. Because if we don’t, those earlier stages will dry up, and it will be a little while before we become, as a society, critically aware of the impact of those having dried up. But in the end, it’s not going to be a good thing.

Francis: And I would encourage the American public to be a little bit more demanding on the return in their investment, because if you think about how much of what ultimately becomes patents and medicine, rests on NIH funding—Americans are really paying for the development of these drugs as much as anyone else.

Amber: Yeah, they are. I think it’s just, it’s very hard for people to understand the research that’s coming out. I mean, you hear these crazy political statements, people saying “I can’t believe I’m paying for studies about shrimp on treadmills!” and these kinds of statements that are just—clearly don’t understand what the research is about, and that’s not helpful because ultimately that NIH funding is generating that knowledge base. But it’s such a black box to most people that it’s hard for them to make sense of. So great, that knowledge base, what does it do for you, where does it go? And where it goes is all of this incredible breakthroughs you’re seeing in the biomedical world, but it’s easy to just credit those as though the knowledge base wasn’t needed to get there, because people just don’t understand. And it’s not the fault of the consumer or the citizen who doesn’t understand, because it’s an incredibly complex thing to communicate. And I think we need to find a way to do better than that.

Chris: What is the role of the university in communicating to the general public, and how do the Humanities play a role in that?

Amber: We can unpack this for an hour. I think there’s—you know, it’s an incredibly complicated role. I think that there are many, many different roles. One role is in educating an entire generation of undergraduates and graduate students who will go out in the world and put those things into action so that people can see it. Another role is to do a better job of explaining what it is that our researchers are doing every day, and it isn’t just communication, but there’s also a role to be played in actually getting the expertise that’s locked up behind the ivory tower out, so that people can access it. And I would draw a distinction between that and communication, because communicating, to me, is—in my laboratory, we’re doing all this great stuff to try and understand the early universe, and we need to do a better job of explaining to people what we’re doing so they can appreciate it and experience it and see the wonder of it. But getting the expertise out so that people can access it is different in the sense that, we may here in Los Angeles, where we are, we may be trying to build an entirely new energy infrastructure. We’re trying to meet LA’s new sustainability goals—how do we get the academics, who are right here at USC, involved in that project? And that’s something we’ve been thinking very deeply about.

Francis: It’s a real shift in the role of universities overall, and I know you had mentioned something in a previous talk that you had given regarding the new social contract. Does it relate to that?

Amber: Yeah. So what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to find the new way to tap that academic expertise. When you think about it, right now the way most of this expertise gets out is, academics write papers, they write books, they write articles, they publish their findings and then someone in the policy sphere will look up an academic paper or make a phone call or read a white paper, but there’s a long time lag there, and there’s a mismatch between the kinds of problems that the academics are working on in their own time, focused on their own research, and the kinds of questions policymakers might need the answer to right now. And you don’t want to grab the academics and say, you can’t ask your own questions, you have to be focused on what the policymakers want, because that means that they are not doing that fundamental research that you need to build the base of knowledge. You don’t want to do that, but at the same time, here are people sitting right here in your city who have the answers to questions, and I can’t tell you how many times, both here in Los Angeles and also when I was in New York, when I would talk to people who were outside of the academy and they’d say, whether it was at a company or someone in the city or the county, saying “oh you know we’re working on this thing, and we have this researcher who’s looking this up,” and we would talk a little bit about what they were trying to get at, and it was just obvious to me that we have a faculty member who could tell you more than that researcher could find online in a week, in 20 minutes. So how you connect up that faculty member who has that expertise, who would be willing to spend 20 minutes talking to somebody and sharing that expertise, but they don’t know who to call, they don’t know how to access that person. So we are trying to create a new, really a mundane infrastructure, that something that creates an office, a connecting point, almost like a consultancy where people can come to get those kinds of questions answered. And it can be anything from a five minute conversation to a six or nine month or even a year-long research project where the university then becomes the research arm for the city, for the county, for the nonprofit community, for the business community. And it doesn’t have to take a huge amount of people’s time, it can be something they can do on the side instead of serving on a committee or instead of teaching one course for that semester, and that way you get, you can tap that incredible bank of expertise without sacrificing the researcher’s ability to do their primary production of knowledge type research that they’re doing in what I would think of as their “day job.”

Francis: It almost sounds like there’s a failure in the project management of society.

Amber: Yeah, I mean you can think of it that way. I do think that we have so many different silos, and we function OK because we have so many people who are doing—we don’t have to be maximally efficient. But I think when it comes to certain critical path things that society is dealing with, and I would put energy and the environment very much in that space, we need to solve this problem together as a society, we are out of time. To let that kind of random walk relationship between things get published in the academy, things that get commercialized to policy teams working in government, and to let the ideas sort of percolate out of the academic enterprise, to be able to be helpful, is not going to be good enough to save coral reefs and biodiversity and to prevent a lot of suffering, human suffering, on the global scale. So it feels to me like when you’re looking at something like that, you really have to activate all the talent you have in the most efficient possible way. And I’ve really been thinking about how does the university do our part in not just producing knowledge and generating the next generation of students, but really thinking about how do you directly get that expertise into the hands of the policymakers or into the hands of people working in a new company trying to get a new alternative energy project up and running. How do we create some shortcuts, because we’ve got to make this work.

Francis: Exactly.

Chris: You spoke of the value of a liberal arts education. Where does the English major fit in to all of this?

Amber: They fit in all over the place. Really, I think the term “liberal arts” needs a shake-up. You know, in much of our society both the term “liberal” and the term “art” have become bad words. But if you really look at it, you know, “liberal” comes from the latin word meaning “freedom,” and that was derived from the Sanscrit word that means “one climbs,” or “grows.” And “arts” comes from the Latin word that means “skill” or “craft.” So you could really think of a Liberal Arts education as an education through which you gain the skills to grow, to climb. It is not about reading old, stale texts, it’s about understanding the world, it’s about understanding humanity, understanding our culture, understanding our communities. It’s about understanding science, it’s about developing some quantitative skills to be able to do those back-of-the-envelope calculations in your everyday experience that allow you to guess whether something makes sense or not that you read in the paper. It is the kind of education that produces leaders, people who have the flexibility of mind to be able to come into a new situation and assess who the people are in the situation, what the boundaries are, what’s going on, who’s thinking what, what are some of the new ideas that can be brought to bear to solve a problem. How do you think about the problem from the standpoint of the humans involved, from the standpoint of what the problem is about. Is there a problem that has to do with a science question? What’s going on in the problem you’re dealing with? And that is important every single place you go. It’s something you need to be able to communicate, you need to be able to negotiate, all of those skills are things that you develop through what we now call the Liberal Arts education. And I really think of this as the difference between people who have the skills to function, sort of somewhere mid-way in the organization, and people who have the skills to build their own organization, to be somebody who can be a CEO or a President or a leader or someone who comes up with that new idea that changes the game. And that doesn’t matter if you are an English major or a chemistry major or an anthropology major. You are getting those skills if you are in an outstanding Liberal Arts program, no matter what your major is.

Chris: You also spoke about the value of inclusion in academia. This is something that comes up in the disability community, of which everybody on our team is a member—how do you deal with including students with disabilities at your campus?

Amber: There is an enormous amount of attention being paid right now to what we refer to as “diversity equity and inclusion”—and that’s not just students, that’s students, staff, that’s faculty. And the primary thing that we’re all thinking about, as we are getting involved in lists and lists of many things, is that it has been demonstrated time and again that outcomes are better and people are happier when you have inclusive and diverse groups of people involved, and that is true whether you are sitting around in a seminar, whether you are working on a project in the field, whether you are trying to create a leadership team. No matter what you’re doing, we have seen again and again that different perspectives and a sense of safety—and that’s where the inclusion piece comes in—a sense of safety and community that comes from people really feeling that they belong, no matter who they are, generates better outcomes and better ideas. Not to mention that it is the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, but, I think as a university is a place that has really grabbed that bull with both horns and is really trying to figure out how to do it right.

Chris: You also spoke a bit about empathy—do you think that a university can teach empathy, or is empathy something to do with mirror neurons and brain development, and is something hard-wired?

Amber: I am not a neuroscientist, so I would hate to take that one on from a scientific standpoint. But I will say, from an experience standpoint, I think empathy comes from understanding and exposure. And I think that the more time we spend with people who are not like us, in whatever dimension we think about, the more we realize that they are like us, and the more empathy that that breeds. And, you know, I think about that not just with humans, but I grew up with animals everywhere and I always had dogs, and you know some animals are more obviously this way than others. Dogs are a great example; you cannot grow up with a dog and believe that dogs don’t have feelings, or that they don’t get their feelings hurt, or they can’t be sad. You know, people say you shouldn’t ascribe human emotions to animals; but they’re not just human emotions, and when you spend a lot of time with animals, it’s so obvious that animals feel many of the same things that humans feel. I mean, there are dogs that are amazing, but so are so many other animals that we don’t day to day contact with, and I think for me personally, having spent so much time with animals as a kid, makes it impossible for it not to be very personally painful to me when I hear about the biodiversity loss in this world. I see a picture of a polar bear dying because there’s no ice for it to climb up on and no food for it to eat, and I—it makes me think of my dog when I was a kid, and the look in my dog’s eyes when the dog was sad, and I think that experience creates empathy. If it’s that true with animals, it’s even all the more true with people, it’s impossible to spend time with people who you would initially on the surface think are very different from you, but then when you’re spending time with them you realize that there’s so many more similarities than differences. And when you think about what does academia do for that, well academia is all about understanding communities and cultures and humanity, and the more you understand about that, the more it de-mystifies who all of these people are in the world, and I think it’s pretty difficult not to have that lead to development of a more empathetic perspective.

Francis: We as a society I think have different ideas about how much that matters, because on the one hand you’ll have, say, the free-market economy where it is sort of like a survival of the fittest model, and it extends into how people see each other. And the other level you have, when we talk about inclusion, is sort of more like the weakest link is the one that matters, and that we really should be caring about each other, and I think when you have empathy that’s really easy because you feel bad when other people are suffering. But I think one of the things that happens in our society is that we have kind of this spectrum of empathy that gets masked by political words like “libertarian” or “Republican/Democrat” but in reality it’s more how people are relating to each other. And there’s big differences in term of people who have that “rugged Individualism” that America is supposed to be famous for versus people who really want to kind of pull together and save this planet from destruction and save those animals, that kind of thing. You know, that filters into the kind of economy we have overall. I remember when I was thinking about the first time I heard the term “service economy”—I just shuddered, I was like “Ugh!” That sounds terrible! You’re going to take all these people with all this amazing potential who—and you’re going to throw them in a service job? Can’t we do better that that? I’m kind of rambling a little right now, but I feel like it’s all related to that empathy question.

Amber: Yeah, I mean I think our society has a very serious problem right now, in our lack of capacity to talk to each other in many, many different ways. I think what we’re doing is, we’re trenching into our own identity groups more and more and more. And one of the things that I’ve been involved in since coming to USC was the creation of a new center that we call the Center for the Political Future, and it’s run by Bob Shrum, who’s a very well-established Democratic strategist, and Mike Harvey, who’s a very well-established Republican strategist. And the things they disagree on are vast, but the things they agree on are that civil dialog and an insistence on intellectual arguments rather than personal attacks, or trying to debate ideas is critical. And they also agree that there are facts, and that in order to have a rational debate, you have to be able to accept the facts on the ground, you don’t just get to make up whatever starting point you feel like as the baseline for your debate. This has been a really great project for me, because I’ve gotten to spend time with both of them, and I am really thinking about what the Center can do. Recently we just hosted our first conference, we called the Climate Forward conference, which is a collaboration between the Center for the Political Future and our Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. The idea was not to have another debate about is climate change happening and what is the science of climate and what’s likely to happen, but really to say, allright, we know climate change is happening, that is scientifically established. Let’s talk about what it is that we can do about it, let’s bring in people from a whole range of different perspectives, academics and journalists and people in the political world, politicians from both sides of the aisle, and talk about what are the different approaches. And to really make sure that we’re engaging people from the wide range of political backgrounds, and trying to get us into one conversation about what it is that can be done. And I think we need to do a whole lot more of that, because again, I think people, if you get somebody who is very liberal and someone who’s very conservative in the room, right now they’re living in different worlds and they are focused on completely different worldviews. But if you start talking to them about their kids, and you start talking to them about their experience and the things that they care about, and getting them engaged with each other, again, there’s more similarity than difference when it comes right down to it, as human beings. And we all care about a future for our kids that is safe, and we all want air to breathe that is clean, and we all want water that is clean—there are many things that we can agree on, and it’s a matter of trying to figure out how do we get to those things we can agree on. How do we convince everybody that the scientific facts are what they are, and then say OK, now what? We can be working on this on a huge range of different issues, and that’s something that we really want to get more and more and more involved in at USC [*] where I am.

Chris: But how do you communicate with people who absolutely deny science? I mean, they say, you know, climate change can only happen if God wants it to, or the earth is only 6,000 years old, and people out there are like that and they’re voting.

Amber: Yeah, that’s right. And not every conversation can include every person. But I think that you can have conversations that include much broader ranges of people than are currently involved. You know, for example, people getting really focused on their own specific identity—if that identity gets too narrow, then coalitions fall apart. There are going to be people with whom you just disagree in so many different ways that there’s no point in having the conversation. But that’s not most of us, and I think that we can do a lot better at bringing together much larger groups of people in a rational set of conversations. And maybe not everybody is involved in every single one, but we can do a lot better than we’re doing now, I think.

Francis: And it’s urgent that we figure this out.

Amber: And not just energy and the environment. There’s immigration, there’s global health, and then when you get to maybe slightly one level down but still critically important, there’s cybersecurity, there are so many issues that we have got to figure out. And I think having people live in their silos and not really understand how to work together is just not good enough.

Francis: It sounds that collaboration, building bridges between disciplines, that sort of thing is, there’s a huge need for that and you’re answering that at your school…

Amber: Yeah, we’re trying. Interdisciplinary research is pretty well established at this point. I mean, I don’t have to push very hard, our faculty do that all by themselves. And I do try to facilitate that as much as possible, and try to make sure that we have the facilities we need to make that possible, and trying to break down barriers between our school and other schools. But I think the real challenge—maybe think of it as a moonshot kind of thing that we’re trying do that’s really different—is to try to think about how do you make the walls of the academy, particularly on the research side, not the education side, not that those aren’t important, but broadly the education side is already doing this a lot, but trying to make those boundaries more porous between the academy and the community. Part of this came up for me because when I was in New York, I ended up working for the New York Police Department counterterrorism division. And if you would think about this from the outside, there is absolutely no reason that I could have, or anyone I know could have imagined, how a cosmologist would end up working in counterterrorism. What happened was, I had been interested in many things, I became a member of Council on Foreign Relations, I was there at an event and I met the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism, and he and I ended up in a conversation and—I don’t even remember, I can’t remember how it came up, but he asked me if I would consider coming down and being their chief science advisor. And I had no idea what that would mean, and I’m not sure he totally had an idea at the beginning either, I don’t know, but I went down and we talked about it. And it turned out what they were doing was, they were trying to build essentially a ring around the city to prevent dangerous materials, devices, from getting in. And as the largest counterterrorism division in the nation, the New York Police Department got all the fun toys—they got the new radiation sensors and chemical weapons sensors and biological weapon sensors and new software, and all kinds of stuff from vendors and from national labs. And they had to figure out how do these new devices and pieces of equipment work, and how would they best be deployed. And in my laboratory, we were trying to build very large, very complicated telescopes that we would deploy either in remote locations in the middle of the [adaconda?] desert in Chile or up at 100,000 feet over Antarctica on a balloon platform—and they had to work. And so my team, what I would spend a lot of my day every day doing in the laboratory would be working with my graduate students and my undergraduates and my post-docs and saying, OK, we need to figure out how this camera works, how this sensor works, what does this lens do; so they would go off and they’d produce tests to figure out how this thing worked, and then we would all come back together as a group and everyone would report on their data, and we’d figure out how to deploy or not deploy these various constituent pieces. And it wasn’t that my research in cosmology per se had any application at all to counterterrorism, but the techniques we used, trying to figure out how these complicated new pieces of equipment that just came right out of the national labs or other research lab worked, was exactly wha tthe NYPD needed. And so I would do exactly the same thing, sending teams of their police out to do these kinds of tests, and then come back and we’d sit in the room and we’d look at the data, and it was exactly the same thing. It really got me thinking that, you know, if a cosmologist can be tapped to do that kind of stuff, anybody can be, because I was doing the most fundamental research of anybody, probably, at the university, and it was great fun for me—I learned a ton. I learned not only about something about counterterrorism, but how an entirely different industry functioned, and how those people think, and it was great and it was not a huge time commitment and it didn’t slow me down in my university efforts or my research career, but it was really interesting. And so it gave me a new perspective on how to think about the kind of talent that you can get out is not just the research that’s being built in the laboratory itself, it’s not just the chemical that turns into the chemotherapy treatment, but it’s the techniques, it’s the ideas, it’s the way of thinking, it’s the underlying expertise. And you have this pool of experts that you can draw from who have day jobs, so you don’t have to pay them all day—you can just pull them out and get them involved in something for a little while as needed. So we’re really trying to get that right now at USC, and if we get it right, what I would love for this to end up doing in the long run is providing a model for every other university to be able to do that. And then you’re not just talking about hundreds or thousands of faculty, you’re talking about tens of thousands of faculty who could be tapped to help with all kinds of problems. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning right now.

Francis: One of the things we like to ask our guests is, are you optimistic about the future and why?

Amber: It depends on the day. I have my moments. You know, in general I’m an optimist. I think that problems are solvable, I think that if you roll up your sleeves and you put together the right team, you can get things done. And when I look at the biggest problems facing our world today, I think yes, they are grave and they are serious and they are urgent, but humans are creative and we have the capacity to pull together and get it done. I just hope that enough of us are willing to roll up our sleeves and do that, and work together and try to overcome some of the political divisiveness and tribal sense of being on opposite sides of an issue, and be able to say what matters the future of humanity and the future of the planet, and we’re going to get this one right.

Francis: Is there any final thoughts about what’s new in either cosmology or astrophysics that you find really exciting at the moment, in laymen’s terms?

Amber: Well, I mean, I think everybody’s [*] is of the first image of the black hole, that’s probably the biggest astrophysics thing that’s hit the news lately.

Chris: Is that a bigger deal than the discovery of gravitational waves?

Amber: No, absolutely not. I just mentioned it because it’s much more recent. I think the discovery of gravitational waves is probably, it’s the most spectacular discovery in years.

Francis: Well, for those people out there that pretty much get their cosmology and astrophysics from Star Trek, would you like to explain what that is? Gravitational waves?

Amber: Gravitational waves are a whole other way of carrying energy. So, we think about the way we see the universe in every way that we’ve ever seen it up until gravitational waves were discovered, has always been through electromagnetic radiation. So everything that we see, every image we see with our eyes, is light—radio waves are light, X-rays are light, gamma rays are light, microwaves are light—everything we know, every ability that we’ve had to see and probe the universe around us has always been in the electromagnetic spectrum. The significance of the discovery of gravitational waves is that this is an entirely new way of carrying information and carrying energy, and gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space. And they’re basically, if you think about space as being like a rubber sheet, and you imagine dropping a pebble in the middle of that sheet, and the ripples that move out, the physical movement of that sheet itself is the analog of what a gravitational wave is doing in space. And what’s so remarkable about that, from the standpoint of astrophysics, is, since the discovery of the telescope we have had only one set of eyes on the entire universe, and the discovery of gravitational waves is as though we just got, now, ears. And now we have a whole other sense that we can use. You know, you think about the impact of the telescope—we discovered not only our own solar system, not only our own galaxy, we discovered that we live in this incredibly vast universe and we’ve discovered so many things about what is in that universe. And now, with gravitational waves, it just opens up this entirely new way of starting to understand the universe in which we live. The complexity, of course, is that gravitational waves are incredibly difficult to detect, so it’s going to take many years before we’re able to refine that new capability so that we get all of the richness out of it. But conceptually, it’s just incredibly exciting for that reason.

Francis: Would it help to learn about dark matter?

Amber: Maybe. I don’t know. My guess is probably not, because I think the leading theory for what dark matter is, is that it’s some sort of a particle that does not interact electromagnetically or does only very faintly. But I don’t know, I suppose it’s possible.

Chris: And with that, we’ll ask you the same question we ask everyone at the end of an interview, and that is, is there anything you would especially like to plug or promote, or something you’d like to leave our listeners with?

Amber: No, not really. I mean, i think the thing that I’ve been trying to get people thinking about is what we’ve spent some time talking about, which is how can we work together, and how can we bolster each other’s ideas and help each other be better. And what we’re really trying to do at USC Dornsife is to build this new academy in the public square initiative, where we help teach our academics how to do more of that and we engage the community and invite the community to come and work with us to try to figure out how to work better together. But we’re not really ready for the tidal wave of people to come and dive in quite yet, ‘cause we’re still building the models, so I wouldn’t plug “call us tomorrow,” but do keep an eye out for what we’re doing, and I hope it’s going to have as much impact as we would like it to.

This has been fun.

Chris: Thanks so much for coming on Making Better.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at MakingBetterPod.com and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us, or send us a donation. You can find the form for that on our website. Follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Episode 12: Jennifer Michael Hecht Transcript

Making Better—Jennifer Michael Hecht

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader!

Francis: Hey, it’s Francis DiDonato here!

Chris: And this is Episode 12 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring Columbia Professor Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Francis: And I’m really excited, because this is the first time we’ve had a poet on, who is actually going to read a poem.

Chris: Jennifer does do poetry, but she’s the author of three popular books: Stay, a philosophical history of arguments against suicide; Doubt, a philosophical history of atheism, and The Happiness Myth, a book that delves philosophically into modern culture and how we’re constantly being told to be happy.

Francis: Are you a fan of poetry?

Chris: Before we recorded the podcast episode with her, I read her entire collection called “Funny,” which is poetry but is also quite humorous.

Francis: I have this definition of poetry, let me run it by you: Poetry is truth beyond logic.

Chris: That’s poetic in and of itself!

Francis: (laughs) OK.

Chris: And with that said, let’s move on to the interview…

Chris: Jennifer Michael Hecht, Welcome to Making Better!

Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me.

Francis: Hey, it’s great to have you.

Chris: So you wear a number of hats—you’re a poet, you’re a philosopher, you’re a professor—how did you come to be all of those things?

Jennifer: Well, my father was an is a physicist, and I liked poetry, so when I went to college, which was where he taught—you know, it was very local, not the usual American college experience—yeah, I studied sort of everything, and by the end I literally had credits enough to be a history major or an English major and I just picked a line at graduation. But I kind of thought, because my father was (and still is) a college professor, and writes—he was home writing most of the time, and I thought I wanted to write poetry, so I decided to be a professor, and I wanted to know, to understand, a whole lot of different things. And history seemed like a skeleton that you could just keep adding things to, it gives you the structure so you can see what you’re doing. So history was what I was going to do, and I applied to graduate schools to do cultural history. I was going to write about poetry and history. I got a good deal to go to Columbia—I really wanted to leave the state, I grew up here, but they gave me the best deal and I didn’t have any money, so…While I was there, they kept saying “we’re trying to hire a cultural historian,” and I kept going to the interviews with them, they would give me the talk, and I would say, “great, I can work with this person”—and they just never hired one. Meanwhile, they had a Historian of Science who was already introducing me to some fascinating lines of inquiry, ways of thinking about these things, and I came to find that history of science was a lot like poetry. There was a kind of—how can I describe it—when you look at a society that’s spending a great deal of time measuring each other’s heads, why are they doing it? And the answer can only be poetic, the answer are things like, they were involved in empire, and they were suddenly scared about the difference between the French and the other peoples that they’re meeting. And yet, you look closely and they were more than any other race—which is, they said, was what they were doing—they compared French men and women’s heads, and concluded, of course, that women weren’t as smart. So the French threw that out pretty quick, with some dynamic men and women, but in any case, all of that kind of stuff, all history, is a little bit of a feel for it. You go into the archives, you unpack this box, and it could mean a lot of different things, but you use your own sense of psychology and the way things really work, and how competent are people? Like if you think people are competent and I think they’re not, we’re going to come to a very different story. I’m not going to come to a conspiracy theory story, ‘cause I’m not going to think people can manage that, right? I mean those are just examples, but I started to see that the history of science is a lot about how science didn’t work, how it was a cultural product, how it changed, and that felt like poetry enough to me that I got completely sucked in and I never really left. For a while, I felt a little uncomfortable about how totally different my two most important disciplines were—my history work and my poetry, but not now. Now it’s all come together, and it’s a very interesting experience for me. The book I’m writing right now is looking at how nonreligious people can use poetry, or already do use poetry, to do some of the tasks that religion used to do. So it’s glorious now, I can do research and just think about something and see what comes up.

Francis: That’s really fascinating. Can you just mention a couple examples of that, of how nonreligious people can use poetry in that regard?

Jennifer: Oh sure. The book I’m working on right now, it sort of is an idea that started from the most basic sorts of things, people at weddings and funerals and birth ceremonies, graduations a little bit, but especially weddings and funerals, have come to either add on poetry or replace religious items with poetry. And that started me thinking about how the sacred is constructed—you know, I’ve been saying for years that people, I call it “drop by and lie” religion where—and I’m not saying this is bad, I’m just saying it’s the situation that history has put us in, where many of us who are good people and just want to go along with what people want, and they don’t very much, and they’re willing to do the funeral or the wedding in a church or with religious aspects to it—but they still, they’re hungry for something that’s gonna speak to them, and say to them, here’s how we cope with death, here’s how we imagine the future with another person—and just create moments of heightened meaning. And that’s spread out to all sorts of different things, partially in work with my editor, who—and I’m a little older than her, and really it’s turned into more of a real guide, like here’s a problem and here’s a poem or three that can help change your perspective about it. But it also started in that I was giving a lot of talks and I would be invited to very scientistic places. And for a historian of science to see all these people so certain of science, when the whole thing that makes science cool is that it knows it’s 75% wrong today, and it’s going to work on those things, you know what I mean? Like, it knows it’s not right, that’s why it’s different than everything else, because it knows it’s not right and it’s looking. So aware of all the arrogance, and no mention of humanities, and I felt bad for people dealing with being human and not having the support of the humanities. And somehow we had just lost the notion that atheism, non-theism, a-religion, was for most of history in most cultures all around the globe, very much attached to humanities and literature. I mean, poets become poets because they don’t buy the story of what’s going on here. And so they’re searching for one they can buy. And if they’re leaning on religion, they become religious poets. So I was really trying to point out to people that we had this other resource, and while there I would end up—very often I’d quote Keats “when I have fears that I may cease to be…” I would tell them, look, this is a young man living in a Christian country, he’s just watched his mother die and tended her unto death of tuberculosis, then his brother dies of tuberculosis, and now he’s coughing blood in his white hanky—how does he feel? When he knows he could be a great poet and my god, he did more in his 26 years than anybody! There’s nobody who became a major poet at the age he did, certainly not in the English language, and what does he say? He doesn’t go to Jesus, he doesn’t go to God, he says he goes down to the shore, to the edge of the wide world to think until love and fame to nothingness do sink. He says, I go about and I see that giant sky—this part is my interpretation, but he’s saying he sees that ocean and he sees that giant sky and he knows that that’s what will shift his perspective and make it OK that we don’t live that long, we do what we can while we’re here.

Francis: While we’re on Keats, do you take the Ode to Grecian Urn “truth is beauty, beauty truth”—is that rhetorical, is that—how do you embrace or don’t embrace that part of that poem?

Jennifer: It’s one of these things that is poetically true and all poetically true things also poetically false in a way (I’m joking but I’m not joking)—So when Keats said it, and when Emily Dickenson said it, and when Emily Dickenson slightly shifted it and said it back to him, that what they were saying has a lot of strength to it. And the strength to it is partially that the imagination is where human beings live, and if what you know doesn’t match the inner life of a human being, it’s only interesting to us when we need that. What Keats says over and over in all sorts of different ways is that what happens in the imagination is a kind of truth for human beings, and it’s the direction we want to go in if we’re going to be wise and even happy, which kind of about this, just kind of giving, you just give once you realize you can’t get anything you want, really, not by taking it. So you make beauty, and you stop lying because lying doesn’t work, you don’t get anything, not for very long. On the other hand, if you tell me that a theory is true because it’s beautiful, I’ll sit you down, because that’s not how it works either. There’s no reason that a fleshy little short-lived piece of grub that we are, crawling around this dirt having been honed by evolution mostly to get food, avoid being killed and—not just having babies, that’s the easy, dumb part, it’s raising babies to the age that they can reproduce, that’s what evolution is. And there’s no reason that we are honed to even pick up the important information, let alone be able to make sense of it. So is there any reason that what we think of as “beauty” is always going to be true? How ridiculous, can’t be, we’re animals. However, within my human experience, those things are endlessly fascinating to look at.

Chris: Well, within your human experience you’ve written a number of books, in addition to the poetry. The first that I read was Doubt, your philosophical history of atheism. What brought you to atheism and what brought you to writing a history of it?

Jennifer: I was raised in a household with a very rational, smart but believing mother—sorry if I phrased it in an obnoxious way, but that was the case, and she—I’m learning more and more as I begin to ask her further questions—you know, she actually raised us with a little bit more religion than she was raised with, which is sort of hard to take in, in some ways. But my dad—also Jewish, both, they met in Brooklyn when they were kids, both very poor and just hung around with each other and then eventually got married. My dad is a physicist, as I said, and doesn’t believe in God, but my grandparents were the Holocaust generation. We were already here, people mostly came over around 1905. You know, there was just a lot of feelings about being Jewish, but my dad didn’t believe in God, and I remember asking when I was young whether he would be doing any of the rites and rituals that we did—and we didn’t do a ton of them, but we did some every year without fail. He said he probably wouldn’t be doing them if my mom wasn’t starting it. So, I came from a place where, I guess, I had more room to think about these questions, and as I’ve been saying for a long time—though it’s very hard to go back and know why I knew this, but as some point at twelve years old I had this, kind of an epiphany, like many young people have when you suddenly see the world differently than you saw it when you were a child, but it was just a, you know, a certain slant of light, and I suddenly felt like, if I had been born anywhere else, i would believe those things. And it made me see that we were animals on a planet, and we had a lot to deal with, and a lot of it was misinformation, and I knew that there was no god, and I had believed before, and I was sad for a little while, and then I broke out of the sad part of it and started, sort of, investigating. I think it was poetry that let me know that there were ways of—well, as Rilke puts it, living the questions. And that you can’t know answers until you get there, which as any person who’s getting up there starts to realize that’s true, but as a young person you have to first see it. So I was at Columbia, had already been an atheist a long time, didn’t think it had anything to do with much—a lot of people I knew were atheists, because I was so close to New York city and it’s a very open-minded world in some ways, at some times—and so at Columbia, I had to pick a dissertation topic, that’s what goes on. I had settled on France for—other long stories reasons—but I was reading a whole lot of different stuff, and I found in footnotes of two disserations mentions of the Society of Mutual Autopsy in France, turn of the 19th to 20th century, mostly it happened in the 19th century. I just found it fascinating, I could see there was something delicious in there and that other people were sort of scared of it, so they buried the headline—what does it mean, and is it serious scholarship to look at this? You know, when it was time to go do my research, again, because that’s what you do, I went to Paris and searched for the archives to the Society of Mutual Autopsy, and eventually found them. It soon became clear that they were radical atheists, that some of them were doctors, none of them were anthropologists because they were inventing it. These atheist people who came together first as atheists and anti-royalists in France said to each other—I mean, we have the letter that, where they say it—they say look, anthropology is gonna be where we can fight the church. Darwin wasn’t even on their mind yet, really, because Origin of Species wasn’t translated into French until 1871 by Clement *—and when she did she was one of them, and translated it with a huge preface, like 1/5 of the book size preface saying how this proves atheism, which she knew all along, even from Lamark, and the French reviewed it as “the translator has seen farther than the scientist”—and Darwin was irked by it and eventually asked for a new French translation. I think she had passed on by then, but she was a real interesting character—not all good, but awfully interesting, from our standards. So I was drawn into writing about these atheists, because they were doing something very interesting; they were dissecting each other’s brains after death to prove to the Catholic church that the soul doesn’t exist. They said as much, they were also trying to find relationships between brain morphology, weight, typology and traits, abilities, intelligence. And the reason they were doing this—and this finishes my thought from before I wandered off from that—it wasn’t Darwin that made them think they should invent anthropology, the science of men to use against the church, it was Broca. Carl Broca, I guess 1848, found the first definite relationship between an area of the brain and an ability. So it’s still called Broca’s aphasia, and it means if you have a lesion on your third left frontal convolution, you will have trouble speaking. We now know that the brain can sometimes compensate and build up in other parts, but this was the first time—and it really shocked the religious, who really had been saying, Catholic France believed, that the brain was a chair that the soul sat in, and that was so firm a belief that it made them feel, Oh my God, religion is wrong, we have no souls. They of course got used to it later said, right, the soul is different than that—but not at first. It really worked, it shook everybody in France, and you add to that that Darwin’s showing where we came from, but to the French atheists Lamark was enough. Even though Lamark was wrong, Darwin thought he was right, Darwin quotes Lamark a great deal and doesn’t dismiss it at all. He says, there seem to be these kind of inner push toward a certain direction of evolution. And Lamark had said that during the French Revolution, you know, a good deal before Darwin. So there is no, that we understand, there is no push in a certain kind of direction. The thing is, epigenetics, right now, is proving that Lamark had more on the ball than we thought, because indeed the way that a person lives, or what happens to you, including trauma, can change how your genes show up in the next generation—not because of DNA change but because of epigenetics.

Chris: Some contemporaries though, like Steven Pinker, who argues that we’re evolving to be a better species.

Jennifer: I don’t agree with that. His methodology is so different from my own that it’s not something I worry about processing very much. I don’t think that that’s the case—I think if anything, it’s going in the other direction, and I mean that largely in terms of, well, it’s a totally separate conversation and not that interesting. Whether we grow more moral over time is a wonderful philosophical question, and I don’t know the answer, and I try to live as if I believe that some gains are lasting; but in the United States right now, that’s a little hard, it’s a little hard to keep that kind of optimism going.

Chris: Well that’s why we started the podcast, though, was to try to provide an alternative, optimistic approach to what’s going on out there in the news…

Jennifer: Very much needed…you know, there’s this Muriel Ruckheiser poem—I don’t think I can remember the exact words—what is, the poem essentially starts that she, “I lived in the 20th century the first, “I lived in the first century of world wars, most days we were entirely mad” You know, and just like—that gives me a little bit of relief, just feeling like, oh, hearing from someone who says that in order to go around with normal life when the world around you is doing things you thought you’d put your body in front of; I mean, the babies in cages right now, I mean—if you hear my voice catch, I don’t want to talk about it, it’s too upsetting. But you know, it’s very hard to figure out all the right things to do. So yeah, it’s hard to keep up optimism when the world is literally dying around us, you know? No, the world isn’t getting better.

Francis: Human consciousness might be evolving in a lot of people—like people are getting more educated, in some ways people are becoming more spiritual in a non-religious way—maybe it speaks to a litte of what you were referring to, where there’s an interest in reverence, a basis for reverence, or the sacred in life, even void of religion or Gods. And the thing is, though, that power is being concentrated amongst people who haven’t been along for that ride. And we have a lot of people who are capable of living really peaceful, productive, amazing lives who are in a society that’s not geared toward permitting that. And this relates to a question I wanted to ask you about, happiness. You have people who say, for whatever reason, aren’t particularly empathetic. They are very, very narcissistic and selfish, and what happiness means to them is kind of like destructive to the earth, to a lot of other people. So I guess what I’m getting at now is, you have power in the hands of a lot of these people who are at that level of narcissism and destructiveness, and then you have all these other people evolved in another direction that really don’t want power. So how do we bridge all that, how do we get out of this mess? Are we allowed to say it’s OK for Donald Trump to keep doing what makes him happy?

Jennifer: No, of course not. And there’s a great deal of philosophical work on how, in order to achieve a certain kind of freedom, some people have to have less freedom, and especially in order to have a rule that values tolerance, you have to have to censor the intolerant people. People have trouble with that, but there’s sort of a lot of philosophical and sociological work—not that I’ve read it all—but that idea of limiting his happiness, that’s not a problem. What’s a problem is, as you say, the whole system is not set up to support the things that a lot of us care about. You know, when you’re young—I don’t know, I guess some people try to get theirs when they’re young, but a lot of other people try to change things. And you know, for overall fixes, you should’ve asked me ten years ago when I thought I knew everything—I’m joking, but what I have right now is that I’ve noticed, as I was sort of pointing at before, that the only thing that really works for me is being vulnerable, telling versions but trying to speak the truth about who I am, which is a mess a lot of the times, you know? I mean, yes, I could pretend that I’ve got everything together because I have these accomplishments, of these books and the other things, different prizes mean different things to different people, but it’s just not true. I’m 100% sure that success doesn’t make anybody more than possibly 5% happier, but it’s a good chance it makes you 10% less happy, because you don’t get what you want. You thought you wanted love, but impressing people does not get you love. It doesn’t. It gets you attention, it’s gets, you know, it’s you some stuff. But what works is crying in front of people when they’re crying, and just trying to say, let’s have strength in this together, and part of the way that happens for me is because I am thinking about life and death all the time, because I’m a poet, because I’m an historian, because I’m someone who’s trying to bring some poetry to people who might need it and who don’t think of it as something that can help. And so the other thing is that Stay book, we really haven’t talked about my argument against suicide. I’ll just put this capper on then, or segue, which is that I never feel so bad about myself that I can’t appreciate that I put the work in and made that book happen, because it helped. I mean, I hear from people, I don’t really want to expand on what I hear back from the world, but it lets me know that you can make a difference, you can help, or at least I can, when I can get myself to do the thing I can do sometimes—which is not all the time. So that your question, what can we do to get out of this mess—I frankly wish that Winston Churchill would go on the radio and say, let’s all just march down to the White House and—or just march down to the internment centers, that’s the first thing. You know, that this could happen while I’m alive and seeing it, and I’m still trying to figure out how I could, I don’t know, I try a lot of different things, and guess what—you get in trouble a lot of the time. So it’s really hard. But yeah, the Stay book lets me always know—though Doubt did too, people still reach out and tell me that they were just dying of guilt and misery and solitude in the middle of the Bible Belt and now they feel OK! So, for me, you do whatever you can do, and you don’t worry too much about that the whole thing’s collapsing because there’s a good chance to whole thing’s collapsing.

Chris: Seeing you talk at the QED conference, I think it was 2016, and then coming home to Florida and reading Stay was a really transformative event for me. I mean, I previously had been hospitalized twice for suicide attempts, and another time for ideation, and Stay just spoke to me so profoundly that I, I never think about suicide any more, unless I’m thinking about somebody else.

Jennifer: Me too! I mean—alright, the truth is I’m a little ideational too, and the words still sometimes go through my mind, but I just bat it away now, I don’t sit and think Oh my god, what did this thought, that I can’t go on, mean, and what does it mean about what I have to do—if it comes to my mind now, it’s with the same intensity as if you’re driving and someone cuts you off and you think, I gotta get that guy!—and then you just dismiss it. I too suffer from a kind of darkness and self-criticism and hopelessness that sometimes gets the better of me. And so I too have been very much helped by the arguments that I was able to put together and make vivid enough to me that I don’t really have to do any work about it any more, for myself.

Chris: Do you have some idea on how potentially humanity can avoid committing sui-genocide?

Jennifer: Well, I certainly have been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between the mass shootings and suicide—because those mass shootings that we’ve been having in the States are mostly suicide affairs, that is, they don’t even have a backup plan, they went in to kill themselves and, I’ve seen people say but the prime thing was to kill others, and other people say the prime thing was to kill themselves, they just decided to take people with them—I don’t know what the prime thing was, but I’m sure that there’s definite overlap in the hopelessness and the sense that many people have that they are the only ones who see how absurd this whole thing is. People do seem to perk up a little bit when they read a book that tells them that these feelings have been going on for a long time, and maybe they’re not the majority, but they have friends and there is a place where your pain will be embraced and a better world nurtured. So, what’s going on with the biggest issues in America today seemed to me to be problematically interwoven with religion—I have seen the monied Christians who are happy to say, I mean for the last 40 years, saying, yeah, we hear your environmental problems but the Lord gave us this planet and we should have dominion over it, and never said anything about using anything up, and when we do use it up, then the Second Coming comes—if they believe these things, then dealing with religion is a really good place to deal with this, including what they could possibly be thinking about Christian brotherhood with what’s going on at the border, but more importantly in terms of it being specifically a Christian idea. Controlling women’s bodies, which led to so many deaths when we didn’t have abortion rights in the past, because if you can’t do it you just get an illegal abortion, that’s what always happens and people just die, that’s the difference. People in a certain state go to another state, and if that state’s illegal, they die there. So that one and the environmental issues, and what about the insanity of the tiny percentage of Americans who have all the food and stuff and they give a little to charity because they want people to be happier, are you kidding me? People want work, people want education, simple stuff that they’re stockpiling money for some weird social game, and a lot of them say that they’re Christian that are making these decisions on the basis of religion. I’m not saying Christianity is the only religion that does that, I’m just living in a country where the Christian vote is the one that really seems to determine things and it’s let me feel that the platform I’ve built for myself, it does have a lot of different pieces, but unless I’m invited into something that seems like it would use my talents, it sort of looks to me that my best way of helping the world is to continue to show people the delights of an open mind, and that’s what I’m doing.

Francis: I’d be curious to know what your feelings are, or what your thoughts are, regarding the need for myth in society and how religion has always been a way that, I think, humanity’s kind of answered that question? But when the metaphors turn into facts, you know that’s when you get the kind of religions we have now. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that in particular, like what sort of myths would help people today, if at all, and who is writing these myths and how are they affecting society?

Jennifer: It’s absolutely true that human beings make models in our heads, often when we are quite young, maybe we change them once or twice as we mature, and the myth has to be something that would make some emotional sense to us about what’s success or love or being a good person, or being an important person, would mean. I’ll bring up Churchill again, just because it’s—I was just reading it, and I was thinking about what makes people act, and what makes them passive. That’s really been the question that drew me into history in the first place, I really wanted to know. All you have to do is read a little bit of history, and you realize people rip up a few cobblestones for a barricade to have a revolution almost every day. But the vast majority of the time, it goes zero, it goes nowhere. Even when it gets going a little, it’s usually just a riot or just a little—it’s not a full-on rebellion, it’s certainly not a full-on revolution. What makes people act? It’s definitely not when things are the worst, when things are the worst, like American slaves revolted in places where they were not treated the worst—because they weren’t so broken that they couldn’t. It’s hard to see, it’s not always the worst treatment, the worst situation, sometimes it’s losing what you thought you were about to get that would have made things better, and you can’t tolerate going back, so it’s not even something new that’s bad. So what makes people, what makes people act? And at a speech like Churchill’s, you know, saying we’ll fight in the streets, we will never surrender—I’m susceptible to that, you know? People—language creates these myths as well as, of course, a certain amount of lived behavior, but I’ll sidestep a little bit and say that I count myself lucky that we’re living in a time when people are putting their vulnerabilities more on display in public than in recent history where I live. So that, somebody says, come read my new Instagram article! And my first thought is a kind of competitiveness, ‘cause once this person snubbed me at a party—you know, whatever it is, and then I go and look at the thing, ‘cause I want to know, is there anything here, and what I find there is this beautiful reckoning with a tortured inner self—I put the book down feeling less alone, stronger, wanting to try to be nice again next time I see the person, but it’s not really about that. It’s that I feel not in this alone, and that myth, the myth of—let’s say it’s two different myths: a myth of never showing weakness, like the Kipling “If” poem, and never breathe a word about your loss; or on the other side, people who are very much interested in taking away the mythology of their own success because they know that envy and desire hurt them so badly that they don’t want to be part of that. But also seeing that there’s cultural room to say, “I was in pain.” I mean, there’s not much cultural room, you’re allowed to say you were in pain, you were an addict, you’re not really allowed to say that you’re in agony right now and on a regular basis, and still have problems, you know what I mean? With issues, that they love that you solved, but are not really interested in the binges in between your moments of absolute purity. Nevertheless, with all caveats, still, we’re living in a moment where there’s room for the mythology to be—and it too is a mythology, but it’s a closer to reality and closer to health mythology—the mythology that a human being is a person who falls down and keeps getting up, rather than that if you fall even once, you’re done and you should go hide. But yeah, the mythology—that’s part of the poetry, it’s part of what reading is—you know, you read a book where someone makes it through a difficult thing by maybe debasing themselves for awhile. Maybe putting up with something they shouldn’t, but don’t know how to get out of—and then you see how it ripened them, to use Shakespeare’s term, “all is ripeness.”

Francis: I have a book I would like your opinion on, then, what about Candide by Voltaire? His take on happiness, what do you have to say about that?

Jennifer: It’s very limited, so it’s a mistake for a lot of people, but it works for a while—ok, so let me be more specific: at the very end of Candide, having been beaten and shit on by the world, having seen his friends have their limbs whittled away, having watched the people that they love get leprosy and awful, disgusting things happen to them—at the very end of that tiny little book, he comes up with the final line, that should cultivate your own garden. We should each just hide from the world—that ain’t gonna work, that’s not a workable situation. But look who wrote it—Voltaire isn’t most to be admired for what he wrote, he is most to be admired because he was the man who invented public protest against religious abuse. The Church was gonna torture a father because, I think, somebody murdered the wife and children and the father was Protestant and the wife and children were Catholic, and so there was a kangaroo court and they were going to kill the husband for being Protestant, essentially. (I’m not sure I remember this story precisely, but) Voltaire said, everybody who reads me, everybody who can hear me, everybody, we have to do this stuff to make this not happen. And it worked! And he kept doing it, he kept taking up subscriptions to pay for better legal stuff for people caught in this, and it was picked up. It was one of the big things we learned from the Enlightenment, and it was Voltaire’s good heart saying, I’m not going to sit here and watch this, and I’ve got just enough fame to start talking a little bit. So, he’s not a man who just cultivated his own garden.

Francis: Maybe that’s how he cultivated his garden.

Jennifer: Well, yes, if you make all of France your garden, then I’m fine with the statement. But I think that Candide, even his name, means “innocent,” and so he’s always a babe in the woods, throughout the book, even when he’s learned everything, he’s still the naive voice. He’s Candide, and you can’t be Candide in a world like this.

Francis: Well, it seems like a lot of people think that it’s all good, it’s nice to have Candide around for them to read and maybe reassess that theory.

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s true. I read it first when I was pretty young. I read it in the English version for some Western Civ class, and then eventually read it in French when I was learning the language—not too taxing, in that book, but you know it’s definitely stayed in my mind tremendously as these different voices—you know, Dr. Pangloss saying “This is the best of all possible worlds,” and all of us tried to believe that things are running about as well as we could hope, and—I mean, if you’re mature enough to have seen your own plans go awry a few times, you stop being too arrogant about how things go wrong, and Pangloss was wrong. It’s not the best of all possible worlds, that was another way that Voltaire was making fun of religion, because that basis of it, being the best of all possible worlds, was based on, you know, God made the world, so it must be that every horror that you see is somehow useful in a way that makes up for it—which is just, it’s the most morally repugnant thing I can imagine. It’s just so awful when I hear any religious idea that the world is gonna be made fair, is moral, it’s a shanda, as we Jews say, it’s a shame.

Chris: Well, this brings us to your book, The Happiness Myth, where you discuss quite a few different visions of happiness and synthesize parts of them into an overall objective.

Jennifer: The Happiness Myth is, in a way, my history of science education. The Happiness Myth is what it looks like to be a scholar writing about issues that are not anything to do with, sort of, how we live our lives every day kind of thing. But you look around and you see behavior that you don’t see throughout all of history, you see in other forms, but we take very seriously some things that are not standard in the human way. So, I looked around and I saw on every street corner in New York City, there were—and every city I went to—there were these glass-walled gyms where, in the time of an energy crisis, we have able-bodied, healthy men, women and young people, running on a machine actually called a treadmill, called doing work going nowhere, and we plug it in! So that it even draws energy! We take the escalator to the Stairmaster, and we do that because we are showing class, that’s how it’s always been. We hire teenagers or foreigners to mow the lawn, to do the normal housework, to do the stuff that would have kept us fit, and we have dirty clothes that we keep—you know, we have gym clothes we keep in a separate bag marked “leisure,” and that’s where we’re willing to sweat. And this cult of the body beautiful, which is about those windows—whenever we see it, through history, historians say, oh that’s a militaristic trope. Right? We see the ancient Spartans, men and women exercising naked, all the sculptures were about physical beauty, we see it in fascist Germany, we see it in the slave plantations in the American South, that a sports culture that has nothing to do with production is created to retain the masculinity of the upper class. So we can get the poor people to sweat, but we stay muscle-y. And it looked to me like, as a nation, we were trying to show everybody else, look how strong we are—but we’re also so rich that we’re not actually going to do the fighting, it’s a sort of symbolic, sort of sexualization of the nation and also just this—so how was I thinking like that when I never saw anyone think anything like that? I was thinking like that because I had been using the tools of the history of science applied to history of philosophy, trying to just tell a story of the history of people who didn’t believe their religions. And the result of it left me feeling like the people around me were in a hypnotized trance about the value of fitness, about the importance of taking this drug, but never taking that drug, about the idea that our food isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. You know, a lot of these things are very old human stories, slightly changed in every time in history and in our time in history, you know, changed just enough so they seem new and true—but it’s all temporal prejudice. If we could just get it through our heads that the future will see us the way we see the past, it really helps. I’ve heard from a lot of people who it helps, so it doesn’t help everybody, or rather, I don’t know what happened exactly with The Happiness Myth, but I guess I came out with it too fast after Doubt. But for me, that was a book that was, I guess my first intellectual-poeticism, a kind of feeling around for what’s going on. Like in the case of Thiness, a hundred years ago, all different sizes of women were allowed, it was just a matter of being an hourglass shape. Now, you can be shaped like a board, shaped like a boy, shaped anyhow you want, but we don’t want to see whalebones in the corset under your clothes, you can wear a loose T-shirt, but we want to see your bones. So we’ve internalized a lot of these kinds of strictures that we think we’ve freed ourselves from, and that kind of thinking is, as I say, it’s poetic, it’s not something you can prove right or wrong. You can certainly set up other examples to the point where I might rethink what I’m seeing, but The Happiness Myth is not so much how to be happy—though I do, there is a section on the most lasting, ancient and present wisdom about how to stay happy, things like “remember death, it makes you live.” It lets you live, if you’re hiding from it all the time you don’t live, and if you live, you care less about the dying thing. So, there were some specific things to say, ways to think about worrying and ways to not worry—things like That, in sort of the front of the book, where I say the one thing that a lot of reviewers sort of grabbed onto, but I don’t talk about it that much in the book, which is that there’s “good day happiness” there’s “good life happiness,” and there’s ecstacy. And you need a little bit of ecstacy in your life, but it doesn’t have to happen every year—you need to have moments of transcendence where you danced like a crazy person and you felt one with everybody—there has to be some of that kind of stuff in your life, but you know, I’ve heard from people who believe in God because 50 years ago at church camp, they had a feeling near a rock. These transcendent moments matter, but if you don’t want to deal with the parking, you don’t have to go to the rave every weekend. You don’t have to go do these things much, but a good life tends to have some. Good life happiness is often the opposite of good day happiness—to have a good day, you often have to do things that will add up to a good life, but that aren’t that much fun today. And so that was a piece that people did find attractive, the notion that you can forgive yourself, because you can’t serve all these masters on the same day. You won’t have a good week if that’s the week where you have an ecstatic experience, ‘cause you’re probably gonna feel lousy the next day, given that ecstatic experiences tend to be a little hard on the body, or travel, or whatever—I’m just trying to say that, that was something that was a piece that I felt like I sort of came up with, and that helped people think about happiness, but a lot of the book really was just saying, check if what you’re terribly worried about is something that is a longstanding goal of humanity or a real weird little thing of your moment. You know, I talk about “Fletcherizing” in the last century, this guy Fletcher decided that if we chewed our food, if we chewed every mouthful thirty-two times (I’m guessing, I don’t remember anymore), that that would lead to health. You know, there were cartoons about it in the paper all over Europe and America saying you can’t go to dinner parties anymore because everyone’s Fletcherizing, they’re all just chewing, and they have the Jameses, Henry and William, are both chewing! I mean, you can be very smart, but it feels good to take part in the things that that people around you are doing, and often it’s healthier even if it’s a stupid thing, to be doing something everyone else is doing—not indicting anyone for it, I’m just saying if you’re feeling like being normal and doing just the normal, good stuff is beyond you, check to see which of those things are transcendent problems that you really need to deal with, and which are just—you don’t like corsets? Well, you live in the wrong century, that’s the only problems. You don’t have a problem, you know what I mean? And so The Happiness Myth was mostly debunking a kind of acceptance that we do, and I had so much fun with that kind of thinking, you know, just to say wow, there was famine in every generation—certainly in Europe, there was famine in every generation until about—by 1850 we’d started to get the railroad tracks down, so in the past there’d been enough food on earth, they just couldn’t get the food to the starving people fast enough so that the food doesn’t rot and the people are still alive when you get there. So, it was before refrigeration, so the history of us as starving beings is so long and deep, the story of us with the wolf at the door, and in essentially a quarter of a century we turned into a people of great bounty. Many of us are living in countries where there’s certainly enough food—it’s not always the food you want to eat, but the food is everywhere and so abundant. I mean, we didn’t have supermarkets before, you went to a market there might be a board with two applies on it. It wasn’t even there to be purchased all the time. So the abundance of our supermarkets, it just seemed to me important to make the point that after millennia of worrying about being too thin, as soon as we got the food, we just kept on worrying. We just flipped it over and said, now we’re scared that the food, we’re having too much food. That kind of thinking, to sort of, just kind of shake everything a little bit and see how it looks—for me, it’s always what I find the most emancipatory. And so I offer it, and it works for people who think like me.

Chris: And you write about, in Happiness Myth, about people going to gatherings and community and things like that; I go to QED every year and that’s where I was first exposed to you, and Francis, my co-host, here enjoys Star Trek conventions, and you mentioned them specifically in the book.

Jennifer: The society that we live in right now broke down a lot of the small communities—family got more important and national government got more important. A hundred and fifty years ago, as many have argued, if you went up to a peasant in the fields of France and asked what country they were in, they wouldn’t know. The overall–they would know what county they were in, just as if you ask a person on the street today what planet we are away from the sun, to my surprise, they don’t know. But if they all had little buggies that flew into space, they would know. The government, the overall nation, became much more important, and the nuclear family as a place of love, meaning, comfort, became much more important and everything in the middle disappeared. Even the last century had those Elks Clubs, these sort of clubs for men after work, those have all disappeared; and there were ladies auxiliaries, which were how a lot of women had their socializing. So my tendency, my personal tendency is to hide—I will isolate if given a chance, especially when I’m writing well. I have two kids, they’ve just entered teenage-hood, and a husband and a dog, and I have a life, and so it’s not like I’m alone, but I can seal myself off from the rest of the world rather easily. And then when I nudge myself back into it, I realize that it feeds you in all these ways that I was missing, that I didn’t realize I was missing. But for me, the push—I have to make the effort to go be with people, and other people have to make the effort to spend some time alone. I have all sorts of techniques for keeping myself busy and interested, alone, and having this little family which right now, of course, young teenagers, they need you a lot—and so, that’s where I am right now. So I don’t want to sound like somebody who believes that being with people is always the way to go. I do think it is more healthy.

Chris: Something I struggle with is agoraphobia, and I sometimes can get so anxious I can’t leave my house, so…

Jennifer: Yeah, it feels like, it’s more like feeling judged, like do I look alright? Did anyone, did someone just look at me funny? and I’ll just feel like, oh, it’s easier to not go out. So for me, I do advise anybody who has the same tendency that I do, tendency to isolate, to practice, to just keep practicing, and to frame it in a lot of different ways. One of the ways I’m framing it lately for myself is the idea of practice: like if I feel very uncomfortable with something, why should I do it? Go practice, go see, go try—not that I am always able to do that, but when I am being social on a regular basis, even if that’s once a month, but especially if it’s more like once a week, yeah, I’m definitely better for it, I feel better. So I think, my feelings about concerts and conventions, they change a little bit over a lifetime. Before we went to recording, we were all talking about music, and that going to hear live music was always a major thing for me and, just felt so alive, that experience. When I can—I don’t do anything but sing, but when I can—or play the drums, you know I can’t really play the drums but I can bang on something—I find that kind of experience very, very satisfying and good. And yet again, like a lot of people, I’m not always able to do these things. When I got a little bit—I guess I aged out of listening, going to the kind of live music that I had been doing—since then, I guess, it’s always a little bit of an experiment. I did a lot of going to readings for a long time—that’s not quite the same, it’s a little bit attached to the world of work for me—but I guess it’s true, that that is what I continue to do that gets me into a social place and grounds me a little. I go to readings and lectures, so I meet people and I talk to them, but yeah, there’s something interesting for Americans and many people all over the world that sports gatherings take the place of a lot of religious behavior, even if they’re very religious, they may never have a chance to be shouting and upset and then shouting happy with a crowd of thousands—and that’s part of what the religious life gives some people.

Francis: I’ve also heard that sport events are one men are allowed to be emotional with each other—but I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how social media has really in some ways alienated people from each other, it’s like we’re all connected in a way that—now I’m friends with people on Facebook that I haven’t seen in 30 years, in elementary school or something like that—but at the same time, it kinda creates this illusion that you are interacting with other people in a way that is satisfying.

Jennifer: I…stepped way back, for, whatever, I don’t know what it was, maybe five years, pretty much soon after it came out, and I get Facebook messages from nine to ten years back. But it really started to be something that everybody was on and doing, around eight or nine years back for me, and I did it like everyone else—pretty regularly, in and out of, you know, moods where I was posting every day, or every other day, or a couple times a day—now I’m pretty much off. I found that I scan Facebook and Twitter and Instagram at least every day, probably a few times—maybe not Twitter, Twitter I’ll check more infrequently—but probably every day I check these things to see what’s going on. I often get important news from a lot of different weird kinds of news, from just a quick scan. But overall, personally, it was harming my well-being more than it was doing me good. I’m frankly glad that it still exists and everybody else is on there, because then I can check in, and check my world, and I can click “Like” on a few things and then get out of there before I start to get—and I am not proud of this, but it is true—I start to get envious. A lot of the people that I’m Facebook friends with, because I’m a writer, a lot of people are writers or do-ers, or people writing about how happy they are, about each birthday, each holiday, each anniversary, each everything, and—I don’t think it’s good for my head. I shut it all off and the birds are singing outside. Yes, there’s also someone using a saw. I found that curating my world during the 2016 election, I simply ended, I blocked, I un-friended everybody—even the people I went to high school with—anybody who wanted to talk about this guy as worth a shot, I just said no. No, no, nope, no. And so I have the most radically left-wing atheist poet list of 5,000 friends on a rolling basis, and most of them I don’t know, but I have started Instragram in September. For the most part I just put silly pictures on there, or pictures of my art—I always have some sort of art project going, because when you’re working very cerebral ways and giving a lot of yourself in mothering—well, it’s just really nice to make something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but just to make things. And so I make things—I don’t know, I probably sit down and do some kind of art at least once a week and sometimes every single night, for months on end, just because I can’t quite handle myself, and that’s what settles me, and that’s where I can be at peace, ‘cause I’m never competing when I’m making art, I’m not trying to…I mean, I do weird things with my art and sometimes I get in the newspaper for it and stuff, so it’s like I’m not showing the things. It’s not that my art’s so good that I get that sort of thing, it’s that I think of these weird things and carry them out and—yeah. Like, I’ve been painting rocks. I find rocks in New York City, I bring them home, I wash them, disinfect them, paint them bright colors of all sorts of different designs, and then polyurethane them and then put them back out on the street. I’ve been doing it for a bunch of years now, but I had a different weird project before this, all self assigned, and they give me some joy! And this one is a lot of fun, because the world is involved. Of course, they steal the rocks, but I just find bigger and and bigger rocks. People have caught on—anyway, I don’t know why I’m talking about it, but someone did write that up in the newspaper. So do I have some ego in it? Yes. But the reason that it calms me is because it’s not about ego. I’m giving it away, I don’t sign most of them. I like color, and I like how simple that is, and I’m sitting around with my kids just being with them, and I don’t care what we’re watching, and so I have a little project for myself—just do some art. And again, it’s this project has held my attention so much because I hear back from people, so it’s community-building even though I’m alone when I’m doing it. When I put them out, people come running up and give me hugs and stuff, because it—I don’t actually know why everyone likes it so much, but they do. Well, the kids, I do know there are kids, every time kids walk down the blocks where they are, they run and they’re counting them, and it’s just so—it’s beautiful. A woman came up to me and said, she showed me her phone, and she said “I want you to see this,”—it wasn’t her kid who wrote it, but she went to her kid’s school, and they had been asked to write what they could do to make the world a better place, and this kid wrote “I can paint rocks and put them out for my neighbors.” It was like, that was his charity act that he could think of, which must mean it gave him something to see these, you know. Yeah, that’s just the sort of thing that really gets me, makes me really happy, feel connected, but I’m not always in the crossfires, you know…anyway.

Francis: That is really beautiful. I’ll be looking out for them. Do you do them on the Lower East Side at all?

Jennifer: I haven’t, no, and I definitely have found that if I concentrate them on a few blocks, they get stolen much slower, because people see that there’s a project, it’s not just a pretty thing. So it’s mostly around the Bergen Street stop on the F train in Brooklyn. But once you’re there, you’ll see ‘em. I’ve done like four hundred and seventy-something, and those are only the ones I numbered! I don’t even number half of the ones I do. It’s been going on for about, I don’t know, four or five years.

Francis: Reverence for beauty I hear in your work, and sort of your philosophy of life—I was wondering if you could speak to that at all, about the meaning of beauty in your life, and maybe how it relates to society today.

Jennifer: As you raised earlier, I do care about beauty and truth together, though I don’t always know what the relationship is. But I think that the easiest, truest answer is that it is just what makes me feel engaged in life when things are hard, but in a different ways when things are great. I see beautiful things and I have an urge to understand them, interact with them, copy them, try to do them—I mean, it’s wonderful that I’m not a good enough artist that I can ever copy anything, it turns out different, you know? Totally different! I can’t make it—I guess I’ve never really tried, but I’m saying, it’s not that I’m great at what I’m doing, so it has to be that I just love color, stuff like that. But yeah, It’s when I’m struck by something that I get a feeling of something that just plain is transcendent. It is true that we are the sentient little node of the universe, and when we’re removed from all thought by beauty, and we just want to take part in it or support it or try to do it, that’s life sustaining for me. It just, it’s like love, it’s like when you’re doing a hard thing and your friend shows up—it just brightens and sweetens. But then there’s the deeper aspect of, what is meaning? You know, I believe that the atheist world sort of—and the religious world, looking back—and all saying, how can you have meaning without meaning coming from God, and I certainly believe that the only reason anybody would say that is that we just broke up with this character called “God” who we’d assigned the source of meaning to. It’s ridiculous. Right now I have a whole range of things that mean a lot to me, and so do you, and some of them are just about what we’re going to have for dinner, and some of them are deep and wide and generous and—these ways that we are feeling, to me says, we have more meaning than we can handle. We’re not in a meaning-deficit; we’re in a justice-deficit, we’re in an understanding-deficit, but I don’t think we’re in a meaning-deficit. I think we have as much meaning per person as we’ve ever had, and it’s just about understanding how that makes any sense. And for me, it always is hovering around truth and beauty, these aspects of human experience that are always just beyond us.

Francis: Not to put you on the spot, but do you have a poem you’d like read?

Jennifer: Yeah, sure. I have one by heart, I can give it to you—it’s nice and short. This is called “History,” which it’s one of the poems of mine that gets reproduced a lot, and it’s kind of funny because it draws on the Garden of Eden scene, without of course being in any way religious. So, History:

Even Eve
The only soul in all of time to never have to wait for love
Must have leaned some sleepless nights
Alone against the garden wall
And wailed
Cold, stupified, and wild
And wished to trade in all of Eden
To have but been a child

In fact
I gather that is why she left and fell from grace
That she might have a story of herself to tell
In some other place

Chris: Wow.

Jennifer: Thanks

Francis: Thank you.

Chris: The poem of yours I enjoyed the most was “funny ha ha,” from the book Funny, because it was so absurd and…

Jennifer: It’s hard to talk about poetry.

Chris: It is. I’m really struggling to find words for why I liked it so much.

Jennifer: Because the way that poetry can act out, even like the way the words are acting. They’re acting out a kind of exuberance. I think that poem sort of catches that—it’s not something I can just do, but just this feeling of, just being able to give it all away. That’s the one that starts…

Chris: “A horse walks in a bar..”

Jennifer: Oh, that’s a different one. That one’s “Funny ha ha”?

Chris: Yeah.

Jennifer: Oh. I thought it was a different one. I guess I was thinking of “funny strange.” All of the poems in the book have old jokes in them, except for the sonnets that introduce each—but there’s also “funny ha ha” and “funny strange” which are slight outlier for me, but the “horse walks into a bar, why the long face”—and this project was so interesting to me. I wrote one poem with an old joke in it, and I fell in love with it, and then I just started going—any time I heard an old joke, I would just twist it around a thousand different ways until I could see something human in there. And, you know, “a horse walks into a bar, why the long face”—it gets right to the fact that, to some degree, we just already are what we are. And you know, why do I have a long face? Sometimes because I am sad, and that’s why the long face—it’s like, it’s part of who we are. But you keep trying, and throughout the book it’s, all the jokes have that kind of, what I say in that final essay—if you slow down a joke, it becomes philosophy, and if you speed up philosophy, it becomes a joke. And that proved terribly true on many occasions.

Chris: OK. We always ask everyone the same final question, and that’s is there anything you’d like promote or plug, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, or something you’d like to leave our listeners with?

Jennifer: I think maybe I’ll just give a shout-out for the poetry that’s coming out these days. It’s a very vibrant art now, after many years of being a little bit insular.

Chris: Well, what do you think about the relationship between Hip-hop as music culture which is sort of street poetry?

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s great. You know, there’s definitely times when I’m listening to something, I’m like “damn, that’s good.” Yeah, there’s lots of different kinds, of ways of looking at poetry. The thing is, the poetry that’s on the page, that’s the written word, is engaged in different kinds of jobs, than you can do when the art form is mostly meant to be listened to. But you know, there’s definite overlap, no question. There are poets in the music business, no question. You know, if I’m just giving a shout-out to poetry, I’m asked whether there’s music that fits into that category, I would say a small percentage, but absolutely. And again, I mean, Dylan got the Nobel Prize for a reason—we know his lines, they’re good lines. You know, on a personal basis, I certainly would stand under that flag—but I also, you know I listen to some music that I don’t love the words to, because, you know, it rocks.

Chris: Thank you so much for joining us.

Jennifer: Thank you so much. It really was a great conversation, I appreciate it.


Episode 11: James O’Malley Transcript

(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: and this is Episode 11 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring journalist James O’Malley. James is a UK independent journalist, he’s published in many different UK newspapers, he runs the Pod Delusion podcast which is really excellent, we recommend you check it out. He’s also the founder of the TrumpsAlert Twitter feed, which tracks everything the Trump family posts online.

Francis: I think Mr. O’Malley is a good example of someone who’s trying to fill in those gaps in journalism that have occurred because of globalization of information as it’s become.

Chris: So with that said, let’s get on with the interview.

Chris: James O’Malley, welcome to Making Better!

James: Hiyah

Francis: Hi, this is Francis DiDonato, in the House!

Chris: So James, you’re really well known for doing a whole lot of different things with Twitter, and in fact you even had one of your tweets quoted by Steven Colbert…

James: [laughs] I remember that, yeah…

Chris: Why don’t we start with how you got to be who you are, and move on to TrumpsAlert and things like that.

James: Sure. So, my name’s James O’Malley, I’m a freelance technology and politics writer, I’ve been a freelance journalist for several years now. I was editor of Gizmodo UK, the sort of UK spinoff of big tech website Gizmodo, until last October [2018], but other than that I’ve written for a whole bunch of other publications, mostly in the UK so I don’t know how familiar I’ll be to listeners. Places like The Spectator, The Telegraph, The New Statesman; I did a Guardian piece; I’ve done a bunch of tech websites, Tech Radar, Engineering & Technology magazine, British Computer Magazine, loads of stuff like that, and that’s what I do professionally. Other than that, I waste a lot of my life on Twitter and I’ve built some bots and done some funny things there as well.

Chris: For users who might not know what a Twitter bot is, can you explain it, kind of fundamentally?

James: So basically, a Twitter bot is a Twitter account that is not run by a human being. All the tweets are posted by a bit of computing software. So, for instance, the bot I’ve built and the one that’s been most successful is a bot I built called “TrumpsAlert.” What this does, it monitors the Donald Trump family—so, Donald Trump himself, Don Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, as well as KellyAnne Conway. And what I’ve written some code to do (it runs on a server I’ve got somewhere), every few minutes it checks to see if any of these people—these hugely important, influential people—have liked any new tweets, or if they’ve followed anyone new, or if they’ve unfollowed anyone. And if it does spot that one of these things has happened, it will then just send a tweet out automatically. So I guess that’s a sort of practical example of one thing a bot can do. But yeah, Twitter bots more generally do all sorts of interesting things. One of my favorite ones—I can’t remember the name of the account off the top of my head—but someone set up a sort of aeroplane scanner at Geneva airport, and they wrote some code which basically looks at all of the aeroplanes being detected by this scanner and compares it to a list of planes that are owned by dictators, and if it spots any dictators coming in to land in Geneva, it will then tweet out and say, look, this horrible dictator from this country has landed in Geneva, and it’s just an interesting way of keeping tabs on things that way as well.

Chris: With the evidence being pretty obvious that there was foreign manipulation of the US election in 2016, using a lot of these bots, how does the average man on the street be able to figure out whether or not it’s a legitimate post, or whether it’s something done robotically to try to manipulate things?

James: Yeah, I think this is a really sort of interesting and sort of fundamental tension with how Twitter, especially, as a platform worked. So basically the way Twitter works is, Twitter the company have Twitter the platform, and then they provide all of these tools that are open for anyone to sort of go and build their bots and access the Twitter data basically. There’s a million sort of legitimate reasons you might want to do it, say you’ve built an app that wants to use tweets, or say, like me, you build a bot that you want to post, so something like that. The trouble is, they found before the election, this can be easily abused. So we got Russian troll farms or whoever building bots which would then post fake news and spread misinformation and that sort of thing. And so the sort tension there is that Twitter sort of have to figure out a way to enable legitimate uses and useful things, which I think enhance the Twitter experience, even if it’s something as simple as a news website wanting to post links to its newest articles automatically or something like that, and then balancing that against making the product secure enough so that you can’t have people posting loads of nonsense tweets to try and swing an election. In terms of differentiating between the difference, I think there’s a sort of almost like a media literacy, as a society, as a culture, we need to get better at. I think young people are a lot better at this than older people are. In the old days, it used to be that you’d get a newspaper and you could judge whether the information contained within it was credible or not based upon the reputation and the prestige of the newspaper. Well obviously, back then because printing newspapers was hard to do, and you had to be well-resourced to do it, if you work by the heuristic that if you do a newspaper, surely it’s had someone who’s gone through it and checked it and has done the work to make sure this is true, because they wouldn’t want to print any false information. With Twitter, because it’s so easy to post information, whether through a bot or through an individual, that heuristic no longer works when we have to have a different way of understanding information and processing it in order to make judgements. And I think young people are a lot better at that, because we were growing up with the internet and because we’re used to seeing a million different contradictory sources and not necessarily being clear where the provenance of a piece of information is, and that sort of thing. I think ultimately, the way to do it is—it’s not going to be solved by machine, I don’t think you could write a piece of code, I don’t think Twitter or Facebook or whoever could write a bit of code that says, “only favor or publish or share this verified, correct information,” because of a scale problem in doing that. So ultimately it’s going to have to come down to us as a society and a culture learning how to do it, asking the right questions. So the sort of thing I always do is, whenever I see a tweet or a claim printed somewhere—especially when it sounds too good to be true—so, I’m a really passionate “Remainer” in the Brexit debate here in Britain, so whenever I see a tweet or a bit of news that someone said, “oh it turns out that the Leave side have done something really awful and evil”—but rather than hit that “retweet” button, because it’s my team that win if that information gets out there, I always take a step back and think, well how do we know that? Who is saying that? Where is that information coming from? And just sort of taking a brief moment to step back and just think through logically how something like that can happen. And that’s something that we need to think more, work harder to do, I think.

Francis: In our country, the corporate media had been accused of intentionally dumbing down this country. And I guess with George W Bush we thought that it couldn’t be taken any further, but I think with Trump’s tweets its—almost like a cartoon, like when he tweets it needs a bubble and a cartoon character of him, because it’s just that idiotic and simplistic a lot of the time. But he manages to circumvent the media, and there’s an attempt by social media to replace journalism, but I don’t see it working, and as you, as a journalist—I would be curious to know what you think of the state of journalism and how social media has kind of taken over as a source of information to people.

James: I feel very conflicted about it, because there’s sort of two ways you can look at it. Because on one hand, we do have all of the problems that we’ve identified today, like you’ve just outlined. I think Donald Trump presents a almost unique problem, in that anything he says is intrinsically newsworthy, even if he posts any old nonsense, the fact that he’s saying that as President of the United States makes it something that journalists should cover and report. And so that is a unique challenge there. I think—the counterargument, though, is that if you imagine the way journalism was years ago, I don’t know if there was ever sort of a “golden age” of—I know we think of Woodward and Bernstein and all that sort of thing—but if you look more broadly at the power structures in society and in journalism back in the day, as it were, it was very different in a negative way than it is now. I mean, I’ve only got a career in journalism, to use my own personal story, because of Twitter and because of social media and because of blogging and getting into it that way, and sort of being able to use that as a way to accelerate my content out there and get my name out there and network, and sort of get my way into the journalism industry. If I’d tried to do this before the dawn of social media, certainly before the dawn of the internet, these doors would have been much more closed to me because I’m not from an especially privileged background, I’m not from a particularly disadvantaged background, I guess—my parents are sort of,…I went to a state school in a small town. The problem with journalism is, even today, it’s a very, very middle-class occupation, and I mean that in the British sense of it being, essentially high class. It’s all people who went to private school, who are well-connected, whose dad who also works in journalism and got them a job where they could work for six months for free as an internship to get in there and that sort of thing. I never had those sorts of connections. If you imagine how journalism was even more like that back in the old days, with fewer routes for people to see in, then that also sculpts the way that we see the world through journalism and the sort of reporting that people would see as relevant. I mean, you know, the really obvious examples of this are all the social progress we now, all the reporting we about the importance of even—I don’t want to say trivial, that’s the word I’m looking for, but even stuff like why it’s important to have female superheroes or even something like that—if the journalism establishment was the same as it was 50 years ago, that would obviously never have been part of the conversation, because of the people involved in creating that content in the first place. So to answer your question, and sorry I’m rambling on a bit, is there’s not one journalism. It’s hard to sort of go, it’s all good or it’s all bad. There are people doing some really good things, especially in new formats and so on, there are people doing really bad things. For every person writing an amazing ten thousand words New Yorker piece going into immense detail about the subject and really taking it apart and doing that, you’ve got people putting out nonsense as well.

Francis: What are your sources of good information?

James: Because I spend most of my life on Twitter, there’s not like, one publication or one outlet I’d point to as where I read as an authoritative source. I tend to look at individual journalists, and their records, especially. Again, because Twitter has sort of changed the landscape of how it works, you can now see there’s various publications where you know if it comes from one writer from that magazine or that publication, that’s a credible, well-sourced story because from another you sort of understand the biases of it, or where that person could be coming from, and that’s really granular detail, which is probably far beyond someone who’s not a complete nerd about this thing as I am, but it’s more of the thought of the methodology of understanding how the information might have come about, why that person would have obtained that information, and then just asking some basic logical questions about whether it’s true or not. And then maintaining a skepticism until you know about it rather than just going out there, is the best way to approach things. I don’t think you can go, oh, if it’s in The Economist it’s true, or if it’s in the Guardian it’s true, or whatever else, or if it’s in the Daily Mail it’s false. That’s sort of a really reductive way of looking at it, because all that lets out their good points and bad points and blind spots and whatnot.

Chris: How much do you know about the algorithms used by Facebook and Youtube and whatnot to decide what to show you next? Cause if you start with a completely clean account and go on Youtube and search on “US House of Representatives” about eight clicks later, if you just follow the “up next” you’re on a flat-earther website.

James: This is ultimately the problem with algorithms, in that they’re black boxes which nobody knows exactly how they work. You could say, oh well one solution to this could be, we could pass a law that says all algorithms must be transparent. But the problem is, the algorithms, they’re the secret sauce as what makes these products and these companies successful. Google wouldn’t want to tell you how their search algorithm works, Facebook doesn’t want to tell you how their news feed algorithm works, for good reason, because that’s their source of competitive advantage. Because they know that, why having their algorithm behave as it does, that ultimately benefits them as a company, and our [enya?] and benefits us as consumers to have these companies providing content that we like, I think, to a certain extent. Youtube, I think, is a particularly fascinating example, and the best theory I’ve heard on the Youtube algorithm, as to how it works—it’s all driven by machine learning now rather than a human level of looking at view counts or whatever. My understanding is, and I could be talking completely nonsense—so again, this is a good checklist, is a good opportunity to sort of review the source you had the information from and consider whether it’s nonsense or not—but what I’ve heard or what I read somewhere, and again I do recommend fact-checking me on this, is that Google basically said to its machine learning algorithms, “we need you to increase YouTube watch time. So, do whatever you can with users to increase watch time.” This sort of frame. So Youtube would then, because millions and millions of people go on that, is conducting thousands of mini-experiments every second, so if you go on there and you watch a video to the end, that’s really good, because then [*] that’s good for watch time. If you clicked for every suggest comes up next, is the next video to watch and then you watch it, that’s a really good example of that, whatever video comes up second, is clearly one that people want to watch, and that would then boost it up in the recommendations of everyone else. So it’s almost like a feedback, it’s literally a feedback loop, isn’t it, of recommendations that way. And so that’s why you get the sort of, you know, you can go down the YouTube rabbit hole, start with something sane and end with somewhere crazy. One of the reasons they discovered this was because more extreme views are more provocative, so more people are more likely to click on it than something middle-of-the-road. So, you start by saying, you start with…something in the center or something fairly moderate, but then you see someone…let’s say, you watch a video about the immigration debate, or whatever. Then you see next video suggested as “Idiot Daily Mail columnist says that we should have a points-based immigration system.” I think that’s a terrible idea, I disagree with that, but ultimately that’s a reasonable sort of view someone can have. So you click on that, and you go, “oh look there’s idiot Daily Mail columnist expressing that terrible opinion.” But then at the end of that you see “YouTuber who nobody’s heard of who has an avatar like an ancient Egyptian symbol or something says that immigrants should be banned” and you click on that, and you think “what, could he really believe that?” and then, you know, ten clicks later, because you…it’s a psychological thing, isn’t it, you end up watch flat earth videos and think “ how did I get here.”

Francis: Is that called “click bait”?

James: I think click bait’s a weird phrase, because it became a bit like how “fake news” was originally a descriptive term for literally falsified news stories that were published in order to get advertising revenue, and then it was appropriated by, well, Trump along with everyone else, just to mean “story I don’t like.” In the same way, I think “click bait” is a word which is basically, you never hear it said in a positive way, because it only ever means “thing I don’t really like”…As a journalist, I’ve had tons of stories I’ve published that people have just gone, “oh, what you’re doing writing this clickbait? Oh, clickbait!” Whereas if it’s a story people like, nobody ever goes “oh that piece you wrote, which was really good, yeah total click bait.” I don’t think there’s anything necessarily intrinsically wrong with the concept of click bait. If you’re writing an article, you want people to like i. The problem is when, you know, the headline or whatever distorts the story out of all recognition or you start bullshitting in order to get people to click on it. That’s not click bait, that’s just lies. And click bait isn’t necessarily a new thing with the internet, I mean, newspaper headlines—I don’t know about in America, but in Britain, tabloid headlines for 50 years have been essentially clickbait, they’re all trying to get you to buy the paper, it’s just when things are published on the internet, so…I think click bait can be good.

Chris: One of our previous guests was Richard Stallman, who you probably know of at least through the Free Software world, and he was talking about this social-credit system in China. I have to admit, it’s not something I know much about, but you’ve been writing about it lately, so if you can give us an intro to it?

James: Yeah, sure. So, I’ll go into it with an anecdote. So I went to China last October [2018], just on holiday, and we took the train from Beijing to Shanghai, and when you’re on the train what happens is, you know when you get on a train usually it says “this is the train to (destination) and we’ll be stopping at X, Y and Z, and it did all that. And it was like, this is a train to Shanghai, stopping at the various intervening cities; and then the announcement came on and said “Please respect the rules that are on the train (I’m paraphrasing, can’t remember the exact thing, but it said) Please respect the rules on the train, if you don’t obey them, it could harm your social credit score.” And what this is, it’s a reference to a number of different systems that are being trialled across China, the sort of popular conception of it is that everyone in China will be given a score, a number, hanging above their heads virtually, which their behavior can impact. So the idea is, you do something good, you earn some extra credits, you do something bad, you lose credits, and then the number of credits you have can affect your ability to function in China and access services and so on, and may even lead to you being publicly shamed. The reality is, it’s slightly more complex. So basically, social credit is not a unified system or idea yet, there’s loads of different trials that loosely fall under the social credit example. So, different cities are trying different things, and some of them are just sort of crude blacklists of people; so, if you don’t pay your court fine, you end up on a blacklist which, in terms of the sort of social credit system, and then being on the blacklist might mean you’re not allowed to catch a high speed train, and you can only catch the low-speed train. Or, you can’t catch a plane, you’ve got to get the bus, and stuff like that. So there’s sort of systems that are involved in local government and that sort of thing, and one of my favorite ones—favorite in a sort of perverse “oh this is weird and scary” sort of way—is, I think it was Shenzen (again, Google this, don’t trust me blathering on about this), where they were punishing jaywalking. So if you crossed the road when the green man isn’t on display, it would use facial recognition cameras to identify you, and then would send you a fine automatically. Anyone who was detected by this system would then be publicly shamed by having their face displayed on the video billboard by the sides of the road, and they were supposed to incentivize good behavior. But again, that’s only sort of one system that’s being trialled in one place. The other technology which is being covered under this sort of social credits umbrella is a system called “sesame credit.” (I think it’s called Sesame credit), Basically it’s run by Ali Baba, which is like the Chinese equivalent of Amazon and EBay all rolled into one company, and there it was basically trying to create a scoring system to prove your credibility. The big problem with China is, not many people have bank accounts. And this ultimately is what underlies a lot of the motivations to create a social credit system. I think something like 20% of people have bank accounts, so if you want to have people interacting with digital services or even just government services, or you know, just doing a business transaction, you need a sort of another way to figure out if someone’s credible or not, because you can’t just run a credit check or something like that. And the idea is that, draws on other things like behavior to prove your reputable. This Sesame credit system, which is linked up to Ali Baba, does this sort of thing as well—so it looks at your purchase history and sort of judges your creditworthiness but also uses a number of other factors. So, for example, if you’ve got a number of verified friends on the services who have also proved their worthiness, that inherently improves your worthiness, because it suggests you’re not like a spam account or a scammer if you’ve got loads of credible friends. And there’s various other factors it can roll into this, and then once you get your score, this can unlock other different services and privileges whether it be taking out a loan—there was one, I think there was a trial where you could unlock basically a free umbrella when you’re leaving the subway station, so if it’s raining and you’ve got a sufficiently high social credit score, you can pick up an umbrella for free. Cause it can prove your worthiness or your legitimacy, and the other big link-up is with, it’s called Mo-bike, the kind of bicycles you hire using an app. Basically, instead of having to pay a deposit, because you’ve got a sufficiently high social credit score, you can take it out without needing to prove yourself or put any money down for it, you can rent bikes that way. This is where we are at the moment, and there’s all these different trials being trialled in all of these different cities, different rules all over the place. One city is punishing misbehavior—a misbehaving dog, and your’e not keeping it on leash or whatever, you’ll get punished for that, all sorts of different behaviors. So the big fear is, and the reason this has sort of become hyped in the West—and I think it is quite pernicious—but obviously, the theory is, and the government has basically said as much, they want to sort of create a national, unified, social credit system in the next few years so that any arm of the Chinese government would essentially be able to check your social credit. Obviously, in a totalitarian society like China, where you’re…it’s very easy to imagine how something could be abused. If you’re seen at a protest holding a sign, that’s going to be very bad for your social credit score. If you do something else the Party don’t like, that could hurt your score and hurt you that way, and then prevent you from catching a train or being able to work or something like that. And it is a very blunt way of aligning every incentive in your life, conceivably, with the incentives the government want to promote.

Chris: Did you see the Black Mirror episode about that?

James: No, I haven’t seen it, the Black Mirror, but I’ve had literally thousands of people tweeting me, suggesting I watch it, and I still haven’t got round to it.

Chris: James, we’ve had a number of other skeptics on the podcast, and you and I first met at the QED conference and your former podcast, Pod Delusion, won a couple of Occam Awards—we’ve had Michael Marshall on, we’ve had Haley Stevens on, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and now we have you, so four people I’ve met at QED have been on the podcast.

James: Excellent. Big fan of Marsh and Haley, I’m afraid I don’t know the other person, but Marsh and Haley are both excellent.

Chris: QED conference on science and scientific skepticism that goes on every year in Manchester, England—James, maybe you want to speak a bit to skepticism as a concept?

James: Back in 2009, I started a podcast called “the Pod Delusion,” punning on the title of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusioin, and the idea was that it was a magazine show that would cover a wide range of topics. Basically I engineered it so I could talk about whatever I wanted every week, and it was loosely a sort of unifying philosophy behind it was a kind of skeptical, rationalist point of view, so taking a scientific world view and very much much existing in the skeptics movement as it was then. It went on until 2014, and the format of the show was in [tooking] contributions recorded by literally hundreds of other people, and I was the sort of presenter figure linking together all of these different segments that people had produced. And it was really good fun, I really miss making…Chris did a few different segments for us. I like to think at a certain point it was sort of like the house magazine of the UK skeptics scene, for a little while, because it got a fairly decent listenership and it was covering all of the different skeptics events going on, so Skeptics in the Pub, QED, and so on. And also the sort of adjacent movements, so like humanism and not science movement but, you know, professional science promotion type things, all that sort of good stuff there. I’m still a skeptic, since then I certainly haven’t changed my views on many of the core—using the world “beliefs” in skepticism is a very odd thing to do—but I certainly haven’t changed my views on, for example, the existence of God or the usefulness of the scientific method or how we should take a naturalistic world view. No, I think as a movement I think it’s faded away, but I always think back to that sort of time, around 2010, 2011, when skepticism seemed to become a really tangible big deal, in that it was having sort of policy victories, it was having cultural victories, and there seemed to be a sort of movement of people sort of coalescing around the idea of being skeptic, and it became a label that people would organize around. I always think it’s a bit like Britpop. I don’t know if you remember Britpop, this was sort of a cultural movement in the mid-90s, it was in Britain, I don’t know how it was perceived in North America, but basically you had bands like Oasis and Blur writing the soundtrack to it—but it wasn’t just the music, it was about the broader culture. So you had Euro 96 big football tournament on the television with an England team that were performing really well, you had Tony Blair on the cusp of entering 10 Downing Street, ending Tory rule and bringing back some optimism and hope, as it was then, as weird as that is to imagine now with Tony Blair. And so it was sort of a cultural coalescence around Britpop as a thing. I think skepticism’s much the same, because you had the God Delusion being published, bringing lots more people into the movement, you had people criticizing the likes of alternative medicine, you had humanists, you had scientists all working together around the idea of taking evidence based approach to things. I think now, it has changed. I don’t think skepticism is necessarily a label I would choose to align myself with, in that, just because of the connotations attached to it…that perhaps weren’t back a few years ago, and..as a sort of organizing principle, as a sort of, almost like, as a word people organize around, I don’t think it’s got quite the same potency as it once had, because obviously in combination, we’ve seen the skeptics movement itself sort of splinter over various issues around social justice and so on. We’ve seen half the American Skeptics become weird libertarians, and then obviously, not unlinked to that, is actually all of politics going to hell? Everything we’ve seen with Trump and Brexit and the rise of sort of anti-pluralist ideas and the rise of totalist sort of ideologies once again—so to answer your question, again I’ve gone on for a very long-winded answer, my views are still essentially underlined by the same principles, but I think as an organizing moment…

Chris: The word “skeptic” is a hard word to work with, because flat earthers call themselves “skeptics,” climate deniers call themselves “skeptics”…I think Richard Dawkins suggested we call ourselves “brights,” I didn’t like that one…

James: This is the problem, there’s no sort of perfect word, I mean we have the sort of challenge now. I’m a trustee of a charity called Conway Hall Ethical Society, based in central London, which again, is sort of tangentially linked to all of the skeptics and skeptics movement and stuff, it’s where, it’s basically a atheist church from the 17 and 1800s. But the problem we have there, and again I’m speaking entirely with own personal views here, not on behalf of the organization or anything like that, is what are we organizing around? And you look at all the old alternative words, so can you be a skeptic? Well, yeah but there’s obviously negative connotations with climate change deniers and like all of that. Freethinker, that’s a nice word, I really like “free thinkers,” the Victorian free thinkers, that’s a really great tradition to try and align ourselves with, but then you get alt-right nutters calling themselves freethinkers, which is like, an association you definitely don’t want. And then you think, well, what about humanists? But then someone inevitably goes, but that wouldn’t care about animal rights.” What about religious people who believe in a scientific world view? For …deists or something like that, so there’s never going to be a perfect word I don’t think.

Francis: Part of the impetus of this show was to re-imagine all these terms, because to talk about capitalism, communism, all that stuff right now, seems to be very unproductive. You could take someone who is like a really, really wonderful, altruistic person, put them in a capitalist society, and they’re going to behave differently than someone who is a totally narcissistic sociopathic creep like Trump, and put him in a capitalist society. So, it’s like we got to move beyond that and figure out how to make things work in an optimal way for the most amount of people.

James: I think writing off the concept of socialism or capitalism wholesale is quite a tricky thing to do. I often think back to something the writer Nick Cohen wrote, the book called What’s Left—he published this book in about 2005—but the line that for some reason sticks in my head is, he said that maybe utopia won’t look particularly different to how it looks now. And the trouble with saying something like that is that you obviously then, there’s the obvious rebuttal of, “but what about x, y and z terrible things in the world” which are going on which you can’t obviously deny. But I think the value in thinking something like that is, maybe we don’t need a radical ideological project to completely reconfigure society. Maybe we don’t need Soviet Communism, that was an enormous experiment that had disastrous consequences. If you look at neoliberalism, whatever the maximal extension of capitalism will be, that is also ultimately a sort of grand ideological project which we’re still experiencing the consequences of. My sort of increasingly boring opinion—and I used to think I was fairly left-wing, or very left-wing, and then Jeremy Corbyn happened here in Britain. But my sort of more boring center-left opinion now is, well maybe we should look at what we’ve got, what institutions we’ve go, especially when you look at the landscape of Trump and Brexit tearing down all of these liberal institutions we’ve got. Maybe we should appreciate there’s been quite a lot of work over the past several centuries establishing these various norms that we now take for granted, like that freedom of speech can be a thing, and globalism and that sort of thing. And so maybe we should think more about boring social democratic tweaking of the system we’ve got. I mean, my favorite presidential candidate, to put this into more context, is unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Warren, because she’s again talking about sort of structural reforms. She’s not a timid centrist technocrat trying to turn the knobs a little tiny bit, she wants big structural reforms, but she’s putting detail in there and putting it in a way that she’s actually outlining a program of reform and then the outcomes that she would expect to see from those reforms, in a relatively technocratic way, which seems sort of realistic and appealing. Whereas if you look at someone like Bernie Sanders or Trump or Corbyn or Bolsonaro or whoever who are just saying, tear up the whole thing, and it will better somehow. That just seems like a fairly ill-fated approach. I think really boring things that we’re eventually going to learn, and maybe I am just getting more centrist in my old age, is that ultimately we’re going to miss a lot of the institutions that we’ve got when they’re gone.

Chris: I’m also supporting Elizabeth Warren, for primarily the same reasons. I mean, she’s…speaks so specifically to what she will do, whereas a guy like Bernie Sanders says, you know, “we’ll have free college education for all and I’ll tell you how we’ll pay for it after I’m elected.”

James: I don’t mind Bernie Sanders…I mean, as anyone who’s read my Twitter will understand, I really dislike Jeremy Corbyn, and obviously he’s often bracketed with Bernie Sanders because they’re sort of radical leftists relative to the presupposed political settlements where they are. But I think they’re very different people, in that while Bernie Sanders, he does use a lot of radical language, you know, he literally talks of “political revolution,” he’s still more moderated and still more measured and still uses a lot of the same axioms that we expect to see in a sort of stable political system. So, this is a sort of random example, but I think on various foreign policy things, I’m pretty sure like Iran or something like that, Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be too far away from what Elizabeth Warren would say. He’s not going to say, let’s do a war or he’s not going to say, well let’s be best friends with Iran, or something like that, whereas you look at someone like Jeremy Corbyn—he’s from a much more radical tradition, from a very different political tradition where, you know, he doesn’t seem to have any problems buddying up with autocrats and dictators as long as they profess to be left-wing, which is why I’m sort of a Corbyn skeptic, to say the least. But yeah, the differences and the reason I massively prefer Elizabeth Warren is because obviously, she comes across as someone who’s done the reading. Bernie Sanders is very much, like you say, we’ll sort it all out, we’ll worry about the details later, but we’ll do something; whereas Elizabeth Warren, from the programs she’s laying down, I mean I don’t think all her ideas are perfect, I know the big one was breaking up the tech companies—I think emotionally, that’s a very appealing thing. I’m not entirely sure whether her stated policies will actually deliver the supposed outcomes she wants. But the fact that she’s speaking about it, and the fact that she’s proposing actually plausible things that could be done, I think that’s sort of refreshing and detailed. But I would say that, ‘cause I’m a very nerdy man [laughs] who likes detail and likes that sort of thing rather than just brash sloganeering.

Francis: The defense budget is just so huge, just imagine what that would cover. Student loans would be nothing, that would be like the cost of probably a few percent of the defense budget.

James: I’ll tell you the weird thing I find—maybe as Americans, or North Americans you can shine more light on it—is that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, Elizabeth Warren says she’s a capitalist, but functionally there isn’t that much difference in the sort of outcomes they want. It’s so weird that Bernie Sanders is sort of framed as…I mean I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want Soviet-style socialism or a sort of extreme form of socialism, I’m pretty sure what he wants is basically Social Democracy, unless I’m radically mistaken, in the same way that’s more in the direction of what Elizabeth Warren wants, which is very different from what I think a lot of people who have Cameron Picknell avatars on Twitter think Bernie Sanders stands for. Or maybe I’ve got him wrong, maybe he is much more radical than I give him credit for. The one phrase I think is incredibly smart, and I apologize if this is a bit tangential, is something Mayor Pete said, and obviously he’s more of a centrist candidate than many of the others—the phrase he came up with, someone said like “are you a democratic socialist?” and he said, “no, I’m a democratic capitalist.” And I just think whoever becomes the final nominee, we should appropriate that phrase, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or whatever, because surely that solves the sort of linguistic challenge of selling socialism, social democracy, moving the the left economically, with Americans who may think, “oh no, but we’re capitalists, and we want to be capitalists” and all this sort of thing.

Chris: I’d like to go back to the notion of post-scarcity and how either capitalism or socialism can handle—what if in 30 years we have 80% unemployment?

James: Yeah, I can’t claim to have thought in particular depth about this, but I think that if we assume that post-scarcity is a thing that’s gonna happen, or certainly we’re going to get to a point where there is a lot of technological unemployment, the solution isn’t to go down the Trump route of “bring back manufacturing” by what seems to be the President calling in personal favors from executives to keep factories in Ohio open, or something like that. The solution is to look to ideas like Universal Basic Income. I’m sure there’s critiques of that that I’ve not read in depth, but in principle that seems like an appealing idea. But also, I think there’s a lot more that could be done if society, certainly American society, and indeed British society, were to take more of a social democratic turn. You could offer retraining and accessible education throughout someone’s life so they can retrain and so that seems like a much smarter solution to this problem.

Chris: I mean, as automation takes over people’s jobs, I mean…

James: This is why you need UBI…

Chris: My sister’s husband was a mortgage broker, and he’s been replaced by an app.

James: And the other reform we’re going to need, and this is presumably why nobody really wants to talk about it, is because at the moment most taxation is income-tax based, you know, taking a proportion of your income that you get every month, whereas instead if you had a wealth tax, or taxed the super-rich more, you could then have more to redistribute. I mean, the really startling thing—I’m going to generally assume that the sums were done correctly—but I think it was Elizabeth Warren’s student loan program, you know she wanted to abolish all student loans. The maths on that, she said it pays for that, and then again I can’t remember the exact detail, but it was by adding a wealth tax or increasing the taxes on the top, by a sort of minute amount, and then you’d just wipe out all student debt because things are that massively imbalanced. Which is just crazy, considering the size of the figures we’re talking about, but ultimately it’s going to be about figuring out what the taxable thing is in post-scarcity society—whether it’s wealth, whether it’s, there’s been talks about robot taxes—sounds ominous to me, because surely while robots is a good thing, we’re going to have move away from just straight up income tax, I guess.

Chris: The way budgeting and money is spent in the United States means that the Congress will often pass military spending bills that the military didn’t even ask for, because the weapon will be built, or the weapon system will be built in their district and it means 2,000 jobs or something like that. They’ll insist—one thing that’s not even military that’s kind of interesting is NASA’s Orion rocket project. It cost $20 billion for the whole project, and then it’s gonna $2 billion for a non-replaceable rocket every time we send it up. Meanwhile, we could be using a Falcon Heavy for $100 million per use, and it’s reusable. A group of congressmen called the Alabama mafia, who all have huge space and defense construction going on in their districts, are all insisting on this money to keep a bunch of people employed on a boondoggle.

James: Which is insane, isn’t it? So at the risk of defending the military-industrial complex, which is not something I expected to do this evening, I think the thing to think about—and don’t get me wrong, I think there is absolutely, clearly going to be thousands of ways the defense budget could be better spent or optimized and so on—I think the extra consideration needs to be that basically American power, for better or for worse, does underpin the existing world order. That involves not just, that’s not all just Iraq wars or whatever, that’s literally protecting ships which are delivering containers going around the Persian Gulf or going through the straits of Malacca, and just sort of maintaining, basically, the base level preconditions that we are now used to, that have basically enabled our entire sort of post World War II lifestyle and affluence as a society. So, I think you need to be very careful. It pains me to say this, as someone who does listen to a lot of punk music and [laughs] is on the left, but I think just saying we should get rid of all defense spending, or we should do something dramatic there, you do need to think about the wider implications. It’s a bit in the same way that Brexiteers in Britain think we can leave the EU and everything will be fine, forgetting all of the sort of boring, foundational stuff the EU provides to the British economy. In the same way, America is almost providing that sort of foundational layer to the existing world order. Maybe there’s a better world order, maybe we can change things so that the world is organized in a different way, and maybe that could be a good thing. But ultimately, it is at the moment underwritten by American power. So if that goes away, we need to actually consider what changes or what replaces that.

Chris: OK, what about artificial intelligence? I heard a woman on the BBC refer to the US AI giants as the “G-mafia,” standing for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM and Amazon, and how they are growing both economically, but also they have intelligence power greater than most nation-states.

James: It’s really funny, I’m sort of quite pleased that these sort of, the power of the big tech companies has come into focus over the last few years, because this is something I’ve been banging on about for years. Like, I was writing about this in 2012, 2013, and I wasn’t prominent enough to have people scold me and write it off or whatever, I was just writing blogs going out there that were being read by very few people. I was basically, again at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I was making sort of a similar point to what everywhere is almost a normal part of the conversation now about how these companies need greater regulation, we need to bigger conversations about what their power means because they are different to a lot of other companies. Actually it’s Paul Mason, the left-wing journalist, who wrote a book, Post Capitalism, which made this point. If you look at all of the tech companies, like Google, like Amazon or whoever, their business models, their products, their technology, it tends towards a situation of natural monopoly in that Google, you can’t beat Google because Google has the amount of data Google has, and every search you do in Google makes Google better. In the same way, Amazon can’t be beaten because everything Amazon does makes Amazon better, and this is all powered by AI, because we’re all training the AI of these companies. So they’re sort of entrenched in the system now, they’re almost too big to fail, like the banks were.

Chris: Richard Stallman likes to say that with Facebook, you’re not a “user” you’re a “use-d”…

James: I think that’s broadly true. But what should we do about them? And there isn’t a really easy answer, because—I mentioned Elizabeth Warren’s proposals earlier to sort of break up the tech giants, but even then, that’s not a particularly satisfying answer, because ultimately…so say you forced Facebook to, you tried to break it up into Instagram and WhatsApp are separate companies again. Which sounds like a sort of do-able thing, in the abstract, because they used to be separate companies, surely they can be separate companies again. But then you look at how Facebook have integrated the two companies, and Facebook, Instagram messaging, and Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, they’re all running off the same back end, the same messaging service is now powering all three, it’s just like three different logos because that is the sort of legacy brands that were in use. So, how would you separate out that, considering it’s basically copy and paste? I hope not the same files running these different systems and the same backends, and even if you did sort of save, segregate out Instagram from Facebook or something like that, you’ve then got the problem of, well, what’s to stop Facebook, which still has 2 billion users, just creating a new Instagram knockoff and stealing all of Instagram’s users, like we saw with—say, Facebook would basically manage to….well, not necessarily destroy, but neuter the threat of Snapchat. There was a while where it looked like Snapchat could claim some really big market share against Facebook, but then Facebook basically ripped off all of Snapchat’s best features, put them into Instagram, and now Instagram’s store is, and why Instagram filters, do the job of Snapchat and Snapchat’s user base have dropped off completely. So even without buying the company, they’ve beaten it. I don’t know what the easy way to sort of stop them, or to regulate or neuter them is…

Chris: We had the anti-trust lawsuits against Microsoft, and Microsoft was put under a ton of restrictions and moved into the AI business and now they’re one of the giants there.

James: This is the thing, and Microsoft are like the biggest company in the world, depending on the day of the week, depending on the market cap, but nobody really cares because they’re not at the forefront of people’s minds any more, because they’re just doing boring, boring business stuff, and doing enterprise software, ultimately, and then have an XBox on the side for some reason—nobody really worries about them, yet often they are the largest company in the world.

Chris: And like in the old days, they’re working very closely with IBM again—largely, Microsoft has a compiler for the IBM quantum computer.

Francis: I think a lot of what’s going wrong on this planet right now, especially with regards to global warming and that sort of thing, is just simply greed. And you know we all, I think, recognize that after a certain point, greed is a bad thing, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how to deal with greed in our society?

James: I think a lot of the problem is in terms of—I agree, in the abstract, we should regulate Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple more. But then, how you actually regulate it and how you would go about writing a rule to manage it, is a much more difficult question. Because even those four companies, if you try to think about, well, what rule can we…say you want to write a rule that no company should have a big market share in search, or something like that, then that punishes Google but not the others. Or if you say, even the big four companies, right? They’ve got very different business models. We all think if you say “big tech” that has a colloquial meaning, everyone knows the companies we’re talking about when we use the words “big tech,” but they’re very different companies. Where are they actually competing? Because they’re all competing with each other, but in such different ways and to such different ends. If I was a government regulator trying to draw a line and saying, right, this is the legal line in the sand, we’ll restrict your behavior in this way—I would find that almost impossibly complicated. And like the really good example is…so sorry if I keep going back to Elizabeth Warren, but she’s talking about detailed proposals. One of the things she said is that one rule she would draw is that companies shouldn’t be able to, if they operate a market, they shouldn’t be able to sell their own products on that market. So Amazon can have a market of sellers that they’re taking to people being the market place, then they can’t have Amazon basics, which are like, you know, their own brand. Various household things they just sell on with an Amazon label. Or, you can’t have Amazon publishing its own books through Kindle on the Kindle store or something like that. And that sounds like a good idea, but then you think, what about the Apple app store? Because Apple both operate a market there, and then also control what goes on the market through the app store, and it rules and so on, an often writes rules to rule out, you know, you can’t have an app that competes with Apple in certain categories. You can only have certain types of apps on the app store. But ultimately, there’s also a good argument for why they should be allowed to do that, which is that it enhances the security of our phones and our devices by having Apple as the sole monopolizer of that market, being able to kick apps off of the app store or not allow apps onto the app store at their discretion. That makes our phones more secure and less hackable.

Chris: And if you want more access to different apps and things like that, you can always switch over to Android and become a full-time systems integrator…

James: Even they’ve got the same sort of problem in that, you know, Google have the Play Store and they monopolize that, and I know there are third-party stores on Android, but for the 99.9% of users, they’re never going to do anything even vaguely complex to sort of get around that.

Chris: Google seems to read absolutely everything that flows through its system, which includes gmail and things like that; privacy is disappearing, what do you have to say about the right to privacy?

James: It is important. I mean, of the big tech companies my favorite is—that’s a weird way of talking about them—but it is Apple, because Apple do have a big focus on privacy and seeing it run through all of their products, and I think it’s a really clever way they’ve positioned their business, is in terms of privacy. So the really good example of this is, they recently announced that in the future, you know when you see, when you go on an app, like sign in with Google or sign in with Facebook? Soon you’ll be able to sign in with Apple, and what this will do, it creates a disposable email address, so whatever service you’re signing up for or signing in to, it won’t actually get your real email address, so you’ll be able to just—if they start spamming you, you’ll be able to cut them off really easily with stuff like that. And again, Apple—they encrypt everything on your phone, they won’t give the data to the FBI, and everything else, and ultimately that more secure experience is a good thing because it creates more trust for the user. If we’re going to have these devices in our pockets with all these sensors on, we want to be able to trust what’s going on there.

Chris: It was Apple’s end user license agreement that got you onto the Stephen Colbert show.

James: [laughs] It was. I can tell you that story, if you want. When Donald Trump signed the “nuclear agreement” with Kim Jong Un, and it was like a 2-page of aid for with basically no commitments or anything else in it, when they had the first summit. I tweeted out the fact that it was a looser agreement than the Apple iTunes terms of service, because if you look at the iTunes terms of service, buried on page 10-billionth or whatever that no one would ever read, it literally says this software cannot be used for nuclear weapons, which is more than the “nuclear agreement” with Kim Jong Un, and yeah, that was picked up by The Late Show. So that was a very strange morning, waking up and seeing the video of Stephen Colbert reading my tweet, and that was very cool. Can I just go back to privacy? Cause I’ve got one other thing I want to say on that—so the flip side of me evangelizing about how Apple are really good at privacy and how I think that’s a really good thing, is that it’s almost too easy for Apple, in that their business model—it’s almost like a free hit. Like, they don’t need to worry about the negative ramifications of taking that stance, whereas if you look at a company like Google, which exists on advertising, that obviously needs to read our data to target advertisements, and you’ve got Facebook, and the same for Amazon. And the flip side, [I’m stealing this] opinion from a blog called Stratechery which is all about the tech industry and different, takes more of an abstract approach to it, but basically Facebook came out and said, not so long after this, “well, yeah, but we’re not putting our servers in any country that aren’t a democracy.” Basically this is a riposte to Apple, because Apple have servers in China and let the Chinese government access iCloud because they have to in order to operate in that country. But again Facebook, they can say that, because obviously Facebook is never going to be unbanned in China. It’s almost like a freebie, it doesn’t harm their business model to take these stances, whether it’s pro-privacy or anti-China, see what I mean? But that gives each of them more power their own privacy, and I think any steps to enhance it are good…

Francis: Maybe the purpose of government should be that, in capitalism in business, the bottom line is profit. It’s kind of a survival-of-the-fittest world that it inhabits. But then, when there’s things that are necessary for the common good, then let’s maximize the benefit to the most amount of people, and that’s the realm of government. So, why can’t we either regulate business to behave themselves, or not get to big and allow diversity maybe to take the place of government? Why don’t we re-imagine the usefulness of government being in charge of things that are, say, like banking, healthcare, energy, things that are necessary for everyone.

James: Ooh. Yeah, again, I can’t claim to have any specifically complex thoughts about this, but I think it’s about designing laws and institutions in such a way that it mitigates that, again, because greed, I think, for better or for worse, is a part of human nature. That isn’t to say that we should embrace it—we should try and control it, that’s why we have higher taxes for the rich and so on, because if people are going to be naturally greedy, then we should design our institutions to try and re-balance things. It’s like, if you ask a relative of a murder victim whether you think the murderer should receive the death penalty or not, they’re probably gonna be thinking, yeah, the murderer should get the death penalty. But the reason we have the institution of the courts and impartial justice, is partially to a) insure the person is actually guilty rather than is just a gut reaction, and b) to make sure it isn’t just an eye for an eye, heat of the moment, taking revenge type thing, and there’s actually a different aspect to it. So when it comes to dealing with greed, if greed is a part of human nature, which evidence suggests it certainly is, then we need to design our institutions to mitigate it.

Francis: Well, when Richard Stallman was on our show, he came up with an idea that I thought was pretty brilliant, which was to have a progressive tax on corporations so that they couldn’t get to—beyond a certain level, it would be pointless. And I just loved the simplicity of that.

James: That idea is definitely emotionally appealing to me. I’d have to think a bit hard about that, as to what sort of cases that would be. That just sounds, again, emotionally appealing.

Chris: OK James, as we ask everybody, is there anything you’d like to promote or plug or—this conversation, we could probably continue for the next four hours…

James: Ha ha—so what would I to promote or plug—you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @Psythor, that’s where you’ll find links to all of my content, my terrible opinions, my retweets of people subtweeting Jeremy Corbyn, and any extra followers are always useful for sort of increasing my—social credits in the journalism world. So that’s probably the best thing, my website is JamesOMalley.co.uk if you want to look at my CV. Why not commission me to write for you? That’s about everything I’d like to plug I think—actually, I’ll tell you, I’ve got one more thing, I’ve just thought about it, sorry, I should pretend I didn’t just think of that and it was planned all along—if you enjoy podcasts, which I’m guessing if you’re listening to this you do, you should check out a podcast called “Science Fiction Double Feature,” available on all good podcast stores. It’s made by my partner, Liz Lutgendorff. And what it is, it’s a science fiction podcast where she’ll interview a science fiction author, and then she’ll interview an expert spinning off one of the themes in the book, and it’s really fun, really informative, you should go listen to that as well.

Chris: Great! Well, with that, thanks so much for coming on.

James: It’s been fund, thank you.

Francis: Yes, thank you very much.