Episode 8: Hayley Stevens Transcript

Making Better Podcast: Hayley Stevens

(music)
Announcer: 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: Welcome to Episode 8 of the Making Better Podcast. This episode features Hayley Stevens, the paranormal investigator from England. I’ve known Hayley for quite some time, and we’re pretty good friends. I was pleased when I was sitting beside when she won the Occam Award for the Best Blog in the skeptical world. Hayley’s been investigating haunted houses and other places around England for a long time. She’s never found an actual ghost, and usually comes up with a logical explanation. So without any more introduction, let’s get onto the interview.


Chris: Hayley Stevens, welcome to Making Better!

Hayley: Thank you very much for having me.

Francis: Hi.

Hayley: Hi.

Chris: You and I have known each other for about seven years, I think it was, when we met at that QED conference, …

Hayley: Yeah. It’s a while ago now…

Francis: So is QED a cruise liner or something?

Chris: QED is a conference that goes on in Manchester, England every year, actually Marsh is one of the coordinators…and it stands for Question, Explore, Discover, and it’s a really interesting conference that mixes, sort of, science enthusiasm and humanism and….just interesting things. It has just the coolest audience of any conference I go to with any regularity. Just everyone there is just so nice…and you get a real great mixture of people.

Hayley: You do. It’s …yeah, and you always learn something that you didn’t expect to learn. So you know what the talks are going to be about, but you come away with all sorts of new information and knowledge—it’s great.

Chris: So you’re most well-known within the skeptical movement as a paranormal investigator, and most specifically a ghost hunter. Can you tell us how you got into that—and a bit of your journey with it?

Haley: Yeah, sure. I mean, I used to be a ghost hunter. I wouldn’t kind of class myself as ghost hunter anymore, and that’s because when I first sort of became involved in researching the paranormal, I did it from a position of somebody who believed in the paranormal and would go looking for evidence of ghosts and hauntings and so on at the weekend. And then a few years of doing that led to me having this kind of realization that, actually, what I was doing and the conclusions that I was reaching didn’t really make sense. I started to find out more information about the kind of rational reasons that cause people to see and experience strange things and about the psychology behind strange experiences that people attribute to ghosts and monsters and so on. But I’ve always been interested in these stories of ghosts and monsters and hauntings and all sorts of weird things. So rather than just kind of turning my back on it and finding maybe a new hobby that’s a bit less weird, I carried on researching the paranormal but from a more, kind of, what I hope is a more rational perspective. The position I take now is, I’m not interested in proving or disproving that ghosts are real and that monsters are real, I’m more interested in what’s going on that causes someone to see a ghost. And that might be finding the rational explanation, you know, they’ve seen some kind of illusion or maybe it’s a hoax or something like that; or what it is about the person that made them interpret it as a ghost when maybe somebody else wouldn’t have reached the same conclusion.

Francis: I would like to hear a definition of what skepticism really involves. Is it a movement, is it a philosophy, what…when you say “skepticism” what is it?

Haley: Well, kind of at the core, skepticism is just balancing up the evidence for a claim. So if someone says, “I’ve invented a time machine,” you’d want to see the evidence, you know, you would be skeptical of that claim. When somebody says that they’ve seen a ghost, you can be skeptical of that claim and look at the evidence, and familiarize yourself with the evidence and what it means and what it doesn’t mean. And the same can be said for medical claims: so when people say that they have a cure for cancer, you can examine that claim and see if it actually stands up to scrutiny. If the evidence is there, you can look at the research that’s been done. Was it—does it have a double-blind control in place, is it good research, has it been peer-reviewed and so on. And on the flip side of that, there is a movement, a skeptic movement, where people who have a sort of…I wouldn’t say a passion for disbelieving things, ‘cause that sounds really quite sad, but people who are kind of driven to maybe making the world a bit better and kind of protecting people from the sort of hocus-pocus out there that other people try to (sh*?) onto other people. There is a movement where people will kind of conduct activism and in the UK a lot of it is grassroots activism, whereas in the US it tends to be more organized. And we’ll try and raise awareness around bogus claims and so on.

Chris: While it’s more grassroots both on the UK and Australia, it’s much more effective in both the UK and Australia. The top-down approach here in the US creates these pyramids where very little of any actual effect ever happens.

Haley: Yeah. I suppose as well, the fact that it’s quite, and has always been quite grassroots over here in the UK and also, as you say, in Australia, means that you don’t have to be—it does help to be an expert in a certain field—but you don’t have to be an expert to actually make a contribution. And your [face?] doesn’t have to fit—you can help people, or you can become an activist. One of the biggest things that happened in the sort of grassroots movement here in the UK, probably about a decade ago now, was a homeopathic “overdose”—all across the country, people a homeopathic “overdose” to kind of protest the fact that one of the biggest high street pharmacies over here was selling homeopathic medicine to people. And that was literally a grassroots thing, and I remember going along to the one nearest to where I live, and we downed our homeopathic tablets and we made the press and there were groups of people watching what we were doing. And that has kind of snowballed over time to the point where now, the NHS, the National Health Service here, have de-funded homeopathic medicine. So the money that we have here to be spent on medication will not be going on placebo medication—that’s really good news, especially in a time where our country is facing austerity and there are medications that do work for certain conditions that people get denied. So, you know, the power behind grassroots skepticism isn’t necessarily weaker than organized skepticism, like a top-down system, like you say, in the US. So yeah it can be quite inspiring, and I think it’s the same across Europe, as far you see grassroots organizations popping up all across Europe as well.

Chris: In the process you went through as you became more rational about the paranormal things, I mean, did a lightbulb just go off one day and say, this is irrational, or was it slower process and then how did you get in from there, into skepticism in a broader manner?

Haley: I think it was a lightbulb moment in me realizing that I needed to change what I was doing. However, the kind of path that led to that point was an interesting one, so…there was somebody that I was friends with who was a skeptic. They described themselves as a skeptic, identified as such, and we would have discussions about paranormal research and ghost hunting. And they were civil discussions, and we both knew that we disagreed with one another, but we just talked about it like two adults, basically. And the points that were being made, I didn’t necessarily always have a kind of a defense to the arguments being raised, and that got me thinking. And I think probably in the middle of those discussions with this friend—cause I used to be part of a small group of people who would go out investigating alleged hauntings, but we did it with the intention of finding a ghost or looking for evidence of ghosts. Around that time we went on an investigation to this pub in the city of Swindon, and we caught the landlord faking activity, we literally caught him red-handed. And it made me realize that actually, we weren’t really as aware of our surroundings as we had always thought that we were, and we were not 100% in control of the case and the stuff going on in the location whilst we were there. We were not aware of everything going on, and I think that was probably when I had the lightbulb moment and realized that we probably could have been tricked on other occasions. And if it wasn’t necessarily tricked by somebody kind of outright committing a hoax, we could have been fooling ourselves without necessarily realizing it, because we were not aware of everything that was going on around us, that was kind of when I had the lightbulb moment. And at that point, I didn’t initially become immediately involved in the skeptic movement, but a friend of mine at the time just happened to be…he was sort of looking to maybe start a podcast on which he would talk rationally about the latest kind of paranormal news stories, in the newspapers and on the internet, and I happened to…something a bit like this, where I was talking, it wasn’t a podcast, it was like an online radio show. I did an interview with them, and he happened to hear this, and asked me if I wanted to do the podcast with him. So I did that, the podcast became semi-successful, we got quite a large following, which was great, completely unexpected. We’re not quite sure why…

Chris: Which podcast was this? Righteous Indignation?

Hayley: Yeah, it was called Righteous Indignation, and we honestly didn’t know what to expect, and then suddenly we were getting like 10,000 downloads immediately every episode, we just didn’t understand why, but we just carried on doing what we were doing, ‘cause obviously people liked it. And from there, somebody who ran a Skeptics in the Pub group in Nottingham asked me if I would go and speak for the Skeptics group, and I did, and then I started getting more and more requests and so I started meeting more and more people who were involved in the UK skeptic movement. And I realized that actually I got on with a lot of them, and we had similar interests, and they wanted to hear what I had to say, and it just kind of snowballed from there, really.

Chris: One can buy a lot of different devices on Amazon these days to help you find ghosts and detect spirits and things like that, have you encountered some of these devices, and can you tell us how they might work?

Hayley: Well, I can tell you that they don’t work. Yes, I’ve encountered some of them. There is a lot of money to be made from selling ghost hunting technology, and a lot of it tends to be stuff that’s been borrowed from other fields. So, EMF meters, for example, electro-magnetic field meters, they have a purpose, but ghost hunters sort of borrowed them and then adapt the purpose, and EMF meters will be used by ghost hunters to see if they can monitor any fluctuations in the EMF of a location. And if the levels go up and down, that will be attributed to a ghost. Largely, this sort of equipment is used to communicate with ghosts. So there’s something called electronic voice phenomena, which are these recordings that people make in an attempt to capture the voices of ghosts, and traditionally electronic voice phenomena or EVP as it’s known, as it’s shortened to, was always kind of done—you would record, and then you would play it back and hear the voices. But as technologies have developed, we now have these devices called “spirit boxes” on the market, and they sort of—the claim, at least—is that they enable you to do “live” communication with ghosts. And you turn the machine on, it basically skips through AM and FM radio frequencies, so you get this kind of juttery sounding all[?} and you also get snippets of the broadcasts that they’re skipping through. And it basically claimed that these noises and this skipping of the channels and the frequencies enables the ghosts to communicate with you, so they’re able to somehow, to use that to communicate with you.

Chris: Basically, it’s the sounds you used to get from an old stereo when you just spun the tuning dial…

Hayley: Absolutely. And it has a lot of white noise in there, too, and humans, we are sort of pre-dispositioned to find meaning where there is none. So if you’re sat in a house or a building that somebody has told you is haunted, and you’re listening to one of these machines skipping through, and you know that the building is supposed to be haunted by, let’s say…here in England we’ve got a lot of grey ladies. So let’s say that you know that the building is supposed to be haunted by a grey lady called Jane. You’re going to be listening for things that you would expect to hear—you don’t do it necessarily intentionally, so you’re not, you know, most ghost hunters aren’t out to sort of cherry-pick their data and to falsify data in any way that supports the idea that somewhere is haunted. But because we are pattern-seeking creatures, and that just happens to be the way that our brains work, you find the words that you would expect to hear in this jumble of audio. So it sort of, these devices sort of create false positives, which are then presented as evidence of ghosts. But largely ghost hunters will just borrow equipment from all sorts of places and adapt it into ways in which they can look for ghosts. So for another example, is the Microsoft Kinect which is a device which you can use to kind of interact with your game consoles—well, ghost hunters will use that to find ghosts. It kind of blows my mind, because it’s just really irrational, but it also kind of demonstrates—I think if you look hard enough, you can see ghosts wherever you want to see them, really.

Chris: Your blog, which has won an Occam Award, covers all kinds of different topics. I mean, you have opinions on all sorts of things, I mean you’ve written about..

Hayley: I do..

Chris: …sex workers, you’ve written about punching Nazis, you’ve written about all sorts of stuff…why don’t you elaborate on some of the other things you’re interested in?

Hayley: Yeah. So, I mean, the punching Nazis thing—I think that kind of conversation on my blog happened, I think probably just before, or in the leadup Trump being elected, or maybe just after. And it was sort of more commentary on the whole kind of alt-right movement that was happening in the US and these demonstrations that were happening on the street between basically fascists and anti-fascists. And how the people kind of got caught up in this discourse about whether it’s OK to punch a Nazi, and I think there was that chap, I can’t remember his name now, he was…

Chris: Richard Spencer…

Hayley: That’s him. Yes, he was being interviewed and then got punched, and a lot of people were debating whether it was OK to punch him. And so I just kind of wrote a blog post with my thoughts on that. And yeah, I’ll blog about feminism, and atheism, politics, all sorts of things, because even though my skepticism tends to be mostly about the paranormal, it applied to all areas of life and you know, these are topics that, they affect me but they also affect other people. And I’ve always just used my blog as an outlet for my ideas. I never realized back when I started blogging, when I was in my early 20s, that people would continue to read it and then nominate me for the award, which was lovely. And the number of people that read the blog has always surprised me, it’s always proven to be popular, but I’ve never really kind of wanted to only write about the paranormal. It is my blog in which I write about paranormal, but it’s also the blog on which I write about life in general.

Francis: Can people be divided into those that are sort just gullible, and those that know that they’re “taking the piss” or just lying to people? How does happen that somebody comes up with this stuff, and do they really believe it?

Haley: That’s a really good question, and I don’t think that there is necessarily a straight answer to that. I mean, some of the technology now has been influenced by American ghost-hunting television shows, so it’s hard to know. I mean, there’s an American television show called “Ghost Hunters”…follows a group called TAPS—I’m not sure if they’re still aired now or not, but they started using, for example, they promoted the use of a laser-grid pen on ghost hunts, it would enable you to see things moving in the dark. A better solution to that would be to turn the lights on, but when it comes to a ghost-hunting TV show, you have to…you can’t help but be a bit skeptical about their intentions when they’re promoting this sort of equipment. There are online stores and websites dedicated to people making equipment which is purposely built to help people find ghosts on ghost hunts, and it’s in their best intentions for people to believe that this equipment works; whereas on the other hand, you do have people who genuinely are interested in whether ghosts are real or not, and they’re not meaning any harm, but they are being illogical in the way they approach it. And when they sort of borrow equipment or adapt equipment, it’s because they think that they’re being rational, they think that what they’re doing makes them scientific. So there’s a whole range—it really depends on the equipment, and sort of who’s created it, ‘cause I think most of the time people have the best intentions when they’re making or adapting a piece of equipment, but there are those who definitely see it as an opportunity.

Chris: Earlier you said you had caught a landlord faking ghost things—can you maybe tell us more specifically what he was doing, and tell us of some other of your ghost-hunting adventures?

Haley: Yeah. So the case that I mentioned before, when I kind of had the lightbulb moment, the guy involved was the landlord of the pub. Ironically, the pub was called The Ghost Train, but I don’t think there were any ghosts there, especially after what happened. So we were called in—this is what was quite unique about it, was that we were called in. Back then—this is sort of like, 2005, 2006, I’m 18, 19 years old—and we get called in, and normally we call people to see if we can come in, you know. So we get called in by this guy because he’s convinced his pub is overrun with ghosts, there’s all this paranormal activity happening, his staff is scared, his customers are scared. And we agree to go in, and we’re like yeah, we’ll come and have a look, because we feel all like we’re the ghostbusters, basically. So we go down there, we get there, and you can—I think the moment we arrived, you could tell that something wasn’t quite right. Just the way people were acting, it was almost like they were in on a joke. But that’s in retrospect, looking back, I can say that—at the time, we didn’t really think anything was too amiss. So we started doing our investigation, we did like a big walk around the place. We had a psychic—we used to use a psychic—and he did his thing, and then we split off into smaller groups. One group would do one area, another group would work in a different area, and I wasn’t actually in the group that caught him; the group that I was with was very close to them, so I kind of caught the immediate aftermath of what happened. And the group had been…this pub had an outbuilding, which they used as a function room, and they had storage room in there as well. And the group had been in the function room, and they had heard what sounded like a mirror smashing in the storage room. They went in there to see if they could find the mirror that had been broken, and it had no light in there, there was no lightbulb, so they were using their torches, looking for maybe broken glass, or a broken mirror, or something like that. And they’re looking around, and one of the guys happened to turn to the door where another member of the team was standing, and as he turned to the door with his torch, his torch caught this figure sort of crouching behind the door. He screamed, obviously thinking it was a ghost—as you should, when you’re on a ghost hunt—but it was actually the landlord. What had happened was that the people in the pub had figured that the ghost hunters were in the function room, and the landlord had crept into the storage room, which was next door, and had thrown a glass across them, and then hidden behind the door in the hope that they would think it was a poltergeist or a [flying] ghost or something. But obviously, he got caught, but he only just got caught—if that person hadn’t turned when they turned, if they hadn’t been standing at that particular angle with their torch, we probably wouldn’t have known that he was there. So yeah, that kind of raised a lot of questions. But it’s hard to rationalize why somebody would do that. I think one of the members of the team actually went to talk to him whilst the rest of us were packing up to go—because we were like, yeah, we’re out of here, this is ridiculous—and from, if I remember correctly…it was a long time ago…I think he said something about wanting to be on “Most Haunted,” which is the television show that has here for, since 2002. He said something about Most Haunted, so we did wonder if he was trying to trick us into thinking he was haunted so we would then write about it, and then they could contact the show producers and say “we’ve got a haunted pub, look, these people came in and this is what happened to them, you should come and do a television show here.” I don’t know.

Francis: Were there any instances at all where you thought maybe something is going on here?

Hayley: Yeah, there have been lots, I mean, even as someone—I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts now. I do in a cultural sense, in…I believe that the cultures that we grow up in shape the way in which we interpret things, so I believe in ghosts in that sense, in that people genuinely think they’ve seen ghosts because of how they’ve been raised, with the folklore they’ve been raised with. Supernaturally, I don’t believe that there is anything, and I think when we die, we die, and that’s it. That being said, though, as a skeptic, as a nonbeliever who researches the paranormal, I mean it’s not that weird that I would experience weird things when I’m investigating them, because we know that they have a cause, we just established what the cause is. And if it’s a naturally occurring thing, then me going into the place that the weird thing happens in, means that I’m probably going to experience it. It’s just a case of trying to stay calm whilst experiencing it, so I can then try and work out what it is. That doesn’t always happen, and I have had the few occasions where I’ve wanted to just run away screaming. And I think the strangest things that I’ve experienced have always been those that—it’s not like a horror movie thing. So when something weird happens, it’s not necessarily terrifying, it’s just bit uncanny. And you don’t necessarily want to run screaming into the night, although sometimes that kind of flight-or-flight response does take over. One of the strangest things that I have experienced happened…there’s this mansion in Gloustershire called Woodchester Mansion. It dates back to the 1600s, I think—my history is not great—and it’s unfinished, so the stonemasons and the carpenters and everybody put down their tools and just left, and nobody really knows why. So you’ve got this half-finished mansion—it’s fully enclosed, but there are doorways that lead to three-story drops where there should be a floor but they never finished the floor. There are staircases that go to nowhere, all this sort of weird things. And we were in there—it’s a very spooky place, but nothing really happened. And then as we were leaving, I went to the bathroom very quickly on our way out—they don’t actually have toilets in the building, they got like a sort of port-a-cabin type thing like you get at festivals and so on, but quite a posh one—and so I went in there to go and use the bathroom in there, and as I’m in there on my own, something said my name from the other cubicle—there are two cubicles in the ladies’—and I’m in one cubicle, and something says my name from the next cubicle, or what sounds like my name, and I’m like that’s really funny, who’s there, like ha-ha-ha. And there’s nobody there. When I leave the cubicle, I look in—there’s nobody there, and when I go outside everybody is accounted for. Nobody had left the group, and…they’re all being serious, at least I believe they were being serious. And when we told people who had heard, asked the investigation to go ahead, they were like, yeah, that’s one of the things people experience. The weirdest thing happens in the most modern building on site, not the big spooky mansion, it’s in the porta-cabin everyone uses for a loo. So that was quite weird. And I think it was weird because afterwards—obviously I’m just replaying it over and over in my head, was that really my name being said? Was it just the plumbing? Was it, did I hear somebody outside and it sounded like they were inside? But I’ll never know…it was just a bit spooky. Another case we investigated took place over a number of years, it was a very long case. We would hear like a whistling noise—it would be as though somebody was whistling at us, and then when we moved to where they had whistled, the whistle would then come from somewhere else, but it was all very enclosed, so there was no way that there was anybody hiding. Yeah, just strange little things that you’ll probably never find an explanation for, it’s just a bit uncanny, really.

Francis: You know what I think? You know how there’s dark matter, and we just sort of like know it exists, but we don’t really have the technology or the senses to measure it or see it? I’m thinking there could be like, possibly, life forms that are the equivalent of that, or are like some kind of level of consciousness? I mean, I would leave room for the possibility that we don’t know everything that actually exists in this universe. But what I don’t think is that, if there was intelligent life that was sort of on this other plane that people call ghosts, right? Why would they just want to fuck with people?

Hayley: I think if I was a ghost, that’s exactly what I would do! I would kind of knock things over when your back was turned, and then you turn around and go “did that fall over? I’m not sure if that was like that before or not.” That kind of puts you on slight edge rather than just like, you know, chains and all that kind of stuff, like rattling chains and throwing the curtains from the windows…just the little things that make people think, “Oh my god, did that just happen?” I would totally do that. But yeah, there are different theories about what ghosts are.

Chris: …just paint “REDRUM” on the side of…on random walls, …

Hayley: Yeah, and instead they’re like “it’a a teenager, I think”…it’s, you know, a kid, it’s not a ghost. I was doing that thing where you make the cat just follow you around the room, like, with its eyes, and everyone’s just like cats just do that, it’s fine…I think. But yeah, when it comes to the paranormal, there are different theories, well, there are different hypotheses about what ghosts are. So one person might think that a ghost is a deceased person somehow still existing in spirit form, and another person might think that they’re an inter-dimensional being, another person might think that they’re a sort of elemental sort of nature-spirit…yeah, it kind of varies, and that can actually, it can make it quite difficult to counter arguments, because when it gets to the whole inter-dimensional elemental things, if you start questioning that people just accuse you of being a materialist, and how could a materialist ever understand? So yeah, sometimes it’s a bit of a…losing battle.

Francis: So one of the things that we like to talk about on this show is the future. And I’d be curious to hear…where do you think this world is headed right now, and how can maybe skepticism help to steer us in a better direction? Have you learned anything from ghost-hunting that relates to society in general, and maybe what some of our biases or superstitions are in terms of influencing our future?

Hayley: That’s a pretty deep question. Sort of yes…so, although I believe, personally, that when you die that’s it, I still find optimism in that, I still find meaning in that. So I refer it sort of being as like…nihilistic optimism, because it’s like “oh, there’s no point in life, isn’t it great.” And when it comes to people who believe in the paranormal, and belief in the paranormal, well, a lot of polls will tell you that more people believe in ghosts now than before. I don’t think that’s true. I think what’s actually happening is that people are more willing to talk about believing in ghosts than they were before, I think it’s seen as more acceptable. I also think at the moment the world can seem like a pretty scary place, you know, politically and so on, there’s just so much going on, there’s so much in the news that seems really bleak and really quite scary and terrifying. And I think that can make people turn to things like the paranormal and psychics and magic, so with Millennials, for example, of which I am one, more and more people are rejecting religion and they’re turning to things like crystal readings and tarot cards and so on because they find more comfort in it—which means, some of these things, they are relatively harmless. There are for people being harmed and sort of being taken for a ride by charlatans, so there is work that the skeptic movement can do to help people to understand how to sort of question things, how to look for evidence, what evidence actually is, what good data looks like, and so on. I can’t remember where I read it, something very briefly, very recently that showed, for example, that when it comes to the ant-vax movement, that it is possible to change the minds of people who believe that vaccinations are harmful, but it’s through kind of discourse rather than by belittling people. So I think that that kind of discussion-based activism and…rather than, you know, the looking down on people kind of approach that a lot of skeptics take, I think that is the way that the skeptic movement can make the future better, by recognizing that although we all believe in different things, there’s more that kind of unites us, more that we have in common with one another than we probably would necessarily think to begin with. And it’s through that kind of discourse and through the sharing of information rather than the pushing of opinions, that I think we can make the most change. What kind of happened with me when it came to my kind of own believing in ghosts to not believing in ghosts, that happened because the people that I was talking to didn’t tell me “you’re wrong, it’s because you’re stupid that you believe this” or “you’re an idiot, you’re wasting your time,” it’s because they kind of picked apart the arguments, but they did it from a sort of position because they wanted to help me see it for myself, rather than telling me what was best for me. And it worked, and I’ve then been able to go on and learn so much more about the way that humanity works and the mind works, and what makes people see ghosts, and the effect that grief can have on people and so on. And I generally do think that just talking to people, rather than talking at them, can make such a huge change.

Francis: One of the things that we struggle with in this country is, it’s been labeled as “post-truth” politics. It seems like no real recognition of what the real data is and what the false data is. And when you have people like Trump in there, even confounding that by calling “fake news” when it’s real news, it just makes it really difficult for people to know, I think, what the information is that they’re supposed to be evaluating. What would a skeptic say about that?

Hayley: I think it is a problem, and we’re not really taught these skills at school. There’s something called CampQuest which a friend of mine runs in Europe where young children—and I actually spoke at a CampQuest in England a number of years ago—and it’s basically like summer camp, but for kids who are interested in science and so on, and it teaches critical thinking skills. And I think critical thinking skills are so important, not just because, oh, Bigfoot’s not real and aliens haven’t visited this planet, but because that kind of skillset helps you in every aspect of your life. I think the skills that I’ve learned, as someone who became involved in the skeptic movement, has definitely helped me in my career, in my day to day life, in my health, and so on. And I think it’s such a shame that we’re not taught these skills from a young age. That said, when you see—especially in the UK at the moment, with this whole Brexit thing that we have going on—you see people kind of just spouting the same misinformation because it’s fed to them in a way that appeals to them. So our biases are against us, in a way—and yeah, unless you have those critical thinking skills, it’s really difficult to spot that happening. It is a real shame.

Francis: Yeah, I think we have a real problem with lack of good journalism. Like a lot of independent journalism, maybe? “Cause there was a time when you had all these different sources, and you could kind of figure out for yourself which of them is more accurate, you know, get a bigger picture by combining, that sort of thing, but it’s almost like we have these, like, this one voice that gets distributed through all these different mainstream media news sources and news companies…and it’s, I think, a huge issue that we lost that.

Hayley: Yeah. And you see the same kind of patterns where people will accuse certain news outlets of being biased, when that actually might not be the case, when you take a step back and look at the claims they’re making, or the coverage they’re giving, it’s quite balanced, you know. I think one of the problems we have here in the UK at the moment is—and I think this is the result of, that the 24-hour streaming television news cycle and so on—over here, you find a lot of the extremist politicians are given a lot of air time because they make themselves readily available to fill the time slots that producers have to fill. And so you find that you get their opinions being given equal footing as maybe a well-researched, well-rounded politician who knows what they’re talking about. And you get that a lot in politics, so we’ve got a lot of kind of Brexit debates happening here at the moment in the UK, but you also see it elsewhere. So you’ll have television shows who will cover things like the measles problem that we have, where people are not getting vaccinated, so measles is starting to spread again, and they’ll maybe interview a doctor, an then they’ll interview someone who’s anti-vaccination who isn’t a medical professional, but gives them the soundbites and the airtime coverage that they need. And these people are given equal footing, and therefore the viewing public, whom, if they don’t know any better, will think that those two opinions are worth the same, and then they’ll just pick the one that fits their own biases rather than the program maybe challenging the misinformation they have in their heart—it gives it sort of an airing, as though it’s equally balanced, and I think that’s a huge problem.

Francis: Do you think that a society that works in competition, like with say, free market capitalism, is as robust and desirable as a society where people are more like thinking we’re all in this together, and work together for common causes?

Hayley: It’s difficult to know for sure, because I don’t think…I would love society to kind of think that way, where you can all kind of work together, but I think the divides within society are just so, there are just such wide divides in society that that would never happen. But I do think people, when they work together, you know, major things can be achieved. But in an ideal world, perhaps that would happen, but we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?

Chris: But I do see, both with grassroots—not just in skepticism, but I see a lot of positive forward motion going on right now among small groups who are seeming, you know, to have some great effect, and that’s what makes me optimistic.

Hayley: I mean, politically in the UK we recently had the Independent Group, who are a bunch of politicians who have split away from their main parties. Some people see that as an optimistic move, rather than being tied to their party line, these politicians haven a stand, which is encouraging. And we do have voices emerging in the politisphere, like Jess Phillips for example who is a Labor MP. She’s received a lot of online abuse, but she’s taking a stand, and you see a lot of people supporting that. And I think in that respect, the tide is turning. I think that has some parallels with the skeptic movement, actually, especially in the US. The US skeptic movement there has been a huge issue with women being harassed and abused and assaulted even. But what you find is that the skeptic movement, when it came to that stuff, I think, were ahead of the curve on those problems. I mean, now we have things like the MeToo movement and so on, the Womens’ Marches happening—but the skeptic movement was ahead of the curve on that and were calling it out before it became like a mainstream thing, which is kind of encouraging, I think. I think there’s definitely cause for celebration, I think there are people who have been kind of put down and put upon a lot, minority groups and so on, who are standing up and being counted and being heard. And I think that’s great, and I’m always in support of those sorts of grassroots movements, definitely. And of course in the US Skepchick have just re-launched their blog, which is great news.

Chris: I was wondering what Rebecca was up to lately.

Hayley: Yeah, they just re-launched, which is fantastic, I think.

Chris: You’ve been on a couple of podcasts in the past, of your own. You had Righteous Indignation, and you were Marsh’s parter at the beginning of Be Reasonable—which by the way has become one of my favorite podcasts, because it makes yell every time I listen to it…

Hayley: [laugh] It used to make me yell when we recorded it, let alone listening to it. I’ve got a podcast at the moment that has been going since about…I think 2015, actually, called the Spooktator podcast. And it’s more paranormal themed than the Righteous Indignation podcast or Be Reasonable were, although those podcasts both did touch upon paranormal themed stories and interviews and so on. The Spooktator I co-host with my friend Paul Gannon and another chap called Charley Revel-Smith. It’s a monthly podcast, though we are looking at releasing more on a more regular basis if we’re able to. But we basically examine weird things in the news, but also things that are happening culturally and socially, and movies and so on, all that have a paranormal theme to them. We also look a lot at folklore and how it kind of influences modern media and so on. And so for example, in the last episode, we spoke about the Ohio Frog Man, and how some people think it’s linked to some recent sightings of the Kentucky Goblins—which sounds, to anyone who’s not interested in the paranormal, just sounds completely ridiculous. From a cultural aspect, it’s quite interesting, and when you pick apart these stories you start to understand why people believe things in the way that they do, and where these claims come from and how they spread. And so, yeah, we produce the Spooktator—we’re basically just three people who are giant paranormal nerds who have an interest in these things and we found there are lots of other paranormal nerds out there who like listening. So it’s really cool.

Francis: So how is your interest in the paranormal evolved? Like, you had your original, genuine curiosity about its veracity, I guess…but as time’s gone on, what’s kept you interested?

Hayley: So at the moment, I’m studying toward a psychology degree. So I’m really, I found I’ve gained more of an interest in how people think and why they think that way. So over the years—obviously, originally I believed in ghosts, so I was interested in ghosts and ghost evidence and so on, and then I lost that belief. So I sort of became more interested in maybe—not necessarily debunking, I don’t really like the word “debunking”—investigating and solving mysteries. And kind of pointing out when somebody was hoaxing something, that kind of thing. I still do that to an extent now, but now I’m more interested in what causes people to think they’re haunted, but I’m also interested in the people at the center of these cases, because you normally find that the things people report as paranormal activity have some sort of either a physical health, or a psychological health, or a social theme underpinning them. There are usually other causes that are making people interpret things like that. I’m also interested in how belief can influence people, and also experiences of bereavement and grief and so on. Yeah, so I…kind of more interested in, probably, the people than the ghosts, but I am still fascinated in the idea of ghosts and so on and why people—even though we can demonstrate how it’s not necessarily possible for them to exist, how people are still fascinated and still believe in them.

Chris: But I always find UFO stories interesting, because I’ve spent a lifetime reading science fiction which has aliens in them, even though the evidence for actual aliens visiting our planet is nonexistent. There’s always part of me that hopes, you know, SETI finds something on its radio or what have you.

Hayley: Yes. And I think the sort of thing that I find really interesting is how, when it comes to the, when you ask people what a ghost is for example, they might say something like, a headless horseman. But actually when you look statistically at the records, there have been very few headless horsemen reported over the years, and I find it really interesting the sort of characteristics of ghosts that survive, but for no real good reason. I think it’s really fascinating how we carry these ideas, and also the way in which, for example, traditionally in England you would have had your haunted crossroads, which is where people who had taken their own lives would have been buried. And so you would have the haunted crossroads, but now we don’t really have haunted crossroads anymore; instead, we have sort of roads traffic-accident hotspot ghosts instead.So you would have seen ghosts kind of lingering on the side of the road near the crossroads before, but now you see them where people have passed away in car accidents. And so the evolution of ghosts is also quite cool to look at, and the way in which ghosts emerge after tragedies as well. So after the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, there was this almost unpredictable, really, there was this flurry of sightings and reportings from taxi drivers who said they kept getting people getting into their taxis and asking to be taken to, like, a town that had been devastated, just completely wiped out in the tsunami, and halfway on the journey they’d look back and the person who’d gotten into their taxi would not be there anymore. But they would carry on the journey to the place, and they would out and they would open the back door of the car so that the ghost, in their mind, the ghost could then get out and complete their journey. And I found that really, really interesting, the way that that kind of story evolved. I think for as long as humanity—and when you look back, we kind of see these cycles—for as long as humanity survives, ghosts will survive. When times are tough, and when life is harder on people, ghosts tend to flourish and people tend to rely on them, trying to get through the bad times. And I think that kind of makes ghosts a little bit cool, really, I don’t know. But I am a little bit biased.

Francis: Well there’s kind of a myth to it, you know. It serves a purpose that’s similar to way myth works in societies. What’s interesting to me too is that it almost seems like there’s less interest when you’re talking about ghosts and whether it corresponds to, like, Christian ideas of good and evil, and that kind of dualism where…say, for example, with exorcism, it’s an evil spirit that’s taking over a person, but with a ghost it seems more neutral or something.

Hayley: I think it depends on the person that becomes involved in the case. So we do have a problem in paranormal research communities with people who are sort of these self-styled demonologists and self-styled exorcists. In America, for example, Lorraine Warren just passed away…

Francis: She’s the Amityville woman?

Hayley: Yeah, that is what she was best known for. And Annabelle, the haunted doll, those sorts of cases. But they did a lot of cases, and the common theme through most of their cases, if not all of them, was that the devil did it, so any of the hauntings they came across, it was demons and devils, and you needed the church, you needed to pray, and with their doing exorcism. And that kind of stuff is really dangerous, because nine times out of ten—well, actually that’s a statistic I’ve just made up. But more often than not, when it comes to these cases, there are underlying causes, and these have to be considered first. You have to consider, are the family recently bereaved? Because that is a huge trigger for these things. Is there an underlying mental health condition? Is there an underlying physical health condition? Is there a social issue there? You know, you have to think about the social-cultural experiences that the person’s going through. Are they living in poverty? That can affect the way in which they interpret things. But a lot of people don’t consider these things, and a lot of skeptics don’t consider when they then start tackling the people as being deluded or stupid. And it’s just not the way to solve these cases.

Francis: Is there a particular psychological predisposition to believing in ghosts that you’ve been noticing?

Hayley: I just think that confirmation biases play a huge role when it comes to these things. Whether that is…I mean, I’ve spoken a lot about the bereaved, or whether it’s because you’re in a house that’s said to be haunted. There are so many ways in which you can convince yourself that something’s going on, and then you start to see evidence of it where there is no evidence. And, you know, seeing meaning where there is no meaning, whether that’s in audio or perhaps in photos or video—so many photos have been sent to me over the years where it’s literally people just seeing things in the pixels of their photos, their badly lit photos—to the more traditional sort of spiritualist methods of tipping tables and doing ouija boards or dousing and so on, all of these things rely on our sort of predisposition to find meaning when there is none. And I think the most important that a person can learn about this, not only that you do that, not only that see things where there are not things to be seen, but even when you know that you do it, you still do it. So you can be a nonbeliever who knows how a ouija board works, you can then take part in a ouija board sitting, and it can still work and still feel really [?], even though you know how it’s working, and it’s because you sort of had this illusion of how in control you are of what you’re experiencing, but actually, when it comes down to it, we are sort of not as in control as we would like to expect. And I can remember doing a QED con one year, actually, I remember doing a glass divination session with some skeptics in the bar of the hotel that the conference was in, and they thought it was quite funny ‘cause the hotel was said to be haunted. And they were like, “oh Hayley, show us how we can talk to the ghost!” So we took a glass, an empty glass, we turned it upside down, got our fingers on it and I started doing the old ghost hunting thing of like, “is there anybody there? Make the glass move, show us that you’re here”—and then it moved. And everyone round the table crapped themselves almost, because they just hadn’t expected this glass to move at all. So even though they knew it was unconscious muscular movement that was doing it, it still happened, and produced this really uncanny experience for them. So even when you know how it works, it still happens.

Francis: Oh, so is that the basis for ouija boards?

Hayley: Yes, it is. And anything, basically, that you need to touch, whether it’s table-tipping, ouija boards, glass divination, or dousing crystals or dousing rods, anything like that that you need to touch, you are moving it, whether you mean to or not, you’re probably moving it.

Francis: I’ve never been able to get a ouija board to work. Someone gave me one as a present, and I tried to give it back, ‘cause I couldn’t get it working, and they wouldn’t take it back.

Hayley: [laughter] Yeah, I mean it doesn’t work all the time, especially if you’re really hyper-aware of it, you can…so it’s unconscious muscular movement, which means that you don’t, you’re not doing it on purpose. But when you become super-aware of how much pressure you’re putting onto the planchette, you can actually stop doing it. So one of the things that I used to encourage ghost hunters to do, when I used to talk at paranormal conferences, I used to say to them, when you’re doing your ouija boards, take some putty or some play-dough type stuff, put it on top of the glass, and if you’re pushing it your finger will imprint into it. And actually just by putting the putty on top of the glass, they became super-aware of how much pressure they were putting on it, which meant they put no pressure on it, and it didn’t move. When you kind of start putting those controls in place, it just falls apart completely. But then, that just makes me a party-pooper.

Francis: When I think about my friends and the experiences that I’ve had with people over the years, the one paranormal thing that comes up a lot that people really seem to believe in, are these mediums who can kind of, either talk to the dead, or even a pet, like there are some pet mediums—is that what they’re called, mediums?

Hayley: Yeah, mediums or psychics..

Francis: …psychics, yeah. I mean, there are people who swear on this. You know, “this woman, she like, somehow she knew I had this blue shirt when I was 12”…I’m wondering, what is behind that? Why is it that this seems to be so prevelant?

Hayley: It’s really fascinating, and yeah, some of them can be really, really accurate and quite scarily accurate actually. I once sat with a psychic who just out of nowhere pulled out the name “Mandy”—and I’ve got an aunt Mandy, and it’s not a super-common name over here. And I was just like, whoa, that’s really creepy. But actually then somebody pointed out to me that when you think about it, you probably know someone called Mandy—if not Mandy then Amanda—it’s kind of about chance. And there are, the most two common ways that psychics can trick you—this is the thing I need to point out as well. When we talk about “psychics,” it’s really important to understand that there are some people out there who say that they’re psychics, or say that they’re mediums, who genuinely believe that they are. And actually it’s probably that they’re just very perceptive people, and we…cause we all have the ability to read people. Like when you walk into a room, when you’re talking to someone, if they’re shuffling around the way they’re standing, the way they’re talking, the inflection of their voice; that kind of thing, the clothes they’re wearing—you instantly make judgements about them. They might not be correct judgements, but you instantly start picking up on things about them. And some people are just very good at it, and then think that their perception is “extra-sensory” when actually it’s not. But when you then go to the other end of the scale, where you have people who claim to be psychic but are not psychic, one of the tricks that they use is called “cold reading”—it’s where you say things which seem really personal but actually they’re quite vague. So things like you used to have a blue shirt that you used to wear a lot, or you had a grandmother that’s passed away, or you’ve got a bruise on your knee or you sometimes get sore knees, or you had a dog when you were young who was like the best family dog you ever had—things like that, that actually, when you are at a psychic show, seems really personal to that person, their reading, but there are probably ten people in the room that that could apply to. On the flip side of that, you have “hot reading,”which is when they know information about you because they’ve researched you. And we…

Chris: …that article in the New York Times that Susan Gerbic wrote, where they caught one of these stage psychics actually using Facebook and looking up stuff about the people they were talking to.

Hayley: Yeah, exactly. I was gonna say, we share so much information online without necessarily realizing we’re doing it. I’ve got a friend called Ash who does this show, “How to Be a Psychic Con Man,” where he literally stands in front of an audience of skeptics and convinces them that he has psychic powers by doing all of these psychic readings, and actually they’re really, really specific readings. And I remember going to one of his shows, and I sat in the audience next to the guy called Andy, and I looked over his shoulder and I saw his name, I saw he was on Facebook, I saw his name, I went out the back to where Ash was getting ready and I sat down. We went onto Facebook, we found this guy’s profile, and we found all of this information despite neither of us being his friend. And then Ash basically memorized that information, went on stage, and then part way through the show, just started doing this reading on this guy, and the stuff that he was saying was so specific that even though this chap in the audience was non-believer, he was physically shocked that Ash was picking up all this information about him. And I had been privy to that, and actually even though it was then revealed to him how it had been done, I felt really uncomfortable that we had done it, you know. But it was all in, you know, part of the bigger lesson basically. But yeah, there is so much information about you out there that you probably don’t realize. And you find that a lot of people who go to psychic shows will go to their local spiritualist churches, and some of the psychics will then go along to those spiritualist churches, or people that work for them will go along for a couple of weeks, and they’ll listen in to what people are saying, what readings are being said and so on. And then they’ll pick up on that information, and they’ll use it in their show. And historically in the US, obviously, is the now-infamous case of James Randi versus Peter Popoff, where James Randi exposed the psychic Peter Popoff as using an earpiece, and his wife was feeding him information about audience members. You can’t always trust what people are saying—they might think that they’re psychic, and they’re just very perceptive; they might just be feeding you information that seems really specific but it isn’t. So if you are having a psychic reading, one of the best things you can do is record it, and then listen back to it and see how many of the statements were right, because we’re also really good…we’ll remember all the hits, but we’ll forget the times when they said something that doesn’t make any sense to us. So listen back to it, count how many times they say something that doesn’t make sense, and then ask yourself if the things that do make sense could make sense to other people as well. And actually you’ll probably find most of it does.

Francis: Do you think that there are nascent human capabilities that get misconstrued as paranormal? Like say for example, things like intuition or I guess maybe telekinesis…just things that, who knows that maybe we could evolve someday into having some new capacity? Is there any sense of that in the paranormal?

Hayley: I’m not sure, to be honest. I mean, people do think that, as paranormal beliefs. When it comes to things like telekinesis, I’m quite skeptical. When it comes what may…

Chris: …and a lot of this has been studied, formally. The United States…

Hayley: It has.

Chris …government funded a lot of this study, the Soviet government funded a lot of these studies, and they came out with the null hypothesis in all cases.

Hayley: And there is a field of research called parapsychology, which continues to study ESP and PSI and so on, to see if these things possibly exist. Some people argue that the evidence is there, but actually, again—this goes back to what we were saying before about being able to critically analyze data, and the way in which data is captured—and when you look at the sort of tests that have been done over the years, so the [zena] tests for example, and other such cases, you find that the protocols in place might not have been as stringent or as controlled as they should have been, which may have allowed kind of positive data to creep in that wasn’t actually positive data, it wasn’t, you know, kind of proving the hypothesis at all in the way that they had predicted it would. But there is a lot of debate, and actually when it comes to this sort of topic, it gets quite heated. For example I’ve blogged previously about parapsychology and caused huge arguments, and had a lot of abuse sent my way, because there are so many people who are just absolutely sure that humans have these powers, and it can get quite ugly when you start to question those claims.

Francis: It would seem easy to demonstrate, if you could do that…reproducibly…you know, there wouldn’t be any argument. I think humans, though, they do crave magic. I mean, look at how popular Harry Potter is.

Hayley: Yeah, exactly. And I don’t think that will ever go away, I think people will always have paranormal beliefs and magical beliefs. As I said before, millennials are kind of less religious than the previous generations and more interested in the magical and in witchcraft and so on. And I think that will always be the case, so you do get skeptics out there who just seem so affronted by the idea that anyone could believe in anything that isn’t scientific, but that’s just reality. Well, it’s their version of reality, but them having that version of reality is reality, people are always going to have these beliefs. And it’s really easy, I think, to kind of get caught up in the whole idea of how it can harm people, or it’s really harmful to believe that because you could get ripped off, and yes there is harm to be done through these beliefs. But ultimately, that’s not going to stop people believing in the things that they think are real. So I think taking it personally is, I think, just a very easy way of getting frustrated all the time. And in the skeptic movements, you do see a lot of people who do get frustrated and it’s just pointless.

Francis: I think a good point that it’s in some ways a big distraction, because if people are suffering, if we need change, looking to magic to make it happen, you know that’s definitely, probably not the most effective direction to be going in.

Hayley: Sure, no exactly. However, there has been research—it was a while ago now—but there was research done that showed that people who had lost a husband or a wife, that the majority of the people involved in the research, they were kind of interviewed at stages following their bereavement, and within the first ten years after the death of their spouse, the majority of them reported that they had experienced the ghost of their dead husband or wife, and that it had comforted them and it had helped them through their bereavement. So although believing that their husband or wife’s ghost is in the house could have opened them up to harm, you know, they could have been preyed upon by a psychic or whatever, ultimately it helped them come to terms with the tragedy they had gone through. And I think there are definitely positive aspects to be taken from that, so I don’t think it’s necessarily black or white when it comes to whether magical thinking and paranormal beliefs are a good or a bad thing.

Chris: Well, with that said, we’ll ask you the same question we ask all our guests at the end, and that’s—-is there anything that you’d like to promote or publicize or pimp?

Hayley: The only thing that I would like to share is my blog: it’s hayleyisaghost.co.uk. I post there as often as I can, and it is just things that occur to me, things that I find interesting, my takes on weird paranormal things.

Chris: And we should remind everyone you’re not the new Congressman….

Hayley: No, I’m not that Hayley Stevens, I’m the other Hayley Stevens. And there’s an equestrian called Hayley Stevens, and then t here’s me, the ghost hunter.

—END

Episode 1: Interview With Sina Bahram Transcript

Welcome to Episode One of Making Better.

The Making Better podcast aims to create a solid framework for optimism by interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers. Our guests will include scientists, musicians, philosophers, activists, skeptics, writers, artists and any other sort with ideas for the future. Now, let’s meet the hosts of Making Better, Dr. Francis DiDonato and Chris Hofstader.

Chris: Well, Francis, this is episode one of Making Better.

Francis: Yes, I’m really psyched, it’s great to collaborate with you again. I think the last time we collaborated was in front of CBGBs maybe in the 80s?

Chris: I think the last collaboration we did was a fanzine we started out of your apartment..uh on the Bowery just south of CBGBs. I think that was 1981, ’82..so

Francis: My, how time flies..

Chris: Yeah, it sure does, and it means that we’re old now

Francis: Older and wiser, perhaps?

Chris: Perhaps.
(chuckles)

Francis: I was thinking that, these past 35 years, it’s almost like Ronald Reagan pushed society and society has just been falling down for like 35 years, but like now, because you know, we’ve sort of reached the end point with this guy that we have now in as President, it’s like this new sense of possibility again, like we could not be reactive and actually start looking ahead at what’s possible in the future.

Chris: Well, we’re seeing so many ..new activism starting up, everything from the Women's March to the Parkland kids and ..there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic and a lot of people out there doing all kinds of interesting things to get society back to its normal pace.

Francis: Right. You know, I ve spent the last 35 years working in science, getting my PhD, and just being very heavily invested in that, and you have moved on to your…maybe you can describe what you’ve been doing..

Chris: Well, I did..most of my career, after 1983 was in software engineering, and then for the last 10 years I’ve been a full time activist in the disability rights space.

Francis: Yeah, so the things that were possible when we were hanging out originally at those hardcore matinees with your band, and my band, and..there’s new possibilities now, new opportunities technologically, and people have learned a lot about ideologies as well, so that you know I think that the excitement I’m having with this program is ..we’re almost on a fact-finding mission, what is possible, like what is this new world that we have the possibility of creating now?

Chris: This month’s guest is inclusive design specialist Sina Bahram. I’ve known Sina since he was about 16 years old, when he lied to me about his age and told me he was 19, which was easy to believe because he was already most of the way through his undergraduate degree at Nc state. Sina has gone on to form a company called Prime Access Consulting, and focuses most of his work on making museums accessible to all kinds of people, whether they have a disability or not. Our conversation with Sina discussed his work we talked a bit about museums, and we went as far as discussing even the nature of beauty. and a number of other topics, and we think you’re really going to enjoy our conversation with Sina.

Chris: Sina Bahram, welcome to Making Better!

Sina: Thank you for having me.

Francis: Yes, welcome

Chris: Sina, you’re most well known for being a universal design specialist. And when you look up “universal design” on wikipedia, it’s less than obvious what it’s describing. So, can you tell us in a manner that our listeners might understand, what you do and what universal design, inclusive design, and those kinds of things are?

Sina: Yeah, sure. I guess a few definitions of terms might be in order. So, you look up “universal design” on wikipedia and you see some things about the Center for Universal Design at [?]..State and you see Ronald L. Mace’s name tossed around, etc. any of (?) this broad spectrum of ideas, designs for ..used in the design of services and products and other offerings, etc. it enumerates these different kinds of things but doesn’t really tell you, what this is all about. And what it refers to is a methodology that incorporates thinking about all of the possible ways your users might be able or unable to interact with your offering due to, let’s say, disability, due to a difference in language, ..in my company, Prime Access Consulting, we like to use the phrase “the entire vector of human difference.” This is not only ability but it can refer to age and gender and orientation and so on and so forth. And these things matter because when we think about making a product, whether it’s an iPhone, whether it’s an apple corer in the kitchen, whether it’s a piece of software, we need to consider all of the possible users so we can make these things accessible and usable to the widest possible audience. So, in a nutshell, that’s what universal design, inclusive design, these things are. Now, there’s some nuanced differences between things like universal design and inclusive design, I tend to prefer “inclusive design” just because inclusive design, to me, well it has the word “inclusion” at its heart and that really is at the heart of my practice. So I tend to go around talking about inclusive design, but you’re absolutely right to point out that the Wikipedia page, for example, is on “universal design.” Some textbooks that exist in this space, they’re on universal design. That’s the more formal name over the years, but a lot of folks have been gravitating towards this idea of inclusive design. It also just feels a little less..totalitarian in a way, universal design, I’ve seen a lot of developers, especially, with a very pedantic mindset, be turned off by that phrase because they feel like they need to boil the ocean, right, they need to do all of the things, all correctly, all of the time, in one go. And that’s not the idea, the idea here is that you fail forward, you iterate and you make things progressively enhanced and more accessible to people in future iterations. You learn from your mistakes and you fail forward. That’s the impetus I bring to inclusive design work.

Chris: Now, you mentioned the name of your company is Prime Access Consulting..why don’t you tell us a little about the business that you run and how it’s been growing and then we’ll go on to my favorites of your clients.

Sina: Sure. So, Prime Access Consulting, or PAC for short, is an inclusive design firm, we’re headquartered out of RTP, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, we’ve had a strong concentration on folks in the GLAM sector, so this is Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, for several years now. And the work that we …

Chris: So by “GLAM” you’re not referring to David Bowie, are you?

Sina: I am not. Sadly, although the MCA Chicago did have a David Bowie exhibit that benefitted from our work, and actually incorporated visual descriptions as part of the [coyote] project that we did with them. Essentially, what we do is we work with museums and folks in this sector on the entirety of their offerings. Right, so this could be a website accessibility project, looking at things like WICAG, the web content accessibility guidelines, an accessibility especially around persons who use assistive technologies like screenreader and screen magnifiers and things of this nature, but it can also refer to policies. It can refer to building out accessibility roadmaps, it can refer to working with boards of trustees, all the way down to the intern that just got hired last week. And understanding that this commitment to inclusion, this commitment to making our offerings, whatever they may be, content, digital, etc. available to the widest possible audience, that’s the responsibility of every single person in the organization. It’s not just one person’s job or one person’s role, or some system you can buy that will fix all of your problems. And so, we try to weave this idea of inclusion into the entirety of our clients’ practices. and so we do that through a variety of ways. We do that through working with their developers, we do that through testing and evaluation and audits and that sort of methodology, and we also do that occasionally when we are really lucky to get called in at the very beginning, and by the very beginning I’m referring to something that’s being built and the shovel hasn’t even hit the dirt yet. We’re talking early days, and we then have the opportunity in those cases, like we did with Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to lay down a groundwork where we can prevent inaccessibility and lack of inclusion from even cropping up in the first place. There’s always going to be little things, don’t get me wrong, but we’re laying the groundwork that the baseline expectation is that everything starts accessible and inclusive.

Francis: As a graduate student, my advisor was a big proponent and advocate of basic science. And a lot of the things that have turned into drug therapies, that [] thing, or even the tools to get to that, were done through basic science. And I bring that up because it makes me think that, in doing universal design, you can probably come up with technologies or other things maybe that have unexpected application and much broader scale. You see that?

Sina: Absolutely. Every day. Literally every day, in our work we see that. So, there’s the obvious examples of things like a curb cut. So a curb cut is that sloped piece of pavement or sidewalk that allows, for example, a wheelchair user not to have to hop the curb to cross the street—but that’s not the majority of people who use curb cuts. If you look at the numbers, the majority of folks who benefit from curb cuts are..parents with strollers, people with grocery carts, at the air, roller skaters and skateboarders and bicyclists, etc., and that’s just one example, right? And if you think about curb cuts, you think about the history of curb cuts, they used to be smooth. And then the problem was identified that, especially if you combine a smooth curb cut with not a lot of elevation difference, so there’s not a very steep slope, with the advent of silent or mostly silent cars by way of electri cars, you’ve got a recipe for not-such-a safe-crossing for, let’s say, someone who’s blind, that may not know they’ve crossed into a street from the sidewalk. So, we didn’t, as a society, go, “oh well, curb cuts were great, guess we’re not gonna do that anymore!” Right? That wasn’t our reaction, our reaction was, ok, there’s a problem here, and the progressive enhancement, the fail forward, was “let’s put bumps on it”…let’s put dots on it, it’s colloquially referred to as “foot braille”…(there are no messages, I’ve checked, municipalities are missing an amazing Easter egg potential there, I feel) But essentially, the idea there is that we gradually, you know, put these sloped bumps on it, it’s feeble with your foot, if you’re a guide dog user, feel-able with a cane if you’re a cane traveller, etc., doesn’t interfere with a bicycle, and it makes it better, right? So that’s one example of just broadening and it being used by others, but if you think about the advent of just technologies and in general, necessity is the mother of all invention, so the expression goes, and there’s a lot of necessity that comes out of work, especially when you’re thinking about users with differing abilities. So a lot of this work involves inventing solutions along the way…I think what puts our work aside a little bit is that I have a very strong commitment—I’m glad you mentioned basic science—to evidence-based, objective measures, right? It’s not just what I think is a good idea—I think I have lots of good ideas—but they’re not worth anything if you can’t evaluate them and prove that they are effective. And so, evaluation and evidence-based techniques are at the heart of what we do when we try to broaden those things that you’re talking about to wider audiences or spin them off as a technology, etc.

Francis: Can you give an example of that?

Sina: Sure, so let’s talk about visual description. So if you think about visual description, it’s the act of describing what you see, presumably for an audience that cannot see that thing. Right? And usually even additionally, presumably, because they are blind. Now most of these constraints don’t have to exist, you could be describing it to someone over the phone, they could be a sighted individual, but just not physically there with you. So then we could maybe broaden this to say, an eyes-free audience, right? And then you can broaden it even more to say, wait a minute, why are we concentrating on people who can’t see this thing? If you actually look at the work that involves, and we’ve done some of this work, we provide a visual description of a painting to someone in a contemporary art gallery. All of a sudden they go from “wow I feel really dumb in here I don’t know why that thing on the wall is really expensive, or is really valuable to society, or really has a message to say”…they go from that kind of feeling to “Oh, I get it, that little blue sliver in the background was the reflection of the sail of the ship..ok, I totally understand that”…and so it turns it into a prolonged looking exercise or an exercise in really guided looking…and this is, obviously, for a sighted individual. So it returns agency back to visitors of these institutions. you know, it’s really easy to talk about all the good things museums do, because there’s a lot of them, and they’ve been doing it for millennia, but, the idea here is that if you think about how people feel in the gallery, these feelings of exclusions are not just because of differences of ability, they can be about differences of background knowledge. If you’re not an art expert, reading a visual description, yes, that might be critical for a blind user, is still super helpful to you as a sighted viewer of that artwork. So that would be one example of broadening.

Chris: Since we’re back to art, I know one of the projects you did was the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and Andy is somebody I think is both a hero of mine and Francis as well, so if you could speak a bit about that project, ‘cause it’s kind of personal and I think Andy has taken snapshots of both of us at different times…

Sina: (laugh) With the Andy Warhol Museum, one of the things we did was tactile reproduction. So this was, [Edith Whitewall] out of Pittsburgh came up with this really cool technique, to basically laser into I think a sort of [CNC] type of process, into a material called acetol (sp) and acetol is this geometrically inert material, supposedly you can put it in gasoline for over a year and it will not change shape, which, you know, immediately makes you think, OK, this is a good candidate to be felt by the general public. You know, a bunch of people are going to be touching it. So, that’s the material we went with, and then he basically wrote a mapping algorithm to go from color to elevation. And so you have things that are, for example, brighter, that are raised, and darker, that are lower elevation, and as you’re touching something, you then can get a sense of what the painting or line drawing or screen print may represent. But here’s the thing, if I give you these tactile reproductions, just throw one at you, right…you sit down at a table, you’ve got both arms out, right, these are reasonably big, sometimes they’re a foot, two foot, three foot in diagonal. You’re not going to immediately go, “Oh, OK, I get it, this is a reclining nude” or “this is a sports car from a three-quarter sort of profile” being seen…you’re not going to necessarily immediately intuit that, because of how tactile graphics work. And so what we did with Andy Warhol as part of this project is, we provided them two things. We provided them visual descriptions of the artworks, so that you have a general sense of what is being seen, and for all of the benefits I alluded to earlier, but then we also provided guided tactile description. So guided tactile descriptions are the act of assuming someone is touching the tactile reproduction as you are describing it to them, and not only are you describing the visual things that are going on, you’re describing what they feel like. So as you take your right hand and start on the letter “c” this spells out the manufacturer’s brand name, C-a-m-p-b-e-l-l-‘-s. You’ll notice a drop shadow to the right of the “C” and in this font, the “e” looks like a backwards “3,” you know, something like this. Right, so you can start explaining as someone is touching, you know, something iconic like Campbell’s, and this allows you to get much more detail and a much more immersive, rich experience. But, there’s also an awesome side effect—the side effect is, and I saw this happen, this happened in front of me. I was there doing some testing, we were at an evening event there at the museum…this girl, I think she was eight, ten years old, something like that, couldn’t have been older than ten years old, and she’s asking her mom, she’s like “Mommy, why are there dots on it?” because we had braille labels to the right of these things, to explain the work and so on and so forth, and she’s like why are there bumps there, why are there dots? And so mom and daughter had a three, four minute discussion about “that’s braille, someone who’s blind can read it, etc.”…and again, they were not talking about Andy’s works at all, whatsoever, not for that three or four minutes. But that side effect, the museum could not have been more delighted about that, right, that happened in their space, they facilitated that conversation. So you get this awareness building as a side effect of this inclusive work as well.

Francis: I guess a question I also have, that seems kind of simplistic, but I think is important, is ..why inclusion?

Sina: Yeah, no, I think it’s a fair question. Those kinds of questions, I feel, need to be answered through the lens through which you interpret the world, right? So if you want to take a utilitarian approach to the world, or a moral objectivism approach to the world, or you know there’s various philosophies of how we should treat fellow humans and so on and so forth. If you want to be pragmatic about it, we’re all getting older, right? As we do, we are very easily able to enter and sometimes leave the group of persons with disabilities. and this has nothing to do with socioeconomic status, or anything along these lines. And so if you want to take a completely selfish approach to this, this is something that could help you, maybe not now, but in the future, and you’ll be dependent on this.

Chris: In my talks on disability, one of the things I always say, that makes disability different from every other minority, is that a) disability is the only minority that intersects with every other minority, and it’s the only minority that you will ultimately join if you live long enough.

Sina: If you live long enough, I totally agree with that. And the thing is, there’s other reasons, there’s benefits. When we talk about business, we talk about ROI based arguments—Return on Investment—right, and there’s a lot of that. You know Toyota has a lot of inclusive design and universal design initiatives. They’re not necessarily—you know, I don’t want to impugn their moral objectives, but I don’t feel they’re doing it for only moral reasons, they have a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. The reason they’re doing it is, they can sell more cars to more people for longer, end of discussion, full stop. That’s an ROI argument, and it’s a very easy one, because now there’s evidence and data about it, it’s not just what people think will happen or say is a good idea. When we talk about institutions like museums, we don’t talk about ROI in terms of return on investment, we talk about ROI in terms of return on institutional objectives. So by making your stuff more inclusive, you are increasing your visitorship, you are increasing your engagement time, you are increasing your ability to contribute positively to the community. Whatever their institutional objectives are, these practices, they assist that as well.

Francis: What about from an economic standpoint? Are there economic incentives for this kind of thing?

Sina: There are, I mean, again, with respect to the return on investment argument, you can sell more products to more people for longer, so that’s definitely an immediate economic incentive from a purely capitalistic perspective. Depending on the kind of work you are doing, there’s non-dilutive (sp?) granting that’s available, granting that if you’re a small company, doesn’t require you to give up equity but is just a funding source, you know, think of Mellon Foundation and the Knight Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates, all of these charitable and philanthropic organizations. So there’s economic support from that perspective. There’s also the flip side, which is that there are legal and regulatory requirements to doing these things, whether it’s video accessibility and we’re talking about captioning an audio description, or media companies, or we’re talking about website accessibility, there are a lot of rules on the books now in a variety of different countries, to enforce these things. And so there’s economic incentives and there are a lot of disincentives not to do this, I feel that, in pretty much every layer of the stack that you want to look at.

Chris: One of the incentives, Francis, is certainly to avoid getting sued. And Sina, maybe you want to speak a little bit to the legal frameworks between the ADA, ADA Restoration Act, and IDEA.

Sina: Sure, ..look, I’m not an attorney, nor am I cute enough to play one on TV, so I want to preface all of this…you have legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA for short, it’s going on 28, 29 years now, the 30th anniversary is coming up in 2020 I believe, and the way that courts, especially within the United States of course, have established what it even means for a place to be a public place of accommodation, and subject to things like the ADA and to be accessible, is that websites are falling into this categorization. So what you start seeing is, you don’t see a lot of cases go all the way to settle…excuse me, go all the way to a decision, they mostly get settled out of court. Sometimes they get settled even pre-lawsuit phase, through things like mediation and so forth, but there’s a really, you know, important I think understanding to have here that, if you’re selling something, especially, to the public online, and you are a public website, a public company, etc., there’s virtually no defense you have having an inaccessible website. And so oftentimes, what you’re noticing over the past, oh, 15 to 18 years, is that the caselaw has just overwhelmingly been in favor of any type of plaintiff that brings a complaint on these grounds. Now, there’s something really important to talk about here when we talk about legal frameworks and accessibility and so forth. So, we can agree that a lot of us…on this conversation and most of the time in accessibility conversations, want companies to do the right thing and we’re able to help them achieve those goals etc., the first reaction is not to suit up. These legal frameworks do exist though, when there is no other source of recourse. However, what is happening a lot these days is that you’ll see these drive-by lawsuits, where folks will sue a company or a series of companies, they’ll grab a random person off the street that identifies as having some disability, and then usually it’s a blind person, and then sue under those grounds, and this is the law firm just using this as a purely money-grab scenario. And that does not make for a healthy accessibility environment, because it really makes it so that nobody takes accessibility seriously, they see it for what it is, which is a hundred-fifty, hundred-sixty thousand dollar money grab by a law firm per case, and they’re not actually making the web more accessible. Now it’s important also to give a shout-out here to Lanie Feingold, who is—I would say the country’s, but I would probably argue—the world’s expert in structured negotiation. So she actually goes in, and she’s an attorney by training and by practice, and she goes in and works with both parties to arrive at a solution so that this does not need to turn into a lawsuit.

Chris: In Lanie’s entire career as a disability attorney, only one of her cases, the lawsuit against JetBlue, is the only one that ever made it to a courtroom.

Francis: What was that one about?

Chris: JetBlue absolutely refused to negotiate, so they ended up in court. But it was about the JetBlue website, blind people couldn’t make their own plane reservations.

Sina: Fun fact about air travel, the reason that, at least to my understanding, that the in-flight entertainment systems and such are not subject to accessibility requirements, is because DOT (Department of Transportation) carved out those things as an exception, as an exemption, and what they got in return was all of the meet-and-assist and other facilities that exist to assist disabled travelers and travelers with disabilities in the airport, but as a result, basic ADA does not apply on board an aircraft, in the sense that your screen that could trivially be made accessible, absolutely trivially, is not.

Francis: I was wondering what you’ve seen on the horizon that is particularly exciting in …new technologies, new directions, …where do you see us being in, say, even 10 years from now?

Sina: Well, I’ll rig that up into two different questions. So what have I seen recently that’s pretty exciting? There’s some really great stuff happening in the AR space especially (Augmented Reality) where you are taking the video and audio feed in from a..traditionally a mobile device…and then layering some things on top of that. And in the space there’s some really cool stuff happening, for example, with an app that you can run on your phone—this is still in prototype phase, so I’m going to talk about it in the general sense—you wear it as a lanyard around your neck, and you turn around in the gallery, and as you’re looking around the gallery you are being told what the painting is, the visual description of it, and even immersed in an audio experience of that world. So imagine that when you’re looking at the painting of the Statue of Liberty, you’re hearing the wind and everything go by, because that’s the, kind of the angle of the shot, and then you maybe pan over to a farm scene, and you hear that sort of immersive 3D audio space. And so these are some things that are really interesting because it takes the ability to blend things like AR and VR (Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality) with these needs to make these environments more inclusive. And instead of treating it as a problem and sort of saying, “that’s hard, we can’t make VR accessible, we can’t make AR accessible,” it’s actually flipping that proposition on its head and saying, we can use AR to make the physical world more accessible. So that’s pretty exciting to me, and there’s a lot of projects along those kinds of lines that are using technology, not only to make our digital world accessible, but to make the physical world accessible. This is everything from scanning applications that read what’s on the end of a camera, whether it’s currency or text or objects or faces, to audio recognition to assist communication for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, you name it, right? With respect to looking 10 years forward, I think…you know, there is a lot going on right now. I mean, there’s a lot of things I’m really fascinated to see how it’s going to play out. We are finally at a point where we’re making some significant progress in AI, and in machine learning. I don’t think we’re going to have strong AI by 2029, but I do think we’re going to have expert systems that are, maybe, finally, worth at least their label, and can be expert [at doing stuff]. I’ve always found that …that label to be a little frustrating, because most “expert systems” that I have interacted with have…been anything but. And so you’re going to see more of that, you’re going to see more conversational agents, right, things like your Alexa and Siri and so on and so forth. You’re going to see more integration between these things.

Francis: I was wondering if you might touch on any advancements in AI that you’ve come across recently..that are particularly exciting to you…

Sina: I think that, there are a couple of areas that are being worked on right now that are really interesting. One area refers to basically transfer of knowledge between different neural network based approaches. Right, so you have a system that can translate language, great. awesome. And you have another system that can understand what it sees, computer vision, OK? That’s delightful, great. Now, these two things need to talk to one another, but not only do they need to talk to one another…you can always take the output of one and make it the input of the other, in fact that’s how, for example, Facebook’s image recognition stuff and how a lot of other things work, right. This is based on some work out of MSR and Microsoft presearch and several others do this, where you take…um, Margaret Mitchell’s work, and so you take the output of a computer vision system, you feed it into a natural language processing, a natural language generation system, and then that’s how you can get the computer to describe what it sees. That kind of linking, that’s doable. But I’m talking about is, if you have awareness of the world, and a model built up, of understanding of concepts and an internal formalism, if you will..those, in our brains, are hybridized across language, and vision and olfactory and all this other stuff…and so, that’s the kind of stuff that I’m interested in, in AI and machine learning right now, these system that don’t just do one thing well. It’s great that you can play chess and beat any living being. I’m really happy for you. But what I’m really interested in is that I can introduce a new game to you, you know, dear computer system, that you’ve never seen before, tell you the rules, and we can immediately play and start having fun. I can do that with most humans, and most basic card games, in no time flat. But I can’t do that with a computer system, necessarily…we’re getting better about that kind of transfer [base]. Now that’s one area. The other area looks at things like, capsule nets and other ways of representing knowledge. Right now, the way neural networks work for the most part is, they operate off of this insight that we can choose to go one of two ways. We can either see a ton, and I mean a billions of rows of data, and then use a little bit of calculation per observation to arrive at a model, or, we can see very little data, and use a ton of calculation to arrive at a model. Now, the system that most people are familiar with that your phones, your computers, your TVs, everything, your Alexas, they all use the former, right, they are based on billions and billions, trillions of rows sometimes, and then they do a little bit of calculation and they arrive at a neural network as an understanding of the world. But if you think of us, as people, that’s not how we work. We don’t make a billion observations, there’s very few things I think any human has made a billion observations about…if anything. But a baby can start acquiring words in no time flat! Right? So these kinds of concepts of one shot learning…and, if I right now in this conversation said, “Chris—red means 3, and Francis, blue means 4” and then I asked you guys, “what’s red plus green {blue?}, you guys shout out “seven”—that’s great, that’s awesome, we were able to learn a couple of things and then perform operations in a different domain, and we did that…I mean, I did it for you, hypothetically…but we did that in no time flat, as people. Computers have a hard time with that. That’s a trivial example, but you can extend that to things like a robot assisting you. So you want to show the robot how you want to laundry folded. As opposed to relying on laundry-folding algorithm version 4.7.1…and that’s where I think some interesting work is being done as well.

Francis: I was wondering if you could provide a laymen’s description of quantum computing…?

Sina: Sure. I’ll take a crack at it.. Quantum computing is based on some of the observations we as a society, we as a species have made about how the universe operates, at a quantum level. So, without getting into the specifics of quantum mechanics, a subject that I don’t even feel qualified to give a lecture on…

Chris: Richard Feynman himself said, as soon as you think you understand quantum mechanics, you know you don’t ..know anything about quantum mechanics.

Sina: Having dabbled a little bit, I cannot agree more with that claim, right. At the heart of it, this comes down to an interesting way the world works…the universe operates. At least to our current understanding. And that is that, if you are talking at the quantum scale, at very small, very tiny, tiny microscales, then an electron, for example, does not have a fixed orbit around an atom. It has a probability that you can say, of where it may be at any give time. And the reason for this is that there is an inverse relationship between the momentum of that ..electron and its position, and between momentum and position we can extrapolate to velocity, which is oftentimes what’s used. And we know we can either really precisely tell you how it’s traveling, you know, or we can really precisely tell you exactly where it is. But as you pinpoint one, you lose accuracy about the other, allright? And then, you also start realizing that in quantum mechanics, there’s a concept called entanglement. So entanglement relies on this idea that, if you take two particles…don’t worry about what they are, and let’s just give them a..property, allright? We take two photons, and one of the properties we like to talk about in quantum chromodynamics, for example, is the spin. So imagine that something can have a spin of “up” or a spin of “down” for just the purposes of this discussion. If we take two photons and entangle them with one another, then if we modify the spin of one photon to be up,”the other one is guaranteed to be down…this starts leading to really interesting things you can do. Like, for example, entangling a lot more than just two particles together. So, fast forwarding a lot and doing a lot of hand-waving, quantum computing relies on these fundamentals to allow us to perform calculations in a square root of the time it would take us otherwise. So in other words, if you had to perform a million calculations to do something, on a quantum computer you could do that with a thousand calculations, right? And that’s because these “cubits” as they are called, are entangled with one another, and you can then perform certain manipulations to arrive at a solution, depending on how you phrase your problem. And it’s very complicated, it’s not about adding ones and zeros together or anything along these lines. But what it buys you is some drastic quadratic speed-ups of things like factoring prime numbers, like searching a database, and like modeling quantum effects. So if you think of a modern computer system, think of a chemistry-based system. It has to know all of these rules for every single particle, and the more you can model, the more precise your model is going to be. Well, in a classic computer system, you’re going to quickly exhaust, you know, billions, trillions, quadrillions of calculations in a very small amount of time, just to model just a few drops of a liquid, you know? And so, with a quantum computer, you’re able to do this and with the accuracy of those quantum effects, actually being modeled correctly. And so now you can start applying this to…well, there’s a couple of implications. Number one, a lot of basic assumptions of cryptography go out the window, because factoring prime numbers becomes a lot faster, right? Now there are quantum proof algorithms that we have today, we can look at things like [electric] curve cryptography and [polwart] secrecy and that domain, etc. There’s also applications where you look at drug discovery, or you look at, OK, I want a material that…this is rather topical…I want a material like steel, but I want it to be see-through…and I also, you know, want it to have certain properties, like being able to carry an electric charge on top of it. Well, right now we have to kind of experiment and noodle around and bump into things and use a few first principles in the lab–I’m grossly oversimplifying here–to arrive at some of those things. But if you have the ability to search the space of materials, and start doing parameter sweeps, you could start discovering these types of solutions in a computer system without even needing to prototype it first. That’s the kind of advances quantum computing brings.

Francis: The purpose of the show is to identify..where’s that gap between where we are right now, and what is possible for us…right at this moment. And I was hoping that maybe you could provide a couple of concrete examples of what changes we’re not manifesting, what technology we’re not taking advantage of, that could make the world a much better place right now.

Sina: I think that a lot of what contributes to that gap that you’re alluding to…is not necessarily an absence of technology or engineering or something from the sciences, right—there’s some of that, of course, you know, we don’t have a systemic cure for cancer right now, we don’t have an amazing battery solution, you know, if we could increase energy density by 10X you would ..the world would change. The world would literally just…change. Because energy is really what limits us in terms of ability, your phone could be a million times more powerful…an energy problem, right? and a heat problem, in terms of what you do when you have that amount of energy and you’re generating heat, you have to get rid of that heat. So these are the kinds of fundamental advances that prevent us from jumping that to some of the things we see from sci-fi, right? So your phone can act as a pocket projector and also act as a system that could power anything from an airplane all the way down to, you know, your phone call, your video chat, etc.,…there’s not a lot of practical limitations there, there’s some engineering problems that wouldn’t be resolved, but the fundamental things have to do with energy density, in terms of batteries and the ability to handle heat, right, waste heat. But, I think that a lot of the reason for not crossing this gap has to do with policy, it has to do with the absence of different teams being able to work with one another in seamless ways. It has to do with the lack of efficiency when we try, as humans, to do virtually anything at scale.

Francis: I have a question that goes back to art, and making museums accessible. I think that, for me, as someone who is, I’m a scientist, I’m also a musician, I think a lot about the idea of beauty and I think about beauty and science in the context of elegance and …beauty is a really, really important part of being human. I would like to hear maybe a little about what your views are on the importance of beauty and how what you’re doing is helping people with disabilities to experience …

Sina: Well, one minor nitpick would be that I hope what we’re doing is helping everyone experience it better, not only persons with disabilities. But definitely an emphasis there. I think…beauty is a difficult one to me, because it seems highly subjective, right? Our concepts of beauty in the western world are very different than those in other parts of the world, and over time, these definitions have changed as well. There’s also different interpretation frameworks for beauty, you know, aesthetics vs. simply contribution to the whole vs. simplicity and elegance as you alluded to earlier. So…there’s a lot to unpack in that one word, and I think it’s highly overused…or, I shouldn’t say it’s overused, it’s over-loaded, right? It’s highly over-loaded term. But what I can say is that, what I find beautiful is, essentially looking at experiences, and allowing for and facilitating shared experiences to happen with the same level of enjoyment across the different parties. So if you think of a blind person being at an aquarium, where their sighted friend is looking at the fish and going “wow, oh my gosh that one looks so cool, it’s got these orange stripes on it and it’s swimming really fast but only in the front, really close to the glass..” right? Well, can we translate that, right? Can we use computer vision and an audio landscape to bring that to life, simultaneous with the visual observation? And the metric for this that I use is, do you both go “wow” or “ooo” at the same time? If you do, we did our job right. Win, we succeeded, high five. But, that’s easier said than done. There’s a lot to be unpacked there, we’re talking about cross-domain expressions of beauty through various modalities and being piped into, in your case, vision, and my case, an aural representation, two very different people with different backgrounds, right? There’s so many variables to unpack there. But at least we’re trying to reach parity with the experiential nature of some of these environments, like in the case of museums, as you asked about. So that’s one, I think, aspect of beauty. The other one is, when we talk about a visual description, a lot of people start gravitating toward this unnecessary requirement that they put on themselves, and it is that my description must be objective, right? First of all, I reject this notion. There’s no such thing as an objective description, not one written by a human being, right? I completely reject that, on first principles, definitionally, I feel that that is not true. Moving on past that assertion, I think that we need to start acknowledging principles like, multiplicity of voices, right? So a 26 year old man of color out of Baltimore is going to have a very different visual description of a Carry James Marshall painting than a 45-year old white lady working in the museum, right? And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but we should be able to allow for the surfacing of multiple interpretations and multiple objective, you know, pseudo-objective descriptions of these things, and simply embrace that. And so I think that, maybe increasing diversity might be one tactic toward the strategy of beauty, if I can put it into that framework, but I don’t know that I even internally have a definition of beauty that I find consistent enough to then say, how are we maximizing it, necessarily, in our work.

Chris: When I think of memories of various artworks, my favorites are people like Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper, but I also think of some Abstract Expressionist works, you know, Jackson Pollock and DeKooning and people like that, how do you possibly even start to describe…I mean…

Sina: Yep, no, it comes up..so, with abstract, I would argue that a description is merely the first step. And that you really need to look at multi-modal, multiple modalities, of expression there. You need to look at tactile, you need to look at sonification, which the use of non-speech-based audio, you need to look at, again, different descriptions or guided tactile descriptions, olfactory, for example, etc. And so there are these mappings that can occur, cross-sensory mapping, and that can then start bringing something like an abstract Jackson Pollock piece to life. And I think it’s very important to discuss sequencing, right? You set the scene for someone, you’re like, OK, you’re about to feel this thing, it represents a bunch of paint just being splattered everywhere, just go in with that mindset. It’s not an accurate definition, the curator will have my head for telling you that..it’s fine. Just think about that for a second.

Chris: I think of trying to look at a Jackson Pollock painting with something like a sensory substitution piece of software, like seeing with sound, and that piece of software specifically always starts at the right and pans right to left, yet visually when I see a Jackson Pollock painting, I always would start from the center and work my way out, probably in concentric circles.

Sina: Absolutely, but that’s why I would argue we would hopefully not be using a general purpose tool to interpret this, but it would be one that was specifically, you know, it would be bespoke, specific to this building. Because otherwise, I think, you can’t get there. Now eventually you can start establishing models and different frameworks for saying, in this type of abstract painting in this type of abstract painting, versus that type of sculpture versus that type of line drawing, we should use these other modalities, and these are the mappings, and that becomes then a very interesting machine learning problem, to pick the right output modalities and also to allow the user to customize that. But, I would say, for now those need to be …I shouldn’t even say almost..those need to be treated on a one-off basis.

Chris: That makes sense, certainly. I mean, because they were also painted on a one-off basis…

Sina: Exactly. Exactly.

Francis: One of the things that I think is a failing of the economic systems that we’ve had in the 20th century that, to a large degree, persist now, is that there has been this top-down, sort of implementation of possibilities for people professionally, economically…in a way that eliminates people …to figure out for themselves what it is that they really want to be doing to contribute to society, at least in an optimal way. And I was thinking that part of what we would need for that to change, is a sense that the very same thing that would allow me to have the resources and the freedom to go after what it is that I’m passionate about in life, is the same thing that will enable other people to do that. So I’m wondering if that is, sort of like another reason for inclusion, because the idea is that if we keep thinking about organizing this world in a way that optimal for the maximum amount of people based on this sort of cookie-cutter idea of how people should be, and what should make them happy, we’re gonna make it impossible for a lot of people on the other side of that bell-shaped curve to contribute and to live satisfying life and to give the world the gifts that they are capable of giving…

Sina: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, I think that right now, the determining characteristics of what people do, sometimes can hopefully pleasantly align with what they like doing, but it’s about making money to be able to afford food, and shelter, and supporting the family, you know, xyz, these kinds of real-world concerns. So the issue then becomes, allright, you’re now starting to enter a world, we’re a little ways away from it, but it is happening, where automation is going to make that less and less and less needed…at least for certain categories of job, categories of labor and skill. So then, you’re going to have a lot of people who don’t…well, at leat…two things, number one, they don’t need to work to continue making the planet operate…you now, most economists I think say, like, with full automation, less than 10 percent of people have to work, right? So …talk about 8 billion people or whatever it is, 800 million have to work around the world, what do you do with the other 7. 2 billion people? And this is where I think it speaks to your point of, well, what kind of interests do they have and how can they contribute to society and what’s the impetus to do that, and do we all just stay home and exist in a VR environment for 8 hours a day, you know, what’s that future look like? And you know, I think that humans are usually pretty good, as a whole, not necessarily in small chunks, but as a whole, for seeking challenges. So, you’re going to start seeing more stuff with, the moon, or Mars, or solving some of these other problems, or building cities under the surface of the ocean…things of this nature. And I have a feeling…

Chris: With climate change, Miami will be under the surface of the ocean…

Sina: There you go, yeah, exactly. (laugh) A really practical example. Yeah, I mean..I just feel like that’s the kind of stuff that is going to exist, but the impetus for “I must do this in order to eat tonight” is gonna become less and less and less. And so, then it becomes a really, really big problem, it’s a complicated problem with a lot of moving parts involving economics and politics and socioeconomics and just all sorts of things. So…

Chris: How do we avoid then, some sort of Ready Player One type dystopia?

Sina: I think that having challenges is a really good motivator, right? So, I mean, I’m all about using space as a mechanism to solve the problems here on earth, right? I think you do need to start encouraging people to become colonists on Mars. It’s not for everybody, but …you’re going to find, out of 8 billion people, 80 of them that are willing to go out there and have a really crappy life for a couple of years, right? But we’re going to learn a lot from that. And you know, you’re going to find the next wave that’s like, they at least got the water and the air thing figured out, I think I’ll go, I know they don’t really have the food thing figured out yet, but….

Chris: Lawrence Kraus would say, we’d sent graduate students, because they’re slaves anyway…

Sina: Exactly, right? I mean (laugh) that would be…there you go. But I mean…that…I think is part of it, the other part of it is that I think we’re going to have different challenges. You’re not going to need to drive a truck anymore. The robot does that for you…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to be part of the project that is going to start turning all of those highways…you know, let’s say we figure out another form of transportation…you’ll have all these highways around, what are you going to use those for after a while, right? If cars aren’t going on them, if we have hovercraft or something, then what are they going to be used for? Right? Could we turn those into solar…existing solar installations, where you don’t have to do anything, right? There’s all sorts of weird ideas and interesting things that I don’t think we know about yet, …that can provide an outlet so that we don’t turn into a Ready Player One type dystopia, but I’m not so convinced that we won’t turn into a Ready Player One type dystopia if we keep making the types of political decisions and lack of concern about climate change and other pressing needs that we seem to be doing.

Francis: I thought of a metaphor maybe also for what I was getting at…you know, in the twentieth century mindset we have this, like bending machine kind of mindset, whereas with automation, AI and all that, even to some degree now with 3D printing and what you can do maybe in that direction, it’s more like we should be adopting—and I hate to use Star Trek a lot, but—you know, like a more Replicator kind of mindset.

Sina: Yeah, I think you are going to start moving towards a world in which things don’t need to be built ahead of time to be available to you. So that would be how I would phrase that. You’re already seeing that to a certain extent, just through things like convenience of, you know, like these coffee pods that you can put in a machine, hit a button and you get a cup of coffee. Well, you didn’t have to grind the beans, you didn’t have to …use a French press to extract that perfectly at below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you didn’t have to do those things, you just hit a button…and you have a pretty decent cup of coffee that comes out…it’s not great cup of coffee, I’m a little bit of a coffee snob, but…it’s totally servicable, and that’s only gonna start getting better, so I do think that is definitely true, where we’re going to start moving towards a something does not need to have been made for it to be made in a short amount of time, or at least assembled or in some way available to you. But, I also again would go back to most of those things require energy. Most of those things require access to cheap and renewable power, and so we’ve got to solve this energy problem. I would actually go so far as to revise my answer from earlier, if you really want to know the thing that I think would make the most fundamental impact on the world, with respect to addressing your gap question, it would be solving energy density and the availability to free and renewable energy. I think that would have the highest impact.

Chris: So I’m gonna go downstairs as soon as we’re done with this podcast and start making my own cold fusion machine….

(laugh)

Sina: Good luck with that, the literature is a little torn on the possibilities there, so let me know what you come up with.

Francis: When you’re testing it, turn off the air conditioner….

(laugh)

Chris: Well, with that I’ll ask you our..closing question we ask everybody, and you already mentioned Prime Access Consulting, your company, but is there anything else you’d like to plus, of your own work or somebody else’s work, or ..anything that you’d like to just pitch to our listeners?

Sina: Well, I would encourage you to just think about whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s at a nonprofit, at a for-profit organization, in your personal life, and think about in which ways you may be inadvertently and unintentionally excluding a group of people, whether it’s because of ability or different backgrounds, etc. and what are some ways that you could make small changes to make that better. Maybe you’re running a restaurant and you can just print out a few versions of your menu in 22 point fonts…a really easy ask, it costs you a few cents of paper and ink, and you can keep them behind the desk…it’s a really simple thing. It’s not gonna solve all your problems, but it’s a step in the right direction. And I think that if, frankly, if every one of your listeners did one or two or three things like that, we’d be moving that needle towards a better world.

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

Sina: Thanks for having me.


Closing: We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us on the web at MakingBetterPod.com or follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. Leave us feedback, or, if you really like what we’re doing, send us a donation. Initially, we plan on releasing episodes on a monthly basis, but once we’ve raised $1,000 to cover some of our costs and to encourage us to keep going, we plan on releasing episodes every second week. Just to let you know what’s coming up, future episodes already in production include interviews with: Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptics Society; M.E. Thomas, author of Confessions of a Sociopath; and Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation. See you next month!