As always, this episode of Making Better is transcribed, and you can click here to read the full transcript of Episode 11: James O’Malley.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader
Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato
Chris: and this is Episode 11 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring journalist James O’Malley. James is a UK independent journalist, he’s published in many different UK newspapers, he runs the Pod Delusion podcast which is really excellent, we recommend you check it out. He’s also the founder of the TrumpsAlert Twitter feed, which tracks everything the Trump family posts online.
Francis: I think Mr. O’Malley is a good example of someone who’s trying to fill in those gaps in journalism that have occurred because of globalization of information as it’s become.
Chris: So with that said, let’s get on with the interview.
Chris: James O’Malley, welcome to Making Better!
Francis: Hi, this is Francis DiDonato, in the House!
Chris: So James, you’re really well known for doing a whole lot of different things with Twitter, and in fact you even had one of your tweets quoted by Steven Colbert…
James: [laughs] I remember that, yeah…
Chris: Why don’t we start with how you got to be who you are, and move on to TrumpsAlert and things like that.
James: Sure. So, my name’s James O’Malley, I’m a freelance technology and politics writer, I’ve been a freelance journalist for several years now. I was editor of Gizmodo UK, the sort of UK spinoff of big tech website Gizmodo, until last October , but other than that I’ve written for a whole bunch of other publications, mostly in the UK so I don’t know how familiar I’ll be to listeners. Places like The Spectator, The Telegraph, The New Statesman; I did a Guardian piece; I’ve done a bunch of tech websites, Tech Radar, Engineering & Technology magazine, British Computer Magazine, loads of stuff like that, and that’s what I do professionally. Other than that, I waste a lot of my life on Twitter and I’ve built some bots and done some funny things there as well.
Chris: For users who might not know what a Twitter bot is, can you explain it, kind of fundamentally?
James: So basically, a Twitter bot is a Twitter account that is not run by a human being. All the tweets are posted by a bit of computing software. So, for instance, the bot I’ve built and the one that’s been most successful is a bot I built called “TrumpsAlert.” What this does, it monitors the Donald Trump family—so, Donald Trump himself, Don Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, as well as KellyAnne Conway. And what I’ve written some code to do (it runs on a server I’ve got somewhere), every few minutes it checks to see if any of these people—these hugely important, influential people—have liked any new tweets, or if they’ve followed anyone new, or if they’ve unfollowed anyone. And if it does spot that one of these things has happened, it will then just send a tweet out automatically. So I guess that’s a sort of practical example of one thing a bot can do. But yeah, Twitter bots more generally do all sorts of interesting things. One of my favorite ones—I can’t remember the name of the account off the top of my head—but someone set up a sort of aeroplane scanner at Geneva airport, and they wrote some code which basically looks at all of the aeroplanes being detected by this scanner and compares it to a list of planes that are owned by dictators, and if it spots any dictators coming in to land in Geneva, it will then tweet out and say, look, this horrible dictator from this country has landed in Geneva, and it’s just an interesting way of keeping tabs on things that way as well.
Chris: With the evidence being pretty obvious that there was foreign manipulation of the US election in 2016, using a lot of these bots, how does the average man on the street be able to figure out whether or not it’s a legitimate post, or whether it’s something done robotically to try to manipulate things?
James: Yeah, I think this is a really sort of interesting and sort of fundamental tension with how Twitter, especially, as a platform worked. So basically the way Twitter works is, Twitter the company have Twitter the platform, and then they provide all of these tools that are open for anyone to sort of go and build their bots and access the Twitter data basically. There’s a million sort of legitimate reasons you might want to do it, say you’ve built an app that wants to use tweets, or say, like me, you build a bot that you want to post, so something like that. The trouble is, they found before the election, this can be easily abused. So we got Russian troll farms or whoever building bots which would then post fake news and spread misinformation and that sort of thing. And so the sort tension there is that Twitter sort of have to figure out a way to enable legitimate uses and useful things, which I think enhance the Twitter experience, even if it’s something as simple as a news website wanting to post links to its newest articles automatically or something like that, and then balancing that against making the product secure enough so that you can’t have people posting loads of nonsense tweets to try and swing an election. In terms of differentiating between the difference, I think there’s a sort of almost like a media literacy, as a society, as a culture, we need to get better at. I think young people are a lot better at this than older people are. In the old days, it used to be that you’d get a newspaper and you could judge whether the information contained within it was credible or not based upon the reputation and the prestige of the newspaper. Well obviously, back then because printing newspapers was hard to do, and you had to be well-resourced to do it, if you work by the heuristic that if you do a newspaper, surely it’s had someone who’s gone through it and checked it and has done the work to make sure this is true, because they wouldn’t want to print any false information. With Twitter, because it’s so easy to post information, whether through a bot or through an individual, that heuristic no longer works when we have to have a different way of understanding information and processing it in order to make judgements. And I think young people are a lot better at that, because we were growing up with the internet and because we’re used to seeing a million different contradictory sources and not necessarily being clear where the provenance of a piece of information is, and that sort of thing. I think ultimately, the way to do it is—it’s not going to be solved by machine, I don’t think you could write a piece of code, I don’t think Twitter or Facebook or whoever could write a bit of code that says, “only favor or publish or share this verified, correct information,” because of a scale problem in doing that. So ultimately it’s going to have to come down to us as a society and a culture learning how to do it, asking the right questions. So the sort of thing I always do is, whenever I see a tweet or a claim printed somewhere—especially when it sounds too good to be true—so, I’m a really passionate “Remainer” in the Brexit debate here in Britain, so whenever I see a tweet or a bit of news that someone said, “oh it turns out that the Leave side have done something really awful and evil”—but rather than hit that “retweet” button, because it’s my team that win if that information gets out there, I always take a step back and think, well how do we know that? Who is saying that? Where is that information coming from? And just sort of taking a brief moment to step back and just think through logically how something like that can happen. And that’s something that we need to think more, work harder to do, I think.
Francis: In our country, the corporate media had been accused of intentionally dumbing down this country. And I guess with George W Bush we thought that it couldn’t be taken any further, but I think with Trump’s tweets its—almost like a cartoon, like when he tweets it needs a bubble and a cartoon character of him, because it’s just that idiotic and simplistic a lot of the time. But he manages to circumvent the media, and there’s an attempt by social media to replace journalism, but I don’t see it working, and as you, as a journalist—I would be curious to know what you think of the state of journalism and how social media has kind of taken over as a source of information to people.
James: I feel very conflicted about it, because there’s sort of two ways you can look at it. Because on one hand, we do have all of the problems that we’ve identified today, like you’ve just outlined. I think Donald Trump presents a almost unique problem, in that anything he says is intrinsically newsworthy, even if he posts any old nonsense, the fact that he’s saying that as President of the United States makes it something that journalists should cover and report. And so that is a unique challenge there. I think—the counterargument, though, is that if you imagine the way journalism was years ago, I don’t know if there was ever sort of a “golden age” of—I know we think of Woodward and Bernstein and all that sort of thing—but if you look more broadly at the power structures in society and in journalism back in the day, as it were, it was very different in a negative way than it is now. I mean, I’ve only got a career in journalism, to use my own personal story, because of Twitter and because of social media and because of blogging and getting into it that way, and sort of being able to use that as a way to accelerate my content out there and get my name out there and network, and sort of get my way into the journalism industry. If I’d tried to do this before the dawn of social media, certainly before the dawn of the internet, these doors would have been much more closed to me because I’m not from an especially privileged background, I’m not from a particularly disadvantaged background, I guess—my parents are sort of,…I went to a state school in a small town. The problem with journalism is, even today, it’s a very, very middle-class occupation, and I mean that in the British sense of it being, essentially high class. It’s all people who went to private school, who are well-connected, whose dad who also works in journalism and got them a job where they could work for six months for free as an internship to get in there and that sort of thing. I never had those sorts of connections. If you imagine how journalism was even more like that back in the old days, with fewer routes for people to see in, then that also sculpts the way that we see the world through journalism and the sort of reporting that people would see as relevant. I mean, you know, the really obvious examples of this are all the social progress we now, all the reporting we about the importance of even—I don’t want to say trivial, that’s the word I’m looking for, but even stuff like why it’s important to have female superheroes or even something like that—if the journalism establishment was the same as it was 50 years ago, that would obviously never have been part of the conversation, because of the people involved in creating that content in the first place. So to answer your question, and sorry I’m rambling on a bit, is there’s not one journalism. It’s hard to sort of go, it’s all good or it’s all bad. There are people doing some really good things, especially in new formats and so on, there are people doing really bad things. For every person writing an amazing ten thousand words New Yorker piece going into immense detail about the subject and really taking it apart and doing that, you’ve got people putting out nonsense as well.
Francis: What are your sources of good information?
James: Because I spend most of my life on Twitter, there’s not like, one publication or one outlet I’d point to as where I read as an authoritative source. I tend to look at individual journalists, and their records, especially. Again, because Twitter has sort of changed the landscape of how it works, you can now see there’s various publications where you know if it comes from one writer from that magazine or that publication, that’s a credible, well-sourced story because from another you sort of understand the biases of it, or where that person could be coming from, and that’s really granular detail, which is probably far beyond someone who’s not a complete nerd about this thing as I am, but it’s more of the thought of the methodology of understanding how the information might have come about, why that person would have obtained that information, and then just asking some basic logical questions about whether it’s true or not. And then maintaining a skepticism until you know about it rather than just going out there, is the best way to approach things. I don’t think you can go, oh, if it’s in The Economist it’s true, or if it’s in the Guardian it’s true, or whatever else, or if it’s in the Daily Mail it’s false. That’s sort of a really reductive way of looking at it, because all that lets out their good points and bad points and blind spots and whatnot.
Chris: How much do you know about the algorithms used by Facebook and Youtube and whatnot to decide what to show you next? Cause if you start with a completely clean account and go on Youtube and search on “US House of Representatives” about eight clicks later, if you just follow the “up next” you’re on a flat-earther website.
James: This is ultimately the problem with algorithms, in that they’re black boxes which nobody knows exactly how they work. You could say, oh well one solution to this could be, we could pass a law that says all algorithms must be transparent. But the problem is, the algorithms, they’re the secret sauce as what makes these products and these companies successful. Google wouldn’t want to tell you how their search algorithm works, Facebook doesn’t want to tell you how their news feed algorithm works, for good reason, because that’s their source of competitive advantage. Because they know that, why having their algorithm behave as it does, that ultimately benefits them as a company, and our [enya?] and benefits us as consumers to have these companies providing content that we like, I think, to a certain extent. Youtube, I think, is a particularly fascinating example, and the best theory I’ve heard on the Youtube algorithm, as to how it works—it’s all driven by machine learning now rather than a human level of looking at view counts or whatever. My understanding is, and I could be talking completely nonsense—so again, this is a good checklist, is a good opportunity to sort of review the source you had the information from and consider whether it’s nonsense or not—but what I’ve heard or what I read somewhere, and again I do recommend fact-checking me on this, is that Google basically said to its machine learning algorithms, “we need you to increase YouTube watch time. So, do whatever you can with users to increase watch time.” This sort of frame. So Youtube would then, because millions and millions of people go on that, is conducting thousands of mini-experiments every second, so if you go on there and you watch a video to the end, that’s really good, because then [*] that’s good for watch time. If you clicked for every suggest comes up next, is the next video to watch and then you watch it, that’s a really good example of that, whatever video comes up second, is clearly one that people want to watch, and that would then boost it up in the recommendations of everyone else. So it’s almost like a feedback, it’s literally a feedback loop, isn’t it, of recommendations that way. And so that’s why you get the sort of, you know, you can go down the YouTube rabbit hole, start with something sane and end with somewhere crazy. One of the reasons they discovered this was because more extreme views are more provocative, so more people are more likely to click on it than something middle-of-the-road. So, you start by saying, you start with…something in the center or something fairly moderate, but then you see someone…let’s say, you watch a video about the immigration debate, or whatever. Then you see next video suggested as “Idiot Daily Mail columnist says that we should have a points-based immigration system.” I think that’s a terrible idea, I disagree with that, but ultimately that’s a reasonable sort of view someone can have. So you click on that, and you go, “oh look there’s idiot Daily Mail columnist expressing that terrible opinion.” But then at the end of that you see “YouTuber who nobody’s heard of who has an avatar like an ancient Egyptian symbol or something says that immigrants should be banned” and you click on that, and you think “what, could he really believe that?” and then, you know, ten clicks later, because you…it’s a psychological thing, isn’t it, you end up watch flat earth videos and think “ how did I get here.”
Francis: Is that called “click bait”?
James: I think click bait’s a weird phrase, because it became a bit like how “fake news” was originally a descriptive term for literally falsified news stories that were published in order to get advertising revenue, and then it was appropriated by, well, Trump along with everyone else, just to mean “story I don’t like.” In the same way, I think “click bait” is a word which is basically, you never hear it said in a positive way, because it only ever means “thing I don’t really like”…As a journalist, I’ve had tons of stories I’ve published that people have just gone, “oh, what you’re doing writing this clickbait? Oh, clickbait!” Whereas if it’s a story people like, nobody ever goes “oh that piece you wrote, which was really good, yeah total click bait.” I don’t think there’s anything necessarily intrinsically wrong with the concept of click bait. If you’re writing an article, you want people to like i. The problem is when, you know, the headline or whatever distorts the story out of all recognition or you start bullshitting in order to get people to click on it. That’s not click bait, that’s just lies. And click bait isn’t necessarily a new thing with the internet, I mean, newspaper headlines—I don’t know about in America, but in Britain, tabloid headlines for 50 years have been essentially clickbait, they’re all trying to get you to buy the paper, it’s just when things are published on the internet, so…I think click bait can be good.
Chris: One of our previous guests was Richard Stallman, who you probably know of at least through the Free Software world, and he was talking about this social-credit system in China. I have to admit, it’s not something I know much about, but you’ve been writing about it lately, so if you can give us an intro to it?
James: Yeah, sure. So, I’ll go into it with an anecdote. So I went to China last October , just on holiday, and we took the train from Beijing to Shanghai, and when you’re on the train what happens is, you know when you get on a train usually it says “this is the train to (destination) and we’ll be stopping at X, Y and Z, and it did all that. And it was like, this is a train to Shanghai, stopping at the various intervening cities; and then the announcement came on and said “Please respect the rules that are on the train (I’m paraphrasing, can’t remember the exact thing, but it said) Please respect the rules on the train, if you don’t obey them, it could harm your social credit score.” And what this is, it’s a reference to a number of different systems that are being trialled across China, the sort of popular conception of it is that everyone in China will be given a score, a number, hanging above their heads virtually, which their behavior can impact. So the idea is, you do something good, you earn some extra credits, you do something bad, you lose credits, and then the number of credits you have can affect your ability to function in China and access services and so on, and may even lead to you being publicly shamed. The reality is, it’s slightly more complex. So basically, social credit is not a unified system or idea yet, there’s loads of different trials that loosely fall under the social credit example. So, different cities are trying different things, and some of them are just sort of crude blacklists of people; so, if you don’t pay your court fine, you end up on a blacklist which, in terms of the sort of social credit system, and then being on the blacklist might mean you’re not allowed to catch a high speed train, and you can only catch the low-speed train. Or, you can’t catch a plane, you’ve got to get the bus, and stuff like that. So there’s sort of systems that are involved in local government and that sort of thing, and one of my favorite ones—favorite in a sort of perverse “oh this is weird and scary” sort of way—is, I think it was Shenzen (again, Google this, don’t trust me blathering on about this), where they were punishing jaywalking. So if you crossed the road when the green man isn’t on display, it would use facial recognition cameras to identify you, and then would send you a fine automatically. Anyone who was detected by this system would then be publicly shamed by having their face displayed on the video billboard by the sides of the road, and they were supposed to incentivize good behavior. But again, that’s only sort of one system that’s being trialled in one place. The other technology which is being covered under this sort of social credits umbrella is a system called “sesame credit.” (I think it’s called Sesame credit), Basically it’s run by Ali Baba, which is like the Chinese equivalent of Amazon and EBay all rolled into one company, and there it was basically trying to create a scoring system to prove your credibility. The big problem with China is, not many people have bank accounts. And this ultimately is what underlies a lot of the motivations to create a social credit system. I think something like 20% of people have bank accounts, so if you want to have people interacting with digital services or even just government services, or you know, just doing a business transaction, you need a sort of another way to figure out if someone’s credible or not, because you can’t just run a credit check or something like that. And the idea is that, draws on other things like behavior to prove your reputable. This Sesame credit system, which is linked up to Ali Baba, does this sort of thing as well—so it looks at your purchase history and sort of judges your creditworthiness but also uses a number of other factors. So, for example, if you’ve got a number of verified friends on the services who have also proved their worthiness, that inherently improves your worthiness, because it suggests you’re not like a spam account or a scammer if you’ve got loads of credible friends. And there’s various other factors it can roll into this, and then once you get your score, this can unlock other different services and privileges whether it be taking out a loan—there was one, I think there was a trial where you could unlock basically a free umbrella when you’re leaving the subway station, so if it’s raining and you’ve got a sufficiently high social credit score, you can pick up an umbrella for free. Cause it can prove your worthiness or your legitimacy, and the other big link-up is with, it’s called Mo-bike, the kind of bicycles you hire using an app. Basically, instead of having to pay a deposit, because you’ve got a sufficiently high social credit score, you can take it out without needing to prove yourself or put any money down for it, you can rent bikes that way. This is where we are at the moment, and there’s all these different trials being trialled in all of these different cities, different rules all over the place. One city is punishing misbehavior—a misbehaving dog, and your’e not keeping it on leash or whatever, you’ll get punished for that, all sorts of different behaviors. So the big fear is, and the reason this has sort of become hyped in the West—and I think it is quite pernicious—but obviously, the theory is, and the government has basically said as much, they want to sort of create a national, unified, social credit system in the next few years so that any arm of the Chinese government would essentially be able to check your social credit. Obviously, in a totalitarian society like China, where you’re…it’s very easy to imagine how something could be abused. If you’re seen at a protest holding a sign, that’s going to be very bad for your social credit score. If you do something else the Party don’t like, that could hurt your score and hurt you that way, and then prevent you from catching a train or being able to work or something like that. And it is a very blunt way of aligning every incentive in your life, conceivably, with the incentives the government want to promote.
Chris: Did you see the Black Mirror episode about that?
James: No, I haven’t seen it, the Black Mirror, but I’ve had literally thousands of people tweeting me, suggesting I watch it, and I still haven’t got round to it.
Chris: James, we’ve had a number of other skeptics on the podcast, and you and I first met at the QED conference and your former podcast, Pod Delusion, won a couple of Occam Awards—we’ve had Michael Marshall on, we’ve had Haley Stevens on, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and now we have you, so four people I’ve met at QED have been on the podcast.
James: Excellent. Big fan of Marsh and Haley, I’m afraid I don’t know the other person, but Marsh and Haley are both excellent.
Chris: QED conference on science and scientific skepticism that goes on every year in Manchester, England—James, maybe you want to speak a bit to skepticism as a concept?
James: Back in 2009, I started a podcast called “the Pod Delusion,” punning on the title of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusioin, and the idea was that it was a magazine show that would cover a wide range of topics. Basically I engineered it so I could talk about whatever I wanted every week, and it was loosely a sort of unifying philosophy behind it was a kind of skeptical, rationalist point of view, so taking a scientific world view and very much much existing in the skeptics movement as it was then. It went on until 2014, and the format of the show was in [tooking] contributions recorded by literally hundreds of other people, and I was the sort of presenter figure linking together all of these different segments that people had produced. And it was really good fun, I really miss making…Chris did a few different segments for us. I like to think at a certain point it was sort of like the house magazine of the UK skeptics scene, for a little while, because it got a fairly decent listenership and it was covering all of the different skeptics events going on, so Skeptics in the Pub, QED, and so on. And also the sort of adjacent movements, so like humanism and not science movement but, you know, professional science promotion type things, all that sort of good stuff there. I’m still a skeptic, since then I certainly haven’t changed my views on many of the core—using the world “beliefs” in skepticism is a very odd thing to do—but I certainly haven’t changed my views on, for example, the existence of God or the usefulness of the scientific method or how we should take a naturalistic world view. No, I think as a movement I think it’s faded away, but I always think back to that sort of time, around 2010, 2011, when skepticism seemed to become a really tangible big deal, in that it was having sort of policy victories, it was having cultural victories, and there seemed to be a sort of movement of people sort of coalescing around the idea of being skeptic, and it became a label that people would organize around. I always think it’s a bit like Britpop. I don’t know if you remember Britpop, this was sort of a cultural movement in the mid-90s, it was in Britain, I don’t know how it was perceived in North America, but basically you had bands like Oasis and Blur writing the soundtrack to it—but it wasn’t just the music, it was about the broader culture. So you had Euro 96 big football tournament on the television with an England team that were performing really well, you had Tony Blair on the cusp of entering 10 Downing Street, ending Tory rule and bringing back some optimism and hope, as it was then, as weird as that is to imagine now with Tony Blair. And so it was sort of a cultural coalescence around Britpop as a thing. I think skepticism’s much the same, because you had the God Delusion being published, bringing lots more people into the movement, you had people criticizing the likes of alternative medicine, you had humanists, you had scientists all working together around the idea of taking evidence based approach to things. I think now, it has changed. I don’t think skepticism is necessarily a label I would choose to align myself with, in that, just because of the connotations attached to it…that perhaps weren’t back a few years ago, and..as a sort of organizing principle, as a sort of, almost like, as a word people organize around, I don’t think it’s got quite the same potency as it once had, because obviously in combination, we’ve seen the skeptics movement itself sort of splinter over various issues around social justice and so on. We’ve seen half the American Skeptics become weird libertarians, and then obviously, not unlinked to that, is actually all of politics going to hell? Everything we’ve seen with Trump and Brexit and the rise of sort of anti-pluralist ideas and the rise of totalist sort of ideologies once again—so to answer your question, again I’ve gone on for a very long-winded answer, my views are still essentially underlined by the same principles, but I think as an organizing moment…
Chris: The word “skeptic” is a hard word to work with, because flat earthers call themselves “skeptics,” climate deniers call themselves “skeptics”…I think Richard Dawkins suggested we call ourselves “brights,” I didn’t like that one…
James: This is the problem, there’s no sort of perfect word, I mean we have the sort of challenge now. I’m a trustee of a charity called Conway Hall Ethical Society, based in central London, which again, is sort of tangentially linked to all of the skeptics and skeptics movement and stuff, it’s where, it’s basically a atheist church from the 17 and 1800s. But the problem we have there, and again I’m speaking entirely with own personal views here, not on behalf of the organization or anything like that, is what are we organizing around? And you look at all the old alternative words, so can you be a skeptic? Well, yeah but there’s obviously negative connotations with climate change deniers and like all of that. Freethinker, that’s a nice word, I really like “free thinkers,” the Victorian free thinkers, that’s a really great tradition to try and align ourselves with, but then you get alt-right nutters calling themselves freethinkers, which is like, an association you definitely don’t want. And then you think, well, what about humanists? But then someone inevitably goes, but that wouldn’t care about animal rights.” What about religious people who believe in a scientific world view? For …deists or something like that, so there’s never going to be a perfect word I don’t think.
Francis: Part of the impetus of this show was to re-imagine all these terms, because to talk about capitalism, communism, all that stuff right now, seems to be very unproductive. You could take someone who is like a really, really wonderful, altruistic person, put them in a capitalist society, and they’re going to behave differently than someone who is a totally narcissistic sociopathic creep like Trump, and put him in a capitalist society. So, it’s like we got to move beyond that and figure out how to make things work in an optimal way for the most amount of people.
James: I think writing off the concept of socialism or capitalism wholesale is quite a tricky thing to do. I often think back to something the writer Nick Cohen wrote, the book called What’s Left—he published this book in about 2005—but the line that for some reason sticks in my head is, he said that maybe utopia won’t look particularly different to how it looks now. And the trouble with saying something like that is that you obviously then, there’s the obvious rebuttal of, “but what about x, y and z terrible things in the world” which are going on which you can’t obviously deny. But I think the value in thinking something like that is, maybe we don’t need a radical ideological project to completely reconfigure society. Maybe we don’t need Soviet Communism, that was an enormous experiment that had disastrous consequences. If you look at neoliberalism, whatever the maximal extension of capitalism will be, that is also ultimately a sort of grand ideological project which we’re still experiencing the consequences of. My sort of increasingly boring opinion—and I used to think I was fairly left-wing, or very left-wing, and then Jeremy Corbyn happened here in Britain. But my sort of more boring center-left opinion now is, well maybe we should look at what we’ve got, what institutions we’ve go, especially when you look at the landscape of Trump and Brexit tearing down all of these liberal institutions we’ve got. Maybe we should appreciate there’s been quite a lot of work over the past several centuries establishing these various norms that we now take for granted, like that freedom of speech can be a thing, and globalism and that sort of thing. And so maybe we should think more about boring social democratic tweaking of the system we’ve got. I mean, my favorite presidential candidate, to put this into more context, is unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Warren, because she’s again talking about sort of structural reforms. She’s not a timid centrist technocrat trying to turn the knobs a little tiny bit, she wants big structural reforms, but she’s putting detail in there and putting it in a way that she’s actually outlining a program of reform and then the outcomes that she would expect to see from those reforms, in a relatively technocratic way, which seems sort of realistic and appealing. Whereas if you look at someone like Bernie Sanders or Trump or Corbyn or Bolsonaro or whoever who are just saying, tear up the whole thing, and it will better somehow. That just seems like a fairly ill-fated approach. I think really boring things that we’re eventually going to learn, and maybe I am just getting more centrist in my old age, is that ultimately we’re going to miss a lot of the institutions that we’ve got when they’re gone.
Chris: I’m also supporting Elizabeth Warren, for primarily the same reasons. I mean, she’s…speaks so specifically to what she will do, whereas a guy like Bernie Sanders says, you know, “we’ll have free college education for all and I’ll tell you how we’ll pay for it after I’m elected.”
James: I don’t mind Bernie Sanders…I mean, as anyone who’s read my Twitter will understand, I really dislike Jeremy Corbyn, and obviously he’s often bracketed with Bernie Sanders because they’re sort of radical leftists relative to the presupposed political settlements where they are. But I think they’re very different people, in that while Bernie Sanders, he does use a lot of radical language, you know, he literally talks of “political revolution,” he’s still more moderated and still more measured and still uses a lot of the same axioms that we expect to see in a sort of stable political system. So, this is a sort of random example, but I think on various foreign policy things, I’m pretty sure like Iran or something like that, Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be too far away from what Elizabeth Warren would say. He’s not going to say, let’s do a war or he’s not going to say, well let’s be best friends with Iran, or something like that, whereas you look at someone like Jeremy Corbyn—he’s from a much more radical tradition, from a very different political tradition where, you know, he doesn’t seem to have any problems buddying up with autocrats and dictators as long as they profess to be left-wing, which is why I’m sort of a Corbyn skeptic, to say the least. But yeah, the differences and the reason I massively prefer Elizabeth Warren is because obviously, she comes across as someone who’s done the reading. Bernie Sanders is very much, like you say, we’ll sort it all out, we’ll worry about the details later, but we’ll do something; whereas Elizabeth Warren, from the programs she’s laying down, I mean I don’t think all her ideas are perfect, I know the big one was breaking up the tech companies—I think emotionally, that’s a very appealing thing. I’m not entirely sure whether her stated policies will actually deliver the supposed outcomes she wants. But the fact that she’s speaking about it, and the fact that she’s proposing actually plausible things that could be done, I think that’s sort of refreshing and detailed. But I would say that, ‘cause I’m a very nerdy man [laughs] who likes detail and likes that sort of thing rather than just brash sloganeering.
Francis: The defense budget is just so huge, just imagine what that would cover. Student loans would be nothing, that would be like the cost of probably a few percent of the defense budget.
James: I’ll tell you the weird thing I find—maybe as Americans, or North Americans you can shine more light on it—is that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, Elizabeth Warren says she’s a capitalist, but functionally there isn’t that much difference in the sort of outcomes they want. It’s so weird that Bernie Sanders is sort of framed as…I mean I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want Soviet-style socialism or a sort of extreme form of socialism, I’m pretty sure what he wants is basically Social Democracy, unless I’m radically mistaken, in the same way that’s more in the direction of what Elizabeth Warren wants, which is very different from what I think a lot of people who have Cameron Picknell avatars on Twitter think Bernie Sanders stands for. Or maybe I’ve got him wrong, maybe he is much more radical than I give him credit for. The one phrase I think is incredibly smart, and I apologize if this is a bit tangential, is something Mayor Pete said, and obviously he’s more of a centrist candidate than many of the others—the phrase he came up with, someone said like “are you a democratic socialist?” and he said, “no, I’m a democratic capitalist.” And I just think whoever becomes the final nominee, we should appropriate that phrase, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or whatever, because surely that solves the sort of linguistic challenge of selling socialism, social democracy, moving the the left economically, with Americans who may think, “oh no, but we’re capitalists, and we want to be capitalists” and all this sort of thing.
Chris: I’d like to go back to the notion of post-scarcity and how either capitalism or socialism can handle—what if in 30 years we have 80% unemployment?
James: Yeah, I can’t claim to have thought in particular depth about this, but I think that if we assume that post-scarcity is a thing that’s gonna happen, or certainly we’re going to get to a point where there is a lot of technological unemployment, the solution isn’t to go down the Trump route of “bring back manufacturing” by what seems to be the President calling in personal favors from executives to keep factories in Ohio open, or something like that. The solution is to look to ideas like Universal Basic Income. I’m sure there’s critiques of that that I’ve not read in depth, but in principle that seems like an appealing idea. But also, I think there’s a lot more that could be done if society, certainly American society, and indeed British society, were to take more of a social democratic turn. You could offer retraining and accessible education throughout someone’s life so they can retrain and so that seems like a much smarter solution to this problem.
Chris: I mean, as automation takes over people’s jobs, I mean…
James: This is why you need UBI…
Chris: My sister’s husband was a mortgage broker, and he’s been replaced by an app.
James: And the other reform we’re going to need, and this is presumably why nobody really wants to talk about it, is because at the moment most taxation is income-tax based, you know, taking a proportion of your income that you get every month, whereas instead if you had a wealth tax, or taxed the super-rich more, you could then have more to redistribute. I mean, the really startling thing—I’m going to generally assume that the sums were done correctly—but I think it was Elizabeth Warren’s student loan program, you know she wanted to abolish all student loans. The maths on that, she said it pays for that, and then again I can’t remember the exact detail, but it was by adding a wealth tax or increasing the taxes on the top, by a sort of minute amount, and then you’d just wipe out all student debt because things are that massively imbalanced. Which is just crazy, considering the size of the figures we’re talking about, but ultimately it’s going to be about figuring out what the taxable thing is in post-scarcity society—whether it’s wealth, whether it’s, there’s been talks about robot taxes—sounds ominous to me, because surely while robots is a good thing, we’re going to have move away from just straight up income tax, I guess.
Chris: The way budgeting and money is spent in the United States means that the Congress will often pass military spending bills that the military didn’t even ask for, because the weapon will be built, or the weapon system will be built in their district and it means 2,000 jobs or something like that. They’ll insist—one thing that’s not even military that’s kind of interesting is NASA’s Orion rocket project. It cost $20 billion for the whole project, and then it’s gonna $2 billion for a non-replaceable rocket every time we send it up. Meanwhile, we could be using a Falcon Heavy for $100 million per use, and it’s reusable. A group of congressmen called the Alabama mafia, who all have huge space and defense construction going on in their districts, are all insisting on this money to keep a bunch of people employed on a boondoggle.
James: Which is insane, isn’t it? So at the risk of defending the military-industrial complex, which is not something I expected to do this evening, I think the thing to think about—and don’t get me wrong, I think there is absolutely, clearly going to be thousands of ways the defense budget could be better spent or optimized and so on—I think the extra consideration needs to be that basically American power, for better or for worse, does underpin the existing world order. That involves not just, that’s not all just Iraq wars or whatever, that’s literally protecting ships which are delivering containers going around the Persian Gulf or going through the straits of Malacca, and just sort of maintaining, basically, the base level preconditions that we are now used to, that have basically enabled our entire sort of post World War II lifestyle and affluence as a society. So, I think you need to be very careful. It pains me to say this, as someone who does listen to a lot of punk music and [laughs] is on the left, but I think just saying we should get rid of all defense spending, or we should do something dramatic there, you do need to think about the wider implications. It’s a bit in the same way that Brexiteers in Britain think we can leave the EU and everything will be fine, forgetting all of the sort of boring, foundational stuff the EU provides to the British economy. In the same way, America is almost providing that sort of foundational layer to the existing world order. Maybe there’s a better world order, maybe we can change things so that the world is organized in a different way, and maybe that could be a good thing. But ultimately, it is at the moment underwritten by American power. So if that goes away, we need to actually consider what changes or what replaces that.
Chris: OK, what about artificial intelligence? I heard a woman on the BBC refer to the US AI giants as the “G-mafia,” standing for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM and Amazon, and how they are growing both economically, but also they have intelligence power greater than most nation-states.
James: It’s really funny, I’m sort of quite pleased that these sort of, the power of the big tech companies has come into focus over the last few years, because this is something I’ve been banging on about for years. Like, I was writing about this in 2012, 2013, and I wasn’t prominent enough to have people scold me and write it off or whatever, I was just writing blogs going out there that were being read by very few people. I was basically, again at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I was making sort of a similar point to what everywhere is almost a normal part of the conversation now about how these companies need greater regulation, we need to bigger conversations about what their power means because they are different to a lot of other companies. Actually it’s Paul Mason, the left-wing journalist, who wrote a book, Post Capitalism, which made this point. If you look at all of the tech companies, like Google, like Amazon or whoever, their business models, their products, their technology, it tends towards a situation of natural monopoly in that Google, you can’t beat Google because Google has the amount of data Google has, and every search you do in Google makes Google better. In the same way, Amazon can’t be beaten because everything Amazon does makes Amazon better, and this is all powered by AI, because we’re all training the AI of these companies. So they’re sort of entrenched in the system now, they’re almost too big to fail, like the banks were.
Chris: Richard Stallman likes to say that with Facebook, you’re not a “user” you’re a “use-d”…
James: I think that’s broadly true. But what should we do about them? And there isn’t a really easy answer, because—I mentioned Elizabeth Warren’s proposals earlier to sort of break up the tech giants, but even then, that’s not a particularly satisfying answer, because ultimately…so say you forced Facebook to, you tried to break it up into Instagram and WhatsApp are separate companies again. Which sounds like a sort of do-able thing, in the abstract, because they used to be separate companies, surely they can be separate companies again. But then you look at how Facebook have integrated the two companies, and Facebook, Instagram messaging, and Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, they’re all running off the same back end, the same messaging service is now powering all three, it’s just like three different logos because that is the sort of legacy brands that were in use. So, how would you separate out that, considering it’s basically copy and paste? I hope not the same files running these different systems and the same backends, and even if you did sort of save, segregate out Instagram from Facebook or something like that, you’ve then got the problem of, well, what’s to stop Facebook, which still has 2 billion users, just creating a new Instagram knockoff and stealing all of Instagram’s users, like we saw with—say, Facebook would basically manage to….well, not necessarily destroy, but neuter the threat of Snapchat. There was a while where it looked like Snapchat could claim some really big market share against Facebook, but then Facebook basically ripped off all of Snapchat’s best features, put them into Instagram, and now Instagram’s store is, and why Instagram filters, do the job of Snapchat and Snapchat’s user base have dropped off completely. So even without buying the company, they’ve beaten it. I don’t know what the easy way to sort of stop them, or to regulate or neuter them is…
Chris: We had the anti-trust lawsuits against Microsoft, and Microsoft was put under a ton of restrictions and moved into the AI business and now they’re one of the giants there.
James: This is the thing, and Microsoft are like the biggest company in the world, depending on the day of the week, depending on the market cap, but nobody really cares because they’re not at the forefront of people’s minds any more, because they’re just doing boring, boring business stuff, and doing enterprise software, ultimately, and then have an XBox on the side for some reason—nobody really worries about them, yet often they are the largest company in the world.
Chris: And like in the old days, they’re working very closely with IBM again—largely, Microsoft has a compiler for the IBM quantum computer.
Francis: I think a lot of what’s going wrong on this planet right now, especially with regards to global warming and that sort of thing, is just simply greed. And you know we all, I think, recognize that after a certain point, greed is a bad thing, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how to deal with greed in our society?
James: I think a lot of the problem is in terms of—I agree, in the abstract, we should regulate Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple more. But then, how you actually regulate it and how you would go about writing a rule to manage it, is a much more difficult question. Because even those four companies, if you try to think about, well, what rule can we…say you want to write a rule that no company should have a big market share in search, or something like that, then that punishes Google but not the others. Or if you say, even the big four companies, right? They’ve got very different business models. We all think if you say “big tech” that has a colloquial meaning, everyone knows the companies we’re talking about when we use the words “big tech,” but they’re very different companies. Where are they actually competing? Because they’re all competing with each other, but in such different ways and to such different ends. If I was a government regulator trying to draw a line and saying, right, this is the legal line in the sand, we’ll restrict your behavior in this way—I would find that almost impossibly complicated. And like the really good example is…so sorry if I keep going back to Elizabeth Warren, but she’s talking about detailed proposals. One of the things she said is that one rule she would draw is that companies shouldn’t be able to, if they operate a market, they shouldn’t be able to sell their own products on that market. So Amazon can have a market of sellers that they’re taking to people being the market place, then they can’t have Amazon basics, which are like, you know, their own brand. Various household things they just sell on with an Amazon label. Or, you can’t have Amazon publishing its own books through Kindle on the Kindle store or something like that. And that sounds like a good idea, but then you think, what about the Apple app store? Because Apple both operate a market there, and then also control what goes on the market through the app store, and it rules and so on, an often writes rules to rule out, you know, you can’t have an app that competes with Apple in certain categories. You can only have certain types of apps on the app store. But ultimately, there’s also a good argument for why they should be allowed to do that, which is that it enhances the security of our phones and our devices by having Apple as the sole monopolizer of that market, being able to kick apps off of the app store or not allow apps onto the app store at their discretion. That makes our phones more secure and less hackable.
Chris: And if you want more access to different apps and things like that, you can always switch over to Android and become a full-time systems integrator…
James: Even they’ve got the same sort of problem in that, you know, Google have the Play Store and they monopolize that, and I know there are third-party stores on Android, but for the 99.9% of users, they’re never going to do anything even vaguely complex to sort of get around that.
Chris: Google seems to read absolutely everything that flows through its system, which includes gmail and things like that; privacy is disappearing, what do you have to say about the right to privacy?
James: It is important. I mean, of the big tech companies my favorite is—that’s a weird way of talking about them—but it is Apple, because Apple do have a big focus on privacy and seeing it run through all of their products, and I think it’s a really clever way they’ve positioned their business, is in terms of privacy. So the really good example of this is, they recently announced that in the future, you know when you see, when you go on an app, like sign in with Google or sign in with Facebook? Soon you’ll be able to sign in with Apple, and what this will do, it creates a disposable email address, so whatever service you’re signing up for or signing in to, it won’t actually get your real email address, so you’ll be able to just—if they start spamming you, you’ll be able to cut them off really easily with stuff like that. And again, Apple—they encrypt everything on your phone, they won’t give the data to the FBI, and everything else, and ultimately that more secure experience is a good thing because it creates more trust for the user. If we’re going to have these devices in our pockets with all these sensors on, we want to be able to trust what’s going on there.
Chris: It was Apple’s end user license agreement that got you onto the Stephen Colbert show.
James: [laughs] It was. I can tell you that story, if you want. When Donald Trump signed the “nuclear agreement” with Kim Jong Un, and it was like a 2-page of aid for with basically no commitments or anything else in it, when they had the first summit. I tweeted out the fact that it was a looser agreement than the Apple iTunes terms of service, because if you look at the iTunes terms of service, buried on page 10-billionth or whatever that no one would ever read, it literally says this software cannot be used for nuclear weapons, which is more than the “nuclear agreement” with Kim Jong Un, and yeah, that was picked up by The Late Show. So that was a very strange morning, waking up and seeing the video of Stephen Colbert reading my tweet, and that was very cool. Can I just go back to privacy? Cause I’ve got one other thing I want to say on that—so the flip side of me evangelizing about how Apple are really good at privacy and how I think that’s a really good thing, is that it’s almost too easy for Apple, in that their business model—it’s almost like a free hit. Like, they don’t need to worry about the negative ramifications of taking that stance, whereas if you look at a company like Google, which exists on advertising, that obviously needs to read our data to target advertisements, and you’ve got Facebook, and the same for Amazon. And the flip side, [I’m stealing this] opinion from a blog called Stratechery which is all about the tech industry and different, takes more of an abstract approach to it, but basically Facebook came out and said, not so long after this, “well, yeah, but we’re not putting our servers in any country that aren’t a democracy.” Basically this is a riposte to Apple, because Apple have servers in China and let the Chinese government access iCloud because they have to in order to operate in that country. But again Facebook, they can say that, because obviously Facebook is never going to be unbanned in China. It’s almost like a freebie, it doesn’t harm their business model to take these stances, whether it’s pro-privacy or anti-China, see what I mean? But that gives each of them more power their own privacy, and I think any steps to enhance it are good…
Francis: Maybe the purpose of government should be that, in capitalism in business, the bottom line is profit. It’s kind of a survival-of-the-fittest world that it inhabits. But then, when there’s things that are necessary for the common good, then let’s maximize the benefit to the most amount of people, and that’s the realm of government. So, why can’t we either regulate business to behave themselves, or not get to big and allow diversity maybe to take the place of government? Why don’t we re-imagine the usefulness of government being in charge of things that are, say, like banking, healthcare, energy, things that are necessary for everyone.
James: Ooh. Yeah, again, I can’t claim to have any specifically complex thoughts about this, but I think it’s about designing laws and institutions in such a way that it mitigates that, again, because greed, I think, for better or for worse, is a part of human nature. That isn’t to say that we should embrace it—we should try and control it, that’s why we have higher taxes for the rich and so on, because if people are going to be naturally greedy, then we should design our institutions to try and re-balance things. It’s like, if you ask a relative of a murder victim whether you think the murderer should receive the death penalty or not, they’re probably gonna be thinking, yeah, the murderer should get the death penalty. But the reason we have the institution of the courts and impartial justice, is partially to a) insure the person is actually guilty rather than is just a gut reaction, and b) to make sure it isn’t just an eye for an eye, heat of the moment, taking revenge type thing, and there’s actually a different aspect to it. So when it comes to dealing with greed, if greed is a part of human nature, which evidence suggests it certainly is, then we need to design our institutions to mitigate it.
Francis: Well, when Richard Stallman was on our show, he came up with an idea that I thought was pretty brilliant, which was to have a progressive tax on corporations so that they couldn’t get to—beyond a certain level, it would be pointless. And I just loved the simplicity of that.
James: That idea is definitely emotionally appealing to me. I’d have to think a bit hard about that, as to what sort of cases that would be. That just sounds, again, emotionally appealing.
Chris: OK James, as we ask everybody, is there anything you’d like to promote or plug or—this conversation, we could probably continue for the next four hours…
James: Ha ha—so what would I to promote or plug—you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @Psythor, that’s where you’ll find links to all of my content, my terrible opinions, my retweets of people subtweeting Jeremy Corbyn, and any extra followers are always useful for sort of increasing my—social credits in the journalism world. So that’s probably the best thing, my website is JamesOMalley.co.uk if you want to look at my CV. Why not commission me to write for you? That’s about everything I’d like to plug I think—actually, I’ll tell you, I’ve got one more thing, I’ve just thought about it, sorry, I should pretend I didn’t just think of that and it was planned all along—if you enjoy podcasts, which I’m guessing if you’re listening to this you do, you should check out a podcast called “Science Fiction Double Feature,” available on all good podcast stores. It’s made by my partner, Liz Lutgendorff. And what it is, it’s a science fiction podcast where she’ll interview a science fiction author, and then she’ll interview an expert spinning off one of the themes in the book, and it’s really fun, really informative, you should go listen to that as well.
Chris: Great! Well, with that, thanks so much for coming on.
James: It’s been fund, thank you.
Francis: Yes, thank you very much.
She has a background in forensics and toxicology. Her blog, SciBabe, is dedicated to “clearing up misinformation about science, food and nutrition.”
She also works to debunk falsehoods in alternative medicine, the anti-vaccination movement, and the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement.
D’Entremont started blogging in 2014. She believes that using “snarky humor” is an important tool for communicating science and has been influenced by the style of Penn & Teller’s show, Bullshit. She began to get wider recognition in April 2015, when her Gawker article about Vani Hari, titled The ‘Food Babe’ Blogger is Full of Shit went viral.
As with all episodes of Making Better, this one is transcribed so that everyone can enjoy it. Click here to read the full transcript of Episode 10.
Making Better 10 Transcript: SciBabe
Chris: I’m Chris Hofstader.
Francis: I’m Francis DiDonato.
Chris: And this is Episode 10 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring Yvette D’Entremont, known to the general public as “SciBabe”
Francis: Yeah, I had a lot of fund talking to her. I think as a scientist, I love when people are as diverse in their interests as she is, not just science but other things as well.
Chris: Yeah, you don’t find too many science communicators who also talk a lot about pornography.
Francis: She’s definitely one of the sexiest guests we’ve had on—it’s unusual for me as a scientist to expect someone to be quite as fetching as this guest.
Chris: So, with that said, let’s get on with the episode.
Chris: Yvette D’Entremont, welcome to Making Better!
Yvette: Thank you for having me.
Francis: Yeah, very exciting to have you today, welcome.
Chris: You’re known as the Science Babe, but you also do a podcast about porn…
Yvette: SciBabe, there is another woman, Debbie Berebichez, she is a physicist and she is a science babe, so there are two for the price of one.
Chris: Oh, so you are the Sci Babe..
Yvette: SciBabe indeed.
Chris: How did you get started in science?
Yvette: Well, I needed to choose a major, and I actually double-majored in Chemistry and Theater, and Chemistry was because I wanted a career, and theater was because my father didn’t hug me enough–could have been worse, he could have hugged me too much–look, it’s my childhood, I will cope with it how I want. … The awkward silence on that joke is always great, people don’t know whether to laugh or to go “awww…” So after I got my degree in Chemistry, worked for a year in sales—hated sales! Of all th things that got me to go into forensics for my masters, we’d had a talk from a chemist from the Boston Crime Lab when I was in P-Chem, my most hated course I had in undergrad, and I was like, “oh you can use chemistry for forensics? that sounds like a lot of fun!” Because apparently I had missed every show on CSI ever—so, I got my masters in Forensics and concentrated on toxicology and biological criminalistics, really enjoyed that, and ended up working mainly in toxicology. I did explosives analysis for Department of Homeland Security contractor, worked in a toxicology and drug analysis lab for a couple years, and then most recently, before doing SciBabe full time, worked in a pesticide analysis lab as an analytical chemist, mainly doing method development for analyzing new formulations of pesticides. So that’s been that, and then one day I decided that I liked telling people they were full of shit, and that has been a pretty fun career path for me. Oh yeah, and now I analyze porn for The Plot—for fun.
Francis: When I was told you were going to be on this show, I saw the work you had done regarding Roundup, and I was really surprised to hear you kind of be an advocate for its safety, because there’s very few people that are in the media at the moment who are doing that. So, I told the guys from our show that I was going to do a literature search on it, and I was going to confront you with the data and see if your analysis could hold up to scrutiny. Well, I did the literature search, and….I got nothing. (laugh)
Yvette: So this is our big confrontation—is that you’re like, oh shit, I have nothing to say.
Francis: There’s almost no evidence to suggest it’s a carcinogen—that was just so surprising. Do you find other people are surprised?
Yvette: Yeah. It would have been so much easier if Monsanto was just 100% evil, it would have been easier if all the documentaries were right, right? I wish that everything we saw on Netflix was real—I wish that there wasn’t all this misinformation and mixed-information going out to consumers about the safety of their food, but I mean the truth is I don’t want to let this go unsaid, there are still problems with safety in the food chain and the food supply, let’s not cover that up. But we do have the safest food system and the safest way of growing food that we’ve ever had in history now, and Roundup is a part of that. We left much more toxic pesticides when we moved over to pesticides like Roundup—and I just want to clarify one thing before you get emails about this—pesticide is the blanket term for all of the other “-icides”. So an herbicide is a pesticide, “pests” is not to denote insects. Insecticide is also a pesticide, herbicide is a pesticide, fungicide is a pesticide. So, there you go, before you get emails.
Francis: I must add though that it’s not that there’s conclusive data that it’s absolutely safe, it’s just that there’s very little data to suggest that it’s not.
Yvette: Basically the data does not show that it’s carcinogenic or that it builds up in the system or that there’s long-term toxicity. The LD-50, the TD-50, the measurements that show that it’s going to cause you the types of things that proponents of organic agriculture or the people that are very scared of it—the things that in the scientific studies would would show the type of harm that they’re indicating, are just not there. It’s not the danger that people are making it out to be. Technically, it’s not as bad for you as table salt, on just a plain old measurement of toxicity. It’s less dangerous to you than caffeine and salt,, and aspirin. I think those measurements jar people, and then people always come back with, but what about long-term carcinogenicity? And same thing, there really isn’t evidence for it—and if I see evidence for it, I will change my goddamn mind, because I eat the food too. Just to give an example, Aspartame, of all things, that I have defended because it’s been studied so thoroughly, there came an announcement from—I believe the European Food Safety Administration—that aspartame needs to go through some more thorough testing, because some of the tests don’t hold up to scrutiny, and I was horrified. I want to look more into this report, but the fact that this even came out bothers me, that there might be some validity to this this, and that I might have been wrong, or I might have…said bad information, or that these tests were not held up to enough scrutiny. And I looked at the scientist that put out this report—they don’t seem to be alarmists. I’m always willing to re-look at something that I thought I had known for a fact before, but man, do I like my aspartame and am I going to be disappointed if it’s not safe.
Chris: When we do hear about problems in the food supply, in the United States at least, it’s usually e-coli and it’s usually coming from organic farms. I mean the whole Chipotle disaster…
Yvette: It was precisely because of how they sourced their food. I do not want to bash on organic here, because I think organic farmers, they do a lot of care into the food just like conventional farmers. But part of the way, of how they fertilize their crops, is still through older means, a lot of times it’s through…fertilizer that comes from a cow’s butt, or from other—you know, it’s poop. Where do we get microbes that aren’t always conducive to human life? Yeah, it’s poop, that’s where e-coli comes from. Please, just wash your produce carefully.
Yvette: I literally do talk about the plot-lines in porn, so we could talk about that if you want…we’ve done a few nerdy ones. We did the Avengers, and you would be surprised at what makes a parody porn good or bad, and we really like doing the parody ones. Because, you know, they’re something that the audience can kind of sink their teeth into, because they’re familiar with it—and you would be amazed at what makes a bad parody porn. Part of it is, you have to enjoy the sex you’re watching, but there has to be a thread through the movie that takes something that was in the original and kind of turns it into a sex thing throughout the whole thing, and that’s kind of how you make a good parody. There are a couple ingredients to it that makes it work. We got Tom Arnold on the show—this is what I get for having an occasional celebrity who follows my writing—and when Tom Arnold was on, Arnold Schwartzenegger FaceTimed him, so we accidentally had a guest appearance from “the governator”—[*] podcast. That’s my closest to a claim to real fame.
Francis: I was wondering if in that industry, it was sort of taking advantage of women who were, either doing it because they’re addicted to drugs, or they had mental illness, that kind of thing, and that in contrast to how many can actually do that and not be negatively affected by it, given our patriarchal society where men are so predatory a lot of the time?
Yvette: That is a really good and deep question, and here’s the thing—I know that we have a sampling bias in the people that we have on our podcast. We don’t end up having people who come in for three months and leave after they’ve grabbed some cash. We end up having people who have been on for a while, we’ve had Ella Darling, who—she has a masters in library science, and she’s gone on to have this long career where’s she started off in VR porn, started a VR porn company, and now she runs a company that’s just VR for people to interact with each other without a porn element. So we’ve had people who have gone on to have really empowering careers, and it was because porn gave them the money to have a career that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. No matter what, it’s going to be a little predatory, because you’re—there’s more money if you do more extreme scenes, to a point—but women are, because they’re able to do a lot of things to monetize on their own now, which they couldn’t back in the day when all of the money was through DVD sales, which admittedly did make more money, from what I understood—now, women are able to kind of run their own empires. This is something that we’ve heard from a lot of women who have come on the show. They can run their own fan site where people can buy clips exclusively. Fans can request—and the porn stars don’t have to say yes to it—but fans can request a specific clip from a specific porn star. They can ask, can you make a clip in which you masturbate with x-thing, and the porn star, for a price, will say yeah, they’ll do it. We’re living in a golden age of porn, women are in charge of what they’re doing with their body more. They’ll mix up a few nights of featured dancing with a day of doing a scene, they’ll do a trade for scene with someone, there’s a lot more autonomy now than there was years ago. One of the downsides, though, is that the straight-up pay for scenes, because of pirating now, because of digitization, pay has gone down quite a bit. It’s actually much lower for men in the industry, i’t about half, depending on the type of scene and whatnot, but yea, women get paid much more than men in the industry, it’s very strange. It’s one place where the pay inequality benefits women. But it is gonna be a little predatory, in a way, but I think much less so than people think. There’s weekly STD testing in the industry, mandatory. You are safer having unprotected sex with someone in porn than you are almost anyone else on the planet, and it really does take much better care of its people than I think a, “civilian” would think.
Chris: Are you familiar with Jon Ronson’s work, The Butterfly Effect?
Yvette: To a point, yeah.
Francis: I think one of the things that alarms me is that…I have 14-year-old son, and if he goes on Pornhub, something like that, the kind of things that’ll come up are not representative of what I would like him to think good sex is like—at least as a starting point.
Yvette: Kids should not learn sex from porn. Porn is—it’s kind of like trying to learn quantum physics from the Avengers, or learning Tai Kwon Do from an action movie. That’s not where you should learn about sex—teenagers should learn about sex the way that the rest of us did, from fumbling in the dark in the back seat of a car, trying to figure out where the clitoris is and failing miserably for about ten years—that’s how the rest of us did it, right?
Francis: I think it was seven years for me..[laughter]
Yvette: I…like it took me a while to locate my own, and I have one…
Francis: But what I think is encouraging is that there are some sites, mostly run by women, that feature actual couples having sex, and it’s not edited and it’s not always like those nasty ways that they end in normal porn and things like that, that just seem very un-respectful to women in general, things like t hat.
Yvette: Here’s the thing that I think people don’t understand, because I think that a lot of people think no matter what, if there’s a degrading scene, you know, with cum in the hair, there are women that are into that, too. This is not just for the man’s benefit. A lot of sex is about consent, and that’s the thing that gets left out of the conversation is, don’t teach the teenage boys it’s OK to do this. Teach the teenage boys to have a talk with the woman that they’re going to have sex with. Teach everyone about communication skills, because—and not to be pushy, and to talk out what you want in sexual experience, because yeah, it’s OK to do something ridiculous within a sexual scenario that you wouldn’t do with anyone else, but you have to talk that shit out every time. Because what you did last time with the same partner might not be what they want this time. What you did with another girl definitely might not be what you want or what this new girl wants, but the things that you see in porn are never going to automatically be what somebody wants. I mean, the angles they fuck at so that it looks good for the camera, the putting it in one hole and then the other hole and then back to the first…oh my god. There are things that just happen in porn that don’t happen in normal sex, and it’s not where you should be getting your cues. Everyone that I know in porn will say the same thing.
Chris: Ronson suggests that one of the reasons younger people are having less sex is because sex in real life doesn’t live up to the porn.
Yvette: I don’t know how true that is…but it also wouldn’t surprise me. I think one of the reasons why people might be having less sex, with the advent of freely-available porn—and I kind of liked this, admittedly, in my 20s—I would decide, I’m not going to go on a date with a guy if he’s gonna be more likely to be a hassle and less likely to be an orgasm than my Hitachi. [laughter] You know, if I think this guy is gonna be a—not likely to lead to boyfriend or great love or good sex, and my Hitachi and a couple hours of watching re-runs of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit”—that’s gonna be a good night. This guy—not so sure. You know, which one are you gonna go with? I can see that. Porn is always sex with someone you love, it’s never gonna lead to an STD—there are good things to teenagers watching porn instead of going out and having sex with someone who they’re not interested in. Which would you rather your kid do, watch porn or knock somebody up? And I know those are not binary choices—but, think about it. It’s OK for your teenager to watch porn, but you need to talk them through it. And that’s an awkward conversation, and why I’m glad I only have cats and dogs.
Francis: I’m just trying to leave a couple of windows open on the computer of porn that I think is…good to learn from.
Yvette: Well, first start with Ryan Creamer and wholesome porn—it’s completely clothed, just go to Pornhub and check out Ryan Creamer, it’s hilarious. It’s like, “honey, I washed the dishes without you asking me. Honey, I know you need to go to Ikea today, here’s my credit card, buy what you need.” Like it’s stuff that’s completely not sexual and it’s like, oh, porn for women!
Francis: I think some women would consider that foreplay…
Yvette: I mean, that’s stuff that will get the guy laid later…my partner and I were already starting product development on the first stage of this, but eventually we want to have a whole “wash your junk” kit. We already have a website for it, and it’s in development stages, but we’re starting a product called “fuckwipes,” because you need to wash your junk before you expect anyone to touch it. That area needs to be clean, I want it to pass the white glove test.
Francis. Nice. Well, that kind of brings us to one of the things that I think is the purpose of this podcast, which is to talk about the future, and utopia…
Yvette: You know, enemas do lead to utopia…literally, that was what Gandhi believed. Look this shit up, I am not kidding. People who are listening right now are like, what? He used to give enemas to people.
Francis: What about the future of sex? How is all this technology, if you also consider the potential for AI and robotics to weigh in, and all this other stuff, what is this doing for the future of sexuality and humanity? What are the pros, what are the dangers?
Yvette: There are a lot of both, and I’m glad you brought that up. So, I think future of it—I hope this helps us facilitate communication, because a lot of things that have fucked up people’s sex lives is just not being able to talk about it. I’m sure that you three have all been perfect lovers, a hundred percent of the time, to all of your partners, right? As have I, we’ve never screwed up a thing by not discussing it—huh? Huh? uhh. So I hope that this new digital age will kind of help us realize, and give us the tools to be more open with the people that we’re mashin’ genitals with. There are even apps now—I downloaded one a while ago and then deleted it, ‘cause I realized my husband and I discuss everything already—but you know, there are tools to help you discuss which fetishes you’re into, help you walk your way through what you want and what you don’t want. And people are getting more open with it.
Chris: What’s on the back end of that? I mean, is somebody building an expert system or an AI based on all the data you put in, and they’re going to have the privacy problem that exists on Facebook becomes like a really explicit privacy problem?
Yvette: That is a terrifying possibility. Like, how safe are your porn preferences? If they’re anywhere online.
Chris: How does your life as a porn podcast host dovetail with your interest in science and science communication?
Yvette: It’s a very interesting dichotomy, because I—well, I try to write about science with a big ol’ heaping dose of humor. I’ve wanted something to add some levity to what I do. I was kind of at a point with SciBabe where part of me wanted to pack it in, really. I was deeply depressed at the time, the week that we launched—it was, I don’t know if you guys remember this happening, I’d just been sexually harassed/assaulted at a conference, and that kind of blew up my life for a while, and it was like, I need something to focus on that’s not this. It was like, how do we find a way that’s funny and informative to just kind of get some comedy out, and do something that’s completely off the map. I had—and here was how it kind of came from a Science thing, I was giving a talk at a local science museum when I lived back in San Francisco, and it was a talk on bad science in the movies. And this is why I make this joke about Neal DeGrasse Tyson all the time—I was riffing on his whole, you know, ripping apart bad science in movies and I’m like, Neal, they’re science fiction movies! Nobody goes to Avengers to learn about quantum physics! They go to see Tony Stark punch a robot spaceship alien! But I just joked, I’m like, it’s ripping apart the bad science in a sci-fi movie, hey, it’s like ripping apart the plot in a porno—you still get out of that what you went in there for. And then I was like, wait—if there’s a market for ripping apart the science in a sci-fi movie, maybe there’s a market for ripping apart the plot in a porno. Hmmm. And so the podcast was born. There’s such a loose tie-in, but I think one of the things we enjoy about it, both my podcast partner, Alice, and I, is it’s a chance to tap some comedy out of something that’s ripe for it, because we sit there are look for continuity in our porn. We really do, and I mean I think this throws people. It’s like, no no, we are looking for the plot. We’ve had comedians, we’ve had scientists, we’ve had of course porn stars on, to review a porn with us. And we tell them, and this is what throws them the most, we’re like, yeah, you can skip the sex scenes if you want. We literally watch the plot. So does it tie in to the Sci-Comm? I don’t know, but we try to have fun with it. There was one episode we did with Riley Reyes, who if I recall correctly is president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Group—I’m probably screwing up the name on that [note: Adult Performer Advocacy Committee]—but after we recorded, she shot me a DM, she’s like, “oh my god, I just realized I follow you on Facebook. I’m a huge fan.” This is something that people forget: porn stars are, you know, after they get off the stage, they have interests and they have lives. It’s been nice to kind of de-mystify this entire field and get people to see, kind of like I always try to tell people, scientists are people too! We’ve gotten to become friends with a lot of these people, and we’ve seen a lot of them do stand up comedy—Kate Kennedy, we saw her performing this last Saturday at the Comedy Store, she was amazing. It’s been interesting to see people react to this, and be shocked that, oh, you know, “oh my god, porn performers are human beings—what?” It’s like, yeah, they don’t go back and be hung up on the shelf with the rest of the sex at the end of the day. So, it’s been a multi-faceted thing that I’m not sure exactly if it ties in to Sci-Comm or not, but we’re enjoying it.
Francis: I imagine one of the difficulties you would have, though, is, based on the statistic I had read once, which is that they measured how long people watch porn for in hotels, and they found that the average was something like 11 minutes.
Yvette: Wow, that’s longer than I expected.
Francis: Yeah. I don’t know, maybe they’re nervous, ‘cause they’re in a hotel or something. But that doesn’t leave much time for plot development, and characters, and …
Yvette: We watched, yesterday, a two-hour and forty-nine minute parody of the show “Cheers,” and it was amazing.
Francis: Who makes…?
Yvette: WoodRocket Studios…and they’re almost all directed by Lee Roy Myers. We really love the Big Lebowski XXX, you should watch that for the cinematography values…
Francis: Can you give an example of that? It’s hard for me to…I love Big Lebowski, so…
Yvette: So, you know the dream sequence where he’s like flying through the bowling alley? That happens. The beginning sequence where everyone is like, you know, it’s just this kind of dreamy, well-lit sequence of people bowling—instead it’s topless women at, they rented out a local bowling alley in Hollywood, in the middle of the night, to have a scene full of recording topless women at this delightfully lit bowling alley. The acting is so good in this that they have—and this is something people don’t understand—they have non-porn roles in movies like this. And the guy playing the John Goodman character was so good that we’re like, man, he could have just stepped into that role! If you see a porn with either Tommy Pistol or Evan Stone in it, guaranteed to be hilarious. They’re funny! I wish I was kidding, but they’re better than people expect, every time.
Francis: Well, sex in general has to be really great source material for comedy.
Yvette: Oh—one last one. Horat, the parody of Borat.
Chris: What do you think about film makers like John Waters, who don’t exactly do porn but push every other limit possible.
Yvette: I think he’s great. I think that ’s part of art and cinema is finding edge and making people think with it. That and I love that John Waters just kind of tries to tap dance around an NC-17 rating with pretty much everything he does.
Chris: Yeah, he got one the last film he did, and that’s the last film he did. He can’t get financing anymore. His latest book, by the way, is really terrific. It’s brand new, it’s the last two, three months, and the opening sentence to the book is,”Somehow I became respectable.”
Yvette: Wait, John Waters, really—are you sure about that statement?
Chris: He goes down the list of the awards he’s won and his installations at museums and all this—the fact that the art world woke up and sort of embraced him.
Francis: Well, we have a President that a lot of people are very offended by…
Yvette: Doesn’t feel like we have a President right now.
Francis: And here’s my question—you know, like we’ve been talking a lot about sex and porn and stuff like that, but given the state of this country right now, what do you find obscene?
Yvette: I find sexual assault to be obscene. I find the language that the President uses to describe immigrants to be obscene…
Francis: How about when he talks about grabbing…
Yvette: Yeah, well that’s sexual assault, so I find that to be quite obscene. I find the disrespect towards anyone that disagrees with you, and I mean, I get it—that’s something that’s coming from, I hate to say this term, but that’s something that’s coming from both sides. In general, I find the complete lack of concern for people that don’t look exactly like you to be kind of obscene, given that he’s orange, that’s pretty much everyone.
Francis: One of the things that’s come out of this show, in discussing concepts of utopia, is a recurring thought that respecting diversity is fundamental.
Yvette: So, I went out to dinner the other night with a handful of atheist-y, sceptic-y people, and I had a Star of David necklace on. And of course everyone’s like “but you’re an atheist!” and I’m like, “I’m also Jewish.” And they’re like, “Wait, wut? How does that work.” I’m like, on a molecular level, when you throw my DNA into a tester, I cannot not be Jewish, it’s the only thing I am. So, on my mom’s side I am Acadian, and we are a people without a land mass. We were deported from Canada by the British—basically I’m genetically indistinguishable from the cajuns, give or take, and we are a people without a country. And on my dad’s side, Jewish, and once again, all the little towns that my people were from, destroyed—and that [cost de hollow]. And so I am, on both sides, a people without a country. So I don’t wear the Star of David to say “I’m Jewish,” I use it because this is my family. I don’t know what else to be. And so when I hear people who have complaints wish diversity and don’t want immigrants, and I’m like, you know, you’re basically advocating for me not being alive. I’m not OK with it, and I really wish that people were not so offended by different strains of DNA.
Chris: What do you think are the most important recent discoveries in science? We’ve had pictures of a black hole, we’ve discovered gravitational waves, there’s all kinds of amazing stuff going on—what excites you the most?
Yvette: I’ve focussed more on nutrition and health than I do on the cosmos, but I think in my field, at least, there’s a lot of research that’s coming out on obesity more and more lately, to figure out what’s the thing that’s gonna kill us. And that’s a lot of where I try to focus, because that’s what got me into skepticism, was falling for everything and then un-falling for it. There’s a ton of research going into not necessarily how do we get people to lose weight—because, you know, we kind of know how to do that, it’s just hard. But now we know that there are people who get the “fat diseases”—the ones that are associated with obesity, at a very low weight. And there’s a wonderful article in the New York Times talking about a woman who weighs 119 lbs and has fatty liver disease. So they’re trying to study what causes people at different weights to get these diseases “of obesity,” and from that they can look at what medications can be used to stave this off, or to see what gives people a genetic predisposition to these diseases that we commonly associate with being overweight. So, it’s like, is it a genetic quirk? Is there a way to fight this, is there a way that we can manage this, along with managing weight? But if there is a way to keep the diseases that come with this at bay for people who are at a manageable weight, obviously get the—you know, keep weight into a healthy range, but there have to be other ways to fight these while we’re trying to keep calorie control and exercise as a part of a solution. And I think the fact that they are looking at these answers is pretty wonderful right now, because it’s something that really hadn’t been explored for a long time.
Chris: Where do people go to learn realistic things about diet and health? Because every tabloid at the grocery store has “he beef and beer diet or whatever the fad diet of the week is…
Yvette: Everyone wants to lose weight on bacon, right? Thus the basis of the keto diet’s appeal—and here’s the thing, keto will make you lose weight. Even me, who wrote an article ripping keto to shreds, will tell you—if it makes you lose weight, if it makes all your numbers healthier and your doctor and a registered dietitian say, yeah, this is a healthy option for you, go for it. But I’ve recently lost 50 lbs and I didn’t do it by following any set diet, I just counted my calories. I kept track of what I was eating. I had ice cream on a regular basis, I had tacos a few times a week—from my taco truck, not that I measured out—and I just kept track and lost weight, and that’s the thing. Calorie counting is hard, it’s a pain in the ass. People are—even registered dietitians—are bad at it. People underestimate what they eat, and that’s a big part of why we gain weight. And people want an easy solution, and that’s why they grab a diet book. They’re like, if I just cut out this macronutrient or this food, if I cut dairy, if I cut meat, if I cut the rice, then it’ll all go away. And all of these types of things, they’re cutting calories, each thing you do is just a way to cut calories. So you don’t have to be afraid of certain types of food, you just have to figure out how to make it manageable. If you’re a person who can’t put the ice cream down, don’t buy the ice cream. Leave it for special occasions. I mean, if you want good information about how to lose weight, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian—not a nutritionist, that is not a protected title, I could call myself a nutritionist tomorrow and no one could stop me legally, which is why you shouldn’t come to me to ask me how to lose weight. I’m not a medical professional, go to a registered dietitian—that is the best advice I can give you on this. It’s partially because a diet book, a website, they don’t know your health, they do not know your numbers, they don’t know your history, they can’t ask you for a food diary; diet is largely personal, the way that you get to a diet that you can manage long term—and I don’t mean “diet” in terms of calorie restriction, I mean the way that you eat, long-term. It has to be sustainable, it has to be something that works for you. So Pleeaase a registered dietitian.
Francis: One of my favorite science terms is “elegance,” used to describe when an experiment is done or there’s a finding and it just has this simplicity, and this harmony and perfection to it that is almost, it’s just very inspiring, almost sublime. I was wondering if you’ve had experiences of that.
Yvette: So, I have worked mainly as a chemical analyst. So you hand me a thing, I have to put it through a series of extractions and put it into a machine and see if that machine doesn’t break—both doesn’t break with the way that I extracted it, and analyses it really well. And I don’t know, it’s hard to describe that as an elegant process. But there is something that I find very beautiful about the fact that we can manipulate the chemical processes of these various polarities, of all the solvents we’re using—I’m told, hey, we have about 20% of the target molecule in this vial, and there are a bunch of binders and a bunch of other things that we’ve used in there, and you have to get all those other things out without losing a single percentage of this, and tell us exactly, down to the hundredth of a percent, how much is in there. I think there’s something beautiful about the fact that we can make a method that, you know, just from scratch, from what we know about all the different items that we’re using to extract this, we can make a method that can consistently will tell us, to the hundredth of a percent, from solvent to, you know, minutes of extraction we need to shake this thing out, to filtering, to which column we’re using, to runtime, to ramp temperatures; and we’re eventually going to get a readout that tells us, consistently, what’s in our mystery liquid, and that was what I really loved about what I was doing—was that process of making that, and at the end having my organic chemist and my formulations chemist being able to give them that readout that said, here’s your thing, and they trusted my results. There was something beautiful about that to me, and that’s what—I miss that about the lab. So I like my writing, but I really did love the beauty of analytical chemistry.
Francis: Beauty is one of our favorite topics here, and you are such an open person, I’d be curious to hear you elaborate on other things in other areas that you find beautiful.
Yvette: My masters is in forensics—I know forensics is a messy, gross, horrible field, where we always think about dead bodies and things like that. This is not beautiful thing by virtue of looking at it, but I find something elegant, I think, about the fact that we can measure the stage of maggots in a human body, the stage of maggot development, and determine when someone died. And now, there’s also entomotoxicology, where you can measure the amount of drugs in a bug and get a rough measure of what the drugs were in someone’s system around when they died. Please don’t quote me on that, please check with an expert, I have been out of the lab for a while, you should check with an entomotoxicologist for the exact on that. The fact that we have all these tools now—that’s something scientifically wonderful and beautiful to me, that I look and and go, these tools are something that we could have had, that I wished we’d had for much longer, that there’s not enough of.
Francis: Well, that’s a [first?*] time on our show…
Chris: …that maggots have come up, yes.
Yvette: I do what I can to bring up gross beautiful things…
Chris: We had M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath, on as a guest. She’s an actual sociopath who’s trying to work to make life for livable for people like herself, and she was telling us that there’s some Instagram page that has all this really weird medical stuff that she’s just obsessed with, and …
Chris: It’s all really gross stuff.
Yvette: It doesn’t surprise me. Sociopathy is a…like, I read a decent amount about it….and it’s like….I think it’s something like 4% of the population have a degree of sociopathy. It’s interesting to think that there are, within that group, there are a lot of CEOs, there are a lot of surgeons—the percent that become criminals and serial killers is much lower, but if you go into jail and you meet serial killers and other types of criminals, good chance you’re talking to a sociopath in a lot of those situations.
Francis: Or in politics…
Yvette: Oh yeah. Anyone who’s a professional liar, or like there are a lot of symptoms—lack of empathy, inability to connect—lying about things that are completely unnecessary to lie about…But then there are sociopaths who have kinda gone, oh, I have to fit into society, and even though I don’t feel like there’s a reason to be honest here, I probably should. So there is learned empathy in some cases. Have you ever met a friend who you suspect is a sociopath?
Chris: Francis and I used to hang out at CBGB all the time, and there was one guy there we were absolutely certain, and he was violent and…I mean, he was the only person I was actually, I can remember being actually scared of.
Francis: Well, the punk scene, given its nihilism, was sort of a…attractive environment for people who were that type of sociopathy, I guess.
Yvette: Like, I hate throwing a clinical diagnosis on someone, that is not my expertise, but just going by behaviors, I think I have known at least two that I could just be like, yeah, if these guys aren’t sociopaths, I am not capable of understanding human behaviors. You know, people who just lie all the time and rile up shit amongst their friends, and can’t hold a steady job—I’ve known a few of those. And I’m like, either a narcissist or a sociopath, they’re really close.
Francis: But you have to know them for a while for that to be true. In my experience, the people who were probably the sociopaths that you came to know in your life, were amongst some of the most charming, charismatic people you’ve ever known. I mean, I had dinner recently with two friends who—they’re both diagnosed. So it was me and them having dinner together, and honestly, I had to struggle at times to even notice, because it’s strange how invisible and maybe it’s sometimes, in some situations, unimportant it is.
Yvette: With one of the friends that we figured it out with, it took years, because you felt good in their presence. They were so nice to everyone, and you…this person, for so long, you thought that all of the problems in your friend-group was because of everyone else, then you realize this person was just lying about everyone. And you felt so good around them, but years later the person who had been her best friend for a decade up and, like, friend-dumped her. And I’m like, hmmm, this is interesting. So when I moved to the west coast, had a phone call with her, and we talked out everything and she’s like, yeah, she said all these things about you. We went through everything, figured out all the lies, all the completely unnecessary lying, all the behaviors lined up with sociopathy, and that’s the thing—is that charming, really manipulative, lied about unnecessary things that just made no sense, unless there was an underlying pathology there. And it was just, some of them were just grandiose lies that made no sense, like I said, unless either a narcissist or a sociopath, and so many of the things are interchangeable. But it was so strange to look at it and go, wow, we think there was a sociopath, you know, in our dorm for all these years, one of our best friends, living with us for all these years—collecting our secrets for all these years.
Chris: But now Facebook will do that for you.
Yvette: [laughs] Yeah. Cambridge Analytica is our new sociopathic friend.
Chris: I mean, an AI that, even if we can, you know, jump 20 years into the future, or 50 years into the future, whatever, an AI that became self-aware is probably going to be a sociopath.
Yvette: There is a new documentary on Netflix on Cambridge Analytica. It’s terrifying. People that worked for it that kind of left and, should we say, told on the company—they’re, in retrospect, they’re like “what did we do?” Because they’re looking at Facebook telling lies at the Congressional hearings, they’re like, “no, they definitely still had our data, they knew what they were doing, Mark Zuckerberg’s lying”—it’s just…whoof
Chris: There’s a book called Zucked that was written by one of the early advisors to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and Jim Fruchterman discussed that on the podcast, and it’s a pretty scary book.
Yvette: Doesn’t surprise me. Like, I remember when Facebook started, I was a senior in college and everyone’s like, hey, our school finally got access to Facebook! ‘Cause we were like, Boston area, all the schools were getting access first, and it still took till the end of grad school for me, until Facebook was starting to become a thing—and then it was, you know, a few years of Myspace-Facebook-Myspace-Facebook. I feel like we should just all go back to Myspace.
Chris: After Friendster went out of business, they released their database, and with 95% certainty—there’s been a lot of progress since—and just using the Friendster database, you could determine the sexual preference of somebody who didn’t have a Friendster account, but was in the contact list of somebody who did. That study was published four or five years ago. I mean, Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google, what I call the G-MAFIA (stands for Google Microsoft Apple Facebook IBM Amazon), their level of intelligence power right now is greater than any nation.
Yvette: This doesn’t surprise me at all. Just check out, I think it was called “The Hack,” [The Great Hack (2019), Netflix] was the one that I watched yesterday—they said basically they had 5,000 data points from every person that signed up, and from that, from everyone that they scraped, that was connected to everyone that they took the survey from—and it’s just knowing how much data they have on all us—it’s terrifying. Part of me goes, you know, makes me want to shut down my Facebook account, and then part of me goes, wait, what would happen to SciBabe? Like that’s the thing, they know that they have us already, and it almost feels like it’s pointless to un-sign up.
Chris: I haven’t killed my Facebook account, and I know what it’s doing, but all I use it for is to promote this podcast.
Yvette: Yeah, like because I’m so online, I know how public I am. How would it help me to get off the internet, the way I am right now? I don’t feel like it would help me at all. If I wasn’t doing what I did, I would shut things down.
Chris: We could try to encourage people to use things like GNU Social and Mastadon, which are ethically-run social medias, but unfortunately they have fairly few users. And those are entirely community-driven, so you can inspect the source code and everything like that to make sure it’s not spying on you…
Francis: There’s so much room for improvement, which gives me hope, because you know there was a time when everyone thought AOL was invincible, and then poof! And if I watch my son with his gaming things and how like, one day Minecraft, they’re all playing that, and next day they’re all playing Fortnite, it can come and go before you can even imagine—it just happens. And I think Facebook is that vulnerable, and you know, it’s gonna be figured out.
Yvette: I would be surprised if Facebook was—and I say this knowing I could be completely wrong, but—if Facebook still looks the same way it does by 2025, either in power or in design, and I know it will be redesigned 15 times, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t a major restructure or a major exodus by, within the next five years.
Chris: And the other problem is, Facebook is so rich and powerful that any sort of competitor other than one that’s community-driven comes along, they’ll just buy it, like they did with Instagram and all the others.
Yvette: I mean, and as much as people in Congress have been saying it needs to be, there’s a monopoly that needs to be broken up, can you see these people…they’re not exactly regulate-business type folks in charge of the country right now, and this really does need to…how is it not a monopoly when it owns Whatsapp, Instagram, and god knows how many other apps? Does it own Snapchat, too? I don’t even remember.
Chris: They don’t actually own Snapchat, they just sort of drove them out of business by putting all the Snapchat features into Instagram…
Yvette: They own every platform you’re on, basically. Like, at one point I was like, yeah, I’m gonna use Whatsapp to avoid..oh. There’s no point. I mean, even if you get off Facebook now, don’t they pretty much still own your data?
Chris: They say they’ll delete your data if you ask them to, but I don’t believe that.
Yvette: How many times have you—and this is the one place where I sound kind of conspiracy-theory-ist. Part of me knows that it’s just they drag your material from everyplace you’ve ever looked on the internet. But how many times have you just thought something, or said something to someone else in the room and discussed it, and suddenly there’s an ad for it on your Facebook, or somewhere online?
Yvette: Yeah. And it freaks you out, right?
Chris: Your Amazon Echo might be listening to you all day long…
Francis: That happened to me this week, and I still have no idea how those ads got up there.
Yvette: Yeah. There will always be something online saying you’re imagining it, it just…like, your computer knows so much about you because it grabs from 15 different places. Because I tell people, don’t believe in conspiracies—so much of me wants to say, naaah, it’s just so ridiculously good at grabbing information….and then there’s the other part of me, that’s like, you know, they lied to us about Cambridge Analytica, so they’re fucking lying about this too! I don’t believe in any other conspiracy thing, and this one makes me go…what the fuck? Like—sometimes it just doesn’t feel like there’s another explanation for some of the ads that show up, other than—I never typed it in. I’ll look through my google searches, I’ll look through things that I typed online earlier, and I’m like, why is there an ad for something I just discussed with my husband a minute ago, and never typed in? Then there’s the thing that we say in forensics, that there’s no such thing as coincidence.
Francis: It’s too bad that there’s such a bias against regulation these days.
Yvette: I don’t know, I was about to say fear of it. But there is so much fighting against it, because the argument is always, you regulate an industry, it’s gonna make it harder to do business—but is it really? Is making it harder to screw over consumers really gonna make it harder to do business? I mean, I worked in two highly-regulated industries before, in pesticide analysis and in a biotech lab, and you know, we were still pretty able to work. I worked in producing pesticides—I want that industry heavily regulated, I eat the food, so throwing on extra regulations to things has never really destroyed an industry. Like, I’m sure someone out there is gonna be like, “but what about…?” and they’re gonna pull up one example, but a little regulation has never killed off an industry.
Chris: Well, if we go back to the late 70s, when the United States was much more favorable towards regulation and taxes were much higher, people say that stifles innovation, but a couple of guys named Steve Jobs and Bill Gates went out and created two absolutely, monstrously innovative companies.
Yvette: How dare you bring up facts, Chris! How dare you!
Chris: [laughs] Why do people, it seems to me, do you think—and this is kind of, from out of left field—but people on the left and people on the right, everyone just seems really angry right now.
Yvette: It’s probably because the country seems to be in a bit of a perpetual dumpster fire?
Chris: But it seems to be even outside the US—I mean, you have Brexit, you have Italy’s economy falling apart, you know, we have all kinds of—Venezuela’s a disaster, Brazil, one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas, is in a state of collapse…
Yvette: Well, let’s see. A handful of years ago—and this is just from listening to too many podcasts on history, economics and rising authoritarianism—in the 2008 economic crisis that really did affect us globally, not just in the US, ‘cause the US economy will, really is a trigger on the rest of the economy; we saw economic collapse everywhere, at least to a point. In countries in Europe that we’ve seen rising authoritarianism, it’s not that they’re like, yeah, we want fascism! It’s that what the have there right now, or what they’ve had in the last five, ten years, they don’t see the good economic impact that they want. So it’s not that they suddenly hate Macron or the policies that he’s had, it’s that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Bolsonaro down in Brazil, it’s not that they’re like, “authoritarianism, yummy!” it’s that it’s the economy, stupid. Their economy has not been doing well under the last guy, and Venezuela—the sad thing is that even though they have to know that Maduro is a bad guy on some level, but there are still people who are loyal to Chavez who did help the economy quite a bit. He didn’t help it as effectively as he could have, because there was a lot of money coming in from the oil boom, but he also needed to put more of that money into infrastructure and into the people, and there was money squandered, and there wasn’t a structure set up for it to be continued to work for the people in the country. And it’s kind of, and this is why people are mad down there, because all these oil fields are just rotting. Their entire financial system has kind of crumbled. I am clearly not an expert on Venezuelan economy, so…ask an expert to clarify all the things I just fucked up…but like, that’s the thing. When the economy crashes, and it crashes under one system, people are gonna go hard to the other side. So right now, in Poland, in Hungary, in Italy, in France even and England, anywhere that there’s been an ability to convince people that the economic unrest is due to the other side, you can force in an authoritarian regime, whether it looks like an authoritarian regime at first or not. And that’s kind of what’s happened in a lot of these countries, is that people are upset about one thing or another, or they’ve been convinced to be upset about one thing or another. And you saw it here with Trump, starting off with Mexicans are sending rapists and murderers, and that rhetoric has continued on. Because the economy was getting better, it was steadily progressing under Obama, so it wasn’t economic distress. He’s caused more of it since he’s got in, but he managed to stoke fears—and that’s what’s happened across Europe. In Germany, at first, they were like, bring in the Syrians, and a couple of small incidents were used to stoke fears, not just about Syrian immigrants, but there were people—I want to say it’s the ADL was the name of it? But there was a group in Germany that, when they were having riots because of an alleged incident with Syrian refugees, were going to Jewish-owned businesses and throwing bricks through windows. So a lot of old prejudices are coming back with these new authoritarian regimes. It’s kind of terrifying.
Francis: I’ve always had this metaphor in my head that I’d like to run by and get your opinion on, and it’s an economic kind of metaphor where, when I think of cancer, I think of how you have these cells, and these cells are in your body and they’re part of you. But then they decide, fuck everyone man, I’m just gonna get big and take everything and bubble off and try to like, pretend that it’s all about them. So I think in society we all live so interconnectedly, and with all of our wealth and what makes the world so beautiful in a lot of ways has to do with things that our ancestors built, our grandparents, our great-grandparents and all the work they put into—New York city, this city was built by people who are mostly dead now. So, I was thinking, you know with capitalism we have this idea that, of rugged individualism, and how everybody can just sort of like really focus on themselves and then somehow magically, it’s gonna be good for everyone. But what happens with cancer is, if it keeps growing, the body dies, and I feel like that kind of concept in terms of how, with multinationals and corporations just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, is kind of like happening on an economic level.
Yvette: Yeah. I’m trying to think of which direction to go with an answer to this—at one point it felt more like corporations understood they had a responsibility to make sure that their employees were paid enough so that they could put money back into society, and now it seems like the only responsibilities that they have are to their investors, and to make money for themselves. And it’s like, you know, if you don’t pay people enough, they can’t keep the economy moving.
Chris: Way back at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, we had in Germany the Krupp corporation, the munitions manufacturers, recognized that and started all kinds of great programs for their employees, and that’s where Henry Ford got the idea, he went over to study there. He came back to start Ford motors, he was going to make a car that his employees could afford to buy, so he’d sell more cars.
Yvette: I want to say, “good on ya, Henry Ford,” but he was also a virulent anti-Semite. Hitler loves the guy.
Chris: Oh, he was a horrible person.
Yvette: Him and Charles Lindberg were kind of like the biggest Nazis in America, and I’m not being hyperbolic.
Chris: The reason the Krupp corporation and Ford did it was to stop unions. It wasn’t benevolent, it was to keep from unionizing.
Yvette: This is why I drive Toyotas, because they’re not Fords and they actually work well.
Chris: We’re running really long, so I’ll just ask you the same last question we ask everybody, and what would you like to promote or plug or…?
Yvette: Oh! Let’s see, so if you want to find my podcasts, you can check us out over on Twitter @TGOMpodcast
Chris: What is the name of your podcast?
Yvette: Oh, it’s the Two Girls, One Mic podcast, because we’re classy and we talk about all things porn. I like to say we talk about the holes and the plot-holes in your favorite porn—and indeed, we’re the porn podcast that your grandmother would love! It is far less tawdry than you expect, and it really is just a comedy podcast. You can also, for my “day job,” find me over at the SciBabe on Twitter and Instagram, and at Facebook.com/SciBabe where I talk about science with a heaping dose of snark. Thank you guys for having me on, I’ve had a great time.
Chris: Well, thank you so much coming on, we really appreciate it.
Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein,[and] Freud,” by Britain’s Channel4 TV , “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing”—The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering”—The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), and The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich). Click here to read his full biography, find Howard on Wikipedia, read Howard’s writings on Medium, follow Howard on Twitter and finally watch Howard on YouTube.
As always, there is a transcript available for this episode. Click here to read Episode 9 in its entirety.
Making Better transcript: Howard Bloom
“…and those changes, those uplifts and upgrades, those messianic moves, those are the real responsibility of capitalism.”
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: What do Prince, mining asteroids, starting the hippie movement, and being on Coast to Coast 300 times have in common?
Francis: Could it be Howard Bloom?
Chris: He’s our guest on this episode—he talked to us about his history as a rock’n’roll PR guy—
Francis: And that includes some time with Prince, which is a really interesting story.
Chris: We also discussed how Howard helped start the hippie movement—
Francis: All that and some background in science, in politics, in…you never know what Howard Bloom’s going to discuss next.
Chris: So without further ado, here’s our interview with Howard Bloom!
Chris: Howard Bloom, welcome to Making Better!
Howard: Thanks, it’s nice to be here.
Francis: Yes, thank you very much for joining us, we really appreciate it.
Chris: You’ve a long history doing public relations for rock and roll bands—can you tell us a little about that?
Howard: Ok, well you have to know, my background is not in popular culture, it’s not in popular music; my background is—at the age of ten I got involved with theoretical physics and microbiology, and at the age of 13 I realized that what really interested me was ecstatic experiences, the stuff that William James called “the varieties of the religious experience.” And when I got out of college phi beta kappa/magna cum laude, I had four fellowships in what is today called cognitive neuroscience, and I realized that if I accepted any of those fellowships—actually I accepted the one from Columbia—it would be Auschwitz for the mind, I would never get anywhere near the ecstatic mass human emotion tidal waves that I was looking for, the tidal waves that make the forces of history. So I took an opportunity, and I went into something I knew absolutely nothing about—popular culture—absolutely nothing about it. And a few years later founded the biggest PR firm in the music industry and worked with Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley, Bette Midler, ACDC, [?], KISS, Queen, Run-DMC, Billy Joel, Billy Idol, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, ZZ-Top, GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five, and a bunch of others. And my role, since I came into this from science and not from being a vinyl junkie, my role was, if you approached me, my role was to know your career, to have already analyzed its strengths and its weaknesses, and to see how we could make you—if you deserved it—how we could make you a permanent icon in the landscape, how we could make you a permanent presence in the lives of kids. So that’s what I did in the rock and roll business—I helped generate icons, I helped subcultures find their voice, I helped the country music—of all things, ’cause I didn’t like that kind of music—find its voice, but yeah, there was a group of people that were prisoners of the Bible Belt, and they felt they had a right to be on a global stage; well, I helped them find that voice on a global stage. I did the same with glam rock and with heavy metal, with punk music, with disco, and with…Texas culture and a bunch of others. So, the job wasn’t what you would think in terms of PR. Danny Goldberg, who was a terrific publicist and then became the head of Atlantic records and head of Polygram records, says that I wasn’t in this for the spoiled egos of rock stars, I was in it as an applied science—well yeah, but applied science with a heart, with a gut, with a soul. I mean, if you walked through my office and you were interested in working with me, I sat you down and told you something very basic: if you expect me to create an artificial mask for you, an image, and claim that it will make you a star, I’ll send you to my best competitor, I’ll get you a meeting in the next two hours. You can walk over from my office to his. If you’re going to work with me, you have to understand that music is a soul exchange, that it’s an exchange between something deep in you that takes you over and dances you on a stage, that takes you over when you try to write a lyric and are sure you can’t and two hours later there’s a lyric on the blank screen in front of you. Those are the gods inside of you, and my task is to find those gods, put you in touch with them, so you know what it is that is a force bigger than you are, that makes your music for you.
Francis: Can you give any examples of how that happened with some of your clients?
Howard: Yeah. Once upon a time, I used to read all three trade magazines, all three of the insider magazines on what was going on in the music industry every Monday morning when they came in, and I noticed something very odd; there was an artist I never heard of who was moving way up on the R&B charts, which white people didn’t pay any attention to in those days. Not only was he moving up on the R&B charts, his record went platinum, and I’d never heard of him—and I was a student who studied every comma and period in the music industry. Then I got a call asking if I wanted to work with this unknown person out of Minneapolis, who claimed to be 19 years old at the time, and it was the artist that I’d been watching move up the charts. And so I said immediately yes, he was obviously some kind of a strange phenomena. And his name was Prince. So I laid out my conditions, I will only work with you if I can sit down with you in your own environment, for anywhere from one to three days with no handlers around—no managers, no assistants, no wives, nothing—just me and you, and if I could go on a hunt for the soul inside of you, or the soul that dances you, the soul that makes your music. And the manager said yes. Then I got a very strange phone call from Warner Brothers Records—Prince was on Warner Brothers—and in those days, there was a big barrier at record companies between the black people and the white people, within the company. If you were a black act, you automatically got thrown over to the black staff, and the black staff and the white staff didn’t really talk. Warner’s was a little bit different, because whereas most of the black staff on the other side of the color barrier within record companies were relatively unsophisticated people, the folks at Warner Brothers, even in the black department, were Harvard-level people—extremely articulate, extremely intelligent. So I got a phone call from one of the extremely articulate, extremely intelligent black publicists at Warners saying, you put your foot in it, you’ll have a real hard time with this one. Prince won’t do interviews, we set him up for two interviews and he was quiet in one of the interviews and didn’t say anything, and in the other interview tried to strangle the interviewer. Now if this had come from a standard black staff, maybe…god knows how that idea would have arisen—but I would have taken it seriously in one way, but I had it taken a whole different way coming from this super-intelligent Warner’s publicist. Nonetheless they met my demands, and so they flew me, Bob Cavallo (Prince’s manager), flew me to Buffalo New York—which ironically is my home town, not Prince’s home town—where he was rehearsing for his “Dirty Minds” tour at the Shea Theater. And when his rehearsals were over around one o’clock in the morning, we locked ourselves in a back room in the dressing rooms, and we sat there talking until roughly 7-9 am in the morning. It was the Warner Brothers person was dead wrong that Prince wouldn’t talk to me. What were we looking for? We were looking for Prince’s imprinting points; there are certain points in your life where your brain is open to a certain kind of phenomena, and when it finds that phenomena it latches onto it and it makes that phenomena, whatever it’s hooked onto, whatever it’s imprinted on, a part of your brain’s shape, your brain’s morphology for the rest of your life. I call those things passion points, imprinting points. So among other things, I asked Prince a very simple question—when was the first time you remember being interested in music? And Prince talked about when he was five years old—which was often a key imprinting point, almost always a key imprinting point—and Prince’s mom had taken him to a theater in Minneapolis to see his father rehearse. And they come into the empty auditorium, and there his father was on center stage; and behind his father, said Prince, were five of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen in his life, and that was it. Some of the imprinting characteristics for most rock and rollers are that joining point, where sex and massive attention meet. With many of the artists I work with, their imprinting points came in watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, or watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. A point where the screaming girls, the mass attention, the sexual attention, they all come together in a common point. So, this was my main story in understanding Prince—there were lots of others, but this was a key story. So now I was in a position, when I finished my hours and hours of interviews, I went back home—I didn’t yet have computers—I had to cut and paste literally with scotch tape and scissors, and I cut apart the interview and I arranged it in chronological order so it told the tale of Prince’s most important imprinting points, and I sent it back to Prince, and I said, “this is your story. And whenever you do an interview, I want you to tell this story, no matter what the interviewer asks, tell this story, because the interviewer is a megaphone, the interviewer is a microphone through whom you speak to your audience. And your audience has to know what’s at the heart and core of you.” And I gave him a bunch of other training in how to do interviews, and then within the next two years, he did roughly 150 interviews altogether, the person I was told could not possibly do an interview, and who had tried to strangle an interviewer—we never had a problem, never. Now look, Prince—it took me a long time to realize this—Prince was only about five foot, two inches tall, he was tiny. And so I would imagine that when Prince was growing up, he’d taken a lot of shit, that he’d been beaten up a lot, and so he was very timid around men. He wasn’t timid around girls, especially attractive women. I insisted on going out to Minneapolis once a year, after looking at the lyrics to his upcoming album, and debriefing him, because every year your imprinting points change a little, you continue to grow and your imprinting points grow with you. And the third year when I went out to Minneapolis to interview Prince, he had me in the auditorium watching him as he was rehearsing, and then refused to see me. The fear had taken over. Nonetheless, one of the tricks to what I was doing is that, Hermann Hesse says that you have 10,000 personalities hidden in a dark closet of the mind, and the only one of those 10,000 personalities you know is the one that fought to the surface and became you. But those other personalities are inside of you, so one of the tools that I use, which is strange coming out of science, was tuned empathy. It was finding that hidden self in that dark closet of the mind that corresponded to Prince, and then resonating to Prince’s frequency. So Prince’s manager was able to call and say, look, you know, I’m not supposed to have lyrics to Prince’s album, and you’re not supposed to know about the lyrics for Prince’s album. But if the lyrics to Prince’s album mysteriously show up at your desk at 10:30 tomorrow morning, can you tell me what Prince is thinking? And the answer was always yes. All I had to do was see the lyrics, and I knew where Prince’s head was at, I knew where his heart was at, I knew where his soul was at, for years, without ever once again being able to sit down and have a multi-hour conversation with Prince. So that’s just one example of finding the soul inside of you and helping reveal it to your audience. So you think science would be the basis of what I did, and science was in fact the basis of a lot of what I did, but you know science isn’t science unless it uses empathy as well. Science isn’t science unless—or has a good sense of a lot of the stuff it doesn’t know. When it comes to the realm of the human soul, which is what I was after in the music industry, science doesn’t have a clue. So you have to be able to open your eyes. And the first two rules of sciences that I learned at the age of 10, the two rules that converted me to being, to science as my religion, are the truth at any price, including the price of your life, and look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there. When I was twelve and thirteen years old, I discovered that the most interesting stuff right under your nose isn’t under your nose, it’s behind your nose, it’s what I call “the gods inside.”
Francis: As a scientist myself, I kind of view it as science is what we’ve been able to demonstrate in a reproducible way, and there are phenomena that we can see are pretty reproducible but we don’t have any instruments to measure them.
Howard: Right. We have no numerical system for grabbing ahold of them, and in science very often when we don’t have a system involving equations and numbers, we feel helpless. In fact, usually we deny that the phenomena exists altogether until we find a way of dealing with them with formulae and math.
Francis: Yeah, I think as I’ve grown as a scientist I’ve just become more and more humble in terms of being aware of how much there is to know, how much phenomena is out there that is not subject to our senses and to our tools. But you could see their effects.
Howard: Absolutely. Hitler’s not a replicable phenomena, although his speeches tended to have pretty much the same impact when they were made, and yet should science understand a Hitler or how he came to be, so that we can stop new Hitlers from arising? Absolutely. Should we understand what he was able to do successfully in stirring the souls of his audience? You bet! Should we be able to use that for good? You bet! Should we deny that it exists? No way! Science is the aspiration to omniscience, it’s the aspiration to know and understand everything, and our science is still, very, very, very, very primitive. It thinks it understands the world, the cosmos, but it understands such a tiny fraction of the cosmos, that it’s ridiculous, and there is something called observational science. You go out into the field and you become a participant-observer. You become a part of the process that you’re observing—Margaret Mead used to do that in anthropology, and in fact that all the great anthropologists have done that, and it’s where the phrase “participant-observer science” comes from. Well, I was doing participant-observer science in the music industry, and the tales of all of these adventures are in a book. It’s called Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll, and that book will be available in April of 2020. And the other books tend to focus on science, because the situation is that I left the music industry in 1988, I felt I had learned everything that I was going to learn from it, and I got sick. So I was sick in bed for 15 years and started to write my books. This sounds hideous to say it, but the fact is I had become a legend in the music industry and the BillBoard Guide to Music Publicity, a publicity textbook, for example, had 20 pages just of an interview with me, about what I called perceptual engineering. I was credited with having re-invented publicity in the music industry. So because of that, I needed to re-establish my scientific credentials, because the rock and roll publicity overshadowed my scientific credentials.
Chris: Did you choose to walk away from the music industry, or was it your illness?
Howard: I started doing the research for what would be my first book in 1981, I started organizing the material in 1984, and I started writing it in 1987, I think. And then I wanted to move away from the music industry and just do my books full time. There’s no way you can get away with that when you’ve got a wife and you’re at a legendary level. And I got sick, and the sickness was horrible, it was monstrous, I was too weak for five years to have another person in the room with me and too weak to utter syllable, too weak to say a thing. So it was hideous, but monstrosities produce advantages sometimes, and it allowed me to do my work on my books full time, and I needed to do my books on science because, as I said, I needed to re-establish those credentials. And when I was 12 years old I had built my first [?] algebra machine, I had co-designed a computer that had won science fair awards, I had been schlepped off to a meeting with the head of the graduate physics department at my hometown university, the University of Buffalo. I imagine that he was granting five minutes as a courtesy to my mom, and instead we spent an hour discussing the hottest topic of science at the moment, the interpretation of the Doppler shift and Big Bang vs. Steady State theory of the universe. At the age of 16, I had worked at the world’s largest cancer research facility, the Roswell Park Memorial Cancer Research Institute, and I had spent that summer at Roswell developing a theory of the beginning, middle and end of the universe that predicted something that wouldn’t be discovered for another 38 years—dark energy. And if you go online and look up “Howard Bloom Big Bang”—or big bagel—you’ll see the theory in a five and a half minute, very simple animation, and it explains what dark energy is, which is a mystery to science. The actual existence of dark energy wouldn’t be discovered until 1998, I was coming up with this theory in 1959. So even though I had this scientific background, nobody knew it. So my first books were all science, The Lucifer Principle of Scientific Expedition to the Forces of History, which a lot of people call their bible and reads like it was written tomorrow. The Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, the office of the Secretary of Defense had a forum based on that book and brought in people from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM and MIT; The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, which the sheik who runs Dubai named a racehorse after, which his former minister of development who runs a 33 billion dollar sovereign real estate operation and he’s co-founder of the Arabian business and economic forum, and he went in front of the Arabian Business and Economic Forum and said there’s a book I particularly resonate to, it contains the future of Dubai, and proceeded to read passages from The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism. The 11th President of India called the book a visionary creation, and he and I worked together for four years on harvesting solar energy in space and transmitting it to earth. The next book was The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates, and that’s very relevant to what you’re doing in science, because Barbara Erenreich read that book, and she wrote an introduction for the paperback version. And in her introduction, she says that for 250 years we’ve been doing reductionist science; it’s only gotten us so far. To understand how a hummingbird flies, via reductionist method, you have to kill a hummingbird—well, there goes everything that makes the hummingbird fly. In this book, The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates, is the first step in the next 250 years of science. The other books are How I Accidentally Started the 60s, which I wrote while I was sick in bed. Certain forms of human yanked me out of my misery, and they were P.G. Wodehouse and Dave Barry, and I wrote this book, it’s the story of my adventures accidentally helping start the hippie movement, and I wrote it to be as hilarious as I could possibly make it. And then a manuscript got to Timothy Leary and Timothy Leary came back with a quote that was just astonishing: he said it was a monumental masterpiece of American literature, and filled with [wow woo aha] experiences and nonstop scientific comedy routines and waves of hilarity, and wow-woo-aha and he compared it to James Joyce. What I didn’t realize is, as I was writing this book from my bed in an attempt to create the kind of transcendent humor that had lifted me out of my circumstances, and Timothy Leary was dying prostate cancer and needed exactly the same thing, and apparently he found it in that book.
Chris: Can speak more to how you accidentally invented the 60s?
Howard: It was an acdent. I was a total outcast in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. The other kids, to the extent that they acknowledged me at all, called me the sickly scientist, and I read Time magazine from cover to cover every week. And every week Time magazine covered the latest escapades of the beatniks. I thought, well, there may be no social group that want to have anything to do with me in Buffalo, New York, but if I could ever get anywhere near the beatniks, they would accept me. So I thought the beatniks would accept me, and so I tried to drop out of high school, I tried to get a motorcycle and drive to California, not realizing not only did I not have the money for a motorcycle, I did not have a driver’s license and knew nothing about how to drive one. But nonetheless, my parents managed to enlist my teachers, and they persuaded me not to drop out of high school, so when I went off to Reed College, which was called the Harvard of the West and had the highest median SATs of any school in the country at the time, higher than Harvard, higher than Cal Tech, higher than Yale; a few weeks before the end of my freshman year, I dropped out to seek Zen Buddhist Satori and to find the beatniks. And I trekked all the way down from Portland, Oregon to North Beach, which was where the Beatniks were supposed to be headquartered. And I went to the City Lights bookstore, which was owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was the king of Beat poets, and the store was empty! I walked in, there was a guy behind the counter, he was reading a book, he didn’t lift his eyes when I walked in; I asked him where the beatniks were, he didn’t even answer. I walked out on the street looking terribly confused, and somebody stopped and said, “you look disturbed about something, can I help you?” The kindness of strangers is really remarkable under some circumstances, and I said, “yes, I’m looking for the Beatniks.” He rolled his eyes up into his head, and scratched his forehead, and then he finally said, “well, have you tried Colorado?”—and that was a little bit vague as a destination for me. So what ended up happening is that people followed me and my two companions, and the group grew larger and larger, we ended up living naked all day long in a big condemned house in Berkeley, California, and people were dropping out of their jobs and dropping out of their schools to come out and follow us. So while looking for the Beatniks I accidentally became one of the catalysts—I’m sure there were thousands of us—for a movement that as yet had no name. And I left the country for a year after these adventures, and when I came back Time-Life publications, the same people who had told me about the Beatniks, had found a name for our movement, they called it the hippie movement. So that’s how I accidentally started the 60s. And I’ve got another book, it’s The Mohammed Code, and it’s about the rise of Islam and within a hundred years of Mohammed’s death, the empire of Islam conquered a territory 11 times the size of the conquest of Alexander the Great, five times the size of the Roman empire, and seven times the size of United States. Nothing like it has ever happened in the history of the world, it is the biggest imperialist and colonialist movement this world has ever seen, and the most successful. And since understanding the forces of history is what I’m all about, using science, that book is essential reading. So that’s it, that’s my seven books, and now Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll in April.
Chris: What can you tell us about the new book without spoiling it for us when it comes out?
Howard: Well, Michael Jackson’s the most remarkable person I’ve ever met in my life, so far utterly beyond the norm that it’s hard to describe it, except that I tell the stories and the stories get that across in this book, and I also pursue the mystery of who killed Michael Jackson. But the stories you must read, because you know there are certain people who expand the boundaries of human possibility: like for example, in 1954, no one had ever broken the 4-minute mile, and a guy in England got together with somebody who had a very analytic mind, and they took pictures, they took film of his running, Roger Bannister, and they analyzed every movement of his knees, every movement of his ankles, so that he could be trained to maximize his energy when he was running. And the 4-minute mile, which experts had considered a biological impossibility, he broke it. Now once Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, if you look at Wikipedia and look up the 4-minute mile, it will explain that every decent, [boldly] competitive runner now automatically breaks the 4-minute mile. So there are certain people who expand the bounds of human possibility, and Michael was one of those people. And he did it—remember the first two rules of science? Truth at any price, including the price of your life, and look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there? Well, rule 1, the truth at any price including the price of your life, it’s courage. And rule 2, look at things that are under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there, is awe, wonder, curiosity. Michael had a quality of awe, wonder, and curiosity I had never expected to see, I had never imagined. He was purely committed to his kids, to his audience, absolutely, totally dedicated to them, and he would have laid his life on the line for his audience. But you have to read the stories, because until you read the stories, you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. I’m hoping this book will correct the record on Michael, and it’s the stories of my involvement with all these other artists: with Bob Marley, there’s a lengthy chapter on Bob Marley, with Bette Midler, with Billy Joel, with Paul Simon, etc. It’s my adventures, literally looking for soul.
Chris: And how does Einstein fit in there?
Howard: Einstein was a major role model for me when I was a kid, and…OK, so I’m in eighth grade and I’m 12 years old and…I didn’t register at the time, it took me decades to register this, but no one ever made eye contact with me in school. So one day, it came as a total surprise when one of the girls in class moved her eyes in my direction and fixated on me, and said “I told my mother you understand the theory of relativity.” Well, in reality I didn’t understand the theory of relativity, and it was a big deal in those days, it was said that only seven people in the world understood it, but I wasn’t going to contest that to her, because it’s the only thing I had to stand on, being the sickly scientist. As soon as school got out, I got on my bicycle and I rode the two miles to my local library—the librarians knew me better than my mother, literally—and I said “give me everything you’ve got on the theory of relativity” and they went in the back and did some shuffling around, and they found two books and they shoved them across the desk to me. One was a great big fat book, and one was a little tiny skinny book. So I started with the great big fat book, because I had learned at that point that if you don’t think you understand something, if you push yourself all the way through to the bitter end, by the time you finish you’ve understood something. And then eight o’clock at night rolled around, and I was only 50 pages into this book, which was all equations and very little English, and I don’t understand equations, I never have. And I realize that my mom’s going to put me to sleep at 10 o’clock and I’ve got two hours left to understand the theory of relativity. So I turned to the little skinny book, and I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but every once in a while it feels as if an author has reached out through the page, grabbed you by the lapel, put his nose up to yours and said, “schmuck, listen, I’ve got a message for you.” Well, that’s [Patton?] with the introduction to Einstein’s book. Einstein seemed to drag me nose to nose with him, and say these words: to be a genius, it is not enough to come up with a theory that only seven men in the world can understand. To be a genius you have to be able to come up with that theory and then explain it so simply, so clearly, that anyone with a high school education and a reasonable degree of intelligence can understand it. So Albert Einstein, through the pages of a book, had told me, “schmuck, listen up! You want to be an original scientific thinker? You have to be a writer, and not just any writer—you have to be a delicious writer, a clear writer.” So that became part of my marching orders, as a part of my science, to become a writer. And becoming a writer was what accidentally got me into popular culture, and ultimately into the music industry. So Einstein was responsible, of all things, for my ending up working with Michael Jackson and Prince. There is this movie that’s come out recently, about Michael Jackson, it made it onto HBO, it was a hit at the Sundance festival, and it accuses Michael of all the hideous sexual deeds with children that ultimately destroyed Michael’s life and destroyed his career. And when that movie came out, what was noticeable was, there was an avalanche, a tidal wave, of reaction against it. And there were people going online, going on Youtube, and giving detailed analyses demonstrating, with timelines, with precise timelines, why the claims being made about Michael couldn’t be true. The avalanche was an avalanche of Michael lovers around the world who refused to give up on Michael Jackson, and this is 10 years after Michael Jackson died. So the remarkable thing is that Michael’s hits record, in the public mind, not just here in Amsterdam and Moscow, all over the world, that no other artist in my lifetime has ever hit—I mean, beyond even Elvis. And people know there is something worth loving there, they don’t know what. And this book attempts to answer the question of what, what was it that the fans of Michael Jackson know at an intuitive level, that the critics of Michael Jackson do not know.
Francis: There’s a phenomenon that I’ve always been interested in, which is how popular music participated in the evolution of human consciousness, and one of the things that was really clear in the 70s is, American at that time seems very free in terms of the process by which grassroots music would be discovered and then curated and offered to the public, by either AM or FM radio, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, in some of the communist countries, it was all controlled by the government—it was laughable, actually, in comparison to the richness and, I guess, just the immediacy of the music that the West had. Are we sort of creating, through the corporatization and monopolization of the media, something that kind of mirrors what happened in Russia and how causing things to stall maybe in terms of how fast this country could be evolving, is the fact that the cutting edge of the art isn’t really being offered to the masses, the people who are capable of appreciating it but aren’t going to go out and find it on their own.
Howard: Well, I think the opposite is happening. Look what I just alluded to, Pandora. Pandora and Spotify have changed everything, so has Youtube. People are able to find a far vaster array of music than they’ve ever been able to find in their lives. Musical artists are able to find an audience more easily than has ever been possible in the past. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s, when I got into the music industry, there was a rough equivalent of the Stalinist bureaucracy at the top, the gatekeepers, the folks in the record industry. You had to get the attention of A&R guys, those were talent scouts, and manage to get a record company contract, and record company contracts were almost impossible to get—maybe one out of a million musical acts actually got a music industry contract—so without going through the gatekeepers, you couldn’t reach the public. Today, you can go out and start touring on your own, if you can afford it, ‘cause it’s very expensive, and you can start connecting with your audience. You’ve got people like Amanda Palmer, who raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter—that wasn’t possible back in the 70s and 80s. And with Pandora, you have personal control over what you get to listen to, you give thumbs up and thumbs down to things, and you can add any artist who’s on Pandora that you want to the station that you’re listening to. That wasn’t at all possible in the 1970s and 1980s; you had top 40 radio and you had something I helped establish, and the whole story of how that was done—or at least I was there for its birth—you had progressive radio, where the DJs were allowed to play anything they wanted.
Chris: I think we used to call that AOR…
Howard: Yeah, Album Oriented Radio, you’re right. My role was accidental—I mean, most of my life has been accidental—in order to get into popular culture, I started a commercial art studio with a bunch of starving artists. One day, I walked our portfolio of artwork into ABC, and ABC had owned seven FM stations, and this new concept of progressive radio had just been invented. ABC was going to do something incredibly risky—it was going to take these seven stations, stop doing the top 40 which everybody else was doing, a limit of 40 songs that got airplay—and was going to go with the progressive format. It hired me and my art studio to do all the graphics for this huge change, and we did a spectacular job. I had a 19-year old artist named Bradley Johannsen who was a visionary—every time he sat down and did a picture, it was an entire world you had never seen or imagined before in your life. So he did seven of these imaginary worlds for ABC, and it helped put them on the map, and ABC asked me to found an advertising agency in order to handle all their ads, and I didn’t want to learn time-buying, which sounded incredibly boring to me, so I didn’t do it—but that gives you a measure of how trusted we were at ABC Records. So I was there for the inception of Album Oriented Radio, I wasn’t a move and a shaker, I was a participant. Remember, I didn’t know anything about popular music—my Rachmaninoff/Beethoven/Bartok and Stravinsky were the people I had been listening to since I was ten years old, and the head of promotions for ABC started educating me about popular music. And then one day she said, look, we’re having a concert in Studio B, why don’t I give you two tickets. OK, so I took the two tickets and I took my lead artist and took him with me, and we went to Studio B. There was this piano player on stage, and my artist, Peter Bramley, started getting up out of his seat and whooping and hollering and he embarrassed the shit out of me, I thought this was terrible behavior, why can’t he just sit still? And then the concert was over, and it took me years to process this. What I failed to realize is, one of the reasons that that artist on stage, that piano player, was able to give such an incredible performance, was because Peter Bramley was feeding him energy, and you need energy from an audience if you’re a performer on stage. It’s what lifts you out of yourself, it’s what does give you an ecstatic experience. It does allow the gods inside of you to dance you around like marionette. The artist onstage was named Elton John, and the album came out as Elton’s first live album, and you can still hear Peter Bramley to this day whooping and hollering, and helping make that concert what it was. So I learned about popular music from my experience, my involvement with ABC, and my involvement in helping them establish Album Oriented Rock, or Album Radio.
Chris: I used to just absolutely love the DJ Vinnie Scelsa in New York, I don’t know if that name rings a bell..
Howard: Oh yeah, absolutely. Plus there was the day I was [up] at ABC, their DJ and the new format, one of their DJs was named Dave Herman, and there was a stack of records almost up to his shoulder, at least up to his nipple in front of him, and he was leaning on it with his elbow, and we were talking, and then one of the album covers caught his eye. And he looked down, he lifted the album cover in his hands, and he said “this looks interesting, I think I’ll play it when I get on the air.” The album that he’d picked up was called “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it was the most unlikely record you’ve ever heard of, it was a rock opera, which was a dream at the time. It was the story of Jesus Christ told from the point of view of Judas Iscariot—I mean, how the hell would that ever be commercial, right? And it was the first airplay, in Herman’s play was the first airplay that Jesus Christ Superstar got. And of course since then Andrew Lloyd Webber, the writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, has become a multi-billionaire and has been recognized by the Queen. So it was almost, my experience was almost Forrest Gump-ian experience. Sometimes I made things happen, and it wouldn’t have happened without me, and sometimes I was there, along for the ride, and can tell you what it was like—and it was fascinating.
Francis: One of the things we like to discuss on this program are concepts for the future and how we can evolve beyond where we currently are right now in terms of technology, in terms of how the world is structured, in every regard. I was wondering what your thoughts are about what direction the world is going in, and what kind of vision we can aspire to.
Howard. Well, four billion years ago there was this hideous planet, absolutely monstrous; poison pill in stone. And it was the mother of all climate change catastrophes, its temperature went up and down 88 degrees every three hours, for three hours you were on the surface of this killer of a planet, you were exposed to something poisonous called radiation and for three hours you were exposed to something equally poisonous called [darkness?]. Plus it had a tilt to its rotation, and the result was that as it rotated around the sun, it produced four major climate changes a year—summer, fall, winter and spring. And life had the audacity to get started on this planet, and over the course of the next four billion years, despite catastrophe after catastrophe after catastrophe, the greened and gardened the place. Despite a hundred and forty-two mass extinctions, life continued to hold on and expand. If life has greened and gardened one poison pill of stone, how many poison pills of stone are there above our heads, just waiting to be greened and gardened? They’re all over the place. We’re discovering there are billions and billions of planets up there. Look, life is imperialistic and life is colonialistic. It likes taking over territory, kidnapping and seducing and recruiting dead atoms and bringing them into this enterprise of life, into this grand initiative of life. There are creatures that are better than us at research and development, they’re called bacteria. We race with them and we narrowly manage to stay neck and neck with them, but there’s only one species on this planet that can take green and garden stuff, that can take ecosystems out of the gravity well and to other poison pills of stone—and it’s us, humans. It’s our obligation to open the rest of the solar system and ultimately the galaxy and beyond that, a multitude of galaxies, to life, to green and garden the whole thing. So I’ve got this document called Garden the Solar System, Green the Galaxy, and you can find it on HowardBloom.net, on my website, again that’s HowardBloom.net. I was at Maxwell Air Force Base in May, and with a team of people I put together a two billion dollar moon program, and right now we are promoting that two billion dollar moon program because they current President, much as I loathe and despise him, and the current Vice-President, much as I loathe and despise him too, want to get us to the moon by 2024. And if that’s the motivation that gets us greening and gardening all of those gravity balls up above our heads, fine. And we’ve got a way that we can do it, so we are promoting this two billion dollar moon plan, and the two billion dollar moon plan and my partner in this is a three-star general, and the plan is very simple: give a billion dollars to the first company that can land a nice, big roomy human habitat on the moon, and give another billion dollars to the company that can set it up and run it. That’s it, that gets us on the moon to stay, and it gets around a whole bunch of obstacles that the space military industrial complex is trying to throw in our path and keep us from getting to the surface of the moon. One of my friends, a chief research scientist at NASA, visited his old friends at NASA, the powers that be at NASA, about eight months ago, and he came back with a very simple report: that the people at the top in NASA had told him, “if you think we’re going let you step on the surface of the moon, you’ve got another thing coming.” In other words, NASA was sabotaging our ability to take [ego?]systems to space. And this program gets around any form of NASA sabotage whatsoever. So, the future is above our heads, the future is in taking life to places it has never been before and allowing it to adapt and kidnap, seduce and recruit a biotic atoms, dead molecules and atoms, and bring them into the grand enterprise of life.
Chris: I heard you on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about this space-military-industrial complex. Now, I was born in 1960 so I was not aware when President Eisenhower gave the nation the warning about the military-industrial complex, but I’ve certainly grown to see its evils. Would you like to speak to that?
Howard: Well, yeah. The space military-industrial complex saddles us with impossible programs, and they kill us! It is not here to provide American security, it’s here to undo American security. I mean, just like Donald Trump to undo American security, too, but it’s a different process. So back in…10 years ago, Boeing was doing research on gas stations in space, fuel propellent depots in space. What’s the advantage of a gas station in space? Well, you could take an existing rocket from ten years ago, you could fly it to orbit, you could refuel it in orbit, and it could go to the moon, it could go to Mars, it could go to Jupiter, it could go to the moons of Jupiter, it could go to the rings of Saturn, it could go anyplace in the solar system with a simple refueling, and no new rocket had to be developed to accomplish this. So we could have been up and running if Boeing had continued the development of these propellent depots, these gas stations in space. We could have been up and running with human programs to the rest of the planets a long time ago. But Boeing managed to land a contract for something that would produce far more immediate lucre, far more immediate profit. It was called the Space Launch System—it was a mega-rocket, it was a franken-rocket cobbled together by Richard Shelby, the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee in order to keep jobs in his district, and cobbled together from old technologies. So Boeing killed—not only killed its work on gas stations in space, it forbade the use of the word “depot” anywhere in Boeing or the other company that it controlled, United Launch Alliance. Meanwhile, Richard Shelby got that same gag order placed on NASA itself. So for ten years there’s been this focus on a space launch system, the mega-rocket, the franken-rocket, and it has meant two billion dollars a year to Boeing. The franken-rocket was supposed to fly, space launch system, was supposed to fly in 2015. I don’t know if you noticed it, but 2015 is in the rear view mirror, that was four years ago, is the franken-rocket/space launch system anywhere near being ready for flight? Not at all! It may never fly. And if it ever flies, it will cost between one and two billion dollars per flight. Now for that, you could buy 22 launches of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy. In other words, you could buy 11 launches to the moon, and 11 launches to Mars from Elon Musk, and you could buy it today, because the Falcon Heavy rocket is already flying, it’s already done three flights—unlike the space launch system, which may never fly. And for the sake of all of this, we stopped the space shuttle and America has not had access to space in American vehicles since 2011. We’re supposed to be the space leader, we hitch our rides to the International Space Station on Russian rockets. This is a hideous, monstrous embarrassment. Plus, the space military-industrial complex has come up with this plan to never get us to the moon—it’s called the Gateway, the Lunar Gateway, and it’s a tiny little space station that’s supposed to orbit the moon, but never get us to the lunar surface! And Lockheed Martin is trying to put all of our attention, all of our money into this, and it is succeeding, so far. So the business of the space-military-industrial complex over the course of the last nine years, has been to keep us out of space, not to get us into space. Why? In order to make a quick and easy profit. A friend of mine from Boeing points out that the space-military-industrial-complex makes its profits off of what are called change orders—every time that Congress changes its mind about what the characteristics of a rocket should be, or every time NASA changes its mind.
Chris: My background is engineering, and I’ve done a lot of contracting, and I know exactly how the engineering change order, ECO as we call it, can bloat a project and absolutely destroy the deadlines.
Howard: Right. So the more bloat, the better, because the more money that means on the bottom line of companies like Boeing, Northrup-Grumman, and Lockheed-Martin. So, the goal is to get beyond this, and the two billion dollar moon program just doesn’t say a word about them, doesn’t threaten their program, takes whispers of money—a billion dollars for two years running, is a whisper of money in NASA terms—and simply gets us to the moon, period, to stay, with a nice big roomy human habitation. And Bob Bigelow, the reasoning behind this program is that Elon Musk has already got the Falcon Heavy, and he’s about to have the Starship to get us to the moon and back. Jeff Bezos has already announced his moon program, with his Blue Moon lunar lander. And Bob Bigelow, who was behind the Quality Hotel chain, or something of the sort, he’s a hotel entrepreneur, and he bought inflatable habitat technology from NASA over 15 years ago, roughly 20 years ago, and he’s had a plan for a lunar colony, and he’s been building it—for ten years. For ten years, we’ve had a lunar colony that could be finished in a year or two, with a little bit of extra funding. And here we are talking about this useless little lunar orbiter, just to make money for Lockheed-Martin? Are you kidding me? Americans’ leadership in space is going to determine which set of values rules the world for the next 40 years. The Chinese want it to be them, and they have a detailed program for how they are going to colonize the moon, colonize Mars, colonize the solar system and then colonize the universe. And it is so important to the Chinese that Xi Jinping has had this all locked into the Chinese constitution, what he called the Chinese Space Dream. So we have our own companies knifing us in the back, and if China wins in this space war, it’s the Chinese set of values that is going to dominate the world for the rest of this century. It’s the Chinese totalitarianism, it’s the Chinese intrusion into your personal life, it’s the Chinese system of using face recognition in order to give you toilet paper. You’re in a bathroom in China, a public bathroom, and if the facial recognition system says you have not been a good citizen, that you haven’t toed the party line with enough fidelity, it won’t give you toilet paper! That’s a major motivational interference in personal life.
Chris: We’ve recently had the journalist James O’Malley on the podcast—we haven’t published that episode yet—and he’s been following the Chinese social credit system very closely, and he took a trip to China and was just…you know, if you have good social credit you could ride the fast train, if you don’t you have to ride the slow train, it’s really like a dystopian science fiction story…
Howard: Yeah. It’s Pavlovian, it’s Skinnerian, it’s, you know, you give the pigeon a piece of corn when it moves in the direction you want it to move in, and you successfully shape its behaviors. That’s what the Chinese are doing, giving out little rewards if you turn in the direction the party wants, and depriving you of rewards or giving you negative reinforcements when you turn out of the direction that the party wants. So if that’s the way we want the world to be run, no freedom of speech, no tolerance, no pluralism—you know, we have a million Uighurs who are in re-education camps in China right now. If that’s the way we want the world to be run, then let them win the space race, and they will make sure that’s the way the world is run. If you want tolerance, pluralism, freedom of speech, and democracy, the things that we value in the United States, we gotta win this space race, it’s as simple as that. Plus, the space race is going to do, for the future of humanity, what opening up the New World did for the Europeans—it tripled the gross domestic product in 100 years, of all of Europe, and space is going to triple the gross domestic product of all of humanity. It’s going to provide what are called, in my book, the Genius of the Beast, material miracles and secular salvation like you wouldn’t believe. Who should be delivering that to the world? Well, I’m an American chauvinist, I want America to be the country that delivers this to the world. In the music industry, which I departed from in 1988, I want to see soul come back. I want to see an emphasis on the fact that music is a soul exchange, that it’s not about downloads, it’s not about pieces of plastic, it’s not about the transfer of money, it is about fucking goddamn human soul. I would love to see that return—whether it ever will or not, I don’t know, because I was the only one preaching it when I was there, and I’m not there anymore. Every once in a while, I try to inspire somebody new in the music industry to follow this particular line, but it’s not that easy. So the future is space, and the future is soul.
Chris: You say that you want to return “soul” to capitalism—can you explain to our listeners what that means?
Howard: Yeah. There’s a hidden mandate in capitalism that most capitalists fail to see, but they follow it whether they see it or not, and it’s “be messianic.” It’s “save, lift and upgrade your neighbor.” Upgrade one neighbor you get a dollar, save, lift and upgrade a hundred neighbors you get a hundred dollars, save, lift and upgrade a hundred million neighbors and you get a hundred million dollars. It’s as simple as that. When Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, he upgraded human possibilities in ways we have never imagined before. Look, when I was co-designing a computer, when I was twelve years old, computers were the size of a brownstone in Brooklyn, like the one I’m sitting in right now. To have a computer in your pocket is astonishing! To be able to communicate with friends in Beijing or Hong Kong or Hungary while you’re walking down the street with tiny little headphones, ear buds in your ears, that astonishing! So what Steve Jobs developed was a material miracle, it was a source of secular salvation. And we’ve been churning out these material miracles since approximately 1790, when the steam engine was perfected. We once upon a time…what’s the name of the guy who wrote Robin Hood and…Sir Walter Scott. So Sir Walter Scott was alive as the new steam engines were coming online, and Sir Walter Scott said, “Those who tell you that a steam engine will ever power a mode of transportation are lying to you, it will never happen!” And you know, Sir Walter Scott was a reasonably intelligent and well-informed guy. Well, then, steam engines were put on ships, and all of a sudden instead of taking months to get across the Atlantic, and being totally reliant on winds, you could directly go across the Atlantic in a week or so. We’ve been introducing these new material miracles every ten to fifteen years now, for over 200 years. And what’s the job of you and me, what’s your job as an engineer? What’s my job as an imagineer, as a visionary? It is to make sure that those material miracles come at an even greater pace in the future, that we utterly change the nature of what it is to be human. Look, when their parents put an iPad in the hands of their 16-month-old child, and that 16-month old lays in his cradle and starts exploring the digital landscape that’s implicit in the iPad, and comes to know that digital landscape better than his parents ever will, and comes to be more proficient in the use of this thing…the use of an iPad, than anyone could have possibly have imagined, and that child ends up at the age of 5 going to first grade with the equivalent of bachelor’s degree in submarines or dinosaurs or whatever the subject of his or her personal obsession is, you’ve changed the nature of what it means to be a human being. And those changes, uplifts and upgrades, those messianic moves, those are the real responsibility of capitalism.
Francis: Yeah, I was just wondering where you go from there.
Howard: Well, where you go from there? The law of unintended consequences. Every time you invent something, if it really takes hold, it produces results of kinds you never could have imagined before. And according that first habitation, that nice, big roomy comfortable human habitation of Bob Bigelow, inflatable habitat on the moon, where that’s going to lead—well, it’s going to take an industry. When Sputnik went up, who could have ever imagined a communications satellite? Dish TV? Direct TV? Being able to take the Olympics from one side of the globe to the other instantaneously? Not having to make a videotape and then rush the videotape by courier to New York so it could be seen in North America. Who could have imagined the telecom business? Nobody! Nobody did. And yet today, the satellite industry alone is worth a third of a trillion dollars a year, and once we get to other poison pills of stone and start greening and gardening them, we’re going to triple the gross human product, eventually. First we’ll raise that to three trillion dollars, from a third of a trillion dollars, and then it will utterly change the nature of what it means to be human. And it’s the unintended consequences that are going to be the real stunners. When Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, he never imagined putting an iPad in the hands of a baby, and how it would change that baby’s life. Look, you know, we’re born with twice as many brain cells as we use, and then half of our brain cells are pared away, they go through apoptosis, pre-programmed cell death. So the ones that stay alive, the brain cells that stay alive and the assemblies of brain cells that stay alive are the ones that are called upon for action and use. When you put an ipad in a baby’s hands, you re-sculpt its brain, because there are whole ensembles of neurons that would have died out in a previous generation and are now kept vigorously alive. You have just changed the nature of what it means to have a human brain, with a simple piece—well, not so simple piece—of technology. So we do not know what the impacts are going to be, of gardening the solar system and greening the galaxy. We don’t have a clue. All we can say is, material miracles come tumbling out of the least expected places, and this is certainly an opportunity for material miracles we have never imagined in our lives.
Chris: We’ve had a couple of Scientific Skeptics on this show, and you’re on Coast to Coast, the radio program with the UFOs and the weird conspiracy theories and all of that, and I’m certain you’re probably going to be the only guest we ever had who’s been on Coast to Coast—so what do you actually believe of what they—George Noory and his guests talk about?
Howard: Nothing. I don’t believe that there are aliens up there, but the fact is that this universe has a tendency to super-simultaneity and super-synchrony. I did a paper about this for Physica Plus a long time ago. That means that all of the quarks at the very beginning of the universe came into existence at precisely the same time, in only 16 different forms with gazillions of identical copies of each. Then, all about three hundred thousand to three hundred and eighty thousand years after the big bang, the first atoms came together, and they were precisely the same and they all came together about the same time. Then, gravity took over, you had the era of the great gravity competitions, the great gravity crusades, and that resulted in the assembly of black holes, galaxies, and stars. Black holes, galaxies of stars are all pretty much the same, and pretty much arrived, sort of, at the same time. So if the universe is in the habit of giving birth to new forms, entirely new forms like galaxies and stars and planets, and putting them together in pretty much the same form at pretty much the same time, then it stands to reason that mega-molecules have assembled life all over the place at pretty much the same time, give or take a million years or two. But we have absolutely zero evidence for the existence of alien life, of life outside of this one single planet, and we’ve been looking diligently for it since I put Earth, Wind and Fire together with Carl Sagan to see if Earth, Wind and Fire could do a benefit concert for the SETI project, and that would have been about 1981. That’s forty years ago, almost, and we haven’t found a thing. So the odds seem to be, from a scientific point of view, that there is no alien life, that we’re it when it comes to life. So I don’t believe in any of the conspiracy stuff…I mean, they have me as their token Democrat, as their token liberal, and as their token real-science person. And I appreciate the fact that they want me—I mean, 300 appearances is terrific, it gives me new challenges, new things to explore and research every single week. So I’m very grateful to them, but I don’t agree with any of the ideas that they tend to fixate on.
Chris: I enjoy listening to Coast to Coast—sometimes I have weird sleeping problems, and I’ll find myself awake when it’s on, and even though I disagree with everything, I enjoy the humanity of the callers, I think there’s something in the people who call in to that show that I just find compelling.
Howard: And you’re one of a whole mess of people, all over the country, who are secret listeners to the show, who will not confess it during daytime hours, but who are, for one reason or another, awake at one in the morning, Eastern Time, when the show starts, and are insomniacs and enjoy listening to the show. So when they had me do a one-hour debate with one of their Republicans, on Republicanism versus Democratism, they took a poll, and he got 80% of the votes and I got 20% of the votes. But that 20% is so grateful for hearing sane stuff that it makes it worthwhile. And George is very good to me—George Noory, the host—is very good to me.
Chris: What makes the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?
Howard: So the Republicans operate on fear of people smaller than they are, people weaker than they are. They get their hierarchical kicks, they feel high on the social totem pole…stepping on, stomping on, the people beneath them—immigrants, in this case. Democrats tend to want an open world. Democrats try to, tend to want a global world. The amygdala, which is where political activities are centered for conservatives, is a fear center; the insula is an identity center, it’s more concerned with flashing symbols to those in your group that you’re one of them. And there’s a huge amount of conformity within the liberal left, among us Democrats, but we’re operating from different parts of the brain, and we’re operating with different assumptions about what the world is really all about, and Donald Trump is betraying America and he’s the traitor—I mean, to use words, I don’t like to use these words in political discourse, but they’re words that are used every single day by the Tea Party and the conservatives. They use the word “traitor” and they use the word “turncoat.” Well, Donald Trump is the only traitor and turncoat I have seen in the White House in my entire lifetime.
Chris: I think this has been a very good interview, I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. Howard, what would you like to plug or promote, what would you like our listeners to look at?
Howard: Well, just look up Howard Bloom on Amazon, and buy any book that you choose, and then let me know what you think of it. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for Einstein, Michael Jackson and Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll, coming in April.
Chris: Maybe you can come back on the show then, and…
Howard: Well, that would be terrific. I will look forward to the next time.
Hayley Stephens is a paranormal researcher and she lives in what she refers to as “Weird Wiltshire” in the United Kingdom. she is studying towards a BSc (Hons) Psychology. she works full time and in between working and studying, she researches paranormal claims and phenomena. Hayley hosts The Spooktator podcast and is also active on Twitter. Click here to read Hayley’s full biography and feel free to browse her website, which she updates frequently. As with all Making Better episodes, this one is fully transcribed. Click here to read a full transcript of Episode 8.
Making Better Podcast: Hayley Stevens
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.
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.
Since first climbing out of her bedroom window at age 14 to join the fabulously disenfranchised world of queers, junkies, whores, stars, deviants and geniuses she has become one of the most influential performers in the world. By fearlessly displaying her singular brand of feminist sexuality and personal conflict she has garnered countless fans worldwide with an emotionally and intellectually charged performance style. Internationally revered as writer, director and actress, she has influenced generations of artists around the world.
Penny Arcade Making Better Transcript
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Well, Francis, this is episode seven of Making Better, and we’re featuring Penny Arcade.
Francis: Yeah, Penny is someone that I’ve loved listening to for many years. I think the first time I ever heard her was at Saint Mark’s Church on New Year’s eve, which is when—used to be like so many of greatest Beat artists and other poets would be there reading for the New year, and you’d kinda get the sense of where the world was at by listening to them all, and Penny really stood out. I remember at the time thinking, who is this person? And I’ve followed her through the years, and her performances and I find her take on the world extremely well-thought-out and visionary, and I think people will really enjoy her.
Chris: I agree. I think this is one of my favorite episodes so far, and it’s not often you get to talk to a real 60s radical anymore.
Francis: Not only that, but someone who was the type of a radical where they didn’t have to sort of apologize a lot for the naivete of their youth. A lot of what Penny has believed, she’s believed most of her life and I guess history’s borne it out.
Chris: So without further ado, let’s get on to our interview.
Chris: Penny Arcade, welcome to Making Better!
Penny: Oh, OK, hi! (laughs)
Francis: Hey Penny,
Penny: Hi, Francis
Francis: …I’m so exciting to spend some time talking with you now, and I think it would be great for our listeners if we could just start a little biographically…and maybe you could talk about where you came from, and …
Penny: OK. I’m first-generation American, I’m the first person in my family born in America. My mother’s family, who I was mostly raised with, are from Baslikata*, which is the Appalachia of Italy, it’s one of the very, very poorest parts of Italy and it’s a place where the people were fundamentally sharecroppers. So I come from people who were slaves not in the 17th century, but in the 20th century. The vast tracts of land were owned by the nobility, a nobility that did not live anywhere near where these lands were. So I have always been anarchic. As Judith Molina once said to me, “Penny, you’re an optimist, because you’re an anarchist, and all anarchists are optimists.” So yeah, do I think that the world could be a better place? Yes. Do I think that that’s gonna happen? No. Why? Because of human nature, and we’re living for the past, seriously, 30 years with the commodification of rebellion. So all these people who have 27,000 tattoos, they all have the same tattoo as everybody else, ‘cause they all want to be different like everybody else. They were gathering down at Occupy, and eating french fries from McDonalds. There’s a real schism in the intellectual life of Americans. Americans are not political people; they have a culture of being political, which mostly at this point buys down to buying Che Guevera t-shirts for their four-year-old children. This thing that everybody’s waiting for to happen, that’s really really bad, that everybody’s afraid is gonna happen—it’s already happened. OK? It’s already happened. So, for me, I don’t believe you can change the world, but I do believe you can change the world around yourself. I came up through the 60s, I was involved with Yippie!, which was the Youth International Party with Abby Hoffman. I was involved with Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers with Ben Morea, that did preach armed revolution, and at that point, in 1968, 1969, there was a radical left in this country. There hasn’t been a “Left” in this country, honestly, since when? Since the 60s. There’s no Left in this country. People have a lot of fantasies about their political involvement, but they don’t want to take a really hard look at what the real situation is, and the real situation is, take it to the streets. Listen, the last big demostration we had in New York, which was the one where the infantilized women with their little pussy ears—there were three cops at that demonstration. That’s how worried they were. Three cops at the whole demonstration!
Chris: In the old days, there’d be three cops just watching me.
Penny: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, I think people are walking around, everywhere I go I hear people talking “oh, they’re talking truth to power, I was just talking truth to power this afternoon.” These people are seriously narcissistic fools. I mean, you don’t talk truth to power and win.
Chris: Nobody wants to go to jail.
Penny: Wells they definitely don’t want to go to jail, they also don’t want to be hit in the head. And the police do hit you in the head, you know.
Chris: I’ve personally been arrested 24 times in civil disobedience actions, so, I know the routine.
Penny: But we’re living in a period where there is such a fanciful idea that people have, that they’re being pro-active, meanwhile, how many states are already ratifying anti-abortion? And then everything’s fragmented, so culturally, what you might call the Left, is completely…
Chris: …people like Bernie Sanders, and AOC…
Penny: No, but what I’m even talking, I’m talking more about whether it is minorities, women, or what are now called “queers,” it’s all been micro-sliced. There is no coalition. And you cannot achieve anything without coalition. So, you have the Black Lives Matter people, which I try to connect them with class issues—they could care less about class issues. You know, everybody’s got their own thing, like all the gay people who are so ill-informed that they don’t realize that if we lose Roe v. Wade, we lose LGBT rights, because the ACLU wrote the gay liberation, I don’t know what you’d call it…contract, let’s call it, on the back of Roe vs. Wade, as unnatural acts. So that they used the unnatural so-called act of a women getting rid of a fetus from her own body, and they had it cover the unnatural so-called unnatural acts of same-sex sexuality. But people are oblivious to these things, and so people are only interested in their own little plot, happily digging away in their own little plot, whereas the right wing forms coalition with anyone. As long as you hate the rights of other people, you’re welcome to coalesce and be part of the coalition with the right. I mean, but you know this is not just happening in America, it’s happening world-wide, and we have been warned about this, not just since George Orwell, but all the way back to the beginning of the century with Brave New World. And people have not listened, because people don’t listen until it happens to them. I tried to do housing activism in this neighborhood of the Lower East Side in the mid-90s, and there were like twenty-seven million 20-year olds with multiple piercings and tons of tattoos lined up in the cafes of Avenue A…you couldn’t get them to one demonstration. But the second that they’re about to be evicted out of their building, suddenly they become interested in housing rights. And all of these things are the same, it’s the same thing with feminism. You know, the MeToo movement supposedly created this burst of flower of feminism, but feminism does not mean that you care what happens to you and your eight friends, it means that you care about what happens to all women. And the failure of feminism has always been the way women betray women, and women continually betray women.
Chris: The feminist movement started that way, with Sojourner being kicked out and Helen Keller being kicked out, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton being kicked out, all for raising issues of race or..
Penny: Right. …and class. Race and class.
Chris: Helen Keller was social justice.
Penny: Right. I don’t really know where it’s gonna go, because everything’s so fragmented now, it’s not like you’re gonna get any kind of real group of people…I mean, everybody wants Trump impeached, I’m like, Trump is not the problem! Pence is the problem—Trump has no values. Pence has tons of values and they’re all evil. We’re living in a world of disinformation, we’re living in a world of fragmentation, the promise of the internet failed…
Chris: I don’t think we can entirely conclude that. I think it is failing right now, but we don’t know where it will be in five years…
Penny: OK, but what I’m talking about is, the idea was that people would be connected. And the result is, that you used to be able to get more information from just walking down Avenue A, about what was happening in this neighborhood, than you can get now, with all of the social media that we have. Because of the algorithms and because of human nature. People want pleasure, people do not want to do anything that is uncomfortable. And when I talk about the failure of the internet, baby, fifteen years ago, if I was researching something, and with my clever mind where I could come up with multiple, multiple multiplying, over and over and over, every single one of them a closed door that you come to that’s another www-dot-zi-doc-dot something, that leads nowhere. There is a real failure to the internet, because the internet is not free. The internet is owned, and it is manipulated, and I’m not a programmer and I’m not a tech person. But I know, I’m a user, and I can tell when it’s impossible to get anywhere with the internet compared to what was going on before. And about five years ago, I was at the McDowell, doing a McDowell residency, and there was a wonderful young woman whose name I’ve forgotten now, who is a worldwide web activist, and she presented a program to, I don’t know, 40-50 artists who were gathered at McDowell, talking about what was really going on with the internet. Those people could care less—and these were supposed to be, you know, really investigative, artistic minds, right? And at the end, very very very, the talk was over and I just raised my hand and I said, “excuse me, how many people in the world are doing what you do?” She said, “oh, being activists for freeing the world wide web?” I said, yeah. She goes “oh, there’s probably about a hundred and fifty of us.”
Chris: We had Richard Stallman on the podcast as a guest, and he’s the leader of that movement.
Penny: Ok, so the point that I’m making is, the next thing that she said, “do you want to know how many people are employed by the forces of evil?” she said, “try five hundred thousand.” So the balance is really off. So before you can do anything about anything, you’ve got to face the true, real facts. You know, which means not just as a group, but individually. How far am I willing to go? What would I do? How much do I care? And I care about the working poor. I care about immigrants without papers. I don’t give a fuck about middle class people. As when the Matthew Sheppard demonstration happened—I can’t remember what year that was—and lots and lots of nice, well-meaning gays and lesbians went to the march and had their candlelit march, and then they were all completely freaked out when police on horseback started stampeding into them! You know? They were like “we don’t want a police state”—guess what? It is a police state! I’m not Miss Optimism here, but I am all for facing reality, and for what can we do, and I’m not sure about what we can do.
Francis: Could we talk about your life as an artist a little, too, because there would be a lot of people who aren’t…
Penny: Yeah, who aren’t familiar with my work. Like, everybody.
Chris: You’ve gotten to work with two of my heroes–
Penny: Yeah? Who are they?
Chris: Andy Warhol and Quentin Crisp.
Penny: Oh. OK, that’s interesting. Very, very diverse people.
Chris: But they were both profoundly interesting to me, so…
Penny: Yeah, well…everyone has their taste, don’t they? Right. Andy was a very interesting person, not that anybody could really experience really how interesting he was, because he was very introverted and alienated, I guess is what you’d say. He was a strange man in many ways. And Quentin Crisp was also a very odd person. I was very close to Quentin Crisp and I knew him very, very, very well, and he had an extraordinary intellect that, because of his—well, really, his belligerence—I mean, he really couldn’t hide what he was. For people listening who don’t know who Quentin Crisp was, he was an effeminate, gay Englishman who, at the end of his life, achieved a great deal of fame, one could say, because a film in the UK in 1975 brought the question of homosexuality into public discourse for the first time. It was called “The Naked Civil Servant,” and it was played on PBS, so it was not only in the UK and Europe but also in America. And Quentin became quite famous in his early seventies, and he was a brilliant, brilliant man. He was an aphorist, which means a person who comes up with one-liners, and an organic intellectual. He was quite, he had quite an extraordinary brain. But he was also very limited, because most of his life he was delegated to a very, very narrow social milieu. Because he was so effeminate, and because he could not hide what he was—as he said, “every closet door I knocked on, they said ‘not in here.’”
So, at any rate, my work, I started doing theatre…actually the first theatrical thing I ever did was, I somehow in 1967, when I was seventeen and first came to New York, I ended up with the Hog Farm. And the Hog Farm was a very famous commune in the 60s that roamed around America in busses, and they’re the people who fed everybody and did all the triage at Woodstock, so they’re famous for that. And I somehow knocked into these people as a homeless street kid might, in 1967, and they had a gig at the Electric Circus, which was a big performance place that catered mainly to Long Island teenagers and kids from the boroughs. And they were hired to be, like, professional hippies at this event, and I found myself unwittingly standing next to Wavy Gravy, also known as Hugh Romney, who in the 50s had been a pretty successful stand-up comedian, and then with Ken Kesey and these other west coast psychedelic people, he became Wavy Gravy and started the Hog Farm. And unbeknownst to me, I was standing next to him, and I guess he got this idea that he should put somebody up in the air over the crowd of kids who were dancing--Sly and the Family Stone were playing on stage—and he said, “we’re going to pick you up and we’re going to sail you over the heads of the people,” and I was like, “OK.” And I guess he chose me because I was small, and I went sailing over the heads of the people, and I think I’ve always had good instincts, I understand systems, so I tried to be very entertaining as I was sailing through the air, you know, not just be a lump of coal. And I ended up on the stage with Sly Stone and started dancing, and looked over at Sly Stone who was like, giving me super-dirty looks, like GET OFF THE STAGE, and I probably did the first stage dive in rock and roll history! I dived into the audience, and they sailed me back over the heads of all the people ’til I got to the very end and was dropped off. So that was my very first performance, and then not long after that, I was introduced to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, which was the original glitter-glam rock’n’roll political theatre of the 60s that influenced everything from Hair to Rocky Horror to David Bowie. And the New York Punk scene—which I hate that term, “punk” because punk means somebody who challenges you to a fight and doesn’t show up—so I just was never “punk,” I’ve always been an outsider. Or in the 60s, when we didn’t want to be hippies, we said we were “freaks.” So there were freaks and hippies. So John (Vaccaro) who started the Playhouse of the Ridiculous really tuned in to the darkness that was in America that “Hippy is dead”—that was 1968, and they had a big funeral for the Hippy is dead in California, and also in the East Village, that was the fall of 67—either the fall of 67 or the fall of 68—was when Groovy and Linda were murdered in the East Village and then everything turned very dark. But Vaccaro was already—he was older, he was probably close to 40 in the late 60s—their manifesto is, “our situation is beyond the absurd, it is absolutely ridiculous.” So they were looking at the world as a place that had gone beyond the absurdity of Ionesco and the other people who were looking at modern life as a real degradation of the human spirit. And his theater was extremely political, he was the first person who had a rock’n’roll band onstage, and a lot of the people who came out of the Playhouse created what was called the first Punk scene, which was people like Ruby Lynn Rainer* and the Rednecks and Wayne County, who became Jane County, and he influenced the Dolls, the New York Dolls were influenced by Vaccaro…the Stilettos, which started with Elva Gentilly* and Debby Harry and then morphed into Blondie. So that’s kind of the milieu I come out of as a teenager. So if the theater that I was involved with in the 60s was about tearing down the fourth wall—between the public and the people on stage—then I grew up to tear down the other three walls. So I have made my own work since 1985, I started making my own work when I was 34, after performing for 16 years in other people’s work. And my work is political humanism, investigating the human condition, what it means to be human in 2019. My relationship is with the public, as opposed to with critics or with arts administrators, and it’s quite a miracle that I’m able to do my work all over the world, given that i make a lot people nervous. Not the audience so much, but certainly the gatekeepers, which is why most of your audience has never heard of me. Let’s put it this way: I’m not on Fresh Air, you know what I mean?
Francis: So would you consider yourself a performance artist, a poet, a…
Penny: Well, I am first and foremost a poet. And for people listening, there’s many ways of being a poet. So I didn’t write poetry for a very long time, because I was very insecure. I still have a great deal of lack of self-confidence and lack of security emotionally. I know it doesn’t sound, I don’t sound like an insecure person, but you can be a really smart insecure person. So I believe what I perceive. I’ve spent years honing my mind, through reading and argument, and listening to people who are smarter than me, and being around people who kicked my ass and didn’t let me have soft ideas. I live every day as a poet and always have since I was a child, meaning I go where the day takes me, and my investigation is into my place in the world, my place in this life. And originally I fell into being an experimental theater actress, that’s what I did with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, that’s what I did with Andy Warhol. Andy asked me to become a Warhol “superstar” in 1969 and I was in his film, “Women in Revolt.” I found the Warhol scene really boring…
Penny: Why? Because it was boring! It was boring, it was like a lot of..you know…people act like the Warhol scene was like some kind of a French Foreign Legion that you joined—I mean, there was all kinds of people there, and it was mainly about how they looked. You know? And a lot of really crazy people who wanted a lot of attention for absolutely no reason. So Andy wasn’t discerning, he was neither discerning nor loyal. You know, people would come and be around and he’d have them be around, and it could be anybody. I always say that about the Underground, people always say, “oh, I wish I could be part of the Underground, I’m just not cool enough”—but the Underground’s not about being cool. It’s about being willing. People who were interested in those particular kinds of activities that were going on gravitated to a scene like the Warhol scene, and people tried to, you know, be part of it. I did not try to be part of it. Andy chose me from the Playhouse of the Ridiculous because he wanted people who were performers but who weren’t crazy. So that’s a real problem, not being crazy, if you’re an artist, because a lot of people are really crazy, and I’m not. I’m a very, very grounded person. I don’t think being an artist is special, OK? A lot of people want to be artists because they think it’s special. They think it’s going to set them apart from people, but I just don’t see it that way. And just like I don’t see being gay as being special.
Francis: I personally feel like the vocabulary of politics right now—it makes it impossible to have a really meaningful conversation and figure out what to do. Because in my mind, left-right politics, all that, especially when you get people who go to college and they want to be a lefty and they read all this old 19th Century stuff, and everything—but I feel like we’ve kind of come to this point now where there’s power that is held by very few people, you know the resources and the potential to affect that power, the potential to use technology and resources for the betterment of most people instead of very few, we never get that conversation going because we’re using all this old terminology, and it’s not…
Penny: i agree with you. I agree with you. Because most of it’s really poseur, you know? It’s not really people who really want to do anything. I mean, people call me an activist all the time, it’s written about me—I have never called myself an activist. An activist is what your community calls you, and they call you that usually after decades of selfless, anonymous service. And people just go around calling themselves activists, you know, it’s like you’re not an activist. An activist is somebody like Carmen Febone* who for like 60 years fed the poor on the Lower East Side and nobody knows her name. That’s an activist, you know? But this is the thing, it’s the gentrification of ideas. [tweeting in background] That is my bird clock, by the way. So a different bird will sing from time to time. [tweeting] That clock belonged to John Vaccaro, who passed away about, I don’t know, about six, seven years ago, and I inherited that clock, which means I have to think about Vaccaro every time it chirps. Someone was asking they were calling me an activist in an interview yesterday, and I said I’m not an activist. I think if I was a real activist, when I was in Zanzibar two years ago and I realized that they needed schools for the children there, and they needed fresh water in the villages, I would have stayed there and I would have made that mission my mission, because it was right in front of me. I’m not an activist, but I am a helper in my community. People know that when they have a problem, they can come to me and I don’t extend my help only to people I like. So in that sense, I am active.
Francis: [Do you agree] we’ve been revolving around the concept of inclusion, and how every everything is…I like how you used that term “micro-split..”
Francis: micro-splicing and, it’s so true that there’s all these little causes and they’re not connected…
Penny: There’s no coalition. The 60s worked because there was coalition. Now, you think that the powers that be don’t realize that coalition is dangerous, and so why not have all these little micro-spliced groups? And then what do you do with the college students? Because throughout history, it’s been the young who have led change in the world, because young people are always idealistic. And now all those kids, all those young people—if they’re at all interested in anything, which a lot of them are not, a lot of them are just operating in some kind of Kardashian reality—but the rest of them are all split up into little different groups. They’re either into Black Lives Matter, or they’re into the MeToo movement or they’re into trans rights or they’re into gender-fluid-queer-something. No…people do not come together to fight the common enemy.
Francis: Which is…?
Penny: Well, I would say it was that democracy was an experiment that failed. It never happened. We had more or less democracy at different points in this country’s history, but we never had a full functioning democracy. And I think that what really happened that people don’t look at is, the only trickle-down that ever happened was the trickle-down corruption at the highest levels of government and commerce, that happened with Halliburton and with Enron and all of these terrible scandals that we had in the 80s and 90s and 2000s, where honor, justice, honesty, all of these values no longer have any meaning in our culture. What has a meaning in our culture is, getting over. Did you get over? You got over? We respect you. Did you get the money? We respect you. We’re speaking right now from the Lower East Side, the East Village Lower East Side of New York, which, you know, in the 60s up to about 1983, there was a really big difference between uptown and downtown. People who lived downtown were usually aligned with left politics, they were anti-war, they were anti-rampant capitalism, they were for clean water, clean food, free sex and…meaning the freedom to choose…and it was a very big difference to uptown. And then around 1985, this started to change, and all of a sudden the values of downtown changed. So you would have a performer like Taylor Meade, who was also a Warhol superstar, but Taylor Meade came to New York in the 40s, he was a poet, he was aligned with the Beats and he was a very, very, very funny comedic actor. Well, he used to perform with Bill Cosby and all those famous comedians in the 50s, and when Bill Cosby would see Taylor Meade, who didn’t have a pot to piss in, Bill Cosby would sit down and have a talk and a drink with Taylor, and nobody thought, “oh, there’s Bill Cosby, he’s a multi-millionaire. There’s Taylor Meade, he’s poor.” Nobody would think that way, because the values didn’t include that. Nobody cared—so you’re a millionaire, so what? You had to have more going on than celebrity or money. That was an actual intrinsic value in the downtown art scene. That’s gone now. They’ll do a flip for Taylor Swift or for any other, you know, psuedo-celebrity—and I say “psuedo-celebrity” because to be a celebrity is different than being famous. To be a celebrity is to be celebrated for being able to do something. Taylor Swift is not rock star—Prince was a rock star, Taylor Swift is an insect. But the world has changed, and people don’t want to face it. So as you’re saying, Francis, that we’re using outmoded language, political language, the truth is that just everyday contemporary language is completely in a crisis where you can’t say anything, only certain people can use certain words…
Chris: And we need to remember fifty different pronouns…
Penny: Right. Exactly. And this is all—it’s just fascinating to me, because people think there’s some freedom in this. And the reality is that in the 80s, there was this huge politically-correct movement, which was the same thing. You couldn’t say “queer,” you couldn’t say “dyke,” you couldn’t say all these words or all these words you couldn’t say. And that was coming from the right wing. And now it’s coming from the supposedly the left. But I’m always, like freaking out when people talk about the Left, because what Left? You know, there is no Left. There’s nothing radical going on in America. Really, Trump got into office because of the abdication of the centrist middle class from the working class. The working class in this country is flipping out. Of course they’re going to go fascist. That’s what they do. Nobody cares about the fact that you cannot put food on the table for a family of four without both parents working two jobs. I grew up, my father was put in a mental hospital from a beating he received at Ellis Island when I was three, and I was raised by my mother and grandparents. And my grandparents were very elderly, and my grandfather worked til he was 78 years old, as a ditch digger for the city of New Britain, Connecticut, and my mother was a sweatshop seamstress. When I met Robin Morgan in 1967 at the Yippie hotline—Robin Morgan, for those of you who may not know, is a famous feminist, she was one of the original high-profile feminists in the 60s—and she invited me, Abby Hoffman gave her the other side of the storefront, and she started WITCH, which I do not remember what it stood for, but Women-ITCH, whatever it is, google it. They did the big demonstration against the Miss America pageant in 19…I guess it must have been 1968. I went to one of these meetings, she invited me to one of these meetings she was having, and I looked around the room and all of the women who were there—there were about eight women—most of them I knew as being the girlfriends of leftist political guys, including Robin Morgan. And Robin Morgan was telling me, “women don’t want to be housewives.” And I was looking at her, and I’m like, “my mother sews 70 hours a week in a sweatshop, she’d love to be a housewife.” I would have loved to have my mother at home. Are you kidding me? My mother would come home, and we couldn’t talk because she was exhausted from sewing in the sweatshop. So, you know, this privilege that accompanied a lot of these people’s ideas, you know I’ve always preferred the underclass. At least you can be direct with them, and you can be forthright and honest. I think the biggest problem that we’re facing right now is that it’s impossible to communicate with anyone. No one is allowed to stumble through ideas. In contemporary neuro-science, we know that you learn to form ideas by talking. You know, it used to be thought that first you were thinking, and then you spoke. But actually now it’s understood that you speak, and through speaking, you form ideas. And that’s the important reason for having a vocabulary, because the larger your vocabulary, the more expansive your thoughts can be. But right now we’re living in a time that is getting just narrower and narrower and narrower as far as expressing ideas.
Francis: Did you read Victorian literature? They were so elegant. Their vocabularies were immense compared to ours.
Penny: I know.
Francis: And, you know like…
Penny: I mean that was part of being seen as an intelligent person, was having a vocabulary. You know, I do my bit, I go to universities, and I talk to the kids. A lot of times they’re angry with me, and I say, “yeah, you’re angry with me,” I said, “but in 30 years I’ll be dead but you won’t have any water to drink.” You know, there are dark periods in history.
Francis: This is a dark period.
Penny: Yeah. And they usually last, like, 30 years.
Francis: It’s been at least 30…
Francis: I remember I saw you at Saint Mark’s Church one New Year’s Eve, and you did this bit about the Age of Aquarius…
Penny: Oh yeah.
Francis: And how, everyone thought it was in the 60s but it turns out that it’s not for another 30 years or something…
Francis: ..or maybe it’s coming?
Penny: Well, I mean, the thing is that…look at what we’re living with. Monsanto. In what Kardashian world would anybody ever have thought, with the history of famine on this planet, that making seeds that only last one cycle is a good idea? Who thought of that?
Francis: Why is that even legal?
Penny: But it’s insane! It’s completely insane. When I was in Tanzania, last year, I met three biochemists, and they were telling me that in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, all GMO things are illegal. Because they’ve already lived with famine. They’re not falling for that. But look at what’s happened in America, the greatest of America once was that we could feed all the people who lived here, and that there was free education for everyone. And we are losing both. It’s staggering. I mean, in my lifetime—I’m gonna be 69 years old in another month and a half—and I never would have believed. This is something even with the paranoia the 60s, we could have never come up with this scenario.
Chris: We were so paranoid as hardcore punk radicals, we were constantly…you know, we’d be hanging out at Frank’s house trying to figure out who among us was the CIA plant and everything like that…
Francis: Oh, there was definitely a couple.
Francis: They were the ones that interrupt constantly, and you know, like derail you, make sure you can’t accomplish anything…
Chris: I don’t think we were important enough for the government to worry about.
Penny: But the thing is that you still wouldn’t have been able to come up with the scenario that we’re currently living in. The thing that’s interesting is, I was in Australia during the presidential primaries, before the primaries. And one of the Australian political papers asked me to write a personal view of American politics. And I knew that Trump was gonna win. And nobody…everybody wanted to…”how did you know Trump was gonna…”
Francis: Yeah, how did you know?
Penny: It was..you know, it was as clear as the burning cross on your lawn! It was what America wanted, it was the unspoken America, that that’s who they were aiming at. The America that thinks Trump is a successful businessman. I mean there’s something wrong with this world—they can publish, and promote, and say, that every single business of Trump’s has gone under, and you’ll still get a whole bunch of people going “he doesn’t to be in bed with the government, cuz he’s rich.” Americans are super-stupid.
Francis: Do you know what’s coming after him? Some Democrat or…gets in office and realizes that he totally gutted us financially. And then they’ll say, well, we have to responsible, we’re going to have to do some austerity again.
Penny: Right. Well the austerity should come from the government itself. Stop paying all of these retirement benefits of hundreds of thousands of dollars for all these people who’ve been Senators and been in the government. The whole thing makes no sense, none of it makes sense, and it’s not…it’s not something that can be fixed. So if it’s not something that can be fixed, the way I see it is, like, reminds me of how I felt on September 11th. On September 11th, when the plane went through the second tower and I was watching it from the roof here, and I knew that the plane was gonna go through the second towe—which all the people on all the roofs around me somehow didn’t know. And I kept screaming, it’s gonna go into the tower, and people were looking at me like I was crazy. I thought, OK, now we’re gonna get New York back again, ‘cause nobody’s gonna want to be here. And instead what happened? It became the go-to place. So what will happen is, there will be a series of cataclysmic natural events, that we already know, that our government is not prepared for any emergency. We saw it with Katrina, we know nobody’s minding the store. During Katrina we watched it on television for days. Like, OK, you can bomb the shit out of Yemen but you can’t drop bottles of water and food into that…
Chris: The Superdome.
Penny: That’s right. There’s something really wrong. I mean we already know that Americans can’t work. Americans have lost the capacity to work, right? They took all the jobs, and then…so we have several generations of people who have never had to really be able to do something. I mean, we are dependent on Mexicans and on people coming from Eastern Europe and places where people can still ..make things. I mean, I brought a pair of shoes—there’s a shoemaker on Second Avenue, and I had this pair of shoes that I bought in Scotland, and they had—they were real witch’s shoes, and the toe turned up. And I used to tell everybody they were flat when I bought them and then I put ‘em on and the toes turned up—and I had had them in San Francisco, in a theater that was very damp. And the platform, which was made out of foam, disintegrated. I went everywhere with these shoes, I tried so many different places; I brought them to England, I brought them to L.A., I brought them everywhere looking for someone to fix them. And I was up in Woodstock and this woman said to me, “by the way, if you ever need a shoemaker, there’s this great shoemaker in the East Village on Second Avenue and Third Street.” I thought that was the oddest thing that someone would say to me, so I went there with the shoes. I put them on the counter and I said, “Can you fix these?” And he looked at ‘em, he said “100 dollars.” I said “done. When will they be ready?” He said “in one week.” The next day I get a phone call, “they’re ready.” And I go and pick them up at another shoe store, on First Avenue, and the guy brings me the shoes and they look brand new. I said “oh my god, you fixed the platform!” Remember, this is like an Arabic shoe with the toe goes skyward, right, it’s like round and up. And I said, “oh you fixed the platform,” and he said “what?” I said “you fixed the platform.” And he goes to the back and he comes back with the old platform. He had built a new platform. I looked at him and I said, :Are you from Uzbekistan?” And he said, “Why do you know that?” Because only somebody from Uzbekistan would still know how to make a shoe. Not just repair a shoe, but he made the shoe. I mean it was so outrageous, but this is what we find, that we’re losing really basic skills. I mean, New York City—you know, this is not a great place to get stuck if something really bad happens. Where’s the food? You know, we already know, like the flooding that’s in this neighborhood. They’re selling multi-million dollar apartments in Miami Beach, yet everyone knows that within 15-20 years, Miami Beach is not gonna exist anymore.
Chris: I’m currently sitting in St Petersburg, Florida and my house is at 35 feet, so I’m rooting for climate change so I can sell it as oceanfront property…
Penny: Well, there you go. But you see what I’m saying—we’re not facing, our leaders are not facing, the reality. I’ve said for a long time that what we need is a million-child march, because it’s the children who are going to inherit all of this.
Francis: Well, there’s that Swedish woman…
Penny: Yeah, the girl. Yeah, she’s fantastic.
Francis: Yeah, she’s…ok, she might be one little glimmer of hope, optimism, that generation…
Francis: ‘Cause eventually the kids are gonna be like the 60s again, where they’re gonna say, you know, if you’re an adult, we’re not interested in what you have to say, you’re…
Penny: Well not only that, it’s just the betrayal is tremendous.
Penny: The betrayal is enormous, because this is what bothers me—what is wrong with these oligarchs who are not even interested in the welfare of their own spawn? Right? They’re going to suck all the value out of the planet…
Francis: They have compounds that they’re gonna, you know, run to when the shit hits the fan…
Penny: Oh yeah, in Uruguay and stuff. Yeah. But it’s funny, because like I don’t know what they think. I mean, it’s like just the concept of a gated community—who wants to live in a gated community? So let’s get back to, now, what can be done. So I really am in the business of Being and Becoming, that’s what I’m trying to always evolve, and I’m a big promoter of authenticity and individuality for people. And that’s one of the ways that we can help ourselves…
Chris: One of the recurring themes on the podcast, from a lot of our guests, has been making small changes and, you know, if you get millions of people to make small changes suddenly it’s a big change.
Penny: That’s true. People stop using straws and plastic wrapping and…I’m here with an iced coffee in a plastic container, and I realize, oh, I should…I bought my stainless steel straw, you know, and I should take my stainless steel canister to get my iced coffee. I agree, small changes. But when it comes to what’s going on in the government and the failure…see, one of the things I’m most angry about is, I’m angry with the House of Representatives and the Senate and the Congress, because they are not protecting us from what’s going on in the White House. How dare…how dare the White House sell off our natural resources, our state parks, our highways…and these things aren’t even publicly known. You just get dribs and drabs of that information. We have Democracy Now! is one of the few news sources where you find out what’s actually going on…it’s a very sophisticated government. Corruption and evildoing are not new inventions. These were understood all the way back to the seventeenth century. So there are safeguards within our government to protect us from people taking advantage…and yet Trump has been able to have his own offspring as—what are they called?
Chris: Senior advisors…
Penny: Advisors! They’re doing all kinds of business, on the back of Americans—it’s like nobody’s minding the store. We’ve all been in that position, we’ve all been in a position where, all of sudden something goes wrong and there’s a free for all. And we’re like…well….we shouldn’t really be doing this but…I’m taking this. I’ve been there, I think most people have. And that’s what’s going on in the government.
Francis: So a question that comes to me a lot lately is, what can people who find reverence and beauty in nature, what can we do to…how do we interact with people who don’t have that? I just see it as something that potentially…
Penny: I mean, that’s…this is like the million dollar question, because if people have no respect…I mean…there’s Chris Tanner’s mother. Chris Tanner is a painter in the East Village, and his mom lives in North central California, and she has been an ecology person as a Congresswoman, etc. for 60 years. And she is seeing right now all of the things that she helped put in place be overturned. If it’s happening in California, where people care a little bit, like nobody cares here. I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer is. But I think that the card that holds the change is going to be an ecological disaster card. Something’s gonna come from the outside that’s gonna lay something down. And I don’t know what that is, but…that’s my sense. It’s…there’s not going to be a change because of the good wishes and well meaning of people. It’s gonna be in response to a crisis.
Chris: We’re bumping up against our time limit, so…
Penny: Yeeeah! We did good.
Chris: I’ll just ask you the same question we ask every guest: Is there anything you’d like to promote or pimp or tell people about that they should go see?
Penny: Well, everyone can go to my website, which is PennyArcade.tv—you can write to me, anyone can write to me who would like to write to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Invite me to your town—I like doing my work in different cities and meeting different people, and you’re all welcome any time to write to me with any of your problems, I can solve all your problems…my problems I’m not so good with, but other people’s problems are a piece of cake. Stay in touch!
Chris: Well, thank you so much.
Penny: Thank you.
Francis: Thank you.