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60 minutes | Jun 15, 2022
Strange Newt Worlds
This week we're featuring a conversation with Ian Coss, co-creator of Newts, a wild new six-part musical audio drama from PRX and the fiction podcast The Truth. The show is inspired by the writings of the Czech journalist and science fiction pioneer Karel Čapek. He’s best known for coining the word "robot" in his 1920 play Rossum's Universal Robots, or R.U.R—but his less famous 1936 novel War with the Newts is actually a funnier, weirder, and more biting reflection of politics and social affairs in the first half of the twentieth century. It's also a sprawling, jumbled, irreverent story that turns out to be perfect material for an adaptation like Newts. In the show, Ian and his collaborator Sam Jay Gold have taken Čapek's speculative story about how humanity might deal with the appearance of a second intelligent, speaking, tool-using species on Earth and added wealth of new layers, not the least of which is a catchy Beach-Boys-inspired musical score. It's hard to describe in just a few words, but if you listen to the series (and our interview with Ian), you might just come away with a new perspective on the nature of our relationships with other animals; on the human species' alternately tender and warlike instincts; and on Karel Čapek's underappreciated contributions to 20th-century literature. Newts launched on June 7, and you can hear it at newtspod.com wherever you get your podcasts. For a transcript of this episode and additional information about Newts, visit http://www.soonishpodcast.org/508-strange-newt-worlds Pacific newt photograph by Connor Long, shared under a CC BY-SA license.Notes A special thank you to Ian Coss for spending time with Soonish and providing all of the music and sound effects files used in the episode. The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
58 minutes | May 21, 2022
A Soundtrack for the Pandemic
For most people, nightmares produce insomnia, exhaustion, and unease. For Graham Gordon Ramsay, a spate of severe nightmares in April 2020 developed into something more lasting and meaningful: a five-movement, 18-minute musical work for organ or string ensemble called "Introspections." To me, it's one of the most arresting artistic documents of the opening phase of the global coronavirus pandemic, and so we've made it the subject of this week's Song Exploder-style musical episode. (Headphones recommended!) Graham is a friend of the podcast; longtime listeners will recognize him as the composer of our opening theme. But he's also a prolific writer of contemporary pieces for solo voice, solo instruments, chamber ensemble, choir, and orchestra. In this three-way conversation, which includes organist and conductor Heinrich Christensen of King's Chapel, we retrace Graham's musical and psychological journey from the pandemic's dark, lonely early months (echoing through the turbulent, disquieting first and second movements of "Introspections") to the gradual adaptation and broader reckoning that marked the late summer of 2020 (reflected in the fifth and final movement's turn to more conventional major keys and harmonies). As Graham himself emphasizes, there's no easy 1:1 correspondence between his pandemic experiences, his nightmares, and this composition. The piece is less literal than that, and listeners will, of course, bring their own experiences and interpretations to the work. But "Introspections" clearly takes its place among a genre of musical creations tied to a particular crisis or tragedy, with examples ranging from Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" to Krzysztof Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" to John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls," which won the Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal of the 9/11 attacks. Composers—alongside poets, artists, and even architects—help us gain some perspective on our collective traumas. And speaking for myself, both as Graham's friend and as one of the first to hear "Introspections," the piece will always be associated in my mind with the grim, stressful, baffling, but occasionally uplifting events of 2020. After the interview with Graham and Heinrich, stick around to hear "Introspections" in its entirety. I. Unrushed but steady (37:50) II. With an improvisatory feel (40:56) III. Quick, with a very light touch (46:08) IV. Uncomfortable, plodding (47:12) V. Poignantly, rubato throughout (50:38) For more on Graham Gordon Ramsay, including his discography and musical scores, see http://www.ggrcomposer.com. "Introspections for Organ"—a YouTube playlist of the five movements for organ, performed by Heinrich Christensen at Kings Chapel, Boston "Introspections for String Ensemble" by Graham Gordon Ramsay — the full Proclamation Chamber Ensemble performance on videoNotes A special thank you to Graham Gordon Ramsay, Heinrich Christensen, King's Chapel, the members of the Proclamation Chamber Ensemble, and all the volunteers who helped with the GBH rehearsal and recording sessions on September 7 and 8, 2021. Thanks also to Hrishikesh Hirway for his inspiring work on Song Exploder from Radiotopia. It's not just one the smartest and most educational music podcasts out there—it's one of the top podcasts, period. The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. The outro music is from "In Praise of San Simpliciano" (2009), also by Graham Gordon Ramsay. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
52 minutes | May 6, 2022
Can Albuquerque Make Room for Its Past and Its Future?
Last summer, a pair of murals celebrating New Mexico's landscape, heritage, and diversity appeared in Albuquerque's historic Old Town district. The large outdoor pieces by muralists Jodie Herrera and Reyes Padilla—two artists with deep roots in New Mexico—brought life back to a once abandoned shopping plaza and became instant fan favorites, endlessly photographed by locals and tourists alike. But in a January hearing, the the city’s Landmarks Commission, which is charged with preserving Old Town and Albuquerque’s other historical districts, said the murals were unauthorized and ahistorical and should be destroyed. Business owners and the arts community fought back, saying the commission’s ruling was capricious would amount to cultural erasure. Boosted by a flood of news coverage and public support, this coalition eventually won a new hearing before the commission. In a city with such a rich multicultural heritage and a vibrant art scene, how did a disagreement about a couple of murals on private property escalate into a culture-war issue? Must communities make a binary choice between historical preservation and creative growth? Inside historic districts, which versions of history do we choose to preserve—and who gets to make these decisions? Those are the big questions at the heart of this episode. We’ll hear from Herrera and Padilla, but also from small business owners trying to revitalize Old Town—and from a city official charged with trying to steer sensible enforcement of the city’s historic preservation ordinances. “Historic preservation is valuable and something we all respect, but it has to be parallel with a thriving contemporary community,” says Laura Houghton, who runs the Lapis Room Gallery in Albuquerque and selected Herrera and Padilla to paint the murals. The question for Albuquerque, and many other American cities, is how to balance both needs. UPDATE: The second Landmarks Commission hearing on the future of the murals took place as scheduled on May 11, 2022, and the commissioners voted to let the murals remain. Listen to the end of the episode for a postscript about the hearing and local reaction to the decision. For a full transcript, photographs of the murals, and more details please go to https://www.soonishpodcast.org/506-albuquerqueNotes A special thank you to Jodie Herrera, Reyes Padilla, Jasper Riddle, Laura Houghton, Rosie Dudley, and Ellen Petry Leanse for all their help with this episode. The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music in this episode is from Titlecard Music and Sound in Boston. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
60 minutes | Mar 12, 2022
How Novartis Built a Hit Factory for New Drugs
When you hear people use the phrase "It's a hits-driven business," they're usually talking about venture capital, TV production, videogames, or pop music—all industries where you don't make much money unless you come up with at least one (and preferably a string of) massively popular products. But you know what's another hits-driven business? Drug development. This week, we present the fourth and final episode in the Persistent Innovators miniseries, originally produced for InnoLead's Innovation Answered podcast and republished here for Soonish listeners. It's all about the giant Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, maker of more than a dozen blockbuster drugs like Cosentyx for psoriasis, Entresto for heart failure, and Gilenya for multiple sclerosis. Because companies lose patent protection on their old drugs after 17 years, they must constantly refill their pipeline of new drugs—and Novartis has done that by placing a huge bet on the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), its 2,000-person R&D lab based in Soonish's hometown of Cambridge, MA. In this episode you'll meet Tom Hughes, a biotech entrepreneur and former Novartis executive who helped to set up NIBR in the early 2000s, as well as NIBR's current president, Jay Bradner. They explain why the decision to build NIBR was initially controversial even inside Novartis, and how the labs are structured today to take big but manageable risks and ensure that the company can capitalize on biology's growing understanding of the molecular and genetic underpinnings of disease. "I find from the top down, our chairman to our CEO, to every commercial leader, there is a tolerance and an appetite for bravery in drug discovery that is really refreshing and honestly very empowering," Bradner says of Novartis. "If you looked at the type of programs in our portfolio, they’re not for the faint of heart. And this is for a very specific reason. We worry that if we don’t try to [do it] well, then who will?" "What Makes Novartis a Persistent Innovator?" was first published by Innovation Answered on February 28, 2022. You can hear the entire miniseries at innovationleader.com or in your podcast player of choice. Logo photo by Sangharsh Lohakare on Unsplash Full transcript available at http://www.soonishpodcast.org/505-novartis
56 minutes | Feb 26, 2022
How LEGO Learned to Click Again
LEGO is so omnipresent in today’s culture—through its stores, its theme parks, its movies, and of course its construction kits—that it’s hard to imagine a world not strewn with billions of colorful plastic LEGO bricks. Yet less than two decades ago, in 2003, the company came close to extinction, thanks to a frenetic bout of new-product introductions that left out LEGO’s core customers: the kids and adults who just love to build stuff with bricks. In today’s episode of Soonish, hear how the family-owned company behind the LEGO “system of play” recovered from this near-death experience and reconnected with fans to become the world’s most valuable toy brand. This episode comes to you courtesy of InnoLead, where I’m guest-producing and guest-hosting a four-episode podcast miniseries called “The Persistent Innovators.” This is Episode 3: “What Makes LEGO a Persistent Innovator?” The driving question of the miniseries is how big, established companies can defy historical trends and come up with the hit products needed to keep them on top of their industries, decade after decade. But it turns out LEGO’s crisis, which played out between 1994 and 2003 or so, wasn’t really a lack of innovation—it was an excess of it. To find out what happened, I spoke with Bill Breen, a business journalist who co-wrote the best book about LEGO’s turnaround, and former LEGO executives Robert Rasmussen and David Gram. They explain how the company lost sight of its core mission—encouraging learning and exploration through the “hard fun” of building with LEGO bricks—and how it clawed its way back to success through a careful combination of creativity and discipline. "What Makes LEGO a Persistent Innovator?" was first published by Innovation Answered on Febuary 14, 2022. You can hear the entire miniseries at innovationleader.com or in your podcast player of choice. LEGO image by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash
54 minutes | Feb 12, 2022
Art and Technology at Disney
This week, Soonish presents Part 2 of The Persistent Innovators, a miniseries I've been guest-producing and guest-hosting for Innovation Answered, InnoLead's podcast for people with creative roles inside big companies. You can think of Persistent Innovators as the corporate equivalent of human super-agers—meaning they don’t settle into a complacent old age, but manage to keep reinventing themselves and their products decade after decade. Two weeks ago I republished the miniseries' debut episode about Apple, and now I want to bring you the next episode, about The Walt Disney Company. As you'll hear, I focused on how the rise of new technologies like computer graphics and smartphones forced Disney to rethink both of its core businesses: feature animation and theme parks. Enjoy! "What Makes Disney a Persistent Innovator?" was first published at Innovation Answered on January 31, 2022. You can hear the entire miniseries at innovationleader.com or in your podcast player of choice. A full episode transcript is available at https://www.soonishpodcast.org/503-art-and-technology-at-disney Logo photo by Benjamin Suter on Unsplash.
54 minutes | Jan 29, 2022
The Reinvention of Apple
This week, I've got something different for Soonish listeners. I'm sharing Part 1 of "The Persistent Innovators," a miniseries I'm currently guest-producing and guest-hosting for InnoLead's podcast Innovation Answered. The big question the series tackles is: "How do big companies become innovative—and stay innovative?" I'm looking at four long-lived global companies—Apple, Disney, LEGO, and Novartis—and asking how they've all stayed creative and curious long past the age when most companies stop innovating and decide to coast on profits from their existing businesses. For this initial episode, I traced Apple's evolution from a renegade upstart in the early 1980s to near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s to its current status as world-conquering smartphone maker. It's based on interviews with people who worked alongside Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and saw how leadership, culture, and technology came together to make Apple...Apple. "What Makes Apple a Persistent Innovator" was first published by InnoLead's Innovation Answered podcast on January 18, 2022. Parts 2, 3, and 4 will be published by Innovation Leader on January 31, February 14, and February 28, 2022; you can hear them all at innovationleader.com or in your podcast player of choice. Logo photo by Zhiyue Xu on Unsplash.
54 minutes | Nov 4, 2021
This Is How You Win the Time War
Clock time is a human invention. So it shouldn’t be a box that confines us; it should be a tool that helps us accomplish the things we care about. But consider the system of standard time, first imposed by the railroad companies in the 1880s. It constrains people who live 1,000 miles apart—on opposite edges of their time zones—to get up and go to work or go to school at the same time, even though their local sunrise and sunset times may vary by an hour or more. And it also consigns people like me who live on the eastern edges of their time zones to ludicrously early winter sunsets. For over a century, we've been fiddling with standard time, adding complications such as Daylight Saving Time that are meant to give us a little more evening sunlight for at least part of the year. But what if these are just palliatives for a broken system? What if it's time to reset the clock and try something completely different? * * * As I publish this, we’re just days away from the most discouraging, and the second most dangerous, day of the year. It's the day we return to Standard Time after eight months of Daylight Saving Time. (In 2021 that happens at 2:00 am on November 7.) It's discouraging because twilight and sunset will arrive an hour earlier that day, erasing any lift we might have enjoyed from the theoretical extra hour of sleep the night before. It's dangerous because the shift throws off our biological clocks, just the same way a plane trip across time zones would. The only more dangerous day is the first day of Daylight Saving Time in mid-March, which always sees a wave of heart attacks and traffic accidents. As someone who's lived at both the western and eastern extremes of my time zone, I've long been sensitive to the way differences in longitude can cut into available daylight. It's bad enough that for Bostonians like me, the sun sets long before it does for people in New York or Philadelphia or Detroit. But after the return to Standard Time, when the curtain of darkness descends yet earlier, it feels like we're living most of our lives in the dark. Considering that all these problems are self-imposed—the by-products of a time-zone architecture introduced by scientists, government ministers, and corporate interests in the 1880s—it seems odd that we continue to tolerate them year after year. But it turns out that there are lots of people with creative ideas for changing our relationship with time. And for today's episode, I spoke with three of them: Tom Emswiler, Dick Henry, and Steve Hanke. Should we make Daylight Saving Time permanent? Should we move the boundaries between time zones, or transplant whole regions, such as New England, into neighboring time zones? Should we consider abolishing time zones altogether and simply live according to the movements of the sun? All of these would be improvements, in my mind. Come with me on today's audio journey through the history and future of standard time, and I think you'll end up agreeing. For show notes, links to more resources, and a full transcript, please go to soonishpodcast.org. Notes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
42 minutes | Jun 25, 2021
What if a technology company becomes so rich, so powerful, so exploitative, and so oblivious that that the harm it's doing begins to outweigh the quality and utility of its products? What if that company happens to run the world's dominant search, advertising, email, web, and mobile platforms? This month's episode of Soonish argues that it's time to rein in Google—and that individual internet users can play a meaningful part by switching to other tools and providers. It's half stem-winder, half how-to, featuring special guest Mark Hurst of the WFMU radio show and podcast Techtonic. * * * Back in 2019, in the episode A Future Without Facebook, I explained why I had decided that it was time to delete my Facebook account. In short, I was tired of being part of a system that amplified hateful and polarizing messages in order to keep users engaged and drive more advertising revenue for Zuckerberg & Co. I knew at the time that Google also engages in such practices at YouTube, and that the search giant's whole surveillance capitalism business model rests on tracking user's behavior and serving them targeted ads. But I continued as a customer of Google nonetheless, while keeping one eye on the company to see whether its tactics were growing more toxic, or less. The moment when Google finally exhausted my patience came in December 2020, when the company fired a prominent Black computer scientist and AI ethicist named Timnit Gebru in a dispute over a scholarly paper she'd co-written. Gebru and her co-authors argued in the paper that without better protections, racial and gender bias might seep into Google's artificial intelligence systems in areas like natural language processing and face recognition. Google executives thought the paper was too harsh and forbade Gebru from publishing it; she objected; and things went downhill from there. It was a complicated story, but it convinced me that at the upper echelons of Google, any remnant of a commitment to the company's sweeping motto—"Don't Be Evil"—had given way to bland and meaningless statements about "protecting users" and "expanding opportunity" and "including all voices." In fact, the company was doing the opposite of all of those things. It was time for me to opt out. How I went about doing that—and how other consumers can too—is what this episode is all about. I explain the Gebru case and other problems at Google, and I also speak at length with guest Mark Hurst, a technology critic who runs the product design consultancy Creative Good and hosts the radio show and podcast Techtonic at WFMU. Mark publishes an important site called Good Reports, where consumers can find the best alternatives to the services offered by today's tech giants in areas like search, social media, and mobile technology. Hurst emphasizes—and I agree—that leaving Google isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. The company is so deeply embedded in our lives that it's almost impossible to cut it out entirely. Instead, users can uncouple from Google step by step—first switching to a different search engine, then trying a browser other than Chrome, then switching from Gmail to some other email platform, and so forth. "Setting a goal of getting ourselves 100 percent off of Google is is unrealistic," Mark says. "And it's I think it's a little bit of a harmful goal, because it's so hard that people are going to give up early on. But instead, let's let's have a goal of learning what's happening in the world and then making some choices for ourselves, some small choices at first, of how we want to do things differently. If enough of us make the decision to extricate ourselves from Google, we'll form a movement and other companies will see an opportunity to build less exploitative tools for us. You've got to start somewhere!"Notes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.Chapter Guide 0:08 Soonish theme 00:21 Time to Find a New Favorite Restaurant 02:46 What I'm Not Saying 04:01 Re-introducing Mark Hurst 07:08 The Ubiquity of Google 11:04 Surveillance Capitalism and YouTube Extremism 12:29 The Timnit Gebru Case 18:01 Hurst: "Let's shut down the entire Google enterprise" 19:48 Midroll announcement: Support Soonish on Patreon 20:54 10 Steps toward Reducing Your Reliance on Google 29:04 Using Google Takeout 30:20 The Inevitability of YouTube 31:44 Be a Google Reducetarian 32:20 Enmeshed in Big Tech 37:04 The Value of Sacrifice 40:17 End Credits and Hub & Spoke Promo for Open Source
39 minutes | May 18, 2021
Fusion! And Other Ways to Put the Adventure Back in Venture Capital
Venture capital is the fuel powering most technology startups. Behind every future Google or Uber or Snapchat is a syndicate of venture firms hoping for outsize financial returns. But the vast majority of venture money goes into Internet, mobile, and software companies where consumer demand and the path to market are plain. So what happens to entrepreneurs with risky, unproven, but potentially world-changing ideas in areas like zero-carbon energy or growing replacement human organs? If it weren't for an MIT-born venture firm called The Engine and a tiny handful of other venture firms tackling "Tough Tech," they'd probably never get their ideas to market. VCs love to cultivate an image of themselves as risk-taking cowboys with a nose for great ideas and the ability to help book-smart inventors and programmers grow into savvy entrepreneurs. But in reality, the industry has spent a quarter century chasing Google-sized returns in the relatively safe, efficient, and low-cost markets such as consumer and enterprise software, mobile apps, and to some extent healthcare and drug development. Sure, smartphones and apps are fun—but how much is the next new video-sharing app or gaming platform going to contribute to human welfare? The Engine, created by MIT in 2016, is one of the visionary counterexamples. Among the startups it backs is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is building a new kind of "tokamak" reactor and believes it can demonstrate the feasibility net-positive-energy fusion to power the grid within the next few years. Other portfolio companies at The Engine are tackling thorny problems like reducing food waste, replacing silicon chips with faster photonic ones, and building better batteries for grid storage of power from wind and solar installations. Such ideas have come to be known as Tough Tech because they often need more capital, more time, and more expert input to get to market. In this week's episode you'll meet Katie Rae, CEO and managing partner at The Engine, who leads us on a wide-ranging discussion of topics such as the ways Tough Tech companies could change the world the causes of government and private underinvestment in these areas the challenges of evaluating and managing Tough Tech startups the prospect of growing government support for high-risk innovation the reasons why institutional investors who could just as easily put their millions into software-focused venture funds might want to consider Tough Tech instead. Rae thinks The Engine can outperform traditional software-focused VC firms—even though its companies face higher hurdles—because their chosen markets are more wide-open and the payoffs could be so enormous. "I don't think there's any reason that I should say to my investors, 'You should expect less of me.' In fact, maybe they should expect more of me," Rae says. "And they should also expect that what we invest into, they feel incredibly proud of as well—that they backed a company like that that had impact on the world."Notes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
45 minutes | Apr 30, 2021
Hope for Ultra-Rare Diseases
In this episode of Soonish you'll meet Stanley Crooke, the former CEO of Ionis Pharmaceuticals and the head of a new nonprofit called N-Lorem, which is working to make mutation-correcting "antisense oligonucleotide" drugs available free for life to people with uncommon genetic diseases. These are conditions so rare they often don't have a name. But while the diseases themselves are unusual, the problem isn't: as many as 350 million people worldwide are thought to carry mutations that give rise to unique "N of 1" health problems. The debut of hyper-personalized antisense medicines is a topic I covered in a March 2020 episode of the podcast Deep Tech for MIT Technology Review. Back then, N-Lorem was just getting started. So I was excited to connect with Crooke one year later and go into more depth how antisense drugs work, why they're well-suited for treating some genetic diseases, and how Crooke realized he could give some patients personalized versions of these drugs for free—and for life. "It was literally impossible until just now," Crooke says. Listen to find out what changed—and what it could mean for the future of drug discovery and the way we regulate and pay for advanced therapies. For more, head to soonishpodcast.org, where we've got the full transcript and additional resources. Notes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
39 minutes | Feb 3, 2021
Technology and Education After the Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on education on schools around the world, often rendering in-classroom instruction too dangerous for both students and teachers. But one reason the effects of the pandemic haven’t been even worse is that, in education as in many other fields, a few new technologies were ready for broader deployment. I’m not talking about Zoom and other forms of videoconferencing, which have by and large been a disaster for both K-12 and college students. Rather, I’m talking about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as well as the huge body of instructional videos available at low or zero cost on YouTube and sites like Khan Academy. Coursera, the world's largest MOOC provider, added 31 million new users in 2020, compared to just 8 million new users in 2019. The second-place MOOC provider, edX, added 10 million users in 2020, twice the number of new students who joined the year before. Evidently, millions of students of all ages want to use their stuck-at-home time to learn something useful. But how effective, really, are online course materials? How do MOOCs fit in with what cognitive scientists and neuroscientists are discovering about how students learn best? And what do K-12 schools and institutions of higher education plan to do to incorporate elements of online learning into their curricula and meet the growing demand for high-quality learning experiences after the pandemic passes? This week we talk through those questions with Sanjay Sarma, vice president of open learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT is one of the founding members of edX and a supplier of hundreds of its most popular MOOCs. Together with co-author Luke Yoquinto, Sarma published a book last August called Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn. Though it was written before the pandemic hit, the book offers a timely look at how educators at the K-12 and university level could make smart use of technology to build a new, broader educational pipeline that's more user-friendly and open to millions more people. Sarma says that will mean implementing more of the learning tricks researchers already know about, such as spaced repetition and interleaving, and finding better ways to scale up the coaching and contextual learning that are so effective in in-person settings like MIT's famous 2.007 robot competition. For a transcript and more details and links, see our full show notes at http://www.soonishpodcast/408-technology-and-educationNotes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
46 minutes | Jan 20, 2021
"We've Needed Something to Bring Us Together"
In honor of the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden—a day of long-awaited endings and new beginnings—I'm republishing my Season 2 opener, "Shadows of August," which I first released a little more than three years ago, during the the fiery early months of the Trump presidency. On a road trip to southern Illinois to witness the total eclipse that sliced across the continent on August 21, 2017, I had a couple of other adventures: at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I unintentionally got conscripted as a fake Confederate soldier in a bizarre reenactment of Pickett's Charge. I also met a few of the Black residents of Future City, Illinois, who helped me understand the irony of the town's name. I tried to wrap it all together in a way that grappled with the political moment—immediately after the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia—while still recognizing that there are times when we're granted a larger perspective. And there is no moment grander than a solar eclipse. Music by Graham Gordon Ramsay, Lee Rosevere, and Tim Beek. Full episode details at https://www.soonishpodcast.org/201-shadows-of-august
41 minutes | Dec 18, 2020
The Inventor of the Cell Phone Says the Future Is Still Calling
In 1973, there was only one man who believed everyone on Earth would want and need a cell phone. That man was a Motorola engineer named Martin Cooper. “I had a science fiction prediction,” Cooper recounts in his new memoir, Cutting the Cord: The Inventor of the Cell Phone Speaks Out. “I told anyone who would listen that, someday, every person would be issued a phone number at birth. If someone called and you didn’t answer, that would mean you had died.” Your email address or Facebook profile may have displaced your phone number as the marker of your digital existence. But today we live, more or less, in the world Cooper conceived. So if Cooper says the wireless revolution is still just in its opening stages, and that mobile technology promises to help end poverty and disease and bring education and employment to everyone, it’s probably worth listening. In this episode of Soonish, we talk with Cooper about the themes and stories in his book, and explore why even the disasters of 2020 haven’t shaken his optimism about the future. Before the 1970s, Motorola was known mainly for making the two-way radios used by police dispatchers and the AM/FM radios in the dashboards of cars. But Cooper, head of the company’s communication systems division, was convinced that the company’s future lay in battery-powered handheld phones tied to a network of radio towers, each broadcasting to its own “cell.” Moreover, he knew it would take a spectacular demonstration of such wireless technology to keep the Federal Communications Commission from giving AT&T the huge chunks of radio spectrum it wanted to build its own network of in-dashboard car phones. Cooper convinced his bosses to let him lead a crash, 90-day program to build a prototype cellular phone that it could show off to the media and the FCC. The project to build the DynaTAC (for Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) was a success, and in the end AT&T never got the spectrum it wanted. It took another decade for Motorola to commercialize the technology, largely because of FCC foot-dragging over spectrum allocation for consumer cellular industry. But Cooper’s 1973 demo opened the door to the world we now know—including, many generations of devices later, the rise of podcasting. Cooper will turn 92 at the end of this month, and he still buys every new model of smartphone, just to try it out. He thinks there’s lots of room left for improvement—and that the next generation of mobile devices may not look like phones at all, but will instead go inside our ears or even inside our bodies, where they’ll help to detect and prevent disease. When someone has had had a front-seat view to so many decades of high-tech innovation, perhaps they can’t help feeling rosy about humanity’s ability to think its way out of present-day challenges like the pandemic, climate change, or inequality in educational and economic opportunities. “The problems are big enough so it's going to take some time to get them solved,” Cooper says. “But there are people around who are doing the thinking and who are addressing these problems. Pretty much the only advantage the human brain has over machine is that it keeps making mistakes. And we call those mistakes creativity. So I think that's going to save us.”Notes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish. For the full show notes and a transcript of this episode go to http://www.soonishpodcast.org/soonish-407-cell-phone-future Chapter Guide 00:08 Soonish theme 00:24 Officer of the Deck 01:42 Left-Right Confusion 04:06 The Father of the Cell Phone 06:52 Geeking Out 08:41 Living in the Future 10:50 Disproving Technological Determinism 17:19 An Alternative History of the Cell Phone 19:45 The Fate of All Monopolies 23:35 Midroll Announcement from The Lonely Palette 24:46 Why Phone Makers Still Don’t Have It Right 31:49 The Sources of Cooper’s Optimism 37:42 End Credits and Acknowledgements 39:19 Promo: Subtitle’s “We Speak” Miniseries
55 minutes | Nov 15, 2020
The End of the Beginning
Soonish's six-month detour into electoral politics finishes where it started, with a conversation with our favorite futurist, Jamais Cascio. We talked late on November 6—when it was already clear that Joseph R. Biden would win the presidential race, but before the networks had officially called it—and we explored what Biden's unexpectedly narrow win will mean for progress against the pandemic; for the fortunes of the progressive left; and for the future of democracy in the United States. Turning Donald Trump out of office was an enormous and crucial accomplishment, and Biden voters should take a moment to celebrate. But Cascio argues that if Republicans retain control of the Senate (a matter that now hinges on a pair of ferociously contested runoff elections in Georgia), Biden's win will amount to, at most, an "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" moment. It will give Biden and Harris the opportunity to tackle the biggest crises facing the country—the newly resurgent coronavirus pandemic and the economic havoc it's wrought. But it won't leave much room to pursue the structural reforms needed to tame white grievance, end minoritarian rule, and get government working again. But there's always 2022. In other words, this election wasn't the beginning of the end of the long fight to save democracy and protect the rights of all citizens in this country. But it might be the end of the beginning. Chapter Guide 00:08 Soonish theme 00:22 We Did It! 01:32 Reality Sinks In 04:29 Re-introducing Jamais Cascio 05:28 Check-in 06:31 Setting the Scene 08:48 The Troubling News 10:19 The Depths of our Polarization 13:01 Perpetuating Dysfunction 17:01 Reviewing Wade’s Post-Election Scenarios 19:49 The Pandemic and Conspiracy Theories 24:57 Violence Against Democracy 27:38 The Weakness of Norms 30:51 Mid-roll Endorsement: Big Brains 31:49 What Next for the Progressive Left? 36:13 Polls Are Left-Wing Astrology 37:57 Cliodynamics 40:30 Back to BANI 45:34 Fighting Back Against Incomprehensibility 48:49 Final Thoughts: The Real Work Is Still Ahead 52:11 End Credits and Acknowledgements 53:00 “Jaws: Amity Island Welcomes You” from Iconography Find the full show notes and a transcript for this episode at soonishpodcast.org. The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music by Titlecard Music and Sound. If you enjoy Soonish, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. Every additional rating makes it easier for other listeners to find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps our little ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.
41 minutes | Oct 12, 2020
American Reckoning, Part 2: A New Kind of Nation
Welcome to a special two-part series about the looming clash over the future of America. In Part 1, we looked at the tattered state of our democracy and searched for peaceful ways through an election season in which one candidate—Trump—has threatened violence and disruption if he doesn’t win. Here in Part 2, we look at the work waiting for us after the election: fixing the way we govern ourselves so that we’ll never have another president like Trump or another year like 2020. The real breakdowns in our system go much deeper than Trump—hence the cliché that he’s the symptom, not the disease. Boxed in by demographic change, the Republican party has devolved over the past half-century into a force that taps racial and economic anxieties to win elections, erodes faith in government by deliberately and cynically undermining government, and exploits Constitutional loopholes and Congressional procedure to exercise endless minoritarian rule. Democrats, of course, are beset by their own internal divisions—and by a growing thirst for revenge. To reverse this toxic dynamic, we’ll need reforms that give both parties a fair shot at legislating and lower the risk of tyranny by the minority or the majority. It’s a tall order, given that we’re more sharply divided along ideological, geographical, and economic lines than at any point in American history. Which is why the necessary reforms could end up going so deep that we come out the other side looking like a different nation—or nations. This episode draws on a range of ideas from thinkers such as journalist David A. French, political scientists Adam Przeworski and William Howell, and sociologist and science fiction author Malka Older, along with an assortment of other commentators on the topics of polarization, federalism, and the possibility of secession or breakup. And in the best Soonish tradition, there’s also a little dose of Apollo 13. You'll find the full show notes and transcript for this episode at soonishpodcast.org. You can also read an essay version of "American Reckoning" on Medium. The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish. Painted face photo by Oskaras Zerbickas on Unsplash. Thanks Oskaras!
54 minutes | Oct 9, 2020
American Reckoning, Part 1: Civil Wars and How to Stop Them
Welcome to a special two-part series about the looming clash over the future of America. In Part 1, we look at the tattered state of our democracy as the election approaches, and we assess nonviolent ways to respond to the twin threats of political polarization and President Trump's thuggish behavior. Part 2 is coming October 12. These are probably the last two pre-election episodes I’ll make, so I decided to try something a little ambitious and probably a little crazy: making sense of 2020 in all its perverse complexity. It’s a cliché at this point to say that Donald Trump isn’t the disease, he’s the symptom. But it’s true, and underneath all the name-calling and dog-whistling on the campaign trail this year, there’s a far deeper problem, which is that we’re more divided in our goals and our beliefs than at any time since the Civil War. In the series I bring together ideas from a bunch of conversations I’ve been having with smart people who think about partisanship, polarization, the duties of citizenship, and the future of democracy, including (in Part 1) Sean Eldridge of Stand Up America and Protect The Results, Erica Chenoweth at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Robert McElvaine at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS. The episode explains why the threat of communal violence is so real right now. It also puts the current unrest in historical context, and looks at ways for citizens to usher the country through this perilous moment—for example, by mobilizing nonviolently to ensure that the election is fair and free. The prospect of a Trump win in November—whether fair or fraudulent—is horrifying. The thing is, a Trump loss would create its own set of problems. As Yoni Appelbaum wrote in a 2019 Atlantic magazine article entitled “How America Ends”: "The president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost." What form that fight might take is the unsettling and unanswered question now lingering over the nation. Armed extremists, like the participants in the Michigan kidnapping plot exposed this week, hope violent action will spark mass chaos and civil war. We can thwart extremist individuals and groups one by one. But can we stop the politicians who stoke extremism for their own cynical ends? Part 2 of this special two-part episode, coming Monday, moves beyond the election to ask how we might reconfigure our politics to defuse the kinds of tensions that got us into this mess. Because the real question isn’t how we’re going to get through the election without a violent meltdown—it’s how we’re going to get through the next decade and the next century. See the full show notes for this episode at https://www.soonishpodcast.org/soonish-404-american-reckoning-pt1 The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts. The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show! Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish. American flag photo by Peggy Zinn, shared on Unsplash.
37 minutes | Sep 15, 2020
After Trump, What Comes Next?
Donald Trump will not be president forever. Whether he leaves office in 2021 or 2025; whether he steps down peacefully or not; whether he’s replaced by a Democratic president or a Republican one—he will leave. And then the country will face the immense task of restoring democratic norms and facing up to the failings that allowed a populist, white-nationalist demagogue like Trump to reach office in the first place. In this episode, with help from University of Chicago political scientist Will Howell, we look at the leading explanations for Trump’s rise and the competing ideas about ways to move forward after Trump. Assuming Joseph R. Biden wins in November 2020—which isn’t a safe assumption, of course—should the next administration focus on structural reforms to make government more effective, so that Washington can then fix people’s real problems and take the oxygen out of populist anger? Or should it push forward with a program of cultural transformation that recognizes, and tries to root out, the deep strains of racism, xenophobia, and nihilism that fuel Trumpism and today’s Republican party? It turns out (unsurprisingly) that your preferred prescription depends on your precise diagnosis of the country’s ills. Howell makes a strong argument for a reformist approach that puts good government and pro-social policies first. Other scholars fear that a deeper reckoning with Americans’ illiberal leanings will be required. As you’ll hear in the episode, I’m still of two minds. But I also hope there’s a middle way.Chapter Guide 00:00 Content Warning 00:16 Soonish Opening Theme 00:30 Donald Trump Barrage Montage 01:13 What Is Donald Trump? 02:36 Never Another Trump 04:22 Disaster Response 05:07 Introducing Will Howell 07:30 Connecting Back to “Relic” and our Failing Constitution” 09:23 Defining Populism and its Harms 11:20 Once and Future Populist Demagogues 13:19 The Conditions for Populism, and How to Change Them 15:59 Institutional Reform or Policy Reform? 17:58 Redesigning the US Presidency 19:31 The F Word (Fascism) 20:13 Jason Stanley on Fascist Movements 21:09 Sarah Churchwell: “This Is What American Fascism Looks Like” 22:12 The Party of White Grievance 23:48 Will Howell Responds: Forces Working in Tandem 26:43 The Reformist Left and the Cultural Left 28:01 A Middle Way 28:45 Structural Reform or Detrumpification? Priorities for the Next Administration 31:31 Best-Case Scenario 33:33 End Credits and Acknowledgements 35:12 Recommendation: The ConstantNotes The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes. The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show. Really! Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish. Trump doll photo by Max Litek, shared on Unsplash. Thanks Max!
49 minutes | Jun 24, 2020
Unpeaceful Transition of Power
Voters, hold on to your hats. The U.S. election system could face an unprecedented array of challenges in November, from the coronavirus pandemic to the prospect of cyberattacks to the depradations of President Trump himself. And that means there’s a non-zero chance that the election will misfire, leaving us with the wrong president—or no president at all—come noon on January 20, 2021. At least, that’s the argument legal scholar Lawrence Douglas lays out in Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020, a new book that goes into extreme and eye-opening detail about the flaws that make the Electoral College system uniquely vulnerable to a disruptor like Trump. In the final presidential debate of 2016, when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he’d accede to the outcome of the election if Hillary Clinton were to win, Trump refused to answer. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” the candidate said. Douglas tells Soonish that this intentionally subversive response raised a specter in his mind that he hasn’t been able to dispel. “Whatever damage a candidate could cause to our system by refusing to concede, imagine the kind of damage that an incumbent could cause to our system by refusing to concede,” Douglas says. “How well equipped is our system to deal with that type of eventuality? The rather alarming conclusion is it's very poorly equipped indeed.” The problem isn’t merely that the the Electoral College system is unrepresentative by design, or that its winner-take-all nature makes it possible for a candidate to assume office without winning a plurality of the popular vote (an outcome that befell the nation in 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016). It’s also that the Constitution and the laws Congress has put in place around national elections fail to specify which votes count in the not-so-rare cases where electors don’t vote as pledged, or where states nominate competing slates of electors. The opportunities for mischief multiply when an election is so close that the outcome might turn on contested ballots, such as the notorious hanging-chad punch card ballots of 2000 or the mail-in ballots that coronavirus-wary voters are likely to use in record numbers this fall and that Trump is already noisily denouncing. “At times I've described it as this Chernobyl-like defect built into our electoral system,” Douglas says. “If everything lines up the wrong way, this meltdown could occur.” Chapter Guide 00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID 00:08 Opening Theme 00:21 "I'll Keep You in Suspense" 02:05 Trump Defeats Clinton 02:19 How Donald Thinks 02:51 Meet Lawrence Douglas 04:35 Bad Design and Total Election System Failure 06:19 Dear Listeners 08:07 A Warning to Americans 09:24 What Makes a Victory Decisive? 11:27 Trump Moves the Goalposts 12:14 Faithless Electors 15:26 Update: SCOTUS Rules on Faithless Electors (added July 7, 2020) 16:56 SpongeBob for President 20:34 Competing Slates 25:54 Lies and Meta-Lies 29:05 Spoiler #1: Election Day Snafus 31:14 Spoiler #2: Foreign Interference 33:16 Spoiler #3: Covid-19 37:06 Beyond Ordinary Politics 39:07 "If I Don't Win, I Don't Win" 40:16 Short-term Tactics for Preventing Election Disaster 41:22 Long-term Strategies for Fixing our Elections 43:07 The Constitution Kinda Feels Like a Suicide Pact 43:33 End Run: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact 46:08 My Simple Hope 46:44 End Credits and Hub & Spoke Promo The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Additional music is from Titlecard Music and Sound. If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show. Listener support is the rocket fuel that keeps this whole ship going! You can pitch in with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Follow us on Twitter and get the latest updates about the show in our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish. Marine One photo by Victoria Pickering, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
37 minutes | May 12, 2020
Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible: How One Futurist Frames the Pandemic
Futurists—who sometimes prefer to be called scenario planners or foresight thinkers—specialize in helping the rest of us understand the big trends and forces that will shape the world of tomorrow. So here’s what I really wanted to ask one: Is a cataclysm like the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 the kind of event we should be able to see coming? If so, then why didn’t we do more to get ready? Why has the federal government’s response to the spread of covid-19 been so inept? And above all, what should we be doing now to get our political and economic institutions back in shape so that they can cope better with the next challenge? This April I had the opportunity to speak about all things coronavirus with my favorite futurist, Jamais Cascio. Jamais is widely known for his work with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, and he has a bit of a reputation as the “dark futures” futurist—the one who isn’t afraid to dwell on how things could go wrong. It turned out he’d been thinking about many of the same questions, and that he’d been developing a new analytical framework for just such an occasion. It’s called BANI, and it offers new insights into our strange historical moment, when institutions left brittle by years of deliberate neglect now face shattering stresses. In this episode, Jamais and and I tour the BANI concept and discuss how we could come out of pandemic with some new tools for confronting catastrophe. Chapter Guide 00:00 Hub & Spoke Sonic ID 00:08Soonish Theme 00:22 Futurism in a Time of Pandemic 02:03 Introducing Jamais Cascio 04:12 Explaining VUCA 08:32 Meet BANI 10:43 How BANI Fits Our Moment. Part I: Brittleness in the Pandemic 13:48 Part II: Anxiety 14:17 Part III: Nonlinearity 15:10 Part IV: Incomprehensibility 16:01 Pandemics as Wild Cards 18:48 Planning for Pandemics 19:56 The War Against Expertise 21:44 Responding to Brittleness and Anxiety 23:50 Responding to Nonlinearity 26:03 Responding to Incomprehensibility 27:46 Paths Forward: Thinking More Like Futurists 30:30 Muddling Through 32:36 End Credits, Acknowledgements, and Hub & Spoke Promos
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