1.10 Washington, We Have A Problem

Can a tech metaphor ripped from the Apollo 13 disaster help explain the Trump presidency? Find out in this week's special politics-themed episode of Soonish!

Whether you like Donald Trump or not, you’ve got to give him credit for one important thing. He’s reinvigorating national debate about the Constitution and the limits on the powers it gives to the president.

With his attacks on judges and journalists, his efforts to shut the borders to Muslims, his attempts to quell inquiries into his campaign’s Russia ties, his early-morning tweetstorms, and so much more, Trump has breached every norm of presidential conduct. And he’s testing the constitutional separation of powers in ways the nation’s founders could never have anticipated.

In this episode, we try to understand Trump’s impact on government—and what the Trump presidency might mean for America’s future—using a metaphor from the aerospace business: gimbal lock.

Pilots and astronauts know gimbal lock as a scary situation in which a craft’s inertial guidance system can fail to isolate the central gyroscope from the craft's movements. Normally, a spinning gyroscope always points in the same direction, which provides a consistent reference point for navigation. But that only works as long as the craft can pitch, roll, and yaw around the gyroscope freely. Gimbals—concentric, nested rings mounted around the gyroscope at 90-degree angles to one another—are designed to allow exactly that. But in older guidance systems, including those on the Apollo spacecraft, pointing the craft in certain forbidden directions can cause two or more of the gimbals to align. That means the gimbals can keep the gyroscope isolated from maneuvers in two directions, but not from maneuvers in the third direction—rendering the whole system useless.

A gyroscope surrounded by a system of three gimbals. (Wikimedia Commons)

A gyroscope surrounded by a system of three gimbals. (Wikimedia Commons)

Attentive fans of the movie Apollo 13 may remember that as the astronauts attempted to keep control of their damaged capsule, they worried loudly about gimbal lock. That wasn’t just a dramatic device. For the Apollo astronauts, it was a constant concern.

What I’m suggesting in this episode is that we consider the U.S. government as if it were a system of gimbals built to protect what journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson has called our constitutional gyroscope. (Isaacson’s metaphor, which first turned up in his biography of Albert Einstein, was what got me thinking along these lines in the first place.) A three-gimbal system corresponds nicely to the three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial.

The Constitution sets up an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure that the branches always operate independently and that no single branch obtains too much power. For example, the president can veto bills sent to him or her by Congress, but Congress has the power to override the veto and even impeach the president. The president appoints Supreme Court justices but the Senate has to confirm them. The judiciary can convict people but the president can pardon them. And so on.

We may even have a stabilizing "fourth gimbal" in the form of the Fourth Estate—the media outlets that, historically, have kept tabs on the government and reported on its excesses. The big question we face today is whether the system of gimbals is foolproof—or whether, in fact, it may be vulnerable to the malice and/or ineptitude of a player like Trump, who seems to have little knowledge of or respect for the Constitution itself.

And it’s not just Trump who’s testing the system.

  • Both houses of Congress are controlled by the president’s political party—and that party’s leaders, seemingly intent on their mission to pass healthcare and tax legislation, have allowed the president to roam largely unchallenged.
  • With the addition of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the court’s liberal-to-moderate wing is again just one swing vote away from losing its majority on issues such as abortion rights.
  • The independent press has been partially undermined by political polarization, the industry's own economic distress, and the surprising effectiveness of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” campaign.

Under conditions like this, there may be a danger that two or more branches of government will end up acting in lockstep. That could put our system into a kind of gimbal lock, disabling the checks and balances that would normally protect the Constitution and moderate the actions of an authoritarian president.

Constitutional gimbal lock might not send us careening into space, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

That’s the proposition this episode explores, anyway. Making the show has been a fun and interesting way for me to cope with a set of political circumstances that I  could never have imagined back in mid-2016, when I first hatched the plans to launch a podcast about the future. Thankfully, I found a couple of very generous and cooperative government and public policy experts, Yascha Mounk and David Eaves, to help me think through the idea.

Is the gimbal-lock metaphor useful, or just fun? Well, listen and decide for yourself.

A big thank you to everyone who has signed up to support Soonish on Patreon. Recently I crossed over my initial goal of $250 in pledges per episode, thanks to a pledge from superfan and volunteer listener/editor Mark Pelofsky. Everyone who helped me hit that $250 level is listed in the Soonish Future Force Hall of Fame.

Now it’s on to my next goal of $500 per episode! If you’d like to support the show, please go to patreon.com/soonish and pledge what you can.

 

See Also

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, a new podcast about constitutional from Elizabeth Joh and Roman Mars

The Bullshitter-in-Chief, by Matthew Yglesias, Vox, May 30, 2017

 

Guests

David Eaves, lecturer in public policy, Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government

Yascha Mounk, lecturer on government, Harvard University

Amy Shira Teitel, spaceflight historian, writer, YouTuber, podcaster

 

Mentioned In This Episode

Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard, music by James Horner (1995)

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson (2007)

Walter Isaacson’s appearance on CBS This Morning, November 6, 2013

Vintage Space, Amy Shira Teitel’s YouTube channel on space history

Gimbal Lock and Apollo 13, from Amy Shira Teitel’s Vintages Space channel

Apollo 11 mission transcript, featuring the “fourth gimbal” remark by Michael Collins

James Comey testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017, full transcript and video

Yascha Mounk’s column at Slate

Yascha Mounk’s page at New America

The Good Fight, Yascha Mounk’s podcast from New America (iTunes listing)

Xconomy Voices, the new show I’m hosting and producing for Xconomy (pilot episode)

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Looking Back by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts

Desolate by Tim Beek from the album Soundtrack

Interplanetary Hollows by Tim Beek from the album Soundtrack

Schoolhouse Rock: The Preamble, music by Lynn Ahrens (1975)

Strange World by Tim Beek from the album Orchestra

Slow Lights by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts 3

The Undead by Tim Beek from the album Various

Grasping Hope by Tim Beek from the album Contemporary

New Beginning by Tim Beek from the album Contemporary

 

Special Thanks

Thank you to my guests for playing along with the gimbal lock metaphor. Thanks also to Lauren Bacon for introducing me to David Eaves, and to David Mindell for pointing me to the work of Amy Shira Teitel. And deep thanks to Mark Pelofsky and Daniel Sheehan for reviewing and commenting on drafts of this episode.

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

1.09 A Tale of Two Bridges

Can a city be so soaked in history that there’s no room left for the future?

This week on Soonish we dive into the ancient tension in urban planning between the old and the new. Should we do everything we can to preserve the parts of the environment that connect us to our past? Or should we boldly remake that environment to support growth and innovation in the future? Is there a way to do both at once?

The episode approaches those questions through the story of two bridges. One is the Longfellow Bridge, the 110-year-old, European-style steel arch bridge that carries cars and Red Line subway trains over the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston. The other is the Zakim Bridge, a modern concrete-and-steel cable-stay bridge that soars over the Charles just a mile downstream.

Both are iconic structures familiar to all Bostonians. But they’ve come to represent very different sets of ideas.

With its striking design, the Zakim Bridge still looks like it arrived from the future via time warp, even 15 years after its completion. It presents drivers with a grand entrance to Boston as they swoop down toward the city on Interstate 93 and dip underground into the Central Artery tunnel.

“I think the Zakim Bridge gave Boston a new image, like a cool city, a high tech city with all these things to it,” says Miguel Rosales. He's the Boston-based bridge architect who proposed a cable-stay bridge as a fitting punctuation mark for the north end of Boston's massive Big Dig, and then helped to design it.

Meanwhile, the Longfellow Bridge represents Boston's rich architectural and literary history. It was the first grand European-style bridge in North American, and after it opened it was renamed in honor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, perhaps the 19th century’s most famous American poet.

But it also represents bother, delay, bureaucracy, and the crushing costs of deferred maintenance.

After a century of decay, the Longfellow is in the midst of an expensive rehabilitation project. That effort is about two years behind schedule, thanks in large part to historical preservation regulations that forced contractors had to revive obsolete construction techniques like hot riveting. The bridge is expected to reopen sometime in 2018. And in the end the price tag for fixing the Longfellow will be more than twice that for building the Zakim.

Which brings up an obvious question: wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more effective to tear down the Longfellow Bridge and start over?

Tom Keane, a writer and former Boston city councilor, voices that point in the episode. “We could have built a great, cool bridge across the Charles here to replace the Longfellow Bridge and it would become the symbol of Boston for the future, rather than Boston for the past,” Keane argues.

But that option was never seriously discussed—partly because the Longfellow Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and partly because its “Salt and Pepper” towers are such a familiar part of the city’s skyline.

“It would have been very hard to demolish it, because it is loved by so many people,” says Rosales, who was also the architect of record for the Longfellow restoration project. “That would have been a big, big controversy.”

So, the state government that’s restoring the old, undersized Longfellow Bridge at fantastic expense is the same state government that conjured the futuristic Zakim Bridge into existence. Clearly, the impulse to preserve and the impulse to innovate can coexist, though sometimes uneasily. In the show we delve into those conflicting impulses—and we also go to San Francisco to hear how one arts organization is using technology to get people to think differently about its own main thoroughfare, Market Street.

This episode was inspired by a short radio feature I produced last year for WBUR 90.9 FM in Boston. You can give that a listen here.

A big thank you to everyone who has signed up to support Soonish on Patreon. I’m just $4 away from my initial goal of $250 in pledges per episode. Everyone who helps me hit that $250 level will become a member of the Soonish Future Force Hall of Fame! So if you’d like to support the show and be famous, go to patreon.com/soonish and pledge at the $1 per episode level, $3 per episode, or whatever you can afford.

Now you can listen to Soonish with the free RadioPublic app. It's a great app for finding and following podcasts, and it also has curated podcast playlists from interesting people – they're like mix tapes, but for podcasts. I've created one myself, and you can listen to it right now in RadioPublic. Just visit radiopublic.com to download the app for iPhone or Android. To check out the playlist directly, go here. (The link works best if you already have RadioPublic installed on your phone.)

 

See Also

Why It’s Taking So Long to Fix the Longfellow Bridge, WBUR 90.9 FM, September 15, 2016

 

Guests

Sara Barcan, Director of Housing Development, Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation

Ben Davis, Founder and CEO, Illuminate

Marc Draisen, Executive Director, Metropolitan Area Planning Council

Tom Keane, former Boston city councilor; contributor, The Boston Globe, WBUR

Miguel Rosales, bridge architect, Rosales Partners

Charles Sullivan, executive director, Cambridge Historical Commission

 

Mentioned In This Episode

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Bridge — Massachusetts Department of Transportation Accelerated Bridge Program information page

Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge — Wikiverse page

The Bridge, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Big Dig (includes info on Scheme Z)

Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Tampa Bay, Florida

Bunker Hill Monument, National Park Service site

Lightrail, Illuminate project page

To boldly grow: Star Trek imagines San Francisco in 2259, SFGate

Better Market Street project planning site

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

The Bridge, The Hayden Quartet (1908)

Rosie the Riveter, Redd Evans (1942)

All additional music by Tim Beek, www.timbeek.com

Ghost

Angels Grace

Mew Mew

Submarine Drive

Little Things in Life

Astral Search

Lecture

 

Special Thanks

Thanks to Daniel Sheehan for reviewing and commenting on a draft of this episode. And thank you to John Davidow for commissioning my original WBUR story about the Longfellow Bridge, and to Bruce Gellerman for his excellent advice and editing on that story.

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

 

 

 

 

1.08 Hacking Time

My friends know that I'm a big nerd for productivity and time-management systems. So yeah, of course I was going to make a show eventually about the technology side of personal productivity.

How does that relate to the the main theme here at Soonish, which is the future and how we think about it? Well, time management and task management are all about how we plan and use our personal, short-term futures.

That's my excuse for this episode, anyway. In reality I just wanted to have on-tape conversations with a few friends who are thoughtful on the subject of productivity tools, including Ellen Petry Leanse, Stever Robbins, and Robin Seaman. And I wanted to check in with companies like Evernote and Droptask where designers and software engineers are still working hard to build better tools for managing our busy modern lives.

If you think about it, the future is the only malleable part of our personal timelines. After all, what happened in the past is over and can’t be changed. What’s happening now in the present is mostly determined by what just happened a minute ago. We can choose how we perceive or experience the present, but as individuals there isn’t much we can do to control it. The only kind of time we can truly hack is future time.

That’s why people like me and Robin Seaman and probably you have such a strong impulse to plan the future, to chop it up into little squares on a calendar and fill up each square with tasks and events. But on top of our calendars, we’ve got a mish-mash of other ways to visualize and manage our personal futures, including to-do lists and email. 

To use a physics metaphor, there’s no grand unified theory of time management.

Physicists figured out years ago that three of the four fundamental forces—electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force—are all aspects of the same force. But our explanation for the fourth force, gravity, doesn't fit with the other three. 

And it’s the same in personal productivity. Our basic trio of productivity tools—calendars, to-do lists, and e-mail—hasn’t changed much in 20 years, which is odd considering that they’re made of nothing more than software code. Plenty of software designers and entrepreneurs have had ideas about how to bring these three tools together, or about how to expand one in a way that subsumes the other two. But so far no one’s come up with a single solution that’s so great that it’s displaced the old triumverate.

I covered various attempts at this in a 2014 Xconomy feature called The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-Mail. In a way, this episode represents a continuation of the quest I was pursuing in that article.

For this week's show, I asked my sources what’s wrong with our current tools for managing our personal futures and why no one’s solved the grand unification problem. I talked with folks who are pursuing new techniques or new technologies for keeping our lives organized. I looked at the sometimes kludge-y solutions people have hacked together for themselves while they wait for a perfect new system to arrive. And I asked whether, in some way, we’re all missing the real point. Maybe in the rush to be “productive,” we’ve forgotten how to prioritize the things that truly make us happy.

If you enjoy Soonish, please consider leaving a rating and review at Apple Podcasts (a detailed tip sheet is here) and becoming a regular supporter of the show on Patreon. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to our email newsletter, Signals from Soonish.

A special invitation for Soonish fans: Join me at 12:00 Eastern time, Monday, May 22, for a live Google Hangout panel discussion entitled "Robots in the Workplace: How artificial intelligence and automation are helping (and hurting) American workers." Online panelists will include Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google and Professor Emeritus at the University of California; Mike Gennert, Professorand Robotics Engineering Program Director for Computer Science and Electrical & Computer Engineering Departments at the Worcester Polytechnical Institute; and Lynn Wu, Assistant Professor, Operations and Information Management at The Wharton School. Information and registration here.

 

See Also

The Full Stever Robbins Interview

 

Guests

Chris Griffiths, CEO, iMindMap and DropTask

Ellen Petry Leanse, leadership coach and author of the forthcoming book The Happiness Hack

Andrew Malcolm, SVP, Marketing, Evernote

Stever Robbins, career coach, author, speaker, podcaster

Robin Seaman, Director, Content Acquisition, Benetech

 

Mentioned In This Episode

PalmPilot, the first popular PDA

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

Inbox Zero, an email management technique developed by Merlin Mann

The Get It Done Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More, Stever Robbins' podcast

Toodledo, a popular online to-do list system

Lifestreams, a proposed operating system from Yale's David Gelernter

Mind Mapping, the original concept by Tony Buzan

iMindMap

DropTask

Evernote

How to filter your to-do notes (checklists), from Evernote Pro Tips

How I Learned to Stay Organized With Evernote, Post-Its, and Foamcore, a 2014 Xconomy column on my hybrid physical-digital task management method

Bullet Journal, an analog task management system developed by Ryder Carroll

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay, with special guest appearances this week by Jamie Roush, Jennifer Athey, Kieran Alexander Athey Roush, and Lucy Elaine Athey Roush

Ad music: Why from Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

All additional music by Lee Rosevere:

Let's Start at the Beginning from Music for Podcasts

Snakes from Music for Podcasts 2

Here's the Thing from Music for Podcasts 3

Featherlight Remix from Music for Podcasts 2

Musical Mathematics from Music for Podcasts

Reflections from Music for Podcasts 2

Biking in the Park from Music for Podcasts

Going Home from Music for Podcasts

 

Special Thanks

Mark Pelofsky and Graham Ramsay listened to and commented on drafts of this episode.

Thanks very much to Ellen Petry Leanse and Robin Seaman for hosting me during my most recent reporting trip to the Bay Area, and for sharing their insights.

Thanks also to Nick Robalik, aka PixelMetal, maker of the "Spaghetti Western mayhem" platform game Sombrero, for agreeing to be interviewed for this episode. Unfortunately all of that material ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, after I trimmed this episode from its original 43 minutes down to about 33 minutes.

Thank you to Scott Meaney for setting up my interview with Nick Robali, to Shelby Busen for setting up my interview with Andrew Malcolm, and to Melina Costi for setting up my interview with Chris Griffiths. 

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

1.07 Astropreneurs

The Martian by Andy Weir wasn’t the first book about space exploration by a non-famous author that got made into a big Hollywood movie. Space-movie buffs know that back in 1998, a former NASA engineer named Homer Hickam wrote a memoir called Rocket Boys that was made into the 1999 film October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Laura Dern.

What’s less widely known is that Hickam followed up that success with his first book-length work of fiction, a 1999 cult hit called Back to the Moon. It was a techno-thriller about a renegade scientist who hijacks a space shuttle and figures out how to fly it all the way to the moon, to gather a rare helium isotope needed as a fuel for nuclear fusion.

I ate up the Hickam novel, both because I was working at NASA at the time and because I was impatient for our actual return to the moon.

To me, the space shuttle was an amazing invention, but it felt like a technological dead end, forever limited (the antics in Hickam’s book notwithstanding) to low-earth orbit. As an “orphan of Apollo”—born a few years too late to remember NASA’s six moon landings between 1969 and 1972—I’d been waiting a long time for someone to figure out how we’ll really travel back to the moon, and then beyond.

Today we’re still waiting. There’s some talk within NASA about sending astronauts to orbit the moon aboard the new Orion spacecraft as soon as 2018, some three to five years earlier than previously planned. SpaceX wants to do something similar. But even if those plans pan out, the astronauts wouldn’t touch down. And while the European Space Agency has proposed building a Moon Village to take the place of the International Space Station (which is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024), there’s no timeline for that project yet.

In fact, it looks like the next batch of spacecraft heading to the lunar surface will be the privately operated robotic rovers built by the five teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. Whichever team is the first to land their rover first, maneuver it 500 meters across the surface, and send back high-definition video pictures will win the $20 million first prize. (The pressure is on, since the prize expires after December 31, 2017, but after years of delays, all five GLXP teams now have rocket rides reserved.)

And that could be a harbinger of a new era of space exploration led, in large part, by private, non-governmental entities. These days, national space agencies just don’t seem to have the vision, the cash, or the popular support needed to initiate humanity’s next big steps into space. They’ve left a leadership vacuum as big as space itself. And it’s being filled by dozens of private companies of all scales—not just the giant aerospace manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Airbus and the makers of the new generation of reusable rockets like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, but also—and just as intriguingly—a raft of smaller startups.

This week’s episode of Soonish is all about those “astropreneurs,” the early-stage space entrepreneurs who hope to make it big by inventing faster, better, cheaper technologies for propulsion, surveillance, manufacturing, and other activities in space.

Many of these companies are benefiting from the introduction of the Cubesat design specification, an open standard built around 10x10x10-centimeter blocks that can be combined into satellites of arbitrary size. There’s a growing supply chain of Cubesat components, with some merchants even offering parts on Amazon. That means space startups can build satellites mostly using off-the-shelf technology, while focusing the real innovation and investment on the components that are core to their mission. In the case of Lunar Station, a startup featured in this week’s episode, that’s a high-definition digital video camera that will capture and retransmit live-stream video of the moon.

But other startups are already looking beyond the microsatellite market. Accion Systems in Boston, another company featured in this episode, started off thinking that it would offer its new liquid-propellant-based ion engines solely to Cubesat builders. But now the company also wants to supply its engines to makers of larger satellites with masses of 50kg to 150kg, according to CEO Natalya Bailey.

Space offers not just microgravity but an unfettered view of the heavens and the earth. So tomorrow’s space economy will likely revolve around a mix of activities such as Earth observation, manufacturing, and mining and fuel production. And it’s not just billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk pouring money into these visions: venture capital funds put more than $2 billion into space companies in 2015. (More recent figures aren’t available yet.) And according to Ariel Waldman, a space activist and author who's also featured in this episode, there are more ways than ever for average citizens to get involved in space exploration.

“It’s probably a little bit frothy right now, but in the longer term, commercial space is here to stay,” says Bailey at Accion Systems, which has raised nearly $10 million in venture backing. “When people said ‘Let's lay down hundreds and hundreds of miles of copper wire to communicate with people,’ I'm sure some folks thought that was crazy too. I think we're just at another inflection point like that. And sure, we may lose some of the new space startups. But I think space is just going to continue to become more and more present in our lives.”

It's about time.

 

See also

The Full Ariel Waldman Interview

 

Guests

Blair DeWitt, co-founder and CEO, Lunar Station

Natalya Bailey, co-founder and CEO, Accion Systems

Ariel Waldman, founder, SpaceHack.org

Barret Schlegelmilch, co-founder and COO, Lunar Station

 

Resources

Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal, with detailed transcripts and audio recordings of the mission

Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

Google Lunar X Prize

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program

Reaching for the Stars, Across 4.37 Light-Years, by Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, April 12, 2016

Spacehack.org

Trump advisers’ space plan: To moon, Mars and beyond, by Bryan Bender, Politico, February 9, 2017

What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There, by Ariel Waldman

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

All additional music by Podington Bear:

Waves of Intensity from the album Foreboding

Vector Melody from the album Rhythm & Strings

Bountiful from the album Melodic Ambient

Twill from the album Marimba, Vibraphone, Chimes & Bells

Deep Pools from the album Inspiring

Moonglow from the album Marimba, Vibraphone, Chimes & Bells 

Kitten from the album Background

Data from the album by Panoramic / Ambient

Brightening from the album Panoramic / Ambient 

Podstrings from the album Rhythm & Strings 

 

Special Thanks

Thanks to my guests for taking the time to join this week’s show: Natalya Bailey, Blair Dewitt, Barret Schlegelmilch, and Ariel Waldman.

Schlegelmilch’s invitation to the New Space Age Conference that he organized at the MIT Sloan School of Management in March 2017 was the key to getting this whole episode started.

Dan Novy kindly invited me to the MIT Media Lab space conference Beyond the Cradle, which was held the very next day and was also amazing.

Christian Bailey at Curated Innovation helped to set up my interview with his wife Natalya Bailey, née Brikner.

Sean Casey at the Silicon Valley Space Center helped orient me to the space entrepreneurship scene on the West Coast.

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

1.06: Origin Story

In most episodes of Soonish, I latch on to a specific area of technology, and I find experts who can explain what’s changing and help us explore how those changes will affect everyone’s lives.

That’s what I usually do, anyway. This week's episode is a little bit different.

I’ve been joking to people that the first five episodes of the show were brought to you by the letter M. The first one was about Movies. And then I did shows about Monorails, Museums, Manufacturing, and Meat. Well, today I’ve got one more M-word for you, and it’s Meta.

Today's episode is about the podcast itself, where it came from, and why I’m doing it. In other words, it's the Soonish origin story.

Check out the episode to hear how Carl Sagan blinded me with science—and gave me my first newspaper story. And how that eventually led to a career as a print writer covering science, technology, and their social and cultural impacts.

As the episode hints, I've long had a bad case of audio envy. I first contracted it around 2007, when I discovered RadioLab. The symptoms worsened considerably when Roman Mars started putting out the awesome 99% Invisible in 2010. And they became intolerable in recent years, with the emergence of compelling personal shows like Rose Eveleth's Flash Forward and Eric Molinsky's Imaginary Worlds. (H/t to Eric for the "origin story" concept, by the way.)

The only cure for this illness, it turns out, was to start making audio myself. 

When I tell people I've started a podcast, their first question is always: What's it about? And the second question is always: How do you monetize a podcast? Which is really a polite way of saying: are you nuts? Aren't you throwing away your livelihood?

Well, I always reply, the business models needed to support independent audio producers are still evolving. To support my new audio habit, I'm still doing some freelance and consulting work on the side. And I'm working to build Soonish's audience to the point where advertisers might be interested.

But starting this week, I have a better answer. Now Soonish is on Patreon, which means regular listeners can become regular supporters!

For indie creators, content subscription platforms like Patreon are a godsend. Here's how New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo put it recently

It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal this is….If subscriptions keep taking off, it won’t just mean that some of your favorite creators will survive the internet. It could also make for a profound shift in the way we find and support new cultural talent.

That's certainly what I'm hoping for. I've long been using Patreon and similar platforms to send donations to shows and organizations I care about, like Gastropod and The Story Collider and Radiotopia. Now I'm inviting Soonish fans to send some love my way.

Here's a little video I made to explain the Patreon campaign. I hope you'll head over to patreon.com/soonish to check out the great rewards available at each pledge level, and consider donating yourself.

Thanks so much for being part of the Soonish community—and for caring about the future.

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Golden Hour from the album Springtime by Podington Bear

Curious Process from the album Reflective by Podington Bear

Fives from the album Building by Podington Bear

Chimera from the album Reflective by Podington Bear

K2 from the album by Inspiring by Podington Bear

 

Special Thanks

Graham Ramsay listened to an early version of this episode and also reviewed the draft materials for my Patreon page.  Mark Pelofsky commented on an early version of this episode.

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

 

 

1.05: Meat Without the Moo

In this episode of Soonish, we start from one simple idea: On a planet that will likely be home to 10 billion people by 2050, we’re going to have to think about replacing a lot of the meat we currently get from pigs, chickens, cattle, and fish with other forms of protein. We take a close look at where alternative-protein technology is going in the near future, and what those other forms might be. And we talk with people who are starting to think about the best ways to package and promote alternative-protein products.

There are all sorts of reasons why we’re probably approaching the point of “peak meat,” after which consumption of meat from farm animals will have to go down.

The biggest one is the environment. If everyone got as much of their protein from meat as denizens of Western countries currently do, there simply wouldn’t be enough land or water to raise all the needed animals. On top of that, we know that livestock agriculture is a major contributor to global warming. (When you count up the carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation, feed production, and farm transportation, and add in methane generation from belching cows and decaying manure, livestock accounts for as much as 18 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.)

And that’s to say nothing of the nutritional benefits of a diet that’s higher in plant-based foods, or of ethical concerns, shared by many, about the way farm animals are raised and slaughtered.

But this episode doesn’t dwell on the case for (or against) vegan or vegetarian diets. For a deep dive on all that, we recommend To Eat or Not To Eat Meat, a recent episode of the fantastic podcast Gastropod.

Rather, we ask: In a future where there’s a rising demand for protein—or at least, for a meaty centerpiece for each meal—what sources will be available other than traditional ones like fish, chickens, pigs, and cattle? And we look deeply into three answers.

  • Fiber-rich plants like jackfruit. In this episode we talk with Annie Ryu, who started The Jackfruit Company to buy jackfruit from farmers in India and package it for consumers in America. And we get some perspective on Annie's succcess from Adam Salomone, a foodtech industry observer and CEO of The Food Loft, a Boston-based coworking space for food and technology companies.
  • Insects. We visit Tiny Farms, a startup in California working to develop an industrial-scale way to farm tropical house crickets, an excellent source of protein (whether eaten plain or ground up as cricket flour for use in products like energy bars).
  • Cultured meat. Researchers in the burgeoning field of cellular agriculture are beginning to learn how to immortalize muscle cell lines from animals and grow them, under controlled conditions, into edible muscle tissue. Our introduction to this field comes from Natalie Rubio, a PhD student in biomedical engineering at Tufts University who’s the very first graduate student to receive a research fellowship from New Harvest, a New York-based nonprofit promoting cellular agriculture.

There’s a fourth alternative as well: plant-based “imitation meat” from companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. These products, often built around proteins from soy or peas, are marketed as meat look-alikes and taste-alikes. And while they’re perfectly tasty (as my dinner guests can tell you), these companies may be stumbling unintentionally into the culinary equivalent of the uncanny valley.

That’s an idea from robotics that says people like mechanical-looking robots just fine, but they start to get creeped out by robots that look almost-but-not-quite-human. (The same goes for animated characters.) In a similar way, the harder companies try to make plant-based products look and taste like meat—going so far as to add “blood” from beets or plant-derived heme—the harder it may be for them to win over committed meat-eaters.

As Fast Company reporter Jessica Leber writes, these companies are “trying to convince the carnivore’s stomach, rather than his heart or mind, that he should eat less meat.” But the stomach knows the difference—and if the stomach rules, plants will lose. Veggie burgers will have to be better than meat to succeed in the marketplace, Leber and others argue. And so far, they’re just not.

“At best, assuming some amazing discoveries and research, the Impossible Foods burger will be merely as good as something literally everyone already has access to,” writes Dan Nosowitz at Modern Farmer. “This is a huge problem…imitation is never a good selling point.”

Beyond Meat and other plant-based “meat” products are important as part of an overall mix of meat alternatives. I agree with Natalie Rubio, who says in this episode: “Animal agriculture is such a huge, massive, impending problem that we need to come at it from all angles. We need so many people working on every possible type of solution as fast as possible, so that we can take away these negative impacts that are happening to our planet.”

A decade or two from now, people may be eating some plant-based simulated-meat products in place of meat from livestock. But they’ll also be eating new foods like jackfruit that can take the place of meat in a main dish, and insects, and actual meat that comes from laboratories. Today's episode tries to offer a glimpse into that world.

 

See also

The Full Adam Salomone Interview

The Full Natalie Rubio Interview

 

Guests

Graham Gordon Ramsay, composer, photographer, educator, author

Annie Ryu, founder and CEO, The Jackfruit Company

Adam Salomone, co-founder and CEO, The Food Loft

Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, founder and CEO, Tiny Farms

Natalie Rubio, Tissue Engineering Resource Center, Tufts University

 

Resources

Beware the Uncanny Valley of Veggie Burgers, Jessica Leber, Co.Exist from Fast Company, November 14, 2014

Beyond Meat, an El Segundo, CA-based startup offering the Beyond Burger, the Beast Burger, three varieties of Beyond Chicken strips, and two varieties of Beyond Beef crumble

Do Insects Feel Pain?, an informative post at the blog Relax, I’m an Entomologist

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Exo, a New York, NY-based startup offering food bars made with cricket protein

Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006

Memphis Meats, a San Francisco Bay Area company developing a way to produce cultured meat from animal cells

Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn, NY-based startup developing leather and other materials from cultured collagen.

Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley startup developing “beef,” “chicken,” “pork,” “fish,” and “yogurt” made entirely from plants

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan

To Eat or Not To Eat Meat, the February 14, 2017 episode of Gastropod from Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley

New Harvest, a non-profit funding research in cellular agriculture

Our Daily Bread, a 2005 documentary on industrial farming by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

The Problem With Veggie Burgers So Real They Bleed, Dan Nosowitz, Modern Farmer, October 24, 2014

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

No Squirrell Commotion from the album Background by Chad Crouch aka Podington Bear

Origami from the album Egress by Podington Bear

Belfast from the album Playful by Podington Bear

Puzzle Pieces from the album Music for Podcasts 2 by Lee Rosevere

Gauze from the album Panoramic by Podington Bear

Filaments from the album Inspiring by Podington Bear

 

Special Thanks

I got editorial notes on this episode from Mark Pelofsky. I connected with Natalie Rubio as the result of a tip from Tracy Staedter.

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit 

1.04: Future Factories, With Workers Built In

Manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. That’s been the constant refrain of CEOs, economists, and journalists reacting to the loss of old-fashioned assembly line jobs in the U.S. (About 6 million such jobs have disappeared since 2000.)

The assertion typically surfaces as a rebuke to the idea that federal or state governments can stop manufacturers from using overseas labor, or force them to reopen old plants in the U.S. or build new ones that provide just as many jobs. Thanks to the twin forces of globalization and automation—or so this form of economic realism goes—it will always be cheaper to make things using robots or low-wage workers in other countries, and that’s that.

But what if this view is incomplete? What if it doesn’t account for a cultural and technological revolution sweeping the United States—one that promises to redefine manufacturing, make it drastically more accessible, and create a ladder to new kinds of jobs for unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers alike?

Mark Hatch, former CEO of TechShop and author of The Maker Movement Manifesto. Photo by Kevin Krejci.

Mark Hatch, former CEO of TechShop and author of The Maker Movement Manifesto. Photo by Kevin Krejci.

That’s the possibility this episode of Soonish explores.

Academics and policy experts have long called for an “advanced manufacturing” revolution in the U.S. that would improve industrial performance by applying new technologies, especially software and robots, to outmoded processes. But jobs aren’t usually part of that discussion. In fact, the default strategy for improving factory productivity—which is usually measured in terms of output per worker—is simply to lower the denominator in the equation by using machines to replace even more workers.

But after reading a lot about this area and talking to experts, I've begun to believe that there’s an alternative future where factories, instead of getting bigger and more automated, get smaller and more worker-centric.

Several things are happening at once to make that future more likely.

Everett Mills in Lawrence, MA, the former textile mill that's now home to 99Degrees. Photo by Wade Roush.

Everett Mills in Lawrence, MA, the former textile mill that's now home to 99Degrees. Photo by Wade Roush.

  • The tools for designing and prototyping new products, from advanced CAD software to 3D printers, are now within the reach of non-experts.
  • More people have access to the design and production tools mentioned above and are learning how to use them, thanks to the rebirth of the old-fashioned workshop in the form of the modern “maker space.”
  • Manufacturers are figuring out to take designs from makers and create smaller batches of products economically, allowing greater customization and faster turnaround.
  • And in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and Occupy Wall Street, scholars and policy analysts are paying more attention to the causes of economic inequality, and studying how ideas from advanced manufacturing can be used to create and preserve jobs rather than destroying them.

All of that, put together, means the factories of the future might be in our basements and garages. In the era of “mass customization,” even a large factory might only have dozens of employees, not thousands—but if their customized and/or artisanal products can command premium prices, there might be enough of these specialized factories to make up the difference. And that might provide an economic ladder for skilled laborers who, 20 or 30 years ago, would have had assembly line jobs.

Bill Taylor in his basement workshop in Belmont, MA. Photo by Wade Roush

Bill Taylor in his basement workshop in Belmont, MA. Photo by Wade Roush

Those are all pretty abstract propositions, but in this episode I tried to make them very concrete. I visited TechShop, a maker space where craftspeople are using high-tech tools to come up with new products (see my full interview with TechShop CEO Dan Woods). I talked with a business strategist at the Xerox-owned Palo Alto Research Center, where programmers are inventing design software that can help those craftspeople get their ideas to market faster. I toured a startup in an old Massachusetts mill town where one young entrepreneur is creating a path to skilled high-tech employment for manual garment workers. And I met Bill Taylor, an 88-year-old mechanical genius in Belmont, MA, who has an elaborate workshop in his basement and decades of perspective on the changing manufacturing scene in the U.S.

 

See also

The Full Dan Woods Interview

 

Guests

Bill Taylor

Dan Woods, CEO, TechShop

Lawrence Lee, senior director of strategy, Palo Alto Research Center

Mark Hatch, former CEO, TechShop; general partner, Network Society Ventures

Brenna Nan Schneider, founder and CEO, 99Degrees

 

Resources

Industry on Parade, a syndicated television program produced for the National Association of Manufacturers. The section on Clary Multiplier Corporation comes from Can 3a at the Prelinger Archives.

Make Magazine, DIY projects for makers

Maker Faire, a “festival of invention” with flagship fairs in the Bay Area, Chicago, and New York

TechShop, a community providing access to instruction, tools, software, and space, with U.S. locations in Chandler, AZ; San Francisco, CA; San Jose, CA; Redwood City, CA; Detroit, MI; St. Louis, MO; Pittsburgh, PA; Austin, TX; and Arlington, VA.

Design and Digital Manufacturing, a focus area at the Palo Alto Research Center

Inclusive Innovation Challenge from the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. 99Degrees won the IIC 2016 grand prize in the “Humans + Machines” category.

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

All additional music by Lee Rosevere:

Curiosity from the album Music for Podcasts

Under Suspicion from the album Music for Podcasts 2

Penguins on Parade from the album Music for Podcasts 3

Making a Change from the album Music for Podcasts 3

And So Then from the album Music for Podcasts 3

Old Regrets from the album Music for Podcasts 3

In a Moment from the album Music for Podcasts 2

 

Special Thanks

Mark Pelofsky gave me valuable editing notes on this episode. Alice Flaherty introduced me to Bill Taylor. Michael Fitzgerald helped me think through some of the story angles around 99 Degrees. I am privileged to be engaged in a longstanding, recurring conversation with Victor McElheny about American manufacturing, the future of work, and many other technology-and-culture subjects. On inequality and the future of work, coverage by David Rotman at MIT Technology Review has been a great inspiration and guide. Much wonderful interview material from Kathy Giori and Paul Spinrad ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but will appear in future episodes. Metalworking photo at TechShop San Francisco by Jim Fenton.

 

Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

1.03: Can Technology Save Museums?

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, adult participation in the arts is in steep decline. In 2002, 39 percent of all American adults visited a museum, went to a concert, or participated in some other in-person cultural event at least once. In 2012—the most recent year for which the NEA has data—only 33 percent did the same.

If the drop in participation were to continue at the same rate—about 6 percentage points per decade—then by the 2060s, the nation's art museums would be devoid of visitors. Except maybe for senior citizens: people over 55 kept going to museums faithfully, the NEA found.

If you believe as I do that something magical happens when people (of any age) encounter art in person, then the NEA statistics are pretty scary. This episode of Soonish asks: Will the museums of the future be empty, or thriving? What can the nation's museums do to re-engage the public and make sure they have loyal audiences 10, 20, or 50 years from now? What role can technology play—and when should it stay out of the way?

We know that younger people are being channeled away from museums by the profusion of learning and entertainment options available on the Internet and their smartphones. And when it comes to art, the new options for learning about art without ever setting foot in a museum are, in fact, pretty stunning. Just consider the Google Cultural Institute, which offers access to high-resolution photographs of millions of artworks from scores of museums in over 40 countries.

A museum-goer inspects Warren and Lucia Prosperi's Museum Epiphany III at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Wade Roush.

A museum-goer inspects Warren and Lucia Prosperi's Museum Epiphany III at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Wade Roush.

But if museums didn't exist, Google wouldn't have much to photograph. And beyond their role as storehouses (some would say mausoleums) for art, well-designed museums can be playgrounds for learning and growth. 

My own feeling is that there's something indispensable about the opportunity to encounter a work of art, live and in person, and soak up whatever meaning it may offer. That may be the only way to build a deep and lasting connection with art, something that started for me when I was 10 years old and my grandmother took me to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see an exhibition of Matisse cutouts. 

"That is the real value of going to a museum," as Tamar Avishai, creator and host of The Lonely Palette podcast, puts it in this episode. "There is nothing you can get at a museum now that you can't get online except standing in that aura." (After you've heard the show, listen to my full interview with Tamar.)

The stories in this episode—drawn from the experiences of curators, entrepreneurs, artists, and communicators in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston—show that technology can help draw people into art's aura. But it can't make them stay there, or guarantee that they'll have an epiphany. That probably depends on something more direct—the melding in the moment of artist, object, and viewer.

Speaking of epiphanies, here's a photo of Museum Epiphany III, the image referenced in the segment of the episode about Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. It was created in 2012 by the painter Warren Prosperi and his wife, the photographer Lucia Prosperi. I did a separate 7-minute feature for WBUR's ARTery about this painting, and I'm planning to revisit it in a future episode of Soonish.

Museum Epiphany III, 2012, by Warren and Lucia Prosperi, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Museum Epiphany III, 2012, by Warren and Lucia Prosperi, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

 

See Also

The Full Tamar Avishai Interview

 

Guests

Charlotte Cagan, former CEO, San Diego History Center

Curtis Wong, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research, Redmond, WA

Tricia Robson, Director of Web and Digital Production, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Mark Paddon, CEO, Guidekick

Warren Prosperi, Prosperi Studio

Tamar Avishai, Host, The Lonely Palette

 

Resources

A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, National Endowment for the Arts Research Report #58, January 2015.

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse & Dr. Barnes, Corbis Publishing, 1995. New and used copies for Macintosh and Windows available at Amazon and eBay.

The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary by Don Argott about the Barnes Foundation's relocation from Merion, PA, to downtown Philadelphia

The MFA Plays an Artful Mind Game With Its Visitors—And They Love The 'Epiphany', WBUR, November 7, 2016

San Francisco, a 1955 CinemaScope film by Tulio Pellegrini at archive.org

Guidekick's mobile app for the de Young Museum (iOS)

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Like Starlight Through a Veil from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

Wildcat Blues by Sidney Bechet, archive.org

Sunray by from the album Chapter Three: Warm by Kai Engel

Yankee Doodle, Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, archive.org

Spring, Movement 1, Allegro, from the album The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) by John Harrison with the Wichita State University Chamber Players 

Realness from the album Better Way by Kai Engel

Even When We Fall from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

 

Special Thanks

I got valuable editorial feedback and production advice on this episode from Mitch Hanley, John Davidow, and Mark Pelofsky. Thanks also to my hosts in Seattle and San Francisco: Luke Timmerman, Tracy Cutchlow, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, and Ellen Leanse. Cleveland Museum of Art photo by Erik Drost, used under a CC-by-2.0 license.

 

1.02: Monorails: Trains of Tomorrow?

[Special note 1: Download the RadioPublic app and check out this week's featured podcast playlist News from the Future, curated by me. More on the playlist project here.]

[Special note 2: Sad news. Hours after publishing today's episode, I learned that Kim Pedersen, the founder and longtime president of the Monorail Society and one of the key voices in the story, had passed away after a battle with cancer. I've updated the show with a short introduction dedicating the episode to his memory.]

Artists, filmmakers, and TV producers depicting “the city of the future” are bound by certain conventions. There are the obligatory tall, imposing buildings with wacky shapes. The more flying cars, hovercraft, or zeppelins, the better. And the most frequent element: an extensive network of monorails.*

How did monorails—a technology that goes back to the 1870s—become such ubiquitous tokens of the future? What are their actual advantages over other forms of mass transit? And why isn’t the US taking part in the new global boom in monorail construction?

This week, Soonish has a one-track mind. And if you follow our train of thought, we'll be careful not to go off the rails. (Okay, I'm out of one-liners.)

Seriously, though: When we’re thinking about the future of our physical environment, especially in cities, we have to think about transportation—how people get to work, to the grocery store, to the big game on Sunday. In the U.S., since the 1950s at least, the dominant transportation mix has consisted of surface streets and freeways for cars; bus routes, subway lines, and commuter rail for mass-transit travelers; and more recently, light rail intra-urban transit, plus designated bike lanes for those courageous enough to venture into traffic on two wheels.

There are only a couple of US cities—Seattle and Las Vegas—where a monorail line is a genuine part of the mix. And I’ve talked with a lot of transportation watchers and monorail enthusiasts who feel that’s a missed opportunity.

The obvious advantage of monorails is that, by definition, they run on a single track or “beamway” that can be elevated above the streetscape, allowing monorail trains to soar majestically over the traffic jams.

Monorails don’t require expensive underground tunnels, and they can carry more people per hour than trains with steel wheels. That’s because most monorails have rubber tires, giving them the traction they need to accelerate and brake quickly. That, in turn, means you don’t need to leave as much space between trains.

Monorails may involve more up-front capital costs than light rail systems and other mass transit options, but proponents argue that they’re cheaper to maintain and operate, and therefore more economical in the long run. That’s part of the reason transportation authorities are building new monorail systems everywhere from Chongqing and Shanghai in China to Panama City, Kuala Lumpur, Riyadh, and Sao Paulo.

The Walt Disney World Monorail System. Photo by Chris Raimondo, from archive.org Community Media

The Walt Disney World Monorail System. Photo by Chris Raimondo, from archive.org Community Media

But here in the U.S., where facts don’t seem to matter as much, monorails suffer from an image problem. Marge Simpson is partially responsible for that. And monorails may also be burdened by their roles as attractions at world’s fairs and theme parks, especially Disneyland and Walt Disney World. When so many citizens see monorails fulfilling a purely decorative or ceremonial function at theme parks, it’s hard to get them to take the technology seriously as a mass transit option.

“Over the last 30 years of watching this, many times the detractors will bring up, ‘Well, we don’t need Mickey Mouse transit,’” said Kim Pedersen, the founder and president of the Monorail Society. “They’ll degrade the idea right from the start because that’s something for Disney.”

You don’t have to be a monorail enthusiast—and I confess I’ve become one over the course of producing this story—to see that monorail technology has been unfairly railroaded into obscurity. If we want to make our cities more open, navigable, and sustainable, we may want to give monorails another ride. Listen to the whole episode to learn why.

*A partial list of films and TV shows incorporating monorails: The Time Machine, Fahrenheit 451, You Only Live Twice, Babylon 5, The Simpsons, Frasier, Star Trek Enterprise, The Incredibles, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Aeon Flux, Batman Begins, WALL-E, Caprica, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Lego Movie, Jurassic World, and The Man in the High Castle.

 

See Also

The Full Kim Pedersen Interview

The Full Thom Ditty Interview

A Trip to the Seattle World's Fair in "Century 21 Calling"

 

Guests and Interviewees

Kylen Sandstrom, monorail conductor, Seattle Center Monorail

Kim Pedersen, Founder and president, The Monorail Society

Einar Svensson, Alweg monorail engineer (retired); founder, Urbanaut

Thom Ditty, general manager, Seattle Center Monorail

Dick Falkenbury, tour operator and author, Seattle


Resources

Monorails: Trains of the Future—Now Arriving, by Kim Pedersen

Rise Above It All, by Dick Falkenbury

The Monorail Society website

Grassroots, a comedy film based on the true story of the Seattle monorail project

Why Monorails Are the Future (Really This Time), by Adam Minter, Bloomberg View, December 6, 2016

 

Playlist

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Night Light from the album Nursery by Blue Dot Sessions

Brass Buttons from the album Nursery by Blue Dot Sessions

The Simpsons Main Title Theme by Danny Elfman from The Simpsons FOX TV series

When You Wish Upon A Star from the Disneyland ABC TV series, 1954-1959

The Jetsons Main Title Theme by Hoyt Curtin from the The Jetsons ABC TV series, 1962-1963

Bitter Roll from the album Crab Shack by Blue Dot Sessions

Starry Story from the album 30s30d: A Month’s Worth of Composing by Grant Fikes aka mathgrant

Rule Britannia by Thomas Arne, from a 1914 Edison Records phonograph cylinder, archive.org

 

Special Thanks

Mitch Hanley was a consulting editor on this episode and John Barth provided valuable notes. Graham Ramsay, Alice Flaherty, Andy Hrycyna, Lucia Prosperi, Warren Prosperi, Jamie Roush, Patricia Roush, Paul Roush, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, Wendy Perrotta, and Ellen Leanse listened to early drafts of this episode and also provided feedback and suggestions. My reporting trip to Seattle was made possible by my generous hosts, Luke Timmerman and Tracy Cutchlow.  

1.01: How "2001" Got the Future So Wrong

The inaugural episode of Soonish is about one of the boldest visions of the future ever put down on film: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The movie came out in 1968, and it offered an incredibly detailed and inspiring forecast for life the early 21st century. It showed a giant rotating space station and a whole city on the moon. It featured astronauts traveling to Jupiter, and one of the main characters was a thinking computer named HAL.

By putting the year in the title, Kubrick tied this forecast to a very specific date. But by the time the actual year 2001 rolled around, very few of his predictions had come true.

How did that happen? Kubrick was famous for his obsessive realism. His collaborator on the script was the science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke, who introduced the idea of the geostationary satellite nearly 20 years before aerospace engineers built the real thing. So these were two very smart guys—and nobody has ever tried harder to make the future look real on film. But as a piece of forecasting, the movie was way off target.

This episode asks how the future we actually got turned out to be so different from the future portrayed in the movie—and what that means for our future. 

Soonish is not a show about science fiction. It’s about how the choices we're making about real technologies today could help us or hurt us tomorrow.

But I wanted to make 2001 the centerpiece of the pilot episode because I think there’s a lot of meaning embedded in our portrayals of the future, whether they take the form of movies, books, world’s fairs, theme parks, advertising, comics, or cartoons.

That's a theme I've been mulling for almost 30 years, ever since I wrote my college honors thesis about the 1939 and 1964 New York World's Fairs and EPCOT Center. 

What I've learned is that depictions of the future are mostly about what we’re hoping for and what we’re worrying about now, in the present—and, just as important, what we believe is possible.

 

See Also

Full Interview with Jamais Cascio

Full Interview with Jason Pontin

 

Guests and Interviewees

Jason Pontin, CEO, editor-in-chief, and publisher, MIT Technology Review

Curtis Wong, principal researcher, Microsoft Research

Jamais Cascio, foresight thinker; distinguished fellow, Institute for the Future

Piers Bizony, science journalist and author

Lawrence Lee, senior director of strategy, Palo Alto Research Center

 

Resources

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Penguin Group, reissued 2000

The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by Piers Bizony, Taschen, 2015

OpenTheFuture.com, the website of Jamais Cascio

Can Technology Solve Our Big Problems?, a 2013 TED talk by Jason Pontin

Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems, a companion article by Jason Pontin in MIT Technology Review, 2012

Solve, MIT's community convening "extraordinary people" to "examine and address challenges where where technology, business innovation, and smart policy can be combined to bring about real and lasting solutions" 

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, Robert Gordon, Princeton University Press, 2016

 

Playlist

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, from 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album, MGM Records, 1968

Somnolence from the album ICD-10 by Kai Engel

The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, from 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album, MGM Records, 1968

Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio) by Aram Khachaturian from 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album, MGM Records, 1968

Snowmen from the album Chapter One/Cold by Kai Engel

There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, Richard and Robert Sherman, 1964

Ragtime Dance by Scott Joplin, 1902 (from archive.org piano rolls)

Subdivision of the Masses from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

Brooks from the album Chapter Two/Mild by Kai Engel

 

Special Thanks

Thank you to everyone who helped to get Soonish launched, including Graham Gordon Ramsay, Ibby Caputo, Cynthia Graber, Mitch Hanley, John Barth, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, Ellen Leanse, Luke Timmerman, Tracy Cutchlow, Wing Ngan of Ink Design, Jessica Abel, my family in Alaska and Michigan, and the folks at the PRX Podcast Garage and the Sonic Soiree.

 

A Note on Pronunciation

I generated the text-to-speech voice in this episode using Amazon Polly. Because I was employing the voice to quote from a book by a British author, Piers Bizony, I selected the UK English voice that Amazon calls Brian.

You'll notice in the episode that Brian uses the British pronunciation of the word "prescient" -- which, phonetically, gets extended to three syllables and is something like PRESS-see-ent. In my narration I revert to the two-syllable US pronunciation, which is PRESH-ent.

I've been corrected for using either pronunciation. But I'm here to tell you that both are correct—just on different sides of the pond. I've also heard people split the difference and say "PRESH-ee-ent," which I can live with.