What if you could take the best aspects of every culture and bring them into your everyday life? After dating a German for nearly seven years and paying a visit to his homeland, here are some aspects of German life that would make the world a better place if implemented everywhere. Beer gardens with playgrounds When the sun is shining, many German parents flock to beer gardens that have picnic...
How would Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other famous ballplayers of bygone eras fare if put on the diamond today? Variations on that question tend to come up in conversation among enthusiasts of baseball and its history, and different people bring different kinds of evidence to bear in search of an answer: statistics, eyewitness accounts, analogies between particular historical players and current ones. But the fact remains that none of us have ever actually seen the likes of Ruth, who played his last professional game in 1935, and Gehrig, who did so in 1939, in their prime. But now we can at least get a little closer by watching the film clip above, which shows both of the titanic Yankees at batting practice on April 11, 1931.
What's more, it shows them moving at real-life speed. "Fox Movietone sound cameras made slow-motion captures of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at batting practice during an exhibition practice in Brooklyn, New York," writes uploader Guy Jones (whose other baseball videos include Ruth hitting a home run on opening day the same year and Ruth's last appearance at bat a decade later). "With modern technology, we can witness this footage adjusted to a normal speed which results in a very high framerate."
In other words, the film shows Ruth and Gehrig not just moving in the very same way they did in real life, but captured with a smoothness uncommon in newsreel footage from the 1930s. For comparison, Jones includes at the end of the video "more footage of the practice (shot at typical fps) and the original un-edited slow-mo captures."
Unfortunately, what this film reveals doesn't impress observers of modern baseball. "Ruth and Gehrig in no way look like a modern ballplayer," writes The Big Lead's Kyle Koster. "Ruth is off-balance, falling into his swing. Gehrig routinely lifts his back foot off the ground. Again, it’s batting practice so the competitive juices weren’t flowing. But even by that standard, the whole exercise looks sloppy and inefficient." Cut4's Jake Mintz gets harsher, as well as more technical: "Tell me Ruth's cockamamie swing mechanics would enable him to hit a 98-mph heater." As for the Iron Horse, his "hack is a little better," but still "absurdly low" by today's standards. It goes to show, Mintz writes, that "these two legends, while undeniably transcendent in their time, would be good Double-A hitters at best if they played today." We evolve, our technologies evolve, and so, it seems, do the games we play.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
Watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig Taking Batting Practice in Strikingly Restored Footage (1931) is a post from: Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, or get our Daily Email. And don't miss our big collections of Free Online Courses, Free Online Movies, Free eBooks, Free Audio Books, Free Foreign Language Lessons, and MOOCs.
We’re excited to announce that adventure photographer and documentarian Chris Burkard will be headlining day one of Gear Patrol’s upcoming event, Stocked.
Seeking to zip from coffee shop to coffee shop and look great doing it? This 1981 BMW R100 is the perfect bike for you.
A power inverter works by converting your car battery’s DC current into AC current, which is the type of electricity available in typical home power outlets. That means you can keep all of your devices charged up when you’re on the road. Some inverters can power household devices, meaning you can either bring them with you on a trip where outlets won’t be available, or you can use your vehicle to power those devices at home in the event of a power outage.
Power inverters vary in both output and ability. Here’s what you need to know before you buy one:
1. A low-wattage inverter can charge up devices and run some small appliances directly from your vehicle’s accessory port.
Cigarette smoking overall may be decreasing, but the ports that were originally designed to heat up a car’s cigarette lighter are still common, and have found a secondary use as a power port. That means you don’t have to open the hood and access the vehicle’s battery in order to use a low-wattage inverter. Those that provide 300 watts can be used to charge up tech devices like cell phones, tablets, and laptops, and also operate low-wattage devices such as small air compressors.
2. A high-wattage inverter can power some typical household appliances.
If you want to run devices such as a television, coffee maker, or power tool, get a high-wattage inverter. These must be wired directly to your vehicle’s battery terminals, because the cigarette lighter port isn’t designed to handle a heavy load of electricity. While not as convenient, an inverter rated for 2000 watts can power larger devices and even some small refrigerators. (While many large refrigerators may be rated lower than 2000 watts, the power needed to get their motors going is typically much higher than the power needed to keep them running.)
3. A pure sine wave inverter will produce less device noise, and is safe to power sensitive devices.
Such an inverter provides more stable current than a typical modified sine-wave inverter. This translates to several advantages. One is less noise in devices such as fans, microwave ovens, fluorescent lights, and audio equipment. It also provides a level of protection for electronic devices that might not be compatible with a modified sine-wave inverter. If you intend to power a laptop with an inverter, verify that it can be powered with a modified sine-wave inverter. You can find this out from the manufacturer. If not, go with a pure sine wave inverter, which produces current similar to that available from a household outlet.
Robert Frank, one of the most influential documentary photographers of our time, passed away on Monday on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He was 94 years old.
With his seminal work The Americans, Frank changed the course of documentary photography, pioneering a raw, candid, and honest style that remains popular to this day. He turned his camera on moments and subjects that had been largely ignored by the posed photojournalistic style of the time; as a result, he became known as the father “the snapshot aesthetic” and “the Manet of the new photography.”
With just 83 grainy, black-and-white images, Robert Frank redefined a genre.
Born on November 9th, 1924 in Zürich, Switzerland, Frank turned to photography in the 1940s, training with various photographers and graphic designers in Switzerland and releasing his first photo book in 1946. His professional career began in earnest when he moved to New York City in 1947 and became a fashion photographer for Harpers Bazaar.
For the next ten years, he travelled broadly while working for Fortune, LIFE, Vogue and others; all the while, he was honing his craft and developing his worldview, both of which would be critical when, in 1955, he embarked on the roadtrip that would result in The Americans. With the financial backing of the Guggenheim Fellowship, he travelled over 10,000 miles “in an old used car” and captured some 27,000 pictures, before culling that collection to that iconic set of 83.
First published in 1958 in France as “Les Americains” alongside various essays, the American edition of the book that we know today—complete with an introduction by legendary poet and kindred spirit Jack Kerouac—was finally published as a pure photo book in 1959.
Following the publication of The Americans, Frank turned his skills towards documentary filmmaking. But while he brought the same unblinking honesty to his work in film, earning praise for his motion work and continuing to create striking stills, he will be remembered best for his photographic masterwork and the impact it had on the United State’s willingness to turn a critical eye inward.
As Sean O’Hagan wrote for The Guardian on the eve of Frank’s 90th birthday, “[Frank]caught what Diane Arbus called the ‘hollowness’ at the heart of many American lives, the chasm between the American dream and the everyday reality.”
He paved the way for a new documentary photography, and while he would eventually lament that “The kind of photography I did is gone,” we are confident that Mr. Frank’s work will endure, inspiring millions more in the years to come.
Boat Builder Stephen Dougherty
Building a better boat takes experience and fine skills, but it’s a passion for the industry that will set it apart.
Stephen Dougherty doesn’t take things lying down, unless he’s inspecting in great detail the hull mold for his new SOLACE 345 center console. The first model in a new line of boats in the 30-foot range, the design is a culmination of a lifelong passion for boatbuilding.
SOLACE isn’t a name that came out of distress or sadness, it’s a testament to finding comfort in your strengths and abilities learned throughout a lifetime. “When I was a kid, the thirteen-foot Boston Whaler was a stand-up console for me. That’s when I started driving a boat,” says Dougherty. “I would go out with my dad up in Massachusetts, and we would test boats in the middle of the winter when I was seven years old. That was a regular thing for me. That was normal. We’d break ice at the launching ramp, put the boat in and go out and test it.”
Runs in the Family
His father, Bob Dougherty, a former senior vice president and chief engineer for Boston Whaler, was a positive and meaningful influence. “I would go to boat shows, I would go to Boston Whaler on Saturdays and go to the pattern shop and work with the guys on the floor,” he recalls. He built things. It was his way of life and didn’t think anything different.
The “Dougherty Difference” was strengthening. His dad was instrumental in the design and techniques that created Boston Whaler’s innovative hulls in the 1960s. He refined Dick Fisher’s and C. Raymond Hunt’s unibond construction technique of the famed unsinkable boats. He was a creator, a teacher, a builder and did things the best way possible without cutting corners. He treated his fellow workers like family which nurtured his son’s progression into the industry.
At 19, after years of “playing” in the shop and honing his manufacturing skills, Stephen Dougherty joined his father at Boston Whaler. The Dougherty Difference of cutting-edge designs, original ideas, and a strong commitment to the customer and family was set.
“I grew up in a boat factory building boats. I knew I wanted to do that since I was very young,” says Dougherty. “It was in my dad’s blood for years as well and when he was young, he wanted to build boats. He was a schoolteacher first and was teaching industrial arts and lots of different things, but he wasn’t making enough money, so he ended up going into building boats.”
Movin’ On Up
Times in Massachusetts were tough for manufacturing companies and Boston Whaler had to relocate. “My father had to find a new home and found a plant in Edgewater, Florida, that was manufacturing lifeboats,” recalls Dougherty. “Schat Watercraft was on the water. They moved in, built an addition and moved the entire facility down. My job coming to Florida was to set up and train people how to assemble every Boston Whaler. I and about six other guys opened the Boston Whaler facility.”
Teaching local fishermen and farmers how to build boats was a big job for several years. Boston Whaler went through a few owner transitions after the move that restricted new development which led Dougherty and his dad to start a new company.
Dougherty Marine along with RJ Dougherty and Associates conceived and manufactured a new design for boat windshields, and Dougherty expanded his interest in learning how to work with and create parts from Starboard, a new marine-grade polymer product that is resistant to saltwater, UV, chemicals, sunshine, and corrosion. Around that time, his dad said, “We’re going to build a boat.”
On the Edge
Dougherty had never gone through the entire process of building a wooden pattern, lofting and full-size molds, so he learned. “We built a boat, and that eventually became
EdgeWater Powerboats,” he explains. “We built that company up to 100 or so people with eight models.” They took on some partners, who were sailboaters, and ended up selling their stock to them and moved on to start Everglades Boats.
“We built up Everglades pretty quickly,” says Dougherty. “A brand new hundred and twenty-five thousand-square-foot facility and it was a very efficient, a great company.” At Everglades, the team was able to design and build what they wanted and incorporated his dad’s Rapid Molded Core Assembly Process, which won a Marine Manufacturers Innovation Award in 1999, into every hull.
The family decided to cash out of Everglades in 2012, and Dougherty suddenly found himself with nothing to do. “My passion is building boats, and I earned a living out of building boats,” he says. Like his father, Stephen Dougherty wanted to build a great company for his family “…so my kids could stay around here in Florida and work for the company and stay together. That’s been my life’s dream.”
Building the Dream
His dream started with the purchase of a 30,000-square-foot facility. Dougherty started building things again and within a year, outgrew the complex. The City of Everglades
convinced him to buy a 200,000-square-foot building that was empty and run-down knowing he’d do something with it and put people to work. “When we bought the facility and were headed into the direction of manufacturing, our goal, in the end, was to be in the boat business,” says Dougherty.
There was a no-compete clause for three years after leaving Everglades, so instead of building boats, he worked on various large-scale fabrication projects, including those for numerous theme parks. One such project involved receiving only the concept and artist renderings, so Dougherty had 10 engineers work on the design and then the company manufactured the build. “Our capabilities are very diverse as a result of doing all that work for other companies,” says Dougherty, which greatly improved his team’s skills.
Finally able to build his innovative center console design, Dougherty got SOLACE in gear. “We knew we wanted to do everything in-house,” says Dougherty. “We already had an engineering team and a facility, so we bought two five-axis routers; one of them is capable of building a boat sixty feet long and the other is for small parts.” The SOLACE facility includes a welding fabrication shop, a brand-new, state-of-the-art Haas machine shop, paint facility, and a very modern lamination facility—a full-blown boatbuilding operation where the family heritage continues and his son now “plays” in the metal fabrication shop.
The SOLACE 345 is the culmination of his life’s work in engineering, building boats, turning ideas into practical designs, and trusting his instincts. “As far as building a boater’s boat, that’s what I do, and that’s what my dad has always done,” says Dougherty. “My wife and I and the kids go out on the boat every weekend. We’re boaters… That’s how I look at things differently than other boatbuilders look at things. People build ski boats, and people build fishing boats, and people build flats boats and pleasure boats. I build a boat for boaters…They go to the fireworks, they go to the picnic, they go to the beach, they go fishing, they go waterskiing, they do everything with a boat.
“My dad taught me a long time ago that there are two ways you can go when building, designing and selling a boat,” says Dougherty. “You can build an okay boat and do a load
of marketing, or, and this is how my dad put it, ‘you build a badass boat and people are going to buy it.’ Our philosophy is about building a better boat. In order to do that, you need to make every single aspect of the boat better.”
By Steve Davis, Southern Boating July 2019
Top 5 Fishing Spots in the Southeast
What’s better than a weekend boating and fishing trip? Not much in our book. Whether you like rivers and creeks, or the open ocean, the Southeast has something to offer every angler. We’ve put together a list of what we think are the top 5 fishing spots in the Southeast. Have we missed one of your favorites?
5. Louisiana Bayou, Louisiana
The Bayou is unique in that it offers anglers both freshwater and saltwater settings to fish. This region of Louisiana offers wetlands, shallows, waterways and off-shore and deep-sea fishing into the Gulf of Mexico. When it comes to freshwater fishing, Louisiana’s system of waterways is unmatched in the United States.
4. Lake Guntersville, Alabama
Lake Guntersville offers 70,000 acres of beautiful open water. This area is host to many of the top fishing tournaments including the Bassmaster fishing series. There are lots of bass in this lake and plenty of local guide services who would love to help you catch a trophy.
3. Lake Okeechobee, Florida
“The Big O” has been a bucket list lake for bass anglers for decades now. Lake Okeechobee is a lot like an enormous pond with its miles and miles of healthy grass and shallow water. The Sunshine State is the Fishing Capital for trophy bass fishing, as well as other sports fishing. Simply put, Lake Okeechobee is one of the premier fishing destinations in the world.
2. Pamlico Sound, North Carolina
With North Carolina’s mainland to the west and a string of narrow islands to the east, Pamlico Sound is the perfect breeding and feeding water for a wide variety of saltwater fish. From shallow flats to offshore fishing, the area is a haven for anglers who want a variety of options. It’s one of the best places in the world to catch mullet, sheepshead, redfish, and shark.
1. The Florida Keys, Florida
The Florida Keys are one of the most stunning, vibrant, and action-packed fishing locations in the world. The year-round warm and tropical temperatures and beautiful scenery all add to this Floridian fishing experience. With a 125mile long arc of islands to that make up the keys to explore, there’s a trophy fish for any angler. Here you’ll delight in Bonefish, Redfish, Yellowtail, Barracuda, and in the deep sea for Dolphinfish, Marlin, and other open-water predators.
Did we miss any of your favorite fishing sites? Let me know in the comments!
– Brandon Ferris
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Best podcast episodes
The Listener is a meta-podcast. Each episode of the Listener presents great individual podcast episodes selected from all the other podcasts out there. I listen to it to hear the best podcast episodes on the internet as curated by the same folks who do the Browser; the best articles on the internet. No need to subscribe to hundreds of podcast channels. You’ll get the best full shows with original intros and ads, but you only subscribe to one uber podcast, The Listener. The variety and quality are awesome. — KK
Best free stock photos
Using an image or photo on a website or social media without permission of the copyright holder could turn out to be an expensive mistake. This YouTube video covers best practices for using other people’s images. The best part of the video is the list of five excellent free stock websites. Many of the images on these websites are in the public domain, which means you can use them without even crediting the creator. Here are the sites: https://unsplash.com, https://pexels.com, https://pixabay.com, https://barnimages.com. — MF
Changing historical perspective
Every American should read at least the introductory essay in the NYT’s 1619 Project, which documents the central role that slavery had in America’s rise. Entitled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” it is a strong, tight argument that inverted my own ideas. The whole 1619 package is a seminal work. — KK
You 2.0: Deep Work
This podcast episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain with Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World,” reminded me how important it is to protect your brain from distractions and to create flows of deeply focused work. I find that on days when I schedule 4-5 hours of uninterrupted work, I accomplish a lot more within a short time span, and can use the rest of the time to respond to emails and get ahead of the week’s tasks. To combat interruptions, I find using a Pomodoro timer, and turning off email notifications in 30 minute batches works for me. I used to feel guilty for scheduling out every hour of my work day, like a robot, but ultimately scheduling in both deep work and time for distractions allows me to feel “finished” at the end of the workday, and to quickly unwind right when 5 o’clock hits. Cal Newport suggests having a shut-down phrase for when you’ve completed your schedule, something he was previously embarrassed of, but now embraces, like “Schedule shut-down complete.” I am totally stealing this and adding it to my workflow. — CD
Double-sided tape for your clothes
If I’m wearing a low-cut dress or a finicky blouse, this little tin of double-sided apparel tape (Hollywood Fashion Secrets Fashion Tape Tin, $8) always saves the day. I make sure I pack this in my luggage when I travel and in my purse if I dress up or go to weddings. — CD
Fast water kettle
In last week’s Recomendo I recommended the Bodum Brazil French Press Coffee Maker. To heat the water, I’m using a Cosori Electric Kettle ($30). It’s made from borosilicate glass and has a stainless steel bottom. No plastic touches the water. A half liter of room-temperature water starts to simmer in a minute, and comes to a full boil in under two minutes. It shuts off automatically. — MF
-- Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson
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Duolingo has launched its latest language learning course, and this one will help you learn to speak Latin. Latin isn’t the most obvious choice of languages to learn, but it’s a good choice for those either seeking to become polyglots or looking to challenge themselves.
For the uninitiated, Duolingo is a free language-learning app which uses gamification to help you learn languages. Duolingo offers courses in dozens of languages, including French, German, Spanish, and Italian. And it has now launched a Latin course.
How to Learn to Speak Latin Using Duolingo
Duolingo’s Latin-learning course will teach you to speak Classical Latin. This is the form that was spoken by writers, lawyers, and scientists. If you work in the legal profession, the medical field, or science labs, you’ll likely to be aware of Classical Latin.
To create its Latin course, Duolingo partnered with The Paideia Institute, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching the classical humanities. The result is a course which teaches you Latin in bite-sized chunks, allowing you to learn at your own pace.
Fun Fact I: The Latin term for "tweet" is breviloquium.
Fun Fact II: Our Latin course is now available. Salvete!
— Duolingo (@duolingo) August 28, 2019
Latin is considered a dead language, as there are no native speakers alive today. So, why would you want to learn Latin in this day and age? It turns out that there are a number of reasons to learn Latin, which Duolingo explores in this post on Making Duolingo.
The biggest reason is that Latin is the root of all Romance languages, such as Spanish, French, and Italian. Latin has also influenced other languages, so you’ll get a better understanding of your mother tongue. So it isn’t as dead as you may think.
Other Languages to Learn Using Duolingo
Even with the reasons to speak Latin Duolingo has listed, we still wouldn’t recommend learning Latin above other languages still very much in use today. But once you have mastered a second language, Latin would certainly provide a challenge.
For the more serious-minded, you can learn Arabic using Duolingo, learn Hindi using Duolingo, and learn Chinese using Duolingo. And if you’re craving a geeky second language with no use in the real world, you can even learn to speak High Valyrian.
Image Credit: Carole Raddato/Flickr
Read the full article: You Can Now Learn to Speak Latin Using Duolingo
Do you have no idea what delicious treat you should bake next? Coming up with your own recipes is challenging and baking the same recipe over and over gets boring.
If you’ve run out of ideas, there are plenty of resources you can use to get some inspiration. End your baking dry spell and check out these websites for baking inspiration and recipes.
1. Baking Mad
When you need some new baking recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth, head to Baking Mad. The site features hundreds of easy-to-follow recipes for cakes, cookies, bread, pancakes, cupcakes, and pies.
Each recipe displays a difficulty level and lets you know if it satisfies special dietary requirements. This makes it perfect for those living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
If you need a more hands-on approach, Baking Mad also has baking videos you can watch as you create your treat. For even more baking help, you can check out Baking Mad’s tips and tricks section—it features advice on everything from substituting eggs to making self-rising flour.
Baking Mad is your all-in-one source for baking needs, and the site even includes its own bakeware shop.
My Baking Addiction was created by baking hobbyist, Jamie. The website includes a collection of her own recipes, a personal blog, as well as dessert inspiration from her travels.
You won’t have trouble figuring out your next baking project on My Baking Addiction. Head to the main menu, and click Recipe Index under the Recipes tab. From here, you can filter and find recipes based on easiness, type of dessert, and whether it requires baking in the oven.
Sally’s Baking Addiction is run by self-taught baker and cookbook author, Sally McKenney. You can find several recipes on just about any sweet treat that you can think of—candy, donuts, frosting, and ice cream are just some of the recipes you’ll come across.
Additionally, you can find recipes based on the type of treat, the season, or a specific ingredient.
Every month, Sally posts baking challenges for those who want to put their skills to the test. Sally walks you through an expert-level recipe, and you’ll feel proud once you successfully complete it!
In case you’re tired of baking desserts, Sally’s Baking Addiction has plenty of dinner ideas as well.
Although the Joy of Baking website isn’t the most attractive and has its fair share of ads, it’s still a reliable resource for unique and tasty recipes. Stephanie Jaworski created Joy of Baking way back in 1997 as a way to interact with other bakers. While Stephanie handles the recipes, her husband tackles all the photos and videography for the site.
In fact, her YouTube channel is one of the best cooking channels on the web.
As soon as you open the site, you’ll probably get overwhelmed by the number of options. The leftmost and top sidebars house several recipe categories like eggless recipes, apple recipes, cakes, and healthy baking.
Each recipe comes with high-quality videos that show you exactly how to get the decadent results you want.
If you want recipes with a personal touch, check out Brown Eyed Baker. Clicking on the Start Here button at the top of the screen introduces you to the site. The mind behind Brown Eyed Baker, Michelle, prides herself on providing recipes that are uncomplicated, yet delicious.
To browse the entire site for recipes, navigate to the Recipe Index. Here, you can select the category of dessert you want to bake, as well as search by ingredient. Brown Eyed Baker gives recommendations on ingredients and baking equipment as well.
Bakerella offers a clean and organized website for several types of desserts. The owner of the site, Angie, focuses on simple and fun recipes. On the home screen, you’ll find the most recently added recipe, along with instructions.
The Sweet Stuff category on the top menu bar contains all Bakerella’s recipes, such as cakes, cookies, pies, brownies, and more. You’ll also find cake pop recipes, holiday recipes, and links to Angie’s own cookbooks.
Once you head to Passion for Baking, you’ll immediately get inspired (and hungry) by the collection of amazing dessert photos—the treats almost look too good to eat!
Manuela Kjeilen created the site with the goal to spark creativity in other bakers, and her unique recipes do just that.
When you click on one of the recipes, you’ll see a short introduction that shows pictures of the completed dessert. The mouthwatering photos are followed by an ingredient list, along with detailed step-by-step instructions. Better yet, you can scroll down and see photos of the dessert’s entire baking process.
If you’re looking for sites with healthy food recipes, Amy’s Healthy Baking is a great place to start. The words “healthy” and “baking” don’t seem to go together, but Amy makes it work. It’s hard to bake desserts that are healthy and tasty, so it’s impressive to see so many dessert recipes that won’t ruin your diet.
Each recipe has a low-calorie count that Amy will mention in the description of each recipe. When you want to indulge without all the extra sugar and fat, one of these recipes is the perfect healthy solution.
On this site, you’ll also find advice on how to start your own cooking blog and even some recommendations for kitchen supplies.
The Cake Blog has some of the most extravagant and creative cake recipes. If you have a special event coming up, try your hand at making one of these recipes, and you won’t fail to impress all your guests.
You might not have expert cake creation skills, and that’s okay. Navigate to the Tutorials tab on the top menu bar, and you’ll see a collection of unique cakes that you can bake. They look intimidating, but the provided step-by-step tutorials break down the entire process.
Experiment With Baking Recipes
You don’t have to keep baking the same apple pie or generic chocolate cake at your family’s get-togethers. Instead, you should expand your cookbook by checking out the desserts on one of the above websites. There’s nothing more satisfying than successfully baking a new recipe, and seeing others enjoy it.
When you find multiple recipes you want to try, you’ll need a way to manage them. Luckily, these recipe management apps can help you organize and keep track of all your recipes.
Read the full article: The 9 Best Baking Recipe Websites for Delicious Dessert Ideas
Do you know how to change the oil on your car? What about how to knit a scarf? Or how to make compost?
If you need some help with life’s little chores, the internet is full of guidance. But which sites should you head to when you need some advice? Here are 12 how-to sites that everyone needs to have saved in their bookmarks.
wikiHow is a collaborative site that allows anyone to submit an article about a topic of their choosing. And because it’s a wiki, other authors can update and amend pieces to make them more accurate and/or complete. Indeed, according to the site’s own literature, the average article is edited by 23 people and reviewed by 16 people.
The list of categories is massive. There are Arts and Entertainment, Philosophy and Religion, Sports and Fitness, Home and Garden, and Finance and Business, to name just a few.
Instructables is a how-to site with seven categories—Circuits, Workshop, Craft, Cooking, Living, Outside, and Teachers.
Projects on the site have varying degrees of complexity, but there are also varying degrees of “wackiness.” On one end of the scale, there are genuinely useful creations such as outdoor steel fire baskets and kids’ games. At the other end, we are not sure how many people really need a polar bear made from scrap metal in their lives.
In terms of content, eHow is similar to wikiHow. The main difference is that eHow has a team of writers rather than being a public wiki.
The site is divided into six categories: Home Décor and Repair, Crafts, Food and Drink, Garden, Fashion and Beauty, and Holidays. Content includes video tutorials which you can also catch on their YouTube channel.
It’s easy to overlook YouTube—it’s not something a lot of people think of when considering the best how-to sites on the web.
But if you don’t check it out, you’re missing out. There are thousands of channels dedicated to every topic imaginable. The trick is to find the right one and then explore its playlist.
Reddit has millions of how-to posts across its subreddits. However, there’s also a subreddit specifically dedicated to people’s how-to requests.
Users post how-to conundrums their facing, and readers chime in with their tips and suggestions. There are no restrictions on the type of advice people can ask for, with the exception of adult entertainment.
A quick scroll through the top posts at the time of writing shows people offering how-to advice on topics as diverse as cleaning sneakers to polishing brass bowls.
6. Acme How To
Acme How To (which thankfully has no connection to Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote!) is a DIY-focused how-to website. Broadly speaking, the content is split into three categories: Improvements, Repairs, and Decorate.
Just about every conceivable aspect of home DIY has its own subsection. For example, you can use Acme How To to learn how to grout, paint, lay a floor, control pests, and a whole lot more.
The site also has a small review section to make sure you’re buying the best tools for the job.
Cars can be confusing. And more importantly, they can also be extremely expensive to maintain.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you spend some time doing a spot of self-learning, you can save yourself a fortune and have some fun at the same time.
If you’re looking for a how-to site for autos, check out How a Car Works. The site is part-explanations, part-guides. All the information is categorized into subsections such as Brakes, Electrical, Fuel, Steering, Suspension, and other car-themed topics. Many of the video how-to guides require payment.
If arts and crafts are more your thing, Craft Stylish is a how-to site that you need to bookmark. It’s packed with how-to articles and videos across topics such as sewing, embroidery, jewelry making, knitting, paper art, and crochet.
The site also lets you create a personal profile. You can use it to interact with the community and resolve your how-to questions and queries.
If you’re looking for how-to articles about as wide a range of topics as possible, HowToDoThings is probably the site for you.
There are 18 categories to browse. They cover cars, pets, travel, careers, and everything in between. It means that on the same site, you will find articles as such as how to stretch before a dance class and how to get a housing grant for a first-time buyer.
Rather than publishing its own content, Hackr.io is a repo of how-to articles that have been bookmarked from other sites. As the name suggests, all the content is geared towards programming and coding.
You’ll find tutorials and how-to guides for subjects such as Python, C++, PHP, Google Analytics, Alexa, and even Bitcoin.
Users can submit new content; the site deploys an upvote/downvote system that’s similar to Reddit.
Snapguide is another community-driven how-to site. Categories on Snapguide include Art and Crafts, Food, Lifestyle, Deserts, and Automotive. There are how-to guides on everything from how to change a tire to how to bake a birthday cake.
Even though the site is excellent, Snapguide is primarily aimed at mobile users. People can add their own how-to guides thanks to the app’s simple interface. It lets you snap photos, record videos, and add text in a cinch.
We’ll end with a bit of shameless self-promotion. If you need to know how to do anything in the tech world, MakeUseOf should be your first port of call. We’ve published how-to articles on everything from Android Auto to Tinder.
We think we’re the best, and we’re confident you’ll agree if you spend a bit of time digging through our content.
The Best How-to Sites
The 12 sites we’ve listed cover a broad range of topics and hobbies, but we know our selections are nowhere near exhaustive. Ergo, we’d love to hear which sites you’d add to the list. Make sure you reach out and let us know in the comments below.
Read the full article: The 12 Best How-To Sites That Everyone Should Bookmark
Why shoot film when digital is so easy? For me, it’s all about mindfulness. Film forces you to be more selective with what you shoot, so it challenges you to stay in touch with your subject. There’s no looking at the back of the camera to check our photos as you go, so you are more likely to be present in your environment and in that moment. Plus, I think there’s something to be said for the practice of delayed gratification. In the following paragraphs, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started. And remember, up until a few years ago literally everyone shot film, so it can’t be that difficult.
(To hone your photography skills with Huckberry Ambassadors Forrest Mankins and Alex Strohl, check out their Creating the Moment virtual photography workshop—you’ll be shooting like a Huckberry Ambassador in no time.)
Once you start paying attention, you’ll see a lot of different terms and formats being thrown around: 35mm, 120, 6x7, 645, medium format, large format, and on and on. 35mm is the standard film roll we’re used to, and modern digital cameras have a sensor that is roughly the same size, so that’s a good place to start. With a 35mm, you’ll have cheaper access to more cameras that are often easier to use, the film is cheaper per shot, and you’ll get more photos back per roll which speeds up learning.
I remember how daunting it felt when I started looking for my first film camera. Nothing was currently being manufactured, so I was researching products made a decade or more ago. My first camera was the classic Canon AE-1 Program. It turned out to be a joy to use, and easy to learn on. The Pentax K1000 is also another great option. Both are 35mm SLR, which is what I’d recommend for beginners. SLRs are super simple, allow you to choose your lens, and have light meters inside like a digital camera.
Whatever you choose, when shopping on Ebay, look for sellers who accept returns and have great ratings. Buying anything used is a gamble, so choose a seller that makes you feel comfortable. And be sure to Google your camera manual to help get you started.
There are different kinds of film: slide film, black and white film, and color negative film. Color negative (c41) is the most common. To start, I recommend getting a handful of 400-speed color negative rolls (like Kodak Portra, Fuji 400h, Fuji Superia, and Kodak Gold) and a traditional black and white. Shoot them and send them in all at once. You’ll most likely have some botched shots in each roll, but when you’re able to compare, you’ll probably find you have an automatic preference of one look over the other. Once you’ve picked your favorite, stick with it until you get to know how it will handle in every situation.
Here are some recommended films:
• Kodak Portra 160: least light sensitive, good for daytime
• Kodak Portra 400: medium sensitivity to light, most functional for all purpose shooting
• Kodak Portra 800: higher light sensitivity, higher grain, my favorite Portra
• Fuji 400H: beautiful skin tones, vibrant colors, my favorite 35mm film
• Kodak Ektar: 100 speed, extremely fine grain, great for photographing objects and darker skin tones (can make paler skin look red)
Black and White
• Kodak TRI-X
• Kodak T-MAX
• Ilford HP5
You’ll often hear film shooters talk about shooting things at “box speed.” All this means is that if you’re matching your camera’s ISO/ASA to your film speed. If you are already shooting on a digital camera, you’ve probably already heard of ISO (formerly known as ASA). It’s the camera setting that determines light sensitivity (and consequently, graininess). With film, you’ll want to set your ISO based on the film speed. Lower film speeds (100, 200) mean lower light sensitivity and less grain in your photos, but you’ll need longer shutter speeds (which indicates how long the shutter is open) and bigger apertures (which indicates the size of the opening in your camera lens). Higher film speeds (800, 1600, 3200) mean higher sensitivity and more grain in your photos. For most people, I recommend starting out with a do-all 400-speed film.
Once you choose your film speed, conventional wisdom is to set the camera’s ISO/ASA to the same number. On older cameras you’ll have to do this manually, but newer cameras should do it for you. This is a great way to start out and a lot of people’s preferred method. On the other hand, overexposing your film by shooting at half of the ISO can also give you great results. (I.e. if the film you put in your camera is 400 speed, set your camera’s ISO/ASA to 200.) With digital, overexposure can wash out detail, but with film, it’ll give your images a brighter look. I do it routinely.
Don’t be timid, be thoughtful.
Even though shooting film doesn’t need to cost a lot, the fact that each picture costs SOMETHING will definitely be on your mind when you’re shooting. We’re not creating some digital file that may or may not ever be looked at a second time, but something that is going to exist in a negative and a print (you’re going to want prints). I love that shooting film makes us thoughtful, but don’t let it make you timid. I often wish I would have taken 1, 2, or sometimes 10 more frames of something that really caught me. You’re not going to be taking a million mindless shots like you would on digital, but don’t be afraid to give yourself a few chances to capture something.
After 6 years of sending film to different labs across the country—from drugstores, to places recommendations from friends, to the most highly rated labs out there—and I’ve finally found my lab. Even though many labs have the same equipment, your results can vary from location to location and from employee to employee, so it’s important to find a place you like and work with them to get your scans how you want them.
I send all of my film to State Film Lab in Louisville, and to everyone else—pro or prospective shooter—I recommend doing the same. And lucky for you, we’ve got a 15% off discount code to get you started: HB15.
For more photography advice from Forrest (both film and digital), check out the workshop he created with Huckberry Ambassador Alex Strohl. The Creating the Moment workshop includes 18 video lessons, four Adobe Lightroom presets, and a downloadable workshop manual from two of the best adventure photographers out there.
>>Next: A Skeptic’s Guide to Mindfulness
Huckberry HQ got some bad news last week—news that led to some not-so-subtle groans from the auto lovers in the room. Though it hasn’t been officially confirmed, (see Toyota Product Communications Analyst Josh Burns’ not-so-promising statement here), it appears that Toyota will be removing an off-road legend from the US market: the Land Cruiser. Once we picked our jaws up, we realized that this was the sensible choice, considering the price they’re going for these days (if you don’t know, it’s around $85,000). But the sad news got us thinking of the Land Cruisers of old—the ones that have us yearning for a manual transmission, a 4x4, and a rocky road ahead. The behemoths that wore dents as badges of honor rather than an unsightly blemish. To say farewell to this iconic overlander, we’re celebrating some of our favorite models and thanking them for many years of adventure.
Made from 1960-1984, the FJ40 is a true off-road icon. Paving the way for the Land Cruisers to come, the FJ40 is renowned not only for its adventure capabilities but also for its reverence in the collector community. The sheer amount of these beauties still out there in working order is a testament to the durability and toughness Toyota 4x4s are known for today.
Possibly the most acclaimed Land Cruiser of them all, the FJ60 is the clear favorite around HBHQ. We’ve seen these driven from Texas to Alaska on 200,000+ miles and crawl over some of the most treacherous terrain you can find, and Huckberry Ambassador Forrest Mankins’ beloved Land Cruiser FJ60 (Burt) is ubiquitous on his Instagram feed. With a seemingly infinite array of modifications available and an endless feed of forums to sift through on the web, the FJ60 will likely outlast the cockroach—and for this, we are extremely grateful.
With the pedigree of classic FJs combined with the comfort of a big, modern SUV, the FJ100 is probably the last true off-road-worthy Land Cruiser. Toyota was long known for durability by the time the FJ100 was released, and that reputation may make the FJ100 the ultimate combination of reliability and capability.
While we will be sad to see the Land Cruiser go, the reality is, the newest model, the J200, just wasn’t cutting it. With the Lexus LX on the market at a similar price, going for the Toyota version didn’t seem quite worth it. But with this legendary 4x4’s discontinuation, we know the surviving past models are about to become even more coveted.
We know this list isn’t comprehensive, so if you’ve got a favorite model or Land Cruiser memory to share, comment below or tag us on Instagram.
Denver: The Mile High City. Home to the Broncos, 300 days of sunshine, and legendary views of the whitecapped Rocky Mountain range. Boasting over 4,000 acres of city parks, a top-rated restaurant scene, and a melting pot of culture sprawling across the high plains, there’s something for everyone. Take a scenic drive on I-70 past roaming buffalo, mountain goats, and snorkel-equipped 4Runners to access the legendary skiing and hiking people can’t get enough of. Always remember to pack smart on your visit to the Colorful State, as you may be greeted by sunny 80°F days, 10°F blizzards, or golf ball-sized hail storms. (Pro-tip: Dramamine is never a bad addition to your packing list—blame it all on the altitude)
Pair picturesque views of scaling mountains with a pint of fresh hops, and you have a true Coloradan experience. In addition to the city’s abundant recreational options, Denver is one of the first major cities on the map to house over 70 craft breweries. With big names like Coors, Odell, and New Belgium in the area, the competition is fierce to produce the highest quality beer. From big brewery royalty to truly local microbreweries, your only problem will be choosing where to start.
(For the record, our readers recommended Casey Brewing & Blending as their favorite brewery in Colorado in our roundup of the best brewery in every state.)
Distance from Denver: 1-hour bus ride from Union Station to Boulder Station, 30-minute drive
Hike: 3.2 mile (out and back), moderate
Beer: The Post Brewing Co.
Chautauqua Park overlooking Boulder is a local spot for weekend hikers, outdoor workout groups, and out-of-town visitors. It’s a hop, skip, and jump away from Denver-proper, making it one of the most popular places to explore outside the city. In the park, you’ll spot climbers ascending the First Flatiron, an outdoor wedding shoot, or some folks napping in a hammock among the ponderosa pine trees.
To commence your hike, you’ll want to begin at the Chautauqua Ranger Station, just off of Baseline Road. From the station, a drainage route will diverge into a plethora of trails, including the favored Royal Arch Trail. While not as dramatic as the visuals in Arches National Park, it’s still pretty impressive. On this route, you’ll saunter past the Flatirons and up to one of the best views of the Front Range. Begin your hike by following the drainage path from the station up to Bluebell Road Trail. Stroll through the high grass meadows and hit the Bluebell Shelter. Here you’ll enter Bluebell Canyon and begin to face a few uphill battles (literally). From the canyon, find your way across the boulder field and follow the trailhead markers through the switchbacks to the Royal Arch and back to the start.
With 1,400 feet of elevation gain, this is a helluva hike. Reward yourself with a cold one from The Post Brewing, located on 13th Street just a few blocks from the trailhead parking lot. Awarded with a bronze medal at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival is the brewery’s Howdy Western Pilsner and the must-try Townie Hoppy American Ale (an English-style IPA). It’s also worth mentioning that The Post Brewing Co. has some exceptional fried chicken. Other breweries to check out in the area include Oskar Blues Brewing as well as Avery Brewing Co.
Photo: Go Hike Colorado
Chavez and Beaver Brook Trail Loop
Distance from Denver: 30-minute drive
Hike: 3.9 miles (loop), moderate
Beer: Coors Brewing Co.
In Genesee Park on the border of Golden lies a diamond in the rough: Chavez and Beaver Brook Trail. Still considered a semi-hidden gem to the Golden residents, the Hiking Project has recently popularized the shaded creekside loop. With various stream crossings, it is a wise decision to trek during the summer and early fall season. It’s a site praised for showcasing an abundance of vegetation from wildflowers to berries in the limelight of snow-covered peaks. Maybe if you’re lucky you will even catch sight of a deer or two. The 3.9-mile loop begins on Stapleton Mountain Trail (Braille Trail) and leads you to a stream crossing where you will be met with a two-way fork. Take the left to promenade Chavez Trail. On this path, you’ll descend into a beautiful canyon and find yourself back at the car.
Feeling energized after the hike? Take the afternoon to visit and tour Coors Brewing Company. Headquartered in Golden, Coors invites guests to stroll through the world’s largest single-site brewery. Tour hours and dates are subject to seasonality so plan accordingly and reference their website before visiting. While this clearly isn’t quite a local brewery anymore, it is a mecca of beer that should be given its due. If you are seeking more of a sitdown taproom experience, head to New Terrain Brewing Co. An exploratory craft brewery, the guys over at New Terrain know a thing or two about making a high-quality brew. Not to mention, they produce some eccentric flavors from Rubus Delicious raspberry sour to savory seasonal like Punky Masala. Pair with one of the parked food trucks and you’ll for sure be coming back for more.
Photo: Jon Weiskircher
Devil’s Head Fire Lookout
Distance from Denver: 1-hour drive
Hike: 2.5 miles (out and back), moderate
Beer: 105 West Brewing Co.
Devil’s Head Fire Lookout, situated close by Sedalia, features the only fire lookout in the state, putting it on the National Register of Historic Places. If you are visiting with family or kids, this is a great day hike to explore not only the historical significance of this site but also the incredible panoramic views of the nearby Pikes Peak. Only 60 minutes away from downtown Denver, it’s one of the closest spots to access the best views of the mountains.
At the trailhead, you’ll begin by meandering through a patch of tall aspen trees and eventually into a large meadow. The hike itself is easy to moderate with 900 feet of elevation. In Colorado terms, that’s child’s play (being from sea level, we must admit we are usually gasping for air regardless). Upon reaching the meadow you will see a lookout tower in the distance. Climb the 143 steps, you’ll reach the top of the fire tower where you may be greeted by Bill Ellis or his wife, who have been serving as the operators of the fire tower for over 25 years.
Later, drive a few miles south to Castle Rock for an afternoon ale and some carb-loaded grub. A variety of breweries to choose from, our favorite in the area is 105 West Brewing Co. Relatively unknown by Denverites due to a saturation of craft breweries in the Front Range, the brewers at 105 West can whip out some hopped beers that are sure to stand up against those idolized in the city. Refresh yourself with a Blood Orange Gose or experiment with the Nutella-inspired Deez Nuts. After a long day in the sun and heat, nothing is more refreshing than a Colorado microbrew and a plate of food truck gastronomy.
Photo: Kimon Berlin
Distance from Denver: 1.5-hour drive
Hike: 8.5 miles (out and back), difficult
Beer: Rock Cut Brewing Co.
If you want to get after it, Chasm Lake is an admirable ascent. Resting in a high alpine cirque of Rocky Mountain National Park, adjacent to a family of lakes and pools, lies this quintessential Colorado lake. To access this area it is recommended to have a guide book or map in hand as the many diverting trails of the park can get a bit confusing. Sights of Colorado’s state flower, the Columbine, alongside stretches of krummholz, a type of twisted wood will come into view. Don’t work too hard in the beginning, this is a longer hike and you will want to pace yourself. At the 2.2 mile marker, the terrain will change from forested spruce cover to exposed subalpine country. You will then continue to follow the trail until arriving at Chasm Lake. At an elevation of 11,540 feet with jetting fourteener peaks, including the infamous Longs Peak seemingly so close, it’s time to take the camera out.
Following a gratifying yet exhausting trip to Chasm Lake, head over to the town of Estes Park. It’s famous for the Stanley Hotel (Kubrick’s inspiration for the hotel in “The Shining”) and beautiful views of eclipsing rocky mountains. There are quite a few breweries to check out, but we recommend Rock Cut Brewing. Once you’ve caught your breath and are situated, a must-try is the Galactic Portal, a New England-style IPA.
Photo: Doss Imaging
Distance from Denver: 45-minute drive
Hike: 5.5 miles (out and back), difficult
Beer: Smokin’ Yards
Mount Evans is the most accessible of Colorado's fourteeners and a good place to try out your first high-elevation hike. The trailhead for the West Ridge route starts right at the parking lot of the park—it’s that accessible. Remember to take breaks and pack some snacks so that when you make it to the top, you’ll have a feeling of utter appreciation for the nature surrounding you rather than a pounding headache from the elevation. Experience unworldly views of topographic mountains as far as you can see. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your hand-crafted cardboard sign and celebratory beer to take a picture with at the top.
Feel that? If on your way down from the peak you begin to feel lightheaded and off-balance, it's a sign of altitude sickness. You will want to find some electrolytes and Dramamine—an easy add to the backpack. Before heading back to Denver, make a pit stop in Idaho Springs. This quaint little mining town is home to some of the best barbecue in the Front Range. A spot well tracked by skiers, riders, and hikers after a long day’s workout on the mountain, is the cult favorite, Smokin' Yards. Exhibiting a mouthwatering menu—alongside some damn good pickles and boiled peanuts, it should not be overlooked. Make it in time for some burnt ends paired with a draft beer and you may just have to make it a routine. Take a slow drive back to Denver and get ready for an early night’s sleep.
>>Next: Trails and Ales: Portland
If you’ve ever been sitting in your deerstand about 10:30 on opening morning and heard your stomach start growling loud enough it could scare away any buck within 50 yards, you know how important snacks are to the outdoorsman. Jerky just might be the perfect snack for hardcore hunters and anglers. And it just seems to taste better when in the field or on the lake than it does sitting in your recliner at home. To make a good selection, consider three important factors—flavor, texture and nutrition.
Beef jerky has expanded from only a flavor or two 20 years ago to more flavors than you could taste in a week. Traditional beef jerky varies mainly in hotness depending on the amount of pepper used in making it. More flavors available include sweet, hickory, honey pepper, sweet and spicy, mesquite and an assortment of savory flavors made with dry herbs, spices and seasonings like garlic, ginger and jalapeños. If you don't have a personal preference, play it smart and pick whichever kind your hunting buddies hate so you can have more of it for yourself!
The jerky texture you prefer is as much a matter of individual taste as flavor is, since many textures are available. Old-fashioned jerky is the driest and hardest, and many hunters and anglers consider it to be "real" jerky. Traditional jerky is next on the scale. Not too tough and not too soft, it would likely make Goldilocks happy. Next on the list is soft and tender jerky, which is thicker and moister than the previous two types and sometimes feels like you are eating dried steak—not a bad thing. While some people don't consider meat sticks to be jerky, they are the meatiest and moistest of the beef jerky categories and are popular with many people.
Beef jerky is a pretty nutritious snack, but you should check individual labels when making a purchase if that’s a concern to you. The main nutritional factors of interest in jerky are fat and protein. Typical beef jerky contains about 60 percent fat, 40 percent protein. Other meats can be used to make jerky, too, and some have less fat. Bison jerky is about 43 percent fat, 57 percent protein. For fish jerky, trout runs about 40 percent fat, 60 percent protein; and salmon averages 52 percent fat, 48 percent protein. Turkey jerky, which some companies make taste about like beef jerky, runs 50 percent fat, 50 percent protein. Most companies that make low-fat jerky will mention that fact prominently on the packaging.
While the majority of cenotes—water-filled sinkholes that dot the Yucatán Peninsula—are dramatically located underground, a few are at ground level. The Xlacah cenote is one such place, making it one of the few swimming holes where you can go for a dip while looking out over Mayan ruins.
The Xlacah cenote is located in the middle of the archaeological zone of Dzibilchaltún, and it's believed to have been the main freshwater source for the ancient Maya inhabitants of the city. The story of Dizibilchaltún began around 500 BCE when the first populations settled here, partly enticed by the presence of the cenote, which was an endless source of freshwater. The surface area of the pool is only part of a large water system that encompasses underground tunnels and a maximum depth of almost 150 feet. The ancient city reached its apex between the 3rd and 6th century AD, and during this period many wells were dug throughout the area.
Notable among the Mayan architecture at the site is the presence of a Spanish open chapel. These open chapels were commonly built out of rubble taken from indigenous temples in order to establish the dominance of Christianity over the native pre-Hispanic beliefs. Dzibilchaltún's open chapel is one of the oldest found in Mexico, dating back to 1592.
Xlacah has been explored by a few diving expeditions, the first in 1956. During these explorations, archaeological vestiges such as carved bones, clay fragments, and wooden artifacts were found. It is clear from these finds that Xlacah, like many other cenotes in the Yucatán, not only served a practical role for its freshwater but was also part of the belief systems and cosmogony of the local inhabitants.
Today we travel to a future where all animal testing is banned. What are the alternatives? What can we do without using animals, and what can’t we do?
- Janet D. Stemwedel — professor of philosophy at San Jose State University
- Lawrence Carter Long — communications director at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
- Kristie Sullivan — vice president of research policy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
- Deepak Kaushal — director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center at Texas Biomedical Research Institute
- Hunter Rogers — researcher at Northwestern University on EVATAR project
- FDA Animal Testing and Cosmetics
- How did the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act come about?
- Safety Testing History
- Opinion versus evidence for the need to move away from animal testing.
- Ex-Director Zerhouni Surveys Value of NIH Research
- Global trends of animal ethics and scientific research
- The ‘Necessity’ Of Animal Research Does Not Mean It’s Ethical
- Reengineering Translational Science: The Time Is Right
- The ethics of animal research. Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research
- 1926 The Atlantic: The Ethics of Animal Experimentation
- The Moral Status of Invasive Animal Research
- The ethics and value of responsible animal research
- Science for the People podcast episode: Animal Research Revisited
- Nothing to hide: opening the files on animal research
- Medical progress depends on animal models – doesn’t it?
- Reliability of Protocol Reviews for Animal Research
- Estimates for worldwide laboratory animal use in 2005.
- Factors associated with clinical trials that fail and opportunities for improving the likelihood of success: A review
- Roadmap to guide progress toward replacing animal use in toxicity testing
- Alternatives to animal testing: A review
- Animal experimentation: A look into ethics, welfare and alternative methods
- What are the Best Animal Models for Testing Early Intervention in Cerebral Palsy?
- Long-term neuropathologic changes associated with cerebral palsy in a nonhuman primate model of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy
- Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine: Animal Testing Alternatives
- Alternatives to Animals Fact Sheet
- EVATAR system
- A microfluidic culture model of the human reproductive tract and 28-day menstrual cycle
- Device Mimicking Female Reproductive Cycle Could Aid Research
- Organ-on-a-chip platforms for drug delivery and cell characterization: A review
- Organ-on-a-chip platforms for studying drug delivery systems
- Recent advances in organ-on-a-chip technologies and future challenges: a review.
- Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation
- Maria — Cara Rose de Fabio
- Gaby — Eler de Grey
- Marquis — Rotimi Agbabiaka (check out his new solo show called Manifesto on June 21 at the African American Arts and Culture Complex as part of the National Queer Arts Festival.)
- John — Keith Houston (also check out his karaoke nights in San Francisco)
- Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Special thanks this episode to
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
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Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
Before we go to the future, another quick
reminder that if you become a patron between now and June 30th, you get a
surprise in the mail from me! More on that at patreon.com/flashforwardpod. I
won’t talk your ear off about this too much on this episode… so… let’s go to
This episode we’re starting in the year 2059.
Marquis: Okay… I think I have this working
Maria: Yeah it’s working![ding]
Gaby: Whoa. You guys look good.
Maria: Pretty cool huh?
Gaby: Do you think John will be able to figure this out?
Maria: It’s not THAT complicated.
Marquis: Is John even going to show up?
Maria: Yeah I texted him earlier.[ding]
John: Hey guys… whoa. It’s like you’re right there….
Maria: Isn’t it awesome? I invested in this company recently, you know, so… full disclosure I guess. But this VR setup is so great! It’s like we’re actually hanging out again!
Marquis: I was skeptical honestly but it does look pretty cool.
John: Totally. Hey sorry I had to schedule last time.
Maria: Yeah wait what happened? Gaby said you were in jail?
John: Yeah …. I got arrested at a protest.
Marquis: Wait really? No offense John but you’re not like, a protesting kind of guy?
John: [laughing a little] Yeah man, I totally wasn’t. But I found something I actually care about?
Maria: Cool! … are you going to tell us what it is?
John: Oh! Yeah sure, I mean, I just didn’t want to like, launch into some kind of lecture… but I mean… so I guess broadly it’s animal rights. But specifically animal testing. I got arrested because I locked myself to the door of Nicodemus’s main offices to protest their use of animals in medical testing.
Maria: Wait … but we have to test drugs on animals to make sure they’re safe for humans.
John: No we don’t.
Maria: What do you mean no we don’t… we wouldn’t have half the medicines we have now if we couldn’t test on animals.
John: That’s true, and in my opinion it’s an awful legacy we’ll look back on with shame.
Maria: I don’t think we should feel shame for curing people.
John: Do you think we should be allowed to test drugs on human inmates? You’re cool with the Tuskegee experiments?
Maria: [frustrated] No. Obviously not. But animals are not humans.
John: Would you be okay with Parker being used for experiments?
Maria: No, he’s a pet.
John: So what makes another dog different?
Maria: We have to make sacrifices, I mean, Gaby wouldn’t have her cool tattoo or any of her drugs without these tests.
Gaby: Hi there, I’m a human person not a bargaining chip to be used in an argument!
Maria: But you have to agree with me… right?
Gaby: I don’t know what I think, honestly. I’ve been reading about it since John told me he got arrested… it’s complicated.
Maria: There are already TONS of rules and regulations about what we can and can’t do with animals. You know I’m testing my eye drops on animals right John?
John: Yeah… I know…
Maria: And you think that’s wrong.
John: Yeah… I do. I wasn’t going to bring it up but… yes, I think it’s unethical.
Maria: There’s no other way. The FDA won’t approve something that isn’t tested on animal models first.
John: I just don’t think that’s good enough. Are these drops really worth torturing animals for? Sure, they’ll make you a whole lot of money, but I don’t think corporate interests should determine ethics.
Maria: I’m not a corporate interest John, I’m just one person trying to make the world better.
John: That’s what they all say.[awkward pause]
Marquis [trying to change the subject]: So… I’m going to go next! I bought a house… here in Jacksonville. So if any of you ever want to come visit lovely Jacksonville, Florida, there is a guest room for you.[silence]
Marquis: And I joined an intramural frisbee team, which is fun, although I am VERY out of shape. But it’s good to play a sport that nobody really cares about with other people who are way past their prime…. And it’s been good to meet new people. I’ve had kind of a hard time making new friends here in Jacksonville… even though I’ve been here… like five years now?
Gaby: Is your brother still there?
Marquis: No, after our parents died last year he moved back to Nashville. So it’s just me now. But work is here, and I travel a lot for that, so I feel like this is as good a place as any to buy? Besides, it’s a buyers market, so I got a great deal.
Gaby: Cool! I … honestly I can’t imagine a future in which I’m in Jacksonville… but if I am I’ll let you know?
Maquis: [laughing] yeah there’s… no real reason for you to come here/
Gaby: Travel is also hard for me anyway. Oh I got a new wheelchair! It’s really cool watch this, I can control the speed with my watch.[light whirring noise]
John: Oh that’s cool!
Maria: [sarcastically] thank god it wasn’t tested on animals
Gaby: Come on Maria.
John: [frustrated] Okay I didn’t want to make this a whole thing
Maria: How could it not be a thing?! You think I’m evil!
John: Wow I definitely never said that.
Maria: Okay, unethical, you compared me to Tuskegee!
John: I did not, I asked you a question about your FEELINGS about Tuskegee I did not say you were the same thing.
Marquis: Can we maybe just like, not talk about this?
Maria: You know what I have to go. I have a meeting.
Gaby: Maria come on.[ding]
John: … I’m sorry I shouldn’t have brought it up. I didn’t think….
Gaby: It’s okay, I think she’s just really stressed.
Marquis: They got a big rejection from the FDA recently.
John: Oh man… I didn’t know that.
Marquis: Yeah, they thought it was a go, and the FDA sent them back to like, stage 2 I think? Which is going to cost the company a lot of money and… maybe like five more years?
John: Whoa. Maybe I should send her some flowers or something?
Gaby: That’s a good idea. She likes lilies best.
John: Okay, I’ll do that. I guess I should go too actually… but I’ll talk to you both soon?
Marquis: Yeah man, talk to you later.
Gaby: Bye![ding] [ding] [ding] [ding]
Rose: So, today’s episode is about animal testing. And before we go any further, I want to be super clear at the very beginning here, that this is a really complicated and controversial topic. I’m not going to be able to touch on every argument for and against animal testing. And you might hear some arguments in this episode that you don’t agree with. The goal here, my goal, is not really to convince you one way or the other, exactly. Instead, what I want to do is walk through what might happen if we did ban animal testing. What we could do without animals, and what we couldn’t. And what that decision might mean for people and animals around the world.
So at the end of this episode I am not going to say, here’s what we should do. Here’s what is right and just and good. I’m not even going to try to do that. Personally, I will just say right away that I’m still relatively conflicted about a lot of this stuff. I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about the topic going into reporting today’s show, I hoped that maybe doing this episode would help me figure out where I land, but… it did not. I’m still not sure how I feel, having done all this research. So if you’re hoping that I’m going to have a solution for you, sorry… I’m not. Because there are no easy answers here, despite what some of the loudest people on either side might say about this stuff.
Okay, is that enough caveating? Let’s get into it. Animal testing. We do a lot of it. It’s actually hard to get numbers on exactly how many animals are used in experiments world wide. One study estimated that in 2005 that number was 115 million animals every year, but they also argued that this was probably an underestimate. For comparison, 115 million is about the population of the Philippines. It’s a lot of animals.
I think when most people think about animal testing they think about either cosmetics, where animals are used to make sure that a face cream or an eyeliner isn’t toxic or cause allergic reactions in people. Or they think of pharmaceutical testing where animals are used to test out the efficacy of new drugs. But those are not the only way animals are used.
Janet Stemwedel: There’s there’s a whole range of research with animals that isn’t any of those things, actually.
Rose: This is Janet Stemwedel, a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University.
Janet: There’s a lot of research that is research of non-human animals in their natural habitats, trying to understand, for example, how animal populations are responding to the stresses of a changing climate.
Rose: Animals are used in psychology studies, and neuroscience research to try and understand basic questions like how do neurons actually work. There are animal studies that ask questions about ecology and the environment, trying to understand the impact that humans have had on the world that we live in. These all fall under animal testing.
And this brings us to the first big question that we have to answer when we talk about animal testing. And this the question of why. Why do we test on animals? There are a few answers to that that question, which will pop up throughout this episode. But ultimately, we test on animals for two reasons: the first is that if we want to study animals we have to study… animals.
Janet: There’s some kinds of questions scientists want to answer that can only be answered with animals, because they’re questions about the animals themselves. Questions about how a particular kind of critter behaves, or how, you know, a particular kind of critter interacts with its environment
Rose: And the second reason, the one that’s more ethically murky, the one that we’re going to spend a lot more time talking about on this episode is that we test on animals because the tests we want to do wouldn’t be ethical to try on humans. The baseline promise of animal testing is that we can use animals to test stuff out that might be risky, that might not work at all, that might kill them, or cause pain and suffering. We use animals as stand-ins for humans in situations where we would not be okay with using humans.
Now, we did not always test drugs or cosmetics on non-human creatures. In 1937 a pharmaceutical company in the US created a drug they called “Elixir Sulfanilamide” to treat strep infections. This drug had a solvent in it called DEG, which is poisonous to most animals; humans and non-humans. But at the time, they didn’t know that, so they added some raspberry flavoring to the drug, and they sold it. Obviously, this did not go well, and it caused a mass poisoning in the United States. At least 100 people died across 15 different states. And the public was really mad, and for good reason, this drug had not been tested at all. At the time, there were basically no laws that required drug companies to do safety tests on new drugs.
The public outcry after this raspberry death drug scandal led to the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which requires safety testing of drugs on animals before they can be marketed.
In the US all animal experiments are monitored and approved by something called an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, which is a terrible acronym, but whatever. And Janet,who you heard earlier, serves on the IACUC for her university. And so here’s how it works, let’s say you are a researcher, and you want to do an experiment that involves animals. Before you can do that, you have to submit a proposal to the IACUC that oversees your work, and basically justify your experiment to them.
Janet: Tell us what the research is trying to find out. You know, what is the goal of the research, what is the aim? What is the the knowledge you’re trying to build, and why do you think that it matters to build that knowledge?
And, give us a detailed explanation of how many animals you need to use to get statistically significant results. Give us an accounting of what species of animals. Give us an accounting of exactly what procedures those animals are going to experience. What kinds of conditions the animals are going to be housed in between times that you’re doing the thing that the research calls for with the animals. Tell us what’s going to happen if things go worse than expected for the animal, in terms of pain and distress.
Rose: The first big thing that the IACUC wants to know is whether or not you need animals at all. As part of the application you have to show that you have done an extensive literature review to show that there is no other way to get the information that you’re trying to get, other than using animals.
They also look really closely at the number of animals you want to use.
Janet: How do I know that the number of animals I’m asking to work with is the smallest number I should be asking for permission to work with, that is likely to give me statistically significant results? So they can’t just make stuff up.
Rose: And of course they look at the animal welfare questions.
Janet: If there’s a way to do the procedures with anaesthesia, you need to do that. If there is a way to do the procedures not with anaesthesia, because the anesthesia would interfere with the thing you’re trying to measure, what kind of supportive care can you be giving the animal? How can you give the animal an environment where the animal feels the least stress, the least distress, and doesn’t have to suffer?
Rose: And sometimes the committee decides that the study just isn’t worth it.
Janet: The panel just looks at what’s being described as the benefit of building the knowledge, and compares that against the information we’ve been given about what the animal experiences, and we say for the benefit you’re describing with that knowledge, it seems like you’re putting the animals through too much.
Rose: And these IACUC committees don’t just exist at Universities. Private companies have to use them too. Now not everybody is convinced that IACUCs work, or provide a consistent level of scrutiny. In a study from 2001 some researchers looked into how reliable these reviews were. To do this, they took 32 different proposals and assigned them to two groups of IACUC reviewers. What they found is that 79% of the time the committees came back with different answers. Which suggests that not every IACUC committee has the same standards for things like animal welfare, or the necessity of a study.
Which, I mean, of course right? We’re talking about groups of humans being asked to evaluate and make decisions on things that are ultimately judgement calls. They are not always going to agree. And for some people, the idea of oversight and deciding which study is worth doing and which one isn’t, it’s all irrelevant. For some people, the idea of testing on animals is just wrong, period, and should be stopped.
Lawrence Carter Long: There are two major concerns, as I see it, with regard to animal experimentation. The first is that no animal — I don’t care if it’s a rat, a pig, a cat, a dog, or a primate — can consent to whatever that procedure may be, and most of the time those procedures end in death, because when they’re finished using the animal they’re not good to them anymore, so they toss them out. So the fact that animals cannot consent to the experiments, first and foremost, ethically, morally, says that we’ve got to find a better way.
Rose: This is Lawrence Carter Long, he’s the director of communications for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. And if his voice sounds familiar, that’s because he also played Kevin Macklin the inventor of ORYC on the cement episode last mini-season. Anyway, Lawrence has longn n been involved in animal right and protesting animal testing. And like he said he has two main concerns, the first being consent, which he talked about. And the second is that he doesn’t think it’s worth the money.
Lawrence: Every dollar that we spend on an animal study is a dollar that we’re not spending on direct care, treatment, or prevention. And so, if we’re getting limited results through animal studies, why are we doing it to begin with? Could we not benefit more people, and spend those limited resources more wisely, by focusing directly, specifically on the human needs that we know exist, and treatments that actually work.
Rose: So there are two main pieces to this argument, one is that animal tests are expensive and that there is limited money. So maybe that money should be spent on care for living patients, rather than chasing hypothetical future drugs. But the second piece of this is the one I want to dig into: which is that all this money is basically being wasted. Because animal models and animal tests do not give us reliable information about the human body.
Lawrence: Do you go to a veterinarian when you’re sick? Why not? You don’t because non-human animals cannot — not one animal, not ten animals, not a million animals, I don’t care about the species — substitute for getting real information about human beings
Kristie: Even the NIH has reported that about nintey six percent of drugs that are developed and are tested efficacious and safe through the animal tests that drug companies use, and move on to clinical trials; about ninety six percent of those fail either in clinical trials or once they come onto the market.
Rose: This is Kristie Sullivan, the vice president for research policy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Kristie: So, that’s a huge waste of billions of dollars in drug development money that companies are putting in to develop new drugs, only to find them in the clinical stage or in the market stage not to be effective.
Rose: So I will say here, right off the bat, that The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a controversial organization. They believe that everybody should be vegan, and they’re opposed to all forms of animal research. And, in the past, they have made claims that are not scientifically accurate. I’m not going to get into some of this controversy around the organization here, but I want to be transparent about who they are and what they believe. And I called Kristie because The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is one of the groups that argues these tests that we’re doing on animals are not t actually telling us anything useful.
Kristie: They don’t capture the complexity of the human experience. We eat different foods. We have different genetic backgrounds. We have different diseases, or life experiences, that could all affect the way that chemicals interact with our bodies.
Rose: And it’s true, most drugs do fail in clinical trial, for all kinds of reasons. This is actually a big topic in medicine right now, in general — researchers and companies are spending billions of dollars on these studies and they aren’t always getting useful results. And Kristie argues that the main reason this happens is because the animal models that these labs used to get to the clinical trial part, aren’t actually relevant to humans.
Kristie: We’re not just 70 kilogram rats.
Rose; And this goes both ways, humans aren’t relevant to some animals either. Aspirin, for example, works in humans but kills cats.
And you have probably seen this effect in action — how often do you see a headline that touts some amazing medical breakthrough in mice that… fades into obscurity, and you never hear about again, because it doesn’t work in humans. Researchers have been chasing cures for everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s and getting really promising results in mice, that just don’t seem to translate to us. And Krisite and Lawrence both argue that at some point we have to stop and look around and ask… is this worth it? Is there any reason to be killing all these mice if they’re not actually getting us closer to the cures that we think they will?
And here’s something that might surprise you, there are lots of people who do animal research, who kind of agree.
Deepak Kaushal: Many of these trials fail because animal models, that are being utilized, are imperfect. Rodents, mice, and rats are imperfect models of complex human diseases, including complex infectious diseases like malaria, TB. and HIV.
Rose: This is Deepak Kaushal, the Director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. And the diseases that he mentioned — Malaria, TB, HIV – those are disease that are complicated, that involve the whole body, and that don’t behave in mice the same way they do in humans. So in those cases, Deepak says that yeah, we probably should stop using mice.
Deepak: So in my opinion, they play a role. Those models have have utility, but when it comes to testing products with the aim of transitioning them into human beings, it is wasteful, at least in the case of complex diseases that don’t typically occur in rodents, to use those as models.
Rose: But this gets us into kind of a sticky situation, right? If we admit that mice are not good models for humans in many cases, we might then ask, well, what are good models for humans? And the best answer to that is non-human primates. Macaques are the most common species used, but labs also use marmosets, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and a handful of others. But, I think that most of us, feel more conflicted about testing on monkeys than we do on mice. Deepak included.
Deepak: It’s absolutely right that even as a as a life scientist, as a biologist, I’d rather tests on mice than monkeys. I feel the same way. But we have… as scientists, we are driven by evidence, and we have evidence again and again that stuff that comes out of mice does not predict the human condition — at least the diseases that I study primarily — very well. And that stuff that comes out of macaques, and non-human primates does, to a larger extent. Not one hundred percent, but to a larger extent. So, to me, is it ethical to test everything in non-human primates? No. Because they are superior, more evolved species. But is it unethical to have millions of people die of conditions for which therapeutic and vaccine development can be done, by testing in a few hundred macaques? Probably to me that is more unethical. So that’s what drives me.
Rose: And here’s where we come to an ethical crossroads. In what cases is it worth using animals in experiments, which do kill them, for human gain, and in what cases is it not worth it? Deepak thinks there are cases where animal testing is necessary to save lives. Lawrence and Kristie disagree, fundamentally. Lawrence has cerebral palsey, which could, in theory, be served by animal models — there is some work suggesting that you can basically give macaques CP for research purposes. Which means that, in theory, Lawrence could benefit directly from animal research. But he doesn’t care, he still doesn’t think we should do it.
Lawrence: We’ve got to get beyond “what works for me is what we’re gonna do, and screw everybody else.” There are greater principles at play here. And if I were to forgo those, just to benefit myself, what I lose is much greater than anything that I could remotely gain physically.
Rose: So, like I said, I am not going to try and get deep on these ethical questions in this episode. I will link to books and sources in the blog post if you really want to dive into that side. What I want to do now is talk about the future I promised you at the top of the show. What happens if we ban animal research. What are the alternatives. What can we do and what can’t we do right now. All that and more after this quick break.[BREAK]
Rose: Okay, so let’s say that we woke up, looked at our phones, and there was a news alert that said, “All Animal Testing Now Banned.” I’m going to hand wave at how this happened, I don’t know, maybe we are now ruled by a robot dictator who sympathized with animals being subjected to stuff against their will. Maybe the Boston Dynamics dog is now our supreme leader and is exacting revenge for all the time those researchers kicked it. Whatever it is… the point is that animal testing is now banned.
What happens next? Let’s start with what we can do without animals. One technology that’s in use right now, and that lots of biotech companies are working on is what’s called in vitro models.
Kristie: Right now, what we’re using in chemical testing are these really neat 3D tissues that are created with donated human skin cells, or keratinocytes grown up in a laboratory into a 3D version of our human skin.
Rose: Without these models cosmetics companies generally use rabbits. They’ll shave the rabbits hair off, and then apply the cosmetic to their skin to see what happens. With these in vitro methods, they can replace a lot of these tests.
Kristie: A laboratory can just put a cosmetic or a chemical on that skin, and see how it affects the skin.
Rose: And in the future, people hope that these kinds of in vitro models could be used to completely replace animals for cosmetic testing, where you really just need to know if the product causes irritation or a reaction to the skin or eyes. The challenge with in vitro tests is that usually they’re a single layer of cells in a petri dish. Which can be useful in some cases, but doesn’t represent a whole body right? If you’re worried that a mouse isn’t a good model for a whole human, a single layer of cells in a petri dish certainly isn’t either.
Hunter Rogers: There aren’t really any cells in the body that exist in that format. So you don’t really have two dimensional cells. It’s all three dimensional constructs. We’re not flat Stanley
Rose: This is Hunter Rogers, he’s a researcher at Northwestern University. And to try and solve this limitation of these single layer flat in vitro cultures, scientists like Hunter are working on a more complex system.
Kristie: One of the most exciting methods are what are collectively called micro physiological systems, or organs on chips. You can imagine a small silicone chip that is about the size of a USB sometimes.
Hunter: Typically when I describe its size, it’s about the size of an iPad mini. Maybe a little, a little smaller. Weighs a couple of pounds.
Rose: Organ on a chip! Maybe you’ve heard of this, it’s a technology that got a ton of hype around 2011ish. The idea that we could simulate a whole organ on a tiny little chip. Of course, the idea goes way further back than 2011, but that was around when the popular press picked up on the idea.
Hunter: So really what it comes down to is these organs on a chip are just technologies that allow us to recreate a tissue and organ down to the the essential functions of that tissue or organ.
So, for example, if you have a lung on a chip you want it to essentially be able to breathe, right? So you want it to be able to expand and contract, which is a similar thing if you’re creating a heart on a chip. You want the heart cells that you put into that system to be able to contract and pulse in the same way that you would see in a functioning heart.
Rose: These aren’t chips in the computer chip sense, by the way, they’re not digital. This is actual living tissue, usually cultured from a person’s actual cells. And because it’s more complex than that single layer of a single cell type, these organs on a chip are a lot harder keep alive. For example, in a living person,
Hunter: you have the circulatory system that has two of its major roles are distributing nutrients throughout the body and then eliminating waste.
Rose: In cell culture, you don’t have a circulatory system, really, you just have… cells. So in an organ on a chip system, you have to figure out how to get this waste stuff out and new nutrients in. And that’s something Hunter and his team worked on, and they actually kept their system alive for longer than anybody else, 28 whole days!
The other interesting thing that Hunter’s research team did was they actually linked up a bunch of different organs. So if we want a system that can replace an entire organism to test drugs on, we would need to build a whole human body on chips that talk to each other, right? That’s never been done, but what Hunter worked on was something called the EVATAR project.
And the EVATAR project attempted to recreate the female reproductive system on a series of connected chips. So they had a ovary, a fallopian tube, a uterus, a cervix, and a liver. Now you might be like, wait a minute, the liver is not part of the female reproductive system, but it kind of is. The Liver metabolizes a lot of the hormones produced by the ovary, so without it the system would get clogged up with those hormones, and it would mess it up.
Now let’s pause and clarify what the EVATAR system can and cannot do.
Hunter: When we first came out with the EVATAR paper, and there was a surge of media attention, there is a lot of headlines that we had created a robot that could menstruate. I mean just some really wild things that just were not true.
Rose: EVATAR is not a menstruating robot and it cannot actually develop an embryo so any questions of this system being used as an artificial womb are kind of out the window. But what EVATAR can do, is help researchers test drugs and treatments and see how they might impact the reproductive system.
Hunter: We’re currently working on developing a disease model for polycystic ovary syndrome. So this is a syndrome that affects you know anywhere between 1 and 5, 1 in 10 women of reproductive age. It’s a very complex syndrome, and involves not only the ovaries themselves, but includes a number of different other organ systems including the pancreas, the brain, the liver. And so you see all of these effects that you can’t reproduce in a standard in vitro environment. And then it’s a syndrome that doesn’t naturally occur in animals.
Rose: Using the EVATAR they can test out different therapies for PCOS, and see if they have an impact, before trying them on people. And the ultimate promise of the organ on a chip system is that not only could they use these to test out drug safety and treatments in general, they could actually build you a personal body on a chip system, for personal medical tests.
Hunter: So can you take stem cells from a patient; differentiate them into lung cells. heart cells, endometrial cells, something like that. Put them in these systems, and then test a certain treatment regimen on those cells to see how they respond.
Rose: This is all very, very cool. It’s also all still pretty early. There are teams all over the world working on these systems, but right now they couldn’t even link them up if they wanted to.
Hunter: The issue was when you set all of these researchers loose to develop their systems, we didn’t develop it with the intention of eventually merging all of them. So what came out of it was a lot of really elegant, and high tech models but we couldn’t integrate them. So you had stand alone heart models, stand alone lung models, etc.
Rose: This is sort of like in the episode we did about 3D printed organs, and how none of the teams working on this are using the same file format, and that actually makes it really hard for them to work together and collaborate and combine their work? This is sort of similar, all these teams developed really cool and effective systems to replicate the heart, and lungs, and bones, but they aren’t compatible with one another.
And even when they do connect , which they probably will at some point, Hunter isn’t sure they could ever fully replace animal models.
Hunter: As much as I would like it to be a replacement, I think it is just another step in the pipeline that could potentially lead to lower number of animals that are used in studies. But I don’t foresee it being a complete replacement of animals. At least not anywhere in the near future. As complex as we can make these systems, there’s still complexity that we just don’t fully comprehend.
Rose: Organ on a chip systems are like cartoons, they give us a sense of how the body might react, but they aren’t a whole body. And they’re also only a picture based on what we know. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how bodies work.
This kind of reminds me of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science. It’s literally one paragraph, and he wrote it in 1946, and it’s presented as an excerpt from a fictional book. I’m going to just read it to you since it’s so short, so here it is.
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
The point of this story is that if you really want a perfect picture of something, you have to recreate the whole thing. Any map is a necessarily an abstraction, it leaves out details unless you want the map to be the size of the thing it is mapping. And in our case, any organ on a chip is going to be an abstraction, it’s not going to be exact. The question is how inexact is good enough when it comes to safety testing and medicine.
Right now, organs on chips aren’t something you can just buy from a medical supply company. So it’s not like every university or company that wants to replace some of their animal tests can just get these, and use them. That said, there is interest and excitement in these alternatives and they probably could replace some animal tests one day. When that one day might be, that’s harder to say. But depending on who you ask, a total ban on animal testing might be the thing that actually kicks people into gear on investing and improving these replacements.
But other people see this future, the one in which we’ve banned all animal testing, as a nightmare scenario.
Deepak: So what would happen is, for example, in Africa there is now — within five years — a second Ebola outbreak that’s going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And there have already been people that have come into the US, and have been infected. Five years ago there was this West African Ebola epidemic. Testing of agents that have proven to be effective, and have saved human lives and American lives of people infected with Ebola was only possible because of non-human primate models. If there is no animal testing, because of whatever reason, the next Ebola that happens; we may not have agents to test that would be effective against it.
Rose: That’s Deepak Kaushal again,
Deepak: If there was a bioterrorism attack, we would not have agents to test to protect against these. And I’m not even going after the fact that we have 10 million new cases of TB every year which we need to resolve. And a million people dying of AIDS every year, and 2 million people dying of malaria every year that we need to resolve.
Rose: And he’s obviously on the opposite side of Kristie and Lawrence here, he argues that if we couldn’t use animals for research, we would lose a key tool in the medical arsenal, and open ourselves up to a lot of risk.
Deepak: So we would be much less safer society if we did not have the ability to do to work with animals.
Rose: His argument is that removing animal testing basically presses a big red stop button on medical progress.
Janet: And for a lot of people maybe that’s fine.
Rose: That’s Janet Stemwedel again,
Janet: But for some people with exotic diseases, or diseases that we’ve only recently started researching, or things that we’ve only recently understood as diseases, like addictions of various sorts, we might be in a position where we have to tell those folks, “well sorry, biomedical science didn’t find the answers that would have been useful to you during the period where we had the tool of research with non-human animals available. So, you’re just gonna have to take one for the team.” And I think we need to think about that as a society; whether telling members of society who are not currently adequately served by our biomedical knowledge, “you all are the ones who should take one for the team.”
Rose: Deepak can point to medical treatments that were developed using animal models to argue that they’re necessary. Take Tuberculosis for example. The fact that TB is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis was confirmed via animal tests. And the TB vaccine was developed in animal models.
Deepak Kaushal:There is no other way to do it, other than to infect humans, which is unethical.
Rose: Right now the TB vaccine, which is called BCG, works pretty well to prevent kids from getting TB, but it doesn’t work that well at preventing adults from getting it. The CDC says that in 2017, there were 1.3 million TB-related deaths worldwide, and one of the things that Deepak works on is developing a new TB vaccine.
Deepak: Vaccine candidates that are likely to replace BCG, as more effective TB vaccines, and therefore get rid of the scourge of TB, are being tested in animal models. And it is virtually impossible to identify which vaccines are likely to work in humans, and which are not, unless we use animal models. Particularly non-human primate based animal models.
Rose: On the other side people say, well, you might not have needed animals to figure out that that bacteria caused TB. Which is kind of impossible to test, since we can’t go back in time and see if they could have figured it out without animals, right? And it’s worth saying that just because we did something in the past doesn’t necessarily mean we should keep doing something now.
Lawrence: While it may be true that a fraction of animal experimentation may have been of some value to somebody, at some point in time, the issue today in 2019 is not whether all animal experimentation should be abolished. The important question is not: is some animal research necessary? But rather, are we wasting billions of dollars on inappropriate animal studies, and what else could we be spending those resources on?
Kristie: Even though we have put billions of dollars into research on Alzheimer’s disease, every single drug that’s made its clinical trials has failed because it’s not efficacious enough. So, I think we really need a paradigm shift and we need to see this realization that we have a responsibility to be more accurate in our prediction of health and disease, and finding treatments for those diseases.
Rose: The rift between these two opinions is hard to bridge with data. I think, annoyingly, that both of these things are probably true. Animal models are not as good as we want them to be, especially mice. But some things that we do in animal models do have a big impact on the human population and do make the world a safer place. There’s a study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine from 2008 that both sides like to cite as evidence that their position is correct. This study tried to evaluate the claim that quote “virtually every medical achievement of the last century has depended directly or indirectly on research with animals.” And what the study found is that that is not true, it is not true that virtually every medical achievement has depended on animals. But it also found that quote “Animal models can and have provided many crucial insights that have led to major advancements in medicine and surgery.”
So if we couldn’t test on animals, we’d have to use other methods. And probably we’d wind up doing more testing directly on humans.
Janet: And my question then is: okay so which humans? Is it going to be how it too often has been in the history of research with human subjects, that the people who are taking the risks in those human studies are economically or politically marginalized people? And I see no sign in our current society that they wouldn’t be.
Rose: There’s a long history of human medical experimentation and ethics that we don’t have time to get into now, but it’s possible that in a world without animal testing we’d wind up incentivizing the wrong kinds of solutions.
Kristie: Food testing isn’t something we’ve really talked about, but some flavors, and other food additives are tested on animals. And maybe that’s something we can lose. We don’t really need the next flavor of Doritos. 
Rose: Blue is the best flavor of Doritos, just for the record. Also, the best flavor of Gatorade. Anyway, it’s also worth remembering that animal research happens beyond the walls of pharmaceutical labs and medical departments. Everybody studying animal behavior, physiology, psychology, all of that is out the window. All of the technology that we talked about in the last two episodes of this mini-season, is probably off the table. No more nanoparticle injections into the eyes of rats to give them night vision. No testing of potential biomarker dies to make sure they’re not toxic in humans. Animal research also includes veterinary research, testing drugs and procedures meant for animals.
Janet: So if your companion animal, your dog, your cat, your rabbit, your guinea, pig has a problem that veterinary medicine doesn’t yet have a solution for; well you’d better start making your plans to dig that hole in the backyard. Because your vet won’t be able to help a whole lot now.
Rose: Now, some animal rights activists don’t believe we should keep pets at all, so maybe this is a fine ripple effect for them. But Janet also worries about some of the basic science research that gets done on animals, and what ending those research programs might mean for those labs, and for investment in science in general.
Janet: If we’ve decided as a society that we’re happy standing pat with what we know right now, then maybe we don’t even need to fund so many scientists. Maybe we can cut back on the amount of funding we put into training new scientists.
Rose: Now, in Lawrence’s version of this future, that money is diverted to treatments and support for folks who are living with conditions now. But that’s not a given, right? We’d have to be really careful to make sure that that was what happened, and write that into the policies and laws, which isn’t impossible but would be tricky.
Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to tradeoffs. What are we willing to subject creatures to, and to what end? How confident should we be about our methods before we try something? And how much are we willing to risk giving up to make the world better for the non-human animals that we share the planet with? More and more research is revealing that animals have complex inner lives; that they know what’s going on around them; that they not only feel pain but also have conceptions of self, and long-term memory, and can experience trauma. How do we incorporate that information into these ethical questions and decisions?
I told you that at the end of this episode I wasn’t going to have an easy answer for you. And here we are, and I don’t. I’ll admit now, now that you’ve heard this whole thing, that I almost killed this episode several times. I almost decided to trash the whole thing and just … do something less complicated and less controversial. Less likely to result in hate mail in my inbox from either side… probably both sides honestly. But I kept coming back to something that Janet said when I talked to her.
Janet: It’s like, well… it’s like a lot of things; living in the world can be complicated, but I don’t think the fact that it’s complicated gets us out of doing it.
Rose: It’s easy for me to make episodes about pieces of technology, or space pirates, or fisheries. But if we ignore these harder, stickier questions, we’re shirking our duties, I think. We should be thinking about how to make the future better for everybody, and everything. And that means… sitting with these complicated questions and feeling uncomfortable and unsure and trying to find a way forward. I don’t have an answer for you, but I do think that we should be thinking about this stuff. Because the future is for all of us, animals included.[music up]
That’s all for this future. For more reading about any of the stuff that I mentioned on the episode you can go to flashforwardpod.com, there will be a blog post to go with this episode, like every episode, and this one has a looooong list of links and books and resources you might want to check out.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Maria is played by Cara Rose de Fabio. Marquis is played by Rotimi Agbabiaka who is debuting a new solo show called Manifesto on June 21st at the African American Arts and Culture Complex as part of the National Queer Arts Festival. I will link to more about that in the show notes. John is played by Keith Houston, you can find his voice acting work at keyvoicevo.com, or, if you’re in the Bay area and looking for some wild and weird karaoke fun, check out Roger Niner Karaoke at rogerniner.com. Fun fact I love karaoke, so, I will be going to one of Keith’s karaoke nights soon, and probably singing slash yelling You Oughta Know by Alanis Morissette. Gaby is played by Eler de Grey, whose work you can find at degrey.studio that’s d-e-g-r-e-y dot studio. Special thanks this episode to Adria Otte (AH-tee) and Molly Monihan at the Women’s Audio Mission, where all the intro scenes were recorded this season. Check out their work and mission at womensaudiomission.org.
Flash Forward is mainly supported by Patrons! If you like this show, and you want it to continue, the very best way to make that happen is by becoming a Patron. Even a dollar an episode really helps. You can find out more about that at patreon.com/flashforwardpod. And again, I’m doing a special promo. If you sign up between now and the 30th of June, I will mail you a surprise. If financial giving isn’t in the cards for you, the other great way to support the show is by heading to Apple Podcasts and leave us a nice review, or just tell your friends about us. The more people who listen, the easier it will be for me to get sponsors and grants to keep the show going.
If you want to suggest a future I should take on, send me a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. I love hearing your ideas! If you want to discuss this episode, or just the future in general, with other listeners, you can join the Flash Forward FB group! Just search Facebook for Flash Forward Podcast and ask to join. And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
Okay, that’s all for this future. Come back next time, and we’ll travel to a new one.
Today we travel to a future where satellites can catch criminals.
- Sarah Parcak, professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and author of Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes our Past
- Jamon Van Den Hoek, professor of geography at Oregon State University
- Wenyao Xu, professor of computer science at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo
- Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes our Past
- Sarah Parcak to Use TED Prize Money for Crowdsourcing on Archaeological Sites
- TED Talk: Archaeology from Space
- Ancient Egyptian Artifacts Smuggled Into U.S. Are Heading Home
- How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History
- Dealer Pleads Guilty to Smuggling Egyptian Antiquities into US
- ICE makes arrests and seizes cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt
- Chesterfield man charged in major smuggling case
- Spy satellites fighting crime from space
- Tracking China’s Muslim Gulag
- Mapping the missing millions
- Mapping tank paths with satellite imagery in Gaza
- Deforestation in the Amazon is shooting up, but Brazil’s president calls the data ‘a lie’
- Bolsonaro Fires Head of Agency Tracking Amazon Deforestation in Brazil
- Grad Student Watches Gitmo Grow With Google Earth
- Camp Delta, Google Earth and the ethics of remote sensing in archaeology
- Developing Countries and the Law and Politics of Remote Sensing
- Satellite Evidence in Human Rights Cases: Merits and Shortcomings
- Sensing the ground: On the global politics of satellite-based activism
- Soon, satellites will be able to watch you everywhere all the time
- Goodbye, login. Hello, heart scan.
- The Pentagon has a laser that can identify people from a distance—by their heartbeat
- Drone Surveillance: How Private is My Backyard?
- Admissibility of remote sensing evidence before international and regional tribunals
- Evidence from Space a study for the European Space Agency
- Evan Johnson as Mr. Morton
- Charlie Chalmers as Charlie
- Grace Nelligan as Grace
- David Romero as David
- Ash Greenberg as Ash
- Santos Flores as Santos
- Ava Ausman as Ava
- Sidney Perry-Thistle as Sidney
- Arthur Allison as Arthur
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Special thanks to Veronica Simonetti and Erin Laetz at the Women’s Audio Mission, where all the intro scenes were recorded this season. Special thanks also to Evan Johnson who played Mr. Morton and also coordinated the actors of the Junior Acting Troupe who play the students in the intros this season.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
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Rose: Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
This episode we’re starting in the year 2060.
Mr. Morton: Okay, it’s time to get started! Guys, guys, guys. Hello, hello. Welcome back, everyone, to our debate club. I hope you’re ready for this! We’re going to have our next debate for this semester. Um, a quick announcement first, if you want to join the club on the annual field trip – have you guys heard about that? The field trip – please make sure that you’ve filled out the permission slip. It’s in your student portal, so check that. If I don’t have your signed permission slip, then you can’t go.
Student: Do we get extra credit for going on the field trip?
Mr. Morton: If I was grading you, yes, I would give you all extra credit. But this is for you to become better debaters, and more informed, here in our club.
Okay, boring business aside, let’s get to debating! We have Charlie and Grace up next. We’re going to have you argue about satellites. So the case, just to refresh everyone’s memory, the case in question happened in 2027. A group of looters were caught stealing from a temple in India. The satellites were able to identify them, and all four were brought to trial for stealing priceless antiquities. But they argued that the satellite imagery should not be admissible, because they had no idea they were being watched. They knew the surveillance violated their privacy – they felt that way.
So, Charlie, Grace, are you ready?
Charlie you can start first, you’re going to argue in favor of these looters.
Charlie: Oh, I was told I was gonna be anti. All right. Improvisation. That’s my strong suit. I think.
Mr. Morton: Oh…
Grace: I thought I was arguing against… oh wait, I’m for it.
Mr. Morton: Okay, great, great, great, let’s start with Grace. Grace, you’re going to start, and you’re arguing in favor of the looters.
Grace: Okay. In the past 10 years, the 700 satellites launched into space have given us massive amounts of information, ranging from climate change to criminal activity. Satellite technology has helped police solve murders, discover mass graves, and shown which major cities are releasing the most greenhouse gases. The question of whether or not this data is valid in a court case has gone mostly unanswered. Some believe it isn’t because they see satellite photos as an invasion of privacy. However, satellites are mostly used by human rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Watch, with the intent to make the world a safe place to live. Satellite technology can only help us. For example, one thousand illegal landfills pop up each year in Europe, causing huge problems for the neighboring cities. In one region of Italy, certain types of cancer are up 80% more than usual due to nearby waste dumps. The English government spends sixteen million pounds a year putting out landfill fires, not to mention the massive impact they have on climate change. In retaliation to this, Air and Space Evidence was developed through University College London, a program that uses satellite technology to find illegal landfills faster than the authorities can. If satellites can expose so many things that normal cameras can’t, then why can’t the data they provide be used in a court? If a satellite photo could determine whether or not someone was guilty of a crime, it would be totally illogical for a court to dismiss the evidence on the grounds it was produced by a satellite.
Mr. Morton: All right. Charlie. Ready for your side now.
Charlie: All right. So I’m arguing against this. So, as we’ve already brought up the elephant in the room, it’s a really major breach of privacy, which some people really value. They don’t… you know they have personal, intimate, conversations, and do things that they wouldn’t want other people to see, or really know about. And, I think I can respect that. And, sure, there’s sort of a line being drawn when you’re looting from a temple that’s very important to people in India. But I think that, save for those very important locations, I think that satellite imagery and biometric scanners should not really be used to monitor the population.
Mr. Morton: Okay. Grace you have a question for Charlie.
Grace: If a satellite photo could determine whether or not someone was guilty of committing a crime why wouldn’t you use it in court?
Charlie: I don’t really have a… I don’t really have a rebuttal to that. I think this is a really, really complicated topic because satellites can be used to stop a lot of crimes, such as that. But at the same time, it’s kind of like punishing the entire class for one joker who is acting out of line, you know? You might be praying at a temple, about something that you don’t want other people to know about, like maybe a relative of yours is sick and you don’t want that being picked up by a satellite. Or you don’t want people to know that you’re going somewhere in the first place because, Oh I don’t know, maybe your family worships a different Hindu diety than they do. I’m taking from this scenario here. You know how the police need a warrant to conduct an investigation, right? Why shouldn’t that be the case with satellite imagery? Why should the police just be able to say, “oh someone just happened to be picked up by this satellite here. Well don’t mind if I do.”
Grace: Can I, can I say something?
Mr. Morton: Of course.
Grace: So, you know, a lot of crimes have… for example police brutality, the evidence of that is taken on cell phones, and the people who usually take those videos don’t have a warrant, and it can still be used as evidence to maybe, to punish those police.
Charlie: Well right. That’s… I’m pretty sure that would be considered as eyewitness evidence, and not, not really need a warrant because that’s what someone saw.
Mr. Morton: And Charlie time for you to ask Grace a question. All right.
Charlie: So, I’m waiting for this. My big question is who would pay for all the satellites? Because some smaller businesses are not in a million years going to be able to pay for something like that.
Grace: Okay, well first of all, I don’t think it’s very likely that shopping malls would launch satellites for security. I think they’re kind of okay with the security cameras for now. But, from my research I found that already there’s 700 satellites are going to be up in 10 years, and there’s already a ton in orbit right now. And most of the people who own them are like governments, or like NASA owns a lot of satellites. And so they’re already being paid for. The government is trying to advance technology. I know France has a bunch of satellites going up so it’s coming from the governments’ own Treasury, and the companies, or the startups. It comes from their money.
Charlie: All right. Well, all right. Well, my point is that a lot of these satellites, in particular, are not going to be used for monitoring climate change.
Grace: Well actually they are. Sorry that was…
Charlie: No, no, go ahead, go ahead.
Grace: That was so mean, oh god.
Charlie: No, no. All’s fair in love and war and debate.
Mr. Morton: That’s the spirit. Go ahead. Great question.
Grace: Sorry, what was the question? They’re not going to use… oh god…. they’re not going to be used for climate change?
Charlie: Yeah. For monitoring climate change yet.
Grace: Well, a lot of satellites are being, they are being used for monitoring climate change. Because it’s a really big problem that does need to be fixed.
Mr. Morton: Charlie, Grace, you both have done an incredibly compelling job today. This has been a very lively conversation. I really appreciate both of your points, that you’ve made, and just your willingness to get up and and debate it out. Let’s give them a hand. [applause] Charlie and Grace! And thank you everyone for meeting this week. I had a lot of fun with you, and don’t forget: permission slips for that field trip, right? Yeah, right. He’s excited. All right I’ll see you next week. Have a good weekend.
Rose: Okay, today we’re headed up into orbit. Right now there are about 2,000 active satellites circling our planet. And many of them are looking down at us, with sensors and cameras that pick up everything from chlorophyll levels in the Great Lakes, to the movement of tanks in China. In the next 10 years, experts say that humans are on track to quintuple the number of satellites in orbit. SpaceX alone plans to send 12,000 tiny satellites into space by 2027. Not only are there going to be more satellites, they will also be equipped with better and better sensors. Last week we talked about the privacy concerns of facial recognition, systems that are installed in cities or on cop cars, in the terrestrial world around us. But what happens when surveillance goes up, when you’re being watched all the time not by your own government, or your gym, or your school, but by swathes of satellites that you can’t even see? What happens when we can catch bad guys, from space?
We’ll let’s start this episode the same way we’re going to start every episode this season. With a crime. And for a while, the evidence of this crime lives in an undisclosed warehouse.
Sarah Parcak: This sort of secret totally like end of Indiana Jones esq storehouse somewhere in Brooklyn
Rose: This is Sarah Parcak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of a recent book called Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes our Past. And Sarah was in this warehouse in Brooklyn to look at artifacts. Stolen artifacts.
Sarah: They very kindly invited me in to kind of observe and to give them some expert advice about the objects.
Rose: These artifacts had been confiscated from a collector named Joseph A. Lewis II, a known collector of Egyptian antiquities from Virginia.
Rose: And he had basically ordered all of this all of these Egyptian antiquities from a known Jordanian importer of illegal antiquities, like, beyond sketchy and the ICE folks kind of had their number they knew that a lot of documents had been forged or falsified
Rose: Yes, you heard that right. ICE, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As in the same agency that is currently housing immigrants in concentration camps at the border of the United States. One of their other jobs, when they’re not terrorizing immigrant communities, is to regulate the movement of potentially stolen antiquities across the border.
Sarah: And this is like the one branch of ice that I don’t think should be shut down. They’re responsible for essentially looking at all the things that are coming into the US, being shipped in whether it’s via container or some kind of mail service.
Rose: And in this case, one of the artifacts that ICE confiscated from this guy, was a sarcophagus.
Sarha: And like this gorgeous sarcophagus had been sawn in half and sent through the USPS.
Rose: Now listen, I am not really like a believer in ghosts or whatever, but man, sawing a sarcophagus in half just seems like a bad idea! That’s definitely how you get cursed! Don’t do that! Also… it’s bad for archaeologists who might want to study the piece intact, and it’s also just plain disrespectful to the culture, not to mention the poor dead person who thought they were going to have a nice peaceful afterlife and instead wound up in some rich guy’s living room after being cut in half and manhandled by ornery post office employees! Rude.
Anyway, so Sarah is in this warehouse in Brooklyn, and she catches a glimpse of this sarcophagus and stops dead in her tracks.
Sarah: So I looked at the sarcophagus, and it was one of the most beautiful blacks and reds and Orange is one of the most beautiful sarcophagus I’ve ever seen.
Rose: The coffin was inscribed with a name: Shesep-Amun-Tayes-Herit, Mistress of the House. But where did she come from? That was the mystery Sarah had to solve. She could tell a little bit about the sarcophagus just by looking at it.
Sarah: She dates to roughly two thousand four hundred years ago sort of the what’s known as the Ptolemaic Period.
Rose: But pinpointing the exact place that this woman was buried would help confirm that she was actually stolen, and not purchased legally. The first clue, was the sand.
Sarah: You could see kind of lots of sand in her eyes and in crevasses and given her state of preservation and the fact that we know she comes from this time period, she obviously came from a cemetary from the Ptolemaic Period, it was a desert cemetery.
Rose: They also had her import date, so they knew when she had been brought into the US. And here is where the satellites come in.
Sarah: Given that I had 12 years of satellite data. I sort of went from 300 sites and then, OK only the desert sites we’re down to 50. OK desert sites that are Ptolemaic and are badly looted were down to eight sites.
Rose: Eventually, by looking at satellite data and comparing them to the clues on the sarcophagus, Sarah figured out the original resting place of Shesep-Amun-Tayes-Herit.
Sarah: I’m about ninety nine point nine percent sure that she comes from this site known as Abusir el Malik which is a late period, So 600 B.C. to Ptolemaic and Roman period roughly 30 B.C. cemetery that’s located near Egypt’s Fiume.
Rose: And figuring this out, meant that Sarah could say with confidence that this sarcophagus was stolen, not purchased legally. Which is evidence that can be used in court against smugglers.
Sarah: What ICE can then do is take that information to a judge and say “Hey guess what. You know, look at this report that this Egyptologist remote sensing specialist has written. It’s kind of beyond the shadow of a doubt that that this piece came from this site at this time. And look at the string of evidence.” It’s enough for a judge to, say, call the case to trial.
Rose: And in this case, the judge did call the case to trial. In 2011, Joe Lewis along with a couple of antiquities dealers were charged with smuggling of Egyptian antiquities and money laundering. And in 2015, the mummy was returned to Egypt, along with a handful of other stolen objects. In the end, Joe Lewis, the guy who purchased this sarcophagus, along with a bunch of other stolen artifacts, didn’t see any jail time. After spending seven-figures on the legal battle, he managed to get all charged dropped against him.
Sarah: He didn’t go to prison at all and he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.
Rose: But still, satellite data was able to help Sarah figure out where an artifact came from, and prove that it was almost certainly stolen. And this is one of the things Sarah does, she uses satellite data to help track looting, especially in places where on the ground monitoring might not be possible. And one cool thing is that in a lot of cases, looting leaves a really clearly identifiable mark on the Earth.
Sarah: It’s very easy to identify looting pits from space in that you know, a looters digging down they’re gonna dig room around them because they’ve got to move. So the looting pit is probably going to be at least a metre or two to three feet wide with this with this bit of earth around it.
Rose: So she can look at pictures from space and look for these little doughnuts and be like “aha! Looters! I see you!” I too look for doughnuts in most pictures, and I feel that perhaps my skills could be put to good use here.
Sarah: So what you can do with the satellite imagery is comparatively look at sites and look at how the looting has evolved over time. Well one image you may have no looting and then an image from a year later there’s hundreds of pits.
Rose: And it’s not just looting that they can see from space.
Sarah: In Peru where we’ve worked a lot and very closely with their ministry of culture, one of their biggest challenges, and is one of the biggest challenges everywhere in the world is is development. It’s not looting, it’s that people are building illegally on archaeological sites.
Rose: Some times people will claim that a house is old, or was built before certain land was protected.
Sarah: You claim that this house has been here for 50 years but I had this image from 2015 where there’s no house. And this image from 2016 where you built the house illegally. You’re busted.
Rose: Sarah has uncovered entire ancient Egyptian cities by looking at satellite data. And there are so many applications of this kind of technology.
Jamon Van Den Hoek: Measuring deforestation is probably the most common application still today.
Rose: This is Jamon Van Den Hoek, a researcher at Oregon State University. Right now, for example, Brazil is in the midst of a huge boom in deforestation.
Jamon: Brazilian deforestation Rainforest deforestation has increased by 30 40 percent from this same time last year.
Rose: But we only know that because of satellite imagery, the Brazilian government is currently denying that this is happening. In fact, Brazil’s president fired the head of the country’s space agency, because he had provided the world with this satellite data. Before satellite data, tracking deforestation was really hard, because it is literally hard to see the forest through the trees. And there are all sorts of environmental issues like this.
Jamon: There’s so many! Right. Ice sheet loss glacial ice loss the creation of glacial lakes where, in the Himalayas where the glaciers have melted so much they’ve created these very high altitude lakes. A new one was just spotted in the Alps which has never had never been seen before this melted glacier. You can detect that with satellite imagery.
Rose: So if it’s hard to get information on the ground, you can just go up and look at it from space. Satellite imagery was recently instrumental in showing that China was building concentration camps to house Muslim citizens and “reeducate them” quote unquote. When the United States claimed that they were slowly phasing out Guantanamo Bay, a graduate student named Adrian Myers was able to use Google Earth satellite imagery to prove that they were in fact doing the opposite.
Sarah: He used a series of seven satellite images taken from when Guantanamo Bay was first built to recently and he exposed what was happening there because the government’s saying, “It’s not big. Of course the you know the prisoners have adequate outdoor facilities. What do you mean it’s tripled in size?” And so he was able to show that they like it was just a bucket of lies.
Rose: Side note: I checked if you could still see Guantanamo Bay on Google Earth, if it had been blacked out or not, and you can actually look at it on Google Earth today. And if you look it up, on the bottom right left hand side of the page, they handily recommend an upcoming event there: the presentencing trial of a man named Majid Khan, a 39 year old who is the only legal resident held in Guantanamo Bay, that we know of. Google just like put it on there like it’s a concert or something that you might consider attending. Which is very weird.
Anyway, all this is to say that the applications of satellite imagery are really broad. Sarah uses it to help solve archaeological crimes and uncover ancient unknown sites. Jamon uses it to map refugee settlements and track the impacts of climate change. People use it to monitor the impact of crop diseases and beetle infestations, to figure out where to put solar panels, find mineral deposits, and snoop on the elite’s private compounds in places like North Korea or Silicon Valley. And in part because satellite imagery does have so many applications, its power can sometimes be… overstated.
Sarah: You know initially like any needle kind of earlier adopter I was I was a bit over-the-top evangelical about the technology and I’ve become far far more measured over time because you know where some sites in Egypt in the Delta like you see the outline of a whole settlement in some cases you might see a few things in other cases you don’t see anything. So many image types have gotten free or low cost and there’s so much you can do. But also we do need to recognize the limitations.
Rose: And when we come back we’re going to talk about what this kind of observation can, and can’t do. And that story, involves George Clooney.
Clooney: Now you may call it an unreasoning optimism, you may call it obtuse.
Rose: But first, a quick break.
Rose: Okay, so satellite imagery is really powerful, and at this point we can get reasonably good images from almost any part of the world. And that kind of observational power, is really alluring. So alluring, that George Clooney was wooed by it.
Around 2006, George Clooney got involved in the Darfur conflict. Darfur is a region in western Sudan, and in 2003, the government of Sudan began an ethnic cleansing campaign against the citizens in the region. Clooney spent some time in Chad and Sudan to make a documentary about the war and the refugees, and in 2010 he had an idea. Why not use satellite imagery to track and out war crimes?
Here’s a clip from ABC about the project.
Jake Tapper: The project will get high-resolution photographs of Sudan from those satellites and post them on their website that website that way you at home can monitor what’s going on on the ground in southern Sudan. But will the world watching make a difference? Our exclusive guests this morning George Clooney joining us from Los Angeles and John Prendergast of the enough project here in Washington DC thank you both for joining us George and John.
John Prendergast: thanks for having us.
George Clooney: Happy New Year Jake.
Jake Tapper: Happy new year to you too. So George I’ll start with you so let’s say in the first report which is going to happen as I understand it this week you see photographic evidence of war crimes of proxy militias crossing the border and and killing other individuals what do you do?
George Clooney: First of all, if you see actual evidence of those kind of attacks, that’s something that you can do, that the U.N. can actually work with. But for the most part, our job is to say that these things have been happening in the dark for a long time. What happens with that is that the other Arab communities the Chinese they all have the ability to deny it to say it didn’t happen. We’re going to be able to, you know, not show it afterwards, but show it beforehand, that there were plans, there are tanks lined up, that there are helicopters online, that are going to, that are about to commit atrocities.
Jamon: So he used this term the we’re going to be the anti genocide paparazzi.
Rose: That’s Jamon Van Den Hoek again.
Jamon: Really the aspiration was that by monitoring areas where you know that there is some sort of extremist activity, could be violence could be abduction it could be you know burning of villages, by monitoring those with commercial grade satellite imagery the mere documentation and dissemination of those through various media and journalist outlets that that would be enough to kind of chill the interest by these various warring groups to continue carrying out these acts of violence and crime and and crimes.
Rose: So… did that work? Did simply having these images, showing them, having people KNOW that they were being watched, did any of that deter violence? Did spending millions of dollars to get high quality satellite images and publish them for the public to see, did it make a difference?
Jamon: I’m not aware of any effect that can be attributed of any draw down in violence that can be attributed to this. It was deferential it didn’t really matter that this was happening. And it didn’t really seem to have any effect at all on the level of violence.
Rose: And there’s kind of a hubris here that I think the entire satellite and remote sensing world has yet to grapple with fully. These projects are funded and run by wealthy western countries, and generally are deployed to watch over, literally, developing nations. These images are taken by satellites and beamed over to people who maybe have never even BEEN to these places.
Jamon: There is a bit of a white savior complex there. But there’s sort of a tone deafness and a sort of a lack of, of grappling with the reality and like the nuts and bolts challenges on the ground of these situations and of the very complex social political environmental climatic ethno cultural divisions that underlie these some of these belligerent groups their actions.
Sarah: Yeah, huge huge ethical considerations. So the older model that I’m trying to get away from you know typically white foreigner will go to country X and work there and tell the local people how things should be done. And obviously that’s not an okay model and never was an okay model and has led to all manner of very bad behavior and it’s still going on.
Rose: Often, the images taken of developing nations aren’t even accessible to the people who live there, because they’re too expensive to purchase. In one paper by a group of Nigerian academics, they note quote, “Whilst developing countries have no share of the remote sensing industry, they are on the receiving end of the scheme. Not only are they targets of the remote cameras, the information obtained from their territories are not freely accessed by them as they have to pay to receive the information.”
Other experts who work on this have pointed out that this kind of view, this very literal top down perspective, can dehumanize the people involved. It’s like you’re looking over some little toy set, a Polly Pocket world where you are totally detached and all seeing.
Jamon has done some work on using satellite imagery to help map refugee communities — to figure out where these informal settlements are.
Jamon: Over the course of two to three months can. There can be a natural sort of vegetated landscape and then cut to three months later and it can be completely occupied with agriculture with marketplace with thousands of residents. So it really happens in the blink of an eye
Rose: And again, there are ethical questions here too. These are refugees, by definition vulnerable, fleeing some terror wherever they once lived. Mapping them might be useful for certain things
Jamon: For relief delivery, for sort of management of of aid to make sure that this newly arrived population has food has water has security has access to things like education and health services and sanitation.
Rose: And knowing how many people are displaced is important for informing global policy – we talked a few seasons ago about the US census, and why it’s really important for marginalized groups to be counted accurately, so they can be reflected in services and funding and programs. The same goes here.
Jamon: So if refugee camps are left off of that we’ve got this potential for bias where we can’t account for the population that could be living there. If we don’t account for where these settlements are we’re just continuing to sort of amplify these biases. We’re in this echo chamber of exclusion that is just going to be perpetuated over and over and over.
Rose: But mapping where vulnerable people live can also have serious safety implications.
Jamon: How do we deal with the risk of identification of vulnerable communities that may have just left a conflict zone, right?
Rose: And it’s often hard to anonymize this data without making it useless.
Jamon: This is you know a new refugee population on the border of Uganda that fled South Sudan. There’s a handful of those sites right. It’s automatically filtered down to these generally known locations.
Rose: And there’s this kind of weird gap here that I think is about to get way more problematic as satellites get better and better. As with any discipline there are whole sub-fields of satellite imagery and remote sensing. And for the most part, they don’t talk to one another. I asked Jamon about a paper I read critiquing satellite imagery and the ways that it can reinforce state control, and he hadn’t heard of the paper, because it was published in an International Relations journal, not a remote sensing journal.
People who do environmental sensing, who use these satellites to understand things like weather patterns and land use, they use imagery that’s pretty coarse. Which means that it can’t see individual houses, let alone individual humans. So they basically never think about this stuff.
Jamon: Most remote sensing doesn’t work that way. Most is, environmental like broad scale landscape change which may or may not be tied to a group or community. Ugh, it’s it’s a it’s a blind spot is is thinking about people. People that do remote sensing don’t think about human beings. Often they think about them as agents of change or as land managers.
Rose [on the phone]: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Jamon: No it’s a total blind spot right, it’s a bad thing I think it. There’s like this ignorance because it’s so environmentally focused or bio physically focused you don’t end up having this awareness you don’t end up asking the best questions, the most probing questions.
Rose: I would also just like to say that I think the idea that the landscape and environment is completely separate from humans and human activity is kind of a weird position to take. Humans have been shaping the landscape for a very, very long time. And humans have had a cultural, political relationship with the land for just as long. The idea that sensing and taking data on landscapes doesn’t have to engage with the people who call those landscapes home, just because the imagery doesn’t see them individually, specifically, is very weird to me.
For example, in many Native American communities, certain landscapes are sacred. And in some situations, specific parts of the landscape are so sacred that only certain members of the tribe are allowed to see them. But with Google Earth, anybody can look at these places, and gaze upon a spot that this community sees as special and off limits.
Rose [on the phone]: Is that something that folks in those like environmental sensing world think about at all ever in terms of like you’re looking at something that to some people is sacred and shouldn’t be seen?
Jamon: No never never. [laughs] Oh no no that’s never. I mean I would be completely shocked if that was on anyone’s radar. People think about that in terms of like oh I’m looking at the Pentagon right. I’m looking on top of the Pentagon there are these places that are intentionally blurred out from from high resolution imagery like on google maps based map. But it’s not it’s not it’s not… No not at all. I mean name your sacred place. You’ll have. Thousands and thousands of images taken of it.
Rose [on the phone]: Yeha, is that something you think people should be thinking about more.
Jamon: About not collecting imagery over areas. No I mean I’m an atheist so I don’t really, um, no, I don’t think that really.
Rose [on the phone]: I wasn’t sure if that was something people in your field were thinking about, ever.
Jamon: Oh no. [laughs] I can’t tell you how far of a left field question that would be to a typical remote sensor.
Rose: I was kind of surprised to hear that, so I actually called up Sarah Parcak again, over the weekend, while she was baking.
Sarah: I needed a little break before I dive into the peach chutney so…
Rose: And she very graciously answered a few more questions for me, about this stuff. And I asked her if it was true, it is totally out of left field to ask about this? And she said, no, she thinks about it… literally every day.
Sarah: I think a lot of the ills of the world could be solved if everyone took an anthropology 101 class at some point like human human ecology. It’s covered in the first two weeks. Like it’s it’s so important. And yes. OK. You might be I don’t know, mapping, you know, shadows that show you where elephants are deep in the Okavango Delta. But my colleagues who work there will tell you that they encounter anthropogenic activity in the middle of nowhere. So of course humans are an essential part of the story.
Rose: Even if you think you’re just mapping elephants, you’re still often looking at land that people live on. And some of those people are more vulnerable than others.
Sarah: Look at what’s happening in the Amazon right now with both scenario and you know with the with the Amazon getting cut down and more and more I don’t think we’re hearing about this as much in the news because of his authoritarian regime. But indigenous groups are being forced out. And on the one hand when you’re doing high resolution monitoring you are you know tracking the destruction of the rainforest and trying to do your best to inform people. On the other hand you end up exposing the locations of a lot of these groups and the government of Brazil does not have their best interests in mind. I don’t think any government has ever had their best interests in mind.
Rose: And that goes for my question about mapping sacred lands in the United States too. Now, there might be cases where having satellite imagery of these places helps protect them, by helping “prove” (and I’m using air quotes here because the power dynamics of who has to prove that something is important is extremely skewed) but this data could help “prove” that these sites are sacred.
Sarah: You know if it’s someone from an indigenous group says hey this whole landscape is sacred it’s been in you know we’ve been worshipping the space for thousands of years and the U.S. government wants to develop and it’s like, “it’s just a bunch of mountains.” But if you can use the satellite imagery to say actually it’s not just mountains. I mean number one take an anthropology course number two there are thirty seven distinct clear archeological sites on the surface alone
Rose: But if tagging and mapping those places does more harm than good to those communities, then you shouldn’t do it.
Sarah:I think if you work with the the indigenous groups and it’s all about intent and it’s all about their wishes and if you you’re placing their wishes ahead of your research goals because that’s how it should be then I think I think you’ve done the best job you can.
Rose: Sarah’s working on a project with the Indian government right now, where she’s building a tool for people in India to be able to look at their archaeological history from space. And that project is driven by folks in India, and what they want.
Sarah: And people got excited about training. They got excited about documentation of sites under threat from development. And they got very excited about the idea of everyone in India participating in the discovery of their own heritage
Rose: Now, obviously there’s a lot of complexity here right? India is currently embroiled in controversy over its decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy and impose its rule over the state. And you can’t separate projects like this, projects that work with governments to reveal and celebrate history from these kinds of politics. There is always a selection of whose history gets celebrated, which sites, revealed by satellite data, get attention and which ones don’t.
For a long time, remote sensing people, and satellite mapping people have been able to get around the question of surveillance because the pictures they get aren’t quite good enough to identify individual people.
Sarah: Some of them have a resolution as good as eleven inches or point three meters some of them have a resolution say of a kilometer. And when I say resolution I mean when you zoom in and zoom in and zoom in. That means the pixel the individual pixel is roughly the size of an iPad or roughly the size of I don’t know a small town.
Rose: If in the highest resolution pictures that researchers can get, a pixel is the size of an iPad, that means that you can’t do things like facial recognition from space. Because the face would be basically one pixel. Of course, we’re not talking about spy satellites here or government satellites, those are better than what people like Sarah and Jamon can get, something like 30 cm resolution. But even commercial satellites, they’re getting better all the time. And in fact, you might not even need faces to identify people from space, at all. When we come back, we’re going to talk about why, even if you’re wearing a full ski mask to thwart facial recognition satellite imagery, your heart might give you away. And if we CAN identify someone, an individual someone, from space, should we? But first, a break.
Rose: Okay, so there are thousands of satellites out there, and about to be thousands more, watching us constantly. Last week we talked about how inaccurate facial recognition was, and how hard it is to get a good photo with your face in the right lighting and angle to work with the system. But what if I told you, that your face is just the beginning. That facial recognition is the low hanging fruit, a system that’s hard to implement and easy to thwart with jewelry or masks. It turns out that the future of human recognition probably isn’t facial recognition. It’s … deeper. Inside your body.
Wenyao Xu: Our heart is unique, not just the shape of the heart but also the biological structure of the heart.
Rose:This is Wenyao Xu, a professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. And he has developed a heart reader. Not a dating app, but a device that can look deep into your chest, measure your heart, and figure out who you are. Did you know that every person’s heart is as different as their fingerprints? I did not! And it’s not just your heartbeat, it’s the whole heart, the shape of it.
Wenyao: Heartbeat just a one we of the heart of motion representation. What right now we refer to the uniqueness of the heart is the biological structure and the shape of the heart.
Rose: So even if you’re exercising or you just got a mean email from your boss and your heart is racing, it’s still identifiable as YOUR heart.
Wenyao: we we kind think about like a car no matter if it is still, or in motion, it is still that car, right?
Rose: So Wenyao and his team developed a little device that you can put in a room, that reads people’s heart identities.
Wenyao: So the size of it that’s a scan looks like a credit card.
Rose: And this little credit card sized sensor uses radar to scan the room for hearts. You don’t have to touch it, you don’t have to even face it.
Wenyao: It will send to the radio frequency signals to the people and then read to the reflection from the people and then we can obtain the heart information.
Rose: And this can work with a whole group of people, you can put one of these sensors in the corner of a room and it can pick out people in a crowded room. But what about people with modified hearts, like pacemakers.
Rose [on the phone]: Does having some sort of pacemaker or some sort of like artificial help in your heart, whether that’s like, you know, various there’s all sorts of kind of like cyborgy things that people can have when they have heart procedures. Does that change your heart biometrics?
Wenyao: Right certainly, like a plastic surgery change the face and then you we do the surgery and put the pacemaker in my heart that will change the structure and the size of the heart. Yes.
Rose [on the phone]: And like I know you said every person has a different heart but if two people have the same pacemaker installed are they going to have the same biometric or will and still be identifiable?
Wenyao: It will still be identifiable. But the after surgery are hard to I.D. will be different from before surgery that’s for sure.
Rose: So, if you want to evade detection, at least for a while, you could in theory put a pacemaker in and change the signal your heart gives off.
Now, before we get into the, um, scary parts here. Let’s hera what Wenyao thinks some of the good applications could be for this technology. One is for things like passwords, for your computer.
Wenyao: Yeah, so we can tune the are the power the range of the sensor to make it the proper in some specification. For example for personal computer we will limit the authentication range within about one meter. If the user step away then it can lock her computer.
Rose: And he says that there are advantages to using hearts compared to, say, faces or fingerprints as passwords.
Wenyao: Heart based biometric is invisible. Unlike the could the fingerprinting or face those the information can be easy to be disclosed in the current social media. Like someone uploaded their photos in the Facebook then malicious user might to you know extract the face and the fingerprinting information
Rose: And this has happened, hackers have managed to replicate fingerprints of famous people based on high resolution photographs. But it would be pretty hard to create a heart replica to spoof someone’s security system. If you’ve figured out how to 3D print a working heart replica, maybe you should be using it for good, like, to help all the people who need hearts, instead of using it to get into your cheating boyfriend’s phone. Dump him, donate the hearts, everybody wins.
Now, why am I talking about this, I thought we were talking about satellites. Well, here’s the thing. Right now, the system Wenyao has developed doesn’t work beyond a kilometer, which is a little over a half a mile, and we should all switch to the metric system anyway. Now, 1 kilometer is already pretty far. But theoretically, it could work from way further.
Wenyao: With the technology development, I wouldn’t say that’s gonna be the altimeter bond.
Rose: And one story I read in MIT Tech Review features this quote from someone named Steward Remaly, who works at the Pentagon: ““I don’t want to say you could do it from space, but longer ranges should be possible.” in other words, the military probably could do this from space at some point.
And it’s not just heartbeat monitors, satellite imagery is about to get a LOT better on almost all fronts.
Jamon: We haven’t entered the golden age yet. It’s just starting. There are some systems that are going to be promising every image every 15 minutes at like one meter resolution everywhere on the globe that mean we’re entering into this this new era of a virtual Panopticon of commercial sensing. We’re almost certainly already there with classified imagery, almost certainly this is common in the classified world.
Sarah: It’s super terrifying and you think like facial recognition technology what happens if from space we can do facial recognition technology and identify where people are and where they’re moving and is this going to be Big Brother. And of course, as always, you know, people of color and the LGBT population like of course they’re going to be targeted. So what does that mean. What are things we can do to safeguard against this.
Rose: In the not so distant future, it’s possible that commercial grade satellites could be able to identify individual human beings in satellite imagery. Which means that Sarah could catch individual looters, and name them. But even if she could, she’s not so sure she would. Right now, Sarah’s work just says, hey, here is where looting happens.
Sarah: We’re not pinpointing specific communities. We we only show looting on sites we don’t cast any guilt.
Rose: And that’s because looting is a really complicated problem connected to politics and war and hunger.
Sarah: A lot of people I work with in these villages are looters and they’re not bad people they’re doing whatever we would do to survive in the same situation.
Rose: Most of these looters are themselves refugees and victims of violent regimes.
Sarah: Of course you have to think through how the data you share and the information you’re collecting is assisting rather than putting additional targets on people on the ground who are either living in camps or in villages or on or next to archaeological sites.
Rose: Sarah says that identifying the people actually digging the holes, going down into the pits and taking things out of the ground, that’s not something she wants to do. She’d rather talk about the powerful, wealthy people who create this market, and who pay for these objects. In other words, go for Joe Lewis, the millionaire collecting these objects, not the refugee who dig them up.
Last week, we talked about facial recognition and how just because we CAN in theory track everybody as they move around the world all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean we SHOULD. And this satellite imagery stuff makes this not just a city to city problem or a state problem or even a national problem, it makes it a global one. How does this evidence get used in court?
Google Earth evidence has been used in court cases in the United States before, but never individually identifying information. Because it hasn’t been possible. But when it becomes possible, there are a whole lot of legal questions around whether this information would even be admissible. This question has come up with drone surveillance before, and we talked about it a bit in the Eyes in the Sky episode. And there is some legal precedent, but it’s kind of murky. In a landmark case from 1986, in which the government busted a marijuana farm in California by taking photos of the farm from an airplane, the court decided that, quote “The Fourth Amendment simply does not require the police traveling in the public airways at this altitude to obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye.” So air space is public, just like outer space, and if you can see something with your naked eye from a plane, or a satellite, that’s not protected under the Fourth Amendment. But being able to scan someone’s heart or face from 35,786 km above the Earth, that’s not something you can do with the naked eye. So that precedent probably doesn’t to apply.
And things get even MORE complicated when you start to cross national lines. What happens when an American archaeologist using a private company’s satellite spots a crime in India? We have no idea. But eventually we’ll find out, because eventually this will be possible. And we’re not ready.
That’s all for this episode.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Special thanks to Veronica Simonetti and Erin Laetz at the Women’s Audio Mission, which is where all the intro scenes were recorded this season. If you did not catch the quick note at the end of the last episode, just a quick note, all the intro scenes for this season are sort of special. The teens that came in to act actually wrote their own lines and had their own debates so this was mostly unscripted. And things happened that I would not have scripted myself. And I’m really excited about it and super stoked that the actors were so good and so lovely and so nice to each-other.
Special thanks also to Evan Johnson who played Mr. Morton and also coordinated the actors of the Junior Acting Troupe who play the students in the intros this season. Today’s debaters were played by Charlie Chalmers and Grace Nelligan. If you want to hear the students debate this topic further, you can hear the full cut of their conversation by becoming a Patron at $5/episode or more, which gets you access to the Bonus Podcast.
If you want to discuss books with fellow listeners, wow, you’re in luck you can join the book club by becoming a $7 patron! This month we’re reading Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch.
If you want to discuss the future, you can do that with listeners are the totally FREE Facebook Group. Is it ironic that this show has a Facebook group, given how much I’m always yelling about privacy, yes! But people asked for it and who am I to deny you what you desire! Just search Facebook for Flash Forward Podcast and ask to join I will add you as quickly as I can.
And, if you like the show, please consider leaving a nice review on iTunes! Yes, against everybody’s advice, I read them all. Thank you to benhuff who said “This is the podcast that finally got me into podcasts after people telling me to listen to them for the past decade.” It’s me! The podcast gateway drugs! If you like the show, please do consider leaving a review. They help more people find the show. And they make me feel good. When they’re nice. The not nice ones make me feel bad. And I do read those too.
If you want to suggest a future I should take on, send me a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing your ideas! You can also find me Rose and the show on Instagram, two different accounts. One is @roseveleth on Instagram and the other is just @flashforwardpod. I often post pictures related to the episodes so this week I’ll be posting a bunch of satellite imagery for you to look at, and other fun stuff. So you can find that on Instagram @flashforwardpod.
And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
Okay, that’s all for this future. Come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one!
George Clooney: Everybody be cool. You, be cool.
Today we travel to a future where algorithms can be put on trial.
- Rumman Chowdhury — Global Lead for Responsible AI at Accenture Applied Intelligence
- Kevin De Liban — attorney at Legal Aid or Arkansas
- Nicholson Price — assistant professor of law at University of Michigan
- Shobita Parthasarathy — professor of public policy and women’s studies at University of Michigan
- What is an algorithm and why should you care?
- Legal Aid of Arkansas Files Federal Lawsuit Against DHS
- What Happens When An Algorithm Cuts Your Healthcare
- Legal Aid sues DHS again over algorithm denial of benefits to disabled
- Privacy and Accountability in Black-Box Medicine
- Can algorithms be racist? Trump’s housing department says no
- Flawed Algorithms Are Grading Millions of Students’ Essays
- Can You Sue An Algorithm For Malpractice?
- Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks.
- COMPAS recidivism practitioners guide
- COMPAS questionnaire
- Algorithmic Solutions to Algorithmic Bias: A Technical Guide
- Algorithmic bias detection and mitigation: Best practices and policies to reduce consumer harms
- Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism
- How Big Data Is ‘Automating Inequality’
- Responsible AI – Interview with Rumman Chowdhury
- The Data Scientist Putting Ethics into AI
- Medical Malpractice and Black-Box Medicine
- Artificial Intelligence in the Medical System: Four Roles for Potential Transformation
- Medical AI and Contextual Bias
- Evan Johnson as Mr. Morton
- David Romero as David
- Ash Greenberg as Ash
- Santos Flores as Santos
- Charlie Chalmers as Charlie
- Grace Nelligan as Grace
- Ava Ausman as Ava
- Sidney Perry-Thistle as Sidney
- Arthur Allison as Arthur
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Special thanks this episode to Evan Johnson who coordinated all the teens you’re going to hear in this season, and who plays our intrepid debate club teacher this season. Special thanks also to Veronica Simonetti and Erin Laetz at the Women’s Audio Mission, where all the intro scenes were recorded this season. Check out their work and mission at womensaudiomission.org.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
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Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
This episode we’re starting in the year 2060.
David: Oh my god, it’s so long! If that was in my house my mom would kill it.
Mr. Morton [slightly out of breath]: Right, okay, sorry I’m late everybody. There was an incident in the cafeteria. We’re not going to get into it.
Mr. Morton: Let me find my little list here. Oh. Santos and Ava. You guys are up. All right.
Arthur: Different height squad!
Mr. Morton: Places please.
Arthur: That was a power move.
Mr. Morton: So today, you two are arguing about whether we can put bots in jail. [laughing] Right. I’m sort of kidding. The case in question, real case by the way, that really happened back in 2023. I think this was Connecticut. There was a woman. Yeah. Who was diagnosed by an algorithmic triage system at a hospital and she was therefore sent into a low priority group. And that meant, and then she died a few hours later. So when the hospital looked into why she died they found out that it wasn’t the that the algorithm improperly diagnosed her. Well, it actually diagnosed her accurately and calculated that the chances of her surviving were so low that it was not worth committing hospital resources to her cause or to her case rather. Her family decided not to sue the hospital but it’s instead to sue the company that created the algorithm that made the decision. Yeah. Whoa. So Santos we’re going start with you. Will you defend
Mr. Morton: You can defend please, these poor coders. Please defend them for us.
Santos: Okay. I I’m going to defend the creators of algorithms and explain why they kind of cannot be held responsible for what their code does. We know that a woman was diagnosed by algorithmic triage system at a hospital. Yes. The system placed her in a low priority group because they calculated, accurately might I add, that her condition was already so critical that there was no point in trying to save her.
Now I know it seems easy to blame the people who created the system, the same system that this family seemed to perceive as her ultimate cause of death. But there are many many other factors that we need to consider here.
Let’s start with the hospital. The hospital decided that trying to say this woman wouldn’t be worth the risk because of her terrible condition that would most likely be a waste of time and resources, had the doctors made it a high priority to save her. We do definitely have to think about all the other patients at the hospital, the ones who did require extra medical care but still had a chance at living or more, more than her.
Let’s say they put her in a high, well, let’s say they put her in a high priority group and saved her which would be a long taxing and risky procedure. But let’s say that they succeeded. All those medical resources could have gone to the other patients who needed that care. It could have been spread out more evenly to the high priority patients. And um, some patients could have died. Many patients.
But that is not what happened. The algorithm made the decision to put her in low priority put aside at the hospital would be able to function more properly and that it would benefit the other patients and save them.
Let’s let’s just talk about algorithms in general. They’re everywhere. They’re in our devices in our government. They’re used to make important decisions and try to achieve the best possible outcome. So like I said, you can’t just blame the creators of the algorithm because there are many other factors that influence the final outcome and choice. So… yeah.
Mr. Morton: All right now great. Good job. Eva, why is Santos wrong?
Students: ooohh [laughter]
Ava: That’s a long list.
Ava: I’m just kidding, I’m sorry Santos.
So the creator of the algorithm should be held responsible because it doesn’t matter if her chances of surviving were slim, a slim chance of surviving is better than no chance at all, which is the condition that the algorithm played her. Basically when she came they said, “well you could survive but we’re going to decide not to let you. We’re gonna let you die.”
Currently the creators of the algorithm are putting money before a woman’s life. They… if you create something like that you should stand behind your work. And if it’s misused then you should be able to jump in and take action. And let’s… and if they don’t get charged then that could be us sign to other companies that they could do the exact same thing. Letting people die while having like risky programs and still gain money off of it.
Yes it might have saved the family money in the end, but that doesn’t really take away the fact that the woman died in the programmers are still trying to justify her death.
Mr. Morton: OK. All right. Great great response, or great argument I should say rather. Time for questions, Santos, go ahead ask Ava your question.
Santos: All right. Well what do you think should be done differently at the hospital, like what changes would you have made to the algorithm.
Ava: I think they should have replaced the algorithm with something that would instead like present all the different outcomes instead of just saying she should go a low priority they should say they should have made it more she should go on a low priority because she has a risky chance of surviving. If you just give something without any justification then a number of possibilities could happen.
Mr. Morton: Okay Ava time for you to ask Santos your question.
Ava: Is it OK for the creators of the algorithm to… dammit I didn’t make a question I forgot to make a question
Sydney: Wait can I add something?
Sydney: Isn’t it technically all of our fault because everyone in this party is guilty of this woman’s death because the creator created this program. The hospital allowed it in, to be in a position of power and that gave that power over someone’s life or death.
Santos: Right. That’s my point.
Sydney: So isn’t everyone at fault here? Shouldn’t everyone get punished for this?
Santos: Sure. So I believe that they did what they could. Yeah.
Ava: Okay so in that case is it okay you continue to use this algorithm?
Santos: If they are able to find a better way to manage the lives of these patients. I think yes. But until then I think that if this is what, if this is how like the hospital succeeds and like how most of the patients get better than I think they should continue until they find a better solution.
Mr. Morton: David you remember…
David: I remember what I was going to say! What I was going to say is like one thing that like you have remember it was a point that you brought up earlier Ava. And like yo what it should have, you, when you said like “yo what if I should have said is, what it should say is this because of this and then a human moderator could like choose.” Like “Oh should we really put it, should we agree with the algorithm.” But I think that like from what I can tell from this case the reason that the algorithms there is because it’s a very busy hospital. Like all the workers the people that would be the human moderators are all doing stuff they’re all busy they’re doing this operation. They’re saving these lives. And so this algorithm is there so that a human doesn’t have to be. So if you had someone there to like look over what all the albums said it would sort of defeat the purpose of having that algorithm there in the first place.
Ava: If you don’t have time to save someone’s life I think you should be transferred to another hospital.
David: No but that’s the thing is because they’re, they’re, they’re not having time to save someone’s life because they’re saving more other people, they’re saving more people’s lives like in the other room they’re saving more lives instead of using their time to check the algorithm.
Ava: So it is you’re saying it’s OK to put all our trust into machines.
Santos: Well a lot of people do that.
David: I mean yeah a lot of people do put their trust in machines, if this machines has been well coded and if it knows about these things then yes it is OK to put our trust in these machines.
Ava: Well I don’t think we should be we should put our trust in these machines especially if it’s such a big factor like life or death.
Claire: Wouldn’t you have a better if the algorithm instead of putting her in a low priority group if the hospital was full, wouldn’t it be better if they just transferred her to another hospital.
Arthur: But also they chose to go to that hospital.
David: But they probably didn’t know about the hospital. Also it says that they died within a few hours. I don’t know if they could have transferred her. I mean yes the algorithm probably has some reworking, is probably, they should have transferred it but also they did say they die they die quickly like I don’t I don’t know if a transfer would have been possible. If it is then yeah the algorithm probably needs some tweaking but I don’t think it’s a reason to completely like devalue let the entire like algorithm or like the entire thing of algorithms just because you should probably tweet this to give more information.
Arthur: If you’re going to go to a hospital though for something that dangerous you should probably know stuff about the hospital. Also you’re going into the hospital going to one you trust, that you’ve been there before.
Ava: But we’re not holding the hospital responsible we’re holding the coders.
Arthur: Yeah I know that but you should know that… tou should know the algorithm about the hospital.
Sydney: If you’re going to a hospital you expect treatment. So what this, what I think should have happened is that this person went to the hospital because we all were in pain or they knew they had a serious medical condition and they thought that they were going to get help and they did not get help. Which means that the hospital failed in their duty because of this algorithm.
Mr. Morton: Wow wow wow you this has been a very very lively debate. You got the entire class involved.
Santos: I’m evil.
Charlie: It’s not evil if it’s debate:
Mr. Morton: I’m looking around I’m very proud of you all I see future lawyers in my midst. Thank you so much for your wonderful smart debates. And please get home safely everyone. It’s pouring rain out there. Grab your umbrellas.
Rose: Okay! Algorithms! You hear about them all the time. But you might not realize that they’re all around you. And they’re only becoming more common, and more controversial. Schools are using them to grade students essays, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development just proposed new rules that would let landlords and mortgage lenders discriminate using algorithms, warehouses are considering installing algorithms to detect risky movements by their workers.
Algorithms already touch so many pieces of our lives, and their domain is only growing.
So today’s big question is this: who is responsible for all these algorithms?
As usual, we’re going to start with a case. But before we talk about why the state of Arkansas was sued over an algorithm, let’s first define what the heck and algorithm actually is. Because it’s one of those words that people use all the time, but when you ask them to define it… it can be kind of tricky.
Rumman Chowdury: So, people talk a lot about algorithms in the media, and, actually, to a practitioner there’s two things. There’s an algorithm and there’s a model. And it seems like splitting hairs, but it’s a really important definition.
Rose: This is Rumman Chowdury, a data scientist and the head of Responsible AI at a company called Accenture.
Rumman: So, an algorithm is basically math translated into code. It’s essentially some sort of a statistical, probabilistic, formula that figures out the likelihood of something to happen. And then we translate that into code.
Rose: So an algorithm is basically just a set of rules, or steps, written down in a code. You can think of algorithms kind of like recipes. You have a list of ingredients and a list of steps, and then you follow those steps and you are likely to get an output that looks like what you’re trying to make. As long as you’re not me, who is a terrible cook, and somehow cannot for the life of me follow a recipes. But you can’t eat a recipe, written down on a piece of paper.
Rumman: That in and of itself is just lines of code. It doesn’t have an application.
Rose: What most people mean, myself included, when we talk about algorithms, is actually what experts call models.
Rumman: So, models are when you take an algorithm; you put data into it; and you get some sort of a prediction.
Rose: And these models are everywhere. They help Spotify predict what you might want to listen to. They help mapping applications figure out the fastest route from where you are to where you want to be. They help Netflix figure out what you might want to watch when you Netflix and Chill. And they help Facebook figure out which babies you see in your feed, and which babies you do not. Models are behind Google search results, they’re in the software that guides airplanes, they run travel websites, and ATMs, and pretty much every advertisement you see online. So that one thing; that one product that is just following you around, on every single platform; that’s because of a model. But what happens when they get something wrong?
That question brings us back to Arkansas.
Animaniacs: Little Rock in Arkansas, Iowa’s got Des Moines.
Rose: In 2016, Kevin de Liban started getting distressed phone calls from people in this one particular program.
Kevin de Liba: Prior to 2016, we had fewer than a dozen calls, even involving this program, in probably the four or five years I had been here at that time. And then, in 2016 we start getting floods of calls.
Rse: Kevin is an attorney who works at an organization called Legal Aid of Arkansas.
Kevin We represent low income Arkansans in all kinds of civil, legal matters So, anything that affects the lives of low income folks.
Rose: And these calls he was getting, they were all the same.
Kevin: The state is cutting my care, and I haven’t gotten any better.
Rose: The callers were all part of a Medicaid program that helps people live independently.
Kevin: Basically, the state will provide for a care aide to come in and help somebody with the key activities of daily living. Bathing, eating, dressing, getting out of bed. All the things that you would need to live independently. And the thinking behind this is that it’s cheaper for the state to have somebody at home in the community, instead of it in a nursing home. And, of course, it’s better for somebody’s dignity to just be close to home, where there might be family, or friends, or at least memories, or neighbors that they are connected to.
Rose: People in this program were evaluated by the state every year, to figure out how many hours of at home aid they needed. And what that usually meant was that a nurse would come to their house, ask them a whole bunch of questions, and then make a recommendation for how many hours they should get. And that is how the program worked for the last fifteen years. But in 2016, people who had been enrolled in this program – for years and years, always getting the same hours – suddenly were told: actually, you don’t need that much help. We’re downgrading you.
Kevin: These are folks with cerebral palsy, or quadriplegia, or multiple sclerosis, or various other chronic diseases, that haven’t gotten any better. And for no reason that they can identify, they’re having their care cut. Sometimes by as little as 20 percent, which is still a lot for somebody who depends on every minute of care to live independently, all the way up to something like 60 percent.
Rose: And the results of this were devastating for some people.
Kevin: People were getting bed sores from not being able to be turned. Were skipping meals. Would get dehydrated because they wouldn’t drink water after a certain time of day because that meant they’d have to sit in their own urine for longer.
Rose: And none of these people could figure out why their hours had been cut, when nothing about their lives, or their condition had changed. Even the nurses who showed up, to give the questionnaire and deliver the news, couldn’t explain what was going on.
Kevin: The only thing the nurses could tell them is that the computer did it. So, “the computer did it.” That was the key phrase.
Rose: The nurses mostly didn’t know it was a model at work here, the application of an algorithm. In May of 2016, Legal Aid sued the state of Arkansas.
Kevin: So, in law, there’s a basic principle of due process, right? The idea is that the government can’t take anything that’s life, liberty, or property, without giving you a fair chance to contest the taking of it, right? And so that means they’ve got to tell you why they’re taking it. They’ve got to give you an opportunity to prove them wrong. And what we argued is that if the state was using this kind of black box process to take away people’s benefits, they were depriving them of fundamental due process.
Rose: Nobody involved in the program could explain to those affected how the algorithm had come to the decisions that it had. Which meant that people who had their hours cut, couldn’t really contest the decision making process, since they weren’t privy to it in the first place.
And the Arkansas algorithm wasn’t just a black box, it was a black box with a wonky lid and a whole bunch of cracks in it.
Kevin: So, the assessment itself involves 286 questions. The algorithm only looks at 60 of those. Which means that 226 questions are completely irrelevant to the number of hours that you’re going to get. Completely.
Rose: Beyond just being kind of annoying, to spend all this time asking all these questions if only 60 of them matter, leaving out those 226 questions often meant leaving out information that was kind of important.
Kevin: So the algorithm didn’t take into account how well you could walk, for example. Or how much time you needed to bathe, or how much bathing assistance you needed. How much assistance with chores. Whether or not you could be left alone, because you might be a choking hazard. Or might not be mobile, and able to get out of the House if there was something that was happening to it.
Rose: :And there were weird, like, loopholes almost. In one case, the assessor correctly noted that a person didn’t have any foot problems… because they were an amputee. They didn’t have feet. And that made the system think that this person needed less help.
Kevin: The algorithm didn’t automatically sort you into the category of the most hours that you would qualify for. So let’s say you qualified for a category that gave you five hours a day, and you qualified for a category that gave you five and a half hours a day of care. The algorithm would sort you into the one that gave you five.
Rose: In some cases, entire conditions were just programmed incorrectly. Diabetes for example, just wasn’t counted as a condition at all. And cerebral palsy wasn’t coded correctly in the algorithm.
Kevin: And as a result, nearly 200 people with cerebral palsy were denied about an hour a day of care, on average, that they otherwise should have received for a span of almost two years.
Rose: In court, the state argued that these were tiny problems, marginal, that should not prevent them from using this algorithm to help make more “objective” decisions about who got what kind of care. Kevin, and Legal Aid, argued that even if these mistakes didn’t exist, the fact that nobody could explain or defend the choices of the model to the people impacted by it, was itself a problem. And there was one moment, during the proceedings, that might have been the nail in the coffin for the state’s model.
Kevin: This is, I think, a once in a career movie moment.
Rose: Kevin had a client whose hours were cut. And Kevin asked one of the state’s witnesses, Dr. Brant Fries, the inventor of this algorithm, if he could hand score this client, just to confirm that the algorithm “got it right” and to basically explain how the decision came to be.
Kevin: So he did that, and he came out that she should have been in a group with more hours attached to it. And so, that came out. It was shocking. The state asked for a recess to go try to figure out what happened, and then the state came back and tried to plead with the judge that, you know, it was just a small error, and it was something that they would be sure to get on and fix right away.
Rose: Ultimately, the judge sided with Legal Aid. So they won the federal lawsuit on due process grounds.
Kevin: And what that meant is that the state had to go back, and come up with a way to better explain why your hours got cut. And that took the state several months to do. So, for several months, cuts for thousands of people were on hold. So that was great.
Rose: And Legal Aid had hoped that this would be the end of the model… but, of course it wasn’t. The state said they were going to keep using the algorithm, once they could figure out how to explain it better. Which meant that, ultimately, a lot of these people would still wind up with dramatically reduced hours, based on an algorithm’s decision. So Legal Aid sued again.
Kevin: And there, we attempted to invalidate the algorithm directly, and we ultimately prevailed.
Rose: So this particular model, in Arkansas, might be gone. But the state is still tinkering with automating these kinds of decisions.
Kevin: The algorithm has been gone, and the state has since switched to a new system. They won’t use the word algorithm to describe the new system. It’s like it’s taboo now. Nobody says the A word. What they have now instead is what they call “tiering logic.” So, you know, you play the game of euphemism. “We don’t have algorithms, we only after tiering logic.” Which somehow makes it better. And they still don’t understand,
Rose: And it’s not just Arkansas. Colorado, California, Idaho, they have all implemented similar models with similar results, people wind up getting less care. And sometimes, that’s the point.
Kevin: The state wanted to cut Medicaid spending, and they wanted to cut it from the home care program here. And the algorithm issue was just an easy and convenient way to do that that comes in this veneer of being objective, and rational, and not subject to any sort of human biases that a nurse might have.
Rose: In Arkansas, the state defended the need for a model by arguing that nurses were biased, and inconsistent. Here’s what a spokesperson for the Department of Health Services said at the time: “We wanted to take the subjectivity out of the system so that decisions about level of care were objective, consistent, based on science and based on real data from real Arkansans.” The catch here was that … Arkansas actually didn’t have any data about whether or not nurses were in fact delivering vastly different decisions in different places.
But you see this argument a lot, right? This idea that an algorithm, a model, can help save us from our pesky human biases.
Shobita Parthasarathy: We, as human beings, have forever wanted to find ways to simplify human judgment and complex decision making.
Rose: This is Shobita Parthasarathy, the Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, at the University of Michigan.
Shobita: I mean, I think there’s some kind of allure in objectivity, and a distrust of ourselves and our judgment. And so you can think about classification schemes, phrenology….
Rose: Today, instead of measuring skulls, we’re now plugging vast amounts of data into elaborate AI systems to try and get the “right” answer about everything from whether someone should be promoted, get a loan, get a job, or be offered parole.
Shobita: One of the most hot areas, I guess, when it comes to criminal justice, is in using algorithms to set decisions about bail. And the proponents of these algorithms suggest that it actually has a kind of progressive, or liberal, orientation. That is that, historically judges have made decisions about whether or not someone should be let out on bail, and that the judge could be biased. But if we base the decisions on a variety of different kinds of data then, you know, it’s based on something that’s a little bit more seemingly objective.
Rose: It turns out, surprise, surprise, that these algorithms have their own bias baked in too — they’re more likely to deny parole to black people than white people who commit similar crimes. This promise of unbiased, objective decision making is… basically like a Cadmean vixen, a fox that can never be caught.
Shobita: As they say, the robots are us, right? The algorithms are as biased as we are. And by we, I don’t just mean we as individuals, I mean we as societies.
Rose: But how does a model, which is just a pile of data and math, wind up being biased? And what does it mean when people call them black boxes? But first, a quick break.
So, the most common reaction that I get, when I talk to people about biased algorithms, goes something like this: Wait a minute. Algorithms are just… math. Math can’t be biased.
Rumman: Some people will say, “Most algorithms are just super advanced statistics, this isn’t like this magical thing.” And that’s all correct.
Rose: That’s Rumman Chowdury again.
Rumman: But, technology is not neutral. Even when we think about how data is collected, and stored, and how we measure, things even that in of itself has some sort of a bias.
Rose: Now, if you’ve been a long time listener of Flash Forward, you might already know this. But, let’s review this. There are actually two kinds of bias that creep into these systems.
Rumman: So when a technical person, a data scientist, thinks of bias, they’re often thinking about a quantifiable value. So that can come from your data, and maybe your data is missing some information. And maybe that missingness is something systemic. Like you don’t have enough information about people from a particular zip code, or people who are low income, or people who don’t own a cell phone. And then that systemic bias translates into the algorithmic output, because you just don’t know about these people.
Rose: In other cases, the way you ask the question on the survey that helps you train your model could be flawed. Remember the parole algorithm we talked about earlier? The one that could guess whether or not someone was going to recommit, and would then recommend a parole decision based on that data? The whole system was based on a survey given to the prisoner.
Rumman: And the survey asks questions like, “did your mother have a job? Are you from a broken home?” And it would ask these questions that, frankly, to me, raised some question marks. Why would someone’s socioeconomic status growing up be a factor in whether or not they should get parole? Or why should the fact that they’re from a broken home or not be somehow an indicator of these things.
Rose: In data science, there’s a term for this.
Rumman: GIGO. Garbage in garbage out. The data went in problematic. So what the output is is going to be problematic to begin with.
Rose: In other cases, it’s not that the data going in is bad, it’s that it only really applies to certain situations. In many cases, algorithms are trained in one context, and then they are being deployed in a completely different context.. Take medical models, for example.
Nicholson Price: Lots of conversations about how do we develop algorithms and artificial intelligence in medicine take place in the context of pretty fancy medical environments.
Rose: This is Nicholson Price, a professor of law at the University of Michigan.
Nicholson: Because those places tend to have the resources to collect data, and tend to have the resources to say, “okay, we’re going to make these data available for further use, and for secondary use and for trying to advance medical science.” That’s great.
Rose: But not everybody gets treated at a fancy hospital.
Nicholson: It’s entirely possible, and I think quite likely, that in many ways learning what to do in a high resource, fancy, medical environment won’t give you the right suggestions when you move out of that environment.
Rose: So let’s say someone comes in and has cancer. And, let’s say there are two drugs that doctors could treat this person with.
Nicholson: One of them is really strong, and likely to really be very effective against the cancer, but it also has nasty side effects that sometimes occur. And if those nasty side effects sometimes occur, you’ve got to intervene pretty quickly, or really bad things are going to happen to the patient. A second drug is less strong, less good at knocking out the cancer, but it’s a lot safer and you don’t have to worry so much about those side effects. They don’t happen as much, they’re more easily managed.
Rose: Which drug you should pick has a lot to do with where you are.
Nicholson: If I am at a world class cancer center, and I’ve got a team of crack oncology nurses available 24/7 to manage patients, that first drug might be a great choice.
Rose: But, if you’re at a rural hospital that’s strapped for resources, that first drug probably isn’t the right choice. In fact, that choice could be deadly.
Nicholson: And if the algorithm just learns at fancy places, it might think that the better option is always the first drug, and not the second drug. And that’s a problem.
Rose: And this is not some far fetched scenario that I’m making up because I’m very paranoid. In a lot of cases, these diagnostic models developed in fancy hospitals are actually meant to be exported to places with fewer resources. That’s the whole idea.
Nicholson: Not everybody can get treated at the University of Michigan, but maybe if we trained an algorithm to suggest what the treatment was like, that algorithm could be easily duplicated, put around the world and voila. Lots of people are getting care. So this, I think, is a hope of black box medicine, of artificial intelligence in medicine.
Rose: But it’s a hope that might… not come to fruition. Because context matters, and algorithms are very bad at context.
All of these different factors can bias the data going in, and the way that data is processed. And one of the challenges in rooting out this bias, is that as models get more and more complicated, they become less and less understandable. This is what Nicholson meant by that phrase “black box medicine.”
Nicholson: We can also have algorithms that say, “this is what I think the right dose of a drug is for this person.” And the software can’t tell you why that is. It can’t say, “oh, it’s because they weigh 75 kg, and they’re male, and they’re 5 foot 8.” It, instead, has some very large number of variables that put together say, “well, for patients like this, this kind of dosage has worked best in the past. But I really can’t tell you why.”
Rose: It’s not just like, “oh it’s hard to understand because it’s complicated math.” It’s that the algorithm itself cannot tell you how it came to a decision. Literally nobody knows, not even the system itself. And this makes it even harder to root out bias in the data, or the system, because you don’t actually know how it works. You don’t know which pieces of information it used to come to a conclusion, and which ones it didn’t.
Plus, a lot of these algorithms are made by private companies. They’re proprietary, which means that the public has no way of knowing how they’re built.
Shobita: Invariably, we don’t actually know, a lot of the times, what are the pieces of data that go into these algorithms that are presented as objective, because they’re produced by proprietary companies and they’re opaque to us. They’re purchased kind of lock, stock, and barrel by states, or by counties.
Rose: And this makes questions of rooting out bias almost impossible.
But there’s another kind of bias at play here too.
Rumman: Then there’s a second kind of bias, where it’s a societal bias. So you can have perfect data, and a nicely specified model. But actually, the real world is an unfair place, and we know this. People are discriminated against systematically. People don’t get jobs because of how they look, or their skin color, or their gender. So we know the world is an unfair place.
Rose: Even if you have all the data in the world, your model is going to reflect a world that is not fair. Just last week, on Thursday, August 22nd, it was “Equal Pay Day for black women” — the date in 2019 that black women have to work to, to earn as much money as white men did, if their work year ended December 31st, 2018. In other words, black women are paid 61 cents for every dollar a white man in the United States makes. That’s $23,000 less every year, and it adds up to $900,000 over the course of a 40-year career. You could almost buy a house in the Bay Area for that amount of money. Almost. And, perhaps most depressingly, the gap is actually widening. Equal Pay Day for black women was on July 31st, in 2017.
Rumman: So we can have perfect data, but we live in an imperfect world. So that imperfection is reflected in a model’s output, even if you’ve corrected for all the quantifiable bias you can think about.
Rose: And this kind of bias is actually way more challenging for people to try and account for in their models. When bias is about data collection, or survey design, there are well established ways of stamping it out, and improving the data collection. When bias is baked into the world around you, accounting for that is no longer a question of just methodology, it’s a question of ethics and morals. One thing people try to do is exclude certain factors from the data, like gender or race. Which sounds like a good idea, right? If the model doesn’t know anybody’s race it can’t discriminate based on race. In practice, that… doesn’t really work.
Rumman: There are latent variables, or proxy variables. And what that means is sometimes a variable is actually a representation of another variable. And the most obvious example in the United States is zip code and race, and zip code and socioeconomic status. And it’s pretty obvious when I say, “yes someone’s ZIP code is a really good indicator for how much money they make.” Absolutely. So, race also. Someone’s ZIP code is often a very good indicator for what race they’re likely to be. And we’ve seen this happen where people build into algorithms zip code as a way of identifying geography, for whatever reason that might be relevant. But what that does, is it picks up race, it picks up socioeconomic status. And this is where bias can creep in in a way that we hadn’t thought about.
Rose: So, what you’re left with is a situation in which no matter what you do, your model has to grapple with the reality of the world. And this is something that makes many data scientists very uncomfortable. Because correcting for this kind of bias, means putting your finger on the scale in the name of marginalized people. Once you do that, you can no longer claim that it’s “just math,” even though… that defense never really was legitimate in the first place.
Rumman: Increasingly, we’re gonna be thinking about what I call gray area questions.
And that’s a debatable question, right? I think most people would agree that someone should not be denied a job based on things like race, gender, etc.. In fact, we have laws to protect people about these things. But what about the things that are not necessarily protected by law, that are this grey area? Like the CEO question.
Rose: Tech companies do not want to seem like they are fiddling with the results of their models to advantage certain people, even though they are, all the time, no matter what. But you can see places like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube really struggle with the idea that perhaps they should show less hate speech, or homophobia, or conspiracy theories. Because once they admit that they are pushing on their results in one way or another, whichever group is on the losing end always screams bloody murder.
And Rumman says that often, when these conversations come up, we like to blame the engineers at the company. They’re the ones who build these models, after all, shouldn’t they be held responsible for their results?
Rumman: I think that data scientists get this unfair amount of blame put on them. Yes, you are the ones picking the data, training the model, etc. But you are part of a larger team, a larger corporation, etc. So, it’s not a unilateral decision that’s made by data scientists, and often they’re actually not even really trained to understand how this bias might manifest itself.
Rose: These models are really complicated, and they exist as a piece of a broader company’s strategy. But Rumman says that we, you and me, are also a key piece of the solution here. The more we know about how these systems work, the smarter we can be about asking questions when they’re deployed around us.
Rumman: I know there’s a lot of data scientist bashing; to say that people should learn ethics – and I totally agree with that, by the way. I absolutely do think that data scientists should be better trained in social sciences. But on the other hand, it absolutely does help for non-technical folks to understand algorithms, and limitation of algorithms, so it’s not doesn’t look like magic to them.
Rose: Models are not magic!
So if the data scientists aren’t fully to blame here — who is? If an algorithm does, say, tell a doctor to give you that super risky cancer drug and things go badly… what recourse do you have? When we come back, I finally get to ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask this whole episode:
But first, a quick break.
Okay, so algorithms can, and do make bad decisions sometimes. Algorithms, they’re just like us! But when you or I make a choice that causes harm, we are generally held accountable for it. How do you hold an algorithm or a model, accountable? In Arkansas, they sued the state and got them to stop using the model, but that won’t always happen or work.
Let’s stick with that hospital example that Nicholson gave earlier. So, you go into the hospital, you have cancer, there are these two drugs; the risky one, the safe one. Now let’s say that you are at this more resource strapped hospital, where the second drug is the better choice, because it’s less risky. Your doctor consults the algorithm, which was trained at a fancy hospital, and the algorithm says “give the more effective, but riskier drug.” And the doctor does, and you don’t do so well.
Now, remember the algorithm might not even be able to tell the doctor how it decided that first drug was the better choice.. It’s a black box, it just says … do this. So, before we even get into whether the outcome is good or bad, that has implications for something called informed consent, this idea that you should know what you’re agreeing to, as a patient.
Rose [on the phone]: And when it comes to a patient; you’re in the room with the doctor, and the doctor says, “okay, my computer says to do this.” Can a patient give informed consent when the doctor doesn’t even know why this treatment is the one that’s being recommended?
Nicholson: That’s a fascinating question, actually. I literally read a draft from a friend of mine just this morning on exactly that question. And I think we don’t have an answer yet. A kind of blithe answer would be yes. Doctors often don’t know why they recommend what they recommend, and they don’t know how what they’re using works. And patients don’t know anyway, and so informed consent is lots of assumptions about us knowing things that we don’t really know. And so why worry if there is one more set of things that we actually don’t know how they work?
Rose [on the phone]: That’s not very encouraging.
Nicholson: No, that’s not the way we imagine the system should work.
I think it’s going to depend on how patients feel about the new technology, how doctors feel about using it. It’s not a very satisfying answer, either. And I’m honestly not sure how doctors, patients, or frankly the courts are going to sort out the issue of informed consent, in particular.
Rose: But even if the courts decide that informed consent isn’t really at play here, malpractice could be. Right now, in order to win a malpractice suit, you have to show that the doctor or nurse or whoever didn’t meet a minimum standard of care.
Nicholson: Hey, this is what we expect of physicians and you have to do at least that much. And if you fall below that standard of care; if you provide care that was inadequate, and under that standard of care, and that results in an injury, then the patient should be able to recover and sue you for medical malpractice.
Rose [on the phone]: In that case, couldn’t you just be like, “well, I’m in a fancy hospital, and using an algorithm is even above the standard level of care. So, I can’t possibly be held in malpractice”?
Nicholson: Yes, a fascinating question is how our algorithms actually going to fit into the standard of care.
Rose: It’s kind of like, this double edged future sword. You might be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. So if you don’t use the algorithm…
Nicholson: Can you say, “oh, you didn’t consult this particular A.I. product when you were figuring out the diagnosis, or when you were figuring out the right dosage for a patient. And not consulting that is itself below the standard of care”?
Rose: But if you do use the algorithm, and get something wrong, you could argue that they shouldn’t have listened to the digital doctor in the first place.
Nicholson: Does the advice of an algorithm to do something, or not to do something, change the reasonableness of the physician doing, or not doing, that particular thing.
Rose: And what this means is that, at least for now, algorithms probably won’t actually do much to change the kind or level of care you get at a hospital.
Nicholson: So, I think, at least for now, the safest thing to do is to do exactly what you would have done before, assuming that you’re reasonably competent. Which is a little bit disheartening.
Rose: This kind of defeats the purpose of these systems right? These medical models are supposed to revolutionize medicine, and make doctors faster, and smarter! They’re supposed to find surprising and rare cases that a doctor might have missed, and uncover counterintuitive diagnoses. But none of that is going to happen, at least for now, because taking a risk just based on an algorithm that can’t explain why it thinks that a patient actually has lupus, when you think they have smallpox, is a recipe for a malpractice suit!
Dr. House: Okay, from now on, no one says anything, unless no one’s said it before.
Rose: And obviously doctors should be careful, because these algorithms are new, and could absolutely be wrong. And people’s lives are on the line.
But what happens when a doctor throws this caution to the wind, and decides to put their faith completely in this black box Dr. House.
Nicholson: Ha. So, the easy answer – and again this is a law professor stock answer – is It depends. It’s totally unclear. The law actually isn’t there yet.
Rose: Now, you probably can’t actually name an algorithm as a defendant, since, it’s not a person. There will be no jail for computer servers, where they all sit around humming and trading torrented music illegally, or whatever computers servers might do in jail…
But who actually is responsible in this case?
Nicholson: You could potentially go after the physician for malpractice. You can imagine the health system being liable, the hospital for implementing an algorithm in some sort of irresponsible or unreasonable way. We could even imagine payers potentially being liable. Insurers, depending on how their reimbursement policies, or their decision policies, or their guidances interact with what it is that the algorithms are doing, and how their physicians are, or the providers are reacting to that algorithm care.
Rose: And we won’t really know what the legal framework will be here, until it happens. Until somebody sues. And the courts, and the juries, and the people like you and me, will have to figure out how we feel about these cases.
Nicholson: It’s also possible that states could pass laws, right? We could have state legislatures saying, “hey, no physician is liable for following the recommendation of an algorithm.”
Rose: The US has this system setup for vaccines, already. If you get a vaccine, and something bad happens, which is rare but does occur, you can’t sue your doctor or the manufacturer for giving the vaccine. Instead you go through a special court and you get compensated through a special fund. If you could sue doctors or vaccine manufacturers for those injuries, they wouldn’t give or make vaccines, and we’d all be dying of polio and measles.
In some cases the FDA might get involved. Earlier this year the administration put out a white paper about how they might regulate artificial intelligence in medicine. But even if the FDA were to implement new rules about these models, it wouldn’t apply to all of them.
Nicholson: When a hospital develops its own set of artificial intelligence protocols for doing recommendations, or for identifying patients who are about to go into sepsis, or for whatever else, and then it just uses them within its walls; FDA doesn’t touch that.
Rose: Some people have argued for basically an FDA for AI.
Shobita: That is, some kind of centralized regulatory infrastructure where the algorithms are, essentially, approved by regulators.
Rose: That’s Shobita tagain.
Shobita: I think that’s an interesting idea. I think it’s probably unlikely, at least in the short term. But I think that it’s important for regulators, for the government, to be actively involved with people, companies, who are developing the algorithms.
Rose: And she says that the big problem with regulation of algorithms, right now, is that people keep expecting the engineers and technicians to have the answers.
Shobita: They trust the technical expert to answer questions about the social and ethical implications of the technology. But of course, the technical expert is not an expert in this social and ethical dimensions of the technology. Their expertise is in the technical dimensions of the technology.
Rose: Right now, these models are governed in an elaborate game of policy whack a mole — as they pop up, lawmakers react and try to figure out how to make sure they’re actually serving the public, instead of hurting them.
So what the heck does all this mean? What should people who don’t have a hand in building or deploying algorithms… do? Well the first thing to realize is that you actually do have a say here.
Shobita: Invariably, we, as citizens, have more of an understanding of our community values than we realize. And it’s simply a matter of having the courage to ask those questions of the technical experts as much as we ask them about the water utility folks, or the sidewalk or road people, the social service people; we need to be asking those questions, too. And we can.
Rose: So, go to your local community meetings, get involved, ask questions about what exactly these systems do, what data they were trained on, and how they’re being used. Don’t let anybody tell you “oh it’s complicated math,” No! You deserve to know how these decisions that affect you are being made. So ask the questions, and if they can’t explain the answers to you, keep asking. That’s a red flag. Remember: algorithms aren’t magic, and you should never let anybody saw you in half before understanding how the trick works.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Special thanks to Veronica Simonetti and Erin Laetz at the Women’s Audio Mission, where all the intro scenes were recorded this season. Special thanks also to Evan Johnson who played Mr. Morton and who also coordinated the actors of the Junior Acting Troupe who play the students in the intros this season. Today’s debaters were played by Santos Flores and Ava Ausman. If you want to hear the students debate this topic further, you can hear the full cut of their conversation by becoming a Patron at $5/episode or more, which gets you access to the Bonus Podcast.
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The way I heard it, the dog was just there, treading water down in a cold ditch somewhere in North Georgia. This was six months or so before I adopted him. A pair of kind souls driving through saw him huddled in the weeds, just off the shoulder of one of those narrow mountain highways, so they swooped down, dried him off, and took him to a vet in Greenville, South Carolina. He spent some time in the shelter before my girlfriend, who never met a lonely mutt she couldn’t foster, took him in. Then came the sudden bout of pneumonia, which I still blame on that wet Georgia ditch. Contagious as he was, he couldn’t stay at her house around the other animals, so he ended up at my place to recuperate. And he’s never left. I took one look at that runny-nosed, rheumy-eyed hound and next thing you know, I’m signing adoption papers. But I didn’t know what to call him. I couldn’t think of any pneumonia-related names, so I tried to come up with ditch-appropriate ones, naturally. Old Muddy. Briars. Muck. Stephen, my college roommate from Hahira, Georgia, used to tell me, “You’re so bowlegged, you couldn’t catch a pig in a ditch,” so I went that direction for a bit. Bow sounded a little country-club to me. Pig was just damn confusing. You should never call a dog a pig. Still, the thought of ditches and briars brought Bush Hog to mind, but I’ve never been a fan of double names. That’s too precious. Sure, I could have simply called him Ditch, but I didn’t want to saddle the poor boy forever with his traumatic past.
I suppose I could have gone with Georgia names, since that’s where he was found. Clayton or R.E.M. or Herschel. (In fact, I got a little fixated on Herschel for a while, since I suspected this dog might have some Walker in him.) Brook Benton sang that song I remembered from the seventies, “Rainy Night in Georgia,” so for a day or two I thought about calling him Benton, but to be honest, he doesn’t much resemble a Benton or a singer. He looks like an experiment. Long legged like a treeing dog—the aforementioned Walker hound or maybe a Tennessee Brindle—he carries around a square block of a head that he wields like a wrecking ball. And he has a barrel chest like my uncle David up in Montana, so I spent an hour or so thinking I might call him Dave, but I have never been fond of naming an animal after a relative. One or the other is bound to be offended at some point. Uncle David teaches at a place called Flathead Valley Community College, and I thought Flathead would be an interesting name for a dog especially considering his chunky head, but it felt somewhat disrespectful to a Native American tribe out West. I didn’t want to cause any trouble.
My girlfriend tells me stories about her mother, Darlene, and animals. Darlene used to keep her glove box stocked with assorted collars, just in case she ran across a dog or a cat with “that lost look on its face.” On road trips, she stuffed the family cats inside a pillowcase and snuck them across the lobbies of no-pets-allowed hotels. I never met Darlene, but I guess I would appreciate her particular brand of crazy. Anyway, over the years she developed what she felt was a foolproof method for double-checking potential names. She said before you slap a name on an animal for life, you need to walk out on your back porch just after dark and practice hollering the name, like you are calling the dog or cat home for supper. Float the name out there on the air and see how it sounds in the real world. If you can sing out your dog’s name without being embarrassed at what the neighbors think of you, it’s a keeper. In my neighborhood, I know a few folks who are not currently aware of this strategy. Every time I hear them hollering for BooBoo or Snookums after the local news, I want to throw something over the chain-link fence in their general direction, in honor of Darlene.
This ditch-discovered dog owns a whipsaw tail over which he has little control. It seems to possess no nerve endings, because he isn’t fazed when he shatters wineglasses or hammers somebody’s shinbone. He may have given the cat a mild concussion one morning. I Googled “famous tails” and ended up on a couple of sites I can’t mention, and one that told me how to tie my ponytail way up high like Ariana Grande. There was even an instructional video. I’m relatively bald, so that information was wasted on me. The dog is colored an odd mixture of black and tan, and I used to drink that beverage at a bar called Clancy’s. I actually stuck with Clancy for almost an entire day until I decided naming a dog after a bar said more about me than it did him. He tends to whine for no reason too, so I started trying to come up with well-known whiners. I could have gone with McEnroe, I guess. Or maybe that annoying kid from Caddyshack, Spaulding. Or any soccer player. But I can’t see me standing on my back porch hollering for Messi or Ronaldo.
One afternoon somebody looked down at my dog and his big squared-off head and said, “That boy’s got some boxer in him,” and that comment sent me down the rabbit hole on my computer, searching the names of famous boxers, even though I don’t like naming animals after well-known folks. But most of these fighters were dead, which I felt gave me some leeway. Marciano never lost a fight. That gave a dog a lot to live up to, and I didn’t want to set expectations too high at such a young age. Jack Dempsey’s head was actually shaped a lot like my dog’s. And to be honest, I almost settled on Dempsey, until I ran across an article about Sonny Liston. I thought Sonny would be a cool dog name, but it didn’t pass the back-porch test. The neighbors might think I was calling a child I didn’t have. Then, just when I was about to leave the world of boxing, I ran across a little twenty-second video from a heavyweight title fight back in 1973, Smokin’ Joe Frazier versus George Foreman. The champ comes stalking toward Foreman and ducks down, and Foreman clocks him with a tight uppercut that sends him to the canvas. Howard Cosell was broadcasting the fight, and he all but jumps out of his seat, screaming that now-famous three-line chorus: “Down goes Fray-zsa! Down goes Fray-zsa! Down goes Fray-zsa!” I don’t think Howard got that excited about saying the word Frazier ever again.
I got excited too. I knew the second I heard Howard Cosell screaming that I would call this boxer that started in a ditch Frazier. Now he’s growing into his name. When he climbs off the sofa, he sort of waddles toward you, wagging that big head, just the way Frazier used to leave his corner at the beginning of rounds. And sometimes at night, when he’s out in the yard taking care of his business, I stand on the back steps and do my best Howard Cosell—“Down goes Fray-zsa! Down goes Fray-zsa!”—loud enough for the neighbors to hear. I’m sure they don’t know what to make of us, but I really don’t care. It sounds damn near perfect to me.
Nearly fifty years after it was written, “Free Bird” is still the signature concert closer for the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose final farewell tour wraps up in October in Manchester, Tennessee. Founding members Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins wrote the song in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1970, and it wasn’t long before “Free Bird” and its extended guitar solo near the end became one of the band’s most well-known tunes and a live-show favorite.
After Van Zant died in a plane crash in 1977, the song took on new meaning. Guitarist Gary Rossington, who survived the crash, recruited Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny Van Zant in the 1980s to help reform the band and—eventually—sing his brother’s words for thousands of fans.
We spoke with Johnny Van Zant, Rossington, and guitarist Rickey Medlocke about the origin and evolution of the song, why fans insist on yelling “Free Bird!” at concerts, and what it feels like to perform it in a different city each night for the final time.
In 1964, a group of teenaged friends including vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins started jamming together in Jacksonville, Florida. They cycled through a few band names, eventually landing on Lynyrd Skynyrd in joking reference to Leonard Skinner, their high-school gym teacher who railed against boys having long hair. By the seventies, the band had developed a following, and the friends were writing what would become some of Skynyrd’s most popular songs, including “Free Bird.” Multi-instrumentalist Rickey Medlocke joined for a time shortly thereafter, playing drums and recording.
Gary Rossington: One rehearsal day, Allen started playing the chords to “Free Bird” at the house where we used to hang out after school and after we quit school. Ronnie used to always lie on the couch after two or three hours of rehearsing. He’d lie there and hear mistakes and say, “Let’s fix that.” When one of us would get a good idea going, he’d say, “Play it, play.”
Allen had these chords, and he’d play them over and over, but at first Ronnie thought there were too many chord changes to write lyrics to. This time Ronnie said, “Play that again.” Allen played the chords, then I’d play them, and Ronnie just sat there and wrote the lyrics, a love song. How we were traveling on the road. We hadn’t really made it yet. We were playing everywhere we could play. It wasn’t so heavy or nothing to us at first.
Rickey Medlocke: The way Ronnie wrote lyrics, you got out of it the meaning in your own way. “Bye bye, baby, it’s been a sweet love,” doesn’t mean a final goodbye to me. It means goodbye until I return.
photo: Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Ronnie Van Zant in 1975 at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta.
GR: We started playing it, just the slow part, at clubs. Then, after a few sets, Ronnie would say, “Y’all play a little longer, my throat’s hurting and I need a break.” We’d play a minute longer one night, then the next night two minutes or three, and then we’d jam out for five minutes or more. One guy at this club in Atlanta said, “Would y’all play that song ‘Firefly’ that has a big ending? That one we can all dance to at the end?”
RM: It wasn’t until they added that ending that “Free Bird” was let loose. The song took off at the clubs.
In 1972, Lynyrd Skynyrd signed with MCA Records, which produced and released the band’s debut album, Lynyrd Skynyrd (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), in 1973. “Free Bird” was the second side’s final track.
RM: We cut the very first recording in Muscle Shoals. The band already had the ending worked up by the time I joined. They showed me the full version, and I think it was like seventeen minutes long.
photo: Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973.
GR: MCA said we couldn’t release the full song because no one would play it on the radio. It was too long. They said to do the slow part and fade out, and we were like, “No, you’re not going to change our song because we like the end part.” We did a full version, but MCA had the power to do it as they wanted.
“Free Bird,” with its extended ending, became a live-show signature for the band throughout the seventies.
GR: During our shows, Ronnie would dedicate it to someone. After Berry [Oakley] and Duane [Allman] had passed from motorcycle crashes, we would dedicate it to them, because as Ronnie said, they were free birds. They were our friends, our big influences, and it broke our hearts. We would say, “This song is for them tonight.”
photo: Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977, shortly before the plane crash that killed six passengers, including Ronnie Van Zant.
On October 20, 1977, as the band was flying between shows in South Carolina and Louisiana, the charter plane ran out of fuel and crashed in a Mississippi forest, killing six passengers, including Van Zant. Collins survived the crash with serious injuries. He passed away in 1990. Rossington also survived the crash and today is the band’s sole living original member still performing. In 1987, Rossington and other pre-crash members organized a reunion tour and approached Johnny Van Zant, a solo artist at the time, about joining as lead vocalist.
Johnny Van Zant: I had never wanted to be in the band. Lynyrd Skynyrd was going to go on with my brother forever. Ten years after the crash, I was called into a meeting. I walked into a room, and here are these guys who survived the crash with my brother. They wanted me to come on for a tribute tour.
Van Zant felt uncomfortable singing “Free Bird” on the tour, until Rossington said something that changed his mind.
photo: Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Johnny Van Zant performing with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2018.
GR: After the crash, we just had Ronnie’s microphone with a hat on it, and we played “Free Bird” instrumental and let the audience sing it. But I knew people wanted to hear the song. And I knew Ronnie wrote it to be sung.
JVZ: I told Gary, “Ronnie is the guy who should be singing this.” Then one show, we came off the stage after “Alabama,” and Gary said, “The crowd’s raising heck and I’m not going back out there unless you sing it.” He told me, “Ronnie was a singer and a songwriter and the song needs to be sung.” That hit me, and I’ve been singing it ever since.
photo: Doltyn Snedden
The band today.
Following Collins’s death in 1990, Medlocke, who had been the front man of the band Blackfoot, re-joined Lynyrd Skynyrd on guitar.
RM: As it happens, Allen’s style and my style were similar, so it was pretty well laid out that I was going to play Allen’s parts. The easiest one to work up was “Free Bird” because the ending is put together in sections. I take Allen’s basic lead and stick pretty well to it, but I put a different little twist on it here and there. Every night “Free Bird” is a little different. The audience can’t tell it, but I can. There’s not a night that has ever gone by that they don’t stay after the whole set’s done to hear “Free Bird.”
photo: Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Rickey Medlocke in 2014.
Concertgoers yelling “Play Free Bird!”—whether at a Lynyrd Skynyrd show or not—is just one way the song has seeped into rock music lore.
GR: We weren’t aware of people yelling “Free Bird!” at other shows till after it was a thing, because during our shows when we would stop, they’d go “Free Bird! Free Bird!”
JVZ: One time, I went to a Cher concert here in Jacksonville with my wife. We had a few cocktails, and the next thing I know I’m out in the audience hollering “Free Bird!” “Free Bird!” at Cher. [Laughs.] My wife told me to shut up.
GR: Ronnie and Allen didn’t live long enough to see it turn into a classic. They didn’t get to see that everybody everywhere knows “Free Bird.” It’s played at graduations, weddings, and funerals, and a lot of people say we got them through college with “Free Bird.”
Every night, we look out at the audience and you see people singing every lyric with Johnny. At the end, everybody starts jumping up and down, and it’s emotional to watch the audience do that. The song lets you think about your love or people you’ve lost.
photo: Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd in the 1970s.
JVZ: Being that this is our final tour, I’m thinking on stage each time, this is the last time I’m going to sing “Free Bird” in this city. I’m looking out at the audience, and I’ve been with the band for thirty-one years, and honestly it feels like it’s thirty-one seconds gone by.
We have a big screen with pictures of everyone who has been in the band, and sometimes we have a video playing where Ronnie sings it with me. It’s very cool. I have had people say that when I first started, I wasn’t as good as Ronnie. I never wanted to be as good as my brother. I just wanted to carry on his music. I’m Johnny, he was Ronnie, and that’s what kept me going. We’ll never forget the ones who started this.