SGU Episode 979

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SGU Episode 979
April 13th 2024
979 Eclipse2024.jpg

"Diamond ring"
as seen in the 2024 total solar eclipse

SGU 978                      SGU 980

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


DB: Dustin Bates, American rockstar

Quote of the Week

As the sun eclipses the stars by his brilliancy, so the man of knowledge will eclipse the fame of others in assemblies of the people if he proposes algebraic problems, and still more if he solves them.

Brahmagupta, Indian mathematician and astronomer

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, live from Dallas, guest Rogue Dustin Bates[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. (applause) Today is Sunday, April 7th, 2024, and this is your host, Steven Novella. (applause) Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody! (applause)

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy. (applause)

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys. (applause)

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Good evening folks! (applause)

S: George Hrab...

G: imitates yodeling (applause)

S: And we have a special guest on this episode, Dustin Bates. Dustin, welcome to the SGU.

DB: Hey. (applause)

S: Dustin, you are actually one of the few rock stars that we've had on the show, and you are from the band Star Set, correct?

DB: That's it.

S: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your career.

DB: Star Set is a sci-fi based cinematic rock band. It's basically, we're on tour right now, we call it immersion. We immerse you into what I call, up for this tour, Dark Disney. Just released a novel about four days ago, or actually it hasn't officially come out until tomorrow with The Eclipse. Personally, I have a master's degree in electrical engineering, so I have a love for space science and STEM. Part of Star Set is the Star Set Society, so we're always pushing both the sci-fi and the real STEM stuff as well.

S: Dustin, here's my question for you. Have you built a working lightsaber yet?

DB: No, but I do have a replica.

S: A replica, okay. All right. So you're working on the fully functional version though.

DB: Absolutely.

S: All right. And you said you have a book coming out?

DB: Yeah. It releases tomorrow. That's the second novel that our tour coincides with.

S: What's the name of the book?

DB: It's called A Brief History of the Future, and it's based on a brain machine interface, so it's like a neural lace story, a dystopia set in about 20 years in the future.

S: 20 years. That's a tough time frame.

DB: Yeah.

S: It is. When you're trying to predict the future, you go really far, you can say anything, right?

DB: Now, there's a story device to make it go a little bit further in the future, yeah.

S: Okay, I got you.

G: Dustin, what's the makeup of your band? How many people are in the band?

DB: It just keeps getting bigger. There are seven people in the band right now.

G: Wow.

DB: We have a cellist, a violinist, and a guy that I feel sorry for him because we have so much electronics. He's just dancing around various synthesizers and samplers at all times.

G: If you could magically have any musician be in your band, living or dead, who would you choose to play with you?

DB: Wow.

G: You have 10 seconds.

DB: Yeah. Yeah, that's a hard one. Whoever draws the most since we're on tour.

G: Oh, is that what it is?

DB: Yeah. I want to get into the arenas ASAP.

C: Taylor Swift.

DB: There you go.

B: Done.

DB: Let's go.

S: Who plays the theremin in your group?

DB: Okay. Funny enough, there is a channel on Keyboard Guy's place for a theremin. We quickly decided it was a little too cheesy.

S: A little too cheesy. That's why I asked about it, right? All right. Well, we have a great full show for you.

Special Segment: Eclipse Science (3:43)[edit]

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S: We're going to start with a little bit of Eclipse discussion because tomorrow we're all going to get a great viewing of the Eclipse. The weather's going to be perfect. We flew down to Dallas because we were promised that in Dallas, there's guaranteed to be nothing but sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, and nobody would lie to us, right, about that?

J: It's Bob's fault. We all know it.

B: Yep. The curse is in full force. Every time, if you're not familiar with the curse, I've been looking for, like, comet, meteor showers for years and years, and every September is the famous Perseids, and I would go out there, and for 15 years, it was overcast for 15 years, so every time there was something interesting in the sky, there was clouds, so I developed this hypothesis of a curse that now seems pretty clearly obvious. I mean, it's like, this one hurts. This one hurts, though. It's like, really? The best totality in how many decades, because there's so many reasons why this one is special, and it's like, no, I'm going to be looking at clouds tomorrow, apparently, but fingers crossed, you know.

S: There's still a chance, but it goes beyond meteors because we also had the worst viewing of Halley's Comet in 2,000 years, literally.

B: 86. See, I expelled that memory from my head because it hurt. Well, I remember that. I was getting excited. Then I didn't see it, first off, because when you could see it, it was overcast, but then I remember reading, like, oh, yeah, this is like 20 million miles farther away than it's ever been in millennia. It's like, even if it was visible, it wouldn't have been good.

S: I saw it. I only saw it when we were in Florida. We couldn't see it from Connecticut, and it was terrible. The viewing was terrible.

B: And then, how about, where were we in Australia? We went to a mountain.

S: Oh, yeah. We went to a dark sky event in New Zealand.

B: And what happened?

S: It was supposed to be the best view of the southern. So we've been down under three times, and we're like, we have to see the southern sky because the southern sky is supposed to be gorgeous.

B: In a lot of ways, better than the northern sky.

S: Better than the northern sky. We've never seen it. I have to say. We go down there, like, every time. We didn't get to see it at all the first two times. The third time, we're like, that's it. We're going to a dark sky observatory, and it was overcast.

B: It was like two.

S: And we had to see jack shit, but we did have to drive out of the city that we were staying in, like an hour. Evan, you came with us.

E: I did. Yeah. We were in Christchurch.

S: And we got, like, finally, we got a decent view of the southern sky.

B: The curse didn't know what I was doing somehow. It was magnificent.

S: Magnificent.

B: The Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds, it was beautiful, beautiful, highly recommended. And the upside-down moon.

S: The upside-down moon, right?

E: Yes.

B: How do you explain that on a flat Earth?

S: On a flat Earth.

E: Facing the wrong direction.

G: We've got some Australians here today? If you're Australian, let's clap. (a few claps) Look at that. How cool is that?

S: Yeah, all three of them.

G: It's good.

E: Why is it always cloudy down there at night? Why?

S: So during the eclipse, there's a lot of science taking place especially this one, because it's an unusually prolonged one. Evan tell us a little bit about the science that's taking place during the eclipse.

E: Yeah, absolutely. And NASA kind of has a page sort of devoted to this, so you can go there and learn some more. But eclipses are good times for astronomers who are trying to make discoveries, mostly having to do with understanding the corona of the sun, because that is a very difficult thing to study correctly in the absence of a total solar eclipse. There are other instruments that NASA has at their disposal to sort of make virtual total eclipses, but it really doesn't get them to the place where they need to be to make the true observations. And when you're learning about the corona of the sun, you're really trying to figure out about how heat and energy are transferred from the sun out and into the solar wind, which is something they're still trying to get more information about. This has a direct impact on us, absolutely, and our technology here, because those particles are bombarding us constantly. And understanding how that impacts our electronics, satellites, so many different things, the better we have an understanding of that, the better we can be either prepared for sudden events and to build the next generation of technology to be proofed against any kind of disasters that may ultimately hit our way. They have models in which they predict how these materials come out from the sun. And again, the eclipse gives them a chance to really refine those models. Solar eclipse changes illumination of the Earth and its atmosphere under comparatively small region of the moon's shadow. The localized blocking of solar energy is useful for studying the sun's effects on our atmosphere, especially the upper atmosphere, where the sun's energy creates a layer of charged particles, which is the ionosphere. And understanding that is important because, again, many of our low-Earth satellites, low-Earth orbit satellites, and communication signals, radio waves, and what makes our GPS system ultimately work, these changes have impacts constantly on us. So that's primarily...

S: Yeah, I know NASA's sending up a plane above the clouds, right, to study the ionosphere. That's definitely a guaranteed way to get a good viewing of the eclipse, is to fly.

B: What would happen if I were on that plane?

E: Yeah, right?

B: Something would happen. No doubt. Something would happen. Something would happen.

C: It'd be a Boeing plane, probably. Damn it. Damn it.

B: But I wouldn't have gotten on it.

C: Good call.

E: When the eclipse happened in 2017, there was a, I don't know, it was a contest or someone... They voted on the best photograph of the eclipse, and it was taken from a plane. Without a doubt. And I have a nice, big print of it hanging over my fireplace at my house. I went and bought it. It is stunningly beautiful.

S: All right, thank you. Yeah, so we're all looking forward to the eclipse, but at least some good science will come out of it.

News Items[edit]

AI-Designed Drugs (10:03)[edit]

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S: We're going to have a couple of AI-related items to open up the news items of this show. I'm going to talk about artificial intelligence being used to design drugs, although this is just one application. I want to talk really about what AI is doing to scientific research. But what researchers recently did, they're trying to design new antibiotics, right? And of course, we all know we need new antibiotics. We're headed for the antibiotic apocalypse, where there's more and more bacteria that are multi-drug resistant. And pharmaceutical companies haven't come out with a completely new antibiotic in a while. And it's an arms race that is probably going to be never-ending. And the question is, what's going to happen faster, bacteria developing resistance or our ability to generate novel mechanisms of antibiotic treatments? So far, the bacteria are kicking our ass. They are winning. So any way to develop new types of antibiotics is extremely needed. So what they did was, now using computer modeling to design drugs is not new. Using AI to design drugs is not new. What this study did was incremental, but it does show where the state of the art is. So essentially, they fed into a large language model type, GPT type of AI, like the latest crop of AI that's driving everybody crazy. They fed into it our catalog of known drugs, of known pharmaceutical chemicals, which includes not only their chemistry, but also how they are manufactured and what they do, like the pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, how they affect the body, how the body affects them.

J: Steve, is this just chemicals that this particular company came up with?

S: No, no. It's just in the catalogue of what humankind knows in terms of these chemicals. So it was some massive number, 10,000, 100,000, that were fed into, trained on the AI model. And then they wanted it to then design new drugs that would have antibiotic activity against a particular bacteria. Here's one of the interesting bits. They talk about the chemical space. That means the space of all possible chemical configurations, right? So-

B: Like stable chemical-

S: Yeah. Oh, no. Just chemical configurations, right? So you're saying, what chemical space is this AI program able to explore, able to model? How many do you think it was?

J: 40.

S: 40?

B: How many distinct chemical configurations, molecular configurations?

C: Something with the exclamation point.

S: No, it was 30 billion. So just imagine researching 30 billion different chemicals, right?

C: You can't, right?

S: You can't do this-

C: Yeah, it has to be computation.

S: -in physical space. You have to model it.

J: Well, but how long would it, how many man years would it take to do that?

S: I mean, it's probably impossible to calculate, but it's like, we couldn't do it. Like in civilization's timeline, like 30 billion experiments, you can't do it.

G: Ian could do it

Ian Callanan, SGU tech-guru

in a weekend.

S: Yeah, Ian could do it. Yeah.

C: He's working on it right now.

S: Ian's doing it right now.

G: He's doing it right now.

B: So, Steve, what exactly did it do 30 billion of?

S: So it basically was able to like shuffle through those 30 billion chemicals.

J: How long did it take?

S: It took nine hours. It took nine hours to run the program once they trained it and everything. Nine hours.

G: Wow.

S: So it came up with a list of chemical structures within that 30 billion that had two features, right? One was that it had antibacterial activity against the specific bacteria.

B: Oh, specific bacteria.

S: Yeah. And then the other one was that it was easy to manufacture.

B: Oh.

S: Because, and that was the new bit, really, because previous attempts at doing this generated a lot of potential chemicals, but almost all of them failed because they were either really hard or really expensive to manufacture. So they said, well, let's just build that into the algorithm up front, you know? So then they came up with a list of, there's something like 58 different chemical compounds that had activity against bacteria and should be easy to manufacture. Then they, and the AI not only just says, here's the chemical, it says, here's the chemical reactions you need to do to make it. So we gave them the formula for it as well.

B: That's wicked. So they had 30 billion options and only 58 were spit back?

S: Well, those are the most active, those are the best candidates. And then they, so they had a chemical company manufacture all 58 of them.

B: Wow.

S: And then they tested them against the bacteria. And there were three in particular that showed high antibacterial activity against the bacteria.

G: Nice.

S: And that, so now we have like, all right, potentially, now they still have to go through all the standard testing, right? The preclinical animal human testing. But potentially we have three antibiotic candidates that are easy to manufacture and have a novel, that was the other bit, this is novel mechanism. This is not-

C: And it's synthetic, this is novel synthetic. It's not like they discovered this.

S: They didn't discover these. These are synthetic chemicals.

C: Yeah. That's very cool.

S: And yes, with a new mechanism. So that's, that's critical because if you're if you're resistant to the mechanism that it doesn't matter if you have another chemical that has the same mechanism of action, right? It has to have a novel mechanism of action. So that's amazing. Just coming up with three potential antibiotics with novel mechanisms that can be commercialized, can be manufactured at scale in nine hours, right? Coming up with that is a fundamental transformation of like our ability to do this kind of research. And this is just one thing. And this is, this is actually the item, Jay, that's, we were talking about this and we were talking about AI in general. And I told Jay, it's like it's possible that we are at the beginning of a singularity like event now, right? Like you, the singularity isn't a moment in time. It's this notion that at some point technological research, it's like a geometric increase and there's an inflection point where it just takes off so quickly. It's like we can't even keep up.

J: So you're, and you're saying just to be clear about it-

S: We're like, it might be just in that inflection point with this kind of research. This is doing what would have previously taken years to do in nine hours.

J: Yeah, so like, but the idea is that so many different companies and institutions are working on using AI to achieve things that could do millions of man hours worth of labour.

S: Yes.

J: And we will get to a point where things could be coming out. Like for example, I said to Steve, when we were talking about this, I said, why don't they use AI on CRISPR? Like, why cause CRISPR seems like so rife with potential and we will get to a point and it we're not guaranteeing any of this, but the idea is it could be in our lifetime where things take off in a profound way.

S: Again, it's just one of those things where there's just researchers all over the world thinking about, oh my God, how can I leverage this kind of AI in order to facilitate my research, anything that's information based. But even if just with chemistry, how many questions in material science or in chemical science are there where you could sick this kind of AI after it and give it all kinds of parameters about what features you want, again, including, yeah, make it easy to manufacture and give me the formula. Like that's huge.

C: Yeah, it's brilliant. Cause it streamlines it. We've been doing computational chemistry to try and test candidate drugs, but before we had to go through stupid lists stupidly. And now we're going through lists intelligently.

S: Intelligently. Artificially intelligently.

C: Exactly.

S: Right. And it's also just, again, another example of the fact that we don't need like a sentient general AI to transform our world.

B: I need it.

S: Narrow AI is really powerful.

B: I need it.

S: You do. You need it. You may need it. But like scientists don't need it. The narrow AI does amazing stuff.

B: Yeah. It's just new tools. New, amazingly powerful tools.

S: How many chemicals? What is the full chemical space possible in existence in the universe?

B: Right.

S: It's massive. It's like 10 to the 40.

C: You also don't want that narrow AI to know how to do anything else.

S: Right. Right.

C: Like that's not, you stay on task, dude. Like I only want you to know how to do this.

S: Do what I tell you to do.

G: Which begs to question when AI make a drug that when you take it, it makes AI generated images not look so trippy?

S: Not look so trippy. Right. Right.

G: With the seven fingers and the four eyes and the whole thing.

C: And the weird teeth. Always the teeth are weird.

G: Teeth are weird. And like ankles are like, what's going on? I'm just freaked out.

J: You know, George, I use Midjourney and Dolly quite a bit.

G: Yeah.

J: And Steve and I both do it.

S: It's getting better.

J: And it has gotten a lot better in the last 12 months. Yeah. I'm not seeing like the multi-fingered problem anymore. It's handling like people holding objects a lot better now than it ever did. Like they're just constantly improving it.

G: It's astounding. Yeah.

E: Steve, what's powering this particular AI? Is it quantum computing?

S: No. It's just regular computers.

E: This is just regular computers? So if you add quantum computing into this mix, then what happens?

S: We don't know because the quantum computers aren't just really powerful computers. They compute in a completely different way. They do certain kinds of problems orders of magnitude faster than a traditional computer can do.

B: Like encryption.

S: Yeah. But they don't do what ordinary computers do necessarily.

B: You will never have a quantum OS Windows machine. That's not going to happen.

J: For example, a quantum computer would be amazingly good at modeling weather because you have trillions of particles that it wants to track and keep the temperature on and the movement of and all that stuff. That's what a quantum computer would be excellent at.

E: But you wouldn't use quantum computing for this application? For finding these new drugs?

S: Well, I don't know. The thing is, you have to find a way to leverage quantum computers to do it. It's good for certain types of mathematical problems. It's not just a power. We can't think of it as just a powerful computer. It's good at quantum computer problems.

J: So we won't be playing Fortnite on a quantum computer?

S: Probably not. Probably not.

E: Can you imagine?

S: But it's great for quantum encryption. The thing is, you could do quantum encryption that no non-quantum computer could break in the age of the universe. There's actually the three-body problem. Anybody here watching the three-body problem? They're trying to break this alien encryption and they ask the computer expert, how long is this going to take? Like, well, if we're really lucky, four, five trillion years. Because you can't break quantum encryption with non-quantum computers. That's kind of the whole point. If you have a powerful enough quantum computer, you could never ever break the encryption with a non-quantum computer.

AI Music (20:47)[edit]

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S: All right. Now we're going to talk about a different application of AI, kind of at the other end of the spectrum. We're going to talk about AI and music. Dustin, tell us about this.

DB: Yeah. So on a recent podcast, you guys had actually mentioned AI and music. And one of the things that was mentioned was the soulless aspect of it. And I thought I would expand on that with my limited insight and since my job is on the line with it. So the topic was recently discussed in an article on ShootOnline. And they essentially asked the question of how generative AI stacks up against humans in its ability to cause specific and directed emotional responses based on a prompt. It was conducted by a company called SoundOut and a music branding company called Stephen Arnold Music. So I'm assuming maybe they had it make jingles or something. And spoiler alert, the humans won by a wide margin, of course. Generative AI produced emotionally accurate results only 20% of the time and did not meet professional standards in most instances. So it seems I might have a couple of years. But I also looked up the company SoundOut, and it seems they use something called OnBrand. It was actually mentioned in the article. So I looked that up. And that was listed as an AI-powered tool used to predict the granular emotional impact of music trained on feedback from half a million people. So it seems they used AI and machine learning to test the feasibility of generating emotion in AI songs. So it's a bit circular. But to expand on that, my experience with trying musical AI tools has given me similar results. I found it to be technically very impressive, but lacking in emotional and substance and various other aspects like uniqueness, relatability. It's also generic and robotic and a bit goofy in some of its choices. Basically it has no style as well, to no emotion. But it's gotten to this point relatively quickly. And so while it's difficult to extrapolate the future results, it is almost a certainty that the rapid improvement will continue. And I think the main question is, will there be some sort of roadblock in this machine learning's ascension to musical domination, particularly with emotion? So does AI actually need sentience? It feels to me, writing songs, that it does. What it seems to have excelled at are the things that are more mathematical. Chord structures. There are defined things that elicit certain emotions. That's super easy to program. The beat, the tempo, the key, the scale, phrasing, these aspects of songwriting are all very mathematical, very easy to model. Another thing is bringing in a ton of songs and cross-correlating, much like all of these other machine learning things. What about the intangibles, the things that make it feel soulless? I listed a couple. Voice inflection. It's actually getting good at modeling voices. You just give a lot of examples and it models it. But unique voices. So I have a friend that wrote a song for the artist Jelly Roll, and he showed me Jelly Roll singing this song. But it wasn't Jelly Roll singing it, it was crazy. But Adele, for instance, could this create an Adele without there being Adele data? Because Adele could pretty much read the phone book and you'd lean in for a better listen. And that's an interesting part of songs. Also the unique wordsmithing and poetry. Everything... I want to be lazy. Before it takes my job, I at least want to use it to do my job. So I'm always feeling lazy. And I've done it multiple times, like, I do not want to do this, because it's hours and hours and hours of trying to get into the so-called flow state. And I look up the various apps for lyric generation, and it's always super lame. And it's uninspired, and you can just see the correlation. It just took those words and cross-correlated against everything it had, and uninspired. And then passionate melodies and unique chords, things outside of what it has seen and outside of these algorithmic choices it makes. So it's hard for me to quantify the next levels of that modeling based on my own human experience, because that experience is intangible. Like I said, the flow state of letting the emotion and the feeling and the muse take the driver's seat. You get to a place and feel in a song, and then you use that intuition and that feeling and that emotion to go figure out where you're going to go next. And there is some math there, there's some extrapolation and some recursion, but there's also this feel that seems informed by experience, intellect, and something in the deep psyche. And how hard is that to model? So from my emotional perspective, it feels like an undefined and mystical thing. And logic tells me I have about two years to start saving.

J: Yeah.

S: Yes, I think that's the most interesting question at the core of this is, how easy versus difficult is it going to be to model things that right now we think of as being like human creativity? Because like the emotional content, George and I, we were just talking about this too, the emotional content of music is ultimately mathematical. You know what I mean? There is... Ultimately, our neurons firing and they're reacting to some pattern, and that pattern can be modeled. I think right now, the soulless aspect of the music, just like anything that these AIs are doing, whether it's art, poetry, music, whatever, images, the soulless aspect is that's because they started by picking the low-hanging fruit, right? They started by modeling the easy things that there are to model. The difficult things to model is where you get all the creativity and the style. But that, I don't see any fundamental reason why that cannot ultimately be done.

DB: Me either. Our brains are discreet as well.

S: It just may be orders of magnitude more difficult. And maybe it'll be more than two years, but I think we'll incrementally get there. I don't see why we wouldn't.

DB: Yeah. I sold a lot of my back catalogue as a hedge.

S: Yeah, but on the other hand it's fun to joke about that, but I do think that it's possible we could we get to the point where you're saying, I want to use it as a tool to help me do my job, not replace me in doing my job. But we may be stuck in that position for as long as we want to be in that position. You know what I mean? I don't see why we would have to necessarily take ourselves out of the creative loop. We will just find ways to use this as a tool.

G: There is a corollary to this, and this goes back to as long as technology has been incorporating itself into any creative endeavour. So music especially. I mean, when the piano came along, there were detractors at the time saying that it was too broad of a spectrum of sound. You didn't want an instrument of that size to be that loud and that quiet. There literally were detractors saying, like, it's not going to work. It's just not going to work. When drum machines first were introduced, drum machines were seen as the most soulless, metronomic, lifeless instrument you could use. It was up to the artists using it to not inject soul into the machine or put the ghost in the machine as it were, but to utilize that soullessness in a new and creative endeavor. So when you look at what Prince did with drum machines, where he was using multiple drum machines, that he somehow managed to string together into ways that they weren't supposed to be strung together and created these monstrously huge grooves that were just incredible. Hall & Oates, too, during one of the very first Lindrum samples for a couple of their songs that just created this really interesting thing. I'm conflicted between what you just said, Steve, about do we use AI in these environments to enhance the artistic capabilities of an artist? At what point does it then take over? When AI writes a legitimately funny joke, that's when I'm going to worry. Because you can define humor. You can try to sort of put it into tangibles of, oh, the setup, the punchline, the thing. But there's still this certain thing that whenever—I mean, there was that whole George Carlin AI special. Did you see that? Someone modeled a George Carlin hour of stand-up. It was his voice.

B: Really?

G: Yeah. And the Carlin family was quite upset with it. And it's like a middle school production of a George Carlin so that thing is missing. But you wonder, at what point will it be able to create jokes or a melody or whatever?

C: But even that, I think, will always be subjective.

G: I think so, yeah.

C: There will always be, whether it's the AI pop artist or the AI visual artist or the AI comic, there will always be a certain population of society for whom they go, that is funny or I do like that or that does speak to me. And then there will be the people who are like, well, but I'm highbrow and this doesn't speak to me.

G: Right, right, right.

C: And so I think it's less about should we, because the train is moving, like we can't do anything about it.

S: You can't get off this train now.

C: And I think it's more about sort of the social critique and the social commentary of like, as a society, is this what we want to be using these tools for? And great if we want to be infusing our creative arts with more machine learning. I think that's incredible if we see that as being a boon. But like, why are we constantly talking about this and not talking about how we can use machine learning to do the tasks we don't want to do so we can free up more time and space to have creative endeavors? Because like, but that requires a fundamental retooling of the structure of our economy. And that's something that we're not having a conversation of very often I think we're constantly being threatened by AI taking away the only things that give us joy anymore, as opposed to thinking, how can we retool our lives so that we find joy and use AI to our advantage?

J: Well, look, I think that's a really nice way to look at it. But I think people are going to use AI to replace musicians so they don't have to pay the musicians.

C: Well, but that's because of the economic system we live in.

J: Yeah, I agree.

C: 100%.

J: I totally agree. But I mean...

G: Musicians have been screwed since the absolute beginning of recorded music. At every level, the artist always gets effed on the bottom line.

C: But that's never going to make people stop making music.

G: No question.

C: And that's the important thing. There will be people who will make music and it is sad and it is unfair that they won't be getting paid for it. But because there is music pouring out of their soul, they will continue to make it.

J: I want to ask George and Dustin a question. Would you guys dislike the experience of hearing an AI-generated song that you really like?

DB: Nope.

J: George, what do you think?

G: Generated song that what?

S: That you really like.

J: If you listen to an AI-generated song and you're like, damn, that's a really good song, would that bother you?

Music Getting Simpler (32:50)[edit]

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G: It wouldn't bother me. I mean, at this point, it would surprise me, but it wouldn't bother me, no. The problem is, what is it trying to achieve? What is that song trying to achieve? On one level, someone like Bruno Mars is an AI that he distills these different styles and puts them into an amalgam that then when you listen to it, you go, oh, like I kind of know that. And it's catchy and it's brilliant and it covers the planet in uptown funk. He is doing an AI, in essence, and he and Roger, the producer, are creating these things by distilling different styles. And I have the same problem, and I love Bruno Mars, he's brilliant, but I have the same problem with what Bruno Mars is doing in that there is a homogenization that happens. And the homogenization is the death of creativity on some level, because I don't think an AI would ever make a Bob Dylan. I don't think an AI, based on what's being fed to it now, the equivalent of a Bob Dylan or the equivalent of a Jello Biafra or the equivalent of Devo, you wouldn't get those weird acts that kind of come out of nowhere that are a response to something that is the antithesis of what is popular and what is part of the homogenized culture. That's my biggest fear, is that it's just going to get more and more, oh, this is catchy. I mean, it's happened already with, again, as a drummer, I have a great bias. But drum sounds, I think we spoke about this before, drum sounds are so good now. They're so good. They're like the perfect snare drum has been figured out how to get the perfect snare drum. So every modern, like physically, the recording of it, it's just how to hit it, how to do everything, how to record it. It's great. It's so perfect. So every drummer sounds the same. You listen to these recordings, and it used to be in the 70s and 80s, and again, old man yells at the crowd. I know I'm there. I know I'm there. But if I heard, and again, I'm going to show my age, if I heard Bill Bruford's snare drum, you instantly knew that was Bill Bruford's snare drum. If you heard Neil Peart's china cymbal that he had that he had found in a garbage can, you knew that was that china cymbal. And nowadays, these amazing players that are brilliant, that are wonderful, they are homogenized because that recording process has gotten so good, and this is what the standardized has become. It's like any kind of filtering system of popular things that this is what a white shirt looks like. And there's 600 of the same white shirt, basically, because we know it sells. We know it fits the best. We know we can make it for this much money. And this is how we sell it. And that's my greatest fear.

C: But is that also not just, I mean, just a statistical sampling bias because the barriers to entry that used to exist don't exist the way they did. So now you've got literally more options on the shelf. When you have more options on the shelf, you are going to see more homogenization across the options, just fundamentally as a function of statistics. There's more stuff on the shelf. More stuff is going to look the same. But I don't see why having more of something means that those unique things that can stick out don't still stick out. It's just they're against a louder background noise. You know what I mean?

G: I mean, you can find amazing music that sounds brilliant.

C: It's just the background is a lot louder now. That's what I see as the difference.

G: No question. Yeah.

C: And so it's like, okay, it's going to have a loud background. But those unique things are always going to be there. You're going to find those artists.

S: Well, I think one historical reason for optimism is what happened when photography was introduced.

G: Right.

S: So at the time, there was a movement in art for like what we would now call photorealistic. You know, that's an anachronism. But like hyper realism, right? They were artists who were trying to draw a painting that looked like reality. And then photography came out. And they're like, well, dang anyone can take a picture and it is reality. And that kind of spoils the whole thing. You don't need to work for years to perfect this technical aspect of the art in order to make a perfect picture. And then a couple of things happened, right? So one is the artist said, okay, well, we're going to go off in a bunch of other different directions. And that basically was part of what spawned impressionism and like all of the 20th century art styles that are not hyper realistic, right?

G: Representational.

S: Yeah, yeah. Non-representational, cubism, pixelism, all that stuff. And the other thing that happened was photography, while it became sort of like in every man's way of making images also became its own art form with high art photography. And so I see the same thing happening here pretty much on every level is that, okay, well, because AI can reproduce certain kinds of what we would now consider maybe soulless art or corporate art or queer jingles or whatever that kind of level of things. There's not going to be much value in a human being doing that technically when that technical thing could be now done by an AI. And so for us schlocks who aren't, don't have artistic talent, that's going to be our camera, right? We're going to use that now to take pictures, you know? And Jay making the rap song or like us we make images to you for our personal crappy use for our friends and ourselves, right? Not anything that we would ever like show to the world as art, just for personal use, right?

J: I don't know, but Steve, I get what you're saying.

S: But at the same time, at the high end, artists are still going to be artists. Let me finish my thought. Artists are still going to be artists, right? There's still going to be people who are going to be creative and are going to figure out a way to go into a new creative space in a world with AI. And I think that they're going to use AI more, there's going to be other artists that are going to use these AI tools for their own art, like with the drum machine or whatever.

J: But there's a few things to think about. One... I forgot it. One of them is, okay, on a personal level, right, this is me being emotional, I want humans to continue to create all the art forms and come up with new art forms, right? I'm sure that they will, but this is what I predict is going to happen. I think what's going to happen is exactly what I just experienced. I used the website, what is it, Ian? I went on there, I had it make me an 80s electronic rap song. I ran through it, did about 50 versions, I took the best pieces of it, I edited them together and I made a song and I really liked it, I thought it sounded good. And I think what people are going to do, because it's freaking easy and it's only going to get easier, is they're going to have the AI come up with all the ideas, and then they're going to re-record it, and it's not really going to come from a person.

S: But it's also not going to really be good, either.

J: I don't agree with that.

S: I do. Because it's not going to be new.

J: This is the first time, like, let me finish. (applause')' I'm just, I love this moment. Okay. So, damn, I forgot what I was going to say. No. I got it. I got it.

Will music-making become sterilized (39:47)[edit]

S: I'm sorry. We have to move on to the next thing.

C: No, no, no. Steve, Steve, Steve. Did you remember?

S: Make the point.

J: People are going to take the easy road. That is what we do. When the washing machine came out, people didn't go, I still want to hand wash my clothes. We used the washing machine.

C: What the hell is wrong with that?

J: Nothing.

C: Why do you want me to hand wash my clothes?

J: That's perfectly fine.

E: People still hand wash their clothes.

J: Because there's no artistry in washing machines.

C: But here's the thing, here are the two things.

J: I want humans to continue to be artists, and this could sterilize that.

C: And Jay, although I hear what you're saying, you never composed yourself an 80s hip hop rap song ever in the existence of your life. You chose to do this now because it was easy.

E: Jam Master Jay.

C: You didn't choose to do this to take the burden off of all that hard work you've been doing all these years composing 80s hip hop rap songs. So I think you have to remember that when you make that argument about other artists. Because that's not the experience.

J: I'm not doing that. I'm not doing that. There's going to be people. There will always be people doing it, but I think what it's going to do is make it very boutique. Oh, and this was the thing I really wanted to say. We have Spotify and all these apps that let anybody, anybody publish music, right? Guess what's going to freaking happen in the next few years? Trillions of songs are going to be put on Spotify. It's all going to be crap.

C: It's going to disrupt the music industry.

J: It's going to rock a boat that has already been rocked in the last 10 years. And it's really going to get, it's going to get to the point where, cause I have to say this, and this is so integral to this whole thing. I told this to George. I know it's weird, but I was listening to Gene Simmons talk about the music industry and it was brilliant what he said. He said, there is no vetting process anymore, right? Go back to the sixties and seventies. You had to go through Dustin, tell me if this is accurate to what you experienced, but you have to go through multiple hoops to get anywhere in the music industry and you're constantly being vetted. Now, I know the vetting process could actually get rid of good people, but-

C: That's the same as saying there's no barriers to entry anymore. And you can see that as a good thing or a bad thing.

J: But I do think though that that vetting process is what brought out and made a lot of these really good artists actually be able to achieve their art. And without that, if you just, again, it's just like people publishing anything they want on the internet. It's what we learned when we gave people access to publishing their stuff to the world. This is why we have an absolute infusion of pseudoscience into the world today because the internet gave everybody a platform.

C: I think it's also why we have more black and brown and female, we have access to more black and brown and female ideas than we ever had before. And I really, really disagree with that view, that relying on old guard to keep up the barriers that they want to keep up. But anyway, the thing that was really important, the point that I think is really important here in all of this is that human, because I've seen this argument with like robot boyfriends and girlfriends and what happens when we can all have sex bots and we're never going to talk to each other anymore.

J: Well, I'm not complaining about that at all.

C: I know. I know. That's fair. That's fair. But the issue is that human beings psychologically at our core are fundamentally interpersonal creatures and we are fundamentally creative creatures who just like seek aesthetics. We need it. We crave it. It's part of our evolutionary process. We seek out art and music and things that give us emotional experience.

E: And the part of this we haven't touched on is the live performance of that music. Nobody's going to go see an AI perform live.

C: That is not true.

S: It's already happening.

C: That's not true. Yeah. I disagree with that.

S: It's already happening.

E: They're signing out concerts? People are going to AI concerts?

S: Yeah. There are AI entities.

C: They're called Vocaloids. It's a whole thing in Japan. It's really big.

J: Music industry owns fake people-

C: It's a whole conversation that we don't have time for.

E: What about the interpersonal comment you were just making? Isn't that part of this?

C: The comment that I'm making is that whether it be robotic or not, we're always going to keep coming back to real human experience.

E: I agree with that.

J: I hope you are right. I hope you're right.

C: We are.

J: But I got to tell you my experience having that app write that song and I actually liked the song and I asked George and Dustin that because it bothers me how much I like listening to the song. I listen to the song like two or three times a day right now. It's weird. I can't believe that it's not a human voice.

C: I think it's going to bother you how soon that's not going to bother you anymore.

J: Oh man. I don't know man.

G: Jay, it bothered me when you... We were did... Was it NECSS or something? And you made the audio of our voices?

J: Yeah.

G: And you played it back. Stuff that we had to guess. Was it us or was it the AI saying? That bothered me.

J: Yeah.

G: Like that was just... And I didn't even realize it was bothering me as much as it was bothering me, there was this fundamental like to hear my voice saying something I hadn't said in the perfect Hrabian inflection.

J: But George, let's face it man. As soon as these apps exist in countries where there are no rails, because right now you can't tell this app, make me a Beatles song. We are going to be able to go, make me a Beatles album that was written in 1973.

G: Yeah. By Lou Reed.

J: And it will happen. It's going to happen.

G: Of course.

J: And this is what troubles me. It's taking... All right. I know we disagree on this, Cara. I'm just worried about it.

S: Well, can I just...

J: Go ahead.

New quality control for music/art (44:48)[edit]

S: We have to go on to the next news item. Just to button that up. I do want to say, Cara, I completely agree with you. I don't think anyone up here is fully arguing for going back to the old guard. That's dead and gone anyway. It's more about there's the good and the bad, as we talked about on the last show with it. And maybe we need to think about a new way to allow like quality to rise to the top. And so that there isn't so much crap.

DB: Maybe an AI that can decide.

J: I think the shitty, white, rich guys are going to take this and do exactly what George said. They're going to homogenize art. It's going to become...

S: I think that will create a thirst for something that's not...

J: I hope so, man.

C: There will always be a subversive underground. There always has been. There always will be.

J: But why does it have to be the underground? Back in the 70s and 80s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and part of the 90s, because that's when I used to like music. There were so many creative people and so many awesome bands and so much variance in the music. And today, it also... We're already dealing.

S: Jay, are you making these kids today?

J: No. Hey, George.

C: But Jay, I think what you're not realizing is that was born out of a subversive underground and then record executives figured they could make money on it. You realize that, right? That's all there is.

G: The underground only comes to the surface as soon as someone thinks they can make a buck on it.

C: Yeah, once it's capitalized.

S: I'm not disagreeing. So here's the question.

J: Boy, Dustin, you dropped a shitstorm on us, man. (applause) Very good.

Is music getting worse? (46:20)[edit]

S: The question is, is music getting worse over historical time?

C: No, we're not.

S: George?

G: Yeah. Okay, so a bunch of researchers did... What do you call it? Research. I'm gonna just read the press here, because it's really interesting. Eva Zangerl and her colleagues analyzed the lyrics of 12,000 English language rap, country pop, R&B, and rock songs.

S: Did she use AI to do that?

G: 2,400 songs. Yeah, 2,400 songs released between 1980 and 2020. Okay, a big span, a large number of songs over a large span of time. The authors found that, in general, lyrics have become simpler and easier to understand over time, and that the number of different words used within songs has decreased, particularly among rap and rock songs. So this has been reported as songs are getting simpler, which, yeah, I guess. I guess they are.

S: Mathematically, yeah.

G: I had a number of... Oh, thank you. Cheers. Just a check, please. Yeah, if we can get it. I appreciate it. The authors also found that lyrics have tended to become more emotional and personal over time, which is curious and interesting. More emotional and personal. Lyrics of older... This was another interesting thing that they found, because they used this platform to post all the lyrics, and they found that lyrics of older rock songs tend to be viewed more than those of newer rock songs. So it's the man-yells-at-cloud crowd that goes and looks at the lyrics of the songs that they know, as opposed to younger listeners don't look at the lyrics of the songs that are popular, or are newer, or less aged.

C: Do you think that's a function of the fact that the lyrics are simpler, and so they don't need to be looked up as much?

G: Absolutely.

C: Interesting.

G: But what's curious is newer country songs tend to be viewed more than those of older country songs. So it's almost like the older country songs are more established, maybe, and you don't wonder what they are, as opposed to the newer country songs are more questioning as what's going on there. So I was wondering, if you were to do the same study with TV scripts, let's say, or novels, or movies, or comic books, or whatever, would the same things apply? I don't know.

S: I don't think so.

G: I don't think so either.

C: They have done this study with journal articles, and it's the opposite.

G: It's the opposite.

C: Journal articles are getting more difficult to read, and they're using more big and specific words to the field.

S: Makes sense.

G: Right. Yeah. They also found that the idea of repeated lines versus non-repeated lines, repeated lines have gotten more and more common, as well as choruses have gotten more and more common in more modern music. Now, it's very hard to put a qualitative judgement on this. Is this good, or bad, or better, or worse? Because there is a consumption of music, and popular music is consumed popularly, and it's hard to say that songs are worse now than they were when we were younger, or that they're better now, or that they're even simpler, because there is also this issue of slang that gets introduced. And as soon as you have some kind of algorithm that's searching for, I'm going to find all the sad words, let's say. You decide, okay, in these, whatever, 12,000 songs, we're going to find all the sad words. Well, are you sure that something like, they say the word slay would be seen as a negative connotation.

C: No. Slay is positive.

G: That's what I'm saying. Nowadays slay is a positive to slay something, but is the computer aware of that, and is it assigning this old meaning to a bit of slang? There's also the idea of sometimes clever lyrics, or lyrics that use language in a double or triple entendre, or ironically, can that also be found? So that when someone's saying I mean, Michael Jackson's album, Bad. Not a good record.

C: Or like, Saves the Day, which is like a pop-punk band. Their songs sound so happy, but the lyrics are... If you listen to what they're saying, you're like, whoa, that's dark.

G: One of my favorite things is when the lyrics have the opposite sort of emotional connotation of what this thing sounds like.

C: I love that.

G: So very dark sounding songs that are actually positive, and then very sort of poppy, happy songs that are very dark. I love that. I love when that happens. And that's hard to necessarily relate through some kind of algorithm that's just looking through the lyrics. So yeah, this sort of enters into the conversation we've just been having. It's very difficult to not fall into the trap of of what every generation says, which is our songs were better than the next generation's songs. And I have fought it vehemently. I always try to hear what's popular, what's coming up, and try to think, okay, I know this is not being designed for me as a 52-year-old guy. I know the stuff that's on the... I can't even say radio, but the stuff that's on the top Spotify playlists is not designed for me necessarily, so I can't take it in that context of, oh, this isn't as good as Soundgarden, or this isn't as good as Elvis Costello, because it's just different, you know?

S: It's just... Yeah. I think we have to look at it that way, that it's just different. Unless you're thinking that there is some systemic issue with the way it's produced and what rises to the top, a selective pressure in there, like corporate greed or whatever you think might be.

J: But I think it's actually the fact... I said it. I think it's because there is no vetting process anymore.

Attentions spans are shorter (51:44)[edit]

G: Well, Jay, okay, so the vetting process that does exist is people's attention span is much shorter.

C: Yes.

S: It's clicks.

G: It's clicks. So when you check out a song on Spotify or a YouTube or something like that, or even in the iTunes little preview that gives you 30 seconds or whatever, the ones that are going to get popular are the ones whose hook is shorter, the one whose chorus happens faster, because you're going to hear that important part of the song is going to be blasted into your cortex as many times as it possibly can in those 20 seconds, those eight seconds, those four seconds.

J: That's crazy.

G: This is something that floored me about my niece and nephew. They used to play me songs, and they would literally play me just eight bars of a song. They'd be like, oh, I got this great song I want you to hear. I'm like, yeah, play it for me. And they would be skipping ahead, skipping ahead, skipping. I'm like, let me hear the... Can I hear the song? No, no, no, it's just this part. And you get to the part, it's the transition into the chorus. Listen to this. And I'm like, okay. No, no, no, just hear that again. Hear that part again. There's eight bars again.

B: Wow.

G: You know there's like two minutes on each side of that thing that they really worked hard to do.

J: George, back, was it the late 70s, early 80s, Journey, Don't Stop Believing?

G: Yeah.

J: They don't say the chorus, don't stop believing, until like the last third of the song.

G: Sure.

J: We were very patient back then.

G: Yeah. Well, there's a wonderful... I talked about this on my cast, two kids watching "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins--

C: --[inaudible]

G: --so they've never heard this thing, and if you know the song "In the Air Tonight", the drums don't come in until, like, the three-and-a-half-minute mark--

S: --That famous drum...

G: One of the most famous drum falls.

S & C: You're waiting for it.

G: [imitates drum fall]... And so these two, and they're kids, they're probably in their late teens, maybe early 20s, and they're listening and they're kind of like into it. They're digging it and digging it. And then Phil comes, and they're like, "Whoa! Whoo! Wow! They're dropping the beat three minutes in! They're dropping the beat three minutes--" [Rogues & audience laugh]

TwinsthenewTrend YouTubers' reaction to drum fall in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight"

It's so exciting! It got, like, 5 million views, like millions of views. It was so popular that In the Air Tonight got back on the iTunes charts. It popped back up because, again, the people that own the copyright were smart enough to let the kids have it for that video. So it's like those things enthuse me and give me this idea that there is a general appreciation that can happen as long as the exposure happens. You know, as long as you're exposed to it. So video games now have these great classic rock tunes that are embedded. I mean, Guitar Hero, when that started, all of a sudden you had this whole new generation finding Carry on My Wayward Son. I mean, South Park did that great episode where the dad actually knows how to play it, and the kids are like, Dad, you're actually playing guitar? No, play the game. You've got to play the game. The game is way cooler. But again, it's younger ears. There's nothing special about our generation's music appreciation. Like, there's nothing that was embedded. And our parents, or whatever, those that were going in the 70s and hearing a 26-minute Yes song and being like, this is awesome, you know, they were, sorry, just as dumb as anybody else. They didn't have a great appreciation for music or have this great deep understanding of how music works. They were just exposed to it.

C: I interviewed a woman on Talk Nerdy who is like a multi-Grammy-winning record producer who has a career that spanned, like, so many stars. And then she went back to school to finish her PhD in neuroscience to study why we like the music we like. And they sort of put the... Her and her colleagues put it into categories. Like, some people are very lyric oriented. Some people really like this component of music. And it's always kind of a mix. Some people are into novelty. So some people are constantly looking for new music. And the first time they hear a song, they're like, that's it, that's great. But a lot of people aren't. A lot of people listen to the same thing over and over and over. And I think that phenomenon, along with, like, we've talked a little bit about ageing and sort of some of the phenomenons that come with ageing of, like, comfort and turning inward.

S: Well, there's also neural nostalgia. That's the term that they use where the patterns that get laid down in your brain between the ages of 12 and 22, particularly, that's your brain, right? That becomes, like, your baseline, your standard. And, like, so the music you're listening between those ages to you is the best music that there is.

G: I've always said that music that you choose when you're 12 is one of the very first autonomous choices you get to make. No one gets to say, you don't like this. You can't. You got to go to bed at a certain time. You got to do your homework. You got to be at the school. You don't have any choice in your life, but you can choose what music you like. And that's that first time where you're like, I like this. I am choosing this thing. And that just sticks with you forever.

C: And then there is this phenomenon called gerotranscendence that happens at a certain age where in older adulthood we do tend to start turning away from the popular culture. It's why we don't know who that actor is anymore. And all those young people look the same. And it's not because it's like I'm a crotchety old person. It's because those things stop mattering as much to us, and we start turning inward, and we're doing more meditation, and we're spending more time in nature, and we're focusing more on deep personal relationships. And we're just less focused on like commercial and societal things. And I think all those things play into the reason that kids these days and then our music is like, yeah, it's an epiphenomenon. It's an epiphenomenon, exactly.

S: Dustin, let me ask you a question.

C: Hey, the youngest person on this panel is 40 years old, by the way.

G: I know, I know. It's funny. Yeah, I know. That's so good.

S: Dustin, when you're composing your songs and trying to create an album, how much time do you spend thinking about how will this play on TikTok or like streaming?

DB: Recently when I've been writing in Nashville with other people, they've been mentioning TikTokable moments, but I had never before or since really considered it. But other people talk about the first seven seconds on Spotify. It's on the top of people's minds as they write, not me. But yeah, it's definitely a thing.

S: But you have creative control. Is there any part of your business where you get pressure from people to make TikTokable moments?

DB: Not directly. I was, I had a record deal before this one and I learned some things and I did a lot of upfront work and investment before this record deal. And well, I guess I'm on another one after that, but before the Star Set's first one, before Star Set's first one, and I made sure to maintain creative control. So the typical A&R artist relation or I would just repertoire, I don't even know what it stands for because I don't deal with them. But yeah, I don't have any of that, luckily.

S: Yeah. But you think, is that true for most new artists, you think, or no?

DB: I think it depends. I wouldn't entirely know because I would imagine a lot of new artists are coming with some foundation of a career built with these various platforms. So they might, if they're wise, enter with some creative control. And I think the labels still are filtering by, mostly by who's getting the most clicks. And so there's probably not as much necessity for creative control because they're picking the people that they think can sell. But yeah.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: Right. It's like that Macklemore phenomenon, right? When they were developing their first album and then the record label's like, here's your cut, here's your... And they're like, we'll just do it ourselves. And they got to keep all the profits. And they were like, okay. I think it's that interesting thing where a record label, it's like they already have a built-in audience before we're starting to do this deal. We don't own them the way we used to. What do we do about that?

DB: Yeah. Labels are getting less and less useful, but they still have a use. And also if this onslaught of AI songs happens, maybe they will have a use again in some ways to be part of that filtering thing, unless the AI filters also do that.

S: Speaking of TikTok pressure though, I mean, even we feel it. Because with Ian and Jay, we're doing a lot of making TikTok videos. And there's a lot of discussion about how quickly you have to get to the meat and also how short they have to be. And let's try just doing you reacting to something. There's no actual intellectual content, but this really sells on TikTok, right? Where it's just like a purely emotional sort of response.

J: Ian published a video of Steve just having a facial reaction to something and it did really well.

S: It did really well.

J: And for people who know Steve, that to me is the most boring. Like watching Steve go, it gives you shit.

S: That's spot on, Jay. Spot on.

E: There's a hundred thousand clicks right there.

S: But I'm saying that the clicks are a pressure. And we have our tech guy Ian over there, right? Everyone has their Ian, their tech guy who's like, well, this is what's clicking. This is what's getting you the numbers on TikTok. Let's try this. And it's not necessarily what's optimized for our mission, for the content. But if we don't get people to watch the videos, then what's the point? It's the other thing. So it's an interesting, just once you're swapping out one set of pressures, maybe from the old guard to a new set of pressures from what gets the attention, what gets the clicks. And I do think that will be its own filter, which may, will be good and bad and different, lateral move or whatever.

J: We decided to start selling our own brand of vitamins. Don't judge us. Look, it's simply because we know it'll bring attention. It's not to make money or anything. We're making good money. It doesn't matter.

G: Steven Novella's manpower.

S: But that brings up a good point, actually, is that we are probably pretty far to the end of the spectrum of people who have an actual mission. Like we care about our content. We say no to money all the time on principle.

G: Wait, what?

S: I mean, seriously.

C: That sucks.

S: No, but seriously, but I do think, I imagine that what if I had no scrupules, right? You think about like what our behavior would be if we didn't, if our only mission were making money.

E: If we sold out a long time ago.

S: We're getting attention. Oh my God.

E: If we would use our powers for evil.

S: If we used our powers just for pure greed and attention rather than like caring about, the world. Yeah, you can totally see how easy it would be to just become all the crap that we're seeing on TikTok, right? It's very easy to see how that's the end stage and that's a lot of what we're heading for.

Aphantasia Spectrum (1:02:35)[edit]

S: But speaking of imagining, Cara, you're going to talk about aphantasia.

C: Aphantasia, such a fascinating phenomenon. It was first actually described by Galton all the way back in 1880. We're not going to talk about Galton. He was a eugenicist. He sucked. But then later, Professor Adam Zeman, or it might be Zeman, I'm not sure. So apologies if you listen to the show, at the University of Exeter, he sort of brought it back into discussion, actually in 2015 when he published kind of a landmark study on the phenomenon. So this is this idea that some people don't create mental images, like literally some people can't make pictures in their minds. And we've sort of thought about this in the binary for a long time since we started talking about it. But the new bit, which I'll kind of go through quickly, is that researchers have recently reviewed over 50 studies that have been published since we first started talking about this in 2015 to help deepen the understanding of this phenomenon. And it's really a spectrum. It goes all the way from aphantasia over here to hyperphantasia over here. And there's a lot in between. So some big takeaways from this study, and then I want to talk about something else that's really interesting. I'm excited. The first one is that, like I said, it's a spectrum that can affect visual imagination, but also that can then influence memory, because those things are linked, face recognition, what people choose to do for work. And because a lot of people who had aphantasia didn't know they had it, because remember, when you're born a certain way, that's just how you are. And it's not something that a lot of people verbalize. And so we often just expect that, well, my human experience is kind of like your human experience, right?

S: So that extends to everything. And so, for example, there are people who are born with profound numbness. They just don't feel anything, and they have no idea that's not normal. That's their world. That's normal for them.

B: Physical or emotional?

S: If you ask them, are you numb? Do you have any problems? They're like, nope, I'm fine. I'm perfectly normal.

C: Yeah.

S: They're normal for them.

C: And it's especially hard when it's something that... And I don't like using this word because I think it puts a valence on it, and I don't mean it that way, but when it's something that's lacking. So something like you don't... Because there are people who can't feel pain, for example, and they don't know they can't feel pain because they can't feel pain. And so until that phenomenon is described, they're like, I didn't know other people had that. And that's a common experience. Maybe some people in the room who have synesthesia or different versions of synesthesia, right? Where your different sensory perception have mixed streams. So you might kind of smell color or see months or days in the calendar have different textures or different colors. People who have that experience, for whom it was really normal, very often when they first discovered, like, oh, your Tuesday's not crunchy. Like they're really surprised.

S: You can't smell numbers? What's wrong with you?

C: Wednesday's not yellow for me. And also music. Some people can't imagine music. Some people don't have an inner voice. So fascinating.

B: That's fascinating.

C: There are also familial patterns in both aphantasia and hyperphantasia. So hyperphantasia being the other end of the spectrum, which is really ultra vivid mental imagery. And then there are different more and more people, more and more people, a lot of these studies, they looked at 50 studies, are trying to dig deep into what's going on in the brain, right? Obviously, we want to understand what's going on in the brain. And sometimes not only are these things linked to different genetic factors, but we also see that they can be linked to autism spectrum. So it's really interesting that ASD and aphantasia we see sometimes existing together. So as I was doing some research on this study, I found a really cool paper or report that was done in the Conversation where three different researchers who themselves study aphantasia, who all three have aphantasia, described what it's like to have aphantasia. And I was like, oh, this is fascinating. One of the authors, her name is Lauren Boyer, cannot unscramble 3D shapes. She cannot, if she looks at an image, I know this is a podcast, deal with it. But if she looks at an image that has very distinct parts in it, like what I'm showing right now is a picture of a mop where the plastic part of the mop, the head of the mop is yellow, and the fibers of the mop are blue, that is not a mop to her. She cannot put those things together in her mind. So she can't sort of integrate a gestalt of an image.

J: That's crippling.

C: It's hard. Yeah, it's hard. And she doesn't have an inner visual imagery capability at all. And she has no inner voice. So they call that deep aphantasia in their paper. So she describes, and she writes books. So she describes that when she writes books, she's not narrating what she writes down before she writes it. The words just come, and sometimes what comes next isn't there, so she needs a minute, and then it just comes to her and she writes it next. But there's no pre-narration in her mind.

J: The way most people do it is you kind of say it in your head before you type it.

C: I assume. I don't know. That's what's normal to me. Is that what's normal to you?

J: Yeah.

E: Say it in your head before you type it, sure.

J: What are you saying?

C: I don't know. Like I'm saying, my normal might not be normal.

B: What about people like that and also people who can't create the visual, the imagery, the mental imagery? What do they dream? Can they hear dreams? Can they see in dreams? Because if you can dream, I would think you could.

C: So some people who have what they call mental blindness or blind mind, they don't recall dreaming, and they don't think that they dream. Others do, but they can't describe their dreams visually. So they might look like they're dreaming on EEG, but that's not their experience of dreaming. They might describe a different sensory experience of dreaming. Like there's a narrative in their head, like they remember a plot, but it doesn't have...

E: Do they have rapid eye movement?

C: Yeah. Yeah.

B: There is REM.

C: Yeah. They might on EEG look like they're dreaming. They can't describe to you that they saw pictures in their brain.

E: But those parts of the brain are firing, the dreaming parts, right?

C: Well, I'm describing brain waves. I'm not describing parts of the brain, so I'm not sure about that.

E: Okay.

J: Now, is this something that they perceive as being like detriment or uncomfortable or a block in any way?

C: So that was a question that I thought was curious, because a lot of them didn't even know they had it until they was pointed out.

G: How do you test that? Yeah. How do you like test?

C: It's self-report, but some researchers have developed scales where they ask very specific questions that evoke specific answers that help get to the heart of it. So it's like, I'm going to ask you to imagine, how does that look? And then it's like, I can't do that. Or when I do it... Because again, it's a spectrum. Sometimes when people try to imagine visual images, they're really, really simplistic or they're lacking a lot of detail. And other people, when they do it, they're really rich and beautiful. So some people, for example, and I know you've brought this up before, will say, I don't like reading fiction, because I can't see it. Like I don't see the story in my head. And people who don't have interior voices might not hear different actors in the story. When I read a book, I can hear the different characters' voices. And if a character has been described as like an older Scottish man, that's how he sounds in my head. And I know that I can do that in my mind, even if my mouth can't... I can't do an older Scottish man voice for you guys right now, but I can hear it in my head.

J: Please give it a shot.

C: No, I can't. That's what I'm saying. I am...

G: Oh, go for it, Lassie. Go for it. Come on, let's go.

C: That's in my head.

G: Oh, speak to me, lady.

C: So maybe I have a little hyperphantasia, because I can do more in my head than I can recreate. I can see images in my head I could never draw for you or like... But yes, one of the people in this article talked about how it is difficult, let me find it here, for her to have story time with her daughter. So it does get in the way a little bit. And also, aphantasics can often be frustrated at others' attempts to explain our experiences. I'm sorry, you guys. I didn't mean to. And so, yeah, because oftentimes in the early literature, people would suggest that they probably still have the experiences, they're just not good at explaining what they're experiencing. But they're like, that's really condescending. We are researchers in this field. We know how to describe our inner world. This is not what my inner world is like. I know what perception is. I've studied this phenomenon, and that's not what I have. Oh, and I love this example, okay? Because it says in here, the confusion can go both ways. They were trying to design an experiment to test for this. And one of the researchers said, okay, what if we ask people to imagine a black cat with their eyes closed? And another researcher who also had aphantasia was like, I think that'll be really hard for people because how are they going to see a black cat in their mind against the black background of their mind? And the other person laughed and they were like, that's not hard for me to do. I can see a black cat in my head, even though it's dark in there, you know? And so it's like, it's so funny that they just could not share that experience. I know.

S: I mean, it's one of those examples that just brings out the fact that everything that your brain does, that you mentally do, your mind does, there's somebody who can't do that, right? And we consider it normal or abnormal or pathological or whatever, that's just all subjective. We tend to functionally define it as, well, if it gives you an inability to do something useful that most people can do, we'll call that a disorder. But that's, again, that's just a subjective choice that we're making about it. And of course, I always remember the Jonathan Swift story, one of the Lilliputian Islands, I believe. They chose their rulers by who was most acrobatic, right? And so being an acrobat was the most important skill that one could have. And if you had a normal cerebellar function, normal balance, that was a dysfunction in that culture, but it was a completely subjective one, cultural one. So, like, the ability to read is a disorder in our culture, but it wouldn't be in a culture that doesn't depend on the written word very much. And so, and of course, we evolved without any of that stuff, right? Without any modern culture.

C: And that's, like, the argument about kind of terming deaf culture as being a culture of disability, right? And calling it a lack or a problem, and it's like, we have a rich language, you guys, just because we can't hear. Like, we communicate really well, and this is who we are.

S: But I do wonder, like, people who have aphantasia, so again, what is the neurological correlate of that? And is it that, is their part of their brain better at doing something else or dedicated to something else? Do they have anything that is better because they're not wasting their time being able to imagine things?

C: Well, it's, I mean, and that's the thing, too, because these are different perceptual, so I don't want to say sensory, but perceptual streams. So if somebody has, like, aphantasia, but it's purely visual, are they filling their head with a verbal or auditory narrative all the time? But would that affect, then, their neural architecture much? Because when their eyes are open, their visual system is still stimulated all the time. You know what I mean? So it's not the same as somebody who's not ever getting visual cues.

S: But there may be something else, though, that could, because visualization is really complicated. You have to be able to see things. You have to be able to remember seeing things. And we have to be able to tell the difference, which is important. And we also have to be able to imagine things. We don't have to. It's one of the other related abilities. And also, when you're seeing things, as we've discussed many, many times, and we go over in on the extravaganza, you're constructing every single aspect of it. And it really is this constructed illusion that has so many different layers to it. And then we assign emotion to it, if it's something that we think deserves to have emotion assigned to it, meaning it has agency. And there are people who lack that, who can't.

J: Is the spectrum of, like, so take Stevie Wonder, for example. He will hear songs in his head. He's not noodling. He'll hear it in his head. And then he'll write the song. So that, to me, is almost like on the opposite side.

C: Hyperfantasia?

J: Hyperfantasia.

C: Yeah, it could be. I definitely think Mozart was definitely hyperfantasic, right, because he could compose an entire symphony without even writing it down. He could hear the parts, almost like visualize the bassoons coming in, visualize it, and then write it down. Whether he could compose without, I mean, he didn't have tools. He's drafting. Yeah, but in the movies, George.

J: In the movie, George.

G: In the movie he's great.

E: What are you saying? Hollywood said differently.

C: That's when he was dying.

G: No, no, no. That's a little bit of a...

C: When was his very first composition?

G: I mean, they say it was seven, but it's not very good, though.

J: Let me tell you.

G: No, honestly. Honestly.

C: I wouldn't think it would be his best work.

G: It's a rudimentary... I mean, because he had been playing since he was five.

C: Right. But you also think about Beethoven, who couldn't hear anymore.

G: Beethoven is a good example. Beethoven is a good example, yeah.

C: So once he was losing his hearing, he was still composing. So he no longer has the sensory input, but he's imagining the way that it sounds in his mind. And granted, I think any composer, when they've been doing it long enough, is going to start to be able to develop that.

G: That's the thing. It is an achievable skill that you can do.

C: But it might also be self-selecting. As they said, many people with aphantasia or hyperphantasia tend towards professions that are self-selected.

G: Right.

C: So you might see that composers tend to be hyperphantasic. They hear music in their heads a lot. But there are people who are aphantasic for music, and that makes me sad. But maybe they don't... It's not a deficit to that.

S: But they don't get earworms.

C: Yeah, that's true. Can you imagine never having a song stuck in your head? That would be nice.

J: But those people, are they non-emotionally reactive to music?

C: No, they can hear music. They can't evoke music in their minds when it's not playing.

J: Oh, okay.

C: They cannot mentally imagine music. But they can hear music. All we're talking about here is mental imagination of vision or sound or whatever, even sensations. Some of us can evoke what it feels like to touch something. We can evoke cold in our minds or warm in our minds. And some people can't do that.

G: And, Cara, is this from... I mean, not from birth, but from the development of...

C: There probably are examples of acquired versions because there's...

G: Injuries or whatever.

C: Brain injury is fascinating. Read some Oliver Sacks. He probably wrote about it at some point, right? But there's probably an example of acquired ones. But I think what we're mostly talking about here are congenital forms of this.

G: So there's no point where they may have been able to see something and it faded away.

C: Maybe if there's a degenerative process in the brain that affected that.

G: Oh, so we don't know.

C: There could be disease states that do affect that.

S: If there was a lesion that did it, that would be fantastic. Because then we would know that lesion causes it, right? That's how we learned a lot about what the brain does, by what happens when you damage part of it and what goes away.

G: Yeah.

S: I don't know. I'd have to look it up.

C: Yeah, we'd have to look it up.

S: Acquired aphantasia would be fascinating.

C: Really helpful.

Nova and Comet Compete with Eclipse (1:18:33)[edit]

S: All right. One more news item. Bob, you're going to... There's other astronomical events happening around the eclipse.

B: Yeah. Finally.

G: That you can ruin.

B: Back to some astronomy. Finally. I'm really excited about an astronomical event that's coming up. And it's not the eclipse. A nova is going to appear in the night sky, visible to the naked eye. At some time from now to September. And I'm so excited about this. This happens every 80 years or so with this specific case. The system is the T. coronae borealis system. It's 3,000 light years away. It's a red giant and a white dwarf star, binary pair, that explode. They work together and they explode every 80 years. It's one of the five recurring novae in our galaxy. So this doesn't happen that often in our galaxy. Now, nova... We know supernova is big, exploding stars and other things. But a nova is like a smaller version of that. But it's actually a misnomer. It's not really technically accurate. Tycho Brahe, you may have heard of him. He wrote in his book De Novi Steli, which means concerning the new star. And that name took. It was nova. A nova was his example. But it's not really... The name that astronomers will use are cataclysmic variables. That's the true name. It's much more accurate. So what happens is that for a cataclysmic variable, you've got a system that will brighten at a time and then go quiescent for... It could be years, decades, or even centuries. And it typically consists of a white dwarf star, which is like a cinder of a sun-like star, and another type of secondary, like donor star, like a red giant, like our star. The sun will be in millions or billions of years. The process is interesting, because you've got this binary system of a white dwarf and a red giant, and they're in orbit, and the white dwarf is kind of siphoning off the hydrogen. So the hydrogen swirls down into orbit into an accretion disk around the white dwarf, and then eventually it falls onto the surface. What happens is you've got increased temperature and density of this hydrogen. Maybe sometimes there's helium in there. And this runaway hydrogen fusion happens. This is what is actually exploding and causing the brightness. Now, you would think 3,000 light-years away, you've got a runaway fusion reaction. How bright could that really be? But we're talking... I actually found out what the megatonnage is. A million trillion megatons. That's a lot. So, of course, I had to change that into different ways to present that. So a million trillion megatons is one septillion tons of TNT, right? That's the convention. 10 to the 24 tons. Huge amount. It's also a trillion trillion tons. That's another way you can say it. I like comparing it to the Tsar Bomba?

E: Tsar Bomba.

B: Soviet Union. Yeah, it does.

G: Tsar Bomba.

B: The biggest...

G: Tsar Bomba, baby.

B: The biggest bomb ever exploded ever on the earth. 50 megatons. This was... When did they do that? 60s?

E: 64?

B: So a white dwarf, this nova, is 200 million million times more powerful than that bomb. I mean, that's why we can see it from 3,000 light-years away.

G: So don't look directly at, without your glasses.

B: So don't look directly at it with your naked eye.

S: Bob, how much brighter is it than our sun? In absolute magnitude.

C: Not to us.

S: In absolute magnitude.

B: You don't want to get close to this baby. I mean, I don't know. I don't know what the distance would be. At this distance, it's equivalent to the sun. I don't know. But nobody...

S: You didn't find that number in your research, like what the absolute magnitude is?

B: No.

J: So you didn't find that out, Bob? You don't know? (laughter)

G: Just to reiterate. So Steve, what are you saying? And Jay, what are you saying about Bob's research? Is what? He didn't do it?

J: Yeah, I mean, Bob, what did you actually do?

B: All right. Let's go over what I did find out. Not your lame questions that...

G: He's actually playing Tetris right now in here. I don't know if that... I'm sorry. I shouldn't say that.

B: All right. Jay and Steve. This is a scientific opportunity. There's NASA and lots of people are looking at the eclipse tomorrow. Of course, but a lot... Almost every... Not almost every, but many, many worldwide telescopes are going to look at this because this is an event. This is huge. And this is kind of an anomaly. This is a... It's a nova. It's a cataclysmic variable, but it's kind of weird. This is a weird one because this one gets brighter for 10 years before the explosion. It gets a little brighter. This doesn't normally happen. Also, it gets a little dimmer, I think, a year before the explosion, which has already happened. That doesn't really happen to many other novas. It's really like an anomaly. This one sticks out. So the idea is that the more we learn about this anomalous cataclysmic variable, the more you'll learn about what exactly is going on. The one thing that I like for this explosion is that two months later, it gets brighter again. Not as much... Not as bright as it was during the explosion, but it gets brighter, and that shouldn't happen. So the theory is, which is really fascinating, is that say George is us, and the nova goes off here. Here's the white dwarf, and here's the red giant. They think what happens is that the white dwarf explodes, and it kind of sizzles one side of this star here. Then as it rotates around and presents itself to the Earth, then we see another brightening. It's not because the white dwarf is doing anything. It's because this red giant has been kind of fried from the explosion, which is a fascinating idea. That's one theory. We're not sure.

J: I'm not joking here. How can a red giant get fried?

B: Well, when you've got a trillion trillion megatons going off nearby, you're going to fry almost anything that's nearby.

J: It's hydrogen, isn't it? What's happening in the world of physics here?

C: It's a big bomb.

B: What do you mean? You have runaway fusion happening. You've got hydrogen pouring onto a white dwarf.

J: Okay, all right, I get that.

S: Is the red giant that's getting exposed to the increased brightness from the white star, is that inducing more burning of hydrogen fuel? Does that side of the star get brighter? They're saying it gets brighter.

B: It gets brighter because it's been fried.

S: Because it's burning more of its own hydrogen on that side?

B: I don't think they know. I mean, I've not read about anyone modeling what happens to a red giant when it's near a white dwarf.

S: They didn't say what the reason. They just said some reason we don't know. By some mechanism we don't know. Maybe it's brightening that side of the star.

B: But doesn't it make sense that because a white dwarf exploded right in front of it that its face is kind of like fried for a while and it's going to be turning around and looking? Yeah, that makes sense. They didn't go into it. Steve, that was just a little minor point that they mentioned.

S: Bob, you don't have to get mad. We're just asking questions.

C: I think they're asking, did the article use the term fried?

B: No.

C: Okay. What term did they use?

B: It used, let me see. Oh, it used sizzled. All right, you happy now? I changed a word. I don't like your questions. Think of some better shit, please. So viewing, you could view this. This is going to be as bright as Polaris, as the North Star. You're going to be able to see this. This is wonderful. So it's in the constellation Corona Borealis is the constellation, also known as the Northern Crown. It's kind of like a U-shaped constellation. It's between the Hercules constellation and Bootes. Bootes, is that how that's pronounced?

C: Bootes.

B: You sure?

C: Yeah.

B: It's between those two. It's just like a U-shaped constellation.

C: Is it white like the other stars in the sky? Will it look the same color as any other star?

B: Yeah. I don't think you're going to discern too many different colors.

S: Oh, you like her questions.

B: Yeah. Think about it, Steve.

C: Simple question.

B: Okay, so it's going to be bright. This is what I want. This is what I'm going to do. I'm not familiar with the Northern Crown constellation. I want to find it, look at it, and get used to seeing what it looks like. Then you've got to listen to the news because it's going to be on TV. Like, holy crap, a nova has exploded. Then you go back, and then you look at it, and you're like, holy crap, that's a new star that's right there that I didn't see before. Then you can really appreciate the difference. Otherwise, you're like, yeah, okay, fine. If you're used to it, then it's going to be more dramatic.

G: You said before September it's going to happen?

B: Yeah, between now and September.

G: So how do they know that?

B: They know because it's gone off every 80 years going into history.

G: See, boys, that's how you do a question.

B: Yes. See? He kind of made me feel bad because, and it's a good question, because I should have said previously this has gone off five or six times. We have records of it going back. So that's a very good question.

S: Yeah, but, George, you made Bob feel bad.

B: Good question. Very good. No, that's good. I'm glad he mentioned it.

C: I'm curious about, is that how, is it, does it, or, oh, you said it was a misnomer completely. So it doesn't nova until it supernovas.

B: It's not supernova.

C: They're not related.

B: That's interesting.

C: Or are they?

B: That's interesting because this is a recurrent nova because it accumulates a hydrogen, explodes into a nova, and then if it's a recurrent nova, it'll happen again. But they think that if some of the hydrogen remains or if it goes past what they call the Chandrasekhar limit, then there's so much hydrogen that the whole white dwarf explodes, the whole thing, and there's no recurring after that.

S: And then show over, yeah.

B: But then that's a supernova 1A. That's the thing that we have been, that we've looked at in the past. And because it's a standard candle, because everyone they think it's the exact same brightness. So then you know how far away it is. And they use that to track the expansion of the universe and therefore dark energy. I mean, so that's a, that's a whole other beast. And it's really interesting. This could become supernova 1A at one point.

S: So that's then we'll know what's absolutely magnitude?

B: Then we would absolutely. Yes. So what else do I got here? I think that's it. That's good.

S: All right. (applause)

G: Got your own applause break. Look at that.

S: Yeah. All right, everyone. It's time for science or fiction.

B: Good questions. I appreciate it.


Science or Fiction (1:29:01)[edit]

Theme: Texas

Item #1: Texas has the road with the highest speed limit in the US, at 85 mph.[8]
Item #2: The largest single employer in Texas is Amazon.[9]
Item #3: Six Flags amusement park gets its name from the fact that Texas has been part of six nations throughout its history.[10]

Answer Item
Fiction Largest single employer
Science Highest US speed limit
Flags of six nations
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Flags of six nations
Flags of six nations
Flags of six nations
Largest single employer
Largest single employer
Highest US speed limit
Largest single employer

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There's a theme this week. And the theme is Texas.

E: Taxes?

G: Slow down.

E: Taxes? I'm good.

G: Dollars. Taxes.

S: Taxation.

C: It's Texas.

S: It's Texas. But this is on a previous episode that I might have recorded earlier today. The theme was more like Texas ancient history and geology and stuff. This is just modern-day Texas stuff.

G: Yeehaw?

S: Okay. Is everyone ready? Cara, are you ready?

C: Probably not. I don't. I don't. Yeah. It's been a while.

S: Item number one. Texas has the road with the highest speed limit in the U.S. at 85 miles per hour. Item number two. The largest single employer in Texas is Amazon. And item number three. Six Flags Amusement Park gets its name from the fact that Texas has been part of six nations throughout its history. Dustin, we're going to start with you.

Dustin's Response

DB: The one that I think is false. Six Flags.

S: You think Six Flags is false?

DB: That's the false one.

S: Do you have a reason for thinking that?

DB: Six nations. I mean, I know Mexico and Texas would think it's its own nation. And you've got U.S., so we're up to three. Cherokee, maybe.

S: All right.

DB: Wait. Is it the ones that rode the horses? What is it? Is that Cherokee? The Indian nation?

J: Yeah. We're getting close to six.

DB: Yeah, I know. The horizon. Six just seemed a little high.

S: All right. All right.

Evan's Response

E: Okay. So Texas having the road with the highest speed limit in the U.S. I always thought that was Montana, maybe. Don't they have roads either in Montana or Utah where there's no speed limit in the daytime? But they could have thrown that out and stopped that. There was a time where I think there was no speed limit during the day in one or two of those states. But perhaps that's past. And, therefore, 85 miles in Texas could be the highest speed limit. The largest single employer in Texas is Amazon. I suppose that would make sense, given its size. You would need to have a lot of these stations located all around. And that takes a lot of people to get your stuff there. And then Six Flags Amusement Park. I don't know. Does it really get its name from that? Never heard that before. And then, jeez, I thought at some point there was something about amusement parks. Like there was 13 flags or something. And something in my memory is clouding this one. And what the heck? I will agree with our guest and say the Six Flags Amusement Park is the fiction.

Jay's Response

J: Okay. The first one about the Texas speed limit. So I just found out yesterday. We have a 15-passenger van. And in Connecticut, the speed limit is usually 55, right? Some places it might be up to 60. So I'm driving 60 miles an hour. And I told Ian, oh, my God, everyone's crazy. They're driving crazy fast here. He goes, Jay, the speed limit is 70, and you're going 60. I'm like, oh, that explains everything. I'm the idiot. Okay. I just don't think. I don't know. Well, I guess so. I mean, Texas is huge. At home there's a Starbucks like literally every block. And here there's miles between them. So you want to drive.

C: Such an observation.

E: You've got to drive 70 to get there.

J: I think that the second one, yeah, absolutely. Amazon is the largest single employer. I mean, Amazon is freaking huge. I think the six flags one is the fiction. And I think the reason is because there's six of them. That's what I think.

Cara's Response

C: I'm going to get caught. See, I know we're not supposed to say if we have absolute knowledge, but now I'm gaslighting myself because I thought I had absolute knowledge. But I know Steve, and when he thinks I haughtily know something, he probably looks it up and goes, ah, she's wrong. So Texas, I think they're all correct, right? So Texas has the road with the highest speed limit in the U.S. at 85. I will say I have absolute knowledge of 80-mile-per-hour speed limits all over Texas because I've driven from Texas to L.A. multiple times.

B: And the sign says speed limit 80?

C: 80 for sure. Like when you're in the Permian Basin, 80 is standard on the freeway. So like when you're midland Odessa out there, it's high. But maybe there's 85. I mean, I don't know. I was going like 90. So I think – I do remember being like this feels unsafe. But I think that that could be science. The largest single employer in Texas being Amazon feels like it could be science. We have a lot of big corporations in Texas. Like I grew up in Plano. Frito-Lay, Texas Instruments, Raytheon. Like there were huge corporations. There's Aerospace. Even though Amazon, yeah, but I don't know. This one's kind of bothering me a little bit. And then Six Flags. I mean, I was sure that the reason it's Six Flags over Texas, the first Six Flags in Arlington because of Six Flags. Let's see if we can name them. You already got a head start on us. Mexico. Spain. Texas, sadly. The Confederacy. The United States. And I know – is it France? Were we part of Louisiana Purge? Okay, you guys.

J: Justin said Cherokee Nation.

C: Oh, I don't – sadly. Come on, it's Texas. I don't think they included any indigenous flags in there. I don't think so, sadly. But I do – I thought I had absolute knowledge about that, but now I'm gaslighting myself. But I think I'm still going to go with the largest single employer being Amazon, and I'm going to be so embarrassed when I'm the one, the only one who gets this wrong. But I've got to go with my gut.

B: I have no idea what to pick now.

C: I know. He does this. He makes you, like, question your own sanity during this game. It's very manipulative.

B: George.

G: Bobby.

B: Bobby.

G: Bobby. Pick one of these three. Make sure that it's the fake one. He'll try to screw you. He does it every time. Every time. Stevie does it every time.

C: George, what did you get in the drive-thru last night?

G: Oh, I got me a Dr. Pepper milkshake. This was delicious. It was Dr. Pepper and ice cream put together in a cup. Bobby, it was delicious.

B: I wouldn't know. You didn't give me any.

Bob's Response

B: I'm going to say Amazon. I think that's the one that Steve's like, oh, yeah, they're going to think, of course, Amazon's the biggest, but I think it's some other employer.

George's Response

G: All right. I think Steve has done an excellent job, as he always does. I think the speed limit probably is 85 somewhere in Texas, but I think it's higher somewhere else in the United States. So I think that is the twist, the trick, the zhuzh. That's what I think he did, because Amazon is going to be and Six Flags is going to be. So what I am saying is that the speed limit at 85 is the fiction.

C: So no sweep.

S: No sweep.

G: That's my guess. I'm probably wrong, but that's my guess.

Audience's Response

S: Okay, so now we're going to poll the audience. We're going to do the single clap method. You're going to watch George's hand. If you think that the Texas speed limit at 85 miles per hour is the fiction clap. (a small amount of claps) If you think that Amazon being the largest employer is the fiction clap. (a lot of claps) And if you think that the Six Flags is the fiction clap. (a small amount of claps)

J: Oh, no.

G: Oh, man. Oh, man.

E: Ouch.

G: That was one of them small claps, man. I never heard that. I always got clapped. Two little claps. Nobody clapped there. I never heard nobody clap for that one. It was like three people clapping in the back of the room. That was clapping for something different. It wasn't even a question they were clapping for.

J: George, you having an aneurysm? What's going on?

C: That's Boomhauer. Boomhauer.

G: Tell you what.

S: All right. I guess we'll take it in reverse order then. Go with the audience.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Six Flags Amusement Park gets its name from the fact that Texas has been part of six nations throughout its history. The left side over here, Jay, Evan, and Dustin think that is the fiction. Everyone else, including most of the audience, thinks that one is science, and that one is science.

B: Nice.

C: You are making me question my entire childhood, my sanity.

S: You did get the sixth one correct.

C: I did? It was France.

S: It was France.

G: France was the sixth one?

S: Yeah, and it's nations with flags. That's why the Cherokee Nation, whatever, doesn't have flags.

C: But also Texas.

S: But also, yeah, racism.

C: We know why.

S: Yeah, so that's it.

G: If you guys had a flag, we'd totally be into it. You don't have a flag. It's not us. If you had a flag, our whole history would be very different.

S: Non-Texans may forget or not know that Texas was its own country for 10 years. So, yeah, they had their own flag. And while we're talking about it, yeah, the Lone Star State, right? How does it get its name? The flag of Texas is, do you know this, Cara? It's red, white, and blue. And by Texas state law, those colors have to exactly match the colors of the American flag.

C: Doesn't it have to fly at a certain height?

S: I don't know.

C: I think it can't be lower. There's some weird rules about how high it can fly.

S: So if you look at the flag, it's the American flag as if there was only one state, right?

C: Oh, yeah.

S: That's the flag. That is the configuration.

C: It's very us.

J: That's pretty narcissistic.

C: That's Texas.

E: With two stripes, not 13 stripes.

S: They had to have the three colors. So if you could translate it, like if you had to configure that flag for one state, that's what they figured it would look like with the Lone Star. All right. We'll keep going backwards.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: The largest single employer in Texas is Amazon. Bob and Cara, you think this is a fiction. Most of the audience think this one is the fiction. And this one is the fiction.

E: Oh, heck.

G: Nicely done.

S: So Amazon is number three.

C: Number three. Oh, is it Walmart?

S: It's Walmart.

C: Walmart.

B: Of course.

S: Walmart is number one. And now this is like for really extra points. What is number two?

C: Oil? Is it an oil company?

G: Is it a hospital?

C: It's not oil.

B: Amazon.

S: Not hearing it.

J: It's the Alamo.

S: Not power.

C: Cracker Berrel.

S: Not Cracker Barrel.

B: Phone daddies.

S: I don't believe I've heard the answer.

G: Dr. Pepper.

S: Does anyone really think they know the answer? No. You're kind of close, but it's not the U.S. government.

C: Oh, prison. Some sort of prison.

S: It's not prison. It is the University of Texas University System.

J: What?

B: Whoa.

S: That is number two.

C: There's so many. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That makes sense.

G: Wow.

C: There's so many different UTs.

J: That is semi-unbelievable.

C: Oh, it's massive. UT is massive. There's so many campuses.

S: Number four is the United States Postal Service.

C: Oh, that's interesting.

S: Five is Home Depot.

C: Oh, they're corporate. The offices are very, yeah. Oh, that's cool.

G: So Amazon's not even top five?

C: No, it's three.

G: Oh, it's three.

S: Yeah. It's three. Amazon's three.

G: Oh, gotcha, gotcha, gotcha. Interesting.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: So Texas has the road with the highest speed limit in the U.S. at 85 miles per hour is science.

G: Wow.

S: So there's a couple of ways that could have been wrong. So in the United States, there's no federal speed limit, right? There was for a time. Who here is old enough to remember 55 saves lives?

G: Carter.

S: So that was the only time, whatever, the only modern time where we had a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Everybody hated it, even though statistically it does save lives. But show us 45 miles per hour. Are we going to drive at 45 miles? I don't think so. So eventually, they didn't replace it. They just got rid of the federal speed limit. And so therefore, we're back to the states, right? So you might have thought, Cara, I thought you were going to go here, like maybe 80 miles per hour is the Texas state's speed limit.

C: Oh, I didn't think we had one.

S: Yeah. But there is just one stretch of road.

C: Yeah. Is it around Austin?

S: The state highway 130.

C: Oh.

S: Texas state highway 130 is a toll road that circumvents the highly congested Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio.

C: That's interesting. That's a weird place to have that.

S: 41-mile stretch. 41-mile stretch of road at 85 miles per hour.

C: That's fascinating. Yeah, that is a weird place to have it.

S: And that is the fastest in the country.

G: And if you drive below 85, they shoot you.

S: They shoot you. All right. So, Cara, you redeemed yourself as a Texan.

G: Nicely done.

C: That's good.

S: As a daughter of Texas.

C: Both, both times.

G: Daughter of Texas.

C: Would have been bad.

G: Learned tootin'.

S: And I think it's fair to say you dragged most of the audience with you. You convinced them.

C: Thanks, thanks, thanks.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:43:05)[edit]

As the sun eclipses the stars by his brilliancy, so the man of knowledge will eclipse the fame of others in assemblies of the people if he proposes algebraic problems, and still more if he solves them.

 – Brahmagupta (c. 598 – c. 668), Indian mathematician and astronomer

S: All right. Evan, do we have a quote?

E: Oh, yeah. We've got a quote. What's happening tomorrow?

S: Tomorrow? Monday.

E: It's a regular Monday. April 8th. Right? Eclipse time. Right? Here's a quote. "Once upon a time, I was falling in love. Now, I'm only falling apart. There's nothing I can do. A total eclipse of the heart." No, actually, that's not the quote. I had to sneak that into the show somehow. Here's the quote. "As the sun eclipses the stars by his brilliancy, so the man of knowledge will eclipse the fame of others in assemblies of the people if he proposes algebraic problems and still more if he solves them." And that is a quote from Brahmagupta, who was, Brahmagupta, was an Indian mathematician and astronomer from the 6th century.

S: Sounds like it.

E: Yeah. He's known for two early works on mathematics and astronomy within a name I absolutely cannot pronounce. It's about 55 characters long. But he's credited with the first clear description of the quadratic formula, which we're familiar with, among some other mathematical principles that are still applied today.

S: Cool. So he was basically saying that mathematicians will be more famous if they propose and solve mathematical equations.

E: That's what he said. And he wasn't wrong. Einstein, right?

S: Yeah, Einstein.

E: Sure.

S: Absolutely. He did predict some things, too.

E: Among others, yes.

S: All right. Well, this has been a fun show. Dustin, thank you for joining us.

G: Thanks, Dustin.

J: Thanks, Dustin.

S: George, always a pleasure to have you with us as well.

G: Always great to be here. Thanks, guys.

S: Thanks to all my fellow Rogues.

G: Thanks, Seth.

S: Thank all of you for coming here as well.


S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. (applause)

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[11]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description


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