Category Archives: reading

Taking a Spiritual Path to AI

I teach edtech courses to K-12 educators each fall. We’ve talked about AI in a general sense but I know that this semester, we need to dig into what this new technology means for everyone, including educators. It just might be that transformational technology we’ve been promised.

I was just trying to figure out where to start when a new podcast from Dan Harris at Ten Percent Happier appeared: The Dharma of Artificial Intelligence. Harris started the podcast echoing my own sentiments: his team knew they had to tackle the subject but couldn’t figure out how. Until they found this book: What Makes Us Human: Artificial Intelligence Answers Life’s Biggest Questions. Its authors–Iain Thomas and Jasmine Wang–trained an AI on spiritual texts from the Bible to Maya Angelou and then asked all the big questions of life.

The answers form the bulk of the book, and they are surprisingly spiritual and inclusive. They focus on what connects us at the core as humans without concern for individual religious beliefs or practices. The writing is reminiscent of motivational and devotional texts. In the end, the Beatles may have had it right: all you need is love. Here is part of the answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? “The meaning of life is love. We have a tendency to think we are separate from the Universe. We are not separate. We are part of it, and it is part of us” (p. 37).

The authors are not oblivious to the issues of AI, with Wang especially expressing real fear at the power and potential for harm represented by this technology. The podcast was unsettling. We are grappling with something we don’t fully understand.

Tree Reading

I have been letting my books lead my reading this year and a group of three books revolved around nature with trees at the center.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier is the fictional story of a pioneer family trying to make a living by growing apples in Ohio. When tragedy strikes, the oldest son heads west and works for a seed saver who is feeding the foreign thirst for American trees. We get a glimpse of the destruction of the huge cedars and redwoods.

It is this destruction that forms the foundation for The Overstory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the activists and scientists trying to save the last of the giant trees. I had avoided reading the book because I knew it would be a challenge to read about the deceit and devastation practiced in the name of progress that tried hard to wipe out the Native Americans, the buffalo and the ancient trees, just to name a few. I live amongst trees here at the farm, and my husband and I own ten acres of wooded land along a creek where we once considered building a house but may now just preserve it from development as long as we can.

Development and hunger for wood was devastating for the trees and for the activists who try to save them from humanity while trying to save humanity from themselves. It does not, as you might expect, go well for the trees or the people. Law enforcement was often brutal to the protesters when they refused to yield in ways I won’t describe here. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a radio series called Timber Wars produced in 2020 that lays out what they call the biggest environmental fight in the US.

The book is the story of ordinary human beings who encounter trees in ways that change their perspectives on the world. Powers masterfully tells their stories from their childhood through adulthood through the perspective of their journey both to and then with trees at the center. Along the way, we learn the stories of trees in America including references the Johnny Appleseed, chestnut blight and seed saving. It did make a nice companion to At the Edge of the Orchard although trees did not form the centerpiece of Chevalier’s novel with its focus on family and relationships. But she describes the huge stump where the westerners held dances and it is surprising to think any giants were left for Powers’ characters to save.

There may have been an undercurrent of hope in the story that ultimately the trees had a longer timeline than human beings but it couldn’t cut through the sense of grief that permeated the book. I don’t want to discourage you from reading it as I think it was the best book I’ve read this year.

The third book of the trio was The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell’s reporting from the field where he tended a 3 meter mandala in the woods of western Tennessee for a year. Haskell, a biologist, takes us deep into nature with his observations of this world, from the tops of the trees to the leaf mulch and below. He uses this small patch of the earth to lead to detailed and engaging explorations of the natural world. Haskell covered some of the topics the Powers did and lamented man’s impact on nature although his book is a bit more joyful.

These books focused primarily on the United States with brief forays into the rest of the world. Perhaps nowhere is the destruction of trees more devastating than in Brazil. A recent article in The Guardian described the increase in rainforest deforestation. In this case, it is linked to political leadership with the new leadership trying to reverse the destruction. Trees may be playing the long game but they are losing in the short term and taking us with them, I’m afraid.

My Goal for 2023

In conversation with a LibraryThing friend, I said my goal for 2023 was “less social media and more good books.” She said she needed to turn it into a poster, print it out and post it over her laptop.

I went ahead and created a quick graphic in Canva.

Happy Friday! LibraryThing members have been hosting an unofficial social distancing weekend readathon since April 2020. We informally sign on and then report our reading results including number of pages and hours along with other details such as non-reading activities and snacks. I participated last weekend and have signed on for this one as well. With the start of the new year and various new challenges, I have been pulling books from my shelf, checking them out from the library and buying them from Better World Books. Here are the stacks of books I want to read in the next few months:

I’ll end with a weird coincidence: Doomsday Book, in the right hand pile, is used and came from Better World Books. But, it is signed with the inscription: “To Karen, Gode health & long life! Connie Willis” I think I can hear the Twilight Zone music playing.

Happy reading!

Today’s Challenge: Five White Anti Racists

Book Cover of Black History Saved My Life: How My Viral Hate Crime Led to an Awakening by Ernest Crim III

I follow Ernest Crim on Instagram and have learned so much from him about being Black in America from history to present day. In a recent post, he challenged white people to list five white anti racists, and for white parents to encourage their children to adopt one or more of them as role models.

Not surprisingly, John Brown was the first person the came to my mind as he does show up in American history classes. I also thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison, both from the same era as Brown. I wondered about Eleanor Roosevelt and a search found this interview with Vernon Jarrett who describes Roosevelt’s growth as an anti racist. So, I’m up to four…Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, also came to mind. This time the search revealed the complexities that often surround supposedly “good” white people: Addams was close friends with Ida Bae Wells whose push back on Addams’ views on lynching helped her grow. But, there are still questions about her general views on Black people as being culturally inferior, a typical progressive white view of the time, and Hull House rarely housed Blacks, focusing instead on immigrants.

A larger Google search provided a list compiled by Teaching While White. It includes both old and new white anti racists and I encourage you to check it out. It helped jog my memory with a few more names, mostly abolitionists, and widened my perspective. I’m planning on a bit more reading and research and may choose my own role model for the year.

Required Reading

Book cover of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation

If you plan to read South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry, do so when you have time to slow down and savor this rich chronicle of our country and the importance of the South to our past and present. And, if you haven’t planned on reading this book, please reconsider.

Perry, a Princeton professor whose mentor at Harvard was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was born in Alabama and despite moving Cambridge, Massachusetts when she was five, has close ties to that state. The book moves into and across the South from DC to Miami and Savannah to Houston. Her book pays homage to Albert Murray whose 1971 memoir of growing up in Alabama was entitled South to An Old Place.

Perry’s book is filled with stories of past and present–some we know and many others we have never heard–of communities, rituals and traditions with a focus on lives lived well under often crushing poverty, oppression, and the threat of state-supported violence never far away. I found myself heading to the Internet time and again to seek out writers and artists and activists that she mentions and realized my own ignorance about much of Black culture and art. For instance, I had never heard of Lil Buck, a dancer who specializes in a dance form called Memphis Jookin. He has famously danced with Yo-Yo Ma but here is an early example of his work as part of a TedX Teen event:

Perry’s prose is as rich and complex as the region she explores. And she is always clear that she is part of the telling, her reactions to what she experiences sometimes as complicated as those of the region she is describing. I appreciated her honesty and wisdom. In the end, however, she concludes that just reading her book isn’t enough. Action is required if we are going to finally allow all people to dream great dreams.

This review does not do justice to the book. I highlighted passage after passage where Perry pulled disparate ideas together then clinched them with one short sentence. Her writing is just stunning and I found myself out of breath a few times. I’m still processing the book and already thinking about a reread.

In a section on New Orleans, Perry describes the practice of plaçage, in which white men would contract with black women to keep them as mistresses. As she points out, it wasn’t a mutual consenting contract but one in which young black women were forced as part of the society in which they lived. This practice forms part of the plot of The Thread Collectors, a book that would make an interesting companion read to Perry.