The Frigate

I’m reading a beautiful book, The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell. She was a fascinating woman, most notably (for me) she was an archeologist. This book is her journal about her travels in Syria and Palestine and was originally published in 1907. I want to be her when I grow up. 

Her journey — as she relates it — is captivating and mildly incomprehensible. I recently traveled (with her) to spend some nights at Krak des Chevaliers. A crusader castle I came to “know” through T. E. Lawrence’ thesis Crusader Castles and the research I did on the Crusades for my book, Savior.

Krak des Chevaliers

After wandering with this incredible woman for a couple hundred pages, it was a relief to reach a place I “knew.” Not that I really care all that much, but a little grounding is nice. She is welcomed by the resident political leader and housed in a beautiful room in one of the towers. After the formalities are completed, she’s able to retire to her room. She is soon visited by the man’s wife and a Christian woman who speaks English. Gertrude Bell spoke fluent Arabic which sets both her hostesses at ease. Dinner is brought in for the women to share. Then, “When dinner was over we returned to my room, a brazier full of charcoal was brought in, together with hubble-bubbles (hubbly-bubbly) for the ladies, we settled ourselves for an evening talk.”

And I’m thinking, “This long-ago British archeologist whom I admire is sitting with Arab women and a hubble-bubble in a tower of the Krak des Chevaliers.” Hubble-bubble is a hookah. 

When I started this life journey — I consider it to have begun not when I was born, but when I was ten — I had a lot of dreams of traveling the whole world and getting to know the people in it. I didn’t appreciate then how big the world is or how many people there are. I didn’t even seriously consider languages. Then that other reality I didn’t know about — money. And, as we grow up and experience life, we are ourselves transformed. That 10-year-old girl is still me but with a little more knowledge. She also wanted a dog and we know how that turned out. 😉

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria were the location of my 10-year-old girl dreams because of David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I loved beyond logic. “I am going to be T. E. Lawrence when I grow up.” Yep. I said that. It was my first fixation. I went so far as to go to school wearing a sheet on my head… From Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I learned some Arabic, along with customs and history. In China, many of my closest friends were Chinese Muslims from the Turkic part of China, and, oddly enough, I learned a little bit more Arabic in Guangzhou along with MORE customs, greetings, and their significance. 

Back in the US, teaching at the international school, I taught many Arabs — employees of Saudi Airlines, various Middle Eastern governments, some teachers, and some businessmen. My affinity — sympathy? — must have been obvious because pretty soon the Good X and I were invited to dinner at my students’ homes. In San Diego, far far far away from a castle in Syria, I shared dinners very like the one Gertrude Bell described. 

I imagined Gertrude Bell sitting on the floor and the women passing the pipe between them, smoking tobacco mixed with apricots. I know that sweet aroma and how lovely the custom is. I could imagine being in that tower room in Krak des Chevaliers. In my experience, the hubble-bubble was passed in a mixed, family group, and the women didn’t join. It’s OK. I didn’t want to, but the hospitality was the same. 

Reading about the dinner and the hubble-bubble, I saw that, in a way, my dreams came true. Teaching international students for 15 years, the whole world came through my classrooms. I got to spend time with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, the Emirates, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, and Egypt. 

But to have been Gertrude Bell? To travel on horseback through the Middle East with various guides and protectors so long ago? Before oil, before the current boundary lines, before the ambient continuing horror? Wow. The complexity of political relationships she writes about — and navigates — is beyond my understanding. But…every time she stops beside the road or enters a home she is welcomed with coffee. I understand that…

For years I wore around my neck a tiny, golden dallah, a coffee pot, given me by Salem who jokingly called himself the Epic Legendary Hero. He was a brilliant, hilarious minister from Kuwait who spent two years in the US and got an advanced degree in business. I appreciated Arabic coffee in itself and in the ritual so much that it got to be kind of a joke, but the sweet kind of joke that you love. When Salem gave me the golden dallah he was returning to Kuwait for good. 

Gertrude Bell quotes a 10th-century poet that I had never heard of, Al-Mutanabbi. It’s a verse in which, Gertrude Bell writes, “…the poet puts from him the joys of youth”

Here goes: 

“I have longed for age to still the tumult in my brain, 
and why should I repine when my prayer is fulfilled? 
We have renounced desire save for the spear points, 
Neither do we dally, except with them. 
The most exalted seat in the world is the saddle of a swift horse, 
And the best companion for all time is a book.”

I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the striving years, the holding up the sky years, and these years that I’m now having the good luck to live. I’ve begun a lot of things at “this late date” — I could never “be” an artist before. I could never “do” journalism before. I moved here without knowing anyone and made a life. Maybe those things are the equivalent of Al-Mutanabbi’s “spear points.” I’m no less curious about things than I was when I was 10, but I have a better handle on geography. 

The stereotypes surrounding “old age” have never been wholly true. Reading this bit of a poem written more than a thousand years ago, I thought of how literature opened a larger world to me than time, money, a profession, and destiny (spelled d-o-g-s) allowed. And I thought of how my friend Lois — who’s in her sixties — bought a beautiful horse last year, a horse she helped train and loves with all her heart. ❤️ 

There is no Frigate like a Book 

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the human soul

Emily Dickinson

The prompt for today is “Chautauqua” — And I wrote about that here! Chatauqua

P.S. A movie was made about Gertrude Bell not that long ago. It stars Nicole Kidman. I found it unwatchable.

I Started this with an Idea, got a Phone Call, Lost the Thread 🤣

“Imbricate” is a word that, if my students used it I would ask them “Why?” There are lot of words like this, perfectly good and useful words that will alienate most people. I’ve thought about that question a LOT over the course of my English teacher life, and I thought it again yesterday when I inadvertently watched Empty G (Marjorie Taylor Greene or MTG) call Secretary Mayorkas a liar.

People will remember that. I remember that. EmptyG’s supporters remember that — and cheer her on. Is Mayorkas a liar? Not in the context being “discussed” yesterday, but EmptyG’s words hang in the air where the truth of the Fentanyl situation does not.

Empty G and her ilk are angry, stupid and ignorant. To avoid the discussion about stupid vs. ignorant, here is how I understand stupidity. In my lexicon, stupidity is refusing to learn. It’s an arrogant and fearful position (both at once, yeah). It says, “I don’t need that. I’m as good as anyone!” combined with, “Damn, I don’t think I COULD learn that.” Sadly arrogance is more comfortable for people than humility because arrogance gets one off scot free. A stupid person, IMO, is a person who does not do everything within his/her reach with his/her gifts, whatever they are. SO…ignorance and arrogance, uh, imbricate each other and say, “Secretary Mayorkas, you’re a liar.”

Words. This is — I think — maybe — could be — not sure but this is the very problem our country faces. Words. Teaching writing for business communication the stress was on communication, being understood. “Write so people understand you. It’s an amazing gift if you manage that.”

“I don’t want to dumb down my writing!”

I just took a deep breath and thought to myself, “You’re not dumbing things down, sweet cheeks. You can go write ‘imbricate’ all you want, but when you want to reach your customer, you’d better write ‘overlap’.” Instead I would say things like, “I know you can write. You’ve done all the work to learn that and you’ve done well” (maybe not but whatever) “now you’re learning to use that skill to COMMUNICATE.”The idea that they might have a “listener” (or reader) was hugely difficult for my students.

EmptyG and her ilk are very very very skilled at communicating with each other and (intentionally? not intentionally?) using their “language” to keep the herd together. That’s TFG’s great “gift” and danger to the country. It was interesting yesterday that EmptyG was chastised by the head of the Homeland Security Committee — a man who’s in her political party — in terms she categorically rejected. She rejected civility using words like “Truth” to do it.

Language is powerful. In a certain sense, it makes reality, maybe it imbricates with experience a little bit, but then we name or label our experiences with words.

This made me think of Obama vs. TFG. Why did “they” hate Obama so much? It seems to me because he was a beautifully educated and well-spoken black guy. An “uppity N@##$%.” They couldn’t understand him when he spoke, maybe? Why do they love TFG so much? Partly because he appears to be what they dream of being, a rich white guy who ignores the rules and pays no consequences for that. He’s also mastered the language of ignorance. And now we have an old white guy who quotes Yeats, though not this poem, so far…

The Arcane Art of Reading Contest Books

The next VERY heavy shipment of contest books is supposed to get here Wednesday. This year the quality is more competitive than it was last year, but the other change is fewer books. I know that many of the books I read last year were books people wrote because they could; they weren’t going to work every day, but stuck home because of Covid. I think some of the books I’m reading now are also Pandemic books, but the writers have taken more time with them.

Over the weekend I read two that were absolutely stunning. I read another that will have a very small audience, but the audience who reads it will love it. It radiates sincerity and tells a story that people in a rural museum somewhere will treasure. I’m kind of sensitive to that… 🙂

The other day, someone commented on a post that this book judging thing would take the joy out of reading for her. I thought about that, and here’s how it is for me. First of all, this is a job, and I was raised with the idea that work might not be fun — luckily, this is. It’s a lot of fun (unless a book is evil) and, since I believe in the whole Indie publishing thing, I feel like I’m helping a bit.

For so many years I read student papers. Except for two one month summer lit classes, I ONLY taught writing and the people whose writing I was reading were obviously not good writers. My biggest goal was to help them overcome the fear of writing that had been instilled in them from previous English classes. Seriously. Students hated writing and feared it. There were often fine ideas in the papers, and I saw my job as helping my students write so others might understand those fine ideas. I loved my job. I love everything involved with writing which might be why I’m still here 3000+ posts later with my coffee and my dogs.

I taught seven writing classes most semesters. The classes had at least 30 kids in them. That’s 210 papers at least four times a semester, two full-length semesters a year. Usually I taught a class or two in summer. Those classes were shorter, but the paper load didn’t diminish because the class requirements had to be the same as those for a regular semester.

Add to that for several years I was on a committee that evaluated essay exams for seniors, students who hoped to graduate. Every student who hoped to graduate had to take that exam OR take and pass an advanced composition class. If they failed this exam, they had to take that class in order to graduate. I taught that class, and it was very very hard to teach 20+ kids who were furious at the university (and, by proxy, the teacher) because their graduation had been delayed. Shudder. We — about 20 of us — met in a big room and read a stack of papers. The university taught upwards of 30,000 undergraduates so, yeah, we faced a pile of about 7,000 papers twice a year. All of this is a different kind of reading. Normal people never have to read this way.

For a contest — or what I was doing in the classroom — to be fair there needs to be a standard and part of reading is determining how well the work satisfies the standard. For the contest the standard is great — less focused than for the assignments in my classes and for the exit exam at the university, but very appropriate to the motives people have writing a book. It is very helpful to me as I’m working my way through a pile of books.

I read through in a superficial way with the standard and pretty easily find the books that aren’t going to meet it. That leaves me with books that could win. Every year I’ve done this, there has been at least one book that doesn’t meet the standard but which I think should win SOMETHING because it’s just very valuable even if it’s different. The contest has a way for that, too.

It doesn’t take the joy out of reading to do this. It’s another thing completely from sitting down with a book I chose and want to read like the book I’m slowly reading now, The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell which, honestly, might not win a contest today. Writing mores have changed and readers’ expectations are different than they were 100+ years ago. I think it would fall into that category of books that blow me away and for which I have to find a different way to reward.

From the Examined Life

I gave my students the chance to write a poem. It was never graded. I gave them a line, “Open the door…” and they had to take it from there. I wrote the poem above in response to a young woman in my Intro to Lit class who said, “I hate poetry. Do we have to read any?”

Of course they did. She ended up liking it partly because I could write some poems on the blackboard that I knew by heart. She loved that. A couple of years later, she gave me a present. A 150 year old book edited by Longfellow she’d found at a yard sale. It’s a treasure in and of itself but more because she thought of me when she saw it. It’s an anthology of European poetry from the Middle Ages to the Present (1850s or so…)

Every once in a while I find a fragment — one of the photos I took — from the 27 journals that comprised the Examined Life, and I stumbled on this one today.

A little research into what’s being said about ChatGPT

“Terwiesch’s (the professor at Wharton who’s final was done well by ChatGPT) paper suggests schools should take a closer look at the interaction between AI tools and the educational experience, including exam policies and ‘curriculum design focusing on collaboration between human and AI‘.” I’d love to work on that.

One of the articles about ChatGPT doing well on a final exam at Wharton Business School is here.

A good essay on the chatbot from Brookings is here. “As Adam Stevens remarks, ChatGPT is only a threat if our education system continues to “pursue rubric points and not knowledge.” It is critical for all educators to follow their colleague’s example. As we note in our recent book, “Making Schools Work,” the old education model in which teachers deliver information to later be condensed and repeated will not prepare our students for success in the classroom—or the jobs of tomorrow. We should allow that model to die a peaceful death. Used in the right way, ChatGPT can be a friend to the classroom and an amazing tool for our students, not something to be feared.”

I will really really really try to stop now. 🙂 Other than to say I’m happy that educators are messing around with it, and the conclusion quoted above is just exactly what I have hoped for since NCLB hit the public schools and standardized testing became the way of the world.

Ironically, though it admits to having no feelings, it does say it would be happy to have contributed to… etc. 🙂 Silly bot. Somehow I’m reminded of some of the robots in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, though this is clearly not Marvin the Paranoid Android, the terminally depressed robot. Bizarrely ChatGPT has an attitude toward its work that I appreciate, and that’s very human of me. I intend to remain human in my interactions with this bot because it’s clearly been taught to have good manners, to be helpful, and to be honest about itself and its limitations. I respect that in people, so I’ll have to respect it in a bot.

God I wish I were teaching…

Prompts for Winter Writing — For students and??? (more fun with AI)

The link below was shared by the people for whom I’m reading books. Based on my recent forays into AI, I’d say all of these prompts were written by an AI.

So I asked ChatGPT to give me 10 wintery prompts. They are better than the ones on the above site.

I’d have no hesitancy about giving these to a class, and a couple of them intrigue me. I wouldn’t probably give a class prompts that tell them what to feel — like “beauty and serenity of a winter evening” or “complete with snow-covered trees…etc.” And, personally, I hate the word “cozy.” Shudder… I’d want my students to do that kind of description on their own without me or something else prescribing a response. I like 3, 4, 5, 6, 8. Students would like 10.

But they all lead to happy stories. I don’t imagine Alferd Packer or the Donner Party coming out of them — so I asked for unhappy endings.

Still no cannibalism, but you can’t have everything… If you don’t know the story of Alferd Packer, the Colorado Cannibal, (that’s how he spelled his name), you can learn about him here. He was stranded in the mountains not all that far from where I live — up in the San Juans near Lake City which was on the stagecoach route I’ve written about here in the past. One of the restaurants at the University of Colorado in Boulder is named the Alferd Packer Grill. When I was a student there, my ex and I only ate there when (for some unknown reason) we happened to have money. Good burgers and onion rings.

I’m not even going to apologize anymore. Godnose when this will end. It makes me wish I were teaching again. Instead of fighting against some of the things I had to fight against when I retired, I’d probably be embracing some of them.

ChatGPT — more experimenting

I finally got on ChatGPT, and I like it. I asked it to write a few things — a poem in the style of Goethe and another in the style of Du Fu. They were both on target but not great poetry. It also told me who Goethe and Du Fu were. I asked it ethical questions about how I could use it in my college English classes. It’s been well trained for that and, I think, difficult to abuse. I asked it (after it wrote a sappy love story with happy ending) if it were capable of writing a story with an equivocal ending. It proceeded to write one and then told me what an equivocal ending is and why it’s used and how it engages people. I told it I liked it and it thanked me for the positive remark and explained its mission. I asked it various questions related to teaching college English and got useful answers that I’d put on a syllabus.

If I were teaching today I would learn all I could about this interface and introduce it to my students as I did introduce Grammarly when it came out and I’d played with it.

It took 3 days for me to get on ChatGPT to try it out. When I suggested that people must have had fun making it, it explained to me that fun has nothing to do with it, which made me laugh because I was having a LOT of fun with it.

Here’s a slideshow based on the questions I asked it about its use in a college English class. I might actually (were I teaching) give this as an assignment, to help my students find out how to use it responsibly. I identified myself as an English teacher; I wouldn’t have my students do that, of course. I’d give them the statement to start with, “I’m in a college English class and my professor wants to know how I could use you to help me with my essays.” It’s a very cool tool, way too much fun, and it might actually suck students into writing… In my career one of the hardest things for students was the solitude of writing.

Rambling Rant about AI and Teaching Writing

City Lights Bookstore

In a discussion with Carrot from The Dihedral, about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I was inspired to think about my life as a teacher. For the first time since I left the profession, I cried. That wasn’t really surprising because I loved teaching — really LOVED it.

I taught writing, all kinds of writing at the college/university level from remedial grammar (yikes!) to advanced business communication. For thirty-four of my thirty-eight years I got up ready to go and happy to start the day, though, admittedly, in the final four years or so various external problems and changes in the way my students had been taught before university diminished the joy. I took that as a sign to get out of the classroom. At the end, I hated going to school, but by then I had retired and was a “short-timer.”

I loved MOST the moments when a student GOT it, and the times when a student became inspired by what we were reading and it showed up in his/her writing. There were many students who understood that freshman comp was going to help them be what they wanted to be, and took the skills and ran with them — one of those guys is a DA in Florida now, though his dream was Oakland, where he grew up. The Iraqi girl who challenged everything then, when I told her that Fahrenheit 451 changed the world, she lit up. She wanted to change the world, too, and here was a novel that had? The list of amazing experiences is too long to write — or is it? Is a teaching memoir at all appropriate? Naw… My LinkedIn is mostly former students.

Yeah; we’ve all had crappy teachers and for some students, undoubtedly, I was one. For most, not. For a few I was inspiring.

Carrot is a philosophy teacher, and some of what he’s written is about AI as a writing “tool.” The point — one point — is that AI can do only what it’s learned to do, but it can do that very well. Humans can go beyond what they’ve learned to do. This matters. Maybe it’s where lovers and creators of AI are hoping AI will go, to legit reasoning in a creative way, but I don’t know that for sure.

It made me think about the role our senses play in our thinking process. I think our senses play an immense role sometimes in our thinking process and sometimes in overriding our thinking process like, you know, “luv’.” Would AI have that danger or that power? What about imagination? The ability to be inspired or (more important in a classroom) to inspire? The root of that word is what the classical writers prayed to the muses for, the breath of the gods. The breath of life. Would that magic ever show up in a text written by AI, except as it might be derived from the work the AI has “grazed”?

Carrot and I were discussing how to keep students from turning in papers written by AI. I think, you know, an old-school copy book, pen and in-class writing, but there are limits to that. Ideally it would — applied soon enough — give kids the idea that writing is a wonderful activity and not something you worry about “getting right.” All AI can really do is “get it right.” Sadly, toward the end of my career more and more students had been taught toward that very end; getting it right. AI can get it right. In standardized tests and standardized writing texts is the robotization of humans — and teachers.

I can imagine a whole coterie of people who would like to make teachers disposable. Yeah, I’ve learned from a “computer,” but it wasn’t really the computer teaching me. It was a group of people who’d made a really good language program who were teaching me.

Writing is thinking. We discover so much when we sit down with our thoughts and allow them to happen.

I don’t want to write (or read) about grades or evil English teachers or any of that. We’ve all had to contend with both — I had an English teacher in university who mocked me in front of the class for an essay I’d written. There are assholes everywhere, and I’m the first to agree that what we write and submit for someone else’s scrutiny and evaluation makes us vulnerable. I know how much students hate English and hate to write. I know all about it. I taught it for more than half my life. Every bad teacher taught me how to teach. Every bad paper (my own) taught me how to write. Every bad paper I read (from a student) taught me to teach better. It is the nature of learning to live in the world that — in the “safe” environment of a classroom — we meet the same jerks we’ll meet in the world of work.

But writing itself should never be “safe” or something we “get right.” Maybe AI can write “like Mark Twain,” but one Mark Twain is enough. That won’t inspire anything and the “god” that “inspires” AI is no divine voice. It’s us.

Amo Mexico

It never changes, even after 8 years of retirement. I still dream about teaching, about being hired at a new school, about planning classes, collecting materials, going to meetings. Some of my earliest community college classes were in the town of San Ysidro which is on the border of Mexico. It’s hard to tell if it’s a suburb of Tijuana or San Diego. Late in the 19th century several immigrants from Switzerland settled there and built dairies, so who knows. Maybe it’s just a suburb of the world. San Ysidro back in the 90s was essentially a single street with minor streets leading off it.

Though over time I stopped teaching English as a Second Language, my first classes as a legit college teacher (as opposed to instructor at an international school) were ESL. My first class was an early evening class in San Ysidro, a 40 mile drive RT from my house and a little farther from San Diego State where I was still teaching at the language school.

I loved it. A room full of Mexican adults who want to learn English is about as good as it gets. I never let on that I could speak any Spanish, but they figured it out. They were enthusiastic to practice, and they would try anything, even my method of getting my students to write a poem. We met for 3 hours twice a week, and while that gave me an exhausting schedule, it also gave me money and a good time.

The school was a satellite of Southwestern College — one of the first community colleges in America. In those days (mid nineties) the school was a couple of double-wides but over time they built fancy buildings. Kind of a loss in a way, a loss in atmosphere and lightness. A couple of blocks from the school was a tamale restaurant. THAT was, well, incredible. More kinds of tamales than I knew existed, and they were all delicious. Next door to the school was Yum-Yum (Jum-Jum) Donuts where the students would usually take their break.

At times the border checkpoint would be backed up, and students couldn’t make it to class. No one had cell phones so the secretary would call the border patrol to find out what was going on. No one was ever penalized for missing class.

The last day of that first class one of my students gave me a present — an 8 foot lemon tree in a pot. He was a gardener and that’s what he had.

I was teaching in San Ysidro at the end of my mom’s life. I missed class for a week or so to go to Montana to take care of her post-hospital living arrangements — a nightmare, really one of the nightmares of my life. When I returned to class everyone came up to me with hugs and kind words all of which I sorely needed.

My first teaching experiences were as a volunteer at a literacy program in Denver. My first student was a Hispanic man who wanted to learn to read so he could read bed time stories to his daughters. Within a year I’d moved from tutoring single students to classes. My first classes were made up of people from Mexico one way or another — a couple of women were born in California, but had not learned English. An old vaquero with an amazing sense of humor was deported twice while he was in an 8 week class — he always made it back. Somehow it was a joke. These classes were absolute beginners in English, and from them I learned that learning a new language can be scary. People are truly frightened of making mistakes and looking stupid.

Once my mother — in one of her moods — was giving me a rundown of my many faults. One of them was that I don’t have the cowboy personality. You have to remember, Montana, etc. I know what that is supposed to be and I DO have it to some extent. Essentially it’s rigidly stoical, looks reality square in the eye, and doesn’t show emotion. She said, “You’re no cowboy. You’re more like a Mexican.” My mom didn’t have an especially bad attitude toward Mexicans; she was afraid of emotion.

Pero, para mí, las palabras de mi madre fueron un cumplido.

More AI

Back in the day I wrote programs for my students using Apple BASIC. They were fun for me to write and for my students to use. They livened up the business of learning English. One of the programs I wrote was a Mad Libs program which was, of course, hilarious and (unbeknownst to my students) reinforced my students’ understanding of the parts of speech. It was basically this.

“Hi. I want to write a story, but I need your help. I don’t know many words. First, what’s your name?” Flashing green light

“Thank you. Can you give me five nouns?” Flashing light, flashing light, flashing light, etc.

“Wonderful. I couldn’t have done that without you! I think a story need something to happen. Can you give me five verbs?” Flashing light

“Great. I’ve heard of these things called adjectives. Can you give me seven?” Flashing light

“Wow. Do I need adverbs? Do you know any?” Flashing lights.

“Thanks. What is your best friend’s name?” Flashing light.

“OK. I can write it now. Would you please press Enter?”

And BAM — a story. The students would sit there for an hour or so writing story after story and then seeing what their classmates had and laughing. For some English had never before been in the least funny.

I came up with about a dozen of these. Their input went into an array so even with the same words (except the names) the stories wouldn’t always be the same.

I was reading more about AI story generators, and I’ve learned they are essentially a more sophisticated version of those Mad Libs.

The thing is, computers have a strange power over people, even now. I remember back in the 80s I had a class of bankers from Indonesia who were specifically at my school to learn to use computers. The program was paid for by Harvard Business School where they were all headed after a year at the language school. We had Apple II e computers in our lab, and these men had the idea that ONLY IBM computers were any good. The concept of a program in a language being the same program in any computer NEVER penetrated their warm and friendly but generally misogynistic brains.

Some of them were afraid of the computers and would only press Enter from arm’s length away. My job was also the get them over their fear. The first day they sat down each at a computer that was asking, “Hi, what’s your name?” They typed in their name and the computer answered, “Hi Lamont! Nice to meet you!” Or “Welcome Lamont. I look forward to working with you!” Some of them freaked out, seriously, “How does it know my name?”

That was my cue to explain that a computer only knows what we tell it. The long term goal for the summer was that they would write a simple spreadsheet.

I negotiated with San Diego State University (of which my school was a part) all summer to let us use an IBM Lab. At the time, they had 3. Imagine.. Finally, the last week of our term, we could. We were given an hour. The guys printed out their programs (BASIC) and we trooped over to the IBM lab. They had no idea how much they’d learned and when they typed their programs into the IBMs and they ran, the students didn’t understand that it WASN’T because the IBM computers were smarter than the APPLE IIe computers they’d been learning on all summer. They never understood it was because they — the students — had learned so much and had typed in (with their own hands) their de-bugged programs. I got nothing but shit for not “letting” them use IBM computers from the start.

I was angry, and I was hurt. I’d worked very hard to develop a curriculum for those guys that would bridge their skills from NOTHING to the minimum they needed to move forward. They HAD written a spreadsheet. It had been difficult for them to debug it, but that was the point. MOST of them persisted in believing that the computer was out to get them. Out of the 20, maybe ONE understood what had happened. They went to the program coordinator to complain that I’d made the course unnecessarily difficult, and if we had an IBM lab it would have been easier. Amazing. They — with my help — had achieved something significant, but had no awareness of it. The program director was dumbfounded. She could not have written a spreadsheet. She tried to explain but…

It wasn’t just them, though. My colleagues — many of them — refused to learn to use some of the language-learning software that would have improved their lives. Why? They were afraid the computers would be better teachers than they were. They NEVER saw the computers as tools. And they really thought something was wrong with me that I didn’t see the computers as enemies and even wrote programs. So weird. And frustrating for me since I had the task of helping my colleagues get the most out of that wonderful and expensive facility.

I’ve done a little research into writing an AI poetry generator. I’ve learned that they are simply a more sophisticated version of my Mad Libs with immense arrays. 🥸 The way things are now — with so much of the basic work done — it wouldn’t be all that difficult, and it might be fun, but I think there are already plenty out there.

I asked for haikus about dogs. Here they are plus 1….

Dogs are loyal friends,
Tail-wagging companions they be,
Fur-babies forever.

Pups with furry coats,
Frolicking in sun-dappled grass;
A blissful reverie.

Fur-clad canines,
Loyal and ever loving;
Eternal pupbuddies.

Dogs don’t live long
Enough. Every moment builds
A bank of sweet memories

And here are haikus about AI… I thought it deserved a chance to speak for itself (or its programers’ vision)

E’er advancing AI,
A ceaseless march of progress –
A mystery still.

Ai, so wise yet naive;
Processing data with care,
Colloquializing knowledge.

Ai advances, astound me;
The perfect solutions found.
Colloquial tongue used.