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Archive for April, 2021

I had seen a number of mentions of the new book by Behold the Dreamers author Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were. It’s set in an unnamed African country in a village called Kosawa, in a district near the country’s capital, Bezam. Kosawa’s children are dying, their water and farmland and air poisoned by an American oil company, Pexton. The Kosawan leader is in Pexton’s pay, which results in his living in a well built home with luxuries the rest of his village does not enjoy, his eldest sons ensconced in government jobs, his younger children drinking clean water provided by his corporate and government sponsors. The country’s leader, His Excellency, turns over his cabinet every two years because he has so many enemies, ignores and laughs off the condemnation of hypocritical foreign governments he knows profit off of his country, and empowers the military to rape and execute at whim.

Into this hopeless mess, Thula is born. A quiet person who loves her family and her village, Thula does more listening than talking as a child, except with her beloved Papa, who sites on the veranda and talks with her about life. When he leaves with a handful of other men to go to Bezam and demand that something be done to stop Kosawa’s children from being poisoned to death, Thula and her family long for his return. As she begins to realize he won’t be coming back, Thula becomes certain of her life’s mission: to carry on in her family’s cause, to help her village overcome the corruption that is killing them. “I know nothing about how a girl makes men pay for their crimes, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.”

Pexton starts sending mouthpieces to the village for “meetings” where they tell the village they will help them, giving no specifics. They return regularly for this charade, until the village madman interrupts one of these meetings and incites the village to take its fate into its own hands. Thula, and her “age mates” lives’ will never be the same after this; there are reprisals, violence, and more loss. But there is also international attention thanks to a reporter, Austin, child of an American man and a woman from Thula’s country. His work captures the attention of an NGO, Restoration Movement, which comes to reconcile the village and Pexton (which seems just as ridiculous as it sounds; you can’t have reconciliation if one party refuses to admit any wrongdoing).

Thula is the recipient of a scholarship from this NGO and she goes to New York, and studies justice movements at college. She remembers her father telling her “to never forget what it felt like to be a child when I grow up, never forget how it felt to be small and in need of protection, much of the suffering in the world was because of those who had forgotten that they too were once children.” She takes part in protests and also becomes reacquainted with Austin. And she writes letters to her age mates, who Mbue presents as a kind of shared voice, alternating their collective perspective with members of Thula’s family in different chapters.

Every letter Thula writes ends with “I’ll always be one of us.” She becomes the resistance leader of Kosawa, not only because her education affords her money and knowledge, but because her devotion and willingness to give up everything else in her life to the cause of justice inspires others to follow. When she returns, taking a job as teacher at a government leadership school in Bezam, she is single-minded. She will not be tempted to benefit from the graft that is rife in the capital. She will not be dissuaded from tirelessly working for justice, peacefully and persuasively, leveraging the law whenever possible. She loses more than she wins, but she keeps going.

The book takes place over decades, and in places drags a bit, but I think that is purposeful — justice (or lack of justice) for Kosawa is dragged out in American courts, in violent reprisals, in the slow, careless destruction of the environment by a corporation made rich and powerful because of people’s indifference, greed, and corruption. Thula understands that the work will be slow, and makes clear she is in it for the long haul. At first people beyond Kosawa follow her too, joining her movement; support dwindles when the cause seems hopeless. Her own brother, Juba, supports her only until it dawns on him that his wife’s urging to live differently is more appealing: “I’d traveled across the country with my sister, I’d borne witness to how little was changing despite her zeal, and I’d realized — while some men were heckling Thula at a poorly attended rally in the east — that my Nubia was right all along: our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could.” Nubia suffered injustice as a child as well, and she tells Juba “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.”

I should have sensed then the direction of the rest of the book. I won’t spoil the plot, but I’ll tell you it’s a bracing story of what happens to hope and justice when faced with the combined forces of capitalism and despotism. And the smaller force of people like Nubia whose pain teaches them to just get what they can from their oppressors. At the end of the book, change comes not because of collective action but because of globalism. And it isn’t the change Thula envisioned. The book’s epigraph is from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I guess the light in this book is that people go on living and trying to make the best of their lives.

A powerful read.

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Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil is another pick of the ACRL Science and Technology librarians. I started it as a library eBook and then Klara and the Sun was ready in my eBook holds so I set it aside. I got a chance to finish it this morning. I wasn’t sure how interesting a book about algorithms would be, but it turns out, the answer is very.

O’Neil‘s own story is also interesting. She started as a mathematician in academia, went to work at a hedge fund, and had an epiphany there that math in the wrong hands could be used for bad. Since then, her bio on her blog notes, “She hopes to someday have a better answer to the question, “what can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?”

Weapons of Math Destruction is one answer; those who read it will be better informed and have the potential to advocate for a better world. O’Neil explains, “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics,” and then lays out how they can become WMDs: they “encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” In addition, they can’t make exceptions, and, O’Neil notes, “often punish individuals who happen to be the exception.”

Then she goes through any number of systems where WMDs are functioning: college admissions, predatory recruiting in the for-profit college industry, online advertising, the justice system, employment (hiring, scheduling, health monitoring), credit, insurance, social services, and of course, elections. She touches, along the way, on Facebook, Google, and Amazon and their use of algorithms to control what news and information we see and through that, influence our decisions. It’s a tough book. Even if, like me, you enjoy a fair bit of privilege, you are probably being impacted in some way by these WMDs. And we all are impacted when the most vulnerable are made more so by these out of control tools. They touch nearly everyone in America.

O’Neil does make recommendations about how algorithms can be improved and companies who deploy them can be held accountable. She recommends reversing much of what makes an algorithm a WMD — make the models and algorithms transparent; notify people and let them appeal or dispute decisions and information produced by algorithms; make things that are considered unethical or illegal in real life also unethical or illegal online, where so much WMD work happens, test algorithms’ results for bias, prejudice, and unintended consequences. She also advocates for revealing “snake oil” math that isn’t really solving anything, but just enables companies to spy on employees and/or make more money (see: workplace wellness programs, which the Computer Scientist has called bullshit on for years). Oh, and do away with the electoral college.

Most of what worries me about Weapons of Math Destruction is that these WMDs exist because our society prioritizes profits over people, and those being hurt most by them are not the powerful/not reaping the profits so there is little incentive for change. And I wonder if O’Neil is (touchingly) optimistic about regulation. She says “the job of algorithmic accountability should start with the companies that develop and deploy the algorithms. They should accept responsibility for their influence and develop evidence that what they’re doing isn’t causing harm, just as chemical companies need to provide evidence that they are not destroying the rivers and watersheds around them.”

As the new Guardian and Consumer Reports study of drinking water just revealed, that’s not actually going so well. I live in a state where there is PFAS in drinking water because chemical companies did not provide evidence and the EPA allowed them to get away with not revealing the harm they were doing. The drinking water study illuminates how regulatory agencies themselves are designed to protect profit making companies and the bottom lines of municipalities, not people’s well being. So I can’t say I have a ton of confidence that regulating algorithmic accountability will work, at least not as long as we continue to allow our wealthy corporations/people (one and the same in the USA, don’t you know) to purchase political influence, and continue to allow a revolving door between industry and government agencies.

As for O’Neil’s suggestion that context can solve many of the issues surrounding WMDs — I was fortunate to hear Ruha Benjamin give an online presentation in February about her work at the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, which is focused on just that solution. O’Neil and Benjamin both advocate for including input from people (actual human people, not corporation people) and communities impacted by the use and misuse of data as part of the solution. That makes sense; however, see my previous concerns. What incentive is there for the Googles, Facebooks, banks and insurance companies, etc. to listen?

A very clear, challenging read. I’m going to have to think about what I learned and what to do with it.

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First, I am almost always reading a book related to spiritual formation, and I usually don’t review them here. I guess because I feel spiritual formation is personal, and what I read may not be what other readers need or want, but also because some of what I read may be of limited interest, like a book about the history of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC) or about the Nicene Creed. If I think the book might be of wider interest (like I Told My Soul to Sing, which I recently reviewed) then I make an exception to this.

During Holy Week (for my non-Christian readers, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) this year I read Jesus: the Human Face of God by Jay Parini which I actually got at an SCHC chapter meeting, on a table of books someone was giving away. It’s a short book and I think it would be interesting to people curious about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure as well as to Christians. Parini lets readers know where he stands right in the first sentence of the preface: “This is biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time.”

Parini is a believer and also an academic and a creative writer. He draws on scripture and centuries of scholarship but also notes that “considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas comes from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.” He contextualizes Jesus’s life as a devout Jewish man in ancient Palestine and as the Christ of the gospels (and Parini doesn’t limit himself to the canonical gospels). He takes us through the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, using both scripture and history to shed light on the well known events and to remind readers that for Parini and many others, “the historicity of his life is less important that the meaning of the story itself.”

At the end of the book, Parini takes us on a tour of Jesus scholarship, through the many attempts to determine the veracity of Bible translations, archaeological evidence, and theological soundness. I got the sense he is somewhat amused by these attempts to put God in a box, so to speak. Parini is an Episcopalian (although he notes he grew up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister), and for me, his work is very Anglican, in that he acknowledges the importance of the “three legged stool” (Richard Hooker‘s contention that scripture, tradition and reason inform our faith).

I love Parini’s sense that Jesus “came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways” and that Jesus’s teaching has “visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways.” And I also love his gentle but very sensible reminder that it is unsurprising that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the transformative message of Jesus, and the idea that God came into the world in Jesus “bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Parini says this is “difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence” — and that’s ok.

Because Parini notes Jesus didn’t ask us to get it. He asked very little. Love one another. Follow him. Remember him together around a simple meal of bread and wine. And, “Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart — metanoia — a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone — to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. The kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.”

Parini says at the outset he’s written a biography, and like any good biographer he helps readers know the subject but also know why the subject matters. For Parini, it matters because of what he coins “the gradually realizing kingdom of God — a process of transformation, like that of an underdeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.” A beautiful, illuminating book, even for someone who thinks they already know the story of Jesus.

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