Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Tech’s robotic teaching assistant, America’s greatest obituary writer, and how a service dog saved a Cobb family

Plus, being British in America, a critical look at Ladyfest Atlanta, and a CNN editor’s life as a transgender woman
Georgia Tech Artifical Intelligence teaching assistant
Professor Ashok Goel (left), shown here talking to a student, used a virtual TA this semester

Photograph by Fitrah Hamid/Courtesy of Georgia Tech

Melissa Korn in the Wall Street Journal on Georgia Tech’s robotic teaching assistant

During the spring semester, a Georgia Tech professor decided to have a robot work as a teaching assistant for one of his artificial intelligence classes. However, Korn writes, his students didn’t know they were part of an experiment:

One day in January, Eric Wilson dashed off a message to the teaching assistants for an online course at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “I really feel like I missed the mark in giving the correct amount of feedback,” he wrote, pleading to revise an assignment. Thirteen minutes later, the TA responded. “Unfortunately, there is not a way to edit submitted feedback,” wrote Jill Watson, one of nine assistants for the 300-plus students. Last week, Mr. Wilson found out he had been seeking guidance from a computer.

Since January, “Jill,” as she was known to the artificial-intelligence class, had been helping graduate students design programs that allow computers to solve certain problems, like choosing an image to complete a logical sequence. “She was the person—well, the teaching assistant—who would remind us of due dates and post questions in the middle of the week to spark conversations,” said student Jennifer Gavin.

Ms. Watson—so named because she’s powered by International Business Machines Corp.’s Watson analytics system—wrote things like “Yep!” and “we’d love to,” speaking on behalf of her fellow TAs, in the online forum where students discussed coursework and submitted projects. “It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being,” Ms. Gavin said.

Read: Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot

Margaret Eby for Mental Floss on legendary obituary writer Kay Powell

Kay Powell, the longtime obituary writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had a way of bringing “extraordinary ordinary people” to life after death. Eby looks at Powell’s career, her grace in talking to mourning families, and what she’s doing now in retirement:

One of Powell’s greatest triumphs was in 1998, when she wrote the obituary of Calvin F. Craig, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who resigned from the group in 1968. Powell spent hours coaxing his son and widow to go on the record. “They were passing the phone back and forth, and I was explaining that one way or another, Craig was going to be written about. This way, they’d have a voice in the piece. When I finally got his son to talk to me, the newsroom gave me a standing ovation.” The piece included the story of Craig’s longtime friendship with Xernona Clayton, the coordinator of the Model Cities program in Atlanta, an African American woman who liaised between Craig and the mayor. “Mayor Allen said only in Atlanta could the contact with the KKK be through a black woman,” Clayton told Powell.

The most difficult interviews? “Families and friends of other reporters,” she says.

Over the years Powell’s prose developed a cult following; one reader, a librarian named Thomas Hobbs, gave her the nickname “the Doyenne of the Death Beat.” Many thanked her for sharing the story of someone who inspired them. At one conference, Hobbs walked up to her and repeated, verbatim, whole paragraphs of some of her obituaries from memory. “It amazed me how our obits could change people’s lives,” she says. “I wrote an obit of one man who quit his job to go work for a nonprofit because he knew deep down that’s what he should be doing. His wife called me after the obit ran, because she heard from a man who keeps that obit in his desk drawer and reads it every day. You can’t predict what’s going to touch someone.”

Read: Meet America’s Greatest Obituary Writer

Melissa Fay Greene for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on service dogs

The Atlanta journalist, whose past books have focused on a Jewish temple bombing and slow change in a coastal Georgia county that missed the Civil Rights Movement, shares an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Underdogs, about how a service dog changed the lives of two autistic twins from Cobb County:

Tethered to Barkley, the boys tripped and tangled and double-stepped down the wide polished foyers. They seemed unaware of the fact that they were now—like water-skiers—being towed. If they tried to dash away, Barkley, like a puttering motorboat, churned forward and tugged them back into place. After a few days of practice on the daily field trips, the children weren’t just stumbling alongside their ox-like friend, they were putting out their hands, patting his broad back and hanging on to his tail, almost as if they’d always known him. Ben, naturally, was interested in the mechanics of the thing. He liked to raise the flaps of Barkley’s ears to peer inside, and when the great dog yawned, Ben positioned himself to get the long view straight down the throat.

Back in Atlanta, Jennifer prepared for outings like a parachutist confirming every strap and rope before stepping into the air. It took a while to get the leashes and clips right; Ben mastered them instantly, escaped from the rigging, and ran away, but finally his mother outwitted him with a heavy-duty locking carabiner. He might get away from her but he would not get away from Barkley.

It was embarrassing, at first, to step into public. “We were a total spectacle, like a traveling circus act,” Jennifer told me. “People would stop to look at us while one of the kids who’s not paying attention walks smack into a post and then we’re trying not to clothesline people, catching them in the middle of a long leash.” At the center of the moving maypole plodded Barkley, his droopy bloodhound ears swinging, his droopy bloodhound eyes bright and amused. Her awareness that they were semi-ridiculous faded. And sometimes people who felt obliged to comment on her family — “You sure do have your hands full!” or “What’s wrong with them?” — offered positive remarks instead, like “What a beautiful dog.” Jennifer’s career as a shut-in was at an end.

Read: The Underdogs

Beca Grimm for Creative Loafing on Ladyfest Atlanta

In a year where “religious freedom” bills threatened to legalize discrimination, Ladyfest Atlanta has attempted to provide space to queer and feminist artists—anyone “who doesn’t benefit from male privilege.” Grimm gives the fest, now in its second year, a critical look after some inaugural growing pains:

[Chelsea] Dunn and Nina Dolgin combined forces to organize the first Ladyfest Atlanta, running the two-day fest almost entirely themselves. 2015’s maiden voyage lasted just a weekend and focused on live music and visual arts. Dunn and Dolgin say it was more of a party than a radical community gathering to discuss social change. As two cisgender (an adjective describing when a person’s gender identity corresponds to the gender assigned at birth) white women, they also attracted some criticism from the queer community.

“I feel like it’s kind of shameful to have anything like that if you’re in Atlanta,” LFA 2016 panel organizer and visual artist Ify Akiti says of last year’s lack of diversity. “That’s like kind of—”

Dunn finishes: “That’s not what we wanted.”

Dunn and Dolgin went into Ladyfest Atlanta’s second go with a conscious effort to better represent Atlanta. 2016’s event rallies around the theme of public health and will focus on HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights. Dunn and Dolgin have enlisted about 20 core organizers and another 20-ish volunteers for 2016. Those on the LFA bill encompass a spectrum of identities and experiences. Most are under 30 years old. “We’re working as hard as we can to get people involved and find different voices,” Akiti says. “That’s what makes us stronger.” Many of the organizers use phrases like “give space” and “take up space” in reference to marginalized people operating in a male-dominated society. In that sense, they say, occupying space is a pretty political act.

Read: Ladyfest Atlanta surpasses girl power

Dani Stewart for CNN on her transition to living a transgender woman

Last year CNN news editor Dani Stewart decided to come out as a transgender woman. In a compelling personal essay, she chronicles the arduous journey of her transition:

When I came out to my dad in August 2015, I was 48 and had started hormones four months before. We lost my mother in April. My sister had known for years, and we were both worried about how dad would handle the news. I began by telling him that I hoped the difficult news would bring us closer together. Fear of being a disappointment had fueled my secrecy since childhood, which had put a wall of separation between us.

Dad’s response was something I never expected, but now realize I should have. I should have given him credit for all the loving things he had done for his family, all the sacrifices he had made. He told me he was shocked, but that he loves me and that wouldn’t change. “Everyone is different,” he said. “I know that, and I only want you to be happy.” He instantly accepted me, without condition, and told me—showed me—just how much he loves me.

My sons, now 17, 19, 26 and 28, have each had different reactions. What would they think it meant for them? I didn’t want them to wonder if my being transgender was hereditary. Two aren’t sure what to think yet, the other two are incredibly supportive. One close family member told me she didn’t think she could call me Dani. Despite knowing her love for me, it stung a little.

Read: One transgender woman’s long road to finding herself

A.D. Miller for The Economist’s 1843 Magazine on being British in America

Miller, The Economist’s southern correspondent, spent a day at Turner Field with his family as he tries to reconcile taking part in American traditions like “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a British expat:

I’ve been a foreign correspondent before, but not with children, who, as usual, both enhance and complicate the adventure. With their relentless inquisitions and unselfconscious directness, they insist on the essential questions. If something is different from previous experience—school, etiquette, fast food, spelling rules—must it also be better or worse? Is there a right side of the road to drive on, is “popsicle” preferable to “ice lolly” and are presidents a good idea? Living abroad is a constant exercise in this sort of comparison, and, try as we do to discourage or suspend it, in judgment. For Britons in America, the flag-waving patriotism—as in these solemn renditions of the national anthem before sporting events—is among the most jarring contrasts. It seems at once cloying and enviable, bespeaking both devotion and, maybe, the insecurity of a new, precariously diverse nation.

The evening was still blue as the floodlights flickered on. Fans of the Atlanta Braves, and a few supporting their opponents, the New York Mets, filed in, bearing hot dogs, nachos, pizza and barbecue. Cheerleaders launched T-shirts into the crowd; an organ version of “Greensleeves” was mystifyingly piped in; the stadium cameraman sought out targets for Oblivious Cam and Hug Cam (on recognising themselves on the big screen, many of the ten-second stars felt obliged to flash their bellies or some other part of their anatomy): the bounteous amplitude of American entertainment, diversions that also help to fill out the staccato rhythm of American sports. These major-league occasions somehow remind me of the courthouse scenes in “The Trial”, in which Joseph K, Kafka’s protagonist, finds countless people inattentively milling about, as both spectators and coaches appear to in American stadiums, in proceedings that seem to have no obvious beginning or end.

Then the children were on the turf, marching behind their teacher to assemble in formation beneath the pink-tinged clouds. Our seats were on the other side of the ground, and I thought about darting around it, but almost immediately they were singing, and we could scarcely make her out. Thankfully there was the big screen, with close-up footage that I tried to film with my phone, naturally cutting off everyone’s heads. Their voices got stronger with each line, like people singing “Happy Birthday” in a restaurant. It occurred to me that another objection my daughter raised was valid: the song is indeed, as she put it, “all to do with fighting”, that rocket’s red glare and those bombs bursting in air. There was no fly-by by fighter jets or nuclear bombers, as there might be at the Super Bowl or World Series, but the dotted lines between sport and identity and war were still discernible.

Read: American for Beginners