The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: nonfiction


By Dan Lyons

I read this in a rush, for the writing was engaging and hilarious, and it was so very relevant to my own experiences in start-ups. The story is almost fantastical; this journalist in his 50s gets laid off from Newsweek, where he was the technology editor, and decides to join a startup that looks like it will IPO and make some money. He remembers writing about the 2000s dotcom bust and how even though it went bust, lots of people made lots of money. He wants to get in on it.

So he gets a job at Hubspot, interviewed by the co-founders and hired by the VP of marketing or some other high level exec. Hubspot! Just down in Cambridge. But on his first day there are foreboding signs. No one is there to meet him. Eventually a young guy comes, a guy in his 20s that reminders the author of interns he had at Newsweek, and at some point the author realizes that this young guy is actually his boss. Holy shit.

The people who hired him never, ever come to see him. Instead he is thrown into the blogging team, writing inane, terrible articles. After complaining about this too loudly they move him onto the sales floor, a huge open area where 100 frat bros walk around with headsets throwing footballs to themselves and cold calling customers to get them to sign up. It’s a terrible cacophony, but at this point the author forces to think of himself on an anthropological mission.

Eventually he gets a new boss, someone around his age who seems respectable. But that too falls apart as this new boss inexplicably starts to gaslight him, sending him daily emails about his failings, the failings of his work, his failure to commit to the company, to go out to drinks, etc. It’s torturous, and the author needs to get out, which he does, eventually, after making about $60k in the IPO and securing a job back as an actual journalist.

Part of the shock of this story is the culture of Hubspot, a culture of 20-year old white people who are so incredibly peppy and optimistic and praising that this 50-year-old, sarcastic journalist can hardly stand it. Part of it is the peppiness, sure, but part is also that these people are crap at their jobs, have no experience but consider themselves industry leaders.

The whole thing was fascinating, scary, weird; a great read, a worrisome sign. Were the companies I was at like this? He saw almost exclusively the marketing side; I see mostly the engineering.


When they call you a terrorist

A black lives matter memoir.

By Patrisee Khan-Cullors and asha bandele.

This book was striking: well written, important, about one of the founders of the black lives matter movement who grew up in Van Neyes, LA, ground zero for the war on drugs, saw the young boys in her neighbourhood get locked up for just hanging around, although there were no playgrounds, no programs, nowhere for them to just be. She got a scholarship to go to a fancy middleschool in the rich neighbourhood nearby and talks about how it devastated her, it crushed her sense of being really smart, but also how it showed her that the rich white did far more drugs, sold more drugs, and were never afraid of getting caught. Her poor black friends in her neighbourhood did little to be in trouble and yet were arrested time and time again.

Her brother had schizophrenia, and she talks about the tragedy of him being in and our jail, being terrified of jail where years later they learnt that the guards truly tortured the inmates, though if they call 911 or took him to the hospital there was a good chance he would go back to jail. It was a catch 22 they could never truly break, though they tried hard to get him back on his feet.

She saw the power of community organizing, found a non-biological family that supported her, realized she was queer but ended up being in a long term, hinted-at-non-monogamous relationship with a man who studied chinese medicine and wanted to be a healer.

It was a rough, but important, read, to see where she is coming from, how hard she worked and continues to work to try to stop the unthinkable oppression she and her peers and her family experienced and continue to experience.

Third Culture Kids

By David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken.

I remember this book being around during my childhood–probably around the time I moved to the U.S. when I was 15. I remember the term, presumably my mum had been reading about it. Then, recently, a good friend of mine interviewed me about ‘home’; she was doing a whole series of interviews. I talked a lot about a lack of physical home for me, given the cross-world move and also that my parents have moved away even from where we first lived in the U.S. Then she gave me this book.

The book is, in some way, simple. It is explanatory, it is helpful. It is a lot of short narratives from Third Culture Kids, a lot of advice. Accessible is perhaps the word I’m looking for. There is no larger narrative. It is expository. But is also dense; the pages are thin and it took me longer to read than I expected. While interesting, the lack of narrative sometimes made it hard to hold on.

Third Culture Kid: loosely defined, someone who has made one or more physical moves into different cultures during their childhood (aka formative years.) They also look at how there are many similarities between TCKs and Cross Cultural Kids, which could include adoptees, biracial kids, kids who speak a different language at home or whose parents are immigrants. However, TCKs often has a ‘passport country’ they return to as adults.

I don’t think I’m quite a TCK. I feel more like an immigrant, at this point, who immigrated during childhood. However, I related to many scenarios in the book: not understanding why my friends weren’t concerned with events happening in other countries, struggling to define what or where ‘home’ is, never knowing how to answer ‘where are you from’, using my move to make myself feel special or to explain my short-comings… The other distinction I would make, that makes me not quite a TCK, is that the American and Australian cultures are not that different — certainly closer than Togo and Norway, or many other combinations TCKs experience.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the enumeration of the benefits of being a TCK and the many tactics to reduce the detriments. I enjoyed rethinking my own move and how it affected me. I briefly talked to my parents about it, I would like to more, to discuss their memories of me during the move. I think there are many pieces I have blocked out.

The Ethical Slut

By Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

Another book club book. The beginning was a bit too touchy feely for me, a lot of ‘everyone is different and that is okay’ kumbaya stuff that I’m not super into. The middle felt like generally good relationship advice; how to deal with jealousy, how to be self-sufficient, how to ask for what you want, etc. The last part was bit too much about polyamory for me, very detailed and specific about things not super relevant.

Weapons of Math Destruction

By Cathy O’Neil.

An easy read, much of which I’d seen before. (Read it for my Topics in Human Language Technology Class.) The basic idea is that lots of algorithms are now used to make some large decisions in life – who gets parole, what you get charged for car insurance, who gets hired – and these algorithms can have very significant problems. Not all, but many. Her criteria for being a problem algorithm (i.e a WMD) is that it’s Widespread, Mysterious, and Destructive.

Any many algorithms are just that. Used a lot, but no one really knows how they work or can justify or explain any of their outputs, and they cause a lot of hard by embedding the biases of the data into the outputs.

Understanding Computers and Cognition

By Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores.

First part is intro into non-rationalist approaches to cognition. They mostly talk about the theories of Maturana (who comes from biology) and Heidegger (who comes from philosophy) and try to tie them together. The main idea is that language comes about through structural coupling — we want to talk in such a way that others understand and believe us. There is no ‘objective’ definition of water; it’s contextual; but that’s not to say there is no grounded definition: we use the word contextually in a way such that others continue to believe our commitment to common understanding. e.g. “Is there water in the refrigerator?” is an ambiguous question without the context: are we looking for something to drink or trying to find out what’s wrong/if it’s leaking? If we’re in the former situation and reply “Yes, in the cells of the eggplant” that’s an obnoxious answer and too much of this will result in no longer believing we are committed to answering questions.

Maturana did really interesting work in vision, showing that there’s no ‘absolute’ processing of light but rather only contextual processing, at a biological level.

Heidegger introduces this idea of ‘thrown-ness’ in which when we are using a hammer we are not thinking about using a hammer or the representation of a hammer; we simply are doing. We sometimes think and reflect, use representations or construct them, but not always (and maybe not mostly.) We are more often “in” it.

They also talk about breakdowns, in which our expectations are not met and we must reevaluate.


Part Two gets into AI and the reason rule-based systems (they talk about ELIZA, the block moving program, and the medical expert-systems, as well as Winston’s analogy engine!) are not a good reflection of human cognition, which is situated and highly contextual and flexible.


Part Three gets into designing computer systems. They critique the management theory stuff by Simon that if we could just program in all the options we could make the right decisions. I liked their analogy of your car breaking down: you could fix it, or a buy a new car. But maybe you can’t afford either. Maybe you take the bus and realize you don’t need a car, or convince your company to intro a shuttle service. You could kill yourself — what constitutes all the options is ambiguous at best and most likely not real. Sometimes you can dissolve the problem instead of solving it.

But I wasn’t super into this section. They talk about how calculators and word processors are great; they are good tools, they have thrown-ness. But this didn’t feels super related to part one. It was mostly about design. Maybe I didn’t read it closely enough. It felt a little up in the air in a way that the other parts were very grounded in theory and concrete.

Perhaps I was expecting it to be more about how to get closer to human cognition than how to produce useful computational tools.

I like the idea of thrown-ness, and their definition of language that allows shared meaning without needing absolute definitions of words.

Thrown-ness is super useful for understanding when a tool works. Makes me think of the low floors/high ceilings analogy for good tools.

Context context context.

Poetry in context: what do you want, what have you read, what do you expect?

The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities

By Gilles Fauconnier, Mark Turner

I only read part one (back in September). Wanted to keep the notes for when I get back to it!

Conceptual blending! It’s the basis of all creative and non-creative thought. Language has a ton of counter-factuals in which we easily understand things that are explicitly not true. Mostly this comes from being able to do conceptual blending, where we take two frames of thought and merge certain parts of them.

This can be imaginative but it can also be mundane. e.g. Consider the form X is the Y of Z. This could be Paul is the father of Sally or poetry is the echo of the soul. They both use conceptual blending to map one space onto another. The first projects the conceptual space of two unrelated people into our conception of fatherhood. In the second, we have the space of poetry and souls which are projected into our conception of echo. The first has a clear interpretation; the second less so; but in both it’s the same act of mapping conceptual spaces onto each other.

Conceptual blending is a way of compressing information. Forget exactly what they said about this.

It’s often a subconscious process. I think here they almost touch on the “Thinking Fast and Slow” conception of how we think, in that conceptual blends often are the fast thinking and sometimes we need to break out that way of thinking to think about something more deeply or logically.

My response: I dig conceptual blending. It’s unclear exactly how it is always a compression of information if it requires or draws on all our knowledge of the anchoring frames to create the blend. I guess the resulting blend is a compression, but only because it ties to other stuff we know. This doesn’t exactly fit with my understanding on compression. But, I think the idea is good and it seems like essentially an extension of the conceptual metaphor theory, which is mapping one concept onto another with some shared overlap that increases our understanding of the target concept. Perhaps it’s two-way conceptual metaphor theory.

The Wave in the Mind

By Ursula Le Guin.

I came across this book first in Brain Pickings, in which Maria Popova quoted a section about how Le Guin considers herself a man, albeit a poor one, because when she was writing women hadn’t been in invented yet. I became obsessed with this idea and have been working on a short collection of poetry for a chapbook based on this idea — we are men because women have not yet been invented.

Eventually I decided I should read the actual book this quote came from, so I picked it up from the library.

It’s a collection of essays, decently random, many of which Le Guin was asked to put together for anthology or cause or event or came from a speech she had given. I would say the first half was very engaging, mostly to discuss her voice and personal thoughts and history. Her parents were historians or anthropologists and she had a rich upbringing with many guests coming to the house.

But eventually it became boring and I found the last collection of essays, on writing, somewhat trite.

She had some strange, interesting ones. One about how many women win literary prizes — not enough — and one trying to scan (as in poetry-meter scan) various types of prose to see if some prose is more poetic than others, compiling lists of numbers to compare from very small sample sets. Like she was on her way to do some research using computer science-style tools but didn’t have the computer aspect.


By Oliver Sacks.

Another Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale grab, this is typical Oliver Sacks description of strange and varied problems of the mind and body. Hallucinations can be, of course, visual, but also aural or of feeling someone brush by you or having the sense that everyone is very familiar (or that no one is.)

Hallucinations are under-reported because people are afraid they will be viewed as crazy. It’s true that reporting aural hallucinations can easily get you diagnosed as schizophrenic, though many people have hallucinations (aural or otherwise) that do indicate some kind of psychosis. People who go blind often have visual hallucinations. People often have hallucinations that they recognize are hallucinations. People have simple, patterned visual hallucinations or very intense scenery ones. People hallucinate musical notes, or text. Some people find their hallucinations calming or joyful; others find them disturbing.



By Patricia Lockwood

I got this book because I love her poetry, so when Patricia came to talk at Papercuts JP in Jamaica Plains about her memoir I went and after the talk I was convinced I should also buy the book. Here’s what I wrote for Boston Hassle about the event:

Patricia Lockwood is a poet pre-occupied with the strange, often the sexually strange. In the small room next door to the bookstore hosting the reading, she wears a trim pixie haircut, a black dress, and large, black earrings that look suspiciously like the tasseled ends of a curtain draw. In other words: too classy to be a poet who wrote a poem about the world gang-banging a deer, which she manages to reference within ten minutes of the event beginning.

Of course she’s not here to read poetry but to talk about her memoir, Priestdaddy. The book recounts her experience living with her parents as an adult, the title referencing the fact that her father is a priest, entering into priesthood with a wife and children through a loophole. She reads a passage in which she converses with a seminarian visiting the house, warning us that her use of a Chicago accent when quoting him has gotten worse and worse as her book tour has gone on. In the passage, we learn that she informs him what it means to be a ‘furry’ and he is glad to come across this knowledge: in the case anyone ever confesses him about such a thing he needs to know to what they are referring. (If you do not know, I suggest looking it up, though: NSFW.)

After she reads the passage, Nina McLaughlin, a local Cambridge author who is also a carpenter and happened to work on my brother’s house, interviews her about the book. They talk about who the book is really about, hint, it’s Patricia’s mother, and how people often comment on the satire of the dialogue of Patricia’s parents in the book–that is all real, she affirms, that is the most real part of the whole book. The room is small and intimate, we are all on folding chairs or standing in the corners and the front row is close enough that they could easily lean forward touch Patricia or Nina, and when Nina asks for questions from audience there is that awkward silence of no one knowing what to say. Patricia calmly open a packet of peanut M&Ms she had stashed behind her water. Someone asks if she wants a Red-bull.

The whole event is strangely conversational, Patricia extraordinarily comfortable talking to us like we are already friends, realizing that she knows people in the audience from Twitter, (she is also well-known for being a Twitter aficionado which you can take as you will,) complimenting an audience member on his podcast about Ethan Hawke (which he started as a project after Trump got elected — as I said, we all became friends.) At the end most of us line up to get our books signed, which includes Patricia drawing an animal of our choice on the front page, an endeavor that turns out to take so much time I almost regret the hilarity of it all. I get a hedgehog with a tail (nope, hedgehog’s don’t have tails,) and no nipples. “I think he’s too young for nipples,” Patricia tells me as I leave, which almost makes sense.

But the book, the book. It shines bright with fantastic imagery, almost every sentence a medallion reflecting light off it, creating something new. Her voice startles me, it is intense and weird and I love it and I loved learning a bit about where it came from, a peek into the life that made her who she is.

Of course it is strange and sad and her commentary on religion and her family is ever so kind, though also cutting. I almost don’t want to write about but live in it a little longer.

I have a similar feeling towards Patricia Lockwood as I do (or did, before I tried to read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) towards David Foster Wallace: I desperately want to write like her but know that I cannot because I am not her. I must write like myself. I think I just see a piece of myself in her writing expanded out to great volume.