The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: nonfiction

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.

Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers

By Nat Greene.

I read this book because my friend wrote it and because I was intrigued by the ‘stop guessing’ admonishment. I do a lot of problem solving, though lately I would call it debugging because it’s electrical or software engineering work, and the idea that I may be inadvertently guessing at difficult problems seemed possible.

Of course there are nine behaviors: stop guessing, smell the problem, embrace your ignorance, know what problem you’re solving, dig into fundamentals, don’t rely on experts, believe in a simple solution, make fact-based decisions, and stay on target. I agree with them all, though the examples come heavily from Greene’s experience as a consultant for manufacturing lines. Smelling a firmware problems requires a base level of skill above watching a machine package something, as does digging into the fundamentals. However, I too have been lead astray by not focusing on the problem at hand (kind of ‘know what problem you’re solving’ and ‘stay on target’ rolled into one) and relying too heavily on experts.

Although there were some examples of lifestyle problem solving, like lowering your cholesterol or losing weight, it was hard to see how that could truly be successful. For instance, the lowering cholesterol piece relied on the scientific community discovering that cholesterol levels in the body are not tied to the amount of cholesterol you consume. How could I have figured that out?

I’ve had a nagging hamstring injury for a long time now but it’s very intermittent. I kept trying to think how I could apply these behaviors to help me solve this problem but no clear steps came up. I smell the problem by listening closely to my body. I’ve definitely embraced my ignorance, but I don’t have a team of experts on hand to embrace it with. I’ve done everything, but it’s a complex problem with very long feedback loops. Tendons can take months to heal properly and sometimes scar tissue forms. It’s hard to know if it has healed properly, hard to know if something I have done has made it better in the long- or short-term.

I found the book to be useful reminders for engineering but pretty hopeless for my injury.

Metaphors We Live By

By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I read this book at the suggestion of two different computer science professors as I went through my grad school visits. It’s from 1980 and is a linguistics/philosophy book. It claims that metaphors are not just the poetic devices we hear in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but rather our primary tool for understanding and sometimes even defining abstract concepts.

The primary example used throughout the book is the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Think of how we talk about arguments: ‘He defended his point.’ ‘I attacked his position.’ ‘She held her ground.’ It is hard to think of how we talk about argument that doesn’t use the language of war. But it is not true that this is the only metaphor a language or culture could use. Perhaps another metaphor could be ARGUMENT IS DANCE or ARGUMENT IS EXERCISE. These metaphors would change the way we talk about argument, but also change the way we think about argument.

More examples:

IDEAS ARE PLANTS. Her ideas have come to fruition. She has a fertile imagination.
IDEAS ARE PEOPLE. He is the father of modern biology. Who’s brainchild is that?
IDEAS ARE FOOD. Those are half-baked ideas. I can’t digest all this at once. His idea smells fishy.
UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING. I see what your saying. I understand your viewpoint. That was a brilliant remark. She’s got the whole picture.
LIFE IS A CONTAINER. She’s brimming with life. I’ve had a full life. There’s not much life left in him.

They break down how metaphors are tools to map disparate concepts onto each other. A metaphor is a partial overlap that highlights some similarities and hides others. If two concepts are too similar, it is not a metaphor but rather a subcategorization. CAT IS PET is not a metaphor, for instance. Poetic metaphors are unusual ones, either ones that are rarely made in society or take a normal metaphor to lesser-known parts of the overlap. Another common metaphor for argument is AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING: ‘I’m constructing my argument.’ ‘She laid the foundation for her argument.’ ‘It’s a flimsy argument.’ A poet might say: ‘Her argument was made of cheap stucco.’ This is fundamentally the AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING metaphor but takes it to a more precise place of overlap that is uncommon.

Lakoff and Johnson are experientialists. They argue this lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity, where we create our meaning from physical experiences we have. Our metaphors are all based from experiences we have of gravity (up, down,) our posture (vertical,) our view frame (front, back,) our existence as beings separate from others (containers.) They argue that saying THE CLOUDS ARE IN FRONT OF THE MOUNTAINS requires a huge amount of abstract thought because mountains and clouds are not clearly delineated objects, nor do they have an inherent front/back. Instead we shared assumptions about how clouds and mountains can be contained by boundaries (like us) and have front/back (like us.) Or most basic metaphors are based in these experiences we have. GOOD THINGS ARE UP because being physically healthy raises us above the ground. Then follows HIGH STATUS IS UP and FUTURE IS UP. Again, part of this is cultural, not innate.

They also touch on categorization and the concept that we create prototypes for categories and certain aspects of those prototypes can be highlighted or hidden. (Look! An UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING metaphor.) Similarly metaphors, especially more abstract ones like LOVE IS MADNESS or LOVE IS CREATING A WORK OF ART, highlight and hide certain aspects of the concept.

The biggest take aways for me were:

  • Lots of our everyday language is metaphorical and those metaphors frame our definitions for abstract concepts.
  • Metaphors require partial overlap; too much overlap and it is simply categorization, too little and they don’t aid in understanding.
  • New metaphors are how we understand new concepts or ideas.