The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

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?


A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara.

Read this for Dan’s bookclub. Incredibly, incredibly sad. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried so much while reading a book before.

I thought it would be a book about gay men in New York. It was not really about gay men, or the gay lifestyle, though several of the characters are gay. Instead it is mostly about Jude, a man who experienced terrible and sustained and varied sexual abuse his entire life up until basically 16 when he went to college. It’s about how he lived for the rest of his life and the (male) friends who tried to help him and his success and constant cutting and eventual sexual (or at least romantic) relationship with one of those friends.

At the bookclub we had plenty of complaints about the book. That it had no real female characters, that it was not really about gay-ness, that all the main characters became hugely and inaccessibly wealthy and successful. And yet its profound sadness and ability to describe the incredible, awful abuse this man suffered is surely a huge feat.

Everything that rises must converge

By Flannery O’Connor

[A bit behind on my write-ups…]

I bought this from the Harvard Bookstore at a warehouse sale on a whim, because I had been meaning to read some Flannery O’Connor (I think I had read A Good Man is Hard to Find in high school…) and the book cover had a wonderful watercolor design on it.

The stories are stark and ambiguous, often of terrible things being done to people, in a rural South I really know little about. There was a story of a grandfather who hated his son and grandchildren except for one girl that was very like him. He owned some of the land his son and family lived on and decided to sell the piece just in front of their house to be developed as a gas station, which would ruin their view of the mountains. The girl came to hate him for this and he tried to give her a beating and then she became violent towards him.

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.

Weirde Sister

By James Gendron.

I ordered Patricia Lockwood’s first book from Octopus Books after reading Priestdaddy and wanting to read more of her work. I’d already read Homelandsexuals. Plus, Octopus Books advertised a chapbook competition in August (since then this has disappeared) that I wanted to submit to so I wanted to read more of what they had published. So I picked this book called Sexual Boats.

When the package arrived it came with a third book I had not ordered. Weirde Sister. Ironically, I liked Weirde Sister far more than the Lockwood book or Sexual Boats.

Weirde Sister is about the Salem witch trials, a kind of imaginary walk from the perspective of a woman later denounced as a witch a burned. It’s vivid and strange. In some ways she truly is a witch, walking into the depths of a lake to do magic at its bottom with out women, but in other ways she is modern and aware of her persecution as prejudiced hunt.

His daughter left to start a new life

In what would eventually become the computing industry

The villagers scattered

The weight of the hail lowered his fields six feet in altitude

He was attempting to flee when a final streak of hail severed his penis

His wounds weren’t fatal but they were very demoralizing

In the sense that the governing morality of our time

Is highly penis-oriented

The style is long sets of punctuation-free, capitalized lines. It is not a style I would expect I like. No rhyme, little rhythm, no sentence structure, just words swaying in the wind, moving through space, with the occasional stanza break. And yet I loved it. I loved the strangeness, the way the real mixed with the fantasy of an actual witch, I loved the humor and the sadness. For a long while I was convinced the author must be a women, though I saw the name ‘James’ on the cover.

Sexual Boats, the book I actually ordered, happens to be by the same author. Weirde Sister is much better.


By Cathy Linh Che.

I forget where I found this. It came up a couple times in some newsletter or another, so I added it to my cart on Amazon. Then I didn’t buy it for maybe a year. But I finally I was buying more paper for my printer and thought, gotta buy this poetry book eventually.

I read it in Buffalo, NY, when I went with Silas on his work trip. I read it in the hotel one day when I stayed there to do a bunch of work.

The poems are striking and sad, lots of sexual assault and terribleness. I’m not in love with the style, short lines and airy in this way that modern poetry often is, little rhyme or rhythm to hang onto, only stark images spread across the page sparsely. Reminded me a bit of Ocean Vuong, who she thanks in her acknowledgements. But I have yet to fall in love with Vuong’s poetry, either, despite all the buzz.

It was a definitely a set of poems about her, a little window into her world and soul through the lens of her poetic voice. Reminds me of the Mike Birbiglia quote about not liking a comedian: It’s just that I don’t like *you*. You know, your personality. If I were to not like these poems, though I do just not intensely, it would feel like I were not liking *her*.

Oh, man, lots of acknowledgements to lots of people, including some very well-known artists, like Vuong and Sharon Olds. I cannot imagine thanking that many people. I do not think I know enough total, let alone people involved in my poetry. The number of people involved in my poetry is probably close to zero.


By Hannah Larrabee.

Picked this up for two reasons. One, I found Larrabee’s poem Three Body Problem (a broadside) and really loved it, then poked around to find more of her stuff. Two, I’m thinking of submitting a chapbook to Finishing Line Press, who published this chapbook of hers, so wanted to get a feel for what kind of stuff they publish.

I didn’t love these poems as much as I loved her science-y broadsides. But they did have an appeal for me, and I loved the cover art.

Perhaps I should revisit it again. I read it mostly on the bus from Boston to NYC, which will become a staple in my life.

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.