Archive for April, 2018


The Phantom Tollbooth

I just finished this short book. It’s “for kids,” but the best kids material is often that which speaks to mature and serious themes in an especially eloquent and accessible way. That’s the case here. I’m like 50+ years late to this book, but better late than never. As a philosopher, it was a satisfying read.

I didn’t think the wordplay was that fun, but I think for kids it might be more fun, but what I did like was the way in which it dramatizes the history-long struggle that persons have had with ignorance. Rhyme and reasons have left the kingdom and because of their absence, all sorts of other things are out of sorts, or done to extremes, or done not enough. Reason then is really the key to everything. Without reason to unite the various activities to do, and so to make sure that we do each activity in its right way, for its right amount of time, etc., everything goes haywire. Reason then is like the bookshelf for all the books of life — it keeps them organized (my metaphors are a little off, I’m writing this post very fast).

I also liked the theme in the book of abstract items like words and numbers being concretized as objects that are made, traded, and moved around in space. This is helpful to kids and adults alike and allows for creative and dramatic ways of illustrating the role that these things play.

My favorite part of the whole book is the way it tries to capture the idea that once one has been exposed to ideas and their constituent parts — numbers, words, arguments, etc. — then one is never the same. The world takes on a kind of bright stand-out-ed-ness in which everything is a mystery and a song wrapped together. Again, poetry is not my thing — I better keep my day job — but still the book really captures what philosophers themselves have not been able to decisively do, which is to say how knowledge changes our very experience of the world and makes our lives more satisfying.

Bonus: I like this better than the little prince, which I think falls in this genre of “mind blowing fiction that reveals complex themes to kids.”


Conversations With Friends

I just finished Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. It’s a skilled and well-crafted novel, which is different than saying I enjoyed it.

It’s set in Dublin, but interestingly, does not smash you over the head with culturally appropriate references. I felt like the store could have taken place “anywhere,” but I’m not sure I really know what I mean by that. In reading the story though, I don’t feel like it relies heavily or makes excessive use of its setting in Dublin. Sure there are some Dublin place names, but if it’s picking up a lot of Irish themes or tropes, I missed them. But maybe that’s because all I know about what is Irish is just crude stereotypes.

Anyway, the story is close study of relationships. The books feels, at some points, like its artistic premise is to place a few carefully chosen relationships into an ecosystem together and watch as the system dynamically adjusts and interacts. In the end, I feel like the characters are magnets that don’t match in polarity so that when you put one close to the others, they all snap into a new arrangement or push each other around. There is no attraction, just (temporarily) stabilized fields of repulsion or momentary equilibria sustained only by their tension and susceptibility to the next collapse or rearrangement.

In the writing, the book is, I think, quite skilled. Most of the descriptions and metaphors seem fresh and also apt to the situation, making you think “uh huh, yea, just like that.” The dialogue is also good, in a kind of spare kind of way. It works and it flows together, and, as one of my friends has pointed out to me, Rooney is able to move through many modalities of dialogue, from text, to phone call, to in person conversation, with care. That seems like something that would be hard to pull off.

Some parts about the book kind of let me down, though I don’t really think many of my criticisms really rise to an artistic criticism of any merit. But here they are. The characters just get annoying to me in that they seem over dramatic, “cool,” and kind of unlike the persons I often deal with and the emotions I often have. That is, the characters are so interior and second-guessing of their emotional life, like they have are never confident to know that they are angry and why. Maybe it’s cooler to be freudian, post-modern, and “self-is-an-illusion” about things, but I wonder if the other side of things can’t also have its due.

Bonus question:

Is this a book about class ? At some times I think so, but it’s also a receding them in the book too. Like, there are references to the semi-impoverished state of the main character and how this plays into the scenarios she finds herself, but usually it seems that the situations play out in ways that really have nothing to do with her economic background.


Really good interactable game theory explanation

Whoever put this together is doing god’s work, intellectually speaking. The explanation is so crisp and well organized that it puts a fairly complex sets of game theory concepts right at your fingertips. So helpful.

Math is not life though. We may wonder whether this model holds up if we think that people are much more complex than this suggests.