The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Tom Wolfe


If you've ever wondered what it's like to think, talk, and operate while on acid, I suspect that reading this book is the closest you'll get to it without pharmacological intervention....

I decided to tread this after reading How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a far more studious and measured encounter with psychedelics. This, by contrast, is a full-on trip in its own right featuring the Merry Pranksters, the Hell's Angels, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles (kind of), and what does sound like a pretty idyllic lifestyle amid the California woodlands.

The "electric Kool-Aid acid test" of the title is one such event, a happening in downtown LA at which the Pranksters provided the catering and spiked the punch – in fairness to them, not thinking anyone could possibly be surprised that this would happen as an event billed as an acid test. Mayhem predictably ensues.

The book is a showcase for what a superb writer Wolfe is. To be able to pull off a book that simultaneously makes sense while reading like a stream of consciousness is quite a feat. It's a challenging read in spite of this, but full of colour and texture from an age now passed and probably beyond retrieval.

Finished on Fri, 10 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

Zena Hitz


A clear and quite moving paean to academic life – as it was, and perhaps should be.

The author's short history possibly applies to a lot of people. Hitz studied at a small liberal arts college in the US which emphasised small-group, open-ended discussions. This is a poor preparation for "real" academia, with larger classes and a rather cut-throat "publish or perish" culture. It's enough to drive her out of academia and into a religious retreat.

These are common concerns amongst academics, especially those not fortunate enough to work in institutions that still value and focus on small-group teaching, as it Hitz' plea for a culture less driven for the concrete, measurable, value or usefulness of what's taught. These are easy values to approve of as an academic, but harder to deliver on in the face of students whose studies burden them with debt and who are almost all pursing their studies – at least in part – because of perceived advantage in the workplace. It's usually not the only reason, in my experience, but it does demand a realistic approach to questions of usefulness. There's a discussion that could follow on form this book about the ways in which we capture and express the value of critical and creative thinking, in humanities and sciences, in ways that students can appreciate and judge.

As with many books of this type, it can leave scientists feeling marginalised, not covered by the meaning of the word intellectual as the author uses it. I don't think it's intended in this case, and Hitz makes several references to mathematics and science in academia, but the thrust is definitely more into the humanities where perhaps the question of "usefulness" (and the need to defend a subject) is more felt more keenly

Finished on Thu, 02 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny


Often regarded as Zelazny's masterpiece, and it's easy to see why (although personally I prefer Amber, of which there are echoes here). A complex tale told somewhat non-linearly, and there are more echoes from the "real" history of the Hindu pantheon that is being re-enacted (or maybe acted for the first time?) on a world colonised from Earth.

Finished on Sat, 27 Jun 2020 10:07:25 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place

Janelle Shane


It's a brave thing to try to make AI accessible. This is a valiant attempt that doesn't (in my opinion) carry it off.

The problem with any discussion of AI is in the language, the inevitable tendency that the work "intelligence" brings to anthropomorphise the software. AI doesn't get "confused", doesn't acquire "experience" – at least, not as these words suggest.

I think the biggest omission, however, is in what isn't said: that AI is built on the assumption that the future will be like the past. While there are ways to avoid this – known as "lifelong learning", which replace the initial training phase with an on-going re-learning from new examples – these remain in their infancy and haven't yet translated into practice. Until they do, AI techniques are very much at the mercy of both their training set and the rate of evolution of their inputs.

Finished on Wed, 17 Jun 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 2/5.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Laura Spinney


One of the only overview accounts of the 1918 pandemic, now fiercely relevant in the era of covid-19. This is a book that combines a fairly deep dive into the science with more speculative looks at the effects the pandemic had on art, psychology, and the emergence of worldwide disease surveillance structures. Some of the speculations are just that, and not especially convincing – the increased number of births isn't necessarily a sign of increased "conception potential" because of w winnowing of the weaker individuals – but this is a minor complaint about a deeply researche, well-written, and timely work.

Finished on Sun, 07 Jun 2020 10:18:23 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Jennifer Morgue (Laundry Files, #2)

Charles Stross


Another romp through the idea of computational demonology. It avoids the cliche of the spy novel by ... making the notion of being a cliche into a plot device. As a homage to H.P. Lovecraft this entire series is hard to beat, full of knowing allusions handled deftly and with a touch of cyberpunk.

Finished on Sat, 30 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Travels with Herodotus

Ryszard Kapuściński


many fabulous anecdotes to a life spent in travel reportage, accompanies and complemented by the Travels of Herodotus. The conjunction doesn't sit quite comfortably for me: not enough Herodotus, and perhaps not sufficiently entangled into the autobiography, but still left me wanting to read the classic.

Finished on Tue, 26 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.