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Book Report: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Kesey’s Bus

Growing up, I remember hearing the term “Writing the Great American Novel” and not quite knowing what it was. I thought that it was a quest to write the best book ever written. But I later learned that The Great American Novel isn’t about writing the best book ever, it’s about creating a book that captures a point in American history so crisply and clearly that you can freeze-dry it, put it in a time capsule, and take it out fifty or a hundred years later to examine.

Many of these books are the classics we read in school like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye. But something strange happened in the 1960s and 70s. The Great American Novel was replaced by the great American non-fiction book. In his essay Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore, Tom Wolfe writes about how novelists at the time were trying to write “important” and “thoughtful” books that were too removed from real life. This created an opening for Wolfe and his fellow writers to write non-fiction books to fill that void.

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test(1)I thought I’d never get to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test because I don’t read books, just listen to audiobooks. In a miracle of the audiobook world, Audible recently released the audio of 5 Tom Wolfe books including The Right Stuff, my favorite. is a monumental book of this sort. It’s one of the first books that uses the storytelling skills of the novel, the capturing of the tiny little details to transport the reader directly into the moment. And it has an advantage over novels—it actually happened!

Wolfe writes with such a literary flair and attention to detail that you’re transported into the moment. Like when Richard Alpert,(2)Alpert would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass and wrote the iconic book Be Here Now. one of Timothy Leary’s friends, was teaching a girl about raised consciousness through the example of a baby “blindly” crawling around the room:

He said “Blindly? What do you mean, blindly? That baby is a very sentient creature… That baby sees the world with a completeness that you and I will never know again. His doors of perception have not yet been closed. He still experiences the moment he lives in. The inevitable bullshit hasn’t constipated his cerebral cortex yet. He still sees the world as it really is, while we sit here, left with only a dim historical version of it manufactured for us by words and official bullshit,” and so forth and so on, and Alpert soars in Ouspenskyian(3)Ouspenskyian is a reference to P. D. Ouspensky who taught that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. loop-the-loops for baby while, as far as this girl can make out, baby just bobbles, dribbles, lists and rocks across the floor … But she was learning … that the world is sheerly divided into those who have had the experience and those who have not.

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

But this isn’t fiction or a poem meant to paint a picture. Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were the proto-hippies, with free love and drugs before we even had the word hippies. They were some of the first people in the country to get their hands on LSD. The book features such characters of American culture as Neal Cassidy, the model for Jack Keruak’s Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Carolyn Adams, known as Mountain Girl, the future wife of Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead. Gary Trudeau even names his token hippie “Zonker” in his comic Doonesbury after on the pranksters.

He spent a relatively short time with the Merry Pranksters, mainly to capture the tone and feeling of being there. From the way the book is written, you think he was actually on the bus with them the whole time. With such key characters and such attention to detail, you’d think Wolfe must have taken significant license with the truth. But when Kesey was asked about the book, he said:

It’s a good book. Yeah, he’s a—Wolfe’s a genius. He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks. He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent. He just watches very carefully and remembers. And so what he’s coming up with is part of me, but it’s not all of me.(4)There’s a lot that you miss when you boil Kesey down to this god-like leader of the Merry Pranksters. In the interview, Kesey points out that he’s far more patriotic than Wolfe captures. He made the pranksters wear red, white, and blue all the time to show their patriotism. When he first tried LSD he was training from the Olympics as a wrestler, never having tried drugs. He thought he was joining a US Government study to “enter this new spot of space and we wanted someone to go up there to look it over.” It was only 20 years later until he learned that this was a CIA project that wasn’t being done to cure insane people, it was done to make people insane and make them easier to interrogate.

Ken Kesey on Fresh Air. Ken Kesey Discusses His Life and Career at 6:00.

The book captures the small moments of the time in such a lasting and ubiquitous way. Wolfe talks about “The Beautiful People Letter” that “attuned” kids of the time, and later virtually every hippie, would send to their parents:

“Dear Mother,

“I meant to write to you before this and I hope
you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los
Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian
Reservation!!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de
Allende, Mazatlán, Mexico!!!!! and it is really
beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here
a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it
happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted
me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college,
my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it
a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry
about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

… and in the heart of even the most unhip
mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the
adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades—dope.

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The book captures these moments of this key moment so well that Wolfe may well have written a non-fiction Great American Novel. As Michael Lewis says in How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe, the book leaves you with the question:

How the hell did he do that? How did he get them to let him in, almost as one of them? Why do all these people keep letting this oddly dressed man into their lives, to observe them as they have never before been observed?

Michael Lewis. How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe.

Note: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were obsessed with making a movie and took enormous amounts of footage of their exploits. Eventually, this footage was made into the movie Magic Trip which gives a glimpse into this world from another angle.

Footnotes

1 I thought I’d never get to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test because I don’t read books, just listen to audiobooks. In a miracle of the audiobook world, Audible recently released the audio of 5 Tom Wolfe books including The Right Stuff, my favorite.
2 Alpert would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass and wrote the iconic book Be Here Now.
3 Ouspenskyian is a reference to P. D. Ouspensky who taught that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential.
4 There’s a lot that you miss when you boil Kesey down to this god-like leader of the Merry Pranksters. In the interview, Kesey points out that he’s far more patriotic than Wolfe captures. He made the pranksters wear red, white, and blue all the time to show their patriotism. When he first tried LSD he was training from the Olympics as a wrestler, never having tried drugs. He thought he was joining a US Government study to “enter this new spot of space and we wanted someone to go up there to look it over.” It was only 20 years later until he learned that this was a CIA project that wasn’t being done to cure insane people, it was done to make people insane and make them easier to interrogate.
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Rebuilding a Foundation of Trust

We had a sad day for America this week. Rioters stormed the capital to disrupt the election. Everyone has a right to protest but it’s the way you protest that matters. At its heart, a good protest is about getting your voice heard while letting other people give their voice as well.(1)The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this. This wasn’t a protest, it was an attack on the infrastructure of democracy.

Democracy starts with having a good heated discussion. There are arguments and passion but that’s good because these things are important. Then we come to a vote and we all agree to follow that vote even if we disagree with that outcome. We hold this principle sacred and have faith in this process. This is like the faith that the dollar in our pocket is really worth a dollar in purchasing power. As a country, we all agreed to the fact that these electoral ballots have real power. These ballots are really just pieces of paper, and if the mob had been able to get to them, they could have easily destroyed them.(2)This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.

In order to be successful, you need to be able to trust other people. This is the basis of community and how we arose from hunter-gatherers. We need to trust that the people who grow our food aren’t selling us harmful food. Because we can’t trust each individual farmer, we have regulations at the FDA to do it for us.

Working with computers I think about trust a lot. This is what cybersecurity and hacking are all about—who do you trust and who is trying to abuse that trust. Ken Thompson, one of the pioneers of computing, discussed this in his 1984 lecture Reflections on Trusting Trust.(3)Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science. Thompson said that in software, you always need to trust the people that you’re buying software or getting software from. If you don’t trust some underlying foundation of what you’re building upon you can’t be sure that your software is secure.

Just as Thompson said, we need to be able to trust each other in order to trust the infrastructure that we’re building. We need to come together and reconfirm the basic facts and processes that run the government. Without that, we don’t have an election, we just have some pieces of paper.

Notes: NPR has a good article on the sanctity of the capitol. Stratechery wrote about how when we think about what should be moderated on the internet we need to separate discussions with each other vs. attacks on the infrastructure.

Footnotes

1 The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this.
2 This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.
3 Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science.
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Book Report: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

This is a book about trying to find your place in the world as you try to mimic someone else’s journey. Lulu Miller was always looking for a tried and true path through life. She had a hard time as a kid. Her father was a scientist who had very strong beliefs about his atheism and the beauty and value of science. Though he thought that there was nothing special or holy about other people, he said that you still had to pretend like there was and treat other people well.

Lulu became enamored with the story of David Starr Jordan, the original president of Stanford University. She tried to figure out how this nerdy taxonomist was able to conquer the world. He was a man who categorized things. He was the world expert on categorizing fish who somehow became a university president. Even when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his entire collection, he didn’t let that get him down. He just sewed the labels on to as many fish as he could find(1)Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off! and built an even greater collection.

This inner confidence is what made him so attractive. While Jordan claimed to be a humble professor, he had his portion of hubris. Thinking he knew better than other people about the world, he did some selfish things. Miller makes the case that he may have poisoned Mrs. Stanford, the matriarch of the University, and if not, he definitely covered it up.

Later in his life, this confidence turned evil. Jordan was an early proponent of eugenics and the theory of a master race. While we think of creating a master race as being something the Nazis invented, the United States built much of this theory. As a taxonomist he specialized in categorization and he thought that he could organize a better human race. Miller realizes that self-confidence has it’s own problems. She quotes psychologists who believe that building too much self-confidence in kids is over-rated and even harmful. She says, “I think of these psychologists as the quiet, ragtag troop of Cheerleaders for Low Self-Worth. Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!”

Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!

Lulu realizes that there is no best person. The whole point of evolution is that we’re always changing. It’s the variation that makes evolution worth—that makes it so robust. You can’t create a better human population by manually culling it and trying to get better results and sterilizing people that you think are inferior. You need to let nature and variation play out.

As Steven Pinker says in How the Mind Works, variation has a huge benefit. That’s why we have sexual reproduction.

From a germ’s point of view, you are a big yummy mound of cheesecake, there for the eating. Your body takes a different view, and has evolved a battery of defenses, from your skin to your immune system, to keep them out or do them in. An evolutionary arms race goes on between hosts and pathogens, though a better analogy might be an escalating contest between lockpickers and locksmiths. Germs are small, and they evolve diabolical tricks for infiltrating and hijacking the machinery of the cells, for skimming off its raw materials, and for passing themselves off as the body’s own tissues to escape the surveillance of the immune system. The body responds with better security systems, but the germs have a built-in advantage: there are more of them and they can breed millions of times faster, which makes them evolve faster. They can evolve substantially within the lifetime of a host. Whatever molecular locks the body has evolved, the pathogens can evolve keys to open them.

Now, if an organism is asexual, once the pathogens crack the safe of its body they also have cracked the safes of its children and siblings. Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against the local germs. Its molecular locks have a different combination of pins, so the germs have to start evolving new keys from scratch. A malevolent pathogen is the one thing in the world that rewards change for change’s sake.

Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works.

It’s easy for us to look in the past and think that ideas about genetic selection are behind us, but let’s consider the banana. Did you realize that every banana you’ve eaten looks similar? That’s because they’re all the same variety: the Cavendish banana. This is a banana that’s quite firm easy to ship and relatively tasty. It has a strong case to be made as the world’s best banana from an economic perspective. However, a disease in Australia caused all of their banana trees to be destroyed.(2)Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.

We’re starting to cull our own genes. That Atlantic magazine recently published The Last Children of Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is the canary in the coal mine of genetic selection. Genetic testing has its benefits. Having a baby with a horrible genetic disease is definitely something that should be avoided. However, Down Syndrome is something else. People can live long and sweet lives with Down Syndrome. In a few generations, there won’t be any people with Down Syndrome left. It’s very much on the edge of what we should be allowed to select for, and I’m sure that things will only get more interesting and dicey.

Right now, if you have in vitro fertilization you can choose some of the characteristics of the child, like whether you want to select for a boy or a girl. I have a friend who is in this situation. For her first child, they chose the strongest embryo—the one most likely to survive. It’s hard to blame her there. But for the second child, there were five embryos in a freezer in the Midwest. How was she supposed to decide which embryo would be given the kiss of life? I told her this is a good time to just accept the power of G-d. To me, G-d created randomness and variation and we should let it do its thing. Science has given us an enormous number of benefits, like in vitro fertilization for people who can’t have kids, but we need to do our best to not squeeze all the randomness out of life.

Footnotes

1 Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off!
2 Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.
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Book Report: The Speculative Future of Ready Player Two

Imagine a world where nothing is real. A world where you plug yourself into a simulated environment and you can have everything you’ve ever wanted. Once you plug in, you’ll be able to eat the most fantastic foods, travel everywhere, and do everything you’ve ever wanted. This is the world of Ready Player Two.

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Making the Most of This Ugly Year

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— The opening line to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Ziba’s Holiday Gift 2009. Featuring Ugly.

I still have a holiday gift I got in December of 2009 from the design firm Ziba. They created six brochures on trends for 2010: me, we, happy, human, old, and … ugly. (1)Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.

Footnotes

1 Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.
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Why I Write

Someone recently asked me, “Why do you write this blog?” As I didn’t have an answer ready at hand, I figured I’d write it out on this blog.

I’ve always viewed blogging as my own personal publishing platform, putting out my best material to the world. This might come from my history as a magazine writer. I want to avoid writing for an imaginary audience who maybe isn’t as smart or curious as I’d hoped. So instead, it’s written it for me and for my friends. And by “friends” it’s everyone from the people I live with to the people who just like what I write online.

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Falling Back and Springing Forward

When we switch to and from Daylight Savings Time, I start to question reality. I realize that things that we take for granted, like what it means to be “5 o’clock” can be changed by fiat. It reminds me that things that I see as solid and unchangeable are just human constructions.

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How to Give a Great Birthday Present During Coronavirus

My wonderful mother-in-law was having a milestone birthday last month. In normal times we could have flown down to visit her, had a big party, and celebrated in style. But obviously, we can’t do that. So we needed to figure out a different way to celebrate her big birthday.

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Disney and the New Digital Theme Parks

The Virtual Travis Scott Concert in Fortnite

These days I’m sitting at home thinking about jetting off to Florida and entering the fantasy land of Disney World. We could walk around meeting the characters in Toy Story, travel to the past, or visit countries from around the world. Of course, these experiences are not the real thing but theme park adaptions of them. While we can’t have the real-world experiences of Disney World, there’s a new, and in some ways better, version of theme parks that I can experience at home.

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Seven Amazonian Secrets You Can Use (from an Amazon Insider)

When I was the Head of Banking at Amazon Web Services, I was able to peek behind the curtain and learn how Amazon really works. While there are some things Amazon keeps close to the chest, I was surprised that many of the most wonderful things about Amazon are available to the public.

This is a guide to the open secrets at Amazon that you’d hear during orientation or at a high-level customer meeting. Amazon makes these things public to build stronger relationships with customers, and since almost everyone is an Amazon customer, you can find them all online. But you’d only know about these things if you had a friend at Amazon. So I invite you, my friend, to examine some of my favorite secrets.