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High on Gnarl and Chaos

May 22nd, 2020

I’ve always been interested in enlightenment, or higher consciousness, or, put simply, getting high. But, by now I find it easier just to be high, instead of having to get high.

So how to stay high? There are no instructions. But for a starting point, why not assume that you already are high all the time—you just have to notice.

I mean, come on. We’re in a cloud of an octillion atoms that are waves in a Hilbert space of quantum foam. and we evolved from slime or something, and now we build hive cities and ride in machines? And you’re gonna tell me you’re not high?

It’s helps me to be high if I pay close attention to the now. Slalom past the remorse/yearning for the past or fear/longing for the future. Stare and hearken as if you were zonked.

Here we are. What’s up?

Well…right now, we seem to be crows. And it’s a miracle that anything exists at all. The endless roar of reality’s crashing wave. The air like clear jelly. We’re soaring over it.

Lacking a full-bore technorama physical wonder scene like this, I try to stay high by finding gnarl and chaos in my immediate surroundings. Piecing them together.

Is there a difference between gnarl and chaos? Not that much. It’s like noun versus verb. Generally chaos is applied to an ongoing process, a dynamical system, like the weather or a life or a double-jointed pendulum.

Gnarl, on the other hand, can refer to something static. Like the gnarly root of a redwood, or a grain of wood, or the shape of a wave (as opposed to its motion).

A chaotic system makes gnarly patterns. And if you want to try and generate a gnarly pattern, your process is going to be chaotic. So the two concepts are quite close.

The way that leaves and branches move in air currents is always a buzz-generator, how they never repeat, and yet are somewhat regular. There’s a mathematical reason for this.

Leaves and branches, if you break them down, can be visualized as made up of linked pendulums…like little pendulums attached to bigger pendulums and yet smaller pendulums dangling off the tip-ass end of the little pendulums. And linked, or compound, pendulums are always chaotic.

They used to sell these things for “executive toys” to put on desks. You’ve probably seen them.

Chaotic processes are unpredictable, but they aren’t exactly random. They wander around in the so-called phase space of all the possible configurations that the system might get into. But a chaotic process doesn’t visit every single one of its possible configurations. This becasue, once again, it’s not random. It hangs out on a certain set of behaviors that it “likes.” And this subset of the phase space is what’s called a chaotic attractor. The process dances around on its attractor in an unpredictable way

I’m not making this up. There’s a whole branch of science called chaos theory…it’s inspired by physics, biology, and chemistry, and it’s formulated in terms of math.

Chaos and gnarl lie in the zone between order and disorder.

If something repeats, it’s boring, dead, a waste of time. You know those little robo-music snippets they play in commercials these days, the same snippet over and over, nudge-nudge-nudge. The effin’ worst. Nowhere near chaos.

At the other extreme, you can get into a complete random scumble of dots, and that’s dull too. The crackle of radio hiss. Nothing happening there. Deep space telephone off the hook.

In between is gnarl and chaos. Life is chaos. Nature is gnarly. And so is good music! The vibrations and overtones of voices. The predictable yet ever-fresh progress through time. Surging on that chaotic dynamical system. Yah mon!

Chaos is the zone we live in: not precisely repeating, and not completely smeared out scuzz. It’s a catchy, heartening tune in between, a beautiful work of art.

That shape of bark you see above, it’s called a Zhabotinsky scroll, and you find it all over the place. Embryos, eddies in the water, tissues in your body, chemical reactions, air turbulence and even, I would hazard, the workings of your mind.

The Zhabo scroll is a good symbol of chaos. It’s a common strange attractor, that is, lots of complex processes converge on that shape.

When my grandchildren visit, we like to throw buckets of water in the air, and I marvel at the insanely rapid physical computations performed by the mass of liquid.

The other day, I crushed my shutter speed down to 1/4,000 of a second, and behold. Turns out the water makes a shape like the bill of a sawfish—I’m talking about the regularity of form in those scallops along the edge.

And for seventy years, I never noticed that. It happens too fast.

The scallops are a fine example of what we chaoticians call a strange attractor—which is, once again, a shape or behavior that a gnarly natural system tends to end up in.

Ocean waves are a really clear example of chaotic attractors. The spume, the rivulets, the giraffe-hide patches of foam.

Hydrodynamic chaos one reason I love to go to the beach, or to the Santa Cruz bluffs overlooking the sea. I go there to think about chaos. To gloat over the utter unpredictability of the detailed motions of water.

At home I can see it in our wading pool. Note the scalloped edge of splash sheet, the ribs in the sheet, the droplets that subdivide into smaller droplets.

Chaos is about the fusion of (a) unpredictability and (b) sameness. The hydrodynamic attractors are forms we see in the ocean and in our wading pools and our shower stalls and sink faucets…these attractors, these types of behavior are well known and we have names for them. Ripple, tube, splash, surf, wave, droplet, etc.

There’s another aspect of strange attractors. An irregular and chaotic undulation in water is really a pattern in space and time; a four-dimensional shape, if you will. But you can see interesting things by focusing on a lower-dimensional aspect of the process. Such as the 2D image of blobs of light reflected off the water’s surface.

We say we’re studying a “Poincare section,” of a chaotic system if we crush it down to a lower-dimensional projection.

Late in the 19th century, the mathematician Henri Poincare was trying to solve the “three body problem” of analyzing the full range of dynamical behavior that can occur when three bodies in space are orbiting each other…think of a planet and two large moons. These systems get into intricate chaotic behaviors.

If we think in terms of the positions and velocities of all three objects at once, with time thrown in, we’re talking about a so-called phase space with nineteen dimensions. Like I’m saying, Poincare proposed focusing on a lower dimensional “slice” of the full higher-dimensional pattern. The Poincare section.

With those three moving bodies, you might just graph the points where the objects pass through some randomly chosen reference plane. And you’d get an accumulating dust of points that sketches a lower-dimensional strange attractor.

I like to look at weird “caustic” reflection lines from light hitting a curved surface like my car, and moving on a wall. If the car isn’t moving, this isn’t really a chaotic dynamical system. It’s a static gnarly design. Kind of a Poincare section of the car’s shape.

I used to spend a lot of time designing computer simulations to create gnarly fractals. This is, like, a fifth-order Mandelbrot set. See my page on this jive.

I like to gloat over the massive CG crunch that goes into the lights and shadows and highlights in the visual field.

And I dig the freewheeling synch of external sounds with my thoughts and the things I see. When I remember to kind of slam on the mental synchronicity-perceiving connection-mode.

And spinning out this kind of happy-talk about gnarl and chaos…it gets me even higher.

“Cells Eating Viruses” acrylic on canvas, May, 2020, 28” x 22”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

Biology is of course totally chaotic. And I had this vague, totally inaccurate notion of healthy blood cells killing off viruses by eating them in a chaotic battle—and I painted it. Cheerful round cells, and the viruses looking like stick-and-ball molecules. Nice colors, lively action, happy feeling. Almost like a Mardi Gras crowd! If only.

Gnarl and chaos very big in nature. Tulips are still alive for days after you put them in a vase, and they twine and bend and dance…chaotically, that is, unpredictably (in detail) but in certain natural “strange attractor” patterns (overall).

These ferns on a bank of moss are a kind of Poincare section of the temporal growth and dissemination of the plants across this little biome. A gnarly— and oh-so-gorgeous—freeze-frame of growth.

And how about this row of trees on a ridge. Chaotic process of geology for the ridge, chaotic growth for the arrangement of trees. For sure the cloud embodies a chaotic process. Shaped into a gnarly strange attractor.

Being with the trees, the sea, the sky, it’s paradise. But you don’t always get to be there. Sometimes it helps to make things up.

“Astral Travel” acrylic on canvas, May, 2920, 24” x 20”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

I painted this in the eighth week of quarantine in the pandemic of 2020. For an outing, my wife and I drove to Lick Observatory on nearby Mount Hamilton…and were barely allowed to get out of our car. I took in the uplifting view, and spotting a rusty iron chest set into the ground, I thought of my heart and mind and soul locked into the dull prison of shelter-in-place.

Driving home, we admired the bird’s eye view of the fields and mountains. And I thought of a brain in a cube, traveling. To make the painting fun, I put sky and mountain ranges on the both sides—with no clear notion of up and down—so that now we’re looking at an astral traveler who nears an agricultural asteroid. I had fun designing the quilt of fields; I tried to make each shade of green/yellow different.

Me now.

Me in 1965.

This week, my old friend Rob Lewine sent me this weathered photo of me at Swarthmore college. Unwashed hair, plump cheeks, eager smile. Happy to be loafing and drinking and having new friends and meeting women. Ah, youth. Everything so new. Not a care in the world.

It’s been a nice, gnarly, chaotic run. Thank you!

Blast from the Past. Charles Platt’s 1983 Profile of Rudy.

May 8th, 2020

I’m going to recycle a blast from the past: a profile of me by my (by now) old friend Charles Platt, done in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1983. It appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in December, 1984, and by now I don’t think anyone has seen it for thirty-five years. Ideally it should have been included in one of Platt’s two Dream Makers volumes—consisting of profile/interviews with SF writers, but the second volume came out before he interviewed me. In any case, those collections are eminentlly readable. I have some links for them at the end of this post.

[Photo I took of Charles near the beach in San Francisco in Sept, 2012. We were at a Phil Dick conference. In the bright sun, Charles happened to make a temporary hat out of newspaper.]

Profile of Rudy Rucker, by Charles Platt, 1983.

Rudy Rucker, mathematician and science fiction writer, is trying to explain to me his conception of the universe and our place in it, using terms that a layman can understand.

We’re sitting in his office, a disused upstairs room that he rents in a semi-derelict wooden building in Lynchburg, Virginia. An old gray steel desk stands in the center of bare floorboards. A human skull decorates the mantelpiece above a boarded-up fireplace. There are pale rectangles on the walls where pictures used to hang. The remaining furnishings consist of a ragged armchair, a couch upholstered in peeling white vinyl, piles of reference books, and an Escher print.

[The abandoned building where I rented a room as an office, 324 Church St. in Lynchburg, VA.]

Outside, crickets chirp amid a tangled mass of kudzu that has totally engulfed the yard and is working its way across the roof. A freight train clatters by.

Rucker, a genial man with dreamy eyes behind severe rectangular glasses, leans back and rests his bare feet on the desk. His explanation involves infinite-dimensional space, a tough concept to get across to nonscientists. “Life is so full of pain, and suffering, and hatred, and unhappiness,” he begins. He pauses. “At least, my life is. But I find it makes me happy to remember that the universe is a single, organic whole. If you go to infinite-dimensional space, Hilbert space, which I deal with in my novel The Sex Sphere, you can fit it all together. My concept of the universe is that it’s a single pattern in an infinite-dimensional space, and when I’m able to remember this — which is not often enough — I feel very happy and relaxed, because in that sense I’m not cut off in an isolated bag with my own personal problems. I sort of flow out of myself and merge into the reality around me.” He grins and gestures toward the windows, the kudzu, Lynchburg, beyond.

I ask if he’s ever thought of starting a religion. This town is, after all, the home of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Rucker’s office is, after all, on Church Street.

“I’ve thought of it. In my latest book there’s this character Alvin Bitter, who was also in The Sex Sphere. And he has started a religion, called the Church of Scientific Mysticism. It’s based in Princeton, and the two saints are Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. I gave some talks on this; I enjoy talking about it. It always makes me feel happy.”

[God is everywhere.]

Rucker’s several nonfiction books have ambitiously attempted to explain some of the intricacies of space and time, and infinity — itself a slightly mystical, or at least metaphysical, concept. His fiction has tackled similar big topics, less solemnly; White Light, his first published novel, described an afterlife in which infinity was explored like the surface of a science fictional planet.

I ask if there is any kind of afterlife, or higher plane of human consciousness, that he takes seriously.

“I don’t think the individual consciousness survives death. But this is something we don’t have to be so upset about. Instead of going to infinite dimensions, if we just go to a four-dimensional viewpoint, a spacetime viewpoint, the world would be a sort of tangle of atoms, leaving threads, world lines, in a vast tapestry. Surely the fact that the pattern that you call ‘you’ only has a certain size in the tapestry ought to be something you can come to terms with?

“The idea of artistic immortality is important to me. I like to think that years from now, somebody who perhaps resembles me physically or has some of the same interests can read my books and briefly experience the same thoughts. In a sense, that doesn’t do me any good; it depends what you call your ‘self.’ If you choose to identify yourself with the universe, then you’re automatically immortal.”

[Me on the path to writing on my “Kerouac scroll,” which eventually appeared as All the Visions.]

I comment that a lot of his work seems to link the largest possible cosmic view with the trivia and tribulations of everyday life.

“I’ve always wanted to bring it all together. It surprises me that more people don’t do it, in fiction or in life. In the sixties, we were all getting stoned and talking about God, and I thought, well, everybody will just keep doing this and we’ll all learn a whole lot about science and it will be real interesting. But then, to me, what I’m doing always seems so reasonable, I’m just surprised that there aren’t more people doing it.

“A lot of mathematicians have extremely limited personalities. They get into mathematics because they can’t speak English, you know? In that movie War Games, I loved the computer nerd with the dark hair. It really reminded me of graduate school.

“I finally developed a disgust for pure mathematics, to some extent, because in so many of the papers that people write, there’s just no way to bring it back and tie it to anything. A really great scientist like Einstein, or Gödel, or Georg Cantor, or Niels Bohr always takes a kind of double-pronged approach: pushing the formalism, the science, as far as they can, but then always trying to bring it back to real life. I think that’s what really good science is all about.”

On a less ambitious level, this is the approach that Rucker takes in his own fiction, which often portrays thoroughly real, everyday people grappling with some farfetched phenomenon of time travel, negative gravity, or inertialess matter, with comic results.

[Embroidered Hungarian heart with one of my painted images of a UFO.]

His characters are usually misfits, out of sync with their surroundings to the extent that they seem totally alienated.

“Well, I’ve always felt alienated myself, all my life. My parents lived in the country, and there were no other children around, so for most of my childhood, I would just go walking around in the fields with my dog, thinking my own thoughts. My family—sometimes I had the feeling they thought I was strange. I don’t know.

“When I went to school, in the fourth grade, I don’t know what I was doing wrong, but they all picked on me, beat me up a lot. That’s why I hate straights so much — still, to this day — because I was picked on by jocks, straight people.

[Now I’m 74. Haven’t changed much. Still punk. But I’ve learned not to be quite so outspoken.]

“Then when I was in the eighth grade, I spent a year in Germany. That was very alienating, too, because I didn’t speak German. But I got to like it, and then I came back to America, and they beat me up some more. All through high school for some reason.” He frowns as if it still seems puzzling and inexplicable. “Maybe I was younger than the people in my class, sort of a wimp? Still, college was nice, because I went to Swarthmore, and it was all smart kids, and everybody there was a wimp, so, I was able to appear fairly hip.

“Another thing contributing to alienation was the whole sixties thing where, over and over, you had old people getting up and saying that all of our beliefs were stupid, and that we were drug addicts, and should be in jail, and — you know, that gets to you.

“I wish I felt less alienated, really. I mean, I live out here in the middle of nowhere; I’ve always lived in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be in a city where there are people actively interested in, oh, philosophical issues and things like that.” He pauses, as if trying to imagine it.

[About to go for ride on my big brother’s motorcycle with him, in Louisville. Skinny cigarette.]

I don’t know Rucker well, but my superficial impression is that he stayed true to some of the rhetoric and styles of the sixties, long after everyone else had gone into regular employment, sold out, overdosed, or settled in suburbia. Rucker himself is thirty-seven and married with three children, but still seems a (short- haired) hippie in his simple love for loud music, loud parties, and the occasional illegal drug. And he still seems to enjoy the radical, adversary spirit of the sixties.

“One way my novels all resemble each other is that there are hard-line terrorist-anarchists in there, and a lot of sex that’s going to outrage people. I do it more or less deliberately to freak people out as much as possible—and then when it’s published I expect everybody to love me for it anyway.

“But they don’t. So, because they’re mean to me, in the next book, I pick on them even more.

“Same thing in my social life, I mean, I’m surprised I still have any friends. Particularly if I’m partying hard, on the weekend, I’ll do some extremely obnoxious things, just to really bug people. Foul language, or tell people the thing that makes them the most nervous, you know? They might be nervous about the police, or about manliness, so I’ll come on like I’m a narcotics agent, or like I’m a sissy, anything that’ll make them as uptight as possible. I don’t know why I do it, really. Well, in a sense, all literature is protest literature.” He pauses. “I heard John Updike say that once; I thought it sounded nice.”

[Two seals rubbing together in Santa Cruz today, May 8, 2020.]

Of course, living in Lynchburg adds to the angst. He moved here, originally, only because he was offered a teaching job at a local college.

“But I lost that, as I had also lost my previous academic job in upstate New York, and that built up a lot of resentment in me, because each time it was a situation where I would have stayed if they had let me. All my colleagues were shocked and outraged, because here I was publishing more than anybody else at the college, but the administrators just said, ‘We can tell what you’re really like, and we don’t want you here.’

“In teaching, there are three things you have to do. First of all, you’re supposed to publish, but a lot of people never do that. Also, you’re supposed to be good at teaching — O.K., well, a lot of people can’t do that too well, either. But maybe the most important thing is what they call ‘collegiality.’ Being willing to sit around the coffee lounge and, you know, talk to people about, oh, getting their cars repaired, or grading term papers—I really hated all that.

“So now I’ve been without a job for two years. It’s nice, but it’s hard to keep coming up with new ideas. In a sense I could write a science fiction book every year, probably. I may indeed end up doing that. But at some point also there’s a feeling that you’re beginning to repeat yourself. If you look at anybody who writes twenty science fiction books, a lot of them are very similar.”

[A bird and his shadow image. Charles and me?]

I ask how he entered the field. He had already published his first nonfiction book, on the fourth dimension. Why did he try writing science fiction?

“I think it was in ’74, the day after seeing the Rolling Stones play in Buffalo. 1 was just so excited, I started a book, which later became Spacetime Donuts. For some reason I wanted it to be an attack on the idea of public safety. I wrote a whole first chapter about that, which I never actually used. I wanted it to be viewed as the first definitive hippie novel, or something like that. I was really out of it. I’d never heard of the ‘new wave’ in science fiction, so I was telling people, ‘This is going to be a new-wave science fiction book.’ And they said, ‘Well, Rudy, that ended like three years ago.’

“I enjoyed underground comix a lot, and I had this idea that all the people who liked underground comix would read my science fiction. Anyway, I sold it to Unearth magazine, and they serialized two parts of it, and I got a hundred dollars, or maybe it was a hundred and twenty, and then they went out of business, and well, that was it. So I was thinking … should I pursue this?

[I found these at a beach…I like to imagine things like this are alive, so I can use them as characters in an SF story.]

“That was when I had to leave my teaching job in upstate New York, and I got a grant to go to Germany. The grant is the one thing that mathematics finally did for me. I’d written a paper called ‘The One-Many Problem in the Foundations of Set Theory,’ and, on the strength of that, I was able to get a grant. I was supposed to do research on different orders of infinity, particularly on Cantor’s continuum problem. That was Mid-Life Crisis, Stage One. I was twenty-six, it seemed I had no future in mathematics, I realized I wasn’t going to solve this problem, because, well, it’s a one-hundred-year-old problem, and it’s very hard.” He laughs.

“So I thought, ‘Here I am in this office, and they don’t really care what I do.’ So I decided to write White Light.”

Rucker sold that novel to Ace Books, who packaged it as a “voices from the afterlife” cultist tract, which may have discouraged some of its potential readers. Ace then published Spacetime Donuts, and thus far has published all of Rucker’s work, including Software and his excellent short-story collection, The 57th Franz Kafka.

[At my Philip K. Dick award ceremony for Software.]

Many of these stories feature eccentric, low-budget scientists fiddling around in suburban basements, reminiscent of the stories H. G. Wells once wrote about penniless inventors stumbling on antigravity or immortality drugs. I ask if Wells was an influence.

“I read The Seven Novels of H. G. Wells when I was in high school. And I still go back and read him; in fact, he had some very interesting stories about the fourth dimension, also. But I was more influenced by Heinlein’s early work, which is fast-paced and has a very realistic feeling. I like that quality of it.

“Another early influence, which helped me start writing, was Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad. Here was a book with cursing and drugs and sex, and I thought — well, those are things I’d like to write about, too. It showed me that the market had opened up to the point where that was admissible.

“These days, 1 don’t read science fiction very much. Either it doesn’t have enough science, or it’s too plastic, or the characters are totally predictable. When you read someone like Asimov, the characters are just interchangeable. They always agree with each other, they say, ‘Would you tell me more, Doctor.’ Well, when I’m trying to explain something to one of my friends, that’s not what they say. They say, ‘Fuck that, let’s go get some beer, I don’t want to hear that right now.’ Characters in books should act in this same kind of stubborn, unexpected way; I think it’s much more interesting for the reader.”

[Shed near a retired Jesuits’ center up the hill from my house. Here in the 21st Century, I walk up there every week, enjoying nature.]

I ask who his literary influences are outside of the science fiction field.

“William Burroughs, I really loved. I’ve studied and studied his books. And Jack Kerouac. My science fiction isn’t very much like Jack Kerouac, but this summer I was trying to do a book like him. It’s the story of my own life. I even went to the trouble of slavishly imitating the way Kerouac had done it. I got this giant roll of paper from a photocopying machine, so I could feed that into the typewriter and just write and write and write. The page is like a four-to-the-bar beat, or something. This was more open to improvisation. But I don’t think I’m ever going to sell it.”

“Night Bird of Paradise” acrylic on canvas, May, 20207, 20” x 24”. Click for a larger version of the painting.
[Here in 2020, I’m writing less than before, and putting some energy into painting. This is a wonderful bird of paradise flower from our garden. I like how the plant looks like a messy old man, or like a donkey with alert ears, or like a punk with a mohawk. And beware the beak! I hope to fit the plant into a story soon as a character.]

I ask if it’s been harder to sell his novels, and build an audience, than he expected.

“Being a writer takes your whole life. It’s much more drawn-out and grueling than I had ever imagined. I think my work is getting out there to the right people; and the only problem is, there don’t seem to be one hundred thousand of them.

“The distribution of science fiction novels is very disappointing, because they’re published almost like magazines. They’re on the newsstand completely randomly, for about two months, and then they’re gone, you know? People often say, ‘Where can I find your books?’ — and, well, I have no idea.

“I guess what I’d really like is to have some of my novels in hardback so they’d be in libraries, and people could find them. Or I’d like to be able to do what Kurt Vonnegut did. In a way, he’s still writing science fiction, but he gets front-page reviews in the New York Times, and he’s making lots of money. And his science fiction was very, very good. The Sirens of Titan was one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels.”

[An interstellar ship full of invading bird of paradise aliens! At the Jesuit center.]

I ask what Rucker’s next project will be.

“I think I’m going to do a book on language and information theory. I’m going to call it New Info. That sounds pretty catchy. Either that or something somber like, The Language Game: Logic and Rhetoric. Which do you think would be better? And then I’ll do another novel. [Note: I didn’t actually write that particular nonfiction book; instead I wrote one called Mind Tools. And my most cyberpunk novel ever, Wetware.]

“As long as you’re working on a book, you have a reason to live. I can see why Heinlein still writes a book every two years. I mean, what else are you going to do? It’s hard for me to think of any way to make money that would be more pleasurable than writing. I have a friend who’s a house painter; he was urging me to come up and work with him, but I said, ‘I’d rather write a book on rhetoric, my good man.’ ” He laughs happily.

[Our fabled 1956 Buick. I gave it to Sylvia for her fortieth birthday…bought it from a local guy for $200.]

At this point, we take a lunch break. Rucker drives across town in his 1956 Buick, to a sleazy bar and grill where the teenage waitress chews gum and the house specialty is liver and onions on fried bread for $2.95. He seems absolutely at home here, drinking beer with truck drivers and auto mechanics — as far from the stereotypical image of a mathematician as it is possible to be. His working life, also, seems somehow out of character for an unreconstructed, laid back sixties radical. He does a regular nine-to-five stint at his improvised office, five days a week, before going home to his- children and his wife, who teaches at a local school.

[Our three kids with cyber shades.]

“It does often bother people that the different parts of my personality seem not to add up,” he says. “I’ve always talked much more radically than anybody else, but when it came down to it, I was the only one who was thoroughly suckered into doing what I was programmed to do: go to college, get married, go to graduate school, have children, get a job. I even go to church a couple times a month. But my wife is definitely a stabilizing influence. Having a family life gives me a base from which to work. In a sense you could say it’s really plastic to be divorced and go through all that shit. Apparently, staying married is an act of rebellion.”

[I’ve carried this big metal railroad-car spring with me since I found it in 1968.]

Platt Links:

Dream Makers Volume 1 and Volume 2 are both out of print, but available. Each of them includes, I believe 28 authors. The new Dream Makers Collected Edition has 20 authors picked from volumes 1 & 2, and has the virtue of being in print, and is in Kindle as well as paperback.

See also the two volumes of Platt’s fascinating memoirs, An Accidental Life, paperback only, but less than $5 each, Volume 1 and Volume 2.

In recent years, much of Platt’s income has come from writing do-it-yourself books about making electronics projects.

The Wolfram Physics Project

April 22nd, 2020

My friend Stephen Wolfram has come up with a new fundamental theory of physics. He’s been meaning to do it for years. He sent me an introductory sketch or project announcement, entitled  “Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics…and It’s Beautiful”.

“Hazmat Spring” Acrylic on canvas, April, 2020, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

The announcement came by email, very early in the morning of April 5, 2020. Exciting, and it was fun to think it’s true, me in the pouring rain in the dark before dawn in, yes, another plague year. I thought of Newton taking shelter on his family estate in 1665, and his insight that the force that drew the apple might reach as far as the Moon.

My guess is that some in the physics community will be a little dubious and resistant to Wolfram—–academics have never been fond of him. He’s a mix of brashness and genius, not really such an unfamiliar type in the histories of mathematics and science. But it puts some people off.

I’ve always enjoyed Wolfram. I first met him in 1985 when I visited him at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in order to write a popular article about his new work on cellular automata or CAs.

Already in 1985, Wolfram had  figured out the two basic principles that underlie his later tome A New Kind of Science. (You can browse Wolfram’s book online.) The two principles:

(Principle of Computational Equivalence.) All interesting natural processes are universally computing, and all are fundamentally equivalent. (A waving leaf is as intelligent as a human. A cloud is as smart as a pig.)

(Principle of Computational Irreducibility.) All interesting natural processes are computationally irreducible, that is, there are no shortcut methods to predict what they’re going to do. (Weather prediction is never going to work. And you’ll never learn to predict your moods.)

I am very much a disciple of Wolfram’s, indeed I wrote my own tome about his ideas: The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. You browse my book  online too. Stephen and I are out to spread the word.

[A 1D wave as a CA. The cellular automata images in this post are made with my CAPOW software, available for Windows on GitHub.]

All along Wolfram thought that small, iterated computations could be a good model for physical phenomena. Early on I asked him what engineers thought of his method of modeling turbulence with CAs. His comeback: “Some say it’s wrong, and some say it’s trivial. If you can get people to say both those things, you’re in quite good shape.”

So what’s in his new theory for the foundations of physics? It starts with the idea that a simple set of graph-rewriting rules can be started out on some minimal starting pattern like two dots connected by a line, and then, if the rules in the rule set are recursively applied and reapplied to successive outputs, the process will generate interestingly complex and gnarly patterns. Like watching a cellular automaton evolve. And this might be how our universe arises. So far this is a standard Wolfram move.

[Sculpture of Pythagoras at the Rosicrucian World Headquarters in my home town of San Jose.  I’m not at all involved with the group, but I enjoy the gardens there and the Egyptian style decor. One of the few sights to see in old San Jo’.]

But then, being Wolfram, he kicks it up a level and another level and another. He considers the option of running all the rules in his rule set at each step, and seeing what you get. A multiway rule, as it were. And then he suggests using all possible sets of rules and seeing what you get.

You’d expect a tangled, mess, but somehow there emerges a single over-arching “world.” In this world, each viewer “sees” through the filter of their own particular update rules. And Wolfram calls this shared world “rulial space”, the space of all possible world rules.

The scope of Wolfram’s ambition is boundless. And that’s a good thing. He he knows he can’t finish the work on his own. So he’s started the Wolfram Physics Project, and he invites one and all to study the material—and to participate. There’s an outside chance you, just as you are, might cook up some simple set of rules that…generate the entire universe! Go for it, dude. I’ve been playing slot-machine with new CA rules for thirty-five years.

“Happy Egg” Acrylic on canvas, April, 2020, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting. More info on Rudy’s Paintings page.

Here’s two tantalizing quotes from the end part of Wolfram’s project announcement.

(1) I’ve always assumed that any entity that exists in our universe must at least “experience the same physics as us”. But now I realize that this isn’t true. There’s actually an almost infinite diversity of different ways to describe and experience our universe, or in effect an almost infinite diversity of different “planes of existence” for entities in the universe—corresponding to different possible reference frames in rulial space, all ultimately connected by universal computation and rule-space relativity.

(2) But there is something perhaps more bizarre that is possible. While we view our universe—and reality—through our particular type of description language, there are endless other possible description languages which can lead to descriptions of reality that will seem coherent (and even in some appropriate definition “meaningful”) within themselves, but which will seem to us to correspond to utterly incoherent and meaningless aspects of our universe.

[Spherical painting by Dick Termes of Termespheres fame.]

This line of speculation segues into my ongoing SF obsession with describing thoughts of stars, wasps, atoms, stones, etc. I worked on this in my novels Postsingular and Hylozoic.

[A 2D continuous-valued reactino-diffusion CA made with CAPOW.]

But there’s hints of wilder, newer, even more, unheard-of ideas in Wolfram’s words. And I’m going to be pondering these inchoate notions over in the coming weeks and months and years. I like the notion of beings who see some things as coherent and meaningful—even though we see them as incoherent and meaningless.

In this context, I always come back to the chaotic wobbling of a little green plant I noticed on the bank of a stream in Big Sur. I included it in my short 2008 YouTube video, “What Is Gnarl?”

The plant was being moved by the air currents, but to my eyes it was “saying something” via the persistent shape of its particular chaotic attractor. I can’t get what the plant’s gestures mean—but the plant itself knows. The fluttering leaves and branches have every right to say they’re thinking. But I don’t know what the thoughts are about. Like—“How far to the left can I sway?”

Contrariwise—to the plant, I’m as inscrutable as a cloud, as sudden as a car accident.

I like that Wolfram keeps hammering on his observation that, given that pretty much every process is a universal computation, and none of them has pride of place.

I think of that corny old line about Sinatra: “It’s Frank’s world, the rest of us just live in it.” Not true! It’s equally well the world of that humble, floppy, little plant I saw on that happy day by the creek near Pfieffer Beach.

I discussed some of these ideas with Wolfram last year at a con in Miami, and I recorded our conversation as my Podcast 106.

Here Wolfram again made the point that his Principle of Computational Equivalence says that any nontrivial natural process can emulate any other computation at all. Now consider the computations inherent in our vaunted smart brains. There may be equally rich computations inherent in the weather system, or the ecology of a forest, or the flow of a waterfall, or in the flames of a fire. So even our smartness doesn’t make us unique. Nothing about humanity is unique. And looking for extraterrestrial aliens is a quixotic endeavor. We’ve got zillions of “alien intelligences” inherent in the natural processes all around us here on Earth.

To really make this idea hit home, Wolfram he then said something like this. “Suppose that we find ways to encode human minds in software. These coded processes are like souls. And perhaps at the end of time, there will be a box with ten trillion human souls in it. Now suppose someone looks at the box from the outside. There’s really no objective difference between this box, and a box with turbulent water in it, or a box that’s simply a block of stone, with the atoms vibrating and endlessly interacting. Every time that humans have thought they were special, or at the center of things—they’ve been wrong. We thought consciousness was special, but it’s not.”

Now mix that into his new Physics…and you’ve got some great ideas for SF stories.

Translating “Million Mile Road Trip” into Chinese!

April 6th, 2020

I went to an IOHK blockchain conference in June, and I met this bright young guy from Shanghai, Lei Hao. Turns out my SF novels like Postsingular and the Ware Tetralogy are quite popular among programmers and techies in China now. Lei Hao suggested that he might help me get some of my novels out in legit, non-pirated editions. And in the mean time he’s started a company called Access Digital.

So, long story short, thanks to Lei Hao, my agent made a deal with New Star Press in China to publish a translation of Million Mile Road Trip.  Here’s the book’s home page. And Lei Hao has is currenlty finishing the translation. And if all goes well, he’ll translate some more of my books for New Star as well.

While Lei Hao was turning my book into Chinese, Lei Hao sent me a series of questions—and I kind of had to laugh about how hard it would be to translate some of the things I wrote. But I wrote up hints, giving it my best shot, and it was kind of weird and fun. So just for the hell of it, I’m reprinting Lei Hao’s queries and my responses, along with the passages under discussion…the phrases under discussion are shown in bold face.  And the page references for the quotes are to the Night Shade print first edition, paperback or hardback.

And, as usual, I threw in a buttload of images. A lot of them actually relate to the book. Here’s a universal ebook buy link for it. Print editions: Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

{{=========1: First Kiss

Page 3: Villy’s looking at her. Zoe feels she’s too short and her breasts are nothing much. As for her butt, well, it’s wider and rounder than it was when she was eleven, and boys have been known to stare after her in the hallway, brain-dead sexists that they are. But when Villy looks at her, she’s glad. And she likes looking at him. He has these flowing surfer muscles. He’s never out of balance, always in the now. So unselfconscious, so male.

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘in the now’ means he’s always very calm and can control the situation?

Rudy: “In the now” is to be focused on the present situation, not distracted by emotions, paying attention to the immediate world, not thinking about past regrets or future feats. It’s a popular phrase in the US.

Page 5: “Mom nagged me for months to write my Berkeley application. The personal statement part. On the last possible day, I wrote that American life is a blockbuster movie with hiccup anthems, but I—I want a life that’s a flip-card cartoon with sqwonky horns.”

Lei Hao: I don’t really know what ‘sqwonky’ means.

Rudy: Sqwonky is a made-up word. It stands for a sound. Like “raucously honking”. I think some Jazz musician might have used that word.

{{=========2: Magic Ladder

Page 16: And then Zoe’s father leaves Mom for the skungy, plastic Sunny Weaver. Wheenk, wheenk, wheenk.

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘skungy’ means dirty and unpleasant?

Rudy: Yes there are several slang words like this that are used in California. Skeevy, scuzzy, skungy. They all mean dirty, smelly, dishonest, unpleasant.

Lei Hao: And what about ‘ Wheenk’?

Rudy: I use “wheenk” in several ways in my books. Here I am using it to stand for a person feeling sorry for themself. Like “Sob, sob, sob.” But wheenk is the sound of piglet being slaughtered perhaps, or of someone complaining very hard. Or it can just mean having some emotional feeling. When I write a story without enough inner life in my characters, and they are too stiff and plastic, I might say the story needs more wheenk.

{{=========3: Villy’s Family


Page 33: “Yubba woot!” yells Scud.

Lei Hao: Okay, what’s ‘ Yubba woot’?

Rudy: That’s a silly nonsense phrase that a kid like Scud might holler. I use the word yubba sometimes, its a little like hubba hubba, a 1940s phrase for being excited, perhaps related to the Brazilian oba oba. Woot is a word that programmer and gamer sometimes use in their comment threads to mean something like woo-hoo or hooray or that’s great. They like to write it with zeroes instead of O’s, like w00t.

{{=========4: Zoe’s Mom

Page 36: Worse than this, what if Zoe is only imagining that an alien named Yampa is under her bed and saying that she knows Maisie? Creepsville central.

Lei Hao: What’s the meaning of ‘ Creepsville’?

Rudy: It was a 50s and 60s Beat or hipster usage to say something or someone was —ville. Meaning an imaginary place that has lots of —. Like Endsville or Nowheresville or Splitsville (getting divorced). Creep is creepy as in unpleasant and possibly a sexual molester. Creepsville is a situation where something is creepy or disturbing. And adding “central” intensifies it. Not only are you in Creepsville, you’re in the central core of Creepsville.

Page 37: “Pinchley and I came for kicks,” says Yampa. “A million mile road trip. And, more, we’re on a mighty mission—thanks to the goading of Goob-goob and the machinations of Maisie.”

Lei Hao: Who is ‘Goob-goob’?

Rudy: Goob-goob is a godlike alien they eventually encounter. I used this name as a kind of joke in that a goob is stupid person, a hick, a newbie (noob), an idiot. So to call the god Goob-goob is a little bit to suggest that it’s dumb to believe in this god. But Goob-goob is in fact impressive.

Page 38:  “Your sister shuttles,” says Yampa. “She’s…similar to the saucers? She presented you the saucer pearl. She taught you the toot for the tunnel. She put Pinchley and me in place at your tunnel’s termination. Why? Goob-goob wants to wrangle two or three humans like you—to win the wand for warring with Groon.”

Lei Hao: Who is ‘Groon’?

Rudy: Groon is main villain of the book. The name has a sound like groan. Unpleasant. Groon is a giant bagpipe.

Page 38: Other odd aliens,” says Yampa. “Not all of them friendly. We’ll see Flatsies, giant ants, music cubes, Thudds, bubble-men, Freeths

Lei Hao: What’s the meaning of “Thudds” And “Freeths”?

Rudy: Thudd is like thud, a heavy thump, and they are dinosaurs. Freeths are, well, I hardly remember, I think that annoying blob woman who comes with them is a Freeth.

Page 44: “They [the flying saucers] are not vehicles,” says Yampa. “They’re muscle and meat, with bumbling brains. The problematic ones are parasites who siphon people’s smeel.”

Lei Hao: What’s ‘smeel’?

Rudy: Smeel is a word I use in a lot of my books. It stands for something like aether or ectoplasm, an insubstantial psychic substance. As a private joke it is very close to the word smell. In this book, smeel is a psychic energy that is in people, almost like their soul, and Groon’s saucers eat smeel.

Lei Hao: Your description of smeel as a spiritual substance is very close to the theory of vitality in Chinese Taoist philosophy. Taoist thought holds that 元气(vitality), pronounced as yuan qi is the primary material that constitutes life and nature. It is a kind of spiritual energy in the human body. Given the similarity between these term, I will adopt yuan qi for the translation of ‘smeel’.

{{=========6: Unny Tunnel

Page 58: “Corkscrew caves and zonked ziggurats,” adds Yampa.

Lei Hao: What are ‘Corkscrew caves and zonked ziggurats’?

Rudy: It’s about alliteration, starting words with the same letter. Corkscrew is twisty, like a helix, so a corkscrew cave is an intricately twisted cave. Zonked it to be stoned or high or drunk. A ziggurat is a Mexican Aztec pyramid with steps on the side instead an inclined planes. I think they have ziggurats in Asia as well.

Page 62: Like, Zoe is looking out her window—and she sees a purple station wagon that’s keeping pace with them, and the driver is Villy, precisely and to a T.

Lei Hao: And what is ‘to a T’?

Rudy: An idiom, common phrase. “suits me to a T” means “It’s exactly what I like.” Here it’s used to mean “an exact copy.”

{{=========7: Cruising Van Cott

Page 67: “Well, not every basin is exactly yummy,” allows Pinchley. “Like for instance there’s some stinky gas-giant basins. Kingdoms of the poot-blimps. But we’ll bypass those.” “And after Szep City, the basins keep on going?” asks Zoe. “Forever and ever? An infinite world?”

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘poot-blimps’ is a negative name of bad saucers given by Pinchley and I can translate it into something like ‘stinky saucers’?

Rudy: The poot-blimps are different from the flying saucers. They would be stinky blimps like you might find over Jupiter. Enormous fart blimps.

Page 68: “You might say mappyworld is Goob with a capital G,” says Pinchley, holding up two fingers. “And your ballyworld is goob with a little g. Ever the twain shall wheenk. Get it? Got it!” The guy is trashed.

Lei Hao: I don’t know what ‘Ever the twain shall wheenk’ means.

Rudy: I’m playing with words a lot of time, working with sounds and with suggestive resonances. There’s a standard phrase  “never the twain shall meet” which you say to mean that never will a certain two things (twain means two) come together. Wheenk is, as I mentioned a pet word of mine. Ever the twain shall wheenk would mean “it will always be that these seemly different two things will join their voices in a joyous loud happy-pig sound like wheenk.”

{{=========8: Night Market

Page 78: “Oh yes they have,” says Yampa. “Folks like your father, and maid Maisie. They have fab gab with the good saucers.”

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘fab gab’ means good relationship here.

Rudy: That’s close. Fab is old hippie slang for good or fabulous. Gab is 40s slang for talk.

Page 82: “Call me Meatball,” says the cubist blob. Her voice is oiled gravel, with a British accent. “Fit name for a tough cookie. And yes, I’m a Freeth. An elder race, rather down on our luck. I enjoy rollicking, rough-cut laughs. I’d love to be your roadie gal pal.”

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘tough cookie’ is to describe someone is very strong, powerful and determined. And does ‘rather down on our luck’ means ‘we are not very lucky’?

Rudy: We call a woman a tough cookie if she is, as you suspect, strong and determined, and a cookie in the sense of being a female. the phrase is popular I suppose because usually a cookie is not tough.
And, yes that’s the right translation of rather down on our luck. rather is use in a British sense of somewhat. having a somewhat bad run of luck.

Page 90: Whatevski. The saucer pearl’s gate swells to the size of a plum, ready for action, hovering at waist level. And it’s turned transparent—meaning the gate is open. Zoe walks towards it, blatting her horn. The closer she gets, the bigger the gate seems.

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘whatevski’ means ‘whatever’.

Rudy: Right. People say “whatever” to mean “I don’t care” or “think whatever you want to think although it’s bullshit but I’m not going to argue about it.” And it’s a slang usage to put a Russian ending on a word like evski. So whatevski. It’s whatever in even more dismissive sense.

{{=========9: Saucer Hall

Page 97: “The boon I beg is but one caraway seed,” chirps Filkar. The Flatsie comes to a halt upon the damp spot at Scud’s feet. “In return I’ll plant this teep slug upon you. Having tasted you, the slug is in readiness. You’ll peer into others’ minds, yes. And you’ll learn to craft a cloud of unknowing. No saucer will ken your presence.”

Lei Hao: Should I literally translate ‘a cloud of unknowing’ or you have deeper meaning behind it?

Rudy: There is, I believe, a medieval work on mysticism which is called “the cloud of unknowing” Used in the sense of being enlightened by having an empty mind. But I took this nice phrase and deliberately used it in a different and idiosyncratic way. I’m taking “unknowing” to mean “unknown” as in “invisible.” The cloud of unknowing is then like a cloak of invisibility. And, by the way, “ken” means “know” or “see”.

Page 98: “Teep slugs seek ever to please their hosts,” says Filkar. “Think only of what you want.” Filkar utters a command in a burbly, low-pitched tongue. In harmony with Scud’s wishes, the teep slug reshapes itself into an elegant hemisphere, little more than an inch across. Scud sets the thing on his wrist.

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘burbly’ means burly here, like husky.

Rudy: Burbly has to do with being a liquid. Like the sound of water in a stream.

Page 99: Nearby, two dog-sized ants are conversing via scents and by taps of their antennae. Their thoughts have a geometric quality—like colored wooden blocks in a mound.

Lei Hao: Could I literally translate this description or you have deeper meaning behind it?

Rudy: You might think of Lego blocks of odd shapes. No deeper meaning.

Page 101: “Thou sayest it, my liege. Drawing on the supernal power of your teep slug, you addled your warp and woof—and in this wise you’ve conjured a cloud of unknowing. ’Twill engulf you and your raiment until you relax your hold.”

Lei Hao: I don’t really know what warp and woof means in this context.

Rudy: Warp and woof are from weaving. The threads in one direction are the warp, the threads in the other are the woof. So here it is being used as “the fabric of your being.”

{{=========10: Three Zoes

Page 107: She returns to the tunnel and goes back to mappyworld. On the way she gets another glimpse of that Mayan-type Goob-goob, the goddess of mappyworld. This time Goob-goob looks like a vine-covered pyramid as much as she looks like a woman. Seedy, imposing, beyond the mundane—and, for whatever reason, keenly interested in Zoe’s activities.

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘seedy’ here means containing many seeds or dirty and unpleasant.

Rudy: Seedy is like a homeless person. run down, tattered, not necessarily dirty, but threadbare. Maybe austere or like a hermit. I don’t remember why I used this word here.

{{=========11: Leaving Town

Page 110: “You’re the baddest of them all,” says Zoe. “Don’t worry. If you can stand just a few more minutes, I have this atavistic desire to do a big shopping for our trip.”

Lei Hao: Does the ‘baddest’ here means Zoe thinks Villy is the coolest or the most powerful one?

Rudy: Right, this is a Black English usage. Baddest is the best.

Page 116: Yes, the creepy hand crawled up Scud’s leg and picked his pocket, and now it’s up high on a thumb and two fingers, holding the jar of caraway seeds against its palm with two of the other fingers. To make things worse, Irav’s little whaler snail is riding on the back of the rogue hand. Like Captain Ahab on his ship. The frikkin hand bagged the snail too. Villy charges after it—but there’s no catching the hand. It skitters to Pinchley and Yampa’s top-down convertible and—with a single, startling leap—it springs to safety inside.

Lei Hao: Who is  ‘Captain Ahab’. And what do you mean by saying ‘Yampa’s top-down convertible’?

Rudy: Captain Ahab is the hero of the novel Moby Dick, and his is a whaler who wants to harpoon a whale. Yampa’s car is, I beehive, a convertible, that is, a car whose top can be lowered. And the top is down. so the car’s interior is open like a motorboat you can jump into.

Page 118: “When Pinchley squats, he splits in two,” says Yampa, making a rude sound with her mouth. “If we conjecture kac is conscious.”

Lei Hao: What does ‘kac’ mean?

Rudy: Kac is shit. The word comes from Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, and is also a Greek root word, as in cacophony.

Page 118: “All hail the followers of the One True Rump,” adds Pinchley. He bows so deeply that he falls onto the ground, but somehow he manages not to spill the precious cocoa. “Mighty Truban titans we,” says Yampa, helping Pinchley to his feet. Obviously these two are loaded from their cocoa party. They lean together, propping each other up like a pair of seedy clowns.

Lei Hao: I wonder if there’s any classical allusion behind ‘One true rump’ and ‘Truban titans’.

Rudy: These guys are stoned, high on the “drug” cocoa, so what they say isn’t very logical. They referred to Pinchley shitting kac, and now he is praising his own ass, in saying “the one true rump.” On the home world of Pinchley and Yampa, there are two tribes or political parties and one is the Trubans.

Page 120: “Done told you,” says bleary Pinchley. “No real cars in Van Cott at all. Only thing they driving here is beetles, beetles, beetles. Can’t road-trip no million miles in no beetle. Thing’s gonna pupate, or some shit like that.”
“It’s larvae and caterpillars that pupate,” corrects Scud. “Not full-grown beetles.”
“Our pet professor,” Yampa says to Scud, with a little bow. “Egg, larva, pupa, adult. Lady Filippa’s folk fashion that same flow.”
“What-frikkin-ever,” blusters Pinchley. “So maybe a car-beetle spawns a ribbon of eggs and keels over dead and the eggs hatch out larvae that eat the flesh of the passengers, which would serve you right if you’re stupid enough to road-trip in a beetle.”

Lei Hao: The sentence in bold doesn’t really help me understand the relation between Lady Filippa and what’s mentioned above. Are you trying to say that Lady Filippa belongs to the same kind of creature as beetles do?

Rudy: You need to understand that Yampa’s speech is kind of a word game, very mannered. I often have her alliterate, that is start all the words with one letter. And sometimes to do this the meanings of the words is twisted and forced. Yampa mocks Scud by calling him a pet professor. There is a woman Lady Filippa in Szep City who they want to bring the caraway seeds to. Lady Filippa’s race (folk) are organisms that undergo metamorphosis. When they see her, she will be a pupa. Now the car is a beetle, but it’s not the same kind of organism as Lady Filippa.

Page 125: Villy enjoys the sound of her voice. “You’re so alert,” he says. “Dialed up high.”
“I’m glad I stuck with you,” says Zoe. “When Meatball knocked you out, I panicked and hopped back to Los Perros.”

Lei Hao: What doest ‘dialed up high’ mean?

Rudy: Dialed up high is like turning a radio volume knob up to the LOUD setting.

{{=========13: Borderslam Inn

Page 143: “We only eat mini Thudds after they’re dead,” says Hungerford, chuckling. “Wouldn’t be humane otherwise. What with them having some rudimentary intelligence. Fortunately, a lot of them mini Thudds die on their way down from Borderslam Pass.”

Lei Hao: Are you saying that those mini Thudds do have some intelligence?

Rudy: Yes, this is a Southern English usage “what with them having” just means “because they have”.

Page 150: “Screw this,” says Villy and cranks the engine speed to a chattering scream. The spinning tires throw up a monster rooster tail. The whale rises up and hydroplanes the remaining half mile to the far shore. And then they start the climb.

Lei Hao: I don’t quite get the point of the ‘monster’ rooster tail thrown by the tires. Does it mean that the spinning tires stirred up a great amount of dust?

Rudy: The spray of water that a motorboat throws up behind itself is called a rooster tail. And her ‘monster’ means big.

{{=========16: Thuddland

Page 173: “Just about,” says Pinchley. “The way I’ve doctored up this car, she practically drives herself. But keep in mind the diorama has teeth. Be glad I finally fixed that driver side window so it’s easy to close.”

Lei Hao: I wonder if “the diorama has teeth” here means it’s still dangerous to drive with the upgraded car.

Rudy: A diorama is a museum-type display of stuffed animals against a painted backdrop. But this prehistoric scene isn’t a safe display, it’s alive and things in it can bite you.

Page 180: “There there,” says Zoe, teasing Villy and babying him at the same time. “Put your wittle head on my shoulder and get some more sleepy-bye.”

Lei Hao: I wonder if ‘wittle’ here means ‘little’.

Rudy: She’s doing baby talk: wittle for little and sleepy-bye for sleep.


Page 182: “I’m on it,” says Pinchley, all smooth and urbane. “Don’t need to slow down one tit or jottle, son. I’ve got me a deluxe model glassblaster beetle. Better than the healer tongue I used for the cracks after your brother rolled the car.”

Lei Hao: I’m not sure what “glassblaster” means. Is like describing something that’s high-class and powerful?

Rudy: It’s another of Pinchley’s seemingly endless supply of “tool creatures”. It fixes glass, like the windshield, and it spits out the glass fast, blasting it forcefully.

Page 183: Scud bombs on. He uses his teep to sense the myriad of minds in the jungle and, equally important, he senses the relatively empty zone wherein lies the road ahead.

Lei Hao: Does “bombs on” here means Scud keeps doing very well?

Rudy: To “bomb along” in a car means to drive fast.

Page 186: A nearby sky vine dangles from its mile-high hovering float, not far from skeenky Poppo, who is drifting away like a cloud.

Lei Hao: Does “skeenky” here means stinky?

Rudy: Skeenky is another of those made-up insult words of not quite certain meaning. Skeenky, skeevy, scuzzy, skanky, scurvy. Not necessarily stinky. Just strange and unpleasant.

Page 190: “Skorkers!” cries Pinchley, losing his cool and dropping into the Szep tongue himself. “Drive, Scud! And Meatball, get ready to zap those sneevers where it hurts!”

Lei Hao: I’m aware that skorkers belongs to the Szep tongue. Does it mean ‘stop saying that’ or ‘bastard’?

Rudy: A skorker is like a bastard.

{{=========17: Surf World

Page 218: “That wave is gonna to have a tube on its front side,” says Villy. “Up at the top, where it curves over. We’ll shoot that tube, right, Yampa? Mucho smeel in there. The one true light.

Lei Hao: I’m not quite sure what the one true light stands for.

Rudy: He’s a surfer excited about the tube at the top of a wave. He supposes it has a lot (mucho) of consciousness-vibe (smeel) and that you can contact the pantheistic/mystic/stoner deity known as the One, or the White Light, or the Absolute.

{{=========18: Beach Party

Page 226: “Beat it, Meatball,” interrupts Pinchley. “Told you already. Amscray. Last thing we frikkin need is a leech-saucer spy in our car. I got a feelin’ you’re gonna call down another hit on us.”

Lei Hao: I’m not sure what “Amscray” is.
Rudy: This is 1930s slang, known as pig Latin. You put the start of the word in back and add ay. Scram means go away, so pig Latin for it is Amscray. People used to say that!

{{=========19: Riding the Ridge

Page 262: “Wery many fossils here in our canyons,” says Gunnar, cutting off Scud. “Pinchopods, dungosaurs, blahceratops, squatoons, and bone-bones. No vanting more. You know vell vhat we vant.”

Lei Hao: I’m not sure what “blahceratops” and “squatoons” are. What kind of fossils are they?

Rudy: This is complicated. It’s like a way of making fun of science education. These are all silly made-up names for types of fossils. Or maybe they’re used by Gunnar because he doesn’t know proper English. Pinchopods might have claws. Dungosaurs leave fossil turds. A blahceratops is kind of boring or “blah.” A squatoon, well, squat is a kind of rough word meaning “shit” or “not much” (“You don’t do squat for me.”), so a squatoon would again be a kind of boring dinosaur.

Page 264: “Don’t you guys be beatin’ up dust and making a hoo-roar,” says Pinchley. “This here ant’s a-ponderin her specific moves.”

Lei Hao: Does “beatin’ up dust” here means excitedly praising or shouting out loud?

Rudy: Beating up dust would mean making excitement (roar or hooray or hoo-roar). I used to use this expression when our three kids would be too active in the house. “Don’t beat up dust!” Like stirring up dust and making me sneeze.

{{=========20: Not Mom

Page 276: “My name is not Crusty Crab,” he says with a creaking hiss. “It’s Klactoveedsedstene. Give me that saucer pearl.”

Lei Hao: I wonder if I can transliterate the name Klactoveedsedstene?

Rudy: This is a word make up by the famous bebop saxophone player Charlie Parker. He called one of his songs, “Klactoveedsedstene” and when someone asked him what it meant, he said, “It’s just a sound, man.”

{{=========21: Harmony

Page 305: “Stratocasting,” says Zoe.
Stratocaster is a model of Fender guitar,” says Villy, talking slow like Zoe’s out to lunch. “As it happens, my brah Znork in our surf trio plays a Fender Telecaster. Me, I have a cheap-ass git-box from N-Mart.”

Lei Hao: I’m aware that Stratocaster is a classic model of Fender but it becomes a kind of sound or performance given by Zoe and Villy to make their car go faster. I wonder if I could translate the word using a Chinese phrase that describes the sound of a Stratocaster.

Rudy: Going for the sound seems like a good idea.

Page 307: The guitar necks glow and flex as they dangle from the vine. Their bodies gleam with dark and kandy-kolor paint. They pinch free of the vines and settle onto the unfolded red Harmon. The vines and the moiré mesh are gone.

Lei Hao: I’m not sure what kandy-kolor means.

Rudy: Customized “hot-rod” automobiles in Southern California in the 1950s. They used a special sparkling iridescent paint with the trademark Kandy Kolor.

Page 309: “No!” yells Scud. “Don’t show us your grahb!” By way of changing the subject, Scud quickly tells the others, “Pinchley says it’s his turn to drive. Even if he doesn’t’t have his car.”
“Pinchley will drive us home to Szep City,” says Pinchley. “For Yampa’s woeful wake.”

Lei Hao: Does “wake” here means an occasion before or after a funeral when people gather to remember the dead person, traditionally held the night before the funeral to watch over the body before it is buried?

Rudy: Yes, exactly.

{{=========22: Stratocast

Page 313: “I see the colored things too,” says Zoe. “Smeel boomerangs. We’ll chase them with our notes. Stratocast a goblin march.”

Lei Hao: Does this “goblin march” means they’ll move forward like a goblin?

Rudy: Well, it’s just a sound like you might image in a cartoon of marching goblins. I think the phrase is inspired by a passage where someone is listening to a concert in E. M. Forster’s novel “Howards End.”

{{=========26: Flat Cow

Page 383: “The near end of the cow tail acts like a zipper-pull on the edge of a change purse you might get as a souvenir of a visit to, say, El Zigurat Fabuloso de la Goob-goob.”

Lei Hao: I’m not sure what “El Zigurat Fabuloso de la” means.

Rudy: In Mexico three are stair-stepped Aztec or Inca pyramids, or ziggurats, spelled zigurat in Spanish. Fabuloso is Spanish for Wonderful. And Goob-goob is a fabulous steppe pyramid.

{{=========29: Cosmic Beatdown, Part 1

Page 444: At least a dozen people were on that strip of lawn up there. Prosaic, stoic Principal Clark, Ms. Boot the enforcer, Chau En Lai the valedictorian, handsome Coach Simmons, Amparo Quinonez from the Los Perros city council, and Zoltan Nemeth the photographer—all of them murdered by the giant saucer.

Lei Hao: Does this happen to indicate the name of the previous Chinese Premier, Chou En-Lai?

Rudy: I was just lookin for an Asian name, and maybe I took Chou En-Lai from the newspaper. We have a lot of Chinese students at Los Gatos. You can decide what to use…maybe it would be confusing and distracting to use the Premier’s name. Maybe use your name! That would be funny for you and me to know this.

{{=========30: Cosmic Beatdown, Part 2

Page 450: Reality is a sea of sensations, feelings, and tales, intricately linked, with everything alluding to everything else. And the stodgy, solid, kick-a-brick, normative world—that part is the illusion. That part is the dream. Either way, it’s the same gnarly thing underneath. Feet on a welcome mat. A tangle of talk. Yeah. Villy feels high as a kite.

Does “ kick-a-brick” here means fucked-up here? Also I’m not quite sure what “ Feet on a welcome mat” means.

Rudy: The British philosopher known as Bishop Berkeley advocated the idealist or immaterialist doctrine which holds that everything in the world is a mind or an idea rather than a physical object. And the writer Samuel Johnson, speaking with a friend, kicked a brick and said “I refute him thus!” Jorge Luis Borges writes about this in an essay.

So what is real after all? Thoughts or objects? In the end both are the same. “Feet on a welcome mat.” I’m not precisely sure what I mean by this phrase…it’s sort of a Zen remark. Something very immediate that you see, looking down, your feet on a welcome mat and maybe the “mat” is the world letting you in, welcoming your feet.

Lei Hao: You say that “feet on a welcome mat” means that when you stand at the door, your feet stand on the blanket that welcomes you. Perhaps the blanket you can see only brings you to the world you can enter. I like the poetic comments you put here. I feel you are revealing here a critical philosophical question: the relationship between the physical world and mind.

Objective material conditions shape the way in which we can image the world, and the knowledge and imagination that we hold about the world can also influence how we can change the material world around us.

This question has its very practical significance in China today, especially when AI, big data, etc. those digital technologies are playing an increasingly important role in shaping Chinese society today. What algorithm we are able to produce has an enormous ramification of what kind of future we envision. In this particular historical conjunction, your work brings a timely alert, inspiring Chinese readers to think beyond. It is also because of this reason I am very keen to introduce your work to Chinese readers.

Page 456: And then she switches to showing the tunnel as a cubist comic strip, featuring a cute high school teacher lady who’s making love to conic sections.

Lei Hao: I wonder “making love to” here means she likes conic sections very much.

Rudy: Well, I think it means she’s somehow having sex with the conic sections, or at least going on dates with them. Makes no sense…but it’s cubist!

Page 458: “Can you tell that I’m having gaps?” asks Villy.
“You’re like a stone skipping across a poooond,” moos the flat cow.

Lei Hao: I wonder if the “gap” here means Villy thought he is not seen moving as a whole and continuously; instead, his appearance has been split by gaps due to the jump-cuts he experiences in the unspace.

Rudy: These aren’t spatial gaps in his body, these are temporal gaps is his time line. Like a film in which certain sequences of frames are missing. Jump cut is a phrase for this in editing film. People who are high on drugs might have the experience at times. A stuttering of the visible world. Hop, hop, hop.

And one again, if you want to get your hands on this amazing novel, here’s a universal ebook buy link for it. Print editions: Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Oh, and thanks again to Marc Laidlaw for writing the novel’s intro!

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