Archive for the ‘Rudy’s Blog’ Category

Pisa Talk: “Cyberpunk, Telepathy, Immortality”

 

Talk by Rudy Rucker for
Internet Festival 2019 in Pisa, Italy,
Friday, October 11, 2019, 15:00 - 17:00,
CENTRO CONGRESSI LE BENEDETTINE, Aula B,
With Ran Zhang and Daniele Brolli.

Where I’m From

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky during the 1950s and 60s. I read a lot of science fiction. And I was fascinated by the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. I wanted to be a novelist.

In 1963, I left Louisville, and went to college. I wanted to be a writer, but I majored in Mathematics. I didn’t like the English Lit classes. I figured I’d learn to write fiction on my own.

After Swarthmore, I married my college girlfriend, Sylvia. I got a Ph. D. in mathematics. I went on to have a fairly good career as a writer. I’ve published about forty books. I’ve written popular science books about infinity, about the fourth dimension, and and about the nature of computation. Many of my books are science fiction novels.

My best-known novel is Software, written in 1980. It was one of the earliest cyberpunk novels.


What is cyberpunk?

Simple answer: Cyberpunk = Cyber + Punk.

The cyber idea behind Software seems simple now.

  • You can make a software copy of your mind and load it onto a robot.

You’ve seen this scenario in a hundred movies and TV shows. But I was the first one to write about it. In 1980, “soul as software” was an unheard of thought. Hardly anyone even knew the word “software.”

To make my Software punk, I made the brain-to-software transfer gnarly. A gang of scary-funny hillbillies extracted people’s mental software by slicing off the tops of their skulls and eating their brains with cheap steel spoons. One of the hillbillies was a robot in disguise, and his stomach analyzed the brain tissue. Did I mention that I grew up in Kentucky?

I went on to write three sequels: Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware. They’re collected in my Ware Tetralogy. And you can read my Complete Stories for free online. Read one of my stories before you go to sleep tonight. You’ll have interesting dreams.

 

Early in my career I began collaborating with the “almost Italian” writer, Bruce Sterling. We recently published a book called Transreal Cyberpunk with nine stories that we wrote over the last thirty years.


Back to my life story. In grad school I was a hippie, in the Eighties I was a punk, and after that I settled down to being a cyberpunk. Even so, I’m a reliable family man, with three children, and five grandchildren.

A photo of my cyberpunk children in the early 1980s.

Being a respected writer doesn’t necessarily pay very well, so for most of my life I had a day job. I was a math professor until I was forty, and then we moved to California, and I became a computer science professor at San Jose State, in Silicon Valley.

I let the chip into my heart. As well as teaching CS, I did some work as a software engineer at Autodesk. I published several programs involving cellular automata, chaos, videogames, and artificial life. You can get these for free online.


Cyber

Cyberpunk is about computers merging into our reality. Cyberpunk explores the dancing boundaries among humans, daily life, and computers. The real world is blending with the computer world.


Software → People. Programs imitate us.

  • Software bots emulate partial human functions, taking over our jobs.
  • Hand-coding a full human-level AI is literally impossible, (proved by Alan Turing).
  • But we can evolve human-level AI…using neural nets…but we won’t know how they work.

People → Software. We augment ourselves with bots and robots.

  • People enhance themselves with apps on devices.
  • Apps can move to biocomputing symbiotes…to wear like leeches, like the “uvvy” discussed below.
  • The goal is digital immortality. Uploading into the cloud, or into an android bot, or into an animal.

Software ↔ Reality. The cloud merges with daily life.

  • Our daily world is saturated with the ubiquitous internet. Like damp sand is wet with water.
  • Face to face conversations are replaced by messaging, video, and social.
  • . We shop online with e-commerce.
  • We use VR to emulate the world, for entertainment, for training, and for predictions.

Punk

Punk is about maintaining our individuality, our independence, and our attitude.

Computers aren’t everything. Behaving like a robot is unpleasant. It’s more fun to be human.

The VR worlds of videogames are too clean. Even their scuff marks are clean. As Bruce Sterling once said, “We cyberpunks need to get in there with our spray cans.”

The physical world is grungy and gnarly. Wherever I am, I always look for the chaos, the natural gnarl, and when I find it I feel safer.

Punk is about turning your back on conventional top-down rules. Cyberpunk film and literature breaks free of the boring old plastic, white-bread visions of the future. And folding in more of our actual, daily world.

Punk is for countercultural, decentralized politics. Like, “You’re not my boss. I’m not listening. I’m doing it my way.” In a nutshell?

Punk means give the finger and walk away.

We want to be invisible, to have privacy, and to evade central control.

Don’t get permission, just do it.

Lifebox

I have a preliminary model for full human emulation. This is called a lifebox, and I wrote about it in my tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. In the next few years we’ll see lifeboxes as consumer products

A lifebox has three layers.

  • Data. A large and rich data base with a person’s writings, plus videos of them, and recorded interviews.
  • Search. An interactive search engine. You ask the lifebox a question, it does a search on the data, and it comes up with a relevant answer. Like Googling a website.
  • AI. A veneer of AI. An evolving neural net.

You can “talk” to a dead person if you have access to an online copy of their lifebox. The lifebox remembers each user’s search history and inputs—and pieces together a semblance of a continuing conversation

When you talk to an online lifebox, it might show an animated model of the lifebox creator. Or it might just be a little talking box with no screen. Here’s two kids talking to their dead Grandpa’s lifebox. They ask rude questions.


A person’s flow of thought is captured by links among the lifebox items. The links express the author’s sensibility, that is, the person’s characteristic way of jumping from one thought to the next.

How do you create your lifebox? First you can input your writings, your emails, your social media posts, your photos, and the like.

Beyond this the lifebox can interview you, prompting you to tell it stories. The lifebox links your anecdotes via the words and phrases you use. To clarify the data structure, the lifebox asks follow-up questions.

Note that humans build mental lifeboxes of their lovers and friends. In an intimate verbal conversation, language feels as effortless as singing or dancing. The ideas flow and the minds merge. Your internal lifebox models draw on a clear sense of your partner’s history and core consciousness.

By way of enhancing traditional text and image communications, people might use lifeboxes to introduce themselves to each other. Like studying someone’s home page before meeting them.


Telepathy

Our words act as instructions for assembling thoughts. But telepathy could work differently. By way of analogy, think about three different ways you might tell a person about something you saw.

Like this cool image from San Francisco. How to share it?

  • Text. Give a verbal description of the image, via voice or via message.
  • Image. Show them a photo.
  • Link. Give them a link to the photo on your webpage.

In showing you this post, I’m using words and bitmaps to get you to emulate my thoughts. But what if we had telepathy? I like to use the word teep for telepathy. I don’t think commercial, tech-based telepathy is very far off.

Let’s imagine a brain-wave-based cell phone. I call such a device an uvvy. An uvvy might instead be like a removable piezoplastic leech that perches on the back of a user’s neck. Or it might be a biocomputing leech.

An uvvy can read your brainwaves. and transmit the patterns to someone else.

And an uvvy can receive brainwave patterns and etch them into your own brain. You are directly experiencing each other’s thoughts.

The most obvious use of an uvvy would be to use it like a videophone which also includes emotions and physical sensations. We’d use it for teep.

A possible problem with brain-link teep is that you might have trouble deciphering the intricate structures of someone else’s thoughts—seen from the inside.

Sharing lifeboxes could help make sense of another person’s internal brain links.

That is, as well as using ethereal brain-wave-type signals, you’ll want to use hyperlinks into the other user’s lifebox . The combination of the two channels can make the teep comprehensible.

Immortality

A lifebox is a software model of a person. If you have a lifebox, are you immortal?

Preserve your software, the rest is meat?

Two problems.

  • Software doesn’t seem to be conscious and self-aware.
  • We want to be embedded in the physical, natural world. We want sensations, and we want to be able to touch things.

It seems possible to develop a strong AI that it enjoys self-awareness. The essence may be to model one’s sense of “watching yourself watch yourself”

We might call self-conscious lifebox a ghost.

Where does the ghost live? You don’t want Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook or Lifebox, Inc., to own your ghost. You want your ghost to be a free agent.

So okay, store your lifebox ghost in a rock, let’s say it’s your tombstone.

Rocks have a lot of computational power….given that they contain an octillion particles joined in a parallel quantum computation.

That’s fine, but you also want to be running a body that can walk around and feel things. You might embody yourself as some kind of machine—an android, a drone, or even a bulldozer.

But natural bodies are where it’s at. They’re gnarly and dirty and interesting. Where there’s filth, there’s life!

If you’re pushy, you might want to take over another person’s body, or share it with them. Or you might use a fresh, tank-grown human body. Or use an animal!

Put your tombstone mind inside a dog.

I use the expression juicy ghost for a lifebox model-ghost that’s running in the body of an animal, like a human, or a dog, a bird, or an insect.

I recently wrote a subversive political story about this called “Juicy Ghost.” You can read it online in a zine called Big Echo.

What if your juicy ghost body dies? Well, you’ve stored your lifebox within the quantum computations of the rock that is your tombstone, so now you can download yourself into any fresh human or animal body that passes by.

And thus you become immortal as a series of juicy ghosts, a series of living avatars, each with sense organs, mobility, and an ability to act in the world.

And all these wonders are thanks to cyberpunk!

References

I discussed the lifebox in my futurological novel, Saucer Wisdom.

I write about the lifebox in more technical detail in my popular science book,The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul>.

See also my Complete Stories , especially the stories “Soft Death” and “Juicy Ghost.”

My novel Software is part of the Ware Tetralogy.

I have a rudimentary lifebox for myself online as, “Search Rudy’s Lifebox,” at www.rudyrucker.com/blog/rudys-lifebox


Smoke and Mirrors

Today I’ve got a bunch of photos with captions.  Each caption is above the corresponding photo, as opposed to below the image, which is where I often put them.

Sylvia and I saw the Stones concert at Levi Stadium in San Jose. I got StubHub tickets on the last day, and the seats were pretty close to the stage, and at a decent price. Sylvia was glad. We’ve seen them about five or six times over the years, going back to 1972, when we went to Madison Square Garden with our pals Fran and Jim Carrig. Jim’s dead, but I always think of him when I see the Stones.

The “Sympathy for the Devil” performance lasted about fifteen minutes, we got lost in it, and it took me away, which is one of the things I really want from music. That’s good old Mick there. Back from the valley of the shadow of Death. He didn’t whip the stage with his belt like he did in 1972. Jim Carrig and I used to do that with our own belts after we saw the 72 performance, merry, callow youths that we were..

These days I worship Keith even more. The blues. They had really great video screens on the stage. By the way I recently watched Scorsese’s Shine a Light, which is about the best Stones movie out there.

Rudy Jr.’s company Monkeybrains.net has bought an immense warehouse in the Oakland flats for their operations in the East Bay. A really big room with a concrete floor and a timber ceiling. He’s still figuring out how to divide it up. Mainly they want to have their Oakland office there, and storage for a stash of the antennas that Monkeybrains delivers to their customers’ houses.

V. Vale and I did a reading in the very chapel of Beat, the upstairs room at City Lights Books in North Beach. He’s promoting a book of his photos, Underground Living. I happened to write the intro for Vale’s book. And ‘m promoting Million Mile Road Trip and my nine new Night Shade Books reprints.

For the show I read most of my subversive story, “Juicy Ghost.”

Our friends Lee and Susie Poague visited…we know them from our days in Geneseo, NY, where I had a job in the State University math department. Lee was in the English department, teaching Film and Journalsm classes. He’d get these huge rolls of film mailed into to show his classes — pre-video — and sometimes we’d watch those in his living-room, which was great. That was 45 years ago.

Before that, Lee and Susie went to San Jose State and actually got married in the campus chapel on the SJSU quad—50 years ago. Below is a shot of them by the chapel.

At Geneseo, Lee and I both knew we were going to be fired—the state university was in a “retrenchment” mode, which basically meant laying off faculty and hiring more administrators. Lee and I were constantly obsessing on the dangling carrot of “tenure”—our wives got tired of hearing about it.

In the end, of course, it was good for us that we left—in the wider world, things worked out pretty well.  And I got tenure at SJSU when I was fifty. In Geneseo, I never imagined I’d end up being a computer scientist in California. Moral? Hang in there. You never know.

Califor-ni-yay. I love all the palms here, and their shadows. This is by the Fairmont in downtown San Ho where, as usual, the sidewalks are so empty you could fire a cannon down one without hitting anyone.

The other day I went out to Three Mile Beach north of Cruz with my friend Jon Pearce. Totally deserted, but in nature that’s a good thing. I think I once read that in Yellowstone park, 95% of the tourists never get more than twenty feet from their car. It’s really nice how deeply into wild nature you can get in the SF Bay Area if you drive about half an hour and walk for fifteen minutes.

Below is a good clear view of one of our state’s numerous faults. I recently read John McPhee’s book Assembling California. Talk about big picture.  Our state piled up from ocean bottom sliding east and mountain range sliding west…about a hundred million years ago.

And meanwhile I’m obsessed with global warming over the next twenty years.  A bit of a disproportion there.  Not that I want to minimize the current crisis.  But the scope of geological deep-time history is kind of staggering. Compared to ten million years, one year is the last millimeter of a timeline that’s ten kilometers long.

Two old men on the beach, that is, Jon and me. Last week, Sylvia and I went to Jon’s seventieth birthday party in a park in Santa Cruz. My friends and I  never imagined we’d get this old—although staying alive has its rewards. Jon was my office-mate when I was teaching Computer Science at San Jose State. I was there eighteen years, and now it’s been fifteen years since I retired. The older I get, the faster time goes, which is exactly the opposite of what I’d want.

I haven’t been shooting as many photos as usual of late. I think it’s partly because I’ve been focused on writing short stories. First I did “Juicy Ghost” this spring, and I wrote two more in the last two months, “Everything is Everything,” and “The Mean Carrot.” I’m sending them out to magazines, and if all else fails I’ll post them online.

Seems like all of my stories these days are relating to commercial telepathy tech, and to storing backups of your personality in the cloud. This pair of themes feels like an SF trope that’s opening up, with a lot of possible angles. I might stay with it and write more stories in this vein over the coming months.

The photo below is in a parking garage in Santa Cruz. I was attracted by the pattern of light and shadow in that triangle at the bottom. But there’s so much else to look at that I didn’t crop it down. Going for more of a wide-angle Winogrand thing, although minus the people. Of course if you’re a hylozoist, like I am, you think that everything is alive, so there’s quite a chatty cround in this pic.

I always feel it’s too obvious to photograph signs, but I liked the light on this truck by that parking arage. Also, as I say, I’ve been away from photography, and if I have my good little Fujifilm X100-T along, it’s like everything I see starts looking like a potential photo. Something I like about carrying a camera: it opens my eyes. “Seeing photos” is a special mental process I’ve learned.

This next photo is more of a trophy than anything else, although I do like the pattern. I have a cloth hammock in the corner of the back yard, with one end tied to a tree, and the other end tied to this 4 x 4 that I embedded in a bag of concrete in a posthole-digger-dug hole twenty years ago.

Slowly it rotted, and recently it expired with a huge crack, the last time Rudy Jr. was in it, not that he’s portly. So I managed to root out the remains of the broken stub and put in a new 4 x 4. For me, accomplishing this kind of home improvement task is a triumph. For me, even knowin the phrase “4 x 4” is quite an accomplishment.

Note that Sylvia and I have a metal R and S from the kids in the underbrush there, but you can’t see the S.

But you can see an S below, a post of a post in Rudy’s new warehouse. I love planes of color, and architectural meshes of posts.

Another abstraction from the warehouse below. That’s a puddle on the floor reflecting the ceiling.

Sylvia and I took the grandkids to the Ed Hardy tattoo show downstairs the DeYoung museum in Golden Gate park. The show was a lot more interesting that I’d expected—the highlight was a 500-foot long by 4-foot high continuous scroll of Tyvek material decorated with two thousand dragons painted on by Ed, in a varying freestyle style, int the year 2000, on this 2000 squae foot scroll. Ed did scads of little dragons as well as the big ones, in order to get the population up. That’s a big one below, near the end of the scroll.

And here’s Pig Elder with one of the larger dragons.

Hardy’s scroll painting was inspired by a 13th Century scroll by Chen Rong called “Nine Dragons.” I have a little section of it below, but I also have a big, zoomable image of the whole scroll online. It’s kind of like that timeline thing. We think we’ve come so far in art in modern times…but look where Chen Rong was nine centuries ago.

And here’s a tiny cute dragon with polka dots.

Somehow Rudy got hold of an old non-electric pachinko machine, where you fire little balls up into a grid. A little like a vertical pinball machine, and a little like a slot machine. They’re very big in Japan. If you end up with a large number of balls, you can get money for them, even though cash rewards at pachinko parlors are “illegal.”

The way it works is that in the parlor, when you return your balls, if you have more than you started with, they give you a package of Zippo lighter flints. And then you go down a tiny alley behind the pachinko parlor to a window in the wall, and the woman there exchanges your lighter flints for yen cash. My grandson Calder plays pachinko with his foot. Clever lad.

The city finished building a new arena for the Warriors to play b-ball in, it’s called the Chase Center—and why oh why can’t we have permanent and non-commercial names for the monumental urban structures that we subsidize with our taxes and our attendance fees?

Anyway, there’s very cool sculpture installation by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. It’s on the Bay side of the building, consisting of 5 (as in 5 players) spheres (as in basketballs), and each sphere has one side shaved off to make a mirrored plane, and they’re arranged in a pentagon, mirrors facing the center, and you get awesome multiple reflections.

You can see the back of my head (wearing a pale straw hat) five levels in. And to top it off, there’s always ships parked there in the Bay…they have, like, a ship-repair spot there. Note that the sign is mirror-reversed…because I’m pointing my camera into a mirror. Fabuloso.

And here’s a traffic mirror in the Monkeybrains warehouse, from when the earlier owners—who provisioned ships—had little fork-lift trucks rolling around. I wear a new striped T-shirt from Gap. I’ve always liked striped T-shirts, first of all because I had a drawer full of them when I was about seven, and also because the holy Saint Andy W. wore them.

I drew the figure below for a story “Surfers at the End of Time” that I wrote with Marc Laidlaw about a year ago, featuring our recurrent transreal characters, the surfers Zep and Del. Time travel can get complicated. I redrew the diagram ten times while Mar and I were working on the story. I was a little surprised how complicated it turned out, but that’s where the logic led.

In the diagram, you’ll notice five names at the top, and these names correspond to the five worldlines below. Gother and Sally are women that Zep and Del meet, and Lars is kind of gnome called a murg. As you can kind of see, Lars has a closed-loop worldline. Just now, I won’t get into explaining any more than, but I will say more when the story comes out, in the Nov-Dec, 2019 issue of Asimov’s SF.

I’m hoping to start another story soon, but today I’ll go out in the back yard and paint.

Anthony Burgess’s Novel of Shakespeare

Recently I read Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun. It’s a tale of William Shakespeare’s life, largely written in Elizabethan late 1500’s English. At first, starting out the book, it seemed too hard. But, just like when I see a Shakespeare play, I adapted a bit—and lived with the fact that many of the unfamiliar words were unknown to the Oxford Dictionary in my Kindle. Indeed a few of the expressions or words don’t even turn up hits on Google. But I did find definitions for a lot of them, and the remaining ones I could figure out from context, which was kind of fun.

These days I often read books on Kindle—because I can put them into a font size suitable for my old eyes. I do love paper, of course, but font size matters more. Another bennie of using the Kindle is that I can highlight passages that strike my fancy, email the passages to myself, and use them as the text for one of my photoblog posts. So here are my quotes, with some short comments, also photos, mostly from New York and Santa Cruz, plus a couple of my new paintings.

“Gems Diptych” acrylic on canvas, August, 2019, Pair of paintings, each 24” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

The young Shakespeare has sex with a passionate older woman, who speaks in a ladylike way afterwards, even though, to his shock, “[her speech] in no wise congrued with her lying near-bare against him nor with that horrible steaming-out, some few minutes past of a mouthful apter for a growling leching collier pumping his foul water into some giggling alley-mort up by the darkling wall of a stinking alehouse privy.”

(I did the two paintings above by starting out by brushing in a flowing Art Nouveau grid, as if for a stained-glass window, and then filling in the cells with colors, going to great lengths to have the shading be nice and smooth. The first one took me nearly thirty hours to do. I liked it so much that I did a second, using approximately the same colors, so they make a nice pair, or diptych. The paintings have zero connection with the quote above, but I wanted to put the Gems first in this post because I love them.)

Life in a nutshell: “…the eternal terrible truth of the skull disclosed at the feast’s end.” (This summer will turn to winter…)

Nature writing: “Leaves gold and brown lying like fried fish; birds twittering like rats in branch-companies, ready to leave the sinking ship of summer.” (Photo from a Santa Cruz bluff.)

Ah, the Shakespearean insights. “The play we act in is still busily being written in that dark room behind, the final couplet not yet known even to the cloaked and anonymous writer.” (The picture shows J. P. Morgan’s rare book room in Manhattan.)

A resentful older rival of Shakespeare’s famously applies this description to him in a pamphlet, soon after our Willy the Shake made it into the London theater scene: “An upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” (Full house at a Broadway performance of Hadesland.)

Shakespeare writes a pamphlet length poem called Venus & Adonis, dedicating it to an earl whose support he needs. “It is not good, but it is as good as many. I cannot waste my whole life in longing for this man’s art and that man’s scope.” (The beauty queen in the photo was on a float. She’s gearing up for a Cuban parade in Manhattan, and she’s checking out a photo her friend took of her practicing a pose.)

Birds really are not our friends. “They were swans, but like the swans that sailed in the barge’s wake, greedy and cold-eyed. And the kites that flew to and from their scavenging in the June air, the ultimate cleansers of the commonwealth, they attested the end of all noble flesh.” (I rode my bicycle along the cliffs between Three Mile Beach and downtown Santa Cruz, and hit on this deserted cove. The driftwood here looks like a an alien slug. Possibly a flesh-eater!)

Burgess really raises his game in Nothing Like The Sun . “It was for lying, he saw hopelessly, that words had been made. In the beginning was the word and the word was with the Father of Lies.” (Not that this innocent and entertaining busker in the photo in Madison Square is the Father of Lies! But his beseeching pose vaguely fits the quote.)

Shakespeare is a father now, and he ponders how strange it is to to have spawned new human lives. “Only from them, the makers [that is, the parent], was hidden the enormous pulse of the engines, whose switch they touched by an alien curse concealed in the fever of rose or apple or mirror.” And looking out at the spreading lives of your offspring, “Yet there was only the one personal burden of being the source of the whole, the centre of the projection of shadows into the real that, bigger and undying, yet moved as oneself moved, in the mock court of an endless sterile reign to truckle and mow [not sure what he means by mow here].” (Rudy Jr. and me in Maine, photo by Embry Rucker III.)

A young writer’s unkind thoughts about his elders in the field. “There are examples enough of other poets and players who sought, when their powers failed for the enactment of sin, to whine to Almighty God of their deep and profound repentance. Yet call time back and they would be staggering anew in their drunkenness and grunting in beastly thrusting at their ragg’d and spotted drabs.” (That’s a full-size car. Sculpture in Manhattan near the midtown boat taxi stop.)

Love this quote. I’d like to start using this all the time. “I have news for thee, snorer.” (Photo in the Met.)

“Then to thy bed, belching in sloth, to lie there, paper unwritten on save by random sprawling greasy greedy fingers, ale-drop jottings, dust settling on the pile.” (At one of our fave restaurants in Manhattan, L’Express on Park Ave at 20th St.)

“WS blinked back to the painful world on a hot morning, openmouthed at the strong mid-morning sunray infested with motes.” I love looking at motes in the sunlight. Each mote a universe. (Cubans getting their outfits on for the parade. Love how cheerful they are. A holiday outing.)

“Five Eggs” acrylic on canvas, August, 2019, 24” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting. (This was a third version of the “Gems” paintings, but this time I wanted to put critters into the cells, so they’d be like eggs.)

“…a thrust of opal drops in animal ecstasy unleashed a universe — stars, sun, gods, hell and all.” “Soon, his heart sank to think it, she would be enticed to cornfields to beguile the dullness of a country spring.”

You never really know what you’re doing when you’re writing. All you can do is hope for the best. “…a man’s art and skill grew or languished or merely changed, and all beyond his control.” (The Met. I like to pretend that the crater at the top is the mouth of this being, with the black dot the eye. Sort of a half-fish half-human Bosch/Bruegel critter.)

“Only he himself knew what might be done if the words and craft could descend in a sort of pentecostal dispensation of grace. He saw dimly, a vision lay coyly beyond the tail of his eye. This stuff was play. There was a reality somewhere to be encompassed and, with God’s grimmest irony, it might only be grasped through playing at play, thus catching reality off its guard.” (A shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Los Gatos near a Jesuit Center. Dig the praying saint on the left.)

“For the first time it was made clear to me that language was no vehicle of soothing prettiness to warm cold castles that waited for spring, no ornament for ladies or great lords, chiming, beguiling, but a potency of sharp knives and brutal hammers.” (Some of my recent Night Shade reprints on the shelf in the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in NY. Yes!)

Our World is an Absolute Continuum. New “Infinity & the Mind.”

I recently wrote a fourth preface for my classic Infinity and the Mind. It’s out in a new 2019 edition from Princeton University Press in paperback and ebook.. The book has sold several hundred thousand copies by now. I wrote it over about four years in my early thirties, around 1980.

In my latest preface I decided to go for it and argue that the physical space that we live in is infinite in the highest possible degree. We live, I claim, in an Absolute Continuum. I’m going to put an edited version of the preface into today’s post. Here we go.

These days people are prone to thinking digitally. The internet and the handheld device are everywhere. And there’s a numbing tendency to suppose that our world could be a virtual-reality simulation on a grid. But is your mind just a few lines of code? Space a heap of blocks? Time a scrapbook of stills? The cosmos an integer? Surely not.

Some people don’t want the world to be infinite. They concoct bogus theories and metaphors to imply the world to be finite. The intellectual hero of Infinity and the Mind, Georg Cantor, had sharp words for such doubters. Here’s what he wrote in 1885:

The fear of infinity is a form of myopia that destroys the possibility of seeing the actual infinite, even though it in its highest form has created and sustains us, and in its secondary transfinite forms occurs all around us and even inhabits our minds.

We can take Cantor’s remarks as phenomenological observations about our experiences. When he speaks of “infinity in its highest form,” he means something like the Cosmic One, the Big Aha, or the White Light. It doesn’t have to be a traditional religious thing. I’m thinking of an all-suffusing glow, or a feeling that all is one—an experience which many of us have, however briefly. Thereby we get a numinous sense of the absolute infinite.

And when Cantor speaks of transfinite forms being all around us and in our minds, he’s expressing another aspect of our perceptions. When you’re in a relaxed mood, the physical world feels smooth, sensual, rich, and endless. Note, however, that if you’re feeling stressed, the world seems cramped, shoddy, and finite. Like an airport waiting room with so-called news blaring from a TV screen on the wall. Don’t want to be there.

Cantor was inspired by his wonderful 1873 theorem that the countable infinity of the integers is smaller than the infinity of decimal values on the real number line, which is often called mathematical space, or the continuum. The first of these two sets is said to have size alef-null, and the size of the second set is called c, for “continuum.”

Cantor showed that there’s a tower of infinities: starting with alef-null and alef-one. Alef-one is the next transfinite after alef-null. The scale runs ever upward. Cantor wondered if the size of c might be alef-one—this question is known as Cantor’s Continuum Problem, which is unsolvable on the basis of our current knowledge of infinity. That is, we can’t prove anything about the proper place of c among the alefs. Some new insights are needed—or perhaps c can’t be matched up with any alef at all.

At the top of the endless run of alefs is what we call absolute infinity, or Ω. It’s like the vanishing point in a perspective painting. Ω is ineffable. If you reach out to grab it, you always find you’re holding some smaller cardinal. In set theory, this phenomenon is known as the Reflection Principle.

The Reflection Principle is related to a theological principle articulated by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. “No matter how far our mind may have progressed in the contemplation of God, it does not attain to God, but to what is beneath God.” Let me repeat that I’m not out to discuss the God of religion here. But the science of the infinite is, you see, almost like mathematical theology.

In this note I want to broach a fresh means of bringing the transfinites into ordinary life. I have in mind an additional type of absolute infinity, that is, the absolute continuum. It’s much larger than the garden-variety space continuum of decimal numbers.

Math alert. The construction principle for an absolute continuum is this: every gap is filled.. And by a “gap” we mean any two sets of points L and R, with every member of L being less than every member of R. In an absolute continuum, there’s always a point in between. And we’re allowed to have L or R be an empty set. So if L is {1,2,3,4,…} and R is empty, then the simplest number in the “gap” will be alef-null. A more concise way to describe the absolute continuum is as what the topologist Felix Hausdorff would call an eta-Ω class.End math alert.

The construction principle for an absolute continuum doesn’t sound like much, but it produces a lot. You end up with all the familiar real numbers, plus all of Cantor’s transfinite alefs, plus the infinitesimal reciprocals of all the alefs, not to mention crazy things like “the alef-seventh root of pi divided by alef-one.”

The great John Horton Conway worked out the theory of the absolute continuum in his ground-breaking 1976 book, On Numbers and Games. The legendary old-school computer hacker Bill Gosper once remarked: “Conway is approximately the smartest man in the world.” Conway’s system was elegantly popularized in the computer-scientist Donald Knuth’s popular presentation Surreal Numbers. Wikipedia has a great entry on surreal numbers. Conway himself used the name No (as in number) for his version of the absolute continuum, and we’ll use that name for it too.

Math alert. The absolute continuum No is a type of absolute infinity that’s quite distinct from the “largest number” Ω. No is at least as big as its subclass Ω, and if No can in fact be measured on a linear size scale then it would probably have size Ω. But it could be that there’s something about No that resists being well-ordered at all. Perhaps it’s too wide, or too deep. The question of whether the absolute continuum No has size Ω is akin to Cantor’s Continuum Problem, which first asks if the decimal real number line can be measured as any alef at all, and only then asks if that size might be alef-one. End math alert.

My mission in this post is to stretch your mind and get you to imagine that we live in an absolute continuum like No. That is, our physical space is an absolute continuum, and time is an absolute continuum as well. How might we imagine this?

Infinite sets of discrete, separate objects aren’t very natural to think about—consider the stars in an endless universe, or the ticks of an eternal clock. To imagine such collections, you have to partition seamless reality into chunks, and envision all the chunks at once, and somehow enumerate them.

It’s simpler to think of infinity in terms of a continuum. An interval of time, a gradation of color, a nuance of feeling, a puff of air—these are infinitely subtle continua that fit into daily life.

And what of Cantor’s transfinites, that is, alef-one, alef-two, and the rest of his prankster band? If physical space is an absolute continuum, it extends all the way out to Ω. There are star-studded gulfs at transfinite removes. You encounter an absolutely infinite supply of planets on your way towards Ω.

But, again, it’s more satisfying to think about higher infinities that are within our immediate purview. And this can be done via the absolute continuum. Given that, for instance, alef-three is present in our spatial absolute continuum, then the reciprocal of alef-three exists—and very near by. Supernumerary gulfs of stars fit in among our atoms, nestled within our bodies like reflections in the mirrored surface of a crystal ball.

Alef-seven dreams in the petal of a rose.

At this point I need to interrupt my agreeable fantasia and mention the tedious difficulties posed by quantum mechanics. One hears that it’s meaningless to speak of space at levels smaller than the so-called Planck length, which, measured in meters,  is 1 divided by 10 to the 35th power.  Which is about one sextillionth the size of a proton. Very small, but it’s not continuous, and I don’t like that. Especially if these cheapskates say that space itself is tessellated into indivisible lumps or cells that are the size of the Planck length.

Ah, the myopic fear of infinity! First comes a call for finitistic austerity, then a grudging admission that granular space doesn’t quite make sense, and then comes the lilting injunction: “Be happy! The universe is incomprehensible! How wonderful!”

(Foaming at the mouth like a rabid moose.)

To me, incoherence isn’t wonderful. It means your theory isn’t done. Reality comes first. Theories come second. The world arises on its own, and our opinions don’t limit what the cosmos can do.

Brave words, but how am I going to preserve our absolute continuum in the face of quantum mechanics? Well, let’s suppose that the quantum level is like an interzone, or a glitch, or a rumble-strip. We can trundle right over it.

And beyond, or beneath, or beside the quantum-transition layer we enter what I like to call the subdimensions. According to the viewpoint I’m describing, our physical space has sub-quantum, subdimensional levels that allow space to be an absolute continuum.

I think of an 1877 work, Die Philosophie des Als Ob, by Hans Vaihinger. In English the title would be The Philosophy of As If. I like those two German words Als Ob. Vaihinger proposes that you might, if only for pleasure, choose to believe certain kinds of metaphysical doctrines, even though there might be no hope of firmly proving these ideas.

And right now I’m fascinated by the notion that our physical space is an absolute continuum. I’ve always felt it’s sad to stare out at the stars and yearn for distant vastness. We can have humongous, ginormous infinities right here. Thinking this way makes the world seem more interesting, and provides a sense of peace.

There’s an extra bonus to having our space be an absolute continuum. Mathematically, any delimited region of such a space is an absolute continuum as well. In that you occupy a region of an absolute continuum, your body comprises an absolute continuum. So you’re absolutely infinite, just as you are. Your endlessly various gnarliness runs down past the alef-seventh level, and ever deeper towards the ineffable 1/ Ω. You’re a higher being, friend.

One more bonus: adherents to the pawky doctrine of quantized space say that your body is a finite pattern, like a set of pixels. And, therefore, they prate, if space is large, then your pattern is likely to repeat, and there might be endlessly many yous. How dull. And what a waste of infinite space! The finitist argument doesn’t go through if each of us is an absolute continuum. We have enough wiggle room to be terminally unique.

For a dramatization of life in an absolute continuum, see my 2008 science-fiction story, “Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory.” The tale is about a mathematician named Jack, and his visit to the land of Alefville, which is an absolute continuum. In this realm Cantor’s transfinite numbers are indeed real, both in the large and in the small. And the denizens of Alefville are called aktuals, thus the story’s title. The story appeared in the online site Tor.com , and it’s also in my anthology, Complete Stories, available in print, ebook, or browsable online.

But I didn’t go far enough in “Jack and the Aktuals.” I didn’t argue that we really are living in an absolute continuum. That’s what I do with my science and my science fiction, you see. I convince myself that the world around me is really, really weird. And that makes life more interesting.

While I was working on the new preface to Infinity and the Mind, my wife Sylvia and I drove to the seaside town of Santa Cruz. While Sylvia scavenger-hunted the shops for buttons for the two grandchildren’s sweaters that she’d knit, I sat on the 3rd Avenue Beach in the sun, enjoying the long smooth waves, and pondering the absolute continuum.

As I say, I’m trying to imagine that the space around us really is transfinite—not only with all the usual real numbers, but with even more points dusted into the infinitesimal gaps. I’m supposing that space is an absolute continuum, jam-packed with surreal numbers. And never mind about atoms or quantum mechanics—you can go on down and down. And sure, there might even be superclusters of galaxies down there—why not! There’s room for everything amid the cascading levels of alefs.

Why wouldn’t our actual world be as rich as possible? The traditional philosophical Principle of Plenitude supports this view. God’s got the big budget, right? Why would the Cosmos chintz out? We’ve got the real thing, the deluxe edition. We live in an absolute continuum!

Dream with me. Let our full native space be a glittering absolute continuum, running up and down the size scales, with no end in sight. We’ve been safe in heaven all along, with stars twinkling within and without, our absolute continuum like a phosphorescent sea, like a spangled scarf, as above so below.

If only I could remember this for more than a minutes at a time!

Working on it now…writing another story. In the same world as “Juicy Ghost”—but not so political.


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