So I gave my reading from Nested Scrolls at Borderlands. We had a small, friendly crowd, including several characters from the book.
I made a podcast of the reading. You can click on the icon below to access the podcast via my Feedburner podcast station.
(Note that Feedburner only shows my most recent podcasts. For older audio files, see my Podcasts page, which runs back to 2005.)
As I’ve mentioned before, the US edition of my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, is out from Tor Books.
This Saturday, January 14, at 3:00 pm, I’ll be giving a reading from Nested Scrollsat the fabulous and cozy Borderlands Books (and cafe) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. We’ll have a Q & A session after the reading, and we’ll be giving away a large, high-quality art print of one of my paintings.
I was in Brussels on November 22, 2011, to give a talk at TEDx Brussels at the Bozar building in Brussels.
Here’s a photo I took of the audience after the talk.
A video of my talk went online as of November 24, 2011. And I’ve embedded the video here.
The rest of this post consists of the slides and the outline of the fifteen-minute talk.
In this talk I speculate about the year 3000. A thousand years from now.
I first came to Brussels here in 2000 to do some research for my novel about Peter Bruegel’s life, As Above So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel. And in 2002, I was here as a guest of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts.
The picture shown above is called The Beekeepers. It’s disturbing and surreal. Bruegel drew this image in 1568, shortly after the patriots, the Count of Egmont and the Count of Hoorne were beheaded at behest of the Spanish Inquisition. My sense is that those straw hives represent the baskets into which Count Egmont’s and Count Hoorne’s heads dropped after being lopped off by the executioner’s sword in the Grand Place.
The image has some relevance to my talk, as a human head, is after all, a rather compact and intense information storage device, and I’ll be discussing the notion of a “lifebox” model of a human personality.
I got a Ph. D. in mathematics, and I’ve published popular science books about infinity and about the fourth dimension. I spent about twenty years as a computer science professor at San Jose State. And over the last ten years I’ve become something of a painter—and you’ll see some of my pictures here. But the the main thing I do is to to write science fiction novels. By now I’ve published twenty of them.
In 1982, I published my early cyberpunk novel, Software. The book introduced a theme I’ve been thinking about for my whole career. Is it possible to copy a person’s personality and essence into another medium? In Software, my notion was that some helpful robots were copying people’s brains by slicing them up—extracting the human software. And the software was being put onto robot bodies. That woman on the cover is an android, you understand. Software and three follow-up novels are available now as the Ware Tetralogy.
I do see this as being something that will happen in the next thousand years. In the very near term, we already have a simple way for mimicking the process, something that I call lifebox software. The idea behind a lifebox is get a large and rich data base with a person’s writings, videos of them, interviews, and so on. That’s the back end. The front end of a lifebox is an interactive search engine. This will be a huge commercial business soon. I’ve even made a preliminary attempt at a Rudy’s lifebox.
Back in the mid 1980s, I became fascinated with a new style of parallel programs called cellular automata or CAs. I learned about them from Stephen Wolfram. I was interested in his remarks that some cellular automata are universal computers.
I wrote this early CA in assembly language, and the display is made of ASCII characters. I call this particular CA Maxine Headroom after the then-popular animatronic TV character Max Headroom. You can get this program as part of the free Cellab software online.
Although I was getting my novels published I wasn’t earning enough money to support myself, my wife and our three children. I decided to get into computer science. Even though my Ph. D. was in mathematical logic, in 1986 I was able to get a job as a computer science professor at San Jose State University in California.
In principle any universal computer can emulate a human mind. And many natural systems behave like cellular automata. So I began wondering if there might be some way to have natural objects become programmable in an easy way.
Above is an image of me clowning with a South Pacific cone shell. The cone shells are beloved by fans of cellular automata, as it’s widely believed that the shells’ patterns are generated by a biological process very similar to a cellular automaton. Here I’m imagining that the cone shell will somehow connect to my brain.
In the years to come, I got ever more involved involved with CAs. The way they work is that, in a CA, you can think of the onscreen pixel as being a little computer, with all of them updating in parallel. One trick that I liked to use continuous values for the states of these pixels or cells, see my free software CAPOW, available online.
Perhaps my favorite CAs are the ones that spontaneously take on the appearance of ever-turning nested scrolls. These guys are called Belousov-Zhabotinsky scrolls, They’re are common in physics—as patterns of turbulent wakes. And they’re ubiquitous in biology—you find Zhabotinsky scrolls in mushroom caps, shells, beans and fetuses. Some have argued that everything in the world is a CA.
I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours staring at CAs. I was always looking for the gnarly ones, that is the CAs whose pattern is nicely positioned between order and randomness. I like using the more California word “gnarly” instead of “complex” or “chaotic.”
Working as a programmer, I learned the frustration of working with the brittle computing machines. If you omit a semi-colon in a novel, the novel doesn’t disappear—as can happen with a program.
Thinking as a science-fiction writer, I liked to imagine having a completely smooth interface between myself and the outer world—which I’ve painted as a torus here. I was still thinking in terms of a cable into my spine at this point. You can see all of my paintings online.
Where will end up in a century or two will be a device that sits on the back of your neck and communicates with other people via their devices. I call these things uvvies in my science fiction novels.
An uvvy link is very close to telepathy. I think we’ll get true telepathy when, instead of sending information to someone else, you simply send them a link to the location where that information is stored in your own brain. And they can access it there without copying it. Relative to you, other people are part of your data cloud.
This picture shows a pathological regress you might encounter with telepathy. Like pointing a video camera at its output screen. An infinite regress. But there’s nothing really wrong with that kind of experience. It might even be fun. This drawing and the ones to follow are taking from my novel, Saucer Wisdom.
At this point I was getting more and more interested in biocomputation. I think an uvvy might well be a biotech device—probably you want anything that interfaces that closely with your body to be alive.
A much easier biocomputation app we’re likely to see is a substance similar to the skin of a cuttlefish. Call it squidskin for short. We’ll be using squidskin as an inexpensive all-purpose display. This guy has a squidskin pillow so he can look at nice things in bed.
I like to use the word wetware when talking about hacking genomics. I’m taking wetware to mean the genomic information that generates a living organism. An acorn is the wetware for an oak tree, an egg is the wetware for a chicken, a person’s wetware is their DNA.
I don’t see nanotech as a separate discipline. It’s really about learning to work with the biotech already present in nature. To become a wetware engineer.
Looking towards the year 3000, I expect that we will have gotten very good at wetware engineering. This painting show a future city in which all of the buildings—except for that tree in front—have been grown.
Note also the Bosch-style little man in the lower corner. And the floating little figures might be taking the place of surveillance cameras. For some reason each of them shaped like the Virgin Mary. This painting was made for my novel Frek and the Elixir, which is set in the year 3003.
Naturally we’d like to grow our own houses. I think of a seed about the size of a pizza, and you shove it in the ground. I like the idea of a family living inside a kind of oak tree with squidskin on the inner walls.
I see the tree as being powered off photosynthesis. It has toilets in the walls that feed into the tree’s metabolism. It extracts metal from the ground and grows an electrical circuit, in case we’re still using electricity. The internal plumbing system extracts water from a tap-root that grows down to the water table.
The people have symbiotic wings they can strap on. I know there’s an energy problem in human flight—we’ll assume the wings are powered with, let us say, dark matter.
We can expect wetware engineered plants to grow any kinds of objects that we need. Here you see a plant like a corn stalk, except it extracts iron from the soil and forms a knife at its tip. A stub of the stalk makes a nice handle.
In the early 2000s, I became interested in the notion of moving beyond biocomputation as well If we take seriously the notion of quantum computation, anything at all can be a computer.
The notion that I’m leading up to is hylozoism. This is a real word, you can find it in Wikipedia. I got so enamored of this word that I even wrote a novel called Hylozoic, in which everything is alive—even the rocks.
A stone is, after all, like a jiggling mass of a septillion atoms, connected by spring-like bonds. There’s a lot happening inside a rock. Why shouldn’t it be as intelligent as I am?
In a hylozoic society of the year 3000, we don’t use manufactured tools anymore.
Instead we directly program the material objects around us. Every object is filled with quantum wave functions. Every object is programmable. Every object is alive. You only have to tell it what to do.
And how do you talk to the objects? Via our uvvies—that is, via something like telepathy.
Here’s a matching pair of images—just for fun.
This painting shows a weird scene in our biocomputational future. Think of it as a year 3000 disco.
And here’s a pattern of cellular automata that underlies the year 3000 disco. This is what our world is like a smooth field of quantum computation. That’s all that’s there. And we only interpret the patterns as being things like green potatoes and dancing ducks?
And after the year 3000? Perhaps we leave our bodies and turn into light. Or maybe into subdimensional jellyfish, as I discuss in my novelMathematicians in Love.
On Wednesday, October 26, I’m giving a short talk for TEDx Los Gatos. At this point all the seats for the event are taken, but eventually videos will be available and I’ll post a link to them here. The idea behind TEDx events is that they are set up to resemble the official TED talks, but any local group in the world can mount a TEDx, assuming they stick to certain guidelines.
Here’s a preview PDF file of my slides and text for my talk, “Transreal In Los Gatos.” It’s a large file, so when you click the link, it’ll take up to a minute before you see the images onscreen. Note also that I’m still revising the text, and in the end it’ll come out different during live performance.
Sylvia and I were in downtown San Jose this weekend, nice to get a taste of city without driving all the way to SF.
Downtown San Jose does tend to be a little deserted.
But they have a great patisserie called Bijan near the art museum.
The San Jose Art Museum is an interesting building, expanded out from an old stone Post Office.
And they’re having a show of paintings by Joan Brown (1938-1990). She hasn’t had a big show around here since 1998, when there was a somewhat larger two-site show in Oakland and Berkeley. About the best book on Joan Brown was based on that show.
The SJ show is definitely worth a visit. I like the transreal, narrative quality of Brown’s later paintings, and how they go right down into the subconscious.
Tonight, Friday, I’ll be reading my weird old SF story, “The 57th Franz Kafka,” under the auspices of the SF in SF group, who have arranged a Kafkaesque reading for the annual San Francisco Litquake festival. Doors (and drinks) at 6 pm, Readings start at 7 pm. Terry Bisson and Carter Scholz will be reading as well as me.
I wrote “The 57th Franz Kafka near the start of my literary career, in the spring of 1980. My wife and I were in Heidelberg for two years—I had a grant to do research on infinity at the Mathematics Institute of the university. During this period I read and reread the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Diaries of Franz Kafka several times, drinking in Kafka’s vibes and chuckling over the crazy letters he’d write to his relatives and to the family of his lady friend.
One aspect of Kafka’s writing that’s perhaps not as well-known as it could be is that Kafka himself considered his stories to be funny. His friend Max Brod reports that Kafka once fell out of his chair from laughing so hard while reading aloud from one of his works, perhaps from Die Verwandlung, that is, The Metamorphosis. Our puritanical and self-aggrandizing American culture tends to make out Kafka’s work to be solemn and portentous. But it’s funny in somewhat the same way as Donald Duck comics…
And here, just as a teaser, are the first two paragraphs of my dark tale:
Pain again, deep in the left side of my face. At some point in the night I gave up pretending to sleep and sat by the window, staring down at the blind land-street and the deaf river.
The impossibility of connected thought. Several times I thought I heard the new body moving in the long basin.
Here’s a photo taken at the event—me, Terry Bisson, and Carter Scholz. There’s also some video of the event on YouTube, there’s a link to the video segment with me reading “The 57th Franz Kafka.” Thanks to Litquake, Evan Karp, and Stellar Cassidy for making and posting the video.
I was at Borderlands Books in SF for the annual Tachyon Publications party on Sunday from 2-4.
Among the assembled SFictional luminaries were my fellow-writer (and Kentuckian) Terry Bisson, Charlie Jane Anders , a writer and impresario known for editing the SF site io9 & running the Writers With Drinks salon, and Jeremy Lassen—my editor and publisher at Night Shade Books—dressed in a full-on zoot suit from Mission Street.
One of the events at the party is the awarding of two Emperor Norton Awards. As Locus magazine explains:
The Emperor Norton Awards are a San Francisco Bay area specific award given each year for “extraordinary invention and creativity unhindered by the constraints of paltry reason”. The award is named after and commemorates the memory of Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico, and are presented annually by Tachyon Publications and Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco.
I was a proud recipient of one of the Norton Awards! It’s nice to get an award now and then, very heart-warming. Along with me, the photo shows Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Books, Jude Feldman of Borderlands Books, and SF eminence grise Richard Lupoff.
Here’s a close-up of my finely printed certificate. Emperor Norton was known for printing his own money—which became an accepted local currency in 1870s San Francisco! Kind of like being a writer, really. We deal with funny paper.
It was a great day and a fun party. Many thanks to Tachyon and Borderlands.
A main reason for my award is that many of books are set in the SF Bay Area, most recently Jim and the Flims, my fantastic novel of Santa Cruz and the afterworld, published by Night Shade this June. See my JIM AND THE FLIMS page for more info.
Unrelated photo: Rooting through some old scrapbook-style journals, I came across this picture of me with my SF mentor Robert Sheckley in Venice Beach, CA, around 1987. Bob would be proud of me today.
By the way, if you stop by Borderlands, they have a number of large, very high quality, signed color prints of my paintings that I made on heavy archival paper. We’re looking to sell a few of these off, so the price is all the way down at $18 a print. Stop by and get one if you’re walking by. Another kind of “Emperor Norton money.”
[Added on Monday, July 11, 2011] Here’s a podcast of my reading on July 10: the first chapter of Jim and the Flims with some Q & A. By the way, the station also has a podcast (made by Rick Kleffel) of reading I did back in January from my forthcoming autobiography Nested Scrolls on “The Birth of Transrealism”. You can click on the icon below to access my Feedburner podcast station.
(Note that Feedburner only shows my most recent podcasts. For older audio files, see my Podcasts page, which runs back to 2005.)
My publisher and editor Jeremy Lassen was there yesterday with Liz Upson and Tomra Palmer of Night Shade Books, which was nice.
And here’s the assembled audience.
And I was glad to have fellow writer John Shirley and my artist pal Paul Mavrides there, too.
[Now back to the old post…]
Jim and the Flims, my fantastic novel of Santa Cruz and the afterworld has appeared from Night Shade Books. See my JIM AND THE FLIMS page for more info.
On Sunday, July 10, at 3:00 pm, I’ll be giving a reading from Jim and the Flims at the fabulous and cozy Borderlands Books (and cafe) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. We’ll have a Q & A session after the reading, and we’ll be giving away a large, high-quality art print of one of my paintings.
I’ll be giving a reading from Jim and the Flims at the Capitola Book Café on June 4, at 6:30 pm, sharing the podium with Kim Stanley Robinson, who’ll read from Galileo’s Dream, with Rick Kleffel moderating a discussion.