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Free Will, Immortality, and Sylvia

Wednesday, March 8th, 2023

This post is based on an email interview that my long-time corrspondent Giulio Prisco made with me for his own website, Turing Church. Born in Italy, Giulio now lives in Budapest with his Hungarian wife.

GP1: Let’s start with Juicy Ghosts. Your concept of lifebox immortality proposes a deep database on a person, coupled to an interactive front end, and with an AI algorithm to generate speech from the database. I wonder how soon our tech will be able to make this fully real.

RR1: These questions are very much in the air thanks to the chatGPT chatbots. But we want more, we want the real thing. A fully sentient lifebox. In these discussions we often play with Moore’s Law—that is, the notion that computers double their power every two years. In “The Mind Recipe” section of The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, I go into some detail, and come up with the suggestion that we’ll get there by 2100, that is, in eighty years.  But maybe that’s overly cautious. On the one hand emulating people may be harder than we think. But chatGPT makes us think that it might be easier. Maybe human thought patterns are something that occurs naturally, like self-organizing pairs of Zhabotinsky scrolls in troubled water or embryos or plants or…

Deciding when we’ve succeeded is a little tricky. There’s always been the Turing Test—that is, you let people vote on whether a lifebox seems to talk like a person or not. Keep in mind, however, that when I comes to AI, you can sometimes fool people with cheap tricks. But, cheap trick or not, I think we have to admit that the chatGPT chatbots are blowing the Turing Test away. So, like chess, the Turing Test is going to be another “true AI benchmark” for which we end up saying, “Well, actually I wanted something more than that.”

The funny-sad thing is that AI often comes down to beating a problem to death—with vast search processes and by using simulated evolution to train neural nets. As thats what the chess programs and chatGPT are doing. But there’s a nagging sense that these AIs don’t really “understand” chess or conversation in way that people do.

But maybe we fool ourselves about our superior style of learning. Maybe we too learn by peering through search trees, and by training our internal neural nets. But we have colorful, romantic names for what we do. Savoir-faire, a sense of the problem space, the web of forces at play, the topology of desire, the integrated gestalt view, empathy…

If our actual thought processes are in fact similar to machine learning, there might be fully convincing lifebox programs in ten years. It could be like the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Happens all at once.

But as a novelist, I think—and hope—it will take a king tune before AIs can write startling, poetic, revelatory novels like mine. Non-writers tend not understand how hard the process actually is. Just try it and see!

GP2: Let’s move to physics! Please elaborate on this remark of yours: “the Planck length scale isn’t a wall. It’s a frontier. There’s a whole new subdimensional world below. And it’s intimately connected to the transfinite.”

RR2: Well, you need to remember that I’m a bullshitter. I invent wild ideas because they’re shocking and beautiful. You know the French expression: Épater la bourgeoisie? Stun the stuffed shirts. At the very least, wild ideas can lead to fun SF.

More seriously, I have a mathematician’s approach to physics. Why not change our axioms, and explore the logical consequences?. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find that we really are talking about the real world that we live in. And that we’ve discovered something new about it. The dawn of modern physics was only about a hundred and fifty years ago. It seems rather likely that there’s a lot of new physics to come.

And, yes, I’ve always been annoyed by claims that we can’t go below the Planck scale. I mean, come on, there’s gotta be something. The jive that quantum mechanics is stranger than we can imagine—that doesn’t cut it with me.

And when I mentioned the transfinite in that quote, I was referring to the fact that, if we’re free to go way, way down there, well then we might learn that physical space is what mathematicians call an absolute continuum. This is a notion introduced by the set-theorist Felix Hausdorff around in the early 1900s, extended up by the antic mathematician John Horton Conway in 1969, and popularized by the computer scientist Donald Knuth in his book Surreal Numbers. Our space might be stuffed with transfinite levels of divisibility. And that would be very cool.

Mathematicians would jubilant if our wonder towers of infinites could find applications in actual physics. It would be like when Bernhard Riemann’s curved space was used to explain gravity in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

GP3: In 2012 you proposed a Natural Incompleteness Theorem: Do you still think this is a rigorous proof of a Gödel-equivalent theorem for physics, and do you have new insights that you can share?

RR3: My Natural Incompleteness Theorem says this: For most naturally occurring complex processes, and fo any correct formal system for science, there will be sentences about the process that are undecidable by the given formal system.

What makes the Natural Incompleteness Theorem attractive is that the undecidable sentences are not just about arithmetic. They’re about the behavior of actual real-world processes.

In grad school in the Seventies, I studied Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem for mathematics. And since then I’d always been looking for a way to formulate an incompleteness theorem for the natural world. My result appears in the extensive appendix to The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, and as a paper in a collection of essays on Stephen Wolfram’s work.

I do think it’s intuitively obvious that natural incompleteness would have to be true. We don’t even need quantum indeterminacy to get there. Natural computations can generate all the unpredictability and undecidability we need.

It would be too much to say that I have a rigorous proof. It’s a plausibility argument based on two of Stephen Wolfram’s moves. (i) Natural processes can be regarded as computations. (ii) Any complex physical process is in fact performing a universal computation—like a standard computer does, or like a general Turing machine.

The idea behind my argument is that universal computations are irreducible, that is, there’s no shortcuts for predicting what they’ll do. Not only are they irreducible, they’re undecidable, that is, there are questions about any universal computer that cannot be proved to be true or proved to be false.

My result has attracted very little attention among physicists and philosophers. I didn’t publicize it very well, and many academics disapprove of Wolfram’s work. Perhaps they find it too heavy on the computer science, or perhaps the man’s style puts them off. But I like Wolfram, and he’s a personal friend.

It was in fact Wolfram who corralled me into the computer science. Before that I was a pure mathematician…as well as being a writer. Writing has always been my main job, not that it pays very well.

GP4: You say that even if the universe is fully deterministic, then computational irreducibility makes it impossible to predict the future before it actually happens. And you say this resolves the conflict between determinism and free will. Part of my brain agrees. But my heart and another part of my brain wish to live in a universe with non-predetermined change. Determinism is boring. Thoughts?

RR4: First let me confess something. I’m not quite sure why I care about the issue at all. But for some reason I enjoy arguing about it.

For starters, let’s delve into what we even mean by free will. I think it means an ability to interrupt the world’s lawlike unfolding of natural processes. An ability to stand outside the world, and to reach in and zap it with a jolt of change. An ability to effectively break the laws by inserting a discontinuous blip of randomness.

Now, this could make sense if I am somehow standing outside the world. If, for instance, I were a disembodied mind floating above the mundane world. Like an angel or a ghost or a god or an immortal soul. Watching my body from above, and occasionally poking it with a wand. But I’m expressly ruling out that move. I’m insisting that my mind is a process in my physical body, and it’s wholly embedded in physical spacetime. (You’re of course free to disagree with that, but if you do, then we’re having an entirely different discussion—which I’d prefer to set aside for some other time.)

So okay, I’m not a surfer a surfer riding on reality’s wave. I’m a ripple on the wave. I’m not a disembodied mind. I’m part of the world. I’m a deterministic natural process just like all the things around me. And when I make a decision it emerges from the deterministic commutation that is me, Mr. Wave On A Wave.

Is this sad? No. Computational unpredictability is enough to make the world be far from boring. It takes some extensive hands-on experimentation with computers to grasp how truly gnarly a deterministic computation can become. I learned about this by spending a lot of time in front of computer screens watching cellular automata programs, zooming into fractals, and emulating systems of pendulums and magnets—this was when I was working on the software packages CA Lab and James Gleick’s Chaos for Autodesk in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

So my sense is that—surprisingly enough—computational unpredictability is enough. We don’t need randomness. And we don’t need minds. The universe gets gnarly all on its own.

Look at a natural computation, such as the growth of an oak tree. Interestingly, the history of the oak’s growth is traced out by the twisted patterns of its branches. And I would maintain that, If you could start the growth of the tree over again—and if all surrounding inputs were the same including sun, wind, and rain—then you’d get the same tree all over again. The tree has no “free will.” It’s a phenomenon embedded in reality’s flow. The tree follows its innate predilections and it ends up in the same place.

And so do you. If you could run through your entire life again, you’d end up just as you are now—having made the same blunders, and having experienced the same strokes of genius. As you go along, every stage of your life feels fresh. And this is because your internal computations are so massively complex that there is absolutely no way to predict their output

This unpredictability is absolute, fundamental, and inviolate. It’s not even as if some mechanism that’s the size of the universe could use few quick steps to predict you. Even the universe needs a lot of steps. It needs to carry out the intervening computation. The only way to find out what happens is to let the frikkin’ universe run through all the steps between now and then.

Deterministic, yes. Shortcuts available, no. Free will is an illusion. Fate is more like it. You’re forever riding the wave. But, as I say, you’re not a board on the wave—you’re a wave on the wave. An avalanche in the snow. Doing what you do and living the events as they arise. Pure Zen.

GP: Maybe I’m missing something, but a fully deterministic block universe still seems quite a boring place to me, because everything is predetermined and time/change don’t really exist.

RR5: There’s nothing boring about it at all! I’ll go over it again—I’m doing this to convince myself as well as to convince you. I want to believe this because it feels good. This is how I write my SF, by the way. I come up with some idea, and convince myself it’s true, so that I can write about an unusual reality.

I watch my life happening around me, and I have no clear idea what tomorrow will bring. My mind is like the weather, with storms and sun. All I can do is to live it. It’s not a pre-written script. It’s something that plays out.

But, okay, yes, I do indeed have the feeling that I’m making decisions, and exerting myself to do this or that, and wanting to make up for mistakes I made, and planning to do better next time, and wondering what my next step should be. All of this is part of a deterministic process. But how can this be?

I once asked Kurt Gödel about a similar conundrum. (Love to drop that name.) In the block universe, the past present and future are fixed patterns in spacetime. And yet, at every moment of my life I feel like time is passing. So I asked Gödel, “What causes the illusion of the passage of time?”

His answer: “The illusion results from confusing the given with the real.”

The given is my ongoing sensation of what my life is like. The real is the overall timeless structure of my life from beginning to end. The given is the green, growing tip of a twig. The real is the great pattern of the branches of the oak.

GP6: Speaking of beating an idea to death! Time to change the subject. Might it be that the block universe as a whole changes sideways in another timelike direction? You have hinted at a “paratime” in Saucer Wisdom, and in Freeware and Mathematicians in Love you talk about a “a second dimension of time” which is, as it were, perpendicular to our normal direction of time.” I love the idea.

RR6: I’ll put in a drawing of paratime from Saucer Wisdom. I’m just now putting that book online. It’s in the broad family of my “curiously neglected books.” I’m never quite sure why they’re unknown.  I guess I go a bit too far.  Like, is Saucer Wisdom supposed to be true, or amusing, or satirical, or a novel, or what? Seek and ye shall find. I contains a number of futurological predictions which are coming true. As well as being, IMHO, quite a funny tale.

And, yes, some of the aliens in Freeware were from a zone of 2D time. And I used sideways time in Mathematicians in Love. In there, I proposed that our block universe is like a novel written by a god whose life runs in perpendicular time. As his sideways time goes by, the god keeps producing revised version of our spacetime block. A series of drafts for the Great Author’s novel.

It was fun to write about this, and it solved some plot problems, but it’s not actually a notion that I like. Sideways time is a version of the currently fashionable “multiverse” model. To me, multiverse stories are unsatisfying. My problem with the multiverse is this: if everything happens, then nothing matters.

I prefer to think our spacetime block is a single, unique, supreme pattern, rich with synchronistic connections. The greatest story ever told.

GP7: In Infinity and the Mind you suggested that the essence of consciousness, the bare feeling of existence expressed by “I am.” And you said this feeling is the same for everyone. But in your Lifebox tome you seemed to backpedal: “Might one’s glow of consciousness have some specific brain-based cause that we might in turn view as a computation?” Might that cause be, I don’t know, some kind of texture or crypto hash? What do you think now?

RR7: I have to admit that I’m tempted by the idea of a human’s sense of consciousness being an add-on feature. Like some endogenously produced endorphin drug? But I wouldn’t want to go for the idea of the soul being a drug. It’s all just molecules, baby.

And some say that consciousness is a results from self-mirroring, where you’re watching yourself watching yourself. That’s an idea due to Antonio Damasio, and I discuss it in the “I Am” section of my Lifebox tome. But I don’t really see consciousness as being so complex. I’m the highest when I’m not thinking at all. That’s what meditation is about.

I don’t necessarily believe just one thing about these issues.. I think lots of things. I play with the alternatives. But, okay, if I’m going to cook it down and say just one thing about consciousness, here it is. Cook it up and shoot it.

The glow is real, and it’s everywhere. Zen version; (Q) Does a rock have Buddha nature? (A) The universal rain moistens all creatures. Putting it differently, our universe is a stained glass window, with the cosmic mind shining through each shard. The One. The White Light. Everything is alive.

GP8: Is there a concept of life after death that both your brain and your heart can accept?

RR8: My wife Sylvia died six weeks ago. And in the last few years, I myself came close to death in the ER several times. So I think about the afterlife. Most of my recent stories and novels touch upon this topic, even when I don’t consciously plan to write about it. I have no real control over what I write. I’m a wave on a wave.

And now you ask me about the afterlife. Love it. I’m ready to get heavy your ass.

My heart knows that Sylvia will live on in my mind. I’ll think about her, and visualize her, and imagine talking to her—for as long as I live. I might even hear her voice in my head, or imagine that I see her. So in this weak sense she’s immortal. And—interesting point—memory-pattern afterlife in someone else’s brain is precisely the same as the computer-science lifebox sense. I have a highly accurate model of Sylvia in my brain, and my brain is a sophisticated wetware computer that emulates Sylvia.

Everyone lives on in the minds of those who love them.

Here’s another angle. If you’re lucky enough to have children, or nieces and nephews, some of your genes have been passed on, and these younger people will to some extent resemble you and behave like you.

Less concretely, if you’ve been a mentor or a teacher or a writer or an artist or a musician, you’ve passed on some of your skills and personality traits and world views.

Moving to a hardcore physics view, your life is a permanent pattern in spacetime. And this is a type of eternal life too.

And, yet again, still another option is that when you die you merge into the great one mind of the cosmos.  You’re with god.  A dewdrop sliding into the sea.

But if you’re the person who’s dying, you might ask for something more traditional. You might want to live on with only a slight hitch in continuity—live on, and keep having new experiences. How could this work? To make it as simple as possible, let’s suppose that the afterworld is different layer of reality, a shadow world overlaid upon ours. And it’s not going to be a matter of copying your mind into some kind of lifebox. We’re going fully old-school instead.

You have an immaterial soul, and you’ve had it inside you all along. Now, I said earlier that your soul ought to based on some physical process…but maybe we’re bringing in some higher, as-yet-unknown physics here. So, okay, when you die your soul drifts free. You give up the ghost! And the ghost settles into a new existence in the shadow world. Haunting your house for a while, and later going further afield. The afterworld rolls on and on, with many places to dwell, one of them is heaven.

A soothing story. But maybe when you die, it’s like turning off a light. You’ll be getting out of the way, and letting the new people have a chance. Old trees fall over. They decay into the soil New sprouts push up. The wheel of life.

I mentioned that in recent years I nearly died several times. Each event centered around a gap—an interval when I was completely unconscious. Not sleeping, not dreaming, but out. Gone. Not there. But then I woke up. It was like a jump cut in a movie. You’re going along and then—snip—you’re not. Thus far, for me, there’s always been a new segment of my life spliced on after the cut. But eventually there won’t be a new segment. It’ll be snip and nothing more. That’s the kind of near-death experiences that I had. Curtains.

Is that so terrible? It’s quite likely to happen that way, so why not accept it? Enjoy the time you have.

But still, but still… It’s nice to look up at the night sky and think of Sylvia, and my parents, and my dead friends—to think of them, and to imagine that they’re smiling down at me. Loving me. It loosens the barbed wire wrapped round my heart. So why not believe it? Why not find a scrap of comfort?

Having written all this, I lean against a door frame with my eyes closed, looking within. Washes of gray and umber. Textures and drifting dots. A fecund, inchoate substrate that’s just as real as my speculations about time, souls, and minds.

I have no idea what’s going on, and I never will.

GP9: You and I have been privileged to marry Hungarian women. Aren’t Hungarian wives the sweetest? Could you share an anecdote of your Sylvia related to the things that we are discussing?

RR9: Sylvia was sweet, but I’d use lots of other words as well. Worldly, lovable, dramatic, sexy, spirited, devoted, loud, excitable, willful, kind, generous, vigorous, tidy, reckless, modest, curious, greedy, festive, anxious, gorgeous, affectionate, selfless, neighborly, and chic. I love Hungarians, and there’s lots of different types—sometimes all in one. I’d almost call Sylvia a cornucopia, just to tease her, but I can hear her telling me, “Don’t you dare!”
As for anecdotes about Sylvia—read my novels and my published journals. There’s a lot of transreal Sylvias in those mirrors. She used to complain about it. “I hate when people act like they already know me. They don’t know me at all!”

Here’s something that Sylvia said over and over during her final weeks. “The world is beautiful. The world is so beautiful.”

She wasn’t exactly asking for more. It was more that she was grateful for what she’d had. And wistful that it was nearly over.

I’m lucky to have lived with her.

Sylvia Bogsch Rucker, 1943-2023

Monday, February 6th, 2023

My wife Sylvia died on January 6, 2023. We had a memorial service for her at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos on February 4. It was a beautiful service. At Sylvia’s request we draped her quilts over the pews. We had a  big crowd, over 130 people in the little church, everyone brimming with kind words about Sylvia. I was proud of her.

Our minister, Ricardo Avila, delivered a lovely homily, and my old friend Roger Shatzkin read a eulogy that I wrote. I knew I couldn’t deliver it myself, because I’d choke up.  I’ll reprint my eulogy below.

Sylvia was warm and approachable. A good listener, and a good speaker. On the day before my eighteenth birthday, I managed to sit down next to her on a bus, and my life was never the same. She was so cute and lively, so quick on the uptake, so charming. Nobody ever understood me as well as Sylvia, and I loved understanding her. She was the smartest person I ever met.

Our attraction was physical as well. She smelled wonderful. How I miss cuddling with her, and how I miss her voice. My favorite thing about going to church with Sylvia was to hear her next to me, singing the hymns. She liked to sing anytime: around the house, in the car, at birthdays. She organized cozy holidays for the family, always thinking ahead, always keeping an eye out for gifts and greeting cards.

Sometimes I’d look at her hands and think what the hands did for us. Loving pats and caresses, our clothes washed and smoothed, the great cooking, the sewing and knitting. Sylvia made us sweaters, hats, shirts, and dresses. Her hands organized the house, tended flowers, and set festive tables. Festive was a favorite word, festive and cozy.

Always Sylvia listened and understood. She had huge achievements, but she didn’t brag about them. She let you talk. Above all she talked to the children and grandchildren, treating them as real people, and taking them seriously.

In her role as a professor, Sylvia was a master performer, using those hands to mime the subtleties of the French and the English languages. She taught thousands of students in her ESL classes over the years, bringing them into the American culture and society. And as the chair of her ESL department, she brought peace and order, no mean feat.

Sylvia was was a brilliant artist. In earlier years she made subtly simple paintings, like the self-portrait shown above. Kind and generous as she was, Sylvia was also a committed feminist, and never to be steam-rollered or shouted down.

In her final decades Sylvia focused on quilting. More play for her hands, and for her eyes. For her memorial service we draped some of her quilts on the church pews, as she’d wished. They looked spectacular.

Sylvia’s eyes slayed me: dark and luminous, and the way she might roll them to one side. I always liked the letter V in the middle of her name, and I would say she was vibrant, vivid, and vivacious. Not to mention va-va-voom. Sylvia liked to have a good time. She’d arrange big get-togethers with laughing and jokes and everyone telling tales. And with Sylvia’s lively hands gesturing, expanding on her spoken words.

Did I mention Sylvia’s smile? I lived for that smile, we all did. The smile was warm and broad and kind. Luminous and radiant.

Two of the children and I were with Sylvia at the end. She was on a bed in our living room, eyes closed, breathing heavily. She didn’t want us to hover over her, and we sat on a couch across the room, distractedly leafing through one of the many family photo albums she’d made.

And then she was still. She slipped away, with our voices in the background. The sun came out for the first time in a week, and shone on her peaceful face. Like a saint in a stained glass window.

A beautiful life, a beautiful death.

Father Ricardo visited just then. And our third child arrived as well, with Sylvia’s spirit still in the room. Ricardo led us in a ceremony for the time of death.

Elegant and uplifting words, a well-worn rite for a huge upheaval. Religion helps.

After Ricardo left, the kids and I played Sylvia’s favorite music, swaying to the rhythms. “Graceland” and Mozart’s clarinet concerto. We sat with her all the afternoon. Ranged round her bed, we were the spokes, and she was, as always, the hub.

Later we went out to Sylvia’s favorite restaurant. Festive and cozy. But suffused with grief. No more mother, no more wife. It’s still sinking in.

Sylvia loved travel and excursions. And in her last weeks, on our outings, she kept saying the same thing. “The world is beautiful. The world is so beautiful.

And her very last words? “I love you.”

Painting A Lot. Family.

Sunday, December 11th, 2022

I’m done with space paitnings for now. I sold my now-finished New Glasses to my nephew Hans von Sichart. It’s a very nice painting; I put in a whole extra day on it, sharpening it up.

Hans came to our house to pick it up; it was nice to see him, had been nearly ten years, even though he lives in the bay area. He was saying I should do a version of the painting where the books are inside the lenses and the topographic stuff is outside, but I don’t think that would work.

I enjoy talking to him, a fellow German. We’re not exactly the most sympathized-with minority around, so it’s nice to huddle together. Thinking back to the Irish kids who hassled me in my Catholic high school, St. X.

I can’t get into writing anything these days, other than these notes. Might as well keep painting, although just now I’m waiting for a fresh delivery of canvases. I do have one very small one; might use that. I’ve painted twenty since January of this year. Really need to sell some more of them. I’m running a sale with insanely low prices.

I just sold “Space Jellies” to Michael Koch in Europe. Maybe I’ll just have a new career as a painter. Why not? I still can’t quite get over the hurdle of finding, or trying to find, a gallery to sell them. But the mail-order thing does seem to work pretty well. Monetizing my fan base and my social-media-following. Hi, guys.

My old Lynchburg pal Mike Gambone popped up, and he’s buying Zoom Meeting, a great piece.

Isabel came down from her town of Fort Bragg, CA, near Mendocino to visit for five nights, and that’s great. As I write this at breakfast, I hear Isabel talking to Sylvia downstairs. The music of their voices. Wonderful.

I really miss writing. I guess an idea will come. I feel sort of tentative these days, not knowing what’s in the offing. I’m still waiting for the canvases I ordered to arrive.

Every day I see my Genoa painting Rush Hour, from November, 2019, 40” x 30”. It’s hanging in the upstairs bathroom. I don’t know if I can ever do a painting that good again.

I found I had two very small, high-quality blank canvases I’d been saving in the basement for maybe the granddaughters to use. But think now I’ll use at least one of them a miniature saucer painting. Just to be out in the yard/studio. Doing saucers is a no-brainer, and they always sell, even if, for me, they’re a bit been done. Maybe or once I should do a sketch—to get good positioning for the saucers. (But I know I won’t.)

Frozen saucers in this old one,  Deep Space Saucers from 2015, like a flash photo of a tossed handful of M&Ms. Adjusting the colors is a big thing in these. Like Gerhard Richter’s  “paint-chip” works.  I sold this one to a computer guy called Bob Hearn, and now we’re friends.

And here I am with the new one, called Saucer Pals. Why am I so pink? Well, that’s the balance it takes to make the canvas look right. Or maybe I really am pink.  More sensitive to the sun than I used to be.

For this one, I eyeballed and revised and tweaked to find my way to this new composition. Didn’t bother to do a sketch, didn’t use shading. Took me four sessions. Small paintings aren’t necessarily less work than big ones. What made this one fresh was that I had the idea of giving them eyes, like I recently did on thsoe cosmic jellyfish, and that really livens up the picture.

Meanwhile a buttload of canvases showed up from Blick. Maybe I paint some stacked-layer saucers a bit like Jim Woodring’s jivas, which I’ve painted before?

Meanwhile a woman named Janell Julian in greater LA wrote to buy my diptych pair of two 30 x 24 inch paintings Cute Meet which I’d marked way down. I shipped them off and she got them and she’s “So very happy.” Makes me glad.

Daughter Georgia arrived with granddaughter Althea for four days.

Usuallly I look really nice when the kids take my picture, but this time, for a joke, with Althea taking my picture I looked stern. Althea shot this with her new camera; a Fujifilm x100V of mine that I gave her, the camera barely used, because I had immediately replaced it with my Leica Q2.

I started a new painting with Georgia brushing on it too. The canvas was super bump because I’d covered it with random daubs of the leftover paint from the one before.  Fun to work together with Georgia; we understand and agree with each other so easily.

Then I kept working on it. It has a pair of glowing-blob-creatures with those cartoon eyes I like to draw these days. The eyes looking at each other. As usual the two beings “are” Sylvia and me. Ab-ex woods around them, with tree trunks that Georgia painted in. Possibility of lake and sky in the background. The trunks were straight redwoods when Georgia was here, but after she left, I warped them into twisty oaks. Working title was In the Woods.

We went walking around Los Gatos High with Georgia and Althea, the school where all three of our kids graduated. A genuine fall tree here.

And Georgia left and Sylvia and I had a great trip up to Mendocino/Fort Bragg for Thanksgiving with Isabel and her husband Gus. plus Rudy Jr and his family.

Rudy Jr kindly picked up and drove Sylvia and me the whole way there and back. Stayed at the glorious yet folksy Beachcomber motel on the cliffs just north of Fort Bragg. And Isabel’s loft full of art and comfort.

That’s granddaughter Zimry in the hammock.

I got some good photos at dusk on the last day, especially one of grandson Calder on a rock with the moon. Sometimes I want to advise Calder about this or that, and then I remember that my own grandfather, also named Rudolf von Bitter, didn’t seem to approve of me. And I don’t want to be “that” grandfather, although it amuses me that I might be. The wheel of time.

In point of fact Calder isn’t so different from what I was like when I was ten. I was…difficult. I open my heart to Calder and love him. My grandson.

Isabel and Sylvia with Isabel and her husband’s badge quilt…they collect patches from the places they visit, and sew them on.

Jasper, Penny, and Isabel at the table, reading stuff. A casual shot.

Low water seen from a cliff. Nice curves.

There’s a huge stand of Monterey pines at the Beachcomber motel. right outisde our window. Lit by the rising sun behind us, with the Pacific out beyond. Uplifting. What is there to worry about, really.

LIttle Calder perky in Isabel’s indoor hammock.

Isabel and I were griping about the dumb experssion “sneaker wave.” One of those phrases that annyoingly catch on and become received wisdom: some waves are rogues and they sneak up on you. When really it’s just a matter of never turning your back on the chatic ocean. Which is what I was doing, just before taking this photo, and a wave surged to the middle of my shins, soaking my shoes for the next two days. Sneaker wave!!

What a photo.  The setting sun gilding the hummocks of wet sand. That’s what I call Leica quality. No decaying into pixels, no distortion, a pure fiffty-megabyte raw image with all the info there to caress with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop till it’s got  just right gleam.

Jasper loves to jump. . Didn’t think of using a high shutter speed, but the blur shows the motion, and it’s all good. The roughness of the surf.

On the drive home from Fort Bragg we stopped in Petaluma, and saw some memorably ugly fake xmas trees. Cheerful, though. And I like the Santa with shades.

This is a mere Pixel 7 Pro phone image, but what the hey.  The best camera is the one that you have with you, right?

Awed by the twittering birds in the trees on St. Joseph’s Hill when I walked there at dusk with Sylvia the other day. It had been raining. Lot of trees, with the tweeting birds…maybe just paint the tweets themselves and not the birds.

The tweets are triangles. In saying this, I’m thinking of mathematician  Roger Penrose’s “kites and darts,” that is the non-repeating tiles he also sold as “Perplexing Poultry.” Perplexing Poultry in the trees. I wrote about them in Freeware.

The low sun shining bright through an uphill scrim of branches. “That’s the White Light, Sylvia,” I say. “That’s where we’re going.” And she’s, like, “You go first.”

Double 32 on a dumpster. If that’s an exponent, its about the size of a quindecillion.

Still no real thoughts of writing, although, yes, I dis see a seed for a time-travel story. There’s a spot in the St. Luke’s church parking lot that I always use, the first one on the left, it’s usually empty. And if I travel back here from the future, or forward to here from the past…that’s a likely spot I could stake out, with good odds of finding myself there in at least a day or two.

What would be my motive? What outcome would result? Infiltrating Silicon Valley from the node where I emerged on a hilltop above San Ho.

Meanwhile Nature actually bought my short-short sorry “Who Do You Love” for their online “Futures” site! I have to reread the story, by now I don’t quite remember it, even though I did six paintings for it. Not a novel, no, but, hey, it’ll be in Nature!

I worked some more on that painting that I started with Georgia, the one I’d been calling In the Woods. During the seventh or eighth revision, it hit me that the shape in the middle — which was already an island by now — could be an island shaped like a UFO, so I changed the work’s name to Saucer Island. For the closing touch, I did an off-white frieze across the middle, which really makes it. The leaves on the top have a nice fauve Gaugin/Cezanne feel.

Erich Schaefer in San Francisco bought the painting the same day I posted it online.

It took me a couple of days to mail out Saucer Island, and our friends Ronna Schulkin and Jon Pearce came over for a visit while we still had it. I had the usual discussion with Ronna, who’s a very accomplished painter. In my paranoia, I sometimes think she’s suggesting that my paintings aren’t “real” paintings because they’re “narrative.”

Certainly she is a better painter than I am. I’ll freely grant you that.  Check out her website. Or just look at the Ronna painting shown above…we bought if from her about ten years ago. Worth every penny. I think about it every day. Ronna is cagy about what this is a painting of.  Maybe it’s her and her two siblings. But mostly it’s about pattern and color.

Does the more clearly narrative element of some of my works entirely vitiate them? Well, id=often my narration is quite oblique. It’s not like Hallmark cards or editorial cartoons. As I always say, I like to think of my paintings as illustrating forgotten adages or unknown fables. Like Bruegel’s The Peasant and the Birdnester. You don’t quite know what’s going on.

In any case I greatly enjoy my discussions with Ronna. It’s rare I get to talk shop with a fellow artist. And I’ve known Ronna and Jon for so long. Thirty-six years by now.

And then, while wondering what to paint next. I was leaning towards something more surreal or abstract and less “narrative.” My dreams are odd these days. More vivid, more repetitive. Could I do a painting of my uneasy dreams?

Here’s the painting I ended up with, and I decided to call it Underground because there’s something like green grass at the top—it’s not that I deliberately “put grass” there; it’s just that, on the third revision, I felt like putting green, because of the color harmonies, and a hour later it occurred to me that it could be grass, and if it’s grass, then, whoa, kind of creepy, there’s all that stuff underground.  The stuff of uneasy dreams.

Is this a narrative?  Maybe, maybe not. In the end, every painting is a narrative, isn’t it? Even if you don’t know that you’re narrating. You’re drawing your own Rorschach blots.

I do know that I did three sessions, and every time the painting changed a lot.  It’s always hard to know if you’re making a painting better or worse.  In a way I liked the very first rough version the best, and that one only took me about twenty minutes.  But I didn’t want to be done yet.

Painting is kind of an up and down thing, like the stock market, and it makes sense to bail out when it looks like things are in good shape—even if they’re got as great as in your sentimental recollection of the first day’s flash, and not yet as wonderful as your vain fantasies of future glory.

In the background as I write this in the coffee shop, Elvis is singing “In the Ghetto.” Life is a trip.

Back upstream a ways, here’s Sylvia with my parents’ dog Friedl in 1966. Sylvia and I were in our early twenties, engaged to be married.

And here, in Geneseo, New York, 1976, are Isabel and Rudy Jr, wearing colanders like WW1 soldiers.  Love how Isabel’s onesie is a little tight on her tummy.  And Rudy swigging from his silver juice cup.

And good old Mom, in her prime, probably about 55. The years, ah, the years.

And now another year is winding down. Love to all of you.

Notes From The Underground

Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

Ahna bogbog du smeepy flan,” as the prehistoric Egyptian potter says in my ultrapunk 1983 story “Buzz.”

I finished a big new painting, Space Jellies. I started out with the dark blak/purple background, then put on small stars by flicking my thumb across paint-laden brushes. The yellow-orange pattern is a kind of shape I like to draw; a hollowed out version of the wall in Cosmic Cliff. Then some bigger stars, and some eyes looking at each other—and the space jellyfish, looking at the orange nebula-creature. For a joke, I added a tiny planet Earth in the top, even though its scale isn’t consistent with the rest of the painting. Alien invasion! I sold it for close to a thousand dollars the day after I finished it. Sold this baby for about a thousand dollars the day after I posted it!

Sylvia and I found a stray praying mantis standing on her car’s roof in the garage.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in California before.  The mantis—she wasn’t really scared of us—didn’t hurry away, just faced us down.  Sylvia dueled with her a little bit, using a pine needle.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was planning to write a story involving some recent paintings of mine, Galaxies, Outside the Fillmore, Cosmic Cliff, and Space Jellies.

And I did write the story, and called it “Who Do You Love.” But in the end I simplified the story down to 950 words and sent it off to Nature magazine for their Futures feature of short-short SF stories. (Still waiting to hear back.)

The mountains have labored to bring forth a mouse. I don’t seem to have the energy for a long haul. Maybe because I’m old, maybe because some of my energy goes into some problems at home. At least that story is done. And I do like the way it came out. In the end, it’s quite sad. My characters Will and Sue meet outside the Fillmore in 1967 while Quicksilver is playing, he goes off to the Cosmic Wall with her, and when he and Sue come back, they’re old, and Willy’s missed his life—which is how I feel these days. Sylvia likes the story, but it made her cry. My hands and arms and back are sore from typing and painting.

Huge problems getting new lenses for my glasses. Don’t ask. Maybe I can write a story called “New Glasses.” But the so-called glasses are some kind of teep aid, or empathy receiver, or pheromone sniffer, or vibe feeler.

Okay, what’s the kicker? He can sense something unusual. Ghosts, aliens, creatures from the subdimensions. Doesn’t realize what it is, says he doesn’t like the prescription. Gets that addition taken off. Then realizes what he’s lost: something like James Blish’s “Beep,” where you see the entire history of the universe coded up in a star-up beep that your phone makes. So then does something drastic to get that add-on back. But there’s a problem, and he ruins himself, and he’s like the bums in the alley he saw at the beginning of the story behind the glasses store—a bunch of degens known as snorkers.

I was wondering what to paint after Space Jellies, and I sent a copy to my computer hacker friend Chuck Shotton, and he used one of the new AI art programs—Stable Diffusion—to come up with a bunch of variations, and I didn’t really want to copy any of these, but it was cool to see, and at some level it did set my mind to moving.

But not as much as light and shadows on the screen door by the laundry room.

Meanwhile I was still working on getting my new two pairs of glasses. The lenses came, but they had a mix-up and put them in the wrong frames, also the near-vision correction wasn’t quite right.

While waiting, I took a walk on Pogonip trail in Santa Cruz with dear old pal Jon Pearce. Used my new Pixel 7 Pro camera for the selfie.

And then I did start a new painting, but I burned through my supply of black paint, as it was gonna be yet another deep space painting, Jellies Journey. They’re heading for a big star. Maybe it’s romantic, like the star is marriage. Or maybe they’re dying, and the star is heaven.

I ordered more black paint, but it would take a while. Meanwhile I might just start yet another new one? Maybe New Glasses as a painting instead of a story. With the glasses, you see into a different world, right? I might draw a sketch to get the perspective for the glasses-legs. I want the main part to be the view through the lenses…the other world.

(A rogue Koi pond that Jon Pearce showed me in the Pogonip woods by UC Santa Cruz.)

I’ve got a lot of shades of blue to use, so an underwater scene view in New Glasses is possible. That could be the other world. Or an abstraction with critters. Maybe just one lens with blue inside, and the background outside the lens is an arid drought scene, or, better, an office.

My nephew Embry Rucker III stopped by. He’s a total pro photographer, and he appreciated my Leica Q2…as he has one too. I was shooting with Leica while the cousins and our kids were growing up, and Embry was imagining those old film days when you basically just took one picture of something, or maybe two, and you didn’t know if they’d come out, until days or weeks later. Great to see Embry, such a likeable guy. Brilliant and self-deprecating.

Thinking about the New Glasses painting, I took a photo of what I wanted instead of drawing that sketch. With just one glasses lens in the composition, I get a nice big area to work with. And outside the lenses, we see bookshelves in the background, mais oui.

I emceed a presentation at the Los Gatos Library bylocal mad transreal journalist Gary Singh reading from his awesome assemblage of columns, Silicon Alleys. Sylvia organized the event. Gary’s basic message was: Everything is interesting. Even a transmission shop on San Carlos Street, San Jose. Let the Zen in.

Next afternoon the box from Blick Art Materials arrived, and I had black paint, and I got back to work on Jellies Journey. Right away I screwed up the jellyfish’s surface design, making them look like flowers. But next morning I fixed the painting, and finished anohter day after that, and it’s great.  I looked at jellyfish photos online to get in the groove. As I’ve said before, painting is all about ruining it, fixing it, ruining it, fixing it. Until you’re done. Somehow the oscillations seem wider than when I’m writing something.

I did a thing with the green border around the jellyfish eyes. The target star has a dot of green at its center. And my signature is green as well. This connects with them heading for green earth in the previous painting Space Jellies.

By now I have a series of six space paintings. The live galaxies, the Fillmore, the saucer party, the cosmic cliff, the invasion of the space jellies, and space jellies on a journey. I almost feel like I could write a longish story about the jellies. Something more that that short-short “Who Do You Love” that I sent to Nature.

Rudy, Penny, and their three kids came down and we all carved pumpkins. Funny how each carving is so different, and so much an eprsession of the carver’s psyche.

I wonder if I could write a new story with the jellies. POV, a man and/or woman who are “eaten” by a space jelly, that is, they’re subsumed into the creature and “ride” it through the galaxy. I’d still like to work in that Norwegian dinghy regress thing I used to think about it. And include our old dog Arfie.

Continuing my obsession with the new Webb telescope’s deep space photos…here’s some galaxies 3 billion light years away. The universe is thought to be 14 billion years old. So these galaxies are from the eleven billion year mark.

According to the NASA page, the area of sky subtended by this image is about half a grain of rice held at arm’s length. The images are warped by gravitational lensing, that is, by the space curvature caused by masses in the neighborhood.

How could Einstein have figured all this out? Not even using a computer. Just pen and paper and staring off into space. What a mind.

These days I find constant succor in the vastness of the cosmos, and in the true tininess of myself.

The other day I was telling some people that I think death is nothingness. And a woman corners me and tells me about a guy she knows who had a near-death experience with the light and the tunnel and the dead relatives and this proves that death isn’t real. I’ve heard that tired routine a hundred times by now. And I came up with my answer.

They say near-death hallucinations prove there’s life after death. Catch: you don’t know that you see that stuff after death. And you can in fact see that same damn show on shrooms or acid. Doesn’t prove jack shit. What if death is lights out & cut to black? Accept it. And if there’s more, fine.

As I wrote this minirant, I’d kind of forgotten that I have a detailed roadmap to SFnal personal immortality in my most recent novel Juicy Ghosts.. But that’s just a story I made up for fun.

I do still believe in the universal One Mind. You merge fully into it, and your self is gone. I figured this out a very long time ago, walking in the Keith’s pasture with my dear pal Niles Shoening in the suburbs of Louisville, looking at bubbles moving around under the thin ice on a little creek. It was January 1, 1963. Almost sixty years ago. I describe this moment in my transreal novel, The Secret of Life. “Conrad and Hank” are transreal stand-ins for Rudy and Niles.

They were near the end of the pastures now, and Nina [the dog] was running back toward them. The two boys squatted to wait for her, squatted and watched the bubbles beneath the ice, ice patterned in ridges and blobs, clear here and frosty there. Toward one bank, the ice domed up. A lone, large bubble wobbled there, braced against the flow. Smaller bubbles kept arriving to merge into that big bubble, and it, in turn, kept growing and sending out tendrils, silver pseudopods that pinched off into new bubbles that were swept further downstream.

Nina came panting up, pink tongue exposed. Her breath steamed in the cold air. “Good dog,” said Hank, patting her. “Hey, Conrad, let’s go back. Lehman’s mother’s giving an open house today. Maybe your parents will let you come.”

“Wait,” said Conrad, struck by a sudden inspiration. “The life-force. Each of us has a tiny piece of the life-force, and when we die it goes away. I’ve got it figured out. There’s a big pool of life-force—out there.” Conrad gestured vaguely. “It’s like that big bubble under the ice, you see. And each of us is a little bubble that can merge back in.”

“Like a soul going to heaven,” said Hank. They were walking now, headed back toward the houses.

“And the big thing is that once a little bubble joins the big one, the little bubble is gone,” said Conrad. “The soul goes to heaven, yes, and then it’s absorbed into God. The drop of life-force slides into the big pool. Isn’t that neat, Hank? Your life-force is preserved, but your personality disappears! I’ve invented a new philosophy!”

Still riding high from his big first f*ck, Hank felt no need to burst his friend’s bubble. “It’d be cool to major in philosophy next year. Find out all the answers and then become a Bowery bum.”

That’s literally and no kidding what my pal Niles and I wanted to do when we were 17. Study philosophy and become Bowery bums—getting drunk every day for the rest of our lives. Hitch your wagon to a star! So clueless.

I took a big hike up a hill near our house, up through underbrush.

Cool view of a tree through a hole in the trees. A “new glasses” kind of view. God looking down at Eden.

I have this growing sense that I might be done writing. This fall I finished this other story that I had been revising for a couple of years: “The Sea Pig and the Sun.” It was rejected by Asimov’s for “Too much exposition.” The Lightspeed zine is closed to submissions now, F&SF has turned down the last umpteen stories I sent them so why bother. And I can’t face going the rounds of smaller zines. Also there’s the complicating factor that the first half of this particular story already appeared in the small, wonderful, but now-defunct zine Big Echo as “Everything is Everything.” So with high hopes I posted this orphan tale on the Medium site in the form of a table of contents “episode guide” to eight segments of the story. So far it’s gotten less than ten readers. Oh well.

Our friends from the old days in Geneseo, NY, stopped by. Lee and Susie Poague. Lee and I had our first professor jobs the state college in Geneseo. Susie and Sylvia were bearing children and starting their own careers as academics. Wonderful to see Lee and Susie …we had a dinner outside with candles, the table like a promontory above the dark seas of time.

We hit the fabulous Anderson collection at the Cantor Museum at Stanford. Dig the monumental Serra sculpture Lee, Susie, and me here with our human shadows. The sculpture is made of two giant steel S curves. Susie and Sylvia.

I’m having more and more fun painting. Although just now I’m once again waiting for an another delivery from Blick Art Materials—this time it’s canvases. I do have one very small canvas; might use that. Hard to believe I’ve made twenty paintings since January of this year. Over the years, I’ve sold 94 of my paintings—and that’s kind to believe too, especial because, as usual, I see myself as a total imposter.

But now I need to move some more product. I’m running a sale with insanely low prices. Krazy Eddie style.  Check out my Paintings Page.

Low prices do seem to help. I know painters who price their works at $3,000, and I don’t think they sell many. Better, I think, to drop the prices down and get the work into circulation. Preparing for the (eventual) posthumous spike in prices, followed by inevitable museum show.

Even if I drop writing, I might have a new career as a painter. Why not? Even though I can’t get it together to find a gallery. But the mail-order marketing does seem to work pretty well.

Why not be a collector? Like this guy.

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