Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Life of Gia-fu Feng

Gia-fu Feng, teacher, translator and Taoist rogue
In 1970, I was working at Memorex and driving every day "over the hill" from Boulder Creek to Santa Clara. Some evenings I would stop at the very top of Bear Creek Road at Stillpoint, a Taoist community founded by Gia-fu Feng. Sipping tea, enjoying the hot tub and conversing with Gia-fu and his companions was a pleasant contrast to my role as a physicist overseeing research into the technical details of making better magnetic tape.

On one of my many trips to Esalen Institute in Big Sur in the '60s, I had heard that if you got up early (not easy for me), you could learn Tai Chi from a crazy-wisdom master from China. As long as I was there I showed up for Gia-fu's classes which seemed to be an original recipe of classic Chinese forms plus Esalen-inspired sensory awareness techniques. Outside of Esalen our paths would sometimes cross due to Gia-fu's friendship with Elizabeth Kent Gay, "the lady from Vermont" who introduced me to SF dancer Betsy who eventually became my wife. I liked Gia-fu. He was cheerful, smart and unpredictable.

I recently discovered that Carol Ann Wilson, the sister of the woman to whom Gia-fu left his estate (including a stream-of-consciousness story of his life) has written a biography called Still Point of the Turning World.

published by Amber Lotus, Portland, Oregon
Since Carol had never met Gia-fu and was merely carrying out her sister's legacy, I expected a fact-filled book without much spirit. I was pleasantly surprised by Carol Ann Wilson's ability to capture the essence of this unusual man. Reading her book (it is written in the present tense) feels like following Gia-fu himself (and his thoughts) through the daily adventures of his extraordinary life.

Born in 1919 as the third son of a successful Shanghai banker, Gia-fu and his eight siblings were well-educated in both modern and classical Chinese subjects. Near the end of his career, the father's greatest pride was a wall in his house displaying his children's many academic degrees.

The Feng family's life is soon disrupted by the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. With her ability to put the reader into the thick of things, Carol Wilson brings to life (thru Gia-fu's eyes) the chaos in China caused by the strife between three warring factions, the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt but US-backed Free China army plus the growing Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. Shortly after the war ends Gia-fu and his younger brother Chao-hua board a ship for America, the first intending to study international finance, the other engineering. Thirty years pass before Gia-fu is able to return home. Meanwhile Carol Wilson relates the fate of the formerly wealthy Feng family under the new Communist government -- an intimate look at modern history through its effect on people whom you have come to care for.

Gia-fu enrolls at the Wharton school in Philadelphia but, becoming increasingly disoriented by American culture, he "hops in an old jalopy" and wanders across the United States, a trek which eventually leads him to San Francisco where he finds a position with Alan Watts at the American Academy of Asian Studies both as student and translator. Arriving in the midst of the San Francisco Renaissance, Gai-fu becomes friends with writers Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, poets Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other talents, among them fellow student at the Academy and future cofounder of Esalen Institute, Dick Price.

When Mike Murphy and Dick Price tentatively began their "human potential center" in Big Sur, Gia-fu showed up as Esalen's accountant (using an abacus), Tai Chi teacher, and "keeper of the baths".

Gia-fu eventually finds Esalen too hectic for his tastes and starts his own center called Stillpoint on Bear Creek Road high above Silicon Valley. There he meets Jane English, a physicist from Berkeley, and they begin a life together and collaborate on two books: Gia-fu's translations of the Tao Te Ching -- the most translated book outside the Bible -- and Chuang Tzu's Inner Chapters. Jane produces stark black-and-white photographs reminiscent of Chinese paintings which Gia-fu decorates with calligraphy. Their Tao Te Ching is an immediate success and has gone through innumerable printings.

Gia-fu's Bear Creek neighbors however are not happy living next to a Taoist tea house and Gia-fu is pressured to leave, eventually settling in Colorado where Stillpoint finds a more congenial home. His Tai Chi lessons become popular in Europe where he and Jane travel to give workshops. Eventually they separate, Jane moving to Mt. Shasta and Gia-fu remaining in Colorado. As a physicist I find their union fascinating -- the energetic meeting of yin and yang. Also notable from the science and mysticism perspective is the fact that Gia-fu and Jane helped Fritjof Capra find a publisher for his ground-breaking Tao of Physics. And that Gia-fu and Jane were also able to meet with Joseph Needham, author of the multivolume work Science and Civilization in China.

Nearing the conclusion of this engaging and well-researched biography, I am reminded of my last meeting with Gia-fu. My wife and I had just birthed a son in Boulder Creek, whom we called Khola (a short form of Nicholas) and Betsy felt that he should be christened and given a middle name. Neither of us belonged to a conventional religion so we decided that the "most sacred person" we knew was Gia-fu Feng up at Stillpont. (I can hear Gia-fu laughing in his grave at being called "most sacred person"). So we hard-boiled a bunch of eggs, decorated them in Ukrainian pysanky style and the three of us drove the few miles up winding Bear Creek Road to Gia-fu's community in the hills.

Gia-fu was pleased by our visit and improvised an appropriate christening ceremony. We had not yet chosen a name so Gia-fu opened a drawer and pulled out a Chinese character carved from wood. "This is the character 'shou'," he said, "which means 'long life'. And it's also the name of my brother who is a banker in Hong Kong." So that's how Khola got his middle name. How Khola himself came to become a San Diego banker is another story.

Thank you, Gia-fu Feng, for being such an unforgettable part of my life. And thank you, Carol Ann Wilson, for the immense care you took in producing this remarkable book about a most remarkable man. 

Nature is my teacher: Gia-fu Feng: Photo by Jane English

Monday, January 25, 2016

Doctor Hofmann's Diagnosis

FIRST ACID TEST: 50th Anniversary

Jawohl, mein Herr. 

This substance can only be
truly appreciated
by smart, sophisticated
Europeans like you and like me
who both possess advanced degrees
And strong intellectual presence.

Jawohl, mein Schatz. 

And after last night's
mind-expanding spree
I must confess I fully agree:
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
is much too good for the peasants.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Numbers: Natural and Unnatural

Nick spots an Unnatural Number: Graphic by August O'Connor
God made the integers; all else is the work of man.
  Leopold Kronecker (1823-1891)

It's customary to call the "counting numbers" 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... the NATURAL NUMBERS which somehow implies that all the other numbers are (as Kronecker suggested) artificial or unnatural.
Some thinkers include zero in the set of natural numbers and others do not. The Roman numeral system had no symbol for zero (Romans used the word nulla instead. On the other hand, in the Arabic numerals that we use today, zero plays an essential role.

In the 6th century BC, Greek philosopher Pythagorus and his followers declared that All is Number, an opinion largely echoed by today's theoretical physicists. To the NATURAL NUMBERS, Pythagorus added fractions, numbers that can be expressed as the ratio a/b of two natural numbers. Derived from primordial integers, these so-called RATIONAL NUMBERS were considered by the Pythagoreans to be the basic building blocks of the physical world.

An impressive triumph of the Pythagorean view was a discovery that linked RATIONAL NUMBERS to the human mind. The Pythagoreans discovered by experiment that the human sense of musical concordance was stimulated most strongly by pairs of tones whose wavelength ratios are the rations of small natural numbers. The musical unison is a 2/1 ratio of tones; the perfect fifth is a 3/2 ratio, the perfect fourth is the ratio of 4 to 3 and so on. In the intervening 8 centuries, humans have made no further discovery comparable to the remarkable Pythagorean musical scale that solidly links human subjectivity to the properties of rational numbers.

This ideal Pythagorean paradise was shattered by the discovery of IRRATIONAL NUMBERS, such as the square root of 2, which cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers. Rumor has it that revealing the fact that the SQUARE ROOT OF TWO is irrational (a proof that is taught today in every high school) was punishable by death. A mathematician named Hippasus was supposed by some to have been drowned at sea by the Pythagorean Mafia for sharing this dark mathematical secret.

I'm currently reading An Imaginary Tale by Paul Nahin which tells the story of the IMAGINARY NUMBER "i" defined as the SQUARE ROOT OF -1. Physicists routinely use "i" in their calculations but few are aware of how long and difficult was the process involved in bringing this bizarre new number into the charmed circle of conventional math.

Nahin's tale involves dozens of famous and not so famous mathematicians who were baffled by the concept of the square root of a negative number. Judging from his recountings of obscure mathematical contests, long forgotten rivalries and obscure misunderstandings, Nahin has done a lot of research for this book. One of the facts that impressed me was that even at the time of Newton and beyond, mathematicians were not entirely comfortable with the notion of a NEGATIVE NUMBER. What is the true meaning of a number that is "less than nothing"?

When the NEGATIVE NUMBERS (both rational and irrational) are added to the POSITIVE NUMBERS plus ZERO, the result is called the REAL NUMBERS. The REAL NUMBERS can be considered to lie on a REAL LINE that stretches from minus infinity at the far left to plus infinity at the far right. For a very long time, it was believed that the REAL NUMBERS were the only numbers that existed -- hence the term "real"

The concept of the negative square root occurs in the theory of algebraic equations, most starkly as the solution to the simple equation: x^2 +1 = 0. The names that various mathematicians gave to the alleged solutions to such an equation are indicative of their attitude to the existence of the negative square root. They called it "unacceptable", "sophistic", "impossible" or just plain "wrong". To the French philosopher Rene' Descartes goes the honor of calling such numbers "imaginary" but he meant it in a dismissive way. Later when such numbers were finally welcomed into the canon, Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler resurrected Descartes' slur and christened these numbers IMAGINARY NUMBERS with no harm intended.

The crucial breakthrough towards making sense of IMAGINARY NUMBERS was achieved not by a mathematician but by a Danish surveyor Caspar Wessel (1745-1818) who postulated that imaginary numbers represented a distance at right angles to the REAL LINE. If the REAL LINE represents locations in the East/West direction, then according to Wessel the IMAGINARY LINE can represent locations in the North/South direction. No doubt from his experience in making maps, Caspar Wessel had invented what we today call "the complex plane", the mathematical country where real and imaginary numbers can dwell together in perfect harmony

Complex Plane: Red Line maps the Reals; Green Line maps the Imaginaries

Wessel's new geometric scheme literally put IMAGINARY NUMBERS on the map and opened up a flood of research into these previously dubious and mysterious quantities. Once IMAGINARY NUMBERS had been tamed, amazing calculations could be carried out and previously impossible tasks became easy.

For instance, what is the value of i to the ith power? Turns out this is a REAL NUMBER with the value of 0.2078... And easily calculated from equations derived from Wessel's construction.

With the introduction of Wessel's map (also called the Argand plane after a Parisian book-keeper who independently made the same discovery) one more kind of number has to be added to the list of man-made UNNATURAL NUMBERS. When one adds a REAL NUMBER (such as 2) to an IMAGINARY NUMBER such as 2i) one obtains a new number which is neither real nor imaginary. Numbers such as z = 2 + 2i have been given the name COMPLEX NUMBER. And the flat map on which COMPLEX NUMBERS enjoy their existence is accordingly called the complex plane.

Many remarkable discoveries have been made in the COMPLEX NUMBER realm. The theory of quantum mechanics uses COMPLEX POSSIBILITIES to represent Nature rather than REAL PROBABILITIES, a situation which still puzzles most physicists. And in Einstein's relativity, time can be viewed as an IMAGINARY quantity in contrast to the three REAL spatial dimensions.

Dozens of new mathematical formulas emerged from the study of the complex plane, including Euler's Identity which connects the sine and cosine function with the number e, the base of the natural logarithms.

e^ix = sin x + i cos x       Euler's Identity

This equation is enormously useful in many fields, especially in electrical engineering where the author Paul Nahin made his mark. When x = π, the Euler Identity reduces to:

e^iπ +1 = 0

This impressive little equation brings together in one simple statement 5 of the most important constants in mathematics. At age 15, the physicist Richard Feynman wrote this formula into his notebook with the caption: THE MOST REMARKABLE FORMULA IN MATH.

Since his specialty is electrical engineering, Nahin gives an example of the usefulness of COMPLEX NUMBERS in the analysis of electrical circuits. In the space of a few pages headed "A Famous Electronic Circuit That Works Because of Square Root of -1" Nahin describes the inner workings of a device called the phase-shift oscillator.  

Why is this device so famous? Turns out it was the first product manufactured in the legendary Palo Alto garage of William Hewlett and David Packard. Their variable-frequency audio oscillator became the basis of a billion-dollar industry. That's a lot of bang for a purely imaginary buck.

Hewlett-Packard 200A Audio Oscillator

Monday, December 21, 2015

QuantumTantra 2015

Happy New Year 2016 from Quantum Tantra blog
On the longest night of the year, it seems appropriate to summarize the old year's notable happenings.

This year witnessed the deaths of Don Joyce, Terry Pratchett and my brother Tom. The world is poorer and much less funny with their passing.

I've read a lot of books this year but three in particular stuck in my mind: 1. Victor L. Wooten's The Music Lesson: a Search for Spiritual Growth Through Music. Wooten is a virtuoso bass player (review of the book and video of Wooten jamming here,) Wooten's writing has been compared to Carlos Casteneda's as he describes meeting up with various unlikely musical shamans who trick and tease Wooten into seeing more deeply into the magic that hides behind all the notes and the practice.

2. Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey is a science-fiction portrayal of a society in which one's rank is determined by the range of one's color perception ("greys", who perceive only in black-and-white, live at the bottom of the heap.)  In Fforde's fictitious Chromatacia, color possesses extraordinary power -- it can be used to damage and to heal. A particular shade called "Lincoln", available only to doctors, is a powerful painkiller and if stared at for more than 10 seconds causes hallucinations. On his blog, Fforde actually displays some of the more stunning shades (including Lincoln) that play a big part in his story.  But don't expect to get high off these tints -- we humans just aren't put together that way.

3. Charles Seife's Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception shows how easily people can be impressed by a number no matter how fictitious or meaningless that number might be. Seife uses mostly examples from politics, showing how the numbers from polls and elections are almost always misleading. He analyzes in great detail a few famous close political races and as a bonus explains who actually won the recent Gore/Bush presidential election. (It's not whom you think.) Seife's book deserves a place on the shelf next to Darell Huff's classic How to Lie with Statistics which covers much the same ground. Cuts through numeric bull shit like a hot scalpel. The biggest message I took away from Seife's book is this: 73% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

This blog's main concern is quantum physics, poetry, and more recently, music.

On the physics front there appeared Some Notes on Quantum Entanglement in which I present a simple and informative new way to describe the classic double-slit experiment. For reasons unknown, this post has accumulated a comparatively large number of hits. In The JJCCTT Device I analyze a new FTL signaling scheme proposed by a student from Jerusalem Center for Technology. The main advantage of the JJCCTT proposal is that the correlation between Alice and Bob consists of 2 bits rather than the usual 1 bit. After some calculations we find, as might have been expected, that this doubling of possible outcome patterns does not allow FTL signaling. Thanks, Omer!

Following up on our early invention and investigation of Sirag Numbers, we define the notion of Sirag Triangles and discover a surprisingly elegant solution that generates all Sirag Triangles with integer sides.

In The Quantum Olympics we look at recent attempts to experimentally discover the largest material object that displays clear quantum effects.

And in Six Optical Miracles we describe the remarkable yet little known Ewald-Oseen Extinction Theorem that explains why a pane of glass is transparent rather than behaving like a dense fog.

See also Does Earth Possess a Second Season? my small contribution to the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming conversation.

On the poetry front, the world of letters has been enriched by a dozen mostly new poems cooked up inside the frenzied minds of Nick Herbert and his alter ego Doctor Jabir 'abd al-Khaliq. These poems include: Is Jack a Tacit Muslim?, Church of the Origin, Esalen Institute (written to honor founder Michael Murphy's 85th birthday), Jabir's Proof, The Philosopher's Bone, Thirteen Unnatural Acts, Kiss My Bare Art, Ninety-nine Names of Goddess, Reading Readiness, Altered State, Dangerous Candy, No Torture Please.

And lastly Abduction by Aliens, a videoed performance at the Grand Conclave of Glad Scientists convened at a secret Pacific beach front location by Dr and Mrs Future.

In this little collection, even the most jaded reader will find something that will please, educate, amuse, mystify, enlighten and offend.

Finally, this years achievements on the music front in both composition and performance.

For the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bell's Theorem, the museum at Queen's University in Belfast asked to exhibit my song "Bell's Theorem Blues" as an example of art inspired by this famous result in physics. I persuaded a trio of musicians in Boulder Creek to perform the song and sent lyrics, sound and video recording to the month-long Bell Fest.

Then our little Irish band Blarney was asked to play at the Santa Cruz Art League's theater on Broadway Avenue: Blarney on Broadway. For two hours the four of us performed for an enthusiastic and responsive audience and here is one of our tunes.

All in all, a very good year.

On this, the season's longest night, may your New Year be brightened by the coming of the light.

Matt, August, Kim and Nick are Blarney

Monday, December 7, 2015

Harry Houdini Metaphase Breakout Challenge

Saul-Paul Sirag at the Ken Kesey Memorial in Eugene, Oregon
In the history of American counterculture, 2015 is a year for celebrating anniversaries: a few days ago I attended a celebration in Santa Cruz of the 50th anniversary of the First Acid Test initiated by author Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs and the Merry Pranksters to spread the gospel of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide to the unstoned masses. To honor this important historical event, the city of Santa Cruz is constructing a memorial bus stop near the site of Ken Babbs's farm (long since replaced by fancy condominiums). At the celebration in Bookshop Santa Cruz, I met Ken Babbs and talked about his role as an editor of the Kesey-inspired magazine Spit in the Ocean, one of the few printed artifacts to emerge from that era's participants -- whose insights and epiphanies, except perhaps for The San Francisco Oracle, Tim Leary's numerous publications, Tom Wolfe's picturesque report, Be No Content and a bunch of poetry, were mostly non-verbal.

Spit in the Ocean # 3, edited by Dr Timothy Leary, was dedicated to the subject of Jailbreak and featured a story by Saul-Paul Sirag and Ken Babbs in which I was directly involved. In the early '70s, while working at a Smith-Corona research facility in Palo Alto CA, I invented and constructed the Metaphase Typewriter, which transforms quantum uncertain processes into pseudo-English text. I was hoping that spirits (whether living, dead or inconceivably other) might possess this machine and turn its quantum-random text into intelligible communication.

My friends and I operated the Metaphase Typewriter in many "high-energy" psychic environments,  producing a few remarkable synchronicities, but no sustained clear-text message "from the other side". MIT professor David Kaiser describes the MT in his best-selling How the Hippies Saved Physics and Queensland, Australia artist, Lynden Stone replicated the metaphase device using 21th-century tech and generated real-time quantum text messages for Philadelphia museum-goers. One of our most memorable Metaphase Typewriter experiments was held in the basement of a medical research center in San Francisco on the hundredth anniversary of magician Harry Houdini's birth. Saul-Paul wrote a mostly accurate account of that event for SITO to which Ken Babbs added a fanciful ending.


A Heisenberg-uncertain typewriter has been set up at an undisclosed Northern California research center. Its sensitive inner quantum mechanism appears to be free enough from every known physical law to permit takeover as a communication terminal by sufficiently skillful discarnate entity. Metaphase Typewriter is a presumptive open mike to the Void. Should you decide to accept this challenge, HARRY HOUDINI, and successfully impress your intentions upon the stream of random anagrams endlessly flowing from the teleprinter, you will be warmly welcomed by our little band and most justly ranked among the great masters of escape.

 This is it.

That's the thought that went through my mind when the metaphase typewriter began spewing out letters.

We've made contact.

With who or what wasn't clear, especially since only the first line made any sense to me. But let me give you the setting.

Though a series of fortuitous events I found myself to be part of a newly forming research group whose avowed aim was to develop a physics of consciousness. I had a rather polyglot background in theology, philosophy, mathematics and physics -- in such order. That the world is stranger than I had been led to believe I learned for myself during numerous psychedelic trips. Lately I had been investigating psychic phenomena and related fringe activity, such as unidentified flying objects. I was trying to fit my findings into a pattern, but they just wouldn't jell. There was too much to look at all at once. Gradually it dawned on me that until I could understand the physics of ordinary, everyday consciousness, other unexplained phenomena just couldn't make sense, About then I ran into Manny Hilbert, a nuclear physicist working for a typewriter company in Palo Alto. Out of his private musings and researches the metaphase typewriter was born.

Actually the metaphase typewriter isn't a typewriter at all. It's a teletype machine hooked up to a small computer and the computer is hooked up to the output of a geiger counter, recording beta decay events in a small sample of a radioactive element. Its function is to provide a clear channel of communication for disembodied conscious entities -- spirits, if you like.

For Manny, the metaphase typewriter began as a joke, a tongue-in-cheek way of challenging the far-fetched but intriguing theory of Harris Walker that consciousness functions as a set of hidden variables in a quantum mechanical system. It ended for me on a dreamlike note, a no-audienee display of human consciousness roaming beyond science's wildest expectations.

On the hundredth anniversary of Harry Houdini's birthday, Manny gathered a small group of consciousness researchers around his newly set up metaphase typewriter in the borrowed, cramped computer room of a little-used section of a large San Francisco research complex. Hours had been spent altering the hardware of the borrowed Nova computer and using Manny's program which would translate time intervals between beta decay events (electrons streaming out of the nucleus of Thallium 204) into second-order English language statistics and thence into rapid-fire teletype print-out. The more likely the length of time between electron emissions from the Thallium, the more likely would be the English letter combinations printed by the teletype -- one recorded emission would produce one printed letter. A rather suspect communication channel you might think. But then you haven't encountered a mind as strange as Manny Hilbert's, or been entertained by his poetic notion that "Quantum mechanics says the Universe is a randomly strobed four-dimensional digital display."

The word "display" suggests that there is something behind the computer putting on the display. For Manny, it is the realm of mind, or spirit, or sub-quantum level -- take your pick. The metaphase typewriter was to be a literary doorway to this realm, a non-protoplasmic spirit medium. It was not his fiendish sense of irony that led Manny to pick Houdini's 100th birthday as the day to open the quantum-mechanical channel to the spirit world. Rather it was the fact that although Houdini had made himself famous for unmasking spirit mediums, he had issued a promise to his friends before he died. He would return, if at all possible, and communicate!

If anyone could escape from the quantum sub-levels, Houdini, the great escape artist could do so. To reinforce this notion, Manny had prepared pictures of Houdini in his many attitudes of constraint: in a coffin being lowered into into San Francisco Bay; upside down in a water tank on stage (it was after such a stunt performed successfully while suffering from an internal rupture that led to Houdini's premature death in 1926) [unfortunately, no photos remain of that tragic escapade]. And now with these pictures staring down on the metaphase typewriter, Houdini was being issued a new challenge.

Speak to us from beyond the grave. Though you have no vocal cords, no body, we have offered you a channel in which to encode your spirit.

It was a preposterous proposition. But what if the world really is a randomly strobed 4-D digital display with consciousness as a wild card -- what then?

 "What a crazy idea!" said the janitor who had come in to clean up, when he found out what was going on.

"But don't you understand? Manny thinks the underlying substratum of the physical world is linguistic in nature."

The janitor pondered. "Why English?" he said.

"Any language will work, just so somebody can read it. On a deep level each of us here in this room are part of the sub-quantum realm, according to Walker's theory, and this implies English."

"You mean it might be we ourselves influencing the beta decay?" he said, a light dawning.

"Sure, if English comes through, that could be a way to tell."

He stood thoughtfully, finger tapping pursed lips, I waited for a minute, but when he still didn't answer, I shrugged and turned away.

It was time for Manny to test the hook-up. He gingerly pushed the manual advance button. Nothing happened. There could be a thousand things wrong -- it was a borrowed computer.

Fortunately the janitor, Olaf Johnson, turned out to be a electronic hardware freak and a magician with computers. There's more and more science geniuises like him refusing to work for big business and big government and supporting themselves with physical labor instead. The janitor and Manny conferred and soon lights were flashing again on the Nova computer's front panel.

"It's working but the paper isn't feeding," Manny exclaimed. Line after line of output was being spat out on the same space. I was if somebody were trying to get out and couldn't make it, couldn't push open the door. Manny looked over and saw what was wrong: the paper was in crooked. He quickly pulled it straight and the transmission began. But wait a minute, the first lines were dingbat strange, letters printed on top of letters, lines skewed this way and that. But in the middle of the chaos, framed by itself in the jumble of characters sat one clear phrase: anininfinitime.

"Maybe it's trying to say that at this rate it'll take an infinite amount of time to get a decent message through," I said.

"Ja," Manny replied dejectedly. "It's telling us about the monkeys at the typewriter, that at this rate it'll take an infinite amount of monkeys typing forever -- and they'll never come up with Shakespeare or the Bible."

By this time pages and pages of gobbledegook -- bearing no resemblance to Shakespeare and company, rather a coded WWII message needing to be broken --had come through. "Aw shit," Manny said, throwing his arms up in the air and heading for the beer and snacks the women had provided upstairs.

"Anininfinitime." The word-phrase repeated itself in my mind over and over as pages and pages of nonsense streamed from the metaphase teletype machine, until only Houdini's promise remained unfulfilled unless -- yes, that was it. That's what he was trying to say. Would the metaphase typewriter work? Would we be able to identify Houdini for sure. Yes. In an infinite time. We were given all the time we need, even infinite time, What an assurance to go ahead!

I bounded out of the computer room to tell Manny the good news but I couldn't find him anywhere. I considered writing off the whole event as a joke, writing it up as a spoof to send to Martin Gardner for the amusement of his Scientific American fans, but then I noticed the janitor in the corner watching the growing pile of printout in thoughtful contemplation.

"It's too slow," he said.

"What?" I answered, amused.

"That's why you're not getting anything that makes sense," Olaf said. "The channel you're dealing with is a high-energy stream conducting information faster than your machine can pass it on. You're only getting one phrase out of a hundred,"

"Well," I said. "If you've got anything better to add, cough it up. Everyone else has given up. And I'm about to join them." I took one last frustrated look at the metaphase typewriter relentlessly spitting out its gibberish and prepared to join the party.

"Cygnon-17, " Olaf muttered quietly.

"What," I yelled, whirling around. "Are you mad? Possession of Cygnon 17 is a mandatory twenty years in the slammer. Besides, there hasn't been any Cygnon 17 around for years."

"I've got some," Olaf said, no hint of superiority behind his friendly smile. He opened his hand and held it out for me to see, a glowing pink capsule radiating a light, shiny glimmering aura: Cyg-17 without a doubt. I hadn't seen one in fifteen years, not since its mind-altering experiments had been ruthlessly banned. Cyg-17! I had only taken it once but that was enough to convince me its powers were greater than LSD, MP-14, STP or any of the other hallucinogens scientists, sociologists and self-proclaimed astronauts of inner space were ingesting. When Cyg-17 took you on a trip you literally went there. It was the same for everyone who took the drug. Everyone who came back insisted they'd been in a different place, a world in which our straight-laced laws of physics were loosened and lost in a welter of rubber-like, opened-junctured rules, a world in which there were no ends or beginnings, instead open holes through which unending dramas flew.

I suddenly wished Manny hadn't given up and gone elsewhere. His goofy metaphase experiment was taking an unexpected turn.

"I'll drop the capsule and plug into the computer with earphones bypassing the metaphase teletype..." Olaf was mumbling to himself.

"Are you crazy?" I said. "That's a twelve-hour commitment. Outcome totally unpredictable."

"It'll take that long to absorb the computer language well enough to translate into my own. I know the risks. I'm prepared to play that card."

I knew Cyg-17's powers. The contact high off the person taking the drug was fantastic. "All right," I said. "We'll try it. I'll volunteer as ground control."

I unhooked the teletype machine and plugged in the earphones, watching Olaf swallow the capsule out of the corner of my eye. He puts on the headphones.

I take out a notepad and pen and sip a cup of cold coffee. "Tell me everything you see or experience."

I grabbed my pen and began writing feverishly, keeping pace with Olaf's steady stream of words.

"...a metallic taste in my mouth, tips of my fingers tingling, my stomach revolting (he turns and calmly retches into the wastebasket), vision narrowing and concentrating to a single point of light at the end of a long tunnel I'm rushing down faster and faster, penetrating inward, elastic boundaries stretching, breaking, membranes opening, holes enlarging, portals passing, free-space beckoning, I'm through, loose on the DNA, time-energy stream, hurtling past centuries and planets, traveling instantly everywhere the life code has run and will ever have been..."

Olaf was taking me there too, but I hung on to the Grail: "Houdini, man, " I stammered through clenched teeth.

"Next stop, London," Olaf announced in his best tram car conductor's manner. "All out for Swyndomme on Marne, curses if this ain't the damnest fix I ever got myself into," his voice part cockney, part blarney.

"Who are you, man?" I asked, sweat popping off my forehead, droplets spattering the pages of my notebook.

"Who? Who, you say but were I to clue you there would be no who...who indeed, sirrah? Ask yourself who was the greater, me or that French blowhard who claimed I learned all my escapes from him. Whereas I and the world I have proven it to know it was the other way around. The world, alas..."

His words faltered.

"It's you then, Houdini?" I said, giggling with happy inspiration, then immediately grasping the seriousness of the situation, I tried to center myself in ordinary reality. His words came to me from a long echoing distance. Forcibly, with bells clanging, I yanked myself up into a sitting position and continued transcribing.

"...and once the act was booked, I had to go through with it. The great Houdini never goes back on his word. I made good the escape but the strain was too much. Who would have guessed the irony? To escape from death so many times and then, when death came, to fail the simplest task of all. A turned head, a glimpse of passing skirt, the outbound train was gone and I was left at the station, stranded, unable to get away."

"I've paced and paced and thought and thought ever since. It should be a simple matter to leave on my own. My mind, a cold crystal, has analyzed every conceivable possibility: to escape Earth's gravitational pull, the atmospheric blanket, Van Allen's radiation zone, and the final Thyandrocal membrane. They must be breached in a single maneuver else I exhaust my energy in successive struggles. You see, I must escape Earth. First the acceleration, then slide edgewise like a knife, then spread cellular tissues wide enough for atomic particles to pass through, but the last, the Thyandrocal layer, the escape eludes me, telescreen blur of spaatering, craxkled, alarffed, gzggle to dark madkavlod marganalkindlomejj..."

Olaf or Houdini or whoever he was lurched to his feet and was weaving towards the teletype. The alien creature inside Olaf's body forced the janitor's bony arms and fingers into the teletype machine. Smoke curled out of the electrical cord. The keys leapt to life. The human apparition, once known as Olaf stood eyes closed, earphones clamped on his head, hands on the machine. The keys clattered in a thundering din.

I rushed to the teletype. Words were pouring onto the page. My eyes devoured the impressions.


The teletype scorched and crackled. Sparks flew from the keys. The metaphase sputtered and quit. Olaf staggered and fell into a chair. He covered his eyes with his hands and moaned: "I helped Houdini go though his last cell door. Harry's finally escaped the chains of Earth and his spirit now sours unfettered throughout the Universe. But tie me kangaroo down, boys. Olaf's only two hours into this twelve-hour Cygnon-17 chemical odyssey!"

Spit in the Ocean #3 and Ken Babbs at Bookshop Santa Cruz


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lunar Meanders

Dale Pendell speaking at Breaking Convention: July 2015

You want a privileged backstage pass to this spectacular God and Goddess mystery play? You want to watch for yourself how loving/enemy angels create your Universe moment by moment while you occupy yourself with mundane tasks? You want to experience cosmic physics -- to feel in your mind and in your body WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON deep beneath this fabulous tragic/comedy show?

Then watch this video: which will satisfy a bit of your curiosity for this kind of forbidden knowledge but will leave you hungry for more.

No better guide into these unspecified spaces than Dale Pendell, inspired poet, psychic physicist and friend who once lived on Laurel Street in Santa Cruz and has now moved his research lab into the high Sierras.

Thank you, Dale, for this unique glimpse into the primal Uncertainty Principle that governs every one of our lives and loves.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Trek's End

Event Horizon by Iona Miller
One of science fiction's most fascinating topics is First Contact. How closely will alien bodies and minds resemble our own? And how will they differ? For my money, one of the finest first contact stories in the business is John Walker's Trek's End. Check it out immediately if not sooner.

John Walker, the founder of Autodesk, now lives in Switzerland where he is pursuing his eccentric interests including web-based tests of psychokinesis, esoteric computerness, consciousness studies, reading a large number of books on every topic under the rainbow and publishing insightful book reviews on his blog which he calls fourmilab. After being introduced by Walker to many new-to-me authors writing on exotic topics, I make a habit of reading his book reviews as soon as they appear.

On another front, my Irish band Blarney's recent performance at the Art League theater in Santa Cruz was a great success. Our audience was enthusiastic, appreciative, laughed and applauded at all the right times. Thanks to each of you for enhancing this event with your presence. Thanks to T. Mike Walker and the Art League staff for providing a salon-like atmosphere, complete with wine, snacks and an exciting lion-king-sized gallery of animal-themed art. And thanks to Carlito Sutton for inviting us into this splendid venue and for his on-stage Irish tales which added to our music a touch of Celtic humor.

Blarney Band (Credit: Alan & Sun Lundell)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Blarney on Broadway

Blarney rehearsing on the Broadway stage.

One of the brightest stars of Irish music in America was Francis O'Neill (1848--1936). Born in Tralibane, County Cork, he immigrated to Chicago where he worked as a police officer and soon rose to become Chief of the Chicago police force. He played the flute, fiddle and pipes, loved Irish music and was inclined to hire Irish cops who played instruments. But what made Francis famous was his zeal in collecting and publishing tunes that he and his buddies heard played by their fellow Irish immigrants. O'Neill's Music of Ireland (1903), his magnum opus, contains 1,850 pieces of music, which even today forms the backbone of traditional Irish music performances.

Chief O'Neill, prodigious Irish tune collector

By the 1950s Irish traditional music was rarely heard, even in Ireland itself, being considered outdated and old-fashioned, and supplanted by modern pop music and rock and roll. But in the 1960s, Irish composer and radio personality Sean O'Riada, was determined to bring this traditional music back into Irish consciousness through his Gaelic-inspired theater music, his radio broadcasts and his support of various music groups, most prominently The Chieftains. Through the efforts of O'Riada and others, Irish traditional music has spread throughout the world and one can now find Irish bands and music sessions everywhere from Croatia to surf city Santa Cruz.

Following in the footsteps of Chief O'Neill, Santa Cruz's own Mike Long collected 1006 Irish tunes he heard played at Santa Cruz sessions in King Street Sessions Tunebook (more tunes than are good for you) (2000) which Mike has generously made available on the Internet.

Sunday, Nov 8, from 2 - 4 pm, at the Santa Cruz Art League theater (located at 526 Broadway Ave), a group of four musicians calling themselves Blarney will be playing an assortment of tunes in the Irish tradition. Some of the tunes are new; most of the tunes are not. And many of the tunes appear in Chief O'Neill's collection (and Mike's as well). It would be almost impossible for anyone to play Irish music today without including more than a few tunes published by this scholarly Irish-American police chief.

In the gallery adjacent the theater, the Art League will be hosting Beasts on Broadway, an exhibit by artists from all over America representing in many media animals both real and imagined. The gallery opens at noon on Sunday.

Come early for the concert and enjoy the art beforehand.

Blarney performance info (click for larger image)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jabir's Observatory

Jabir consulting the planisphere in his Tree House Observatory
A few years ago I built a high platform secured to three redwoods close to my house and have been sleeping up there on warm summer nights. Most of the sky is covered by trees but there is a 15 degree slot in the southern horizon which is open to the sky. Since living outside gives me a continual view of the night sky I decided to turn my tree house into an observatory in the spirit of the medieval Muslims who accurately mapped the stars and gave them Arabic names, most of which persist today.

Sometime in the 1980s I caught wind of the Moorish Orthodox Church through the writings of Hakim Bey and in 1986, in his apartment near the Nicholas Roerich Museum I was initiated into the MOC by Hakim Bey himself and later received in the mail a scroll declaring me an "adept of the seventh chamber". Orthodox Moors are supposed to take Muslim names and since at that time I knew hardly anything about Arabic culture I asked Bey for help. "Well you could do worse than Jabir, the Eighth-Century Arab alchemist," he said. So Jabir it was. To which for euphony and reverence I added 'abd al-Khaliq.

Jabir's Observatory is equipped with two 7 x 50 binoculars, one 10 x 42 monocular, a planisphere , a bunch of astronomy books (including Stephen J. O'Meara's  Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars and A Field Guide to Stars and Planets. Plus a red head lamp to read these books without destroying night vision.

The planisphere is the modern descendant of the Arab astrolabe which was a star-based mechanical computer, the iPad of the Islamic Golden Age. One treatise on the astrolabe (by the medieval star scientist who discovered the Coathanger) lists 1000 uses (1000 astrolabe apps), including telling time, locating the constellations, and finding the direction of Mecca. My planisphere only shows which stars are visible at my latitude and where they are located for any date and time of night.

Recently I've acquired an iPad whose Sky Guide app can mirror the heavens in any location. Hold up the iPad and the stars on the screen are in the same position as the stars in the sky. You can even set the iPad on the floor and look through the Earth at Southern Hemisphere objects such as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Sky Guide is a planisphere on steroids.

Even though I only possess a viewing slot of 15 degrees, each month brings a new zodiacal sign into my observatory window. Late October's hottest attraction is the appearance of Orion and his hunting dogs high in the predawn sky.

In addition to relearning the constellations, I am trying to collect Messier objects which are 110 fuzzy objects in the sky which French astronomer Charles Messier listed as nuisances in his search for comets. Today no one remembers any of Messier's comets but Messier's non-comets are some of the most remarkable and well-studied objects in the night sky. M1, for instance, is the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova explosion recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 AD. M45 is the Pleiades.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015