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.

HARRY HOUDINI CENTENNIAL BREAKOUT CHALLENGE

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.

AHH, MUCH BETTER, THE DISPLAY PATTERN HAS OPENED UP AND THE THYANDROCAL MEMBRANE IS NOTHING STICKIER THAN BLACKBERRY JAM. NOW IF I CAN JUST SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF THE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE I MUST ASSUME IN ORDER TO SLIP BETWEEN THE SHEETS -- THAT'S IT! HYPERBOLICAL PARABALOID FACTOR NEGATIVE INVERSE RADIUS AND I HAVE IT. MY GREATEST ESCAPE EVER.

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








 





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