December 2004 Archives

The World's Longest Poem

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While reading a book about Japanese literature, I came across an amusing passage about the 17th Century poet Saikaku.
Saikaku the poet, however, seems to have been more interested in quantity than quality. Engaging in one-man poetry marathons, he composed the staggering quantity of 23,500 haikai in a single 24 hour period, and thus established an unbeatable, if not necessarily enviable, record for concentrated poetic output.
But perhaps Saikaku's record has been surpassed in an equally unenviable way. I immediately thought of a local hippie poet from the late 1960s, he called himself Mr. Alphabet.
Mr. Alphabet was the kind of dolt you'd be subjected to in an elementary school "cultural enrichment" assembly, as a visiting "artist" (and I use that term loosely). That's where I first saw him, it was an incident that probably formed my lifelong distaste for poets and poetry. I vaguely recall he used to dress in a clown suit with letters of the alphabet all over it, which was supposed to make poetry less stuffy, but quite the opposite, he made poetry entirely ridiculous. Perhaps Mr. Alphabet was unaware that any child that might have any latent appreciation for poetry would not enjoy clowns.
In a great fanfare of public self-promotion, Mr. Alphabet declared he would write the world's longest poem. Of course he didn't mean anything reasonable like a poem with the largest word count, that would involve a lot of hard work. Instead, he declared that he would write a poem one mile long.
Mr. Alphabet wrote his poem on rolls of paper for adding machines, which are about 150 feet, I calculated he needed three dozen rolls. He set up a desk with two spools on either side, the roll of blank paper on the right, and the takeup spool on the left. He wrote the poem by hand, down the length of the paper in large letters. I thought this was cheating, and that he should have used the paper upright like an adding machine, using a typewriter. I wouldn't even have insisted he used the full width of the paper, and I would have allowed double spaced lines. But obviously this sort of effort would take years of dedicated effort, an inconceivable task for a hippie clown poet.
After days and days of writing, Mr. Alphabet completed his rolls of poetry, and it was time for the public unveiling of the work. He took his bag full of rolls of poetry to the middle of town, taped the start of the first spool to the ground, and started walking, unraveling it as he walked. When the first spool ran out, he taped the end to the beginning of the next roll. He walked on and on until the entire poem was unrolled over the course of a measured mile. And then he walked away and left his masterwork lying on the sidewalks like so much litter.
I am certain that nobody has surpassed Mr. Alphabet's record-breaking feat of poetry, because I am certain that such a stupid idea would never occur to anyone else. At least I hope it would never occur to someone to write a poem longer than one mile. I have no idea what ever happened to Mr. Alphabet, I have a mental image of him panhandling, begging for spare change in exchange for a poem, dressed in a filthy, tattered clown suit with the letters of the alphabet written on it.

You're Welcome

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Somebody remind me next year about this time, if I ever get a charitable holiday impulse to cook an elaborate gourmet meal for my relatives involving a week of research in a dozen cookbooks, 3 days of searching for proper spices, a trip in -5F weather to find the key ingredient, extremely difficult preparation of two elaborate sauces, the perfect wine, perfect pies, four hours of prep time, an hour cleaning up, if I ever feel like doing this again, just forget it, because nobody will appreciate it. Nobody will even say "thank you." Quite the contrary, they will not hesitate to say how much they didn't like it.
Next year, they can eat at McDonalds.

The Vanguard Motion Analyzer

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I was idly surfing a web link showing nostalgic old photos of computer equipment from as far back as the 1940s, and I was astonished to see a faded, dusty old photo of a device I recognized, the first computer graphics machine I ever used, the Vanguard Motion Analyzer.

Vanguard Motion Analyzer

I remember seeing the Vanguard Motion Analyzer when I was just a little kid in junior high school, it must have been around 1970 or '71. I was in the math club and we were permitted to use the University of Iowa's timeshare computers. One of the local hackers liked me because a little kid like me was useful when we went dumpster diving for timeshare passwords, I could easily squeeze into the big dumpsters behind the computer center. We got into a lot of mischief together.
My hacker buddy invited me to sneak into his workplace for a demonstration I would never forget. This visit would have to be a secret, because the job was a classified project for the Department of Defense. Nobody was supposed to know the University had contracts with the DoD, this was at the peak of student protests against the Vietnam War, the students would have a fit if they knew about his work. So one day after school, I rode my bicycle over to his office containing the Vanguard Motion Analyzer for a demonstration.
The VMA is an incredible piece of analog computing technology. It is essentially a Movieola, a device for viewing 35mm films through a rear projection screen. But this is no ordinary Movieola, it has a clever arrangement of mirrors and prisms so the image can be precisely zoomed and rotated. It also has a special electromechanical film transport so the film can be moved back and forth, one frame at a time. There were two clips at the top of the screen to hold a sheet of translucent graph paper. A sliding clear plastic bar could be moved up and down the screen, to help align the image's horizon (or other reference points) perfectly level, for more accurate data plotting. Films could be played through the glass plate, viewed through the paper, and the operator would manually plot the position of objects on the graph paper.
My friend's job was classified because he was plotting boresight films, high-speed 35mm films of artillery projectiles in flight. These films were used to calibrate new types of artillery guns or shells. A boresight film might record a tracer shell's flight taking a fraction of a second, but the film would last for many seconds if played at regular speed, and you could clearly see the projectile moving slowly across the screen. The film would advance one frame at a time, he'd plot the shell's position on the graph paper, advance another frame, plot another position, again and again. Then he'd input the plotted data on IBM punch cards. He let me plot a few data points, and it looked like the most tedious damn job I ever saw. But the high-speed films of flying artillery shells were absolutely fascinating, and perhaps for the first time, I got an idea of the mathematics behind the visual images of the world we see with our own eyes. If I had never seen this demonstration, I might never have ended up working in computer graphics.
I can see the goals of the project more clearly, now that I've spent years working on computer graphics. The boresight films were probably taken from more than one point of view, and the computer was used for a "stereographic reconstruction," a way to calculate a 3D path through space from combining two 2D paths. The data was needed to calculate "artillery tables," to calibrate the gun so the gunner could accurately hit the target.
Artillery tables are the reason the computer was invented in the first place. A unique table had to be calculated for every large-bore artillery gun, since they all had slightly different characteristics due to variations in manufacture. The tables were produced by an army of clerks, calculating manually with logarithm tables and slide rules, tediously working out the path for each type of shell, at every angle of elevation of degrees and even arc-seconds. But during the military buildup before World War II, artillery for ships was produced in such quantities that the clerks could not keep up with demand. Obviously an automated method of calculating the tables was needed, so a clever mathematician at Iowa State University, John Atanasoff, invented the first programmable digital computer. But when WWII started, Atanasoff abandoned his work and joined the Naval Ordinance Laboratory.
Other major advancements in computing were directly inspired by artillery targeting problems. Battleships often used "artillery computers," which were massive mechanical analog computers with the artillery tables built in to the mechanism. Eventually, advanced models were developed to target moving ships. Other applications soon followed; Norbert Wiener developed methods of targeting moving aircraft with radar operated anti-aircraft artillery, using analog computers with feedback to continuously aim the gun ahead of the aircraft, as appropriate for the speed and height of the target. Weiner's new science of Cybernetics caused an explosion of new ideas, and lead the way to the modern computing age.
But let's return to the Vietnam era and the Vanguard. Eventually, rumors about my friend's project leaked out, but were obviously misunderstood due to the incomprehensible technology. Rumors spread that the University had a secret contract with the CIA. Student protesters were up in arms, holding protests in front of the building, accusing the University of helping the Military-Industrial Complex to build killing machines. And they were right. So one night, the Weathermen went down to the office, and blew it up with dynamite, totally destroying the entire building. And that was the end of the project.

Rudy Rucker has a Movie Deal

I was poking around in the Internet Movie Database, and accidentally discovered something astonishing, Rudy Rucker has a movie deal. I am simultaneously jumping for joy and green with jealousy, because I spent years trying to do this deal, and I couldn't make it happen.
I spent many years working around Hollywood, and I spent a lot of time trying to promote Rudy Rucker's book "Spacetime Donuts," and get it made into a movie. I read it when it first came out, around 1980, and I decided it would be the perfect computer graphics movie. I even contacted his publishers to option the rights to the novel, but they absolutely refused to talk to me. It was many years later that I discovered the reason. Rudy was interviewed in a fanzine and described a dispute with his publisher, they were going bankrupt and apparently out of sheer spite, they took his book rights down the toilet with the company. So nobody could get the rights to republish any of his early novels, and they are still out of print even today. And one of those lost novels, "Master of Space and Time" is now in pre-production, which means somehow, someone optioned the novel, they're preparing a shooting script, and it will probably get put into turnaround and never ever get made into a movie. Oh well.

The only actor listed in the IMDB is Jack Black, it doesn't say what role he's playing in Master of Space and Time, but it could only be Harry Gerber, a recurring character in Rudy's novels. Harry Gerber and Joe Fletcher are always teamed up, so this film would be what Hollywood calls a "buddy pic." Rudy says that Joe represents himself, but I always imagined that Harry and Joe were two sides of Rudy's psyche. Harry is the drunken, stoned, adventurous genius who can barely keep his life under control, and Joe is the thoughtful, professorial, rationalist with a life that controls him. Together they hack the universe. Harry always invents some device that breaks the physics of the cosmos, but he never quite understands how his device works so he needs Joe to help him repair it and save the universe from destruction. Jack Black is well cast in the role of Harry Gerber, but I can't imagine who could possibly play Joe Fletcher.
I'll never forget when I discovered Rudy's books. There are few books that you can truly say changed your life, and Spacetime Donuts was one of them. I still laugh whenever I think of the tagline on the cover, "Free Drugs! Easy Sex! No Job Hassles! Some People Just Don't Know When They're Being Oppressed!" The moment I saw it, I knew this would be a shock, upending my entire belief system.

Spacetime Donuts was written in 1976, and Rudy absolutely invented the cyberpunk genre singlehandedly, way before the others (like William Gibson) got published and went on to represent cyberpunk. Back in the early 80s, science fiction was just starting to become a hidebound dinosaur, losing all the subversiveness it developed in the 70s. Phil Dick had died, the field was dominated by blowhards like Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Harlan Ellison, and even worse, big budget movies like Star Wars had captured the public's imagination, turning the genre into pablum for little kiddies. Only Rudy and a few "hard SF" writers retained any of the subversiveness and fascination that attracted me to their writing.
So I was convinced that Spacetime Donuts had to be made into a movie, to put SF back to rights. It would be the ultimate challenge for computer graphics programmers. CG in the early 80s was rather primitive compared to today's state of the art. But I was convinced that by the time this movie would be made, they would improve suficiently to capture some of the imagery that takes place in quantum space or even the minds of the characters. There's a famous quote from Stanley Kubrick, "if it can be seen, or imagined, or felt, it can be put on film." But after dealing with Hollywood directors and screenwriters for many years, I eventually came to the conclusion that Kubrick was full of crap, there are just some things that cannot be put on film. And Spacetime Donuts is surely one of them. Rudy wrote some essays on SF writing that described the problem, reading is a nonlinear experience, you can pause to think, reread a passage, and your interior thoughts shaped the reading experience beyond the writer's words. None of this can happen in a film. Truffaut once said that film is a process of carrying the viewer's subconscious through a series of thoughts and connotations. There is no way for a film viewer to sit and contemplate rationally during the movie about the meaning of the film and how it relates to his life perspective, something that would definitely be required for Spacetime Donuts to work on the big screen. In a way, the book is not a novel, it is an "exegesis," a word I learned from Phil Dick. As I understand it, an exegesis is a critical commentary on the world, and by reading it, one cannot help but adopt the philosophy of the writer. No wonder Rudy won the Phil K. Dick Prize.
But I didn't know any of that when I started off on my quest to get Spacetime Donuts made into a movie, way back in the early 1980s. I was young and talented, but naive about Hollywood, and that made me raw meat for consumption by the sharks. I often describe Hollywood as an organ grinder. The owner turns the organ's crank and plays canned tunes written by someone else, while the monkey on a chain does tricks to attract an audience, and entices them to put coins in his cup. The monkey is the only one in this scenario with any true talent, and even the monkey could turn the crank on the organ grinder. But the organ's owner keeps his talent on a chain, so he gets to keep all the money, throwing a few scraps of food to the monkey, just enough to keep him alive and doing tricks to attract a crowd.
And what a talented little monkey I was. Hollywood was reeling under the effect of new technology, the word processor. Writers are some of the most conservative technophobes I've ever met, and I coached writers, from solitarly recluses to whole departments of studios, on the new technology. I was the go-to guy who could fix your script, or recover it when it was erased off your disk. And the writers loved me, I was full of crazy ideas, and more than once someone swiped an idea I threw out in casual conversation and turned it into a character in their movie, or even wrote a whole movie around it. And of course, like a good little monkey on a chain, I never saw a dime from any of it. But I did seem to have influence amongst the writers and the studios, so I took every opportunity to plant my little seed ideas, and try to put Rudy in front of someone who might be able to carry the project to completion.
Of course the whole idea was stupid. I'd never met Rudy Rucker, and I still haven't. I didn't have the rights to his book, so whoever got the ball rolling would take over and leave me in the cold. The movie would cost millions in CG alone, and in those days, nobody would spend that kind of money on CG, especially for some weirdo cyberpunk novel with no audience except weridos like me. But one day, out of the blue, I got a real chance to move the project forward.
I was unemployed and living in my scummy artist's loft in downtown LA, when I got a call from Dick, my former manager at the computer store. He had a particularly difficult screenwriter as a customer, and he wanted me to go train her. I hated Dick, he'd just gotten me fired from my job, but now here he was asking me to save his ass, the customer wanted to return the computer because Dick couldn't set up the fancy Mac screenwriting controls. I was the only person who could handle this hot customer properly, and I really needed the money, so I couldn't really refuse the gig, especially when I heard who the client was, Kathryn Bigelow. Kathryn was the hottest property in town, she had just gotten a multi-picture deal, the holy grail of Hollywood. So I changed out of my goofy artist's clothing, put on a monkey suit and tie, and headed over to Kathryn's place.
And ooh she was one tall, leggy hot woman. She was wearing black stretch pants, long leather boots, and a colorful paisley blouse. Immediately I knew I'd fucked up, just an hour earlier, I was dressed almost exactly like she was, wearing a vintage 1960s JC Penneys pink paisley shirt and black stretch pants that weren't quite form fitting, but were an obscene parody of men's dress pants. The walls of her loft space were covered with her own paintings, and they were really good. And here I was, a painter like her trying to make my way in Hollywood, but that was all concealed because I was camouflaged in my suit and tie, now she'd treat me like the geek I was dressed as. Crap.
But I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, and proceeded with my killer demo. And this was the best screenwriting demo in Hollywood, it made my reputation. I sat down and did what I always did, installing some arcane macros into Microsoft Word, then writing a screenplay on the spot, turning the words we spoke to each other into formatted dialogue. Since I could type 110 words a minute, I made it look effortless, it flowed from my fingers instantly, and was uniquely customized to each situation. It went like this:

CHARLES EICHER is sitting at the keyboard of a Macintosh IIfx,
KATHRYN BIGELOW is sitting next to him, watching over his
shoulder as he demonstrates screenwriting software.

             Notice how each line is
             automatically tabbed over
             to the proper indentation
             when I hit the appropriate
             function key.
             Which keys tab to which
             I'll write them on a post-it
             note and paste it above the
             function keys, but you'll have
             them memorized before long.
             You can even put the
             characters' names, or any
             commonly used text, on a
             function key to save typing.

CHARLES scribbles on a post-it note and sticks it on the keyboard.
I always loved how the writers' eyes would bug out as I typed and formatted the script as quickly as I talked. They were blown away because writing is a slow, difficult process for them, and I made it look effortless.
But as I was sitting at the keyboard, finishing the lesson, I noticed that sitting next to the monitor was a script by William Gibson, I think it was New Rose Hotel. I'd heard that Kathryn was collaborating with Gibson, which was why I wanted to meet her. So as we wrapped up the lesson, I saw my opportunity. I commented on Gibson, and said if she liked his work, she'd really like Rudy Rucker, and she should check out his novel Spacetime Donuts. I wrote it down for her on the back of my business card, and left it on her desk. The lesson was over, seeds planted, and I left. And of course, I'd done my job so well that Kathryn never called me again for further training. And of course, nothing ever happened with Kathryn Bigelow, she never made a movie with William Gibson OR Rudy Rucker. I figure she never managed to get ahold of his book, it was extremely rare and hard to get ahold of, so she probably never read it. And that was the last time I ever tried to get Rudy's book made into a movie, I figured if the hottest property in Hollywood, someone interested in cyberpunk, wouldn't do it, nobody could.
I probably should have given Kathryn my copy of Spacetime Donuts, but someone already swiped my copy and I couldn't find another. Over the years, I've loaned a few of Rudy's books to people, and invariably they never return them. Now I never loan books to anyone, if I want someone to read a book, I'll buy a new one and give it to them. The one book I'd most like to find is Rudy's "The Secret of Life," one of his lost, out of print novels. I loaned my only copy of the book to my girlfriend Susie, because in the climactic scene in the book, the main character proposes to his girlfriend, and I'd planned to ask her about the book, discuss the ending and then propose to her myself. We were going through a few problems at the time, which I thought were amazingly similar to the problems of the protagonist in the book, and I thought maybe she'd understand me a lot better after reading it, maybe enough so that she'd marry me. But she carried around the book for weeks in her purse, I kept asking her if she'd finished it but she said, "not yet," and I didn't press her on it. I finally decided to propose to her on Christmas Eve, regardless of whether she finished reading the book or not. I had an elaborate dinner prepared, but she never showed up. She finally showed up with a hangover two days later and confessed she now had a new boyfriend and spent the holiday with him. We had a screaming fight, she left, taking my book with her, and I never saw her again. In retrospect, I'd rather have my book back than Susie back.
I never understood what all these experiences were about until I read Rudy's "Transrealist Manifesto." I'd been living a Transrealist lifestyle for years, but I described it as "Los Angeles Schizophrenia." I described it as the effect from living in a movie set, people grew up watching TV shows and movies set in LA, and now you're driving down the same streets you were watching on TV five minutes ago, it blurs the line between reality and mass media. And I was in the thick of it, living on Traction Avenue, one of the most frequently used film locations in LA. In the two years I lived on Traction Avenue, I think they made 25 movies in front of my loft, they even made 2 movies inside my loft, making the schizophrenic experience even weirder, seeing my own rooms appear on a movie screen with Sean Connery living there. And worse yet, I was helping screenwriters, who would sometimes write ME as a character into their movies. My life was truly a warped, transreal experience, I felt like my life was a public spectacle. Eventually I had to get out, and prepared to escape from my artist's loft life. But my weirdo friends were always doing their best to freak me out even more. One day I drove home from work, and I found a poster pasted to all the telephone poles on Traction Avenue, they said, "Free Charles Eicher Before He Escapes!" I totally freaked. Who could have done such a thing? I finally found out it was my neighbor, Bob, "The Hitman of Design," who thought I'd be pleased with the spectacle. I made him go out and tear down every single poster, and told him I wouldn't have minded so much if he hadn't put my FULL name on every phone pole in the neighborhood.
But I digress. And that's all part of Transrealism. Rudy wrote about how Transrealism is the now only valid way to write fiction, you integrate your own life into the novel, make yourself a character with a scenario based partly on your life, and then set it loose so it reacts the way you would, and does things that surprise even you. Only by basing your writing loosely on your own life, and those of your friends, would you have sufficiently well-developed characters to write a compelling story. But Rudy also said "a writer's most precious commodity is his memories." And in this tale, I've already used up some of my memories that I'd intended to save for another story. Blogging, for me, is sort of like transrealist writing, I ramble on about my own experiences, weaving them around events of the day and other people's stories as an excuse to tell the same old tales that I bore people with over and over. For me, writing is an exorcism, I get rid of old tales that I tell again and again, and once I set it down in a completed, polished form, I never have to tell it again.
But there is one Rudy Rucker tale I have not yet told, and I won't tell it now. It was a dream I had while I was reading Spacetime Donuts for the first time. But the centerpiece of the story is a bizzarely recursive image I could only create with computer graphics. I've spent the last 25 years working in CG to develop the skills necessary to produce one image that will explain the story, and lately I've been working rather intensively studying Maya 6, so I think I can finally produce the CG image. But ultimately, my years of effort attempting to depict something I dreamt showed me what a fool I was. How could I have ever thought that Spacetime Donuts could become a movie, if I have spent 25 years trying to produce just one single image from a dream?

Footnote: Judging from the feedback, there seem to be some misconceptions about this article. I sent Rudy a note with a link to this story, and he linked back on his blog, saying my story "was flattering, but it felt odd reading it." Gee Rudy, this story wasn't really about you, it was about me, I just used you as an excuse to talk about myself, like I always do. Rudy is the subject of the story, but I am the object of the story. So it's only natural he should feel odd after reading it, I suppose.
I also received some email questioning whether this article was true or not. This is only natural, since I wrote about Transrealism, which is a style of fiction writing based on true events of the authors life. Typically a Transreal story gradually becomes more and more outlandish until it is obvious it's fiction, but you never quite know where the line between truth and fiction was crossed. But this was a story about Transrealism, not a Transreal story. The events in my life that I described in this story are 100% true.