Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapters 5, 6 of The Little Universe by Jason Matthews

The Stargazer

On Webster’s tenth birthday, his father bought him a telescope. Mr. Adams saw it at a garage sale from a retiring professor. Although he knew nothing about telescopes, he bought it for his son on a whim. The professor gave him basic instruction and threw in a guide to astronomy. Mr. Adams took the telescope home, wrapped it in brown paper and set it up on a flat section of the roof.
Webster found it odd to be climbing out a window onto the roof with his parents to open one last present. When he unwrapped the telescope, he looked at it strangely, unaware of what it was.
Following the professor’s advice, Mr. Adams pointed the telescope toward the moon and adjusted the focus. He looked into it and laughed with astonishment, then invited Webster to take a peek. The boy put his eye to the piece. He saw the moon so closely that he could make out thousands of small circles etched into the landscape. He hadn’t known about impact craters from objects hitting the moon, nor had his father. Both were delighted. They stayed on the roof late into the night.
By twelve, Webster was an avid stargazer, though his father’s participation had dwindled. When he asked his father for money to buy a larger telescope, one with higher magnification, his father suggested that he earn the money himself. Webster did so, by doing yard work for neighbors. His parents watched the boy set up the new telescope, impressed with his devotion.
Webster stayed up very late on clear nights, becoming extremely familiar with nearby planets. He even constructed a mobile of the solar system, decorative balls that hung by strings from the ceiling in his room. He used it as his own calendar, adjusting the positions of the planets daily, marveling at their beauty and mystery.
His teachers complained that Webster fell asleep in class. His grades dropped.
Mr. Adams threatened to take the telescope away, but Mrs. Adams supported the boy’s hobby. She saw the creativity it had sparked in him. She argued to let the boy stargaze but under stricter limits.
Webster fought the idea of time constraints, since some of the most wonderful views happened during the early hours of the morning. He promised that the telescope would not get in the way of his grades and agreed to a tighter time limit, only occasionally sneaking out for special cosmic events.
At fifteen, Webster participated in a college astronomy course, which included field trips to a nearby observatory.
There he looked through huge telescopes that could see into the depth s of the universe. He became fascinated with things that couldn’t really be seen, things with wonderful names like black holes and antimatter. These entities had been theorized about but never proven. Webster decided that he wanted to know everything possible about the universe. There were so many questions. How did it begin? How far did it go? Did it have an end? To a young scientist, these questions loomed large. He set out to answer them.
Over the years, the answers to his questions eluded him, just like trying to see antimatter. The more he studied the universe, the more complex it remained. He realized he was just one person on a little planet drifting in a cosmic ocean without a guide. He grew up with few friends and few experiences.
He graduated with degrees in astronomy but chose not to teach it. Instead he went to work for an acquaintance in the field of artificial intelligence.


Eventually, I realized Adams was reporting to someone. A man named Frank Maxwell was financing the project. The company, Maxwell Enterprises, was on my paychecks.
“Who is this Maxwell?” I asked.
“Frank? He’s been funding the project since the start,” Adams said.
“How come I’ve never met him?” Jim asked.
“He’s a busy man,” Adams said. “He has other business to manage, profit-making businesses.” His reluctance to talk about it made me even more curious about the man who was paying my wages.
Adams said no more, but he placed a new photo on his desk. Rose’s photo was on the left. The new one went on the right. The face in the picture was that of a lovely young lady, and for some reason I had trouble recognizing her from the halls of Webster’s home, the girl who had caught my attention on that first glance.
“She’s a cutie,” I said.
“She’s more than that,” Adams replied. “She’s my daughter, Whitney.”
Our tests continued until one afternoon, when Adams decided the simulation was ready. Late in the day, we connected the lines to the huge hydrogen tanks, the final step toward making Rose’s idea a reality.
It had been nearly three months since I began working there. Spring was in full bloom.

The next morning, I felt a wall of tension around Adams. He didn’t speak to me in the truck on the way to work. Instead, he mumbled to himself and to Rose as he went over every item in his head. At the lab, he double-checked every piece of equipment. I spun around in my swivel chair and chatted with Jim. Jim said he sensed the tension too, though I couldn’t imagine how. Minutes turned into hours.
I waited patiently for Adams to do whatever he thought was necessary. For some reason, I didn’t feel especially nervous or excited, mostly bored, as I had been for the past several weeks. As we went over our checklist of final preparations for the third time, I still had the feeling something wouldn’t work, that there was no way the simulation was going to happen. I never mentioned it to Adams, but I couldn’t shake my deeply rooted pessimism, even as I sat yards away from an electromagnetic field that was about to experience an atomic injection of immense proportions.
“Jim, prepare the sub-particle setting for initial hydrogen release,” Adams finally said. I thought I heard a bit of fear in his voice.
“Check,” Jim responded.
“What’s the rate on that setting?” Adams asked.
“At standard rate, seventeen trillion units per second.”
“Are the molecules in the prep chamber still at critical mass?”
“Then we’re ready, unless there’s something I’ve forgotten,” Adams said, looking around.
I held up the dark glasses. “Do we need these?” Adams had brought them for the explosion of light that he was expecting across the monitors.
“Right. We’re going to need those,” he said. We put them on.
“Anything else?”
“Should we say a prayer or something?” I asked.
“If you would like to.”
I took off the glasses, closed my eyes and put my hands to my face in prayer. “How about, God... please, please help us do this.”
“Sounds like something Rose would approve of,” Adams said. “Jim, I do believe we’re ready. You can release hydrogen molecules at any time.”
“Release in five seconds,” Jim said. I put the glasses back on. “Four... three... two... one...”
That was when I realized I was nervous. Something changed in that moment of time as I stood in that dark room looking at black monitors and wearing sunglasses while a nuclear event was taking place yards away. Those jokes from Adams about a mishap destroying the planet must have gotten to me. It was either that or the thought of Rose’s spirit in the room that made the skin on my arms break out in goose bumps.
Even behind the silly shades, I could see the anticipation and anxiety written in the lines of his face. This event defined a decade of work, from Rose’s theorizing, to planning, to convincing Maxwell and Adams it could be done. Then after her death, the thousands of hours of bringing all the pieces together.
I wiped the sweat from my palms onto my pants. Adams gripped the back of his swivel chair as he stood behind it, pressing his thumbs into the fabric. His stare remained locked on the blank monitors. I felt the tension getting worse, and I wanted to say something witty to break the silence, but nothing came to mind. Instead, a calm peace spread over us from the dark screens. I could hear my breathing and feel my heartbeat over the sounds of anything else. The silence made me think that something wasn’t working. I looked at the control panel and noticed that Jim’s green light was glowing as brightly as I had ever seen it, as if at any moment he would explode from thinking. I figured there must be a glitch, and I expected Adams to take off his glasses in frustration and start complaining to Rose about what went wrong.
Then suddenly, a tiny spot of light began to show on the main monitor.
As soon as I could focus on it, it flashed into a brilliant explosion across all the monitors. Then it was dark again. Jim’s light dimmed to a dull green glow. I looked to Adams for an explanation. He started laughing out loud, staring at the screens. The flash had blinded me after it dissipated. Now I saw that tiny dots of light remained. Those spots of white emerged from the center of the main monitor and began spreading out and getting larger.
“Yes!” Adams cried.
“Yes, what?” I asked.
“Everything okay, Jim?” he asked, taking off his glasses.
“I think so,” Jim said. “I think it’s working.”
The screens remained primarily dark, but small areas of glowing light were visible.
“There!” Adams said. “Let’s get a closer shot from Monitor One.”
As the camera zoomed in, I could make out what looked like glowing gas. The light was bright yet transparent. It floated outward and settled into swirls with other bits and pieces. My hand made swirling motions, mimicking the action on the monitors.
I turned to Adams. “What is that stuff?”
“Matter,” Adams said, smiling broadly. “Pure matter.”
It didn’t look like matter. It looked like a bundle of glowing gas. As the shot went closer in toward the light, I could see big blobs and little blobs, each pulsing with tiny specks of light.
“Chemical analysis of the matter, Jim?” Adams asked, nervously spinning the chair in front of him.
“Hydrogen. Entirely hydrogen.”
“Perfect!” Adams said, rubbing his hands together.
“It’s just gas,” I said. “You took hydrogen from one source and merely placed it into another.”
We watched the images of the glowing gas blobs become larger. They spread out and intermingled with other blobs of light. It was mildly intriguing.
We stood motionless for several minutes, just watching.
Then Adams broke the trance. “See, Jon. These lights number in the millions. Most are locked in orbits with others.”
As I looked more closely at the tiny areas of light, I suddenly realized they looked like galaxies.
A shiver traveled down my spine. A tiny universe had been created before my eyes. Within minutes, dozens of different masses sparkled against the darkness on the screens. Each mass hovered about on its own, tracked by a different camera within the cavity of the building and displayed on a monitor. Our dimly lit lab room was filled with light from these newborn galaxies.
Adams laughed again. “Jim, zoom Camera Two in closer.”
Monitor Two revealed a cluster of stars, tons of them surrounded by extraordinary colors and formations. It was like a fountain of magic dust, reminding me of the pictures in the hallway that I passed by each day.
“What’s happening here?” I asked. “This doesn’t look like gas anymore.”
“It’s a nebula!” Adams cried out, raising his arms to the ceiling in victory. “We have a nebula! Slow down the rate, Jim. Take it down to a crawl.”
The twisting and moving slowed down, halting the lights. The monitors displayed dozens of galaxies frozen in time. Adams, mystified by his creation, stared at the screens. Each one showcased a galaxy of brilliant lights and amazing colors. He laughed in delight.
“We did it,” he said, shaking me. “We really did it!”
I looked around at the monitors into a vast horizon of heavens, feeling like I was on a space station in the center of the universe.
“I still don’t understand,” I said. “How did this come from a little atomic matter?”
Adams sat in his chair, calmed himself, and stared at the monitors in a dreamy way as if the full understanding of the invention had just come to him.
“When you analyze things that are extremely small, like quarks and elements of atoms... and when you compare them to things that are extremely large, like stars and galaxies... they’re oddly similar. Physical size may be one of the great mysteries of life.”
Then it became clear to me. I found myself saying out loud, “We have a model of a universe. Not just a plastic model, but a living, breathing, real universe right in front of us.”
All that time in the making, I never really understood the significance of what he was attempting until that moment.
“What’s more,” Adams added, “we’ve just witnessed The Big Bang.”

“Creation has happened! It’s been a long road, but we arrived today. Rose, you were right as usual. Portal from ct over zero at parsec y! If I die tomorrow, I’ll be happy. Doubtful to sleep tonight, the rush of it all is still in me. Watching light come out of nothing... watching the birth of stars! It was everything I had hoped for and more.”
- From p. 23 of Webster’s journal.

Chapters 7, 8 coming Thursday, March 4th

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chapters 3, 4 of The Little Universe by Jason Matthews

A New Routine

From that afternoon on, I rode my bike to Webster’s house in the mornings and caught rides with him. He told me to spend the first days doing general clean-up to get the place workable. I pulled the remaining equipment out of containers. I dragged the cardboard, plastic and foam outside, then loaded it into the truck for many trips to the dump.
I helped Adams receive the final deliveries and used a dolly to move heavy things in place. Over the next few days, I finished the drywall, textured and painted. Then I placed lighting fixtures and rolled out and tacked down the carpeting.
Once the place had some order, I helped Adams install the wiring for the electronics that would be involved. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just followed their advice. During that time, I spoke constantly with Jim. He sounded so human that it was hard for me to think of him as a machine.
I asked Adams as we drove home one night, “How can Jim sound so much like a person?”
“Didn’t think a computer could talk?” Adams asked, his eyes fixed on the road.
“Neither did I when I was your age. Jim represents forty years of A.I.”
“Artificial intelligence. He has the ability to learn, not just perform tasks.”
Adams explained that he had spent his career working for a company called Maxwell Enterprises, figuring out ways to get computers to think. He designed Jim to be able to control his features, yet he had no programmed way to know how. Originally, he just watched Adams work. Eventually, he repeated sounds and then engaged in dialogue with Adams. Then he listened to training tapes.
“The growth rate of Jim’s understanding is about a hundred times faster than humans,” Adams told me.
By the time I met Jim, he was an expert on mathematics, chemistry and astronomy, at the age of three month s. He was also becoming ever more knowledgeable about his hardware and the equipment that would be connected to him.
“Yet you’ll need to be patient with him,” Adams warned me. “Emotionally, Jim is still a child.”
So many things were new to him, that he constantly asked me questions. When I first started working there, Jim would perk up as we arrived. His green light would intensify as he’d ask me what I had done each night after work.
“I went home, Jim,” I’d answer without interest.
“What else did you do?” No details were too boring for him.
“I ate dinner.”
“What did you eat?”
“I can’t remember,” I’d say, trying to end the conversation.
Then the “why” questions would start. “Why did you do this?” and “Why did you do that?”
“WHY are you so interested?!” I asked.
“Because... I just am.”
How could I explain that my private life was just as boring as his?
Many nights when Adams and I began to leave the lab, Jim would beg us to stay. He’d yell and get angry, not understanding our schedules. He had training discs and games, videos and music, but he preferred our company. Sometimes Jim used sleep mode to zone out until the next morning, though it appeared he needed very little real sleep.
I figured Jim liked me for two reasons. For one, I was someone other than Adams, someone who spoke differently and used slang. Then, as Jim realized I was the low man at the jobsite, he enjoyed a sudden sense of superiority.
“I need those secondary monitors hung right away,” Jim said once, like a drill sergeant.
“I’m working on it.”
“Not those, the ones for the far wall!”
“Have you been watching army movies?” I asked.
“Your job isn’t to ask questions. It’s to follow commands.”
“They’re not even connected yet. What’s the rush?”
“We don’t want to get behind schedule! Everything is waiting on you!”
I let him have his fun. He liked to bombard me with directions and then interrupt whenever I asked a question. For weeks, I humored him.
I spent much of my time following his wiring directions for the video set-ups and recording devices.
We had over a hundred video monitors to install. Adams showed me their design and layout. They would be placed on the walls in the control room, covering nearly every square inch. They would also be hooked up to internal cameras and to Jim’s hardware. We installed them one at a time, while relaying them to the cameras within the egg-shaped cavity: the huge, empty space chamber where the simulation would take place. Adams checked and rechecked every connection in a painstakingly slow operation. After days of setting up monitors, we had a sea of screens covering the walls of the lab.
“Why do we need so many viewing screens?” I asked.
“A monitor for every camera,” Adams said.
“Why so many cameras?”
“Hopefully, we’re going to have a lot to look at. Solar systems, moons, comets...” I felt like Adams was going to add, “if it works.” Those were three words we rarely said, but I thought of them frequently.
“How exactly is this going to work?” I phrased the question.
“Are you familiar with subatomic particles?”
“Not really.”
“There are pieces of matter much smaller than atoms or their components. These quarks and leptons are fascinating little things.”
Adams told me that his wife, Rose, had done as much experimentation with subatomic particles as anybody. The more she studied them, the more she realized that quarks and leptons were bizarre entities, and they possessed intriguing abilities. Over time, she discovered a function within one type of quark—the ability to copy itself. She constructed the outline for an experiment run on hydrogen, a way of super-copying quarks that would multiply almost infinitely. The outrageous explosion of pure matter would be, in her theory, a reproduction of the great singularity that began our universe.
“The great singularity?” Jim asked.
“The point of time we believe the universe started,” Adams said. “At that moment, there was only a pinpoint of infinitely dense matter.”
I set the pliers down and raised my hand in objection. “But this whole concept doesn’t make any sense! Everything in the world was as dense as a pinpoint?!”
“Everything in the universe,” Adams corrected me. “This is The Big Bang Theory.”
“I guess I’ll never get it,” I shrugged.
Adams asked me, “Can you imagine a grain of sand?”
“Of course.”
“Double it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Two grains of sand.”
“Double it again, and keep going.” Adams leaned against the wall and checked my math.
“Four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two...”
“Sixty-four,” Jim interrupted. “One-twenty-eight, two-fifty-six, five-twelve, one thousand twenty-four...” Jim continued with speed and enthusiasm.
“Showoff ,” I said.
“Forty ninety-six, eighty-one ninety-two, sixteen three eighty-four, thirty-two seven sixty-eight...”
Jim quickly got into the millions, and Adams interrupted him. “Hold on, Jim. Now imagine those grains of sand sharing the same space.”
“That’s what makes it so dense?” Jim asked.
“Density like one trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion tons per cubic inch,” Adams said.
“What?!” I asked.
“A one with seventy-two zeros behind it, tons per cubic inch.”
“In a tiny little spot?!”
“But that’s the craziest thing I ever heard!” I argued. “I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this in front of Jim.”
“Jim’s going to be hearing about it from now on,” Adams said.
Jim let us speak without interrupting, though his green light pulsed. Sometimes the only way to get Jim to be quiet was to talk about him.
I had to explain to them that I really did not get it. The Big Bang Theory made absolutely no sense. How could all the matter in the universe, every planet and star, all the zillions and zillions of tons come from a microscopically tiny spot? What could be more farfetched than that? I couldn’t even imagine the contents of the lab fitting into a microscopically tiny spot, let alone the contents of the universe.
“I’d sooner believe in people flying,” I said.

“What about space?” I asked Adams later, as we stood in the egg shaped cavity placing and wiring dozens of camera set-ups. The cameras were like piercing rods. They could extend or contract while also moving side to side or up and down. “What exactly is... y’know, space?”
“It’s the void between elements of matter,” Adams said, grabbing the pliers from my belt to cut off some extra wire.
“How do you simulate that?”
“With the right electromagnetic field,” Adams replied.
“So is our own space electrically charged?” I asked, thinking myself very clever.
“Depends on how you look at it,” he said frankly.
I finally stopped trying to understand the concepts. I figured I’d get it in time, or perhaps I’d never get it. A job was still a job, so I put my doubts on hold and cheerfully did what I could to help out.
“When did you first start working on this?” I asked as I helped Adams wire a very large monitor to hooks on the wall in front of his desk.
“This whole idea was my wife’s,” Adams said. “I’d love to take credit for it, but it took her ages to get me to help.”
I knew that Rose had died a few years ago. There were pictures of her everywhere in his house. Her paintings hung on every wall. I knew she was an artist—now I learned she was a scientist as well.
I looked at the photo of Rose on his desk, a picture of her laughing as she swung back in the air on a rope swing. Her face was not striking, but there was a deep beauty to it. Her attraction came from within and expressed itself in spirited eyes and an easy smile. Sometimes Adams would get distracted from work and sit at his desk, staring at her photo. He’d extend two fingers and touch the image.
“When we married, she was outlining her theory. She designed the whole thing. I took time off to help.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“Car accident,” he said, returning to fasten wires to the monitor.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “Was anyone else hurt?”
“No. She flew off the road and rolled.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“A call from the hospital.”
“Who found her?”
“Don’t know. Someone just called for an ambulance.”
“Didn’t you want to know?”
“How would that matter?” he asked, looking at me.
I wanted to ask more about Rose, but I sensed it wasn’t appropriate.
“Actually, I’m a little jealous this was her idea,” he added, lightening the mood.
I had to ask him, “Why are you doing this? To follow up on her dream?”
“Maybe. Maybe there’s more to it,” he admitted. Jim’s light perked up.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Jim added. “Why?”
Adams paused for a moment, as if he had to search for the answer. “Profound curiosity,” he said at last, almost looking through me. “I see it as the ultimate experiment. If I can create a universe... then what does it say about who created ours?”
Jim and I left it at that.


By my second month, I felt like I understood what was going on, or at least what we were trying to do. We were attempting a reproduction of The Big Bang at a microscopic level. Adams was hoping to create a brand new universe enclosed in a chamber the size of a small warehouse, by conducting a subatomic reaction that would create matter at a nearly infinite scale. Then it would be released into an electrically charged, simulated space arena.
To a large degree, nothing worked as planned. The simulated space was supposed to create its own realm of zero gravity. It took Adams weeks to get the bugs out of it. The magnetic field worked fairly well, but the egg-shaped cavity was not absolutely airtight. Tiny leaks in the chamber continuously presented themselves and needed repair. Many times, I put on protective clothing and spray-coated the cavity with a gluey gel, careful not to bump into the cameras.
Adams also faced problems with the mechanism that supplied and compressed the hydrogen molecules, then timing that up with the device that isolated the quarks. It was difficult for the devices to work harmoniously.
“Go figure,” I told Jim, mocking Adams for his eccentric yet optimistic nature.
“Yeah, go figure,” Jim said with a chuckle.
We enjoyed jokes about Adams getting in way over his head on the project. Adams let us have our fun. He knew how to quiet us when he wanted to.
“You shouldn’t be laughing so hard, you know,” Adams joked in turn. “If matter creation really gets out of control, an explosion like you couldn’t imagine might take place.” We stopped laughing. Adams continued, “It won’t matter where you are if that happens, so you might as well be at ground zero when we push the button.”
I knew Adams was kidding, that it was likely to be safe, though I never knew how seriously to take him. Surely he didn’t know exactly what was going on, though he often acted like he did. Adams was brilliant, but he ran into problems with every aspect of the experiment. Many weeks went by with slow progress and Adams scribbling notes in his little brown book.
Sometimes Adams liked to complain to Rose’s photo about what wasn’t working. He’d talk aloud to her as if she were sitting on that swing behind the glass, ready to answer. I began to pity him.
“What if it never works?” I asked him once, slumping in my chair at the end of a long and boring day.
“My investor and I will be out of a bunch of time and money,” Adams said.
“What if it does work?” Jim asked.
“It will be really cool,” Adams said, mimicking me.
Adams was set to the task. He never openly doubted Rose’s theory. He simply worked harder to deal with his setbacks. One by one, he addressed problems and made steps toward running the experiment. I admired his determination.

I finally visited the Star Bar after weeks away. The name was misleading, since no famous person was ever known to have been inside the place. It was a small and narrow bar with a couple of tables, a spot for some cheap booze. I used to be one of the more regular regulars, though lately I had been working too hard to stop in.
Samantha, the owner and bartender, was one of my only friends. Sam, as she preferred, had extremely dark skin and thick, black hair that was turning gray. She was middle-aged and full of life, buxom and strong. On a few occasions, I had watched Sam drag men from the bar and toss them out the front door, men who had gotten too drunk and out of line with her.
Her face lit up when I arrived. She poured me a beer. “Mr. Gruber! Haven’t seen you for a while. Got any new jokes for me?”
“Haven’t been working construction. Got a new job in a laboratory,” I said.
“That is a good one.”
Sam didn’t buy it until I went into all the details. She couldn’t believe I was an apprentice to a scientist. She loved hearing about it and especially of Jim, though she was most skeptical that he could sound human.
“And this scientist,” Sam asked, “is he married?”
“I don’t think he’s your type.”
“Single and employed is my type,” she said, pouring a couple of shots. “Bring him in sometime.”
“I will. We’ve just been working too hard.”
“Jon, don’t forget about us little people when you hit it big.”
“I doubt that will happen, but it’s as good a toast as any.” We downed a shot to my future.

End of current sample. Next chapters 4, 5 will be posted on Thursday Feb 25th.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Introduction and Chapters 1, 2 of The Little Universe by Jason Matthews

“We have society! Pinching myself. Yesterday - they were primates. Grooming parasites, eating reeds. Today they’re driving! Just fifty thousand orbits!? How could they evolve so quickly? I need to know. We looked for the link but nothing yet. Possible I missed something, but what? Jim’s going over the logs, maybe he’ll find it. Mind’s a blur - thoughts won’t stop - could go on all night, need to rest. Hope I can. Wish Rose could have seen this.”
- From p. 66 of Webster’s journal.

Chapter 1 - The Concept
It was late winter. My legs labored to turn the pedals on my bicycle as the frigid air bit into my cheeks and knuckles. I cursed myself for leaving my hat and gloves at the bar the night before. I rode slowly, steering with one hand while warming the other in my pocket until frostbite forced a switch. It didn’t matter how cold it was. I needed the work. My stomach reminded me that it needed food, real food. It was tired of stale crackers and cheap beer. I rode on through the frost.
I rode my bicycle everywhere. I even fashioned leather saddlebags over the front and rear tires to carry my essential tools. I was the only carpenter I knew without a truck. Yet with two bags of basic tools,
I could accomplish almost any job. From that, I felt some pride. I pedaled quickly past a busy construction site and endured the jeers from workers dressed in expensive coveralls, laughing at me as they leaned against new trucks, sipping their hot drinks. The aroma of fine coffee made my stomach grumble. I thought of my situation and felt a bit angry.
I wondered if I was a loser. Success meant having things like a good job, a wife, a home, kids and pets. I was over thirty and had none of those. I didn’t even own a car. But I took pride in limited needs and thought the world would be a better place if more people were like me, common and somewhat content. T-shirts and jeans filled the closet in my apartment, and I liked it that way.
Certainly I wasn’t a success. Was I a loser, though? That was a good question. The thought was going through my mind as I pulled up, hungry and half-frozen, to his driveway for my first meeting with Webster Adams.
Adams hired me as a handyman. He got my name from his neighbor, an elderly woman who had employed me in the past. He came out to meet me in the driveway, walking quickly in the brisk air, wearing a collar shirt and slacks. He was taller than average and thin. He appeared to be in his late fifties. His hair was black and wavy, mixed with streaks of gray. He had very blue eyes.
Adams smiled awkwardly as he surveyed my bicycle. Then he stuck out his hand and shook mine.
“Your hand is freezing,” he observed, gripping mine harder than I wanted, not sensing the pain of near frostbite that I was experiencing.
I smiled and replied, “Pleasure to meet you, sir. I’m Jon Gruber.”
“Interesting transportation, Mr. Gruber. Especially in this weather.”
His look was one of admiration and concern. I suspected he was deciding whether he had made a mistake in hiring me.
“Gets me from point A to B,” I said, disconnecting the front leather bag. I slung it over my shoulder, hoping to instill some confidence in Adams.
He led me into his house. The entry had a cathedral ceiling with stained glass windows that filled the downstairs with an array of colors, like walking through a rainbow. The wooden floor was finely polished.
My footsteps echoed softly as I followed him down the hallway.
“Should I take off my shoes?” I asked. Adams shook his head no.
On the walls hung dozens of photos of the happy family: man, wife and pretty daughter. The girl instantly caught my eye. Auburn hair, easy smile, fit and smart. She had the girl next door look that I was naturally attracted to.
The stairwell was filled with astronomical works of art, paintings of planets, nebulas and constellations. Things I knew nothing about. Adams paused briefly on the stairs as he passed the largest of the paintings, a planet with a purple body and half-finished blue rings around it. It was a lovely piece of work, though I wondered why it was unfinished. He stared at it for a moment, then continued up.
The top floor was immaculate, with marble counters, leather couches and a plush carpet that led to a stone hearth and fireplace, where a small fire crackled. I looked around at the trophies of a successful man and wondered if I would ever have those things.
“I want to tear down this wall that separates the kitchen from the great room,” Adams explained. “The idea is to make it one big space.”
“I can do that.”
“How would you get the materials here?”
“What would you recommend?” he asked.
I imagined the finished product and said, “I’ll rip out the wallboard and the studs to here, then frame a bar that stretches toward the middle. Then I’ll rewire the electrical, texture, paint and whatnot.”
He ended by saying, “I want it to be done well, Jon.”
I answered with a promise that never failed. “Sir, if you’re not delighted with the finished product, you don’t have to pay me.”
Adams laughed at my guarantee, but a look of ease came to his face. Then he pointed at the counter to a plate full of cookies. “Help yourself,” he said. “The neighbor brought them over.”
Once he looked away, I took three and stuffed them in my mouth.
Fuel for good work, I thought.
I jogged downstairs and grabbed the remaining bag of tools from my bike. I anticipated the ride home without the heavy tools or the bitter cold. I reminded myself to stop by the Star Bar and pick up my hat and gloves. Samantha would hold them for me. Then I headed back upstairs and began demolishing the wall that enclosed his kitchen.
Adams watched me briefly, then went to his office.
After destroying the wall, I hauled the debris down to the garage. The place was full of circuits and devices, like a high-tech machine shop. I guessed that Adams was an inventor. He came down and saw me staring at things. He showed me an oscillating microscope and tried to explain how it worked. The concepts were mindboggling. I nodded along dumbly as if I understood what he was saying. I didn’t think Adams realized the information was beyond me as he went on and on with the explanation.
I worked for him for a week. He had a quiet but pleasant nature, introverted. He often seemed absorbed in thought as he came and left frequently during those days, preoccupied with his latest project. Sometimes he would jot notes in a little brown booklet. I heard him mumbling to himself as he read over the notes, complex fragments that I could not begin to understand.
“That can’t be? Portal from ct over zero at y parsec?” Adams said once in passing.
“Excuse me?” I asked with a paintbrush in hand.
“Sorry, Jon. Just thinking out loud.”
“No problem. Let me know if I can help with anything,” I said.
Adams grinned slightly, appreciating my joke.
Adams was highly educated and used to wealth. I was not. But we felt comfortable with each other. We started off with the usual chat about weather and sports. Eventually we talked about most anything. He liked to pay for lunch to be delivered. He never ate all of his and always offered the rest to me. We made an odd couple, but we had good talks and laughs, and I sensed we were becoming friends. As the job came to a close, I could tell he had something he wanted to ask me, but never did I expect what he was about to say. I remember how clueless I felt when he first brought up the subject.
“Jon, have you ever wondered how the universe began?” Adams asked me on the final day. He was holding a panel for the bar in place as I set the nails.
“What do you mean?” I asked, continuing to pound away.
“The origin of the stars and planets. Does that stuff interest you?”
“A little.” I knew that we were on a sphere that went around the sun once a year, and that space was really huge. Beyond that, what was there to think about?
“What do you know about The Big Bang?”
“That was when the universe started, right?” I hit the nail but bent it sideways.
“That’s right,” Adams said, staring at me. His directness made me uncomfortable, but it was just his way, intense and passionate about his ideas.
“Why do you ask?”
Adams became excited as he spoke. “Imagine watching the universe begin. What if you could go back in time about twenty billion years, and see it all happen? Do you have any idea what that would be like?”
“Not exactly.”
“It all began with a piece of matter that was infinitely small and infinitely dense.” Adams pressed his fingers in a tight spot to convey his message. “Then it exploded in brilliant light! Everything that exists came from that tiny piece of dense matter. Everything! Stars, planets, entire galaxies came from that pinpoint of matter.”
“Sounds logical,” I said. It didn’t, of course. How could everything have started from one tiny spot?
I pounded the last nail and made sure the panel was secure.
“Jon, what would you say if I told you I’m attempting to reproduce The Big Bang? In miniature, of course.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m recreating The Big Bang. I’m simulating a universe.”
“For real?”
Simulate a universe? I knew Adams was an inventor, but this seemed impossible.
“Would you like to see the project?”
“You can stay on the clock, if that makes a difference.”
I put my hammer down and took off my tool-belt. We left the house and hopped into his truck, a new machine with only a few scuff marks in the bed. Adams drove as he explained the origin of the universe. I listened carefully, but the lecture was way over my head.
We passed the last of the buildings and houses in our town and continued into the countryside for a few minutes. I sat silently, wondering where this project would be and what it would be like. Adams let the silence extend. Finally, he turned onto a dirt path. We followed it to the end and arrived at the only dwelling in sight.
“Here it is,” he announced.

Chapter 2 - The Project
It was an odd sort of place in the middle of nothing but fields and forest. The structure looked newly built, yet it was totally nondescript. It was unlike anything I had seen in my construction career. The building was three stories high. It was primarily elliptical, like an oval-shaped frame placed over a rectangular frame. Though it had no windows, it looked finished. A light brown plaster coated the whole thing. There was no paved driveway, just the dirt pad left from the construction vehicles.
Adams swiped a magnetic strip key and pressed buttons for a security code. The tall, heavy doors opened slowly, making a slight creaking sound. I breathed in the scent of new carpet. Large boxes placed on top of the rolls clogged up the entry.
We entered the cool room, leaving the doors open to let in light. The lobby appeared the same as the overall building. It was finished structurally, but it still needed texture, paint, carpeting and fixtures.
“There’s work to do here,” Adams said, as he showed me around the lobby. I nodded, thinking the entry alone could use many hours of my services.
Adams flicked a light switch, then walked down a corridor to the center of the building. I followed slowly. My attention was drawn to the photos hanging on the walls, dozens of framed images that must have been taken from a gigantic telescope. Star dust, planets, moons, entire galaxies. They were breath taking pictures such as I had never seen and in much more vivid details than the paintings at Adams’ home. The matter exploded out from the frames in amazing color. My first impression was that the galaxies were not just rocks and matter, but living things.
“Are these artists’ paintings, or are they real?” I asked, tracing my finger around the explosion of what the label said was a supernova.
“They’re all real. These are parts of our universe. Except for this one.” He pointed to a photo labeled a spiral galaxy. The stars were tiny points of bright light swirling in dark space. “This one’s a computer simulation of our galaxy.”
“Why a simulation?”
“Well, we don’t have any cameras far enough out in space to shoot it from this perspective.”
“Oh yeah.” I felt stupid and reminded myself to keep quiet on any subject I knew nothing about.
“That’s our sun,” he added, pointing to a small, secluded dot way out on a spiral arm of the galaxy.
“That’s our sun?” I asked, mesmerized by it.
“That’s it.”
“What about all these other lights?”
“They’re other suns. They’re the stars you see on a clear night.”
Adams opened a door to the main room on the lower floor. We entered a command central with desks, chairs, computer equipment and dozens of large monitors. Some were attached to the walls, and some were still in boxes. Packing foam, shipping plastic and empty cartons littered the floor. On the desks, papers were scattered about. I looked at them and saw handwritten equations. Chemistry or physics, I guessed. They were light years ahead of my understanding. I walked around the cool, dimly lit room, sensing something very unusual was going on.
“Have a seat,” Adams told me.
I sat in a swivel chair that was still in its shipping plastic. I found the chair comfortable and used my feet to spin around in circles.
“Jim, this is Jon Gruber,” Adams said. I looked around, still spinning. The room was empty except for Adams and me.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked, stopping my spins.
Adams didn’t respond. He continued speaking, it seemed, to the room in general. “Jon will be doing a lot of handyman work, but if you need help with simple things, you can ask him.”
“Am I missing something?” I asked.
Adams waited patiently through the silence.
Then a quiet voice asked, “What if I blow a circuit switch?” The voice spoke with honesty and calmness like that of a child, and it filled the room.
“That I’ll need to fix for now. In time, I’m sure Jon can handle things like that as well.”
“Cool. Are you talking with a computer?” I asked, standing up from the chair.
“Yes,” Adams said. “Jon, meet Jim. And he prefers not to be called a computer.”
“Sorry, Jim.” I looked around the room, wondering where to direct my voice. “Which way do I speak? Can you hear me okay?”
After a pause, Jim answered with a shy, “Yes.” I noticed a green light on the wall over the largest desk. It glowed more brightly as Jim spoke.
I asked, “Is that your light, Jim?” He didn’t answer, but the light pulsed gently.
Adams said, “It’s an indicator of how much Jim is thinking.”
It was my first conversation with a computer, and I felt a little awkward about what to say. Then Jim started asking me questions.
“Why are you here?” Jim began.
“I’m here to help.”
“With what?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, letting my words trail off, still trying to grasp what was going on.
Jim’s light stayed green for a while.
I looked around and made a mental list of what needed doing. I was happy to be offered more work, but I was especially excited to be talking with a computer.
“What do you think?” Adams asked me.
“When can I start?”

“Today I took on an assistant. I wanted to do this alone, but that was just me being stubborn. Familiar, eh Rose? A young man with a strong back and good hands. Mr. Gruber will do fine. Jim’s taken a liking to him and vice versa.” - From p. 12 of Webster’s journal.

Chapters 3 and 4 will be posted Monday Feb 22nd. To read other sample chapters go to

Monday, February 15, 2010

Indie Author's Experience at the San Francisco Writers Conference - Reviewed for 2010 by Jason Matthews

San Francisco Writers Conference logo
Whew, I'm home! Feels nice letting bare toes scratch carpet in my office as I catch up on backlogged emails and drink my own excellent tasting and nearly free coffee. I slept soundly for 10 hours last night, along with Jana in our comfy Cal King. The Mark Hopkins hotel was mostly delightful, but the only one who slept well was our 11 year old daughter in her own double bed.
The San Francisco Writers Conference. Now I can say, been there done that. Folk in this writing business insisted that it was the biggie, the one I had to do. Being a mere 3 hour drive from Truckee-Tahoe, I really had no choice. Especially after forking over even more money and a longer drive for Mark Victor Hansen's Mega Book University in LA (which was mostly a medium-pressure sales pitch from one presenter after another inc. Mark, but that's another story). Fortunately, the SFWC was far from sales-pitchy. There were some, a few offers from presenters tastefully mentioned towards the end of their 45 minute segments.
The conference had extra sessions on Thursday and Monday, but I chose to be there from Friday am through Sunday around noon. I enjoyed a wealth of brief lectures and keynote speeches from best-selling authors, all of which allotted ample time for Q & A. It was run by Michael Larsen, Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency, and although I sensed a constant effort into making sure everything went smoothly from the quality of the first time presenters to the number of yogurts in a breakfast basket, they also seemed to enjoy it and get benefit.
This review could be quite long so I'll just share highlights and note areas I thought might be improved on.
-Alan Rinzler and his 46 years of editing, publishing, everything book related experience. I was in awe of the guy, and fortunately he looks a bit like Einstein which really completes the package. Rinzler is witty and razor sharp. He worked with greats such as Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Shirley MacLaine, John Lennon and a slew of other best-sellers... so listening to Alan for 45 minutes simply wasn't enough. I assume Alan is in contention for world's greatest editor, so being in a small room with someone of his caliber was inspiring. Side note, Alan is way old school and recommended perspective authors spend time writing and not networking online more than an hour a day. This was the only thing he said that I found humorous in a bad way.
-Dan Poynter, self-publishing guru, and Mark Coker, self-publishing guide and founder of These guys were my heroes even before the conference. Both have helped me immensely, Poynter teaching and pointing me in right directions and Coker getting my ebooks made for free and selling them long before I knew the term epub. (I got Coker's autograph 'cause I think he's going to be huge someday, and he almost refused to give one out of embarrassment over the first autograph he's ever given.) Each of them is all about helping authors like me, Indies who know there has to be a better way than getting an agent/publisher when that is extremely difficult and time consuming no matter how awesome my books are. It's the 21st century people, come on, let's go.
-Jacob Morgan and Stephanie Chandler, two of the shining examples of blogging, social media, and how everything online can work for Indie authors to create an audience and manage relationships. The overwhelming message I heard repeated from Jacob, Stephanie and others was the importance of regular blogging, having something useful to say (not just noise), providing quality over quantity, and building/maintaining online relationships.
-Location. The Mark Hopkins is a fantastic hotel and priced reasonably for attendees. It's in the heart of the city, located on Nob Hill which makes for stunning views and easy access to major attractions. My wife and daughter had quite the SF vacation while I was fortunate enough to enjoy the sights from my 14th floor room (thank you, front desk!) and from the famous Top of the Mark restaurant. I didn't get my Martini though, so an excuse to return.
-Speed Dating with Agents. For an additional $50 this was well worth it, a real treat. I sat with about 6 extremely well-connected agents for 3 minutes of one on one time, and I ended up batting .500 for agencies requesting my work and remembering me. That's quite useful! I did want to spend time with Elise Capron, but that girl was so popular she had a 15 minute line just to see her, and I couldn't limit my 45 minute window to only 3 or 4 agents. Ah, Elise, some other time...
-Meeting dozens of other perspective authors. This was excellent in terms of making connections and getting feedback for where they are in their pursuits, and where I am. I must admit surprise at how few of them have most of the basics for an online platform. Many do not have a blog, a website, ebooks for sale on Smashwords or Amazon Kindle, and some either didn't have or barely used Facebook and Twitter. I found myself almost mentoring at least a dozen authors on how they can have all of these things for FREE and can start selling their ebooks while they continue the traditional approach for an agent and publisher. I believe some of these people are just starting out and some have yet to write very much or complete a manuscript, totally understandable. (The SFWC is a fine place to start if you can swing it.) Yet others are stuck hoping an agent and big publisher is going to whisk them off their feet and do all the real work to turn their words into best-sellers. IMO these people are dreaming, but I suppose it could happen.
-Pacing. I thought the conference was timed very well in terms of class length (perhaps could have been ten minutes longer with the good ones), and distance into the evening. I've been at some conferences that had me starting at 7am and going until 10pm or longer, while this one allowed me to go to dinner with my family and enjoy Malaysian food in Chinatown and a nice Italian place.
-Little to improve upon. A few of the classes were just moderately helpful. 2 in particular on Twitter did very little to give me knowledge as to how to use it better than I already am (which I know I can improve immensely). Unfortunately the presenters spent far too much of the limited time telling us their histories, which were each fascinating but did little to advance the beginner/intermediate Tweeter to become more of an expert. Perhaps I had my hopes too high. Oh well, guess I can always fall back on the do it yourself approach which seems to be my life calling in just about everything.
Overall, I give the SFWC a big thumbs up. Would I do it again? Perhaps. I'm hoping I won't need it next February, that my momentum will keep climbing to the point that I'm succeeding nicely in this tricky business. I'm also hoping (dreaming maybe) they might consider me to give the class that several of the attendees mentioned I should be giving. The class on how to make, market, and sell your own ebooks on your own sites, blogs, Amazon, Smashwords etc... ALL FOR FREE. You all can do it, I know, because I am doing it.
All in all, a rewarding and pleasant experience and worth the money. It's pricey by some standards ($450 for early birds and around $695 for latecomers like me with speed dating), but it's still less than I've spent elsewhere and of more value. And who knows, I just might move forward with one of these agencies or connections I made and traditionally land the next blockbuster book and movie, which I am convinced my novels are capable of doing.

Thoughts or comments?
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Meaning of Life - Connectedness of All Things, made famous by Led Zeppelin and Quantum Physics

Who am I? What am I? What is this life all about anyway? These are some of the oldest questions and surely to be the most enduring. And hey, I don't claim to have the answers but I believe perhaps the answers are more simple than they might appear. I was listening to the radio the other day and one of my favorite bands summed it up nicely.
Led Zeppelin is credited with the most famous rock song of all time, Stairway to Heaven. Ever wonder, "Why this song, why not another, what makes it so popular?" Perhaps because among the final lines this gem of universal wisdom is found:
And if you listen very hard
The truth will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
Seems like Zeppelin is talking about the meaning of life being the realization that we are all connected. It's easy to sing about this stuff, but where's the evidence?
Modern science is finding some. From Dr. Lee Warren's Connectedness and Gary Zukah's book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, the field of atomic physics called quantum mechanics states: "…all things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of an all-compassing organic pattern, and that no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other." Furthermore, experiments proved that when twin subatomic particles were emitted from an excited atom and traveled in opposite directions from each other, any change in one particle was instantaneously reflected in the other particle. In fact, when studying quantum physics it appears that light particles have consciousness. And if light itself has consciousness, than wouldn't everything possibly?
Okay interesting, but what does that mean? Does it really indicate a bizarre connectedness within the very atomic particles that appear to be separate entities? Perhaps.
If these ideas are interesting to you, then I believe you'd like these novels too. The Little Universe and Jim's Life are new age, metaphysical and deeply spiritual novels that are full of surprising twists and fun for readers from almost any background. They inspire you to think about this very subject, the concept that we are all connected, a concept which might be the fundamental lesson of this existence (our lifetimes) as to answering these questions: Who am I? What am I? What is this life all about anyway?
This youtube video is along the same thread. It's called Symphony of Science - 'We Are All Connected' (with scientists Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye)

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