Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Picked up this novel for £3 at Spitalfields Market. Highly stylised writing, full of intellectual-sounding snippets that either borrow heavily from Baudrillard, or must be considered a parallel evolution of consciousness.

If I make it sound slightly unappetising, it's unintentional. There is more to fascinate than I can adequately express here, and my admiration rose when it became clear that one of the central topics is eerily in step with the recent stock market crash that started in the US ... A warning ahead of the event?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Alain Badiou - An Introduction - Part I

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to aproximate the original.

Badiou challenges the apoliticism of poststructuralism through an attempted recovery of the subject. There is a distant parallel with Deleuze. Deleuze aimed to re-establish a realist position in epistemology, and found his possibilities in,for instance, the mathematical theory of manifolds. Badiou attempts to reconcile a contemporary view of the subject with ontology by translating the concepts of set theory into a philosophical language.

The importance of investigating thinkers who find counter-arguments to some of the weaknesses of post-structuralism deserve attention. If the reader does not find this statement immediately appealing, this introduction is probably not for him or her. I am very much in the position of a student of Badiou, and at this stage my stance is not critical, but rather an attempt to understand. My companion is the valued text “Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy” by Alain Badiou, translated by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. I can do no better then, than to summarise for the reader the main points as set out in the informative introduction section.


This is Badiou's guiding question in all of his thought: How can a modern doctrine of the subject be reconciled with an ontology?

In poststructuralism there is no clear distinction between the being of the subject and being in general, in other words the theory of the subject falls under the general field of ontology without clear differentiation. This creates certain problems in poststructuralism—two in particular are relevant to the present discussion: the problem of identity (the source of the mind-body problem) and the problem of agency (responsible for the free will versus determinism debate).

Poststructuralism's investigations into the former problem typically concludes that the subject has no significant identity. It is said that the representational methods the subject uses in an effort to establish its identity, create merely the illusion of identity. The subject is thereby relegated to the domain of a general ontology, with no special status. When Derrida says that “there is no outside text” the subject is included.

As a result of this conclusion about identity, poststructuralism has often been accused of taking agency away from the subject, hence “the infamous jibe that poststructuralism leads down a slippery slope to apoliticism” (p. 4).

As can be demonstrated (for instance with reference to Foucault) poststructuralists run into problems even when the problem of agency is addressed directly.

Badiou's approach with regards to the aforementioned issues is twofold. Firstly, he maintains a tension between the general domain of ontology and the theory of the subject. Secondly, he defers the problem of identity while he addresses the problem of agency.

He investigates how it comes about that the actor emerges from an “autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation” and becomes a subject. Therefore in his theory, humans are not all free, and those that act freely only do so some of the time. Those who become subjects “act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event which disrupts the situation they find themselves in” (p. 5). These terms all require definition, and they find their correlatory context within set theory with the notion of indiscernibility, which will be described later.

A human being decides that an event belongs to a situation and cannot be ignored. The consequences of such a marked event is investigated continuously by the subject. The investigation gradually transforms the situation as well as the human being, from which the subject emerges through a process of subjectivisation. For example two people who fall in love mark such an event. Through their fidelity to their love, they change with respect to themselves, their relation to each other, and to the world around them (which includes other people such as friends and family).

Another example, this time in the scientific field, may be that of the Copernican revolution. Modern physics evolved through fidelity to this investigated event.

The editor observes that Badiou's thesis appears to give subjects a special status, because only some people can be subjects, namely those who act in fidelity to a significant event. Nevertheless, it is differentiated from a religious doctrine such as mormonism by the fact that there is no predestination. There are only chance encounters, and subjecthood can be attained for a time after which it can also be lost.

The problem of agency is displaced from the level of the subject to that of being (multiplicity of situations). The subject is no longer problematised as the potential locus of agency that initiates actions, because the subject itself only emerges from being after such a series of actions. Instead, Badiou's problem becomes the ancient one of how to account for the occurrence of the new. In “L'Etre et l'evenement” (Being and Event) his solution is to postulate that “events happen” (p. 6) without themselveshaving directly identifiable causes. A subject, in turn, can investigate such events and so be involved in the creation of new situations.

This event, therefore, does not come under the umbrella of Badiou's general ontology. There is a contingent relationship between the subject and Badiou's ontology, dependent on the event and a subject's fidelity to it.

Modern ontology: being as multiple multiplicities

Although Badiou takes as his starting point Heidegger's distinction between beings and Being, he suggests the alternative term “situation”, which is before the differentiation between entities and relations. It is a “presented multiplicity” and “the place of taking place”. (p. 7)

Thus, in contrast to Aristotle's supposition that “there are substances”, Badiou would say “there are situations”. (p. 8). For Badiou, the important break with classical ontology is to disown the idea of unity at the level of individuality, as well as at the level of totality. In other words, in Aristotle's definition there would be a cosmos that represents the greatest element of unity, and encompasses all the individual elements (“substances”) available. This guarantees the modernity of Badiou's ontology.

Nevertheless, Badiou recognises that situations do have a certain unity in the way that they are presented to us. This is what he calls the count-for-one and he finds the reason in the situation's structure. The structure both unifies at the level of the whole situation, and determines which elements are part of the situation. Unity is therefore not the fundamental quality, but rather the effect of structuration. As a result, multiples can be included in more than one situation: the identities of situations are not mutually exclusive.

The being of a situation is simply the situation before the count-for-one, as a non-unified, inconsistent multiplicity. We may think of, say, a bowl of seafood soup. At the level of the soup, all the ingredients are unified into a tasty whole, with various identifiable ingredients such as ginger, water, prawns, squid, etc. At the level of being we find a confusing multiplicity of elements that are in turn constituted of tissues, leaves, organic cells, and all the way down to their chemical and biological elements. The level of being is completely indifferent.

Normally, philosophers would consider “something” that has been relieved of its identity and its properties to be more or less nothing, but Badiou finds being.

But “inconsistent multiplicity” isn't simply Aristotelian “prime matter”--that would be to identify and label it already. We have no direct access to what was there before the situation became a count-for-one, because we can only investigate using methods and definitions available after the situation was already structured so.

In part 2 I will look at set theory through which Badiou provides these ontological concepts with a solid basis.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Raymond Carver's mentor was a famous teacher of creative writing, and here he gives no-nonsense advice for writers-in-the-making. It's up to the reader to decide if he or she has what it takes. Given Gardner's high standards, it might take some courage to respond in the affirmative ...

Finished chapter 5, "Common errors", today. It gives the amateur writer a thorough exposition of all-too-familiar bad habits. Sentences that start with the infinite form of the verb (“Feeling afraid Sandy switched on the bedroom light”), sentences written in the passive tense, lack of sentence variety, over-explanation, and many more faults revealed—sometimes with punishing wit, and often with near-religious fervour. Don't misunderstand: this is very good advice.

Edit: This book repays rereading. It is not merely a textbook, more like the advice of a stern, opinionated friend. He may not be popular for his views, but one day you will thank him, in your mind, when he has long since passed beyond the boundaries he outlined for you.

"Whatever his genius, the writer unfamiliar with the highest effects possible is doomed to search out lesser effects."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

The effect of Lahiri's stories is comparable to those of Raymond Carver ("A Temporary Matter" seemed the most Carver-like, and is brilliantly effective) in the sense that the author successfully wrenches emotion from the reader even when the story seemed destined for a clichéd ending. The twist comes, and it is usually related to emotion, rather than simply plot. You don't see it coming because you didn't realise until too late that the narrator is also talking about you! As such, Lahiri manages to take particular events and raise them to general, sometimes universal significance.

This collection of stories, for which Lahiri won the Pullitzer Prize in 2000, is not only enjoyable but an interesting study in writing craft. The final story "The Third and Final Continent" is written from the viewpoint of an Indian Man, and creates a personality that is convincingly male (Lahiri is female), without blurting out the secrets of its created persona. The short fiction writer will find the craft behind this achievement of interest.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: Paranoid Nosztalgia by Elod Pal Csirmaz

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

This book is a bilingual Hungarian-English play. It's a clever future fantastic cocktail of consumer culture, genetics, pop science, psycho-analysis, and ideology. It poses questions about the nature of history, and also manages to answer a couple. Other themes explored are the blurred line between reality and simulation in the context of communication technologies, and the growing anxiety about the eventual commercial availability of genetic and biological manipulation technologies.

Theatre itself is a form of simulation, and asked whether drama still has the power to influence reality or, in cultural terms, history, Paranoid Nosztalgia answers: yes.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Review: The Curtain by Milan Kundera

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Like meeting an old friend, I always enjoy reading Kundera. In this "essay in seven parts" he follows in the footsteps of Fielding in setting out what a novel is all about. Kundera has a wonderful knack of conjuring metaphors for our experiences with literature. He likens great novels to geographical discovery of new territory, in other words, novels should communicate what has not yet been said.

In The Curtain Kundera draws attention to the culture and heritage of his Czech homeland, and to the wider "Central Europe" that includes Poland, Hungary, and even Austria. He investigates the history of the novel, and recognises it in its highlights. It is part of a History with its own rules and raison d'être. Without an understanding of this history, many great novels become little more than blips in the general noise, a view he summarises in the final paragraphs of the essay:

In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal. - p. 168

I also sensed some sadness for the less recognised works of art, and that this is a chance to introduce them to a wider audience. Modernist works such as the Polish writer Witold Grombowicz's Ferdydurke, and the Austrians Hermann Broch and Robert Musil's The Sleepwalkers and The Man Without Qualities respectively, are all discussed with passionate interest.

He also provides the reader with wise observations worth reflection. I relate a few:

What will ultimately remain of Europe is not its repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts. - p. 27 
We should certainly ponder this thoroughly: the first great prose treasure of Europe [the Sagas] was created in its smallest land [Iceland], which even today numbers fewer than three-hundred thousand inhabitants. - p. 32 
A nation's possessiveness towards its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland 
... recall Flaubert's words: "The artist must make posterity believe he never lived." Understand the meaning of that line: what the novelist seeks to protect above all is not himself; it is Albertine and Madame Arnoux. - p. 95 
... life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with its own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential! - p. 96 
the deserter is one who refuses to grant meaning to the battles of his contemporaries - p. 112

On the fact that Kafka's great novels about bureaucracy were written at the dawn of bureaucracy, when its mere beginnings were felt to be intolerable. Bureaucracy is now so much greater, but is hardly given a second thought:

reality is utterly unashamed to repeat itself, but confronted with reality's repetition, thought always ends by falling silent - p. 122

On freedom in Kafka's bureaucratised world (with the romantic possibilities described in Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer all but gone from contemporary life):

What can a citizen, with all his rights, change about his immediate environment, about the parking lot being built below his house, about the howling loudspeaker set up across from his windows? His freedom is limitless, and powerless. - p. 136

Friday, August 15, 2008

All Change in 1940s China: "Red Rose, White Rose" by Eileen Chang

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to mirror the original.

I browsed the web for information and commentary on Eileen Chang's novellas and short stories, yet found very little that is publicly accessible. I do not include online academic journals, which generally require paid membership. This lack of information was a surprise, like seeing an exciting ad for a new chocolate bar, then discovering it can only be bought overseas. Let's not forget that the recent Ang Lee film “Lust, Caution” is based on one of her stories, or that she moved to the USA in 1955 after already establishing herself as one of the greatest novelists of her generation (you can read more about her personal life elsewhere), and even translated some of her own works into English. You'd therefore think her work should have been discussed in English forums more widely!

This lack of freely available commentary motivated me to post a close reading of at least one of her stories. Once I came to the end of “Red Rose, White Rose”, with its powerful conclusion, I knew that this is the story I want to write about.

My reference is the Penguin Modern Classics version of the text in “Love in a Fallen City”, p. 253-312.

The very first paragraph introduces us to Zhenbao, and even before we know anything about his character, we are told that there are two women in his life. They are, significantly, symbolised in ideal form: a white rose (a chaste woman) and a red rose (a passionate woman). In the very next moment, the narrator deems it necessary to comment, somewhat critically:

Isn't that just how the average man describes a chaste widow's devotion to her husband's memory—as spotless, and passionate too? - p. 255

When, in the next paragraph, the narrator says “maybe every man has had two such women—at least two”, the assumption of the desirability of both a chaste and a seductive, passionate woman may appear strange to a Western reader. It should be borne in mind that when the story was written (1940s), China had only recently become a republic. Traditional values still held sway. Classical images (for instance the line of a poem by Li Po) are contrasted with mundane, negative images (such as a bloody mosquito):

Marry a red rose and eventually she'll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is “moonlight in front of my bed”. Marry a white rose, and before long she'll be a grain of sticky rice that's gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark over your heart. - p. 255

The classical images come across as artefacts from another time. The wife is described through the eyes of a married man, as someone annoying. Neither a passionate woman nor a chaste woman, once she becomes a wife, can hope to remain romanticised in his mind. In each case the mistress, on the other hand, is idealised. This is not simple hypocrisy on the man's part. There is an indirect co-dependency between these descriptions: the romantic memory of his mistress is like the spice in curry, covering the underlying rotten meat that he wants to avoid tasting.

If we take it at face value, Zhenbao is said not to be like "every man", instead he is “logical and thorough”. He has a special ability that sets him apart:

If he did bump into anything that was less than ideal, he bounced it around in his mind for a while and—poof!--it was idealized: then everything fell into place. - p. 255

However, this statement is actually highly ironic, as we shall soon see.

The “Red Rose” and the “White Rose” of the title are Zhenbao's idealised women. But unlike the description above, where the mistresses are idealised poetically and the married wives are given negative associations, Zhenbao's “White Rose” is an exception--she is his wife. This relation towards his idealisation is problematic for Yanli, his idealised white rose. Presumably, in a previous era, this would have protected her. But in the present age she gets a raw deal, because there is a structural failure of the social environment to support his ideal. The world has moved on.

Idealising Yanli denies her the status of a proper wife. At the same time she is deprived of the benefits of a mistress. She is excluded from both categories, caught in a no-woman's-land between the old and the modern. As a result she is socially powerless and disconnected, isolated behind the abstract, scholarly “white membrane” that both protects her, and cuts her off from the world:

For ten years now Yanli had gone to school, diligently looking up new words, memorizing charts, copying from the blackboard, but between her and everything else there always seemed to be a white membrane. - p. 294

Her education seems to keep her out of touch with the changing world around her. The ability of traditional learning to make sense of the rapidly changing social environment is impaired.

Yanli's lack of power and status is concluded by the story's ending, when Zhenbao returns to being his “good” self after a self-destructive period. This goodness deprives Yanli of the limited power she obtained as a wife publicly suffering at the hands of her husband, and therefore deserving of sympathy and support. Not only does the foundation for her short-lived status crumble when Zhenbao becomes a “good man” again, she also loses credibility. Her social status is arguably lower than it was before:

The next day Zhenbao rose and reformed his ways. He made a fresh start and went back to being a good man. - p.312

Her esteem is obliterated. Unlike Jiaorui, who has found a better life away from Zhenbao, Yanli has no life and no social status of her own. She is a snow flake of Zhenbao's fantasy. She is his White Rose. He denies everything else.

Hence the mocking tone when the narrator refers to the idealised chaste rose mistress as “'moonlight in front of my bed'”. In the case of a “good” man like Zhenbao, who applies it to his wife, it is disastrous. The metaphor has a distant relation in Browning's “My Last Duchess”. The girl, who was a bit too full of life for the Duke's liking, he prefers as a painting. In Chang's story, the metaphor is split into two parts: the “Red Rose”, the lively one, who Zhenbao consciously does not choose; and the “White Rose”, who is nevertheless still in real life too distasteful, and too human, and has to be idealised to be tolerated.

Although Zhenbao encourages Yanli to listen to the radio, as a way to further a modern woman's education, “he didn't know that Yanli listened to the radio just to hear a human voice” (p. 302). The only place where she feels at home is in the bathroom. There she can be alone with her constipation, cut off from everyone else: “Only in the day-lit bathroom could she settle down and feel rooted” (p. 304).

When Zhenbao accidentally observes her through the open bathroom door in a voyeuristic setting late one night, the narrator frames his view with an aesthetic metaphor. It is false flattery, because, as with Browning's Duchess, this aesthetic reduction is precisely her undoing:

But never in dynastic history has a painting of a pretty woman taken up such an awkward subject: Yanli was pulling up her pants ... In America, the scene would have made an excellent toilet-paper advertisement, but to Zhenbao's hasty glance it was household filth .. damp and giving off a stagnant, stifling, human scent” - p. 307

Even Yanli, already little more than a pale, pretty ghost roaming the house, is too stiflingly human for Zhenbao. The reference to America alludes to the uneasy tension between traditional and modern, and the fact that the present societal and normative environment is not yet up to describing modern domestic realities in China. As a result individuals like Yanli are excluded from proper description, and remain disconnected from social community. If Yanli is curiously inexpressive throughout the story, it is because the language to give expression to her problems does not exist yet.

This China that has its feet in the future and its head in a more traditional era, is described earlier in the story as detrimental to women:

In China, as elsewhere, the constraints imposed by the traditional moral code were originally constructed for the benefit of women: they made beautiful women even harder to obtain, so their value rose ... Women nowadays don't have this kind of protective buffer, especially not mixed-blood girls, whose status is so entirely undefined. - p. 286

It is time to re-evalute Zhenbao's inherent need to be a “good” man. At the very start, the narrator suggests (somewhat mockingly) that Zhenbao isn't the kind of man to idealise his mistress and then hold a negative view of his wife. As we have just seen, this is not the case. He may publicly refer to Yanli as his White Rose, in order to save face, but the truth is just as the narrator described the average man's view of his wife: he thoroughly despises Yanli.

Although on the surface he seems an ideal, good man, his inability to understand his own heart leads to great domestic unhappiness. For a while he even becomes highly self-destructive:

He couldn't smash up the home he'd made, or his wife, or his daughter, but he could smash himself up ... He had to be smashed to bits! Smash him to bits! - p.310-1

The following description is therefore highly ironic, and ultimately mocking:

But Xhenbao wasn't like that; he was logical and thorough. He was, in this respect, the ideal modern man. - p. 255

On the other hand, the irony is also tragic, because these very traits are in some respects necessary for a man born to a poor family, and who has to struggle through life to make a success. New opportunities were made possible by the fall of the monarchy, and for those willing to work hard and make sacrifices a measure of middle class success was attainable. So Zhenbao joined thousands and thousands of others in a quest for a better life. It was still an untrodden road, so only those who were very committed and dedicated could succeed.

His attitude towards women was already set during his studies in Britain,.long before he met Jiaorui and Yanli, To be master of his future, he deemed it necessary also to be master of the women in his life.

... though he could spend money on her, he couldn't be her master ... later, when Zhenbao had figured out how to get what he wanted out of a whore, he'd think back to that time in Paris, his first time when he'd been such a fool. Now he was the master of his own world. - p. 258-9

Some time after his return to China he meets Jiaorui. He quickly categorises Jiaorui as someone who isn't appropriate for him to marry. She is too free and without restraint, too demanding, breaks too many rules, and can't be controlled without a great deal of effort. In short, to master her would probably cost him his future. Or so he thinks:

... if a man had to forge ahead on his own, as Zhenbao did, such a woman would be a major impediment. And he wasn't easygoing like Wang Shihong, who let a woman flout every rule. What was the point if you had to argue all day long? That was sure to sap a man's energy and drain him of ambition. Of course ... she was like this precisely because her husband couldn't control her. - p. 269

On the other hand, he is also aware that he is very attracted to her. She is his type:

He felt quite agitated. He liked women who were fiery and impetuous, the kind you couldn't marry. Here was one who was already a wife, and a friend's wife at that ... She was everywhere, tugging and pulling at him. - p.264

Why then, even though she loves him, does he not follow his heart? The answer is that, first of all, he must follow his own logic to the end: he must think of his future, and he finds her too carefree and irresponsible to allow him to make the necessary effort to achieve his ambition:

She seemed scatterbrained, like a child who goes out and picks dozens of violets, one by one, gathers them into a bunch and tosses them all away. Zhenbao had only his future to bank on, a future he'd prepared for all on his own. How could he bear to see it thrown to the wind? - p. 287

When it comes to his heart he is unwilling to take risks for the long term. Jiaorui's child-like nature (like Rose before her) unsettles him. Even if he could be her master, it would be at a price, possibly impeding his future.

When Jiaorui makes a move to break from her husband (Wang Shihong) to be with Zhenbao, he bolts and uses his mother as an excuse:

... if you love me, then you have to consider my situation. I can't cause my mother pain. Her way of thinking is different from ours, but we have to think about her, since she has only me to depend on ... And Shihong is, after all, my friend – p.293

The adultery with Jiaorui, who is Shihong's wife, is not even an afterthought. The excuse that Shihong is his friend is for the sake of Zhenbao's reputation, rather than any moral scruples, or true friendship. His mother's welfare is his primary stated reason. For her sake he wants to find a more stable future. His mother's hint to Jiaorui when Zhenbao is in the hospital indicates that she may have approved of Jiaorui. Zhenbao's unwillingness is mainly down to his insecurity about being able to control her.

The tragedy's design sets in when he looks to older, more established structures to support his future. Those very structures, it would seem, are no longer as reliable as they were for previous generations. Nevertheless, he doesn't know this until it is too late. The importance of his mother is genuine though. His traditional sensibility finds expression in a secret desire to be adored and praised by many mothers:

He wanted to get ahead, move up in the world .. he'd contribute something to society ... even now he had a fuzzy intimation of the warm welcome awaiting him—not just from his own mother but from a whole world of mothers, tearful, and with eyes only for him – p. 289
He eventually allows his mother to choose a wife for him.

His mother cried in front of him a few times, urging him to marry, and he put it off for a while, then finally agreed. His mother arranged the introductions.- p.293

His mother is motivated to marry him to a girl so that she no longer has to worry about him not taking care of himself. She chooses Yanli for him, but Yanli is a disappointment and they do not get along. His mother, showing a strength of resolve to match Zhenbao's own, moves out of the house. This double blow is the beginning of Zhenbao's deep disappointment with his life:

Zhenbao was very disappointed in his wife: having married her for her tractability, he felt cheated. He was also unhappy with his mother—moving out like that and letting people say he wasn't a good son. - p. 297

His brother and sister also turn out to be lazy, preferring to feed off their older brother's endeavour. The esteem and praise he expected from his family for his good deeds and hard work never materialise. He is deeply unhappy, and after a period of self-destructive behaviour wherein he unashamedly takes to drink and women, he reforms his ways—but still at the expense of his wife.

Most of the story is taken up by his affair with Jiaorui. The intensity and anguish that accompanies it, and the tears he cries when they meet once more many years later, illustrate how much more emotion he felt with her, even though he tried to deny his feelings at the time. He is the architect of his unhappy destiny though, and therefore, in this analysis, I have spent more time analysing his relation to the problem than to the cure he abandoned.

Jiaorui, for her part, followed her heart and found someone else to love—and now has a family. The narrator would side with her, it seems, and there is ultimately a sense that Zhenbao wasn't man enough to go for a feisty woman like Jiaorui—even though he felt attracted to her. She is the most modern, in that she wasn't afraid even to break up her marriage to find her happiness, whereas Zhenbao's deference to older values in the end didn't serve him as well as he'd hoped.

One might conclude by saying that both Jiaorui and Yanli suffer through Zhenbao's tendencies, but whereas Yanli is permanently diminished through his idealisation of her as a White Rose, and her gradual isolation, Jiaorui might reply that she has no need of being idealised as his Red Rose, that she is happy without him. It merely reveals his inability to understand and listen to his own heart.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Note: This gallery originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.

My recent trip to Granada was frustrating at first. When I landed at Federico Garcia Lorca airport on 2 May I knew not a single word of Spanish. In addition I had barely any summer clothes with me and, crucially as I later learned, I came with my best pair of Clarks shoes (and no others) when what you need is a pair of soft soles to walk the hilly country. In short, I was ill-prepared.

Normally, travelling light is a perfectly good idea and I would buy what I need during the first few days. It's just that those first few days turned out to be (1) devilishly hot and sunny and (2) spent walking up and down the cobbled hills of the Albaicin and the Sacro Monte - not once, not twice, not even three times ... but numerous times!

Then, as the icing to my fruit cake of circumstances and poor preparation, it was festival season and the tourists around the city and at the Alhambra made sightseeing more of an ordeal than a pleasure. When I compared notes with others who'd seen the Alhambra later, they'd either been to see it in the evening, enhancing its romantic qualities, or went when they were practically the only tourists in sight.

Nevertheless, by the third day I'd bought several new T-shirts and a badly needed pair of the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn. I'm not exaggerating. I haven't worn anything else since my return! The rest of the trip was spent admiring the Alhambra from afar, exploring the city's avenues and side streets, Spanish cuisine, and getting better acquainted with the Sacro Monte hill and its caves, and its gypsy and flamenco history.

I chronicled my trip with hundreds of photographs and am gradually putting up a subset that seem interesting (while avoiding some of the usual touristic stereotypes).

Orange Curves and Steel

Taken in the famous Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport in Madrid - easily one of the most striking interiors of any airport I've seen. The airport opened in 2006 - here is an archaeology student's short film of a tour through the building, recommended to get a feel for the place:

Barajas Airport

Dusky Airport

It was nearly sunset when I arrived at Barajas - this is the view to the East.

Receding Lamp Ceiling

These striking lamps are laid out in a ceiling grid and create a powerful visual effect.

Palace on the Hill

The summer palace of the Alhambra. The rest of the Alhambra is to the right of this picture.



View to a Bridge

The cobbled path that leads up to the ticket office of the Alhambra is a steep and winding one. Here's one of the views on the way.

Shades on a Wall

This is part of the wall along the path to the Alhambra, on your left as you go up. The interplay of light and shadow created a subtle effect.


A small stream along the same path.

Shadows and Light

It was a hot weekend and the heat made the difference between shade and exposed areas all the more tangible. Here the contrast between the red wall and greenery in the shade and the overexposed soil jumps out at you. The mixed fate of the tree finally lends it a calming effect.

Tourist Avenue

This street on the other side of the hill of the Alhambra is full of little souvenir shops.

Derelict with Dolls

This abandoned building, opposite the souvenir shops in the previous picture, was adorned with colourful dolls and a couple of travellers seemed to be inhabiting it for the time being. A few days later when I passed by the dolls had been removed and a big skip was filled with trash, presumably with rubbish from inside the building.

Ruined Bridge

This old ruined bridge is visible across the "river" along the Carrera del Darro.

The Colour of Houses

Colourful buildings along the river next to the Carrera del Darro.

The Flag of Granada

The striking combinations of bright yellow painted walls and dark brown doors provide a striking texture of colour throughout Granada. Here I tried to frame them in a pattern reminiscent of a flag.

Shades and a Wall

Pipe and Wall

The colour contrasts amidst the heat and the shade are almost tangible and an endless source of interesting juxtapositions.

City Wall from a Distance

The old city wall, with its distinctive steps, can be seen from this unexpected vantage point.

The Alhambra - again

Who can get enough of seeing the Alhambra? The ancient face of the old fortress is framed for pedestrians by a view through this residential iron support.


This modern building threw back a fascinating reflection of the much older building behind me.

Street-side Painting

A pretty painting on the rolling door of this cafe - but the play of shadows and colour give the whole scene a slightly picturesque feel.

Simply Moorish

One of several unmistakably Moorish buildings within the precinct of the Alhambra.

Carlos V Arena

The Renaissance-style structure built by king Carlos V, never completed. It is famously incongruous with the intricate and understated Moorish architecture it tried to supersede.


One of many intricately chiseled arches.


The Arabic scriptures are unreadable to most people - but beautifully created. It also creates subtle effects with the surrounding wall decoration.


The serene beauty of the Patio de los Arrayanes (courtyard of the Arrayanes, a type of myrtle).


A deliberately framed photograph that nevertheless reveals the exquisite attention to detail evident in all the decoration, and an overall architectural and decorative composition that pleases the eye from almost any angle.

View from the Alhambra

Not only is the Alhambra an amazing site to behold, it also offers great views of the surrounding city - like this one.

Hot and White

These white walls are not an unusual sight in Granada, but this perspective rendered them particularly striking.


This cave on the Sacro Monte hill was the first of many I saw. At first they look quite unobtrusive, but in that hot and hilly landscape they soon gain an uncanny aura.

Cave near City Wall

In the absence of human activity around this cave and the aloofness of the city wall in the background, the aloes gain a unique presence.

Aloes on the Hill

These aloes seem to be reaching out to the sky.

Cave Mystery

Who lives here?

Wall's Corner

Fountain and Statue

Statues are common throughout the city. This one is surrounded by little fountains.

Colour Codes

Colour composition around this little bridge crossing the river Darro.

Stony Silence

This broken old bridge next to the river Darro is fascinating, it looks as if it holds a secret it will not give up.

More Colour Codes

Shades in Yellow

This car was positioned perfectly to complement the wall opposite.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

More than blogging

After putting the pieces together my website is finally up and running. I realised that I would eventually need such a website to organise static pages and create a fixed web presence for me. Blogging is useful for news and running commentary on a regular basis, but its inability to serve categorised content beyond the use of tags and dates means that I would need to combine it with something more to reach a wider audience.

The site is still growing and while it is of an easily consumable volume it is the perfect time to bookmark it and have a look. Have fun!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Beautiful in Beaufort West

It is roughly impossible to translate poetry and retain all the qualities and nuances that make it special. Language is too closely aligned with cultural references and the feelings they evoke to permit aspirations of anything more than a best effort. To capture some of the original sense is already an achievement, and yet I feel that my latest attempt has been better than most.

Gert Vlok Nel is well-known in Afrikaans circles for his poetic folk-songs in the compilation "Om Beaufort-Wes se beautiful woorde te verlaat" ("To leave the beautiful words of Beaufort West"). He was already a winner of the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize for a debut collection of poetry in 1995 for his earlier work "Om te lewe is onnatuurlik" ("To live is unnatural"), but it was the troubadour songs of "Om Beaufort-wes se beautiful woorde te verlaat" that captured people's imagination.

"Beautiful in Beaufort-Wes" (a song title not to be confused with the title of the compilation) is a key moment in the sequence of songs and very tempting to try and represent. But as with all of Nel's work it poses the additional problem of English mixed into the Afrikaans in a colloquial tone, something not possible to convey directly. I've stuck with a straightforward translation that maintains the original rhythm, much of the rhyme and hopefully some of the sense of a love lost but not forgotten.

Beautiful in Beaufort West

& you were beautiful in Beaufort West
& I was so awed & awfully in love with you
& you & I kissed on graves & trains
& in the backseats of Ford Fairlanes
& now you & your man are both computer analysts
& last winter you tried to cut both your wrists & now you write to me:
you can't sleep any more, laugh any more
no longer do things for yourself
never ever kiss me again

& fine fine fine were the words you said
while you smoked those menthol cigarettes
& those sweet sweet things that you said to me
while you lay in my arms sweat sweatingly
& the words expressed I've expressly forgot
I just remember the smoke & the sweat & Beaufort West
& your naked body under a cool, summer cotton dress
no more sleep, no more laughter
no longer do things for each other
never ever kiss each other again

& maybe it's like a tale from the Daily Mail
but one evening you suddenly pushed me away
& in the rear view mirror you looked at your face
& said "maybe I should try to look happy anyway"
that night I could neither sleep nor dream
I felt how my heart was being ripped from my chest
& like a dinghy drifted on down the stream
I couldn't sleep any more, laugh any more
I couldn't do things right
never kiss you again

& the last reminiscence of which I sing
is the night you & I rode on the milk train on and on into the night
until the other side of the ding-dong gong
when the breakfast waiter passed us by
& that was my wake-up call my love
you said "love me, please"
but I'd dreamt we went & lived in Beaufort West
& I couldn't sleep any more, or laugh any more
no longer do something like that
or ever kiss you again

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Singularity programming design


Having touched on the possibility, both in terms of its theory and very briefly its application, of singularity programming as an alternative programming model, we now focus on the kind of design it would embody.

Platform games

Facebook took the world by storm in 2007 and was voted favourite technology by many leading technology readers. Was it just a gimmick? A fad? Marc Andreessen, respected software engineer, entrepeneur, and co-founder of Ning, lauded Facebook's adoption of an API model. "My personal opinion is that the new Facebook Platform is a dramatic leap forward for the Internet industry", he stated unequivocally on his blog.

In his analysis of Facebook's success, Andreessen cites the advantages of a platform over an application, including the "walled gardens" of closed solutions that have been knocked off the playing field by the openness of the web.

It seems that it should almost go without saying, but apparently it takes someone with Andreessen's clout and standing to put one and one together: solutions that have been fully crystallised by developers fare less well than those that can be reprogrammed. Platforms, in other words, are flexible to users' needs and input.

This distinction is not dissimilar to the evolution of unusual states we discussed before. An "event handling" program has the potential to deal with unusual data or events in a way that is mostly hardcoded. As a result, perturbations that vary too much from the anticipated will either be rejected outright or alternatively push the system to an unusable state with no differentiation of function possible in that new state.

But what if "unusual data" is not a rogue Denial of Service attack, but instead represented users' varying needs?

Design class

In cellular activity prior to individuation and the formation of tissue and organs, cells are considered pluripotent. In other words they have the ability to be any one of several cell types. In fully individuated humans there are 254 different types of cells. Jellyfish have about three.

During experiments the researcher and theorist Stuart Kauffman found that the process of induction, i.e. when cell collectives suppress or enhance cellular differentiation in other collectives via signals, there are "recurrent patterns of gene activity within these networks, patterns which exhibit the kind of homeostatic stability associated with attractors" (DeLanda, p. 65). Those attractors, he concluded, represent consistent cell types.

Object orientation is only one of several models available to the computer scientist, but it is particularly suited to our theory. Objects are like cells in the sense that they hide certain kinds of information (as cells would contain the cytoplasm or nucleus that in turn contains the chromosomes and DNA) that are nevertheless vitally important to their eventual, activated functionality.

If we extend our analogy of cells at the level of pluripotent collectives to the layer of possibility in a pre-formed system (please note: I am using the term pre-formed in the sense of "unformed but will eventually be formed" not in the sense of "already formed prior usage"), we have the corresponding notion of signals that could determine the type of cell available to the collective for tissue building or, in the case of a system, the kinds of input that could determine the type of object available for component building.

It is a bit like the problem of cross-cutting concerns that have annoyed developers for years. Some kinds of functionality do not have a core function (logging is the classic example) but nevertheless requires implementation across the majority of classes (objects) which themselves are meant to solve the problem of a separation of concerns. Input data that try to find a matching pattern in a pre-formed system cut across all classes (pre-formed objects).

But cross-cutting concerns are already well defined problems, whereas the problems to be dealt with at the pre-formed object level are not well defined yet. In our example an undefined perturbation to the system is precisely the cause of variation and diversity at the next level: the component level. Until the data has found a way to fit itself in available classes (not necessarily in a complete way) the differentiated class cannot emerge. Likewise, in its evolutionary form, a new class may emerge that instantiates clusters of objects and a component that is ultimately rejected. It is therefore expected to be an evolutionary process.

By focusing on differentiation - i.e. the evolution of a system from its classes designed by a separation of concerns to differentiated (instantiated) objects to components through to a fully realised and differentiated product - the availability of unrealised objects that have the ability to change state according to unpremeditated signals (data or events) are neglected.


If Facebook is truly a leap forward for the internet it is immensely exciting to speculate what it could be if not just external programmers but also users had the ability to contribute radically to the platform. It is in part the satisfaction of users' diverse needs to play and interact with objects and people in the environment that drives the thriving communities of Second Life and World of Warcraft.

In the singularity programming environment this level of interaction is envisaged as part of an evolving dialogue initiated by signals to a pre-formed layer of digital object possibility where classes enhance and suppress information to form new types of objects. These objects then cluster together to structure novel components and building blocks to respond to the information contained in the user's signal.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What is singularity programming?

Singularity programming is a radical form of design (not just coding) that takes its inspiration from the mathematical concepts of manifolds and singularities.

The question is asked

In principle the question is asked: how would a program look that responded to an information system whose steady state has undergone the equivalent of a phase transition in physics?

Singularity basics

It is tempting to plough ahead without an understanding of singularity basics, but that would leave the reader with little benefit from this exploration. Therefore it is valuable to touch upon a few core concepts that nevertheless have deep application, but require a bit of mental abstraction.

The term singularity is familiar in the context of manifolds in differential geometry, but it is used to describe several different (albeit related) topics. In particular I am using the term singularity in the classic Riemannian sense and its more famous extension in Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

Riemann's is also the version referenced by Manuel DeLanda when he expands the notion of manifolds and singularities to describe physical processes. He posits that the intrinsic structure of a manifold can describe the evolution of such processes over time.

We are interested in the singularities that are topological points and thereby define a steady state. They have an influence on the behaviour of trajectories, and therefore on the physical system itself. A singularity, in this sense, often acts as an attractor within the manifold. Any trajectory, as long as its origin lies within the basin of attraction, will have as its end point this attractor singularity.

Thus we could also have spoken of attractor programming or steady state programming rather than singularity programming, were it not for the notion of a phase transition associated with the symmetry-breaking bifurcation of one singularity to another. (A symmetry-breaking bifurcation, in short, implies that the system has changed state and its new stable state is represented by a different singularity.)

To use a simple example we may think of water. When it is a liquid its state can be described by a certain singularity in a manifold. It may lose temperature, or gain temperature – whether through kinetic or heat energy – but essentially it remains water. However, when this type of energy is consistently applied to the water it may become a gas. At this point it undergoes a phase transition, and stabilises around a new state (gas). Both these states would be represented by two different singularities within the manifold.

Meanwhile back at the digital manifold

I want to use these terms as metaphors in a digital space, the space defined by system calls, applications and user spaces in the operating system, memory and storage systems of a computer.

For starters let's imagine a smoothly running system – business as usual – evolving through two singularities in the manifold. First phase: total inertia. Bootup? First phase transition. Loaded Windows? One stable state is reached. Or was it Linux instead? A different stable state. Perturbed by applications? Hmmm ... but if you close them again, the system returns to the typical stable state of Windows, or Linux, and so remains around the same singularity.

This gets us going in the right direction, but for the purposes of typical programming the example is a bit too broad. Most of us who develop aren't system hackers – we write user space software.

Nevertheless, we already have some correlating ideas. Programs, or certain types of data, perturb the system and push the system around the basin of attraction of a particular singularity. It generally continues to stabilise around that singularity, but occasionally a large memory leak or a kernel panic can lead to a phase transition in the system. And let's be honest, in most systems this phase transition is rather fatal to the user. The infamous Blue Screen of Death is a memorable case in point.

This hints at the paradigm I am suggesting: a form of programming that caters for such a new state. But ... what exactly is singularity programming then?

It is not error handling

To begin with, we may start with something it is not - namely traditional error handling. At, for example, the assigning of values to a variable in a C++ or Java program I, as a programmer, might notice that the value could cause an anomaly through division by zero. To handle this exception - which is a kind of error - I write an error handler. In effect, we are using a logical form of redirection that continues in the same domain - it originates and remains within the basin of attraction, in other words.

Any well-written piece of software should trigger an error handler in such a situation. The error handler diverts the flow from disaster and the program continues its execution. It's the equivalent of the program saying: "Oh by the way, this is the problem that just arose, but you don't need to take it too seriously, just let me get on with things ...".

However the state of the system is not radically changed by this logical redirection, and hence we cannot speak of error handling as singularity programming. In fact we might say that the goal of error handling is to keep the system in its present state, which is to say the program does not want the system to change its state and reach a new singularity.

I give up, are you going to tell me what singularity programming is?

Let's look at our example of a stable system again, and imagine that it is a firewall. A simple firewall may accept internet (untrusted) data at secure ports, inspect the packets, and pass the packets to a local network via another port. Packet load may vary, but the firewall can normally continue these operations with no disruption and little noticeable change in resource usage for months on end. Often the system wouldn't even need a reboot. It's a simple system that remains relatively stable during its lifetime.

Briefly take one step back in order to satisfy our analogy. The firewall system reached its present state after the connection, installation, configuration and implementation of hardware, network, operating system, and crucial operations software. We may have attempted different tactics during any of these processes, but eventually we would have a stable, running system whose state is represented by an attractor singularity in our imaginary firewall manifold.

Now imagine that the system is perturbed by unusual volumes and types of data, for instance during a Denial of Service attack. In simple terms, the system becomes overloaded using all of its resources to cope - or at least those focusing on typical functions.

To make things worse, certain types of attack can deliberately alter the configuration of the firewall to allow more access, then disable some processes, and ultimately allow a flow of untrusted data to pass through. Under these circumstances normal data will be processed and inspected very slowly, or not at all.

It might well be impossible for normal operations to resume even when the attack ends. In such a case the system administrator would have to intervene, reconfiguring or reinstalling as the case may be.

In summary, a Denial of Service attack could push the system into a new state whereby, even if the attack halts, the state gravitates to its new singularity (no doubt a faulty one, in the eyes of the system owner).

If we tried error handling, it would involve shutting down port access when certain parameters have been exceeded, alerting operators about the excessive activity, and activating processes that can protect sensitive areas of the system. Error handling may therefore save the current state of the system, and allow normal operations to proceed.

Singularity programming, on the other hand, would allow the system to be flooded and attempt to operate under the new state. Thus it is not a system of error-prevention, but instead encourages unusual states as a necessary evolution of the system.

When the system has unusual numbers of data packets pouring in and it does not enable error handling, we could imagine a new form of program being triggered. The Singularity Program could decide to open more ports and activate processes that are hungry for this abundant data. A projector of data on a screen, for instance.

Although I am not advocating any particular use for singularity programming at this stage - I want to present the theory of its possibility - we might reflect, momentarily, on an analogous situation in an economy. When an abundance of goods or services arrives in a market the price might go down, but instead of rejecting the goods a portion of the market might transform them, since they are so readily available, into other. more valuable goods.