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Sunday surprise 23: a narrative form without conflict

Monday, April 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a friend's blogpost, a taste of still eating oranges -- and the eyes of beautiful women considered as weaponry, in a Zen story, backed up by a verse from a celebrated Indian treatise on advaita ]
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I like to get cross-blog discussions going, so what I’ll post here as this week’s Sunday surprise is my response to two paragraphs my friend Bill Benzon quoted on his New Savanna blog under the title Is conflict necessary to plot? from a longer piece at Still Eating Oranges titled The significance of plot without conflict — followed by a zen tale.

Here’s the Still Eating Oranges intro to the form known as kishotenketsu which so intrigued Bill Benzon:

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general — arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishotenketsu.

Kishotenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc. — are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.

And here, from Paul Reps’ celebrated little book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, is one of the 101 Zen Stories with which Reps’ anthology begins:

How to Write a Chinese Poem:

A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

“The usual Chinese poem is four lines,” he explains. “The first line contains the initial phase; the second line, the continuation of that phase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.

Which reminds me irresistibly — in the HipBone-Sembl manner — of a quote from Shankaracharya‘s classic work, Vivekachudamani, or The Crest Jewel of Discrimination:

Who is the greatest hero? He who is not terror-stricken by the arrows which shoot from the eyes of a beautiful girl.

Wry grin: I am clearly no hero — but even here in Shankara’s aphorism, we are still and ever in the realm of narrative.

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A Sign of the Times – in today’s Post

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on skilled design, and on choosing to purchase influence, elegance or beauty ]
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There’s something very neat about this front page:

Okay, okay, Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post. But what intrigues me about this front page of today’s digital edition as it appeared on my screen this morning was the way a color photo of Bezos sneaks in (left) below a larger black and while photo of Katharine Graham (center) — while an ad for the China Daily (right) takes up a third of the real estate (right), to be read, mark you, on Bezos’ own Kindle.

So we have today’s future, to coin a phrase, with the “pivot to Asia” and the “pivot to Bezos” right there together — and the “pivot to digital” pretty much a done deal.

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The price of the Post was $250 million, and plenty of people have talked about what Bezos could have bought instead — and while we’re on the topic of neat design, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a $250 million penthouse under construction in Monaco, described by HiConsumption as The World’s Most Expensive Penthouse, and that one of the numerous architectural illustrations provided also features a striking lesson on graphics:

What catches my eye here is the parallelism between the window with its center divider and balcony rail (left) with the geometry of the painting on the wall (right) — that’s a brilliant design choice, as the photographer well knows.

In my dreams I’d prefer my own choice of art-work, frankly — and if I only had $250 million to play with, I’d go for a small craftsman cottage in Pasadena, perhaps — with that luminous $250 million Cezanne to grace one of my walls…

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That — and the digital Post on Kindle, I suppose.

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Two beauties, or how the mind meanders

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the proposition that no topic is more than a link or two away from beauty ]
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I was butting in on a conversation about terrorism between JM Berger and Suzanne Schroeder — JM had said something about me and I chipped in, one link or tweet led to another, and soon we were at these two images —

The top one is a Magritte-like photo that comes from the mind and eye of Alexandre Parrot, hat tip to El Cid Barett — the second a still from Maya Deren‘s extraordinary film, Meshes of the Afternoon.

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One beauty for the startled mind; one beauty for the ravished heart…

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Glass Beads and Complexity

Monday, May 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- achieving something like closure on a post I started for Adam Elkus here, with a side dish along the way here ]
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It’s astonishing to me how closely complexity science is related to Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game.

Adam Elkus recently pointed those who follow him to Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Methods and Techniques of Complex Systems Science: an Overview, and just a quick dip there gave me the graphic I’ve put at the head of this post, together with this quote about “patterns” as Shalizi understands that term:

I mean more or less what people in software engineering do: a pattern is a recurring theme in the analysis of many different systems, a cross-systemic regularity. For instance: bacterial chemotaxis can be thought of as a way of resolving the tension between the exploitation of known resources, and costly exploration for new, potentially more valuable, resources (Figure 1.2). This same tension is present in a vast range of adaptive systems. Whether the exploration-exploitation trade-off arises among artifcial agents, human decision-makers or colonial organisms, many of the issues are the same as in chemotaxis, and solutions and methods of investigation that apply in one case can profitably be tried in another. The pattern “trade-off between exploitation and exploration” thus serves to orient us to broad features of novel situations. There are many other such patterns in complex systems science: “stability through hierarchically structured interactions”, “positive feedback leading to highly skewed outcomes”, “local inhibition and long-rate activation create spatial patterns”, and so forth.

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Let’s start with patterns. The “people in software engineering” Shalizi mentions gleaned their use of the term “pattern” from the architect Christopher Alexander, author of the extraordinary, seminal book A Pattern Language, which in turn has hugely influenced computer science. Alexander distilled the essence of his thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, called his book with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch Laws of the Game — and it deals with molecular biology, cellular automata, game theory, and games. But not just that — it is specifically written with Hesse’s concept in mind:

We hope to translate Hermann Hesse’s symbol of the glass bead game back into reality.

While we’re on about cellular automata, what about Stephen Wolfram? I don’t know that he talks about the Glass Bead Game himself, but at least three people talk about Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science, and/or his search engine, Wolfram Alpha as being strongly analogous to Hesse’s game — Jason Dyer, Graeme Philipson, and most recently, Mohammed AlQuraishi. Here’s a key para from Quraishi’s piece:

I think the Game is an intriguing concept, and I think it may one day be realized. In fact I think we are already on our way toward realizing it. In the simplest and most general sense, mathematics and programming languages allow us to formalize all knowledge. Contenders for the language of the Game already exist, at least in principle. But we are further along than that. Search engines like Wolfram Alpha have already begun the process of formalizing diverse pieces of knowledge, unifying them in a single medium, and providing the means to connect and reason about them. A repeated example in the book, the mapping of musical compositions to mathematical formulas or even historical events, is eminently doable within Wolfram Alpha. Much remains to be done of course, and there is no “game” yet that can be played across the vast sea of all human knowledge, but some enterprising individuals have already gotten started on creating it.

And then there’s John Holland, the “father of genetic algorithms”. Holland told an interviewer:

I’ve been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they’d expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can’t think of anything that would delight me more.

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I’ve been working on a playable variant on the Glass Bead Game too, for twenty years quite consciously, and more if you count subterranean stirrings. And I don’t think glass beads, or stones, or chess or go pieces, or beads on an abacus, or strings of ones and zeros, or cells in an agent-based model for that matter, are the way to go. Which is not to say those approaches shouldn’t be tried, or don’t have remarkable things to teach us. I just don’t believe they give us quite what Hesse envisioned:

a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

I think what’s important in Hesse’s game is that concepts that humans can grasp should reveal their stunning interrelations to heart and mind. And for that reason, the “moves” in my games [Hipbone, and more recently Sembl] consist of concepts — musical, verbal, visual, mathematical — and the links, the analogies, the “semblances” between them.

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And thus the game is a search for analogies.

The human mind must inevitably perform what Shalizi calls the “trade-off between exploitation and exploration”. Some thoughts are proximate to others, they can be developed without any special insight by regular “linear” thinking. We do this every day, every minute — but it is not particularly revelatory. It doesn’t solve thorny problems, much less create beauty. There is another mode of thinking, however, that leaps between thoughts that are not so “close” but are nevertheless deeply related. To leap the apparent distance between such deeply related thoughts, we deploy analogy and creative thinking, and that is where the aha! of revelation occurs.

So I would suggest there is a close analogy here with the point Shalizi is making with the diagram atop this post. The human mind, to slightly paraphrase Shalizi’s caption, will “exploit the currently-available patch of food” for thought by linear, inside-the-patch thinking, but at full stretch it will also “explore, in hopes of ?nding richer patches elsewhere” — the “elsewhere” being attained precisely by “creative leaps” — by seeing semblances, patterns, analogies.

And to return to my earlier post, Thinking outside the cocoon, of which this post is a continuation, and perhaps the completion….

Shalizi’s “random walk” is thus also the archangel’s “zig-zag wantonness” in that great poem, Tom O’Roughley — when William Butler Yeats asks, “how but in zig-zag wantonness / could trumpeter Michael be so brave?” and writes, “wisdom is a butterfly / and not a gloomy bird of prey”…

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A hop and a skip, YouTube-style

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on a brief random walk through YouTube, an ambulation for a sedentary soul -- nothing serious, I promise ]
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Back when I was a wee lad at Oxford there was another wee lad, also of a poetic disposition, named Heathcote Williams. For some reason, the other evening I stumbled on a clip of Heathcote performing the role of a psychiatrist in a movie I haven’t seen, but will probably keep an eye out for.

Here’s that (somewhat ob)scene:

Well, I’m the nomadic type, and my eye somehow strayed from there to this:

Okay? I get the sense I’m on a roll here, Salma Hayek is compellingly beautiful, and so I compulsively gamble away a few more minutes of my precious time, and find… You’ll forgive me, I hope, and see this clip through to the end, because in its own light-hearted way it’s about miracles.

And as you know, I have theological interests:

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So that was my evening’s delectation a couple of days ago, delivered here today for yours.

If, however, you are willing to take a grander leap into anti-monarchical, pro-poetic, anti-theological polemic, you might take a look at Heathcote’s fiery account of Shelley, his volatile predecessor at Oxford, in seven parts beginning on YouTube here: Shelley at Oxford.

Heathcote takes the liberty of speaking his mind, and consequently several of my own sacred cows get scorched to steak along the way — you have been warned.

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