NY #6: A House of Cards and A Naked Singularity

I'm staying with a friend in New York, and when we get back to her apartment at a reasonable time, we tend to watch a few episodes of House of Cards, a Netflix series starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a ruthless and vengeful Democrat politician who will stop at nothing etc. etc.

I'd heard a while back that the show had been produced by Netflix using data that told them their subscribers' favourite writers, actors, storylines, moral themes, etc. The real story isn't quite as good, but it's got a similar vibe. David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network) had been recruited to write the first two episodes, and Kevin Spacey was committed to taking the starring role. Netflix outbid every other American TV company for the rights to air the series, and using analysis of the data they collect from their subscribers, were confident enough to commission two series straight off, without the need for a pilot. Kevin Spacey hadn't been a main character in a TV series since the late 80s, and David Fincher had never written for a major TV series, but Netflix know their data, and the first two series were immensely popular, with a third series on its way.

In the three or four episodes I've seen, Kevin Spacey has ruined about five careers, driven a guy to suicide, had an affair with a journalist and then killed that journalist by pushing her under a subway train. New characters appear constantly, seemingly just so they can be pulled into Spacey's giant tractor beam of shit to have their careers ruined/lives ended. It's relentless entertainment and it doesn't care how it entertains.

I haven't watched many episodes, but as far as I can tell, it has a very basic plot point upon which all this other action can be generated, 'Will Frank Underwood get away with it?'

Much like the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, the answer to this question must stay just out of sight for the series to make sense and keep people watching.


I've been thinking about black holes. Gravitational singularity is the point inside a black hole where matter becomes infinitely dense and all rules of spacetime cease to make sense. It is beyond, and behind, the event horizon which is the point of no return - no light beyond the event horizon can reach an observer outside of the black hole.

The event horizon hides singularity from outside observers. Singularity has to be hidden from us, and this is as much a moral imperative as it is an observation of physics.

Basically, if we can see what's inside a black hole, then we might see something that renders unstable every practical implication of our current physics.

'If singularities can be observed from the rest of spacetime, causality may break down, and physics may lose its predictive power. The issue cannot be avoided, since according to the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems, singularities are inevitable in physically reasonable situations. Still, in the absence of naked singularities, the universe is deterministic — it is possible to predict the entire evolution of the universe [...], knowing only its condition at a certain moment of time [...]. Failure of the cosmic censorship hypothesis leads to the failure of determinism'

The Wikipedia article goes on to explain that the hypothesis is not formal, i.e., there's no maths involved yet, it's just that most physicists feel that they shouldn't ever be allowed to observe a singularity.

This fearsome possibility, a black hole without an event horizon, is called a naked singularity. A naked singularity would make it possible to observe the collapse of matter to an infinite density, ruining the predictive powers of physics forever.


Before I came to New York I read (devoured might be a better word) the book A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava.

The book was self published by de la Pava in 2008, and then after an enthusiastic response, it was taken up by Chicago University Press and eventually the publishers of Stieg Larsson in 2013. It won the PEN prize for debut fiction and de la Pava has been hailed as the new Dickens/Joyce/Pynchon/David Foster Wallace.

I loved reading the book, but I was cynical of my own enjoyment. It was like it had been focus grouped to appeal to me circa two years ago. For a while, all the books I read were by Giant American Post-modernists - Pynchon, Don DeLillo and particularly David Foster Wallace. I've read everything DFW wrote that has been published, including a not very good essay on hip hop, and a pathetic posthumous collection of essays and fragments that reminded me of those albums 2Pac is still releasing.

The book has everything that I already enjoy reading - a flowing, first person narrative, absurdist humour with magical realist tendencies, essayistic digressions into art, philosophy and pop culture, and a long story about a man shitting his pants.

The book is mostly about the main character, Casi - a public defender working in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn - being a human in the world, but the storyline presented by the book is about Casi taking part in a scheme to rob some drug dealers. The lacuna at the heart of the story is firstly whether or not Casi will go through with the robbery, and then after he does, whether or not he'll get caught.

Like all the best art, you don't find out the answer to that last question. The possibilities of the book spill out infinitely beyond the last page, leaving the reader distraught at not knowing the thing they can't really want to know.