Of children, cultural differences, and computers

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — kids, computers, creativity and games ]

Motorola Xoom tablet


It’s quite a triumphant story, with African kids in the foreground and Nicholas Negroponte and MIT playing the role of proud parents pushing them forward from behind…

With 100 million first-grade-aged children worldwide having no access to schooling, the One Laptop Per Child organization is trying something new in two remote Ethiopian villages—simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programs and seeing what happens. The goal: to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs. Early observations are encouraging, said Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s founder, at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week.

[ … ]

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

That’s a striking story, and it has caught many people’s attention since David Talbot wrote about it in a piece in MIT’s Technology Review in late October, titled Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves.


I’d like to let that sink in — because I don’t want to deny it, in fact I want to share the excitement — but I do, too, want to juxtapose it with something else I read recently, where we’ll see some other African children, and where a different set of questions about their intelligence are in the air.

This quote is from Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker piece titled None of the Above: what IQ can’t tell you about race:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement— — that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

That one, of course, concerns me deeply — in fact they both do.


Look, my work with Cath Styles on the Sembl Game is predicated on the importance of resemblances — so the more cognitive preferences we can marshal by inviting people to make rich and varied links between things — Kpelle-style, western-style, art-style, science-style, you think of it, you name it — the better. But clearly we should also be aware in using and propagating the game that different styles of association exist, and should be explored.

And the first quote? That’s important too, because it shows the eagerness to learn that’s there, innate, before our culturally-acquired habits and assumptions and behaviors inhibit the childlike excitement of discovery, recognition, eureka! and aha!


Howard Rheingold once said of community-building digital media such as this blog, “Like all technologies, this medium has its shadow side, and there are ways to abuse it.”

When feeling the thrill of “up” stories like Negroponte’s, it may we wise to ask also what the “down” side might be. And IMO, there’s always room for optimism — but let’s keep it cautious, eh?

Steven Pinker on Analogy

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — importance of analogy as an under-developed cognitive skill ]

There was a interview with five prominent “science writers” in the Guardian a few days back, titled Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable? and one of the writers, Steven Pinker, makes two highly interesting observations:


There are a couple of things going on here that I’d like to note. One is that without intending to do so specifically, he is in essence formulating a view about a possible, central difference between scientific and religious thinking, since what he says about the humanities in general applies with great specificity to religion and the arts: in both religion and art, the expansive nature of “symbolism” is a key to the experience.

And that in turn prompts me to suggest that perhaps both the arts and religion are geared towards provoking, evoking or invoking an experience — whereas the sciences are geared towards obtaining an understanding.

I’ll have to think about that, and come to some sort of understanding of my own — perhaps expressed via symbolic means.


My second point of interest is that there’s an analogy to be made between Pinker’s two remarks: each of them has a form I could portray thus in terms of cause :: effect

science : humanities :: simplicity : complexity

Nobody present — the interviewer, Pinker himself, and four other very bright science writers — picked up on the close correspondence between those two statements at the time. And I find that very interesting.

I find it very interesting because the six of them were more interested in seeing what they could say (of what they already thought) than in saying what they could see (in light of the ongoing, immediate conversation).

I think we all tend to do that — which is why David Bohm‘s approach to dialogue is so important: if brings us to speak more into the moment as it surrounds us, not quite so much from the past as it has informed us.


Then there’s the interesting fact that Pinker’s sense of the difference between modes of thought in the humanities and the sciences as expressed in the top quote translates so directly to the difference between uses of analogy in the second — and his fairly emphatic statement:

one could argue that we understand everything except for the physical world of falling objects by analogy.

Analogy is the central device in our mental toolkit, and yet we know far more about trains of logic than we do about analogical leaps. We know so little, in fact, that distinguishing between “literary metaphor” and “scientific analogy” (both of which are based in the recognition of resemblance) on the basis of one looking for multiple, rich connectivity and the other for a single tight connection is something noteworthy enough for Pinker to bother to point it out. It is indeed a provocative and perhaps essential insight. But it is also pretty basic — dividing a field up into significant chunks, the way anthropology got divided into “cultural”, “archaeological”, “linguistic” and “physical anthropology”…

It’s time we learned to understand and use analogic with the same rigor we’ve applied to learning and using logic — and Sembl is just the tool for this.


Experience wants to be rich: factual understanding wants to be clear.

Sembl, the game of resemblance: presentation to NDF2012

This post is a web translation of my presentation to the National Digital Forum, Wellington, NZ, on 20 November 2012. (Video recording is here.)

Sembl, the game of resemblance

Hello, people. Thank you for having me on this land and at this forum. I’m utterly thrilled to be here – among you all – to talk about this project.

In its first form, Sembl is an iPad game, called The Museum Game, at the National Museum of Australia. We’ve just released it in beta as a program for visiting groups.

This video is a good way to explain how the game works. (It’s a DIY first attempt, so please look past the production quality and focus on the content.)


Over the last year and a bit we’ve gathered feedback from children and adults about their experience of playing the game.

Four photographs of a paper playtest of Sembl Museum

In our first tests, we used a paper prototype; these kids used iPads to take photographs, but the board was paper, and they drew and wrote their moves on paper. Between rounds we had an analogue voting process to determine which team’s content made it onto the board. After the game, we prompted them to tell us a few things about their experience.

resemblance – quotations from school children in response to playing Sembl Museum

Several kids homed in on the principle of resemblance.

Quotations from students about the game Sembl Museum – social aspects

Others emphasised the social side of the game.

School children playtesting Sembl Museum in the galleries

Once we had a digital prototype, we invited the same group back. Again, after the game, we asked them for feedback. The next slide shows some of their responses to the question: What interested you about the game?

Quotations from students describing what interested them about the game Sembl Museum

Again, there was general interest in resemblance. But the kids are now also talking about being keen to explore the Museum, how the game used the exhibits, and democratic social curation. 

I find that fascinating. You might imagine that looking at a museum through a tablet computer would detract from the authenticity of the visiting experience. But for these kids, it seems like it actually draws them in.


We also interviewed the teacher of those kids; she’s convinced of the value of the game for education.

(Here’s a longer extract of the interview.)


Sembl provides a new way to connect to cultural heritage. It’s about play, which is not just for kids. It’s actually a powerful mode of thought, that we lose touch with as we grow up.

Makers of meaning – quotation of Derek Robinson

As a smart friend of mine says, we all need to recognise ourselves as a maker of meanings and engage in imaginative play. In this next clip, you’ll see a boy whose first language is not English, and historian Peter Stanley, both moving their bodies and struggling with words as they play.

The game gives visitors permission to let their minds wander, to make new kinds of connections, to think differently.

For the host institution, The Museum Game involves a kind of radical trust, and open authority – recognition that knowledge and understanding is not all about curatorial interpretation, that it also comes from visitors thinking and imagining and sharing ideas with each other. Which remains rare in museums, despite the fact that it makes the experience more compelling for visitors.


Another way of saying this is that the Game provides a structure and impetus for dialogue, between the museum and visitors, between visitors and things, among visitors and between things. And this is not dialogue in the sense of an everyday conversation. It’s deeper than that. It’s a mutual experience of looking both ways, simultaneously.

teachers and students are co-intent on learning – quotation of Paulo Freire

My notion of dialogue comes from the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, and his sense of teachers and students as mutually co-intent on creating knowledge.

Quantum physicist David Bohm was also a strong advocate for dialogue.

to hold several points of view in active suspension – quotation of David Bohm

Each of these notions of dialogue is premised on an understanding of consciousness and how thoughts shape reality. For Bohm, dialogue means holding several points of view in active suspension. He regarded this kind of dialogue as critical in order to investigate the crises facing society. He saw it as a way to liberate creativity to find solutions.

Game-based social learning

So the concept of Sembl, in its deepest sense, is social learning – game-based social learning. In its first instantiation, it is game-based social learning in a museum and – if things turn out as I hope they will – from next year it will be playable at any other exhibiting venue that has the infrastructure and the will to host games – galleries, libraries, botanic gardens, zoos and so on.

But The Museum Game is just one form of Sembl. The Museum Game is played in real time, on site, and players take photos of physical objects to create nodes on the board.

The next step is to make a web-based form, that you could play at your own pace, and from your own place. Then, Sembl becomes a game-based social learning network, which amplifies the personal value of the game – it becomes social networking with cognitive benefits.

Personal value aside, it’s the bigger picture – of humans as a community – that I most want to explore: Sembl as an engine of networked ideas, or linked data. First, though, a brief diversion to the genealogy of the game.


I didn’t invent it! The progenitor for Sembl is a vagabond monk called Charles Cameron.

Charles Cameron in front of a stack of books on religious violence

I’ve never met Charles in person but we’ve spoken a lot over the internet, which is how I took this picture. For 15+ years, Charles has been playing what until recently he called Hipbone Games – because the hipbone’s connected to the legbone. He has always played with a static image of a board, through discussion among players, either face-to-face or online.

And Charles crafts whole symphonies of resemblance about war and religion, art and science.

womb–tomb: chambers for entering or leaving the world

Here’s a classic simple move he made, linking the word-concepts ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’. Charles didn’t invent the game either. Well, not really.

Glass Bead Game – quotation from Herman Hesse's novel

He got the idea from a novel Herman Hesse wrote in the 1940s, called The Glass Bead Game, which as you can see, has a fairly grand vision for the game, to create a kind of music from the entire intellectual content of the universe.

I first encountered Hipbone Games about eight years ago and straight away imagined a digital form, where you could see the network of linked nodes assembling as you play. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting for it to come out in digital… Well, I got tired of waiting, so at some point I adopted it as a personal mission.

Kudos to the National Museum of Australia for building the first digital version. The Museum Game is a simple version of what Sembl can be, but it has potential to grow – and actually, it’s already a little more evolved than it appears in the video at the beginning.

Sembl Museum gameboard for four teams of younger players

For example, this is the board you saw in the video. We use that one for younger players. But we have other boards, for groups of three teams, for older groups of four teams, for five teams and six.

Four different Sembl Museum gameboards

And in the true spirit of the Glass Bead Game, there’s also talk of hosting tournaments at the Museum.

Toward a game-based social learning network

But it’s at the point of networking the gameplay and the game content that Sembl will really ‘level up’ and rock the world. Once the games are on the web, and the field of playable content is already digital, good things can happen:

  • We can aggregate game-generated data and build an interface to the ever-evolving web of resemblance. So it’s not just the thought-riffing in your own game you can enjoy, but the whole generative symphony.
  • We can preserve links to the objects’ context in online collections, improving their discoverability – and our knowledge and understanding.
  • And – if we harvest the associations to display on the museum’s or other sites – we can forge new browseways within and between collections.

In short, the game becomes an engine of rich, useful data about collection material, and through that the world.

network thinking – how Sembl network links differ from traditional linked data links

A web-based form of Sembl can generate linked data with a difference. It’s linked link data, and quite different to normal linked data.

  • Instead of connections based on what a thing is – sculpture, or wooden, or red – Sembl generates connections based on a mutual resemblance between two things. Which, amazingly enough, is a great way of gaining a sense of what each thing is. And if your interest is to enable joyful journeying through cultural ideas, or serendipitous discovery, this approach just wins…
  • Instead of compiling logical links, Sembl cultivates the analogical.
  • Instead of building and deploying a structured, consistent set of relationships, Sembl revels in personal, imprecise, one-of-a-kind, free association, however crazy.
  • Instead of attempting to create a comprehensive and stable map of language and culture, Sembl links are perpetually generative, celebrating the organic, dynamic quirks of cognitive and natural processes.

But the most important way that Sembl is distinct from other systems of network links is that those who generate the links learn network thinking. Which is a critical faculty in this complex time between times, as many smart people will tell you.

Understanding relationships is key to understanding the self – quotation of Jack Lohman

21c society is shaped by connectivity – quotation of Rachel Armstrong

life demands dynamic attention – quotation of Flemming Funch

data classification yields to pattern recognition – quotation of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan foresaw this shift 50 years ago. Classification is for simple, neat systems. Networks are complex and messy; they demand new forms of literacy. But we have not yet adapted as we need to.

Prior to the 17th century, the primary order of knowledge was resemblance – quotation of Michel Foucault

We’re still largely stuck in the Enlightenment thinking that began 400 years ago to institute the binary order of things. But notice what preceded 17th-century ways of knowing. According to Foucault, the ‘primary form of knowledge’ was … resemblance.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant – poem by Emily Dickinson

Poets have always known the virtues of analogy as a path to the truth.

And my favourite visual artists work in this way, creating in-between spaces for us to explore and discover.

Metalwork, part of Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum, an installation at the Maryland Historical Society

As part of an installation at the Maryland Historical Society, African-American artist Fred Wilson placed a set of slave shackles into a cabinet with fine silverware and called it ‘Metalwork’.

Rosalie Gascoigne, Past Glories

And more subtly, this work is by New Zealand-born artist Rosalie Gascoigne, who lived for a long time in Canberra, where I’m from – so I had to include her… She took discarded signs, disassembled and reassembled them, converting text to textures into which we can read our own messages.

I like the way these artists work; I like how their works induce me to think.

painting of an ape sitting at an easel painting a nude woman

I keep an eye out for opportunities to participate in associative thinking. Last year The Open Museum – a user-generated exhibit site – hosted several rounds of a game where one person would post an initial work, such as this one…

12 moves of an association game at the Open Museum

and then anyone else could come along and a post a visually similar work. After a few days the most up-voted work would win the place as the number 2 image, and so on. You can see here how this game progressed in the first 12 moves.

the final move in the association game – a painting of a large woman looking at herself in a mirror in which is reflected a smaller woman – loops back to the first

It continued until after 26 moves, it looped back to the original work.

Brilliant. I love how there’s no right answer, and that it encourages wide and wild associations – from a satellite image to a Miro, to a photo of a human embryo.

Polyphonic thinking

Sembl promotes dialogic, non-linear thinking, and new forms of coherence.

deliberative thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

It’s distinct from deliberative thinking, which is rational and causal and logical and linear.

eccentric thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

It’s another kind of thinking, which might be informed by rational thought, but its purpose is not singular.

bridge-builders – quotation of Charles Cameron

You might say its purpose is to create – and cohabit – a state of grace, from which ideas simply emerge.

every move you make is a creative leap

If playing Sembl gives us practice in polyphonic thinking, if it helps cultivate connectivity and our capacity to find solutions to local and global problems, it is good value. As Charles says, every move is a creative leap.

If you’re interested in working with us to supply content, develop strategy or raise capital, we’re keen to talk.

And I can’t tell you how much I’m anticipating being able to invite everyone to play.



NDF delegates were a truly lovely audience. Having spoken with lots of people about Sembl in the past week – and now that I have a bit of distance from this presentation – I can already see some ways in which I could express Sembl ideas in more pithy, accessible ways. In fact, I plan to rewrite the home page of this site.

In the mean time, know that I would absolutely more-than-welcome further comments, ideas, questions or – of course – resonances with your own context. And if you want to help shape Sembl, you could tell me: in what way are these ideas useful to you, personally and/or professionally? (Or to put this another way: how might you use a tool for network thinking?)


Sembl @ NDF2012

Form is insight: a musical experiment

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — here’s a musical experiment from the book / project i seem to be writing, which offers a grand slam intro to contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence a fresh angle on intelligence ]

It looks very much as though I’ve been beginning to write parts of let’s call it “a book” for a while on Zenpundit. I laid out the overall topic and approach as I see it in my previous post, but here I would like to launch into it mid-stream, with a musical experiment to explore the mind’s capabilities. I’ll explain why, later.



Okay, here’s the experiment.

I invite you to listen to a short piece by JS Bach on YouTube. This will take roughly three and a half minutes of your time, the piece of music itself is one of the glories of the classical tradition, I’ve chosen the video because of the terrific graphics that accompany and illuminate the music, there will be some rock and ragtime to follow for those whose tastes go those ways — and I must ask you to pay very special attention while watching and listening to the video.

Before you do that, however, I’d like you to take a look at the image at the top of this post, which shows you the ending of the piece both as the video graphics present it, and in the musical notation or “score” an organist would read. The graphics are terrific because they allow the untrained eye to follow the threads of the different melodies or “voices” as Bach braids them together. The work is his “Little Fugue” in G minor, which you can find indexed in his collected works as “BWV 578″.

Here’s how I’d like you to pay attention during the piece:

As you listen to the performance on video, I’d like you to follow the colored lines of the melodies as they move along in the video graphic, and listen carefully to hear how many of the lines of sound you can actually follow distinctly in your mind. At the beginning there’s only one “voice” – only one line of melody – so your task is easy. If you are used to listening to music of one sort or another, you’ll almost certainly be able to track, more or less, some kind of thumping bass line and some kind of melody rising above it – two voices.

Can you manage three? four or more?

If you’re a musician you may still find the graphics — and the exercise – illuminating, but you might prefer to make the same experiment with a version of the piece played by Robert Köbler on a Silbemann organ, accompanied on video by the score..

Here’s the video — see how many voices you can hear and track:


How did you do? How many voices could you follow at one time?

And why am I bothering to as you to do this, and then talking so much about it? After all, you may already know everything I’m saying and more, or you may simply not care that much about such things.

Here’s why: the project is about creativity and intelligence.

It’s about how to apply forms of creativity that are generally found in the arts and humanities – and in the world’s contemplative traditions — to the questions that arise for every bright human as we face the exhilarating challenging and terrifyingly complex world around us.

It’s about understanding complexity, in the way the Intelligence Community needs to understand complexity, and business leadership, and our scientists and technicians, and the congregants at our synagogues, churches, mosques and temples, and, well, all the bright people everywhere — disillusioned, or fresh and rarin’ to go.


Complex problems often require some sort of recognition and resolution of several or many distinct and sometimes conflicting voices, points of view, concerns or vectors.. which may shift in intensity and direction as the situation evolves.

In musical terminology, any music that includes two or more distinct melodic lines or “voices” playing together simultaneously is polyphonic – from the Greek for “many voices”. Counterpoint – from the Latin for a point that counters another point — is the artful way in which composers can “work” two or more melodic lines together, so they clash at times, resolve, and harmonize.

The fugue – the particular contrapuntal form Bach uses in the piece you just heard — imposes even tighter constraints on the composer, and can elicit even greater creative inspiration as a result — as many of Bach’s, Mozart‘s, Beethoven‘s and others’ greatest works testify..


I imagine you can see that the many voices of polyphony — voices in counterpoint, that at times clash and are in need of resolution and harmony — have their equivalents in the complex multi-stakeholder problems, clashing points of view and need for constructive resolutions that creative artists, intelligence analysts, strategy, policy and decision makers, and anyone who wants to keep aware of the shifting currents of our strange and complicated times all need to take into account.

So polyphonic, and specifically contrapuntal, thinking, can be extended way beyond the realm of music — as Hermann Hesse suggested in his greatest novel, Glenn Gould tried to demonstrate in his “contrapuntal radio” pieces, and Edward Said understood when he characterized the Israeli-Palestinian issue in these words:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out.

The “book” may turn out to be a DVD, or a workshop, at this point who knows? Whatever format it winds up it takes, it will teach contrapuntal thinking — using examples drawn from world culture and contemporary geopolitics — as a radical alternative methodology, complementary to but very different from our current analytic methods. It will be a text in the cross-disciplinary, associative, lateral or horizontal equivalent of the kind of disciplinary, siloed, linear or vertical thinking that our increasingly specialized culture has trained us in —

and which we need to supplement, if we are to have the mental flexibility to see and make the creative leaps our times require of us.

For more on this, see also my Feb 2011 post (at least I’m reasonably consistent over time) A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach.


God only knows how many voices there are in Bob Dylan‘s song Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, or Eric Clapton‘s Have you ever loved a woman from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival – the principle’s the same, but we don’t (yet) have the graphics to allow your eye to follow what the musicians are doing — and there are solos, and sidemen.

Each musician has at least one voice, its melodies and its silences, to present – and sometimes several, as we saw with the Bach organ piece. And together the individual musicians add up to an ensemble, each with an awareness of the others’ voices and a concentration on their own.

And for an insight into the varieties of organ mastery, compare Billy Preston‘s amazing solo starting at 9’33” on the Clapton piece, Al Kooper‘s organ work on Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady, and Ton Koopman‘s rendering of the same Little Fugue BWV 578 we started with – where at times you can watch Koopman’s fingers on the keys or feet on the pedals, for yet another way of visualizing the intricate interweavings of this glorious music.


Glenn Gould had an amazing mind: for your enjoyment, here’s a version of his own fugue, aptly entitled So You Want To Write a Fugue? — with a similar graphical display to help you follow along with the interweaving lines of melody…

It’s serious, and it’s hilarious too! Or maybe you’d prefer Scott Joplin? Either way, enjoy:

Glenn Gould:

Scott Joplin, Euphonic Sounds, a Syncopated Novelty:

Form is Insight: the project

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — about the book (or post-book project) i seem to be writing — based on Sembl thinking — which offers a grand slam intro to an array of box-free contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence opens fresh angles on intelligence ]

One thing I can promise: whatever this project turns out to be, it won’t be predictable.

credit for this incredible image: Roger Dean


This project won’t take you over familiar territory, congratulating you on holding the same opinions as the author and adding in enough choice details to keep you interested. I’m not aiming to teach you the same thing you already know, only better, more interestingly, more precisely, or in greater detail. I’m aiming to question you, challenge you, and give you a whole new range of optics through which to view the world.


So, here we go.

I think I am finally at the point where the book (or whatever it is) I’ve been gathering inside me all these years is ready to be written. Some of it has already emerged in earlier posts here on Zenpundit – you don’t known and couldn’t count how many thanks, Mark – and this is certainly where I’ve been developing the style of integrated visuals and verbals that gives the project its flavor — so I’d also like to use my posts here to discuss the thing with you as I go along.

The project is about intelligence in the widest sense, including heart and mind, and with particular focus on creativity. I’m addressing this from two standpoints that mesh together well, and I’m addressing it to two audiences that I believe also mesh together well.

The standpoints are (i) meditation and (ii) the arts, and the audiences are (i) the “intelligence community” and (ii) bright people in general.

I believe that meditation cultivates a spacious mind-set in which we can hold multiple concerns in mind at the same time – the opposing needs of different people, stakeholders, sections of society, the environment, etc – thus seeing things from multiple angles and in balancing & thus balanced ways. And I think the arts serve as the primary means for expressing these balances with all their nuances and shadings, and that techniques from within the arts such as polyphony, chiaroscuro, formal constraint and pattern can teach us to shape multi-faceted insights like these into rich and complex understandings – complex patterns that respond to complex situations. I’ll go into all this in detail as we move along, with examples.

I also believe that this kind of creatively patterned insight — embodying artistic methodology in the context of complex problems with a “fresh” and open mind – will be of interest beyond the intelligence agencies and policy-makers, to business people, artists, and also — importantly — the bright general public, which I take to be a far larger subset of the population than we commonly think, and always eager for reading that doesn’t talk down to them but appreciates their own intelligence and good will.

For now let me just say that I’m very excited, because this seems (at last) to be a project that ties together my game-work with Sembl, the think-tank side of me which has been monitoring religious violence, jihad and terror and working towards nuance, understanding and peace these last dozen years — and my sense of creativity as a writer and poet.

Ripeness is all: I suspect the time for this venture has arrived.


Here’s the single page overview I’ve written, with a working title:

Intelligence is Zen: understanding our complex world with koans in mind

Just a few days ago, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, referenced Pirsig‘s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as key to the Intelligence Community’s work in understanding and adapting to the many, varied, intersecting problems we face in the world today. As I noted, Clapper was focused a bit more on the biker wisdom than the Zen to be found in Pirsig’s book, but he does raise a question I’ve been addressing for some years now:

What does the contemplative mind have to offer in terms of understanding a complex world?

To my mind, the creativity which is all the buzz of the business world, aimed at solving what are called “wicked problems” — problems that feature multiple stakeholders with multiple aims and objectives, aims and objectives which themselves shift over time so the problems are “never the same river twice” – requires a major mental and emotional shift. Reverie and meditation free us up to make the shift: the shift itself is poorly understood.

Our present, mostly linear way of thinking favors either/or side-taking, dubious cause-and-effect expectations which fail to take complex feedback loops into account, followed all too often by a rush to judgment. We need a whole new – old, even ancient – way of thinking.

Our problems are complex because they overlap, they ripple through one another. In Buddhist terms, they are “interdependently arising.” Not surprisingly, the way of thinking that is required to gain a deeper insight into “interdependently arising” problems can be found in explicit form in such contemplative traditions as Madhyamika & Zen, Taoism, Sufism, and their Abrahamic contemplative analogs. At the heart of these systems is fresh thinking – thought refreshed by quiet.

Furthermore, the shaping of insights in an open field of thought is something the world’s artistic traditions have long dealt with, and there are schools of insight not just available but recorded in exquisite detail in the world’s traditions of poetry, music, painting, theater, film… in patterns that are found in nature, in culture, and in the very turbulence we now must learn to flow with.

The project therefore takes a meditation-influenced approach to intelligence, both in the sense in which Clapper would use the word, relating to the intelligence analysis which develops and influences our decision-makers’ understanding of what’s needed, and in the more general sense of those capable folk with bright minds, keen insights, sharp instincts, warm hearts.

I’ll propose a series of ways of looking differently – with application for anyone, whether artist, intel analyst, businessman, policy-maker, or lover – that cut to the essence of creativity: lateral, analogical, holistic thinking, witnessing pattern beneath the surface of things. My examples will be mainly drawn from terrorism, which I have been monitoring for a dozen years: my style is that of a poet and an eccentric Englishman.

My subtext, my subliminal message, will be contemplation and artistry as profound common sense.

A triptych for Jane McGonigal

[ Cross-posted from Zenpundit — on play, games, vertigo and koan — technically this is a ludibrium, a jeu, a jest — a dervish whirl for the mind ]

I’m joining the conversation Jane McGonigal is leading over on Big Questions Online — our topic is How Might Video Games Be Good for Us? — and she came up with a gem of a quote from Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens which pointed me to two other quotes that are part of the collection I keep in mind, one from Wittgenstein, the other from Roger Caillois.


I’ve strung them together here because the way the mind hops and skips from one idea to the next in this series enchants me:

There’s more to those three quotes taken together, along with the leaps between them, than there is in keeping them apart. They have, what was it Wittgenstein said? — a family resemblance. They belong together. You could start with the third quote, in fact, and then hop to the first and second, and the effect would be much the same, you could make a ring of them.


They spiral so closely in on one another, indeed, as to induce ilynx, vertigo. Let’s keep on spinning.

To my mind, the master of vertigo in our times is Jorge Luis Borges, who uses the word “vertiginous” at least four times in his fictions — my favorite arriving in his story The Circular Ruins, where he writes:

He understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake, even though he should penetrate all the enigmas of a superior and inferior order; much more difficult than weaving a rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind.

Blam! — is there anything more vertiginous than paradox, enigma, koan, mystery?


In perspective, there’s the vanishing point. In service to others, there’s forgetfulness of self.


While we’re on the subject of play, I have a confession to make. Several times on this blog and elsewhere, I have cited the art historian Edgar Wind as saying that Ficino’s motto was “studiossime ludere” and that he translated it “play most assiduously” — Marsilio Ficino being the intellectual hub of Renaissance Florence under the Medici. When I was putting together my initial post to Jane McGonigal for her Big Questions discussion, I wanted to use that quote, but couldn’t quite find it in the source I thought it came from. Well, I’ve been doing some checking since then, and Wind does quote something very similar in his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance — but the phrase is “studiosissime ludere”, and what he writes is this —

Serio ludere was a Socratic maxim of Cusanus, Ficino, Pico, Calcagnini — not to mention Bocchi, who introduced the very phrase into the title of his Symbolicae quaestiones: ‘quas serio ludebat’.[1]

which he then footnotes thus (translation coming up shortly):

[1.] cf. Ficino, In parmeniden (Prooemium), Opera, p. 1137: ‘Pythagorae, Socratisque et Platonis mos erat, ubique divina mysteria figuris involucrisque obtegere, … iocari serio, et studiosissime ludere.’

Then there’s Ioan Couliano, another great scholar of Renaisssance thought — and a victim of Ceausescu‘s secret police — in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, translates for us (pp. 37-38):

Pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyphics, emblems and impresae were wonderfully suited to the playful spirit of Florentine Platonism, to the mysterious and “mystifying” quality Ficino believed it had. “Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato had the habit of hiding all divine mysteries behind the veil of figurative language to protect their wisdom modestly from the Sophist’s boastfulness, of joking seriously and playing assiduously, iocari serio et studiosissime ludere.” [34] That famous turn of phrase of Ficino’s — translation of a remark by Xenophon concerning the Socratic method — depicts, at bottom, the quintessence of every phantasmic process, whether it be Eros, the Art of Memory, magic, or alchemy — the ludus puerorum, preeminently a game for children. What, indeed, are we doing in any of the above if not playing with phantasms, trying to keep up with their game, which the benevolent unconscious sets up for us? Now, it is not easy to play a game whose rules are not known ahead of time. We must apply ourselves seriously, assiduously, to try and understand and learn them so that the disclosures made to us may not remain unanswered by us.

Couliano footnotes the quote thus:

[34.] Proem. in Platonis Parmenidem (Opera, II, p. 1137). This is simply the Latin translation of an expression Xenophon had used to designate the Socratic method (paizein spoude). On the custom of the “serious games” of Ficino and his contemporaries, see Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance 3d ed. (Oxford, 1980), pp. 236-38.


Okay, I was trying to check a Latin tag that I’d obviously been quoting from memory, and things just kept on spinning — and weaving — together.

So where are we now? We’re talking of “playing with phantasms, trying to keep up with their game” (Couliano) — and thus back at that Borges quote, too, with its “incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed”…

Which is us.

I mean, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”


Okay. Practical matters. To go along with Witty Wittgenstein and the others on my recommended reading list, here’s an image of McGonigal’s dissertation and book:

The dissertation is available here as a .pdf: the book is available here on Amazon.

On Super Mario Brothers and mental parcours games

According to 25 Years of Super Mario Bros: A Look Back Through Mushroom Kingdom History, from which I grabbed the Mario Bros portion of the graphic at the foot of this page, “Since 1985’s release of the second-most selling console game of all-time, over 200 Nintendo titles have featured the eponymous Mario Bros” — on which I’ve played perhaps three or four levels of one or two early versions.

The Super Mario Bros side-scrollers (image above, left) are the work of the brilliant Shigeru Miyamoto, and part of what I find so fascinating about them is the way in which they resemble the mind-blowing practice known as Parcours (image, right), which apparently developed from the work of one David Belle, born in 1973 — who would have been 12 when the first Super Mario Bros game came out.

Let’s take a look at Super Mario Bros and Parcours, and then move on to the issue of parcours for the adventuring mind.


First, for those of you who don’t remember them, here’s what the early Mario Bros games were like…

I don’t think there’s much doubt that the Super Mario Bros games are essentially digital versions of Parcours, and you can see by comparing the video above with this next one:

Finally, this video from Jesse La Flair confirms the comnnection, at least in the mind of one top flight traceur:


My own question is: what would a mental parcours game look like?

I was thinking for a while last week about what a Mario-like side-scrolling game of mental parcours would be like. We already have the “creative leap” side pretty well covered with the various variants of Sembl we’ll be developing, so I thought about other types of mental agility, and what a game might look like if it incorporated a bunch of them — induction? deduction? causality? the sorts of pattern skills that go into IQ tests? — in a side-scroller with playful graphics…

Two things:

One: my friend Derek Robinson pretty quickly informed me that the actual build of such a game would be enormously complex — I resisted him, saying I wasn’t aiming to build the entire game, just to get the idea down on paper to see whether we could get the initial phases funded…

And two: I ran across Lumosity:

Let’s just say Lumosity seems to have a variety of cognitive skills well in hand, which leaves me free once again to concentrate on what Derek calls the mind’s opposable thumb.


That’s a brilliant concept, I think, and gets to the heart of what we’re working on with Sembl.

The various other conceptual skills that essentially add up to linear thinking — Mark Safranski of Zenpundit calls it vertical thinking, see this helpful diagram — are important, and well-studied. They work best where what you are talking about is quantifiable and amenable to logic and cause and effect analysis, and is explored within fields, not across them.

But lo, that approach may help you quantify the trees and evaluate them as board feet of lumber, but consistently misses the forest, the greater context, the big picture –the combined systemic impact of many tiny details, insects, mosses, the tree as ecosystem within an ecosystem, and the ecosystems within that – the time scale, the slow growth, the root system, the transformation of mulch into nourishment, the sudden spurt of tiny leaves in spring, the photosynthesis — and the human wonder — the glory, dappled sunlight on fallen leaves, the shelter afforded to lovers by a weeping willow (I’m thinking of one willow in an Oxford college garden, but I’m time-traveling and I digress) – the poetry, of beech and birch, copper beech and silver birch, the trees, the words, the metals…

Context, quality, complexity, systems, dynamics, process, simplicity, value, passion, poetry – these are the things linear thinking has problems with. Poetry, passion, value, simplicity, process, dynamics, systems, complexity, quality, context – these are the things horizontal thinking does best.


That’s it.

Oh, and hey — just because I like the tiny antics they’re getting up to in the graphics: