The Museum Game is now playable on-site at the National Museum of Australia. This post links to a video introduction, curriculum links, and a booking form :)
Archive for month: October, 2012
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[ 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:
Scott Joplin, Euphonic Sounds, a Syncopated Novelty:
[ 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..
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.
[ 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’.
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.’
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.”  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:
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…
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.
Oh, and hey — just because I like the tiny antics they’re getting up to in the graphics: