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:

Moves in the Glass Bead Game as Hesse describes it

I’d like to turn our focus here to the Glass Bead Game as Hesse describes it in his novel, Magister Ludi, and in particular to the range of play, and the nature of moves: putting that in game designer’s terms, I’d like to talk about the gameplay as Hesse envisions it.


First, the subject matter of which the games are composed. Hesse wrote:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

That’s the range of cultural themes that Hesse’s game players are playing with. But what kinds of moves do they make with them?

Hesse tells us that the most basic form of play is (i) the juxtaposition (in symbolic form) of (ii) cultural items which are deeply similar, (iii) across wide disciplinary boundaries:

Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature.

At one point, he gives as an example the discovery of “the most striking congruences” between “the rhythmic structure of Julius Caesar’s Latin” on the one hand, and “the results of well-known studies of the intervals in Byzantine hymns” on the other. And this is by no means as far fetched as it might at first seem. In 1978, the University of Wisconsin Press published volume 9 in their “Literary Monographs” – a book by Jane-Marie Luecke OSB entitled Measuring Old English Rhythm: an Application of the Principles of Gregorian Chant Rhythm to the Meter of Beowulf (see this review in Speculum).

Further, Hesse suggests that in play, this process of continual juxtaposition will lead to what is essentially a meditative experience of the sacred:

Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but 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.

How do our own concepts of a playable version of the Glass Bead Game embody these ideas?


Some time in the mid to late 1990s, I raised this question on the Magister-L mailing list with six or seven friends who had designed Glass Bead Game variants, and proposed a specific, particular juxtaposition of two parallel “cultural themes” to them, asking how their game variants would handle a move that made this particular linkage.

The answer in four cases, including my own, were fairly straight forward, and can be found about half way down the page where I laid out the question: A Test Case for Glass Bead Game Design. I suggested there that this move could be made in a Sembl-type game by playing emergence of trance in a voodoo seance in one position and emergence of the solo in a jazz session in an adjacent position, and it would be notated with a prose comment elaborating Ventura’s point, possibly with quotations from his brilliant essay. And I imagined that “the same” move could be made in one of Ron Hale-EvansKennexions games, and that it might for instance, be formulated in the kenning:

voodoo : trance :: jazz : solo

Two friends with particularly intricate GBG variants — one involving the development and use of a “constructed language” and the other a skillful blending of chess and I Ching — responded, and the ways in which they would handle a move linking these two themes in their own games can be found at A GBG Test Case Move: Mark Line’s Game and William Horden’s Intrachange.

I think it’s fairly clear from these six examples that this “test move” can do a pretty good job of helping us see how a Glass Bead Game move would work in practice, in a wide range of possible GBG implementations – and I’d like to present it again here, fifteen or so years later, to see what ideas it might elicit this time around.

Here, then, is the Test Case – the “case” being the two themes to be juxtaposed, and the “test” being how each individual would tackle the job of playing these two moves within their own concept of the GBG.

The Case:

Michael Ventura has a very interesting observation in the wonderful essay Hear that Long Snake Moan which can be found in his book, Shadow Dancing in the USA.

His insight is based on the idea that Dixieland jazz emerges from Voodoo seances in New Orleans: at a time when voodoo was strongly prohibited, the drums of the sacred dance continued to beat as the drums of the secular — and that when the drumming reached such a pitch that in voodoo one of the dancers would become possessed by a loa, in jazz a soloist would take flight.

In Ventura’s view, the relationship between ensemble dancing and the emergence of individual trance in voodoo, and ensemble playing and the emergence of the solo in jazz is not merely a fortuitous and close parallelism, but the direct translation of the moment of ecstatic breakthrough from one medium to the other.

The Test:

I would like to propose this insight as a sort of test case for our various game approaches, so that I could ask you these questions:

  • in your game, would this move be possible?
  • if so, how would it be notated?
  • if not directly, is there a move in your game which would capture the essence or the structure implicit in this move?
  • if so, how would it be notated?
  • if not, then what example can you give me of the kind of move that would be possible in your game?
  • and how would this sample move be notated?

In asking these questions, I don’t wish to imply in any way that games which can include this move are superior or inferior in kind to those which cannot: my purpose is simply to clarify what kinds of move are possible in each of our games — or would be possible in each of our approaches.

And I should perhaps add that there are other aspects to Hesse’s game that I am not attempting to capture here — notably the use of glyphic beads, so well illustrated in Joshua Fost‘s Towards the Bead Game variant.

Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses

Some of the most obvious things aren’t obvious at all, until you think of them. The things my friend Derek Robinson talks about as being in the beforeground. Too close to notice / right under our noses all along.
And I think that’s one of the principles of creative thinking — a lot of creative detailing takes place out on the bleeding edge, where someone pushes the limits of existing knowledge that little bit farther, and sometimes those insights can be revolutionary. But profound revelations also come from questioning the most basic assumptions — as Cambridge University Press blogged last year, celebrating the centenary of the Russell-Whitehead Principia Mathematica, vol II:

Principia attempted to ground mathematics in logic and the authors left no stone unturned in their attempt to create the ultimate definition of mathematics. For example, they were well into volume two before they had proved that one plus one equals two! They concluded their proofs with the laconic statement: “The above proposition is occasionally useful.”

BTW, that’s a point I also addressed in the context of my work on social entrepreneurship for the Skoll Foundation:

IMO, we need some funding sources that understand that the next significant breakthrough, too, will be all but invisible — and who therefore look specifically for projects that are categorized by their radical rethinking of the seemingly known and obvious.


For anyone who’s curious, the bifocals pictured in the tiny “specs” section of my graphic above come from Ben Franklin‘s original letter proposing the idea of bifocal glasses, courtesy of the Library of Congress (link is to complete image).

The Odel Na’aman story, The Checkpoint: Terror, Power, and Cruelty is up at the Boston Review site. I haven’t read it yet, just tasted the first paragraph.

There are times when it helps to have bifocal (contrapuntal) vision…

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

The perils of juxtaposition: Aurora

[ cross-posted from SmartMobs – this post is not about the tragic Aurora shooting, but about internet advertising mechanics and unthinking juxtapositions ]

Our hearts go out to all the bereaved.


If you know the Sembl project, you know we’re always on about juxtaposition as a means of generating a sort of stereoscopic depth of understanding from two similar — or opposite — ideas, images etc.

And yes indeed, the juxtaposition of ideas and the creative leaps that juxtaposition generates are at the heart of the Sembl game approach that Cath and I are prototyping.

-- ..... image: board for an iPad Sembl game + detail of single move

But look, you need to have some sense of context.

And neither current algorithms nor remote humans seem to be terribly good at this.



The Celeb Boutique tweet above was posted when the word Aurora started trending after the recent awful cinema shooting, and was up for an hour before someone realized how inappropriate it was and took it down. In subsequent tweets, the boutique apologized and noted “our PR is NOT US based and had not checked the reason for the trend…”

I think that’s extremely unfortunate, but somewhat understandable: human error, outsourced.

The humans in question should have been as savvy as Paul Coelho, who counseled (just a day earlier, if I’m getting my dates right) as follows:



Then there was the Christian Science Monitor‘s article, Colorado shooting: A rare glimpse into Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, which showed up on my friend Critt Jarvis‘ monitor with this ad:

Again, that’s unfortunate — but the CSM’s ads are presumably chosen by algorithm, and I wouldn’t know where to send an algorithm to repent if I met one and it was sincerely apologetic…

The CSM website does offer us humans an opportunity to object to ads we find tasteless and inappropriate, however:

The Monitor is committed to showing only those ads that meet our standards for appropriate content. These particular ads are sold by internet advertising partners who share the revenue with The Christian Science Monitor. We have implemented filters with them that are designed to prevent unacceptable advertising from showing on the site. If you feel an inappropriate ad is being displayed, please contact us immediately using the form below. Ads that violate our acceptance standards will be removed from the site and our filters will be adjusted to help prevent a recurrence.

So humans can backtop the algorithms when they play foul… that’s good.


But all this just reinforces my appreciation for Cath Stylestweet last week, after she met with Mel from Serena (neat video, btw!):


There’s still no machine substitute for human wit and wisdom.

At the round earths imagin’d corners

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — mapping, holding two worldviews in mind at one time, a conductor’s score, complexity thinking ]


About a year ago, the Atlantic reported that the Library of Congress had been given a map of the flat earth, designed according to Biblical principles — yet showing knowledge of the border between the United States and Canada…

Thanks to a post from Jason Wells, I saw it today.

The view that the earth is flat is one worldview, of course, and no longer the prevailing one. As Nicholas Jackson noted at the Atlantic:

The interesting thing about the map is that it was created about 120 years ago by Orlando Ferguson, then a practicing physician in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. This is more than 500 years after most educated people gave up on the idea of the Earth as flat and accepted the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks.


It is, however, possible to hold two worldviews in mind at the same time. John Donne manages it in the first line of his extraordinary poem, written at a time when the two views were clashing:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

AT the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

Donne accomplishes the task of holding two worldviews in mind at one time with four simple words: “round earths imagin’d corners”.


I don’t know how many melodic “lines of thought” the mind can hold in counterpoint at once. I do know it’s an important cognitive skill for us to cultivate. A classical conductor must surely be able to hold as many lines as there are in this page of Olivier Messaien‘s Oiseaux:

As I pointed out in a recent comment here, “somewhere above three and before eleven there’s a point — Miller’s ‘magical number seven, plus or minus two‘ where the human mind can’t hold any more detail, so that’s a cut-off of sorts.”

Well, Messaien clearly imagines the conductor’s mind can follow more than eleven paths…


And then there’s Bob Milne.

I’ll let the Philosophy Compass take it from here:

Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.

Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.

But that’s not all Bob can do.

In their interview, Dr. Bettermann heard Bob claim something extraordinary. He claims not only to be able to hear a symphony in his head, but that he normally does this with two symphonies simultaneously. Where most individuals would only hear a cacophonous mess – Bob claimed he could dial the relative volume of either symphony up or down, and could zoom in or out of individual instrumentations. To return to the considerations above, Bob further states on the Radiolab website that he does this while driving – another procedural memory task and presumable source of interference. But when Dr. Bettermann challenged him, Bob reluctantly claimed that he could probably do the same (not while driving, mind you) with four simultaneous symphonies.

The claim is something like this: Bob states that he can hold and listen to four symphonies with different keys, instrumentation, tempo and style in his working memory at the same time. And what is stunning is that when they put Bob into an fMRI machine, they verified his claim. Bob could be stopped at any time during his imaginative trip through the four simultaneous symphonies, and hum out the exact phrase that the original recording would be on. Remarkable.


This in turn takes us back to that point Edward Said made, which gave me the basic concept for my Said Sympohony (must get back to that soon):

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. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 447 — from the section titled “My Right of Return,” consisting of an interview with Ari Shavit from Ha’aretz Magazine, August 18, 2000.

I asked in a post yesterday how good we now are at modeling or simulating ideas in the “war of ideas” — just for a moment, suppose we could think through all complex geopolitical issues in this polyphonic, contrapuntal way…


Okay, you deserve a reward for faithful reading if you’ve come this far with me. Here’s the incomparable Richard Burton reading Donne’s poem — the text is up above, if you want to follow along:

Of Daffy and Higgs

Daffy Duck teaches Sembl to the kids. screenshot h/t Wm Benzon

I’ve been playing what we’d now call Sembl games for years now, sometimes online and sometimes on napkins in cafes, and because the basic board for this kind of play just consists of some circles with lines joining them — what mathematicians would call a graph — I’ve designed a few boards myself, and found a few ready-made in interesting places.

In fact, part of the fun for me in developing the TenStones > HipBone > Sembl game concept has been precisely in running across graphs that “look like” boards… like the board Daffy Duck is playing on in the screen-cap above.


Quite often the boards I’ve run across have been humorous, as in this example, where the cartoonist [double Pulitzer-winner Steve Breen] portrayed George W Bush as linking Al-Qaida to Iraq because they both had a Q in their name:

In the original, Breen had merely circled the Qs in the two words –I added the red circles and linking line to make the point that Breen himself was playing a bit of a Sembl move.


Sometimes the boards are entirely serious, like this one drawn from a diagram in an article in a science journal, which I call the Hamiltonian board:

What’s interesting about this particular board is that it assigns directions to the linkages — which sets me thinking about the ways in which one thing being like another can be a one-way or two-way street.

When Shakespeare says, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” the poet is definitely telling the beloved about his enduring love (“thy eternal summer shall not fade”), not using his beloved to explain global warming (“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines”). His metaphor moves from summer to beloved, not the other way around.

But that’s not always the case by any means. I’m not much of a mathematician, but as I understand it when Taniyama conjectured that every rational elliptic curve corresponds to a modular form, uniting two previously distinct branches of mathematics, the relationship went both ways



This week, two teams of researchers at the CERN Large Hadron Collider claimed they had very likely found the Higgs Boson — a hitherto elusive particle which in theory accounts for the mass of other particles, and thus the overall coherence of our world.

Here’s a diagram of the elementary particles, as they are understood in terms of the “Standard Model” in particle physics [for comments on the diagram, see Wikipedia Talk]

Of these, only the Higgs Boson remained to be discovered — until this last week!

Physicists broke out the champagne, science journalists had breathless ledes, sailors asked whether anyone had seen the Boson’s Mate, Catholics made jokes about the Higgs boson being Catholic because without it there’d be no Mass… and I found a new and intriguing board for fans of Sembl thinking:

Pretty obviously, I’ll have to call it the Particle Board. But what most interests me about it is the fact that it contains loops — in Sembl terms, implying moves that connect only with themselves — at W, G and H.

I’ve given that idea quite a bit of thought, as it happens. some statements are self-referential — Doug Hofstadter makes a big deal of them in his book, Godel, Escher, Bach. They embody paradox, they astonish, confound or amuse us…

And in a game played on this particular board (pun definitely intended), the three “looped” moves would need to have this strange and charming if quirky quality of self-reference.


The self-referencing thought is in fact the simplest form of Sembl move, since it would be played on a board that consists of one circle connected by a line to itself.

I’ll use one of my own poems as an example:

Is that a self-eating watermelon?

Not exactly. It’s the ourobouros, the serpent of mythology which eats its own tail…

But I do see the family Semblance!

Lines become thought-space

More thoughts on interface design… and fun with animated GIFs :)

Imagine that you’re looking at a large, complex network of connected nodes. As you hover over any line between two nodes, it draws the two nodes together, then splits and expands into a single thought-space enclosing its two seeds, thus:

Perpetual animated GIF showing two connected nodes, where the connecting line transitions into a circular bubble

A thought-space emerges from a line

On click, the single thought-space would enlarge so you could consider the two seed nodes and the descriptive resemblance in the centre.


If you hover instead over a single node – say, one with three connections – you see a trio of connected thought-spaces emerge, like petals on a flower.

Perpetual animated GIF of a node connected to three others, where the connecting lines transition into circular bubbles

A trio of thought-spaces

Again, on click the view would enlarge.


Once I’d animated those hand-drawn sketches, I thought my thinking about interface design would stop – at least until we’re actually building this baby. But no. Neurons kept firing; I developed a strong desire to visualise this thinking space in the simplest way, a line resoloving into a circle – or a circle-like pod thing.

So I fired up Processing and the online reference, and retrieved my neglected Processing textbook. It took me ages of fiddling and wondering why it was looking so skew-if to recall that the y axis starts at the top. Anyway, here it is – for your cognitive pleasure, the first born-digital animation of Sembl think-space – a pod:

A line transforms into a circle-like pod

It’d be way better if it faded gently out and then back to the line; as it is, it’s like a mouth that snaps shut just when you think it’s safe to explore :) But for now I’m spent.*

* Spent and yet, seeing a flip-book in my future…

Trees: Phototropic Simplexities

[ Cross-posted from Zenpundit — this one’s a prose poem: it begins with a statement so tight it needs to be unwound, and unwinds it ]

I wrote this urgently starting when it “woke” me at 4am one morning in the late 1990s or 2000, and as soon as it was out, I found myself writing another piece in the series, a game design. Together, the pair of them represent a stage in my games and education thinking intermediate between Myst-like Universities of 1996 and my vision today of games in education. In this posting, I have added the words “figuratively speaking” for absolute clarity: otherwise, the piece remains as written all those years ago.


A copse. Photo credit: Ian Britton via FreePhoto.com under CC license. Note how the wind sweeps the trees into a group shape.


Trees: Phototropic Simplexities

Trees are phototropic simplexities, no wonder we like them they cowork so well too: copses, see.



Trees we know: I as writer can refer you, reader, safely to them, “trees”, in trust that the word I use will signal to you too — triggering for you, also — pretty much the assortment of branching organic thingies about which I’m hoping to communicate that they are complex entities whose complexity comes from a simplicity of rule — branching — repeated with variations, said variants doing their branching in thirst of light, each trunk rising, limb outpushing, branch diverging, twig evading other twig much as one who seeks in a crowd a clear view of a distant celebrity shifts and cranes and peers — branching, thus, by the finding of light in avoidance of nearby shadow and moving into it, into light as position, that light, that position, growing, and thus in the overall “unified yet various”, we, seekers of the various and unified love them, to see them in greens themselves various in their simplexity is to say “tree” with a quiet warmth; while they themselves also, by the necessity of their branching seeking, if clumped together seek in an avoidance of each other’s seeking, growing, thus space-sharing in ways which as the wind sweeps and conforms them to its own simplex flows, shapes them to a common curve we call aerodynamic, highlit against the sky huddled together as “copse” — this, in the mind’s eyes and in your wanderings, see…



Trees we can talk about. Simplexity is a useful term for forms — like trees — which are neither simple only nor complex only, but as varied as complexity suggests with a manner of variation as simple as simplicity implies.

Trees? Their simplexity is conveyed in principle by the word “branching”. Its necessity lies in the need of each “reaching end” of the organism to ascertain from its own position and within the bounds of its possible growing movement, some “available” light — this light-seeking having the name “phototropism”.

Simplexities — and thus by way of example, trees — we like, we call them beautiful.

Clustered together, too, and shaped by the winds’ patterns of flow, these individual simplexities combine on an English hilltop (or where you will) to form yet other beauties.



Trees are phototropic simplexities, no wonder we like them they cowork so well too: copses, see.



I love trees. Want to talk about simplexities, beauty.

I wish to talk about beauty because it is beauty that I love, if I love it, that is beauty: love is kalotropic, a beauty-seeking. I am erotropic, love seeking — you can find in this my own simplexity, my own varieties of seeking, of the growths that are my growth, and clumping me with others under the winds, the pressures that form and conform us, you can find also the mutual shapes that we adopt, beautiful.

Simplexity, then, is a key to beauty, variety, self, character, cohabitation… Tropism, seeking, is the key to simplexity. Love is my tropism. Ours, I propose.



Beauty is one simplexity perceived by another: the eye of the beholder, with optic nerve, “brain”, branching neuron paths that other simplexity, “consciousness” the perceiving.


Meaning also:

That all is jostle, striving — a strife for life, in which the outcome overall is for each a “place in the sun” but not without skirmishes, shadows. The overall picture, therefore, beautiful — but this overall beauty hard to perceive when the specific shadow falls in the specific sought place of the moment, the “available” is not available, and the strife of the moment is paramount.

Branching being the order behind simplexity, differentiation…

Differentiation for maximal tropism at all levels — life seeking always the light, honey, beauty, is always and everywhere in conflict also with itself, competitive: and competition the necessary act of the avoidance of shadow, and the shadow creating act.

And beauty — the light, thing sought, implacably necessary food and drink, the honey — thus the drive that would make us kill for life.

I could kill for beauty.

I could kill for honey.

Figuratively speaking.



Paradise and Fall, simultaneous, everywhere.

It is at this juncture, at this branching, that we are “expelled from the garden” — can no longer see the beauty that is and remains overall, that can allow us to say also, “we are never outside the garden” — for the dappling of light on and among the leaves has become to us, too closely jostled, shadow.

And shadow for shadow we jostle, and life is strife.



The dappling of light on leaves, beautiful, is for each shadowed leaf, shadow, death-dealing, is for each lit leaf, light, life-giving: a chiaroscuro, beautiful, see.

Roots, too, have their mirror branchings.