Just in case you thought the musings in this place were a bit run-of-the-mill ;) – here are some posts that take the thinking further afield. Here we honour resonance over and above relevance…

Hipbone/Sembl: psychological perspectives

[ a Jungian view, Hipbone/Sembl and the feminine, also an early use of the games in dream-analysis online ]

Sacred games headerI just received an email from Eve Jackson, an old friend of mine, Jungian analyst and Buddhist practitioner, who has recently been exploring my HipBone Games and expressed her interest in their web-based development as Sembl. One paragraph in particular stood out for me, since it speaks to the issue of the feminine in the games — something I am reluctant to do myself — and also because it emphasizes a central interest and hope of mine, the possible significance of the games in conflict resolution and its expression at the global level of the diversity of cultures:

Also pleased to read about your friend Cath’s museum game and, especially, the possibility of using the games for conflict resolution. I see the whole thing as having to do with feminine consciousness, which is much needed. Jung emphasises differentiation and the hero archetype in the development of consciousness, hence it tends to be seen by Jungians as a masculine phenomenon, arising from a feminine background of fusion. But consciousness also develops by seeing likeness. Also Jung still lived in a world where one could (and he felt should) work within ones own geographically limited tradition. Now so many strands that had been separated need to be creatively reconnected so the whole complexity can be glimpsed, it can’t be avoided.

I’m very grateful for those words, which express succinctly some of my own key hopes for the game…

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Here are the relevant paragraphs of her email in full — personal in part, because each person’s own playing of the game will naturally draw on their own store of images, narratives, quotations etc, but also of that wide significance of which Anais Nin wrote, “The personal, if it is deep enough, becomes universal, mythic, symbolic.” In these paragraphs you will find the personal touching the mythic, and thus giving voice to the universal:

I have been experimenting with your games, drawn back to them by cunning paths of association, and passing the link on to a few likely people. Always remembered the stuff you sent me years ago about Oppenheimer and the Gita which deeply impressed me but got sidelined by the demands of life. Perhaps I feared that such things could be addictive – have always shied away from chess, poker, bridge because I could see them keeping me awake at night.

Now I find myself pleasantly caught. Even got a copy of the Bead Game to reread. Frankly I prefer the hipbone games as less abstract and cerebral than the version Hesse implies, and because there’s a sense in which the Hesse game involves too much labour of consciousness, and even though it can induce satori it risks dryness, lacking the spontaneity/immediacy of hipbone, so that Castalia becomes a sort of severed head. Hesse was clearly aware of this problem himself, hence the relief of Knecht returning to the more natural world, which experience, alas, he can’t sustain. But hipbone is moister, more democratic and more genuinely playful as the unconscious has more free rein. Into my current life in Crete, living with great beauty and blessings in the agony of a disintegrating world, with many levels of occupation and preoccupation, your game has entered as a vivifying current.

Knocked out (not of course for the first time) by the play of the mind, how what is dimly remembered brings with it so much more. For example I moved from the bells of Aberdovey (sound of a drowned world) via Phlebas the Phoenician to Ariel’s song, and was astounded to discover that the song ends with bells. And that Donne’s tolling bell (a further association) follows an image of a clod disintegrating in the sea. And that the bells of Aberdovey are actually alarm bells (waking us from the solutio of sleep). And so on inevitably through the cycle of death and rebirth. These first images also reflect the process itself, the ringing of the Welsh song in my head evoking the underwater world of free-floating associations.

Also pleased to read about your friend Cath’s museum game and, especially, the possibility of using the games for conflict resolution. I see the whole thing as having to do with feminine consciousness, which is much needed. Jung emphasises differentiation and the hero archetype in the development of consciousness, hence it tends to be seen by Jungians as a masculine phenomenon, arising from a feminine background of fusion. But consciousness also develops by seeing likeness. Also Jung still lived in a world where one could (and he felt should) work within ones own geographically limited tradition. Now so many strands that had been separated need to be creatively reconnected so the whole complexity can be glimpsed, it can’t be avoided.

The Game relating to Oppenheimer and the Gita, to which my friend refers, is the solo game titled (after Nietzsche) What sacred games shall we have to invent? downloadable without cost from the Scribd site.

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Those paragraphs describe a single human’s use of the Hipbone/Sembl game structure for personal exploration and insight, but this seems the appropriate place to mention that the games have also been used in therapeutic dream analysis. My friend Walter Logeman is a psychotherapist trained in Joseph Moreno’s Psychodrama techniques.

Logeman Dream Event headerThe “Dream Events” themselves were conducted under conditions of therapeutic privacy, but Walter’s article DreamEvents in Psyberspace, written for the International Association for the Study of Dreams‘s journal, Dream Time, can give readers a detailed sense of how the games actually work in the context of dream symbolism and therapeutic amplification without breaching that temenos.

In introducing Walter’s piece, guest editor Richard Wilkerson raised a question which gets to the heart of the therapeutic possibilities of the games:

How deep can relationships get in an online dream group? Walter Logeman, in DreamEvents in Psyberspace gives sample from a “game” that is played by adults online and creates for several weeks a closed and confidential setting. The game is based on Herman Hesse’s The Bead Game and allows players to make relational moves on a virtual board, connecting dreams, thoughts and feelings in a soulful way.

For myself, the answer to that question is profoundly personal and deeply moving. Stuart, one of the players in the first “Dream Event” which I co-facilitated with Walter Logeman, knew he was in the terminal stages of cancer as he dreamed and discussed and played with us, and at one point he told us how the game felt to him:

I have been thinking about why I am so drawn to what is happening here. It seems to be that this might be a game that consciousness can play with itself irrespective of its containment in a body. A propos pour moi a ce moment

I don’t know that I have ever felt so deeply moved, honored, abashed or humbled by a comment someone else has made about a work I was involved with — but Stuart wrote those words, and I think they reflect pretty accurately just how moving the “Dream Event” indeed was for those who participated.

The HipBone/Sembl games can be played for sheer fun, in friendly rivalry, in formal or informal education, solo or in collaboration, for problem solving, for insight, as meditations or works of art, to facilitate the therapeutic understanding of the self and others, in the analysis of complex, multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary situations, and in conflict resolution…

I am very hopeful that Cath’s work on the funding and development of the Sembl games will soon bring us a free, open source, web based version of Sembl — not just for my own delight, but also and particularly for the sake of those others who, like Stuart, can find in these games a profound depth of insight and healing.

The Story of Sembl, I: Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game

[ first post in a series on the inspirations and developments that led to Sembl, and the aspirations that flow from them ]
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Music for a Glass Bead Game, Arturo Delmoni & Nathaniel Rosen, from  John Marks Records

Music for a Glass Bead Game, Arturo Delmoni & Nathaniel Rosen — a musical tribute to Hermann Hesse’s Game from John Marks Records

Hermann Hesse is just about due for a revival.

While other novelists on the whole explored the “real world” around them, the outside world, the world of other people and things, Hermann Hesse was concerned with the “inner” world – the world of hopes, dreams, distress, anguish, rage and insight. With his 1927 novel Steppenwolf, he introduced us to the “dark side” of ourselves, our “shadow” to use Jung’s term, long before Star Wars, longer before the Sith Lord Cheney committed the United States to work “sort of the dark side, if you will … to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.” And if Steppenwolf showed us our shadow, in his earlier novel Siddhartha (1922) he had already shown us the light – in a deliciously sensual revisioning of the young Buddha‘s ascetic purity.

Siddhartha and Steppenwolf between them provided cover for generations of young idealists coming to terms with their own dreams and nightmares, but it was in his final great novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943), known in English as The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi, which won him the Nobel Prize in Literature while confusing and losing many of his admirers — and inspiring beyond measure those who stayed with him.

Hesse’s grand vision was of a game played by the members of a scholarly caste – monastic Brahmins of a secular, post European world – whose purpose, pleasure and play it was to bring all human culture into one architecture, one music, woven of similarities, parallelisms, patterns, archetypes.

As an architecture of insights, Hesse spoke of this great game of his as “harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of Mind.” In musical terms, he described the game as a virtual music in which “ideas” rather than “melodies” would be harmonized or held in counterpoint:

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.

And the game’s ultimate destination – besides the creation of an overarching synthesis uniting sciences and arts, great leaps of discovery and profound flights of imagination?

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.

The ultimate aim is contemplative simplicity, meditation, a renewed sense of the sacred.


It was not the characters in the novel, nor its plot, that won Hesse the Nobel Prize: there is hardly a female character in the entire book, the males are largely cardboard imitations of people, and the plot such as it is might have made a fine twenty page novella – no need there for a 550-page masterpiece.

No, it is the game itself that holds the imagination, as the Himalayas might hold the attention of one who had lived a lifetime in the lowlands. And catch hold the imaginations of brilliant minds it has.

Hesse’s old friend and rival Thomas Mann inscribed a presentation copy of his novel Doctor Faustus with the words: “To Hermann Hesse, this glass bead game with black beads.”

Christopher Alexander, the progenitor of pattern languages, distilled the essence of his own thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

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

Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, wrote of his book on molecular biology with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch, Laws of the Game:

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

John Holland, father of genetic algorithms, told an interviewer:

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

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


Mid-way between architecture and music, forming an arch between the arts and sciences, Hesse’s imaginative game has been construed on many levels and in many ways, serving the needs of molecular biology, artificial intelligence, architecture and more. But what of its nature as a game to be played?

From my point of view as a game designer, Hesse’s game is both an artwork – to be played as Bach or the blues are played – and a game – to be played as soccer or chess are played.

And what a game!

Steven Pinker on Analogy

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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:

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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

credit for this incredible image: Roger Dean

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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.

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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.

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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 ]
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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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


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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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aurora-boutique

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:

coelho-google-before-you-tweet

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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.

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

sembl-turing-test

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