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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!

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 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.

On stereo thinking

I was writing a post for Zenpundit a day or two ago about two topical interests of mine — religiously sanctioned violence and social media — which came together some while ago when a Taliban spokesperson began using Twitter to make press announcements, and a press officer of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began tweeting back.

I wandered a bit off topic in the middle of the post to discuss something I might as well call stereo thinking — which is certainly an aspect of Sembl thinking, so I thought it belonged here. Here, then, is an excerpt from that post, with a bit of the original context left in place so that the whole passage hopefully makes sense without requiring further editing.

From Zenpundit:


A while back, on my way to make other points, I posted this:

I wasn’t the first or last to make the connection between A Balkhi and the Taliban, nor to note the Twitter-exchanges between Balkhi and the ISAF press office — but I happened to have this habit of juxtaposing similars and opposites, and had developed the “Specs” format used here, with the little binoculars inset, to suggest the idea of seeing parallel or opposite things in parallel or opposition — a sort of mental equivalent of stereoscopic vision or stereophonic sound — in the hope that something about the comparison and contrast would add a depth dimension to understanding.

As a footnote to a footnote to a footnote, I think the Necker Cube can add an interesting aspect to this business of stereoscopic thinking:

When two things are so much the same and so utterly different that, as with a Necker Cube (or the positive and negative of a photo rapidly alternating) the mind flashes rapidly from one view to its exact and opposite other, a metacognitive insight arises about what I can only term the two in one in twoness experienced.

File that under number theory, koans.


That’s the excerpt from Zenpundit. What follows is a quote from Michael Polanyi which Critt Jarvis supplied me with in a comment on that post — food for thought:

The fusion of the two stereoscopic pictures to a single spatial image is not the outcome of an argument; and if its result is illusory, as it can well be, it will not be shaken by argument. The fusion of the clues to the image on which they bear is not a deduction but an integration.

You can find that and much more in his essay The Structure of Consciousness, also found in Polanyi’s book Knowing and Being, pp. 211-13.

Of orangutans and cathedrals

I don’t think you want to see me attempting to draw an orangutan – but if I was persuaded to try, I’d probably use a technique along the lines of DragonArt’s post on the topic, from which the two illustrations above are drawn.

I came across this site, by the way, while looking for a version of this puzzle diagram:

And I was looking for that not only because it’s the solution to a neat creative-thinking puzzle that my father showed me when I was a kid, but also because it’s a graph — and thus a potential board on which Sembl games could be played.

In fact I used an analogous device once, during a live intercontinental phone-feed HipBone game, to tilt and transform a 10-position WaterBird board which had already filled with moves into a 12-move board to continue the game, the excitement and the brainstorming just a little longer by popular request..


Back to our orangutan board.

What interests me here is the intersection of the notion of graphs with that of Venn diagrams

Semiotic translation between verbal and visual elements is a fascinating creative challenge in its own right.

Indeed, one aspect of what’s up for grabs here is the possibility of an overall semiotics of conceptual mappings — which in turn would facilitate the development of a new style of world mapping, capable of crossing the (leaky) “cartesian divide” between mental and physical realms, while exploring the multiple links and dependencies in our complexly interwoven world.

That’s a topic I’m hoping to post on shortly…


It would, for instance, be interesting to develop maps that can transition smoothly from Markov:

to PERT:

to Forrester-style visualizations:


Back to the Sembl games, back to graphs as boards, back to fun.

One of the most creative aspects of developing the HipBone and Sembl family of games has been the discovery of potential boards in the most intriguing of places.

This board, for instance, is based on the design of the star-vaulted ceiling in a old British cathedral…

A Rembrandt resemblance?

When I was searching for illustrations for my piece on ancient Sembl boards, I was under the impression that Rembrandt had made an illustration of some old sage having a vision of a slightly unusual form of the Sephirotic Tree of Jewish Kabbalah.

I wasn’t able to find it: what I did find, however, was a different but similar Rembrandt etching, showing a wise old man having a diagrammatic vision – but not of the variant Sephirotic Tree that I recalled seeing…

And although I could also have used Athanasius Kircher‘s highly wrought version of the Tree…

in the end I opted for a simpler diagram, which I juxtaposed to a Christian diagram of the Trinity:

Today, however, while browsing for something completely different – a map of Washington DC if you must know – I ran across the image I’d been thinking of – it’s on the title page of Paulus Ricius‘ Latin translation, Portae Lucis, of the Hebrew Kabbalistic text Shaarei Orah by Abraham Joseph Gikatilla, which concerns the Tetragrammaton or four-lettered Name of God:

Okay, I went back to check on the Rembrandt, and found it on the Rijksmuseum site dated “c. 1652″ with the comment:


What the etching exactly represents is unclear. In the early eighteenth century, the print earned the title ‘Dr Faustus’ and in 1791 Goethe used it on the title page for his publication of Faust. However, it is just as possible that this has nothing at all to do with Faust, but is a portrait of a scholar. It may be the ‘practising alchemist’ to which references were made in the seventeenth century. The posture of this ‘Faust’ has much in common with that of a scholar in an earlier print of Rembrandt’s. Rembrandt did not portray alchemists in the traditional way – that is, with fire. The enigmatic text in the radiating light could be a magic spell.


So here’s the business my unconscious seems to have had in mind during this whole process of searching in Rembrandt’s works for an image that resembled one of his etchings from around 1652.

I was conflating the Rembrandt with the image found on the title page of a book printed in Augsburg in 1516 — and that’s how the creative leap happens, in this case from a 1516 image in Augsburg to a 1652 image in Amsterdam.

At the point that I realize this, there’s an aha! in me, a Sembl move I can make linking the Portae Lucis title page to Rembrandt’s Faust etching – and a vista opening in the realm of art history, in which one could (and perhaps someone should) research the availability of the Ricius translation of Shaarei Orah to Rembrandt himself, and in the rabbinic libraries of his time in Amsterdam.

Because – and this is not art history but art historical hypothesis – the Ricius title page may well be a significant source of Rembrandt’s etching, of which the Rijksmuseum itself says:

What the etching exactly represents is unclear.


I have no idea how original an idea this is, and others may well have considered the possibility and researched the matter before me.

I do know that Rembrandt’s Jewish connections have been examined in detail, and would love to have seen the ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt exhibit at the Joods Historisch Museum.

But there you have it.  The “unconscious” mind finds resemblances and in effect makes leaps, which the “conscious” mind then stumbles across – and on occasion those leaps deserve to be followed up, researched, confirmed or refuted.

In this case, I’m hoping my friend Michael Robinson will come to my rescue with some informed commentary – this is in his field, not mine.


In the meantime, the central rosette or mandala in the Rembrandt prominently features the letters INRI for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), which was the title Pilate ordered nailed to the cross above Christ’s head in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (John 19.20).  So even if Rembrandt had seen the Ricius Kabbalistic Tree diagram in the collection of one of his Jewish neighbors and been influenced by it, his own version is explicitly Christian…

And INRI, if you think about it, it a sort of Christian variant on the Tetragrammaton: a four-lettered title for Christ.

But that would be another possible Sembl move, for another day.

Play as if your life depends on it

[ from the Glass Bead Game via the HipBone Games to Sembl — cross-posted with minor changes from

Play most assiduously is how Edgar Wind translates the motto of Marsilio Ficino — the man who more or less single-handed, built the Florentine Renaissance: studiossime ludere. Play most studiously.

Play as if your life depends on it.


Hermann Hesse crowned his life-work with the great, boring, utterly riveting novel Das Glasperlenspiel, The Glass Bead Game, sometimes better known in the English-speaking world by the (Latin) title, Magister Ludi — which means both school-teacher and Master of the Game.

And game there is: the Glass Bead Game itself, or GBG for short.

The book centers around a game of ideas — a game in which the most profound conceptual systems of all human cultures are brought together in a grand architecture that Hesse calls “the hundred-gated cathedral of Mind”:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.

Here Hesse mentions astronomical, musical and textual concepts — the game, like the digital world of the internet, allows mathematical, textual, musical and visual elements to be juxtaposed and combined, just as Sven Birkerts described in an interview with Cliff Becker:

There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

Birkerts was concerned that these “tremendous opportunities” might drown out “the old quiet pastime of reading mere words” — but Hesse’s great game is a contemplative one, in which Hesse proposes:

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.



We play, we play games, we play music… we play wargames… all the world’s a stage, and we are (merely) players.

Consider: Play is what children do to learn, so brilliantly, language, languages, geography, mathematics, history, chess, go, music, politeness, discipline, excess, consequences, moderation… And play is what masters do to express their mastery — Picasso plays, Casals plays, Einstein plays… And the motto of Ficino, mentor to the Florentine Renaissance, is play most assiduously.


The Glass Bead Game is a game, then, to compare with the greatest of games — Chess, Go, name your poison — indeed, with the greatest of intellectual endeavors — the Encyclopédie, the gesamtkunstwerk, the long-sought Theory of Everything…

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.

How can taking that idea and making it playable not be a worthy challenge, in this world that is daily more absorbed in digital play in its arcades and cinemas, on its consoles, tablets, phones, and computers?


Just reading the book made me want to play the game, but I like to keep things simple. I needed to be able to play it with a pencil and paper napkin over a cup of coffee — or on an email list or in the online forums that were beginning to spring up while I was figuring out some early boards and rules. I took Hesse’s basic concept of juxtaposing ideas and applied it on simple graph-like boards, on which each circle represents an idea, and each line a resemblance. I called my playable variants the HipBone Games.

More recently, my friend and colleague Cath Styles has been working on the development of iPad and web-playable versions of the games. We call them Sembl, because they explore the resemblances between things, ideas — and at a deeper level, the patterning of the world itself.

But the game remains the same: to juxtapose one thing — an idea, an object, a work of art, song, person or event — with another, in a way that generates the aha! of creativity. And to do that repeatedly, weaving an architecture of related ideas, on our way to weaving Hesse’s cathedral of Mind.

Our world has never been in greater need of creativity and connectivity — our future depends on them — and in the Sembl game, every move you make is a further link in the pattern that connects, every move you make is a creative leap.

More on that in an earlier post, The crackling energy of a Sembl move.

image credit The Movie Poster Art Gallery /

The crackling energy of a Sembl move

image credit The Movie Poster Art Gallery /

I’m always looking around for ways to describe the leap between two ideas (concepts, people, events, things) that occurs when you make a move in a Sembl game. On the game board, the ideas are shown as circles and the links as lines between them.

In the case of the museum version, the “ideas” are objects in the Museum’s collection – but the same principle applies whether we’re talking objects, concepts, events or people: entities of whatever type go in the circles, the lines between them signify the exploration of their resemblances and differences.



In more technical terms, Arthur Koestler in his classic book about the conceptual structure of creativity, The Act of Creation, diagrammed the intersection of two conceptual frames as representing the place where the joyous aha! of discovery, the gasped ah! of tragedy or the delightful ha! of laughter is generated, and this more recent version of his diagram gets the essence:


But wait!

There’s a lot going on here, there’s a distinct leap – think: creative leap, even perhaps leap of faith.

It was the leap between two ideas – electricity and magnetism – that gave Faraday his dynamo, Maxwell his equations, and the modern world almost its whole existence. It was the leap between two ideas – modular forms and elliptic equations – that gave Taniyama his conjecture and Wiles his proof of Fermat‘s Last Theorem.

The leap that intuits similarities, particularly between rich similarities between rich concepts in widely separated fields, is the most powerful tool of the thinking mind – and playing Sembl amounts to nothing more or less than a repeated, playful, delightful invitation to make leaps of exactly that kind.

So a Sembl leap of resemblance can be anything from training wheels for creativity to a prize-winning long-jump at the conceptual Olympics.


Maria Popova at Brainpickings quotes Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things.

And she quotes James Webb Young, back in 1939:

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

This isn’t some hidden secret, but it’s not exactly common knowledge either, it’s not something many schools teach — which is why the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson famously told his fellow Regents at the University of California:

Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.

Which is also why Eliot Eisner, Stanford professor and former President of the American Educational Research Association, said of Sembl’s precursor HipBone Games, “the cognitive processes you are interested in developing are critical to a decent education”.


And just what does this have to do with Van der Graaf Generators, you might wonder?

There’s a cracking sense of energy discharged when you connect two ideas in a Sembl game move – not unlike the discharge of energy between the spheres of two Van der Graaf Generators picture here:

Imagine the spheres as two ideas in place on a Sembl game board, and the electrical discharge as the excitement of seeing how they mesh together to create that ah!, aha! or ha!

Or watch the whole, ultra-short video from which that image was taken, courtesy of the folks at MIT: