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On the HipBone and Sembl games: update

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

[ brief intro by Charles Cameron, then shorter version of Dr. Cath Styles‘ presentation of Sembl at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand, 20 November 2012 ]

Charles writes:

I’ve been working for almost twenty years on the development of a playable variant on Hermann Hesse‘s concept of the Glass Bead Game.

It’s an astonishing idea, the GBG — that one could build an architecture of the greatest human ideas across all disciplinary boundaries and media — music, religion, mathematics, the sciences, anthropology, art, psychology, film, theater, literature, history all included — and it has engaged thinkers as subtle as Christopher Alexander, the author of A Pattern Language [See here, p. 74]. Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry and author of Laws of the Game [see here], and John Holland, the father of genetic algorithms [see here].

Here’s Hesse’s own description of the game as a virtual music of ideas:

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.

My own HipBone Games were an attempt to make a variant of the game that would be simple enough that you could play it on a napkin in a cafe, and has in fact been played online — and more recently, my friend Cath Styles has adapted it for museum play, and introduced the basic concept and our future hopes in a presentation at the National Digital Forum 2012, New Zealand — which you can see very nicely recorded in Mediasite format.

Do take a look — Cath makes a first-rate presentation, and I love the Mediasite tech used to capture it.

Since the slides are shown in a small window concurrently with Cath’s presentation, I’ve edited her presentation for Zenpundit readers, and reproduced many of her slides full-size with some of her commentary below.


Sembl, the game of resemblance

Cath speaking:

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

Cath then talks about feedback from children and adults about their experience of playing the game. Some kids homed in on the principle of resemblance, others emphasised the social side of the game. She talks, too, about their teacher, and her observations about the ways the game engaged her kids.

She then shows us various Sembl gameboards for iPad:

Sembl Museum gameboard for four teams of younger players

Four different Sembl Museum gameboards

Cath speaks:

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

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

But it’s the bigger picture – of humans as a community – that I most want to explore: Sembl as an engine of networked ideas, or linked data.

Charles notes: I’m skipping the educational part — and the bit about my own role in the game’s development, to get to the core of her presentation as I see it: the cognitive facilitation it provides

Cath again:

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

Cath next quotes David Bohm, the eminent quantum physicist:

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

Cath speaks:

For Bohm, dialogue means holding several points of view in active suspension. He regarded this kind of dialogue as critical in order to investigate the crises facing society. He saw it as a way to liberate creativity to find solutions.

Cath then drops in an important topic header:

Toward a game-based social learning network


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

deliberative thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

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

eccentric thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

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

bridge-builders – quotation of Charles Cameron

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

every move you make is a creative leap

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

Cath concludes:

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

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



Cath can be reached via Twitter at @cathstyles, and I’m at @hipbonegamer. The Sembl site is at Sembl.net.

Next up: what Sembl has to offer the IC.


The most important post about Aurora doesn’t mention Aurora

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — futurism, making, printing, printable guns, time of your life, intersecting timelines ]


We only have one mouth, so we’re linear speakers, confined to speaking one thought at a time. And we only have one body, so we tend to think of our lives along a single timeline — although other people with their own uncontolled timelines are constantly crisscrossing our paths and making things better (hey, thanks!) or worse (damn it!) or just plain interesting (okaaay) or boring (unhh)… but the world itself includes the crisscrossing of all those paths in its own timeline, and what this means in practice is that linear thinking doesn’t catch the drift.

Which is why it’s interesting that the most important blog-piece on the Aurora tragedy today doesn’t mention Aurora once.

It’s by John Robb, and it’s about printing these:

And it’s important because the world-line it talks about will cross the path of the Columbine > Virginia Tech > Utøya > Aurora timeline at some point.


It begins like this:

Printing Weapons at Home for Fun and Mayhem

It’s now possible to print functional weapons at home. This is going to progress rapidly now.

Think: global file sharing of designs for servicable weapons, from pistols on up to ?, that can be printed at home. What you can print — from the materials to the size/quality of the object to the completeness (snap together construction) — is already moving forward quickly. The weapons effort will just be along for the ride.

But read the whole thing. And read Duncan Kinder and the other comments there, too.


That’s John Robb’s message for the day — and apart from the fact that it talks about reliable home-printed weaponry, a line of development which will I suggest will cross that Columbine > Virginia Tech > Utøya > Aurora line some time in the not too distant, there’s one unremarkable little remark in there that’s well worth remarking on. John says:

The weapons effort will just be along for the ride.


Along for the ride. Side effects. Adverse reactions. Serendipity. Unintended consequences. Unknown unknowns. Black swans.

We have a variety of terms we use for the things that blindside us, for better or worse. Our future is full of them, our past is littered with the results…

So it’s interesting that if a bunch of us are thinking along the broad line of maker-printables, a few will be thinking printable guns. A bunch of us will be making films, a bunch more will be going to the movies to see them. And some will have far darker thoughts in mind.


Crisscross your thinking. Weave your world with care for the future, please.


The best war game is a library of windows

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Escher, Borges, simulating the future, wargames, A Pattern Language, Sembl ]

MC Escher, Relativity

Ridiculous phrase, a library of windows. Unless you think, as I do, of books as windows onto different worlds, in which case it makes a whole lot of sense, and a decent library has more windows onto more profoundly different worlds than any physical room — and here we are getting into the territory of Jorge Luis Borges (links to Library of Babel) and Maurits Escher (image above).

And let me just state for the record that Godel Escher Bach could just as well have been Escher Carroll Borges, and that a comparison between the logics of Escher and Borges is one of the desiderata of our times.

That’s a Sembl move.


Let’s expand the concept of window to include the sort of inter-worldview glimpse that Haaretz describes today here:

Last week, in a small beit midrash (study hall) named after Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem’s Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood, an emergency meeting was convened to discuss instigating freedom of religion and worship on the Temple Mount. It was a closed meeting attended by representatives of the Temple Institute, HaTenu’ah LeChinun HaMikdash (the Movement to Rebuild the Holy Temple) and the Temple Mount Faithful, as well as two representatives of Women for the Mikdash, and others. The activists met to try to understand how they could overcome the authorities, who they believe are plotting against them, and return to the Temple Mount. At this meeting, Haaretz was offered a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the most ardent activists in the battle to Judaize the Temple Mount.


Here’s the meat of the post, as yet uncooked. Back in 2005, but brought to my attention today by Rex Brynen at Paxsims, is this piece from Strategy Page:

After eight years of effort, and spending over $300 million, the U.S. Army has officially received its new wargame (WARSIM) for training battalion, brigade, division, and as big as you want to get, commanders, and their staffs. Now even the most elaborate commercial wargame would not get $300 million for development, and eight years to create the system. But wargames for professional soldiers have different requirements, and a troublesome Department of Defense bureaucracy to deal with. First, the requirements. Commercial wargames shield the player from all the boring stuff (support functions, especially logistics.) But professional wargames must deal with these support activities, because in a real war, these are the things commanders spend most of their time tending too. …

WARSIM covers a lot of complex activities that a commander must deal with to achieve battlefield success. Besides logistics, there’s intelligence. Trying to figure out what the enemy is up to is, next to logistics, the commanders most time consuming chore.

— which in turn was referenced by Michael Peck writing in a Kotaku piece today titled Why It’s So Hard to Make a Game Out of the 21st Century:

Let’s build a game. Let’s make it a strategy game. We will realistically simulate global politics in the 2030s. Perhaps a sort of Civ or Supreme Ruler 2020-type system.

Where shall we start? How about something easy, like choosing the nations in the game? It’s simple enough to consult an atlas. We’ll start with Britain…but wait! Scotland is on the brink of declaring independence from the United Kingdom. Should Britain be a single power, or should England and Scotland be depicted as a separate nation? What about Belgium splitting into Flemish and Walloon states? And these are old, established European nations. How will states like Syria and Nigeria look in two decades? It was only a bit over 20 years ago that the Soviet Union appeared to be a unshakeable superpower that controlled Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


Let’s cook that meat, let’s make a meal of it.

Peck’s piece goes into many other ways in which predictive gaming isn’t terribly productive.

But it left me asking the question, what would I do with a game-sized budget, if my aim was to push military and intelligence towards greater insight.

And my answer would be to embed information in walls. In corridors…

To build windows at sparse and irregular intervals into the internal corridors that connect any given office in the Pentagon or three-letter agency — or my local preference (hush, I know it’s the Glorious Fourth tomorrow) MI-5 and -6 — through which analysts and decision makers can glimpse snippets of information.

Which can then fall into the deep well of memory.

It is deep within that well of half-forgotten knowledge, ST Coleridge tells us, that the “hooks-and-eyes of memory” link one thought with another to build a creative third.


A wall, then. I would build a wall embedded with facts and fancies, maps and illustrations, graphs and stats, film clips and news clips, anecdotes and quotes — even, perhaps, tiny alcoves here and there with books free for the taking, music CDs, DVDs of movies, old, new, celebrated, strange…

And I would be constantly shifting and rearranging the “views” from my windows, so that what was seen yesterday would not be what would be seen tomorrow — yet with a powerful index of words, topics, themes, memes, image contents, names of actors, newscasters, authors and so forth, so that what was once seem and dimly recalled could be recaptured.


The concept here is pretty much the exact opposite of having a huge black poster proclaiming Creativity Matters!

Don’t get me wrong, creativity does matter (get that poster and others here), but it “works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform” — and the way to entice it is to see things out of the corner of the eye…

The windows I’m looking for, therefore, offer glimpses you wouldn’t necessarily notice if you were deep in thought or conversation, and conversely, wouldn’t see twice and grow so familiarized to that they’d become irrelevant by repetition. They’d be glimpsed in passing, their esthetic would be that of Christopher Alexander’s Zen View, pattern 134 in his brilliant work — the closest we have to a Western I ChingPattern Language:

The idea, then, is to seed the memory with half-conscious concepts, patterns, facts and images, carefully selected and randomly presented — so that those hooks and eyes have the maximum chance of connecting some scrap of curious information with a pressing problem.

Which is how creativity tends to work.


That way each corridor becomes a game-board — but it is in the analyst’s focused mind that the game is played and won.

What you’d get, in effect, would be community-wide, ongoing free-form gameplay in complete alignment with the web-based game we’re currently developing at Sembl. Games of this genre will also have powerful application in conflict resolution.

And peace.


Of the real and the imaginal

Monday, April 9th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — from sight to vision? ]


Which of these two images — the photo above, the MC Escher print below — calls you closer? Which takes you deeper?


And which draws you closer here — the MC Escher print above, or the Tenniel illustration for Alice, below? Which carries you deeper?

Where does the realistic end, and the imaginal begin?


Marina Warner writes in the introduction to her recently reviewed book, Stranger Magic:

The faculties of imagination — dream, projection, fantasy — are bound up with the faculties of reasoning and essential to making the leap beyond the known into the unknown. At one pole (myth), magic is associated with poetic truth, at another (the history of science) with inquiry and speculation. It was bound up with understanding physical forces in nature and led to technical ingenuity and discoveries. Magical thinking structures the processes of imagination, and imagining something can and sometimes must precede the fact or the act; it has shaped many features of Western civilization. But its influence has been constantly disavowed since the Enlightenment and its action and effects consequently misunderstood.


For the brilliant juxtaposition of images in the upper pair, I am grateful to http://www.giovis.com/atrani.htm, with an h/t to http://www.log24.com.


One for Madhu — A Meditation in Time of War

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a poem of mine, with continuing exploration of Koestler’s notion of creativity at the intersection of fields, showing how three thoughts are braided in a single polyphony ]

A Meditation in Time of War

It is for the artist to see skeleton behind flesh
when depicting war, tho’ beauty too
deserves a hint of her inevitable decay,
flesh being heir to dust and dust its progeny:

nothing is so mechanical visioned in paint
as the tubing that supplies a gas mask with air,
yet the throat is no different, constricted
by an urgency to breathe as breath snuffs out:

gone, gone, paragon, quintessence of dust, svaha!


William Butler Yeats has a well-known poem with the same title, so I am borrowing from, flattering, and wondering whether I might sneak under the same mantle as a member of the illustrious departed here.

And Madhu, friend and friend of this blog, encouraged me some while back to post poems here on occasion, so this one is for her by way of a response.

I also wanted to post this particular poem here, though, because its last line nicely illustrates the same notion of overlapping or juxtaposed elements that Koestler claims lies at the heart of the creative process which I have been exploring in my recent posts on Klimt, on Nancy Fouts, and constellational thinking.

Because yes, I now have a book project under way, and it concerns the development of a new style of multifaceted, complex / simplex thinking.


The first lines of my poem were triggered by one of those fleeting glances at a blog logo — in this case, the logo of the Kings of War blog from London, which I’ve shaved down a bit to give you a taste of here:


It’s impressive, eye-catching — and then you get used to it.

So a couple of nights ago when I glimpsed it, I slowed down enough to take a quick but deliberate look, came away with an impression — not necessarily accurate as to detail, but giving me my emotional response to the piece — and worked and played to get it into words, making this what I believe is technically called an ekphrastic poem, a poem about a painting.

The original painting is a mural — José Clemente Orozco‘s Catharsis (1934), from the Museo Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

So that, with a little wandering of the mind, is what gives us the first eight lines. It’s the ninth and last line I want to comment on, here.


That last line reads:

gone, gone, paragon, quintessence of dust, svaha!

And what’s happening here that delights me, and that gives the poem either a perplexing close or a powerful one, depending on the associations which the reader brings to bear on it, “happens” as follows:

I am letting two, or you might say three, streams of language that are very dear to me braid together in that last line.

There’s the mantra that sums up the entire Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom literature — a major strand in Buddhist teachings — at the end of the Heart Sutra:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

There’s the English translation of the same, which Thich Nhat Hanh explains thus:

Gate means gone. Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering. Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness. Gone from duality into non-duality. Gate gate means gone, gone. Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore. So this mantra is said in a very strong way. Gone, gone, gone all the way over. In Parasamgate sam means everyone, the sangha, the entire community of beings. Everyone gone over to the other shore. Bodhi is the light inside, enlightenment, or awakening. You see it and the vision of reality liberates you. And svaha is a cry of joy or excitement, like “Welcome!” or “Hallelujah!” “Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, svaha!”

– and which I remember from my days at Oxford in Edward Conze‘s much earlier English version:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond…

And there’s this, from Hamlet, Act 2 scene 2:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


So “gate, gate, paragate” gives me “gone, gone, paragon…” — and “paragon” brings me to “paragon of animals … quintessence of dust”.

If you have all three of these utterances in mind — and each one of them is memorable the way a passage in Isaiah or Job, or some great Churchillian speech, or phrase in Melville or Dickens can be memorable — they will all three be present, braided together as a single music, a polyphony, a constellation of meanings, in that one last line.

Roll them on your tongue, taste the beauty in each one of them, the nobility, the evanescence of this human life. And now read the poem through again.


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