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The crackling energy of a Sembl move

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Sembl ]

image credit The Movie Poster Art Gallery / http://www.rock-explosion.com/catpage2.html



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 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:

Play as if your life depends on it

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — from the Glass Bead Game via the HipBone Games to Sembl ]


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 my follow up post, The crackling energy of a Sembl move.

Going to Try this App

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Paper for iPad


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