Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Ode to Joy Game: Move 9

It's been long enough since my last post in this series that I should probably give a quick recap.  This is an extended Glass Bead Game in which an initially blank set of interconnected spaces is gradually "filled in," each with an idea that can be expressed graphically...

...but also can be talked about in words (here's discussion on moves 1-3; here's move 4, then move 5, then 6 and 7, then the 8th one).  The fun of this exercise is in making sure that the spaces connected by lines correspond to ideas that can be "linked" to one another, too.  This particular game is being played using Charles Cameron's Hipbone board, which has 10 spaces in a pattern the occultishly-minded among you may recognize.  As you can see, we're getting close to the end now.

My 9th, penultimate move is to place Ergot Fungus into the most upper-right space.

I hear you all saying "Ergot what now?"  Bear with me.

Ergot is a fungus that grows mainly on rye, barley, and wheat plants.  Thus, it's been a problem for farmers ever since Neolithic people started settling down in agricultural communities.  (My image for it above is really just an icon for wheat... it's hard to find a picture of ergot itself that doesn't make you want to go take a shower.)

But here's the thing: if you ingest some grain products that were infested with ergot, you can experience a huge range of symptoms.  In large doses, it's disgustingly poisonous.  In medium doses, there's nausea, seizures, and manic delirium.  In smaller doses, it acts as a psychedelic hallucinogen.  Ergot poisoning was called "St. Anthony's Fire" in the Middle Ages, and it's been blamed for the "bewitched" behavior that set off the Salem witch trials.

It's also rumored that some kind of ergot drug was given to the initiates of the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. 

I could go on for several posts about the Greek mystery cults... I just think they were the coolest thing ever.  (I once got an article published about one of them in a "real" book, but that's a story for another time.)  In Eleusis, people were initiated into secret rites over a continuous period of almost 2000 years.  They kept their secrets so well that we still don't know a lot of what went on there.  We do have some snippets:  There was a mystery play involving Hades' abduction of Persephone, and the goddess Demeter's long search for her daughter.  The initiates fasted, listened to songs and speeches, and finally were shown sacred objects that conveyed the deepest mystical truths.  We know what one of them was:  "an ear of corn, in silence reaped."

These snippets have been speculated upon for centuries.  One reasonable idea is that Persephone's annual travels -- going down to Hades for part of the year, returning to the upper world in spring -- symbolizes the annual cycle of agriculture. (John Barleycorn, anyone?)  It was certainly a big deal for mankind to harness this particular aspect of the natural world, and seeing the spring come around again can certainly engender a feeling of awe.  You know what tomorrow is.

The suggestion that initiates had their mystical experience served up with some psychoactive ergot kind of suggests the Eleusinian hierophants were the original Merry Pranksters.  Those going in search of a direct experience of the divine have often made use of dangerous substances... and dangerous practices.  Putting the substances aside, it's always seemed to me that the rituals of mysticism and magic are, to an extent, a deliberate means of driving oneself crazy.  Mysticism: through the depriving of the brain of its usual worldly inputs.  Magic: through the overloading of the brain with too many inputs.

Anyway, there's a lot more I could talk about, but I'll leave it there.  I haven't had any of these direct experiences, but it is kind of comforting to know they're "out there" firming up a wider world than our usual everyday consciousness sees.  Here's a fascinating scholarly blog that discusses all this stuff in more depth.

Lastly, here are the links to the other connected ideas on the game board:  To the Olympic Spirit below, there's the fact that both the mystery cults and the original ancient Games were both religious festivals that tell us a lot about the Hellenic pagan world.  To the Queen of the Night to the left, we know that this character from Mozart's Magic Flute was the chief priestess of a kind of pagan cult of sorts, and the hero Tamino is put through some psychedelic initiations of his own.  To Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the central spot... well, let me just copy and paste a bit of the etymology of the word ecstasy:
ecstasy (n.) 
late 14c., "in a frenzy or stupor, fearful, excited," from Old French estaise "ecstasy, rapture," from Late Latin extasis, from Greek ekstasis "entrancement, astonishment; any displacement," in New Testament "a trance," from existanai "displace, put out of place," also "drive out of one's mind"
I'm out of my mind with excitement for the final move in the game.  I'm not sure I'll get to it prior to Friday's planned post as a part of Squid's Cephalopod Coffeehouse, but we'll see.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Slouching towards Spring

Sigh... there are still piles of snow here and there, refusing to leave.  It kind of mimics my own internal sluggishness regarding the blog these days.  The rest of life occupies roughly 25 hours a day, leaving little negative space for this here enclave of ludology.

Nevertheless, I'd like to make time for a miscellaneous update, if only to peek my own head up above the waves, like a periscope, to get my bearings.
  • Last week, my family and I finished watching the single season of Space: Above and Beyond, a phenomenally well-written 1995-1996 sci-fi TV series that should have gone on longer.  We've now just started in with the Eccleston season of Doctor Who.
  • I'm so not a computer game person, but for a couple weeks I've been mildly addicted to 2048, an popular browser-based abstract puzzle game.  I haven't yet beat it (current high score: 20,980), but I'm balmed to know that there's SCIENCE behind why it's so addictive.
  • I've had my final two moves in the "Ode To Joy Game" (see the most recent post) planned for at least a month -- with game-board images already "in the can" -- but I haven't been able to get the text of the posts written yet.  Hopefully soon.
  • Although I had an awesome time doing the April A-Z challenge in 2012 and 2013, I didn't manage to think of a good enough theme this year, so I'm taking a break.
  • Okay, was anyone else as upset as I was about last week's series finale of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother?  I don't think I've mentioned here that this was one of the only weekly sitcoms that I watched pretty regularly.  Its ending was well-written, kind of shocking, and will surely continue to be divisive amongst fans.  I'll link to a (spoiler-filled) article or two that reflect some of my own feelings about it, and just leave it at... poor Tracy McConnell!
  • It's been a while since I've done any work on my Homebrew '82 role-playing game rules variant, or on the associated "Avalon Lost" campaign setting (scroll down to posts 13-18 here).  However, a few days ago I did get, all in a flash, a mindwarping idea for the final adventure in the Avalon Lost universe.  I might write it up for the blog, as long as I remember (if I ever start DMing in the future) not to tell my players that this blog exists.  :-)
  • Later this week comes April 8, 9, and 10, three special holidays in Aleister Crowley's new religious tradition of Thelema.  It's the 110th anniversary of the writing of the Book of the Law.  In recent years I've fallen out with my own tradition of reading the three chapters on their associated days, but I'm planning to make time for it this year.
That's all for now, friends.  More soon.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Wind's in the East

A few days ago I finally saw Saving Mr. Banks, a recent quasi-historical look into the meeting between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins.  

Forewarned: This post really isn't a review of the movie; more so a smattering of my impressions, and some hints about other things it spurred me to think about.

I've got Suze to thank for putting this on my radar.  For a good stretch of time in my single-digit years, Mary Poppins was my favorite movie.  In those pre-VHS days, I was lucky that the Disney classics were on a near constant rotation in the 99-cent matinee theaters, so I saw it many times.  At age 6, of course I identified with the Banks children, and I had a magical nanny figure in my own life, too.  It probably wasn't until I saw the movie again in my early 20s that I realized that Mary Poppins had another reason for blowing in with the east wind: the redemption of the father.  I don't think it's exaggerating to say that this realization held lessons for me that I continue to draw from, especially now as a father myself.

If all Saving Mr. Banks does is to convey a bit of that to its audience -- and to highlight the wonderful (and absolutely unabashedly unsubtle) ways that the music of the Sherman brothers accomplished it back in 1964 -- it deserves as much praise as I can give.  But I think it does a bit more, too.

It's cliched to talk about how our lives are enriched by stories.  This movie, I think, pierces to the heart of this cliche and shows how it works, and why it matters.  Telling stories remakes the world.

There are two senses that the above is true:  In a literal way, when people hear stories that uplift them, they can be inspired go out into the world and do things they might not have done before.  Even apocalyptic dystopias can cause people to work hard to make sure the bad stuff doesn't happen.

The second way is more subtle.  Stories shape our surreality, and literally change how we think.  Last year I began reading Douglas Hofstadter's newest book that suggests the making and manipulating of analogies is the core activity of the human mind.  He starts with the simple ones, involving single concepts and phrases, and then goes on to say that fictions and narratives are just extended versions of the same thing.  I suppose this is also related to the "scripts" of Transactional Analysis, which I mentioned in my last post.  (Many others have realized this, too; see hints of it in the "Darmok" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in J. R. R. Tolkien's classic essay "On Fairy Stories.")  I'm convinced that any Glass Bead Game worthy of the name is going to have these ideas at its core.

Back to Saving Mr. Banks, there's also another level of "remaking the world with stories" here, in that the actual, real-world interaction between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers didn't quite go the way it did in the movie.  Much like Travers may have used Mary Poppins to remake her troubled childhood, screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith did some remaking of their own.  But to valuable effect, I say.

(And, much like another recent controversial bit of historical storytelling -- the tale of Giordano Bruno in the new Cosmos TV series -- I'm less upset about the inaccuracies than I am that some of the most "prickly" and avant garde aspects of their lives weren't highlighted.  Travers, like Bruno, was far weirder and cooler than her depiction made it seem!)

You go, Ginty!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Plots about Plots

It's time again for a not-so-random collection of pictures.  I'm not sure why I'm enjoying these kinds of posts so much, these days.  Don't worry, though; the final two moves of the Ode to Joy Game are coming soon.

Today I've found some interesting diagrams that involve stories and narratives.  I make no secret of the fact that I'm on a lifelong search for the meanings and formulas behind stories (see here and here, for example).  I've gotten lost for hours in the land of TV Tropes, too.  :-)

Before getting into the temporal flow (cause and effect, tension and release) in stories, how about just themes?

Click on any of these bad boys for more legible versions
This Venn diagram of themes that appear in Shakespeare's plays comes from someone named Straight Edge who's got some other interesting thoughts about the Bard (and games, and Star Trek).  It's interesting how the Scottish Play winds up at the center, inside all four categories.  I also wonder if there's something insightful in knowing that there are no plays with the supernatural that don't also involve some romance or war.

But okay, we can put aside ol' Willie S. for a while.  I know where the narrative center of the universe really is...

This is a (subjective!) view of the "tension level" experienced throughout a viewing of Star Wars, that I found here.  I've talked before about how the rising and falling of tension may be a central component of "grammar" in a universal common language that ties together disparate ideas into Glass Bead Games of the future.  Seeing examples plotted out like this is very helpful for starting to flesh out that grammar.

Next up is the visual grammar of comic books.  Author Scott McCloud has done a lot in recent years to highlight that the combination of words and pictures in the comic medium can give rise to totally new artistic possibilities that don't exist when one uses either one or the other.  The following is from his 1993 book Understanding Comics:

The human brain is pretty awesome for being able to build a coherent story out of a succession of images that uses all of these different transition types... and not even realize it's doing it.

And now for something completely different.  :-)

When I was 10 or 11, I was given a book on a new-fangled psychological theory called Transactional Analysis.  This theory has been notable for creating some pop-culture phrases ("I'm OK, you're OK," "warm fuzzies," "strokes") and helping people to understand the "games" and "scripts" that can sometimes be played out without us really knowing it.  Although I haven't thought about this theory much over the decades, whenever I read over its basic ideas, I think that many of them settled quietly into my brain.

A key concept in TA's conception of the personality is the existence of three quasi-separate modes of behavior.  Sort of Jungian archetypes, I suppose: the Parent, Adult, and Child:

Generally, the Parent and Child roles are created from one's early experience, and "Adult" is a more neutral and rational role that is primarily characterized by the absence of the Parent/Child dynamic.  The connection to plots and narratives comes into play because an interaction between people can play out very differently depending on the roles they are adopting.  The image above is a dysfunctional "crossed" dynamic where one person is relating in an Adult-to-Adult way, but the other is responding in a Parent-to-Child way.

Putting aside the actual insights of this theory, though, I also think I gravitated toward this because of my love of the symbols and colorful graphics.  :-)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Ode to Joy Game: Move 8 goes to 11

We're getting closer to filling up the board now!  (Scroll down the past few weeks of posts if you don't know what this is all about...)  Today I'm placing Glass Bead number 8 out of 10, and it's in the lower-left spot.  See that stylized lower-case "n" with a German umlaut over it down there?

That's right, it's Spinal Tap!  The classic mocku-rocku-documentary film from 1984, written and directed by Meathead himself.  My symbolic image above points out their subtle joke of the "heavy metal umlaut" being added willy-nilly to letters where it doesn't belong (see, e.g., Mötley Crüe, Blue Öyster Cult, and so on).  They of course "turned it up to 11" by applying it to a consonant.

I guess there's not much that can be said about this movie that hasn't already been said.  It continues to make me laugh whenever I see it, and I'm always discovering new little jokes here and there.  This, I think, provides justification for a link to my blue-in-the-face "laugh lines" bead to its lower-right.  The link to Aerosmith's "Dream On" at the bottom is also pretty clear... David, Nigel, and Derek were no strangers to the over-earnest (maybe a tad over-wrought?) lyrics and guitar licks on display from Steven, Joe, and friends.

The link to Aleister Crowley's central word "rejoice!" from his occult masterpiece is less of a slam dunk, but Spinal Tap did enjoy exploring the mystical side of British history...
Stonehenge... where the demons dwell.
Where the banshees live and they do live well.
Stonehenge... where a man is a man,
And the children dance to the pipes of Pan!
Not too far in theme from some of Crowley's poetic excesses, I think:
Thrill with lissome lust of the light,
O man! My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan! Come over the sea
From Sicily and from Arcady!
The final link is with Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the central spot.  I don't think Beethoven himself was name-checked in the movie, but Nigel Tufnel was once seen composing a classically inspired piano piece, inspired by "Mach" (mash-up of Mozart and Bach?).  Of course, he then let on that the title of his composition was "Lick My Love Pump," so the correspondence may not be all that perfect.  :-)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Ode to Joy Game: Moves 6 and 7

All righty then, back to the eternal Game.  (I won't keep linking the posts containing earlier moves, but at the end I'll put up a list of links to the whole thing somewhere up top... maybe I'll change the name of the "Free RPG Adventures" banner to something more like "Free Games 4 U" and categorize this as such.)  :-)

Today I'm picking up the pace and adding two new beads to the network.  They're both on the third row down (or the row right above the central golden thematic bead of Beethoven's Ninth):

On the right, in the 2:00 position up from the middle, I'm taking the Armchair Squid's advice and placing The Olympic Spirit.  I've superposed the 5 rings, which were crafted by the Baron Pierre de Coubertin at the beginning of the modern Olympic era, with the divine eternal flame that links back to the ancient Greek Olympic games.  All this symbolism -- as well as the lofty ideals behind the symbols -- makes the Olympic games much more special to me.

(Despite being a life-long fan of the winter games, this time around I didn't get into the spirit too much... I ended up not really watching any of it on TV.  I was inspired by some of the stories, but I was both incredibly busy with the ramp-up to a stressful job interview last week, and also quite put off by ol' Pooty-Poot.)

On the left, in the 10:00 position from the middle, and directly below the Queen of the Night, I place a quote from my favorite quasi-religious piece of "channeled" automatic writing.  In Chapter 2, verse 44 of Aleister Crowley's Book of the Law, is the text:
"Aye! feast! rejoice! there is no dread hereafter. There is the dissolution, and eternal ecstasy in the kisses of Nu."
On the surface, this verse seems to be talking about moving beyond traditional religious ideas of the afterlife, and embracing a more pantheistic idea that when one dies, one is dissolved back into the web of atoms and molecules that moves on to create new life.

Specifically, I've centered the image of my bead on the word "rejoice!" in the original 1904 manuscript.  Why?  Well, if you obey the discarnate speaker (who may have been a spirit called "Aiwass," or a piece of Crowley's subconscious mind, or maybe a person hiding behind a curtain in his incense-filled hotel room in Cairo), you will have taken the 65 pages of the original manuscript for this book and arranged them into a grid...
"Paste the sheets from right to left and from top to bottom: then behold!"
If you do that and make a 13x5 grid, or a 5x13 grid, the exclamation point terminating the word "rejoice!" is right at the center of the whole thing.  Joy.  At the center.

You can now see how this links to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  :-)

Other links:  "rejoice" links up to the Queen of the Night, since the verse I quoted above talks about her directly.  "Nu," in Crowley's book, is in fact a name of the Queen of the Stars that personifies the infinite play of matter and energy in the universe.  It links to the Olympic spirit in the obvious sense of individual athletes rejoicing with victory in the games... and also the lesser (or comparable?) joy of just getting to compete at this elite "starry" level.

The Olympic spirit links to Beethoven's Ode to Joy for a similar reason as I outlined above, but also because the OtJ has been used more recently as an anthem of international cooperation -- a key goal of the modern games.  The link to the Japanese Daiku below recalls the globe-spanning choral performance at the opening of the 1988 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, which Squid pointed out was quite sublime.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Remembrance of Toys Past

Maybe it's time for a break in the high-falutin' Glass Bead Game that I've been building.  It's been a while since I've done a fun picture post.  I've also been puttering around airports and hotels with free wi-fi for a few days now, so what's better to pass the time?  :-)

A few days ago, I was distracted by some unexpected search-engine hits that brought me back to the 1970s... the land of my childhood.  There are some games and toys from that period that everyone seems to remember, but there are some (that were special to me) that just don't seem to show up on the "I Love the Seventies" TV specials.  Here, they find a home.

The above was standard issue for the nerdy kid growing up in the post-Watergate, Trek-rerun era.  I'm pretty sure the mini-sized phaser, tricorder, and communicator didn't come pre-assembled, and there was airplane glue involved.  (Contrary to the cliche, I thought that stuff smelled horrible... no apocryphal buzz could make up for it!)

I'm sure you've heard of the 8-track tape machine, but did you know that some of them came with a snarky AI that insulted you if you answered one of its questions incorrectly?  2-XL was billed as a robot that quizzed you and was responsive to your answers.  Actually, there were 4 parallel audio tracks that you switched between by pressing the buttons.  I remember letting them all play through, on each track, just to hear all the funny quips.  Gotta get ones' money's worth, even if means slogging through lots of "Oh, you chose the wrong answer" responses!

Another entry in the "ooh, it's robotic" craze of the late 70s, Big Trak actually let you program in a series of motions, turns, sounds, and light flashes.  The trick was getting it to go from one room to another, without bumping into walls, to pester other family members with its boops and pew-pew's.

I didn't ever own the game Dark Tower, but many of my friends had it.  This was a surprisingly sophisticated combination of a board game and video (ish) game.  It's display was only red LED lights and a rotating screen with little painted images on it (see above), but it kept track of lots of things that made each game a very different experience.  Play it online if you dare!  Most people assume it piggy-backed off the popularity of D&D in the late 1970s, but I think it owes a much more specific thematic debt to Ray Harryhausen's movie epics -- Sinbad, Jason & the Argonauts, and so on.  It's just got that feel.

Well, here's one that lots of people probably remember.  Merlin was a handheld computery device that let you play games, test your memory, and create short programs of musical notes.  (A few posts ago, I mentioned that its list of suggested tunes included my first exposure to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony!)

Micronauts was a franchise in search of a story.  At the time, though, we didn't care about who they were or what their motivations were, we just thought their translucent robotic parts and spaceships were super cool.  Marvel Comics later created a story around them -- they were put into a tiny subatomic world that (somehow) sometimes interacted with our own -- but it was nowhere near as awesome as what we dreamed up.

I'm not sure if the French card game Mille Bornes was a 70s fad or not, but cards of the above trippy vintage happened to be around when I was a kid, and I was fascinated by their colorful iconography.  I don't think I ever played the game as it was supposed to be played.

I remember almost nothing about the rules of Pokeno, but I remember playing it -- along with Yahtzee and, of all things, the Mad Magazine Game -- with my Mary Poppins-esque grandmother back in the day.

Oh, Battlestar Galactica.  Yes, I know you were a cheesy rip-off of Star Wars, dressed up in creator Glen Larson's murky view of some strange Mormon traditions, and marketed to kids my age until the proverbial cows came home.  But you were mine.  Especially after sending away for, and receiving, this cardboard Colonial Viper cockpit simulator.  That silly thing was truly the gateway to the stars for me.  A few years ago, I found it, mildewy and decaying, in my parents' basement.  In the state it was in, it was right to throw it away, but I did my best to photo-document the heck out of it before that...

Is it silly to be focused on nostalgia like this?  In moderation, I don't think so.  The D&D blogosphere deals a lot with the products and experiences of the past, but I think they tend to keep one foot looking forward, too.  Anyway, I hope this little trip down memory lane was fun for you!