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Playing Dice With The Universe

If God Is A Remix, You Are The DJ

by Bill Kte'pi
Jul 15,2004


Playing Dice With The Universe

If God Is A Remix, You Are The DJ

Reminders: (1) I'll be at GenCon in August; haven't decided yet if I'll run any games; (2) by the time you read this, my second game, Fierce Lullabies, will have been published, since I delayed the release so I'd have more time for playtesting. It's a D20 Modern supplement based on short stories I published in Fierce Pop Songs and Lullabies For Strange Children, about a world where everyone's dreams have come to life. Details in the Games section of my web page.

We're still in the Summer of the World of Darkness, and this time around I'm talking about Mage: the Ascension, one of the first games to really make me go wow. I'd loved Phage Press's Amber Diceless and TSR's original Manual of the Planes supplement, the two game books that came closest to hitting me the way Mage did -- but Mage (never a perfect game, and I never liked the Traditions/Technocracy conflict which took center stage, but it was otherwise all the more ambitious for its imperfections) took the cake.

I'm going to mention Daniel C. Dennett in this column, and in particular his article "Real Patterns" from vol. 88, no. 1 (Jan 1991) of The Journal of Philosophy; depending on how similar the new Mage game is to the old one, or on the likelihood of my writing about the old Mage again, I may bring Dennett back up to talk about belief systems, paradigms, consensus, and so forth.

What we're talking about below is an informal group of mages -- more like a school of thought, communicating at sporadic meetings and through email and online chats -- called The Remix, which welcomes a number of paradigms in its discussion of methodological philosophy which may imply certain beliefs or magical styles but does not require them. If the Traditions (and Conventions, perhaps) are liberal arts departments, for instance -- History, Literature, Sociology, Political Science -- then The Remix is an "ism" (like Marxism, modernism, feminism) which may attach to any of them. Or the other way around, if you'd rather associate isms with mystical paradigms than methodologies.

As I walk through the
gods before me
tell them
be fruitful & multiply.
As I walk through the valley of
my brother's keeper
I AM that I AM.

Remix: Tanakh, Stripped & Clipped, mix and clean by dumb machine.

So I saw that movie again last week, Fight Club? The whole Project Mayhem thing with replacing airline safety brochures, billboards, etc., I think there's something to that. Not the juvenile "fuck shit up" mentality they went for, but something more real, more like satori, you know, the kick in the eye? Something that, you see it, and it just bites your spine, wakes you up, and you never look at the world the same again.

It's gotta be all at once, though, because when it's just one person at a time -- well, most of them will roll over and go back to sleep with the rest.

I'm thinking, maybe what I've got here is a way to reach Ascension, you know? Like, if I could set something up, hack all the corporate web pages, all the goddamn search engines, all the broadcast advertisements, all the test patterns, all the electronic billboards. Remix them. Get down to the core of the language we're bathing in every day. Refine it. Distill it.

I'm not talking about "consumerism." That anti-consumerist rap is tired, and it's usually a way to sell self-righteousness in nice little undyed hemp bags you can reuse to cart your patchouli and henna around in. I'm talking about the deeper, more ingrained, underlying things we hide in our language, the sentiments, the codes, the messages so human we can't be aware of them except glimpses in our peripheral vision. The stuff that, man, if you saw it, your whole understanding of what it meant to be human -- what it meant for you to be human, for your friend to be human, for your enemy to be human, the responsibilities and gifts and potential, the limits -- would flip, just like that.

:: Jimmy Gamble, former Ecstatic Cultist.

The pitch

God is in the details.

But you know what? Everything's in the details. Cake? Cake's in the details: flour, sugar, eggs, shortening, leavening. Go ahead. Have a handful. Doesn't taste like cake. Doesn't taste like God. Tastes like crap.

Sometimes the details don't do you any good. Sometimes you need to mix. You need to process. You need to bake and cook and combine. Air beaten into fat by a wire whisk and the addition of the sharp crystals of granulated sugar increases the volume of the fat disproportionately to the added mass, and the addition of eggs stabilizes the mixture so it will retain that volume longer, instead of leaking it out like a dog-bit pool toy. Leavening agents like baking soda release carbon dioxide, which breaks down as the cake is baked, leaving steam and air pockets which hold the cake aloft until the proteins in the flour can set from the heat, keeping everything in its place. It's an emulsion of fat and grains designed to freeze the shape of a thousand tiny breaths at three hundred and fifty degrees.

That's a load of processing. That's a bunch of steps. There were a lot of cakes made before anyone knew what was going on to make them work, and there are still a lot of failed cakes coming out of the oven every day of the year: the process doesn't need you to be aware of it, or to understand it, for it to work; and it doesn't describe a binary condition of "cake or not-cake," but rather a broad spectrum of possible combinations of ingredients and techniques, with an irrevocably inedible burned mess at one end, and the platonic, ineffable, supreme Cake Of All Cakes at the other.

God is in the details.

The devil's in the details.

Ascension is in the details.

The Remix is about processing those details, churning their butter, breeding their mongrels. It's about mages -- Virtual Adepts, some of them, or Children of Ether, or Celestial Choristers, but a lot of Orphans are in the mix -- searching for that process, and refining the results, and lugging one floursack after another in the quest for cake.

This isn't about rotes or foci or merits or flaws: people don't join The Remix because they want new toys. They join to understand. On the one hand, they're very old school: a mage may spend her lifetime with one small scrap of text, working it and reworking it and trying to find the magic hour hidden in the infinite clock. On the other hand, their disdain for the division of mages into Traditions, and acceptance of disparate cultural products, brands them as radical in many eyes.

What you're doing right now is a kind of magic.

Reading is one of the most basic, as well as one of the most sophisticated, processes applied to "the details." If reading were simple, everyone would be able to spell: everyone would either remember that acquiesce has both an /s/ and a /c/, or they'd forget how to read it. There'd be a one-to-one relationship between reading (recreating the meaning which has gone into the text) and spelling (creating the meaning-infused text).

But that's not how it works, because reading is basic -- primal, instinctive, base -- but it isn't simple. You can read words you'll never remember how to spell. You can read words that are misspelled and still know what they mean. U cn rd txt msgs, esp if ur Britsh. You can -- speaking of the Brits -- read words spelled either the British or American way, often without noticing you're doing so (especially once you're midway through the text).

You can read words written in different fonts, and the lower-case /a/ that looks like a cane with a bubble coming out of it doesn't "sound" different in your head than the /a/ that looks like a stick cutting off a circle. Chances are pretty good that if you haven't become attuned to typography because of some specialized skill training, you don't even notice most of the time. Not because you're stupid, or because people who do notice are smarter: but because reading is in some part the process of not noticing those things.

Reading is pretty cool.

Noise, pattern, and the Dead Kennedys.

Those misspellings, those quirks, those typographical fingerprints -- along with the smudges on the page, or the glare and dust on the screen, and the world around you and the noise and hum and the chili dog that isn't sitting right and the sexual frustration you haven't burnt off since TV Land's Wonder Woman marathon and the vague niggling feeling that there's something you ought to be doing -- are all part of what Dennett, in the essay above, would call noise.

As in "that's not music, it's just noise," which is granddadspeak for "I can't discern the entertaining or relevant content in the Dead Kennedys, because all I hear is the unfamiliar, and it's drowning everything out; I'm not being close-minded, I'm not being reactionary, I literally cannot hear the music the way you hear it, because I haven't developed the ability to read 'content' [or 'signal'] for this subset of music, and anything I can't read becomes parsed as 'noise.'" Music is a particularly challenging area in that respect: both the content and the noise are the same type of data, unlike the chili dog and trouser tent mentioned above.

(Even using the Dead Kennedys as an example here dates me, I know.)

Noise is what you sift through, what you ignore, what you leave behind, but ideally, noise is what reading renders invisible.

Dennett has a good example of people reading through noise in a nontextual context, one which should ring intuitively true even for people who don't play chess:

Expert chess players can instantly perceive (and subsequently recall with high accuracy) the total board position in a real game...

Sounds right, doesn't it? It's the chess version of recognizing a song from a few hummed bars, even though more information is left out of that humming than is conveyed. You're grasping the elephant by feeling its tail -- except you're getting it right, because you're not blind in the way that matters.

However. Dennett continues:

... but they are much worse at recall if the same chess pieces are randomly placed on the board, even though to a novice both boards are equally hard to recall. This should not surprise anyone who considers that an expert speaker of English would have much less difficulty perceiving and recalling

The frightened cat struggled to get loose.


Te ser.ioghehnde t srugfcalde go tgtt ohle

which contains the same pieces, now somewhat disordered.

Expert chess players, unlike novices, not only know how to play chess; they know how to read chess -- how to see the patterns at a glance.

Okay, "pattern" is introduced now into this talk of reading and noise and signal/content. It isn't just a synonym for signal, though. Pattern is special. Pattern isn't just reading "cat." Pattern is what fills in the blank at the end of puppy:dog::kitten:____. (Intuition is what guesses whether I was going to type "kitten" or "kitty" after the double colon. Either intuition or the ability to read me.)

Dennett again:

A pattern exists in some data if there is a description of the data that is more efficient than the bit map [the raw, verbose form of the data; in Dennett's paper, he illustrates this with pictures I'm not able to reproduce, but we don't need the entirety of his discussion].

Pattern is order, at least for some useful definitions of "order." The completely chaotic, the completely random, cannot be compressed down to an expression smaller than itself: whereas pi, with an elegance that is almost showoffy, flips back and forth between an infinitely long non-repeating decimal and the simple description "the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter."

Pattern is fractal shorelines. Pattern is predictable stimulus-response behavior. Pattern is rhyme scheme and flow. Pattern is symmetry, causality, foreshadowing, emotional attachment, and other descriptions of wholes that can be grasped in glimpses. Pattern can be read, and it can be created from the text.

Akhenaten, Josiah, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, they all devoted themselves to the same principle: what can appear to be Many is in fact One. The illusory appearance of Many is a flaw not in the world but in ourselves, or in our perceptions. Underneath it all, is a One.

Even in those systems which do not embrace fully the concept of One, you see its presence: the description of an Overgod, a Fathergod, a God Beyond Gods, in faith cultures as disparate as those of the Norsemen and the Native Americans, the Maya and the Etruscans. The One is a principle to be discovered by sifting through the Many.

And so that is what I do: I remix, refine, reboot, recontextualize gods. I have soared the many worlds, and the phlogiston between them, collecting divine essences, and in the shard of an ancient world I have built my machine to distill them down as alchemists once did with the philosophical essences. As the eye finds the picture made up of many dots, so too will my soul find the One.
:: Alesha McCallister, Chorister.

Reading the world.

All of that is background, philosophy, rhetoric. What do Remix mages do?

They learn to read the world, to read God, to read through to Ascension. They learn to identify noise and render it invisible. They learn to find and make patterns, and what to do with them. Nearly any sphere can be applied to these things, although Correspondence, Matter, and Mind are the most common.

And in particular, Remixers tend to be interested in language, one of the great mysteries of the human condition: forget the dreck that comes out every week talking about Shakespearean English being spoken in the Appalachians, or 700 words for snow in Eskimo, or Chinese being harder than Italian. The real mysteries, the real intricacies and attractions, of language are things like its drift (why does language drift and change into new languages? it didn't have to be made that way -- most human traits aren't -- so what's the benefit?) and origins.

Many Remixers are fascinated with the quest for the "mother tongue," the original human language from which others developed -- or the original human languages, if it turns out that there was never a single language. Remember Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Nine Billion Names Of God"? Remixers aren't trying to end the world -- not like that -- but many of them do have a similar monomania for trying to "collect language."

Like, all of it.

Every word, every participle, every homonym, every idiom, from every language -- or, for more choosy Remixers, every language currently in use by native speakers. There's a pattern within language -- the text of the entirety of language, or rather the text beneath language, the text in which all language development including the mother tongues have been noise covering up the signal -- and Remixers want to find it, read it, and see what it says.

So too for God. They'll debate which holy texts are truly sacred, with some radicals arguing that anything anyone has ever said about the divine should count as part of the meta-text, and others confining their selections to some smaller set, such as "works directly addressing or formulating monotheism," or "works constructing, rather than reinforcing, a religious identity," or "works in the Taoist tradition."

In both cases -- and in the cases of other Remixers who deal with other meta-texts, like "stories about dragons" or "paintings of women in profile" or "songs of faith and devotion" -- a number of processes are applied to the text, sometimes with magic and sometimes only magic-assisted. The processes vary in specifics, but the key to them all is a "hands-off" approach. Burroughs' random cut-and-paste technique fits better here than a copy editor's elisions and insertions. Or those dragon stories might be broken down into tropes, themes, and other basic elements, which are then randomly scrambled by computer to form a new dragon story from old story parts. In either case, the work has to be done by a dumb machine, with no mind or soul to bias it: an ordinary computer, for instance, or a mechanical card-shuffler.

Sometimes the processed text is further treated, and here it's considered acceptable to leave "fingerprints" of a sort, so long as the touch is light. The passage that opened this column is a remix of the Old Testament, using a favored translation of those Scriptures as the source document for a word-level Markov chainer, with X words deleted from the resulting chain, where X is the lowest number of words which can be removed in order to attain virtually noiseless meaning.

Remixers are big damn geeks.

By what power
can the Son of Man
be as sly
with a kiss?
My power, my power,
given for you.

Remix: Gospels, stripped & clipped.

Bill Kte'pi

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