TECHNOFILE: DIVINE MARBLES

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The Independent Culture
In Hermann Hesse's novel Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game, the players belonged to a monastic order, 400 years hence, in the post- apocalyptic realm of Castalia. Even a generation ago, when Hesse was nearly as big as Dylan, the concept proved too high for most of the novelist's admirers. Now that so many different flavours of Romanticism are on offer, the public gets its Central European Catholic spirituality from the composer Grecki rather than Hesse. He has found a niche in the Net, however, thanks to a band of enthusiasts who are intrigued by the possibility of realising the Glass Bead Game in hypermedia.

According to one of these pioneers, Gail Sullivan, "the essence of a Glass Bead Game would include a system that showed interrela- tionships between artifacts across various disciplines for the purpose of showing universality." In short, it is a game of associations. Anything can be associated with anything; a word with an image, a cat with a fiddle, a symphony with a law of physics. Charles Cameron, whose site contains probably the greatest concentration of Glass Bead Game theory and practice on the Web, gives the example of a link between Eliot's verse "The dove descending", from "Little Gidding" in Four Quartets, and Vaughan Williams' composition The Lark Ascending. The Web, where every form of information is turned into digits and joined by links, seems a natural habitat for such an activity.

It's a tolerant pastime, in that it can stretch from bandying trivia to the contemplation of the transcendent. The Game is what the players make of it. Illustrating what can be done with a simple "move" such as "a pail of water", Charles Cameron devises a tale about how the bucket was one of a group from a railway station, representing the four elements: another contained sand, representing earth, another was empty, and therefore contained air; on the outside of each was written the word "fire".

Perhaps the subtlest digital Glasperlenspielmeister is Terence MacNamee, whose interest in medieval liturgical drama has inspired him to make "solemn" games in the spirit of Hesse's Ludus Sollemnis, which is performed as a type of liturgy. MacNamee's Web work is distinguished by its composure, its scholarship and its lack of embellishment. He has a monk's cell of a home page; devoid of graphics and with a background in default grey, but presented in English, French, German, Irish and Latin ("pagina domestica"). He defines the aim of the Game as "meditative insight through the juxtaposition of ideas". Charles Cameron also stresses the meditative aspect of Hesse's Game, comparing it to rosary devotions.

MacNamee has the rare gift of enabling sentences to do their work in tranquillity. The formal structure he adopts for his Games, with tropes and glosses clearly labelled, is an exoskeleton for a kind of poetry. In "The Jewish Cemetery", he invokes Chagall's painting of that name, and recounts a story told by Goethe about how, in the Jewish Cemetery in Venice, the poet-naturalist's servant presented him with a ram's skull and joked that it was a Jew's. Other characters in the pageant are Hamlet and the gravedigger, Faust and Mephisto, Abraham and God.

The cycle moves on to 19th- century propositions about what lay inside skulls, from phrenology, to physical anthropology, based upon racial hierarchy, to Cesare Lombroso's epiphanic identification of criminals as primitive throwbacks: "At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal ... The subsequent moves are inevitable; to Nazi science, and thence to the Jewish cemeteries."

HTML MARY

Since 1917, Fatima has established itself as one of the world's premier BVMs, or apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a series of BVM events, three secrets were imparted to three shepherd children from the Portuguese village of Fatima. Number One was a vision of Hell; Number Two prophesied the Second World War; Number Three has been the subject of intense speculation, and accusations of a Vatican cover-up. The Fatima Network: Our Lady of Fatima Online claims to reveal the final secret, in a sequence of prevaricating texts that ought to carry a warning similar to the "may involve a long call" small print for phone chatlines.

Boiled down to bullet point length, the Third Secret concerns a crisis of faith within the Catholic Church. To help avoid this, and to further the BV's aims, which appear to revolve around the consecration of Russia to Herself, visitors are invited to click on a Perpetual Rosary. It requires faith and a Java-capable browser.

KEY STAGE ZERO

The people behind the Jump Ahead children's series know how to tweak parental Achievement Angst. "The pre-school years are the most important part of a child's educational life," warn the notes for Nursery (Knowledge Adventure, Windows/Macintosh, 3-5 years, around pounds 35), one of the most appealing titles in the range. But it's not enough for children's CD-ROMs to instil computer literacy, hone cognitive skills, and meet the demands of the National Curriculum. They have a moral and social mission too. Nursery aims to promote "sharing, healthy eating, good manners, and safety rules". All together, now: "If you learn to share / You'll have more friends / And together you'll sing / Sharing is a good thing."

TOTWARE 101

The entry-level title in the Fisher-Price Ready For Learning series, Play Family (Davidson, Windows, 18 months to 3 years, around pounds 23.50), presents animated versions of Fisher-Price toys; big, shiny and rounded, just how toddlers like them. Sensibly for all concerned - children, parents and computers - the disk doesn't insist that a child masters the mouse, but will sometimes respond to a simple thump on the keyboard. It also promises to inculcate politeness, if only towards your computer.

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