Thursday, March 28, 2013

Test Card Ω

A few weeks ago I was told, "Hey baby, you'd dig it the most" in the manner of one Vincent Vega by our esteemed Mercator Lucis and was sent a link to a blog. That blog is called Scarfolk, and I indeed did dig it the most. Since it seems virtually impossible to explain why it rings cherries with me so resonantly, I'll let the creator of the blog do it for me:
Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever.
Yeah, okay, that's all me. Let's leave aside the entry-level 70s UK Uncanny of the Test Card Girl so shamelessly exploited by Life on Mars, and let's leave aside the childhood memories of Doctor Who episodes set in deserted villages where strange things are afoot and Cold War-era military-scientific edifices loom in the background. Let's even leave aside things like The Red Riding Trilogy, in which the dark grey British 70s explode in a blossom of blood and madness, lit only by dim fluorescent bulbs in dingy police stations. And let's forget the episode of Electric Dreams I watched with my British wife that stated only half of British households at the outset of the 70s had a telephone and most did not have a freezer and which allowed me more fodder for "don't you know there's a war on still" jokes for years to come.

Let's just concentrate on the gestalt of all these things being evoked together perfectly in Scarfolk.

I'd previously written about Electric Eden, which lovingly detailed the rise of British folk-rock and juxtaposed the ancient and the modern. Conveniently for our purposes, this rise happened in the 70s, when a revival of back-to-the-land was happening in many Western nations. The pagan past rises from the misty moors. Combine this with the exquisitely clunky state of technology in the decade and throw in a little bit of trademark British irony and humor and I think that's why Scarfolk works so well. That and the amazing evocation of the era's graphic design. That may just be the mortar that holds it all together.

So go check out Scarfolk. If you agree with me that Boards of Canada should be Renfusa's soundtrack, I think you'll like it and "get" it, too.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mash Note to Magic Squares

A few years ago, I was running an RPG that shall remain nameless (nameless not because I didn't enjoy it, but nameless because I am desperately trying to maintain the increasingly thin red line that divides this blog from a gaming blog... I'll just say, *coff*sad-eyed Mexican Frankensteins*coff*) and I happened upon Dürer's Melencolia I. This post is not about Melencolia I because a single blog post could never contain even one infinitesmalith of the awesomeness of Melencolia I. No, this post is about magic squares.

You probably remember these from math class at some point; all the columns and rows add to the same number. If you were a nerdy mathlete like me, maybe you came across it in one of the many math-related books you took out of the public library as a grade schooler. But man, a magic square is more than a cool parlor trick (and yes, according to Wikipedia, there is such a thing as "recreational mathematics," good Lord). A magic square is an abjuration. It's an incantation. It's a protective amulet. It's, well, magic.

Ptak Science Books's blog (really, another must-add if you like Renfusa, go there now and devour the archives, I'm not kidding) recently did a post on magic squares with an assortment of Western and Indian magic squares; seems that magic squares have been a universal human obsession for centuries. Much like our numeral system, the magic square originated in India (and really, can you picture someone trying to squeeze Roman numerals into a magic square? It'd be more like a magic spreadsheet at that point) as well as China, and they were believed to be a true piece of protective magic. According to legend, a turtle emerged from a flooding river with a 3x3 magic square on its shell and from then onwards, people were able to use it to divert floods.

In Europe, as you might expect, a multiplicity (no pun intended) of occult uses were found for the magic square. They were used to communicate and protect against the "higher intelligences" of the superterrestrial spheres: there is a magic square for every planet, depending on how big the grid is. You can then draw sigils based on the gematria value of the angel or demon's true name using the square. Like most Renaissance magic, it feels like arbitrary rules made up by someone with a lot of time on his hands, and that does tend to pretty accurately define Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy.

There are of course non-mathematical magic magic squares to, dating back to the "SATOR Square" of ancient Rome, also an incantation, but made of letters, not numbers.

To come full circle to Dürer, his magic square not only features the year it was made (1514) but it also features hidden tributes to Dürer's age and his initials, as well as non-horizontal and vertical totals, in addition to being the solution to something called the "four queens problem," which this mathematical and chess layman is not even going to try to unpack.

So yeah. Magic squares. Still magic. And awesome.