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The History (and FlimFlam) of Tarot

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Even for those of us with no use for fortune-telling, there’s something different about Tarot cards. Those peculiar pictures. That association with ancient, mystical knowledge. The way in which the fortune-telling unfolds. But rejoice! Everything you think you know about Tarot is, basically, nonsense. 

Aren’t the cards thousands of years old?

Not at all. The best serious history of the deck, by English philosopher, logician, and playing-card buff Michael Dummett, established that the cards originated in Italy in the early 1400s.

But I thought they were invented by ancient Egyptians!

No evidence of that exists. We have the Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin to thank for that particular connection. After seeing the cards in the 1770s—about 350 years after the deck was created, mind—he had the blinding revelation that they came from ancient Egypt.

Court de Gébelin wrote about Tarot’s fabulized past in his nine-volume epic, “Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne” (“The Primitive World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”). The year was 1781, and nothing would ever be the same for Tarot again. 

But tarot cards were still meant to tell fortunes, right?

Nope. The 78-card deck was actually used for playing trick-taking games, along the general lines of Spades or Bridge. A popular variant, French Tarot, is still played widely, especially in (as one might expect) France.

But what about the cards’ subject matter? The Hermit, the hanged man, the star—what do they all mean?

Tarot devotees have tried to insert meaning into the deck by focusing on the 21 Tarot trump cards. (The deck also has 56 cards that roughly correspond to regular playing cards). Those trumps, which became known as the “Major Arcana” and include all your foreboding favorites, are meant to have some sort of great significance.

Dummett pummeled that theory into the ground. In his view—and it’s hard to see otherwise—the subjects chosen were simply ones familiar to Italians of the 1400s, and ones that looked the most different from card to card. There could have been deeper meanings, he admitted, but it was more likely the cards simply reflected common religious and moral allegories of the day.

So when did people start using them for fortune-telling, then?

Four years after Court de Gébelin’s nonsensical essay, a mystic named Etteilla (born Jean-Baptiste Alliette) basically founded Tarot as we know it today. He wrote the first book instructing would-be readers on how to interpret the cards. He also published the first deck of Tarot cards designed for fortune-telling. And he started doing it himself professionally.

Etteilla’s interpretations have been surprisingly resilient, given that he was the first Tarot reader to introduce elements of Astrology and the Elements in his interpretations. Several of his ideas survive in contemporary Tarot lore. 

What about that creepy artwork? It must go way back though, right?

You’re probably thinking of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which isn’t that old. Created by mystic A.E. Waite and artist Pamela Coleman Smith (Rider was the publisher), the deck was first published in 1909, and has become the standard divinatory deck. It has even shown up as back projections in a recent Madonna tour!

The deck also marked an important milestone. Tarot includes a whole batch of simple numbered cards (again, like our standard deck of playing cards). Smith helpfully created—out of whole cloth—whimsical illustrations for each of the numbered cards. Suddenly the entire deck was full of evocative imagery. How lucky for those fortune tellers!

This all sounds like something secret societies were involved in.

How right you are, questioner who is definitely not me! Virtually everyone involved in the great Tarot self-delusion was a member of some occult or secret society. Court de Gébelin was a Freemason. Waite and Smith were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

And fellow Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley—a famed mystic also called “the wickedest man in the world”—helped create another famed deck of Tarot cards in 1943. Called the Thoth deck, its elaborate, near-psychedelic cards were created in collaboration with artist Frieda Harris. 

Can you tell me my fortune?

Time’s up for now, I’m afraid.

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"American Mall," Bloomberg
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Unwinnable Video Game Challenges You to Keep a Shopping Mall in Business
"American Mall," Bloomberg
"American Mall," Bloomberg

Shopping malls, once the cultural hub of every suburb in America, have become a punchline in the e-commerce era. There are plenty of malls around today, but they tend to be money pits, considering the hundreds of "dead malls" haunting the landscape. Just how hard is it to keep a mall afloat in the current economy? American Mall, a new video game from Bloomberg, attempts to give an answer.

After choosing which tycoon character you want as your stand-in, you're thrown into a mall—rendered in 1980s-style graphics—already struggling to stay in business. The building is filled with rats and garbage you have to clean up if you want to keep shoppers happy. Every few seconds you're contacted by another store owner begging you to lower their rent, and you must either take the loss or risk them packing up for good. When stores are vacated, it's your job to fill them, but it turns out there aren't too many businesses interested in setting up shop in a dying mall.

You can try gimmicks like food trucks and indoor playgrounds to keep customers interested, but in the end your mall will bleed too much money to support itself. You can try playing the bleak game for yourself here—maybe it will put some of the retail casualties of the last decade into perspective.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Why the Soundtracks to Games Like 'Mario' or 'The Sims' Can Help You Work
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When I sat down to write this article, I was feeling a little distracted. My desk salad was calling me. I had new emails in my inbox to read. I had three different articles on my to-do list, and I couldn't decide which to start first. And then, I jumped over to Spotify and hit play on the theme to The Sims. As I listened to the upbeat, fast-paced, wordless music, my writing became faster and more fluid. I felt more “in the zone,” so to speak, than I had all morning. There's a perfectly good explanation: Video games provide the ideal productivity soundtrack. At Popular Science, Sara Chodosh explains why video game music can get you motivated and keep you focused while you work, especially if you're doing relatively menial tasks. It's baked into their composition.

There are several reasons to choose video game music over your favorite pop album. For one, they tend not to have lyrics. A 2012 study of more than 100 people found that playing background music with lyrics tended to distract participants while studying. The research suggested that lyric-less music would be more conducive to attention and performance in the workplace. Another study conducted in open-plan offices in Finland found that people were better at proofreading if there was some kind of continuous, speechless noise going on in the background. Video game music would fit that bill.

Plus, video game music is specifically made not to distract from the task at hand. The songs are meant to be listened to over and over again, fading into the background as you navigate Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom or help Link save Zelda. My friend Josie Brechner, a composer who has scored the music for video games like the recently released Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, says that game music is definitely written with this in mind.

"Basically, successful video game music straddles the balance between being engaging and exciting, but also not wanting to make you tear your ears off after the 10th or 100th listen," Brechner says. Game music often has a lot of repetition, along with variation on musical themes, to keep the player engaged but still focused on what they're playing, "and that translates well to doing other work that requires focus and concentration."

If you're a particularly high-strung worker, you might want to tune into some relaxing classical music or turn on a song specifically designed to calm you. But if you want to finish those expense reports on a Monday morning, you're better off choosing a fast-tempo ditty designed for seemingly pointless activities like making your Sims eat and go to the toilet regularly. (It can help you with more exciting work responsibilities, too: Other research has found that moderate background noise can increase performance on creative tasks.)

These types of songs work so well that there are entire playlists online devoted just to songs from video game soundtracks that work well for studying. One, for instance, includes songs written for The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Super Smash Bros., and other popular games.

The effect of certain theme songs on your productivity may, however, depend on your particular preferences. A 2010 study of elementary school students found that while calming music could improve performance on math and memory tests, music perceived as aggressive or unpleasant distracted them. I was distracted by the deep-voiced chanting of the "Dragonborn Theme" from Skyrim, but felt charged up by the theme from Street Fighter II. There's plenty of variety in video game scores—after all, a battle scene doesn't call for the same type of music as a puzzle game. Not all of them are going to work for you, but by their nature, you probably don't need a lot of variation in your work music if you're using video game soundtracks. If you can play a game for days on end, you can surely listen to the same game soundtrack over and over again.

[h/t Popular Science]

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