Wednesday, 26 October 2022

MuMufication and the People’s Pyramid

Yesterday I completed foundation training as a Death Doula (or "Soul Midwife"), somebody who helps members of their community to come to terms with and approach death in as comfortable a way as possible. As part of my training, I had to give a presentation on a particular community's practices surrounding death. Rather than tackle the practices of a traditional religion or long-established community, I chose to focus on a more contemporary issue: what happens to old ravers and punks when they die? If you too are interested in knowing the answer to the above question, or to questions such as "how does one build a pyramid out of 35,000 dead people?" or "whatever happened to that rave band The KLF?", here is my presentation: 

“MuMufication” is a process whereby 23g of a dead person’s ashes are placed inside a hole in a specially designed brick (a “Brick of Mu”) which is then fired for a second time in such a way that the person’s ashes become sealed into the brick. These bricks are then laid as part of a pyramid, “The People’s Pyramid”. This bricklaying ceremony happens once per year, on 23rd November, during “Toxteth Day of the Dead”.

The bricks themselves can be purchased during a person’s lifetime, along with a “Certificate of MuMufication”, at a cost of £99 (which includes the cost of the firing and ritual bricklaying once the person is dead), although there have been special offers allowing the very very young, the very very old, and residents of the Liverpool L8 postcode to participate for as little as 99p.

However, the brick does not need to be purchased during a person’s lifetime; if the deceased’s loved ones wish them to be MuMufied, as long as 23g of ashes are available then it can be done at any time following death. It should be added that the nature of the ritual means that the dead may also be celebrated in more traditional ways by their direct family and loved ones, for example a person could have a "normal" funeral and cremation before later being MuMufied.

This is a very new ritual: the first brick was cemented in place in 2018, and there are currently 35 bricks in the pyramid (22 of which were laid last year). The complete 23-foot high pyramid will require 34,592 bricks, which means that it will not be finished during the lifespan of anyone currently living. This is intentional. Modern life lacks both meaningful ritual and long-term thinking. MuMufication is a secular ritual, one which allows for contemplation of what it means for us to become ancestors. The MuMufied are literally laying foundations for our descendents 1,000 years in the future.

The origins of MuMufication are both serious and playful, and central to them are the artists and situationists Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond. This duo were best known as the pop group The KLF during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but have also operated under many other labels including The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMS,  the Timelords, the K Foundation and K2 Plant Hire Ltd. In order to understand where MuMufication came from, it is useful to understand something of the pair's history.

It also helps to know something about The Illuminatus Trilogy: three sci-fi novels written in the 1970s by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea which, with their storyline packed with conspiracy theories, were intended to demonstrate how ridiculous such theories were, but which ended up having the opposite effect by re-igniting interest in an obscure 18th Century sect called the Bavarian Illuminati. In the trilogy, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu were the sworn enemies of the Illuminati. The books (and Drummond & Cauty) also draw heavily upon the symbolism and ideas of Discordianism, a spoof religion which highlights some of the cognitive biases involved in mainstream religions, and which places special significance upon the number 23.

The KLF were the biggest singles band in the world in 1991. Tracks such as What Time Is Love and Last Train to Trancentral were the soundtrack to the rave movement of those years, and for their follow-up single Justified and Ancient they famously persuaded country music star Tammy Wynette to appear on a rave single, singing about a group of mysterious “ancients of Mu Mu” who roamed the land in an ice-cream van. However, The KLF are remembered far more for the way in which they left the music industry than for any of the music they left behind. At the height of their fame, they were invited to open the 1992 Brit Awards. For this, their only ever live performance, they played an unrecognisable thrash metal version of their trance hit 3AM Eternal , backed by the band Extreme Noise Terror, before firing a machine-gun full of blanks at the music-industry audience, and leaving the stage as an announcement declared that: “The KLF have left the music industry”.

The music industry, however, refused to believe that any band this successful would simply quit at the height of their success. To reinforce their message, and burn all bridges forever, the duo deleted all of their releases, meaning that their songs could no longer be purchased, or played on the radio. Then they burned the remaining £1 million that they had made from their time as a band. Hounded for doing so, they wrote a contract saying that they would not speak any more about this act for 23 years. The contract was written on a car, which was then pushed off a cliff.

The two were good to their word. The ashes of the £1 million were made into a brick (the beginning of an obsession with bricks), and for the next 23 years they each worked on assorted art projects, and had no further dealings with the music industry.

At the beginning of 2017 rumours about the band began to circulate. The 23-year contract was due to expire on 23 August, and the sudden appearance of strange posters, graffiti, and YouTube videos at the beginning of the year sparked rumours that the KLF would be reforming and releasing new music. This was never going to happen. In the event, The JAMS’ return was far stranger than most had imagined, stranger than many could imagine. The 23rd anniversary kicked off an event called “Welcome to the Dark Ages” during which 400 people each paid £100 to spend 3 days doing a series of increasingly bizarre tasks.

Welcome to the Dark Ages started fairly normally with a book-signing and a debate about why the pair had burned the £1 million (little clarity was achieved and perhaps the most illuminating answer to this question was “to get to the other side”). Things got weirder though, as the 400 were given mysterious duties to perform which included collecting shopping trolleys and traffic cones, forming a band “Badger Kull”, worshipping a statue of John Lennon, and performing pranks inside branches of Starbucks. But the culmination of the three days was an announcement that Cauty and Drummond had gone into business with undertakers Rupert Callender and Claire Phillips, and were launching a literal pyramid scheme whereby punters could pay to be baked into bricks and then piled into a pyramid. The pyramid was to be built in Toxteth, Liverpool - one of the country’s most deprived areas and a breeding ground for creativity, and somewhere with which the pair had previous ties. 

Given the nature of the event, and of so much else that Cauty and Drummond had done during their lives, it’s tempting to think that this was and is just a big joke, with anyone foolish enough to buy a brick as its butt. However the pair are not pranksters like Jeremy Beadle, they are tricksters like the god Loki: their intention is not to make fools of other people, but to point out the foolishness of the reality in which we all live, and so bring real magic into people’s lives. The playful solemnity of the People’s Pyramid was made painfully real when, the following year, it was revealed that the first brick in the pyramid was to be Jimmy Cauty’s younger brother Simon, who had tragically died in 2016 at the age of 57. Jimmy wrote a beautiful eulogy to his brother, and why this death drove him to establish the building of the pyramid.

The pyramid continues to grow, and Toxteth Day of the Dead continues to evolve. In 2020 it had to be postponed due to COVID, and in 2021, for the first time, it was held outside Liverpool (in Buxton, Derbyshire) as it was declared that “Toxteth is a state of mind”.

One of the most exciting things about this entirely new form of memorialisation is that nobody, including Cauty and Drummond, yet knows quite what it is. The form and nature of the thing evolves from year to year, as attendees who are unsure of what the “proper form” is for this death-ritual soon come to realise that this is entirely up to them. Everything is up for grabs. There are still 34,557 bricks to be added. A permanent site for the pyramid is still to be found. In the meantime, like the ark of the covenant, the foundation stone and its growing stack of bricks moves from place to place, accruing legends and souls. 

MuMufication is another example of magic in the real world.

Further details of MuMufication can be found at The MuMufication website where there is also a list of those MuMufied to date, with photographs and short biographies

There is also a Radio 4 documentary “The People’s Pyramid” available on BBC Sounds; and Paul Duane’s 2019 documentary of Welcome to the Dark Ages, “What Time Is Death?” includes some details of MuMufication. John Higgs’ excellent book “The KLF: chaos, magic, and the band that burned a million pounds” gives a detailed and enjoyable tour of the history and philosophy behind many of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s activities, as well as a novel explanation as to why the 21st Century has turned out to be such a shitshow so far.

Thank you for reading. I shall soon be publishing a book King Arthur vs. Devil Kitteh, and it would help me enormously if you could sign up on the Kickstarter page to be notified once I launch it.


Peakrill Press is currently crowdfunding for two new publications: a walking guide by the legendary Terry Howard and a comic by the equally legendary Chris Barker.

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

AI-generated soundtracks

Amidst all of the talk about the use of AI/Machine Learning to generate content for RPGs, I've only ever heard two forms of media discussed: words, and pictures. Of course, these are the things that RPG books and supplements are made up of, and so it seems obvious to talk about them. But they are not the only form of medium.

Some people set their games to music and sound-effects. Not me, and I've never been sure whether I would want to (background music is such a ubiquitous distraction nowadays, and I think that it detracts from the act of actually sitting down to appreciate good music) and, even so, I imagine it would take an awfully long time to pick out and compile a suitable soundtrack (especially if you are as fussy as me). However, there is clearly a demand for it, and some supplements I have downloaded from even come with their own soundtracks.

There is a precedent for music set to accompany perilous adventure, and it's in film and TV. It ought to be possible, although not trivial, to train an AI using scripts and soundtracks from the last hundred years of moving pictures, so that it can generate music appropriate to, say, yomping through the mountains, listening carefully at a door, tiptoeing into a darkened room, or fighting with a sodding great dragon. How this is integrated into the game presents another challenge, but it's a challenge similar to that already faced by anyone using music and sound effects to enhance their game: essentially, do you have a backing-track running throughout the whole thing, or do you press the "dragon fight" button to switch on the dragon fight music the instant the party starts to fight the dragon. Again, this problem isn't insurmountable.

So I wonder... is there anyone out there teaching computers to set roleplaying sessions to music?

By the way, I am in the process of writing a book "King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh", and if you could visit the Kickstarter page and sign up to be notified on launch, that would help me an awful lot, thanks! 

Peakrill Press is currently crowdfunding for two new publications: a walking guide by the legendary Terry Howard and a comic by the equally legendary Chris Barker.

Monday, 10 October 2022

AI writing partnerships

The topic of using AI/Machine Learning in TTRPGs just won't go away. Most recently, I see that Monsters and Manuals has declared for the Luddite side. I can certainly appreciate this position from an ethical standpoint, and from an aesthetic standpoint I can see why a person would think that computer-created content lacks soul (and I agree, given the current state of the art, though I think that a computer will learn to mimic soulful words and pictures eventually. The question here is how long "eventually" takes to arrive). 

In the meantime there is a way in which AIs can be used both ethically and soulfully, particularly in the field of writing. And that is by putting a human in collaboration with an AI. Human-to-human  collaborations like this already exist - think of the classic comedy writing duo, or the sitcom "writers' room". Even many RPGs and RPG supplements are created by teams - I'm thinking in particular of Tracy & Laura Hickman, who really shook up the D&D world when they wrote the Desert of Desolation adventure series (and went on to write Ravenloft and then Dragonlace, both of which had an even bigger impact).

So, how about a writing duo, one half of which is a computer? It's fairly easy to picture how this would work: the human writer writes some stuff, feeds it into the computer, the AI riffs on the writer's ideas and style, throwing out new ideas which the human can then either incorporate into the original text, or finesse and publish as an entirely new piece of work.

In fact, this is already happening. My friend Charlene Putney who writes scripts for computer RPGs (including games such as the Divinity series and Baldur’s Gate 3) is one of the people behind a piece of software (currently in beta-testing) called LAIKA, which is intended to do just this. Once you have trained LAIKA, it will make suggestions as you write, throwing up options you may not have thought of, and helping you to break out of writer's block. You can also use pre-trained models in LAIKA if you would like to, say, write like Dostoevsky or Dickens, although that's not something that appeals to me at all (but it might help if you were writing a Dostoevskyan or Dickensian RPG). I have had a quick play with LAIKA, but don't really have enough of my own writing on which to train it. I'm working on that though...

I just started thinking again about this collaborative approach to AI because I revisited my earlier, surprisingly popular blog post "Generating random content for RPGs using Artificial Intelligence" and was impressed at rediscovering the surreal creativity of the prompts I wrote (at the very end of the post) in order to provoke the AI to also be surreal and creative. I don't think that the AI-produced random encounters are as good as the ones which I wrote (please, allow me a moment's immodesty), but the computer also produced some gold dust: I would never in a million years have come up with the idea of a "magical amulet, which will allow the wearer to control any sand-dune within 100 miles" and which an evil wizard is using to slowly bury a village in sand. I could very easily run with just that concept alone, spinning it out into a fully fledged adventure, without any further assistance from the computer.

My project Nanodeities keeps getting kicked further and further into the future, but when I eventually get around to it (and I really do hope to do so) I shall certainly be collaborating with computers, probably in several ways including using both machine learning and procedurally-generated content (my Twitter bot @deitygalaxy currently runs procedurally). In fact, part of the conceit behind Nanodeities is that any tiny sentient entities which are already lurking inside my computer hardware and software (and I'm pretty certain such beings do exist, right?) will be gently pushing the content in whichever direction they see fit.

By the way, I am in the process of writing a book "King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh", and if you could visit the Kickstarter page and sign up to be notified on launch, that would help me an awful lot, thanks! 

Peakrill Press is currently crowdfunding for two new publications: a walking guide by the legendary Terry Howard and a comic by the equally legendary Chris Barker.

Friday, 7 October 2022

Kaverns & Kittens

Writer Mister Daniel Nathan Sumption and Illustrator Master Maximillian Benjamin Hartley present: KING ARTHUR vs. DEVIL KITTEH, a modern retelling of the medieval story of good King Arthur, and of how he killed a giant cat (how very brave of him!)

This is a genuine medieval tale, and it's about the daftest thing we've read in a long time. We're almost certain that large parts of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail were based upon it.  It was first written down (in French) before the year 1250 CE, when it appeared within "The Old French Vulgate Cycle", and was translated into English as part of what is now know as "The Prose Merlin" around 1450 CE. Since then, it's become remarkably obscure (Monty Python aside), and we feel that its time it was unearthed again. And so, we're turning it into a beautiful illustrated book.

Arthur and Merlin unite Albion
Like we said, it's the story of Arthur, Albion's legendary king, killing a whopping great cat (a kitten, even!) on the advice of his wizard Merlin. There's a lot more to it than that but, I mean, do you really need to know more. Of course it includes the Devil Kitteh Origin Story, there's also the tale of the time Arthur decided to become Roman Emperor, trust us, there's plenty for you to sink your feline teeth into.
Arthur and Merlin arrive in Europe
We want to make a book as barmy and dark as the original tale. Inspired by kids books of the 1970s, with their weird spooky vibe and folk-artish illustrations, it will be a tale for children, adults, and immortals alike. Taking inspiration from Gawain and the Green Knight, Jabberwocky, The Goodies vs. Kitten Kong, and obviously Monty Python, we'll weave a good tale that will wow the world.

Of course, for fans of tabletop roleplaying games, we will wow you with the Stats of the Cat, a playable monster with skills and weaknesses the likes of which you've never seen before. Add Devil Kitteh to your game of D&D or Into The Odd, and your players will never complain about losing a limb ever again.

Who knows, perhaps one day we will make it a movie. One that wears its sources a little bit more up-front than that Holy Grail of 70s' cinema. 

To be kept up-to-date on the progress of this project, please sign up at the Kickstarter site for the book. This does not in any way commit you to backing it or buying a copy when it launches, it's just the best way for us to let you know when it's ready to launch.

Initial concept sketches

Peakrill Press is currently crowdfunding for two new publications: a walking guide by the legendary Terry Howard and a comic by the equally legendary Chris Barker.