Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Oblique Strategies... and the Circles of Time

The first set of the "Platonic" Cyclohedra cast in 1988. (Photo: 2016, DS)
(click on photos to enlarge)

"Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. The term was coined in 1967 by Edward de Bono."

- Via the Wiki entry for lateral thinking.

"They were most famously used by Eno during the recording of David Bowie's Berlin triptych of albums (Low, "Heroes", Lodger). Stories suggest they were used during the recording of instrumentals on "Heroes" such as "Sense of Doubt" and were used more extensively on Lodger ("Fantastic Voyage", "Boys Keep Swinging", "Red Money"). They were used again on Bowie's 1995 album Outside, which Eno was involved with as a writer, producer and musician. Carlos Alomar, who worked with Eno and Bowie on all these albums, was a fan on using the cards, later saying "at the Center for Performing Arts at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where I teach, on the wall are Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. And when my students get a mental block, I immediately direct them to that wall."

- From the Wiki entry for Oblique Strategies, a card game created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975. David Bowie's personal deck (pictured above, inset, right) was found here.

Les stratégies obliques (and here)

"Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture)"

- The "oblique strategy" presented to moi when I clicked the link for the online version of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. (English only, but there is a French version on the web somewhere... at least there was... as well as a Japanese version.)

"As it happened, the subject of maps came up that day, during a game of Triakis, a game which was fairly new to the Prince, and one for which his uncle insisted he needed training. As it was, he'd just made, what he thought, was a strategic move, but when his uncle's turn came, the boy lost another avatar.

"You will never understand this game, Nathaniel," his uncle grinned, flipping the tetrahedron in the air and then catching it, "until you look at the board as if it were a map."

But, all the Prince really saw when he looked at the diamond- shaped board was a mosaic of triangles, and he said so.

"Well, yes, the board is composed of triangles, but, look closely: those triangles are really portions of hexagons, and it's by the hexagons one calculates the most advantageous moves to make," explained his uncle.

"But, that's not like real maps," Nathaniel complained, "not like the ones of Elidon Wold you have in the library." 

"Well, no," laughed his Uncle, "not like those I own, but precisely like the ancient maps that were made by the Avians."

"Avians? Do you mean, actual birds?" his nephew asked incredulously. "Birds made maps?!"

"The Avians weren't exactly birds, Nathaniel", explained his uncle, "but, like birds, they could fly. Ultimately, it was they who discovered Elidon Wold, and gave it its name. But that was in a different circle of time..."

"Do you mean, when you were a boy, Uncle?"

"Oh no," said his uncle, "I was never a boy. I was as you see me now... as I always have and always will be seen. I merely meant a circle of time in which boys like yourself were not physically located."

- Excerpt from the prologue of "The Last Chronicle of Elidon Wold,"  2013, Dia Sobin.


As you might've noticed, my usual modus operandi these days is to start a post and then leave it hanging there, unfinished... for days. I'm trying hard to break this habit, but, as of late, there seems to be a large disconnect between my impulses and ideas and my ability to translate them into hard copy. Moreover, by the time I've found the words, I've forgotten the point. The reality is, while "lateral thinking" - the sort of thinking that Brian Eno hoped to induce with his Oblique Strategy cards - might be useful for spontaneous, creative leaps of the imagination and breaking though mental blocks, etc., in the end, it doesn't, in itself, produce anything tangible. It takes a certain amount of logic - that is, linear thinking - to bring any "project," large or small, to fruition. In other words, to truly successfully hatch anything into the world, one has to effortlessly glide between the two modes of thought, the two modes of activity, utilizing each at the proper moment. And it takes a certain amount of faith in yourself to pull this off. The minute your faith falters... well, it's like with any other skill - riding a bicycle, perhaps, or ice-skating - you fail... you fall. Or, worse still, you flounder...

But, while I'm not yet back in the driver's seat, the good news is that although I'm currently down, I'm not yet out. Every now and then something in my middle eye moves me... a bit of music, a vision I'd like to recreate in two dimensions, old projects that beg to be reinvented, a catchy phrase or a good quote, which, ultimately, find their way here. It's another sort of oblique strategy... one unconsciously designed to keep the proverbial ball rolling. Of course, what would really be useful to me right now is a card game designed for lateral-thinking people... call it: Direct Strategies. I can't imagine what verbiage would illuminate this deck, but, that's just the point. "Direct" is not my forte. "Oblique", however, is something I excel at.

The game of Triakis - prototype, mixed media - Copyright 1993, Dia Sobin.

Case in point, in the early 1990's I designed a nuts and bolts strategy game - Triakis* - with just that sort of strategy in mind. Initially conceived as an entry for a Japanese design competition - I missed the deadline by one day (!) - the game eventually morphed into what is shown in the photographs (above and below). While I hadn't yet formulated any ideas about the Ancient Future, I had already discovered my attraction to "alien" artifacts, so, my goal was to create a game one might find buried inside a Martian tomb... unique, mysterious, complex... both futuristic and, yet, vaguely antiquated. It pretty much took all the skills I had to prototype it - at the time, 3-D printing was not an option - so, it became a matter of willing it into the three dimensional world. And, I'm sure all of you craftspeople, sculptors and artisans out there know just exactly how much willpower is entailed. Grappling with the mere physics of the three dimensional world is the main problem - it's as if all the forces conspire to work against you - but, when your goal involves creating gnarly forms, like the cyclodhedra, well, watch out. There's a reason this planet is so chock-full of boring, man-made, rectilinear structures; they're easier (and cheaper) to produce and reproduce. For Mother Nature, on the other hand, the opposite holds true; organic, living structures are her forte. And, so it goes. Architecture meets biology - the only way to go...

Unfortunately, timing is everything, and my timing has never been very good. In fact, the minute I finished my prototype I was asked: "Yes, but can you make a video game out of it?" ** Others simply didn't believe the game could work. I was assured that, regardless of the game's strategy, stalemates were inevitable. Which is naïve really, but, then, non-linear strategies are something few can wrap their heads around. I even played the game with a nay-saying physics teacher - my landlord at the time - who doubted my ability to design a strategy as a matter of course; I'm female. Enough said. He was quite surprised when I won the game... although he shouldn't have been... after all, who knows oblique strategies better than a woman? (Keep this in mind, girls,  keep this in mind.) ***

The Triakis game board serves two functions: it's both the playing surface, and when folded in half becomes a case for the playing pieces. Shown here as a case, it sits inside the one piece triangular box which contains it.

That being said, and the game of life being what it is, I was forced to place the project aside for a period of ten years, after which time, well, I just figured the time for Triakis was pretty much not going to happen. Apart from chess, does anyone even play strategy games anymore? It almost seemed as if I'd have to invent a world for Triakis as opposed to inventing Triakis for the world.

Recently, however, I realized that I had already invented a world for Triakis: Elidon Wold; a world I first introduced in this post, and a world with a foothold in the Ancient Future. Which is not to say I'm writing a novel about a game, like Jumanji, for instance. No, the plot for Elidon Wold has already been configured; the game is incidental. On the other hand, one never knows how things will actually turn out in a work of fiction... not even the author! My characters continue to surprise me. When Nathaniel (aka, the Prince of Shadows) is informed by his uncle (aka, the King of Shadows) about "the circles of time" I was as surprised as Nathaniel. Are we talking metaphors or some actual manifestation of spacetime? I don't know; I like it though....  an element of circular spacetime - specifically, intercepting circles of spacetime - is a fascinating proposition.

And, so we come to the end of this blog post; and, if you're wondering why it's here to begin with, well, chances are, you've come to the wrong place... we don't do "linear" here. ;-)


* Apart from being a genus of shark (!), the word triakis is a mathematical term, more or less referring to an extruded plane. In the case of the game, the playing pieces sitting on the board's surface create a "triakis" effect. That is, each triangular segment of the board displays a pyramidal shape, as in the case of a triakis octahedron.

** I imagine any game can be realized virtually. In fact, in the case of Triakis, it may make the strategy easier to understand... it just wouldn't look as cool sitting on your coffee-table.

*** To be fair, he was more surprised that the game worked at all, as opposed to the fact that I won it. On the other hand, I won because I was already familiar with the strategy. In the case of 2 players with the same level of skill, I couldn't say what would be the result; it would need more testing.

Note: It occurs to me that many of the elements of this post were discussed previously by another blogger - and dear friend to Trans-D - over at Histories of Things To Come, specifically in a post about lateral thinking (previously mentioned here). Incidentally, while you're over at HOTTC, check out Time and Politics 21: Visits from the Dark-Haired Girl... all about the science fiction author, Phillip K. Dick, visits from his dead sister, and... spacetime!


  1. Well...I think the game pieces are cool.

    Be Oblique....come at it from an unexpected angle -- the world is unsuspecting!

    Thank you for a wonderful thought-provoking post.

    1. You're welcome, BG, I'm glad you liked it. I don't know that being "oblique" always works to one's advantage... but, as for "the world is unsuspecting," well, I like that! :-)

      What's coolest about the game pieces is the way they're moved... they're never lifted off the board, but, rather, tipped into place.

    2. That is cool....so the pieces simply flip and tip into place as one moves.....a transition of planes....

    3. Yes, and each of the planes (faces) has a specific value or capability... so you might say that the strategy involves calculating your own transitions against those of your opponent.

      Like I said, it's a different sort of strategy... not terribly difficult once you get the hang of it. But, as the Shadow King advised, one is guided by the hexagons. ;-)

  2. I can see the possibilities in the play of this -- somewhat akin to chess or Go, each move changes the dynamics of the play.

    1. Mmmm... not really akin to any game I know of. Each playing piece (avatar) is identical and each has four powers. There are also several degrees of victory, the highest of which is rarely attained. The game shown is actually the beginners version. And, no, I'm not giving anything else away! ;-)

  3. I think these are amazing! I at first thought it was a real game and looked for it on amazon, LOL. It's so fantastic.

    1. Thanks so much! Sounds like a plan... maybe I should start trying to visualize it on Amazon. :-)