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Oblique Strategies (wikipedia.org)
203 points by tomasreimers on Sept 14, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

A couple years ago, I reformatted these for use with the unix "fortune" utility, in case you need oblique strategies on the command line. (I sure do.) https://github.com/threemachines/obliqueMOTD

Nice. I used to run a mailing list that would just send one every day.

I really liked this version "Oblique Strategies: Prompts for Programmers" especially for when you're stuck on something.


Its a really cool idea and I think its helpful. However, I've unfortunately realized that I don't really need that kind of creativity in anything I do. I need insight and understanding, I need to actually do the things I want to do, and I need to research solutions, but very rarely do I actually need to be creative in the sense of coming up with completely new ideas to get past a creative block. It was kind of a sad realization.

Yes. Sadly, the kind of help one needs in creative fields is rarely the kind of help one needs in analytic fields.

I've done a lot of programming, and also quite a bit of acting.

The types of thinking "oblique strategies" suggest can be amazing for figuring out a new different way to act a scene -- an absolute goldmine. But they're of absolutely zero use in programming.

Similarly, the kind of logical and analytical thinking that helps in programming... seems to be purely harmful in acting.

It actually took me quite a long time to realize how fundamentally different the kind of thinking needed for creative vs. analytical tasks is. At least for me, there is almost zero useful transference. If anything, being good at one interferes with the other, until you learn to keep the skills separate.

In technical spaces, creative work seems to largely consist of combining ideas and seeing if the combination already exists and/or if it's likely to work in real life.

In my experience, the few times I've the most creative ideas, I had them in the bathroom -- and usually after I've been turning over ideas (writing and rewriting in Google Docs) for days. (Writing helped with converging -- it's not as useful for diverging. Talking to others usually helps for the latter but it's hit or miss.)

Oblique Strategies cards sound like they would be useful for certain artistic domains. When I was taking creative writing and storytelling classes, I had a lot of trouble generating story ideas. I used similar randomizer aids (as writing prompts) to see latent possibilities.

There are similar tools for generating startup ideas but I wonder if anyone's ever executed on any of these:


Would refactorings [0], e.g. 'Extract Method', 'Replace Primitive with Object', ... , be an appropriate analog for programming?

[0] https://refactoring.com/catalog/

Here’s some photos of my personal deck, which I have owned for 10 years. https://imgur.com/a/vTNsN5b

I have my own deck too. I really enjoy displaying a new card every week on my desk. My friend and I even devised a little ritual when we draw cards. All hail the god of ambient, Brian Eno.

A Twitter bot that generates new ones using GPT-2:


Coincidentally I just revived and tweaked it a bit yesterday, results should be a better from here on. Tweets more or less daily.

That's so fitting!

Brian Eno and Will Wright discussed generative systems at a Long Now Foundation seminar in 2006:


Brian Eno and Danny Hillis discussed "The Long Now, Now" at a Long Now Foundation seminar in 2010:


Brian Eno, Steward Brand, and Alexander Rose discuss "Long Finance" at a Long Now Foundation seminar in 2010:


If this is your first introduction to Brian Eno, do yourself a favor and look into his discography. David Bowie’s “Low” is one of my favorite albums of all time (a collaboration with Eno and Tony Visconti. Side point: Visconti created one of the most interesting snare drum sounds of all time on that album.) His solo albums — “Another Green World”, etc — are also amazing.

Brian Eno manages to sneak up on lots of my favorite albums. As you said Bowie's "Low", but also David Byrne's "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today", and even the game Spore's soundtrack!

His "Music for Airports" is beautifully serene.

Seconded, my personal favourite. I remember when I first discovered it and even the idea and concept blew me away.

Create your own with the Brian Eno Bloom app too :)

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGwrUGu1V1k

I've enjoyed Innovative Whackpack and the series [0]. While I can't say it has given me any "breakthroughs", it is a fun exercise to do when you are otherwise stressed out :)

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Innovative-Whack-Pack-Roger-Oech/dp/1...

I do wonder to what degree these methods promote creativity just by breaking you out of your normal thought cycles (which may be stuck in a nonproductive spinloop)

Does anyone know of anything similar that's public domain? I'm a little surprised that they're included in gnu/linix utilities as they're copyright Eno and Schmidt.

The default is, of course, Tarot card readings which has a nicely formatted text and some analysis in the dariusk/corpora repo [1]. It'd be nice to have something similar so others can play around with it without fear of copyright infringement.

[1] https://github.com/dariusk/corpora/blob/master/data/divinati...

Years ago I made an android/react-native tarot app that uses this source.

It picks a card based on the recorded time on-press-up as well as the current accelerometer reading.

Demo: https://imgur.com/gallery/1UTO0Fe

I've used it for many bugs while programming. I find that the little bit of insight/encouragement goes a long way.

I always liked the scene featuring Oblique Strategies in Richard Linklater's Slacker:


I’m a big fan of Oblique Strategies, perhaps too big a fan, and I have what is perhaps the most rare edition of them all: the special edition Peter Norton (of Norton Utilities fame) had made as a gift for his friends in 1996. It was never available for purchase but I managed to find one on eBay a few years ago.

It has a very unique case made out of Dupont Corion, a material I’ve never seen anywhere else in my life. It feels and looks like white marble but is actually a form of plastic. Some of the cards have been redesigned in collaboration with Peter Norton and Brian Eno, and there’s a unique intro card too.

Details on the Peter Norton special edition: http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/Edition4.html

Took some pics just now:

Case: https://i.imgur.com/7xJcUPP.jpg

Special Peter Norton card here: https://i.imgur.com/6vtjdGe.jpg

Full gallery here: https://imgur.com/gallery/qhEQLTo

You may mean Corian[1], which is a countertop surface[2]

1: https://www.corian.com/ 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corian

It's definitely nice to have the actual cards, though they're quite expensive.

But you can get a feel for the idea online, eg https://www.joshharrison.net/oblique-strategies/

This site used to have some really funky color combinations that were inspiring all on their won, but unfortunately it's a little bland now.

I had a hard time buying the cards at first. I think this was due to the fact that creativity is hard to put a value on. I ended up buying two packs (I gave one as a gift), and I can honestly say that I have used them hundreds of times. I think the price of the pack actually forces you to get your money's worth out of it. Being creative in your life is one of the best investments you can make.

Just curious: can you recount a time when a card has broken you out of an idea deadlock in a real life situation?

I can definitely see how this could work (I've used writing prompts in the past and they've helped). Just wondered if there were examples outside of the writing world.

> Being creative in your life is one of the best investments you can make.

True, creativity is hard to learn or teach, but it is something you can prepare yourself for and train.

The Omnibus podcast had a great episode about it: https://www.omnibusproject.com/194

Several years ago I gave myself this rule: Whenever you have to stop because of a red traffic light, you must switch your thoughts and think exactly the opposite of what you were thinking when you were about to cross the street.

What's your result with this idea?

I believe it calms me down a bit. I'm often quite incensed about things. Trying to think the opposite allows me to see things from another, or somebody else's viewpoint.

Also, I might get incensed by just the fact that I have to wait for traffic-lights to change! So having a mental task to perform at that time seems to help. It feels more like an opportunity then than obstacle.

I don't do it much these days but now that I read about Eno's oblique strategies maybe I'll give this some more attention :-)

Hah, interesting. I'll try this, if I remember, but I don't think I have that kind of temperament that you have.

Along these lines I really like Jesse Schell's Deck of Lenses. In some ways they are much more useful than the original book.


They're a bit more concrete than Oblique Strategies which makes them a bit more useful as a tool rather than just a prompt or something to think on.

Interestingly, Eno composed the startup sound for Win95: http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2015/08/24/the-coolest-fea...

Even more interesting is that Robert Fripp (a frequent Eno collaborator) composed the startup sound for Windows Vista: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-LYZt2jisE

...and the emacs edition. https://github.com/zzkt/oblique-strategies

I have the box of these received as a gift sitting on my desk!

My oblique strategies deck is my most prized desk doodad. I don’t reach for it often but I never regret when I do.

Slightly off topic: Phoenix used these strategies for their Grammy-winning album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”. Also, MGMT mentions “ The wisdom of oblique stratagems“ (a play on word) in their aptly-named song “Brian Eno”.

For a long time I’ve thought of creating my own version of the deck. I’ve heard it can be used punctually to get out of a dead end, or from the very start through the whole creative process.

A similarly awesome--and much, much less expensive--deck of cards focused on writing by the screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie):


(Years before they made this, I was briefly acquainted with one of the creators not named John August.)

Was not aware of these before. It reminds me of a more functional version of Jenny Holzer's "Truisms." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truisms_(Jenny_Holzer)

Where Holzer's statements can be used to explain, Eno's are to resolve.

I made an animation last year using text from the cards:


It was mainly an experiment to see how changing character spacing could create different forms, and then loosely relating those forms back to the prompts.

Brian Eno’s Twitter account posts one of these strategy cards every day:


I'll delete this post if my home server can't handle it, but I created a personal software design version of this ages back. Click/touch to deal a new answer.


Somewhat relevant:


A tool for Creativity born in the Polytechnic University of Milan. A synthesis of Design, Tarot and Gestalt Psychology.

I did see the original cards once, that was pretty cool. :)

I have an original deck which was given to me in 1984 by a close friend, a recording engineer who had worked with Brian Eno. He'd had tgem for seversl years before he gave them yo me. I should probably figure out what box in which I have them stored away.

I’d be nice to see a picture of an original deck, especially from Brian Eno. Also, I believe the list of messages has changed over the years so it’s be interesting to see which list you have.

If I ever find them, I will photograph them. I do know that I made the mistake of writing my name on the exterior of the box in metallic gold Sharpie—an idiotic thing to do and that I immediately regretted.

I have a deck (pics: [1][2]), not original - probably from around 2001-2002, but they are :)

There's a twitter bot that randomly posts the cards [3], which is cool too

[1] https://tinyurl.com/yy76phgw

[2] https://tinyurl.com/y4xfu57b

[3] https://twitter.com/ObliqueBot

Oblique Strategies is the "Mother of all Content Blog Topics"

I feel I'm missing a reference - how do you mean?

Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a structure)

Looks like there are a few decks available on eBay

Semi off-topic, but I've always wondered if Autechre's Tri Repetae album was named after one of the oblique strategies. The title translates to "Try Repeating", I believe.

Tri Repetae is Latin for "three repeats".

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