On insights gained from Sembl-style thinking

A glimpse of Sembl thinking: womb to tomb

Consider the rhyme of




It has the delicious property that these two words describe, if you will, the two chambers from which we enter this life and through which we leave it. Not only do the two words rhyme on the ear, in other words, they can also be said to rhyme in meaning.

Meditation: if you were wearing headphones, and these two words were spoken, what would the stereophony of their meanings be?

Exploring and explaining Sembl: the basic move

The essence of Sembl thinking is that you see resemblances — similarities, analogies, symmetries, echoes, metaphors, connections, kinships, links — between things, between ideas, between people.

And you play them as moves in the game — you notate them, you score them.

That’s the basis of the iPad or web-based Sembl game, it’s the basis of the HipBone family of games that preceded Sembl and were its jumping-off point – and it’s the basis for the whole style of thinking we call Sembl thinking.


So the simplest move you can play in a Sembl game with yourself would be one in which you juxtapose two objects or ideas that resemble one another in interesting ways. For my own pleasure, I’ve been playing mini-games of this sort for years now, and recently I’ve been using what I call the HipBone SPECS format to do it:

The idea here is to drop two quotes, or images, or whatever, into the two spaces, to see what their kinships and differences are. And the more interesting the initial two items you use are, and the greater the conceptual or imaginative distance between them, the more interesting the result will be.

Here are some examples, which will give you an idea (a) of what Sembl thinking is like, and (b) of how to use the SPECS format for games of your own. You’ll see that in each case I have a sort of mini-graphic joining the two images or texts. This will usually be the picture of a pair of eyes or something of the sort – as a little decorative device to show that the two items are to be seen with, so to speak, “binocular vision”.

This first example finds an interesting similarity between the mechanics of flow in liquids, as studied by the great physicist Von Karman…

and Vincent Van Gogh’s visionary sense of the night sky…

There’s really no limit on the resemblances you can explore and find:

This one explores the difference between linear thinking and a dilemma – and if you’ve ever had a train of thought, you’ve probably come across both situations…

Are you a science buff?

The upper image here represents the winds over much of the United States, while the lower one records ocean currents in the Atlantic…

Is current affairs your interest?

I was already playing two-quote games when the Iraq war started, and there’s a pair of quotes from back then is still a favorite of mine:

In March 1917, the incoming British General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude told the inhabitants of Baghdad:

Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.

And almost a hundred years later, in April 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed US troops, also in Baghdad, telling them:

And unlike many armies in the world, you came not to coquer, not to occupy, but to liberate, and the Iraqi people know this.

I think that “doublequote” pretty neatly illustrates George Santayana’s frequently repeated remark, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”


To go back in time and see some of the earliest Sembl-style thought diagrams, including one that illustrates where ideas come from and where they mix and match, go to the next post in this series, Medieval and Renaissance Sembl games…

Sembl thinking applied: Of mountains and rivers

An essay woven of Sembl thinking: Gary Snyder, Han Shan, Dogen, Thoreau, Smokey & MIT…

Gary Snyder is the fellow in the upper panel with the mountains behind him. Han Shan — whose name means Cold Mountain, which was also the name of the place he lived — is the fellow showing a poem to his friend in the lower panel. Dogen Zenji is the fellow who gave us the Mountains and Rivers Sutra. Thoreau is the fellow who retired for a while to Walden Pond. Smokey the Bear you know. And MIT is where Gary Snyder received the Henry David Thoreau Prize last Tuesday.

All are worthy of your attention, but in combo they’re unbeatable.

MIT’s an interesting place to crop up in an account of Snyder — a poet, a Californian living high and away in the Sierras, and one of the first westerners to sit Zen and study in a monastery in Japan… And yet it’s curiously appropriate. Snyder is not here to banish science with poetry, but to enhance poetry with science, science with poetry, and both with his keen eye for context and honest detail.

He’s interested in weather. Understanding weather is in all our interests, but Snyder is actively interested. He’s interested in mountains and rivers, which comes to much the same thing — and he would surely have been interested in this exhibit that opened at MIT on Friday, just three days after his award ceremony there:

I dropped this image in here because it shows mountains and glaciers — but not without end. The loss of glaciation would concern Snyder — we know he’s interested in such things both immediately and in the long term, not only from his ecological writings in prose, but also because there’s a section of his epic Mountains and Rivers Without End that opens with these words:

“The 15 billion cubic kilometers of water on the earth are split by photosynthesis and reconstituted by respiration once every two million years or so.”

Even on that time-scale, Snyder’s interest in such things is personal: that section is titled We Wash Our Bowls in This Water.

So that’s the MIT part of the package.
Han Shan:

The terrific tale [link includes poems, too] of how a Chinese official learned that Han Shan and Shih-te, his laughing companion pictured above, were in fact great bodhisattvas though they looked like vagabonds could have come straight out of Jack Kerouac‘s Dharma Bums days. The official describes Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things.

And here he describes how he arranged for the publication of Han Shan’s poetry:

I ordered Tao-ch’iao and the other monks to find out how they had lived, to hunt up the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs – and also to collect those written on the walls of people’s houses. There were more than three hundred. On the wall of the Earth-shrine Shih-te had written some gatha (Buddhist verse or song). It was all brought together and made into a book.

Gary Snyder it was, by the way, who turned Kerouac and the Beats onto Buddhism, and who features as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
Gary Snyder:

Here’s Snyder again:

The first question that arises for me when I see photos of Gary Snyder like the ones above, I’ll admit, is whether it’s somehow axiomatic that his face should be as creased and rugged as the mountains he loves.

That’s a question for the intuition, really — but it may be worth noting that Emily Bronte saw a similar yet somewhat different correspondence between face and land and mentioned it in Wuthering Heights:

Catherine’s face was just like the landscape – shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient; and her poor little heart reproached itself for even that passing forgetfulness of its cares.

People, and their eventual likeness to the places they live?

Let’s take this a little deeper. With respect to mountains, rivers and sages specifically, the great zen master Dogen teaches us in his Mountains and Rivers Sutra:

From time immemorial the mountains have been the dwelling place of the great sages; wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind. And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized. However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them. There is only the actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains.

Dogen Zenji:

Dogen composed the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, which as far as I can tell is not available in book form except as a section of his longer work, the Shobogenzo. Snyder worked from 1956 to 1996 on his long poem series, Mountains and Rivers without End. The Cleveland Art Museum houses a scroll painting from the Northern Sung dynasty, Streams and Mountains Without End:

Translation — hey, second cousin to reincarnation?

An ancient Han Shan poem that’s also an early Snyder poem, Snyder here translating Han Shan:

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don’t get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

Of both men you might say: the dwelling place is where the mind dwells.
Smokey the Bear:

Snyder has his own sutra. It is called the Smokey the Bear Sutra, and it’s both fierce and hilarious: I have a beautiful copy in storage somewhere, in the beautiful Fudo Trilogy edition, that Snyder kindly inscribed for me, “Well met”.

It contains the following gloss on mountains and rivers:

My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain.

Science, mountains, weather patterns, rivers…

The poetry in Synder’s Mountains and Rivers has its rapids and still waters, its simple poetry and dazzling prose:

A day on the ragged North Pacific coast get soaked by whipping mist, rainsqualls tumbling, mountain mirror ponds, snowfield slush, rock-wash creeks, earfuls of falls, sworls of ridge-edge snowflakes, swift gravelly rivers, tidewater crumbly glaciers, high hanging glaciers, shore-side mud pools, icebergs, streams looping through the tideflats, spume of brine, distant soft rain drooping from a cloud,

sea lions lazing under the surface of the sea…

HD Thoreau:

Walden Pond is one of the great power centers of America Snyder mentions in the Smokey the Bear Sutra — and Snyder borrowed one of Thoreau’s lines for a poem of his own:

The sun is but a morning-star: each day represents a new opportunity to recover the nobility of life, another chance to turn aside from use to wonder.

Like Han Shan, Thoreau is among the ancestors. And as Thoreau’s own friend Emerson wrote, “The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately.”

And what’s this about the former great men? Snyder goes way back before Emerson and Thoreau, and even Han Shan — he once said:

As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying intuition and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.


Perhaps that’s what keeps him relevant, fresh. Once again in Mountains and Rivers Without End he writes:

Alive       in the Sea of Information.

As are we all. How’s that for archaic meets MIT?

Sembl thinking

We don’t really know how to think, yet. Or to put that in a more positive light: our characteristic ways of thinking are not yet as subtle and sophisticated as the problems that face us – as a global population, in our communities, in our business lives, our family situations, our own individual tangled and constantly shifting minds and emotions.

We have plenty of people who know how to do black and white, either-or thinking – which turns into highly emotional and often inappropriately judgmental knee-jerk thinking when the going gets tough. There’s a lot of heart in that, but not always a whole lot of clarity.

And we have a fair number of people who can do deliberative thinking, who understand critical thinking, apply some measure of doubt to their own assumptions and certainties, make careful, slow, analyses and do close readings, and in general try to avoid a headlong rush to judgment… There’s a lot of clarity there, as well as heart – but words and logic tend to dominate, and feelings are often relegated to second place.

And we have assorted artists, creative types and eccentric thinkers who see sideways, think laterally, connect dots, listen with care, appreciate silences, hear multiple voices and hold them together in their minds like a symphony… These are the folks who have the best grasp of complex problems, the bridge-builders between parties and factions – and the peace-makers. They live, balancing, at the intersection of love and clarity, with mind clarifying heart and heart giving courage to thought.

Sembl thinking is a whole spectrum of ways of thinking drawn from the best of that third group, brought together under one roof. And Sembl itself is a game and family of games, designed to explore and enjoy these ways of thinking.

The game’s motto is simple, profound, and insanely ambitious:

Tapping human knowledge and imagination, link by link

Display case containing fine silverware and slave shackles

Identify sameness, explore difference

As part of his Mining the museum installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it ‘Metalwork’.

Display case containing fine silverware and slave shackles

'Metalwork' by Fred Wilson, 1992

Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:

Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And […] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.

What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.

Juxtaposition: branding iron / Aboriginal breastplate

Labelling bodies

In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.

My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.