It Takes A Tool To Make A Tool

There’s a famous saying, “It takes a tool a make a tool.”

A chimp uses a rock to smash ants

In fact there isn’t.

Googling that phrase (with quotes) gets you precisely 9 hits. But I think it should be a famous phrase. To state the obvious, if I want to make anything I need to use something to make it – so if I want to make a tool I need to use something to make it – a tool!

This doesn’t seem like much of a revelation but I think we can make 2 interesting conjectures from it:

Firstly, if I wanted to make a machine that cuts more accurately than any machine made before, I would, necessarily, have to use tools less accurate than it at cutting to make my new machine. It always seems a little odd, and amazing, that we use less refined tools to make more refined ones. I think this speaks well of human’s natural skill, adaptability and lateral  thinking ability.

We can also consider – as analogue to cutting things more precisely –  that, if we wanted to make a machine that measures length more accurately, then the only way to check it’s accuracy would be to use previous tools for measurement – tools that were less accurate at measuring. The question then becomes how can we really know the accuracy of what we measure?

(An obvious answer being statistical measures and the combined use of previous measuring tools)

Mathematics and logic ruin a perfectly good hypothetical question – again

The second, perhaps more interesting, conjecture is: If it takes a tool to make a tool was there a “first” tool?

Now, as seen by the chimp at the start, we have a wonderful set of tools at the end of arms. Hands are highly adaptable and are pretty vital in the use of most of our tools, from knife and fork to power drills. I am not going to consider hands as tools, though, as they come attached to our bodies. But we can use them to grab objects and “make” them a “tool” by their use. For example that chimp using a rock at the start of this “article”.

Or a hominid using a bone

But if we start to consider tools more complex than found objects things start to get interesting.

When you look at the computer you’re reading this on, the tool your using to read my mind garbage, there must have been an older tool (in fact hundreds of older tools) used to make it. That tool we’ve chosen must have had a parent, which must have had a parent, which must have had a parent, and so on and so on back through the centuries. Logically, at some point, these tools must have been less refined, less adapted to do their jobs, than the tools we have now. What I wonder is how far can we trace this tool trail back? Can we go back several millennia to the point where homo sapiens sapiens was not yet homo sapiens sapiens, where someone used a rock to break a twig and started of the whole chain?

Is there some sort of ur-tool from which all others derive? Or, is it more likely that the process began and has been repeated countless numbers of times, and each tool we use today had a hundred fathers and mothers some from thousands of years ago, some far more recent – perhaps only a couple of centuries when someone broke a branch on a leg? Is the real question how many tools does it make to make a tool?

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On Taste (part 2): Why our tastes change

It came as a genuine shock to me when Kid A routinely topped the end-of-the-decade ‘best album’ polls. Not because I was unaware of how highly regarded Radiohead were or because I thought it was a weak album, but because I didn’t personally know anyone who rated it that highly or went on about it. Kid A was supposedly a ubiquitous, unavoidable album but I still couldn’t hum or even name a single track on it. When it was released I’d just started university so may have had other things on my mind, but the whole thing somehow managed to completely pass me by.

I’d lost interest in Radiohead shortly after OK Computer and managed to successfully ignore them until In Rainbows, a record I didn’t hear by choice but I’m glad I did as it genuinely surprised me and caused me to re-evaluate my attitude to the band. It was recognisably Radiohead without being a retread of former glories and without being too self-consciously innovative or experimental, as if instead of trying to make a big statement they’d just made a great group record. Hell, it even made Radiohead sound likeable. And yet for some reason I wasn’t sufficiently intrigued to check out any other records of theirs.

It wasn’t until about six months ago that I heard Kid A for the first time. I can’t even remember what compelled me to listen to it, though I do recall it was a conscious decision. I noticed that it had been lurking on the hard drive of my computer, untouched, for over four years.

And you know what? I thought it was okay, really okay. It didn’t shock me, didn’t bore me, didn’t particularly grip me. I expected it to sound more radical, more dense and impenetrable, and I was looking forward to unravelling its mysteries, but it just sounded quite plain. I almost thought it was – gulp – lightweight, insubstantial.  It reminds me now, for entirely different reasons, of the disappointment I felt when I first heard Never Mind The Bollocks when I was about fifteen and decided that it, too, was really okay. I’d rather have detested it than go away feeling indifferent.

Jonah Lehrer explains the physiology behind how we hear and process sounds in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a fantastic account of a few modernist artists who arrived by intuition at the conclusions which neurophysiologists only much later reached through empirical scientific methods. It turns out our auditory cortex, the part of the brain that registers and analyses music, works by a positive feedback loop. This reinforces familiarity, making us more attuned to hearing the sounds we’ve heard before. The brain learns by association, so that with experience it learns musical patterns and develops expectations of what will follow. But the brain is also adaptive, so that exposure to new sounds reorganises the auditory cortex – it literally rewires the brain. In time and through repeated listens everything that was once shocking becomes familiar.


‘How To Disappear Completely’ – the Kid A track we can all agree on?

 

If time is required for the brain to adapt as it assimilates new sounds, did Radiohead even think the new music they were making post OK Computer was any good to begin with? Or did it take time to grow on them too? If so, it’s a real leap of faith in a new and unchartered artistic direction.

Radiohead’s popularity was traditionally based largely on two ingredients: people liked it when Thom Yorke wailed, preferably in unambiguously emotive language, and when Jonny Greenwood strangled ungodly squeals from his guitar. Upon ditching both their USPs they not only confrontationally confounded expectations but embarked in a direction that would be unfamiliar territory for much of their fanbase. They knew it would take time for their audience to come round to Kid A, yet they didn’t issue any lead single which might have given listeners a head start. Like it or not, you’ve got to admire their chutzpah.

The success of Kid A makes me wonder how far this ‘brain rewiring’ principle can be stretched. Could any offensive or dissonant sound, however odd, be appropriated and be made enjoyable, given enough time?

Apparently some people enjoy Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Although Lou made grandiose claims about how it had been composed it still sounds like nothing more than obnoxiously abrasive noise. When I heard that there were fans of this album I thought they must be either as wilfully contrary as Lou Reed himself or else it must be what this album represented – a ‘fuck you’ to Lou’s record label – that they liked. I didn’t even consider that people would actually put the record on for enjoyment. But perhaps they’ve just gone through the ‘brain rewiring’ phase? And could I too grow to like it?


Metal Machine Music – easy listening? Judge for yourself

 

Some of my favourite records have been, for me, ‘growers’. I recall the first time I heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea I thought it was awful. Not just something that wasn’t for me, but something I actively disliked. I couldn’t understand the adulation it was held in and I thought it could only be something people said they liked to show how contrary they were, to file alongside Metal Machine Music. But my reaction to it changed quite dramatically over the first half a dozen listens. And yet, ITAOTS didn’t really have any sounds that were unfamiliar to me. It was based around musical instruments and forms I was very used to. In this regard I can’t see that it needed any ‘brain-rewiring’.

Kid A had elements of music I was quite familiar with (krautrock), less familiar with (electronic music), and music I was fairly sure I didn’t like (jazz). And yet, for me, what shocked me most about Kid A was how little I was shocked. For sure, it didn’t sound like Pablo Honey, but it also didn’t sound like nothing I had heard before. I guess that, even having successfully ignored it for ten years, I’d still heard enough about it to know what to expect. But maybe we’re exposed to so much and so varied music nowadays that it’s all but impossible for there to be any unheard sounds out there.

And yet, the fact that Kid A rose from its initially mixed reception to topping many album-of-the-decade polls shows it is the grower par excellence, and suggests there is some inherent quality which would reveal itself if I just hung in there a while. But if there is it seems remarkably elusive. I know it quite well now – there’s the one with the annoying squawking brass, the one that sounds like it could’ve been on OK Computer, the instrumental one that drifts by and doesn’t do anything, the one they used to play at, um,  Idioteque… And there’s nothing I particularly find myself wanting to return to. If it wasn’t Kid A I wouldn’t have granted it a third listen.

This investment of time in what may be a lost cause is almost a thing of the past. When I was growing up, without the internet or a great deal of disposable cash, any CD that I spent my hard-earned on was guaranteed a fair few listens, so it was given the chance to become a grower. Nowadays, of course, music is so easily accessible and there is so much music I could listen to at the click of a finger that slow burners are rarely given this opportunity.


Neutral Milk Hotel – bad at first impressions?

 

The mutability of taste makes me wonder how many records could I have loved if I’d only stuck with them? If I repeatedly listened to Kind of Blue – which I have heard and did not enjoy – would I grow not only to like it but to appreciate the status which jazz fans regularly attribute to it? I strongly suspect not. I expect it would grow on me somewhat as familiarity set in, but I still can’t imagine it becoming a record I would choose to listen to.

So why do some records grow on you where others continue to leave you cold? There must have been something about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that kept me coming back as it’s now one of my favourite records. On the other hand, of those that I give a chance at least as many turn out to be duds as repay the faith.

Part of this experimental laziness on my part comes down to, well, plain laziness. I already have far more of the music I already like than I have time to listen to it. Why should I invest time becoming familiar with a genre I may not even turn out to like? I’m perfectly happy not liking jazz, just as I will be if I don’t end up liking Kid A. But I find my realisation of this complacent attitude quite depressing, especially for someone who considers themselves a music lover. This “I know what I like” ethos sounds suspiciously like simply getting old. Perish the thought.

But maybe I am just reaching the point where my brain has been saturated with the sounds it enjoys hearing, and by continually reinforcing its positive feedback loop my brain really does know what it likes. This phenomenon happens to everyone. In fact, neuroscientists say that most people have formulated their tastes by the age of about 20. The brain’s positive feedback mechanism explains not only how we negotiate unfamiliar sounds but also why we prefer listening to the golden oldies, the most familiar and deeply ingrained musical experiences. So rather than stumbling around in the dark for ‘the new sound’ maybe I should concede that I can’t override my physiology and blast out the first record I truly loved, Definitely Maybe. After all, it is better than Kid A.


On Taste (part 1): Why we like what we like

Arriving to the party as I typically do with a tardiness way beyond fashionable, last summer I signed up to Last FM after lobbying from impassioned Last FM advocate Adam John Miller. When I signed up, as Last FM does, it collected, counted and ordered the plays that had accumulated in my Windows Media Player (yes, I still use it). When scanning my most listened-to artists it presented me with few surprises. I didn’t remember listening to Damien Jurado anything like that much, but you can’t argue with the stats. And what surprised me least were my top two artists: Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats.

I suspected I was not alone, and checked Last FM to confirm – yep, both Adam and John’s top played artists were also Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats (okay, so John actually had the Wednesday Club at #2, but a lot of those plays were strictly business, right?).

Knowing Adam and John well enough this was not in the least surprising. But it struck me to be shown in stark, undeniable statistics just how closely our listening habits, and therefore tastes, coincided. For three people to not only have the top artist in common but the second as well must be quite rare. Thereafter our top artists diverged somewhat, but there were plenty of other shared names high up the list: The Magnetic Fields, Pavement, Built to Spill, Galaxie 500…er, Robert Pollard – and, yes, The Wednesday Club.

For sure, the three of us have been close friends for a while now and there were a couple of years in particular when we spent an unhealthy amount of time together. So naturally we shared between us the records and bands we most liked which meant we would have listened to a lot of the same music. In addition, we would have had numerous shared listening experiences – putting a record on whilst the three of us played Sensible Soccer, for instance. Singing along to a record while hanging out with your friends provides a kind of collective affirmation which is surely only going to reinforce the attachment you have to it. And finally, of course, we were in a band together, where you would expect shared musical tastes to be a given.

And yet I refused to dismiss this congruence of tastes as a banal or somehow inevitable consequence of our friendship.

Last year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series of books which interrogates the Celine Dion album Let’s Talk About Love. It is essentially an enquiry into the nature of taste and aesthetic judgment which has apparently even found its way onto reading lists of some degree courses on aesthetics. At the very least it’s led me to think a lot about why we like the things we do.

Wilson considers the idea (by no means his own – I think he credits it to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that our tastes reflect values which we have or would like to see ourselves as having. Our taste judgments are acts of social positioning, a way of orienting and demarcating our social status. They are not disinterested but aspirational; they embody how we choose to present our social status to the world and are thus indicators of class. At this juncture I can’t help but think of Johnson, the unflappable and unabashed yuppie from Peep Show who blared ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ by Toploader from his BMW.

I was initially sceptical, but the thesis, when explained by Wilson, becomes quite persuasive. If true, it would make the congruence of the individual Wednesday Club members’ musical tastes even more remarkable. For if our tastes are meant to represent a set of values or principles which we chose to project, what values were Guided by Voices or the Mountain Goats meant to embody that evidently resonated so strongly with us? In the case of Guided by Voices perhaps it’s slapdash recording techniques, poor quality control and drinking heavily – those are core Wednesday Club values, after all.

Less facetiously, of course you would expect to share with your closest friends a clutch of values, some presumably fairly important, others less so. But couldn’t there be another band who reflects those same values just as well who I didn’t like half as much? Or didn’t like at all? But maybe I’m being too specific, and what we are talking about here is a shared love of indie rock generally, and perhaps the specific representative bands aren’t important.

The ‘social positioning’ hypothesis appears to apply more successfully to some types of taste better than others. It might perhaps explain why different people might choose to wear Nike trainers, Doc Martens or Jimmy Choo shoes, for instance. The example of fashion is instructive. For someone dressed in a flashy Armani suit, is taste signifying social status, or is social status determining taste? Not everyone can afford expensive clothes, whereas musical taste is arguably more democratic. It doesn’t really cost any more or less to like reggae than hip hop. For sure, watching a small local band may cost less than going to the opera, which may cost less than going to a Madonna concert. But special packaging aside, most records cost about the same, and anyone with internet access can listen to whatever music they like through Youtube, Spotify, etc.

My main beef with the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis is that it doesn’t seem to explain the personal, physical experience of enjoying music – it fails to do justice to the fist-pumping joy I feel when belting out the chorus of ‘Tractor Rape Chain’. It’s hard to believe that the visceral experience of listening, enjoying and being moved by music is due to its creators representing some values which you choose to confer your social status. I’d like to think that I prefer GBV to, say, The Who because they move, entertain and excite me more, not because they more accurately fulfil the aesthetic criteria that my social class values.

The hypothesis seems less adept at explaining how we experience our musical preferences than how we present them to others (Last FM is, after all, nothing if not a tool for presenting our musical taste). The two aspects need not coincide, and this distinction seems to be highlighted by ‘guilty pleasures’, those songs we would rather not admit to liking, which rather defy the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis. In these instances, clearly, musical taste as we experience it very deliberately does not map onto taste as we present it to others.

Given the similarity of our tastes it also struck me the extent to which Adam, John and I could still argue about music. There was plenty within our shared ‘taste pool’ which we could disagree on. To pick a nerdy example, I would strongly dispute Adam and John’s assertion that The Sunset Tree is the best Mountain Goats record, and to me this was as clear and self-evident (as opinions always seem to be to their holders) as my belief that Guided by Voices are a better band than The Who.

Similarly, I got quite irritated – to an extent which itself irritated me – by a recent Drowned in Sound edition of the ubiquitous ‘best album ever’ poll. The list was topped by a slightly unusual but not altogether shocking choice: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, a record I love but would not personally put towards the very top of the pile. Further down, the list featured a lot of familiar and predictable entries and, at the same time, a number of my favourites, some with a much higher ranking than they normally get in these polls (Illinois or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, to pick two). In short, I would probably conclude that it was very broadly a reasonable enough approximation of my musical taste.

But one thing still rankled. And that thing was bloody Interpol. The DiS ‘community’ had named Turn On The Bright Lights their fourth favourite album. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a solid enough album. A bit derivative, naturally, and it slumps heavily in the second half if you ask me, but a good debut. Fourth, though? Interpol had even managed to leave off the album my favourite song of theirs, ‘The Specialist’.

In the countless best album polls there are always going to be entries you personally disagree with. But here was a list complied by individuals who clearly had tastes similar to me and whose values supposedly chimed uncommonly well with mine. How, I thought, could these people collectively get it so wrong? And why did it annoy me so much?

But ultimately, I have to resort to that most facile truism that it would be a dull world if all our tastes were the same. I guess musical preferences are just not all that rational, predictable or explainable. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.