There’s a famous saying, “It takes a tool a make a tool.”
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)
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”.
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?
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.
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.
N.B: Any one who has studied philosophy may take massive offence at the simplicity and logical leaps taken in this piece. Good for you.
I was speaking to my friend, a philosophy masters student, about truth a while ago. He told me that on one occasion he and his girlfriend, a sociologist, were arguing for a long time about a subject. Eventually she said,
“Well that’s true for you but it’s not true for me.”
He found this baffling. His area of philosophy is very concerned with the truth and he believes there to be such a thing as empirical truth. We were sitting in a pub at the time, so I may have been a bit too pleased with my myself after a few beers, when it hit me.
“I think you were actually arguing different things here,” I said. What she was talking about was value judgements, where as he was thinking about a purer, more logically based, “truth”.
She based her judgements and feelings on one set of values, so it was “true for her”, he another, so something else was “true for him”.I suggested maybe in these cases the word “true” isn’t the best to use.
This got me thinking about the nature of truth, something I’m sure many, many others have thought about better. Better, but with less Simpsons references.
So maybe we could split truth into two categories, logical “scientific truths”, and value based “emotional truths”.
Let’s look at “emotional truths” first. As an example you could state that “killing is wrong” and take that as a truth. A lot of people would agree with you. But, then it would depend on what you value more highly; human life or (in past times especially) the power the ability to kill would give you. If you favour the latter, then killing isn’t wrong, it’s good. So then the statement “killing is right” would be true for you.
Thinking about cases like this, it becomes hard to come up with any universal “emotional truths” and if you did they would have to add plenty provisos. For example you might predict: “if you are of sound mind and body and value human life above power or retribution or the idea of justice and the human life has developed for over 4 months in a womb then you believe killing is wrong”. But even then you would have far, far too many people who didn’t fit into that definition.
Are there any value judgements that every human would agree on? From which we could derive “emotional truths” for the whole human race. It’s very hard to find them, even basic human urges like eating don’t yield any universal truths. For example, “when I’m hungry I want to eat” would be a value shared by most but not by people with anorexia.
It’s also interesting how value judgements can effect harder, scientific truths. For example, if you value the status quo and ability to make money for you, climate change existing or being a problem is “not true”. Your value judgements mean that you are more likely to look for lone dissenting voices, or more rationally, prefer your short term benefits to the planet’s long term survival.
So scientific truths. These must be a lot easier to say these are true, right? Well, again these come with a lot of conditions too.
Take an easy one, “a triangle has 180 degrees”.
Actually we need to toughen that up as it doesn’t make any sense. A triangle has 180 degrees where?
“The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees”. Mmmmm better. Well, let’s pick that one apart.
Firstly, the angles adding up to 180 degrees is a culturally determined concept, coming from the Ancient Phoenician system of having 360 degrees in a circle to mirror the “360″ days of a year.
Secondly, we have to assume that this truth is important or useful otherwise, why look at it?
Thirdly, triangles don’t actually exist in our universe as they are defined as 2D objects, impossible in a multi dimensional universe, such as ours. So we would begin to have to narrow down our statement to say “On the triangular surface of an object the interior angles add up to 180 degrees.”
Fourthly, s pace time is curved. so even with this condition, the statement still isn’t “true”. Any triangular surface is never completely flat, which leads to the interior angles to adding up to an number slightly greater than 180 degrees.
So we can add another condition: on a Euclidian plain (flat, non changing ) a triangle’s interior angles add up to 180 degrees.
So now we have a “truth”. One that’s almost entirely pointless as triangles don’t exist in our universe and a Euclidean plain doesn’t exist. Also we have to assume a system where the angles in a full turn add up to 360 degrees, because we like the Ancient Phoenician System.
the triangle is a lie
There you go, there are no scientific truths. Or “Bollocks!” as you may respond, “you cherry picked an example”. This is fair enough, and the point being to say “a triangle has 180 degrees” is true enough to be practical and usable, which is far more important.
Take another famous scientific truth, “The earth is round”. That is it’s like a ball, a sphere.
This is also untrue, as explained in Isaac Asimov’s wonderful article on scientific progress, as the earth is almost an ellipsoid except for it bulges a bit in the middle. But again, to say the earth is round is true, in that’s it’s “true enough”.
This applies to lots of things, such as the statement “I weigh 14 and a half stones”. You can kill it with, “what’s a stone?”, “is gravity constant?”, “is your mass consistent from second to second?” “does gravity effect your body in the same way at all points”?
Even when you start to rigidly define your parameters, things are a little tricky. For something to be scientifically true it has to have testable results. For example it may be true that the universe only started 5 seconds ago – I personally believe it did – but I have no way of proving it so it’s pointless to say it’s true.
So there’s “emotional truths” based on value judgements, which are individual to each of us and “scientific truths” which can be picked apart by the pedant. Neither are “true”.
So should we just believe anything? As I seem to be saying I don’t think anything is really “true” or at least universally “true”. Should we let creationism be taught in schools, for example, as it’s “true” for a lot of people. Well, no, I go along with the idea of “whatever works best” or “what can’t be easily proven wrong” for truth. So no to teaching creationism as you have to ignore lots and lots of things for it to work. Best stick to evolution. But we can teach why it’s interesting that people want creationism to be taught. Actually, best not.
For such a fundamental human idea, truth is particularly slippy. I’ll leave it to the Simpsons again .
Is to know one’s self to know what other people think of you?
I ask this because I was discussing one of my favourite thought experiments with a friend recently; I asked her:
“Would you rather know all the bad things everyone’s ever said about you, or have everyone know the bad things you’ve said about them?”
They pondered this for a second and concluded that they had a pretty good idea of what other people would consider to be there foibles, so went for the former option. The interesting thing, though, is that (as far as i saw it) they were wrong – dead wrong – a million miles off from the actual things that people would see as negatives about them.
Obviously I did not decide to educate them on what I considered other people considered to be their failings. After pontificating on this for a while I came to the conclusion that she was coming from a very insular position were she had considered things important to her, rather than what might frustrate people socially.
More interestingly, it brought up another question: How much do we really know about what other people think of us and is this even important?
For example, I consider myself to be quite a self reflective person but would other people consider me to be obstinate, someone who continually makes the same kinds of mistakes, without ever realising I’m trapped in a cycle?
I have found that when talking about someone amongst mutual friends there is usually some kind of consensus about them, which, perhaps, wouldn’t be shared to their face: they’re moody; they’re lazy; they’re rude… etc. etc. This will be bandied around like it’s not a problem; you still like that person and they’re not there so there feelings will not be hurt.
But… wait… what if there’s a consensus about me that I don’t realise? If I knew about it would I be able to change myself to be a more positive person? Would i be powerless to do anything about my nature? Would I be offended that these jerks thought such jerky things about me? Is it actually important to be thought well of, to be, popular?
There’s a particularly wonderful fridge magnet that says “If you’re dog thinks you’re great, don’t ask for a second opinion.” There’s also research that says that, most commonly, the people who have an accurate opinion about their importance to the world and their ability to affect their surroundings are the clinically depressed. The rest of us are just delusional about our place in the grand scheme of things.
So if we are unaware, in part, of the negative things people might think of us, is this an actual problem? Possibly not, but it just strikes me as interesting as we are inherently social creatures* and are defined by our relationship to the world and the people. Even those people who consider themselves to be introverted or don’t care what the outside world think about them will engage in society through books, cds, the internet etc. Even if they genuinely don’t care what people/society think about them they still care about society enough to interact with some aspects of it. Perhaps the only people who can claim not to care about society are hermits**. These are in short supply.
This is why it must be strange to be famous; you have the ability to see what the world dispassionatly thinks about you, whether it be good or bad, which is something the rest of us would have a very hard time doing. But then, who can say that this brings them any closer to knowing what is truly felt about them. Will reading all this opinion on them give them an over inflated sence of importance? Will they truly realise some times people spout off for no reason if they see no harm in it?
Likewise, you might feel like you a have a true opinion on your relationship with the world through your trusted friends. But how much do they sugar things, can people be true to their own feelings when discussing them with others? A moot point but even if your closest, most trusted friends will only give you one view of yourself, one with a necessarily positive spin (these people like you). What about work colleagues,, your superiors and inferiors? People who serve you? People you bump into randomly in the street? Can you know what they are thinking?
I have focussed mainly on the negative here. It could also be equally true people are unaware of what people see as positive aspects of their personality. But again I come back to the question: does it matter?
Well, yes and no. Not knowing at all how you “come across” would mean that you are not really relating to society, but, on the other hand, completely obsessing on how you are perceived is a thankless task and leaves no consideration for the development of your own rich, inner life.
So now, I’ve put something like this out into the world. I wonder what it makes you think about me. But not too much.
*This was demonstrated when I went to a talk given by an autistic person. There was a bang outside of the lecture theatre and the whole audience turned to see what it was. “You see,” she said, “you lot are all social creatures. You all turned to see who made the noise. I didn’t care”
**or those with autism. As the above anecdote shows.
Pop music. We enjoy it. We dance to it. It infects our brains as earworms. But how seriously do we take it? Do we engage with the serious questions it throws up?
Yes, some songs that raise serious questions in their titles and these are answered as a matter of course, e.g;
Travis – Q: “Why does it always rain on me?” A:”because you lack an umbrella”.
Bob Dylan – Q: “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” A: 42 (as any fan of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy knows)
The Smiths – Q: How Soon is Now? A: Now.
The KLF – Q: What Time is Love? A: 12.23am
Rod Stewart – Q: Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? A: For a period in the 70′s, sadly, yes.
and so and so forth.
But what about the questions implicit in songs? These are the one’s that go unanswered. For example the Hollies sang, “He aint heavy, he’s my brother.” Yet we still do not know how heavy (or light) the brother in question was.
What does Lady Gaga’s poker face look like?
Who shot the Deputy?
Which leads me to The Lonely Island’s pop opus “Motherlover”.
Please take a second to familiarise yourself with our source material by clicking the link below, before we continue.
We know the boys are going to sleep with each others mothers. In fact they further this with the aim of impregnating each other’s respective mothers. All well and good. But the implicit question remains: What will the genealogical connection of these theoretical children be?
Let’s find out.
Firstly, we should set out the relationship between Andy Samberg, Justin Timberlake and their respective mothers.
We can clearly see that Mother Samberg and Mother Timberlake are Andy and Justin’s mothers, respectively.
Now if Andy and Justin were to mate with each other’s mothers and produce offspring our diagram would look a little like this.
Here it might be useful to define to our symbols: A downward arrow denotes parentage. A horizontal line with a heart denotes a sexual relationship that produced offspring.
Now, whilst technically accurate, Fig 2. does not really help us determine relationship. We must therefore, look at the cases of Baby Samberg and Baby Timberlake separately.
From Fig 3. and Fig 4. we can see the following
i) Andy and Baby Timberlake would be half siblings; Justin and Baby Samberg would be half siblings.
Assuming marriage between a) Mother Samberg and Justin and b) Mother Timberlake and Andy we would have:
ii) Justin and Andy would be each other’s respective Father in Laws.
iii) Mother Samberg and Mother Timberlake would be each other’s Mother in Law and Daughter in Law.
But what about Baby Timberlake and Baby Samberg. Combing Fig 4. and Fig 5., with Baby Timberlake as the end product and avoiding any unnecessary repetition of participants, we have the following:
and if we take Baby Samberg as the end product we have:
From Fig 5. and Fig 6. we see that Baby Samberg and Baby Timberlake are each others half-uncles and half-nephews; One’s mother being the other’s grandmother and vice-versa.
We can extend this further by considering both Mother Samberg and Mother Timberlake’s parentage and comparing these directly for both Baby Samberg and Baby Timberlake:
Finally, we may ask ourselves, what is the genetic relationship between Baby Samberg and Baby Timberlake. Assuming we share 50% unique DNA with our full siblings (receiving 50% of our father’s DNA and 50% of our mother’s with the DNA given being normally distributed), then a child will share 25% of the DNA of one of it’s parents.
Andy Samberg has 50% of Mother Samberg’s DNA; Baby Samberg has 50% of this DNA; Therefore Baby Samberg has 25% of Mother Samberg’s DNA. Baby Timberlake has 50% of Mother Samberg’s DNA of which half can be expected to be the same as that received by Andy Samberg. Therefore Baby Timberlake and Baby Samberg share 12.5% through Mother Samberg.
Justin Timberlake has 50% of Mother Timberlake’s DNA; Baby Timberlake has 50% of this DNA; Therefore Baby Timberlake has 25% of Mother Timberlake’s DNA. Baby samberg has 50% of Mother Timberlake’s DNA of which half can be expected to be the same as that received by Justin Timberlake. Therefore Baby Timberlake and Baby Samberg share 12.5% through Mother Timberlake.
Here are ten games and questions you can ask yourself to pass the time. In no particular order…
1.Work out who hates you most in the world. Someone must just as there’s someone who loves you most, right?
2.What would it be like if you met yourself without knowing it was you? Would you get along?
3.Would you rather find out all the nasty things you’ve said about people over your life or they find out the nasty things you’ve said about them?
4.Ask your friends the most debauched thing they’ve ever done and see if you feel the same way about them afterwards.
5.Imagine talking to your 14 year old self for an hour about your life now.
6.Compare your life now to your parents at the same age.
7.Discuss whether you’d rather be 18 or 30.
8. Think of the three people closest to you and what they need to do to improve their lives. Then try doing it for yourself…
9. Think about the most embarrassing thing you’ve done and try to stop feeling embarrassed by it.
10. Think of all the people in your life you’ve fancied that you would be embarrassed if anyone else found out about. Think about why for each of them. What does this say about you?
In my life I’ve found it very useful to muse upon Zen Buddhist koans. No bear with me. Please, don’t go…
I know it sounds wanky and/or pretentious but these little, seemingly nonsensical riddles can be very good for you. Today, children, I’m going to discuss one of the two most famous ones (it’s there in the title).
The other being: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, does it make any sound?
Some people think that these koans are deliberately nonsensical. You muse upon the contradictory nature of the question to clear your mind of daily troubles and thus reach a clear headed “zen” state. This clear minded state is shone above in the classic Simpson’s episode “Dead Putting Society”; the one where Lisa gets Bart to play golf perfectly with the profundity of the tree-falling koan.
So is this what koans are for? To clear your head, make you do stuff better? Partially, maybe. I’m no expert but I think they do have actual answers, and have read as such. But they’re ones you have to find yourself.
So, that being said I’m going to share my understanding of the sound of one hand clapping.
Firstly, ask any class of children this question (I have) and someone will bring their fingers down to their palm in a kind of mini wave. Case closed. One hand claps.
An answer, which seems flippant, but may be in the actual spirit of the question. It used to really irritate me when people would say this but it’s a valid answer as any other. And what’s more it’s actually practical. You can hear the sound of one hand “clapping”. There’s a zen saying that when a monk is asked how to live one’s life to achieve enlightenment you should ‘first, get up; second wash one’s bowl; third make breakfast…’
But there must be more to it than that? For a long time I was struck by the paradoxical nature of the question. It is understandable, we all get what it’s saying, but it’s impossible in reality. One hand is always involved in clapping but makes no noise on it’s own. So muse upon this and get the Bart Simpson Clear Head (BSCH).
This lead me to the idea that what the koan was really saying was that the sound of one hand clapping was defined by the other hand. Taken as a metaphor it would say that we ourselves are defined by what is around us; how we relate to others and the world. That we are not a single hand making a noise but a hand reacting to another…
The more I thought about this the more I felt a sense of wellbeing, an endorphin rush perhaps. I found it very easy to think about this subject but very hard to express clearly. As the above paragraph probably show.
So I figured I had it worked out… But something bothered me.
In the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, this koan is not presented as a simple sentence but as the tale of a simple monk who is asked the question and goes to find the sound. Just before he dies he finally hears every sound in the world and achieves enlightenment.
This seemed to be the exact opposite of my understanding of the question! The sound of one hand clapping can’t actually exist so why tell the tale of the monk trying to find it? And why the hell would he become enlightened after listening to all the sounds that couldn’t possibly be the sound of one hand clapping? But they said he understood and became enlightened. And this was written thousands of years ago. By real zen people.
I considered this for a long time.
I eventually decided that one explanation is that the act of considering the koan was the important thing. To question and to look. The monk carried on searching for meaning in the koan, turning over every possibilty, and finally “got it”. Just like when me and Bart considered them and felt at peace with the world.
I’m sure that there’s far more in the koan than that and lots of that I may understand but not be able to verbalise. That’s fine. I’ll just carry on considering the question, turning it over in my mind and hopefully it will carry on being good to me.
Even when it seems done, it probably isn’t. I can always ask more questions… “why do people clap?”, “why does every society do it?”, “how can so much be contained in one sentence?”, “does every sentence contain so much?”, “why are so many people happy with the flippant answer?”, “Am I wasting my time considering such things” and on and on and on…
Another zen saying,
“If something seems boring for 10 seconds, do it for 20…”
Blame. It’s an interesting concept for me. I think it’s worth thinking about. Even if it’s just on a little seen blog for a silly band…
Our society says blame exists. We blame people for things. If we blame people for something deemed serious enough we put them into prison. The purpose of prison is either punishment or rehabilitation (or both), depending on who you ask, on what you may think. In any case it is society’s way of saying “we blame you for this”.
In fact, studies, referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, have shown that people would rather have other people punished for their misdemanours, even ones that didn’t effect them personally, than have personal gain. In fact people would choose to become worse off themselves to ensure other people punished for their crimes.
Blame is important to people.
And so, it would seem, is justice.
But can we ever really truly blame people?
It can be argued that we human beings are a product of two things; nature and nurture. How important each of these things are, I can’t say. But you can’t one without the other.
Imagine nature without nurture. You lock Albert Einstein or Usain Bolt into a dark room as a baby and only clean and feed them. By the time 25 years have passed you do not end up with a 100m world record or a theory of general relativity.
On the other hand, give a child the finest education, all the opportunities, the space it needs, love and support but the child was born with no higher brain function. A general relativity or world record you do not get.
In fact the scenario of the boy raised in a dark room is a favourite with writers – Paul Auster exploring it in “City of Glass” (eternally damaged man-child), Werner Herzog in “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser”(idiot-savante) and the possibly aprocryphal tlae of the king who locked his child in a tower never hearing a word, assuming he would learn the language of God (dumb child). )
So if we blame people’s parents (/their surroundings/their peers) for their misdemeanors, fine. But wait, surely their parents’ parents are to blame for their parents behaviour? And wait, surely their parents’ parents’ parents are to blame for their parents’ parents behaviour? and surely…. and on and on.
I, myself, can see two glaring counter arguments to my argument, water tight and well spelt out as it is.
Firstly, we might argue that we can judge and blame someone on their actions, on the quality of their character. That they have to follow society’s norms and moral judgements or else, we can, legitimately, blame them. Case closed. Except it doesn’t quite work like that. Take two rather extreme examples; Nazi Germany and Inquisition era Spain. Follow the expected moral codes there and here and now you would be branded a monster.
That’s the problem, there is no such thing as moral absolutism, a right way to live your life. It becomes up to the individual to decide. Which brings us to the second counter argument, free will.
This is a tricky one. What I’ve written so far could assume people to be mere automatons, following preprogrammed scripts, with their nature as hardware and their nurture being the software. No one is an active-agent in their own lives, seems like bullshit doesn’t it?
It’s a tricky one. I would argue that on the micro level, sure we all make our own decisions, we’re masters of own destiny. I myself have made the decision to write this article, for good or for ill. No one forced me to. I can be blamed for it. But I got to the point of writing this article because of
a) my nature: I’m introspective – I consider these things too much; I’m extroverted -I need people to hear my thoughtsand
b) my nurture: my background up to this point has lead me to be able to, and want to, have quasi-cod-philosphical thoughts about the nature of blame.
Going back to the “blame the parents to infinity” scenario, we can take out “parentage” all the way back to before we human, before we were bacteria, before there was life, right back to the big bang. It could be argued that all of this was set in motion from that moment, like a supremely complex Rube Goldberg Machine (think Tom and Jerry’s complicated follow-on mousetraps).
But then some people think Quantum Uncertainty means nothing can truly be predicted, thus free will does exist in the universe.
Either way, I say we’re a product of nature and nurture. Neither of which are our “fault”.
So to begin at the beginning again, there’s always a need to blame, people often feel wronged. Honestly, can you never think of a sitaution where you’ve been wronged and you blame the perpetrator? But those of an inquisitive bent will look for reasons as to why these injust things have been done to them. Leading back to people’s natures, people’s nurtures.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t punish and we shouldn’t try to rehabilitate but the notion of blame is a tricky one. Both on the macro (murder) or micro (shittiness in relationships) scale….
A couple of weeks ago I tried to write a post about the small group of artists* who I thought had always produced work that was, at worst, good. That make sense? Good. As John Darnielle put it “Why do good things not only have to stop being good but turn to utter shit?”. It was going to take list form and I was going to write about their work….
The Red House Painters – who’s Mark Kozelek made my list.
But then I started thinking; what I found more interesting was not why these artists had continually pleased me but why everyone else had done at least something I considered to be below par. I had a few ideas as to why this was but nothing concrete; People are put under pressure. People lose their initial spark. What made them good was their age. People work in a collaborative medium and the “chemistry” changes. A person’s relevance to the times wains…
So I gave up. It was also pointed out to me that this was a very selfish way of thinking. What did these musicians, writers, directors, painters, you name it owe me? And isn’t taste completely subjective anyway? “Fair enough and yes,” I thought.
But it still niggled at me. Wouldn’t every creator of art admit, in their heart of hearts, that some of their work has been below par? I know I’ve put out my fair share of shit and barely anything that hits even par.
And then a couple of days ago it hit me with an unusual clarity: people only have a finite amount of things that they can say (in art at least). People have something they want to say in a medium, perfect it as best they can and then… then they have to change. A band can’t release the same song over and over, an author use the same plot – they have to say something different or find a new way of saying the same thing. Eventually this becomes impossible. Even Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able, given another thirty years, to write another thirty completely different plays of the quality of Hamlet – but don’t let that stop you cybernetic Shakespeare!
What was once fun and easy becomes a slog. I think of the band Suede, who started off pretty well but eventually released a song with the rhyming couplet, She lives in a house/She’s as stupid as a mouse.
But why should someone even be expected to keep producing new ideas and art for their whole life? I like to think of the days when the craft of art, the playing and singing, the painting, the acting even, was seen as more important than the creation of it. Back way over yonder folk singers used to sing other people’s songs, the Sistine Chapel’s roof was painted on commission and even the aforementioned (non cybernetic) Shakespeare was an actor as well as play-write. Were things “better” then? Not really - we have a whole wealth, possibly too much, of art to enjoy now and if people weren’t encouraged and expected to create for themselves this wouldn’t be the case. But do we need to listen to anything Paul McCartney did after 1982? Or more importantly does this stuff detract from what he did with The Beatles?
So what’s my point you may be wondering? Well I don’t expect anyone to be consistent any more,. I’m just going to try and enjoy what good there is in the world. To take the flip on Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crud), 10% of everything must be good.
John November 11
*as in people who create any kind of art. So painters, sculpters, musicians, writers, n’ that.