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The Universal Tool

There is an old adage that “when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”

There is an old adage that “when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”.

Is this true? The claim here is that hammers are only good for the purpose of hammering. But what if you are an alien and have never seen the correct use of a hammer, and one day a hammer spontaneously appears in front of you. With some imagination, you may be able to divine the true use case for the hammer. With even more (or less) imagination, you may use the hammer for other things than hammering. Perhaps it can be a paperweight, or the claw could be used to scratch graffiti into concrete, or it could be used to mix a hot bowl of soup (though probably not a great surface to eat said soup off of).

Single use tools like hammers in and of themselves are composed of raw materials that are engineered by creativity to create a particular emergent result. A hammer is 50% a stainless steel hunk of metal, but using your arm to slam that metal into a nail is just asking for an injury. So we use wooden handles (the other 50% of a hammer) to perform as a lever and a counterbalance.

But as people used hammers over time, they realized that the work would cause their palms to get sweaty, so we can append another raw material like rubber, to apply more friction to the handle. And on and on we go. Creativity can directly improve an existing tool, attuning it better to its source problem. This implies that many single use tools actually require a set of components that in isolation are not helpful on their own. A wooden handle is much too weak to set a nail. A metal hunk is too taxing to hammer with efficiently. But together, we have one of humanity’s oldest and most trusted tools, the hammer!

But why stop there? What if we tape a spoon to the bottom of the handle our hammer? Now we can eat that soup we stirred. A flashlight? Now our hammer can hammer nails and illuminate the dark. A car? Now our hammer can go places really fast and we can use the hammer as a monster truck style weapon (badass!). With each single-use tool we add, our Swiss-army hammer becomes more and more useful, gets more and more use cases. Occasionally these use cases are greater than the sum of the parts, as an emergent capability occurs when tools are alchemized.

So, we have experimented with three layers of tool manipulation. We first reimagined what our tool could be if we gave up our preconceived notions of what it should be. Then we realized that even single use tools are made up of inert raw materials. These material alone are useless, but together create a tool. 99% of a car isn’t going to take you on a road trip, just ask all those people stuck by the side of the road when a pivotal car piece breaks down. Finally we examined that we can add other single use tools (which in and of themselves are combination items) to make a combination-combination tool, a single use tool with multiple purposes. The use case of a combination-combination tool is the sum of the tools themselves plus what ever other imagined use cases exist for each, plus imagined use cases for the tools combined.

Let’s finish this hammer journey by imagining the most versatile hammer ever created. A new kind of hammer. A hammer that by itself didn’t really look like anything in particular because it can do everything. Every time you glanced down at the tool in your hand, it magically transforms into something else, like how water conforms to whatever glass it is set in or how a chameleon changes its color based on its environment. What can this hammer do? What can’t it do?

Let’s call this amorphous imagination hammer a universal tool.

A universal tool should be able to:

  1. recruit raw materials to its cause
  2. reshape its current architecture to perform new roles with the same building blocks (improving the same tools); attuning to problems
  3. bend the world around it to create more instances of itself
  4. solve new problems leveraging creativity and imagination

A computer is a universal information tool. is a reader-supported published Zettelkasten. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.

The Manic Zettelkasten Mood

closed mode “most of the time when we’re at work. We have inside us a feeling that there’s lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we’re going to get through it all. It’s an active, probably slightly anxious mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable . . . It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful and it’s a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic.” (Location 2205)

omg i'm in this manic mood at this exact moment.[1] the anxiety of having infinite zettels to create (a mt everest sized pile in my #to-process)[2] but the output of each zetttel being atomic in scope has a satisfying finality. the creativity of some of these zettels is blowing me away like "fondong" 202212192046 or the ying-yang narcolepsy screenplay 202212192225

  1. ^xa9thp

  2. it's coming along! 202301111303

Muses Live in the Routine

I find that the muses come to me when I'm in the process of creating, whether it be through routine or hard work.

“The routine is important to me,” said a successful painter who works in her studio for four hours five times a week. “When I get started, there’s a wonderful sense of well-being. I like to feel myself plodding along. I specifically choose that word, plod. When it’s going good, I feel ‘this is the essential me.’ It’s the routine itself that feeds me. If I didn’t do it, I’d be betraying the essential me.” (Location 478)
The Muse arrives to us most readily during creation, not before. Homer and Hesiod invoke the Muses not while wondering what to compose, but as they begin to sing. If we are going to call upon inspiration to guide us through, we have to first begin the work. (View Highlight)
The computers that nowadays catalogue galaxies may or may not do it better than the graduate students used to. But they certainly do not experience such reflections as a result. I mention this because I often hear scientific research described in rather a bleak way, suggesting that it is mostly mindless toil. The inventor Thomas Edison once said, ‘None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.’ Some people say the same about theoretical research, where the ‘perspiration’ phase is supposedly uncreative intellectual work such as doing algebra or translating algorithms into computer programs. But the fact that a computer or a robot can perform a task mindlessly does not imply that it is mindless when scientists do it. After all, computers play chess mindlessly – by exhaustively searching the consequences of all possible moves – but humans achieve a similar-looking functionality in a completely different way, by creative and enjoyable thought. Perhaps those galaxy-cataloguing computer programs were written by those same graduate students, distilling what they had learned into reproducible algorithms. (Location 676)


Whether it's the routine or the fever pitch of hard work, the muses will attend. 202301051910