Thinking about knots

I have to admit that I generally don’t read those fancy magazines that often come with the Sunday New York Times.  I may flip though them and look at some of the ads – I like reading about fancy $60 million penthouses with views of the Hudson or palatial estates with zillions of bedrooms – but I rarely read any of the articles.  But this morning I was leafing though the magazine that came yesterday and saw the article by Jody Rosen about knots.  Yes, knots.

Knot enthusiasts like to say that civilization is held together by knots. It sounds like a wisecrack — but if you take a look around, you may begin to see the truth behind the quip. You could start by scrutinizing your shoes. They’re tied, undoubtedly, with the first knot that you ever learned, the famous shoelace knot, or bowknot, or as some knot experts prefer to call it, the double-slipped reef knot: a knot that combines a simple half-hitch with those two bunny-eared loops to create an ingenious little mechanism, taut enough to keep your feet snugly sheathed but with a built-in quick-release that can free them in an instant, with a single tug on a string. Glance in the mirror and you may find more knots: the one in your necktie, perhaps, or the one made by the elastic band that is wound around to hold your hair in place. Your hair itself might be plaited into a braid: another knot.

Now consider the clothing you’re wearing. What is your cable-knit sweater but a whole lot of knotting? Your shirt, your pants, your socks, your underwear: These sewn or knitted or woven garments are likely held together by knots, and what’s more, the materials from which they’re made — cotton or wool or acrylic or what have you — are themselves glorified knots, fibers that have been twisted together to form stronger tensile strands. Knots, it seems, are the only thing standing between you and an indecent-exposure charge.

And that’s just the beginning. There may well be a knot in the cinnamon bun on your breakfast table. There were definitely knots in the fishing net that caught the halibut on your dinner plate. Doctors staunch the bleeding in an open wound with tourniquets bound by knots, and they employ knots when stitching up a body after surgery. Knots are used in the construction of houses and skyscrapers; the cables supporting suspension bridges extend time-honored principles of cordage and knotting to “ropes” of galvanized steel wire.

There are even knots on the Mars Rover.

I learned about knots as a Girl Scout when we had to learn a particular number as a requirement for one of the badges.  I even learned to splice rope from my father when he was preparing the lines for one of our sailboats.  And, pre-frozen shoulder, I used to knit all the time.  I want to learn to braid bread dough.  So, like most people, knots are part of my life.  One just doesn’t think of them very often.

In other words, knots are ubiquitous — so threaded, as it were, into the fabric of everyday life that they are easily overlooked, hidden in plain sight. In certain quarters, though, knots command center stage. One such place is a house that sits along a well-trafficked residential through street a couple of hundred yards from the River Orwell in the town of Ipswich, in Suffolk, southeast England. It is a modest two-story brick building of Edwardian vintage, distinguished from neighboring houses only by a telling detail: a forged iron door knocker in the shape of knotted rope. Use that door knocker and you will be greeted by Des Pawson, a vibrant 67-year-old man with large round eyeglasses, a white beard worthy of a biblical patriarch and hair that stretches down nearly to his shoulders. Pawson’s mane is partially concealed beneath a red Kangol cap. “I’m a socialist, of a sort,” Pawson says. “I want the rope makers, I want the riggers, I want the sailmakers to be recognized for their contributions. They are a huge part of the story of knots.”

Pawson is one of the world’s foremost knot experts, a co-founder of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, and a prolific author of knotting books. His home, which he shares with his wife, Liz, is a shrine to knots. In a sun-flooded library on the ground floor, there are pieces of rope and fish netting dangling from timber beams, dozens of nautical paintings and artifacts, and rows of old bottles of Stockholm tar, also known as pine tar, a substance used to weatherproof rope. The bookshelves that line all four walls are packed with what may be the world’s largest private collection of knot literature. There are 19th-century knot treatises and multiple copies of the knotter’s bible, “The Ashley Book of Knots” (1944), a monumental work of history, reference and how-to, written and illustrated by the American Clifford W. Ashley. There are also copies of books written by Pawson himself, which include basic knotting handbooks as well as more specialized monographs: “Sailors’ Rope Mats From Yarn, Strands and Sennit,” “Some Notes on the Rogue’s Yarn,” ” ‘Tom Bowling’ and the Book of Knots: A Bibliography and Commentary, Together With a Solution to the Mystery.”

Who knew there was an organization for knot tyers?

nside Pawson's Museum of Knots and Sailors' Ropework in Suffolk, England

nside Pawson’s Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework in Suffolk, England

Pawson also has a museum which has limited public access, but is described in loving detail in the article.  Among the treasures in his collection is

…an improbably chunky piece of age-blackened rope, more than two feet in circumference, as thick and gnarled as a tree trunk. It is a part of the anchor cable from the H.M.S. Victory, the ship that Lord Nelson commanded, and died aboard, in the Battle of Trafalagar.

There are other knots that aren’t necessarily physical ones.  Like marriage – tying the knot.

Of course, you don’t need to be a satellite engineer or an artisan to be a knotter: We all tie knots. If you pause for a moment the next time you’re lacing up your boots, you might glimpse what Pawson and other devotees see in knot-tying: an exercise in physics and in metaphysics, a homely everyday activity that can also be a science experiment, a work of art and something along the lines of a spiritual practice. In “The Ashley Book of Knots,” Clifford Ashley wrote: “[The] simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space … an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the rope maker’s coil.” To which one might also add: Knots are damn useful. “Where would we be,” Pawson says, “without a knot in the pajama cord?”

So now I’m going to be super aware of knots when I tie my shoes or the belt to my bathrobe.  I may even try to take up knitting again.

Photograph:  Tobias Harvey

Baseball and Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter will play his final major league games this weekend against the Red Sox.  A while back there were some rumors that if the Yankees were out of the wild card race, which they are, he would skip Boston.  But they were just rumors.    The classy man he is will be in Boston to play out the season, but he won’t play short.

And what a way to end his career in New York last night.  A walk-off hit.  David Waldstein wrote the New York Times story.

He almost started crying as he drove himself to Yankee Stadium in the afternoon. He had to turn away from his teammates before the game when they presented him with gifts, so overcome was he by the emotion. In the first inning, he said, he barely knew what was happening, and later, in the top of the ninth, his eyes welled with tears to the point that he worried that he might break down in front of the crowd of 48,613.

But when the time came for Derek Jeter to get a game-winning hit, to add another signature moment to a long list of achievements over his 20-year career, he knew exactly what to do, and seemingly no one doubted that he would.

With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Jeter stroked the winning hit and ended his Yankee Stadium career the way he had ended so many games — with both arms raised in celebration. The 6-5 win over the Baltimore Orioles was his 1,627th regular-season victory as a Yankee.

Jeter celebrates

Jeter celebrates

Will he be the first unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame 5 years from now?  The speculation, which has already begun, will just build over the next few years.

After the game, Jeter was greeted on the field by his former teammates Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams, as well as his longtime manager Joe Torre, and he hugged them all.

When the congratulations were over, and with the Orioles standing in their dugout watching, Jeter walked out to shortstop for a solitary moment of reflection.

“I wanted to take one last view from short,” he said.

When the team goes to Boston for its season-ending series, he said, he will play in one or two games, but only as the designated hitter.

“I’ve played shortstop my entire career,” he said, “and the last time I wanted to play was tonight.”

It is the end of a career played with only one team, without scandal, without a hint of drug use.  I hope this isn’t also the end of that type of ball player.  Pedroia, are you listening? 

Photograph: ELSA/GETTY IMAGES

Time capsules

There are stories about kids burying treasures and then forgetting where exactly they dug the hole and never digging it up.  But I remember one from an old episode of “NCIS” when the best friend of Gibbs’ deceased daughter tells him about a box they buried.  Gibbs digs it up and finds a picture and some childhood treasures.  And how many stories have you read about time capsules put in corner stones or in monuments and then forgotten?  But when one is actually found it is exciting.

I’ve looked at the gold statues on top of the Old State House in Boston for 20 years.  The last 8 years I was working I probably looked up at them every day.  I had no idea that one of them held a time capsule.  This morning I saw this story in the Boston Globe.

It’s confirmed, Boston. A time capsule has been found in the head of the lion statue that has been sitting atop the Old State House for more than a century.

An iconic statue of a lion atop the Old State House on Washington Street in Boston was hoisted down from its rooftop perch for restoration.

An iconic statue of a lion atop the Old State House on Washington Street in Boston was hoisted down from its rooftop perch for restoration.

This time capsule had also been forgotten.

Rumors swirled last week about the possibility of the long-forgotten time capsule, which was reported in a Globe story from 1901.

“We [the Bostonian Society] didn’t know about the Globe article until several years ago,” [Heather] Leet said.

A descendant of one of the statues’ original sculptors found a letter that revealed the existence of the capsule and listed its contents. It was after the society saw the letter that it did research that turned up the 113-year-old Globe story.

The question now for statue restorer, Robert Shure, is how to remove the capsule without damaging the statue.

On Monday, Shure used a fiber optic camera to detect the capsule, which is in a sealed copper box about the size of a shoe box and secured to the sculpture with copper straps, Leet said. According to the Globe story, the capsule contains photographs, autographs, and sealed letters from politicians and prominent Bostonians of the time, along with old newspaper clippings.

Leet said Shure hopes to find a way to retrieve the time capsule with minimal damage to the lion by the end of the week. It is hoped that by next week, the Bostonian Society can have a small ceremony at the Woburn sculpture studio to extract the box.

There are plans to replace the old capsule with a new one.  I trust that its presence will be fully documented.

Globe story by Kiera Blessing

Photograph: DINA RUDICK

 

 

 

A few thoughts from Professor Krugman on unemployment and my own on the mid-term election

One of the issues in the mid-term elections is the failure of the economy to fully recover.  Having watched bits and pieces of the new Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts  I see some parallels between FDR and President Obama.  Both Presidents saw the economy begin to slow after showing good signs of recovery. In FDR’s case it actually fell back into recession.  The mistake in both cases is, at least in part, the failure to continue to fund government programs to create jobs,  to end the programs too quickly.  FDR came to understand this; Barack Obama always did.  But the current Congress doesn’t seem to get it.

Breadlines: long line of people waiting to be fed: New York City: in the absence of substantial government relief programs during 1932, free food was distributed with private funds in some urban centers to large numbers of the unemployed. (Circa February 1932)

Breadlines: long line of people waiting to be fed: New York City: in the absence of substantial government relief programs during 1932, free food was distributed with private funds in some urban centers to large numbers of the unemployed. (Circa February 1932)

At the end of my work life I got to administer some of the stimulus funding.  What I saw was not the direct creation of a huge number jobs with government  funding, but many jobs created as the result of the opening of a new business, new hotel, or new housing.  Those employed persons paid taxes which helped bolster the economy.  If the benefits of having people employed are obvious to an economic novice like me,  I don’t understand why the Republicans in Congress don’t want to fund infrastructure projects.  Road and bridge repairs, creating a grid that can tie in with alternative energy sources, construction of affordable housing:  these are just a few of the types of projects that can be government funded and that can create jobs.  While construction jobs may disappear, the infrastructure created will result in new opportunities.

Paul Krugman’s recent column helps me understand a little what may be going on.  He begins

Last week John Boehner, the speaker of the House, explained to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute what’s holding back employment in America: laziness. People, he said, have “this idea” that “I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.” Holy 47 percent, Batman!

People are just lazy.  Krugman continues

First things first: I don’t know how many people realize just how successful the campaign against any kind of relief for those who can’t find jobs has been. But it’s a striking picture. The job market has improved lately, but there are still almost three million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, the usual maximum duration of unemployment insurance. That’s nearly three times the pre-recession total. Yet extended benefits for the long-term unemployed have been eliminated — and in some states the duration of benefits has been slashed even further.

The result is that most of the unemployed have been cut off. Only 26 percent of jobless Americans are receiving any kind of unemployment benefit, the lowest level in many decades. The total value of unemployment benefits is less than 0.25 percent of G.D.P., half what it was in 2003, when the unemployment rate was roughly the same as it is now. It’s not hyperbole to say that America has abandoned its out-of-work citizens.

If unemployment is too costly, then any kind of jobs program must cost way too much.

…My question for today is instead one of psychology and politics: Why is there so much animus against the unemployed, such a strong conviction that they’re getting away with something, at a time when they’re actually being treated with unprecedented harshness?

Is it race? That’s always a hypothesis worth considering in American politics. It’s true that most of the unemployed are white, and they make up an even larger share of those receiving unemployment benefits. But conservatives may not know this, treating the unemployed as part of a vaguely defined, dark-skinned crowd of “takers.”

My guess, however, is that it’s mainly about the closed information loop of the modern right. In a nation where the Republican base gets what it thinks are facts from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, where the party’s elite gets what it imagines to be policy analysis from the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the right lives in its own intellectual universe, aware of neither the reality of unemployment nor what life is like for the jobless. You might think that personal experience — almost everyone has acquaintances or relatives who can’t find work — would still break through, but apparently not.

The bottom line:  If you are still unemployed or if you are poor it is your own fault.  Besides, those people live in a world far from the world of Fox News.

I hope that people think about the state of the semi-recovered economy when they vote and that they vote for candidates who can learn from the lessons of the Depression, will vote some funding for jobs programs and not worry so much about the deficit which is shrinking.  They should instead worry about our infrastructure which is failing.  If they fix that, they may find people aren’t lazy, they just need jobs.

 Photograph:  Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

College reunion: My 45th

I have to begin by saying that I have no idea what a “normal” college reunion is like.  I picture football games, halftime bands, sorority and fraternity parties and a good deal of alcohol consumption.  That last may be the one thing that a homecoming reunion at St. John’s College has in common with other homecomings.

My husband (who was in my class at St. John’s) and I hadn’t been to a reunion since the 25th, but we had been tapped as co-chairs for the 45th.  The first thing you have to understand is that St. John’s is a tiny school.  I think that there are around 400 current students on the Annapolis campus and an equal number on the Santa Fe one.  In the mid to late 1960s the student bodies were smaller.  I believe that the graduation rates have increased since my time, also.  Our freshman class was around 100 and if memory serves me, about 50 or 60 of us finally graduated.  This is my long-winded way of explaining why when 11 us (plus one spouse who is also the mother of a graduate) showed up, it was a pretty good number.

But what is a reunion all about?  You go to the place where you were x number of years ago and you hang-out with people you haven’t seen for years (and maybe didn’t know so well to start).  A reunion/homecoming at St. John’s is different. What makes a St. John’s reunion for me is several things.  First, the school is small enough that one knows people from other classes.  Second, because we all had pretty much the same curriculum and read the same books we could talk to friends (some old and some new) from the Classes of 1984, 1967, 1956 and 1965 with no problem.  And, third, the experience is intellectually stimulating.  Even the Friday night lecture, which wasn’t very good, sparked a breakfast discussion at our B & B about Dostoevsky and “The Brothers Karamazov”.  We came home and researched translations and will order and read the book again.

Our class had a seminar on Moliere’s “Misanthrope” led by two tutors that many of us had studied with back when we were students. The College also mixed in some current students.  It was a lively event with discussion on comedy, tragedy and what it means to be a misanthrope.  The play came up several times in other discussions over the weekend and my husband and I talked about it on the drive home to Vermont.  That is a powerful experience.  Seminars are the heart of any reunion at St. John’s but are not the only shared experience that is re-experienced.  There was also Freshman chorus (think of a bunch of mostly non musicians singing Mozart and rounds as we were once required to do. )  That was fun!

This was the anniversary of the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key who is an alumni of what we fondly refer to as the Old Program.  (St. John’s is the third oldest college in the United States after Harvard and William and Mary.)  In his honor we all toddled out to back campus after drinking much wine at dinner (and the pre-dinner reception) to watch the fireworks over College Creek after this year’s Freshmen sang the “Star-Spangled Banner”  It was a great Homecoming and Reunion.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John's College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John’s College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph: Tia Pausic

Join Us in the Fight For Net Neutrality

The WordPress.com Blog

“Net Neutrality” is the simple but powerful principle that cable and broadband providers must treat all internet traffic equally. Whether you’re loading a blog post on WordPress.com, streaming House of Cards on Netflix, or browsing handcrafted tea cozies on Etsy, your internet provider can’t degrade your connection speed, block sites, or charge a toll based on the content that you’re viewing.

Net neutrality has defined the internet since its inception, and it’s hard to argue with the results: the internet is the most powerful engine of economic growth and free expression in history. Most importantly, the open internet is characterized by companies, products, and ideas that survive or fail depending on their own merit — not on whether they have preferred deals in place with a broadband service provider. Unfortunately, the principle of net neutrality, and the open internet that we know and love, is under attack.

Net Neutrality under…

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Police departments and racial diversity

Back in the dark ages, that is the early to mid-1980s, I worked on a study for then Virginia Governor Charles Robb.  He wanted to know several things including how we could recruit more African-Americans and women to the State Police and how, once we hired them, they could be retained.  I can’t recall that we came up with anything one wouldn’t have expected including things like more training for command in diversity issues.  I do remember one black trooper I interviewed had an idea on how to recruit people.  He suggested that he be made part of the Governor’s security detail which would provide lots of visibility.  I told the Governor and the next thing I knew, the trooper was thanking me when we ran into each other on the Capitol grounds.  I have no idea if his presence helped recruit more blacks to the ranks or not but it did provide some visibility and I remember that the Capitol Police then hired several black officers.

So my little story took place in 1983.  This morning’s New York Times has some very interesting charts on large Metropolitan police departments and the differences between their racial compositions and those of the towns they serve.

In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments. Minorities make up a quarter of police forces, according to the 2007 survey, the most recent comprehensive data available. Experts say that diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community. “Even if police officers of whatever race enforce the law in relatively the same way, there is a huge image problem with a department that is so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University. Listed below are local police departments from 15 metropolitan areas, sorted so that departments with the largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents are at the top.

We clearly have a long way to go.  I wonder if part of the recruitment problem is the sheer number of young black and Hispanic men who have conviction records.  Perhaps we should look into that.

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I was interested to see that Boston (+18) and Somerville (+15) were doing pretty well.  Those are two of the police departments I’ve worked with in the recent past.  Other departments should take a look at this chart and talk to some of the successful agencies – and I don’t mean towns that have a small gap because the population of the town itself is mostly white – and learn from what they have done.

Incidents like the shooting in Ferguson don’t happen in a vacuum.  Look up a town near you and ask questions if you don’t like what you see.

 

 

As a footnote:  While I was looking to a picture to add, I was surprised at the number of stock photographs showing police in riot gear and/or arresting someone, often a black male.  Just another part of the problem.

Photograph:  how2becomeanfbiagent.com