Outlets for the Mind with Rope

The Ashley Book of Knots introduction has an explanation for why knotting on ships became such a developed craft. People have to keep themselves occupied one way or another, so before books and TVs became  available (the radio freed hands and eyes for rope) sailors devised and implemented intricate knots.

 At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was unusual to find in the forecastle of a sailing ship more than one or two sailors who could read and write. It was a common thing for boys to go to sea before they were ten years old, and cabin boys of seven and eight years’ age were not unusual. Even ashore, at that time, education was considered unnecessary in the classes from which seamen were recruited. But the isolation of the sea was such that the sailor’s inability to read and write was an almost intolerable hardship. In order to keep his mind occupied when off duty, it was necessary for him to busy his hands. Fortunately there was, aboard ship, on material that could be used for that purpose There was generally plenty of condemned rope with which to tie knots. (p. 2)

Of course with all this talk of sailors you’re probably thinking of pirates, you know – Johnny Depp getting shot in the face by Obama’s Navy Seals off the illegally and industrially polluted Somali coast. I actually don’t know where, on the body, the ‘pirates’ were shot but Jon Stewart’s Daily Show imitation of Obama (as Alexander the Great molesting the entire world) on the phone choosing a dog on one phone while ordering the execution of poor fishermen pirates on the other phone was pretty funny.

Another, sort-of technical book with a lot of sailing is Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. The invention of an accurate clock helped Empire ships conquer the world, is one way you can look at it I guess(1). The key  scene that remained with me dealt with the fact that British ships outlawed the seamen from making their own calculations of longitude. And since crashing on rocks and shoals tended to kill everyone on board these calculations were very important. One seaman steps up to warn the captain or somebody (Admiral Cloudesley Shovell of the "brave and open-hearted disposition") that continuing on course would crash them. The sailor was hung (I can’t remember – might of been keel-hauled) to death, and then a few days later the ship was wrecked. It was a late consolation for another executed genius I suppose. This is the wikipedia version with more speculation than Dava Sobel’s book.

It is also said that a common sailor on his ship tried to warn them that they were off course, either because he was a native of the Scilly Isles and knew a distinct smell of the land or he had been keeping his own log (which is a variant appearing in the late 19th century), but Shovell had him hanged at the yardarm for inciting mutiny. While it is not at all unlikely that a sailor might have debated the vessel’s location and feared for its fate (such debates were common upon entering the English Channel as noted by Samuel Pepys in 1684), there is no evidence that the man was hanged in contemporary documents. Regardless, assuming this sailor did exist and was not hanged, he was equally dead by drowning with the rest of the crew of the Association a few hours later.

Ashley’s descriptiong of working class people keeping themselves occupied in isolation makes you think of Chomsky’s material on marketing working on keeping us ‘atomized’ and how the general population is more than capable of analyzing and discussing policy issues. You don’t do it because it could get you in trouble. You’re always told, if you want to get along with people never talk about religion or politics. Having an opinion, (unless it is over the funny outlandish variety that pretty much stops the conversation anyway) is like painting a target on your butt.

CHOMSKY: Well, let me give an example. When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Now it seems to me that the same intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could be used — would be used — under different systems of governance which involve popular participation in important decision-making, in areas that really matter to human life.

There are questions that are hard. There are areas where you need specialized knowledge. I’m not suggesting a kind of anti-intellectualism. But the point is that many things can be understood quite well without a very far-reaching, specialized knowledge. And in fact even a specialized knowledge in these areas is not beyond the reach of people who happen to be interested.

David Zirin is the master of the modern media world equivalent of ropework and knotting.


(1)The SailTexas sailing site to "promote the enjoyment of sailing" writes:

By the time the Royal Commission was disbanded in 1828, it had paid out in excess of 100,000 pounds on determining a method of finding ‘longitude’, tax payers money for once well spent, British vessels were enabled to navigate the oceans of the world, first by lunar distance and then by ships chronometer, supporting the founding of an empire and a world power.

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