One of my earliest memories of my father was of him showing me a rope trick. It wasn’t much of a trick, but I was only about four, so it was pretty impressive. He laid out a length of rope on the floor and sent a traveling sine wave down the line.
When I was about five, I graduated to tying knots with my father. He had a book about knots that we would use as a guide. Before he went into law, he worked in the copper mines in Butte, Montana, and so had hands-on knot experience. He even showed me a knot that wasn’t in the book, a way of terminating a line with a double loop. This was a rescue sort of knot, to be lowered to a person below from someone above. The person below would put their legs through the loops and grab onto the standing part of the line with both hands, then be pulled up.
There was one knot that seemed to flummox us both; the Monkey’s Fist. Years later, I figured out how to tie it, and I don’t really understand why it seemed so difficult in the first place. But as a child in the late 1960’s my knowledge of male role models besides my father was limited. I remember gently goading my father about his inability to tie this knot; “I’ll bet Mannix could tie a Monkey’s Fist.”
I still remember that book, as it was something that my father and I enjoyed together. I remember playing some sort of made-up game by myself in which I filled a cloth or burlap bag full of things and took them into the back yard. I left the bag outside and of course it rained and the book became water damaged.
Years later my father showed me a trick he called “throwing half-hitches” which is sending a loop down a line which is secured at the other end. The idea is that if one is about to haul a timber or something heavy, the extra hitches help hold the line to the load.
By the time I got to high school I was fascinated with Houdini. The whole fascination with rope and knots was re-awakened, but by this time was superseded by my interest in locks and lock picking.
When I moved to Seattle and became a pharmacist I had enough income to indulge in bibliophilia. By and large, I would buy really unusual books, but I was also intrigued by the notion of “overstock” or discounted books which you often see at large chain bookstores. I went through a phase where I bought several books on knots. Not that I really had a genuine need for such books, just that the whole subject seemed sort of topologically esoteric. Eventually I realized that there was ONE book which really covered the subject: The Ashley Book of Knots, by Clifford Ashley. Once I had that, there was really no more need to buy any other book on the subject! Yet I would often come across other books on knots, usually at a discounted price, and it got me wondering. Why was it that there were so many books on knots?
I also played chess, mostly in high school, but it was something that I never kept up with. I began to notice the same pattern; there were lots of books on chess moves out there! Again it began to puzzle me, it seemed like these were subjects which were relatively esoteric, like knots and chess moves, in which the supply of books on the subject probably exceeded the demand.
It took me many years into adulthood to come up with a theory of why this is. My theory is simple; knots and chess moves cannot be copyrighted or trademarked! As long as you don’t directly plagiarize the text or the artwork, the fundamental content is already out there. Yes, I acknowledge that chess is vastly more complex than knot tying, but still, a great body of information has already been published, usually broken down into simple components.
For many years television had a fascination with WWII. It finally dawned on me that most of the archival footage was in the public domain, and thus the production costs of the program could be kept that much lower.
Sometimes the public domain nature of certain kinds of information is even made explicit. I remember reading the introduction to a book of ghost stories; the author had to plead with his readers not to re-sell or re-tell the stories as their own!
The Internet has changed everything, of course, and we are only seeing the beginning of what is clearly a revolution in information technology. But as far as books go, there sure are a lot of books on knots and chess moves out there…