On Looking At The Liberty Bell


Go to the next person you see and ask if she or he knows the shape of the Liberty Bell. Odds are the person will be taken by surprise. Probably, having expected a question like “how’s it going?” or “hot enough for you?” they’ll reply, “just exhausted” or “I got up this morning and the elm tree had melted”. This is why the most important rule in a conversation is to never just start talking about whatever you want to talk about. You have to lead up to it. Start with little cues, as much as four days ahead of time. Some shy people hire flag-bearers to approach. This is why in the introvert district of town you see all those people with bright orange banners that read, oh, “CAR TIRE” or “THAT SEMESTER YOU SPENT IN SPAIN” or “PEAK FREANS COMMERCIALS” or the like.

Anyway, so try again and this time after having given some clues you want to ask about the shape of the Liberty Bell. Then warn that you mean to ask a question about its shape. Try not to be frightened if your partner wants to know why you’re thinking so much about the Liberty Bell! Just explain that it’s for a school assignment. If challenged on the grounds that you’re not in school, plead that you do tend to procrastinate. No one will challenge you on that point. In any case, I’m willing to bet that your partner agrees that the Liberty Bell has a shape, and that they know pretty much what it is. It’s rather distinctive and pretty memorable. It’s kind of bell-shaped.

But there’s all sorts of things to notice about it. There’s, yes, the overall bell-ness of it. There’s the famous crack in it. There’s the know-it-all who would like to remind you how the big crack everyone remembers isn’t the actual crack. It’s instead a much bigger crack. They drilled so as to keep the small actual crack from turning into a much bigger crack. This plan worked with an extreme level of brilliance, except for how they couldn’t do anything about the original crack anyway. And there’s other stuff too. There’s the funky bits at the bottom where people stole metal off of it. There’s the way in the moulded text up top it includes most of the letters you really notice in ‘Pennsylvania’ at least.

Yoke and upper portion of the Liberty Bell, showing the wooden frame and the hoops of metal attached to them. Also, engraved text around the top: '... THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE ... ' and '... OF THE PROVINCE OF PENSYLVANIA [sic]'.
Since you maybe don’t know what I mean, here’s the top part of the Liberty Bell and where the metal pieces get all weird. I guess when you really look at it the shape isn’t all that weird, but it’s still kind of weird. Also this is the part where they swung and missed at spelling ‘Pennsylvania’.

And yet. Consider this. Where would the Liberty Bell be if it weren’t for the wooden yolk on which it hangs?

Well, a bit lower down, probably. Wouldn’t be surprised if they left the thing on its side, to save drawer space. Then it would roll around in these funny little spirals every time the ground shook in one of those notorious Philadelphia earthquakes. People would stumble across it in the midle of the night. Then probably one of the cats would wrestle the clapper until that fell down and the cat fled into the city’s laundry room.

And now at last I have reached mey point say my rough notes here. Without the yoke, we’d have much less of a Liberty Bell. Plus everybody would pay more attention to how weird and ungainly the top of the metal part looks. Seriously, take a picture where you can really see how weird the top looks. Pretty weird, huh? Thank you. You can find all sorts of discussions online about the bell and its metal and whether it ever actually rang. But the yoke? Nothing.

It’s made of American elm. Hm. So, imperfectly-cast British product brought overseas, re-cast and re-cast again by apparently, anyone in eastern Pennsylvania who had a bright idea and no expertise in bell-making between 1752 and 1860. And then, hung on American wood, it was finally a swell icon for bell-ness without actually being useful as a bell. I’m not sure if we can tighten this metaphor up any before the writing group reviews it. Maybe have a carpool of security guards going home for the day accidentally smash through the front porch of some Lenape family’s home.

Liberty Bell icon on what is labelled as a 'Butter Pat Wrapper, circa 1976'.
This picture hasn’t got anything to do with even what little the rest of the article has to do with itself. But it is a reminder that when they open or expand a museum, anything that any of the docents have that they can’t get rid of just might turn out to be an artefact! So if you can’t bear to get rid of stuff, make it work for you and open a museum. Also I hope to someday write something as amusing to me as is the ‘circa’ in the description ‘Butter Pat Wrapper, circa 1976’.

Anyway the yoke, for all it does to give the Liberty Bell shape and structural support, is just there. It’s got a nearly perfect record of not growing new cracks and needing to be re-casted. And they guess it’s the original, as far as anyone knows? So here’s to the pieces of wood that are important but don’t get much attention: this is an important lesson about something and darned if I know what.

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In Which I Am Surprised How Little Time British People Leave Tea Bags In


I’d been reading Marcus du Sautoy’s The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life because I still haven’t decided whether to make an inter-library loan request for Martin Albrow’s Bureaucracy or just to give up on the idea of fun altogether. Or whether I mean David Beetham’s Bureaucracy instead.

Anyway, de Sautoy gets going in a right jaunty chapter about how tea bag shapes were revolutionized in the 1990s when Tetley thought to try “circular” and it was incredibly popular. And PG had to think very hard about a shape not so fusty and old-fashioned as “mostly square I guess”. But the book mentioned part of the design challenge was how long the average British tea-maker left the bag in the hot water. Apparently it’d be as little as twenty seconds, short enough that in the mostly-square-I-guess bags not even all the tea leaves would get wet.

It’s left me stunned. I grew up with the American fashion of making tea, which is to put the bag into the water and leave it there forever. The only reason we ever throw out a mug is because it’s gotten stuffed full of spent tea bags, jammed into a dense mass of compressed diamond-like sourness. But I know that’s extreme. I hadn’t realized that the British way of making tea was so extreme on the other side. It’s left me wondering how tea was ever rationed, back in the day. It seems like even in the heights of wartime and Austerity Britain rationing they could’ve satisfied everyone’s tea tastes by just shipping a cardboard box labelled “tea” with instructions to bump it against the teapot three times before serving.

This is the eternal joy of learning: it makes you realize how little you understand the world.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Investor confidence returned today when traders found a bunch of pictures of capybaras, including a bunch that are all other animals resting on top of capybaras that don’t seem phased by this at all, and now everybody also wants to be a capybara.

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Statistics Saturday: Some Shapes Which You Ought Not Use As Dinner Plates For Your Trendy Restaurant


  • Triangle-base pyramids
  • Whole spheres
  • Saddle curves
  • Vertical walls
  • Great Stellated Dodecahedrons (unless you are serving a food that can be usefully jabbed on spikes, such as pancakes or lumps of cheese ripped out of a whole)
  • Square-base pyramids
  • Sierpiński sieves (that triangle-with-interior-triangles cut out thing, as while it’s a great shape it actually has no surface area, so it can only hold food by way of surface tension)
  • Bipyramids
  • Doughnut-shaped toruses (unless it is an edible container, like those soup-in-a-loaf meals, itself containing many small doughnuts within, in which case I would like to invest in your restaurant)
  • The Great Rhombicosidodecahedron not because no food could be placed atop it but because when word gets out you have Great Rhombicosidodecahedrons in your restaurant the health department will begin an inquiry which will ultimately clear you but which will generate needless amounts of bad press in the meanwhile.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose two points on reports that someone saw a pair of mice snuggled up against each other sleeping and one opened its eye just enough to yawn and doesn’t that sound adorable? We thought it was adorable.

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