About clip-on ties, real ties and mathematics

Rumor has it that today, 84 years ago in 1928, some clever folk came up with the concept of the clip-on tie. You know, those ties that look like the real deal, but instead of being tied around your neck just consist of the hanging bit with a permanent knot at the top, which can be attached to your shirt via a little metal clip stuck to the back of the knot.

Try as you might, but a clip-on tie will never have the 'oomph' of a classy, properly tied tie.(© All Rights Reserved)
Try as you might, but a clip-on tie will never have the ‘oomph’ of a classy, properly tied tie.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m not sure if it was originally designed for people too lazy to tie a tie, or for people who had difficulty mastering the skill, but it proved to be quite a useful invention. Disabled people can use it without trouble. So can kids. Cops and security personnel wear clip-on ties as a safety precaution – it negates the potential risk of being strangled by your conventional necktie. Similarly, people in factory environments who wear ties are also advised to wear clip-ons – in the unfortunate event that the tie gets caught in a piece of machinery, it will simply clip off, rather than pulling its owner into the machine as well. (Then again, why people in factories would wear ties I have no idea.)

On the downside, clip-ons aren’t exactly haute couture – you are unlikely to get a designer-styled, silk clip-on tie. And a clip-on tie pretty much looks like a clip-on tie – the unique individuality of a slightly unsymmetrical knot is not an option. And of course you cannot go for the cool chic of the ‘loosened tie look’ with your clip-on tie – well, I guess you can clip it on to one side of your loosened collar, but somehow it just ain’t going to have the same effect!

So what does a clip-on tie have to do with science, you may ask? Well, very little, but it did bring to mind a mathematics book by Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, called ‘The 85 ways to tie a tie’ – a book where the authors use concepts from topology and a mathematical representation of knots to prove that a conventional neck tie can be tied in exactly 85 possible ways. The 85 ways are pretty theoretical – apparently only a dozen or so are sufficiently unique and handsome to be sensible candidates for an actual tie knot.

Yes, today is about ties, but as is often the case, the maths are lurking just below the surface!

Commemorating the end of shoe rationing

Today is a good day to celebrate shoes – leather and rubber shoes in particular. Because today we commemorate the day in 1945 when the US government announced the end of shoe rationing.

In the Second World War, many things were rationed in various parts of the world, due to production delays, lack of raw materials, etc. As it happens, one of these was shoes (here’s a nice story about the WWII shoe rationing in the US). Apparently, serious rubber shortages at the time meant that rubber shoes were in very short supply, and the military’s leather requirements (for boots, jackets and more) resulted in limitations also being placed on leather shoes.

Having more than one pair of rubber work boots in the home must have been quite a luxury in the early 1940s.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From 1942, rubber boots and rubber work shoes were rationed – you had to apply for a new pair at a rationing board, and if your application was approved, you had to turn in your old pair. And only work shoes were allowed – no sports sneakers could be purchased. Similarly, rationing of leather shoes started in 1943. Each person (adult and child) was allowed up to 3 pairs of new leather shoes per year, bought using special rationing stamps.

And then, on 30 October 1945 – a happy day for shoe lovers! – the rationing was lifted. Men were again able to buy as many pairs of work boots as they liked. Shoe addicts were no longer bound by the painful limit of three pairs of new must-have’s a year. Children could get all the shoes they needed to accommodate their growing feet. And athletes could burn through as many pairs of sneakers as they wanted.

I for one would have easily been able to carry on as normal during the great WWII shoe rationing – shoes are practical things, after all, and surely don’t need replacing until they fall apart, do they? And, in most cases, they’re not even good for you – as I’ve mentioned before, you’re definitely better off going barefoot when possible. So the whole shoe addiction thing is a bit of a mystery to me.

After 1945, those who cannot say no to a pretty shoe could again shop to their heart’s content.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In trying to add a bit of science to this post, I thought I might be able to find some research on the topic of shoe addiction, but alas, that seems to be a field of study that’s still wide open for psychologists and cognitive scientists. And it’s not as if there’s a lack of outspoken test subjects out there – just Google “shoe addiction” and you will be swamped in millions of blog-posts and other articles from self-confessed shoe addicts. From the average girl next door who would happily forego food for a week to afford another special pair of shoes, to Danielle Steele, who apparently owns in excess of 6000 pairs (quite an interesting addiction, by the way, for a writer who, one would assume, should be spending a significant amount of her time in front of a keyboard…).

So, where do you stand on the shoe debate – are they an undeniable passion or a necessary evil?

Dress sharp and look the part on International Suit-up Day

Today, 13 October, is International Suit-up Day, the day to get out your smartest suit and ‘look sharp’. With the day falling on a Saturday this year, I guess sporting a formal ‘black tie’ look at work won’t really be an option for most people, but there’s nothing wrong with a night on the town dressed up like someone who just stepped off the set of the Godfather.

Mention the word ‘suit’, and a couple of images involuntarily pop into most people’s minds.

  • First and foremost, you cannot help thinking about the classic mob movies such as the Godfather series, where the characters look as dangerous as they do smart, and you just know you don’t mess with a guy in a suit.
  • Then, of course, there’s the sharp dressed singers of old; Frank Sinatra (OK, perhaps he belongs to the first category above), Leonard Cohen (who has famously proclaimed that he has simply never felt comfortable in a pair of blue jeans) and the younger contenders like Michael Buble and the like.
  • For the twenty-somethings, suits will probably be synonymous with Barney Stinson, the sharp-dressed character from the hit TV series How I Met Your Mother, who refuses to be seen in anything but a suit and tie, even when he’s in bed. I am sure Barney deserves an award for making suits cool again to a new generation.
Suits are synonymous with sharp dressed dudes smoking fat cigars and playing poker.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On the topic of suits, it is interesting how the way you dress influence the way you are perceived by others. Whether it’s dressing in a suit, or a scientist’s lab coat, or a pair of torn jeans and a t-shirt, your choice of clothing goes a long way towards determining people’s opinions of you before you’ve said a word, and before they’ve even met you.

Suits in particular can have a strong impact – numerous behavioral science studies have shown how dressing sharply can increase your perceived status among peers, boost self-confidence, and even make you more productive at work. For a mini-masterclass on suits and sharp dressing, look no further than the US TV show Suits. When Ross (a young lawyer who passed the bar but didn’t go to law school) asks, “What does it matter how much I spend on suits?” Harvard graduate Specter replies, “People respond to how you dress so like it or not this is what you have to do.”

It turns out what you wear may even influence how you feel about yourself, and how you act. You’ve probably all heard the advice to people who work from home, that says you should dress as though you’re going to work, as it will influence how professional you come across on the phone etc. (Apparently wearing a singlet and underpants won’t do the trick if you’re planning to spend some quality phone-time with your clients.) Beyond this amusing fact, research reported in the New York Times has shown how people wearing lab-coats actually become more attentive and precise in their actions. Researchers got a group of people to wear white coats (said to be scientists’ lab coats) and then perform mental tests. These were compared to a reference group wearing their normal attire, and the ‘scientists’ did significantly better in the test. Surprisingly, when the test was repeated with new groups, but the overcoat-wearing group were told they were wearing artists’ coats, they did not perform any better than the reference group.

If you extrapolate this to suits, wearing a suit may well influence how you perform at different tasks. The problem is, however, that your opinion of suit-wearers will colour the impact the suit will have on you. If you consider suit-wearers to be important, responsible, trust-worthy people that you look up to, wearing a suit may well result in you ‘stepping up to the challenge’ and acting more responsibly yourself. If, however, you see suit-wearers as sharks and underhanded crime lords, donning a suit may perhaps not do your personality any good…

Whatever your normal daily attire, today is a chance to go all out.  Dig out your best suit, heck, rent one if you don’t have one, and live like Ol’ Blue Eyes for a day.  Here’s to a dashing International Suit-up Day – have fun!

Having your name up in lights, thanks to Georges Claude.

If it wasn’t for today’s birthday boy, French chemist, engineer and inventor Georges Claude (24 Sep 1870 – 23 May 1960), the streetscapes of New York, Las Vegas, and many other cities, might have looked unimaginably different – among other achiements, Claude gained fame as the inventor of neon tube lighting.

Claude, who is sometimes called ‘the Edison of France’ was a prolific inventor and innovator, and his early focus fell on the industrial liquefaction of air. This process, which enabled the production of industrial quantities of liquid nitrogen, oxygen and argon, also produced neon as a by-product. In order to exploit this by-product, he came up with the neon tube light, a tube filled with neon that generates light when an electrified current is passed through the gas.

Neon lights quickly gained popularity for advertising and promotion purposes, both indoors and outdoors. What made it particularly effective was its strikingly visibility even in daylight, and the fact that the sealed tubes could be shaped and combined to form impressive glowing signage.

The traditional red neon sign – a classic example of vintage advertising.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While original neon light referred specifically to a sealed neon-filled tube light, the term has become generic for any electric light involving sealed glass tubes containing gas, be it mercury vapor, argon or a range of other gases. Original neon tubes glow red, while other gases are used to produce a range of other colours, e.g. yellow (helium), white (carbon dioxide), or blue (mercury).

Early neon signs, such as the signs sold by Georges Claude’s French company Claude Neon to the Packard car dealership in the United States in 1923, proved huge tourist attractions, with people reportedly staring for hours at the amazing ‘liquid fire’ signs. Neon signage caught on like wildfire in the 1930’s and 40’s, particularly in the ‘States, with neon signs popping up all over the place, often to rather gaudy effect. After the heyday or neon lighting in the early to mid 20th century, it’s popularity declined somewhat. In recent years, however, neon signage has seen something of a revival in art and architecture, becoming popular for its retro effect.